“I really don't think this is a good idea.”
Helga crosses her arms and sighs at Athelstan. “Well, it's the only idea that we have, so you're going to have to live with it. We need two people running the kissing booth for the sophomore shift and you were really extraneous at the cotton candy booth.”
“There really isn't anyone else?”
“Cenwulf has mono, we can't make him do it, so you're pretty much it.” Helga finally relents and pats him on the shoulder, and Athelstan knows he's doomed. “It's not going to be that bad. It's going to be an hour, all the upperclassmen are going to get a thrill out of you being all innocent and I'll make twenty bucks off Floki, and you'll have a great story to tell later. Now.” She hands him a stick of lip balm and a bottle of hand sanitizer. “The tools of the trade. I'll be right here the whole time.”
Athelstan looks over at the booth, where the representatives from the freshman class are packing up, getting their money together. They don't seem to have had a very busy shift, possibly because they're freshmen and possibly because nobody actually goes to kissing booths anymore. He's really hoping it's the latter, because he doesn't want to explain to Helga that he's never kissed anyone before and has no idea what he's doing.
“That's a great comfort,” he finally says, and lets Helga drag him over to the booth.
“We're doing our part for student government,” says Helga piously, finishing up a transaction with a freshman who looks starry-eyed and flushed after a brief kiss. “You can't blame us for that.”
“I'm going to be anywhere but here, because they are going to show up in less than five minutes,” says Rollo, and leaves again.
Athelstan turns to Helga, heart sinking. “Are you going to tell me who 'they' are?”
“You're going to find out.”
Athelstan knows Ragnar and Lagertha a little bit because of Helga and mostly because everyone in the school knows them, to some extent, or at least knows of them. They've been together forever, according to the people who have gone to Kattegat High longer than he has, and he only ever sees them together, shoulder to shoulder, always smiling like they've got a secret. Athelstan has talked to them all of twice, once when Helga introduced them and they just seemed amused to meet him and once in the third period study hall they all share when Ragnar started talking about navigation systems and Lagertha finally hit him on the shoulder and told him not to bore Athelstan and then grinned at Athelstan like he was in on the joke they always seem to be sharing.
Somehow, neither of those things make him feel quite equal to the task of making conversation while Helga kisses Floki passionately next to him, leaning across the counter. Still, he has to say something, because Helga is definitely going to give Floki every last cent of his money's worth and more. “I'm surprised you came to the school fair,” he finally says.
Lagertha grins at him. “Call it a last-minute bit of school spirit. Or an opportunity.”
Ragnar, smug, digs around in his pocket and then lays five bills on the counter in front of Athelstan. When he blinks down at them, expecting five dollars to be taken out in pecks, and probably from Helga, he finds that they're all twenties. “For you,” says Ragnar, as though that makes any sense at all.
“That's a hundred dollars.” Athelstan looks from the money and back up to them. “A hundred dollars? For me?”
There's a sudden giggle from next to him, and Athelstan turns to Helga to find her with her hand clapped over her mouth, almost crying she's laughing so hard, and Floki not even bothering to cover up his amusement. “I knew it,” he says when he sees Athelstan looking at him.
Athelstan turns back to Ragnar and Lagertha. “So you're joking?”
“Athelstan.” Lagertha puts her hands on the counter. “We really aren't. Fifty kisses each sounds really appealing. Though we'll knock off the number depending on how long, of course. We don't want to take advantage.”
“Oh.” That seems like an inadequate reaction, but it's the only one he can come up with that isn't asking why they both want to kiss him, what on earth that means for him. Even if he doesn't know what it means, though, he can't say it doesn't sound appealing. “I just … really? Me?”
“The modesty is terribly charming and all, but this could be time-consuming,” says Ragnar.
Athelstan looks down at the money on the table and feels a little bit like he's prostituting himself and very embarrassed and, over it all, intrigued. “It really could,” he says, a little dazed.
“A hundred kisses is a lot,” says Helga, voice high as she tries to hold back her giggles. Floki is still laughing, leaning on the counter. “Don't want anyone to get a crick in their necks. Want to go out behind the tent, Athelstan?”
Floki laughs again. “Behind the kissing booth, now that's classy.”
“I think it sounds like a lovely idea,” says Lagertha, with a wide grin, elbowing Ragnar when he snorts. “Nobody's back there, some privacy for us. Athelstan, do you mind?”
Athelstan looks from them to Helga to the money again, and thinks of one conversation in study hall and a hundred dollars worth of kisses, and then he swallows. “Helga, do you think you can take care of the booth alone for a while?”
