“Fifteen,” Zain declared.
From the other end of the couch, where he was sitting in half-lotus with his back against the armrest, Seb lowered The Real ACT Prep Guide enough to arch an eyebrow at him. “Is that your final answer?”
Zain tucked his pencil behind his ear and flipped his notepad around to show the scribbled calculations. “Yep, it’s fifteen.”
“You didn’t even check the answer key!”
“I don’t need to,” Seb replied with a shrug. “It’s multiple-choice, remember? Fifteen isn’t an option.”
Zain turned his notes back over and looked at them. Then he frowned. “It has to be! What do they say is the answer, then?” he asked, reaching for the book.
Seb hugged it to his chest and brought both knees up in front of him protectively. “You can’t see the answer key, you cheater!”
“The answer is fifteen!” Zain insisted.
“Not according to the practice test,” Seb said, smirking. “Are you saying the practice test is wrong?”
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying.”
Seb rolled his eyes. “I know the idea of you being wrong goes against your entire worldview, but-”
Zain stopped him with a wave of his hand. “Okay, whatever, skip that one. We’ll come back to it.”
Under his breath, Seb said, “It still won’t be fifteen,” and kicked away the pillow Zain threw at him. It landed on the floor beside the coffee table. Neither of them bothered to retrieve it. “Next question. ‘The lead of a screw is the distance that the screw advances in a straight line when the screw is turned one complete turn. If a screw is two and a half inches long and has a lead of one-eighth inch, how many complete turns would get it all the way into a piece of wood?'”
Zain opened his mouth.
“And if you make a sexual innuendo right now, I swear I will smack you upside the head with this massive book,” Seb added without looking over.
Zain closed his mouth.
The hall was huge, and crowded with three different types of people that Zain could see. Type one: professors from the various art schools, standing next to tables covered with brochures and draped in their school colors. Type two: high school students, all of them looking alarmingly young and nervous, clutching their portfolios of work with both hands. Type three: parents of the students, trailing after their kids or ushering them from table to table with proud smiles. Among all of them, he spotted Seb easily, striding off with his messenger bag slung over one shoulder and his presentation case under his arm. Zain finished sticking on the nametag he’d stopped to collect and broke into a jog to catch up with him. “Where’s the fire, babe?”
Seb narrowed his eyes at the nametag. “A smiley face, Zain? Really?”
“What, I’m not allowed to show off my artistic side too?” he asked. “Look, I gave him hair and everything. Want me to make one for you?”
“No, I want you to stop fooling around,” Seb said. “I’m trying to make a good impression here.”
Zain stuck his lower lip out and made it tremble dramatically. “Words hurt, babe. Words hurt,” he said, and was pleased to see a hint of a smile on Seb’s face before he turned away to the first booth.
At each one, Seb introduced himself to the school’s representative, opened his case to show the pieces he’d brought along, and asked them questions about their programs, while Zain simply stood back with his thumbs tucked in his pockets and watched. It was always odd, to see his introverted, self-conscious fiancé pull on a mask of confidence. Not the charming kind of confidence that came to Zain naturally, or Seb’s own understated assertiveness, but something more blunt, born of nerves and a strong desire to be anywhere else. Still, the professors were clearly impressed with his work, and Zain doubted any of them noticed the tiny quiver in Seb’s fingers when he closed his case, thanked them for their time, and moved on. Zain lingered after him just long enough to collect a brochure from each table.
After awhile, he couldn’t help noticing a pattern in the schools they stopped at and the ones Seb passed by with barely a glance. “What about Chicago?” he asked, recalling they had one of the top programs in the country.
Zain frowned and took his hand, deliberately slowing down. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t want to go to Chicago,” Seb said, with a subtle but definite shift away from him. Zain shifted him right back, and then steered them both out of the flow of people and faced him directly.
“You’re only looking at east coast schools,” he pointed out. “Upper east coast, at that.”
Seb huffed with irritation. “Is it a crime to want to be close to where you are?”
“Nope,” Zain said, “but it is kind of unnecessary.” He stepped closer and leaned into Seb’s ear. “Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough-”
“Oh my gods, shut up,” Seb hissed.
Zain ignored that and the way he tried to pull back, and let his voice break into song, still quiet enough for only Seb to hear him. Probably. “Ain’t no river wide enough to keep me from yoouuuu-”
“Okay, fine, I’ll look at Chicago if it’ll make you stop!”
“Sure?” Zain asked, grinning at him. “I can sing the whole thing. I do a mean Diana Ross.”
“I know you do, you jerk,” Seb said. He was trying desperately not to laugh, if Zain was any judge. “Let me go.”
Zain gave him a smacking kiss on the lips before complying. “Where’s the table for Chicago?”
“Over there,” Seb said, leading the way. Zain followed along behind him.
