“I meant to go let him know dinner is ready, angel. I could have yelled across the apartment myself.”
I wished Theo had just come to get me as well. My head felt like an eggshell, and the chick inside was rapping its beak against my temples. Any second now, I’d crack.
Pulling my mind away from that unpleasant image, I said, “Be right there!” towards the kitchen, and then started putting my colored pencils in my desk.
That sounded odd. My desk. It was Quint’s desk, really, even if it had been weeks since he’d moved his things out of it and into a new one in the master bedroom.
He’d finished the task in about half an hour, but my unpacking lasted nearly the full day, even with his help and encouragement — which took the form of swats so often that by the time it was done, I almost felt like I’d gotten a full spanking. Platt and I exchanged emails with me laying on my stomach.
I wondered what he’d think of that, if he knew. So far, his questions about the stuff Zain was having him read didn’t stray into discipline at all. Zain and I both thought it was best for him to wrap his head around the more straightforward dominance and submission first, before we confused him with the idea that you might also want a relationship where one person could do something like telling the other to color as a form of taking control, and there was nothing sexual about it.
With my phone, I snapped a picture of the mandala I’d just finished and sent it to Zain. It was one of the most detailed and complex yet. I’d spent the majority of the day filling in the swirling lines and shapes. There had been nothing else to do.
“That’s beautiful, mon chaton.”
I flushed as Quint stepped into the room and looked down at the paper. “Sorry, I’m just tidying up before I come out. I didn’t mean to take so long.”
“You’re fine,” he told me, with one corner of his lips quirking. “When I didn’t hear you reply to Theo, I wanted to check if you were asleep.”
“Oh,” I said. “I did reply. Must’ve been too quiet.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Better,” I said. Certainly better than I felt waking up at four AM with a sugar level of 31 mg/dl. I’d barely succeeded in getting to the kitchen, where, in a low stupor, I ate three bananas and almost half a box of cereal before Quint found me.
Better than I felt all morning, too, having to skip my classes to deal with the resulting high. Quint, who was working from home, was the one who told me to color the mandala, and Theo took me on a long walk with Jagger once it was safe to exercise. My glucose gradually fell back into target, but the aftereffects lingered like dark clouds following a storm.
The Top raised an eyebrow at my one-word answer. “Elaborate, please.”
Blushing again, I said, “I have a headache still, and I’m a little tired. It’s not a big deal, though.”
“Hmm.” He studied me, nodded once as if he’d reached some decision, and said, “Come on, wash your hands.”
Inexplicable nervousness chased me across the hallway into the bathroom to obey.
By the time I came out, Quint was standing next to my chair at the dining table. Theo walked around putting cups down at each place setting, and when he reached his husband, he stood on his toes to kiss him. Quint returned it with one hand on the back of the younger man’s neck and the other just above his waist. It was clear neither of them noticed my entrance.
They hadn’t exactly hidden their displays of affection since I moved in, yet several times Theo would go to give Quint a second or third kiss, and the Top would step away with a glance in my direction. From how Theo sighed and rolled his eyes, I got the feeling that was new. I wished I could tell them I didn’t mind, but it would be horribly embarrassing to even bring up the subject. And sometimes I did. Their easy intimacy reminded me so strongly of what I was missing with Zain.
I was about to go back into the bathroom when they broke apart and Quint saw me.
“Have a seat, mon chaton,” he said, pulling out my chair. “There’s an ibuprofen tablet next to your plate for the headache.”
“Merci.” Sitting down, I asked, “Um, what are your plans for this Sunday? I can go work in a studio if you want to be alone, or–”
Theo frowned as he went to his side of the table. “Plans?”
“Valentine’s Day, angel.”
“Oh! Yeah, we don’t usually do much,” he said. “Maybe exchange cards or a little gift, but you don’t have to clear out. Plus, it’s supposed to be colder than balls this weekend.”
Quint took his chair, between us, and asked, “Do you and Zain typically do something special?”
I shrugged. “We have a nice dinner at home.” Usually followed by him putting the dog tags on me — back before I wore them all the time — and making me sob with pleasure for a few hours, but I was trying very hard not to think about that now, with Quint watching. “He calls it my pre-birthday.”
They glanced at each other, and Theo’s eyebrows came together again. “Your pre-birthday? When’s your actual birthday?”
Oh, merde, I never told them, did I? I bit my lip. “The eighteenth.”
“Like in a week? THAT eighteenth?” Theo demanded, while Quint put his fork down and blinked at me.
Wincing, I said, “Um… yeah?”
“Why didn’t you say! We should’ve been planning things ages ago!”
“I don’t want a fuss,” I said. “It’s too late, and I don’t like parties or anything, so let’s just treat it like another day, alright?”
“Seb, we are not going to ignore your birthday,” said Quint. “Of course we won’t have a large party if you’d rather not, but there’s plenty of time for us to prepare a celebratory meal and get you a few gifts.”
I shook my head. “You’re letting me live here. I don’t need anything else, really.” My family wasn’t even giving me gifts this year. Zain and I both told them money to put towards school would be more beneficial to us. We wouldn’t dream of asking Quint and Theo for that, though.
“Our inviting you to move in has nothing to do with your birthday,” Quint said. “Nor is it something for which you need to pay us back. You’re our friend. We want to mark the occasion with you.”
He cut me off with a mild Look. “Do you need to go to your corner, young man?”
Flushing, both at the threat and at hearing it referred to as ‘my’ corner, I dropped my gaze to my plate. “Non, monsieur.”
That cracked Theo up. When Quint and I frowned at him, he giggled, “Sorry, it’s just, you’re probably the only Brat in the entire world who has to be threatened into accepting presents.”
I felt my face getting redder. Thankfully, Quint rescued me by changing the subject to how Theo’s recording session had gone that morning.
