Just Between Us Squirrel Friends…

Seb

It was one of those days where I met Theo in Washington Square after my classes and sat on a bench sketching passersby while I watched him and Jagger perform until it was time to go home for dinner. I like the diversity of the people who filter through. They give me practice in all different styles and body types. Among the mélange that afternoon, one person stood out.

The hair color was what first caught my eye. It was a swirl of bubblegum pink and baby blue, like cotton candy, and worn in a short, shaggy style around an androgynous face. As they came closer, approaching from behind Theo, I saw a silver metal cat-ear headband nestled on their crown. Their clothing was just as interesting as the hair: A black hoodie that read KITTY GANG, above an outline of the top of Hello Kitty’s iconic head; galaxy-print jeans; and black sequined shoes.

I immediately flipped to a new page in my sketchbook and started drawing as fast as I could, worried they’d move on before I finished. But luckily—or so I thought at the time—they stopped just behind and to the right of Theo, smiling as they took in the show with their hands tucked into the hoodie pocket. I wondered why they didn’t come around to see him from the front, though I was grateful to have the best view myself.

Grayscale wasn’t adequate. As I was digging in my bag for my colored pencils, Theo finished his song and gave the crowd a short bow. “Thank you, everyone. Now–”

My subject stepped even closer to him, reached out, and tapped his shoulder. Theo looked around. Then he shouted, “ERIC!” and crushed their bodies together in a hug with no regard for the guitar still hanging around his neck. “Why didn’t you tell me you’d be in New York?! Love the hair, by the way. Is that new?”

“No! Bitch, don’t you follow my Instagram?” Eric asked, laughing as Theo let go. “I dyed it for International Non-Binary Peoples Day and loved it so much, I decided to keep it.”

“Well, excuuuse me for not living for social media, like some people,” Theo said, and I knew he was rolling his eyes.

Eric kept talking at the same time. “I also posted that a client was flying me to New York for a show this weekend, so you only have yourself to blame for not knowing.”

“Oh, whatever,” Theo said. He spun back around and waved me over. “Seb, c’mere, I have to introduce you to someone!”

I gathered my supplies and approached, adjusting the strap of my messenger bag across my body. Eric crouched to pet Jagger for a few seconds, but straightened up and offered me a smile as I reached them.

“Seb Crews,” Theo said, “meet Eric Yoshida, my former high school sweetheart.”

I blinked. I never would’ve guessed Eric was closer in age to Theo than to me.

“Currently also a makeup artist extraordinaire, model, and drag performer,” Eric said, bobbing a curtsy. “Enchanté.”

“Hi,” I said. “Um. What pronouns do you use?”

“Usually ‘he’ when I’m in pants and ‘she’ when I’m in a skirt, but I don’t really care that much.” He smiled broader. “Thanks for asking, though.” To Theo, he asked, “Wait, is this the one who moved in with you and Quint?”

“Yep,” said Theo.

Eric squealed, leaned forward, and grabbed my shoulder hard. “I have died over photos of your paintings! That portrait you did of Theo and Quint– I have to see it in person! Where is it?”

“Hanging in our bedroom,” Theo said while I was still blinking in shock. “Release the kid and I’ll take you to it.”

“Oh, but what if I want to hold him hostage?” Eric asked. “Make him teach me how to paint, and in return, I’ll paint his face. He’d be a pretty girl!”

“Uh,” I said.

“No!” Theo said, pulling Eric’s hand off me and slapping the back of it. “Bad kitty!”

Eric hissed at him, but when Theo let go to take his guitar off and put it in its case, he didn’t latch onto me again, just said, “Your talent is phenomenal.”

I scuffed my sandal against the ground. “Thank you. I, um, really love your look.”

“Aww, you’re so sweet! Theo, he’s a sweetie!”

“I know,” said Theo. He swung his guitar case onto his back. “C’mon, let’s go.”

Eric pranced off in the direction of the apartment, Jagger bounding along with him. Theo stayed next to me for just a moment.

“Yeah, he’s a bit much,” he said in an undertone. “Totally harmless, though, I swear.”

“I believe you,” I said. “It’s just…. Never thought I’d meet someone with more energy than Zain.”

Laughing, Theo said, “And this is him toned down.”

My eyes widened as I followed him out of the park.

*

Quint was already home, cooking dinner, when we got there. He turned away from the stove, saw we had an extra person with us, and raised his brows. “Eric! Well, this is a nice surprise. Theo forgot to mention you were in town.”

“I didn’t forget,” Theo said, taking off his shoes. “He never mentioned it to me. Does Zeg even know?”

“Yes,” said Eric. “Because she’s a loyal follower, unlike some people.”

“Oh, get over yourself, girl. I’m busy.”

Eric opened his mouth to retort, but Quint spoke first. “Would you like to stay for dinner?”

“I actually just came to look at some paintings, but since you’re so nice to ask, I’d love to!” Eric said. “First, though, can I use your powder room to freshen up?”

“Of course,” said Quint. He waited until Eric had gone and we heard the bathroom door shut, then gripped Theo gently by the elbow and walked him a few feet away. He spoke too quietly for me to hear. Theo nodded, and Quint let go, saying, “Good. Set the table, please.”

That was directed at both of us. I went to get out silverware and glasses while Theo took down plates. We met at the table, circling it together to arrange the place settings. “What was that about?” I whispered. I wouldn’t normally think it was any of my business, but: “Does Quint dislike Eric?”

“Oh, no, don’t worry about that,” Theo answered. “He likes him fine. In small doses.” Then he rolled his eyes. “Quint thought he had to warn me not to let him influence me, just because last time Eric visited, I started talking really drag and I may have accidentally taught Lyra the word ‘hunty.’ Which I still maintain is a term of endearment, no matter what its etymology, and it was cute coming from a five-year-old.”

“‘Hunty’?” I echoed.

“It’s a combination of ‘honey’ and a word that starts with C,” Theo said. “Quint did not find it cute.” He set down the last plate and rubbed his butt dramatically.

“Oh,” I said.

From behind us, Eric’s voice rang out. “Now! Lead me to the masterpiece!”

“This way,” Theo said, pointing as he passed Eric and went towards his and Quint’s bedroom.

I stayed where I was and adjusted the knife and fork next to my plate so they were perfectly perpendicular to the edge of the table.

“You’re not going to see it with them, mon chaton?”

Shrugging one shoulder, I said, “I don’t really like watching people look at my artwork.”

Quint smiled and held out the wooden salad bowl across the peninsula. Taking it from him, I put it in the center of the table.

“I can manage the rest,” he said. “Why don’t you go wash up and do your injection?”

I nodded. Better to handle that now, while Eric was occupied.

He and Theo were still in the bedroom when I finished. I could hear them talking as I came out of the bathroom, but it was muffled and hard to make out the words. They stayed in there so long that Quint finally had to go tell them dinner was ready.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Eric said to me as he sashayed into the living room. “I was just asking Theo how it feels to be living with the next Picasso.”

I flushed and shifted in my chair. I was proud of that portrait, yes, but I’ll never become world-famous or invent an entirely new movement. Anyway, my work is more rooted in Post-Impressionism.

“Oh, honey, don’t be shy!” Eric said. “You gotta own that talent!”

Nothing makes me feel more shy than someone telling me not to be. The increased scrutiny curls me up into myself like a fern frond in sunshine.

Quint stepped in. “We’re very blessed to have Seb as a friend. What have you been up to, Eric? Five years have passed since I last saw you in person.”

I thought the change of subject would be too obvious to work, but Eric seemed thrilled for a chance to talk about his life in LA and how ‘busy, busy, busy’ he was. He chattered on while he and Theo washed their hands, sat, and served themselves from the dishes on the table. He was in New York, he said, to do the makeup for an avant-garde fashion photography book.

“I’m so excited about it! And of course, I knew I had to track down Theo while I was in town. Distance and time can’t hurt a friendship like ours, though. We’re bonded for eternity. Seb, did you know Theo saved my life once?”

Across the table, Theo stiffened a little. He tried to hide it with a roll of his eyes. “Don’t be a drama queen. He wasn’t going to kill you.”

“Well, maybe not,” Eric allowed. “But he definitely would’ve broken my arm!”

“Who?” I asked, cautiously. I didn’t like the hunch of Theo’s shoulders.

Quint reached out and covered Theo’s hand with his own as Theo answered, “My father.” His lips twisted into a smile as sour as three-month-old milk. “When he kicked me out.”

“Theo was my mad gladiator-warrior bodyguard,” Eric said. He was more subdued than he’d been since I met him, though he didn’t stop talking. “See, I was sorta on top of him on the couch when his dad came home early and saw us, and I was dressed boy, which I usually didn’t do there. They’d only known me as Erika. His dad grabbed my arm, twisted it behind my back, and yanked me off. It hurt so bad. And then Theo just launched himself at him, trying to pull him away and screaming to let me go.”

