Back to School, Ring the Bell – Ch. 15

Zain

I left Seb strangling the plush unicorn and edged along the row of people to the aisle between the benches. By then, Cameron had spotted me. She smiled and sped up. Focusing on Platt, I tried to read his expression. About the same as when he’d left, I thought. All that time, and they’d made no progress?

“Hey,” I said. “Where’s Myrick?”

“He said he’d catch up in a minute,” said Cameron. “Did you save us seats?”

I nodded and gestured for them to come with me as I turned around. “So, what’d you guys talk about together?”

“Katanas,” said Platt.

Frowning incredulously, I looked back at him. “For the whole time you were gone?”

He lifted one shoulder and let it fall again.

“And samurai,” Cameron said, a little too brightly. “Platt knows a lot about them. It was very interesting, in fact.”

Oh, good, I thought. I send you on a date and you turn it into a history lecture. Not that sharing interests was a bad thing, but they couldn’t have picked a more fun topic? Loosened the kid up a little? Samurai probably made him think about judo and his wet dreams, too.

We reached the row where Seb, JJ, Theo, and Quint were sitting, and I pointed to the three empty spots on the bench in front of it.

“Thanks,” Cameron said, smoothing her dress down the backs of her thighs as she sat. Platt moved to the third seat along, in front of JJ, leaving a space between himself and her. I sighed.

I’d barely leaned over to ask Seb if he had any ideas to improve the situation, though, when Myrick strode up the aisle, knelt on the ground, and presented Cameron with a ring of orange and blue flowers woven together into a crown. “For you, my lady.”

“Oh, Brian,” she said. “You remembered!”

“Of course I remembered,” he said, as if he was mildly insulted. Gently, he placed it on top of her head. “There. Move down a little.”

She did, sliding up against Platt as Myrick sat on the end of the bench. Turning to the kid, she put her hand up to adjust the crown and asked, “What do you think?”

He stared at her like she’d hung the stars. Seb held onto my elbow tightly, neither of us paying any attention to anything else.

“Every time we come here,” Cameron explained, “I say I want one of these, but it seemed silly to get one before when I couldn’t keep wearing it after we left. Now I can!”

Platt’s throat bobbed. After a moment, he found his voice. “You’re p– I mean, it’s pretty… cool. Uh. Blue and orange. Mets colors.”

Cameron blinked. “Mets?” she asked. “Wait. You’re not a Mets fan, are you?”

Myrick actually chuckled.

“Yes?” Platt said. His eyes narrowed. “What’s your team?”

“She’s a Yankees fan,” said Myrick, leaning around Cameron to grin at the kid.

“What?!” he asked. A few people around us looked over. He lowered his voice again and demanded of Myrick, “You’re not, too, are you?”

“Hell, no,” Myrick said. “I don’t understand why she is.”

Cameron gave a long-suffering sigh. “Because the Yankees are the best team in baseball history, and I accept nothing less than the best. In all things.”

That was quite a compliment for Platt, I thought. He didn’t seem to notice it. His mouth had fallen open. “The best team– No. Just. No.”

“I know, right?” said Myrick. “There’s more to be considered than winning the World Series.”

“Twenty-seven World Series,” Cameron pointed out, “plus eighteen division titles, forty AL pennants–”

She went on, but the other two started talking at the same time. I grinned. Platt definitely wasn’t putting any distance between them now, literally or metaphorically. Cupping my hand over my mouth, I whispered to Seb. “Think they can get past this?”

“If he were Dax, they wouldn’t be able to,” he said. “He broke up with a girl for that once. I think they’ll be okay, though.”

“What are you guys talking about?” JJ asked on Seb’s other side. He frowned at the three in front of us. Myrick and Platt were turned and pressed against Cameron to better hear each other. Their fingers met behind her back. I clearly saw Myrick squeeze the kid’s thumb for just an instant before letting go, while Cameron’s hand brushed his chest as she made some point.

Poor Platt registered both touches at the same time. He went pink.

Ohhhh,” said JJ. When I looked at him, he was frowning harder, and not in confusion.

Quickly, I leaned behind Seb’s back. “J, can I talk to you a minute?”

He got up, still frowning, and headed for the back of the audience seating area as the jugglers took the stage. I stood, and Seb’s worried gaze followed me.

“It’s alright, habibi,” I said. “Keep an eye on those three until I get back.” They were engrossed in their baseball discussion and hadn’t noticed a thing.

He nodded. I went to find JJ, hoping this wasn’t what I thought it was. His open attitude towards same-sex attraction aside, he came from a pretty traditional background.

I caught up with him next to a booth where a woman with elf ears was painting kids’ faces. He rubbed the back of his neck and shook his head as I approached. “They didn’t call it quits and they’re all over Platypus. Man, that is messed up. And don’t try to tell me that’s not what’s going on. I got eyes.”

Sighing, I said, “I can neither confirm nor deny, but listen.” I paused to make sure I had his attention. “I need you to do me a favor.”

“What?” he asked, grudging.

