It was going to be a perfect present. Even better than the portrait I commissioned from Seb last year, which trust me, wasn’t easy. Quint loved that thing from the moment I gave it to him, and he loves it more now, I think, because he’s grown to love Seb. But I thought of a way to top it eventually. I had to. It’s not every day that your husband turns fifty. I was so proud of my idea.
Then Quint ruined it.
Okay, no, it wasn’t his fault. Not like he set out to spoil my plans. Still, when you’ve been looking forward to something for weeks, only to have it snatched out of your hands at the last minute, it’s hard not to feel disappointed, you know? I hope you know, or else I’m going to look like such a jerk in this story.
Anyway. You’re probably wondering what this gift was, and what Quint did. I’ll start with the first question. It was a trip, a weekend away in DC, for just the two of us. We haven’t had much time to ourselves since Seb moved in. I’m not complaining, I swear, but I did think we were overdue. Quint doesn’t really cut loose—if you know what I mean—with Seb one room over. I missed his growls.
Why DC? Because he’s a giant nerd. I remembered him mentioning how much he’d enjoyed visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on a field trip when he was just a little preppy in a school blazer (cute as hell, remind me to show you the pictures sometime), and how he always thought about going back but he was never in the area except for medical conferences when he had no time for it. So I thought we could go there, and maybe to the National Archives or wherever else my history dork wanted to visit. I booked us a hotel room complete with a jacuzzi within walking distance of the Mall, and I reserved dinner at a nice restaurant nearby too. Very romantic.
It all went up in smoke early the morning before we were supposed to leave, though, when Quint sneezed so hard it dislodged me from my comfortable, cuddly position on top of him, and then sat up and had a coughing fit into his elbow. I was still blinking my eyes open, trying to make sense of the universe again, as he got out of bed and went into our ensuite bathroom. I heard a lot more coughing and a couple more sneezes. Then he blew his nose and silence fell.
“Quin’?” I called, half-asleep. “Y’okay?”
It sounded like he started to say yes, but it got lost in more coughing. I dragged myself onto my feet and stumped over to peer blearily through the doorway. He was supporting himself on the counter with one hand, bent and hunched as the coughs made his whole body spasm.
“Shit,” I said. “You’re not sick, are you?” Brilliant, I know.
The coughs finally stopped. Or, probably, he held them in. He swallowed and nodded, then straightened to reach for the medicine cabinet.
“You never get sick!” I said. Which was an exaggeration, but not by much. The last time had to be years ago. “It’s part of the evidence I use to argue to people that you’re a cyborg!”
“Well,” he said, opening the cabinet and taking out the box that holds our oral thermometer and its little sterilized covers, “my systems appear to be on the fritz.” His voice sounded rough, and his eyes were watery and almost redder than his cheekbones.
Despite the signs, I still didn’t really believe it. Or didn’t want to. I stepped through the doorway so I could reach his forehead and feel for a temperature myself. Something, I must point out, he has absolutely no qualms about doing at the slightest hint I might be ill, and yet he backed up and shooed me away.
“No, keep at least a yard’s distance between us, angel,” he said. “I want to avoid infecting you if I can.”
He never worries about catching something from me, though, does he? Nope. But I didn’t argue. Slouching against the door jamb, I crossed my arms and watched him stick the thermometer in his mouth. It beeped and flashed red.
“One hundred point five,” he said, taking it out and flicking the cover into the trashcan. “Just barely elevated. Good. It’s not likely to be the flu.”
“Does that mean you’ll feel better by tomorrow?” I asked. “If you take medicine?”
He sniffed and shook his head. “Even if I do, I’ll still be contagious for a few days. We’ll have to postpone the dinner party.”
That’s what I’d been afraid of. There actually wasn’t any dinner party planned, because Zeg, Ike, and Seb all knew about the trip. They were supposed to give him their gifts when we got back on Monday. But if he wanted to cancel a dinner party, no way would he want to travel.
“Angel, it’s alright,” he said, and I realized I must’ve looked crestfallen. “I don’t mind.”
Well, I did.
Before I could decide whether to tell him about the trip now, knowing it’d only make him feel worse, he moved towards me, and I stepped back to let him out of the bathroom. But instead of going to bed again, he headed for the closet door.
“What’re you doing?” I asked, frowning.
“I need to go to the pharmacy,” he said, opening first the closet and then the top drawer of the dresser inside. “We’re out of cold medicine.”
I blinked. “Um, no? I’ll go.”
He stopped taking clothes out and looked at me. “It’s too early for you to be up.”
“I can go to the damn pharmacy for you,” I said. “I’ll take Jagger for a walk, too. Get back in bed.”
“Theo, I’m well enough to run a quick errand,” he said.
He didn’t look it. And his reassuring voice lost a lot of its power by sounding raspy. And anyway, if our places were reversed, he’d be putting me in the bed right now. I stepped forward, thinking maybe I could manage that, given his weakened state, and he backed up so the three-foot distance between us didn’t shrink. I sighed.
“You just said you didn’t want to infect me,” I pointed out. “How are people at the pharmacy any different?”
After a moment, he conceded. “Alright.” Then he put the clothes neatly away before finally crawling under the covers on his side of the bed.
I got a pair of jeans out of the dresser and pulled them on over the boxers I was already wearing. I didn’t bother changing my shirt. As I shut the closet door, he said, “Thank you, angel.”
“You don’t have to thank me for caring for you. I’m your husband,” I grumbled, looking across at him. “DayQuil and NyQuil, right? Anything else you need?”
“More tissues, and bring my phone to me when you come back so I can call into work, please,” he said, his lips curving up fondly. “I wasn’t thanking you because I have to. I don’t ever want to take you for granted.”
The words hit me deep. I didn’t want to take him for granted, either. It was a large part of why I tried so hard to show him my love on his birthday. What would he think when I didn’t have anything to give to him this year? I turned away so he couldn’t read my expression and cleared my throat. “Okay. Be right back.”
At the corner of the street, Jagger tried to go the way Quint usually runs in the mornings. I had to tug the leash a little to get him to realize we were only walking around the block. When I came out of the pharmacy, he’d laid down where I left him hooked to a bench and looked up at me dolefully. “Sorry,” I said. “We’ll go out again later.” Quint was waiting for the medicine I carried. I wanted to get it to him without delay.
I was held up once more, though, in the apartment hallway. Seb opened his bedroom door and almost bumped into me. “Oh, sorry!” he said, and then he frowned, apparently thrown. “I thought you were Quint. Did he leave for the hospital already?”