It was my turn to clean up after dinner. I got as far as stacking the plates when Quint reached over and took them from me, saying, “Go brush your teeth and change into pajamas, mon chaton. I’ll do these tonight.”
I stared at him, and I wasn’t the only one. Looking over in disbelief from the couch, where he was preparing to do a training session with Jagger, Theo said, “Quint, it’s barely quarter to seven!”
“I am aware of the time, thank you,” said the Top, as he kept calmly clearing dishes, “and this doesn’t concern you, angel. Seb, go, please.”
“But… Zain and I have to Skype still,” I reminded him.
He raised both eyebrows, making my stomach jump. “You and Theo seem to think I’ve taken leave of my senses. No, I am not going to prevent you talking to Zain. However, you had a long night and a longer day, and extra rest will do you good. I’d like you ready to go to bed as soon as the call is over. Now. Go brush your teeth and change into pajamas.”
I swallowed down my protests and went.
Quint knocked on the door as I was sitting down at the desk. “Seb, may I come in?”
Apprehensively, I watched him cross the room to my side. He crouched next to me and smiled gently. “You understand this isn’t a punishment, don’t you, mon chaton? You won’t be in trouble unless you actively fight falling asleep, or you wake up and don’t tell me. This is only meant to help you recover.”
I nodded. “Je comprends. I was just surprised. It’s fine.”
“Of course, you’ll also be in trouble if you lie to me,” he said, mildly.
My heart skipped. He went on looking at me.
Squirming, I admitted, “Okay, I’m slightly… put out… about you sending me to bed so early, but I am exhausted, and I know I’ll probably fall asleep by eight-thirty regardless, and most of my irritation is the tiredness; it’s got nothing to do with this, so I’m not going to take it out on you.”
“It’s not a choice between that and hiding it from me,” he said. “You can also tell me how you’re feeling, like you did just now, alright?”
He made it sound so easy. “…D’accord.”
As I agreed, the Skype ringtone played. Quint stood and gestured to the bed. “I’ll be gone in a moment,” he said. “Would you mind laying down, though, while you talk?”
“No, I don’t mind.” I took the laptop and climbed under my duvet, and he went out, shutting the door behind him. I answered the call.
“Hey, babe!” Zain greeted with his usual grin. It faltered slightly as he saw where I was. “Everything alright?”
I blushed. “Yeah, just, um, relaxing.”
He glanced over his shoulder at JJ and then held up an index finger as he rooted around out of my sight with the other hand. After a few seconds, he triumphantly showed me his earbuds. I watched him put them in. “There,” he said. “Relaxing, huh?”
Huffing, I muttered, “Quint’s sending me to bed as soon as we hang up. He thinks I need more sleep.”
Zain snorted. “Well, he’s right. You have no idea how much better I felt, knowing he was there with you today, habibi. This is great.”
“Sure, for you.”
“Aw, c’mon, you like it, too,” he said. “Admit it.”
Never. But privately, I couldn’t help noticing that under the layer of annoyance, I felt sheltered by the two of them. Quint nearby when Zain couldn’t be, and just as unyielding. Weren’t you supposed to want out when you were caught between a rock and hard place?
Not waiting for a confession, Zain interrupted my thoughts. “Sorry it’s been such a bad Thursday for you, babe. Hey, how do you say that in French?”
“Say what?” I asked, frowning.
“A bad Thursday.”
“Un mauvais jeudi,” I translated, still puzzled, because he should’ve been able to figure that out on his own. “‘Juedi’ is Thursday, and–”
He smirked. “No, a trajuedi. Get it?”
I clapped my hand over my mouth, but it was no use. The laughter escaped anyway.
We talked for awhile about this and that. He asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I said, “Z, it’s a week away. I refuse to believe you haven’t bought anything yet.” Giving presents is one of his favorite things to do.
“I never said I hadn’t,” he replied, grinning, “but what if I want to get you more than one gift? Or if Quint and Theo ask me for hints on what they should get you?”
Which brought up the guilt over forgetting to tell them about my birthday, and the stuff that was lingering from Quint taking time out of his work to check on me all morning. I looked down at the oversized duvet and grumbled, “The only thing I really want is a new pancreas.”
Zain’s eyes softened. Immediately, I felt even more awful.
“Sorry, that was just today talking. I’m fine, really. Forget it.”
“Uh-huh,” he said. “Forget you ever admitted, or even hinted at, not being 100% okay, or suggested you might, just maybe, wish you had a cure for your life-threatening disease. Got it.” He nodded sagely. Behind him, JJ glanced toward the screen, and I wanted to pull the duvet up over my head.
“If Theo or Quint do ask you,” I said, “tell them just a homemade dinner is fine. I don’t need anything else.”
“Sure,” he said, smiling.
I sighed. “You’re not going to, are you?”
“Not a chance.”
And he meant it, I knew. “I’m going to hang up on you now,” I said. “You might think it’s because your study period is starting, but really it’s because I hate you.”
“Love you too, habibi,” he said. “Sleep tight.”
Then the bastard hung up on me first.
I was about to get out of bed to put the laptop on my desk when Quint knocked softly again. “Seb? All done?”
I invited him in, and he held out a hand to me. “I’ll take care of it. Do you need to use the bathroom?”
Passing him the laptop, I shook my head. “Just have to give myself the Lantus injection.”
“Alright, do that,” he said as he set the computer down and plugged it back in. He didn’t leave after, but stood by the desk and watched me open the drawer of the nightstand to take out my supplies. “Do you have fast-acting carbs in there, too? I can get some of your juice boxes from the kitchen.”
“I have glucose tabs,” I said, holding up the tube so he could see and then dropping it back into the drawer. “The only reason I didn’t use them this morning was because I wasn’t thinking clearly. I always have them here, I swear.”
