Winter Break

Zain

Sitting next to Seb on the floor of a crowded LAX airport terminal with our backs against a concrete block, I started singing under my breath. “Mele Kalikimaka is the thiiing to saaay on a briiight Hawaiian Christmas daaay–

“Zain.”

That’s the island greeting that we seeend to yoouu from the laaand where palm trees swaaaaay… What, babe?”

My voice wasn’t loud enough to draw any sort of attention, yet he was giving me one of his pained looks. “Christmas was yesterday, we didn’t celebrate it, and we aren’t in Hawaii.”

That third point was the sorest with him for good reason. We were meant to be landing in Honolulu right about now, to spend the rest of my leave at our own house, but our connecting flight had been delayed and then cancelled, and there was still no word on when we might be lifting off.

“Not a good choice for cheering you up, then?” I asked.

“I don’t need cheering up,” he said. “I’m fine.”

I tilted my head a little, and he went back to reading his book to avoid looking at me. “Right.” He absolutely hates things not going to plan like this, and having to survive the past several hours on airport food wasn’t doing wonders for his blood sugar, either. “Well, I’m gonna call them again and see what’s going on,” I said, smacking him on the knee as I stood. I walked a few yards away before dialing, so he could concentrate on reading.

It took forever to get through to an actual person, of course, but I’d been expecting that. I hummed along with the hold music while I waited. Finally, I was connected with a representative who sounded harried and rushed as she greeted me. She must’ve been having a worse day than we were. I let her know right away that I didn’t blame her a bit, before cheerfully explaining our situation. Her sigh of relief was clear over the sound of her typing.

Several minutes later, I wished her a great afternoon and ended the call. Seb’s eyes, peeking over the top of his book, watched me put the phone into my pocket. When I crossed back to him, it looked like he was on the same page he’d been reading before.

“She saw the military discount on my ticket and pulled a few more strings. Definitely writing a glowing email about her to the airline,” I said, dropping onto the concrete block he was using as a backrest. “They got us a flight that leaves in four hours.”

With a barely-audible groan, he rested his forearms on his raised knees and let the book dangle from one hand between his legs. I could just about hear him berating himself for still being upset at the turn our vacation had taken: That’s a huge improvement! Stop having normal human emotions! Zain will think you’re ungrateful and selfish and — worst of the worst — NEEDY!

Bringing one leg onto the block and back down on his other side, I pulled him to me and started massaging his tense muscles. Immediately, he tried to lean forward. “Z, there are people around.”

“Wow, if only I had your observation skills!” I said, firming up my hold with both hands and knees. “Where do you see them? No, wait, don’t tell me, I want to guess.”

His head tipped back so he could aim an upside-down scowl at me.

“Close your eyes,” I suggested. “Then you won’t be able to see the people.”

“They’ll still be able to see us.”

I let go with one hand to snap my fingers. “Damn! I knew there was a fatal flaw in that strategy.” Then I covered his face with my palm. “Close ‘em, brat.”

I felt his lashes flutter against my skin a few times before he obeyed. Satisfied, I continued the massage where I’d left off, stroking and kneading his shoulders until they relaxed. He slowly settled into me as I worked, resting his head on my abdomen. Then I moved to his neck, using the slightest pressure to raise his jaw up more. A tiny sigh escaped his lips.

Whatever he was thinking now probably wasn’t in English, or even in words, but I still had a pretty good idea of it. Bending down, I pressed a kiss to his forehead.

He didn’t move when I heard his phone ding in his bag.

“Wanna get that?” I murmured.

“It’s Theo,” he said, equally quiet. “He texted asking how Hawaii was, and I told him what’s happening.”

“Well, now you can tell him we’ll shortly be on our way, thanks to your dashing prince coming to the rescue.”

“Thought you said the airline rep was a woman,” he replied, reaching for the bag. I whapped him on the crown, and actually got a smile as he unlocked the phone. Then he read the message and blinked. “Um, Theo’s asking if we would like to go to Vermont with him and Quint instead?”

“Really?” I asked, squinting at the phone over his shoulder. “I thought that was their anniversary trip.”

“It is,” he said. “I’m… not sure Quint knows he’s inviting us.”

In answer to that, my own phone buzzed. I fished it out and saw a message from the other Top.

Theo and I would be glad to host you for the rest of your break, if you’d like. We won’t have beaches and palm trees, but there may be snow next week.

Showing it to Seb, I asked, “What d’ya think, babe? Might be easier to get to; the planes going that way aren’t delayed, and it’s about the same flight time. Plus, it would be nice to stay with them for longer. I feel like you’re getting to know them way better than me.”

“I think whatever gets us out of this place the quickest would be good.”

So one more call to the airline and a terminal change later, we were flying east.

Theo

Convincing Quint to invite Seb and his Top to stay with us was the easy part — I think he was missing the other Brat even more than I was — but letting me go to the airport in Burlington with him to pick them up? It was all, “We’ll be getting back too late, and you’ll see them in the morning. I want you to sleep, please.”

Yet the all-important Rules of Sleep Management didn’t apply to him.

I got a Look when I pointed that out, and a, “Someone obviously needs to get them, and you don’t know how to drive. I’d also rather not have to discipline you the first day they’re here, which we both know is more likely if you’re overtired. Now, you have five minutes to brush your teeth and be in bed.”

He really did mean five minutes. I dawdled on rinsing and got swatted from the bathroom to the bedroom, which, since we were in a rental cabin, was all the way on the other side of the stair landing. My butt stung by the time I made it under the covers. Then he gave me a gentle kiss and left. I think I fell asleep soon after, annoyingly.

*

Taylor Swift woke me up. Well, not her in person. In fact, it wasn’t even her singing, I realized as I blinked my eyes open. Definitely her song, though.

“‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play,
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, baby,
I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake,
Shake it off, shake it off!”

I got up and poked my head onto the landing. The singing was coming from the first floor. Seb had just stepped out of the other bedroom.

“Oh, hi,” he said. “Sorry, is he disturbing you guys? I told him to keep it down.”

“Quint’s still asleep, and I don’t need any more rest,” I told him, slipping through the door and shutting it behind me. “That’s Zain, huh?” He’d shown me a video of his fiancé a few weeks ago, but I didn’t remember his voice very well.

“Yeah, he wanted to make breakfast, and he usually sings while he cooks,” Seb replied. “I was about to go down and join him.”

I made an ‘after you’ gesture at the staircase and followed, burning with curiosity, as he descended.

“I never miss a beat,
I’m lightning on my feet,
And that’s what they don’t see-ee, mm-mm,
That’s what they don’t see-ee, mm-mm.

The kid from the video was in the kitchen. He stood about as tall as Seb, but broader across the shoulders and well-built, with closely cropped hair and an angular jaw, and he was wearing loose gray sweatpants with a neon purple tank top. When he saw us, he broke off singing to grin brilliantly while the music continued to play at a quieter volume from his phone on the counter.

“Hi, Theo! Great to actually meet you. I’d shake your hand, but mine’s covered in French toast batter.” He held it up for me to see, and then bent his arm and stuck his elbow out instead. “Bump?”

I did, a little nonplussed, and he spun back to the oven as a timer went off, his hips twitching with the beat.

But I keep cruiiisin’, can’t stop, won’t stop groooovin’–

With a sigh, Seb sat down at the table and rolled his eyes towards me. “I warned you he’s got the musical tastes of a teenage girl.”

“Um,” Zain said, pointedly looking over his shoulder, “excuse me, Mr. Jonas Brothers, what was that?”

Seb’s mouth dropped open as his cheeks turned pink. “Okay, first, I have not listened to the Jonas Brothers regularly since I was, like, fifteen–”

“Ha, try seventeen,” said Zain.

“And second,” Seb continued over him, louder, “Nick Jonas has Type 1 diabetes.”

“And third, have you seen him shirtless?” Zain asked me, wiggling his eyebrows, at which Seb’s entire face went bright scarlet. He covered it with his hands.

“Oh my gods, shut up.”

Zain laughed and asked, “Theo, how do you like your eggs?”

“Uh.” It took me a moment to remember. “Scrambled?”

“Awesome! That’s the only kind I know how to do.”

I sat next to Seb — who had crossed his arms on the table, though he was still more rosy than normal — and frowned as I watched Zain crack eggs into a frying pan. I couldn’t figure out what to make of him. Look, I know Tops are allowed to have fun, too, but you do kind of expect some… dignity, don’t you? Not dancing around the kitchen to Taylor Swift.

Or seeming to take so much joy in embarrassing the hell out of their Brat. As he set a plate down in front of Seb, he bent over close to his ear, singing, “Won’t you come on over, baby, we can shake, shake, shake,” while Seb flushed again and bit his lip.

Then Quint came in, and the other Brat got up so fast he nearly butted Zain’s chin with his shoulder. He looked for all the world like a teenager who’d just been caught making out by his parents.

Quint’s eyebrow twitched. “Good morning.”

“Morning,” Zain replied, cheerful and unperturbed. “French toast bake is in the oven. Want some eggs?”

“Yes, thank you,” said Quint, taking a seat.

Seb slowly lowered himself back onto his chair as well. “Are you two sure you don’t mind us interrupting your trip?” he asked.

Rolling my eyes, I said, “We invited you for a reason. I was getting bored out here in the woods with only him for company.” It was half-joking, of course, but with a core of truth. I am not a country boy, and there wasn’t much to do up here.

Quint added, “My one regret is that we didn’t plan it this way to begin with, because now the two of you have no warm clothing packed.”

At the stovetop, Zain shrugged. “We saved money by not flying to Hawaii and then all the way back to the East Coast, so we’ve got some room for shopping. And I’m twenty-two. It’s probably about time I owned a winter coat that wasn’t military-issued.”

I hadn’t realized until he said it like that: He was a year younger than I had been when I met Quint. Suddenly, I felt very old.

Zain

Theo was quieter than I’d expected from impressions of him I’d gotten through Seb and Quint. I wondered if that was just a morning issue. He yawned a few times as we ate breakfast — with each one, rubbing his hand over his stubble and into his already-disheveled auburn hair. I kinda wanted to mess it up more by giving him a playful noogie or something. It was endearing.

Quint noticed the yawning, too. “Angel, how much sleep did you get last night?”

“Enough,” Theo said, with a tiny eyeroll. “I didn’t even wake up when you guys got in. All this fresh, unpolluted mountain air is making me drowsy.”

“It’s beautiful up here,” said Seb. “Inside and outside.”

He was right. I’m not as sensitive to my environment as him, but I could appreciate a nice space. The lower floor of the cabin had an open plan built around a large stone fireplace in the middle, with posts and beams of naturally-stained wood supporting the vaulted ceiling over the living room area. The furnishings and decorations looked like a ski chalet crossed with a modern loft. I’m sure Seb could name the actual style. From what I’d seen out the windows, acres of private woodland surrounded us. Quint had taken a long, winding driveway off the main road. It felt like the middle of nowhere.

“It was recommended by a colleague of mine who vacationed here last summer,” Quint said. “The owners live in Europe and occupy it just once a year, apparently. The only drawback was that they have a strict no-pets rule, so Jagger is staying with Zeggy and Ike while we’re away.”

