I fed out slack on the rope, watching carefully as Platt pushed off one of the brightly-colored holds on the climbing wall about forty feet above me. He stretched his right hand up as far as he could. His toes barely gripped. I stayed light on my feet, prepared to jump if he fell—a technique called “dynamic belaying” that would give a softer catch and reduce the risk of injury. To my left, JJ was calling to Sullivan to clip into the wall before she went further up. I ignored them and stayed focused. Platt grunted, his fingers spread and flexing.
The new hold he was aiming for remained mere inches out of reach. If his audible huff hadn’t given away his frustration, the way he pounded the side of his fist against the wall would have.
A yellow hold farther to his right would probably work better, I saw. “Want a suggestion?”
“I didn’t fucking ask for one, did I?” he called down.
I sighed quietly. Whatever bug had crawled up his ass today was making my palm itch. Not a good thing when you’re belaying. Knowing Platt, though, the tetchiness was a cover for some fear or vulnerability, so I forgave him and kept my voice easy as I said, “Guess that’s a no. Alright, just think through your moves. You got this.”
He gathered himself, shook out his arm, and went for the same hold, straining and off-balance. A moment later he was falling. I jumped and caught him nice and soft as I swung feet-first into the wall myself, my knees bending to absorb the energy.
“Shit!” Platt declared.
“You hurt?” I asked. It looked like a clean fall to me, but you can never be sure from the ground.
“I’m fine,” he snapped, swinging gently above me. “I’m going up again.”
As I stood and he reached out to anchor himself back to the wall, though, Cameron ordered, “ALL climbers on the floor!”
“Aye, ma’am!” I answered her loud and clear, along with JJ and the rest of the company beyond him. After a moment, Platt got into position to be lowered. I let rope run through the belay device while he walked backwards to the floor at a steady pace.
The rest of the plebes on the wall were doing the same. Once everyone was down and off belay, Cameron called us to attention. She stood slightly in front of the group of upperclassmen that had been supervising SMT this week. Nodding to us, she said, “Good job today. I’m seeing great improvements in technique since last Saturday, both in lead climbing and belaying. Square away your equipment and hit the lockers.”
“Aye, ma’am,” we chorused again.
There was a bustle of removing harnesses and coiling rope to be returned to the storage room. Two upperclassmen stood at the doorway checking that everything was put in its proper place. No one started for the locker room until the gym and climbing wall were exactly the way we’d found them. As we walked off in a group, with me between JJ and Platt, though, Cameron came up on the kid’s other side and quietly said, “Platt, I’d like a word.”
It was hard to tell from her tone what that might be about. Platt peeled off with her over to the wall while the rest of us kept going. I turned my head to watch them as long as I could, and spotted Cameron’s eyebrow arched. Ah. She’d noticed his attitude too, then.
He caught up with us after almost everyone—with the exception of JJ and I—had changed and was heading out for the start of liberty. A few of them said, “Bye, Platt,” as they passed. His replies were pleasant enough. That stopped when he spotted me. He couldn’t miss, seeing as I’d propped myself up next to the door of his locker.
Scowling, he said, “Move,” even though I wasn’t in his way.
“Did I do something to piss you off?” I asked, curious and planted firmly in place. “You can tell me if I did. It won’t hurt my feelings. I’m a big, tough Marine, y’know. Oorah.”
JJ had one foot up on the bench across the room, drawing out the process of tying his shoe like he was defusing a bomb. I could just hear his snort of amusement.
Platt ignored it. He opened the locker and looked at his uniform, neatly folded inside, for a moment before sighing. “It’s nothing you did,” he mumbled. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Wanna mime it out?” I held both hands in front of me like I was trapped inside a glass box.
I swear Seb’s been giving him tutorials in unimpressed looks. Rather than answer, he asked, “Are you gonna get that?” and nodded to my bag on the floor, from which my phone was buzzing loudly.
“Nah, I was letting it go to voicemail,” I said.
“What if it’s Seb?”
He has a special vibration pattern in addition to a custom ring tones—as do Quint and Theo now—so I always know when it’s them. Clearly, though, Platt was going to keep resisting. I set that problem aside momentarily, before he got too defensive, and bent to dig the phone out.
It was Aliya. Sitting down on the bench, I answered with a grin. “Hey, sis.”
“Hi,” she said. “Um, I know your birthday isn’t until Monday, but Seb told Omar and me about all the restrictions on what you can get and on your free time, so we wanted to give you your present early and let you enjoy it before then. Check your email.”
