What Gods are These?

by Julnick

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Chapter 1 [Next]

Dylan leaned forward taking Tay's wrists in his hands and pinning them gently above Tay's head. "Maybe some black silk sashes." He transferred his grip to hold both wrists in one hand. With his other, he tilted Tay's chin up and leaned close to his neck, his lips brushing lightly, teasing. Tay squirmed, "Uh uh..." Dylan tapped Tay's chin. "Behave yourself or I'll have to turn you over my knee." Tay squeezed his eyes tightly shut and bit his lip. Dylan grinned. "Yeah, we definitely need some sashes."

Tay felt the weight on the bed shift abruptly and his wrists were freed. He opened his eyes, and tried to push himself up, but Dylan planted a hand in the middle of his chest and forced him back down. "Did I tell you to get up?"

"No, sir." Tay felt his breath quicken and heat spread across his face, he dropped his forearm across his eyes and tried not to gnaw his lip. He didn't realize he was squirming again until a firm hand pressed against his belly. He froze, pulling his arm from his eyes.

"I thought I told you not to do that." The voice was hard. Tay glanced up into his lover's face, his heart pounding. Dylan cocked one eyebrow and slid his hand down farther. Tay gasped. "That's my job."

Losing himself, Tay shifted his hips, frustrated by his jeans and Dylan's deliberately gentle touch.

Dylan clicked his tongue against his teeth, pulling his hand away again. "That's it. Now you've done it, boy."

Tay froze then yelped as Dylan reached across him and grabbed a fistful of denim.

"No! No no no!" He scrabbled for leverage amidst the increasingly disheveled bed sheets, but Dylan had grabbed his leg now and was pulling him over onto his stomach. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! Ow!"

The thick denim that had frustrated him so much earlier now muted the sharp sting of the smack that landed across his left rear pocket. But he struggled gamely as the smacks continued. Soon, the sting of individual spanks blended into a pleasant heat across his ass and his squirming was creating satisfying friction in front.

He was disappointed when the spanking stopped and he heard Dylan get up and cross the room. Twisting around he saw his partner open the closet and take down a parcel wrapped in brown paper. Without looking at Tay, he said, "Get up."

Curiosity won over desire and Tay slid off the bed. As he stood and turned back toward Dylan, he felt an icy grip tighten around his heart. He took a shuddering breath, fear and anticipation warred in his belly.

Dylan set the brown paper aside and slid the split leather tails over his palm. His eyes were on Tay's face. Tay could feel his gaze, but he couldn't look away from the tawse. He took a step forward and reached out to touch it. Dylan held it up for his inspection. The leather had been oiled smooth and dark. Finally, Tay raised his eyes. He nodded slightly and turned. He walked to the foot of the bed and bent over, laying his hands flat on the blankets. He gathered a handful of material into his fists as he listened to Dylan's soft footsteps behind him. He jumped as a hand gently stroked his bottom then took another shaky breath. He squeezed his eyes shut and waited.

Finally, the blow came. It startled him first with its sound. The crack of leather was so much louder than a hand had been. Then the pain surged through him. He opened his eyes and stared intently at the comforter as it crashed over him then slowly receded to a stinging burn.

The gentle touch was back before Tay had time to consider calling a stop. Dylan's hand moved expertly over Tay's scorched flesh, soothing and arousing as it slid lower over the curve of his ass and between his legs. Dylan's other hand slipped down Tay's belly, teasing, but never touching. When Dylan stepped back, Tay was breathing hard again. He looked back and flinched as Dylan picked up the strap again. But the searing pain had faded, and his body strained with fear and desire. He bowed his head and waited.

This time it crossed lower, almost striking his thighs. He hissed and gritted his teeth. The gentle touch again rubbed out the sting, but it took longer for the heat to fade this time, and Dylan pulled away sooner. Tay closed his eyes.

The third stroke was higher again, but it overlapped both previous ones. "Ow!" Tay said sharply under his breath and bounced slightly on the balls of his feet. Again and again, each lash bringing him closer to one edge, each gentle touch tantalizing closer to another, and between the two, a wonderland of formless pleasure, fear, anticipation, excitement...

*****

Tay dragged himself, painfully, out of the bed. The shower was running. The sound was muted behind two doors. Tay winced at a pain in his belly and pressed the heel of his hand into it. He just needed to sleep. His body hurt for it, even five more minutes. He stumbled across the hall and let himself into the steamy bathroom.

"Hi, babe," Dylan called over the shower door, his dark shape rippling across the mottled glass surface. The smell of shampoo was almost cloying in the humid heat.

Tay grunted as he found the toilet and tried to convince his body to pee. He so desperately wanted to sleep. The spray of water stopped abruptly, making the sound of his own activities seem terribly loud in the sudden silence. He grimaced.

The shower door creaked open and Dylan stepped out onto the mat, grabbing for a towel from the back of the door. He took a moment to scour his face and swipe at his arms and chest before he wrapped it around his hips and stepped over to the sink. Tay finished and flushed and sidled past his partner to take his turn in the shower when Dylan said something through a mouthful of toothpaste. Tay turned. Dylan spat out the foam and grabbed Tay's arm, saying, "C'mere," but pushing Tay round by the shoulder when he stepped closer. He sank to a crouch his fingers lightly brushing over Tay's butt and thighs. A soft hiss of a curse slipped through his teeth.

Tay twisted, trying to see over his shoulder. "What?" he asked thickly, still feeling exhausted and hung over.

"Look." Dylan grabbed a dry towel and wiped the steam off the full length mirror on the back of the door. It began to fog again, quickly, but Tay got a glimpse of some light, purplish bruises. He shrugged.

"So? I got a little bruised."

"You got a lot bruised." Dylan's tone finally cut through some of the mental fog and Tay turned on him.

"So what?" The injured look on Dylan's face made him angry. "Don't get all upset, I have fair skin, maybe I just bruise easy. It doesn't hurt. Don't be so hard on yourself."

"You do not have fair skin," Dylan eyes were flashing now, too. "You've taken a fastball in the ribs and it barely left a mark!"

"Look! I'm tired! I don't need to deal with this shit this fucking early in the morning! I can't even take a piss now before you..." He bit back the words, his breath was coming fast, the pain in his stomach was sharp. "Can't we deal with your issues later?" He took a deep breath and added more gently, "Please?"

Dylan's eyes had become cool and distant. Tay gritted his teeth. Dylan always went cold and remote when he was angry, when it had gone past a simple argument and into the realm of hurt. "Sure," he said without warmth and picked up his toothbrush again. He didn't look at Tay who stood in front of the shower door for several seconds, watching Dylan's movements which were very slightly too abrupt to be as casual as they were supposed to look.

Tay closed his eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath and swallowing the last of his anger. "I'm sorry."

Dylan stopped and dropped his hands to the edges of the sink, staring at the wall below the mirror. "I would say I should be the one apologizing, but," he paused, running his tongue over his back teeth, a habit Tay found exceedingly infuriating as it always accompanied searing sarcasm. Dylan fixed him with a hard stare. "We can discuss my *issues* when it's more convenient for you."

Tay felt his belly tightening again, his jaw clenching, his breath quickening. He considered kicking the whole argument off again with some proper swearing, then stuffed the feeling and forcibly relaxed his body. He stood for another long moment, letting himself feel absolutely nothing. Dylan had gone back to his morning preparations and was throwing the hand towel over the rack and turning to leave before Tay moved again. He stepped into Dylan's path and looked into his eyes. Dylan returned the gaze, his expression neutral.

"Last night..." Tay watched Dylan's face harden and waited until he knew he'd be heard. "Last night..." he studied Dylan's eyes intently. "...was amazing. I wanted you to beat me and fuck me and...*take me*... Body. Mind. And soul." The icy stiffness in the lines of Dylan's body, which Tay hadn't even realized was there, softened, the room seemed to warm. "I want you to take me there, I want you take me beyond it. This," he made a vague gesture toward the bruises, Dylan looked away. "This is nothing. I want to go there with you, and if I have to pay *this* to go to that place? Fuck. I'd pay with blood, sweat and tears."

"Well," Dylan's eyes were still down, his voice was soft. "Sweat and tears, anyway." He looked up into Tay's eyes. Tay felt a smile creeping across his face. Dylan leaned forward and brushed his lips against Tay's. Tay pressed closer, deepening and lengthening the kiss until Dylan pulled away and slipped out into the hall mumbling about cold showers.

*****

Still damp from the shower and feeling uncomfortable in the stiff new shirt that had been the last thing in his closet, Tay slumped over the bowl of melon balls and granola that Dylan had thumped down in front of him. The weary, hung over feeling was back. He fumbled with his fork and swore to himself he'd get more sleep that night.

Dylan's pager had nearly vibrated itself off the edge of the table before he grabbed it and frowned at the display. Now, he was having a very one-sided conversation on the kitchen phone, his planner spread open on the counter, scribbling furious notes while throwing in the occasional "uh huh" or "right". Finally, he said, "Okay, thanks," closed his planner and hung up the phone. He sighed and sank down at the table in front of his own half-eaten breakfast. He glanced at it, then over at Tay. "You aren't eating."

He sounded tired and Tay shrugged. "Not really hungry, my stomach hurts."

"Worried about a job?"

He shook his head slightly. "Just tired. Belly ache. That's all."

"Okay." They both sat for several minutes, conspicuously not eating. Finally, Dylan sighed and stood, picking up both bowls and taking them to the sink. "I have to go, they gave me another job before my ten o'clock."

Tay nodded. His head felt heavy. "I'm done around four-thirty, be home at five."

Dylan bent to kiss him quickly and grabbed his pager, attaching it to his belt as he strode down the hall to the front door. Tay waited until the key turned in the lock before crossing his arms on the table and letting his head fall onto them.

*****

Tay stopped typing again and rubbed his hands. His knuckles were aching. He glanced at the stack of papers to his left and ground his teeth. "I hate this place," he thought to himself as he picked up the next report. "I hate this place, I hate this place, I hate this place..." It became his mantra as he set up the new spreadsheet, working slowly through the stack of reports.

*****

Chapter 2 [Top] [Next]

Dylan's car was already in the driveway when Tay got home, so he parked on the street and dragged himself up the stairs to the front door. His body ached and the pain in his stomach was fierce. "Just eat dinner, go to bed early, get some sleep," he muttered to himself as he fumbled with his key. "Fucking hell..." The keys slipped from his fingers as he swore more creatively, gritting his teeth against the protests of his knees and back as he bent to pick them up. The door opened suddenly, startling him. Dylan smiled. "How was work?"

Tay pushed past him into the front hall and dropped his keys on the entry table. "Headache." He stomped into the kitchen and was swallowing three ibuprofen tablets before Dylan caught up with him. Dylan watched, shifting his weight slightly between his feet. Tay closed his eyes, not turning, waiting for him to say something.

"How was work?" This time it was slightly more polite than friendly and a touch forced.

"It was a pain. I was just off today."

"Well, it's Friday night, let's go out. We haven't been dancing forever."

Tay turned around, suddenly feeling sad. "I'm sorry," he looked at Dylan. "I'm really tired. Can we go tomorrow?"

"Sure." Dylan looked around the kitchen. Tay knew he was disappointed and the sadness deepened, he felt raw, tears seemed so close to the surface all of the sudden. He fought to swallow the tightness in his chest.

"I'm sorry..."

Dylan shrugged. "It's fine. Do you want to go get something to eat at least? We don't have anything to cook around here."

Tay sighed softly. He really didn't want to eat. He felt sick. He desperately wanted to lie down. "Yeah. Sure. Let's go eat."

*****

Saturday, morning, he woke with chills. His skin was cold and damp, his neck was stiff, everything ached and his stomach hurt. He rolled onto his side and curled up, his arms hugging his belly tightly. The sun hadn't broken the horizon yet, and the bedroom was filled with dim, grayish light that filtered in through the blinds at the head of the bed. Tay whimpered slightly, but heard no change in the steady rhythm of Dylan's breathing on the other side of the bed.

The light grew steadily brighter. Tay felt that he would throw up if the awfulness of everything he was feeling didn't let up soon. He was still tired. Terribly tired and tired of feeling tired. The pain in his stomach had become nearly constant in the past few days. "Dylan?" A wave of hot then cold choked the word to a whisper. He panted for a moment. "Dylan!" Better. Dylan stirred slightly.

"It's okay, baby," he mumbled, not opening his eyes. "Go back to sleep."

"Dylan, I'm sick..."

Dylan made a face and forced his eyes open. "Wha's wrong?"

"I'm sick," Tay whispered and his next breath hitched, tears rose in his eyes. "Dylan..."

Dylan blinked and rubbed his face, then focused more intently on his lover's face. "Tay?" He reached over and touched Tay's face. "Baby? What's wrong, what hurts?"

"I don't know..." Tay tried to take a breath and it became a sob. "Everything..." He began rocking, trying to soothe the ache.

"Okay, baby, it's okay." Dylan was sitting up now, stroking Tay's back. Tay began to relax, letting the warm touch comfort him, his world narrowing to primal needs. Soft, warm hands, gentle voice, another sharp pain in his belly and he gasped. "Talk to me, Tay... Tell me what hurts."

"Tummy..." A distant part of his mind balked at his regression, but the part in control couldn't do any better. He keened softly. "Back... Legs..."

"Okay." Dylan sounded strong, he sounded confident, he would fix it, he would make it better. Dylan would make it better. Tay clung to the thought as everything else greyed out for a moment then came back into sharp focus. Dylan was speaking, but the voice became far away again. "Tay!"

Tay flinched. "I'm sorry!"

"Tay, where does your stomach hurt? High or low?"

"I don't know... I don't know..."

Dylan was swearing. Tay felt the tears coming again and couldn't fight them, he was so cold. Everything greyed again.

*****

Tay had only vague memories of the paramedics and the trip to the hospital. They'd taken blood and told him nothing, but he felt too sick to care. He curled up on the bed and closed his eyes, letting himself drift in a semi-sleep.

