I stuck my hand in the cubby by my head, pulled out my phone, and answered it on the second buzz, but even so, JJ groaned from his own rack. He’s not at his best when he gets woken up in the middle of the night. Ignoring him, I asked Quint, “‘S’goin’ on?”
“Seb is alright,” he said, “and I’m sorry for disturbing you so late, however, I felt this was potentially urgent.”
“‘Kay,” I started, before JJ’s pillow whumped into my face. Good aim, I’ll give him that. “Hang on, I gotta go somewhere more private. I’ll call you back in a minute.”
“Thanks.” I ended the call, sat up, and lobbed the pillow across the room again. It smacked JJ dead center in his crotch. He jerked and grunted. Grinning, I climbed down onto the deck. Payback for that would come tomorrow, no doubt, but he was too zombified still to come after me as I slipped out the door.
In the passageway, I stuck my phone in the pocket of my sweatpants and started for the nearest head. Answering the call of nature was a great cover if anyone wanted to know what I was doing up after lights-out.
Along the way, I wondered what this was about. Quint had emailed me after the spanking earlier, to let me know about Seb coming in without his pants. I’d had a very mixed reaction. It was almost what I’d hoped for in starting the gameplan, and I hadn’t expected Seb to allow himself to push back to such a degree so quickly, so that was good.
What surprised me was how much the Brat signals pulled out all my Top urges, even knowing he had someone else there. I felt a very strong desire to go up to NYC and straighten him out in person. But it sounded like Quint had handled it well, in his own way. So what did he need advice on now?
I reached my destination and shut myself in the farthest stall without running into any of the roving watch teams, luckily. Then I sat on the toilet and called Quint back.
“Hello again,” he answered.
“Sorry about that. What happened? Did he throw another paddy?”
“No,” he said. “Nothing like that. I thought perhaps he was headed that way when I found him up texting well after bedtime, until he explained. He tells me you’re aware he’s been talking to your mutual friend, Bradley?”
I frowned. “Yeah, but I didn’t know they were doing it at zero-dark-thirty in the morning. I can tell Platt to cut it out, if Seb doesn’t want to speak up.”
“This is the first instance they’ve been communicating so late. It’s more than an issue of timing, I’m afraid,” said Quint. “Seb is rather upset at the moment, and worried he won’t be able to help Bradley with his crisis.”
There was a pause. Then Quint said, “He told me you knew this, as well, all except for the nature of the crisis.”
“Ummm, nope, I wouldn’t say so. I knew something was bothering Platt, and that he was talking to Seb about it way more than me, but I didn’t think it reached crisis levels. How upset is he?”
Interesting question. Exactly how much did Quint now know about Platt’s issue? Granted, I was fairly certain I’d guessed most of it, but being the last to find out always sucked. “Well, both,” I said, “but start with Seb.”
“At the moment, he’s crying.”
I closed my eyes and leaned forward to rest my elbow on my knee. “Damn.”
“It’s impossible for you to catch everything, Zain,” Quint said gently. “This is why you first asked for my help, remember.”
“Yeah, it is,” I said on a sigh. “Thanks. Can you give the phone to him, please?”
“Of course,” he said. Then I heard something with ‘mon chaton’ in it, followed by snuffling, and then, “…Hi, Z.”
“Hey, babe. Is Platt being mean to you?”
I snorted. “Oh, very convincing. You won’t get him in trouble, you know.” If only because I couldn’t swat the kid no matter how much my palm itched.
“He’s not,” said Seb. “Or he didn’t try to be, anyway, and he apologized. I’m not supposed to talk about what he says with you.”
“If he’s nasty towards you, you tell me, promise or no,” I said. I hated the tears I could hear in his voice. “He made me a promise about that, a long time ago, and if he forgets it, I’ll be glad to remind him.”
“He wasn’t nasty, just… just scared. I keep saying the wrong things.”
Sometimes it was hard to find the right thing to say with Platt. I completely sympathized with my boy. “If you want me to help, I’ll need to know what you know.”
“We’ve already established it’s about his feelings for Myrick,” I said. “I’m gonna go out on a totally wild limb and take a guess that he’s not too thrilled at realizing he’s into a guy. Am I getting hotter? I mean, hotter than I always am?”
