In which we learn the true meaning of the phrase “my brother’s keeper”.
CHAPTER 12: BROTHERS IN HARMS
“Now, as you can see here from this equation,” Crowley droned, pushing his hair back out of his face and tapping at the blackboard beside him with the tip of his wand, “the force of a spell is directly proportional to the relative strengths of the element it is based on. Using X to account for the Planck Constant, and Y to factor in Newton’s Third Law of Thermodynamics, as well as C as a variable of the caster’s potential energy, we can calculate this value very specifically.”
Staring for a moment at the crudely drawn chicken-scratch diagram on the board, the assistant scoutmaster turned to look at the scouts in the tent, who were sitting at their rows of desks either scribbling madly into notebooks or just looking back at him, slack-jawed and uncomprehending. Biting at his lip nervously, Crowley ducked over to the table next to him and did a brief scan of the textbook page he was quoting before looking back up and attempting to smile.
“Yes. Well—I should think that all goes without saying. We all know at this point that certain spells are associated with one of the four elements of magic, and can only be performed by wizards with a particular affinity for said element. These spell are by nature stronger but more taxing than their non-elemental counterparts, which while easily performed by most wizards are far less durable: basic illusions, concussions, curses, charms, and so forth. What many fail to take into account, however, is that—”
Frowning as she tried to piece together what Crowley was saying, Tessa dutifully wrote down another sentence of absolute gibberish on the paper before her, but was interrupted by a tap on her shoulder. Turning around, she saw a rather familiar, angular face of a boy staring back at her, the goggles askew on his forehead.
“Excuse me,” he said, quiet and polite, but not hesitant. “I’m sorry to bother you, but can I ask you a question?”
Blinking in surprise for a moment, Tessa noted the boy’s purple blazer, vest, and hastily knotted tie before finally recognizing him.
“Uhh—sure. I know you. You’re Lucas King, right? A friend of Jack’s?”
Now it was Lucas’s turn to think momentarily.
“Hmm,” he mused, absently touching his goggles as his brow furrowed in contemplation. “Well, I do know Jack, yes. And I spend a fair amount of time with him. I suppose that makes me a friend. I’ve never really thought of it that way before. I’m not used to having friends.”
“Right,” Tessa said slowly. “So wait, when did you get here? This is an advanced magical theory class. I thought you were only a first-year.”
“Oh, I am,” Lucas confirmed, nodding. “They moved me up from the basic class last week. I don’t think the senior scouts who were teaching it appreciated my correcting them all the time.”
“Uh-huh. I can’t imagine why that might be.”
“I don’t know,” the boy said, completely missing the sarcasm. “But it’s certainly not my fault they just kept being wrong.” He broke off momentarily to raise a hand toward the front of the tent. “I’m sorry to interrupt, sir, but I think you’ll find that value is incorrect. The three you just wrote should be a four.”
Crowley stopped in mid-sentence and mid-writing to first glare at Lucas, then glance over to the text, and then back at the Sphinx scout with an even more withering look.
“Thank you, Mr. King,” he muttered, the tip of his wand lighting up again as he magically erased the previous value and inserted the right number. “I was just trying to see if you scouts were paying attention, that’s all. Moving right along—”
“So anyway,” Lucas continued, looking back to Tessa as if nothing had happened, “I know you and Jack have become somewhat close as well, and I wanted to ask what you thought.”
“I—umm—what?” Tessa stammered, not sure of what to say. “What I think about Jack? I don’t know what you mean. We’re just friends.” Seeing the boy raise a skeptical eyebrow, she pursed her lips in annoyance. “And by the way, you really need to talk about this now? I’m trying to wrap my head around this insanely complicated lecture. Aren’t you?”
“Not really,” Lucas said, honest to a fault, as Tessa noticed he had no papers or writing materials of any kind in front of him. “I have a pretty good memory, so it really only takes me one time of hearing things explained to retain them. But that’s for the truly complicated matters. In this case, I’ve already followed the equation chain to its logical outcome and determined the endpoint of this lesson with 98 percent certainty.”
“Oh, only 98 percent, huh?”
“Well, 98.7 to be precise. But I tend to round down. It makes me seem more humble and less aloof and standoffish.” Lucas cocked his head to one side as he thought the matter over. “At least, that’s the advice my last therapist gave me.”
The Centaur girl looked back over her shoulder at Crowley and realized she had already gotten sidetracked and distracted enough that he might as well have been teaching in ancient Sumerian, so she gave a resigned sigh.