They let Dylan in again at some point. Tay awoke enough to see him sitting in a chair against the far wall of the small room, looking tired and worried. "Sorry," he'd tried to say, but he wasn't sure Dylan had heard him.

When he finally woke up again, the doctor was in the room talking to Dylan. "...so the good news is, it isn't appendicitis. Uh, we did find some smudges in his blood; we're going to run some more tests."

"What the hell are smudges?"

Tay sat up slowly, taking in the rigid lines of Dylan's body. The doctor glanced at him before continuing, shifting his gaze back and forth between him and Dylan.

"It's just some irregularities, maybe it's nothing. We'll do some more tests and we'll send the results over to your primary care physician." He gave Tay a smile. "It's probably just a virus. Go home, do the fluids and rest thing. If you aren't feeling better in a couple of days, go in to your doctor." He patted Tay's shoulder. "You both have a better rest of the day, now." And he swept out of the room leaving Tay feeling oddly deserted. Dylan looked over at him, his face was drawn and he looked exhausted.

"What time is it?"

Dylan shrugged. "Morning. Ten or eleven. Let's get you home, baby."

*****

Chapter 3 [Top] [Next]

By Tuesday, Tay felt well enough to go back to work. Dylan had gotten someone else to cover all of his assignments through Wednesday anyway, in case Tay needed him at home. But Tay was feeling restless and irritable.

"I'm fine."

"You look tired. You don't have to go in, they don't need you."

"Thanks." Tay grabbed his toothbrush from the counter top and squeezed the toothpaste too hard. He swore.

Dylan watched him from the doorway. "Don't be a jerk, you know what I mean."

Tay shoved the toothbrush into his mouth and scrubbed furiously. Dylan stared at him for several more seconds in silence, then rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and turned and strode back across the hall. The bedroom door shut with a little more force than necessary and Tay glared at the mirror. He yanked the toothbrush out of his mouth and bent to spit into the sink and froze, ice filling his belly. The toothpaste slipped over his lips into the basin, a bright, foamy red. The toothbrush, too, was scarlet. Cautiously, he spat, adding more bloody saliva to the mix.

His breath coming unsteadily, he twisted the cold tap on, and rinsed the mess down the drain, then cupped his hand under the water and swished cold water around his mouth, once, twice, again. And every time he let it gently out of his mouth, it came out red.

Finally, he forced his eyes up to the mirror and pulled back his lips. His gums were bleeding freely over his teeth, each handful of water, washed away the old stain, but new kept coming to replace it.

"Dylan!" He didn't mean to shout, he didn't mean it to sound quite as panicked either. He didn't realize until he tried to move his hand to his lips that his fingers had been so tight around the edges of the sink that the blood had gone from his knuckles. His mouth tasted like it was filling with copper, he spat again before he gagged. He heard Dylan moving quickly across the bedroom, the door opening.

He was at the bathroom doorway in a breath, looking uncertain whether to be annoyed or worried. "What's..." He stopped, his mouth slightly open. "Oh my god, what did you do?"

"Nothing!" Tay spat again, watching the blood slide down the curve of the sink to the drain.

"Stay here." Dylan disappeared down the hallway. Tay grabbed another handful of water, listening to Dylan's rapid footsteps on the hardwood floor. He heard the cordless phone beep as it was taken off its cradle, and then the crash of the ice cube trays being dumped and water running. He spat another mouthful of blood and looked in the mirror. It wasn't slowing.

Dylan came back into the bathroom, the phone cocked on one shoulder, a glass of ice water in one hand, pad and pencil in the other. He handed the glass to Tay and signed to him to hold the water in his mouth until it warmed, before spitting it out. "No," he said into the phone. "Not that we know of..."

Tay gently filled his mouth with the water, and looked at Dylan. *Who?* he signed.

"Advice nurse," Dylan signed back, through the pad and pencil he was now jotting notes with. *Medication, hemophilia...* he gave Tay a quick signed interpretation of the other end of the conversation before scribbling another note. "Alright, thank you." He thumbed the connect button off and jerked his chin in Tay's direction. "Let me see." Tay gently expelled his second mouthful of ice water, and pulled his lips back. Dylan's eyes grew intense. "It's slowing down. Keep doing that." He walked out again.

Tay cautiously filled his mouth once more with water and waited. Suddenly his stomach gave a sharp protest, and he cringed, clamping his hand to his belly.

"What's wrong?"

He jumped and nearly swallowed the water in his mouth. He hadn't heard Dylan come back to the doorway. He shook his head slightly and bent to spit out the water then inspected his gums in the mirror. The blood was beginning to well up again very slowly, but only in a few places. He set down the glass of water carefully. "Just a stomach ache."

"Again?"

Tay flinched, he knew that tone, he was *not* going to be dragged back into the hospital for a stomach ache that he'd already lived with for nearly two months. "It's nothing. I've had it before, it'll go away."

"You've had it before?"

Tay gritted his teeth, seeing very nasty possibilities either way he took this conversation. He looked nervously at his partner. "It comes and goes," he hedged. "It's just stress."

"How long..." Dylan's tone had become very cool. "Has it been...'coming and going'?"

Tay shrugged and tried to act casual. "Maybe a month... Or two..." He risked a look at Dylan's face and winced.

Dylan said nothing for several seconds then stepped back out of the doorway and pointed toward the bedroom. "Now."

*****

Tay sat on the foot of the bed and tried not to fidget. He hated this. He hated sitting when someone else was standing. Especially when that someone was Dylan. Even more especially when Dylan was angry. Tay crossed his arms protectively over his chest and glowered at the floor.

"Three months?" Dylan sounded reasonable. Tay knew better. He gritted his teeth. "Wow. Three months."

"You would have over-reacted."

"Ah, yes." Dylan turned from the window and came to stand in front of Tay. "I am generally much more rational when awakened at five in the morning by you crying and half passed out from pain."

"That was just a virus." Tay clenched his teeth harder, determined not to look *up* to look Dylan in the eye. "You're going to blame me for getting sick, now?"

Dylan ignored the bait. "A two month virus... Yeah, I've heard of those. Let me see, there's AIDS, hepatitis..."

"Fuck you!" Tay bolted to his feet. "I don't have AIDS!" Their faces were now barely six inches apart. Dylan's eyes were hard.

"Sit down."

"No! What are you accusing me of? Huh? Think I'm sleeping around? Maybe we should get this out in the open!"

"SIT!"

Tay blinked. Dylan could have been carved from stone, except for the burning fury behind his eyes. Slowly, Tay sank back down onto the bed. "I don't have AIDS," he said, subdued and not a little sullen.

Dylan leaned forward until his face was inches from Tay's. Tay glanced away, but winced as Dylan's hand slid around the back of his head and grasped his hair firmly. "Look at me."

Tay sniffed and brought his eyes up to meet Dylan's. Dylan spoke very slowly, very softly. "If I'd *ever* thought you were sleeping around..." He tightened his grip as Tay began to look away. Tay hissed. "I would *not* be fucking you." He abruptly let Tay go, and straightened. "You're not going to work today."

Tay watched him walk out of the room without another word. He was too tired to argue, and, he realized, he didn't really want to go to work. He fell back onto the bed and stared at the smooth ceiling.

Dylan came back into the bedroom and looked at Tay. "Are you going to sleep?"

"No." Tay sighed.

"Okay." Dylan pulled the shades up, letting grey light into the room. It was cloudy out, and the windows seemed to leach cold air into the room.

"Do you really think I have AIDS?"

Dylan turned to look at him. He said nothing for a long time. "No. I don't think you have AIDS." His voice was still cool. The sound of it made Tay's chest hurt. He thought about saying something else then looked away. Dylan stood by the window for several more minutes then turned and walked out again. Tay shivered and crawled up onto the pillows, pulling one of the blankets around him.

*****

Chapter 4 [Top] [Next]

He woke with a start at a touch to his forehead.

"Dinner's ready. Are you hungry?" Dylan's voice was soft and gentle again. Tay blinked and looked around. It was almost dark in the room. He glanced at the window and realized that it was well after dusk, the house smelled like cooking food.

"What time is it?"

"Seven-thirty. There's meatloaf and mashed potatoes if you're hungry."

Tay took a deep breath, trying to shake off the clinging mist of sleep. "Okay..." He pushed back the comforter and shivered violently.

"Are you cold?" Dylan pressed the back of his hand to Tay's cheek. "You're a little warm." He grabbed a throw blanket from the foot of the bed as Tay eased himself upright, and draped it around his shoulders. Tay pulled it tight around his body, grateful for the soft warmth. Dylan helped him stand up. He felt a little tired, and there was a dull pain in his belly that whispered in the back of his mind, but despite that, he felt better than he had for days.

*****

After dinner, they settled on the couch in the living room. Dylan had rented some DVDs. They watched "The Matrix" for a second time. Dylan sat cross-legged on the couch and Tay stacked pillows on Dylan's lap and curled up against his chest, tucking himself into a ball beneath his blanket while Dylan played with his hair.

When the movie ended, Dylan found the remote and turned off the system while Tay straightened up the couch.

"Are you getting a cold? You're sniffling."

Tay looked at him in the darkness of the living room. "I don't know, I hadn't noticed." He shivered again, wrapping his blanket more tightly around himself. "I'm freezing."

"Why don't you go on and get ready for bed, I'll lock up."

*****

'Getting ready for bed' ended up being flopping down on top of the comforter and closing his eyes. He didn't open them when he heard Dylan come in and close the door. He listened to Dylan undress and then felt the bed shift as Dylan's weight settled on the other side of it.

"Come on, hon, get undressed."

Tay opened one eye. Dylan was wearing baggy, drawstring flannel pants and a loose, faded T-shirt and was sitting cross-legged on his side of the bed, beginning to look impatient.

"God, you're hot..."

Dylan raised his eyebrows then laughed. He shifted his weight onto his knees and leaned forward, brushing Tay's bangs aside to feel his forehead. "So are you." He tugged at the blanket and Tay moaned a protest. "Come on. Pajamas. I'm getting a thermometer."

"No... Dylan..." Tay pushed himself onto his elbow. "I don't have a fever."

Dylan looked at him for a moment, then grabbed his wrist and put Tay's hand on his own forehead. "Feel that? That would be a fever."

Tay grumbled. "Fine, so I have a fever. We've established it, what's the point in taking my temperature?"

Dylan got a firm grip on the blanket and pulled it away, tossing it to the foot of the bed. Tay squealed in protest and huddled into himself. "I got an appointment with Dr. Kazin on Friday. Between now and then, we are going to write down any and every bit of information we can about your health, so he can figure out what's going on and we can make it go away. That means, if you have a fever, we need to know *how much* fever you have. Got it?" Tay growled. "We could always do it rectally, if that would make it more enjoyable for you."

Tay poked his head out of the ball he'd become and glowered at Dylan whose eyes were twinkling. A faint grin crept across his face in spite of himself. Slowly, he uncurled and rolled over onto his belly, lifting his hips slightly and wiggling his ass invitingly.

"Brat." Dylan leaned forward again, and before Tay could protect himself, Dylan smacked the proffered buttocks hard enough to elicit a sincere yelp from his partner.

"Ow!" Tay rolled up to sitting, pouting at the unfair attack. "What was that for?" he demanded.

Dylan was climbing off the bed. "Just cause. I expect you to be changed, on your stomach, pants down when I get back." Tay felt his belly clench, his pulse quickened and his breath was coming shorter and faster. Dylan stepped into the hallway and closed the bedroom door behind him.

Tay briefly considered disobeying, then sighed and slid off the bed, undressing slowly. In the end, he decided against pants entirely. He flopped down on the bed in a T-shirt and boxers. Turning onto his belly, he reached down and slowly worked his boxers down over his hips. He shivered. He felt exposed and vulnerable and shy and embarrassed and painfully aroused. He squirmed slightly, feeling the texture of the comforter beneath him. His breath caught raggedly in his throat. The he heard Dylan's footsteps outside the door and he quickly turned his face into his crossed arms and bit his lip, stomach fluttering madly.

The door opened then closed and Tay felt Dylan's weight shift the bed. "Good boy," he murmured, moving closer. He hooked the waistband of Tay's boxers and slid them down until Tay could pull his feet out of them. "Spread your legs."

Tay trembled, licking his lips and closing his eyes as he obeyed the command. He felt Dylan shift again and resettle his weight, straddling Tay's right thigh, forcibly preventing Tay from closing his legs. Tay squirmed even more and wove his fingers over the back of his neck, breathing in his own hot breath trapped against the sheets.

Dylan's fingers tapped Tay's hip. "Present yourself, baby."

Tay crossed his arms again and turned his face toward the wall, then arched his back, raising his hips, and presenting his ass for Dylan's use. He could feel cool air whispering over his exposed anus and shuddered as Dylan spread his cheeks even farther.

Dylan was very thorough about lubricating Tay's anus and rectum, moving slowly and deliberately until Tay was squirming and whimpering. Finally he said, "Hold still," and Tay jumped as the cold metal slid into him. Dylan hissed at him, annoyed, and he froze. "Relax, now." The thermometer shifted slightly as Dylan grasped it between two fingers, resting his palm gently on Tay's bottom. Tay bit his lip.

"You're not going to get an accurate reading, you know, you've probably spiked my temp up three degrees in the last two minutes."

"Hush up, I'm enjoying myself." Tay could hear the smile in his voice and grinned.

"Yes, sir."

Dylan was quiet for a long time, just rubbing slow circles down Tay's back with his free hand. Tay, his body coming back down from the sharp edge of arousal began to relax into the quiet eroticism of the moment. He closed his eyes, and was just beginning to drift when Dylan's hand left his back and spread his cheeks again. His body was instantly tense, his erection once more pressing into his belly. The thermometer twisted then slid out smoothly, making him shiver and gasp.

