Chapter 1: the first day
Noah crouched over Gansey’s body. He said, for the last time, “You will live because of Glendower. Someone else on the ley line is dying when they should not, and so you will live when you should not.”
“Good-bye,” Noah said, “Don’t throw it away.”
He quietly slid from time—
And landed with a thump in a familiar hallway.
Time was a jump-rope, and Noah had long ago learned the rhythm. Although he sometimes had trouble distinguishing one hop from another, he never faltered, never tripped, because he couldn’t. He had to keep time until time was done with him—he had to, for Gansey and for all of them.
But the rope had been yanked from under him and now he was sprawled on the floor, his stomach pressed against slatted wood that had been softened by a decade of footsteps, his skin thawing in the heat of a nearby radiator. Something assaulted the inside of his chest, threatening to burst through his seams and escape his body—
To his left, someone came up the stairs—hasty footsteps, followed by a sharp intake of breath, followed by the distinctive pop of glass shattering. Noah’s eyes flew open only long enough to register that the world was unbearably bright, and the sound of shattering echoed in his skull as he squeezed his eyes shut again.
The person asked something, but Noah heard nothing but noise—too loud, too close.
He scrambled off his stomach and away from the person, the voice, the sound—all of it too much. His back hit the wall with so much force that it reverberated into his teeth and left him shaking in the aftermath, unable to still himself after the quaking had begun.
“Oh my god,” said the person. When he squinted his eyes open again, he saw that it was Maura, standing amidst the remnants of a broken ceramic teacup.
Noah shook his head and pressed his palms roughly against his eyes, pressing until it was dark again, pressing until he saw spots. His mind grasped for the familiar tumble of time to whisk him somewhere else, to lift him out and away from here. 2am trips to convenience stores when neither Gansey or Ronan could sleep. Blue’s boring science class, making her smile with commentary only she could hear. Endless evenings in Cabeswater with Adam as he worked with the ley line. Squished into the back seat of the Pig, his friends’ energies filling up the car and charging him up like a battery.
“Noah,” Maura said, not a question this time, her voice softened significantly but even closer than before.
No, no. She could still see him. The wall still held him up. He was still here.
Something was wrong.
Since he couldn’t disappear in the way he was used to, he’d need to disappear another way. Despite the light, the bright, the person, the being here, he opened his eyes once more.
The wall he was up against was not a wall but a door. His hand shot up and the handle gave way as he scrambled inside the room, startling himself as he slammed the door shut, fumbling with the lock until it clicked into place.
The bathroom was blissfully dim, and when his eyes adjusted, he saw himself in the mirror on the back of the door. Chest heaving, cheeks flushed, face unmarked by a smudge.
Everything was wrong.
He was finally ready to move on. He was trying to move on. Gansey couldn’t have wished this for him; Glendower wasn’t real. But Gansey couldn’t have wished this for him even if Glendower was real. He’d seen it, again or always or just a few moments ago; Gansey was dying—had died—was dead.
Like himself. He was dead.
The mirror told him something different, though. The mirror told him that he wasn’t dead.
And the heartbeat in his chest, turning over and over again like the engine of the Camaro, stuttering and starting and bruising the inside of his breastbone, told him that he was alive.
Until they saw Calla. She sat at the kitchen table with a teacup full of liquid that was definitely not tea clasped in her hands, lips pursed and eyebrows huddled.
Something was wrong.
They stalled in front of her, one after another—first Ronan and the Orphan Girl, then Adam, then Blue, Henry, Gansey.
“Where’s Mom?” Blue asked, but the answer to her question momentarily lost priority as she threw herself into Calla’s arms.
Calla hugged her back for a long minute and then released her, but the concern didn’t leave her features. “She’s upstairs.” The way she said it made upstairs sound like a very faraway place.
“Why?” Blue asked, because it was the only question she could think to ask.
Calla hesitated, glancing at Blue and the group behind her. “He’s alive,” she said. The way she said it made alive sound like a terminal diagnosis.
A beat of silence, and then Ronan snorted and slapped a hand on Gansey’s shoulder. “Yeah, we know.”
“Not him,” Calla said with only a fraction of the usual venom she reserved for Ronan. Worry made her ragged around the edges. “Noah. Noah’s alive.”
The silence of the room before couldn’t compare to silence now. Time, a fickle enough invention even before today, seemed to twist and turn in a way that allowed the moment to last an eternity.
Noah. Noah was alive.
Blue balked, and Gansey asked “What?” and Henry asked “Who?” and Adam asked “How?”
Ronan didn’t wait for answers; he had all the information he needed. Where. Upstairs, wherever Maura was.
He bolted from the room, taking the steps three at a time, crushing shards of teacup under his shoe without a blink and very nearly mowing Gwenllian down in the hallway. She mused something in rhyme about the similarities between ghosts and kings, but he couldn’t hear anything except Calla saying ‘Noah.’
Maura stood in front of a doorway, hand resting on the doorknob. “Noah?” Ronan asked, breath high in his chest.
She looked troubled, but she nodded.
Hope doused Ronan like gasoline, dangerous and upended and spilling over. “Noah?” he said again, loud enough to be heard through the door.
A sob came from inside and the hope ignited.
Ronan knew when he was awake and when he was asleep, and he was asleep—he had to be. Today was a dream, a nightmare in reverse, or perhaps drawing toward a doubly tragic ending where he had everything ripped away from him again.
A flash of Gansey, his body crumpled on the side of the road. A flash of Adam, the horror on his face as his hands tightened around Ronan’s neck. A flash of his mom, and he was struck with the overwhelming urge to put his fist through the flimsy wooden door in front of him.
He couldn’t think about that now. Noah was alive.
Ronan let hope consume him.
“Move,” he said to Maura, and she did, allowing him to confirm for himself that the door was locked. “Damn it.” How hard could it be to pull the whole thing off the frame? Probably not hard. But in half a heartbeat, Gansey appeared, stilling his hand over Ronan’s on the doorknob to make him stop rattling it.
Blue was right behind him. “How is he?” she asked her mom, and the brief silence while Maura composed her response allowed for another sob to slip under the door.
Slowly, Maura said, “He’s… frightened. Overwhelmed, I think. Definitely alive.”
Ronan was intimately familiar with the stress of coming back to the real world after hours trapped in a nightmare; if he was feeling it right now, then Noah must’ve been tenfold. “Noah, it’s me,” he said, “It’s us. Unlock the damn door.”
It took a few seconds, just long enough that Ronan began to worry that Noah was gone again, that this was a nightmare after all. But then his voice came, watery and barely audible: “Blue.” Then, slightly louder, “I want Blue.”
Ronan took a step back and Blue immediately filled his place. “I’m here,” she said, tone soft and sad to match Noah’s, but with a rawness that Ronan had never heard before. Clearly hope had burned her too. “Can you unlock the door?”
There was a faint shuffle, a hiccup, the click of the lock, and then the sound of scrambling.
Noah. Noah was alive in there. He couldn’t make sense of it, no matter how many times he repeated it to himself, but his heart believed it.
When the shuffling settled again, Blue said, “Okay, I’m coming in,” and slipped into the room.
Presumably, so was Noah. It was not a big bathroom—there was no place else he could’ve been.
The beating of her heart nearly drowned out the sound of Noah’s hiccupped breathing. Over the last few months, and especially in the last few hours, Blue had learned never to expect anything. She knew what ‘alive’ meant, objectively, but there was no way to know what ‘alive’ would mean for a boy who had been dead for seven years.
She didn’t speculate. There was no use.
She sat on the lid of the toilet, taking a moment to curl and uncurl her shaking fingers. The curtain was less than a foot from her, and she hated it for standing in between her and Noah, but she didn’t pull it aside just yet. “Hey,” she said, hushed enough to not be overheard from the hallway, “I’m here.”
Noah didn’t immediately respond, and for an awful moment, Blue thought her mother had been wrong. Noah had appeared alive only for a moment while the ley line untangled itself after the trauma of the day, and he was still a ghost, or worse, gone for good.
But then the curtain shifted and Blue’s heart leapt and one of Noah’s big, sad eyes peeked around the edge. He sat in the bottom of the dry tub and grasped at the shower curtain like a blanket.
“Blue?” he peeped, even though he was looking right at her.
Blue’s heart continued to pound, suspense only worsening at getting to see a fraction of him. Not nearly enough to know what condition he was in. “Yeah?”
“Blue,” he breathed, voice blooming with relief. The curtain shifted a little more, and the air left Blue’s chest as she took in the sight of him.
Noah looked alive. The shine of his eyes, the roll of his shoulder, the way his body quaked as he tried to recover from crying, the way tears shined on his skin as he failed. And his face, absent of the smudge of his caved-in cheek.
She hadn’t realized how ghostly he’d been until she saw how he was supposed to look. How had she ever believed he was alive, even for a minute?
“Noah?” she said, even though she was looking right at him, because the room was spinning, and she wasn’t sure she could trust her eyes anymore.
Noah had been dead. Dead, the entire time she knew him. Dead, like Gansey was a few minutes ago, but for seven entire years. Killed, not by a foretold kiss from a friend, but by blunt force trauma from someone who had pretended to be.
Someone had known the shaking, wide-eyed boy in front of her and then murdered him.
Grief and rage broke out of her in a crooked breath, a half-sob. It wasn’t like she’d never mourned Noah before—she’d mourned him every day since they found his bones in the woods. But now she saw exactly how much Whelk had taken from him.
And when she cried, Noah did, too, once again losing the battle against his tears. He reached to pet the peaks of her hair like he had done since the beginning, but now his fingers shook like leaves in the wind.
His hand was warm, damp heat clinging to his palm.
“You’re hot,” she managed, disbelieving.
“You think I’m hot?” he asked—a stupid joke made pathetic by the weepy voice it was delivered in. She would’ve scowled if it had come from anyone else, but from Noah, even now, it eased a small smile onto her face.
He smiled back—a slight, twitching smile, nothing like the wide smiles she’d come to know from him, but a smile nonetheless. “Don’t cry,” he requested, still crying.
“Okay,” she lied, and then she couldn’t stand it for another moment. She slid to the floor on the outside of the tub and threw her arms around him, burying her face in his neck. His breath against her shoulder, his heart pounding against her hand on his back, his skin warm against her. So real, so dynamic, so alive. She couldn’t believe it, but she had no choice.
She thought she might never let him go, but almost instantly, he recoiled.
When she pulled away to see what was wrong, Noah shrunk in on himself, pulling the shower curtain high on his chest and hiding against his hand.
“What?” Blue asked, concern rising in her throat, threatening new tears.
Noah shook his head a little, words almost lost in his shaky fingers. “Sorry, uh—it’s—it’s a lot.”
For as shockingly real as Noah felt in her arms, the whole world felt that way to him. Guilt washed over her for not being more considerate; the last thing she wanted was to contribute to his overwhelm. “No, I’m sorry,” she said immediately, tugging her arms back around herself. “Are you… okay?”
She knew it was a bad question, but she didn’t know how else to ask.
Noah seemed to be thoroughly thinking it through, and seconds ticked by as he composed his response. Eventually, he decided on “Um,” and a limp shrug.
Sensible Blue was beginning to wade her way through the emotion of it all. He needed her right now, and he needed her to be more than a spectator to his shock. “What can I do?” she asked, rubbing the remnants of the moisture away from her eyes. She had to stop crying—Noah had asked her to.
He looked at the shower curtain he was strangling in his fist, and then back up at her. “Can I have some clothes?”
Blue nodded. “We don’t have a lot of boy clothes but I’m sure there’s some stuff around here that will fit you.” Noah wasn’t ever particularly substantial, but he seemed especially small now, stripped of his Aglionby uniform and the last seven years of his life—a boy of little more than skin and bone.
The image of his half-buried skeleton flashed through her mind, and then the image of his decayed soul, just energy tricking her into believing he was truly a boy. She swallowed back more tears. Blue thought she had cried every last drop when she’d killed Gansey, but seeing Noah this way wore her down further than she knew was possible, exposing a bottomless sea of tears under her surface.
“Thank you,” Noah said softly, sniffling into his palm and giving her another tiny, sad smile.
“No problem,” she said back, even though she meant There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.
Although it felt like years, it had only been a few days since Noah had sat next to her in the backyard, excitedly telling her about his idea for a chicken food truck, as close as he ever got to his living self. Blue remembered thinking that they probably wouldn’t have been friends, because Alive Noah was young in a way she never had been.
She realized, now, that his youngness wasn’t a product of his aliveness. This Noah was alive, but he was nothing like the Noah from before.
Certainly, the Noah they had known as a ghost was missing quite a lot. But the Noah from before his death was missing something, too—he was missing them. Past Noah didn’t know magic and friendship and triumph and loss the way this Noah did. He’d been with them every step of this journey; he’d fallen in love with them, the same way they’d fallen in love with him.
Death be damned. She loved him when he was just a quirky Monmouth roommate, and she loved him when he was a ghost, and she loved him again when he was decayed and barely hanging on. She’d decided to love him each time he became something new, and she decided once again to love him now.
For the moment, loving him meant getting him something to wear, and she knew just the thing.
In the hallway, she was met with a waterfall of questions, a wall of expectant eyes, and Ronan immediately trying to elbow his way into the bathroom behind her. “No,” she said, as firmly as she could with tears still drying on her cheeks, “He needs a minute, okay? I’m going to get him some clothes. Don’t go in there.”
They were all so beaten from Adam’s possessed hands. The area all around her eye stung from torn stitches, and it surely looked even worse than it felt. Henry’s knuckles were red and scraped. Adam’s knuckles were worse, purpling and swelling under dried blood, in addition to a long self-inflicted gash on his cheek and the burns on his wrists from his restraints. Ronan looked worst of all of them—bloodshot eyes and a necklace of bruises from being suffocated, black ooze still staining around his ears and under his nose.
Gansey was okay, though. He was spattered with blood from the roadside and dirt from the grass they had laid his body in, but he was unbruised, unbroken; the blood he wore was not his own. Still, he was more unkempt than Blue could’ve imagined—in a way, for someone who wore their image like skin, this was an injury.
And then there was Noah, free of his caved-in cheek for the first time.
Somehow, the two who had died were the only ones who made it out unscathed. The rest of them looked even more defeated by comparison.
“Is he okay?” Adam asked, a tentative question, as though he expected the answer to be ‘no.’
Blue passed along Noah’s shrug, but added on, “I think he will be. He’s just… in shock.”
“So it’s true,” Gansey said, so softly Blue almost missed it.
She puffed some air out of her cheeks and then said, “Yeah. Noah’s alive.”
Exhausted as she was, the words thrilled her. As she went to her room to retrieve an outfit for him, she played the image of his smile over and over in her mind. His sallow skin, flushed pink. The way his newly-unblemished cheek easily accommodated the small quirk of his lips.
She wanted to see his real smile on his living face, hear his laugh in his living voice. She wanted to hold his hand until it grew clammy and then keep holding it, because she no longer needed to worry about him draining her energy.
He had his own energy to draw from, now. His own life ahead of him.
Being mindful of fit and texture, she returned with an armful of clothes. “Are these okay?” she asked, extending them so he could examine them himself.
He’d stopped crying again while she was gone, although only barely, and he tested the fabrics between his still-trembling fingers. First, a sweater that had been Persephone’s. It was huge and handmade of the same material baby blankets were made of, soft and comforting like a wearable hug—the hug Blue couldn’t give him herself quite yet. Then, some boxers she used as pajamas and a pair of cotton basketball shorts from when she’d taken PE last year.
But his eyes wandered from the clothes to Blue, to her eyes, to her eye.
“I’m so sorry,” Noah said, and a crackle in his voice promised another wave of tears.
Blue shook her head. “You didn’t do this, Noah,” she said.
He looked unconvinced.
“I promise,” she said, allowing a little heat in her voice so that he knew she meant it, “It’s okay. I forgive you, if that’s what you need to hear, but I don’t blame you in the first place.”
Noah was on the verge of saying something else, but instead, he swallowed down tears and murmured, “The clothes are good, I think.”
“Good,” Blue said with an exhale, patting her hands against her thighs. “Get dressed and then…”
And then what? ‘And then come out and live the rest of your life?’ The enormity of this began to sink in. Noah wasn’t just alive now; he was alive from now on.
“And then we’ll get you some dinner,” she concluded. Seven years of not eating—he must’ve been hungry.
He nodded, gripping onto Persephone’s sweater like it was going to be torn away from him. “Thank you,” he said, voice barely a whisper.
“No problem,” she said again. “Do you need anything else?”
His eyes flicked to the door behind her. “They’re all out there?”
“Everyone. Ronan almost kicked the door down trying to see you, and Gansey can’t wait to—“
“Gansey?” Noah's eyes widened even further, shock layered on top of shock, producing a cartoonish expression that would’ve been funny if it wasn’t so sad. “He’s d—“
Blue wasn’t sure what her face did, but Noah cut himself off.
“I know,” she said. She could still feel Gansey’s lips against hers, and she could still feel her heart break when he hit the ground. “But he’s alive, too.” She smiled thinly.
Noah let out a lungful of air, and Blue thought he might melt into a puddle. “Gansey’s okay,” he said, testing the idea, and she nodded.
“He is,” she said, “And him, Adam, Ronan, the girl, Henry—do you know Henry?” She realized that they had never been formally introduced, which was odd, since Henry felt as timeless and vital to the group as the rest of them.
“I do,” he said, “Kind of.”
“Right,” Blue said, “Well, he’ll be excited to meet you, then.”
Noah nodded, a dribble of determination in his voice. “Can you tell them not to touch me?”
“Of course,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said once more, voice muffled as he buried his face in the fabric of Persephone’s sweater, and then Blue slipped back out the door.
He looked at himself in the mirror, straightening his shoulders, tucking his hands into his sleeves. He felt human again now that he was dressed, and human needs began to worm at him. His throat was dry. His stomach was hollow from hunger. His legs ached as his muscles learned again to support him.
His friends. They waited for him on the other side of the door. He knew it, because Blue said so, but he didn’t feel it like he should’ve—their humming energies, their bouncing thoughts, the complicated watercolor of auras they made with one another. For as loud as the rest of his senses had gotten, the magic that connected him to them was cut off completely. He heard nothing but muffled conversation and his own heartbeat in his ears.
This wasn’t part of the plan. He wasn’t supposed to live again. He wasn’t sure how to, after so long. The weight of it was enormous, and other thoughts began to trickle in, too, as undeniable as the rumble in his stomach—thoughts of his little sisters, who had outgrown him; of his parents, who had mourned him; of his friend, who had betrayed him and left him to rot—
No, no. He reigned in the panic by calling to mind another friend. Even without the magic to show him, he knew Gansey was feeling the same way he was right now—lost and confused and inexplicably alive again.
Noah wasn’t alone, and as soon as he opened the door, Gansey wouldn’t be, either. And the rest of them, too. He didn’t know anything—didn’t know why this happened or what this meant or where they went next—but he did know that his friends would find a way to make it okay.
Everything was different, now, but that hadn’t changed. None of them were the same as they were just a few hours ago, but they still had each other.
Time was strange, or maybe it was normal, now, made strange only by the fact that he was used to experiencing it the wrong way. He couldn’t tell how long he waited there with his hand on the doorknob, his soul swirling as it readjusted to being housed in a body. But waiting wasn’t helping him feel better, and it probably wasn’t helping his friends feel better, either.
He took a grounding breath—a foreign reflex after so long—and pulled the door open.
Upon seeing his friends, Noah decided that being alive sucked.
Blue had told him that they had all survived, which Noah definitely appreciated, but she must’ve forgotten to mention that they looked horrible. His stomach twisted as he took in the sight of them. Everywhere he looked, it was bruising and blood and black goo.
He tried to focus, to find their souls underneath all the pain. There was nothing he could do for their injuries; it was their hearts he needed to check on.
But there was nothing there. He was flexing a muscle that no longer existed.
After being able to feel them for so long, being relegated to simple human sight was debilitating. Especially right now. How would he know how they really were? How would he know how to help? He’d have only their faces and their body language, and he’d never been especially adept at deciphering that. “You couldn’t read social cues if they were literally written out for you,” Whelk had told him once, followed by an insult and a smile—a perfect example of a response Noah didn’t understand. He knew all insults weren’t mean, but he also knew all smiles weren’t nice, and it was difficult to tell which cue to prioritize.
He had ultimately decided that it was a nice smile and a not-mean insult, because they were friends.
His heart beat harder.
“You look fucking weird,” Ronan said, the first to break the silence. There it was, again—a not-mean insult. Ronan wasn’t smiling, but he didn’t need to. Noah knew Ronan.
And, well, he wasn’t wrong. He did look weird.
But Ronan looked weird, too. Badly beaten, arms crossed, mouth set in a sharp line. But… there was something about his eyes. After a moment, Noah realized they were damp. But without the help of Ronan’s soul—the way it rumbled a rapid bass beat and turned out light like the coolest concert Noah had ever seen, the way it guided him underneath Ronan’s carefully-cultivated anger and apathy—he couldn’t tell if Ronan was feeling grief or hope or something else.
“Yeah, well… you look… like… you got thrown out a window,” Noah said quietly—he had never gotten good at not-mean insults. But Ronan let out a harsh laugh to disguise the way his eyelids fluttered, so Noah thought maybe he had done something right. Then Ronan’s eyes found Adam, as they had a way of doing in moments of dangerous emotion, and Noah’s gaze followed.
Adam, as always, looked complicated. Beyond sad. Underwater, maybe. His mouth opened, and then shut again, and Noah listened carefully to hear what he had almost said, but he was met nothing but silence. Ultimately, Adam just gave him a nod.
Noah bobbed his head back. He nodded to Opal, too, and she scowled at him in a way he recognized from Ronan. He reminded himself that he needed to tell them that her name was Opal, not Orphan Girl, but his brain felt overfull, so he wasn’t sure if it would stick. Already, things he knew from his time as a ghost seemed more nebulous; as his mind adjusted to experiencing things with just five senses, it became more and more difficult to nail down what exactly his memories meant when they told him abstract things, like that Adam was springtime—clean rain that encouraged blossoming flowers, and the blossoming flowers themselves.
He clung to those impossible snippets like driftwood after a shipwreck, like he clung to the doorframe of the bathroom. He couldn’t bear to lose those memories—he couldn’t bear to lose any more, or he might slip away.
“Noah…” Gansey began, and then gave up.
Noah’s attention slid to him. Aside from haggard and exhausted, Noah had no idea how Gansey was doing, but there was something about him, even now, that reminded Noah of the circular tug of time, that made him feel a little less alien. “Hi,” he greeted, but it turned into a yawn.
“Hi,” Gansey said back. “I’m glad to see you.”
“Yeah,” Noah said. Images of Gansey’s corpse invaded his thoughts and he fought the urge to say his part. You will live because of Glendower… But remembering wasn’t experiencing anymore—he wasn’t there, watching Gansey die. “You, too,” he said instead.
Henry cleared his throat and stood up from where he sat against the banister of the staircase. “I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced,” he said. His smiling was dazzling, but the effect was lessened by the way his bee buzzed around him like tangible anxiety. “I’m Henry. It’s an honor to meet the mind behind Raven Day.”
Raven Day. A dream that had outlived him in a way most dreams couldn’t outlive their dreamers.
Noah remembered dreaming. All at once, he missed it.
“Noah,” he said back slowly, not meaning to sound unsure as he introduced himself. “It’s nice to meet you, too.” He pointed a finger at Robobee without unhooking the rest of his fingers from the doorframe. “I like your bee.”
Henry’s smile relaxed into something that wasn’t trying so hard, and Robobee came to rest on his shoulder. “It likes you, too.”
Blue cleared her throat. “So, Noah—food?”
Food. His stomach flipped at just the mention of it.
He flexed his fingers against the doorframe again and then dropped them, and for a half a second, he thought he might float away.
But his feet stayed planted and everything around him stayed still. It was strange to be certain of his permanence—to know that he couldn’t fade, even though he felt like he might at any second. Maybe it was a supernatural side effect of coming back to life, or maybe it was just lightheadedness from his empty stomach. “Food,” he agreed, and Blue led them all down the stairs.
Adam wasn’t sure what kind of world he lived in anymore.
A world with demons didn’t surprise him, really. He’d known hell for as long as he could remember—demons were a logical progressive step from there.
But he thought he’d grown accustomed to a world with magic, too. He’d seen Ronan create things with his mind; he’d walked in dreams; he’d even made a place for magic within himself, a sacrifice that had turned into a gift that had turned into love.
Gansey’s story of hornet stings and inexplicable revival had seemed, to him, a part of the same magic. Ley lines and energy, same as everything.
But now, having seen it with his own eyes, he thought it must’ve been a different kind of magic—a bigger kind of magic. Seeing Gansey alive and then dead and then alive again uprooted something in him. Knowing Noah only as a ghost and now, for the first time, meeting him as a living person uprooted everything in him.
What was real, if not death?
The question reeled in his head as he had explained the situation to Henry. “Noah Czerny. He lives at Monmouth Manufacturing with Gansey and Ronan.”
“Noah Czerny,” Henry said, “Like, Adele Czerny. Like, Raven Day.”
Adam nodded. “He was killed seven years ago by Barrington Whelk.” Just saying his name made Adam’s mouth bitter, and he was struck for not the first time by how glad he was that Whelk was dead.
“Barrington Whelk,” Henry said, “Like, the Latin teacher.”
Adam nodded again. “Noah is a ghost.” And then he corrected himself, “Was. Was a ghost.”
The question reeled in his head as he watched Noah stand in the doorway of the bathroom, shaking like he’d just stepped out of a freezer. It reeled in his head as he watched Blue sit Noah down at the kitchen table, as the light played off of Noah instead of through him, and it reeled every time he saw Noah’s unblemished cheek. It reeled and reeled and didn’t stop, and he was having trouble telling which way was up in a world where even death was so negotiable.
He watched Noah take a tentative sip of water, gripping the glass so tightly that his fingertips turned white. He looked scared and overwhelmed and far away, like he was barely hanging on. He looked like Adam had a lot of times, and Adam’s heart hurt for him.
Noah’s careful initial sip quickly led to him downing one glass of water and then another as the room stood around and watched. Orphan Girl hung off of Adam, fingers hooked into the band of his watch, creating friction against his raw wrists in a way that was painful and grounding. Gansey stared at Noah in a profoundly unscholarly way, again and again opening his mouth like he was going to speak but never actually following through. Henry leaned against the counter and did something on his phone that looked very much like fake texting. Ronan seethed liquid energy in the kitchen, pacing, scrubbing his hands over his head, clenching and unclenching his fists. Blue refilled Noah’s glass every time he emptied it. Calla and Maura murmured to each other a few feet away.
Seeing Noah in Persephone’s sweater ached something in him that he didn’t expect. The only thing that could’ve made seeing his dead friend alive for the first time even more weird was seeing him wearing his other dead friend’s clothes.
The room was quiet, aside from Noah’s gulping and Ronan’s pacing and the psychics’ muttering. Adam was quiet, too—on the outside, and on the inside. Cabeswater was gone, or it was something new; what was once a dream and a forest was now a heartbeat and a soul, wrapped up and housed inside Gansey and maybe inside Noah as well. Either way, it wasn’t a part of him anymore, and he was emptied out. The energy of the ley line still bucked under his feet, but he wasn’t a part of it anymore, like a plug wiggled loose from an outlet.
He wanted to be standing next to Maura and Calla. He wanted to know what they thought about how this had happened, why this had happened. Some answers. Something. Anything.
But, instead, he asked, very softly, “Noah, what’s your favorite food?”
He blinked at the question, considering it with a very serious look on his face. And then, very slowly, he said, “Gelato.”
Ronan barked out a laugh and Noah smiled, just a little, even though Ronan’s laugh was far from happy.
“Gelato,” Ronan said, sounding somewhere between angry and disbelieving, “You want to go get gelato.”
Noah’s shoulders bounced. “No,” he said, eyes averted, “I don’t want to go anywhere. I just… I missed gelato.”
“I’ll get you some fucking gelato, Noah,” Ronan said, spinning on his heel as he spoke. “Let me go wash the satanic sludge shit off of me and then I’ll get you some fucking gelato.”
Ronan stormed up the stairs and into the bathroom where Noah had been locked up, and Adam didn’t hesitate to follow. Orphan Girl pulled herself along too, unwilling to leave his side.
He didn’t try to talk, because he knew Ronan didn’t want to talk even on a good day. Instead, he stood with him, crowded over the little sink in the little bathroom, washing out his own wounds with lavender-scented soap and helping Ronan clean the black goo from places the mirror left unseen.
The bruises on his neck were turning a dark purple that Adam was plenty familiar with, and it made him nauseous. It wasn’t like he’d never seen Ronan bruised before, but a black eye was different than thumbprints on his windpipe, especially since he had been the one who put them there, no matter how unwilling he had been. He placed a finger lightly against one of the darkest bruises—his knuckle was almost the same color. “I’m sorry,” he said, voice only as loud as it had to be.
Ronan’s eyes flashed up to meet Adam’s in the mirror, brilliant blue ringed with red. Adam watched the blood vessels pop in his memories, before the demon had pulled his eyes away from Ronan’s suffocating face. “Don’t,” Ronan said—a failed warning, almost a plea.
Ronan had more than earned the right to his silence, but the words burned hot in Adam’s throat and he wasn’t willing to swallow them. “I’m sorry,” he said again anyway.
Ronan turned to look at him, the closeness of him sparking something in Adam even now. With the kind of tenderness Adam hadn’t believed existed before a few nights ago, Ronan took his hand and grazed a kiss against the most swollen of his knuckles. “Don’t,” Ronan said once more, with that same impossible softness, and then dropped his hand.
Adam nodded. “I’ll come with you, to gelato, if you want.”
Orphan Girl said, “What’s gelato?” and kicked over a trash can, scattering tissues over the floor.
Adam said, “She can come, too.”
Ronan let his eyes sink shut, his lack of objection speaking for him. He said, “I can’t believe—“ and then bit off the end of the sentence.
“I know,” Adam said. He felt it, too—hope, battling the weight of everything they had lost. But Ronan had lost more than the rest of them, which meant his hope had to work a lot harder to take root.
“Fucking gelato,” he grumbled as he dug his keys from his pocket and headed back down the stairs. Gansey was waiting at the bottom, and stilled Ronan with a hand on his arm.
“You don’t have to go,” Gansey said, but he obviously meant I don’t want you to go. “Someone else can go get gelato.”
“I can go get gelato,” Henry offered, entirely genuine.
Ronan scoffed. “Right. Like you could get it back here before it melted.”
Henry pointed at Ronan in a way that indicated that that was probably true.
“Then I don’t need to tell you to drive safely,” Gansey said slowly, voice skirting on panic.
Adam couldn’t discern who initiated the hug—it happened so mutually that he would’ve thought it was scripted if he didn’t know better. Ronan and Gansey hugged like brothers hugged, and then Gansey hugged Adam, too.
What was real, if not death?
This, Adam said to himself as he held Gansey and as Gansey held him back.
This, Adam said to himself as Noah tapped their knuckles together in the softest fist-bump in human history.
This, Adam said to himself as he placed his hand on top of Ronan’s on the gearshift and as Orphan Girl skittered into the back seat.
They were real—him and his friends, this family of his—and they were alive, and that was all that mattered.
Gansey had seen a lot of strange things today, but even ranked against the strangest of them, Noah eating gelato was the most unsettling.
Perhaps not unsettling as much as unseating. Noah was shoveling spoonful after spoonful of vanilla gelato with rainbow sprinkles into his mouth, like he was alive, because he was alive.
The realization rocked him over and over again. This wasn’t some temporary trick of magic, or a dream, or a mirage. Noah was sitting in front of him and eating gelato—at truly incredible speeds, no less—and he was alive. It was impossible, but only slightly more impossible than the fact that Gansey himself had lived to witness it.
You died. You died. You died.
It looped and bent in his mind, somehow both shocking and familiar in a way that made him dizzy, like running his fingers over an old scar and finding fresh blood.
He forced a breath into his chest and some gelato into his mouth. Ronan and Adam had come back with ice cream for all of them, even the psychics, and they’d brought him mint chocolate chip with pistachios, exactly how he liked it. He felt better now that everyone was under one roof again, but an anxiety attack still edged at the corners of his vision.
He could panic later, he told himself. He had a lifetime ahead of him to get trapped in memories of his deaths. For the moment, he focused on Noah.
Noah, who currently had his face scrunched up tight, in a way that looked almost painful.
“What’s wrong?” Adam asked.
“Brain freeze,” Noah said, very slowly unsquinting his eyes. “I forgot about brain freeze.”
He’s alive. He’s alive. He’s alive.
Glendower hadn’t been there to grant it for him, but he’d somehow gotten his wish nonetheless. He wanted to know what magic to thank for this. From what he understood, he owed Cabeswater for his own life. Did Noah have a Cabeswater heart, too, because he was a favored sacrifice? Or was Noah coming back to life a side effect of his own revival, a buy-one get-one of sorts? Beg a magic forest to exchange its life for a self-sacrificing friend, get not only the friend you requested but also the one who died in his place seven years previous?
He didn’t know, and in some ways, that was comforting. It gave him a question to answer.
Not now, though. Now, he needed to eat his gelato.
By the time he’d finished that task, Noah had cleaned out half the 300 Fox Way kitchen. Calla had migrated to the backyard, talking (and periodically yelling) at Gwenllian and Artemus, but Maura stayed inside with them. She was clearly worried, and he couldn’t nail down why—if it was the mother part of her, or the psychic part of her, or some measure of both. Either way, it made him worry, too.
As if making up for the way time had gotten stuck for the last few days, night came impossibly fast. It was afternoon, and then it was dark out, and Gansey wasn’t willing to acknowledge it. Orphan Girl fell asleep where she sat against the wall. Calla took a whole bottle of whisky and announced that she was going to sleep for three days at the least. Gwenllian flittered in and out of the house, her scattered speech incomprehensible to his exhausted mind. Artemus, apparently, remained in the tree.
Blue’s cheek was pressed against the table, but she was wide awake. Henry was still texting, but he’d yawned more than once. Ronan looked too hollowed to be tired, but Adam looked tired enough for the both of them.
Noah was the first one to acknowledge the night that tugged at them all, now that his starvation had been sated. “I think I’m tired.”
Gansey didn’t know what to say to that. Logically, he knew going to sleep was the next step, but he couldn’t think about going to sleep without thinking about waking up in the morning. Tomorrow would come and he’d have to clean up the mess he’d left. The Pig was still abandoned on the roadside, somewhere outside Henrietta. He’d traded Monmouth to Headmaster Child, thinking he wouldn’t need it anymore, thinking Ronan needed a diploma more than either of them needed their home. (How wrong he had been, and how ridiculous it seemed that he ever believed it, looking at Ronan now.) They all had school tomorrow, and then the next day, and then the next day. And maybe a bigger burden than any of that was his family and the fundraiser he’d missed in the hour-long day he’d spent underground. He still hadn’t returned their messages, and they were never going to forgive him.
