Watching Richard Gansey from afar was made worse by his constant shadow, Ronan Lynch.
It wasn’t that Adam listened to the comments from other Aglionby boys about “the brain and the brawn” or took any of their gold-plated opinions into account. It was the fearless, almost insubordinate, nature of Ronan’s rolled up sleeves. Two handprints encircled his wrists, a deep violet, darker than any mark Adam had ever seen. Gansey sported a matching color on both palms, as if he’d dipped them completely in paint.
They were untouchable. They were never alone.
After helping Gansey with his pathetic Camaro once, though, something changed - he didn’t know what. He was worthy of being addressed? He’d proven himself by fixing up a car and listening to chatter about a king named Glendower? Either way, Gansey stepped out of his way to engage Adam in conversation, often dragging a reluctant Ronan with him.
In one such time, Gansey leaned over the desk in Latin class and said pleasantly, “Parrish. We’re going to try dousing the ley lines this afternoon after class, care to come?”
It was Tuesday. He didn’t have work after school. Yeah, there was always studying to do for trigonometry - but, theoretically, he was free.
“Sure,” he said, avoiding Ronan’s laser glare. Jesus. As if Ronan could be jealous of anyone’s relationship with Gansey when he’d already left his mark, permanently.
By the time classes ended, Adam wasn’t sure if the ley line mission was still happening. They hadn’t discussed a place or time to meet, so he hitched his backpack over one shoulder and headed for the bike rack, scanning for Gansey’s unmistakable figure amongst the huddles of uniformed boys.
He’d all but decided it was a moot point when, out of thin air, Ronan materialized. “Fucking finally,” he said, then jerked his chin, “Gansey’s waiting in the car.”
Pivoting on one foot and loping towards the parking lot, Ronan didn’t glance backward to check if Adam was following. Adam grudgingly followed and caught up in several quick strides. It might have been his imagination, but several heads seemed to turn at the novelty of catching dirt-poor Parrish with the most infamous Lynch brother.
“Where exactly are we going?”
“To the woods,” Ronan said - not clarifying very much, as Henrietta sat in the middle of a heavily forested area.
Gansey lounged in the driver’s seat of the Camaro, sunglasses hiding his twinkle-perfect eyes, leafing idly through a large book. He brightened when he saw them approach. Ronan swung into shotgun and left the entire back row to Adam and his backpack.
Shifting the car into drive, Gansey handed his book to Adam. “A refresher on what we discussed the other day,” he said, taking a left out of the parking lot and heading toward downtown, away from Adam’s house. “Don’t mind the notes. The more important stuff is towards the back.”
There seemed to be a silent conversation happening in the front seat. Ronan’s quirked, angry eyebrow shouted at Gansey’s oblivious shoulder. Or maybe Gansey was purposely ignoring him. It was hard to tell which parts of his persona were faux Aglionby and which, if any, went deeper than that.
Well. Not many trust fund babies at Aglionby spent their time roping fellow students into hunting for dead kings.
Ronan cranked up an obnoxious punk song. Adam looked at the book, nestled on his lap, and opened to the first few pages. It was a coordinated mess of sprawling notes and images, lovingly pasted onto thick lined paper. He skimmed a brief history of the Welsh monarchy. Upon reaching the legend of Glendower, titled Owain Glyndŵr, Adam paused.
He leaned forward to the front seats, raising his voice over the music. “What’s this it says about waking up Glendower?”
“WHAT DOES IT SAY ABOUT WAKING UP GLENDOWER?”
“LYNCH, TURN OFF THE MUSIC.”
Smug, Ronan turned the dial down and kicked a foot up on the dashboard. They were nearly out of downtown now, passing a convenience store and a high school before breaking into tree-spattered fields.
“Well,” Gansey began, “that’s what I left out the other day, when I told you about Glendower. He isn’t actually dead. He’s sleeping.”
“That’s where we’re going,” Ronan said, “to find him.”