It sounded like he’d snorted, very quietly.
Then I heard another quiet noise, but not from the phone. Footsteps coming down the passageway. I held my breath to listen.
They were muffled and hesitant, not the strong, confident stride of a mid on watch duty. Closer and closer they came, and then they turn into the same head where I sat hidden. Someone actually needing to use the facilities? But they stopped over by the sinks. Water started running, and it sounded like something was being held under the flow.
A sudden hunch hit me. With the sound of the water to drown out any minor noises, I slid back the bolt holding the stall door closed and pushed it open as much as I dared. Then I peered through the tiny crack.
I could just make out Platt’s reflection. He was bent over the farthest sink from the door, with his head under the tap.
By then, I hadn’t spoken for several seconds. Seb asked, “Z?”
I hung up on him and sent a series of texts as fast as I could.
Don’t call me back or reply
Platt just came into the bathroom I’m in
Don’t want him to hear the phone
Gonna go talk to him and see what’s up
Won’t tell him we spoke tonight so relax
Text you later
Meantime listen to Quint
Tuck him in
Now to make my entrance. It would work best if Platt had absolutely no reason to suspect I’d been talking to Seb. Given the kid’s history, I didn’t want to sneak up on him in any case. So I spun some toilet paper off the roll, stood up, and flushed it. Then, after sticking my phone in my pocket, I let the door open and walked casually out.
I stared down at the screen, still dimly lit, until Quint gently took it out of my hand. My own phone hadn’t vibrated since I sent Bradley the last email after his apology, while Quint spoke to Zain. I’d written just, It’s okay.
I desperately wanted to know what was happening now, but if I emailed him again, would he think I’d sent Zain to meet him somehow? What if he believed that anyway and tonight was the end of our friendship? My gut roiled with worry.
And yet, some part of me felt shameful relief. Zain’s taking-charge voice was turned up to eleven, even in the texts. He was going to get to the bottom of this tonight. I had no doubt. That meant it wouldn’t be my responsibility anymore—not solely.
How could I be so grateful about that when Bradley had trusted me to help him by myself? I pressed my lips together hard. The lump in my throat was only growing. “I’m a– a terrible friend,” I choked.
Quint cupped his hand over the side of my head and pulled it against his chest. “You’re a very good friend,” he countered. “That Bradley came to you to talk about this proves it.”
“But I didn’t d–do anything!”
“I think you did far more than you believe, and Bradley will tell you that when he’s able. Right now he’s scared and confused, but when he looks back on this time, he’ll be thankful you were there. He struck me as a young man who appreciates kindness, even if he can’t articulate his appreciation very well.”
I swallowed hard and wondered if he would thank me. Only time could tell.
Time Zain expected me to spend sleeping, apparently. There was no way I’d be able to. Quint didn’t have to be kept up, too, though. When I was sure I could hold my voice steady, I said, “You don’t need to tuck me in.”
“Oh, I’m afraid I do, mon chaton,” he replied, dryly.
My eyes went wide. Looking up at him, I asked, “What, again?”
“Yes. We won’t use the paddle this time, however, and you can keep your pants up, given it’s your second of the day.” As if that was some kind of favor. He patted my knee twice. “Stand, please.”
For just a moment I considered refusing to cooperate. If he had been Zain, I would have. But words like salaud didn’t fit Quint’s quiet patience, and I could imagine his shocked expression if I did use that or any number of other insults Zain simply laughs off. Not to mention, my vivid memory of the taste of soap and the hideous shame of having to look at Quint’s face while he scrubbed my mouth out.
I fought a grimace and stood up.
Platt’s hair was soaked to an ashier blond. Water went flying off it when he caught sight of me in the mirror and spun around. And then, almost the same instant he was facing me, he turned back and grabbed the edge of the countertop with both hands like it might get away from him.
“W-what are you doing here?” he asked.
I took a moment to study him better before I answered. He was wearing USNA sweatpants like me, but he also had a t-shirt and socks on. The back of the shirt was getting wet from the rivulets now running down his neck, even though he stood hunched over the sink. More water dripped off the end of his nose. And another pair of gray sweatpants lay on the counter, partly unfolded. Huh.