No one else immediately spoke, either. Apparently, reality was beginning to catch up to all of them.
Henry spoke up first. “I should probably get back to Litchfield.”
Silence. Gansey’s brain short-circuited at the thought of Henry leaving them for the night and he was left momentarily without words.
Henry cleared his throat and continued, “I’m sure it’s fallen into chaos in my absence. I have trash to take out. If the inconceivable events of the day are any indication of the sort of world we live in now, Koh has probably beaten my high score in Super Smash Bros and I can’t let that kind of mutiny fester.”
But Henry didn’t move a muscle, and Blue responded before Gansey found his voice again. “Or, you could stay,” she proposed.
Henry nodded immediately, as though that was what he’d been saying all along. “Right,” he agreed.
“You’re all staying the night,” Maura said, and Gansey looked at Ronan, anticipating a retaliatory act of defiance before he charged out of the house. At this point, he couldn’t even blame Ronan if he wanted to go get drunk or spend the night mapping town in the BMW.
But Ronan just looked back at him, and then at Noah, and pointedly said nothing.
Silence hung for another moment or two and Maura awaited any objections. When none came, she said, “Good. Blue, can you get them some spare clothes? You’re all filthy.”
Maura was right. Dirt and blood and black goo stained their clothes and would surely contaminate any furniture they dared go near. They took turns washing up, and before long, Blue returned with a hamper full of clothes and distributed them. They got t-shirts that were older than they were, modified with handmade embroidery of lightning bolts and feathers and rainbows and more, and hoodies that would’ve hung past Blue’s knees had she been the one wearing them, and shorts that must’ve been borrowed from someone with a larger frame.
“You’re all free to sleep wherever you want,” Maura said. “We’ll sort everything out in the morning.”
‘Everything’ was a lot to sort out in just one morning, but Gansey had no better plan, so he had no choice but to accept it.
Maura made her way to bed after holding Blue in an endless hug, and she shut off most of the lights when she went, leaving on only the odd, marbled chandelier over the table. The sharp shadows made his friends look even more exhausted, and he tried to remember the last time that they’d all actually slept. Most of them hadn’t gotten more than a few hours since Thursday—which was quite remarkable, considering that it was now Monday night. He thought this might be a record even for the most insomniac of them, but then he remembered that Noah hadn’t slept in seven years, and suddenly their few days without sleep seemed puny.
It was decided without discussion that they would all sleep in the living room. Blue gathered pillows and blankets and everyone else melted into place. Adam and Ronan dragged an armchair from the reading room to put Orphan Girl in. Ronan kicked his blanket to the side and laid right on the carpet, and Adam laid down next to him. Henry, too, valiantly accepted the floor so Blue and Gansey could share the ancient Lay-Z Boy. Noah was the uncontested winner of the lone couch, and he looked vaguely guilty about it, but also too weathered to insist someone else take it.
Gansey eased into the chair and Blue squeezed in next to him, halfway on his lap, head against his shoulder, arm linked with his. There would’ve been a time where this much closeness would’ve set his mind racing, but now, it calmed him. He set aside his practical concerns—Monmouth, the Pig, his family. Those were worries for tomorrow.
For now, he had this: Blue in his arms, his friends just a few feet away, his life, and his future.
His future. That was the only thought that remained after Blue had quieted in the rest, which made it seem louder by comparison.
Henry said, “Goodnight, everyone. May we never have a day this hellish ever again.”
Ronan scoffed in a way that said, Impossible. Adam’s pinched eyebrows seconded that.
“Yeah,” Blue agreed against Gansey’s shoulder, and Noah quietly said, “Goodnight, guys.”
With everyone in position, night invaded the house. One by one, eyelids dropped shut. As far as Gansey could tell, Blue fell asleep first, or maybe she was just pretending for his sake—he’d be lying if he said that her steady breathing wasn’t helping him keep his steady, too. Henry fell asleep pretty quickly as well, and he definitely wasn’t faking, because he was snoring a little. Adam didn’t sleep until he took Ronan’s hand, and Ronan fought sleep for longer than the rest of them—he was restless, throwing off encroaching dreams with each turn of his head. Eventually, though, even he slept.
Glendower was dead—his quest was gone—the future was empty and it’d left him behind.
That was terrifying, and it was inescapable in the dark. He tried to think of other things, but no matter where his mind went, he found a Glendower-shaped hole. His journey was over and his prophecy was fulfilled. His soul begged, If your purpose was not to wake Glendower, and if your purpose was not to die for your friends, what is it? What next? What now?
Under all the uncertainty was the advancing buzz of hornet wings and the feeling of his life leaving his body.
You died. You died. You died.
Blue’s level breathing was no longer coaching his, but taunting him as his own became more difficult to control. Each time she exhaled, her breath landed on his neck in a way just vague enough to remind of insect legs. The blanket she’d thrown over them was heavy with body heat. He was becoming increasingly aware that he was suffocating, but he wasn't sure what to do about it.
From where he sat, the only one he couldn’t see was Noah. Gansey hoped that he was asleep, that he wasn’t also laying there and choking on memories of his death. But a selfish part of him hoped that he wasn’t, that he’d kept some of his ghostly intuition and knew that Gansey needed him right now.
He remembered the night that he admitted to Noah that he didn’t know who he would be without his quest. He remembered Noah saying that that was exactly how he felt about the possibility being alive again. And here they were—him, questless; Noah, alive.
Time stretched and slipped, as it had a way of doing, and the night was eternal, so Gansey didn’t know how long he sat there, suspended in the space just before a panic attack. Nor did he know what time it was when Noah sat up, pawing at his face and hugging himself. In the dark, he was more ghostly than he’d been all day—just a shadow, a silhouette, smudgy and nonspecific.
He watched in silence as Noah stood and took a few rocky steps toward the stairs, and then toward the reading room, and then toward the backyard. But each time he made any progress toward one of these destinations, he pulled himself back and wandered in the direction of another. Over and over, he touched at his face. At first, Gansey thought he was wiping away tears, but as he wandered into the light of a dimmed oil burner, he realized his hands kept returning to the newly-healed spot on his cheek.
Gansey couldn’t count the amount of times that Noah’s cold hands had nudged him awake from memories-turned-dreams, offering the reprieve from the oppressive Virginia heat that his ten-year-old self had been seeking—an alternate ending to his nightmares, with soft touches instead of hornet stings, with a night spent together in Monmouth instead of a night spent reliving his death. When Noah had re-enacted his murder time and time again as a ghost, there was nothing Gansey could to do help him, but now, maybe he could.
As gently and as carefully as possible, Gansey untangled himself from Blue. Blessedly, she slept on, as did his friend as he stepped around them on the floor.
“Noah,” he said in the quietest voice he could, but Noah still jumped, spinning around to face him. “Where are you going?”
Noah gave a limp shrug, fingers still braced against his cheek. “I dunno,” he said, even more softly than Gansey, and Gansey believed him. Noah had no place to go, so he had defaulted to haunting—following old footsteps away from what scared him, only to find himself headed toward places that also scared him.
“You have to get some rest,” Gansey said. Even in the dim light, the bags under Noah’s eyes seemed to be weighing down his whole body.
Noah looked at him, and then his face crumpled. “I can’t sleep again,” he said, and then started to cry.
All at once, Gansey wanted to cry, too, but he wasn’t sure if he could be of any use to Noah if he gave in to that urge. “Come here,” he said instead, swallowing hard and holding out his hand. After visibly warring with himself for one moment and then another, Noah dropped his hand from his cheek and placed it in Gansey’s.
Warm skin against warm skin. Two unlikely hearts, beating in time.
Gansey guided Noah back to the couch and sat down, and Noah eased down next to him, clumsy and still sniffling as quietly as he could. In less than a whisper—they were close, and it was dark, and there was no need to speak any louder than that—Gansey suggested, “Lay down.” Noah did, resting his head on Gansey’s leg.
Moving slowly, so as not to startle him, he grazed his thumb over Noah’s cheek, where the smudge had always been. Now, there was nothing but smooth skin and tear tracks over solid bone. “You’re okay,” Gansey said, “You’re okay now.”
Noah shuddered and sniffled, leaning into Gansey’s hand. “I don’t feel okay,” he said, and Gansey felt the words more than he heard them.
He nodded in agreement, just once. “Coming back to life has a way of troubling you,” he said, “and nights tend to be cruel; dreams, even crueler.”
Noah’s eyes skirted toward Ronan, who was asleep with his forehead against Adam’s shoulder.
“If he can sleep, then so can we,” Gansey said, but he wasn’t sure he believed it. Ronan was a stronger man than him—a braver man.
“But I’m scared,” Noah said, and Gansey nodded to that, too. Neither of them were ever supposed to see this moment, and yet, here they were, facing a future they were never meant to have, facing versions of themselves they didn’t know how to be.
This was uncharted territory. To Gansey, that had always sounded like potential—like an adventure. Tonight, in the dark, it just sounded frightening.
“So am I,” he said, “I think, so is he. I think, so is everyone.”
Noah let out the softest sigh as he nodded into Gansey’s hand.
“But… Henry told me this, once: If you can’t be unafraid, be afraid and happy,” Gansey said, “And I can’t be unafraid right now, but… I think I can be happy anyway.”
“I’m happy,” Noah said, more a suggestion of words than words themselves, “that you’re alive.”
You died. You died. You died. He couldn’t quiet the thought. But hearing Noah say it gave him the strength to lean into it, allowing the truth to catch hold of him.
Yes, he thought, I did die. But I'm not dead.
“I am too,” Gansey said back, just as softly, knowing with all his heart that he meant it. “And I’m happy—I’m elated, Noah, I’m ecstatic that you’re alive.”
Noah swallowed hard and gave a silent, hiccupped breath.
“You can eat pizza with us now when we go to Nino’s. You can get some new clothes. You can see your family again—or, they can see you again, I suppose. You can get a new car, and you can go wherever you want. When we travel off the ley line, you can come. Henry and Blue—they were planning on going to Venezuela. I was invited, but I didn’t think I’d be around to take them up on the offer. Now I can, and you can come, too. You can meet new people and go new places and live, Noah. I’m so happy for you.”
Tears dribbled from Noah’s eyes again and he sucked in a breath. Just loud enough to be heard, he said, “I… I’m happy that I’m alive, too.”
Now that he’d said it, happiness struck Gansey like lightning. They were alive. Their futures were uncertain, and that was amazing, because they had futures. Uncertainty just meant they’d have to figure it out, and together—him and Noah and all of them, together, they would figure it out.
“I’m tired,” Noah said again, with an exhale that was almost a laugh.
What an understatement. “Me too,” Gansey said with a little laugh in return, “Let’s try to sleep. If it doesn’t work… I’ll be right here, and you’ll be right there.”
“Okay,” Noah agreed with the slightest smile. “Thanks, Gansey.”
“Thank you, Noah,” he said. “Goodnight.”
“Don’t let the bed bugs bite,” Noah murmured, finally letting his eyes fall shut.
It was morning when Noah woke up, but only barely. The stars were gone and the sky was growing lighter, casting long shadows where night still lingered. In the same slow way, Noah grasped at consciousness as sleep grasped back at him. For a moment, it felt beyond natural—the magnetic sinking of his eyelids, the weight in his bones that urged him to stay put and get more sleep. This was morning, and some lingering habitual part of his mind tried to puzzle out if it was a school day or the weekend. If it was a school day, he could afford to sleep for another few minutes. If it was a weekend, he was already excited. The sooner he got up, the sooner he could eat some breakfast and head to the skate park. Maybe he’d spend the afternoon with his sisters, or maybe he’d spend it adventuring—exploring the ley line, fiddling with magic bigger than himself.
Back then, that meant Whelk climbing into his passenger seat and spreading a map over the dash. But this morning, despite the age of this reflexive thought pattern, he was met with only memories of wedging himself into the backseat of the Pig.
It was this slight deviation that reminded him that this was not just any morning—that things were not the way they were. He opened his eyes to see Gansey sitting above him, now slumped into the arm of the couch, his glasses askew on his face as he slept. One of his hands still rested against Noah’s hair.
He thought of the way something had mended inside of him when Gansey had taken his hand. Even now, he felt it—he felt Gansey, like he felt everything when he was a ghost, and Gansey felt familiar. Like timelessness and ley line magic—like dreams, and potential, and a tangled past and present.
Inside it all, Noah felt a little bit of himself.
He didn’t understand it, and he didn’t care to. A long time ago, or just a few minutes ago, Noah had given his life to Gansey, and now they were both breathing thanks to the same kind of magic. Their souls were tied and knotted together, energetically and intrinsically, and Noah didn’t want it any other way.
He sat up slowly and carefully, so as not to wake his sleeping king, and all around him, the warm light of morning bathed the world yellow. If yellow was a feeling, he thought it’d be this: a tint on everything, sweet and thick like honey, secure like a night spent with his head in his friend’s lap, safe like a dreamless sleep.
Thinking of the feeling of yellow made him think of Blue, but she wasn’t in the chair where she’d been. In fact, no one was where they were when they’d settled in last night. Adam, Ronan, and Opal were gone without a trace. Henry was still asleep, but he had somehow gotten halfway under the coffee table.
Already, he felt uneasy. This was it—the first day of his life, the first of hundreds and thousands of days just like it. The certainty of it made it hard to breathe. But he reminded himself of what Gansey said, about being afraid and happy.
He was afraid, definitely. But as he looked at Gansey, and as settled his hand against his own chest to feel his beating heart, he definitely felt happy, too.
The front door flew open, startling Noah out of his moment of peace, but Gansey didn’t budge. Ronan came charging into the house with donuts and coffee in his arms and Opal on his heels. Although his bloodshot eyes and bruises looked even worse this morning, the smile he wore when he saw Noah almost made the rest of it unimportant—for just a second, he looked truly happy, too. “Hey, welcome back to the land of the living,” Ronan said, “Get it? ‘Cause you were sleeping like the dead.”
Noah smiled a little, mostly just because Ronan was smiling. “I think that’s rude,” he said, “because I was actually dead, like, yesterday.”
“Don’t say it like it makes you special,” Ronan said, raising a sharp eyebrow to indicate Gansey, who was still sleeping.
Before Noah could respond, Opal let out a battle cry and hopped up to try to reach the coffees that Ronan was carrying. Easily triple her height, Ronan just lifted them higher and said, “Yeah, like you’re getting any coffee, spaz. You don’t even get a donut. No sugar for you.”
Noah smiled a little more, because people used to say the same thing about him.
Opal bared her teeth and launched herself into the air again, getting a little more height but not nearly enough. Ronan easily tugged her beanie down over her eyes, and she gave another little shriek as she pulled it back into place.
“Her name is Opal,” Noah blurted, because he suddenly remembered why.
Ronan looked only mildly interested in this fact, but he looked to Opal for some confirmation of its truth nonetheless. She tipped her chin up high and squinted her eyes. “How do you know?”
He shrugged, because he didn’t know how he knew. He just knew it was true. Something small and bright—something throwing off light, sparking and sparkling under its surface, a thousand different colors. Opal had the same kind of iridescent impossibility that all of Ronan’s dream things did, and ‘Opal’ seemed like a fitting descriptor for her.
Opal continued to squint at him for one moment and then another, and then she said, “Okay.” She followed this with, “Kerah!” and tried to leap for the coffees again.
“Shut up, Opal, you’re gonna wake the old man,” Ronan said with a smile still lingering on his lips. “You coming, Noah?”
Noah nodded. He didn’t know where they were going, but he was sure it was somewhere good if he had coffee and donuts. He followed Ronan up the stairs and down the hall, into the room that had once been Persephone’s.
Adam sat on the edge of the bed—at some point in the night he must’ve snuck upstairs, because it looked like he’d slept here—and Blue sat on the floor, shifting through papers.
Ronan announced his presence by dropping the boxes to the floor and dropping the coffees with only slightly more care.
Blue scowled at him, but in a not-mean way, and Adam smiled as Opal came bounding up to his side.
“Noah says her name is Opal,” Ronan relayed, and Adam accepted this immediately. He gave Noah a little wave. His hands looked awful this morning, but he had a plastic bag of ice in his lap, presumably trying to reduce the swelling. Beside him, Blue popped to her feet.
“Can I-?” she asked, holding her arms out, but Noah didn’t wait for her to finish her question. He stepped into her hug, feeling the color yellow wash over him once more.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she said into his neck, arms locked tight around his back.
“Me too,” he said, but the world was spinning a little—even though the sweater, it felt like she was pressed right into his bones. Thankfully, she stepped away, allowing Noah to fix his breathing. He felt Adam’s careful eyes on him, so he cleared his throat and asked, “Can I have a coffee?”
“Can I have a coffee?” Opal mimicked with eerie accuracy.
“If you promise to never do that again,” Adam bargained.
“If you promise to never do that again,” she repeated perfectly, but Adam let her have a sip of his drink anyway. She visibly hated it.
Ronan laughed at her puckered face and passed Noah a cup. It was unbearably hot in his hands, so hot that his vision speckled and he almost dropped it all over the floor, and his heart fell as he realized that drinking it wouldn’t be an option yet. For now, he put it down and used it to dunk his donut in.
His dad used to let his sisters dunk their donuts in his coffee, just like this. His sisters were old enough to buy their own coffee, now, and he felt a little overwhelmed at the thought. They didn’t sit down and have breakfast with their parents anymore—Adele lived on her own, and Hannah lived in the dorms of her school, an Aglionby for girls somewhere in North Carolina. His mom and dad had breakfast alone.
He didn’t know how he was going to explain his aliveness to his family, but he knew he had to. Seeing them stand around his grave and knowing he couldn’t reach out to them had been one of the worst moments of his afterlife.
His heart wanted him to go home right now, this instant, as soon as possible. But the rest of him knew he couldn’t, yet. Not until he could hold a cup of coffee without feeling like his skin was going to burn off. Not until he could maintain a hug for more than a second. Not until he was someone they would recognize.
“Hey, Noah, we should go shopping,” Blue said around a mouthful of donut.
That was right. He had not a single item to his name. Probably, his parents had gotten rid of all his clothes, and he felt suddenly sad. He had so many concert tees that would’ve been vintage-cool by now. But if anyone could make him look vintage-cool without his old clothes, it’d be Blue. “I want jeans, like, shredded,” he said, “like you shred your legging-y things.”
Blue smiled wide. “I can definitely do that.”
“And…” He thought of what else he wanted, or what else he would’ve wanted, if the last seven years hadn’t taken almost everything from him. “And, I want to skate.”
“You can teach me,” Blue said, and Adam added, “Us. I don’t know how to skate either.”
“Losers,” Ronan said, “I’m taking Noah to the Barns and we’re gonna drive illegal go-karts downhill through mud at alarming speeds.”
“Do you have illegal go-karts? Or hills with mud?” Adam asked.
“I will, after I dream some.” The confidence in his tone lured a smile out of Adam, and Noah felt himself smile, too.
Behind him, the door creaked, and there was Gansey, looking rumpled but refreshed. “I know where I’m taking Noah,” he said.
“The history museum?” Blue guessed, her voice slathered in teasing affection.
Ronan said, “No. A seminar about the importance of ocean currents to ancient societies.”
“Or,” Adam said, “one of your mom’s Congress dinners.”
Noah thought these were all posed as jokes, but excitement bubbled up in him anyway. He couldn’t care less about history or ocean currents or Congress, but the prospect of doing any of those things was thrilling, because now he could do them, if he wanted. “Where?” he asked, balling his fist up under his chin.
“Home,” said Gansey, and his smile saturated the air around him, regal despite everything. “You can finally utilize your room at Monmouth. We’ll decorate it however you want.”
Noah smiled and let his eyes close. He imagined posters all over the bare walls, and patterned pillowcases on the bed, and CDs in piles on the floor. Outside of that, he imagined the rest of Monmouth, and how much more it would be now that he could interact with it all however he wanted. He imagined playing pool with Ronan late at night, and baking cookies in the Kitchen/Bathroom/Laundry Room, and drawing on the big windows with washable markers.
With his eyes shut, he imagined how much more he could be, now that he had his life again.
He found himself smiling wide when he opened his eyes. “Home,” he echoed, “I can’t wait.”
Chapter 3: the first week
Noah had always had a habit of getting ahead of himself. Warnings of caution were the soundtrack of his youth—even now, he could hear his mother: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, Noah. He’d never liked the phrase due to the implied dead baby chicks, and he wasn't wild about the idea of learning to manage his expectations, either. Noah had a surplus of hope in his heart, so spending extra here or there was never really risky. He’d rather take a chance at disappointment than leave hope unhoped.
Apparently, time and death hadn't weakened his optimism, but reality was harsher now than it had ever been before.
The world caught up with him as soon as he stepped outside for the first time. The sun was scorching even in the cool October air, and while it was nice to feel truly warm, it made him almost sick, hot on the inside like a fever. The backseat of the Camaro—previously one of his favorite places—now felt profoundly unsafe, with the engine rattling up into his bones, with every bump in the road threatening to launch him through the roof. Too many voices at once sent his head spinning. Unexpected touches startled him.
It was possible that he had jumped the gun on being excited to live his new life. He understood now why newborn babies spent all their time crying; everything was overwhelming.
Thankfully, Monmouth was a little better. With living eyes, he understood how this place was Gansey’s castle and Ronan’s nest. It was strange and lovely and full of life, just like they were. The main room wore evidence of everything that made Gansey who he was—his quest, his friends, his fears and his passions. And not unlike Ronan himself, Ronan’s room warned away intruders but overflowed impossibility nonetheless.
But Monmouth bore no mark of Noah. He wanted to belong there, too, but even his room wasn’t really his; it was just a room, with stale air and bare walls and a bed that had never been slept in. He had nothing to mark it as his own. He had nothing, full stop. Without things, he had only memories; he dealt exclusively in familiarity now, and he had none with this room.
During the day, his room was eerie, and he preferred not to spend time in it. The main floor of Monmouth was plenty inhabitable—he had a vantage over Henrietta (both real and cardboard), and the huge windows let in plenty of light to cast out shadows where fears could fester.
At night, though, his room was intolerable, and the rest of Monmouth turned sinister along with it. The darkness was especially daunting, and worse than the darkness was the quiet. While too much sound made him panic, silence was equally as bad, creating a terrifying, isolating impermanence. He couldn’t hear his friends anymore, and without their thoughts to keep him warm and their heartbeats to keep him grounded, it was like they ceased to exist when he closed his eyes. And when they ceased to exist, it was like he ceased to exist. His room became a coffin, and everything that made Monmouth lovely in the day made it ravenous at night. The high ceilings ate up oxygen and made breathing difficult. Under his feet, the unused bottom floor housed every kind of boogeyman.
Most nights, he ended up sleeping in Gansey’s bed. Gansey held his hand—an anchor in the dark—and gave Noah something real to return to when his dreams turned sour, as they inevitably did.
The dreams were maybe one of the worst parts. He used to dream the most beautiful things, but now, he dreamt only in fragmented of memories. Every night, he went to sleep with the resolve that he would dream of something nice. Every night, hope was foolhardy and he woke up with his hands on his face and tears in his eyes.
Even without his ghostly intuition, he knew Ronan was having a similar problem, so they rode out the dark together when sleep was unattainable. Through the night, they played with Chainsaw, and fiddled with dream toys, and drew pictures on disposal scraps of homework (which was to say, all homework). Ronan drank, and Noah wanted to but worried that a buzz would be too much for him to handle, so he abstained. They barely talked, because Noah knew Ronan didn't want to, but that was fine, because Noah didn't really want to talk either. Morning always came eventually, and only then was it safe to dream again—or, as safe as it ever was.
But day came with its own struggles. In the same way that his room didn’t feel like his own, neither did his body. His familiarity with it had faded years ago, and he had no clothes of his own with which to make it more recognizable. Gansey was closest to him in size, but Noah would rather wear nothing than polo shirts and chinos.
Clothes. Shoes. A toothbrush. Snacks. It was weird to need things after existing so long without needs at all, and he wasn’t exactly ready to go shopping.
So, until then, his friends shopped for him. Gansey handled groceries, Ronan handled toiletries, and Blue handled clothes. No thrift store was left unturned, and with Gansey’s credit card in hand, she assembled him the finest secondhand wardrobe. She devoted an afternoon to helping him customize it—putting holes in jeans, trimming huge shirts to fit more comfortably, and stitching little designs into sleeves and pockets. There was one denim jacket in particular that Blue had absolutely desecrated—it was bedazzled and covered in pins and patches and embroidery—and it was, easily, his favorite thing.
Noah felt infinitely more human with outfits of his own. Getting dressed in the morning was the best part of his day, even though he knew he wouldn’t be leaving Monmouth.
It was hard, having real life at the tips of his fingers but knowing it’d burn him if he touched it. Patience was never a virtue Noah possessed, but his time as a ghost had stripped him of anything even resembling it. Before, if he got restless, he could simply skip ahead. He didn’t have to exist in the time between if he didn’t want to.
But now, all he had was time between. The time between coming back to life and being ready to live. The time between who he was before and who he would be.
Usually, his friends made it bearable. An inconvenient but strictly-enforced new rule was enacted: Noah wasn’t to be left alone. As embarrassing as it was to need a babysitter, he appreciated it immensely. They kept him distracted, kept him occupied, kept him present.
But, in the wake of all that had happened, there was so much to do outside of Monmouth—outside of him. The days following his resurrection were a desperate scramble to correct what could be corrected. Everyone had school to make up. Ronan had school to drop out of. Adam and Blue had jobs to salvage. Gansey had his family’s approval to regain. Ronan had Opal and the Barns and Matthew and Declan and grief piled high on his shoulders. At any given moment, each of them had somewhere else to go and something else to do.
But Noah had nothing except them—except watching, just like before. And without his supernatural intuition and the foresight of living outside of time, watching was a lot less fulfilling. He couldn’t help Gansey with his family, or Blue with hers, or Ronan with the loss of his mother, or Adam with the loss of Cabeswater. When they had to leave, he couldn’t go with them. When they smiled at him and said they were okay, he couldn’t look behind the lie and figure out what to say to make them feel better. No one wanted to let him help—no one wanted to burden him, when he was having enough trouble keeping himself together.
With his world limited to Monmouth, as little more than a spectator, Noah felt more ghostly than ever.
It was painful but simple. His friends had families and responsibilities to return to; they had people to be and lives to live.
Noah did not.
However, the intersection of these events made Henry sure that the night ahead of him would be interesting. There was something about the rain that felt like potential. “Hey, yo, Junior!”
“Henry,” Gansey greeted with the kind of thinly-strung propriety that Henry saw right through. “Are you busy?”
“Not particularly.” Theoretically, he was doing French homework. In actuality, he was bedazzling a baseball hat. He had fallen in love with the bedazzler after watching Blue use it to enhance some of Noah’s clothes, but he wasn’t sure yet if it loved him back.
“Are you certain?”
“So you wouldn’t be bothered if I asked you to come over?”
“Not at all,” Henry said. The hat was beginning to look heavy with rhinestones, so he decided to let it breathe and stuck it atop his head. “Quite the opposite. Is there an occasion? Do I need cufflinks?”
“No cufflinks necessary. I am meant to spend the evening with my parents. Jane was meant to spend the evening with Noah, but her car broke down halfway to DC as she was toted along to pick up an aunt or cousin or unrelated strange woman from the airport. Adam has work until nine.”
“And Lynch?” Henry asked. “Wait, allow me to guess. Speeding. No. Setting fire to something.”
“Potentially. Either way, he’s not answering his phone.”
“Ah.” Apparently, there had been quite the falling out when Ronan discovered that Gansey had pawned Monmouth to Headmaster Child in exchange for Ronan’s diploma. Gansey had since reacquired the deed with the help of some of the other Ganseys, who, despite their intense disappointment in their son, saw the importance of making that unwise bargain disappear. Ronan, though, was not so quick to put it in the past.
“So you’ll come over?” Gansey asked.
“You’re a gift, Henry,” Gansey said, and Henry let himself smile at the ceiling.
“I’m on my way. I’ll be there in ten.” Thunder shook the window panes again and Henry watched for the lightning. It came only a moment later. “Perhaps fifteen, accounting for the end of the world occurring outside my window.”
“Smart,” Gansey said. “And—the cufflinks. Can you bring them, actually? I’ve misplaced mine.”
“No problem, Gansey Boy,” Henry said, rolling to his feet and stepping into the first pair of jeans beside his bed. “Cheng, over and out.”
Aside from the cufflinks, Henry wasn’t sure what was appropriate to bring for a playdate with Noah Czerny. He prided himself on being socially flexible—he had long ago learned the art of knowing just enough about everything to get along with anyone. But the spare details he had about Noah—his previous ghostliness and his general skittishness and his bottomless stomach and, yeah, that was just about it—gave him few clues to how he’d be spending his night.
He dumped his school supplies out of his backpack and filled it up with everything he could think to bring—an arsenal of activities. Whoever Noah was, Henry decided that by the end of the night, they would be friends. It was no toga party, but it would do.
His original estimate was correct; it took him only ten minutes to get to Monmouth, even accounting for the weather, and the factory looked even more beautiful and spooky than usual with the dramatic backdrop of lightning. He wasn’t sure he’d want to live in a place like this—he preferred his kitchen and his bathroom to be separate rooms—but he could certainly appreciate the aesthetic of it all.
Gansey greeted him with a weak smile and a fountain of words: instructions about when to call him, promises about when he’d be back, warnings that Ronan might show up at any time, elaborations on what to do if the power went out.
Henry listened, but mostly he just heard the way Gansey was breathing high in his chest. “Hey,” he said, producing the cufflinks from his pocket and pressing them into Gansey’s hand. The metal, warmed by body heat, broke through Gansey’s panicked haze. “I hear you, Third. We’re both big boys. We’ll be fine.”
Gansey nodded—he believed that, but didn’t seem relieved.
Henry took his cufflinks back but held onto Gansey’s hand, helping secure the cufflinks onto his sleeve. Gansey’s palm was damp with nerves, but Henry didn’t mind it. “And you’ll be fine, too. We both know the only thing that politicians prefer to drama is manners. No one is going to call you out about your disappearing act over caviar and clams, or lamb and lobster, or crème brûlée and soufflé. It’d be unseemly. Look what you’ve done—now I’m hungry.”
Gansey almost smiled. “My parents told everyone I was ill.”
“Gansey—ahem, Richard—you were literally on your deathbed. I think you can maintain that lie just fine.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Gansey said.
“I suppose the same,” Henry agreed, finishing his cufflinks and straightening out the shoulders of Gansey’s suit. “Go. Mingle. Schmooze. Smile until your dimples ache. Do what you must and then come home and be yourself again.”
Gansey took a deep breath and exhaled an “Alright.” He then turned to address Noah, who Henry hadn’t even previously noted was in the room with them. This was because Noah was buried deep into the nook of the couch and curled up tight with his hands around his knees. He seemed equally as unaware of Henry as Henry had been of him—he was preoccupied, knotting and unknotting the strings of an oversized Oasis hoodie, eyes fixed out on the storm. His jeans were more hole than fabric—clearly Blue’s beautiful handiwork—and to complete the look, he wore striped, fuzzy socks.
“Goodbye, Noah,” Gansey said, “I’ll be back before too late. You’re in good hands.”
“Good luck,” Noah said. With his chin perched on his knees, his head bounced like a puppet’s when he spoke.
“I’ll need it,” Gansey said, and after thanking Henry once more and clapping his hand on his shoulder, he left.
“And then there were two,” Henry said, and thunder crashed at just the right moment. He smiled, but Noah jumped and wrapped his arms tighter around himself. At that moment, Henry couldn’t imagine Noah as anything less than fully normal. Being afraid of inclement weather was such a profoundly human thing. “Not a fan of storms?”
Noah shook his head, shuddering a little. “Never.”
“So then just sitting there and watching it storm can’t possibly be a good way to spend your time,” Henry said.
“I have so much time,” Noah said, glancing out the window and then back toward Henry, “seems like all there is to do is waste it.”
“I agree wholeheartedly—time is, at least in part, made for wasting—but I think there are better ways to waste time than watching rain fall,” Henry said, shrugging off his backpack and dropping it gently onto Gansey’s mattress. “What’s your preferred method of time-wasting?”
Noah shrugged, somehow managing to look limp even though he was rolled up tightly on himself. “It’s been… a while.”
“Okay, that’s fair,” Henry said, sitting down next to his backpack. “When you had homework, and you didn’t want to do it, what did you do instead?”
“Ley line stuff with my friend,” Noah said.
“No, yeah, obviously—I mean, like, before.” What was a polite way to say ‘before your untimely demise?’ “Capital-B Before. Before Gansey. Before ghostly.”
“Ley line stuff with my friend,” Noah repeated.
“Oh.” It was strange to know that, as timeless as Gansey’s quest seemed, Noah’s involvement predated it. “Well, I know less about ley lines than everyone else combined and if you’ve been doing this for even longer than them, you’ve probably had your fill.”
“What else? Surely there was more to life than ley lines, even in the early 2000s.”
“Skating,” Noah said, softness in his tone, “with my friend.”
Noah shook his head. “Like, skateboarding.”
“Skateboarding,” Henry echoed, trying to dig up every piece of information he had in his head with regards to this topic. Sick Steve skateboarded, and he was also pretty sure that someone named Tony Hawk skateboarded, and that was all. “I don’t know about skateboarding. I don’t have a skateboard.”
Noah looked away, back out to the rain, and he flinched when lightning struck. “Me neither,” he said, rubbing at his eye in a way that made Henry certain that they’d be dealing with tears if he didn’t quickly reroute the conversation.
“We have no skateboards, and ley lines are so last week,” Henry said, “but the good news is—“
Thunder clapped directly overhead, and the lights flickered, and when they came back on, Noah’s eyes were welling up.
This boy needed a distraction. Badly.
“—the good news is that I brought approximately one thousand things for us to do.”
“One thousand?” Noah asked, swallowing a crackle in his voice.
“Approximately.” Henry upended his backpack and the contents spilled out all over Gansey’s bed. “We’ve got handheld video games of every generation, depending on whether you prefer to reminisce or catch up. We’ve got a deck of cards. We’ve got nail polish. We’ve got an iPad, stocked to the brim with Disney movies, old and new. We’ve got… a coupon for a free car wash? The sky has taken care of that for me, I think. And… we’ve got approximately nine hundred ninety-five other things.”
Noah didn’t respond, but he craned his neck a little bit to get a better look at the objects Henry had laid out. There was a curiosity in his tipped head that reminded Henry of a puppy hearing a new noise for the first time.
“I don’t bite unless you ask me to,” Henry said. “Come check it out.”
With a wary sort of excitement, Noah came over to investigate. He put on a good show of not knowing what he wanted to do first, kicking his fingers around all the games and looking at everything more closely, but Henry saw the way his eyes drifted toward the tablet. Eventually, he asked, “Can I?”
“Be my guest,” Henry said, shoving the rest of the items over to make room on the bed for them to sit side-by-side. There was a perfectly good couch just a few feet away, but Henry worried that he might lose Noah in the cushions. Also, spending time in Gansey’s bed wasn’t exactly an unpleasant idea.
