Later they were walking their way through a whole section of carnival games and temporary rides. The fun-sized traveling stuff that gets set up in parking lots. Everything was decorated with pink, red, and white hearts, Cupids, and balloons, all the usual suspects. There were even stands peddling overpriced chocolates and artificial “roses for your sweetheart.” The whole thing, even though he’d known about it in advance, made Aiden vaguely uneasy when they reached it.

Instead of ignoring that flutter he tried to look through it, behind it. Just like they’d been teaching him at Ravenwolfe. Look for the reason behind a feeling, and then look again. Don’t stop at the first answer. He looked around. Beyond the decorations. There were plenty of people still. It was cold, but this was Navy pier, on one of the year’s first mandatory date nights. The kind of night guys dreaded. If you didn’t have a date, you were supposed to man up and get one, or be branded a loser. If you had one, you had to come up with a date plan and a gift. Or be dumped and branded a loser. And the longer they’d been with their girl the more stress guys seemed to have.

At least that was how it looked. Aiden’s circumstances gave him a social standing that  put him in a no man’s land of not having much chance at getting a date, but not catching the blowback if he didn’t, or didn’t even try.

That was one thing even the Ravenwolfe House couldn’t change.

He saw groups of girls, walking and chatting. Groups of guys walking and being loud, trying to get their attention. All to split one off from the group and claim the bragging rights of being a “couple.” For however long it lasted.

Here and there he saw guys with girls. Some pairs so awkward about it they seemed to look everywhere but at each other. Some others where one or the other seemed to be leading and the other just following. Some were in clusters. The popular clichés from some school or another. Cheerleaders hanging all over their jocks. Or jocks looking for the magic combination of romance and holiday magic and luck that would get them license to be all over their cheerleaders. There were older ones too. College aged couples. Parents aged. It seemed like the typical Valentine’s mess.

So what’s bugging me?

He kept looking, even turning around. It was so hard to get a good look when everyone, even him, was moving. He stopped. Peter’s shoulder bumped into his as he tried to stop and avoid someone behind them that didn’t at the same time. Peter stayed close behind him a couple of fingertips on Aiden’s back from catching their balance. Then nothing. Just the sound of his breathing and vapor out of the corner of his eyes. The crowd mostly parted around this rock in the way of things. But occasionally Aiden or Peter would be jostled into the other.

“Aiden, are you alright?”

He turned enough to smile and waved Peter’s concerned expression away. “I’m just trying to figure something out.” He looked at Peter, and turned to the crowd. He flipped back through his searching as if he had a bunch of Polaroids on a rolodex. There were girls in pairs, girls not quite with anyone, hard luck guys alone, or shouting at a buddy three feet away, and big groups of either gender.

What he hadn’t picked out yet was any two guys moving close enough together to have that “couple” look. That was something. But he hadn’t really looked at the crowd before he felt the first twinge of uneasiness. Which was only getting stronger. Peter wasn’t watching him anymore, he was facing away from him, eyes on the crowd. Somehow, even with his hands in his pockets, he was playing traffic cop, leaning or whispering to catch the attention of people that would have otherwise walked into them.

Aiden blinked and tried to recapture his train of thought. Just before he turned back, he saw a girl headed right for them too busy talking to pay attention.

“Look out.” Peter said softly. She jerked her head around, saw Peter and smiled before she moved to go around them. Walking past them, she fixed her already fine hair, and glanced back to see if Peter was watching. Aiden looked away from her chuckling, not wanting her to think he was interested. Not tonight, anyhow. Those grey eyes would pop out of her head if she learned that Aiden had a better chance at Peter Dane than she did. Even if she did have a nice butt. He had a silly urge to stick his tongue out at her. He snickered.

“Aiden? What’s the question, if you’d like to discuss it, I’m here. ”

He jumped, feeling caught somehow, “Sorry, Dude.” He said back. “I almost had it before… not important. Just gimmie a minute, ok?”

“As many of mine as you wish. Focus as you did in the coffee shop, find your answer. Or a better question.” Peter said turning.

Okay, Aiden… Bring everything in, surround that place with a maze that leads only back out. Reflect others to keep distractions out. Safe in the center there’s just you. Breathe. Think…

What could have bothered me when I got near? What could I have noticed?

Better, question: What was the first thing I saw over here?

“Come on.” He murmured, and went back the way they’d come. Peter followed a step behind him. He stopped 30 feet from the start of the carnival stuff, looking at a sign he’d almost completely ignored.

Below the words it had a logo. It had two silhouettes a white heart bordered with a wreath of roses. There, unmistakably, was a man’s bust in profile, done in red. Opposite a woman’s in pink, slender shoulders, high ponytail, and an obvious hair bow. Where their lips touched was pink heart with a red heart inside it and a white in the center.

It said “Love is a carnival, enjoy yourselves.”

