Friday simultaneously flew and crawled by. Every minute of it was filled with schoolwork, thanks to my classes and assignments. I didn’t want to have to crack a textbook all weekend, so I had to finish a couple of things early and make enough progress on others to be able not to worry about them. No Skype call took place that night, since Seb, Quint, and Theo were in the car on their way down already. I did call Seb on the phone just to hear his voice, though.
I also didn’t see Platt except for our PoliSci class and in the few minutes before meal formations. I was glad. A secretive smile kept coming over my face, so often that JJ asked, “Why do you look like the cat who got the cream?” I didn’t want the kid to be suspicious. His reply to my emailed invite—the last piece of the puzzle—was an unwitting, Sure, see you tomorrow.
Bright and early Saturday, I signed out at the main office and left Bancroft with my bag over my shoulder. It barely had anything in it. Seb was bringing civilian clothes for me to wear. The lightness made me want to skip out to the gate. I settled for a very bouncy walk, which turned into a run when I saw Seb, Theo, and Quint waiting for me just outside.
I barreled into my boy, almost knocking him over. The gnawing desire to hold him again—that had been attacking my insides ever since I last did, that had sharpened to a pain like a knife wound when he’d been hospitalized, and had grown more insistent over the last two weeks—finally eased. I still wanted him closer, though. Brushing my nose against his earlobe, I growled, “I need to be inside you.”
He pulled his head back (Unacceptable, my nerve endings snapped), and frowned at me through his blush. “Zain!” he whispered. “Don’t start that here!”
“Tonight,” I promised, and planted a hard, brief kiss on his lips before I made myself let go.
Theo approached from my side. Catching him in one arm, I squeezed tight and used my fingers to mess up his hair until he went, “Hey!” and indignantly pushed me off.
“Hey yourself, squirt,” I said, grinning. Then I turned to Quint.
The big guy’s smile morphed into a quiet “Oof,” as I picked him up, spun around twice, and set him back down amid laughter and giggles from the other two.
“I warned you to prepare yourself for a bear hug,” I said. “Also, you’re very heavy.” I braced a hand against my lower back and puffed dramatically.
“Oh, stop,” Quint said, with another smile. “I think you can handle it.”
“There’s Bradley and JJ,” said Seb, pointing onto the Yard.
I looked over my shoulder and sure enough, my roommate was approaching with the kid beside him. Neither of them had bags. We were going to drop JJ off at his sponsor parents’ house to change into the civvies he kept there, and Theo was letting Platt borrow some of his clothes. I made sure to specify nothing pink this time, unlike the shirt he’d lent the kid once before. We wanted him as comfortable as possible.
They passed through the gate and joined us in seconds. There was a half-minute or so of reintroductions and greetings all around, and then Quint said, “Let’s get going, shall we? We want to arrive soon after it opens.”
“Oui,” said Seb. Quint and I both looked at him. He was watching Platt with a worried little crease in his forehead.
“Are you alright, mon chaton?” asked Quint.
“He’s fine,” I said, before Platt could notice. Leaning over, I murmured in Seb’s ear, “You are so bad at covert ops.”
“I just want it to go well,” he said. Not quite as quietly. Theo overheard and laughed.
“It’s a renaissance faire,” he said. “What could go wrong?”
“Famous last words, squirt,” I said, clapping him on the shoulder and following the rest of the group to the rental van parked down the block. I wanted this to go well, too.
We kept driving for another few minutes after dropping JJ off. Then Quint pulled into Klatsky’s garage. I had met up with my old buddy a couple of times over the past year, but I hadn’t been here since I borrowed his car for that unauthorized trip to New York to straighten Seb out. It brought back some memories.
Stepping into the house, I looked around. It was a pretty standard bachelor pad, with a huge TV and multiple game consoles crammed into the entertainment stand in one direction and an unused-looking kitchen in the other. But everything was tidy.
“No Jags?” I asked.
“Nah,” said Theo. “He’s really not used to long car rides, and with all the stuff we’ll be doing this weekend, we didn’t want to leave him alone in an unfamiliar house for hours, so he’s at Zeg’s.”
