Trouble in Paradise

Theo

“Theo! Quint! Over here!”

Quint spotted them first, of course. Being tall gives him an unfair advantage at things like that. It wasn’t hard for me to catch sight of them after he pointed in the right direction, though. Zain was bouncing up and down, and the colorful strands of flowers in Seb’s hand were very eye-catching. We navigated ourselves and our suitcases through the crowd of disembarking tourists to where the younger couple stood near the wall.

“Aloha!” said Zain, grinning and pulling Quint into a one-arm hug. “Welcome to Hawaii.” He switched to me, but added a ruffle of my hair to the hug with his other hand.

Stop it,” I whined as I tried to escape.

Quint, meanwhile, was giving Seb a kiss on the forehead. “We’ve missed you, mon chaton.”

Understatement. He hadn’t even been gone that long, but I’d gotten so used to having him around all day when his classes ended. The apartment felt awfully lonely since he flew to Hawaii to be with Zain. I knew they desperately needed and wanted the time together, though. It was generous of them to offer to host us at all, as Quint kept reminding me.

Seb smiled and said, “You, too. I brought you lei.”

“Lei?” I asked. “Just one?”

“The plural of ‘lei’ is ‘lei,’” he explained. “ I have one for each of you.” He separated them and gave the one that was mostly blue to Zain, who placed it over my head.

“Here you are, squirt. Let some hang down in both the front and the back, like this.”

Quint ducked his head to let Seb put the orange lei around his neck. It looked quite fetching on him. “Thank you,” he said.

“No,” I said, “you say ‘mahalo,’ remember?” I’d slept through most of the flight, but I did wake for the brief overview of Hawaiian culture offered by the cabin crew at the end.

“Ah, yes, of course,” he said, smiling. “Mahalo. They smell wonderful.”

I had to agree. They were real flowers, surprisingly heavy on my shoulders. I brushed my fingers over a soft petal and added my own, “Mahalo.”

De rien,” said Seb.

Then he and Zain took the handles of our suitcases before we could object. “To the Jeep!” declared Zain, extending a fist in front of him like he was leading a charge. The three of us followed in his wake out to, and across, the huge parking lot, making small talk along the way about what we’d been doing.

“We’ve just hung out, mostly,” Seb said.

His fiancé winked back at me and made air quotes with one hand as he repeated, “Yes, ‘hung out.’”

I snorted. “Oh, yeah, that’s all we’ve been up to, too. Lots of, uh, ‘hanging.’”

Next to me, Quint cleared his throat and shot both of us a mild Look before changing the subject. Which was probably a good thing, or Seb might’ve spontaneously combusted from blushing too hard.

When we finally reached the vehicle, they put our suitcases in the cargo area, and then Seb said, “Quint, you can take the front passenger seat. It has more legroom.”

“Thank you, mon chaton.

I got in the back behind Zain, who was driving. As Seb climbed up beside me, I turned to ask him if he wanted to hear a new song I wrote last week. That was when I saw the wince cross his face. Just for an instant before he reached for the seat belt, but a definite wince. And now I was on the lookout for it, I could see he wasn’t only shifting to buckle in. That was the squirm of someone having a hard time getting comfortable with their weight on their butt.

Huh. So they weren’t just ‘hanging out’ after all.

*

Crashing waves were audible from the guest room. They’d said their house was on the water, but I hadn’t understood just how close it really was until I’d walked in the front door, seen the view through the back windows, and went, “Whoa.

“Yeah,” said Zain. “Hard to see how we’re going to beat that with the new place in Maryland.”

Quint had been impressed, too. Even though he kept yawning. It turned out he couldn’t sleep on the plane at all. He deals with exhaustion a lot better than I do—something about med school, I think—yet when Seb said they didn’t have anything planned for the morning, if we wanted to take a nap, he’d accepted instantly.

Now I lay beside him, listening to the swish-wash of the ocean. It was soothing. I didn’t doze off, though. I wanted to enjoy every minute I possibly could here. Anyway, the sound of water made me have to pee.

I got up and went out into the hallway, and then through the door to the great room. Zain had showed us the bathroom that led off it earlier. I did my business in there. Coming out, I opened what I thought was the right door to go back into the hallway, and found Seb instead, standing about a yard away and frowning at a huge, mostly-empty shelving unit set against the wall. He glanced over to me.

“Oh! Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. Must’ve got turned around.”

“It’s okay,” he replied, as I caught sight of something behind him. Something large and pink.

“Is… is that the famous elephant Zain’s so afraid of?” I asked, pointing.

He smiled. “Yeah, that’s Babar. Want to meet him?”

Of course I did. It’s not every day you see a statue that can scare a Marine.

I stepped into the room, which was a lot bigger than I expected once I came around the corner from the entrance area. Swaths of sun poured through the windows and bathed the floorboards. A set of kitchen cabinets with a paint-stained sink stood against one wall. Another had a door, which led to the front yard from the looks of it.

The elephant was almost the only object in there, with the exception of a metal easel off to the side. Knowing how cluttered Seb’s room can get sometimes, I was a bit surprised at the sparseness of his studio, but that left my head as I walked around the statue. I did a complete circuit before I stopped by the upraised trunk and grinned at Seb. “He’s adorable.”

Snickering, he said, “Try telling Zain that. When I first brought Babar home, he refused to come in here for three days.”

I laughed too. “He really is a baby about some things.” Then, leaning against the statue, I tried to sound casual. “So, uh, what happened?”

Seb looked blankly confused. “What?”

“You”—I made a sort of wave to my own buttock area—“winced when you got in the Jeep.” Quickly, I tacked on, “You don’t have to say if you don’t want to, I just figured, if you did…

“Um,” he said, going pink. “I was worried about you guys having a nice vacation here.”

Oh. Yeah, I could see why Zain would want to step in with that. Seb worries way too much, and hardly ever for a good reason. “How could we have a bad vacation?” I spread my arms out wide. “It’s paradise.”

He shrugged and shifted his weight. “I wanted it to be perfect, as a thank you to you both for your hospitality in letting me live with you these past months.” With a sigh, he added, “I wish I could move to Maryland now, instead of at the end of fall semester.”

That kinda hurt. I knew he didn’t mean it like he wished he could leave us quicker, but still. I turned my head to look out the big window behind Babar, in case my sadness was visible on my face. No reason to give him more stuff to be worried about.

A scraping noise made me look back in surprise. Seb twisted towards it, too. Behind him, a section of the wall next to the shelving units slid open. It was a double pocket door I hadn’t noticed when I came in. Once there was a gap about a foot wide, Quint’s head poked through.

“Theo,” he asked, raising an eyebrow at me, “weren’t we taking a nap?”

“No,” I said, with great patience. “You were taking a nap. I was just laying beside you.” The eyebrow went higher. My shoulders rose with it, defensively. “I slept on the plane!”

“The plane that took off at two in the morning?”

“I’m pretty sure there was only one.”

The other eyebrow joined the first. Between us, Seb’s gaze was darting back and forth like at a tennis match, while his lower lip was in danger of being gnawed off.

I sighed and took some snark out of my voice. “If I sleep more now, I’ll never get down at a decent hour tonight. You know that’s true.”

Quint paused to consider. His eyebrows lowered while he did, which is always a good sign. “Yes, that’s true,” he said finally, sighing as well. “I’ve been hasty; I apologize. With the time difference taken into account, you didn’t miss much at all, so there isn’t any need for you to nap.” Then he looked over at the easel like he was just noticing it. “You aren’t bothering Seb while he’s working, are you?”

Seb answered before I could. “I invited him in, monsieur.”

“Without knowing I was meant to be sleeping,” I added, just to be safe.

I had no reason to worry. In fact, I felt certain Quint was about to smile. “Alright,” he said. “If you’re going to be talking, however, can you keep your voices down or move to another room, please?”

“Oh, yeah, sorry,” I said. The guest room must be right on the other side of the wall.

“Thank you.” He withdrew his head and began to slide the door shut again, but I caught a glimpse of his lips turning up.

As soon as that door thumped into place, Seb was moving towards the other one, to the front yard. He gestured for me to come with him. I did. Neither of us spoke until he’d closed it very, very softly behind us. Then he winced at me. “I wasn’t even thinking–”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, before he could get too far. “Quint wasn’t mad, just a little tired. We could’ve, y’know…” I pointed at my bare feet on the boards of the porch. “Gotten shoes?”

Seb blinked down and then shrugged. “There’s no prickers or anything in the yard. I go barefoot all the time.”

“Uh. Okay.” City-living rules don’t apply here, I reminded myself. It’s not gross. Embrace paradise.

That brought back a wish I’d had since seeing the view. I practically hopped down the steps onto the grass—it prickled between my toes—and started around the corner of the house.

Seb came after me. “Where’re you going?”

“I wanted to see the ocean up close,” I told him. “I’ve only ever seen the Atlantic before.”

He laughed a little. “It’s all one body of water.”

“Then how come your part of it is so much bluer than mine?” I asked as we came up to a low concrete wall at the edge of the lawn. Blue stretched from the rocks on the other side of it all the way to the horizon, bright and pure. “I’m gonna go in.” Bending, I started to roll my pant legs to my knees—not easily done with jeans.

“Um,” said Seb.

I looked up. “What?”

“BABE!”

Rather than answer me, Seb went “Shhhhh!” towards Zain, who was coming down the slope of grass with a smile that turned puzzled at being hushed. “Quint’s trying to sleep still!” Seb admonished him.

“Oh, sorry,” Zain said, stopping in front of his fiancé. “Squirt, does he know you’re out here?”

“He doesn’t need to know where I am at all times,” I said as I continued to struggle with my pants. “Seb and I wanted to go wading.”

He shook his head. “‘Fraid that’s not possible.”

Taken aback by both the pronouncement and the casual, authoritative way he said it, I straightened up and stared at him. “Why not?!”

“It’s all volcanic rock at the bottom here,” he said, nodding to the water. “Cuts your feet to ribbons, even with flip-flops on. We’ll get you some water shoes, and then you can go.”

“That’s what I was about to tell you, too,” Seb put in quietly. Zain gave him a glance too brief for me to interpret, but it made the other Brat blush. “I was.”

Ignoring that, Zain said to him, “I got the ingredients for the recipe you wanted to make. Would cooking wake Quint up?”

“Not if I’m careful. I do need to get started soon, so it’ll be ready in time.”

The two of them turned and began walking back to the house. I stayed where I was. The rocks on the shore seemed smooth enough, so how could–?

“C’mon, squirt.”

Zain had stopped and was looking over his shoulder, waiting for me, while Seb continued on. I frowned at the Top. That nickname was starting to rankle. It made me want to remind him I was much older.

And then… I have no idea what he did, because his face didn’t change at all, but I suddenly felt like I was getting the double-eyebrows from Quint again. It rankled even more when my feet carried me obediently towards him.

Seb was already washing his hands in the kitchen when we stepped through a set of sliding glass doors. He pulled a cutting board off a hook on the wall and began unpacking the bags of groceries on the counter, presumably left by Zain, who went to help. Not knowing where anything should go, I decided it’d be best to stay out of the way. I boosted myself onto one of the orange stools set on the other side of the counter and asked, “What’re you making?”

“Something I invented,” said Seb. “Sort of a cross between an Egyptian dish called kushari and a Hawaiian one called loco moco.”

I had no idea what either of those things were, but I trust Seb’s cooking skills, so I nodded and said, “Sounds good.”

“It’s delicious,” said Zain, grinning like the whole thing outside hadn’t happened. It was weird. I still felt annoyed with him, even though I knew I shouldn’t. All he’d done was warn me about the rocks so I didn’t cut myself, right? And then, yeah, gotten a little Toppy about it when I hesitated, but nothing major.

Uncomfortable, I looked around for an excuse not to reply to him. My gaze landed on the wall with the two doors, to the hallway and Seb’s studio. No wonder I’d mixed them up. Both were painted the same shade of yellow as the wood panelling, and they were only feet apart. Then something jiggled in my memory. Turning back to Seb with a wicked smile, I asked, “Is that the color you threw at him? What was it called? Mellow Yellow?”

Seb pulled a face and opened his mouth, but Zain answered first. “Unmellow Yellow.” He leaned across the counter in front of me to point to the wall. “If you look close, you can see where the paint’s thicker from splattering all over when he chucked it.”