“Before you label them freaks, just watch them for a little bit. The kid’s happy, Cameron’s happy, hell, even Myrick keeps smiling. Isn’t that a good thing?” I asked.

His face screwed up. “Maybe they’re happy today,” he said. “I don’t see how this is gonna work long-term. I’d’ve thought you’d want Platt to be happy years from now.”

“I do,” I said, stepping closer to him in my earnestness. “And I really believe this is the way. Trust me. Give them a chance, alright?”

For several long seconds, he watched the woman finish a wolf mask on a little girl. I held my breath while I let him think. Finally, he shrugged. “I guess. If you think so.”

“Thank you, J,” I said. “I really appreciate that. One other thing, can you please not let on that you noticed? Platt’ll get spooked if he finds out.”

“Alright,” he said. “C’mon, we’re missing the juggling.”

Cameron, Myrick, and Platt had stopped debating by the time we returned. I settled next to Seb on the bench, giving him a reassuring smile, and focused on the show. It was hilarious. More than once, I saw one of the trio laugh and look around to the other two. Even Myrick. Amazing.

Whispering to Seb, I said, “This is going just like I planned.”

“You planned for them to fight about baseball?” he asked. I whapped his thigh, since he was sitting on his butt, and he stuck his tongue out. From the other side of JJ and Theo, Quint’s sharp-eyed gaze caught that. I gave him a thumbs-up.

When the show was over, I wanted to split the group again, to give Platt more alone-time with the other two now that they’d all relaxed a little. But somehow in the discussion of what to do next, Cameron and Theo had the same idea to go through the maze near the jousting field.

Oh well, I thought, linking hands with Seb as we walked down the pathway between booths. Gives JJ a chance to see it’s not a big deal. I did wish he wasn’t watching them quite so obviously, though, or the kid would notice.

My concern was pointless, as it turned out. The three of them were so wrapped up in each other, they hardly glanced at the firebreather we passed. Their conversation turned to football, and then sailing. Platt hardly looked away from his feet as he spoke, but he was talking. I counted that as a win.

Theo took the unicorn Quint had won on the Hi-Striker back to the cars. He offered to take mine, too, but Seb was still holding it and not inclined to give it up. He rejoined us as JJ followed the trio further down the path while Quint, Seb, and I stopped at a stall selling kilts.

“You know, I always kinda wanted one of these,” Theo said, rubbing the plaid fabric between his fingers. “They’re Scottish, though, not Irish. Still pretty cool, you gotta admit.”

“Many modern Irish men wear them as a symbol of Gaelic pride,” the stall’s owner told him. “Would you like to be fitted?”

Theo flipped the price tag over and glanced at it. “Oh. No, thanks,” he said, taking a step back and nearly bumping into Seb in the tight quarters.

“Angel,” Quint said. His voice was low, but I stood right next to him, close enough to catch the oddly strained tone of it.

“What?” Theo asked.

“I’d like to buy you a kilt,” said his husband.

Theo frowned. “They’re expensive, and I don’t even know where I’d wear it.”

“I can think of a place,” Quint said, full of meaning. My eyebrows went up.

Grabbing my arm, Seb dragged me away while Theo smirked and turned back to the stall’s owner to say, “Changed my mind.”

I snickered as I followed Seb. “Quiiinnt’s got a kilt fetish,” I sing-songed.

He smacked my shoulder with the unicorn. “Shut up, I don’t want to have that image in my head!”

“Too late for me,” I said, cheerful.

He didn’t stop pulling me until we were twenty feet down from the kilts, next to a booth of wooden toys. Then he spun towards me. “What happened with JJ earlier?”

“Nothing, he just figured it out and freaked a tiny bit.” I held my index finger and thumb a half-inch apart. “Didn’t think anyone else would be able to guess, but Platypus is even more obvious with Cameron than he is with Myrick, and JJ knows him pretty well. I convinced him not to pass judgement without seeing how happy the three of them are together, so we’re good.”

“You– you said no one would be able to tell!”

Oh, no.

Seb and I both turned our heads. Platt was not three feet from us, ghost-pale, with Myrick and Cameron behind him looking panicked.

“You said they’d think we’re just friends!” Platt accused me.

“Bradley,” Seb started.

“Kid,” I said.

“No!” he cut through the attempt to soothe. More than a few people glanced our way at his raised voice. He looked around self-consciously and caught sight of JJ, frozen in place a few yards off. Platt’s face flooded scarlet. “I… I can’t do this.”

“Yeah, you can,” I said, waving JJ over so he could explain. “We’re all your friends here, Platypus. It’s fine.”

“No,” he said again. Spinning on his heel, he faced Cameron and Myrick. “I want you to go now. You should…” His head hung. “Just go.”

Cameron blinked rapidly. No one said anything for a long moment. Then Myrick spoke, helpless. “If that’s what you want.” He put his arm around Cameron’s waist and led her off.

I followed. “Guys, listen,” I said quietly. “This isn’t the end. He got a little rattled. My fault. I’ll calm him down and we can try again at the barbecue, alright?”