“Aww, I’ll miss him,” I said. “You have to bring him down every time you come visit us here after Seb moves, alright? I don’t wanna go a month without seeing the pup.”
His gaze flicked to Seb beside me and lost some of its cheerfulness. “Yeah,” he said. “Every month.”
Quint put a hand on his husband’s shoulder and spoke to Platt and I. “Would you like something to drink?”
I shook my head. “Just want to change my clothes real quick. Where are they?”
“In the bedrooms,” Seb said. “I’ll show you. Bradley, you too.”
I glanced back as we went and saw Theo moving into Quint’s arms for a hug. Oh, squirt, I thought. We definitely needed to fix that this weekend.
Upstairs, Seb pointed Platt to a door, saying, “Theo left yours on the nightstand in there. They should fit if you roll the pant legs up a little.”
“Thanks,” said Platt. He opened the door and disappeared through.
The moment we were alone, I yanked Seb against me and kissed us both to head-spinning, blood-heating breathlessness.
“Ss-stop,” he said, pushing weakly at my chest. “Mmm… No, Z, c’mon, you don’t have time–”
I sighed into his neck. “Yeah, I know. When I do, though–” I nipped his ear, and he shuddered.
Hinges creaked as Platt came half-out onto the landing. Wide blue eyes met mine for an instant, and then he’d snapped the door shut again.
“He’ll be alright,” I said, pulling Seb back to me before he could get too far away. “I think he looked jealous.” I kissed his pink cheek, then glanced at my watch and reluctantly let go. “Almost time. Go downstairs and keep Theo and Quint inside, alright?”
Seb bit his lip as he nodded. “Bonne chance,” he said, slipping away.
It took me only a minute to change in the other bedroom, which overlooked the driveway. My heart skipped when I heard a car pull in. This was it.
“Hey, Platypus, you done?”
His voice floated back to me through the open doorway. “Yeah?”
“C’mere a minute,” I said.
He appeared, wearing a Yellow Submarine t-shirt and jeans that were an inch too long, his hands in his pockets. “What?” he asked, looking cautiously around the room.
“Relax, Seb’s downstairs,” I told him. “Now, remember how you said you didn’t want to know what I was planning so you wouldn’t sabotage it?” That was important for him to keep in mind.
He nodded, a dawning of suspicion coming over his face.
I moved to the window and pulled the curtains open. “Well, this is what I was planning.”
Platt stepped closer to look. Outside, Myrick and Cameron were just getting out of their car. My focus, though, stayed on the kid’s face as he caught sight of them. All the color drained from it. Pale as a sheet, he blinked a few times like he couldn’t believe his eyes, then whispered, “She’s… she’s supposed to be in California.”
“She came for the weekend,” I said. “To see you.”
He continued to stare out the window, his expression unreadable. At least it wasn’t angry. I risked a glance away from him and saw Myrick leaning on the hood of the car, his arms crossed, while Cameron stood beside him in a purple flowered sundress. Both of them were looking at the front door of the house. No one had come out to greet them. Seb was executing his part of the plan well.
“Just talk to them for a few minutes,” I said. “Here, in private. Then if you don’t want them to come with us to the Renn Fest, they’ll leave, okay?”
Platt pressed his trembling lips together, firming up his chin and the set of his shoulders at the same time. He swallowed visibly. “Okay.”
Myrick straightened into a military bearing as we emerged, Platt trailing behind me. Cameron took a step forward. Her mouth set itself into a tense smile. “Platt,” she said.
I kept one eye on the kid, and saw his gaze dart up and down the street. The neighbors weren’t close, but they were within sight. “Come around the house,” I said. “It’s more shaded.”
Platt walked ahead of me, and the other two behind. Once we reached the side yard, though, I stopped. Cameron held out her hand to Myrick as they passed. He took it. Together, they waited for Platt to turn and face them.
A few long seconds elapsed before the kid did. His head bowed between shoulders that hunched high around his ears. The posture usually accompanied the classic Platt-scowl, but now he just looked scared. A tiny glance passed between Myrick and Cameron. I moved to stand perpendicular to them.
“Platt,” Cameron said again, steadier, “it’s us.”
Platt spoke towards the grass by his feet, barely audible. “Why are you here?”