“Yep. You totally nailed it,” she said, leaning toward him confidentially. “Between you and me, I’m not sure what to think of Jack. I mean, sometimes he can just be so infuriating with the nonstop hitting on me and the fact that he doesn’t take anything seriously, but under all that I know he’s a good person. Well, I’m pretty sure, anyway. Plus, he’s obviously talented with magic, but I don’t think he really cares about learning anything.”
“I agree,” Lucas said with a knowing nod. “It’s such a shame. I’m certain he could make an excellent wizard if only he applied himself more to his studies.”
A loud snore interrupted his train of thought and both he and Tessa turned to glance at the desk next to hers, where Quentin Townsend had fallen asleep, drool pooling in the corner of his mouth and his glasses askew on the pages of the notebook his head was resting in.
“Yeah, well, he’s not the only one,” Tessa muttered, rolling her eyes. “I don’t know why Quentin bothers coming to these classes anymore. He’s not even supposed to be here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Long story short, Quentin’s whole senior class in Jackalope Troop was going to get expelled last year, so as their end-of-term prank they all teleported away off the stage right after Scoutmaster Hasselberry was done handing them their diplomas. He wanted to make a big show out of taking them all back or something and grandstand a little, but it backfired. Quentin was the only one who didn’t make it. He forgot to set his alarm. So since he couldn’t punish anyone else, Hasselberry just busted him and made his life a living hell by making him stay another year as the troop leader.” The girl shook her head. “It really got to him. I mean, you’ve met the guy. He’s nice enough, but I’ve seen better leaders on suicide missions. As a scout, he’s probably hitting his peak right now.”
“Indeed,” said Lucas, giving Quentin a look of what might have been unpracticed pity. “So, about Jack. I’m sorry I keep asking, but even with all of my knowledge, he seems to be an enigma I just can’t figure out.” A slightly dreamy stare entered his brown eyes. “It’s fascinating. A born leader who has no desire to lead. A indisputable talent with a complete lack of purpose.”
“Sounds like you’ve got a crush on the guy,” Tessa quipped with a conspiratorial smile, but to her surprise, the Sphinx scout just nodded.
“Yes, I suppose I do. It’s silly. I know Jack doesn’t swing that way, and even if he did, the odds are incredibly small that—”
“Whoa—uhh—okay, back up,” said Tessa, doing a double take. “Sorry. I just didn’t know—I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m just saying I didn’t realize you were into—you know—guys.”
“I understand,” Lucas said reassuringly, a slight smile turning up the corner of his mouth. “It’s all right. I suppose these things don’t just come up in conversation, but I never really thought it was much of a secret. Besides, I think there’s a good probability Jack would like to be with someone else.”
“Oh, come on,” Tessa scoffed, seeing his significant look at her but failing to make the denial as forceful as she would have liked. “How would you know that? Jack’s just a flirt, and he never shuts up. He hits on anything that moves. I’m not that special.”
“Please. I can show you the equations if you want.”
“Umm—yeah. On second thought, forget I asked,” Tessa said quickly, a mild flush of color rising to her cheeks. “Anyhow, what’s your deal? You’ve been asking a lot of questions, so I feel like it’s only fair for me to get one in. I heard from some people you can’t use magic. Is that true?”
“For now, perhaps,” Lucas acknowledged, with a minor twinge of frustration. “I’ve been working on a device that would allow me to manipulate magic in the same way as your wands do for you, but the targeting is off. I think without a direct mental connection with the magical forces, accuracy like you wizards have may be impossible. To that end, I’ve been studying up on metallurgy, alchemy, and potions to compensate, and I think I may have an idea: transmutation. I could create an element that is able to conduct magic instead.” He sighed. “But the process would be unbelievably complex and—ah. You’re not following any of this, are you?”
“What? Huh?” Tessa blurted, startled out of her glazed-eye stare and looking at him guiltily. “Sorry, Lucas. Not really. But it seems like you’ll figure it out. You’re a smart guy.”
Lucas opened his mouth to give a reply, but was interrupted as the tent flap rustled and Sam ducked inside, his eyes narrowed as he surveyed the space and settled on them.
“Hey,” he said, only slightly lowering his voice as Crowley continued to babble on from the front. “Either of you two seen Danny today?”
“No, sir,” Lucas said, shaking his head. “He’s been helping me out in the lab a bit in our free time, but I haven’t seen him in several days.”
“Me neither, Sam,” Tessa chimed in. “Sorry. Why? Is something going on?”
Sam only grunted as he stepped up and poked Quentin repeatedly in the shoulder.