“He did,” Theo said, staring at his plate. “Only so he could take a swing at me. I would’ve ducked faster if I hadn’t been focused on making sure you were okay.” He cast a half-sardonic glance at Eric and turned his hand over to interlock his fingers with Quint’s.

“I know, I know,” Eric said. “But I made it up to you as best I could! I taught you how to cover the black eye with makeup once the swelling went down, remember? And I took you to Zeggy’s that night when you wanted to just sleep on the street somewhere. I had to convince you it was worth the risk of her godfather finding out what really happened and arresting your dad. I would’ve taken you home myself, if–”

“If your mother didn’t hate me,” Theo said, with a truer smile this time.

“She doesn’t hate you! She just wanted me to find a nice Japanese boy.” Eric sighed and took a sip from his glass. “Still does.”

“Still not getting what she wants?” asked Theo. The tilt of his head was a lot like Zain.

Eric snorted. “I ain’t ready to settle down yet. You know I’m a slut.”

Theo’s laughter shook the table.

*

Later, after we’d cleared everything away and started the dishwasher, Eric and Theo settled on the couch with Jagger between them and continued catching up. I excused myself to my room to do homework. Barely twenty minutes had passed before there was a knock on my door.

“May I come in, mon chaton?

Oui,” I said, setting down my pencil and stretching out my neck.

Quint opened the door just enough to put his head through at first. “I don’t want to interrupt if you’re talking with Zain,” he said.

I turned my laptop so he could see the blank screen. “He has a company meeting.”

Satisfied, Quint came in and sat down on the edge of my bed. “I’m going to finish packing my suitcase and then turn in for the night. I won’t see you before leaving tomorrow, so I’ll say goodbye now.”

“Have fun at the conference,” I said. Then I frowned. “Are medical conferences fun?”

He chuckled. “Not usually, but I’ll try my best. I also wanted to thank you for being willing to walk Jagger in the mornings while I’m gone. Getting up that early is always a struggle for Theo.”

“I’m up early, anyway, and it’s only a few days,” I said, shrugging.

“Still, I appreciate it.” A loud burst of giggles came from the living room, too high-pitched to be Theo. Quint glanced at the open door. “Eric will probably hang out here for another couple of hours before going to his hotel. Neither of them would mind you joining them, you know.”

“I know,” I said. “I just don’t want to intrude.”

“You wouldn’t be intruding. They have history together, yes, but so do you and Theo.”

Not like that, I thought. Picking at the seam of my pant leg, I said, “Speaking of their history… Theo doesn’t normally like to talk about it. I was surprised, um, that he did.”

“And surprised I didn’t change the subject to spare him?” Quint suggested, gently. When I nodded, he said, “It’s good for him to discuss it every once in awhile. Talking about it with Eric, who was there too, makes it easier. I believe Eric knows that, and that’s why he brings it up. Do you understand?”

It sounded like something Zain would do. I nodded again.

“Good.” He stood and opened his arms. “Over here, mon chaton, so I can say goodbye.”

I obeyed, returning his hug as tightly as it was given. With a last kiss to my forehead, he left for his room.

Theo

“Angel, wake up a minute…. Annnngelll, open your eyes now, come on.”

“Mmmghzzd,” I said, rolling away from the hand insistently shaking my arm. “Z’too early. Wake me up la’er.”

“I’ll be on a plane later,” Quint said.

For about three seconds, I could not for the life of me figure out why the hell that would be the case. Then I remembered the conference. The one I couldn’t accompany him to because of my gig tomorrow night.

I flopped onto my back. “Dammit.” Why did he have to leave at the buttcrack of dawn, when I was too tired to fully appreciate the fact that I was going to miss him like crazy over the next three days? I peeled my eyelids apart and saw him sitting beside me, already dressed in a suit. I flicked the end of his tie. “C’mere so I can kiss you.”

He smiled and leaned over, and I lifted my head an inch to meet his mouth. He never comments on my morning breath, which is sweet of him.

After our lips parted, he sat up again. His eyebrow also went up. “Just a reminder: The pizza rule still applies, even when I’m not home, and you need to have a vegetable with every meal. Potatoes don’t count.”

Huffing, I said, “Wow, you can really make a goodbye romantic.”

He went on like he hadn’t heard. “Also, if you keep the apartment tidy, you won’t need to rush around trying to clean everything in the ten minutes before I walk through the door.”

I turned my face away and looked at him from the corner of my eye. “…You know I do that?”

Quint smiled again. Of course he knew. He tucked a lock of my hair behind my ear and said, “I love you, angel.”

“I love you, too,” I said. “Don’t worry, I’ve got Seb here. How much trouble can I get into with him around?”

Quint didn’t answer; he just said, “I’ll call you tonight.”

“And text me when you land!”

“I will.” He kissed me once more, deeper. “Love you. See you Tuesday.”

“Love you,” I said, and watched him go before I looked at the alarm clock. It was five-thirty. Groaning, I pulled the covers over my head and fell back asleep.

*

Get Eric and I together, and we can talk for hours on end. He’d stayed until well past midnight, which meant it was after ten-thirty when I finally dragged myself into the kitchen. Seb was curled up in the armchair with Jagger, reading. “I left you coffee in the French press,” he said.

I grunted my thanks and poured a mug to sip while I heated a sausage patty in the microwave and slapped it between two slices of toast. I was halfway to the couch with my sandwich when I remembered Quint’s words. Turning back, I opened the fridge and grabbed the first thing my hand landed on in the produce drawer. An eggplant. I carried it in the crook of my elbow to the couch and let it roll gently onto the cushion, then sat down.

Jagger sprang from Seb’s lap and came trotting over to investigate. He sniffed the eggplant once and lost interest in favor of begging me for a piece of the sandwich. Breaking off a corner, I dropped it on the floor for him. Hey, if I was going to flout the rules, it was only fair that he got to as well.

“Um, Theo?” Seb asked, frowning over the top of his book. “Why did you put an eggplant on the couch?”

“Quint said I had to ‘have’ a vegetable with every meal,” I explained. “He didn’t say I had to eat it.”

He bit his lip and snorted with giggles.

The intercom buzzed as I was going to make my second cup of coffee. I detoured to press the talk button, trying to remember if I had any packages to be delivered today. “Hello?”

“Let me in, let me in, let me in!”

“Eric?” I asked. It was hard to be sure, between the static and the manic tone.

“Yes! Let me in!”

He sounded like he really had to pee or something. I hit the button to admit him to the building and stayed by the intercom just in case the front desk guys wanted to call up and verify I had a visitor. They must’ve known him from the night before, though, because he came right upstairs and ratta-tat-tatted on our door.

“Brace yourselves,” I said, both to Seb—who was watching all of this carefully without moving anything but his eyes—and to Jagger, waiting at my feet to greet our visitor.

Tat-tat-tat. “Let me in, let me in!”

I undid the chain and opened the door, saying, “Jesus, how do you have so much energy? Aren’t you jetlagged?”

Bursting inside, Eric thrust a can almost into my nose. “Red Bull, bitch.”

“Oh, that’s just what you need,” I said.

Jagger jumped backwards, startled, as Eric spun in place on our doormat, apparently unhampered by the massive black bag slung over his shoulder. “What I need is help! Listen, the photoshoot starts tomorrow, and I’m shitting myself. This is a really big, big deal for my career, and I just–” He stopped not to take a breath, but to gulp from the can. “–I just have to practice, not my own face, so I thought–”

“Calm down, girl,” I said, trying to channel Quint, and failing. Quint never sounds so impatient. “You’ll be great.”

He shot me a scornful look. “I know I’ll be great! Of course I’ll be great! That’s not the point! I thought maybe you’d let me…”

“You thought I’d model for you, like when we were in high school?” I asked.

Nodding, he clasped his hands together around the can of Red Bull. “Pleaaaase? I’ll love you foreveeeeer.”

I put the chain back on the door. “Sure.”

Eric squeaked as he bounced up and down. “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!”

“Okay.” I caught his wrist and pried the can away. “No more Red Bull for you.” It felt half-full, so I drank the rest of it. Caffeine is caffeine.

He stuck his tongue out and went to drop his bag on the table. In the living room, Seb was getting up, saying, “I’ll leave you two and–”

“Oh, don’t go!” Eric said. “I could really use your artistic eye here!”

Seb hesitated. “I don’t know anything about makeup.”

“It’s the same principles!” said Eric. “We even call it ‘painting a face.’ Please stay? Pleeaaaassee?” He did the begging hands again.

“Um… okay, if you think it’ll help,” Seb said.