“No,” I said, and backtracked to the sideboard, reminded of Quint’s request for his phone. Seb followed and watched me unplug it. “He’s got a cold,” I explained. “He’s staying home today.”
“Oh,” Seb said. He dropped his voice. “Does that mean… the trip…?”
He didn’t need to finish. I jerked one shoulder up. “I have to cancel it.”
“I’m really sorry,” he said. “I know you were looking forward to it.”
Denying that was pointless. “Don’t mention it to Quint when you see him, okay?” I said. “I don’t want to give him guilt for his birthday.”
“I won’t, promise.” Seb hesitated a moment, running his finger along the edge of the sideboard. “I could… I could go somewhere for the weekend?” he said. “So you two will get to be alone, at least?”
“Somewhere like where?” I asked. The only place I could think of was Annapolis, and I knew he didn’t have the money for that right now. “I appreciate the offer,” I said, “but I don’t want your weekend to be disrupted, too.” Anyway, Quint and I being alone wouldn’t make much difference, with his self-imposed quarantine.
Down the hallway, the master bedroom door swung open. Quint sort of staggered out.
“What’re you doing?” I asked. “I’m bringing you the stuff.” I held up the pharmacy bag as proof.
“Breakfast,” he said. “Good morning, mon chaton.”
Seb and I exchanged a look. I rolled my eyes as Quint came closer. “Does Zain do this when he’s sick?” I asked Seb. “Insist on doing everything himself?”
“The opposite,” Seb said. “He turns into the world’s neediest baby and drives me up the wall. Partly as a demonstration.”
“A demonstration?” I asked, confused.
Quint had stopped a few feet away from us, also looking curious.
Seb glanced down at the floor. “Of how to be taken care of,” he said, blushing, but only a little. “And to prove that however bad I am when I’m sick, he can be worse.”
“I cannot imagine you behaving badly when you’re sick,” Quint said.
“No,” Seb said, and I swear, hand on my heart, his lips twitched like he wanted to smile. He met Quint’s gaze dead-on. “I insist on doing everything myself.”
Quint opened his mouth and shut it again. He had the grace to look sheepish. “Angel,” he said, “would you mind bringing me breakfast as well? Scrambled eggs are fine.”
I grinned. “Sure.” I offered the pharmacy bag to him, and he took it without touching me. Then he held out his other hand for his phone. I narrowed my eyes. “You’re only to use it to call the hospital. No playing games or checking email or anything else, young man.”
Quint sighed, but he looked amused. “Yes, I promise.”
“Okay,” I said, dropping it in his palm. “I’ll bring your breakfast to you in a couple minutes.”
“Thank you,” he said, and went back down the hall.
Seb followed me into the kitchen. I passed his yogurt to him when I got the eggs, milk, and some chopped veggies out, and he sat at the peninsula. He had his test kit with him. As he unzipped it, he glanced over his shoulder like he was checking no one else was near. The only other thing with ears in the room was Jagger, who lifted his head briefly from the arm of the sofa and then put it back down when it became apparent he wasn’t getting food.
Seb leaned across the counter while I cracked eggs into the frying pan. “If you two aren’t going on your trip,” he said, “I’ll have to finish my gift in one of the school’s studios. That’ll keep me out of the apartment for most of tomorrow, probably, and I have my classes today. I can do something after them to be out later. Go to the library or the Met.”
“I don’t mind you being here, you know,” I said, in case that needed saying. I added the veggies and a dash of milk to the eggs and used a whisk to mix it together.
“I know, but you were looking forward to spending quality time with him. You can still do that, even if he’s sick, right?” he asked, his hands running through the test process as he spoke like they were on autopilot.
“Not the kind of quality time I had in mind, no,” I said, turning on the heat under the pan.
Seb caught my meaning, by his blush. He fell silent while I finished making the eggs. They were done a minute later. I scrapped them out into a bowl, ground some salt and pepper over them, and stuck a fork in it. Then I poured a glass of orange juice and carried them both down the hallway.
Quint was sitting up against a mound of pillows, with the covers thrown to one side of the bed so his legs were covered in nothing but his flannel pajama pants. He’d opened one of the boxes of tissues I brought home, and I saw a paper cup next to it, probably from taking DayQuil. His eyes had been closed, but when I came in, they cracked opened and focused on me. “Leave it there, please,” he said, nodding to the desk.
I ignored him. Rounding the bed, I set the food down on the nightstand and stretched out my hand to check his temperature. He leaned away from me again.
“Will you stop that?” I demanded. Hadn’t what Seb said done any good? I put my knee on the mattress so I could reach farther.
Quint shook his head and gently pushed my wrist down. “I already know I have a fever, angel. There’s no need for you to confirm and expose yourself to–”
“It’s a cold,” I interrupted, thoroughly fed up. “I’m not going to die if I catch it. What is with you? I don’t remember you being like this last time you got sick. I mean, you always try to take care of yourself, but not to this degree.” I settled next to him, still within the three-foot radius he’d banished me from, and frowned.
Sighing, he looked at the door I’d left partly-open. Then, in a low voice, he said, “It’s not so much about you as it is Seb. If you catch it, it’s much more likely he will, and illnesses are serious for him. Even a cold.”
Shit. I forgot about that.
Quint grabbed a tissue from the box, turned away to sneeze into it, and blew his nose before disposing of the tissue in the pharmacy bag. Still twisted so he wasn’t breathing towards me, he asked, “You understand, angel?”
“Yeah,” I said, getting up. “I’ll let you eat.”
“Thank you.” He waited until I was almost at the door to add, “Wash your hands before you do anything else, please, and use the hand sanitizer in my briefcase.”
This is the part where I need you to keep in mind that my plans had been ruined, and maybe also that I was a couple hours short on sleep. Because yeah, of course I saw the logic in Quint’s concern. I didn’t want Seb sick, either. But I also really, really wished it wasn’t something Quint had to worry about. Then I could truly take care of him the way he does me, and it wouldn’t matter if I got exposed to his germs in the process. I felt like not only was the trip cancelled, but now there was an invisible wall between us.
So when I saw Seb putting his shoes on by the door, I was glad he was leaving. That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? It is terrible. Ugh.
Anyway, at the time, I didn’t think about that. Instead, I remembered what he’d offered to do. Going somewhere else for the weekend was taking it too far. But…
“The Met?” I asked.
He looked up and blinked. “What?”
“You said you could go to the Met after your classes,” I said. “How late is it open?”
He straightened a little. “Um, nine on Fridays. You want me to stay until closing?”