“And getting played with every second of the day by Lyra and Griffin,” Theo put in, picking up his mug of coffee. “I’m sure he’ll be spoiled rotten by the time we go back.”

“Aww, I was looking forward to meeting him and seeing a famous Theo-and-Jagger dance routine,” I said. “Seb sent me a drawing of one after he moved to New York, before he even properly met you. I think he used it as a study for the commissioned portrait, right, babe?”

Seb nodded, and Quint said, “I’d like to see that, if you still have it. The portrait is one of my most cherished possessions.”

“I probably don’t,” said Seb. Despite the fact that he’s a packrat and never throws away the vast majority of his art.

Brightly, I said, “I’m sure I still have the electronic copy you emailed.”

He pulled a subtle face at me — just a twitch of his nose. Then to Quint, he said, “It’s not a very good sketch. Zain, you said yourself it looked heavy-handed.”

“Yes, truly it was a lowpoint in your oeuvre which must never sully the gaze of another,” I deadpanned.

The corner of Quint’s lip quirked. “Mon chaton, if you’re not comfortable sharing it, that’s fine. I do understand something of the artistic process from living with Theo.”

We all glanced toward the other Brat then, and found him squinting at me with his eyebrows furrowed together. Before I could ask if I had syrup on my cheeks or something, Seb said, “Oh, he was being sarcastic with the ‘lowpoint’ comment, Theo.”

“I know. Sorry, just need more coffee.” He got up as he spoke and moved to the pot on the counter with his mug, which looked half-full to me.

Leaning over, Seb whispered, “Behave! You’re confusing him.”

Ohhhhh. Was that what it was?

I watched Theo pour coffee and bit the inside of my cheek. This could be fun.

*

Our first order of business was buying outerwear for Seb and me. We all piled into the rental car, and Quint drove to the mall in Burlington, where we spent the morning finding boots and coats. Quint recommended a few sweaters, too, and I took so long picking a hat with a pompom on the top that Seb finally tossed a yellow one at my face and told me to buy it or they were leaving without me. I got one for him in red. He looked cute as hell wearing it.

Laden with our purchases, we walked to the car and filled up the trunk. Then Quint checked the time on his watch and suggested we should eat lunch before heading back.

“Pizza!” Theo said.

“We had pizza last week,” Quint told him. That seemed way too long ago to me. Theo tried to argue that it shouldn’t matter because they were on vacation, but he was firmly vetoed.

We decided on a French bistro and were seated at a table by the front windows, Quint and Seb on one side and Theo and I facing them. The waitress took our drink orders before leaving us to talk about what we could do for the rest of the trip. I kept the New Year’s Eve plans purposely vague, knowing it was Quint and Theo’s anniversary. I wanted to discuss that with Seb.

When the drinks were delivered, I automatically reached for Seb’s glass to take a sip, and then nodded to him as I passed it back. Next to me, Theo got the same expression he’d worn a few times since I first noticed it in the kitchen. In this instance, though, he actually asked a question.

“Why’d you do that?”

“To make sure it’s diet soda,” I said. “Regular has way too much sugar, and I can taste the difference better than Seb.” He’d had a bad high once due to a careless server. Since then, he always wanted me to confirm before he’d drink anything not served in the original container.

“Oh, okay,” Theo said, the confusion clearing. I wondered if he thought it was one of my rules, rather than Seb’s.

Seb who was now taking his insulin pen from his bag and, holding it in his lap, dialling up a dose I knew he hadn’t tested for.

I pulled the straw out of my glass and blew the piece of wrapper on the end of it across the table, hitting him on the cheek. His head jerked up. Tilting my chin, I smiled. “Need to use the bathroom, babe?”

He knew exactly what I meant. No, you can’t skip the test because you’re paranoid about someone seeing you through the window, brat. Wanna find somewhere private to argue with me?

“No,” he said, flushing and swapping the pen for his test kit. He still kept it as hidden as possible in the bag, but that was fine.

Quint glanced down at what he was doing and then gave me an understanding look, picking up the wrapper from the table. Poor Theo, meanwhile, was more baffled than ever.

Theo

It’s not that I didn’t like him. That would’ve been nearly impossible. It’s just that he was an odd Top. To start with, there was the Disney thing. The first night, we were gathered in the living room debating what to watch before bed, and he pushed hard for a movie called The Emperor’s New Groove.

“I’ve never seen it,” I said.

“Then you’re in for a treat! It’s a classic tale of Brat meets Top, Brat gets turned into a llama–”

“A llama?” I asked, blinking.

“No, no, do it like this,” he said, and then in a higher voice, “‘A llama?! He’s supposed to be DEAD!’”

Seb, who was curled up beside him, rolled his eyes. “Don’t. He’ll recite the whole movie before we even start it.”

“Does that mean you’re voting with me, babe?”

Sighing, the other Brat said, “I might as well. I know you’ll make us watch it at some point before we leave.”

By then, I was intrigued, too, and Quint said he didn’t mind, so we found it on Netflix. I had to admit, the two main characters did seem fairly like a Top and a Brat. The Top one had some not-Toppish moments, but they were nothing compared to Zain’s.

Such as when he and Quint came upstairs the next morning, both red-cheeked from running in 30-degree weather like madmen, and Zain loudly complaining, “Babe, Quint threatened to swat me!”

Seb was in the bathroom brushing his teeth, while I was at the other end of the landing, having just come out of the master bedroom, but I could clearly hear him respond, “Good. What’d you do?”

His fiancé made a protesting noise. “I only beat him at a friendly race!”

At that, Seb leaned out of the bathroom to look past Zain to Quint, standing by me, and asked, “He gloated, didn’t he?”

Quint nodded, with a very grave expression.

“There is nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s accomplishments,” Zain said, crossing his arms and resting his butt against the railing overlooking the living room.

“There is when you do it,” Seb told him. To Quint, he added, “You should’ve swatted him again.”

And then Zain huffed and pushed him into the bathroom, shutting the door behind them and leaving me trying to absorb what had just happened.

Quint was pulling clothes out of the dresser by the time I collected myself enough to ask, “Again?

“Hm?”

Stepping into the room after him and lowering my voice to just above a whisper, I elaborated, “He said, ‘you should’ve swatted him again,’ which means you’ve done it already.”

He glanced up, opened his mouth, and shut it once more, before saying, “You would have to ask Zain about that, angel.”

So I did, after breakfast, when we had to wash the dishes together because Seb and Quint had cooked. Zain just grinned and enigmatically said, “Oh, I got kinda cheeky with him the last time we saw each other.”

“And he swatted you?” I asked, to be clear.

He nodded, still smiling a little. “Four times.”

Four?!

It was so hard to believe I thought he must be lying, except when I asked Quint later, he confirmed the number.

The cheekiness part was easy to see, though. Like later that day, we were all taking a walk out to a pond on the property, back in the woods, to watch the wildlife. Quint was on one side of me and Zain on the other, a few steps behind. Seb had wandered off the path a little. Calling after him, Quint said, “There’s pricker bushes out here. Be careful, mon chaton.”

And Zain, I swear to heaven above, meowed.

All three of us stopped dead and turned slowly to look at him with varying degrees of astonishment.

“What?” he asked, like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. “I think there’s a kitten somewhere. Did you hear that?”

Quint’s eyebrows went up to his hairline. “Have you ever tasted soap?”

Completely unfazed, Zain replied, “Nope, not yet.”

“Keep going,” said Quint. But humor glinted in his eyes as he continued down the trail, so I guess it wasn’t as serious as it seemed.

Okay, it was pretty funny, and the way Seb was glaring at his Top like he wanted to kill him only made it even more hilarious. Zain and I both kept catching each other’s eye and breaking out in laughter the rest of the way to the pond. So yeah, I did like him.

*

The thing was, though, I could see no evidence of him actually acting like a Top towards Seb. Even when he should’ve been. I wasn’t expecting him to dole out swats in front of me or anything, but…

Take the day after we walked to the pond. It was raining, so we had to stay inside, and by three o’clock I was bored out of my mind. I got the acoustic guitar I’d brought and tried to write a new song, but the muse wasn’t speaking. Eventually, I was on my back in front of the living room hearth, plucking the strings randomly, while Quint read in one armchair, Seb drew in the other, and Zain appeared to be fast asleep, stretched out on the couch.

I don’t think I was the only one having creative difficulties. Seb kept huffing under his breath and reaching for his eraser. After about the seventh time, he tore the page out of his sketchbook, crumpled it into a ball, and chucked it at the pile of wood next to the fireplace. It bounced off and landed near my head.

Languidly, without opening his eyes, Zain asked, “Would it help if you drew on the wall?”

Seb said something in French that made Quint’s head jerk up in disapproval, but the younger Top only stretched slightly and cuddled the throw pillow closer.

“Maybe later, babe,” he said. “I’m too tired.”

Dropping his sketchbook in his lap, Seb said, “ZAIN!”

“Oh, sorry, am I doing it wrong again?” asked Zain, still with his eyes closed. “What’s the proper Top-approved way to deal with this?”

“I don’t know,” Seb huffed. “Call me by my full name and swat me or something.”

His fiancé groaned. “Ugh, your full name is so long, though. And you’re all the way over there. C’mere and I’ll swat you.”

“No!”

“Well then, quit yer complainin’.”

At that, Seb did get up and bring the sketchbook over to the couch, where he smacked Zain’s shoulder with it and declared, “You are awful.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Zain said, unperturbed. And then he moved, fast as lightning, somehow grabbing Seb around the waist perfectly even though he couldn’t have known exactly where he stood, and a second later the Brat was squashed between him and the backrest. “Tickle attack!”

“No no no! Don’t– argh!”

Both of them dissolved into giggles. I lifted my head off the floor and watched in amazement for a few seconds, before checking if Quint was seeing this. He just caught my eye, smiled, shrugged, and went back to reading.

Zain

Messing with Theo took so little effort beyond how I’d usually act, I probably didn’t need to do anything special at all. But when I told him Quint had swatted me four times, the look on his face was simultaneously hilarious and adorable. How could I resist?

My primary focus, though, was still Seb. Just over three weeks together wasn’t long enough, and I wanted to make the most of it, which meant getting him as relaxed and de-stressed as I could. I watched him like a hawk and latched onto anything that needed defusing before it got to the powderkeg stage. Because of that, we avoided physical discipline — if you didn’t count tickle fights — until the morning of New Year’s Eve.

Seb and I got up first to prepare our surprise breakfast for the other couple. I followed him downstairs, yawning, and carefully took a frying pan from the cupboard while he got the dough he’d whipped up the night before out of the fridge and brought it to the table. The plan was for me to concentrate on eggs and hashbrowns, and him to do these mouthwatering fruity pastry things he makes me sometimes if I ask him very, very nicely.

Five minutes later, he was hovering behind me.

“You need to– no, not like that. Here, I’ll do it.”

I bumped him out of the way with my hip before he could pick up the spatula. “I’ve got it, babe. Go work your magic over there.”

“Do you even know how to do this?” he asked.

“Me make fire,” I grunted. “Fire make hot yum-yums.”

“Not just hot,” he said. “You’ve got it too high. It should be like this, see.”