“I do! Thank you soooo much!” He pulled out a chair and turned to me. “Theo, come sit. I know you won’t shave, but that’s not going to stop me from making you as glamorous as Conchita Wurst.” Then he paused, frowned, and looked over his shoulder. “Why is there an eggplant on your couch?”

“No reason,” I said, completely innocent.

*

“Wait, you’re just using an Elmer’s glue stick?” Seb asked, leaning close to watch as glue was slathered on my eyebrows. He’d started out observing from the other side of the kitchen counter while Eric unpacked all the makeup from his bag and spread it across the table, but with each step of the process he moved closer, staring in fascination. Now he sat in my usual chair.

“Yep!” Eric said. “The purple ones work best. You let it dry a little bit between coats until his brow area is completely smooth, and then you can draw on the new brows.”

“Isn’t it hard to get off?” asked Seb.

“Not really,” I said. “Makeup remover and then soap and water works fine.”

“Why not just use his natural brows?”

“Depends on the look you’re going for,” said Eric. “I usually go natural myself, but I keep mine in nice shape. Theo would need a weed-whacker to use his.”

“Hey!” I said. The ingratitude, I tell ya.

Eric ignored me and reached across the table to take Seb’s chin in his hand and turn his head. Seb jerked back a little in surprise. Ignoring that too, Eric said, “You could use yours, with just a smidge of clean-up. You would make a pretty girl. What if after I’m done with Theo, I do you?”

Blushing, Seb pulled away completely. “Um… dressing up isn’t really my thing. Not even on Halloween.”

“You wouldn’t have to dress up,” Eric said. “Just your face.” He switched to my other eyebrow. “I think everyone should do drag at least once, but gay guys especially. It’s part of the cultural heritage. Plus, it’s fun! You get to meet a different aspect of yourself.”

I looked sideways at Seb, trying to gauge how uncomfortable he was. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” I said.

“I… I’ll think about it,” he said.

Eric let the subject drop, thankfully.

He wouldn’t let me look at a mirror as he did my face, but I could tell just from the quantity of makeup that he was going all-in. Seb’s expression was enthralled rather than horrified, though. That was a good sign, I assumed. The first time Eric put me in drag, Zeggy couldn’t look at me without cracking up. The end result had been… interesting. I only let him do it again because I loved him, and he did get better with practice, thankfully.

But he never lost his love of over-the-top looks. I wouldn’t have been shocked if I had neon purple skin when he finally sat back, tapped the handle of a brush against his lips, and said, “Almost done, I think!”

“Can I see it, then?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I want something more…. Oh! What if I give you a glitter beard?!”

I snorted. “And have glitter all over the apartment? Do you want Quint to kill me?”

Eric slouched with a sigh-groan. “Fiiiiiiine.” Then he straightened suddenly. “A wig!” Leaning across three makeup palettes on the table, he started digging through his bag.

“You have wigs in there?” I asked, not sure why I was surprised. “Did you bring your entire wardrobe with you?”

“No, I have three more bags at the hotel,” he said. “This is just some of my beauty supplies and a change of clothes.”

“‘Some of,’” I repeated. A mountain of stuff covered the table. “Well, considering where you start, I guess it has to take a lot to make you beautiful.”

“Oh, shut up, bitch!” Eric said, laughing and shaking out a honey-blonde wig. “Seb, in the side pocket there’s a wig cap. It’s too far for me to reach. Can you, pleeeeasse–? Thanks!”

Seb gave him the cap, moving around the table in the process and studying me from a different angle. His gaze was piercing. I’ve seen him do that before, only it was in a museum, looking at a sculpture or painting. It felt odd, directed at me. As Eric reached out to put the cap on my head, Seb spoke. “Don’t. He doesn’t need it.”

I blinked. Since when does Seb tell people he’s just met what to do with such confidence?

“You think?” Eric asked, letting his hands drop. “It’s not very drag, with that scruff.”

“It’s avant-garde,” Seb said. “That’s what you wanted to practice, right?”

“True.” Eric cocked his head at me. Then he grinned. “You’re right! The wig would be a distraction!”

“Does that mean I can see myself now?” I asked. “Finally?”

“Uh-huh,” said Eric. He picked up a large hand mirror that had been face-down on the table and gave it to me.

I looked at my reflection and let out an involuntary gasp. Eric had truly painted around my eyes with smudges in all colors of the rainbow, very similar to the style Seb used in the portrait of Quint and I. It gave the illusion that my face was emerging from a canvas, somehow.

“Wow,” I said, angling the mirror to get a better look. “Where were you hiding this talent in high school?”

“Shady whore!” Eric said, with a smack on my arm. In his other hand, he still held the wig, which he twirled around his finger as he jogged his knee. “I want to do a really fishy look now, though! I’m in the mood!” He swiveled and looked up through his lashes. “Seb, won’t you pllleeaaaasee let me beat your face?”

Seb took a half-step back. “Let you what?”

“It’s slang for putting on makeup,” I said, quickly. “Not violence.”

“You know, as in, beat for the gods? Which is what you’ll be when I’m done with you,” Eric said. “C’mooon, don’t you want to be a living work of art? Just for a liiiiittle while.”

Seb bit his lip and then opened his mouth, and I wanted to stand up for him. Truly, I did. The problem was, I know my ex too well. So before Seb could refuse, I said, “He’ll keep up that whining until you give in.”

“I–”

Eric interrupted this time. “It’ll be a natural look,” he coaxed. “Day drag. Pretty, pretty please?”

“Well–”

“And it’s fun, I swear! Tell him, Theo!”

“Oh–” Seb said, at the same time I said, “Yeah, I have to admit–”

Yes!”

I almost bit my tongue as my mouth snapped shut. Seb had actually raised his voice.

“Sorry,” he said, turning pink. “I was trying to answer, but you both kept talking. I’m saying okay.”

Eric squealed and bounced in his chair. “YAZZZ!” Standing, he started to dig through the makeup, pull out various bottles and compacts, and put them in a separate pile. “Okay, first, I need a light foundation. Don’t want to cover up those freckles, do we? They’re so gorgeous! And we’re going to do something that’ll really play with your green eyes and bring them out. OH oh! This is perfect! And this…. Yesssss, girrrlll, this is going to be fun! This one, too…”

Seb watched with wide eyes as the pile of makeup grew and grew.

Seb

I sat as still as a moss-covered stone while Eric trimmed my eyebrows with a tiny pair of scissors, every inch of me aware that if he got carried away, he could do serious damage. He was a professional, but… “It’s not going to be really obvious that they’re shaped, is it?”

“No! And stop frowning. You don’t want to get wrinkles,” he said, moving to the other brow.

I smoothed out my forehead obediently. “Sorry.”

“You apologize too much! Remember, you’re a queen. People should be apologizing to you.” He tapped the comb against the tip of my nose. “Why do you care if anyone notices your eyebrow shape, anyway? You don’t strike me as a, y’know,”—he puffed out his chest and scowled—“macho, manly man.”

“I’m not,” I said. I wasn’t flamboyant like him, but my personality is on the effeminate side, and I’m fine with that. “I guess I just… like to be more natural?”

“Seb doesn’t like having attention drawn to him,” Theo said. He was sitting behind Eric, on the table itself, and every time I glanced at him, I couldn’t help imagining Quint pulling him off it with a swat to his rear end. He grinned at me. “Not wanting everyone’s attention is a hard concept for Eric to grasp.”

“Oh, like you don’t get boners from performing,” Eric scoffed.

My jaw dropped as Theo burst into laughter. Through it, he said, “I outgrew that when I was twenty, thanks.”

“Sure you did,” Eric said. He picked up a pink, teardrop-shaped sponge the size of an egg and squirted some clear liquid onto it, then began dabbing it over my cheeks. “Why don’t you like attention?”

I shrugged.

“He’s shy,” Theo said, with a hint of defensiveness.

“No shit,” said Eric. “I’m asking why.” His gaze was on the sponge, not making eye contact, and his voice sounded casual. “Fear of what other people’s opinions will be?”

Oui, I thought, as my shoulders came up around my ears. When Zain tries to convince me to dress up as a Disney couple every Halloween, wasn’t it simple fear that makes me refuse? I pass it off by saying I’d look bad in drag, but even if he were willing to sacrifice his role as the charming prince and play the princess himself, I wouldn’t do it. Going out in a matching costume with him would be like having the spotlight of his charisma widened, so it shone on me, too. It’s much safer to hide in his shadow.

Eric put down the sponge, opened two palettes, and held them up next to my face. “Mama Ru says something that helps me when I feel like that.” He closed one of the palettes and set it on the table, then grabbed a large brush. “She says, ‘What other people think of you is none of your business.’ So you’re free from worrying about it, y’know?”

The notion jostled into my brain, bumping up against older, established ideas that weren’t happy to cede territory. “I… I’ve never thought of it that way,” I said, blinking. “Who’s Mama Ru?”

