Reaching the top of the hill at last, I stopped to squint through branches and leaves at the buildings barely visible on the edges of the park. “Okay,” I said. “That’s the West Side, so we’re definitely going in the right direction.”
Seb came up the dirt path behind me, wiping sweat off his forehead with his t-shirt collar. He let it drop and gave me a tentative look. “Are you sure? Because we… we just passed that tree again.”
He pointed down the hill.
“Shit.” It was the same one, there was no doubt about it. “No wonder they call this part the Ramble. That’s the only thing you can do once you’re in it!” I relieved some of my feelings by kicking a stone off the path. It was both frustrating and embarrassing. Imagine a native New Yorker getting lost in Central Park. The damn thing’s only three avenues across!
And it was up to me to get us out. Not only was I supposed to know it better, it had been my idea to come in the first place, after we saw how crowded Washington Square was with other performers.
I switched my guitar case to my other hand. My shoulder was getting sore. “Okay,” I said. “I know where we are, just not where we should go. Give me a minute to work it out.”
“D’accord,” said Seb. He sat on a boulder a few feet away.
When I went back to him—after having once again consulted the map on my phone and gone partway down a fork in the path to make sure I had it oriented right—he was chewing something. Under the sheen of sweat, his skin looked pale.
“You okay?” I asked, frowning.
He swallowed. “Yeah. I just needed a snack.”
Oh, good, you wandered him right into a low blood sugar. Nice job, Theo. “Sorry. My navigational skills are usually a lot better than this, I promise.”
“I’m alright.” He crumpled up the granola bar wrapper in his hand and pushed it into an outside pocket on his bag. “Do you know which way to go now?”
“We have to keep on this way,” I said, jerking a thumb over my shoulder. “It sort of loops around and takes us out by the subway station at the Museum of Natural History.” Hopefully.
With complete trust, Seb nodded and stood up. “Let’s get going, then.”
I hesitated. “Aren’t you supposed to wait a few minutes after you eat?”
“It’s not that low,” he said. “I’ll be fine. And I really just want to go home.”
You’re telling me. Shrugging, I said, “Alright,” and started down the path again.
About fifteen minutes later, we stepped onto the sidewalk opposite the statue of our twenty-sixth president. “Ha!” I said, pointing to the subway station entrance at the end of the block. “Nothing like a Theodore to show you the way. ‘Cause that’s Theodore Roosevelt, see?”
Seb laughed, but kind of weakly. He still looked sweaty. It might’ve been just the heat, though, so I didn’t mention it. I figured once we sat down on the train, he’d feel better.
Apparently he was thinking the same thing, because he made a beeline for the station, and once we were on the muggy platform, he found a bench, sat down between two older women, and started rummaging through his bag. I stood watching. After a few seconds, his eyebrows creased together. He put the bag on the dirty concrete in front of him so he could poke in the very bottom. Then he began checking the outside pockets one by one, more frantic with each.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I– I don’t comprends,” he said. “Quelle?” And then a lot of muttered French.
“Seb, English,” I reminded him.
“Um…” He gave me a confused look for a moment. His eyes were wide with panic. “Sucre.”
“That means ‘sugar,’” said one of the women next to him, at the same instant I realized what he must be searching for.
“Oh, fuck, you don’t have any more food?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“Okay, hang on,” I said, fighting my own alarm as I glanced around. It was a bad low when he couldn’t speak properly. I’d have to run back up to the street to get a soda from a food truck or something; there wasn’t a newsstand down here. Then I saw a little cart at the end of the platform. “Oh! A dude’s selling churros. Those’ll work, right? They’re basically sugar-coated bread.”
I set my guitar case down in front of him and dodged around other people to get to the guy as quickly as possible, but even so by the time I came back with three churros sticking out of a paper bag, Seb was trembling so hard that both women on either side of him looked concerned and motherly.
“Are you alright, dear?” asked the second one.
“He’ll be fine,” I said, handing him the churros. “He just needs to eat something.”
The three of us all watched him wolf down the first stick of fried dough like he was starving to death. He didn’t slow much for the second or third, either, and then he tipped the remaining sugar and cinnamon out of the bag right into his mouth and licked his fingers clean as a B train pulled into the station.
“Do you need more?” I asked.
Shaking his head, he stood up and headed for the nearest car doors. I grabbed my guitar and followed him with a sigh of relief. The train wasn’t crowded. He could sit down for at least twenty-five minutes now. That ought to be enough time to recover.
“You sure you’re okay?” I asked as we took our shoes off on the doormat and Jagger sniffed us excitedly. “You’re still being kinda quiet.”
“Yeah,” Seb said. “That was just too many carbs. I need to take some insulin, I think.”
“Oh. Sorry.” I’d been the one to suggest the churros, on top of giving him the low in the first place.
“It was my fault,” he said. “I should’ve tested and not eaten so much. I’m going to go take care of it and then lie down, if that’s alright?”
“Of course it is.” He sounded absolutely drained. “Do you need anything?”
“No, thank you.”
Jagger tried to follow him into his room, but Seb gently shooed him out and then shut the door. I exchanged a look with the dog. Sometimes when we’re performing, I feel like we have a telepathic connection. I got the same sort of feeling now, only this one was all worry, not joy.
Seb knows how to handle the diabetes, I reminded myself, and snapped my fingers to make Jagger come to me.
We lounged on the couch together watching TV for at least an hour before I heard the other Brat leave his room. I grabbed the backrest to lever myself upright so I could see him. He was headed straight for the bathroom on the other side of the hall. “Seb? You okay?”
I froze. Jagger lifted his head off my leg and perked his ears like he does when I slam a door.
Seb broke the shocked silence with a heavy sigh. “Sorry,” he said, not looking over at me. “I’m okay. I’m going to take a bath.”
“…’Kay,” I said. He vanished into the bathroom. A second later, I heard the lock click.
I slowly lowered myself to the cushions again as my worry quadrupled. Something had to be majorly wrong, but asking him what it was seemed to only make him madder.
Jagger whined. “I know,” I muttered, reaching down to pet him. “Where’s a Top when you need one, huh?”
Mountain training camp without any form of communication other than satellite radios for the rest of the summer—that’s where Zain was, so I couldn’t call him. I wondered if that was part of Seb’s problem. He’d seemed to be handling it better than Zain’s first training block when he got mopey. His parents were coming from California in a few days to look at houses in Maryland with him, and he didn’t even act too stressed about that.
Quint was at work, but—I glanced at the clock on the cable box—it was almost time for him to leave, so would it be worth telling him? Seb could just need a bit of space until his blood sugars were under control again. I didn’t want to rat him out for no reason.
Assuming there was no reason.
I got up and went to the bathroom door with Jagger trotting along behind me. He sat by my feet as I rapped lightly on the wood and called, “Seb?”
He sounded calm now. I said, “I’m trying to decide what to make for dinner. You want anything in particular?”
“Whatever you want to make is fine with me,” he said. The sound of running water stopped, and I heard a few splashes like he was getting in the tub.
A bath is a stress-reliever for him, too, I thought. Can’t be that bad. “I was thinking tacos.”
“Yeah, sounds good.”
“Cool. I’ll get started.” Feeling a lot better, I went to the kitchen to pull ingredients from the fridge.
We were out of a few key ones, so I had to make a quick run to Whole Foods. When I got back, I could still hear the occasional slosh from the bathroom as I cooked. They stopped by the time I had a pan of ground beef frying for Quint’s and my tacos, and there came the sound of water draining instead. I glanced over the pile of vegetables I had to chop up. Then, struck with an idea, I went to meet Seb in the hallway.
“Hey,” I said, grabbing his bare, boney shoulder as he came out of the bathroom with a towel around his waist. “Wanna help prep?”
It happened so fast. So unexpectedly.
He jerked out of my hold, spun around, and slapped me across the face with a crack of skin connecting to skin. Jagger barked a warning an instant too late. I didn’t have time to duck at all. My head snapped sideways with the force of it. My cheek started throbbing immediately, beneath a smart worse than I’d ever felt on my butt from just a hand.
I was too astonished to even say ‘ow.’ Covering the hot, injured area with my palm, I turned slowly to face Seb again. His eyes were wide and glimmering, and his lower lip shook. I almost wanted to apologize to him instead of asking where the hell that had come from.
I didn’t get a chance to do either. He backed into his room and slammed the door shut.
“Seb!” I tried the handle, but it was locked already, and speaking made my mouth hurt more. A coppery taste pooled over my tongue. I swallowed it before gently poking the corner of my lips with a fingertip. My skin was bright red when I pulled it away. My next thought was Fuck, Quint’s going to be home any minute.
How he’d react, I had no idea. I mean, it was obvious now that Seb wasn’t in his right mind because his blood sugars were messed up still, but Quint can be pretty… intense when I get hurt. Especially if it’s by another person and not just through my own stupid choices. I didn’t want Seb to witness him seeing me like this before I could explain.
I went back to the kitchen and grabbed an ice pack from the freezer, then took it to the other bathroom, off the master bedroom, and examined myself in the medicine cabinet mirror while Jagger sat in the doorway, watching.
A red handprint covered one whole side of my face. There went my half-formed idea to say I’d whacked myself on something. I peeled my lower lip back and saw the source of the blood was a cut to the inside of it. The tooth responsible for that felt firm when I tried to wiggle it with my tongue, though. That was good news.
I put the ice pack directly over my mouth, which had already started to swell, and hissed a little at the cold. Maybe I had enough time to get rid of the handprint?
But in the doorway, Jagger’s ears went up again. Then he bounced to his feet and dashed off towards the living room with his tail wagging.
Oh, great, I thought. Quint was home.
Theo had left a pan of meat on the stove. It was starting to smoke as I came in. Without taking my shoes off, I crossed the kitchen, removed it from the heat, and turned on the fan in the range hood. Then I looked around for my easily-distracted husband. The living room stood empty. To Jagger at my feet, I asked, “Where is he?”
The dog simply cocked his head.
I went to the end of the hallway, calling, “Theo? May I know why you left the stove unattended?”
Half his face appeared around our bedroom door frame and regarded me with a nervous expression. “Sorry, I forgot. Can you come in here a minute?”
My eyebrows drew together. His voice wasn’t muffled, precisely, but it sounded strange nonetheless. “What’s wrong?” I asked, going to meet him. He shrank back as I approached, and I saw he was holding an ice pack to the other side of his face. My steps quickened. “What happened, angel?” I took his wrist, pulled the ice pack gently away, and saw underneath it.
There could be no mistaking the outline of the injury. Icy-sharp anger took over my voice. “Who hit you?”
“Don’t!” he said, with an anxious glance behind me. He used my grip on his arm to tug me into our ensuite bathroom and shut the door. I noticed he was still wearing his shoes, as well. Too preoccupied with his injury when he came home to take them off?
“Theo, tell me who did this right now.”
“I will,” he said, “but you have to promise you’ll let me explain first.”
I was not in the mood for talking around the subject. Someone had hurt my angel, and from the lack of marks on his hands, I could bet it hadn’t been a fight started by him. I wanted to know who it was. “Theodore.”
He looked so near tears that I softened the slightest amount, and sighed. “I promise I’ll let you explain. Now, please do so.”
“It… I only–” He stopped, with a hitching breath, and bit his swollen lower lip for a fraction of a second. “It was Seb.”
I felt certain I’d misheard. “Seb?”
“Yeah. Remember how he said sometimes he gets violent when his blood sugars are way off? I think they’re way way off. I just asked him if he’d want to help me cut up the vegetables, and he… smacked me and locked himself in his room.”
It was still hard to believe. I’d seen Seb’s behavior with both high and low glucose before. Besides the more physical symptoms, he sometimes became emotional or withdrawn. Nothing like this. How off did it have to be for him to use force? Way way off, I thought, in an echo of Theo’s voice. Aloud, I asked, “When was this?”
“A minute before you got here.”
I closed my eyes, dropped my chin, pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose, and held them there while I breathed.
“Quint?” asked Theo. “You know it wasn’t his fault, right?”
“Yes,” I said, tightly. “I just need a moment.” I did not feel angry towards Seb at all, but the anger was still there. I had to get it under control before I went to check on him, so he wouldn’t see.
Then my head came up. Theo’s eyes met mine, full of alarm. We’d both heard the pantry door.
I burst into the hallway as the sound of the front door slamming reverberated through the apartment. Running, I made it there only seconds later to throw it open again. I got a glimpse of Seb stepping onto the elevator with his shoes in one hand and his bag over his shoulder, and I dashed after him, calling, “Seb, stop!”
The doors began to close. He stood inside, weeping silently, looking at the button he kept pressing on the control panel rather than at me. I sprinted, arm outstretched to reach for him, but too slow. The doors met, and all I touched was cold metal.
“He’s going down,” Theo said from behind me.
I’d already glanced at the display to see he was right. Turning, I charged to the stairwell. “I have to catch up before he can hide, angel.”
“I’m coming, too!”