“You think he’ll still come?” Cameron asked. She sounded hopeful.

“Leave it to me,” I said. “He’ll be there.” All I had to do was talk him off a ledge… again.

JJ jogged up next to us. “Could you two give me a ride to my sponsor parents’ place?” he asked Myrick. “I don’t think Platypus wants me around.”

“Did you tell him you don’t mind about this?” I asked.

He glanced back over his shoulder and shrugged uncomfortably. “I’ll tell him when I figure out how I feel, okay? Right now, I just need a ride.”

“We’ll take you,” said Cameron.

“Thanks,” JJ said. He turned to me. “Let him know I’m catching a ride with these two. Wouldn’t be doing that if I thought they were totally sick weirdos, would I?”

“No,” I said slowly. “Guess not.”

He nodded once. We were at the gate out of the festival by then. I stopped and watched the three of them walk under the words, Until another day, fair thee well.

Seb

Bradley’s breath sounded like the puffs of an out-of-control steam engine. His posture reminded me of something. I couldn’t think what. Reaching out, I tried to touch his arm. He jerked away, and it hit me. He looked like I do when I just want to find somewhere quiet, curl into a ball, and have my panic attack alone.

“Hey,” I said, trying to make my voice like Zain’s when he does this. “I know it feels as if everything’s closing in, but you’re okay. Just try to exhale for longer than you inhale, d’accord?”

He glared at me and the unicorn I still held through his pale eyelashes, and kept hyperventilating. Zain showed up a second later, thank the gods. Linking arms with me, he sort of herded Bradley over to a bench by a food stall and made him sit down.

“Put your head between your knees,” he said. “It’s alright, we’re here. Deep, steady breaths.”

Bradley obeyed. Or he bent forward and it seemed like he was trying slow his breathing, anyway.

“Je suis désolé,” I said, squeezing the stuffed animal and watching him struggle with the beast I knew so well.

Zain frowned at me. “What for?”

I gestured around the unicorn, but my hands formed a poor imitation of the turmoil I felt. My contributions to this plan had given it its shape, and now it was blowing up in our faces yet again. In Zain’s face. He’d only wanted to help.

A swat landed on my hip—a real one. Zain leaned over and kissed my flushing cheek, then whispered in my ear, “Cut that out, brat. It’s not your fault.” Drawing back, he raised his voice. “I’m the one who opened my big mouth about JJ without looking around first, right, kid?”

Bradley lifted his head bit by bit, and his skin was its usual color again. “JJ knows,” he moaned.

“Yeah,” Zain said, wincing a little. “You should’ve been able to tell him about this when you were ready. I’m sorry. It’s not ideal, but it’s not the end of the world either, I promise.”

Between pants, Bradley asked, “Will… he… tell?”

“No. He’s still your friend, and he cares about you,” Zain said, looking him steadily in the eye. “No one else is going to find out, okay?”

Bradley nodded, looking more reassured. “Do… Quint and Theo… know?”

“Nope,” said Zain.

“Know what?” Theo asked.

All three of us nearly jumped off the bench.

“Put a bell on, squirt,” Zain said, his hand pressed to his heart. “How do people keep sneaking up on me here?”

“What don’t we know?” Theo repeated, frowning down at Bradley. “And are you okay?”

“He’ll be alright in a minute,” said Zain. He moved his palm to the back of Bradley’s neck, rubbing as he explained, “You didn’t know that the other three left early and Platt’s coming to play video games with you and Seb while Quint and I are at dinner.” Glancing around, he asked, “Where is Quint?”

“Stopped to look at a book,” Theo said. He pointed, and we all saw Quint making his way through the crowd with two shopping bags. “Video games sound fun. More fun than your secret Tops’ Summit, anyway.”

“Top what?” Bradley asked, confused.

“Uh.” Theo blinked. “Nothing. Nevermind.”

Bradley looked at me, and I tried to hide behind the unicorn and Zain, who was grinning, so he wouldn’t see my blush. Luckily, Quint walked up and rescued us.

Mon chaton,” he said, holding out the smaller bag. “I thought you might enjoy this.” His gaze moved along the bench as I took it. “Are you feeling ill, Bradley?”

“I’m fine,” Bradley said to his knees. “Thank you for the invitation to play video games, but I should get back to the Academy.”

“To do what, homework?” Zain asked. “It’s a holiday weekend, Platypus. Time to cut loose.”

“No, I–” Bradley started, and Zain said something I couldn’t hear. Bradley glared at him a moment, then said, “Fine.”

Some of my anxiety left. Reaching into the bag, I pulled out a book. Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones. “Oh!” I said.

“I didn’t remember seeing it on your shelf,” said Quint.

“It’s not,” I said. “I’ve been looking for it for years!” I stood up, dropped the unicorn on the bench, and hugged him.

“Good job, Q-man,” said Zain, standing as well.

“Don’t call me that,” Quint said to him over my head.

Zain sighed dramatically.

