Hard Choices

Today

“Babe?”

Seb froze, his pencil lead barely brushing the paper, listening to the footsteps cross the studio. A moment later, the side door opened and closed. He relaxed. Zain would look for him on the roof or up a tree first. Checking them all would keep him occupied for awhile — perhaps long enough for Seb to pull his thoughts together.

The drawing was a mess of choppy lines when he looked back down at it. He squeezed the pencil tight enough to turn his knuckles white and then tore the page out of his sketchbook and added it to the growing pile of crumpled paper balls behind him with a flick of his wrist.

“You did not go to art school, yes? It shows.”

Shut up.

“School doesn’t have to be terrible, a leanbh. Sometimes it’s necessary. You’ve been through worse.”

Shut up.

Five breaths, and he started again.

*

The Fiat was still in the driveway. Its owner couldn’t have gotten far on foot in the hour since Zain had left for his run. He’d made a late start of it today, waking up around nine to the sound of Seb’s voice from the kitchen in the flowing mix of French and English he only used when he had his mother on the phone. It switched entirely to French when Zain walked in, which gave him a fairly good idea what the conversation was about. He hadn’t commented, just whispered “we’ll talk when I get back” into Seb’s free ear and bit down on his neck until he was fended off with an elbow to the ribs. But now here he was, and Seb was no where. 

He left his shoes by the door this time and went inside, tossing the tennis ball he’d picked up on the shoulder of the road from one hand to the other. It was almost new. Honestly, the things people threw out of cars. Maybe he and Seb could do a litter clean-up walk, assuming he found him and sorted him out before night fell.

“If you don’t know where Seb is, look up.” It was a McKenna Crews family adage, the first Zain had learned when he moved in with them, and it had never failed him yet.

There was only one place left to look.

****

Thud.

The pencil went wild when Seb jumped, leaving a heavy black mark across half the page.

Thud. Thud.

It sounded like something hitting the other side of the trapdoor. There was no way Zain could’ve set up a ladder without him hearing, though, and it was too high to reach with anything else.

“Knock knock?”

Without thinking, he scrambled a foot further away from the door, and then stopped and held his breath. The next thud hit directly below him. He felt the boards under his braced fingertips vibrate with it.

“If I need to go get a ladder, neither one of us is gonna be very happy, babe,” Zain called up, sounding incapable of unhappiness, as usual.

Seb pulled a face, set his pencil and sketchbook down, and cautiously leaned over to unlatch the trapdoor and push it open. The staircase made an impressive bang as it unfolded. He caught a glimpse of Zain stepping hurriedly back, and then Seb retreated to the other side of the attic, out of any possible line of sight from the floor.

“Wanna come out?” Zain asked, his tone completely unchanged by a near-miss with fifty pounds of moving wood.

Seb threw a paper ball down instead.

“Okay. I’ll just wait here, then, if you don’t mind.”

He minded. He knew, without having to look, that Zain was now sitting at the bottom of the stairs. There would be no getting around him.

After a few seconds, the thudding started again in a steady beat.

“Oh, I knew you were trouble when you walked iiiinnn, so shame on me nuh-ow. Flew me to places I’d never beeeennn. Now I’m lying on the cold, hard ground. Ooooo-ooohhh, oooo-ohhh, trouble, trouble, trouble-”

Seb groaned and closed his eyes.

Yesterday

Not that one, I said! Put it down!” Seb snapped, coming back into the studio.

Zain leaned the painting against the wall again. “I know, I was just admiring it. Did you test your blood sugar?”

Seb didn’t respond, which was answer enough in itself. Zain watched him pick up two more canvases from the stack next to the doorway and walked calmly around his partner, blocking the path to the car. Scowling, Seb spun on his heel and headed for the other door, to the living room. He got two feet before Zain was facing him again with his hands in his pockets. 

“I’ll do it on the way,” Seb said, trying to sidle past.

Zain grinned while he sidestepped in front of him. “Are we dancing, babe?”

“There’s no time to test! We’re already going to be late!”

He’d been expecting the raised voice and didn’t react to it. “Nope, health first. I’ll bring those out, you go test.”