He looked back. The logo seemed to jump at him from all over.

Telling everyone, even 30 feet away from a Valentine’s themed carnival exactly who was supposed to be in love. He looked at Peter, his face and his eyes burning. How’d I miss it? Maybe before I was thinking about people who are different I could miss it. But how did I miss it now? “Pete…” he looked at the ground, using his hood to hide, “I didn’t… see.”

Peter gently led him to a shadowed alcove for or five feet deep. Some garbage cans had spilled into a pile. Peter looked at it, and then then turned so Aiden’s back was to it. “Aiden, it’s al-”

There was a shift in Aiden as he realized he wasn’t sad, he was angry. “Don’t say that this is alright,” he was seething now. “Don’t you say that!” He pointed past Peter out to the warm light of the attractions. “You… that manager… that was one guy and you… did something to fight back. Back there is 1,000 times worse. Don’t tell me that it’s alright.”

“Genevieve’s plan…” Peter sighed “is to get him fired for knowingly forcing an ill minor out in freezing weather based on the appearance of homosexuality. Or more precisely, forcing her to do it. He threatened to fire her, he meant it, Aiden. And she made the best choice for her life. Because if he fired her, he’d just make someone else do it. So, she kept her job, and kept the paycheck that feeds her son.” Peter rubbed his shoulders. “Aiden, she’s going to call, but only to ask us to confirm that I was sick. She knows it was because we seemed like a couple. But the company probably wouldn’t care. They will care what people will think about a boy with a fever being turned out.” Peter laughed “It won’t matter that we left without a fight, or that you said I was ok. We’re kids, they were the adults.” He smirked, “Emerson’s going to enjoy himself. ”

Aiden’s shoulders shook. “That… that’s not the point.” He sagged forward and learned his fists on Peter’s chest. “It was because you’re gay. Because we looked gay.” He sighed, “You knew. How it would have to be fought. You being sick was your plan before she was even coming our way.” He sighed. “Make a plan for that Pete.” He gestured weakly.

“For that carnival there’s no one to fight directly. Those decorations were approved by committee, after being designed by someone else, and someone told the artist what they wanted. And most of the people involved most likely never thought about a deeper meaning. They likely chose what was already familiar. Things like this happen. Teaching people is the answer, and it takes time.”

Peter pulled him into a hug. Aiden blinked and put his arms around him. “Aiden, what’s alright, is you. You’ve seen decorations such as those for years. Such things become simply background once one becomes accustomed to them. Instead of punishing yourself for overlooking something perfectly normal to you prior. Be proud that you noticed now. I am.”

He blushed at the surge of pleasure the words created.  And he knew he was smiling into Peter’s shoulder, a small grin.  Probably really goofy, and he was glad Peter couldn’t see it. The hug was unusual. Or was it? That forgotten movie night proved he used to cuddle up with Peter like he was a pillow. Other times too, maybe every time there was space that he could. What changed? If an 11-year-old can cuddle and hug another boy, without it being judged, why couldn’t two teens, or adults, whatever their parts?

What changed? When did I stop doing what I wanted and start doing what I should? Why didn’t I ever question if it was right? Suddenly his looks, or age, weren’t what worried him. Not even, “What does Peter think?”

Aiden’s new worry was: How have I made him feel?

He stepped toward Peter and settled his arms tightly around his waist, hugging back as hard as he could. He pressed his face against Peter’s neck. It’s all so stupid! The carnival! Me! He shook. He was angry and he had no target for it. Nothing to hit, nothing to scream at. Except himself. So, he took the anger and the pain. Took them and pushed them out a teenage boy’s vent of last resort.

Peter didn’t say “don’t cry.” No one at Ravenwolfe House ever told him not to cry. “Let it out, Aiden.” “You can choose when and where, but don’t hold the things inside that are pushing to get out. Feel them, examine them, know them. Know your joys and your pains, Aiden.” Those things they said.

Well then… Right here, right fucking now… He shook. He gasped. He cried.

I ran! It was funny and nice, and I ran because I was afraid what strangers would think. Fuck!

This was all supposed to show him that I was ok, or that he was… or… fuck if I know. And, like a dumb ass, all I’ve done is remind him he’s different. Crap!

I tell him ‘it’s ok,’ like he can be himself, show me the things he doesn’t have to hide anymore. And then I jump on each and every thing he’s doing that isn’t like ‘Normal Peter.’ ‘You can be different, buddy, as long as you’re completely the same.’ Double crap!  He sobbed. He screamed, breathless and keening, against Peter’s coat.

Peter held on to him, rubbed his back, the back of his head. Peter said “I’m here.,” “Let it all go.,” “I have you, Aiden.”, “Crying is fine.,” “Breathe, remember to breathe.” And supported him. With Peter there, Aiden pushed the pain out. Sobbing turned to sniffles, and shaking subsided. He straightened, caught his breath. But he didn’t pull away. He’d seen his mistakes. But that wasn’t all.