“Who’s–!” Eric stopped applying whatever was in the palette and narrowed his eyes. “Child, you did not just ask me that. The one and only RuPaul, of RuPaul’s Drag Race? The Supermodel of the World?”

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah, I’ve heard of him. I’ve just never heard someone call him… her…‘Mama Ru.’ Sorry.”

“‘Heard of,’” Eric muttered, dabbing more makeup onto the brush. “You need to start watching! You’d learn a lot. Like, he also says, ‘we’re born naked, and the rest is drag.’ My boy clothes are just as much drag as my girl clothes.”

“Yeah, but you were born covered in glitter,” Theo said, with a ruffle of Eric’s blue-and-pink hair.

He giggled. “True.” Then he went back to work.

Unlike with Theo, he let me see my reflection the whole time. He’d been right: The principles of art were all the same, regardless of medium. The final look was built up in layers, with each one blending into the one below in a wet-on-wet technique.

“You’re painting a portrait with the actual face as your canvas,” I marvelled as he applied something shiny to my cheekbones. Not an exact portrait, either. The person in the mirror was me, yet softer and bolder at the same time. “It’s amazing.”

Eric beamed. “You have no idea how much it means to hear that, coming from you. Thank you.” He set down the fan brush he’d been using. “Now, false eyelashes, slap on a wig—not that blonde one, something dark—and you’re done!”

Theo wasn’t wearing any lashes. I didn’t object, though. And when Eric offered to show me how to do it myself so he wasn’t accidentally poking me in the eyeball, I said, “No, I trust you.”

Theo

Of course Eric was right. Seb made an adorable girl. His lips were full and pouty. His skin glowed. By some optical illusion, his eyes were enlarged to twice their usual size, and they filled with wonder whenever he looked at himself in the mirror.

I slid off the table to retrieve my iPad. “Okay, Zain’s gotta see this.”

“Wait, what?” Seb said. “Theo–”

“Who’s Zain?” asked Eric.

“His fiancé,” I said, rolling my eyes. “The one I mentioned yesterday? I swear, if it’s not about you, it just goes in one ear and out the other.”

“I remember!” Eric protested. “I just didn’t remember his name. He’s in the Army, right?”

“Marines,” we both said together. I tapped the screen to FaceTime and turned so Seb wasn’t in view of the camera.

“Theo,” Seb started again, but whatever he’d been about to say, it was too late.

“Squirt! He-eey,” Zain answered, his voice going up a key as he fully took in my face. “Wow. Do you have some kind of show today?”

“Nah, this is just my lazy-Saturday-hanging-around look,” I said, flipping imaginary hair over my shoulder. “Or it is when my drag queen ex is in town and wants to play dress-up.”

He smiled. “Well, it looks great.”

“Thanks! I also have someone with a surprise for you.” I went and stood behind Seb’s chair, then lowered the iPad until he came into frame. At the same time, though, he held both hands up in front of his face, blocking everything from the bangs of his wig down.

“Who– Seb?!”

Seb gave a tiny nod without moving his hands.

“Oh, let him see, let him see!” Eric said, bouncing around to my right.

Zain’s lips were parted in shock. Since he seemed uncharacteristically speechless, I took it upon myself to say, “C’mon, you know you look good.”

Slowly, Seb curled his fingers up and looked at the screen over his knuckles. “Hi?”

Zain started to grin. “Hi, babe. Let me see all of you! I’ve waited years for this.”

Seb took a deep breath and, on the exhale, dropped his hands into his lap. “Um, what do you think?”

For a couple of seconds, Zain didn’t answer. He simply stared. Then he said, “You’re stunning. As always, but in a different way.” He frowned. “Also, you kinda look like Quinn.”

“Like Quint?” I demanded, forgetting all about holding the iPad so they could see each other and jerking it up to my eye-level.

They both burst into laughter. “No-o-o,” Seb said, shaking with giggles. “Quinnnnnn, my sister.”

“Oh.” Duh.

Eric doubled over. “I– I thought he said Quint, too,” he choked. “I was about to get real offended!”

“Imagine Quint in… in drag,” Zain gasped.

I bit my lip in an attempt to smother my snickering, but it was useless.

When all of us finally calmed down and I’d propped the iPad up against Eric’s bag on the table, Zain looked over his shoulder at some noise and said, “Oh, JJ, it’s you. I thought you’d left.”

“Forgot something,” said JJ’s voice from off screen. Then he appeared behind Zain and picked a book up from his desk.

Seb froze in place, like if he didn’t move he wouldn’t be seen.

But when JJ spun back towards the door, he caught sight of Zain’s computer and did a double-take. “Seb?” He leaned over Zain to get a closer look. “It is you! Damn, you cute. I can see now why Mo can’t keep his hands off you when you’re down here.”

Zain slowly turned his head and fixed his roommate with a narrowed gaze.

“What?” JJ asked. “I’m secure enough in my heterosexuality to say that.”

“Are you secure enough in your ability to take me in hand-to-hand combat?” Zain asked, deadpan.

JJ smirked. “Name a time and place.”

“That’s not necessary, thank you,” Seb cut in, looking a bit pinker under all the makeup.

“Yeah,” Zain said. “He’s mine, so you can leave now.”

Laughing, JJ walked out of frame again. We heard him call back, “Don’t let Nak see him like that!”

“Oh, I don’t intend to,” Zain said. He smirked at Seb. “He’d enjoy a hot girl version of you way too much.”

“Who would?” Eric asked, crowding into the frame with Seb and I.

“Classmate of mine,” said Zain. He gave a little wave. “I’m Zain, by the way. Nice to meet you. I’m assuming you’re Theo’s drag queen ex?”

“The one and only! I’m Eric. Or Erika Waii, if you’re looking for me on social media. That’s Erika with a K, and Waii like the last part of Hawaii.”

“Excuse the shameless self-promotion,” I said, rolling my eyes. “He can’t help himself.”

As Eric was about to launch into a defense, Seb interrupted. “Like the Japanese aesthetic, kawaii?”

“Yes!” Eric said. “Thank you for getting it! I usually have to explain to people! Which sucks because it’s really an excellent drag name, if you ask me.”

“It is,” Seb said.

“Mine’s better,” I said. “It’s Kat O. Strasters. Like Stratocasters.” I pointed to my Strats proudly displayed with my other guitars on the wall above my synth. “Came up with that when I was seventeen.”

“And used it once in a high school talent show,” said Eric. “What a waste. Ooooh, Seb needs to have a drag name!”

“For what?” Seb asked, his forehead creasing. “I’m not going to perform.”

“For fun!” said Eric. “And because I’m your drag mother, so it’s my right to name you. I will, of course, take your preferences into consideration. What would you like it to be?”

“I… I don’t know,” Seb said.

On the screen of the iPad, Zain was getting just as excited as Eric. He rubbed his hands together gleefully and said, “Something ridiculously long and French, like his real name.”

“Your real name is French?” Eric asked.

“Half French,” Seb said. “It’s Sébastien Leon McKenna Crews, and it’s not that long.”

Zain and I both snorted. Eric, though, was lost in thought. Slowly, he said, “I helped a French lady once when I worked the MAC counter at Bloomingdale’s. I still remember her name because I loved it. Géraldine Rouge. So chic. Plus, ‘rouge’ is a makeup word.”

“And a color word,” Zain said. “Good for an artist. But it needs to be longer, I think.”

“Well, aren’t you a size queen?” Eric asked.

Zain grinned cheekily. “You’d know that already if you’d tried to get him to tuck and realized how much finagling it would take.”

“ZAIN!” Seb said, while Eric giggled and I blinked the mental image away.

“It’s a compliment, habibi,” Zain said, like butter wouldn’t melt.

Seb sat back and crossed his arms over his skinny chest. “I was about to suggest incorporating the French female name ‘Marine’ in honor of you, but see if I do now.”

“Géraldine Marine Rouge!” Eric crowed with delight. “That’s perfect! And we’ll call you Gigi for short. My daughter, Gigi. Yasss!” He shoved excitedly at Seb’s shoulder so hard that Seb had to uncross his arms to rebalance himself. “Oh, sorry,” said Eric, laughing.

I sighed at him. It was like watching an over-excited Great Dane puppy and a toddler.

“What d’you think, babe?”

Biting his lip, Seb shrugged. “It’s nice.”

Zain tilted his head briefly to one side. Uh-oh. “Hey, can I talk to Gigi alone?” he asked.

“Sure!” Eric said, oblivious to the subtle shift of mood. “I want to get myself into full face anyway. Can’t let you girls have all the fun!”

Seb and I exchanged a glance as he picked up the iPad and stood. Meanwhile, Eric pressed the handle of his mirror into my hand and gestured for me to hold it up. I did, but my gaze was watching the other Brat walking away.

