In the hours that led up to his shift the next morning Michael went home and changed into his uniform before heading to Benny's. In spite of sitting at their usual booth and repeat orders of coffee for five hours, their typically bitchy waitress seemed almost concerned about him. Anyway, she hadn't brought him the burnt coffee at the end of the pot like she usually did to signal it was time for him to fuck off.
Through the window he could see the early morning sun reflecting off his car's windshield and hitting against the newspaper machine on the edge of the parking lot. He was glad when it was time to leave and gave himself plenty of time to get to the faire. He wasn't hungry or tired, but rather every inch of him felt alive. He almost twitched with the need to act; to do something, to prove something.
When he actually got the faire's parking lot all of the other staff members were lumbering into the entrance, their heads hanging down as if gravity were heavier than they were accustomed. It made him feel more alive. He breezed past all of them and headed straight for the morning staff meeting at the "Globe" theater. Typically there was some sort of "agenda" the managers had for the day like do a better job handing out samples of fudge or acting merrier around children. It was all bullshit anyway, he always talked himself into not getting too annoyed since he was essentially being paid to sit and do nothing for twenty minutes. Firkle and Pete showed up in the last five minutes before the meeting began and sat in the back with Styrofoam cups of gas station coffee that looked big enough to snap their wrists. Firkle caught Michael's eye and gave him a bored wave with his free hand.
"Alright," the manager began, looking at a sticky note before putting it back into his pocket. "We do have one Knight who's already called in sick today, so we'll need someone to fill in just for the morning joust until the afternoon crew gets in."
It's like Michael's mind calculated the situation from every angle at once and before anyone could speak his hand was in the air volunteering.
The manager looked at him in surprise; Michael wasn't typically an employee who went out of his way to do anything extra. But he nodded and made a note of the change on a clipboard. "Fine. Makowski will get you geared up and take you through the routine." The manager continued to ramble on and reassigned one of the flower sellers to the maze ticket booth. It was nice to know he was easily replaced. Maybe a one of the flower sellers would like to take over the rest of his life.
Michael looked over to the annoyed gaze of Mike Makowski, as he twirled the ends of his hair. Makowski was probably annoyed that the extra time would take away from his preening. Fuck him, Michael thought, and had to mentally talk himself out of giving Makowski the finger. Anyway, the knight he was substituting for was no doubt hung over for staying out at the bonfire with Makowski all night. God knows the only thing propping Pete up seemed to be his liter of coffee. Michael thought about the flavored coffee that had leaked all over his pants last night. How pathetic.
By the end of the meeting he could feel Pete's gaze burning on the back of his neck and he resisted the urge to look at him as he followed Mike towards the costume closet. Pete had his chance to talk to him. He'd conveniently turned and ran the wrong direction. Maybe that should be the standard rule for both of them starting now and continuing the rest of their lives.
"I didn't know you could ride," Makowski said as he switched on the light towards the back of the walk-through closet. There were different cloaks and robes, belts and wigs, all thrown together in a big soup of fabrics.
"Mike Makowski didn't know something, stop the world; I'm too shocked to go on," Michael said as he snatched the chainmail and robe that Mike was handing him.
"And you're an insufferable dick. Glad the rest of humanity has finally gotten the message."
Michael rolled his eyes and laid out the costume in front of him, picking up the end of a sleeve.
"Do you need me to show you how to put it on?" Mike asked with a condescending arch of his brow.
"I can fucking figure it out!" Michael snapped. Mike only shrugged and walked over to the mirror. Michael glanced at him to mimic how the armor went on. He pulled a purple and black tunic over his armor and swiped his hair away from his eyes. In the mirror Mike was sectioning his hair, pulling his bangs back to a ponytail. "Well, are you going to show me what to do Legolas?"
"This isn't an actual dual you know, it's essentially a play; and since it's a play the audience does like their knights to look the part. But shove that helmet over your face and no one will know what they're, um, missing, per say."
"Guess I'm supposed to feel shitty because I have more going on than an effeminate bone structure and a surface knowledge of alternative culture."
"Yeah a confused boner for Robert Smith, have you figured out yet if you want to be him or fuck him?"
"What a clever reference to the only band you've ever committed to memory."
"Just shut up, we have one hour to get ready. I'm not going to get fired because you're upset because your friends have finally realized what a bore you are," Mike said.
Michael rolled his eyes. Of course Mike would care whether or not he was fired. He was on the goddamn honor roll every year in high school, the little conformist.
Mike's hair flattened against his back when he put his helmet on.
"Fine." Michael said. Not because anything was fine. But this wasn't making things better. His life was slowly deflating; he could feel it in his lungs. If he fell off a horse, maybe a bone would shoot through his skin; that'd be a change.
They walked in silence to the arena where the horses were tied in their stables as he dwelled on the thought. The horses had their respective colors on their gear.
"I'll keep this easy for you," Mike said, petting the mane of his white horse. "The Queen will announce the start of the joust. You'll be on one side of the center fence; I'll be on the other. We'll start approaching one another. The first pass you'll scrap me. The second pass and third pass, I'll hit you in the center armor. The Queen will announce me the winner and I'll do victory laps while you ride back to the stable. It doesn't take a genius to…oh… was it after 10th grade that you dropped out?"
