I’ve decided to post this one in parts, because it will be so long overall. This part focuses on Quint/Theo and Seb/Zain, but the triad will be featured as well in the next part, so I’m tagging with all of them.
I sighed and jogged my knee up and down. Slouching in my chair, I stretched my foot out across the aisle until I could poke Seb’s shin with my toes. He looked up from his book, rolled his eyes, and went back to reading. Next to him, Quint was also peacefully absorbed in a book. A voice droned over the PA. Likely announcing the next flight to board. It wouldn’t be ours.
I sighed again.
“Okay,” Theo said, appearing behind me. “I’ve walked around the terminal twice, and now I’m officially bored. How long do we have still?”
“Hours,” I moaned, tipping my head back.
“About thirty minutes,” Quint said, with a glance at his watch. He nodded from Theo to the chair next to me. “Why don’t you play a game on your phone, angel?”
“I’m sick of all the games on my phone,” Theo said as he plopped into the chair and slouched too, his arms crossed.
“You could take a nap?” Quint suggested, very mild.
Theo hmphed and dropped his gaze.
Poor squirt. I knew just how he felt. Unlike him, though, I wasn’t in any danger of being pulled into the nearest bathroom and swatted for my grousing. Probably. I did notice Quint’s not-quite-capital-L look wasn’t exclusively aimed at his husband.
To be fair, I’d been whining about the delayed flight a lot more than Theo. Every minute longer away from Disney World was pure torture. Seb just tunes me out, but Theo might’ve been picking up my mood. Time for a change of atmosphere.
I thought a moment, and then straightened, grinning. “Why don’t we all play a game? It’ll help the wait pass quicker for everyone.”
Quint closed his book with a grateful expression. “Good idea. Did you have one in mind?”
“Never Have I Ever,” I said.
“Don’t you need alcohol to play that?” asked Theo.
“No, you just use your fingers.” I held up a hand with my fingers spread wide. “If you’ve done it, put one down. Last person not making a fist wins.”
Quint and Seb exchanged an apprehensive look. Quint said, “Alright, provided we all keep in mind that we’re in public, I’ll play.”
“Excellent!” I said. “Babe? Please?”
“I’m going to regret this,” Seb said as he folded down the corner of the page in his book and returned it to his bag.
“Nah, it’ll be fun,” I said. “I’ll start. Everybody hold up a hand. No hiding when you put a finger down, and no lying.” I waited until they were ready. “Okay. Never have I ever gone to Disney World.”
“Hey!” said Theo. “You knew already I’m the only one that’s gone before!”
“Sorry, squirt,” I said. “It’s just all I can think about right now. Put a finger down.”
He sighed and folded his thumb in. “I still can’t believe that you, of all people, haven’t been.”
“Not for lack of trying,” I said. “My parents would always be like, ‘Why do we have to fly across the country? We have a Disneyland right here!’ They didn’t really get that there’s a difference, no matter how many times I explained.” My eyes narrowed as I thought back. “That or they didn’t want to spend more money…. Probably the latter.”
“My turn,” Theo said. “Never have I ever gone to Disneyland.”
I laughed. “Okay, I asked for that.”
Across from us, Seb and Quint still had all five fingers.
“Seb, why didn’t you go to Disneyland too, if you grew up in California?” asked Theo.
“Because we took our vacations to real castles,” Seb said.
Huffing, I said, “You’re such a snob.”
“I just don’t get why you would want to go a park that someone has made to look like other places when you could actually go to those places and have a more authentic experience.”
It was an old, tired argument between us, so I didn’t bother pointing out all the holes in his logic like I have many times in the past. Instead, I smiled knowingly. “What you’re saying is, you want to honeymoon in France.”
“No,” he said, shifting in his seat. “There’s plenty of beautiful countries in Europe. Or Africa, maybe.”
All the French-speaking countries, I was willing to bet. I pointed one of my remaining fingers at him and said, “I’m going to convince you to Disneymoon before this trip is out. Just you wait.”
“Uh-huh,” he said.
“I’ll go next,” Quint said. “Hmmm… never have I ever broken a bone.”
Theo and Seb both put a finger down. “Bike accident when I was fifteen,” Theo said. “Guy opened a car door right in front of me, I tried to go around it and wound up breaking my ankle on the curb, and that is why I no longer ride bikes in the city.”
“Thank god it wasn’t worse than that,” Quint said. “Mon chaton, what did you break?”
“My arm, when I was ten,” Seb said. “I was, uh, hiding on the garage roof and I fell.”
“It’s amazing he hasn’t broken anything since,” I said. “Your turn, habibi.”
Seb inhaled and said, all in one breath, “Never have I ever eaten meat, and we’re-in-public,-Zain.”
Smirking, I made a show of zipping my lips together while lowering a finger on my other hand. The other two lowered fingers as well, Theo snorting with laughter.
“Your turn again, Zain,” Quint said.
I looked right at Seb and said, “Never have I ever gotten three speeding tickets in one year.”
He went pink as he put a finger down. “I’m gonna kill you.”
Turning to face him more fully, Quint raised an eyebrow. “Three?”
“Yeah, he tends to space out and develop a lead foot,” I said. “Figured you should probably know that before you put him on the car rental agreement.”
“The last time was years ago!” Seb protested, flushing darker.
“And it’ll stay that way,” I said. “Your turn, Theo.”
“Hang on, I need to make it a good one. You’re all ahead of me.” He paused for several seconds, staring at the terminal’s ceiling. “Okay, all I can think of is never have I ever mooned someone.”
“Really? You disappoint me, squirt,” I said, while putting a third finger down myself.
Theo leaned over and lowered his voice. “I know, but it just doesn’t seem wise to, y’know, commit a crime that suggests the punishment by its very nature.”
Seb sighed. “Why doesn’t it surprise me that you have, Z? Tell me it was before we met.”
“Well, I’ve also mooned Quint a few times,” I said. “That was with another motive, though.”
Theo frowned. “When did you– Ohhhh, right.”
Clearing his throat, Quint glanced around at the other passengers spread over the gate area. “Public, remember, please.”
“Wait,” Theo said. “I just want to know about the other time, not connected to that. Please?”
“On the way to a Boy Scout camping trip when I was fourteen,” I said. “One of the other guys dared me to, so I staged a little educational show in astronomy for all the cars behind our van. And then our Scout Leader saw me in the rearview mirror and I got put in charge of latrine maintenance. I would’ve rather been spanked, honestly.”
“Moving on,” said Quint, “I believe it’s my–”
“Wait a minute! You put a finger down on that one!” Theo interrupted.
Both Seb’s and my eyes snapped to Quint’s hand. He was only holding up three fingers now. He was also blushing.
“You… you’ve mooned someone, Hanniford?” I asked, at the same time Theo demanded, “When was this and can I have a time machine to go back and watch?”
“Everyone is young and foolish at some point, and that is all I’ll say on the subject,” Quint said.
“Wh– You can’t leave it at that!” said Theo, leaning forward in his chair and raising his voice enough that several nearby families looked over. Seb saw them watching and broke off staring at Quint like he didn’t recognize him to pull his foot up so he was hiding behind his knee.
I put my hand on Theo’s shoulder and tugged him back. “Technically, the rules just state you have to be truthful, squirt, not give the whole story.”
“But I need to know this!” he said, grinning. “Ten years together ought to count for something. Seb, don’t take your turn until he spills.”
Seb didn’t share his amusement. His eyebrows came together over his green eyes as he looked from Theo to Quint, torn.
Glancing sideways at him, Quint sighed and said, “Then I believe the game should end here.”
If he wasn’t going to tell the story to get Seb out of an uncomfortable situation, nothing would sway him. I stood up, cheerfully saying, “Oh, well. It was fun while it lasted. Squirt, come explore with me instead. Together, we’re sure to find some way to kill twenty minutes.”
Theo tried one last puppy-dog pout on Quint, but the man was unbendable. With a little grumble under his breath, Theo got up, and we walked off with Quint calling after, “Stay out of trouble. Both of you.”
“Do you ever wonder if he was born an old fuddy-duddy?” Theo asked.
I pointed out a shop to distract him. It seemed to me that Quint’s surprise confession was answer enough.
Our plane landed in Orlando about three hours later. As we waited for the people in the seats ahead of us to clear out, I bounced in the aisle more than the kids who were already wearing their Magic Bands. I would’ve had mine on if Seb hadn’t packed it when I wasn’t paying attention.
The other three indulged my excitement and hurrying them through baggage claim, though Seb pretended he didn’t know me when I insisted on having my picture taken with the Mickey Mouse sign. Then I rushed us to the counter to pick up our rental van, which took ages. By the time we finally stepped outside into the Florida sun, I wanted to drive all the way to the Magic Kingdom without stopping for anything else. Forget about our planned grocery shopping spree or going to the Expo to get our race bibs. I needed to see the castle. My bones itched with it.
Then I glanced back at Seb, pulling his massive suitcase across the parking lot and looking pale and sweatier than the low-70s temperature accounted for. I dropped into step next to him. “Got your tablets, babe?”
He shook his head and walked faster. “I’m fine until we get to the car,” he said, quiet enough for only me to hear. “Don’t need to stop and dig them out. We’re already running late, and you’re trying to make up for lost time.”
Crap. Of course he’d pick up on that and decide he was the one inconveniencing us.
As it happened, I had a spare tube of glucose tabs in my pocket, within much easier reach than his messenger bag strapped to his suitcase. I could get them without breaking my stride. But I stopped dead anyway. “Um, Seb?”
I waited until he actually looked at me—through his eyelashes—to say, “Don’t you dare think I care more about this vacation than your health.” I pulled out the tube, popped it open, and tipped two tablets into my other hand. “Here. Chew and swallow before you take a single step.”
Gingerly, he took them from me.
Quint and Theo had stopped to wait for us, yet they didn’t come back or ask what the hold-up was. Must’ve been obvious by my posture.
While Seb chewed, I said, “I have all the time in the world for you, habibi. If I do something that makes you doubt that, smack me upside the head, okay?”
He nodded, swallowed, and then reached out and whapped my crown.
I laughed. “I meant starting now, but fair enough. Ready to go?”
We rejoined the other two in a few yards. “C’mon,” I said. “Off to Walmart.” Those groceries were mostly so Seb wouldn’t have to guess the carb count of every single meal he ate for the next week. No way were we delaying something that important.
At Walmart, Theo and Seb went off to get poster board and markers while Quint and I divided and conquered the rest of the shopping list. Even so, it took another half-hour before we could head to our resort.
Crossing onto actual Disney property was the best. I did a drumroll on my armrest in the back of the van as we approached the welcome sign, and when we drove under it, Quint and Theo cheered and Seb clapped, laughing and rolling his eyes at my excited whoop.
Instead of a regular hotel room, we’d picked a cabin at Fort Wilderness, a resort with pioneer-days theming and lots of campgrounds. I knew it was the right choice the moment Quint turned into the main entrance. The entire place was set in a forest. I looked over at Seb and watched him take it in. “Beautiful, right, babe?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to be so… natural-looking.”
I cracked up, while Theo twisted around in the front seat and asked, “Natural-looking? You were expecting fake trees?”
“You know what I mean!” said Seb.
“No, I really don’t,” I said, still laughing.
Our cabin was set at the corner of a loop, so the others to either side were about twenty-five feet away. Lots of privacy—another bonus. The main reason we decided to stay here, though, became apparent the moment I bounded up onto the deck and unlocked the door with my Magic Band. It really was a small house, complete with a kitchen, dining area, living room, bathroom, and a master bedroom that had its own entrance onto the deck.
As the other three came in behind me, I opened the one closed door off the hallway and laughed. “Oh, look! They even provided a ladder. Someone must’ve warned them we might need it.”
