The pink kitten had lived on a bookcase at first, with bright paper cards propped up around it. The room’s occupant—its new owner—touched it most days during that period. He would move it first behind the cards so it was hidden from view, and then, a few minutes later, back in front of them. Study it. Fiddle with it again. Walk away, only to repeat the process the next day.
Once, he picked the kitten up and, rather than hiding it, carried it out into the other room, where he handed it to a second man, saying, “I want to keep it.”
“You can,” said the second man. “However, when you begin to feel overwhelmed—by us caring or something else—I’d like you to give it to me, as a signal we should have a discussion. Or you can leave it somewhere you know I’ll find it, if needed. Is that clear?”
The kitten’s owner agreed to this. That day, the kitten stayed in the other room, on the counter, while food was eaten and gifts were opened. At the end of the night it was carried back into the bedroom in a pile of presents. All the new items were given places to stay. The kitten was returned to the bookcase with the cards.
Eventually, kitten and cards together were dropped into a drawer that already had many things in it. The drawer only opened when the room’s occupant needed to clear off the desk. Then everything would be pushed on top. The kitten, though, had been wedged to one side of books and papers. It remained visible in those brief moments.
Then came the time when the second man was there when the drawer opened. It stayed open until he said, “Alright, get your things and your shoes on, please.”
“Now?” asked the room’s occupant as he pushed the drawer closed. “I wasn’t finished dusting.”
“Dusting can wait,” said the second man.
Over an hour passed. The drawer opened again, and every single thing in it was pulled out and spread across the bed. With the second man watching and occasionally giving suggestions, the room’s occupant sorted it all into piles. The kitten was grouped, again, with the cards, but only for a moment. The second man picked it up.
“This shouldn’t be put away with your mementos, mon chaton,” he said. “It has another purpose, remember.”
“Oh. Right,” said the kitten’s owner. He took it and squeezed it in his hand. “Um. What about here?” Opening the nightstand drawer, he laid the kitten inside, next to several packages of granola bars and tubes of glucose tablets.
“I think that’s a good spot for it,” said the second man, so the drawer was closed. The kitten rocked slightly on its rounded back before coming to a rest. It stayed there a long, long time.
Then the most active period in the kitten’s existence began.
Gray dawn was just beginning to spread across Seb’s window. He didn’t open his eyes to see it, though. Half-asleep, he was aware only of the clammy sweat on his skin and the shaking of his limbs. A groan pressed out of his mouth as he rolled onto his side, groping blindly for the nightstand. With a bit of a hunt, he found the drawer handle and pulled it open to retrieve some carbs. His fingers closed around something both soft and lumpy instead. Parting one pair of eyelids in groggy confusion, he squinted at it.
The kitten held up its pink heart declaring “You’re Purrfect!”
Seb snorted. No part of him felt at all perfect in that moment. He flung it across the room in his annoyance, before digging back into the drawer. This time he struck paydirt. After chewing and swallowing two glucose tablets, he let himself drop off again.
Theo woke much later. He had a foggy memory of Quint extracting himself from his grip and, checking the alarm clock, knew the older man would be long gone to work by now. But why couldn’t he hear Seb eating breakfast? Did he have early classes today? Stifling a yawn, he rolled out of bed and padded to hallway to investigate.
The first thing he saw was Jagger sitting outside Seb’s room. The dog thumped his tail twice against the baseboard and whined softly towards him.
“What?” Theo asked. “Seb finally decided to shut you out while he’s doing yoga? I told him he could ages ago.”
Jagger got to all fours as Theo approached, backing up and looking eagerly at Seb’s door with his whole rear end wagging.
Rolling his eyes, Theo knocked and said, “Seb, my mutt wants to do pretzel shapes with you.”
There was no answer for a moment. Then he heard a muffled thud and Seb saying, “Merde!!”
He opened the door in alarm, to find the younger Brat sitting bolt upright in the center of his bed with his hair unbrushed, staring at the phone he held in one hand. “Oh,” said Theo, recognizing that look of horror very well. “Overslept?”
“Yes,” Seb said as he swung his feet to the floor. “Merde, I’m going to be so late!”
Theo got out of the way hurriedly to let him dash across the hall to the bathroom, all the while uttering a string of French words Theo didn’t recognize but was pretty sure left a trail of blue air. He made a mental note to ask for translations at some point when Quint was at the hospital. Jagger took advantage of both their distraction to slip into the room and sniff at Seb’s yoga mat, rolled up by his desk.
“No, boy,” Theo told him. “I don’t think he’s got time for that this morning. C’mon.”
The dog abandoned the mat in favor of a new smell: The small, pink kitten behind the door.
“Jag, what’re you-?” started Theo, before he saw it too. “Oh, wonder how that got there. No, it’s not a toy for you. Leave it.” He gave Jagger the sit hand sign. Obediently, the dog plonked down, though he still watched every movement as Theo bent to retrieve the plushie.
Theo frowned at it, straightening up. The last time he’d seen it was on Seb’s birthday, when Quint told the younger Brat to use it as a signal in case he was getting stressed and couldn’t say. Just how did it wind up on the floor so far from any furniture? He glanced to the closed bathroom door and decided now wasn’t the time to ask Seb about it. Anyway, it probably just fell off the desk and got kicked over accidentally or something.
Stepping further into the room, he stood it next to Seb’s pencil cup and then went out, snapping his fingers at Jagger to come with him. Seb usually had yogurt for breakfast. If he got that ready for him, it might save a few minutes.
The text came as Seb rode the elevator up, clutching the painting he’d just had critiqued in his last class to his chest so it couldn’t be seen. His professor was good at leading constructive, empathetic sessions, but that didn’t change the feeling of gutting yourself and putting your entrails on the wall for everyone to discuss. He felt hollowed out.
The text said, Hey, habibi. A company meeting was just called for today after dinner, so no skype tonight. ☹ I’m gonna try to find a way for an extra-long call tomorrow to make up for it. Miss you! ❤
Seb read it, swallowed, and wrote back, Ok, no worries, I understand. Je t’aime
Hakuna matata? From you? Yeah, right, Zain replied. I want an extra mandala before bed. Gotta report to drill, ttyl
Stepping off the elevator, Seb went down the hall and inserted his key into the lock on the apartment door. It stuck. Just for a moment, yet tears sprang into his eyes as he jiggled it free and slid the deadbolt open. “Oh, gods,” he said, completely exasperated with himself. “You’re fine, stop it.” He took a second, blinking heavily, to gather himself before pushing the door inward.
To his relief, Jagger didn’t bound over to greet him. That meant Theo was out, and Quint would still be at work for hours. He took his shoes off, carried the painting to his room, leaned it face-first against the wall, and dropped down onto his chair.