“Because I needed to tell you it’s true, what these guys have been saying,” said Cameron. Her knuckles were white as she squeezed Myrick’s hand, but her voice was calm. “I want this, too.”
“Why?” Platt asked, his head coming up with a confused wrinkle between his eyebrows. “Why would you want that? With me?”
“Why wouldn’t we?” asked Myrick, taking a step forward. Platt flinched away, and he froze, looking to Cameron for help.
“We both care about you,” she said. “A lot. With everything that happened last year, we just wished we could be there for you, and now you aren’t a plebe anymore, so it’s possible.”
She gave him a soft smile. Platt simply blinked at her several times.
“And yes,” she went on, “I’ll be in California, but we’ve discussed it, and we really think we can make it work. All of it. The long-distance, the polyamory, and the military.” She paused, taking a breath and pressing her lips together a moment. “It won’t be easy, but we want it so much, and we just need to know if you want it, too.”
“Justine and I,” Myrick added, glancing sideways at her, “as great as we are together, we feel like someone’s missing.”
The pair of them fell silent, watching Platt with such hopefulness it was almost painful to witness. He kept his eyes on the grass again. Motors of cars passing unseen on the street were the only noises for nearly twenty seconds.
Finally, Platt shook his head, and I heard Cameron suck in a breath. “It’s too weird,” he said. “I can’t even….” He gestured vaguely towards them. “How would…? A relationship is two people, not three.”
I spoke up, because I could tell Myrick and Cameron needed a moment. “Not necessarily. Forget what you know about relationships. What do you feel? What do you want, if nothing else was a consideration except your happiness?”
“We want you to be happy, Platt,” Myrick said, his voice rough. “If you really don’t want this, just say so.”
The kid shifted his weight and slid his hands into his pockets. The flush that had appeared on his cheeks as I spoke spread down his neck. He gave me a pleading look. “I– I don’t know what I want.”
“What if you could take it for a test spin?” I asked. “See what it might be like, for only one day? Do you think that’d help you decide?”
His eyes flicked to Myrick and Cameron for an instant, and his blush deepened. “Today?”
“If you want,” I said, with subtle emphasis on ‘you.’ “They’re here, and they have tickets to the Renn Fest, too. You guys can start getting to know each other outside the Academy.”
Platt gulped. “In public?”
This had been the thing I was most worried about him balking over, aside from talking to them to begin with. My contingency plan was to have the three of them stay here and the rest of us go without them. Myrick had pushed for that being the first option. But I believed strongly that having other people see them all together would get to the heart of the issue a lot quicker, and Seb had agreed. I said, “Everyone’s there to watch the performers, not pay attention to the spectators. Even if they do, what’ll they see? A group of friends, hanging out.”
“We wouldn’t initiate anything more until you say so,” Cameron quickly put in. “So it really would be like just hanging with us as friends. We’ve never been able to do that before. We’d… we’d really like it.”
“And if you want to stop at any time, say the word,” I added. Myrick and I had already told Cameron his safeword. I smiled a little, encouragingly. “What have you got to lose?”
Platt looked at them once more. Cameron was smiling too, with the breeze gently blowing her loose blonde locks and making her dress flutter at the hem and the ruffles on the sleeves. Next to her, Myrick stood solid as a rock, his mouth a straight line as he waited. He nodded, just once, as if he were giving the kid permission to speak.
“Alright,” whispered Platt.
I swallowed my whoop of triumph and tried not to beam too widely as I said, “Awesome. I’ll go get the others and we can head out.”
Inside, I found Seb and a very confused-looking Quint and Theo in the kitchen. Seb had positioned himself to be able to see out the window onto the spot in the side yard, I noticed.
“Oh, good,” Theo said as he spotted me. “Are we allowed to leave now?”
“Would you care to explain what is going on?” Quint asked, placid. “Seb says whatever it is was all your idea.”
I grinned. “He contributed some ideas, too, actually, and no, I’m not explaining.”
Quint’s eyebrow twitched.
“I would if I could, but it doesn’t involve only us. Privacy and all that,” I said. “Sorry.”
He nodded in acceptance, as I’d expected. Theo only looked more curious, though.