“Shut up,” Seb said, going pink.
Quint glanced at the thin beams that ran under the vaulted ceiling overhead, then raised his eyebrow at my Brat. “Need I remind you what I said the last time?”
“Non, monsieur. I’m not going to climb onto them, I promise.”
“You notice he doesn’t mention the trees,” Theo said.
I laughed as Seb shot him a look. Truthfully, I wasn’t that worried. None of the ones we’d passed looked climbable, and I was planning to keep him fully stress-free.
We unpacked the car, then made a quick lunch to eat on the way to the Expo, where we had to split up again so Quint and I could get our bibs and race packets while Seb and Theo went to another building for the ChEAR Squad. They’d purchased a special package that got them reserved viewing areas for the race, plus cowbells, t-shirts, and stadium blankets, which looked pretty tempting by the time we reunited. The temperature had dropped at least fifteen degrees and was going to keep getting lower, according to the forecast. All of us bundled up in layers before, at long, long, last, we headed for the Magic Kingdom.
I am not at all ashamed to say I gasped and pointed at my first glimpse of the castle through the monorail window. Seb was probably thankful that we had the car to ourselves so no one else could witness me bouncing on my toes going, “I can see it! I can see it!”
At the station, I started to run down the ramp to the park entrance. “Zain,” Quint called after me. “Save it for the marathon.”
There was also a cast member ahead, so I slowed to a fast walk, much as it killed me. The others caught up by the turnstiles. We breezed through with no lines, and then…
“Look, look, the Christmas decorations are still up!” I said, pointing at the tree as we walked through the tunnel under the train station. “Ohhh, look!”
Theo laughed. “We see it.”
“Z, you don’t even celebrate Christmas,” Seb pointed out.
“Yeah, but they’re beautiful, and I am a man who enjoys gorgeous things. You, of all people, should know that,” I said. He bit his lip to hide his smile. I added, “Anyway, it could easily be a solstice tree.”
“True,” he allowed.
When we emerged into the sunlight again, the castle was visible off in the distance beyond the towering tree, glimmering like a mirage, yet completely real. Chills of excitement raised goosebumps on my skin. I felt a lump in my throat. We’d made it.
Zain stopped walking just inside the park entrance. Quint, Theo, and I did, too, waiting for him. But after a few seconds, he still showed no sign of running to the castle like I’d expected. All the shades of brown in his eyes were more radiant than usual. I exchanged a look with Quint and then gently touched Zain’s arm. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he said, on a sigh. “I’m just so happy.” He smiled at me, one of his quiet smiles that make me think of early mornings in Hawaii and ocean breezes coming off the lanai as we lay in bed together. “I’m glad my first time here is with you, habibi.”
I swallowed. What happened to my bouncy, impatient Zain? More importantly, how could I get him to stop making me feel emotional about a giant, overcrowded, commercialized, noisy tourist trap?
He kissed my cheek, and I gave up. It’s impossible for me to turn off how my soul responds to seeing him full of joy. I mumbled, “I’m glad, too.” His smile widened.
Quint spoke quietly from my other side. “We have an hour until our first FastPass. Zain, I think it’s only right to let you take the lead. What would you like to do?”
“I wanna wander around Main Street for awhile,” he said.
“Really?” Theo asked. “Isn’t it just shops and places to eat?”
“Oh, squirt, it is so much more than that!” said Zain. “We’ve just entered the show and this is the opening credits.” He took my hand in his and set off around the tree, gesturing at the walkway as the other couple followed us through the crowd. “See how it’s tinted red? It’s the red carpet.”
“That’s not a coincidence?” Quint asked, doubtfully.
“Nothing is a coincidence in Walt Disney World,” Zain said. “This place is the product of artists.” He pointed up at the nearest building. “Read the names in the windows. They all pay tribute to a person or group that helped make the park. There’s even a Magic Kingdom Casting Agency door to thank everyone who works here every day.”
I listened in amazement as he explained who each window we passed referenced and what they’d done. How can he still surprise me? I had no idea he knew such a deep level of detail about Disney parks as well as the movies.
Something about it tugged at the corners of my mind, trying to point out a similarity just beyond my reach. Then it hit me from the blue. Myself, in an art museum. The times when I’m not just silently awestruck by a work and he asks me to tell him about the history or influences or techniques it uses.
He always pays attention to my answers, too, even if he might not remember them for long. I can still feel how proud I was the first time he looked at a painting he’d never seen before and said, “That’s a Degas, right?” The subject was a ballerina, so not hard to guess, but even so. He deserved at least an equal effort from me to show some interest.
“What do they do with the second and third stories of these buildings?” I asked.
Zain grinned. “All of them only have two stories, actually.”
I blinked and looked up to count again. “This one has three!”
“Two,” he said. “Forced perspective. And the top floor is offices and storage, I think.”
“What’s forced perspective?” asked Theo.
“Seb can probably explain it better,” said Zain. “It’s an art thing.”
I was frowning at the building, trying to make it out, but I stopped to say, “There’s all sorts of techniques you can use with scale and light to make things seem bigger or smaller, or a different distance from the vantage point than they really are. Optical illusions.”
“Cinderella’s Castle is another one,” Zain said. “The windows get smaller as it goes up, so it looks taller and farther away.”
“It’s very effective,” said Quint.
I nodded, thinking, Like stepping into a painting.
“Come this way,” Zain said. He walked on and turned a corner into what looked like a tiny, dead-end sidestreet. “Stand here a minute.”
“Why?” Theo asked. “There’s nothing down–”
“Shh,” said Zain.
Theo fell quiet. After a moment, I heard two piano notes from above, and then someone singing scales. Theo spun around and looked up where it came from. There was a window with shadows behind it, and the words across said, Voice & Singing Private Lessons.
With a grin, Theo sang along until it went too high for him. He turned back to Zain. “I never knew this was here!”
“That’s why you should take time to explore Main Street,” Zain said. “Let’s walk back down to the train station and see the luggage!”
Quint laughed and asked what was so special about it, but he refused to explain, so we returned to the park entrance. Before we could enter the station we’d passed through earlier, though, Zain gasped and took a sharp detour toward a theater on the left. The banner above the entrance read, Meet the Master Magician: Mickey Mouse.
“He’s here!” said Zain. “We have to go see him!”
My feet slowed. Meeting characters was one of the things Zain had been talking about endlessly since we started planning this trip. They would be dotted all along the marathon route tomorrow. Far away from me. I didn’t expect to be dragged to one less than thirty minutes after we arrived. And now Zain was all excited, and I just knew I’d turn into awkward idiot and ruin the entire experience for him. “I’ll wait out here for you guys,” I said, stopping by the entrance as Zain bounded into the velvet-roped queue.
Frowning, Quint said, “It’s getting a bit chilly to stand outside, mon chaton.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Zain backtracked, a knowing smile all over his face, and grabbed my hand. “Babe, he’s Mickey. He doesn’t bite.”
“I’m not scared,” I said.
“Uh-huh,” said Zain. “Look, if you want, you don’t even have to interact with him. You can stay next to the photographer.”
“I’ll probably be doing that as well,” Quint said, and Theo rolled his eyes.
“Won’t we see him at the finish line tomorrow?” I asked.
“That’s different,” Zain insisted. “You have to see him here. Pleeeeaassee?” His lower lip protruded.
I sighed. Refusing to go would ruin this for him, too. “Okay, if I don’t have to interact.”
“Yay!” said Zain. He pulled me with him into the queue again, leading the way.
The four of us quickly wound back and forth through the ropes until we reached a hallway where the line of people started. Most of it was families with children below ten. Another reason to feel out of place. Although with the way Zain was fidgeting around, he might’ve been five years old.
The line moved fast. In no time at all, we were ushered into a room set up to look like a backstage area. Mickey stood in the middle of it wearing a magician suit and cape.
Zain bounded to him. “Mickey! I’m so happy to see you!”
“Hiya, pal!” said Mickey. “I was hoping you’d stop by.”
My mouth dropped open. Next to me, Theo whispered, “He talks? He didn’t do that when I was a kid.”
Zain and Mickey were hugging. When they broke apart, Mickey laughed and asked, “So, are you having a good time?”
It was surreal. He sounded exactly like Mickey does on television. Feeling as if I’d woken up in some alternate universe where you could walk into art and cartoons came to life, I watched Zain say, “Yeah! We’re here for the marathon tomorrow.”
Mickey ran in place for a few seconds. “Are you going to win a medal?” he asked.
“Of course!” said Zain. “I’ll come back and show it to you.”
“Hot dog!” said Mickey. “Say, can I get a picture with you?”
Zain agreed like a shot. When he and Mickey were done, the photographer turned to Quint, Theo, and I. “Do you guys want a picture, too?” she asked.
“Sure,” said Theo, stepping forward. Quint followed him, and Zain held out his hand to me. Warily, I eyed Mickey in case he decided to strike up another conversation, but he was just waiting. I darted to Zain’s side.
“Thanks, habibi,” he said, wrapping me close.
“Are you ready?” Mickey asked as Quint and Theo posed on his other side. “Saaaay cheese!”
“Cheese!” everyone said. Including me.
Our FastPass window for Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin was starting as we exited the theater, so we left Main Street behind for the first time and entered Tomorrowland. All the old-fashion charm turned into spiked, curved metal columns sticking out of the buildings like blades. They supported a track of some sort than ran overhead, extending far into the walkway. The whole place seemed to want to close in on the crowds below. My nose wrinkled as we passed a snack stand and the sickly-sweet smell of cotton candy rolled across us.
But once we boarded the ride, I forgot the outdoor atmosphere. It was too much fun, shooting my raygun at all the targets with Zain making our spaceship spin wildly around so he could aim better and whooping every time his own score jumped higher. I could hear Theo and Quint’s laughter as we neared the end, where a large chart showed what Space Ranger rank we’d earned based on our score.
Zain demanded to know everyone else’s, and then crowed about getting the highest out of the four of us. “I will answer only to Ranger First Class Zain for the rest of the day.”
“You’re awful,” I said as I climbed out of the spaceship after him.
Ignoring me, he said, “I wanna be a Galactic Hero, though, so we have to come back”
“Yes,” said Quint, still chuckling. “I’d enjoy that one again.”
“What next?” Theo asked.
The temperature outside was colder than ever. We huddled in a circle to consult the map on Quint’s phone and decided to do Monster’s Inc. Laugh Floor, since it was close and indoors.
I didn’t realize until the waiting area that it also had an audience participation element. A group of people standing nearby were talking about how they hoped to be chosen to play the various roles. Dread filled my gut as I listened.
Don’t be ridiculous! It wouldn’t kill you!
Zain glanced up from texting jokes to possibly be used in the show. He touched my wrist, firm enough that I knew he was checking my pulse, and smiled. “If they pick you, I’m gonna steal the spotlight so they’ll use me instead.”
I shook my head and tried to tug free. “I’m not worried.” He shouldn’t have to worry about me being worried! It was his vacation!
His grin widened. “Who said you were?”
Then he let go of my wrist only to reach around me and, right there in the middle of the crowd, pat my bottom.
My face burned. I checked if anyone nearby was watching us. Only Theo, who winced as our eyes met and mouthed, yikes. Zain, meanwhile, was peacefully texting again, like he hadn’t just done that.
My anxiety was for nothing, of course. The show passed without incident—except for Zain pumping his fist in the air when they used his joke.
On the way out, Theo checked his phone and said, “Oh, look, Space Mountain only has a ten-minute wait. We should do that next, while we’re over here.”
“I thought that was at Epcot,” said Quint.