The pink kitten sat between the pencil cup and the letter trays Quint had bought him. Seb frowned. How did it get-?
Suddenly, he remembered throwing it that morning. He looked at the floor where he was pretty sure it had landed, and then back to the desk. Realizing Theo must have moved it, he felt his cheeks go hot. Theo’d been so helpful this morning, too. Making Seb’s breakfast, apparently cleaning up his messes…. Gods.
Grabbing the kitten, he stood and went to his nightstand. The evidence of his minor tantrum was soon shut in the drawer again. Then he flopped onto his back across the duvet and stared at the ceiling light.
Both of them, Theo and Quint, did everything possible to make him feel at home here. He ought to be more grateful. They didn’t need to befriend him, much less take him in and buy him nice things like the desk stuff. And so what if Zain couldn’t call one night out of the entire week? It was unavoidable. It was expected. He’d gotten through worse before.
But berating himself over it did nothing to ease the tightness that was in his chest, making it difficult to draw a full breath without hitching. The tip of his nose tingled. Rubbing it roughly across the back of his hand, he thought, This is useless. I might as well just tell Quint and get it over with. The idea, though, of saying that- no, wait.
He sat up, yanked the drawer open again, and retrieved the kitten. Then he made himself stand and carry it into the living room before he could think better of it. Pausing, he glanced around for a good spot. Somewhere Quint would see when he got home.
The most obvious place was on the kitchen peninsula, facing the door. It’d be directly in his line of sight the moment he stepped in. Seb bit his lip. He walked to the counter and carefully positioned the plushie at its center, before standing back to see the effect, like he was applying paint to a canvas.
No, he decided. The composition felt too bold, the shock of pink against the granite too glaring. Quint deserved at least a chance to settle in first. He took the kitten instead to the dining table and then the coffee table in rapid succession, trying to imagine where Quint might be in the room when it caught his eye.
Then it occurred to him that Theo would also be in the room, likely before his husband arrived. What would he say? You’re leaving that out? Are you nuts? Are you even a Brat?
His stomach twisting, Seb picked up the toy once more and turned toward his room. What if he just waited for Quint to get home and Theo to be occupied and handed it over then? No, that was almost as bad as talking.
He stood there between coffee table and couch, clenching the kitten and his teeth.
At last, he shoved it behind a throw pillow. The one on the side where Quint normally sat to read his book after dinner.
He’ll find it, he told himself as he went to start his homework and Zain’s mandalas.
Theo had spent a profitable day busking. With summer-like temperatures finally making an occasional appearance in the weather forecast, people were much more likely to stop and watch a man perform with his dog. He returned home whistling, his guitar strapped to his back and Jagger padding alongside him.
He didn’t hear Seb upon entering the apartment, which wasn’t unusual. The guy could be quieter than a church mouse, as his mother would say. After putting his guitar down next to his synthesizer keyboard, he headed for the master bathroom, peeking through Seb’s doorframe along the way to say hi.
The younger Brat was curled up on top of his bedcovers next to an open book, fast asleep. Theo frowned and nudged Jagger back before he could slip in and wake him. He must’ve had a rough night, he thought as he softly shut the door and continued down the hall. Oversleeping and taking a nap? Maybe it was his blood sugar acting up?
After using the bathroom, he decided he might as well not worry about it until Seb was awake and he could ask him. Till then, he’d be extra quiet. He picked up a lyrics notebook from the top of his synth back in the living room and flopped down full-length on the couch to work on some songs.
A few minutes later, he was interrupted by Jagger nosing at the throw pillow under his head.
“What, boy?” he asked, puzzled.
Jagger whined and stuck his whole snout between the pillow and the couch. Sitting up, Theo moved it to see the pink kitten plushie just as the dog tried to take it in his mouth.
“No!” he said, snatching it away. Then, remembering Seb sleeping, he lowered his voice and went on, “Did you steal this from Seb’s desk and hide it? Naughty dog. It’s not a toy. Well, I mean, it is, but not for you.”
Jagger sat down and gazed at him innocently with soft puppy eyes.
“Don’t you give me that look,” Theo told him. “I’m the champion of that look. Now, we’re going to put this back in Seb’s room, and we’re going to leave it there, right?” Hopefully Seb hadn’t even noticed it missing yet.
As he stood, though, his phone began to play Bad Case of Loving You—Quint’s current ringtone. Quickly, he answered it before it could wake Seb up.
“Hi, angel,” said Quint, and he sounded a bit rushed. “One of my patients was brought in having a severe attack. I’m going to need to stay nearby to monitor them, so I won’t be home on time. I’m not sure I’ll be home before morning, in fact. I don’t want you and Seb waiting for me to eat dinner. It was my night to cook, so you can order a pizza if you’d like.”
“Okay,” he said. He wanted to ask which patient, but he knew better. “Is- will they be alright?”
“They’re stable,” Quint said. “Things are looking positive.”
“Good. Guess I’ll see you later or in the morning, then. Love you.”
“I love you too, angel. Have a good night. Tell Seb I said dormez bien.”
“He’ll probably wince involuntarily at my pronunciation again,” Theo replied, “but I’ll do my best.”
A smile was in Quint’s voice as he said, “Goodbye,” and hung up.
Slipping the phone back into his pocket, Theo carried the pink kitten around the couch and down the hallway, where he very carefully opened Seb’s door and crept inside. Just as he was setting the kitten on the desk, though, he heard a groggy “Theo?” from behind him.
He turned with a sheepish grin. “Sorry, I was trying not to disturb you. Jagger’s apparently decided this thing belongs to him now.” He held up the kitten, and Seb frowned at it. “He’s not usually like that, but I found it half-buried in the couch,” he explained. “You might want to put it away somewhere he can’t get to it.”
“Oh,” Seb said, blinking like he was still out of it from his nap. “Yeah, um, thanks.”
“Also,” said Theo as he sat down on the edge of the desk, holding the kitten in his lap, “Quint just called to say he’s gotta work late, probably at least half the night. He told me to order pizza for us, which means he’s feeling unnecessarily guilty about it, but hey, pizza’s pizza. What do you want on your half? And if you say broccoli, I swear…”
“Mushrooms and black olives?” Seb suggested.
Theo thought a moment before nodding his approval. “Vegetables, but not green ones. Okay, I’ll call them now.” He tossed the kitten onto the bed by Seb’s knees as he headed out the door. Then, sticking his head back in, he asked, “By the way, are you feeling alright?”
Seb, who’d picked up the kitten, furrowed his eyebrows at it and then him. “Why?”
Shrugging, Theo replied, “You seem really tired. Is, y’know, your blood sugar high?” He felt awkward asking about that. Quint usually handled anything to do with the diabetes.
