Note: This takes place three months into the discipline relationship and nine months after they’ve started dating.
Quint realized he had just read the same paragraph three times and still had no idea what it said. Giving up, he put the book down and looked at the clock again. The minute hand had only advanced two dots from the last time he’d looked at it, and now informed him that his partner was officially twenty minutes late for curfew.
Punctuality wasn’t high on Theo’s list of priorities, and in the days before they’d started the discipline you could pretty much expect him to be constantly running at least twenty minutes behind. But since they had made rules about time management in their first discussions of what a discipline relationship would entail for them, he had been improving greatly. It was now rare for him to be more than five minutes late on occasion, although when he went out with the band, like he had tonight, Quint tacked an extra five onto that.
Quint had been more exasperated than worried when one-o’clock came and went with no sign of his partner. Ten minutes after the hour he’d called him, and the phone went straight to voicemail, which made Quint frown.
“This is Theo. Speak.”
“Theodore, you’re now ten minutes late, and your phone appears to be turned off. You didn’t forget to charge it again, did you? We’ll be discussing that when you get home, which had better be soon.”
Quint had then spent ten minutes trying to read a page of the book he’d left on the coffee table earlier that day, but with each passing second that his partner didn’t walk into the apartment and the phone didn’t ring, his worry grew until it was nearly the same intensity as his exasperation. After he gave up on reading, he sat and watched the clock for another few minutes, then tried calling again.
“This is Theo. Speak.”
“Theodore William, you’d better have a very good reason why you’re not here and your phone is off,” Quint said, very sternly. “Call me as soon as you get this, young man.” He hung up and thought, It’s only been three months since we started the discipline. I couldn’t really expect him to stop being late in that amount of time and not have an occasional relapse.
He told himself that was all this was, and Theo would call soon, sounding apologetic and distressed, and when he got home Quint would spank him and comfort him and they could go to bed. Or perhaps it would be better to wait until tomorrow to spank him, since it was already so late.
Another three minutes had passed as he distracted himself with these thoughts, and then he forced himself to wait two more before calling again.
“This is Theo. Speak.”
“Theodore,” Quint began, even more sternly than before. Then he stopped, sighed, and rubbed a hand over his brow. “I’m worried, angel. Call me.”
He hung up, wondering if that had been a mistake. If Theo was being careless or deliberately disobedient, surely he should remain as stern as possible. Then again, that might keep Theo from calling him back to face the music. And he knew if there was nothing wrong, listening to that message would make Theo feel guilty as hell, which would encourage him to call and tell Quint he was alright.
But what if something had happened? New York City might be a lot safer than most of the rest of the U.S. population assumed, but it was still a big city and muggings and worse did occur on a semi-regular basis. Quint pulled his mind away from that “and worse” and decided to call the other band members. One of them must have their phone turned on. He didn’t allow himself to consider otherwise.
Theo tripped on Zeggy’s front steps and scraped his palm against the stone railing, catching himself. He looked at the slight abrasion on his hand and thought, Great. Just fucking great. Another spot that hurts.
Now all I need is to crack my head open on these stairs, and my night will be complete. That wouldn’t be a pleasant sight for Zeggy to find when she came out to take Ike’s Wall Street Journal off the stoop in the morning. He took more care with the last two steps, holding the rail with both hands and negotiating them as steadily as his still slightly-drunk state would allow.
At the top, he took out his keychain and used the key Zeggy had told him to keep six months ago when he’d moved in with Quint. He gave a perfunctory wipe of his feet on the doormat after entering, but didn’t bother to take his shoes off. Instead, after thinking for a few seconds through the cotton filling his head and squinting at the buttons, he punched the code into the alarm system and then looked at the much longer flight of stairs to the second floor and his old room, and decided not to risk it.
With the night he’d been having he’d wind up falling down the damn things, breaking a limb, and waking up the whole household. And he didn’t need Ike and Zeggy asking him questions at the moment, thanks. The couch was right here, it wasn’t like he hadn’t slept on one before, and there was very little chance he would acquire any new injuries on it.
Unless Quint shows up. He might be ticked enough not to wait until we get home. And he is awfully fond of using couches.
Theo’s stomach jumped unpleasantly at the thought, and he frowned and tried to estimate how likely it was to happen. Quint might be the most calm person he’d ever met, but he was sure to have some limits, something that would make him actually angry and not just slightly annoyed. Theo had yet to encounter those limits, though, which made predicting what Quint would do when pushed past them difficult.
And he was pretty sure he was very close to pushing Quint past them.
Of course, he could just dump me. Maybe he already has, in one of those messages.
That just added to his general state of misery. He had turned on his phone briefly a block from Zeggy’s and seen that Quint had left messages, but he didn’t listen to them. He hadn’t wanted to hear Quint lecturing, or (worse) Quint disappointed, or (most especially) Quint worried. Instead, he’d called Mitch, and it went straight to voicemail, so he’d left a message asking him to let Quint know he was okay and would be back in the morning.
And what was going to happen then, God knew. Theo was pretty sure he wouldn’t like it, but he was too depressed and too sore to think about it anymore now. He collapsed on the couch face down, still in his shoes and wincing as he landed on a few bruises. Given his physical and mental exhaustion, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that he fell asleep almost immediately.
Quint said goodbye to Mitch and disconnected the call. The band was still together, minus Theo, and on their way to another club. Mitch’s voice was slurred with alcohol and backed with street sounds mixed with the voices of the other drunken musicians, but Quint got a coherent story out of him, and the drummer had even been concerned that his bandmate wasn’t home yet.
They had gone to a few clubs and then, at half-past midnight, Theo told them he was getting tired and wanted to head home because he had plans early the next morning. Quint knew that was a cover story Theo invented because he hadn’t wanted to explain to his friends that he had a curfew. Theo had left, Mitch said, and they hadn’t heard from him since. No, they didn’t know why he had his phone turned off. Yes, they would call Quint if Theo called them, and they would tell him to do the same.