Seb

I sat on my bed, my back against the wall and my knees bent up in front of me, a convenient resting place for the iPad. Zain waited until I’d settled. Then he leaned into his camera. “How are you, habibi? Not liking the drag look?”

“No, it’s beautiful,” I said. I truly did feel like a living work of art.

You’re beautiful,” Zain corrected. “In or out of makeup.”

I looked down and caught sight of the curls falling over my shoulders from the wig. The strands felt silky against my fingers. “Merci.”

“You believe me?” he asked.

“…I’m trying to.”

“Okay,” he said, accepting that as enough. Then his smile came back. “So now that you’ve done it once and liked it, what do you say to Jasmine for Halloween next year?”

I sighed. The second Theo had called him, I’d known that was coming. “I’ll think about it.”

Pumping his fist, Zain shouted, “YES!”

“That’s not a victory!” I pointed out.

“Give it time. I’ll wear you out,” he said, cheerfully. “Speaking of, Theo’s ex is, uh, something else.”

“He’s got a lot of talent,” I said, because it was true, and Eric was sweet, really.

“Oh, buckets,” Zain said. “Is he staying with you guys?”

I frowned at the too-casual tone. Zain gets possessive when he knows it’ll turn me on, but he doesn’t actually care about me spending time with other men. There’s no point. We’re both well aware who I belong to. “No, he has a hotel. Why?”

“Just want to make sure you’re getting some quiet time,” he said. “Especially since Quint isn’t there to lend a hand if you need de-stressing.”

“Eric’s not stressing me out,” I said. “Don’t worry.”

He rolled his tongue and poked it between his lips. “I’m allowed to worry about you when I want. You’re going to tell me if he does.”

Said with the confidence bordering on arrogance that makes my stomach jerk sideways. I nodded quickly.

“Good,” he said, and moved the conversation on to our Disney World plans until it was time for him to report to watch duty.

Theo and Eric were sitting on the couch together when I came out, except when Eric looked over his shoulder and said, “Come here, child. You’re about to get an education in entertaintment,” I realized he’d transformed completely into Erika.

“An education in… what?” I asked, going to sit in the armchair and seeing she was wearing a dress with a lot of lavender lace ruffles. She didn’t want me to learn to perform, did she?

“Drag Race!” she said. “Watch and take notes!”

Theo pressed a few buttons on the TV remote, and high-energy music played over the opening credits. Erika danced in her seat and sang along.

*

It was a good show. Erika’s level of enthusiasm, though, never waned. It was worse than watching a Disney movie with Zain. She said some of the lines before the contestants. Occasionally she stole the remote from Theo to pause in the middle and explain some backstory about previous seasons. And at the end of each episode, when two drag queens had to lipsync to the same song to determine who would be sent home, she got up and did it with them.

Theo rolled his eyes at me every time. By the end of the third one, I felt as drained and muddy as a small pond after a year-long drought. I started thinking of excuses to go be alone.

If Zain were here, he would’ve rescued me by now, I thought, and immediately felt awful. Erika just wanted to share her love of the show.

“Hey, shouldn’t we be headed to Zeg’s?” Theo asked. “Dinner?”

“Shit!” said Erika. “You’re right! I still have to pack up all my crap, too.” She rushed to the table and began putting makeup in her bag.

Carefully, I pulled the wig and skullcap off my head. It was much cooler without them. “Um, here,” I said, holding them out. “These are yours.”

Erika glanced over. “Oh, Gigi, darling, aren’t you coming? You know Zeggy, right? I bet she’d love to see you in drag!”

Go outside like this? My gut clenched. “I have a, a project I need to work on here.”

From where he still sat on the couch, Theo made a noise that might’ve been a sneeze. Or a snort of disbelief. I couldn’t blame him. I’m terrible at lying.

“A project?” Erika asked, as if she didn’t quite buy it either.

Theo stood up, took the wig, and brought it to her. “He goes to Cooper Union. They’ve always got projects. Let him be.”

Her face fell, but she said, “Okay. Listen to your mother, though, and wash that makeup off before you go to bed!”

“I will,” I said.

It took them forever to leave. Just before they finally did, Theo came and leaned over the back of the armchair to snap a selfie of me and him together. “To show Quint and no one else, I promise,” he whispered to me. Then he snapped his fingers at Jagger. “C’mon, boy.”

A minute later, I had peace at last. I went to the window and watched the twilight fall over the muted city below.

Only when it was fully dark did I notice the dull throbbing at my temples. Sighing, I went to get a painkiller.

Theo

I got home pretty late, so it didn’t surprise me that Seb was already slumbering in bed when I checked on him. What did surprise me was shambling past his open door the next morning and catching a glimpse of him from the corner of my eye. I stopped a foot shy of the living room, frowned, shook the cobwebs from my head, and looked back to be sure I’d seen that right.

Yes, he was curled up on his side, his covers kicked almost all the way off to expose his bare torso and the yoga pants he uses as pajamas, fast asleep. At nearly noon. Had I been transported into some bizarro world where I’m the morning person?

Or maybe he wasn’t just sleeping. Maybe this was like that time he passed out.

The moment the thought entered my mind, I darted into the room and grabbed his bony shoulder. “Seb?!”

He jerked away from me without opening his eyes. Okay, that was something.

It also gave me a better view of his face. He’d listened to Eric’s advice and washed the makeup off before sleeping. Were his dark circles so pronounced yesterday?

I shook his arm. “Seb? You okay?”

He mumbled something I couldn’t understand at all. Maybe it was in French.

“Seb?” I tried again.

This time, he peered up at me, blinked drowsily, and rubbed his freckled nose with the back of his hand. “I’m high,” he whispered. “My head hurts. I took some insulin and I’m gonna sleep it off.”

Oh. That was… well, not good, but better than I’d imagined. A ‘normal’ high blood sugar wouldn’t lead to him passing out. Before, the thing in the park… that had been a special case. I lowered my voice, too. “Sorry. I’ll keep it quiet. Do you need anything?”

“Nuh,” he said, shaking his head.

“Okay.” I started to leave, then turned back. “Hey, did you take Jagger out?” I assumed he had, because Jagger hadn’t pawed and whined at the master bedroom door like he does if I oversleep and don’t walk him on time, but I wanted to be sure.

“Mm-hm.”

“Okay. Thanks. Feel better.”

Seb nodded once, rolled over, buried his face in his pillow, and zonked out in an instant. Poor kid. I gently shut his door before going to make my coffee.

*

Plugging my headphones into my synth let me work on songs for an hour or two without disturbing him. I got so into trying to compose a bridge that when I stopped playing for a moment and heard footsteps right behind me, I almost fell off my swivel chair.

Jesus! Don’t sneak up on people like that,” I said, clutching my heart as I spun around to face Seb.

He froze on the spot, staring at me with big, red, watery eyes. “I–I didn’t mean to.”

I took the headphones off my ears and let them rest around my neck. “Hey, it’s okay! Why are you crying? Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” he said on a little huff. “Don’t worry. They’re just tears of frustration because I’m high still. My ketones are finally down, though. I came to tell you I’m going for a walk.”

“Let me come with you,” I said, taking the headphones off entirely and standing up.

“…I’ll be okay on my own,” he said.

“I have to walk Jagger,” I said. “I’m not babying you, I swear.”

He sniffled, and I wanted to hug him so bad, but I held myself back. If he thought I was worried, it’d only upset him more. Finally, he said, “Okay.”

We just went around the block a few times. Seb hardly said two words while we were outside. He trudged along with his hands tucked into his hoodie pocket and his head down so the people we passed couldn’t see he’d been crying.

In our building once more, I hit the button on the elevator and waited for the doors to close between us and the lobby. Then I asked, “Have you called Zain?”

“He’s marathon training,” Seb said, leaning against the handrail like it was the only thing holding him up. “I don’t need to interrupt him for this.”

“Oooh-kaaaay,” I said, in a tone that I hoped conveyed it’s your funeral. I really wished I could tell Zain myself without betraying Seb.

He looked away from me.

Back in the apartment, he vanished into the bathroom for a while, and when he came out, he was shirtless again and had a lot of thick green goop smeared over his face.

I snorted. “What the hell?”

“Mint mask,” he said. “Helps with headaches. I didn’t want to get any on my hoodie washing it off.” He sat down in the armchair and pulled the throw draped over the back of it around his shoulders. “Can we watch something?”

“Sure,” I said. “Wanna finish that season of Drag Race? We’ll probably make better time without Eric pausing it every five minutes.”

He shrugged. “D’accord.

So I found it on Amazon Video and hit play.

