Note: Parts of this story take place when Seb and Zain are underage (14 and 15). It also mentions them having sex as teenagers, though it doesn’t show it.
Life follows a predictable schedule made up of morning yoga and meditation, attending classes, doing homework in studios or at the apartment, cooking dinner when it’s my turn and washing up after when it’s not, Skyping with Zain for as long as he can, spending evenings with Quint and Theo, and then coloring either a mandala or a page of one of my new books before bed.
Weekends have their own routine. Saturdays are relaxed, lazy spans with perhaps a trip to Zeggy and Ike’s, or to the park, to break up the afternoon. Sunday mornings, Quint makes three lists of cleaning tasks and we each tackle one. Theo grumbles, but it never takes long to finish, and then we have the rest of the day free to do whatever.
Sometimes Quint has to work odd hours at the hospital or Theo has a gig that keeps him out late. Overall, though, it’s steady and lulling as the tide.
We’re halfway through another Saturday now, the week after my birthday, and I ask Quint if I can help with lunch. He gives me a cucumber. “Slice that up for the salad, please?”
At his keyboard, Theo groans. “You said we were having sandwiches!” he says, while I get out a cutting board and knife.
“We are,” Quint tells him. “With salad as a side, and yes, you will eat it, young man.”
Theo’s about to reply when someone knocks on the front door, and his expression shifts weirdly as he looks from Quint to me and back.
“Ah, that’ll be the super,” Quint says. “Would you mind answering, mon chaton? My hands are a bit full.”
I frown. Neither of them had mentioned the super coming. I am the closest, though, and Quint’s in the middle of putting mayo on slices of bread, so I say, “Okay.” Setting down the knife, I wipe my hands absently on my jeans as I cross the kitchen and open the door.
Zain stands there, grinning.
A noise—almost a squeak—comes from somewhere as I fling myself at him. He catches me easily and plows into the apartment so we aren’t wrapped around each other in the hall. I’m dimly aware of him shutting the door, Quint and Theo saying hello, and Jagger coming to sniff at Zain’s feet, but most of my attention is on trying not to sob too much. Turning my face into his t-shirt collar, I bite down on it hard for several seconds.
“You okay, habibi?” he asks, one hand cupping the back of my neck, the other at my waist.
I nod, and then fear hits me. “Wait,” I say, jerking my head up. “Did you make another unauthorized trip, because if you did–”
“All completely above-board, I swear,” he interrupts. “Battalion Officer granted us a class-up weekend, meaning I temporarily have youngster privileges instead of being a plebe, and then I got a special chit to go outside the radius, JJ gave me a ride on the way to seeing some friends of his, and here I am.” He smiles sunnily before wiping away a tear on my cheekbone with his thumb. “It’s only for about twenty-four hours, though, babe. I wish I could stay longer.”
“I don’t care,” I say. I probably will when it’s time for him to leave, but right now he’s here, and that’s all that matters.
Behind me, Theo asks, “Did you say another unauthorized trip?”
It takes me a second to realize. “Oh,” I say, flushing as I look over my shoulder. The other Brat’s leaning against the peninsula now. “Yeah, he came up before, the day I climbed the tree in the park. I asked Quint to keep it a secret– Wait. You both knew he was coming today, didn’t you?”
Theo grins and nods while Quint says, “Only since this morning,” consolingly.
My lips part on a little huff. “And none of you told me!”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Zain asks, and I know instantly that it was his idea. I smack his shoulder. At our feet, Jagger barks. “Good dog!” says Zain, bending to offer the back of his hand to be sniffed. “Gonna defend me, boy?”
“You never told me about this other trip,” Theo puts in, “so that makes us even.” He thinks a moment before adding, “If you’d mentioned that before, I probably wouldn’t’ve had such a hard time seeing him as a Top, actually.”
Zain laughs as he straightens up from petting the dog. “And where would be the fun in that?” he asks again. Then I see him spot the food on the counter. “Oh, good, I didn’t miss lunch! I’m starving.”
“I’m making plenty for you, as well,” Quint says. “It’ll be ready in a few minutes, if you’d like to put your things in Seb’s room and wash up.”
A backpack is slung over one of his shoulders. I reach to take it off him, but he grabs my hand and pulls me to the bedroom instead, where he drops the bag on the floor, turns, and claims my mouth in a deep, searing kiss, like a brand on my lips. I moan.
When I can think again—which takes several seconds after he lets go—I redden. “Z, not here!”
He rolls his eyes. “Babe, I did not come all this way not to give you a proper greeting. Now relax. Quint knows we’re both red-blooded American boys.” Then he tugs me back out before I can argue, to the bathroom to wash his hands and steal another, gentler kiss, and to the dining table where the other couple are waiting. I hope my blush is faded as we sit down. My head feels like it hasn’t stopped spinning since I opened the door.
After we eat, Zain wants to see Theo and Jagger do one of their routines, and Theo says, “I was gonna head down to the park with him to busk, since it’s supposed to have warmed up a little. You can come watch if you want.”
“Can we, babe?”
I nod. I’ve wanted him to see them perform for ages. He’ll love it.
So the four of us head out, with Jagger on his leash by Theo’s side, to walk the few blocks north to Washington Square. We find his usual performance space by the monument unoccupied, and Zain, Quint, and I sit down on a nearby bench while he sets up. For their opening act, he picks the first song I saw him perform way back in August. Zain laughs as Jagger prances and hops with the music. When it’s over, they both bow towards us, and we applaud as they come closer.
“Thanks,” Theo says, grinning. “Not sure how much of a crowd I’ll be able to draw today, though. It’s still pretty chilly. I might have you guys take Jag back to the apartment and head for a subway platform, where people’ll be more inclined to linger and donate.”
