The morning of the Pride march, I sat Theo and Seb down on the couch and stood in front of them. “Before we leave,” I said, “I’d like to go over ground rules, the first being that you will both stay with me at all times.”
Seb looked up with a wide-eyed seriousness that contrasted against the cheerful rainbow paint splatters of his shirt, while Theo stopped scratching Jagger’s ears, sat back into the cushions, and sighed heavily.
Choosing to ignore my husband’s reaction for the moment, I went on, “If I can’t see you, or you cannot hear me calling to you, you’re too far away. Second, neither of you will take anything at all from someone you don’t know, including the marchers, no matter how innocuous it may seem. Third, be on the lookout for suspicious behavior and report it to me immediately.”
“Stranger danger,” Theo said, rolling his eyes. “We get it. Can we go now?”
“This is not a joke, Theodore William,” I said. “After what happened in Orlando, the police will be out in full force to protect us, but it is impossible to make an event like this completely safe. You are going to take these rules seriously, and if I see any more of this attitude from you, you’ll be staying home. Is that clear?”
Subdued, he said, “Yes, sir.”
I sighed a little myself now. “I know this is frightening to think about and you just want to have fun today. We will. However, we cannot ignore the reality of the situation. Along those lines, I am sure there will be anti-gay protesters. If we encounter them, we will move to a different area without any arguments.”
The last one was nothing new for Theo, and I didn’t expect to have trouble with Seb getting into altercations. I wanted lay out all the rules, though, to avoid issues later and help this be a positive experience.
“I won’t argue, I promise,” said Theo. “I’m sorry for the attitude.”
“Thank you, angel. I appreciate that,” I said with a small smile to ease the tension. “Seb, do you agree to these rules?”
He nodded. “Oui, monsieur.”
“Good. Now we can go.”
Theo sprang up, singing, “Oh, we’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz!” as he skipped towards the door. Seb giggled at how Jagger followed him, prancing to the tune. Both were welcome sounds to hear. The shooting in Orlando had hit us hard. For the first week after, Theo stayed close to my side whenever I was home, while Seb became quiet and withdrawn like he’d been just after Zain started his training cruise.
The younger Top was still out of contact until tomorrow, when his ship would dock in the New York harbor and he’d have overnight shore leave. Thankfully, the prospect of seeing him seemed to cheer Seb up. My ideas for how to improve his spirits were running out. I expected the march today would help, too.
I squinted from the street sign overhead to the map on my phone. Bright sunlight was making it hard to read the screen, but I was pretty sure I was on the right track. I could hear an announcer over a loudspeaker nearby, and Seb had said they wouldn’t be far from that when he told me about going to watch the parade weeks ago.
Of course, I had to hope their plans hadn’t changed in the meantime. I could call or text one of them to ask, if all else failed, but I really wanted to surprise them. An extra day of unexpected leave is too rare an opportunity to pass up.
Finding them in the crowd was the real challenge. I walked along slowly, partly so I could be sure to spot familiar faces and partly because the sidewalk was so congested that a fast pace wasn’t an option. I garnered my fair share of scanning eyeballs, too, from almost all the men and quite a few of the others. Someone called out “Hey, sailor,” in a sultry voice. I couldn’t see who. One guy stopped me to ask for a selfie. With my most charming manner, I politely declined.
They assumed my summer whites were a costume. Who could blame them? I wished I’d been allowed to change into the civvies in my bag before departing for leave, though. The uniform made it very hard to be inconspicuous.
That’s probably why Quint noticed me almost at the same instant I saw him as he stood tall over the metal barrier separating the spectators from the marchers. His mouth opened like he was going to say something. I put my finger to my lips, and he shut it again.
Carefully, with a lot dazzling smiles to accompany my “Excuse me”s, I made my way through scores of tightly-packed people to get closer to him and, I could see now, Theo and Seb standing on either side. The older Brat was nearest. As I got within a few feet, he turned his head my way to look down the parade route. I winked. Grinning, he watched me sidle up behind Quint and lean forward between the Top and Seb.
“Happy Pride, babe,” I said, loud enough to be heard over the music playing from the floats.
I think Seb didn’t believe his ears for a moment. He glanced over with a frown, and then did a double-take. The force of his tackle was so great I had to steady myself on the barrier to keep from crashing backwards into Quint.
“What– How’re you–?” He pulled back and looked like he was still slightly unsure it was me. “It’s not tomorrow!”
“I staged a mutiny,” I said. “We’re not midshipmen anymore, we’re pirates. They made me the captain. I was considering wearing an eyepatch, just to look the part. What do you think?”
Smacking my shoulder, he said, “Zain.”
I laughed. “We got here early. Something about the currents; I wasn’t really paying attention in class that day. But here we are, and they decided to give us an extra twenty-four hours leave, so who am I to question it?”
“So… you don’t even have to go back tomorrow?” he asked.
“Nope,” I confirmed. “Not until Tuesday, like we originally planned.”
He hugged me again, burying his face in my neck. Around us, I could hear a few people going “Awwww,” as they watched, and Quint explaining what I’d just said to Theo, who apparently didn’t catch it the first time. I’m sure I’m the only one who made out Seb’s sniffle.
Theo wrapped his arms around me from behind, looking past me to the younger couple. “They’re so adorable,” he half-shouted in my ear to be heard over the background noise. I had to agree. With Seb’s rainbow-colored shirt, Zain’s crisp uniform, and the obvious love in their embrace, they were quite eyecatching. We weren’t their only audience, either. Several members of the crowd and marchers passing by in the street smiled their way. Producing his phone, Theo snapped a picture.
Seb raised his head from Zain’s shoulder a moment later and, as he realized he was the center of attention, went bright pink and spun to face the metal barrier once more. Zain glanced around before positioning himself between his Brat and the press of bodies. His stance was wide, while his hands rested on top of the barrier, forming almost a protective cage. I saw his lips move, but although he stood right beside me, I couldn’t hear what he said. Seb nodded in response. Then, finally, Zain addressed us.