“You’re thinking of Spaceship Earth,” Zain said. “Otherwise known as The Giant Golf Ball. Squirt, why don’t you guys do Space Mountain while Seb and I go see the Carousel of Progress?”
Theo looked appalled. “You’re skipping Space Mountain for that?”
At the same time, Quint frowned and asked me, “Do you know what Space Mountain is?”
“No,” I said.
“It’s a roller coaster,” said Zain.
“Indoors, in complete darkness,” Theo added. “It’s awesome.”
My heart skipped. I have ridden a roller coaster exactly once in my life before, the day Zain and I had our first almost-date. It’s the only part of that memory I don’t like.
“I’ll ride it later,” Zain said, waving his hand as if it wasn’t a big deal. “I wanna see the Carousel of Progress, and Seb–”
I cut him off. “I want to go on Space Mountain.”
Zain stared. So did Quint and Theo.
“Babe,” said Zain, carefully, “you hate roller coasters so much, we named your bad diabetes days after one.”
“You named,” I said, “and that’s a wooden roller coaster from the twenties. It might as well be a death trap. This one’s not that old, is it?”
“No, it was made in the seventies,” said Theo. He looked to Zain. “It only goes twenty-eight miles an hour, too.”
“They make it feel a lot faster,” Zain said. “I really don’t think you’d like it, babe.”
“I want to go,” I said again. If I could conquer my fear of roller coasters, nothing else on this trip would bother me, and he’d be able to stop worrying and enjoy himself. For that alone, it was worth it.
His expression was still doubtful. “You’re sure?”
Setting my shoulders back, I nodded.
“Okay,” he said. “At any point before we board, if you want out, just say the word. Got it?”
“Yeah,” I said.
As we walked to the ride, I could feel the three of them glancing my way. Theo stopped when we reached the queue and he became absorbed in the spaceport-themed decor, but the two Tops kept doing it. I didn’t meet either of their gazes. They would see anxiety shining in my eyes like phosphorus set alight.
It only goes twenty-eight miles an hour, I told myself. Zain will be right next to you. Little kids go on this. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
We stopped behind the next people in line, and the futuristic music seemed to get louder, pressing against my eardrums. Or perhaps that was my heartbeat. I felt Zain’s fingers on my wrist again. When I pulled away, he caught my forearm and stepped closer to slide his other hand right into my back pocket.
“Want a swat?” he asked, not lowering his voice at all. Theo and Quint looked around. Zain smiled breezily at them, winked, and said, “Swap. Do you wanna swap so we can see that sign better?”
“We’ll see it when the line moves,” I said, but the other two were already shuffling out of the way. Zain pushed me forward with the hand on my butt and began to whistle along with the music as he, ostensibly, read the sign. His fingers found my pulse. I huffed and whispered, “Yes, it’s elevated. What did you expect, for me to– Ow!”
He’d pinched my cheek.
“Breathe, Seb,” he said. “In through the nose, out through the mouth, and close your eyes. I’ll let you know when we need to walk.”
Using my name was the final warning. If I kept pushing, he really would swat. A part of me wanted him to, the way you want a fire in the freezing dark. Not here, though. Letting my eyelids fall shut, I accepted the lifeline he offered in that simple command and began to do a quasi-meditation, with a single line as my mantra. There is nothing to be afraid of.
Zain guided me ahead every couple of minutes, so I could mostly keep my eyes closed and pretend the conversations I heard weren’t coming from real people. Then his voice cut through them.
“Wait, it doesn’t seat two across?”
“No,” Theo said. “Didn’t you know that?”
“The one in Disneyland does,” Zain said. He sounded miffed.
I opened my eyes and saw a video playing on the wall of a rocket-shaped vehicle with three passengers sitting one behind the other.
“It’s fine,” I said. My stomach was crawling up my throat. No Zain right next to me, holding my hand through the ride. “I don’t mind. I’m doing this.”
The line moved again. This time, I was the one who pulled him to follow it. Dimly, I thought how odd it was that I could walk at all with what should have been a paralyzing fear turning my veins to ice. Everything inside me slowed down, and all that was outside me sped up. I heard Zain say, “Habibi, if you want to leave, we can,” and my own voice reply, “No, I want to ride it.” I sounded normal.
Someone asked how many people were in our party. Quint answered, and then we were directed to stand on numbers illuminated by the cool, blue neon lights overhead. Zain was on my right. Pressure signals travelled a long, long way from my hand to my brain as he squeezed it. “It’s only three minutes, and I’ll be just behind you, okay?”
I watched myself climb into the rocket, stow my bag in the mesh pouch of the front seat, and pull the lap bar down. It trapped me in.
Zain said something else, but it was muffled. We were in a tunnel of orange lights. So pretty, shooting all around. Speeding up and up and up and giving way to darkness.
I didn’t snap back into myself until the first drop hit. Then I screamed.
“Babe, how’re you doing?”
Light had returned. The lap bar released, but my legs shook so bad as I tried to get up that I collapsed into my seat. Zain grabbed my arm under the elbow.
“Easy. I got you, c’mon,” he said, and I used him to steady myself and climbed out of the rocket from hell.
“My bag,” I managed.
“Quint’s getting it.”
We passed through some sort of door, and then we were going up an incline on a moving walkway. A few feet separated us and the family ahead.
“Look at me.” Zain’s hand on my chin made turning away impossible. I tried to anchor onto his warm brown irises. “It’s over, habibi. You made it through. Are you alright?”
With a sharp inhale between the syllables, I said, “Mm-hm.”
“Eloquent,” he said, his lips twitching at the corners.
“Seb, you look like you saw a ghost,” said Theo.
I glanced from him to Quint and realized both of them were staring at me like they expected me to faint at any moment. Praying for my voice not to shake, I said, “I’m alright. I–it was just, um, a bit different than I thought.”
“I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it, mon chaton,” said Quint. “I was hoping the anticipation would be the worst part, but you seemed much calmer before we boarded.”
My gaze slid away.
Zain tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. “If that was an act, you deserve an Oscar.”
“Not… exactly?” I whispered. “I wasn’t really myself.”
“What– ohhh.” He sighed. “Damn. I wish you’d do that more often so I could practice spotting it at the start.”
“Spotting what?” Theo asked.
“Him dissociating,” said Zain. “Sort of an out-of-body experience.”
“I don’t do it on purpose,” I mumbled.
We’d reached the end of the moving walkway. It opened into a souvenir shop. Absurd. Normality shouldn’t exist so close to a dark cavern.
Zain was scrutinizing me as we headed for the exit. “You’re still a little disconnected, aren’t you?” Not waiting for an answer, he spoke over his shoulder. “Guys, let’s go sit down a minute. I need to ground him.”
I blinked against the sunlight and the chilly air and let him pull me toward a low concrete wall surrounding a flagpole and some grass.
Once we sat—with Zain on my right and Theo and Quint on my left, watching in concern—the shaking in my legs felt stronger. Zain reached into my bag. “Here, babe. Do a test,” he said, removing my kit. I unzipped it and took out the lancing device. The pain of it pricking my finger pulled me back into myself a little more. So did Zain rubbing my shoulder. He spoke quietly. “Tell me five blue things you see.”
“Um.” I touched the test strip to the blood drop and then stuck my finger in my mouth. Around it, I said, “My jeanth.”
I looked at the mass of people swirling on every side. Any one of them could glance over and see me with my meter in plain view. That wasn’t important now, though. Zain told me to find blue things. I concentrated on that and let the other forms fall away. “The trim around the arch of the gift shop. The umbrellas over those tables. The sign up there that says Peoplemover.” I frowned. “Are those metal palm trees?”
“Yeah, and they’re not blue,” Zain said. “One more.”
“That little girl’s Belle dress,” I said. “I’m fine now.”
Zain grinned at Quint. “You wanna take this? It’s your rule, not mine.”
“Seb,” Quint said, shifting so he was facing me a little more, “I’d like an emotion word to describe how you’re feeling, please.”
“Grounded,” I said.
“And?” asked Zain.
I bit my lip. There were so many layers. Carefully, I peeled up the top one and felt my cheeks heat. “Embarrassed.”
“No one noticed how scared you were other than us,” said Theo.
“I’m embarrassed about you knowing, too, though,” I admitted. “I ruined your ride, and–”
“Hold up.” Zain tilted his chin at me. “You what, now?”
“Nope, not even close. Sorry, but you’ll just have to try harder to ruin it next time.” He smiled. “Oh, and our day is not ruined, either. If you need help being convinced of that, I’m sure I can find a private bathroom somewhere.”
My stomach jerked. “No, that’s okay, thanks.”
“Uh-huh.” I glanced around for a change of subject before my blush could become even more of a beacon. “Why are there metal palm trees when they could have real ones? It’s Florida.”
“No idea,” said Zain.
Theo leaned around Quint and smirked. “I know.”
We all looked at him expectantly, but he didn’t say anything else. “And?” Zain asked, as I remembered my meter and checked the result. To my surprise, I was slightly low. I dug into my bag for a granola bar.
Theo laughed and told Zain, “I’m just savoring the moment when I knew something about Disney that you didn’t. How’s it feel?”
Zain narrowed his eyes. “Not gonna lie, it isn’t the best. Spill, squirt. My metal palm is getting itchy.”
I unwrapped the bar, bit into it, and returned Quint’s smile. Twisting, Theo pointed to one of the metal trees. “See how that one’s kinda folded up and doesn’t have any coconuts?” he asked. “They don’t actually work, but story goes, all the electricity for Tomorrowland is gathered by those trees through solar energy and stored in the coconut-shaped orbs, and that one has been harvested. The gift shop is the Tomorrowland Power & Light Company.”
“Well that I knew,” Zain said. “It says it right on the building. The backstory is pretty neat, huh, babe?”
I shrugged one shoulder. “Rather have real trees.”
“So you could climb them?” he asked. I made a face and smacked his arm. He grinned. “Feeling better?”
“Yeah,” I said.
Quint brushed his hand over the nape of my neck. “I’m glad, mon chaton.”
“So now what?” Theo asked.
“The Carousel of Progress,” Zain said.
“What?!” Theo said. “I thought you only suggested it earlier to keep Seb off the coaster. That thing is so boring!”
Zain’s eyebrow rose. “‘That thing’ was imagined up by Walt Disney himself. It was his favorite attraction of all, and it has a bomb theme song.”
“I don’t even remember the theme song,” Theo said. “I just remember being bored out of my mind on it when I was a kid.”
Quint held up his hand before Zain could speak again. “Alright. I think it’s time we split up for awhile. I’d like to ride Space Mountain again. Angel, you and I will do that. Zain, Seb, we can meet you back here.”
Theo did a double-take between them. “You want to ride Space Mountain? Zain wants to go on the history lesson? Did you two switch bodies?”
Immediately, Zain straightened up, mimed putting on glasses, and dropped the pitch of his voice to say, “Theodore, there is no need for one to be rude simply because one’s friends prefer to entertain themselves in unconventional ways.”
I was going to kill him.
But after a beat of silence, Quint began to cough like he was choking on something, and then Theo lost it altogether. Shaking with laughter, he said, “Oh, s-sure, when you do it he thinks it’s funny. I get in trouble for the same thing.”
“I am quite at a loss as to what you may be referring,” said Zain, stone-faced. “However, I suggest you adjust your attitude.”
“I do not speak like that,” Quint protested, breathless.
Zain shook his head and tutted. “Since you two seem unable to behave yourselves, you can remain here and Seb and I will go on the Carousel without you. We will return in precisely twenty-seven minutes.” So saying, he took me by the elbow, stood, and strode away with me in tow.
“You,” I said, pinning him with the best Look I could manage while biting the inside of my cheek, “are a rotten Top.”
Twenty-five minutes later, I followed him back to the meeting spot from a much greater distance. He was singing. Loudly.
