Fence: Striking Distance


By Sarah Rees Brennan

Illustrated by Johanna The Mad

Created by C.S. Pacat

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The boys of Kings Row bout with drama, rivalry, and romance in this original YA novel by The New York Times bestselling author Sarah Rees Brennan — inspired by the award-nominated comic series by C.S. Pacat and Johanna The Mad.

Sixteen-year-old Nicholas Cox is the illegitimate son of a retired fencing champion who dreams of getting the proper training he could never afford. After earning a place on the elite Kings Row fencing team, Nicholas must prove himself to his rival, Seiji Katayma, and navigate the clashes, friendships, and relationships between his teammates on the road to state championships — where Nicholas might finally have the chance to spar with his golden-boy half-brother.

Coach Williams decides to take advantage of the boys’ morale after a recent victory and assigns them a course of team building exercises to further deepen their bonds. It takes a shoplifting scandal, a couple of moonlit forest strolls, several hilariously bad dates, and a whole lot of introspection for the team to realize they are stronger together than they could ever be apart.

The first installment of this enticing original YA novel series by Sarah Rees Brennan, rich with casual diversity and queer self-discovery, explores never-before-seen drama inspired by C.S. Pacat’s critically acclaimed Fence comic series and boasts original cover and interior art by Johanna The Mad.

Text and Illustration copyright: © 2020 BOOM! Studios

Fence(TM) and © 2020 C.S. Pacat



You’re here early.”

Coach Williams scowled at the sight of Aiden and Harvard. She seemed preoccupied, apparently finishing up an email.

“If I’m not wanted, I can go,” drawled Aiden, sauntering through the office. “I don’t wish to be here at all, never mind early. I was on my way to a romantic rendezvous after class when my cruel roommate seized me by the collar and dragged me here against my will.”

Coach’s office was small as far as rooms in Kings Row went, and cozy in a neglected-paperwork way. The office walls, the color of institutional cream, were covered with photos from fencing glory days. One was entirely dominated by a poster of a saber that Aiden thought might be Coach Williams’s celebrity crush. Coach, still in bright red-and-white athletic wear, looked uncomfortable sitting at a desk. She’d clearly rather be standing in the gym ordering the team to do suicide drills and win state championships.

And Aiden would rather be making out! Yet here they were. It was impossible to get what you truly wanted in this life.

Aiden chose one of the chairs in front of the desk, and commenced lounging insouciantly. He looked toward Harvard and made a lazy gesture to the chair beside him.

“Great job dragging Aiden against his will, Harvard,” Coach praised her captain.

Harvard gave her a thumbs-up. “No problem, Coach.”

Aiden kicked him in the ankle for his wanton cruelty. Harvard grinned. After a moment, Aiden let himself grin back.

“I thought this was a team meeting,” Aiden remarked. “Are we so punctual the others aren’t here yet? I am deeply shamed.”

He glanced around in anticipation of seeing the door open. The team was a bit of a mess this year, but they were an entertaining mess. Aiden was mildly surprised they weren’t here already. He expected Nicholas the scholarship kid to be late. Nicholas didn’t really know how to handle himself at Kings Row, any more than Kings Row knew how to handle his awful haircut and worse style. However, brawny Eugene was congenitally enthusiastic, and Aiden doubted Seiji Katayama had ever been late for anything. Seiji, their baby fencing genius, took life far too seriously.

Aiden shrugged. The important member of the team was here with him.

Unquestionably, Harvard was Aiden’s favorite. Even if he did insist on dragging Aiden away from his life of careless playboy ease. Aiden tried to be very dedicated to his life of careless playboy ease.

When Aiden gave Harvard an approving glance for being the best captain, Harvard avoided his eyes. Aiden had known Harvard since they were five. Harvard was marvelous in many ways, but he was not skilled at deception.

“What’s going on, Coach?” Aiden asked with sudden dark suspicion.

“Aiden, Aiden, Aiden,” said Coach. “Can I direct your attention to this? All will be explained, in the fullness of time.”

She was pointing to her bulletin board, which included a list of phrases such as What’s going on, Coach? Anyone who said, or made reference to, any of the bulletin-board phrases had to do two hundred suicides. In their gym, Coach had a whole wall crowded with things people weren’t allowed to say to her. One was Aiden dumped me. It made Aiden very proud.

“I already talked to the rest of the team this morning,” said Coach Williams.

“Before class?” Aiden wrinkled his nose. “You made the poor little freshmen get up at some barbaric hour?”

“Seiji gets up at four every morning for fencing practice.”

Even their coach seemed slightly horrified to report this.