Seb tightened his grip on the paintings as Zain tried to take them. “You’ll goof off more.”

“You wound me, babe,” Zain said, giving him the full woeful puppy-eyes look. When that didn’t work, he let go with one hand long enough to deliver a sound swat. Seb grimaced and surrendered the paintings. Zain made sure he was going to the kitchen before taking them outside.

He was immediately pinned with a glower when he joined Seb at the breakfast bar a few minutes later. Taking no notice, he slid the glucose meter closer and pressed a button, bringing up the last test logged.

“I am not going on a walk right now,” Seb warned as 240 mg/dl flashed on the screen.

“Yeah, might as well do an injection,” Zain said, shrugging. “You’re probably going to get more stressed.”

“I’m not trying to stress myself out.”

Zain felt his heart tighten at the misery in Seb’s voice. “Of course you’re not, habibi,” he said, pulling him off the barstool and into a hug. His back was rigid under Zain’s hands, even while he returned the embrace. “It’s your first gallery show. Stress is natural and unavoidable. We know how to manage its effects.”

“It’s just a stupid group show,” Seb muttered into his shoulder.

Zain laughed. “Don’t let Tara hear you call it that.”

“Antoine called it worse things the other day, right to her face. In French, of course, because he still thinks all us stupid Americans don’t understand a word of it, but I translated it for her after he left, and she didn’t get rid of him. He’s her biggest draw, so we have to put up with his pretentiousness.”

“Y’know, I’m kinda looking forward to meeting this Antoine. The way you describe him, I’m imagining a cross between Pepé Le Pew and the restaurant critic from Ratatouille.”

Seb drew away, but he was giggling now, so Zain let him go. “That’s pretty accurate.”

“Well now I’m really looking forward to it,” he said as he started back towards the studio. “Do your insulin, I’ll get the rest of the paintings loaded up. Oh, and I texted Tara to let her know we’re running behind and it’s my fault, so chill.”

*

It’s easy for him, possibly the chillest person on the planet, to say that, Seb thought. He finished the injection, double-checked that he had all his supplies in his messenger bag, and was just reaching for his keys off the hook by the front door when Zain reappeared over his shoulder and got to them first.

“I’m driving,” he said.

Seb whirled around and glared at him. “It’s my car.”

“I know.” He held the door open and nodded at Seb to go through while he tossed the keys into the air and caught them with his other hand. Grabbing them back would only make them more late, Seb knew, yet he still struggled with the impulse for a few seconds before pulling a face and striding off to the car. Zain followed him, voice laced with amusement. “That was a new one. Do it again, I want to take a picture.”

He refused to dignify that with a response.

*

“We probably would’ve missed rush hour if you’d let me drive,” he said later, as they crept forward another few feet in the traffic jam.

“Probably, considering you’d’ve gone 80 miles an hour the whole way,” Zain agreed easily.

Seb’s phone chirped. He pulled it out of his pocket and read the message. “Tara wants to know where I am.”

“Tell her ten minutes, tops.”

Yeah, right. He tacked another five minutes on to the estimate in his response, feeling that was optimistic. Damn Honolulu traffic.

“Close your eyes and count your breaths, Seb,” Zain said. “We have plenty of time before the opening.”

At this point, it would be quicker to walk. He rolled down his window enough to stick his head out, craning to see around the line of cars, and yelped at the stinging smack that landed on his exposed rear end. Hastily, he dropped back into his seat, put the window up, closed his eyes, and summoned his mindfulness. Zain didn’t even glance over.

The meditation did help. By the time they found a parking spot, he was much calmer. His composure evaporated, though, as he watched Zain stack up five canvases to cart towards towards the gallery. “Be careful with those!”

“Nah, I thought I’d find a mud puddle to drop them in,” Zain teased. “Get the last two and close the hatch, babe.”

Seb huffed, and Zain smiled at him, radiating cheerful patience in a way that never failed to make him very aware of what would happen once it ran out. The paintings were retrieved and the hatch shut in a second, without voluntary will. He put them both under one arm and walked ahead to get the door.

