Roots and Sprouts

Zain

“I want to do all the cheesy touristy stuff, babe,” I told Seb as we followed Quint and Theo into the subway train car. “Times Square, Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, all that.”

He looked askance at me. “Why?”

“Because it’ll be fun!” I said. “And it’s my first visit to the city where I’ll actually have time explore. C’mon, do it with me and I’ll go to that art museum Quint bought a membership for with you.”

Rolling his eyes, he replied, “You say this like I’m dying to take you to the Met. May I remind you, you’re horrible at art museums.”

I pouted. “Well that’s just hurtful. Quint, he’s being hurtful.”

The older Top smiled at us. “Seb, be nice.”

Theo, hanging onto the pole next to him, said, “I can play tour guide if you want. I never do any of that stuff, but I know how to get around. Except I refuse to go to Times Square. It’s dumb and totally not worth it, trust me.”

“How do you know if you’ve never gone?” I asked.

“Sometimes I’m walking across town and I forget it’s there and wind up having to go through it,” he said. “It’s just a lot of people gawking at billboards and at other people dressed in knock-off costumes. There’s nothing New York about it.”

So we scratched that off the list, but spent the rest of the ride compiling other stuff we wanted to do. Seb suggested the Met anyway, and I could tell he wasn’t completely opposed to everything else, however much he might call it tacky.

It was pure luck that our spring breaks happened to be scheduled for the same week. We’d checked past calendars for USNA and Cooper Union when we accepted their offers of admission, and they usually didn’t coincide. So I wanted to make the most of the time together, not knowing if we’d get it next year. We debated going back to Hawaii, or even on a trip, but now that he was thinking of applying to a more expensive school, we didn’t want to blow all the money we’d been saving. When Quint and Theo offered to host us, I eagerly accepted. Over Seb’ protestations, of course.

We stopped by their apartment just long enough to drop off my bag and pick up Jagger, and then we headed for the famous Zeggy and Ike’s a few blocks northwest. They had invited us for lunch on my first day in town so we could finally be introduced.

Two kids opened the door. The dark-haired boy immediately stepped back, sweeping his arm out as he said, “Come on in!” His sister, though, stood where she was, kind of blinking at me. Theo had to take her shoulders and gently move her to one side to make room for us to enter. “Griff, Lyra, this is Zain,” he said, gesturing to me. “He’s Seb’s fiancé.”

“Hello!” I said. “It’s nice to meet you guys.”

Griffin said, “You too,” and Lyra, again, just stared at me.

“Ly?” Theo asked, as a woman—their mother, I assumed—approached from the back of the house. The little girl seemed to realize what she’d been doing then. She went pink and bolted up the staircase out of sight.

“Sweetpea, we’re eating now,” Zeggy called after her. “Come down!”

“Leave her, Zeg,” said Theo, smiling sideways at me. “She’ll come down later, I’m sure. This is Zain, by the way.”

She said it was nice to meet me and invited the four of us into the dining room. We followed her, but not before Seb shot me a disapproving look.

“What?”

“You don’t give anyone a chance,” he said, in an undertone so Theo, Quint, and Zeggy couldn’t hear. “Poor Lyra. She’s usually the more outgoing one, too.”

Laughing, I asked, “How is it my fault?”

“You’re too handsome,” he told me. “And you smile.”

*

Lyra did come down later, in the middle of our meal. I said hello again to try putting her at ease. Her eyes went wide before she sat down next to her father and began to eat without looking up from her plate. I felt bad that I seemed to have such an effect on her, though I’ve been perfecting my technique of gently letting down girls with crushes since I was about her age. While still acting charming, of course. This time, I decided to let her be for awhile.

Zeggy’s gaze flicked between us. Smiling, she continued the conversation we’d been having before Lyra appeared, about USNA. “What’s your major, Zain?”

I laughed a little. “Good question. Yesterday we sent our choices. I put down political science as my first option and math as the second, but I won’t know until I get back.”

Theo frowned. “You don’t have final say?”

“The point of the academy is to provide the Navy and Marine Corps with the officers they need, and they need more people in STEM fields than the humanities,” I explained. “A certain percentage of each class has to declare a STEM major. If enough of us didn’t put one as a first option, they’ll pull people who put it as second choice. And even if you do get a humanities major, you still have to do all the math and science core classes, so you get a Bachelor of Science when you graduate, not a Bachelor of Arts.” Aside to Seb, I said, “Platt submitted political science as his first choice as well. He told me before I left.”

“I know,” he said. “He told me too.”

“If we both get it, we’ll be taking more classes together,” I said.

I was looking forward to the opportunity to keep a closer eye on the kid. I mostly saw him during PE and the nights JJ was gone, when he came to my room to talk about the BDSM articles I was having him read. I could see his confidence growing as well as his self-knowledge. When he said goodbye to me before we both departed the Yard, he joked, “Don’t worry, I won’t be meeting up with strangers online and going back to their place while I’m home.”

“Good,” I’d said, “because if you do, you’ll have me to answer to.”

He’d flushed a tiny bit and said again, more seriously, “I won’t.”

Zeggy spoke again, interrupting my thoughts. “Political science and math seem quite different. What made you decide to choose those?”

“I’m really good at math,” I said. “Political science with an international relations concentration goes more towards what I’d like for a job, though, which is human intel. Quint helped me decide which to put first, actually. He pointed out that getting good grades during school only helps so much, and I should be concerned with doing my best once I graduate, even if it means having a slightly lower ranking in my class.”

“Quint’s good at giving guidance,” she said, nodding. “Very authoritative.” Which made Theo snort, Seb blush, and Quint raise an eyebrow at her. Ike, her husband, didn’t noticeably react. Zeggy just smiled innocently. I was going to like her, I could tell.

*

After eating, Griffin wanted to show me a Lego fort he and Lyra were building in their playroom, so we all headed upstairs together.

The room itself was something else. A structure like a scaled-up cat condo filled about a fourth of it. “Wow,” I said. “That looks fun.” From the worn texture of the carpeting that covered it, I could tell it had been well-loved, though it was a bit too small for the twins now. Jagger jumped up onto one of the platforms and sat, wagging his tail.

“Daddy’s going to build us a new one soon,” Lyra told me. “That’s what the fort is. We’re designing it for him.”

“Which means we must pay attention to what as we build?” Ike asked.

“Structural integrity!” said both twins together. Griffin added, “We know, Dad.”

Lyra, meanwhile, shyly asked, “Do you want to see the part I made, Zain?”

“Of course!” I said.

She and Griffin led me over to a table that held a Lego building and started excitedly explaining their plans. I was suitably impressed.

By the time we were getting ready to leave, Lyra had lost all of her earlier bashfulness. “Mom, can’t Zain stay the night?” she asked. “And Seb and Uncle Theo and Uncle Quint, too?”

Theo shook his head. “We’ve got plans for tonight, monkey. I’m sorry.”

“Just Zain, then,” she said, and I bit my lip to keep from laughing.

“Tell you what,” I said, getting down on one knee so I was at her level. “I promise I’ll come back and see you before I leave the city, okay?”

She grinned. “Okay.”

“It’s a deal, then,” I said, and held out my hand for her to shake.

As I stood up again, Seb leaned over to whisper in my ear, “Now you’ve made it almost impossible for any other guy to ever meet her expectations.”

“Good,” I replied. “She deserves the best.”

He rolled his eyes and turned to follow Quint and Theo out the door into the dusk. We were going to visit the Empire State Building and then get genuine New York pizza from Theo’s favorite place. I couldn’t wait.

Seb

I leaned back against Zain and looked at the city spread below us. A fine mist drifted in the dark air, blurring the lights into hazy, multi-colored dots. Some flowed in reddish rivers along the paths of streets and avenues, while others—mostly white—hung still between them. It was as if we were somehow above the sky looking down on the stars.

I had missed seeing stars in New York.

“Kinda beats the bedroom roof in Santa Cruz, doesn’t it, habibi?” Zain murmured in my ear, just loud enough to be heard over the conversations of tourists surrounding us.

I didn’t answer. The view was more impressive than home, but it invoked none of the memories. Our first kiss happened on that roof. Our first exploration of dominance and submission, too. When he got his deployment orders, that was where he held me while I sobbed. The constellations there gave me more comfort than these artificial lights ever could. But they were beautiful.

“It’s gorgeous,” Theo said, echoing my thoughts. “Makes you feel like you could hold the whole city in your palm. I can maybe understand why tourists pay an arm and a leg to come up here.”

The tickets had been by far the most expensive of everything we had planned. Quint offered to buy ours along with theirs. Zain, for once, joined me in refusing their generosity. He also pointed out to me, with a cheerful little head tilt, that we were not forcing them to come too, and if they wanted to spend some of their money on themselves, that was their business.

Now that we were on the observation deck, I felt glad I hadn’t argued. It would only have gotten me spanked, and Theo and Quint were great tour guides to have along. They pointed out less-distinctive spots in the city grid below, and even the rough location of their own apartment, though other buildings blocked a direct sightline. The context was helping me visualize a painting I wanted to do of the view.

We stayed up there for about an hour, taking turns using a coin-operated binoculars to see farther away. When the chill started to make me shiver, Quint noticed first.

Mon chaton, would you like to have my scarf?”

Zain straightened from the binoculars as I shook my head. “I’m fine. Um, I mean, I’m still warm enough.”

I’m not,” Theo said. He’d tucked his hands into his pockets and was bouncing up and down.

“Yeah, plus the timer just ran out again,” Zain said. “Let’s go.” He grabbed my wrist to take me through the crowd, and Theo gripped my other shoulder on Quint’s prompting. We didn’t want to be separated as we made our way inside and onto an elevator.

At street level again, I tipped my head back like I hadn’t done since my first week in the city. The canyon walls of buildings around us seemed much closer now that I’d been above them. The feeling wasn’t dissimilar to claustrophobia.

Beside me, Zain was gazing upward, too. “Bye, Empire State Building,” he called out.

“Wow,” said Theo. “That was possibly the most touristy thing I’ve ever witnessed.”

“Shut up,” said Zain, goodnaturedly. “I’m a tourist, and I’m unashamed.”

*

He never is ashamed or the slightest bit embarrassed. Not even wearing a green foam Statue of Liberty crown and making me pose for pictures in the line to board the ferry the next morning. I’m laughing in the photos only because he tickled me right when Theo told us to say cheese.

At least on the ride itself, he was too busy snapping away at the harbor and the oncoming statue to bother me again. He also knows that I get mild seasickness. It was stronger than usual for some reason, so I tried to focus on the horizon to counteract the constant motion.

But my queasiness only grew as we crossed the water. When the boat docked, we had to walk forward to reach the exit at the other side of the deck. It rocked again under my feet and I stumbled into Zain’s side. He caught me by the elbow.

“Okay, babe?”

Nodding, I said, “Just need to get on solid land.”

“Almost there,” he said.

It only took a few more minutes before we stepped off the gangway and onto the dock, with Quint and Theo right behind us. We kept walking until we were clear of the crowd, and then stopped to take stock of the small island. Lady Liberty herself wasn’t hard to find. She stood tall against the sky in the distance above a nearby building, her back to us and arm upraised.

“Guess we head that way,” Theo said, so we did.

The building turned out to be a gift shop and restaurant. Quint asked, “Should we eat first?”

“I’d rather have food after,” said Zain. I agreed. My stomach didn’t feel ready to handle anything solid at the moment.

Around the corner past the building, we found a wide flagstone walkway leading up to a tent at the rear of the Statue, with a line of people stretching from it almost to where we stood.

“It says ‘Pedestal and Crown Ticket Holders’ over the door,” said Quint. “That’s us.”

We hadn’t gotten tickets to the crown, just the pedestal. The website explained that a very limited number were allowed to visit the crown each day, and they’d sold out months ago. Zain said he didn’t mind, because he was more interested in seeing the statue than being inside it.

As we joined the end of the line, he gave me one of his assessing scans—a dart of brown pupils that takes in my entire body so quickly I often miss it. Then he casually said, “Babe, go sit up there while we make our way to the front.” He nodded to a row of white wrought iron chairs facing all along the line a few yards off. “We’ll save your spot.”

“I’ll be alright in a few minutes,” I said.

“Yep,” he agreed, grinning. “‘Cause you’ll be sitting down.”

My cheeks heated as I glanced at Theo and Quint and found them both intently looking the other way. Zain paid no attention to that. His eyes sparkled, silently asking if I was sure I liked my odds against an obstinate Marine.

Pulling a face, I strode off to the chairs.

Quint

My years of medical training and experience wasn’t what tipped me off to Seb not feeling well. It was a moment on the deck of the ferry.

Theo was leaning over the railing next to Zain, pointing out buildings on the skyline. Seb stood on his fiancé’s other side, but he’d turned his head to gaze in the direction of the boat’s travel. I stood a foot behind them, since there was no more room at the railing, and as I watched, Zain glanced from the city to his Brat. Then he looked again, took one hand off the railing, and rested it on Seb’s lower back.

All through, he continued his conversation with Theo without pause. I don’t believe either Brat noticed his shift in posture. To me, though, it was clearly more than the closeness they maintained at almost all times when together. He’d seen something I couldn’t see with my much lower familiarity of Seb’s condition.

It did become obvious over time. His freckles grew pronounced as his skin paled, and he swallowed frequently. That, coupled with how firmly he gripped the top rail and how fixedly he stared at the horizon, made me suspect motion sickness. I wished I’d known beforehand so I could’ve given him medication. We would be on land soon, though, and we could find a place for him to rest and recover.

Zain took care of that the moment we reached the line. Seb gave him a small argument, but capitulated, and he did look much better as he rejoined us and held out his ticket for the park ranger at the door to the tent.

“Where’re you folks from?” the ranger asked, circling the time stamped on each ticket with a ballpoint.

“Manhattan,” Theo said, laughing.

The ranger looked up and smiled. “She’s been calling to you!”

“He’s the one who’s visiting,” I explained, putting my hand on Zain’s shoulder. “And Seb here is still fairly new in town as well.”

“Ah!” said the ranger. Addressing Zain, he asked, “Where’re you visiting from, then?”

“Annapolis, Maryland, sir.”

The ranger squinted at him. “Naval Academy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, thank you for your service! Be sure to tell them if you buy anything at the gift shop or cafe. We have military discounts. Now, do you folks have any backpacks, any sort of food, or liquids other than water?”

Seb shifted the shoulder strap of his messenger bag before running his hand down his arm to fiddle with his alert bracelet. “I have insulin and glucose tabs to treat my diabetes.”