“Using the bathroom,” I said, frowning a little like that should be obvious. “What’re you doing?”
One of his shoulders jerked. That was the only response. He didn’t even meet my gaze in the reflection as I washed my hands. I did see his eyes dart to the heart tattoo on my chest, though.
He’d stuck his head under a tap before, towards the end of Plebe Summer when Seb got him to acknowledge his submissiveness. Like then, I turned in the opposite direction, but rather than just lean on the countertop, I boosted myself up and sat so I was slouched against the mirror between two sinks.
“Sooooo… remember last time we were in this position, sort of, when I told you I was a patient man? Complete bullshit.”
“I’m glad you agree,” I said, cheerfully, “because I’m pretty much fresh out of patience, and all that’s left is the obstinance. Thing is, you’re gonna tell me sooner or later, so why not make it easier on everybody and go with sooner?”
Pink spread slowly up from his neckline. With a tiny sideways glance, he asked, “Tell you what?”
“Well, maybe start with why you don’t want me seeing the front of your pants right now, and go from there.”
The pink deepened to bright scarlet. He glared down into the sink. “That’s none of your damn business.”
“Nope,” I said. “But I’m also nosy as fuck.”
His fingers flexed harder on the edge of the countertop.
Dropping the cheerfulness, I asked, “You know you can trust me, don’t you?”
He nodded as his eyes fell closed. Just one nod, but it felt massive. I inched closer. Silence stretched for at least half a minute while I waited.
Then, barely audible between shallow breaths, he said, “I, I keep having these… dreams. About. Um, it’s a judo match, and I get pinned, and then– then I c–come. In my pants. Like I’m fourteen.”
No, kid, like you’re repressing something.
Aloud, I asked, “Judo, huh?” That was the only thing about his revelation that surprised me a little. The rest I’d already put together. A rather distinctive smell hanging around him was the final clue. I was curious, though, how much his subconscious was willing to betray. Very casually, I asked, “This match, is it with anyone in particular?”
He snatched the extra sweatpants off the counter and bolted for the door.
In the nick of time, I managed to grab the trailing end of a pant leg. Fabric stretched between us as he snarled over his shoulder, “Let go!”
“Not until you answer the question,” I said, with the slightly lightheaded feeling I get from winging a strategy with no idea if it’ll work out. But I was sick of ignoring my Top instincts, and right now, they were screaming to give him a sharp push.
I used the pants as a rope to reel him in, hand over hand. His socks slid across the tiled floor however hard he tried to brace himself. When he was in arm’s length, I let go of the fabric to grip the back of his neck instead. It felt rock hard under my palm.
“S’okay, kid. Tell me who you’re fighting.” Apart from yourself.
“Weird name. I don’t know them. You’ll have to introduce me.”
His shoulders rose and fell with a single inhale and a single exhale through his clenched teeth.
And then he just… fractured. “Myrick, alright?!” he said, in a voice like heartbreak. “It’s fucking Myrick, are you happy now?”
No. I was something, but ‘happy’ wasn’t the right word. I gave him another pull—a yank, really—right into my chest, and held him as he sobbed all over my tattoo, his fingers clawing my back and his body trembling. It felt exactly like holding Seb after a hard spanking.
He pulled himself together with jerky breaths, just enough to patch over the rough edges and loosen his death grip on me. I felt him forcing the tears down. My palm itched again, but I couldn’t do much about that other than keep holding him when he tried to step away. He stopped with his forehead tipped against the notch of my sternum and sniffled. My hand was still on the back of his neck.
Several seconds later, he muttered, “I’ve never noticed that your tattoo says semper fidelis.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Seb drew it for me. Isn’t it beautiful?”
He nodded, I was pretty sure, and then said, “I got it wet.”
“I need to change.”
Yeah, it’d probably be less embarrassing for him to talk about this without the sticky pants. I slowly let go, saying, “Alright, but the convo isn’t over.”
With another nod, he took the sweatpants from the counter next to us and shut himself into a stall. I leaned sideways, grabbed a paper towel from the dispenser, and ran it under cold water while I waited.
When he came out again, holding a bundle of sweatpants, he stopped a few feet in front of me.