After speaking to them, Quint grew even more worried. His one hope had been that Theo had lost track of time with his friends or was choosing to ignore it, but if he had left at the time he should have and still wasn’t home….
He put down the phone as all the horrible scenarios he’d been trying not to imagine earlier ran through his mind. Don’t panic, he told himself in as firm a voice as he ever used with Theo. Think. What’s your plan?
It was much too early for the police to let him file a missing person’s report, but he could call and ask if there had been any reports of muggings or anything – no, don’t think about what ‘anything’ could entail – on the route Theo would take to get home from the club he’d been last seen at. And he could call the closest hospitals to that route, too. He went to the desk and took out the phonebook.
After a moment’s consideration, he started with the hospitals. There were three between the apartment and the club that had emergency rooms. He called the first and gave them Theo’s name and description, then waited, hardly daring to breathe, as they looked through their records for a match. He wasn’t sure whether he should be relieved or not when they said they didn’t have him.
He was about to dial the second number when the phone rang. Quint’s heart skipped a beat as he saw it was Mitch. “Hello?”
“Hey. It seems Theo called when we were on the phone, but I didn’t notice the beep,” Mitch said, sounding sheepish and less drunk than before.
“He called? Did he leave a message?” Quint asked, hearing the urgency in his own voice.
“Yeah, he said he’s safe and not to worry, and he’ll call you in the morning.”
“He didn’t say where he is?” That couldn’t be good.
“Nope, sorry. Maybe he’s mad at you or something?” Mitch suggested.
“Thanks. Bye,” Quint said, his mind racing as he hung up. Why would Theo take off for the night and not say where he was going? Did he need help? From what? Or was Mitch right, and he was angry? But that didn’t make any sense. He hadn’t even protested the one o’clock curfew before he left. Whatever it was, they needed to talk, which meant he needed to figure out where Theo was.
If I were Theo, where would I go for the night?
The answer was so obvious he mentally kicked himself for not having thought of it before. Then he dialed one more number: Zeggy.
Zeggy started awake at the ringing of the phone, surprised more because it wasn’t a baby monitor than because she was being woken up at quarter to two in the morning. Ike, who could sleep through a hurricane and both of their twins crying at full volume (lucky, lucky man), didn’t even stir as she reached over him to get the phone from his nightstand.
“’Lo?” she asked, sitting up and shoving her long black hair out of her face.
“Zeggy, it’s Quint.” Zeggy frowned. There was something wrong with his voice, but before she could ask what it was and why he was calling so late, he continued, “Sorry to wake you, but I need to know if Theo perhaps let himself in with his key. Could you check if he’s there anywhere?”
“I… sure,” she said, confused, but willing to help. She crawled out of the bed and pulled a silk robe over her bare skin on the way out the door, then went down one flight of stairs and walked along the hall, being extra quiet as she passed the nursery, until she came to the door of Theo’s old room, which was now their second guest bedroom. She opened the door and flicked on the light, and the room looked just as it had when she’d been in to clean it two weeks ago. The bed was neatly made, and there was no sign of its former occupant. “He’s not in his room,” she said to Quint, keeping her voice low for the sake of the babies. “You mind telling me why you and Theo are playing long-distance hide and seek?” she asked as she turned the light off and shut the door.
“I’m not sure. He gave Mitch a message to pass on to me, that he was okay but wouldn’t be home tonight, and he didn’t say where he was, so I thought he’d probably be with you,” Quint said, sounding anxious and perplexed.
Zeggy opened the door of the other guest bedroom next to the bathroom and turned on the light. “He’s not in here, either,” she told Quint. “I’ll check downstairs.” She walked down another flight as Quint’s tense silence pressed against her ear, and thought about what might make Theo run off like that. At the bottom, she immediately saw the long, dark, Theo-sized shape on the sofa. “He’s here,” she said to Quint as she walked over to the end-table.
“Thank God,” Quint said in relief. “Is he alright?”
Zeggy turned the lamp on and gasped as the light fell over Theo’s face.
“What?” Quint asked, alarmed.
“He looks like he got beat up,” Zeggy said, surveying the bruises, gashes and blood on Theo’s swollen features. “I think he might be passed out,” she added when Theo didn’t move. She leaned closer and caught the smell of alcohol on his breath. “Ew. He smells drunk,” she said, “but he’s breathing.”
Theo stirred and threw an arm over his face. “Tur’ offe damn li’” he mumbled.
In the phone, Quint said, “I’ll be right there,” sounding as close to panicked as Zeggy had ever heard him.
“He woke up,” she told him, “and he has some nasty gashes on his knuckles, too. I’d say he’s been in a fight.”
“I’ll be right there,” Quint repeated, and hung up.
“Okay,” Zeggy said to the dial tone. She turned the phone off and looked down at her oldest and best friend in the world, feeling… well, there was a whole subtle mix of emotions, really. Concern, exasperation, understanding. After a brief but furious struggle, exasperation won out and she poked him in the shoulder, hard.
“Oww,” he protested, bringing his other hand up to rub the spot. “I’ve got enough bruises already, you know. Will you turn off that light and let me sleep, please? I’ll explain tomorrow.”
He sounded more awake, which was good. It wouldn’t give her any satisfaction to yell at him when he was half asleep. “Congratulations, ijit,” she said, noting that his other hand was torn up as well. “You’ve managed to scare the crap out of your partner and make a complete ass of yourself.”
“Quint?” Theo lowered the arm covering his eyes and squinted up at her in the light, looking slightly alarmed. “He doesn’t know where I am, but I told Mitch to tell him not to worry.”
“Yeah, that was a really excellent plan,” Zeggy scorned, crossing her arms. “Because no one would ever think to look for you here, and Quint would just accept that you’d disappeared for no good reason and wouldn’t worry at all.”
She was pleased to see that made him look guilty for a moment, but then he sat up and glared back at her and said, “How do you know there wasn’t any good reason?”