Dylan said nothing, Tay listened to his movements then the bed shifted as he moved over to his own side. Finally, Tay turned his head. Dylan was writing on a pad of paper. He set down the pen, and looked over at Tay, then crawled back across the bed and settled back on his heels. Tay started to roll over onto his side, but Dylan caught his arm and shook his head. "Not yet, baby." Tay looked at him, feeling his belly tighten again, his stomach jittery.

Dylan slowly slid his hand down Tay's spine, slowing as he came to the curve of his lower back then tracing his fingertips up the curve of his hips to his tailbone. "You moved after I told you to hold still..." His voice was low and warm and silky and dangerous. Tay felt goose bumps prickle up over his bottom, he tensed.

"I'm sorry, sir."

"Mmm," the fingers tapped lightly. "I know you are. Nevertheless," Dylan's palm began to rub slow circles over Tay's trembling ass. "I think you need to be punished."

Tay ran his tongue quickly over his lips, turning his head into his arms, feeling suddenly childishly shy and ashamed... Naughty. "Yes, sir."

The first two swats made him jump, the shock of impact and sound hitting him before the sting. Then he began to settle into the rhythm. It wasn't a gentle, erotic spanking, there was no buffer of denim, and there was no pause for sensual rubbing. But Dylan kept the pace slow and even. Though each swat made Tay flinch and squirm, the cumulative effect was a pleasant warmth rather than primal panic. As the spanking went on, the sting lessened slightly with each spank, becoming less and less distinguishable from the background heat. The pain became a refreshing bite against the rising soft edges of pleasure. It crashed against arousal in waves, breaking and mingling and receding. He knotted his fingers into the tousled sheets and rode it, gasping and whimpering, thrusting and wriggling against the bed.

Then suddenly it stopped. Tay panted, slowly letting the tension out of his shoulders. Then Dylan was beside him, his fingers wound in Tay's hair, pulling his head back gently. Tay moaned softly and opened his eyes. He focused on the tawse being held before him. His stomach knotted and anticipation tingled through his body. He nodded very slightly, and Dylan's lips brushed his ear. "Ten."

Tay closed his eyes and tightened his grip on the sheets. Dylan moved away from him. The first stroke fell across both cheeks searing like a brand. Tay took a gasping breath bucking against the sting which seemed to linger and burn no matter what he did. But as it slowly receded, the aching, burning desire surged up stronger than before, becoming a bittersweet fire.

The second stroke... He choked back a cry, squirming madly. The more he fought to shake off the sting, the more it excited him, until he was half crazy with pain and desperation.

"Don't cum..." The only warning he would get. The promised licks would still be delivered. He would have to take them without the opposing force of arousal. It would hurt more than he could imagine. He would not cum.

The third... He was almost crying now and he wasn't sure if it was from pain or frustration. The sting hadn't gone yet before the fourth... He yelped. "Ow! Ow ow..."

Fifth... Sixth... He gritted his teeth, tears were flowing freely now. The pain had built up over the top of the arousal and was beating it back. Tay was almost relieved.

The seventh... He sobbed. "Dylan..." The eighth... "Dylan! Dylan! Dylan.... Please..." The ninth didn't come. A gentle touch soothed his battered skin. He continued to cry, grateful for the reprieve, but still waiting, tense.

Dylan comforted him until he'd come down from hysterical, and, though sobbing, was breathing deeply.

"Two more..."

"No... No!" In a heartbeat, Tay was on the edge of panic again, but the ninth lash had already fallen and he suddenly had no room to think about anything else. Before he could process it, the tenth crossed it. The stinging wave of pain from the first was still building when the second started up behind it. For a moment, Tay thought it was more than he could take. For a moment, it was the terrifying panic of freefall, then it crested and was gone, leaving him high on the rush of endorphins and adrenaline and sobbing uncontrollably.

He was only vaguely aware of Dylan settling alongside him, pulling him into a tight embrace, entwining their legs. Gentle fingers combed through his hair. A soft voice murmured to him. Slowly, his mind caught up with his reality and he began to calm.

When he was finally quiet, Dylan asked, "Too much?"

Tay sniffed and picked at the comforter. "You choose a hell of a time to ask a guy that."

The fingers paused for a moment in his hair, and Tay could almost hear Dylan smile. "Later, then."

Tay snuggled his back closer to Dylan's body, despite the fact that it was trapping the heat in his rear quarters. "I didn't cum."

The fingers hesitated again, ever so briefly, then resumed. "No... You didn't." Dylan's voice had changed once more. Deeper, and silky, there were promises in that voice. Tay felt his body begin to respond.

"I was good..."

"Yes. You were good."

Dylan's fingers traced down over face and neck. Then he slipped his hand around Tay's ribs, his palm exploring his chest and belly. With his other hand, he pushed himself up and tilted Tay's head to the side then dropped his teeth to the exposed neck while his fingers found a hardening nipple.

*****

Tay lay on his back, his bottom throbbing pleasantly, thinking about making love. It was very different from fucking. Fucking was hot and dirty and fun, like four-wheeling in the mud, fast and bumpy and slippery and exciting. They hadn't fucked tonight. Making love was slow and sensuous and sweet. Even the orgasm seemed delicate and beautiful like a soap bubble. Building to its height, shiny, bright, swirling with a rainbow of colors if you looked at it just right then gone. He smiled. He liked making love. He liked crying, and being held and making love and watching that soap bubble glitter then touching it and letting it go. He liked Dylan sliding into him, slowly and gently. He liked feeling the twinge of soreness as his lover's body moved against his punished bottom. He liked the slow, soft stroking of the hand which had before brought pain and tears. He sighed, enjoying the weight of Dylan's arm across his chest as he breathed.

"Dylan?"

"Hm?"

"I'm going to have serious bruises tomorrow..."

He felt Dylan shrug. "Maybe, but I warmed you up for twenty minutes this time. And I didn't use the strap very hard."

Tay turned to stare at him in the darkness. "You what?"

"I didn't use the strap very hard."

Tay continued to stare for a moment then sat up. "Roll, over, I want to show you something."

Dylan laughed. "Lie down."

"Oh no, we're going to talk about this..." But, Dylan got a hold of Tay's shoulder and pulled him back down onto the pillows, then rolled over onto him, straddling his waist and pinning his wrists near his ears. "Hey!" Tay tried to pull his wrists free, but Dylan put his weight onto his hands. "Son of a bitch."

"Hey," Dylan's voice was suddenly sharp.

"You fucking didn't *hit hard*? What am I a *girl*?"

Dylan's eyebrows rose. "Considering some girls I know," he said, his tone warming slightly, "I'd be careful how I tossed around that phrase." Tay glowered at him. "I didn't say it didn't hurt. I snapped it. I was going for as much sting as possible; I just wasn't using a lot of force. The force is what will make you bruise I think. And sting is harder to take. Does it hurt now?"

"Yes!"

Dylan looked at him. "Is it warm? Or does it *hurt*." Tay looked away, still scowling. Dylan smiled and bent down to kiss him lightly. "Big baby." When Dylan let him go and lay down again, Tay promptly turned his back to him and curled up. Dylan cuffed him lightly. "Stop pouting or I'll give you bruises for sure."

"Oh! Now you're going to threaten me! Abuse! I'm not allowed to have my feelings!" He screeched as Dylan's fingers found his ribcage. "No tickling! No tickling!"

Dylan relented and hauled Tay back into his arms. "Go to sleep, babe, we do actually have to get up tomorrow."

Tay lay still for a long time, listening to Dylan's breathing. So slowly that he didn't even realize it was happening, dark ugly thoughts began to crawl out of the back of his mind. The warm, happy feeling began to go cold, the familiar lines of the room started to look more sinister.

"Dylan?" He said it so quietly that he was sure it wouldn't wake his partner if the slow steady breathing indeed meant he was sleeping.

"Yeah?"

"What if I *do* have AIDS?"

The wall cast a shadow over the bed, so he couldn't make out Dylan's face on the pillow. "You don't. Go to sleep."

"How do you know?" He hadn't really meant Dylan to hear it and was startled when Dylan suddenly pushed himself up on one hand.

"You don't have AIDS." His eyes glittered in the moonlight. "I don't know what's going on, but I know it's not AIDS, you've been tested and you haven't been exposed to it. We're going to the doctor on Friday. He'll have the test results. We'll find out what it is, we'll find out what we need to do about it, and we'll do it. It'll be fine." He leaned closer and tapped the end of Tay's nose with one finger. "You'll be fine... We will be fine."

"Promise?" Tay asked faintly.

Dylan gave a soft laugh. "I promise. Go to sleep."

*****

Chapter 5 [Top] [Next]

Tay woke abruptly on Wednesday morning. It took him a moment to realize where he was and what was happening. Dylan was sitting up, saying his name.

"What what?"

"Wake up!"

"I'm awake! What's wrong?"

"Are you okay?"

Tay finally focused on his partner's face and grimaced. "You woke me up to ask if I'm okay?"

Dylan's expression was tight and worried. "You've been tossing and sweating all night. Were you having nightmares?"

His mind was clearing slowly, he looked down at the sheets, and it dawned on him that he was freezing, the Henley and flannel pants he'd put on last night when he woke up cold were now damp and clinging to his skin. "I don't think so... I don't remember..."

Dylan placed a hand firmly on Tay's forehead. "You're hot." He rolled out of his side of the bed and disappeared across the hall into the bathroom. Tay closed his eyes. His chest felt heavy, like he was getting a cold, and he was sniffling again. He grabbed for the dry blanket at the foot of the bed and pulled it around himself.

"Open your mouth." Tay balked, looking at him suspiciously. Dylan looked impatient. "It's a different thermometer, twit, open your mouth."

Tay glanced at Dylan's hand. It was indeed. He frowned at the digital thermometer. "When did you..."

"Open!"

Tay glared at him then opened his mouth and raised his tongue. Dylan placed the thermometer gently and held it until Tay clamped down on it with his teeth. It began to beep slowly. Keeping his mouth tightly shut, Tay signed, *When did you buy this?*

Dylan raised his hands to sign back, then looked at them, dropped them and started to speak, then shrugged and signed, *Don't know, while back. Easier to read.* Tay looked at it, crossing his eyes to try to read the display. "We're supposed to go to your parents' for dinner tonight."

"Oh... Fuck!" Tay exclaimed, forgetting about the thermometer until it nearly dropped from his mouth.

"Tay!" Dylan grabbed the thermometer and pressed the button until it beeped several times then held it up again. Tay opened his mouth again, somewhat meekly.

*I forgot.*

Dylan glowered at him apparently deciding there was less risk of him opening his mouth again if he kept the conversation in sign. *The thermometer or your parents?*

Tay huffed. *Both!*

*I think we should cancel. You aren't well.*

Tay tilted his head back and stared at the ceiling. *My mom will kill me!* he said furiously, resisting the instinct to add the appropriate mouthing to the signs. *She had to work *so* hard to convince my sister to come *all* that way.*

Dylan's forehead creased. *She lives closer than we do...* His mouth moved naturally with his hands, only the softest sound of his tongue and lips against his teeth broke the silence, but the language filled his mind so that Tay never noticed. He shrugged and glared into space. Dylan's hand moved slightly, and Tay brought his eyes back onto him. *Anyway, I don't think we should go. Tell her you're sick.* The thermometer beeped again, then gave a sustained tone. Tay released it as Dylan pulled it from his mouth. "Tell her you're staying in bed today, your fever is 101." Tay snatched the thermometer and stared at it. "Go take a shower. I'm going to change the sheets."

*****

Tay stumbled into the bathroom, forgoing the lights, and stripped out of his wet clothes. He shivered and reached into the shower cubicle to turn on the hot water as Dylan came in with a towel. Tay stuck his hand under the streams and adjusted the temperature again.

"I'm going to call your mom." Dylan said, gathering Tay's discarded clothing. "Get in." Tay sighed, and had just raised his foot over the threshold when Dylan grabbed his arm.

"Wait."

He looked back at Dylan who was pulling him toward the medicine cabinet and reaching for the light switch. In the misty dawn light breaking through the frosted window, he caught a glimpse of a dark smudge on his wrist before the lights blinded him. He blinked painfully.

Tay stared. Under the bright lights, the smudges resolved into purplish bruises. An almost perfect handprint circled his right wrist. He heard Dylan take a quick breath and glanced at him. His face was very pale as he held out his hand, nodding toward Tay's other wrist. Tay lifted it, his heart sinking as a matching ring of marks came into the light.

"Did I..." Dylan's voice was very soft, barely more than a breath. He shuddered.

"You didn't hurt me..." Tay was confused, trying to remember when Dylan had even touched his wrists the night before. "You didn't... How?"

But Dylan didn't seem to be listening. He stepped around behind Tay, one hand still lightly on Tay's arm and his breath caught. "Oh my God..."

Tay strode to the mirror and twisted to see. His jaw slackened. "You didn't hit me that hard..." He turned back to his partner. Dylan's face was white, his eyes wide and unfocussed. "Dylan? You didn't. You've spanked me that hard before... I've never had a mark the next day..." Dylan didn't look at him. "I've taken a fastball in the ribs and I barely had a bruise. Remember? This isn't you..." Something was nagging at the back of his mind, he cast about for it. Something... "Dylan... That nurse yesterday... She asked if I had hemophilia. Right?" Dylan's eyes came slowly up to Tay's face. "Right?" He plowed on. "Maybe that's what's wrong. Maybe that's what's wrong with my blood test! That makes you bleed right? And a bruise just means you're bleeding under the skin. Maybe that's why my gums were bleeding!" He grabbed Dylan's shoulders. "Are you listening to me?" Dylan gave a short nod, he was still deathly pale, but his eyes were becoming more focused, his expression thoughtful, then it went blank again.

"Your nose is bleeding," he said flatly.

Tay blinked at him. "What?" He put his hand to his upper lip and felt wetness. He pulled it away and stared at the shiny scarlet streak across his fingers. He took a shaky breath. "Okay..." He grabbed a Kleenex and wiped at his nose. Steam was beginning to fill the bathroom, making it hard to breathe. "Okay... This could be, too. Right? Hemophilia... They have drugs for that..."