Two pairs of eyes were better than one, so I didn’t order him to stay. We both hurtled down the flights of stairs, all the way to the lobby, where our building attendant Michael was on duty. He stood closer to the door than the front desk, looking as though he’d already been startled before we dashed in.
“You after Seb?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, while Theo panted and nodded. “Did you see which way he went?”
He pointed out the window. “Ran towards Houston. I was about to chase him myself, he was sobbing so hard. He alright?”
“Thank you,” I said, and kept going.
Theo followed, calling back, “Tell you when we find him!”
We went in the direction Michael indicated, down First Street and Second Avenue to the corner with East Houston. Then we were forced to stop, because I couldn’t see Seb anywhere. I looked up and down the sidewalk in both directions for his lithe form. “Theo, do you–?”
“No,” he gasped. “Wait! There! He just went into the park!”
I cursed. The park was on the other side of East Houston, separated from us by whizzing traffic, and it stretched five blocks deep. By the time we reached it, he’d vanish again.
We had no choice except to wait for a walk signal, though. It seemed to take ages. Then we crossed the street as quickly as possible while remaining safe—I held Theo’s elbow to stop him from running—and entered where he said he’d spotted Seb.
Most of it was paved, in the way of city parks, but a canopy of trees shaded us. They grew on all sides. I searched each one with my gaze as we passed, and Theo did the same, both of us slowing so we didn’t miss anything.
“I’m not seeing him,” he said, worriedly, at the end of the first block of park. “Are you? What if he went somewhere else? We’ll never catch up.”
“We will find him,” I said, and hoped I sounded more certain than I felt. “Keep looking.”
“But his blood sugar–!”
“Angel, stop. I…” I trailed off, squinting into the distance.
At the end of the next block, a dark-haired person was leaning heavily against a tree trunk with their back to us. They stumbled away from it to sit down on a nearby bench as I watched. That gave me a better view.
I broke into a run again, harder than ever. “SEB!”
Something was very wrong. He collapsed sideways like a slow mudslide. I felt I wasn’t getting any closer, and yet the next instant I was there, crouching in front of him and staring into his eyes. The green of them looked much duller than it had any right to.
“I’m here, mon chaton.” I brushed his hair back with one hand while the fingers of the other fumbled on the clasp to his bag. “You’re alright. Let me get you something to eat. Can you talk to me?”
With the barest shake of his head, he closed his eyes.
“No, stay awake,” I said. “You need to stay conscious, alright?”
“Sébastien Leon McKenna Crews, open your eyes right now,” I commanded.
His lashes fluttered and parted. I saw his gaze go beyond me, to Theo, who was standing over my shoulder making choked noises that I tried very hard to block out. Seb squeezed his eyelids together like he didn’t want to see, and then his face smoothed out completely.
“Seb?” Theo asked. “Seb!! Quint, tell him to open his eyes again!”
“He’s unconscious, angel,” I said, calmly as I could. As I spoke, I was picking Seb up and putting him in a recovery position on the pavement farther away from the bench, in case he seized or vomited. His body felt so fragile. “Call 911. Tell them we have an unconscious insulin-dependent diabetic. I’m administering glucagon, but they need to get an ambulance here right away.”
Theo sniffled. “Yes, sir.” He sat on the bench and took out his phone.
I found the glucagon kit in Seb’s bag with fingers that shook. Get a grip on yourself, Hanniford. You’re not a first-year medical student. Taking a deep breath, I concentrated on properly mixing the diluting solution from the syringe inside with the vial of glucagon powder, then drawing all of it it back out of the vial. With my free hand, I pinched Seb’s thigh. The needle went through his pants and into his flesh. I injected the full syringe and then slowly pulled it out again.
Seb didn’t move, not that I expected him to regain consciousness that quickly. First the glucagon had to make its way to his liver, where it would trigger it to convert the glycogen stored in granules in the cytoplasm of its cells into glucose and release it to the bloodstream. The process was called glycogenolysis, and a detailed description could be found in any biochemistry textbook. I had studied it when I took my endocrinology class, many years ago. I couldn’t remember all the details now, but I knew it would take several minutes.
Minutes while Theo and I could only wait for the ambulance to arrive, he on the bench and I beside Seb, holding his limp hand in my own.
Even with as much faith as I have in medical science, I found myself believing more in the power of will. “Wake up, mon chaton,” I whispered to him. “Please. For me.”
The first thing I knew was the smell of puke. It filled my nostrils and mouth, bitter and acrid. My fingertips hurt from needle pricks. Actually, my whole body felt sore, like I was coming down with the flu.
“Can you hear me, mon chaton?”
Why did Quint sound so concerned?
Another voice spoke before I could make myself answer him. A woman. “Yes, I think he’s waking. Blood glucose is at fifty-five now. You said it was thirteen just after you gave the glucagon?”
“Yes,” said Quint.
Thirteen? That can’t be right.
I opened my eyes and tried to sit up. Quint and the stranger both pushed me back down onto the… the stretcher. I was lying on a raised stretcher, with an ambulance parked on the street next to me.
“Hey, now, take it easy,” said the stranger, leaning over me. She had curly dark hair like Zain’s when he grows it out. “Can you tell me what day it is, Seb?”
I couldn’t see how that mattered, but I thought a moment and then said, “Lundi.”
“Try it in English, mon chaton,” Quint said. Theo was hovering by his elbow. His face looked terrible, as if someone–
I did that.
The sudden memories poured into my gut like sour milk. I wanted to throw up again. How could they both be here and not look at all angry?
Quint asked, “Seb, what day of the week is it in English?”
An answer seemed the least I could do, if it was what he wanted. “…Monday,” I said.
“Approaching lucidity in two languages,” said the stranger—the paramedic stranger. “That’s good. We’ll still want to bring you in for a few hours’ observation, okay?”
Bring me in?
“I’m sorry!” I blurted at her. “I won’t do it again!”
She frowned toward Quint, who asked, “Do what again, mon chaton?”
I remembered the feeling of my mind floating in so many directions I couldn’t keep track of all the pieces, and how scared he’d looked then, and I remembered the stinging in my palm and the dead silence after I’d snapped like old rubber, and I remembered both of them chasing me down the hallway. My eyes landed on Theo.
“This?” asked the other Brat through his half-swollen lips, pointing to his face. “None of us blame you for this at all.”
“Theo is right,” said Quint. “Going to the hospital isn’t about that, mon chaton. You need to have your glucose levels monitored until we’re sure you’re stable. It’ll only be for a little while, and we’ll both be there with you.” He squeezed my hand in his. “Will you go for us, please?”
Agreeing to it wouldn’t come close to making up for anything. Refusing to go would just create more worry, though. I swallowed on the bile in my mouth and nodded.
“Alright!” the paramedic said. “Let’s get you loaded up and buckled in!” Like it was a ride at an amusement park. To Quint and Theo, she added, “We can take a person in front, too, if one of you wants to come along.”
They exchanged a look. “You go,” Theo said. “I’ll meet you there.”
“Are you sure, angel?”
“Yeah. I’ll go back and let Michael know Seb’s going to be okay.”
Mes dieux, I’d even worried the building attendant.
“Seb, you want a sketchbook or anything?” Theo asked.
“No,” I said. “Don’t need anything.”
“I’ll bring you a sketchbook,” he said, like I hadn’t spoken. Then the paramedic and her partner were putting me in the ambulance. I stared at the ceiling of it and thought about the Giant Dipper roller coaster.
While we rode to the hospital, Quint called the contact number Zain had given us. I could hear him explaining what happened to whoever answered in his calm, doctor way, sounding much more composed than before. “His fiancé, yes, so if there’s any way he could call this number as soon as possible– Thank you… Yes, any time is fine.”
I felt pathetically grateful, for that and for the fact he also handled most of the talking when we called my parents from a hospital phone. I only had to reassure them twice that I was feeling better, and promise to take it easy.
“We’ll still come to the East Coast, a leanbh, but we’ll go to New York rather than meet you in Maryland,” my mom said. “Once we get there, we can decide how things will be.”
“I’m sure I’ll feel okay by then,” I said.
“No need to push yourself, Sebby,” said my dad. “If a man going down into a river is carried away by the current, how can he help others across?”
I sighed inwardly. “Yes, Dad.”
Theo arrived after I hung up with them. His cheek was starting to turn purple in spots. Quint went to ask a nurse for an ice pack, leaving the two of us alone in the little curtained-off area where I was laying on a bed.
I looked down at the sketchbook he’d handed me along with a pack of pencils. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” he asked. “You weren’t thinking right. Just forget it, okay?”
Shaking my head, I told him, “It’s not that easy. I hurt you. I feel terrible.”
He sighed, and then smiled a little. “Well, good luck if you want Quint to do something discipline-related about that, because I’m pretty sure he’s going to be treating you with kid gloves after this.” He dropped into a small chair next to the bed. “You scared the crap out of both of us. I thought… I thought you were about to die.”
His eyes had been red when I woke up, I remembered. I wiped a tear from my own before it fell. “I’m sorry about that, too.”
“It’s not your fault, either,” he said, a bit exasperated. As Quint walked back around the curtain and stood behind him, Theo turned to look up and ask, “Will you please tell him none of this was his fault?”
“It isn’t,” Quint agreed. Giving the ice pack to Theo, he came over to me and began adjusting the pillow behind my head so I was laying down more. “Now is not the time to get into that, however. I want you, mon chaton, to concentrate on resting as much as possible. Your body needs to recover. The doctor will be in later to go over what happened. We can talk about causes then.”
I already knew the cause, and it was my fault. But it wasn’t worth arguing or getting Theo more upset. I nodded. “Oui, monsieur.”
We got home long after darkness had fallen. Theo rubbed Jagger’s ears and clipped his leash onto his collar as soon as we walked through the door. “Be quick,” Quint said. “The hour’s late; we should be getting to bed.”
“I’ll just take him down the block, but I don’t know if I can sleep,” Theo said. Both of them spoke in hushed tones, as if they didn’t want to wake someone else in the apartment.
Quint looked to me. “What about you, mon chaton? Do you think you could sleep now?”
“Um. Maybe,” I said. I was exhausted, yet my mind kept going over and over the day in a loop like a mobius strip.
“I’m not sure I can, either,” Quint said with a sigh. After a moment’s consideration, he asked, “Seb, why don’t you find a book for me to read to you both? We’ll stay out here on the couch until we feel like going to bed.”
Quickly, I said, “Oh, you don’t have to do that.”
Theo rolled his eyes at me on his way out the door. “He wants to, though. And he’s great at it. He does voices for the different characters.”
“I try,” Quint said modestly. He gave Theo a kiss on his unbruised cheek before he left with the dog, then said, “You would be doing me a favor, mon chaton, by letting me read to you.”
So I got The Magicians of Caprona from my room. Quint turned it over to the back first when I gave it to him. “It’s about a feud between two magical families in Italy, sort of like in Romeo and Juliet,” I said, “only they don’t die, and it’s more centered on the families as a whole.” That was why I liked it. Both the families were so loving and close-knit, you couldn’t help feeling comforted.
He sat down on the couch, still reading, and patted the cushion next to him. I perched myself there. When Theo came back in, he sat on my other side. Jagger jumped up on the couch too, and lay across our laps, making me sit back farther to give him room. Then Quint reached across my shoulders and squeezed both Theo and I closer. I felt enveloped by all three of them as he began to read.
Theo had been right: He did great character voices. But I must have drifted off in the middle, because I don’t remember moving to my room.
They told me they had a message for me. I didn’t find out what it was until they brought me to the little base camp we had set up, but I knew it had to be something big for them to interrupt the training exercise. All the way down the mountain, I was imagining terrible things.
Finally, they left me alone in the dark, cold tent with a phone and a slip of paper. My eyes raced over the writing.
It was a message from Quint recorded word-for-word. My heart skipped a beat and seemed to freeze in horror until I read that Seb was alright. Relatively. I went over it again, slower, to be sure. This time I could hear the echo of Quint’s calm voice in the phrasing. It quieted most of my fear, and a tiny part of the agitation I felt at not being able to get to Seb. At least I left him in good hands.
Then I dialed the number written at the bottom. When Quint answered, sounding bone-tired, I said, “Hey, it’s Zain. Sorry I woke you.”
“You didn’t,” he replied. “I hadn’t fallen back asleep since waking Seb for a glucose test twenty minutes ago. He’s in his target range now.”
I let out a breath of relief and closed my eyes. “Good. That’s good. Quint, I owe you the biggest ‘thank you’ imaginable. You–” I paused and had to clear my throat. “You saved his life.”
“I don’t need thanks for that.” His voice was rough, too. “I’m just grateful I was able to get to him in time.”
“Well, needed or not, I’m giving you a huge bear-hug next time I see you,” I said. “Like, lift-you-off-your-feet huge. Prepare yourself. And I’m treating you to dinner.”
I could hear a smile as he said, “I’ll accept the hug, but not the dinner.”
“I don’t have much time, or I’d argue about that,” I said. “Can I talk to him?”
“Yes, one moment.”