The gallery wasn’t open to the public yet, but it was still full of people. The other artists and their family and friends were all over the place, milling around or helping install pieces. He saw Tara towards the back, black hair piled high on her head as she supervised the placement of a sculpture. The refreshments had already been set up against one wall, and Antoine was standing over them with a drink in his hand, wearing a turtleneck despite the Hawaiian heat and surveying the room with his usual haughty expression. Seb was about to point him out to Zain when he caught sight of the area that had been reserved for his own pieces.

Tara operated a strict first-come, first-served policy with the layout. The space had been divided into equal sections weeks before and the floorplan emailed to them all. Seb had claimed the spot closest to the windows on the right hand side. It was perfect: plenty of natural light and midway between the doors and refreshments, where people would be hanging out most. He’d blocked out where each of the paintings would hang on the walls and numbered the canvases to correspond and make setting up easier. The largest, at the bottom of the pile Zain was holding, was to go on the pillar in the center of his space, facing the window and the street outside, as the focal point. Except there was already a painting there.

“What is it, babe?” Zain asked.

“Nothing.” Ignoring the look of frank disbelief at that, he set his two canvases down. “I need to speak with Tara. Can you start hanging these?”

“Sure. Just follow the numbers, right?”

Seb was already fifteen feet away and didn’t answer him.

*

For a self-professed tree-hugging, vegetarian, hippie freak, Seb could appear surprisingly capable of violence, Zain reflected, not for the first time. At the moment, he looked ready to kill anyone who got between him and Tara as he strode across the room. Zain watched him go with equal parts curiosity and appreciation. If Seb had been paying attention to him, he would’ve gotten told off for ogling in a public place. As it was, he was singularly focused on his destination, and people scattered from his path. The commotion made Tara gape at him as he drew near.

Zain wasn’t close enough to hear any of their conversation, but it was short, intense, and punctuated with Seb jabbing a finger first toward one of the support pillars and then toward a skinny, blond man standing next to the snacks. Tara frowned at that. Together, they advanced on the man, who looked blankly innocent. Tara said something to him, and the three of them approached the pillar, Seb’s murderous look fixed on the blond man now.

“This had better be a misunderstanding,” Tara was saying when they got into earshot.

The man stopped in front of the pillar and gestured to it. “But you see, this is the focal point of the whole show! It should display the best piece in the show, yes? Naturally, I saw this from my experience with galleries and made a decision-”

“Who gave you the right to make a decision about another artist’s space?” Tara interrupted. “Or about declaring your own piece the best? Take it down.”

“No, but you see, my piece is the best. The others are… how do you say?” He squinted and glanced around as though searching for the word in the paintings, then his gaze stopped on Seb. “Ah, Sebastian! You did not go to art school, yes? It shows. This is what I mean.”

Zain raised an eyebrow at Seb. “This must be Antoine?”

Seb jerked his head in a short nod, although Antoine took no notice of him. He was addressing Tara again. “You need me, ma chère, to make this show a success, and I need to highlight my work, so-”

“No, I don’t,” Tara cut him off again. “I have a group of extremely talented artists here, and none of us need you and your bullshit. Take the painting down and hang it in your own space, or you can leave.”

Antoine stared at her. Tara stared back. After a few seconds, Seb lifted the painting off the pillar himself and set it on the floor.

“Zain, could you hand me that one, please?” he asked, quite calmly. Zain suppressed a smile as he passed over the indicated canvas and watched Seb hang it up. “Is it crooked?”

“Nope, looks good from here,” Zain said, admiring the artwork and artist both.

Seb picked up Antoine’s discarded painting and held it out to the still staring man. “I believe this is yours?”

Antoine snatched it away. “You will all regret this!”

“The only thing I regret is letting you in this show,” Tara told him. “Make any more trouble and you’re out.”

Seb called after him in French as he flounced off. The words were too rapid for Zain to catch, but Antoine stopped dead.

“You…”

Oui, je parle français,” Seb confirmed, “so watch your mouth, too.”

The look of pure astonishment on Antoine’s face was what made Zain lose the fight against his grin.