“No, you can’t,” said Seb, exasperated and blushing. “Stop saying that.”

I squinted. The paint looked uniformly smooth to me, though maybe I wasn’t close enough.

Taking a knife out, Seb began to cut up a tomato. “If Mom and Dad decide to rent this place, we might need to make it more neutral.”

Zain stared at him for a moment as if he’d grown another head. Then, reaching over, he pulled the back of Seb’s pants away from his skin and peered down into them with a puzzled frown. Only for a split second, though, before Seb jerked away and pressed his butt against the cabinets by the sink. One hand flew behind him, clutching his waistband like he wanted added protection, while the other still held the knife. “What are you doing?!”

Shrugging, Zain said, “Just wanted to check I didn’t dream that whole thing. Doesn’t look like it.”

Seb’s mouth fell open.

Sometimes I blurt stuff out. Then, for instance, I probably should’ve shut up and let them pretend I wasn’t there watching, but I couldn’t stop myself from asking, “I thought that was about wanting to be a perfect host?”

Zain laughed and spoke without looking away from his fiancé. “It was about multiple things. If only one message got through, maybe–”

“They all got through,” said Seb. His face was about the same color as the tomato he’d left on the cutting board.

“Then you’re not gonna have a problem with me getting more of your art stuff out of the storage unit?” asked Zain.

From the way Seb’s lips twisted, he did have a problem with that. I couldn’t see why. Zain seemed to understand without him saying a word. He stepped forward and pinned his Brat against the counter, then kissed him softly. I could just make out the Top’s voice as he said, “This is still our home. The place in Maryland will be home, too, for as long as we need it to be, but we’ll always come back here. Your parents know that. Strangers aren’t going to live here, and the wall stays yellow. In fact, we’re gonna find out if they still make Unmellow Yellow, and we’re gonna use it to paint a wall in the new house, ‘cause it’s my favorite color. Got it?”

Seb sighed and rolled his eyes. “Yeah.”

“Also,” Zain added, stepping back with one arm around Seb’s shoulders so he came with him, “I’m gonna go get your art stuff. Besides the paint stirrers, what do you need?”

For some reason, Seb only sputtered and glared.

Zain grinned. “Never mind, I’ll just grab anything that looks important.”

Seb finally managed to speak, and what he said was, “I hate you.”

“I know.” He didn’t seem too concerned by it. I watched him spin Seb back to the cutting board and then land a swat on his butt that made me jump more than it did the other Brat. The next second, Zain was tousling my head as he rounded the counter. “Be right back,” he said, vanishing out the front door.

I fixed my hair and looked at Seb just in time to catch him rubbing his butt. So it wasn’t a playful swat, then. About a dozen questions sprang to my tongue. I bit it.

He glanced up, stared at the tomato, glanced up again, and muttered, “I’m not good with major changes, even if they are nice. This whole moving thing…qualifies.”

That only helped me understand a little. “You aren’t moving until January,” I pointed out.

“Yeah,” he said, shrugging jerkily, “but the house hunting is starting in a couple of weeks, and we’ll have to make arrangements to ship all our stuff in storage to the mainland soon—which is why I wish he’d stop bringing it here—and I don’t know when we’ll be back. I leave when you guys do, remember?”

Put that way, I could see why he was flipping out. It suddenly seemed a whole lot closer to me, too. I wished they’d stop talking about it.

*

They kept on it, though, all through cooking lunch and—after Quint woke up and came shuffling out, blinking sleepily and rubbing a hand over a serious five-o’clock shadow, so cute I wanted to nibble him—while we ate. The meal was as delicious as Zain promised. But enjoying it became more and more difficult as I listened to them discuss the merits of this or that Maryland town for living in and what sort of property they wanted.

“I could tolerate an apartment,” said Seb. “I’ve gotten used to having less space.”

“Oh, right,” said Zain, with a cheerful sarcasm. “That’s exactly what we’re going for: Something you can tolerate. Nope, you’re gonna have a dedicated studio and a lawn, at the very least.”

Seb pushed his fork under a pile of rice. “I don’t need a lawn or dedicated studio! I get by fine in Quint and Theo’s apartment, don’t I, guys?”

I came to his defense with a nod, but Quint said, “However, you often have to use the school studios when you’re working on something.”

“MICA has studios, too,” said Seb. “I can keep doing that, no problem.”

“Sounds good to me,” I said. “Apartments are less work for cleaning and stuff too.”

“Seb’s clean enough as is,” Zain put in, and then, to Seb, “You’re gonna have a space of your own back, brat. Get used to it.”

For a moment, Seb and I wore matching glowers, until Quint caught my eye and I wiped mine off my face. The other two didn’t notice.

Zain

I’m not oblivious. I had picked up on Theo’s attitude towards me, though I wasn’t sure where it was coming from. Seb, luckily, was preoccupied with our talks about moving. The moment he sensed the tension, he’d be off to the races, worrying and blaming himself however he could.

So I was thankful when whatever-it-was eased as we bought island essentials during our afternoon shopping trip in Honolulu. Theo even helped me pick out an aloha shirt for his husband, snickering madly the whole time. And he was the one who came up with the idea to hide it from Quint until we got home.

“Something for you to wear,” I said, handing the bag to the other Top.

He peeked inside. His eyebrows went up in faint disbelief. “Oh. I, uh, I truly appreciate it, but what I have on seems adequate.”

I smirked, saying, “My house, my rules. You’re not going out dressed like that,” with a nod to his sensible polo shirt.

“Yeah, c’mon,” Theo said cajolingly. “I’ve got one too. Let’s put them on with our swim trunks and water shoes and go for a dip. Pleaaase?” His puppy-dog face practically dripped appeal.

Quint sighed and went with him into the guest room to change, while Seb shot me a Look.

“Zain, what did you do?”

“Nothing!” I said. “It was mostly Theo.”

He snorted, unfooled, and turned to go out into the backyard.

It took them a few minutes to join us. When they did, Theo came first, pulling Quint behind him down the lanai steps. The older man’s shirt just looked violently purple from a distance. It was only when he got closer that you saw the purple was the improbable shade of the palm trees growing over it, and then you noticed the dancing hula girls among the fronds.

Seb snorted again, only this time with laughter. I barely managed to keep a straight face myself as they came into speaking distance. “Suits you.”

“Thank you,” Quint replied, dry. “I feel quite fashionable.”

Theo let go of his hand and sat down on the seawall to change his flip-flops for the new pair of water shoes he’d bought.

Leaning over, I lowered my voice conspiratorially and asked him, “Is the shirt everything you imagined?”

“More,” he said, grinning. “Okay, let’s go in!” He stood again and shrugged out of his own new shirt, which featured ukuleles and parrots and was much less loud.

“Hang on a sec,” I said before he could step over the wall and charge into the water. “How much swimming have you two ever done in the ocean?”

“Not much,” said Quint.

“We go to Coney Island with the twins every year!” Theo objected.

“Yes, but we mostly stay in the shallows, where they can touch bottom,” Quint explained. “I’m guessing this is different.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “The rip currents can be pretty strong here. Neither of you should go in unless I’m with you.”

Quint nodded, but Theo rolled his eyes and snapped, “I know how to get out of a rip current.”

There was no way for Seb to miss it this time. I looked from his startled expression to Theo’s irritated one and smiled lightly. “Still. My house, my rules.”

“I’m making it a rule for us, as well,” Quint put in. “You’ll stay out of the water unless Zain is there, Theodore. Understood?”

I kinda wished he hadn’t done that. It both stopped Theo’s argument, leaving me without anything to trace to the source of his annoyance, and made it seem like a bigger deal to Seb. My Brat was watching the three of us with his Bambi-est gaze. Theo saw it and seemed to realize he was the cause. I watched him forcefully tamp down the attitude. “Understood. Sorry.”

“No prob,” I said. “C’mon, I’m here now.”

Leading the way, I waded out into the water. Splashes followed me as the others came, too. When I reached about waist-level, I dived under and swam a few yards in a breaststroke before surfacing again. Most of the splashing had stopped. Turning, I saw why. Theo was continuing on into the deeper water, but both Seb and Quint were still where the waves only came up to their knees.

“Aren’t you guys coming?” Theo called back.

“Um,” said Seb. “Actually, I don’t really feel like swimming.”

Quint looked concerned. “Are your sugars alright, mon chaton?”

“Yeah, I just… would rather wade.”

The other Top met my eyes over the water, questioningly. I had no way to tell him I was willing to bet it stemmed from Seb not wanting to take his shirt off and expose the marks on his abdomen. Theo had probably never seen them, and Quint only in glimpses when he took his pants down for a spanking. It’d be good for Seb to get over that particular bit of self-consciousness eventually, but with how stressed he’d been the past two days, I didn’t want to push it. I settled for giving Quint a reassuring nod.

Theo stood up straight so his upper torso was above the waves. “But I wanted to swim with you, Seb!”

“Leave him, squirt. You can swim with me,” I offered. “Wanna race me out to that buoy?”

He scowled over his shoulder. His husband—who was still preoccupied with Seb, anyway—couldn’t see, or he might’ve interfered again. I took advantage of it to flick water at Theo. Blocking his face with his arm, he said, “Hey, stop that!”

“I’m only playing,” I said. “Splash me back if you want. It’ll get out some of that frustration, I bet.”

Through gritted teeth, he said, “You are the most annoying…”

“Yeah?” I asked, genuinely curious where he was headed. I still had no idea what I’d done to get him so ticked. Maybe if I splashed him again, though, he’d come out with it. I raised my hand to slap down on the water.

Theo spun back towards the shore and started off in what would probably have been an angry stride if he weren’t walking in the ocean. It came out more wobbly than anything. His path wobbled, too, though I soon realized that was on purpose. He was going in an arch to avoid his Top and Seb on the way back to the house.

“Careful there,” I called after him. “The currents–”

“I know,” he said. Right before he lost his balance and fell, with a crash of waves, under the water.

“Theo!” yelled Quint, charging forward. I was closer, though, and a strong swimmer. I got to the spot in seconds, just as Theo’s head broke the surface. He gasped and flung droplets everywhere as he shook auburn hair out if his face.

“Fuck!”

“Alright?” I asked, reaching down to help him to his feet.

Without taking my hand, he got up, swayed again, and would have gone right back under if I hadn’t caught and steadied him.

“Like I was saying, the currents are strong here. This spot, especially. Two steps forward.”

“I got it.” He pulled away from me and managed to make it out of the undertow on his own. But as he did, I noticed he was holding his right arm close to his stomach, almost cradling it. Bright red drops of blood fell into the ocean from between his fingers. My gut clenched.

“Quint, he’s hurt.”

“I see,” Quint said. He sounded surprisingly calm about it, after the alarm of his yell. Taking the last steps to close the gap between them, he grasped Theo’s bloody hand. “Let me have a look, angel.”

“It’s just a scratch,” said Theo, voice wobbling as he let go of his arm.

I winced. “Some scratch.” It seemed to run from his elbow halfway down his forearm, though it was hard to tell where the jagged wound ended with all the blood oozing from it.

“We need to get it cleaned up so I can see how deep it goes,” Quint said, still matter-of-fact. I recognized, now, the trained nature of his reaction. He probably would’ve been great in a combat situation.

“First aid kit’s in the kitchen, the drawer next to the fridge,” I said.

“Thank you.”

He led Theo off with an arm around his shoulders. I watched them go, only half paying attention to Seb splashing up next to me. That is, until he said, “This is my fault.”

Slowly, I turned my head and tilted my chin. “You made the rip current and the rocks? Wow. I knew you’re in touch with nature, babe, but–”

“If I’d gone swimming with him like he wanted,” he said, before I could even get to the punchline, “he wouldn’t’ve been coming back so soon.”

There was no use explaining that actually Theo was trying to get away from me when he came back. It’d only worry Seb more. I took the direct route: Grabbed his shoulder, spun him around, and swatted the wet seat of his swim trunks. He yelped. Two thirds of the way up the lawn, Theo jumped and looked back for a moment until Quint ushered him forward again.

“Done?” I asked Seb. “Or do you need another one?”

I didn’t mean a swat, and he knew it. He shook his head swiftly. “No, I’m done.”

“Awesome.” I mirrored Quint’s posture with Theo and brought my own Brat along behind them. “He’ll be fine. C’mon, you can see for yourself.”