“Hey, guys,” he said with a grin. The float playing music had moved on by then, so he could speak at almost a normal volume. “Miss me?”
“Yeah,” said Theo, still leaning around my side. “Seb, especially. He got all mopey.”
Zain gave me a concerned, questioning look. I shook my head. That was not a topic to get into here. “Only for a few days,” I said. “We’ll fill you in on everything that’s been going on later.”
In front of him, Seb’s chin ducked as his cheeks blushed harder. Zain took that in with a glance and small smile, followed by a wider one aimed once again at Theo. “You didn’t get mopey while I was gone, squirt?” he asked. “Not gonna lie, that kinda stings. The lack of my beautiful face should get anyone down.”
“You’re so full of yourself,” said Theo, and I could tell without looking that he’d accompanied the amused tone with an eyeroll.
“Sorry, what?” Zain asked, raising his voice and letting go of the barrier with one hand to cup it behind his ear, although the next float had much quieter music.
He was loud enough to attract the attention of two marchers. “Love the look, honey,” one said, while the other asked, “Is that real?”
“The uniform? Yeah, it is,” replied Zain. “I’m on leave from the US Naval Academy.”
The first man’s jaw dropped. “Wait, you’re an honest-to-god sailor?”
“Marine,” Zain corrected easily.
They moved on, but they were far from the only ones who stopped or called over as they passed. Most ignored Seb, who looked as though he was trying to do the same to them. He stared farther down the street with each interaction. Several times, I saw Zain quickly scan his face, or pull him closer to sway with the music, either saying something or singing into his fiancé’s ear. A flash of a smile would cross Seb’s lips then, and his shoulders would relax a little.
Awhile later a drag queen, wearing an outfit that was more rainbow-colored feathers and sequins than fabric, dashed over in a click-clack of heels and said, “I am living for your hat! Can I put it on real quick?”
Zain hesitated. “Do you have glitter in your hair?”
“I’m a tacky bitch,” she said, sticking out her hip with her hand on it, “but I’m not that tacky.”
Laughing, Zain said, “Okay,” and passed over the cap.
She donned it with a look of glee. “Yaaaaasss, sweetheart, you just made my year. Ooh, and who’s this cutie?”
Seb’s eyes widened at realizing she meant him. Pressing backwards into Zain’s chest, he said, “Um.”
She gasped. “Lucky boy!”
“Yeah, I am,” said Zain, before dropping a kiss on Seb’s cheek.
The drag queen pressed a hand to her chest and seemed too overcome to speak for a moment. Then she said, “You two are just darling. Will you let me take a picture of you?”
“Uh,” Seb said.
Zain came to his rescue for the second time, saying, “How about I take one with you, while you wear the cover?”
“Oh, I like that idea!” she said. To Seb, she added, “Watch out, honey, men have been known to follow me home if they get too close. Okay, where did I put my phone?”
Theo, who had been hanging over the barrier next to me watching all of this with great amusement, cracked up when she pulled it from a highly unlikely location and waved it in my direction.
“You, tall sir, would you please take our picture?”
Knowing the phone had been touching padding rather than skin, I accepted it.
“Thank you, you’re a doll,” she said. “Now wait just a second, let me pose on my good side. Sailor boy, you stand here.”
There was some jostling of the crowd as they situated themselves. Zain let go of Seb and turned to face me, while the drag queen put one foot on the lower rail of the barrier and clutched his bicep. I took several photos of them, showing each one to her until she was satisfied. With one last squeeze of his arm and profuse thanks to each of us, she gave the hat back and strode off.
Zain put it on his head, adjusted the angle, grinned, and said, “Well, that was an experience. Babe, what did you…?”
He trailed off. Where Seb had been standing, a woman was drinking from a red plastic cup, paying no attention to us. Seb wasn’t there.
“Babe?” Zain asked, in a very different tone. He spun and stood on tiptoe, swaying this way and that to look through the crowd. “Quint, can you see him?”
I did a scan of our surroundings. No one jumped out. When I slowly shook my head, Zain’s brow creased with worry.
“Okay,” he said, “I’ll go this way. You look in the other direction.” It was more an order than a request.
“I’ll look, too,” said Theo.
“No, angel,” I said, calmly, because I could see his anxiety. “I want you to wait exactly where you are, in case he comes back.” Much as I hated to leave him alone, finding the Brat that was missing was more important than staying with the one accounted for.
The fretful expression remained, but he didn’t argue. “Yes, sir.”
Zain had already gone, cutting through the crowd with his body sideways and his head constantly swiveling and searching. I soon lost sight of him. Turning the other way, I said, “Pardon me, please.” The group blocking me split down the middle, clearing a path to where free movement was easier. Still, I couldn’t glimpse Seb’s dark head or lean figure anywhere.
Where did you go, mon chaton?
I pushed through the throng as best as I could, keeping my eyes peeled for Seb. He couldn’t have gone far in this. Then again, he’s very practiced in disappearing when he wants to. My small rucksack knocked into someone’s shoulder, and I barely paused to give them an apologetic glance. Sorry, my Brat is missing and likely in the middle of a meltdown.
I had felt him getting agitated by all the people and the attention I kept attracting. I didn’t think it was this bad, though. Hiding bad. I should’ve kept a better watch on him, not let myself be distracted by that drag queen.
Of course, I was looking up as I went, too, but the trees that lined this street were all either spindly little saplings or else they didn’t have branches until well over ten feet off the ground. Not to mention, someone climbing a tree would have to cause a commotion that I saw no sign of. I couldn’t imagine him scaling the front of a building, either, and none of them had visible fire escapes for him to use. No, I thought it was probably best to follow my initial hunch and head in the direction he’d been staring earlier.
When I reached the corner of the intersection, I finally had a better idea of where to look. A small park sat right on the other side of the street. People standing on the sidewalk blocked most of the view through its wrought iron fence, but the bushy green tops of trees stood tall over the spiked posts. That had to be where he’d retreated.