The temperature was fine. As he reached for the knob to adjust it, I grabbed his wrist and towed him back to the table, where I stood behind him and arranged his limbs like a puppet so both his hands were on the pastry dough. Then I gently pushed his neck down until he was looking at it, too. He didn’t move when I let go. Satisfied, I gave him two light pats on the head and a slightly stronger one on the butt before leaving him.

He stayed on his side of the kitchen after that, though I caught him craning to see what I was doing several times.

We worked as quietly as possible to pull the meal together, not wanting to wake Quint and Theo. It looked pretty damn good when we finished. At least, I thought so. Seb stood a few feet back from the pastries cooling on the table and bit his thumbnail. “Merde, they’re too brown. I need to start again.”

“No time,” I told him, “and they’re fine, anyway.”

He spun around and glared at me. “They can’t just be fine, not when they’re saying ‘sorry we disrupted your trip.’”

“Wow, that’s so weird,” I said, tilting my head a little. “I thought they were saying ‘hi, I’m a pastry and you should eat me because I’m delicious.’”

His gaze dropped.

I’d been expecting this. In fact, it was part of the whole reason I suggested the second half of our plans. He was not going to tailspin over being an inconvenience, not if I could help it. “So what are they saying now?” I asked.

Grimacing, he muttered, “I’ll go get Quint and Theo.”

I wanted to make a joke about the pastries having a hard time doing that without legs, but he was gone too quick. There was just enough time to plate everything before I heard three sets of footsteps on the staircase. I scrambled to stand in front of the short end of the table, to block as much of the view as possible.

Only Quint had gotten dressed. Theo was still in his pajamas and looked slightly more than half awake, but he perked up a little as he inhaled the scent of food.

“Babe, c’mere,” I said. Once Seb was next to me, I counted down. “Three, two, one, TA-DAA!” Stepping to one side, I swept my arm over the spread. Seb rolled his eyes as he followed my example.

From their expressions, I think they were quite impressed.

Quint spoke first. Smiling from me to Seb, he said, “You two didn’t need to do this.”

“It’s to say,” Seb started, and then glanced at me and thought better of it. “Um, happy anniversary.”

“Thank you, mon chaton,” Quint said, pulling him into a hug. As soon as he let go, Theo took a turn and Quint switched to me. Then the older Brat looked at me uncertainly for a moment, until I wrapped an arm around him and tousled his bedhead with my other hand. He ducked away, grinning.

“Also,” I said, “Seb and I are clearing out for the night. We rented a hotel room so you guys can have some privacy.”

The announcement got more surprise than the breakfast. They exchanged a look before Quint said, “That was very unnecessary, but also very appreciated. Thank you.”

“No problem,” I said. “C’mon let’s dig in. I’m dying to have one of Seb’s pastries.”

As Theo took his seat, he asked Seb, “You made those?”

He nodded, flushing a little. “Sorry they’re overdone.”

It left me no choice. I had to swat him. And I couldn’t hold back on it, either, so his yelp was rather loud, and followed by a moment of complete silence with both Brats wearing identical shocked faces.

Quint was the one to break it again, saying, “They’re beautiful, mon chaton,” like nothing had happened. Then he smoothly redirected the attention to the meal, asking me how I’d done the hash browns. Bless him and his horn-rimmed glasses.

I couldn’t help but notice, though, that Theo was not smiling while we ate.

Theo

“What the fuck was that about?” I demanded the second Quint and Zain stepped out the door for their run. Seb looked up from the book he’d curled around on the couch and blinked owlishly at me.

“What was what about?”

How could he not know what I meant?

“The swat,” I said, dropping into an armchair. “One second everything’s fine, and then he lands that stinger out of nowhere?”

He blushed. “It was…” Trailing off, he shook his head a little, like he couldn’t figure out the words he wanted. Finally, he said, “The pastries. I mentioned they were overdone.”

I frowned. Zain seemed way too easy-going to get upset over something like that. “So he swatted you for making the pastries the wrong shade?”

“What? No, for saying that they were.”

“I don’t understand.”

We stared at each other in mutual bafflement for a few seconds.

“I… I can’t explain,” he said, “it’s just… it was what I needed.”

Why? I asked.

Hunching himself closer to the book, he mumbled, “Um, I’d rather not talk about this anymore, if that’s okay?”

Frustration rose in me. My desire to understand wasn’t nosiness, despite what Quint might’ve thought. Suppose Zain was punishing him for mistakes that could happen to anyone? Clearly, though, Seb was uncomfortable with my questions, and I didn’t want that, not to mention what would happen if Quint found out I’d forced him to discuss anything. With a sigh, I decided to let it go for now.

I watched the pair of them very closely for the rest of the morning, without an idea of what I was actually looking for. Regardless, I didn’t see anything unusual. Seb acted maybe a tiny bit subdued, but he’s so quiet anyway, it’s hard to tell.

*

They left shortly after lunch. Quint and I went outside with them because we were planning to take a walk after they were gone. As Zain climbed into the rental car, he gave us a cheery wink, saying, “Bye, you crazy kids! Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”

Bonsoir,” Seb added, before he got in the other side. Then Zain started the engine and the car headed down the long driveway. I watched until it went out of sight around a bend.

Quint’s arms enfolded me from behind, pulling me against his chest. “They’ll be back tomorrow, angel,” he said. “Hardly any time to miss them at all.”

“I know,” I said, and drew away from him to head for the path through the woods to the pond.

The scenery was beautiful, even without snow. I could almost see how some people might want to live so far from civilization. But it was hard to appreciate it at the moment. My concern over Seb grew about ten times stronger the second I couldn’t see him.

“Theo, slow down, please.”

Whoops. I had kinda gotten a few feet ahead of Quint. Stopping, I waited for him to catch up.

He took my hand and frowned at me. “Is there something you’d like to discuss?”

I did want to, but…. “You’ll tell me it’s none of my business.”

The frown cleared into understanding. “Zain swatting Seb?”

I nodded, and he interlocked our fingers and continued down the trail, his arm bumping against my shoulder as I walked next to him. I said, “We don’t have to discuss it now. This is supposed to be a romantic walk.”

“I would rather we do it now, angel, so we can enjoy our evening together,” he replied, looking down at his feet to guide us around a patch of mud. “Have you asked Seb about it?”

When I didn’t answer for several seconds again, he glanced over and smiled a little.

“That isn’t a trick question. I’m not going to be upset if you did; I’d just like to know what he said.”

“He didn’t want to talk, so I stopped,” I said, because that bit was important. Then I backtracked a little. “At first, though, he said it was about the pastries, and then that he couldn’t explain, but it was what he needed. It made no sense. I don’t understand what he did wrong.”

Quint shook his head. “He didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. You’re thinking of it in terms of punishment. Remember when Seb told you that most of his spankings are about stress?”

“Yes, and that made no sense then, either.”

He sighed quietly — not like he was annoyed, only trying to find a way to explain it. After a moment, he said, “Angel, I think if you’re truly honest with yourself, you’ll see that sometimes when I’ve disciplined you, it had more to do with stress as well.”

Raising my eyebrows in incredulity, I replied, “And I think you’re finally going senile in your old age.”

“Watch the tone,” he warned, but with a hint of humor dancing around the corners of his lips. “And that branch there, as well.”

I ducked underneath the tree limb as I tried to give what he’d said more serious consideration.

No, it still made no sense.

Look, I’m self-aware as the next Brat. I do realize that, yes, sometimes I act out because I’m stressed, and maybe on some level I’m doing it to provoke Quint into tightening the boundaries, but when I go too far with it, the spanking is always about whatever the misbehaviour was, and I know that because he makes sure to explain in great detail why I’m being punished. One of his favorite refrains is, If something is bothering you, Theodore, you need to come talk to me about it, not [do whatever I’d done]. This would be like if I did talk to him, and his response was to spank me anyway.

“It isn’t fair to Seb,” I said. “He shouldn’t be swatted or spanked for no reason.”

At that, Quint halted in his tracks and turned to face me fully, looking very solemn now. “Angel, I want you to be honest. Are you worrying that Zain is abusive?”

“Of course not,” I said, without even really thinking about it. I’d only known him a few days, yet the idea was unmistakably ridiculous. Anyone could see how much he loved Seb. “Are you?”

“No,” Quint said. “I’m extremely certain he isn’t. If you have any doubts, though, we can ask them to come back so the four of us can talk this over. Neither of them would want you to be concerned about that.”

I shook my head. “We don’t need to call them. I just want to understand, because… I don’t know how to say it. I’m worried about Seb, but I don’t know why. It’s not enough to disrupt everyone’s plans, though.”

“You’re worried because you don’t trust Zain to know what’s best for Seb.”

Direct hit. I stared at him in mild shock, as I do when he reads thoughts I didn’t even know I had, and nodded.

“Alright,” he said. “If Zain and Seb agree, we can all discuss this tomorrow. I think that’s the only thing that will put your mind at ease.”

“What if they don’t?”

“When I explain it, I would be very surprised if they refuse. Seb, especially, doesn’t want you worried about him,” he said. “Can you set this aside for now so we can celebrate our anniversary?”

“Yeah.” Knowing it was in his hands made me feel better already. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the past nine years, it’s how strong they are.

Zain

Seb and I rang in the new year in style: Buck naked, with him cradled in my arms, squirming and whimpering and begging for release from about two hours of edging. When the clock hit midnight, I said, “Yes, now,” and he went over beautifully. I can never get enough of how stunning he is in the grip of rapture, and how it makes me feel to be able to bring him to it.

So that was all good. The next morning, however, we ran into the other reason I’d wanted us to have some time alone. Sitting cross-legged in the center of the bed and fiddling with the dog tags around his neck as he watched me zip up the duffle bag we’d brought, he said, “Maybe we could stay here another night, or– or even the rest of the trip, just so we’re not, um–”

“Imposing?” I asked, and unzipped the bag again to fish out the hairbrush.

His eyes went wide when he saw it, and then he ducked his head with an exhale, reaching for the button of his jeans. I sat on the edge of the mattress, leaned over, and swatted the outside of his hip. Yelping, he let go.

“Here,” I said, handing him a pillow instead. Being in a hotel, I knew he’d have an easier time if he wasn’t as worried about people hearing. He took it gratefully.

It was rather damp from tears and bitemarks by the time I let him stand and pulled his jeans back up.

“Ready to go?” I asked. He nodded, still sniffling.

Of course, we had to make a short stop in the bathroom to wipe his face and neck down, but then we were on our way. You couldn’t tell he’d been crying by the time we were parked in front of the cabin again, half an hour later.

Quint and Theo met us at the door with their arms around each other, both looking very satiated. Grinning as I stepped over the threshold, I asked, “Didn’t party too hard, did you?”

“We had a lovely evening,” Quint said.

“And an even lovelier night,” added Theo, with a smirk.

Clearing his throat pointedly, Quint asked, “Can we help you bring your bags upstairs?”

Seb answered before I could, his voice barely audible as he said, “I’ve got it,” and took the duffle from me. They were his first words since the spanking, and he probably still felt too vulnerable to jump right into socializing. I let him head upstairs, planning to check on him in a few minutes.

Theo watched with more obvious concern, and then he and Quint shared a look. Turning to me, Quint said, “I was about to change for a run. Would you like to come along?”

