The aroma of freshly-ground coffee dragged Theo out of our bedroom at ten. I took a sip from the mug I had just filled, opened one of the files of papers spread across the dining table in front of me, and began cross-referencing to a spreadsheet I had pulled up on my laptop. “Good morning, angel. There are eggs in the fridge for your breakfast.”
He grunted. I watched him shuffle to the kitchen and pour himself coffee, but he made no move towards food.
“You need to eat, as well,” I reminded him. “Within the next hour.”
“I know,” he snapped, shooting me a look.
My eyebrows rose in warning, although I wasn’t surprised by the grumpiness. Thanks to traffic coming back from Annapolis, he and Seb got in hours after midnight. Theo is always liable to be short-tempered when he’s tired.
I decided not to come down on it as strictly as I might have otherwise, because I didn’t want to make our reunion unpleasant after two days apart. I barely had a chance to speak with him at all last night. He’d texted me when it became apparent they would be late, telling me not to bother going to meet them. I read in bed while waiting for their return, but the long day of funding and development discussions at the hospital must have caught up with me. I’d woken only when Theo flicked the nightstand lamp off and removed my glasses. As he climbed over me to his side of the bed, I’d murmured, “Missed you, angel.” He’d cuddled into my shoulder without replying, and then I was asleep again.
Now, he carried his mug to the living room, set it on the coffee table, and flopped down full-length along the couch on his stomach. Jagger was laying on the floor in front of it. Theo tangled his fingers into the dog’s long fur but didn’t pet him as he usually would. Nor did he drink from the mug or turn on the TV. I frowned. This went beyond tired and irritable.
Before I could ask him if something was wrong, Seb’s door opened. The younger Brat’s face was just visible from where I sat as he peeked out. A flash of uncertainty crossed his features when he saw me.
“Good morning, mon chaton,” I said. “I set up to work out here today so I wouldn’t wake Theo, but I’ll be moving back to my desk in a few minutes. You don’t need to worry about interrupting.”
My words didn’t reassure him as much as I would have thought. He emerged hesitantly and silently crossed the hallway to the bathroom. A minute later, he came out again, avoiding looking at either Theo or I on his way to the refrigerator. Theo didn’t acknowledge him, either.
Like usual, Seb took out a cup of yogurt, along with a spoon from the silverware drawer. However, an important part of his morning routine was missing: his test kit and insulin pen. Closing the drawer again, he said, “I’ll eat in my room.”
I shut my laptop. “Actually,” I said, folding my hands together on top of it, “I would like you both to sit down at the table and tell me why you’re acting so oddly.”
Seb froze on the other side of the kitchen counter. His eyes went twice their regular size, and he swallowed heavily before saying, “Oui, mon-”
“No!” Theo cut in. “Seb, leave.”
I turned to my husband, too shocked to even reprimand. He was getting to his feet and scowling at the other Brat. As I drew my breath to say ‘Theodore,’ though, he added, “It wasn’t your fault. Go. I’ll tell him now.”
I closed my mouth and watched the two of them stare at each other for several seconds. Theo still scowled, his chin jutting out in determination. Seb blinked a few times and looked to me, clearly waiting to see what I would say.
“Quint, please tell him to go,” said Theo, in quite a different voice now. The guilty expression he gets when his conscience is bothering him was out in full force. “I need to talk to you alone.”
Whatever had happened, he must feel it was serious. That likely meant I’d need to discipline him, yet I hesitated to send Seb out of the apartment with Jagger as I’d done in the past. He also seemed to be involved in it, somehow, and until I knew exactly what I was dealing with, I wanted to make sure he wouldn’t disappear or stress himself more than he was already.
Coming to a decision, I said, “Mon chaton, go wait in your room, please.”
Seb, pale and worried, went. My husband waited for him to close his door before coming to sit next to me and gaze down at the table. Picking at the edge of the placemat, he took a deep breath and said, “Okay, so Seb slept for most of the bus ride. Then we got to Port Authority, I woke him up, and I noticed he was acting a little off, but I thought he was just exhausted, like I was. We had to get our bags and stuff. It took forever. When we finally got down to the subway platform, the train was literally just starting to pull out of the station.”