Those arms that were around him, supporting him, protecting him. Like the car. Like after so many falls. Even after a few bad dreams. He liked things about Peter, facts, ideas, beliefs, attitudes, perspectives. He liked how Peter treated him, challenged him to be more. He liked how he felt around Peter, how Peter could help him recognize what felt, and then help him show it, and then understand it. With all that, what could be wrong about liking how it felt when Peter hugged him?

He shuffled his feet forward and pressed a little closer All this time to talk and… The toe of his right boot was just touching the inside of Peter’s left, his left leg on the other side, And I haven’t… They were touching from chest to thighs now. I haven’t told him anything! One arm dropped towards Peter’s waist, the other slipped up to grip the back of his shoulder. Not even… He took a deep breath. Say it!  It started as barely an exhale “Ha-”

Peter’s supportive hold melted away. “Here.” Peter said softly. Soft fabric touched his face. Gentle pressure wiped his eyes, then his mouth and his nose. “Take this and blow.” When Aiden had it, Peter gave him a small smile and turned, sliding around to his side “We should get moving.” Peter’s arm on his back drew him forward. “We’ll get back to some light or a bathroom, and clean up. There’s one…” Peter looked around. “This way.” And with that arm behind him, Peter pushed him into moving. It wasn’t until he’d finished blowing his nose that he looked ahead.

After a quick stop to get cleaned up Peter led him back into the carnival. A few minutes later Peter had him playing the first game, Skee-Ball. Which gave him tickets to redeem later. Next a game with water guns, it seemed ironic in freezing weather. The game Aiden kept eyeing and passing was throwing baseballs at bottles. By the third time he looked at it, Peter dragged him over.

When they walked up, a short scrawny guy was getting ready to throw while a tall willowy girl waited behind him, clearly watching. Judging by the empty counter in front of him, he was down to his last pitch. Judging by the lack of prizes apparent, he had two foul balls. Looking at him he had a visible tension that Aiden attributed to the girl behind him. This guy wasn’t a pitcher with the season on his shoulders. But his night was riding on that girl getting the bauble she wanted because he had skill enough to get it. Pitching instead of trial by combat. Ball control instead of just having the biggest balls.

The wind up, the pitch. Clanging metal as bottles fell. “That’s a strike folks! And that’s the game!” Aiden could imagine the guy’s relief.

Girl hanging on his arm, he pointed out a baby penguin plush with too-big vividly blue eyes. The guy passed it to her with a goofy grin, she whispered something in his ear. Must have been good. When they turned to walk away the boy was adjusting the front of his paints. The strings of lights crisscrossing overhead weren’t great light. But the boy’s dark hair, dark eyes, chocolate caramel skin looked cute. A nerd wrapped around a pretty girl’s finger. Polite way to say he was being led around by his joystick. Aiden smiled at them. He ignored Aiden. She turned to the sucker and smiled, but she made single-eyed contact with Aiden behind her date’s back. Smiling at him too.

It shouldn’t be that way… Making plans, finding gifts, putting on a display, they should be about making the other person feel good, appreciated. So why does it always look to me like they’re doing it out of fear? It’s like they’re afraid that this one thing will sustain or doom their relationship. One eye shouldn’t be looking for Mr. Next. That’s not a relationship…

He glanced at Peter. Friends. They’d been friends for years. Friends yesterday, and they’d be friends tomorrow. He could make a complete fool of himself, and it wouldn’t change. No matter if tonight went badly, Pete wouldn’t dump him. Isn’t love basically best friends that wanna have sex? He colored and shook his head.

Peter turned to him. “Seems you’re next, if you like.”

He took a step back. “N-no. I wasn’t going to.”

“You’ve been gazing at it every time we go by.”

Aiden licked his lips. Busted…“Ok. So? I wasn’t going to play.”

Peter didn’t look anything but curious, and yet he felt like running.

“Aiden. There’s no need to limit yourself.”

“I’m not-” Aiden started. Peter crouched, the abrupt motion surprised him enough to stop him. Peter was miming the stance and underhand rolling Aiden had used in Skee-Ball. He’d dominated. He’d had a lot of practice. Peter stood. “The last time you threw a baseball, was it..?”

“It was after. With Simon. But I stopped.” He said softly. He shuffled closer to Peter. It was a painful thing to think about. Happy games of three-way catch. Aiden hadn’t had much of an arm, and he chased about as many as he caught. But it was time with Dad. He was patient, encouraging. Simon wasn’t always patient, but he wasn’t mean. Good times, juxtaposed with after. Games with only Simon. Then he was patient, trying to coax Aiden out of himself. But… it wasn’t a game Aiden could play anymore. No amount of back and forth could change that.