“Theeerrreee’s a great, big beautiful tomoorrrow, shining at the end of every daaaay! There’s a great big beautiful tomorrrrooowww, and tomorrow is just a dream awaaayyy!”
Theo and Quint came into view through the thinning crowd, both with their jackets zipped all the way up and their hands in their pockets. I hurried my steps despite the continued spectacle Zain made. They had to be cold. As I got near, Theo was saying, “Oh, that theme song.”
Zain belted out the last line with his arms spread wide, and then smiled at him. “Told you it’s awesome.”
“Space Mountain is better,” Theo retorted. “Even Quint loved it.”
“Even Quint?” asked Quint, like he wasn’t sure he should be offended.
“He’d love the Carousel of Progress, too,” Zain told Theo. “You’re both going on it before we leave.”
Theo shook his head. “Nope.”
“It was nice,” I said. The animatronics had an unpolished charm to them. If nothing else, it had been a warm place for me to sit while my blood sugar rose. My second test near the end of the show confirmed I was back in range, as long as we ate dinner soon.
“I would like to see it another time,” said Quint. “Right now, we have our Peter Pan FastPass.”
Fantasyland welcomed us with turrets of castles and thatched roofs of quaint Tudor cottages. All of it too perfect. I had to admit, though, I liked it a lot more than the sharp futurism of Tomorrowland.
Peter Pan isn’t my favorite Disney movie or Zain’s, yet he’d insisted we ride it on the first day. When our little two-person pirate ship rose above the diorama of London, I finally understood why. My eyes turned into saucers. “It looks so real!” I gasped, straining to see everything shimmering below us at once.
Zain slid closer and whispered, “I knew you’d like this one, habibi. Wanna do it again later on?”
Outside the exit, he looked longingly at It’s a Small World and said, “One more ride?”
Quint shook his head. “We need to make dinner still, and all of us have early bedtimes tonight. There will be plenty of opportunity to ride that one another day.”
Zain sighed heavily. “You’re right. I just don’t wanna leave yet.”
“We’ll be back tomorrow morning,” I said, slipping my hand into his. “You get to run down Main Street, remember?”
“Yeah.” He brightened a little. “I get to literally race people to the castle. It’s gonna be amazing. Quint, I bet I’ll beat you.”
“Only a fool would take that bet,” said Quint.
The table in the cabin was too small to hold our dishes and the serving bowls, so we set up a buffet on the kitchen counter. As I waited my turn to get food, I watched Zain fill his entire plate with macaroni and cheese.
He caught my eye. “What? I’m carb-loading!”
With a flat stare, I said, “My insulin supply for this entire trip wouldn’t cover the carbs you’ve eaten in the past three days, Z.”
“Oh, how he exaggerates,” he said to the cabinet above the sink.
Scowling, I said, “Quint, make him have some salad.”
Quint looked around from pouring himself a glass of water by the fridge. “A few bites of greens wouldn’t kill you, Zain.”
Theo laughed and said, “There’s no proof of that,” but Zain put four leaves of spinach on top of the pasta, stuck his tongue out at me, and went to the table.
He and Quint started getting ready for bed almost as soon as we finished eating. They had to be up at three in the morning to catch the bus to the marathon start line. While Quint brushed his teeth, Zain went into the room they’d share that night and called out, “This bunkbed is awesome! Sure you don’t want to sleep on it too, Quint? Bottom bunk, of course, unless you want to wrestle me for the top.”
“Thank you for the offer,” Quint called back, dryly. “I’m fine with the regular bed.”
“Your loss,” said Zain. We heard a heavy flop of his body hitting the mattress. “Babe, c’mere!”
I left off loading the dishwasher—just because housekeeping was supposed to do the dishes for us didn’t mean we shouldn’t help—and went to see what he wanted.
“Closer,” he said, gesturing me over. He didn’t stop until I was below him. Then he leaned off the bunk and whispered, “Remember what’s gonna happen tomorrow after the marathon, my boy?”
A tingle went through me from head to toe. “Yes, sir.”
“Good.” Putting his hand under my chin, he angled so he could kiss me.
We only broke apart when Quint cleared his throat from the doorway. Theo stood there too, a smirk on his face. I flushed and stepped back, leaving Zain hanging. “Sorry.”
“No need to apologize,” said Quint. “Angel, get your pajamas from your suitcase.”
As Theo did, Zain scooted fully onto the mattress again with a wink at me.
“Don’t stay up too late, you two,” Quint said, turning down the covers of the queen-size bed. “You’re rising early as well.”
“Stop reminding me,” Theo grumbled.
“We’ll go to sleep as soon as we’re done with the signs,” I said. “Promise.”
“And you won’t spend forever on them?” Quint asked. “Your presence on the course tomorrow is enough for us. We don’t need perfect signs as well. Is that clear?”
Around a yawn, Zain put in, “That means no practicing in your sketchbook first.”
“I won’t,” I said. They didn’t need to know that I already had, days ago.
Once the Tops had gone to bed, Seb and I spread sheets of poster board over the table. He dug out a pencil from his suitcase and began to work on one of them, while I grabbed a marker right away. I figured ‘Go, Quint, Go!’ was as good a sign as any.
That is, until I saw what Seb had on his. I cracked up.
He shushed me and pointed at the closed bedroom door, but his lips were twitching into a smile.
I did my best to muffle my laughter. “Sorry. That’s brilliant, though.” I looked down at my own. Clearly, I needed to step up my game. “Hey, if I write ‘You’re all mad here’ on this one, can you draw a Cheshire Cat grin?” I whispered.
“D’accord,” he said. “Let me just finish mine.”
We wound up with five total before it was time for Seb’s Lantus injection. While he was doing that, I made the pull-out bed with the linens Disney provided in one of the cupboards next to the TV. Then we both changed into our pajamas, shut off all the lights, and climbed in.
The only problem was, my brain thought it was much too early to be in bed. Reasoning with it that we had to be up before dawn didn’t help, either. After about twenty minutes, I rolled onto my stomach and cracked one eye open to check if Seb was having better luck.
Apparently not. He was gazing at the ceiling.
I nudged his arm. When he glanced over, I whispered, “I’m having flashbacks to middle school sleepovers. Remember those days? I mean, I know you didn’t go to school, but that general timeframe. Sleeping in the same room with a bunch of guys right when puberty hits.” I chuckled softly. “Instrumental in discovering I was gay.”
Seb bit his lip a moment. “I, um, never really had those.”
Frowning, I lifted my head off my pillow. “Did your parents forbid them or something?” They didn’t seem like the strict type.
“No,” said Seb. “Keegan, Dax, and Quinn had them all the time. It was more… I guess none of my friends were close enough that I wanted to invite them over for the night.”
“None?” I asked. I knew he was shy before, but surely he had to have had friendships as a kid?
“There were people I talked to some in my art classes,” he said. “Mostly adults, though. That’s one of the marks of an unschooler. We tend to associate outside our age group.”
“But your siblings had friends their own age,” I said, with a hint of my question in my voice.
Seb shrugged one bony shoulder. “I’m not good at getting to know people.”
I was silent for a few moments. It sounded like these adults in his art classes were more acquaintances than pals. What could they have talked about, anyway? Cubism? They probably wouldn’t have been able to share all the stuff you share with your childhood besties. Complaints about parents, or confessing what boy you had a crush on, or daring each other to do stupid stuff that you both know would get you in trouble. He’d grown up without all that. “No wonder you never mooned anyone,” I said.
Seb looked uncomfortable. “I wasn’t lonely.”
Still, I thought. Maybe that was why even now, he was so good all the time. He didn’t learn how to be bad. I let the conversation drop, but I kept thinking about it for a long while before I fell asleep.
Much as I enjoy running for leisure, I will admit that as I lay in bed on the night before my first marathon—at fifty years old—my stomach was filled with jitters. Part of me wondered why on earth I had agreed to this. Surely I could have donated the money we’d raised to diabetes research myself without also pledging to torture my body.
Zain, though, had promised me over and over while he guided me through training that the feeling of crossing the finish line would be well worth it. In order to make it there, adequate rest was important. I pushed down my nerves and employed a breathing technique to quiet my mind.
I heard it when I was on the very edge of drifting off. Slow and soft, yet unmistakable. Singing.
“M… I… C… K… E… Y…… M… O… U… S… E.”
It gave way to humming. I opened my eyes. “Zain?”
“Hmm?” he said. “Oh, sorry. Slipped out. Were you asleep?”
“Nearly,” I said. “You should be, as well.” We had less than seven hours now.
He rolled onto his side and beamed down at me over the edge of the bunk. “Can’t. Too excited. How are you doing it?”
I smiled back. “Twelve years of medical training. You learn to rest when you can.”
“Yeah, I kinda learned that in boot camp,” he said. “Not helping me now. I’ll be quiet, though.”
His promise lasted until I was almost asleep again.
“Forever let us hold our banner high, high, high, high!”
I sighed without parting my eyelids. “Do I need to come up there, young man?”
With a snort that showed how little affected he was by the threat, he replied, “No, sir. I’ll zip it.”
Well, I couldn’t expect him to react like a Brat. I switched tactics. “You’re going to regret not sleeping tomorrow, you know.”
“Eh, I’ve managed before,” he said, supremely unconcerned.
I miss being that young.
Evidently, at some point during the night, he did fall asleep. My alarm was set to a low volume so as not to disturb Theo and Seb. When I turned it off and pulled myself out of bed, I found it hadn’t woken my running partner, either. I put my hand on his back. “Zain?”
“It’s marathon day,” I whispered.
At that, he went fully alert. I was forced to step back as he sprang out of the top bunk and landed on the floor with a thump and a wide grin.
My eyebrows rose. “Next time, please use the ladder.”
“Won’t be a next time,” he reminded me. “I’m sleeping with Seb for the rest of the trip.” Then he went around me to the door that opened onto the deck and stepped outside. I heard him gasp as a rush of frozen air pierced the room. “Good news,” he said, coming back in as I switched on the lamp. “I no longer need caffeine. That was invigorating.”
I checked the weather on my phone, and for a moment, I thought I still had the location set to New York City. The windchill put the perceived temperature into single-digits. “We’ll need cold gear, then,” I muttered to myself. Bending, I slid my suitcase from under the bed and took out the packing cube containing my race day apparel.
Zain grabbed one of the large ziplock bags full of clothes he’d brought into the bedroom last night and asked, “Mind if I take first shower?”
“Not at all.”
He was in the bathroom only ten minutes in total. When he returned, though, it was just to poke his head through the doorway and whisper, “You have to come see this.”
I followed him to the kitchen. The light pouring out of the bathroom dimly illuminated the rest of the cabin. Nudging me, Zain pointed to the sofa bed, and I saw what he meant and smiled. Seb and Theo were tangled together in an ungainly mess of limbs, Seb’s face mashed into Theo’s ribcage. Zain caught my eye and mouthed, So cute!
I nodded as a pang of sentiment tweaked my heart. At the end of our vacation, Seb would move to Maryland. I imprinted the image of them on my memory and hoped this trip brought many more sweet moments before we had to say goodbye.
There was. A noise. Intruding. On my sleep. In the middle of the goddamn night.
With a snarl that could probably have been mistaken for a yeti, I opened my eyes and saw my phone screen lit up on the end table. My fingers clumsily prodded it until it stopped its wretched trilling.
I would’ve then pulled the covers over my head and fallen back asleep, except someone shook my arm and said, “We have to get up.”
“Mmunph!” I went, trying to bat them away one-handed behind my back.
“Theo, come on,” Seb insisted. “We have to go meet Zain and Quint in the Magic Kingdom.”