Quint smiled a little and sat on the edge of the desk. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply you would be unprepared. I’m afraid finding you in the kitchen during that low scared me half to death, and I’m only now starting to truly feel it because I was running on medical training before. It’s not a reflection on you or your capabilities, alright?”
My gut twisted. I hadn’t realized I frightened him so much. From what I could remember, he’d acted with absolute calm as he got me back to bed. “You don’t need to worry.”
Shaking his head, he replied, “Worrying about you isn’t an obligation I fulfill. It’s a side-effect of caring. I couldn’t stop it any more than I could stop growing older, and it isn’t going to harm me. Now, do your injection, please.”
I quit flipping the insulin pen nervously between my hands and followed his direction. He stayed right where he was, watching even when I rolled onto my side, moved the duvet, and tugged my pajama bottoms down a couple of inches to get to my site. After I closed the drawer again, he pushed himself off the desk and came over.
“Thank you. I’m going to leave our bedroom door open tonight. Just call if you need anything.”
“I will, monsieur.”
Then he took the duvet, brought it up around my shoulders, and smoothed it out. I cooperated, trying to ignore the feelings of comfort and embarrassment growing in me like twin trunks of the same tree. He’d occasionally tucked me in before, so it wasn’t unexpected. The casual kiss he dropped on my forehead, though, caught me off guard. It brought back half-forgotten memories of my father doing the same thing.
Quint didn’t seem to even realize he’d done it until he got within a step of the door, paused, shook his head a little, and looked back at me. “Was that okay with you?” he asked, gesturing to his own brow.
I half-laughed. “Yeah, it’s okay.”
“Okay. Good.” He flicked the overhead light off. “Bonne nuit.”
Since Zain wasn’t going to tell them not to buy me anything, I tried to drop hints over the next couple of days about just having a dinner. Quint acted like he didn’t notice, while Theo kept rolling his eyes. I finally had to accept that they were going to make a big deal out of it.
Then, on Valentine’s Day, Theo came out for breakfast with a box tucked under his arm. “Delivery for Seb!”
“What?” I asked, looking up from scooping yogurt into a bowl. “It’s not even my birthday yet!”
“I know,” he said. “According to Zain, this one isn’t for your birthday, it’s for today. Open it!”
Suspicion made me narrow my eyes at him and the box he’d set on the counter. “According to Zain?”
“Well, duh,” he said. “Who do you think he’s sending your gifts to?”
I glanced from him to Quint, standing next to me, and asked, “How many gifts?”
“A few,” said Theo. He leaned against the peninsula and pushed the package closer. “Will you please open it? He asked me to make sure you did before he calls.”
Quint took the container of yogurt out of my hand and passed me the pair of scissors from a hook on the fridge, with a nod towards the box.
The packing tape holding it shut was the familiar black kind that Lush uses, branded with Fighting Animal Testing and their logo. I’d seen it a lot in Hawaii, but now with Zain and I trying to save as much money as possible, I stopped ordering their pricey products.
“I can open it later,” I said.
“Zain’s going to be calling at nine,” Quint told me, “and we have to eat still. Open it now, please.”
“If you don’t, I’m going to,” said Theo. “C’mon!”
So I stepped forward and slid the scissors under the tape, slicing through it carefully on both sides and then across the top. Parting the flaps, I reached into the packing peanuts and found another box. This one was wrapped in red paper with gold and pink hearts, and a gold ribbon tied into a bow on top. The attached tag said Two Hearts.
“It’s one of Lush’s gift sets,” I said, taking it out. “They do them for holidays with different bath and body stuff.”
“Does that mean you know what’s inside?” Theo asked.
I shook my head. “Not this one. But I want to unwrap it when Zain calls, so he can watch.”
He looked to Quint, who said, “Alright. Take care of the outer box, please, and then we’ll eat.”
Sighing, Theo went to make himself a coffee. “You’ve gotta tell me what it is later, though.”
“I will,” I promised as I took the box over to empty packing peanuts into the trash. My own, softer sigh was born of relief at having their focus off me and Zain’s gift.
The call came in at nine on the dot. It being Sunday, JJ was at chapel service, and Zain was alone in his room. So was I. Theo had wanted to say hi, but Quint told him to give us our privacy. I was grateful for that when Zain started off by pinning me with a heavy-eyed look and saying, “Hello, my boy. Happy Valentine’s Day.”
Swallowing on my dry throat, I replied, “Happy Valentine’s Day, sir,” as quietly as I could.
“Did you open my gift?”
I showed him the wrapped box. “Wanted to wait and open it with you. Z, I didn’t get you anything in return.”
“‘Sir,’” he corrected, in a tone that made me shiver, “and you’re going to give me my present in a while. Unwrap yours first. Now.”
My fingers were clumsy at the task, my mind distracted by his gaze on me, which smouldered like a fire just catching light. I ripped the paper more than I meant to by the time I had the box open.
Two bath bombs nestled inside — a white heart with dried roses embedded, and the pink and purple Sex Bomb — along with a smaller cream-and-brown streaked heart. I mistook it for soap until I turned it over and saw it was labelled as a massage bar. I remembered the last massage he’d given me, a few days before the end of his leave, and could almost feel his hands glide over my skin.
He was smiling now, still with that edge of wickedness. “What do you think, my boy?”
“Thank you, sir,” I said, “though you really shouldn’t have–”
“Hush. I’m allowed to give you things if I want. Now, listen carefully.” He leaned closer, looking right into the webcam. “Since I can’t be there to spoil you this year, you’re going to spoil yourself, and that’ll be your present to me, okay? I want you to pick one of the bath bombs and have a good soak, and then use the massage bar to get rid of any lingering tension you feel. I’m going to call back in a few hours, and I want to see you completely relaxed, habibi. Got it?”