The younger Brat didn’t seem to mind, though. “Um, yeah, probably,” he said, the frown clearing. “I’ll take care of it before I finish this homework.”
“Alright,” said Theo. “Let you know when the pizza gets here.”
After he went out again, Seb looked down at the kitten once more. He sighed. Jagger being blamed made him feel bad, but he knew Theo never really scolded the dog, so it was preferable to him finding out the truth. The problem was what to do with the plushie now.
I can’t leave it out, he thought. Theo would find it, and if he didn’t, Seb had no idea what state of mind Quint might be in when he finally got home. Burdening him with Seb’s issues to deal with, on top of whatever was happening at the hospital, could be an even more awful thing to do than it was already.
Anyway, he felt better, he told himself. Maybe the nap was all he needed.
Yeah, right, brat, said Zain’s voice in his head.
Seb made a mental face at him and leaned over his textbook to return the kitten to the nightstand drawer. It looked sad in there, somehow, even with the same stitched smile. Ridiculous. Defiantly, he slid the drawer closed.
They ate the pizza in the living room while binge-watching their favorite episodes of White Collar. Theo had gotten more and more into commentating now that he’d seen all six seasons. “Elizabeth, I must confess, has a much better Look than Peter does at times,” he said, pointing at the screen with his slice of pizza. “See, there? My butt just clenched.”
Seb buried his face in a throw pillow to muffle his giggles.
“It did,” Theo told him, perfectly serious. “That is a scary, scary woman.” Then he glanced down at the time on the cable box, which showed 10:07. Giving Seb a mischievous sideways smile, he went on, “So, I know we’re supposed to turn the screens off an hour before bed, because circadian rhythms and melatonin and blah blah blah, but I really want to finish this one. I won’t say anything if you don’t?”
Seb suspected he wouldn’t be able to fall asleep easily anyway, so what was the harm? “Okay.”
Whether because of the TV or something else, his suspicions came true. He was still lying awake at one in the morning when he heard the front door open and Quint enter. “Hi, boy,” came the older man’s voice, just barely audible. There was a jingle of dog tags like he’d given Jagger a scratch on the neck.
Then Seb heard footsteps approaching. He kept his eyes closed and his breathing even and deep while they paused outside his open door.
After a moment, Quint continued on to the master bedroom. It sounded like Theo mumbled something as he came in. Quint said, “Yes, the patient’s doing well. Go back to sleep.”
Oh, good, Seb thought.
He wasn’t sure he dozed off. It felt as if he was wide awake, yet when he checked his phone, he found two hours had passed in what seemed like ten minutes. He rolled onto his back and scrolled through the texts Zain sent after getting the photos of the two mandalas.
Gorgeous as usual, babe. What’ve you been up to otherwise today?
Seb had told him about the White Collar marathon and some of Theo’s funniest observations. He didn’t mention Quint working late. The Tops emailed back and forth almost every day, but Zain said nothing as well, so he assumed they’d both been too busy to write each other. His eyes prickled again as he read the last text, which just said, Love you, see you tomorrow.
When he did see him, the Seb-senses would kick into high gear and Zain would feel terrible about not catching it sooner, never mind that Seb could admit to himself he was doing everything possible to make sure neither Top noticed his unrest.
Why? he thought, putting the phone down and gazing at the square of midnight-blue light where his window glowed behind the curtains. You can’t keep this up much longer. What’s stopping you? His feeble excuse of wanting to know Quint wasn’t coming off a terrible day had crumbled like a house of cards, now that he’d heard with his own ears that the patient was fine. All he had to do was find a place to put the kitten where Quint would be sure to see it before Theo.
But that meant really and truly admitting… a whole ton of stuff he’d rather keep safely inside.
He choked back a sob in the darkness. Merde. Someone was going to hear him. Quint would come to see what was wrong and drag it all from him.
In half a blind panic, he threw the covers back, got the kitten out, and brought it into the kitchen, where he hid it the first place he could think of. Then he undid the chain on the front door with trembling fingers and padded down the hallway to the elevator.
Quint may have a point about the melatonin stuff, Theo mused at nearly four in the morning. He had no idea what had woken him in his husband’s warm embrace, but he’d been lying with the familiar spectre of insomnia for about half an hour now. The rule was to wake Quint after ten minutes. Doing that, though, would lead to a lot of awkward questions about what was causing it, and anyway, the Top needed his sleep, too. He was not the android Theo sometimes teasingly accused him of being. So his guilt was minimal and easily pushed to one side as he climbed out of bed.
Quint didn’t so much as stir, which proved his exhaustion as far as Theo was concerned. He tiptoed across the room and slipped out, thinking of the last slice of pepperoni waiting in the fridge.
Jagger was up, too, and sitting by the front door for some reason. Theo frowned at him. “If you’re expecting Quint to go running this early, you’re really confused, mutt,” he whispered.
The dog just kept staring at the door like he was expecting someone to come in.
“What has gotten into you lately?” Theo asked. “Go lay down.” It was creeping him out. He pointed toward the floor cushion in the living room. “Go on.”
Then the door did open.
Theo jumped about a foot and grabbed the countertop for balance, while the skinny figure silhouetted by the fluorescent hallway lights froze on the spot.
“Mes dieux,” it gasped after a moment, sounding as startled as Theo.
“Seb?” he hissed. “What the hell are you doing?!”
“I was… I took a walk,” said Seb in a whisper. He stepped over the threshold and closed the door behind him. Jagger began sniffing his bare feet.
“Without shoes?” asked Theo, perplexed. “And in the middle of the night?”
“Not outside,” Seb replied. “Um, I went up to the top floor in the stairwell and sat for a bit.”
Theo blinked a few times.
When he didn’t say anything, Seb shifted uncomfortably on the doormat and asked, “What’re you doing out here?” Not accusatory or defensive, just curious as Theo was himself.
“I was getting pizza,” he replied, reaching to the fridge to prove it. But his gaze was still fixed on the younger Brat, so he accidentally grabbed the freezer door’s handle instead.
As it swung open, two things happened: Seb almost dove sideways to shut it again, and the corner of Theo’s eye was caught by a flash of vivid pink.
He blocked Seb with his shoulder and plucked the kitten off a bag of frozen peas. “Ohhkay,” he said, holding it up, “Jagger definitely didn’t put it there.”
“Um,” said Seb. He stared at his feet, going nearly as pink as the plushie.
Theo grabbed his elbow after a moment and dragged him back into the hallway, with Jagger following. Once the apartment door was shut behind them, he demanded, “What’s going on?”
“I left it there for Quint,” Seb said, hugging both arms low over his stomach.
Obviously, Theo thought. He was about to say so, before he noticed a more pressing concern. Under the bright lights, the other Brat’s eyes were pink to match his cheeks. “Did… did you go up to the roof to cry?” He didn’t cry the first time he went up there, did he? Or when he climbed onto the beam in Vermont. So this must be worse than either of those.