Two episodes later, I glanced over and found Seb asleep again. He hadn’t put his shirt back on after washing the mask off. The blanket was slipping down around his waist. I got up and tugged it into place so he wouldn’t get cold, but as I was finishing, a ratta-tat-tat-tat on the front door made him jerk awake.

Only one person I know knocks like that. Leaving Seb frowning in confusion, Jagger and I went to check the peephole. Yep, Erika was outside in a lot of frilly blue, with a pink paper bag dangling from her hand.

“Did you sleep with one of my doormen?” I asked as I opened the door. “How’d you get into the building?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” she said, sashaying past me. She put the bag on the kitchen peninsula and beamed at Seb across the room. “Gigi!”

“Keep your voice down,” I said, shutting the door and putting the chain back on. “Seb’s got a headache.” Even if he didn’t still, Erika’s high-pitched squealing would bring it back.

“Oh, poor baby!” she said, in a voice that dripped with pity. I winced internally. “Did you take medicine?”

“Yeah, he’ll be fine with some rest,” I said, circling the peninsula to stand between her and Seb. “You know, peace and quiet.”

She ignored the obvious hint, reached into the bag, and pulled out a cardboard box—also pink, and stamped with the name of a bakery. “C’mere, sweetie,” she said. “I brought you cupcakes! It’s my thank-you for letting me play with your face yesterday.”

I let you play with my face too,” I pointed out, trying to distract her. Seb hadn’t moved. He looked like he wanted to disappear.

She opened the box, revealing six cupcakes nestled inside. “There’s plenty for everyone.” Taking out one, she licked a glob of frosting off the top and closed her eyes. “Mmmmm!”

“How’d the shoot go?” I asked.

After swallowing, she said, “So well. We’re done for today, but tomorrow will be the super intense part.” Then she leaned over the counter. “Gigi, come on and have a cupcake! It’ll make you feel better, I promise!”

No, it’ll make him go high again, I thought.

Of course, Seb didn’t explain that. He just smiled faintly and said, “Thanks, I’m okay.”

And of course, Erika couldn’t drop it. “But they’re the best cupcakes in town,” she said. “Don’t tell me you’re watching your figure! I can see the bones in your ribcage from over here!”

Seb pulled his knees up to his chest and hugged them. “No, I’m just, um, not hungry right now. Thank you, though.”

“C’mon, you could use some weight,” she cajoled, smiling. “It’ll help you keep that hunky Marine of yours. Men don’t like stick insects, you know.”

As Seb flinched and curled tighter into himself, I clapped my hand on the counter. “Erika!”

She pulled back, startled, and blinked her fake eyelashes at me. “What? I’m just saying–”

An odd urge filled me. It took a second for me to recognize it as the thing Zain would call ‘getting an itchy palm.’ I angled closer to her and raised my eyebrows. “He’s. Not. Hungry. Leave him the fuck alone.”

Erika huffed and folded her arms. “Who died and made you his boss?”

Do Tops ever want to flat-out strangle a Brat? I should ask Zain and Quint, though neither of them seem the type. My fingers curled on the counter. “Just fucking drop it, alright?”

“What?! I only wanted to share with you–”

“ERIC,” I said, deliberately using her given name, “either drop it or get out.”

She put her nose in the air. “Fine! If offering people cupcakes is such a crime, I’ll go–”

“You didn’t offer,” I snapped. “You’re practically force-feeding it to him.”

“–and you can both shove them up your asses,” she went on, marching to the door and yanking the chain undone. With a final, “Bye, bitch,” tossed at me over her shoulder, she went out. The door slammed behind her.

I heard a choked sob. When I looked back, Seb’s chin was trembling, and though Jagger had retreated to his side, he wasn’t even petting him. “I… I didn’t w–want to make you guys fight,” he said.

Shit. I should’ve known he’d see it that way. Fuck. Great job, Theo. You just made everything worse.

I had to fix it.

“Stay here,” I said, and darted outside.

Erika was waiting for the elevator, tapping one platform boot against the floor impatiently. She glanced over at the sound of my approach, but immediately went back to glaring at the illuminated arrow on the wall.

I sighed and swallowed my pride. “Hey, listen. I could’ve handled that way better. Now Seb’s upset. He hates conflict. Please come back inside and show him we’re still friends?”

The elevator dinged and opened. Erika stared at the empty car for a moment, then turned to me. “First, explain what the hell’s the big deal over a cupcake,” she said. “Does he have an eating disorder or something?”

“No,” I said. “He has a… a medical condition.”

She frowned. “Like an allergy?”

“Sort of.” It is autoimmune, anyway.

Letting her arms fall to her sides, she demanded, “So why didn’t he just say that?”

“Because it’s none of your business,” I said, and I felt my eyebrows go up without my meaning to, like I was channeling Quint again. “Saying ‘no, thanks’ ought to be enough.”

Erika’s gaze faltered and fell to the floor. She scuffed her toe. “I know. I wanted to celebrate with you both. Guess I got carried away.”

“Will you come in and tell Seb that?”

Without hesitation, she said, “Yeah, okay.”

Leading the way back, I opened the front door.

But the living room was empty. “Where’d he go?” Erika asked.

“He has to be in the apartment,” I said, as much to myself as to her. He couldn’t have left without us seeing him, so there was absolutely no reason to panic. My heart pounded in my chest. “Seb?” I called.

“Gigi?” called Erika.

We both moved through the apartment, her following as I glanced around the living room to be sure he wasn’t crouched behind the chair or something. Then I considered all the possible hiding spots in his room. He couldn’t fit into the freestanding wardrobe. It had too many shelves. The cubby under his desk was empty. I bent and peered beneath his bed. In the doorway, Erika laughed. “You don’t think he’d be there?”

“Just checking,” I said, with a shrug like I hadn’t imagined it was a real possibility. She turned sideways to let me by and watched with bemusement as I slid open the tiny laundry closet. No Seb. The hallway bathroom was empty, too.

But when I pushed on the door to Quint’s and my room, Jagger sat dead center in front of our ensuite door. He was whining at the wood paneling. “Good boy,” I said, giving his ears a scratch with one hand and trying the doorknob with my other.

It wasn’t locked. A sign Seb wanted to be found?

When I spotted him, I grew even more certain of that. His ‘hiding place’ was the bathtub—curled up behind two panels of frosted shower glass so his outline blurred, sure, but still totally visible. That was how I could see that he had the blanket wrapped around him and that, under it, his shoulders were shaking.

Cautiously, I stepped closer, waving Erika to come in, too. “Seb? Look, Erika’s here. We’re all good now. It’s okay.”

He lifted his head as I sat on the edge of the tub. Tears streaked his cheeks.

“Hey,” Erika said, softly. “You really don’t live for drama, huh?”

Seb rubbed the corner of the blanket over his face. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice muffled. “I just hate it when people fight because of me.”

I reached out and touched his knee. “It wasn’t ‘cause of you. It was because Erika has trouble with the meaning of ‘no.’”

He gulped wetly before lowering the blanket so his eyes were visible once more.

Smiling, I added, “And it’s not like me and her have never fought in the past. There’s a reason we’re not together now.”

“Namely, because I’m an annoying little shit,” Erika said, cheerful.

I grimaced. “Again, I’m very sorry I called you that.” It was far from one of my prouder moments.

“No, it’s true! I am annoying!” She stepped over my lap into the tub and sat down, mirroring Seb’s posture. Some of the humor faded from her eyes. “I try not to be.” She shrugged one shoulder. “Seems like it’s just my personality.”

Seb sniffled and shook his head. “I like your personality.”

“Aww, thanks.” She smiled again. “I like yours, too. And hey, when I called you a stick insect? I didn’t mean it to be a read. I was joking. Drag queens have to develop thick skin, so our senses of humor can be… abrasive. I guess I did such a spectacular job making you look like a drag queen yesterday, I forgot you’re not one.”

Seb’s teeth sunk into his lower lip for a second. “I should have thicker skin and not be such a crybaby,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“Nooo, nooo.” Erika leaned forward, grabbing the knee I wasn’t touching. “Don’t apologize for that, sweetheart. I think you’re brave, not a crybaby. I wish I could be more like you in letting my vulnerabilities show. I bet you can tap into your emotions really easily for art, too.”

“Sometimes,” Seb said.

Erika sighed wistfully. “See, I’d like to have that. It’s always such a struggle for me to just let it flow and not be anxious about everything. That’s what you helped me do yesterday. I’m sorry the cupcakes weren’t a good way to thank you for it.”

“I’ll probably have one later,” Seb said, and Erika beamed while I crossed my fingers and hoped she wouldn’t ask about his medical condition.

She didn’t. Instead, she slapped Seb’s knee and the tops of my fingers at the same time. “Give me your hands!”

Seb and I exchanged a look.

“C’mon!”

