After Quint brought me to my room and pulled back the covers so I could climb into bed with a newly-reheated butt, he let me check my phone. Two emails had come in, one each from Bradley and Zain. I opened Bradley’s first.
Sorry I vanished. Nak was waking up and I had to get out of there. I forgot my phone. Ran into Mohyeldin in the head, though. He wants me to go to a meeting of the gay-straight alliance with him. I said I would. So I have to, now. I can’t back out of an agreement.
Anyway, I need to get some sleep. You don’t have to reply tonight. Thanks for being there. Sorry again that I was a jerk earlier.
Quint, sitting on the edge of the bed waiting for me to finish, asked, “How is he?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, and opened Zain’s email.
Wet dreams, huh? Poor kid. It’s like he’s hitting puberty all over. He’s fine for tonight, though. I talked him into going to Spectrum with me. I just need get Myrick there too and this whole thing’ll be solved, I hope. Give your phone to Quint and go to sleep. Love you, habibi.
“Zain says he’s alright,” I said.
“Then I’d believe he’s alright,” Quint said, with a gentle smile.
Or Zain just didn’t want me stressing out more. Bradley didn’t seem to believe it. What if he needed me to be there for him again later? I glanced at the end of the charger cord lying on my nightstand and bit my lip.
“Yes,” Quint said, “Zain did text me about confiscating your phone. Give it here, please.”
My lip escaped my teeth as I gulped and hid my face half-under my duvet. He was holding out his hand, patiently, which just made it more embarrassing. I dropped the phone into it.
“Thank you.” He put it in his pocket. “Even if he hadn’t told me, looking innocent while considering direct disobedience is not your strong suit, young man. Do not try it again, understood?”
“Oui, monsieur,” I said, my bottom clenching.
He tugged the duvet down and smiled. “It’s alright, mon chaton. I know you only want to help your friend. I’ll keep it on my bedside table where I’ll hear it and can bring it to you if anything urgent happens.”
I let out a breath in relief. “Merci.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, and then smoothed his hand over my back. “Close your eyes, please.”
Falling asleep with him there beside me was starting to become too comfortable. But at the moment, my exhaustion didn’t let me protest.
The next time I saw Quint was when he got home from work the following afternoon. I came out of my room and found him unpacking a paper Whole Foods shopping bag. “Hello, mon chaton,” he said, as I sat on one of the bar stools. “Theo and Jagger aren’t back from babysitting yet?”
I shook my head. They’d left before my last class ended.
“He probably got talking with Zeggy,” Quint said. “She’ll remind him to come home in time for dinner.” He glanced at the sky out the window, which was darkening rapidly. “Though possibly not before the rain starts. How was your day?”
“Did you hear from Bradley?”
“Not yet,” I said, and reminded myself that wasn’t something to worry about. He was just busy, and Zain knew what was going on now. He wouldn’t let Bradley shut him out again. I watched Quint take the cutting board down off its hook. “Can I help prep?”
“Thank you, I have it taken care of,” he said.
“I could dice something?”
Quint paused with his hand on the knife block and looked at me. I tried not to let my gaze waver. After a moment, he said, “I’d like you to do a page in one of your coloring books, please. Bring it out here and work on it at the table.”
My lips parted. “Because I offered to help cook?” I asked, and I couldn’t keep the indignation from my tone.
“No,” Quint said placidly, “because you’re insisting and tense. Bring your test kit out too, please.”
I made a face. I was half-turned away from him, sliding off the bar stool, when I did it, but still. What was wrong with me?
I got the Secret New York coloring book I’d picked up with my textbooks, and my case of pencils and markers, and my test kit, and brought them all back to the dining table in a pile.
“Check your BG before you start, please, mon chaton,” Quint said, now calmly dicing an onion.
Dropping into my chair, I frowned at him over the table. He hardly ever told me to test. Zain did that. “It’s probably high. I can feel it without checking.”
“I’d like a number,” Quint said, and he raised his eyebrow, which was some relief. I’d been wondering if he was going to start tilting his head. Then he said, “Do you need me to do the test?”
Eyes widening, I crossed my arms so I could hide my hands from potential finger pricks. Oh, mes dieux, was that going to be part of the gameplan? I was not that stressed!
“Non, monsieur,” I said, unzipping my test kit.
“Thank you,” he said.
A minute later, I said, “It’s 221.” High, like I’d expected. That didn’t make me feel better about it.
“Alright,” he said. “Now you may color.”
Sighing, I opened the book. It was filled with illustrations of brownstones and skyscrapers, interspersed with everyday objects like shoes. I flipped from page to page, trying to picture each one completed. None of them felt right. When I reached the end, I started again.
