Back to School, Ring the Bell – Ch. 16


The house was painted a moss green, pale against the forest foliage surrounding it like a nest around an egg. Theo, beside me, took a deep breath. I glanced over. He was surveying it with a grim expression. Quint put his arm around his husband’s hips and pulled him closer, kissing his temple while Zain turned his head to track a noise through the trees. “That’ll be Cecilia with the keys,” Zain said.

“Who?” Theo asked.

“Cecilia Strong, the realtor selling the place,” Zain explained. “She’s also a neighbor.”

In the distance beyond the peeling garage, an upright woman with her silver hair in a chiffon bun stepped from between the trunks of two oaks. I blinked. She could not have looked more out of place if she’d been wearing a ballgown.

Zain waved and went to meet her halfway before the pair of them came back to where we were standing by the van. “Cecilia,” he said, “this is my fiancé, Seb, and our friends, Theo and Quint.”

Quint held out his hand first. She shook it while scrutinizing me like Theo had scrutinized the house, and said, “You’re very thin to be doing DIY remodeling.” Turning to Zain, she asked, “Don’t you feed him ever?”

“Yes!” Zain said, with a protesting laugh. “He’s stronger than he looks, I promise.”

“Hmm,” she said. “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet all three of you.” Her smile then was as gracious as a queen welcoming subjects to her court. Putting an elegant hand into her purse, she pulled out a keyring with two keys. “This one is the front door, and this one is the garage. You can leave them on the windowsill of the porch when you’re finished. I’ll be back later tonight to pick them up.”

“Thank you,” Zain said, accepting them. “The inspector won’t be here for another half-hour. I hope you don’t mind if we just look around first.”

“Not at all,” she said. “If you’ll excuse me, I have laundry to take down from the line.” She nodded to each of us and walked back the way she’d come.

“Told ya you’d like her,” Zain said to me once she was out of earshot. “C’mon, let’s go in.”

I followed him as he bounded up the front steps, and behind me, Quint came at a slower pace, pulling Theo at the rear. We went right through the small enclosed porch and stepped over the threshold.

Zain held the door for us with one hand as he swept the other wide. “Welcome to the living room.”

It looked huge empty, with the same dark wood floors I’d seen in the pictures from upstairs and walls that had been freshly painted in snow white. The staircase climbed up through the center of the house to our right, but Zain headed for the doorway at the back of the living room.

“Here’s the kitchen,” he said. “Obviously, it needs a ton of work. The appliances are pretty new, though, so we won’t have to replace them.”

“It’s closed off back here,” Theo said, frowning at the wall of cabinets between us and the living room. “Not much space to hang around, either.”

“Yeah, open floorplans didn’t really exist in the thirties,” Zain said. “Knocking down walls probably won’t be in our budget, so it’ll stay authentically divided.”

Theo shook his head. “Only one window.”

“There’s another in the door to the backyard,” Quint said, so softly composed that my eyes snapped to him as my stomach jerked.

Theo wandered out of his reach and slid open a set of bifold doors, revealing a pantry with dingy wire-frame shelves running along its back wall.

Quint and Zain exchanged a look, and then Quint said, “The dining room is through here?”

“Yep,” said Zain, striding ahead again. “This door is to the basement. I’m sure we’ll check that out later, with the inspector. Then through here is the hallway that goes back around to the living room, or if you turn down this side, these doors have the washer and dryer behind them, and this one leads out to the second porch, which’ll be Seb’s studio.”

He opened it with a flourish. Quint stood aside and gestured for me to go through first, and when I did, I swallowed. Two of the walls were covered in windows and a door facing over the yard and road, soaking the room with the diffused glow of northern light. A shelf jutted out along the sills on the left side, and I could picture it covered with my paints and supplies. There was enough room on the opposite wall, around a large picture window into the house, for me to put up some more storage. I could work with this. I could turn it into a space to create, my own small sanctuary.