“Great. And if you need something to think about during your bath, just remember, j’ai envie de toi. Maintenant. Tout le temps.”
I almost swallowed my tongue. He knows exactly what it does to me when he talks dirty in French. Sometimes he’ll tie me up for a ‘tutoring session,’ delighting in making me babble new phrases and then repeating them back until he’s satisfied with his pronunciation. The beginning of what he’d just said was one of the first ones he mastered. I want you. The rest (Now. All the time.) was an ad lib that made me shift uncomfortably as my jeans got a lot tighter.
“Oh,” he added, “and keep the dog tags on.”
Which meant I wasn’t allowed to do anything to relieve that pressure. I shifted again. “Yes, sir.”
“Good boy. Well!” He clapped his hands together and grinned. “I’ve gotta go. Training run with the marathon team. See you later. Love you.”
“Je t’aime,” I replied. “Salut.”
After making sure my shirt was long enough to hide my bulge, I went out to the living room with the unwrapped box. Theo and Quint were sitting on the couch watching TV. They twisted around to look at me. “What was it?” the younger man asked.
“Bath bombs,” I said, showing them. “He, uh, wants me to take a bath.”
Theo went, “Awwwww. That’s so cute,” and I hoped my blush wasn’t too obvious.
“Um, I’m going to take it now. Is that alright?” I wasn’t sure if they had plans and wanted me out of the apartment.
“Of course it’s alright, mon chaton,” said Quint. “You’re completely free to use the hall bathroom whenever you wish. Let me know if you need extra towels or anything else.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I will.”
There was no need to ask him. He kept the linens well-stocked, and I already knew how the bath worked from the purifying one I took after my roommate drama. I filled it up, stripped down to just the dog tags, and dropped the Sex Bomb into the water. It sank, releasing waves of pink and purple fizz as it dissolved, while I watched, breathing in the scent of jasmine. It was almost hypnotic. Minutes later, only the little soap flower at the center remained, bobbing gently across magenta water. I got into the tub.
My arousal, which had faded some since hanging up with Zain, came flooding back. It didn’t care that I couldn’t touch myself at all. In fact, that just fed into it, giving me a pleasant, buzzy feeling. I’d learned long ago that you could make being turned on relaxing instead of tormenting if you didn’t strain towards release. I floated in it until the water got cold.
When I came out, Quint was in the hallway putting a load of laundry into the dryer and making me very glad that I’d gotten dressed again rather than just wrapping a towel around my waist. He smiled at me. “You were in there so long, I was about to check on you. Was it a nice bath?”
I nodded. On my other side, Theo came from the bedroom with Jagger at his heels. He’d changed out of his pajamas. “We’re going to Zeg’s for a bit. Wanna tag along?”
“Oh,” I said. “Thanks, but Zain’s calling me back soon, after his run.”
“Alright. You know the way if you want to come join us later,” he said.
Quint added, “We should only be a couple of hours. Ready, angel?”
I moved aside to let Theo pass and said, “See you.”
As soon as the door shut behind them, I was in my room, stripping again so I could follow the second part of Zain’s instructions. The massage bar was a new experience for me. I soon discovered the brown bits smelled like chocolate, and it slid across my skin like butter as my body heat warmed it up. I used it everywhere I could reach, other than the areas off-limits to me — which didn’t include my nipples. At least, Zain had never specifically said it did. Stroking the bar and my fingertips over them felt lovely and torturous at the same time. Every touch made me ache lower down. Once I started, stopping became impossible, and yet what I really wanted stayed agonizingly out of reach.
I was panting when he made his second call, and didn’t bother to put anything on before I grabbed the laptop off the desk, stretched out on my stomach, and answered. I knew JJ would be gone still.
The first thing Zain did was laugh. “Didn’t I say relaxed, babe? You look like you’re the one who ran ten miles.”
“I can’t help it,” I whined at him. “I’m alone here and I just, j’ai envie de toi. So much.”
His eyes got darker with lust. “You’re alone in the apartment?”
I nodded. “They went out.”
“Well, I suppose we ought to take advantage of this solitude,” he said, grinning, “but how?”
“I want to come, sir,” I said, with absolutely none of my usual reserve over statements like that.
Zain laughed again in surprise. “Fuck, you really are all revved up, aren’t you? I didn’t think it would be this strong. That’s not how you ask, though, my boy.”
“Please may I come, sir?”
“Hmmm…” He waffled for a few seconds. My hips ground into the mattress involuntarily, and he caught the movement. “Hey, none of that. I want to be able to see you.”
“Does that mean yes, sir?” I asked, tense with anticipation.
Shrugging with a teasing grin, he said, “Sure, go ahead.”
I rolled onto my back and took myself in my hand before he finished speaking. “Oh!” My eyes fell closed. When I opened them again, he’d put in his earbuds, and I didn’t even care that I was probably being loud. “Oh, merde, I’m going to come, sir.”
“Yes,” he said, all command. “Come for me, my boy.”
“Oh, mes dieux!” Breath catching, toes curling, back arching, I finally reached my peak and shot onto my abdomen.
A few seconds later, he said, “God, you’re beautiful. That was the best Valentine’s Day gift I’ve ever gotten. Thank you.”
My eyes had shut, but I turned my head toward him and smiled. “My pleasure, sir.”
Zain, of course, didn’t need my permission to find his own release. Watching him made me hard again, but when my hand drifted downward, he said, “No, once is enough.”
“You can have another on your birthday. It’s just four days. You’ll wait that long for me, right?”
He said, “That’s my boy,” which was worth the frustration I felt getting dressed after he hung up.