I shrugged. “It’s supposed to be my rest day, but sure. I’ll go change, too.”

As I did, I coaxed Seb into talking until I was satisfied his sugars weren’t dropping. Then I brought him back downstairs and dropped him off with Theo in the living room. Neither Brat spoke, yet the older one was more focused on Seb than on the television when Quint and I left.

*

We ran to the end of the driveway and turned onto the shoulder of the road, like every other day. The chill in the air grew less and less noticeable as my body warmed. I’d discovered over the week that Quint was really in great shape, and I only needed to hold down my pace a little for him to keep right alongside me. As we rounded a bend into a small straightaway before an incline started, I said, “Race you to the top.”

He glanced over and shook his head. “Didn’t you say today was your rest day?”

“Yeah, but the hill’s there,” I explained, grinning. “Who can resist that challenge?”

“I can,” he said. “Go on. I’ll catch up.”

“Suit yourself.” Picking up speed, I tackled it full-on, pushing through the burning in my calves until I reached the summit, completely winded and glad I had an excuse to stop for a minute. Quint was also panting harder when he joined me. I stood with my hands on my hips to open my chest and took in the rolling fields surrounding us, scattered with trees and small farms. It was as good a place as any. Once I had the breath, I asked, “So, what’d you wanna talk about?”

The older man smiled a little. “I don’t recall saying I wanted to talk, but now that you mention it…” He turned to face me. “Theo is confused about yours and Seb’s relationship. He’s not comfortable with the idea of a Brat being subject to discipline when they haven’t truly done something wrong, so the swat you gave Seb yesterday has been bothering him.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I figured from the way he was acting.”

“It’s also, I think, something to do with how little he knows you, as well as your, uh, shall we say, unique style. He believes you have Seb’s best interests at heart, but I don’t think he trusts you to take the correct actions. It’s worried him.”

Wincing, I thought, All fun and games, until…

“I may have made it worse,” I confessed. “I’ve kinda been playing it up a tiny bit to mess with him on purpose.”

Quint raised an eyebrow.

“Only a tiny, eensy-weensy bit?”

“Yes, somehow I think he would be equally confused if you hadn’t,” he said, smiling wryly. Then he sobered and added, “I’m not entirely without blame myself. I’ve been so concerned with respecting Seb’s boundaries that I cut off almost any discussion that could’ve helped them to reach an understanding. If you — and, of course, Seb — agree, I’d like to have that discussion today, with all of us involved.”

In the state of mind I’d left him, Seb would run and hide from a serious discipline talk. We needed a non-threatening way to do it, or he’d probably just convince Theo even more that I didn’t know what I was doing. Biting my lip, I thought the problem over for a few seconds, and then nodded once and presented Quint with the solution. It was simple, really. Fun and games.

Theo

I made a few attempts to talk to Seb after the Tops went out, but from his stilted responses I got the feeling he wasn’t in the mood for conversation, so I let it drop. Anyway, Quint had said all of us should have the discussion together. He and Zain came back after about thirty minutes and headed straight upstairs for showers, Zain pausing on the way to swoop down over Seb in the armchair and deliver a tight hug. The Brat closed his eyes and leaned into him, and then twisted around to watch his Top climb the stairs when he let go.

They took longer up there than I expected, especially knowing by now that Zain showered freakishly fast. When they reappeared, it was to stand in front of the TV together, with Quint holding what looked suspiciously like one of the pads I write lines on. For a trip of this length, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had packed one, just in case. I slouched down on the couch and eyed them. Seb looked wary, too, and even more so when Zain beamed at us both.

“What shall we do this afternoon, oh, I know, let’s play the Newlywed Game,” he said. “Or the Not-Quite-Wed and Wed-For-Several-Years Game, in our case, I guess.”

I glanced to Seb to see if maybe he knew where the hell this was coming from, or why Quint seemed in all seriousness to be going along with it. From his expression, he didn’t.

“Z, what are you talking about?” he asked.

“The Newlywed Game!” said Zain. “I’ll explain the rules, babe. There’s a list of questions, one half of the couple writes down their answers, and then their partner hears the question and guesses how they answered, and if they’re right, that couple gets a point.” Then, addressing me more than Seb, he added, “It’s a great way to both show how well you know your partner and get to know the other couple.”

Oh. I had to imagine it was Zain’s idea to do the discussion this way. Typical of him. Why my husband went along with it was more of a puzzle.

“I think it could be enlightening,” Quint said. “However, if there are any questions you feel uncomfortable answering or want to change, you can.”

“Who’s making up the questions?” I asked.

“Normally, they’d be picked by a moderator,” Zain said, “but since we don’t have an extra person, we figured the fairest way would be for Quint to write Seb’s and me to write yours, and then when we switch, you’ll write mine and Seb will do Quint’s.”

“We’ve already written down three for each of you, not seeing what the other wrote,” said Quint. “I’d like you to look them over now, before we start.” He handed the pad to Seb while Zain took a sheet of paper that had been torn from it out of his pocket and passed it to me.

Unfolding it, I read the list inside. The first was something that might be asked in a televised newlywed game. The others were more… interesting.

Mon chaton, you can change any you want, remember,” Quint said.

Seb was flushed pink from reading his list, I saw. But he looked first at Zain, who was cheerful as ever, and then to me, and shook his head. “They’re alright.”

“Excellent,” Zain said. “Now, write each answer on a separate sheet of paper so we can’t see them all when you reveal one. We’ll go make some snacks. Come in when you’re ready.”

They went around the other side of the fireplace to the kitchen, and Seb started tearing sheets off the pad. As he handed three to me, I asked, “You know what they’re doing, right?”

He nodded.

I thought about telling him he didn’t have to go through with it, and that I could live with being confused. Except I really couldn’t. It was driving me insane. And he seemed okay, anyway.

Once we finished writing the answers and sat down next to our respective partners at the kitchen table, I volunteered Quint and I to go first, thinking at least we could break the ice for Seb.

Zain said, “Alright, give me your questions. I’ll read them, and then Quint says what he thinks you wrote down. Oh, and we need someone to keep score.”

Rolling his eyes, Seb said, “Or we could just play with no winners and losers.”

“Um, no,” said Zain.

“I’ll keep the score,” Quint said. Seb gave him an extra paper and a pen, and finally we were ready to begin.

With all the dramaticness and seriousness of a news anchor grilling some important politician, Zain said, “Quint. I asked Theo what his favorite t-shirt says. What did he answer?”

“That’s tricky,” Quint said. “I’m trying to remember if his favorite is a concert t-shirt.”

I bit my lip, trying to resist the urge to give him a hint.

“Hmm. No, I think I’ll go with the ‘Here Comes Treble’ one that Zeggy gave him on his last birthday.”

Smiling, I flipped the first sheet of paper off my stack of answers to reveal it said Here Comes Treble, with a treble clef drawn as well.

“Strong out of the gate!” Zain said, while Quint marked down the point in our column. “Alright next one. Quint, what is Theo’s most dreaded punishment?”

With hardly a pause, he said, “The belt.”

“Yep,” I agreed, showing my answer.

“Interesting,” said Zain. “I don’t have any experience with them. Is it just the pain factor, or…?”

I felt my ears heating up, yet part of the point of this was to share things, wasn’t it? “No,” I replied, “it’s more because it’s reserved for when I’ve behaved recklessly, and that really upsets him, which upsets me. And because I’m usually standing, bent over, I think? The position makes it worse, somehow. Not that it doesn’t also hurt like hell.”

Seb spoke up then, while staring at the table and tearing bits of the ragged edge off a sheet of paper. “I don’t like that position, either,” he said. “There’s too much of a disconnect between me and Zain.”

“Yeah, we only ever used it once,” his Top put in. “I hated not being able to really feel him. I need more contact to judge how things are going accurately.” He draped an arm across Seb’s shoulders and pulled him closer before reading off the last question. “Quint, what did Theo say was the thing you’re most strict about?”

“I think it would be reckless behavior,” he said. “That’s the reason we use the belt for it.”

I shook my head as I turned over the last sheet. “No, you are way more strict about lying!”

He looked surprised. “Am I?”

“Your definition of it is so stringent, and you always at least wash my mouth out. For reckless behavior, I feel like there’s some leeway. Like when you gave me lines for holding the subway doors open that one time.”

“I thought lines would be more effective in that case,” Quint said. They were. I hadn’t held the doors since, and I started thinking seriously about other ways I could act safer. Frowning a little, he went on, “I suppose I never considered how strongly I feel about lying, though it makes sense. A foundation of dishonesty, especially in a relationship like ours, can’t work.”

That reminded me of something I’d wanted to ask Seb about. I wasn’t sure how he’d react, but if not now, when? “Yeah,” I said. “I was kind of surprised that Quint had to explain lying to you the way he did, Seb. Is it, like, not as big a deal with you two?”

He hesitated a moment, and then said, “I don’t lie to Zain. Um, at least… not the untruthfulness part. And the rest is… different.”

Quint always said lying was lying, no matter what form. “‘Different’ how?” I asked.

The other Brat shot Zain a helpless sort of look.

“I can put it in words, habibi, don’t worry.” Turning to me, Zain went on, “Seb is actually really, really terrible at outright lying. Like, pitiful. Even if he’s just stretching the truth or hiding something, I can see straight through it ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time. And he knows that. He isn’t trying to fool me, he’s setting off a flare. Not ideal, but sometimes that’s the only way he’s capable of letting me know something’s going on, so I don’t care much, see?”

Weirdly, I did. It brought up another question, though. “But with Quint, he’s not allowed to do that?”

My husband answered me. “I’m not as good at seeing the flares, angel. I’m working on getting better, and Seb is working on being more explicit, right, mon chaton?”

He nodded, ducking his head.

“You are getting pretty good,” Zain said to Quint. “And two out of three on the game isn’t bad, either, but I bet we can beat it. Ready, babe?”

Seb exhaled, visibly relaxing his shoulders under Zain’s arm, and nodded again. He passed his list of questions to Quint, who smiled reassuringly as he took them and read off the sheet. “I asked Seb, ‘what is the silliest thing Zain has ever done?’”

Zain’s eyebrows scrunched together. “How would you even narrow that down?”

“I know,” Seb said. “I sort of just picked randomly.”

“Guess I’ll pick randomly, too, then,” said Zain. Tapping on his lips with a forefinger, he thought for a few seconds. “Ummm…. Okay, I’m going with this time we went on a hike and I spent the whole thing making these terrible puns out of stuff around us, like, ‘babe, say you’ll never leaf me alone,’ and he got more and more annoyed until finally he was so fed up, he demanded to know why I was doing this to him.

“Which is what I had been waiting for all day, because it led to my ultimate play on words.” He paused dramatically, and Seb sank down in his chair with a pained expression. “I said,” Zain went on, grinning, “‘I’m punishing you.’ And he hit me.”

I snorted. Next to me, Quint chuckled softly, and then asked, “Seb, was that your answer?”

“No,” he said. “This is how bad he is: It wasn’t even in consideration.” He flipped over his first paper, and I leaned forward to read, Art museum dog pics.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

Laughing, Zain said, “Oh, wow, that’s going way back. If I haven’t done anything sillier since high school, I should step up my game.”