“Because I know what your reason was. This.” She reached out and flicked the bruise forming on his cheek, and he flinched away. “You went and got into one of your stupid fistfights and you didn’t want to go home and have to explain to Quint and take the spanking you deserve.”
His ears flushed red and he scowled. “It wasn’t a stupid fistfight, and you didn’t have to call him.”
“I didn’t call him, he called me. Sounding upset and anxious, I might add. And he’s on his way over here right now, so you’d better enjoy sitting while you can, you damn fool.”
There was another flash of guilt and then he bit his lip and looked close to tears. Zeggy sighed as concern and understanding made a surprise comeback, and sat down beside him, throwing her arm around his shoulders and pulling him into a hug.
“Oh, sweetie,” she said as he sniffled.
“Why do I do this?” he asked unsteadily.
You know why you do it, Theo, she thought. You just don’t want to think about it. Aloud, she said, “I tried telling you once, but you said to stop analyzing you, remember?”
He snorted at the memory. “That was because you were doing it with those damn Sigmund Freud slippers and using a really bad German accent.”
“Hey, don’t pick on my Freudian slippers. You gave them to me,” she pointed out.
“And I’ve regretted it ever since,” he replied, smiling a bit. “Seriously, though, I wouldn’t mind you helping me figure it out now. It’ll cut down on the time I have to spend in a corner later.”
“Why you got into a fight, or why you came here afterward?”
“Both. He’ll want to know both.”
“Well, the fight is easy. They were homophobes, weren’t they?” He looked up at her questioningly, and with the intuition they’d developed over the years, she knew what he was thinking and said,
“There’s too much damage for it to be just one. You’d never let one guy do that to you. How many was it?”
“Four,” he answered quietly, and she closed her eyes for a moment in horror and then said, “Theo, four? And you were alone? For fuck’s sake. Are you nuts?”
“That’s what you’re supposed to be telling me, remember?” he said. “I had some help at the end, though.”
Thank God you did, or you might not be here. “Yes, you’re nuts. Four against one. Christ.”
She poked his arm again and he said, “Will you stop that? There’s a bruise right there.”
He sighed and then said, “So, I get into fights with homophobes. I knew that before. And yes, don’t say it. I know why, too.”
“You have to tell Quint,” she said softly.
“He’ll want me to get a therapist,” Theo said, glowering.
Zeggy sighed. She would never understand why Theo disliked her chosen profession so much. “Even better,” she said. “I’ve wanted you to get a therapist for years.”
“Why did I come here after?” he asked, neatly sidestepping that subject.
“That’s the harder one. Why do you think you did?”
“Typical shrink answer.” He rolled his eyes.
“Hey, work with me here. I know I was wrong before; I was just angry. It wasn’t only because you didn’t want to get in trouble, was it?”
“No, I don’t think so. Although,” – he winced – “that’s going to be bad.” He paused, thinking, and then said, “It was more… I was in the subway after the fight, waiting for the train home, and I went to use the bathroom. Don’t mention that to Quint; I’m not supposed to use bathrooms that filthy, and especially not that late, in a subway station. But I was there, and I looked in the mirror and saw how bruised up I was, and I… I suppose I sort of panicked. And I remember thinking if I went home, Quint would finally see how screwed up I am, and… not want to be bothered with me anymore.”
His voice broke on the last word, and Zeggy hugged him tighter, compassion filling her up. Theo had always come to her after one of his fights, she remembered. “Oh, sweetie. You should know better than that. If either one of us is screwed up, it’s me. I’m the one who’s attempted suicide twice. Does that mean Ike’s going to leave me?”
“No, but that was years ago, before you even met Ike. I’m still getting into fights.”
“Yes, and I stopped because I got help,” she said pointedly.
“George can’t be my therapist; he’s been friends with Quint since med school.”
“I wasn’t suggesting George. He only works with sexual assault victims, anyway. I’m sure he can make me up a list of people who might be good, though. I’ll tell him it’s for an assignment, so he won’t know it’s you.” She knew George would see through that in an instant, but he’d be too tactful to say anything. Theo was silent, and after a moment, she continued, “Quint’s not going to leave you because of this. He is going to give you a very sore butt, though.”
“Gee, thanks. You always know how to cheer me up.”
“What are best friends for?” There was a soft knock on the front door, and he looked around at it, biting his lip again. “Remember you need to tell him everything you just told me. I have a feeling it might help your case some, so don’t leave anything out,” she said, and went to open the door for Quint.
Theo dropped his gaze to the floor as Quint stepped into the house, not wanting to see what was sure to be anger on his face. He heard Quint’s quick footsteps and saw Quint’s leather shoes stop on the carpet in front of him, below Quint’s legs in the jeans he’d put on after work, but he didn’t look up. Then Quint reached out and turned his chin gently up with his finger, softly exclaiming, “My God, what happened?” and Theo raised his eyes, startled, and saw not anger but shock and concern. The expression was too much, and Theo felt the tears escape and roll down his face as guilt overwhelmed him, preventing him from answering the question.
Quint pulled him to his feet and wrapped him in his arms, which only made the tear problem worse, and said over his head to Zeggy, “Do you have a good first-aid kit?”
“Yes, it’s in the kitchen,” Zeggy said. She led the way past the staircase to the back of the house, and Quint followed, keeping Theo inside the protective circle of his arms. Zeggy turned on the overhead light, which was very bright compared to the lamp in the sitting room, and opened a cupboard to take down a white metal case with a red cross on the side. “Ike keeps it stocked and up-to-date,” she said, opening it on the table.
“Thanks,” Quint said. “I’ll also need a clean, damp washcloth. Warm water, please.”
“Coming right up,” Zeggy said, going into the bathroom off the breakfast nook. Quint pulled out a chair and gently detangled Theo, sitting him in it.
“I need to take your shirt off, angel,” he said, his actions following his words. Theo raised his arms and let him slip the shirt off over his head.
Zeggy came back and set the washcloth down next to the first-aid kit, and then asked, “Will he need to go to the hospital?”