“Wait,” Noah said. “Gansey doesn’t have internet.”
Henry laughed, just once. “Things have changed,” he said, “Everywhere has internet, now. 4G. LTE. Unlimited data.”
Noah bobbed his head a little and said “Cool,” despite the fact that he clearly had no idea what those words meant. However, when faced with the home screen of the iPad, his confusion grew too intense to wade through.
“What are you looking for?” Henry asked.
“Uh, Internet Explorer,” Noah said. “Does it still exist?”
“It does, but it’s retired, now, because it’s terrible,” Henry explained, tapping open Google Chrome. “This is just like Internet Explorer, except it actually works.”
Noah nodded, and with a determined set of his eyebrows, he began the process of hunt-and-pecking out the full URL to MySpace.
“Nobody uses MySpace anymore,” he warned, not wanting Noah to be disappointed when found out that none of his friends had posted in years.
Noah nodded once more, but that was it, and Henry let him continue. He thought maybe it was rude of him to be watching over Noah’s shoulder, but Noah needed his help navigating the technology. Also, he was curious.
The weather continued to tantrum, and the lights flicked once more. This time, Noah was too focused on inputting his credentials to worry about it. Eventually, he composed the username “B0yAtTheRockShow.”
Henry couldn’t help himself. “Boy at the rock show?”
“The song,” Noah said, looking up at him with hopeful eyes. “Do you know it? The Rock Show. Blink-182.”
Pop punk wasn’t Henry’s area of expertise, but he thought he recognized the name. He hummed the tune of what he thought it might've been, and Noah gave him a smile that told him he was right. “They’re my favorite band,” he explained as he hit ‘sign in.’
At first, Henry thought that Noah was very popular. He had hundreds of notifications and his profile was plastered in photos posted by friends. In some of them, he wore a loosened tie and an untucked Aglionby shirt—not the same kind of carefully-cultivated dishevelment that Ronan had perfected, but the kind that developed organically from a deficiency of fucks to give. In other pictures, he wore outfits similar to what he wore now—t-shirts and hoodies with band logos, beat up jeans paired with beat up sneakers. Some pictures showed him slouched in desks that hadn’t moved an inch since the photos had been taken. Others showed him skating, knees bent, attention forward, recognizable by the unique lankiness of his limbs. In some photos, he was smoking; in some, he was drinking; in a few, he was climbing something that shouldn’t be climbed or laying somewhere that he shouldn’t have been laying.
In all of them, he was surrounded by friends. In all of them, he was smiling.
But Henry’s brain finally caught up with his eyes and all at once, the pictures lost importance to the words they were paired with.
Come home loser we miss u.
this shit isnt funny czerny
I guess you can keep the Sum 41 tape I lent you.
romeo won best sk8r & that is bullshit. i cant believe u didnt show up 2 beat his ass. D-:
We hope you’re alright.
Blink is in Richmond next week. If ur not there, im gonna have to assume ur dead.
:-( call me back man im worried
And on and on it went. Formal acknowledgements from last names Henry recognized from Aglionby. Hopeful pleas to return home from kids with backwards hats and cigarettes. Callbacks to indecipherable inside jokes, recollections of favorite shenanigans. Epitaph after epitaph.
Noah was missed. Widely and loudly.
Beside him, Noah was silent as he scrolled, and then, after about fifteen seconds, he burst into tears, hands covering his face and tablet forgotten in his lap. Henry took it and swiped the window closed.
He couldn’t imagine the boy in the photos crying like Noah was right now. That Noah lived in a world of money and friends and music and skating and he didn’t know the first thing about sadness. He was the kind of naïve that Henry almost envied but mostly pitied—an easy, shallow kind of happiness. Clearly, Noah was not that person anymore—not the firecracker that Adele had described to the school on Raven Day. He was someone new, haunted by the ghost he had been with no idea how to move forward.
Thunder rolled and Noah sobbed and Henry wanted to reach out and put his hand on his back, but he knew touching was a touchy subject for Noah, so he didn’t. Instead, he opened up YouTube.
A familiar comfort, or a momentary distraction, or just something to drown out the threatening crackle of thunder. Generally, Henry wasn’t good with words, so he definitely didn’t know what to say to comfort Noah, but maybe his favorite band did.
He clicked the Blink-182 song after which Noah had named his online persona, and Noah hiccupped and held his breath. He peered at Henry through his fingers for a moment, wiping at his cheeks.
“Is this better or worse?” Henry asked.
Noah let his eyes sink shut as he listened to the music for one moment and then another. He let out the breath he’d been holding—a quick sob—and gave a weak little nod. “Better,” he mumbled. Henry passed him back the tablet so he could watch the video that accompanied the song.
Noah’s breath was still untidy, but his tears had slowed by the time the video had ended. He silently selected the next one on the list, and then took to turning the tablet over and over in his hands, eyebrows scrunched up.
“What are you looking for?” Henry asked.
“Where’s the speaker?”
Henry showed him the volume control and Noah clicked it louder and louder, until the tablet speakers started to crackle. Noah smiled, just a little.
A good sign. Henry asked, “What?” so that he could maybe help grow the smile into something sustainable.
“It sounds like the shitty speakers in my Mustang.”
Noah selected another song, and then another, keeping the volume up as high as it would go, drifting from Blink-182 to related bands. As his tears dried and his cheeks returned to a normal color, Noah offered Henry trivia about the bands and the videos, and Henry happily accepted it.
The first time Noah put on a song that Henry recognized, Henry sang along. Just quietly, at first, pretending to be absentminded as he folded up the car wash coupon into a paper plane. But his quiet singing was enough to embolden Noah to sing, too. The storm grew more intense, threatening to break through the music, but Henry refused to let it; he fished a speaker out of his backpack and plugged it in. Although it lost its Mustang quality, the sheer volume of the music made up for it. Henry sang louder to compensate—Noah mirrored him.
“Let’s do something,” Henry suggested in between songs, gesturing to all the crap he’d brought. The music was holding the sorrow at bay, but Henry thought they could do better than just that. He wanted to see who Noah was when he wasn’t so sad, and he got the feeling that Noah wanted to see the same.
Noah pondered over everything again and then chose nail polish. Henry himself only occasionally wore it—Aglionby wasn’t a fan of personal expression, especially when it threatened traditional gender roles—but, on vacations and long weekends, he found it fun. He had only a few shades, so he’d brought them all—a pastel blue, a classic black, and a glittery silver.
“What color do you want?” Henry half-shouted as the music returned.
“All of them?” Noah requested.
Henry smiled. “Diversity. I like it,” he said, grabbing the first color. Noah rested his hand on Gansey’s sheets and Henry carefully brushed paint onto his nails. Eventually, Noah picked up his hand and let Henry hold it, so that he could paint more neatly. Periodically, carefully, so as not to smudge his new manicure, Noah would click the volume louder on the speaker. The louder the music, the louder Noah felt comfortable singing, the more relaxed he became.
“We should commemorate this,” Henry decided, fishing out his phone and opening up Snapchat. Noah held up a peace sign to display his fresh manicure, but when Henry put on the dog filter, Noah got so excited that he forgot about showing off his nails.
Before long, Henry’s camera roll was full of selfies, most of them taken accidentally while Noah tried on all the filters. Since he seemed so amused by that, Henry showed him other apps—games, music, social media.
While Noah played with those, Henry took to fumbling in Monmouth’s mutant kitchen for something to drink. The contents of the kitchen made it even weirder than it usually was; he didn’t know who had done the shopping, but it was as though they had never shopped for their own food in their life. There were three different brands of macaroni and cheese, two different brands of the same kind of cereal, and four different kinds of peanut butter, but no bread. He opened the fridge and found nothing but beverages—a 2-liter bottle of Coca Cola and a 2-liter bottle of Pepsi.
A metaphorical lightbulb went off above Henry’s head and he slammed the fridge shut in his fit of genius. “Have you ever played Coke or Pepsi?” he shouted to Noah in the main room.
“How do you play a drink?” Noah shouted back. “Or… two drinks?”
Henry grinned and returned to Noah’s side with the bottle of Coke in one hand and the bottle of Pepsi in the other. “It’s a question game about your most trivial preferences.” He extended each beverage to Noah and asked in his best game show voice, “Coke? Or? Pepsi?”
Noah broke into a smile and grabbed the Pepsi, wrenching it open and taking a few long gulps right from the bottle. He said, “Pepsi,” and punctuated it with a belch that rivaled the thunder outside.
Laughter bubbled out of both of them. “Impressive,” Henry allowed, and then he plucked his phone from Noah’s hands. It took only a moment for the internet to deliver him the list of ‘this or that’ questions he was seeking. With a crack of his knuckles and another grin, Henry said, “Let’s get to know you, Mr. Czerny.”
Noah, still smiling, said, “Shoot.”
“Dogs or cats?”
“Talk or text?”
“Pop or rock?”
“Boys or girls?”
“Rain or shine?”
“Books or TV?”
“Summer or winter?”
“Salty or sweet?”
And on and on it went, Henry reading off things for Noah to choose from, and Noah loudly and proudly declaring his answers. He watched with a smile on his face as Noah slowly built a foundation for his sense of self out of a collection of likes and dislikes. It wasn’t a lot, but it was something, and that was more than he’d had before. Now, he saw glimpses of the Noah he’d seen on MySpace, in the way he leapt to his feet when he had an answer he felt strongly about, in the way he sometimes delayed his responses because the song had reached a good part and he wanted to sing along. He was someone new, now, but the spark inside him wasn't entirely extinguished.
And then the building shook and lightning flashed and the music stopped and the world went dark.
Henry had learned to control his fear many years ago, but being suddenly thrust into pitch blackness still made his throat a little tight. He knew the walls were not close—Monmouth was huge. But still, a part of his brain that he wasn’t entirely proud of made his heart beat harder.
“Noah?” he said into the silence.
“Henry?” Noah said back. “The power—“
“Yes,” Henry agreed, stuffing his hand in his pocket and freeing Robobee from where it had been resting. The tiny light on his tiny friend gave him something to see other than darkness, which made it easier to breathe. He leashed his fear and gave his eyes a moment to adjust.
After that moment, he was able to navigate to Noah, who was looking particularly terrified over by the pool table. Noah squinted at Robobee, and then at Henry, and let out a ragged breath. “Power or no power?” he asked, trying to be funny even though he looked very scared.
“You got me,” Henry said, “I’m afraid of the dark.”
“Me too,” Noah said, although it wasn’t necessary, because it was obvious.
“I have the tragic backstory to accompany the phobia, if you care to hear.”
“If you want to tell it,” Noah said.
“Perhaps when the light returns.”
“Good idea,” Noah agreed with a shaky exhale. Together, they watched Robobee fly around in the empty quiet. “Can I see him?” Noah asked, holding out his hand, and Henry nodded as Robobee landed there, casting light over his palm. With the lightest finger, Noah pet Robobee, like it was a small mammal instead of a mechanical bug. Then he asked, “Do you think fireflies are afraid of the dark?”
The question was startlingly innocent, and Henry couldn’t help but smile, partly because it was a question he himself never would’ve thought to ask, and partly because Noah thought Henry had some inside knowledge into what a firefly feared or didn’t. He took a moment to ponder it, ultimately deciding, “I don’t think fireflies even know the dark, since they make their own light.”
“I’d like to be a firefly,” Noah said, “or a Robobee, I guess.”
Henry felt his smile grow, and Robobee launched out of Noah’s hand and toward Henry’s backpack. “Well, my friend, today is your lucky day. I think I have just the thing.”
However, Monmouth was not how he expected it would be when he pulled up. For one, he expected the lights be on, as lights usually were in inhabited buildings, but it looked pitch-black inside. For another, he expected to find Blue’s bike (or the minivan, given the weather, which was finally starting to pass), and instead, he found Henry’s Fisker.
He wasn’t certain if he should worry, so he refrained from doing so until he had more information. But he also wasn't certain anymore that the timing was right for gift-giving, so he decided it was best to leave it in the car until he assessed the situation.
Nothing ever went the way he planned.
He pulled the key from the ignition of his poor wheezing car and gave himself a moment to be tired after school and work and more work. And when that moment ran out, he ducked his head against the lingering drizzle and headed inside. Only halfway up the stairs, he heard music, and it grew louder as he approached the front door. Truly, remarkably loud, filing his head through his good ear and vibrating uselessly in his deaf one. It wouldn’t have been weird if Ronan was home—he was the usual culprit of this sort of obnoxious, disorienting noise—but Adam knew he wasn’t.
He didn’t bother knocking, because there was no way anyone inside would hear him anyway.
It took his eyes a moment to find anyone in the vast blackness of the room. Noah and Henry were shapes illuminated only by the glowsticks that they wore around their necks. Henry’s silhouette danced on top of the pool table and used a pool cue like a mic stand, and Noah’s waved his glowsticks around like drumsticks, perched atop Gansey’s bed. Over the loudness of the music, Adam could only barely distinguish their voices, shrieking and shrilling along to Bohemian Rhapsody.
Neither of them had noticed him come in—they were too wrapped up in themselves and the song. Noah wore a smile like Adam had never seen on him before, a blissful half-moon of teeth and gums as he threw his head back to attempt impossible high notes, as he flung his limbs out with all the grace of cooked noodles. Noah was a hideous dancer, but he looked so free, so alive, that Adam couldn’t help but find it lovely.
Henry noticed him first. He took a great, stumbling leap off the pool table and shouted, “Hey! Parrish!”
“Hey,” Adam greeted, voice lost in all the sound. Out of the corner of his eye, Noah’s singing and dancing halted in favor of rubbing his neck and looking at the ceiling.
Something dampened in Adam, just a little. He didn’t want Noah to stop having fun just because he was here.
“Parrish, my friend, do you know this song? This classic? This masterpiece?” Henry asked, tapping at Adam’s shoulder. Adam was just glad there was enough glowstick light to read Henry’s lips, because he was speaking into his bad ear and through booming music.
He knew enough to identify it, but he didn’t know every word like they seemed to, so he gave a shrug.
“Good enough!” Henry said. He trotted in Noah’s direction, nudging at him and saying something that Adam couldn’t see, and then he returned with another glowstick necklace. “Do the honors,” Henry said, and Adam cracked it, watching as it came to life in his hand.
Henry took it back and asked, “May I?”
Adam was certain that he was about to embarrass himself, but when he thought Noah’s spastic, wonderful dancing, he figured it would be worth it.
He bowed his head and Henry donned him with the necklace. As soon as this was done, Henry spun on his heel and leapt onto Gansey’s bed to take Noah’s hand and dip him. The flourish of it very nearly sent them both slipping off the bed, but by the time they recovered and regained their balance, Noah was beaming and singing again.
Adam grabbed a spare glowstick, pulled energy from some hidden reservoir deep inside of him, and hopped up onto the bed with them. It was loud enough that they would never know if he got the lyrics wrong, so he did his best, speaking into the glowstick like a microphone and gesturing to the imaginary crowd, until Noah reached a hesitant hand toward him. On their tiny stage of a bed, Adam let Noah take his hand and hold it out to the side, and together, they waltzed around Henry, slipping on sheets and pillows and each other, crashing together and losing track of limbs.
His cheeks hurt when the song reached its end. He couldn’t remember the last time he had laughed like that. His ears rung with silence and his own heartbeat, and everyone was breathing like they’d run a marathon when they had actually just exhausted their lung capacity with high notes. Noah was the first to collapse down onto the bed, and Henry joined him, and Adam eased down after, until they all lay in a heap.
Noah tipped Adam’s head with light fingers so that his good ear was closer. “Hi, Adam,” he said simply.
“Hey, Noah,” he said back.
“Aren’t you working?”
“It’s 9. My shift ended.”
“Ronan’s not here. I don’t know where he is.”
Adam did. He was at the Barns, with his brothers. “I know.”
“Gansey, either. He’s at dinner with his parents.”
“Yeah,” Adam said. He knew that, too.
“Clearly, Parrish came to see yours truly,” Henry said, flinging an arm across them both.
“I didn’t even know you were here—Blue was supposed to be here.”
“Oh, so he came to see Blue,” Henry said with another sweeping gesture.
“No,” Adam said, “I came to see Noah.”
Noah smiled broadly at him again. “Really?”
Adam hadn’t gotten to spend much time with Noah since he’d come back to life. Ronan stayed with him during the days, and Gansey stayed with him in the evenings, and Blue stayed with him whenever the other two couldn’t. Adam was still trying to catch up on school and work from the days that he’d missed before and after Gansey’s death—he hardly had time to eat, let alone just hang out around Monmouth.
But, it was finally Friday night. Responsibilities could wait.
“Yeah, really,” Adam assured, pulling himself upright. “I didn’t mean to crash your party. I just wanted to see you—I got you something.”
He anticipated the complicated smile that the receiving end of his gifts usually gave him—a look that said ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have’ and meant it, because he didn’t have a cent to spare. But Noah didn’t look at him like that. He just smiled some more and asked again, “Really?”
“Yeah,” Adam said again, and Noah pulled himself up on Adam’s shoulder.
“What is it?” Noah asked.
“A surprise,” Adam said. It wasn’t initially meant to be a surprise, but there was something feather-light about the air that made him think it would be a good one.
Noah’s face lit up and he jumped to his feet.
“I can go get it. Or—can you come out to my car?” Adam asked. The gift was more suited for outdoors anyway, if Noah didn’t mind venturing out for it. “It’s not really raining anymore.”
Noah’s mouth twisted for a moment, and he gave the windows a complicated look, but eventually, he nodded.
“We’ll be right back,” Adam said to Henry, and Henry said, “But I miss you both already,” and Noah laughed again as Adam led him downstairs.
Moonlight snuck through gaps in the clouds, complemented by the stars that shone brightly in clear patches. With glowsticks still hanging around their necks, though, they shone brighter.
Behind him, Noah bounced on his feet, either excited for the surprise or cold from the post-storm chill or some combination of the two.
“Close your eyes,” Adam said, because that was the kind of silly thing that felt appropriate, and Noah did, still bouncing.
Adam popped the trunk and pulled out a skateboard. It wasn’t new, and the board itself was a little scuffed, but he had replaced the wheels with brand new ones, so hopefully Noah would find it satisfactory. Feeling himself smile at the excitement to come, he spun and extended it out toward Noah. “Ta-da.”
Noah opened his eyes, and then he froze, like someone pressed ‘pause.’ With impossible slowness, he sunk back down to his feet. He blinked hard, once, and then his hands came up to his face, protecting his cheek.
Something cold settled into Adam’s stomach. He’d made a mistake. “Noah?” he asked, and Noah flinched at hearing his name. “What—did I get the wrong kind?”
One of his hands stayed cradling the side of his face, but the other slid up to hide his eyes. He angled himself away, seeming to shrink in his hoodie. “Can you…” he said, only barely.
Immediately, Adam put the skateboard back in the car and shut the trunk, careful not to slam it. “I put it away,” he said, holding his hands out in front of him in surrender.
But it was too late. Noah was crying, or maybe just sobbing, or maybe gasping for breath. Whatever it was, it was horrible, and Adam had caused it. He felt his heart beat harder as he scrambled to figure out what he’d done—why the sight of the skateboard had provoked such a reaction. Had Noah not said he wanted to skate again? “What’s wrong?” he asked, although by the way Noah was deteriorating, the answer seemed to be Everything.
Noah either didn’t or couldn’t respond, because he was definitely crying now. There was something impressive about it, like he wasn’t strong enough to hold back his tears, like it didn’t even occur to him that holding back was option.
Adam waited, helpless, for Noah to indicate what was happening. He couldn’t help fix it if he didn’t know what he’d done. “Do you want to go back inside?” he asked—maybe Henry would know how to help? Maybe being outside was just too much for him?
But Noah shook his head, still fighting his breath.
Adam’s worry tightened in his chest, confusion and guilt snowballing with every passing second. He felt himself reach toward Cabeswater—it would help, it would give him some guidance, some magical clarity.
But his mind went no further than his body now, and he was alone. Inside, he felt spacious in a way that reminded him of losing his hearing—dizzied, crooked, teetering on the edge of a cliff and suddenly untethered.
He had nothing but his own intuition to guide him, and that didn’t take him very far. If he was someone else, maybe he would’ve touched Noah, tried to ground him or comfort him, but he didn’t want to accidentally make it worse. If he was someone else, maybe he would’ve tried to tell Noah that it was okay, whatever ‘it’ was, but he couldn’t make himself lie like that.
So he stood there, useless, watching Noah suffer, spinning through explanations in his mind and not getting any closer to knowing what he was supposed to do.
Until Noah’s gasped breaths turned into words. “Whelk,” he said.
Adam felt himself take a step closer to understanding, but it was accompanied by a horrible chill in his blood. This wasn’t just Noah being reminded of something he used to do with Whelk. This was—
”He… used…” Noah shook his head, burying his face in his hands again. “When… he…”
The realization hit Adam hard, pushing the air from his lungs. The skateboard immediately reframed itself—it wasn’t a skateboard, but a fist, or a beer bottle launched at his head. It was fear contained in an object.
This was the first time Noah had seen his murder weapon since he’d been killed with it.
”I’m so sorry,” Adam said. “I didn't know.” But he knew his apology would do nothing to quell Noah’s pain now that it had been dug up.
Noah nodded and hiccuped a forgiveness, but all at once, Adam was furious like he hadn’t been in a long time. How long would it take until Noah could go outside without fear? How long would it take until Noah could enjoy his once-favorite activity without thinking of Whelk's betrayal? How long would it take until Noah recovered all that Whelk had taken from him?
He hated Whelk, hated that he was hurting Noah even now. And, a little bit, he hated himself for not knowing how to help. He figured that he should know—he knew what it was like to be overtaken by the past, to have something seemingly innocuous push you back in time to the moments you wished you could forget. But Adam was practiced in anger and distance, and this was nothing like that. Noah felt so strongly, so sadly, and Adam didn’t even know where to begin untangling it.
So he waited, boiling, until Noah could breathe. And then he asked, “Can I help?”
Noah didn’t respond right away. He just held out a hand, and gently, firmly, Adam took it.
In another endless minute or two, Noah composed himself. He squeezed Adam’s hand before letting it go, needing it to mop up his face on his sleeves. Still sniffling, he leaned heavily against the side of Adam’s car, and for a moment, Adam worried that the pathetic vehicle would collapse under the weight of Noah’s sadness. Thankfully, it didn’t.
”I’m so sorry,” Adam said again, leaning next to him.
Noah shook his head. “It’s okay,” he said, his breath still trying to catch up with his voice.
“No,” Adam said, “It’s not.” He said it harder than he meant to, and for half a terrible second, he thought Noah was shying away from him.
He wasn’t, though. He was just wiping his face again and tipping his head back to look at the stars. “It is,” Noah repeated, sounding surer than he had a moment before.
“It’s not,” Adam repeated again, even though he told himself to drop it. “It’s not okay, Noah. What he did to you—it’s not okay.” The words waterfalled from his mouth, too honest to be dammed back, and just hearing himself made him angrier. “I’m glad he’s dead. He deserved worse than that.”
Tears pooled in Noah’s eyes again, catching moonlight, and Adam forced himself to cool his anger. He hated Whelk for what he had done to Noah, but that was only because Noah was his friend. He cared about Noah more than he hated the man who had hurt him, and right now, Noah’s feelings needed to take priority.
But was Noah really sad that Whelk was dead? He didn’t mean to ask, but he still found the words coming out of his mouth: “How do you not hate him?”
Noah sniffled again and pawed at his eyes. “He was my friend,” he said.
Adam prepared for another wave of anger at the absurdity of Noah’s response, but none came. Just more sadness. He wasn’t sure why he was still talking—Noah didn’t need to be interrogated or instigated right now—but he didn’t seem able to stop. “He wasn’t your friend, Noah. A friend wouldn’t have hurt you, not for anything.” Not even when you’re begging them to hit you so that you’ll stop hurting them. Not even when you’re trying to kill them.
Noah looked at him, and for a second, Adam thought that Noah could read his mind again. But then he just let out a long breath and said, with the slightest shrug, “I loved him.”
Love was such a big word to give to someone who had hurt him so badly. He took a moment to grapple with the concept, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t synthesize an understanding. “But- he didn’t love you.”
Noah gave a small shrug again and wiped his eyes once more. “It doesn’t matter.” He looked at Adam, seeking some indication that he understood. Adam shook his head, because he didn’t.
“I know he didn’t love me back, and… I don’t like that he—“ Noah touched his cheek and shifted his feet, and his voice was thinned to nothing when it returned, “—that he killed me.” He let out another rough breath. “But I loved him. Before that.”
Only then did Adam understand. Noah’s love wasn’t dependent on love in return—Noah’s love didn’t abide by conditions. He had decided to love Whelk, whether that feeling was reciprocated or not. Whelk’s betrayal in didn’t change that initial fact.
Every time Adam thought he was starting to understand love, there was something new and foreign to it. He found himself reflexively reaching toward Cabeswater again, only to be disappointed when he remembered there was nothing there.
”And… I’m not mad at him,” Noah said. This conversation was clearly wearing on him, especially after the panic attack—his hands twisted nervously at the strings on his hoodie, and he looked tired and deflated—but there was something almost stubborn in his eyes, so Adam let him continue. “If he didn’t… do what he did, I never would’ve known you guys. I’d probably be, like… 24, working at a french fry factory or something.” He gave Adam a small smile. “Being dead with you guys was better than being alive without you would’ve been.”
Adam thought of that alternate universe, where Noah hadn’t been killed.
Could Glendower have still saved Gansey without Noah dying on the ley line at the same time?
And even if Gansey had lived, Ronan probably wouldn’t have. Without Noah there to find him, he probably would’ve died on the night of his sort-of suicide attempt. The thought of losing Ronan, even in the past tense, immediately made him dizzy with grief. And without Ronan, where would he be right now? Still living with his parents?
And then there was Cabeswater—had Ronan not been there to dream it, had Whelk not used Noah to start waking the ley line, Cabeswater wouldn’t exist. Gansey and Blue would’ve walked past the treeline and found nothing special on that day in the raven field, and the search for Glendower would continue with no leads. And had Gansey still died by Blue’s kiss, there would’ve been nothing to save him.
Stranger than all of that, Adam would never have sacrificed himself.
In the same way that imagining his life without Ronan or Blue or Gansey or Noah was impossible, imagining his life without Cabeswater was impossible. He couldn’t picture who he’d be without it. It had given him so much.
And now it was gone.
“Are you okay?” Noah asked him, like his own cheeks weren’t still flushed from crying.
“I miss it,” Adam said. What was the use, lying to Noah? “Cabeswater, I mean. It… knew me.”
Noah looked at him and his red-rimmed eyes were too smart. No, not smart—kind. No, not kind—awake. Noah reached out and touched Adam’s arm for just a second, and it occurred to Adam that maybe Cabeswater wasn’t the only one who knew him.
Adam said, “It’s just hard, not being magic anymore.” If anyone would understand that, it would be Noah.
Sure enough, he gave a wide nod. “Lonely,” he said, and Adam felt the truth of it. “But,” Noah said, “I think you’re still magic.”
Adam shook his head. In the muggy post-storm air, bugs had started appearing—unseasonable, but not impossible—and he brushed one away from his bicep. “I don’t feel very magical these days.” Sometimes, when Adam woke up in the morning, his dreams would feel too real. Sometimes, when he shut his eyes, he’d feel a beat of energy under his feet. But he thought these experiences were more like the phantom sensations of a lost limb than any actual perception.
How desperately he wanted to be wrong.
“Cabeswater isn’t the only magic in the world,” Noah said, “and Magicians have lots of tricks.”
Adam smiled just a little, and Noah smiled wider. “Maybe,” he allowed. Noah had the kind of hope that made him want to be hopeful, too.
A comfortable silence settled between them and Adam let his eyes skate up toward the moon. A cloud had passed over it, but it was still visible, if just barely.
Adam was glad that he had come tonight.
Then a bug flew into his deaf ear, shattering the moment of peace. He hadn’t been able to hear the buzzing, so it was doubly startling, and he smacked hard at the side of his head.
“Oh!” Noah said, straightening up all of a sudden, “Do you want to learn sign language?”
The question was so unexpected that it took Adam a moment to process, and when he had, he wasn’t sure how to feel about it. His instinct was to be offended—unprompted discussion of his hearing loss always came with a very real feeling of being exposed. But from Noah, the question didn’t hurt; it took nothing from him. Slowly, Adam asked “Why?” Did he seem like he needed sign language?
“My baby sister, Hannah—” Noah said, and then he faltered for just a moment. In that moment, while Noah was probably remembering that Hannah was no longer a baby, Adam was realizing just how little he knew about Noah. “—Hannah, yeah, she was deaf, until she got cochlear implants when she was bigger? But before that, we all used sign language with her, so… I know a bunch!” Noah’s excitement checked itself, warping into something more like embarrassment, and he quickly rewound, “I mean, I know you can hear still and it’s only one ear, but, I just thought maybe you’d want to know how? Like, it could help maybe. And you like learning stuff, and—?“
Adam cut him off as gently as possible. “You’re right,” he said. Most of the time, one ear was enough to do the job. When it wasn’t, he was a decent lip-reader. But there were still times when only being able to hear on one side made decoding speech in a crowded room difficult, when knowing that his hearing was unreliable made him uneasy.
“I am?” Noah asked, sounding genuinely surprised. He really hadn’t planned to bring this up, which somehow made the offer even sweeter.
“Yeah. I think I’d like to learn some sign language.”
Noah smiled again. “Awesome,” he said, “I can teach all of us! So we can all talk that way!”
“Thanks,” Adam said, giving him a soft smile just as a little light passed by Noah’s head. For a second, he thought that it was another one of those phantom-Cabeswater moments, but no—it was a firefly. Adam pointed to it, and Noah’s smile grew wider. His newly repaired cheek accommodated his smile much better than his ghostly one had. It looked so much righter than any smile he’d seen on Noah before.
Adam said, “How do you sign ‘Let’s go back inside?’”
Noah showed him, and Adam mimicked until he got it right. “Thank you, Noah,” he said once again.
Noah nodded, and then his smile shrunk back down to something self-conscious. “Thank you,” he said back, “for the... I’m sorry I, uh… freaked out. I wasn’t expecting…”
Adam shook his head a little. “Don’t apologize,” he said. There was no need—Adam knew. “I can keep it until you’re ready.”
“Thanks,” Noah said again, smile growing back a little.
“You’re welcome,” Adam said. He signed ‘go inside’ again, and together, they did.
That was fine, though, since Henry had turned the lights back on. He reported that he had spoken with Gansey, who said that he was on his way home. Adam decided to stay and see him, and then once they were all together, no one wanted to leave. Blue showed up thirty minutes later, ready to regale them all with the tale of her car troubles—“How many psychics does it take to jumpstart a minivan?” Noah asked, and Blue laughed so hard that she snorted. Adam called Ronan to ask him to join them; Ronan not only picked up, but agreed to come.
Things were awkward between Ronan and Gansey, but all the real fighting had been done days ago. This was just embers, kept warm by all the other things Ronan was angry about.
With everyone together, Noah’s exhaustion didn’t stand a chance. It was like old times—his friends, lending him enough energy to keep going.
The difference was, now, that he could lend them energy back. Maybe helping would be a little tougher than it had been when time was more lenient, but that didn't mean he had nothing to offer. He didn't have a lot, but what he did, he was happy to share, and that had to count for something.
While Henry set up his iPad to play a movie called ‘High School Musical,’ Noah taught them some basics of American Sign Language. Ronan said he knew all the sign language he needed and proceeded to flip them all off, but even he paid attention as Noah taught them to spell their names. Then they settled in on the couch to watch what Henry insisted was a vital movie to Noah’s cultural capital. Blue held both his and Gansey’s hands, and Gansey’s ankle rested against Henry’s, which they both pretended not to notice. Adam’s knee was pressed against Ronan’s, and halfway through the movie, Ronan’s arm ended up around Adam’s shoulders.
Noah decided that living within the constraints of linear time wasn’t so bad on a Friday night—he’d missed Friday nights. He’d missed listening to music and singing along with friends. He’d missed breathing humid air and standing under moonlight. He’d missed having a body he could decorate however he wanted. He’d missed a lot about being alive, but above all else, he’d missed himself.
He was reminded again of his mother’s dreaded idioms—Time heals all wounds. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Noah knew he wouldn’t get it all back quickly or easily, but he knew now that he would get it back. He’d get himself back. Maybe not all the way—he didn’t know if he could be who he was before he’d died, and he wasn’t even sure that he wanted to be—but that didn’t mean he was limited to who he’d been while he was a ghost, either.
He could be old and new, both at once. He could be whatever he wanted.
It was late at night when everyone started to get tired. They watched three movies and made a significant dent in the Monmouth kitchen supply. They played another round of Coke or Pepsi, fist-bumping with those who shared their interests and heckling those who disagreed. They sat close, and shared smiles, and got intoxicated on friendship and exhaustion.
Henry fell asleep first, and then Blue, both of them leaning heavily on each other on the couch. Adam passed out on the floor, and Noah slid a pillow under his head. Gansey apologized again to Ronan, and Ronan just elbowed him and told him to shut up in a way that said it was forgiven, and then Gansey went to sleep, too.
Noah asked Ronan, “Can you dream me some light?”
Ronan said that light was his specialty, which Noah already knew.
Noah slept in his room that night, glowstick clasped in his fist, and he wasn’t afraid. By morning, it barely glowed, but that was okay, because he didn’t need it anymore—not since Ronan had gone above and beyond with his request. He woke up to a lava lamp that turned every color of the rainbow and didn’t get hot to touch, and glow-in-the-dark ceiling stars that drifted with the turn of the earth, and nightlights that twinkled like a more humane version of fireflies in a jar.
And, in the main room of Monmouth, there they were. All his friends, slowly waking up. This time, Gansey brought the coffee, and this time, Noah was able to drink it.
Adam had to leave first, but before he did, he asked Noah if he’d teach him more ASL if he came by later. Noah said he’d love to, and he meant it.
Blue left next, but she said she’d be back tomorrow with her sewing stuff, because she wanted to teach Noah to embroider. He said he couldn’t wait, although he was making peace with the fact that he’d have to.
Ronan had to go collect Opal from the Barns where she’d spent the night with Matthew, but Noah knew he’d be back, because he always was. “You can come,” Ronan offered, and Noah promised, “Soon.”
Henry bid Noah goodbye with a fist-bump and swore he’d return in the next few days to help him catch up on all the pop culture he’d missed. Noah smiled and said, “You know where to find me.”
That left just him and Gansey. He looked like Noah felt—refreshed, happy.
Noah cleared his throat.
“Yes?” Gansey asked, already smiling.
“Can I have a phone?” Noah asked. “Henry showed me Candy Crush. Do you know it? With the candies?” He pantomimed swiping, for increased clarity.
Gansey gave a laugh. “I know of it. Of course you can have a phone, Noah. Whatever you need.”