“Seiji’s life is so tragic,” said Aiden. “I hope I never catch work ethic from him.”

Harvard smacked Aiden affectionately on the back of the head.

“Wow, I wish you could. We’re listening, Coach!”

Outside the picture window set high in the wall was a late September afternoon, even the trees golden with promise. The idea of Aiden’s evening shone before him, all starlight and making out. Aiden didn’t know why Harvard insisted on blighting Aiden’s life by being a team player.

Coach raised an eyebrow at Harvard. “And why are you cluttering up my office and interrupting my writing to my sister to see if Bruno has stopped eating plants?”

“Is that a pet?” asked Harvard with real interest.

“You’d think,” said Coach. “Actually, Bruno is my nephew. My sister’s dog, Antoinette, started munching on the geraniums, then the baby started copying her. Any other questions?”

There was the obvious question: Why would anyone name a dog Antoinette and a kid Bruno?

“Can I see a picture of your nephew?” asked Harvard.

Coach, won over by Harvard’s dangerous sincerity, softened and showed Harvard a picture on her phone. Harvard got out of his chair to take the phone and coo over the kid.

“Aw, Coach, he’s so cute and little!”

Aiden sneaked a glance over at Harvard’s glowing face, and then smiled to himself. Harvard really got a kick out of kids. He also secretly collected videos of kittens and puppies being friends.

Suddenly, Coach slammed her hand down on the desk. Harvard laid Coach’s phone down discreetly beside it.

“The reason I wanted to talk to the whole team in turn was to say you all have to do better,” said Coach. “You hardly ever practice, Aiden. Nicholas choked during tryouts. Eugene choked against MLC. Seiji choked in his tryout against you.”

Aiden snickered.

“I know I should do better,” murmured Harvard. “I’ve been letting everyone down as captain.”

Aiden stopped snickering and lifted his eyes to heaven. There was another picture of a saber taped to the ceiling.

“No, you haven’t!” Aiden snapped. “You’re an angel of a captain, and everyone is thrilled you’re here.”

“I do have a bone to pick with you, Captain. But stop lurking and go,” said Coach. “I will speak with you in private later. For now, leave Aiden to me.”

Harvard winced and nodded. Aiden sat bolt upright.

“Why would Harvard leave me?”

He found Coach’s smile frankly sinister. “I asked him to bring you because I want to talk to you alone.”

“It would be wrong to bring me to this place and desert me,” said Aiden, but Harvard was already making for the door. He cast an apologetic look over his shoulder at Aiden as he went, but Aiden was not appeased. “You’re betraying me like this? I can’t believe it. I thought you loved me!”

“I do love you, buddy,” said Harvard. “But I am betraying you, yeah. Coach’s orders. Captain’s gotta do what a captain’s gotta do.”

He waved goodbye and gave Aiden a mischievous grin. Since Harvard was a traitor, Aiden didn’t wave back and only half returned the grin.

The door closed after Harvard, and the room seemed instantly darker. Aiden leaned back in his chair and sulked. Insouciantly, of course.

Coach was staring at him from across the desk. She’d steepled her fingers. Maybe she hadn’t got the memo that only evil masterminds steepled their fingers.

“Aiden, Aiden, Aiden.”

“Coach, Coach, Coach,” Aiden responded.

“Are you aware we won our first team victory against a rival school last week?”

“Sure am,” said Aiden. “Many congratulations.”

“But you weren’t actually at the match to help us win, or even to cheer your teammates on to victory?”

“Sure wasn’t,” said Aiden. “Many apologies. I had plans that couldn’t be put off. They were ridiculously good-looking plans.”

Coach seemed unimpressed by this information. Aiden was getting the feeling she might be a tiny bit annoyed with him.

“Kings Row has never won the state championship,” Coach announced. “Do you know when we last reached the finals?”

“In the Jurassic period?” Aiden hazarded.

Coach didn’t laugh. Harvard would have. As ever when Harvard wasn’t there, Aiden wished he was.

“Kings Row reached the finals in 1979 but ultimately didn’t win, despite having Robert Coste—a legend who went on to win Olympic gold. Why do you think we didn’t win that year?”

Aiden shrugged. “Robert Coste had food poisoning?”

Coach regarded Aiden sternly.

“He was distracted by someone hot?” Aiden guessed. Coach’s stern aspect only increased. “I don’t know. Give me a clue.”

It was interesting Coach should bring up Robert Coste, Kings Row’s most famous alumnus. Robert Coste hadn’t sent his son to his alma mater. Jesse Coste had gone to Exton, the better, shinier school where he was now the star of a better, shinier fencing team. And Jesse’s former partner, Seiji Katayama, had thrown it all away to come to Kings Row for reasons nobody understood.