I turned my hand over, palm-up, and she took it. Seb extracted one of his from the blanket and held it out. She took that, too, so the three of us were linked.

“Now,” she said. “No more worrying about being a crybaby or not being a good artist or any of that. We’re going to focus on what Mama Ru always says: ‘If you can’t love yourself…’”

I started to smile as Seb and I finished the quote together. “‘…how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?’”

“‘Can I get an ‘amen’ up in here?’” Erika asked, squeezing our hands.

“Amen!” we both said, and Seb’s lips curved the tiniest bit.

“Do you want to watch some more Drag Race with us?” he asked her.

“Operative word being watch,” I said quickly. “Not sing along.”

“Sure! I can stay for an episode!” she said, scrambling to her feet.

I got up, too, to make room for her and Seb to climb out. While I waited, I grabbed the washcloth off the towel bar and ran it under cold water. Then I handed it to Seb when he stepped onto the bathmat. “Wipe your face. Unless you want me to do it?”

He let out a puff of laughter and took the cloth. “Non, merci.”

“A hug, then?” I asked.

He nodded, so I pulled him into an embrace, and of course Erika sandwiched him on the other side. We didn’t let go for a few long seconds.

Later, after she’d left, I stretched out on the couch with my hands folded under my head. “So, ummmm…” I said to the ceiling. “I don’t think Zain or Quint need to know what happened today with the me losing my temper and swearing at someone, and you hiding and all, right?”

Seb looked sideways at me from the chair. “Yeaahhh, I think it can be just between us squirrel friends.” He paused and frowned. “What does that mean, anyway?”

“Squirrel friends? It’s drag-queen slang for ‘girlfriends.’”

“I know, but why squirrels?” he asked.

Snorting, I said, “Because they hide their nuts, of course.”

His whole face went red as one of Erika’s lipsticks. “Oh.”

Seb

My blood sugars were finally back on target by the time Zain called me on Skype as I lay in bed that evening. All the cotton had left my head, I didn’t need to pee every five minutes, and my eyelids no longer felt quite so heavy.

Still, the first thing he said was, “You look beat, babe.”

“I’m alright,” I said.

For a moment, Zain just stared at me. Then, with dramatic flair, he shivered. “Oooh, what is– ooooo-oh, I’m getting such a tingle up my spine right now,” he said. “It’s like– Oh! I know what it is.” He stopped shivering and titled his head. “My Seb-senses.”

“I hate you so much,” I said, and he smiled. Very slowly. “…Okay, I was a little high today, but I’m fine now.”

“Uh-huh. Send me your meter logs.”

Scowling, I asked, “What, you don’t believe me?”

“No, I do.” He tipped his desk chair back and interlocked his fingers on top of his head. “You chose not to tell me until now, though, and that’s going to stop. You need a reminder of how much you despise sharing the logs and how you’d hate to, saaaay, have to send them to me anytime you’re not under Quint’s or my direct supervision.”

My stomach turned over. After the move, that’d be almost every day. Like when he made me mail them to him for most of his Plebe Summer. “I can take care of myself,” I said.

“Mmmmmeter logs,” he replied, pitching his voice high as if he was imitating an insect.

“Zain–”

“Mmeter–”

I glared at him, took a couple of deep breaths, and tried again. “You ca–”

“Mmmee–”

“Argh! Fine!” I snapped, snatching my test kit off the nightstand. It took less than a minute to plug my meter into the USB port, save a PDF of the logbook, and send it to him, yet the whole time, I was aware of him watching and waiting.

When he opened the file, his eyebrows went up. “Ouch, that doesn’t look fun. It started last night?”

Oui.”

“Sooo… when I said to let me know if Theo’s ex was stressing you out….”

“It wasn’t Eric,” I said, my face flaming. Truthfully, I hadn’t made a connection between the two events. Zain has some kind of gift for noticing my blood sugar triggers. If he dug a little deeper into this one, though, he’d hit on what I’d agreed to keep between me and Theo. “Maybe it was just Quint being away.”

“Right,” said Zain, rolling his eyes. “Be glad he isn’t home to lend a hand, brat. All I can do is make you color four mandalas before bed.”

Quatre?!”

Quatre,” he confirmed. “I’ve gotta go report for watch duty. Send me pictures by ten-thirty or you’ll turn into a pumpkin. Love you.”

Je t’aime,” I said. It came out as an insult, but I said it.

As I worked my way through all four mandalas, the colors soothed my annoyance and dissolved the lingering tension from the day away like honey in tea. Apparently, Zain didn’t need another Top’s help at all. I still missed Quint, though.

*

The next afternoon, I walked home for lunch with my thoughts lost in ideas for a painting to hang in the new house in Maryland. There was one huge blank wall facing the inner windows of my studio. I needed something inspiring there. Perhaps…

I opened the apartment door and saw Quint and Theo locked in an embrace, Theo bent so far backwards that he was practically laying on the kitchen peninsula, with one of Quint’s hands sliding into the rear pocket of his jeans.

“Oh, sorry!” I blurted. Without waiting for them to come up for air, I beat a hasty retreat to the hallway and pulled the door shut.

It swung open again barely a second later.

“Seb,” Quint said, poking his head out. His glasses were crooked and his cheeks were faintly pink, but he sounded calm as ever. “Don’t go. It’s alright.”

Do go,” Theo’s voice called from behind him. “Wait in the lobby for fifteen minutes.”

Quint looked over his shoulder.

“Maybe just five,” Theo said.

Shaking his head, Quint took a step back and gestured me closer. “No, come inside, mon chaton.”

I hesitated.

“Now, please.”

That was an order, not a request. My feet carried me forward without input from my brain. Theo sighed a little when he saw me, but he was smiling, too. As Quint shut the door, I said, “Je suis désolé. Je pense que– I mean, I thought that your flight was later.”

“He was a very bad doctor and skipped out early,” Theo said.

“The speaker I came to see was rescheduled to last night,” said Quint. “There was nothing wrong with me leaving this morning.”

“Plus, he was eager to be reunited with me, as you just saw,” said Theo, tucking his thumbs into his belt loops and smirking.

“Yes, angel, we are both sufficiently embarrassed now,” Quint said. “You may stop with the remarks.” He straightened his glasses and looked down at me standing on the doormat. One corner of his lips turned up. “I did miss you, as well, mon chaton. I heard from Zain that you weren’t feeling your best yesterday.”

“I told you that, too,” said Theo, suddenly not so casual. “We got through it smoothly, like I said.”

“I meant Zain told me first,” Quint said. “From what he explained, I’m assuming you didn’t intend to tell me yourself, Seb?”

My blush, which had just started to fade, reheated. “Um…I’m sorry, monsieur.”

“It’s alright. I understand he’s handled it already. If he had not, this would be a different conversation regarding withholding.” His eyebrow went up pointedly.

Oui, monsieur,” I said, willing myself not to think too hard about anything else that could qualify as ‘withholding’.

Nodding once, he stepped back and gave me room to breathe. “Zain also sent me a screenshot of you in drag, which nicely complements the photo Theo took. I’m thinking of blowing them both up and framing them for the wall of my hospital office.”

My lips parted in horror.

“…That was a joke,” Quint said, while Theo snorted with giggles. “I do make them occasionally. You looked beautiful, though. Did you have a good time?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’d never do it professionally, but it was… interesting and fun.”

“Good.” He pulled me into a hug and gave me a kiss on the forehead before letting go. “Alright. I need to unpack.”

For the first time, I noticed his suitcase was standing by the pantry doors with the airline luggage tags still on, being sniffed all over by Jagger. Quint picked it up and walked off down the hallway with the dog following him.

“Wash up for lunch, please,” he called back.

Theo and I both washed our hands in the kitchen sink, me whispering, “Um, I’m sorry I interrupted,” and him rolling his eyes as he replied, “It’s fine. You go back to class in like an hour, anyway.”

Then, while he took sandwich ingredients out of the fridge, I went to my room to switch out the textbooks in my bag.

“Seb?”

I stopped digging through a pile of papers on my desk in search of one folder I needed and looked over to Quint leaning half around my doorway. “Oui?

“Would you agree with Theo’s assessment that yesterday went smoothly despite your high BG level?”

My heart skipped a beat. Desperately, I thought, Act innocent!

“Um… yes?”

“Then you must have an alternate explanation for why I just found this waiting for me in the bathroom?” he asked, and ice slid down my spine even before he moved so I could see his other hand, which held my pink kitten plushie.

Merde.

“Uh.” I ran my fingers through my hair, staring at the damn kitten like it was going to bail me out of this somehow. “I– I forgot to put it back in my room after Erika left. I don’t… need it. Anymore.”

Oh, bien. Very convincing.

Quint crossed his arms so the kitten was hidden in the crook of his elbow. “I am more interested in how it got there in the first place,” he said. “Then I’ll decide whether you truly don’t need help anymore.”