He blinked, wiping itching eyes on his sleeve. Peter, beside him and distinctly not watching, put an arm around Aiden’s shoulders.

Peter sighed. “Such things, form our bedrock, when they are stirred it unsettles all else.”

“I can’t decide if it’s awesome or terrifying that you can do that.”

Peter squeezed his shoulder. “There are some people, and some things, where it is not necessary.” Peter’s shoulder bumped his. Aiden turned to him. “As for what I can do, It’s terrifying, I’m well aware of that, Aiden. It’s one reason those worthy of trusting are taught… what you have been.”

Aiden opened his mouth but Peter shook his head. “Not that. Not here. Not now. The issue now is, will you play? You can play. I can remind you how to play. So, do you have the will to do so?”

There would be no punishment from Peter if he said no, not even disappointment. They would simply move on. In a while, maybe next week, Peter would offer to discuss his decision, whatever he said. Looking into those eyes, having the perfect knowledge that it was truly his decision, he realized something. If he didn’t try now, tonight, he would be disappointed in himself.

“Let’s do it.”

The first thing Peter did was test his shoulder. Helping Aiden stretch and bend it. Next, he handed him a frozen bottle. With that Peter had him punch the air of all things. As Peter explained it, he wanted Aiden to get the feel of bringing his arm forward while turning his torso into it, without involving his shoulder. Next, with just the lid from the bottle. Peter had him practice throwing it. Demonstrating that when he let go controlled the path. Too late and it would go into the ground. Too early it would go high but not far. A few other things and then Peter had him put it all together throwing the bottle. When Aiden was alarmed, Peter just said, “I’ll catch it.”

Eyes on the center of Peter’s chest, as directed, he twisted back, raised his arm, brought it around, shoulder, elbow, wrist, release.

Peter took quick steps closer almost as he let go, seemed to wait for the bottle, and caught it in his hand. The motion, the weight, feeling the bottle leave his hand, seeing and hearing Peter catch it…”Cool!” He grinned and trotted over. “How was it?”

Peter smiled. “Good. You’re strong and flexible. Very good.”

“It didn’t go straight. You had to move.” He sighed. Never gonna hit anything like this…

Peter nodded, tilted his head to one side, and deadpanned softly “Straight is overrated.”

Aiden laughed, there was nothing else for it. A laughing Peter rubbed his shoulder. “Aiden, this is a water bottle and it’s half frozen. It was never going to go straight. I just had to watch your form.”

“And?” Okay, I know I can make a fool out of myself, but I don’t want to…

Peter had a small smile, “Next on the mound, Aiden Desmond.”

Aiden swallowed. “Yeah sure… Play ball.”

That was just one real throw, and now we’re going to spend money on this…?

“Pete… Maybe we should…”

Peter’s hand squeezed his shoulder and drew him toward the game. “We can’t make any adjustments until you’ve actually handled some balls.”

Oh my god! 

Snickering, Aiden said “Did you have a pair in mind?”

Peter just looked at him, turning red, and started snickering too. He shook his head. Covering his mouth.

Aiden giggled. It’s a wild idea… but it’d be hilarious! “What if I had a pair in mind?” And he deliberately looked at Peter’s waist line. His voice was probably too loud, but only watching Peter mattered

Peter got a little redder, his eyes wide, and was clearly struggling not to laugh. He came close to Aiden, used his coat to pull him upright. In Aiden’s ear he whispered, “A good response to my ‘kiss’ earlier. for just a moment you thought I was going to kiss you and, for just a moment I…” he chuckled, “Well played.”

Peter pushed him toward the game. “Focus on pitching.”

The owner was a weathered old man straight out of some gypsy band in a movie. He caught Peter’s wrist when he went for his wallet. He shook his head. Peter didn’t argue. He paid and the guy put three balls on one of the dishes spaced along the counter. He took time to explain the scoring system for prizes and finished with “Remember to keep your feet behind the chalk line. And may your aim be true.”

He looked at the targets, tiered by difficulty, then at the prizes. Maybe I should go for an easy one first? But what do I wanna try for last? There were the usual things, puppies and kittens, and then some parrots, eagles, robins, done in goofy looking miniature, and small plastic toys. Each step harder they got larger or more realistic, or both, the toys larger, more complicated, seemingly better quality. It was the hardest level, naturally, that drew his eye. There, the animals looked the best. Among others, there were surprises, white fox, a panther so dark it looked like velvet, a natural looking penguin baby, sea otter, tawny lion with a black mane with red tips, and a smoke gray tiger with black stripes.

He positioned his feet, chose his target and threw. The ball cleared the distance to one of the straight-shot easy ones, but it hit high, bouncing off the back wall. Okay, man, too early…

Aiden took a deep breath and let it out. Okay… Inhale. Hold. Reach back. And…

The ball bounced off the platform holding the bottles he’d aimed for. Too late…

Come on! I can do this…

He let out a shuddering breath and swallowed. “Okay…” he blinked. The carnie was holding out the third ball with a smile “May your aim be true, this time.”