Helga pats him on the shoulder and puts his money in the jar. “It would be my pleasure.”
“I have to ask why you decided to do this,” he blurts when they just stare at him in expectant silence. It's always unnerving, how in sync they are, but it's worse in close quarters, when he knows he's going to kiss them, both of them, in a minute. “You can't care that much about the sophomore class.”
“I like to encourage shows of school spirit,” says Lagertha, stepping forward. “And we like you. We've liked you since you transferred here, and you're above the age of consent now, and we're graduating in five weeks.”
“Time to take a chance, and you and Helga provided us with a very good opportunity.” Ragnar raises his eyebrows. “I expected you to be much more maiden-auntish about this.”
“I don't know what I'm supposed to do, or say. You're already dating each other.”
“We're open to trying new things.” Lagertha's smile goes softer. “Now, do you want to choose which one of us you kiss first?”
Athelstan knows it means she must have guessed that they've bought his first kiss, and he can't help the flush on his cheeks, but he doesn't let himself hide it or pretend it isn't happening. If they laugh at him for being embarrassed, he'll just go back to Helga and return their money. Lagertha and Ragnar just look mild and curious, though, waiting for his decision. Lagertha would be gentle, he thinks, a little more courteous about his first kiss; she's the one taking the lead, giving him the choices. Ragnar is looking at him with a wicked glint in his eye, and that's what makes Athelstan nod at him. “Ragnar, you may as well start.”
“Bold choice,” says Ragnar, but he comes over to Athelstan as he says it. “Most people would say ladies first.”
“Don't tease him,” says Lagertha, but if she continues, Athelstan doesn't hear it, because without any warning but a hand on his cheek, Ragnar is kissing him.
It turns out that Ragnar is gentler than Athelstan was expecting, leaning in to kiss him, no tongue, just their mouths pressing together for a few seconds. “That's one,” says Ragnar, sounding satisfied, when he pulls away, and Athelstan can't muster up an answer because he's just realized he's going to do that up to another ninety-nine times between them and that's suddenly a daunting and amazing thought. “Do you want Lagertha to go next?”
“Yes, you should both get the same amount, shouldn't you?”
That seems to be all the answer Lagertha needs, because she shoulders Ragnar out of the way and kisses Athelstan, and she's just as fierce as he thought Ragnar would be, kissing him harder, longer, even licking at the seam of his lips until they part, although she pulls away instead of going further. “That was probably two,” she says, thoughtful, and then leans forward again and pecks him on the lips, something quick and softer. “So that's four.”
“That was two in a row, no fair,” says Ragnar, and kisses Athelstan again. He's still gentler than Lagertha, gentler than Athelstan expects, maybe from chivalry or maybe just because he wants to be, but it lasts longer this time, and this time Athelstan is the one to open his mouth. It's awkward, and he knows it is, but Ragnar presses in, taking the advantage and the lead, both of his hands cradling Athelstan's head.
Ragnar lingers, and when he pulls away, Lagertha says “Eight, I think,” and takes Athelstan's shoulder to kiss him again. This time, she's a little more gentle, but she's still firm, and when she pulls away, she says “Ten. I like round numbers.”
Athelstan starts losing track after that, as he gets more sure and more involved and starts to know what to do with his hands and his mouth. They're both standing close, all three of them in a little circle so they can both reach Athelstan easily, and he tries to keep one hand on each of them to steady himself, because somewhere around eighteen he starts feeling week in the knees, and after Lagertha kisses him with tongue and with a parting nip to his lip and a quiet murmur of “Twenty-six” he's not sure he could keep himself upright on his own.
On the other side of the tent, Athelstan can still vaguely hear the sounds of the fair, and he concentrates on that to keep himself anchored, because he can already feel himself getting hard, and he doesn't know if Ragnar and Lagertha are going to want anything once their hundred dollars are spent. He doesn't know if he wants anything after their hundred dollars are spent.
It feels like a decade before Ragnar pulls away, with great satisfaction, and says “Fifty, I think. How are you doing, Athelstan?”
Athelstan has to drag in air, embarrassingly, and feels steadier for it. At least some of how close to swooning he feels is oxygen deprivation, but it's still embarrassing. “Fine. Thank you. Feeling satisfied with your purchase?”
“Come on, now, you're making me feel like this is Pretty Woman,” says Ragnar, though his grin hasn't dropped. “You could say something nice about our kissing prowess, if you felt like it.”
“You're both very good.” Not that he has basis for comparison. “And you paid me a really amazing amount of money to kiss me, so I think the comparison is at least a little apt.”
“We are taking advantage of opportunities we have been hoping would arise,” Ragnar says, drawing the words out like he's thinking hard about them and grinning in a way that makes Athelstan feel like he's being teased. “Lagertha, I think it's your turn.”
Athelstan takes a deep breath, since he knows how to learn a lesson, and Lagertha leans in and kisses him, a hand sliding into his hair to hold him closer.
This time, it seems to go on forever, Lagertha's lips and tongue and teeth and a second pair of hands on him, holding him steady, and when Athelstan comes up for air, Lagertha's eyes are still closed. “Sixty-one,” she says, voice rough, and then Athelstan is being spun to get another kiss from Ragnar, just as overwhelming. Sometime during the kisses, Ragnar has lost his gentleness, or at least some of it, and between the two of them Athelstan's lips are tingling, almost on the edge of sore.
Athelstan stumbles back, sometime during the kiss, and Ragnar follows him, holding on tight but letting him rest his weight on one of the wooden poles holding the booth tent up. It doesn't feel sturdy, but it's something at his back, and he can concentrate more on Ragnar and less on staying upright. “Seventy-three,” Ragnar finally breathes into his mouth, and then gives him another brief kiss. “Seventy-four.”
Almost three quarters of the way through, and Athelstan doesn't know what he wants to do when they're finished, before they walk away again. If that's their intention. “Can we go slow for a minute?” he asks, because it's one way to give himself time.
Not time to think, though, he discovers as Lagertha leans in and kisses him so slowly and gently that all he can do is think about her lips against his, just how light the pressure is and how much fiercer she can be. “Seventy-seven,” she finally says.
The closer they get to a hundred, the more the kisses trickle off into being short, just inching up one or two at a time, the two of them blurring together, all of them standing so close that they might as well all three be kissing at once, in some kind of awkward mess.
Athelstan doesn't know what to do, what he should do, but he knows that he likes it, and he's starting to have some idea of what to do. When Lagertha whispers “Ninety-five” against his mouth, he pulls her back in, hands on her face, and kisses her as hard as he can, everything they've been teaching him, holding on, opening his mouth and coaxing hers open too, both of them panting, his clumsy attempt at nipping her lip making her moan. “That was more than a hundred,” she says when he lets her free, sounding dazed.
“That was for me,” says Athelstan, and his voice only shakes a little as he grabs Ragnar's shoulder and pulls him in for a clumsy kiss, forgetting everything they've been teaching. “And so was that. I need to get back to Helga, I've left her alone for most of our shift now, I'm pretty sure.”
Both of them look like they have something to say, but Athelstan is in no state to stay and hear it, not that he's in a state to be in front of a booth, either. At least he'll have the booth counter in front of him, and he ducks back into the tent from the back.
Helga turns and grins at him and shakes the money jar, which proves she must have been doing steady business for a while, and her eyebrows go up when she sees him. He can't imagine what he looks like. “Chapstick and some cold water,” she says, producing a water bottle for him. “You look like you've seen God, sweetie.”
“Something like that,” he says, and drinks half the water bottle before pouring some of the rest into his hands to splash on his face.
When he looks up, Helga is watching him and so are a few freshmen girls on the other side of the booth. “Four minutes left on shift,” says Helga, and Athelstan straightens his shoulders and does his best to get to work.
“So,” says Lagertha, grinning at him when he looks over at her, “we thought maybe we'd try to win you a horribly ugly stuffed animal or two, and then maybe all of us could have a snow cone.”
Athelstan looks between them, their easy smiles and how pink their lips still are. “I like cotton candy better,” he offers, and he's glad when both of their grins widen right away. “But I'd like that.”
Athelstan takes a moment to wonder whether Ragnar and Lagertha were talking about him, to make Rollo leave so quickly earlier, but he's distracted by Ragnar's grin. “I told you, didn't I? If the universe dropped the opportunity in our laps, we weren't going to turn it down. Isn't that right, Athelstan?”
“I suppose so,” Athelstan says, even though he still feels about four steps behind in everything that's happened to him this afternoon.
Rollo makes a disgusted noise and stalks off, even though he was almost to the front of the line for the booth, leaving Ragnar to press a loud, wet kiss to Athelstan's temple. “He's just jealous,” says Ragnar. “Now, do you want the thing that looks sort of like a crocodile, or the one that looks sort of like a badger?”
“The badger, I suppose,” says Athelstan, and both of them grin at him and let him go to get in line.