“Those can go in,” said the ranger. “And that bag’s fine, it’s only backpacks that aren’t allowed. Anything else?”

We shook our heads. Breakfast at the apartment that morning had been our last meal, and we’d planned to buy food here or on Ellis Island.

“Alright,” he said. “Head straight through to my friend Ranger Tammy at the back there.”

Thanking him, we walked beyond the small gift shop and some rows of lockers where other visitors were stowing prohibited items, through another set of doors, and then finally into the base of the Statue itself.

The original torch dominated the space. Theo and Zain were both too eager to reach the top of the pedestal to stop for pictures there, so we went around it and up a wide flight of steps to a corridor. A roped-off line of people stood against one wall, waiting for a single elevator. Next to them was a sign directing us to continue on if we wanted to take the stairs.

“What do you guys think?” Zain asked, though he was looking only at Seb. “Stairs or elevator?”

“Stairs,” replied the younger Brat without hesitation.

“Yeah,” Theo agreed. “It didn’t look too tall. I’ve lived in walk-ups. I can handle that.”

“I’m fine with either,” I said.

Zain continued to look at Seb. “Babe, I saw you test when you were sitting down earlier.”

“Just checking,” he said. “I’m good. I feel better now, too.”

After a moment, Zain nodded and grinned. “Alright, stairs! Anyone wanna race?”

I shook my head at him. “No.”

He sighed towards my husband. “He’s no fun. How do you deal?”

“I bring the fun for both of us,” said Theo. “Now, c’mon, let’s go!”

*

The height that the pedestal appeared from the outside was deceptive. I should have done more research, and also perhaps kept Theo from rushing so much on the first few flights. He led the way for our little group, while Zain hung back to stay next to Seb, and I took the rear. Soon my Brat was out of sight. I believe Seb pushed himself harder to catch up then, although I called for Theo to wait for us.

“It’s not a race, angel,” I reiterated as he came into view. Seb was panting slightly, and I could see Zain doing more visual checks of him, one every few steps.

“I know,” said Theo, grinning. “But I’m still going to be first to the top.”

Normally, Zain wouldn’t resist that challenge. Today, he simply said, “Okay, but who can run over twenty-six miles?”

Theo cupped a hand behind his ear. “Sorry, I can’t hear you from all the way down there.”

“We’re all reaching the top at the same time,” I said, and then tapped Zain’s shoulder. When he looked back, I let my gaze flick to Seb for a moment in mute question.

‘Okay for now,’ the other Top mouthed.

Three flights later was when Seb, breathing heavily, paused on a landing. Zain stopped as well. I watched a silent communication pass between them with a single, long eyelock. Then Seb frowned and shook his head ever so slightly. Zain responded by snorting with amusement, turning his Brat towards the corner of the landing, and patting him on the bottom before positioning himself behind him, facing out.

“You guys mind making a wall with me?” he asked. “He doesn’t want people seeing him test.”

Theo scrambled down the few steps he’d climbed of the next flight and stood next to Zain. I took my husband’s other side, also facing away from Seb, whom I could hear still panting as he unzipped his test kit.

The next family coming up the stairs appeared on the lower landing. The mother gave us an odd look.

“Hello, ma’am!” Zain greeted her. “We’re your entertainment for this portion of the climb. My country ‘tiiiis of thee, sweet land of liiiiberty…”

“Of thee I sing,” Theo harmonized. And the pair of them sang through the whole first verse as the woman, her husband, and their three children passed us. The children loved it.

Theo

Guilt filled me as I stood singing with Zain and waiting for Seb to finish his test. I’d seen him having lows and highs often enough now, I felt like I should’ve known what was happening and not rushed us. The two Tops had clearly spotted it. Then again, that’s their jobs.

Once he’d taken his glucose tabs, Seb said, “You can go up the stairs without me.”

“Why?” I asked. “Are you embarrassed to be seen with us, after we serenaded everyone?”

“No,” he said, though I had heard him groan when Zain started the song. “There’s just no need for all of us to wait in line for the elevator.”

“We have no issues with waiting, mon chaton,” Quint said, “and we’re here to spend the day with you as well as Zain. We aren’t going to separate.”

Seb looked to his own Top in appeal, who only smirked, so we headed back down to catch the elevator together.

It didn’t take much longer, anyway. We were soon stepping out onto the narrowest observation deck ever, which ran around the base of the statue itself. There was barely room for two people to pass each other, and it was already crowded. The views of the city were great, though. I pointed towards the Brooklyn side of the Verrazano-Narrows bridge across the harbor. “That’s where I grew up.”

“On a bridge?” Zain asked, grinning.

I stuck my tongue out. “No, Bay Ridge. It’s the neighborhood right there, see? Fort Hamilton is part of it—that’s the only active-duty military base in the city—but mostly it’s just Irish and Norwegian families that’ve been there for ages, and now there’s a lot of immigrants from the Middle East who’ve joined them in the past few decades.”

“Neat,” he said. “Maybe if my parents had settled in New York instead of LA, we’d’ve met sooner.”

“Maybe,” I agreed. “I used to babysit neighborhood kids when I was fifteen. You would’ve been, what, five? God, I’m old.”

Quint chuckled quietly. I stuck my tongue out at him, too.

*

The subject of our families came up again later, after we’d taken all the pictures we wanted from the top and base of the Statue and headed inside to check out the museum. Past the stuff about how it had been made—Seb spent a lot of time looking at the sketches and scale models—there was a section devoted to immigration.

“‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door,’” read Zain from a plaque on the wall. “Gives you chills of wonder, doesn’t it?”

I was farther along, looking at excerpts from immigrants’ letters describing their first sighting of Lady Liberty. “My mom used to tell me about her great-grandmother, Mary Dunnigan, who sailed from Liverpool to Ellis Island in 1900,” I said. “Her family left County Cork for England during the famine, thinking it would be better there, but they didn’t find the conditions had improved much.

“By the time she was born, two of her older brothers had gone on to the US and were sending money back. The parents died before they could follow. Mary was the youngest. She got here when she was just twenty, all alone for the whole trip. We went and looked up her ship’s manifest when I was a kid.

“I couldn’t imagine leaving home like that, moving so far away where I barely knew anyone, but Mom always said she was full of dreams, faith, and a drive to find a better life, and that saw her through.”

“Sounds like my parents,” Zain said. “They drove it into us that they came here before having children because they wanted greater opportunities, more freedom. They couldn’t find jobs, and they saw Islamist movements gaining influence in Egypt. None of their family came over. It was just us. They’d love to visit here, I think. Maybe I’ll bring them someday.”

His optimism about reuniting with his family surprises me. I’d never wanted to connect with my father again after moving out. Perhaps his wasn’t as bad, though. Turning to Seb, I asked, “What about your mom? Did she know anyone when she moved here from Ireland?”

“France,” he said, absentmindedly, as he leaned closer to a letter in the case before us. “She only lived in Ireland until she was ten. And no, she didn’t, but that was part of the appeal for her. She was kind of a nomad. Meeting my dad was what made her stop wandering.”

“Quint, of course, being an old-money preppy, has to go all the way back to the Mayflower to find immigrants in his lineage,” I teased.

The man in question wrapped an arm around my waist from behind and said, “Not necessarily. A shameful little family legend claims the first Rafferty Leopold Hanniford was named in homage to his real father, John Rafferty, an Irish dockworker who was hired to do some repairs on the house and seduced the young Mrs. Hanniford with tales of his boyhood in Dublin.”

I twisted around to look at him in astonishment. “You never told me that!”

He gave me one of his quietly-amused smiles. “Well-bred people don’t speak of such things. It wasn’t the most popular topic of discussion at the dinner table.”

“But you aren’t well-bred,” I countered, snickering. “You’re the descendant of an Irish longshoreman’s bastard!”

“Language,” he said, mildly. “There are children around.”

I sighed. Whatever rough edges old John introduced into the gene pool had clearly been smoothed over long ago by years of prim and proper upbringing. Then the squeeze of his fingers on my hip brought to mind what he’s like, sometimes, when he loosens his self-control, and I thought, Mmm, maybe not all the rough edges.

*

Leaving the museum, we backtracked to the café next to the gift shop and had lunch before getting in line to board the ferry to Ellis Island.

“Will you be alright on the boat again, mon chaton?” Quint asked.

Seb nodded. “I think my sugars were dropping a little to start with, and that exacerbated it. I’m good now that I’ve eaten.”

This trip was shorter, too. Just ten minutes later, we disembarked in front of the huge main building. I tried to imagine what my ancestor Mary must’ve thought as she stepped through the doors. Did she ever picture having a great-great-grandson who made part of his living singing the very same songs she grew up listening to?

I was falling back on my repertoire of traditional Irish tunes more since becoming a one-man show and having to start almost from scratch on original music. The first step was teaching myself harmonica. A bit of a controversial choice of instrument, seeing as it’s not fully accepted by traditional purists, but I went with it because I couldn’t play guitar and fiddle at the same time. Plus, it was easier to learn. I’m already good at sucking and blowing… if you know what I mean.

(Okay, really, ‘sucking and blowing’ is the opposite of what you do when you play harmonica. You breathe through it. I just like watching Quint’s reaction when I say that.) Anyway, I was getting pretty decent. I’d even lined up a gig for St. Patrick’s Day, at a pub near the huge parade route. It’d be great exposure in front of my kind of audience. Mary would be proud, I hoped.

Zain

The bedsprings creaked a little as I rolled to my feet, draped myself over Seb’s chair, and bit his earlobe. He tried to shrug me off. Letting go, I whispered, “Click the button.”

His finger still hesitated above the trackpad of his laptop. “We’re trying to stay out of debt,” he said. “I can just… just deal with being apart for longer.”

I reached down and swatted his hip—not very hard at all, but enough to make my point. He’d already pushed this to the last possible day before the deadline. Dragging it out more wasn’t an option.

Screwing up his face, he clicked the button. A moment later, he said, “It’s sent.”

“Aww, it didn’t make a whooshy noise,” I pouted. “I like when there’s a whooshy noise.”

“Zain. I just applied to transfer to Maryland Institute College of Art, a move that could put us both into insurmountable debt or mean we have to accept a lot more help from my parents than we ever wanted to, if I even get in, and you’re complaining about the lack of sound effects?”

That was when Theo reentered the apartment. We hadn’t seen or heard from him since shortly after his husband departed for the hospital that morning. He’d mentioned something about working out the last details of a gig and left Seb and I to fend for ourselves. We’d been taking great advantage of the solitude before I’d discovered that Seb’s completely finished application was unsent. So we were both still naked and unable to go say hi right away.

Seb jumped to his feet and reached for his yoga pants on the floor. I started looking, less frantically, for the underwear I’d left tangled up in the covers.

In the kitchen, the metal pantry door screeched shut with a lot of force, followed by Theo’s heavy footsteps down the hall and into the master bedroom. That door made more of an echoey banging sound as it closed behind him.

Seb went motionless with one leg in the yoga pants and one still out. From the hall, Jagger whined.

“Wonder what that’s about?” I asked, finally locating my boxers. After putting them on, I grabbed my shirt and dropped a quick peck on Seb’s lips. “I’ll go see. Wait here.”

He nodded and slowly sank down into the chair again as I went to check on the other Brat.

The master bedroom door had been locked. No surprise. I tried it just once, gently, before I shouldered into my shirt and rapped my knuckles against the wood. “Theo?”

“Go away!”

Now, how would Quint handle this? I wondered. With a stern word or two, in all likelihood. Maybe that counting-to-three thing he did? Yeah, that wasn’t gonna work for me. Hmm…

“Okay,” I told him, backtracking to Seb’s doorway. My Brat was fully dressed now and watching with wide eyes. In an undertone, I asked, “Do you happen to know if they have anything I could jimmy that lock with?”

He shook his head at the same time that Theo’s voice came, full of suspicion. “‘Okay’?”

“Yep,” I called back. “It’s reverse psychology. I’m devious like that.” Waving a hand in the air, I went on, “Open the door, you must. No, wait, that’s a Jedi mind trick. Sorry.”

“F-fuck off,” he replied, with a weird sort of hesitation, like he just wanted to see how I’d react.

Seb’s eyebrows snapped together. Pushing me out of the way, he marched past. It wasn’t quite a murder walk, but close enough. I observed gleefully as he stopped in front of the barrier, crossed his arms, and commanded, “Theodore! Unlock this! Zain hasn’t done anything to you!”

There were about five seconds of silence, and then the door opened enough for Theo to look out, wearing an expression that was equal parts stunned and sheepish.

Seb

Theo stared like I’d suddenly started speaking in tongues, while behind me, Zain said, “I know, isn’t he gorgeous like this?”

“You are not helping,” I snapped at him. My voice shook. I couldn’t even meet Theo’s eyes.

“Hey hey, it’s good,” said Zain. His hand steadied me by the elbow. “You’re fine. Theo isn’t mad, right?”

It took me a second to realize he’d directed that at the other Brat, who said, “…No, I’m not mad. Not at you, anyway. Either of you. Zain, I–I’m sorry about, um, telling you to fuck off.”

I lifted my gaze enough to see Zain’s amused eyeroll as he said, “If I couldn’t handle people swearing at me, I would not be in the military. Do you wanna maybe talk about who you were mad at, though? Or whatever it is you did to your hand?”

Theo flinched and hid his right hand behind his back.

“Wow,” Zain said, widening his eyes. “Now I’ve totally forgotten I noticed anything. What were we talking about again?”

“You are such a little shit,” Theo told him, flatly. I couldn’t object to his swearing this time, since I agreed. Zain just laughed and walked off towards the living room, pulling me with him.

“C’mon,” he said over his shoulder, and Theo and Jagger followed.

He took us all into the kitchen, where he let me go, opened the freezer, and glanced over the contents before finding an ice pack on the door. Grabbing it, he wrapped it in a clean dishcloth from the hook next to the sink and turned to Theo.

“Gimme.”

The other Brat reluctantly held out his hand. I gasped. Bruises discolored his swollen knuckles.

Grasping his fingertips, Zain examined him closer and whistled. “That’s nasty. Slug someone?”

“No!” Theo said, much too quickly.

It was weird to see Zain tilt his chin at another person. I still felt the little jump in my stomach, while Theo’s already-pink ears went crimson.

“I didn’t!” he insisted. “I’m left-handed!” He held up his other hand, which was pristine.

“Oh, that’s right, you are,” said Zain. “Silly me.” Applying the ice pack gently to Theo’s skin, he asked, “So, what happened?”

Theo shrugged one shoulder. “I fell and hit it on the edge of the bar as I was trying to catch myself.”

“And you got so mad at the bar that you came home and slammed all the doors,” Zain agreed, deadpan.