A few minutes later, we were walking through the parking lot in growing twilight to find the rental van. Bradley fell into step beside me. He was quiet, yet I saw no other sign of the near-panic attack. I risked speaking to him. “What did Zain say to make you come with us?”

His nearest shoulder rose and fell. “Asked if I wanted to risk running into JJ alone.”

“It… it didn’t seem like JJ was really upset about this,” I said. I didn’t want to mention that was probably only because Zain intervened. “I’m sorry he found out this way.”

“So am I,” Bradley said.

Neither of us spoke again for the whole ride back to Klatsky’s house. Inside, Quint and Zain went upstairs to change for their dinner, while Theo turned the TV on.

“What game do you guys want to play?” he asked.

“I looked earlier,” I said. “All he has are war games. I don’t like those. Do you guys mind if I read my new book instead? I’ll still stay down here with you.”

Theo shrugged. “Sure. Bradley, you wanna pick the game?”

Bradley approached the entertainment stand slowly. From where I’d curled up in an armchair with the unicorn and my book, it looked like he thought the games were a swarm of wasps. I frowned. Did he not like them either? Then I realized. It was Theo making him scared. And Theo had picked up on it, from his baffled expression.

Zain clattered down the stairs and pushed both his wrists in front of my face. “Do my cufflinks, babe?”

I did, while nodding subtly towards the other two. He twisted his upper body around to study them a moment, then gave me a bright, don’t-worry smile. Leaning down, he spoke into my ear, “Remember how he opened right up when he was arguing about baseball? Just let them try defeating each other in virtual armed combat. They’ll be fine. Text me if you need me.” Then, stepping back, he called upstairs, “C’mon, Hanniford! Get a move on!”

“‘Hanniford’?” Quint asked, coming down.

“I need a nickname for you,” Zain said.

“Better than Q-man, I suppose” said Quint. He gave first me, then Theo, a kiss on the cheek. “We’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

They left, and Bradley regarded the controller Theo held out to him warily.

Zain

Our waitress handed each of us a menu before melting into the shadows of the swanky seafood restaurant. Across the table, Quint smiled. “Thank you again for treating me, and for suggesting the renaissance festival today. It’s not something I normally would’ve picked, yet I enjoyed it thoroughly.” He sounded a bit surprised by that.

“Stop thanking me,” I said, shaking my head. “This dinner’s a thank-you to you for taking care of Seb, remember? And you can thank Platt for the renn fest. It was for his benefit.”

“Speaking of, is he alright?” Quint asked. “He looked uneasy when we left.”

“He’ll be okay.” I opened my menu and tried to sound casual. “He’s just having a hard time figuring some stuff out.” Hopefully, playing games with Theo would calm him down enough that he wouldn’t completely freak when I told him Myrick and Cameron were coming to the barbecue.

“Stuff having to do with your other two friends, Justine and Brian?”

I looked up from the list of appetizers. Quint adjusted his glasses and waited for an answer. I should’ve guessed he’d catch on. “Can’t say.”

“I understand,” he said, looking down at his menu. “As for taking care of Seb, it’s been… an interesting experience, these past two weeks.” He sipped water from his glass. “I have not looked forward to the bedtime rituals. I’m glad you’ll be taking those over while we’re down here. However, I know it helped, and I have to admit that quite a lot of the results amused me.” His eyes crinkled at the corners. “He’s rather adorable when he acts out.”

I grinned. “You aren’t allowed to think that. What kind of a Top are you?”

Quint chuckled. “I know. I’m starting to take after you.”

“I say we blame the Bambi eyes.”

He nodded seriously. “Yes, they are a true menace.”

The waitress came back. After she’d taken our order and left again, I tipped my chair back. “So, about the move. What should our game plan here be?”

Raising an eyebrow, Quint tapped the table. “Would you mind not doing that? I’m having visions of you falling backward into that post, and this is a rather upscale establishment.”

I put all four legs of the chair on the floor again. “Sorry, bad habit.”

“It’s alright. Thank you,” he said, but then frowned. “To what part of the game plan are you referring? I thought it ended with Seb’s presentation Tuesday night.”

“A different game plan,” I said. “The Theo’s Moving Blues Game Plan. You know him better. Do you think visiting the house tomorrow will be too hard for him? Seb and I could go to the inspection alone.” Smirking, I added, “Plus, it’d give you and Theo time to get acquainted with the new kilt.”

He gave me a real Look for that, probably to try covering his blush. My smirk broadened into a grin.

“Just an idea,” I said.

Shaking his head, he said, “I think seeing the place and how it makes Seb happy will help. All of the activity surrounding the house right now has put it on Theo’s mind, but he is adjusting to the idea, despite appearances. He’ll be fine after the move. In any case, we have months still before Seb leaves.” He fell silent for a moment, his eyes growing distant. “I keep reminding Theo of that.”

Reminding yourself too, aren’t you? Softly, I said, “I don’t think he’s the only one getting the blues about it.”

Quint refocused on me. “I’m alright.”

“Don’t lie to me, young man,” I said, in my sternest voice. The smile probably made it lose some impact, though.

