Note: Takes place right after they first move to Hawaii.
My eyes were on Zain, not the house, as we pulled into the driveway. I’d sent him pictures, of course, but this was the first time he was seeing it in person. It fell on me to go house-hunting with my parents while he was deployed. I’d had only my gut instinct of his tastes to guide me.
He turned off the Jeep’s engine and sat back in his seat, taking in our new home. I couldn’t judge his expression.
“I know it looks a little run-down and overgrown,” I started. “Mom and Dad had it inspected really thoroughly before they bought it, though, and it’s all just cosmetic stuff. Fresh paint, refinish the siding–”
“Babe,” he cut me off, the corners of his mouth slowly turning up. “I think it looks awesome. Love the wrap-around porch.”
Grinning back at him idiotically with relief, I said, “It’s called a lanai in Hawaii.”
“Lanai,” he corrected himself as he opened his door and unbuckled his seatbelt. “C’mon, I want to see the inside!”
He dashed to the front steps while I was still climbing out of the vehicle. When I caught up, though, he was standing by the slightly-darker patch of wood where a welcome mat must’ve laid for years. “You have the keys,” I reminded him. “What are you waiting for?”
“This,” he said, and before I could move, he’d grabbed me and slung me across his shoulders in a fireman’s carry. “Gotta bring you over the threshold.”
I laughed and wriggled. “We’re not newlyweds, you doofus!”
“So?” he asked. “It’s for good luck and new beginnings, right? Now stop squirming. I need to unlock this.”
I watched, my head hanging by his upper arm, as he put the key into the doorknob, twisted it, and pushed. It swung open with a few creaks. Zain took one giant, ceremonious step forward. From my viewpoint, the only thing visible was the dusty floor. “Put me down,” I said, slapping his butt. He gave me a playful smack in return and set me on my feet.
As I straightened my t-shirt, he walked directly to the row of huge windows and sliding glass doors that led to the lanai and backyard. “Wow. That’s a view.”
“Yeah.” I came up behind him, looking at it myself. The stretch of grass ended in a low concrete seawall with a few trees dotted around, and from there it was only ocean, all the way to the horizon. “That’s why I picked this place. The rest of it needs work, but we wouldn’t get the view anywhere else.”
He hooked his arm around my waist and dropped a kiss near my ear. “You did good, habibi.”
I smiled. For the past seven months without him, I’d wanted nothing more than to be together, somewhere we could call ‘home’. This house didn’t feel quite right yet—it echoed with the energies of previous occupants, not ours—but he was home, and that was enough for now.
Ocean air is a great smell to wake up to, especially after over half a year on a musty military base in a landlocked country. It was mixed with something else, though. More herbal. I opened my eyes with a frown and noticed a distinct lack of Seb next to me on the air mattress.
Pushing the sleeping bag to one side, I got to my feet. The floorboards felt cool from the breeze coming in off the lanai. Thanks to our scrub-down of the entire house yesterday, they were no longer dirty. Scratched and dented here and there, sure, but I thought that brought character. I padded across them through the wide archway separating the master bedroom from the hall, then over to the door leading to the main room.
Seb was on the far side of the huge, empty space, wearing his pajamas and standing on tip-toe to waft smoke from the small bowl he held towards the corner of the ceiling. I watched him slowly walk along the wall, one of his hands constantly circling through the smoke, directing it where he wanted. The other smell must’ve been sage, then. He’d told me he was going to smudge the place when we were done cleaning, but it wound up being so late that we barely had the energy to inflate the air mattress before falling asleep.
With no idea if interrupting him would mess up the process or not—it seemed like he was concentrating pretty hard—I left him to it and went silently back to the master bathroom.
Taking a hot shower for as long as I wanted still felt like unimaginable luxury. When I finally pried myself out of it, I found Seb sitting in a full-lotus pose on the mattress, writing in one of his sketchbooks and munching on an apple in his other hand.
“Isn’t that supposed to be just for drawing?” I asked, squinting at the page. I could remember very clearly some of the looks he’s given me when I ask to use a sheet of the high-quality paper to jot something down.
He explained with his mouth full, “We don’t have anything else.” Then he swallowed and added, “I wanted to start a list of what we need. Number one: Writing paper. See?”
It was indeed the first thing written, at the top of a very long list. Right now we had the air mattress, the sleeping bag, his diabetes kit, some cleaning supplies, and enough food and clothes to get us through the couple of days until the rest of our personal items arrived from Santa Cruz. Even then, we’d be lacking any furniture or household stuff apart from a few hand-me-down pots and pans Maeve gave to Seb.
“They’re not in order of importance, though,” he went on. “Just as I think of them. The highest priority is probably a real bed.”
I grinned and dropped the towel wrapped around my waist as I bent down to get clothes out of my duffel bag. “A sturdy bed,” I said. “With posts, so I can tie you to it.”
He made a weird noise and started coughing.
“You okay?” I asked, twisting around to see him. “Not choking, are you?”
Red-faced, he shook his head and took his hand away from his mouth just long enough to croak, “I hate you.”
“What?” I asked innocently. “I’m just saying, you wriggle a lot. Don’t want you to break it. Write that down, now. ‘A sturdy bed.’”
“I’ll do it, then.”
Letting go of the underwear I’d picked up, I flopped next to him naked and snatched the sketchbook off his lap. He tried to get it back, of course, dropping the apple core in the process, and I had to pin him down to wrestle his pen away, but I emerged victorious.
“Let’s see,” I said, straddling him with about half my body weight on his hands to keep them by his sides. “Writing paper, dresser, bathmats, dishes, wall paint, mattress– ah, here we are! Bed frame.” Carefully, I inserted a caret symbol before it and squeezed in the word ‘sturdy’, spelling it out loud while he giggled beneath me. Then I rolled off him and kept silently reading down the page for several seconds. “Holy crap, there’s a ton.”
“I know,” he said, more somber, as he propped himself up on one elbow to face me. “I’m trying to keep it to just the basics, and I’d really rather shop at thrift stores and craigslist than buying new for almost all of it, so that’ll save us money, but it’s still a lot.”