I looked guiltily over. He was leaning on the counter, watching me with compassion softening his expression.
“Stop on the page you’re on and start coloring,” he said.
It was a hot dog stand. Definitely not. Pushing my chair back, I got up, saying, “I’ll just use one of my mandala books.”
“No, you’ll sit back down and color,” he said gently, “or you’ll go to your corner.”
I hovered, off-balance on one foot. After the time I drew on the wall, he hardly ever sent me there. Not like Theo. Theo needed it. I didn’t.
He said, “One.”
I pulled two pencils and a dirty tortillon from my pocket and slapped them on the table, then marched to my corner.
Behind me, Quint coughed and said, “Thank you, mon chaton. Try meditating.”
Meditating? I thought in disbelief. There was no way I could meditate. Rain pelted against the pane of glass on my right as the heavens finally opened. Thunder rumbled in the distance. How appropriate, I thought.
Ten seconds later, I realized there was absolutely nothing to do. Except meditate. Or think about how badly-behaved I was acting, and why it felt so wonderful that I could barely work up any shame. It would come, I knew, but right now…
Maybe I should try meditation.
I didn’t get far before the front door opened and Theo said, “Christ, I only got caught in that for a minute and I’m still soaked through!” Then, apparently, he saw me. “Uhhh… what happened?”
“Nothing to be concerned about, angel,” Quint said. I heard the door close again, which made me relax a little. “Dry Jagger off some, please.”
“Oh, just like it was nothing to be concerned about last night?”
Merde. So he had been able to hear at least some of that middle-of-the-night encounter.
“Theo, listen,” Quint began, and Theo cut him off hotly.
“No, I’ve already listened. I listened when you explained what you’re doing with him at bedtime, and I listened to Zain explain it too, and I got that part, but then I asked him if he was worried that Seb would be like, ‘well, if I’m going to get spanked anyway, I might as well act out,’ and he said that was kind of the point.”
I’d been staring at the wall, glad my flushed face wasn’t visible, but at that my mouth dropped open and my head whipped around.
“But I figured, it’s Seb,” Theo continued. He was blocking Quint square-on against the door, while Quint looked beyond him to me, his face drawn with concern. “And Seb never does stuff like that, so I wasn’t worried about it, only apparently he is now, and I think setting someone up to fail just sucks.” He stopped. I could hear his breath from where I stood. It sounded shaky.
Quint pulled him into his arms and kissed his temple. “We are not setting him up to fail, angel,” he said. “We would never do that, and I would never, ever do any of this with you, because I know that’s how it would feel to you. Seb is different.”
“He’s not that different,” Theo said. He wiggled out of Quint’s hold, and Quint let him go with a sigh that turned into a bemused look as Theo strode through the living room to the corner on the other side of the window.
“What on earth are you doing, angel?”
“I’m standing in the corner in solidarity,” Theo said self-righteously, as the storm raged outside between us.
I huffed. “You know, I am right here.”
They both blinked at me.
Turning to face Theo, I said, “Well, if you want to know how I feel about it, you can just ask.”
He looked from me to Quint in astonishment and said nothing. Instead, Quint spoke. “How are you feeling, mon chaton?”
Excellent question, I thought. Perhaps I should have considered it before inviting them to ask.
Water beat on the window ferociously, and I stood on the other side, safe and warm. Like all the turmoil had been sucked out there. “Better,” I said.
Theo frowned. “Better how?”
I tried to think how to put it. Slowly, I explained, “Before, I was all mud and gunk. Now it’s washed away. Even if the rain is coming down hard, I think I needed that.”
“I don’t get it,” Theo said, frowning harder.
I wished he were just a bit more like Zain. Zain would get it.
Quint held a hand out to each of us and crooked his fingers. “C’mon. We’ll sit down and talk about it. First, though, angel, you need to get changed into dry clothes.”
Theo’s shirt was plastered to him, and his jeans were dark with water. I wasn’t surprised he didn’t argue about changing. As he went down the hallway, Quint gestured me over again, more firmly. I stood in front of him, and he took my chin in his grip and tipped my head up to look him in the eye. Ah. There was the shame I’d been expecting to feel earlier—though not as much as I’d thought.
Mildly, Quint asked, “Why did you take your pencils out of your pocket before going to the corner?”
“Um. So I wouldn’t draw on the wall?”
“Did you fear you might disassociate?”
I blinked. I hadn’t been feeling panicky or distant when I did it. In fact, I’d been living entirely in the moment. “No, not really,” I said.
With his free hand, he reached around and swatted me.