“I’m not sure yet. Angel, does it hurt at all when you breath?”
“No,” Theo said, the concern still making him weepy. He was glad, therefore, when Quint clicked into doctor mode and became more focused on just examining his injuries. He held still as his partner took his pulse and then ran his long fingers over his ribcage, applying pressure here and there, before moving down his abdomen.
“Tell me if this hurts.”
Theo shook his head at each spot where Quint prodded him, and finally the doctor seemed satisfied. With that body section, at least.
“Did you get dizzy or black out at any point? Do you have a headache, nausea, or blurred vision?” he asked, running fingers through his hair to check for bumps on his skull.
Quint took a penlight from the kit and checked his pupils, then said, “No concussion, either. As long as those cuts don’t need stitches, he’ll be fine.” He picked up the washcloth, sat down in the other chair, and began cleaning the excess blood off Theo’s face and hands, and asked again, “What happened? Were you mugged?”
“No, I…” Theo glanced at Zeggy, who nodded encouragingly, and he continued, “I was walking to the subway for the train home, and I saw this group of guys harassing a gay couple ahead of me. I was going to intervene, but by the time I caught up the couple had gone into their apartment building, so it was just me.”
He paused, trying to decide how to continue, and Quint stopped wiping the blood and his face became immobile, and he asked, in a low, icy, razor-sharp voice, “They jumped you? How many were there? Did you call the police?”
Theo blinked at him, his stomach flipping even though he knew that tone and look weren’t directed at him. So that’s what Quint is like angry. God, I’m glad he’s not the kind of Top that gets angry. Then again, that tone could be directed at him very shortly.
Over Quint’s shoulder, Zeggy was giving him a look that said, tell him the rest, or I will.
He took a deep, shaky breath and said, “They didn’t exactly jump me.”
“What do you mean?” Quint asked, his eyebrows drawing together. “You’ve clearly been attacked by a group.”
“Yes, we fought. But… but I started it. I threw the first punch.” He found, to his shame, that he couldn’t hold Quint’s gaze as he said it, and looked at his own lap instead. As a result, he missed the expression that crossed his partner’s face, but when he spoke it was in a quiet, clipped voice that wasn’t exactly like how he had just sounded, but wasn’t exactly like how he usually sounded when Theo was in trouble, either.
“I see. Why would you do that?”
Theo swallowed as more tears ran down his face because Quint was upset with him. How stupid, he thought, to cry because he’s worried and then cry because he’s angry. He bit his lip and shook his head.
“Tell him, Theo,” Zeggy said gently, coming to crouch beside Quint.
“Tell me what?”
“I can’t,” he choked.
“Would you like me to?” she asked, and after a moment Theo nodded. Then she turned to Quint, who had been looking back and forth between them, and asked, “What has Theo told you about his father?”
“Not much,” Quint said, as Theo looked at the table. “He said they’ve been estranged since he was seventeen.”
“So he didn’t tell you how that happened,” Zeggy said, not as question. “When we were in high school, Theo dated a Japanese-American boy named Eric, who used to dress in drag all the time. He wore Lolita outfits, with the wigs and everything, and he was very good at passing for a girl. So when Theo took him home to meet his parents, he introduced him as Erica. That was the only way they could hang out together at Theo’s place.
“One night, in October of our senior year, Theo’s parents were at a church benefit dinner, so he invited Eric over and they started fooling around on the sofa. His parents came home early and caught them, and Eric wasn’t in drag. Theo’s father nearly broke Eric’s arm, and gave Theo a black eye, and then he threw them both out and told them to never come back. Theo moved in with me that night, and he hasn’t spoken to his father since.”
Quint listened in silence, and when Zeggy finished speaking, he said, “My God, angel, I’m so sorry. When you said your family was Catholic and your father was estranged, I thought it might have been worse than you were telling me, but I didn’t want to press. I should have, I see that now. I should have known this sooner.”
Theo smiled weakly at him and said, “It doesn’t have anything to do with him being Catholic. That just gives him the excuse to do it. My mom’s a more devout Catholic than he is, and I still talk to her. He’s just…”
“A homophobe,” Zeggy finished. “Like these guys you keep starting fights with.”
Quint looked at her, startled, and echoed, “Keep starting fights?” He turned back to Theo and said, in his normal young-man-tell-the-truth voice, “This isn’t the first time you’ve done this?”
Theo never thought he’d be glad to hear that voice, but he was, even as it confirmed that he was probably in serious, serious trouble for this, no matter what adolescent trauma had influenced his behavior.
“No,” he said after a moment, squirming. “It’s the fifth time.”
“This is the first time he’s decided to go up against four at one time alone, though,” Zeggy muttered darkly, and Theo shot her a look.
Thanks so very much for volunteering that information.
“Four?” Quint said, as though he didn’t believe it. He took a deep breath and stood up, walking quickly around Theo to look out the window, and Theo watched him, terrified that he was angry again. The set of his shoulders was certainly tense, and the way he had his arms crossed couldn’t be good, but he was standing close enough to the window to block his reflection, and Theo couldn’t tell anything else.
After a long minute during which Theo exchanged a worried glance with Zeggy, who looked apologetic, Quint said, in almost his normal voice and without turning around, “Thanks for being such a help tonight, Zeg, but I think we’ve kept you up long enough. We’ll put the kit back in the cupboard and lock the door and set the alarm on our way out.”
Zeggy said, “Oh, it’s much too late for you guys to go all the way back tonight, and I’m sure you’re both exhausted. Why don’t you stay in one of the guest rooms upstairs and head home tomorrow?”
Quint turned his head and looked at her, but the expression on his face was distant. “That would be excellent, thank you,” he said, “But I meant what I said about keeping you up too late. Theo and I know our way around; you should go back to bed.”
As hints went, it wasn’t a very subtle one. Zeggy hugged Theo, whispering in his ear, “It’ll be okay. Night,” and then she said goodnight to Quint and retreated upstairs.