*

“You’re awful,” Seb informed Zain while they hung the rest of the paintings. “You’re not supposed to be encouraging this kind of behavior.”

“I’ll encourage what I want to encourage,” Zain said, beaming still. “What did you say to him?”

“I said ‘yes, I speak French.'”

Zain rolled his eyes. “I know that part. Before that.”

“I don’t remember.” Seb bent over to pick up the next canvas and let out a squeak when Zain goosed him.

“Liar.”

“Can you be appropriate for five minutes?” he demanded, straightening up.

“Not with you acting like that, I can’t.” There was a brief struggle that ended with Seb locked in his arms, feeling his face slowly heat up. “Now we’re going to stand here,” Zain said, gleefully, into his ear, “with both my palms on your ass, until you tell me what you said to Pepé Le Pew.”

“I hate you.”

“Nope, I know how to say ‘I hate you’ in French, it wasn’t that either.”

Seb sighed heavily and gave it up as inevitable. “I told him he should think twice before getting into a pissing match with a diabetic. Now let me go.”

Zain dissolved into laughter instead, and advising him on no uncertain terms that this was not the suitable Top response did nothing to stop it. Finally, Seb had to say, “Z, really, I need the restroom, so unless you’ve got some kinks you haven’t told me about yet-”

“Yeah, okay, go,” Zain said, releasing him. “Do a test while you’re in there. I’m curious what effect telling off Parisian jerks has on your glucose.”

It had come down to his target range when Seb checked, and stayed there for the rest of the opening, but that was obviously because of the insulin. No matter what Zain claimed.

Two of his paintings sold before they left for the night. Zain suggested they go out to eat afterward in celebration.

“I’d rather head home and heat up some leftovers,” Seb said apologetically. He was drained from two solid hours of mingling.

Zain smiled at him, all soft eyes, and slung an arm around his waist as they walked to the car. “Of course, babe, whatever you want. I’m so proud of you.” He offered the keys.

“You drive,” Seb said, going around to the passenger side door.

The ride home was quiet. Zain left the radio off and put both windows down a few inches. Seb rested his head against his palm and watched the twilight grow outside while city streets gave way to suburban houses and finally to forests as they climbed higher. He straightened up at the end of their driveway.

“I didn’t check the mail earlier. Did you?”

Zain shook his head and turned the car off. “No, you go get it. I’ll fire up the microwave.”

He climbed out, walked back to the road, glanced both ways, and crossed to the mailbox. There was a package of lancets he’d ordered inside, along with the usual pile of junk mail. He flipped through it on his way back to the house. No surprises, until he got to the bottom and found a loose pack of papers without an envelope, just a post-it note stuck to the top. Seb read the note, frowned, and pulled it off the paper to get a better look. It was a picture of a young man in combat gear, covered in mud and gazing at the camera. Printed over him in large, white letters, it said “THIS IS MY HIGHER EDUCATION” underneath a golden seal, and below that, “ENLISTED APPLICATIONS NOW BEING ACCEPTED”.

Seb was vaguely aware he was still moving. He pressed the post-it note back onto the paper, over the seal, and looked up to see Zain standing by the doorway frowning at him.

“Babe?”

“It’s for you,” Seb told him, handing the whole bundle over and walking straight past him into the house.

*

It took Zain five seconds to find the packet, swear, and bolt after him. This was not how he’d wanted to introduce this subject, but now that his hand had been forced, they were going to deal with it. Seb had almost made it to the sliding glass door between their bed and the lanai. Zain let the mail fall in a heap on the floor and grabbed him, twisting and yanking simultaneously so they landed on the mattress. Seb had a serious try at getting up then, and it required all of Zain’s skills and experience as a Marine and a Top to keep him down without hurting him.

“Hey. Seb, stop. You’re not going anywhere, so cut it out,” he said, in what Seb called his “command voice”. Zain knew his real command voice didn’t sound anywhere near as fond. It worked, though. Seb finally went motionless beneath him, panting. Their legs were locked together and Zain had both of Seb’s wrists pinned to the duvet above his head. He relaxed his hold fractionally and made his tone more soothing. “Open your eyes, babe. It’s fine.”