The congestion had cleared enough for me to stride across to it. The crowd, seeing me coming, parted quickly, and I wondered if I bore a certain resemblance to Seb in a Murder Walk. Anger was the very last emotion I could have shown, but I definitely had a determined single-mindedness coursing through my body. It drove me straight into the middle of the park before I saw a huddled figure on the far side of the nearest tree.
Huddled on the roots, not up in its branches. That was even more concerning. Sirens went off in my head, to go with the alarm bells that had been ringing since I realized he no longer stood behind me. He was balled up so tightly, and his head bowed so low—almost between his knees—that his shoulder blades pressed taut to his shirt, like wings. They fluttered with his breathing, too, again like wings. He was gasping hard for air.
I purposefully made noise as I walked over, to keep from startling him, but he didn’t budge an inch to see who was approaching. Crouching next to his side, I gently asked, “Habibi?”
Between wheezes, he replied, “Be… alright… in a- a minute.”
Shortness of breath isn’t one of his symptoms for wonky blood sugar, high or low, although I could see the edge of his test kit crushed between his leg and lower abdomen, so he must’ve felt the need to check anyway. I didn’t blame him. Hypoglycemia would at least be easily treated.
“It’s been awhile since we’ve seen our old friend Mr. Panic Attack, huh?” I asked, shifting to sit fully, with my legs crossed. “Guess he missed you. Is it alright if I touch your back?”
His head wobbled a bit.
I decided that was a nod and started rubbing slowly up and down his spine. “Okay, I want you to breathe out while my hand’s going down, and breathe in while it’s going up. Just focus on my hand, Seb. I’m right here. This is going to pass. That’s right, keep breathing out.”
I made the down strokes longer than the up, to counteract his hyperventilation. Combined with having my touch, something solid and familiar to ground himself to, I hoped it would help the terror subside. I kept up the steady murmur for the same reason. With my other hand, I took out my phone and sent a text to Quint and Theo. Call off the search. Found him in the park at the end of the block.
The first time I saw him in the middle of an attack, I’d nearly panicked myself. He could hardly speak, but he managed to ask me to get his mom. Mauve was the one who explained it wasn’t a life-threatening diabetes thing. That calmed me down a lot. I think I’ve gotten better at handling them since then. Luckily, I’ve only had a few other times to practice. It’s still agonizing to watch. Knowing it’s ten times harder for him, I always want to pull him close, safe in my arms, but any kind of constriction makes it worse. I can do nothing except sit next to him, my palm my sole point of contact, and be as reassuring as possible.
His breathing wasn’t nearly so ragged a few minutes later. He’d even lifted his head a fraction, and I was considering jokes to distract him more, when I heard Theo ask, “What’s going on?!”
Seb jerked away from the sound. I had to lean to keep my hand on him, while my head twisted in the opposite direction to see the older Brat rushing up the park pathway.
“Shhhh,” I said, to both of them. “Seb’s fine.”
Coming to a halt, Theo stared down at us. More at Seb than at me. “He doesn’t look fine.”
“It’s a panic attack,” I said. “Extremely scary, but not physically dangerous, and it’ll be over soon. Where’s Quint?”
“On his way, I’m assuming,” he said, impatient and worried. “Are you sure? Maybe I should call 911.”
Seb flinched again and hid his face so his voice came out muffled as he exclaimed, “No!”
“Shhhhhhhhh, no one’s calling 911, habibi, you’re okay,” I said, before looking up at a startled Theo. “Squirt, sit down.” I patted the ground on my other side, positioning myself between the two of them. He obeyed without question and peered across me cautiously. “He’s not in danger,” I repeated. “Just heffalumps and woozles. Also, didn’t I hear Quint tell you to stay put as I was walking away?”
That worked to distract him from Seb. His guilty expression confirmed he hadn’t been in contact with his Top at all. The poor man was probably trying to find him now.
“Speaking of being a very wary bear,” I said, taking out my phone once more.
Quint’s voice was almost frazzled when he answered, which was quite something to hear. “Is Seb alright? I can’t find Theo now.”
“He’s with me too,” I said, and heard a sigh that sounded mostly relieved, with perhaps an edge of exasperation.
“Tell him– no, never mind, I’ll talk to him myself. Seb?”
“Having a panic attack,” I explained. “I’d bring them back, but crowds won’t be good for him.”
“Was that what set it off? You wrote that being overstimulated could trigger them.”
“Probably,” I said, and then because I could predict he was about to start blaming himself for taking Seb to the parade in the first place, “though I’m guessing that’s not all.”
“Alright.” He paused a moment, and the background noise got louder. Over it, he said, “The park at the end of the block? That’s very close to Zeggy and Ike’s townhouse. They’re on vacation in Chicago, so it’s empty. Theo has a key. Perhaps it would make a better spot for Seb to recover.”
I thought so, too, though I wasn’t sure Seb would want to move. Turning to him, still curled in a ball beside me, I explained what Quint had suggested. “What do you think, babe? Wanna go?”
Softly, he replied, “Yeah.”
“Okay,” I said, into the phone. “We’ll start heading there, if you want to meet us.”
“It’ll take me a few minutes to get through all this, but I’ll be right behind you.”
Theo was already standing as Quint spoke. “It’s this way,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder.
I told Quint goodbye before letting my fingers brush over the nape of Seb’s neck. “Ready, babe?”
He nodded and got to his feet quicker than I expected. Probably he was eager to get inside, out of sight of all the passersby. His breathing was almost normal now, yet he still had the distant, terrified expression. I let him set our walking pace and stayed beside him with my hand on his lower back. He went fast, with his head bowed so he was watching his feet. Poor Theo had to hustle to keep up.
The area had been unfamiliar before, but as soon as we left the park I realized we were really less than a block away from the townhouse. Luckily, it sat the next street over from the parade route, making the sidewalks significantly more empty. We were at the front door only a couple of minutes later. Theo unlocked it, and Seb practically dived into the house behind him and stood by the coatrack with both arms wrapped around himself, shivering a little.
“C’mon, babe, get your shoes off and lay down on the couch,” I said. “Squirt, can you get us drinks of water, please?”