There was a pause, and I heard Seb say, half-asleep and a bit petulant, “Another test already?”
“No, mon chaton, it’s Zain calling.”
The phone must have transferred hands then. When Seb spoke again, he sounded much more awake, though quiet. “Z?”
“I’m here, habibi. How are you feeling?”
“Better. I’m on target.”
“Quint said.” I swallowed hard. My entire body craved the ability to hold him and protect him from every bad thing both inside and outside ourselves. I hated the distance between us. Thickly, I added, “I’m glad. I feel better, too, hearing you.” Even if only for minutes tonight, I knew I’d have the opportunity to win extra liberty time to call in a couple of days, if my team did well in the exercise. With a split-second of debate, I decided not to mention that now and get his hopes up, just in case.
He sniffled. “Zain, je suis très désolé.”
Yep, I’d been expecting that apology. “What, you can pass out through willpower?” I asked with forced lightness. “That’s a neat trick. You’ll have to teach it to me sometime.”
I heard no sigh of exasperation. Bad sign. He just said, “No, but it was my fault,” in the stubborn tone that meant it was going to take a lot of convincing to get him to believe otherwise.
“Okay,” I said, gearing up, “explain what you think is your fault, and we’ll see if I agree.”
“All of it.”
Laughing a little, I told him, “I’m gonna need specifics, babe.”
He launched right into them as if he’d been preparing a speech. “Theo and I got lost in Central Park earlier today–”
“Due to devious sabotage on your part, I’m sure,” I interrupted, mostly just to throw him off.
With a little sputter, he said, “Zain, shut up and listen!”
I grinned. “Sorry. Go ahead. What happened?”
“I… I started going low. I ate a granola bar, but he was so frustrated about getting lost that I didn’t want to hold us up more, so I didn’t wait after treating or test again like I should’ve.”
I frowned. Okay, I could kinda agree with him on that decision being wrong. He knows better than to try it with me. “Did Theo know you were low?”
“Yes, but I told him I’d be fine. It wasn’t his fault,” he said. “So we kept going, and by the time we got to the subway I was really low, and I realized I didn’t have more food.”
“What about your glucose tabs?”
He half-mumbled, “I put them in my pocket yesterday when I took Jagger for a walk. I must have forgotten to put them back.”
“Okay, so just keep a couple extra tubes in your bag from now on,” I said. “If you forgot them all the time, that’d be different, but occasional mistakes happen. Not something to beat yourself up about, got it?”
“That’s not the end, though,” he said, agitated. “Theo bought me churros, three or four of them. It was one of those where I could’ve eaten the whole kitchen, and I kept thinking if I didn’t bring myself up enough, Theo wouldn’t know what to do. So I ate them all.”
He clearly expected me to focus on the last part, but I was still back a phrase. “What do you mean, Theo wouldn’t know what to do?”
Seb paused, thrown off-track again. “…He doesn’t know how to give me a test or do the glucagon. I never told him.”
I blinked a few times. “You never told him?”
“Okay,” I said, before he could sound more guilty. “I think we all overlooked that, with Quint being a doctor and already knowing how to do it. Just sit down with Theo tomorrow and go through everything.” After today, I could bet it was crossing Quint’s mind, too. “So what happened once you ate, like, a whole entire cart of churros?”
“I said three or four, not a cart,” he replied, indignantly.
“Oh, sorry, you were just making such a big deal about it–”
“It was a big deal,” he insisted. “I felt high by the time we got home. My BG was 320 when I tested, so I bolused with what I thought was enough to bring me down, and then I took a nap, but it came back even higher when I woke up. Over 400.”
I whistled. “Jeez, what was in those churros?”
“I think it was the fat from frying them. It must have made my insulin resistance go through the roof. The endo at the hospital thought so, too.”
Nodding, I said, “Makes sense. I’m guessing you bolused again?”
“Yeah, and then I thought if I took a hot bath, it would help it absorb quicker.”
And also relax you. He gets super stressed out with a number that high. At the best of times, he takes it as a personal failing, even without the hyperglycemia making him irrationally upset. If I had been there, I probably would’ve suggested a bath myself. “Good idea,” I said. “Did it?”
“No. At least, not right away. I felt the same when the water started to cool.”
He stopped. I could sense that whatever happened next was the grand finale he’d been leading up to.
Slowly, he began again, “So I went to get my test kit from my room and see if it made any difference, and I– in the hallway, Theo grabbed my shoulder and… I…”
“What? Did you yell at him?” I asked, trying to help him spit it out.
“I hit him. Hard.” His voice cracked as he added, “There’s a huge bruise on his face in the shape of my hand, and his lip got cut, too.”
My eyes closed. Yeah, this was definitely going to be a tough patch of guilt to move past. “Habibi, that is not your fault,” I said, very clearly. “Anyone who knows you knows that you literally would not hurt a fly. The diabetes took over your body just like it does when it makes you have to pee constantly, okay?”
“But I hit him, not diabetes,” he said. “I did it.”
I sighed and cast around for another way to get through. “Okay. Think of it like you’re sleepwalking. If you whack someone, yeah, it’s you that does it, but you’re not in control. Does Theo blame you?”
He sniffled out, “N-no.”
He didn’t answer for a moment. Then he said, “After I did it, I shut myself in my room. Quint came home barely a minute later, and I heard him when he saw Theo’s face. He was angry.”
Protectiveness made me tense up. Not that I blamed Quint for reacting badly to the sight of his husband hurt, but if he’d jumped to conclusions about my Brat, we were gonna have words. “What did he say?”
“He just asked who did it, in this tone like… I’ve never imagined he’d ever sound like that,” Seb said. “Then they went in their room and I couldn’t hear, but I knew he’d make Theo tell the truth.”
I relaxed a little. It sounded like Seb had been the one jumping to conclusions. “After Theo explained, did Quint blame you?”
“I don’t know,” he said, shaky. “I– I just wanted to fix my blood sugar so I didn’t hurt anyone again.”
Oh. Oh, no.
“Habibi?” I asked, gently. “Did you take more insulin?”
Barely audible, he answered, “Yeah.”
“I can’t remember. Not an insane amount, but… too much.” He took a huge breath. “I wasn’t thinking. And then I just ran. I wanted to hide until I was on target, but they followed me. They were chasing me down the street. I went into the park, and, all of a sudden, I couldn’t run anymore. I was too dizzy to stand up. They found me lying on a bench right before I passed out. Both of them looked s-sso terrified.” By that point he was definitely speaking through tears. “See, it’s all my f-f-fault.”
Fuck, I wanted to hold him. I did the next best thing and said, “No.”
“It is,” he insisted.
“Nope.” Sometimes, a simple refutation is better. It gives him zero handholds for picking it apart.
“Zain! It is! You can’t say it’s not!”
I tilted my head, knowing he’d hear it in my voice. “Oh, really, can’t I? Remind me again which of us is in charge of this, brat.”
“You are, but–”
“Nope, no buts,” I said. Clearly, this wasn’t the time for the simple refutation, so I expanded. “The only thing you did wrong was not treating the low properly when you first got lost. The rest of it is you blaming yourself for having diabetes. You can ask Quint for a punishment for not treating the first low only. Let go of everything else.”
“But I –”
“Let it goooo, let it gooooooo,” I sang.
He huffed. “It isn’t that simple.”
“Yeah, it is,” I said. “Remember when you told me to burn my guilt? I want you to return the favor. Not the same way, because you don’t have a fireplace there, but same idea. Eradicate it.”
Ah, no jumping into arguments this time, huh, babe?
After a few seconds, he asked, “How?”
Good question. “Let me think.”
He waited, sniffling occasionally.
“Got it!” I said. “Here’s how.” And I explained.
Jagger lifted his head off my lap and cocked an ear towards the back of the couch. A moment later, Seb appeared in front of me, thin and pale in a blue t-shirt and black yoga pants. He said, “Zain had to go,” as he held out my phone.
“I’m sorry he couldn’t stay on with you longer,” I said, taking it.
“It’s okay.” He shifted his weight to one foot and then the other. “Um. Here.” The pink kitten toy was presented in much the same way as the phone, though with a tighter grip.
My lips parted for a moment when I saw it. Sighing, I leaned forward to rest my elbows on my knees and nodded behind him to the coffee table. “Have a seat, mon chaton.”
He continued to hold the plushie out for a second before he let his hand drop and followed my request. Then he looked down at it and mumbled, “Zain said it’s okay.”
“He said I’m allowed to ask for a punishment for not waiting after I treated the low in the park with Theo. Remember I told the endo about that?”
I nodded when he glanced at me. I had stayed in the room while he went over the day’s events, with his permission.
“Because I kept walking so I wouldn’t be an inconvenience, and I knew I shouldn’t’ve. Only that, though,” he said. “You’re supposed to make sure I understand what it’s for. He says none of the rest is my fault, but if you think it is, I don’t mind.”
My eyebrow went up incredulously. “Seb, if Zain forbade you to ask for additional punishment, why are you doing so?”
He went pink as the kitten and squirmed on the table. “I was just offering you the opportunity, not asking.”
“I see,” I said, unfooled and a bit amused. “Well, I’m afraid I will not be taking you up on that offer, mon chaton, as Zain and I are in complete agreement regarding your lack of fault. As for this.” I pointed to the kitten. “I’m inclined to think the natural consequence of not treating the first low was punishment enough.”
He looked… crestfallen is the only word to describe it.
“You disagree,” I said, not as a question, though he nodded at the floor. I sighed again, heavier. This was the last way I had wanted to end my night. However, Zain’s words after the panic attack stuck in my mind. It’s about what Seb needs.
“Alright.” I accepted the pink kitten and stood up. His eyes followed me nervously. “Jagger, come,” I said, and the dog jumped off the couch. I shut him into Seb’s room. When I returned, Seb was on his feet undoing the drawstring on his pants. I caught his hands in my own. “No. You are not punishing yourself. I am in charge of this.”
He flushed and let go.
“Thank you. Now, look at me, please, and tell me why you are getting a spanking.”
There was none of the usual hesitation in making eye contact. He met my gaze squarely and said, “It’s because I didn’t wait after treating the low in Central Park.”
“And what is it not for?”
That was when his pupils wavered.
“Look at me, Seb.”
“Sorry,” he whispered. He looked up again, swallowed, and said, “Eating too many churros, or hitting Theo, or taking too much insulin, or passing out.”
I blinked. I hadn’t realized he was blaming himself for so much. “Correct,” I said. “Keep that in mind, please.”
Then I sat down and guided him, fully clothed, over my knee. I felt his slim muscles harden with tension beneath his skin. With one hand, I began to rub his back as I normally do at the end of a spanking. I kept the other off him entirely. I didn’t want him to be able to anticipate.
As I kneaded the knots under his t-shirt, I continued to speak. “You are very well aware of the proper way to treat hypoglycemia. Choosing not to do so—while you retain the capacity to make that choice—is quite simply unacceptable.”
Using medium strength, I swatted him over the seat of his pants. It made a muffled thump. He started and then relaxed slightly.
“Theo and I both want you to be safe and healthy,” I went on. “We will never view it as an inconvenience when you need to take time to treat your illness. It does not make you weak.”
I punctuated that with a second swat, no harder than the first. I could hear the soft noises of him crying, half-smothered in the couch cushion, as he jerked again.
Blinking away tears of my own, I said, “You have an incredibly strong and brave soul, and I am so glad to have you as part of my family. Family members have an obligation to care not only for each other, but also for themselves, and I will not tolerate you ignoring that obligation.” After a third swat, I asked, “Is that clear, young man?”
He nodded, sobbing freely now. I made myself deliver a final two in the same place. Then I helped him sit up in my lap and held him as tight as I dared, with his limbs still feeling delicate as a bird’s in my arms.
When he’d quieted to just sniffles, I heard him whisper, “Merci.”
“I’m glad you’re feeling better, mon chaton,” I replied, and wondered when the same could be said of me.
A coffee mug on my nightstand was the first thing I saw after opening my eyes. It smelled heavenly. I rolled onto my back, propped myself up with an elbow to look at Quint—working at his desk opposite the foot of the bed—and tried to remember if he had ever brought me coffee before I even woke in the past.
Nope. The reason I knew is that he usually operates on a very strict no-food-or-drinks-in-bed policy, except when I’m sick, and I’m not allowed coffee then. Getting up, I took the mug to him and bent to loop my other arm around his collarbone in a hug from behind. “Thanks,” I said, sort of into the back of his neck.
“You’re very welcome, angel.”
Then I started to straighten away, but he caught me by the elbow of the arm embracing him and held me there even as he kept looking at the screen of his laptop. I frowned, leaning over his shoulder more so I could see his face. It was haggard. The way it gets sometimes after a long shift at the hospital. My poor guy, I thought, and when his grip loosened a little, I sat down sideways in his lap.
He exhaled as I took a sip of the coffee. It tasted perfect. With his left arm, he held me securely across my thighs, like a human seatbelt, and his right supported my back and continued to move the cursor around the screen.