Dylan stared at him for a long time. "I don't think you can *get* hemophilia. I think you're born with it..."

Tay grabbed another tissue, the blood wasn't slowing. "Well..." He was trying hard not to feel panicky. Dylan's empty stare was not making it easier. "You don't know that for sure, do you?" He grabbed another tissue. The steam was becoming choking. "Damn it!" He pushed past his partner and slapped the water off in the shower. He felt close to crying. "Maybe it *is* AIDS... People with AIDS have those bruises..."

Dylan suddenly looked angry, but his voice quavered. "It's *not* AIDS. They aren't *bruises* they're *lesions*. You don't have AIDS!" He was trembling now, his eyes very bright with tears. Tay stared at him, suddenly at a loss for words.

The ring of the phone broke the silence and they both jumped. It rang again. Tay looked at Dylan, who seemed confused. A third ring. "I'll get it," Tay said finally. Dylan shook himself.

"No, take a shower." He sounded distracted. He slid past Tay and walked out into the hall. A fourth ring. Tay heard his footsteps quicken and the fifth ring cut off abruptly. Dylan's voice was low, the words incomprehensible. Tay tossed the handful of bloody Kleenex into the trash and turned on the shower again.

*****

Tay wrapped the towel around his hips and opened the door, flinching at the shock of stepping into the cool hallway after the warmth of the steamy bathroom. He hurried into the bedroom, shivering and found Dylan sitting on the foot of the bed, staring blankly at the floor several feet in front of him. Tay looked at him then walked over to his dresser. He pulled on underwear, and sweatpants. His chest still ached and his nose was running. It was making him edgy. Every time he wiped his nose, he expected to see blood.

He grabbed a white under shirt and one of his thicker, thermal-weave Henleys, deciding he was tired of feeling cold and glanced at Dylan again, who hadn't moved or spoken since Tay had come into the room. He pulled on the shirts and grabbed some socks and sat down on the bed beside Dylan while he put them on.

"Do you have to go to work?" he asked, assuming it had been the agency on the phone. Dylan shook his head. Tay finished with his socks and looked at him. "What's wrong?"

"Dr. Kazin called. The test results are back."

Ice filled Tay's chest and spread into his belly. "What do they say?"

"He would like us to come in this afternoon."

"Both of us?" Dylan nodded. "It can't wait 'til Friday?" His heart was beating fast.

"He cleared a time for us at two o'clock."

*****

Chapter 6 [Top] [Next]

Tay shifted in the chair, too restless to look at a magazine. Dylan sat beside him, hands clasped in his lap, seemingly calm until Tay noticed that his fingernails were white where his fingers dug into his hands.

"It'll be okay," Tay told him quietly. "We'll find out what we have to do and we'll do it, remember? You promised..."

Dylan looked at him and blinked then gave a soft breathy laugh. "Yeah..." He slid one hand over onto Tay's, intertwining their fingers. "It'll be okay..." But his eyes looked haunted. Tay was struck by a sudden and disturbing thought.

"Dylan?" His partner turned to him again. He looked intently into the grey eyes. "Did they tell you something when they called? Did they tell you something about the test?"

Dylan swallowed. "No." He glanced away.

"What did they tell you?"

Dylan glanced at the secretaries behind the high counter and re-knitted his fingers in his lap. "*They* didn't." His voice sounded strained. "Dr. Kazin called in person. He said he had the test results and he'd like to see us as soon as possible, he had cleared a space for us at two this afternoon. If we could possibly make it, he would like to see us both this afternoon."

Tay stared at him. "You didn't tell me that."

"It doesn't matter."

"Yes it does! That probably means I have like two weeks to live or something!"

Dylan spun on him, his eyes flashing. "Don't..." he said with such quiet force that only the constants were audible. "Don't..."

They were so locked in the silent, furious battle, that neither noticed the inner door open and Dr. Kazin walk across the waiting room. "Taylor," he said, smiling warmly. Tay jumped, his heart suddenly thumping. He felt like he'd gotten to the front of the line at a roller coaster and suddenly didn't want to get on the ride. "Dylan," Tay noticed that the smile seemed somewhat forced, it didn't quite reach the kind blue eyes. "Please, come on back."

He didn't want to go. He didn't want to stand up. He glanced at Dylan, who had stood and was looking down at him, his eyebrows slightly raised. Very slowly, he pushed himself to his feet, fighting panic. He suddenly remembered a time when he was three or four years old and had been taken to the doctor for a shot. He had fought desperately against his mother's grip, crying, screaming as she handed him over to the nurse. He had struggled in abject terror as he was carried inexorably closer to a terrible fate he could do nothing to escape. That helpless terror was stirring again inside him as he took a step toward the door and faltered.

Dylan grabbed his hand firmly. "Come on," the voice was gentle and strong, but it couldn't melt the blizzard whirling in his stomach.

"I don't... I don't want to go... You go..."

"Tay," his voice was sterner now, "you're working yourself up. Stop it. Whatever is wrong, it's already happened, we just need to find out what to do."

Tay shook his head, vaguely aware that he was being childish, but suddenly, irrationally terrified. "I can't... I don't want to know..."

"Taylor," Dylan said sharply. Tay flinched and looked at him. Dr. Kazin had stopped a few feet away and was watching them silently. "Stop it, *now.* You're going to hyperventilate.

But Tay was past rational thought, or even his own control, he was pulling against Dylan's grip, his breath coming in short gasps, his face was tingling. Dylan glanced back at the waiting doctor. "Give us a minute, please," he said and began to steer Tay back toward the outer door.

Feeling the imminence of the terrible moment easing, Tay allowed himself to be led out the door and down the hallway toward the men's room. Dylan pushed him into it and flicked on the light. He dragged Tay to the sink and turned on the cold tap.

"Wash your face..."

"I'm not going in..."

"Tay!"

"I'm not going, Dylan, I don't care what it is... If I'm dying I'll die anyway whether I hear it from him or not..." His voice was rising again to the edge of hysterical, but an abrupt and shockingly hard swat broke his momentum and he gasped, clapping his hand to his stinging backside and rubbing furiously. "Jesus Christ!"

"You're not going to die! You're going to stop acting like a scared child and you're going to walk in that fucking office with me and we're going to get to the bottom of this, *now*."

Tay glared at him, considering some choice curses. "You're a prick."

Dylan didn't seem phased, his jaw was set and his eyes were slightly distant. "Wash your face."

*****

Tay settled uncomfortably into the chair he'd been offered. He'd never been into this room before, hadn't actually realized it existed, he rather imagined that Dr. Kazin existed only in the exam rooms, not this kind of small, pleasant office.

A large potted plant stood in the corner by a window. A southwestern watercolor adorned the wall behind the modest mahogany desk where the white-haired doctor waited for them both to sit before sinking into his own chair. He shuffled some papers, not looking at the two men across from him.

Tay felt his temper rising as the doctor stalled. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dylan shift and gritted his teeth. "So? What's wrong with me?"

Tay felt his belly clench as the doctor's eyes came up to meet his. The doctor glanced at Dylan then back at Tay and pushed a piece of paper toward him. Tay forced himself to look at it. Dylan slid forward beside him. The tip of a blue pen made a small mark by one line of the incomprehensible computer print-out. "This is your white blood count." Tay stared at the number, not sure what he should be seeing but the words pulled *AIDS* to the front of his mind. He suddenly felt surprisingly calm. People could live a long time with AIDS. The pen moved to the left side of the page and hovered over a range of numbers. "This is normal." Tay glanced at it and felt his forehead wrinkle.

"It's too high..." He saw a flicker of movement as Dylan sat back very abruptly and he glanced up at the doctor who was studying the surface of his desk. "I thought AIDS made your white count low..."

Dr. Kazin looked up, surprise and sadness in his eyes. "You don't have AIDS." The gentle blue eyes were misty. "I'm so sorry, Taylor. You have leukemia..." Tay blinked. He heard the doctor speaking again, but the words seemed far away and unimportant. Dylan's hand had crept into his and his partner's grip was painfully desperate. "Taylor?" Tay shook himself and focused on the doctor's face. "I've arranged the biopsy for you over at the hospital, and I will introduce you to the oncologist over there, he's an excellent doctor..."

Tay made a vague dismissive gesture with his hand. "How long?" Kazin hesitated. "How long 'til I die?"

"Well, you need a bone marrow biopsy to confirm the diagnosis and then you'll need to see an oncologist who specializes in your type of cancer..."

That final word broke through the haze of disbelief that had been clouding Tay's mind. He took a short breath, feeling as if he'd been dunked in ice water. "How long do I have?" His voice sounded strange in his ears.

"The tentative diagnosis without a bone marrow biopsy would be acute leukemia; with immediate treatment you have a good chance of remission. Intensive chemotherapy, possibly radiation, you're in otherwise good health, you're young, you could live several years in remission, and there's always a chance of being fully cured."

Tay closed his eyes, "How long without treatment?"

The doctor said nothing for several seconds. Tay realized distantly that Dylan's grip on his hand had gone slack. He didn't look over at him. He didn't open his eyes when the doctor spoke again. "Without treatment, you probably have less than a month..."

*****

Dylan opened the car door and slid in behind the wheel, not looking at Tay, who had been sitting glaring at the dashboard. He'd waited ten minutes for his partner to follow him after his abrupt departure from the office. The pain sharpened under his ribs and he grimaced, pressing his hand to it. His head ached slightly and he felt weary and strangely detached. A month. He quickly steered himself away from that thought as it spawned an icy claw in his belly. He stared at trees across the parking lot, the leaves fluttered slightly in the wind. The sky was streaked with grey behind them, seeming to leach the color from the foliage and the warmth from the air. He shivered and huddled into a ball on his seat. Finally, he glanced over at Dylan, who had not spoken a word since they had sat down in front of that mahogany desk.

Dylan was staring intently at the steering wheel, but Tay doubted he was seeing it. He was slowly sliding his palms up and down his thighs, the friction of the denim against his skin whispering softly. Tay watched as his breathing became more deliberate and his expression tightened. He watched the tears form and drop down his lover's face, staining his shirt with dark streaks. He watched Dylan tremble, struggling for control. Then he let his gaze slide away and stared out again at the fluttering leaves against the dreary sheet of grey sky.

*****

Tay sighed as they pulled into their narrow driveway, and the low purr of the engine choked off into silence. He looked up at the narrow, white, two story house. They had planned to repaint the trim that summer. He would be dead before summer. The thought stirred no emotion in him. He would be dead before Christmas. There was a slight glimmer of comprehension as he offered that thought to his numbed mind. But it was gone as quickly as it had come. Before Thanksgiving... Before fucking Halloween...

Dylan slammed his door shut and began walking up the stairs to the front door. Tay shook himself and stepped out onto the dying strip of lawn that separated their house from the next. The air was cool and the fog was beginning to creep up. Ghostly tendrils drifting up the streets, over the rooftops... Tay slammed his own door and stamped up the stairs.

*****

He didn't see Dylan as he stomped through the house to the bedroom and sat down on the bed, jerked off his shoes and hurled them at the closet door. Relishing the resounding bang as they crashed off the wood, he didn't notice Dylan step into the doorway and started when a hard voice said, "Get up."

Tay stared at his partner as he stepped into the room and closed the door firmly behind him then turned furious grey eyes on his lover. Tay winced inwardly, but fought to stir enough anger in his chest to defend himself against the pain of hearing a harsh word from the person he needed so much, now, to be his strength. He rose slowly to his feet and instinctively skirted the approaching figure until he had a wall to his back. Dylan continued to close on him, and he continued to back away until the wall halted him abruptly. Then Dylan planted a hand on the surface to either side of him, caging him. "Take off your shirt."

Tay looked at him. "Why?" he asked softly, letting the faintest hint of defiance into his voice.

Dylan's eyes were hard. "Because we're going to fuck." He leaned in and clamped his mouth over Tay's. There was anger and violence in the kiss and Tay broke away snarling.

"You know, darling," he said through clenched teeth, raising his hands and shoving Dylan's restraining arms away. "I appreciate the offer, but I'm kind of busy with this whole dying thing...and, you know, I'm not really in the fucking *mood*!"

Dylan freed himself and grabbed Tay's wrists, shoving him, roughly, back against the wall. "Neither am I," he growled. He pulled off his shirt and flung it aside.

"Then why in the name of holy *hell* are we doing it?" Tay shouted struggling as Dylan divested him of his own shirt.

"Because..." Dylan paused in his curt ministrations to look into Tay's face, his voice softly vicious. "We're still alive."

*****

Chapter 7 [Top] [Next]

Tay walked toward the edge of the low cliffs. The slow surf crashed up against the tumbled, jagged rocks, reaching upward in frothy arcs before falling back into the next wave. He watched it for a long time, mesmerized by the perpetual but never repeating dance of green waves and white foam. The patterns it traced in the rocks, its race back into the sea, the rolling power, cresting, gaining, the climax and the retreat before the next, always different, always wonderful, always amazing, always beautiful. He was going to miss the ocean he realized. The thought made his belly tighten, and he gritted his teeth against the sudden tears.

It had been four days. Four days too long. It was a slow death for Dylan ever minute that he waited to enter the hospital. They had told him he had no choice. "You must start now. Yesterday. Two months ago. Chemotherapy. In the hospital. Sterile environment. Six weeks." But he knew he'd never come home.

He'd looked at them very quietly until the room felt too small then asked them, "Will I live that long?"

Gazes dropped, voices fell silent. That was four days ago.

Dylan alternated between nearly manic optimism and dark, silent rage. The first fight was the last time it was spoken of between them. That was four days ago.