“Good?” Zain asked.

I just nodded. Quint and Theo still stood in the hallway, both leaning to look around the doorframe, Quint smiling and Theo stone-faced. My gut twisted. “Um, we should see upstairs,” I said.

The older couple took the lead this time. As I followed, I thought, Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to ask Theo to come. Are we rubbing his nose in it?

Zain pointed from behind me while we climbed up the stairs. “See the built-in bookcases on the landing? There’s some in the master bedroom, too. We’re gonna need to buy more books.”

“Isn’t a Kindle easier?” Theo called back.

“Seb prefers paper,” Zain said, lightly. “Plus this way, you guys can borrow stuff from our library whenever you’re here.”

Theo didn’t say anything, then or in the master bedroom at the top of the staircase. He just stood with his shoulders hunched as Zain explained how we’d arrange the furniture under the sloped ceilings.

“Check out the window, babe.” He grinned. “Easy roof access.”

A thousand memories flooded my mind, of us on roofs, under stars or clear blue skies, talking and laughing and arguing and kissing. How many more would we make here?

“Seb’s not allowed on the roof of our building,” Theo said, jerking me out of my thoughts.

“Our building is several stories taller,” Quint said, “and no one is allowed on it, including myself.” He looked at his husband for a long, uneasy moment.

Theo shrugged. “Just saying.”

“Zain, please continue the tour,” Quint said.

Whistling, Zain grabbed my hand and weaved around the two of them out of the room, then opened the next door along the landing. “Walk-in closet,” he said. “Complete with another window, so really if we took out the shelving, it could make a small bedroom or maybe an office for the next owners. I figured we’d leave it a closet, though.” He hardly paused for us to glance into it before he was pulling me again, skipping over one door and opening the last. “There’s your tub, babe.”

It was beautiful. The bathtub in Quint and Theo’s apartment was functional, but not that big. This cast iron behemoth invited me to sink down into a mountain of bubbles. I could hardly wait.

“Will you be able to shower without knocking your head on that pitched ceiling, Quint?” Theo asked.

Guilt struck me. I hadn’t even considered that. I turned around to judge Quint’s height against the ceiling, and then swiftly averted my eyes, because Zain had his head cocked at Theo, and Quint was taking his elbow and spinning him sideways. The swat echoed off the tile.


I winced. Oh, no.

“Don’t give me that wounded look, young man,” Quint said. “I have not heard a single positive comment since we arrived at this house, despite my repeated warnings. Seb and Zain are both excited to see their new home. I thought you would be happy for them, and I’m disappointed to learn that’s not the case. I think our friends deserve an apology, along with an open mind.”

Zain’s arm caught me around my middle and pulled me close in the silence that followed the lecture. I risked a glance up. Theo’s ears were red as cherries, and Quint stood with his arms crossed, frowning disapproval at his husband.

“It’s okay,” I said, softly. “I understand how this brings up bad memories–”

“My dad kicking me out is no excuse,” Theo interrupted. He fought to move his gaze off the vanity and met my eyes. “It’s not that I’m not happy you found a place, I swear. I just wish it were closer to us. Zain, why couldn’t you join the army? Then you’d be at West Point.”

“West Point uniforms would look horrible with my complexion,” Zain said. “Also, ‘army’ stands for ‘Ain’t Ready for the Marines Yet.’”

Theo snorted and smiled a little. “Anyway, I’m sorry. I’ll quit complaining about everything.”

“I forgive you, squirt.”

“Me, too,” I said.

Theo looked to Quint, who nodded. “That’s better. Thank you, angel.” He uncrossed his arms, and Theo stepped into them for a hug.

While they were embracing, Zain let go of me and sidled out the door, saying, “C’mon, I saved the best for last.”

We filed after him into the room between the bathroom and closet. It was small, but the ceiling didn’t slope so steeply, thanks to the shed dormer.

