I expected the knock on my office door Friday afternoon to be a colleague bringing a few papers I had requested. My “come in,” however, was answered by Seb peeking around the frame.
“You’re early, mon chaton,” I said, with a smile to set him at ease. He usually went up to Inwood Hill Park for an hour after his weekly appointment with the psychologist across the street, and then came to meet me so we could return to the apartment together.
“I know, I’m sorry for interrupting.” Before I could tell him I didn’t mind, he continued, “It’s just, I, uh, have a project that I need to work on in a studio, so I was thinking I could do it tonight and come over tomorrow morning, instead? I already have a sandwich in my bag for my supper.”
Setting down the pen I’d been holding, I studied him closer. His gaze was flitting around my office as his fingers worked at the edge of the flap on his messenger bag.
“Come in and shut the door, please,” I said. He did, slowly. I nodded to the chair on the other side of my desk. “Have a seat.”
“Oh, I can stand.”
I raised an eyebrow, though I doubt he saw it, as he was now staring at the back of my computer monitor. Calmly, I said, “One.”
That did bring his attention to me, at least, yet his face rumpled with confusion. “One what?”
Of course. Zain was not the type to employ that particular technique. Fighting to keep the corners of my lips from turning up, I said, “I’m sorry, I should have explained. I’m going to count to three, by which time, I expect you to be in that chair. One.”
He stepped forward and dropped into it, nearly sitting on his bag in his hurry. A blush creeped over the freckles on his cheeks.
“Thank you,” I said. “Now, please tell me more about this project. Is there a reason you wouldn’t be able to do it tomorrow or Sunday?”
Again, he broke eye contact, this time to look at the angel teddy bear on my filing cabinets, which Theo had given me for Valentine’s Day several years ago. Had it been him sitting across from me instead of Seb, I would be certain that he was hiding something. I wasn’t yet as confident in my ability to read the younger Brat, though. Even now, after a month of spending his weekends with us, he often shyly avoided my gaze, and sometimes took several seconds to process a question and find the words to answer.
I waited longer than usual this time. Then, leaning forward with my hands clasped together on my desk pad, I said, “I don’t have an issue with you working tonight if you need to, though I would prefer you coming to the apartment afterward. I’m simply a bit concerned that you want to change our schedule on such short notice. Does Zain know about this?” In the email outlining Seb’s warning signs, he had mentioned cancelling plans specifically as something of which he should be informed.
At his Top’s name, Seb glanced to the door. Then he blew out a quiet breath before meeting my gaze. “You’re right, it is short notice,” he said. “It’s easier to get an empty studio on a Friday night, so I was a little worried about it, but I’m sure I can find one tomorrow. Sorry I came and bothered you for no reason.”
“You didn’t,” I reassured him. “I’m almost done. Why don’t you wait here while I finish up, and we’ll go home early today?”
Pulling a book from his bag, he began to read. The line of his shoulders appeared much more relaxed now.
I completed my work in a few minutes, then packed my laptop and papers into my briefcase and stood. Seb followed my example, and I gestured for him to go out the door ahead of me. It wasn’t until days later that I realized I hadn’t heard him turn a single page.
A woman with long, black hair was with Theo in the living room as Quint and I came in. I recognized her from photos around the apartment, and even if I hadn’t, Theo immediately bounded over to us, saying, “Seb, this is Zeggy! She’s finally back from vacation!”
She smiled as she came to greet me. “Hello, Seb. I’ve heard so much about you.”
I blushed, remembering that Theo had said she knew he was a Brat and would probably be able to guess with me. “Um, you too.”
“How was the trip?” Quint asked.
“Amazing,” she replied, “but I’ll tell you more tomorrow over lunch. The kids are dying to see their uncles and Jagger. Seb, you’re also invited, of course.”
I opened my mouth to protest. It sounded like a family thing, with a bunch of people I didn’t know, and another delay in working on my project. But Quint was already saying, “We’ll be there.”
As he spoke, Theo backtracked to the living room and returned with his iPad, which he held out for us to see. “Zeg was helping me with my new website. She can code and all that.”
Zeggy scoffed. “I know enough HTML and CSS to modify a premade template. I would hardly say that counts as coding. And it’s still missing something.”
The site looked fine to me. It had a photo of Theo with his guitar, an audio player, and a simple button to contact him. They both frowned at the screen, though, and Theo said, “Yeah, it is, isn’t it? Should I use another template?”
“No, I like the one you have,” said Zeggy. “I think it needs to convey the feeling of your music better. More… scruffy, maybe. Anyway, I gotta go. Good meeting you, Seb. Bye, Quint.” She patted Jagger’s head and left.
All through cooking dinner, Theo kept muttering “scruffy” to himself, with different tones and inflections, as if he’d never heard it before and was trying to figure out what it meant. He brought the iPad to the table when we sat down, opening the website again.
“Angel, put that away, please.”
Theo looked like he was going to argue, but then his eyes widened in excitement. “Wait, an angel! That’s it! I love you.” He leaned over to kiss his husband before getting up and setting the iPad on the counter.
“I love you, too, though I’m not sure what you mean,” said Quint. “That’s what?”
“What the website’s missing. A scruffy angel,” Theo explained, grinning, as he took his seat again. “Not exactly fallen, just forgot to polish his halo for a few eons. I think it would be a pretty good representation of me, don’t you?”
Quint smiled affectionately. “Yes, that sounds about right. How are you thinking of incorporating one? You could rent wings at a costume shop and wear them for a photoshoot.”
“Hmm… It could seem cliché and overdone really easily,” Theo said. “Maybe just a subtle feather or two? I have to think about it.”
“I’m sure you’ll come up with something unique,” said Quint, before turning to me. “Seb, how are you feeling tonight?”
“Fi–” I stopped, yet he raised an eyebrow at me. Merde. It had been weeks since that word last slipped out. I needed to get ahold of myself. Looking down at my plate, I said, “Um, I mean, a little tired, I guess.”
He was frowning when I met his eyes. “Why is that? Are you having trouble sleeping?”
“I woke up with a low blood sugar last night,” I said, which was true. A nightmare shook me out of it around five in the morning, and then I’d figured since I usually got up at six, anyway, I should just stay awake and try to do some homework. “I might go to bed early, if that’s okay with you?” Zain was travelling with his running team for a race tomorrow. There would be no Skype call.
Theo started laughing, and I looked over in surprise. “He was probably about to order you to go to bed early,” he said. “Are you sure you’re a Brat?”
Quint rarely interfered with him teasing me anymore, after I’d insisted I didn’t mind a few times. Still, he frowned harder at both Theo and I, like he was trying to figure something out, before saying, “I was going to suggest it, not order. And of course you can, mon chaton. We’ll keep the noise level down.”
So after we ate, I helped Quint clean the kitchen and then excused myself. Darkness had long since claimed the November sky, leaving the guest room nearly pitch black once I shut the door behind me. I crossed to the window and parted the curtains to let the street light chase it away. Then I lay on the bed. Even if I couldn’t fall asleep, I wanted solitude.
Something about Seb’s manner during dinner nagged at me. I was still trying to determine what it was long after he’d gone to bed. He hadn’t been overly quiet, his eye contact was much better than before, he seemed relaxed, and his plate was empty at the end of the meal. Several times, I saw him covering his mouth as he yawned, but that was consistent with what he’d told me: he was tired from a night time hypo. I knew, after a couple of days he’d had with very off-target blood glucose recently, how much it could take out of him. So why did I feel like I was missing something?
I checked on him before Theo and I turned in, and found him curled on his side under the comforter. Its bulk obscured the details of his form, and his face was cast in shadow. However, I recognized what his breathing sounded like in sleep from the incident with the marijuana cookie. Softly, I closed the door again.
A noise woke me around three o’clock in the morning — such a quiet noise that it likely wouldn’t have if I hadn’t already been on alert. I looked first to Theo, who lay, peacefully oblivious, a few inches from me. Then I slipped out of bed and across the room to peer into the hallway. Light shone from beneath Seb’s door. I could now clearly hear a scratching sound. It didn’t pause as I stepped out of the bedroom. “Seb?” I asked, pushing his door open.
He jolted so hard his bed frame thudded into the wall. I stood there a moment with my eyebrows raised. He was sitting against the headboard, his knees drawn up in front of him, a sketchbook resting on them. He’d dropped the pencil in his lap.