The older Brat finished punching in the alarm code before he went into the kitchen, looking glad to have something to do. I got Seb situated on the couch and sat myself down on the armrest by his head so I could stroke his hair. He closed his eyes and leaned into it. After a few seconds, he whispered, “Can you sing something, please?”
I smiled. “Of course, habibi. Any special requests?”
“Something Disney,” he said, even quieter.
Theo was coming back with two glasses. As he set one down next to me, I muttered a question into his ear. He grinned, put the other glass on the coffee table, and went to take his position at the upright piano next to the bay window. Seb’s eyes opened in surprise at the first note. Then he recognized the song. I saw his lips curl very, very faintly.
“I’m gonna be a mighty king, so enemies beware,” I sang.
“Well I’ve never seen a king of beasts with quite so little hair,” Theo came in, doing a Zazu voice.
“I’m gonna be the main event, like no king was before. I’m brushin’ up on lookin’ down, I’m workin’ on my ROAR.” On the last word, I leaned into Seb’s face, baring my teeth and snapping at his nose. It crinkled with his weak giggle as he pushed me away.
“Thus far a rather uninspiring thing,” said Theo, smiling over his shoulder.
“Oh, I just can’t wait to be kiiiiing!”
Theo joined me for the chorus’ parts at the end, too, so we were repeating that line, loudly and with gusto, when the front door opened to let Quint in. He paused on the threshold, blinking.
The last chord died away as Theo met his husband’s gaze and quailed a little.
Not that Quint was at all angry, that I could see. Stepping fully inside and looking over the back of the couch, he asked, “Are you feeling better, mon chaton?”
“Good. Theo, come with me a moment, please.”
The other Brat closed the piano and stood, while my own started to push himself up off the cushions, saying, “He was just worried about me!”
Quint’s face softened. “So was I.” He bent and pressed a kiss to the top of Seb’s head. “Then I was worried about both of you when I couldn’t find him.”
I suggested, “Maybe we should all talk about it together.” Otherwise the second the other two stepped out of sight, Seb was going to start fretting over it more.
Hesitating, Quint looked to Theo, who gave a half-shrug and nodded.
“Very well,” Quint said, straightening as Theo sat on the piano bench again, facing the other way. “Theodore, did I not instruct you to stay where you were while Zain and I looked for Seb?”
With his ears slowly turning pink, Theo answered, “Yes, sir. But– Zain texted that he’d found him!”
“Does that change anything?” asked Quint.
His husband squirmed on the bench. “I should’ve told you I was going to meet them.”
“No,” Quint said, firmly. “You should have stayed where you were and waited, not caused yourself to be separated from me for an even longer period of time, whether I knew about it or not. You were aware, after the rules the three of us went over this morning, that my expectation was for you to err on the side of caution. When I came back and saw you were missing, I felt rather panicked myself.”
Theo stared down at his knees and sniffled. “I’m really sorry.”
On a sigh, Quint said, “I know.” He finally came around the couch and sat down in an armchair, offering a hand to Theo, who took it and let himself be pulled over to squish against his side. Holding him, Quint transferred his attention to Seb.
My Brat had reacted to the short lecture like he was partly its target. I watched carefully, though, and saw no signs of any returning fear. He simply looked contrite and embarrassed.
Despite that, Quint’s expression lost all sternness, and he spoke much more gently. “Though nothing I felt, of course, was the level of an actual panic attack. I’ve never had one of those, and I very much wish we could trade places in that regard, mon chaton. Zain told me about yours months ago, so I know this wasn’t your first.”
“It wasn’t?” Theo asked, forehead creasing.
Seb shook his head, but didn’t speak. After a moment, I answered for him. “He used to have them more when he was younger. The first one was in the hospital after he was diagnosed, but the first I ever saw him have, we were… I think it was between our birthdays, so we’d’ve both been fifteen.
“His sister Keegan invited her future wife for dinner, to meet the family, and she was very wound up about it all day long, which rubbed off on Seb. Still, it was going well until someone suggested we play charades after dinner.”
“It wasn’t the charades,” Seb muttered. “It was… I didn’t know Jaz then.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Coming around on his turn, I suddenly realized he’d vanished. So I went looking—up—and found him in the attic, mid-attack. Thought it was a low blood sugar at first. Scared the crap out of me. They aren’t dangerous, though, they just majorly suck, huh, babe?”
“They aren’t nearly as common for him as blood sugar episodes, either,” I went on. “Which is a blessing, of course, but also makes them that much harder to map out and predict. Usually some sort of social situation is the final trigger, on top of some other stress. Today, for example, I’m thinking it was all the people, plus us not being in contact for awhile, plus trying to arrange things for the move after next semester. Sound about right?”
Another nod. “It’s stupid. None of those things are that scary.”
Snorting, I remarked to Theo, “Well, there’s an ego-killer for me. Never mind you not moping around, he doesn’t even care if we don’t talk or get to see each other more next year.”
Seb huffed. “That’s not what I meant!”
“No, no,” I said, sticking out my lower lip. “I see how it is.”
He smacked my arm. Theo, though, only gave a wan, half-hearted smile, and Quint, seeing it, said, “I’m glad you’re feeling better, mon chaton. Since you are, would the two of you mind staying here for awhile longer? Theo and I need to further discuss broken rules at home.”
“Sure,” I said, while both Brats blushed. “Uh, out of curiosity, what were these rules from this morning?”
Seb answered first, with a guilty glance at the other Top, who, still looking at his husband, missed it. “To stay in sight of Quint at all times.”
I’d suspected something like that.
“Plus don’t take handouts from strangers,” Theo added. “Report suspicious behavior, and don’t engage with bigots. I followed all of those.”
Quint raised an eyebrow at him.
“I know. Can we…?” Theo got to his feet and started for the door, clearly wanting to leave as soon as possible.
The other Top followed. He handed me his keyring as he passed and said, “I’ll let you know when we’re finished. Use the silver key to lock up, and please engage the alarm when you leave as well.”
After the door closed behind them, I gave Seb the glass of water next to me and leaned forward to grab the remote off the coffee table. “Drink that. Do you know how this thing works? Is it universal? Oh, yeah, it must be this button.”