“This is where you two will stay when you visit,” Zain said. “See, we can fit a full bed under the roofline this way, and we’ll put a wardrobe over next to the window.”

Theo looked around it, still in the circle of Quint’s arms. “It’s really nice,” he said.

“Yeah?” I asked, to be sure.

He nodded with a smile. “Great view of the yard, too. Jagger’s going to love running outside, chasing squirrels.”

“As long as he doesn’t catch any,” I said as I smiled back.


Later, after the inspector had come, given the house a thorough once-over, and declared it in good condition apart from the windows of my new studio, which needed either re-glazing or to be replaced altogether, and after we called my parents and told them they could move forward with the closing, the four of us climbed back into the van, and my phone rang as I was buckling my seatbelt. Zain looked over and straightened when he caught sight of the caller’s name.

“Bradley?” I answered.

“Hi,” he said, with a puff of an exhale. “I, uh, wanted to let you know, I decided to come to the barbecue.”

“I’m glad,” I said, smiling at Zain, who grinned back and mouthed what? “What made up your mind?”

“After church today, I stayed in the chapel a little while longer and prayed,” Bradley said. “I asked for guidance, and I feel like going is the right next step. I don’t know what the step after that will be; I guess He’ll reveal it to me once I’m there. Can you come pick me up?”

“Of course!”

“Thanks, Seb,” he said. “I’ll meet you at the fifteen-minute parking lot by gate one at noon.”

D’accord,” I said. “See you then.”

I hung up as Zain was reaching across the seat to take the phone. He huffed and asked, “He’s coming? Has he decided to give it a shot with them?”

“He’s coming,” I said, “but that’s all he’s got figured out. I’m giving him a ride.”

Zain frowned. “Asking you for a ride and not me. He’s avoiding me again.”

I rolled my eyes and said, “Or he wants to talk to me alone, like our emails. He’s coming. Isn’t that the important part?”

After a moment’s thought, he said, “Yeah, I guess it is.”

“You aren’t on the rental agreement for the van, mon chaton,” said Quint, from the driver’s seat, and my stomach flipped. “However, given the circumstances, and it being only a short drive, you’re welcome to borrow it.”

“Wow,” said Theo, staring at his husband. “You’re bending the rules?”

“Just this once,” Quint said. His eyes met mine in the rearview mirror. “With Seb’s promise that he will drive carefully and obey all laws.”

“I promise,” I said. “I’m sorry I didn’t ask before. I forgot.”

“That’s alright.” He pulled the van off the rough, narrow road and onto the highway. “I’m glad Bradley will be joining us.”

“Me, too,” Theo said. “I hope it works out.”

That made four of us.


We all went out for pizza together to celebrate the positive inspection that night, on Theo’s request. While we waited for the food to be brought to our table, he joked around about needing to bring New York pizza with him when they came to visit us in the future, because there was no way the Maryland stuff could compare, but after taking a bite, chewing it slowly and thoughtfully, and swallowing, he said, “Okay, not as bad as I expected. I could get used to having this once in awhile, maybe.”

Quint wiped his mouth with a napkin and said, “I think perhaps Maryland pizza can be an exception to our pizza-once-a-month rule, so any we have here doesn’t count.”

“Are you coming down with something?” Theo asked. “Letting Seb drive the rental and now this? You must be delirious.”

Zain stretched his arm across the table to press his hand to Quint’s forehead while Quint laughed. Zain tutted. “Warm. Early bed for both of you tonight, squirt. Take care of your man.”

Theo nodded and said, “Aye aye,” and when we got back to Klatsky’s house, Quint and he really did vanish upstairs almost immediately, leaving Zain and I to watch Netflix on our own until it was time for him to turn me over his knee on the couch and deliver a short, sharp dose of stress relief before we called it a day.


Bradley was waiting for me in the parking lot the next afternoon. He recognized the van and came over, climbing in and sitting down without saying anything. I watched him stare through the windshield at nothing for a few moments, then asked. “You alright?”, hoping he hadn’t changed his mind.