Seb liked Dr. Johnson, generally. She had been his endocrinologist since they’d moved to Hawaii, and she wasn’t condescending like some of the endos he’d had in his childhood. She also took the Marine sitting in on all his appointments, making silly faces at Seb and talking more than he did, in stride. He suspected she had a soft spot for Zain. When she’d walked into the exam room today, she had glanced around and asked, “Just you, Seb?”
“Yeah, Zain’s getting a physical at Tripler,” he answered. “He’s applying to Annapolis, so he has to be medically cleared. It was scheduled for the same time.”
“Oh, well, tell him I said good luck with the application,” she said, and started the usual questions.
It was towards the end that she made him rethink his opinion of her, unfair as he knew he was being.
“I’m concerned about these nighttime hypos you’ve been having,” she said, looking over her clipboard. “The ones you’ve recorded aren’t too often, but they are fairly severe, which makes me suspect you’re also having less severe ones and sleeping through them. That’s dangerous for a number of reasons. Even mild hypoglycemia can lead to serious complications over a period of time, and we don’t want your body to get used to ignoring the start of symptoms. So, I’d like you to try adjusting your last bolus injection of the day and eating a snack before bed.” She wrote out the instructions on a paper and handed it to him, and then she added, as if it were only an afterthought, “I’d also like you to consider CGM.”
She went on with something about getting insurance to cover it, but Seb was too busy fighting down nausea to attend. Using a continuous glucose monitoring device would mean having a sensor under his skin and a transmitter stuck to him 24/7, with a little beeping box constantly nearby. It was almost as bad as an insulin pump. He took the pamphlets she gave him, “just to read over,” and went through the rest of the appointment on autopilot.
He was opening his bag as he entered the reception area, planning to stuff the pamphlets all the way into the bottom where he could ignore their existence, when he heard, “Hey, babe,” and nearly jumped.
Zain, who was supposed to be getting poked and prodded by military doctors for another half-hour, was sitting in one of the waiting room’s chairs with an old issue of Highlights For Children. He put it on the table next to him as he stood up, saying, “I got done quicker than I thought.”
Then he took another look at Seb and crossed the room to him in three rapid strides.
Seb’s heart was hammering. He fumbled at the zipper of his bag and clutched the pamphlets closer with his other hand. Cautiously, as though he were approaching a cornered animal, Zain reached out, pried them from his grasp, and turned them around to read the front of each, while Seb watched, panic making his stomach roil.
Zain met his eyes again with a questioning frown, and Seb’s voice shook as he said, “She suggested it was an option.”
At that, the frown cleared, and a completely unreadable expression took its place. He hooked his arm through Seb’s and walked them both towards the door. “Wanna stop for lunch on the way home?” he asked, like nothing was wrong. As they passed the trash can, he calmly and deliberately dropped the pamphlets into it.
The rush of relief Seb felt was heady enough to overpower everything else. He nodded and listened to Zain rave about a new pizza place.
Zain didn’t bother to check the studio first when he got home. Seb had been spending more and more time up trees recently — a little too much for Zain’s liking. It was always a tricky balance, giving him enough space alone to recharge while not letting him withdraw completely. Too far one way or the other would only aggravate the stress he knew Seb was already feeling.
Still, he had a whole day by himself when Zain was on the base. Evenings, they spent together, and he intended to make sure his Brat was fully present.
“Hey, babe,” he said, looking up through the branches growing over their seawall. “Come help me do the fitness assessment?”
Seb closed his sketchbook with a sigh. “You did it yesterday and the day before and passed easily both times. Why do you need to do it again?”
“Because the official one is next week and I don’t want to just pass,” Zain said. “I want to get the highest score out of all the applicants.”
It was a convenient excuse precisely because it was also true, but that didn’t stop Seb from rolling his eyes. “This competitive streak you have is unhealthy and unattractive.”
“Yeah, and you hate watching me get all hot and sweaty, huh?” Zain asked, smirking. He spotted the flush rising up Seb’s cheeks and knew he had him. Just to be sure, though, he coaxed, “C’mon, I’ll do it shirtless.”
“I loathe you,” Seb said, in a tone that suggested he had long since accepted this fact and was only telling him as a courtesy. Then he passed his sketchbook to Zain and dropped softly to the ground.
They made it halfway through the crunches segment. Seb was kneeling in front of him, holding Zain’s feet and counting each repetition. He also should’ve been watching to make sure Zain kept the correct form, but instead, he was staring at his abs like he wanted to lick them. When he counted thirty-six twice without noticing, Zain couldn’t resist any longer. The next time he sat up, he wrapped both hands around the back of Seb’s neck, hauling him into a kiss on the way down.
“Umph,” Seb said as he landed, cradled between Zain’s legs. “You- mmm… You realize we’ll have to start over now?”
“I have a better idea,” Zain said, smiling wickedly and snaking his hand between them to tweak Seb’s nipple through his shirt. “I want to see if I can beat my previous record for most times getting you to beg in one hour.”