“Thanks,” Noah said with a smile, and Gansey assured it wasn’t a problem.
Candy Crush, as fun as it was, was a secondary interest. Mostly, he just wanted to be able to talk to his friends when they were elsewhere. It wasn’t the same as being with them, but it was something.
Noah thought, for now, that he was okay with just something.
Chapter 4: the first month
note: there are some mildly gory details in this chapter regarding niall and aurora's deaths. nothing any more graphic than canon, but still worth a mention, just in case!
Noah had been alive again for almost a month when Ronan showed up with a brilliant smile, a proposition, and the keys to the BMW swinging on his finger.
In that time, the world had gotten kinder.
Slowly but surely, everyone trudged back toward normalcy, and the evidence of the day of Gansey’s death and resurrection began to fade. It took weeks, but Adam’s knuckles were no longer bruised. Blue’s eye was less of a wound and more of a scar. Sometimes, when they woke up in the morning, their first thought wasn’t of all the horrible, magical things that had happened. Sometimes, they managed to conduct their lives like they weren’t recovering.
Noah did what he could to keep up with the progress. He challenged himself with small things, first: spending a few minutes laying in the grass next to Monmouth, letting ants crawl over his legs and the cool November wind brush across his cheeks; sitting in the passenger seat of the Pig while it ran, adjusting to the way the engine rattled up his spine, getting used to the feeling of the warm, cracked vinyl seats; taking hotter and hotter showers, until his skin turned pink and sensitive. Inch by inch, he began conquering the everyday facets of being alive.
Sometimes, he panicked. Human sensations were still overwhelming, and likely would be for the foreseeable future. But sometimes, he didn’t panic.
Either way, panic or not, it was a victory. He was either learning to live again or learning to cope with the fear of it, both equally important endeavors since the neither the fear nor the living seemed to be going anywhere any time soon.
Slowly, though, fear was joined by a comparably powerful emotion: boredom. Monmouth was big, but it was not a world in itself. When his friends weren’t there, it was just a building, empty except for the vestigial remnants of the quest for Glendower.
Acquiring a cellphone had helped to ease some of the monotony. Not only did it allow his friends to leave him alone now that they’d be reachable wherever they went, but it also provided hours of entertainment. At least, at first. As the days wore on, the novelty wore off, and his phone became little more than a distraction. Catching up on TV and playing Tetris didn't count as doing something. It was just sitting. His muscles ached toward movement. His mind ached toward something new. It was his heart, though, stopped him from pursuing it; his beating, rushing heart, reminding him of all the unfamiliar, overwhelming, potentially dangerous experiences that awaited him.
Blue, at least, gave him purpose. She came over whenever she had the time to spare and together, they decorated his room. First, a tree-branch mobile of string and paper, complete with a little felt bird and a little twig nest. Then, a papier-mâché globe with holes punched into it for a disco ball effect. Then, mismatched throw pillows made of spare swaths of fabric. Their friends contributed their talents, too—Ronan sketched Noah a few bright posters for bands he liked, and Gansey built him a cardboard model of Nino’s for his nightstand, and Adam lent his palm to help create a rainbow of painted handprints on his curtains.
Tasks in progress littered the available floor space—a half-sewn, half-stuffed bean bag chair, the skeleton of an Ikea bookshelf, some paper scraps that Blue swore she’d find a purpose for. Noah had always loved spending time at the Aglionby art studio—it was the only place on campus where making messes was allowed—and his room had the same atmosphere, now. Chaotic in a way that looked like creation, half-completed in a way that promised a future.
Nights weren’t nightmare free, and he didn’t know when they would be, but recovering from them was easier now that he could just open his eyes and see the signs of life around him. Instead of going to bother Gansey and Ronan to distract him, he could just flip on all his lights and set to work continuing whatever art project was nearby—usually, his jean jacket. It was already pretty packed with rhinestones and pins and patches, but there was always room for more, so he’d doodle designs to turn into buttons or embroider directly on the sleeves, letting his hands work, letting his anxiety fizzle and turn flat like soda left uncovered.
The thing that helped the most, though, was a gift from Ronan. Dream headphones—sleek, orange as the Pig, perfectly sized to his head, and noise-canceling. When he was feeling too quiet, inside or out, he could put on familiar music to fill the empty space. And when everything around him was too loud, he could put them on with no music playing to quiet the world completely. The weight of them around his neck kept him grounded, and the cord was useful for fidgeting.
Things were good. His phone, his headphones, his room—it all helped tremendously. But things could only satisfy him so much. They weren’t really a substitute for experiences.
But even as he grew more restless and more ready for the world outside Monmouth, he knew he couldn’t leave. It’d been seven years, but he hadn’t changed at all, and Henrietta hardly had either. He couldn’t risk being recognized before going home to his parents. Plenty of people knew him from before—even more people knew him from when he’d gone missing. Aglionby boys caused a fuss everywhere they went, but Noah had been plastered on TVs and newspapers in Henrietta and beyond.
Gansey said that he found it surprising that Noah’s parents had publicized their son’s disappearance like that. Had he actually run away, that would’ve looked terrible for the Czerny family.
“Most families care more about the wellbeing of their children than the wellbeing of their image,” Blue had said, rendering Gansey silent.
No, he couldn’t leave Monmouth unless his destination was home. And he wasn’t ready to go home, yet.
When the others asked why not, citing all the progress he had made, he said he still hadn’t figured out how to explain his aliveness.
What he didn’t say was the rest of it—the unshakable feeling that going home was going to hurt his family in a whole new way.
They would see him and be so excited to have him back—the “firecracker” boy that Adele had so proudly told Aglionby about. For seven years, that was the boy they mourned and the boy they missed. But he wasn’t that same boy anymore. He was trying to be okay with that, but what if they weren’t? What if him being different now forced them to mourn him all over again, except this time to his face? Even before his death, he wasn’t the best of sons—not ambitious or brilliant or especially talented. He was just Noah, an almost-delinquent with as many ideas for his future as stars in the sky and not a single committal bone in his body. He’d made up for his directionlessness in enthusiasm and gall, but death had dulled those things to a shadow of what they had been before, tinging him with reluctance and fear he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to fully shake.
Soon, he promised himself every morning, every night; every time someone said something that reminded him of his sisters, every time he felt the tug in his heart toward home; every moment of every day. As the holidays approached, the weight of what he’d need to do only grew heavier and more urgent. Soon, soon, soon.
Until then, baby steps.
Ronan didn’t do baby steps, though. Ronan didn’t even do normal-sized, grown-up steps. Ronan did leaps and bounds and freefalls from dangerous heights.
But he promised an experience. Something outside of Monmouth that sounded not only achievable, but also really fun. Something he could actually do without risking exposure.
“Trick-or-treat, motherfucker,” Ronan greeted, pushing Noah’s door open and drumming his knuckles against the footboard of his bed. “Or, should I say, trick-and-treat.”
As far as he knew, it was a tradition as old as time. Aglionby’s unique private school schedule always ensured that midterms straddled the last week of October and the first week of November, effectively preoccupying Aglionby students on and around actual Halloween. So, at some point over the last few decades, Aglionby students decided to reschedule Halloween to the night before Thanksgiving. Not only did it make Aglionby boys feel special—something they always capitalized on—but it also gave them the opportunity to let off steam before having to tighten their ties and return home to their families for the holidays. All throughout town, rich boys put on costumes (usually garish and inappropriate, always hiding their faces) and went ‘trick-and-treating,’ using the bullshit holiday as an excuse to harass strangers and cause property damage.
Maybe there was a time when Ronan would’ve liked all the chaos and casual destruction, equal parts intriguing and dangerous. But now, he would’ve been perfectly fine never again participating in anything related to Aglionby. Officially dropping out had been one of the best moments of his life to date. The night after working out the paperwork with Declan, he went to the Barns and burned his uniforms, his textbooks, his student ID, and every remaining scrap of Aglionby he could find. He watched black smoke join clouds in the sky, and the next morning, he woke up cleansed, like all that darkness had been burned away from his soul.
He would’ve much preferred spending the night before Thanksgiving getting wasted alone in his room, with his headphones turned up loud and his gratitude smothered deep beneath his anger at the world for what it’d taken from him. But Aglionby Halloween provided Noah with the opportunity to go out in disguise, just another faceless raven boy running amok and causing trouble. It would’ve been wrong not to at least offer to accompany him, especially since no one else was going to—Blue and Henry had plans to celebrate at Litchfield (and Ronan was kindly invited but declined to attend), Gansey was already in DC with his family for the holiday, and Adam was working late and otherwise entirely uninterested in trick-and-treating.
But, of course, participating in Aglionby Halloween was entirely dependent on Noah wanting to.
There was a long minute where Ronan thought he might have to go with his original plan to get smashed and spend the night alone, because Noah looked thoroughly freaked out at the idea of leaving. “What if it’s…” His fingers did a nervous little skitter in the air. “Too much? For me?”
“Then we can give up and come home,” Ronan said. Noah still looked unconvinced. “Listen, this is a one-time opportunity, man. You’re gonna regret it if you don’t try.”
Apparently, the fear of losing this chance trumped the fear of the night going badly, because Noah eventually agreed. As soon as he made up his mind and allowed himself to get excited, Ronan knew he’d made the right decision. Zeal reverberated off of him like a low bass beat and Ronan could feel it in his ribcage, poisoning him or detoxing him.
“I went trick-and-treating one year!” Noah said as he wrangled himself into appropriate clothing for the season. He wore a Good Charlotte t-shirt that had been cut too short, either accidentally or on purpose, and he completed the look with the Denim Jacket from Hell that he and Blue had been meticulously torturing for weeks now. “Dude, I got so much candy—it lasted me until Valentine’s Day!”
“Candy,” Ronan said. He shouldn’t have been surprised. On a night that most people used for vandalism and minor arson, Noah was actually trick-or-treating.
“Yes!” he said, bouncing up on his toes. “People were so relieved that I wasn’t there to egg their faces or whatever that they just gave me handfuls of it!” Noah shuffled down the stairs at lightspeed and practically skipped to the door of Ronan’s car. Tugging wildly on the handle, he declared “Shotgun!” as though he had any competition for the passenger seat.
Ronan clicked the keys and Noah was buckled in before Ronan even got his own door open.
His eyes skated across the console to Noah, a bundle of motion in the seat next to him. The last time they had sat like this, everything had been different—Noah had been different, the weakest Ronan had ever seen him, on the night his mom died. No, not died—killed. Guilt seized him, sharp and dark like the claws of a night horror, and he twisted the keys in the ignition with far more force than necessary.
As the engine roared to life, Noah jumped out of his skin.
“You good?” Ronan asked, and Noah gave a terse nod.
He didn’t look good. He had one hand white-knuckled around his seatbelt like it was trying to run away from him, and the other floated across a row of buttons on his jacket, his gaze focused unwaveringly forward as the rest of him grew more and more fidgety.
Ronan flicked on the stereo. Months ago, he’d made a mix specifically for driving around with Noah. They’d never gotten the opportunity to listen to it all the way through, due to Noah’s old habit of flickering in and out of existence, but familiar music seemed to be Noah’s go-to cure for anxiety, so hopefully this would help.
It did. Noah visibly relaxed when he heard the opening riff of Dirty Little Secret by the All-American Rejects.
“You good?” Ronan repeated.
Noah let out a chest full of air. “Yeah, I’m good,” he said, and Ronan believed him despite the unease still humming in his voice.
Ronan rolled the car out of the parking lot and eased up to the speed limit more slowly than ever before in his life. Noah coped by mumble-singing along to the music more and more loudly. By the time they reached the highway, he seemed more concerned with drumming his fingers to the beat on the dashboard than he was with the vehicle hurtling him down the road at 75 miles per hour.
After a few songs, Noah reached and turned down the volume enough for them to talk. “Where are we going?” he asked, breathless from singing or anxiety or excitement or all three.
“Take a guess, Sherlock,” Ronan said. It was only afternoon still—far too early, by Ronan’s standards, to start trick-and-treating. Night was the only appropriate time for mischief; it wasn’t the same unless the stars watched you do it.
Plus, they needed costumes.
“The moon,” Noah answered without even a beat of hesitation.
“We never did get that ramp working.” Ronan thought of spring, of that afternoon in the Monmouth parking lot. That seemed like years ago, now. How much things had changed.
“So, no moon?”
Ronan had learned to never say never, so instead he said, “Not tonight.” With all that he could do, why not the moon someday? Couldn’t he dream a rocketship, or a portal? Spacesuits even better than what NASA could make? If it worked in a dream, it worked in real life—he didn’t have to know the science.
“No moon…” Noah said, turning his play-pensive gaze out the window. “So, then... the Barns?”
The next best thing to the moon, and arguably even more removed from the rest of the world. “Ding ding ding,” Ronan confirmed.
“Finally!” Noah said, giving the dashboard a triumphant pat.
A few minutes later, they pulled onto the property, greeted by acres of open land and odd buildings. The afternoon sun sat low in the sky, pulling the shadows longer by the minute and washing everything warm and golden.
Noah was bouncing in his seat. “Is Opal here?” he asked. Despite the fact that Opal had no particular kindness for Noah, Noah had decided that he liked Opal very much. He’d even asked to be called ‘Uncle Noah,’ to which Ronan had said, “Absolutely not.”
“She’s at Blue’s house with the witch women,” Ronan explained. Aside from himself and Adam, Blue’s family were the only people Opal really liked, so she didn’t mind at all when Ronan set her up at 300 Fox Way for a sleepover tonight. Best she spent the night with some responsible adults while he and Noah misbehaved.
For a moment, Noah was saddened that Opal wouldn’t be joining them this evening, but the Barns quickly stole his attention again.
Ronan led Noah inside. “Living room. Stairs—bedrooms are up there. Bathroom. Kitchen.” He pointed around as he gave Noah an abbreviated tour of the house, but Noah was too preoccupied with ogling to listen. He spun around, once and then again, to take in all the details of the front room.
And then the investigation began. “Real or dream?” he asked of everything—things obviously dreamt, things obviously real. But Ronan didn’t know why Noah bothered asking, because his excitement wasn’t dependent on the answer. Everything received a gleeful smile and a few minutes of fiddling: the dream lilies that never died, the perfectly ordinary television remote, the coffee table book written entirely in frustration-dream gibberish, the couch purchased from City Furniture.
Through his eyes, even the most normal objects were captivating and tinged with magic. Ronan didn’t know if he’d ever seen Noah so happy—youthful and dynamic and obviously alive. He thought he could’ve watched Noah learn the Barns all night without growing bored.
But he had a very short tolerance for staying in the living room. No amount of cleaning had cured the place of its bloodstains, so Declan had to have the couch and carpet replaced.
It made no difference to Ronan. He still saw his mom’s blood streaked all over furniture, stuck all over his body. He’d brought so much of it back—he knew the way it felt on his skin, the slick squelch of it between his fingers, and the smell of it, high in his nose. He’d brought it back six other times since then. During his nights at Monmouth or his nights with Adam, he usually didn’t dare to sleep. If he did, he was sure to sleep light, and to dream small and with intention—gifts for Noah, mostly, to keep his mind from wandering. The only place he trusted himself to dream widely was here, now, only alone and only drunk and only in the empty bathtub of the upstairs bathroom, where he could cry and clean himself up with as little consequence as possible.
The worst part, he thought, was maybe the familiarity of it. Grief was grief was grief—the angle of tire iron resting in a bed of his father’s brain matter, or the sound of Gansey’s body being dragged into the grass on the side of the highway, or the image of his mother’s unmade corpse. The pain of it all bled into one indomitable beast, and even now, he felt it creeping up his throat.
He would be sick if he watched Noah track invisible blood across the floor one more time, so he asked Noah’s favorite question—“You hungry?”
Noah bobbed his head and zipped along to the kitchen, pausing and detouring repeatedly to play with more dream things. “Is the oven magic, too?” he asked, yanking it open and bending over to peer inside.
“Doubtful,” Ronan said, gesturing for Noah to help himself to the fridge. Noah, true to form, immediately reached for the block of cookie dough.
“Cookies for dinner!” Noah declared, holding the package above his head like a trophy.
Ronan laughed. “Sure, Sugar Coma, if that’s what you want.” Noah took the job of breaking the cookies apart, so Ronan took the job of prepping the pan.
“I guess you found the aluminum foil,” Noah said with a shit-eating smile.
Ronan’s heart grew hot like a coal in his chest. “Shut the fuck up.”
“I’m so happy for you guys,” Noah said, so sweetly that Ronan couldn’t even scoff and brush it off.
“Thanks,” Ronan said, sounding sarcastic despite the fact that he meant every word he said, “We’re doing our best not to fuck it up.”
“You won’t fuck it up,” he assured, popping a piece of raw cookie dough into his mouth and offering a hunk to Ronan too.
“You’re gonna get salmonella,” Ronan said as he ate the piece Noah handed him.
“You’re gonna get maaaarried,” Noah sang, bumping his elbow against Ronan’s, and Ronan rolled his eyes so hard that he thought he saw the inside of his skull.
The cookies made their way onto the pan and the pan made its way into the oven. With the task complete for now, Ronan asked, “Wanna see the rest of this place?”
The inside of the house was littered with magic, but the outside was alive with it. Dreams too big to be contained spilled out all over the property. A scatter of trees produced impossible, decadent fruits; Ronan’s friendly dream animals mingled with normal animals while his father’s sleeping ones slept on; barns lay tipped and unique all over the fields, each a slice from a different world. Dusk was still an hour or two off, but Ronan’s dreamt fireflies were already waking, dancing lights in dark purple shadows.
Even with the inescapable tragedy of all that had happened here, Ronan thought the Barns had grown even more miraculous since he’d been back. Maybe he’d just seen firsthand how deprived of beauty the rest of reality was, making the Barns more beautiful by comparison. Or maybe it was just that, each day, the place grew more his. His dreams living alongside his father’s and new memories nestled alongside old ones; days spent here with Opal, watching her learn and play the same way he used to; his brothers, now grown, fitting into place just like they did when they were young; nights spent here alone and nights spent here with Adam. Inheriting his parents’ kingdom had been a painful process, but nonetheless, he was happy to have it.
With the world at his feet, Noah clearly didn’t know where to start. But after a moment of deliberation, he took off running toward a big brown lump of a cow.
The cow in question snored softly, since that was all it could do. Noah didn’t mind. He crouched down and stroked its nose with a single finger, beaming. “Once,” he said, “it was Adele’s birthday—I think she was turning six or seven? So I was eight or nine. And she was going through this, like, farm animal phase, and it was the weirdest thing, because most girls wanted horses or whatever, right? Well, she wanted a pig. Like, not one of the cute little teacup pigs either, like, a big ugly potbelly pig. And my dad was like ‘No way in hell.’ But Adele really wanted a pig, man. She drew pictures of it, and spent all day thinking of names for it, and…”
As Noah recounted the tale of Adele’s love for the pig she didn’t even have, he unknowingly told another story. A story of a boy who loved his sisters and whose sisters loved him back. A story of a boy who had to blink away tears when he described how excited Adele had been when she saw the petting zoo her family had hired for her birthday. A story of a boy who missed his sisters so much that that one story led to another and led to another, because talking about them was as close as he had been to being with them in so long that he couldn’t bear to stop.
But Ronan couldn’t take it. While Noah thought of his sisters, he could think of nothing but Matthew, of the sound of his phone buzzing Declan’s ringtone as he struggled to breathe through black goo in his throat, of the way he had been more scared for Matthew than he had been for himself even as a demon was unraveling his soul from the inside out.
He wanted to put a hole in something, but there was nothing immediately available, so he clenched his fist and bit his cheek until he tasted iron. But every passing moment, it became harder to keep the words chained up behind his teeth. Cutting Noah off and not caring at all, he spat, “What the fuck are you waiting for, man?”
Noah looked surprised, and the hazy smile of reminiscence faded into a confused pout. “What?”
“What the fuck are you waiting for?” Ronan repeated, louder, madder. His hands itched. “When are you going to go home?”
Noah ducked his head, returning his gaze to the cow, who remained unfazed by the turn in the conversation. He gave the animal a calm scratch behind its ear. “I don’t know what to tell them,” Noah said, voice smaller than before. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Bullshit,” Ronan snapped. He knew a lie when he saw one.
Noah’s eyes fell further. “I’m not the same,” he said, “I’m not like I was.”
“You’re not the same—big fucking deal. No one is,” Ronan said, red hot anger blistering in his chest as the words crashed out of his mouth. “They’re not the same as they were before their brother—their son—was fucking murdered.”
Noah dropped his hand to his side, rubbing it on his jeans, eyes still low. He stood up, which only emphasized the ashamed roll of his shoulders. “I don’t want to disappoint them by coming back and being different,” he said, “It’s been seven years. What if they, like… moved on?”
“They didn’t,” Ronan said. Noah said nothing, and Ronan wanted to scream at his stupidity. “You don’t. You don’t just move on. They feel every single day of it.” Every single night. Every single morning, where the moment before waking tricked them into thinking, for just a second, that their brutal reality had been exchanged for a fairer one that death couldn’t touch. It will be a dream come true, he wanted to say. Instead, he said, “Don’t make them grieve for a minute longer. It’s fucking cruel.”
Noah looked at him and gave a solemn nod, and Ronan knew he’d been heard. His anger still simmered under his skin, but there was no more to say. He needed to slam something, so he turned and headed toward the closest barn. There, he kept the things most useful for both farming and dreaming. He shoved the big door open with a bang, and the sleeping, stinky mass of cattle inside remained undisturbed. Noah drifted in after him, taking the time to lean down and very quietly greet some of the cows.
Ronan slammed the door shut again. It was only mildly satisfying.
“Have you made any progress?” Noah asked, “With waking them?”
Ronan scoffed. “Are they still asleep?” As if he could dream productively these days. Anyway, the quest had lost its urgency now. He almost didn’t want to wake them. If it was truly possible, he wasn’t sure he could live with knowing that, had he tried harder, he might’ve been able to free his mom from Cabeswater before the demon came. “See for yourself,” he said, kicking his foot against a stack of crap piled up against the wall. Each attempt to wake the dream things was more nebulous than the last, each one stranger and more unfathomable. Some of them stirred the cattle, but most did nothing. Either way, Ronan considered each one equally a failure.
Noah peeked into a bucket with a blanket thrown over it, and then into a box, and then into a canvas sack. Each time, his face would transform into something confused and awestruck, and he’d sit back, blinking and overwhelmed.
“This is magic,” Noah said softly.
“No shit?” Ronan couldn’t bear to watch Noah fall in love with the useless magic he’d made. It reminded him again of Matthew, the reason he had to keep trying to liberate the dream things from their dreamers. He busied himself with gathering feed for the animals who were conscious to eat it, digging his hands into bags of hay, letting the familiar texture soothe him.
It was only a minute before Noah spoke again, and when he did, Ronan knew what he had found. His anger came rushing back, like it had never started to fade—like he’d been angry since the day he was born. “What is this?” Noah asked, voice like he had seen God.
Ronan spun and saw the shoebox Noah had cracked open. Through the gap, golden light poured out, so powerful that it left the whole barn bright in its wake, pulsing like the beat of a heart. He put his heel on top of the box, snapping it shut and cutting off the light.
The world felt darker than before, like the light had tugged some of the sun back in with it.
“It’s a rabbit in a hat,” Ronan said, feeling his own heart responding to that light—skipping, then quickening, then beating with newfound intention.
Noah didn’t think it was funny. If Ronan had been affected it by it, Noah must’ve been tenfold. “What is it?” he asked again, hand creeping back toward the box even though Ronan’s foot held it firmly shut.
“It’s old,” Ronan said, like it was simply a t-shirt he had outgrown.
“But what is it?” Noah asked, more determined than Ronan had ever seen him—nearly desperate.
“It’s life, okay?” Ronan said, letting himself sound annoyed, nudging the box back towards the others and spinning away so Noah couldn’t see him. “I was trying to dream something that would bring you back to life.”
Noah fell silent. He clearly hadn’t known that Ronan had ever tried to do that, which was odd, since Noah knew most things.
But then, in Ronan’s periphery, he watched Noah point to a crate a few feet away.
Ronan’s heart plummeted.
“There’s more of it in there,” Noah said, “I can feel it. I can tell.”
“It doesn’t work,” Ronan reiterated.
“I know,” Noah said, and then, “It’s not old, is it?”
Ronan wanted the truth to be different. No; Ronan wanted to lie. But it wouldn’t have done any good. “Not that one.”
“For…” Noah stalled, and Ronan braced himself for what was coming. He gripped onto the wooden beam above him, splinters biting into his palms. “For your mom?”
Guilt crashed over him in a tidal wave, and as it washed back, anger was all that was left. “And?” he said, turning to launch the word toward Noah. His memories of that day stuck and skipped in odd places—trauma was like that, Ronan knew—but he still remembered Gansey saying that they couldn’t undo it. He remembered agreeing, too. But that was a Ronan who was too busy seeing his mom torn to shreds to realize his role in it. That was a Ronan who hadn’t yet pled with Cabeswater for Gansey’s life and succeeded in convincing it to die for him, who hadn’t yet seen Noah alive for the first time. That Ronan was gone, and this Ronan remained—a dreamer, a king. His voice came hot and incredulous out of his mouth. “Was I supposed to not try to fix it?”
“She’s not broken, Ronan,” Noah said slowly, unaffected by Ronan’s tone, which just made him angrier. “She’s dead.”
“Really?” Ronan asked. “Yeah, I’m perfectly aware that she’s dead, Noah, but that doesn’t mean shit! You were dead, and so was Gansey, and Cabeswater—something I dreamt—was able to save you both!”
“That was different!” Noah protested. Somehow, he sounded concerned.
Ronan punched the beam above his head. “How?”
“I wasn’t ever really gone and Gansey hardly left!”
“So?” What difference did it make? He’d just have to dream bigger. First Matthew, then Cabeswater, then Opal. Why not the moon next, the stars, his mom?
“So—! So, you can’t bring her back!”
“I have to,” Ronan said, frustration layering on top of anger and setting the blaze bigger. For the first time ever, Noah didn’t understand in that unspoken way that he used to, and it hurt.
“What do you mean?” Still, although Ronan was most of the way to yelling, Noah spoke softly. His fingers picked and pecked at a patch on his jacket, anxious and insistent. “I can’t read your mind anymore, Ronan. I don’t know what you mean.”
“It’s my fault,” Ronan said, the words searing his tongue. Now that he’d said it, he wanted to scream it. He wanted the whole world to know so everyone could be as mad at him as he was at himself.
“What?” Noah asked, his voice nearly gone. It reminded Ronan of when he used to fade away, but there he sat, wide-eyed and corporeal.
“It’s my fault. If I had just left her here, asleep in the upstairs room, she never would’ve been in the demon’s path. She wouldn’t have been unmade when Cabeswater was attacked. She’d be alive. If I had just left her.” He’d promised Matthew that he’d get to have his mom again. And now, here they were—orphans, truly, for the first time. All because of Ronan’s impatience, his recklessness, his selfishness, his failure—
“You were trying to give her a life, Ronan,” he said.
Ronan laughed, a single, sharp ha. “What kind of life was a life in Cabeswater? Just walking around, sniffing goddamn roses all day?”
“What kind of life is a life spent asleep?” Noah countered, flinging an arm toward the sleeping cows. “You said it yourself—if you could wake the dreams, they’d be awake right now.”
Ronan turned and landed his fist hard against the wall. He kicked over a bag of feed. He swept an arm across a rack of tools and they crashed to the ground, one on top of the other.
The cows slept on.
He took apart the barn and his rage piece by piece until he could see clearly again, and then he collapsed, ass in the dirt, head in his scraped hands. “Fuck you,” he said to Noah, but the fire had burned all it could find, and now there was nothing left but smoke.
Noah scooted over to his side, shoulder-to-shoulder. “As someone who was dead,” he said slowly, “I think you can trust me when I say that your mom doesn’t want you to bring her back.”
“I miss her,” Ronan said, and he despised the crack in his voice, the insidious prickle of tears building in his throat.
“The best you can do for her, now,” Noah said, “is remember her.”
Ronan shook his head and raked a hand across his eyes. “I can’t stop.”
“Not like that,” Noah said. He touched his cheek with an absent, fluttering hand, and his other hand twisted endlessly at a pin on his collar. Only now did Ronan see the toll that this conversation and his meltdown had had on him.
He forced himself to say, “I’m sorry.”
Noah gave an easy, forgiving nod and let out a shaky breath as he continued, “You need to remember the parts you loved about her. The parts that made you happy. Not the one part that makes you sad.” Sad was such a small word for it, but Noah said it like it was a bigger word, and it felt incredibly true. “You should do something to... to, like, memorialize her.”
“You sound like Declan.” It wasn’t the insult it once would’ve been, but it definitely wasn’t a compliment.
“No, not like a memorial with suits and crying and stuff. Like… like…” All at once, Noah was revitalized with the strength of his own idea. He sat up straighter, his chin up, his eyes sparkling. “I know just the thing.”
He was on the right track when Noah reappeared, swinging around the corner and bumping unceremoniously into the countertop. “Ta-d—ouch!”
Noah had thrown a white bedsheet over himself.
“Really?” Ronan couldn’t help but be amused.
“It’s funny!” Noah said, stumbling toward Ronan with his arms extended out, less like a ghost and more like zombie who had gotten turned around in a Beth Bath & Beyond. “Boo!” he said, and crashed into a chair.
“Might want to cut some eye holes, Casper.”
“Good idea!” Noah said, like he never would’ve thought of it without Ronan’s help. He pulled the sheet off and took scissors to it. “Do you want to be a ghost, too?” Ronan shrugged, which meant yes, so Noah retrieved another sheet for him. In a matter of minutes, they had matching ghost costumes, complete with lopsided eyes and an assload of irony.
When Ronan had the design, he knew it immediately, and Noah called shotgun once again as they got back in the car.
Henrietta was not known for its talented tattoo artists, but the place where he’d gotten his first one done had been good enough. It was a hole in the wall, barely advertised from the street, but today it was marked by a parking lot full of Ranger Rovers and Jaguars. A group of Aglionby students in costumes congregated out front, smoking and drinking and seeking to permanently mark themselves with things they’d surely regret.
Ronan wasn’t worried about regretting this. As soon as Noah had suggested it, it felt right.
He’d gotten his first tattoo just weeks after his dad’s murder, after his mom had fallen into her sleep. It was a way to piss of Declan, a way to give purpose to fifteen hours of his life, a way to mark himself as changed. Inside, he was never going to be the same as he was before he found his father beaten to death—it only seemed right to indicate it on the outside, too. Shaving his head was good first step, but hair grew back; his heart wouldn’t.
He had dreamt up the inspiration for the design—a horrific tangle of bramble and beak, knotted and sharp, slicing open his hands as he grasped for something, anything to use in defense against the night horrors. It looked exactly how he felt at the time—hideous—and two days later, he had its likeness inked forever into place on his skin.
When his mom finally did get to see the tattoo, she thought it was lovely. He’d laughed at her, and she just patted his cheek and said, “It’s beautiful, just like everything about you.”
She didn’t care that the design had come from a nightmare of self-hatred, or that he’d gotten it done out of anger, or that it was meant to be a symbol of how much pain he had to carry after everything that had happened. She loved it for the same reason she loved Matthew so much, for the same reason she loved Cabeswater so much; she loved it because he made it.
A wad of cash convinced the first available tattoo artist that Ronan’s tattoo took priority over everyone else’s. It was the same artist who had done his first tattoo—a tough, middle-aged woman who had no trouble matching his snark, and she recognized him as “that kid who got fifteen hours of work done in one sitting.”
“It was technically two sittings,” Ronan said, “since you needed to take a break.”
“Sue me. My hand was going to fall off. This for you or Ghost Boy?” she asked, nodding to Noah’s amorphous sheet of a body.
“Me.” He handed over the design.
She squinted at it. “It’s pretty. Is this Latin or some shit?”
“Almost,” he said.
“Is it for your girlfriend? Because I’d suggest getting something easier to cover up-“
“I’m gay,” Ronan said, forcing his voice flat. He felt Noah’s proud eyes on him and deliberately did not meet them.
“This your boyfriend?” she asked, nodding to Noah again. Noah gave a giggle from under his sheet.
“My boyfriend’s taller. Last I checked, this was a tattoo shop, not a fucking police station. Am I being interrogated or can we do this?”
She held up her hands in mock surrender, passed him the paperwork, and went to get everything set up.
The design was traced, stenciled, and placed on the inside of his wrist in no time. Noah’s eyes, the only thing visible through his costume, glinted with something sharper than Ronan had ever seen on him before—excitement with an edge to it, almost envy but mostly thrill. He was eating up the environment like he ate up the cookies back at home, his eyes clinging to every Aglionby boy and every piece of permanent art.
Ronan felt affection well up inside of him. It was clear how much Noah ached to be one of the boys making bad decisions. Hopefully, someday soon, he could be.
They got set up in a curtained cubby, so Noah was free to shed his sheet. He heaped it in his arms and then slung himself across a chair, sitting backwards in it and perching his head on the back. “Doesn’t it hurt?” Noah asked, eyes narrowed at the tattoo gun the artist was prepping.
“’Course it hurts,” Ronan said. His pulse raced in the anticipation of it. Even just hearing the other tattoo guns in the shop had him feeling like a live wire.
“Ready?” the artist asked.
Ronan huffed and the needle bit into his skin. He cursed in an exhale. “I should be drunk for this. God damn.”
Noah smiled a little, that keen look in his eye fading into something softer as he spoke. “I always wanted a tattoo,” he said, “I was gonna get one when I turned 18.”
“You should,” Ronan said. “Now that you’re going to turn 18.”
“I dunno. You said it hurts.”
“No more than being murdered,” Ronan said. Noah sometimes seemed upset when people pointed out his previous deadness, but never when Ronan did. Ronan thought it was because everyone else was always teetering around the fact like it was something that made them uncomfortable, something they weren’t sure they should acknowledge. Ronan didn’t see the point—it was true, and it was part of Noah, and there was no use in pretending it wasn’t. He was tired of secrets, and surely Noah was, too.
“That’s true,” Noah agreed, earning himself an odd look from the tattoo artist. Thankfully, she decided that the strange conversation between the two Aglionboy boys wasn’t something she needed to be concerned with. “I don’t know what I’d get, though,” Noah mused, “I could never decide. Maybe, like, a really cool raven—like Chainsaw! But I didn’t know Chainsaw back then, but you know, like, a Raven Day raven. Or, I always thought it’d be fun to get a blank tic-tac-toe board, so you could play anywhere, anytime, as long as you had a pen. Or—“ Noah laughed at whatever was coming next, “–I was thinking I’d get a picture of a chair, on my knee. Because everyone always says my last name like ‘Zerny’ but it’s actually ‘Chur-knee’ which sounds just like ‘Chair-knee.’”