He was trying not to give off how worried he was about it. I scooched closer and kissed him. “We’ll manage, babe. I’ve hardly spent any of my pay for the past seven months, remember?”
He bit his lip and nodded, not looking convinced. Then he sneezed, just barely covering his face in time.
“Bless you,” I said.
“Thanks,” he replied, rubbing his nose. “The sage has been making me sneeze all morning.”
“Smells good, at least.” Glancing over the list again, I asked, “Wall paint? I thought you might like the wood-panelled look. It kinda reminds me of a treehouse.”
Even more uncertainty came into his eyes as he said, “It’s a bit, um, dark? I was imagining something brighter, maybe light yellow? But if you like it, we can leave it.”
He’s always doing this, no matter how many times I tell him that what he likes matters just as much. I’ve been thinking for awhile that something more than telling is what he needs to believe it, but I didn’t want to get into that conversation right then. Instead, I patiently explained, “I wasn’t saying that. It’s your decision too, and I trust you more than me when it comes to making things look pretty, okay? Yellow sounds good.”
“Well, I’m not sure,” he said. “We can get some samples and try a few hues, though, to start.”
“Okay, so thrift shops and a hardware store will be our main targets today. Oh, and a mattress place, ‘cause I’m not buying that used.” I gave the sketchbook back to him and sighed with contentment as another gentle breeze came through the window. “I can’t believe we’re really moving in together.”
“Z,” he said, his lips twitching, “we’ve been living together for… going on four years, except during your deployment.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, but it’s different. We’re gonna buy bathmats. And I’m excited about it. It’s so weird. Is this what being a grown-up is like?”
Now he was snorting with giggles again. “You’ve been legally an adult for over a year. I’ve only been one for a couple of months. Shouldn’t you know better than me?”
“And this place is just us, not with your parents and siblings and whoever else always around,” I continued, beaming. “I can wander through the house starkers all day if I want. In fact, I don’t think I’m gonna put clothes on until we leave. Oh! And you can be naked, too!”
“What? No! Zain!”
It was too late; I’d already tackled him and gotten his pants down to his knees while he cracked up helplessly. Tugging his shirt out of the way, I nibbled across his abdomen. I half-expected him to tense as I reached his scars, but he just kept laughing.
“St–top it, that t–tickles!”
Lifting my head, I smiled and snaked a hand under the hem of his shirt. “Know why else having our own house is great?” I asked. “You can be really noisy when you beg me.” Then I found his nipple and set about getting him to do just that.
My throat felt sore. I must’ve been babbling louder than I thought. The realization normally would’ve made me blush, but at the moment, embarrassment was a distant thing, far below me. I was a bird in the clouds, gliding effortlessly with the wind.
“Habibi? You doing okay?”
Zain sounded a long ways off, too. I didn’t open my eyes to confirm. “Mm,” I said. The vibration was a little flame in my esophagus. A nice flame, though. Proof of how good I’d been at following his wishes.
“Done talking, huh?” he asked. “Alright. Remember this?”
His hand, warm and solid, found mine and squeezed it twice. One corner of my mouth twitched. Yes, I remembered. It was a nonverbal safe signal he came up with when we started experimenting with gags, a way for him to check in even when every other part of my body was immobilized or I didn’t want to speak. One squeeze back for ‘there’s a problem,’ two for ‘I’m okay.’ I summoned the energy to open and close my fingers twice.
“Good,” he said. I felt him settle in front of me, his breath brushing my cheeks. “So you enjoyed yourself, then? I ask because towards the end there it was all garbled French. Didn’t understand a word of it. Sounded pretty, but–”
He stopped only because I’d extracted my hand from his grip and blindly reached out to cover his mouth. It formed a smile under my palm.
“Okay,” he said, muffled and amused, “I’ll stop talking, too.”
I grunted again in approval and let my hand drop. A moment later, he snuggled up closer to wrap me in his arms, grounding me even as I soared.
We did eventually get dressed and leave the house. A mattress store was our first stop, because, as Zain pointed out, we could put it on the floor if we didn’t find a bed frame right away. The prices made me wince. Even the cheaper options I tried to steer him towards were going to take a significant chunk out of our savings. His savings. Almost none of it had been earned by me. I started mentally removing items from the list in my sketchbook. So what if we kept eating off paper plates for awhile?
Once we found a middle-of-the-line mattress and arranged delivery, though, we moved on to thrift stores, where Zain seemed to forget the list altogether.
“Babe, look at these sweet aloha shirts!” he said, holding two hangers up.
I couldn’t decide which of the prints was more gaudy: the neon surfboards or the lime-green pineapples. “We’re not here to buy clothes,” I said.
“I gotta buy one. I’m pretty sure it’s a state law in Hawaii.”
He brought the surfboard one up to the counter to pay for it right then, so he could wear it over his tanktop as we continued shopping. “There!” he said as he put it on. “Now I’m beginning to feel like I belong here.”
That stopped any protests I might’ve made. And later, when he insisted I get a lovely—and completely unnecessary—wooden salad bowl set I’d admired and put back down, he justified it by saying the more personal things would make the house ‘homey.’
My nose prickled. I wanted that more than anything. He’d lived in Marine barracks for the past seven months, and before, sure, he got his own room at the farm, but it had to pale in comparison to the house he grew up in, with his family.
“Okay, let’s get it,” I said. He beamed.
We left the store with a few lamps and other things, too, yet still no bed.
On the way to get lunch, we found a Lowe’s. Racks and racks of paint chips assaulted me. I stood in front of one for minutes on end, trying to decide between various shades of yellow while Zain entertained himself farther down by coming up with more creative names for the oranges.
“I’m calling this one ‘You’ll Never Take Me Alive, Copper’,” he said, walking over to wave it in my face. Then he looked closer at me. “Babe? They’re free. Just grab a bunch.”
“No, but I want to get one-pint samples of them,” I said, “and those aren’t free, so I need to narrow it down.” My eyes were watering for some pathetic reason.
He picked four chips at random. “It’s narrowed down. We’re getting samples for these. C’mon.”