Another long moment passed as Quint gazed out the window again, and Theo thought he’d never been more miserable in his life. Then Quint turned around and said, “We’re going to get you cleaned up, and then we’re going to bed. We can talk about all this tomorrow at home, but right now it’s very late.”
Theo nodded, not wanting to ask questions when Quint was still using that almost-normal voice and had an almost-normal expression on his face.
Is he going to break up with me tomorrow? I wish he’d do it now, so I wouldn’t be waiting all night.
God, what an awful thought. He blinked away more tears as his chest tightened, and Quint’s form, sitting in the chair again and holding the bloody washcloth, blurred around the edges. Quint stopped washing his face and caught his chin in his hand like he had earlier in the sitting room.
“Hey, look at me,” he said softly. Theo did, sinking into the comfort of his gray-blue eyes, and Quint said, “I love you, angel, and I always will. I don’t want to lose you. Do you understand?”
He wasn’t sure he did, fully, but he said “Yes” anyway, because he was so happy to hear Quint say it, and then added, “I love you, too.”
Quint leaned forward and kissed him, gently because his lip was cut, and it still hurt a little, but he didn’t care.
Quint pulled Theo closer against his side and listened to the steady sound of his breathing. Theo had dropped off quickly, but Quint was having a harder time finding sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, he pictured four men beating up his partner in sickeningly vivid detail, and felt another wave of icy terror at what could have happened so easily. He knew if he fell asleep, he’d dream of it.
It was bad enough to see the result of the fight. The injuries to Theo’s face had shocked Quint almost speechless when he’d first arrived at Zeggy’s. His partner had had a cut on his lip and one above his eye, dried blood smeared around both wounds and running from his nose down to his chin, and a new bruises forming on his cheekbone, jaw, and temple.
Yet more than the battered appearance, the expression on Theo’s face, looking at him with tears running down his cheeks, had made Quint’s heart ache. He’d pulled him up and just held him for a moment, glad he was safe, and fighting down a jolt of anger toward whoever had hurt him. Quint bit back dozens of questions until he’d examined Theo and determined he wasn’t seriously injured. Even now, there were some lingering unasked questions, but he had a better idea of why Theo had done such a reckless thing.
Theo hadn’t talked about his father much, and Quint hadn’t wanted to push it if his partner didn’t feel ready. He thought, guiltily, that he should have. If I had known this months ago, I would have found a way to help him. Maybe this wouldn’t have happened. He couldn’t envision how traumatic it must have been, to be so completely and suddenly rejected by someone you loved, and who was supposed to love you back unconditionally.
Granted, Quint had never felt copious amounts of love from his own parents, but it wasn’t such violent rejection, either. He’d had nannies and then had been sent to boarding school at a young age, and had spent many of his summers with friends or in athletic training, so by the time he was a teenager he and the people who’d created him were closer to casual acquaintances than family. They’d been more upset by the news that their son wanted to become a doctor than by his coming out, and even that was only a mild sort of disapproval that soon faded when his cousin had stepped in to take his place in the family business.
Quint had never felt the distance between them as a hardship, preferring the family he’d created for himself — his crew coach, school friends, the wife of a professor whose classes he’d tutored in college. He was grateful to his parents for providing him with a trust fund, most of which he’d used to pay for medical school, and he received a polite card from them every Christmas, but they’d rarely seen each other even when he’d still lived in Boston.
Theo must have had a much closer relationship with his parents, judging from the way he now had lunch with his mother twice a month or more, and Quint could only imagine how being assaulted by his own father had felt. Over something, he thought angrily, he couldn’t help or change. Not to mention having Eric, someone he’d obviously cared about, hurt as well.
Quint could easily understand why his partner had developed a habit of taking out his anger with his father on prejudiced strangers, but that didn’t make it any more safe or acceptable. Theo had escaped tonight with only minor injuries, but it could have turned very ugly, very quickly.
That was what he’d been thinking of when he’d stood in the kitchen earlier, looking at his own pale reflection in the window, his arms crossed tightly to suppress the trembling. He’d thought of Matthew Shepard and the countless other victims of hate crimes. He’d thought of the Kitty Genovese case, when a woman had been killed on the street in the sixties. A dozen people had heard or seen the murder, and not one of them called for help, not wanting to get involved and assuming someone else would do it. He’d thought, My God, he could have been killed. And he’s done this before. Then he’d taken a deep breath and channeled his fear into determination. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure this is the last time.
But Quint had known that it had been much too late at night to go into that, and he was too emotional to trust himself to handle it properly. He was grateful Zeggy had offered them a place to stay, even if it meant a longer wait in the morning, because he’d wanted to get his partner settled for the night as soon as possible.
Theo shifted in his sleep, curling his bandaged hand into Quint’s, and Quint squeezed it gently, thinking, no musician should do that to his hands, and then glanced over his shoulder at the alarm clock. The glowing red numbers stood at 4:12 AM, and he sighed softly. I need to get some sleep if I’m going to be in any shape to handle this later.
He closed his eyes, and behind the lids a dark figure held Theo while three others pounded his body with fists.
Theo woke up the next morning slowly, and for a few seconds he didn’t remember where he was, how he had gotten there, or why he felt so sore. Then he saw his hand, the knuckles neatly wrapped in gauze, and the events of the previous night flooded back into his head.
I actually made Quint angry at me, he thought, not taking any pride in the accomplishment.He did say he still loves me, though. Or did I dream that part?
He looked over his shoulder, to find his partner and reassure himself, but he was alone in the bed. The alarm clock on the opposite nightstand said it was nearly noon, which might explain that. He remembered they had gone to bed at three, and Quint never needed more than seven hours’ sleep. And he was in Zeggy’s first guest room, not his old room, which explained why he hadn’t recognized it immediately.
He sat up, remembered Quint’s promise to “discuss” last night when they got home, and drew his knees up to his chest, resting his forehead gently on them and closing his eyes with a soft groan.