“Here.” I offered the paper towel. “Wipe the crud off your face. You’ll feel better.” I wanted to do it for him, but that was probably pushing too far. I was just happy when he took it without argument. Then I tore off a second paper towel and used it to dry my chest as I asked, “So, was it just the dreams over the summer, or did something else happen?”
He pressed the towel to his red-rimmed eyes. “The guy sleeping in the rack above me heard. He said it sounded like I was– was moaning ‘Myra.’” His face went pink again, from what I could see around the towel. Then he blew his nose into it and walked over to the trashcan to throw it away. Still with his back to me, he said, “I made up some girl from home, and they all started giving me shit about my highschool sweetheart. Not being mean, just, y’know.” He shrugged one shoulder. “But I didn’t dare keep hanging around Myrick, or they would’ve figured it out. And I thought… if I stayed away from him, it’d stop.”
Sometimes the four-year gap between our ages seemed like decades. He sounded so damn young. “Kid,” I said, “you know there’s nothing wrong with the dreams, right? Unless you think there’s something wrong with Seb and me. I thought we were past that.”
Looking over his shoulder, he said, “It’s different. You’re gay. I have a choice. I like girls.”
I fought an eyeroll and patted the counter. “Come here.”
His gaze flicked to it and to me. I smiled, coaxing. With a cautious glance at the open doorway, he walked over and boosted himself up on the other side of the sink on my right. The balled-up sweatpants, he held in his lap.
“Soooo… if I liked girls too,” I said, like I was working it all out in my head, “it’d be wrong for me to be with Seb, even though he’s the one I love?”
The flush on his cheeks went darker. Narrowing his eyes, he said, “I’m not in love with Myrick, and I’m not going to be.”
We could argue that another time. I said, “Okay, not saying that’s not true, but you can’t pick who you fall in love with, whether it’s him or another dude. Remember when you were trying to fight the BDSM stuff? Fighting this will be a thousand times harder, I promise you.”
His head hung, and he squeezed the sweatpants into a tighter ball. “Seb also said something about it being out of my control.”
“That scares you,” I said, although I didn’t really need it confirmed.
Frowning sideways, he asked, “Didn’t it scare you? You said you lost your home and family when your parents found out.”
“When I told them,” I corrected. The pain of remembering that day was fresh as always. For his sake, though, I spoke evenly. “It was my choice, and I did it knowing they weren’t going to take it well, so of course I was terrified. I didn’t realize just how badly they’d react, but y’know, it could’ve been worse. I never doubted that they still loved me.”
“Even when they kicked you out?”
“They didn’t kick me out. I volunteered to leave because they… they didn’t want me around my siblings. They thought that would be best.”
He was silent for a few seconds. I held my breath, expecting him to ask why my parents felt that way, and bracing myself to answer. But what he asked was, “Didn’t you ever want to change how you were?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “I wanted something else more, though. I wanted to be with Seb, and I wanted for him not to have to hide. He hides too much already. I wanted never to be the reason for him hiding.”
“So being with him made it worth it?”
He swallowed and looked down. “There’s nothing—no one—to make it worth it for me. Myrick is dating Cameron. Even if he weren’t, he’s not into guys.”
I opened my mouth, thought better of it, and closed it again. If he was struggling this much just knowing his own feelings, I didn’t want to panic him with the idea that Myrick returned them.
He was too wound up to notice my brief hesitation. “And my mom…. What if I tell her and she starts drinking again?” he asked. “What if my uncle finds out and… Why should I just accept it, with all that?”
“If your uncle does anything to you, you break his arm,” I said. Then, softening my voice, I added, “As for your mom, she spent almost half a day with Seb and I after Herndon, and I didn’t pick up any homophobic vibes at all. Does something make you think she’d react badly?”
His eyelashes fluttered like he was blinking away more tears. “No, but when Uncle Hal says, y’know, shit, she never speaks up or disagrees with him.”
I could see how he’d be troubled by that. My own parents never spoke against homosexuality themselves, but they never defended it either. I went for the brightest side I could find, though. “Maybe she’s afraid to, or just trying to keep the peace?”
“Or maybe she knows my dad would feel the same way,” he said, roughly rubbing his nose with the back of his hand.