“Now?” I asked. “Okay, hang on.” I pulled the phone away from my ear and tapped into my mail app. There were a couple of new messages, both containing electronic gift cards. My eyes widened slightly at the amounts. Going back to the call, I said, “Wow, thanks! Are you sure that’s not too much, though? You guys are only students.”
“So are you,” she pointed out. “Anyway, we wanted to make up for not getting you anything all those years you were sending us cards.”
“That wasn’t your fault.”
“Yeah, it was. I don’t care what Mom and Dad said. We should’ve known better. Just enjoy it, okay? Take some friends with you. Oh, Omar wants to say hi.”
There was a pause, and then, “Hey, bro.”
“Hi, little man! What’s up?”
We chatted for a few minutes as JJ waited patiently and Platt showered and changed while trying to look like he wasn’t listening to my every word—not that I minded at all. I gave both siblings my love before I hung up and turned to the other two, grinning. “J, do you think your sponsor parents would drive the three of us to a movie theater and a pizza place if I treated them, too? I just got a couple of early birthday presents.”
“Sorry, man,” he said. “They’re out of town this weekend. How far is it? Maybe we could walk.”
I looked it up on my phone as we gathered our gym bags and left. It would be enough of a hike for JJ and I to start debating who else had a sponsor family that might be willing to give us a lift. Platt was quiet, yet not in an angry way. He seemed more thoughtful than anything.
Still discussing it, we stepped into the sunshine and headed for the statue of Bill the Goat on the way back to Bancroft. We didn’t notice Cameron behind us wearing civvies until she asked, “Where are you three trying to get?”
We stopped, turning respectfully and, in Platt’s case, with lowered eyes and pink cheekbones. “The movie theater, ma’am,” I explained. “Monday’s my birthday. My little brother and sister gave me gift cards for that and pizza.”
She looked from me to Platt. “I can give you a ride and pick you up after. There’s no time to drop off your bags, though. You’ll have to leave them in the car.”
Platt blinked up at her while I smiled and said, “Thank you, ma’am. We’d really appreciate that.”
“Come on, then,” she said. “Double-time.”
I quickly realized why the hurry when she led us to the fifteen-minute parking area outside of Gate One. Myrick was waiting there, also in civvies, leaning on the side of the same silver car I remembered them having at the barbeque way back in September when we first found out they were dating. He appeared understandably surprised to see us.
“We’re dropping them off at the movies,” Cameron explained. “Give me the keys. They need to put their bags in the trunk.”
For a moment, it looked like he was going to say something, but then he glanced at Platt and just handed over a keyring instead. Cameron used it to open the trunk. After we all dropped our bags in, she shut it again and went around to the driver’s side without giving the keys back, while her boyfriend watched with narrowed eyes. JJ climbed in behind her.
I held the other door open so Platt could slide into the middle, and Myrick muttered under his breath to me, “Never date someone who outranks you.”
“Not likely in my case, sir,” I said, fighting a grin. Of course, he knew that. Just as I knew he wasn’t expressing disrespect towards Cameron or her rank, only his frustration at being unable to fully let loose his dominant side here on the Yard.
And it was clear Cameron was taking advantage of his hands being tied. He’d said before that people were scrutinizing her conduct with Platt, and while upperclassmen giving rides to plebes was far from uncommon, Myrick probably would’ve objected if he could. Personally, I didn’t think it’d do any harm. But I kept that thought to myself and got into the back seat.
“What movie are you going to see?” Cameron asked as Myrick settled down next to her.
“We haven’t discussed it, ma’am,” I answered.
At the same time, JJ said, “Knowing him, Zootopia.”
“OH,” I said. “Yes, Zootopia! If you’re okay with that, Platypus.”
Platt nodded, and JJ, laughing, said, “I hope there’s a platypus in it. That’d be cool.”
Cameron pulled the car out of the lot and onto King George Street. “It isn’t a musical, is it?”
“No, ma’am,” I said.
“Good,” she said. I caught a hint of amusement on her face in the rearview mirror. “I think you already know enough Disney songs, Mohyeldin.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I agreed solemnly.
It took about ten minutes to drive to Annapolis Mall, where the theater was. They dropped us off right in front, Cameron saying, “You have my number. Just text when you’re ready to be picked up.” I thanked her again and shut the car door. As it pulled away, I could see Myrick reaching across the console to put his hand on her shoulder. I hoped he’d go easy.