“I’m the one who knows about color theory,” I reminded him, staying where I was as he strode off. “We need something… bright, but not overwhelming.”
Shaking his head, he backtracked to my side. “These’ll be fine for now, Seb, trust me. I’m hungry. Let’s go eat lunch.”
On ‘let’s go’, he gave me a whack on the butt, a touch harder than when he’s being playful. He’s done that occasionally for years. They don’t hurt or anything. It’s more like he’s trying to get my attention or encourage me to start moving. Still, I jumped a little. It always catches me by surprise.
This time, when he turned and walked towards the paint counter, I followed him.
I got us napkins from the little food stand and brought them back to the picnic table where Seb was dialing up a dose on his insulin pen. He paused as I sat, his freckled nose twitching. Then he snatched a napkin from the top of the stack and sneezed into it. Three times.
“Okay,” I said. “I don’t think you can blame it on the sage now.” He’d been doing it off and on all morning while we shopped, too. “You must be coming down with something.”
Crumpling the napkin into a ball, he went back to his shot. “I’m fine.”
“Yeah, that’s why you’re giving yourself a massive dose of insulin for a salad,” I agreed, nodding. Blood glucose skyrockets during an illness. I knew that much from when he’s been sick in the past, at least, although his parents always took the lead in caring for him. He would keep me away as much as possible, insisting he didn’t want me to catch it.
His head was bent to look down at his stomach as he did the injection, and also probably to avoid eye contact. I heard him mutter, almost to himself, “I can’t be sick. There’s too much to do.”
“I’ve got plenty of leave, babe. It’ll be alright,” I said reassuringly. “Anyway, who says it’s all gotta get done now?”
“Dax is visiting next month,” he said, like I had forgotten. “I want to have the house in shape.”
I suspected his brother wouldn’t mind if we were living in a tent. He’s the most low-maintenance of the McKenna Crews family. It’s too bad Seb doesn’t share some of that chill.
“Keeping you healthy is more important than remodeling,” I told him. “Do you have your sick-day plan with you?”
He’d put his kit away and was now stabbing his fork into lettuce like he wanted to hurt it. “No.”
Maeve and Charlie would have a copy, or we could call up his old doctor’s office directly, I figured. The more important thing right now was getting him to relax, pronto, before he stressed himself into even worse hyperglycemia. I asked, “Hey, know what we haven’t done yet?”
“Found a bed?” he suggested grouchily.
Grinning, I said, “No, explored our new property! You’re dying to find good climbing trees, aren’t you? Why don’t we go back home for a few hours after we eat? They’ll be delivering the mattress soon, anyway.”
I saw him blink a few times, his eyes suspiciously bright, before he nodded.
The most perfect tree grew right over the seawall in the backyard. I could tell already it’d be one of his favorites. We walked around the rest of the property too, Seb closely examining the tropical vegetation. In Santa Cruz, he’d’ve been able to tell me the names of everything. I decided to get him a Hawaiian field guide as soon as possible.
By the time the mattress truck arrived, he was sneezing and coughing up a storm and looked dead on his feet. I showed the delivery guys out before returning to find him spread across the new mattress in the middle of the bedroom floor.
“Jetlag,” he mumbled defensively as I came in.
It was about seven in the evening in California, but I didn’t argue. “Good idea to test out the firmness more, anyway,” I said. “I’ll join you.”
And I did, though only until I was sure he’d dropped off completely. Then I went into the other room to call his mom and find out what we needed to get him through a cold okay. She gave me a whole list—which I wrote out on the back of the first one, since that sheet was ruined for drawing already—and emailed the plan from his endo.
“Tell him to call me when he wakes up,” she added. “I want to check on him. Not that I don’t trust you, Zainadu, but it’s hard with my baby leaving home. We miss you both terribly.”
“I miss you, too,” I said. “I’ll let him know to call. Thanks for the briefing.”
“You’re welcome. Remember, the most important thing is to make him rest.”
“Will do,” I promised.
While he slept, I ran to a pharmacy and grocery store to stock up on supplies, including a notebook, since Maeve said we needed to start recording all his stats round the clock. I returned with bags and bags of stuff. He shuffled out of the bedroom as I was putting it away in the kitchen.
“Hey, habibi,” I said, cheerful. “You look horrible. Go lie down. I’ll bring you some food.”
“I can get it myself,” he said, coming to squint into a paper bag on the counter with red-rimmed eyes. “How many tissues did you buy?”
I grabbed the bag right from under his nose and carried it in one hand as I took his elbow with the other to drag him along behind me. “A lot. C’mon, you’re staying in bed. Your mom said rest is important, so rest is what you will get, brat.”
In complete indignation, he started, “You talked to my–”, and then the other shoe dropped and I felt him stumble over his own feet. His voice was a breathless squeak as he asked, “What did you just call me?”
I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing. We’d come to a standstill in the middle of the main room. Seb was so pink, I wanted to hug him just from the adorableness. Instead, I repeated, “Brat,” with all the affection I could possibly pack into one syllable. “Did you think I forgot sending those articles to you?”
His mouth opened and closed as the blush deepened to red. “You– you didn’t mention them again. You only wrote ‘read these, don’t respond, just think about them.’”
“Yeah,” I said. “I wanted to give you time without pressure, and I wanted to talk about it face to face, and guess what? We’re face to face now. With nothing else to do for the rest of the night.”
“D’you wanna go lie down and I’ll get some snacks for us to munch on while we chat?” I asked. When he slowly nodded, I held out the bag. “There’s ketone test strips and a notebook in there, too. The sick-day plan says you’ve gotta test every two hours and write it down, so you might as well start now.”
“Okay,” he said, taking it.
I watched him turn and disappear through the hallway door without any argument and so wished I could swat him for real already. He was doing that thing he does with his family where he’s perfectly behaved and acts like everything’s fine and for some reason they usually believe it. If we agreed to add discipline to our relationship, that was going to end quick.
I’d first happened across the concept on a website about BDSM techniques and safety. It got me curious, so I googled more articles—some of the same ones I sent to him a month ago—and a lot of them read like they’d been written about us. He had to have seen it, too.