He frowned as I turned on the TV. “…Zain?”
“Glug glug,” I said, miming drinking out of the remote. He stared a moment more, then made a face and brought the glass to his mouth.
On the way to shut Jagger into Seb’s bedroom, I paused to collect the paddle from the sideboard. Theo, who had been quiet the whole walk home, stopped next to the kitchen peninsula. “Quiiiiiiinnnnnnnt.”
I didn’t look back until I had taken care of the dog. Then I gestured for him to follow as I went to the couch. When I took my place on the middle cushion, though, he was still on the other side of the dining table, dragging his feet very slowly closer. My eyebrows quirked up. “We do not have all day, young man.”
“You don’t need to use that damn thing,” he replied, eyeing the paddle on my knee with loathing.
“I gave you an order for your safety, and you deliberately disobeyed me,” I said. As far as I was concerned, the paddle was the only option here.
He scuffed a socked toe against the floorboards and muttered, “And what’s worse, I put Nala in danger.”
“Pardon me?” I asked, mild.
Leaning forward, I set the paddle on the coffee table and held out my hand to him. “Come here, please, Theodore. There is no point in dragging this out.”
“Says the man not about to get spanked with that damn thing,” he grumbled, but he did walk over at a reasonable speed, so I allowed the commentary to pass.
Once he stood on my right side, I undid and lowered his jeans, followed by his boxers, and pulled him over my lap. He shifted a bit before settling. I reached across him to collect the implement again. “Why are you getting paddled today?” I asked, resting it on his cheeks, which clenched, and looking down towards his head.
“I didn’t stay where you told me to, sir.”
“And why did I tell you to stay there?”
He turned his face to the couch. A glimmer of moisture was visible in his hazel eyes. “In case Seb came back… and so you’d know where I was and wouldn’t have to worry about both of us.”
“Exactly.” Not wanting to drag it out more myself, I began to spank. “Returning to find you gone was the last thing I needed,” I said calmly, over his muffled yelps. “If you hadn’t found Zain, I would have been forced to let him know you were missing, which was also the last thing he or Seb needed today. Quite apart from any of that, when I give you an order, I expect obedience. Not only when it suits you, but always. That is a foundation we have both agreed to uphold.”
By this time, I heard sobs and knew he was unlikely to be able to listen, so I left off the lecture for several more swats before pausing. Tension knotted his muscles under my left hand. Rubbing the lump, I asked, “Is all of that clear, young man?”
“Y-yes sssirr,” he said, in a voice that wrenched my heart. “I’m ss-s-sorry!”
“I know,” I murmured. “Almost done.” I braced myself and delivered the last four rapidly as I could, wanting this over just as much as he did, I was sure. His wail of pain was answered by a mournful howl from Jagger. Dropping the paddle, I began to comfort. “Alright, we’re finished, angel. Everything’s forgiven, shhhhh.”
He got shakily to his knees and hung himself around my neck with both arms, still crying, while I continued to soothe him. The dog quieted in the next room. Apart from Theo’s weeping and my voice, there was no noise, a stark difference from the colorful pandemonium we’d been surrounded by all morning. I felt as if he were the only other being in the world, and at that moment, he was the only one who mattered.
Some time after, he let out a long, soft breath and said, “You can text Zain now.”
“Are you sure, angel?” I asked against his temple.
“Yeah,” he said, wiping tears off his cheek. “It’ll take them a few minutes to walk back, anyway, and I want to see how Seb’s doing.”
Seb grew first calmer, as the last of the attack died off, and then more uneasy the longer we sat on Zeggy and Ike’s couch. Uneasy in a way that was hard to see. He started when my phone buzzed, but if he hadn’t been pressed up to my side, I wouldn’t have been able to tell.
“Must be the all-clear,” I said. It was. “They’re done. C’mon, we should wash these glasses before we go.” I grabbed them both and headed for the kitchen. No footsteps followed until a few seconds later, when I was squirting soap onto a sponge.
“Z, aren’t you…?”
I glanced over my shoulder. He was only halfway through the door, frowning uncertainly and fiddling with the flap of his bag.
“‘Aren’t I?’” I repeated, like I didn’t know what he meant.
He huffed. “It doesn’t make sense to go back to the apartment and then…” Again, he trailed off, and this time I could see the flush creeping across his freckles. “You know what I mean,” he growled out. “Nothing about an oncoming panic attack stops me from telling you or Quint that something’s wrong, and it didn’t even really start until I was well out of sight.”
“Riiiight,” I said, drawing the word out while I rinsed off the glasses. “And who told you to stay in sight?” Looking back again, I met his eyes. “I don’t remember saying that.”
Understanding and horror came over his face simultaneously.
Cheerfully, I said. “There ya go. I think these can air-dry.” I put them in the dishwasher, which was empty otherwise, and wiped my hands on a towel hanging from a cupboard door. “Ready to leave?”
“But. But you’re here,” he said, not moving as I came towards him. “We don’t… need to involve them!”
“No, not both of them,” I agreed, stopping in front of him with my chin tilted, “just the one you disobeyed. That one, you need to talk to, and yeah, I do mean you, not me. I’ll stay with you for moral support as long as I can, though at some point I’m probably gonna have to take Theo elsewhere.”
My meaning came through loud and clear. His expression pleaded for leniency—which, ironically in this case would mean getting the spanking over with here and now.
I shook my head. “Sorry, brat. I’m not enabling conflict avoidance or covering up for you, today or any day.” Spinning him by the shoulder, I gave a quick swat that made him jump again. “Move your butt.”
He went ahead of me like a man marching to the gallows.
Jagger lifted his head from Theo’s knee, cocked an ear, and jumped down. Theo was right after him, grabbing my hand to drag me along to the front door as well. I smiled at his eagerness as I allowed myself to be led. “I’m sure he’s fine, angel.” Seb had looked well on the way back to normal when we’d left them.