Theo scowled.

“You might as well tell him now,” I whispered. “He’s not going to give up.”

Nodding at me, my fiancé said, “He speaks the truth, squirt.”

Squirt?” Theo asked, scowling harder. “I’m ten years older than you!”

Zain grinned. “Who’s bigger?”

Theo glared at him a moment, and then sighed and said, “I went to find out some details for my gig on St. Patrick’s Day. And Mitch was there.”

Mitch? I thought. Mitch who-? Oh. Merde.

“Your old friend?” I asked. “The one who broke up the band?”

He nodded. The confusion cleared from Zain’s face. “So, no plans for a reunion tour, I’m guessing,” he said.

“It turns out his new band was headlining there,” said Theo, in a voice full of bitterness. “I’d be their opening act. He kind of taunted me about that, and I… blew up. I shoved him, he shoved me back, and that’s when I fell. And then I lost the gig, because the manager saw I’d started it.”

My heart twisted. His eyes had gone bright as he spoke, and I knew how much he was looking forward to that performance. For weeks, he’d been working on jigs and reels and folk songs that made me flashback to my mom singing in the kitchen while she cooked.

“Oh, squirt,” Zain said, pulling him into a hug.

The older Brat sniffled as he returned the embrace. Then he lifted his head and gave Zain a pleading look. “Don’t tell Quint?”

Zain smiled a little. “Do you think he’s not gonna notice?” he asked. “Even if the swelling goes down by the time he gets home, you’ll still have bruises.”

Stepping away, Theo wiped his eyes with his good hand and choked out, “Starting fights qualifies as recklessly putting myself in danger.”

That meant the belt, I remembered from our Newlywed Game. A sort of internal wince ran through me. No wonder he didn’t want Quint to find out.

“Yeah, it does,” agreed Zain. He looked sympathetic, but sounded very matter-of-fact. “You knew that when you did it. I’m not gonna tell Quint, though. I think you ought to. Why don’t you call him now, so you don’t have to wait so long dreading it?”

Theo bit his lip, his gaze on his swollen knuckles. Then he nodded and took his phone from his pocket with the other hand.

“Good choice,” Zain said. “C’mon, let’s sit down first.” He turned Theo by the shoulder and scooped me up in his arm as he passed, steering us both around the kitchen peninsula and to the living room. On the way, he whispered in my ear, “I am so proud of you, habibi.”

I flushed, knowing what he was referring to. I didn’t think of it as one of my better moments. Most of his focus was still on Theo, luckily, so there was no need for me to answer. We sat down on either side of the older Brat when we reached the couch, watching as he dialed.

Quint

My phone’s buzz pulled me out of a stack of paperwork that needed to be signed. I reached for it before glancing at the screen to see Theo was calling. Then, rather than silence it, I unplugged the charger cord and answered. If he’d chosen not to text, it had to be important.

“Hi, angel.”

“…Hey.”

Frowning, I spun my chair to face my bookshelves rather than my crowded desk. “What’s wrong?”

“I have to tell you something,” he said, and from his tone, I could picture the exact guilty expression he currently had. It usually accompanies a ducked head and hunched shoulders.

“Alright,” I said, composed. “I’m listening.”

His voice went quieter. “You–you won’t like it.”

“Theo, tell me what you have to tell me, please, and then we’ll deal with whether I like it.”

There was a pause, during which I heard Zain say, “C’mon, it’s like ripping off a bandaid.”

The young Top sounded close to the phone. Was he comforting Theo, or making sure he confessed whatever it was? Likely a mixture of both, I suspected. I waited in silence.

Theo sighed heavily. “Okay. I got into a fight with Mitch and lost my gig for St. Patrick’s Day.”

I blinked, trying to make sense of those two disconnected pieces of information. Starting with the most concerning, I asked, “How did you come into contact with Mitch?”

“His band is headlining at the pub I was supposed to play at,” said Theo. “He turned up while I was there.”

That only caused more confusion. “Did you know when you took the gig?”

“No!” he said. “I didn’t even know he had a new band!”

“Alright, I’m only clarifying,” I said, soothingly. “So he showed up and the two of you got into an argument?”

He mumbled something.

“Speak up, please.”

“I said a fight, not an argument,” he replied, still muffled. “Well, it started as him rubbing it in, but then I kind of pushed him, just knocked him back a step, and he shoved me. I hit my hand on the bar trying to catch myself. It’s a little sore.”

Before I could react this time, Zain said, “Oh, nice try, squirt. Do that last bit again.”

“It’s… bruised and swelled up,” Theo admitted. “I don’t think anything’s broken, though.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.

“Quint?”

“Do you have full range of motion?” I asked, parting my eyelids again. I didn’t need worst-case scenarios playing out on the backs of them.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Did you put ice on it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Was your head hit at all?”

“No, just my hand.”

That was a relief. I also knew Zain would be able to spot something serious, and I couldn’t hear him prompting Theo to give me more information, so we’d reached the end of his confession.

“I’m assuming you lost the gig due to this altercation?” I asked.

His voice cracked as he said, “Yes, sir.”

I squeezed the arm of my chair, wishing I was next to him instead of Zain. Hearing him cry never affects me any less than the first time, though for his sake, I’ve gotten better at not showing it. When I was sure I had control, I asked, “Did Mitch get fired as well?”

He puffed out a breath. “No, the manager said I’d started it and he was only defending himself. I think they also figured it’d be easier to replace an opening act.”

In the privacy of my office, I mouthed an insult I would never repeat aloud toward wherever Mitch happened to be at the moment. My husband may have been the first to raise a hand, and his actions couldn’t be excused, but I was aware that his ex-friend knew exactly how to push him to that point. Again, I had to carefully modulate my tone to say, “I’m sorry you won’t be able to play, angel. You were working hard on it.”

“It’s my own fault,” he said, on half a sob. “I lost my temper.”

Sighing, I turned back to the desk to pull up my calendar. “We’ll discuss that when I get home… which unfortunately won’t be any sooner than six. I have a meeting I can’t move.”

“I–I understand.”

“I wish I could leave now,” I said, guilt hitting in my stomach. “I don’t like to make you wait.”

“Are you…um…going to use…?”

He didn’t need to finish. The moment he’d said he pushed Mitch, I knew what he was dreading. I hesitated to confirm it, however, for two reasons. One, I wasn’t yet sure myself and wanted a few minutes to think this over, and two, I felt the certainty hanging over his head for several hours might be worse than the possibility.

“We’ll discuss it when I get home,” I repeated, finally. “Can you put Zain on, please?”

“ …Okay.”

A moment of silence, and then Zain’s voice said, “Heya.”

“Thank you for being there, first of all,” I said.

He scoffed. “Just returning the favor.”

“Regardless, thank you. Second, I won’t be home for about three hours. Can I ask you to keep an eye on him and perhaps provide a distraction?”

“Of course! It’s one of my specialties.”

I knew the truth of that. “Thank you,” I said again. “Give the phone back to him, please.”

He said, “Here,” and then Theo asked, “Yes, sir?”

“Remember not to keep the ice on your hand for more than twenty minutes at a time,” I told him. “I love you, and I’ll be home as soon as I can. Understood?”

Sniffling, he said, “Yes, sir. I love you, too.”

Theo

Zain interrupted the silence after I hung up by squeezing my shoulder and asking, “Do you have any board games?”

I frowned at him. “Yeah, below the TV, but–”

He was already going to open the entertainment stand.

“But I don’t really feel like playing a game now,” I said, watching him crouch down in front of it.

Twisting to look at me, he said, “Okay, what do you feel like doing? And moping around until Quint gets home isn’t an option.”

That had been basically what I was planning to do, only with the TV on to provide some background noise. Now that I considered it, though, it’d be better to have something to think about other than my impending doom. “Never mind,” I said. “We can play a game.”

He smiled and opened the cupboard door in front of him. “Oooh, Xbox! Although, with your hand… yeah, better stick to tabletop.” He slid Risk out from the stack of boxes on the shelf below the console.

As he carried it to the table, I glanced sideways at Seb. “Um, by the way, thanks,” I said, quietly. “For, y’know, getting me to come out of the bedroom.”

The other Brat looked surprised. With a shake of his head, he replied, “I overstepped.”

“You said almost exactly what Quint would’ve if he’d been here,” I told him. “Maybe not in that tone–”

“That’s what I mean. It wasn’t my place.”

“I’m glad you did it,” I said. “It’s absolutely your place, as my family, to tell me to stop being an idiot, okay?”

He didn’t look convinced, but he nodded.

“Guys, c’mon,” Zain said, unfolding the gameboard. “What color army do you want to be? I’m usually green.”

“I’ll be yellow,” said Seb. He stood, and I followed him over to the table with my icepack.

“Blue, I guess,” I said. My interest in the game was still halfhearted at best. I doubted it would take my mind off what was going to happen when Quint got home.

*

Zain had conquered Europe and was working his way across Africa. I held my own in Egypt, though, leading to a lot of complaints about denying him his ancestral homeland as he gave up the attack and his turn. Across the Atlantic, Seb had troops arranged in an intricate zig-zag pattern that filled all of Brazil. He added three more, gently adjusted one little yellow plastic horse to be parallel to the next, and then said, “Okay, your turn, Theo.”

“You’re still not attacking?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I’m a pacifist.”

“Don’t let that innocent, gentle nature fool you,” Zain said, leaning towards me. “He’s amassing too much force. We should join together and knock him out now.”

I looked consideringly at Seb, who did not seem at all concerned by his fiancé plotting against him. Before I could decide, Jagger jumped down from the couch and trotted to the door, and I realized I’d completely lost track of time. It was just after six.

Swallowing, I stood to face Quint as he came in.

His expression was very serious and a tad worried. “Come here, angel,” he said, acknowledging the other two with only a quick glance. I obeyed, my gaze dropping to my feet when I stepped in front of him and he took my right wrist. He didn’t say anything as he examined my injury, but once he seemed satisfied, he put his hands on each of my shoulders. “Look at me, please.”

My eyes met his through my lashes. “I’m sorry.”

“I know,” he replied, calm. “I’d like you to go to the corner.” Dismay must’ve shown on my face, because he added, “Not for long. This’ll only take a minute. You’ve waited enough already. Go on, now.”

Knowing he must have a good reason, but still reluctant, I went slowly. Zain and Seb, on the other hand, were dodging around me to put their shoes on, clip Jagger to his leash, and vacate as soon as possible. I love them.

Quint said something I couldn’t catch. It sounded like Seb answered, though his voice was even quieter. I was almost sure Quint replied, “Thank you.” The door opened and closed behind the younger couple, and then my husband’s footsteps went down the hallway a short distance before returning to the living room. I might’ve wondered what that was about more if I hadn’t been so busy trying to calm the quaking in my stomach. “Theodore,” he said, “come here, please.”

That hadn’t been long at all. I turned, and saw him sitting on the couch, in the middle like he does if he’s planning to take me over his knee. Weirdly, it gave me hope. I’m never in that position for the belt.

When I came over to stand in front of him, though, he just pointed to the coffee table. “Have a seat. We need to discuss this.”

I followed the command.

Why the hell is keeping eye contact so difficult? I know it’s expected of me and he’s not going to start until he gets it, but man, I hate it.

His fingers gently lifted my chin, making me face him even more fully. His blue-gray irises peered deep into me. Then he said, “I’m struggling, angel. I know that you’re already hurting, from Mitch’s words, from your hand, and from losing the gig.”

Just the reminder of my firing ached painfully in my heart. All my work to get it, gone up in smoke. It wasn’t the end of my career, no, but it was supposed to be a good boost for me. I blinked away tears, and Quint’s face softened still further.

“Part of me,” he says, “wants to say that you were severely provoked, and the natural consequences of your actions have been bad enough, so we don’t need to use the belt. But then I remember the first time we did use it, when the fight you started was with a group of strangers, and I found you after at Zeggy’s, beaten and bloody.”

If he hadn’t still been holding my jaw, I would’ve hung my head. It shames me to think what I put him through that night. “I’m sorry.”

“You’ve been forgiven for that, angel,” he said, rubbing his thumb along my cheek. “It’s in the past. I only bring it up by way of example. You were even more provoked that night. I’d say you faced greater natural consequences, as well. So is it right for me not to follow through with the same punishment now?” He sighed, shook his head. “Consistency is one of the cornerstones of this relationship. We both understand your need for it. I’m concerned that wavering will lead to greater problems in the future.”

He’d decided on the belt, then. I couldn’t argue, even as my stomach tightened. His reasoning was logical, like always.

After a moment, though, he went on, “However, the level of danger you placed yourself in today is, in my opinion, smaller than it has been in the past. To be clear, that does not excuse it. You still could have been severely hurt. The relative risk, though, between fighting with a group of men on a street at night versus pushing one man in a bar with others around…” He trailed off before repeating, “I’m struggling.” Letting go of me, he rested his forearms on his thighs and clasped his hands together. “I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to resolve this is to put it in your hands and trust you to know what you need.”

My mouth dropped open. I was speechless.

Of course in our first discussions on discipline, years ago, I got equal say about consequences that could be used, and occasionally when we introduced new rules as well, but giving me the choice over a specific punishment? I couldn’t remember him ever doing that in the past.

“Before you say anything,” he said, “let me outline this. The choice is not between the belt or no spanking. It’s not even belt or paddle.” Then he reached behind himself and brought out Seb’s hairbrush. “We’ve been loaned this. You’ve felt it before, so I believe you can make a fair comparison. Whichever you choose is what we’ll go with.”

I stared at the brush. From what I could remember of my brief encounter with it, it was almost as painful as the belt. Maybe equal. But it didn’t give me the same feeling, the indescribable emotion a belting invokes, which I dread even more than the pain. And he’d use it with me across his lap, not bent over a chair. I desperately craved closeness.

Gulping down nerves, I said, “Hairbrush.”

Quint nodded. “Alright. Stand up, please.”

What, now?! I thought. Which was dumb, because of course now. Hadn’t I just wanted to get this over with a little while ago?

I stood and waited for him to reach for my waistband, like usual, but he said, “Take them down.”

There have been very few occasions when he’s given me that order. They usually coincide with the occasions when the belt is used. Being required to actively participate in my own punishment makes a strong impression with me. By which I mean, it sucks.

I bit my lower lip as I obeyed, my fingers clumsy on the button. When it came time to actually bare my butt, though, I lost my nerve a bit and only pushed my pants and boxers down to just below the cheeks.

“No,” he said, before I could position myself across his lap. “To your knees.”

I grimaced. That meant he’d probably be using it pretty low. “Yes, sir.”