Tay eased himself to the ground, ignoring the protest of his joints. He could feel it now, now that it had a name, had a face. He could feel it destroying him. The wind whipped up off the water, it was bitter, the cold biting down through cloth and flesh, sinking jagged teeth into his bones. Fall had come and winter was pushing hard on its tail. He wrapped his arms around himself and stared out at the sea and took a deep breath.

"I'm going to die," he told the crashing waves, the bitter wind. They didn't answer.

The wind swirled through the grasses around him. It was still too foreign, his mind met the morbid thoughts with nonchalant detachment.

He thought about Halloween, carving pumpkins, decorating the house, handing out candy and watching scary movies, clutching each other on the couch. They'd never do that again. He felt deep sadness in a far off part of him. He knew that that part hurt, but it was cut off, muffled, he couldn't quite reach it.

He thought about Thanksgiving. His mother's house this year. Dylan would grit his teeth and stare at the tablecloth, he'd long since given up on trying to smile through Tay's family gatherings. His mother and sister would argue to the verge of violence. His brother-in-law would make an awkward attempt at starting conversation with Dylan and him, uncertain whether he should be more uncomfortable with eating across the table from his gay brother-in-law and his lover or with keeping his wife and mother-in-law from coming to blows.

And Tay, himself would placate and soothe and throw shrouds over the ugly, festering decay of a family far past dysfunction. And, he would smile through gritted teeth against the embarrassment of someone he loved once again seeing the savage roots that his life had grown out of.

He gave a soft, harsh laugh. No more, Mother. No more paying for *his* sins, no more shame, no more fighting for the right to breathe, to live, to exist. You gave me this life, Mother. You took payment from my body and my spirit until I bled, until I begged, until I had nothing left to give, and still you took from me, still I owed you a debt for this existence. Well, I'm giving it back.

He bared his teeth against the wind. "I'm giving it back, bitch... There's nothing left for you to take!" The wind twisted around him, carrying his words away on it.

It still ripped at him, but suddenly his chest felt colder than the chill of the air. No more Christmases. Dylan would decorate alone this year. Buy a tree. Hang the ornaments. Put the lights on the house. Would he even bother? He'd probably go to one of his brother's or sister's places. And come home to a dark, empty house.

The grief was sudden and fierce. It rushed up from the pit of his stomach, choking him. Tears filled his eyes. He curled into himself, certain that he couldn't draw a breath. The sobs ripped the air from his lungs as the tears coursed down his face.

He stayed there for a long time, on the ground, rocking against the pain that threatened to tear apart his soul. The wind slipped under his jacket, knifed through his chest and belly. Colder fear and grief cut at him until he bled from a thousand heart-wounds. And then it eased. The wave crested, crashed and slid back toward a dark and forbidding sea.

Still shuddering, Tay slowly uncurled, drawing his jacket tighter around himself as he began to feel the icy bite of the wind. He stared out again at the waves. The sky had gone the color of dark slate. Shadows were gathering in the trees. He shivered, feeling wrung empty and hollow. He closed his eyes and spoke to a God he'd sworn he would never believe in. Asked for only one thing and promised everything in return.

His breathing had slowed once more by the time he was done. He cast his gaze upward for a moment, searching the sky, then rose stiffly, said goodbye, and turned his back to the sea.

*****

Chapter 8 [Top] [Next]

Galen watched his older brother from the far corner of the bar as he wiped and stacked glasses. Dylan had made it clear he didn't want conversation, so Galen had escaped to his chores as the bar was relatively empty at 8:30 on a Tuesday night. The dinner-hour regulars had cleared out and the few stragglers clung to darker corner tables.

Galen finished emptying the small glass washer and checked the ice bin before returning to his textbooks behind the register, but his eyes drifted back to Dylan who was finishing a gin and tonic with a grimace. He'd never been much of a drinker. And had ordered three different liquors already tonight.

He switched to a fourth as he waved Galen over and demanded a bourbon and seven. Galen winced and hesitated as he reached for the bottle. "Maybe coffee would be better, huh? You're going to make yourself sick..."

Dylan's eyes focused somewhat unsteadily on him. "Don't tell me what the fuck I should drink!"

Galen closed his mouth, his jaw tightening. He dipped the glass into the ice bin and poured the amber liquid over the glittering cubes. Dylan watched Galen work, but his thoughts seemed far away. Galen thumbed the sprite button and filled the rest of the space in the glass with soda. He began to set the glass in front of his brother and stopped.

"Give me your keys."

Dylan stared at him. "What?"

"Your keys. If you're going to get yourself shit-faced, you aren't going to drive home."

Dylan's mouth twisted in a vicious smile. "Have you always been such a shit and I just didn't notice?"

Galen gave a small smile in return. "Yep. Keys."

Dylan was very still for a moment then he reached into his pocket. Galen felt a moment of relief as his brother pulled his car keys out, then his belly tightened as Dylan stood. "Forget it. I'll go somewhere else."

"You *can't* drive, Dylan. You've had way too much to drink."

Dylan glared at him. "I'm fine. Fuck off."

"Don't make me call the cops, Dylan."

"You gonna send me to jail, little brother? Go ahead." He turned and stumbled around a chair, nearly losing his balance completely. He grabbed at the door frame and half-fell through the swinging doors into the foyer, then disappeared into the night.

Galen watched him, teeth clenched. In an uncharacteristic fit of anger, he slammed the glass he still held into the steel sink, shattering it. Several people lurking in the corners looked up in surprise, but he ignored them and snatched up the phone, punching numbers.

*****

Dylan struggled for long minutes with the lock, holding the key with both hands to steady it as the keyhole bobbed and weaved. Finally, he caught the tip of the key on it and guided it in, turning it with difficulty.

The door opened more easily than he expected and he nearly fell onto the entryway floor. He cursed around his thickened tongue and slammed the door shut. The effort nearly unbalanced him again and he had to grab at the wall to remain standing.

He struggled out of his coat and dropped it, with his keys onto the wood floor. He tried to focus his eyes on the doorway to the kitchen and frowned at the light that glowed from it. He couldn't remember leaving it on. Feeling like he was fighting his way through wooden ripples, he stumbled toward the open door and yelped.

A very large man was seated at his kitchen table, hands clasped loosely on the placemat. His face could have been carved from stone for all the warmth or softness in its expression.

Dylan clapped one hand to his chest, trying to slow his hammering pulse. "Jesus, Cris, you trying to give me a heart attack?"

Cris just stared at him, lips pressed in a disapproving line. "You're drunk."

"Ha! Good! Very good, Cris. You always were good at that. Must be all that practice you got with Rider."

Cris folded well-muscled arms across his wide chest and fixed a cold look on his next-to-youngest brother. "Did you drive yourself home?"

Recovered now from his original scare, the alcohol was once again smothering his senses, and the little voice that was trying to scream 'danger' found itself quite effectively muzzled. Dylan smirked. "Nah..." He raised his arms and did his best femme affect. "I just flapped my fairy wings and flew right here!"

Dylan was too drunk to appreciate the lesson in reaction time impairment as he found Cris out of the chair and shoving him across the table before he could form a screech of protest, let alone escape.

The first swat that landed across the seat of his jeans, however, cleared his head enough for him to yell and fling his hands back in defense. His attempts to move his upper body were frustrated by a strong left hand in the middle of his back, but he covered his backside with both hands, tears rising automatically in his eyes as the sting penetrated his sinuses. "Ow, SHIT!"

The second heavy swat landed on the back of his left thigh, out of his reach to protect. He barely had time to open his mouth to howl when a third blazed down on his right thigh. "FUCK! CRIS!"

The pressure on his back was lifted suddenly, and he flung himself to his feet, spinning and rubbing furiously, keeping his assailant in front of him. His nose was beginning to run and he sniffed, and tried to blink away the tears. Staring up into the icy grey eyes, he was suddenly twelve years old again, caught smoking behind the 7-Eleven. He whimpered, too terrified to speak.

"Go take a shower."

Trembling, Dylan backed away into the hall, then turned and all but ran to the bathroom. He fumbled with his clothes, dropping them to the floor and leaving them where they fell, then he stepped gingerly into the shower, flinching as the spray hit his bottom and thighs which already felt raw from the single swat they'd each been dealt. Letting the water stream over his head and down his back, he leaned his forehead and arms against the cool tiles and sobbed quietly. He was too tired, too drunk, too lost to think, all that was left was pain and grief and fear and he wasn't sure he would survive it.

Dylan didn't hear the door open or the footsteps on the tile floor. He didn't realize the shower door had opened, didn't sense Cris' presence until the flow of water stopped abruptly. He jumped and turned and felt his heart sink into his stomach. Cris wordlessly handed him a towel and turned to stand in the bathroom doorway. He watched Dylan dry off and wrap the towel around his hips, then nodded for Dylan to follow and stepped into the hall. Dylan's heart sank even farther into his belly as he trailed the man who had raised him across the hall into his and Tay's bedroom.

Cris sat down on the bed and motioned Dylan to his side. Dylan balked, feeling the fear surge to the fore of his mind, he felt his bottom clench in anticipation and he shook his head.

"No, please, Cris... You can't... I'm too old..." But he didn't feel much older than he had the last time he'd stood offering the same argument. Two days before his eighteenth birthday.

Cris studied him for a long time. "I thought you were, too. I was obviously mistaken."

Dylan felt his chest tighten with sobbing breaths. "I'm sorry... I'll never do it again..."

Cris just stared at him. Tears began to slide down Dylan's face before he finally spoke. "I wouldn't have thought you'd ever do a first time, Dylan. Do you remember Dad's funeral?"

Dylan closed his eyes. The tears leaked out and slid down his face. He couldn't speak, his throat was too tight. He just nodded, regretting ever opening the discussion which he knew would hurt nearly as much as the punishment.

"Do you remember the casket?"

He nodded again.

"Do you know why it was closed?"

Dylan had heard this lecture before, or seen it, when Rider had driven a friend's car home one morning well after three and taken out two trash cans because he was too drunk to even stand up without falling. And again, when Raven had been delivered to the door by police for drunk driving and a list of other offenses that Dylan had barely understood. But he remembered the lecture, he remembered the whipping that seemed to go on forever. Even Rider, who always took punishments without a sound or a tear, was reduced to a sobbing mess during those wee hours when the younger children snuck from their rooms at the sound of the belt cracking.

There was no private glee amongst the other siblings that night. Only sober, wide-eyed reflection. Even Galen, who was barely old enough to remember or understand their father's funeral sobbed into his pillow until Dylan crept into his bed and held him until they both fell asleep, just as the first rays of dawn were lightening the bedroom.

"Do you know, Dylan? Why they had to close the casket?" Dylan shuddered. He didn't want to hear the words, but he couldn't say them himself. "Because, some asshole went out and had a good time, then he got in his car, and he hit Dad's car so hard that it was ripped in half." Dylan began to sob again. "He hit him so hard that Dad's left arm was crushed." Dylan shook his head, raising his hands to his ears, but a stinging slap burned his thigh and his wrists were suddenly bound in a steel grip. "He hit him so hard that they never found the lower half of Dad's legs. He hit Dad so hard that the metal and glass from his car ripped off Dad's face and smashed his skull and his brain and splattered them across the seats."

Dylan struggled against the grip, his mind reeling at the images. "Okay! OKAY! STOP! SHUT UP!"

Cris raised his voice to be heard over Dylan's. "He hit Dad so hard that there wasn't enough left to make a corpse! We buried an empty coffin, Dylan! Because some asshole went out and had a good time and then decided to get in his car! I never thought my own brother would do that to another family!"

"I DIDN'T HIT ANYONE! I DIDN'T KILL ANYONE!"

"SHUT UP! You don't EVER get behind the wheel of a car drunk! YOU DON'T DRIVE IF YOU'VE HAD *ONE* DRINK, you dumb little SHIT!"

Dylan flinched, tears spilled down his face. "I'M SORRY!"

Cris' voice was suddenly soft again. "Yeah, so was the asshole. He wrote us a letter. He said how sorry he was. How he knew he could never make it up to us, but he wanted us to know how sorry he was... Do *you* feel better?"

Dylan nearly doubled over with choking sobs. He felt his wrists released and the towel pulled from his body and he felt a surge of panic as he was pulled forward until his legs hit Cris' thigh and he unbalanced. He struggled, but Cris pulled him down easily and trapped Dylan's body against his steel belly.

His resistance shattered, Dylan screamed at the first searing swat. Muscles built by twenty-some years working construction and hands hardened by heavy labor delivered blazing punishment every inch as terrible as Dylan remembered from the first spanking he never believed he'd get at age eight. It was the day after mom died and Cris announced that he was going to be the head of the family and Dylan took permanent markers to the walls of his room just to prove his brother wrong.

He still remembered lying, sobbing, on his bed. His bottom too sore to touch. Galen kneeling beside his pillow, stroking his hair and murmuring helpless reassurances. Cris had returned to the bedroom with paint and a brush and a warning that he wasn't letting the family dissolve so Dylan better get used to him being in charge or he'd have a sore bottom a good number more times before he turned eighteen.

Dylan did get used to it, and he still got a sore bottom a number more times, but rarely were the spankings *he* got as terrible as that first one, or as the one he was getting now.

He was beginning to go hoarse with screaming, he felt like every nerve in his body was jangling in alarm. He could barely breathe between his screams and the snot and tears running into his mouth. He couldn't move past the iron grip of Cris' left arm. But he kicked and struggled helplessly until he honestly began to wonder if he would survive.

Then, suddenly, it stopped. Dylan's mind registered the fact, but his body couldn't stop as quickly and he continued to scream and sob for a good time after the spanks stopped falling. Slowly, he let his body collapse into the comforter, sobs still ripping at his chest.

Dylan jerked and tensed violently as Cris' hand came down lightly on his lower back. It took several seconds for him to sort out the sensation of gentle rubbing from the general clamor of agony and exhaustion flooding his senses from every other part of his body.

"You're never going to do that again, are you..."

Dylan shook his head emphatically. "Noo... Never..."