With a sigh, Quint admitted, “Of course, I’m going to miss him just as much. The two of you have enriched our lives so greatly.” He swallowed and looked on the table a moment before continuing, hoarse, “I’m very glad we met.”

“Me too,” I said, choking up a little myself. “I don’t know how we would’ve made it through the past year without you guys.”

He picked up his water glass and held it in a toast. “To friendship.”

I clinked the rim of my glass against his. “To lifelong friendship, no matter how far apart we are.”

Seb

The sound of the game changed from gunshots to heavy breathing inside a helmet. I looked up from my book. It was paused.

“Need to use the head,” said Bradley, dropping his controller on the coffee table.

“Around the corner under the stairs,” I told him.

As he moved out of sight, Theo asked, “Did I do something?”

“Hmm?” I asked.

Theo leaned over the arm of the couch and lowered his voice. “He hasn’t said a word to me, and he keeps looking at me like I’m planning to eat him.”

I craned my head around to make sure Bradley was out of earshot. Then I said, “He’s worried about… what you know.” I realized I’d given too much away immediately. For the hundredth time, I wished I was able to think on my feet and tell easy white lies like Zain.

“Know about what?” Theo asked, frowning for a moment, before his face cleared. “Oh, you mean him being bi? Last time I saw him, he wasn’t ready to admit that to himself. Guess this is progress, huh?”

“Um…” I twisted the unicorn’s tail around my finger.

“Nevermind,” he said, shaking his head with a little smile. “Forget I asked.” He got up and wandered to the kitchen. I heard the crinkle of a bag of chips being opened.

A few moments later, Bradley came out of the bathroom and retook his place on the couch. Theo brought a huge bowl of chips from the kitchen, putting them it on the coffee table, and as he sat, Bradley moved farther away. They kept playing for several minutes, but this time I was paying attention. I saw what Theo meant. When he suddenly leaned forward to get a handful of chips, Bradley jumped.

Theo rolled his eyes and paused the game. “Would you relax?” he asked. “I’m gay. I’m hardly going to judge you.”

“What?” Bradley asked, faintly. He’d gone sheet-white.

A chill went through me. “Theo.”

My urgency must’ve been obvious, because Theo said, “For, uh, you know, how badly you suck at this game.”

“That’s not what you meant,” Bradley said, and his voice was jerky, almost robotic. “You saw it too, with Cameron and Myrick. Didn’t you?”

“Cameron and Myrick?” Theo asked blankly. He glanced at me and winced. “Oh. Not talking about the same thing, were we?”

I slowly shook my head. Bradley was frozen in place, only his eyes moving, darting between us.

“Uh, let’s just play,” said Theo, turning back to the TV. “Ready to kill some aliens?”

But Bradley still didn’t move. After a moment, he said, “Fuck. Might as well tell you now.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Theo said quickly. “None of my business.”

Again, it was like Bradley didn’t hear. He swallowed, took a huge, bracing breath and said, “I’m– I have, uh… They want to be in a r–relationship with me. Or so they claim.”

“They do,” I said, ignoring Theo blinking in surprise for the moment and sitting up more. “Why would you doubt that?”

Frowning, Bradley said, “Because. Who would want to be with me? I’m not…” He paused, searching for the right word. “Not confident like them or Mohyeldin.”

“No one is confident like Zain except for Zain,” I said. “And the other two were nervous today too, you know.”

“They were?” he asked.

I nodded. “Myrick was nervous when we planned it. He and Cameron both wanted it to go so well. They don’t see you as anything beneath them or whatever you’re thinking. Remember how Cameron said she only accepts the best? She was talking about you.”

Bradley’s mouth dropped open. “I thought she was talking about the Yankees.”

“Nah, she did seem pretty into you, looking back on it,” Theo said, smiling a little. “So did he. Nice catch, on both counts.”

A flush crept up from Bradley’s neckline. Watching Theo from the corner of his eye, he stammered, “Y–you don’t think that’s weird?”

Theo shrugged. “I’m a born-and-raised New Yorker. People who don’t take the subway are weird, not three people caring about each other. Triads were all the rage at NYU for a couple of months.”

Bradley looked at me again, as if checking this wasn’t a trap. I thought, Safety, safe as houses, safe as a bear in its den, and tried to project that in my face. He swallowed. To Theo, he said, “Some people think it’s sick.”

“Well, screw ‘em,” Theo said. “Not saying it’s exactly the same, but some people think Seb’s relationship and my relationship are sick, too. And mine not just because we’re both men, but because my husband’s seventeen years older than me. I don’t need those people in my life.”

“What if you did, though? Or what if you couldn’t get away from them?” Bradley asked, an edge to his voice. I flinched and steeled for Theo to return the annoyance.

Instead, he looked like he was really thinking that over for several seconds. “It’d be hard,” he said, finally, “but being with Quint is worth anything. Plus, it’s up to you who you tell. Coming out isn’t something you do once and then everyone knows, y’know. It’s a lifelong process.”