Once I’d lowered them more, I was allowed to kneel on the couch and then, finally, I had the closeness I’d wanted: His thighs beneath me and the warmth of his torso against my side. I gave him my hand without his asking. It was the bruised one, so he was very gentle as he held it against my back.

Then there was nothing left to do but get spanked. He wasted no time on that.

“Fuck!”

Look, I swear a lot. I don’t make any apologies for it. Quint doesn’t care unless there are children around or I’m directing it at someone. But I usually refrain from swearing when I’m being spanked. It feels disrespectful. This time, it just burst out, and I think it caught us both off guard. I could feel him pause.

“Hurts,” I gasped, by way of explanation.

“It’s meant to,” he replied, which I expected, but then he asked, “Have you changed your mind about the implement?”

I shook my head against the couch cushion.

“Alright.” He pulled me closer to him and carried on setting my skin ablaze.

This time, I just yelped until the sobs started. They lasted quite awhile longer than the spanking did, and that was long enough. Quint had a job of it, calming me down again. I latched onto him and cried until my eyes ran dry. Then, finally, I felt lighter.

Zain

We took Jagger all the way down to the water, along the promenade Quint had shown me on our morning runs. Sitting on a bench next to Seb, watching the boats in the river, I said, “Okay, babe. Talk to me about overstepping.”

He stared at me.

“Yeah, I know it’s shocking I can hear things when I’m, like, a whole seven feet away,” I said. “Why don’t you think it’s your place to confront Theo?”

Slouching on the bench, he crossed his arms over his stomach. “You know why.”

I reached across, grabbed his wrist, and unfolded the barrier. “Remind me,” I said, keeping his hand in mine.

“Because I already cause enough trouble, without starting fights!”

“And that reasoning is wrong because…”

He scowled. “It’s not wrong.”

Laughing, I said, “I’m glad to see you’ve still got no problems causing trouble with me, brat.”

A flush spread over his cheekbones

“I mean it,” I added. “I was kinda worried this would make you backslide. I also meant it earlier, when I said I’m proud of you.”

“For yelling at Theo.”

“Okay, first, you didn’t actually yell,” I said, counting on my free hand. “Second, after what he said, it was understandable and justified, and third, you’re a Brat. You are allowed to live up to the label sometimes. The lowercase kind, I mean. I don’t call you it just to tease you, y’know.”

He blew out a breath and turned his hand over, interlocking our fingers. “I know.”

“And Theo was fine with it, wasn’t he?”

Seb nodded. The urge to hide had faded from his eyes. That was good enough for the moment. We went back to looking at the river until I got the all-clear text from Quint.

*

Theo stayed plastered to his husband’s side for the rest of the night—literally. Quint wrapped an arm around him and they moved as one while the older man cooked dinner. It was adorable.

When it came time to sit down and eat, though, Quint picked up his plate of food in his free hand and started for the table, but Theo hung back. “I’ll eat here,” he said, with a glance at his usual chair and a hint of a self-deprecating grin. “I think I’d rather stand.”

Quint looked at him a moment, and then set his plate on the counter again. “I’ll join you, angel. Seb, could you pass me our utensils?”

He and I did one better. We transferred all the place settings to the peninsula, and the four of us had dinner standing up. Theo seemed pretty well-recovered, emotionally, by the end of it.

*

Seb’s bed was tiny. Fun stuff required creative gymnastics sometimes, but sleeping was easier. Mainly because spooning is our preferred rest position. It also meant he couldn’t move without me knowing about it, which came in handy. That night, I’d nearly dozed off when I felt him shift and reach for something. Thinking he was grabbing a snack for a low, I parted my eyelids a few millimeters and peered over his shoulder. No, I saw, he’d picked up his phone. A notification had lit the screen. I watched him unlock it and start typing, but he held it too close to his abdomen for me to read.

“Secret rendezvous?” I mumbled.

His thumbs paused their taps. “It’s an email to Bradley.”

The name didn’t register in my sleepy brain. I made an indistinct noise that could roughly be translated as ‘who?’

“Platt.”

“Oh, right.” Closing my eyes again, I snuggled into his neck. “How’s our little Platypus doing?”

“He’s okay,” Seb said. That would be the most he’d share, I knew. I’d accepted weeks ago that other than the one chain of emails he forwarded with the kid’s permission, their communication stayed between them. I trusted Seb to alert me if anything bad was happening, but I did kind of wish Platt would talk to me over break, too.

Falling asleep, I thought I should maybe contact him instead. Tomorrow.

It slipped my mind, though, in a bustle of more sightseeing. We played frisbee with Jagger in Central Park for half the morning. Then Quint took the afternoon off work to join us at the Met—luckily for Seb, who could pretend he was with the nice, sensible doctor, not the lunatic walking into the Egyptian wing and announcing “My people! Your lost pharaoh has returned!” And asking him why all the classical Greek depictions of naked dudes were… less than well-endowed. (He did explain that, after sighing very heavily.)

Theo loved it. Quint looked like he was considering swatting me again. Seb stayed relaxed enough to let us know when all the walking was getting to him, so I called it a job well done. We had quick snacks at the cafeteria before heading back to the apartment for our full dinner.

Platt called me after, while we were in the middle of a game of Clue. I stared at the phone for a second. He’s texted a few times, but never called. Standing to move away from the table, I answered it, “Hey, Platypus. What’s up?”

Surprise and not a little bit of guilt flashed all over Seb’s face when he heard that. He put down his cards and followed me across to the living room window. Behind him, Theo and Quint looked on with interest. The kid’s voice pulled my full attention, though. He sounded uncertain, just on the edge of fear, and he said, “I might’ve done something dumb.”

A chill ran through my body. Reminding myself that his being able to talk to me was a good sign—both for his safety and our trust levels—I took a deep breath and said, “Okay. Tell me.”

“I’m… in New York.”

“The New York that I’m in?” I asked. Seb looked startled.

“Yeah,” said Platt. “I emailed Seb yesterday about wanting to meet people, um, in the scene, but not like last time. He suggested a munch, and I remembered you said those are good, too, so I searched on FetLife for one happening this week.”

“Okay,” I said again, because that all made sense. We’d talked about munches being a safe, low-pressure environment and a great option for him. What I didn’t get, though: “There weren’t any happening closer to you?”

“I didn’t want to risk someone I knew seeing me,” he said. “This was the soonest one, and I thought if I waited, I’d lose my nerve, so I bought a bus ticket this morning. But I–I think I misread the description, because this isn’t a restaurant, and I don’t know what to do.”

“Have you gone inside?”

“No, I’m standing on the sidewalk out front.”

“Text me the address,” I said. “And the cross streets.”

“Okay, hang on.”

Seb grabbed my arm as I lowered the phone. “Wh-?”

“He’s here in New York,” I told him, quietly, as the text came in. Turning to Quint and Theo, I read it to them and then asked, “How long would it take to get there from here?”

“Uh, about forty minutes if you walk,” Theo said. “Twenty by train, maybe. Why?”

I held up two fingers and brought the phone back to my ear. “Platt? Do you want to go in, or do you want to leave?”

“G-go in,” he said. “Just not alone.”

“Alright, I’ll be there in half an hour,” I said. “Wait for me outside, got it?”

“Yeah.”

“See ya.” I hung up, dropped my other hand, and cleared my throat. “So, a friend of ours,” I said, gesturing between Seb and I, “the kid who was attacked along with Seb, actually? He’s made an unexpected visit to the city and needs some moral support. I’m not sure how long I’ll be gone. Sorry to duck out mid-game.”

“It’s fine,” said Quint, concerned. “Is he alright?”

I nodded. “Nervous, not hurt. I’d tell you exactly what’s going on if I could.”

“There’s no need,” he said. “Let us know if we can do anything, though.”

“I will,” I said, and then went around Seb to get my wallet from his room, googling the address while I walked.

He came after me. As soon as we stepped out of the hallway, he shut the door behind him and said, “I’m going, too.”

Smiling, I showed him the search results. “I don’t think you’ll want to, babe. It’s definitely not a restaurant.”

I watched him turn a shade pinker as he read the screen. Then he looked me right in the eye with almost the same expression he’d aimed at Theo’s bedroom door. “I’m going, too.”

My eyebrows raised in surprise. Years ago, I went to Folsom Street Fair, out of sheer curiosity more than anything. Seb gave his blessing to my outing, but swore up and down that wild horses couldn’t drag him to any sort of kink event. We’d never even attended a munch ourselves.

“You sure, habibi? You don’t have to, you know.”

“I want to be there for him,” he said, determined.

I nodded. “Okay, grab your bag.”

Seb

From the outside, the building looked very non-descript, like just another office tower. The ground floor had large, red signs in all the windows, advertising it as a retail space for lease. Off to one side of them stood gray steel double doors. The left was closed, while the right had been propped open with a cinderblock. Painted on the inside was the name of the club and an arrow pointing into a dim hallway. I squinted down it, but just saw a plain wall where it turned a corner.

Bradley wasn’t on the sidewalk where he’d said he’d be. Zain glanced around the street and then called him. “Hey, where are you? We’re here…. Oh, okay. Yeah, we’re standing in front of the doors.” He hung up and told me, “He got paranoid about loitering and went to the grocery store around the corner. He’s on his way.”

I nodded and moved closer to him. I didn’t want to admit that I felt paranoid of someone seeing us there, too. The other plebe appeared within a minute, thankfully. I watched him approach, frowning. Something had changed in his appearance since I’d last seen him, over the weekend we were attacked by Belcher and Gould. It wasn’t until he stopped right in front of us that I realized. “Hi, Bradley,” I said. “You’re taller.”

“He’s been sprouting like a weed,” said Zain cheerfully. “Keeping the uniform fitters busy. How many inches have you grown now, kid?”

Bradley looked pleased, as well as faintly embarrassed. “Almost four since I-Day.” He gestured to the open doorway behind us, tucking his other hand nervously into his pocket. “Can we–should we go in?”

“You still want to?” Zain asked.

When he nodded, Zain turned to me. I said, “I haven’t changed my mind, either.”

“Alright, but if you do, you can safeword out of this at any time,” he said. “Platt, same for you. Either one of you gives the signal, we all leave together immediately. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” said Bradley, while I nodded.

“Great,” Zain said. “I know Seb’s safeword. Have you got one picked out?”

“Exodus,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite books of the Bible, and I thought the non-religious meaning fit, too.”

“Exodus,” Zain repeated, like he was committing that to memory. “Sounds good. The other thing is, we stay in sight of each other at all times.” We both nodded to that as well, and Zain grinned. “Oh, also, try to relax and have fun. C’mon.” He led the way into the building.

Around the corner in the hallway, a staircase went down a flight and a half, and then there was another hall, even darker, ending in a closed door. Music pounded from beyond it. To our right, a pass-through in the wall opened onto a little room where a middle-aged woman sat reading a book. She saw us and stood, coming over to the countertop with a smile.

“Good evening,” she said. “Admission is twenty bucks, or ten with a membership card, and I’ll need to see IDs for each of you. Gotta be eighteen to enter.” She was looking at Bradley for the last part. He flushed, but dug out his driver’s license and passed it to her, along with the money. Zain and I followed suit.

She examined the cards and was satisfied. Then she stamped the backs of our left hands—I flushed twice as hard as Bradley had when I realized the stamp showed someone bending over with their pants around their knees—and said, “Have a good time!”

Zain opened the door and walked through, with Bradley and I trailing after, bumping shoulders as we both tried to hide behind him. He stopped about a yard into the club, and the three of us took in the spectacle all around.

The main room was large, with a bar on one wall and benches along the opposite side. Everything was black, from the ceiling to the cushions on the benches. Two boxy TVs hung above the bar, both of them showing a Care Bears cartoon without sound. Or at least, the sound couldn’t be heard over the house music playing and conversations going on.

People crowded up to the bar and sat chatting on the benches, or stood in clumps between the two. Mostly young people, but other than that, it was hard to pick a common thread among them. They were a mix of different races, body types, and genders. Some were dressed like they were at a fancy cocktail party, while others looked as if they’d just left an office job, or had on jeans and t-shirts like us. A few wore almost nothing at all, such as the guy kneeling on the floor in front of a woman a few feet away, who only had pads strapped to his legs and a collar around his neck. It clipped to the leash she held loosely as she talked to another man. I also saw people in leather and latex, though not as many as I’d expected.

Down on the far end of the room, a small stage was raised about a foot above the floor. A curvy, shirtless woman pressed chest-first to a framework built on it, her right side and face turned to us. Another woman stood a few feet behind her. She held leather floggers in both hands and swung them in circles so they alternately hit the first woman’s shoulder blades. The submissive’s eyes were closed, and she smiled blissfully.

Zain looked back at us and saw Bradley, still as a boulder, watching them. He was one of the few people who did, despite the fact that the women were on the stage. His expression was hard to interpret. Did he think back on his own experience with flogging? I wasn’t sure.

I also wasn’t sure what Zain saw in my face, but it made him step closer to us, so he could speak without having to yell so much, and say, “There’s some kind of loft, I think. Let’s go get our bearings from above.”

He was right. A metal spiral staircase near the stage climbed up to a smaller area overlooking the main room. Zain cut through the crowd to it, and Bradley and I followed behind. We found the loft wasn’t nearly as packed or loud. Some of my edginess faded.

The few people up there sat on a long, black, leather sofa pushed against the back wall. It looked even longer thanks to the floor-to-ceiling mirror that took up the perpendicular wall. A steel railing ran along the remaining two sides of the space, except for where the staircase connected. Zain leaned on the railing, looking down. I went to one side of him and Bradley to the other.

“So, what’d’you think?” Zain asked, more to Bradley than to me.

Bradley swept his eyes over the clubbers below. “There’s so many of them,” he said. His voice sounded in awe. “I didn’t expect that. They’re all into… what we’re into?”

Grinning, Zain said, “Presumably. Also, this is definitely not a munch. What did that event description say?”

“I read it again after I realized,” said Bradley, absentminded. “It was a munch followed by a party. I just got the times and locations of them mixed up.”

As he spoke, I glanced around the loft once more. My eye was caught by a petite woman with a violet pixie cut. She had the kind of lively, animated face I love to draw. She was sitting on the couch like the others, but she seemed to be explaining to them a rope technique she was using to create an intricate box-tie on another woman.

A man leaned closer to watch how she finished a knot. When she was done, he thanked her, and then took the tied-up woman by the elbow, and they went down the stairs together. I watched them descend. Her hands were behind her back so she couldn’t hold the railing at all, but it didn’t seem to bother her. She must have trusted him to catch her if she fell.