He took it and swallowed. Then managed to whisper “Thanks.”

The man kept smiling as Aiden stepped back to square himself with the line. The guy just kept watching. Half in and half out of view, creepy. It’s just one guy, it’s his game, he’s practically furniture, right? 

Okay…

The carnie shifted and when Aiden glanced over, the man smiled. Aiden’s face formed a smile in reflex courtesy.

Now forget that guy. There’s no one here that matters, except… 

Over his shoulder he could see Peter. Hands in his pockets, feet a bit apart. His stillness was startling against the motion and noise of the rest of the pier. Peter’s eyes weren’t on him, he could tell, but on the targets. No shifting, or stomping, no glancing around, he steady and patient, a tree in a black leather coat.

Nothing like that girl…

Blue eyes met his and then another of those smiles revealed itself.

Face hot again, damn it, he turned back and gave the smile that answered Peter’s to the baseball.

“One more.” he murmured. Aiden stepped back, squared himself and threw.

The ball had been the right height but had gone wide. Three balls and three misses.

“Too bad.” the carnie said with another smile. “I think you’ve almost got it. Would you like to go another round?”

Heart thudding and face hot, a sinking weight in his stomach. Aiden started away without answering. Pete stepped in front of him after only three feet. One palm pressed to the center of Aiden’s chest, stepping with him. Applying breaks rather than being a wall. They stopped with Peter’s hand still there and Aiden’s hands on Peter’s arms.

“Nobody likes to lose. Especially in front of people.” Peter whispered, his other hand smoothing over Aiden’s hood as if it was his hair. “It’s all over your face. It’s natural, but think. That was practice, practice, Aiden, remember?” Peter smiled at him, something warm, that turned somehow focused, or determined. “This inning is over,” Peter’s slid beside him and used an arm around his waist to turn Aiden around, “Now it’s back to the bullpen.”

Aiden shrugged. “You weren’t even looking.”

“You didn’t catch me looking.” Peter shifted away enough to bump their shoulders together. He went on in a low murmur “Lurking around and watching people is part of my profession. I wouldn’t be very good at it if I got caught.” Peter watched Aiden sideways with a smirk until Aiden smiled back. “Come on.”

They carved out an area of open space out of the way of traffic but within sight of the game and went to work. “Work” being throwing an apple from some forgotten depth of Peter’s backpack into Peter’s hand. Half the weight, Peter said, but better than the bottle.

Besides catch, some of the time Peter stood behind or beside Aiden watching or guiding the movement as Aiden pretended to throw.

The closeness and the touching kept Aiden’s face, and something else, “hot.” Leaving Aiden nervous and dreading the moment Peter caught on. Peter, for his part, was a gentle coach and seemed oblivious to Aiden’s rising and falling “problem.” Bouts of fear, relief, embarrassment, and pride flashed behind everything, but fighting to keep his attention on throwing left him no time to think about it. Even during breaks.

Every few minutes Peter stopped him to drink slushy Kool-aide working hard to keep him from sweating. Each time Peter started up a new round of storytelling where one of them would pick someone out of the crowd and make up something about who they were and what they were doing there and why. It was a Ravenwolfe House exercise in observation, deduction, and the empathy needed to put yourself in someone else’s situation. Most of the narratives ended up preposterous. Humor was a part of the game, but the number one rule was not to be mean.

At first Aiden accused Peter of having an unfair advantage. Peter just smiled and promised that he’d never used people’s secrets in the game. While they started with some realism, by break three a pale blonde girl that looked slender even in her coat was declared to be a Viking warrior maid, the friends with her fellow raiders, sailing toward hostile shores, seeking food to sustain a village beset with famine. When the girls seemed to giggle in their direction, Peter answered Aiden’s raised eyebrow with a declaration.

“She is a princess bound to extend her family line with outlander stock. They are considering attacking our island to make off with you.”

Aiden snorted and blushed, “Clean out your ears, Superman. Nobody is going to come after me if they think you’re on the menu.”

Peter laughed “You underestimate yourself, my prince.” He bowed to Aiden with a flourish, somehow making it seem natural, “Fear not, for though I may be a knight of darkness, I am bound to protect you.”

Aiden laughed, smiling at his feet. “You nut.”

Peter threw an arm over Aiden and steered them back to the game. “That may be as well may not be. Regardless it is past time for the next inning.”

Aiden was still riding on the humor of the game all the way through Peter paying. He got serious holding the first ball, but never lost the smile. The first was a miss, but barely. The second anticipation made him tense and he threw too hard and let go too early. He tried calming down for the third by picturing Peter thrown over the shoulder of a comically large Viking while Aiden chased after throwing baseballs. On fire.