When I brought two paper plates of food into the bedroom, he wasn’t there. The bathroom door was shut with a light shining beneath it. I set the plates down on the floor by the mattress. “Almost done in there, babe?”
He sounded as nervous as I’d ever heard him. The urge to hug rose again, this time because I wanted to reassure. “It won’t be scary,” I promised, walking closer to the door. “It’s me, remember?”
A long moment later, he opened it, his green eyes flicking up to my face once. I gave in and pulled him close, but he just stood there letting me hold him without returning it, like a ragdoll. My stomach twisted.
“C’mon,” I coaxed. “Let’s lie down.”
Again, he went perfectly-obedient and let me guide him onto the mattress. I arranged it so we were facing each other, on our sides, and put my hand on his hip. Even that close, he managed to look away from me. One of the articles said eye contact was really important. I ducked my head a little to catch his gaze and smiled at him once I had it.
“So,” I said. “Penny for your thoughts?”
My thoughts? I had no thoughts. None I could verbalize, or even articulate in my mind. Just a jumbled, fractured mess like someone had dropped a vase on the floor. I opened my mouth to try anyway, but nothing came. Huffing with frustration, I started to roll away from him. His hand on my hip stopped me.
“No, habibi, c’mon. We’ve gotta talk about this. What if I start?”
I moved my shoulder in the barest hint of a shrug.
“Okay, I think discipline would help a lot,” he said, and then continued more slowly, like he was picking words with care. “I know you get… stressed sometimes. It kills me to watch, especially with what it does to your body. There’s only so many ways I can relax you. Telling you to doesn’t do it. More like the opposite, actually. Trying to joke around works a lot of the time, but not completely.
“I’ve compared results, and physical stuff seems to be best. Not just sex, although,”—he grinned—“that is a favorite of mine. Other sorts of touches, I mean. The Dom/Sub thing is hard when you’re really fighting it. I think you need something more overwhelming, something you can’t block out, and something that would trigger a– an emotional catharsis. And give me the ability to maybe head things off before they even get that far. This fits. But we both need to be for it. So, I need to know what you think.”
Why was he expecting me to reassemble myself when he held the glue?
His gorgeous eyebrows came together over his nose. “Seb, you’re not… not thinking I want to abuse you, are you?”
“No!” The word burst forth from pure shock and horror that he’d gotten such an idea. I could still remember, like it was five minutes ago, the pain in his voice when he finally told me why his parents wanted him away from his little brother. I would never believe he could do anything remotely abusive. He had to know that! But if I wasn’t talking, of course he’d suspect the worst. My tongue felt clumsy, too big, as I managed, “I just– can’t…”
“Okay,” he said, looking relieved and more understanding. “Can you draw how you’re feeling?”
I nodded, hoping it was true.
He got up and found my sketchbook and pencil in the pile of our belongings against the wall. Bringing them back over, he paused to collect one of the plates on the floor. It had two slices of avocado toast and a cup of vegan, sugar-free strawberry jello. “Here,” he said. “You need to eat. Where’s your kit?”
“Bathroom,” I said, around the growing lump in my throat. “I’ll get–”
“No, I will. Start to draw, okay?”
I did, and tried to tell myself the sniffling I couldn’t stop was from the cold. He must’ve remembered what I like to eat when I’m sick from the last time, over a year ago. Or Mom told him. Either way, the attentiveness it showed made me feel shattered all over again.
He did so much for me that I could never repay, simply because he didn’t need it. How dare I want more?
I pulled myself together some before he came back with the kit and the notebook where I’d recorded my ketone test result. So far, only low levels. When he sat down on the mattress with his back against the wall and handed both items to me, he craned his neck to see the drawing in progress. I moved it farther away.
“Sorry,” he said, his lips twitching. “You know I’m impatient.”
“It’s not done yet.”
It wasn’t only that, though. Showing it to him would mean continuing the conversation we’d been having. I flipped the sketchbook face-down before I did my finger prick. Zain, meanwhile, picked up the other plate, which looked like it was full of Doritos, and started eating.
I recorded the glucose result—still over 250—and, with a bit of scribbled calculation, my insulin dose. Then I did the injection and stretched out on my stomach, picking up a piece of toast in one hand and the sketchbook in the other.
Something occurred to me just before taking my first bite. “How did you toast…?”
With a smile, he said, “Used the broiler. I’m very resourceful.”
He was. We probably wouldn’t be discussing those articles otherwise.
I chewed and drew, occasionally brushing crumbs off the page with my pinkie. He kept his gaze studiously out the window.
The day he sent the links to the articles, I’d read each of them a few times over, feeling an undeniable sense of recognition. Most of them were written by…Brats. The way they described their relationships made me wish Zain was home so strongly that I had to archive the email and go spend the rest of the afternoon sketching in the attic. The longing for it scared me. I’d hoped it was nothing more than a passing fancy he’d taken, forgotten by the time he returned. I should have known better.
A figure took shape on the paper. It was pulling away from itself down the middle, lines of tension separating both halves. One side had an oozing, blobby form, fingers reaching out of it to grasp and cling. The other was all jaggedness and spikes sharp enough to cut. I paused, my pencil pressing heavily down. No, it wasn’t right. That only captured part of it. I needed at least three more halves. I turned the sheet over to start again.
“Babe,” Zain said, “it doesn’t have to be perfect. Just a hint to point me in the right direction.”
Shaking my head without looking at him, I grabbed a tissue from the box next to my pillow and blew into it before trying to surreptitiously dab my eyes.
He reached over to stroke between my shoulderblades, and I knew I’d been caught. “Okay,” he said, with a small sigh. “Maybe the drawing’s not working.”
“Just need to finish,” I mumbled.
“It’s getting late,” he said, “and your mom wanted you to call her. How’s about we continue this in the morning, when you’re more rested and have had time to think?”
Where was this urge to lash out at him coming from? It wasn’t his fault I couldn’t get my mind in order. I fought it down and said, “Okay.”
His palm paused in the stroking, weirdly hesitant for a moment. Then he said, “I forgot to bring you a spoon for the jello. I’ll be right back.”