“Townsend, come on. Wake up. I need you to tell me where Danny is.”
“Ahh!” Quentin exclaimed, shocked out of sleep and back into sitting position as several of the nearby scouts gave him weird or condescending looks. “What? Huh? Little Falco? Nah, I haven’t seen him. He’s been MIA around Jackalope recently. But if he’s not here and he’s not there, then he’s probably—umm—somewhere else.”
“Thanks, Columbo,” Sam muttered bitterly, rolling his eyes. “I should’ve known better than to ask the actual troop leader. Forget it. I know where he is.”
He turned and tromped out of the tent, and after a moment of indecision, Tessa stuffed her incomplete notes into her backpack and got up to follow him. Rather than be left out, Quentin and Lucas did the same, not even eliciting a glance from Crowley as the assistant scoutmaster puzzled over making sense of his own lecture. The three caught up with Sam as he struck out across the grassy campground and made a beeline for the ridge at the far end of the camp, where the tattered yellow banner of Jackalope Troop fluttered in the light breeze.
“All right, Sam,” said Tessa, jogging up beside him. “Talk to me. What’s going on? Is something wrong with Danny and Jack? Or any of them?”
“Something’s always wrong with my brother,” said Sam, not even looking at her. “He’s just the latest headline in the Utterly Screwed Times. And I will be too unless I can find him. God, he pisses me off.”
“Well, in fairness,” Quentin butted in, puffing with exertion as he speed-walked, “I feel like we’re always making the top news in that. Do you know something I don’t know, Falco?”
“Townsend, what you don’t know about your own troop could fill the Library of Congress,” Sam shot back, not amused. “This is exactly why Hasselberry wants you guys gone. You never listen to anyone, you don’t follow the rules, and then you act like you’re the victims when he comes down on you. And you don’t care what it does to the rest of us, either.” He scowled. “Like me. You guys must have done a pretty good number on that government film you messed with, because Hasselberry called in from D.C. to berate me through the crystal ball for fifteen minutes straight a few days ago. And since we’re having our individual field combat tests this week, he decided to twist the knife by partnering me up with the one person he knew I’d really squirm over: my brother.”
“What?” Tessa echoed in disbelief. “A first-year getting partnered with a third-year? He can’t do that. It’s never happened before.”
“Well, he can, and he did, Tessa, so I guess you’re wrong. Big surprise.”
“I don’t understand, sir,” Lucas spoke up. “What are combat tests?”
“It’s a one-on-one duel between two scouts,” Sam explained. “Kind of a live-fire magic exercise. It’s supposed to show we know enough about magic to defend ourselves in a real fight. Personally, I think Hasselberry just likes to see us kick the crap out of each other for grades.”
“And you’re just going to do it anyway?” Quentin demanded, throwing up his hands. “Come on, Sam. Danny doesn’t have any experience, and he’s nowhere near as powerful as you. He could get hurt.”
“Yeah, Quentin, I am going to do it. Because unlike you and your troop, some of us actually have to follow orders at this camp if we want to get by.”
“What’s been going on with you lately, Sam?” Tessa asked, a bit annoyed by the older scout’s tone. “Ever since your brother showed up at Camp Prospero, you’ve been different. You’re evasive, you’re edgy, you’re not, well, you. What did Danny do to tick you off so much? Maybe it’s none of my business, but—”
“You’re right. It is none of your business,” Sam snapped, refusing to look at her and pulling ahead again. “I think we’ll probably get there faster if we don’t talk.”
Several minutes of awkward, angry silence later, the group arrived in the group of ramshackle tents demarcating Jackalope Troop. Pushing through the crowds of confused and suspicious scouts in yellow, Sam strode over to Jack and Danny’s tent and ducked through the flap. He, and the other three as they came in behind him, were greeted by Leo, Oliver, and Jack, all lounging casually on different pieces of furniture and obviously making a big effort to look casual.
“Okay, you guys,” Sam growled, folding his arms over his purple blazer. “Cut the act. You know why I’m here. Where’s Danny?”
“Danny? Danny who?” Oliver asked innocently, twiddling his thumbs and smiling. “I don’t think we have any Danny around here, do we, Jack?”
“That’s a negative, good buddy,” Jack replied, shrugging at Sam apologetically. “Actually though, I think there was a guy named Danny here at one point. I haven’t seen him, though.”
“Yeah, you’d probably recognize him,” Leo cracked from his place in the corner. “Skinny guy, glasses, striped shirt. Kind of like Waldo’s short, anemic cousin. Plus, I heard he has this brother who’s just a total jerkwand.”