He saw Seb’s lips part and his eyes go a bit unfocused before he gathered himself enough to answer. “Okay, forget what I said earlier about your competitive streak being unattractive.”
Thanksgiving was always the focal point of the holiday season when Seb was a kid. Maeve McKenna and Charlie Crews raised their children to be spiritually independent, and wound up with a Pagan, a Jew, an atheist, and Dax, who claimed his religion was baseball. They had a low-key celebration for the winter solstice, but for Thanksgiving, all the stops were pulled out. His mother cooked enough for the population of Santa Cruz, and about a third of it came to the after-dinner party. It seemed to Seb it had only gotten bigger over the years.
He had taken his second piece of pumpkin pie halfway up the staircase, where he could eat without some well-meaning person asking if he was allowed to have it. Zain was drinking eggnog and talking charmingly to a girl who might’ve been Dax’s date, or the mayor’s daughter, or possibly both, but Seb didn’t miss the way he stayed in sight and glanced over every couple of minutes, just long enough to make eye contact. The reassurance in each look was what kept him from retreating to his old bedroom.
Of course, removing himself to the staircase wasn’t enough to protect him from all social interaction. Some people didn’t take hints well. His oldest sister, Keegan, was a prime example.
“Yo, mon petit frère,” she said as she sat down beside him. “How goes it?”
“It goes,” he replied. “Your hair also goes. Everywhere.”
“My hair does what it wants,” she said, shoving red ringlets back into her messy bun. “It takes after me in that way. There. Better?” She turned her head for him to see the back, and he nodded. “Good. So, you know how you’re applying to art schools and Zain’s applying to the Navy Academy, so you’re going to be in a long-distance relationship for awhile?”
“Yes, I do recall hearing something about that over the past few months.”
“Well. I was thinking yesterday, and I thought, gee, if only you had someone to talk to for advice. Someone who’d been in a similar situation, like, say, earning her PhD while her wife was in law school across the country. And then I thought, oh, wait, you do! It’s your favorite sister!” She threw her arms out wide, nearly hitting the bannister on one side and the wall on the other.
“Who says you’re my favorite and not Quinn?” Seb asked, raising an eyebrow.
Keegan let her arms drop and scowled at him. “Quinn’s my favorite sister,” she said. “Get your own favorite.”
“She’s your only sister.”
“Fine, then you’re not allowed to have Dax as your favorite brother,” he decided, and she rolled her eyes.
“Duh, why do you think I’m up here giving you advice and not over there telling Dax he shouldn’t date the mayor’s daughter if he doesn’t want to get run out of town on a rail?”
“She is the mayor’s daughter, then?”
“Focus, Sébastien,” she said with a tap on his nose. “You’re my favorite brother, I’m your favorite sister, it’s all very lovey-dovey. Do you want my tips for keeping the flame burning over miles and miles or not?”
“Not if they contain any information or hints or broad indications that could lead a person to unwillingly inferring anything about yours and Jasmitha’s sex life,” he said.
She gave a disappointed sigh. “Well, that’s very limiting.”
Seb put his now-empty plate down on the step below him and checked where Zain was. He spotted him by the fireplace, holding a fresh glass of eggnog and smiling at something the mayor’s daughter was saying. As Seb watched, he looked up, and their gazes met. Almost imperceptibly, his smile changed into a more private expression. Seb felt his own lips curl in response.
“Ugh, you two disgust me,” Keegan said. “Making goo-goo eyes across the room, honestly. Have you no sense of embarrassment or decency?”
Seb broke off the look to frown incredulously at her. “Zain, a sense of embarrassment? Um, no, not really his strong suit.”
“Truth,” she conceded. “But for serious, you were pretty quiet during dinner when we were all discussing his nomination interviews next month. You hardly said anything about your own applications. You doing okay with it?”
He glanced at Zain again before answering, switching to French automatically. “I wouldn’t say I love the idea of being away from him for that long. Yes, I’m stressed out, about that and about the application process. But it’s something he wants, and I’m not going to hold him back. Plus, I’ve always wanted to go to art school.”
“What does Zain do about you being stressed out?” Keegan asked, taking her cue from him and also using French.
Most of what Zain did was nothing he wanted to share with her. He hesitated, then said, “He’s been humming the Gilmore Girls theme song for weeks.”
She laughed. “I assume that means something in Zain-speak.”
“Roughly translated? ‘Stop worrying, the distance doesn’t matter. Apply to Chicago, their program is great.'”
“He’s right,” she said, shrugging. “I mean, I don’t know about Chicago, but even if you went to another college in Annapolis, you wouldn’t be able to see each other much during his first year, right?”
“Wow, Kee, you always know how to cheer me up,” he said. “Thanks.”
“I just meant, you’re going to be communicating mostly electronically anyway, so what does it matter how far apart you are?” she asked.
“I don’t care. I’m not applying to Chicago.”
“Trust me, Skype and a bit of privacy. It works wonders.”