He paused, his head hanging even more. I resisted hurrying him along. At this point, my best guess was that he and Seb had fought. I could easily picture Theo’s frustration at missing the train. Imagining Seb snapping back was harder, but he’d been acting ‘off’–
Theo interrupted my speculation. “I was complaining about us having to wait at least fifteen minutes for the next one—you know what they’re like that late—and then Seb realized he hadn’t taken his insulin. The one he takes at night. I forget what it’s called.”
“Lantus,” I supplied.
His hazel eyes glanced to me for an instant, and he gave the barest hint of a nod. “Yeah, that. He said he thought he was high, and a few people waiting nearby heard him. They gave us these looks like we were stoned or something. Seb saw them and got all self-conscious, so we went down to the very end of the platform, away from everyone else, before he started searching through his bag for his insulin pen and stuff. It… got narrower, the platform, at that end. We were kinda close to the edge, and he was taking his kit out, and he dropped it on the tracks. And– and then he started crying.”
Now he looked at me fully, earnestly, even as he squirmed a little in his seat. The first shards of icy premonition formed in my stomach.
“He was biting his wrist, trying to hide it, but he was definitely crying. It was awful. I just. I just needed to help him.”
I took a deep breath. Then I let it out very, very carefully. “Theo,” I began, holding onto my composure with both hands, “tell me how you retrieved Seb’s kit.”
He didn’t break eye contact even then, though I could tell he wanted to desperately. Lips trembling, he said, “The train left a minute before. I knew another one wasn’t coming for ages. I was… was only down there for forty seconds, at most, I swear.”
The pleading in his expression was wretched. I pressed my hand to my mouth for a moment before I could gather myself to ask, “You went onto the tracks?” I had to be sure.
Jerkily, he nodded. It hurt, too. Almost as much as the image of him being hit by a train, wiped out of my life as instantly and unexpectedly as he’d come into it. I closed my eyes so he wouldn’t see the pain and reminded myself, He’s here. He’s safe. Over and over. He’s safe.
“Quint?” he asked, voice almost vanishing into broken sounds. “Please say something?”
I opened my mouth, closed it again. Shook my head. I didn’t trust myself to speak. Parting my eyelids, though, I saw his face, the face I loved so much, crumpled and scared. He was safe, yes, but also hurting just as much as me. My job was to do something so we could both heal. At the moment, I couldn’t think how. I offered the best I had, in the steadiest tone possible. “Corner.”
He choked on a sob and stood. “Yes, s-sir.”
Once his back was to me, I allowed the tears to fall.
We have been together nearly nine and a half years, and practiced discipline for all but six months of that time. The belt was laid out as the consequence for reckless and dangerous behavior from the start, as we both thought the implement he felt the most wary of should correspond to the most grave offense. In total, I have used it on him five times. Just five in nine and a half years. Each occasion stands out in my memory as one of the most difficult moments in our relationship.
I was not looking forward to the sixth.
Unlike the last two incidents when I’d considered the belt and ultimately gone with another punishment, however, I knew today it was my only option. No ex-friend egged him into this poor choice, and writing lines would not be enough. Perhaps it hadn’t been enough before, either. If I had used the belt when he put his arm in the subway doors, would he have been so inclined to violate an even-more-serious train safety rule barely a year later? I needed to be certain I was making a stronger impression this time.
As I decided exactly how I would do that, Theo sniffled from the corner. I ached to comfort him, yet tenderness at this point would only increase his feelings of guilt. He has been reduced, in the past, to a blubbering mess when I show too much affection before the spanking is started. He even told me it made it harder. So I tamped down on my desire, wiped my eyes, and went to knock on Seb’s door.
The younger Brat had very obviously been crying as well, I saw as soon as he opened it. He also didn’t glance anywhere near my face.
“May I come in, mon chaton?”
Nodding faintly, he stepped back and allowed me to walk to his desk. The test kit lay on it, next to his cup of yogurt, both of them still unopened. A streak of greasy dirt ran across the black nylon fabric. I stared down at it.
“It was my fault. You should spank me, not Theo.”
Tearing my gaze away from the kit, I turned to Seb, who stood by the door he’d closed behind me. His arms were crossed over his chest and his shoulders hunched to his ears as he looked up through his eyelashes.
I shook my head. “Did you push him onto the tracks?”
He gulped. “No, but if I hadn’t forgotten to take my Lantus or hadn’t dropped the kit or… or hadn’t started bawling over it like a child, he wouldn’t have-”
Firmly, I cut him off. “Seb. Theo is an adult. He is responsible for his own actions.”