He snickered all the while, but he took his third throw aiming at the Viking’s helmet, on the far side of the bottles. This time, the sound of falling metal went with the thud of hitting wood.

Aiden put his fists in the air. “Yes!

“Congratulations, Aiden.” Peter said behind him.

Aiden spun and practically ran at Peter, throwing his arms out. Peter caught him and held them both up without moving. “That was so cool!” Aiden said against Peter’s neck hugging tightly.

Peter hugged him back and, with an obvious smile in his voice, said “Indeed it was.” Peter turned him around, with his hands squeezing Aiden’s shoulders, Peter said next to his ear “Do you want to keep playing?”

Aiden nodded, and this time Peter didn’t have to push.

In fact, he followed. For his prize he chose a blue smiley face ball a little smaller than a baseball. He held it out toward Peter, but his friend shook his head before he could say anything.

“Aiden, I just passed down things I already know. You chose to try learning. You chose to play. You put in the practice. If it was as simple as just doing what the coach says anyone would be major league. You took what I said and showed you and you figured out how to make it work for yourself. So, you keep the prize. To remember what can happen when you test your limits, rather than accept them.”

Aiden giggled at his friend’s earnest face, nodding. “Okay, Pete.” He put it in his coat pocket. He gave Peter a red-faced smile.

Peter put money on the counter, and the game got back underway.

Rounds and breaks, rounds and breaks Aiden kept playing. Breaks now were almost silent as Aiden stood staring, picking his next target, imagining the timing of the next throw. During rounds he hardly noticed the crowd or the carnie. He had attained the rare focus needed for truly epic Tetris scores.

He moved to higher difficulty targets. Throws at different heights, requiring successive hits to win. After four innings Aiden had filled an impressive scorecard of small and medium wins in place of prizes. And now, he felt ready for a run at the tiger.

Aiden stood and returned himself to the focus place. There he was himself, ball in hand, the game before him. He chose his target and pushed the rest away. He imagined the throw planned it, the path from himself to a point beyond the bottles. He twisted back, raised his arm, brought it around.

Shoulder, elbow, wrist, release…

The ball spun away from him and hit the silver bottles.

“Yes!” He laughed, he felt the stretching tension of his smile on his own face.

Only a moment later though, the bottom fell out of his stomach. On the shelf, one bottle of the stacked triangle still stood.  As bad as a miss. A loss. Aiden’s face burned again as he cringed. “Spoke too soon, I guess.”

“A shame.” the carnie said. Aiden looked at him and say it wrinkled in what might have been sympathy. “An impressive game,” the man went on, then he marked the card. “but a shame.”

Aiden nodded, eyes downcast to the counter, shifting as he thought. I thought I had it… The half-realized vision of holding the tiger as a trophy and proudly presenting the proof of his efforts to… it didn’t matter. The disappointment fell on him like an unexpected punch.

He shook his head and turned away when the carnie spoke again. Quickly Aiden pushed the weight of it off. He stood, he smiled, and he went back to Peter. When he put his hands in his pockets he felt the ball, his first, and now only, prize. He squeezed it, and a flicker of that warmth and pride when he’d won it returned.

When he’d reached Peter Aiden’s small smile was genuine. “Thanks, Pete.”

Only after his whisper did Aiden properly look at his friend. Peter stood still, so completely still as a statue was still. A small downturn of his mouth too subtle to be a frown. But there was an intensity to Peter’s eyes that made Aiden freeze.

What the…?

But before he finished the thought he was sure Peter was looking past him. A knot in his stomach he hadn’t noticed eased a bit. But he remained frozen. Looking at that not quite expression, that focus… even directed at someone else, it held him. Unable to move, unable to look away, barely able to breathe.

Always curious, always thinking, Aiden sought to make sense of it. For what seemed a long time, he was at a loss. Then he found it, realized he’d known it instantly, instinctively, and shied away in denial.

That stillness, that focus, they were… he ached with a cold burn of shame at the thought… they might be…

He swallowed, felt sandpaper roughness. A heavy weight in his stomach, as if he swallowed the word.

Inhuman.

Peter’s eyes closed. Aiden watched the apple in his throat bob once, twice. A deep breath in, and then a long exhale that fogged around his mouth as if he breathed out cold smoke. When Peter’s eyes opened, they narrowed. His eyebrows scrunched, his jaw was tight, his lips pressed so tightly in a line they were white.

Peter stepped past him and Aiden finally started to relax. He gasped a soft laugh as he finally breathed deep, giddy vaguely, to see his friend again.

Aiden turned and watched Peter’s back as he walked toward the game.

Then he realized two things.

One, Peter had been looking at the carnie.

Two, for some reason, Peter Dane was fucking pissed.

Shivering, Aiden caught up, but every time he tried to ask, the words crumbled away.