“Remember I said some other people might be joining us for the Renn Fest?” I asked. “Come outside and I’ll introduce you to them.”
They followed me out, to where Myrick and Cameron waited by Myrick’s car, and Platt stood six feet away from them by the porch. He looked pale. Baby steps, I reminded myself.
Waving the older two over, I spoke to Quint and Theo. “Guys, I’d like you to meet Justine Cameron and Brian Myrick. Cameron was commissioned last year, and now she’s working on her medical degree, so she’s got stuff in common with you, Quint. Myrick’s in his final year at USNA, studying electrical engineering.”
Cameron spoke to Quint. “You’re in healthcare?”
“Yep, he’s a doctor,” I said. “And this is his husband, Theo, who’s a musician.”
“It’s nice to meet you both,” said Quint.
Before they could get too far into polite small talk while Platt vibrated out of his skin with nerves, I said, “We’re gonna need to take two cars, especially with JJ. Quint, you’re driving the rental, right? And Myrick’s got his. How do we want to split up passengers?”
Seb said, “I’ll stay with Quint and Theo,” like we’d planned.
I turned immediately to the kid. “Platypus?”
Theo and Quint must’ve thought the tension that descended then was rather odd. Myrick was watching Platt with an intensity completely out of proportion for the simple decision. Under his gaze, Platt hesitated for several seconds before mumbling, “I’ll ride with Seb.”
Damn. Oh, well, there would be plenty more opportunities. I said, “Okay, so I’ll go with Cameron and Myrick, and we’ll pick up JJ and meet you guys there.”
“Alright,” Quint said, his eyes slowly travelling between the trio. Yeah, he definitely noticed.
We divided up and I climbed into the back seat of Myrick’s car, behind Cameron on the passenger side. As he started the engine and reversed out of the driveway, she said, “I was hoping he’d ride with us.”
“Me too, but don’t worry,” I said, buckling my seatbelt. “Even agreeing to this is a huge, huge step. We’re going in the right direction.”
Myrick nodded and turned left down an unfamiliar street.
“Although this is the wrong direction to pick up JJ,” I added.
“I know a shortcut,” he said.
“We better not get lost,” Cameron said, exasperated. She twisted to look at me over the seat. “He is the worst when it comes to asking for directions.”
“Oh, I know, trust me,” I said with a grin.
Myrick narrowed his eyes at her. “Quiet.” To me in the rear view mirror, he asked, “You’re sure this will work?”
“Well, not a hundred percent sure, no. It is Platt,” I said. “But I have a good feeling. Anyway, if nothing else comes of it, at least I’ll finally get to see you in tights.”
“Not on your life,” said Myrick.
“You do look amazing in tights,” Cameron said, smirking at him.
In a deep rumble, Myrick asked, “Didn’t I tell you to be quiet, little girl?”
She didn’t seem particularly cowed, although she did stop talking until a few minutes later, when JJ’s eyebrows went up as he climbed in beside me. “Cameron?” he asked. “Uh, I mean, ma’am. I didn’t expect to see you.”
“Cameron is fine,” she said. “How’ve you been, Jacobson?”
“Alright.” Leaning towards me, he whispered, “So they didn’t break up?”
I shrugged. He settled back and buckled his seatbelt, looking thoughtful.
Zain had ended the Skype call Thursday night with the reassurance, “All you need to do is follow my lead, habibi. Nothing you can’t handle.” But now, as I stared fixedly through the window of the rental and waited for Quint to pull out behind Myrick’s car, I thought he hadn’t gotten it quite right. All of us were following Bradley’s lead here. The decisions were in his hands. I hoped he understood that.
His voice came from beside me, under the hum of the engine. “Did you know about this?”
“I helped plan it,” I said. I couldn’t bring myself to look at him, in fear of what I’d see. “Are you mad?”
He blew out a breath. “No.”
“Really?” I asked, glancing over with cautious relief.
Bradley was staring out his own window, so all I saw was the back of his head. “Mohyeldin said it’d be like a test run. I remembered your presentation, and how you said it helped to practice, but you wouldn’t have done it without being pushed. Same idea, right?”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
He nodded, and a shadow from a tree fell across the window, letting me make out his reflection for an instant. Halfway between scared and determined, I thought. I could only hope the latter won out.