Theo

Gently, Quint dabbed a washcloth over the cut and bent closer to examine it with laser-like focus through his glasses. Getting a read on his face is always impossible when he’s in doctor-mode, so I had to ask, “How bad is it? Am… am I going to need stitches?”

“No, angel,” he said, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Although I’ve gotten better about being near needles since Seb started staying with us, the thought of one going through my skin still made me shudder.

The sliding door to the back porch opened again, letting Zain and Seb through. Both of them looked concerned. Quint straightened up and spoke to all of us while they crossed the room to stand on the other side of the peninsula. “It’s not that deep, and, thankfully, Theo’s last tetanus shot was only three years ago. I don’t see any debris in it either, but we need to rinse it out before I bandage it. Put your arm under the faucet, please, angel.”

I did. He turned on the cold water so it ran over the wound, making the throbbing pain die down a little. I pushed my wet hair back from my forehead and watched blood wash away as he found a tube of antibiotic ointment in the first aid kit open on the counter next to the sink.

“This is expired, I’m afraid.”

Glancing over, I saw him holding the tube out to Zain and pointing to the date stamped on the end. The younger Top winced guiltily. Seb pulled away from his side and said, “I have more with my supplies. Hang on.”

“Sorry,” Zain said while his fiancé rushed off through the hallway door. “We try to replace things as needed, but with being away this whole past year–”

“Not a problem,” said Quint. “Theo, let me see your arm again so I can measure the gauze. You’ll also stay out of the ocean until it’s well on the way to healed.”

My mouth dropped open. I stared at him without moving and asked, “What, not even the shallows where it can’t get wet?!”

“You were in the shallows when you fell,” he said, calmly taking hold of my elbow and rotating me to look at the cut again. “The currents are too strong.”

Hotly, I began, “If Zain hadn’t distracted me–”

Then I saw Seb, coming back across the main room with another tube of ointment, freeze mid-step with that stricken expression he gets. Shame turned my ears red.

Following my gaze, Zain looked over his shoulder and reached a hand out for Seb. He didn’t wait for him to take it before turning his head back to say, in an apologetic tone, “I meant to warn, not distract.”

“I know,” I said, quieter.

“Then is there some other reason you’re mad at me, squirt?”

He sounded curious now. Not at all upset about it, though Seb, reluctantly letting himself be tugged back to the peninsula, clearly felt different. When I forced my eyes up to Quint’s, he was frowning, the doctor-mode replaced by pure Disapproving Top. My head hung. “No,” I said.

Well, it was true. I was mad at Zain for no reason.

“Sorry,” I added, to none of them in particular. “Maybe I am cranky from being jetlagged.”

“It’s too late in the day for a nap at this point,” said Quint. “However, we’ll do less strenuous activities for the rest of the afternoon, and you’ll be going to bed early. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

Finally, he got the tube from Seb, who said anxiously as he passed it over, “We can watch TV or movies. We have White Collar on DVD?”

I tried make my smile reassuring. “That sounds good.”

He relaxed. Next to him, though, Zain was studying me like I’d just performed an interesting magic trick. I bit my tongue so I wouldn’t ask him what he was looking at.

*

Despite what Quint said about napping, I felt his breathing go deep and even halfway through the second episode as I lay with my head on his thigh. Zain and Seb were entwined in one of the armchairs. Zain smiled, glancing over. “Poor guy. You two can both go to bed, if you want. We’ll keep it down.”

“We’re fine, thanks,” I said. I even managed to sound civil.

He looked more amused, but said nothing until a few minutes later, when Seb flinched at gunshots from the TV and softly exclaimed, “Merde!”

Laughing, Zain said, “Babe, that happens every time. How does it always startle you?”

Seb made a face at him. “Shut up. I forget. It’s not like we watch this episode that often, and part of why I like this show is that there aren’t a lot of guns in it.”

Zain shook his head and asked, “Still no chance of bringing you to the shooting range, huh?”

“No. It’s bad enough knowing you own that thing.”

I lifted my head from Quint’s lap in surprise. “You own the gun? Not, like, the military?”

Zain smiled once more. “Service weapons belong to the Marine Corps and stay on base, in the armory. I own a personal handgun. Which reminds me, I need to pick it up from the range storage tomorrow, so I can clean it and see about having a dealer send it to Maryland for us.”

Grimacing again, Seb said, “For you. I vote we leave it here.”

“Well, you’re forgetting this isn’t a democracy,” Zain replied cheerfully. “It’s a benevolent dictatorship. Now hush, before we wake Quint up.”

He hadn’t stirred. I wished he were awake to react to that. I felt certain he’d side with Seb.

*

Sleeping late is what always makes me truly get in a vacation mindset. Unfortunately, my body was still on New York time, so I woke up way earlier than I wanted the next morning. Still not early enough to beat Quint, though. I walked out of the hallway and saw the door to the bathroom partly open, letting out a cloud of steam, and in the midst of it, my husband with a towel wrapped around his waist and another slung over his shoulder. He was shaving.

My mouth watered. Quint shaves with a steel-handled safety razor and a badger hair brush to apply the cream, which he whips up from a solid block of soap in a little wooden bowl. Something about the old-fashioned masculinity of the ritual turns me on every time I’m lucky enough to watch him do it. Which isn’t often, because I’m usually not out of bed yet.

He must’ve slept in a bit, too, I thought as I put on a disappointed expression and stepped through the doorway. “Aw, I liked the caveman look yesterday.” His shoulder blade was conveniently near to being level with my mouth. I nipped at it.

He arched his back away from my teeth and smiled at me in the mirror. “I think you have enough stubble for both of us.”

“Nuh-uh.”

My arms wrapped across his torso, my hands slipping from his damp chest down lower, but he caught me by the wrist before I reached the knot of the towel. Firmly unwinding my hold, he said, “Seb is making breakfast. Go tell him what kind of eggs you’d like. Over easy for me, please.”

I bit my lip. “Oh, really? Because if over easy is what you want–”

“Go, Theo,” he cut me off, amused.

Probably wasn’t a good idea to start something with only one wall between us and Seb, anyway. Chuckling, I went around to the kitchen and found the other Brat at the stove.

Bonjour,” he said.

“Morning,” I replied, taking a seat on a bar stool. “Scrambled eggs for me, and Quint wants ‘em over easy.” Then I glanced behind me. “Where’s Zain?”

Seb shrugged. “Quint said he went to do an errand right after their run, but he should be back soon.”

It was fine by me if he took his time. A night’s sleep hadn’t improved my thoughts of him at all, I discovered. Seb would be upset if I let on to that, though, so I just nodded and watched him crack eggs.

A minute later, as Quint crossed to the hallway door and disappeared to get dressed, there was the sound of an engine from outside. “That’s Zain pulling into the driveway,” said Seb.

I felt myself tense. To cover it, I slid off the barstool, asking, “Which cupboard are the plates in? I’ll set the table.”

Seb pointed. I moved to it just before the front door opened and Zain strode in. He carried a black box—like a small briefcase with a lock on it—to the peninsula and set it down before going around the counter to kiss his fiancé. Seb returned it readily enough, but then he shot the box a dirty look as soon as their lips parted.

“Yeah, I know,” said Zain. “I’ll get it out of your sight in a sec, just wanted to say good morning first.” He let Seb go and patted me on the shoulder in passing. “Hey, squirt. How’s your arm?”

“Fine.”

My stilted answer made his lips twitch. I could swear he was enjoying me being annoyed. I watched him pick up the box again and take it across the living room, going through the same door to the hallway as Quint.

“Was that the gun?” I asked Seb.

He nodded and turned back to the stove.

I frowned. “It really bugs you, doesn’t it?”

One of his shoulders rose a little. His back was to me, but his voice sounded calm. “I understand why he keeps it. I just don’t like seeing it. And he’s good about that, usually. I don’t even know where he hides the box.”

I opened my mouth to ask another question, but never got the chance. Quint came out, fully-dressed, and Zain followed.

“So!” Zain said. “I was thinking since Theo can’t go in the water yet, how’s about we head inland today, do a hike? Diamond Head, or something less touristy and crowded, like the Kuliouou Ridge trail.”

“What if not all of us want to hike?” I asked, setting plates on the counter to fold my arms over my chest. “Seb, what do you want to do?”

He looked uncertainly from me to the two Tops and back. “A hike sounds good, but if you don’t want to, Theo–”

“I want to do what you want to do,” I repeated, silently adding, Not what Zain decides.

Seb’s eyes went even wider at my vehemence. “Um.”

With supreme politeness, Quint asked, “Zain, Seb, would you excuse us a moment, please?” and crooked a finger in my direction. Shit.

“Sure,” Zain said easily. He grabbed the plates I’d put down and started taking them to the table.

I felt Seb’s eyes on my back as I followed Quint, who waited until we got all the way to the guest room before he turned and asked, “What, exactly, has gotten into you, young man? Do you need more sleep?”

“No, I got plenty,” I mumbled at my feet.

“I thought you had, as well,” he said. His voice went less Toppy and more puzzled. “You were fine until Zain came home. What is bringing this on?”

“I don’t know.”

Eyebrow rising, he said, “It must be something. Would you like to stand in a corner and think it over?”

My fists clenched by my sides. “He’s just getting on my fucking nerves, and I don’t know why!”

Quint took a deep inhale. “Theodore William.”

Then, I’m not sure what happened. Some of my irritation with Zain spilled over into irritation with him, I guess, because I said, sweet and courteous, “Yes, Rafferty Leopold?”

Unsurprisingly, he reached out to take my arm and spin me around for a swat. I pulled back. Zain poked his head in the open door and grinned at us both.

“Yo, could I have a chat with you in private, Rafferty?”

Quint stared at him without dropping my arm. It was his pardon-me-did-I-hear-you-correctly stare, yet Zain just kept smiling like nothing was wrong.

I felt Quint’s hand squeeze my bicep once before he let go and said, “Theodore, stay here.”

The two of them went out together while I flopped onto the edge of the bed and scowled at the ceiling. I should’ve been glad Zain had saved me from a swat, but I just felt more angry. Who was he to interrupt? He wasn’t helping.

Zain

“You aren’t helping,” Quint said as I led him through mine and Seb’s bedroom and out the sliding glass door.

I brought him to the corner of the lanai, further out of earshot of the two Brats inside the house, turned, boosted myself onto the railing, and shrugged. “I didn’t mean to.”

He gave me the same Look I’d gotten for using his given name.

“You know that doesn’t work on me, right?” I asked with a grin.

Sighing, he dropped it and said, “Yes, I know, but at times it is entirely too tempting to swat you. Please explain why you didn’t intend to help me calm Theo down.”

“Because I don’t think calming down is what he needs to do,” I said. “Or at least, not until we’ve had it out. I’ve got lots and lots of experience with telling when a Brat really means they don’t know what they’re feeling or why, and I think that’s the case here.”

Of course, that basically gave away that I’d been eavesdropping on most of their conversation from outside the bedroom. Quint seemed unsurprised and unbothered. “Yes, I think so, as well,” he said. “However, Theo isn’t Seb.”

“No, if he were Seb, I’d say just spank him now. I know that won’t work. But I don’t think talking about it or standing him in a corner is going to be very effective either. I want to bring this to a head as soon as possible. If I keep annoying him, eventually he’ll blurt out whatever it is, and then we can deal with it and get on with our vacation.”

He hesitated. I watched him contemplate for a few seconds, and then shake his head. “I’d agree with your assessment, except the conflict between the two of you is already upsetting Seb. Do you think it wise to escalate it?”

Swinging my feet so my heels kicked against the balusters, I answered, “If it were any other week, I’d say yeah, let Seb see that conflict isn’t that big a deal. This week, though, he’s already struggling.” The effects of the spanking I gave him in the early hours of yesterday morning, before we picked up the other couple at the airport, were quickly starting to wear off. Plus, I could see Theo holding back for Seb’s sake. “That’s why you should take my Brat out for the day, and leave me here with yours,” I said, pointing to each of us in turn. “Theo and I will have it alllll sorted by this afternoon.”

Quint looked over my head, to the ocean behind me, but his eyes were vague, like he was thinking again more than watching it. I gave him time. He refocused on my face eventually. “Are you certain?”