The violet-haired woman, meanwhile, pulled another coil of rope out of the bag at her feet and stood. “Would anyone else like to have a tutorial in shibari? I’ll just need a model.”

Zain and Bradley looked around at that. The Japanese style of bondage is an interest of Zain’s—and mine, to a lesser degree. I remembered the incident when Bradley had tied his hands together, too. His eyes followed the rope as the woman spun it in a circle while she looked around for a volunteer. Then he swallowed before he stepped forward. “I’ll do it.”

“Whoa,” said Zain. “Hang on a second.” He held a finger up to the woman and got between her and Bradley. “Kid, are you sure you’re ready for this?” he asked in a low voice.

“I came all this way. I want to do something.”

“Okay, but you shouldn’t rush into something just because you think it’ll be a wasted trip otherwise,” Zain said. “Plus, we don’t even know her, or how good a rigger she is.”

I spoke up then. “The chest harness she did a minute ago looked alright.” Of course, I hadn’t done a close examination of it or felt it myself, but I could tell she wasn’t terrible. If Bradley said he wanted to try, we ought to let him. I knew the edge-of-a-cliff fear he was experiencing, and the courage it took to dangle himself off that precipice. And I knew more about his psychology now, I thought. Going back to Pennsylvania wondering what might have been would only make him take another stupid risk.

Zain and I communicated all that in a look. Then he studied Bradley’s determined expression and nodded once. “Let me see how she is,” he said. “Alright?”

Bradley frowned, but said, “Alright.”

Turning to the woman, Zain asked, “Would you mind if I went first, and then him?”

I blinked a few times.

“Not at all,” she said, smiling. “I’m Maxine, by the way.”

“Ayman,” Zain replied readily.

“Do you have any problem areas or limitations?” she asked.

“Not that I’m aware of,” he said. “I’m usually on the other end of the rope, so to speak.”

She nodded. “We’ll take it slow, then. Let me know right away if anything is uncomfortable. This tie isn’t supposed to be painful. Safeword?”

Shrugging, he said, “Let’s keep it simple and go with the red/yellow/green system.”

As they continued to speak, they moved more towards the corner, where a lamp provided the best illumination in the loft. Bradley followed. I hung back, though. I didn’t object to Zain testing Maxine’s skills, but the idea of him being tied up was strangely uncomfortable, like the phases of the moon reversing. It went against the natural order of things. With me, the rope allows a freedom in confinement, in surrendering to his plans for me. With him… I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch his energy be bound and contained.

Very soon, I couldn’t even if I changed my mind. Four or five people came up the stairs, and one of them, catching sight of me, stopped the whole group so I wasn’t able to see Zain or Bradley.

“Haven’t spotted you here before!” the guy said. He looked me over head to toe. “What’s your name?”

“S-seb,” I said, wishing I could come up with a pseudonym on the fly as quickly as Zain.

“Aww, there’s no need to be nervous,” he said. “I won’t hurt you. I mean, unless you want me to.” And he leered, while his friends all laughed.

I forced an appeasing smile as I tried to step around them, but they seemed not to notice. I was crowded towards the railing while the guy continued to talk. Half of it was drowned in background noise, so I didn’t answer. That made no difference to him or his friends. Their conversation went on as I grew more annoyed, thinking I should just shove through them! What are they going to do if I did? But I couldn’t bring myself to start a confrontation. I was trapped.

Zain had no such compunctions about making an opening when he appeared minutes later, sliding between two people. As I went to take his hand gratefully, the guy said, “Hey, wait a minute! I saw him first, pal.”

Zain gave him a pleasant look. Then, reaching under my collar, he twitched the chain of the dog tags so they spilled out over my t-shirt and said, “I don’t see your name written on him, buddy.”

The guy’s friends thought that was hilarious. He went red. “I didn’t realize.”

“Yeah, you’re also terrible at reading body language,” said Zain, still friendly. “You should work on that. C’mon, babe, we’re moral-supporting, remember?” The group now parted easily to let us through, and he pulled me toward where Bradley was standing with Maxine, saying, “Sorry I couldn’t rescue you earlier. I was a little… tied up.”

When I didn’t so much as groan at his terribleness, he stopped a few feet short and looked back in surprise. And then smirked.

Ohhhh. Did someone enjoy me claiming him?”

“Shut it,” I groused, raising my free hand to tuck the dog tags away.

“Leave them,” he said, in quite a different tone of voice. “I want everyone to see you’re mine.”

I barely suppressed a shudder. “…Yes, sir.”

He brought me the rest of the way and turned his attention to Bradley, but I could still feel the spark of energy running through our joined palms as he asked, “Sure you want to do this, kid?”

Bradley nodded. Maxine said, “Oh, yay! I never get to work on boys enough, and now two in one night! And both so handsome, too.”

Shifting his weight, Bradley said, a bit snappishly, “Let’s just start.”

“Hey,” said Zain. “Take a deep breath.”

Bradley did. He closed his eyes on the exhale and let his shoulders lower a couple of inches.

“Better. Seb and I will be right here the whole time, and you saw how this worked on me just now. Remember you can stop whenever you want, okay?”

“Yeah.” He took another slow, careful breath, and then added, “I’m ready.”

“Alright,” said Maxine. Running the rope through her fingers, she circled him. “Put your hands behind your back in a comfortable position. Yes, that’s good. I’m going to make a double loop around your wrists and tie it off.” As she brought the rope to touch him, he tensed. She stopped. “Color?”

“Green,” he said.

Maxine glanced uncertainly to Zain, who said, “Kid, open your eyes a second.”

His blond eyelashes fluttered apart, revealing eyes that were dark, with only a sliver of blue irises around the pupils, but they met Zain’s gaze. Zain nodded to Maxine, and she continued.

She went slowly, explaining each step before she did it and checking in with him on the placement of the wraps around his upper arms. I stood in front of him, my shoulder blocked against Zain’s so we were all he could see—not the people still sitting on the couch behind us. The more times the rope wrapped around him, the more his head bowed as he settled into it. When she finished, she tightened the last knot and came around to his front again.

“Done. How’re you feeling?”

“Okay, ma’am,” he said, calm.

“Good. Do you want to keep it on awhile longer?”

“Yes, ma’am. Please.”

Maxine smiled. “So polite, too,” she said to Zain. “You’re lucky, having such gorgeous subs.”

“I only have the one,” Zain corrected easily. “We’re mentoring him, as his friends. How’d you get into shibari?”

They chatted for a few minutes, both of them frequently glancing at Bradley, who stood taking quiet, steady breaths. I was amazed at how fully he’d seemed to have gotten into a submissive headspace in this environment. Even with my earlier exchange with Zain and the dog tags hanging heavily around my neck, I found that challenging.

He lifted his head an inch and instantly had both their full attention. “My hand’s tingling,” he said.

“Which hand?” Maxine asked. “And where on it, exactly?”

“Left pinky, ma’am.”

She adjusted a few of the strands of rope. “Is that better?”

“Yes. Thank you, ma’am.”

“Good job speaking up,” I said. “That’s important.”

“Very good job,” agreed Zain. “I’m proud of you, Platypus.”

Bradley ducked his chin again, blushing this time. “I’d like to see what else is going on downstairs,” he said.

“Ready to be undone?” Maxine asked. “Okay, hang on a second.” She tugged the knots loose and carefully removed the harness. Bradley kept his arms folded behind his back until she said, “All set. You can do some very gentle stretches.” Wrapping the rope up to store it in her bag, she added, “If you guys want someone to show you around and introduce you to people, I’ll be glad to help.”

The three of us shared a look, and then Zain said, “Sure, we’d love that.”

Maxine seemed to know everyone at the party. She took us around to the different groups, announcing names like ‘Monkey Girl’ and ‘Duke Xander’, and then showed us a section of the club that branched off the behind the bar, full of hidden alcoves. Quite a few were occupied with people in the middle of scenes, doing everything except having sex. She explained that we could watch from a polite distance if we wanted. We declined.

Bradley, though, did watch the main stage for a while after we visited the restroom so I could do my Lantus. The same woman was up there with the two floggers, using them on a different submissive. He asked over the music, “So that’s how it’s done properly, right?”

“Yep,” Zain confirmed. “Are you thinking of trying it with her?”

He shook his head. “I don’t want to do that again with someone I don’t know.”

Good, I thought. That gave me more reassurance he’d take it easy when he went home. Which made me realize something. “Bradley, when is your bus back to Pennsylvania?” I asked. If he’d planned to only stay for a meal, it must be soon.

“I don’t have one,” he said. “I’m going to just hang around the bus station until I can buy a ticket tomorrow morning.”

Zain snorted. “Uh, no. When’s your mom expecting you back?”

His jaw clenched for a moment before he said, “She doesn’t know I’m gone, and trust me, she won’t notice.”

My heart hurt for him. I could tell Zain’s was, too, but he only said, “Okay, you’re staying with us for the night. I’ll text Quint now. He’ll be fine with it.”

Bradley didn’t protest. In fact, he looked relieved.

Quint

Every morning since he’d arrived, Zain had greeted me in the living room when I came out in my running clothes, looking almost as eager as Jagger to get on the move. The morning of St. Patrick’s Day, he didn’t. I peeked through Seb’s open bedroom door and saw them still asleep, the young Top wrapped around his Brat like he was clinging to an oversized, slightly-bony teddy bear. I smiled and left them in peace. They’d gotten home late last night, along with their friend. Sleeping in would be good for them.

I’d made up a bed on the couch when Zain texted, but retired with Theo before they arrived, so I hadn’t met the friend yet. Coming into the living room, I looked over the back of the couch curiously. He was sleeping as well.

Barely more than a child, I thought, frowning at the face beneath his neat blond haircut. He was the original target for those two men’s attack? I felt amazed, remembering Zain had said this boy broke one of the attackers’ arms.

Then he shifted in his sleep, and something on the back of his hand caught my eye. At first, I thought it was a birthmark or scar, but leaning closer, I deciphered an image in red ink. Quite an unusual image. My eyebrows rose as I straightened up. I’d gotten the impression the three of them were at some kind of nightclub. That must’ve been its stamp. Though I wasn’t a hundred percent sure how much I should read into it, my suspicions on the type of club were consistent with odd remarks I’d heard Zain make on occasion.

It’s their business, in any case, I thought, finally turning to the door, where Jagger was waiting for me impatiently. I wouldn’t dream of asking about it and embarrassing Seb.

The run felt strangely lonely without Zain along. I’d gotten used to his company and chatter, as well as his frequent challenges to race me to an upcoming fire hydrant or some other marker. Without his distraction, I found myself debating what to do with Theo today.

I arranged to have the full day off work—though still on-call—weeks ago, when we thought we’d be participating in a host of St. Patrick’s Day activities, culminating in the gig he’d lost. Would going to the parade and the dinner party at Zeggy and Ike’s be like rubbing salt in a still very tender wound? Or would it take his mind off things? It seemed a shame to cancel all our plans because of one change, but I didn’t want to create a situation that would lead to more trouble.

I hadn’t made up my mind yet by the time I got back to the apartment and met Seb in the hallway, just outside the door. He was balancing a tray of three Starbucks cups in one hand while he dug through his bag with the other. Glancing up, he saw me too, and said, “Bonjour. I can’t find my keys, but I don’t want to wake anyone by knocking. Do you-?”

I nodded and retrieved my keyring from Jagger’s backpack. “You could have helped yourself to the coffee here, you know,” I told him as I unlocked the door.

“Zain likes really, really sugary stuff when he’s sleep-deprived,” he said. “I didn’t want to waste your good coffee on that.”

Smiling, I said, “I appreciate it, then.”

The blond boy was sitting up on the couch, one side of his otherwise-orderly hair sticking out as he rubbed his hands over his face. He looked over and then stood when we came in.

“Bradley,” said Seb, “this is Quint Hanniford, one of the friends I’ve been staying with. Quint, this is Bradley Platt.”

“Good morning, sir,” said Bradley, in a quiet but polite tone. “Thank you for letting me use your couch on short notice.”

“It’s my pleasure,” I replied. “I hope it was comfortable?”

“Yes, thank you, sir,” he said.

While I knelt to divest Jagger of his leash and backpack, Seb set the tray down on the kitchen peninsula and said to Bradley, “I wasn’t sure how you take your coffee, so I just brought cream and sugar separately.” He pointed them out in the cup holder that was missing a cup, and then tapped the next one. “That’s Zain’s, but the other two are both black. You can have either.”

“Thanks,” Bradley said again, crossing to pull out a bar stool and sit down. He popped the lid off one of the black coffees and began emptying creamers into it. Jagger, now in only his collar, went around to say hello. The boy’s expression lost some of its reserve as he bent to pet the dog. “Hello. I wondered where you were.” To Seb, he added, “He slept on my feet part of the night. What’s his name again?”

“Jagger,” Seb answered. “Quint’s husband Theo is a musician. He named him after Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones.”

At the word ‘husband,’ Bradley seemed surprised, but then he laughed, looking down once more. “No, Jagger, don’t lick the stamp. I don’t think ink’s good for you.”

That reminded me. Discreetly, I glanced at Seb’s hands, which he’d wrapped around the remaining cup of black coffee. Neither had a stamp, though the left did bear a faint pinkish hue, as though he’d scrubbed most of the ink off already.

His face, meanwhile, looked both shocked and happy—an expression that was echoed on Zain’s features when he emerged and took in Bradley still laughing over the dog. Then he spotted the Starbucks. “Please tell me that’s something sweet?” he asked, walking over.

“It’s a white chocolate mocha with extra sauce and extra whipped cream,” Seb confirmed, in a tone one might use to say ‘it’s a dead bug.’

Zain snatched up the cup and took a long sip from it before closing his eyes. Devoutly, he murmured, “Marry me.”

“I’m already marrying you,” replied Seb, at which Zain cracked one eye open.

“I was talking to the coffee.”

Seb scoffed. “That is not coffee, that’s a liquified candy bar.”

Clutching the cup protectively, Zain wailed, “Don’t judge our love!” He pointed to Bradley. “Look, Platypus is turning his all milky with creamer! Pick on him!”

Before I could warn him to quiet down, Theo’s voice came from the hallway. “Whyyy are you all up so early? You’re on vacation!” Then he stepped into the living room and saw our new guest. “Oh, hi. I’m Theo,” he said, managing to sound acceptably polite although I could tell he was half-asleep. “You must be Platt.”

“Nice to meet you, sir,” Bradley said, “and thank you, sir, for letting me stay in your home.”

Theo’s feet faltered as he rounded the peninsula. He looked from Bradley, to me, to Zain. “Did he just call me sir? Twice?”