While he was gone, I closed the sketchbook and set it aside, then unplugged my phone from the outlet where our nightstand was probably going to go and called Mom. She answered with, “Allô, mon petit trognon! Ça va? Zain said you’re sick?”
“Only a little bit,” I replied in French, and then of course had to sneeze again.
“Oh, my poor thing,” she said as I wiped my nose.
Zain returned with a plastic spoon, grabbing the jello cup before I could take it. He peeled back the lid, stuck the utensil in, and handed it to me. I broke off reassuring Mom that I was following the sick-day plan long enough to scoop out some and eat it. The coolness felt wonderful on my sore throat. Raising his eyebrows questioningly, Zain made a thumbs-up. I nodded to him. “Oui, Maman, je mange maintenant.”
Once she was satisfied, she passed the phone to Dad, and then Keegan, who was home from university for a long weekend and wanted to tell me all about how her PhD research project was going. Several minutes into it, Zain, yawning, held out his hand.
I was puzzled, but said, “Kee, Zain wants to talk to you. Hang on.”
“Hi, Keegan Mab Crews McKenna,” he greeted her cheerfully. For some reason he likes to use her full name at times, like it’s an inside joke between them. “Seb and I are both pretty jetlagged still– Yeah… It’s alright. We’ll talk more later, promise… Yeah, he loves you, too. Bye!”
I watched him end the call with my mouth hanging open. “You didn’t have to do that.”
He snorted. “Yes, I did. I’m exhausted, and she would’ve talked your ear off about seal flippers or whatever for half the night. I’m gonna go brush my teeth.” And he got up and went into the bathroom.
The most infuriating thing was, I felt glad he’d done it.
Thanks to my stubbornly-high blood sugar and the creeping cold, I fell asleep first. When I woke, the only sound was waves lapping against the beach and Zain’s deep, even breathing.
The moonlight slanting through the windows illuminated the planes of his face. He looked younger. I swallowed, staring at him and thinking about the articles and the incomplete drawing from earlier and how I’d just wanted to take care of him for once instead of the other way around, but I could tell without testing that I was still high, my body making it impossible for me to be anything other than a hindrance and now my emotions betraying me, too, with this terrible need every time I remembered him calling me ‘brat.’
I got up and went to pee. The ketone test I made myself do showed low levels still. That was something, at least.
He’d stretched across the full mattress when I came back out. Muffling a cough, I walked straight through the bedroom and hallway to the great room.
We left the cans of paint samples there earlier, along with a few brushes, a sheet from the thrift store to act as a dropcloth, and two of the lamps. Both had new bulbs and were plugged in already because we’d tested them when we got home. I turned them on and spread out the sheet against the wall with the widest span of wood paneling, next to the hallway door. Then I used the paint can opener to pry the lid off a sample called Unmellow Yellow, dipped a brush in, and picked a spot to start.
After a few strokes, I realized we should’ve gotten a white primer to go underneath. The darkness of the wood was distorting the color. But I didn’t stop. I had to see it through, no matter how pointless. I had to do something.
My brush ran dry, and as I was bending to get more paint onto the bristles, Zain appeared from the hallway behind me. I jumped an inch.
He took in what I was doing with a single look. Then he tilted his head, smiling. “Babe? It’s, um, the middle of the night? And you’re sick?”
“I know,” I said, my heart thumping and my voice just barely steady. “I’ll come to bed in a few minutes. I need to finish this.”
Slowly, he blinked, grinned wider, and crossed his arms over his chest. “Nope.”
“Nope?” I asked. “Nope what?” I couldn’t understand why he seemed to be holding back laughter. Or why that was making me nervous.
“Nope, you don’t need to finish it, and nope, you won’t come to bed in a few minutes. You’ll come now,” he said, with as much certainty as if it had already happened, edged with the same amusement.
I clenched my jaw a moment. “Says who?”
“Says me.” His head was almost completely to one side now. Very deliberate, with one eyebrow quirking up, he pronounced, “Brat.”
My stomach flipped over several times. I heard myself say, “I don’t see you doing anything.”
“Do you want me to do something?” he asked. “Sure seems like you do.”
Breathing became hard. I nearly panted, my shoulders rising and falling, as I stared at him. I felt like I was standing on unsteady, muddy ground, knowing it was about to become a landslide, yet unable to move. Zain looked kind and sweet now. That was worse. Turning away, I bent over with the pretense of dipping my brush into the paint again, just so I could break eye contact.
I flung the can at him.
Because I’d been turning as I did it, it didn’t fly straight, but spun in a sideways arch, the centrifugal force keeping most of the paint inside for a moment and then propelling a huge, shockingly-yellow ribbon that cut across his middle and the wall. It went THWACK.
Clanging to the floor behind him, the can erupted another geyser and came to a rest on its side in a pool of paint.
Dead silence fell. Zain pulled his wet tanktop away from his stomach to gaze down at it ruefully. Then he wiped his hands on his sweatpants, leaving yellow smears, and started towards me.
Without any idea where I would go, I tried to dart around him. He was faster. He caught up from behind, grabbed my waist, and the next thing I knew, he’d sat down heavily on the floor with me in his lap, both his strong arms locked over my chest. A lot of the paint got transferred to me in the process. The slipperiness made it easier to twist in his hold, yet I couldn’t free myself. All I managed to do was face him.
Somehow, over my breathing and struggling and the blood pounding in my ears, I heard him almost whisper, “You’re okay,” before he flipped me onto my stomach.
I went absolutely still. It felt so foreign to be staring down at the paint-splattered floor inches from my face, with my bare toes braced against it on the other side. The other side of where his thighs supported my pelvis and pushed my butt higher than the rest of me. Foreign and embarrassing and a weird mixture of vulnerable and secure. And I wasn’t at all surprised.
Zain reached around, found my right hand, and guided it behind my back. He didn’t need to use any force, though his grip was firm as he held it there, even with the paint squelching between our fingers.
I felt him squeeze twice.
Tears sprang into my eyes. Gulping, I lowered my head even farther to the floor, resting my cheek against my free forearm, and squeezed back. Twice, for ‘I’m okay.’