Oh, right. Who the hell decided these things should start at the buttcrack of dawn, though? Runners. Grumbling under my breath about them, I forced myself upright and staggered off to the bathroom.
My first cup of coffee was downed in the van, carefully, as Seb drove over the many speed bumps to leave the resort. It also served to warm my hands until the heating kicked into gear. “I can’t believe we’re going to stand outside in this weather all morning,” I grouched.
“We have the blankets,” Seb said, pointing to them in the backseat with the signs. “And it’s supposed to warm up later. Anyway, don’t you want to cheer Quint on?”
“Quint, sure,” I said. “And Zain. I don’t really care about all the other crazy people, though.” I straightened as an idea hit me. “Hey, there’s nothing that says we have to stay by the course between seeing them in the Magic Kingdom and at the finish line, is there?”
“I… guess not?”
“And if the monorail is working to take us from Epcot over to the Magic Kingdom, I bet the resort loop will be running early, too.”
Seb frowned. “Why does it matter?”
“Because we can go resort-hopping!” I said. “Visit all the resorts on the loop. It’s fun.”
He looked even more unsure. “Aren’t they only for guests staying there?”
“No, Disney wants you to visit other resorts,” I said. “People do it all the time. On trips when I was a kid, we’d go and see the Christmas decorations at each one. I bet they’ll have taken those down by now, even though the ones in the parks are still up, but it’ll still be neat to look around. And warm.”
“Okay,” he said. “We’ll just have to tell Zain and Quint what we’re doing when we see them.”
We got through security and the half-mile walk to the starting corrals alright. Once we were inside our corral, though, the lack of movement made the biting wind that much worse. I wished I had thought to bring hand warmers to keep in our pockets, as I saw some other runners around us using.
Zain shivered and said, “I’m tired, and I’m hungry.”
“You ate three bananas, didn’t you?” I asked, not realizing he hadn’t finished.
“And my tail’s froze, and my nose is froze, and my ears are froze, and my toes are froze.”
I smiled. “Oh. I’m sorry, Lucky, I don’t think I can carry you the whole way.”
Laughing, he said, “Wasn’t sure you’d get that one.” Then he took his puppy impression one step beyond quoting 101 Dalmations and began to bounce around in a small circle, repeating “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” under his breath.
I glanced at my phone. “We have ten minutes until the official start time.”
“Plus seven minutes for each corral after that,” he said, still bouncing. “And we’re in corral F, so that’s… ugggghhh. Almost an hour.”
“You could move up,” I said. “I don’t mind.” Technically, he had been assigned a much earlier corral based on his previous race results, but was dropping back with me, since we were each aiming for the same overall pace. The only difference was that rather than walking breaks, Zain would be standing in lines to meet characters.
He stilled and gave me what was, for him, a serious look. “Listen, I’m going to want to speed through, especially the first few miles. Don’t let me forget that the goal is to have fun, not get a personal best. We stick together until Magic Kingdom, and we cross the finish line together, just like we planned.”
Some of my nerves died down. The reassurance I’d have a friend to support me through that final leg of the journey helped immensely. I swallowed. “Yes, I’ll remind you.”
“Thanks,” he said, and then we heard Mickey Mouse’s voice over the loudspeaker, and he spun around to look for him up on the screen showing the stage next to the start line.
I took a moment to text Theo and check that he had actually gotten up on time.
Yes, he wrote back, and you owe me at least five pizzas for this.
I chuckled. A complete sentence was more than I had expected. I truly do appreciate it, angel, I sent. I’m looking forward to seeing you in a bit.
Five whole pizzas all for me.
We can discuss it.
Then I put my phone away to preserve its battery and allow myself to warm my hands again.
Each time an earlier corral set off, they got their own countdown from Mickey and fireworks blazing into the dark sky. Finally, it was our turn to move up. Zain and I broke into a jog as the crowd spread out a little. With Mickey waving goodbye to us, we crossed the start.
The first few miles were congested, naturally limiting our pace. Side by side, we ran in companionable silence, except when we passed the first water station and Zain had to explain to me how to fold the paper cup so as not to spill cold water down my front as I drank.
Disney provided entertainment along the way as well, in the form of marching bands and stilt walkers by the shoulder of the road at a couple of points. Zain snapped a quick photo of Captain Jack Sparrow as we went by the first character stop.
When we reached the Magic Kingdom toll plaza around halfway through mile two, Step In Time from Mary Poppins was piped out from huge speakers. Zain began to sing along as soon as he recognized the tune. Getting caught up in his enthusiasm was easy. I joined him in ‘flapping like a birdie’ when instructed. I felt a bit ridiculous, but we were far from the only runners doing it.
The closer we got to the Magic Kingdom itself, the more room we had. I realized why as we passed mile marker four at the Ticket & Transportation Center. “We’re ninety seconds earlier than we should be,” I said to Zain. “Ease up.”
“But we’re almost at the entrance!” he said. “I’m excited! Aren’t you excited? We can go slow in the park.”
Putting my hand on his shoulder, I held him back for a brief moment. “Yes, I’m excited,” I said. “Remember our strategy, though?”
He heaved a sigh. “Yeah.”
Then again, was I being a wet blanket? Anything that curbed his zeal seemed criminal. He was correct: we likely would be forced to reduce our speed in the park, so what harm was there?
“Hey,” Zain said. When I broke off my contemplation to look at him, he smiled. “Thanks. I needed that.”
Relieved, I said, “You’re welcome.”
Mile five passed just before the entrance to the Magic Kingdom—and not the train station entrance, a side one that turned out to be next to Tony’s Town Square Restaurant. It was my first glimpse of backstage areas. My head craned this way and that, trying to take in everything. This was where they made the magic!
Then Main Street opened before us, all strung with garlands and twinkling lights that were quickly being eclipsed by the sunrise. The Christmas tree towered in the center of the square. Along the left side of the course, spectators pressed against ropes to cheer us on, but the street was only for us. I shifted to an easier pace to give myself more time to appreciate it. As we turned, and the Castle came into view, I gasped.
“Alright?” Quint asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
He looked up at the Castle. “Yes, it is.”
When I managed to tear my gaze off the vista, I saw one of the spectators holding a sign that said, Worst Disney Parade Ever! I laughed and pointed it out to Quint, who chuckled, too.
We reached the Hub all too soon. I slowed more, wanting it to last, and at that moment, from the bend where the course veered onto the bridge to Tomorrowland, another sign caught my eye. The poster board had a line of very familiar bubblegum-colored blobs marching along the bottom edge. Who would use those for motivation?! I thought. Then I got close enough to read the words.
Run Like Pink Elephants Are After You
Seb’s eyes sparkled at me over the top edge.
Throwing my hand in the air to signal my intention to slow down to the other runners, I cut through them to reach the ropes.
“Salut,” Seb said as I came to a stop right in front of him. He was hiding his smile with the sign. Poorly. Behind me, Quint started to cough.
“You are dead, my boy.”
“Crap,” said Theo, flipping his own sign over so it read Go, Quint, Go! instead of You’re All Mad Here. “I meant to have this one showing.”
“Oh, thank you, angel,” said Quint. “I love it.”
“What about you, brat?” I asked Seb. “Does the other side of that say something encouraging, or is it only insolence from you today?”
“This–s–s is encouraging,” he said, his voice shaking with giggles. “You’ll run f–faster if you’re scared.”
Quint and Theo both cracked up.
I narrowed my eyes at Seb. “Just you wait until I get you back to the cabin.”
He flushed, but he was still snickering.
Shaking my head, I leaned over the rope and the sign and kissed the tip of his nose. “You have at least three hours to make another one for the finish line.”
“I already did,” he said.
“Is it also full of sass and cheek, because I’m warning you–”
“No, it’s nice,” he said. “Promise.”
“Anyway,” said Theo, “we don’t have time to make another one. We’re hopping around the resort loop while we wait.”
Quint frowned. “Is that a good idea? How long will it take?”
Rolling his eyes, Theo said, “Not that long. Most of the shops and stuff will be closed this early. The alternative is sitting out in the cold for hours, letting our immune systems get nice and suppressed right before we spend several days in germ–”
“Alright,” said Quint. “You have a point. Make sure to leave plenty of time to return to Epcot, though.”
“We will,” Seb said. “We’re not going to miss you guys crossing the finish line.”
I glanced at my watch. “Speaking of which, we should get going before we fall behind too much.”
Quint and I each gave our partners a last kiss—on the lips for Seb this time—and set off into Tomorrowland.
“Oh, look, Buzz Lightyear!” I said. The big space ranger was meeting runners in front of the Lunching Pad.
“Want to pose for a photo?” asked Quint.
I hesitated. We’d planned to stick together until Quint’s first walking break. If I stopped now, I’d have to push to catch up to him. I didn’t want him to feel abandoned.
“I’d like one, too,” he added. “I had fun on that ride.”
Swallowing my surprise, I agreed like a shot and hopped off the course to join the line.
It moved much faster than the regular character ones in the parks, as each and every runner wanted to get back to the race as fast as possible. Quint and I posed together, hands on our hips like Buzz. With a quick thank you to the PhotoPass photographer, we continued up and around the back part of Fantasyland that we hadn’t visited yesterday.
And then it was happening. “I’m gonna run through the Castle!” I said, pulling ahead of Quint slightly as I sped up. “There it is! Look!”
“I see it,” he said, chuckling.
I entered the archway with a thrill of exhilaration that made me lightheaded. “I’m running through Cinderella Castle, I’m running through Cinderella Castle,” I whispered to myself over and over, just to remember it was real. Before emerging into the sunlight again, I brushed my hand along one of the mosaics that lined the walls. The high felt like finishing my first marathon again.
Theo and I stayed by the entrance to Tomorrowland, ringing the cowbells we got as part of the ChEAR Squad package, until we could no longer see Quint or Zain. Then we rolled up our signs, wrapped our blankets tighter around our shoulders, and walked back to the monorail station.
The resort loop was running early, as he’d predicted. Not many people were waiting for it, though. Theo collapsed onto the bench as soon as he stepped through the car doors. “Jesus, it’s freezing!”
Nodding my agreement, I sat next to him. He shivered and moved closer to share my body heat for the short ride to the Contemporary.
I was braced for a walk from the station once we reached the resort. My jaw dropped open when the train glided right into the building and came to a stop next to a carpeted platform that overlooked a huge atrium. “Welcome to Disney’s Contemporary Resort,” said Theo, almost simultaneously with the pre-recorded announcement. He grinned at me. “C’mon!”
I followed him off and gasped. The narrower wall of the atrium displayed a huge, colorful tile mosaic like a ninety-foot-tall mountain, with livestock and cheerful little people dotted up its jagged pathways. The intricacy of it was stunning.
Theo nudged me. “If you’re just going to stare at that, mind if I find a bathroom?”
I shook my head without taking my eyes off the mosaic.
He found me down on the floor of the atrium ten minutes later. I’d had to get a closer look.
“Stand in front of it and I’ll take your picture,” he said, his voice echoing a little in the wide space.
“No, I’m good,” I said. I’d already snapped photos from multiple distances myself. “I should use the restroom, too, though. Where is it?”
He pointed the way.
No one else was in it, so I tested my glucose at the counter after washing my hands. Early mornings tend to provoke a low. I was glad to see that the small breakfast I’d had at the cabin was holding me steady.
We walked around some, but the stores weren’t open yet, and after Quint’s warning, I wanted to be sure we kept track of the time. I hurried Theo back to the monorail platform.
“I think the next stop is the Polynesian,” he said. “You’ll love that one.”
I hated it.
“See, doesn’t it look like Hawaii?” Theo asked as we stood in the lobby in front of a fountain summited by a fake tiki statue holding a lei.