With dead seriousness, I said, “I am absolutely certain that if I try hard, I can be extremely annoying.”

“No,” he said, “I meant are you certain you want to be left alone with Theo in this mood? Things turn ugly when he loses his temper. I would hate for your friendship with him to be damaged.”

I laughed. “I keep forgetting you’ve never seen Seb in a real snit.” He blinked a few times with surprise as I went on, “Theo can swear and stomp and insult me; I really don’t care. Hell, he can take a swing at me if he wants. I know how to defend myself without hurting him.”

“Well, I do care if he takes a swing at you. We’re working hard to break that pattern.”

“I’ll try not to let it get to that point, then.”

He nodded, and then sighed and crossed his arms. “I’m also not thrilled with the idea of encouraging rudeness. I put a stop to such behavior when I see it from him.”

Glancing sideways at the post next to me, I said, “Which is kinda why I wanted you out of the house, too.”

When I looked back, his eyebrows were up again. “Were you planning to mention that?”

“I just did?” I said, with a rueful sort of half-wince. “I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t try to manage you like that. Habit.”

“It’s alright,” he said, lowering the eyebrows. “I, too, find myself falling into habits, sometimes, when interacting with you. For instance, I’ve been fighting the urge to tell you to get off the railing since we came out here.” I snorted. Wryly, he added, “You really are very similar to Theo in many ways.”

“Thanks, that’s quite a compliment,” I said with sincerity.

He smiled softly. “You’re welcome. So, I will take Seb out as you suggest. I think it best if I don’t learn the details of what happens here while we’re gone unless it does, for any reason, involve violence. I’ll trust you to handle whatever else comes up.”

“Sounds good.” I hopped down onto the decking. “Shall we go break the news to them?”

“After you, please.” He gestured to the door. “Also, speaking of acting like Theo,” he added as I passed him, “I realize you were trying to annoy him, but I would appreciate you not calling me Rafferty in the future.”

“Couldn’t resist. Won’t do it again.” Glancing back over my shoulder before I stepped over the threshold, I grinned. “Admit it, though, you wish there was a longer version of my name you could use sometimes.”

“Yes,” he agreed without hesitation. His eyes sparkled amusement. “What’s your middle name?”

“Ayman.”

He followed me into the hallway, saying, “Zain Ayman. I’ll remember that.”

*

I don’t know how telling Theo the plan of the day went. Quint handled it while I did Seb, who greeted my cheerful announcement as I joined him in the kitchen with a look of horror.

“What? Why? I thought we were all going hiking.”

“We’ve got plenty of time to go hiking while they’re here,” I said, catching him close and starting to sway in a sort of dance. “It’s good to mix it up a little, not spend it all as a group. Plus this’ll give you and Quint the opportunity to do museums and art galleries without worrying about me and Theo embarrassing you with our inappropriate behavior, right?”

“Yeeesss,” he agreed doubtfully. “But Theo’s been acting weird. Towards you, especially.”

“Really? I didn’t notice. Well, whatever it is, I’m sure it’ll have passed by the time you get back.”

His eyes narrowed. “Zain, what are you planning?”

“Spending a day with a good friend.” I spun him around, dipped him, and kissed his nose. Still holding him hanging over my arm, I said, “You’re leaving after breakfast.”

“What if I refuse?” he asked.

I grinned. “Then you’re leaving after breakfast with a sore butt.”

“It’s already sore,” he grumbled as I let him stand up.

“Good! I won’t have to work as hard.”

“Awful.” Making one of his patented faces, he went around me to the toaster as bread popped out of it. “Fine, I’ll go.”

Pleased that he’d capitulated so easily, I followed to nibble on his neck while he buttered toast and tried elbowing me away at the same time. It didn’t work until Theo and Quint came out into the living room. The older Brat had a glower to curdle milk, which only faded slightly under the Bambi eyes from Seb.

Neither of them said much as we ate. Quint and I both ignored that and acted like it was a perfectly cordial breakfast, after which, Quint directed Seb to get his bag and meet him at the car. He went out with a last, worried look over his shoulder. The other Top stayed behind only long enough to bend down and say something into his husband’s ear. Theo glared at the table and just barely nodded. Then Quint left, too. We were finally alone.

Theo

You’d think he won something, with how smug he looks.

Smug and entertained and downright sunny. The moment Quint had gone, I’d slouched six inches in my chair and crossed my arms over my chest. Zain did the same thing. Then he tipped his chair back on its rear legs and braced his right knee against the edge of the table to keep himself balanced that way while we had a silent stare-down—me scowling, him smirking.

No way I’m blinking first, I thought. My shoulders hunched. Fight me.

The chair thunked back to the floor and he blinked, right before he stood up and began collecting plates from the place settings. “So, whadja wanna do today, squirt?

“Like it matters what I want,” I said, quickly recovering from my surprise. I knew our being alone together was his idea, even though Quint wouldn’t confirm it. “You said yourself this isn’t a democracy, it’s a benevolent dictatorship.”

Leaning over the table, he lowered his voice conspiratorially and said, “Actually, I stole that from Hawaii Five-0. The reboot series.”

“Whatever. It’s clearly what you believe, too,” I said.

“Hmmmmm…” He squinted like he was considering a new solution to the magic trick I presented, and then shook his head. “Nope, that’s not why. You knew what I meant. You trust me with Seb; we’ve gone down that road before. Try again, squirt.”

“Try what again?”

More to himself than in answer to my question, he mulled, “Maybe it’s because you trust me,” as he carried the plates off to the kitchen.

I didn’t see why I needed to stay there for a one-sided conversation, so I left. I went right out the back of the house without putting shoes on, down the steps, and over the lawn to the seawall. The tide was higher than it had been yesterday when we’d gone swimming. Water lapped against the bottom of the concrete. Discretely, I glanced over my shoulder. Zain hadn’t appeared yet to stop me. His house, his rules, huh? Then where is he?

I put one leg over the seawall and planted my foot right in the waves. A moment later, it registered how frickin’ cold the ocean was at this time of morning. I gritted my teeth against it. At least the rock I was standing on felt smooth, not like the jagged shards that cut me.

Thinking about that made my arm ache harder. I put my hand protectively over the bandage Quint had covered it with, as if that would keep it dry if I fell again. “Don’t be dumb,” I muttered to myself. “It was just a rip current. Stay closer to shore this time, you’ll be fine.”

But my other foot felt stuck on the dry ground. I was remembering, now, Quint applying the bandage with gentle touches. He was the one who told me I couldn’t go into the water until it healed, not Zain. As long as I only had one foot in, I could just about convince myself I was obeying that order and had nothing to feel guilty about.

Zain would probably tattle to Quint anyway, though. I looked behind me again. He was nowhere to be seen outside still. Was he even paying attention?

Huffing, I pulled my dripping foot back over the seawall and stomped across the grass and porch to the sliding glass door I’d left open. Once my eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, I could clearly see him standing at the kitchen sink. Washing dishes.

“Are you even paying attention?” I demanded.

Without looking over, he flung out his nearest hand to point a soapy finger squarely in my direction. “Don’t you disrespect me, little man!”

My stomach did more than a flip. It was like a complicated tumbling pass from a gymnastics floor routine or something.

In the next second, before I could collect my jaw off the floor to say anything, he went on, in a weird, dramatic, accented voice, “Don’t you derogate or deride. You’re in my world now, not your world,”—and then… he sang the last bit while raising his pointing finger to the ceiling—“and I got friiiends on the other side.”

It was a goddamn Disney song. I closed my eyes, my heart still thumping in my chest.

Zain went on in a speaking voice, though he was still playing the villain from The Princess and the Frog. “That’s an echo, gentlemen. Just a little something we have here in Louisiana, little parlor trick, don’t worry.”

Darkly, I said, “I wasn’t worried.”

He snorted and kept singing. “Sit down at my table, put your mind at ease. If you relax it will enable me to do anything I please.”

If he thought I was going to follow those instructions, he had another thought coming. I went and lay on the couch, picked up the remote, and pressed buttons until the TV and DVD player turned on. Two could play at the ignoring game.

A few minutes later, water stopped running in the kitchen. Zain came over to the side of the couch where my feet were propped up on the armrest. I didn’t look at him. “Figured it out yet?” he asked.

What out?”

“What you want to do today, why you’re mad at me, the mysteries of the universe. Whichever.”

I shouldn’t have answered him at all. Determined not to make that mistake again, I turned the volume on the TV up.

“Well, keep working on it, I have faith in you,” he said, merrily. Then I felt him take the tip of my big toe and wiggle it. “This little piggy went to the market–”

I jerked away, forgetting all about not speaking to him or looking at him. “What are you doing?!”

He grinned in the face of my glare. “Isn’t it obvious? I’m playing This Little Piggy. Also checking that you didn’t cut yourself again. It was this foot, right?”

It was. And my foot had dried, which meant he must’ve watched the whole thing from inside the house to know. Wary, I asked, “Are you going to tell Quint I did that?

“No.”

The amused way he said the word did nothing to ease my distrust. My eyes narrowed. “Are you going to make me tell him?”

Zain shook his head, still smiling. “Not unless you want me to.”

“Does that mean you want me to tell him freely?”

“Do you want me to want you to tell him?”

I was going to commit murder. “Why can’t you just give me a straight answer!”

He pulled on a disappointed expression and said, “A straight answer? That’s a bit homophobic. I’d expect more from you, Theo. Now, where was I? Oh, right!” Leaning over to wiggle my second toe, he sing-songed, “This little piggy stayed home–”

“Stop it!” I yanked my feet farther out of reach. Zain immediately plopped down on the cushion where they’d been and began to watch the TV. I stared at him in astonished indignation. “Excuse me, I was here first.”

He shrugged one shoulder. “Move your feet, lose your seat.”

“Really?” I asked. “You’re going to– How old are you?”

Glancing over, he said, “Twenty-three,” in a puzzled tone. “Ten years younger than you, remember, squirt?”

It wasn’t worth pointing out that I was still thirty-two, actually, until August. That’s probably what he wanted me to do. I just sat up and turned to the TV myself so I wasn’t facing him.

After a moment, he yawned, stretching his arms over his head and then along the top of the backrest. “This couch is so comfy. I’m gonna miss it in Maryland.”

I stood. “I’m going to take a shower.” It was the one place I could think of where I wouldn’t have to listen to him talk.

His head tilted a little as he looked up at me, giving him that curious-puppy appearance, but he wasn’t smiling the way he usually did. More of the magic show. What the hell did he keep finding so interesting?

“…Is there a problem with that?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said. “I need to clean my gun before Seb gets home, anyway. The solvents I use smell pretty bad, so I’ll do it while you’re in there and don’t have to endure the stink.”

Good. Maybe that would keep him out of my hair for awhile. I went to get a change of clothes out of my suitcase before locking myself in the bathroom.

Zain

Curiouser and curiouser. Theo didn’t take the—admittedly conspicuous—bait about our age difference, or the react much to the reminder that Seb didn’t like me owning a gun. There’d been some other clue in that conversation, though. I knew it. I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Thinking about that, I carried the lockbox and cleaning kit from the bedroom onto the lanai, where the fumes from the solvents would linger less.

Seb would kill me for saying this, but disassembling and thoroughly cleaning a gun is a bit of a meditative experience. It demands your full attention and respect for what the weapon can do. I checked over each part carefully for signs of problems as I worked. If I ever needed to use it in a real situation, it had to be reliable. Then I put it back together with even more caution and replaced it in the box before inserting the key and locking it up safe again.

I was coming back inside when I heard a yelp of pain from the guest bathroom. Frowning, I put everything in my hands down on the bed and hurried to see what had happened.

The bathroom doorknob refused to turn. I couldn’t hear anything at all now. “Squirt?” I called. “You okay in there?”

“Fine. Go away.”

Well, he sounded annoyed rather than hurt, so it must not be too bad. “You sure? ‘Cuz Quint won’t be happy if he comes back and you’re more maimed than he left you. Let me in.”

“I’m redoing my bandage because it got wet in the shower. I don’t need help. Fuck off.”

I had a flashback to spring break, him giving me basically the same suggestion from behind another locked door, and the look on his face when Seb did his almost-Murder-Walk. It made me laugh. “Really? Refusing help in a medical situation is what you’re gonna challenge me on now?” I asked, leaning my side against the wall. “May I remind you who my Brat is? This is my bread and butter, squirt. I also have experience with taking these doors off their hinges, but it’d be easier if you just opened it, wouldn’t it?”