From the front seat, Theo called back, “So, I’ve done a few things where men in kilts abound, but I’ve never been to a renaissance festival like this. Has anyone else?”
“No,” said Bradley.
“My parents used to take us to one in California every year,” I said. “They’re fun.”
Theo started asking me about things we might see. I described it as best as I could, using my hands to mimic jousting and sword fights, until we reached our destination.
As soon as we turned into the parking lot, though, I realized my previous experiences paled in comparison to this festival. It was a lot bigger.
We met Myrick, Cameron, Zain, and JJ outside a large gate under the words Prepare Thyself for Merriment. Bradley looked at the letters as if it were a threat. He didn’t move away when Cameron and Myrick came to stand on either side of him, though. Then Quint passed out the printed tickets, and we went in.
My first impression was correct. The booths and paths and stages just kept going through the trees as far as I could see. “It’s the second-biggest faire in the country,” Cameron said, looking around at it all with a smile that lit up her face. “Isn’t it great?”
“Mm-hm,” Myrick said. He was looking at her, though. So was Bradley. Zain caught my eye and grinned.
“They rent costumes for the day over there,” she added, pointing. “If anyone wants to wear tights.”
That made Zain crack up and Myrick narrow his eyes—without losing an ounce of the love in his gaze—while Cameron fluttered her lashes at him.
“I think I’ll pass,” JJ said. “Ooh, glassblowing! My mom loves this stuff.”
We stopped to watch the demonstration. The craftsman heated and spun the blob of molten material on the end of his pipe, transforming it into a goblet so effortlessly it left me in awe. I could only hope to one day show that level of mastery with my paints.
When it was finished, JJ bought a vase for his mother, and Quint chose a milky white and blue globe, strung on a hook like a Christmas ornament. I simply admired the colorful trinkets, mindful of upcoming moving expenses.
It was slow going as we walked on. More and more booths lined the path on both sides. Every single one seemed to pique the interest of someone in the group. Theo stopped to look at Irish penny whistles and mandolins. Cameron and Myrick spent quite a long time in one selling leather goods. I brushed my fingers over quartz crystals arrayed on a counter until Zain popped up beside me and said, “Pick one, it won’t bankrupt us.”
“You’re like the devil on my shoulder,” I said, but I paid five dollars for a rose pink stone that called out to my nerves. I kept it in my pocket the rest of the day, rubbing it when I felt worried.
For the first half of the morning, that was whenever I saw Bradley keeping at least a yard of distance between him and his would-be suitors. They were trying. Myrick asked him for his opinion on where to go next. When we stopped for food—almost all of which seemed to be served on a stick—Cameron asked if he wanted to split a pretzel with her. Bradley just shrugged, though.
“My palm is starting to itch,” Zain said in an offhanded undertone between bites of his corndog, and my stomach flipped over before I realized he was surveying Bradley at the next table, too. “What’s it gonna take for that kid to let them in?”
Without thinking, I said, “A push.”
Zain’s eyes snapped to me. They narrowed. “What kind of push?”
“Um,” I said. “I’m not sure.”
“Oh, yes, you are,” he said, turning to face me straight on. “Tell, my boy.”
Electricity shot through me at those words, spoken in that tone. Suddenly, I became very glad of the table blocking anyone’s view of my crotch. It was impossible not to obey him. “I, uh, I just think that he’s using us being around as a buffer, you know? So he doesn’t have to talk to them.”
“You’re saying, throw him in the deep end,” Zain said.
“I like it.” Ignoring my continued protest, he raised his voice so the others could hear. “Hey, guys, why don’t we divide and conquer after lunch? No reason to stick together and all do the same thing. Platypus, what do you want to do?”
Bradley blinked at him. “…I’d like to see if there’s a booth selling katanas. None of the swords we’ve seen are Asian.”
“I know of a couple places that make those,” Cameron said immediately. “They’re way in the back. Brian and I will show you.”
Bradley’s mouth dropped open, and I winced with guilt. I’d gone beyond helping with the details of the ambush this time. It was my idea.
