The door below opened with a squeak of unused hinges. A sliver of light from the hallway cut across the dull gray wall, widening and then shrinking again as the door swung shut. Quint’s footsteps echoed through the stairwell. He climbed the first half-flight, stopped on the landing, and looked up at me sitting above him.
I had a flash of when he’d gotten me down from the tree in the park, back when we barely knew each other. Calm expectation filled his face, the same as then.
Swallowing, I pulled my feet up one step, which brought my knees tighter to my chest. “I’m not on the roof,” I said.
His gaze flicked over my head, to the door he’d forbidden me from going through months ago. “That, mon chaton,” he said, “is what would be called ‘obeying the letter of the law rather than the spirit.’”
Kind as his voice was, my stomach flipped and my chin dropped. “I know.” It was exactly the sort of thing that would make Zain snort with amusement—right before he turned me over his knee.
“Theo didn’t hear you,” Quint said. My face burned hotter. “He’s asleep now. Will you come down, please?”
Still looking at my knees, I mumbled, “Je suis désolé.”
“What for?” he asked, and from his voice, I could tell he was frowning.
Surprise made me glance up. “I– I should’ve knocked.” Wasn’t that obvious?
But he shook his head and climbed the steps to my side, where he sat. “Knocked on your own front door?” he asked, bending forward to catch my eye.
“When… Before I left, you said… I mean you implied that Theo…” Oh mes dieux, my cheeks were going to burst into flame if I blushed any harder.
Matter-of-factly, he filled in, “That Theo was asking for a spanking, yes. Or rather–” the corner of his lips turned up “–as close to asking as Theo gets.”
“So I shouldn’t have just barged in,” I said. “Especially because you were expecting me to be gone a lot longer.”
He put his arm around my shoulders and tipped me against him. “Seb, it’s alright. No harm done, and it’s not as if you have never overheard or witnessed discipline between us in the past.” That made me breathe easier for a moment, until he asked, “Why were you back from your class so early? Did you forget something?”
“Um, no,” I said. How could I explain? It sounded pathetic even in my head. “I… I’m going to drop this class and replace it with something else. It’s, um, it’s…not what I thought.”
He bent his head to look at me again, because of course I’d lowered my gaze. “Didn’t you say it was a core requirement when you were worried about it taking away from your time with Zain?”
“Yes, but since I’m not going to stay at this school, I don’t need to meet the requirements.” I hope. “I’ll just replace it with something of equal credit value, so I don’t mess up my transfer.”
“Hm,” he said. In the tiny glances I managed to get of his face before my eyes skittered away, I could see his eyebrows had drawn together. “What about it isn’t what you expected?”
“…The coursework,” I admitted in a whisper. “There’s… there’s a lot of presentations, and I– I can’t…” My nose prickled sharply. I stopped so I wouldn’t cry.
He squeezed my shoulder and spoke with quiet empathy. “I hate public speaking, too.”
Raising my head, I frowned at him. “You do?”
He nodded. “When Theo and I had our first commitment ceremony, we specifically wrote it so that rather than recite vows, we simply answered questions from our officiant to affirm our promises. And this was in front of a very small group of friends, yet I still felt scared.”
“But don’t you have to present at hospital board meetings and medical conferences and things?”
“Yes, I do. What I have discovered is that, while the nerves never fully vanish, they do lessen with practice, and like anything else, you get better at it.”
He paused a few moments. I rested my cheek against the solidness of his chest and listened to his heart beating. My own heart rate slowed in response.
Stroking his palm over my upper arm, he went on, “So, given that you are very unlikely to make it through your college experience without at least one required presentation, do you think it’s wise to avoid doing it now?”
“It’s two required presentations and a debate,” I mumbled.
“All the better for practice.”
Much as I trusted him, I doubted any amount of practice would help me feel better. I didn’t want to contradict his words, though, so I said nothing.
A light kiss brushed my crown. “I’ll support you in whatever you decide, mon chaton, but I’ll ask that you speak to Zain before submitting any paperwork to drop the class. Understood?”
Zain would want me to keep it, too. He doesn’t believe in shrinking away from difficult situations. And he’d see through any attempt to gloss over why I didn’t want to take it.
“Seb, I asked you a question.”
I flushed and squirmed in Quint’s hold. “Oui, monsieur.”
“Thank you. Now, I’d rather not leave Theo alone too much longer, in case he wakes up. Will you come down with me, please?”
Part of me wanted to say, You can leave, I’ll be fine here on my own. That would not go well. I fought it back and nodded.
He helped me to my feet, then transferred his hand to the base of my neck and kept it there—a comforting, warm weight of guidance—all the way to the apartment.
As he went down the hall to check on Theo, I stepped into my bedroom, taking the strap of my bag off over my head and hanging it on my chair. A second later, Quint reappeared in my doorway. “Still sleeping,” he said softly. “Bring your laptop into the living room, so you can call now without waking him.”
I gripped the back of the chair tight, turning my knuckles pale. “Zain– I told him I’d be in class,” I whispered. “He’ll probably be doing something else.”