He nodded, but he looked as if he were searching for a sign, off in the far distance, like a shipwreck survivor seeking land.

“Do you want to pray before we leave?” I asked.

His eyes jerked over to me, blinking and losing some of the mist. “Yeah.” With a sigh, he bowed his head. I did, too, and focused on my breath and on building up loving-kindness around him, to make him feel safe.

When I could sense he’d settled down some, I lifted my gaze. He was upright, his head against the headrest and his eyes open. “Thanks,” he said, softly. “I’m ready to go now.”

I reached for the parking brake, but as my hand touched it, someone outside shouted, “Platt!”

“Who–?” I started.

“It’s Diaz,” Bradley said, pressing the button to roll his window down.

A mid trotted up to his side of the van. “You’re going to Dad’s barbecue, right? Can you give Nak and me a ride? Ours just fell through.”

Bradley looked at me in question.

“Okay,” I said, mourning the loss of time to talk with Bradley alone, but what else could I do? “Get in the back.”

He turned, waved behind him to Nak, who I now recognized standing yards away, and opened the rear door. Nak followed him as he climbed through it, sitting behind Bradley while Diaz took the seat behind me.

The instant he spotted me in the driver’s seat, Nak’s hands fumbled on the door handle. He smirked. “Oh! Hi, Seb. Remember me?”

“Uh… yeah,” I said, also remembering how Zain said he’d called me ‘a fine-looking young gentleman’ and Bradley mentioned once that Nak described his taste in men as ‘cute, dark-haired guys with freckles,’ and suddenly realizing why Zain had insisted I wear my Property of a Midshipman shirt this morning. He was going to love this.


After Quint came back from the grocery store and Seb left with the van, I went out to Klatsky’s grill and fired it up. I’d start Seb’s veggie kebobs first, wrapped with aluminum foil so they weren’t marinating in the smoke from the burgers, and grill up a couple nice portobello mushroom caps for him, too. Then I could get the meat going.

Theo and Quint stayed out of my way, getting the rest of the yard ready with a plastic tablecloth over the patio table and setting out covered bowls of chips and dip, veggie platters, and a cooler full of ice and drinks. Then Quint handed Theo a rake from the garage and told him to clear the early fall leaves off the edges of the grass while he swept the patio. Theo groaned about doing yardwork on vacation, but his heart clearly wasn’t in it. He’d been in a great mood all morning. Quint had been, too.

“Break in the kilt last night?” I asked as Theo walked off with the rake.

Quint raised an eyebrow at me. “Mind your own business, Zain Ayman.”

I grinned and went inside to start forming ground beef into patties. It was while I washed my hands that I saw Myrick’s car pull in the driveway. I turned the water off and went to greet him and Cameron. Except when the passenger side door opened, JJ got out instead of her.

“Where’s Cameron?” I asked, coming down the front steps.

“She’s coming separately,” Myrick said. “To make it less obvious. What happened at the festival…” He looked pained and shook his head. “It showed us we have to be more careful.”

“Platt was okay after he calmed down,” I said.

“Still don’t want to risk it again,” said Myrick.

“Yeah, and I’m spreading around that him and Cameron broke up but are still friends,” JJ added.

“Really?” I asked. When he said he’d support Platt, I didn’t think he’d be willing to take action.

He shrugged, a little sheepishly. “Well, I don’t want anyone to go around making dumb assumptions.”

“Thanks,” I said, and wondered if I should tell them that everyone coming to the barbecue knew already, apart from Nak and Diaz. Nah, probably better to leave that up to the kid, if he wanted. Instead, I said, “You can go around the back. Theo and Quint are there. Seb’ll be here with Platt any minute.”

