After the rocky start, I enjoyed working with Theo on his angel. We came up with the basic idea to use medieval illustrations as the inspiration, but modernized to look more like him, with stubble, ruffled feathers, and halo just slightly off-kilter. Then I drew a few variations of it over Thanksgiving break for him to choose from. He picked one, and I spent the next week making designs for different applications. We planned to finish the project this weekend, before my finals started.
That was, if he ever looked at the drawings.
“This one might work best as the album art. What do you think?”
He glanced over for half a second. “Yeah, maybe.”
Dropping the sketch back on the countertop, I suppressed a sigh. He’d hardly left Quint’s side since the older man got home and started cooking dinner. It puzzled me. I’d seen him act this way before, but there weren’t any signs he’d been recently disciplined, and as open as Theo was about things like that, I thought he would’ve mentioned if he had. I watched, still trying to make sense of it, as Quint picked up a hot pan from the stove and turned to bring it to the sink.
Theo was standing right behind him. Before I could start to call out a warning, Quint spun to one side, preventing what would have been a nasty burn. Then, in a deliberate way I recognized with trepidation, he set the pan down to take Theo’s elbow. I averted my gaze.
But there was no swat. I risked a peek and saw he had the backs of his fingers pressed to his husband’s forehead. The grip on the elbow must’ve been to hold the younger man within arm’s reach, because he tried to step away, protesting, “Quinnnt, I’m not sick.”
“Stand still,” the Top said calmly, as though he hadn’t spoken. He brought both hands to his husband’s neck, pressing on either side. “Hm. Go get the thermometer, please.”
Theo huffed and crossed his arms. “Which is it, stand still or go get the thermometer?”
Quint’s eyebrows went up, and I squirmed on the barstool even though it wasn’t directed at me. After a tense moment, Theo dropped his gaze, turned, and headed towards their bedroom with heavy footsteps. Quint waited until he was down the hallway before returning to the pan on the stove.
“It’s alright,” he told me with a small smile as he carried it to the sink. “He just hates being sick. I can usually tell when he’s coming down with something if he’s following me around like a puppy for no other reason. He seeks closeness when he feels vulnerable.”
I reached for my bag, hung over the backrest. “If he’s not well, I can go, so I’m not in the way.”
There was a hint of warning in the tone. Swiftly, I said, “I know I’m welcome, but I don’t want to divide your attention.”
“My attention can handle both of you,” he said. “Put your bag down, please. You aren’t going anywhere.”
Coming back out, Theo asked, “Why would you be going? We have to finish the angel, and I’m not sick.”
“Your lymph nodes are swollen,” Quint said. “Bring the thermometer over here.”
He groaned, but went to stand in front of his husband and handed over the small box he was holding. I watched Quint put a plastic cover on the thermometer and stick it into Theo’s mouth. Theo looked down at it, a bit cross-eyed, until it started to beep. Then he took it out, saying, “See? Normal temperature range!”
“Yes, I see,” Quint said. “Put that back and wash your hands. Seb, would you set the table tonight, please?”
We both went to do as told. As we passed each other on the way, Theo rolled his eyes at me, muttering, “Tops.”
Despite his denials, he wasn’t himself during dinner. He hardly spoke, and pushed food around his plate until Quint said, “Angel, you need to eat something. If you’re not feeling up to this, I can make you toast.”
“Then I’d like to see at least half of it gone,” said Quint, before continuing to ask me about my upcoming finals. He was becoming a lot more involved in my schoolwork since the weekend I’d fallen behind. Not like Zain, though, who actually told me last night to stop getting things done so early and made me put off all my homework until I’d sent him two mandalas. Quint’s advice was more traditional.
Having them both watch over my shoulder made me feel safe and conflicted at the same time. “I’ve got everything handled,” I said.
“I wasn’t hinting you didn’t,” he replied, mildly.
With a blush, I tried to rein in my defensiveness. He was only trying to help. “It’ll be good to have the angel done,” I admitted, glancing to Theo, who was chewing something and didn’t respond.
When we started to work on it, though, he once again seemed distracted, paying more attention to where Quint was than my questions. It was obvious he didn’t want to be far from him, and the longer I kept them apart, the guiltier I felt.
Eventually, I suggested we should finish tomorrow. He agreed, already moving to join Quint on the couch. Jagger and I took the armchair.
I looked over halfway through an episode of White Collar and saw the other Brat on his side, head lying on Quint’s leg like in the portrait I’d drawn of them. His eyes were closed. “He seems flushed,” I whispered.
Quint frowned downward and pressed his hand to his husband’s forehead. Flinching away, Theo mumbled, “S’too cold.”
“No, you’re too warm,” Quint said.
The younger man moaned a protest and rolled onto his back. “D’your cyborg abilities include being able to take temperatures with your fingers?”
Without missing a beat, Quint answered, “Yes, it comes standard with the Doctor Enhancement Package Version 3.1. Come on, angel. You’re going to bed.”
“M’not sick,” he insisted, even as he let himself be guided to his feet. Quint wrapped an arm around his waist, and they disappeared down the hallway together.
I should go, I thought. I never wanted anyone other than Zain near when I felt ill, and he was a stretch at times. Going into the guest room, I started to pack.
“Young man, what do you think you’re doing?”
I spun around and faced Quint, blocking the door. “Um, I was…”
He arched an eyebrow when I didn’t continue. “I believe I told you earlier that you weren’t going anywhere, didn’t I?”