“You done?” Sam said, glaring at him. “I’ve about had it up to here with you three stringing me along. You don’t care about Danny, and you know it. You’re just doing this to make me mad.”
“Oh, and you do care about him?” Leo walked right up to him and stuck out his chin defiantly as Oliver put a hand on his shoulder. “We’ve heard the whole thing, man. You know, I’m starting to get why Danny’s the way he is. If I had a brother like you telling me what a joke I was all the time, I bet I’d be pretty screwed up, too. You’ve got his head so twisted around he can’t even tie his shoelaces right.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen it,” Jack confirmed, joining Leo but in a less threatening manner. “It’s kind of embarrassing. You know you can’t play their game, right? If you don’t say no to this whole test thing, you’re using him just so you can get a better grade. Bros don’t do that to each other, man. Come on.”
“Sam, I hate to say it, but I think they might have a point,” Tessa said, stepping up from behind the senior scout and putting her hands on her hips. “There’s got to be some way to stop this.”
“You think if there was, I’d be wasting my time arguing with these idiots?” Sam spat, waving his hands at the three Jackalopes in front of him. “Shut up, Ferguson. The only reason you all like Danny is because he doesn’t stand up for himself and you can make him do whatever you want. So do me a favor and quit the high and mighty act, okay? I’ve had enough of you guys to last me a lifetime. Now get out of my way.”
“Hey, you can’t order my scouts around,” Quentin protested, but wilted under Sam’s glare.
“At least one of us has the spine to do something around here, Townsend. Out of all the troops in this camp, why did Danny have to end up with such a selfish bunch of slackers?”
Leo and Oliver bristled, more at Sam’s tone than at the accusation. Tessa, meanwhile, gazed at the boy as though she was seeing him for the first time.
“Okay, Sam. Stop it,” she said. “Do you know who you sound like right now? I’ve been at Camp Prospero with you for two years, and I know we’ve never been super tight or anything, but I always respected you. But you’ve changed. This whole thing with your brother being around has brought out another side of you, and I don’t like it.”
Sam badly looked like he wanted to say something, but in the end just gave a quiet sigh.
“It doesn’t matter. I have to do what I have to do, and so does Danny. Where is he?”
“Who knows?” asked Leo, throwing up his hands. “I bet he probably just panicked and bolted or something. He’s got more issues than National Geographic. I swear, I’ve never met a guy who was so scared of everything.”
“Hey, that’s not very nice,” a small, frightened, and high-pitched voice spoke up from nowhere. “I’m not scared of everything. Just, you know, most things.”
Tessa, Lucas, and Quentin all stared around, trying to find the source of the sound, but Sam pursed his lips and instantly knelt down, peering under the edge of Danny’s cot. The others did the same, and finally saw the bespectacled boy crouched underneath it in the fetal position.
“Falco, what are you doing under there?” Quentin demanded. “We’ve all been worried about you. What’s the big idea?”
“Well, most of us were, anyway,” Oliver corrected him, shooting a nasty look at Sam. “He really is like Waldo. Nice going by the way with making him talk, Leo.”
“Hey, it’s not my fault,” his friend said defensively. “I totally forgot he was under there. If I’m being honest, I’m not really great at telling when he’s here and when he’s not. It all kind of blends together for me. Come on, I’m not the only one, am I? Because if I was, that would make me feel like kind of a jerk. Don’t leave me hanging, guys.”
“Sorry, Danny,” Jack said. “We tried our best. But Sam, how’d you know he was going to be under there?”
“He’s a baby, that’s why,” Sam grunted. “This is what he always does when he gets nervous. You’ve got no idea how many times I had to drag him out from under the bed at home when it was a test day. Or when our cousins were coming over.”
“Yeah,” Danny said, shifting among the piles of emergency canned food and comic books stashed beside him. “I was really good at the hiding part. I was just lousy at not getting found.”
“All right. Come on, Danny. Enough is enough. Let’s go.”
Sam reached under the cot to grab his brother, but Danny pulled away.
“No way,” he said stubbornly. “You can’t make me. I’m not being your partner on the combat test.”
“Grow up, Danny. Sometimes you don’t have a choice. If I don’t have a partner, I fail, and that’s not going to happen.”
“So you’re okay with going up against your own brother just to make sure you’d get somebody who wouldn’t fight back, huh?” Leo challenged him as Sam finally managed to snag his brother’s sleeve and haul him kicking and scrambling out from under the bed. “Dude, that’s low, even for you.”