I see the problem. The park is less crowded than usual, and passersby weren’t doing anything more than slowing down for a few seconds, where normally he has a large audience by the end of the routine.
“I could help draw them in,” Zain says. “If you don’t mind?”
“How?” Theo asks, puzzled.
“That was my very first job,” replies Zain. “At the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. I ran the Hi-Striker game, and I had to get people to stop and play. Y’know, the whole ‘step right up, step right up’ thing?”
Theo tilts his head in consideration, and then shrugs. “Sure, might as well give it a shot.”
The two of them go back over to the monument, with Jagger following, and confer for a few seconds. Next to me, Quint moves closer and asks, “Didn’t you mention once that the boardwalk is where you met him?”
I nod. “My sister Keegan got me a summer job there when I was fourteen, after she worked for them awhile. I made sno-cones at a booth in the middle of all the carnival games. His was set up kitty-corner from me.”
Theo looks like he’s getting ready to start playing again, while Zain climbs up onto the base of the monument, spreads his arms wide, and projects his voice loudly. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a special treat for you this afternoon. Right this way–”
“–right this way, test your strength and swing the hammer. Ring the bell, get a prize. Impress your friends, your kids, your date, and yourself. Hey, you’ve got some muscle on you, sir. Care to try?”
Seb frowned, leaning over the counter of the booth to see who was using a megaphone so early in the morning. The park hadn’t even opened yet, and once it did, most people would head for the rides first, while there were no lines. Or that’s what his new boss had told him, anyway, when she assured him he could train on the job.
The voice came from the red metal pen surrounding the Hi-Striker game on the beach side of the boardwalk. It sounded young. Definitely didn’t belong to the burly man in an employee uniform who had stopped outside the pen to say, “I work here, kid.”
“Oh, I know,” said the voice, unamplified. “Just warming up, sir. Would you like to try?”
The man shook his head and walked off, revealing… the most attractive boy Seb had ever seen in his life.
His mouth went dry. A tingling started at the top of his head and swept downward to the tips of his fingers and toes like he’d stepped into a waterfall, while at the same instant, his heart became a bird, beating its wings hard against his ribcage as it tried to fly right out of his chest. Breathing was no longer an involuntary function; he’d forgotten how to do it. Forgotten how to do anything except stand upright as he stared.
The boy was swinging the megaphone from a strap around his wrist and resting the sledgehammer used for the game over his other shoulder. He paced back and forth in the pen with a bounce in his step, like he had trouble containing his energy, and then put one foot up on the bottom rail and looked down the boardwalk, giving a perfect profile view of his straight nose and sharply-hewed jaw. The wind blew through the short ringlets of dark hair hanging over his forehead, sending them dancing against the blue backdrop of the ocean.
Seb wanted to paint him so badly he could cry.
“Hey, are you paying attention?”
He blinked and tore his gaze away from the boy to see Mary, his boss, frowning at him. “Huh?”
“I’m trying to show you how to work the register,” she said. “Daydream on your own time.”
Reddening, he said, “I… sorry, I’ll pay attention this time, I promise.”
She sighed and started the demonstration over.
Despite his promise, he couldn’t help sneaking peeks at the Hi-Striker all morning, and each one left him dizzy. With how often she had to repeat steps of his training, he was fairly sure Mary had the impression he was a bit slow. He definitely didn’t live up to Keegan’s reputation as a genius.
Still, he handled the first customers okay, even forcing himself to ask them what they’d like rather than just waiting for them to speak. By noon, Mary trusted him alone for a few minutes while she went out back of the booth to smoke a cigarette during a lull. Seb fiddled with the collar of his uniform as he watched the boy surreptitiously.
The game had a steady flow of customers, drawn in by his chatter over the megaphone. Each one pounded the hammer on the target three times, making the electronic “ball”—which was really just a circle of lights on a tower covered in LEDs—soar towards the Sky Glider chairlift ride overhead. The boy encouraged them all, passing out prizes and huge, beaming grins.
Seb was squinting, trying to determine the color of his eyes, when the boy hung a sign on the outside of the pen, ushered his last customer through the gate ahead of him, and gave the crowd a small bow.
“I’m taking my break now, folks,” he said. “Please enjoy all of our other fine attractions. Come see me in half an hour.”
A few people groaned in disappointment, but parted to let him through. He promised they would be first in line when he opened again, and then turned and walked right towards the sno-cone stand.
Panicked, Seb did what came naturally: He dived to the floor and hid.
“Um, hello?” asked the boy’s voice a few seconds later. “Anyone here?”
Pushing his back against the shelves under the counter, Seb pulled his knees up to his chest, wrapped his arms around them, and thought, No, no one is here, leave, go somewhere else, please! He’d never wished harder for the power of invisibility.
Mary heard this time. She looked through the rear doorway with her half-burnt cigarette between her lips, giving Seb a ‘what the hell are you doing?’ look and a hand motion that clearly meant he should stand and help the customer. He gestured frantically, trying to convey ‘no, pretend I’m not here!’
Too late. A curly-haired shadow fell over him and the floor of the booth. With a pounding heart, Seb tipped his head back to look right into the boy’s eyes. They were brown.
“Mon chaton? Are you alright?”
“Hmm?” I look from Quint to Zain and Theo, who are both standing in front of me wearing slightly concerned expressions.
“I said that people still aren’t biting much,” Theo says, “and Zain asked if you wanted to head back to the apartment. About ten seconds ago.”
“Oh,” I say. “Sorry, I was thinking about the boardwalk, Z. Um, the day we met. Yeah, we can go if you guys want.”
As Quint and I get up, Theo says, “Must’ve been a great day. How did it happen?”
“Oh, oh!” says Zain. “You haven’t told them this story, babe? Can I tell them? Pretty please?”