With a swallow, I said, “Oui, monsieur, you did, but Theo–”
“Is asleep,” he said, “and we have an episode to finish.” Turning sideways in the doorframe, he gestured me out. I hesitated. He waited patiently as I worked up the nerve to walk through the narrow space without tucking my butt in or anything cowardly.
Still, I couldn’t stop my jump and muffled yelp when he landed the expected swat.
I woke up and immediately regretted it. My head was throbbing hard enough to feel twice the normal size, all my joints ached worse than a ninety-year-old with arthritis, and my skin had apparently been converted into an ice rink for chills to skate merrily over.
“Okay,” I said, in a voice that came out hoarse, “I might be sick.”
There was no answer. Quint wasn’t in bed next to me, and slowly rolling over to check proved he wasn’t anywhere in the room, or in our ensuite bathroom, either.
The door to the hallway was closed. I frowned. He usually makes sure he’s in earshot, at the very least, when I’m not feeling well. Thinking back, the last thing I remembered was him bringing me to bed.
My throat was too sore to call for him. After a moment of considering my options, I decided I wanted my husband more than I wanted to stay horizontal. I sat up, groaning at the fresh round of aches and chills the movement set off, and then cautiously got to my feet, steadying myself against the nightstand as shivers ran through me.
Quint’s old Harvard sweatshirt — the one I wear constantly when I’m ill — was neatly folded on the chest at the foot of the bed. I narrowed my eyes at it, muttering, “Know-it-all cyborg doctors.” It’d serve him right if I left it there. But then he might see no reason not to succumb to his burning desire to turn it into a dust rag.
Pulling it over my head and getting my arms into the sleeves took a shocking amount of my energy. I didn’t bother hooking my thumbs through the ragged holes at the cuffs to keep them from covering my hands completely. Quint could do anything that needed hands for me, once I found him. I just needed him.
There were faint sounds audible from the office when I finally dragged my feet into the hallway, which made no sense. It was a Saturday, so why would he be working?
“Quint?” I asked, trailing one hand along the wall as I shuffled toward him.
Seb’s freckled face poked around the doorframe, and I jolted so violently that I had to squeeze my eyes shut against the wave of pain it ignited.
“Bonjour. Are you okay?” he asked. “I mean, sorry, that was a dumb question. You look terrible.”
For some reason, the sound of his voice irritated my headache way worse than my own had. I held up an index finger to hush him, but the sleeve of the sweatshirt flopped over it, so I had to force my eyelids apart and croak, “Where’s Quint?”
“Oh, um, he should be back soon,” he said. “He went to the pharmacy, and I asked him to pick up a few ingredients for a recipe I wanted to make for lunch.”
Perfect. The pharmacy and the grocery store were in opposite directions. He’d be running all over the neighborhood, and who knew how long it would take?
“It’s my mom’s version of the chicken noodle soup treatment, only vegetarian,” Seb added. “I make it for Zain when he’s sick.”
“Right,” I said, “I forgot you’re a Michelin-star chef.”
The words might have been seen as teasing. My tone, though, came out full of razor-sharp snark. The kind that gets Quint reaching for soap. Seb visibly recoiled from me, his eyes big with shock and hurt. We stared at each other, while I sank my teeth into my tongue to keep it from spitting more venom. It wasn’t his fault that he was here and not Quint, and I knew that, rationally, but my head was pounding and I could barely stand upright and I wanted my Top, dammit.
His lower lip trembled, and suddenly I couldn’t look at him anymore. I stumbled back to the my room and closed the door before dropping face-down on the comforter.
A minute later, I heard him leave.
The apartment was very quiet when I returned. Seb never made much noise, of course, but Theo could cause a ruckus even while under the weather. I hoped the calm meant he’d slept through my brief absence. He needed the rest, and waking to find me gone would upset him.
I put my shoes away, gave Jagger a scratch behind the ears, and raised my voice just slightly to say, “Seb, I’m leaving your ingredients on the first shelf of the fridge, alright?”
Silence was the only reply. After closing the refrigerator door, I took the bag from the pharmacy and headed for his room to see if he’d heard me, with the dog leading the way. We found it empty. Frowning, I continued down the hall, glancing through the bathroom doorway as I passed, and went into the master bedroom.
Theo had woken. He was curled up on his side on top of the comforter, wearing the shabby Harvard sweatshirt he wouldn’t let me throw out. His eyes looked red and watery as they met mine — another flu symptom. Jagger went to sniff at him, almost jumping onto the mattress before I clicked my tongue. He knows he’s not allowed on the bedroom furniture.
I checked the ensuite bath, and finding it vacant as well, went to sit next to Theo. “Hi, angel,” I said, gently pushing his hair back from his sweaty forehead and resting my palm on it to check his temperature. “Do you know where Seb’s gone? He’s not in the apartment.”
He shook his head.
That was concerning. When I left, the younger Brat seemed to have gotten over his fear of being ‘in the way’ during Theo’s illness. He’d offered to make soup, indicating he planned to stay for lunch at the very least. Perhaps he forgot to tell me a key ingredient and ran out to get it?
Theo sniffled, bringing my attention back to him. “Runny nose?” I asked, and his shoulder jerked in a shrug. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to face facts,” I told him, with a touch of amusement, as I stood and went to the bathroom. “You are sick.” I pulled a disposable paper cup from the medicine cabinet and filled it with water before returning to him and the pharmacy bag. “Can you sit up a little, please?”