Snarkily, he said, “Aye aye, sir.” He probably tried to salute, too.

Holding back more laughter, I asked, “Do you know what ‘aye aye’ means?”

“It means ‘yes’?” Theo said, like he thought I was dumb.

I shook my head even though he couldn’t see. “Actually, it means, ‘I heard the order, I understood the order, and I intend to obey the order immediately.’”

“Oh. Well in that case, I take it back.”

I doubled over. He was killing me. I wondered if he’d let me pay him to re-enact this scene with a select few of my old superiors.

When I had myself mostly under control, I said, “Okay, have it your way.” Seb makes his own frames and stretches his own canvases sometimes, so he has hammers and nails with his art supplies. I was pretty sure I brought home that box from the storage unit.

It turned out to be the bottom one in a pile of still-packed boxes in his studio. Once I’d found it, I had to dig through it for a nail long enough to force the hinge pins up from the bottom. I kept my ear out for Theo moving around while I did. My search made a lot of noise, but I didn’t think I heard anything from him. Which is why I was surprised to find the door open and the bathroom empty upon my return.

The surprise only lasted a second. Then I thought with amusement, Finding disappeared Brats is my bread and butter too, squirt. I knew a lot more hiding places around here than he did, and he hadn’t had time to get to half of them. Although… hiding isn’t your style, is it? Planting your feet is.

Maybe he’d decided to plant them in the ocean again. I left the hammer and nail on the bathroom counter and started across the living room before I noticed the hall door was open farther than it had been. Ah-ha.

I expected to find him in the guest room. The second I stepped through the doorway, though, I saw I was wrong again. He stood just visible with his back to me, bent forward slightly at the foot of mine and Seb’s bed.

Where I’d left the gun lockbox and the key.

It seemed in the next instant I teleported directly to him. I snapped the lid of the box—still with the deadly weapon nestled inside, thank god—shut, almost on his fingers. My other hand connected against his backside. Hard enough to make my own face contort from the sting.

Theo shot upright and stared at me with his mouth hanging open on a gasp of pain and shock. I stared back, my palm pressing firmly down on the lockbox like part of me expected him to try opening it.

He swallowed.

“I… Please don’t tell Quint.”

Despite everything, a grim laugh nearly escaped. “Squirt,” I said, “it’s not Quint you need to be worried about at the moment. Out.”

His eyes shone with tears as he obeyed.

Theo

I was packing up my suitcase when Zain came into the guest room. I couldn’t look at him. He stood in my peripheral vision and watched me tug on the stuck zipper.

“Theo? What’re you doing?”

I sniffled, but my voice came out pretty steady as I said, “Getting ready, so when Quint gets back we can leave quicker.”

“You’re not leaving for days yet,” he said, puzzled.

That made me risk a glance over. “You… you said ‘out.’”

His frown cleared into surprise, and then compassion. “I meant out of the bedroom while I put the gun where you wouldn’t be able to find it,” he said. “Not that I’m kicking you out of the house.”

“Oh.”

Well, I felt foolish. Even more so than relieved. Zain wasn’t anything like my father; I shouldn’t have expected him to react the same way. And now he looked concerned to the point of bordering on guilt, when if anyone should be suffering from that, I should.

After a moment, he pointed to my arm. I glanced down to see my clumsy, one-handed attempt at a gauze bandage over the cut. “Looks like the tape’s coming loose,” he said. “Will you let me help this time?”

I nodded and followed him as he made a c’mon jerk with his head. We returned to the bathroom. A hammer and a long nail were laid on the edge of the sink, next to the first aid stuff I’d left out. “I guess you weren’t joking about taking the door of its hinges,” I said, in a vague stab at lightening the mood. He still looked way too serious. It was freaking me out.

“No,” he said, distracted, as he removed the bandage completely. “This is bleeding again. What did you do to it?”

“Accidentally stuck tape on it, and when I peeled it off some of the scab came with it,” I said. That had been the yelp that made him come see what was wrong.

He studied my arm closer, bending over it. “Did you wash it again or put on antibiotic?”

“No.”

With a washcloth from a towel bar on the wall wetted under the tap, he dabbed around the bloody spot. Then he put the cloth down to pick up the tube of ointment Quint had used.

I bit my lip. Babar might be one room over in the studio, but there was an elephant in here, too.

“Zain?” I began, watching him squeeze ointment onto the cut. “I’m sorry about… opening the box. I swear I wasn’t going to take the gun out.”

His fingers paused spreading the antibiotic on my skin. Meeting my nervous gaze, he asked, “What the hell were you thinking?” Half exasperated and half curious.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I was mad at you for saying you were going to ship it to Maryland when you knew it would bother Seb, and–”

“No, you weren’t,” he interrupted, rolling his eyes. “We ruled that out, remember? You know I do a lot of things that bother Seb, and you know why that’s okay. And you were pissed at me way before you even found out I had a gun, weren’t you? You just latched onto it as a convenient–” He broke off himself, now, like he’d been struck by a thought.

“What?”

“Maryland. You get mad when I talk about Seb and I living together in Maryland. Actually, any time I get between you and Seb or make it clear that this is my house with him and you’re the guest instead of the other way around, but especially if Maryland comes up. All the discussion over the move while we ate lunch yesterday, talking about shipping the gun to Maryland, me missing the couch in Maryland. You’re pissed at me for taking Seb away. Am I right?”

Do they teach Tops mindreading, or is it an inborn gift? I knew as he was saying it that he’d hit the nail squarely on the head. Yet, even when I admitted to myself it was a truly stupid reason to be mad at him, the wave of irritation just got stronger. Like not knowing what it was about had been a barrier holding it back. My jaw clenched as I nodded.

Zain just went on explaining. “So you wanted to do something that would really and truly bother me, like this has been bothering you, something I couldn’t laugh off, and then you see the lockbox and the key just laying there in plain sight. Still sounding correct?”

“Yes.”

One corner of his lips turned up. “Well. You were right. I can’t laugh it off.” Then he went back to tending my arm, shaking his head a little and saying, softer, “But I shouldn’t have swatted you. Neither you nor Quint—nor Seb, for that matter—ever gave me consent to use physical discipline. I’m sorry.”

I’d deserved it. With the way I still felt, though, I wasn’t about to tell him that. Instead, I muttered, “Quint’ll do a lot more than swat me when he finds out. It’ll be the belt again. Second time this summer.” I’d never earned it twice in the same year before. “Between that and cutting myself, this is turning into some vacation.”

“I’m sorry about that, too.” He put a strip of folded gauze over the cut. “Hold this here a sec, so I can tape it.”

I’ll do it.” I tried to take the tape out of his hand, and he stuck it behind his back and cocked his head at me.

“Ohhh. Still pissed, huh?”

I glared. “Yes! And I know I shouldn’t be!”

“S’alright,” he said, understanding. “I’d be pissed, too, if someone else was taking Seb away. You love him a lot.”

“I don’t need your sympathy.” For some reason, I could not stop being nasty to him. It made it worse that he was now fully back to his usual self and just shrugged.

“Okay. But you do need your bandage redone unless you want Quint coming back and finding you without it, and I’m the one with the tape, so.”

Put like that, he left me no choice. The last thing I wanted was to be in even more trouble. I thrust my arm out.

Zain

I applied the last strip of tape, securing the edge of the gauze to Theo’s skin, and straightened up. “There, all set.”

He watched me gather the first aid stuff, along with the hammer and nail, and then followed me out to return them to the studio and kitchen where they belonged. It wasn’t until I was closing the drawer in the kitchen that he asked, sullenly, “So, what now?”

“I’m not sure.” I scratched my nose as I thought. “You really weren’t going to take the gun out?”

“No, I just wanted to see it.”

“But you still think Quint would use the belt for that?”

He looked down and nodded. That meant he had no reason to lie about his intentions, which made me feel fractionally better. If something had happened… Just thinking about it now, I wanted to swat him again.

I tried to keep the desire from showing. I’d been ready to read him the riot act over playing with guns, muttering everything I planned to say to myself as I hid the lockbox and the key in separate locations. Until I found him packing to leave. My reaction in the heat of the moment must have hurt emotionally as well as physically, to make him think I was kicking him out. I didn’t want to repeat that mistake.

And I felt partly responsible for the whole situation. If I hadn’t annoyed him quite so much, or had kept a closer watch on him, or, most of all, hadn’t violated a basic gun safety rule by leaving the key and lockbox together, he wouldn’t have been able to land himself in so much trouble.

Both parts of me—the one with the itchy palm and the one with the guilty conscience—agreed on not wanting him to get a belting from Quint. Half out of pity and half a desire to teach him this lesson myself, so I could be sure he’d think long and hard before going near a firearm in the future. Would Quint let me do that, though? Would Theo?

Even after we took care of that, he’d still be mad at me for being the reason Seb was moving.

“You’re planning to tell him anyway, aren’t you?” he snapped suddenly.

“Yes?” I said, blinking. Not telling Quint was never an option. I figured Theo knew that.

He reacted, though, like I’d broken some kind of promise. “I knew it! I knew you wouldn’t just let it go! And you’re going to tell him about me putting my foot in the fucking water, I bet.”

“No,” I said, frowning. “I meant it earlier when you asked about that. Whether you tell him or not is completely up to you there, but for the gun…. Squirt, did you really think I’d keep it from him?”

“I didn’t touch it! It wasn’t even loaded, was it?!”

I closed my eyes. “Every gun,” I began quietly, “is always loaded. Even if you just unloaded it yourself, it’s still loaded. Got it?”

“Yeah,” he said, more sulky and mulish. Maybe the belt was what he needed. From what he’d told me before, it always left an impression of the seriousness of his actions, at least. Unless I could find some way to cut through the anger and get him to listen.

I sighed. To stall for more thinking time, I said, “I’m gonna watch TV. You can join me if you want.”

He didn’t follow me over to the couch. I flicked the TV on and started playing a DVD, keeping one eye on him across the room. After pacing between the kitchen and dining table several times, he suddenly spun and headed for the back door. As he slid it open, I said, “Stay in sight, okay?”

“Oh, you’re going to pay attention now?” he asked. “Not just ignore me?”

Taken completely aback, I asked, “When was I ignoring you, squirt?”

He jabbed his hand towards the kitchen. “A minute ago! You start a lecture and then the next second it’s ‘do what you want, Theo, I don’t care.’”

Oh. Well, shit.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I really didn’t mean it to sound that way. I’m used to Seb, and a lot of time standing around thinking about what might happen isn’t good for him, so I try to avoid it. You’ll probably feel more comfortable waiting in a corner while I consider what to do, though, right?”

For a moment, he was speechless. Then he said, “Quint’s never given you permission to corner me,” but his voice sounded more surprised than angry.

“Yeah,” I said, “that’s why I’m not saying you have to, I just thought it might make it feel less like I’m ignoring you if there’s some familiar purpose to it.”

His mouth opened and closed again on a huff. Then he marched himself over to the far back corner, directly in my line of sight, and stood there with his arms crossed. If he turned his head even a fraction of an inch to either side he’d be able to look out two windows. I snorted softly. I was fairly certain an ocean view violated the spirit of cornering, but to be fair, there weren’t many to pick from, so I let him be.

Theo

“Zain?”

“Y’know, I’m new to this whole ‘corner’ thing, so correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t there some kind of rule about talking?”

I shot him a look over my shoulder. “Not when you put yourself there.”

Grinning, he said, “Fair enough. What?”

“Are you done thinking yet?” I asked. Ten minutes had to have gone by, at least.

“Yeah, I’m done.” He held up his phone. “I just texted Quint to come back.”

My gut clenched.

“I didn’t tell him about the gun,” Zain said. “Figured you’d want a chance to do it yourself.”

Oh, good, so I’d get to witness firsthand Quint’s look of shock, disappointment, and fear of me getting hurt.

It’s not like I was planning to keep it from him, though. My earlier outburst at Zain was mostly me venting frustration with the whole mess I’d created for myself. I knew Quint had to find out. But that didn’t make it any easier to face telling him. I turned back to the corner with a sigh and let my forehead rest against the wall. Why did I unlock that damn box? With the back of my knuckles, I wiped tears from my eyes.