“But I didn’t give him a choice!” he insisted, voice squeaking at the end as he held back more sobs. I stepped forward and pulled him into a hug. After a moment, he dropped his arms so they weren’t between us, and then slowly returned my embrace.
Without loosening my hold at all, I asked, “Have you heard the safety announcement instructing you what to do if you’ve dropped something onto the subway tracks?”
His head moved against my shoulder in a nod.
“What does it say?” I asked.
“To… to never go onto the tracks for any reason,” he mumbled. “Get a cop or an MTA employee or use one of those, um, assistance intercom things.”
“Exactly. You know that, and you’ve been riding the subway for only a few months. Theo has been doing it his entire life. He knew he had other options. If you go ask him, he would tell you the same thing I’m saying. Neither one of us blames you in the slightest. Am I clear?”
There was a much longer pause before he nodded again, hesitantly.
I sighed. “Mon chaton, what is Zain doing right now?” He had some free time this week, I knew, but I wasn’t sure of his exact schedule.
“Briefings for his summer training cruise and then being an usher at a Commissioning Week event. I don’t remember which one. His liberty starts at two-thirty.”
Much too long for me to make Theo wait. For both their sakes, I wanted to separate them so Seb wouldn’t overhear the belting, but I was very reluctant to send him out of the apartment alone in this state of mind. I’d wind up talking him down from a tree again. If I took Theo into our bedroom, Seb could wait in the living room?
No. It’d be very easy for him to slip out the door, and I tried to avoid punishing Theo in the bedroom if I could. Negative associations can be hard to overcome. Switching them around, though… Yes, that would work.
“Alright,” I said, releasing him so I could duck my head and catch his eyes. “Listen to me, please. I would like you to take Jagger, along with a book, and stay in the master bedroom until I call you. Understood?”
Biting his lower lip, he nodded.
“A verbal answer, please.”
“Thank you. Go now.”
He obeyed, grabbing a book from his shelf seemingly at random and calling softly to the dog as he stepped into the hallway.
I watched him go down to the other bedroom and shut the door behind him. Then I walked to the dining table and pulled the chair at the end out several feet, into the center of a clear spot on the floor. “Theodore,” I said. “Come here.”
My husband turned, saw the chair, and walked over with none of his usual hesitation or last-minute pleading. He looked almost relieved to be starting. Meeting my eyes with his own watery ones, he said, “I’m ready.” His chin wobbled and then firmed up.
The strength he showed gave me the strength to nod to the chair and say, “Pants down and bend over the back, please.”
The pajama bottoms he was wearing fell to his ankles when he pushed the waistband over his hips. Before he got into position, wrapping his fingers around the edges of the cushioned seat, I heard him take a deep breath. It mirrored my own inhale and exhale as I unbuckled my belt and pulled it through the loops of my jeans.
The leather of this one is both thicker and wider than the one I wear with dress pants. Doubled over, it makes a formidable implement. I don’t blame Theo for being afraid of it. Yet even as I saw him tense at the sound of it being removed, he didn’t ask for leniency as he usually would. Nor did I deliver my usual short lecture or ask him to confirm what the punishment was addressing. I simply lifted the hem of his shirt to his lower back, rested my hand over it, and raised my other arm high. Steeling myself, I delivered the first stroke.
A band of angry scarlet appeared across the middle of his buttocks. Both his knees bent momentarily before he straightened up again with a gasp. My vision clouded at that sound. I blinked it clear enough to aim. I didn’t want to overlap strokes before I was forced to. The second, I landed lower, and the bloom of red followed along with his muffled yelp. With my free hand, I rubbed his spine while I gave him a couple of seconds to recover. Then the next stroke, lower still.
In total, I gave him two dozen, more than I ever have before. By the end he was sobbing quietly, his tears speckling the fabric of the cushion, and his skin was uniformly vivid from the tops of his cheeks down to his thighs. He’d twisted around some after each crack of the belt, but overall he stayed in position very well. I put the implement down on the table.
“Stand up, angel.”
Almost before the second word left my mouth, he was falling into my arms, half-hanging from my shoulders as he clutched me tight. I returned the embrace just as strongly and bent my head to kiss him anywhere I could reach.
“Shh, it’s alright. You’re okay. We’re done, shhhhh.”