I savored the coffee while he worked for several minutes. The quiet was interrupted only by our breathing and occasional clicks of his mouse. I looked at him rather than the laptop, and saw that expression fade a bit more every minute.
Sometimes I’m not the only one who gets clingy.
When the coffee was gone, I set the mug on his desk and asked, “You don’t have to do much work today, do you?”
“There were a few meetings I couldn’t reschedule,” he said. “I’m teleconferencing into them, and there’s always financial paperwork that needs doing, but I’m keeping it to a bare minimum.”
“Good,” I said. “I think singing will start my lip bleeding again, so I’m not going busking, either. Both of us can stay with Seb.”
He gently took my chin and turned my bruised cheek toward him to study, like he could tell exactly how fast it was healing—which he probably could.
“Save myself some awkward questions by staying in, too,” I added, grinning crookedly. “I’m gonna grow my beard out until my skin’s not purple anymore.”
“Mm,” he said.
He dropped his hand to my hip. “Tired. Wishing I could make you and Seb good as new with a snap of my fingers. I’ll be alright.”
I hugged him again and waited for him to loosen the hold first before I stood up. I would’ve stayed there longer, but the coffee had gone right through me.
After I used the bathroom, I stood in its open doorway drying my hands on a finger towel and said, “I’ll make breakfast.”
Quint held out the mug without looking at me. “Rinse this before you put it in the dishwasher, please.”
I rolled my eyes good-humoredly and grabbed it from him as I passed.
Seb’s door was ajar. I hadn’t heard any noise through the wall between his room and ours, so I’d assumed he was still sleeping. In the hallway, though, I could make out the soft scratch of pencil to paper. I stopped and pushed his door open more to peek in.
He flipped the corner of his blanket over the sketchbook before I could see the drawing he’d been working on, while first guilt and then, when he saw it was me, relief flashed over his face.
I put my head back into the hallway and listened carefully for a moment. Quint wasn’t getting up. “S’alright,” I breathed as I tiptoed over to the bedside and knelt on the floor. He had Jagger curled up next to him, fast asleep. I rubbed the soft fur on one of the dog’s ears and whispered, “Feeling better?”
Seb nodded, then mouthed, “You?” and pointed to his own cheek.
I scoffed. “Please. I’ve had worse.”
His lips twisted sideways, making me realize that probably wasn’t the best thing to say. Before I could think of how to fix it, though, there came the sound of Quint pushing his chair away from his desk. I got up and swiftly backed out of the room just as he stepped into the hallway, too. He pinned me with a raised eyebrow. “Theo, did you wake Seb?”
“No,” I said, completely truthful. “I was just checking on him real quick.”
Of course, he didn’t buy my innocent act. I had to move aside as he came to look through Seb’s doorway himself.
If it had been me, I would’ve pretended to be asleep. Seb simply gave him that soft, wide-eyed expression of his, and Quint melted. Tenderly, he said, “Mon chaton, I told you earlier you should be resting. Your body has been through a wringer. It needs to recover. Can you try to sleep for me?”
“Oui, monsieur,” said Seb. “Sorry. It wasn’t Theo’s fault. I woke up to test.”
“I’ll wake you when it’s time for that,” Quint said, going in and starting to tuck the covers over Seb’s shoulders. He’d find the sketchbook any second. “Is Jagger taking up too much room?”
“No, I like the company,” Seb said, while I cast around for a way to distract my husband. But then he put his hand right where the book should have been and still didn’t find it. I wondered where Seb hid it, until Quint bent down to kiss his forehead and I saw the corner of the cover peeking out from under his pillow.
Wow, I thought. It’s almost like he’s a regular Brat. As Quint straightened again and passed me to leave the room, I caught Seb’s eye and winked. “We’ll keep the door closed this time, so there’s less sound transfer, okay?”
He nodded, blushing.
Once the door clicked shut, I turned to Quint and went on my toes to give him a kiss. It hurt my lip a little, but I didn’t mind. “If you get your paperwork done really fast, we can spend more time together, right?” I asked. That was what we needed, not rest. All of us.
“Yes, that’s true.”
“Go finish, then. I’ll bring you breakfast.”
“Thank you, angel,” he said, and went with a last worried glance towards Seb’s room.
I felt terrible. Not only physically—although in that sense my body was like a small, pathetic creature weakly dragging itself out of hibernation—but also because I could see how concerned the other two were over me, and I had the echo of Zain’s longing voice in my head when he ended the call saying, “I so wish I could be with you, habibi. Remember what I said, and remember I love you, okay?”
“I will,” I’d promised. “Je t’aime aussi.”
The other thing I was to remember were his instructions for eradicating the guilt Quint didn’t take care of with that spanking. Zain told me to meditate on the events of yesterday with non-judgmental compassion (or, as he said, “fuzzy feelings”), and to keep doing that until I could picture everything that had happened without harsh thoughts. He added, “You can tack on other rituals if you think it’ll be helpful, but nothing punishing.”
That’s what I had been doing with the sketchbook. I tried just closing my eyes to meditate while lying in bed, and kept finding myself falling into dreams about hospitals and the Giant Dipper. I thought if I drew the scenes instead, it would keep me awake and serve as a focus object for the meditation later.
The first drawing of me eating churros on a subway platform, with Theo and bystanders looking on, was nearly finished. I rolled onto my stomach and pulled it out again once I heard the master bedroom door shut behind Quint. The sooner I got done, the sooner I could show him I had recovered. The sooner I’d be free of all the aftereffects.
Twenty minutes later, I hadn’t made much progress when Theo knocked softly—making me flip the sketchbook closed—and came back in carrying a plate and a glass of milk.
“I brought you breakfast,” he said, setting both down on my nightstand. The plate was filled with scrambled eggs and two slices of avocado toast. I blinked at it a moment. Did Zain tell them I eat avocado toast when I’m sick?
“Um, thanks,” I said, “but shouldn’t I be having this at the table?”
Theo grinned. “Eating in bed is one of the great pleasures of being sick in this apartment. Take advantage of it.”
“I’m not sick,” I said. “Not really, anymore.” With no regard for Jagger still sleeping beside me, I clambered out of the blankets and onto the floor, collected the food, and turned to bring it out where it belonged.
Milk sloshed over my hand as I came to an abrupt stop in face of Quint, standing in the doorway.
He shook his head and took both plate and glass gently away. In a tone to match, he said, “Back into bed, please. No reason to get up when you’ll be resting again after you eat.”
I don’t need to rest, I need to draw! I thought, and, almost simultaneously, Stop it. He’s trying to help.
I got back on the bed, sitting cross-legged.
Jagger was awake now, and sniffing the air towards the food with interest. Quint clicked his tongue, though, and the dog jumped down and left the room with much greater reluctance than I had let show.
To Quint, Theo said, “Hey, since Seb’s probably going to get crumbs on the bed anyway, can I also eat my breakfast on it?”
“Yes, if you try to be careful.”
Lighting up, Theo rushed out again with a call back of, “I’ll bring yours, too.”
Quint put everything on the nightstand again, and then picked up the sketchbook and moved it to my desk without comment or change in his facial expression. He pulled out my desk chair and sat on it, facing me, while I opened my kit and started a blood test. “Mon chaton, I know you are in a rush to feel normal again. If you push your body too hard, however, you risk extending this recovery period or exhausting yourself so much that you come down with another illness.”
“This is lecture number seven,” Theo said as he returned, balancing two plates on one arm and holding a glass in each hand. “The ‘Take it Easy, You’re Not as Well as You Want to Be’ Special. I get it at the end of every single illness.”
“You need to hear it at the end of every single illness,” Quint told him dryly. He relieved him of the dishes so Theo could climb onto the bed next to me.
It made me feel a little better to know it wasn’t unique. And he’s right, I thought to myself. I should take the day to rest. Zain would be making sure I did if he were here. “I understand, monsieur,” I said as my meter counted down.
“Good,” Quint said. I didn’t miss the way he glanced at the number on the screen, though. I was glad it fell into my target range.
Once Theo got comfortable, he patted the covers next to him invitingly. “Join us!”
“No, thank you,” said Quint. “I prefer not to have a plate in my lap unless I’m on a picnic.”
“We’re having a mattress picnic,” Theo said, rolling his eyes. “Don’t be a fuddy-duddy.”
Quint sighed, yet moved to the bed too.
Leaning towards me while I dialed in my insulin, Theo asked in a stage-whisper, “How much you want to bet he gets the vacuum as soon as we’re done–? Hey!” He frowned at Quint and put his hand up to fix his hair. “No whapping on the head!”
With a closed-lipped smile, Quint simply kept chewing.
I couldn’t work on the drawings after breakfast, either. My eyelids were too heavy, no matter how hard I tried to pry them apart. I finally moved the sketchbook off the bed before I drooled on it and then gave into the nap. It was blessedly deep as the ocean.
When I woke, the sunlight coming through my window had shifted, casting new shadows over the floor and wall. I had the strange, disoriented feeling of starting a fresh day when everyone else was still in the middle of theirs, like I existed on an alternate time dimension.
I also needed the bathroom. Rolling out of bed, I went across the hall on legs that felt like a newborn goat kid from being in bed so long. Annoyance filled me. I made myself stand up to pee rather than sitting as I was tempted.
Quint was talking to someone in the master bedroom. Not Theo, who I could hear moving around on the other side of me, in the living room. Must be on the phone for work, I thought. It wasn’t his normal work-from-home day. That annoyed me, too.
As soon as I was done washing my hands, I went back into my room and flipped the sketchbook open to scowl at the drawing. All wrong. My pencil marks weren’t dark enough; they couldn’t be. I should’ve done it in charcoal. Did I have any charcoal? I spun to my desk, opened my art supply case, and rummaged through it. Nothing more than a few tiny nibs, only good for shading large areas. I snapped the case closed again and grabbed my wallet.
Theo had settled in front of the couch with a bowl of popcorn and the start of some movie queued up on the TV. He looked around as I came out of my room. “Hi, sleepyhead! Good– uh.” His head swivelled the other way, following my steps to the front door. When I opened the pantry, he put the bowl down so quickly it rocked on the coffee table. “Seb!” he said, rushing over to my side. “Where are you going?”
Oh, merde, he thinks I’m out of my mind again.
Bending to get my sandals, I made myself say, somewhat normally, “Art store. I need charcoal.”
“Yeah, but… you need it now?” he asked. Then he shrugged. “Okay, I’ll buy you some. What kind do you need?”
I stopped in the middle of sticking my toes into a sandal. “It’s only a few blocks. I can go.”
He pursed his mouth and bit his swollen lip at the same time, while further up, his eyebrows scrunched together. Shifting with discomfort, he said, “Look… I don’t want to get Quint. Please don’t make me?”
He was serious. Never had he threatened to tattle before, not even when he found me coming into the apartment in the middle of the night and the pink kitten hidden in the freezer. The shock of it made tears spring into my eyes. Gods, he must really believe I’m not well.
I took my sandals off, put them neatly back in the pantry, and held it together long enough to go sit on the couch. Then I had to sink my teeth into my wrist.
“Shit,” Theo said. I didn’t look up, but I imagined from his voice that his expression was panicked. He dropped down next to me and pulled me into a hug. “C’mon, Sebby, don’t cry!”
That, at least, was very effective at stopping my snivels. I let go of my skin so I could lift my head and stare while I asked, “What did you just call me?”
He blinked. “Uh, Sebby?”
Frowning, he said, “I heard your parents call you that when we were in Annapolis for Herndon.”
“Yes,” I said, breathing carefully, “but don’t.”
“Oh!” He held up the hand that wasn’t on my shoulder, palm-forward. “Okay, I totally get that. My dad used to call me Teddy or Ted, no matter how many times I said I hated that nickname. Sorry.”
“I don’t hate it,” I said. “It’s just–”
No words could explain. Sobs rushed in to fill their place. I latched onto my wrist again, and from behind me, I heard the master bedroom door open.
“That’s the last meeting of my day,” Quint said as he walked down the hallway accompanied by the click of Jagger’s toenails. Then he must have seen the way I was sitting, or perhaps the look on Theo’s face, because his footsteps sped up and he crouched in front of me within moments. “Mon chaton, what’s wrong?” he asked, while firmly pulling my wrist away from my mouth. His thumb rubbed over the red teeth marks I’d left. “Can you try to talk to me, please?”
I shook my head and clamped my lips together.
“He wanted to go to the art store to buy charcoal,” said Theo, sounding relieved yet near tears himself. “I offered to go for him, but he got upset.”
“Charcoal?” Quint asked.
Sniffing, I nodded.
“And you wanted to go yourself, not have Theo go.”
Quint sighed. He squeezed himself between me and the arm of the couch somehow and wrapped his arm around me the opposite way from Theo’s. “I know this is hard, mon chaton.”
You don’t, I thought. You can’t know.
He went on, “You have to be patient with yourself while you heal. It helps to think of the healing part of you as a separate person under your care. If you were their caretaker, you would want to be understanding if they got tired or didn’t feel up to something, correct? The inverse of the Golden Rule is also true. You should treat yourself the way you want to treat others.”