Zain came up behind me so silently I didn’t notice until his arms were around my middle. He squeezed. “Hey, it’s gonna be okay, squirt. I promise.”

“Stop it,” I mumbled. “I’m still pissed at you.”

“Too bad, so sad,” he said, and went on holding me. I let him. He felt very solid and warm against my back. Maybe half a minute later, he let go with one arm and shifted, then said, “Quint replied. They’ll be here in a few minutes. Do you want to come sit on the couch with me while we wait, or stay here?”

I surprised myself by saying, “Stay.” And not because I was angry with Zain, either. It just seemed more ‘right,’ somehow.

“Thought so,” he said as he gave me a last hug and then stepped away. I didn’t ask what he meant by that.

Zain

I went out to meet the Fiat pulling into the driveway. Quint unfolded himself from the passenger seat as I came down the front steps. I saw his gaze go behind me. “Where’s Theo?” he asked.

“In a corner in the living room,” I said, “or at least, he was a second ago.” I couldn’t tell if his expression then was just surprised, or disapproving, so I added, “Of his own free will. I only suggested he go there.”

Now it was definitely surprise. “He cornered himself?”

“Yeah. Has he ever done that before?”

“On occasion,” he said, looking thoughtfully at the house.

Seb, who’d climbed out of the driver’s seat as we spoke, asked, “What happened? Is he okay?”

“He will be,” I said. “But, Quint, you should talk to him alone first. He’s got something to tell you.”

The other Top nodded and passed me to go inside. Meanwhile, I stepped closer to Seb, almost pinning him against the car.

“What?” he asked.

I smiled. “How’d your outing go? You were pretty close to home when I texted. Must not have gotten far.”

“We went up to the lookout point,” he said. “Quint wanted to see a view.”

He didn’t sound overly defensive. I nodded, accepting that, and then said, “Okay. I need to know how you feel about me spanking Theo.”

“…Um.”

“Take your time, habibi,” I said. “If you feel at all unsure, I won’t even bring it up with them. I’m your Top.”

“No, I don’t mind that, I just…” He made a face. “I feel guilty giving you permission, knowing what I could be getting Theo into.”

I snorted. “Theo got himself into it, babe.”

He didn’t ask what Theo did, and I didn’t expect him to. After a moment more of thought, he met my gaze steadily. “Okay. If you think it’s best for him, go ahead.”

“Good. That means I gotta go in and talk to him and Quint.”

“I’ll go for a walk,” he volunteered.

“Nope,” I said, taking him around the shoulders and pulling him towards the door that led directly to his studio. “You’ll go unpack those boxes I brought home. Sorry they’re disorganized; I had to get into one today.”

Stopping in his tracks, he said, “Zain, it makes no sense to unpack them! I’ll just have to pack them up again before we leave!”

We were standing by the rear bumper of the car, conveniently. I put my foot up on it and bent him over my leg. His arms flailed before grabbing onto my shin as I applied six quick swats to his lower butt. Then, resting my hand on his pants just above the target area, I asked, “Understand?”

He nodded immediately.

I let him up. The blush I’d put into his visible set of cheeks was so adorable, I had to kiss his nose. It scrunched under my lips.

“See, this is why I feel bad for Theo,” he grumbled as I pulled away.

“Go,” I said, pushing him towards the studio. “I’ll pack it up again. If you run out of boxes to unpack, start painting, alright?”

“Yeah,” he said. I watched to be sure he actually went into the studio before I headed for the front door.

Theo

Quint had walked in and asked, “Angel, what happened?” and I was pretty much crying from that point on. Not sobs, but tears and sniffles and little unsteady breaths. He guided me from the corner over to the couch, held me, and said, “Whatever it is, I still love you.”

I choked out, “Love you, too.”

“Zain said you had something to tell me?” he asked as he wiped tears from my face with his thumb.

“Yeah.” I swallowed while I gathered my nerves. “Well… first, I put a foot in the ocean even though you said to stay out of the water until the cut heals.”

He frowned. “Only one foot?”

Nodding, I said, “I was, uh, sort of testing Zain. Wanted to see what he’d do. But he didn’t seem to react—or, I don’t know, really, because he was inside where I couldn’t see him, but he must’ve been watching anyway. When he didn’t come out and stop me, I stopped myself.”

“Alright,” he said, slowly. “I’m glad you decided not to push it further, and thank you for telling me. Something makes me suspect that’s not why you’re so upset, however.”

“No,” I admitted. “I was still mad at him. I took a shower just to get some time away, and after, I had to change my bandage and I refused to let him come into the bathroom to help.”

His gaze dropped for a moment to the dressing on my arm. “It looks like he did help you, though.”

“Yeah, that was later,” I said. Okay, now was the time I had to tell him. I gulped a deep breath.

The front door opened to let Zain in. He took one look at us across the room, gave me a sympathetic smile, and asked, “Should I come back? Although, Quint, I do need to talk to you both right after Theo’s done, before you do anything.”

What did that mean? Was he going to try convincing Quint not to use the belt afterall? Or maybe just apologize for swatting me? “You can stay,” I said. “I was at the point where I locked myself in the bathroom.”

He nodded and walked over to sit in the armchair closest to us. Quint asked, “What happened then, angel?”

Another tear fell as I blinked. “Zain went to get tools to take the door off its hinges. While he was gone, I came out of the bathroom. I felt so mad. I just wanted to get away from him, so I decided to get my shoes from the guest room. I stepped into the hallway, and… and….” My head hung. “I saw the lockbox where he keeps his gun at the end of his and Seb’s bed. The key was right on top of it.” Holding my trembling hands together, I looked sideways at him and said, “I wasn’t planning to take the gun out, I promise. I only opened it. Five seconds later, Zain came in and shut it again.”

All the blood had drained from Quint’s face. He glanced to Zain, who looked back with a serious, regretful expression and said nothing. In a pained voice, Quint asked, “Why would you do that, Theo? Even not taking it out, you must have known it was dangerous. Why?”

“I didn’t know why when I did it,” I said to the floor, unable to face him any longer. “Zain helped me see it was because I wanted him to be upset too, not joking around like he’d been all morning no matter how badly I behaved.”

“He succeeded,” Zain said quietly. “I was terrified when I saw him standing over that weapon. My emotions got the better of me. I swatted him, which I had absolutely no right to do. I’m sorry.”

“I don’t blame you,” said Quint, equally quiet.

“I also never should have left the key and box together in plain sight,” Zain said. “I had just finished cleaning the gun when I heard Theo yelp from the bathroom, and I set them down without thinking. That won’t happen again. I’m going to buy a box with a different locking mechanism.”

“Thank you, but if you had left it unlocked, Theo still should not have gone near it.” Quint’s hand caught my chin and nudged it upward. I made myself meet his stern eyes. He asked, “Is that the end of what you need to tell me, young man?”

I sniffed. “Yes, sir.”

“And Zain? Did you only want to apologize, or was there something else?”

“There was, actually,” said Zain, leaning forward in the chair with his elbows on his knees. “I wanted to ask you both if I could handle the discipline for this myself.”

He what?

Quint said nothing. He also didn’t look too surprised. After a moment, Zain continued, “Seb’s already given his permission. I know this is a lot to ask, believe me, but I think it’s the best way for everyone. This happened between Theo and I. He’s still mad at me, too, because Seb’s moving away. Right, squirt? I just don’t think you spanking him would resolve much, Quint.”

My husband frowned at me. “Your anger with Zain is because of Seb moving out?”

I nodded and muttered, “I know it’s dumb.”

“No, it’s not,” Zain said. “We can get into why later, if you’re both willing to let me do this.”

Quint seemed to be gazing into the distance, but then I noticed he was looking towards the corner I’d been standing in. “You cornered yourself?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, a little puzzled.

Zain added, “Twice. I asked if he wanted to come out after I texted you, and he chose to stay there.”

The two of them shared a significant look.

Turning back to me, Quint said, “You only do that, Theo, when you truly feel you need discipline and I haven’t started it for some reason. The fact that you did it for Zain, when he was unable to, suggests to me you’ve already chosen which of us you’d like to handle this.”

“That’s what I thought,” Zain said. “I mean, I didn’t know about any previous times he’d cornered himself, but I could see Seb doing it for the same reasons.”

I wanted to protest that I wasn’t like Seb that way. The more I considered it, though, the less I could deny it. Still, I wasn’t sure I wanted Zain to do the whole thing.

“How would you discipline him,” Quint asked, “if we did give you permission?”

“Memorably,” said Zain. “My primary objective is to make sure you, Theo, have second, third, fourth, and fifth thoughts about ever going near a firearm again as long as you live, so I want to use an implement completely unfamiliar to you. Have you ever been switched?”

My eyes widened. “Uh. No, I haven’t.”

“That’d be a good choice, then,” he said. “I use switches on Seb for dangerous behavior too, so I’m more confident with them than a belt.”

Quint nodded. Taking a breath, he said, “Theodore, I’m going to leave this up to you. If you choose me, I’ll be using my belt, since that is the agreed-upon punishment between us for these situations. Regardless of your decision, however, once it’s over, that will be the end of it. I’m not going to punish you twice.”

I looked from him to Zain. Both simply waited, though Zain’s expression was a touch less patient, in the way that everyone is less patient when compared to Quint. “…I think,” I said, “that– that Zain should do it.” Then I clamped my lips together and wondered what I’d just signed up for. A switch?

But if Quint did it, it’d only be addressing part of the issue. The gun part, not the anger. I wanted all of it over with so we could finally have a good vacation.

“You’re sure?” asked Zain.

“Yeah,” I said. “Or as sure as I’m gonna be.”

He smiled briefly. “Okay. Mind waiting on the back lanai for me a minute?”

Before I stood, Quint gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Then I left them to go out the sliding door. The ocean view was just as beautiful as it had been earlier in the corner. I rested my hands on the railing and gazed at it. And waited.

Just once, I glanced behind me to see if I could figure out what they were saying by watching through the window, but they’d moved to the kitchen. So all I had left to do was wonder how you cut a switch, and how much a switching would hurt. And why I didn’t think to ask Seb that the first time he mentioned them.

Zain

For a few seconds Quint stayed where he was, his gaze on his husband’s back. Then he sighed heavily before getting up and walking to the kitchen with the air of someone without a purpose in mind other than to move. I followed. Turning to me as he reached the stove, he said, “I don’t know how you do this with Seb. Allowing someone else to take part.”

I lifted myself onto the counter facing him. “Second thoughts?”

“No, you’re right. It has to be you.” He didn’t even seem to notice where I was sitting. “It’s just difficult.”

“I know.” Boy, did I. “Any tips?”

He looked passed me, through the window again, and crossed his arms. “For something like this, I’d have him take his own pants down, as a sign that he accepts responsibility for his actions. I also ask him why he’s being punished. If he’s unclear on that, take the time to go over it until he understands. He doesn’t try to muffle himself like Seb, but he may reach behind, so you should grip his wrist to prevent him from getting hit on the hand.”

I nodded. “Okay, I will.” That gave me another question, though. “If he doesn’t hold back the tears much, how do you know when to stop?”

“Typically I have the number of strokes in mind before I start with an implement,” said Quint. “It’s not set in stone, and I never tell him, but I find that makes it less likely I’ll end too early.”

“Makes sense. Do you have any experience with being on the receiving end of a switch?”

His eyebrow quirked. “No, none.”

“I always test each individual one on myself, so I’ve got too much,” I said, grinning. “They’re very stingy.” Then, with more caution, I added, “He’ll probably get welts on his skin. Is that alright?”

“I expected he would,” Quint said. “The same thing usually happens with the belt. It’s fine.”

That was a relief. “Okay,” I said. “I shouldn’t keep him waiting too long, so unless you have anything else for me to keep in mind…”

He sighed again, softer. “Yes, one more thing. Unlike Seb, he can talk during it, and he’ll probably plead with you to stop. It’s more or less automatic babbling; he doesn’t expect anything to come by it. However, it can be… hard to listen to. Remember that he won’t hold it against you if you continue.”

It must’ve been rough on him before he figured that out. “Thanks for the warning.” I slid off the counter. “I’m gonna do it outside so you won’t be able to overhear. There’s plenty of cover in the trees. Seb’s unpacking boxes in his studio. Would you mind keeping him company?”