Ronan thought that those were all horrible ideas, but they were so uniquely Noah that he would never voice it. While he rattled on, each idea worse than the last, Ronan pondered better ideas. He found himself gravitating toward a Latin assignment from freshman year, back when he still cared about school. Everyone had been assigned historical family crests and creeds to research and translate, and although Ronan had long forgotten the surname associated with the one he’d been assigned, he could still recall the image: a swan, shot with an arrow but still standing; mortally wounded and irrevocably changed, but still fighting.
The phrase came back to him a moment later. “Transfixus sed non mortuus,” he said.
Noah’s eyes lit up. “What’s it mean?”
“Pierced through, but not dead.”
Noah’s slouch turned bolt-straight and he smiled wide and proud, like he has been the one to think of it. “Like me!”
“Like you,” Ronan agreed, feeling himself smile too.
“I love it!”
“Good,” Ronan said, “That’ll be my present to you. When is your birthday, anyway?”
“And what’s your favorite kind of booze?”
“Schnapps,” Noah said.
Ronan feigned gagging. “Please tell me that’s because you’ve never tried anything else.”
Noah shook his head, still smiling widely.
“Put your sheet back on, Chair-Knee, I can’t look at you right now.”
The pain from the tattoo-in-progress faded to an unpleasant background hum as he and Noah talked—about everything, about nothing—and before too long, the simple design was complete.
And it was perfect. It looked exactly like his sketch. According to the translation cube, Aurora translated to Aumora; Aumora, very nearly ‘amore.’ (He shouldn’t have been surprised that he and his father dreamed in a language where his mother’s name roughly translated to ‘love.’) The dream-language spelling of her name, written in simple script, led into the stem of a single thornless rose—a flat black outline of the flower he’d forever associate with her.
His mother had belonged in that rose glen. She’d been at home there, and she’d loved it there, and she’d loved them there. Maybe she’d still be alive right now if he hadn’t brought her to Cabeswater, but maybe she’d still be unconscious in the upstairs room of the Barns, and maybe that’s where she would’ve stayed forever.
Live in a beautiful place and see her sons again for a little while, or sleep indefinitely. It was a risk she would’ve taken, had she been presented the choice.
She would’ve liked this tattoo, Ronan was sure.
It was dark by the time they were done in the tattoo shop. Sitting back down in the BMW, wrist wrapped tightly in clear plastic, he knew it was finally time to get into trouble. “Wanna go shopping?” he asked Noah.
Noah cheered in response and then turned up the radio.
The Dollar City didn’t stand a chance. They piled the shopping cart high with shit: a makeup kit, a kite, a portable squirt-bottle fan, a pack of sidewalk chalk, a poorly-sewn stuffed bear, a cowboy hat, a book about sharks, lotion for Ronan’s new tattoo, cans of silly string in every color, a sticker book, a school folder with a picture of a puppy on it; things they liked, things they hated, things they did not need and would never look at again after tonight.
Then, Ronan took them to Aglionby. It was late enough that most of the trick-and-treaters had already done their damage here and moved on to bigger targets—toilet paper was plastered all over the peaked roofs of the dorms, the front office had been sufficiently egged, and it looked like a small fire had been started in front of the Borden House, leaving a big black stain on the pavement but causing no severe damage.
They both put on their sheets, but only because it added to the fun. Ronan didn’t care if he was recognized. What were they going to do? Expel him?
Running across the property late at night felt thrilling. Freeing. This was what flying would feel like, he thought. Aglionby couldn’t touch him now.
Very quietly, voice giddy on rulebreaking, Noah said, “Now I feel like a ghost,” and darted into the shadows.
Ronan laughed, daring someone to hear him, and followed in Noah’s footsteps.
First, Ronan stopped by Headmaster Child’s office to coat the door in silly string. Spray paint would’ve been preferable, but they didn’t have any at the dollar store, so this would have to do. By the time he finished that task, Noah had picked his canvas—the huge brick wall outside the art studio.
Noah dragged a hunk of sidewalk chalk across the uneven brick in one big, clean line. He let out another trill of laughter, as though he didn’t expect it to work and was amazed to find that it did. Ronan, letting himself smile wide under his sheet, joined him.
Like the strike of a match, each scrape of chalk against brick left Ronan warmer on the inside. Noah drew a star. Ronan drew a huge middle finger. Noah drew the Blink-182 smilie face. Ronan wrote ‘SCPHINTER’ as big as he could. Noah wrote, even bigger, so big that he had to leap to reach the tops of the letters, ‘I AM HERE.’
“I am here!” Noah repeated to Ronan, sounding absolutely blissed.
Ronan laughed out a supportive “Hell yeah you are!”
Then a beam of light swept over their work and a deep voice yelled, “Hey!”
They exchanged one wild look and then took off running. And they kept running, long after they had any reason to think they were being pursued, far past the border of Aglionby property. Ronan, midstride, whipped out his canister of silly string and sent an arc flying toward Noah. It landed, hyper-visible against his white costume, and Noah didn’t hesitate to retaliate with silly string of his own. On it went, until they were covered in multicolored goo, out of ammo and out of breath, stumbling back toward the car with grins on their obscured faces.
“Where to next?” Ronan asked, pulling off his sheet so he could drive. Noah left his on and didn’t answer. He just told Ronan the directions; twenty minutes in the opposite direction of the Barns. This suburb, too, had clearly seen its fair share of trick-and-treating—Ronan spotted a stop sign covered in shiny spray paint and a group of kids in costume, waving sparklers.
Noah’s typical half-singing half-chatter quieted as they drove, until he indicated that Ronan should stop. Ronan pulled off to the side of the road, parking in a place that was definitely not a parking spot, but Noah was out of the car before he even had the chance to kill the ignition.
Large houses with long circular driveways lined both sides of the street, each one unique, comfortably spaced, and lit by distant lampposts. It was too wealthy to call a neighborhood, but it was certainly a community.
Noah didn’t hesitate to dart up a nearby driveway, hiking up his sheet so he didn’t stumble on it as he hustled toward the door. Ronan only barely kept up. Noah smacked the doorbell and then immediately turntailed and sprinted toward the side of the house as a chorus of dogs began barking.
“You dragged me all the way out here to ding-dong-ditch some rich guy?” Ronan half-whispered as he hurried along in Noah’s footsteps.
“Mr. Douglas was always a dick,” Noah explained, sounding as breathless as he had at Aglionby, “but he had six dogs that I used to watch for him when he’d go out of town on business trips or whatever the fuck, and I, just—“ His pace got even quicker as the side yard came into view, where no less than six dogs were barking at them as they approached. Noah stumbled to ground and said, “See!” as he reached through the fence to pet them.
“Can’t believe this shit,” Ronan mumbled, even though he absolutely could, and he squatted to pet the dogs that Noah didn’t have enough hands for. Noah greeted some of them by name and introduced himself to others, using the same voice that most people reserved just for babies. Mr. Douglas shouted threats out his front door, but they were well out of view.
“You didn’t bring us here just to pet dogs,” Ronan said.
“Maybe I did!”
If anyone would’ve made him drive twenty minutes just to pet dogs, it would’ve been Noah, but Ronan knew it was more than that. Noah did, too, so he said soft goodbyes to each animal and then headed back toward the street.
They rang more doorbells of more mansions, but from then on, they actually stayed to see the door answered. Each time, he elbowed Ronan into saying his line—“Trick or treat?”
“I don’t understand why I have to say ‘trick or treat,’” Ronan grumbled, holding his sheet up in front of him to form a pouch in which to carry their candy loot. “And it’s supposed to be ‘trick and treat.’”
“People give us more candy if we seem nice and don’t immediately threaten to prank them,” Noah reasoned, “and they might recognize my voice!”
“Then disguise it,” Ronan said, “Put on an accent or something.”
Noah laughed. In his best approximation of an Irish accent, which was also the worst approximation of an Irish accent that Ronan had ever heard, Noah said, “Trick-or-treat, or, trick-and-treat, or have you seen my pot of gold?”
“Fuck you,” Ronan said, and Noah laughed again, bumping him with his shoulder as they walked.
They went up driveway after driveway, Noah staying silent whenever the doors were open and Ronan reluctantly acquiring candy from wary-looking adults. Between houses, Noah rambled out stories associated with each one. One home belonged to the family of the first girl Noah ever kissed. One belonged to his first grade teacher. One had been empty for as long as he could remember—supposedly, it had been haunted—but now housed a perfectly nice family with small children. One house belonged to the family of Noah’s first boyfriend. And on and on it went, a montage of snippets of Noah’s history, until they came to the foot of a driveway and Noah stalled like the Pig.
Ronan waited and waited, and Noah didn’t budge. “You ready?” he asked after a long moment of silence, and Noah nodded but didn't move a muscle. Behind his sheet, his eyes glistened, eyelashes fluttering to disguise their dampness.
“You ready?” he asked once more, and Noah nodded again, so Ronan put his hand on his shoulder and guided him up the pavers.
Instead of ringing the doorbell, Noah gave a light, playful knock, and then immediately stepped back so he was half-hidden behind Ronan.
Then Noah’s mom opened the door.
His burial was one of those crystal-clear memories, and he’d worked hard to erase the image of his mother’s funeral face from his mind. Carefully constructed, pristine and set. It was a costume, no different than the sheet he wore, and it hurt like hell to see her put it on because of him.
For weeks, he’d worried that that was how she looked all the time, now. That he died and she’d hardened and that it was his fault. But when she opened the door, he was relieved to find that she looked like the mom he knew. Older, now, grey staining the roots of her hair, age pulling at her eyes and lips, but soft in a way that the woman at the funeral hadn’t let herself be.
Seeing her but not being seen by her was infinitely more difficult than Noah had imagined it would be. She glanced at Ronan and then him, no more than a second-long look, and he ached toward her line of sight, desperate to be recognized. He was so relieved, all at once, that he hadn’t been able to visit her and the rest of his family while he was a ghost—it would’ve been even more painful than this.
Noah swore that Ronan was standing taller than he was before as he deadpanned, “Trick or treat.”
Noah knew he shouldn’t talk, but he couldn’t help it. Near-silently, he tacked on, “Please.”
She looked at them and puffed air out of her cheeks. “No blowhorn? No fake blood or raw egg?” While she spoke, she reached behind the door and retrieved candy out of a bowl sitting on a table that hadn’t moved an inch since Noah had lived there. The entire interior of the house looked unchanged, really, and he could smell the familiar scent of home—a scent he hadn’t noticed until now, like vanilla candles and wood floor cleaner and growing up.
He wanted, more than anything, to step inside. He wanted to pop up on his toes to tap his fingers against the arched doorway to the kitchen, like he always tried to as a child. He wanted to race down the long hallway to his room and then tumble right into his bed, like he did each day after school. He wanted to curl up in his favorite spot on the couch and watch sports he didn’t care about with his father. He wanted to hug his mom tight and bury his face in her neck and cry and cry and cry.
“No, ma’am,” Ronan said, taking Noah’s ‘please’ as a cue for politeness.
“You’re better than the rest of those boys,” Noah’s mom said. It was hardly a compliment. She had never liked Noah’s Aglionby classmates—she’d always preferred his Mountain View friends.
Ronan scoffed and assured her, “Barely.”
She extended treats to each of them. Skittles, Noah’s favorite. Noah reached to accept it with quaking fingers, and he saw the moment that his mom saw his nail polish glinting in the light from the open door. Not recognition, but unmistakable grief—recalling her son, another Aglionby boy who painted his nails.
He thought of the way she hadn’t cried at his funeral, and then the way that she had after Blue passed along his apology about the schnapps. And then he thought he might cry right now, but he swallowed hard and forced himself not to.
“Your mamas raised you right,” his mom said, sounding tired—her Polish accent slipped just a little.
“They did,” Ronan said before Noah could.
“You boys have a safe night,” she said, and Noah couldn’t breathe, like someone had wrapped a coil around him and pulled it tight. As she shut the door, he watched himself reach out to stop it.
But Ronan caught his hand before it could grab the door, and with a click, it shut. “Not like this,” he said, dropping Noah’s hand and turning him away from the house by his shoulder. “Like some Scooby Doo villain, pulling off your mask and shouting, ‘Surprise, I’m your long-dead son.’”
Noah knew Ronan was right. But as they walked away from the house, he felt like he’d left his heart on the doorstep. Every additional inch between him and his mother left him wanting more and more to turn around and go back, to yank the door open and throw himself into her arms. “Is there a better way to do it?” Noah asked. “Is there any way to tell them that would make it make sense?”
Ronan snorted. “You’re asking the wrong guy. I grew up on Catholicism and magic. Resurrection is standard stuff.”
Noah nodded. They’d been entrenched in the impossible for so long now. He couldn’t imagine the world without magic—couldn’t imagine what it was like to not believe in it.
“The specifics aren’t going to matter, Noah,” Ronan said as they looped back toward the car. “They’re going to be so happy that you’re alive that you could tell them anything. Say you got abducted by goddamn aliens if you want. They’ll have no choice but to accept it.”
Noah nodded once more. He knew what he needed to do—everything else would figure itself out.
Tomorrow. He’d go home tomorrow.
“I did always like aliens,” Noah said, clearing his throat to push away the tears that stayed stubbornly in his eyes. “Do you think they exist? Aliens?”
Ronan laughed, pulling open the door to the BMW and slinging himself inside. “Beats me. Guess we’ll have to actually go to the moon one day and see.”
Noah let himself smile and shrugged off his sheet as he settled into the passenger seat. “Imagine Blue’s hair in zero-gravity.”
More laughter. They drove, and the cab of the car filled with music and inconsequential conversation. The murder squash song came on four times and each time, they sang it louder. Ronan took them back to the Barns, and Noah asked to do donuts in an open field in the BMW, and Ronan let him. They drank, and ate cookies, and played with all their new dollar store crap, and Ronan took Noah to every secret place on the property—up on the roof, into the back rooms of the barns, and then eventually to his own room.
It wasn’t too different from Ronan’s room at Monmouth, except for the fact that it was brighter. It had the same feel of life that Noah’s own room was slowly developing, and Noah liked it very much.
They talked until the night was at its darkest, and then they fell asleep on Ronan’s bed.
Outside, stars and fireflies twinkled against the darkness. Inside, Noah dreamt of home.
Tomorrow, he thought to himself, all throughout the night and into the last moments before he fell asleep. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.
Chapter 5: thanksgiving
Noah had seen Adele cry plenty of times before. Dealing with tears was an inescapable part of being a big brother, and over the years, he’d witnessed all kinds: scraped-knee tears, temper tantrum tears, heartbreak tears.
Back then, he’d been able to help. Get her a band-aid (she liked the ones with cartoons on them, even as she got older), or goad her into smiling (no Czerny had ever outgrown a good knock-knock joke), or buy her some of her favorite snacks (peanut butter cups), or put on one of her favorite movies (Harry Potter).
At his funeral, there’d been nothing he could do. His uselessness cut deep, doubly so since she was crying for him. He had looked at her and thought, I’m nothing but a wound now.
Sitting across from Adele at his kitchen table and watching her cry into her hands, that thought trickled toward him again.
She looked old. She looked young. She looked at him like he was a sad thing, like he was a dead thing.
This wasn’t how they’d planned for it to go. This wasn’t how he hoped it would go. His heart sunk as he realized that they’d have to do it all over again when the rest of his family got home from the grocery store.
“Mom, she’s… she’s gonna be home, any minute,” Adele breathed, gesturing to the door like Noah might’ve forgotten where it was. He hadn’t. “She’s… Dad… and Hannah… Oh God, Noah.”
She gave a hiccupped sob.
Noah felt Blue’s eyes on him, encouraging him to say something, but he had no idea what that something was supposed to be. Did he… need to apologize? Apologizing was standard procedure for making someone cry, and although it felt like it, this hadn’t really been his fault.
Slowly, swallowing back tears of his own, Noah asked, “Are you… sad?”
Adele gave a dry cough, a laugh turned in on itself. “Yeah, I’m sad,” she said as buried her face in her hands. “You were…”
Noah had hoped that their joy at seeing him alive would override their grief about having lost him. That seemed naive, now. Watching his sister cry, he thought her misery might be either bottomless and contagious.
Blue squeezed Noah’s hand and he felt strength flood through him. “Dead,” he filled in quietly, even though it burned in his throat. “Killed.”
Adele nodded. Her crisp makeup was leaking all over her face and staining the tips of her fingers where she rubbed at her eyes.
“But now… I’m not,” he said, a little more surely. “I’m not.” He reached across the table and grazed her elbow with the tips of his fingers.
She dropped one hand from her face to catch his fingers before he could pull away. “Christ, Noah. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“I know,” he said.
“But it’s true?”
“It’s true,” Noah said. “You— you know I’m a bad liar. I couldn’t lie about something like this.” Maybe Adam and the rest of them had been right; maybe lying would’ve been better. It would’ve been difficult, trying to pass himself off as 24, claiming the police misidentified the bones, making up some other gruesome or incriminating explanation for his extended disappearance, but maybe it would’ve made things easier for his family.
Even now, though, he didn’t want to lie. His truth was so much of him.
He was so glad that he’d asked Blue to pass along the message about the schnapps at his funeral, even though it had made his mom cry at the time. He was so glad that Blue had agreed to do it. It was the only thing that added credibility to his story.
“Do you… Do you remember, when I let you ride my skateboard down that ramp, even though Mom and Dad told me not to? You broke your arm, and I had to walk you all the way home with your elbow going the wrong way, and when we got here, you told them you tripped, so that we didn’t get in trouble?”
Adele laughed again, this time in a way that almost sounded like a real laugh. “Yeah. And then you confessed before the ambulance got here.”
“Exactly,” Noah said, “I couldn’t even lie about a broken arm. I couldn’t lie about…” His fingers itched toward the place where the hole in his face used to be. Instead, he tightened his grip on Adele’s hand. “All this. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t.”
Adele broke again, tears dribbling with renewed vigor. “It really is you.”
“It is,” Noah said. It really was him; changed, different, but still him. It had taken him all this time to prove it to himself, and sometimes he still doubted it, so he couldn’t expect Adele to believe it right away. But they both knew it was true.
Behind the kitchen wall, the garage door creaked to life. Noah’s heart clamored in his chest, and he felt dizzy with the imminence of his family.
This was all so much. He didn’t feel ready anymore, not if all of them were going to cry like Adele. Even after all these weeks, he was still struck with the urge to disappear, to fade, to skip ahead to a better part.
But leaving was no longer an option. And, really, he knew he didn’t want to leave. This was exactly where he wanted to be. He was just scared. He just wanted to be done with this part, the sad part.
He just wanted his family again.
*** 10 hours earlier ***
Aglionby Halloween at Litchfield had been unspeakably fun. Initially, she’d been almost nervous—she’d hung out with Henry one-on-one before, but never had she been around so many Aglionby boys without Gansey by her side. The worry had been misplaced, though, because she had earned status as an honorary member of the Vancouver crew on the night of the toga party.
So, when they offered her some vodka-soaked fruits, she felt plenty comfortable to accept.
Now, very few parts of her felt comfortable. A month ago, she got a phone line installed in her room so her boys could get in touch with her directly, but she nearly regretted it now—it was so loud.
She answered it, primarily to make it stop ringing. “Hello?” she said, her mouth dry with memories of spiked strawberries.
“Blue!” Noah greeted, cheerful as ever. “Good morning! How are you?”
“Hi, Noah,” she said, any irritation she had at being woken immediately melting away. “I’m… hungover. How are you?”
“Also hungover!” He sounded downright thrilled about it, though, so thrilled that it hurt her head. “Are you doing anything today? Tonight? For the holiday?”
Blue wrinkled her nose despite the fact that there was no one to see her from her spot under the covers. “We don’t really celebrate the genocide of Native Americans, especially not by eating inhumanely-kept and inhumanely-slaughtered turkeys.”
“Perfect! Can you meet me at Monmouth in a few?”
“I can try—“ she began to say, and then, “Wait, meet you at Monmouth? Where are you?”
“The Barns! I’ll tell you the whole story later!”
So that was why they had Opal over for a sleepover. Blue came home at 2 am to see the dream girl sleeping on the couch, but she had been too preoccupied with being intoxicated to worry about it.
Clearly, whatever was going on with Noah was important, so Blue found it in herself to climb out of bed and head downstairs, even as her body begged to be returned to the quiet darkness of her room.
Since everything had happened, things had returned to normal around 300 Fox Way—or, things had returned to business as usual, since nothing about her home was ever normal. Her sprawling family of psychics had easily stepped back into place once the darkness had been vanquished. The Gray Man sent correspondence, but she hadn’t seen him in weeks. Gwenllian remained living in the attic, and Artemus took to living in a motel, since Gwenllian still seemed intent on killing him.
Once, Artemus took Blue out to lunch, because Maura told him he should try to bond with her. Artemus didn’t eat a thing. Blue ate only the free bread that came as an appetizer. He was a profoundly poor conversationalist and seemed incapable of showing interest in anything that wasn’t exclusively related to magic. This would be fine, since most of Blue’s interests were also related to magic, but any time she asked a question of any caliber, he clammed up and got skittish.
Blue wasn’t sure what her mom saw in him, but she tried not to concern herself with it. Maybe he, like Noah, was just having trouble adjusting to his new kind of life.
Still, she liked hearing about the tir e e’lintes. That was the one thing they had in common, and that was enough for now.
“You look like hell,” Calla said, being purposefully loud as she shoved a bunch of stuff into a blender and slammed the go button. Blue had never once seen Calla drink a smoothie, so Blue thought the performance must’ve been just for her and her headache.
Blue flinched and lowered herself down at the kitchen table, waiting for the noise torture to end before speaking up again. “My friends need me functional—“
“Maybe you shouldn’t have drunk an entire liquor store last night.”
“I didn’t actually drink,” Blue said, as though this was any defense. Calla raised a mean eyebrow at her. “It was just… soaked strawberries.”
Calla snorted “Lightweight,” and dumped the smoothie into a cup.
“You and Mom drink all the time,” Blue said, “I refuse to believe you don’t have a hangover cure.”
With a little more heckling, Calla made a disgusting tea, giving her a cup and then putting some in a to-go mug for Noah. Within the hour, Blue felt revived.
“You should sell this,” Blue advised. “It’d make more money than card readings.”
Calla tapped a contemplative nail against her chin. “I could use a new pair of shoes.”
Now that she no longer felt like she was withering from the inside out, Blue biked to Monmouth. The morning was bright and brisk, all warm sun and cool wind. It was days like this, when the air felt like potential, that she missed Cabeswater the most.
Adam had beaten her to Monmouth, so she found him sitting on the stoop and messing with the kickstand on his bike. Even though he had a car now, he preferred not to waste gas on the short trip from St. Agnes to Monmouth, which Blue found very reasonable. He greeted her with a smile and a fist bump. “Do you know what we’re doing here? At nine o’clock in the morning on a holiday?”
Blue shrugged. “Maybe Noah is going to cook us a Thanksgiving feast.”
Adam snorted out a laugh at the absurdity of it. They both knew that Noah’s cooking skills were limited to SpaghettiOs and reheated pizza. He countered, “Maybe Ronan is going to cook us a Thanksgiving feast.”
Somehow, that was even funnier to imagine. Ronan in an apron, carefully measuring out ingredients, setting timers all over the house so he didn’t overcook anything. “Good luck to whatever poor soul has to pretend that meal is edible.”
“Probably me,” Adam said, but he was smiling—a private smile, just for himself, caught only because Blue was looking for it. It made her so happy to see him happy that she found herself looking for it as often as possible.
It was only a few minutes before the roar of the BMW announced Noah and Ronan’s arrival, and Noah hopped out of the passenger seat before the car even stopped moving. His arms were piled high with an eclectic collection of cheaply-made objects and he had a bedsheet thrown over his shoulder.
“You and Ronan had a toga party without me?” Blue asked.
Noah gave her a wild smile. “Of course not! They were our costumes, for trick-and-treating.”
“You wore togas to trick-and-treat?” Blue asked.
“You went trick-and-treating?” Adam asked instead, which Blue realized was definitely the better question. As of yesterday, Noah was still barely willing to cross the Monmouth parking lot.
Ronan pulled the sheet off of Noah’s shoulder and tossed it over his own head. “Boo,” he said, deadpan, giving Adam a few playful ghost jabs and then turning a haunting “OoooOOoo,” toward Blue.
“I ain’t afraid of no ghosts!” Blue said, and Noah laughed so hard he almost dropped his armful of stuff.
As they piled up the stairs and inside, Noah said, “I called Henry, but I couldn’t get him.”
“He had a long night,” Blue explained, “involving a lot of drinking and a lot of dancing.” She was glad that her own alcohol consumption hadn’t interfered with her memories of it: Henry, wearing nothing but his socks, his underwear, and a blanket as a cape, dancing on a coffee table. For Aglionby Halloween, he had decided to be Korean Elvis, which, as it turned out, was different from regular Elvis only because Korean Elvis sang exclusively K-Pop. “If it’s urgent, we can go wake him?”
“It’s okay,” Noah said, “No big deal.”
Ronan snorted in a way that made Blue think that, whatever this was, it was in fact a very big deal.
After dropping off all of his things and chugging down the nasty hangover cure, Noah requested that they video-chat Gansey.
Gansey answered on the second ring, looking halfway through the process of getting ready; he had his contacts in, but his shirt was unbuttoned and his hair was still rumpled and damp from the shower.
If Henry was here, he would’ve wolf-whistled at seeing Gansey in this state. Blue would’ve agreed wholeheartedly. But even through the screen, she could see the quiet way he wore the toll of being home—he didn’t look like he had slept well.
Still, he greeted them pleasantly, a crease between his eyebrows betraying his confusion and concern. “Is everything fine?”
“Yes,” Noah said immediately, “It’s just… I’m going home. Today.”
Silence fell. Blue’s peppiness cooled into something more somber. Ronan was the only one who didn’t look surprised by this information. In fact, the glint in his eyes dared anyone to question this choice.
The glint must not have transferred via Skype call, because Gansey cleared his throat after a moment and said, “Oh. May I ask, um, why?”
“Because I love my family and it’s not fair to let them keep thinking I’m dead.”
“Well, yes, of course. I mean, why now? What changed?”
“Ronan took me trick-and-treating last night, and we had so much fun—we went to the Barns, and graffiti’d Aglionby, and Ronan got a new tattoo—“
“A tattoo?” Adam asked, quietly enough to not interrupt but audibly enough that Ronan gave him a wink.
“—and then we went by my old neighborhood, and I was in disguise so no one saw me, but… I’m ready. I gotta.”
Gansey let out a long exhale, rubbing his thumb across his lower lip. “Okay. I’m coming home, and we’ll talk about this—“
“No,” Ronan said, taking the word from Noah’s mouth. “Noah needs to be with his family. You need to be with yours.”
Gansey didn’t look happy about any of this. Blue couldn’t really blame him, since, as of 24 hours ago, Noah seemed definitively unready for even a conversation about going home. But she had also never seen Noah so determined before.
There was no convincing him not to, so the only thing to do was support him. Gansey realized this, too, and let out another long breath. “Okay,” he said again, still sounding worried. “What’s the plan?”
As it turned out, there was no plan, which was part of the reason that Noah had assembled them all here. He still didn’t know what to tell his family, so he opened up the floor to suggestions.
While they all spit-balled, he packed. It was Adam who pointed out the necessity for this: “You can’t just show up, spend a few hours with them, and then come back here and go to sleep. Even if you come up with an explanation for how you know us and how you’ve already been living here, they’re going to want you to stay with them.”
This was the first time that Noah looked doubtful about his choice, but he shook it off and stashed as many of his items as he could in a borrowed suitcase.
In the end, they had decided that lying was probably Noah’s best bet. The magic explanation—the truth—was too unbelievable.
But Ronan, as usual, didn’t want to lie. “And when they want to talk to the police about how his bones were misidentified? When they go check his grave and find no bones because we grave-robbed them? And how does that explain how Noah knows us? We would’ve been ten years old when he died.”
Nobody wanted to admit it, but Ronan was right. Ironically enough, the truth was the only option that didn’t expose Noah’s impossibility to the authorities.
“I don’t want to lie,” Noah said. He sounded sure about it, or like he wanted to be sure about it, which was almost the same thing.
So that was that. Noah’s family would know the truth, and then they could decide what to tell the rest of the world. Maybe simply calling it a miracle would suffice. Maybe Noah, alive and in front of them, would be all the proof they needed.
Noah finished packing, having to sit on the suitcase to get it to close. The quiet noise of the zipper brought them all to silence again.
When Blue met them and all throughout their quest, there’d been the unmistakable feeling of starting. But this felt very much like ending, and it sat uncomfortably in her stomach.
“Do you want someone to go with you?” Adam asked. Obviously, Noah would need someone to drive him, but this might’ve been something he wanted to do alone—something for just him and his family.
Blue hoped not. He’d been there through everything for the rest of them, and it felt wrong to do any less than the same for him.
“Um, yes,” Noah said, with a sharp nod that said he felt much more strongly about this than just ‘um.’ “I was hoping Blue.”
Blue felt honored and anxious in equal measure. “Sure,” she said, “Of course.”
“’Cause you spoke to them at the funeral, and you’re used to explaining magic to normal people ‘cause of your family, and…” He rolled his wrist in a vague, nervous way. “You make me stronger.”
“You’re alive now, Noah, I don’t amplify you—“
“I know,” he said, “But you still do.”
She reached over and took his hand. Warm palm against warm palm. He gave her a small, brave smile.
Blue’s heart ached. This wasn’t going to be easy, and they all knew it, but it had to be done. Things would be different once Noah’s family was back in the picture; he’d be with his parents more than he’d be with them, especially at the beginning while everyone adjusted.
She already missed him. But more than that, she was proud of him. The world deserved to know Noah as much as they did, in all his loveliness and vibrancy, in the way Blue had known from day one.
And Noah deserved to be back with his family, to take the steps toward living a life fully his. He was more than just their friend—he deserved the world as much as the world deserved him.
The quiet hung for a moment, and then Gansey said, “So that’s all there is, then.”
“That’s all there is,” Noah said back more softly.
“You’ll… You’ll call later, right?” Gansey said. Blue was seeing the realization dawn on him, too—Noah, moving forward.
“Of course,” Noah said. “I’ll call all the time, and you guys can come over whenever, and I’ll come over whenever I can. I still want to live here—I didn’t even live home when I was alive before, y’know? I lived in the dorms. It’s just for now. It’ll just… be a little different, for a little while.”
Gansey forced himself to nod. “Right,” he said, and Blue heard his resolve. Moving forward didn’t mean leaving them behind.
Silence formed again, until Ronan spoke. “This feels weirder than you being dead.”
This pulled a surprised laugh out of Noah and a surprised smile out of everyone else. “It’s weird for me too, guys. I have to go tell my family I was a ghost for seven years.”
Blue squeezed his hand, smile lingering. “We have to go tell your family.”
“They’re gonna wonder why I didn’t haunt them,” he said.
“You were too busy haunting us,” Gansey said.
Noah smiled. “Yeah.”
“They’ll be so happy to see you, Noah,” Gansey continued. “I know I was.”
“Me too,” Ronan said, heartfelt and brief in the way only Ronan could be.
“Me three,” Adam said.
“You remember,” Blue said, squeezing his hand again, “I cried. A bunch.”
“So did I,” Noah said, and a look of intense worry crossed his face. “I should pack tissues.”
“Your family has tissues, I’m sure,” Blue said.
“You’re right, you’re right,” Noah agreed, shaking off this quick but debilitating moment of doubt. “It’s… It’s gonna be fine.”
“It’s going to be grand,” Gansey said. And then he said, “Excelsior.”
Noah smiled and said back, “Onward and upward.”
“Are you sure the radio doesn’t work?” Noah asked, his quaking fingers prodding at the buttons.
“I’m sure,” she said for the third time. “You didn’t bring your headphones?”
“They’re in the suitcase.” He shot a glance behind him, as though he was calculating the risk of unbuckling and scaling into the trunk to retrieve them, and then he shook his head, because he knew he couldn’t.
Blue knew the silence was killing him, as most silences did. She felt it, too—the thick anxiety rolling off him and pooling into the car around them. It didn’t take a psychic to know what he was thinking, because she was thinking it, too.
This is it. This is it.
After hanging up with Gansey, the rest of them had spent hours preparing for every possible reaction Noah's family might have, every possible response Blue might have to give. Everything had already been discussed and discussed again; there was nothing more to say, so the car stayed quiet. Ten minutes, then fifteen. Ronan said the drive was only twenty, but that was in Ronan’s car, with Ronan’s driving. The ride seemed to stretch endlessly in both directions.
Noah’s leg bounced. His fingers fiddled with the squeaking pins on his jacket. He checked himself in the side-view mirror repetitiously, fixing his hair, prodding at his cheeks. His voice crackled when he spoke up again. “Can- can I just put on my music without headphones?”
“Sure,” Blue said, immediately relieved. Even Noah’s weird music coming out of his phone speakers would be better than this.
A couple songs played, none of which Blue recognized. Noah sang along in jittery beats, periodically nudging her and asking, “Are you sure you don’t know this one?”
For three songs, Blue didn’t. Each time, he looked despairing about it. So, when she finally did know a song, she was shockingly relieved to speak the words “Is this Wonderwall?”
“Yes!” Noah said, and Blue snuck a glance at the first smile she’d seen in the length of the car ride. “Will you sing it with me?”
Blue put away all of her good sense and took a deep breath. Only for Noah. “Today, is gonna be the day…”
He joined in with an unbridled enthusiasm, beaming over at her. “…That they're gonna throw it back to you.”
She had to smile back. By the first chorus, she had to admit that it helped.
“Because maybe,” Noah sang—poorly, unashamedly—and gave her arm a gentle poke, “you're gonna be the one that saves me.”
“And after all,” she sang back—poorly, unashamedly—and pulled a hand away from the steering wheel long enough to poke him back, “you're my wonderwall.”
The song ended, but the looseness remained. Blue thought she could breathe more freely, like a window had been cracked to let some of the pressure out.
Noah’s neighborhood came into view, and then his house. The sunset was pink and warm in a way that reminded Blue more of a sunrise, and in this light, the mansion looked like a fairytale, painted rich and golden. Blue parked by the mailbox, feeling like even putting the crappy minivan in the driveway would be doing the beauty an injustice.
In front of the house sat a shiny black car. It sparkled like it had been driven straight off the manufacturing line, and the only personal touch was an origami crane hung in the rearview mirror. “That’s gotta be Adele’s car,” Noah said. His voice was warmed from singing, but nerves crept back in now that they had arrived.
“So she’s here, at least,” Blue said. They had assumed his sisters would be here for the holiday, but they had no way to know for sure. “And you said she probably brought Hannah.”
He nodded. That did it. Everyone would be where they needed to be—this was happening, right now.
Noah looked nauseous. Blue asked, “Are you gonna puke?”
He considered it, and then shook his head.
“Are you gonna cry?”
He gave a tight nod.
“Breathe,” she prompted, and he sucked in a breath that doubled his size.
She waited. He held it.
