On the way out the door, Quint caught me by the shoulder. “Where’s your alert bracelet, mon chaton?”
I looked down at my bare wrist. “Oh, um, in my room.”
“Go get it, please. Hurry up.”
He clearly thought I’d just forgotten. Theo was already in the hallway, with Jagger sitting by his side wearing his special red harness. Trying to explain would only make us all late. I went back, retrieved the bracelet, and put it on as I rejoined them.
It felt like a shackle.
This day was weeks in planning. I’d wanted to do it even longer, but Theo had been the first to bring up the idea, after watching me interact with some of his younger fans down at the park. If he hadn’t, I never would’ve mentioned it.
First, I had gone to the hospital with Quint to fill out an application that included a drug test and background check. Once that was accepted, Theo had to give me some additional training, even though I wouldn’t be Jagger’s official handler. But now it was all done and I was allowed to shadow them on the days they visited the hospital.
The building looked stately only from the outside. Inside, splashes of color everywhere made clear it had been designed with cheering up kids in mind. Theo told me they even decorated their CT scanner to look like a pirate ship. The staff I’d met were all wonderful, too. I wished my first hospital experience had been here.
As we stepped into the lobby, Quint said, “Alright, I’ll meet you for lunch. Have fun.” He gave us each a hug and Jagger a pat on the head and then went off to take the elevator up to his office. Theo and I had to check in for the day in the opposite direction.
It took awhile with doctors, nurses, and other staff stopping us every few yards to say hello to Theo and scratch Jagger’s ears. Eventually we were given our assignments and made our way to the first patient’s room.
The little girl’s name was Sammi. Her parents said she’d been recovering from a bad infection for several days now, but if they were lucky, they’d go home soon. Everyone felt hopeful.
Sammi’s eyes lit up when she saw Jagger. Soon, he was lying on the bed next to her, rolled over on his back so she could rub his belly. Theo improvised a song with her name and sang it to her, making her giggle. “Do you sing?” she asked me. I smiled and shook my head.
“Seb is an artist,” Theo said. “Would you like him to make a picture of you and Jagger that you can take home with you?”
She eagerly agreed, so I took out the sketchbook and pencils I’d brought along for just this purpose and did a quick drawing of them. I left out the medical equipment surrounding her and tried to make her hospital gown look more similar to regular pajamas. When I carefully removed the page and showed her it, she got the biggest smile, like sunshine.
Her mother said, “Oh, thank you, thank you. We’re going to have this framed up special.”
“Can I hold it?” Sammi asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Just hold it by the edges where there’s no marks, like this.”
She took it from me carefully, but then her gaze moved from the paper to my hand. “Why are you wearing jewelry if you’re a boy?” she asked, pointing to my bracelet.
“Sammi,” said her father with faint disapproval. “Boys can wear bracelets if they want.”
“It’s okay,” I said. Her attention was already back on the drawing, anyway.
We spent a few more minutes with them before it was time for Sammi to give Jagger one last hug and for us to move on to the next patient. As we walked down the hallway, I slipped the bracelet off and put it into my bag.
It amazed me how Jagger seemed to know exactly what each child needed, whether it was for him to do tricks or play with them or just sit quietly nearby. “He’s good at reading their energy,” Theo said when I pointed it out. “And once that harness is on him, he knows it’s time to work, so he can’t just do whatever. It focuses him. Quint says he’s a Brat dog.”
I drew pictures for each kid. Some requested more unusual portraits, which were fun. I made a boy named Aiden into a space ranger for his, with Jagger as his trusty partner.
Before I knew it, we were on the elevator going down to eat with Quint in the cafe just off the lobby. Theo leaned over to me after he pushed the button. “You, uh, might wanna put your bracelet back on now.”
Flushing, I did.
Quint wanted to know all about our morning, and if I was enjoying the experience.
“Yeah, I am. It’s really nice.”
“He’s a natural,” Theo put in. “The kids love him.”
“Well, they love my drawings,” I said.
“Don’t put yourself down, Seb,” Quint told me, one eyebrow twitching up. “I’ve seen you interact with Lyra and Griffin as well. You’re great with children.”
I bit into my hummus and vegetable sandwich so I wouldn’t have to respond to that.
The bracelet came off again as soon as we bid the Top goodbye. I knew Theo saw me this time, yet he didn’t comment. I was glad.
We spent the afternoon visiting even more patients. While each one was adorable and touching in their own way, by the time we finished, I felt worn out from all the socializing and quite happy to meet Quint at his office. He looked a bit tired as well.
“Long day?” Theo asked him.
He nodded. “More meetings. I don’t think I stepped foot in a patient room, but someone has to make sure the paperwork gets done.”
Theo slid an arm around his waist in a half-hug. “Wish you could’ve tagged along with us.”
“So do I, angel,” Quint said, and then gave him a quick kiss. “Let’s head home.”
It was my turn to cook dinner. I went right to the fridge after taking my shoes off and hanging my bag on one of the bar stools. Pulling out ingredients for the taco recipe I’d picked, I set them on the counter, then turned back for more and almost bumped into Quint.
“Seb, where’s your alert bracelet?”
Hesitantly, I pointed to my bag.
Quint looked at it, then at me. His expression showed confusion, not sternness. “Did it break?”
I swallowed and shook my head. “I, um, took it off this morning.”
“But you were wearing it at lunch, as I recall.”