"Because you're a good boy." Dylan wasn't ready to concede to that yet. He was fairly convinced at that moment that he was the lowest form of scum on the earth. "You're a good boy."

The sobs that had been slowing to soft crying deepened again. The arm that had held Dylan in place loosened its grip and a broad hand settled on the back of his neck, while the other rubbed up and down his back. "I'm not..."

Cris hesitated. "Not what, Dylan?"

"I'm not good, I'm bad, I should die..." Dylan didn't know where the words came from, they seemed to bypass his conscious mind and go straight to his mouth. He watched them with detached interest, until an unspeakably painful swat began a new rain of molten fire upon his backside. He screamed again, flinging his now free hand back to protect his bottom. Cris shifted his attention to Dylan's legs, tattooing them with four more searing handprints before stopping.

Dylan gasped and choked between howling sobs as Cris calmly returned to rubbing the knotted muscles along Dylan's spine and shoulders. "You tell me when you're ready to speak to me in a reasonable manner."

Dylan wisely chose to keep his thoughts to himself as he caught his breath again and got the crying under control. Even the air hurt his bottom, and his thighs were stinging viciously, but he let himself relax under his brother's, now gentle, hands. Finally, he sniffed and said, "I'm sorry."

Cris didn't respond for a long time and Dylan began to draw deeper breaths. "Get up." Dylan awkwardly pushed himself to his feet, wincing and biting his lip as he felt a new wave of tears coming on. "Put something on."

Dylan crossed to his dresser and found a T-shirt and loose boxers which he managed to get into without fresh tears. Cris untied his work boots and pushed himself up onto the bed so that he was sitting with his back against the headboard. He patted the comforter beside him.

Dylan lost the battle with the tears as he crawled up and huddled against Cris' side as he had after every spanking since he was eight years old. Cris' arm came down around him, warm and strong. He could hear his brother's heart beating steadily as he laid his head against his chest.

"We'll talk in the morning." Dylan listened to the deep rumble of Cris' voice in his chest and nodded. His body felt leaden, his eyes ached to close.

"Okay..."

*****

Dylan opened his eyes reluctantly. He was warm, the bed was soft, but that was where comfort ended. His brain felt too large for his skull, pressing at the seams in the bone until they threaten to crack. His eyes stung and burned and the taste in his mouth made his unsteady stomach roll. Strained muscles blazed with pain, bright against the dull throb in his head. His back, his arms, his belly, his shoulders, knotted and screamed as he turned over to stare at the ceiling which was painfully bright in the predawn light. He took a shuddering breath and fought down a sob which threatened to split his skull. The effort left him gasping shallowly at the pain and nausea. He closed his eyes, praying for sleep, but his mind was abruptly and decidedly awake and torturing him with snapshots of the previous evening. He forced his eyes open again to replace the images. His face burned. His butt and thighs still felt scalded and bruised, and he felt saliva suddenly rise in his mouth and he lurched up and into the bathroom before he threw up.

*****

He knew Cris was there, but he didn't look up. As the next wave of nausea crested then receded, he fell, limp, against the wall, gasping softly. "Go to hell," he murmured.

"I'm comfortable up here, but you send me a postcard." Cris crossed his arms and leaned against the door jamb. "So is this some kind of empathy training?"

Dylan moaned and leaned his head against the plaster. "What?"

"Oh, don't tell me all that shit last night was a tantrum and now you're feeling sorry for yourself. 'Cause I guarantee that as bad as you feel this morning, Tay is spending every lucid moment feeling a thousand times worse. And his problems aren't self-inflicted or the result of a petty tantrum."

Dylan stared at him, taking deep slow breaths. "You think I'm being petty?" His tone was low and even, and would have sounded downright reasonable to anyone who didn't know him. Cris however, did know him and didn't care that he'd pushed his younger brother to the edge of rage.

"He's the one with cancer, idiot. He's the one looking at, what, another two weeks to live?"

"Yeah! Two weeks! I'm the one who fucking loves him and has to watch him die and then figure out how to go on with my life with my heart torn out! So fuck you!"

Cris' face darkened. "Stop being such a self-centered little brat! You have the rest of your life to grieve for him. Why are you doing it before he's even in the ground? You have the time! He doesn't! Be there for him while you still have a chance!"

Tears were threatening in Dylan's eyes; his body was taut with fury. "Noble philosophy. You think of that before or after you walked out on Mom?"

For several seconds, Dylan held his breath, waiting for Cris to stride forward and hit him or kick him or haul him into the bedroom and lay into his ass with a belt. But Cris didn't move. His expression went terrifyingly empty, then he turned and walked out of the bathroom.

Until Dylan heard the front door open and close firmly, he did not dare move or take more than the shallowest breaths. When he finally felt safe to draw air into his lungs, his breath hitched and deep, quiet tears flowed up and spilled down his face until his nose was running and his shirt was soaked through.

*****

Chapter 9 [Top] [Next]

Dylan walked numbly down the pastel halls, making the familiar turns without thought. Despite the bitter fatalism with which Tay had initially faced his disease, he'd fought back and the prognosis of four weeks had now been surpassed by four again.

He'd finished the first round of chemotherapy fourteen days earlier and though the cancer seemed, however tenuously, to be holding in remission, Tay's body was too devastated by the toxic drugs to withstand the invasion of a bone marrow transplant. A treatment which, as the doctors had informed Dylan weeks before, was the only real chance Tay had of truly beating the cancer.

Dylan turned another corner into another corridor. Here the walls changed from upholstered earth tones to faintly mintish green paint. This was the old part of the hospital. The walls and brown-flecked off-white tiles were clean but still couldn't shake a look of clinging dinginess. However, it all passed unnoticed beneath Dylan's feet as he turned another corner, his chest becoming familiarly tight, his breath coming shorter.

He turned a final corner onto the wing of the hospital that had virtually become his home in the past two months. His eyes still focused halfway to the floor, he barely avoided a full-on collision with a woman coming out of the ward.

Startled out of his brooding thoughts, Dylan quickly opened his mouth to stammer an apology, but as his brain registered the sight of the small, dark-haired woman, the words died in his throat.

She was wearing too much make-up and too much jewelry and a gaudy jumbled pattern of colorful geometric shapes that made Dylan's eyes hurt splashed across an oversized blouse with black stirrup pants that made her feet look too small in tiny black leather Keds.

Beneath the overly-coiffed hair, the all too familiar face brought harsh memories of so many "family" holidays fighting to smile through the pain of Tay's fingers biting into his hand or arm or thigh. And worse, smiling past the barrage of bitterness and petty cruelty while Tay fought to smile and soothe like a child placating an alcoholic parent. Except Tay's mother had never had the excuse of alcohol for her viciousness.

One of the hearing aids that were dark to match her hair was squealing.

Dylan pasted on as sincere a smile as he could muster, signed a polite hello and pointed out the feedback.

As she reached to adjust her earmold, he began to turn away, having fulfilled the barest requirements of courtesy. But she snatched at his arm, forcing him to look back at her as her hands began to move furiously, carving intricate patterns into the space between their two bodies.

Her words were quick and agitated and it took a moment for Dylan to register what she was saying. Then another several moments to slow his heart once he realized that there hadn't been an actual emergency.

*You have to speak to him. He won't listen to me. He won't listen to reason. He has never thought of anyone but himself. He never does. But he listens to you. He pays attention to you. He never listens to his own family. You have to tell him. He listens to you. He doesn't listen to his mother. But he listens to you, you give him sex."

Dylan flinched slightly, reminding himself to think like the culture he had grown up in, not the one he was a part of by the fact of being able to hear. Her frank honesty was probably equal parts her culture and emotional manipulation. She was still signing frantically, and it took Dylan several tries before she allowed him to interrupt long enough to ask, *What do I have to talk to him about?*

Apparently mollified by his cooperation, she reached into a huge, battered purse and produced several dog-eared papers that looked as if they'd been crumpled and wetted before being smoothed out again. She thrust them forward and he took them, looking dubiously over the distressed articles.

She tapped them, growing agitated again. *Look! Look at that! They are trying to cheat me! They want my money! They are trying to steal from me. Taylor must help me. He is Hearing. He won't let them take my money. He will help me so they don't take advantage of me. I am an old woman. I am deaf. They try to take advantage of me because I am deaf!"

Dylan felt his temper begin to rise. He'd always hated this about her. Of course it was only one thing amongst the hundreds... But he hated the victim routine in anybody, and even more, he hated the deaf victim routine. He scanned the papers and shook his head.

*No. These are for your insurance. You've done these forever. You don't need Tay to do these. You can do them by yourself.*

*No!* She shook her head vigorously. *Tay does these. I need him! They will steal my money! He is MY boy! I was pregnant. I gave birth to him. He is MINE! He should help me! He has always been ungrateful to me. He never appreciates me. I am his own mother and he only thinks about himself!*

Before she could finish her rant, Dylan hurled the papers at her, forcing her to use her hands to snatch the papers from the air rather than sign. She clutched them to her breasts and stared at him, scandalized by his bald disregard for culturally established rules of decorum. He'd just done nearly the equivalent of covering her mouth while she was speaking. But his temper was living very close to the edge these days and he was past caring.

He signed, *Get out! Get out of here, and don't come back!* His movements were violent enough to send her stumbling backward a step, her eyes going wide.

She gathered herself, straightening to her full height which was still a full five inches beneath his and began to sign, *He's my son...*

But Dylan cut her off. *Stay away from him!* She began to sign something else, and he took a step toward her. *GO!*

Her face paled beneath her make-up. She took another step back from him, then she turned and hurried down the hall, her shoulders hunched defensively, her small body looking braced against attack from everything in the world.

Dylan watched her back recede and felt like a bully. Then immediately he felt a rush of anger toward her for making him feel guilty for being angry at her when she'd been the one being outrageous in the first place. He turned around, wishing for something he could hit and finally settled for pacing several steps up and then back down the corridor until the energy burned off and settled once more into gnawing guilt.

He stared down at the floor for a moment, gathering his thoughts before glancing once more down the empty corridor then turning toward the doors of the oncology ward.

Dylan pulled the chair up close to Tay's bed. Tay had tilted the bed so he could sit nearly upright and his eyes were brighter than usual.

"Hey," he said, smiling slightly as Dylan sat down.

Dylan reached out impulsively to smooth the sheets. "How are you feeling?"

Tay snorted. "My mom came by."

"Yeah, I ran into her in the hall..." Dylan was reluctant to share the confrontation with his partner and he hesitated, but Tay was already shaking his head.

"She's such a royal bitch. She won't even let me die in peace. When I kick off, she'll probably go throw herself under a Greyhound just to chase me into the afterlife."

Dylan looked up sharply. "Don't talk like that! You have to send positive messages to your body, Tay!"

Tay's gaze slid sideways over to Dylan, an odd expression on his face. "Yeah..."

They lapsed into an uncomfortable silence.

Finally, Dylan cleared his throat. "You look stronger today."

Tay gave him an ironic smile. "Nah, just pissed off."

*****

The afternoon passed into evening. Dylan talked about life beyond the hospital walls as he had since Tay had been admitted, and Tay listened, his eyes glassy, his expression distant.

Dylan had the feeling that Tay's thoughts were far from his current surroundings and Dylan couldn't fault him for it. In recent weeks, he'd often found himself mourning his own lack of an imagination that could carry him away from the unrelenting misery their lives had become.

Abruptly, Tay grabbed his water bottle and drew a long draught. Dylan paused in his pointless recounting of Galen's biology midterms and watched him.

Tay dropped the bottle onto his chest and seemed so intent on the far corner of the ceiling for so long that Dylan glanced up at it himself.

"I want you to find someone else."

Dylan brought his gaze back to Tay's face and stared at him for a moment, uncomprehending. "What?"

"You know," Tay gave an airy wave of his hand, still not looking at Dylan. "After an appropriately long time of grieving of course, for your one true love... I want a fancy casket, by the way... But then, I want you to find someone else."

Dylan couldn't respond for several moments, his throat was too tight to speak even if he trusted his voice. Finally, he said somewhat hoarsely, "Don't. You aren't going anywhere. You are beating this thing, you're going to be fine!"

"Of course I am," Tay replied breezily. "I meant if I get hit by a bus." He gave his partner a weary smile and sank back against the pillows. His eyes became glassy and Dylan notice that the dark smudges beneath them had grown deeper and darker. His skin, normally papery dry and pale, had gone ashen. "I'm tired."

Dylan nodded and laced his fingers under Tay's. "Okay. Get some sleep. I'll be back in the morning, okay?" He squeezed Tay's hand gently and Tay nodded, his head falling to one side and his eyelids drooping shut. In less than a minute, his chest was rising and falling in a slow, steady rhythm. Dylan carefully freed his hand and dimmed the light behind the bed.

Stepping out into the hallway, Dylan was haunted by Tay's morbid request. Deep in his own thoughts, he didn't hear his name until a gentle hand brushed his shoulder.

"Dylan."

Dylan turned to look into the face of Dr. Washington, Tay's oncologist. "Hi," he mumbled, trying to clear his head to focus on the daily laundry list of numbers and test results. "What were his counts today?"

The doctor opened the chart in his hands and seemed to stare at it without really reading it. He straightened his glasses and cleared his throat. "I'm very sorry, Dylan, I'm afraid I don't have very good news." He cleared his throat again. "The cancer has come out of remission..."

*****

The doctor's voice reciting the latest sets of numbers suddenly seemed to be coming from the end of a very long tunnel. Dylan scrambled for control of his breathing as his face began to tingle, and his fingers grew numb. "Okay," he said, weakly, interrupting the sympathetically spoken but no less morbid litany. "Does Tay know, yet?"

The doctor's face fell. "I told him this morning."

Dylan felt a cold fist tighten around his belly. "He didn't tell me..."

The doctor didn't seem to want to meet his eyes. "He asked me to share it with you as he didn't feel strong enough for the confrontation."

Dylan felt the air go out of his lungs. A pain shot through him as though a knife had been driven between his ribs. "Confrontation?"