Gulping, I peeked up at him through my eyelashes. He filled my whole doorway. No way to escape. And no way to explain that didn’t involve betraying Theo. “I can’t tell you,” I said.

He took a half-step back and turned his head. “Theo? Come here a moment, please.”

Something clattered into the sink as Theo stopped whatever he was doing. When he appeared, Quint held up the plushie. “Do you know how this got into the washcloth basket in our ensuite? Seb says he can’t tell, which I assume means you were somehow involved.”

Theo blinked at it, then looked to me. “Oh! So that’s why you were hiding in there!”

“Hiding?” Quint asked, and the ice spread to the pit of my gut.

“Did– did I say hiding?” Theo asked, his eyes wide with innocence.

“Yes. I heard you quite clearly,” Quint said. “Seb felt overwhelmed enough to hide and to signal he needed my help with this, yet ‘everything went smoothly’? I would very much like to hear how that could be possibly be an accurate description.”

Theo gave him a hopeful smile. “All’s well that ends well?”

Lightning fast, Quint’s free hand reached behind Theo to deliver a swat. The smile turned into a wince. Then, taking his shoulder, Quint spun him around. “Sit at the peninsula, please.” He let go of Theo and stretched his hand out to me, gripping my arm just above the elbow to guide me out of my room. “While we eat lunch, you will each tell your version of events this weekend, and this time there will be no omissions or glossing over details.”

We stopped at the peninsula. My arm was released only so Quint could swat me, too, and pull my stool out for me. “Sit, please.”

I did without complaining. The swat might’ve been a lot worse if he’d wanted.

Quint put the kitten plushie down in front of me, where it held up its silly little You’re purrfect! heart, and went to the other side of the counter. “Theodore, you may begin,” he said as he opened a jar of mayo.

Theo sighed. “It was all Eric’s fault, really.”

*

Ten minutes later, after I finished telling the story from my perspective, Quint put down the last bite of his sandwich and let out a sigh of his own. “Why didn’t either of you mention any of this?” he asked.

We had moved to the table to eat. Across from me, Theo shrugged one shoulder. “We resolved it on our own.”

“Yes,” Quint said, “so why hide something that didn’t need hiding? Who’s idea was that?”

Theo and I exchanged a look.

“It was mine,” he muttered.

“I agreed without arguing,” I put in quickly.

“I wasn’t asking to assign blame, Seb,” said Quint. “I’d simply like more insight. Theo?”

His husband just slouched a little more and kept his gaze fixed on his plate.

“Do you need to go to your corner and think it over?” Quint asked, gentle but firm.

“Noooo,” said Theo. He pressed his lips together a moment. Finally, he said, “I guess I thought you might feel like you couldn’t trust me alone with Seb. I mean, after he moves, there could be times I want to go down and spend a few days with him when you and Zain can’t be there.”

“We’re not going to keep you apart, angel,” Quint said. He sounded taken aback by the very idea. “You’re grown men. You don’t need a babysitter. I actually think you handled the situation yesterday well, swearing at Erika aside.”

Theo jerked his head up. “I did?”

Quint nodded. “You got overzealous, but you apologized to her, found Seb, and helped him feel safe again. Didn’t he, mon chaton?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I really did mean to go back and get the kitten. I didn’t need it anymore.”

“So….” Theo looked sideways at Quint. “Does that mean we’re not in trouble?”

“Not quite,” said Quint, folding his hands together on the table.

Theo groaned and told the ceiling, “I knew that was too much to hope for.”

“You wouldn’t be in trouble if you had told me the truth from the start,” Quint said, ignoring that.“I do not tolerate lying from either of you. Ever. Is that clear, Sébastien?”

I squirmed under his steely blue gaze. “Oui, monsieur.

“Theodore?”

“Yes, sir.”

Quint paused a moment to let the full gravity be felt. Or perhaps to think it over, because when he spoke again, he said, “However, I will let you each choose your punishment, for this time only. Theo, you have a choice between lines or soap. Seb, lines would not be effective for you, so your choice is between writing an essay on the topic of honesty, or soap again. You’ll also be telling Zain what happened, of course. Which will it be?”

“Lines,” Theo said, almost before he’d finished the question.

“Very well. Seb?”

An essay? I thought. Putting everything into words? Zain would definitely approve.

“Um.” I drew a small circle in the condensation forming on the outside of my water glass. “Would the essay have to be in English?”

Quint’s lips twitched. “Oui.”

“Then… I’ll take the soap,” I said.

Shaking his head, Theo mouthed, ‘you’re insane’ over the table.

I knew that. My tongue was already trying to retreat down my throat, like a mouse into its burrow, in anticipation of the bitter taste.

“Alright,” Quint said. “Eat the rest of your lunch and we’ll do it before you leave for your next class.”

I chewed and swallowed the remaining sandwich, somehow, while he waited. Just before I finished, he got up, went to the sideboard, and came back with a yellow legal pad and pen. Handing them to Theo, he said, “‘Honesty is always more valuable than perfection.’ One hundred and fifty, please. You’re to do nothing else until they’re complete. Seb, let’s go.”

I stood up and moved towards the bathroom. As Quint followed, Theo asked, “Nothing? What about what we were about to do before Seb came home?”

Quint’s footsteps paused behind me. I dove into the bathroom, but I could still hear his firm, “Nothing,” and Theo’s sigh.

“Well, I sure hope this doesn’t take me alllll night.”

“It’s not too late to join Seb in getting your mouth washed out, if you’d rather?” Quint suggested, mildly.

“No, sir!”

The footsteps resumed. Quint came through the doorway and took a spare toothbrush and the bottle of soap from the drawer. Instead of preparing them, he set them on the counter and turned to me. “You know you could also give me the kitten again, mon chaton? If you need to?”

Merci,” I said, making myself meet his kind eyes. “This, uh, will be enough, though.”

“Alright.” He pointed to the floor in front of him. “Come here and open your mouth.”

My face twisted into a grimace, but I obeyed.

*

That night, Zain tilted his head at me the second he answered Skype. So he did get time to read the rambling email I sent before dinner.

“Hi?” I said.

He titled so far that his ear touched his shoulder. “A stick insect, huh?”

“It wasn’t meant that way.”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s still flitting around that brain of yours,” he said, and his eyes went squinty. “I can see it.” Then he snapped upright and grinned. The I-have-a-plan grin. “Guess what, though?”

“ …What?” I asked, wary.

“I know how to get rid of it,” he sing-songed. “Got your headphones? Put them on and lock your door, my boy.”

Electricity shot through me. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a bad plan.

I did what he asked, blocking out the sound of RuPaul’s Drag Race playing in the living room, so it was just me and him. When I went to sit in my desk chair again, he said, “No. Strip. Everything off but the headphones and the dog tags.”

That made me hesitate. When was the last time he saw me completely nude? How much weight had I lost since then? Probably at least a pound, maybe–

“Do as I say. Now.”

I jumped at the growl in his voice, amplified and delivered directly to my ears. My cock twitched. My fingers flew to the button of my jeans. “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

But when I was naked, he didn’t let me sit down either, or lie on the bed. He made me stand there, in full view of the camera, with my arms at my sides, while he described every plane and angle and bump of bone on my body, mapping my topography with wanton syllables as he slowly stroked himself to climax. If he’d just let me… a few touches….

“Please, sir?” I whispered as his breathing returned to normal.

“No,” he said, eyes still heavy-lidded. “That wasn’t about your pleasure, my boy. It was about mine. The pleasure I get from your body exactly the way it is. Got it?”

I shivered. “Yes, sir.”

“Good. You can get dressed now.”

I love/hate when he makes me put my clothes back on when I’m still hard. It’s such a clear denial. And it’s difficult to concentrate on making sure everything is right-side out when your mind’s clouded with lust like low-lying fog. I fumbled through the task, tugged my dog tags from under my shirt, and collapsed into the chair.

“Good boy,” he said. “Did we kill the stick insect?”

“I think so,” I said. There was no doubt in my mind that he wanted me.

“Well, if it comes back, we’ll just repeat this lesson,” he said, smirking. “I don’t mind.”

I rolled my eyes and grumbled, “Sure, you don’t.”

He laughed. “Aw, you loved it. You loved it so much, you’re probably thinking about giving Eric a present for inspiring it. Don’t lie, or I’ll ask Quint to wash your mouth out again.”

“I was already going to paint Eric a portrait based on one of his Instagram selfies,” I said. “It’s got nothing to do with this.”

Zain just laughed harder.

4 thoughts on “Just Between Us Squirrel Friends…”

  1. Thank you, that was a wonderful story. Eric is a great character, so fun to read. I like how you incorporated the kitty plush. Theo and the eggplant was amusing too.

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