We had a couple of hours to kill before the first showing of the movie, so we ate pizza for lunch and then walked around awhile. Platt was still being quiet. I decided to have another try at figuring out what was wrong.
“Someone pulled a nasty April Fool’s prank on you yesterday?” I guessed in the middle of the Apple store while he played a car racing game on an iPad and JJ tested out headphones.
“What?” he asked, frowning. “No.”
“Then what is it? You know you can tell me.” I lowered my voice more, leaning over the oak table. “If it’s your mom or something like that–”
“It’s–!” he started, and then blew out a breath and set the iPad carefully down. Barely audible, he said, “It’s the anniversary. Of my Dad…”
I should’ve guessed. He’d said it was this month. I hovered a hand over his forearm, and when he didn’t pull away, squeezed it gently. “Sorry,” I said. “Are you okay with being here? I never actually asked.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m good. It’s better than hanging around Bancroft with nothing to distract me.”
True, though it brought something else to mind. “Your mom,” I started, cautious about bringing her up.
He shook his head before I could go any further. “Uncle Hal stays with her on this day every year and keeps her together. He’s good for that much, at least.”
“Alright,” I said. “If you need to leave, though, just say ‘Exodus,’ got it?”
A faint, weak smile crossed his face. “Yeah.”
Then JJ came over, bopping his head to a beat, and said, “I’M BUYING THESE.”
I snorted. “You’re going to kill your hearing.”
“WHAT?” he asked, pulling one side of the headphones away from his ear.
“I said you’re– nevermind. Let’s go check out if you’re getting them. The movie starts soon, and I don’t wanna miss the previews.”
Disney never lets me down. There was no platypus character, but that hardly mattered. Not only was the movie just subjectively great, it got Platt laughing with genuineness I hadn’t really seen since he stayed the night at Quint and Theo’s. He even joined JJ and me in going over our favorite moments while we stood out front waiting for the upperclassmen to pick us up.
Myrick sat in the driver’s seat this time. Next to him, Cameron appeared no worse for wear. They both noticed Platt’s change of mood with pleased expressions as he climbed into the middle again. “How was it?” Myrick asked.
“Excellent, sir,” Platt said. “It had a great message about prejudice.”
I leaned back and watched him and the two older midshipmen talk for the whole return ride, thinking that I couldn’t wait to see what happened between them when we were plebes no more after Commissioning Week at the end of next month.
Plenty of liberty time remained as we, minus Cameron and Myrick, entered the Yard again. “Come hang out with us, Platypus,” I said. “I’m gonna Skype Seb. He’ll want to say hi.”
With one last glance at the departing silver car, the kid replied, “Okay.”
We were waylaid first, though, by a note stuck to the room door informing me I had a package waiting. The three of us went down to the mailroom together. I grinned as soon as the clerk handed the shoebox-sized parcel over. The return label was the apartment in New York, and it felt heavy.
“Oooh, care package,” JJ said. “Please let there be food.”
“Who says I’m sharing with you if there is?” I asked, and then had to practically run the whole way back to avoid him giving me a noogie.
Setting the box on my desk, I turned to JJ and Platt as they caught up. “Seb’ll kill me if I open it before I call him.”
“Alright,” JJ agreed, sighing. While I started Skype, he gave Platt his chair to sit beside me and perched himself on our window ledge.
Seb answered, blinked, and said, “Oh, hi, Bradley. Hi, JJ.”
“Hi, Zain,” I added, making him roll his eyes. I held up the box. “Got this just now. They want to see what’s inside almost as bad as I do.”
“You can’t open it today,” he said, looking scandalized. “Your birthday’s not until Monday!”
“You got presents before your birthday!” I protested.
“That was Valentine’s Day. You made me wait for… everything else.” From his faint blush, I could tell he was remembering how I’d made him hold off on having a second orgasm. All his words were true, yet…
I held the box up again and shook it a little.
“Don’t,” Seb said, “you’ll–”
“I’ll what?” I asked when he didn’t finish. “C’moooon, just one little, tiny hint? Omar and Aliya let me open theirs early.” And I pouted.
From somewhere off-camera, I heard Theo say, “Aww, let him open it.”
“He’ll barely have time to enjoy anything on Monday night,” JJ put in.
Seb sighed heavily, the way he does when he doesn’t actually mind all that much. “Okay, okay, fine,” he said. “Theo, can you go get Quint? He should be here, too.”