He looked up at Quint, standing in the doorway with a glass of water in his hand and stubble on his cheeks. “No,” he said. I just still feel miserable.
Quint crossed the room and held out the glass. “You should drink this, anyway. Alcohol dehydrates you.”
“I know,” Theo said, taking the water and sipping it. Quint didn’t look angry, he noted, just serious and a bit tired.
“Drink all of that.” Theo gulped the rest of the liquid, and Quint took the glass from him and then walked to the dresser and opened the top drawer. He pulled out Theo’s t-shirt and jeans, torn from the fight but no longer dirty, and dropped them on the bed beside him. “Zeggy washed those for you. You should put them on and come downstairs; she has lunch ready.”
Quint kissed him lightly, which killed any lingering doubts that the “I love you” hadn’t been real, and then brushed his fingers over the bruise on Theo’s temple and said, “You need an ice pack, too.”
“Quint? I’m sorry about… everything.”
“I know, angel. We’re going to talk about it when we get home. Right now I want you to get dressed and eat, okay?”
Theo nodded, taking comfort in the normalcy of his tone, even if the situation was anything but normal, and pulled his jeans on as Quint left the room.
He walked downstairs a few minutes later, after going to the bathroom and wincing at his reflection in the mirror. Even without the dried blood, it still looked pretty bad.
When he entered the kitchen, Zeggy looked up from spoon-feeding Griffin at the table and said, “Afternoon, sleepyhead,” smiling at him. Across from her, Ike was feeding Lyra. He raised an eyebrow when he saw Theo’s face, but didn’t say anything other than, “Good afternoon.”
“Afternoon,” Theo replied, thinking, I don’t think you could say it’s going to be a “good” one.
Quint walked over from the refrigerator with two glasses of milk and set one beside each of the plates on the long sides of the table. “That one’s yours,” he said, pointing to the sandwich on the right. Theo sat down, and Quint pulled a prescription bottle from his pocket, opened it, and put one of Theo’s pills next to his glass. At Theo’s questioning look, he said, “I went home and got them while you were sleeping.”
“Thanks,” he said quietly, picking up the pill and swallowing it with some milk as Quint walked around the table and sat in the opposite chair.
Theo picked up his sandwich and took a bite, and Zeggy coaxed Griffin to open his mouth for the next spoonful of green mush. “I know,” she said, “Uncle Theo’s face is a funny color, isn’t it?”
Theo glanced over, and the baby was studying him, looking anxious. Wonderful, he thought.Now I’ve managed to upset even an eleven-month old. The only way I could go lower is by stepping on a puppy‘s tail. He put the sandwich down and morosely started pulling small pieces of the crust off.
“You need to eat that, Theo, not pick at it,” Quint said. “I know you don’t mind crust.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Eat it anyway,” Quint replied, his raised eyebrow making it clear that his partner shouldn’t try to argue any further. Theo sighed, very softly, and picked up the sandwich again.
Quint finished before he did, and stayed at the table while he waited for Theo to be done. Neither of them said much, so most of the conversation was supplied by Zeggy and Ike talking to the twins.
As soon as Theo had eaten his last bite and swallowed the last of the milk, Quint gathered their empty dishes and took them to the sink. He rinsed them and put them in the dishwasher, and then opened the refrigerator and took out an ice pack. He wrapped it with a few paper towels and handed it to Theo, saying, “The one on your jaw is the worse.” Theo nodded and pressed it against his bruise, and Quint continued, “Zeggy, Ike, thank you for your hospitality, but I think it’s time we got home.”
“Oh, think nothing of it,” Zeggy said. “You guys are family.”
“Family usually doesn’t drop in unexpectedly at two in the morning, though,” Theo said. “I’m sorry I woke you.”
Zeggy grinned and said, “Technically, Quint woke me. You were very quiet. But he’s already apologized for that.” She leaned over and kissed Theo on his unbruised cheek, and said, “Bye, sweetie. Call me later if you feel like it.”
Theo felt his ears heat up slightly as he thought about why he might not feel like it, and Quint exchanged goodbyes with Ike and Zeggy, and they left.
“I called a cab while you were getting dressed,” Quint said as they stepped outside.
Theo blinked at the taxi parked at the curb, and asked, “How did you know when I’d be done eating?”
“I didn’t. I just asked them to wait if we weren’t outside.”
The unnecessary expense was somewhat unlike Quint, but Theo was grateful as they slid into the car’s backseat and Quint gave the driver their address. He hadn’t wanted to deal with what were sure to be a few stares on the subway. Then Quint pulled him against his side, and Theo realized why he’d called the cab – Quint felt uncomfortable about PDAs in the subway, and he obviously wanted to cuddle on the way home. Theo let his head fall against Quint’s shoulder, still holding the ice pack against his other cheek, and Quint wrapped his arm around him, neither of them needing to say anything.
Quint took the ice pack from Theo after they had closed the apartment door behind them and taken their shoes off, and put it in the refrigerator to chill again. Then he took his partner’s hand and led him to the couch, sitting down on one side and gesturing to Theo to sit on the other. He did, with his back against the arm, and drew his knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms around them and looking at the coffee table.
“Look at me, Theo,” Quint said gently. When he had eye contact, he continued, “Why don’t we start by you telling me exactly what happened? I didn’t get all the details last night.”
“Okay,” Theo said, sounding apprehensive. He took a breath and began, “I was a bit drunk when I left the club, and I was still about a block from the subway when I turned the corner and heard them. There were four guys bothering this couple.”
“Bothering how?” Quint asked, wanting to make sure he fully understood.
“They were following them a few feet behind, saying stuff,” Theo explained. “The couple was just pretending to ignore them. There was no one else around.” He stopped and began to pick at the bandage on his right knuckles, and Quint reached out and stilled his hand.
“What did you do?”