Bradley frowned uncertainly, while Zain leaned on the counter and said, “You can take the boy out of the military academy, but you can’t take the military academy out of the boy.”

You don’t call me sir,” Theo pointed out.

Smirking, Zain asked, “Do you want me to?”

“Definitely not,” said Theo, with a small shudder. To Bradley, he added, “Just ‘Theo’ is fine.” Then he squinted at Zain’s hand. “What is that?”

“Hmm?” Zain glanced down, grinned, and casually dropped his hand beneath the counter before Theo could look closer. “Stamp from the club. So, what are our plans for today?”

The change of subject might not have served to distract Theo alone, but I could see both Seb and Bradley beginning to blush—the latter also hiding his stamped hand—so I chimed in with, “First, I need to shower, and then we can decide on that. Angel, come with me and find a shirt Bradley can borrow, please.”

“We’ll start breakfast,” Seb offered. I smiled a thanks to him as I led my husband away.

Theo

I could tell Quint had more reason for wanting me with him than to get a shirt. Sure enough, as I pulled open the dresser in the closet, he came to stand in the doorway and said, “I’d like to talk to you about our plans before we discuss them as a group. Do you still want to go to the parade and all of that?”

Truthfully, I hadn’t considered not going as a option. We always went, followed by an early dinner at Zeggy’s. Then again, in previous years, I always had a gig lined up for after. I stared at a pile of clothes in the drawer and tried to think around the pain. Even picturing the marching bands and the dancers in their costumes was difficult. That settled it.

“Um. Yeah, I don’t think I can have a good time at the parade this year,” I said, and Quint came over to put his hand on my shoulder. I looked up at him. “The dinner party, though… Zeggy plans that for weeks. Plus, Zain promised Lyra he’d come see her again.”

He smiled a little. “That’s right, he did, didn’t he? Still, we could go see them tomorrow or Saturday.”

Shaking my head, I said, “She’s expecting us today. She’s too young to risk breaking her heart. Anyway, I want to go, too. I don’t think that’ll be as hard as the parade.”

“Alright,” he said, and gave me a quick kiss. “Get one of your shirts for Bradley, and I’ll meet you out there when I’m done showering.”

He went into the ensuite bathroom while I dug through the drawer and found a smaller t-shirt that might fit the kid. A faded Rolling Stones tongue was emblazoned on the pinkish fabric—authentically faded, not made to look that way. I’d probably had it since high school.

When I took it to the kitchen, where Seb was scrambling eggs while Zain buttered a stack of toast next to him, Bradley just looked at it as I held it out. “I can find a Beatles one if you like them better,” I said after a moment, unsure why he was hesitating.

“No, thank you,” he said. “I’ll just wear my own shirt.”

Zain turned from the counter, saw it, and rolled his eyes. “Platt, take the shirt. The color pink isn’t going to break your masculinity, I promise, and the one you’ve got on needs to be washed.”

“It’s salmon, anyway,” added Seb. “There’s orange in it.”

Bradley didn’t seem convinced by either of their words, but he took the shirt and gingerly laid it across his lap.

I frowned. Was this kid for real? I lean towards the masculine side myself, but my high school boyfriend was very effeminate, and I can’t stand gay guys who look down their noses at campiness. It’s just plain internalized homophobia. I opened my mouth to tell him so, and Zain said, “Might as well go shower and change now, kid, while we finish breakfast. Bathroom’s the second door on the right.”

So Bradley slid off the barstool and disappeared down the hallway with the shirt trailing from one hand. Zain watched him go, and then gave me a look that pinned me where I stood, for all the amusement it held. He waited until we could hear the shower running before he asked, “Problem, squirt?”

Behind him, Seb kind of froze, too.

“Just wondering what his problem was,” I said, scowling defensively. “Let me guess, he advertises himself as ‘masc 4 masc.’” I surrounded the phrase in sarcastic finger quotes, and then dropped my hands in astonishment when Zain cracked up.

As he continued to laugh, Seb said, quietly, “He doesn’t advertise at all right now. He’s not ready to admit to anyone, including himself, that he’s attracted to men as well as women. Please don’t say anything?”

I blinked. The kid pinged my gaydar so strongly the second I met him, I hadn’t considered he might be bisexual, and definitely not closeted.

Zain had calmed down by then. “Look,” he said, still grinning, “if you knew the environment he grew up in, you’d understand and be a hell of a lot more sympathetic. He’s come a very long way in the relatively short time since he’s met me, and that wasn’t through people getting in his face about it. You attack him, he’ll shut you out completely. He might even shut me out, which I’m not having, so be a good host or I’ll rat on you to Quint, kay?”

And he smiled with such friendliness that I knew he wouldn’t hesitate to follow through. Seb looked anxious and pleading. Sighing, I said, “Okay, fine. If he says something homophobic to me, though–”

“I doubt he will,” said Zain, “but if he does, let me know and I’ll deal with it.”

I nodded and went to start a pot of coffee, wondering why Seb had never mentioned that Zain had his own foster Brat.

*

Quint was the last person to sit down at the table. Leaning over, I kissed his freshly-shaved cheek and then snuck a glance at Bradley. He was scooping eggs onto his plate, paying no attention. In fact, Zain was the only one who noticed what I was doing, and he just snorted softly. Would that still be his reaction if I femmed it way up? Did I dare find out?

Like he could read my mind, he shook his head almost imperceptibly, his eyes twinkling. To the table at large, he said, “So we looked up the schedule for busses, and the soonest one Platt can take leaves at seven-thirty tonight. What should we do until then?”

That refocused me on what I had told Quint, who glanced sideways, inviting me to explain. I said, “I know we’d talked about the St. Patrick’s Day parade, but I’m not really feeling it today. I hope you guys don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” said Seb, quickly, and with a lot of understanding. “It looks like it might rain, anyway. Something indoors is better.”

Quint said, “Bradley, since you’re only here for the day, I think you should choose. Is there anything you’d like to do in the city?”

He seemed surprised at being asked. Even through my annoyance with him, I had to admit his flush was cute. It gave him quite a peachy coloring against the salmon shirt. “Um,” he said, pushing eggs around his plate with a fork, “I’ve never been to Ground Zero. I’d like to pay my final respects there.”

The last bit of my irritation vanished. He spoke with such genuine feeling, despite the fact he couldn’t have been more than a toddler in 2001, that he won over my native New Yorker heart completely. “Alright,” I said. “Let’s do the museum, too.”

Zain

Seb had been right when he said it looked like rain. Clouds hovered in a gray blanket overhead. As we stood gazing into the north memorial pool, though, the only moisture that fell on us was backspray from the waterfalls descending down the sides of the footprint where the North Tower once rose skyward. The water hit the bottom of the pool and flowed to the middle, vanishing through another square hole. It gave the impression of water coming from nowhere and falling into the center of the earth, although I knew the museum was underground directly below it.

“Like tears,” Seb murmured next to me. He reached out to trace a heart in the droplets that formed on the wide bronze parapet surrounding the pool. Names of the victims were cut into it, all the way around this one and its twin, yards away. Every so often, visitors had threaded the stems of flowers through the letters, so blooms dotted the bronze, covered in dew.

Platt kept his hands in the pockets of the hoodie Seb had loaned him and his eyes fixed on the middle of the pool. “I don’t really remember 9/11,” he said, so softly I doubted the others heard him. “I was only four. My dad wasn’t killed in Iraq until five years later, but I’ve always thought what happened here, on that day, was how his death started. I remember him being home with Mom and me a lot more before, too. It took him away from us.”

“Are you sure you want to visit the museum?” I asked.

He exhaled slowly and nodded. “The tenth anniversary of his death is coming up next month. I’ll have lived longer without him than with him. I need to see it before then.”

On Seb’s other side, Theo was saying, “I’d just started my freshman year at NYU. I was getting ready for a morning class when someone came running down the hallway of the dorm yelling to turn on the news because planes had hit the Twin Towers.”

Quint put an arm around his shoulder. “It scares me to know how nearby you were. Even Boston seemed frighteningly close to it at the time. Didn’t the university evacuate you?”

“The RAs came around to tell us there was an emergency response place set up at what’s now the Starbucks by Washington Square,” Theo replied. “We went down, just to be around other people, I think. Everyone was sort of converging there. Some students who’d walked up from the dorms further downtown said they’d seen… horrible things.

“A lot of kids left to stay with their families if they were close, but it was hard to get ahold of anyone and make plans. Cell phones weren’t working. My mom couldn’t call me. I found Zeggy eventually. She was in a panic because her godfather’s a cop.

“We finally got a message to him through one of the officers on the street, and he told us to stay put and he’d come get us. He couldn’t until the next day, though. We wound up sleeping that night on cots they’d put in one of the buildings for people with nowhere else to go. I felt like a refugee in my own city.”

I said, “I’m glad you and Zeggy were able to be together, at least,” and Quint nodded in agreement, pulling him closer. Privately, I also gave thanks that Seb had been on the other side of the country at the time. “What do you remember of it, habibi?” I asked. Perhaps hearing others talk about their experiences would help Platt prepare for the museum more.

“I didn’t understand what was happening,” Seb said. “My parents wouldn’t let us turn on the TV, but I could tell something was wrong from how they acted. Keegan knew more than the rest of us. She’d gotten her own computer for her tenth birthday and was online that morning, and whatever she saw upset her enough that Mom and Dad kept her in the house with them while the rest of us played outside.

“Over dinner, they told us a very basic idea of what had happened, but I still didn’t understand. I remember just getting this stressful feeling from them and having high blood sugars for days after.”

He’d never told me that last part. I swallowed. His parents should have known their empathetic kid would need more information and reassurance. But it had been less than a year since his diagnosis, I reminded myself. None of them would’ve had a very good idea of how much stress affects him.

To take my thoughts off it, I said, “Well, I started out the day all excited because Mom told me school had been cancelled. Because they were worried about attacks in LA, but I didn’t know that at first. Then I found my dad in the living room watching the news and silently weeping. It was the first time I ever saw him shed a tear.

“I got up on the couch, gave him a hug, and said, ‘Don’t cry, Baba. I’m here.’ He sort of laughed through his tears and said, ‘Thank you, my son. I cry because I hoped this could never happen in this country,’ and then he explained it all, even going back into the history of Islamist extremist groups and how wrong they were about the Qur’an.”

Quint looked over in faint surprise. “That’s a lot for an eight-year-old to take in.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “I think he realized I’d need to understand it, though, once I got back to school and noticed people talking differently about Muslims and Arabs. I set quite a few of them straight—or tried to, anyway.”

“My dad was always drawing a distinction between the terrorists and true Muslims, too,” Platt said. “He was big on religious tolerance.” Then, like it was the first time he’d really thought about it, he added, “ …Dad wouldn’t have liked the church Uncle Hal started taking me to after he died. I’m glad I stopped going there.” He shook his head a little as though he was shaking something off. “Can we go into the museum now?”

I looked to the other three, who all nodded, so we started towards the entrance as a group.

*

There’s something oddly cathartic about crying with strangers. As if the grief, once shared, is lessened. The entire experience of the museum—seeing so many artifacts and photos of the victims, hearing their names recited and stories told about them by family members, even hearing recordings of voicemails some of them had left from the hijacked planes—kept all of us wiping away tears. I hoped it helped Platt understand exactly what his father died trying to fight against. Maybe that would bring him some peace.

He was just as watery-eyed as the rest of us, though he attempted to hide it. From the way Quint kept glancing at him every few minutes, I could tell he was longing to offer comfort to the kid like he was doing with Theo and Seb by turns. My Brat, in this environment, had no trouble accepting a brief hug. There was nothing to be ashamed of when everyone around you was also emotional for the same reasons. But try telling Platt that.

“You good to keep going?” I asked him, about halfway through the main exhibition space.

He jerked his head in a short nod and then walked away, to a shelf that held a binder with a small stack of papers. I suspected he only appeared to be reading it.

Following him over, I found it was a transcript of the cockpit recorder for Flight 93, the one that had crashed in Pennsylvania. Platt flipped through the pages too quickly for me to read each one. When he stopped at the final sheet of paper, though, I saw the hijacker pilot’s last words as he steered the plane into the earth: Allah is the greatest.

I felt sick. I’ve been an atheist since I was about thirteen, but to see evidence of these men committing these attacks in the name of a perversion of my former religion, the religion my parents and siblings still followed, there in stark black ink, made me clench my teeth.

“How could they think God would want this?” asked Platt. “I don’t understand it.”

“Neither do I,” I said, my voice coming out rough. “I try to as much as possible, to know the enemy, but I don’t think there will ever be a full explanation that could make any sense.”

Seb’s arms wrapped around me from behind. I hadn’t noticed him, Theo, and Quint circling back to us. He rested his chin on my shoulder. “You okay, Z?”

I leaned against him and sighed, relaxing my jaw. “I’m better now, with you here. Thanks, habibi.”

Platt’s gaze took in our embrace thoughtfully.

*

About an hour later, we stepped onto the plaza surrounding the memorial pools once more. The clouds had parted on a burst of sunshine. Quint checked his watch and said, “It’s still early to head to Zeggy and Ike’s. We could go back to the apartment awhile.”

“Zeg won’t mind,” said Theo. With a sly grin towards me, he added, “And we know Lyra won’t. In fact, the monkeys have been on school vacation all week. I’m sure Zeg needs a break by now. Want me to call and offer our babysitting services for a few hours?”

The rest of us agreed quickly. Time spent with the twins seemed like just the thing to decompress after the intensity of the museum. As Theo called, the idea of babysitting made me remember something.

“Platypus,” I said, walking a few feet away from the others so he’d follow. “Have you let your mom know where you are and when you’ll be back?”

He frowned. “I told you, she won’t even notice I’m not there. If I call, she won’t pick up, either.”

“Does she love you?” I asked.

“…Yes.”

“And you love her?”

There was less hesitation this time before he said, “Yes,” again.

“Then leave her a voicemail, at least,” I suggested. “In case she gets worried. Or just to humor me so I’ll stop bugging you, however you want to sell it to yourself.”

He looked like he still wanted to argue, but he did call someone and leave a curt message that he’d be back late. Then he hung up, glowering at me. “This is why I didn’t contact you before.”

I replied, rather intelligently, “Huh?”

“You’re too…” He made a frustrated noise. “Direct.”

Seb spoke up from behind me. “He doesn’t leave anywhere to hide in excuses, you mean.”

Platt nodded. “With Seb, I could sort of talk around what I was planning, which made it easier. You’d never let me do that with you.”