Adam stared blankly down at the portrait of Glendower - his high brow and solemn beard, the yellow-stained hands folded over a sword. He was six hundred years old. Sleeping. “And the favor?”
Gansey met his eyes through the rear view mirror. “It’s ours if we wake him.”
To Adam’s utter astonishment, they actually spent the day trudging through the woods with a long metal rod and various cables. It seemed as if Gansey spoke another language with the equipment - he kept muttering to himself as he worked, and handled it rather carelessly. Ronan, to his fascination, didn’t grow bored. He seemed content to analyze the forest and Gansey’s nonexistent readings. Several times, they lost him in the brush, eyes cast to the tops of the trees. Once, he came back missing his Aglionby sweater and the button-up underneath, leaving him in only a gray tank top. He never explained himself.
Though Gansey was eager to show him how the objects worked and explain how the electromagnetic readings were relevant, he was careful not to touch Adam.
Their purple-almost-black marks were distracting in their stark permanency; the darkness lured Adam’s eyes again and again throughout the afternoon. Once, Ronan caught him looking and smirked.
When they emerged from the depths of the trees, the sun barely grazed the mountains on the horizon. Adam had lost track of time - he backpedaled, wildly trying to remember if he’d told his father that he had work today - fuck, it was too late, it didn’t matter now.
Distracted by his own shortcomings, Adam didn’t notice Gansey shutting the equipment in the truck and coming round to lean on the back door beside Ronan, effectively creating a barrier between Adam and his means of escape. Twin skyscrapers. Discomfited by the sudden turn of events, Adam stepped back. The roadside was empty. Are they about to murder me and drag my body away in the Camaro - ?
“Relax, Parrish,” Ronan said.
“I don’t know how to say this any other way,” Gansey said, rather straightforward, and stuck out his hand.
It still took a minute to register what was happening.
Gansey stood firm in his offer, unwavering and sure. The skin of his wrists were smooth, tanned to perfection, and when he tilted his chin it was inviting rather than challenging.
Some people went out of their way to touch others - just for the off chance they could be soulmates. Some bared their skin like Ronan in his tank top, Ronan in his rolled up sleeves. Adam thought about reaching forward and pressing his fingers into the inside of Gansey’s unmarked arm.
He thought about what would happen if no colors showed up.
“No,” he murmured, ducking his head, “ah, no thanks.”
Gansey took the rejection well. He nodded once, dropped his hand, and strode to the driver’s seat. He was a little quieter as they piled in after him, less rambling and more musing, but seemed to disregard the disappointment in favor of dissecting the infinitesimal readings they’d discovered that day.
Adam buckled his seatbelt and dropped his head back to flop against the seat. Guilt warred with his inescapable pride. What would they think of him, if they knew? These polished boys that Adam, for some reason, loathed to disappoint.
His eyes caught on Gansey’s book, perched on the center console.
“Which House are you in, Adam? We can drop you off.”
“I live off-campus,” he heard himself say. “Take a right at Juniper.”
If either boy knew what kind of neighborhood that was, they said nothing. Adam could probably get away with walking down the road to his double-wide. No one had to see the decrepit stairs and stained walls. They drove in relative silence, Ronan’s music a low hum from the front seat, and it was decidedly less awkward than Adam would expect after refusing to touch Gansey. Trees whizzed by, morphing into intersections and truck stops.
Before long, the Camaro turned right and started pulling down a familiar road. “Stop,” Adam said, “here’s fine.”
He reached for the door. Ronan’s hand snaked out and stopped him, fingers bunched tight in the sleeve of his sweater, and Adam froze. It was the first time someone had deliberately touched him without the intention to hurt in so long -
Ronan was careful not to let his knuckles brush Adam’s skin. He leaned in. “Do you believe in magic yet?”
Adam’s eyes skirted back to Gansey’s book. Maybe -
It was only weird in how not weird it was that, suddenly, Gansey-and-Ronan had become Gansey-Ronan-and-Adam. They trekked into the forest together numerous times, ate dinner at Nino’s over ancient books sent from a correspondent called Malory, studied in the haphazard construction zone that was Monmouth Manufacturing. In just a few short weeks, they had integrated themselves so seamlessly into Adam’s life that he couldn’t remember the cool isolation of sitting alone in class.
That’s why it came as such a shock when Gansey pulled open the door to Monmouth, Ronan slinking inside after him, to reveal a boy spread out on the floor, idly picking at a Henrietta building from the replica. Adam nearly stopped on the threshold.
His Aglionby sweater was rumpled and he looked - for lack of a better word - insubstantial. Thin and hollow. But his eyes, raising to meet Adam’s, were bright.
“Hi,” he said.
“This is Noah, our roommate. Noah, this is Adam.”
Adam waved, and Noah waved back. He took a seat at the desk, dropping his backpack to the floor and trying to discreetly inspect the surprise addition. Gansey and Ronan hadn’t mentioned a roommate before, though the name sounded familiar.
He had marks on his knees, curling out from underneath a pair of cargo shorts, others on his bony hands, and more color dabbed into the collar of his neck. All were faded to the point of discomfort - they didn’t look natural, not quite, and Adam averted his eyes.
He looked up and straight at Ronan, who watched him watch Noah.
Gansey dumped a book onto the floor, Pre-calc rather than Welsh, and took a seat beside it. So today was a study day. Rummaging through his bag, Adam ignored the feeling of Ronan’s eyes on the side of his face. It was a study day. It could be a peaceful day, he didn’t have to fight with Ronan Lynch -
“Parrish,” Ronan drawled, leaning against the doorway to his bedroom, “where’d you get that?”
A mottled bruise poked out from the sleeves of his sweater - warped and recent. Adam jerked his arm back and turned toward the desk, effectively cutting off the others. “Slipped. In the auto shop.”
“You didn’t have work yesterday.”
“It was last week.”
“Didn’t see it then.”
“Lynch?” Adam paused. “Fuck off.”
Ronan released a string of expletives, lacking real heat, while throwing up his hands and kicking the bedroom door open. He ended with, “ - deal with a fucking liar,” while slamming the door behind him. Adam simultaneously wanted to pound his fists on the wall in retaliation and take a very long nap.
“It’s hot,” Noah commented, fanning himself with one hand. The pale hair at the nape of his neck didn’t stir. “Gansey, we should get an air conditioner.”
Immediately Gansey sprung to his feet and said something about downstairs, sparing furrowed eyebrows at Adam that said we’re talking about this later. Key word, later.
Adam really liked the new roommate.
They were eating at Nino’s one evening when Adam nearly fell asleep into his pizza.
Ronan and Gansey were having some lover’s spat about whether or not Helen liked Ronan more than Matthew liked Gansey - he was having trouble following the complicated familial relationships when he’d had sparing contact with each of them - and Adam did his best to tune them out.
(“Ever since you showed up to that gala in a suit cut specifically to showcase your tattoo - ”
“Matthew adores everyone. He’s like fucking sunshine, he can stand DECLAN, that’s an automatic win - ”)
The orange-yellow-purple sunset, when he squinted, was the same color as his cheese-and-pepper pizza. Tilting his head to the right nearly blended the two swathes of color together. He had an odd and off-kilter thought that didn’t sit right with the pizza: Gansey was undoubtedly his best friend. For the first time, Adam felt comfortable admitting that to himself.
He realized too late that the table was quiet.
“Adam,” Gansey said, “you still with us?”
“Yeah, sorry. I have to tune out the sound of your lovelorn bickering sometimes,” he said, biting into the pizza to give his hands something to do. Ronan picked at the bands around his wrist. Something about their timelines puzzled him - Adam, considering what he knew about Matthew’s age, asked, “Wait, how long have you guys been together?”
Ronan bent forward and laughed, explosively, cackling into the table. His whole body shook with it, one hand slapped over his mouth. Adam felt the flush creeping up his neck. What the fuck was so funny?