“I started to jog up. I was going to… I don’t know what I was going to do, honestly.” He shook his head. “Tell them to back off or something. But before I got close enough, the couple turned and went into their apartment building. The guys were still standing outside shouting stuff, and I came up and… I don’t remember what I said exactly. Something about how their mothers made their money. And then one of them called me a faggot, and I punched him, and they all started hitting me.”
Quint closed his eyes for a moment to regain the composure he’d been building all morning, and then asked, “How did you get away?”
“It must’ve been only a couple of minutes we were fighting, and then the couple came back out and said they’d called the cops, so the guys left. The couple wanted me to come inside and get cleaned up, but I said no and kept going to the subway.”
“Why’d you say no?” Quint asked, frowning slightly in puzzlement.
Theo shrugged. “I was still ticked off. I guess I didn’t appreciate them interrupting.”
“You do realize that if they hadn’t, it could have been much worse?” Quint asked, raising his eyebrows.
“Yeah,” Theo said, shifting uncomfortably, “I do now, but at the time I was angry and half-drunk, and I guess I wasn’t thinking clearly.”
I’ll say, Quint thought. “Before you started the fight, did you think how dangerous it was?”
Theo’s gaze slid away again, and he answered, “Yes. I just didn’t care.”
Quint reached out and tapped him on the chin, and said, “Look at me.” He paused until Theo obeyed him, and then said, very seriously, “I care.”
Theo took a shaky breath and said, “I know.”
Quint held the look for a moment longer, and then asked, “Why didn’t you come home?”
“Zeggy and I were talking about that before you came. She helped me realize that I’d kind of panicked. Part of it was that I didn’t want to get in trouble, and part of it was that I thought you’d…”
He stopped and bit his lip, and Quint asked softly, “That I’d what?”
Theo took another breath and said, “That you’d break up with me. Because I was too much trouble.”
He sounded close to tears, and Quint felt the ache start in his heart again. He wanted to say that Theo should know better than that, but as he thought about the frame of mind his partner must have been in, his fears made a strange sort of sense. The feeling of complete rejection from his father must’ve been stirred up again, so it was hardly surprising he’d think he might be spurned by someone else he loved, as well.
Then he thought of the look on Theo’s face last night, before Quint had told him he loved him, and said, “You were thinking that when I went to the window, weren’t you?”
Theo nodded, and said weakly, “I thought you were too angry to even look at me.”
“No, angel,” Quint said tenderly. He debated for a moment. Should he explain, or would that only upset Theo more? No, he decided, knowing he’d been frightened would upset Theo less than thinking he’d been angry. “I had just realized how close I came to losing you, and it scared me. I needed a minute to pull myself together. I’m sorry I made you think I was angry.”
Theo seemed to be digesting that for a moment, and then he asked, “Were you angry before, when I said I’d started the fight?”
“A little,” Quint answered honestly.
“It sounded like more than a little.”
Quint shook his head. “Some of that was leftover rage from thinking you’d been jumped, and you have to remember that I didn’t know, just then, about your father.”
“I’m sorry I scared you,” he said, his voice tight.
Quint pulled him into a hug and said, “It’s alright. The important thing is, you’re safe, and we’re going to make sure you never do that again.”
Theo let him go and drew back a bit, sniffling, but Quint kept him by his side with an arm around his shoulders, and handed him a tissue from the box on the coffee table. As his partner wiped his eyes, Quint asked about something else that had been bothering him. “Why didn’t you have your phone turned on?”
“I forgot to charge it. The battery was going dead, so I turned it off at one of the clubs,” he explained. “I checked it when I got closer to Zeggy’s, and I saw you’d left messages, so I called Mitch and asked him to tell you I was okay. I really didn’t want you to be worried. Did he tell you?”
“He did. You called when I was on the phone with him looking for you, but he called me back as soon as he realized he’d missed you,” Quint said, deciding not to mention that he’d been phoning hospitals before Mitch passed the message along.
“And then you called Zeggy.”
“I thought it was the most likely place to look for you,” Quint said, smiling a bit. “Not that I expect you ever to do this again, but if you’re going to run away, Zeggy’s is probably not the best place to hide.”
Theo snorted. “Too predictable, huh?”
“Yes,” Quint agreed. He paused and then said, “Speaking of predictable, I want you to tell me about the other times you’ve started fights. We need to know what exactly the pattern is, in order to stop it.”
He dropped his gaze. “It was pretty much the same thing. I’d be drunk and hear some bigot make a remark and pick a fight.”
“With groups of people?”
Theo jerked a shoulder. “Occasionally. But Zeggy was right, it was never four against one before. Mitch and I took on three guys once, after a show, but that was as bad as it got.”
“Were you usually out with the band when this happened?”
“I get drunk with the band, so, yeah.”
Quint nodded, and decided that would be a good place to start. “Look at me,” he said again. “You’re no longer allowed to drink alcohol, unless I’m there, understood?”
Theo looked like he was going to balk for a moment, and he asked, “What am I supposed to tell everyone when we’re at a club and I’m not drinking?”
“Well,” Quint said slowly, “I’m not sure when you’ll be going out clubbing again, so you don’t have to worry about that for awhile. After that, you can tell them your doctor said to cut back on the drinking. They don’t need to know which doctor.”
“You’re grounding me?” Theo asked, downcast.
“Yes, for two weeks, as your punishment for going to Zeggy’s instead of coming home. I’m also going to give you some lines to write about charging your phone, and about trust. It was really a lack of trust that led you to go to Zeggy’s, wasn’t it?”
He thought about that for a moment and then said, “Yeah, I suppose it was. I didn’t trust that you’d forgive me.”
“Or that we could work through this together,” Quint added. “We will, I promise you.”
“I believe you,” Theo said, although his eyes didn’t quite agree.
Quint smiled understandingly and brushed a lock of his partner’s hair behind his ear. “Don’t worry, angel. I’ll prove it to you.”
Theo’s lips curved almost imperceptibly. He looked a little more convinced, and asked, “So, no clubs for two weeks?”