The doctor hesitated. "Tay signed a DNR this morning. He is requesting that the hospital go to no extraordinary means to save his life if..."

Dylan held up a hand and turned away, shaking his head. He took a step down the hall, then another. Then he turned around again. The doctor was still standing, watching him.

"So what do we do now? More chemo?"

The doctor said nothing for a moment then shook his head. "Tay's body is too weak, he...wouldn't survive any more treatment."

"What about more transfusions? Or radiation?"

The doctor continued to shake his head, leaving Dylan with a strong desire to punch him. "I'm sorry, Dylan. We've done everything we can do here."

Dylan clenched his teeth. "Fine. Then where do we go next?"

The older man slowly closed the chart and studied it for a moment before he once again met Dylan's eyes. "Are you a religious man, Dylan?" Dylan stared at him. "At times like these, many people find comfort in their faith..."

Dylan clenched his fists by his sides and spun and strode toward the ward doors. He put the full force of his weight behind his hands as he hit the bar that latched them and the door flew open with a viciously satisfying bang before the springs could catch it and gently ease it closed with a whispering click behind him.

*****

Dylan wandered without purpose. Down long halls, past units and departments he'd not yet seen in his two months of exploration. He was still in the old part of the hospital with its speckled off-white floor tiles and mint green walls and metal doors, the glass of their eye-level windows woven with a fine mesh of wire.

The lights were dimmed slightly, giving a sense of false night to the timeless silence of the corridors. Narrow, engraved signs mounted at intersections directed wanderers through the maze. Dylan took them in, absently turning on a corner where arrows directed him to ICU and CCU on his left and Emergency on his right.

He turned right, stepping into a newer hallway. Darkened waiting areas branched off into Day Surgery and the blood bank. A mural-sized plaque commemorated donors along the wall to his right, to the left, floor to ceiling windows looked out onto a courtyard and garden. Against the darkness outside, the glass became a mirror, and Dylan stopped for a moment, staring past his ghostly reflection into the dim shapes of the trees and flowers beyond. He shivered and turned away wrapping his arms around himself.

He quickened his stride and turned down the first hall he came to, pushing through a heavy door and finding himself in one of the older corridors again.

He walked down it for a long time, passing halls and doors he didn't recognize, then he came to an intersection where the signs directed him on to the ICU and the chapel. He stared at the signs for several long breaths.

*****

He slid into one of the simple pews and rested his elbows on the edge of the pew in front of him. He pressed his palms together and let his head tilt forward until his forehead rested against his thumbs.

He sat for a long time. He didn't know how long he'd been there when he heard the door open and close quietly and footsteps approach the pew behind him. He closed his eyes for several minutes, then finally opened them and turned on the bench to face his younger brother. "What are you doing here?"

Galen looked uncomfortable and shrugged. "You weren't at home, I went up to the ward and they said you might be here."

"Is something wrong?"

"No. I mean... I came to apologize."

Dylan frowned at him. "For what?"

"Siccing Cris on you... I'm sorry."

Dylan's frown deepened. "That was a long time ago, Galen, and I wasn't ever mad about it."

Galen looked down. "You haven't returned my calls... I figured... Cris was pretty pissed when I called him..."

Dylan tried to smile but he felt too dead. "He was pissed. But that isn't your fault. I was wrong and I was an asshole to you. I should have apologized to you. I'm sorry."

"That isn't it, Dylan, I just didn't want you to get hurt."

This time Dylan did manage a slight smile. "I know. I, uh, I made it home safely..."

Galen looked slightly perplexed, but he didn't pursue it. "So... If you weren't mad, why haven't you returned my calls?"

Dylan stared at the grain of the blonde wood of the pew. "Not just your calls, Galen," he said, softly. "I've just been...busy."

"Who were you praying to?"

Dylan sighed, long accustomed to his brother's tendency to have a hundred trains of thought in his mind at a given moment and to choose to give voice to any one of them at random every time he opened his mouth. Dylan had often wondered how Galen managed to hold down two jobs and two majors and a girlfriend and still pull A's. Maybe having his attention pulled in every direction was the only way he kept sane. They all had their ways... "Why do you think I was praying?"

Galen studied his brother's face. "Because you would do anything to save him and that's all there is you can do."

Dylan looked up at him sharply. Sometimes his brother's insight was annoyingly accurate. He shrugged.

"Do you ever pray to Mom? Sometimes I pray to Mom. But I don't know if she can hear me. You know... Do you think she hears us? In heaven?"

"If there's a heaven, then Mom is there and I know she can hear you."

Galen was silent for a moment and shifted nervously. "I mean, do you think she can *hear* us? Sometimes I sign to her, cause I don't know how to say what I want to tell her in words. And I don't know if she can hear..."

"Galen," Dylan said slowly. "Mom never *wanted* to hear."

Galen was quiet for a few minutes and Dylan let himself wander back into his own dark thoughts until Galen's voice brought him back once more. "I know you don't pray, Dylan. But I know there is a heaven and Mom is there... And Dad... And I know they watch over you, even if you don't talk to them now. They don't mind. And they love you and... They love Tay, too. And when he gets there, they're going to take care of him for you."

The tears rose so fast Dylan couldn't stop them, he clenched his teeth tight against the trembling that suddenly seized him as the tears spilled down his face. Galen just looked at him and Dylan was distantly surprised to realize that he didn't care that he was crying or that Galen saw him...

Slowly, Galen stood and stepped around to slide into Dylan's pew. He reached out and pulled Dylan into a hug. For a moment, Dylan didn't respond. Then, slowly, he circled his arms around his brother and held on desperately as tears he'd fought back for two months for fear of being forever lost in them, broke free.

*****

Chapter 10 [Top] [Next]

The cancer returned with a violent ferocity. For eight days, Dylan staggered out of bed, each morning, curled himself into the chair, cradled Tay's cold hands in his until the sun was well past set.

The nurses who used to kick him out at eight, now subtly failed to notice the time, only gently coaxing him to get home and get some sleep when the corridor lights began to dim for the night cycle.

The house, for the few hours he spent there, felt empty and cold. In the darkness of their bedroom, the shadows that clung to the corners grew sinister, black demons clawing their way into Dylan's world as he stared at them.

When exhaustion did finally drag him into murky sleep, vague nightmares tore at him until he started awake again, staring blindly into the darkness, shivering, chilled beyond the comforting warmth of his blankets and quilts.

*****

The ninth day, it was Tuesday Dylan realized through a numb haze, he stumbled out of the elevator doors, turned and pulled up short. Tay's doctor was pushing through the doors of the unit, as their eyes met, Dylan felt his breath go short, a load of buck shot dropped heavily to the depths of his belly and he gulped for air.

"Dylan," the man said gently, "I was just going to call you. I need to speak with you."

Dylan couldn't answer, he just nodded mutely. The doctor guided him with a light touch toward a waiting area. Potted fronds cornered upholstered couches, creating some illusion of privacy. The man guided Dylan to a seat and settled himself on another, at right angles to Dylan's own.

"The cancer has spread to Taylor's central nervous system..." The doctor paused, Dylan didn't look up. "His body's systems are beginning to shut down. He will experience..."

"Is he in pain?" Dylan interrupted.

The doctor leaned back for a moment and nodded, accepting the shift. "We have increased his morphine, he is... As comfortable as we can make him."

"How soon will..." Dylan couldn't finish the sentence, but the doctor nodded, picking up for him smoothly.

"It will be very soon. Maybe a few more hours, he'll slip into a coma..." Dylan nodded and stood abruptly. The doctor rose as well. "I've spoken to the nurses, you can stay with him as long as you wish..."

Dylan continued to nod mechanically. "Thanks. Thank you for everything." He reached out numbly and shook the doctor's hand. "Thank you."

*****

Dylan eased into the familiar chair beside Tay's bed, they hadn't given him a mask. It no longer mattered.

Day had long passed into night, the clock was ticking into the next day before Tay finally opened his eyes and rolled his head slightly to the side as Dylan gently grasped his hand.

"Hi, baby," Dylan whispered, feeling the tears pressing heavily against his chest.

"Hi..." It was barely a whisper. Barely a breath. Tay closed his eyes, then opened them again. "It's time..." Dylan clenched his teeth, tears spilled down his face. He couldn't speak. Tay just nodded slightly. The pillowcase rasped faintly against skin, as thin and pale as parchment. "I love you."

Dylan squeezed Tay's hand gently, struggling to gain control over his voice. "I love you, too," he managed out in a rush of breath.

Tay let his head turn back against the pillow and his eyes focused on something in the corner of the room. "Do you see him?"

Dylan turned, felt his brow tighten. "See who, baby?"

Tay was nodding faintly, still staring into the empty corner. "The angel."

Dylan glanced again, concern tightening around his chest. "I don't..."

"He'll look out for you..." Tay's face tightened in pain, but when he spoke, his voice was stronger. "It's not goodbye, Dylan. I will see you again." Dylan felt the fragile fingers tighten around his hand, a new wave of grief threatened to choke him. "I love you..."

The strength faded slowly from the grip and Tay's eyes drifted close. "I love you," Dylan whispered through the tears that were now falling freely. "I love you... I love you..."

*****

Dylan sat, holding Tay's hand until the blip of the heartbeat monitor slowed to a final, soft, steady tone. A nurse stepped into the room and quietly stopped the sound. She glanced at Dylan, then left again, closing the door silently behind her.

Dylan felt a strange peace settle over him like a heavy fog. A comforting weight smothering the pain. He stood, leaned over to gently kiss Tay's cool lips, then opened the door and stepped into the hall. The nurses at the station watched him sadly and he nodded faintly then turned away from them, barely aware of the stir of activity behind him as he padded down the hallway to the heavy, double doors.

*****

The mantle of detachment remained blissfully intact as he stepped out into the cool night air. He could smell the ocean. Traffic sounds hummed up from the highway below. He fished his keys from his pocket and walked steadily to his car.

He felt his phone buzz in his pocket. He ignored it.

He felt cold, a tingling chill that seemed to be moving outward from his bones. He started the car and made his way out of the parking lot, down to the light, the glow of it seeping into the haze of fog in the air.

He wasn't sure where he was going. Wasn't sure when he made the decision or if he even made it at all, but, he found himself driving along the ocean. He stared at it. Tay had loved the ocean.

His phone was buzzing again. He reached into his pocket, felt the cool plastic shell humming in his fingers. He dropped it again and withdrew his hand. He turned once, then again, he didn't realize he had a destination until the steel girders rose out of the fog like the skeleton of a great shipwreck, haunting it's final resting place.

Not, the Golden Gate. That was too cliché and too well guarded against the murky intentions that remained formless in his consciousness, yet guided him with determined purpose. He pulled over onto the shoulder, still a distance from the bridge. Stumbling out of the car, he shed his jacket and shivered at the clammy embrace of the fog.

He crossed the street, traffic was light at this witching hour. Traffic lights and street lamps made eerie halos, pressing back gallantly at the fog and darkness, but defeated thoroughly within a handbreadth of their source. Darkness seemed to cling to Dylan as efficiently as the fog, cloaking him from the prying eyes of those few who traveled the dreary night.

He walked into the oncoming lane of traffic. Few commuters were crossing the bridge, he flinched from only three cars passing him in the outside lane where he hugged the edge of the pavement. Several approached and passed in the inner lanes, he winced at the glare of headlights but continued forward. He acknowledged with vague relief that none of the cars stopped or even slowed at the sight of him. He continued forward, counting his paces. A hundred steps... Two hundred... At three hundred, he stopped and turned out toward the thick darkness. The bridge was silent, no glow of headlights burned in either direction. Still obeying an impulse he didn't dare think about, he knelt and untied his shoes. He toed them off and peeled off his socks, shoving them into his shoes, stepping barefoot onto the pavement as if he were going to walk along the beach sand.

The pavement was damp and cold and seemed to draw the warmth of his body out through the soles of his feet. Already shivering, he pulled his sweatshirt over his head and folded it neatly on top of his shoes.

Barefoot, standing in T-shirt and jeans, he studied the steel structure before him. Reaching up to a beam, the metal felt like ice under his hand, slick and cold, he shuddered and pulled himself upward.

*****

Suddenly unsure of how he'd arrived, Dylan found himself wedged in the joint of two beams, a car passed below and behind him, he listened to the engine fade away into the fog. His phone was buzzing again, scraping his nerves. He reached into his pocket and withdrew it, holding it tightly, squeezing it as if he could choke the life out of it with his grip. Finally, still vibrating, he found his balance on the slick metal and hurled the phone into the darkness. It disappeared, swallowed by fog and dark within a few feet. Dylan listened to the night air, waiting for the splash.

Either muffled by the thick air, or too distant to be heard, Dylan heard no sound of impact. For a moment it felt as if the hungry night had swallowed it whole and now waited impatiently for more.

The viscous cold suddenly seemed more menacing than it had a moment before. A chill of fear crept up Dylan's spine and crawled over his belly. The beams suddenly felt treacherous beneath his hands and feet, and he scrabbled for better purchase. Gripped by vertigo, he turned his head and stared down at the pavement behind him, dizzyingly distant. He dropped to a crouch, seeking a foothold to begin his descent, then, abruptly, the thought of walking back to his car, of returning to the dark and empty house, of getting up tomorrow and not going to the hospital.

Pain seared his lungs and closed his throat. He wouldn't go to the hospital tomorrow. He rocked, crouched between girders, dwarfed by the enormous web of metal... He didn't know what to do. Facing waking up and knowing he was alone... In such a short time his life had become defined by the ritual of Tay's illness. And before that, the ritual of their life together.

Dylan had never lived alone. A new and empty life awaited him. A life without Taylor... A life unknown and undefined... He turned back toward the darkness and rose from his crouch. He realized that he was shaking his head, answering a question he didn't realize he'd asked. He was shaking now, but the cold seemed distant, a faint echo. A deep quiet seemed to seep over him, muffling the feel of the steel under his feet, the cold breath of the damp air, the dizzying fear was a far off hum. He wrapped the detachment about himself, savoring the comforting blackness. He closed his eyes, completing the dark cocoon, and stepped out into nothing.