I sigh. He always makes me sound like some doe-eyed, ridiculously adorable, ethereal creature when he tells it, instead of an awkward fourteen-year-old. If I try, though, he’ll keep interrupting me, so I nod as we head out of the park.
“Okay, so I’d just moved to Santa Cruz…”
Zain loved his new job. He got to be out in the sunshine by the beach, playing around with a giant hammer and a megaphone all day. What could be better? If he was lucky, he’d even meet a few of the kids who’d attend school with him come fall, so he wouldn’t be the new guy with no friends. Plus, he got free admission to the attractions on his days off and his choice of food stands. He’d been looking forward to pizza for lunch all morning, but first, a sno-cone sounded like the perfect way to cool down a little.
When he got to the stand, though, it seemed to be empty. He frowned. There had been people in it earlier, hadn’t there? He was sure he’d seen customers coming and going. “Um, hello?” he asked. “Anyone here? …Hello?”
A woman’s face came into view in the doorway at the back, though she wasn’t looking at him. Zain watched her jab a finger at the floor of the booth, then upward. Was someone there? He leaned forward and saw nothing. Gripping the far side of the counter with both hands, he lifted himself off his toes so he could peer straight down.
A boy was curled into a ball right below him. As Zain watched, he uncurled just enough to meet his gaze, like a cornered animal with wide, green eyes and a constellation of freckles across his skin.
Zain blinked a few times. An overwhelming need to comfort filled him. He had no idea where the fear he saw was coming from, though, so he tried to project friendly-and-non-threatening with a smile and a tilt of his chin. “Hi there! Can I get a small lemon cone, please?”
The boy got even cuter when he blushed. Biting his lip, he rose to his feet reluctantly and turned to the sno-cone machine without saying a thing.
He was older than he’d looked at first. When Zain lowered his toes to the ground and stood upright, their heights were almost equal, though he had perhaps an inch more than the boy. Did that mean they’d be in the same grade? Would they attend the same high school? He hoped so.
Back in Los Angeles, he’d just started to hit on guys he was interested in. One of them gave him his very first kiss in January. The second happened weeks before the move. But he’d known by then that he was leaving at the end of the school year, and Devon wasn’t out to his parents yet, either, so they kept it to a few casual make-out sessions. The warmth in him as he watched this boy squirt lemon syrup over his sno-cone did not feel at all casual. It left him a bit tongue-tied, actually—a completely unfamiliar sensation.
Neither of them spoke until Zain took the finished cone from his hand, and the boy almost let go too soon, like he was afraid to touch him. Not straight, then? Zain set his payment down and smiled again. “I’m Zain, by the way. I work the Hi-Striker, so we’ll be neighbors all summer. Might as well get to know each other. I just moved from LA. What’s your name?”
Those green eyes went huge once more, between long, dark lashes, like Bambi. Zain was glad the counter between them prevented him from giving into the urge to hug. He suspected that wouldn’t go over well.
His voice was quiet, but distinct and steady. Zain held his gaze and ran his tongue across the dome of lemon-flavored ice. The blush went impossibly deeper. Definitely not straight. Grinning, he said, “You make a killer sno-cone, Seb. In the words of our governor, ‘Ah’ll be bach.’ And you can be Beethoven, I guess.”
Seb blinked, and then giggled. The sound of it made Zain feel like he was floating on air as he sauntered away.
“That’s the most adorable first-meeting story I’ve ever heard,” Theo says, stepping out of the elevator. “What happened the next day?”
“Not much,” says Zain. “I continued to be my charming self, and Seb continued to be shy as hell and hardly said two words to me, however hard I tried. That went on for… I wanna say at least a couple of weeks.” He pauses while Quint opens the front door of the apartment and we file through. Inside, he adds, “Then we had our first breakthrough, thanks to his sister, Keegan.”
“Wait, what?” I ask, in the middle of untying my shoe. “That wasn’t until August.”
“No, not that–” He stops and frowns down at me with sudden realization. “I never told you, did I?”
Suspicion hits. “Told me what?”
He smiles a little. “It was a few weeks later, like I said. One day, I was just minding my own business, getting a sno-cone…”
Zain glanced from his watch to the line of customers ahead of him and wiggled in impatience. They were all taking so long to decide on flavors and sizes, no matter how much Seb and Mary tried to hurry them up. The mother with two kids who was at the window now asked Seb to hold her cone while she dug through her purse for money. Mary, meanwhile, gave a grape cone to a tall guy and a cherry one to the redheaded girl behind him, clearing her side of the line. “I can help who’s next,” she said, leaning over the counter on her hands.
By then, the mother had finally paid, collected her kids, and gone, leaving only two people between Zain and Seb. He tapped the shoulder of the woman in front of him and gestured to Mary. “You can go, if you’d like. I’ll wait here.”
“Thanks!” she said, moving over. Zain stepped forward into her place happily. He’d be able to talk to Seb before his break ended after all.
He didn’t see the redhead with the cherry sno-cone watching him from a few feet off, her eyes narrowed.
As he got to the window, Zain grinned. “Hey, Seb! What did the lemon say to the lime?”
The other boy was already grabbing a paper cone to pack with ice. He paused, looking over in confusion. “Huh?”
“Sour you doing?”
Seb snorted and bit his lower lip. “Do you have a book called ‘One Thousand Awful Jokes’ or something?”
“My jokes are hilarious!” Zain said in mock-outrage. He was thrilled to have gotten an actual, full sentence in response. “Wanna hear one more? What did the lime say to the lemon?”
“I don’t know,” said Seb as he squirted lemon syrup over the ice and held it out.
“You’re so a’peeling.”
Seb shook his head. “Awful.” But the corners of his lips twitched, and he let Zain’s fingers brush against his when Zain took the cone, before he flushed and pulled away.