Yet the door opened on a small commotion. It appeared Seb was trying to step behind Zain as Zain pushed him forward. The Brat froze altogether when he saw us. Zain, rolling his eyes, propelled him over the threshold with a mild swat and came in after. He smiled at Theo and I as he hung his uniform hat on one of the hooks, but said nothing by way of greeting.
“Uh…are you feeling better?” asked Theo, frowning down at Seb, who now was crouched and taking far too long to untie his shoes.
“Oui, merci,” he mumbled. Then he put the shoes to one side, straightened, and looked up from under his eyelashes past Theo, to me. “Monsieur, je dois parl-”
“Anglais,” Zain cut him off with amusement.
Seb made a face at the floor. Tugging on the hem of his t-shirt, he met my gaze again. “Quint,” he said, carefully, “I need to talk to you.”
“What about, mon chaton?” I asked, and my tone gave away my perplexment. I couldn’t imagine what might have happened between Zeggy’s and here to make him look so guilty.
“I… um, I broke the rules, too. I didn’t stay with you.”
Half a smile returned to my lips. Shaking my head, I replied, “You were having a panic attack.”
He shot Zain an imploring look, but the young Top simply pinched his thumb and forefinger together and drew them across his mouth as if he were zipping it closed. Seb turned back to me and hung his head even lower. “Not– When I left, it was just the start of it. I could’ve told you or Zain, but I chose not to.” His voice broke. He cleared his throat before adding, “Whatever punishment Theo got, I deserve it too.”
There was a moment of silence. I saw Zain’s expression fill with pride as he looked at his fiancé. The sort of pride I feel when Theo confesses a wrongdoing.
“Wait,” said Theo, scowling towards Zain. “You agree with this? I saw him! He wasn’t, y’know, exactly in his right mind there.”
I held up my hand before the discussion turned nasty. “Theo, Seb, please go wait in the master bedroom. I’d like to speak with Zain alone.”
The younger Brat’s entire body was slowly crumpling inward, his shoulders hunching under the weight of conflict. At my words, he glanced to his Top, uncertain. Faint impatience flashed out of Zain’s eyes in my direction, but he nodded and said, “Go, habibi.”
Seb went. Theo, though, still had hold of my hand, and I knew he was reluctant to leave for more than one reason. I kissed his cheek. “It won’t take long, angel. You’ll have Seb for company.”
His expressive look told me that was no substitute, much as he loved Seb. I decided to walk him down the hallway, both to make the separation easier and to give myself a few seconds more to think. At the door, which was cracked open so we could see Seb standing by the foot of the bed, I squeezed Theo’s fingers a last time before extracting my own from their grip. “Go on.”
Sighing, he went through to join the other Brat. I shut the door firmly behind them.
Zain, meanwhile, had taken a casual, slouched position on the nearest bar stool, which spun around to face me as I stepped into the living area. He hooked his toes behind one of the legs and used it to rotate himself back and forth a few inches. “Yeeees?”
I walked closer so I could lower my voice. “Are you certain–?”
My eyebrow rose without thought. “Allow me to finish, please.”
Surprise replaced the amused look for just a split second. Halting the rotation, he said, “Sorry,” and nodded for me to proceed.
A sigh escaped. Creating tension between us would do nothing to help. With an apologetic look of my own, I asked, “Are you certain this won’t further exacerbate his mental state?”
“Put it this way,” he said, the corner of his lips quirking. “You doing nothing will further exacerbate his mental state. Treating him like he’s fragile will stress him out spectacularly, I promise you.”
I did understand that part of Seb’s psychology. In normal circumstances. However, today had been so far from normal, and Seb still looked so vulnerable… “You’ve done this before, then?”
“Punished him so soon after a panic attack? Nope, don’t think I have. Not that I can remember, anyway.”
“Then how can you be sure?”
“Look, I wish I could tell you there’s rules to it,” he said, spreading his hands, palms-up, with another hint of a smile. “I know you like rules. But it’s about what Seb needs. Right now, he needs to feel like he’s on an even keel with you again, not like he got away with something Theo was punished for. And he did break the same rule. He should’ve told us what was happening, not gone off on his own. He was able to communicate at that point. Quint, trust me.”
“I do trust you,” I said, remembering the truth in that statement as I spoke. I felt I’d grown to know Seb much better, but was not the expert in him by far. Zain was. Most of my misgivings died away then. The remaining ones emerged from an entirely different—and shamefully more selfish—place. “Wouldn’t… wouldn’t it be easier on him if you did it?”
Zain laughed. “Oh, yeah, he’d love for me to. He was trying to convince me to do it at the townhouse. Which is why it has to be you. You’re the one he needs to make amends with, even though he doesn’t quite want to face that—too much potential for conflict.”
His reasoning was sound. I sighed once more, longer. It appeared I did need to dole out another spanking today. “Alright.”
“Sorry,” he said, sympathetic. “I know it sucks, especially when you’ve just recently seen him in full-on please-protect-me Maggie Carpenter mode. Your hand won’t break him. I promise.”
That sparked another thought. “I used the paddle on Theo.”
“Okay.” His head bobbed. “Could be better, actually, than your hand. Gets it over with quicker.”
I lifted my eyebrow again, deliberately this time. “I have never tested it on you.”
“Oh,” he said. I could tell he’d been so focused on Seb’s needs, that hadn’t occurred to him. “Right. I forgot.”
“So would you still like me to do this?”
Smirking, he said, “You’re not getting out of it that easy.” Then he slid off the stool and pivoted to face the counter. I watched him bend forward, rest on his elbows, and wriggle his uniform-covered rear end. “Do your worst.”
“Watch it or I may,” I said, going to retrieve the paddle once more. “Two clothed, two bare?” That had been the procedure with my hand.
I stood close to his side, as I would’ve been with him over my lap, and lined up my aim to the lower portion of his right buttock. “First two here.”
With the same amount of force I’d used for Theo’s final swats, I landed them in quick succession. The sound was more muffled over the cloth, but it must not have offered a great deal of protection, because he grunted. “Alright?” I asked.
“Yep,” he answered. “Just a sec.”