The other Top appeared very quickly, he and Theo both sitting on the bed behind Seb. “Hello again, Bradley,” Quint said, nodding.
“Oh, right,” I said, realizing he’d never been introduced to my roommate since the two of us usually talked in private. “Guys, this is JJ. J, that’s Quint and Theo. You know Seb, and Platt knows everybody, so now can I open this?”
“Yeah, go on,” Seb replied with a smile.
I grabbed the scissors from my pencil cup and slit the packing tape. Then I opened the box.
A stack of envelopes were laid inside on top of another, wrapped box. I took them out first. One I recognized from the dimensions as being Seb’s before I even saw his handwriting spelling out my name. He makes a little drawing for me every year, always on the same size of paper. I gently opened the envelope and slid it out.
It was a watercolor of us sitting on the seawall behind the house in Hawaii, my arm wrapped around him, him leaning against my shoulder, our feet dangled over lapping waves in the foreground. We used to sit like that a lot, but from the touch of stubble he’d put on my cheeks, I knew this was a depiction of the last time, before we left. I’d taken him out there to settle after he started freaking about his empty studio. Swallowing emotion, I turned it over and saw the same message as always written along the bottom: je t’aime, followed by the year.
“Thank you, habibi,” I said. “I’ll keep it safe until I can put it with the others.”
He nodded, bright-eyed.
“Now this one!” I said, flipping the next envelope. Then I frowned. It read Bradley in rather girlish letters. “This one is for you, apparently,” I told Platt, passing it over. “From Lyra, I’m guessing.”
Theo began to laugh at my disgruntlement. “She put one for you in there, too,” he said. “She just didn’t know Bradley’s address.”
“Seb knows it,” I said, with a pointed look to my giggling fiancé. “He could’ve told her. Brat.”
The kid, meanwhile, was staring at the envelope in surprise.
“Well go on,” I said to him. “It’s got your name on it.”
A smile played around his lips as he ripped into it and extracted another hand-drawn card, this one less skillfully done though almost as heartfelt as Seb’s, I bet. It showed Platt on a sailboat. As he began to silently read her letter, which took up the whole other side of the paper, I located my own card from Lyra and opened it.
“Me on a sailboat,” I said, grinning. “She’s all about fairness, I’ll give her that.”
“Those from the little girl who gave you the bookmarks?” JJ asked. “That’s cute.”
“I didn’t realize she still remembered me,” said Platt, closing the card. To Seb, he added, “Tell her I said thanks.”
“Tell her yourself,” I said. “Look, she gave us her address.”
“I don’t know how to talk to kids,” he objected.
“Same way you talk to adults, minus sex, swearing, and violence. Come have me read it over if you’re not sure, but you’ve gotta write to her now. She looks up to you.”
He flushed, but nodded his agreement.
The other two cards were from Quint (Happy birthday to a dear friend. I am honored and humbled more every day by your trust in me, and I look forward to running with you again soon.) and Theo (I like you and pizza about the same amount.), and each one contained gift cards for Amazon and a local restaurant. “Thanks,” I said. “I’ll treat you guys to a meal if you come down here sometime.”
“Spend them on yourself,” Quint said. “You deserve it.”
“I mean, unless you’re offering pizza,” said Theo.
I laughed. “Be honest. You like pizza more than me.”
“That’s why I said about the same,” he replied with a grin.
Shaking my head, I lifted out the wrapped box and teared into it, revealing a large, plastic tupperware container absolutely filled with–
“Yes! Cookies!” JJ crowed.
“There’s brownies, too,” Seb said. “Underneath them.”
“He’s been baking for days,” said Theo. “I taste-tested every batch.”
Quint looked like that was news to him. Theo caught his eye and scooted a few inches away as I opened the container and gasped.
“They’re Mickey cookies!”
“That’s why I told you not to shake it,” said Seb. “Did any of them break?”
“Nope, they’re perfect, babe,” I said, holding it so he could see. Every one had two round ears perched atop the larger circle. “And they smell absolutely amazing. Thank you!” I took one out and bit the right ear off before passing the container to JJ and Platt.
As they each choose theirs, Seb said, “There’s… there’s something else in the shipping box.”