“Oh.” I grinned. “Yeah, sorry about that. It’s not in my nature. You can blame Seb for how much practice I have in cutting to the point, though.”

Both of them gave identical huffs.

*

A commotion sounded from within Zeggy and Ike’s townhouse when we finally arrived, Jagger in tow, and rang the bell. It seemed like the twins were racing to see who would answer it. Lyra won, and threw the door open beaming all over her little pixie face. “Hi, Zain! And Uncle Theo, and Uncle Quint, and Seb, and… who’re you?”

“That’s not how to introduce yourself, hon,” Quint told her as we stepped inside. “You say something like, ‘I don’t believe we’ve met. What’s your name?’”

“Okay.” Turning to Platt, she said, “I don’t believe we’ve met. What’s your name?”

“Uh, Pl–Bradley,” he replied, looking down on her and Griffin like he was slightly terrified. “I’m a friend of Seb and Mohyeldin.”

“Seb and who?” Lyra demanded.

“That’s me,” I said. “It’s my last name.”

“Oh!” She smiled again, transferring her attention over to me. “How do you spell it?”

I told her on the way to the kitchen, where Zeggy was calling us to come have a drink and a snack. Behind me, I could hear Theo whisper to Seb, “It’s so cute. I bet she’ll be writing ‘Lyra Mohyeldin’ all over her notebooks tomorrow.” And Quint telling him to hush.

Seb

Zeggy left to run some errands shortly after we arrived, saying, “I’m sure five strapping men can handle two nine-year-olds,” with rather a wicked glint in her eye.

Lyra and Griffin began to bicker the second the door shut. There was nothing mean about it; they just couldn’t agree on anything. Theo told me it was because they’d been on school vacation and were sick of each other’s company, which seemed odd. My siblings and I fought too, growing up—them far more than me—but if not going to school had triggered us, we never would’ve stopped. Whatever the reason, it took Quint’s most firm voice cutting through the argument, followed quickly by Zain asking to see progress on their Lego fort, to put an end to it.

We trooped upstairs with Bradley in last place. He was avoiding being near the kids. The fear of suddenly being thrust into unfamiliar territory shone even more strongly in his eyes here than it had in the club. Unfortunately for him, Griffin decided he was more interesting than the fort. The boy came over to the couch where Bradley and I sat down and asked, “So, are you and Zain, like, best friends?”

Bradley crossed his arms over his chest and shrugged nervously. “Um… I don’t think so.”

Zain, looking up from Lyra demonstrating the new version of the fort to him and the older couple, stuck out his lower lip. “What’s the matter, Platypus? I’m not good enough to be your best friend?”

Lyra saved him from answering. Giggling, she asked, “Why do you call him a platypus?”

In a stage-whisper, Zain replied, “‘Cause he’s funny-lookin’. Don’t tell him I said so, though.”

She giggled again before studying Platt with her head tilted to one side. “I don’t think he’s funny-looking,” she said. “He looks nice.” She raised her voice to declare, “Bradley, you look very nice.”

“Thanks?” he said, going faintly pink as everyone’s attention turned to him.

“He called you funny-looking,” Lyra explained, pointing to Zain, whose mouth dropped open.

“Traitor! Double-crosser! Turncoat!”

Both twins cracked up at his accusations. Bradley’s lips twitched. He fought it, but by then Zain sparkled with c’mon, play! Resisting a puppy would’ve been easier. “He’s just jealous,” he told Lyra. “Because I’ve got pretty blue eyes and blond hair like yours.”

Lyra, blushing, gave him the same adoring smile she’d greeted Zain with. I had to clap my palm to my mouth at my poor fiancé’s expression as he realized he was no longer the sole owner of her affections. Theo didn’t bother to hide his amusement. He dropped his forehead onto Quint’s bicep and hooted with laughter.

*

Lyra ate dinner sitting between Bradley and Zain, though she was restrained in her chatter with her parents around. Griffin, by contrast, came out of his shell. “Uncle Theo,” he said as Ike started to clear the table, “can’t we watch you sing tonight? If we promise to go to bed as soon as we get home?”

Over Theo’s awkward stutter, Zeggy said, “Honey, I already told you no.”

“But why?

“I’m not actually singing tonight, Griff,” Theo said, quietly, before Zeggy could speak again. “Not at a pub, anyway. I could stay and sing for you guys here, though.”

“You always sing at a pub on St Patrick’s Day,” Griffin objected.

“Not this time. They… kinda changed their minds about having me,” Theo explained, clearly trying to pass it off as no big deal.

Silence fell over the table a moment. During it, Quint reached for his husband’s hand next to his plate, the kids frowned with confusion, and Bradley looked from the t-shirt he wore to Jagger lying nearby. Roughly, without meeting anyone’s eyes, he said, “If music is something you care about so much, find another pub.”

Then he pushed his chair back from the table and left, with a muttered, “Excuse me, ma’am,” in Zeggy’s general direction and another, more stunned, silence in his wake.

Theo broke it this time. “What was that about?”

“Platt trying to make friends,” said Zain, glancing at me.

I nodded. I was already standing to go after him.

He’d stopped in the living room, braced with both hands on the back of the couch. Nothing moved except his eyes flicking towards me as I got closer.

“I’ll come apologize in a minute.”

“I wasn’t going to ask you to,” I said. It took us in different ways, the fear of saying too much, of opening ourselves too far, and we used different weapons against it, but I could recognize the fight. His abruptness and anger weren’t aimed anywhere near Theo.

He scowled at the cushion. “I almost quit in the middle of Plebe Summer, after what happened with Belcher.”

Hesitantly, I said, “I know.”

“And last night,” he went on like he hadn’t heard, “I nearly left when I saw it wasn’t what I expected.” Straightening, he glared over my shoulder. “People shouldn’t quit on stuff that they care about. They might miss out on a lot.”

“You’re right,” Theo’s voice said, making me jump and turn around. He stood where Bradley was looking, in the doorway. His expression was rueful. “I can’t find a gig for tonight this late, but I ought to be searching for my next one already. Thanks for saying it.” Smiling faintly, he added, “You can keep the shirt, if you want.”

Bradley’s scowl faded with a snort of dry humor. “No, thank you, sir.”

Quint

Music travelled through the apartment as Zain and I came in from our Friday morning run. My favorite kind of music: Theo singing.

“Old songs and old stories, they keep us alive! Without our past, we would never survive.”

“He’s up early,” Zain commented as we took off our sneakers.

I smiled. He was—unusually so—and I could only think it a good sign. I hadn’t heard him sing since seeing Mitch again. From the direction of it, he was in the shower. I went down the hallway to confirm my suspicions, with Jagger following me part-way before peeling off to join Seb doing yoga in his room.

“I am my island. My island is me.”

Stepping into our ensuite bathroom, I saw my husband through the shower door, his hair dark with water and his face raised to the spray. He was using something as a microphone. I squinted. A toothbrush?

“So you know what you can do if you don’t like whaaat you seeeeeeeee…” He paused, stuck the toothbrush between his lips, and scrubbed for several seconds before continuing with a mouthful of foam. “Kiss me, I’m Irish! I am the wild ro-oooh-ver. My eyes they are smiilin’–”

“What on earth are you doing?” I asked.

He grinned through the droplets on the glass. “Saving time.” Tipping his head back again, he let his mouth fill before spitting into the drain. “And water. We’ll save even more water if you come in with me. Though probably less time.”

The idea tempted, especially when he slid the door open invitingly, giving me a lustful look and an undistorted view of him, but I needed to get work. Regretfully, I shook my head.

“Oh well,” he said, shutting off the water and reaching for a towel. “Probably for the best. I have a busy day ahead.”

“Do you?” I asked as I began to remove my running clothes. “I don’t remember tourist plans for today.” In fact, I distinctly remembered after Zain and Seb returned from seeing Bradley safely to his bus, they’d suggested spending the day hanging out at the apartment.

Theo emerged from rubbing the towel over his head, his locks of hair sticking out at their most untamed. “I’m giving them alone time and going gig-hunting. What Bradley said made me realize I need to get back on the horse.”

That surprised me, and it took a moment to work out why.

I was happy, of course, to see him more like himself. Yet I suddenly realized that I should have been encouraging him to do this days ago. My closeness to the situation and my concern for his feelings had prevented me from pushing him. Thank goodness Bradley spoke up.

“Good idea, angel,” I said, bending to kiss the lingering water off his lips. “I’ll wish you the best of luck in your hunt.”

He smirked. “I don’t need more luck, I’m Irish!” Dodging around me, he went out to dress, singing once more. “I’m no saint, I’m no sinner. Of that there’s no doubt. I’ll tell you the truth, I am the one that your grannnndmother warned yoouu abooouuut. Kiss me, I’m Irish! I am the wild ro-ooh-ver…”

*

The better part of my morning was spent catching up—it amazes me how much paperwork and email can accumulate in a day and a half away from my office—but once finished, I was able to see patients all afternoon. Most were routine exams to check how a treatment plan was working and to make adjustments. I always enjoy witnessing my long-term patients improving and able to live more comfortably with their asthma.

My last appointment of the day was also one of my oldest, both in age and number of years under my care. Kendra was seventeen, and I had been treating since shortly after I moved to New York. In fact, I’ve known her a couple of weeks longer than I’ve known Theo.

She came in with her mother, Dawn, as usual. As I was finishing, still sitting on a wheeled chair in front of the exam table, Dawn put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders. “Pumpkin, tell Dr. Hanniford your good news.”

I looked up from making a chart notation curiously. Kendra squeezed her clasped hands between her knees and grinned. “I was accepted early to Harvard!”

“That’s wonderful!” I said. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks. It’s where you went, isn’t it?” She bit her lip. “Do you think I’ll fit in there?”

I smiled. “Yes, it is my alma mater, and I think you’ll do magnificently there.”

“I keep telling her that in college, ‘fitting in’ isn’t all-important like in high school,” Dawn said. “Anyway, she should be focused on studying more than anything else.”

Kendra sighed. “Mom, you act like I’m going to be like, party party. I’m just talking about making friends!”

“Academics will take up a lot of your time,” I said. “However, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a healthy social life. Harvard has many different clubs. I would recommend joining a couple you like, so you’ll meet people with common interests.”

Both mother and daughter nodded. Wheeling my chair back to the counter, I set down Kendra’s chart and looked at it a moment, fighting unexpected emotion. Patients aging out of my care is a routine part of being a pediatric specialist, yet this one hit me harder than most. I found myself thinking back to her first appointment. I’d been a committed bachelor and completely unaware of how dramatically accepting a job offer in this hospital would change my life.

I kept my manner professional as I turned back to them and said, “Staying healthy is the most important thing. Without that, you won’t be able to keep up in academics or anything else. It would be best for you to have a pulmonologist in Massachusetts, so there’s someone nearby familiar with your history in case of emergency. An adult pulmonologist. I can recommend a few, and of course I’ll help with the transition to adult care.”

Kendra’s gaze dropped as she absorbed that, looking almost like I felt. Beside her, Dawn said, “My baby is all grown up!” and enveloped her in a hug.

Moooooom,” said Kendra, muffled and half-laughing.

My spirits lifted as I watched the pair of them. She had grown up over the past nine years. I had grown, as well. It seemed fitting that she would soon be moving where I’d come from to continue her journey. Harvard would allow her to bloom.

*

A spicy smell filled the kitchen when I opened the apartment door. It emanated from the Dutch oven on the stove. Most of my attention, however, was captured by Seb, who had just rather hurriedly slid off the counter and was tugging the hem of his t-shirt down as far as it would go, and Zain, who began hopping on one foot an instant later while clutching at the toes of the other. Jagger danced around them.

“Oww-ww! Your heel crushed my pinky toe, babe!”

“Um, hi, Quint.”

I opened my mouth and then shut it again, deciding I’d rather not know. Turning to put my shoes away—as well as to give them both time to pull themselves together—I said, “Hello. Has Theo gone out again?”

“He never came in,” Zain said. “After he left this morning, I mean. He’s been gone all day.”

That made me frown. I glanced at my watch. “It shouldn’t have taken him this long. You haven’t heard from him at all?”

They both shook their heads, but before any of us could grow too worried, the door opened again, nearly hitting me, and Theo burst through. “Hey!” He went on tiptoe to smack a kiss on my cheek. “If you’d waited ten seconds in the lobby we could’ve shared the elevator. It was closing on you as I came in. Yes, hi, Jag, I’m happy to see you, too. Guess what?!”

The question appeared to be directed to the dog as well, but I answered on his behalf. “What, angel?”

He sing-songed, “I got a gi-ig,” dropped another kiss between Jagger’s eyes, and started to skip towards the living room.

I caught him by the elbow. “Shoes, please.”

He backtracked to the pantry while rolling his eyes at me in the same good humor. “‘Shoes, please.’ I swear if a burglar showed up in the middle of the night, he’d find you standing right there telling him to be so kind as to take off his shoes before relieving us of our possessions. Did you hear what I said?”

Laughing, I replied, “Yes, I did, and I’m very happy for you.”

“When is it?” asked Zain. “Is it before I leave?”

Theo nodded. “Tomorrow night. And get this: It’s at an Irish pub after a St. Patrick’s Day parade.”

“There’s another parade?” Seb asked.

“Yep. In Bay Ridge, where I grew up.” He dropped his shoes haphazardly in the pantry and went to lean on the peninsula. I fixed them myself rather than insisting he do it, listening to him go on, “I remembered today that they always hold it after the big one here in Manhattan, so I took the R out to Brooklyn and asked around the pubs to see if they all had entertainment yet.

“Struck out at Kitty Kiernan’s, which was a good thing in the end. Down a couple of blocks at The Wicked Monk—one of the best pubs in the whole city—they were just starting an impromptu session and they invited me to join in for a set. I had to borrow a guitar, because I just brought my demo and press kit, but the owner was there, and he liked what he heard enough to invite me back to perform after the parade.”

“That’s fantastic, angel,” I said. “So the session was what made it take all day?”

“No, I dropped by and saw Mom, too, since I was in the neighborhood and I knew my father would be working,” he said. “She sends her love. What smells so good in here?”

“It’s an Indian vegetable stew,” said Seb. “It should be done now.” He crossed to the stove and picked up an oven mitt to take the lid off. “Yeah, I just need to add cilantro.”

“We’ll set the table while you do,” I said, opening the silverware drawer.

Theo started taking down glasses from the cupboard. “Oh! I almost forgot! Ethan—that’s another of my old bandmates,” he put in for Zain and Seb’s benefit, “—went to watch Mitch’s new band last night. According to him, they bombed harder than we ever did, and trust me, we had some rough gigs. So that was just the sweet, sweet cherry on top of a great day.”