I hesitated. Nine was kinda late. Then I thought about maybe convincing Quint to at least come into the living room and watch TV with me. No way he’d do that with Seb home. Plus, it’s not like Seb would get bored. The Met is huge. He’s spent full days there in the past.
“It won’t cost you any money, right?” I asked, to be sure. “You still have the membership Quint bought you?”
“Yeah, I get in free.” He stood up. “Food will still cost, but I don’t mind. I’ll stay until it closes and have dinner there.”
“Thanks,” I said. I gave him a hug, too, just to show my gratitude. Not because I felt guilty. Or that was what I told myself. When I let go, he smiled, closed-lipped, and took his messenger bag off the hook. Then he left.
I bit the bullet and called the hotel before the 24-hour cancellation deadline passed and they charged me a fee. Then I called the restaurant where I’d made our dinner reservations, too. Hanging up, I felt more glum than ever. Even coffee didn’t help. I carried my mug down to the bedroom with Jagger following me and found Quint finishing his scrambled eggs.
He surveyed me as I came in, and sighed. “Angel, you’re taking this far worse than I am.”
“It’s your birthday,” I said. How could he be taking it so well? The man is not human, I’m telling you.
“Monday is my birthday, actually,” he said. “I’m sure I will feel much better by then.”
Too late, I wanted to say. Instead, I sat on the end of the bed by his feet and said, “Seb left. You can come out in the living room now.”
He shook his head. “Perhaps in a bit.” Putting his empty bowl on the nightstand, he shifted down farther under the covers. “I need to rest.” He did look as if he was going to fall asleep any second. Jagger poked his nose over the edge of the mattress and sniffed him, his tail wagging, and Quint patted his head weakly. “Sorry, boy. No run today. This is going to put a bump in my marathon training.”
It sounded like that was bothering him more than any of the rest of it. I scowled into my coffee.
If Quint saw, he didn’t comment. “Why don’t you take Jagger for a long walk while I nap? He needs to burn off the energy he’d use in our run.”
Jagger’s ears perked up at ‘walk.’ I had promised him one earlier. I nodded.
“After you eat breakfast,” Quint added. “You do need more than coffee in the morning, remember.”
A raised eyebrow still worked when the rest of his face was like death warmed over. Who knew? I said, “Yes, sir,” and gave him a kiss on the knee, since he wouldn’t let me near his mouth, before I went to pour myself some cereal.
The day passed slowly. He was fast asleep when Jagger and I got back. I crawled into bed next to him for clandestine cuddling until it seemed like he was going to wake up. Maybe it was just my imagination, but I thought his breathing sounded easier with me near.
He did come out to the living room for lunch (well, really, he tried to come into the kitchen and make his own toast until I pointed out that he shouldn’t be near food preparation surfaces and shooed him to the couch), and he even let me sit with my feet in his lap while we watched TV.
Around the time Seb usually comes home on Fridays, I noticed him looking to the door every few minutes. Jagger was doing the same thing. Finally, Quint said, “Could you bring me my phone? I want to check if Seb’s texted to let me know he’ll be late.”
Damn. If I didn’t speak up now, Seb would be in trouble. With my best casual voice, I said, “Oh, sorry, he’s at the Met until it closes.”
“Until closing?” Quint asked, but he sounded surprised, not suspicious.
I shrugged one shoulder and kept my gaze fixed on the TV like I was only half-focused on the conversation. “That’s what he said this morning. He’s going to eat dinner there.”
Quint was silent for a few moments. Then he said, “He must have some type of project he forgot to mention.”
“Or he just wants to go look at some art,” I suggested, hardly daring to believe that he really wasn’t connecting the pieces to our conversation this morning. Just how off his Top game had this cold thrown him?
“Yes, or that,” he said. “I can’t blame him for wanting to get the most use out of his membership before he moves.”
Just what I needed: A reminder that my time with Seb living in New York was quickly running out, and I’d pushed him away for part of it. I got up. “What do you want for dinner?”
“Toast with a sliced banana and honey, please,” Quint said.
I made some for myself, too, and we ate at the table with our knees bumping together. After, he brought his plate to the counter, sneezed, and said, “I’m going to take a shower. The steam will help with this congestion.”
“I could wash your back,” I said. Actually meaning it literally, not as a euphemism. Shocker, I know. He still treated me to a Look.
“What?” I asked, my shoulders going up. “I’ll Lysol my whole body before Seb comes home, okay?”
“No,” he said, and then his tone and face softened. “I’m sorry, angel. I do appreciate the offer.”
Uh-huh, I thought, watching him vanish down the hallway. Sure.
I loaded the dishwasher with the dinner dishes, put a pod of detergent in, and started the cycle. As I turned my attention to wiping the counters, Quint’s phone rang from the charging station on the sideboard. Normally I’d ignore it and tell him he’d missed a call, but I didn’t want him to be bothered tonight. I went over to tell the caller he’d be out of touch for a few days.
My heart jolted with guilt when I saw the screen. It was Zain.
Swallowing, I unplugged the phone and raised it to my ear. “It’s Theo. Quint’s sick.”
“So I heard,” Zain said, his usual cheerfulness tempered with concern. “How is he?”
“About the same as this morning,” I said. “It’s a bad cold.”
Zain made a sympathetic noise. “Can I talk to him?”
“He’s in the shower, and then he’ll probably be going right to sleep,” I said. “You could call back in the morning?”
“Eh,” he said. “More efficient for me to talk directly to you, anyway, squirt.”
I froze. That silly nickname somehow made me uneasy. After a moment, I managed to ask, “Um, about what?”
His tone matched mine, in a gentle tease. “Um, about why Seb missed our Skype call tonight?”
Oh no. Shit. I’d forgotten completely. So not only did I kick Seb out, I’d put distance between him and Zain, too. Nice going, Theo. “He… he’s at the Met,” I said, my breath coming short. “The cell reception is spotty, but maybe if you texted–”
“I know where he is,” Zain interrupted. “I already talked to him.”
I’m pretty sure I made fish faces then, my mouth opening and shutting a few times. I couldn’t understand. “Well then…?” I asked, trailing off before I got to the why are you calling?
Zain didn’t laugh, but his voice sounded like he was smiling. “I said why he missed it, not where he is. I don’t mind him missing Skype. Relax. We can go without seeing each other one night. But he always has a very important reason for skipping, and tonight he made it sound like he’d just decided to wander around the Met instead.” He paused a moment. To tilt his head, probably. “Tell me, who’s idea was that, squirt?”
I pressed my butt against the sideboard as my stomach turned over. “H–his.” Originally. “I told him I didn’t mind him being here.”