“I’m sorry you have such a bad opinion of me, Scott, but there’s nothing I can do to change that,” Sam replied. “Right now I’m doing what I can for the things I can change, like making sure nobody does get hurt because of me. Hasselberry’s never liked me, but just because I have to put up with his rules doesn’t mean I have to put up with his crap.”
“Meaning?” Tessa asked, not sure she understood.
“Meaning Danny and I have been training for this together. We worked out a system where both of us look like we’re fighting, but we’re not. The whole thing’s going to be staged. We’ll dance around for a while, and at the end Danny will take a dive and everyone’s happy.”
“Falco, that’s got to be the dumbest idea I’ve ever—” Oliver began, but stopped in mid-sentence, thinking it over. “You know, actually, that’s not a bad idea. Sorry. I was kind of on autopilot there.”
“Yeah. That explains a lot.”
“Everybody except Danny’s happy, you mean,” Jack objected. “He loses without even a fair fight.”
“I’m forced to agree with Jack, sir,” Lucas said, his smooth face wrinkled with concern. “There’s too many variables to account for. The potential for something to go wrong is—” He suddenly stopped, mid-sentence, his eyes widening in realization. “Potential. That’s it. Eureka!”
He jumped for joy in what was probably the most emotional state he had been in yet, and rushed over to seize the started Danny’s hand.
“Danny, you are a genius,” he gushed, frantically pumping the Jackalope’s arm up and down. “I’ve been looking at this all wrong. I don’t need to create a new element that affects magic. I have to use magic to create the element. Potential energy: that’s the key. Thank you. Thank you so much.” He finally let go and cleared his throat. “Now, if you all will excuse me, I’ll be in my lab. Oh, this is so exciting!”
He hurriedly saluted Sam and dashed out of the tent, leaving an awkward silence behind. The Sphinx Troop leader was the first to speak up, grabbing his little brother’s arm.
“Okay, I should probably be a little more worried about whatever that was, but I don’t have time right now. Come on, Danny. We’re going.”
Before anyone could protest further, Sam dragged Danny along as he too left the tent, with the rest of the group tagging along behind.
“Aren’t any of you going to do anything?” Tessa demanded, hands on her hips as they walked across the compound. “This isn’t right, and you know it.”
Struggling with his brother’s grip, Danny managed to shrug his way free, and Sam just grunted angrily as he marched on ahead. Danny fell back to join the group as Oliver draped an arm around his shoulders.
“Of course we’re going to do something, Tessa,” he said with a casual grin. “Have you met us? We’ve always got a plan.”
“So, guys,” Danny asked, swallowing hard and looking sick to his stomach as he squinted in the afternoon light, “are you sure about that and stuff? Because I’m not, really. You think if I ran away and hid under the bed again, they’d find me this time? I mean, if that’s where I go all the time, it’s the last place they’d think I would go back to, right? That’s logical.”
Leo and Oliver gave each other skeptical looks over his head.
“Oh, yeah,” said Leo, rolling his eyes and making a crazy motion with his finger to the side of his head. “Uh-huh. Sure, Danny. Logical.”
“Aw, come on, buddy,” said Jack, punching his shoulder lightly. “Don’t start with that crap. Listen, the only way you’re going to take your brother down is if you forget all that stupid self-doubt and actually believe in yourself for once. You do still want to do that, right?”
“Umm—yeah,” said Danny, biting at his lip fretfully and toying with his glasses. “Well, maybe. Probably. I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” Oliver echoed, giving him an annoyed look. “Dude, we spent a lot of our valuable time on this plan. I for one missed out on a whole afternoon nap at one point and read up on the physics of wands instead. That’s five hours of my life I’m never getting back. So you better be able to give us something more than ‘I don’t know’.”
“What he said,” Leo agreed. “Where’s the anger, man? Aren’t you tired of Sam talking down to you all the time? Don’t you get pissed off because he acts like he’s better than everyone? Especially you. I mean, he’s smarter, stronger, better with magic, better-looking—”
“Hey, cut it out,” Jack said, giving him a look.
“Sorry. Just calling it like I see it.”
“No, he’s right, Jack,” said Danny, his nervous look becoming as grim and determined as he could manage. “Sam’s always acted like I’m a loser, and I’m sick of it. But I don’t understand how just changing up what spells I’m going to cast is supposed to beat him. I mean, Sam might not be expecting it, but he’s still ten times more powerful than me. I don’t think it’s going to work.”