I really should have reprimanded him for taking such glee in Mitch’s misfortune, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. Not when I felt an echo of his vindictive happiness. I was glad I at least had my back to him. My feelings must have been more obvious than I would’ve liked, judging by how Zain caught my eye, grinned, and winked.

*

The twins were thrilled to find out they’d be coming to see Theo perform after all. We met them with their parents near the subway station the next day, and Lyra went straight to Zain, per usual.

“I made you and Bradley both bookmarks,” she said, holding up two strips of bright paper with ribbons tied through grommeted holes at the top. Each was stamped with a name. “Will you give his to him for me?”

“Of course!” Zain said. “Thanks, these will be great when we’re studying.”

She beamed. “You’re welcome.”

“Alright, c’mon kids,” said Zeggy, ushering them ahead of her. “We’ve gotta get a move on so we don’t miss the parade.”

We all trooped down into the station, with Theo, Ike, and I bringing up the rear because we were carrying Theo’s equipment between us. Luckily, the Brooklyn-bound trains weren’t too crowded, so we were able to stay together as a group even with the baggage.

Seb and Griffin spent the ride in a very detailed discussion about subways. It appeared Griffin had a new obsession. Seb asked interested questions that got both him and the boy talking much more than typical, while Lyra was practically glued to Zain’s side. I wondered if the pair of them had ever thought about having kids of their own. Farther down the line, of course. They were considerably too young for that now.

At the final stop on the R, we got off and climbed to street level. Not much had changed in the years since I had last been there. Bay Ridge remained solidly middle-class, resisting the hipster influence taking over many other areas of Brooklyn.

“You grew up here, Uncle Theo?” asked Lyra, while Griffin wanted to know, “Where did you go to school?”

“C’mere and I’ll show you.” Theo carried his guitar to the corner with the rest of us following behind. “See that little building down past the church?” he said, pointing to the end of the avenue with the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge rising in the distance. “That’s St. Patrick Parish Elementary School. I went there until I graduated to middle school, which is where I met your mom. I was taught by nuns.”

“Really?” Zain asked. “The scary kind, or the Sound of Music kind?”

Theo laughed. “They were mostly nice, especially considering what a handful I was, but none of them sang that I can remember.”

“Speaking of singing,” I said, “we should drop your things off at the pub before the parade starts.” Bagpipes and drums could already be heard faintly in the distance. “Which way?”

“Down the block and across Third Ave,” he said, reversing direction. “The parade goes by right out front of it.”

We went past a row of townhouses very similar to Theo’s childhood home and over a crosswalk. People were gathered on both sides of the avenue in anticipation for the parade to start. There, Zain took Theo’s amp from Ike so that he, Zeggy, and the kids could go stake out a spot. The rest of us continued on to a one-story, black-and-stone-front building with The Wicked Monk hung in yellow, gothic letters above the carved wooden door. As we approached it, Seb stopped dead in front of me.

“Watch out, mon chaton.” I said, nearly bumping into him.

“Oh, sorry,” he replied, distracted.

Theo glanced back and smiled. “Pretty cool, huh?”

That was when I followed Seb’s line of sight to a poster taped up in one of the wide windows. The medieval-inspired angel illustration he’d made for Theo filled it. I leaned closer to read the words printed over the golden robes.

The Wicked Monk
welcomes
Theo Calhoun,
performing traditional Irish and original Celtic music
after the Bay Ridge St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 19, 2016

“Wow,” Zain said. “Great job, habibi. You ought to do commercial art more.”

“This whole place has a religious theme, if you hadn’t guessed,” added Theo, “so it fits in perfectly.” He reached for the cast iron door handle and pulled it open. While the rest of us headed inside, Seb lagged behind.

“Coming, babe?” Zain asked, holding the door.

He took one last look at the poster before walking past his fiancé. A small, pleased smile played around his lips.

Theo

Watching the parade along Third Avenue brought back a lot of memories. I’d been about the twins’ age when it started in Bay Ridge, and I could recall going to see it with my parents and feeling pride not just in my heritage, but in my neighborhood, too.

I should really visit more often, I thought as I watched Lyra and Griffin high-five passing marchers. It wasn’t like running into my father was all that likely, so long as I steered clear of his office and my old house. Mom and I could meet for lunch here, maybe. I didn’t see her enough anymore.

She apparently felt the same way, because as I was setting up for my performance, she walked through the door of The Wicked Monk.

“Mom!”

My surprised voice wasn’t loud enough to carry to her over the din of pub-goers, but Quint heard me. He turned away from the table he and the others had claimed right in the front, and then stood and went to meet her. Quickly, I set my guitar down and followed, while the rest looked on.

“Margaret, it’s lovely to see you,” Quint was saying when I caught up. He took the hand she held out and clasped it like she was a member of nobility. “Theo didn’t mention you were coming.”

“I didn’t know,” I said, squeezing through two people to give her a kiss on the cheek. “It’s a nice surprise, but… Dad–?”

“Thinks I’m at a friend’s,” she said. “I wasn’t going to miss hearing you play so close to home, darling.” She extracted her fingers from Quint’s and looped her arm through the crook of my elbow instead. I escorted her back to the table like that, with Quint behind us.

Zeggy had already found an extra chair and rearranged the place settings to make room. “Here you are, Mrs. Calhoun.”

Mom sat down, saying, “Oh, thank you. Look how much your children have grown! Would you two sweethearts like a caramel?”

“Yes, please!” said Lyra, and Griffin nodded eagerly.

While she dug into her purse for them, I patted Seb’s shoulder. “Mom, this is the guy who’s been living with us that I told you about, Seb Crews, and this is his fiancé, Zain Mohyeldin. Guys, my mother, Margaret Calhoun.”

“It’s great to meet you, Mrs. Calhoun,” Zain said.

“Would you boys like caramels as well?” she asked.

Grinning, Zain said, “Sure!”

She began to pass them out as I took Quint’s arm and dragged him a few feet away. Lowering my voice, I said, “Okay, I have to start my set, but you’ll be fine if you, y’know, just keep the conversation flowing with the others, I think, and–”

“Angel, why on earth are you so nervous?”

Oh, like he didn’t know.

“Well, she’s never exactly warmed up to you,” I huffed. “I always get the feeling she thinks you’re too old for me.”

He shook his head and smiled. “She did in the beginning. However, over the years, we’ve reached an understanding. Just because we’re both reserved people doesn’t mean we aren’t fond of one another.”

I frowned around him to the table. “She loses all reservation with them, look.”

“It’s the kids,” he said, glancing back. “We have that in common, as well. We’re alright, angel. Go start your set. Break a leg.”

Fully convinced, I was not. He seemed pretty confident, though, and the owner was standing by the microphone waiting to introduce me, so I let go of Quint’s arm and took my place while he went to sit down.

I was so busy watching him and Mom as I put my guitar strap over my head that I missed most of the introduction. I tuned back in when I heard clapping. That was my cue to get into my performance headspace, where almost nothing else matters but showing the audience a good time. I pulled it on and sat down on the tall barstool provided for me.

From the back of the room, a male voice with an Irish brogue shouted, “Theo Calhoun, he said? Calhoun’s a Scottish name!”

Any performer has dealt with hecklers. It can be fun if they don’t get too nasty or interrupt. You just need to keep it playful. Laughing a little, I spoke into the mic. “Yeah, one of my ancestors had the misfortune to marry a Scotsman, but I assure you, my blood runs shamrock green.”

“Prove it!” he called back.

“What, you want me to cut myself?” I asked. “Not sure the Health Department would approve.”

“Sing The Rocky Road to Dublin!” he said. “And put a lilt on it!”

A chorus of “OOOooooh!”s rose throughout the pub.

I grinned. “Right off the bat? Geez, you do want me to earn my dinner. Alright, then.” I stood up. “Quint, can you hand me a glass of water, please?”

He did, with a sparkle of amusement in his eye.

I took a sip and passed it back before sitting down again and nodding to him. “That’s my roadie,” I explained to the crowd as I adjusted the guitar. “‘Kay, here we go.” I took a deep breath.

“In the merry month of May from me home I started,
Left the girls of Tuam nearly broken hearted,
Saluted father dear, kissed me darlin’ mother,
Drank a pint of beer, me grief and tears to smother,
Then off to reap the corn and leave where I was born,
Cut a stout blackthorn to banish ghosts and goblins,
In a brand new pair of brogues, to rattle o’er the bogs,
And frighten all the dogs on the rocky road to Dublin.

One, two, three, four, five,
Hunt the hare and turn her
Down the rocky road
And all the ways to Dublin,
Whack-fol-lol-de-rah.”

Normally, I put a few guitar riffs between each verse on this song to give myself some recovery time, but I could tell that wouldn’t impress, so I went straight through, quick and clean as possible, my tongue twisting around itself to fit every syllable. The audience joined in on the whack-fol-lol-de-rahs, which let me turn my mouth away from the mic and sneak a larger breath. Still, by the end, the lack of oxygen was making me slightly lightheaded.

I played the last chord as applause and cheers filled the room. After it died down, my heckler called, “You’ve won me over, lad!”

“Thanks, it was worth it, then,” I gasped over-dramatically, and everyone laughed.

From there, I went into my planned set, which luckily flowed pretty well out of the fast-paced song. I’d stacked it up with traditional jigs and reels at the beginning and left my original stuff to be slipped in once they trusted me more. They were a great crowd. The energy they generated hummed through my body until I was buzzing with it.

My little cheering section—my family—stayed completely focused on me even as they ate their dinner, Zeggy making Ike sway along with her, the kids bouncing in their seats, Mom smiling joyfully, Zain looking astonished when Seb started the responses in Weila Waile before anyone else, and Quint, of course, simply shining with love and pride.

It was without question one of the best gigs I’ve ever played.

I hated for it to end, but eventually it had to. My voice couldn’t hold up forever. “Alright,” I said, “I’ve got time for one more. Any requests? And no, I’m not doing The Rocky Road to Dublin again.”

Chuckles rolled through the room. No one said anything, though, until Zain called out, “What about The Leaving of Liverpool?”

Beside him, Seb’s lips parted and his cheeks went pink. His fiancé wrapped an arm around his waist and dropped a kiss on his shoulder.

Smiling, I said, “That I can manage.” Then I put my lips to my harmonica in its holder and began.

It’s a lovely tune. I slowed it down just a bit and sang with all the feeling I could. By the end, both of them looked like they were blinking away tears. My own eyes prickled as I took my final bow.

*

The owner came to shake my hand at the door when we left, telling me I was welcome back any time. I thanked him and promised to follow up with an email.

Outside, darkness had fallen. Quint and I walked Mom back to where her car was parked. She gave me a hug and a kiss, and then, to my shock, did the same to Quint before getting in.

“You see, I told you she likes me,” he said while we waved goodbye to her pulling out.

“Are you gloating, Rafferty Hanniford?” I asked.

“Not at all,” he replied, with a very innocent smile. “I’m simply reassuring you, angel. Now, let’s go home.”

Griffin and Lyra slept through the entire forty-minute train ride back into Manhattan. Seb was leaning against Zain’s side and blinking slowly, too, but I felt wide awake. The performance high hadn’t worn off at all when we reached our own front door. I took Jagger on a quick walk and returned, still bouncing off the walls in my head, to find Quint brushing his teeth.

“Zain and Seb went to bed already?” I asked, stepping in close behind him. He nodded. Reaching over, I opened the shower door and turned the tap. “Good.” I needed to wash stage sweat off anyway, and he didn’t have the excuse of being late for work this time.

His eyes went darker as they met mine in the mirror.

Zain

The other three stayed with me at the bus station as long as they could. We’d arrived fairly early so I would have a good seat, and I spent the time being as cheerful as possible. Seb could tell I was faking half of it, but it still helped us both.

Near departure, the Greyhound ticket-taker gave instructions, and all the passengers moved obediently into the numbered queues. Seb started to lead the way to mine. I caught his arm, though, wanting one last minute alone. To Quint, I held out my bag and asked, “Can you save my spot for me?”

He nodded and took Theo with him as he moved off, the Brat looking back over his shoulder with worry. Meanwhile, I guided Seb a few feet further away from anyone.

“Zain–”

“Shh.” Embracing him with my deepest, bone-crushing hug, I sang into his ear, slow and soft, “So fare thee well, my own true love. When I return, united we will be. It’s not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me, but my darling when I think of thee.”

“Gods, Z, don’t,” he choked. “I have to take public transit after this.”

“So do I,” I said, laughing weakly. “Fair’s fair.” Then I pulled away from his grip just enough to look at him. “Hey, we’re almost through the first year, remember. And you’ll be hearing back on that application to MICA soon, too, so we really could be united next year, right?”

He nodded, sniffling.

“Therefore this is not a goodbye,” I told him. “It’s à bientôt. I’ll Skype you as soon as I get to my room.”

“Check on Bradley, too,” he said. “I know he emailed that he’s doing okay, but…”

“Yeah, I’ll double-check.”

Wiping his eyes, he said, “They’re boarding. You have to go. Je t’aime.

I sighed. This never gets one iota easier. He was right, though. I brought him back to the line, where Quint and Theo were saving my place. “Take care of him,” I said to the other Top, trading Seb for the bag.

He squeezed my Brat under his arm and nodded solemnly. “I will.”

“And you, squirt,” I said, ruffling Theo’s hair to make him duck away, “stay out of trouble.”

He grinned. “No promises.”

“I don’t envy you at all, having to handle both of them,” I told Quint. “Alright, I’ll be going.”

I gave Seb a kiss that, at any other time, he would’ve strongly protested participating in with an audience, and then turned to board the bus. We’re doing this so we can both grow, I reminded myself, with a last glance back. It’ll be worth it.

6 thoughts on “Roots and Sprouts”

  1. What a beautiful and touching story! The moment at the 9/11 Memorial made me cry. I like seeing the everyone getting to know each other better and all of the fun teasing. I love both couples and can’t wait to see how things turn out for Platt. Thanks so much for writing!!

    1. Thank you, KK! I wasn’t too sure about this story for a long time, but I like how it turned out in the end. I really appreciate your comment. <3

  2. I loved this story! (Particularly because I grew up in Bensonhurst, and so also have fond memories of life in the shadow of the Verrazano.) But, really- the character exploration was just great and fun to follow. I look forward to seeing where they all go from here!

    1. Thanks, S2B! 🙂 I live in Bay Ridge currently, so that setting was very close to home–no pun intended–for me. It was a lot of fun to write. I liked mixing more serious stuff with the lighthearted in this story. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

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