Seb, though, just said, “I didn’t go onto the roof. Quint told me I couldn’t.”
Recognizing the classic grasping-at-straws technique that he often used himself when cornered, Theo sighed. “He also said you should give this kitten to him when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Like you are now. I don’t know what it’s about, but I can tell that much.”
“I was trying to.”
Theo winced guiltily. “Yeah, I didn’t exactly make that easy for you, finding it in the couch, did I?”
“He had to work late anyway. But if we put it back in the freezer now and go to bed, it’ll be there when he does the grocery shopping tomorrow,” explained Seb. “So let’s just do that, d’accord?” And he gave Theo a pleading look.
“That won’t be until evening, at least.” Really, he wanted to march back into the apartment and present Quint with the kitten right this minute, never mind that he’d be damning himself to trouble, too. He couldn’t imagine Seb would get mad.
… No, he wouldn’t be mad; he’d be hurt and betrayed, the way he’d been when Theo snarked at him that one time before the drawing-on-the-wall incident. Suppose it made him want to move out? Theo felt an urge to cling onto the younger Brat’s bony frame just thinking about it.
But waiting all day couldn’t be good for him either, and there wasn’t any reason to, especially since tomorrow was a work-from-home day for Quint.
“What if you put it somewhere he’d see it in the morning?” he asked. “Like on the counter?”
Seb shook his head. “I tried before. I can’t. It’s too… obvious.”
“Okay, I don’t truly understand this whole kitten thing,” Theo said, “but isn’t that kinda the point?”
“I wanted to give him a chance to do his normal routine, not have it interrupted.”
Theo’s forehead furrowed as he raised his eyebrows. “You’re way overthinking this. Also, trust me, the longer you wait, the more likely Quint is to consider it ‘lying’ that you didn’t tell him straight off. Look, what if… what if I give it to him for you? In the morning?”
Shaking his head again, jerkier, Seb said, “I don’t want him believing I need help.”
Theo had to bite his lip a moment. “Um,” he said, making the plushie dance under Seb’s nose, “The cat’s gonna be out of the bag there no matter what, my friend. Pun very intended.”
With a snort, Seb tried to snatch the kitten away. Theo held tight, and after a moment he gave up and let his hand fall to his side. “Okay. Just. Do it when I’m in another room?”
“Alright,” said Theo, happy he’d agreed. “Now c’mon, let’s sneak back in before we get caught.”
They went silently as two… well, cat burglars. Jagger also seemed to understand the importance of quietness. He lay down on his bed with only a nod from Theo. At Seb’s door, Theo paused to give the younger man a tight, long hug. It took a few seconds for Seb to lift his arms and return it. When he let go, Theo mouthed, Sweet dreams.
You too, Seb responded.
The pink kitten went with Theo, carried in his hand as he crept into the master bedroom and smoothly slid between the covers next to his slumbering husband.
Quint shifted. Theo’s heart stuttered as he froze, but the Top didn’t wake. Letting out a breath, Theo pushed the kitten underneath his pillow and moved over to rest his head on Quint’s shoulder. Finally, he could sleep.
Years of getting up at the same time had ingrained it into Quint better than any alarm could. He wasn’t surprised, therefore, to see the nightstand clock stood at just after six-thirty when he opened his eyes. He very occasionally wished his brain had a ‘snooze’ button. Today he’d definitely be tempted to hit it. Hopefully, a run would clear the cobwebs from his head.
He gently moved Theo’s arm off his waist so he could slip out from under him. The customary groan of protest Theo usually gave at this was turned into a mumbled, “Noooo.”
“I need to get up, angel,” Quint told him.
“Jus’ a sec… where’zit?” With Quint watching in bemusement, he rolled over and rummaged around on his side of the bed. Then he said, “Ha!” as he rolled back triumphantly. He pushed something into Quint’s chest and let his eyelids shut fully again. “Kitten. Needzya.”
Quint glanced down as his hand dropped away, revealing the small, pink plushie. He looked at Theo in surprise. “Does Seb know you have this?”
“Mm-hm. Wan’ned me give t’you,” Theo said, eyes still closed. Waving his hand loosely in Quint’s face—it was a wonder he didn’t hit him—he added, “Go…be Toppy-Top.”
Quint’s mouth opened. Then he reasoned he’d probably get a more coherent answer from Seb, who was also an early-riser, so he closed it again. Picking up the kitten along with his glasses from the nightstand, he went to find its owner.
He collected Seb’s hairbrush from the bathroom on the way, keeping in mind a piece of advice from one of Zain’s early emails. Don’t give him time to build the walls higher or freak out over it. He didn’t want to delay anything by having to go fetch an implement later.
To the same aim, he took the brush first to the couch and hid it behind a throw pillow, along with the kitten, before circling back to Seb’s door. When Seb answered his soft knock by opening and looking nervously up at him with dark-circled eyes, Quint said, “Good morning, mon chaton. Can you come out into the living room, please? I’d like to talk without disturbing Theo.”
Seb gulped and slowly nodded. Quint put a hand on his shoulder to guide him over to the couch, noting how taut the muscles felt under his palm. He took the side of the cushions with the hidden objects, and Seb sat on his right in a curled-up ball, his knees to his chest and his arms wrapped around them. His gaze was fixed on the coffee table.
“Can you put your feet on the floor, please?” asked Quint, gently. “Or at least sit cross-legged?”
The green eyes flickered towards Quint before he shifted to a half-lotus pose and let his hands drop into his lap.
“Thank you,” Quint said. In profile, the shadows of Seb’s face brought out the exhaustion even more. “You look very tired. Have you tested this morning?”
“Oui, monsieur,” said Seb, staring down at his hands now.
“What was your level?”
He just barely shrugged. “High side of normal.”
“I’d like a number, as well as eye contact, please,” Quint said.
Seb flushed, which at least brought some color to his cheeks, and looked sideways at him. “It was 134.”
He nodded reluctantly.
Quint would say that was more ‘high’ than ‘normal’, though he supposed it was to be expected, if Seb had been bottling up stress. In any case, it wasn’t low, so he could proceed with a spanking, if needed, without fear. Reaching behind the throw pillow, he brought out the kitten and showed it to Seb. The Brat seemed to have trouble looking directly at it for more than a split second. His head ducked.
“Theo just gave this to me, mon chaton. He said that you asked him to. Are you feeling overwhelmed about something?”
Scratching at his ankle bone, Seb nodded.
“About what?” Quint asked. “And look at me, please.”
With a small, frustrated noise, he brought his eyes up to meet Quint’s again. “Je ne sais pas.”