I’d moved to the living room with a book when Quint and Theo came home. I glanced over briefly as they came in, said, “Hello,” and then went back to reading. A moment later, a small, pink plush cat appeared between me and the page. Blinking, I looked up at Theo.
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” he said.
He rolled his eyes. “Just take it, would you? If it’ll make you feel better, we didn’t pay for it. We went over there to help put together gift bags for a party at Lyra and Griffin’s school tomorrow, and they had a few extra of these. I couldn’t resist bringing home a kitten for Quint’s kitten.”
I probably turned pinker than the toy. Behind him, Quint was scrutinizing me with a frown. Refusing to take it would only turn the whole thing into a bigger deal, and on top of that, would hurt Theo’s feelings. Reluctantly, I said, “Merci.”
It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the gesture. It was just… I’d only been preparing for them to give me gifts on my birthday. The extra one, small as it was, felt like too much. I put it on top of the bookshelf in my room and tried to ignore its vividly-colored presence.
It was still there on the eighteenth, next to the birthday cards that had been sent by my family. Several times, I’d almost put the cat in a drawer somewhere, but how would that look to Theo? He only wanted to make me smile.
His own joy was evident when I went to join them for breakfast. They both wished me a happy birthday as I began checking my glucose, and then he said, “So, how’re you spending your morning?”
“Um, I have classes until two?” I said, frowning, because he knew that.
“You’re going to them? If it were me, I’d skip!”
Quint spoke up, saying, “It’s a good thing your birthday is at the beginning of August, then, because you would not have been allowed to skip.”
Theo’s jaw dropped. “You’re making Seb go to school on his birthday?”
“I want to go,” I interjected quickly. “I missed all my Thursday classes last week, remember? Falling behind more is only going to stress me out.”
“That’s very sensible, mon chaton,” said Quint, and Theo made a face.
“Way too sensible,” he said. “I swear I need to revoke your Brat Card.”
As I opened my mouth to reply, music began playing from out of nowhere.
“Hey! I don’t know about you
but I’m feelin’ twenty-two-ooo
Everything will be alright if
you keep me next to yooouuu
You don’t know about me
but I bet you want to-ooo
Everything will be alright if
we just keep dancing like we’re
By the time we figured out it was coming from my phone, which I’d left on the bathroom counter, the section of song had started to repeat. I picked it up and saw an alert on the screen. Happy birthday, habibi!
“Let me guess,” said Theo, leaning in the doorway with a grin. “Zain?”
I nodded. “How, though?”
“You can set a custom ringtone for reminders,” Quint said. “He must have scheduled it while you were together.”
Of course. He knew my passcode, and knew I never used the reminders app, so I wouldn’t have seen it beforehand. Which meant he’d been thinking of this since at least January. I let Taylor Swift finish the second rendition as I blinked away ridiculous tears. Then I texted him, You couldn’t sing Happy Birthday like a normal person?
He didn’t answer until later, after his first class ended and I was on the way to mine. Where’s the fun in that?? And from today until April 3rd is the only period in our entire lives when we’re both 22. I HAD to use that song!
The rest of the morning, I caught myself humming it under my breath.
All my professors knew about my diabetes and had prepared the material I needed from missing a day. It was a lot. While I walked back to the apartment, my thoughts were on that more than anything else.
But then I found Theo chopping up cauliflower.
“What are you making?” I asked. It was a little late to be starting lunch.
“Getting some prep done for dinner,” he replied. “The menu’s a surprise, though, so go away.”
I stayed where I was, just inside the door. “But… it’s my turn to cook.”
“Seb. It’s your birthday. Quint and I are cooking.”
Right. I knew that. Still, when I moved, my feet took me towards him. “Let me help, at least. I can chop–”
“No!” he said, laughing and picking up the knife I was stretching my hand out to grab. “You’re not allowed to help.”
I reached for it again, wrapping my fingers around his. “Theo, really.”
With a bit more force, he said, “I told you no! Go on.” He tried to tug it away, but my grip tightened. We struggled for a few seconds, the blade’s tip glinting as it pointed upward between us. “Seb, let go!”
Quint’s words shouldn’t have been audible from where he stood, several feet away. The quiet, polite, slightly puzzled tone cut through the air like frost, though, and we both froze. I knew instantly this was the Ice Bucket Voice that Theo mentioned once. Every other time I thought I heard it, I had been very, very mistaken.
“Thank you for your attention. If you would be so kind as to put that down, please, before one of you gets hurt?”
We did together, slowly.
The Top came around the peninsula and stopped directly in front of us. “Thank you,” he said again, in the same awful tone. “Now, would either of you care to explain why you were fighting over an extremely sharp cutting tool?”
Theo shrugged one shoulder. Loyalty would prevent him from laying the blame where it belonged. A kaleidoscope of butterflies invaded my stomach, but I had no choice except to speak up.
“It was my fault, sir,” I said, to the floor. “I wanted to help prep and Theo wouldn’t let me, so I went to take it from him. I’m sorry.”
No one said anything for a moment. Then Quint, in a voice that had thawed, asked, “Can you repeat that in English, please?”
I blinked upwards in shock. Merde. “Um. I said it’s my fault, monsieur.”
Theo’s gaze darted back and forth between us as his husband studied me. Eventually, Quint asked, “Mon chaton, how are you feeling?”
The forbidden word came to my lips without any thought at all. I wanted to bite them.
Eyebrow quirking up, he said, “Would you like to try that again?”
Yes, I really would. Except when I did, my treacherous mouth spilled out, “I’m fine.”
He shook his head. “Once more, and I’d like an emotion, please.”
I couldn’t. Not in English or French. I had no other word. With my insides like jelly, I looked him directly in the eyes and said, “F–fine.”
Quint nodded calmly. “I thought so. Angel, please take Jagger for a walk.”