They did, and I went into the house and watched through the kitchen window while JJ and Theo had a conversation that looked like it was about the guitar Theo had brought along and propped up in one of the patio chairs, and Quint and Myrick chatted chatted by the grill. When I brought the plate of hamburgers out, Myrick was saying, “I don’t understand how much vacation time med students actually get, between internships and everything else. How much did you have?” and Quint started explaining that a lot had changed since he was in school. Then Seb came around the corner of the house, followed by Platt, who saw Myrick and stopped dead so that Diaz and Nak almost ran into him.

My eyes narrowed. Leaving the grill open with the scent of hot charcoal wafting through the air, I went to meet the group.

Seb put his hand up as I approached. “He asked me for a ride. Was I supposed to say, ‘no, walk’?”

“No, I just wish I’d been there.” I bit my lips to hold back a smile and looked sternly over his shoulder. “Were you flirting with my boy?”

Nak put on a who, me? expression.

“He said hi and asked if I remembered him,” Seb said, with a flush that I knew had nothing to do with embarrassment. “That was all, right, Bradley?”

Platt tore his gaze off Myrick long enough to nod.

“Hmm,” I said, and pointed two fingers from my eyes to Nak. “Go eat, but remember I’m watching you.”

“Yes, Dad,” said Nak. He kept Diaz between us as they went to the patio.

I turned back to Platt the moment they were out of earshot and filled him in on why Cameron wasn’t there yet and how JJ was helping. “So you can publically date whichever of them you pick, and pretend to just be friends with the other, if you want. I’d suggest Myrick for the public relationship. Cameron being away at med school actually works in your favor in that case.”

“This is all still conditional on whether you want it or not, though,” Seb added, frowning anxiously at Platt. The kid hadn’t said a word yet. “Do you feel like you know the next step?”

He shook his head.

“Alright,” I said. “No problem. Let’s just have a nice barbecue.”

“Okay,” Platt said, and trailed behind Seb, who trailed behind me across the lawn to where Theo was strumming the guitar and JJ was bobbing his head; Diaz and Nak popping open cans of soda, having just introduced themselves to Quint; and Myrick watching us approach like a groom standing at the end of an aisle.

When we got close, he said, “Hi, Platt. Chips and dip?” and pushed the bowl of them forward a few inches.

Flushing, Platt sat down on the other side of the table and started to eat.

“Try to get them talking,” I whispered to Seb before I went back to the grill.

He hadn’t had much luck when Cameron arrived five minutes later in a halter dress that clung to her every curve and threatened to poke some serious holes in the break-up story, with the way Myrick stared at her right along with Platt. She wasn’t helping either, beaming a wide, warm smile at the pair of them. She sat down next to Myrick, and he went to put his arm around her, only letting it drop at the last second.

“Sorry about you too breaking up,” said Diaz, angling around Nak.

Cameron seemed to remember her part. She endeavored to look less happy to see her boyfriend. “Oh, yeah. We decided we’re better off friends. Good friends.”

Theo looked confused for a moment, and then his mouth made an oh shape.

Cameron leaned over the table, and Platt’s eyes dipped for several seconds before refocusing on her face. She smirked, and Myrick shot her a look, and she said, “Talk to me about baseball, Platt,” with her old, company-commander authority wrapped up in humor.

Platt obeyed.

Well, damn, I thought, Myrick could’ve done that just as well. I hoped he was taking notes.

Soon, they were talking about childhood memories of baseball games, the kid describing a minor-league one he saw with his parents, Cameron and Myrick listening like they were drinking in his every word. I caught Seb’s eye and I gave him a thumbs-up. He smiled.


The food supply dwindled as the afternoon went on. Seb vanished into the house to do his insulin and then accepted the plate of kebobs and portobello mushroom burgers, while the rest of us chowed down on regular burgers with sides of macaroni salad, chips, and hot dogs. Quint put carrot sticks on Theo’s plate, and Theo doused them in ranch dressing the moment his husband turned around to ask Diaz if he’d like some. Nak drank a whole six-pack of Mountain Dew while he alternated between asking Theo about New York and batting his eyelashes at Seb, who pinkened more every time until I growled, “Read the shirt, Nakamura.”