“Did you? Weird. He told me you asked him not to come home for dinner.”
“I sorta… suggested that,” I admitted. “After I told him I didn’t mind him being here.”
“Oh, very clear signals,” Zain said. “Not mixed at all.”
“I didn’t mean it like– I’m not mad at him,” I said. “Seb understood. He did bring it up first.”
“Yeah, he told me,” Zain said, and he sounded more serious than he had since the start of the call. “You realize, though, that shows he was already feeling like a burden, and you went ahead and, in his mind, confirmed it?”
Oh, god. I closed my eyes, then opened them again and looked down at my feet. My vision was blurring. “I only wanted Quint and I to have some time alone,” I said, my voice small and pathetic.
“I get that,” Zain said. “I don’t blame you for needing it, squirt. If Seb and I had a weekend planned and it got cancelled last-minute, I’d be trying to salvage anything I could, too. And Seb’s fear of being a burden is his and my issue to deal with, not yours. Just… be more conscious of it, alright?”
I had known. It was niggling in the back of my head before I even asked Seb to stay out. I’d ignored it. “I will,” I said. “I won’t ever do something he can take that way again, I promise.”
“No, don’t,” said Zain. “As Mary Poppins would say, that’s a piecrust promise. Easily made, easily broken.”
“I wouldn’t–!” I started, hurt that he didn’t believe me.
He interrupted. “I’m not saying you’d want to, Theo. I’m saying it’s an impossible promise to keep. You can’t control the irrational anxiety telling Seb this. He’s going to feel it sometimes as a result of your actions, no matter what. You can try to limit, which is what I’m asking. But you can’t eliminate it, because it’s a product of his mind. Taking on all the responsibility for it only robs him of his choice to fight back. Do you see what I mean?”
I stayed quiet as I considered that and began to understand, in a way I never had before, just how complicated the discipline between them was, and how skillful Zain had to be to strike the right balance. To think, at one point I doubted his Topping ability!
Finally, I said, “Yes, sir.”
He sort of groaned like he was in pain. “Don’t call me ‘sir.’ It’s weird.”
“Sorry,” I said, and then asked what I’d wondered since the first time he’d said that. “Aren’t you going to be called ‘sir’ when you become an officer?”
“Yeah, but it’s different in the military,” he said. “The way we use it isn’t personal.”
“So that’s why Seb doesn’t call you it?”
Surprisingly—or maybe not, considering who we’re talking about—he laughed. “Seb does, actually,” he said. “In a very personal way. Which is why it’s weird for you to.”
“Oh,” I said. A million questions filled my head, most of them about how did that work with the discipline, and all of them the type that would get me swatted for prying if Quint heard me ask, so I bit my tongue.
“Please, please don’t tell him about this,” Zain said. “He’ll kill me.”
I snorted. “Isn’t that my line?”
“True,” he said, laughing again. “How about we both keep our mouths shut to each other’s partners and pretend this whole conversation never happened?”
“I guess,” I said, though I knew he was doing me a favor. My actions had been a lot worse than his.
“Thanks, I appreciate it,” he said. “By the way, I sent Seb home. He should be getting there soon. A hug would be a good way to welcome him back.”
“I’ll make sure he can’t breath for a few seconds,” I said.
“Good man. I gotta go study. Talk to you latter, squirt.”
As you might imagine, after that, I stuck close to the door even when I was done cleaning the kitchen. I didn’t want Seb coming into an empty room. The moment I heard him outside in the hallway, I threw the door open and pulled him in.
“I’m sorry,” I said, squeezing him tightly as his arms kinda flailed in surprise and Jagger sniffed at his legs. “I’m so sorry. You’re not going anywhere for the rest of the weekend. I like having you here. You know that, right?”
He managed to get a hand between us and pushed me a foot away. “Zain called?” he asked. “Merde, I told him not to. I’ll tell Quint it was my idea and you shouldn’t be blamed. Unless… is it too late?” His eyes dropped for a split second to my waistband, as if he’d be able to tell from that I’d just been spanked.
“No!” I said. “He didn’t talk to Quint. He made his point clear enough on his own, trust me.”
Seb took a step back. “I don’t know what point that was, but I’m fine. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Yeah, I did, and I knew it was wrong when I did it,” I said. “Will you accept my apology?”
He shook his head and crossed his arms. “I’m the one who should be apologizing.”
“For what?” I asked, but footsteps warned us both that Quint was coming down the hallway. I turned around to face him.
“Mon chaton, there you are,” he said, smiling at Seb from several feet away. “Theo said you might be gone until after nine.”
“I came back early,” Seb said. I wondered how much convincing Zain had to do to get him here. “Are you feeling any better?”
“A little, thank you,” Quint said. “I’m still highly contagious, though.”
I could see him about to warn Seb to keep his distance. For his own protection, sure, but Seb wouldn’t take it that way. In a flash of inspiration, I said, “Quint, you know how I love when you read me stories when I’m sick? I’ve always wanted to do that for you. I was thinking Seb and I can take turns reading tonight instead of us watching TV, right, Seb?”
They both hesitated. Seb spoke first. “If you want me there,” he said, glancing from me to Quint.
“Of course we do,” I said. “We’re not going to banish you to your room.” And I shot Quint a very hard look.
He caught on. Unlike me, he pays attention to blatantly obvious warning signs. “I would love it if you read to me as well, Seb,” he said.
Seb couldn’t argue with that.
So, until about nine-thirty, Quint let us all sit in the living room together. He wrapped himself in a blanket in the armchair and pointed Jagger to the end of the couch nearest him so Seb and I had to be farther away, but I didn’t mind that so much now. I got his copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes from the bookcase in the bedroom to read. With Seb trading every few paragraphs with me, we finished two stories before I looked over and saw Quint had nodded off.
“Think we could carry him to bed if we worked together?” I asked Seb. He laughed and shook his head, which was fair enough, so I got up, went over to Quint, and brushed the backs of my fingers softly across his forehead to wake him up. It didn’t feel particularly hot.
He blinked his eyes open, then murmured, “Angel, stay back, remember.”
“I remember,” I said, sighing. “I guess you want to get down to the bedroom on your own.”
“Mmm?” He frowned around like he was surprised he wasn’t in the bedroom already.
Meanwhile, Seb set the book on the coffee table. “I need to color something before bed, so I’ll go now, too,” he said. “Bon nuit.”
“Goodnight,” I replied.