“What about you applying to Annapolis is fine?” Seb asked tightly, eyes still shut.

“I’m not.”

“I saw-!”

“The packet of information I asked my CO for, yeah. We were talking about the end of my enlistment and my options, and he suggested that, so I asked what it would mean. That’s all. I haven’t made any decision yet, and you know I wouldn’t without you. Seb, open your eyes.”

He watched Seb’s pale, thin throat work as he swallowed and then slowly obeyed. His green irises were glinting with tears when he looked up at Zain. “I was hoping…”

Zain didn’t ask him to finish the sentence. “I haven’t decided yet,” he repeated gently. “It’s something we need to decide together. I just wanted to get some information so we could both be informed. I should’ve mentioned it earlier. I’m sorry you saw the papers before I told you, habibi.

“It’s okay. I’m sorry I… ”

“Tried to maim me?” Zain suggested with a smile. “Don’t worry about it. I’m a big, tough Marine, you know. Oorah.”

Seb gave him a flat look. “I take it back. I’m not sorry. Get off me and I’ll try again.”

“Don’t make promises you’re not gonna keep,” Zain said, and leaned down to steal a kiss before freeing him. “Food. C’mon.” He scooped the scattered papers up and held them aloft as he marched out. “Food first, then we’ll take a look at this.”

He set the packet aside while they ate and kept the conversation, such as it was, focused on other things. Seb answered his chatter with monosyllables. Zain was familiar with all of Seb’s various shades of quietness, and this was one of his least favorites. He left the dirty dishes on the table and took Seb’s hand to pull him out onto the lanai swing, where he kept tugging until Seb sighed and lay down with his head in Zain’s lap. His abdomen barely moved when Zain rested a palm on it, each breath short and shallow. Zain slid his hand under the hem of his t-shirt and left it there as he set the swing oscillating gently, opened the packet, and started to read aloud under the gleam of the patio light.

Other than asking him to translate military jargon, Seb didn’t speak or make eye contact, even after Zain read that he couldn’t live off campus or be married while attending the Academy. Zain lightly whapped his forehead with the folded papers when he was done, provoking a scowl, which was better than nothing. “Well?”

“You want to do it.”

He considered the accusation. Yes, Annapolis had been a daydream he entertained for years, almost as long as the Marine Corps. If circumstances had been different, he might’ve chosen to apply right out of high school. He knew, then or now, it would be hard on both of them, but they had been through worse. Still…

“I want to do what’s best for us,” he said eventually. “Not only for today, but for our future together, too. My job prospects outside the military are very limited right now. Even if I don’t re-enlist, I’m going to need some kind of college to get a career I’ll be happy with, and that’ll mean going into debt.”

“My parents wouldn’t have a problem paying for your education.”

“I know, but I would. They’ve done enough for me, babe.”

Seb, bless him, understood and didn’t argue.

“The next option would be I re-enlist and stay where I am, things continue as they are, and I talk to my CO about other enlisted commissioning programs. Either way, I need a college degree to become an officer.”

“So college is in the picture no matter what, and if you stay in the Corps, you want to be commissioned?” Seb asked quietly.

“At some point, yeah,” Zain agreed. “But it’s not just about me. What do you want, babe?”

For a long moment, there was only the creek of the swing and the sound of waves flowing into their little rocky beach. Then Seb straightened up and put his feet on the floor.

“Hey,” Zain said, hooking an arm around his shoulders and drawing him back.

“I don’t know,” Seb said, twisting to look at him. “I need to think about it. Please, Z.”

Zain met his gaze, hesitated, and then sighed. “Okay, but you’re not thinking about it up a tree or something. It’s late. We should get to bed and talk tomorrow.”

Today

Thud. Thud-thud.

“Any requests?”

Yeah, go away, Seb thought. If he actually said that, Zain would just want to know the band’s name.