Coming in, I shut the door, and his wide eyes followed me as I crossed to sit on the edge of the mattress. I sighed, finding it very difficult to summon any sort of sternness. “Mon chaton, what are you doing up at this hour? Did you have another low?”
He shook his head and said nothing. I waited. After a few seconds, he whispered, “I’m sorry. I’ll go back to sleep.”
“First, you’ll answer my question,” I replied, still gently.
Flushing, he dropped his gaze to the sketchbook and said, “It was a dream.”
His fingers rifled the corners of the pages as he nodded.
“Look at me, please,” I said. He swallowed before obeying. Once I had his full attention, I asked, “Do you remember how I’ve told you if you’re having trouble sleeping, to come and get me?”
Quickly, he said, “I just needed to draw a little and clear my head. It wasn’t important enough to disturb you and Theo.”
Well. That solved the problem of sounding firm enough.
“I am not entirely certain where you got the impression that your wellbeing is unimportant to me, or that my instructions are to be followed only when you wish to, young man. I am certain we will be correcting those misconceptions, however.” Holding out a hand, I said, “Give me your sketchbook and pencil, please.”
He was now wearing the same face that had first made me think of him as a kitten — the one Zain called ‘Bambi eyes’ — only several orders of magnitude stronger. With an effort, I didn’t let it affect me. Once he’d passed the items over, I stood, dropped them on the desk, and pulled the chair next to the bed before sitting in it.
“Lie down on your stomach.”
Moisture made his irises glisten as he blinked a few times and reluctantly did as I’d asked, sliding under the comforter. I flipped it off of him to rest my palm between his shoulder blades. From the way his buttocks clenched, he understood my meaning very clearly. Good. Still, I didn’t want to put him too on edge, so I rubbed over the line of his vertebrae and felt him relax the muscles there.
“Seb, I’d like you to keep eye contact, please,” I said, because he was burying his face in his pillow. I heard one sniffle, and then he turned his head and gave me a wary look. “Tell me about this nightmare.”
His shoulders jerked in a slight shrug. “There was a creature clinging to my back.”
Ignoring his attempt to downplay, I increased the pressure of the massage and asked, “What kind of creature?”
“I didn’t get a good look at it,” he said, and then bit his lip a moment before adding, “It had four limbs, though, and human hands on all of them, but with really sharp claws. They dug into my shoulders and hips.”
I stroked over his right deltoid, and then the left, wanting to remove any phantom feeling of those claws, as I thought about what he’d said. “What do you think it meant?”
Another shrug, like a nervous twitch. “They’re only dreams.”
I paused. “They? You’ve had more than one of these?”
His gaze slid away from mine.
“Answer me, Sébastien.”
Squirming, he gave me an almost helpless expression, and said nothing. I frowned. This was more than simple stubbornness or a desire to not be in trouble. He seemed truly unable to speak.
“Did you have this nightmare last night, as well?” I asked, trying to help.
“So,” I said, carefully non-accusatory, “what you told me at dinner about why you were tired, that was a lie?”
“No!” he said, pushing up onto his elbows and startling me a bit with his sudden vehemence. “That was true, I did have a low. It caused the nightmare. I never lied to you, I swear!”
We were going to have to go over what exactly constituted ‘lying,’ but that could wait until morning. I didn’t want to upset him any further. “I understand. Down, please.” I applied gentle pressure on his back, and inch by inch, he relaxed onto his stomach again. “Close your eyes,” I said. “It’s late, and you’re making up for two nights of poor sleep now.”
He obeyed. I turned off the lamp on the nightstand and pulled the comforter up around his shoulders, keeping my hand underneath it to continue the backrub until he drifted off. Several seconds later, though, he said, “You can go. I’m fine,” with street light glinting in his pupils.
I brought my palm down on his pajama-covered bottom at medium strength. His yelp was more born of shock than pain, I thought.
“Keep your eyes closed, young man.”
“Oui, monsieur,” he said, blush visible in the darkness.
It took a surprisingly short time for his breathing to change, as if he’d been on the verge of sleep all along and simply needed to stop fighting it. I would have stayed with him after, as a precaution, but I heard footsteps in the hallway. Sighing, I got up and went to meet Theo.
“I heard you sw– Is he alright?” he asked in a whisper, trying to look around me while I stepped out and closed the door.
“Shh,” I said. “He’s sleeping. As you should be. Let’s go.” Taking his elbow, I escorted him back to our room.
“There was a thud earlier,” he explained. “It woke me up. What was that?”
“The bed hitting the wall when he jumped upon realizing I was there. Under the covers, please.”
“He didn’t hear you coming?” he asked as he climbed in. I followed. “When I’m up in the middle of the night, I always have my ears peeled for any sound that could be you.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Not that I’ve been up recently,” he went on, a bit faster. “I mean… other than tonight, of course.”
“Of course,” I agreed, dryly. He and Seb would both be overly tired tomorrow, at this rate. “You’re to stay in bed in the morning until I give you permission, understood?”
“Theodore. Is that understood?”
I pulled him against me and dropped a kiss on his forehead before shutting my eyes. I’d need all the rest I could get, as well.
For a blessed few moments after waking, I didn’t remember the night before. Then it all came back: the dream (clammy fingers and needle talons in my skin, a heavy weight I couldn’t shake loose), waking and deciding to draw, Quint finding me (blushing hotly as I recalled the swat), and, the worst part, how I had to be soothed back to sleep. Like a toddler.
I pulled the comforter over my head and moaned. Merde, could I ever face him again?
“Good morning, mon chaton.”
I grimaced. If I held very still, maybe he’d think I was sleeping? No, it would never work. Arranging my features into a more pleasant expression, I lowered the comforter and looked up at him, standing next to the bed in jogging pants and a loose t-shirt. “Bonjour.”
A faint crease appeared between his eyebrows. “Any other nightmares?”
I shook my head. Shameful as it was, the touch of his hand where the creature had been seemed to have exorcised it. For a few hours, at least.
“Did you wake up again after I left?”
“Non, monsieur,” I said, earnestly. Disobeying him had never been my intention. His comments about not waking him still burned my ears.
“Good,” he said. “I’m about to go for my run. I’d like you to stay in bed and try to rest more. I’ll let you know when you may get up. Understood?”
I nodded, and then, remembering, added, “Oui, monsieur.”
“Thank you. Do you need to use the bathroom before I leave?”
I did. While he didn’t hover by the closed door, knowing he was waiting kept me from any delays.
After I’d gotten back under the covers, on my side, he smiled and said, “Close your eyes. Try to sleep,” and though part of me wanted to argue that I was missing the time I normally used for my yoga, I followed his direction as I listened to him leave the apartment with Jagger.
Just moments later, there were soft footsteps in the master bedroom on the other side of the wall. Theo was awake early. Quickly, I concentrated on deepening my breathing. Perhaps I could fool him, at least, and avoid the embarrassment of having to explain.
But his steps halted right in my open doorway. “Seb? I heard you up.”
I bit back another groan and parted my eyelids. “Hi. Um, Quint told me to stay in bed.”
With a grin that didn’t look at all teasing, he said, “Yeah, me too. But you are in bed, see?” Then he crossed the room and climbed onto the mattress by my feet, which I moved to make way for him. “Now so am I!”
My lips twitched as I watched him cross his legs and lean against the wall. “I’m pretty sure this isn’t what he meant?”
“Yeah, but he’ll be gone for half an hour, minimum,” Theo said, waving an unconcerned hand. Sobering slightly, he studied me. “You okay? I kind of overheard last night.”
Oh gods. Tracing one finger over the cable knit pattern of the comforter, I mumbled, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“I’m not upset,” he said, sounding puzzled. “If anyone should be apologizing, it’s me. I know you overheard a lot more than one swat a few weeks ago, but I was aware going into it that you would. So. Sorry I didn’t sleep through it, I guess? And I couldn’t make out anything either of you said, by the way. Not… not that I was trying to, or– Argh.” He thumped his head against the wall and stared up at the ceiling. “Look, I just wanted to check on you.”
I nodded, and managed a small smile, too.
“Good,” he said, smiling back, “because I also wanted to ask you about something unrelated to that.”
“What is it?” I asked, grateful for the change of subject.