After he went into his room, Quint slowly unfolded himself and walked down the hall with the blanket still wrapped around his shoulders and trailing on the hardwood. I followed, mostly to make sure he didn’t bump into a door or something. He seemed out of it. That’s why, when he leaned over the mattress, picked up his pillow, and turned back towards me, I thought it was just because he was half-asleep.
“Whoa, where’re you going with that?” I asked, smiling, as I stepped in front of him. “You need it to support your head.”
“Exactly,” he said. “I’m taking it to the couch with me.”
“We can’t share a bed until I’m well again,” he said, patient and slow, though the latter was probably because of his drowsiness. “I’ll sleep on the couch.”
My jaw dropped. “You are not sleeping on the couch!”
“No.” I crossed my arms and glared. “If you’re worried about it, we’ll put a mound of blankets between us down the middle of the bed.”
He sighed, then sneezed into the crook of his elbow, then sniffed and said, “Theo, not once in nearly ten years have I woken up without you touching me somewhere. You’re usually lying half on top of me. I don’t think blankets are going to stop you. It’s only a couple of nights. We have to keep Seb from getting sick.”
I groaned. How was I supposed to argue against that? (No, really, I’m asking. What would you have said?)
When about ten seconds had passed and I still couldn’t think of a way to convince him, he started to go by me. I snatched the pillow out of his hands and chucked it at the bed. If he’d been well, I probably would’ve gotten swatted for throwing things. As it was, he only looked slightly confused, with an edge of exasperation.
“You’re not sleeping on the couch. It’ll kill your back. I’ll do it,” I said, before he could start to outline his reasons again.
“You don’t need to, angel.”
How. When the world is operating as it’s supposed to and I’m the one being this difficult, how does he keep his cool? (Yeah, I fully acknowledge I can get that difficult, and then some.) Cyborg, I’m telling you. Inhuman control.
I stuck my chin out and growled up at him, “Get. In. The bed.”
He did not look intimidated, just resigned. But he turned around and crawled onto the mattress, so it was a win for me. I stalked over to the other side, grabbed my own pillow, and went to get pajamas from the closet.
“Thank you, angel,” he said. “I love you.”
I yanked a dresser drawer open. “Love you, too.” You stubborn, annoying, conscientious paragon of fucking virtue.
A night on the couch did not improve my mood. Are we surprised? About the only good thing was that I got to have Jagger sleep by my feet. He’s never allowed on the bed.
He woke me from my fitful sleep early the next morning by poking his cold nose into my neck. I shoved him away without opening my eyes, but then he whined, and I realized it was most likely past the usual time when Quint takes him out.
“Alright, alright, hang on,” I mumbled, rolling off onto the floor. From there, I got my feet under me and stood up with only minimal swaying. I didn’t bother to go get real pants or anything from the bedroom, just went right to the pantry for my shoes and his leash. It’s New York City. I’d never see any of the people on the street again, anyway.
When Jagger and I returned about twenty minutes later, Seb was coming out of his room. He caught sight of the pile of blanket I’d left trailing from the couch to the coffee table and frowned. “Who slept out here?”
“Me,” I said. “My husband”—(I put all my feelings into the word, with great relish)—“insisted that we couldn’t sleep in the same room, to avoid contamination.”
“Wow.” Seb blinked. “He takes being contagious really seriously, huh?”
Now, at that point, I was bent down, fiddling with the clip on Jagger’s leash, which was stuck, and not being helped by the dog trying to bounce over to say good morning to Seb. So my mind was not really on my words. If you know me, you will know that this is never a good thing. I said, “Only when you’re here.”
“What?” Seb asked, in a very odd voice.
I looked over and realized, as I have so many times in my life, that my foot was lodged firmly in my mouth. “Not like that,” I said, quickly. “He doesn’t mind you being here. He’s just trying to stop the cold from spreading to you.”
Seb stared at me with those huge, huge eyes he gets. “But why me in particular?”
“Be…cause of your diabetes?” I said, hesitant partly due to the suspicion I was making things worse, and partly… well, wasn’t Quint’s reason obvious?
Not to Seb, apparently. He blinked a few times, like he was fitting this information into his understanding of yesterday, and then he frowned. Hard. “He thinks I can’t handle a cold?”
I straightened up, the leash finally unclipped and a bit of panic growing inside me. I remembered too well what happened the last time Seb thought Quint was being overprotective. “That’s not what I said.”
“But he wants to prevent me from getting it, right?” he asked, and before I could answer, “Because I’m a delicate little flower?”
“Hey!” I said. “Stop putting words in my mouth. That’s not what he meant.”
He nodded. “Okay, I’ll go talk to him directly and find out what he meant.” And then he spun on his heel and headed down the hall.
I dropped the leash on the counter and raced after him. “Seb! He’s probably sleeping still!”
Ignoring me, he knocked on the master bedroom door. There was only a second’s pause before Quint said, “C’min,” so maybe he’d woken up earlier? Though he did sound tired. When Seb flung the door open, he was pushing himself up against the headboard while putting his glasses on.
I expected Seb to start ranting the second he stepped inside, like I would’ve if I’d been mad. But he just stood there, looking at Quint with his eyebrows in a wriggly line and his mouth set straight across.
“What’s wrong?” Quint asked. Then he sneezed and reached for a box of tissues on the nightstand. It was a few inches too far. I started forward to give it to him at the same instant Seb did, too. Quint held up his hand to both of us as he leaned over to get it. “No, stay there.”
“Why?” Seb demanded, and Quint’s head came around at his tone. He blinked like he didn’t quite understand the question.
I got between the two of them. “Seb, leave him alone. He’s just trying to help.”
“Like you, when you told me to go to the Met?” he asked, almost spitting the last word.
I flinched, struck simultaneously by guilt and that dreadful feeling you get when you know the cat’s out of the bag.
Sure enough: “Told you to go to the Met?” Quint asked. I didn’t have to look around to know his eyebrow was up.
Seb went on talking over his question, heedless. “I thought it was so you guys could have alone-time because your trip was cancelled. I was doing it as a favor to you, not the other way around.”
“What trip?” asked Quint, now sounding more confused than stern.
I wanted to smack Seb. The one thing I asked him not to mention–! Glaring at him, I said, “Thanks for keeping that secret.”
He froze like he’d just realized what he’d said, way too late to stop the words. I couldn’t summon any sympathy. He’d ruined my idea of surprising Quint with the trip for next weekend.
“Keeping what a secret?” Quint asked.
Neither of us answered, or even moved, so I didn’t see Quint’s face. I did hear him cough, though, and the blankets rustle a little.
Then he said, “Both of you, look at me, please.”