The other Brat only moved when his husband’s gaze flicked from my face to his for a moment. Then he went around me, so he wasn’t stepping between Quint and I, and clicked his tongue to the dog. I heard him open the pantry and the jingle of Jagger’s leash being attached to his collar, though I couldn’t watch. I was unable to look anywhere except at Quint’s kind, blue eyes.
As Theo left, I thought I heard him mutter something that sounded like “Good luck.”
“Alright, mon chaton, let’s go,” said Quint. He held his hand out to me.
Despite the fact that he didn’t call me ‘young man’ or ‘Sébastien,’ I knew I was headed for a spanking as soon as I took it. I openly defied one of his rules, right to his face, with multiple chances to back out. Whatever part of me it was that took over my vocal cords hadn’t just “asked for it,” as Zain would say. This time it forcefully insisted. And then abandoned me, mute, to face the consequences alone.
Swallowing, I put my fingers in Quint’s palm.
He led me to my bedroom. Along the way, my other hand was busy undoing my fly, but when we crossed the threshold, he turned around and caught me. A swat landed before I could blink. I let go to rub the sting instead.
As Quint picked up my hairbrush from the desk and sat on the edge of the mattress, he said, “If you want me to be in charge, that’s alright, but there’s no middle ground, young man. Am I understood?”
I nodded. Thankfully, he didn’t press for a verbal answer before releasing my other hand, lowering my zipper himself, and baring me from waist to knees. Then his palm on my lower back nudged me forward. I went over his thigh obediently.
“Give me your hand, please.”
I surrendered one and twisted the other into the duvet, noticing as I did that the fabric under my nose was exactly the same part I’d stared at whenever Zain was doing my Lantus injections last spring. I recognized the intersecting lines in one of the printed maps.
He would be in class and drill for hours yet. This was the first time Quint would spank me when I couldn’t talk to my own Top immediately prior or after. The first time Quint hadn’t sought guidance from him. Before, he’d acted almost as an extension of Zain’s arm, but this was just between us. It felt different. Not in the borderline panicky way I braced myself for, either. I didn’t mind nearly as much as I thought I would. I trusted Quint. I’d gotten to know him even better since moving in, and he, me. I felt… at home. Completely.
He brought the brush down on my left sit-spot, and the volume of my yelp surprised me. Within four swats, my feet were kicking and my torso twisting more than ever before with him, and he simply held me tighter and kept going, raining them down fast and hard like Zain advised. Seconds later, I burst into violent tears. One more crack filled the air and left a burning oval in its wake before he stopped.
With utter compassion, he asked, “Are we done?”
I nodded quickly.
“Good,” he said, and started to rub my back while still gripping my arm behind me. “It’s alright, mon chaton, you’re safe. You’re safe.”
I let myself be soothed into soft tremors and scratchy eyes. Some time later, as I pushed myself up with my free elbow to rub at my nose, he let go of my arm and pressed his hand to the very base of my neck instead.
“Just a moment. That was twenty.” His other palm patted, as lightly as possible, right over the remaining sting while he counted, “Twenty-one, twenty-two, and one to grow on.”
Laughter choked out of me. He helped me to my feet again and smiled when I told him, “You’re picking up bad habits from Zain.”
“You might be correct in that,” he said, pulling up my underwear and jeans, “though I have also given Theo mock-spankings on his birthday a few times in the past. Come let me wash your face, please.”
At the sink, he wiped off the dried tears, ran more cold water over the washcloth, and applied it to my neck. I stepped forward into his offer of a hug. Still holding the cloth to my skin, he asked, “Can you tell me how you’re feeling now, mon chaton?”
“I’m…relaxed. Before I was, um, flipping out. I’ll do my best to explain why, but can you call Theo back first? He should know, too.”
“Alright,” he said. “I’m sure he hasn’t gone far. Are you certain you wouldn’t like a little while longer to collect yourself?”
I shook my head. My walls were soft and permeable right now. I didn’t want to give myself a chance to toughen them up again before letting him and Theo through.
While we waited for the other Brat to return with the dog, I texted Zain a quick explanation of what happened, even though he couldn’t read it anytime soon. Then the front door opened and Jagger came to sniff at my knees as Theo shook his head with a smile.
“You don’t do things by halves, do you? Quint would’ve given you a nice, gentle birthday spanking if you wanted.” He pulled me into a one-armed hug, whispering, “You okay?” in my ear.
“Yeah, I’m good,” I said. “Um, I need to explain.”
“You can talk while Theo and I finish preparing dinner,” Quint said. “Angel, I’ll be doing the chopping until you’ve written some lines regarding the dangers of fighting over knives.” His husband lowered his gaze and nodded, and the Top went on, “They can wait until tomorrow, though. Seb, have a seat, please.”
I put my weight cautiously on one of the bar stools. Most of the tenderness had faded, leaving just a faint reminder that helped me find my words as the two of them picked up where Theo had left off. He took a spaghetti squash from the fridge, saying, “Since you’re watching, I might as well say we’re making you this with tomato cream sauce. The sides are mashed cauliflower and zucchini boats, and then there’s cheesecake for dessert, but we bought that at Junior’s.”
“It sounds delicious,” I said, carefully not adding that it also sounded like a lot of work. “Thanks.”
Cheerfully, he said, “Thank Quint. My only idea was the cheesecake.” He set the squash in the sink and went back for more ingredients while the older man chopped cauliflower, looking at me expectantly.
“Thank you,” I told him. “Um, so earlier, I was… It’s… ” I tapped one fingertip against the counter in a staccato rhythm, took a deep breath, and said, “Having diabetes means knowing you’ll become more and more of a burden to the ones closest to you, and then you’ll leave them behind too early. So I try to stop people from… caring. Not just caring for me, though that can be worse, but about me.”