“He was on a class field trip to a museum in San Francisco,” Seb explained, “and I asked him to take pictures of the artwork for me. But he came back with only pictures of dogs. Dogs in the paintings — not even the whole painting, just the parts with a dog — and dog sculptures, and one real dog that was outside when they left.”

“I maintain that the dogs were the best, anyway,” defended Zain, at which Seb rolled his eyes. “Alright, no points for that one. Let’s step up our game, babe.” He took his arm from around Seb, interlocked his fingers, and cracked his knuckles before saying, “Next question, please.”

Quint read, “‘What does Zain do to let you know you’re headed for trouble?’”

“Most of the time, nothing, because he already knows,” Zain said.

“Yeah,” said Seb, “but when you do…

“Hey, no hints!” I said.

The other Brat blushed slightly. “Sorry.”

“If I do anything, it’s very subtle,” Zain said, looking over at his fiancé. “I call him ‘Seb,’ sometimes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean trouble, it just means I want his full attention. Oh!” He snapped his fingers. “I tilt my chin and put on an expression of curious amusement, like this.”

Meeting my eyes, he demonstrated, and I realized I had watched him do that to Seb before, but it had reminded me of a puppy cocking its head. Now, seeing it with the understanding of a Top’s warning Look, a small tremor ran through my stomach. I blinked and lowered my gaze for a split second.

Then he went back to normal as quickly as he pulled it on, just by smiling a bit wider and holding his body with less intention. Freaky.

Seb turned over the next sheet of paper. There were no words on it. Instead, he’d drawn the exact way his Top just looked. Zain raised both arms in victory. “YES, point for us. Next!”

“Last one,” Quint said. “‘Name the reason for the first time you were spanked in your relationship.’”

“Easy. He threw a tantrum.”

“WHAT?” I demanded. Quint’s mouth opened in shock, too.

Cracking up, Zain said, “A temper tantrum. A hissy fit. A snit. A… what is it your mom says, babe? A strop?”

Seb, my sweet, quiet, obedient friend, looked like he wanted to melt through his chair as he flipped over the last paper and we all saw temper tantrum about remodeling written on it in very small letters.

“Told you,” said Zain, still laughing. “He had a terrible cold. I wanted him to stop messing with painting our walls and go lie down. He chucked an open can of Unmellow Yellow at me.”

“A small one! It didn’t even hit you!”

“Because your aim is horrible,” Zain said, “and the paint did!” To me and Quint, he added, “By the time that was over, we were both absolutely covered in it from head to toe. Including, in his case, the bare butt.”

Seb walloped his shoulder, hard. “ZAIN!”

The Top, giggling, got him into a hold somehow and squeezed him against his side, and Seb buried his scarlet face in Zain’s chest so we could only see the back of his very flushed neck.

“I threw garbage at Quint once,” I volunteered, pinkening myself at the memory. “Actual smelly, rotting food scraps that were supposed to go in the building’s compost thing. Lobbed them right at his face. Thankfully, his mouth was closed and his glasses protected his eyes, or I probably still wouldn’t be able to sit comfortably.”

Peeling away from his fiancé the tiniest bit, Seb peeked across the table at Quint, who smiled a little and said, “Paint would’ve been preferable, I believe.”

“Alright,” said Zain, rubbing over Seb’s back with one hand, “that’s two points for each team. Guess it’s down to the Top round to be a tiebreaker. You guys better make the questions tough. We’ll go until you’re done.”

Both of them stood and left us alone. As soon as they were out of earshot upstairs, I asked Seb, “You still okay?”

“Yeah,” he said, and then, lowering his voice, “Garbage?”

Paint?”

We had a hard time trying to stop laughing long enough to write any questions down.

Zain

They were giggling when we came back in. Quint and I shared a gratified look. I hadn’t been certain this would work, but it seemed to be doing great. Theo didn’t have that permanently baffled expression as he watched Seb and me, and I’d even managed to get something like a Brattish reaction out of him.

We collected our questions from the other’s partner and took them to the living room to answer. Mine from Theo were amusing. One, I was pretty sure, was just designed to trip me up, and the other two said a lot about his worries concerning my Topping ability. I tried to guess from Quint’s face what Seb had chosen to ask. It was no use, though. The man was an enigma.

As we rejoined the Brats, I said, “Quint first,” and took a handful of chips from the bowl in the middle of the table to munch on.

“Okay, um.” Seb cleared his throat before reading, “‘What pet names does Theo have for you?’”

“I don’t think I really have one,” Theo said, frowning. “Is that weird? Seb, you don’t have one for Zain, do you? Oh, wait, you do call him ‘Z’ sometimes.”

I couldn’t resist adding, “And ‘sir.’”

Seb glared, blushing, while the other Top’s expression went carefully blank. Theo, though, assumed what I figured he would, and said, “I don’t think ‘sir’ can really be considered a pet name in the way Brats use it. Same with ‘his royal preppiness,’ which I’ve also been known to call Quint. Yeah, I’m going to say I don’t have one.”

“Point for us,” said Quint. He marked it down after showing his answer was None.

Still flushed slightly, Seb ducked his head to read the next question. “‘Which assigned line has been most memorable for Theo?’”

“The first one,” Theo said immediately. He swallowed and licked his lower lip, then recited, “‘Your value doesn’t decrease based on someone’s inability to see your worth.’ It’s… something I’m still working on believing.”

“I’m sorry,” Seb said. “I didn’t mean to bring up–”

“No, it’s fine,” Theo interrupted. “It’s good to talk about it, I think.”

“It is,” agreed Quint, taking his husband’s hand in his. “I, myself, didn’t know it had been so memorable. I took a different route with this question.” He turned over his next answer, and it said, The definition of lying…

Together, the Brats said, “Is untruthfulness, dishonesty, deliberate misleading, hiding things, and lying by omission,” and then snorted with laughter.

“Wow, that was eerie. Please don’t do that again,” I said, shuddering. “Seb, what’s the last question?”

He bit his lip to control his giggles for a moment. “I asked, ‘What is the one thing that will earn a swat from you every time?’”

Theo laughed harder. “You’re fishing for info to keep your own butt out of trouble!” he accused, and from Seb’s sheepish look, he was right. Once Theo had calmed down a little, he said, “I don’t know that there is one thing. Even something that gets me swatted every time might not you, because we’re so distinct.”

I grinned. He was beginning to truly understand that he had to view the other Brat differently than himself. Across the table, Quint seemed pleased, too.

“Answer for you, then,” Seb said.

“The thing that always gets me a swat, if not more, is probably rudeness?” Theo said, glancing to Quint. “So. Not something I see you having issues with.”

Shaking his head, Quint turned over the last paper. He’d written Negative Self-talk.

“Oh,” said Theo. “Well, that kind of goes with my answer for the last one. Half a point?”

“Nope, doesn’t count,” I said. “Also, that is something Seb has problems with, too, and swat away,” I added to Quint. Ignoring my Brat’s indignant huff, I handed Theo my question sheet. “Our turn!”

He unfolded it with a wicked gleam in his eye that told me I’d been correct about his motivations. “‘What ringtone does Seb use on his cellphone for you?’”

“It’s the song Lucky, by Jason Mraz and Colbie Caillat,” Seb said.

I flipped over the answer and started singing, “Lucky I’m in looove with my best friend, lucky to have been where I have been, lucky to be coming hooomme agaaaaiiiiiin.

“Okay, we don’t need a concert,” Seb said with an eyeroll, while Quint marked down the point. “Theo, quick, read the next one.”

He obliged. “‘What is Seb’s most obvious signal that he is stressed?’”

“Most obvious?” Seb asked, “Obvious to who, Zain, or…?” He trailed off, very deliberately not looking toward the other Top at the table.

“Brat,” I said, affectionate. “You do know Quint’s already got a cheat sheet? You aren’t going to give away anything I haven’t told him.”

Flushing, he said, “No, I’m just– just not sure what ‘obvious’ means in this context. Um. Hiding, I guess?”

“Darn it,” I said. “I have different idea of ‘obvious’, which we’ve now seen a great demonstration of: Evasive answers.”

“That was not evasive, that was clarifying the question!”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “Sure it was.”

He opened his mouth to argue more, and Quint cut in, saying “We’re tied. You two need to get this last one to win.”

I met Theo’s gaze across the table. “Bring it on.”

“So this one,” he said, looking from me to Seb, “is because apparently you just grab anything nearby to spank him. ‘Is there an implement that you, Zain, wouldn’t use?’”

“He does not just grab anything nearby!”

The indignation caught all of us off guard, Seb included. I had to move at full speed to catch up as he bolted towards the door. Wrapping both arms around his middle in a steel grip, I brought him to a halt and spoke into his ear, “Stop. It’s alright. You’re going to talk this through, c’mon.”

Then I brought him back to the table, sat down, and plonked him right on my lap, sideways. He didn’t try to wiggle away, but his back was like a fire iron.

Under the stubble, Theo looked pale. “I didn’t mean it like…”

“You did a little,” I said, with absolutely no animosity toward him. “It’s very understandable that you would. Seb, wanna explain how I pick implements?”

My Brat took a deep breath, looking down at his hands twisting together in his lap. “He does use stuff that we just have around the house,” he said, quietly, “but he tests everything on himself first, usually with a lot of thoroughness, to make sure it’s safe. Even Quint’s hand had to be tested on him. And there are things he decided not to use, like a plastic ruler that scratched him when he tested it, and the rod thing from our window blinds.”

I squeezed him closer in a silent show of how proud I was, and then absently flipped over my answer. Ruler, blind wand. “We win.”

Theo, though, seemed stuck on something. “Quint’s hand had to be tested on you?” he asked.

His husband frowned. “Angel, you knew about how I swatted Zain already.”

Whoops.

Mouth dropping open, Theo pointed at me. “He said it was because he got cheeky with you!”

Technically,” I said, as the other three all stared, “I told you I got cheeky, and you assumed that was why he swatted me, and I chose not to correct you. I never lied.”

“Deliberate misleading!” Seb and Theo shouted in unison once again. Then Seb smacked the same shoulder he’d hit earlier, and Theo said, “I would so get my mouth washed out for that.”

I looked between them and Quint, who was resting his chin on his interlocked hands, studying me with one eyebrow quirked.

“Do you have the soap you’d use?” I asked.

He nodded. “Upstairs.”

Oh, what the hell. I needed to test it anyway, and it was only fair, after what I’d put Theo through. “Get up, babe. I have to go wash my mouth out.”

Theo

He wasn’t serious. He couldn’t be. And yet, Seb sighed, like this was to be expected, before getting off his lap, and then Zain stood, popped a few chips into his mouth, and chewed them as he headed for the stairs. Maybe I should’ve warned him that it’s best not to eat right before a mouthsoaping, because the aftertaste can make the soap worse, but I was honestly speechless. Even more so when Quint got up and followed him.

Turning to Seb, I asked, “Is he really going to?”

“Yeah. See what I deal with?”

This I had to watch.

I got to the top of the stairs, with Seb at my heels, as Quint came out of our room holding the too-familiar bottle. He passed it to Zain on the landing, and the younger Top turned it over to read the ingredients.

“It’s non-toxic and very gentle,” Quint said. I snorted.