“Breathe out,” she suggested. He did, raggedly. After he succeeded in breathing a few more times, she asked, “Ready?”
He nodded and climbed out of the car.
The front door, like the rest of the house, was very nice, but it felt like something magic, something more, a portal or a dream. Blue’s heart sat high in her throat and her hands were clammy despite the cold. If she was this nervous, then Noah must’ve been tenfold. More the reason that she had to do this for him; more the reason she had to do it right.
She knocked, and Noah stood behind the door so he’d be out of sight. He looked tense, coiled like he was going to pop apart, and his eyes were pink with unshed tears.
Adele answered the door—Blue recognized her as the older sister from the funeral, with her Noah-blonde hair and her Noah-slanted cheekbones. She was dressed in a fine knit sweater and jeans more expensive than Blue’s bike, but she was barefoot, turning the magazine style into something human.
There was a moment where Adele looked pleasant, but the moment passed, quickly turning sour and confused. Despite the unhappy look, Blue was glad she’d been recognized. Having to introduce herself as ‘the one from Noah’s funeral’ would've set the wrong tone.
“Can I help you?” Adele asked, an effortful politeness.
“Hi,” Blue said, relieved to hear that she sounded more confident than she felt. “My name’s Blue Sargent. I’m looking for Mrs. and Mr. Czerny.”
Adele stared into her, no more intimidating than Noah was capable of, which was to say not intimidating at all. “They’re out,” she said.
“Oh.” In all the considered possibilities, they hadn’t planned for the possibility of Noah’s parents not being home. “Are you sure? It’s… important.”
In a way that Blue recognized from Gansey, Adele clung to diplomacy. But where Gansey's was bred into him, Adele's was learned and flawed—she looked like a little kid wobbling in her mother's oversized shoes, her annoyance discernible on the clipped edges of her words. “I’m certain. I can take a message.”
“Um, it’s not… something that can be a message,” Blue said, her confidence slipping as the moment slid away from the prepared script. She wanted to look at Noah and gauge his reaction—Did he want to go back to the car and try again when his parents were back? Did he want to just get this over with?—but she didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that he was standing behind the door. In her periphery, she saw him shift.
“Then you’re welcome to come back later,” Adele said, and she started to close the door.
Blue cast the quickest glance at Noah, and he nodded vigorously, wringing his hands.
With the door an inch from shut, Blue blurted, “It’s about Noah.”
The door reopened slowly, and now Blue saw the truth underneath Adele’s annoyance—the quiet hope that Blue had something for her and the sadness that accompanied it. “What about Noah?” she asked.
“He has something he’d like to tell you.”
Adele watched her, looking sadder by the second. But as Blue reached a shaking hand to her side, her sadness was dampened by confusion.
Noah’s hand clasped Blue’s, and she stepped aside, pulling him into view.
“Happy Thanksgiving, sis,” he said.
Blue couldn’t tell what changed in Adele’s face. It was something in her eyebrows, something in the curl of her lips. Disbelief without awe or complicated longing, like a punch to the gut you were grateful for.
And then tears. She wasn’t sure who had started crying first, Noah or his sister, but it didn’t seem to matter now. One second, they stood across from each other, and the next, they were hugging, a messy tangle of long limbs. One of them sobbed.
“I don’t understand,” Adele started to say, pulling back to get a look at him. Her eyes were wild, like something had been cut loose inside of her. She touched his cheek with the kind of reverence reserved for handling holy books or ancient artifacts.
Noah still held her by the shoulders, like he couldn’t bear to let go of her. His voice came on a broken laugh. “I missed you so much.”
“I don’t understand,” Adele repeated, but then she was hugging him again. Behind his back, her hands were fisted tight on his jacket.
Blue suddenly became aware that she was crying, too. With a little sniffle, she swiped the tears away. “It’s a very long story,” she said softly. “Can we come in?”
Adele blinked at her, as though this alone was too great for her to comprehend, but then she nodded and drew Noah inside. Blue followed, one step behind him.
It had taken them a few minutes to calm down enough to really talk. Noah was overwhelmed with being home—Blue had never seen someone move more slowly through a hallway as he took in all the sights, old and new. And Adele, of course, was overwhelmed with being in the presence of her dead brother.
Or, formerly dead. That was the difficult part.
“Is Hannah here?” Noah asked, his eyes drawn to framed photos that depicted his family, minus him and plus seven years.
“She went with Mom and Dad to the store,” Adele said. Sounding almost delirious, she explained, “They forgot cranberries for cranberry jam. And then all day, they kept forgetting to go get more. I… I only stayed to make sure the turkey didn’t burst into flame.”
“Did it?” Noah asked, sounding similarly fervent. “That’d be so cool. Flaming turkey.”
Adele laughed, and then she was crying again, and it continued like that for a while, each of them reeling in the reality of the situation, lobbing between smiles and tears. Blue sat by quietly, knowing it wasn’t her place to interfere with this.
Then Adele said, “I knew it, Noah. I knew there must’ve been a mistake. Barry wouldn’t have—“
Noah’s face contorted painfully, and Adele’s words trickled off, and Blue knew this was what she was here for.
“Adele,” she said, making an effort to say it gently even though thinking about it instantly raised her blood pressure, “Everything the police told you is true. About… what happened to Noah.”
There was silence at the table while Adele stared into her, searching for a lie, and then stared into Noah, searching for the truth.
“It can’t be,” Adele said slowly, “We buried— And now, he’s here. There must’ve been a mistake.”
Noah shook his head. He looked profoundly young, then—the way his jaw jutted as he sucked his bottom lip, the way he looked up through his lashes.
“You were there,” Adele said, eyes back on Blue. “The birthday schnapps. We buried him.”
“Did you know he was alive this whole time?” There it was—anger. Blue had been waiting for this. Adele’s eyes slid to Noah. “You were alive this whole time and you let us—“
Noah’s head dipped lower toward his chest.
Blue broke in, as gently as she could, “He wasn’t. Alive, that is. This is… a new development.”
To that, Noah found it in him to nod. Adele stared on, her confusion growing so thick that she couldn’t even come up with a question to ask. She just looked from Blue to Noah and back to Blue.
“It’s a very long story,” Blue said again. “And it’s going to sound unbelievable. But we’re happy to tell it, if you’ll keep an open mind.”
Adele shook her head. She tucked her hair behind her ears. Something about her posture looked aggravated, already disbelieving. Despite it all, she said, “Fine. Okay. Let’s hear it.”
Blue took a deep breath and asked, “What do you know about Welsh kings?”
By the time the rest of the Czernys returned, Adele had heard their tale. It was clear that she didn’t really believe it, not in the way Blue and Noah had to after living through it, but she didn’t reject it outright either. It was an explanation, as impossible as it seemed, and an impossible explanation was better than no explanation.
But the sound of the garage door seemed to bring her back to reality—a reality where magic couldn’t be a plausible part of the reason that her brother, who was dead, was now alive. She shook her head, pushing her fingers through her hair again, wiping at her bleeding makeup.
The sound of the front door made Noah squeeze Blue’s hand with surprising strength. She squeezed back just as hard. Listening to her tell the story and watching Adele hear it had taken a toll on him—he looked sicker now than before, which was really saying something—but knowing his parents were just a wall away set something askew in him again, something sad and scared and lonely.
She hoped she never had to see that expression on Noah’s face again, not after a minute from now.
“Mom,” Adele said, loud enough to be heard in the kitchen, where the Czernys mumbled as they unpacked bags.
“Adele,” her mom said back, not yet sensing the urgency.
“Delly!” Hannah sang, “We got the cranberries!”
“And also stuff to make s’mores!” said Mr. Czerny.
To her side, Noah looked broken with emotion. Tears were already sliding down his cheeks again.
“Mom,” Adele repeated, her voice cracking on even that one syllable. She cleared her throat. “Dad. Hannah. Come here.”
“When was the last time you checked this turkey?” her dad called back. “You remember last year—“
“Please come here,” Adele said again, louder, firmer, more desperate. In Blue’s experience, children only spoke to their parents that way when something was very wrong. She supposed this qualified.
Finally, the rest of the Czernys hastened into the room, questions dying on their lips as they froze in the doorway.
Mrs. Czerny saw Blue first, causing her face to twist very unpleasantly. But Blue watched her gaze bounce over to Adele and then to Noah, watched as her distaste transformed into an empty sort of shock, mouth ajar with unspoken words, shoulders angled as though she was going to keep walking but was anchored into place by her ankles.
Beside her, Mr. Czerny looked similar.
Hannah elbowed past them, short and furious as she wiggled into the room. “What the heck, guys—“
She froze, too.
The moment stretched long, even though it was only a few heartbeats. By her side, Noah stood to his feet, clumsy and jerking like he had been poorly configured. Her fingers were pale with how tight he squeezed them.
Mrs. Czerny’s face was returning to how it looked before the shock—something angry, maybe. Mr. Czerny was still stunned beyond breathing or blinking.
Hannah shattered the silence. “Noah?” she asked.
“Hi,” he said back, only able to squeeze out the one syllable before Hannah was running into his arms. She hit him with an ooph, arms coiling around his waist, face buried into his neck.
Noah let go of Blue’s hand so he could hug her back fully. Head ducked so they were almost the same height, Noah murmured, just for her to hear, “Oh my god, you got so big.”
“What is this,” Mrs. Czerny said, not like it was a question. Slowly, her eyes slid away from Noah, latching on to Blue, fire returning. “You. What kind of cruel—“
“Mom,” Adele said, finally finding her voice again. “It’s real. He’s real.”
“I’m real,” Noah said with impossible softness, words almost lost in Hannah’s hair. In his arms, her breath hitched with oncoming tears.
“No,” his mom said, “No.”
Her husband stood by her side, too shocked to be of any use to her, frozen like a strong wind could shatter him.
“How,” Mrs. Czerny asked—demanded—begged. Her voice shook, and it traveled to her shoulders, her hands. “How.”
“It’s a long story,” Adele said.
Hannah untangled herself from Noah, stepping out of the hug to catch her breath. She stooped, hands braced on her knees, struggling to breathe through her tears.
Noah rested a hand on her shoulder. He seemed reluctant to look away from her, eyes wide as they relearned all the ways she’d changed, but he managed to look back to his parents.
“No,” his mom said again, shaking her head at the ungiven explanation. “No.”
“Mom,” Noah said.
“Mom,” he said again, and then he hugged her, and she crumbled in his arms.
With everyone sat at the kitchen table, Blue once again told the story of how Noah came to be alive. Unfortunately, that included telling the story of how Noah had died in the first place.
She made it as simple as possible. The legend of a king who could grant a wish to whoever woke him. The sacrifice required to do so. A magic that dealt in reciprocity—Noah was the sacrifice, but it loved him for it, so it let him stay. How she and her friends encountered Noah along the way. How the wish was a falsehood but the magic was real, and how they’d managed to bargain Noah back to life, even if entirely on accident.
They took turns crying. They took turns disbelieving. But as the story wound on, they ran out of questions to ask.
It came down to whether they were willing to believe in the magic. Adele was, reluctantly. Hannah was, readily. The jury was out on the adult Czernys; Noah’s mom badly wanted to understand, and Noah’s dad seemed to barely absorb any of it, still so deeply unsettled that he did little more than stare at his son.
The emotions in the room rocked like a boat, unsteady and rolling. It was a joyous thing to be reunited with family you thought you’d never see again, but it was devastating to look into the face of a loved one who had been murdered. The relief and the grief battled all night—the happiness to have Noah back, and the sadness of confronting the fact that he had been killed in the first place, that he had gone through something so horrible.
The turkey burned, forgotten. It was well after dark when Adele just ordered some Chinese food.
“We didn’t keep your room,” Noah’s mom said, sounding unsure of if she should be apologetic.
“It’s okay,” Noah said.
“The girls have some of your things, though,” she said.
Adele said, “I kept your CDs.”
Noah smiled, wide and genuine. “You hated my music.”
Adele smiled back, sadder but no less genuine. “But you loved it.”
“And I kept a lot of your concert shirts!” Hannah chimed in. “I used to use them as pajamas until I got big enough to wear them as real clothes.”
Noah snorted, reaching over to pinch at her. “So, what, a year or two from now, when you hit your growth spurt?”
“Hey!” Hannah said back, but she wasn’t upset. “I’m way bigger than when you saw me last, okay, you should be impressed.”
“You’re right,” Noah said, the truth of it bobbing in his throat. In all the stories Noah told about Hannah, she was young, still in elementary school. But now, she was graduating high school, just like the rest of them.
“And I’m older than you, now, too,” Hannah said, seeming excited about it until the words were out of her mouth, until she realized it was sad.
Adele forced a smile and elbowed at Noah. “Does that make you our little brother?”
Noah pouted his lip and shrugged, his eyes going glassy again.
But then Hannah hummed and shook her head. “Nah." Reaching over to hold his hand, she put on a stronger smile. "You’ll always be our big brother.”
Time struggled on, until the emotion of the evening gave way to exhaustion. Blue was reminded of that first night back at home, after Gansey and Noah had come back to life and all the evil had been defeated, when everyone fell asleep in the living room because they couldn’t bear to part ways. She halfway expected the Czernys to pull pillows and blankets into the middle of the floor and go to sleep right there.
But when Noah said, “I think I’m tired,” no one suggested a floor sleepover. They just showed him to his old room, which was now converted to a neutral-looking guest room.
“I’m kind of glad,” Noah admitted, looking at the plain walls and the boring bedspread. He traced a faint shadow on the wall where something had once hung. At first, Blue thought it was probably a poster, but the dimensions of it reminded her of the maps that wallpapered Monmouth. “I get to redecorate it just how I want.”
Blue helped him unpack the suitcase and Noah got changed into pajamas. Slowly, the Czerny house got ready for bed.
For a minute, they folded clothes in silence, although for Noah, ‘folding’ was more like ‘rolling into a ball and dropping into a drawer.’ Out of the corner of her eye, the fatigue of the day made him look old.
She knew that, soon, she should probably leave. But it felt wrong not to stay. “I can call home,” Blue offered, “Tell them I’m staying the night.”
He fake-gasped, like he was scandalized at the prospect of her staying the night, and he was young again. “A sleepover at a boy’s, Blue? Maura will not be pleased.”
Blue swatted at his shoulder and he gave her a crooked smile. “Really, though. I can stay.”
“It’s okay. I’ve got it, I think. It’s only gonna get easier from here.” He glanced at her, taking a deep breath. “Right?”
“Right,” she said, folding into him for a final hug.
“I love you,” he said, simple and earnest in a way that reminded her just how much she meant it when she said, "I love you, too."
He pet the tired spikes of her hair, and she gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Walk me out?” she asked.
The rest of the Czernys wore their fatigue just like Noah did, but they all hugged her goodbye, thanking her as though she had singlehandedly brought Noah back from the grave. Adele and Hannah both took her number down, even after Blue explained that it doubled as a psychic hotline. Despite her car sitting in the street, Adele offered to drive her home, but Blue assured her that she could handle it.
When she went to say goodbye to Noah one more time before leaving, he was wrapped up in his dad’s arms. “Son,” Mr. Czerny said, tears finally melting away the shock that had gripped him all night.
Blue silently promised to call him tomorrow and let herself out without another word.
Slowly, his family was learning the same about him. That even though he looked the same, he wasn’t the same on the inside. He was asked at least a hundred times a day if he was okay, in a way that suggested that they knew he wasn't. Maybe he was sitting too still. Maybe he was sleeping too much. Maybe he jumped at the sound of a door closing or turned down the opportunity to go out. He heard his parents murmuring about if he should go to therapy; he heard Hannah ask Adele if she just misremembered because she was young or if he used to be “more… more?”
Sometimes, he still felt that way—like his old self, like while he trick-and-treated with Ronan. But sometimes, he felt more like his dead self. More often than not, he felt somewhere in between.
He couldn’t expect them to understand that right away. He just hoped they would eventually.
Until then, he was enough. This was enough. Being able to hug his parents and make his sisters smile. Waking up in the morning with the peace in his soul that came with knowing no one would be grieving for him, no one would be missing him. Being home.
The days following his return were complicated. His family did their best to break the news to grandparents and family friends without getting into the details of how. A local paper tried to interview him, but Noah wasn’t interested in it and his family respected that since they knew how absurd the truth really was.
He had visitors. Sometimes, they brought casseroles or cookies. It was a weird, reverse sort of mourning; nobody knew the proper ceremonies, if they should congratulate him or offer him condolences, if they should smile or cry.
Around the house, they did plenty of both. After that first night, Noah didn’t have a moment alone. From the minute he opened his eyes in the morning, someone was there—holding his hand, showing him pictures, telling him about all that he had missed.
He watched TV with his dad, and helped his mom cook, and listened to Adele talk about work. It was remarkable how ordinary things could be in little moments, even after all this time, even amidst the chaos of everything else.
He treasured those moments, clinging to them when everything else was too much. There would be a day, someday, when he was just Noah again. Noah, their son; Noah, their brother. Not Noah, newly alive; not Noah, previously dead.
Hannah was the only one who ever asked him questions about his time as a ghost, and, in a way, it was nice to have a story too. To remember that, as unconventional as his time had been, he had something to show for the last seven years as well—adventures and excitement and new friends. She wanted to know everything about him, from his old life and his new life, and he was equally interested in learning about her. She’d changed more than anyone else since he'd died. Last he knew, her favorite color was ‘glitter’ and her favorite pastime was watching Rugrats on TV. Now, she was an avid reader and thought most TV was 'cultural propaganda', and she wanted to be either a geologist or an anthropologist someday, and she’d learned to skateboard because she remembered how much he loved it, and she talked about wanting to shave all her hair off but how Mom wouldn’t let her.
Noah promised he’d help her shave her head as soon as everything calmed down, and Hannah said she couldn’t wait.
It was a long weekend, and by Sunday, real life started settling back in. Hannah had school, so she had to go back to North Carolina. Adele was working at a law firm she hoped to run someday and couldn’t afford to miss work. His dad had a business trip slated for Tuesday that he had to start preparing for. His mom had a week packed full of board meetings and volunteer hours.
They kept apologizing. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” or “But your mother will stay with you,” or “Are you sure you don’t want to come with?”
“It’s okay,” he kept promising, “I’ve got lots of time. I’ll still be right here when you come back.”
Really, he was ready for everyone to return to living their lives. Having all the attention on him all the time was wearing him down more and more, and the sooner everyone got back to the daily grind, the sooner he could find a new normal, too. He looked forward to seeing what his days could be like now that he wasn’t a secret, what his life could be like now that he was really truly back.
But before real life resumed and they all went their separate ways for the week, Noah had one request. “Mom?” he asked, leaning against the counter and breathing in the familiar smell of his favorite lunch—some Polish stew he could never pronounce. “Could we have my friends over? My friends from… after everything, like Blue. I want you guys to meet them.”
“Like a do-over Thanksgiving?” Adele suggested.
“Well,” his mom said, “we do have a lot to be thankful for.”
While his family rushed to pull together all the appropriate foods, Noah made the calls. At six o’clock on the dot, the Pig struggled into the driveway.
Noah practically ran to the door, and Hannah ran right along with him, excited to meet his friends “if they’re all as cool as Blue.”
Noah hadn’t been able to promise that they were—“Gansey’s kind of a nerd”—but she decided she was excited to meet them anyway.
“Noah!” they greeted in a discordant chorus, and he welcomed them inside.
Adam brought flowers for his mom to say thank you for having them. Gansey brought his journal in case anyone wanted to talk more about magic. Ronan brought Noah a bunch of dreamed-up paperwork that would help prove his aliveness to all the necessary agencies. Henry brought homemade sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top. Blue brought hugs for everyone.
Noah sat back, watching as his old life and his new life collided. As his siblings met his friends, as his friends clumsily introduced themselves to his parents. As Ronan and Henry helped his parents in the kitchen; as Adam spoke to Adele about Aglionby; as Gansey and Blue confirmed Noah’s stories of magic for Hannah.
With his friends and family blending easily into one raucous scene, Noah felt remarkably whole.
In times like this, he missed the way the world used to look. He missed being able to see the form of thoughts and the color of feelings and the encompassing sensation of so much love in one place.
But, right now, being able to see their smiles was just as good.
Just before dinner, Ronan pulled Noah aside. He jabbed a finger at a picture of Noah as an infant, his bare butt exposed. “You were an ugly baby,” he said.
Noah grinned. Since he opened the door and let them all inside, he hadn’t really stopped. “I know, right.”
Ronan looked at all the family portraits on the wall and then looked away, back over his shoulder. Noah recognized the fidgeting that accompanied Ronan trying to say something, so he waited patiently until Ronan formed the words. “Your sisters. Your parents. They’re nice.”
“They are,” he said, “They try.”
Ronan gave an uneven nod, itching absently at the fresh tattoo on his wrist. “They’re nothing like my family was.” There was more, Noah knew, so he waited again, letting the silence work itself out. “But being here reminds me of being home, before everything.”
There wasn’t anything in particular about the Czernys that was similar to the Lynches, but it was a family. Parents and siblings and friends, dulling the pain of every ailment. Life and light in every corner.
Ronan cleared his throat and elbowed Noah. “I’m happy for you,” he said.
From Ronan, this felt like a blessing. Noah elbowed him back, smiling a little. He owed so much to Ronan—he owed all of this to him, really, for inspiring him to come home in the first place. “Thanks,” he said.
“Noah!” his mom shouted from the other room, and for a moment, Noah was sixteen again—playing video games in the living room with Adele, Hannah watching and cheering for whoever was winning, the smell of dinner seeping out of the kitchen and warning them that it’d be ready any minute. It was amazing how, even after all this time, she said his name exactly the same—how he knew, with no other command, that it was a call to come set the table.
“One sec!” Noah said back, just like he used to, and he turned his smile back to Ronan. “Come help?”
Ronan rolled his eyes, but Noah caught him smiling as he followed him back into the kitchen.
The long table in the dining room was set for seven hungry teenagers and three hungry adults, and Noah sat smack in the middle so he could talk to everyone. They all made their way in, bringing platters of food to deposit at the table.
His parents sat together in between Gansey and Adam. Hannah sat next to Blue. Adele sat next to Henry.
A year ago, or a month ago, or last week, he never could’ve imagined how good it would feel to be here, surrounded by everyone he loved all at once, living both his lives simultaneously.
He had to look down at his plate to keep from tearing up.
Hannah said, “Can we eat now? I’m starved.”
“I’d just—“ his dad said, at the same time Gansey said, “If you don’t mind—“
They fumbled politely for a moment until Gansey insisted that Mr. Czerny speak first.
“I just wanted to say that I’m thankful for a lot this year.” Everyone else was wholly silent, which allowed Mr. Czerny to speak at a normal volume, like it was a conversation with just one person instead of ten people. “There’s no words for how grateful I am for the…” He swallowed hard but grasped on to his composure. “The privilege of having Noah here with us today. And I’m thankful to you all for getting him here, even though I still don’t understand how any of it worked.”
Everyone gave a good-natured laugh. The speech was awkward and insufficient and they all knew it, but the sentiment was too true to pass up.
“Thank you all for coming over tonight.” Mr. Czerny tipped his glass, and they tipped theirs back.
“And thank you for having us,” Gansey said. His voice didn’t sound like it normally did when he spoke to adults—no lathered, moneyed lilt. Just Gansey, talking to his friends. “If not for Noah, I wouldn’t be here right now. None of us would.”
That was truer than Gansey knew, and that knowledge sat crookedly on Noah’s shoulders for a moment. Thankfully, this passed as embarrassment, and Gansey gave him an apologetic smile.
“I won’t make it uncomfortable—“
“You already did,” Ronan said.
“—but, thank you, Noah. I’m so, so glad that we’re all able to celebrate together today.”
“Here, here,” Blue said, raising her glass in one hand and pulling Gansey over by the collar of his shirt with the other. She planted a kiss on him and their friends erupted into cheers.
The Czernys looked confused, but Noah couldn’t care—he felt buoyant and cheered right along. Against all odds, they were here—happy, healthy, safe, and still breathing—and this year, none of them would be taking that for granted.
Gansey was still reeling, so Blue lifted her glass and suggested, “To Noah.”
“And to being alive,” Adam said, lifting his own.
All across the table, they clinked glasses, and they drank, and they ate, and they celebrated. All together, they reveled in each other, smiling and laughing and filling the air with crystal-clear, energized hope.
They sat at the table for longer than necessary, and when it came time to clean up, everyone helped in an uncoordinated effort that made the process much longer than it needed to be. That was fine, though—Noah would’ve preferred that this night never ended, even if that meant hours of dishwashing. He was about to ask if they could stay to watch movies or maybe have a sleepover when Blue asked his mom, “Do you mind if we take Noah out for a few minutes? I promise we’ll have him back before ten.”
She wavered for a moment, but Hannah chimed in, “They brought him back to life, Mom, they’re not gonna do anything that’s gonna hurt him,” and that logic was air-tight, so Noah was allowed to go.
The Pig was always a tight fit, and with Henry, it was even tighter—six people, five seats—but they didn’t even consider taking two separate cars. “How do you guys want to—?” Gansey asked, and Ronan wordlessly remedied the problem by sitting sideways in Adam’s lap and kicking his legs across everyone.
“Okay!” Henry said, patting Ronan’s knee, and then they were off. The Pig growled down the road, all gasoline and vinyl, all life and freedom. Everything felt incredibly real. Finally, finally, finally.
“Where are we going?” Noah asked, almost having to yell to be heard above the engine and the chatter.
“Thanksgiving isn’t complete without dessert,” Gansey said.
Noah felt himself smile. “Gelato?”
Gansey punched the stick-shift as they coasted onto the highway, smiling back in the rearview mirror. “You got it.”
Chapter 6: the first year
it's been almost exactly a year since i started working on this fic, and i'm so excited to finally give y'all the last piece. it's a little different than previous chapters—and super long!—but i hope it's as satisfying for you to read as it was for me to write. thank you guys so much for the patience, the encouragement, the support, and the love. i can't tell you how much it's meant to me! ❤️
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
But the wheel of Adele's shopping cart was squeaking with every rotation, and a fluorescent light somewhere high above his head was flickering, and an old man to his left was staring at him, and maybe he was staring because Noah was furiously clipping and unclipping a pin from his jacket, but he couldn’t stop doing that, and he was just trying to buy some granola bars, and he wished the old man would stop staring.
“C’mon,” Adele said easily, willing him down the aisle with her.
Noah couldn't c'mon. He still hadn't picked up the granola bars.
It was the last day of November and appropriately freezing outside, which meant that it was also freezing inside, because the walls of the Fresh Eagle hadn't been properly fortified back when it was built possibly five hundred years ago. Still, Noah felt a bead of sweat run behind his ear.
He knew what granola bars he wanted—something mostly chocolate and barely granola. He knew what granola bars Adele wanted—something mostly nuts and lots of granola. But the display in front of him was swimming and he couldn't seem to make his eyes focus.
A woman turned down the aisle and Noah saw himself be seen, the casual curve of her eyes toward him. Unfortunately, Noah caught her gaze, which just made her look at him for a moment longer, and he forced his attention back to the shelves despite the heat rising in his cheeks.
“Noah,” Adele said, rolling the cart back over to him. Squeak, squeak, squeak. A wheel so small had no business being so loud. “Just get the purple ones. They’re good.”
Noah grabbed the first purple box he saw and put it in the cart. The woman looked at him again and he ducked his head.
Adele narrowed her eyes in the way she did whenever she was thinking. She'd done it ever since she was little. How a jury ever took her seriously, he didn't know; even as she looked at him like evidence, he saw only a thirteen-year-old girl chewing her pencil as she composed a list of friends to invite to a birthday party.
“Are you okay?” she asked, which meant she definitely knew the answer was No.
He gave a hurried nod, scraped his nails at the back of his neck, gestured down the aisle. Let’s go.
She touched at his elbow as she pushed the cart, eyes softening into something sympathetic or pitying. “We’ll be quick,” she said. “Or you can go wait in the car?”
He shook his head. It was just a grocery store. It was just a grocery store.
But it felt like a stage, like thousands of people had come just to watch him. His heart pounded with performance anxiety, and it felt foreign and awful inside of him. In the last seven years, he’d forgotten the script.
“Grab the milk?” she asked.
He pulled open the freezer door and the metal handle shocked him. He felt tears prickle in his eyes as he palmed a milk carton.
“Oh,” she said, pursing her lips.
“What?” he asked, but it was more of a squeak, like he was mimicking the cart.
“We get soy. Hannah’s lactose intolerant.”
Noah put the normal milk back and picked up the soy, and Adele tapped her phone, crossing another thing off the list.
One aisle away, two children shrilled with laughter. Noah flinched and Adele saw that, too.
“Are you sure you don’t want to wait in the car?”
He nodded, because if he opened his mouth, he was going to cry.
It was just a grocery store.
But it felt both as wide as the world and too tiny to breathe. The light above his head flickered again. He could relate. This is about when he would flicker, too, if he could.
They walked toward the produce, Noah a step or two behind his sister, trying to time his footsteps with the squeaking in an attempt to distract himself and make the squeaking less grating. It wasn’t working. Nothing was working. It was getting harder to stay upright.
He knew panic well enough, now, to recognize that he was ensnared in it. The harder he fought the more he would bleed, but giving up would’ve hurt worse.
“Do you remember,” Adele said, sounding far away despite being at arm’s reach, “when we used to do cart races? And Mom would yell at us for being 'a disturbance,' and the whole store would know our names by the time we left?”
Noah nodded. Of course he did. He had a little scar on his elbow from where he’d skidded out of control and sliced it open on the corner of a display shelf. When Hannah was old enough to handle a possible collision, they’d fight over whose cart she got to ride in, because she was a good luck charm despite the fact that she added extra weight.
But he couldn't remember what it was like to want to cart race—to skate through places he shouldn't, to listen to music without his headphones and bother everyone in his vicinity, to exist loudly and not give a shit.
“I remember,” he said, barely. It stung, remembering, because compared to his memories, he was a ghost. But this is how he and Adele did it—they traded memories, trying to find what was still true inside them.
That memory was empty. And in that moment, Noah was having trouble finding one that wasn't.
“Hey,” Adele said, voice soft, pulling his attention back to the world in front of him. She stilled a hand on top of his. He was clipping and unclipping his pin again—he hadn’t noticed.
"Hey," he said back, just a breath, and then jammed his hand in his pocket to make himself stop fidgeting.
She looked at him for another moment, then put some apples in their cart and started back toward the front of the store. On her phone, he could see that half the list was still unchecked.
"We shouldn't—" he started, and then, "You still have—" and then, "It's okay—"
“It’s okay,” Adele agreed simply. “We can come back for the rest of the stuff later.”
Bright red embarrassment washed into his cheeks. "I don't wanna—"
"It's okay," Adele said again, giving him a little smile and a little shrug. "It's not a big deal."
It was just a grocery store, but he couldn't do it, and that made it a big deal, sort of. But Noah didn't know how to say that. He didn't know how to say that he didn't want to be an inconvenience or a failure or a shell of who he had been; he didn't know how to thank her for sparing him even though he couldn’t feel especially grateful.
So he just nodded, swallowed, ducked his chin. His throat was hot and he hoped he'd be able to hold off the tears until they were home and he could cry by himself.
“Do you remember,” she asked again as she unloaded stuff onto the conveyor belt. She gave the clerk a friendly smile, and then the clerk looked at him, so Noah pretended to care about the magazines. He didn't recognize half the celebrities. “When I accidentally stole a pack of gum.”
Adele couldn’t have been older than five, but she had plucked some gum off the rack and just started eating it right there, thinking it was candy. Noah had noticed but said nothing, because it was hilarious to watch his little sister pack her cheeks full of gum like a chipmunk.
Their mom hadn't noticed until she was buckling Adele into her car seat, and she had freaked out and gone back inside to pay. But when they got home, Adele had run up to their dad and proudly announced, “I was a thief-er today!"
Casually, he plucked a pack of gum off the shelf and onto the conveyer belt. Adele grinned at him, and he forced himself to smile back.
“Do you remember,” she said, voice casual, "when you called me all the time about your dreams?"
"Of course," he said, clearing his throat and pretending like his voice hadn't cracked. "Raven Day."
When he found out that Adele had given the tenth-anniversary Raven Day speech in his absence, he had been beyond grateful, because Adele had known him better than anyone. Maybe she hadn't liked all his music, and maybe she hadn't always been impressed with his antics, but he liked that. Their relationship was always an honest one; upfront and a little unimpressed after being exposed to his particular brand of troublemaking for the length of her entire life. If there was anyone he trusted with his dreams, it was her. If there was anyone he trusted with his legacy, it was her.
If he could trust her with that, why not this? She saw right through it, anyway. He was pretending only for himself, and that wasn't a very good reason.
"Remember that one dream," Noah said slowly, quietly, examining a chocolate bar like he was interested in the nutrition information, "The day after the raven dream? When I was walking all over school, not realizing I was naked, and then I did realize and so did everyone else?"
Something about the change in his tone drew her eye. He glanced away so he didn't have to see the moment she understood.
"It was just an anxiety dream," she said, "Everyone dreams of being naked at school when they're nervous about something in real life."
Before his death, he could count on one hand the amount of times he had been nervous. Since then, since everything, his scale had shifted. These days, he lived the naked at school dream; his actual dreams were much worse. He couldn't tell Adele about them anymore, in fear that his nightmares might inspire her own.
"What did I tell you to do?" she asked. "When you realized you were naked at school?"
"That I should've realized everyone else was naked too," he said. She always loved turning dream logic on him, and she did it now, with a covert glance at a fatigued mother two rows over.
She wasn't looking back at them. She was too busy wrangling a toddler. And the man behind her was occupied on his phone. And a girl that walked by caught his eye only long enough to duck her head and turn away.
Noah forced himself to take a deep breath.
He was naked. Really, he was in a hat and a shirt and a jacket and jeans and shoes, but he felt naked. Because, along with all those clothes, he was wearing a body, and everyone could see him.
But if he was naked, he wasn't the only one.
"Do you remember," he began again, able to see a little more clearly, “when you demanded that Mom needed to get you a balloon. It wasn’t your birthday or anything, but you needed one.”
Adele gave an exaggerated groan and shook her head, which meant she definitely remembered.
“And then as soon as we walked outside, you let go of it and watched it float away, and Mom flipped out.”
“I wanted the birds to have it.”
“You wanted the birds to have it,” Noah agreed, “and then immediately started crying because it was gone.”
She laughed, and he was startled when he did, too, because the memory was striking and hilarious: Six-year-old Adele with pigtails and no front teeth, her face turning from pure bliss to bawling in three seconds flat.
He remembered what came next, too. "And then I gave you my super cool Pokemon balloon to make you stop being sad. Because I’m the best big brother ever.”
Adele smiled and pulled a pack of Pokemon cards off the rack. The cards came with pin, and as soon as the clerk rang it up, she tore it open and affixed the little Charizard to his jacket.
"Best big brother ever," she confirmed, tapping the brim of his hat down over his eyes.