“We’re not together,” Gansey clarified, rolling his eyes at Ronan. He was relaxed, a total contrast to Ronan’s buzzing mirth.
“Oh, but - your marks,” Adam said, as the floor shifted beneath him. There was no way these two weren’t romantically involved. He’d never seen them physically romantic, sure, but the implications of that shade - the nearly-black, midnight flash of purple - should be clear. The darker the mark, the deeper the connection.
“We know what it appears to be. I thought you knew, though.”
Ronan’s raucous laughter quieted. He rolled his shoulders and grinned sharply at Adam. “If we’re talking about marks, now. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours first. They must be so hidden. I haven’t seen a single damn one.”
Adam picked at his pizza and ignored the jibe. “I don’t have any.”
It felt like the whole restaurant stilled. The last smears of orange and yellow were dripping behind the ink trees of Henrietta’s skyline. Adam looked out the window so he didn’t have to see their faces. It would only make him angry.
“Adam - ”
“No. I don’t want your pity.”
“Please,” Gansey said, and both of his hands were outstretched, sitting flat on the table. It mirrored one of their first days together, leaning on the Pig with one hand out. Again, Ronan watched with dark eyes.
Gansey’s decision to reach forward. Gansey’s terms for Gansey’s marks and Adam doesn’t know which would be worse - watching the marks bleed into his skin and ultimately becoming one of Gansey’s things, or not leaving one at all.
He shook his head and left the booth. He rode his bike all the way home, allowing the crickets to guide him back to the dirt.
Adam couldn’t focus past the drum-drum-drum of Ronan’s fingers on the desk.
Professor Trang paused when he got to Ronan, tossing his test results beside his restless fingers, and continued with his cycle of feeding letters to hungry, empty students. This was the only sustenance Adam needed. He pulled out a smile for Trang and tucked the A into his bag. The flash of red on Ronan’s paper caught his eye - an F, no surprise - as Ronan crumpled it and tossed the remains into his own bag.
Ronan caught him looking again, and seemed unimpressed.
Should he even bother? Adam sighed.
“If you’d talk to Gansey - ”
“He’s only trying to help.”
“You’d know a lot about that, wouldn’t you?” Ronan asked, one sharp eye sliding to the shallow cut on Adam’s neck - an unfortunate collision with a glass bottle - and away again.
Somehow, Ronan’s words always managed to get under his skin. Whatever the implications were, Adam didn’t like it. He’d gone through too much to keep his own secrets; he wasn’t giving them up willingly. “I don’t need it. Not like you do,” he said simply, dropping his polished notebook on Ronan’s desk.
When the bell rang, he left without looking back and met Gansey for lunch. Ronan didn’t turn up to eat with them, and Gansey expressed concern, but Adam just told him he was studying.
The first week of summer was absolutely perfect. It wasn’t hot enough for humidity yet, but the warmth seeped into the grass around Monmouth and left a pleasant heat in the air. Windows were flung open. A soft breeze tickled Adam’s nose with pollen. He languished outside, enjoying the infinite hours he had before his next shift. Ronan was passed out beside him, one arm strewn over his face.
With nothing more interesting to look at, Adam found himself blinking at Ronan. Tiny marks dotted his finger, a soothing pale green, that Adam assumed were from Matthew. He’d never asked, but the little grooves would fit perfectly around the hand of a baby.
A bird cawed. Lazy and thin, a cloud passed shortly over the sun.
Eventually, the peace had to end - Ronan awoke with a start, seeming shocked that he’d fallen asleep. Drawing up his knees and blinking, he asked, “Wanna go for a drive?”
Adam’s head lolled toward him. Gansey wouldn’t be back from the store for hours; he’d left to explore an exotic plant shop earlier in the morning. There was nothing better to do.
Wordlessly, they got up and clambered into Ronan’s BMW. The back of the seat stuck to Adam idly, and an insect buzzed near his ear. Before he could change his mind, he stripped off the outer shirt he had on and tossed it out the window. It fluttered to the concrete and left him exposed in a tank top.