“It just says property of a midshipman,” he said, all innocence. “Doesn’t say which.”

Seb rolled his eyes at both of us, but when I pulled my dog tags out from under his shirt and said, “Mine,” his blush went darker as he squirmed.

Platt had fallen silent while we ate. He watched it all like an owl, his head swiveling from us, to Theo teaching JJ how to play the guitar without actually touching his guitar because he didn’t want to get hamburger grease on it, to Cameron discussing residency programs with Quint, and to Myrick watching him with dark eyes. Every time Platt’s blue irises met them, they darted away again. Even Cameron turning to ask him something barely got a mumbled response.

Hmm, I thought, but I couldn’t puzzle over his change of mood for long. When all the stained paper plates were stacked in the center of the table under a serving spoon to keep them from blowing away, Quint tapped his watch, and I saw his point. We were running out of time to set the next phase of the game plan in motion. I tilted my chair onto two legs and said, “Everyone? Everyone, I have a favor to ask.”

They all fell silent, looking at me.

“Thanks,” I said. “Really, it’s not a favor for me, it’s for Seb. Some of you know he’s got a presentation to give in one of his classes tomorrow.”

Seb’s eyes went wide. He started to pull his knee up to his chest. Across the table, Quint gave him a Look, and he put it down again.

“It’s the first presentation he’s ever given,” I went on, “and he wants to practice it.”

“No, I don’t,” Seb muttered, quiet enough that only I could hear.

I smiled at him and continued, “He was hoping you all wouldn’t mind being the audience.”

“Wait,” said Seb, over their chorus of agreement. “I didn’t bring my laptop that has the powerpoint and all my notes, so–”

“I packed it, mon chaton,” Quint said. “I put it on your nightstand earlier.”

Seb gulped.

“Awesome,” I said, grabbing his elbow to haul him up with me as I stood. “We’ll go in and figure out how to hook it up to Klatsky’s tv, and we’ll let you guys know when we’re ready. C’mon, babe.”

I felt him seething behind me as I pulled him into the house. Good. Anger wasn’t panic or bottling up.

“I am not doing this,” he hissed in the kitchen. “Practicing at Zeggy and Ike’s was enough. I don’t need more–”

“You do, it wasn’t, and you are,” I said cheerfully, headed for the stairs. “This is nine people, all adults, including some virtual strangers to you, which makes it a much better test-run for your class. Zeggy and Ike’s was a test-run for this, and you got through it, remember? You’re fine.”

Non!” he said, and I heard a thud on the carpet of the landing that made me look back and start to laugh.

“Did you just… stomp your foot?

He went bright red. “Well, you’re not listening to me!”

“Yeah I am,” I said, a little more serious. “I’m just not telling you what you want to hear.”

Scowling, he said, “But–”

“You know how I hate repeating myself, Seb. It’s so inefficient,” I said, and gave him a friendly, tilted smile as he froze.

His throat worked as he swallowed a few times, and his lashes fluttered against his pale skin, and he said, “Please?”

I stepped closer and hugged him. “No,” I said, into his ear as he clung. “You’re doing it. I’ll be right there.”

A shudder went through him, and then he stilled, going tense all over to repress it. I sighed, hoping the walls of Klatsky’s house were thick enough to keep the sound of the spanking from drifting into the backyard. Then I scooped him over my shoulder and carried him into the bedroom.

Ten minutes later, I came out without him to get a washcloth from the second-floor bathroom, and Platt looked up at me from where he sat at the top of the stairs, all wide, blue eyes and wiry legs hugged to his stomach as we both listened to Seb’s fading sobs, and I realized I never shut the bedroom door.


I made sure it was closed now, before I went to crouch beside him and whisper, “I’m not abusing him, I promise.”