“Liar,” Zain said, trying to ignore the tingling in his hand. “You love them, I can tell.” Digging in his pocket, he came out with exact change to pay and slid it across the counter. “I’ve gotta go, my break’s over.”
Neither of them moved for a moment. Should he press his luck? Zain wondered. Maybe ask him out? Or wait for Seb to do it? He didn’t want to scare him off by going too fast. Yeah, what he was doing now was enough to make his interest clear, he decided. Better to let the shyer boy take the first step.
In the booth, Mary said, “Kid, if you’re looking for the Hi-Striker, it’s over that way.”
“Thanks,” Zain told her, and walked off as she shook her head fondly at Seb.
A couple of hours later, Zain hung his I’ll be right back! sign on the pen. He needed a quick restroom break.
But as he got within a yard of the closest one, a teenage girl with a cloud of curly red hair stepped directly in front of him. “Hello,” she said.
Zain blinked. “Hi?”
She crossed her arms over her chest, lifted her chin, and narrowed her eyes at him.
After several seconds of silence, Zain asked, “Um… do I know you?”
“No,” she said, measuredly, “but you appeared to know my brother at the sno-cone stand.”
He frowned and studied her closer. “You’re Seb’s sister? You look nothing like him!”
“I know,” she said. “He and Quinn look like Mom; Dax and I look like Dad. I actually did Punnett squares on our parents for every trait I could think of once, just to calculate the exact odds of that happening, and… that is not the point.” She scowled as though her tangent had been his fault. “The point is, he’s my little baby brother, and you have a kinda swaggery sort of attitude about you which I’m not sure I like, and unless you change my mind, you won’t be getting anywhere near him, boy-o.”
“Um. ‘Kay, not that I don’t understand your protectiveness, being a big brother myself,” Zain said, “but… isn’t that at least partly Seb’s decision?”
She narrowed her eyes even more.
“I guess not,” he said. “Look… sorry, what’s your name?”
“Keegan Mab Crews McKenna,” she pronounced distinctly, like it was a threat. “Keegan meaning ‘little fiery one’ and Mab after the Queen of Fae.”
“Suits you,” he said, nodding. “Right. Keegan. I’m new in town. I wanna make friends.” He shrugged. “Seb seems like he probably doesn’t have many friends. Correct me if I’m mistaken.”
For the first time, her fierceness relaxed a little, and she glanced towards the sno-cone stand with a touch of something like concern in her eyes.
“Also,” he added, “I have never felt less swaggery than when I’m around your brother, so…”
“You’re doing it all wrong, then,” she said, snapping her gaze back to him. “Making friends with him, I mean. He’ll never open up if the only time you speak to him is when you’re ordering a sno-cone. You have to be more direct. Ask him to hang out. Just remember–” she tapped her cheek under her right eye with an index finger “–I’m watching you.”
“I don’t think I could ever forget,” he said, solemnly.
“You asked me to have lunch with you because Keegan told you to?”
Zain grins at me. He’s pulled me into his lap in the armchair and is silently refusing to let go. “This shouldn’t be a huge surprise to you, babe. You know I love your family, but man do they meddle. Have you guys talked to his siblings?” he asks Quint and Theo, who are sitting on the couch.
Quint shakes his head. “We spoke with Maeve a few times last month. She mentioned his father was at a meditation center?” Dad and she take turns to do weeks-long silent retreats every year.
“Oh, right,” says Zain. “Well, they’re bananas, the lot of ‘em.”
“And I’m very glad they are,” he goes on, ignoring my admonishment, “or who knows how long this would’ve taken?”
“So then you had your first date?” Theo asks.
“No,” I say. “At least, I didn’t think of it as a date until right this minute.”
Zain had been cool and confident and friendly and funny and everything I wasn’t. To be asked on a date by him was so far outside the realm of possibility, it didn’t even cross my mind, except perhaps in half-forgotten dreams.
Seb was feeding ice into the sno-cone machine the next morning, getting ready for the park to open, when he heard Zain’s voice through the megaphone, like usual. Only this time it said, “Hey, Seb! C’mere a minute.”
He dropped an ice cube on the floor as his head whipped around. The other boy was inside the pen of the Hi-Striker, draped over the red metal railing and beaming in his direction.
“Well, go on,” Mary said, steering him out of the way so she could get to the machine. “Hurry up, we don’t have all morning.”
Yeah, he’d better go, before Zain attracted the attention of the whole park. Their area was still deserted, thankfully. Stepping out of the booth, he made his way over with a frown. “What are you doing?”
“Needed to talk to you alone,” Zain said, smiling easily. “I was wondering when your lunch break is scheduled.”
“Um, whenever,” he said, not wanting to explain how his parents had told the park about his diabetes when he got hired, and as a result, Mary was flexible on his lunchtime.
“Sweet. Wanna go with me at one? I usually get pizza and a soda, but we can pick somewhere else if you’d rather. I just wanted to hang out.”
It took Seb a moment to remember how English worked. But even as he stuttered, “Uh, y-yeah, that’d be, um, good,” he thought it was a simple invitation of friendship.
They met midway between the sno-cone stand and Hi-Striker just after one, Seb with his bag slung over his shoulder and Zain tucking his hands into his pockets. “So, pizza?” the older boy asked. Seb nodded. “Alright, follow me.”
He did, admiring the way Zain seemed to easily cut through the crowd without pushing. Seb could just ride the wake and hardly feel anyone brush up against him. It made a nice change from the claustrophobic atmosphere he sometimes got in the park at this time of day.
They reached the pizza place by Logger’s Revenge quickly and joined the line to order. It was still in the middle of the lunch rush. Biting his lip, Seb craned to see the size of the pizza slices being served up ahead. He could get a rough estimate on carbs just by looking, but he’d need to find somewhere private to do his injection.