He smacked her on the arm. “That’s one of those broad indications I could’ve done without, gods.”
“Sorry, not sorry,” she said in English, laughing again. “It needed to be said. Anyway, if I know one couple who could make it through something like this, it’s you and Zain. You’ll be fine.”
“That’s what I keep telling him,” Zain chimed in from the bottom of the stairs. “But between us, I’m not sure we’ll make it through Madeline, ’cause she keeps staring at me like she wants to have a shotgun wedding.”
“Madeline?” Seb asked, trying to sound casual and not as though he was worried about how much else had been overheard.
“The mayor’s daughter,” Keegan said, at which Zain looked horrified.
“She’s the mayor’s daughter? Why the hell is she dating Dax?”
Keegan shrugged. “Beats me. I’ve been told it’s something about his pitching arm.” She stood up and collected Seb’s plate and fork. “I’ll fill her in on the fact you’re batting for the other team on my way to the kitchen.”
“You think I didn’t try that already?” Zain asked, moving aside to let her pass.
“Go hide. Take Seb. I’ll get rid of her and let you know when it’s safe.”
Zain gave Seb one assessing survey from head to foot and said, “Thanks, but don’t bother to come find us. We’re calling it a night.”
“Suit yourselves,” Keegan said before starting through the crowd.
Seb’s stomach lurched as Zain climbed the steps to him and held out a hand. Taking it, he let himself be pulled to his feet and kissed.
“You look beat,” Zain said. “Want to head to bed?”
He blinked, but the word ‘Chicago’ still didn’t materialize in the air between them. “Yeah, I am tired,” he said, carefully. Zain simply started the rest of the way up.
“Babe, can you come help me with my tie?” Zain called toward the kitchen as he undid it yet again. The knot kept coming out crooked. He adjusted the position of the fabric to make the wider end a bit longer, frowning at the bathroom mirror.
“I thought you were wearing your dress blues,” Seb said.
Zain looked over at him standing in the doorway and said, “They’re equivalent to a tux, and I doubt Senator Hirono will be wearing an evening gown for an interview. This is more like a business suit.” He gestured from head to foot, encompassing his service uniform alpha, complete with untied tie. “Help?”
Seb didn’t move. “It’s ugly green and khaki. Dress blues don’t have a tie.”
“And yet I’m still wearing this,” Zain said, smiling. “So can you tie the ugly khaki tie? Pretty please?”
He got a scowl and a heavy sigh that bordered on a groan before Seb came in and took the ends of the fabric from him, saying, “I suppose there’s a regulation knot.”
“Nope, any standard knot which ‘presents a neat military appearance’ will do,” Zain said. “Also, the tip of the bottom has to hang within half an inch of my belt buckle.” Hoping to crack Seb’s dark look, he added, “Hey, jump up on the counter and this’ll be just like Pretty Woman.”
Seb paused long enough to shoot another, stronger glare at him, and then went back to tying. He finished with a hard yank that brought the knot tight against Zain’s throat.
“Ack! Maybe try not to strangle me, babe?”
Zain loosened it enough to breathe and checked it in the mirror. “Perfect. I should really learn how to do a Windsor knot too, sometime.”
“Yeah, you should. Now get out, I have to pee,” said Seb, pushing him toward the door.
That made Zain glance at his watch. “Are you high?” he asked, planting his feet before he could be shoved out entirely.
Seb huffed. “Not every bad mood is caused by my blood sugar.”
Not answering a direct question, Zain noted. Plus accusing him of treating the diabetes as ignorantly as other people did, which was another warning sign. Still, he kept his voice genial as he said, “I know. I was asking because you’ve already peed twice in the last hour, not because you’re being a grouch. Do a ketone test.”
“I’m fine,” Seb said. He tried to move Zain again.
Undeterred, Zain reached around him and took the vial of test strips out of the medicine cabinet. When he held it out, Seb crossed his arms. Zain grinned and arched an eyebrow. “It’s gonna be a little hard to pee on the strip that way, but I suppose I can aim it for you, if you want.”
“Urgh!” said Seb. He snatched the vial and pointed at the doorway. “Alright, but get out! I don’t need an audience.”
Zain obliged him, picking up his tie pin from the counter on the way. He fastened it and buttoned his coat as he went to the kitchen. Seb’s test kit was in its usual place in the cupboard. Unzipping it, he took out the meter and hit the memory button. After a second, the display showed 293 mg/dl for a test that had been done ten minutes before.
And he’d said he was fine.
Zain looked at his watch again, calculating how much time he had to work with before being late to the interview became inevitable. Then he made several rapid decisions, starting with leaving the test kit open on the dining table. They would need to bring it with them, anyway. He took a wooden spoon from their utensil crock, turned one of the dining chairs around to face the bathroom, and sat down to wait with his elbows propped on his thighs, rolling the spoon idly between his fingers and thumb.