Quint’s eyebrow made the faintest arch. “Would you like to text him and check, or shall I?”
Merde. If Quint did it, Zain would definitely cancel whatever other plans he had. I took my phone out of my bag and typed, Are you near your computer?
I meant to leave it at that, perhaps give the impression it was a casual request, yet I found myself adding, Need to talk, and hitting send before I could rethink it.
The indication he was writing back came much too quickly. Then his reply popped up. My lips twisted in a grimace.
“I’ll take it he is available,” Quint said, amused.
“He says he’ll be right there, so it might be a couple of minutes.”
“Then in the meantime you can make yourself comfortable in the living room.”
My fate sealed, I unplugged my laptop and carried it past him to the armchair. Jagger was already sprawled across half the cushion. I squeezed in beside him, and he snuffled in his sleep as he shifted to accommodate me. I balanced the laptop on my knee and opened it.
Quint came to stand behind me. Lightly, he started to massage my shoulders as we both waited for the Skype ringtone.
It made me jump when it did sound. I answered quickly, aware of the noise carrying to the master bedroom, and Zain filled the screen.
He said it casually, but I could see his assessing look that took in both my expression and Quint’s hands, and the set of his own shoulders straightened the tiniest bit. Preparing for battle.
“Um. I want to drop the class I have Monday nights.”
His eyebrows twitched together. “Is this about the not-being-able-to-Skype thing?”
“No, it…” I tipped my head back to glance at Quint.
He came around to the side of the chair and sat on the arm of it, but he didn’t speak up like I was hoping. Instead, he kept stroking my neck and shoulders with one hand and took one of mine in his other. Both of them waited.
With a deep breath, I said, “Over half my grade would be based on talking in front of the whole class, and I almost had a panic attack just going over the syllabus when I saw the first presentation is two weeks from now, so I really don’t think I’d be good at it. And if I fail, which I’m going to, that’ll mess up my transfer.”
Quint’s hand paused in the stroking. “You didn’t tell me you nearly had an attack.”
My head hung as I mumbled, “I know. I’m sorry.”
To Zain, he said, “I was encouraging him to stay in the class so he could practice public speaking while he’s still living in an environment with daily, in-person support from a Top—I know you would do the best you could after he moves, but there are times when you wouldn’t be available. However, if it’s going to trigger an attack, then perhaps–”
Zain shook his head, and Quint stopped speaking so he could say, “No, avoiding something out of fear it might trigger an attack is exactly the opposite of what you want to do. That’s how people become agoraphobic and never leave their houses, you can ask Zeggy; she’s a shrink, right? Babe, you have to face this.”
“But…” My voice was shaking. I hated it. “Wh-what if I do have an attack as soon as I get up in front of everyone?”
“What if?” he asked. “What’s the worst-case scenario in this situation?”
The familiar question was like a lifebuoy to cling to in the waves of anxiety. It didn’t stop them, but it made me feel he was in control and able to pull me to safety. Worst-case scenarios are what he’s good at.
I gulped and allowed myself to say, “People will laugh at me, and I’ll pass out and fail the assignment, which means I’ll fail the class.”
“And not be able to transfer?” he finished.
“Okay, let’s take that one part at a time.” He shifted in his seat and held up a finger. “First, I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at yourself in a mirror mid-attack, but I promise you it’s not a funny thing to witness. How likely do you think it is that people would laugh?”
I bit my lip. “If they didn’t laugh, they’d be concerned for me.”
“Yeah, probably. And what’s the worst that would happen then?”
“I’d feel uncomfortable.”
‘Uncomfortable’ was an understatement, but truly the best I could do.
“You’d only have to be around them a couple of hours a week, habibi, and I think they’d forget about it a lot sooner than you believe. Would that be worse or better than you feel now?”
Measuring the two against each other, I was surprised to discover they balanced. “About the same.”
“So no harm there.” Holding up his second finger, he went on, “Next part. If you pass out, what happens?”
I looked unwillingly sideways at Quint. “They’d call an ambulance, and I’d have to go through all of that again.”
“No, mon chaton. I promise you I will not repeat my mistake. I’ve learned my lesson.”
“And if he hasn’t, I’ll come up there and make good on my threat to swat him,” Zain said breezily. “Final part. If you have a panic attack or pass out during your presentation, how likely is it that your professor would fail you, and let’s assume he or she is not a heartless monster.”
“She,” I said. “Um. She wouldn’t fail me, I guess. But what if I don’t have an attack and I just do badly on it?”
“Then you did badly on one assignment, but I doubt you’d get a zero, and you can talk to her about ways to make it up, right?”
“Feeling better now?”
After examining the ball of fear inside me—gingerly, so it didn’t grow again—I said, “Yes, a little.”
He clapped his hands together once. “Great! So now we’ve handled that, I’m gonna tell you my secret weapon for public speaking. Ready?”
From his smirk, I could bet I already knew. “Don’t say ‘pretend everyone watching is naked.’ It won’t help.”