I waited, and after a few moments he undid his pants and pushed them down while still bent over. His hands went to the waistband of his underwear with only the slightest hesitation before they, too, joined the pants around his knees. Then he leaned forward once more. I delivered the second two in an identical manner against the other cheek. This time, I heard a soft word in what was probably Arabic. Putting my free hand on his shoulder, I said, “All done.”
He grinned back at me as he dressed himself. “It’s just been awhile since I tested something heavy like that, and it’s worse, somehow, when it’s another person doing it. I’m good, though. The paddle is approved.”
“Good,” I said, and then gave into my urge to hug him. He chuckled against my chest and returned it.
I snuck a quick rub to get the worst of the sting out of my butt as I walked down the hallway. That man wielded a formidable paddle. If I didn’t know for a fact that the hairbrush was worse, I would’ve felt guilty turning my Brat over to his tender mercies. Anyway, Quint probably would be more tender with him. Seb isn’t the cheeky bastard I am, for one.
I rapped on the bedroom door, opened it, and stuck my head through. “He’s all ready for you now, babe.”
Unfolding his legs from a half-lotus, Seb slipped off the bed and trudged over. I caught him by the back of the neck so I could smack a kiss on his ear.
“Buck up, I love you.”
He leaned into me fractionally. “Je t’aime.” Then he sighed and went out. Quint was waiting for him at the end of the hall. Meeting the other Top’s gaze, I nodded before stepping into the bedroom and shutting the door.
Theo was lying on his stomach, feet towards the headboard, absentmindedly petting Jagger sprawled in front of him. Half his face was hidden in the dog’s fur, but his eyes regarded me over it. They looked serious and thoughtful. “We heard the swats.”
“Damn,” I said. “I was hoping you wouldn’t be able to from back here.”
His eyebrows came together. “Why? Seb said it was just another test—of the paddle, probably, ‘cause I told him that’s what I got—and he said you’ve done those in front of him before.”
I crossed to the bed so I could pet the dog, too. Sitting next to them, I said, “Yeah, I don’t care that you heard me, but I wish I wouldn’t have to hear Seb. The one time I watched them on Skype was hard.”
He turned his head to see me more clearly. “You must really think this is important.”
“It’s what Seb needs,” I explained, shrugging. “He’ll feel better after. Don’t you?”
“Yeah. Well. Right now I’m kinda wishing I could be near Quint, actually,” he said, looking back to the door.
“I’m sorry.” It sucked that circumstances meant he couldn’t, and said a lot about how much he cared for Seb that he didn’t seem angry, just wistful. “Hey, I know I’m not Quint, but I’m gonna want to be nearer to someone, too, in a few seconds. Would you mind…?”
With gladness, he got to his knees and moved closer. I held him as the sound of spanking began.
Seb slunk down the hallway and stopped a few feet in front of me. “I really could’ve told Zain I was about to have an attack,” he mumbled at the floor. “Sincèrement.”
“I know,” I said, trying to sound appropriately stern rather than affectionate. “You don’t need to convince me, mon chaton. I believe that you misbehaved now.”
He flushed dark red, which did not help foster my sternness. Giving up on it momentarily, I ushered him to the couch with my arm around his shoulders and sat down, once again, in the middle, with a small sigh.
His fingers were already working to unbutton his fly. I caught them in my own, but rather than letting go, he tightened his hold. I raised an eyebrow. “No, I’ve told you before, I am in charge here. I will take care of that, not you.”
Green irises met mine for the first time since he’d come out of the bedroom. After one last clench, his grip relaxed, and he allowed his arms to fall to his sides.
“Thank you.” I kept my hand at his waistband, lightly, and said, “I’d like to hear why you chose not to alert either of us, please.” While I already had a fairly good idea of the reason, I felt it would be beneficial for him to say it.
He simply gnawed his lower lip.
“Alright,” I said, picking up where he’d left off on the buttons. “Keep thinking that through. I’ll ask you again after.”
I moved quickly, now, to get him over my knee and locked in place with my other leg. Zain had wanted him there much earlier, I knew. My own hesitation meant this would be more difficult for both of us.
“Give me your hands, please.”
Seb obeyed, wiggled, and settled as I took hold of his wrists. Then I paused again, but with a specific purpose this time. Zain’s use of the word punished hadn’t been lost on me. Yet I also knew he typically would not use an implement to deliver that type of spanking. I wanted for there to be no confusion on Seb’s part.
Steeling myself for a similar reaction as the first and only other time I truly punished him, I said, “I’m disappointed in the choices you made today, Sébastien. Your actions caused a great deal of unnecessary distress, both for yourself and for the rest of us. I punished Theo with the paddle for much the same reason, so that is what I will be using on you.”
The only answer was a loud sniffle that wrenched my heart. I decided my point had been made. For the third time that day, I brought the smooth wood of the implement down on a bare, unmarked bottom.
Seb burst into noisy tears. I felt as if I were striking myself twice as hard as him with every swat. With a thought of sympathy spared for Zain, who no doubt could hear this from the bedroom, I forced myself to finish off a half-dozen in total, delivered steadily and with medium force to his sit-spots. It was far less than Theo had gotten, but that wasn’t the point.
“Okay,” I said, slipping the paddle back between the cushions. “The punishment is over.”
The spanking, unfortunately, wasn’t. He still felt stiff as a board from neck to calves, and hadn’t struggled at all. Something was being held back. I continued with my hand, swatting at a rapid pace right over the two pink-red ovals I had created on his skin. They soon deepened to full scarlet. Seb first jerked, then tried to pull his arms free, and then began kicking as he continued to sob. I held him as tightly as possible without causing injury.
Moving down a few inches, I gave him the final four, harder than the rest. He kept fighting for several seconds after. I allowed him to. When he stopped, it was with a massive, exhausted exhale that left him both limp and quiet but for a few sniffles, as if all his tears had been used up.
“Are you ready to answer my question, mon chaton?” I asked, stroking his back. He sighed softly and nodded. I said, “Good,” and heard Zain’s voice from the bedroom behind me, sounding plaintive.
“Does that mean we can come out now?”
Seb nodded again, harder.