That made sense, but… it didn’t change anything. I did feel up to the short walk to the store. Sure, now you do, whispered a nasty voice. You’ll probably run out of steam halfway there and need rescuing. Again.
“What if I go,” said Theo, “and while I’m gone, Quint reads you more from that book? I don’t mind if you guys get ahead of me in it.”
They don’t think you can make it, either, see?
I closed my eyes and said, “Okay,” as fresh tears spilled down my cheeks.
Before he left, Theo brought me the book, passing it over with a worried look at Seb. “I’ll buy the charcoal and come right back, promise.”
“Thank you, angel,” I said. “We’ll be alright.”
He went out. I ran my fingers through Seb’s hair and opened to the chapter where we’d left off. “I believe the cat had just told them the Duke was declaring war. Yes, here we are. ‘Benvenuto’s news caused a stampede in the Casa Montana. The older cousins raced to the Scriptorium and began packing away all the usual spells, inks, and pens. The aunts fetched out the special inks for use in war-spells.’”
Seb let his head drop onto my shoulder and curled his legs up onto the couch. In the empty space Theo had left, Jagger jumped up and licked at Seb’s hand, and the Brat’s lips twitched as he scratched the dog’s chin. Still, I felt tension in his frame.
It took several pages for his breathing to even out. My heart ached for the poor boy. How he must hate the limits imposed by his body. I wished I could erase them, but in the meantime, I would simply have to ensure he heeded his own breaking points. If we had another near-death experience… I wasn’t sure I could bear that terror again.
Theo returned within half an hour, carrying a plastic bag. He upturned it into Seb’s lap. A cascade of packages fell out—boxes, blister packs, plastic sachets, and one or two tins. Seb blinked down at them. “I forgot to ask what kind you needed,” said Theo, grinning, “so I got you a bunch of different ones. You should be set with charcoal for awhile.”
Gathering the different packets, Seb asked, “How much do I owe you?”
Theo waved his hand. “On me.”
“But I was going to buy it myself,” Seb protested. He got to his feet with his handfuls of charcoal carefully sandwiched between his palms. “Where’s the receipt?”
“Consider them a get-well-soon gift, okay?” Theo asked with an eyeroll.
I laid the book aside and stood as well, thinking I might need to intervene before this turned into an argument. However, Seb, after staying quite still for a second, simply headed for his room. I followed, frowning. In his doorway, I asked, “Mon chaton, how are you feeling?”
He dropped the charcoal in a heap on his desk. “Fine.” Then he realized what he’d said and closed his eyes. “I mean…. I just need to draw.”
“That isn’t an emotion either, I’m afraid.”
He swallowed. In a small voice, as if he felt ashamed to admit it, he said, “I’m frustrated.”
Calmly, I said, “That’s alright.”
His eyes popped open to look at me in surprise. “It is?”
“Yes, of course,” I said, smiling and going over to take his shoulders. “You’re having to be very patient with your body, and you’re doing a great job. So long as you don’t let the self-frustration lead you to pushing too hard, it’s perfectly acceptable.”
His eyebrows furrowed in an expression I didn’t quite understand, but only for a moment. Then it smoothed out. “I won’t,” he said.
“Why don’t you bring what you need to the table and draw while I prepare lunch?”
I squeezed his shoulders and let go.
He drew quietly while I boiled eggs for egg salad and chopped up celery. As Theo took out glasses for us, I said, “Mon chaton, put that away and go wash up, please.”
The nameless expression flashed across his face again. Then he stood, gathered his supplies into a neat pile, and vanished down the hallway. I stopped wiping down the sink. Soap dripped between my fingers from the sponge as I stared after him. “The Good Boy Act,” I murmured.
“Huh?” asked Theo.
“Nothing, angel,” I replied, shaking my head at myself. How could Seb so easily fool me with that? At least I had caught on sooner this time. Or so I hoped.
When he reappeared to sit at the table once more, I rinsed my hands off and began to dry them on a dishtowel. “Seb?”
Green eyes met mine, then slid their gaze a few inches upward. “Oui, monsieur?”
With what I hoped was enough firmness, I said, “I want you to be honest about your emotions at all times, not only when I ask how you’re feeling. Honesty includes actions as well as words.”
His focus snapped back to me. A flush tinted his cheeks. Halfway around the peninsula, Theo paused mid-step and then continued on to the table with the silverware.
“I think you understand,” I said to Seb.
“…Oui,” he said. “I’m sorry.” Then, looking at the fork and knife Theo set in front of him, he added, “The drawing isn’t coming out how I picture it.”
“That must be vexing,” I said, gathering the bowl of egg salad and other things. I brought them to the table, saying as I did, “You are allowed to express your annoyance with it.”
Theo sat down and winked at Seb over their place settings. “I always find throwing something to be very expressive. Or slamming a door.”
“Within reason,” I said, with a mild glance towards my husband. “Simply stating that you are frustrated with the drawing, or anything else, may help. Give it a try, please.”
He twisted his fingers together and then fiddled with the zipper of his test kit as he spoke, each part of the statement separated as if he needed to call up the next word and force it through his mouth. “I’m frustrated… with… the drawing.”
“Good,” I said. “Thank you. As for how to handle it, if you feel comfortable showing the unfinished work to me, I may be able to make a suggestion?”
He shook his head almost before I finished.
“Alright. Perhaps then some time away from it could help,” I said neutrally. “When we’ve finished eating, why don’t you watch the movie Theo’s started with him? What is it, angel?”
“Chicago,” said Theo. “We can make a new batch of popcorn too, if you want?”
Seb’s shoulders hunched a fraction of an inch. In a mumble, he said, “I was thinking of going for a walk. Alone.”
The idea made that awful moment yesterday flash before my eyes, when I knew something was wrong and felt like I couldn’t get to him in time. Theo also looked alarmed at me. I reached across the table to stop Seb’s fingers from zipping his test kit again. “You still need to take it easy, mon chaton. I know that’s hard to hear, but it’s been less than twenty-four hours, remember.”
His hand tensed. “I know, but I wanted fresh air.”
While I was pleased at him voicing his objection, I didn’t think he was ready for a solo excursion yet. “After the movie, we can all have a short walk together. Alright?”
He swallowed as his eyes glimmered. Then he nodded.
“Thank you,” I said.
I was going to add more about allowing himself the time to heal, but he pulled his hand abruptly away from mine and flipped open the test kit with force. To Theo, he said, “I’m supposed to teach you how to do all this. I never did before, and last night Zain found out.”
Theo blinked, taken aback as much as I was by the sudden shift. “Uh, okay,” he said. “After yesterday, I can definitely see how that’d be a good idea.”
So could I. In fact, I was appalled at myself for not making sure he knew before, or even realizing he didn’t know until Seb brought it up.
Seb glanced sideways at me in a way that was guilt mixed with something else. “It’s not like I forgot. I chose not to tell you because of your needle phobia.”
Theo’s eyes shifted uncertainly to me as well. I was too busy—imagining what might have happened if I hadn’t come home when I did—to notice right away. Then I shook my head free of those images and said, “That was considerate of you, mon chaton, though unnecessary. Theo is more afraid of receiving shots himself than of needles at this point. Please, show him how to do a test.”
With a deep breath, he began explaining as he performed his usual routine at half the speed. Theo watched more carefully than he ever had in the past. I was already planning to give him an orange and a few syringes with which to practice.
I didn’t know what was going on, but I didn’t like it. Not one bit.
Seb and Quint both were acting weird, and each of their weirdness seemed to feed off the other’s. Take, for example, the walk Seb had been so insistent about wanting at lunch. As soon as we were all getting ready to go, he came out of his room without the hoodie Quint had sent him to fetch and said, “Actually, I changed my mind. You guys can go on.”
Quint went over to him in concern. “Are you getting tired, mon chaton? Perhaps a nap–”
“No, I just want to draw,” Seb said, almost impatient, and Quint didn’t even bat an eye at being interrupted, which is usually near the top of his list of rude behavior.
“This drawing seems to be taking a lot of mental effort,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s healthy for you to be obsessing over it to such a degree.”
“I’m not obsessing. It’s… it’s part of something Zain told me to do last night. I wanted to get it done before I speak to him again.”
It sure looked like obsessing if you asked me. I wondered what Zain had told him.
With a frown, Quint said, “Alright, I’ll stay too, so you aren’t alone.”
“You don’t have to,” said Seb. “I just tested and it was 109. I won’t be doing anything other than draw. I’ll be okay.”
Quint still hesitated. “I’d feel better with you having someone else nearby, in case.”
Seb pressed his lips together a moment, then said, “Nevermind. I’ll get the hoodie and come.”
“Mon chaton, you don’t need to push yourself. Especially with your parents arriving tomorrow morning, you need to save energy.”
“I’m not pushing myself.”
“Well… if you’re sure,” Quint said.
I rolled my eyes first to the ceiling and then to the dog, who was sitting by my feet quivering as he waited for me to open the front door. “Look, Jag and I are going, so anyone who wants to join us needs to hurry up.”
“What?” I asked. “He’s staying, you’re staying, now he’s going, I assume you want to go now, too, so can we get a move on?”
In the end, they both came, but we only got one block away before Seb yawned and Quint suggested they head back while I brought Jagger to the dog park. Seb didn’t argue. I thought maybe he really was getting tired and just didn’t want to admit it.
He went right into his room to draw as soon as they got home, from what Quint told me. He came out to eat dinner, hardly saying two words the entire time, and then vanished again.
“Let him rest, angel,” Quint said when I suggested inviting him out for more reading time. But he himself didn’t seem able to resist poking his head into Seb’s room at least twice an hour.
Around nine, he did it while I was standing in the hallway taking laundry out of the dryer to fold, so I could hear everything.
“How is the drawing coming, mon chaton?”
A pause, during which I imagine Seb shrugged or something.
“It’s time for your Lantus injection.”
I stopped dead and looked over my shoulder, trying to see past Quint into the room. That was definitely impatience. Maybe even testiness. His blood sugar wasn’t going high again, was it?
“I’m sorry,” Seb said an instant later, sounding completely ashamed now, like a switch had been flipped. “I didn’t mean to snap at you, I swear.”
Quint sighed and went in, while I came to stand in the doorway so I could see him bend over Seb at the desk and hug him. “It’s alright, mon chaton,” he soothed. “You aren’t in trouble. When did you last test?”
After a slight pause, Seb’s half-muffled voice said, “Twenty minutes ago, and I’m still on target. Just tired, I guess.”
Letting go of him, Quint sat on the edge of the mattress and turned the covers down. “Go brush your teeth and wash up. We can do the Lantus, and then I’ll tuck you in, alright?”
“Being tucked in always sounds like heaven when I’m sick,” I said, smiling.
Seb got off his chair and went past me to get to the bathroom, and as he did, I heard him say in an annoyed undertone, “But I’m not sick anymore.”
I don’t know if he even meant for me to hear. I frowned after him until Quint said, “Theo, he won’t want an audience for the Lantus.”
“You’re staying,” I pointed out.
“I’m a doctor.” He nodded behind me. “You also need to fold those clothes before they wrinkle, and do it properly, not slap-dash.”
I sighed and went to fold the clothes. Properly.
Quint headed off to bed as soon as he was done with Seb. I think he’d been awake most of the previous night, so that didn’t surprise me. In fact, I kind of thought that was part of why he kept missing or ignoring the stuff Seb was doing that he’d come down on me for, sick or not.
Like, when I started to pack it in myself a couple of hours later, I noticed a flickering light under the door of Seb’s room. I stood a little closer.
“Make a greeaaat big happy cloud,” said Bob Ross. The Joy of Painting. Seb must’ve been watching on his laptop. There was no way the sound didn’t bleed through into the master bedroom, too. How long had it been on? Why wasn’t Quint coming to investigate?
Because my Top was fast asleep, I found. I stood at our footboard and vacillated. Should I wake Quint? It wasn’t that late for Seb to still be up. But he had been in the hospital just yesterday…
I wished I could call Zain. He’d know what to do, and he wouldn’t be able to spank Seb even if he wanted to.
In the end, I didn’t need to make a decision. I don’t know if Seb heard me and thought I was Quint or what, but the noise of the video stopped, and when I stuck my head into the hallway to check, the light had gone off in his room too. With a sigh of relief, I went to bed.
I came out to the living room the next morning in my usual sort of half-awake stupor, wearing only my boxers. And found myself face-to-face with Seb’s mom. Who is a lovely woman with an accent that reminds me powerfully of a vacation to visit family in Ireland when I was a kid, and a great-aunt who spent what seemed like the entire trip scolding me to brush my hair. I put my hand up to tame my bedhead automatically as I blinked at Maeve in surprise. “Oh. Uh, hi.”
She threw both arms around me, which made me even more self-conscious of the fact I was in my underwear, and exclaimed, “Oh, I’m thrilled to see you again, Theo. Quint says you’re the one who called 911. Thank you, with all my heart.”