When they had first met, Seb had been very secretive about his levels, both good and bad. He hated the way people varied their approach to him depending on his blood sugar, so he hid it. Zain, however, never treated him differently and simply refused to accept being kept in the dark. As a result, there were a very limited number of reasons for Seb to lie to him about it. The most common, and the one Zain was betting on, was that there was something else stressing him out. Something he didn’t want Zain knowing. He’d attribute it to the interview, except that was too obvious, and they’d already talked about it last night. Whatever this was, he needed to find out as soon as possible.
“It’s negative,” Seb was saying as he came out of the bathroom, holding the test strip with a piece of toilet paper. He stopped in his tracks when he saw the spoon in Zain’s hand, and his gaze went from that, to his face, to the open kit. “Zain, no!” he said. “You don’t have time!”
“Well, if you stall, I won’t,” Zain agreed easily. “C’mere.” He held out his free hand and watched Seb’s jaw clench as his desire not to be spanked warred with his desire not to make his fiancé late. The latter won, of course. Zain took the test strip from him with a brief look to confirm it wasn’t any shade of purple, then wrapped it in the toilet paper and set it down on the table behind him.
Seb was already unbuttoning his own fly when he turned back. Pushing his fingers gently out of the way, Zain tugged him closer and swatted with the spoon, provoking a grimace before Seb dropped his hands to his sides and cooperated with being bared and tipped over Zain’s knee. Zain locked him between his legs and brought the spoon down hard on the juncture of his right buttock and thigh, then switched to the left, and back again.
If they’d had more time, he might’ve used his palm instead. He tested everything he used on Seb on himself first, so he knew the spoon felt less severe to start out, but it also concentrated the sting into a smaller area, especially if he laid the swats one on top of the other. The trick to breaking through Seb’s defenses quickly was overwhelming him, leaving no room for anything else, and implements worked best for that. Zain privately thought of it as the shock and awe strategy. He knew he was getting somewhere when he had to tighten his grip — Seb wasn’t holding back his squirming anymore.
A few seconds later, he heard a muffled yelp that made him stop spanking. “No biting, habibi,” he said. “Give it here.” He waited until Seb took his forearm away from his mouth and twisted it behind him. Zain checked the bite mark for blood and, finding none, pressed his fingers over it as he pinned his Brat’s arm to the small of his back.
Seb’s breathing was heavy and tremulous. Deciding he was close enough to move to the next stage, Zain put the spoon down on the floor and switched to his bare hand. He applied the smacks even harder, but went slow, listening carefully between each one. Finally, he heard the particular small, choked noise that meant they were nearly done. For the last six, he moved down to Seb’s thighs, alternating sides, and then guided him to his feet.
As he’d expected, Seb immediately tried moving away, wiping tears off his face and saying, “You need to leave-”
Zain cut him off with another swat, yanking him back. “Yeah, and you’re coming with me. We’ll talk on the way,” he said as he straightened Seb’s clothes for him. That done, he stood up, dropped a hard kiss on his cheek, and casually added, “So you know, babe, I will pull over and make myself late if I need to. Get your sandals on.”
Seb was looking apprehensive but not talking much when they turned onto the highway. Zain glanced over at him and said, “Okay, spill. What’s going on in that gorgeous head of yours?”
He saw Seb swallow before he answered. “I… forgot to get my ACT scores sent to Chicago.”
“You ‘forgot’?” Zain asked, not bothering to conceal his skepticism and amusement.
Sighing, Seb replied, “Even if I’d been accepted by them, I wouldn’t have gone. You and Keegan might think distance doesn’t matter, but it does to me. I don’t care that they have a good program. There’s other schools with good programs nearer to where you’ll be.”
Zain considered that a moment. “Okay.”
“Okay?” he echoed, sounding confused. Zain took one hand off the wheel and reached over to interlink their fingers.
“Yeah, okay,” he said. “I wanted you to apply to Chicago because I thought they’d be a good fit for you and I don’t want you to hold yourself back for my sake any more than you want me to. But if staying on the east coast is more important to you, I’ll respect it.”
He quirked an eyebrow and looked over again. “Keegan said the distance doesn’t matter too?”
Seb promptly turned pink. Clearly, he hadn’t meant to let that slip. “Um, we were talking at the Thanksgiving party and it kinda came up,” he admitted.
Zain snorted. “You mean she was being nosy at the Thanksgiving party. I should spank you again when we get home, you know. That was weeks ago. Just when were you planning to talk to me about this, brat?”
“I don’t know,” Seb answered, shifting in his seat. “Probably when you asked why I hadn’t gotten a letter back from Chicago.”
He laughed and shook his head. “April. That would be April, I just want to mention. For the record. Five months of you stressing yourself out over hiding it from me. You’re lucky I know you well enough to notice something was up before then, babe. I don’t even want to think about what your A1C would be at that point.”
“Shut up, it wouldn’t be that bad,” Seb grumbled.
“Yeah, it would. And I’d have to make sure you couldn’t sit comfortably for at least a week. Seriously, you are so lucky right now,” he said, grinning.