“Yes,” I replied. “Bring a washcloth, please.”
“Already got it,” the young Top said, closer by the second. I barely had time to help Seb onto his feet before his fiancé was there, gently wiping his face clean with one of the cloths from the ensuite bathroom. Seb tried to tug his pants up as he did. With just a glance downward, Zain stopped him. Then he did it himself, saying, “Sorry,” in my direction. “I know this should be your job right now–”
I shook my head. “As if I mind.” Much as I wanted to comfort Seb, too, I knew how strong the drive was to take care of your Brat in distress. Speaking of which, Theo hadn’t come out. Looking over my shoulder, I saw his auburn hair poking around the doorframe.
“C’mon, squirt, our long imprisonment is over,” Zain called.
I reached my hand out to my husband with a smile, and he rushed down the hallway to take it, with Jagger at his heels. Once I had hold of him, he came around the couch and dropped into my lap, curling up there with a glad sigh. I kissed his temple.
Next to me, Zain sat and dragged Seb down onto his own thighs with an arm around his waist. The other Brat looked much more reluctant to stay there. Zain tolerated his squirming for a couple of seconds and then rolled him to one side for a swat. Seb yelped, but went still, while Theo winced and commented, “Jeez, you’re strict.”
Zain shrugged. “He knows what to expect. Right, brat?”
“Mm,” said Seb, flushing hard.
His Top snuggled him closer before asking, “What was the question Quint wanted answered? We didn’t hear that part.”
“Wanted to know why I didn’t say anything,” Seb mumbled.
“Oh, good,” Zain said, nodding to me with approval. “Okay, nice and clear, babe. In English.”
The three of us looked at him expectantly, and Seb squirmed again, his long eyelashes fluttering as he blinked away tears. Then he burst out, “I thought if I could just get some fresh air, it would pass,” with a surprising vehemence.
Zain rolled his eyes. “Uh-huh. Try again.”
“That’s the truth!” Seb insisted.
“It’s layer one of the truth,” said Zain. “We want what’s under that, my delicious little onion.” He slid his hand beneath Seb’s shirt, exposing a strip of skin as he said, “Peeeel it back.”
Elbowing him, Seb tugged the shirt down. Zain allowed that, though his fingers remained on his fiancé’s stomach. I doubted their proximity to the waistband of his pants was accidental. Seb went impossibly redder and swallowed heavily.
There were two seconds of silence. I thought Zain was about to take more drastic measures when Theo piped in with a frown. “I don’t get it. Even if you figured it would pass, why would you want to go through that alone? I think if a panic attack ever happened to me, Quint would be the only person who could make me feel better.”
“I can handle it by myself,” Seb replied roughly, not looking at any of us.
“There is a difference, mon chaton, between ‘can’ and ‘should,’” I said. “I must also point out that whether you can go off alone or not is irrelevant when I asked you to stay with me.”
He picked at his fingernail. “I know, monsieur. Je suis désolé.”
“You’ve been forgiven,” I said, reaching over to still his fingers. “I simply wish to know why you disobeyed, so we can avoid a repeat of this in the future.”
“I– I didn’t want… You were all having fun. I was trying not to ruin it, and then I did anyway, even worse, and got Theo–”
“You say you got me in trouble,” my Brat cut in with a scowl, “I swear I’m gonna swat you again.”
I lifted my eyebrows. “Theodore.”
The other Top simply pulled Seb nearer and gave Theo a lazy smile. “While I do agree with the sentiment, squirt, you’ll be going through me if you want to get anywhere near my property, a.k.a., his ass.”
“ZAIN,” squeaked Seb, wiggling in his arms.
At the same time, Theo bit his lip and snorted. “Okay, fair enough.”
We were getting off track yet again. I cleared my throat pointedly, drawing cautious looks from the two Brats and a curious expression from Zain.
“Seb,” I began, “you are responsible for your actions, not Theo’s. In addition, you didn’t ruin anything. We see this march every year. It’s not as though we’ll never have another chance. It’s more important to me that you are having a good time, and you clearly weren’t.”
“And saying that you aren’t,” Zain added, more seriously than I’d seen him all day, “does not make you an inconvenience or a burden or any sort of trouble. None of us are upset with you. Right, guys?”
“‘Course not,” said Theo.
I made sure to have eye contact, which required tilting my head to see around Theo and catch Seb’s lowered gaze, before I said, “Not at all.” My sincerity must have shone through, because his shoulders relaxed more. Then I added, “The only thing that will upset me is not being able to help you because you’re hiding your emotions or hiding yourself entirely. I believe we’ve spoken before on the need to allow others to care about you.”
Seb nodded, while Zain said, “That one’s still working its way down through the layers. It’ll get to the core eventually, though.” Sneaking his hand under Seb’s shirt again, he began to tickle.
His fiancé giggled and doubled over, gasping, “Stop it!”
“I will,” said Zain, “if we can find another position for cuddles. One that doesn’t put quite so much weight on my butt. It’s sore.”
Theo’s jaw dropped. “You only got four swats!”
“Four hard swats,” Zain said, pouting dramatically. “Quint, tell them how mean you were.”
“Ha. Want to compare redness?” Theo asked, moving to stand.
I pulled him down and shook my head at the younger Top. “I would’ve thought a Marine could handle it. You weren’t even unclothed for two of them.”
“He’s secretly a big baby,” Seb said.
Rolling his eyes, Zain said, “There’s nothing secret about it.” He let go of Seb to spread his arms as wide as the couch would allow. “I proudly proclaim to one and all that my hiney hurts.”
Seb giggled again, while I said, “Well, I’m very sorry, but you did ask for it.”
“Yeah, I guess I did,” he agreed, before shifting his Brat off him and reaching for the remote. “Hey, would the parade be on TV? Maybe we can still see the rest of it.”
“It should be,” said Theo, shifting as well, but to get more comfortable in my lap. “Try New York One.”
Zain turned it on, and Seb moved easily to his side when he held a hand out, snuggling himself closer. I looked from them to Theo and smiled. Everyone safe and happy. What was Pride for if not that?