"Best little sister ever," he returned, nudging her as they made their way out to the car.
She grinned at him. "Even better than Hannah?"
"Hey, I wouldn't be the best big brother if I chose favorites."
Adele gave an exasperated shake of her head, but she was smiling, and he was too.
Gansey, simultaneously the unwilling perpetrator and the victim of this offense, reminded himself that it was only a week. Or, technically, eight days. 190 hours from the time Helen got here to the time she deposited him back home, assuming she was punctual, which she always was.
Not that he was counting.
Monmouth wasn’t the same as it used to be, not with Noah and Ronan living primarily at their family homes, not with the artifacts of his quest gathering dust everywhere he looked. But it was still something that was him, like the Pig, like his friends. All of which would be out of reach for eight days.
190 hours, Gansey told himself again. And he'd spend a third of that sleeping or pretending to, so more like 130.
The sound of the door opening jarred him from his thoughts, and he spun to find Noah, shivering and looking sheepish.
“Sorry,” he said, “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“No worse than you used to,” Gansey assured, and then realized that might’ve been rude to say, and then realized that apologizing might be ruder. Stress had turned the path between his mind and his mouth even more unnavigable than usual, and the certainty that Noah was going to be upset overtook him for one dark moment.
But Noah didn’t seem bothered. He just dropped down onto the bed next to Gansey's overfull suitcase. Strangely, Gansey didn't feel relieved. “What’re you doing?” Noah asked, plucking at the fraying corner of the suitcase.
"Indeed." Despite the chill that never left Monmouth in the winter, he felt hot under his skin, almost itchy. Gross was just the right word for it.
“This is a lot of stuff,” Noah said, picking through the pile of ties Gansey heaped on top of the clothes. “How long—“
“Eight days. Christmas Eve to New Year’s.”
Noah put on a cartoonish frown and plucked a tie from the pile, looking at it contemplatively as he asked, "Why?"
Before Gansey could answer, Noah had looped the tie around his head like a headband from a kung fu movie, giving Gansey a gentle karate chop to the bicep. On another day, maybe Gansey would've appreciated the levity. Maybe he would've laughed. He tried, now, but only a ragged sigh came out, and he instantly felt even worse. “We're staying at a lodge outside of Colorado and there will be important—nay, vital—networking opportunities,” he said. Words from his father’s mouth, delivered through Helen, more bitter than intended as he put them in the air.
“But why do you have to be there?”
“The Ganseys have to be a cohesive unit, for the campaign.” Even though a united front couldn't have been that important since he'd missed the fundraiser and his mother had still won her seat. Even though she was now Congresswoman Gansey and there was no more campaign to run.
Noah untied the tie from his head and laid it back with the others. “Well, that’s stupid.”
Gansey couldn’t disagree. So much of politics was.
Noah nodded to his silence, but his face wasn’t agreeable. He opened his mouth and then shut it again, only to try once more with, “When are you leaving?”
“The flight is at eight, so Helen is picking me up at six.”
Noah frowned once again, less with his mouth and more with his eyes. “Why?”
In all the time he'd known him, Gansey had never seen Noah so inquisitive. It would've been a lovely change had every question not been designed to remind him of everything that made him upset. “They said they don’t trust the Camaro to get me there on time—which means they don’t trust me to actually show up on my own—and I can’t be late.”
"You can't leave the Pig just sitting there alone for a week!" Noah said, as though he was talking about leaving an infant unsupervised.
Gansey stretched his lips into a smile, practice for later and tomorrow and the days after that. “Doesn’t seem I have a choice.”
“They can’t make you do stuff,” Noah said. “You can tell them no.”
“It will be a whole thing." Gansey rolled his head back, staring up at the ceiling. He momentarily allowed himself to visualize a beam falling and crushing him, but the thought of Monmouth's infrastructure crumbling became too sad to bear. “And inevitably, my father will say, 'There’s no room for irresponsibility, Dick; we’re dealing with things much bigger than your teenage temperament.'”
Noah snorted, but not like he found it funny. More like something had flown up his nose.
“And then I’ll say, 'You’re right,' because Congress is more important than my car, and then I’ll let Helen drive me." He let out a long sigh, his attention sinking back to the suitcase in front of him. He was sure he was forgetting something. Cufflinks? Contact lenses? "You’re lucky your parents are in law instead of politics, Noah. They can leave you out of it.”
“They used to tell me I was going to law school,” Noah said. “And then I died and Adele went to law school.”
A sudden, odd distress struck Gansey on the behalf of the eldest Czerny sister. “I thought she liked it." He didn't know her well, but in the times they'd met, she seemed very nice and very fulfilled and entirely genuine about being both of those things.
Noah gave a shrug. “I think she likes it alright.”
That wasn't entirely satisfactory—the thought of Adele's happiness being an act still clung to his mind, dismal. But the thought of Noah being a lawyer was even more so. “I can’t imagine you going into law."
“I can’t imagine me going into anything,” Noah admitted all too easily. “My mom asked me what I wanted to be, and I said ‘Alive’, and I think she thought it was a joke. She laughed.”
Gansey nodded, but he felt the urge to laugh, too, because he knew that feeling exactly. Noah always had a way of doing that, of putting his own feelings into words, of understanding. It was funny. He didn't know why exactly, but it was.
Noah looked over at him, and he looked like Gansey felt—like they'd both heard the same untold joke. “I can’t go to college," Noah continued, "I almost cried at the grocery store the other day.”
Keeping his face straight was suddenly something that required effort. “Why?” Gansey asked, the word tilted around the rising urge to giggle.
“The cart was squeaking. An old man looked at me. I don’t know." A laugh bubbled out of Noah, siphoning one out of Gansey, too. "It’s weird to exist.”
"It's weird to die," Gansey said, and a crackle of laughter split his voice. Laughter, yes, that was it. "Or, maybe it's not weird, because everyone does it, right? Maybe it's the most normal thing."
"It's weird to come back to life, though," Noah said, his voice pitching higher with each word. "Like, who does that?"
"Holy men," Gansey managed, but he was laughing hard, now, his uneven breath muddling the words. "And teenagers in Henrietta, Virginia."
And then they were both hysterical, and the world dissolved, and there was nothing but a fizzling in the tips of his fingers and the sickening absurdity of it, of them, of their existence. They were just two kids who happened to die at the same time. There was no reason for any of it.
The laughter took his breath away, like Blue's kiss, like the sting of hornets, like the press of crowds at post-campaign campaign events and the crowding of lies about his future that lived in his throat.
And then it wasn't funny anymore, because acid was burning in his mouth and his vision was blurring beyond use. He shot to his feet and grabbed for the mint on his desk, shoving a leaf in his mouth and immediately sinking into the chair to press his forehead against the familiar grain of wood.
The remembering was almost as familiar as the dying, now. He was getting better at forcing it down.
He thought of breathing in Cabeswater, and Ronan's smile, and the bump of Adam's fist against his—of friendship stronger than anything. He thought of Henry pressing Robobee into his hand, of the hundreds of safe kisses he'd now had with Blue—of all the almost-deaths and now-safes and still-survivals. He thought of Noah sleeping with his head in his lap that first night back at 300 Fox Way—of life, impossible life.
It took a while, and Noah regained his composure first. By the time they were both breathing again, Gansey's skin was slick with sweat under his clothes.
"Have you tried mint?" he asked, slowly righting himself. His chest was hollow and cold where the laughter had been. "I hear it helps."
Noah extended his hand and Gansey passed him a leaf. He put it on his tongue, but he still looked far away. “They try,” he said. “My family. They try to be understanding. But it’s hard to tell them I need to go home right now immediately because I don’t know why. And it's embarrassing, when they notice." His fingers twitched at the zipper on the suitcase, tugging it back and forth with the quietest jingle. "And I try, too, you know. I try to be normal. For them.”
“I don’t think you need to pretend to be normal. Your experiences are far from normal.”
“I know,” Noah said, “But they don’t get it, you know? They couldn’t.”
“My family doesn’t, either,” Gansey said. How many times had he collapsed in the middle of an ordinary moment because the wind had blown a certain way or the static on a radio had sounded like dying? And how many times had they been any sort of helpful? The ratio was poor, if it existed at all. “When I left to find Glendower, they were relieved. Because they didn’t know what to do with me. They had hoped I would come back fine.”
“Did you?” Noah asked, like he didn’t know the answer, like Gansey had the room to lie.
“I got better at pretending to be. And pretending is enough for them.”
Noah worried his lip, fought with himself over his next words. And then, slowly, he asked, “Is it?”
A stormcloud settled into Gansey, dark and hot with spears of lightning. “What do you mean?”
“Is anything ever enough for them?”
Something inside him told him to say yes, to defend himself, to defend his parents. But when he opened his mouth, he couldn't find the words.
As his mother continued gaining power and prestige, they needed him more and more, and they needed him more perfect. He couldn't walk by his father without having letters with Ivy League stamps handed to him. Every conversation with his mother was more or less a debriefing. Helen worried about him, but in a way that wanted to solve him, like she could sort his demons on a grid of paper and make calls to the appropriate agencies to have them expunged.
Through it all, he couldn't shake the feeling that he was making up for more than the missed fundraiser. But he didn't know how to say it, so he said nothing for a long time, letting the muted truth scar the inside of his ribs.
Finally, Noah said, “I don’t think you need to pretend to be normal. Your experiences are far from normal.”
Gansey gave a thin smile. He’d been played. “They don’t know that, though,” he said. “They don’t know what happened that day. They don’t know that I found Glendower. They just think of the whole thing as an inconvenience. Embarrassing."
"They said that?"
"They don't have to. It stopped being charming when it started interfering with my life and their plans for it. Especially now that it was all a waste.”
A moment of genuine offense crossed Noah's face. “It wasn’t a waste."
“Of course not," Gansey huffed, "But it looks like it, doesn’t it?” He stared up at the ceiling again, because there was nowhere else in the room he could look that didn't prick him like a thorn. “That’s the worst part. Having nothing to show for it.” Not the glory, not the history, not the favor, not the answers.
He didn't know why he'd been saved.
He'd never know why he'd been saved.
“We’re alive,” Noah said quietly, “That’s something.”
“That was Ronan and Cabeswater, and Adam and the ley line, and Blue and her amplification. Glendower was nothing." The words were coming without his approval, deployed by his heart instead of his head. "I was nothing. Just a sacrifice. Just something good for dying.”
Noah's face contorted horribly, and Gansey had to look away again. “You’re good for more than dying, Gansey."
But the words moved easily past his ragged edges, not catching hold. “I still don’t understand how it happened. You will live because of Glendower. That’s what the voice said. But Glendower was dead—is dead—was always dead."
Noah was silent, and all at once, Gansey felt stupid. Noah was just the other side of the same scale—he had no more knowledge of the hand that had balanced them there than Gansey did. Weakly, emptied out, Gansey asked, "How do you not care? How do you not care how or why?"
Noah shrugged, his whole body bouncing in the corner of Gansey's vision. But when he spoke, he sounded sure. "If you were just meant to die, you would've stayed dead."
"If not Glendower, if not dying, then what? College? Politics? Disappointing my family?" He sounded desperate and pathetic, even to his own ears. "What am I meant to do, Noah?"
"I don’t know, Gansey. More than smiling at the snap of your mom’s fingers, though. More than Glendower. More than dying."
Gansey let his shoulders slouch into the chair behind him. He wasn’t sure he could believe it, but Noah did, and that had to count for something.
And, if he thought about it, it was more than just Noah. It was Blue and Henry, too. It was the year they couldn't stop talking about, all the adventures they couldn't yet imagine, laying just on the other side of graduation.
They had the summer, that much was sure. But he wanted more than a summer. He wanted a life that meant something. And it was going to take more than two and a half months to find it.
It was going to take a year, at the least.
Blue's family had encouraged her gap year. Henry had already planned for one. But Gansey hadn't even brought it up to his parents yet, because they weren't going to like it. His mother thought Blue and Henry were entertaining enough as dinner guests, but she didn't find them respectable. He could already hear it—worries about him being led astray.
But that was all he wanted. He wanted to take Blue's hand in one of his and Henry's in the other and shut his eyes and let them lead him.
Taking a year-long directionless road trip after graduation with nothing but the company of his girlfriend and his Henry wasn't normal. But his experiences were far from normal.
His parents weren't going to like it. But Gansey decided, right then, that he didn't care. He didn't like going to their campaign events, but he dealt, didn't he? Because it was important to them. They would have to find way to deal, too. Because this was important to him.
Gansey took in a long breath, like returning to air after minutes underwater. A tired smile worked its way onto his face and Noah's smile mirrored it.
He didn't want to spend eight days with his family. But if he had to, he was going to use that time to fight for what he did want.
"More than that," Noah repeated.
"More than that," Gansey agreed.
Hannah huffed and crossed her arms, lolling her head back to peer to the top. “You’re telling me.”
Hannah wasn't sure why, exactly, her closet had become the Czerny family dumping ground. Maybe it was because her room had been an office before she was born and their parents never bothered finding a new place to put their crap. Maybe it was because she had the smallest, simplest wardrobe in the house and consequently the most extra space. Maybe it was because she and Adele had spent years staking claim to Noah's possessions and hiding them away there before their parents could decide to throw it all out.
Regardless of the reason, the closet had long ago reached maximum capacity. “We have to excavate it,” she said. “We have to, as my risk of dying in an avalanche of boxes increases with every passing moment.”
Adele, not unhappily, asked, “And what does this have to do with me?”
Hannah gave her a cheeky smile. In their family, Adele was the calm middle-ground in almost every area—temperament, rationality, reasonability—but in one way, she was an outlier. “You’re the tallest of us.”
Indisputable. Adele popped up on her tiptoes and started unloading boxes from the top of the precarious stacks, setting them gently on the floor as their contents were likely fragile from time and decay.
"Thanks, Delly," Hannah said sweetly. "Wanna help?"
Adele rolled her eyes, but she sat down next to a stack of boxes and set to work. With a crack of her knuckles, Hannah did the same.
Quietly, they separated the past into two distinct piles: keep and throw away.
Some of the boxes were easy, like the boxes full of clothes that their mom had made Adele save for Hannah to inherit someday. As though fashion trends hadn't progressed in the six years between them. As though Hannah wasn't half Adele's height and thirty pounds heavier than her. As though she didn't prefer Noah's old clothes to Adele's.
"You actually wore this?" Hannah asked, lifting a lace-and-rhinestone tank top by the strap, like it might burn her.
Adele shook her head in an exasperated way that clearly meant yes. Hannah wrinkled her nose and threw it at her in a handful. Adele claimed, "It was fashionable, okay," as she put it in the disposable pile.
Hannah laughed, tossing a few more similar tank tops in her direction. "Right, right, sure."
Some boxes were harder, like the ones packed with years of vacation souvenirs. It wasn't that they hadn't had fun, because they had. It was just that it was weird to look back and enjoy the memories when Noah's absence was so apparent.
It had been apparent at the time, too, Hannah supposed. Even though Noah had been gone for almost as much of her life as he had been present, her childhood bisected neatly into 'before' and 'after,' no one ever stopped noticing the space where he should've been. Going from a family of five to a family of four. Making memories that he should've been a part of.
The difference was that, back then, Hannah had still been allowed to hope that he was out there somewhere, living an adventure, just as happy as she was.
Then they found out the truth, and retroactively, everything paled.
She was glad, now, to know that he had lived those seven years in his own odd way, but it didn't make her any less sad that she had lived those seven years without him.
Like Noah knew he was on her mind, he appeared in her doorway and drifted into the room. "What's going on?" he asked.
"Hannah is making us clean," Adele said, reaching over to grab Noah by the hand and pull him down to sit. "You should be helping."
Noah feigned distress. "Me? Clean?"
"I know there's stuff in here that's yours," Hannah said, dangling the proposition in front of him like bait, "I bet there's more t-shirts in one of those boxes."
That incentive was enough to keep Noah seated, but not quite enough to make him actually help. Instead, he walked his fingers through the throwaway pile, quietly rescuing meaningless objects that appealed to him.
Hannah watched, not intervening. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the items he was adopting. One of Adele's old pink cardigans. One of Hannah's middle school report cards, just as mediocre as her current report cards. A snowglobe from a state he'd never been to.
She wanted, terribly, to ask. To know. She wanted that for all things, really—she had never met someone or something she didn't want to understand. Curiosity had killed the cat, or her teachers' patience, or hours of her life devoted to googling and watching YouTube videos or reading. Space, gravity, color, how TV worked, how relationships were built. There was a science to all of it, she had learned as she got older. The big bang, Newton's laws, the visible spectrum of light, the predictability of human behavior.
But with Noah, answers were elusive and complicated. Sometimes, they were wonderful—explanations about magic and friendship and dreams, impossible answers that made Hannah want in a way she couldn’t describe. But sometimes, sadness tinged the corners. If she reached too far, she bumped into tragedy or sacrifice, the bedrock under everything.
So she didn't ask. And neither did Adele. They let him compile a hoard of junk while they chipped away at the closet.
The further they went, the older the stuff. Steadily, they worked through the time that Noah was gone.
“What in the hell is this?” Noah asked pleasantly as Adele tried to dispose of a cereal box made to look like a spaceship.
Adele smiled, dropping easily into an explanation about a school project. But before long, Noah was asking after every object in every box. Patiently, Adele painted a background for every oddity, and Noah sat quietly throughout, rapt by the stories of the things he'd missed.
Hannah couldn’t help but listen, too, because Adele had a way with stories. A way of making everything warm and familiar, details just where you wanted them to be, ebbing into jokes at just the right moment, easing into similar tales.
Hannah knew Adele’s storytelling well. Whenever she’d missed Noah, she’d asked Adele for memories, and Adele was always willing to share them. It was a way to keep him real, keep him alive, and Adele did it better than anyone, even when it made her sad.
In the same way, she brought those years that Noah missed back to life for him. Little stories about her and her friends, names Noah recognized even when Hannah didn't. Bigger stories, about whole plot lines he'd missed—spats with aunts and uncles over asinine things, exes Noah had never known, the dog they'd adopted from the neighbors and all the pains he'd put them through.
Noah's eyes glimmered with lonely nostalgia for all that he wasn't there to see. He asked after every detail, carrying the conversation with a compounding hunger—the more he heard, the more he wanted to know. Hannah just sat back and listened, rarely needing to contribute with more than confirmation or clarification when Adele stumbled over the specifics.
Time slipped away as they worked through boxes and memories, shadows growing as night tread toward them. Cleaning no longer felt like a chore.
It wasn’t until Hannah opened up a box with a signed Good Charlotte poster on top that she interrupted Adele’s tales. "Noah," she said, sliding it all over to him, "I think this is all you."
Glee turned his spine straight as he set to work tearing through the box. In moments, he was reunited with old t-shirts, old gadgets, old trinkets. Anything that had been sad was melted away by the overwhelming excitement of finding things he didn't know he had lost.
Hannah found herself uninterested in the box she was working on, and Adele's attention drifted, too. It was Noah's turn to tell stories. His was an aimless ramble, a stream of consciousness, all detail and no substance: "I got knocked out at this show," he said, sounding thrilled, holding a Sum 41 shirt up to his chest; "Stole this from a teacher," he said, brandishing a VHS copy of 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail'; "Hannah, you threw up on this when you were baby," he said, shaking a baseball hat at her.
Adele's phone chirped at her, and with a heavy sigh, she excused herself. For a moment, Noah stalled, giving Hannah a 'Should I wait?' twist of his eyebrows.
Hannah bit her lip, shook her head, nudging the box toward him again. She didn't want to wait for Adele to conduct adult-ly business, not now that it was Noah's turn to tell the story of his life for himself.
Gradually, he emptied contents of the box into his lap, every last item a keeper. And at the bottom of the pile was a CD with simply ‘2004’ written on it in black marker.
"What is it?" Hannah asked.
"It's a CD," he said.
"No shit," she said, "Do you know what's on it?"
"Stuff from 2004?"
Hannah shook her head, but she was smiling, because he was useless. She leaned up on her bed to get her laptop and dragged it back onto the floor, sliding the CD into the slot.
A window full of pictures popped up.
"Oh my god," Noah said, "Warped Tour."
Hannah clicked the first picture, pulling it up. There was Noah, standing against his horrible red car, wearing the exact shirt he had just found. He had friends by his side, people she vaguely recognized but whose names had long faded. They all looked unforgivably emo. "Is that eyeliner?" she asked, zooming in.
"It was fashionable, okay," he assured.
Hannah's smile grew. "Right, right, sure," she said again, clicking through to the next picture.
There were photos of objectively poor skateboarding. There were photos taken at one of Noah's swim meets, smiling proudly when he'd won bronze. There were a few more from holidays and a family reunion; Noah standing up on the table, telling some story so animatedly that it blurred in the picture.
Weirder than acknowledging the time Noah had been gone was seeing pictures of him before. Although he hadn't aged a day, he was two different people in her head. The Noah in the pictures was larger than life, turned grand by big brother magic. Getting into trouble with a smile on his face, making a scene to put a smile on hers. No one else listened to her the way he did, with active attention, with wild contributions. No one else had ever told her, so clearly, that rules were made to be broken, and it was a lesson she'd kept close to her heart long after he had disappeared.
The Noah in front of her was softer. Maybe he was more mortal now, or maybe she was just old enough to see the lines of fear that ran through him.
She wasn't sure it mattered. Right then, she couldn’t care. She couldn’t feel anything but gratitude the world had given him back to her.
They clicked through photos, Noah completed the context. Some of the things, Hannah remembered fairly well, but others, she didn't remember at all. Silently, she let Noah fill in the details with his seemingly perfect recollection.
And then they clicked to a picture of what appeared to be a school dance. Noah was in a suit—a truly absurd image, like a little boy dressing up like his father—and had his arm around a pretty girl in an extremely blue dress. To the other side of him was another couple, a girl in a white dress and—
She clicked away quickly, but he reached over and clicked it back.
"It's fine," he said, voice softening from excited into something else, something foggy.
Barrington Whelk stood there with his arms around both girls, his smile wildly fake.
Over the last few weeks, they'd talked a lot about Noah being dead. But they never talked about how he had come to be that way.
The air had left Hannah's lungs, but Noah kept talking, his voice only slightly changed. "It was fun," he said, nodding his chin toward the screen. "That was the birthday schnapps. I stole them and we snuck out of homecoming and got drunk and skinnydipped in the Aglionby pool."
He was smiling, somehow, impossibly. Hannah couldn't. She couldn't do anything except remember the day, after seven years of hoping, that they found out that Barry had killed him. Adele had called her, voice strung like a tightrope, and told her that some kids had found Noah's body in the woods.
They had long ago presumed he was dead. But there was still something small and hopeful inside of Hannah, something in how sure her ten-year-old self had been when her parents promised her that he'd be back, something in how she'd gotten so used to hoping that giving up then had seemed wasteful.
"How did he end up in the woods?" Hannah asked, expecting that these were the things she could hang her hope on, now, because how would they know, after all these years? "How would he die in the woods?"
"Barry," Adele said, and that was when Hannah felt it, cold in her veins, locking up her muscles. "Barrington Whelk. You remember him?"
"Yeah, of course," Hannah said, grasping for the logic that led one thought to the next. Did Barry know something that he hadn't spoken up about until just now? "What—"
"He killed him." Adele took a deep breath through the phone, like the words had socked her in the stomach. "They're sure. There are police looking for him right now."
Losing her brother—literally losing him, like one lost an earring or a pencil—should've turned her into a bitter realist when she was young. But it wasn't until then, until the knowledge that Noah's best friend had killed him, that the world started tasting sour.
Hannah didn't think she'd ever understand why it had happened, especially since the police couldn't find Barry. Finding out, three months ago, that it had all been about money, was somehow worse than not knowing.
She didn't want to look at his photo anymore, didn't want to listen to Noah recount a time before he'd been betrayed. But she couldn't find it in her to make him stop.
"We were stupid hungover the next day," he said, "and we crashed at his place, so that Mom wouldn't be mad at me. She was mad at me anyway. Whelk drove me home and she was waiting in the driveway, so I made him keep driving and we went to iHop instead."
A shadow fell over them, and in one motion, Adele was snapping the laptop shut and pulling it away. "Stop," she said, voice thin and hard, thrown like a blade.
"It was fun," Noah insisted, looking up at her only to immediately look away. Her cheeks had flushed pale and then pink on top of it, but Hannah recognized the set of her mouth, the determination she had learned in law school.
Adele, always calm and steady, was abruptly very upset, and everything about the moment sat uncomfortably in Hannah’s stomach. "I don't care if it was fun," Adele said. "It's not fun anymore."
Something crooked happened on Noah's face. "It wasn't bad. Before. We were friends."
Adele's words came hotter than Hannah had ever seen, composure melting away underneath them. "He was never your friend."
"He was," Noah insisted, a heat working into his cheeks now too. "And he was your friend. We'd sneak you into rated-R movies. He let you drive his car before you even had your license." His gaze swiveled to Hannah. "You remember, right? He used to come over and hang out all the time. You liked to sit next to him at dinner because he would eat whatever vegetables you snuck onto his plate."
Hannah's throat was closed with inexplicable, irrational guilt. He wasn't wrong—she remembered all of that.
"It doesn't matter," Adele said. "If he did what he did to you, Noah, then he was never anybody's friend."
"He had lost everything," Noah said, "The money, and his family, and—"
"Are you making excuses for him?"
Hannah couldn't take her eyes off Noah, even though she badly wanted to look away. His fluster was crystalizing into panic, and he had the sleeve of an old sweater gripped tight in his hand. His words came faster that his mouth allowed, stumbling just a little: "He didn't know what else to do."
"So he sacrificed you to a magic forest so he could wish for his wealth back?"
"He was desperate."
"I was desperate."
Silence fell as Noah's words dried on his tongue like sand, an ashamed roll coming into his shoulders.
Adele shut her eyes for a moment, pressing a knuckle between her eyebrows. When she spoke again, her words came slower. "He wasn't your friend, Noah. He barely liked you. He didn't care about you. Even if he did all the things a friend did, even if you felt like he was your friend, he wasn't."
"But it worked out," Noah said, his voice gone paper thin. "It's okay. I'm here, and it doesn't matter, what he did, it was just…" His thoughts drifted and his eyes did, too, falling to the sweater he was hanging onto for dear life.
"Maybe you can forgive him for what he did to you," Adele said, as though forgiveness was the same thing as denial, as though Hannah couldn't feel her sister's heart breaking as she broke Noah’s. "But you can't forgive him for what he did to us. Maybe you spent seven years as a ghost, having adventures, whatever. But while you were doing that, we were here, without you."
"He didn't mean to," he said, like he wanted to believe it.
"He helped us look for you," Adele said.
"He looked us all in the eye and told us that you had some stupid idea to run off and travel the country, but not to worry, because you'd be back as soon as you needed money for pizza or a concert, because you didn't have any kind of real plan and probably forgot to bring your wallet."
Distressed, Noah said, "I wouldn't have done that."
"And then a week passed, and a month, and longer, and he stopped answering us when we tried to see if you'd gotten in touch with him. 'Czerny's an idiot,' he said, 'If he got himself killed, it's not my problem.'"
Noah brought the sleeve of the sweater to his forehead, like he could hide behind it, pressed his eyes closed, like he could disappear if he tried hard enough. "Stop."
"He wasn't your friend," Adele said. "I'm sorry, Noah, but he was never your friend."
Hannah opened her mouth, but it took her a moment to find her words. "Not like Blue."
It was silent for a moment as they remembered she was there, and then Noah peeped, "What?"
"Blue's your friend. Would Barry have done what she's done for you?" Noah blinked at her, scattered and uncomprehending and pained. "Would he have held your hand when you came home and told us all what happened?"
Noah thought about it, hard, like he could reach an excuse if only he stretched a little further.
"Or Gansey? You run out the door when you hear his stupid orange car pull up. You sleep at his house as much as Mom will let you. He listens to you when you talk like every word out of your mouth is genius."
Noah swallowed, and Hannah felt Adele's eyes on her, too.
"Ronan? He's standing there with a gift for you every time we open the door. When he drops you off, you're practically glowing. Henry? Your phone never stops buzzing with his texts." She stopped, took a deep breath. "Adam? Would he ever hurt you?"
Finally, Noah shook his head, just a little. Even though that was what Hannah was waiting for, she couldn't feel an ounce of victory. "Those are friends," she said. "Not Barry."
The silence bent under the weight of the truth, and then a dam broke. "I didn't know," he said, and his mouth crumpled like a gum wrapper as he hid his face in his hands. "I trusted him, but I didn't know, but I should've, and—"
And then he was crying, and Hannah wanted to cry, too. Adele caught her eye, mirroring guilty helplessness back at her.
With a gesture, Hannah indicated that Adele should sit. Thawing, she sank to the ground next to Noah, and Hannah slid to sit on the other side of him, effectively bookending their brother between them. Silent except for the crying, he reached out a hand, and Adele took it. Silent except for the hiccupped breaths, he leaned to rest his head on Hannah's shoulder.
"I'm sorry," he said, once he found his voice again, sobs giving way to sniffles.
"Don't be," Adele said.
"I should've known."
"It's not your fault."
"I was stupid," he said, "Before. I had no idea. I didn't know anything."
Adele squeezed his hand. "Nobody knows anything until they do. You live and learn."
Quietly, he said, "Or you die and learn."
An abrupt laugh yanked out of Hannah, surprising all of them. It was morbid, but it was also funny, and maybe she shouldn't have laughed, but the tension splintered like wood under pressure and Noah flashed her a small but grateful smile.
"Here," Adele said, grabbing a truly ugly yarn scarf out of the trash pile and handing it to Noah so he could mop up his blotchy face.
He blotted his face on it, even though it didn't help at all. "We should keep this," he decided, looking to Hannah for confirmation, "For Blue."
Hannah plucked it from his hands to examine it, an excuse to duck her head as she said, "If anyone could find a use for it."
Noah gave her a sly smile that said he saw her blush and she tossed it over his head. He recovered easily and bundled it up under his chin, looking like a nun.
"What?" Adele asked, sitting up a little straighter. "What was that?"
"Nothing," Hannah assured.
Noah just slid Adele another look and Hannah felt her blush grow hotter.
"What?" Adele insisted. "Blue? What about her?"
"Nothing about her," Noah said, elbowing at Hannah.
Hannah elbowed him back harder. "She's just cool, that's all."
"Mhm," Noah said.
"I just," Hannah said, glancing at Adele's piqued interest and then stealing the sweater from Noah to give herself something else to do. "I like her or whatever."
Adele looked amused, now, smiling twin smiles with Noah. "’Or whatever?’"
She let out a sigh through her nose, shaking her head. "I like her, okay!"
Adele "Awww"ed at her, and Noah "Ooooo"ed at her, back at it again with the elbows.
She stuck her tongue out at them both and poked at Noah's ribs. "Don't act like you're not in love with her too."
Adele manufactured a scandalized look and Noah just laughed. "She's the best," he agreed, and then, lazily, threw in: "I kissed her before Gansey did."
"What?" Hannah gasped, punching at his shoulder. Of all the stories to leave out.
He smiled, biting his lip, bobbing his head. "One of the times being already dead came in handy. Also that time Ronan wrecked Gansey's car."
"The car?" Adele asked. "The Camaro?"
Hannah and Adele waited, but he didn't elaborate. He just sat there with a smile on his face, peeking back and forth between them.
Hannah, never the patient one, gave in first. "You've can't just say things like that and then not explain!"
Noah wrapped his arms around both their shoulders, tugging them in tight. "I love you guys," he said.
"We love you too," Hannah said, feeling it like she felt the air in her lungs, vital and light. "Now shut up and tell the story."
"I don't know if I should be flattered," Henry said, glancing him up and down, "or offended that you forgot our plans."
"Oops," Noah said into a yawn. Clearly, despite it being 4:30 in the afternoon, he had been asleep.
"Offended, then," Henry said, although he wasn't at all. Noah stepped aside and let him in. Typically at this hour, especially on a weekend, the Czerny house was a hub of pre-dinner activity. Now, there were no cars in the driveway and no one in sight. "Where is everyone?"
“Mom and Dad are at early dinner because they're old people. Delly didn’t come home this weekend, because I think she’s dating a lawyer? And Hannah is doing ‘Nothing, don’t worry about it, just please don’t tell anyone, I’ll be back, it’s fine.’”
Henry gave a laugh. If that was the case, he helped himself to the fridge. He cracked open a Polish soda on the countertop. “And you? I told you three months ago that I had plans for you. You don’t look ready for plans." He waited a dramatic beat and then added, "Or, not the kind of plans I had in mind.” He punctuated it with a wink.
Noah had the decency to blush and Henry allowed himself to enjoy it. “I just thought, like, maybe you… made other plans. Since then.”
Henry felt his mood fall, just a little, from the height of his head to the height of his shoulders. “Oh. He told you.”
Noah gave a crooked shrug. “Blue.”
“God,” Henry said, rubbing a hand over his face. Potentially the only thing worse than hearing it from Gansey was hearing it from Blue. “You’re not mad too, are you?”
“No!” Noah said, “I don’t think anyone’s… mad.”
“What would you call being quietly excommunicated from the group?” Henry didn’t mean to sound so apocalyptic about it—surely this is the kind of thing that happened, right, sometimes friends kissed other friends who were dating other friends and it wasn’t well-received, and surely it wasn't the end of everything. It couldn't be, because there wasn't a future that existed where he and Gansey and Blue weren't friends. Still, it felt kind of apocalyptic. "I mean. It's deserved."
Noah's eyebrows slanted sadly, sympathetic in a helpless sort of way. "It's not my job to tell other people's secrets," he said. Henry both respected and despised that, and he was about to say so when Noah continued with a vague gesture, “But they're not mad.”
Henry tended to believe Noah, because he seemed to lack the capability for ulterior motive. But he'd examined the evidence for himself, and each day, it seemed like more of a mistake. Probably, he had ruined everything, at least a little, and he had no idea how to fix it.
So if Noah wasn't going to be any help, he decided to stop thinking about it. Tonight was meant to be a distraction, even though he’d planned it well before he had any idea that his unfortunate attraction to Blue and Gansey would turn into a situation. “Well, tonight’s just you and me, babe,” Henry said, easing back into a smile. “So go put on some pants. We have places to be.”
"What kind of pants?" Noah asked.
Henry shook his head. "Crafty," he said, "But you're not getting any clues. Do you own anything that's not torn skinny jeans?"
"Then that'll do," Henry said.
Noah drifted off to his room to clothe himself. "Do I need a shirt?"
"Preferably," Henry said. "One of those outdated band t-shirts will do fine."
Noah attired himself in the exact Blink-182 shirt that Henry expected, paired with The Jacket, as always. Henry asked, "Have you eaten? Are you sufficiently hydrated?"
Sounding a little unnerved by the question, Noah asked, "Are we going somewhere McDonalds-less?"
"No, but there's exertion in your future, and I don't want you passing out."
Noah grabbed a handful of granola bars from the pantry. "Good?"