“Unless they guess,” said Bradley.

I spoke up then. “Would it be worth it if they knew? What you had today, with Cameron and Myrick, if you could have that all the time, what would you be willing to give up for it?”

Bradley blinked a few times, his eyes bright. “I don’t know.”

“If you knew you’d be safe and understood and respected,” I said, thinking of Zain, “and loved more than anything else, what would you be willing to give up?”

He shook his head and sniffed. “I’m scared that I won’t know what I’m giving up until it’s too late.”

“You don’t really know what you’re gaining, either,” Theo said. “The whole thing’s a risk. That’s why I think the real question isn’t how much you’re willing to give up, it’s how much are you willing to fight? You told me the day we met that if something was important to me, I should go after it. I took your advice, and it helped, so I’m going to give it back to you.”

He picked up Bradley’s controller, offering it like it was the advice made physical. Bradley accepted it and turned it over and over in his lap as if he were searching for a way to open it up.

Theo looked at me, shrugged, and then grabbed the other controller and unpaused the game. His character leveled its gun on an alien as more closed in around them. “Fight!” he said.

Bradley jerked his head up, biting his lower lip and mashing buttons. Gunshots filled the room again. I watched both of them. Nothing had been resolved, but Bradley was still turning over the controller in his mind. I could see it behind his eyes. What would Zain do? I considered texting him to ask. Only my great reluctance to interrupt his and Quint’s dinner kept my fingers off my phone. It could wait until they got back.

Zain

“How’s it going, guys?” I asked as I came through the door, loosening the tie I wore to dinner. Quint followed me in.

The other three were exactly where we’d left them. Seb put down his book, stretched like a cat, and gave me an I-need-to-talk-to-you look. Theo barely glanced away from the TV, saying, “He’s kicking my ass. Quiet, I need to concentrate.”

Platt shook his head. “Yeah, concentrate. You’re about to get schooled.”

I grinned at Seb. They’d progressed to trash-talking. Awesome. “That’s my little Platypus,” I said, reaching over the back of the couch to pat his shoulder.

“Hey!” said Theo, while a pleased smile tugged on Platt’s lips for half a second.

Quint was focusing on the bowl in the middle of the coffee table, which was empty apart from a few broken pieces of Doritos at the bottom. “Have you three eaten anything other than chips?”

“Carrot sticks,” Theo said.

“That was just Seb, though,” said Platt, and frowned at the look Theo gave him. “What?”

“You need to eat something more,” Quint said. “All of you.”

Platt paused the game. Standing up, he said, “I’m going to grab dinner on the Yard. I have to get back. My liberty’s ending soon.”

That was only true if ‘soon’ meant ‘hours from now,’ but I didn’t argue. He’d had a long day.

“Oh, sure,” Theo said. “Leave so I don’t get a chance to beat you. This isn’t over.”

“It is for tonight,” said Quint. “We’ll see Bradley again at the barbecue on Monday. Won’t we?”

The question was directed to Platt, who nodded without hesitation. Would it be unfair of me to use that against him if he tried to change his mind after I told him Myrick and Cameron would be there?

“I’ll come along to drop you off, kid,” I said. “Quint, do you mind driving?”

“Not at all.”

“Great. You two go wait in the van. I’ll be out in a minute, I just wanna change,” I said.

Platt nodded awkwardly to Seb and Theo. “Thanks, it was fun,” he said, before leaving through the garage door.

I waited for Quint to go out after him, then bent over Seb in the armchair like I was going to whisper dirty things and, instead, breathed in his ear, “What happened while I was gone, babe?”

“Theo knows,” he said, in his normal voice, rolling his eyes at me. “We don’t need the cloak-and-dagger act.”

I huffed. “Way to ruin the fun.” Then I sat down on the arm of the chair and frowned at Theo. “You guessed it too, squirt? I didn’t think you knew them well enough.”

“No, Bradley told me,” he said, and my jaw dropped open.

The pair of them filled me in on everything, and I listened in amazement. Platt had willingly told someone? Okay, someone he’d already accidentally given half of it away to, but still.

“So, what do you think?” Seb asked when they’d finished, looking up with that crease between his eyes I know so well.

“We’re definitely moving in the right direction,” I said, and smoothed the crease out with my thumb before trailing it down his nose to his chin, which I held as I bent and kissed him. I could feel the tension in his mouth. “You two eat,” I said, breaking our lips apart. “I’ll give you your Lantus when I get back.”

He nodded and leaned into my palm on his cheek. My eyebrows went up in amusement. It was going to be one of those nights when he embraced the care-taking, huh? Pity that Quint wouldn’t be able to see it.

“Soon, habibi,” I said. He nodded again, drawing away with a sigh.

“C’mon, Seb, I think we have stuff for sandwiches,” Theo said. The two of them went into the kitchen, and I headed upstairs, taking the tie and cufflinks off on the way.

*

As I climbed into the back seat next to Platt, I asked, “Quint, can we get some music?”

He turned the radio on, flipping through stations until he found one playing pop. “Is this alright?”