“Well, quit it,” said Oliver, giving the reluctant boy a shove forward as they reached the practice fields and threaded their way through the crowds of onlooking scouts to the front, watching several pairs of people drawing their wands and preparing to square off. “That’s your problem, Danny. You think too much. It messes with your head. Hey, Leo and I never think about stuff before we do it, and we’re doing fine.”
“Oh, wonderful,” Tessa muttered. “This is going to end really well.”
“I’m kind of with them on that one, Danny,” Jack relented. “Don’t think about it. Just do it. You’ll be fine, man. Trust me.”
From his position off to the side of the group, Quentin shook his head.
“Aren’t you guys building him up a little too much?” He said. “Give Falco a break. Let’s be real here: Sam’s the best wizard in camp. He’s probably going to get his butt handed to him. Don’t sugar-coat it like—”
“Shut up, Quentin,” Leo said lightly, following up with a quick stomp to the troop leader’s foot that made him grunt and bite his lip in pain before he could finish his sentence. “Don’t listen to him, Danny. You’ll be great.”
The boys all turned to look as, with a shout and a smack, dust rose from the practice turf as an older Sphinx scout hit the ground hard, floored by a spell from the wand of the Centaur who towered over him, gloating. The Centaurs and Quetzals packing the sidelines laughed derisively as the victor strolled away and the loser was picked up and hauled off, semi-conscious, by his friends. On the other end of the field, Crowley rushed into view and shoved his way past a few scouts, clearing his throat and consulting the checklist in his hands.
“Yes—erm—very good,” he said, straightening his blazer. “Thank you all for going right ahead without me. I knew I could depend on you. Next in the order, we have Samuel and Daniel Falco. Mr. Falco and Mr. Falco, please step forward.”
Right on cue, Sam, looking as emotionless and serious as ever, stepped out onto the field, pulling out his wand and going through some warm-up exercises. He gave a hard look over at Danny, who gulped and began to sweat.
“I guess this is it, then,” he said. “Want to wish me luck or something?”
“Nah, you don’t need it,” said Oliver dismissively. “This thing is in the bag. You got it, killer.”
“Thanks, I guess. You know, just in case I don’t make it back or whatever, I just wanted to say you guys have been really good friends, and—”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” said Leo. “Good talk, Danny. Now buzz off. Get out there.”
With a deep breath and a final, reluctant look back, Danny shuffled away from them and out onto the field, slowly taking his wand out of his blazer pocket and handling it like it was a squirming snake.
“Hey, look at this one,” Chad called from his spot on the nearby bleachers. “It’s the Super Loser Brothers. How’s it feel to be fighting someone on your own level finally, Sam? You know, because no one’s more of a hack than you.”
Sam’s shoulders tensed in anger, but he didn’t even give the Centaur a glance as Quentin finally recovered from the assault on his toes.
“Okay, first of all, oww,” he grunted, standing up straight once again. “And secondly, you guys have done some rotten things before, but this is just cruel. Making Danny think he actually has a chance against his brother? You’re sick, you know that? I thought he was your friend.”
“Oh yeah, Quentin?” Leo shot back, smirking confidently. “You think you’ve got it all figured out, huh? Well, what if I told you Danny was going to win this test and kick Sam’s butt?”
Quentin blinked, looking from Leo, to Oliver, and back to Leo again. Then, his face contorted as he burst out laughing.
“All right, all right,” Oliver groaned, trying to calm the troop leader. “Down, Quentin.”
“I’m sorry,” Quentin choked, still laughing. “But that’s funny. Danny, beat Sam? There’s no way, even if you told him to surprise Sam out there. I’d bet you fifty bucks on that.”
“Deal,” said Leo. “You just lost out on fifty bucks, pal. We’ve got the fix in.”
“Sure do,” Jack grinned. “We didn’t just tell Danny to change up his spell work. Last night we snuck into Sam’s tent and took his wand. Danny told us all about the little routine they put together, so we rigged the thing that when Sam casts a certain spell, it’ll blow up in his face. He won’t know what’s going on, he won’t have any magic, and all Danny has to do is finish him off.”
“What he said,” Oliver added as Quentin’s face turned red with fury and embarrassment. “Then we’ll have a new champion on our hands, and Sam will finally get what’s coming to him. Let’s see him try to put us down when he’s at the bottom of the pile for a change.”
“What?” Tessa cried, horrified. “Why would you do that?”
“You’re seriously asking?” Leo snorted. “Have you met Danny? The kid’s a hot mess. And anyway, his whole no self-esteem thing was a real downer. It was starting to screw with our group dynamic. We were spending way too much time on him and not enough on us. I mean, you’ve got to have priorities somewhere.”