His other hand hooked into my waistband. “Lift your hips a little,” he murmured.
I screwed up my courage for a moment before obeying, and he tugged the cloth below my cheeks and partway down my legs. Not squirming was impossible. Any doubts about his seriousness left in an instant, and he hadn’t even started yet.
I didn’t have long to wait, though. The moment my skin was fully bare, he brought his palm, still wet with paint, down hard at the juncture of my rear end and right thigh.
I bit back a yelp as the sound of it echoed through the empty room. Merde, I did not expect it to sting that much! My feet kicked up involuntarily. Forcing myself to lower them, I vowed that I’d at least take this without making a huge fuss.
Zain paused after the first swat, too. I had no idea if he was judging my reaction or waiting for me to say something or what. When I tried to speak, nothing came out. Whatever it was, it lasted onIy a second before I had to clamp my lips together again to muffle my cries. Burning pain seared all over my bottom.
The problem was, my stuffy nose made it impossible to get any air with my mouth closed. And when Zain noticed, he stopped and said, “Breathe, habibi,” in such a tender voice that a whimper tore loose. “That’s it,” he said. “You gotta let go of that emotion, okay? Just try for me.”
He started again.
According to the articles, you should go slow and easy when giving the very first spanking, until you’ve got a better idea of how your particular Brat handles it. Yet they also said to trust your instincts and read your Brat’s body language, and I knew the second I got ahold of Seb that he was going to fight. Not physically—he went totally docile the instant I had him over my lap, like he’d been waiting for it—but emotionally. I could feel his spine stiff as a steel rod.
So I aimed for somewhere around twice the strength of one of the pseudo-swats I’ve given him for years, before I even knew what I was doing or why they seemed to be so damn effective at getting the panic out of his eyes. Then I stopped, to give him a chance to back out if he wanted.
For just a second, we were both motionless, there on the floor surrounded by the evidence of his internal struggle.
I knew that’s what it was now. I’d peeked at the unfinished drawing when I woke up and found him gone. And when I went to bring him back, I knew he was trying to show that he didn’t need anyone taking care of him, that he was a capable adult who did things like finding the perfect shade of yellow to renovate a house. Of course, the very same actions screamed ‘Yes, I’m a Brat. Do something. Help!’
That empty, paint-splattered room was the proving ground for both of us. Boot camp had felt less demanding.
In the dim light of the lamps, a perfect handprint stood out on his skin. Patches of yellow with red underneath. It had to have hurt. My own palm was stinging. He barely reacted, though. His feet lifted for an instant and then braced against the floor again, more like he was getting ready to do a push-up across my legs than to be spanked. Clearly, a slow and steady tactic would keep us here until the paint dried. I tossed that bit of advice out and went to work.
I couldn’t believe how much my heart ached when he finally started sobbing. Before, if I ever heard him like that, I’d drop everything and find out who or what was the cause so I could put an end to it. Now I knew exactly: It was me, and I couldn’t stop. He was still fighting.
Instead, I let go of his hand to rub the back of his neck while I kept on spanking. Paint had already gotten all over. No sense worrying about a bit in his hair.
I had tears running down my cheeks, too, when he shifted from how he sounds when he’s trying not to cry to his full-on weeping. Then I let my palm rest on his bare hind end.
The articles all mentioned the importance of soothing at this point. Like that needed to be said.
I put my arm under his shoulders and lifted so I could see his face, and he scrambled the rest of the way, sitting gingerly on his heels and going to wipe his eyes with the back of a hand.
“The paint,” I said, catching his wrist to stop him. Smears already decorated his chin.
He blinked, shaking loose more tears from his dark lashes, and sniffled and gulped. “Need to clean it up,” he said, going to stand.
Luckily I still had a hold of him. “Don’t worry about it.” I tugged him forward into my arms, and when he did nothing, turned my head to whisper in his ear, “If you don’t hug me back, I’m gonna think you hate me, habibi.” Meant as a joke, though my voice came out shaky and unsure. Dammit. I was supposed to be strong for him now.
Instantly, he clung to me, pressing into my body from shoulders to waist so hard I had to brace myself to not fall over. “Je t’aime.”
“I love you, too,” I said, around the lump in my throat.
Several seconds later, we both pulled back. Our shirts stuck together for a moment more. I looked down at them and then gave him a grin.
“Guess these’ll be our painting clothes, huh? I mean, all your clothes are painting clothes, pretty much, but these ones for sure.”
He didn’t smile. In fact, his gaze wasn’t on me. “The floor. What if it’s ruined?”
I caught his chin in my hand to make him give me eye contact. “It’s not even dry yet. Why don’t you go take a shower, and I’ll clean it up?”
“I’m the one who threw the can,” he argued. “I’ll clean it. You–”
“Seb?” I cut him off, tilting my head a little and smiling again. “When I said ‘why don’t you,’ I wasn’t inviting you to actually give reasons.”
He froze, his jaw hanging open in my hand, and stared at me. Second test, I thought. Now that he truly knew what he was getting into, would it still be what he wanted? I could practically see him considering me and the sting in his bottom and making up his mind.
“You don’t gotta apologize. Call me a bastard, for all I care. Just do what I tell you.” I kissed him—carefully, to avoid the paint—and asked against his lips, “Okay?”
He nodded. “D’accord.”
We both got to our feet. Seb went to pull his pants up from around his knees and then thought better of it when he realized he’d be getting the inside coated in paint, too. I watched him twist around to look at his bright yellow butt and stifled my laughter. Sighing, he took the pants off entirely, used them to wipe the soles of his feet clean, and picked his way around the mess to go back through the hallway door. I waited until I heard the shower running before I went to fetch the rags we’d used to scrub the floor yesterday.
The paint had barely started to dry on my skin as I stepped into the shower. I was grateful. Just rubbing my buttocks with my hands under the hot spray reignited the burn. It came off easily enough, though, from what I could tell. I was going to have to ask Zain to check that I’d got it all.