There was companionable silence for the rest of the way. He relinquished Seb’s hand so he could do another test just before they arrived. The reading was still elevated, but much lower, no surprise. Spanking and stress relief both tended to have that effect on him. Zain still had a few minutes to make it inside as they pulled into the parking lot.
“I’m not sure how long I’ll be,” he said, unbuckling his seat belt. “So you can take a walk, but stay nearby, okay?”
“Yeah,” Seb said, and then caught his arm before he could get out. “Wait.”
He leaned over and kissed him. “Good luck.”
It was finished. At least, that was what Seb firmly told himself as he taped the box shut for the third time. For good measure, he put it outside the front door, where he wouldn’t see it until morning, when it was time to drop it off at the post office. Then he went into his studio, climbed onto Babar, his pink baby elephant, with his copy of The Lives of Christopher Chant, and settled into a slouch against the statue’s head. He needed to take his mind off art for awhile.
Unfortunately, Zain came home in the middle of the third chapter.
“Is this what I think it is, babe?” he asked, pushing open the door that connected to the living room by walking through it backwards. “The Cooper Union Hometest? The application you’ve been tearing your hair out over for weeks? You finally finished it?”
Seb got a glimpse of the box in his arms and determinedly went back to reading. “Yes, it’s done,” he said. “I can die in peace now.” He didn’t look up even when Zain put it on the floor by Babar’s tail.
“Awesome, but why is it sealed? I wanted to see it before you sent it in.”
“No,” said Seb. “I don’t want to ever set eyes on it again. In fact, get it out of here.”
There was silence for a long moment, and then he watched surreptitiously as Zain picked the box up once more and carried it outside. By the time he came back, Seb was refocused on his book.
“What’s wrong?” Zain asked, leaning against the elephant’s side.
“Nothing,” he murmured.
Zain snorted, reached over, and tilted the book down. “D’ya wanna try that again, Seb?”
His gaze was lighthearted and benign, but he never used Seb’s actual name unless he was serious about getting his attention. It worked. With an unwilling glance at the bucket of paint stirrers conveniently nearby, Seb made a face and said, “It’s just the usual.”
“Nope, sorry, gotta do better than that,” Zain said cheerfully. “What usual?”
He shrugged. “Me worrying about worst-case scenarios.”
Tipping his head to one side, Zain drawled, “Suuucch aaas?”
It would sound unbearably pathetic if he said it aloud, but Zain wasn’t going to let him get away with another non-answer. He tried silence instead.
“C’mon, habibi. Worst-case scenarios are what I do, remember?”
That was true. And he wouldn’t echo the voices in Seb’s head by telling him was being silly, or saying there was nothing to worry about. Zain didn’t condescend. Why, then, was it still so hard to put it into words?
Barely above a whisper, Seb asked, “What if I don’t get accepted to any of them?”
“Hmm,” Zain said. He thought about it for a few seconds while Seb sat there, feeling ridiculous. “Well, I suppose you could spend the next four years working towards becoming a famous, critically acclaimed artist without any degree and making them all deeply, deeply regret rejecting you,” he suggested. “Or you could apply to other schools you haven’t considered yet. Bottom line, we’ll still be okay, right?”
Seb took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Right.”
“And hey, look on the bright side,” Zain added. “Maybe I’m the one who won’t get accepted.”
“Not helpful, Z!” Seb said, punching his shoulder and laughing despite himself. Out of all his worries, that was the least likely.
Waking up alone in the middle of the night wasn’t uncommon for Zain, but it’d been happening much less since Dr. Johnson scared Seb half to death by recommending CGM. Adjusting his dosage and eating a small snack before bed helped with the overnight lows enough that at his last appointment, the doctor had given her approval for him to go on without the monitor, especially after Zain had taken her aside and privately explained a few things. Before that, though, he’d usually awaken within minutes of Seb. Some instinct or telltale sound roused him if his fiancé didn’t return in the time it took to do a glucose test and drink a juice box.
So when he opened his eyes and found Seb gone and his pillow cool to the touch, Zain frowned. He slid from bed and padded to the living room. It was dark except for the television, which cast a flickering blue glow over Seb’s lithe form, stretched out on the couch. His eyes were closed and his breathing steady, and just looking at him made Zain’s chest ache with protectiveness. Asleep, he always seemed so breakable.
“Now you’ve got to decide where this mountain lives,” the TV was saying. “It’s your world, so he can live anywhere you want. Just drop him in.”
Seb had told him once that he first started watching The Joy of Painting when he was in the hospital just after being diagnosed and couldn’t sleep. PBS was the only channel not showing infomercials at that time of night, he’d said. Every time Zain thought of it, he pictured him there: a scared little boy alone in a dark, unfamiliar room, wanting to escape from reality into a beautiful world of his own creation. Bob Ross’s nurturing manner and restful landscapes must’ve been a blessing for him. One of the nurses told his parents what he’d been doing, and they started taping all the episodes so he could watch them whenever he wanted. Later, they’d converted the tapes to DVDs, which Seb still had. Zain recognized the one that was playing.