“I meant, why did you think that was a good idea?” Tessa hissed. “Look, I get that Sam’s a little too by-the-book for you guys. Honestly, he can be an arrogant pain in the ass. But trust me, he’s not some zombie like Chad or a bully like Drake. He’s all right, basically.”
“So what?” asked Jack. “We’re doing this for Danny. He needs to get over his insecurities sometime. It’s for his own good.”
“I don’t think you’re getting this, Ferguson,” said Quentin, his eyes wide. “These tests are a big deal for us senior scouts. It’s a huge part of whether we graduate or not. If Sam can’t beat an inexperienced wizard like Danny, there’s no way he’s making the cut, no matter how it happened.”
“Basically, you’re about to ruin his life for the sake of a prank,” Tessa said, glaring at him. “How selfish are you guys, anyway?”
Leo, Oliver, and Jack all looked at each other, alarmed and slightly guilty.
“Huh,” said Oliver. “You know, that never really occurred to me.”
“Yeah,” said Leo. “Maybe we should’ve thought this thing through a little more.”
“When you say it like that, we sound like a bunch of jerks,” Jack noted, kicking listlessly at the grass. “You know, I think we finally maybe went too far.”
“Yeah.” Oliver gave Leo a sharp look. “Why didn’t you stop us, man?”
“Hey, don’t blame me. I was busy going too far.”
“Figures,” Tessa muttered, shaking her head. “Now you get it.”
Meanwhile, as Danny stepped out onto the practice field, he was having second thoughts.
“Uhh—Sam?” he asked, sweating and chewing at his lower lip. “There’s something I think maybe we need to talk about.”
“Danny, you have the worst timing of anybody on the planet,” Sam said, drawing himself up and preparing for combat. “Seriously. Now do us both a favor: shut up, do what I told you, and everything will be fine. Then you can go right back to resenting me as much as you want.”
“Fine,” said Danny, taking out his own wand and glaring at his brother as his anger reignited. Behind Sam, Crowley raised his hand and pursed his lips around the whistle sticking out of the side of his mouth.
“Begin!” he called, and blew.
Sam and Danny immediately began to circle each other, conjuring protective sigils of light around their free hands. Sam raised his wand and fired off a quick succession of concussion charms, which exploded as they impacted Danny’s shield. The smaller boy was rocked back on his feet, but stayed upright.
“Why do you hate me so much?” he demanded.
“Now?” Sam asked, ducking as Danny lobbed a passive curse his way. “You really want to do this now?”
“Yeah. I’m sick of you treating me like I’m nothing. Ever since we were kids. You think I’m such a screw-up.”
“You are a screw-up, Danny. That’s not my problem. My problem is that whenever you get into trouble, you make the wrong decisions. You trust the wrong people, you let yourself get panicked, and you want someone else to take care of it for you. That’s not how life works.”
“Like you’d know,” Danny muttered. “You’re perfect. Nothing ever goes wrong for you. You just get to do whatever you want, all the time. You don’t really care about me.”
Now it was Sam’s turn to get angry.
“Are you kidding me, Danny?” he seethed, his grip on his wand tightening and his spells growing more intense. “My whole life, all I’ve done is cared about you. Mom and dad never let me forget the fact that I’m supposed to look out for you. I haven’t done anything for myself because I’d be leaving you out. I didn’t join the football team, I didn’t get into theater, I quit my guitar lessons, all of it. Do you have any idea what I’ve given up for you? Do you have any clue?”
“Sure I do. Nothing.”
“And anyway, I’m just doing what you told me to do before you got on the train to come here: stay out of your life, remember? You didn’t need me?” Sam made a face, shaking his head. “Unbelievable. After everything I’ve done, you’re still the same whiny, ungrateful little brat you’ve always been. The essays I wrote for you, the punches I’ve taken for you, it just doesn’t mean anything to you, does it? And what happens when we get here? You make friends with the biggest troublemakers in camp. It’s like you’re trying to embarrass me.”
“So when’s this thing supposed to happen, anyway?” Quentin asked, worry lining his face. “I don’t like the way this is going. Shouldn’t somebody say something? You know, stop them?”
“You know the rules, Quentin,” Tessa replied resignedly. “If we get in the way, Danny and Sam could both be disqualified.”
“You’re a jerk!” Danny shouted, finally worked up enough to break from his routine and sling a detonation spell at Sam, who deftly countered it and aimed his wand for his own response.