Slowly, I turned around. He was sitting up straight without the support of the pillows and headboard behind him. Worse, his arms were crossed over his chest. He fixed us each in turn with a Look.
“I would very much like to know what this is about,” he said. “Theodore, would you care to explain?”
I shook my head. Explaining would mean not only admitting I had no present for him, but telling him about the Met, too.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Seb glance at me before he echoed my headshake.
Quint studied us a moment. Then he had to uncross his arms so he could cough into his elbow, yet when he was done, he looked stern as ever. “Alright. Seb, take that corner, please,” he said, nodding to the one next to the closet. “Theo, use the one by the door. You can face them until you’ve both decided to discuss what is going on, in a civil manner.”
Seb hung his head and trudged to his assigned corner. I had a much shorter walk to mine. When I reached it, Jagger poked his head through the open door and nuzzled my hand.
“Here, boy,” Quint said. The dog abandoned me in favor of him in an instant. I looked around to see him getting his ears scratched, and Quint pointed me back to the corner. Sighing, I obeyed.
Sometimes when I’m sent to a corner, my mind wanders very far from what I’m supposed to be thinking about. This time, there was no danger of that. I could not stop thinking about it, because alongside my annoyance with Seb, I couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t just told Quint. It wasn’t like he’d be in trouble over going to the Met, and if he really was angry about us trying to keep him from getting the cold, that was his opportunity to tell Quint off. Was he trying to protect me? To avoid saying too much again?
Typical, I thought. Can’t even be mad at him without him putting me first.
A sniffle broke into my brooding. At first, I assumed it was Quint, before I realized it was coming from the other corner. Then there was a little hitching breath. If Seb wasn’t crying already, he was close to it. My heart twisted despite myself.
Quint may look like he’s not paying any attention to me when I’m cornered, but I know if I’d started making those noises, he would’ve called me out in an instant. I was surprised when he didn’t say anything. He had to hear, right? He was closer to Seb than me.
Seb let out a choked sob. I looked over my shoulder to see why the hell Quint was just letting him stand there, and the reason was immediately clear. He’d fallen asleep. He was still sitting with his glasses on, but his eyes were closed behind them, and his hand rested limply on Jagger’s head. Jagger had jumped onto the bed, where he’s not allowed, and was dozing too, by the looks of it.
I hesitated only a second. Then I tip-toed to the other corner and wrapped Seb in a hug from behind. He jerked in surprise. “Quint’s asleep,” I whispered. “I’m sorry! I’m not mad at you anymore.”
He sniffed and said, “I’m still mad at you,” in a watery voice, but he didn’t try to move out of the hug.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I’m kinda mad at me, too. Would it help if I told you I really did send you to the Met for selfish reasons?”
Looking over his bony shoulder with pink-rimmed eyes, he asked, “It wasn’t so I wouldn’t get the cold?”
“No, that was Quint’s worry,” I said. “I wanted to watch TV with him, and I knew he wouldn’t do it while you were home, so I… made it so you weren’t home.” I felt my ears turning red.
Seb turned, and I took a step back to give him more room. He was frowning. “Why didn’t you just tell him I don’t need to be protected from all germs?” he asked.
We both flinched at his volume and glanced automatically at Quint. Sure enough, he stirred and opened his eyes. They narrowed when he saw us standing there.
“Young men,” he said, in a croak, “what are you doing out of your corners?”
“You said we could leave them when we could talk nicely about what happened,” I quickly reminded him.
He studied us both. I saw the moment he realized Seb had been crying. His face softened. “Alright,” he said. “Come sit at the end of the bed and tell me what’s going on, please.” As Seb and I moved over, he looked down at Jagger. “You,” he said, “are not supposed to be up here.”
Jagger wagged his tail, crept farther up the mattress on his stomach, and whined.
Quint sighed and said, “Brat dog.” But he didn’t make him get down. Remind me to try that tactic sometime. My tail is just as cute as Jagger’s.
Seb, meanwhile, had crawled onto the bed and settled down in one of his way-too-bendy yoga positions close to Quint’s feet. I knelt next to him, resting on my heels.
Fiddling with the drawstring of his pajama bottoms, Seb said, “Je suis désolé for how I behaved earlier, coming in here like that.”
“Would you like to tell me why you seemed so upset?” Quint asked.
Seb’s eyes darted sideways to me, but he didn’t speak.
“I’ll start,” I said. “I think Seb will feel more free to talk after I… share my side of it.”
Quint nodded, giving me permission.
Even so, it took me a couple of seconds to admit, “We were supposed to spend this weekend in DC, visiting museums and stuff. I had it all booked. Then you got sick.”
A look of surprise, almost like the one I’d been imagining for weeks, crossed his face. Only it had sadness mixed in. “Angel, why didn’t you tell me?” he asked, with a frown and a tip of his head.
“I didn’t want you to feel bad,” I said. “Plus, I thought we might be able to still go later.” I swallowed around the lump in my throat and added, “I’m sorry I won’t have any present for you on Monday.”
He sighed. “You know I don’t care about that.”
“The thought is what counts,” he said, and I knew, unlike a lot of people, he really meant it. “We’ll go when I’m well. It’ll give us both something to look forward to, alright?”
I gulped again and nodded, trying to make the best of it.
After a few seconds, he spoke once more, gentle. “What happened with the Met?”
I confessed everything, including Zain’s phone call after. “He told me how it made Seb feel like he was a burden to us just by being here, and I never, ever meant for that,” I said, looking at Seb, because it was most important that he knew. He was staring at the bedspread. I saw him swallow, but he said nothing. Quietly, I went on, “Zain sent him home, and I apologized for it last night. I’m still really sorry.”
Seb gave the tiniest nod. At least it was an acknowledgement.
“Leaving aside,” Quint began, and then broke off to cough into his elbow for several seconds.
“Veux tu un peu d’eau?” Seb asked.
I had no idea what that translated to, until Quint said, “Merci, I have some,” and picked up a glass of water from behind his tissue box on the nightstand. He sipped before starting again. “Leaving aside for the moment, Theodore, what you told me when I grew worried at Seb not coming home for dinner yesterday,” (I winced), “I’m not entirely clear on how this sequence of events led to you two arguing this morning.”
“It didn’t,” Seb said, before I could answer. He pulled his legs up in front of him and hugged his knees. “That was about you making Theo sleep on the couch. He said you’ve never done it before, and it was because I’m here. Why?”
Quint frowned and blinked a few times. “To avoid spreading the infection.”
“Do you think when Zain’s sick and being a huge baby, he makes me sleep on the couch?” Seb asked.