"You know I didn't" Michael rolled his eyes. They'd practically sat next to one another at graduation, much to his chagrin.
"Maybe I just stopped noticing you," Mike shrugged.
"Um, okay, as hard as this may be for you to understand, I wasn't going to high school to be noticed by you."
Mike shifted the reigns of his horse and shot Michael an unimpressed look. "I'm going to get a tea," he grumbled, "I'll see you in 30 minutes."
Michael watched as his stupid black and green ponytail disappeared towards the village section of the faire grounds, stopping on the way to have his picture taken with two teenager girls. He realized that it was probably better to stay up this way to prevent having to actually be in character himself. He wasn't used to doing anything here that people actually gave a damn about. He certainly didn't need to oppression of being goggled at by strangers.
Having little else to do he pulled out a cigarette and headed towards the benches that would soon be filled up with the early morning crowd. He lay back against the bench and hung his arms off to the sides. If he stuck his arms out so that they were level with his body it was like he was being crucified. Was that going too far, he wondered, as he let them go limp again.
"What the hell are you doing?" Pete's voice shot down at him like hail. He opened his eyes and stared up at him. His eyes looked tired, and his skin was a sickly pale.
"Why?" Michael flicked some of the ash off his cigarette and sat up to take another drag.
"Why are you asking," he said, punctuating every word.
"Um okay…because you don't know how to ride a horse and you'll break your neck." Pete replied. He'd stuck his thumbs through his belt loops, stuffing the ends of his puffy shirt through them. It must be hard pretending to care, Michael thought as he turned away from him.
"It's fine," he mumbled, facing the dirt arena, "Makowski does it everyday." It wasn't a very distant part of him that wanted to be thrown off the horse and into unconsciousness. What a glorious spectacle it'd be; how many people got that chance to bleed in front of an audience of children and middle class nerds at 10AM on a Tuesday morning.
"Yeah, his grandparents had a farm Michael; he's grown up around horses."
"Did he tell you that over rounds of handmade hipster beers last night?"
There probably hadn't been time for talking Michael reasoned. Pete's bangs were blowing across his face and Michael wished they would cover him completely like a curtain. Pete had been mad at him for weeks now and he'd idly taken the brunt of it, waiting for it to dissolve. And when it hadn't, he'd tried to confront the situation but Pete hadn't let him. So fuck Pete, he could be mad too.
"Okay well thanks for the pep talk, but I'm fine. Go back to your dishes so I can get back to my cigarette."
Pete snatched the cigarette from Michael's fingers and took a drag.
"Okay and that was my last cigarette, so now you're being an outright cunt," Michael said, standing up. "I have to get ready."
"No," Pete stepped in front of him. He was a head shorter than Michael but his shoulders were clenched tight like he was bracing himself for a fight.
"Everything's on your terms I guess, look at me, I'm shocked," Michael said, going to take a step around him but Pete shoved him back with a surprising amount of force. Michael stumbled but grabbed Pete's arm and held him in a tight grip for balance. Pete sucked in a breath as Michael held him but the taller teen simply snatched the cigarette back from his friend's lips and releasing him.
Pete rubbed at his lips quickly with his knuckles like he had been punched. Michael almost felt like he should apologize.
"I'm serious Pete, go away."
"I'm not going to let you hurt yourself," he replied, his voice breaking over the words. His face was red and his eyes were staring hard Michael.
"What is this? I'm not going—"
"What was last night about?" Pete asked abruptly.
"You deciding that Makowski was more worthwhile than me?"
"Michael, I dropped my phone. When I went to look for it he saw me. I couldn't just tell him to fuck off."
"Yeah, why should I believe that?"
But Pete was just staring at him and everything was green eyes shining bright and strawberry lips against white skin. The moment of tension seemed to fade and the first traces of the crowd was beginning to make their way to the benches.
"Because we're friends," Pete said finally, taking a breath, "because my heart was breaking my chest apart from the time I got in your car last night until the minute Makowski ruined it all." Pete touching Michael's hand, "Because I think last night was about doing this." Pete's hand behind Michael's neck pulled him down until their lips met. Pete's eyes were shut so tight, like he was front seat on the world's most break-neck roller coaster. Michael kissed him back, hoping that he was doing it right, there was so much that he'd done wrong.
"It was," he whispered against his cheek. He wrapped his arms around Pete, realizing with a smile that he'd been standing on his tip-toes. He kissed his temple and the side of his head, everywhere he could reach; he didn't want to stop.
"That is some serious Ken and Barbie conformist shit," Henrietta's voice broke through the air, making them jump apart. Firkle was standing by her side, grinning ear to ear. "When Firk told me that you were going to joust Makowski I thought I was in for a show but this alone was worth the $26.95 admission."
Pete flicked her off with smile and chanced a quick kiss along Michael's jawline.
"Come on you two, it's the last week of summer vacation, skip work and I'll buy you Benny's."
"And me?" Michael thought he heard Firkle ask. But as they followed Henrietta out of the arena, all he could focus on was the feel of Pete's hand in his and how the ground wasn't even touching his feet. They were heads above everyone else and never coming down again.