The twins exchanged glances.
"We’ll tell you what we can,” Terry said. “But you have to promise two things: not to tell anyone, and not to ask us about any more of it.”
The candor and solemnity in his friends’ eyes was new, frightening. Nick bit his lip as he nodded. “Of course I promise.”
“Good.” Cris reached up to rub at the side of his neck. “Can you close the doors?”
The pocket doors set into the archway creaked their protests, but yielded to his best rower’s pull. Once the deed was done, he pulled his chair closer to the couch before reclaiming his seat. “Well?”
“Not sure where to start,” Cris said.
“How about your wrists?” Nick raised his eyebrows. “Why are you bleeding? Did Professor Goddard do this to you? … We have to go see the headmaster, right -”
“No, Nick.” Quiet as Terry was, his voice cut through like a shot. “There’s a part of this we can’t tell to anybody: not even you.”
Nick looked at Cris for confirmation, and he nodded, the most somber he’d ever been. “Sorry, mate.”
“But it’s hurting you.” Heat rose to Nick’s face. “What secret is worth that?!” He watched as their eyes met once more, and wished, not for the first time, that he could understand their silent conversations.
“I’ve got this,” Terry said. “Nick, remember first day of Bio class, when Broccoli got on you for spacing out and thinking of that book you loved so much?”
It would be impossible to forget, and both twins knew it. He nodded. “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.”
“Right. Well, this is like the rats’ rosebush. We got lucky enough to get help from the rats, but we can’t talk about the rosebush. It might get torn up if the farmer finds out, follow?”
Nick reached up to tousle the curls at his temple, twisting one corner of his mouth up in thought. “Does it have to do with all the protests your parents go to?”
“Sort of. Clever git.”
Cris laughed, though it lacked his usual verve. “That’s our Nick, sharper than cheddar. Yeah, Aunt Minta knows, too. But please, Nick, we can’t…”
“Probably shouldn’t even have told him that.” Terry sighed. “Anyway, Nick, long story edited for telly, Broccoli is looking for something we know about, and he really wants it. So …”
The tuna casserole Nick had devoured at supper did a somersault, and he swallowed back his nausea. “So he hurt you.”
“He’s got this thing he tests on us.” Cris’ voice was small, ashamed. “Some sort of a new battery.”
Terry’s throat worked around his words until he forced them out. “He ties us up like we’re in a looney bin. … Show ‘im.”
Cris pulled down the collar of his jumper to reveal the angry burns the leads had left on his skin. “We’re gonna change in the W.C. for a while, I think.”
Nick sucked in a breath through his teeth. “So tell Mallory what you told me! We can leave the secret bits out!”
“And what?” Terry shot to his feet and paced to the window. Across the campus, the spire of Shaw Hall was faint in the moonlight. “Have him go confront the rotten veg, only to have His Eminent Awfulness tell the bits we left out? No way.”
“Trust us, Nick,” Cris shook his head. “We’ve been thinking about this for a long time.”
He took a deep breath and gripped the arms of his chair. “How long?”
“Since the scavenger hunt.”
In a flash, it all made sense: the bruise on Terry’s wrist, their intense hatred of Professor Goddard, the graffiti murals they'd made. While his anger began to fade, the heat in his cheeks remained, and he hung his head to study the ancient, fading Oriental carpet. “I should have seen that something was wrong.” His voice caught on his shame and came out warped, weak. “I … I understand why you didn’t want to tell me, but … you could have … I … what about being Musketeers?”
Cris got up off the couch gingerly, and moved to perch on one arm of the chair. “Aw, Nick. It isn’t that we didn’t think we could trust you! We didn’t want you to get in trouble, too.”
“Don’t worry.” Terry stood with a grunt and leaned at Nick’s other side, picking his pencil from behind his ear. He brandished it in front of them, toward the window. “We’re not about to let the Cardinal clap you in irons!”
“Here, here!” Cris cheered. “One for all …”
“… And all for one!” They finished, and Nick couldn’t help smiling.
“That’s our Athos!” Terry clapped him on the back, then let out a groan of regret at the resulting wrist pain. “Tell you what. I’m starving. Let’s take our bikes into town and get a bite at that little scrappy pub Roy told us about last year.”
“I could do with a pint, for sure,” Cris sighed.
“Just don’t get drunk. We aren’t supposed to drink at all, and if Avery smells it on you, it’s -”
“Right back to Broccoli,” the twins said in unison.
“Besides,” Nick added, “I have a feeling that inebriated cycling does not rank very highly on a list of safe hobbies.”
“Truer words were never spoken,” Terry chuckled. “C’mon, mes amis! Off with us, to the open road, for crown and country!”