“I… truly hadn’t considered it,” Quint said.
Scowling, Seb said, “Of course not!”
“Watch your tone, young man,” said Quint. His eyebrow wanted to climb up his forehead, I could tell. “You can express yourself without snapping.”
Seb buried the lower half of his face in his knees as his gaze dropped to the blankets. Looking sideways at him, I saw he was biting his kneecap. When he let go, his eyes were bright with unshed tears. “I’m angry with you,” he said, tightly controlled. “What you’re doing is worse than Theo sending me to the Met. He only did it because you wouldn’t let him near you when I was around, to keep me from catching un stupide cold. You didn’t even ask if that was necessary. It isn’t. Call Zain if you don’t believe me.”
Quint looked struck. He opened his mouth, and then shut it again and pressed his lips together. “I believe you,” he said, softly. He glanced at me an instant, and I saw the pain there before he took a deep breath and patted the blankets on the opposite side of his lap from Jagger. “Come here, mon chaton.”
Seb stared like he didn’t quite believe it, all his anger gone. Slowly, he unfolded himself and crawled up the bed, and Quint pulled him closer the moment he was within arm’s reach.
“I’m sorry,” Quint said, hugging him. “You’re absolutely right. I should have asked. Can you forgive me?”
I couldn’t make out Seb’s reply. His voice was muffled by Quint’s shoulder. But Quint smiled.
“Yes, Theo will be allowed to sleep in here with me tonight, I promise.” Extending a hand to me, he added, “Angel, come here, please.”
I didn’t need telling twice. Jagger had to scramble out of my way as I practically fell into Quint’s lap. This time, I was close enough to hear Seb. He said, “I forgive you.”
“Thank you,” said Quint. “Theo, I’m sorry to you as well. Do you forgi–?”
“Yes,” I said. “As long as you let me take care of you.”
“I will,” Quint said, and squeezed us both tighter. “I’m so proud of you, mon chaton. Zain will be as well. You came to me immediately when I upset you, and tried to tell me.”
“Hey, yeah!” I lifted my head up to look at Seb. “It was right after I clued you into what he was doing. You didn’t wait until you were really pissed off.” His march down the hallway had alarmed me, sure, but it was nowhere near what I saw him do before he revoked his consent for Quint to Top him. I thought about it some more and winced. “Sorry I tried to stop you.”
“You had every right to!” Seb protested. “I came in and made a huge scene when your husband was sick and resting in bed!”
“You call that a scene?” I asked. Barely qualified, if you went by the theatrical productions I’ve staged.
“Yes, I– Ow!”
I don’t know why he looked so shocked. Wasn’t expecting Quint to be at his full strength, maybe?
“Enough,” Quint said, deep voice rumbling through his chest, which my hand was still resting on. “You did exactly what you were supposed to do, Sébastien. Understood?”
Seb flushed and dropped his gaze. “Oui, monsieur.”
“Yeah, it was the right thing.” I grinned at Quint. “Next time, I’m not gonna come running to your defense.”
“Good,” he said. “Now, have either of you eaten breakfast?”
We shook our heads. Then Seb said, “I can make some for all of us before I go to the studio.”
“Studio?” Quint asked.
Seb shifted and glanced at me. “There’s a project I’m working on.”
Quint’s birthday gift, I remembered. At least he’d get one from someone.
Quint was frowning, though. “If this is another way for you to remove yourself from the apartment because you think you’re inconveniencing us–”
“It’s not,” I said. “He told me about this days ago, and I wouldn’t let him do that again.”
Quint nodded, satisfied, and said to Seb, “Alright, but I want you back for lunch no later than one.”
“Oui, monsieur. What would you like for breakfast?”
“An omelette, please.”
“Same for me,” I said.
Seb slid off the bed and padded out, with Jagger going behind him. The moment he was in the hallway, Quint started to cough into his elbow. I watched with concern until he stopped and took a deep breath. Then I rolled over to stand up, but he caught me around the shoulders.
“Just a moment,” he said, slightly hoarse. “I believe we still have something to discuss.”
Stomach jerking, I looked up at him through my eyelashes. “You mean… Seb and the Met?”
“Mm-hm,” Quint said.
Yeah, I really didn’t expect to get away with that. I swallowed. “Okay, but can we do it after he leaves? I just don’t want him hearing and feeling guilty. You know he’ll figure out a way to say it was his fault.”
Quint looked confused. “Hearing? I was planning to wash your mouth out. The punishment is for lying to me about why he was there.”
“But…” I trailed off, appalled at myself. Christ, was I really thinking about asking for more punishment? I’ve been living with Seb too long!
Quint’s mouth opened and closed again. Thoughtfully, he asked, “You assumed you’d also be punished for sending him there?”
I nodded in a little jerk.
He shook his head. “I trust that Zain took care of that sufficiently when he spoke with you. If he’d felt something more should be done, he would’ve followed up with me already.”
Don’t argue, Theo, I thought. When do you ever get off scot-free?
Then, of course, I ignored my own advice.
“Zain’s used to Seb,” I said, almost involuntarily. “For him, maybe getting a little lecture over the phone would’ve been enough, but…” I squirmed, my rear end clenching. I’m sure if it could’ve, it would’ve disowned the rest of me, detached itself, and gone on the lamb.
After a few seconds of silence, Quint’s lips quirked up. “Alright, I won’t make you ask.”
I sighed in relief. I think even if I’d had a kitten plushie to hand him like Seb does, it would’ve been too hard.
Patting my shoulder, Quint added, “As soon as Seb leaves, we’ll take care of it.”
Insane, that’s what I was.
I’m no stranger to eating with the sword of Damocles hanging over my head. Quint doesn’t like meals to be delayed, and I’m not particularly fond of sitting on our hard chairs right after a spanking, either, so I often find myself choking down food beforehand. It’s also not uncommon for there to be people around with no idea I’m about to be punished (although Zeggy usually guesses). I don’t think I’ve ever been so focused on acting like everything was normal, though.
I played with Jagger and joked around with Seb like I didn’t have a care in the world. Quint saw through it, of course, but he only looked gently amused. It fooled Seb. He left with his case of art supplies and his messenger bag slung over one shoulder.
The moment he was gone, Quint headed to the couch. He sank into the middle cushion with a soft groan, and then spotted Jagger under the dining table. Sighing, he went to stand again.
“I got him,” I said. “Jags.” I snapped my fingers, and the dog jumped up and followed me to Seb’s room, where I shut him in.