“I only explained what was happening and gave them our location,” I said, hugging her back awkwardly. “Quint did the shot and stuff.”
“Communicating effectively in a crisis is a great skill,” said Charlie, Seb’s dad. He was standing in the kitchen with Quint, who raised an eyebrow at me from behind his coffee mug, clearly meaning, Go put clothes on, we have guests. “Nasty bruise on your face, there,” Charlie added.
“Walked into a wall,” I lied easily. Quint didn’t blink, so he must’ve thought it was best not to tell Seb’s parents about the slap, too. Charlie nodded, like that often happened to him. As Maeve let go, I said, “Sorry I’m not dressed. I didn’t think you guys were supposed to get here this early.”
“Oh, don’t trouble yourself,” said Maeve. “Dax quite often wanders about similarly attired, and we know we took you by surprise. The airline moved us to an earlier flight when we explained the situation being a family medical emergency. We texted Quint to let him know of our arrival, and he very kindly invited us to breakfast. This way we’ll have the full day to spend with Seb before Charlie and I drive to Maryland for our first realtor meeting.”
“Charlie and you?” I asked, frowning. “I thought Seb was going, too.”
“We were just discussing that very topic,” Charlie said. “Quint shared his professional opinion that Seb is not yet recovered enough to be travelling and under added stress of looking at houses, so we’ll make this first trip alone.”
My parents both turned at my outburst, and Theo, too. Quint was already facing me, though. He simply set his mug on the counter and stared with astonishment as I cut across the room in a straight line aimed directly at him, like a dagger. Hurriedly, Mom and Theo backed up in opposite directions to get out of my way. I could hear a roar of blood in my ears as if I was standing close to a waterfall, and was aware of far-off pain in my palms, from my nails biting into them.
When I stopped, the entire scene stopped with me. They were all watching to see what I’d do. No wonder, either. I worked hard to keep Mom and Dad from seeing me like this in the past. It was probably only their eighth or ninth time since I outgrew the terrible twos. Quint never had.
I took a deep breath and spoke very quietly, though a tight jaw. “Can I speak to you alone?”
“Sebby,” Mom said, making me close my eyes so I wouldn’t snap at her don’t call me that!, “are you feeling alright?”
What she meant was, ‘are your blood sugars alright?’
“Yes,” I said, not moving an inch. “I’d just like to speak with Quint alone.”
He nodded when I opened my eyes. “Let’s make use of your room.”
Theo’s gaze went first to Quint’s face, then mine as we passed, full of worry both times. I think Quint must have tried to look reassuring. I simply ignored him. If I paid too close attention, I’d lose my nerve.
Inside my room, I shut the door as Quint turned around to face me. “Mon chaton, I know how you must feel,” he began.
“No,” I said, before he could get any further. I kept my voice soft enough not to carry beyond the door, although I was shaking with rage. “You don’t know. You can’t, because you don’t have diabetes, and you have not been treated like you never aged past seven, and you’re not separated from your fiancé, the only person you can trust to never, ever do that to you.”
The utter betrayal I felt was choking. I stopped to swallow it back down my throat like a bitter pill. Then I went on, slower, because I was trying very hard not to slip into French. I wanted to be sure he understood every word. “I know my own body and what it’s capable of better than you do, no matter how many fucking Harvard degrees you have.”
Quint had listened, only parting his lips once during my speech, and then pressing them together again, but at that, he raised an eyebrow. “Sébastien, however angry you may be, you do not curse at me.”
My shoulders rose with the pressure of all the swear words I wanted to lob in his face. As if a balloon had inflated inside me. “You had no right,” I said, holding it in, “to interfere behind my back, and you have no right to call me that anymore. As of this moment, I am revoking my consent for you to act as a Top towards me in any way whatsoever.”
The shock of his expression felt like triumph.
Then his face morphed into devastation, and my victory hollowed. I couldn’t bear to look at him. I skirted around him to get to the wardrobe at the foot of my bed. Opening it, I gulped twice, then said, “Please go tell my parents we’re leaving as soon as we eat breakfast.”
After a long moment of quiet, I heard his footsteps going to my door. I waited.
But they came back. There was a rustle as he sat on the mattress at my right, and another silence. My heart beat loud in my ears.
He broke into it with a ragged voice. “Seb, I’m sorry. It is your prerogative do what you just did. I won’t argue with your decision to… to stop being my foster Brat. I only ask—hope—for you to listen to my explanation, so I have some chance of forgiveness and remaining your friend.”
I peered around the edge of the wardrobe door. One glance at him confirmed the tears I’d heard were real. They ran down his cheeks with every blink of his earnestly blue eyes. My own welled up. I wanted to take back everything I’d said, but I… I just couldn’t. Listening, though, seemed easier. I nodded for him to continue.
What hurt me most was not the retracting of the great privilege that Seb, together with Zain, had bestowed on me. Far, far more painful was the realization, sudden and crystal clear, of how much I had re-wounded Seb in places where years of scars and soreness already existed. Rather than be his ally and support, I had—with the best of intentions—joined in against him. He must feel stabbed in the back. Was it any wonder he snatched the knife from my hand?
At the same instant, I knew what led me to that course of action. I was unimaginably grateful as he gave me permission to explain. Still, it took a few moments for me to order my thoughts. It’s not a subject I speak of often.
I looked at him, standing slim and still and very upright before me with his gaze somewhere to my left, and I inhaled and began to tell it from the beginning.
“I have relatives living in Boston,” I said. “My mother and father, an aunt, two cousins. I deliberately say they’re ‘relatives’ and not ‘family,’ because they’ve never been close. I can’t remember the last time I spoke to any of them. My nanny—the one who called me mon chaton—was the nearest person I had to a mother when I was young. I loved her very much. Then I turned eight, and it was time for me to start boarding school, and…” I cleared my throat, yet the tightness remained. “She was gone from my life overnight. She reached out later, wrote letters, which I answered, and I visited her in France twice, but it never felt the same.
“I don’t want to give the impression that I had a miserable childhood,” I added, because his rigidity was melting into sorrow. “My school was very good, and I made friends and had teachers I admired. In my later years, when I started rowing crew, my coach was a wonderful mentor who often invited me for dinner with his wife and his own son. Part of me, though, always held back from others, knowing that any kind of relationship is often temporary.
“So, I got through school and my undergraduate years. My parents came to that graduation ceremony, which was good of them. I remember they had to delay a trip to do it. After, I made clear that I would be going into medicine, not the family real estate business, and we parted ways fairly amicably. I spoke more often to the lawyer they hired to manage my trust fund than I did to them.”
That extra bit of information wasn’t truly needed. I felt myself stalling, not wanting to recount the next part, which I have rarely told anyone. I sighed.
Gently, I held up a hand and shook my head. “Please, allow me to finish. This is difficult. I don’t want to lose momentum.”
He bit his lip and waited.
“My first year in medical school, I thought that I had found someone to finally be close to,” I continued after another beat, my voice roughening still further. “I was… your age, actually, and he was a professor. Not one of my professors, but nevertheless, if we had been found out, it would have affected his career. I mistook his willingness to risk that as a sign of his dedication to me. I gave him my heart, and he broke it. Quite carelessly. I think he never knew the extent of the damage.”
I paused once more to swallow. My eyes were watering heavily again.
“That was the end of my attempts at meaningful relationships, until I met Theo. I don’t know if he’s mentioned to you how long it took him to convince me to try once more. I was so scared of making myself vulnerable, though I wrapped it up in noble thoughts of being too old for him and protecting him from himself. Eventually he did persuade me, of course, and once I allowed myself to, I fell in love almost immediately. I’ve come to realize that’s a trait of mine. My heart is either closed or fully open.
“I’m telling you all of this not to make you feel sorry for me. I accept my past, and I don’t think I would change it and risk changing who I am now. I simply hope it will help you understand that when I say I love you like a son, exactly how much that means,” I said, looking Seb directly in the eye. “Which– which may then allow you to see why, faced with the very real possibility of l–losing you, I panicked.”
I wiped a tear away before it could fall, but another followed. Sharp pain ran through my vocal chords at my effort to finish. “The fear of that made me hold on to you more tightly, and in ways that I now realize were incredibly destructive to your psyche and to the trust between us. You were absolutely right to withdraw your consent. ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t begin to cover how I feel.”
He gazed at me as we both silently wept. Then he sat beside me, and I found myself being squeezed between two thin arms that held surprising strength. I hesitated a moment before returning the embrace, and as I did, he sobbed into my shoulder. “I’m sorry, too. I didn’t mean to b–b–break your heart. I was just ssso mad and h–hurt. I’m a terrible p–person.”
No, you’re not, mon chaton,” I said, without thinking how he might respond to that nickname now. I was unimaginably glad when he didn’t react to it. Stroking his hair, I went on, “You were protecting yourself from further harm. I’m glad you explained to me what I was doing, though I do wish the explanation had come sooner, before we were both on the edge.” Regret washed over me. “Also, I may not be able to swat you for saying mean things about yourself, but friends don’t let friends do that either. That is… if we’re still friends here.”
His head made a movement that could have been a nod or a shake. My heart froze until he said, “Oui.”
With a sigh of relief, I said, “Good. I would hate to not be friends with my son.”
The word made me reflect on his parents by blood. Unlike my own, they clearly loved him. They were also good people, and while I didn’t quite understand some of the things Charlie said, I knew Seb did, and considered himself close to both of them. How tragic that they were unknowingly hurting him as well.
“Your mother and father,” I said, “are likely reacting to this same sense of fear I had.”
He pulled back slightly. “I know.”
“Perhaps if you explained to them–”
“No. I can’t.”
“Seb, the longer you wait, the harder it will be to bring it up.” He had already been hiding his anger from them for years, far longer than he had from me. The explosion he was headed for would have to be greater and more destructive. “Now is a good time. You can make a case to them for going to Maryland today, rather than having me do it.”
Shaking his head, he argued, “I don’t want to hurt them, too.”
I didn’t feel comfortable pushing him further without Top privileges. Surely, this was an area Zain had well-covered. I would mention it to him. Right after I apologized and begged for his forgiveness as well. Sighing heavily, I wiped a tear off Seb’s cheek and said, “Alright. Would you– May I wash your face?”
He sniffled. “Yeah.”
We crossed the hall to the bathroom quickly. I could hear Theo making awkward small-talk with Maeve and Charlie as I ran water over a cloth. I used it on Seb first, and then, when he said, “Merci, that’s better,” on myself. Hopefully, the cold water would lessen the puffiness around my eyes, though nothing could disguise their red tint.
Seb went out while I remained behind, and the small-talk came to an abrupt halt.
“Sebby! What happened?”
“I’m alright, Maman. Don’t worry.”
I lowered the cloth and saw Theo standing in the doorway. He’d managed to put on a shirt over his boxers. His eyebrows creased together as he stared at me and demanded in a whisper, “What’s going on? What did he say?”
Knowing that talking about it would start the emotions anew, I said, “I’ll tell you later, angel.”
I lay my finger over his lips. “Later, I promise. Now, excuse me, there’s something I need to do.” After moving him gently aside, I went out to the living room, where Seb was being enveloped by both parents at once. I cleared my throat politely, and they looked my way. “Maeve, Charlie, I… spoke out of turn earlier when I told you I thought Seb should stay here. My attachment to him clouded my judgement, and a decision like that should truly be made with Seb’s own input considered foremost.”
Charlie and his wife exchanged a look, while Seb blinked at me. Stepping back from her son, Maeve asked, “Well, a leanbh, what do you want to do?”
After tearing his gaze away from me, Seb said, “I’d like to stay here today.”
To call me surprised would be putting it mildly. “Mon chaton,” I protested, “you’re well enough to go, if you wish.”
“Yes, I know, and it’s important to me to be involved in finding a new home for Zain and I, but just for today, I want to stay here. Mom, Dad, I want you to leave after breakfast so you can get the viewings all arranged for when I join you tomorrow. I think that’ll make it less stressful.”
“You would need to travel alone,” Maeve said uncertainly. “It’s a long trip.”
“I’ll drive him,” I said, and then, quieter, “if he’ll allow me to do so.”
Seb nodded. I breathed another soft sigh of relief as he said, “I was going to suggest that.”
“We have a plan, then,” Charlie said, smiling. To Seb, he added, “I’m glad you’re taking your time crossing the river. Find your footing.”
Solemnly, Seb replied, “I will.”
I watched his parents embrace him once more, and wondered if they could feel tautness in his frame, or if he was as accepting of it as he looked.
A moment later, he slipped out of their hold. “Need to get my test kit,” he explained, coming toward me. I expected him to veer into his room, but he stopped and spoke for my ears alone. “Thanks for the ride tomorrow. I know it means you’ll have to take the day off work.”
“It’s the least I can do,” I replied.
He shook his head. “You already did a lot more than that.” Then he hugged me, whispered, “I take back what I said before,” and let go just as quickly, his gaze meeting mine in a question. “If that’s okay? I mean, if you, um, still want to be my foster Top?”