“Owww,” I said, rubbing at the sting. My voice sounded on the edge of a whine.
Quint’s eyebrow quirked. “I won’t say it was a full-blown tantrum like taking your pants off in the bathroom, but it was definitely an attempt to seize control. If I need help Topping you, I’ll ask Zain. Understood?”
He moved his hand from my chin to my shoulders and shepherded me to a bar stool. When I sat down on it, he went around to the kitchen side of the counter, and Jagger put his front paws on my knee, rapidly creating two damp patches, and looked appealingly up at me. I started petting his wet fur.
Theo came out again, wearing sweats and a different shirt. He took the barstool next to me. Leaning over, he whispered, “Was that a swat I heard? What for?”
I shrugged and felt myself blush. Before I could say anything, Quint asked, “Why don’t you start, mon chaton, by telling us what you think of what Theo said Zain told him?”
They both looked at me, Theo stormy again. I rolled my eyes. “He’s a sneaky bastard. I should’ve guessed it.”
“So you agree!” Theo said. “What they did sucks.” He stuck his chin out towards Quint.
I said, “No,” and he stopped to stare in amazement.
“You just called him a bastard, and Quint went along with it!”
“Well, I don’t mean ‘bastard’ in a bad way,” I said, aware that I sounded ridiculous. “Don’t be mad at him or Quint, please?”
“Why shouldn’t I be?” he asked. “Why aren’t you mad?”
Sighing, I said, “A part of me is annoyed, yeah, but not because I feel like they set me up to fail or anything. It’s because…” I squirmed a little on the stool, making Jagger lift his head up for a moment. “Because I know it’s working, and that part doesn’t want to admit it. The rest of me just feels free.”
“Free of the… ‘mud and gunk?’” Theo asked, dubious.
“Yeah.” It was wonderful.
He narrowed his eyes at me a long moment, then shook his head and turned to Quint. “Nope, I still don’t get it. What mud and gunk?”
“Stress and anxiety,” Quint said. “Correct, Seb?”
I nodded, a little surprised at how easily he translated. “About everything.”
“Elaborate on ‘everything,’ please,” he said, and started transferring food from the cutting board into a wok.
“The presentation,” I started, because that was the most obvious and easiest. “Passing the class so it doesn’t mess up my transfer. Bradley. How Zain’s handling him.” Then I swallowed. “Finding a house.”
Quint’s eyebrow twitched at the last part, but Theo didn’t seem to notice. Impatiently, he said, “Yeah, the nightly spankings are helping with the stress, that’s the part I understood before. I don’t get how it leading to that is a good thing.” He pointed over his shoulder to the corner. “You aren’t like that normally.”
“Yes, I am,” I said, more forcefully than I meant to. Theo actually moved away an inch. My gaze dropped to the counter as I mumbled, “You’ve seen it before, remember?”
“Rarely,” Theo said.
“We’re seeing it more often now because Seb’s defenses are down,” Quint explained. “In addition to relieving the stress, our nightly spankings are helping him with that.”
“Which proves my point. You’re getting him to act up and then punishing him for it when you’re the one that started it in the first place!”
“No,” I cut in. “They didn’t. I started it. It’s been there all along, it was just hidden before. The gunk was holding it back. Internal, where I could get away with it.” I spread my fingers over my heart. “Zain likes to tell me I’m allowed to act like what I am, which is a Brat. The… bedtime ritual is a reminder of that fact.”
“In addition to being a safety net,” Quint said. “You know that things can’t become too dire before you’re due to be taken in hand again.”
I flushed at his phrasing, but nodded.
“You need a boundary firm enough to know it will hold when you test it. There’s no shame in that.” To his husband, he added, “A significant part of Seb’s struggle is in expressing his feelings, remember?”
As we’d spoken, Theo had gone from looking angry to thoughtful. Now he appeared to consider Quint’s question for a few seconds, and then gave me a rueful smile. “Something I have zero trouble with, so you can see why I was confused. You know, when I said that you could learn from my example, I was joking.”
“Shut up,” I said, biting down on my own grin, which was half born of relief.
He reached out and tousled my hair. “You’re a Brat, alright, but you’re back-to-front. Weirdo.”
Quint smiled, too. “I’m glad you understand now, angel. Can you set the table, please? Mon chaton, clear your things off. You’ll have plenty of time to color that page after we eat.”
My mouth twisted around into a grimace.
“Yes,” he said, still smiling. “You are going to finish it tonight. You’re also going to talk to Zain about house-hunting worries, young man.”
I sighed, but I’d seen that coming. “Oui, monsieur.”
When I tested my glucose again before the meal, it had dropped by 50 mg/dl.