Aiden could probably work them out, but he didn’t care that much.

He’d once needled Seiji about Jesse Coste, in order to throw off Seiji and win a match. It had worked. There were no hard feelings on Aiden’s side, but Aiden suspected Seiji held it against him. That was why the phrase “sore loser” existed. Losers were the ones who got hurt.

Coach tilted her head to scrutinize Aiden in a way he found unsettling. Mellow afternoon light caught the silver glints starting in Coach’s hair.

“Kings Row didn’t win, because one genius fencer is not enough to win a team match,” said Coach. “If we want to win the state championships, we have to be the best team we can be. Right now, we’re hardly a team at all. I’ve been seriously thinking our teamwork could use a little, oh, work. Aiden!

Her snarling his name might’ve made lesser men flinch, but Aiden maintained his lounge unperturbed.

“How many times did you attend our matches last year?”

“To tell you the truth, I never bothered to count.…”

He clearly saw the moment when Coach considered throwing a lamp at his artfully disheveled head. “Zero times, Aiden. That’s how many. Zero times.”

“Now that you mention it,” Aiden murmured, “that does sound right.”

Coach leaned both her elbows on her desk, ever more intent. “This has to change. If we establish stronger bonds as a team, nobody will skip matches or try to win them on their own. For the next few weeks, I’ve decided we must focus on teamwork.”

Aiden nodded politely. He didn’t see why Coach was telling him this, since it couldn’t possibly apply to Aiden. When it came to participation, Aiden simply refused to participate.

Coach expanded on her demented scheme.

“We’re going to do bonding exercises. I’m asking every one of you to write essays on your childhoods, which will be shared with your teammates so you can get to know one another better. I’m going to send you on expeditions. I want you to do trust falls. At the end of the team bonding sessions, we can have a team bonfire.”

Aiden gave the door Harvard had disappeared through a wistful glance. He’d been abandoned in this office, alone with a madwoman who wanted him to bond with freshmen instead of racking up dates.

“I have somebody waiting for me, you know,” he reminded Coach reproachfully. “Somebody hot.”

Coach snorted. “Who?”

“Well, I don’t remember his name at this time,” Aiden admitted, “but I’m sure he’s distraught.”

“Shame,” said Coach. “What do you have to say about these training exercises?”

Aiden leaned back farther in his chair, his slouch going from insouciant to insolent. He understood now that Coach had Seiji on the team, she’d gone wild with ambition to win the state championship. Aiden wished her luck. This didn’t mean he was going to put forth actual effort.

“Quick note on those: I won’t be doing them.”

The corner of Coach’s mouth kicked up. “You think you’re getting out of this that easily, huh?”

“I really do. Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful and indolent,” said Aiden. “I mean… I guess you can, but I won’t care. See: indolent.”

Coach’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll drop you from the team.”

Aiden refused to show weakness.

“Easy come, easy go. Replace me with Eugene. Then burst into tears every time you imagine me in his place.”

“I’ll try to be strong.” Coach’s voice was dry. “Run along, Aiden.”

Weird. Aiden had been pretty sure she was bluffing. He felt a pang at the thought of losing fencing, sharper than he would’ve thought. He couldn’t help remembering the early days of fencing lessons, when he started to move in a way that was graceful rather than awkward. Fencing had taught him a new way of existing in the world. Fencing wasn’t a person. Aiden hadn’t thought he could ever lose fencing.

Harvard was in all his memories of fencing, as he was in every memory that mattered, his face luminous and his voice warm as he said, We’ll be on the same team, always.

With fervor that surprised him, Aiden wanted to ask Coach to reconsider, but he couldn’t let her win. He gave her a lazy salute, then ran his saluting hand through his long hair, which he usually kept in a ponytail.

“It’s been real, Coach.”

He was at the door when Coach said: “I’ll also be replacing you as Harvard’s roommate. With Eugene.”

The whole world went still, and Aiden with it.

Aiden froze with his hand on the doorknob. “Excuse me. What?”

“It will be an opportunity for Harvard and Eugene to bond as teammates!” said Coach. “Like Seiji and Nicholas. They’re roommates, and lately I think they’ve been connecting.”

Aiden turned and snarled: “I found Seiji and Nicholas trying to murder each other in a supply closet last week!”

“I’m sure that was part of the bonding process,” Coach said airily. “Well, ta-ta, Aiden!” She wiggled her fingers at him. “It’s been real.”

Aiden’s vision blurred as he tried not to panic. The posters on the walls swam before him. He felt surrounded by fuzzy, dancing swords. That was naturally unsettling.