“You’re a loser!” he yelled back, clenching his free hand into a fist and mustering the most powerful spell he could. But at that precise moment, the wand crackled, sizzled, and exploded in his hand, the electric shock propelling it, smoking, off to the side of the field and out of reach. The wave of power took Danny by surprise as well, blowing him backward and causing him to drop his own wand onto the grass as the eyes of all the scouts watching widened. Even Crowley leaned forward with renewed interest.
“Yes,” Leo hissed, doing a fist-pump and smiling with glee before he turned to see Oliver, Jack, Quentin, and Tessa all staring at him disapprovingly. “Oh. Right. I mean, oh, no. Crap.”
Still momentarily stunned, Sam and Danny blinked and stared at each other, and then at the wand laying on the ground between them. Then, at the exact same time, both brothers dove for the wand, each latching a hand onto it as they wrestled around in the dirt, kicking, scratching, and slapping at each other for control.
“Come on, Danny, cut it out,” Sam grunted, trying to pull the wand away. “Let go. This is my test, remember? I’m supposed to be the one that wins. Give it.”
“No way,” Danny said, tugging back. “I’m not listening to you anymore, Sam. I’ll show you who’s a loser. You never gave up anything for me. You just always wanted me to feel like you did. You wanted me to feel like—”
“I came to Camp Prospero for you.”
“I got a scholarship to Camp Merlin. Full ride. Best program. Everything. But I knew you’d never end up there if you turned out to be a wizard. I knew you’d choke and they’d send you to Camp Prospero. So I gave it up and I came here instead.” Sam’s face was a mask of fury. “Never gave up anything? I gave up my life for you, Danny. But not this time.”
With that, he gave one final, desperate pull, shoving a foot into Danny’s stomach to force the two of them apart. In a flash, Sam was on his feet and raised his hands again. A wavy runic symbol appeared around his hand and, with a whoosh, a massive burst of water materialized out of thin air. It blasted toward Danny, who had just gotten his own bearings, and knocked him off his feet. The smaller boy flew backward through the air, twisting as he went, and smacked into the ground face-first, soaking wet, as the Centaurs and Quetzals among the onlookers laughed and jeered.
“Well,” Crowley smirked as Danny’s friends rushed onto the field and Sam stood by, panting and disheveled, “I believe that about wraps this test up. It appears you prevailed, Mr. Falco. Well done. Although your execution certainly leaves something to be desired.”
“Yeah, right,” Chad Fordman chuckled, shaking his head as he and his cronies walked away. “Some win. You’re even more pathetic than I thought, Falco, and I didn’t think that was possible. Nice job beating up your pipsqueak brother, jerkwand.”
“Yeesh,” said Leo, making a face as the group stood over Danny’s unmoving body. “That looked like it hurt. You know, this whole thing wasn’t anywhere close to as fun as I thought it would be. So let me get this straight: Sam turned down going to the top to come slum it because Danny might show up here? Huh. But I guess this is how it feels to be washed up.” He glanced around. “What? Too soon?”
“Hey, Danny,” said Tessa, kneeling down next to the Jackalope as he began to stir. “You okay?”
“Ugh,” Danny groaned, looking up with his glasses askew and broken on his face and covered in mud. “Oww. No. I think I might have broken something.”
“Like what?” Quentin asked, concerned.
“I don’t know. Maybe my skeleton. But did I win?”
“Sure you did, buddy,” said Jack, helping roll him over onto his back and sit up. “You’re the new heavyweight champ. You were unconscious, though, so you missed all the cake and half-naked cheerleaders.”
“That’s okay. I think girls are allergic to me, anyway.”
“Glad you’re okay,” said Oliver, patting him on the back before turning to glare at Sam. “What the spell was that, man? Danny’s your brother, and you almost killed him. What’s your problem?”
“Sam, is it true?” asked Danny, taking off his mangled glasses and staring at his brother with a new uncertainty as blood dripped from his nose. “Did you really come to Camp Prospero for me? You gave up all that stuff?”
Looking mortified at what had just happened, Sam opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He struggled, swallowed, and shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to—I just—I’m sorry.”
He turned, picking his wand up off the side of the field and shoving it into his pocket as he hurried away from the field, pushing his way through the crowd and out of sight. As Danny watched him walk away and swallowed hard, Jack raised an eyebrow and looked down at him.
“Bro, I don’t want to be a downer or anything, but I think maybe you guys have some issues.”
Check out Kyle Robertson’s new novel, Camp Ferguson, available online now at Amazon.com and via Kindle devices!