His test kit wasn’t out, and neither were there any signs he’d been eating or taking insulin. There were, however, three envelopes on the coffee table that hadn’t been there a few hours earlier.
Zain sat down on the floor with his back against the couch. He didn’t need to open the envelopes to know what was inside. Two were acceptance letters from Seb’s top choice schools, and the third was his own Offer of Appointment to the United States Naval Academy. All of them had arrived in the past week.
They had celebrated each one, but with every day that passed he could feel Seb removing himself a little bit more. It started with him avoiding eye contact, then speaking even less, and finally trying to be alone as much as possible. He had done the same thing when Zain went to boot camp, and again when he was deployed. Since then, Zain had gotten much better at catching it before it got too far. He’d thought they were still in the early stages this time as well. If it was this bad in April, what was going to happen when he left in July?
“Maybe a happy little tree lives right here,” Bob Ross said. “And he’s got a friend. Trees get lonely too, you know. They need friends.”
Slowly, a plan formed, and Zain smiled. “You picked a very wise man to be your comfort object, habibi,” he whispered. Seb didn’t stir.
Hawaiian nights could get surprisingly chilly. He covered his Brat with a throw blanket before going back to bed.
Sunlight was hitting his face at the wrong angle, shining directly onto his eyelids. It took Seb a few seconds of disorientated squinting after he blinked them open to realize why. He had never returned to the bedroom last night.
The letters were where he’d left them and the television was still on, although it was now showing the DVD player’s screensaver. As he sat up to reach for the remote to turn it off, he noticed the blanket covering his lower body. He must’ve pulled it from the back of the couch in his sleep. Carefully, he folded it and returned it to its proper place, then stood up, double-checked that there was no other sign of where he’d spent the night, and gathered the envelopes. He dropped them in the mail organizer on his way to the bedroom.
Zain was spread across the sheets with his face buried in Seb’s pillow. He tended to conquer all available mattress territory the moment it was empty. Moving softly, Seb opened the dresser, took out a pair of loose-fitting yoga pants, and changed before heading out to the lanai for his meditation and practice.
He became aware of Zain’s presence towards the end of his sequence of poses, although he couldn’t have said what alerted him. He simply felt a gaze on his shoulder blades like a warm touch, and when he looked back briefly, he saw him, sitting on the lanai steps in only his running shorts, dog tags, and a glimmer of sweat, drinking from a coffee mug. It wasn’t unusual for him to watch Seb’s morning practice if he made it back from his run on time, so Seb thought nothing of it as he recentered on his breath and flowed through another two sun salutations.
After, though, when he turned to face him, he noticed the intent way Zain was holding his body. It spoke of strategic planning and important conversations, not going back to bed for a Sunday morning romp. Struggling with an urge to flee to his studio, Seb walked toward him.
Zain smiled brightly, set his mug down behind him, and produced a packet of baby wipes and bottle of lotion. “Give me your feet.”
That made Seb stop and glance down at his bare toes in the grass. “They’re fine. I don’t have neuropathy yet.”
“I know,” Zain said. “Which is why I’m not spanking you for doing yoga outside barefoot, without a mat. Pretend I have a foot fetish and humor me.”
All said with the same cheerful look, like he wasn’t tying Seb’s stomach in ever-tighter knots. Swallowing, he sat down on the opposite side of the steps and surrendered his feet to Zain’s lap, to be cleaned off and thoroughly inspected for injuries. It was one of the many rituals of diabetes management that Seb usually handled himself. Zain insisting on doing it said a number of different things, none of which he liked in the slightest.
Neither of them spoke until Zain picked up the lotion, squirted some into his hand, and rubbed his palms together to warm it up. “I’ve been thinking maybe you shouldn’t be here alone during Plebe Summer,” he said as he started massaging Seb’s left foot. “Keegan and Jaz might like to visit, or you could go back to Santa Cruz and stay with your parents.”
Seb turned his head to watch the wind blowing through the treetops. A second later, he said, “Zain!” and tried to wrench his feet away. Zain easily kept hold of his ankles with one hand and ran the fingertips of his other lightly up Seb’s soles once more, making him twitch and curl his toes.
“Got your attention, or do you need to go over my knee?”
Well, that certainly focused him. He froze, every nerve ending suddenly tuned in to Zain’s exact posture and expression. To the untrained eye, it was a teasing look. Seb knew better, and found himself talking, fast. “No, I’m paying attention.”
“Great!” Zain said, going back the the massage like nothing had happened. “So what do you think?”
He had been trying not to think about Plebe Summer at all, ever since Zain first explained it to him. It was USNA’s version of boot camp, before the school year started. For six weeks their only contact would be handwritten letters and a few brief phone calls. They had done double that, with less communication, when Zain went through Marine recruit training. According to him, this would be a walk in the park by comparison.