“Remember how I was talking about my website yesterday? Well, I’ve been thinking more on it, and I want the site and the merch to have the same design — or variations on the same design, at least. And I like the idea of a scruffy angel, but I don’t know what, exactly, that would mean. Have you ever done commercial art?”
I blinked. Did he want me to help him? I couldn’t! Not only was the idea of having responsibility for part of his career terrifying, but I had no time to take on other projects now, not with my schoolwork and everything else bearing down on me!
Fighting back the panic, I said, “Uh… no, but I can recommend some people?” Maybe that was all he had wanted in the first place.
Disappointment flitted across his face, though, making my heart twist. “Aww, are you sure you wouldn’t be able to do it yourself?” he asked. “I’d pay you really well, of course. We could even work out something where you get a percentage of my profits.”
“I wouldn’t be any good,” I tried to explain, and he rolled his eyes.
“Seb, you’d be great. In fact, after you did that portrait–” he nodded to the pencil drawing of him and Jagger on the opposite wall “–and the one in our bedroom, I wouldn’t trust another artist. Please?”
Saying no was impossible. “…Okay.”
“Awesome!” he said, beaming. “We can get started now, if you want. I was thinking–”
We both heard the front door open.
“Shit,” Theo hissed. He scrambled off the bed and dashed out, almost running on his toes, as Quint crossed the kitchen. A moment later, the master bedroom shut. I winced at how noisy it was.
Quint’s footsteps paused, and then continued through the dining area, quicker. He stopped at the end of the hallway and looked into the guest room. I slid farther under the covers as I met his eyes. Turning his head towards the other bedroom, he said, “Theodore William, come out here. Now.”
Theo’s return was much slower. I couldn’t see him, but I could tell when he was standing right in front of Quint by the way the Top raised both his eyebrows and asked, “Were you just in Seb’s room?”
Very clearly, I heard Theo reply, “No, I was just in our room.”
And then I was able to see his arm as Quint grabbed it and spun him sideways to deliver a loud swat, which produced an all-the-more-loud yelp from Theo and another wince from me.
Letting go of him, Quint stepped through my doorway. “Turn over, please.”
I was about to, my stomach somersaulting, when Theo shot into the room and got between his husband and me. “Quint, no! It was my fault. I came in and bothered him, so swat me again, not him,” he said, even as he rubbed the seat of his pajama pants.
“Young man, step aside.”
Theo stood his ground. I felt nauseous.
Frowning in a way that would’ve made me do whatever he wanted instantly, Quint said, “One.”
“You know he wouldn’t have stayed up otherwise,” Theo insisted, sounding near tears now, though I couldn’t see his face. “Please!”
Quint’s expression softened. He looked at me, frozen on the mattress, then back to his husband, sighed, and said, “Both of you, into the living room.”
I stood in front of the TV, studying the two Brats sitting on the couch. Seb’s wide green eyes darted from Theo, to me, and back, as he rubbed the dog tags hanging around his neck between a thumb and index finger. Meanwhile, the set of my husband’s chin betrayed the stubbornness that can be both his strength and his weakness, and one of his hands rested protectively on Seb’s knee.
Neither of them were making this easy. I reminded myself that they both needed me to be steady for them, and kept my tone no-nonsense as I asked, “Seb, do you recall I told you to try to sleep while I was gone?”
The younger man reddened, though he maintained eye contact. “Oui, monsieur.”
“And when Theo made it impossible for you to do so, did you ask him to leave?”
This time, he shifted before admitting, “Non, monsieur. I kind of thought it was funny.”
I blinked, while Theo stared at him in astonishment, subtly shaking his head and mouthing ill-disguised words of warning.
“Uh,” said Seb, “I mean, n– not the disobeying you part, just, um, the way he… did it?”
Which meant, no doubt, that Theo had offered some flippant excuse for his actions.
“See, it was my fault!”
“Theodore, it is not your turn to speak,” I said, with a touch more graveness. He flopped backward into the couch cushions and glared at me. Choosing to ignore that, I asked, “Seb, do you agree with his assessment you shouldn’t be punished?”
His face was scarlet now, and I could tell from how tensely he held himself that sitting with both feet on the floor, rather than pulled up to hide behind, was a real effort. Yet still, his voice didn’t shake as he immediately answered, “No, I deserve to be swatted, too.” Pride filled me.
Theo snapped, “He’d take the blame for anything.”
I aimed a Look at him. “Young man, you can stop interrupting, or you can go to the corner.”
“So I can keep interrupting once I’m in the corner?” he asked, sweetly, and Seb flinched.
This wasn’t working. As long as they were together, Theo would keep escalating to draw my attention away from Seb, who looked more and more upset by the friction between us. I needed to separate them and calm them both down before we could have a reasonable discussion. And I needed to do it in a way that Theo wouldn’t dare argue.
Coming to a decision, I said, “Take the paddle, go to our bathroom, face the wall, and wait for me, please.”
His ears went pink as his jaw dropped open. An understandable reaction, considering I had never told him to bring an implement to a mouth-soaping before. It had the effect I’d intended, though. With all the bluster gone from his sails, he reluctantly stood, glanced one last time at Seb, and shot me a pleading look. It was probably just as much an appeal for mercy on behalf of the younger man as himself.
“Go on, angel,” I said, nodding to the sideboard, where the paddle was kept. “I’ll only be a minute.”
At my use of the petname, he looked somewhat reassured. Seb and I both watched him collect the paddle before disappearing down the hallway. Then I transferred my attention to the remaining Brat.
“I do agree with Theo that you’re inclined to feel guilty about things which aren’t your fault,” I told him, “and that you likely wouldn’t have disobeyed me without encouragement. However, you had the option of asking him to leave the room, explaining that you didn’t want either of you to get into trouble.”
“I know,” he said, ducking his head and scratching the knee Theo had been touching. “It was conflict avoidance. Zain… doesn’t like that.”
An interesting statement. It almost hinted at a request for me to do what Zain would, if he were here. Gently, I said, “He’ll need to be told about this.”
Seb nodded right away. “Oui, monsieur. I’ll email him. He’s racing, so he can’t Skype.”
“Alright,” I agreed. “Stand up, please.” Once again, I got prompt and willing obedience. I stepped around the coffee table, turned him toward his room by the shoulder, and landed a lighter swat than I had given Theo. He made no noise of protest. Releasing him, I said, “You can do your yoga now. It’s too late for any of us to fall back asleep.”
Silently, he went. I followed him and continued down the hallway to the master bedroom. Theo was standing in the ensuite bath as I’d instructed, facing the wall opposite the sink and gazing down at the paddle he held. When I came in, he looked over his shoulder with watery eyes.
“I’m sorry. Don’t paddle me?”
I hadn’t planned to. I knew when I told him to fetch it that it needed to be used, or it would become an empty threat that hurt the trust between us, but, truthfully, his behavior didn’t warrant a full paddling.
Rather than answer him, I went to the sink and took the bottle of soap and extra toothbrush from the medicine cabinet. “Come here, please.”
Sniffling, he stepped in front of me and watched as I prepared the brush and filled a cup with water.
He grimaced before parting his lips. I took his chin in my hand, pressing slightly with my thumb and fingers on either cheek to nudge his jaw farther apart so I could see what I was doing. Then I inserted the brush and scrubbed over his tongue and teeth from rear to front. By the time I was halfway done, he was trying to back up while making disgusted noises.
“Hold still, young man,” I said, not wanting to apply any more pressure and bruise the delicate skin of his face. “Almost finished.”
“Yes, it is,” I rebutted. “There. Close your mouth, please.” With another protesting noise, he did. Then I took the paddle from him and tapped it twice on the edge of the sink. “Put your elbows here. One swat, and then you may rinse.”
He stared at me, clearly torn between wanting the soap out of his mouth as soon as possible and not wanting more of a sting in his backside. I let him take several seconds to decide. When he did bend over the sink, though, I delivered the swat quickly, and with enough force that I could be sure he felt it through his pajamas. He spat and rubbed his bottom at the same time, and then snatched the cup off the counter and began to rinse the remaining suds from his mouth. As always, when the water was gone, he said, “I can still taste it!”
“I know, and no, you may not use more water. That taste is your reminder not to backtalk, even if you see it as protecting Seb.”
He wiped a hand across his lips before throwing his arms around me, sniffling again. “I’m really sorry. I just made it worse, didn’t I?”