“Hey, that sounds neat,” said JJ. “I’ll have to– Ow!” He frowned at Zain across the table. “Have to check it out later, I guess.”
“You’re coming with Seb and me,” Zain said. “I want to play carnival games, and I’m not allowed to play them with Seb.”
“Not allowed?” Theo asked. “By who?”
“By me,” I said. “He’s too competitive. I don’t put up with it.”
Quint smiled. “I suppose we should come along, then, to make sure things don’t get out of hand.”
“Yes, please do,” I said.
“It’s settled then,” Zain said, and Bradley glared at him. But when we all got up to leave, Zain pulled me along by the hand and stepped between him and Myrick to lower his voice and say, “Remember, kid, if you don’t want to do this, just say the word.”
Bradley blushed and shook his head. “I’m alright.”
“Good,” said Zain. “Go on, then.”
We watched him walk off to where Myrick and Cameron were waiting, and the three of them disappeared into the crowd.
“See?” Zain said to me. “Stop looking like you got him in trouble. He’s fine.”
I hoped so.
JJ, Theo, and Zain each paid three dollars to throw very small “battle axes” at wooden bullseyes. JJ scored highest, and Zain pouted about it all the way to the dunking booth, where he hit the target and sent the hapless victim plummeting on his first try. That cheered him up greatly. As did JJ falling off the rope climb into a pile of straw repeatedly. Quint and I simply watched the other three play most of the games. At the Hi-Striker, though, Theo turned to his husband while we stood waiting in line and said, “You should go.”
“I’m having fun observing, angel,” Quint said.
“Oh, c’mon,” said Theo. “You’re not going to let these young guys show you up, are you?” He put his hand on Quint’s forearm and squeezed it as he leaned closer. “You’re strong enough to toss me around like I weigh nothing still.”
I was amazed to see the barest hint of a blush on Quint’s cheeks. Zain grinned at him. “Yeah, c’mon, old man. Show us what you got.”
Quirking an eyebrow, Quint asked, “Old?”
Zain nodded enthusiastically.
“You’re not going to let him get away with that, are you?” Theo asked.
“Fine,” said Quint with a sigh. “I will play it, only once.” Looking straight at Zain, he added in the same mild tone, “And I will beat you.”
JJ went, “Ooooh!” and smacked Zain’s back. “I’m kinda worried, Mo.”
“Don’t be,” Zain said, before turning to Quint. “I ran this game at the boardwalk when I was a kid, remember? I know its secrets.”
“Mm,” said Quint. “I’ll still beat you.”
That was like waving a red flag in front of a bull, of course. I thought Quint knew better. Zain narrowed his eyes and asked, “Wanna make it more interesting?”
Quint frowned. “In what way?”
“I would say loser pays for our dinner tonight, but the whole point of it is to fulfill my promise after the churros incident,” Zain said, and I blinked. I hadn’t known that was why he and Quint were going to dinner alone. He chewed his lip a moment, then started to grin wider. “I know! If I am victorious, I am permitted to smite thy backside once with my strong right hand!” He wiggled his fingers in Quint’s face. My mouth fell open, while Theo and JJ both cracked up.
“And if I win, the same for you?” Quint asked.
“Alright,” Quint said. He held out his hand, and Zain shook it.
The carnie called for the next volunteer. Shooting forward, Zain took the sledgehammer from her. As he got into stance to swing, I moved over next to Theo and muttered, “I’m not sure I like this idea.”
“What, are you kidding?” he asked, most of his attention on Zain. “It’s perfect! No matter who wins, we win. Anyway, you’ve seen Quint swat him before.”
“No, the other way around,” I said. “Quint’s so dignified, and trust me, Zain won’t let him wait until we’re somewhere private.”
Theo shook his head, still watching Zain, who was lining up the face of the sledgehammer with the pad, dialing in his aim. “You have nothing to worry about,” Theo said in an undertone. “Quint wins this game every single time we go to Coney Island. Lyra has a collection of huge stuffed animal prizes from it.” He raised his voice and called, “Hit it already!”
“My lords and ladies, there is plenty of time for merriment for all,” said the carnie.
“Yeah, quit trying to distract me, squirt,” Zain said over his shoulder. He lined up again, then raised the hammer high over his head and brought it down squarely on the center of the pad.