“Mm-hm,” I said, because it did… the most sanitized, touristy parts. Everything was completely flawless. The tiki statue didn’t even seem weathered. Neither did the giant glass fishing floats hanging above us.
Theo studied me. “You don’t seem as happy as you were at the Contemporary.”
Shrugging, I said, “I think I need more coffee. Do you think there’s a restaurant open here?”
We found a counter tucked into the back of a place called Kona Cafe. I ordered an americano and Theo got a latte. Sipping them, we wandered through a gift shop. Then Theo said, “While we’re here, we should check out the pool. You’ll like it.”
“Shouldn’t we move on?” I asked. I didn’t want to spoil his fun by making my distaste any more obvious.
“Just real quick,” he said, and led me outside. “Huh, I don’t remember it being fenced off.”
Beyond the fence, and the pool itself, a structure that was probably meant to be a volcano rose about thirty feet, with a stream running off it into the water below. On the nearer side of the pool, deck chairs sat in rows. The early hour and cold temperature combined meant they were deserted.
“It’s neat,” I said, thinking it didn’t hold a candle to Zain’s and my Hawaiian beach. That wasn’t fair. Nothing else could.
“They’ve changed it,” said Theo. “Or my memory is getting worse. Anyway, let’s go in and explore a little.”
I pointed to the sign beside the gate. “It’s for Polynesian Resort guests only.”
“Pssh,” he said. “No one’s around. If they really wanted to keep people out, the fence would be taller.” With a wink back at me, he stepped off the path and went around to where some bushes concealed him from view. “Seb, are you coming?” he called.
I lost Quint after the Castle, but that was fine. I knew he’d be due for his first walk break. Depending on how long the character lines were and how much speed I made up between them, we planned to reunite either at ESPN or Hollywood Studios.
One thing I hadn’t anticipated in my training was how hard standing in lines during a marathon would be. My body craved momentum. The further I got, the harder it was to start running again afterward, too. I was almost glad when the course entertainment thinned out between miles seven and twelve, and I could just go, the familiar burn in my legs pushing me on.
Animal Kingdom was at the halfway point. As I approached Expedition Everest, I saw a Cast Member beckoning two runners into the queue. “Are you letting people ride the roller coaster?” I asked as I came up to her. I’d heard that you could go on any rides the course passed if you were willing to wait behind the regular guests, but the park hadn’t even opened yet!
She gave me a friendly smile. “Yep. Wanna go on?”
That ride was incredible, and provided a huge shot of adrenaline that fueled my next five miles. Seb definitely would not be going on it.
The fence came to my waist. Boosting myself up, I swung my legs over it one at a time and landed on the pavement inside the pool before I looked back for Seb. He hadn’t moved from the gate. To be fair, he was weighed down with his bag and the cardboard tube that held our signs, so climbing the fence would be trickier. I went over and pulled the gate open from the inside. “Come on!”
“Theo, what if we get caught?”
“Act like you belong and they’re not going to question you,” I said.
His face filled with more worry. “If they do, we’ll get in trouble.”
“Oh, like Zain wouldn’t be doing the same thing if he were here.”
Seb frowned. “I didn’t mean with Zain, and no, he wouldn’t. Not if there’d be a chance of us being asked to leave Disney property.”
“They wouldn’t do that.” I rolled my eyes. “Just come in for a minute. You look more conspicuous standing here.”
He shook his head, though, and when I tried to tug him forward by the shoulder, he warded me off by poking my stomach with the cardboard tube.
“Okay, fine,” I said. “I’ll be right back.” Spinning, I marched through the deck chairs to the edge of the pool, crouched, and dipped my fingers into it. “Hey, it’s heated!”
“I see someone!” Seb hissed from behind me.
I saw them, too: a groundskeeper-type person in a golf cart coming along the path from the bungalows built over the lake. Quickly, I shook the water off my fingertips and wiped them dry on my jeans as I stood up.
The golf cart turned towards us.
I darted to Seb, who was holding the gate open with one hand and gesturing wildly for me with the other. The moment I stepped outside the fence, he pulled the gate shut and jumped at the clang it made. “Act innocent!” I whispered to him before pasting a smile on my face aimed at the approaching golf cart. Seb went stiff as a board. So much for that famous doe-eyed expression. My heart pounded.
Then the groundskeeper changed direction and drove off between two buildings.
Laughing, I clapped Seb’s back. “See, I told you!”
He was unplacated. “What if they went to get security or something? We should go.”
I didn’t argue with him, but neither did I give up my mission, as his friend, to get him to misbehave a little while he was young. If Quint had done it, it was possible for anyone.
I glanced at the time on my phone as the monorail set off toward the Grand Floridian. “Maybe we should go to Epcot now.”
“They won’t be there for like two hours,” Theo said. “We’ll have to sit on cold bleachers forever. Just a little while at this next resort, and then we’ll go.”
“Okay,” I said, “but I do want to get to the finish line early so we can find a good spot.”
“Of course,” he said.
I used the ride to calm down and get my knees to stop shaking. Whatever had gotten into Theo, I hoped that close brush with the groundskeeper scared it out of his system.
From the monorail station, we came into the lobby on the second floor walkway surrounding the central atrium, the same as the Polynesian. Apart from that, though, the two resorts could not have been more different.
A huge chandelier hung on the other side of the railing in front of us as we entered, drawing my eye to the coffered ceiling three stories above. Everything was white columns and sunlight up there. Below, an ornate carpet spread out between an empty Victorian birdcage large enough for Quint to stand inside and an elevator enclosed in glass and carved white columns. Elegant settees and chairs dotted the room from one side to the other.
“Wow,” I said.
Theo frowned at me. “I didn’t think you’d like this one.”
“It feels like the Met.” Not in style, precisely, but the grandeur was the same. I had to remind myself that it was a hotel built in the seventies as I looked around again. “I like our resort better, though.”
When Theo didn’t respond, I glanced over and saw he was staring at the center of the lobby, where a grand piano sat at an angle. “Is that a Steinway Model D?”
Oh, no, I thought.
He rushed off to the elevator. I followed, hoping I could stop him before he did something else dumb. “What’s a Steinway Model D?” I asked as the doors closed us into the car.
“It’s what a Gibson Les Paul is to electric guitars,” he said. “If you’ve ever seen a piano played at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center, that’s what it was. They cost a fortune.” The doors opened again, and he dashed past the check-in counter to the carpet we’d seen from above. “It issss,” he said, slowing, his voice low and reverential.
“You’re… not going to play it, are you?” I asked, before I realized perhaps I was giving him the idea. “Because they probably don’t allow that,” I quickly added.
“I know. It’ll be locked.” He tossed me a grin. “I’m just going to sit at it and pretend.”
Too late. He was already lowering himself onto the padded bench, pushing the sleeves of his sweatshirt up his wrists, and running his gaze over the closed keyboard lid like he could see the keys beneath. I froze where I was, a few yards away.
An elderly gentleman dressed in a white seersucker suit and a straw boater hat—he had to work for Disney—strode in from behind the birdcage. My pulse went wild. Theo was “playing” the air above the lid and didn’t notice his own impending doom.
The gentleman paused when he caught sight of us. I stopped breathing.
“Did you know,” the gentleman said to me, “the sculptures under those glass display cases are made of chocolate? Created right here in our own bakery.”
“Um,” I said, blinking, “no, I didn’t know that.”
“And how are you and your friend this morning?” he asked.
I looked at Theo, who was motionless as a sculpture himself now, with his arms still in playing position. “We’re… very well, thank you,” I said.
“Good, good,” said the gentleman, before continuing on to the check-in counter.
Carefully and gradually, Theo stood up and stepped away from the piano. I bit my lip, but a snort slipped out.
Tightness seized my calf muscles. My toenails were throbbing. Each arm felt like it weighed more than my whole body. I had been running around sports fields in the ESPN complex for ages. Over and over, when I thought we were nearing the end, the course would loop back on itself. My thoughts shortened and went in circles as my energy drained. I passed mile marker twenty, the furthest I had ever gone in my training runs. Six-point-two more to go.
I saw a water station coming up ahead. Without even checking if it was an appropriate time for a walking break, I moved to the side of the road.
A volunteer held out a cup. “Thank you,” I said, accepting it with a clumsy hand. Liquid splashed onto the ground.
That was when I made the fatal mistake of stopping.
All of my joints immediately stiffened as if my body was in revolt. I downed the water and then stood there, wondering how I could ever move again. The idea of taking another step was impossible.
After a period of time during which I had no thoughts that I can remember, I fumbled my phone from my pouch and texted Zain. I believe I’ve hit the wall.
He answered in seconds. Where are you? Keep going.
Too late, I’m afraid, I wrote back. Water stop at mile twenty.
I’ll be there in five, he said.
I put the phone away, took out an energy gel packet, and squeezed it onto my tongue. I never fully adjusted to the taste of them, however they were the easiest form of mid-race fuel for my body to digest and rapidly metabolize.
One of the volunteers saw I hadn’t moved and walked over from the water station to ask if I needed assistance. I assured her that I was simply waiting for a friend. Medically, there was nothing wrong with me apart from the fact that I had just run twenty miles. Then again, perhaps a psychologist would be in order, I mused. Theo constantly informed me that running a marathon was insane. He did have a point.
Zain jogged up, breathing harder than he should have been, and stopped in front of me with his hands on his hips. He smiled even as he cast an assessing gaze from my head to my toes. “How’re you doing, Hanniford?”
My crew teammates at Harvard were the last people to call me by my surname with any great regularity. It evoked a warm feeling of camaraderie now that made me hate the idea of disappointing him all the more, yet I said, “In truth, I’m doubtful that I can finish.”
He narrowed his eyes and wagged his index finger under my nose. “That’s your glucose-starved brain talking. You wouldn’t let Seb give into his like that. Stop going so easy on yourself.”
Smirking as though he could read my mind, Zain asked, “Did you have a gel?”
“Yes, about”—I looked at my watch—“three minutes ago.”
“Good, it’ll be kicking in soon, helping the metabolic transition to burning fat instead of glycogen,” he said. “Meanwhile, let’s walk.”
My legs screamed in protest before I even attempted it. “I don’t think–”
“No, you’re thinking too much,” he said. “You need a distraction.”
I was well aware what he considered a distraction. My eyebrows rose. “If you want me to sing…”
He laughed. “Try counting backwards from one hundred by sevens,” he said, and then, without looking where he was going, took a few steps away along the side of the track while gesturing for me to follow.
I can’t do this, I thought. But his admonishment echoed in my ears. It was true: I would not allow Seb to listen to the irrational self-criticism that grips him when his body chemistry is out of balance. Therefore I could not, in good conscience, accept my own defeat. I sighed.
“One hundred,” I said, picking up a foot that felt like a rock and putting it down in front of the other. “Ninety-three.” I stepped again. In my exhausted state, the simple math took a great deal of concentration. Pain and stiffness faded into the background as I moved slowly forward with each number. “Eighty-six. Seventy-nine. Seventy-two. Sixty-five.”
“That’s it,” Zain said, walking in reverse before me. He began to sing. “Just keep swim-ming. Just keep swim-ming. Just keep swim-ming.”
A few people to my right overheard and joined in the song as they passed. My joints loosened, allowing me to move faster and faster. When I reached the count of negative thirty-three, I felt fairly alright. “I believe I may be pushing through.”
“Awesome,” Zain said. “Time to go.” He spun on his heel and took off.
Oh, God, I thought, before I broke into a run to keep up.
That old guy in the boater hat scared me. He had a definite Toppy look about him. And I’d thought no one who worked there was watching us. Just because he’d let me sit at the piano didn’t mean they all would. I was glad to see Seb’s amusement this time, though. Maybe he was finally getting into the spirit of things.