“Perfect,” I said, raising my voice to be heard above it. Truthfully, he could’ve put on classical for all I cared. I just wanted some sound cover so Platt would talk. I turned to the kid and grinned. “So, today went well, I thought, overall. What’d you think?”

Platt glanced towards Quint as he backed out of the garage.

“Quint?” I asked, at the same low volume. He didn’t answer. I told Platt, “Can’t hear, see? We’re in a cone of silence.”

He scratched at his knee and spoke so quietly I had to bend across the seat. “It was nice,” he said. “Being around them. Even though I acted like a nutcase because I was so nervous. I don’t know how to date one person.”

“You did pretty good, considering,” I said. “And remember, they don’t know exactly what they’re doing either. This is a new thing for all of you. They were just as anxious.”

“That’s what Seb said.” He sighed. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know if they were anxious?” I asked. “Because I can tell you right now, they were.”

“No, I don’t know… if I want this,” he explained, his fingers picking and picking at his pant leg. “With the way JJ reacted–”

“Don’t worry about him right now,” I said. “I’ll talk to him, get him to come around.”

“You’re going to do that anytime we ever get a negative reaction in the future, too?” he asked, shooting me a challenging look. “It won’t end. And we’d have to hide it from so many people. If we could hide it. JJ saw right through us.”

“He knows you well,” I said. “Also, he was already kinda suspicious from Myrick asking you out. That’s not going to happen every time. No one else there knew, remember? I’m not saying this would be easy, but I really believe you can do it and be happy. That’s all I want for you, kid. Happiness.”

Platt gazed out the window on his side, and the light of streetlamps fell across his face in bars as Quint drove past them. He was silent for so long, I spoke again. “About the barbecue…”

“They’ll be there,” he finished for me.

I blinked. “Uh. Yep. Does that mean you don’t want to go?”

“I’m not sure,” he said, with what looked like a casual shrug. We stopped at an intersection, the traffic light giving him a reddish glow. “JJ will be there, too?”

“He’s invited,” I said, “but if he’s going to be an ass, I’ll tell him to leave.” Hopefully I could talk to him before then and it wouldn’t come to that.

“I have to think about it,” Platt said, finally turning away from the window. “Is that alright?”

I nodded. “Of course. Just let me know when you decide.”

He stayed quiet the rest of the way back to the Yard, deep in contemplation. Not even me singing along with Taylor Swift seemed to disturb him.

A few songs later, Quint pulled over by the pedestrian gate, put the van in park, and said, “Isn’t that your friend JJ?”

I scooched forward to see out the windshield. “Yep.” He was just standing outside next to the United States Naval Academy sign, looking at nothing in particular. Platt had gone pale when I glanced back. “I’ll walk you in,” I said, unbuckling my seatbelt.

It took the kid a few seconds longer to swing his own door open and get out after I was standing on the sidewalk. JJ saw me first. He stayed where he was. Only when Platt stood beside me did he push away from the wall and call out, “Hey, Platypus. I’ve been waiting for you since I got dropped off. Can we talk?”

Platt’s gaze shifted from him to me, warily. I didn’t blame him. But JJ had used his nickname, and if he really had been waiting hours, he must feel it was important. “C’mon,” I said. “Let’s see.”

We walked over the couple of yards. JJ kept his eyes fixed on Platt, not me. “Thanks,” he said, when we’d stopped in front of him. “I had to talk to you. Cameron, Myrick, and I had a long conversation on the way back. They explained how they feel about you. I thought it was just some freaky sex thing, but they said it’s more than that, and…” He shook his head. “I don’t really get it, but I don’t really get how Mo here wants to marry a dude, either—no offense to Seb—and if I can be cool with that, I guess I can be cool with you three. If it’s what you want and no one’s getting hurt by it. That’s all I wanted to say.” He glanced at me. “Oh, and, uh, sorry.”

“Thank you, J,” I said. “I knew you’d come around. Although, you should be so lucky to be marrying Seb.”

“Yeah, really,” said Platt, and we both stared at him as he went pink and stuttering. “Uh, I mean, not that– He’s just a great guy. Friend. That’s all.”

“Uh-huh,” I said, fighting a smile and the urge to tease. I couldn’t be sure he’d take it well. “Quint’s double-parked. I can’t keep him waiting. Are you two cool now?”

“We’re cool,” said JJ. “Right, Platypus?” He held out a fist.

Platt looked to me.

“Well, don’t leave him hanging,” I said. “You can trust him.”

He took a breath and bumped his fist against JJ’s. “Alright.”

*

Back at the house, I wished Quint and Theo an early good-night, collected my boy, and headed upstairs with him close and silent behind me. “Where’s your Lantus?” I asked, shutting the bedroom door.

He pointed to his smaller bag, next to the chair with his suitcase. I scooped it off the floor and sat down on the edge of the mattress to sort through it. Test kit, extra insulin, syringes, snacks, and all the rest of the gear he has to bring along everywhere. While I looked, he stood right in front of me with his thumbs hooked into the pockets of his jeans. Not hugging over his stomach or trying to put distance between us.