I went on like that for quite a long time. Neither of us wanted to let go first. When, finally, he got his feet fully under himself, he pushed harder into my chest, repeating, “I’m sorry,” over and over in a muffled voice.
“I know, angel. I forgive you,” I said against his temple. “It’s all taken care of, and I’m so proud of you. I love you more than anything.”
“I love you, too,” he said, and then frowned up at me. “You’re proud of me?”
“Always.” I brushed a lock of hair behind his ear. “Today, especially. You told me what happened, and you took your punishment extremely well. You’ve grown so much since I met you. You have every reason to be proud of yourself.”
His eyelashes fluttered as a smile stole across his lips. It made a huge improvement to his face, but he was still flushed and sticky.
“C’mon, let’s get you washed up,” I said, guiding him to the bathroom. He stepped out of the pants that had been hooked around one foot and left them on the floor. I said nothing about that. Tidiness was very far down my list of priorities at the moment.
I wetted a cloth with cold water and wiped it lightly over his forehead and cheeks. When I was done, I cupped it under his chin so I could study him. He looked calm. No trace of guilt left, which was good. Sighing, I set the cloth on the counter and attempted to marshal my thoughts.
My gaze still down, I said, “I was forty when I met you, Theo.”
Confusion, mixed with slight amusement, colored his tone. “I know. You kept telling me how old you were, remember?”
I shook my head and met his eyes. “Forty years is a long time to be alone. I had… resigned myself, though, that I was going to be a lifelong bachelor. I thought I was content with only my career and my patients to bring significance to my days. And then I heard you singing.”
His mouth opened to speak, but I put my fingers gently over it, hushing him so I could finish. “I think a part of me knew in that moment,” I said, “that I’d finally found the person I was meant to be with, yet I let my insecurities and fear keep us apart for almost two more months.” I had to stop then, to swallow. “Angel,” I said when I was able to continue, “I spent far too much of my life without you. I cannot handle the thought of losing you now. It… it terrifies me.
“I do understand why you went onto the tracks, how you were only trying to help Seb. I’ve already forgiven you for it. But. Until I can stop picturing you being hit by a train quite so clearly, I’d appreciate if you didn’t ride the subway unless I am accompanying you.”
He was crying once more by then, tears silently spilling down his cheeks and into his stubble. “I won’t. I promise. Not until you say I can.”
“Thank you,” I said, heartfelt, and gave him a second hug. This one was briefer. With things settled between us, I knew I needed to check in with the other Brat under my care before he started having one of his quiet meltdowns.
We went back to the living room first, so Theo could put his pajama pants on again. He guided them over his bottom with a small hiss. I gave him a comforting rub between the shoulder blades. “I’m alright,” he said. “Let’s go get Seb.”
He stuck close behind me, holding my hand, as we went into our room. It was empty. For a moment I feared that Seb had somehow snuck past while I was washing Theo’s face, until I heard a whine from the ensuite bathroom. I opened the door.
Jagger jumped up on the other side, his tail wagging madly. Seb, meanwhile, was curled in a tight ball on the floor. It amazed me how he could fit his gangly limbs into such a tiny amount of space. Overriding that was my worry and the sharp pang of protectiveness as he raised his head enough for us to see his eyes. He’d stopped crying, yet he was so nervous and contrite it twisted my heart. To my husband, crowded into the doorway behind me, he said, “Je suis très désolé.”
“That’s another apology, isn’t it?” Theo asked. He shot me an unhappy, helpless look. “I keep telling him it wasn’t his fault.”
Offering the hand Theo didn’t have a grip on to Seb, I said, “Stand up, please, mon chaton.”
He took it lightly and let go as soon as he was on his feet. “If I hadn’t forgotten my Lantus–”
“Yeah, you forgot,” Theo cut in. “Not your fault. Quint would never punish me because I forgot to do something like that. He just helps me remember the next time.”
“That’s exactly right,” I said. “I often find with my patients that taking their medication is more likely to slip their mind if they’re out of the usual routine, as you were. I suggest setting an alarm in these cases, as a safety net if you happen to forget again. You may want to consider doing that for your Lantus before travelling in the future.”
“Oui, monsieur,” he answered, ducking his head.
I sighed. Even now, he reacted as if he were in trouble. Would giving him what he so clearly thought he deserved help at all? I truly did not want to, especially after having to belt Theo. More sobbing caused by my hands would rub me raw.