"Perfect," he said, and then they got in the car. Henry handed over the aux cord without a word, and Noah immediately set to work assembling a playlist. In seven years, his taste hadn't changed much, but most of his favorite bands had, and it had been quite a struggle. Noah enjoyed the way Paramore had developed, but was more conflicted about Panic! At The Disco. He had taken My Chemical Romance's demise as proof of living in a cursed timeline and had properly mourned them by wearing all black for three days. But, through it all, Blink-182 was still his favorite. He'd been excited to tears when he found out that they were still around. Even though their sound was sufficiently different than it used to be, Noah still loved it.
In the last few months, Henry had become familiar with all of Noah's favorite music. It made Noah happy to enthuse someone about it, so it made Henry happy to be enthused about it. And, anyway, it was less bad the more he listened to it.
"Get comfy," Henry said, "It's a two-hour drive."
Noah got to unwrapping a granola bar and stuffing it in his mouth. "When can I know where we're going?"
Henry focused on the nineteen-point turn it required to get out of Noah's driveway. “Do any of us really know where we’re going?”
Noah snorted and gave an agreeing hand-wave.
"You'll know when we're there. The suspense is part of the fun."
"Tease," Noah said, with the kind of smile Henry didn't have to see to know.
Henry smiled back. "Guilty."
And they were off. The sun stained the horizon orange as they drove down the highway, landscape giving way to cityscape, Noah alternating singing and babbling the whole way.
For a week, Henry had thought of little other than the damage he'd caused: the damage to his relationships with both Blue and Gansey, for daring an advance on Gansey; and, probably, the damage to Blue and Gansey's relationship to each other, because Gansey had definitely, definitely kissed him back.
But Noah gave him the excuse to think of other things. When he talked, it seemed that he mostly just wanted someone to listen, which Henry was more than willing to do. It was nice, for the length of a car ride, to simply follow Noah's drifting ideas instead of getting wrapped up in his own.
As they took the exit off to DC, Noah gave the console an excited smack. "I used to come here for concerts all the time!"
Henry grinned. “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah, it was rad!” Noah said, “I saw Blink here once! Do we have time to drive by the venue? I wonder if it’s still there.”
"The schedule's tight," Henry said, “I think we can manage that."
Henry let Noah give him bad directions to the location, and Noah's eyes grew wide when he saw that the amphitheater was not only still there, but currently swarmed with life. Traffic was dense for two blocks in every direction, and a line of kids with bright hair and torn jeans wrapped all around the building, probably visible from space.
“Woah,” Noah said, “Someone cool is playing here tonight.”
Henry pulled out of traffic, letting Noah get a good look. “You think?”
“Yeah,” Noah said, squinting at the crowd, trying to decipher the shirts of those who walked by.
“Hey,” he said with amusement, prodding his finger against the window, “That girl’s got the same shirt as me.”
“Noah,” Henry repeated.
Finally, Noah looked over, eyes wide. "Yeah?"
Henry put two tickets in his hand.
Blink-182. February 14. 7:30 pm. General admission.
Noah’s smile split his face into two joyous halves, and Henry felt his face do the same. “A rock show,” Henry explained, “for the boy at the rock show.”
In just a moment, Noah disintegrated into raw energy—a hug, yanked over the console; a bubbling string of thanks; a whirlwind of gratitude and disbelief and excitement.
Henry let himself be swept up in it. "Go get in line while I park," he said, and Noah ran out of the car to go do so. By the time they were reunited, Noah had made friends with a group of kids in line. He was animatedly describing the last time he’d seen Blink live, and thankfully none of them appeared to know enough about the band to do the math on when that would’ve been.
One of the girls flirted with Henry. Henry could think of nothing except that the bobby pins that held her hair were black, nothing like Blue's deliberately colorful accessories.
One of the boys flirted with Noah. Noah flirted back, just a little bit.
When the doors opened, they had to go separate ways—Henry and Noah down to the pit, and the others up to their seats. Before they split up, the boy gave Noah his number.
“Valentine’s Day,” Henry teased as they filed into the pit, “It’s in the air.”
Noah gave a shrug, but he was blushing again.
The amphitheater was huge, thousands of people stacked up along the walls and hundreds pressed onto the floor. That was where Henry led Noah, where their tickets allowed them to be. There was no chance of getting anywhere near the barrier or the stage, but the crowd immediately filled in behind them, sandwiching them into place.
Soon, it became a waiting game. Henry still felt Noah’s excitement rolling off of him in waves, but as minutes ticked toward the opener and as the pit became more and more packed, his chatter trailed off.
"Is this okay?" Henry asked. Noah looked okay, but it was enough to make even the most steady person claustrophobic.
Noah nodded, but his eyes were distracted, flickering through the sea of people that stood between him and room to breathe. He twisted at a pin on his jacket with one hand and tugged at his collar with the other. Surrounded by all the bodies, it was getting warmer and warmer, and Noah seemed to wilt from it all.
"If you change your mind, we can go stand in the back," Henry said.
Noah's eyes cleared a little, finding his, and he said, "Okay," but his voice got lost in the chatter of the crowd.
Henry figured it was time to return the favor of distraction, so he did, pulling topics from nowhere and giving Noah something to focus on until the music started. But before too long, the lights dimmed and the crowd exploded with sound. It was earsplitting—the air almost wavered with the noise.
Whoever the opener was, the crowd was pumped to see them.
Noah looked slightly less pumped. His hands itched up to cover his ears. The screaming died off as the band made their way onto the stage, and Noah relaxed a little bit again, only to tense up once more when the guitar started riffing, when the crowd surged forward.
Noah caught his eye, and he looked somewhere between panicked and sad. Henry felt doubt itch into him. Maybe this had been a mistake. Maybe Noah wasn't cut out for concerts anymore.
“Do you want—?“ Henry mouthed, throwing a thumb behind him.
Setting his jaw, Noah reached for Henry's hand and nodded. Henry nodded back, tugging Noah behind him as he elbowed his way out of the crowd.
They broke through the tight line of concertgoers, stumbling into open air, and Noah heaved a breath, sinking against a railing.
It was too loud to speak normally, and Henry didn't want to invade Noah's space to talk into his ear. So he dug up the knowledge that Noah and Hannah had been imbuing them all with for the past few months and signed, "Want to leave?"
He shook his head, righting himself a little and glancing back toward the stage. The crowd back here was sparse and calm, watching with mild interest, but the view wasn't bad. "Can we stay back here?" Noah asked, words lost in the noise.
Henry nodded. "Of course."
Noah recovered through the opener, and by the end of it, he was nodding along with the music, looking progressively less like he was going to pass out.
But when the music stopped, Noah immediately apologized. "Sorry," he said. Something on his face was turning guilty, ashamed. "I didn't, um, I just—"
"Noah," Henry said, "My friend. It's so fine. I don't need to be up there to have fun. Do you?"
It was a challenge and Noah knew it. Something changed in his eyes. "No," he said.
"Good," he said, smiling. "Prove it."
And when Blink-182 finally came on stage, he did. Together, they jumped and danced like they were up on the stage, like they were one of a million people doing the same, like no one could see them, like no one was watching. In the sharp, colorful light of the show, Noah came alive like never before.
Halfway through, during ‘Bored to Death,’ Noah leaned in close and asked Henry, "Can you record this one?"
Already his voice was hoarse from singing. Henry's was too when he said, "Absolutely."
While he recorded, he watched Noah, free to dance and sing and scream, smiling all throughout. What had almost been a mistake had turned out wonderfully, and Henry's relief was as tangible as Noah's absolute bliss.
Someday, apparently, the show ended. They barely noticed, hearts still pumping and muscles still firing, achy and sweaty and thrumming as they worked their way back to the car. The remnants of guitars buzzed in his ears and Noah added to it, recounting to Henry the entire experience like he hadn't been there too. Henry let him, soaking up the happiness he'd had a hand in creating.
"This is the best day of my second life," Noah concluded as he collapsed into the passenger seat.
"Happy Valentine's Day," Henry said, returning Noah's phone to him so he could watch the videos he'd taken.
As soon as he handed it back, the phone buzzed a text tone and Noah abruptly shut up.
“What is it?” Henry asked. “That guy?”
“No,” Noah lied.
Henry smiled as he pulled back into traffic. “What’s his name?”
“Jeremy,” Noah said.
“What’s his sign?”
Noah laughed, unrestrained, exhausted into relaxation.
Henry didn't mean to, but he said, “Must be nice."
“They’re not mad at you—“ he began again.
“I know, I know,” Henry said, “but that doesn’t mean they like me back.” He felt instantly guilty for dampening the mood, especially as Noah just sat silently, letting the words hang there.
But the longer the silence lasted, the odder it became. Noah never let anything go without a response.
“What?” Henry asked as they pulled up to a stoplight.
Noah's skin was dewy from sweat and his eyes were shining with memories of light and music. As he opened his mouth, he didn't stand a chance against his better judgment. "This is like Adam all over again," he said, sounding almost chaotic.
"Like when Blue and Adam were dating."
Henry hadn't known that that had ever happened, and his vision tilted just a fraction. Clearly, that hadn't worked out. "So, doomed for failure because of fated true love."
"No," Noah said, flapping the words out of the air with his hand. "It's like Adam because nobody is talking." He took a deep breath, and Henry braced his hands on the steering wheel, preparing for the flood of words that came on the exhale: "Blue said that when she found out, her first instinct wasn't to be mad, but jealous. Jealous of Gansey, for getting to kiss you."
Henry's heart stopped and then rocketed. The light turned green and he pressed the gas harder than he meant to.
"And then she overheard Gansey having a 'clinical discussion of bisexuality' with Adam."
It took all of his strength to keep the car going straight.
"They’re not mad. Nobody’s mad. They're just confused, I think, trying to be cautious.”
Caution. So sensible, so Blue. He loved that about her, even now. Slowly, he felt a smile dawning on his face. "So what you're saying," Henry said, "is that there is a chance that I was not imagining five months of reciprocal affection."
"No," Noah said, sounding more certain that he sounded about most things.
Henry swore, feeling himself sink back against the seat. For the first time in a week, his vision was clear. He could think. He could breathe. "Thank you," he said, to Noah or the universe or any god that may have been listening.
Maybe he was getting ahead of himself. He didn't know anything for sure, yet; he didn't know anything at all, except that maybe he had a chance, that maybe he hadn't ruined everything. But that was more than enough for him. He could work with 'maybe.' He could hope with 'maybe.'
With a cheeky smile and a playful punch at his shoulder, Noah said, "Happy Valentine’s Day."
"Happy indeed," Henry agreed, not bothering to stop smiling. "Happy indeed."
The morning was set aside for the past, because Gansey, Blue, Adam, and Henry had midterms to keep them locked in class until 3 pm. Fortunately, Hannah had faked the flu and taken her tests early and the adult Czernys made sure to clear their schedules so that they could be there from the moment Noah woke up. Ronan, never tiring of the freedom that came from dropping out, was welcome to do the same.
He was met with joyous hugs from Noah and his sisters, like he was returning home after a long trip. To be fair, though, it was not just the hugs that were joyous—it was everything in the house. The energy was bigger than excitement or birthday or 9 am.
"Happy birthday, loser," he said to Noah, handing him a big bottle of peach schnapps with an even bigger bow on it.
Noah beamed, thoroughly delighted. "Thank you, Ronan!" And then he turned and immediately handed it to his mom. "Birthday schnapps, to replace your birthday schnapps!"
"Did you just regift my gift right in front of me?" Ronan asked, but Mrs. Czerny was already laughing and smiling and moving to hug both himself and Noah. Hugging seemed to be a critical part of communication in the Czerny household, and Ronan reluctantly allowed it, much to Noah's amusement.
All the other gifts had already been distributed. The house was littered with Pokemon balloons. Noah wore The Jacket over his pajamas, proudly showing off the new pins Hannah had made for him—a ghost wearing sunglasses, a cartoon rock wearing headphones that said ‘U Rock!’, a pink-purple-blue striped one that Noah explained in a whisper was “for gay stuff” and Hannah corrected was “for bi stuff.” There was a shiny grey Volvo parked in the driveway, and Noah invited Ronan to help him smooth a Blink-182 sticker onto the window.
“It’s mine,” Noah said once the sticker was in place, sounding proud.
“Not red,” Ronan observed, “Not a Mustang.”
“Very safe,” he said, “One thousand airbags.”
Ronan rolled his eyes.
“I’ve done a car crash with you before and it was very scary."
“You were already dead!”
“Yeah! So imagine how much scarier it'd be if I wasn't already dead!”
“You want to take this Fisher Price ass car for a spin? I bet if we tried real hard we could make it go sixty.”
“No way! With the rain?”
Ronan glanced up at the sky, like maybe he would’ve missed standing in a storm. Big grey clouds insulated the world like a blanket, but not a drop of rain had fallen. He held his hand out to prove it. “It’s not raining.”
“It might,” Noah said, putting the keys in Ronan’s open hand. “You drive.”
They took a trip around the block, Noah fiddling with all the presets on the radio while Ronan tried to convince the engine to make some noise. Much to Noah's relief, it wouldn't. They arrived back in time to eat over-buttered popcorn and over-sweet chocolate cake for breakfast. Adele and Noah’s dad had assembled a list of movies that Noah had missed in his “time away,” and they planned on watching as many as possible throughout the day.
Spending time with Noah's family always sat heavy on his shoulders. It was strange, the way they skirted the magic without being a part of it, celebrating Noah's eighteenth birthday eight years late without having lived through that time with him. But the strangeness was nothing compared to the normalcy, the simplistic niceness of a family: Noah’s dad telling them not to get chocolate on the couch; Noah's mom encouraging them to pose for pictures; Adele teasing Noah for his lack of pop culture knowledge; Hannah throwing popcorn into his mouth from across the room.
In moments, it was hard to stand. Even as things got better with Declan, it was never going to be like when they were young. Even as he made progress with waking the dream things, nothing he could do would bring his parents back. Even as he was happy for Noah for having all of this, Ronan couldn't forget that he never would.
But as morning turned to afternoon under heavy clouds and movie soundtracks, as Noah's phone buzzed with texts from Gansey and the others, Ronan was reminded that he had another family to celebrate with.
The rest of the day was set aside for their friends. Gansey came to pick them up and take them back to Monmouth, where everyone was waiting in party hats—even Henry, even though it flattened his hair. Blue had brought a pineapple-pepperoni pizza, which they allowed Noah to eat without ridicule for the first and last time ever. Henry had set up a sundae bar in the kitchen-laundry-bathroom, and they all indulged.
And then it was time for more gifts.
Henry went first. He'd gotten Noah a card, and inside the card was a handmade ticket, inviting Noah to 'Destination: Anywhere.' "Whenever you want to join the gap-year festivities, you're more than welcome," he explained.
Gansey's gift reinforced this. A leather-bound journal with a neat checkerboard pattern on it, complete with a pack of too-expensive pencils. There was a sticky note on the inside cover, and whatever it said made Noah clear his throat and give Gansey a fist-bump that functioned like the hugs had earlier in the day.
Blue's gift was next, of which Noah already knew the contents. They'd gone shopping together a week earlier and Blue had kept all the purchases so that she could modify them and put them in a gift bag. Noah opened it with fake surprise and genuine excitement, running off to change into a mostly-denim getup that apparently passed as some kind of fashionable.
Everyone looked expectantly at Ronan and Noah started to explain, "He already gave me—"
"The schnapps wasn't anything," Ronan assured. "Later."
Noah looked absolutely thrilled, as though this itself was a gift.
Finally, Adam gave Noah the gift he'd tried to give him five months ago.
In the bumpy Monmouth parking lot, with weeds sprouting through the pavement and rain threatening overhead but not following through, Noah got on a skateboard for the first time in eight years.
He was rusty and wobbly and nervous. But more than that, he was alive. When he helped Adam onto the board and dragged him around by his hands, he was laughing. When Henry put on music, he sang along. When he did a clumsy ollie and skinned his knee, he bled.
So long out of practice, he was sort of terrible, but he didn't care. Every time he stumbled, it was just a chance to get back up.
Despite this general lack of skill, he still remembered the promise he made to Blue and Adam all that time ago, so he did his best to teach them to skate.
"Am I Tony Hawk yet?" Blue asked, triumphantly pushing herself in a slow straight line.
"Certainly she's Tony Hawk," Henry said.
"Certainly," Gansey agreed, sitting contently in the grass under Henry's arm.
Noah contemplated for a moment, observing her form, and then cheerily decided, "Close enough!"
She "Whoo-hoo!"ed and immediately stumbled off the board. Noah cheered for the wipe out, and Blue gave him a thumbs-up.
Above them, the sun melted behind the clouds, erasing the line between afternoon and dusk. It never did rain.
"Is it later yet?" Noah asked as Adam skated in halting, uneven circles around them. He was terrible at it, acknowledging the extra difficulty of his deaf ear messing up his balance, but he had a look of studious concentration that was as endearing as it was ridiculous.
"Depends," Ronan said, "Are you tired?"
"No," Noah said.
"Good," Ronan said, "Me too.”
After a little more time spent celebrating at Monmouth, Ronan went with Noah back home. And after a little more time spent celebrating with Noah’s folks, they settled in. Noah was visibly tired, but more than that, he was vibrant. Like he hadn’t just turned 18, but like he’d been born all over again.
“I don’t understand,” Noah said through a toothbrush and a mouth full of foam, “What’s the gift?”
“It’s a dream thing.”
“It hasn’t been dreamed yet.”
He went to sleep with his hand slapped over Noah's chest, with Noah's heartbeat steady under his palm.
It was unlike anything Ronan had ever tried to manifest before, but dreaming was about confidence and Ronan wanted it to work badly enough that it was going to. He imagined stinging and adrenaline and certainty; the shape of the words and the way Noah had smiled when he'd first heard them; the indescribable feeling of survival, not as an event but as a choice made every day.
When Ronan woke up, Noah had fallen asleep. But there on his chest, right over his heart in simple legible script, was the phrase 'transfixus sed non mortuus.' The dot of the 'i' was not a dot but a small stylized firefly. In the dark room, just barely visible, it glowed with every beat of Noah's heart.
It was perfect, exactly as he’d hoped. He rolled onto the floor and went back to sleep, letting his dreams take him this time.
He woke up again to the sound of Noah’s laughter. Squinting into the muted light of early morning, he watched as Noah leapt out of bed and shook him by the shoulder. “Ronan!” he said, his smile splitting through any lingering drowsiness. “Ronan, this is amazing!”
Noah’s joy snowballed into him, and he felt his own smile form. “Happy birthday, loser," he said again.
Just then, the door flew open, and there was Hannah, dressed in a school uniform. “Hey, I gotta go—“ Her voice trailed off, blinking at the spot on Noah’s chest. It took her a minute, and then she was smiling, too. “You got a tattoo!? When!”
“Ronan did it!” Noah said, turning proudly toward her so that she could get a better look at it.
She approached, giving it a gentle poke. No swelling. Her smile said she understood. “What is it?” she asked.
“What does it mean?”
Noah stood up a little straighter, leaning to check himself out in the mirror and then leaning back to grin at Ronan. “It means that I’m not dead.”
"So, like… alive?" Hannah asked.
Noah nodded, his smile only growing. "Yeah, that too."
Adam went instead.
Cabeswater was gone; that hadn't changed. But Cabeswater, as powerful as it had been, hadn't been the source. It had simply been a connector, a conduit, a wire run from the ley line to his heart, to his hands, to his eyes.
The magic was still there. The ley line was still there, a vein in the earth. It spoke differently without Cabeswater as a translator; it was harder to reach without the extension Cabeswater provided.
But Noah was right, all those months ago in the Monmouth parking lot, under stars and tears. Magicians had lots of tricks. He just had to learn to understand. He just had to dig a little further to reach it.
And 300 Fox Way was full of willing teachers. It came naturally to them in a way it didn't to him, but what he lacked in intuition he gained in experience during his time as Cabeswater's keeper. He wasn't quite psychic, but he wasn't quite normal, either, and the women in Blue's family could work with that.
It was a different kind of guidance than Perspehone had provided, a different kind of relationship, but they were still helpful and kind. Even Gwenllian had things to teach him. More than a dozen times, she'd interrupted his lessons or roped him into Blue's lessons, providing a different perspective. Mirror magic was something far out of his reach—A witch is not a psychic, Pebble, Gwenllian had attempted to explain to him once, Your magic is a stream running downhill, from magic to man. Ours is a stream running sideways, from magic to magic, no man involved—but there were places where it intersected with his sort of magic. Places where he needed Blue's amplification to reach what he could barely graze on his own. Places where Blue needed more refined insight than her own nebulous powers provided.
They were becoming a good team.
But on the night of the church watch, Blue opted not to accompany him, and Adam couldn't blame her. Gwenllian was happy enough to take her place. She had gotten no less strange or unnerving since the demon came and went, but familiarity had rendered her slightly more pleasant company.
"Are you ready, Pebble?" she asked him, bouncing on her toes, fingers stretched above her tall hair and toward clouds bordered by moonlight.
Adam couldn't be sure that he was. Sometimes, it was hard to tell if his magic was working. Coincidence could look a lot like fate. But this was his test, and he'd always been good at those. So he squared his shoulders and nodded and waited for midnight to come.
He knew, right away, when it had. Spirits stepped into his sight, creeping into his veins like cold, halted lightning.
"What's your name?" he asked each one. Some of them were immediately recognizable as strangers, but others were fuzzy and dazed, uncertain enough about their identities in life that it had carried over to their death.
Every time he wasn't sure, he felt himself get nervous. What would he do, if he recognized one of them? What if he saw his mom or his dad? What would he feel? And if it was Ronan or Blue or Henry, or, unthinkably, Gansey or Noah? Would he tell them? Would they be able to survive fate again?
But the more anxious he got, the harder it became to see, and the only thing worse than knowing would've been not knowing, so he forced himself calm. He remembered what it felt like to have roots and branches. He remembered the confidence of all that Cabeswater had taught him. He remembered to breathe.
He spoke the names to Gwenllian, and Gwenllian gleefully sang them back, turning them into eerie nursery rhymes.
It was undoubtedly sad business. But as the flood settled into a thrumming exhaustion, he couldn't feel sad. He and his friends and everyone dear to them would live to see another year.
It was a promise, not a guarantee, and he knew that now. But it was still a relief, clean like spring rain.
300 Fox Way never really slept, but it was more awake than usual at such a late hour, awaiting their return. Relief melted them, too, but something was missing.
"Where's Blue?" Adam asked. Surely she hadn't gone to sleep before hearing the news.
Maura told him, and he smiled.
In twenty minutes, he was parked at the graveyard. In the dissipated glow of his headlights, he saw everyone just over the hill.
There was Blue, wearing Gansey's sweater, and Gansey, with Blue tucked against his side. There was Henry, spraypainting something bright pink over the surface of Noah's headstone. There was Noah, grinning wildly as he posed with his edited epitaph. There was Hannah, snapping his picture with the same smile on her face. There was Ronan, bringing a sledgehammer down on the stone, and by their cheers, doing damage. There were all of them, laughing and joking and leaning on each other, celebrating a night for the dead by making it all their own.
The clouds shifted, freeing the moon, light spilling down onto the scene. Tonight, they were alive. And tomorrow, in the light of day, they would be too.
Blue was the first to graduate, three weeks before everyone else. Between family and friends, it had taken two full minivans to transport everyone, and they had a whole row to themselves in the auditorium. Their support was big and noisy, enough so to earn them all kinds of dirty looks, but they didn't care. Ronan held up a posterboard that simply said "Twerp," in black marker. Henry and Gansey had collaborated on an intricately-drawn road map, the streets arced and angled to spell "Excelsior." Afterwards, everyone signed it and wrote little notes, and Blue hung it up on her ceiling, directly above her bed, so she saw it every night before she went to sleep.
Hannah graduated next. All the Aglionby students were still in the throes of finals and couldn't make time for an out-of-state field trip, so Noah, Blue, and Ronan piled into Noah's car and drove to North Carolina to support her. To celebrate, Ronan brought his buzzer, and Hannah and Blue took turns shaving each other's heads. Hannah was happy to be rid of all of her hair, but Blue decided on a clumsy side-shave, and both she and her boyfriends adored it.
Aglionby came last and was, by far, the strangest to attend, with all the suits and ties and teachers Noah recognized, with the fact that he himself should've walked that stage eight years earlier. But the joy outweighed the nostalgia by a ton. Gansey and Henry, stepping into freedom. Adam, graduating as salutatorian, having worked so hard and finally earning his prize, everything he had wanted and more waiting ahead of him. Blue's sign had been confiscated at the door, but that hadn't stopped them all from cheering out of turn, whistling and clapping and a few distinctive shouts of "Whoop whoop Gansey babe!"
After, Gansey and Henry were whisked to celebratory dinners with their families. The rest of them went back to Monmouth to wait, ordering a pile of pizzas and sitting in the parking lot, enjoying the gentle approach of spring and the slow nightfall of a day that was never supposed to end.
Ronan and Blue bickered about what constituted formalwear, an argument that had pervaded the last few weeks, so Adam sat aside in a dusty lawn chair, quietly rewatching the video of the graduation that Noah had taken on his phone. He had invited his parents, but they hadn't come, and he didn't seem upset about it. For maybe the first time ever, he didn't seem upset about anything. An easy peace sat on his shoulders, a cool confidence that had been slowly rerooting itself since Cabeswater's disappearance. Happiness, pride. Noah felt it too, on his behalf, so he dragged his chair over to Adam's and sat next to him.
"It doesn't feel real," Adam said, and then in the same breath, "But it feels amazing."
A dozen times, it had seemed like this moment would never come. Now that it had, it was as wonderful as they'd hoped. Noah smiled, and Adam smiled back, and then he flipped the phone around to take a picture of Ronan proving a point by stretching Blue’s small sweater over his broad shoulders.
In a year, so much had changed. Himself and Gansey, dead and then alive. Blue and Henry, new friends as old as time. Adam and Ronan, the fruition of their magic and of the relationship that had been brewing for longer than Noah could remember.
Time, ever fickle, had led them here. Through all the struggles, to the foot of their futures.
Noah used to miss his omniscience, but now, he was glad to not know. He'd rather experience it by their side, excited and unsure and stumbling through the dark. He didn't need to light his path; if they fell, they'd get back up. There was nothing the world could give them that they couldn't survive.
But there was still one of them who was a little more lost than the others. And Noah was the only one who had the knowledge that could level the playing field.
As the last rays of sun sank back behind the mountains, as the stars crept out, Henry returned with firewood as planned. While he shamelessly stripped out of his fancy clothes and into something casual and clearly Blue-altered, Ronan got the fire going. He had burned all of his school stuff back when he dropped out, and he insisted that everyone else needed that experience too.
Blue sat on the ground in front of the bonfire, separating papers from their binders and setting the binders to the side. Carefully, she put handfuls of papers into the flames, watching as they turned to embers and as wind whisked them away.
Henry had no such reservations and threw in a whole stack of school supplies, the plastic bits singeing the air with the scent of chemicals.
"That's bad for the environment," Blue said, scrunching her nose, "And also wasteful."
"Allow me to be a wasteful for the sake of symbolism, darling," he said.
She allowed it.
"Parrish," Ronan said, slinging an arm around his shoulders and talking into his ear. "Burn something."
"Environment," Adam reiterated, turning a small smile toward him, "Wasteful."
"You can't need all of this shit," Ronan insisted, slinging away from him to pick up a binder that was barely holding together. He shook papers out of it for emphasis. "Burn something."
Eventually, Adam decided he could part with a certain Latin binder. Noah had to wonder if it was Greenmantle's semester or Whelk's. Either way, he found himself cheering along with everyone else when Adam tossed it into the flames.
Blue and Henry let Noah help burn their stuff, since he had no supplies of his own to burn. As he watched the past turn to ashes, held together only by the memory of what it once had been, Noah was glad to be alive.
Henry was trying to start a smaller fire, untainted by burnt plastic, on which to cook s'mores, when the Camaro announced Gansey's return.
The engine clunked to a stop and Gansey stumbled out like he had been trapped inside without oxygen, his tie undone and exhaustion under his eyes.
Henry rushed to his side, smacking a kiss on his lips and grabbing his hands. Ronan "ew"ed and Henry pleasantly flipped him off. Ushering Gansey toward the fire, Henry said, "You did it!"
"I did it?" Gansey returned, life already returning to his eyes.
From where she sat, still emptying folders, Blue agreed, "You did it!"
"What did I do?"
"Survived!" Henry said. "And now the summer is ours."
Gansey's exhaustion softened into a grin, and that felt like a victory in itself.
But while everyone else burned their shackles link by link, a stone sat in Noah's stomach, weighing him down. "Gansey," he said, "Can I talk to you for a sec?"
Concern creased Gansey's features, and Noah already regretted the conversation they needed to have. "Is everything fine?" he asked.
"Yeah, yeah," he said, but he gestured toward Monmouth, and Gansey's features stayed troubled as he followed Noah back inside and upstairs.
He didn't turn the lights on, and Gansey didn't either. The flickering firelight down below made Monmouth tall and dense with darkness, like they would see stars in the ceiling above them if only they had the guts to search.
"What's going on?" Gansey asked. His eyes glinted with the distant flame and with all the darkness left untouched.
Nerves prickled up and down Noah's arms, and his throat felt weird, like he'd swallowed a spoonful of honey. He cleared it, once, gently, wringing his hands as he forced the words out one-by-one: "You will live because of Glendower."
Gansey's concern slanted into confusion, and his thumb came up to his lip.
Noah's voice wavered. It never used to, in the dozens or hundreds of times he'd said it before, so he cleared his throat once more. "Someone else on the ley line is dying when they should not, and so you will live when you should not."
Confusion had turned into something like dread, and Noah's chest tightened further. "Why—?"
"It was me," Noah said. His cheeks felt hot, like the flame from the fire was still reaching him now. He looked down, and then up, and then down, unsure of where his eyes should be. "It wasn't Glendower who said it. It was me."
He happened to be looking up at the exact moment Gansey understood. It was just a flash, and then he turned so his face was all shadow, his eyes obscured. All Noah could see was a sliver of light on his neck, right where his pulse sat.
The silence continued, or maybe time had stopped. When it was just the two of them, it was impossible to know. But Noah's heart kept beating, loud and pulling in his ears. He felt words building in his throat, explanations and excuses and apologies, but he kept his jaw locked tight.
"So you knew," Gansey said slowly, his voice betraying nothing, "You knew all along that Glendower was dead."
Even though Gansey wasn't looking at him, he nodded. "You needed Glendower," he said, words tumbling a little. "You needed the quest. And Henrietta. And them."
"You knew all along that there was no favor."
He nodded again, quickly defending, "But you didn't need the favor. None of us did."
"And it was you that chose me."
Although this moment felt awful and unsure, Noah had never once doubted that his choice was the right one. He couldn't remember the first time he chose it; he only knew that he kept choosing it, a thousand times or always. But he didn't know how to say that, so he didn't.
When Gansey finally looked back, his eyes were damp, his mouth taut. "It was you that chose your life over mine. Not Glendower. Not the ley line."
He didn't want the credit; that wasn't the point. But it was the truth, so he forced himself to nod.
Then Gansey asked, "Why?" It was desperate, almost accusatory, like Noah's logic would fall apart under scrutiny, like it had to be a lie because the truth was too unbelievable.
Noah couldn't bear it—the way that Gansey thought of himself. This was the point. "Because—" he swallowed, cleared his throat again. "Because time went round and I knew what you would be."
"And what could I be that was worth you being dead?"
In the spiral that Noah had lived between his death and his new life, Gansey's worth had been the surest thing, the only thing. And Gansey was oblivious to it. "You would be Ronan's brother and Adam's best friend and Blue's true love and more than that." A small light curved down Gansey's cheek—a tear. Gansey didn’t seem to notice. "You would be brave and compassionate and—" And words weren't sufficient for what Gansey was to them, to the world. "And amazing, Gansey. And you have been. And you will be."
Gansey ran a cursory palm over his face and looked back out the window. Just then, Blue threw a massive stack of papers into the fire and the blaze flared, pulsing in the shadows of the apartment. The boys cheered all around her.
"Are you mad?" Noah asked.
He shook his head, and then he murmured, "Thank you."
Noah shrugged once more.
Gansey turned back to him and said it again, like maybe Noah hadn't heard. "Thank you." And then, "For telling me. For lying to me. For dying in my place. For everything."
"Don't mention it," Noah said, and he meant it. He didn't want Gansey's gratitude. It felt like being thanked for breathing.
But Gansey's fatigue was twisting into panic. "I don't know how I could ever repay you."
"I don't need repayment," he said, "I… needed it, just as much as you did."
"You spent seven years dead," Gansey said, flinching at his own words, "away from your family. And even now, you're…"
"Different," Noah allowed. "Less."
"Less," Noah said. "It's okay."
That, Noah could agree with. He nodded. "But you didn't kill me."
"But if not for me, you could’ve lived." The panic was taking root, now, and turning into something like despair.
Noah shook his head, stepping into the light. He touched his hand to his cheek. "I am living," he reminded him. "You don't need to repay me.”
"Just…" Noah swallowed hard and gestured around to Monmouth. It had always been a museum, but now it was a mausoleum, the remnants of the dead-end quest carefully preserved in every angle. Glendower was a ghost, haunting Gansey, and it needed to be laid to rest. "Just… Don't throw it away." Something creased on Gansey's mouth, like he was going to speak, but Noah continued, "Don't throw it away on— on all of this. This is over." He stepped toward Gansey, reached out, took his hand. "You can be so much more."
Gansey's eyes closed, and he looked so old and so young, both at once. He let out a shaky breath, his grip tightening on Noah's hand.
"Thank you," he said again, a smaller thanks, one that Noah could accept.
"No problem," he said, squeezing his hand back.
And then Gansey squared his shoulders and dropped his hand, and when he opened his eyes, there was something new there. Something determined. He crossed to the wall behind his bed and dragged a stool over, so he could reach the top corner of the map. And then he plucked a pin out.
It hit the floor with the quietest plink. The impact reverberated into the earth, the ley line, Noah's heart.
"Help me," Gansey said, and Noah did.
When they came downstairs with their arms full of paper maps, every one of the others stood to their feet, conversation and laughter falling away in favor of concern.
"What are you doing?" Blue asked, stepping into Gansey's path.
"This summer, this year, we're searching for something more," he said. "I don't need these."
Blue's eyebrows were still wrenched into worry, but slowly, Henry took her hand and guided her out of the way, and she allowed it.
Adam asked, "Are you sure?"
"Yes," Gansey said, and he sounded it. "I don't need to find a king anymore.”
Over the stacks of papers, he smiled at Noah. Peeking between rolled-up maps, Noah smiled back.
Gansey said, "He found me."
And then they dropped it all into the fire.
again, thank you all so so much! this was a really big project for me and it means the world to have you all along for the ride!! as always, comments and feedback make my day, so i'd really love to hear what you guys thought! ❤️