“Don’t worry,” Coach added. “I’m positive you can find some other boy to be your roommate.”

“I don’t want another roommate!”

Aiden paused, taking a deep breath. He was shouting. He didn’t let himself shout. It wasn’t cool. The ring of his own voice echoed in his ears like the remembered sound of people having fights downstairs. The kind of fights that ended in somebody leaving forever.

“Don’t you?” Coach shrugged. “Guess you’ll be participating in these exercises.”

Coach’s smile was smug. She was doing this on purpose. The detached part of Aiden, lounging in the back of his own mind, admired her play. It was important to know your opponent’s weak points.

“If you try making me do trust falls with Nicholas, Seiji, or Eugene, goodbye team!” warned Aiden. “There will be fatalities.”

“Fair enough,” said Coach, benevolent in victory. “I’m a reasonable woman. I’m prepared to compromise. If you swear to me you will attend every match we have this year, and if you write an essay about your childhood to share with the team next week, and if you attend the sessions and the team bonfire, then you can stay. On the team. With your roommate. Deal?”

Aiden’s soul writhed like a fish on a hook. He didn’t want to participate in team bonding or let Coach win. He didn’t want to write an essay on the awful, pathetic times of his childhood. He tried to think of a way to keep his dignity.

The office’s picture window showed leaves golden as falling stars before Aiden’s eyes. Clear as though the window were a photograph, Aiden could see his first day at Kings Row, walking on the smooth green grass of the quad under the oak trees. He could feel again the swift, hard beat of his heart as he worked up the nerve to ask Harvard a question. Aiden’s father had suggested bigger, even more elite schools, but Harvard had picked this rambling redbrick place of deep woods and narrow lanes, and he wanted Aiden to be his roommate. Aiden loved Kings Row, as he loved fencing, because Harvard had chosen it for them.

His room at Kings Row was home. He wouldn’t give it up.

“Deal or no deal?” After a pause, Coach called out, “Harvard! I’m going to need you to get Eugene.”

“Fine!” Aiden snapped. “Deal.”

Coach was smiling. Aiden wasn’t.

It was Aiden’s policy not to care much about anyone or anything. If Aiden knew one thing for sure, he knew that the person who cared more always lost.

This time, Aiden had lost.


Harvard was worried about his team. Most of all, he was worried about Aiden.

Harvard always worried the most about Aiden, but right now he had new reasons. Harvard was standing in the hall, leaning against the ebony paneling and listening to the muffled sound of voices behind the door, Aiden’s easy cadence unmistakable. But then Aiden had gone quiet. Aiden hardly ever went quiet. When he did, it was a very bad sign. Harvard wondered if he should go back inside.

Just then, the rest of the team showed up and distracted him. Seiji was leading the charge, heading for Coach’s door like a guided missile in a crisply ironed uniform.

“I wish to speak to Coach further about this absurd team bonding idea. It has been haunting me all day,” said Seiji, just as Nicholas Cox checked Seiji’s stride by grabbing on to his sleeve. “Release me, Nicholas!”

“Nope,” Nicholas said.

He and Seiji were like that sometimes. Nicholas grinned while Seiji glared, and Eugene tried to creep up behind Harvard so he could listen at the door. Eugene was a big guy. His sneaking was not subtle.

“Seiji, Coach Williams is talking to Aiden right now,” Harvard said, trying to calm the constantly troubled waters between their star fencer and their scholarship kid. “You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

Seiji’s almost-black eyes narrowed. “Captain, it’s insanity to be wasting time forming human connections when we should be fencing.”

Harvard liked Seiji, but he was very intense. He intimidated many of the other students at Kings Row. He didn’t appear to intimidate Nicholas significantly, though.

Nicholas rolled his eyes. “Team bonding is gonna be cool. You just don’t wanna do it because it means talking to people.”

“Exactly,” said Seiji. “I’m not temperamentally suited to bonding, and I won’t do it.”

Harvard tried to speak reasonably, as was his job as captain. He also made a gesture to Nicholas to tuck in his shirt. As usual, Nicholas was breaking every rule of the dress code.

“Coach thinks this is our best shot at winning the state championship. We’ve never even come close to the finals, not since Robert Coste was a student. When we go up against Exton, we have to be the best team we can be if we’re going to have any chance of beating them.”

At the mention of Robert Coste, both Seiji and Nicholas jolted as though electrified. Harvard wasn’t sure why Nicholas would care about Robert Coste. Maybe he was being sympathetic to his roommate. That was nice. Harvard gave him an encouraging nod.

“Oh, I’m going to beat Exton,” said Seiji, his voice deadly calm. “Tomorrow I will explain to the coach that I can do it on my own.”