I sighed and set the paddle down to hug him back. “Seb is very sensitive to any sort of dissension — especially when he sees himself as the cause of it — between people he cares about,” I explained. “That doesn’t mean you should walk on eggshells around him. He needs to know that you and I can handle our disagreements. However, I still expect you to treat me with the same respect I show you, not sass and snark. Understood?”
“Good.” Pulling away just slightly, I tipped his chin up to look into his eyes. “I also need you to tamp down on the urge to shield him. Trust me, I know that’s difficult, but you cannot take the blame for his actions any more than he can for yours. Trying to shift the responsibility onto yourself doesn’t help him change his pattern of behavior, and it will make him think you see him as fragile. That’s a self-image we don’t want to be enforcing. Alright?”
He thought about that for a moment, and then nodded. “I’ll try.”
“Thank you.” With one final squeeze, I let him go. “Come on, let’s make breakfast. Seb should be finishing up his yoga soon.”
“That reminds me,” he said, following me out the door with one arm still looped around me, “why did you get back from your run so early? I thought you’d be half an hour.”
I raised an eyebrow at him and lowered my voice as we passed by Seb’s room. “And you were counting on that time to hang out?”
Shaking my head, I replied, “I cut it short today. I was tired, and I didn’t want to leave you two alone for long.”
He snorted. “Rightly, as it turns out.”
There were eggs and vegetables in the fridge. I took them out and set them on the counter. “It wasn’t mistrust, angel.” I hesitated, not wanting to betray a confidence, but needing to explain. Finally, I said, “Seb has been having nightmares. I wanted to be here in case he had another.”
“Oh,” he said. “That sucks. Maybe he should talk to Zeg about them while we’re over there? She does the dream analysis stuff with her patients sometimes.”
“If he brings it up, you can suggest that,” I said. “Otherwise, don’t mention them. I told you because it was necessary.”
“I won’t, I promise,” he said, and then mimed zipping his lips together. Satisfied, I began to crack eggs into a frying pan.
Yoga is about connecting mind to body, while calming both. That’s difficult to do when your thoughts feel like a river crashing up against jagged rocks, and your muscles are tense and sore everywhere except where it matters.
Not only had I started all this because I couldn’t ignore a stupid phantom of my own imagination, but now Theo was involved. He and Quint had fought over me. They could both claim it wasn’t my fault all they wanted. There was no denying I was the catalyst, and I’d gotten away with nothing more than a couple of light swats.
I didn’t bother trying to meditate. Instead, I took my laptop from my bag, opened a new email to Zain, and then stared at the empty message box, imagining him getting this mess dumped on his head just prior to his race. I couldn’t. It’d have to wait. Shutting the laptop again, I left it on the bed, grabbed my test kit, and went out to the living room before Quint could come looking.
He and Theo were already setting the table. The other Brat turned up one corner of his mouth as he saw me. “Hey,” he said, walking around to set a fork next to my plate. “I’m sorry I made that into a bigger scene than it needed to be. I have a bad habit of digging the hole I’m standing in deeper.”
“Oh,” I said, awkwardly. “It’s alright.” Then I sat down to count up the carbs for the meal and do my injection.
As they joined me, Theo said, “So, before we were, uh, interrupted earlier, we were talking about my website. Do you want to toss around some ideas for that after we eat?”
I’d nearly forgotten agreeing to help him.
“What’s this about the website?” Quint asked, looking at his husband.
I used the opportunity to gather myself while Theo eagerly explained, “Oh, Seb said he could help me design it, and do some merch and stuff. We’ve gotta figure out exactly what I want first, though. And how to pay him.” He grinned at me, and I smiled back.
Quint nodded. “Alright, but not until after Seb’s finished with the writing assignment I’m giving him.”
My heart skipped a beat. Was he going to make me email Zain now?
“What? Why are you giving him lines?” Theo demanded.
“I’m not,” Quint replied, evenly. “Do you remember what we just talked about, angel?”
I tensed, although he didn’t sound as foreboding as he had earlier.
Theo looked from the Top to me and then slouched a little in his chair. “Yeah,” he said. “Sorry, I’ll try harder.”
That seemed to satisfy Quint, who said, “The assignment shouldn’t take long. You two will still be able to work before we go to Zeggy and Ike’s for lunch.”
I hoped that was true, and that the lunch didn’t turn into an all-afternoon affair, or I’d have no opportunity to do my project today. It gnawed at the pit of my stomach. There’s still tomorrow, I reminded myself. That’s plenty of time to get it done this weekend. As long as you don’t make any mistakes.
Quint was frowning at me, I realized suddenly. He’d worn the same expression a few times since I met him in his office yesterday.
“Um, what is the writing assignment?” I asked.
He shook his head. “We’ll discuss it when you’re finished eating.”
I wanted to say I’d rather know now, so I could prepare, but that would be arguing with him, so I made myself put food into my mouth and methodically chew and swallow until my plate was clear, the way I do when I have to eat something I hate to bring my sugar levels up. Quint watched me for a few bites, still frowning, before his husband drew his attention away by talking about the angel again.
As Theo and I cleared the table, Quint went into the office and came back with a yellow legal pad and a pen. I let out a quiet breath of relief when I saw them in his hand. It couldn’t be the email, then.
He put them on the peninsula and patted the back of one of the bar stools. “Sit down, Seb. I’ll help Theo finish cleaning.”
Once I was seated, facing him on the other side of the counter, he said, “Write this, please. ‘The definition of lying…’”
My face burned. Quickly, though, I picked up the pen and printed that across the top of the page.
“‘Is untruthfulness,’” he went on, watching me and making sure I had each part down before continuing, “‘dishonesty… deliberate mis–”
“‘–misleading, hiding things, and lying by omission,’” Theo recited, thwacking a dishtowel against the edge of the sink as he pulled it off his shoulder and turned to give his husband a black look. “You said you weren’t giving him lines!”
“I did, and I am not,” Quint replied. “I will be giving you some, however, if you continue interrupting me and speaking in that tone, young man.”
It was awful. I scribbled down the rest of the sentence as fast as I could, saying, “I’ve got it. I don’t mind. Really.”
They both looked at me, and then Theo picked up the towel again and started angrily drying dishes. Quint, meanwhile, was reading the words upside-down. “Good,” he said. “Now, this isn’t a punishment.” (Theo snorted, and he ignored it.) “I just want to make sure you understand me, so there’s no confusion. Please write down, in your own words, what each part of that means, and at least five specific examples for each. I’d also like you to categorize what you told me at dinner last night about why you missed sleep. I can think of three parts it would fall into. Are my instructions clear?”
Yes, too clear. “Oui, monsieur.”
“Do you have any questions?”
I hesitated, and then asked, “Should the examples be from real life?”
Quint got that look again, but said, “They don’t need to be, though they can be if you’d like. I’m not going to get upset about anything you write down, okay?”
I nodded. “D’accord. I understand.”
“Stay there, and let me know when you’re finished,” he said, before going to Theo’s side.
The other Brat glanced up at him from under his eyelashes. “I’m sorry.”
His voice, and Quint’s mild reply, were both quiet, yet they stood so close it was impossible not to eavesdrop. I stared down at the pad to give them privacy.
“I’m hearing that word a lot this morning. I’d like to see a bit more work on preventing the need to say it, hmm?”
“Thank you. You’re forgiven.”
There was a rustle of cloth, and I knew they were hugging. Tears prickled in the corners of my eyes as an emotion I refused to call envy filled me. I wanted to be in Zain’s arms like that, secure in the knowledge he understood what I couldn’t say. Gulping, I put the pen to the paper and began to write.
It took Seb longer than I anticipated to complete the assignment. I kept an eye on how he was doing, and saw that while he wrote out the definitions quickly, his pace slowed when it came to the examples. I thought perhaps he would use instances from his own past. That could be useful to me in spotting patterns that might repeat. However, when I read the finished document as Theo took Jagger for a mid-morning walk, I found that most of the situations he described were from the TV show White Collar, and the remaining were things like ‘plagiarizing an essay’ under the ‘dishonesty’ heading.
At the bottom of the page, in smaller print, he’d written, When I told you I missed sleep because of a low blood sugar, that was hiding things, lying by omission, and being deliberately misleading. Also, I never told you that I didn’t go back to bed even after my sugar level was normal. I woke up at five, so I would’ve only been able to sleep an hour more anyway, but I still should’ve told you. Je suis désolé.