Zain glanced at me, his lips twitching. “So how do I– actually, Quint, you should do it.”

“Let’s go in the bathroom, then,” said Quint, as if it were perfectly normal. He led the way, with Zain behind him, still holding the soap. The room was too small for me and Seb to fit, so we stood shoulder to shoulder at the door to observe.

“It doesn’t smell like anything,” muttered Zain, sniffing at the open cap of the bottle.

“Which is your toothbrush?” Quint asked.

“Huh? Oh, uh, this one.” He plucked it out of the holder and handed it over. “Wait, you use that?”

Quint nodded. “Although usually I would use a spare, not your main toothbrush. It won’t harm you, it just needs to be rinsed very well to avoid unpleasantness the next time you brush your teeth. May I have the soap, please?”

Hesitantly, Zain looked from the bottle to the brush, and then over at Seb and I. He gave Quint a winning smile. “I suppose it’s too late to change my mind now?”

“That’s up to you,” Quint said, but he kept his hand out in expectation.

After a moment, Zain relinquished the soap. “The things I do for you, babe.”

“You deserve it,” Seb said. “For lying to Theo.” While his fiancé was distracted with watching Quint put water and soap on the brush, though, he whispered to me, “It’s not really bad, is it?”

“Well it doesn’t taste like chocolate,” I said, “and it lingers for about half an hour. I’d still take it over a spanking.”

He looked somewhat reassured. Quint, in the meantime, was telling Zain that he wouldn’t be allowed to rinse for a minute after. I usually get a minimum of two. I guess he was going a little easy on the fellow Top.

“Alright, I think the anticipation has passed the point of being worse than getting it over with,” Zain said. “Shall we?”

“Of course. Open your mouth.”

This is the part where I start pleading for mercy. Zain just wrinkled his nose at the toothbrush Quint was holding under it, and then said, “Ahhhhh.”

“Sound effects aren’t necessary,” Quint told him, smiling, “and you don’t have to stick your tongue out. I need to get to your front teeth, too.”

“Oh, sorry.” He retracted it, but kept his jaw open as wide as possible.

Quint took the other Top’s chin gently in his free hand and inserted the brush, explaining as he did, “I begin at the back, with the rear molars, and then work forward a little before I start to scrub the tongue, so as to avoid triggering your gag reflex.”

“I ‘ohn’t haf one,” Zain said around the toothbrush, winking sideways at Seb, who gave a quiet groan. I bit my lip to keep from laughing.

My husband paused, and then said, “Alright,” and adjusted the position of the brush towards the middle of the mouth. A grimace contorted Zain’s features. Conversationally, Quint added, “That’s also the spot on the tongue most sensitive to bitter tastes. However, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t localized there.”

“Uh-huh.” Clearly, Zain was having more trouble now. Suds started to appear on his lips, and I winced in sympathy. He held still until Quint withdrew the brush, though. I was impressed.

“Close, please. You have one minute.”

Zain looked over at Seb, grinned, and gave a thumbs-up before even glancing at his watch. Next to me, the kid exhaled a little.

We waited in silence as the minute elapsed. For the last five seconds, Zain counted down on his fingers. Then he immediately leaned forward and spat into the sink several times, yet he ignored the cup of water Quint had set out.

In favor of spinning around, grabbing Seb’s arm, and planting a huge, wet kiss on his lips.

With a garbled noise of disgust, Seb shoved him off. Zain laughed. “What d’you think, babe? Good deterrent for lying?”

“I’m gonna kill you,” Seb said, advancing on him.

Quint sighed and ushered me away from the potential bloodshed.

Zain

When we rejoined the older couple downstairs in the living room, Theo said, “I know the game is over, but I still have some questions.”

I grinned and sat down on the couch next to Seb, sideways, so I could put my legs over his lap and face the other Brat in the armchair. “I figured you might’ve. Ask away.” The game had done its job of loosening all of us up a bit, especially Seb. He looked more curious than apprehensive as we waited for Theo to formulate his thoughts.

“In there,” he said, finally, pointing towards the bathroom, “you said you were doing it for Seb?”

Nodding, I replied, “Before any form of physical discipline gets used on him, I have to have a, uh, taste of it.” Very appropriate. The bitterness of the soap lingered on the back of my tongue. I’d already decided that if I ever did wash Seb’s mouth out, I was using the same brand as Quint, so I didn’t have to repeat that experience. “It was also for you, though,” I added. “To show I was sorry for misleading you about the swats.”

“I think I have to forgive you, after that,” he said, with a smile. “My other question was…”

Pausing, he glanced at Quint, who sat in the opposite armchair. I looked over, too, and saw the Top nod encouragingly to his husband.

“Well, it’s not really a question, so much, but Seb’s told me that most of his spankings are for stress instead of punishment, and I’m just not sure I understand how that works.”

Seb surprised me by answering before I could. “Neither am I, really,” he said, while picking at the knees of my sweatpants on his lap. “If I knew, I would try to figure out another way to do it.”

I looped my arm around his back and squeezed his opposite shoulder as I explained to Theo, “There’s a lot of different methods we both use to manage his stress. Spanking happens to be the most effective one, usually.”

“Why can’t you talk it out?”

With a laugh, I said, “Babe, wanna answer that one?”

He opened his mouth for a second, closed it again, and made a tiny sound of frustration.

“My point, exactly,” I said. “It can be extremely-difficult-to-actually-impossible for him to talk about certain things, or when he’s in a certain mood. Sometimes I ask him to draw a picture instead. More often it’s just easier and quicker to jump-start the emotional processing, and then he can discuss it. Or it could be that we don’t have to talk about it, but he’s stuck and needs help letting go of an idea that’s bothering him.”

“Like this morning,” Seb put in. His voice was very quiet, yet it was clear Theo and Quint both heard him and understood. Theo winced, while his husband leaned forward in concern. Seb glanced at them from under his eyelashes and said, “I’ve been worried about wearing out our welcome here — that’s why I wanted the pastries perfect yesterday, and why Zain swatted me for saying they weren’t — and it made me suggest that we could stay at the hotel, so we wouldn’t be bothering you guys on your vacation.”

Mon chaton,” Quint said, “we’re the ones who invited you to join us for the rest of our trip, remember?”

“I know,” he said, with an edge of self-exasperation that made me rub harder across his trapezius. “I know it’s irrational. That’s why rationalizing with it doesn’t work. When it gets to that point, I have to… to–”

“Ask for a spanking,” I finished.

Theo’s eyes bugged. “You asked?”

“No!” said Seb, and glowered at me when I snorted, insisting, “I did not ask!”

Habibi,” I said, “your hairbrush was within three inches of my hand when you voiced your ‘suggestion’. Are you honestly going to tell me you had no idea where that would lead?”

He went dark pink. “It was involuntary, I swear. It just slipped out.”

“Okay, so you asked unwillingly and in coded language,” I allowed. “You still asked.”

Before he could argue more, Theo said, “I do that.” The rest of us looked over, and he smiled wryly at Seb. “It’s like an out-of-body experience sometimes, isn’t it? Like my mouth is a completely separate entity from the rest of me, with absolutely no regard for my rear end. Because I’ve never in my life wanted a spanking, but I sometimes want and crave the part after.”

Seb nodded. “Yeah.”

Grinning, I said, “Now, see? You two aren’t completely different.”

“No, not completely,” Theo agreed. “You’re still weird as fuck, though.”

I wiped the smile off my face, raised both eyebrows, and said, “Language, young man.”

He froze, staring at me.

A half-second later, Seb burst into giggles, collapsing his upper body forward over my legs and completely ruining the illusion.

“This,” I said, sweeping my hand to encompass the whole of him next to me, “is what happens when I try to be a proper Top.” Or, if I substituted ‘my boy’ for ‘young man,’ he’d get turned on, but I wouldn’t mention that. “So it’s totally not my fault, see?”

As Seb straightened up, the older Brat smiled a little. “Yeah, I guess. And… I do understand, now, that you wouldn’t be careless in what you use on him. You demonstrated that very clearly with the soap.”

I’d count that as a win. Quint looked satisfied with it, too.

*

I stopped messing with Theo entirely after our clearing of the air, and his baffled expression made fewer appearances, even during my silly moments. Like when a few inches of snow fell overnight days later, and I barely gave Seb time to put boots and a coat on over his pajamas before dragging him outside, singing, “Do you wanna build a snowmmaaaaaan? C’mon let’s go and plaaaay!”

Quint caught his husband by the hood of his jacket before he could follow us. “Let’s go get properly dressed, angel. It won’t melt that quickly.”

Theo went, grumbling a little, but at no point did he question my actions.

The snow turned out to be too powdery to pack together. Seb and I tried for a few minutes before the other couple joined us.

“Might have to wait until the sun warms it up a little,” Theo said, taking a handful and rubbing it between his gloved palms. “It needs to be wetter, sorry.”

I shook my head. “It’s spectacular anyway. This is the first time I’ve seen natural snow, not machine-made stuff at ski resort. Oh! Let’s do snow angels!”

We made a whole line of them out in the middle of the backyard. They turned into sort of grass angels, because the layer of white stuff was so thin. It was still fun. Even more fun was when we found a patch near the woods that did form into spheres when packed. Our snowman stood only a foot and a half tall when complete, but he had an artistically molded face. As Seb put the final touches on it, he asked, “What shall we name him?”

“Olaf, duh,” I said.

“He doesn’t look anything like Olaf!” Theo objected.

The three of us were still debating it while we walked to the house, a few steps behind Quint. I couldn’t help noticing an inviting gap between the back of the other Top’s collar and his neck. Catching Theo’s eye, I winked, scooped a clump of cold powder off the ground without breaking my stride, and reached forward.

“Zain–!” Seb started, too late.

Quint’s shoulders jerked as he came to an abrupt halt. Then he slowly turned.

“Bit chilly out here, isn’t it?” I asked.

He moved faster than I gave him credit for, grabbing my elbow and spinning me sideways at almost the same instant his swat landed. I actually yelped — in surprise more than anything, because my jacket cushioned most of the force. On either side of me, Seb’s and Theo’s jaws dropped.

Quint looked at us all. Then he began to laugh harder than I had ever seen him. “I have been itching to do that for days,” he choked out.

“Glad you finally got to fulfill your dream,” I said, grinning. “Could I, uh, have my arm back now, please?”

He let go. Which was good, because I needed all my limbs in the snowball fight that broke out two seconds later when Theo, snickering madly, launched an ambush in defense of his Top.

Theo

A couple of mornings before we were due to leave Vermont, Zain came downstairs alone, yawning and rubbing his palm over the back of his neck.

“Hello,” Quint said, across from me at the kitchen table, as we watched him shuffle to the coffee maker and pour a mug. “I haven’t gone running yet, so whenever you’re ready.”

“Oh. Yeah, sorry, should’ve told you earlier,” said Zain. Dumping what Quint would call ‘an excessive amount of sugar’ into the coffee and stirring it, he went on, “I’m not going today. Seb had a bad night. I don’t want to leave him too long.”

I sat up straighter. “What happened?”

He took two gulps from the mug before answering. “Low glucose, and now it’s rebounded into a high. Might be a Giant Dipper Day.” My face must’ve betrayed my puzzlement, because he explained, “Like the rollercoaster in Santa Cruz. Up and down and up and down.” He mimicked the ride with his hand. “Only way less fun.”