“I was about to suggest the same,” he said.

As he walked passed me to go around the corner, I gave him a pat on the shoulder. “Thanks.”

Theo

I jumped at the sound of the door sliding open again. Zain said, “C’mon, squirt,” and clattered down the steps to the lawn.

“You’re going to call me that while you’re punishing me?” I asked sourly, hurrying to catch up.

He shot an amused look back. “I thought you’d object to ‘young man’ from someone ten years younger than you. Is ‘Theodore’ better?”

I was not about to be tricked into asking him to full-name me. I buttoned my lips together and just followed him over the grass to a bunch of trees and bushes and stuff at the side of the house. It looked like the edge of a jungle. Actually, given that we were in Hawaii, it probably was the edge of a jungle.

“I’ll show you what I’m looking for,” Zain said, gently moving a frond aside and disappearing into the vegetation like he did it all the time.

I picked my way more carefully. Roots and creepers threatened to trip me, especially with how much more dim the sunlight got under the trees. Once I was through the first yard or so, though, it thinned out into almost a clearing with heavier foliage on all sides.

Zain stood a few feet away. He’d bent down a branch and was studying the shoots sprouting off it. “Nope, all too thin.” He let it spring upward and grabbed another. “Ah, here’s a good one. Come and see.”

Stepping closer, I looked at it. “I see… a branch?”

“Yeah, but notice the thickness and how long and straight it is.” he said. “That’s what you need to look for. Doesn’t matter if there’s twigs or leaves on it like this one, though. We’ll trim them off.” Then he took a folded pocket-knife from his shorts and held it out. “Show me what you find before you cut it. Seb doesn’t like damaging them unnecessarily.”

My stomach jerked sideways. Without taking the knife, I asked, “Why can’t you cut this one, then?”

He rolled his eyes a little. “That would defeat the whole purpose of making it memorable. You’re going to find the switch and you’re going to cut it. I’ll take the bark off for you, only because that’s tricky and I don’t want you slicing yourself, but the rest is part of the punishment. Think of it like an extended version of pulling your own pants down, okay?”

I swallowed. I had imagined I’d be cutting the switch, but facing the reality of it was a different thing entirely, a hundred times worse than when Quint sends me to fetch the paddle.

“The longer you stall, the longer this’ll take,” Zain said, not unkindly. “I’d start with that tree there.” He nodded to one. “I remember last time Seb climbed too high in it and I switched him, he found one within seconds.”

I picked up the knife from his palm and made myself go over and start looking, trying to keep in mind the example he’d shown me. It took me way longer than a few seconds. The first one I called him over to look at was too short, and the second too thin.

“About like this,” he said, holding his thumb and forefinger apart. “Otherwise it’ll break skin.”

I shuddered. “Have you ever done that?”

“Only on myself. Keep looking.”

The third one, he pronounced perfect, and then stood next to me supervising while I cut it off, like I’d never used a knife before. As soon as the shoot was free of the tree, he took it along with the knife.

“Good job, squirt.” He walked away about ten feet, stripping leaves and bits of bark from the switch and dropping them on the ground, until he reached another tree with a low, sturdy branch that curved down near the trunk in a U-shape. I thought he was going to have me bend over it, but he sat on it himself, still preparing the switch.

Once it was completely bare, he ran his hand over it from end to end. Then he shoved up the hem of one leg of his shorts and flicked it a few times against his inner thigh. Little red marks appeared. He rubbed them briefly before pulling the hem back down. “Alright, c’mere.”

My mouth opened to tell him he was crazy, and then I pictured Quint’s expression when he found out about the gun. I deserved this. Stomach flip-flopping with every step, I crossed to stand in front of Zain. “Uh. Over your knee?”

“Yeah, but tell me why you’re being punished first,” he said.

Hanging my head, I answered, “For opening the lockbox.”

“Yep. Pants down.”

I felt my ears heating up as my fingers clumsily undid my fly and pushed my jeans to my knees. Standing there in my underwear, I could’ve been the one who was ten years younger.

Zain didn’t wait for me to bare my butt completely. Instead, he moved his legs wider apart, patted the left, and said, “Over. I’ll do the rest.”

I bent forward. It felt… very odd, is the only way I can describe it. Not only because I was in a more jackknifed position than usual with just one thigh supporting me, but because all my nerves were yelling not Quint, not Quint! Zain’s build was more defined, his lap wasn’t quite as deep, and the skin I could see as my head hung down near his shins had a different tone.

Then his hands hooked into the waistband of my boxers. “Lif’ upf,” he said. I twisted to look back and saw he was holding the switch in his teeth.

Hesitating, I asked, “No one’s going to see us, right?”

He shook his head. “Trees inna way.”

I took a deep breath and lifted my hips an inch. He pushed the boxers down to join my jeans, before his other leg clamped around mine and one of his arms rested on my back.

“Give me your hand,” he said, in his normal voice.

Did that mean he’d be starting with the switch right off the bat? Grimacing, I took my right hand off the ground, brushed dirt from it onto my other arm, and put it behind me.

The instant he had hold of it, he started. I was completely unprepared.

Sting bloomed from the middle of my butt all the way down to my thighs in seconds. He could cover ground with that thing so quickly, and it landed so quietly, it was almost as if he just poured the high-pitched pain over my flesh like water. My feet kicked involuntarily as my upper body squirmed, but he had me pinned in place. Tears rushed into my eyes.

“Ow-ow-www, Zaaaaiiiinnn! I’m sorry! I won’t go near your gun again!”

“You won’t go near any gun again,” he corrected, not letting up at all.

“Yes, yes, just– ouch! I promise, plee-eaase…”

From there, my babbling got less and less coherent. I wasn’t sure, because there was pretty much smarting everywhere, but I thought he slowed down the tiniest bit. I bawled before he finally stopped, though. And went on crying long after.

He did the same thing Quint does at this point: Stroking my back while murmuring. Gratitude filled me. When I was mostly only gulping, he said, “Okay, squirt. Punishment’s over. Now we need to deal with this anger issue.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant by that or why he wasn’t letting me stand, but I said, “I’m not angry anymore.”

“I don’t think you were angry before, either,” he said, rubbing gently on my lower back, where he still held my right wrist. “I think it was fear.”

My spine stiffened. “What are you talking about?”

“You’re terrified of Seb moving, and you were covering it by being mad at me. Weren’t you?”

I stared down at the dirt.

After a few seconds, he asked, with mild curiosity, “When I told you ‘out’ and you interpreted it to mean I was making you leave the house, who were you flashing back to?”

Pulse quickening, I said, “That was just a dumb misunderstand–OW! Ow ow ow! You said the punishment was over!”

“It is. That was a new punishment for lying.” He let the palm he’d just swatted me with rest on my sit-spots. “Who were you flashing back to?”

“I don’t kno–ARGH!!” That one was even harder than the previous four!

“Get real, Theodore,” he said, sounding somehow both stern and amused. “I’ll give you to the count of three before I pick up the switch again. One… two…”

“My dad, alright!” I spat.

“I thought so.”

“Then why’d you make me say it?” I asked around the hard lump in my throat. More tears fell to the dirt beneath me.

“Needed to confirm, and you needed to say it. Thank you. I know it was really hard.” He loosened his hold with his legs and let go of my arm, and I didn’t so much get up as slump down to my knees on the ground in front of him. A moment later, he was kneeling too. “Hey,” he said, catching my chin. “Listen up. This isn’t like then, okay? Seb is not abandoning you or rejecting you. You’ll get to see him again. A lot. And me, too, because now you’re one of my people. I don’t let go of my people. Semper fi and all that.”

Voice warbling, I said, “Seb’s like a brother to me. So… so’re you.”

His eyes went bright. A crushing hug engulfed me, and I heard him say something in Arabic before, roughly, “Same. That’s another reason not to be afraid. I know about losing your brother, okay? I’m not gonna let it happen to you, squirt. Either one of us.”

I started sobbing again. With relief, this time.

Zain

We made it back to the house eventually, me with my arm slung over Theo’s shoulders so we had to go through the doorway on a diagonal. He didn’t seem to mind. I took him right to the bathroom, and it was only when I started running a washcloth under cool water that I realized.

“Oh. This is something Seb likes usually, having his face wiped off–”

“I do, too,” he said.

“Good.” I turned to press the cloth to his forehead and saw Quint coming through the studio door behind him, looking concerned. I gave him a thumbs-up with my other hand. “Hey. We’re all settled.”

Before I finished speaking, Theo spun around and fell into his husband’s embrace, saying, “I’m sorry, I won’t ever go near a gun again, I promise.”

“Shhhh, it’s alright, angel.” Quint cupped the back of Theo’s head, his fingers running through his hair. “I forgive you.”

Forgiveness must’ve been important, because Theo’s shoulders relaxed when he heard that. I reached out to rub one. “I forgive you too, squirt.”

Quint smiled at me while Theo said, “Thanks,” slightly muffled.

Seb was half-out the studio door with his bottom lip caught between his teeth. “We’re good, babe,” I said.

Theo lifted his head up and wiped his eyes. “Yeah, I’m okay, Seb.”

As I passed the wet washcloth to Quint, Seb’s lip escaped his teeth so he could say, “Quint told me what happened. Are you insane? Why would you open that thing?”

I was absolutely delighted. I tried not to let it show too much to Quint, although he just started using the washcloth, gently holding Theo’s chin still. Sheepishly, Theo said, “I was mad. Well, afraid.”

Eyebrows coming together, Seb asked, “Afraid of what?”

“We should all talk about that over lunch,” I said, clapping Theo’s back as I sidled around him and Quint. “C’mon, I’ll heat up the leftovers from yesterday.”

I led the way to the kitchen and took the big pot from the fridge, and as I turned with it, I almost ran into Theo. Quint stood behind him, hand held tightly in his Brat’s grip. “Whoops,” I said, dodging so they didn’t wind up with kushari and loco moco all over them. “Watch out, squirt.”

They followed me to the stove. Or actually, Theo did, with Quint being brought along like the caboose of a little train. I set the pot down and frowned over my shoulder at them. Theo still looked sheepish, and Quint, slightly bemused.

Across the kitchen at the bar stools, Seb started giggling. “He can’t figure out which of you he wants to cling to.”

“Yes, I can,” said Theo. “It’s both of you. I– I hope you don’t mind, Quint?”

I blinked a few times, surprised and a little worried about the other Top’s reaction. I hadn’t considered this side-effect of me spanking Theo. After a moment, though, Quint just shook his head with a smile. “Of course not, angel. It’s natural for you to feel that way.”

“But the kitchen isn’t big enough for the three of us,” I said. “Babe, could you get the food–”

“Uh-huh,” he said. Still giggling, he got off the bar stool and came around the peninsula while I conducted the train the other way.

“Hey, we should do a conga line!”

“Oh, shut up,” said Theo.

We stopped and leaned against the counter in a row, Quint and I pressed up against Theo on either side, and Seb calmed down enough as he stirred the pot to say, “You were going to tell me what you were afraid of.”

“Losing you,” admitted Theo, not looking at him.

Seb stopped stirring. “You mean… when I move?” he asked. “But we’ll still talk and see each other a lot.”

“I know.” Theo drummed his fingers on the counter and shrugged one shoulder. “It just, uh, brought up some stuff for me.”

“Stuff that I’m uniquely qualified to understand,” I said, just loud enough to be heard. I leaned heavily against him so he felt my presence.

He leaned equally as hard on me and glanced sideways. “How’d it happen with you?”

“Well,” I said, “I came out, and instead of ‘I’m gay,’ they heard ‘I will be unable to stop myself from molesting my little brother.’” I tried to keep my voice light, although the nausea I always felt came into the back of my throat. “They wanted to send him and my sister away to protect them. I volunteered to leave instead.” Then I turned up one corner of my mouth. “Your turn, if you want.”

He and Quint both had appalled expressions at what I’d revealed, but Theo gathered himself enough to say, “Oh, the classic,” in a tone to match mine. “Dad caught me and my boyfriend making out, gave me a black eye, told me to leave and never come back.”

I stared. “He hit you?”

“Yep.”

Looking beyond him to Quint, I asked, “Where does he live? Can we go pay him a visit?”