I studied him, sitting on the barstool and fiddling with his medical alert bracelet, and said, “Thank you. I’d say you do have a good grasp of these concepts. That means I’m going to expect you to keep them in mind the next time you want to tell me you haven’t lied to me, understood?”
He nodded at the counter.
Patiently, I said, “Look at me and answer out loud, please.”
“Sorry,” he whispered, meeting my eyes. “I meant oui, monsieur.”
“Good. As for what you wrote here,” I said, setting the pad down in front of him and pointing to his last paragraph, “thank you for telling me. You’re right that you should have earlier, and I forgive you.”
A wrinkle appeared between his eyebrows as he bit his lip. “You’re… you’re not upset?”
“No, mon chaton,” I said. “I told you I wouldn’t be, remember?”
He nodded, yet still seemed troubled. Stepping forward, I gently pulled him off the stool and into my arms for a tight hug that I hoped would offer some reassurance.
His lean frame went rigid, and then, all at once, completely limp in my embrace, his hands hanging by his sides and forehead dropping onto my shoulder. I held him, feeling his slow, uniform breathing. Even when Theo opened the front door and Jagger bounded over to us, Seb was motionless. I let go first.
Absolutely nothing I could point to justified my sudden urge to swat him.
The two of them spent the rest of the morning discussing their ideas for Theo’s website. My husband’s excitement over it seemed to infect Seb, as well, in a more subdued way. By the time we needed to leave for our lunch, the table was covered in sketches and Theo had several different articles pulled up on his laptop about the history of angels in art. He was scrolling through one as I came over to tell them to start getting ready.
“Yikes, this one’s got devils, too,” he said. “Like a freaky hairless-monkey-slash-lizard thing, and Saint Michael’s just casually standing on its chest. He always was my favorite archangel.”
A strange expression crossed Seb’s face as he looked at the image, somewhere between remembrance and trepidation. Reaching over Theo’s shoulder, I closed the laptop, while still watching the other Brat. He kept staring at the same spot for a few seconds, before shaking his head as if to clear it of an unwanted thought.
“Time to go?” Theo asked me.
“Yes, get your shoes and jacket on,” I told him, moving out of the way so he could. When Seb stood, though, I stepped into his path. “How are you feeling, mon chaton?”
He blinked up at me, his mouth opening and then closing again. I waited.
Raising one eyebrow, I said, “‘Hungry’ is a physical state, not an emotional one.”
“He’s nervous,” said Theo, by the door, “and I would be, too, with you looming over me like that.”
“Non,” Seb interjected before I could speak. “I’m not, I was… was just remembering something.” He glanced down at the laptop. “It got me a little uneasy.”
The nightmare. The creature he’d described in it could have been a demon. I didn’t push him any further, not wanting to force him into talking it over in front of Theo, but I made a mental note to ask Zeggy about that, leaving out names.
She let us into the townhouse with a wide smile and Lyra and Griffin bouncing at her heels. We had hardly stepped over the threshold when the pair of them plowed into Theo and Jagger, who both crashed dramatically to the floor.
Zeggy and I, being used to this, sidestepped the shouting, barking, laughing pile. Seb was a bit taken aback. Before he could be knocked with a flailing limb, I guided him by the elbow to the hatrack and started to help him out of his coat. Zeggy, meanwhile, raised her voice above the clamor and said, “Alright, backyard, you hooligans!”
“Not hooligans, monkeys!” Lyra cried, but she was up and running through the kitchen to the patio, and the others dashed after her.
“Seb, c’mon!” Theo called over his shoulder. He didn’t wait for an answer.
Seb looked uncertainly at me, and I smiled as I hung his coat up. “You can join them if you’d like,” I said. “Don’t worry, they’ll settle down in a few minutes. It’s just been awhile since the twins have seen us.”
“Or you can stay here with the sane people,” Zeggy put in cheerfully. “My husband, Ike, will be home soon, and then we’ll be eating.”
He considered that a moment. “Um, la salle de bain?”
“There’s one just around the corner next to the stairs,” I told him.
“Merci,” he said, and went to locate it. I frowned after him. Something was still off.
A few minutes later, after Theo came back inside to drag Seb out, and the younger Brat, insisting he didn’t mind, disappeared into the yard as well, Zeggy and I sipped coffee in the kitchen while we caught up and watched what looked like a game of Red Light Green Light through the window.
“Anyway, enough about my fabulous time in Barcelona,” she said, as Griffin lost his balance and had to return to the starting line for moving. “So, you’re a foster Top now?”
I nearly choked on my coffee. Sputtering, I asked, “Did Theo–?”
“No, he didn’t tell me,” she said, quickly, “and I won’t let on that I know, I promise.”
“I’d appreciate an explanation for how you know.”
She shrugged. “The way he acts around you, for one. Also, you keep checking he’s okay, and I recognize that look very well. What’s got you so worried about him?”
Sighing, I set my mug down. “Hypothetically, what might it mean if someone has a recurring nightmare about a demon clinging to their back?”
“I’d have to know more about this ‘hypothetical’ patient to do a diagnosis,” she said, with a smile. “How often is the dream recurring?”
“Twice now, that I’m aware of,” I said. “Last night and the night before. After each, h– the patient avoided falling back asleep, and also seems disturbed by images that might relate to it.”
“Must’ve been a pretty terrifying dream,” she said, glancing towards Seb outside with a sympathetic expression. “Has there been any recent psychological trauma?”
I hesitated. “About a month ago, there was an assault, but I haven’t noticed anything like this until now.”
“Some people develop PTSD years after. Up to three months’ delay is quite common. Have you noticed any other symptoms? Signs of depression, flashbacks, worrying, guilty feelings?”
“No. Well,” I amended, “no more than before on worrying and guilt, I think.” Seb already carried more than his share of those emotions.
“What about angry outbursts?”
I smiled and shook my head.
“Has he been on edge? Easily startled?”
That made me pause again. “Perhaps,” I said, thinking of how he’d jumped when I caught him up. But that could be attributed to the fact that he was distracted by drawing, and the natural reaction of a Brat who knows they’re in trouble. If anything, he’d appeared more relaxed than normal over the past day.
“Hmm,” said Zeggy. “Well, it sounds like it may just be healthy processing of the stress. He’d need more symptoms, and they’d need to last for at least a month, for it to be considered PTSD. That’s not to say he shouldn’t get help with this, or it could very easily go that way. Has he been talking about the assault?”
“Not recently.” Right after it happened, he went through the whole thing with Theo and I both, but once he told us his attackers had taken plea deals, he seemed to feel that was the end of it.
“He should, and the nightmares, too,” Zeggy said.
“And if the patient seems unable to talk about it?” I asked, remembering how I’d tried to press him on the dreams last night.
She laughed a little. “Isn’t convincing him talking’s the easier option one of your duties as foster Top?”
I parted my lips to argue, then stopped. She was absolutely right.
Weeks ago, when Seb first came to stay with us after his roommate stole his insulin, Theo had jokingly warned me about getting wrapped around the young artist’s little finger. I’d dismissed it, and yet here I was letting him completely direct this conversation — pulling back when I should be pushing harder, and not trusting my instincts. Well, it would end now.
“Uh-oh,” said Zeggy, raising her mug to her mouth. “I recognize that look, too.”
Something had changed when I came in to eat lunch. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, except Quint seemed to be scrutinizing me closer, in a way that made my back straighten and my pulse speed up. Theo noticed it, too. I saw him glancing between us with a faint frown.
I ate in small bites, chewing each one thoroughly so I’d have an excuse not to join in the conversation flowing around me. Zeggy’s husband, a tall man with blond hair and ice-blue irises to match his daughter, was mostly silent as well. He caught my eye about halfway through the meal and quirked one corner of his mouth in an understanding way. I recognized a fellow shy person, though it surprised me a bit, because from what I gathered, he was a CEO of a tech firm.
As I had feared, we didn’t leave after the meal, just moved to the living room to continue talking and to look at vacation photos. Quint directed me to sit next to him on the couch with a nod. I did, taking careful breaths as I thought about my project waiting undone. He was frowning again, even when I deliberately relaxed into the cushions.
Finally, they started saying their goodbyes. That also seemed to take forever. I put on my jacket and stood listening to Theo and Zeggy chat for another ten minutes before Quint eventually corralled his husband out the door.