Quint frowned. “Not even an inkling, mon chaton? Are you sure?” He held the pink kitten out as an offering. “When did you decide that I needed to receive this?”
Seb took it from his hand, and Quint let him, thinking it might help for him to hold it. As he watched, the younger man squeezed it between his fingers.
Then he raised his arm and pitched it at the TV.
Blinking, Quint leaned forward to see where it had fallen after harmlessly bouncing off the screen. Seb’s breaths were somewhere between a pant and hyperventilating. He’d clearly decided the talking portion was over. Quint was forced to agree.
“Stand up, please, young man.”
Seb stood with an audible gulp. His hands moved to the waistband of his yoga pants.
“No,” said Quint, looking up at him with one eyebrow raised. “Let go.”
For a moment, Seb hesitated, his thumbs hooked behind the elastic. Quint was just about to reach around and give him a swat when he unhooked them and hugged his arms across his stomach instead.
Still hiding, Quint thought, but no matter. He was sure it wouldn’t last long.
After sliding the yoga pants down Seb’s slim hips, he put a steadying hand on the Brat’s elbow. Seb uncrossed his arms and braced himself against the couch cushion as he bent over Quint’s left thigh. He didn’t rest his full weight on Quint; his torso remained propped stiffly at a forty-five degree angle. Rubbing his palm between the protruding shoulder blades, Quint said, “Relax and give me your hands, please.”
He felt a shuddering breath move through Seb before he obeyed and sank onto the cushion. Quint gathered both wrists in one hand, holding firmly as he leaned over to retrieve the hairbrush from behind the pillow. Setting it next to him a moment, he readjusted Seb to be closer, so he could better hook his free leg around the Brat’s. Then he picked up the brush once more and brought it squarely down.
Seb jerked, but he didn’t make a sound. Quint was silent as well, concentrating on laying each swat exactly where he intended. Aiming became more and more difficult as Seb twisted and tried to kick. He erred on the side of striking low, rather than too close to the injection sites.
The Brat’s fingers dug into the arm that was pinning them to his lower back, and Quint let them with hardly a thought for the pain. He knew he was putting Seb through worse at the moment. His heart ached when he finally heard the first muffled cry.
“That’s it, mon chaton,” he murmured, going right on spanking. “It’s alright.”
With a heaving gasp, Seb’s shoulders began to shake in the way Quint could recognize now. He was not anywhere near as loud a crier as Theo usually, and this time even less so because he had the couch fabric between his teeth, but Quint didn’t need him to be audible anymore.
He dropped the brush beside him a few seconds later. Then, while he delivered four more, slower, swats with his hand, he said, “We do not throw things to express our emotions. Am I understood?”
If he hadn’t been watching very closely, he would’ve missed Seb’s nod.
He rested his palm just above the glowing pink patch of skin. “Do you think you’re ready to talk?”
There was another nod, more definite, and Seb looked back over his shoulder with teary eyes. Even in that state, his expression was calmer than it had been since Quint called him out of his room. He cooperated with being helped upright to sit in Quint’s lap, embraced and soothed with a backrub, until his sobs died out.
“Now,” Quint said once they had. “Tell me about the kitten.”
Seb pressed his cheek against Quint’s chest harder and sniffled. “I had a low blood sugar yesterday morning,” he said. “Really early. I pulled it out of my nightstand when I was looking for carbs and, um, dropped it on the floor.”
With a finger under the Brat’s chin and a head angled to catch his eyes, Quint asked, “‘Dropped’?”
Squirming and, Quint was sure, very aware that his pants hadn’t been pulled up, Seb admitted, “Threw it at the wall.” Then, clearly eager to move passed that point, he went on, “I fell back asleep after I treated, and when Theo woke me up, I was running late, so I didn’t do my yoga or mediation.”
Quint was beginning to see what might’ve happened. “Zain told me that those are important to you,” he said. “Being a person of habit myself, I also know what it feels like to start the day out of routine. I’m always off if I miss my run. Did you do it after returning from class, at least?”
Seb lowered his gaze and shook his head. “I wasn’t in the mood. My class… we had a critique. And then Zain texted to say he wouldn’t be able to Skype, and that’s when I put the kitten out the first time.”
A couple of things in that sentence were news to Quint. First, that Zain hadn’t spoken to Seb face-to-face, as it were, the night before. He wished he’d checked in with the younger Top when he found out he’d be working late, but caring for his patient had distracted him. Second, he’d thought that Seb simply gave the kitten to Theo, not that he’d put it out himself—and apparently more than once, at that.
“The first time?” he asked. “What happened?”
“Theo found it and thought Jagger had put it there.”
That seemed odd. Frowning, he asked, “Where exactly did you put it?”
Seb pointed to the end of the couch in front of him. “Behind the pillow. The same one you hid it behind,” he said.
Quint turned to look at the pillow, and then back to Seb. “Mon chaton,” he said, “when I told you that you could place it somewhere I would find it, I didn’t mean I wanted to play hide and seek.”
Blushing rose-colored, Seb replied, “I know, but I couldn’t decide where else to put it.”
“Hmm,” said Quint. More specific directions were needed, then. Perhaps a designated spot to leave the kitten? He decided to set that aside for now, however, in favor of asking, “So when Theo found it, you didn’t correct his assumption?”
“Non, monsieur,” he confirmed. “Then you called and said you weren’t going to be home until late, so I didn’t see the point of putting it out again.”
“Yet you still felt overwhelmed?” Quint asked. “Due to missing your morning and evening routines both, am I correct?”
Seb bit his lip and ducked his head. “ …Yes?”
“Young man,” Quint said, quirking an eyebrow, “if you’re not telling me the full truth, I will march you to the bathroom and wash your mouth out, never mind that you’ve just been spanked. Would you like to try that answer again?”
The blush deepened. His fingers twisted in the hem of his t-shirt. He said nothing.
“Very well,” said Quint. He put the alarmed-looking Brat on his feet and tugged his pants back into place before getting up himself. “After you, please.”
Seb led the way to the bathroom with his head hanging. He went slowly, but he went. Quint was somewhat surprised. This would be the point in the proceedings when Theo would swiftly declare he’d changed his mind, and Quint would give him a second chance. Seb seemed determined to follow through, though. Or perhaps the verbal blockade was still partially standing. Should he have spanked him longer?
He was distracted from this as they passed Seb’s open bedroom door and Jagger, laying on the floor inside, looked woefully up at him. Only then did he realize he hadn’t shut the dog in another room to prevent him from interrupting the spanking. Apparently, Jagger took care of that himself this time. Quint frowned, wondering if they’d inadvertently trained him to stay away.
Seb stepped into the bathroom and glanced over his shoulder uncertainly.