“No, the grounding is for two weeks,” Quint clarified. “It’ll be no clubs for awhile longer than that — not until I’m sure you won’t do something foolish. You hardly go to them once a month now, anyway, so that restriction shouldn’t be too difficult.”
“What if we get a gig?”
“Then I’ll go with you to the performances, and we’ll leave immediately after,” Quint said calmly. He knew Theo wouldn’t like feeling as though he had a babysitter, but keeping him safe was more important. “Is all of that clear?”
Theo sighed glumly, but said, “Yes, sir.”
“You’re also going to start seeing a therapist.”
“I told Zeggy you’d say that,” Theo said, looking even more unhappy.
“Why don’t you want to?” Quint asked, frowning.
“I don’t know,” Theo said. “I suppose getting dragged around to about a dozen different shrinks when I was seven, getting diagnosed with ADHD again and again, didn’t give me a good impression of them. They’d act all nice and just want to play or whatever, but when we were done, I had to go to another room while they talked to my parents, and my mom would come out looking upset, and my dad would be angry and not want to talk about it. I could never figure out what I’d done wrong.”
Quint sighed, thinking he’d like to speak to his partner’s father sometime, and said, “You hadn’t done anything wrong, angel.”
“I know that, now,” Theo said, “But I didn’t then.”
“I think it would be a good idea for you to work through this with someone else,” Quint said. “I’m not trained for that sort of thing; there’s only so much I can do.”
After a moment, Theo nodded, and said, “Okay. Zeggy said she could ask George for a list of people that might be good.”
“Good,” Quint said. He paused, knowing the next part was going to be tough, but determined to see it through. “That only leaves the spanking.” Theo’s gaze skittered away again, and Quint tilted his head to catch it. “I believe when we made the rules, we agreed that the consequence for knowingly putting yourself in extreme danger was a spanking with the belt,” he said calmly. Theo looked frightened, which was hardly surprising, as this would be his first experience with that particular implement, but it didn’t make resolving to use it any easier for Quint. “Would you agree that starting a fight with a group of homophobic men falls under that category?” he asked.
Theo took an unsteady breath and said, “Yes, but… Quint!”
Quint ignored the way the pleading tone and look made his heart melt, and said, firmly, “No arguments, Theodore. You had many options last night, but you chose the most dangerous one. And you told me yourself, you knew it was dangerous when you did it. That is very, very far beyond acceptable behavior. Come on.”
He stood up, took Theo’s hand, and pulled him reluctantly to his feet before leading him over to the dining table.
Theo felt his heart racing as he watched Quint pull out the chair on the short end of the table. They had talked about what the procedure would be in this situation three months ago, but back then it had seemed like only a slightly scary, very distant possibility.
And of course, he had suspected he might be heading this way since the subway bathroom last night — if Quint didn’t dump him first — but he’d been trying not to think about it. Now that Quint had said it was actually going to happen, right this minute, and with the expression and tone of voice that brooked no arguments, Theo found he was terrified.
Quint let go of his hand and said, “Take your jeans and boxers down.”
He gulped. Quint had never asked him to bare himself before. After a moment, he clumsily undid his fly and then turned to face the back of the chair before pushing his pants and underwear down around his thighs.
“Bend over and put your forearms on the seat.”
I wonder if he’d let me off if I fainted, Theo thought. Not that there was much hope of that actually happening, even if his stomach felt like it was crawling up his throat.
“Now, young man.”
He took a deep breath and did as he was told, the back of the chair just brushing his navel as he crossed his forearms on the seat. The position made him feel much, much more exposed than lying across Quint’s lap ever had, and there wasn’t the comfort of contact, either.
Then he felt Quint’s hand on his lower back, which was reassuring, even if it was followed by the alarming sound of a belt being pulled off. “Quint,” he implored, trying instinctively to stand up, but the hand kept him in place.
“Stay in position, Theodore,” Quint said, very firmly.
There was a short pause, and then a sharp crack and a dreadful sensation of flames dancing merrily over a strip of flesh about an inch and a half wide, running across the very center of his buttocks. Theo couldn’t breath for a moment, and jerked up again, and was again forced back down by the unmoving force of Quint’s hand.
“Curl your fingers under the sides of the chair,” Quint told him. Theo blinked the tears out of his eyes and obeyed, so his right fingers were holding onto the left side of the chair, and vice versa. A second later he gasped as another stroke fell just below the first, but he was able to hold his position reasonably well.
The belt continued to fall at one-second intervals, setting his entire lower backside completely and horribly ablaze with white-hot fire, until Theo was sobbing, the tears falling on his arms, and he had no idea how many strokes it had been. There was another crack, but this time it hit his upper thighs, and he yelped and stood up, spinning around at the same time so Quint couldn’t stop him again.
He put his hands behind him to protect his tender flesh, not caring how ridiculous he must look, and looked pleadingly at Quint.
“We aren’t done, young man,” Quint said calmly. “Bend back over.” He nodded to the chair.
“Are you going to do that again?” Theo asked, sobbing.
“Yes, once more. But it’ll be twice if you don’t get back into position.”
He didn’t sound threatening, just very, very serious, but Theo wasn’t going to bet on him not following through with it. He turned back to the chair, whimpered softly, and bent forward, clutching the sides of the seat again. Quint didn’t make him wait; another agonizing line of fire was lit on his thighs, and then Quint’s hand was on his shoulder, pulling him up. Theo turned around and practically threw himself into his partner’s arms.
Quint rubbed his back and spoke softly into his ear. “I don’t want to ever have to do that again, angel, but I will if you put yourself in danger like that. You are not going to become a hate crime statistic, do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Theo sobbed. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“Shh. It’s alright, you’re already forgiven,” Quint murmured.
Theo sniffled as Quint kissed his forehead, and thought about his partner’s earlier promise, that they could work through this together. He knew this was only the beginning, and it probably wasn’t even the hardest part, but he felt they’d taken the first step toward that goal. With a bit of help from a therapist (and he was trying not to think about that until it was necessary, thanks), he believed they might even make it.