“I know,” he said.

“Oh.” I blinked a few times, relieved but surprised. “Good.”

He looked beyond me, to the closed door, and shook his head. “I don’t understand what you were doing, though,” he whispered. “Seb’s not a masochist.”

This would be so much easier to explain if he were, I thought, ruefully. I needed a few seconds to figure out what to say, and Seb would start to worry if I didn’t return soon. Standing, I gestured to Platt. “C’mon.”

He got up and followed me into the bathroom, both of us moving lightly on our feet. I grabbed a washcloth and turned the tap on. While I waited for the water to heat up, I said, “No, he’s not a masochist, and I’m not a sadist. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t consensual.”

“So… he wanted that?” Platt asked, frowning at my hands as I wetted the cloth.

I smiled slightly. “Mmmmm, ‘wanted’ is a strong word.” When he only looked more confused, I said, “I think it’s best if we both explain this to you, but I need to make sure that’s okay with Seb. Stay here.”

He nodded, so I wrung out the washcloth and brought it back to the bedroom. Pushing the door gently open, I asked, “Habibi?

Seb sniffled at me, sitting in a half-lotus on the bed with the unicorn plushie I’d dropped in his lap before I left. I knelt in front of him and wiped the moisture off his face, then moved the cloth to the back of his neck and cupped my hand over it as I said, “So, turns out Platypus was on the landing.”

His eyes widened. “What? The whole time?”

“Not sure, but long enough. Think you can talk to him about this?”

“I have to,” he said, shoving the plushie off his lap and trying to push my arm away so he could get up. “He’ll think you were doing something awful.”

I didn’t move an inch, and made sure he didn’t either. “Nope, he already said he knows I wasn’t being abusive. It can wait if you’re not ready,” I said, thinking, For a few minutes, at least.

Seb shook his head. “I’m alright now.” Then he raised his voice. “Bradley?”


After a second of silence, I heard footsteps on the landing, and Bradley stood in the doorway with his hands in his pockets and his head hanging with guilt. Zain twisted around on his knees to see him and said, “It’s okay, kid. We aren’t mad at you. Right, babe?”

I nodded, although just having him there while I sat on a sore butt, and knowing he knew about it, made my face hot. “How much did you hear?” I asked.

He shrugged an inch and crept into the room. “I saw some, too.”

The flames in my cheeks burned brighter. Zain got up and shut the door behind Bradley, then sat next to me, and I leaned into him

“I came inside because you looked upset,” Bradley explained, “and I heard, um, noises and crying from above, so I went up, and the door was open a crack. I caught the tail end of it.” He winced. “Sorry. Bad choice of words.”

Zain snorted. I elbowed his ribs. Then all three of our heads turned as, from downstairs, Quint called, “Bradley?”

“He’s up here, Quint,” Zain shouted back. “It’s alright.”

A long, pregnant pause stretched out. “Alright,” said Quint, finally.

When no other sound came, Bradley said, “I knew there was something else going on between you two, that you weren’t telling me. I’ve known for months.”

“We didn’t want to confuse you,” I said, hoping he’d understand. “You were just learning about BDSM.”

He nodded, but said, “I have a handle on BDSM. Mohyeldin implied this isn’t related to that.”

Zain pulled me closer and stilled my fingers, which were twisting the hem of my shirt between them, as he said, “Yes and no. It’s a power exchange, but for us, this part isn’t sexual, even though it is for some people. Then there’s those who just do this and don’t do kink. It’s different for everyone, is my point, but the general idea is called a discipline relationship. I’m the Top, the person who gives discipline, and Seb is the Brat, who receives it.”

Bradley looked at me. “Brat?” he asked, like he was having trouble making the word fit.

“I know, you wouldn’t think he could throw a tantrum, would you,” Zain started, until I elbowed him again, and he laughed and said, “Not the spoiled kind. ‘Brat’ is really just a label.”