I simply nodded. I was too overwhelmed by emotion to speak.
Shoulders dropping with the release of tension, he closed his eyes a moment. “Merci.”
As he went into his room, I wished I could tell him it was I who should be offering thanks. However, our guests were looking at me with concern, and Theo with growing alarm.
“Please pardon my appearance,” I said, coming forward while removing my glasses to wipe my eyes free of fresh tears. “It’s been an emotional few days for us all.” I pulled Theo against my side and spoke to the couple. “You have a very special son.”
“We know,” Maeve said. “Thank you for taking care of him.”
“He can take care of himself,” I corrected, “but I do my best to support him.”
I deserve a freaking medal for not shoving Seb’s parents out the door before they finished their breakfast. It was only because Quint made clear that he wasn’t going to tell me why he’d been crying until they left. He hardly ever cries. And even though I could see Seb had red eyes, too, he was so angry earlier that I knew he was somehow the cause.
Suspiciously, I watched them interact while we ate, ready to step in and defend my husband if needed. Yet they seemed to have both forgiven each other.
Charlie and Maeve took forever leaving after the dishes were loaded into the dishwasher. They each hugged Seb at least three more times as they all stood by the front door. Not that I don’t understand where they were coming from, but I felt like I was about to explode from holding questions back. I sat on the barstool by the peninsula wishing they’d just go already.
Finally, with a last promise to Seb to call him later, they went out. Almost before the door shut, I said, “If one of you doesn’t tell me what happened–!”
“Shhh,” Quint cut me off.
Seb, looking through the peephole, said, “It’s alright, they’re on the elevator.” Then he turned, put his back against the door behind him, and fiddled with his alert bracelet. “I, um, lost my temper.”
“Yeah, I saw that part,” I said. I spun the seat of the barstool sideways to point towards the hall. “What happened in there, and why was Quint crying afterward?”
Seb looked like he wanted to slide backwards through the door. Maybe I sounded a little too accusatory.
“Stop,” Quint said, quiet and exhausted. “Please, we’ve all had enough bad feelings for the day. We’re all going to sit down and discuss this together as a family, and Theo, I want you to hold comments and reactions until Seb and I have finished. Understood?”
I gave a reluctant nod. He took Seb around the shoulders and guided him into the living room, collecting me by the wrist as they passed. We settled on the couch with us two Brats on either side of Quint. I scrunched myself as close to him as I could get without sitting in his lap. That made me feel a little better.
After a moment of silence, during which Seb studied his knees very intensely, Quint said, “I’ll start. Since the… hypoglycemia incident in the park, I haven’t been thinking or acting clearly. I allowed my fear of losing Seb to dictate the way I treated him, which caused him to feel…” He paused again, then looked down at the younger Brat. “Well, what would you say, mon chaton?”
Seb shrugged with his head still hanging.
“It’s important that Theo knows, to understand what happened next,” said Quint. “I’d like you to try telling him, please.”
I could see Seb’s throat work as he swallowed. To Quint, I said, “I already know he got annoyed. I kept wondering why you weren’t doing anything about it.”
His eyebrows went all quizzical and disapproving. “Pardon me? When, exactly, did you plan to mention this?”
“Um, never?” I said. “I mean, what was I supposed to say? ‘I think you should be coming down harder on Seb’?”
“Yes, that might have helped,” he said.
I opened my mouth to argue. I am not a tattletale. Then Seb, as if he’d been working on an answer in his head that whole time, blurted out, “I felt like you weren’t seeing me anymore. You were only seeing a diabetic who couldn’t do anything for themselves and needed to be looked after. Both of you.”
Oh. It was like he took a pin to the balloon of my annoyance and impatience, and it popped in an instant, leaving behind just feeling awful. “I guess we messed up, huh?”
“We did,” Quint agreed, while squeezing Seb and I tighter with each arm. “Thank you for sharing that, Seb. I know it was difficult.”
“I didn’t think it was that bad,” I said. Not defensively, just trying to explain. Looking around Quint, I added, “I warned you in the hospital he’d put on the kid gloves. He goes that way with me, sometimes, when I’m hurt.”
“Yes, angel, but for you it is not an ongoing pattern you have dealt with for years stretching back to childhood.”
“It was my fault, too,” Seb said, between sniffles. “I should have talked about what was bothering me before I… I…”
Sensing we were finally getting to the part I most wanted to know, I leaned forward so I could see him better. “Before you what?”
He didn’t meet my eyes. I glanced to Quint instead, who sighed heavily. “My interference with the planned trip to Maryland was the final straw,” he said.
Yeah, I’d kind of gotten that impression earlier when Seb heard about it. But without commenting, I waited for Quint to continue.
When he did, in a pained voice, I thought I misheard.
“Seb revoked his consent for me to Top him.”
I couldn’t comprehend it. My breath became quick and shallow as the words ran through my mind again. “What do you mean? You… What?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Seb. “I took it back.”
Relief hit first, but only for a moment. It didn’t matter? He thought it didn’t matter?! The anguish it caused Quint was still plain to see. I knew more than anyone else exactly the depth that would have reached. However angry I’ve ever been, however much I’ve disagreed with Quint’s decisions as my Top in the past, I never, ever considered such a thing. Staring at Seb, I demanded, “How could you do something like that?”
“Young man, if I hear another word from you in that tone, you’ll be standing in a corner until you think you can follow the rules for this discussion,” Quint said, with a very strong Look.
On his other side, Seb’s face crumpled. My gaze dropped. I hadn’t meant to make him cry again. “Sorry,” I mumbled.
Quint stroked his fingers through the younger Brat’s hair and went on, softly, “Seb did exactly the right thing. I was in a state of mind that made it impossible for me to act with his best interests as my top priority, and I was doing harm to him as a result. Preventing me from having power over him was what he needed to do, and if we are ever in a similar situation, Theo, I want you to do the same.”
“I couldn’t!” I said, vehement.
Now he looked near tears. “Angel, I don’t want to damage you as well.”
Seb cut in, thickly saying, “You didn’t damage me. I’m okay, I swear. You– y-you showed, and you h-helped my parents s-ssee–”
Staying mad at him when he’s crying is impossible. I reached over Quint’s lap to rub his bony shoulder. He gave me a look through his wet eyelashes like he hardly dared believe I was extending an olive branch, and I smiled reassuringly.
Quint dropped a kiss on both our heads. Then he said, “I’m not sure Zain would agree I didn’t damage you, mon chaton,” sounding truly regretful.
“Zain doesn’t need to know,” said Seb. I snorted. No way was that going to fly.
Sure enough, Quint arched an eyebrow faintly and said, “Yes, I am afraid he does. Each of us is going to write him an email fully explaining what’s been happening, understood?”
“Even me?” I asked, nervous. “I mean, I didn’t see any of this.”
“You seem to have seen more than you let on,” Quint replied, “so yes, even you.”
I sighed. “Alright.”
Quint looked expectantly at Seb, who wiped his eyes and nodded.
“Thank you,” said Quint. “And thank you, mon chaton, for giving me a second chance. It… it means more than I can express.”
I threw my arms around him and hugged tightly as I could, while Seb did the same from the other side.
My team found out I was having a family issue. I’m not sure how, since I didn’t tell them, but it gave them the extra motivation to pull together and push hard so I could talk to Seb sooner. We won first place in the mountain training relay, and with it the hour of liberty at base camp on Wednesday evening, during which we could use our phones and the internet. I saw the notifications for the three emails as soon as I turned mine on.
Why are all of them emailing me? I thought, immediately worried about Seb’s health. But no. Quint would have called again, not emailed. So what could this be?
I started off reading them very quickly, not wanting to spend too much time on it when I could be speaking to Seb. As I scrolled through, I slowed, then sped up again. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a wider range of emotions in a shorter timeframe. From curiosity, to pride, to shock, to relief, and then, coming around the backside, sympathy and understanding.
All three emails were about the same sequence of events. Certain parts of each stood out, though.
I am not sure how best to convey this. I’ll start by saying I love Seb, and never in my life would I wish to harm him, but I have done so. It causes unimaginable pain for me to think about it, even now when he has forgiven me. I dare to hope you will, as well.
I’m writing against my will. I told Quint I don’t like tattling, but he says he’s going to tell you what happened anyway, and Seb is, too. They’ll give you all the details, I’m sure. Basically, Quint kinda got overprotective these past couple of days with Seb. So did I, but Quint had it worse. Even though Seb said he felt better, we kept treating him like he’d just left the hospital.
I overreacted. They were only looking out for me. They were both so kind. I don’t know why I got annoyed by that. You’re going to tell me my feelings are valid, but I still say I overreacted.
The final straw was this morning, when Quint told Maeve and Charlie that Seb shouldn’t go house-hunting with them. Seb got pissed about it. REALLY pissed. Never seen him like that. He marched up to Quint looking like he was gonna kill him, and pretty much dragged him off to talk to privately. I didn’t see that part.
Seb gave me a very deserved telling-off for my behavior, and then informed me he was terminating the discipline aspect of our friendship. It was truly an eye-opener, allowing me to see how I’d been treating him. Instantly, I wished I could have that time to do over again. I hurt him so deeply.
Of course, I accepted his decision, though with his permission I did explain that I had been acting out of my fear of losing loved ones, which stems from my childhood. It’s not an excuse.
I feel awful for doing that to Quint. I’m going to have dreams about his face. He looked like I ripped his heart out. And when he told me about his past, it was worse.
I should’ve taken it all back then, but I didn’t until he told Mom and Dad they should ask me whether I wanted to go with them. He did it very politely, of course. Only then did I feel like I could trust him. Which is stupid. Obviously I can trust him.
Theo got mad when we told him about everything, but he says he understands now. Quint keeps saying I did the right thing. I don’t think so. I definitely overreacted. You have to talk to him so he’ll see.
I snorted and muttered, “Oh, I’ll talk to him, brat.” Then I closed the email app and opened Skype. The wifi should be just strong enough for a video call.
Seb answered with a charcoal smudge on his chin and a shocked expression. “Zain!”
Smiling, I said, “Hey, habibi. Sounds like you’ve had a rougher couple of days than I have, even waiting to see your gorgeous face.”
He sputtered a moment. “But, but… how are you calling so soon?”
“Extra bit of liberty for being awesome,” I said, leaning back in the rickety little chair. “I didn’t tell you there was the possibility of it before because I didn’t want to get your hopes up. Really, though, I should’ve predicted. Who else in this sorry group is as awesome as me?” Without waiting for an answer, I asked, “Listen, are Quint and Theo there?”
“Yeah,” he said. “They’re making dinner.”
“Great. I want to see them, too.”
He bit his lip, but the room shifted behind him as he picked up the laptop and stood. I waited while he carried it out to the living room and set it down on the coffee table so I had a view of the couch. He stepped away from the frame for several seconds. Then he came back with the older couple following, and they sat in a row with Seb in the middle. Almost half of Theo’s face was various shades of purple and green. I didn’t bat an eye at that. Any reaction I showed would go straight to Seb’s guilt.
Instead, I said, “Wow. You all look guilty as hell.”
Theo glanced sideways at the other two, surprised. Whether from my reaction or from the sight of his Top’s expression, I couldn’t tell.
“I’m not upset with any of you,” I added, to get that out of the way, and the surprise spread to Quint’s face, replacing his air of a man about to be scolded. “Babe, do you remember the morning after you and Platt were attacked?”
Going pink—probably as he recalled how I’d insisted on feeding him myself after I spanked him—Seb nodded.
“That was the same thing,” I said. “How I was acting all weird and letting you do stuff I wouldn’t normally?”
“You…?” Quint asked in amazement.
“Yep,” I confirmed. “Not very much externally, but only because I was more aware of it and I have years of experience in resisting the urge for overprotectiveness. And also Seb refused to eat breakfast, which snapped me back into a Top mindset real quick.”
All three of them blinked a few times. I guess Seb hadn’t quite realized what was behind my odd behavior that morning, either. To him, I asked, “Did you try obvious Bratting again? Something for Quint to be on the lookout for in the future?”
He said, “No,” but at the same time, Theo’s gaze dropped.
I tilted my chin. “Squirt disagrees, I think.”
Leaning forward to look pass Seb, Quint aimed a raised eyebrow at his husband, who squirmed a little, and then cupped his hand around Seb’s ear and whispered into it.
Seb blushed again as Theo drew back. I heard the older Brat murmur, “You have to tell them.”
“I wasn’t– I mean, I didn’t think of it as… that,” said Seb to his jiggling knees, “but… um, I stayed up late last night watching The Joy of Painting on YouTube.”
“You slept through it,” Theo added to Quint. “He turned it off before I went to bed, though. It wasn’t that late.”
“Did you turn it off, brat?” I asked, already knowing the answer from how he’d winced as Theo spoke.
“For awhile?” he said. “Until I thought Theo was asleep, too, and then I muted it.”
Quint sighed. “I missed that as well. I’m sorry, mon chaton.”