Ronan’s sharp eyebrows approved.
They rolled down every window and Ronan sped like a maniac down the highway, taking turns that Adam had never even noticed past the trees. He’d obviously done this a million times. Hair whipped back and not a single thought in his head, Adam was the happiest he’d been in a while.
When they returned, Noah threw an arm around both of their shoulders and demanded popsicles.
Change only happened at night in Henrietta, Adam knew, and its moonlight and shadows were simply more than in other places. If he had the chance, he’d set down his Latin textbook and take a walk through the fields at nighttime.
Yet, he was drearily conjugating when the phone rang.
Adam bolted for it. The ring was quiet, yes, and usually his father didn’t wake up - but - the chance -
It had to be Gansey. Something was wrong.
“Adam? I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t call, but it’s Ronan. Noah found him and there’s a lot of blood, we’re heading to the hospital now, but - ”
“Let me see if I can meet you there.
A brief exhale of relief. “Thank you.”
“It’s fine, Gansey, it’s going to be fine,” he muttered. A lie he told himself daily.
Adam hung up the phone and gingerly placed it on the receiver. He stood very still and very quiet for a few moments. In the fuzzy illumination from the moon at the window, he could hardly see the outline of his parent’s bedroom.
The world remained calm.
Toeing on his sneakers, Adam held his breath as he opened the front door. Easy, easy - he stepped off the last stair, trying fruitlessly to avoid the twigs at the base of the double-wide on his way to the bike, locked at the corner. He waited for the merciless light of his parent’s bedroom window.
It was almost like a game. Cat and mouse.
Adam rode faster than he ever had in his life. The hospital was just over three miles away, but he made it in fifteen minutes. It was a miracle he didn’t hit a rock and fly over the handlebars - all of Henrietta slept in the dark. No light for miles. Sweat rolled down his back.
He locked his bike to the Pig, an anachronism in the bottomless parking lot, and sped toward the front doors. Should he go in through emergency? Which waiting room would they be in? Adam cursed Ronan in his head, long and simmering, trying to catch his breath as he pushed open the doors.
“Adam,” Gansey said. He was on a chair just inside, wearing a disturbingly relaxed t-shirt. He stood up immediately. Silently, he led Adam back outside and to the Pig.
“What happened? Is he okay?”
“He’s in surgery right now.”
“Did you call Declan?”
“Of course. He left to pick up Matthew.”
Gansey leaned against his car and rubbed his face harshly with both palms. For a moment, it looked like he was trying to scrub the color onto his cheeks. The lines under his eyes should have rendered Gansey human - less powerful than his royal image - yet he stood with his chin high and eyes clear. Hospitals and honor. Even the sight of one of his soulmates half-dead couldn’t taint the nobleman of justice.
“Poor Noah,” he muttered, “he found him, covered in blood. His wrists were cut open. I can’t believe Ronan would do this.”
For all of Ronan’s moody tantrums and reckless behavior… Adam was surprised, too.
They leaned against the Camaro side-by-side, looking up at the stars. Gansey smelled of antiseptic, and there was a tiny bit of dried blood on his pants.
“Thank you for coming,” Gansey said. “I’m glad that I’m not here alone.”
Adam looked at him - really looked. The deep, steady breaths. Bedhead. Just a boy who cared about his friends more than anything, more than quests and kings, more than money. He thought about the whirlwind his life had become, just because Gansey’s car had broken down on the way to Aglionby one morning. He thought about Gansey’s extended hand.
He reached up and touched Gansey’s skin just above the elbow, a comforting anchor. Smooth and warm, his arm tightened under Adam’s touch. A bloom of impossibly dark color spread from his fingers, filling up the spaces where they met.
So green it was almost black - all over Gansey’s elbow and Adam’s fingers. The thrill of it ached.
“It’s going to be fine,” he said.