“I can handle it,” Seb said.
Zain squirted lotion into his hands and switched to the right foot. “Did I say you couldn’t?” he asked, with a particular tilt to his head that set off more warning bells.
“No,” said Seb, haltingly, “but I meant, I don’t mind being alone.”
“Does accepting support from loved ones mean you’re not handling it, or you’re somehow imposing?” He asked it as if he were genuinely curious about the answer. Seb stared at him and tried to retrace his steps, to figure out how he’d wound up on such dangerous ground again so quickly. The corners of Zain’s lips twitched. “I did warn you I was going to be death on that stuff,” he said, apologetic. “I figured it was time to start.”
“I’m not doing any of that!”
“Uh-huh,” Zain said with a roll of his eyes. He gave no time for another denial, just reached over and pulled, and all of Seb’s air went out of him as he landed bottom-up where his feet had been seconds earlier. His yoga pants slid easily down to mid-thigh when Zain tugged on them, and his breath came back in a gasp of pain at the first flurry of swats.
Once he got past the initial shock, he had room to think about other things. Like how they were still on the lanai. It was hardly the first spanking he’d gotten outdoors, since Zain didn’t believe in delaying the inevitable, but every time it happened he was seized with paranoia that one of their few neighbors would hear or glance through the trees at exactly the right angle and get an eyeful of his bare, squirming rear end.
Layered over that, though, and much more pressing at the moment, was the knowledge he’d seriously screwed up, and how. Just who did he think he was kidding? Not Zain, certainly, and not himself anymore either, by the time Zain stopped and asked “Done?”
He nodded, gulping back a sob.
Zain flipped him over, but kept him right where he was otherwise, almost cradled in his Top’s arms, with his stinging behind pressed against his lap. “Now, where were we?”
Did he actually expect Seb to produce coherent speech in this position? His face was burning nearly as bad as his butt. “I- I didn’t…” He trailed off.
“Babe, I’d prefer not to have to send you for the hairbrush, but I need you to talk to me,” said Zain, and the kindness in his voice just added to Seb’s jumbled mess of feelings. Chief among them, a cognizance of how quickly he could be turned face-down again and a phantom remembrance of the hairbrush’s sting. Beyond that-
“I’m scared,” he blurted, forcing himself to meet Zain’s eyes. It was easier to continue once he had. “That I won’t be able to handle it.”
“Okay,” Zain said, showing nothing but equanimity.
Seb glared at him. “Is that all you’re going to say?”
“No, first I’m going to remind you that you have handled it before-”
“That was different. We weren’t… doing this then,” said Seb. He flushed darker red and gestured between them, hoping that would be enough to explain.
Zain had the gall to laugh. “You may not have noticed, babe, but yeah, we were. I just wasn’t quite as overt about it.”
Seb blinked as a number of past incidents clicked into place with this new knowledge and made a hell of a lot more sense.
“Second,” Zain continued, “I’m going to ask what’s the worst-case scenario in this situation?”
Even the thought made Seb’s throat close up. He started to look away, and then hurriedly back when Zain turned him onto his side and landed two hard swats. “Okay! I… I’m worried I’ll… do something, and you’ll have to quit to come deal with me.”
“Something like what?”
“I’m not sure,” he said with an awkward jerk of his shoulders.
Zain seemed to understand that was the truth. He frowned and said, “Even if I do quit, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, habibi.”
It felt like it would be, but how could Seb say that when he couldn’t explain why even to himself? Instead, he said, “I know.”
“Yeah, you seem very sure of it, too,” said Zain, drily. “We’ll have to work on that, I guess. For now, can you trust my faith in you, and maybe even believe I might know what I’m doing when it comes to us?”
“Of course I do,” Seb said.
“Okay, and then can you agree not to spend the summer alone, so I don’t need to worry about you retreating so far into yourself I’ll have to pry you out with a crowbar over Parents’ Weekend?” Zain asked, eyes twinkling.
Put like that, as though it was a favor to him, there was no way Seb could refuse. “I’ll stay with Mom and Dad.”
Zain grinned and finally helped him upright and into a hug. “Awesome. Thanks.” He kept one arm around Seb’s lower back as he pulled the yoga pants back up, and then he lifted his dog tags from around his neck and dropped them over Seb’s head in one smooth motion. The cool metal chain sent zinging electric lines over his skin from where it rested all the way down to below his waistband. “Now, my boy, we’re going to eat breakfast,” Zain said into his ear, “and then we’re going back to bed.”
“Okay,” replied Seb, stupefied with sudden lust. Zain arched an eyebrow at him, and he found he had to fight back an onslaught of ridiculous laughter before he corrected himself. “Sorry, I meant ‘yes, sir.'”
“I thought you might’ve,” Zain said in his sternest voice, which only made Seb lose control of his giggles once more.