“I’m going to run to the bathroom,” he said, and Zain leaned closer to hear him over the background noise. His head was suddenly right there, beautifully-shaped. Seb’s fingers itched for a pencil. “I… uh… I’ll be right back.”
“Okay,” Zain said. “Wait, what if I get to the front before you’re back, though? What should I order you?”
“Um, one slice, plain, and ice water.”
“No soda?” Zain asked, frowning. “Isn’t it like a law that you have to have soda with pizza?”
“I like water,” said Seb. The diet soda conversation was not one he wanted to get into, either.
Zain shrugged. “Alright. If I’m not in line anymore, I’ll save us a table over there.”
Grateful that he hadn’t pressed, Seb said, “Okay, thanks. Be right back.”
The nearest bathroom was farther than he’d thought, though, and by the time he returned, not only had Zain ordered, he was halfway through his first slice. He looked up as Seb approached the table, smiled, swallowed down a mouthful of pepperoni and cheese, and said, “Sorry, I was hungry.”
“I don’t mind,” Seb told him, sitting down at the bench across, where his own plate waited. “Sorry I took so long.”
“Nah, it’s alright. So, what school do you go to? I think I’m going to Santa Cruz High come September, but I don’t know how many others there are.”
“I don’t, either,” Seb confessed. “I’m unschooled.”
As he’d expected, Zain looked confused. “What’s that?”
“It’s a kind of homeschooling,” he said, twisting the napkin Zain had gotten him between his fingers.
“There’s more than one kind of homeschooling?”
“Yeah, there’s all sorts. Unschooling is, um, unusual. There’s no curriculum or anything like that. You basically just follow your interests and learn things as you go.”
“Huh. So did you ever attend school?”
Seb shook his head. “Neither have any of my siblings. Our house is registered as a ‘school’ under California state law, and my parents are supposedly our teachers, but they always say they learn much more from us than they teach to us.”
“That’s neat,” Zain said. Seb exhaled with relief. He got negative reactions about his education sometimes. “I mean,” the other boy went on, “not that I’m not horribly disappointed you won’t be in classes with me.”
Blushing, Seb said, “Uh, sorry?”
Zain grinned. “You can make it up to me. First, though, you said ‘siblings.’ Exactly how many can I expect?”
Seb told him, and then asked about Zain’s own family, which transitioned into why they had moved, his father’s job, and his ethnicity. The pair of them were still deep in conversation when Zain happened to glance at his watch.
“Shit, we’re late!” he said, standing. “Look, Mickey’s big hand is past the seven. We should’ve been back almost ten minutes ago.”
Seb blinked. “You wear a Mickey Mouse watch?”
“Of course!” said Zain. “Mickey’s the best. C’mon, I’ll let Mary know it was my fault.”
When they dashed up to the sno-cone stand, though, she didn’t seem to mind.
“I still have that watch,” Zain says, “and Mickey is the best. But the lunch wasn’t precisely what I meant by our first breakthrough.”
“What was, then?” I ask.
“Remember later that day?”
Towards late afternoon, peak hours hit, and the crowd started to skew older and rowdier. Park security kept everything under control, but Zain was glad to hand over the Hi-Striker to a more experienced employee so he could go home.
He looked for Seb as he left. Mary shook her head. “You just missed him. Usually uses the main entrance.”
Hurrying to catch up, he dodged between people while keeping his eyes peeled for the other boy. Every skinny-framed guy with dark hair made him glance twice before realizing they didn’t have the same gait or set of their shoulders.
If he hadn’t been slowed down behind a group of college students, though, he would’ve walked right past Seb. He’d tucked himself into a corner by the building that housed the arcade, and his own posture didn’t look right. As Zain got closer, he realized that was because he wasn’t just standing by the wall. He was using it to support his weight.
“Hey,” he said, pushing through the flow of traffic dividing them. “What’s wrong?”
“I… I’m fine,” Seb replied, even as he closed his eyes. His face was pale and sweaty.
“Nope, I don’t think so.” Zain put a hand on the younger boy’s shoulder. “You look like you’re gonna hurl or something. Which is cool, if you are. I mean, it always makes me feel better to just give into it, but maybe we should get you to a bathroom or a– a trashcan.” He glanced around.
Shaking his head, eyes still shut, Seb said, “Just, um, need soda.”
Zain frowned. “Soda is delicious, but it’s not a miracle elixir. I think what you need is medicine.”
“It’s…” Seb seemed to make an effort to part his eyelids and meet Zain’s gaze. He looked afraid. “I have– it’s hypoglycemia. I need sugar.”
“Oh,” said Zain, blinking. “Okay, I’ll get you a soda, then. Will you be alright on your own for a few minutes, or should I–”
“I’m good. But hurry.”
Much as he hated leaving Seb alone, he didn’t want to waste time explaining the situation to a stranger. The nearest food stand was only yards away, still in eyesight, so he said, “Just stay here, okay?” and barely waited for a nod before bolting toward it.
The girl behind the counter started to ask, “Hey, what can I–?”
“Soda, please. Quickly.”
“Uh, what kind?” she asked, startled.
“Anything but diet.” He pulled out a five-dollar bill and slapped it on the counter as she passed him a can of root beer. “Thanks, see ya!”
“You overpaid!” she called after him as he dashed away.
He found Seb in the same spot, slumped even more. “Here,” he said, popping the tab of the can. It fizzed over his fingers a little. “Drink.”
Seb’s hand wrapped around his, pulling it to his mouth and gulping the soda like he was dying of thirst. He emptied the can in seconds, then let go to wipe his mouth. “Thanks,” he said, still sounding shaky.
“No problem,” Zain said. He watched him for a few moments. “Let’s sit down. You look like you’re gonna fall over.”
Seb didn’t argue. After lowering himself slowly to the pavement, he crossed his legs and put each foot on top of the opposite thigh. Zain sat beside him with his knees up and back resting against the wall.