“How about an old favorite?” Zain asked once the silence had stretched on for awhile. He didn’t wait for an answer before launching into song once more. “You think I’m pretty without any makeup on. You think I’m funny when I tell the punchline wrong-”

Seb wished he’d brought up a pillow to bury his head in. Zain had a great singing voice. It was his musical taste that drove Seb nuts. The thudding didn’t help, either. He’d given up on trying to draw, and was now lying on his stomach, concentrating on not crying. If Zain heard him so much as sniffle, he’d be up the stairs in two seconds.

“I’mma get your heaaarrt racing in my skin-tight jeans, be your teenage dream tonight! Let you put your haannds on me in my skin-tight jeans, be your teenage dream tonight!”

Thud.

“Need a juicebox?”

It wasn’t that late. Seb threw another paper ball through the door.

“Just checking,” Zain said. “Where was I? Oh, yes. Bonjour!” Thud, thud.Je t’adore!” Thud, thud-thud.C’est aujourd’huuiiii et toujours,” –thud, thud- mon amour.” Thud-thud-thud. “How about meeee?”

He groaned again, loud enough for Zain to hear. If anything, it seemed to egg him on. The thudding started to accompany almost every word.

“And it’s cinq, six, sept, huit, I think that you’re really sweet. One, two, three, four, je t’adore, je t’adore. I won’t be ignooooored!”

“What did French ever do to you?” Seb asked, pushed to his limit.

“Only pleasant things,” Zain said. “Why?”

Seb crawled to the door and looked down suspiciously. “You’re butchering it on purpose to annoy me.”

Zain tipped his head back and grinned at him. “Come and shut me up, then.” He was tossing a tennis ball from hand to hand. When Seb didn’t move, he bounced it off the ceiling underneath him (thud), caught it again without looking, and quirked an eyebrow.

Seb climbed down. Zain stood at the very bottom of the stairs waiting for him, leaving no where for him to go but into his arms, which enfolded him like steel bands the second he got close enough.

“Shut up,” Seb said, against his lips.

Another, softer, thud penetrated his jumbled thoughts some time later. He glanced down and saw the tennis ball bouncing toward his elephant statue.

“Where did you get that?”

“Stop changing the subject,” Zain said, nipping his earlobe, “and go get me a paint stirrer.”

Seb swallowed as his heart skipped a beat. “I wasn’t hiding. You knew where I was.”

The amused snort Zain gave stood in direct contrast to his hand coming down hard on the seat of Seb’s jeans. Seb grimaced at him, pulling away to fetch a stirrer from the bucket next to his prepped canvases. Three-fourths of it was covered in dried gesso thick enough to smooth over the sharp edges of the wood. Reluctantly, he brought it back and held it out to Zain, who ran a hand down that end, checking for rough spots, and then snapped it once against the outside of his own thigh.

Seb had watched him go through this little ritual more times than he could remember, and usually found a suitable one on the first try. He hated being sent back to get another. After flexing the stirrer, Zain nodded in approval and stuck the uncoated end sideways in his mouth while he hooked a finger into Seb’s waistband and pulled him closer. There would be faint tooth marks on the handle when he returned it to the bucket. 

Zain sat down on the staircase again, his feet on lowest step to either side of Seb as he undid his fly and stripped him from waist to knees in one efficient tug. “Over,” he said around the stirrer, taking Seb’s elbow and guiding him across one thigh. Seb found he could grip only the side of the staircase. His toes didn’t even touch the floor on the other side. He flushed, feeling all of ten years old, and then Zain’s leg wrapped around his, pushing his bare buttocks up higher. 

He was never capable of talking in this position, or he might’ve pleaded. There was no lecture or warning before it began, just the sound of Seb’s own breathing, a crack, and a shocking sting right on the lowest curve of his cheeks that only grew and grew. Zain didn’t draw this type of spanking out. He went about it with sharp, rapid flicks of his wrist, laying each and every swat down in the same exact place. Individually, they were manageable. Added together, and Seb was choking back tears within a minute. He dug his fingernails into the wood of the staircase, making little crescent-moon marks, and wiggled, trying to get another strip of flesh into the line of fire. Zain’s aim was too good and his grip was too strong for it to be any use, but he couldn’t stop himself. And it went on and on. 