“Face the wall there,” Quint told him, pointing opposite the sink and forgetting the dog for the moment. “I’ll be right back.” Without waiting for Seb to obey, he continued on to retrieve the bottle of soap from the other bathroom.
Theo was sitting up against the headboard with much the same woeful expression as Jagger. “Is he okay?”
“Yes, angel,” Quint said, stepping into the bathroom. He wished he could spare a moment to comfort his husband, but he didn’t want to keep Seb in suspense.
When he brought the bottle out, though, Theo threw back the covers and clambered out of bed. “What’re you doing?”
“Stay here,” Quint told him.
“But what lie did he tell?” Theo demanded.
Quint sighed. Trying to strike a balance between respecting Seb’s privacy and reassuring Theo, he said, “It’s about what he isn’t telling, and that’s between him and I. Go back to bed, please.” He turned his Brat around by the elbow and started out the door.
Before he could shut it behind him, Theo was spinning back and grabbing its edge. “No, wait!” he said. Then, quieter, “I know what he isn’t telling, and it’s… it’s because of me. He doesn’t want you to know I was up last night.”
At that, both Quint’s eyebrows rose. “Were you?” When Theo nodded, he asked, “Was Seb out of bed as well, then?”
A flash of dismay crossed Theo’s face before he said, in just above a whisper, “N-no, he… I woke him up and then I went into his room and we talked a bit and that’s when he gave me the kitten. But he stayed in bed; it was all my fault.”
“I see,” Quint said, extremely mild. “A moment, please.” He left one increasingly-distressed Brat standing in the doorway and went to ask the second one, “Seb, when did you give Theo the kitten to give to me?”
Seb had been straining to hear the couple’s conversation without much success beyond Theo’s cry for Quint to wait. He wasn’t helped by having to keep his nose to the wall. At Quint’s question, though, he turned his head to cautiously glance over and judge the older man’s expression.
It was one of patience, the way that Zain looked patient sometimes before his limited reserve ran out and he started with the more direct approaches. Seb knew Quint’s reserves were much larger, but he’d also probably drained a lot already. He gulped. “Last night?”
“At what time?”
“…I’m not really sure.”
The placid look didn’t change at all. “Were you in bed?” Quint asked.
Seb felt lucky he’d phrased it that way, instead of telling him to approximate a time like Zain would’ve. It allowed him to say, “Non, monsieur,” and, hopefully, imply it had been earlier.
The moment he did, though, Quint nodded once like that confirmed a suspicion and turned his head towards the master bedroom. “Theodore William,” he said, “bring your spare toothbrush here, please.”
He heard a faint, drawn-out, “Quii-iiiint!” and then, when the Top aimed a Look down the hall, several seconds of silence before Theo’s footsteps approached. He slinked into view, reluctantly holding out a toothbrush. Taking it from him, Quint nodded through the doorway. Theo sidled past like he was trying not to expose his behind to his husband.
As Quint followed, Theo had to back right into the corner between the wall and shower to make room. Seb wished they could trade places. His sore rear end felt vulnerable, especially with Quint standing in front of the sink with his arms crossed over his broad chest and one index finger tapping the crook of his elbow in a steady rhythm. Seb stared at it rather than his face.
“Theodore,” the Top said, measured as the tapping, “you’ve just told me an outright fabrication, and Sébastien,”—Seb flinched at hearing his full name—“you’re still hedging and attempting to mislead me. This is the last chance for both of you to avoid a mouthsoaping by telling the full and complete truth.”
Seb didn’t dare. He had no idea what Theo might’ve said already, or how much worse trouble he’d be getting him into. Why hadn’t they worked out what to say when the kitten was passed over last night? Not that it would do much good, in his case, with his inability to lie convincingly.
Next to him, Theo was equally silent.
“Alright,” said Quint. “Theodore, step forward, please.”
Theo did, while saying, “Quint, I haven’t even had breakfast yet,” in an oddly muffled voice, like he was trying not to part his lips as he spoke.
“I’m aware of that,” Quint told him. He uncrossed his arms, and Seb saw the brush Theo’d brought gripped in the hand that had been hidden, along with bottle he remembered from Zain’s mouthsoaping. Just like then, Quint flipped open the top and drizzled a small amount onto the bristles. That was as far as Seb watched. He’d had a hard enough time seeing Zain go through this voluntarily. He dropped his gaze all the way to the floor tiles by his feet as the sound of scrubbing started, interspersed with Theo’s wordless noises of protest.
Water ran, and Quint said, “Face the wall there. I will let you know when your three minutes are up. Sébastien, step forward, please.”
Seb gulped and moved into the spot as Theo vacated it. He kept looking down while Quint took a brand-new toothbrush from the vanity drawer, ripped the package open, and poured soap onto it. Then Quint’s fingers under his chin forced him to raise his head with a firm nudge.
“Open wide,” the Top said, “and keep your throat closed. This soap won’t harm you if swallowed, but I don’t want you choking.”
If he could’ve seen his face in the mirror behind Quint, he knew it would’ve been flame-red, and probably with a visible glisten of tears in his eyes still from the spanking. How often does Theo get two punishments for the same thing on the same day? he wondered as he obeyed the instructions.
Then it was all he could do not to close his mouth or jerk away. It was ten times worse than the hint of soap he’d tasted from kissing Zain. It filled every crevice between his teeth, and although Quint didn’t scrub the very back of his tongue, it ran back there all the same because of how his chin was tilted up for Quint to see better. Seb couldn’t avoid looking at his stern expression. The French idiom prendre un savon suddenly made a great deal more sense. It meant ‘to be reprimanded,’ but the literal translation was ‘to take a soap.’ He felt less than two feet tall.
Finally, Quint removed the brush and tapped his chin. “Close your mouth and face the wall next to Theo, please. It’s three minutes for you as well.”
What seemed like the longest three minutes of Seb’s life passed as he stood shoulder to shoulder with the other Brat, both of them making involuntary faces of disgust and giving each other apologetic sideways glances.
Towards the end, Quint ran water behind them and said, “Theodore, you may rinse.” Theo spun around eagerly. Seb heard him spitting several times and then a gurgling sound that went on until Quint said, “Sébastien, you may rinse as well.”
He turned to find the Top holding out a small paper cup of water. He took it and was about to swill some around his mouth when Theo caught his wrist. The older Brat bent over the sink and let out the water he’d been gargling, then swiped his hand over his lips as he stood. “Spit as much as you can out first, before you use that. Otherwise it makes it worse, not better, and that’s all you get.”
Seb followed his advice, and for a time both of them were crowded around the small vanity while Quint stood in the doorway to make room. Eventually, he realized that the spitting wasn’t lessening the taste anymore, and he was out of water. He dropped the empty cup in the wastebasket.
“Now,” Quint said, calm as ever, “would either of you like to tell me what really happened, or shall we have a repeat of this exercise?”
Theo’s head snapped up from spitting, his eyes wide with shock. “You wouldn’t!”
“Have I ever made an idle threat, angel?”
That seemed to convince Theo. He looked to Seb, helplessly, in question. Seb nodded. He had no desire at all for more soap.
“Come along, then,” Quint said, seeing this. “We’ll make breakfast while you talk.”
Seb retrieved the pink kitten from the floor, blushing a little as Theo watched him do it curiously, and followed the other two into the kitchen, where Theo began making coffee and Quint opened the refrigerator. At the sound, Jagger appeared, sitting at a distance just far enough to not be considered begging.
The Top ignored him and took out a carton of eggs. “I believe we’d left off with Theo finding the kitten behind the throw pillow and my calling to say I’d be working late. What happened next?”
Theo glanced over to Seb, shrugged in a might-as-well way, and said, “We ordered pizza and watched White Collar until around eleven.”
Pausing in the middle of cracking and separating an egg into a pair of bowls, Quint asked, “What time did you go to bed?”
“ …Also around eleven,” said Theo. “It was my idea.”
“I agreed to it without any convincing,” Seb put in quietly.
“I see,” Quint said. He continued with the eggs. “At which point the kitten was still in Seb’s possession?”
Both Brats nodded, Seb looking down at the plushie.
“How did it change hands and end up under Theo’s pillow this morning?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” said Seb. “After I heard you come in, I-”
“Just a moment,” Quint interrupted politely. “You were awake when I came in? I checked on you and you appeared to be fast asleep. Am I correct in thinking that was an act?”
Seb shifted his weight, while on Quint’s other side, Theo winced at him. “Oui, monsieur.”
“Alright, go on,” said Quint. “I just want to make sure I have the full picture.”
Taking a deep breath, Seb said, “After that, I think I slept for a little while, but I woke up again and decided to put the kitten back out here, and, um, then I went to the top of the stairwell.”
At that, Quint blinked in surprise and looked over. “Why, mon chaton?”
Zain would be much better equipped to answer. Try as he might, Seb’s words failed. “…I just needed some air,” he said, which was the best he could do.
“Seb,” said Theo, halfway between confused and reproachful. Quint transferred his attention to him. After a moment, Theo reluctantly said, “He’d been crying when he came back down.”
Tears threatened again at the compassion that filled Quint’s face. The older man set the bowls of eggs aside and opened his arms, saying, “Come here, mon chaton.”
Seb shook his head.
Quint pulled him into a hug anyway, with a very light pat on his sore rear end. Then he rubbed up over his back and shoulders. “Why didn’t either of you get me?”
“Didn’t want to disturb you,” Seb choked.
“Neither did I,” Theo said. His voice was odd as well, and he spoke quickly as he went on, “Seb going out must’ve been what woke me up. I couldn’t fall back asleep, so after awhile I went to eat the last slice of pizza, and that’s when he came in and scared the crap out of me. Then I found the kitten in the freezer and realized it wasn’t Jagger hiding it, and I convinced him to let me give it to you instead of leaving it there.”
Quint unwrapped one arm from Seb and gestured to his husband, who stepped forward and joined their embrace immediately. Seb felt surrounded by them, like a warm blanket.
After nearly a minute, Quint released them and said, “Both of you are going straight back to bed as soon as we’re done eating.”
Seb nodded. He’d been planning to sketch before his class at two, but the exhaustion felt deeper now than when he got up and forced himself through his yoga. Which was probably part of the reason it hadn’t done any good at all. “Oui, monsieur.”
Theo, though, frowned and stepped away. “I don’t need a nap.”
“Young man, you are very lucky I’m not sending you to bed with a sore bottom after what you did last night,” Quint told him. “The only reason I am being lenient is because I understand your loyalty was torn, preventing you from waking me. However, if you continue to argue, you’ll be getting a spanking as well as a nap. Is that clear?”
There was a tense silence, and then Theo dropped his gaze. “Yes, sir.”
“Thank you,” Quint said, before refocusing on Seb. “Now, I believe I still haven’t had a complete answer to my original question, which if you’ll remember was regarding the reason you felt overwhelmed. I know simply being off your routine for one day would not drive you to seek high ground in the middle of the night.”
Blinking, Seb said, “That’s what Zain calls it, too, sometimes. Seeking high ground.”
“He told me,” Quint said. “Do you know why he calls it that?”
A sort of invisible squirm ran through him, just under his skin. “…He says it’s like animals, when they sense danger or- or are afraid.”
“Yes,” agreed Quint. “So what were you fearing?”
This right here—Quint’s direct, warm gaze promising he would be just as persistent as Zain in making Seb admit what he was hiding even from himself—was exactly why he’d wanted the Top to find the pink kitten in the first place. Still, it terrified him to speak the worry aloud, like he might manifest it with his words. His mouth opened and shut several times as he blinked away moisture.
Reaching out, Quint grasped both his shoulders and began gently kneading them. “Close your eyes and take a breath, mon chaton. Relax.”
With a conscious effort, he did. And he kept his eyes shut as he said, “It was the critique in my class. What if… what if MICA admitting me before was just a fluke? I’m too untalented; I’ll never be awarded scholarships, which means even if I did get in, we can’t afford it, and-” he gasped another breath- “I go to pieces after just one night without Zain, I can’t do another three years, I just can’t, and that sounds so ungrateful to him and to you and Theo that you really ought to spank me again!”
He had no idea what Quint’s face looked like, but when he spoke a few seconds later, he sounded wry and stern at the same time. “If I were to spank you again, young man, it would be for calling yourself untalented. Look at me, please.”
Seb made himself open his eyes. He got a quick glimpse of Theo, who’d moved to one side and was studying him with a lot of sympathy. Then he focused on Quint as best as he could.
“Leaving that comment aside for the moment,” the Top said, “you do not sound ungrateful. I know I speak truthfully for Theo and I both when I say we understand that however well we make this apartment a home for you, and however terribly we’ll miss you when you move out, you belong closer to Zain. I told him when he first asked me to look out for you that I can’t imagine being so far from Theo for so long, and that I would do anything I could to make your separation easier. So never feel you need to hide the fact that you miss him, understand?”
He swallowed on the lump in his throat and nodded.
Then Theo stepped forward next to Quint and said, “As for them not admitting you, they’re idiots if they don’t. I get thinking you’re not talented enough—believe me, I really, really do—but you are, Seb. And I’m not just saying that because I’m your friend. I hired you to do Quint’s birthday piece within three minutes of meeting you and seeing your sketchbook, remember? Was this critique really all bad? That’s hard to believe.”
“No,” Seb said, “it wasn’t, I’m just focusing on the bad, and I know I am, but I can’t stop.”
“Yeah,” Theo sighed. “I get that, too. The only thing that usually helps, other than Quint swatting me whenever I say something negative about myself, is working on a song, but not the one I had trouble with. A new one. Sometimes I use it to express my frustration about the old one.”
“I think that’s an excellent idea,” Quint said. “Seb, I’m giving you an assignment. I want you to draw or paint how you’ve been feeling. You don’t need to show it to me or anyone else, but I want it completed by tomorrow, alright?”
“Oui, monsieur. I’ll start after breakfast.”
Quint smiled. “No, you’ll be sleeping after breakfast, and then you’ll be emailing Zain to tell him all of this.”
“Oh,” said Seb. “Right. Um, after that, then.”
“Good,” Quint said, still slightly amused. “About the kitten: You put it in the freezer?”
Seb looked down at the plushie in his hand as his face went pink again. “I knew you’re grocery shopping this afternoon,” he mumbled. “I thought you’d find it then.”
“Is there something wrong with simply leaving it on the table?” Quint asked.
When Seb didn’t answer, Theo chimed in with, “He said it’s too obvious.”
“I see,” said Quint. “I think we can fix that. Seb, come with me and bring the kitten. Theo, stay here a moment, please.”
Jagger padded behind them. Quint brought Seb all the way down into the master bedroom, and then the ensuite bath, before turning. “I’m assuming part of the problem is that you don’t want it to be obvious to Theo, in particular. That’s why I asked him to stay behind. You see this basket?” He pointed to a woven, square container on the shelf over the toilet. “Take it down, please.”
Seb did. Like the identical one in the hall bathroom, it contained extra hand towels, neatly rolled.
“Lay the kitten in it and put it back,” Quint instructed.
Somewhat puzzled, Seb did that, too. Once the basket was on the shelf, the pink head of the kitten peeking over the top was invisible even when he stepped to the opposite wall. Jagger, sitting in the doorway, cocked his head at the spot where it vanished.
“Theo won’t be able to see it there either, and he never changes the towels himself so he’d have no reason to take it down,” said Quint. “I, on the other hand, would spot it quite easily whenever I’m in this room.” He reached over, plucked the kitten out, and gave it back to Seb. “This is the only place you may hide it. You can also leave it on the kitchen peninsula or give it directly to me. Nowhere else. Is that clear?”
“Yes,” said Seb. “Merci beaucoup.”
“You’re welcome. Put it back where it usually goes and come eat breakfast, please.”
Seb brought the kitten into his room as Quint and Jagger continued on to the kitchen. He opened the nightstand. He paused, looking from the dark drawer to the plushie. Then he set it next to his lamp instead, closed the drawer, and went out.
The kitten stood, holding its “You’re Purrfect!” heart, for the full day, while its owner slept and wrote an email and read the response and drew and did unknown things outside the room.
He returned that night with the second man, who carried a chair which he put in front of the desk. They both sat down, looking at the laptop.
Shortly, a third man appeared on the screen—one who had often shown up there before when the kitten was on the bookshelf with the cards. “Uh-oh,” he said. “Did something else happen? Did Seb stuff the plushie into your milk carton?”
“Shut up,” said the kitten’s owner.
“No, nothing like that,” the second man said. “Actually, Seb doesn’t know why I’m here either, and I hope you’ll both forgive my keeping it a secret, however briefly. You see, when I got our mail earlier today, I found an envelope from the Maryland Institute College of Art. I thought it best if Seb opened it now, with you here.”
He produced a thick envelope from his back pocket. The kitten’s owner took it in a hand that trembled.
There was a hush, apart from the tearing and rustle of paper. Then absolute silence.
Then the kitten’s owner said, “Accepted with a minor scholarship. Only a little more than last time.” He started to crumple the papers into a ball.
The second man reached over to stop him, while the man on the screen said, “Okay, wait, I have a plan… Babe… Babe… SEB.”
Uncurling from the ball he’d crumpled himself into when the second man pried the paper away, he asked, “What?!”
“Listen. I’ve been making a plan for this. Worst-case scenarios are what I’m good at, remember? And this isn’t even worst-case. That would’ve been a denial, and I had a plan for that, too, on the extreme off-chance.”
“What plan?” asked the kitten’s owner. The second man wrapped an arm around him and waited, too, looking at the screen.
“There are a couple parts of it you might not like,” said the man there. “For one thing, it means asking to defer your admission until the spring semester and possibly staying at Cooper Union through fall. It’d give us a good chunk of savings for that term, since Cooper’s much less expensive, but I don’t know if MICA would let you transfer any credits for your fall classes, so that’s something to look into and ask your admissions counselor. I already found their deferral process online. It seems pretty simple.”
“That’s another six months apart!”
“Yeah, I know. Remember, though, we’ll still have my summer leave.”
Both the other two men waited until the kitten’s owner asked, “And the second part I won’t like?”
The man on the screen took an audible breath. “I want to ask your parents to do kinda what they did for us in Hawaii, in terms of housing. Buy a place and let us live there dirt-cheap in exchange for fixing it up. The only difference is, we won’t be keeping this one, and I won’t really be living in it apart from the weekends I have off. Although I’ll still do at least half the renovation work, of course. They can sell it after I graduate and probably make a profit.”
“They’ll want to just give it to us outright,” said the kitten’s owner. He uncurled further, putting his feet on the floor.
“Well, they’ll have to be disappointed. This is already something I was trying to avoid, but there’s no other way I can see to keep us going above the maximum debt we agreed on. I’ve been running the numbers. So, what do you think, habibi?”
“…We can really make it work this way?”
The man on the screen rolled his eyes. “I just told you I’ve been running the numbers. Are you doubting my mad ninja math skills?”
Smiling, the kitten’s owner said, “Never.” Then he sat bolt upright. “Wait, we haven’t even- Quint, we’re just assuming I’d stay here for another term, and you only planned for one-”
“Of course you’ll stay here, mon chaton. As long as you’re living in New York, this is your home.” Leaning over, he kissed the younger man’s forehead. “If you’ll allow me, I’d like to go tell Theo what’s happening.”
The kitten’s owner nodded, and the second man left the room, shutting the door behind him.
“I should contact the admissions counselor.”
“Yeah,” said the man on the screen. “First, though, I want to meet this poor, infamous kitten plushie. Where is it? Did you do anything else terrible to it?”
But he fetched the kitten and held it up to the laptop’s camera, and then put it in his lap as they continued talking about their plans, discussing budgets and course credits and timelines until the kitten’s owner stopped squeezing and twisting the little pink heart.
Before he went to bed that night, he put the kitten next to the lamp once more with a soft pat on its head and a whispered, “Merci.”