“Please.” He rolled his eyes. “I am not so predictable. I was going to say, pretend I’m watching, naked. That’ll cheer you up!”
My jaw dropped open. When I recovered my voice, I admonished, “Zain!” I could not believe him suggesting that in front of Quint, who had let go of my hand to cover his mouth as he coughed.
“What?” Zain asked, innocently. “I’m telling you, it works.”
Narrowing my eyes, I asked, “How would you know? You’re not afraid of public speaking.”
He grinned. “No, but I pretend you’re naked and watching me in class all the time, and it always makes me feel better.”
“Oh my gods, I hate you!”
“Lower your voice, please,” said Quint. I could swear, though, he sounded amused.
Blushing, I glared at Zain. “Behave. Theo’s asleep.”
“I’m not the one making a racket,” he said. “You behave.” And he stuck his tongue out.
Before I could respond, Quint cut in to steer us back on track. “So,” he said, looking at me and the screen in turn. “Are we agreed you’ll stay in the class, mon chaton?”
I hesitated. We’d gone over the presentation itself, and I could see it wouldn’t be the disaster I’d been imagining in my head. But that wasn’t the only issue. “There’s… there’s a swamp between now and then,” I said. It was the best way I could phrase it.
Zain understood, of course. Addressing Quint, he said, “He means he’s got two weeks to overthink it and work himself up again.”
“And run high blood sugars,” I muttered. I knew I was already high as I sat there.
“That’s where having the daily in-person support from a Top comes in, babe,” Zain said. “Quint, I’m gonna email you our gameplan later, ‘kay?”
“What, I don’t get to know?” I asked.
He shook his head. “If you know, your anxiety knows, and your anxiety’s playing for the other team. I want you to just keep doing what you do. Yoga, meditate, color. Health first, remember?”
I took a deep breath. “Yeah.”
“Good.” He smiled, and his posture relaxed. “Oh, guess who’s talking to me again?”
Blinking at the change of subject, I said, “Bradley?”
“It’s no fun if you guess on the first try,” he complained, as Quint politely got up and went out of earshot down the hallway.
“Sorry.” I shifted into a more comfortable position myself, burying my toes under Jagger and petting him with one hand. “How’d you manage that?”
“By saying we didn’t have to discuss his summer. Which isn’t ideal, but baby steps.”
“Did you ask Myrick?”
“That’s where I was when you texted. He doesn’t know. Says things were fine one day and the next, Platt was shutting him out.” He shrugged lightly, but I could see from his face that having no leads bothered him. “That kid is more temperamental than one of your parent’s goats, I swear. I invited both of them to my room tomorrow night, which should be pretty interesting.”
I frowned. “They agreed to that?”
“They each agreed to come to my room,” he said, smirking. “I maybe didn’t mention the other one would be there.”
“Zain. What if it backfires and neither one of them wants to talk to you again?”
“Weren’t you the one saying you thought Platypus needed more pressure? Assuming he hasn’t written and changed your mind about that.”
“He hasn’t written at all,” I said. “I emailed him, but no reply yet.” I sighed. “I… I do think he needs a push, yeah. You know how, over spring break he said he didn’t contact you because you’re too direct? I think he was doing that again.”
“Good idea; he probably was,” he said. Then, frowning, he added, “Doesn’t really explain why he’s not talking to you, though.”
It did. At the start of the summer, we’d gotten into an email exchange where I tried to be direct like Zain—as much as I could manage—over the topic of bisexuality and polyamory. Bradley reacted with anger. We’d made up, though, and I thought it was okay. As I debated how to let Zain know, a notification appeared on the corner of the screen.
An email from B. Platt.
I sat up straighter and almost tipped the laptop off my knee. “He is talking to me! He just replied!”
“Yay!” Zain said. “Open it!”
My cursor hovered over the notification, but I didn’t click. Zain would practically be able to read it through my facial expressions, I had no doubt. “I need to hang up first,” I said, apologetic. “The emails are between us, Z.”
He sagged in his chair and sighed heavily. “Damn the Brat Code of Silence. Fine, but will you at least tell me if he’s angry? Because that’ll affect what I do tomorrow night.”
“I will,” I promised.
“Good. Text me the second you’re done. Love you, habibi.”
“Je t’aime,” I answered, and he kissed the air before ending the call.
I closed Skype, then switched to my email. My stomach was writhing with nerves again. I almost didn’t want to open the message. Only knowing Zain was waiting made me click.
I haven’t been good about writing, either. Sorry.
If I tell you how my summer went, will you promise not to tell Mohyeldin or try to convince me to tell him? I’m not ready. I don’t know if I’ll ever be.
My face contorted into a mirror of my conflicted thoughts. I hate the genuine frustration Zain feels when his urge to protect is thwarted. It was killing him. Could I cause more of that?
But I always kept the contents of Bradley’s emails secret. This wouldn’t be any different, would it? Zain would get him to talk eventually, with my help or without. What if I refused to keep Bradley’s confidence and he shut me out completely, too?
Decided, I texted Zain just three words: He’s not mad. Then I hit reply on the email.