“I’ll be fine in a few minutes,” said Seb. “You can go.”
“Nah, I’d rather hang out with you,” Zain replied, casually.
The younger boy rolled the empty soda can between his palms, his gaze fixed on it.
“So… hypoglycemia, huh?” Zain asked. “I didn’t cover that one when I was earning my first aid merit badge.”
That got a tiny sideways glance. “You’re a boy scout?”
“Yep. If you’d had heat stroke, I would’ve known exactly what to do.” Not that Seb had seemed clueless himself, he reflected. “Does this… happen to you often?”
He swallowed and nodded. “Yeah.”
Frowning, Zain asked, “Why?”
“Because I have… um, I have…”
His mouth moved like he kept talking, but Zain couldn’t hear anything. “Sorry, what?” he asked, leaning closer.
“T–type one diabetes.”
Seb looked more terrified than ever.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Zain said. He put his arm around the younger boy’s shoulders. “It’s not like it’s contagious, right? I don’t know much else about it, but I know that. And… something about some chemical called insulin?”
“It’s a hormone,” said Seb, a bit louder, as he kept rolling the can. “Your body needs it to use glucose from food, which is sugar, which your cells need for energy. Only my body doesn’t make it anymore, so I have to give myself injections of a synthetic kind a before I eat, and if I miscalculate or something else happens, like I exercise more than I planned for, my blood sugar goes too low. That’s hypoglycemia.”
Zain’s lips parted. He tried to imagine having to give yourself a shot in order to eat. It sounded so awful. And unfair. What did Seb ever do to deserve that? He had to swallow down on anger before saying, “Wow, that sucks.”
Seb shrugged. His shoulders felt delicate and fragile under the weight of Zain’s arm.
“So… what happened today to make it go low?”
“Not sure. I might’ve taken too much insulin before the pizza.”
Thinking back, Zain remembered him leaving to use the bathroom. Was that when he took it? There hadn’t been any sign of an injection, had there? Not that he’d know what to look for. That made him realize something else. “How come you don’t have a medical alert bracelet?” he asked. “Shouldn’t you wear one of those?”
Seb shifted away a fraction of an inch. “I’m fine. The park knows, and I can take care of myself.”
“Yeah, but… when I found you, you seemed like you were having trouble talking. What if it got worse and no one who knew was around?”
“You don’t have to worry about me,” Seb said, which wasn’t an answer at all, but he was standing up before Zain could press, saying, “I’m better now. I need to head home or they’ll send out a search party.”
The same was true for Zain. He got to his feet as well, still frowning. “Okay. Mind if I walk with you to the gate? I was leaving, too.”
Shrugging again, the younger boy said, “If you want.”
So they set off together.
“And that was the first time my palm itched,” Zain says.
I huff and blush at the same time. “It was not!”
“Was so,” he insists. “Maybe not in exactly that way, because I didn’t know swatting you would be an option, but I definitely had the same sort of feeling.”
Theo laughs. “Aw, you were a little baby Top without your full powers yet. What’d you do?”
“Went home, googled ‘diabetes,’ and started reading everything I could find,” Zain says. “Took me a while to accept it wasn’t the kind of problem I could solve.”
I shift to look at him fully. I never knew he’d started researching my disease that very night. “You didn’t make me feel like you were trying to solve me, though,” I say. “You never treated me any differently than before you knew, even when you asked about it.” It’s hard for me to convey how much that meant. I remember a conversation we had over lunch probably about a week later.
“When were you diagnosed?”
“When I was seven.”
“So you can remember not having it?”
“Yeah, but… It’s like remembering someone else’s life. It’s not me.”
“You’re not the diabetes, though.”
“I wouldn’t be who I am without it.”
“I’m glad, then. I mean, not that I’m glad, y’know, you have diabetes. But if that helped you become who you are… I like who you are.”
Looking back, I can’t believe I honestly thought he just wanted to be friends. We both must’ve been so completely obvious to everyone around us.
Theo interrupts my reflections, asking, “What was it Keegan did in August? Earlier, you thought he was talking about something else.”
“She invited him to a cookout at our house,” I say. “Without telling me.”
Zain says, “Or telling me that he didn’t know.”
Quint’s eyebrow goes up. For a moment, I imagine him meeting my siblings. Their interactions would be strange to watch, but I think they’d like each other.
“Didn’t you find it weird she was inviting you and not him?” Theo asks.
“She was listed as the host on Facebook, but I thought it was a family event and she was just taking care of the invites,” Zain explains. “I assumed he had asked her to add me to the guest list. Because I didn’t know her as well then, you see.”
He followed the redhead through the huge house out to the patio in back, where a crowd of people were gathered, holding glasses and chatting with each other. “You can grab a drink over there,” Keegan said, pointing to a table. “Sebby’s with Dad by the grill, I think.”
Saying hi to the other boy again seemed more important than lemonade, so he went in that direction. But when Seb saw him coming, he turned two shades paler. “Zain! Pourquoi tu es ici?”
“Uh… what?” he asked.
The man skewering vegetables next to him, with flame-red hair like Keegan’s, said, “He asked why you’re here. A good question for anyone to contemplate, though a better one might be are we here at all? Or are we a string of conditioned thoughts, feelings, phenomena?” He paused, and Zain blinked, hoping he didn’t expect an answer to that. Thankfully, after a moment he continued, “I’m Charlie, Seb’s father. I don’t believe he knew you were coming.”
“But… Keegan invited– she didn’t tell you?” Zain asked, though the answer was already obvious. The only question was why. Did Keegan really disapprove of him, and dropping him into this thorny situation was her way of throwing a rift into his and Seb’s friendship? “Uh, I can go, if you want.”
“No, it’s okay,” Seb said, quickly. “I’m glad you’re here. I was just surprised.”