He shifted and pushed himself up on his elbow. Opening the bag, I took out a packet of ibuprofen tablets, extracted two, and gave them to him with the cup. While he swallowed, I asked, “Did you hear Seb at all after you woke? I’m trying to get an idea of how long he’s been out.”
Again, he shrugged, but this time I saw his gaze lower for a split second. “Fifteen minutes, I think?”
I frowned. He wasn’t telling me something.
“You heard him leave fifteen minutes ago?”
“About,” he said, not meeting my eyes.
I crossed my arms and tapped one index finger against my bicep as I studied him. The longer I did, the guiltier he looked. Often, just waiting in silence is enough to get him to confess what I need to know, but whatever was going on here involved a missing Brat. Time was of the essence.
“Theodore, is there anything you’d like to tell me?” I prompted.
He sniffled once more — partly because he’d been crying, I realized suddenly — and mumbled, “I was looking for you and you weren’t here and Seb said you were grocery shopping for him and I kinda got mad and said something I maybe shouldn’t’ve and he left. I’m really sorry.”
I suppressed my sigh. Something like this was bound to happen at some point, with Seb’s sensitivity running into Theo’s tendency to lash out verbally. Illness and stress had made it all the more probable. In hindsight, I should have asked Seb to go to the stores instead.
Tears ran down Theo’s cheeks as he looked up at me. My heart ached, warring with my disapproval for his actions. The tenderness leaked into my voice. “I’m not the one to whom you should be apologizing,” I said. “He isn’t here, and I need to go find him. Are you sure you don’t know where he went?”
“I’d t-tell you if I did, I swear,” he choked.
“It’s alright, angel,” I said, pulling his upper body into a tight embrace and speaking against his hair. I hated leaving him in this state, yet I had no choice. “Seb will be okay. I’ll come back with him soon, and we’ll all talk this over. I need you to stay here in bed and try to rest, understand?”
“Thank you.” With a kiss to his temple, I released him and went out to the hall, shutting the door. Jagger remained behind, and would be on the bed in three seconds, no doubt, but I didn’t care. Theo needed the comfort.
As I started walking to the front door, I took my phone from my pocket and called Seb, on the off-chance he would pick up. A faint buzz of vibration sounded from the guest bedroom in response. Sighing, I backtracked to it. His messenger bag hung over the chair. I considered this enough of an urgent circumstance to check inside.
Not only had he left his phone, but all of his medical supplies were there as well. I frowned. He was always so careful to bring them with him everywhere. How upset did he have to be to forget? If he had high or low glucose right now… I grabbed the bag and rushed to get my shoes from the pantry.
Seb’s were set neatly beside them.
They had been there all along, I remembered as I blinked at them. Otherwise I would’ve noticed their absence when I put my own away.
Forgetting a bag was one thing, but forgetting to put shoes on? Alarm grew in me by the moment. I pushed my feet into my sneakers, tucked Seb’s under my arm, and took my phone out once more. Zain needed to be informed of this.
It went directly to his voicemail. Of course, he would still be in his Saturday morning training session. I juggled the phone, bag, and shoes to open the front door and stepped out of the apartment as I waited for the tone, and then said, “Zain, I… I seem to have misplaced your Brat. I’m looking for him now. Please call me as soon as you can.”
Hanging up, I stood there a moment deciding where to start my search. He couldn’t have walked very far outside. Come to think of it, if Rick at the front desk had seen Seb leaving the building barefoot, he would have mentioned it to me when I came in. He had to be close.
Then I remembered Zain’s ‘pro tip’. If you don’t know where he is, look up. Trees, roofs…
The building was supposed to have a rooftop terrace constructed at some point soon. I had never actually gone to the roof, but I knew that meant there must be a way to access it. Getting onto the elevator, I pressed the button for the top floor.
From above, the noise of the street faded behind something mechanical rumbling in the building and the wind howling over glass and brick and tar to scourge my cheeks with its chill. The people and cars looked like a pointillism painting in motion, while I floated, a single dot of color removed from everything. Not a bother to anyone. I could just stay still, here, like this, out of the way, forever. I had my sketchbook and a few drawing implements. What more was needed?
I sat on the rough, pitted surface with my back against the bulkhead of the staircase, a position which provided a shield from the wind and a good view of the wooden water tank. Its mass perched on impossibly delicate scaffolding. Precarious, sealed tight, and high above the city.
I found a clean sheet of paper and began to describe it with strokes of my pencil.
Pressure on my shoulder brought back some of my awareness of the everyday world. Blinking, I looked away from the half-finished drawing and saw a hand resting on me, with a vaguely familiar wedding band around the ring finger. My gaze travelled up the arm it was attached to, and directly to Quint’s kind face.
I said, “You’re not supposed to be here.”
“I’m not?” he asked, in a tone that suggested he had raised an eyebrow, but I was searching for somewhere higher to go. I could climb the scaffolding up to the tank. That might be enough.
My body felt heavy as I got to my feet. Moving fast was difficult, and Quint had straightened from his crouch and blocked my way before I took four steps.
“Stop,” he said. “You should not be walking around barefoot.”
Was I? I frowned at my toes, wiggling them against the cold asphalt beneath me.
In a quieter, but no less firm voice, Quint said, “I’d like eye contact, please, mon chaton.” He was holding me by both shoulders, now, and when I looked up, his blue irises scrutinized me through his glasses. “How are you feeling?”
Like the water tank. No, that makes no sense. He wants an emotion.
“…Je ne sais pas.”
The first time I answered that question with ‘I don’t know,’ it had been a lie. He seemed to see it was true this time, and nodded in acceptance. “Alright. Theo is feeling terribly guilty. He wants to apologize to you, and I’d like you to come downstairs with me.”
My eyes prickled. I never meant to make it worse for Theo. “D’accord.”
“Good,” Quint said. He let go of me to open my messenger bag — it had been hanging from his shoulder, I noticed — and took out my shoes. “Give me the sketchbook and put these on, please.”
I obeyed, sliding my pencil into my pocket before taking them and bending down.
He waited until I tied the laces and stood again to ask, “Do you have any idea of your blood sugar right now?”
With a glance at the bag, where I’d left my kit, I said, “Probably a little high.”
“Do you need to test or take anything?”
I shook my head. “Just need to walk it off.”
Quint hesitated a moment, and I thought he might insist. Then he said, “In that case, we’ll take the stairs down to our floor. Come on.”
Putting his hand on my shoulder again, he shepherded me around the other side of the bulkhead, to the door. A small rock was holding it open an inch.
“I didn’t know if it would lock automatically,” he said, pulling the handle and kicking the rock away. “Which reminds me.” He nodded to a sign on the inside of the door that read Alarm Will Sound When Open. I blinked. I hadn’t even noticed it before. “I’m going to tell the building management to fix the alarm, so there’ll be no more unauthorized access to the roof, understood?”
The drawing would have to be finished from memory, then. “I understand.”
Again, there was a slight hesitation, and a frown on his face. “Seb, when we get to the bottom, I’m going to ask you how you’re feeling, and I’ll expect a more specific answer,” he said, finally. “After you, please.”
I descended in front of him, watching my feet land on each tread as I tried to make what was inside me fit a word. By the time we reached the correct floor, the best I could find was, “Sad.” It still wasn’t right, but Quint accepted it with a compassionate expression, giving me a brief hug before leading me into the hallway and down to their apartment door.
If anyone could help fix the giant mess I’d made, it was Quint. He has years of practice and endless patience. It didn’t even take him that long to find Seb and bring him back.
When I heard the front door open, I rolled out of bed, paused a moment to find my balance, and went to meet them, with Jagger dashing ahead. The pills Quint gave me were starting to dull the aches and the fever, though I still felt very weak. By the time I reached the end of the hall, I had to stop and lean against the sideboard. Quint saw me first.
“Angel, you shouldn’t be on your feet.”
Seb looked up at that, in the middle of untying his shoes, and kind of froze, staring at me like he wasn’t sure if I was going to bite his head off again or not. Shame ripped into my gut. Ignoring my husband for the moment, I said, “Seb, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean what I said, I was just upset and a jerk. Please, please forgive me?”
He shook his head, and I thought I had ruined our friendship, but then he said, “It’s my fault.”
I felt completely staggered. “What?!” I asked. My tone was running away from me again, coming out more forcefully than I intended, and loud enough to aggravate my sore throat, yet I couldn’t help it. “How is it your fault? I’m the one who was nasty to you!”
Seb started to redo his laces with Jagger sniffing at his shaking hands. “Because I shouldn’t be here,” he said. “You don’t want me around.”
“Yes, I do!” I said, taking another couple of steps forward. “Stop acting like–! Quint!”
“Mon chaton,” Quint started, but before he could go any further, Seb was standing and reaching for the doorknob, and he had to move fast to block him.
Jagger barked in excitement at the commotion, while Seb tried to dodge around Quint, saying, “I need to go.”
Stomping my foot in pure frustration, I shouted, “No, you don’t!” Or I tried to shout, anyway. Pain shot through my vocal cords, and they produced more of a squeak at the end. I brought my hand to my throat with a wince.
“That’s. Quite. Enough.”
A chill definitely not attributable to my illness tripped down my spine. The other Brat took a tiny step back from Quint, and then went motionless when the Look was transferred from me to him.
There was a moment of excruciating silence. Even Jagger had planted his butt on the floor and was giving the Top his full attention.
“What you both need to do is calm down,” said Quint, in his mildest, quietest tone. “Theodore, you’re going to injure your larynx. I do not want to hear another sound out of you. Sébastien, I’d like you to go to the left of the living room window and stand facing the corner.”
Seb stared up at him for another second, and then turned and walked past me, with a shocked expression, to the designated spot. It was the opposite side of the window from where I usually got sent. He stopped a couple of feet away from it and glanced back like he wasn’t sure what to do.
“Closer,” Quint said. “So that you’re almost touching either wall with your shoulders. Yes, that’s good. Now focus on breathing, please.”
His Top never sent him to a corner before?
I didn’t have much time to puzzle about it. Quint was crossing the kitchen to the dining table and pulling out a chair. For an instant I thought he was going to sit in it to spank me, but then he picked it up and carried it to my own corner. Putting it down, he came back and guided me over, supporting about half my weight on the way. You’d think not being able to stand would excuse you from corners. I didn’t dare argue, though.
After lowering me onto the cushion, he walked off and returned once more, this time with the throw from the couch, which he wrapped around my shoulders. “I will let you both know when you may turn around,” he said — for Seb’s benefit, I assumed, since that was obvious to me.
I lost track of time as I stared at the wall. It looked exactly the same, of course. From the sounds behind me, Quint was peacefully tidying the apartment and putting in a load of laundry. The boredom grew. Eventually, I started to pick bits of fuzz off the blanket and flick them onto the floor, trying to hit a particular dot in the grain of the hardwood.
Then Quint made an odd noise. I straightened up in the chair, thinking he’d caught me, but his footsteps went to the other side of the window. “Seb,” he said, in a voice like he couldn’t quite believe what he was about to say, “are you… drawing on the wall?”
My head turned so fast, I felt dizzy.
A tree. He’d drawn a tree growing out of the join between the walls, reaching its branches toward the window. And he was now blinking between me and it, looking as dumbfounded by its appearance as I was.
I tried to hide the feeling, though, and to project the image of a Top in charge of the situation. Even if I wasn’t entirely certain what the situation was, he clearly needed that. Holding out my hand, I asked, “May I have your pencil, and any other drawing implements you have on you, please?”
His eyes flicked to my palm. Tentatively, he dropped the pencil into it, and then dug his fingers in his pocket for a moment, coming out with two shorter pencils and a pen, which he also passed over.
“Thank you,” I said.
From my own pocket, my phone vibrated. I retrieved it and glanced down to see it was Zain calling. Oh, thank God. Perhaps he’d have a better idea of what to do than I did.
“Face the corner again, please,” I said to Seb. He obeyed with a blush.
Turning away, I saw Theo observing us. He caught my eye and mouthed in amazement, ‘He drew on the wall!’
I used the pencils and pen to point him back at his own corner as I brought the phone to my ear. “This is Quint.”
Right after settling the Brats into their spots, I had texted Zain to let him know Seb was okay, and to give him a brief explanation of what happened, so the first thing he said was, “Were they actually fighting? Because that would be awesome, if so. Seb needs practice fighting with his friends and seeing that the world doesn’t go fubar as a result.”
“I don’t know exactly what happened to trigger the whole thing yet,” I said, walking to the kitchen and lowering my voice. “After Seb and I returned from the roof, though, it was more that Theo was trying to apologize, while Seb claimed it was his fault and rather aggressively attempted to leave.”
“That’s when you sent them to corners?” Zain asked.
“Yes,” I said. I’d thought the pair of them could use timeouts. Theo was about to lose his temper again, and Seb looked panicked. “It seemed to be working, until just a minute before you called, when I found Seb…” I had no other way to put it. “I found him drawing on the wall.”
There were a few seconds of silence.
“Huh,” he said. Then, after thinking about it more, “Yeah, that makes sense.”
Drily, I told him, “I am glad it does to one of us,” and he cracked up.
I leaned against the countertop, tapping the eraser of one of Seb’s pencils on it as I listened to Zain snort with laughter and choke out, “S–sorry, just give me a sec.”
“Not at all, take your time,” I said. At least he didn’t seem to be too concerned that I had somehow broken his Brat.
Once he’d collected himself, he said, “I really should’ve given you the full manual right off. This wouldn’t even be in it, though, because I’ve never sent him to a corner. It does totally make sense, but I hadn’t thought through how he might react, or I’d’ve warned you to pat him down for art supplies first. You have confiscated those now, right?”
“Yes,” I said, “And I’m also watching him much more closely.”
“Knowing you’re doing that wouldn’t have stopped him, probably,” said Zain. “It wasn’t a conscious decision.”
That was interesting. “He did react as though he had no idea how the drawing got there,” I allowed.
“Yeah, disassociation. It’s one of his more uncommon special tricks. See, whatever happened this morning with Theo, it triggered all his I-must-never-inconvenience-anyone stuff and conflict-avoidance stuff, and hurt his feelings to boot. Follow?”
“Yes,” I said. “He told me he felt sad, but I suspected that didn’t completely cover it.”
“No, because he can’t admit his feelings are hurt even to himself, because that would be blaming Theo, and obviously everything is Seb’s fault. So he went to the roof to put distance between himself and his emotions. Then you show up and force him to face them a little and to come down — good job, by the way — but once he’s back, everything starts again, and you’re there, cutting off his escape route. Literally cornering him. So. He found the one place to hide he had left: His art. It was a fight-or-flight response, and Seb almost always picks flight.”
Ah. “I understand,” I said, nodding. “How would you suggest I handle it?”
“Well, right now he’s gotta be freaking out and thinking you’re going to hate him forever, so we need to calm him down a little first and make sure he doesn’t disassociate again. Then he needs a serious spanking, and I… I’m sorry, but I’m not going to be able to participate tangentially. It’s too hard to watch. D’you think you can…?”
“I’ll take care of it,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
“I do want to see him after, though.”
“Of course,” I agreed. “For the first step you mentioned–”
“Oh, I can do that if you hand me over to him,” he said, sounding more cheerful.
“Alright, one moment.” Leaving the drawing implements on the counter, I crossed to Seb and put my hand on his shoulder. He tensed as he looked up at me. Gently, I said, “Zain would like to speak with you, mon chaton. Here.”
He took the phone and stared at the screen, swallowing.
“I’ll be in the kitchen,” I said, wanting to give them as much privacy as possible. With a last squeeze of his shoulder, I let go and walked away.
Behind me, I heard his voice whispering, “Hi, Z.”
“Heeeya, brat,” Zain sing-songed at me, sounding amused. “Whatcha doin’?”
He had to know already. I wasn’t able make out Quint’s words on the phone, but he must have informed Zain that I’d defaced his property. I tried to rub a leaf off the wall with my thumb, and only succeeded in smearing it.
“I–I didn’t mean to,” I said. “I didn’t realize. I was just standing here, and then… there’s a tree.”
“Of course it’s a tree. Should’ve guessed.”
“Zain,” I said, around the lump in my throat. “It’s not funny.”
Chuckling outright, he replied, “It really is. Nobody puts habibi in a corner!”
“OH MY GODS.” I could not believe him. Before I could start dressing him down, though, I noticed Theo looking over at me, startled. He’d been staring earlier, too. Flushing, I hissed into the phone, “Stop making jokes! I’m a vandal!”
Zain laughed harder. “So’s Banksy,” he said. “Poor Quint. He had no idea how to handle you, you terror. Can you please make me a picture of the expression on his face when he realized what you were doing? I bet it was priceless. Only, y’know, draw it on paper, not a wall.”
“Shut up, you’re the one who’s a terror,” I grumbled. He was not going to let me live this down, ever.
In my peripheral vision, Theo’s eyebrows furrowed together as he studied me. Clearly, I hadn’t lowered my voice enough to avoid being overheard.
“Theodore, face your own corner, please.”
He snapped his gaze back to the wall, while I risked a peek at Quint over my shoulder. The older man was standing in the kitchen. I didn’t trust myself to judge his expression. To Zain, I whispered, “Is… is Quint mad at me?”
“No, babe,” he said, in a more serious tone. “He was confused, is all. I had to explain it to him. He understands now. Do you need me to explain it to you?”
The tree was beautiful. Reaching out, I traced a finger along one of its branches. I could vaguely remember making it minutes before. “No.”
“Didn’t think so,” he said. We never need much clarification between ourselves. “Feeling floaty at all?”
I shook my head as I let my arm drop to my side again. “Not anymore.”
“Good! My work here is done. Hand me back to Quint.”
With my stomach flipping, I turned away from the wall and held the phone out. Quint came and collected it, but before speaking to Zain, he caught my chin in his hand and nudged it up until I met his concerned gaze. Then he dropped a kiss on my forehead and let go.
His side of the brief conversation with Zain was mostly humming noises. After saying goodbye, he simply stood there for several seconds in thought, looking from me to Theo, who had swiveled on the chair in the opposite corner to face him. I tried not to fidget.
At last, he seemed to reach a decision. “Normally,” he said, “I would want to separate you two, but Theo, you’re very sick, and Seb, I’m not entirely convinced you aren’t still a flight risk, so I need to keep a close eye on you both. I know I can trust each of you to behave appropriately in this situation.”
Theo and I exchanged apprehensive glances.
Our fears were confirmed when Quint added, “Seb, please shut Jagger in your room and bring back your hairbrush.”
“Quint!” said Theo, in a voice that sounded terrible. He grimaced in pain and fell silent, instead making a series of gestures between me and himself that looked more forceful than meaningful.
“No, I’m not punishing him for your actions,” Quint said. “Seb knows what this is about, don’t you, Seb?”
My face heated up. “Oui, monsieur.”
Tilting his head toward the hallway, he told me, “Go on.”
I clicked my fingers to the dog and went.
When I came back out, Theo was facing the corner again, but slouched more, and with his arms crossed over his chest. Quint had taken a seat in the middle of the couch. Pulse stuttering, I walked around the end table and stood in front of him. Once his gaze fixed on me, it was impossible to worry about how close the other Brat was.
“Thank you,” he said, plucking the brush from my hand and dropping it on the cushion next to him. As his fingers beat mine to the button of my fly, he asked, “Do you remember what I told you last time about hiding?”
I nodded, unable to speak.
“I want you to keep that in mind.” He didn’t wait for another nod before taking my pants down and pulling me over his leg like he’d done it a million times. “Give me your hands, please.”
Merde, Zain did send him more tips.
I slowly put my arms behind my back and let him pin them down. That, for some reason, made me feel calmer. Relaxing marginally, I waited for him to begin.
This was the worst. I’d thought I felt crappy when I woke up, but that was nothing compared to now, even with my fever and headache completely gone.
While Seb was off retrieving his hairbrush (hairbrush!), Quint had crouched down next to my chair so he was eye-level with me, and said, “Angel, I know this is difficult. I need you to trust me. I’m not going to do anything that’s wrong for Seb, okay?”
I did trust him. I just didn’t understand how this could be right for Seb. From across the room, it had been obvious that he didn’t mean to draw on the wall, and earlier, when he went up to the roof, that was my fault. So why was he being punished for any of it? His own Top appeared to think the situation was funny — which didn’t make sense in a whole other way, and definitely didn’t explain why I could hear Quint preparing Seb for a spanking.
There was no drawn-out discussion or lecture beforehand like he usually does with me. If there had been, maybe it would’ve offered a clue. Instead, I just heard Quint say something about hiding, and then a moment later, he asked for Seb’s hands. I winced. Did that mean–?
Yeah, it did. The crack that followed was unmistakably not from his palm. I jumped and fought to stay facing the corner. If I looked around, I’d see only the back of the couch, but still. Behind me, the swats sounded loud, and so fast they almost blurred together. Yet I couldn’t hear any noise from Seb.
Amazing how it almost made me feel like I was the one getting spanked. I’d never been a witness to someone else’s discipline before. Shifting forward in the chair, farther towards the wall, I brought my hands up to cover my ears without really thinking about it.
Less than a minute later, it stopped. I cautiously lowered my arms, and Seb’s muffled sobbing was audible. My eyes clouded up. I wiped the sleeve of the Harvard sweatshirt across them, wishing I could go hug him. At least it was over now.
But then Quint said, “Don’t bite the cushion if you can, mon chaton. I’m not as good as Zain at knowing when we’re done… That’s better, almost finished,” and there were four more cracks. Seb cried out at each one. I nearly did, too. Those had to be the lower-down swats Quint uses to punctuate a spanking. I couldn’t imagine how they’d sting with that brush.
They stopped again, and this time, I heard Quint begin the soothing noises he does when he’s calming me down. Strange to hear them directed at someone else. I could actually make out most of the phrases, over Seb’s weeping. I hoped he found it as comforting as I did.
The crying quieted by degrees and ended in a long exhale. “Alright, you can stand,” Quint said. There was a rustle of cloth. “No, let me take care of your pants.”
“I can pull them up,” Seb protested, weakly.
From the sound, Quint gave him more of a pat than a swat, but Seb reacted with a little yelp of surprise.
“Yes, Zain did tell me not to let you do that. Stand still, please.”
Then there was a stretch of near-silence. When I snuck a glance, I saw them hugging, arms wrapped tight around each other. Quint caught me looking. Instead of pointing me back to the corner, he mouthed, ‘he’s okay.’
Seb’s body was more relaxed now, almost slack against Quint’s larger frame. I had a phantom sensation of being in that supportive embrace, and some of the tension left me, too.
“Alright,” Quint said to the other Brat, “I’m under orders to get you on Skype with Zain as soon as possible. C’mon.”
I turned my head back to the corner so Seb wouldn’t see me watching as they walked to the hallway. Water ran in the bathroom for a few seconds, and then the office door opened and closed behind them.
Now that that was over and I was left alone, I couldn’t help thinking back over the day with a flood of renewed guilt. This whole thing started because I couldn’t control my tongue. Ducking my chin, I started to pick at the blanket again and wondered what Quint had planned for me.
The wait to find out wasn’t long. He emerged from Seb’s room and crossed to stand behind me. I heard the footsteps, but didn’t look up until his palm landed gently on my shoulder and his other hand checked my temperature on my forehead. “Not too warm anymore. Are you up to discussing this now?”
Meeting his blue eyes, I nodded. I wanted it over with already.
He supported me on the way to the couch. Once we reached it, I sat down on the coffee table and he retook his own spot on the middle cushion, facing me. “I’d like to know what, exactly, you said this morning,” he told me, “but if your throat hurts, stop.”
“It’s okay if I’m not loud,” I said, softly. He nodded for me to continue. “I woke up and went looking for you,” I explained, “and when I found Seb and he said you were picking up groceries, I knew it would make you take longer, so I called him a chef, in a really sarcastic way. Like, ‘oh, right, you’re a Michelin-star chef,’ or something.”
“Did you try to apologize then?”
I shook my head. “I didn’t trust myself to not say something else nasty. And he looked so hurt, I just went back to bed.”
“He had good reason to be hurt,” said Quint. “Those groceries were for a soup he wanted to make for you.”
“He told me,” I said, looking down.
Quint sighed and rested his hands on my knees. “Angel, you can be the sweetest man in the world when you don’t let your temper rule you. I know that’s who you want to be, and I’m glad you reigned it in enough to stop speaking, rather than saying anything else you’d regret. Neither being sick nor wanting me around are excuses for snapping at Seb.”
With a sniffle, I said, “I know. He’s my friend, and he didn’t deserve that.”
“No, you aren’t only a friend to him,” Quint said. “We’re hosting him in our home on a regular basis, and I’m… I believe Zeggy called it being a ‘foster Top.’ He needs to feel completely welcome here, or that won’t work. You’re also the more experienced Brat, and he looks up to you like an older brother.”
I hadn’t realized. It made sense, though, when I thought about it. I definitely looked at him like a younger brother.
After a few seconds for that to sink in, Quint said, “Brothers can have healthy disagreements, but I want you to keep in mind that what you say carries a lot of weight for him, understand?”
“Good. There’s also the matter of you lying to me when I got home.”
“It wasn’t to try staying out of trouble,” I said, making myself meet his eyes. “I was ashamed to tell you.”
“The only way we can deal with guilt is if you let me know,” he replied, which is true, and also went to one of the main reasons I wanted a discipline relationship in the first place. I nodded. Patting my knee, he said, “I’m going to use the hairbrush for you, too, alright?”
“That’s… that’s fair,” I said, even as the bottom of my gut froze.
“I’m not concerned with ‘fair,’” said Quint. “It’s because I can make a quicker impression with it, and I don’t want to draw this out when you’re sick. Stand up, please.”
Drawing it out sounds lovely, actually. Like a nice bath.
Gulping, I got to my feet. He didn’t leave me there for more than a few seconds, just long enough to tug down my pajama pants and take me by the elbow. I was across his lap before I knew it, staring at a damp spot left on the upholstery by Seb’s tears. Then Quint brought my right arm behind my back. That was my only warning.
My throat throbbed at my raised voice, making me clamp my lips together to muffle myself, but that pain very soon faded in comparison to the fire in my rear end. How the hell did Seb take this silently for any length of time? And he’d said it was one of the implements that Zain used most often!