And while Seb often got spanked to process emotions when he hadn’t done anything wrong, per se, I felt there was a fundamental difference between excessive stress and misplaced guilt. Discipline for the latter would too easily cross into a punishment in his mind, confirming exactly what he feared. Perhaps Zain was skilled enough with his Brat to make a clear distinction between the two, but I didn’t trust myself to do it.
I wished Zain were available to ask his opinion. For the moment, I erred on the side of caution and said, “Both of you have yet to eat breakfast. Come, please.”
They obediently followed me out into the bedroom and down the hall, with Theo again plastered to my back and Seb trailing along. The younger Brat stepped into his room for a moment as we passed and reemerged with his test kit, insulin pen, and the yogurt cup.
He sat down at the dining table to unzip the kit. I brought Theo with me—or, more accurately, he clung to my side—as I went around the peninsula to cook an omelette. Doing so took only minutes, which I spent stroking my husband’s shoulders with my arm wrapped around him. When the omelette was done and plated, I asked, “Would you like to eat standing up, angel?”
“No,” he said. “Let’s sit.”
I was surprised, but I followed his wishes and guided him to the table, while carrying the plate.
The moment I sat down, I had a lap full of Theo. He positioned himself sideways, facing Seb, with his sore rear end nestled between my thighs. Leaning against my chest, he asked, “Will you feed me, please, Quint?”
I blinked. It wasn’t entirely unprecedented for me to do, although he’d never asked me before unless he was sick, and certainly not with anyone else watching.
Seb looked as though he was trying very hard not to watch but couldn’t figure out a safe place to rest his gaze. Before he excused himself from the table, as he was clearly considering, Theo asked, “Seb, do you ever just feel like you want to be taken care of? Isn’t it great that Brats are able to say what we need without getting judged?”
Subtle, my husband is not.
I gave him a very mild look as Seb stared at his yogurt and made a quiet, embarrassed sound of agreement. Theo shrugged back to me. He didn’t move to stand, however. Apparently he really did want to be fed, and I was happy to oblige. We both needed the closeness. Seb relaxed somewhat after the first few bites I gave Theo off the fork, as well. He seemed less likely to flee, in any case.
The two of them ate in silence, Seb still avoiding looking at us, yet the moment Theo’s plate was cleared, he noticed. “I’ll put that in the dishwasher for you,” he said, actually taking the fork from my hand as he whisked it away faster than I could blink. A moment later, he was in the kitchen.
Theo twisted, scrutinizing him over his shoulder. Then he looked back at me and mouthed something I couldn’t discern. I frowned and shook my head. Huffing, he got up, went around the peninsula, and stopped behind Seb, who was bent over to put the plate in the bottom rack.
The sound of a swat rang out.
Seb shot upright. I found myself on my feet as well, my lips parted.
“Now we’re even,” Theo said firmly. “Okay?”
With the same wide-eyed expression he’d given me for calling out the strangeness between them earlier, Seb slowly nodded.
Instantly, Theo’s sternness vanished as he winced and shook his left hand as if he’d dropped something on it. “Fuck, that stung!”
The younger Brat clapped his palm to his mouth. It took me a moment to realize the choked noise he made was laughter.
Of course, Zain didn’t bother to hide his own great amusement when the three of us told him what had happened over Skype that afternoon. I was relieved. If he’d objected, I had no idea how we could’ve fixed the situation.
“So now I gotta ask,” he said after he’d collected himself. “Who swats hardest, babe?”
Seb gave him a long-suffering look. “Still you. Theo might be second, though.”
“Really?” asked my Brat, gazing at his hand as if he were slightly afraid of the power it held.
“Maybe,” Seb said.
On the screen, Zain leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Well, I guess we’ll never know for sure, because this special case aside, the rule about implements being tested on me still stands, and no way am I letting you swat me, squirt.”
“Not fair!” Theo objected through chuckles. “Quint gets to!”
“Top’s privilege,” replied Zain.
I nodded. “Yes, let’s not get completely confused about our roles here. If you ever have an issue with each other, you do not settle it that way. Am I understood?”
Zain grinned cheekily at me. “Yes, Quint.”
Both Theo and Seb cracked up again. I shook my head at the younger Top, but couldn’t summon much disapproval. It was good to see them fully recovered from the night before.