When I turned around and saw a huge grand staircase climbing to the second floor, I decided to test that theory. “Hey, c’mon,” I said to Seb.
“What?” he asked, still giggling a little as he followed me between a pair of armchairs.
I bounded up the first section of the staircase to where it split into two and doubled back on itself. “Whenever I see one of these, I’m always tempted to do a certain thing.”
Seb had paused on the floor of the lobby next to a glass case that protected a sculpture of a bald eagle. A chocolate sculpture, apparently. He was looking at it, not me. He didn’t notice me boost myself onto the bannister until I whistled. Then he glanced up, and his jaw dropped. “Theo!” he said, rushing to the foot of the stairs.
I grinned and let go with one hand as if I was preparing to slide down the polished wood. “You go on the other side,” I said. “We’ll race!”
Seb shook his head. His eyes focused on something behind me and widened, just as a courteous female voice said, “Sir? Please don’t slide down the banister.”
I almost fell off the damn thing. They should make the staff wear bells! Once I’d gotten my feet under me and steadied myself, I offered a sheepish smile to the woman who had appeared on the landing from nowhere. “Oh, I was just pretending I was going to, to freak him out.” I pointed at Seb.
“Right,” she said, clearly not buying it. “Please don’t pretend to slide down the banister, either.”
“I won’t. Sorry.”
To my relief, she continued down without saying anything else.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. From the way Seb was fumbling his out, the same had just happened to him, which meant we’d both gotten one of the automatic tracking texts sent by Disney when our runners crossed a significant milestone. The last set had come as first Zain and then Quint passed the halfway mark. I unlocked my phone to read the full thing.
It said Quint was on mile twenty. I felt a flash of pride that he’d pulled ahead of Zain. The text also listed his current pace and projected finishing time, and I noticed it was just over an hour away. We should probably start thinking about going to meet them pretty soon, then. But maybe we could explore more first?
“Excuse me,” I called after the woman, who was nearly at the bottom of the staircase. She looked over her shoulder. I asked, “How long does it take to get to Epcot from here by monorail?”
“About fifty minutes.”
Seb’s eyes met mine. I knew he was thinking the same thing I was, but in French: Merde!
We both bolted up the steps toward the monorail station with the woman saying, “Don’t run, please.” For once, though, Seb didn’t follow the rules.
The next mile marker came much sooner than I anticipated. Seeing it gave me a boost of confidence.
Zain grinned sideways and said, “Five more to go!”
“Five-point-two,” I corrected.
He waved that off as though it was nothing, and then gasped and, for the first time since I’d caught up to him, put on speed. I understood why a moment later, when he said, “Sarge!”
Ahead of us, the road rose and curved into an on-ramp to the highway. Pacing along the grassy outer bank of the imposing incline was a man dressed entirely in a bright green, plastic army uniform, with green face paint and green sunglasses obscuring his features. His voice was magnified so we could easily make out his words, even if he hadn’t been half-shouting. “There is no walking on my hill! Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go! To the top, soldiers!”
Most of the other runners did not visibly react to this encouragement. One or two of the ones who were walking broke into a half-hearted jog as they passed him. Another stopped to snap a picture, which he obligingly posed for while continuing to bark orders. It was clear, however, that Zain took this seriously. He tackled the hill with gusto. I fell behind.
“Are we all having a good run today?” Sarge bellowed. “Say, ‘Sir, yes, sir!’”
“Sir, yes, sir!” shouted Zain as he weaved between people, easily the loudest voice among those who answered.
Sarge was not satisfied. “I said say, ‘Sir, yes, sir!’”
I joined in this time. “Sir, yes, sir!”
Something about yelling it pushed me to run harder. I found myself at Zain’s right again. He turned his head to watch Sarge walk down the hill and grinned. “See, aren’t you glad you didn’t quit?”
Between pants, I replied, “Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a soldier.”
“Was that a Star Trek reference?” he asked.
I nodded, the corner of my lip twitching, and he laughed.
“Theo’s right. You are a nerd.”
Hollywood Studios was the shortest section of the course inside a theme park. Due to ongoing construction, we spent just half of mile twenty-four in it, entering from the back of the Tower of Terror and exiting at the front gate.
The park had opened. Spectators lined up on the other side of the yellow traffic cones down the center of the road to cheer us on every step of the way. I was amazed at how much the support of total strangers meant to me.
Mile twenty-five, my legs continuously twinged with pain. I tried counting backwards by sevens again to keep my mind off it. When that didn’t work, I reminded myself that I had less than my daily run—or what it used to be before Zain talked me into this madness—to go. Then I would be done. More than anything, I simply wanted to not have to do this anymore.
I was aware that my pace had slowed to a crawl, yet I could not pick up my feet any faster. Zain still remained beside me.
“You can go ahead,” I said, feeling guilty for holding him back.
“No,” he said. “We’re finishing together.”
We gulped down water from the last hydration station before Epcot. “Almost there!” the volunteers shouted. I didn’t believe them until I saw the mile marker inside the park and realized it truly was one-point-two left. Somehow, that gave me a second wind. The end was minutes away. My fifty-year-old body could do this!
Around the World Showcase, I had to wipe tears from my eyes once or twice in order to see. I did not truly begin to cry, though, until mile marker twenty-six. A gospel choir sang and clapped their hands. I could hear the spectators cheering ahead of us. We turned, and the finish line was in sight.
“Here we go!” said Zain. “Gonna make it?”
I couldn’t answer him.
He glanced at me and seemed to understand. “Good job, Hannif– Oh, look! There’s Seb and Theo!”
They were behind the metal barrier to the left of the course, and very easy to pick out from the crowd because the largest letters on the sign Seb held above his head spelled out ZAIN. The Moana character Maui was drawn in the bottom corner, a speech bubble from his mouth encircling the words. I squinted to read the rest.
Don’t mess with ZAIN when he’s on the breakaway!
Next to him, Theo’s sign was decorated with the giant crab from the same movie—clearly Seb’s talent had been enlisted again—and said, You can’t run from me! …Oh, you can. I laughed through my tears. My angel always brings levity when I need it most.
Zain waved wildly with both arms until the two of them began to wave back. I could hear them shouting over the cheers and music.
“Quint! Quinnnt! You can do it!”
I soared across the finish line on nothing but joy.
I grabbed Quint and gave him a huge hug as we both stopped running. He had tears in his eyes. “I know,” I said, over the noise of the crowd. “This is the best part. Enjoy it. But also, we gotta keep moving.” If we didn’t, our muscles and tendons would tighten up.
He nodded and let me pull him by the elbow over to two volunteers offering up Mickey-shaped finisher’s medals. They each congratulated us as they put them over our heads. The weight of mine felt spectacular. I looked down and grinned. Quint held his up to see it better and then squeezed it in his hand. “Well, now we have to go back and show Mickey,” he said.
“He’ll be so proud of us!” I said. “So will Seb and Theo.” I tried to spot them in the bleachers again. Maybe they’d already headed to the reunion area, though, because I didn’t see them or their signs.
Quint and I had a gauntlet of different stations to make it through in the finisher’s chute before we could join them. After the marathon medals, there were liquids, then an area to take a PhotoPass picture, and then another medal area for people who completed multiple races over the weekend for the Goofy or Dopey challenges
“Man, look at that swag,” I said as we walked through. “I gotta run Dopey next time.”
Laughing, Quint said, “You can do that one on your own.”
Every first-time finisher swears for at least a few days that they’ll never run another marathon. I wasn’t going to give up on talking him into it, but I let the subject drop for now.
The final stop was refreshments, where tables were piled with bananas literally to my ears. I grabbed two and a box of other goodies. Quint took his with a look like it was rotten. “Don’t worry,” I said. “By the time we get back to the car, you won’t feel nauseous at the thought of eating. It’s just important to refuel within the hour.”
Beyond bag check, giant signs with letters marked out spots to reunite with your spectators. We went to D (for Disney) like we’d planned. It didn’t take long to find Seb and Theo. Mainly because the moment he spotted us, Theo shouted, “You made it!” and pushed through the crowd, Seb in his wake, to launch himself at his husband.
Quint grunted as he caught him around the waist, somehow without dropping anything. “Good morning, angel.”
“‘Good morning,’ like he just went out for coffee,” said Theo. “You’re incredible. I love you.”
While they canoodled, I grinned at Seb. “Not gonna tell me I’m incredible, too?”
He rolled his eyes. “As if you need a bigger head.”
I pushed all the stuff in my hands onto him. “Hold this.” Then, once he was preoccupied with juggling it all, I pressed my lips to his. And my palm to his ass. He squeaked. Into his ear, I asked, “Ready to go back to the cabin for a little post-race ritual, my boy?”
His pupils were wide with arousal. “Yes, sir,” he breathed.
“So, Zain, how’d you like the signs this time?” Theo asked.
Regretfully, I stepped back and let go of Seb. It’d be too hard to keep groping him while we walked to the van. “Loved ‘em,” I said. “Best marathon signs ever. So original, too.” To Seb, I added, “Don’t think it gets you out of hot water for that one with the elephants, though.”
He blushed. If Theo and Quint wondered why, they didn’t ask. Theo just switched to hugging me, while Seb congratulated and embraced Quint.
Back at the cabin, I hauled the bag of ice we’d bought into the bathroom and began filling the tub from the cold tap. The other three crowded in behind me.
“You’re really going to take an ice bath?” Theo asked.
“Yep,” I said. “Right after Quint does.”
The big guy’s eyebrow rose. “I don’t believe I ever agreed to that.”
“You won’t be able to walk tomorrow if you don’t reduce inflammation now,” I told him. “A ten-minute soak makes all the difference. Then let the water out of the tub and take a luke-warm shower. Not hot.”
He watched me drop a few chunks of ice into the water and sighed.
“Don’t worry,” I said, grinning. “You get to keep your shorts on.”
“I’m beginning to suspect you simply enjoy torturing me,” he said.
“That too. You’ll thank me later.”
Seb and I left the bathroom to give him some privacy, but Theo stayed, and we could hear him laughing at, I assume, the faces Quint made as he climbed into the tub. Knowing I’d be taking his place soon, I didn’t find it as amusing as I might have otherwise.
Meanwhile, I leaned against the kitchen counter and nibbled alternatively on some crackers from the box of post-race goodies, and Seb’s neck. He was breathing heavily by the time we heard Quint’s shower go on.
“Get a room, you two,” Theo said. He opened the refrigerator and took out a soda.
“We have a room,” I said, sweeping my arm at the rest of the cabin. Then I hooked Seb’s belt loop before he could move too far away. “Speaking of, how’d you guys like resort-hopping?”
Seb did an interesting little twisty thing against me that about made my eyes cross. If he wanted me to let him go, he was not being very convincing.
Theo popped the tab on the can of soda and shrugged one shoulder. “We had fun.”
Flushing as my hand wandered into his pocket, Seb said, “There was a… a gorgeous mosaic at the Contemporary.”
“Oh, by Mary Blair!” I said. “She did a lot of the design for It’s a Small World, too. You’ll see the similarities when we ride that one.”
We talked about our park touring plans for another few minutes, then Quint called, “The bathroom is free,” as he came out.
I grabbed a banana from the counter and met him in the hallway with it. “Eat this.”
“Yes, Coach,” he said, smiling.
I snorted before going to take my own ice bath.
Gingerly, I sat on the edge of the queen-size mattress in the bedroom and swung each of my sore legs up in turn. Then I fell back against the pillows. A moan of pure enjoyment escaped my lips. The lingering chill from the water was not as bothersome as I’d feared. In fact, every pang in my muscles only reminded me of what this old body had accomplished. I felt younger and more confident than I had in years.