“Thank you, angel,” Quint said as I came back into the living room. His eyes were heavy with exhaustion.
“If this is too much right now, you can go back to sleep?” I suggested, frowning down at him over the back of the couch. Not that I wanted to delay any longer, I swear. I just felt guilty for making him do it when he clearly felt terrible.
But he held up his hand immediately and said, “No, I’m perfectly capable. Come here, young man.” And he patted his thigh.
My heart thudded in my chest. “You know, maybe Zain talking to me was enough,” I said.
Yeah, I didn’t really expect that to work either. I went around the end of the couch and approached him from the right. He hooked his thumbs into my pajama bottoms as I came in reach and stripped them down to my knees. I wasn’t wearing underwear, so then there was nothing else to do but for me to bend forward and settle across his lap. As I did, his hand came to rest on my bare butt. Even more than cool air hitting my cheeks, that always makes me hyper-aware that I’m about to get a spanking.
“To be clear,” he said, “wanting to spend time alone with me is not the issue here. I understand you were disappointed about missing the trip, and my own behavior didn’t help matters. However, that does not mean you can make Seb feel unwelcome. This is his home.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. I was already choking up and he hadn’t started yet.
He didn’t wait any longer. As he went on with the lecture, his palm lifted and cracked down on the spot where it had been, and then switched to the other side and back, and I had to listen to his words over my own quiet gasps. “I know you felt ashamed when you did it. You would not have hid it from me if you hadn’t, and if you weren’t aware that I would disapprove. Is lying to me ever acceptable, young man?”
“No, sir,” I said, through clenched teeth.
Quint paused to sneeze, shaking me a little with the movement, before he cleared his throat and said, “I’m proud of you, angel, for arguing in favor of this punishment.”
Oh, that was it. Nothing makes me more emotional than Quint saying he’s proud of me. I sobbed into the throw pillows. His non-spanking hand rubbed my back as he continued laying it on until I was twisting and wiggling against my will, and then I felt four harder swats, two to each of my sit-spots, and knew it was over.
He called Zain almost as soon as I stopped crying, and explained what had happened that morning with Seb. I couldn’t hear Zain’s side of it, but I could tell Quint had been right about him being pleased.
“So, it seems our hard work encouraging him to let his inner Brat loose around me is paying off,” Quint said. “I do feel I owe you an apology as well, however. It didn’t have to come to that. I should’ve consulted you when I first came down with this cold. How do you handle being ill around him?”
Then he just made listening hums for several minutes. I was surprised, though, when the next thing he said was, “Of course. He’s right here,” and handed the phone to me.
“Hey, squirt,” Zain said after I’d said hello. “Just wanted to ask you a favor.”
“It seems like Quint’s got a bit of a blind spot when it comes to the possibility of Seb being sick,” he said. “If you see it happening again, could you either point it out to him or let me know? Whichever you’re comfortable with. And yeah, he’s aware I’m asking you to do this.”
I turned to look at Quint. He nodded and smiled reassuringly, so I said, “Sure. Want me to swat him for you, too?”
Zain laughed while Quint narrowed his eyes and shook his head at me, then confiscated the phone.
“The answer to that question is no,” he said, to Zain and me both. “Do not even attempt it.”
Awhile later, Quint was dozing on the couch while I cuddled in the armchair with Jagger and watched TV, and Seb came in.
“You’re early,” I said, getting up to meet him so I could keep my voice low and not wake Quint. “Did you finish?”
He shook his head. He was bent over to pet Jagger, who had followed me, but he didn’t make a move to take his sandals off. And his tone was laced with excitement as he said, “Zain called. I took a walk while I talked to him and I wound up at Strand, looking for coloring books. You have to come back with me.”
I frowned. Strand is this huge, famous independent bookstore up on Broadway and Twelfth. They claim to have eighteen miles of books, all snaking through the building on shelves like a maze. I’m not much of a reader, but I’ve been in there a few times with Quint. “Why?” I asked.
Seb peered around me at Quint on the couch and whispered, “I found your present. Or I think so, anyway.”
“A book?” I asked, matching his volume. “That’s… kinda a step down from a weekend getaway, isn’t it?” Not that I didn’t appreciate the thought, but–
“It’s not just any book,” he said. “Come see.”
He seemed so convinced, I wavered and glanced at the clock. We had enough time before lunch, if we hurried. Grabbing the notepad stuck to the fridge, I ripped off a sheet and wrote Be back soon in case Quint woke up while we were gone. I left it on the kitchen counter.
“There,” Seb said, pointing.
He’d refused to tell me what was so special about this book for the entire walk to Strand and the climb up to the third floor. Now we were standing in front of a glass case full of very old hardcovers. I saw the one he meant immediately. It had a blue cloth cover with gold gilt font for the title and author.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by A. Conan Doyle.
A small paper label next to it said First Edition, Very good condition. It didn’t give a price.
I took a deep breath. “Quint would love that. He really, really would.” I looked around for a sales clerk. There was one behind the counter at the back of the room. “Excuse me,” I said, walking toward her. “How much for that first edition Sherlock Holmes?”
She smiled. “Beautiful, isn’t it? I can take it out and show it to you, if you’d like?”
“How much?” I asked again, trying desperately hard not to get my hopes up. If you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it.
The number she gave wasn’t astronomical, though, to my great surprise. Okay, it was about twice what I was spending on the DC trip, but I could manage it. Quint has lavished way more on me over the years.
“I’ll take it,” I said. “Can you gift wrap?”
The clerk nodded.
As she went to retrieve the book, I gave Seb the biggest hug ever. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. You saved his fiftieth birthday.”
“I’m just glad I decided to come up here and saw it,” he said, smiling wide.
I’m happy to report that Quint cried when I gave it to him. He was already on the edge from opening Seb’s gift (which was a portrait of the two of them sitting on a park bench together like they had, Seb explained to me, when Quint talked him down from the tree last year just after they met), but the book pushed him over. He carefully set it down and wiped his eyes before he dripped tears on it.
“Angel, it’s perfect,” he said. “I’m going to be reminded whenever I look at it of the times we’ve spent reading these stories to each other.”
“Well, yeah, that was kind of the point,” I said, grinning in delight. “Oh, and we’re still going to DC together, too.”
He leaned over and kissed me on the lips for the first time since he’d gotten sick. It was the best.
I don’t know how I’m going to top it next year.
Keep scrolling for some character questions in the comments! They were sent to me as a comment on a chapter of Back to School an embarrassingly long time ago, and I forgot I’d answered them until I found them saved while cleaning my Google Drive. Sorry about that, Wintergreen!