My gaze flicked to Theo, who was standing to one side with a guilty face, and then dropped to the floor. If I had been wearing the bracelet, I would’ve fiddled with it. As it was, my fingernails dug into the skin where it usually rested, pinching hard. The pain gave me something to focus on other than the lump rising in my throat.
Quint was silent for a long, dreadful moment. Then he said, “I see,” and I wished it had been longer. “Look at me, please, and tell me why.”
Meeting his eyes felt as if I was forcing together the like poles of two magnets. “I was with Theo all day,” I said, in a voice that only shook a little, “so if anything had happened, he would’ve been able to tell someone. I didn’t need the bracelet.”
“That’s right,” the other Brat chimed in. “I watched out for him.”
“Theo, my question was not directed at you,” Quint said warningly. Focusing back on me, he raised an eyebrow and made my stomach flip over. “That is an excuse you used to justify taking it off, young man. I’d like an explanation.”
Between short, choppy breaths, I forced out, “I… didn’t… want people to see. Everyone there would– would notice it. Like you did when we met. They’re trained to.”
He nodded. “And you put it back on for lunch knowing I’d also notice if you weren’t wearing it?”
His calm voice made it so much worse, somehow, than if he’d sounded angry. I wanted to climb into the refrigerator and pull the door closed. It might be cold enough in there to chill my flaming face. “Oui, monsieur.”
“Quint, nothing happened! He’s fine!”
“Theodore, go to the corner.”
The Top stepped toward him, and Theo clearly thought better of arguing. That didn’t prevent Quint from landing a swat on his rear as he scurried off, though. I flinched.
“As for you, Sébastien, come with me, please.” He ushered me in front of him, and I thought perhaps I was about to experience my first mouthsoaping. Hiding the fact I’d removed the bracelet definitely qualified as lying. But he took me to my room, sat on the edge of the bed, grasped the front of my waistband, and guided me between his knees.
“I– I told you the real reason, I swear!”
He stopped in the middle of undoing my fly and looked up with a slight frown that soon cleared into understanding. “Yes, I believe you. This isn’t to help you talk; it’s punishment for your disobedience. No matter what your reason, you knew very well I didn’t ask you to get the bracelet this morning so it could stay in your bag all day. You’ve worn it in that hospital before. Today you chose to take it off. That’s not acceptable behavior, young man.”
Each word pinged into my stomach. I couldn’t speak or move. I simply stood there as he lowered my jeans and underwear. Then he pulled me over his thigh, and I sunk my teeth into my wrist where the bracelet should’ve been, trying to strangle my instantaneous sobs.
“Don’t– Let go,” Quint said. He took my hand and firmly pulled it away from my mouth. Still holding it, he leaned down to examine my wrist. “No broken skin,” he murmured, before catching sight of my face. “No, don’t bite your lips, either.”
Desperate, I lunged forward enough to snatch my pillow and buried my face in that, instead. The bawling couldn’t be contained anymore, but at least it could be muffled. Mes dieux, what was wrong with me? I knew I deserved this punishment. Why couldn’t I at least take it like an adult? I felt Quint’s soft sigh and his palm resting on my bottom, and held as still as my sobs allowed, trying to be good.
He couldn’t have given me more than ten swats, though I was in no state to count. They came quicker than Zain would’ve done for a punishment. Each one landed on my sit-spots a tiny bit harder than the last, but by the end he wasn’t anywhere near the strength I’d felt him dole out on other occasions. Then he pulled me up almost immediately and arranged me so I was sitting in his lap, cradled by his arms.
“Oh, mon chaton. What am I going to do with you?”
I gulped and clung to him without answering.
It took forever for the tears to stop coming. They continued long after my sobs had finally died down. Quint wiped a few off my face. “Is this how you normally react to a punishment spanking?” he asked. “I thought Zain would’ve warned me.”
Shaking my head, I garbled out, “No, not… not normally. Not since the first time. Désolé.” Meaning it as an apology for my reaction, along with my disobedience. I struggled to get up, but he pulled me back with a mild Look.
“No, you’re alright where you are. And you’re forgiven. If I had been at all upset with you to begin with, I wouldn’t be at this point.”
“Theo, though,” I said.
Quint closed his eyes a moment. Then he stood me up just long enough to straighten my clothes before lifting me off my feet again, with one arm under my knees and the other supporting my back. I was too surprised to wiggle as he carried me to the living room and sat down on the couch with me in his lap. “Angel, come here.”
The other Brat darted over from the corner and practically fell on top of us. He was sniffling, too.
“He’s alright,” Quint said, rubbing Theo’s back while he hugged me so tightly it felt like a straightjacket. “It’s alright, angel. Easy.”
Jagger tried to worm his way into the pile then. I felt his cold nose poke my stomach, and suddenly I was giggling. “I’m okay, but I’m not going to be for much longer if you all suffocate me.”
“Sorry,” Theo said, letting go with a weak smile. “I just… I heard. Please don’t take off your bracelet again, okay?”
“I do understand why you wanted to, mon chaton,” Quint told me. “However, did you consider that not only the staff would notice it? Many of our patients wear medical alert jewelry as well. To see yours might help them feel it’s more normal.”
I’d never thought of it like that. My whole reason for wanting to go was to help bring some sense of normality to those kids. I knew too well what it was like to spend days surrounded by more doctors and nurses than your own family, terrified of what was happening to your body and how much was out of your control. If I wasn’t doing everything possible to make it better for them, I had no business being there.
“I won’t take it off again.”
Rubbing my fingers over the red teeth marks on my wrist, I wondered if my promise might help me see it as normal, too.