“It means that I get–” my mouth absolutely refused to form the word in front of him “–um… what you saw… when Zain thinks I need it, to help me release stress.”

“And sometimes because he broke the rule,” Zain added cheerfully, “but that’s less common with us.”

The rule?” Bradley asked.

“Health first,” I said. “It’s our only rule.”

He chewed on his lower lip, his gaze going from me to Zain, and we stayed quiet, waiting for his next question.

“So, when you do something unhealthy, or you’re freaking out, he, uh….” He swallowed. “Spanks you?”

“That’s the jist,” Zain said, and I managed a nod.

Bradley blew out a breath, the creases on his forehead smoothing. “Okay.”

“Okay?” I echoed.

“Yeah,” he said. “I can see how it would help.”

Zain and I shared a look, and I knew he was thinking the same thing I was. Only a Brat would get it that quickly.

“What?” Bradley asked.

“We expected more questions,” Zain said, focusing on him again. “You sure that’s all you got?”

“Actually, I do have more,” he said, “but my other ones aren’t about that.”

“Shoot,” said Zain.

Bradley shook his head, suddenly nervous. “They’re for Seb. Can we talk alone?”

Bien sûr,” I said, while I thought, Oh, no, this is what he wanted to talk to me about in the car, isn’t it? What if I say the wrong thing?

Zain stood, and I clamped my hands together so I wouldn’t drag him back to stay beside me and be my rock and feed me the right words. He kissed my cheek. “I’ll go set up the presentation,” he said, and he looked as reluctant as I felt as he grabbed my laptop from the nightstand and left.

I picked up the stuffed unicorn again, hugging it to my chest and turning sideways to face Bradley sitting down further off than Zain had been. He kept his feet on the floor, looking at his knees as he slowly spoke. “Saturday after the renn fest, Theo said I should decide what I’d fight for, and you said I should think about what I’d be willing to give up to feel safe, understood, respected, and loved.”

“Yes,” I said, surprised he’d remembered my words so well.

“I’ve been trying to imagine that,” he said. “I couldn’t quite picture it. My mom and dad were like that when I was little, I think, but it didn’t last for them.” His voice sounded hard and chipped. “The few months before he deployed the final time, they were fighting a lot. They were still in love, but they didn’t understand each other like before. If he hadn’t died, maybe they would’ve divorced.”

My perception of his parents shifted as I listened. The way he always described them in the past, I’d pictured a perfect, happy family torn apart by war, his mother driven to alcoholism out of heartbreak. Now, I wondered if that was how he preferred to remember it. Did his mother feel guilty about the fights, feel like she lost her chance to mend the rough patch? Was that why she drank? Did he, a grieving child, blame her for it to make sense of the chaos he’d been thrown into?

He went on, “One of the last things we did together, as a family, was going to that ballgame I was talking about outside earlier. They were both happy that day, and I was such a dumb kid, I thought everything was fixed and it’d never go bad again. I thought we’d always have that.”

“That’s not dumb. Any kid would think–”

“And now I can’t really remember what it was like,” he said, as if he hadn’t noticed I’d spoken. “So, I asked you to drive me because I wanted you to describe it, but then when I saw you just now, when Mohyeldin was holding you after…” He trailed off, and I tried to hide my blush with the unicorn’s fur as I remembered how long Zain and I had embraced while my pants were still around my knees.

“You’re so everything to each other,” he said, blinking fast. “I saw it in how you held him. You think Myrick and Cameron can give that to me?”

His voice went down to a breath at the end, like even voicing the hope was a risk, and my chest squeezed tight. “They want to,” I whispered. “You just have to let them. You have to fight for it.” Fight the fear inside, and what the rest of the world thinks, and fight to open yourself, I thought, in a mix of images and French, and while I was trying to translate it into English, there was a soft knock on the door. Zain opened it a few inches and peered through, cautious.

“Babe? Ready?”

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