The flesh underneath was crimson. Looking at it made me feel odd. While it was happening, it had seemed… not natural, precisely, but expected. Unsurprising. Of course, why should it have surprised me? He’d let me know weeks ago that he was considering this. Gave me plenty of warning before I threw the can, too. I just couldn’t stop myself. In addition to all the other emotions tearing me into pieces, a part of me wanted to see if he was really serious, I think.
He was. That much was clear. I had the sore bottom to prove it.
But what would happen now? Something monumental had moved in our relationship—the very earth beneath our feet—and I had no idea how far it would take us. I felt like I had when he told me he wanted to join the Marines. The same fear that I wouldn’t recognize the Zain who came out on the other side. Worse, what if he didn’t recognize me? I’d always been so careful not to show the clawing neediness. This would force it into the open. It already had, a little bit.
I finished the shower, got dressed in a clean t-shirt and pair of yoga pants, and went out the sliding glass door between the mattress and the lanai. When my parents and I first saw this place, I’d noticed the trunk of an old, dead tree leaning right against the railing and the eaves of the roof on this corner, like it was made to be a natural ladder. I scrambled up it and climbed from there onto the rough shingles. Then I lay down so all I could see was the sky. It looked almost the same as California. The familiarity felt comforting.
Time slipped away. I don’t know how much later it was when I heard Zain lift himself up with a little grunt. He crawled over next to me and stretched out on his stomach. I gave him a sideways, apprehensive look, but he was just resting his cheek on his folded arms and smiling like we’d agreed to meet here. “Hey, babe.”
“Hi,” I said. He’d changed clothes, too, but still had dried yellow streaks on his skin. “You should’ve showered.”
“Was going to, before I noticed you’d gone missing,” he said, and now concern filled his brown eyes. “You doing okay?”
I nodded. Guilt over worrying him wound up my stomach. “Did you finish cleaning the floor, because I can help–”
He was already shaking his head. “Got it all mopped up. You can’t even tell. Unless you look at the wall, I mean, but we’re painting that anyway.”
Every time I saw it until then, I was sure I’d blush.
Zain went cheerfully on, “So now’s a good time to discuss, uh, how did that article title put it? ‘Making discipline an aspect of your relationship,’ right? Which, actually, I think we were supposed to discuss before the spankings started, but since when do we do things by halves?”
I gulped and tried to look away. Like he had before, Zain nudged my chin back to face him with his hand, propping himself on one elbow to do it.
“You still want this,” he said, and it wasn’t quite a question.
Looking down at his chest, I whispered, “So much it scares me.”
“Why?” he asked, with a frown.
“Because it’s… it’s not what an adult relationship is supposed to look like,” I said. “We’re supposed to take care of each other. It’s not supposed to be one-sided. And I know we can’t really have that already because of my diabetes, but this is worse.”
Shifting closer, he said, “Babe, you do take care of me, and this isn’t going to stop that. It’s not going to be one-sided, either. I need things from you, too, y’know.”
I was confused for a second, thinking he meant the discipline would go both ways. “You do?”
He nodded. “Like I said last night—earlier, whatever—it kills me to see you stressing and not be able to do anything to stop it. I need to know you’re safe, healthy, and happy. And that you’re… mine, but not in quite the same way as being your Dom. I want to be your protector in every way possible. Not because I see you as weak. It’s more like a knight swearing an oath to a lord.”
Thinking of it that way didn’t make it easier to accept, and I couldn’t have said why. Yet I knew already it was no use trying to convince him otherwise. Zain’s sense of himself as a protector runs right to the very core of his identity.
“Also, that hug you gave me was very needed,” he added, smiling again. “Let’s see, what else can I think of right now? You make sure I eat properly at least some of the time. Reading your emails while I was deployed helped more than you can imagine. You keep my competitiveness in check. You indulge my Disney obsession. Oh, and I wouldn’t have any clue how to start making this place look nice on my own, either.”
I was choking up by the end of his list. Through it, I said, “That last one… I wanted this to be a home for you, and as soon as we arrive, I get sick and can’t do anything. Then you started talking about this Top/Brat stuff, and when you, um… put it into action, it worked. My head feels clearer now. It just proves how useless I am.”
He sighed and gently cupped my cheek with his palm. “Have you been listening to a single word I’ve said?”
“Yes! So I wrote you some emails, so what? It doesn’t make up for forcing you to do any of this.”
His eyes rolled. “You haven’t forced me to do anything. I want to do it. Just like right now, I kinda want to ‘put it into action’ again.”
My heart skipped a beat and started going twice the speed. Suddenly, I was extremely aware of how exposed my behind was. Zain observed my expression with a steady, direct gaze.
“I won’t, though,” he said, after a couple of seconds. “For one thing, we probably shouldn’t do that up here. Remember when we almost fell off your bedroom roof making out that one night? Also, we haven’t discussed rules yet.”
Rules? Since when did he want rules? He used to tell me to loosen up and not be so ‘good’ all the time. Was I losing him already?
“Hey,” he said, running his thumb through the moisture under my eye. “What’s this about?”
I couldn’t think how to tell him. Sniffling, I went with the other side of it: “We live under too many regulations from the Marines. More would feel…” The word I wanted was out of reach.
Zain seemed to guess. He nodded. “Okay. What about just one rule?”
I frowned. How would that work? “What? ‘Obey’?”
With a laugh, he said, “No, that’s only a rule for sexy times.” And he wiggled his eyebrows, making me flush. Still grinning, he went on, “I was thinking, ‘Health first.’ Everything else is negotiable, but not your health.”
It was hard to argue with that, much as I unreasonably wanted to. Anyway, I took good care of my health already, so he couldn’t find too much to fault there. I bit my lip and nodded.
“Good,” he said. “Speaking of which, how’re you feeling?”
“Better.” I hadn’t sneezed since I came outside. “I think the salt in the air helps.”
He smiled and moved closer again, making me lift my head and put it down on his arm. His other hand rested on my hip. Turning his face to the sky, he asked, “Know what this reminds me of?” I was about to say ‘the roof in Santa Cruz,’ but he went on, “That song by Coldplay.”
“…What?” I asked, completely baffled.