“Breathe, babe,” Zain told him calmly at one point. Seb realized he’d been holding his exhalation behind clenched teeth for long enough that he felt lightheaded. It escaped out of him in a sob, and that was the end of his self-control. Zain took no notice of the fact that he was falling apart, just kept on as he had been until Seb was a weepy, blubbering mess draped over his knee. Then he rested the stirrer lightly against his upper thighs and asked, “Ready to talk?”

Seb nodded emphatically. Talking was easy compared to this.

Zain helped him to his knees on the step below him and yanked him into another hug. For once, Seb didn’t have to convince himself to accept it. He clutched, snivelling into Zain’s shoulder, for a period of time he didn’t care to remember. Eventually, he drew back and let Zain straighten out his clothes. He did it with a lot more consideration for the lingering soreness than Seb would’ve shown himself, and ended with a thorough, tender kiss. When he was done, he held up the paint stirrer. “Wanna keep this one, or should we turn it into kindling for the next bonfire?”

“Keep it,” Seb said. He put it in its proper place while Zain stood up and stretched.

By silent consensus, they went back to the swing. Seb sat down cautiously and curled one leg up underneath him. Zain was looking at him with clear expectation. He took a deep breath and said what he had been dreading all day. “I want you to do it.”

Zain blinked. “Habibi, you know you’re the most important thing to me, right?”

“Yes, and you’re the most important thing to me. This isn’t about that.” He stopped, trying to find the right words. It came down to who Zain was, at his core, and all the reasons Seb loved him. “My mom,” he said finally, “is the last person I’d expect to support someone going to a military school. But when I told her about this, she said it made sense for you. I looked at that pamphlet again this morning, before you got up. All those photos of the students studying and training-”

“Midshipmen, not students,” Zain interjected, smiling.

Seb rolled his eyes. “Whatever. I could picture you there, thriving. Your CO thinks it would be the best way to get to where you want to be, right?”

Zain nodded. “It’s not up to him, though.”

“No, it’s up to us, and I want you to go. I know it’ll be hard, and we’ll have to postpone the wedding, but so what? We survived deployment. What’s college compared to that?”

“You know I can change my mind after the first two years-”

“You’re not going to quit,” Seb cut in. It was a fact. Zain had brown eyes and he didn’t give up.

“I’m not going to quit us,” he said. “If I need to, I can and will quit Annapolis.”

And you’ll hate yourself for it, Seb thought. He had resolved a long time ago never to force Zain into a choice like that. Whatever they decided, they were in it together, without ultimatums. “I want you to go,” he repeated again, “and… I want to apply to some art schools.”

That got another surprised blink. “Did Antoine get to you?”

“No, it’s something I want for myself, and I have done for a long time,” Seb admitted.

Zain tilted his head and gave him a look that tightened Seb’s stomach. “You never mentioned it before.”

“We were focused on your career,” Seb said, avoiding his eyes. “It never seemed like the right time to bring it up.”

“Brat,” Zain said, voice full of affection. Seb found himself tugged to his feet, swatted in an already-sensitive place, and sat down again, much closer to Zain, before he could draw two breaths. “Am I the only one whose feelings matter here?” Zain asked into his ear.

“No, I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I should’ve told you.”

“And you should apply to art schools. We’ll both be college kids.” He wrapped both arms around Seb’s chest, and Seb rested his own on top of them, leaning back into his solidness. They stayed like that, silently watching the ocean, until lunchtime.

As Zain was setting the table, he said, “Fair warning: if we do this, I’m going to be death on conflict avoidance and hiding feelings.”

Seb stopped in the middle of a glucose test and looked up at him, incredulous. “You’re already death on that stuff. You just were, this morning.”

“Oh, babe, you have no idea,” Zain said with a cheerful smile.

Seb considered all the implications of that, and then asked, “How are you going to be death on anything from Annapolis?”

“I’m sure we’ll figure something out. You know how creative I can be.”

“You could leave the creativity to me sometimes,” Seb muttered. Zain just laughed at him.

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