He still felt bad. “I thought it was your idea. Why would she invite me on her own?”
“My oldest is a scientist,” Charlie said. “She sometimes forgets that her siblings are not experimental subjects. I’ll remind her of that when I see her.”
Seb looked even more distressed at his words. “Dad, no! She was only trying to help.”
“‘Irrigators channel waters; fletchers straighten arrows; carpenters shape wood; the wise master themselves,’” recited Charlie, and then casually added, “We need more potatoes. Would you get them, Sebby?”
His son sighed, nodded, and walked off. Zane followed, asking, “What did that mean?”
“Hmm?” Seb looked over his shoulder. “Oh, he was quoting the Buddha. He probably meant Keegan should master herself before other people?”
“…Okay.” Zain felt a bit like Alice, fallen down the rabbit hole. The Mad Hatter could be Seb’s dad. But he was good at assessing new situations and adapting to them, so he just asked, “Also, you, uh, speak French?”
Seb stopped so quickly the older boy almost bumped into him. “When did I speak French?”
“When you asked me why I was here?”
“Oh. I didn’t realize,” said Seb. A blush crept up his neck as he continued walking. “Um, yeah, I’m bilingual. So are my siblings.”
“That’s neat,” Zain said. “I’m pretty good at Arabic.”
They’d reached the house by then. Seb opened a glass door onto a small room separated from the kitchen by three pillars. A table stood in the center, with six chairs arranged around it. Two of them were occupied by a brunette girl with Seb’s freckled nose and a redheaded boy who could only be Dax, eating sandwiches.
“Hi!” the girl said as they entered. “I’m Quinn. You’re Zain, right? Wow, Sebby, il est trop mignon!”
Zain watched with interest as Seb’s flush deepened. He didn’t respond to whatever his sister had said, instead crossing the room and vanishing around the corner like he was on a deadline. Zain stayed behind with the other two. “Yeah, I’m Zain. What’d you just say?” he asked, frowning.
Quinn waved a hand dismissively. “Oh, nothing. So, have a seat. Tell us about yourself.”
Dax, still chewing on a huge bite of his sandwich, pulled out the chair at the head of the table next to him and patted it while giving Zain a friendly look. It seemed genuine. Zain sat down, saying, “Well, I moved here from LA at the beginning of June with my family, and–”
“What’s your family like?” Quinn interrupted.
“My dad’s a computer engineer, my mom’s a homemaker, and I’ve got a little sister and a little brother–”
“Do any of them know you’re gay?”
He blinked. He wasn’t surprised she knew, though he’d never told Seb in so many words, but her directness threw him off a little. Regaining his footing, he said, “No, not yet.”
“So you’re going to tell them soon?” she asked.
Dax finally swallowed his mouthful of food and said, “Quinn, mind your own business.”
She replied with something in French that included ‘Sebby’ and ended with, “then it is our business.”
“Oh, really?” her brother asked. “You think Kee would agree with that?”
Frowning, Quinn demanded, “Why is Keegan the judge?”
“‘Cause she’s queer and she’d tell you something about how your hetero privilege is showing,” said Dax. “Which it is.”
Quinn started to speak French again, but Zain was distracted by Seb reappearing through the window. How did he get outside without them seeing him go? Standing, Zain left the other two siblings to argue and went after him.
He’d already vanished among the guests on the patio, though. Zain spun in a circle looking. Charlie’s bright hair was visible over by the grill. Dodging through people, he found the older man cutting a potato into chunks. There were more, freshly-washed, in a colander on the table next to his cutting board. But Seb was nowhere.
“Hi again,” Zain said. “Did you see where Seb’s gone?”
Charlie started to spread the potato chunks on a sheet of aluminum foil. Without looking away from it, he replied, “If you don’t know where Seb is, search upwards.”
Was that another Buddha quote? Or a metaphor for something? Should he ask what it meant, or was he supposed to guess?
Before he could decide, Seb’s dad used the knife to point to a copse across the yard. “I usually start with the trees,” he said, and then he smiled at Zain.
The tree was one of Seb’s favorites. He’d climbed it since he was small, and every ripple of its bark was familiar to him. It gave a great view of the garden and the chickens roaming beyond it. Caught up in watching them, he didn’t see the other boy approach.
“Mind if I join you?”
He jumped, sending the leaves of the branch he sat on rustling.
“Easy,” Zain said, holding one hand up. His voice was soft and soothing, yet still loud enough to be heard from ten feet below. “Don’t want you to fall.”
Seb stared at him through the branches, flabbergasted. “How did you find me?”
“Your dad told me where to look.”
“But I left you with Quinn and Dax!” Not that he’d wanted to; he just needed to be higher, out of sight and alone. Even before Zain showed up, the cookout was starting to overwhelm.
Zain laughed. “Yeah, I noticed. Thanks for that, by the way.”
Frowning, Seb asked, “Why? What did they say to you?”
“Oh, Quinn wanted to know if I’m out to my family yet. I told her no. Then she wanted to know if I’ll be coming out soon.”
Seb groaned. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright,” said Zain. He looked down at a root poking through the soil by his foot, and then back up. “I have been thinking about it, actually. When did you tell your family? How did it go?”
“Um, I didn’t. They sort of just knew with me,” he said. “Keegan told us she’s bi when she was thirteen, though. Over dinner one night, she said, ‘I like more than boys,’ and Mom said, ‘As long as they treat you well,’ and that was basically it.”
Something akin to longing crossed the other boy’s face. When he spoke, though, he simply asked, “Can I come up?”
Hesitantly, Seb nodded.
He climbed the tree with ease, pulling himself up to a branch almost level with Seb. Then he stopped and leaned against the trunk, looking out towards the chickens. “So,” he said. “I kind of got the impression from your dad that you do this a lot?”