“Wow, Seiji. You need me. I’m your rival,” Nicholas muttered.

“You’re not my rival,” Seiji muttered back. “You’re very bad.”

“Let’s not insult our teammates, guys,” said Harvard.

Seiji blinked, finally breaking his intense gaze. “I didn’t mean to be insulting, Nicholas. What I meant was, your fencing is very bad.”

“Really?” said Nicholas. “Really?”

He started to shove Seiji, who turned and walked away down the corridor. Nicholas followed Seiji so he could continue shoving him.

Normally, Harvard would’ve sent two boys who fought as much as Nicholas and Seiji to their dorm, but since Nicholas and Seiji shared a room, that seemed like telling them to go kill each other in private.

Harvard realized Eugene had his ear pressed up against the door of Coach’s office, and intervened hastily to pull him away.

“Whoa, bro,” said Eugene. “Captain, bro. Do you wanna know what Coach just said to Aiden?”

“No, I don’t,” Harvard told him sternly, “because eavesdropping is wrong.”

Whatever Eugene had overheard, it would be all over the school by nightfall. Harvard opened his mouth to order Eugene not to gossip about Aiden’s business.

The door to Coach’s office swung wide. Harvard pushed Eugene immediately out of the way.

Aiden didn’t glance at Harvard, or anyone else, as he stormed, white-faced, out of Coach’s office—and not, Harvard noticed, in the direction of one of his usual make-out spots. He would’ve chased after Aiden if he didn’t have to meet with Coach next. Harvard had responsibilities. He couldn’t just run off and do whatever he wanted.

That was Aiden’s job.

Still, the glimpse he’d got of Aiden’s green eyes set in a face gone salt-white stayed with him, even after the echo of Aiden’s steps down the hall had faded away. Maybe Harvard could quickly go check on him.

Coach rapped on her desk. “Captain! Come inside.”

Harvard hesitated a moment.

“When I get impatient, I have this irresistible urge to order captains to do five hundred suicides,” threatened Coach.

Harvard did as he was told, and closed the door of the office behind him.

Coach studied him as he sat.

“What are you looking so thoughtful about, Harvard?”

“Aiden,” said Harvard honestly.

“You’re thinking about Aiden?” said Coach.

“Well, I’m thinking about all my teammates, really,” said Harvard. “The team is in some, uh, disarray. Seiji and Nicholas were fighting about Seiji not wanting to do team bonding, and Aiden seemed… upset.”

“You shock me,” said Coach. “On all counts.”

Harvard decided there was nothing to worry about, because he and Coach would put their heads together and work this out. Coach Williams was the best coach Harvard had ever had, and Harvard thought they made a pretty good pair. His mom thought she was awesome, too. Coach wore her hair in a natural cloud like Mom’s youngest and coolest sister, Harvard’s favorite aunt, though Harvard’s auntie wore gold beads woven through her curls. Harvard couldn’t imagine Coach doing that. Coach was too no-nonsense for beads.


  • Praise for Fence: Striking Distance:

    One of Buzzfeed's 10 Young Adult Books to Read Just in Time For the 2020 Olympics
    One of BookRiot's Summer 2020 YA Books: Your Reading List is Hot, Hot, Hot!
    "Queer-affirming.... Fans of C.S. Pacat's graphic series Fence may wish to reenter this world in novel form."—Kirkus
  • Part sports story, part romance, this novelization of C. S. "Pacat's comic series is a laugh-out-loud funny dive into camaraderie and identity.... A satisfying but open ending will leave readers eager for the next installation in this worthy adaptation."—Booklist

  • "Brennan plops the reader into the 'Fence' universe without a backward look and darts forward with admirable speed.... Romance and comedy compete for top billin.... A solid buy where the graphic novel series is popular, or for libraries looking for a fun book to bump up their LGBTQ+ selections."—School Library Journal

On Sale
Sep 29, 2020
Page Count
368 pages

Photo of Sarah Rees Brennan

Sarah Rees Brennan

About the Author

Sarah Rees Brennan is the No. 1 New York Times bestselling YA author of over a dozen books, both solo and co-written with authors including Kelly Link and Maureen Johnson. She was long-listed for the Carnegie for her first novel. She was born in Ireland by the sea and lives there now in the shadow of a cathedral, where she’s working on—among other things—her series of tie-in novels with the hit Netflix show The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Her most recent standalone novel, In Other Lands, is a tale of love, friendship, and wings starring the crankiest boy to ever stumble into a magic land and was a Lodestar Award and Mythopoeic Award finalist.

Learn more about this author