“Been a long day, huh, habibi?” I asked.

“Long two weeks,” he murmured. “How was Bradley when you dropped him off?”

I told him about running into JJ, and Platt’s uncertainty over the barbecue, as I found the supplies I needed and prepared the Lantus pen for the injection. “I think he’ll come. He wants it, and JJ doing that helped a lot.” Picking up an alcohol wipe, I asked, “Are you still using your stomach, or have you rotated?”

“Stomach,” he said, reaching for the hem of his shirt.

“I got it.” I stripped it off over his head before taking a moment to assess. He looked about the same weight I’d left him in Hawaii, hardly an ounce of fat to spare. Lean muscles swept down from angular shoulders to narrow hips, under skin dotted with freckles. I traced my fingertip along a line connecting two on his ribcage, and his stomach hollowed as he dropped his chin to his chest and sighed. The silver chain around his neck held my dog tags at the level of his heart, their black rubber silencers rough with tooth marks from him chewing on them. I missed watching him do that.

Tearing open the alcohol wipe, I cleaned his injection site, well clear of the bumps of his scars. Then I pushed the pen needle into his skin and held it for the full ten seconds needed to let the medicine absorb. He barely stirred. His hands were loose by his sides, his breath even. When I pulled the needle out and snapped the safety cap over it, I said, “Good job, babe.”

“Hairbrush s’in my suitcase,” he said.

I paused in the middle of unscrewing the needle to throw away in his sharps box, and snorted. “Sure you need that much? You sound like if you chill out any more, you’ll fall asleep.”

He nodded, then made a face. “Don’t tell Theo I asked for it.”

I grinned and kissed him. “Your secret’s safe with me. Go get it. Use both hands to carry it back.”

He did, keeping his fingers away from his fly until he stood between my knees again and I could undo it myself. I watched his knuckles flex around the wooden handle of the brush as I lowered his jeans and underwear, then tugged his elbow and bent him across my thigh. One pat on his back and he gave me the brush, along with his right hand. I interwove our fingers and got down to business.

Now that I had him pressed up against me, I could feel what he meant about needing it. The calmness only went halfway. His breath caught rather than sobbed. “C’mon, babe,” I said, jogging my knee under him so I could get further down his legs.

He gasped, reared up on his forearm, and grabbed one of the pillows. I let go of his hand just long enough to confiscate it. “Nope.” Theo and Quint already knew what was happening. I wasn’t going to let him hide from himself. Picking up speed, I concentrated right on the crease of his buttocks and thighs, and he jerked forward with a strangled yelp, biting the comforter for a second before the tears broke through, and I dropped the hairbrush and used my palm while his bones shook apart.

Listening to him cry always makes me feel helpless, even when it was my goal. He took a long time to stop. I spent it counting his vertebrae as my hand slid along them from his nape to the small of his back, my fingers catching on the dog tag chain.

“Better?”

He nodded. I patted his shoulder to signal he could get up, but instead, he slid backwards so he was kneeling on the pillow I’d dropped by my feet. Tears glistened on his eyelashes as he blinked, and then he hung both skinny arms around my neck and kissed me.

I returned it until I felt him undoing my pants. Then I pulled back with a frown. “Babe? If that’s started putting you in the mood, we’re gonna have to adjust some things.”

“Don’t be stupid, of course it doesn’t,” he said, flushing even as he scowled. “It’s been a month. I just need to feel closer to you.”

“Okay,” I said, because that made more sense. “Hang on, though. Let me get a washcloth for your face.”

He clung to me a moment longer before dropping his arms, and I pecked another kiss on his lips.

“One sec, I promise.”

When I brought the cloth from the bathroom, he was on his stomach on the bed looking back over his shoulder, every inch of him so perfectly-formed, right down to his red ass, that the sight stole my breath. I just stood by the door drinking him in for a long moment.

“What?” he asked.

“Nothing. You’re gorgeous, is all.” I crawled up next to him and swiped the cloth over his face, down his neck and chest, and once over his lower set of cheeks as well, so he squirmed and bit his lip and I had to kiss it again. Then I dropped the cloth on the nightstand and picked up the tie I’d left there earlier. “Give me your wrists. I’ve been thinking about wrapping this around them since I put it on.”

He surrendered them to me, and I set about claiming everything he had.

Later, he asked, “Do you think Bradley will ever have this?”

I smiled as I threaded my fingers through his hair. “Yeah, I do.”

“I hope so,” he said, and closed his eyes to sigh into sleep.

2 thoughts on “Back to School, Ring the Bell – Ch. 15”

  1. Stressful times had me coming back to read this over again. I just fall more and more in love with this whole ensemble! I want more of Myrick, Cameron, and Platt so badly I can’t hardly stand it! But after reading this over again, I can at least go on about my day with the image of Theo in a kilt!

    1. Thank you, Dizzy! I’m so glad it could provide a bright spot in a stressful day. Don’t worry, there will be more of the triad soon. 😀

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