Dusk was falling as we went down their front steps to the sidewalk. “I think I’ll go over to the studios from here,” I said, “so I can start working on my project.”
“No,” said Quint. “It’ll have to wait a bit longer.”
“You… you said I could do it today,” I reminded him, concentrating very hard on not sounding at all upset or argumentative, even as panic swirled in my gut.
“I did,” he agreed, nodding, “but not until after we speak with Zain.”
My insides froze. How I managed to keep walking between him and a nervous-looking Theo, I don’t know. But then I remembered my trump card.
“He had a race, and now he’s travelling. He can’t Skype.”
Quint pulled his phone from his pocket and showed me a text message notification on the lockscreen.
Yeah, I’ll be back at Annapolis around 4:30. See you then!
My mouth dried up along with my excuses. It was nearly that time now. Zain had said yesterday that they’d return in the afternoon, though he didn’t know exactly when.
“I was planning to email him like you asked,” I tried to explain.
Putting the phone away, Quint wrapped an arm around my shoulders and squeezed. “I know, mon chaton. I’m not upset with you. We’re going to sit down together and talk, okay?”
What did he tell Zain already? Asking would reveal too much. I’d find out when we got back to the apartment, anyway. Until then, I needed to focus on calming down, so they’d both see there was nothing to worry about. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Okay.”
On my other side, Theo looked still more nervous.
Quint guided me straight to the guest room after we took our shoes off. Once there, he closed the door, picked up my laptop from the bed where I’d left it earlier, set it on the desk, and pointed me to the chair in front of it. “Sit down, please.”
I did, while he took the second chair from the corner and moved it over next to me. I waited for him to be seated before opening Skype and calling Zain. He answered in seconds.
“Hey, habibi. Hey, Quint.”
Tears threatened at the sight of his sunny grin. I knew my voice would waver if I spoke, so I didn’t answer. That was a mistake. After a moment, he tilted his head at me.
“Wanna tell me what’s going on?”
I glanced to Quint, hoping he would volunteer to speak on my behalf, but he just looked expectant. Merde. Steady, and looking directly into the webcam, I said, “I had trouble sleeping the last couple of nights. Quint told me to stay in bed this morning, before he left for his run. While he was gone, Theo entered the room, and I didn’t ask him to leave, so Quint had to swat me when he returned.”
The older Top had an eyebrow raised now. “Please tell him why you had trouble sleeping, Seb.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Nightmares. I keep dreaming about a demon being on my back.”
Zain, after watching all this with curiosity, snorted and shook his head. “Quint, is your palm itching as much as mine is right now?”
“…Yes,” he replied, frowning at me. “I’m not sure exactly why, though.”
“Yeaaahhh, there’s a good reason,” said Zain. “Babe, leave the room, wouldja? Need to talk to Quint alone for a few minutes.”
But I’m fine now, see!
With an effort, I simply got up and walked out.
Theo was sitting at the table with his laptop in front of him and Jagger by his side. “Wow, that was fast.”
“Not done,” I said, walking over to pet the dog. The article we’d been looking at earlier was on the screen — Saint Michael in full armor, gazing coolly down at the devil under his feet. I suppressed a shudder. That battle wasn’t done yet, either.
“There, you see what he’s doing?” Zain asked, after the door shut behind his Brat.
Puzzled, I shook my head. “He just did as you told him.”
The young Top let out an amused sigh. “Hint to Quint,” he said, in the same tone someone would use to say ‘earth to…’, “Seb hardly ever just does as I tell him, not without protesting or making a face or something.”
My eyes closed as it hit me. “The Good Boy Act.”
“Now you’ve got it!” he said, cheerfully. “Yep, that was a total ‘hey, I’m doing everything you want with no fuss whatsoever, nothing to see here, please move along’ farce. Don’t feel bad. He really is well-behaved, so you’d expect that, is the problem. Especially with you, I think. It’s like when you’re a kid and you go to stay with relatives or a friend or whatever, without your parents, you’re unconsciously on your best behavior? It’s easier for me to spot.”
Despite his words, twinges of guilt struck when I thought back. “He’s been pulling it again and again over the past 24 hours, and I did spot it, I just didn’t trust myself.”
“Well, some dude I know once told me something like, ‘Even Tops are human and make mistakes. It’s what you do when you find out that matters.’”
I quirked an eyebrow at him. “‘Some dude’?”
“A very wise dude,” he amended.
At times, he reminds me so much of Theo. Smiling a little, I asked, “So, what would you suggest I do now that I’ve found out?”
“Good question,” he said. “When it’s me, I’ve got two options. Number one is to be as annoying as humanly possible until he can’t help showing real irritation. But annoying in a cute way, so he still has to love me. Since I’m guessing that won’t work for you, let’s go with the second option: bring him back in here and tell him to get the hairbrush.”
I sighed. It was unfortunate that it had come to this. “Do you think I’ve left it too long? Will he need more than a few swats?”
“I’m not sure. If it were me, probably. Like I said, though, he’s gonna react differently to you. We’ll have to play it by ear. I can stay on until we’re done.” He held up a pair of headphones and then plugged them into his computer. “Now we can’t be overheard.”
Which reminded me, I needed to get Theo out of the apartment as well. “Alright, I’ll be back in a moment,” I said, standing.
Both Brats looked over from the dining table at my entrance, and I saw more anxiety in my husband’s expression than Seb’s. The act was completely obvious now. He had only ramped it up after our discussion on lying, too.
Crossing my arms over my chest, I said, “Theo, take Jagger for a walk, please. Sébastien, would you be so kind as to come with me?”
The pair of them pushed their chairs back and moved to follow my orders. I had expected an attempt at protection from Theo, who knew very well what was about to happen, yet he went out the door with alacrity.
Seb, on the other hand, was reluctant as he crossed the living room.
Zain had his headphones on when I came back in, and I gulped. He gave me a wry smile. “Hey again, brat. Need some help?”
I couldn’t pretend to not know what he meant, much as I wanted to, or deny that I did need it. It was actually a relief to duck my chin and nod. He and Quint exchanged a look, and then Quint said, “Bring me your hairbrush, please.”
That made my head jerk up. “I don’t need that much help!” I said, before I could stop myself. Zain snorted with suppressed laughter, while Quint gave me a full-on Look that made my rising blush five times more severe.
“Oh, babe, you so do,” said Zain.
“And I’d like you to consider how you’ve been lying to me for a full day now, even after I had you outline the exact definition of what you were doing,” Quint added, seeming not to mind Zain’s amusement, though he definitely didn’t share in it. “I am not at all pleased about that, young man. Now, you have until the count of three to give me the brush. One.”
I darted across the hall to the bathroom, snatched it off the counter, and brought it back. Once I was facing Quint again, though, I stopped. Part of me wanted to hand it over, yet the rest of me stood stock-still just inside the doorway, until he very firmly said, “Two.”
Coming to my senses, I offered it to him, handle-first. He accepted it and seemed to weigh it in his palm a moment before nodding.
“Just out of curiosity,” Zain said, “what happens if you reach three?”
“Theo calls it ‘leveling up,’” Quint told us as he sat on the edge of the bed. “For example, if I was counting to send him to the corner, it becomes a spanking.”
“Huh. Interesting system. I don’t have the patience to count. Oh, don’t let him take his own pants down. I usually swat when he tries that.”
I scowled over my shoulder, dropping my hands to my sides. Bad enough that they would both witness my discipline, without him giving tips. I was hideously embarrassed already, and I wanted it over as soon as possible.
Quint gently turned me back to face him with two fingers under my chin. “I know I’m not your Top, mon chaton. I don’t think anyone else could be,” he said, with a glance to Zain. “Because of that, it took me a bit longer to catch on. I’m sorry. However, I have now, so there’s no need for you to push anymore, understood?”
My eyes clouded as I jerked my head in a nod. But he only continued to gaze at me, until I realized he wanted a verbal response. Choking, I said, “Oui, m– monsieur.”
“Thank you.” He set the brush down and began to unbutton my fly. I bit my lip, struggling to hold still, as he lowered the zipper and then hooked his thumbs into my waistband and stripped my jeans and underwear down to my knees in one fell swoop. My t-shirt was long enough to preserve my modesty in the front, yet I felt more exposed than I had the last time Zain spanked me outdoors. Swiftly, I started to bend forward over Quint’s knee, and there was a moment of awkward confusion as he tried to guide me across both his legs instead of just one.