I licked chocolate crumbs off my thumb and reached back into it. My fingers found a small, hard object, which I pulled out and discovered was a USB drive. Seb fidgeted with the chain of the dog tags around his neck, a hint of a flush spreading over his cheeks. I grinned and quirked an eyebrow at him. “You know I’m not allowed to have porn, right?”
“ZAIN,” he said, and the hint turned into a full-on bloom. “That is not– Just open it!”
“Okay, hang on.”
I plugged it into my computer tower. A moment later, a window popped up. There was a folder labelled ‘photos’ and a file named ‘watch_me.mov’, which I double-clicked, launching my media player. I moved it to one side so I could still see the Skype call.
The video began automatically. Seb stepped into frame and sat on the couch next to Theo, who strummed the guitar in his lap a couple of times and asked, “Ready?” Seb-in-the-video made a face before nodding. Seb-in-real-life pulled his knee up to his chest and dropped his red forehead onto it. Quint reached forward from the bed to rub his shoulder. In the other window, video-Theo began playing Happy Birthday, with a bit of a rock edge, and nodded to video-Seb.
Who took a deep breath, sat up straighter, and sang the whole thing right to the camera.
My jaw dropped. I know he’s got a great voice, but he normally would not be caught dead singing where people could possibly hear him alone, me included. As he finished, Theo drew out the last chord, ending with a flourish, and the screen faded to black.
“Babe,” I said, “I love you.”
“You’d better,” he replied, muffled because he hadn’t stopped hiding behind his knee. “I still can’t believe I let Theo talk me into that.”
“It was sweet,” JJ said, swallowing the last of his cookie. “You’re pretty talented, too.”
Seb made an inarticulate noise. To save him from possible spontaneous combustion, I asked, “What are the photos on here, then?”
“Just the three of us doing stuff,” Theo said. “Making dinner, walking Jagger, things like that.”
“Seb’s idea was for you to use them as your screensaver,” Quint added. “Perhaps feel a bit more a part of things up here.”
I smiled. “Aw, thanks, habibi. That’ll be great.”
He finally lifted his head to say, “You’re welcome,” looking slightly more pleased than embarrassed.
I plucked another cookie out of the box. “Speaking of Mickey, have you guys seen Zootopia yet? We watched it earlier.”
Rolling his eyes, Seb said, “I don’t think we were planning to.”
As JJ started helping me explain how they had to, Platt murmured, “I’ll be right back,” and slipped out before I could say anything. I figured he was going to the head, anyway, so I wasn’t too concerned until it was fifteen minutes later. Theo and Quint had both said their goodbyes, JJ had climbed into his bunk, and I was talking to Seb with my earbuds in to give us some privacy. And Platt hadn’t returned.
“Where’d that kid vanish to?” I asked no one in particular, frowning at the clock.
“Go find him,” said Seb.
I hesitated, not wanting to cut into our time. He saw it.
“Go, Z. We can talk more tomorrow morning. I know… what today is for him, too.”
Huffing, I said, “I’m gonna start making him write me emails, since he seems so much better at revealing things in them.”
“You should,” Seb agreed. “But right now, go find him.”
“Alright. Love you.”
“Je t’aime,” he replied, and I ended the call.
I didn’t have to look far. The familiar blond head was just appearing around the corner as I stepped into the passageway. I strode to meet him, coming to a stop dead in front as his eyes widened in surprise.
“You okay? You were gone awhile.”
“Yeah,” he said, frowning. “I just, um. I went to get you this.” He held out his hand, and I noticed the envelope in it for the first time. “Had to run down to the Mid Store.”
“Platypus,” I said, delighted, “you didn’t need to give me anything.”
He went pink. “It’s only a card.”
I took it from him, ripped the envelope, and pulled it out. The design was simple, like most of the cards in the Mid Store, with just Happy Birthday across the front in rainbow letters, but when I opened it, I saw he’d written inside.
Listening to you talk to your brother and sister earlier, I kept wondering how my family might be different if I had siblings. If they would make today easier. But just now I realized you did that. So I wanted to say thanks, and happy birthday.
“Okay,” I said. “I wanna hug you.”
“I knew you’d get all soppy,” he grumbled, but he stepped forward into my arms and let me squeeze him for several seconds. When I let go, he said, “I’m… I’m glad we’re both going to be political science majors next year.”
I grinned. “Me too. Now, c’mon, I still have way too many cookies to eat.”
We wound up watching The Little Mermaid while we munched on them, and JJ joined me in singing all the songs. My real birthday a couple days later didn’t come close to topping it.
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