Rolling my eyes, I brought the phone closer to my face. “Hey, big guy. If you keep beating yourself up about this, I’m gonna swat you before the hug next time we see each other.”
“I beg your pardon?” he asked, while Theo clapped a hand over his mouth.
“We both forgive you,” I said, unperturbed. “I’m not saying it was your finest day, but mistakes happen. We all have issues from childhood, too. Right, habibi?”
Seb made a face and didn’t answer.
I went on, “Speaking of which, I am so proud of you for sticking up for yourself. And with Quint! That’s huge. Although I’m also a little jealous that everyone else got to see the Murder Walk and I didn’t.”
Shaking his head, he insisted, “I overreacted.”
“No,” Quint and I said at the same time. Then the other Top fell silent and let me continue, “You want to believe that because you feel guilty for hurting Quint, and because saying it was justified would also be admitting you want to get that angry with your family, too. But guess what? You confronted someone about this, and the world didn’t end.”
Even on the tiny phone screen, I could tell he had tears in his eyes. Quint put an arm around his shoulders as Seb sniffled, “Maybe it didn’t end, but it got knocked askew, and now it’s not the same anymore. Nothing’s normal. Quint feels terrible. So do I.”
Quint’s forehead furrowed as he glanced at me. “Mon chaton, Zain’s forgiving me goes a very long way towards allowing me to forgive myself. Does that help?”
“A l–little, but it’s not just that I feel guilty about,” he choked. “It’s all the stuff from before, too. Hitting Theo and everything.”
“I’ve totally forgiven you,” Theo said, rubbing Seb’s arm on the other side. “Actually, I was never mad at you to begin with.”
“And what happened to my brilliant plan for letting go of the guilt from before?” I asked, with a lot of forced lightness. I hated not being able to touch him, too.
My beautiful boy hunched his body up and looked at the webcam from under his eyelashes in the most adorable way. Then he said, “The drawings aren’t coming out right.”
I blinked. “Drawings?”
“I wanted to draw it all and meditate on them,” he explained, “but they’re terrible.”
Slowly, I said, “Didn’t I tell you you weren’t allowed to add a punishment to it, brat?”
His mouth fell open. “I didn’t! Art is not a punishment!”
I snorted. “It is when you’re obsessing over it and using it as an excuse not to do something that actually would make you feel better, such as real meditation.”
“You also,” Quint added, surveying him with a very unimpressed expression, “led me to believe that these drawings were what Zain had asked you to do, so I would allow you to continue working on them.”
“Did he?” I asked, quirking an eyebrow. “Now, that’s interesting. Oh!” I snapped the fingers of my free hand. “Guess what, babe? I just figured out how we’re gonna make it feel like things are back to normal again with you and Quint.”
Theo looked from his husband to me. “Um. I should take Jagger for a walk.” He stood up, but then bent over to be in frame again and said, “Wait, before I go, I have to find out what the hell is a Murder Walk.”
“Nothing,” mumbled Seb. “He made it up.”
I grinned. “Hush, you. You’re in disgrace. And Theo, you already know, from the description in your email. It’s what happens when the pressure is just building and building and then Seb go boom,” (with a little explodey gesture using my other hand), “and looks like he wants to kill everyone.”
“Oh. Right,” he said, still looking puzzled. “But why are you jealous over missing that?”
“Duh, because he is absolutely smokin’ hot when he does it? Didn’t you notice?”
He laughed, while behind him, Seb was glaring at me. Theo said, “I guess I must’ve been too busy being afraid of him killing me. Or Quint.”
“Yeah, that too,” I agreed cheerfully. “I swear, first time I saw him do it was the most terrified and turned on I have ever been in my life.”
“I can’t help that you’re hot,” I said. “I can only benefit from it.”
Theo laughed again. “Okay, I’m gonna go. Jag, here boy.”
We waited for him to leave in silence, while I watched Seb and Quint. They both looked equally nervous. I gave them a reassuring smile.
No explanation was required for Seb, but for Quint’s benefit, after Theo was gone I said, “I think the best way for you two to move past this weirdness is to full-dive into your roles. Even if Seb hadn’t just confessed a reason for a spanking, I probably would’ve suggested one.”
“Yes, I do see the logic in that,” Quint said. “However.” He angled himself to face Seb more and put a hand on his knee. “Mon chaton, if you don’t feel comfortable or ready to trust me with this, I’ll understand.”
“I do trust you,” said Seb, with a frown of confusion.
Shaking his head, Quint replied, “You say that, but I know what I did today damaged that trust.”
I interrupted with a gentle rebuke. “Don’t start second-guessing him again. Babe, say what made you decide to give back your trust.”
“When you told my parents to consider my input,” Seb said, blinking away tears. “It showed that you really understood why I was upset, and that you believed in my ability to make decisions for myself, which made me feel like…” He swallowed. “Like less of a burden.”
“See?” I said to Quint, my own voice thick with emotion. “Trust him to know what he needs.”
The other Top nodded slowly. “Yes, alright.” Patting Seb’s knee, he said, “Then we’ll do the spanking now.”
I was happy he’d taken charge. That was really what Seb needed. Still, I had to input the other thing required: “Go get your hairbrush, babe.”
As my blushing Brat stood and moved out of frame, I saw the uncertainty flash across Quint’s face again.
“I can stay on with you, if you want,” I said.
“No, but thank you,” he said. “I know how difficult that is for you. I think this is something Seb and I need to handle ourselves.”
I didn’t argue. “Make sure he understands what it’s for, like you do with Theo. He’s gonna want to pile on other guilt.”
“Oh, and try to get him to relax before you take him to meet his parents tomorrow,” I added. Then I could hear Seb coming back. He stepped in front of the camera and held his hairbrush out to Quint like an offering. The Top took it without hesitation. I smiled. “Habibi, I’m gonna go, alright?”
Sitting awkwardly on the edge of the couch cushion, Seb nodded.
“I’ll call again as soon as possible, and I want lots of pictures of the houses you see. I love you.”
With a wave to him and Quint, I ended the call. They’d be fine. I had faith in both of them.
A tense moment passed after Zain hung up. It felt tense to me, at least. I did trust Quint again, but I also knew I’d hurt him. Now here I was asking him to help me. What if he didn’t want to, and the concern about whether I was comfortable was just a cover?
Don’t be ridiculous, I told myself. He looked grateful when you took it back, didn’t he?
I stayed frozen, afraid to even look at him, until he spoke in his calm, measured voice, exactly like this was any other spanking. He said, “Stand up, please.”
Getting to my feet, I made myself turn to face him, though my gaze was on his knees. One of which I’d be going over in a minute. My cheeks flushed as I fought to keep my hands by my sides and not start undoing my pants. Relinquishing my last hold of control was one way, I figured, of showing I trusted him to discipline me.
But he didn’t take hold of my waistband, either. “Look up, Sébastien, and tell me why you are getting a spanking, please.”
That was harder than anything. After a few false starts, I met his eyes—blue-gray and still, like tidal pools—and whispered, “Because I lied to you about why I was doing the drawings.”
“Yes, and not because of anything else. Repeat that, please.”
I swallowed. “It’s not because of anything else, monsieur.”
“Merci,” he said. Then he did pluck loose the knotted drawstring holding my pants up, and they fell around my knees with just a gentle tug. As he hooked his thumbs into the elastic of my underwear, he smiled at me a little. “I believe this is the first time you’ve let me do this without a fuss.”
“Oui, monsieur,” I said. It was the first time I’d let anyone, apart from the occasions when Zain moves too fast to give me an opportunity. My fingers were twitching from the effort.
“Thank you.” He pulled my underwear down, too, and then guided me over his knee before divesting me of the last bit of cloth covering my backside by pushing my t-shirt up. I felt his hand rest on my sit-spot. I squirmed and settled more fully.
My heart ached with tenderness as I looked down at Seb, docilely awaiting his spanking. He was trying so hard to be good and cooperative, to give me no pause for thought or concern that this wasn’t what he really wanted. Nor was he tense. The ladder of his vertebrae, pressing against the few inches of bare skin below the hem of his shirt, showed how he’d relaxed and allowed his bottom to stick up. He felt heavier than usual.
I considered whether the hairbrush would even be needed. Zain had told him to get it, though, and the issue with the drawings was as much about Zain as it was me. I owed it to both of them to follow through on the implicit promise of a hairbrushing.
Some of my reluctance, I had to acknowledge, was down to my continuing desire to go easy on Seb, and a lack of confidence in my Topping abilities. I wondered if forcing me to use it—throwing me into the deep end, as it were—had also been part of Zain’s plan for restoring normal. It wouldn’t surprise me.
I made sure to maintain a calm voice as I said, “Give me your wrist, please.”
Seb immediately twisted his right arm behind him. I took hold of the slim-boned hand, and he squeezed my fingers twice before going slack. Then I picked up the hairbrush from the cushion beside me, made sure my leg was locked over his, and gave the first swat.
He jolted the smallest bit. I let the smooth wood rest against his pinkening flesh and began to lecture, quiet but firm, “Zain and I are the ones who decide your punishments, not you. Lying to me with the aim of disobeying Zain and swamping yourself with guilt is unacceptable behavior from one end to the other. Is that clear, young man?”
When he nodded, it freed his face from the throw pillow he was clutching enough for me to hear a ragged breath. At least it should be over soon, I thought, and began the spanking in earnest.
I was right. After five more swats, he started sobbing. I pushed myself to round it out to an even ten, with the last two delivered to his upper thighs. Then, without waiting a second, I helped him sit in my lap. He threw his arms around me and cried into my shoulder, and as I felt the hidden strength of his embrace, I closed my eyes and whispered, “Thank you, mon chaton, for allowing me this privilege. I promise I won’t let you down again.”
I’m not sure he heard me, but he hugged tighter, and that was enough.
Quint texted me when I was seven blocks away. It’d sure taken them a long time to finish. I hoped Seb wouldn’t feel too sore to enjoy my gift tonight. The saleswoman said that it should be used within a few days for the best effect, and he’d be out of town starting tomorrow.
Guess he could bring it with him, I mused as I texted Quint back to let him know I’d be home soon. But I really wanted him to relax tonight, before the whole house-hunting thing started.
All the rest of the way, I was practicing my speech in my head. I didn’t want Seb getting the wrong idea about the gift.
I let Jagger off his leash when we reached the elevator, and he bounded through the apartment door before me and straight to Seb, sitting on a bar stool at the peninsula. Couldn’t be bad if he’d chosen that seat. I know from experience they’re damn uncomfortable after a serious spanking. Then I looked to Quint, standing at the stove over the half-cooked dinner we abandoned when Zain called.
“Everything good now?” I asked.
He smiled. “Yes, angel.”
“Good.” I slid my shoes off and just left them on the mat in my hurry to give Seb the little black and brown paper bag clutched in my hand. “For you, and before you say anything, you can pay me back for the charcoal, but this was only seven bucks, and it’s my way of saying sorry for the way I behaved and for calling you ‘Sebby’ like that, because I understand now why it upset you, and I’m sorry, and I just wanted you to have this.”
He blinked from me to the bag. Quint, too, was looking at it curiously. Seb asked, “You… went to Lush?”
“Yeah, I remembered Zain gave you some bath stuff from them for Valentine’s Day. I wandered in and found a thing called Yoga Bomb. I figured that meant it would fit you.”
He unrolled the top of the bag, peered inside, and gently tipped the orange globe into his hand. “I’ve never seen this one before.” Bringing it to his nose, he sniffed. His eyes widened. “It’s sandalwood.”
“Is… that okay?” I asked.
Seb nodded with a smile stealing across his lips. “Sandalwood is great for exorcisms and eliminating negative feelings. I can use it to help eradicate my guilt.”
“Oh, awesome!” I went around the counter to pull him off the stool. “Go take a bath right now!”
Laughing, he resisted my efforts to shove him down the hallway. “I can’t, we have to eat dinner!”
“True,” said Quint, watching us both fondly, “but you can as soon as you’ve done the dishes. In fact, I’m going to make that an order rather than a suggestion. Understood?”
“Oui, monsieur,” Seb said though his remaining giggles. I let him go back to the counter and pick up the bag to put the bath bomb in.
Leaning beside him, I said, “So no more getting to skip your chores, huh?” Quint hadn’t let him do any cleaning since we got home from the hospital.
He grinned. “Nope.”
“You are so weird. That’s not supposed to make you happy.”
“Speaking of chores,” Quint put in, “Theo, you can set the table. Put your shoes away and wash up first, please.”
I shook my head at Seb without otherwise moving. “See what you did? Created a monster. He thinks he can be Toppy with me now, too.”
“Oh, wait, maybe he can,” I said, squinting like I was trying to remember, while Seb unsuccessfully muffled his laughter.
“Would you like proof?” Quint asked with hidden humor of his own. He made a step to go around the counter.
“No, sir!” I said, and went to do what he’d asked before I got a play swat.
Seb giggled even harder. Between that and his bath later, he’d definitely relax. About time.