Aiden watched, as Peter waited in line. Peter’s angry expression fading by the second. When he reached the counter, he seemed perfectly relaxed, easy going, ready to play

Peter played, but Aiden watched his friend, not the targets, and after watching the first few tosses realized something else. Peter was moving exactly like him. After that, Aiden shifted, unable to look up at Peter. Unsure why it made him so uncomfortable.

It’s the same as when he copied my Skee-Ball toss, Aiden thought to himself. But he was thinking then… And he wasn’t angry. If this was about me missing, he’d tell me. Then he shook his head. No, he wouldn’t be angry about that. He’d say, “It’s alright, you’re alright,” and ask me if I wanted to keep playing. 

Aiden turned to the targets. Peter had just hit a stack squarely and the carnie was marking it on a scorecard. He handed it to Peter, then went to start another person, some guy with a girl behind him.

Peter dropped the card to the counter and Aiden read it. Maybe he’s not throwing like me. He’s already thrown four while I00p was spacing out and he hasn’t missed…

“Hey, Pete?” Aiden whispered.

“Shh.” Was Peter’s answer. “I’ll explain once I’m sure.”

Aiden blinked. Sure, about what? He stepped back like Peter had, getting a view of pitcher and target.

Peter took a couple steps back, and then in a single burst of motion that was much smoother than any of his attempts, let another ball fly. This time Aiden was watching, and he expected a solid hit. But when the dust settled, one bottle was still standing.

Peter said nothing as the carnie marked the loss and, getting cash from his bag, paid for another game. “Aiden, you take this one. Go for the prize you wanted before.”

“Pete, what’s. -”

Peter drew him away a few feet and squeezed his shoulder. “Use the focus trick and just focus on pitching until I say something, ok?” He smiled and hugged Aiden.

Although surprised and still confused as hell, as he hugged back the tension he felt finally melted.

Peter gave Aiden another of those smiles. Almost impossibly wide, with just a hint of teeth, full of warmth and light. A smile deeper than skin. It was the tip of an iceberg, just the top of sincere feelings rooted in his eyes. It made him happier every time he saw it. At least a little.

Peter walked him up to the counter. “Push everything you don’t need away. Just focus on pitching.”

He nodded and did. Taking special care to imagine tossing the creepy carnie over his mental wall. All but alone in that place in his head. Aiden reflected on what Peter had showed him, on his throws up to now, visualized the next and threw.

Reflect, adjust, repeat… 

Again…

Again…

Aga-

Suddenly couldn’t move his arm. He blinked, he looked. Peter’s hand was covering the ball in his. Peter’s eyes held his.

“Wait a moment, please.” Peter said softly.

Aiden nodded. He watched Peter move down the counter to stand in front of the owner. The old man had an odd expression, for his profession. Not happy, not friendly, for all that he was smiling, the old man had angry eyes.

Peter stood in front of but a few feet from, the man, something about it struck Aiden as loose, but not relaxed. Something else. And then he smiled at the man. Aiden was reminded of the smile earlier when Peter spoke with Dr. Thompson. I’m about to see what it might mean… Aiden thought.

“Would you like to play?” The carnie said, not quite sounding like he meant it.

“Yes, I believe I would.” Peter put down some money, although Aiden couldn’t see how much. The carnie swallowed though. “Bring a whole basket over here. It’ll save time.”

The carnie looked at Peter, looked at the money, back at Peter. Then he smiled, “Of course, sir.” He lifted the money and turned, stepping toward one of the wicker baskets of baseballs. Peter moved to the counter, reached over it, and then he was sitting on the counter sideways.

The carnie just then turned around with the basket. Peter had been that fast. The guy’s whole body jerked when he saw Peter sitting there. “What do you think-” he started to snarl but Peter interrupted.

“I think…” Peter spoke evenly, still with that expression, “That the money I’m spending, and have spent, at your attraction should garner at least the courtesy to rest while my friend finishes his game. Unless you’d like to return to me my payment?”

The guy clearly didn’t like Peter sitting there. But he just as clearly was not reaching for the pocket that had swallowed Peter’s money. Aiden backed up a little to see the guy’s expression. He was narrow-eyed and shifty, eyes darting to the sides. His forehead was wrinkled above a wide smile.  “Could you move to a different part of the counter, then?”

He looks like a rat… Aiden grinned. 

Peter appeared to consider it but didn’t look away from him. “I prefer to sit here. I think it would… lead to problems if I were to relocate.” That odd smile returned. “It would be more profitable if there weren’t any problems.”

The carnie’s jaw tensed, he really didn’t like it. But just then a small group came up to the game. Peter didn’t look around. After a few moments the carnie had to back away to take the newcomers’ cash and pass out balls. He was back in sales pitch mode, but he kept eying Peter. He wiped his forehead.

Woah, it’s freezing, and this guy is sweating?

“Aiden,” Peter called, “focus and throw when you’re ready. You’ve got this. Just take your time.” The whole time he spoke Peter was watching the carnie.