Once I was sure I could handle easily-digested food, I peeled the banana and took a bite. A problem presented itself as I finished, however. I didn’t wish to leave the empty peel on the nightstand. Nor could I bring myself to rise once more.
“Angel?” I called, over the sound of Zain’s shower.
Theo came in holding a Coke. “Yeah?”
“Firstly,” I said, “that is your one soda for today. Unless you had another already?”
“Nope, just three cups of coffee,” he said. “And before you start a lecture, you made me get up at four in the morning.”
I nodded. “The coffee, I’ll allow. No more soda, though. Understood?”
“Yes, sir. What’s the ‘secondly’?”
I held out the banana peel. “Secondly, can you throw this away for me, please?”
“Awww,” he said. “Are you tired? What am I saying, of course you are.” He took the peel and vanished down the hallway for a few moments. When he came back, he asked, “Need anything else?”
“Mmm,” I said, thinking. “Oh, yes. I’ll need my second pair of compression socks to put on when I have the energy. They’re in the suitcase under the bed.”
As he bent to retrieve them and then remained bent over, facing away from me to rummage through my packing cubes, the most interesting thing happened. My eyes landed on the curve of his buttocks filling out his jeans, and the simple pleasure of rest turned into a deeper thrill. To my amazement, my energy—in one area, at least—came bounding back.
Theo paused. I knew he’d picked up on my tone even before he straightened and shot me a look of incredulity. “You just ran a marathon!”
“Yes,” I said. “Now I’d like to celebrate. I’ll warn you, you may have to do a bit more of the work than normal.”
His eyes darkened. “You mean, like, you’ll lay there like a, I don’t know, some kind of victorious warrior king just returned from battle, while I service you?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say–”
“No, don’t ruin it,” he said. In two strides, he crossed to the door, shut and locked it, then began to crawl on top of me from the foot of the bed. He stopped when his head was level with my waist. “What do you wish for, my lord?”
My face heated, yet even I could not discern whether it was from embarrassment at his little roleplay, or arousal. The hunger in his gaze certainly called to a similar appetite within myself. I reached for him with the thought of pulling him into a gentle kiss. Instead, my fingers tangled through his hair and pushed his head downward.
Seb sat on the edge of the tub, watching the water hit my body as I lay supine. For his comfort, I’d turned on the showerhead hotter than I’d advised Quint to before I stripped off my soaked underwear and dropped them on the bathmat. Yet my boy hadn’t climbed in. He looked hesitant.
Perhaps he was simply overcome by the view. I sat up a little and shimmied my shoulders, singing, “I know it’s a lot, the hair, the bod…”
He tried to cover my mouth with his hand, shushing and peering towards the closed door.
“When you’re staring at a demigod!”
“Zain! They’re in the next room!”
“Relax, babe,” I said. “I’m guessing right about now Quint is either taking a nap or discovering that races also get him horn–”
Seb made a face and smacked me. “I don’t want to think about that!”
Through my laughter, I said, “Then stop thinking about it and get in here with me.” To help move him along, I snaked my hand up his shirt and tweaked his nipple. He gasped. I grinned. “I promise I’ll be as quiet as you are.”
“Stop it,” he said, but he did finally stand up and get naked. My cock hardened at the sight.
“Leave the dog tags on, my boy,” I ordered softly—just to watch him shiver, because that went without saying at this point. “You have that cheekiness with the sign to atone for still.”
“Yes, sir,” he breathed.
I held his thighs to steady him as he stepped into the tub and straddled me with the water cascading down over his skin, reminding me of a memorable afternoon we spent at a waterfall in Hawaii. Like then, it was all slickness and warmth where our bodies fit perfectly together. Stroking hands, mine and his, found each other’s erections. I began to pull out all the moves I knew would drive him to the edge. Time to test his endurance.
From his lips, soundless pleas soon fell alongside the water droplets hitting my chest. May I come, sirs and S’il-te-plaîts with his eyes locked on mine. I slowly shook my head.
“Do you need a reminder of the rules for this race?” I whispered. “You make me come before I make you come, or you lose your right to orgasm until I’m fully recovered.”
He whimpered and leaned sideways out of the tub to desperately claw at his jeans until he came up with a packet of lube. Was he carrying that all morning? Lust heated my blood. When he guided me into him, I arched my back off the bottom of the tub and wished I had more room to get leverage and thrust. Doubly so as he began to rock in tiny motions that hardly produced any friction.
I looked up with narrowed gaze. “What are you doing, my boy?”
“Being… quiet,” he said, between pants. His face screwed up in focus as he kept on the maddenly-slow dance.
And I thought teasing was my job.
I woke up from my nap before Quint. Without bothering to straighten the hair he’d utterly ravished with all that tugging—a twenty-six mile run hadn’t impacted the strength of his arms at all, fuck—I left him to sleep and went out the door to the deck.
Seb was already there, a sketchbook open on the picnic table in front of him. Drawings of the trees surrounding the cabin covered the page. He had one of the ChEAR Squad blankets over his shoulders, although the temperature had warmed to what, after this morning, felt balmy.
I sat down across from him, rested my back against the deck railing, folded my arms, and put my feet on the opposite bench. “Y’know,” I said, with a grin, “I could maybe get used to Quint running marathons if they always put him in such a great mood.”
I thought I did a good job keeping the innuendo to a minimum, yet Seb went red as a tomato in two seconds flat. He barely glanced at me, either. My eyes narrowed.
“Wait a minute… you do know. And your hair is wet!”
“I have no idea what you mean,” he said, going over a line in his sketchbook with almost enough force to tear through the page.
I snorted and took my feet off the bench so I could lean forward. “Why didn’t you warn me? I could’ve been a lot better prepared.”
“Theoooo,” he whined. “Can we talk about something elllssse?”
“Okay,” I said, laughing. “I was going to tell you good job distracting Zain when he asked how we liked the resort-hopping, but I realize now that he was already distracted, so–”
Seb bounced his eraser off my forehead.
Fort Wilderness was huge. We had plenty to do without ever leaving the resort. After the Tops woke up, we ate lunch and then explored, Quint and Zain hobbling a little but both wearing their medals proudly.
Near one of the swimming pools, we found a tiny arcade with about ten games. Those were fun. Especially when Quint got way into Guitar Hero with me and started to sing along. He is the worst. Can’t carry a tune in a five-gallon bucket, bless him. Seb and Zain stopped playing Pac-Man to stare with twin looks of fascinated horror. I cracked up so much that it threw me off my rhythm, and Quint won. Which is probably exactly what he was going for, judging by the gleam in his eyes.
Then we caught a bus up to “The Settlement” area of the resort because Seb wanted to see the horses at the ranch there. They were big. Not like the tiny little ponies I rode at the circus as a kid. Seb went right up to one in its stall and talked to it as if they were old buddies. The horse turned its ears towards him. Centering in on its target before it attacked, I bet.
I stayed well away, and then gave a shriek and a jump when another horse stuck its huge head out of a stall right behind me. Quint caught my arm. “Theo, you’ll scare them.”
“I’ll scare them?” I asked. “What about them scaring me?”
“They’re all draft horses,” said Seb. “That means they’re gentle giants. Look.” He reached out to touch the one that had snuck up on me, but Zain stopped him with a hand on his wrist.
“Babe, the signs say no petting.”
Seb almost pouted. “I know.” He looked at the horse longingly. “It’s just their noses are so soft.”
“We can sign up for a trail ride later in the week,” Zain said. “You’ll be able to pet those ones on the nose, if the Cast Members say it’s okay.”
Huh. Maybe Zain wouldn’t have been willing to flout the rules and sneak into the pool with me. All the more reason for him and Quint to never find out about that.
We’d booked a dinner show called the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue. When Quint read the description off the website during our planning, it sounded a little… not my style. The whole Western, frontier, pioneer thing has never captured my imagination. So I was a bit apprehensive about enjoying myself as we were shown to a table near the stage.
I thought that was why Seb looked tense, too, until our waitress came by and followed her introduction with, “You noted some dietary restrictions on your reservation, right?”
“Yep,” said Zain, beaming at her. “We’re requesting a vegetarian, low-carb option.”
“Well, on the regular menu, that would be the salad, but our chefs can whip up something special for you,” she said. “I’ll bring one out to discuss it.”
Seb winced and quickly said, “No, we don’t want to be a nuisance.”
“Honey, it’s no trouble.” She waved her hand. “All part of the service you paid for. I’ll be right back. By the way, congratulations on finishing the marathon!”
“Thank you,” said Quint, touching his medal.
Once she was gone, I heard Seb hiss at Zain, “I don’t need to speak with a chef!”
“Nope, because I’ll speak with them,” Zain replied, “and you’ll sit there, looking stunning, and realize it’s not a big deal.”
“Neither is me eating the salad.”
Then Zain tilted his head, and Seb quit arguing.
The waitress returned with a dark-haired young guy in a white double-breasted coat. “Hey, there,” he said. “I’m Chef Kyle. You guys are the ones looking for something low-carb vegetarian?”
Seb sank further into his seat like he wanted to disappear. Quint, on the other side of him from Zain, put a hand on his shoulder. Meanwhile, Zain smiled at the chef and said, “Yeah. Pretty much the exact opposite of the kind of food that was popular in the pioneer days.”
Chef Kyle grinned. “Well, my sister’s a vegetarian, and I’m in charge of Thanksgiving, so don’t worry. I know how to cook more than pioneer food.”
They talked about a few different options, until Seb gave a miniscule nod at the mention of cauliflower-shell quesadillas.
“That sounds good,” said Zain.
“Great,” said Chef Kyle. He interlocked his fingers and stretched them out. “Thanks for giving me the opportunity to make something other than ribs and cornbread.”
“See, babe?” Zain asked once he’d gone. “No biggie.”
“Uh-huh,” said Seb.
When the meal was served, I took one look at his quesadillas and said, “Hey, can we get Chef Kyle back out here and tell him I need something low-carb and vegetarian, too?”
“No,” said Quint. “Eat your ribs and cornbread.”
Discouraging healthy eating? He was truly feeling frisky now.
Two hours later, Zain and I hummed songs from the show as we all spread out on a blanket on the beach waiting for the fireworks and Electrical Water Pageant to begin.
“Oh, lord.” I snuggled back against Quint’s chest. “My stomach aches.”
He moved one of his palms from my side to my forehead. “Are you feeling unwell, angel?”
“No,” I said, batting him away. “It’s from laughing so much. That was hilarious.”
“Told ya it would be,” said Zain.
I frowned over at where he lay in the darkness. “You didn’t tell me that.”
“Not you. Him.” He poked his fiancé’s back.
Seb rolled away defensively. “I never said it was hilarious.”
“No, you just giggled the whole time,” said Zain. “Admit it. You’re having a blast here. At Walt Disney World.”
From what I could see through the shadows, Seb may have shrugged. “It’s been okay.”
“‘It’s been okay.’” Zain scoffed. “You are not fooling me, brat. You’re enjoying yourself, and you want to have a Disneymoon.”
“Absolutely not,” said Seb.
Zain’s shadow moved closer to him, and Seb descended into another fit of giggles as they tussled. “Admit it! admit it!”
“No, no, stop!”
“I’m just gonna tickle you until you admit–”
The first firework went off. They both quit struggling with each other to watch it climb into the sky and explode. A second followed, then a third. I tipped my head against Quint’s broad shoulder. He held me tighter and kissed my cheek as the beach around us went quiet. It was one of those perfect moments of utter contentment.
After the Electrical Water Pageant had gone on its merry way, we stood up and Quint began to shake the sand out of the blanket. Zain was still gazing at the water. He gave a happy sigh. “This is the best vacation ever.”
“It’s only day two,” said Seb.