“Yeah. I like to think here. Or on the roof, or in the attic, sometimes.” What was he doing? He’d just given away his three most common hiding spots. Then again, his family knew about them too. It wasn’t like he’d told Zain about the hayloft in the barn or the little nook above the garage.
Turning his head, Zain studied him, his chin tilted a little. “It suits you,” he said. “I mean, you look at home here. You never look that way at the sno-cone stand. Come to think of it, you didn’t look very comfortable down there in the party either.”
“It’s all the people,” Seb admitted. “Most of them are my parents’ friends, and they want to ask me questions and stuff.”
Zain nodded, like climbing a tree to get away from conversation was what anyone might do. Then he grinned. “Wanna ditch them and go use our free ride privileges at the boardwalk?”
He didn’t know how they’d get there, but Zain found Keegan and said, “Since you lured me here under false pretenses and put Seb and I both in a really awkward position, I think it’s only fair if you give us a ride,” and she agreed, looking sheepish. Seb thought his dad had probably already talked to her as well.
She dropped them off by entrance five, the one that went under the tracks of the Giant Dipper. Screaming passengers zoomed overhead as they passed through the gate. Seb shuddered. When he realized Zain was headed right for the line to the roller coaster, he hung back.
“What’s wrong?” Zain asked, his step faltering.
“Nothing,” Seb said. “Just. Um, can we go on another ride?”
The older boy glanced between him and the white wood support structure of the coaster. “Oh. Okay, sure,” he said, easily. “What one do you want to do?”
Relieved, Seb suggested, “The Ferris wheel?”
So they made their way down to the far corner of the park and were soon sitting in a candy-apple red car. It carried them into the sky over the boardwalk and beach, stopping and starting at first, and then in a smooth glide. Up high, the sound of wind separated them from the other riders. It blew through Zain’s hair and sent his curls flying every which way. Seb caught himself staring only when the other boy asked, “What, do I have a leaf stuck in it from earlier?”
“Uh, no. Sorry.”
“Oh, that reminds me of a joke! What do you call a proton with big hair?”
Rolling his eyes, Seb said, “I don’t know, what?”
It was truly awful, yet he laughed so hard that the car rocked back and forth. Zain watched him, smiling happily.
The wheel stopped just then, as they neared the pinnacle. Seb gazed down at the white foam of waves breaking against the beach below and the bustle of activity along it and the boardwalk. He felt safe, up here above everything, and yet Zain was right next to him. Maybe it was possible to hide with another person?
They spent the rest of the ride in comfortable silence.
On the ground again a few minutes later, he studied the Giant Dipper in the distance as they walked. The coaster had always terrified him. He’d never ridden it. Dax tried to take him once, saying it would be good for him to face his fear, but as soon as his older brother’s back was turned, Seb ducked under the line markers and ran away. It took them hours to find him and the whole next day before Dax stopped hovering.
“Zain?” he asked. “I’ll go on the Giant Dipper if you want.”
The other boy slowed, looking at him carefully. “You’re sure? I don’t need to go on it today, you know. I can ride it whenever.”
“Yeah, but I– I wanna ride it with you,” Seb explained, hoping his face wasn’t as red as it felt.
Grinning, Zain said, “Alright, let’s go!” before he set off at a run. Seb laughed and dashed after him. When he caught up, Zain was waiting just outside the entrance to the ride. “You ready?”
Seb nodded and said, “I’m ready if you are.”
They went in together.
“And he screamed for the entire thing,” Zain puts in as I finish my half of the story.
My mouth drops open. “I did not!”
“Did so,” he says. “The hearing in my left ear has never truly been the same.”
“Oh, shut up.”
With a smile, Quint asks, “Was that the day you became official, then?”
“No,” Zain says, sobering and shifting beneath me. “That didn’t happen for another couple of weeks, after I came out to my parents. They took it… poorly, so I wound up moving in with Seb’s family. A few nights later, we had our first kiss, on the roof over his bedroom.”
Theo’s now looking down as his hands in his lap, and Quint has moved closer to him, putting his arm around his husband’s shoulders. The younger man says, “I had a sort of similar situation after I came out. Or was caught out, actually. My dad… I went to live with Zeggy.”
“I’m sorry,” says Zain. I lean back against his chest, letting him cuddle me to comfort himself. He does, saying, “I’ve been reconnecting with my brother and sister recently. Hopefully at some point, my parents will come around, too.”
“I hope so,” Theo replies. Then he claps his palms on his knees and stands. “Speaking of Zeg, Quint and I are going over there for a few hours so you guys can have some alone time.”
I straighten away from Zain. “What? No, you guys don’t have to leave! It’s your apartment!”
Pulling me back, Zain whispers in my ear, “Yeah, they do, unless you want to see how quiet you can be tonight with them in the next room, my boy?”
Absurdly, I hope that the other two will think my blush is because I’ve just been reprimanded. Theo grins and winks, though, dashing that wish. Quint politely ignores my reaction as he leads his husband to the door. In minutes, they’re gone, taking Jagger with them.
Zain starts kissing my neck the moment the door shuts. His lips know exactly the spots that make me melt like a sno-cone on a summer day. When he gives me a little push towards my room, I go, unresisting.
We stand by my bed together, our mouths parting and meeting as we undress each other, and then he guides us down onto the mattress. I roll on my side, wanting his arms fully around me.
“Wait,” he says, laughing. “I’m gonna fall off the edge.” But when he shifts closer, I’m pressed uncomfortably against the wall. “Oh, that’s no good either, huh?” he asks as I giggle. “Geez, talk about nostalgia. I don’t think we’ve had sex in a bed this small since we were teenagers. Alright, there’s gotta be a way to do this, babe. We managed it often enough back then. If you go like that, then I put my knee here…”
It all comes back, and we lose ourselves in the memories.