*****

Chapter 11 [Top] [Bottom]

Dylan didn't remember falling. Didn't remember the water coming up at him like a slab of concrete. Didn't remember the shocking cold embrace, the darkness, the panicked moments of airlessness. He didn't remember dying, but somehow, he was sure he had. What else could this place be?

Death. Darkness. Silence. The blackness yawned out before him, he sensed without seeing, great distance. A gulf of emptiness in every direction.

A spark of fear stirred in his belly. Maybe this was Hell. Alone in aching silence... In comfortless darkness.

But before the fear could wrap its icy grip around him, he heard something. Distant, muffled, but a sound. Something coming out of the vastness. Footsteps. Dylan shivered. In life, he'd never put stock in religious dogma. He didn't believe in a literal heaven and hell. But now, in this strange place, he believed as he never had in life. As the footsteps grew louder, his heart pounded in his chest. Vaguely noting the strangeness that his heart still beat, he stared into the unrelieved darkness, with each footfall, more certain that Satan himself was coming to welcome him to the underworld. Overlapping the footsteps, growing louder, he heard another sound. His own breath. Quick. Ragged. Strange that he still breathed.

The footsteps continued, drawing closer, and suddenly a shape appeared, black against blackness, barely a shadow of movement, but slowly resolving itself to definite lines, gaining substance as of a figure stepping from thick fog.

Strangely, though no light shone through the pitch, the figure gained visibility as it drew nearer. There was something odd about its movement. Something eerily familiar in the gait, in the carriage of the shoulders, the tilt of the head. Dylan felt his breath grow quicker as the figure shed the darkness as water off oiled feathers.

Dylan stared, spoke in a whisper that was barely more than a breath, "Taylor..."

The figure smiled. Shook its head. "You don't belong here, baby."

Dylan couldn't speak. His chest was tight, tears were rising in his eyes. He swallowed, choking down the knot in his throat. "Taylor."

The figure sighed. "Yeah." He glanced away for a moment, then met Dylan's eyes again.

Dylan found his voice again, though it was rough and shaky. "You're..." He choked on the words. Stopped. Coughed. "Am I dead?"

The figure raised an eyebrow. So familiar. So Tay. Dylan felt his chest constrict around his lungs. Finally the figure sighed again and spoke. "I don't know. You gave it a good try, didn't you?"

Dylan shook his head, he felt like his head were wrapped in cotton. His thoughts slightly slow, blurry. "What is this place? Are we dead?"

Taylor, it had to be Taylor, so familiar, made a face, a slight scowl of irritation. "What did you think you were doing?"

It took a moment for Dylan's mind to work itself around the question. Then he could feel the icy metal of the bridge under his feet, slick with fog, dizzyingly high above the dark water. He gasped and took a step backward. The sensation vanished and the darkness returned. Taylor was staring at him. "I..." he glanced about, no bridge, no water, no fog, just endless, empty darkness. "I don't know," he said finally.

"You don't belong here," Taylor said again, stepping closer. "You should have answered your phone."

Dylan barely had time to process the strange turn in the conversation before the figure raised its right hand and with violent force, struck him in the chest.

*****

Dylan gasped, his lungs locked in a spasm, desperate for air. He coughed, gagged, spit up foul-tasting water. He realized he was cold, on his side on an unforgiving surface. He coughed again, gagging, coughing, spitting more water into the dirt...it was dirt. Small stones, roots, and twigs gouged his hip, shoulder and arms.

Exhausted, still coughing helplessly, his body wrenching the water from his lungs, he rolled onto his back. He realized there were gentle hands lifting his shoulder, turning him back to his side as he sputtered more water into the muck he'd already created.

Finally, he opened his eyes onto darkness. For a moment he thought he was still in the blackness of the empty place, but he realized this darkness here wasn't complete. There were shades, black and blacker, charcoal, gray, shadows, silhouettes. He even glimpsed lights, dim and fuzzy, far away.

Another seizure of coughing wracked his body and as it released him he gasped and flopped back onto his back. He looked around, seeking the source of the gentle hands. He could make out no features in the darkness, just a vague shape, a man, bending over him, silhouetted against the fainter darkness of the sky. He tried to speak, but his throat tightened and he coughed until bright pinpoints of light danced in his vision.

For a few moments, he laid still, willing his throat to relax, to bring measured breaths into his lungs. He swallowed. His throat felt raw, his mouth tasted of filthy water. Gently, the hands, he suddenly realized there were more than two... Four hands helped him up until he was sitting, hunching slightly over his knees, he waited for another paroxysm of coughing but the urge passed and he took careful breaths.

He realized there was a deep wheeze in his chest. His lungs felt tattered. Overlying the taste of the water he could distinguish now the faint, coppery taste of blood in his mouth. He pulled his knees up and lowered his head to them.

A hand moved in slow circles over his back, soothing, slowing his breaths. Finally Dylan looked up again, seeking his faceless rescuer. When he spoke, his voice sounded husky, hoarse. "Who are you?"

The figure to his right, shifted. The man was slightly uphill from him and Dylan could make out his shape against the faint, strange light of the fog. He sensed a second presence to his left, heard a scuffle of movement in the dirt, but the darkness was too perfect for him to see even the slightest detail so he focused on the figure to his right.

It was that one who spoke. His voice was soft and gentle as his touch. "There will be time for that later." He shifted, stirring the loose earth beneath him. "You need this."

Fumbling in the darkness, Dylan felt soft fabric pressed into his hands. It was dry, and warm in his numb fingers. Raising it to his face, he recognized his own scent on the cloth. Detergent, aftershave.

Shivering, he realized that his T-shirt had been stripped from him, gooseflesh was pimpling the skin of his arms. He felt his way to the bottom of the sweatshirt and shoved his arms into the soft warmth, then pulled it over his head and smoothed it over his torso. He immediately felt a faint warmth tingling over his skin. He hugged himself. His wet jeans still clung to his legs, heavy and cold. He was grateful for the sweatshirt, but, creeping doubts were tugging at the edges of his thoughts.

"You'll need these, too," the voice came out of the darkness to his right. Something else was pushed into his hands. His shoes. Somehow he knew they were his, just as it was his sweatshirt. His socks were still stuffed inside. He pulled them out.

It was difficult pulling his socks over his wet feet, gritted with loam. But he worked them on, ignoring the irritation against his skin for the comfort of dry cotton around his frozen toes.

"Shoes," the voice said. A hint of urgency now tinted the soft tone. Dylan struggled into them, tying them by feel.

"Who are you?" he asked again as he tugged the laces of his left shoe. "How did you get my things?"

The figures were silent, but Dylan sensed agitation in the one to his right, he could hear the man shifting in the dirt, could hear the rustle of clothing as the man turned upslope, seemingly looking back toward the dim glow in the fog that must be the lights of the bridge.

"Later," the man finally said. Then Dylan heard sirens. The thick fog and cold air bouncing back the sound until it was impossible to tell the direction from which they were coming. But Dylan was sure they were coming closer. Surely headed toward the bridge. He also heard something out on the water. The low rumble of engines. Then, through the thick foliage, he glimpsed a wide glow in the fog. A searchlight. Someone had seen him. Perhaps a driver of the cars that passed without slowing had fulfilled his civic duty, alleviated his sense of obligation by dialing 9-1-1 as he sped toward his destination.

Dylan heard the figure to his left stirring, rising. The figure to his right was standing as well, strong hands, less gentle now, hooked him under the arms and pulled him to his feet.

Dylan stumbled blindly over the rough ground, guided by the figures on either side who seemed to have no difficulty navigating the pitted ground and fallen branches that tangled and tripped their charge.

"Father from the water," the familiar voice murmured. Dylan wasn't sure if the comment was directed toward him or the silent partner who was now guiding him by a firm grip around his right bicep.

Dylan tripped again, something thick and sinewy rapped his shins and he was flung forward by his own momentum. The hands tightened around his arm, saving him from a mouthful of dirt, but his knees hit the ground hard and pain jolted him, making him gasp. He tried to make his feet, but the pain seared through his knees and shins and he stumbled again.

This time his rescuers lowered him to the ground, releasing their hold, allowing him to turn and sit, wincing, on the hard ground.

There was more light here. Not enough to make out features, but, Dylan could see both men, now. The dim light, refracted through the fog, sometimes caught a gleam of white in their eyes as they settled on the ground to his either side.

Wheezing, cold, pain throbbing through his legs, Dylan felt despair seeping into his chest. He thought of the strange encounter, seeing Taylor, whole, healthy, unmarred by the brutal assault of cancer. It took a moment for Dylan to realize that tears had begun tracing rapidly cooling tracks of moisture down his face. "Why did you do that?" he demanded. Turning on the man who'd spoken before. "Why did you pull me out? I wanted to die!"

Though he couldn't make out his eyes, Dylan sensed that the man was staring at him intently. "I wanted to die," he repeated, but with less heat. His chest ached with grief. He turned away from the man, pulled his knees against his chest and tucked his face into his arms. The tears were coming quickly now, the tenuous dam broken. Then, from nearby, he heard the familiar tones of a cell phone powering up. The company tones he knew from his own phone.

"You should have answered your phone," came the voice. Startled for a moment out of his anguish, Dylan raised his face and looked at the shadowy figure who now held up a cell phone, illuminated by its own glowing display. The same model as his own. He stared at it.

"What did you say?"

The man held out the phone, its display dimming. "You should have answered your phone," he repeated. And, as if on cue, the proffered phone buzzed and played a brief cascading series of notes. His ring tone. Dylan shuddered, staring at the phone. The man reached farther, pushing the phone toward Dylan's hands. Dylan, feeling the creeping cold of superstitious fear working it's way up the back of his neck, shook his head, scooting back in the dirt. "You really should answer it," the man said softly. The phone rang again.

With one hand, the man flipped the case open, the ringing stopped, the screen displayed a timer, ticking away the seconds of the call.

His breath coming in shuddering hitches, Dylan slowly reached up and took the phone. Cringing, he gingerly raised it to his ear. He glanced at the figure who now sat motionless, watching him, and he haltingly answered, "Hello?"

*****

"Dylan? It's Dr. Washington."

The familiar voice felt like a spike in his gut. Dylan nearly closed the phone, but there was a strange excitement in the doctor's voice that stayed his hand. He said nothing, waiting.

"I have some news. Taylor... Taylor is alive. I can't explain it. He's still unconscious but, there's something... There's something you should see."

*****

The doctor was unwilling to share more on the phone. Dylan, feeling numb, finally told the doctor he'd be there in half an hour and closed the phone. Glancing at the display, he saw the time glowing. 1:45. It had been almost two hours since the monitors over Taylor's bed had flat lined. Instead of hope, joy, relief at the news the doctor relayed, Dylan felt hollow, aching dread. Tay was gone. This wasn't hope, this was just delay... Prolonging the agony. A fierce pain wrenched at his chest. They should have let him die in the cold water, left him in that dark place where he still had Tay. Not here, not in this dark, empty, cold life.

Dylan stared at the phone for a moment. The men beside him were silent, unmoving. Finally seized by a strange compulsion, Dylan flipped open the phone once more. His heart clenched. The wallpaper was the same rippled pattern as on his own phone. He slid his thumb over the keypad... The one was rubbed smooth, the speed dial code for Tay's phone. His heart beating fast, breathing quickly through his mouth, Dylan opened the photo file. Taylor grinning over a coffee mug. The two of them in front of their first Christmas tree. Tay tipped back onto the rear legs of one of the kitchen chairs, head tilted, I love you sign formed by his right hand...

Dylan snapped the phone shut. He looked up furiously into the shadowed face. "Who are you? How did you get my things?" He thrust forward the phone. "How did you get this?" he demanded, his voice rising.

The man who'd spoken before, said nothing now. He slowly rose to his feet and his partner did the same.

Suddenly feeling vulnerable sitting at their feet, Dylan found his own feet and rose to stand between them. "Who are you?" he hissed.

The man turned and began to trudge up the steep embankment. His partner followed and Dylan had no choice but to do the same.

As they approached the top of the incline, Dylan heard a car engine approaching. Headlights cut through the fog, and the car passed, close. Dylan hadn't realized the road was so near. Few cars were traveling it at this time of night.

He stumbled up the last few feet through the trees and out onto the wide shoulder of the blacktop. He knew where he was. Maybe half a mile from where he'd parked his car. He turned back to his rescuers, another question on his lips, but he opened his mouth in silence. There was only foliage behind him. The light here bled down from the bridge, Dylan could see a short distance through the trees, but there were only the skeletal fingers and clinging leaves of those trees. No human shapes huddled in the shadows. No movement disturbed the branches. He had heard no rustling behind him of anyone pushing back through the foliage. He stood for several moments, staring into the shadows. Finally, he took a few steps back into the trees, pushing them aside and gazing into the dark pools where the dim light was defeated by the night.

Dylan glanced around once more, then, suddenly afraid to turn his back on the woods, he felt his way backward out of the trees and onto the smooth surface of the road.

Uneasily, he glanced down the deserted highway, hearing no engines, seeing no flickers of light, he quickly crossed the lanes, keeping one eye on the dark trees behind him.

*****

Back at his car, Dylan flipped down the visor to study his reflection in the small mirror behind it. His hair was wet, plastered to his skull, mud smeared his face and hands. His jeans were wet, clinging to his skin, muddy and snagged by twigs and scraps of grass and leaves.

As he turned the key in the ignition, the radio display lit. Two o'clock. He had to change, clean up. He felt no hurry to return to the hospital. His endurance was worn through. Tay was gone. His body may still breathe, his heart may beat, but Dylan knew. He was gone, and everything else could wait.

*****

TBC

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~ Julnick

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