Aspen pulled the candles and fake logs from the fireplace and whispered a quick spell, unstoppering the chimney. “Fire,” she murmured, pleased with herself. “All right, Toph, Betsy, there are eight candles in there. Arrange them in a half-circle around the fireplace, and then we’re going to put you in the middle, Toph, and we’re going to focus on the problem.”
“No, uh-unh.” He shook his head emphatically. “That’s how we end up with the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.”
“No, no. That’s how we ended up with the nice shield over this block, remember? It’s not always like Ghostbusters, bub.”
Topher sighed loudly. “All right, all right. We can focus on the problem. Which is me, yeah? Me is the problem?”
“Your lack of self-esteem is the problem, Toph.” Betsy frowned at him. “You keep acting like you’re somewhere down below the totem pole, and it’s ridiculous.”
“Hello, have you met you? Either of you? You’re like the most impressive women in your class, probably in the state, and likely in the world. Me, I’m… I’m me. Topher George, loser extraordinaire.”
“You see? That. That’s what I’m worried about. Okay. Here’s the last candle and here’s the actual flame. And here here’s where we write it on parchment.”
“So we, like, we’re literally burning up my flaws?” Toph stared at the parchment in unwilling awe. “And this actually works?”
“Well, the book I found it in says it works, and it’s a good one. Not the kitties-and-puppies book,” Aspen hastened to add. “So yeah, I thought we’d do all three of us, but we can focus on Toph first. And then Betsy and I will be clear-headed if we need to fix something really fast. All right.” Aspen lit the fire in the fireplace and lit the candles. “Topher, you do the writing. Betsy and I will do the chanting and the focusing. Ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” he allowed.
“Good. Betsy, you come in on the second repeat.”
“Got it, boss.”
The chant was easy, repetitive, the Sumerian coming smoothly to their tongues after the number of rituals the three of them had performed. They closed their eyes as Topher wrote a word on the parchment and tossed it into the fire.
The flames surged, dancing higher than they had fuel for, and then vanished. Only Topher’s eyes were open, so only he saw the flames actually dart up the chimney.
“Asp? Were the flames supposed to become a little pixy thing and run off with all my flaws?”
Aspen finished the chant. “‘The flames will take them’ is what the ritual says.” She opened her eyes. “How’re you feeling?”
“Mostly… like I want some donuts.” He stretched and wiggled his fingers. “What? Don’t look at me like that, Asp. It’s not like hating myself colored everything I did. I mean, okay…” He trailed off thoughtfully. “Hunh. Well. I guess it feels a little different.”
“Oh, good. I mean, I was thinking maybe it didn’t work or maybe it really was like the Stay-Puft marshmallow man and now you were going to crave donuts all of the time, and that would have been awful, I mean, at least kind of awful…”
“Well, to be fair, I already craved donuts all the time, it was just that I was… hunh. I wonder what a gym membership costs. I wonder if I can get a part-time job that doesn’t suck. What d’ya think, Asp? Barista, maybe? Someone around here has to need someone to work for them, and why not me? I mean…”
Betsy and Aspen shared a look. “Well,” Betsy allowed quietly, “this isn’t too bad, so far.”
“You know… I’ve wanted to know something for a long time, and I figure, you can both kill me for this if you want, but you only live once, right?” Topher looked between the two of them and grinned. “And you two are the only two I’ve ever really wanted, but I guess I figured I wasn’t strong enough for you or smart enough for you, but I’m not all that dumb and I’m crafty where I’m not strong and, well…” His smile got sly and mischievous. “Threesome?”
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