“Ok, Pete.” Aiden answered. What the hell? This is weird, right? He thought to himself. Something’s obviously going on, and…

“Focus, Aiden.” Peter smiled at him, a real smile before turning his head back to watch the owner. “Trust me.”

Aiden felt himself blush and huffed a small laugh. “Busted.”

He turned to the game. Okay… He shook himself and stretched his arm. This focus place thing is getting easier, but this is getting too weird… He sighed, and thought on it, letting his jaw move side to side. At Ravenwolfe, they’d taught that if you couldn’t get something off your mind, you gave it something else.

So, he gave himself a different image. One he hadn’t used in years. Something he’d copied from his brother.

“Ladies and gentleman, it’s the bottom of the ninth. It’s been a tough game, but the home team is up by one. We’re sitting at two outs, bases loaded with two strikes and three balls. It’s Desmond on the mound…”

He built the image, diamond, batter, empty stands. Until that’s all there was on his mind. Then, he focused. He tapped the toes of each shoe on the ground, fixed his position. Nodded to the catcher.

The windup…

The pitch…

That’s a strike folks! And that’s the game!

This time Aiden waited, blinking, to be sure that all three bottles fell.

One, two, yeah… three.

It wasn’t quite real until the carnie said, gruffly. “Excellent aim. What’ll it be?”

Aiden’s face split in half with his smile. “The big back tiger please.”

Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES! Aiden was bouncing on his toes when they guy handed it over. In staggering randomness he half thought, half murmured, in a witch-like voice “I’ve got you, my pretty. Ahahhha!”

“Truly excellent.” Peter said, over the noise of the other people between them. “Now, come switch places with me.”

Once Peter boosted him up to the counter, Aiden had a split view. Targets and prizes one way, Peter the other. So, perched from the opposite end, he had a much-improved view of the actual pitches as Peter went to work.

Each pitch, he took a ball from the basket, rolled in his right hand, and threw. All in seemingly one motion. Once he picked up the ball there was no pause. No hesitation. If he aimed, if he visualized, he did it all in that few instants.

When he’d been throwing, he did it mostly from one spot. He moved to be in line with this or that target, sure, but when he threw. His feet had stayed planted. Peter hadn’t been that different before. But, he was copying me…

Peter was throwing from further back. Twisting not just at the waist, but lower, he could tell from the way, one foot, would scrap back, barely touching the ground, before coming forward as he turned into his throw.

Watching the ball was harder after each throw. They’re getting faster… And Peter didn’t wait for the carnie to reset bottles, he just threw to another target. Working his way down the counter, ignoring the divisions between lanes.

Each time, Peter did pause to call out the targets value, which Aiden marked down in a notebook from Peter’s bag. Easy, medium, or hard, didn’t seem to matter. It’s almost like all he has do is pick up a ball and the rest just happens…

Aiden glanced at the carnie out of the corner of his eye. The guy stood up straight with his brow wrinkled, mouth a thin line. It was the first time he’d seen “wringing their hands” outside of a boot. His darting rat eyes seemed to move between him and Peter. And the guy was still sweating.

It only took Peter a few minutes of the rapid-fire pitching before he’d worked his way down to Aiden.

“Let’s see.” Peter whispered, the arm he braced on the counter put his shoulder against Aiden’s back and they were practically cheek to cheek while Peter read his notes. Their gloves brushed as Peter took the pen. He wrote totals for each difficulty and started tearing out the page.

“I think,” Peter said, holding it out to the carnie, giving him that strange smile “I’ll have that panther, the otter, the baby penguin and the lion. From the hard row, of course.”

They had their menagerie after half a minute of more staring between Peter and the rat-faced man. Looking between the animals and the humans, he grinned and fought to hold back giggles. That’s the look on his face. A ‘wolfish’ smile…

In order to give himself somewhere else to look Aiden slid off the counter and packed the animals away. Peter lifted the bag and one handed, touching Aiden’s shoulder, and they started to walk away.

Peter spun back after a few feet. “One last thing,” he called.

The carnie glared.

Peter held up a baseball. Then, in fluid motion, he went through a windup worthy of a Chicago Cubs all-star and the ball cannoned back to the game.

There was a wooden crack.

The carnie stood frozen, blinking and open mouthed.

Aiden dimly realized that he probably matched. Holy shit…

There was hole, through the back wall, right next to the guy’s head.

Peter walked back to the counter slowly. “I would suggest you run a fair game.” Peter’s voice was low. From where Aiden was it was hard to hear. He managed only because he was already paying attention and knew Peter’s voice. “I suggest it strongly. Next time you cheat one of my kind, they might not choose to miss.”

“Umm…” Aiden croaked in a whisper as Peter reached him again, “Pete? Can I know what’s going on now?”

Published November 14, 2018