“Well, that’s dumb.”
“No, it is,” he insisted. “You figure you can just dictate other people’s emotions to protect yourself from feeling bad about getting old and dying? Everyone depends on their family then. Who do you think is gonna be changing Quint’s diapers when he’s all gray and wrinkly? Me, and I don’t care.”
“It’s different,” I said. “You’re both healthy now. I’m not. I do things like the night last week when I frightened you, Quint. I get irrational and sometimes even– even violent. And if my glucose isn’t messed up, everything still has to be planned around my treatment.”
Shaking his head, Quint replied, “That night was not something you did, it was something that happened. The irrationality and violence are not a reflection of you, and do you think I view my patients as burdens when they need treatment? I didn’t become a doctor by accident. I enjoy helping people feel better. Particularly if I care deeply about them.”
“At some point, you won’t be able to do that,” I said. “Not unless there’s a cure. It’ll get worse.”
Theo looked like I’d just uttered something crazy. “You’d rather be alone, then? Do you have this much trouble letting Zain care about you, too? Or your family?”
Nodding, I replied, “There’s nothing I can do to stop them, but it’s still hard.”
“Seb,” said Quint, laying the knife on the cutting board and looking right into my eyes, “there’s nothing you can do to stop us, either. Just because we haven’t known you as long doesn’t mean it’ll be easier to push us away. Attempting to is only going to get you a sore bottom. As far as I’m concerned, we’re family as well. I realize you may not feel the same, and that’s perfectly fine, but you need to know that I love you like a son.”
Next to him, Theo smiled. “Me, too. I mean, not like a son, but a little brother? Definitely. So, sorry, you’ve gotta accept us caring about you.”
I had to blink and swallow a few times before I could speak. “Right when I was about to, um, be spanked, I realized this is home, now, and… yeah, you’re family. I’ve felt it since the day I unpacked.” Quint reached across the counter to squeeze my shoulder as I went on, “Fighting it is pointless. I don’t want to anymore. Just… the combination of you guys cooking for my birthday, plus the presents later, and that damn pink cat. I felt like I was drowning.”
Theo’s eyebrows scrunched up. “Because of the toy I gave you?”
“Bring it here, mon chaton.”
Puzzled, I slid off the stool and retrieved it from my room. Was he going to ask for it back, to eliminate the source of stress? “I want to keep it,” I said as I returned. The truth of that was blindsiding and undeniable.
“You can,” Quint said. “However, when you begin to feel overwhelmed — by us caring or something else — I’d like you to give it to me, as a signal we should have a discussion. Or you can leave it somewhere you know I’ll find it, if needed. Is that clear?”
Before I could answer, Theo said, “‘Discussion’ is a codeword for ‘spanking,’ just FYI,” and Quint glanced sideways but didn’t contradict him.
I looked down at the little kitten in my hand declaring You’re Purrfect. Then I nodded. “Oui, monsieur.”
“Thank you,” he said, picking up the knife and going back to chopping. “Any homework should be done out here today, not in your room. I want to keep an eye on you.”
Hesitantly, I said, “I was thinking my assignments could wait until tomorrow? They aren’t due soon, and… well, it is my birthday.”
He smiled. “Of course.”
“It’s about time you enjoyed it,” Theo added.
I played with Jagger and took phone calls from my parents, and then each of my siblings in turn, until the meal was ready. While it was in the oven, Theo showed me a special “Happy Birthday” routine they did for kids at the hospital. Watching the dog prancing around with him completely removed my usual discomfort over being the center of attention during that song.
The food was delicious, but we saved the cheesecake until Zain called on Skype. He’d asked to be dismissed from his own dinner early so he’d have more time with me, and JJ had obligingly gone to the library to study. When I started to pick up my laptop to take it to the table, though, he said, “Hang on. Wanna talk about what happened without an audience first, habibi?”
I flushed. “Oh, they were, um, insisting on cooking for me. I tried to take a chef’s knife from Theo so I could help. Quint had to stop us from struggling with it, and then he kept asking how I was, and I, uh, I told him ‘fine.’ Three times.”
“Really?” he asked, laughing. “Three?”
With my cheeks getting hotter, I nodded.
“That’s good,” he said. “Shows you’re getting more comfortable, if you’re so willing to defy him.”
I stuck my tongue out, and then admitted, “It was comfortable. I mean, not that part, or the, the spanking itself, but… Quint didn’t feel like a substitute. I can’t explain it very well.”
He beamed, and I was sure he could find the words I wanted, but then Theo poked his head through my doorway and asked, “Are you coming to open presents or not?”
“Yeah, let’s go!” said Zain.
A pile of wrapped gifts had appeared on the table when I came back out holding the laptop. I blinked at them. “Don’t freak, okay?” Theo said as he took my wrist and pulled me along behind him, grinning over his shoulder. “You won’t even like them, probably.”
“Speak for your own presents,” Zain told him. “He’ll love mine.”
I put the laptop down, adjusting the angle so he’d be able to see everything, as Quint dropped one last envelope on top of the pile and sat. “Hello, Zain,” he said.
“Hi! He dropped the F-bomb three times, huh?”
The older Top looked confused for a moment. “The–? Oh. Yes, I tried to give him opportunities to change his mind, but he seemed quite determined.”
“I would’ve cut to the chase at the first one,” Zain told him, while I went bright red. “Though like I’ve said, I’m impatient. Speaking of which, get to unwrapping, babe. We don’t have all night.”
“Um.” I lowered myself into my chair and studied the gifts. “I don’t know which one to do first.”
Theo pushed one of the larger boxes towards me. “I think that one’s from Zain.”
“OH! That’s a great one!” Zain said. He was almost bouncing in his seat.