Quint glanced toward the ceiling with concern. “Can we help with anything?”

“Not right now,” Zain said. “He’s trying to sleep it off while the insulin works its magic.”

“Alright. Let us know.”

“Will do.” The younger Top headed for the stairs again.

“Wait, shouldn’t Quint check on him?” I asked.

Zain stopped, gave me what was probably supposed to be a reassuring smile, and shook his head. “Seb’s not really feeling up to company at the moment. We’ve got it handled, promise.”

“But–”

“Angel. It’s fine.”

I did not understand how they could say that, or how Quint could calmly go back to eating grapefruit like nothing was wrong. I’d seen Seb in the middle of a low, and Quint had gone to visit him at his dorm when he was having a couple of bad days. It’s not like we didn’t get it. He was sick! It only made sense for a doctor to check him out! Wasn’t that part of the reason Zain wanted Quint to be his foster Top in the first place?

When I opened my mouth to argue some more, though, Quint gave me a Look. I sighed and let it drop. Temporarily.

*

All morning, we could hear footsteps going back and forth from their room to the bathroom, but they never came downstairs. Quint told me I shouldn’t ‘bother’ them. I only wanted to say hi.

“They have been handling this for much longer than we have, angel. Both of them know we’re here if they need help, and if Zain says they don’t, we should trust him.”

Yeah, sure.

Zain showed up for lunch alone again, just long enough to load two plates of food to take back with him and to tell us Seb was “coming out of the second drop.” I guess that meant he’d been low.

Shortly after, Quint said, “Angel, get your coat and shoes on, please. We need to buy a few groceries for the weekend.”

“You know we’re horrible at grocery shopping together,” I said.

Which was a true, valid reason that had absolutely nothing to do with wanting to stay at the cabin without his supervision. I could see him thinking over how likely a disaster would be. Last time we did it together, I got so bored while he was looking at avocados that I cart-surfed into a display of cereal boxes. One of them managed to smack him in the head as it went flying.

“Theodore,” he said, finally, “if I get back and find out you’ve disturbed them…”

“I won’t,” I promised. That didn’t mean I couldn’t go upstairs to our room. The one that shared a wall with theirs.

*

I tried everything short of using a glass pressed to my ear. It was no use. Murmurs were audible, but not loud enough to make out what they were saying. Surely it couldn’t hurt to go ask Zain if he needed anything, maybe get a glimpse of the other Brat?

As I debated it, one sound I would recognize anywhere came through the wall loud and clear: A swat. My head jerked up in indignation. How dare Zain discipline him in that state?!

I started towards the hallway, intending to confront the Top, but before I reached it, I heard heavy stomps cross to the bathroom, followed by a door slamming.

I blinked. Seb?

Then there were more footsteps — lighter, and going in the wrong direction. A second later, Zain popped his head into the master bedroom and grinned at me. “Would it help if we spoke up a bit?” he asked.

My eyes narrowed at his attitude. “Yes.”

He laughed — because of course this was just hilarious — said, “I’ll see what I can do,” and disappeared again, leaving me completely uncertain. Maybe Seb did deserve that swat? In which case, he’d be mortified to know I’d overheard, but Zain seemed unfazed by my eavesdropping. Just when I felt like I was starting to understand him.

Eventually, I decided I needed to be sure Seb was okay. Sitting down on the floor with my back to the wall between the two rooms, I listened closely.

Zain

“I pissed on it for you. Happy?”

I imagined Theo, on the other side of the wall, hearing that without any context, and snorted. “Over the moon. Results?”

“Thulian pink,” he said, like it was his least favorite color.

Rolling to my side, I propped myself up on one elbow and watched him walk to the window at the foot of the bed. He crossed his arms over his chest as he looked out. “Which means?” I asked. I knew the test strip would turn a purple color with high levels of ketones, but I had no idea what shade of pink ‘thulian’ might be.

“Low to moderate,” he grumbled.

Exercise to bring his glucose down still wasn’t an option, then. It would only put him closer to ketoacidosis. A shame, since I could think of at least three vigorous activities guaranteed to drain the tension out of his shoulders, all of them infinitely preferable to waiting for the insulin to work and hoping it wouldn’t drop him into another low. But I said, “Okay.”

“It is not okay! Nothing about this is okay, it’s–” He bit off the words and tightened the set of his back even more.

At least he was being nice and loud, now. Theo would have no trouble listening. If Seb found out the other Brat was up here, he’d refuse to talk at all, but I suspected Theo couldn’t relax without concrete evidence that I was handling things. With any luck, this’d work.

I patted the mattress. “C’mere, habibi.”

Glaring over his shoulder, he said, “No, and stop being sweet at me! You shouldn’t even stay here. Go enjoy the rest of your leave.”

“Right, ‘cause I’d totally love hanging with Quint and Theo, knowing you’re miserable.”

“I am not miserable,” he said, turning to look out the window again. “I’m angry, and I’m horrible, and I’m a brat, and I’m not fit for socializing, so go away! Zain, DON’T–”

Too late. While he ranted, I’d crawled to the end of the bed, snagged him around the waist, and dragged backwards until he fell down next to me, his lower legs dangling over the footboard. Then I straddled him and pinned his hands to the mattress before he could try to move. He tensed, yet didn’t struggle.

“Let go. You’re awful.”

“And you’re horrible,” I said, grinning. “We make a great pair.” I dived, catching his lower lip between my teeth for a sharp nip that made him gasp.

When I released both his mouth and his wrists, he latched onto my shoulders, so tight I couldn’t sit up. “Leave me alone.”

Chuckling softly, I planted a line of kisses along his jaw from chin to ear. “You, my boy, need a massage.”

With an exasperated sigh, he said, “No, I need to pee again.”

I flipped us over to free him completely and patted his butt. “Go. Hurry back.”

Rolling off me, he headed for the bathroom with much quieter steps than last time. I stayed where I was a few moments before creeping after him and leaning casually up against the bedroom door frame.

Theo’s tousled head peeked out of the other room down the hall a second later. He saw me, vanished, and then looked once more, cautious. I wiggled my fingers at him in a little wave. Rolling his eyes, he pointed to the bathroom behind me and opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, but at the same time, the toilet flushed. “Hide,” I whispered. He did.

“What are you doing?” Seb asked as he came out.

“Waiting for you,” I said, straightening up and gesturing him past. “Strip off and lie on your stomach.”

“This is ineffective.”

“Yeah, I know, it’d be a lot better if I didn’t have to worry about your ketones going up ‘cause of a spanking. Them’s the breaks,” I said.

He blushed and offered no resistance when I started undressing him myself, or when I gave him a gentle shove towards the bed. While he settled, I took my own shirt off, wanting more skin-to-skin contact, and then sat astride his hips and got to work unwinding all his knots.

Soon, he fell fast asleep. I stretched out next to him and dozed myself.

*

My catnap was interrupted by the sound of Quint coming up the stairs, though he was quiet enough not to wake Seb, luckily. With great care, I got to my feet and went into the hallway just in time to see him beckoning Theo out of the master bedroom. The Brat’s head hung under his husband’s stern gaze.

“Hey,” I whispered, and they both jerked a little as they noticed me. “It’s alright. I knew he was there.”

Quint frowned. Matching the volume of his voice to mine, he said, “I specifically warned him not to disturb you and Seb, and he knows better than to eavesdrop.”

“He didn’t. It’s only eavesdropping if it’s done in secret. I wanted him to overhear,” I said. “Plus, you can’t really blame him for worrying about Seb, can you? I know you’ve been concerned, too.”

Quint exhaled through his nose and looked beyond me to the closed door separating us from my Brat. “How is he?”

“Well, he’s sleeping now, but before… How would you say he was, Theo?”

He seemed a little surprised at being asked. After a moment of glancing from me to Quint, though, he said, “I think he’ll be okay. You might, possibly, maybe know what you’re doing.”

I smothered my laugh with my hand. “Thank you for that ringing endorsement.”

“Anytime,” he replied, smirking.

“See?” I said to Quint, wrapping an arm around his husband and mussing up his hair. “We’re all good.”

The older Top smiled as Theo squirmed away. “Alright. Do you need anything at the moment?”

“Nope.”

“Let us know if you do,” Theo said. He led the way down to the first floor, with Quint following.

Theo

Despite Zain keeping me out of trouble — for which I was very grateful — I had some lingering guilt over listening to them without Seb’s knowledge. Yeah, I hadn’t heard anything more intimate than a few kisses and a long period of silence that I assumed was the massage, but it seemed like Seb ought to know.

So the next morning, when he finally emerged downstairs, trailing behind Zain, and laid on the couch while the two Tops left for their run, I told him. I left out that Zain knew, though, making it sound like I just happened to wander into the other bedroom.

He went red and hid his eyes behind his forearm with a groan. “Oh mes dieux, you heard me? I was being so terrible!”

“That was about a tenth of how bad I can get when I’m in a mood, honestly,” I said. “This is a judgement-free zone. I just wanted you to know that I think I understand Zain more now. He’s… he’s very deliberate, isn’t he? You wouldn’t think it because he’s so laid-back.”

“No, he just makes you believe he’s so laid-back,” Seb said, lowering his arm a little and rolling his eyes. “Because he is a sneaky bastard and he wants you to underestimate him so he doesn’t have to try as hard. You didn’t hear that from me, though.”

“Understood,” I said, grinning.

“I’m glad you worked things out, anyway,” he said.

I was, too. I didn’t think I’d ever be fully used to Zain’s way of Topping, but it was nice to see how well they worked together. The same as Quint and I, and yet completely different.

*

Seb spent most of the day on the couch, looking exhausted. He read, drew, played on his phone, and sometimes just stared up at the posts and beams under the vaulted ceiling for minutes on end. Every few hours, Zain handed him a glass of water and a painkiller, which he took without complaint. The young Top was always nearby without seeming to hover. Occasionally he laid down, too, and they cuddled until Seb fell asleep for awhile.

Quint kept me busy with making sure the cabin was as spotless as we found it. Seb offered to help, of course, and got a firm “go rest” from Quint and an eyeroll from Zain, who brought their luggage and a pile of freshly-cleaned clothes downstairs and set him the task of packing. It took him all afternoon to finish. He looked twice as tired when he thought no one was paying attention.

We watched Mulan together that night. Seeing a Disney movie with Zain was a whole other experience, I was discovering. He could tell you the most random, obscure bits of trivia about almost every scene. I couldn’t stump him. Eventually, I gave up and joined in singing all the songs. Seb huffed at us both, but didn’t seem that annoyed, really, and I could tell Quint enjoyed it. We were still humming ‘Be A Man’ as we separated to go into our bedrooms for the night.

*

The next day we had to be up bright and early to pack the car. Or so Quint said, anyway, though I noticed he didn’t disturb the younger couple to ask for their luggage, too. I was putting a cooler of snacks for the drive in the middle of the back seat when Zain came out of the house and asked, “Hey, do you think there might be a ladder around here somewhere?”

I frowned. “What for?”

Quint just looked at Zain’s bare feet and pajama pants and said, “I’ll check the garage.”