If I had ever been reduced to sobbing faster, I couldn’t remember it. My twisting and kicking continued for a few seconds after Quint stopped, before I realized he’d let go of my arm and was rubbing my shoulders under the sweatshirt.
The damp patch of cushion had grown. I rested my cheek against it as I sniveled and listened to him murmur.
With Theo being both sick and recently spanked, I wasn’t surprised that he stuck close to my side. But when Seb answered my knock with a “Come in,” he stayed in the hallway, stretching his arm out to keep his fingers hooked into my belt loop, and looking at the laptop open on the desk.
He didn’t want Zain to see him, I realized. They had very briefly met over Skype about a week ago, when Theo needed me in the middle of a progress update on Seb, but other than that, I didn’t think they’d spoken. Having a near-stranger observing him now would be difficult.
I unhooked his hand from my pants and held it in my own, giving me enough reach to step beside the desk chair. Bending down so the webcam caught my face, I addressed both Zain on the screen and Seb sitting next to me. “Sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt. You see, there’s someone here who would very much like to know that Seb’s okay.”
Leaning back to give Theo a shy smile, the younger Brat said, “I’m good now.”
Theo bit his lip. “Can I hug you?” he asked.
Seb got to his feet and stepped around me, and my husband dropped my hand in favor of enfolding his friend in his arms.
“Aww,” said Zain. “I can’t see, but I’m imagining they’re adorable, right?”
“Yes,” I confirmed, smiling.
Theo mumbled what sounded like an apology, and then pulled back a little. “I didn’t mean it, honestly. I’m really looking forward to this soup.”
With a glance from him to me, Seb asked, “You still want me to make it?”
“Of course, mon chaton,” I said. “I have everything you need in the fridge.”
“I should get started, then,” he said. “It takes a while.” Stepping away from Theo, he came back into Zain’s view. “Z, I promised Theo I’d make Mom’s soup.”
“I’m jealous,” the Top said. “I’m gonna plan to get sick over winter leave so you have to make it for me.”
“You’d better not!” said Seb. “I’ll make it for you if you don’t get sick.”
“Oh, alright,” Zain said, rolling his eyes. “Go on, babe. Love you.”
“Je t’aime,” Seb replied. He started to reach out to end the call, but I stopped him.
“I need to speak with Zain,” I said, and then added, “Nothing’s wrong,” because he looked a bit nervous.
“Um, okay,” he said. I took the desk chair, and he almost made it to the door before turning back with a pink face. “Quint? I’ll clean the wall before I start cooking.”
Smiling, I said, “Make sure to take a photo of it first. It’s beautiful. Theo can show you where we keep the cleaning supplies. A Magic Eraser should remove pencil marks quite easily.”
“D’accord.” He left, but Theo remained where he was.
“I promise I won’t be long, angel,” I told him. “Close the door on your way out, please.” Once he’d reluctantly obeyed, I turned my attention to Zain. The young Top had slouched a little in his chair. “Was it easier this way?” I asked.
Ruefully, he sighed. “No, not really. Watching in my imagination might be worse than watching in real life. You did a good job, though. I don’t think this’ll ever get easier, but I can deal. It’s what’s best for Seb.”
I nodded in understanding. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much else I could do to help.
“How’s Theo?” he asked. “We kinda overheard.”
“He’s alright,” I said. “I should be getting back to him, though. He tends to feel clingy afterward.”
Zain grinned. “Good problem to have. I’ll let you go, then. Bye.”
“Goodbye.” I closed the laptop after he hung up, and then went to find the Brats.
They were both in Seb’s corner, Theo watching while Seb scrubbed at the tree on the wall. As I came out and stopped by Jagger’s bed, Theo was asking, “You sure you don’t want help?”
“No,” Seb said. “I put it here.”
“Yeah, I still can’t believe you did that,” Theo replied, resting some of his weight on the back of the armchair next to him.
“Neither can I,” muttered Seb. “It wasn’t really a conscious decision.”
“I got that,” Theo said. “What I don’t get, though, is why Quint punished you for it, in that case. And why you seemed okay with it.”
I opened my mouth to remind my husband it wasn’t any of his business, but as I did, Seb looked over to the other Brat and asked, “Did you make a conscious decision to… say what you did, this morning?”
That made both Theo and I pause. It was an excellent way to frame it, to help my husband understand as he needed to, and when Seb’s gaze flickered briefly past him to me, he didn’t look upset at this conversation. I decided to wait and see how it played out.
“Well… no,” said Theo, “but that’s not the same. I know better than to lose my temper like that. There was a moment before when I could’ve stopped myself.”
Seb returned to rubbing the tree away as his cheeks flushed. “I know better than to hide,” he said, quietly. “And there was a moment — not before drawing this; earlier — when I could’ve stopped myself from going up on the roof, too. Anyway, it was only partly punishment. Almost all of my spankings are more for stress relief.”
Theo looked like he’d said he had two heads, and I was glad Seb’s back was to him. “You do know you can get a massage for that?” he asked.
To my relief, Seb reacted by giggling. “Zain does those sometimes, too,” he said. “They’re not as effective.”
“Oh, I can believe it,” said Theo. “I don’t think anything’s as effective as your damn hairbrush. If he uses that regularly, you must have, like, buns of steel, dude.”
Seb cracked up so hard he doubled over, bracing against the wall. My own lips twitched as I watched. They would be fine. Going to the kitchen, I started taking out the soup ingredients.