I reached across the sink and gripped his shoulder. “Why do you think he would?”
“He was a SEAL,” he said, his face screwing up into a scowl. “They aren’t pansies.”
The scowl dropped so fast I almost lost my stern look to laughter. His eyes widened. “I– I didn’t mean you,” he said. “Or Seb.”
“You meant a group that includes us, and the nice couple you stayed with that one night over spring break, and your own roommate. Y’know, the football player?” Not to mention yourself and Myrick. “Do any of us seem like pansies to you?”
“No, but…” I swear he squirmed. “You know what I mean! The SEALs aren’t exactly known for being the most friendly to that sort of thing, and my dad was a SEAL at heart. What if Uncle Hal has been right all along about how he’d see me n–now?”
I leaned farther over the sink to give him an awkward half-hug, because it was the best I could do. He shook with holding back his sobs. “Listen,” I said into his ear, “I’m not going to lie to you. I really don’t know for sure how your dad would react, although what you’ve told me about him makes him sound like a good man, and an open-minded one. You said he wouldn’t like the church your uncle attends, so why do you think they’d agree on this? Being a SEAL doesn’t automatically make you homophobic. Did I ever tell you about when I came out in the military?”
“No,” he mumbled, pulling back a little.
I let go so I could see his face and give him a smile. “I signed up after Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, but before the repeal went into effect, so for the first two weeks or so of boot camp, I was keeping quiet about it. The day it ended for good, I was so excited to stop lying, but nervous at the same time. I mean, it felt like I’d known these guys forever, but I couldn’t be sure if they’d accept me. So I was waiting for the right moment, trying to figure out how I’d do it.”
He looked more curious than anything else now. “What’d you decide?”
“Let me set it up first,” I said. “We had this one drill sergeant. Of course, no one likes any of the drill sergeants, they wouldn’t be doing their jobs right if you did, but this one was the worst. Like, seven feet tall, wide as a mack truck,” —I gestured through the air in front of me to demonstrate his size— “cranky old bastard with this hard look that got him his nickname from us, which was Steel.
“That day, he got on me about my uniform, and I guess the nerves and excitement made me more of a smartass than usual, because I came back at him with some kind of pun. I don’t even remember what it was. So he gets about an inch from my face and screams, ‘Are you fucking with me, recruit?’ It was…” I loudly kissed all my fingertips and pulled them away from my mouth. “Too good an opportunity. Couldn’t resist. I shouted right back, ‘Sir, I only fuck with my boyfriend, sir!’”
Platt was staring at me like I must have a death wish. Understandably. I just grinned. “And I swear to you, kid, he almost blinked. It was this close.” I pinched my thumb and index finger together. “Dead silence all around us. He stares at me a second, I think just to see if I was being serious, and then he says, ‘Good for you, recruit. That’s the kind of loyalty we need in the Corps. But we don’t need wise asses.’ And he made me do about a hundred extra pushups. That was the end of it.”
“I can give you contact info of witnesses if you want?”
Platt narrowed his eyes, but apparently decided to trust my word. “Did anyone else give you shit?” he asked.
“No more than the shit they gave you about ‘Myra,’ for the most part,” I said, doing air-quotes around the name. “There’s a few bigots anywhere you go, but once you’ve fought alongside someone, they’re your brother. Nothing else matters. My point is, people surprise you. And the ones that react badly sometimes change their minds. You did, on both counts.”
I let him study his knees and digest that for a few seconds. Then I caught his eyes. “As for what makes it worth it: You don’t have to be scared anymore.”
He didn’t glower, or declare he wasn’t scared, or shut himself down. The vulnerability he let show killed me. “You think that’s possible?” he whispered.
“It is,” I said. “I promise you. In fact, I can prove it to you if you let me.”
“Let you how?”
I bit my lip a second. This could be really pushing it, but I had a plan forming in the back of my head, and this was step one. “Spectrum,” I said. “It’s called a gay-straight alliance for a reason. You don’t have to be out to go to the meetings. Come to the next one and listen to everyone talk for a bit. Please?”
His fingers flexed in the fabric of the sweatpants, and his eyebrows came together.
“Pretty, pretty please?” I asked, throwing in a pout for good measure.
Finally, he breathed, “Okay.”