“Pin him between your thighs to hold him,” Zain explained from behind me, sounding more somber now. “Sorry, I should’ve mentioned.”
“It’s alright,” Quint said, to him and me both. He corrected his position so it was the same as what Zain would do, but I was hypersensitive to all the differences in the way it felt, both physically and emotionally. Almost like my very first spanking all over again. When he tugged my shirt up, revealing my bottom, I panicked and tried to stand.
“No,” said Zain, as Quint put his arm over my shoulder blades to keep me in place. “Habibi, look at me.”
I twisted around and saw he was leaning close to the webcam, his face filling the screen.
“You’re okay,” he said. “I’m here, and you trust Quint, remember?”
Slowly, I nodded and lowered myself back down onto the mattress.
“Do you have any additional tips?” the other Top asked him, while rubbing my spine the way he had in the middle of the night.
“I’ll send you an email full of them later,” Zain said. “For now…” He sighed. “Hard and fast, if you can.”
Quint took his advice to heart. I didn’t have time to yelp at the first swat of the hairbrush before the next one landed, and the next after that. He had Zain’s aim, too. Not a single stray hit outside the target area. Wiggling only made him tighten his hold.
And then he began to speak to me, voice pitched low and yet perfectly audible over the quick, steady crack of the brush and my gasps of pain.
“I am not going to let you hide yourself away from me, Sébastien Leon. Not physically, and not emotionally, either. I made a promise to Zain, which I intend to keep, and even without that, I care about you too much to let you deal with things alone. Is that clear?”
Merde, did he expect me to answer in words? I nodded frantically through my sobs, clutching at the comforter under my fingers, and hoped that was enough.
“He can’t talk in that position,” said Zain, in an odd, tight tone. “Trust me, I’ve tested it.”
“Alright,” said Quint. There was a pause, and then he shifted me higher over his knee and delivered four more stinging blows, two per upper thigh, before dropping the brush and using both hands to stroke my skin under the fabric of my shirt. I cried louder as he did. It had much more to do with dark creatures of the night than the heat radiating from my butt.
At some point, I became aware that Quint and Zain were speaking soothingly, their voices overlapping each other and running together like two rivers meeting. I took huge gulps of air, trying to calm myself, and Quint said, “Easy there, take it easy, or you’ll hyperventilate,” while Zain chimed in with “Hey, now, none of that. Let it go. You’re safe.”
I did feel safe with both of them watching over me. Utterly and completely safe. I could relinquish everything and still be okay. The relief was immeasurable. The last of my tears fell almost silently as whimpers gave way to sniffles.
Once I quieted, Quint reached under my shoulders and lifted me to my feet, then stood himself, wrapping his arms around me. I clung back as hard as I could. Shaking his head, he said, “I knew something was wrong about how you reacted when I hugged you earlier.”
“Let me guess, he did the ragdoll thing?” Zain asked. His voice sounded weird again. I turned my face away from Quint’s shoulder to see him, and frowned.
“Z, why’re you squeezing a pillow?”
“I had to hug something! I’m dying over here!”
A half-sob-half-laugh sound escaped me. “‘M’sorry,” I said, wiping away a tear with the back of my wrist.
“Not your fault,” he said, with a small smile. “But just so you know, I don’t want to repeat this anytime soon, so if you could please tell us things without all the hoopla?”
“Speaking of which, we do need to talk about this dream,” said Quint.
I drew away from him a little. “C– can I have a washcloth first?”
He looked to Zain, who nodded.
“Alright, I’ll get one.”
As he left, I pulled my underwear and pants back up, and then sat in front of the desk, wincing a little.
“You okay?” Zain asked. If the pillow he was clutching to his chest had really been me, I wouldn’t have been able to breathe.
“Yeah, I’m good now,” I told him, and saw his hold loosen.
Quint came back in, sat down next to me, and swiveled my chair to face him. He was very gentle with the cloth as he wiped it over my skin. I wondered if he did the same thing for Theo. When he was done, Zain said, “So, tell me. What was this dream about?”
“There was a… creature on my back,” I said.
“You said ‘demon’ before,” he pointed out. “Which is it?”
“Well, it might’ve been just a monster,” I said. “I never get a look at it.”
“Are you sure?” Quint asked. “When you looked at the painting of the devil Theo pulled up, you seemed to recognize it.”
I hadn’t realized he’d noticed my reaction. “Um… I sort of recognized the idea of it?”
Zain sat up straighter, letting the pillow fall out of his lap. “What painting?” he asked.
The second he saw it, he’d know. I glanced between him and Quint, biting my lip.
“I can go get Theo’s laptop and show you,” Quint suggested.
“Yeah, or you can swat him, if you don’t feel like moving.”
Quickly, I said, “It’s called Saint Michael. The artist is Carlo Crivelli.”
Zain typed for a moment on his keyboard and then twitched one eyebrow in surprise. “Well, that seems vaguely familiar.”
Quint shook his head. “I’m afraid I’m missing something.”
He didn’t deserve to be kept in the dark by me again. With a deep breath, I met his eyes and explained, “After I was attacked, Gould was on the ground, and Zain stood over him like that, with one foot on his chest. It… it reminded me of how they looked.”
Understanding came over his face, and sympathy. Reaching out, he squeezed my shoulder and asked, “So in your dream, do you think the creature might have represented Gould?”
“I don’t know,” I said, blinking away tears. “Maybe? I thought I was over it, though, and the dreams only started when I got behind on some work.”
“Your project?” Quint asked, and I nodded.
“Uh, hang on, now I’m missing something,” Zain said, raising a hand. “What project, babe? I asked you how everything was going on Thursday, didn’t I? You told me–” His eyes narrowed with dawning realization. “You told me ‘everything’s on time’ and then you changed the subject, didn’t you, brat?”
I flushed and squirmed, which only aggravated the soreness in my rear end. “Everything is on time,” I said. “I finished all the other stuff yesterday morning, and the project’s not due until Monday.”
Zain snorted, and Quint, looking distinctly unimpressed, asked, “What part of ‘lying’ would that fall under, young man?”
“That’s right.” Turning to Zain, he added, “I had him write out all the various forms of lying, with examples for each. I’m thinking that perhaps he should do it again, with real-life examples, not things from White Collar?”
Zain laughed. “Yeah, that would probably be more helpful for both of you, although now I really want to see Neal Caffrey’s cons categorized.”
“I’ll send it to you,” Quint said. “Along with the new version.”
“Awesome. Getting back to the project, though. How’d you fall behind?”
“Those couple of bad sugar days,” I said. They knew about them, at least. “But I still have time to finish it, if I start tonight and work all day tomorrow. Except… I’m supposed to be helping Theo design an angel for his website this weekend, too.” My heart skipped. There was no way I could do everything. I’d have to turn in the project late and get a lower grade.
“No,” Quint said, making me realize I’d voiced my thoughts. “Your project comes first, and Theo will understand that. I’m questioning if you should have even taken on extra work.”
“Me too,” said Zain. “But I’d guess Theo asked you and you couldn’t refuse?”
“I– I tried.”
“Did he pressure you?” Quint asked, frowning.
“He wouldn’t have needed to,” Zain interjected. “Not very much, at least.”
Quint looked from him to me and shook his head. “Stop with the eyes, mon chaton, I’m not upset. I am going to talk to Theo, simply to make sure he understands your position as well, okay?”
Sniffling, I nodded. The thought of potentially getting Theo into trouble made me feel guilty, yet I also couldn’t help some relief.
“Okay,” Zain said, leaning back and interlocking his fingers on top of his head. “So, have we covered everything now, babe?”
“Good. You’re gonna talk to that shrink you’ve been seeing about these dreams, and tell Quint and I if you have another one. The same exact minute you wake up, I want a text. I don’t care what time it is. Got it?”
“And if you’re here, you come to get me as soon as you’re done texting him,” Quint added.
Reluctantly, I nodded again.
“Awesome,” said Zain. “Next part: If you can’t get the project done before Monday — and I mean get it done without staying up all night or skipping meals or anything insane — then you tell your prof it was delayed because of your diabetes, which is true, and get an extension.”
“Nope, zip it. This is exactly why we got that set up, remember? You lost two days you were supposed to have to work on it because of circumstances beyond your control. That is not your fault, it doesn’t mean you’re not handling things, and if I see you fretting over it I’m gonna tell Quint to spank you again.”