“Don’t think I haven’t been tempted,” he replied, darkly. He pulled Theo’s head closer and kissed his temple. I rubbed his shoulder blade on the other side.

“No wonder you started packing when I told you to get out earlier, squirt. I really did just mean leave the bedroom while I take care of the gun, but that memory must’ve been pretty close to the surface for at least a day, huh?”

He nodded, swallowing hard. Seb had come to the other side of the counter and leaned over it to take his hand. Theo’s knuckles turned briefly white as he squeezed back.

“We’re not rejecting you, I promise,” Seb said.

“I know,” said Theo. “I’m so dumb for fearing this–”

Quint swatted him. Theo jumped. I couldn’t quite see the look he gave Quint, but the Top shook his head and told him, “You know you’re not allowed to call yourself dumb.”

“Yeah,” said Theo turning back with an adorable pout. “But I was just switched.”

“All the more reason to mind how you speak to yourself,” Quint replied, while Seb’s eyes widened. Apparently Quint hadn’t told him the details of Theo’s punishment.

“Anyway, being afraid isn’t dumb,” I said. “It’s the change you’re really scared of, and it’s true that things are going to change after Seb moves. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be just as close still.”

“I’ll Skype with you guys a lot,” Seb offered, worriedly. “Every day if you want.”

“I don’t think every day will be necessary, mon chaton,” said Quint. “Especially as you’ll also need to Skype with Zain still when he’s at school, and keep on top of your own education. We don’t want to overwhelm you with social obligations. However, we will appreciate hearing from you through texts and emails a great deal. Perhaps we could make a point to Skype at least once a week, while Zain is with you.”

“Yeah,” I said, “and I think we should also try to meet in person once a month, minimum. Either you guys coming down to Maryland or us going to New York. If that works for you, that is.”

Quint smiled at me across the back of Theo’s head. “Yes, we’ll arrange that. Once we have a better idea of what Zain’s schedule will be, we can plan them out in advance, so you’ll always know, angel, how long you have to go before seeing Seb again.”

“It’ll be good for me, too,” Seb half-mumbled. “I am going to miss you both horribly.”

With an indignant noise, I let my mouth drop open. “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to say he missed me last summer?” I asked the other two. “And he just does it straight out, in English, for you?”

Seb stuck his tongue out for a split second. “They don’t annoy me.”

When Theo laughed, his whole body shook against my side. I put my arm around him and squeezed.

Theo

I was the middle of a Quint-and-Zain cuddle sandwich all through lunch. We ate at the counter so I didn’t have to sit and they didn’t have to try keeping in contact with me from separate chairs. Seb came around to the same side of it and stood on Zain’s free flank. I’m sure we looked kind of odd, but none of us cared.

After, Seb started clearing the dishes. I grabbed silverware, brightly saying, “We’ll handle these,” to the Tops.

Quint gave me a vaguely surprised look. He knows how long my clinginess period usually lasts after a serious spanking, and I wasn’t close to the end. I wanted a chance to speak to Seb alone, though.

“Zain did the breakfast ones,” I said. “It’s our turn.”

“I wanted to show you where I hid the gun,” said Zain to Quint. “So you know it’s out of the way.”

“You’ll be alright, angel?”

I nodded, and he gave me a quick kiss before following Zain across the room.

“So,” I said, coming up behind Seb to dump the silverware into the sink he was filling with soapy water, “why didn’t you tell me how terrible switches are? It’s still stinging!”

“I didn’t think you’d need to know,” he said, blushing and looking anxious at the same time. “He only ever uses them on me when I climb too high in a tree. I wouldn’t touch that lockbox with a ten foot pole. Are you okay?”

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, I’m just exercising my right to whine about it. Why does he only use them on you for that?” From what I knew of Zain, he didn’t seem to have many rules about which implement to use for which crime—or even which to use based on the severity of the spanking he wanted to give.

Seb picked up the sponge with a grimace. For a few seconds, he just scrubbed a plate a lot harder than he needed to. I was about to tell him he didn’t have to share, when he said, “Two reasons. One, I hate cutting them. He makes me find one on the tree itself, if possible, and that’s the last thing I want to do to a tree I’ve just been in. And two…” He shrugged and ducked his head more. “If you couldn’t help noticing every potential switch as you climbed a tree, wouldn’t you be more mindful of how high you are?”

“That is evil.”

“I’m an evil genius, what can I say?”

We both started. “Don’t these floorboards creak at all?” I demanded to the room in general.

Zain grinned and leaned casually against the wall behind us. Quint, meanwhile, began collecting the glasses I’d left on the counter. Zain said, “While you’re comparing notes, who spanks harder, squirt? Quint or me?”

The sponge dropped into the water with a splash as Seb turned around and Looked at him. “Zain, it isn’t a contest.”

“I knoowww,” Zain said, wounded. “I’m just curious!”

“I find myself wondering the same thing,” Quint said drily, bringing the glasses over to set next to the sink. “Should I step up my efforts, angel?”

“Your efforts are just fine,” I said. Turning back to Zain, I thought about it. “It’s hard to judge because today was my first—and last—switching, but based on the swats you gave me with your hand at the end? You do, I’m pretty sure.”

He pumped a fist in the air. “Yes! I am victorious!”

ZAIN,” Seb said, marching away from the counter.

Zain caught his soapy hands and spun him around, then locked his arms over Seb’s skinny chest from behind. “Kidding! Only joking!” he said while his fiancé squirmed. He bit something—I couldn’t tell if it was Seb’s neck or his ear—until Seb went still. Then he tilted his head at me. “Who said it was your last switching, though? Do something like that again, you might find yourself cutting another one. If not for me, I could show Quint how to use them.”

My ears heated as I glanced from him to my husband, who gave me a placid look that spoke volumes. I addressed myself to Zain. “I won’t do anything like that again, sir.”

He and Seb both got the oddest expressions. With half a shudder, Zain said, “Don’t call me ‘sir.’ It’s weird.”

Didn’t people call him ‘sir’ in the military? But maybe that’s why he didn’t like it at home. Come to think of it, I’d never heard Seb really say it, either, to either Top. “…Oui, monsieur?” I tried.

They laughed. Quint included, for some reason. I didn’t think my pronunciation was that bad. It wasn’t a mocking kind of laughter, though. Seb looked like he was blushing again.

“Yeah,” said Zain. “That’ll work.”

Epilogue — Zain

A couple of days later, Quint and I were out on our morning run together, heading home. As we reached the top of the last hill before the driveway, I glanced over to check on him. He was right beside me and hardly out of breath at all. I grinned. “Have you ever run a marathon?”

We’d been talking about my training, so it wasn’t completely out of the blue. “No, but I did a half-marathon once,” he said. “In Boston, as a charity event for a clinic.”

“You should do a full one,” I said, and his eyebrows twitched.

“Zain, that was…at least fifteen years ago. I haven’t tried anything approaching that distance since then.”

Our shoes hit the gravel of the driveway and we both slowed to a walk. Rather than go inside, we cut across the grass to skirt the house.

“So?” I asked. “You’re still in good shape. I’m not saying it’d be easy, but where would the fun be if it was?” I’d had this idea rolling around the back of my head since we became running partners in Vermont. He looked dubious, so I went on, cajolingly, “I’ll do it with you. There’s one at Disney World in January that’s on my bucket list, which gives you plenty of time to train.”

We stepped out of the shadow of the house into the bright backyard. Seb and Theo were both down by the seawall waiting in nothing but swim trunks—Theo almost hopping with impatience and Seb sitting atop the concrete with one knee hugged to his chest. Two pairs of water shoes were next to him. Sunlight glinted off the ocean beyond.

“Will you slowpokes hurry up?!” Theo shouted at us.

I stopped and put my hands on my hips to yelled back, “What did you just call me?”

“Slowpoke! I wanna get in the water! Come on!”

“He’s been very good about allowing his arm to heal,” Quint said. “We shouldn’t keep them waiting.”

I wasn’t going to drop the subject that easily, though. Seb unknowingly helped me out by looking more vulnerable the closer we got. He needed some work. I put a bookmark on that for the moment and lowered my voice to lay down my trump card. “We could run the Disney marathon to raise money for Team JDRF to Cure Diabetes.”

Quint looked from me to Seb and back. “Well played,” he murmured. “Alright, I’ll do it.”

Grinning, I picked up my pace and swooped over my Brat, being careful not to knock him backwards onto the rocks. Into his ear, I asked, “Need a paint stirrer?”

Non,” he said, quickly. “Je vais bien.”

“Gonna tell Quint you said that,” I chuckled. But he hadn’t put his shirt back on after I confiscated it this morning, and it was only one knee he was hiding behind. I straightened up and flicked a finger against his kneecap.

“Ow,” he protested. He put his foot on the ground as his hand went to cover his scars instead. Grabbing it, I pulled him to standing.

“No one cares, babe,” I told him quietly. “It’s only us here.”

Theo’s eyes darted to the bumps for a tiny moment before he looked from me to Quint and asked, “Can I please go in the ocean now?”

Quint looked to me, too.

“Just a sec, squirt,” I said. “Gotta change to my water shoes.”

He sighed heavily as I grabbed them from the top of the wall. I had to let go of Seb’s hand to take my sneakers off, and his fingers twitched a little, like he was having a hard time not hiding again.

I think to distract them both, Quint said, “Zain and I have decided to run a marathon in January.”

Immediately, Theo pressed his palm to his husband’s forehead. “Are you delirious?”

“No, angel, I’m quite well,” Quint replied, smiling down at him.

“You just said you’re going to run twenty-six miles, though. Voluntarily.”

“Twenty-six point two,” I corrected, sitting to slip on my water shoes. “And it’s at Disney World. You get to go behind the scenes in the parks. It’s awesome.”

“Insane,” Theo pronounced. “You meant ‘insane.’ Which also applies to both of you.”

I raised my head enough to pin him with a narrowed gaze. “Do you want to go swimming or not, young man?”

“Uh,” he said, “I mean…wow, a marathon! Sounds fun!” Then he grinned and grew more sincere. “We’ll cheer you on from the sidelines, right, Seb?”

“Yeah,” said Seb, smiling too. His hands were relaxed now.

“That’s better,” I said as I got up. “Alright, you can go in.”

Finally!”

He sprang over the seawall and rushed into the ocean with me hot on his heels. Seb and Quint followed only slightly slower. Soon, the four of us were engaged in a fierce, whooping, take-no-prisoners splash battle. I won, of course. No matter what Theo says.

10 thoughts on “Trouble in Paradise”

  1. I loved this story. Theo brought tears to my eyes. I think Theo and Zain will definitely be closer now. Theo seemed to be mistrustful, unsure of Zain. I believe that is over now, lol.

  2. This is one of the sweetest pieces you’ve written. I did not expect Zain disciplining Theo at first, but as I read on, I had a feeling it would happen. Theo just made me want to cry, and as always, Zain is my favorite character. The seriousness of Zain was perfect when he found Theo with the gun. Rare times of the true Serious Zain. I’m excited to see how Zain deals with Seb in a punishment spanking!

    1. Thanks, Kris! I think Zain disciplining Theo had to happen at some point for them to truly understand each other. The scene with the gun has been in my head forever. I’m glad you liked it.

  3. I loved this and the last story! In this one, I think it was especially nice to watch both Theo and Zain figure each other out. I also enjoyed the Zain-Quint dynamic, in that they also seem to be learning from one another– which is pretty remarkable given the really significant age gap. They’re all such likable characters in such very, very different ways. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, S2B! Yes, Quint and Zain are learning a lot from each other. About each other’s Brats, and about other things. They have a special sort of friendship.

  4. I loved this!!! I know it’s kinda crazy, but in the back of my mind I’ve been thinking it wasn’t fair that Seb is punished by two Tops and Theo, only the one. LOL

    I love the Zain-Seb dynamic as always, and I think I understand their rules better because it is more about discipline to stop worrying, rather than misbehavior, and that’s what makes sense to me. I hope you don’t mind the comparison, but I love the uniqueness of their relationship and I think it’s comparable to Jake and Tom’s unique DD relationship from Falls Chance.

    🙂

    1. Thank you, Syllva! I understand what you mean by it not seeming “fair,” LOL. I don’t mind the comparison with Jake and Tom at all, because I love their uniqueness, too. I just love exploring different kinds of relationships and friendships. 😀

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