“I drew a line, I drew a line foooor you… oh what a thing to do… and it was all yellow.”
“Oh my gods,” I said, smacking his shoulder as I tried to roll away.
He cracked up and hugged me so tight I couldn’t move. Through the laughter, he kept singing, “Look at the stars, look how they shine foooor you… and everything you do… yeah, they were all yellow.”
I don’t know why I ever feared he’d change.
Both of us slept late the next morning. I woke up before Seb, though, which was good. It gave me time to think. More importantly, it prevented him from overthinking. He tended to freak himself out with some small worry and then he had to do something like paint a wall at three AM to distract himself. Preventing that whole process was the key to keeping his stress levels low.
I shouldn’t have stopped the discussion in the middle of the drawing. I saw that now. Too much had been unresolved and left to fester in his stunning little head. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again if I could help it.
Later, on the roof, he still seemed unconvinced that he wasn’t making me take on more than I wanted to. My distraction had been successful enough for the rest of the night, and I knew getting him to truly believe otherwise was going to be a multi-decade project, probably, but I needed to start. Fast.
I lay on my back with him sleeping beside me and began to form my plan.
Step one was put into action right when he stirred, rolled onto his stomach, and blinked his eyes open. I gave him a light smack on the butt. “Mornin’! Take your pants down. I want to check if there’s any marks.”
He looked like he was going to make a sleepy argument, but then he sneezed instead. I handed him the open box of tissues and, while he was blowing his nose, reached underneath him to pluck the knot of the drawstring free.
“Wait,” he mumbled, getting up on his knees to do the rest one-handed. Once the waistband was down around his thighs, he collapsed forward again and buried a pink face in his own crossed arms.
Leaning over, I carefully examined his skin. “Nope, looks normal…. Well, mostly. You missed a spot of paint here.” I poked it. He gave a tiny squeak. “I’ll get it for you when we take a shower.”
“We won’t both fit,” he protested in a muffled voice.
“We will in the other bathroom,” I said. It had a shower over the tub rather than separated like in the master. Also, I needed to scrub the paint off myself still, and I wasn’t going to let him out of my sight for a good long while. I smacked his bottom again, just a bit stronger. “C’mon.”
He gave me one of those looks over his shoulder, the one that was the same surprise he always wore when I did that, tempered with new caution. But he hesitated.
I tried the tilty-headed expression. It’d worked great last night.
Making a sour face, he said, “You don’t have to be so amused.”
“Can’t help it,” I said. “You’re amusing, and very cute. I wanna just nibble on you.” I bent to bite into his bare cheek.
“Okay, okay!” He put a hand behind him to fend me off. A reluctant grin had replaced the sourness as he pulled his pants up again. “I’ll take a shower.”
“Awesome!” I rolled to my feet and helped him stand before I grabbed his test kit and the notebook serving as his log. On to step two.
That one centered on being so thorough in my washing of him that by the time we climbed out of the steamy tub, he was like putty in my hands. I was aiming for somewhere halfway between turned on and relaxed. I think he tipped more into the latter, but that was fine. It meant he stayed, still nude, where I parked him against the sink. I casually blocked him in by standing in front with one hand on the edge of the counter between him and the door. Step three was going to be the trickiest.
He didn’t notice, at first, me moving the test kit closer and unzipping it with my other hand. When he realized, he frowned at it over his shoulder. “What’re you doing?”
Cheerfully, I said, “I’m testing your glucose.”
His head whipped back towards me. “What?!”
“It’s that thing you do with the finger prick and the blood several times a day,” I explained as I found his lancing device. “Give me your hand.”
“No!” All the languidness vanished. He stuck both hands behind him, like that would stop me. “I can test myself!”
“Yeah, but this time I’m doing it,” I said, nonchalant.
That was when he tried to push to the door. Wrapping my arm around his waist, I dropped the lancing device into the kit and landed a hard swat. He yelped. Then I pulled until he was back where he’d been, looking at me with teary green eyes.
“Why?” he asked. “I don’t need you to!”
“I know,” I said. “That’s the point. I’m going to prove to you that I can and will take care of you, and that it’s my choice, not something you’re forcing on me. Like I said before, physical stuff gets through to you better, doesn’t it?”
He blinked a few times. “You’re not joking.”
“No,” I confirmed. I was being dead serious now. “Are you going to give me your hand, or do I have to try other physical stuff?”
After a long moment, he gulped and held it out. Nearly pulled it right back, too, when I went for the lancing device, but fortunately by then I had a grip around his wrist.
“Hold still, habibi. I don’t want stick you in the wrong spot. Now watch what I’m doing and tell me if I miss a step.” Of course, I’d observed it often enough over the years to know exactly how it went, but I was trying to prevent him from blocking anything out.
It worked. By the time I finished—and the meter was showing a lower reading than it had all day yesterday—he looked calmer. He returned my hug without prompting, too.
“Good job,” I murmured. “Alright, I’ll make you more avocado toast for breakfast.”
“You’re not giving me a choice in what to eat?” he asked, only a tiny bit grumpily.
“Nah, I think you’ll do better with fewer choices, at least for awhile. C’mon.” And I gave him another warning pat to get him moving.
“How long are you going to keep doing this?” Seb demanded, sniffling, as I wiped away the first drop of blood and waited for the next to appear. He was on his stomach, the noon sun shining over lingering redness from his second-ever spanking a few minutes earlier. He’d insisted one test was enough for me to make my point. I’d disagreed.
“Haven’t decided,” I said. Keeping a firm hold on him, I picked up the meter and touched the strip to his finger. “Until you’re over the cold, maybe?”
I was distracted by watching the screen for the result, so it took me a moment to realize I didn’t know the word. “Huh?”
Scowling, he said, “It means bastard.”
I cracked up. “As long as you do what I tell you,” I said. “Which right now is drink this.” I passed him a mug of steaming tea, then grabbed my own glass of water as a thought struck me. “Actually, wait! We never toasted the new house. Ummmm…. to new beginnings and… Unmellow Yellow!”
He blushed and rolled his eyes, but raised the mug a few inches towards the ceiling.