He was being incredibly serious, for him. Until I huffed, made a face, and said, “Fine.” Then he laughed.
“Please observe, Quint. This is how Seb actually reacts to being told something he doesn’t like.”
I scowled harder. “Salaud.”
“Yes, I’m aware of what it means, thank you,” Quint cut him off. He looked faintly amused as well, but he said, “I can accept a bit of stomping and grumping. However, I would rather that Theo not pick up new vocabulary, and I do strongly prefer to be addressed respectfully.”
“Oh, oui, monsieur,” I said, wiping the glower off my face. “I would never call you that!”
“Nah, it’s a petname just between us,” Zain put in.
When I stuck my tongue out at him, Quint laughed and said, “I’m glad you’re feeling better, mon chaton.” And I really was.
I went into the kitchen so Seb and Zain could have some privacy, and sent Theo a text message letting him know we were done. He returned only a few minutes later, surprising me when he opened the door.
“I was waiting downstairs,” he explained, unhooking Jagger’s leash as he glanced around the apartment. “Where’s Seb? Is he okay?”
“He’s in his room talking with Zain, and he’s fine.”
Without even taking his shoes off, he started for the hallway. I caught him by the crook of his elbow and towed him back. “No, leave them be.”
“I just want to check!”
His protectiveness, while understandable, was going to become a problem if I didn’t nip it now. “Have I ever left you after a spanking without being sure you’re alright?” I asked.
Frowning, he said, “You did spank him, then.”
I sighed. I hadn’t meant to confirm that without Seb’s permission, despite all the evidence pointing to the same conclusion.
“Yeah, I know, it’s none of my business,” said Theo, sounding more resigned than resentful. He looked at the floor a moment, his shoulders sagging, and then asked, “Are you okay?”
Warmth filled me. Trust my angel to ask that. “Yes, I am,” I said. It had been difficult to cause Seb pain, and I’d worried that it would be for nothing if I didn’t do it correctly, even with Zain guiding me. Still, I knew the other Top had it much worse. I could not imagine watching someone else care for my Brat in that way, completely out of my reach. The trust he showed in me was humbling.
Theo stepped into my arms, and I embraced him, both giving and accepting comfort, for a long moment, while Jagger sat looking up at us with his tail wagging. We broke apart only when we heard Seb emerge.
“Quint, can I– Oh. Um. Hi, Theo.”
This time I didn’t stop my husband from crossing into the living room and yanking Seb into another hug. The younger man made a startled noise, but returned it readily.
“Do not freak me out like that again,” Theo said. “Quint was giving off major Toppy vibes and you hardly reacted! I thought you had a death wish or something!”
“I’m sorry,” Seb said. “I really didn’t mean to worry you.”
“We’ve dealt with it,” I reminded him. “It’s finished, and Theo isn’t worried anymore, right, angel?” The last thing we needed was another stress trigger.
Letting Seb go, he said, “Yeah. I mean, as long as you’re good now?”
“I’m good,” Seb confirmed, with a shy smile. “I just need to go work on my project so I can stop thinking about it. Quint, may I?”
“You may. I want you back here by seven-thirty for dinner, please.”
He nodded. “Oui, monsieur.” Returning to his room for a moment, he retrieved his messenger bag and slung it over his head as he came out again. Jagger followed him to the door. “Sorry, boy,” he said, bending down to put his shoes on and scratching behind the dog’s ears. “You’re not allowed in the studios.”
Cheerfully, Theo said, “Their loss. Jag, here.” Jagger obeyed the command, and he caught his collar to keep him by his side as Seb left. Once he’d gone, Theo asked, “Was all that really about his project?”
“No, it was about several things. One of which I need to go over with you, as well.” Pointing to the barstools, I said, “Sit down, please.”
His eyes flicked between the stools and me for a moment. I had intentionally chosen to put him there, rather than on the couch, to signal that this wasn’t a ‘discussion,’ yet he still looked mildly nervous as he took his seat.
“You’re not in trouble, angel,” I told him, leaning on the other side of the peninsula. “Could you please tell me what, exactly, led to Seb saying he would help with your website and merchandise?”
“Um, I thought it would be a good idea, so I asked him this morning.”
“What words did you use?” I asked. “I’d like to know as much of the conversation as you can remember.”
Brow furrowing in confusion, he said, “I think I just told him what I was thinking of doing, and then asked if he’d ever done commercial art? And then he said he hadn’t, but he could recommend someone, so I asked if he could do it himself, and said I’d pay him.”
“Then he agreed?”
He laughed a little. “No, he said he wouldn’t be good at it. He’s way too modest. Then I said something about the portraits he’s done of me already, and that I wouldn’t trust someone else. That’s when he said okay.”
“Alright. Would you say he was a bit reluctant?”
Face falling, Theo asked, “Did he not want to do it?”
My words needed to be picked carefully here. After a moment’s thought, I said, “He’s going to do it. However, when you first asked him, he was very stressed about other things, and was trying to gracefully decline.”
“I– I didn’t realize he was that serious, I swear–”
“I know, angel,” I said, before he could look any more stricken. “Seb struggles to say ‘no,’ and that isn’t your fault. It’s simply something to keep in mind should you ask him for favors. Pay more attention to what his body language says than what his mouth says, understand?”
He nodded. “Yeah. Are you sure he doesn’t mind now? Because I can get someone else to do it.”
Shaking my head, I explained, “He wants to, and we’re dealing with the other things that were bothering him, so he’ll be able to. It also helped bring those things to light, in more than one way. It might be a good idea for you to tell him you don’t expect him to prioritize it over his schoolwork, though.”
“Of course! He wasn’t really going to make his project late, was he?”
“He considered it,” I said, wanting Theo to know exactly how far Seb would go if asked. “I told him you’d understand the project came first, but I think it would also help to hear that from you directly.”
“I’ll tell him at dinner.”
Satisfied, I leaned across the counter to press my lips to his in thanks. He caught me by the back of the neck as I drew away and pulled me in for one more.
The two of them did talk over dinner, a conversation which consisted mostly of them each reassuring the other that they were okay. I hid my smile behind my cup as I watched. Thankfully, they seemed to be taking responsibility for their actions alone.
Seb finished the project Sunday evening, leaving the studio only for meals and the curfew I had set him. He looked like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, and slightly worn out from carrying it so long. I gave him a hug, along with the legal pad with his handwriting still on it.
“Lie down on the couch and work on the revisions to your examples until nine, mon chaton. Then you can get ready for bed.”
He blinked. “At nine?”
“Yes, you’ll be going to bed at nine-thirty,” I told him.
“But I won’t be tired then!”
“I think you’ll find you’re more tired than you believe,” I said, repressing my natural desire to raise an eyebrow at his tone. I was pleased he’d let the emotion be obvious. Still, I sent him to the couch with a pat on the bottom in warning.
He was fast asleep when I checked on him at quarter to ten. Near one o’clock, though, I woke to soft knocking. Theo stirred next to me as I sat up. “Z’at Seb?” he mumbled.
“Yes,” I replied in a whisper, stroking his hair. “I’ll take care of him. Go back to sleep.”
His breathing had already deepened again by the time I opened the door and found Seb looking up at me with those eyes, while biting his lip and clutching his phone in one hand.
“Another nightmare?” I asked.
With a small sniffle, he nodded. “Zain can’t call. He said you have to take a selfie to prove I got you.”
Clever. Coming out into the hallway, I said, “Alright. Give me the phone.”
He did, and I snapped a photo of both of us, before handing it back so he could send it while I walked him to bed with my arm around his shoulders. A moment later, he snorted. “He says thanks, and that you look weird without your glasses.”
My lips twitched. Zain’s humor seemed tailor-made for calming his Brat. I had to wonder how much he played up his natural personality for that effect.
As I held the covers for Seb to slide under, the phone buzzed once more. Glancing down at it, he said, “Um, he… also wants you to get me to talk about the dream.”
I sat on the edge of the mattress. “I know it’s difficult, but it does help Theo and I to talk about nightmares we’ve had. Why don’t you try telling me how it starts?”
He thought about that for a moment, and then shifted onto his side. My hand went automatically to his back as he began to speak.
Keep scrolling down for Zain’s email to Quint in the comments, and don’t forget to leave your own!