I gave him a suspicious look. “If this is, like, silk underwear or something–”
“In a box that size?” he asked, snorting. “No. Also, I would’ve given those to you on Valentine’s Day, but thanks for the idea for next year.”
His words didn’t reassure me much. There was no way to find out for certain, though, except to unwrap it. I tore off the paper, cut open the shipping box, and pulled out a stuffed… something. Like a giant, pale blue, crooked finger. One side had a black smiley face and a green lightning-shaped stripe running down the middle. I frowned at it, trying to figure out why it looked familiar.
Then I read the tag and called Zain a nasty name in French.
“What?” Theo demanded. “What is it?”
From the smile playing around Quint’s lips, he already knew. I answered, “It’s a pancreas. He asked what I wanted, and I told him a new pancreas. Z, I’m gonna kill you.”
He was cracking up, of course. Theo joined in, and I stood to smack him with the pancreas over the table, since I couldn’t reach Zain. Quint caught me by the back of my waistband before I fell into the rest of the presents. “Sit down, please,” he said, with a pat to my butt. I did.
On the screen, Zain was sobering slightly. “I’d give you a functional one if I could, habibi.”
“I know,” I said. I wished it were possible more than anything. The plush one was pretty adorable, though, I had to admit. It stayed in my lap while I unwrapped two adult coloring books from Theo.
“They’re not mandalas,” he said, “but I figured you might get sick of those.”
“You can color whatever you want as far as I’m concerned, babe,” Zain put in.
“These are great,” I said, flipping through the Secret Garden one to admire the illustrations. “Thank you.”
I picked the other large box next, which turned out to be from Theo, too. It was a beautiful elmwood French easel. The kind with a built-in sketch box for storing supplies, a carrying bag for plein air painting, and tripod legs that could be left folded to use on a tabletop.
“Theo! This had to have cost–”
“Save it,” he said, holding up a hand. “I saw you didn’t have one here, and the girl at the art supply store told me this was good for basically anything but watercolors. Do you like it?”
I nodded as my nose prickled. My bulky studio easel had to be left behind in Hawaii. It was like missing a limb sometimes. “Very much. Merci beaucoup.”
His last gift was a thin little paperback titled Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (And Rewards) of Artmaking. He smiled as I thanked him again and said, “It helps me sometimes, when I’m blocked.”
That left only the envelope and smaller packages. I picked up a little square one, and Zain said, “Oh, I think that’s from me.”
Curious, I unwrapped it quickly. Inside was a fabric drawstring bag, and when I opened that– “You gave me a pink elephant?!”
“Huh?” Theo asked. Quint looked puzzled, too.
Taking the tiny rose quartz carving out of the bag, I grinned and explained, “I have a pink elephant statue in Hawaii. The big, strong Marine is scared of it.”
“Not scared, creeped out,” Zain corrected. “There is a difference.”
Laughing, Theo asked, “Why would you be creeped out by an elephant, though?”
“I had a traumatic Dumbo experience as a child,” said Zain, sniffing, “which I prefer not to talk about, thank you.” To me, he added, “I wouldn’t have picked the pink one, but apparently rose quartz is good for promoting peace, friendship, and joy, so.”
“Yeah,” I said, smiling still. He may not have the same faith I do, yet he always respects my beliefs. “Okay, who gave me this one?” I held up the last box.
“Also me,” Zain said.
A ribbon was the only wrapping. I slipped that off and lifted the lid, and Quint and Theo leaned closer to see inside. On a velvet cushion rested a necklace without a pendant, the silvery metal twisted into a much thinner version of the rope he uses to tie me up. I realized what it was for and swallowed on a surge of emotions.
“S– Z, thank you.” Reaching to my neck, I lifted off the ball chain that held the dog tags, undid the clasp, and transferred them to the new necklace before I put it on. “I should replace the silencers now, though,” I said, studying them as an excuse to look down while I gathered my feelings. “These are all bitten.”
“Nah, keep them,” Zain said. “It’s cute, and you’ll just chew on the new ones, anyway.”
After a moment, Quint softly said, “Only the envelope from me left. How are you feeling?”
“Um… a little overwhelmed,” I said, “but in a nice way. I can open it now.”
He passed it to me, and I tore it along the top before sliding out the card. A photo of balloons decorated the front. Inside, he’d written, I’m so grateful that Theo brought you home for dinner that first night, mon chaton, and so delighted to celebrate your birthday with you. My gift is a membership to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Until your card arrives, you can provide your ID to receive free admission and your other benefits. I hope you enjoy many happy hours exploring its collections. With love, Quint.
My jaw hung open as I looked at him, and he smiled and said, “I also forgot to mention they’re having a special members-only opening of their new contemporary art building next month. I’ve RSVP’d for you.”
“Quint!” Getting up, I threw my arms around his neck. “I… Thank you. You’ll come with me, won’t you?”
He nodded and hugged me back. When he let go, I went around the table to embrace Theo, too.
“Alright,” said Zain, “Now both of you have to give him a hug from me at the same time. A huge one, so he can’t breathe for at least a few seconds, but you can stop if he turns blue.”
They obliged, though Theo seemed to follow the instructions more literally than Quint. I was slightly out of breath when he let go and declared, “Cheesecake time!”
“Zain, do you mind if we eat it now?” asked Quint, giving me one last squeeze. “It doesn’t feel right with you not having any.”
Grinning, he held up a clear plastic container with a slice of cheesecake in it. “Bought some for myself, so go ahead.”
“Alright. Angel, help me with it, please.”
As I sat down again, Zain’s eyes glowed at me. “Good birthday, habibi?”
In the kitchen, Theo put candles on the cheesecake and Quint got plates and forks ready. I cuddled the pancreas plush absently while I watched. To think that when Zain and I picked Cooper Union, I expected to spend four years on my own in this city.