The puck shot up to the top of the tower. The bell rang out. I groaned as the rest of the audience, save Theo and Quint, erupted in cheers. Quint just applauded politely, while Theo rubbed his husband’s shoulders like a cornerman with a boxer.
Zain exchanged the sledgehammer for his prize of a stuffed unicorn as big as my torso and sauntered back, smirking. “Wanna just bend over now, orrrr…?”
“No, I’ll still take my turn, thank you,” Quint said.
JJ was ahead of him in line, though. He went a lot quicker than Zain, swinging the hammer without bothering to aim first, and it made an impressive clang hitting the pad, but the puck only bounced up to the “squire” level before dropping again. His next two swings weren’t much better. The carnie sent him on the way a “Better fortunes be with you next time, my lord.”
“Damn, Mo, how’d you do that?” he asked as he rejoined us.
“By being much stronger than you, obviously,” said Zain. I rolled my eyes and decided not to warn him that Quint was good at the game, too.
Quint walked to carnie, accepted the sledgehammer from her, and stood looking down at the target for a long moment. Then he swung. An instant later, the bell rang out again. Theo whooped.
“Serves you right,” I whispered to Zain under the cheers.
He was shaking his head. “Well, now we have to go a second time, to break the tie, and this time, I’ll win, because that was luck.”
“That was skill,” Quint said, approaching with his own stuffed unicorn under his arm. “If we go again, the same thing will happen.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s nearly the start of the juggling show Seb wanted to see, anyway.”
“Yeah, and we’re supposed to meet the tri- the other three there,” I said.
Sighing, Zain said, “Alright, let’s get the smiting over with, then.”
Quint’s eyebrows went up. “I beg your pardon? It was a tie. The bet’s off.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Zain said. “A tie means we both get smited. Smote? Whatever. You and me, big guy.” He pointed from Quint’s chest to his own with his thumb. “Let’s see who’s really strongest.”
“Yeah, a tie definitely means you both get swatted,” Theo said, grinning broadly. “Seb and I could do it. Each to the other’s partner so there’s no going easy.”
I backed away shaking my head. With a laugh, Zain grabbed my arm and dragged me forward again. “Yeah, that’s not happening. We’re settling this between ourselves. Like men. Babe, hold my unicorn.” He shoved it into my arms and went to stand next to Quint, facing away, so their right shoulders touched.
“One moment,” Quint said. He gave his own unicorn to Theo. “Keep that clean for Lyra, please, angel. Alright, at the same time.”
“Count of three?” Zain asked.
Quint said, “Yes.”
I considered closing my eyes or looking away, but I couldn’t. Poor Quint. Most of the people around us were still focused on the Hi-Striker, at least.
“One,” said Zain.
“Two,” said Quint.
“Three,” they said together, and both cracked their palms against the other’s rear end. Hard, from the noise it made. I jumped and blinked, yet I couldn’t miss the tiny wince flash across Quint’s face.
“Owww,” said Zain, spinning around. He was rubbing his hand, though, not his butt. “Are you wearing armor for underwear? Jeez.”
Theo snickered even louder than he already was.
“No, I’m not,” Quint said, sounding completely placid and unconcerned about the people who’d turned to look at us. “Shall we make our way to the juggling stage? It’s this way, I believe.” He smiled at me before setting off.
Falling into step beside me, Zain said, “You’ll be glad to know I’m never doing that again. Worth it, but once is enough. Can I have the unicorn back?”
I shook my head and hugged it tighter to myself, so my nose was buried in the rainbow mane. It hid my smile.
He sighed. “Alright, keep it. I can’t have it in Bancroft, anyway.”
We found the stage and took our seats a few minutes before the juggling was supposed to start. Zain made a show of putting his weight on the wood bench, hissing and shifting like he couldn’t get comfortable until I smacked his arm.
He ignored it to say, “Oh, look! Platt and Cameron. Where’s Myrick, though?”
“I can’t see him,” I said, craning my head to search the pathway behind the other two as they approached. My fingers tangled in the unicorn’s tail and tugged on it. “What if they fought?”
“Wait here, babe. I’ll go see what’s up.”