“Thanks,” said Zain, smiling cheerfully. “A long one, if possible.” He turned to go back into the house, and I followed with a sudden suspicion in my chest. As I came over the threshold alongside him, he spoke in an undertone. “I didn’t know where Seb was, so I looked up.”

I did, too. Then I gasped.

Balanced on the foot-wide beam above our heads — one of his legs bent and the other dangling like from a fishing dock or something — sat Seb. His upper body folded over his raised knee as he looked down at us with the weirdest combination of fear and defiance.

“How the fuck did you even get up there?” I demanded.

Zain pointed to the other end of the beam where it attached to the landing of the second floor. “Just a guess, but.” He walked the index and middle fingers of one hand across the palm of the other. “You can see why I don’t want him getting down the same way?”

I nodded, imagining going over that thing like a tightrope. Seb was definitely braver than me, that was certain.

A sharp intake of air came from behind us as Quint stepped through the door we’d left open and saw what we were staring at. “Sébastien!”

“I’ve got it,” Zain said quickly, reaching for the ladder the other Top had slung under his arm. “It’d help if you guys cleared out for a bit.”

Quint hesitated. “You’re sure?”

“Oh, c’mon, I don’t have to prove it to you now, do I?” Zain asked. His tone was teasing, yet Quint looked remorseful.

“No, of course you don’t,” he said, letting go of the ladder. “Angel, come with me.”

I was reluctant to leave, too. I wanted to see Seb safe on the floor. If Zain said it’d be easier if we gave them space, though, I had to believe him. Quint and I went out onto the front porch and closed the door behind us.

Zain

I extended the ladder, made sure it was locked in place, and propped one end of it on the beam next to Seb. He made no move to come down.

“Oh, I’m forgetting something, aren’t I? Hang on a sec, babe.”

His gaze followed me as I climbed the stairs and retrieved the suitcase and duffle bag from the bedroom. Pausing on the landing, I leaned over the rail to study the dizzying drop below. Then I looked right along the beam to where he sat fifteen feet away, level with me, and tilted my head.

“Was I right about how you got over there?”

He just barely nodded.

Years of yoga has given him the balance of a cat, but even so, the image of him crossing that put my heart in my throat. “Why couldn’t it have been a tree?” I asked as I brought the luggage downstairs. I didn’t expect an answer, and he didn’t give me one. In the living room once more, I unzipped the suitcase, found his hairbrush, and dropped it on the couch. “Okay, now I’m ready.”

The Bambi eyes appeared right on cue. Again, he didn’t budge.

“Want me to come up?” I asked, putting my foot on the bottom rung.

He jerked his head side to side, gulped a few times, and then, finally, started descending.

“Slowly,” I said, steadying the ladder with my hands. That had the bonus effect of making it so he had nowhere to go but into my arms. I lifted him when he was still a couple of rungs above the floor and carried him right to the couch.

As I sat and arranged him over my knee, he was silent and unresisting as a ragdoll, but then his hands went to the waistband of his yoga pants and started to push them down. “Y’know, traditionally,” I said, unhooking his fingers and pinning his wrists to his back, “the spankee is trying to keep their butt covered in this position.” I delivered the first swat with my palm right to the middle of the target area, and then tugged his pants and underwear down myself before retrieving the brush from behind me.

You would’ve thought I was spanking a pillow, for all the response I got at the start. Not even a wiggle to challenge my aim. Poor boy was sealed up tight. I had to raise the leg underneath him so I could get to his thighs a lot sooner than normal, but it did the trick. He took in a huge gasp of air and began sobbing like a switch had been flipped. I kept going, though, listening closely for the change in sound that was probably indistinguishable to someone else, and that meant he truly wasn’t holding back anymore.

As soon as it hit, I dropped the brush on the cushion. “There we are. It’s okay, let go,” I said, soothing him with my free hand. With the other, I kept a secure hold on his wrists, to give him a stronger sense of my presence. Only when he’d started to naturally calm himself did I help him move so he was kneeling on the floor between my legs. Then I hugged him close and waited until the last sniffles died down.

“Okay, habibi, where did that come from?”

“Separate bags,” he said into my shirt. “Yours and mine, not ours. Je n’aime pas ça.”

Ah-ha.

I had let him pack while he recovered from the Giant Dipper Day, knowing it would bother him to sit by as the rest of us handled everything. Now, I looked at the luggage and realized he’d spent the whole afternoon dividing clothes that had been mixed together for the entire trip, and no doubt thinking how we’d be bringing them to different destinations.

“And I was doing my yoga this morning while you were asleep,” he continued after a moment, “and I got an email about Calvin coming back to the dorm. They asked if I want a new room.”

“Well, that’s easy. Yes, you do,” I said. No way was he living with any of those guys.

He shook his head against my chest.

“What do you mean, ‘no?’” I asked, curiously.

“I don’t– don’t want any room there,” he said. “I want one closer to you. Doesn’t have to be with you, but. After being together these weeks, I can’t…”

Blinking, I pulled him away from my chest and met his tear-filled eyes. “Habibi, are you thinking of leaving school?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m thinking, except I can’t do another three and a half years of this, Z. And I don’t want you to leave the Academy, so–” He broke off, stifling sobs again.

“Okay. We’ll figure it out.” I kissed him and wiped away his tears with my thumbs. “Hey, it’s gonna take six hours to drive to Manhattan from here. How much you want to bet I’ll have the perfect solution to this by then? Problem solving is what I’m good at, remember?”

He swallowed and nodded.

“Speaking of which…” I reached around his knees for his pants and guided them gently up over his sore skin. “We probably need to be leaving soon, and I’m not even dressed yet.”

Merde, Theo and Quint are waiting,” he said.

Catching him before he could rush to his feet, I said, “They can wait a few minutes longer.”

I made him come upstairs with me and get his face washed off before I took my shower and threw on the change of clothes he’d left out of the duffle. Then, with one last check of the bedroom for anything forgotten, we collected the bags and went out to meet the older couple. The ladder, I left against the beam so Quint could help me put it back wherever he’d found it.

He was half-resting on the hood of the car while Theo slouched in the passenger seat with worry all over his face. The younger man got out the moment he saw us. Quint straightened up and stepped in front of him, blocking him from shooting right at Seb, which was good, although the Top also looked concerned.

My Brat, of course, hid behind me. “C’mon, they won’t bite,” I said, towing him down the steps.

As we approached, Quint leaned to see around my back. “I’d like to speak with you a moment, please, young man.” I stepped to the side, but kept Seb’s hand in my own. He looked watery-eyed even now, and I was kinda amazed at how Quint managed to sound stern as he asked, “Do you realize how badly you could have been injured, had you fallen from that height? I do not ever want to see you in such a precarious position again. Am I understood?”

Seb nodded, his chin trembling. “Oui, monsieur. I d–didn’t mean to worry you. Je suis désolé.”

“It’s alright, mon chaton,” said Quint. “I’m not worried any longer; I’m just glad you’re safe. Come here.”

I nudged Seb forward and let go. Immediately, Quint and Theo engulfed him from either side. “Group hug!” I said, launching myself at Theo’s back. He went “Oof,” and swayed a little.

*

We had barely reached the end of the driveway when Theo asked, “So, what was the climbing all about, anyway?”

“You do not need to answer that,” Quint said, with a glance across the center console to his husband in the passenger seat.

Seb, curled up against my side in the rear with most his weight off his bottom, blushed and said, “No, I don’t mind, really.” And then he actually explained it, a lot more coherently than I knew he’d’ve been with anyone else.

When he was done, Theo said, “Speaking from experience, if you’re going to leave school, try to at least finish the first year. Dropping out in the middle raises tons of questions down the road when you want to reapply somewhere else, and messes with transferring credits and stuff.”

That shook loose a thought from the back of my brain. “Babe, what about transferring to another school next year? Like that place in Baltimore we ruled out because they were too expensive?”

“MICA?” he asked, doubtfully. “They hardly offered me any financial aid. Part of the whole idea of you going to Annapolis was to keep us out of debt and not have to ask my parents to pay for so much, remember?”

“Yeah, but if it’s important to you, I can swallow my pride,” I said. “Plus, you could apply for their scholarships again. They might come to their senses and give you one the second time around.”

“I don’t know…”

“It couldn’t hurt to try, mon chaton.

“If you were in Baltimore, we’d see each other pretty much any time I have liberty next year,” I said. “Which would be most weekends.” That tempted him, I could tell. I added, “No matter what, you aren’t having Calvin for a roommate.”

Theo twisted to frown at him. “I can’t believe they’re even considering putting any of those guys back in the same room as you, after what happened.”

“Calvin was okay,” said Seb, with his usual soft-heartedness. “Mark was the worst one.”

“You can forgive him if you want,” I said, “but you’re not living with him.”

He sighed a little, and his head grew heavier on my shoulder. “‘Kay. I’ll email the res hall.”

I nodded, satisfied.

*

Shortly after, we stopped at a gas station. Seb and I went in to buy drinks to go with the breakfast Quint had packed in the cooler. The line was pretty long, and by the time we got back out, they’d pulled the car up to one of the parking spaces in front of the store.

“Alright, ready to hit the road,” I said as I climbed through the rear door after Seb.

“Not quite yet,” said Quint. “We have something to ask you two.”

He and his husband both turned to face us, the younger man beaming from ear to ear. “We were just talking,” Theo said, “about Seb’s living situation. We’re assuming you’re paying a lot for that dorm, right?”

“Yeah,” I said, slowly. I thought I knew where this was going. If my suspicions were correct, it would be perfect. The room and board was the main chunk of what we had to cover out-of-pocket.

“What if you didn’t have that expense this semester, so you can save money and put it toward whatever your next step is?” Theo asked. “What if Seb comes to live with us full-time, not only on weekends?”

Yep, that’s what I thought!

I grinned. Seb, though, immediately shook his head, wide-eyed. “I couldn’t! It’s too much!”

“It doesn’t feel like too much to us,” Quint said, smiling gently. “We would be thrilled to have you. Of course, you’d be expected to pitch in on housework and take turns cooking.”

“Which means less of all that for me, so I’m extra thrilled,” Theo added. It also meant Seb wouldn’t feel like he was putting them out, hopefully. “C’mon, say yes. Please?”

He did a champion puppy-dog face. I aimed my own at Seb, too, for good measure. “Please say yes, babe? Pleeeaaassee?”

“Oh, gods, I knew you two would be nightmares together.” He looked from each of us to Quint, who waited with more dignity, but no less expectation. “If you’re sure–”

“We are,” said the other Top.

“Then… I guess we could try it.”

Theo whooped and reached between the seats to give me a high-five.

6 thoughts on “Winter Break”

  1. I really love the four of these guys together and I hope we will get to see more of them. It seems quite amusing for Zain to get swatted knowing he is a top albeit an unconventional one but it also seems right. Thanks for continuing to post.

  2. I also wanted to say that I really love these stories. Your writing is crisp and moves well, and both couples are great. I like the intricacy of the relationships, like the details of Quint and Zain’s interactions. I really hope to keep seeing more of them, and thanks so much for sharing!

    1. Thank you so much! I’m having fun exploring the relationships between them all. Each one has a different sort of flavor. Glad you’re enjoying. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *