“You’re coming over to study, right?”
Layla leaned half out the bus window to ask the question, and Will knew they’d had the talk a hundred times before, the your head is a valuable instrument lecture on his part, followed by Layla’s don’t police my body rebuttal, but seeing her with her stomach almost bisected by the sliding Plexiglas it was hard not to launch into another round.
Instead he nodded, said “yeah, of course,” and she smiled at him, which she never would have done if he tried to cite the statistics for head injuries and mass transportation, so, he probably made the right choice.
Then Ben Wilson, bus driver (younger brother to Ron, who was off battling some sentient traffic lights that were menacing a neighbouring city) shouted for all students to retract all limbs from the windows for takeoff, so Layla slid back inside.
Just before she raised the window she added, “and bring Warren, okay?”
Then the window was shut, so Will couldn’t argue even if he wanted to. Not that he wanted to. Probably. But that whole thing had just gotten weird lately, and Layla’s family’s den was one of the few remaining bastions of normalcy in his life, so excuse him if he didn’t really want to drag the weirdness that was him, Warren, and Layla into one of the few places left on Earth that still felt kind of . . . ordinary.
And it was weird. It was really weird. Whatever it was between him and Layla and Warren, Will wasn’t sure there was any other word for it except that: weird.
One time he said “weirdsville” just to mix it up a little, but Layla told him neologism was not his strong point, so he had to go look up neologism, but the dictionary app on his phone wouldn’t work, and he couldn’t find the actual paper-type dictionary, and during his search through the shelves he’d found an old comic book he lost when he was in freshman year, so he sat down to read that and Warren and Layla found him there, reading his comic, because he’d kind of spaced and forgot that he was supposed to look for a dictionary.
Actually he was supposed to help them study for finals, and they’d been angry enough about him just wanting to look for the dictionary. When they found him reading the comic, Warren’s fingernails started to smoke and the spider plant to Layla’s left suddenly looked a little extra spiky.
“You’re kidding me,” Warren scowled, so Will hid the comic book behind his back, apologized like fifty times in a row, and they’d all gone back to studying together.
Because that was how they did things. Together.
Which brought him back to the weird part.
Not that it was weird to do things with your best friend and girlfriend. Near as Will could tell, lots of guys did things with their girlfriends. And lots of guys did things with their best friends. That part was okay.
Just, somehow, they never seemed to be doing all those things at the same time. Not all the time. It seemed like if you did too many things with your girlfriend, your best friend was supposed to complain, and if you spent a lot of time with your best friend, your girlfriend was supposed to get all huffy and annoyed about it. And if you ever suggested doing things with both of them, they were supposed to think that was dumb. At least, Will had spent some time observing these things, and that was what he’d noticed.
He’d also noticed that the lunch ladies didn’t follow proper sanitation procedures, there was about ten years’ worth of fossilized chewing gum stuck to the corner of the science lab ceiling, and also maybe they should start the Family Education courses in ninth grade, instead of tenth, if the number of paired-up freshman populating the dustiest library stacks was anything to go by.
Will noticed stuff like that.
Which was why he got the impression that somehow, for reasons he couldn’t exactly articulate (because neologism was not his strong point) what he and Layla and Warren had together was . . . weird.
He’d brought it up with Layla and Warren the night before, while they studied in his living room and his mother pretended not to hover, and his father dropped in to see if anybody wanted to hear another story about that one time, with that one villain, and that one really cool thing he did to stop him. In hindsight it probably hadn’t been the time or place to bring it up, what with finals so close and the complete lack of privacy, but it had been bugging him, so he did what he always did when something bugged him: he asked Layla and Warren about it.
“Do you think maybe . . . I mean,” he’d squirmed on the couch, trying to sort the words, “the stuff people say, about . . . well, us. Do you think they’re right?”
“Who cares what they think?” Layla frowned, leaning in to study his answer for Rescue Scenario 17. “They’re just people who—ugh, really Will? Steel tensor cables? Talk about giving the guy a conduit! You want to get zapped with fifty thousand volts? Warren, what did you get for 17?”
Warren had drawn a complicated and vaguely pornographic sketch that had nothing whatsoever to do with re-hanging a suspension bridge knocked out by an electrically-charged supervillain holding a Scout Troop hostage. Layla was too irritated by their complete lack of support to even compliment him on the technical accuracy of his work, which was unlike her. Layla usually tried to support Warren in his art.
Warren, who did not actually require validation of his academic procrastination, even if he had grown accustomed to it, chewed on his pencil and stared at Will like maybe he was taking this a little more seriously than Layla.
“What are people saying?” he asked. “Exactly.”
“Well, you know,” Will squirmed, and shifted his textbook so Layla could jot her own answer in the margin for him to study later, “that it’s . . .”
Layla lifted her eyes from his book. He looked down into her face, and was about to get completely, arse over nose lost in how great she looked at that moment when she said “Will if you say ‘weird’ I am going to stuff your head between the couch cushions.”
“Feeling violent tonight, are we?” Warren asked, but he didn’t say it like he was teasing so much as like he was hoping she might be. Warren was into Layla when she got a little aggressive.
Which, right there, was what Will knew was supposed to be weird (he didn’t say it out loud; he really did think maybe she’d do it, stuff him between the cushions. Layla got so tense around exam time).
But it was weird. He wasn’t supposed to know that Warren thought it was hot when Layla’s eyes snapped dark and angry; that sometimes Warren’s arms smelled like burnt toast when he saw Layla looking like that. And Will knew he, himself, Layla’s boyfriend and Warren’s best friend, was not supposed to be so calmly unbothered by the fact that he knew that.
He also almost definitely wasn’t supposed to be as into that burnt toast smell as he was.
And he wasn’t supposed to know Layla was into it, too.
Which was why he wasn’t even sure how he felt about the fact that—well—he was.
He was still mulling it over when Warren found him in the library, and asked if Will thought chewing on his fingernails like that was going to help him save the world.
“Huh? Oh.” Will studied the mangled remains of his thumbnail. “Right.”
“We going to Layla’s tonight?”
Will squirmed. Warren watched him squirm like maybe he enjoyed the sight before asking, “something on your mind, Stronghold?”
So Will told him. Everything. Principal Powers was right when she gave him a C in Advanced Interrogation, and told him he’d probably crack as soon as the supervillain even thought about torture. Will was a chronic over-sharer.
Warren, who didn’t deal well with most sharing of any kind, handled Will’s deluge surprisingly well. He listened, staring straight ahead, and when Will stopped to gulp for air, Warren nodded.
“Right. So. You’re a little freaked out because people are talking about us like we’re . . .” he stopped. ‘What’s a couple when it’s three people? A triple?”
“A trio,” said Will, absently. He felt absurdly better for having told Warren all of that.
“Isn’t that music, or something?”
“Well, no. I mean, yes it is, but it doesn’t only have to be music. Three of anything is technically—”
“Yeah, no, got it,” Warren held up his hand. “Trio.” He paused. “I kind of prefer triple, actually. Can we call it a triple? Do we get to decide?”
Will took a minute to process the full weight of the question. Then, when he had:
“Wait, you . . . I mean, you don’t . . .”
He didn’t know how to finish either of those sentences, nor any of the half dozen others that formed unspoken. Warren, looking just slightly awkward, shook his hair down in front of his face.
“Not if you don’t. Or Layla doesn’t . . . wait, you told her this first, right? I’m not the first one you told, am I?”
“Actually . . .”
“Damn it, Stronghold!” Sparks zinged from Warren’s eyes. One landed on the textbook in front of him, and smouldered quietly until Will slapped it out. “She is your actual girlfriend, and you brought this to me first? What the hell is wrong with you, man?”
Will sighed, and pressed his face into the palms of his hands.
“That is such an excellent question,” he mumbled. “Maybe when we take all this to Layla, before she dumps me, she can share her theories.”
“Yeah maybe,” Warren agreed. “What time are we supposed to be there?”
“I’m not actually sure.”
Warren didn’t shoot any more sparks. He just raised the eyebrow of “you are so dead, man” and Will, who knew the eyebrow and did not disagree with its conclusion, thunked his forehead against the table.
Which then split neatly down the middle, infuriating the librarian and getting them both kicked out.
“Super strength, Stronghold!” Warren snapped, storming out of the room beside Will. “For crying out loud, super strength!”
High school, thought Will, should really not be so hard.
Layla did not dump him, but neither did they get much studying done. It all kind of turned into a super-quiet, super-intense discussion that they kept having to interrupt because Layla’s mother would periodically wander in with veggie trays and words of encouragement.
“What do you mean,” Layla hissed, “people think we’re a—Mom! No, thank you, we’ve still got all the hummus we need. No really. Thank you. It’s great. Bye now.”
She fidgeted until her mother had disappeared around the corner, then finished “—trio?”
“I prefer triple, actually,” said Warren. “If we’re voting.”
“We are not voting!”
“Can we put that to a vote?”
“Warren,” she narrowed her eyes at him, “are you . . . enjoying this?”
He shrugged. “Maybe a little. Mostly the part where you two are acting like it’s news. Did you seriously not know? It’s a thing. That people think, I mean. Not that we actually are.” He paused. “I still like triple.”
“That’s hurtful, hippie,” he scolded. “You know, people have feelings too. Just like plants and animals.”
“If you had any feeling at all, you’d have told us when you found out people thought—wait. When you say people, how many are we talking, here?”
Warren scrunched his face in thought. “Well, if we’re talking within the student body . . . everyone. Wait—no, yup, everyone.”
Will and Layla gaped.
“Teachers, too,” Warren added.
“That . . .” Layla shook her head, fingertips pressed to her temples. “Oh God. How is that . . . oh my God.”
Will stood and stared, mouth open. Coherent speech—hell, sound—eluded him for the time being.
Layla’s mother returned with a spinach and artichoke dip. She took a considering look around the room, said “well, you’re all working hard, I’ll just leave this here,” and made a graceful exit.
“Warren,” said Layla, “are you serious?”
Warren scooped up a chipful of spinach and artichoke dip, popped it in his mouth and nodded, crunching complacently.
“Well. Well, that’s . . . why? Why would they think that?”
Warren shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe because I have such amazing cheekbones, they all figure neither of you would be able to keep your hands off me?”
The spinach in his mouth staged a brief revolt. He coughed and gasped, clutched at his throat, and swallowed with an effort.
“Damn, that’s vicious.” He paused. “Hey, is that a new thing you can work with? Plants people have already eaten?”
Layla blinked. “It . . . yes. Huh. That could be useful, if a supervillain ever ate a salad while . . . no!” She stabbed a warning finger in his direction. “No, we are not sidetracking this one. We are going to figure out some way to explain to . . . everybody that we are not a couple. Trio. Group.”
“Triple,” Warren encouraged. “Go on, try it out. It sounds right.”
“Doesn’t it?” Will agreed. Then he saw the looks of disbelief Warren and Layla turned on him, and flushed. “Oh. You meant . . . the word. Got it. Right.”
“Will . . “ Layla looked back and forth between them. “Really? You meant . . .”
Will's face got hot and itchy.
“Well, I don’t know. I mean . . .” he tried to think of a way to explain what he meant. How when Layla got so angry, Warren just leaned into it, like she was kindling a different kind of fire inside him. How Warren being Warren never threw Layla off her stride, and she even went out of her way to celebrate some of the Warren-est parts of him. How watching the two of them argue made Will feel oddly right and complete, deep in the pit of his stomach, like this was just . . . home.
And that didn’t even cover the way he felt when he was with each of them. Or both of them.
Especially both of them.
But there was no way to explain that, because Will and words . . . they weren't the best fit. So instead he said,
“Rescue Scenario 17.”
“What?” Layla blinked. Warren shot her a little sideways frown, like he was telling her to wait, to hear Will out (that. The things like that. How could Will ever put all those things he saw into words?).
“You can’t grab the cables, you can’t grab the kids in the Scout Troop . . . not alone. Not even with two people, because there’s the supervillain too, and he’d just pick you off one at a time. That’s the trick. You need a third person. Layla, you’d get the cables. It’s just vines, you’ve been doing vines since second grade. I would get the kids, because, well, I can carry them all at once, and I could fly ‘em off pretty much anywhere. And Warren’s got the villain, because . . . well, hello: fireballs.”
Warren buffed his fingernails modestly against his jacket. He was smiling, and not just, Will thought, because he got to handle a fictitious supervillain.
He was smiling cause he got it, too.
Which just left . . .
Layla was staring at Will like she’d never seen him before. Like the words that came out of his mouth would have required super-translating powers, or maybe just an ordinary translator app, Will couldn’t tell.
“Layla . . .” he paused, fumbling for words. God, he sucked at words. “Layla, it can be just two of us. Or none of us, if you want. But I just feel, like, really deep down right here,” he thumped himself lightly in the gut, “every time we’re together . . . I feel like yeah. This. I always want this. Whatever this is, I don't know, but I want it. And I guess I would just really, really love it if . . . you could want it, too.”
Then he held his breath. Kept holding it.
Kind of felt himself turning purple, to be honest, when . . .
“Yeah,” Layla said softly.
Will would have gasped, but instead he really, really needed to exhale. He gusted hummus breath right in her face. She scrunched her nose, grimaced, then laughed.
“Yeah?” he asked. Warren smiled the kind of smile Warren used when Warren wanted to smile more than he ever liked to be seen, you know, smiling.
(God, Layla was right, he needed to expand his vocabulary)
“Yeah,” she said. Then she leaned in like she was about to kiss him, and all of a sudden panic flashed across her face.
“Oh no—what the hell do we do about prom? I mean, how do we . . .”
“Yeah,” Warren said. “Because that is really the biggest issue we’re going to face.”
Layla shrugged. “What do you want, I’m still in high school.”
Then she smiled, and just like that, Will knew: for the rest of high school, and for everything else that came after, they were going to be just fine.
“Come on guys,” Warren said. “Just try it. Triple. Say it. Come on!”
“Shut up,” said Layla, “and kiss me.”
(they said triple, in the end. Warren was right. It really did sound great)