Dawning of the Day

by Julnick


John muttered something unintelligible and pressed the brakes just a moment before a swirl of red and blue light filled the interior of the car. The tires grumbled as John slowed and eased the car onto the shoulder of the highway.

"I wasn't speeding," he said, softly, glancing in the rearview mirror as he killed the engine. Tem pressed himself back into the seat and said nothing. John flicked on the interior lights and turned to Tem, "Get the paperwork out."

Still mute, Tem leaned forward and popped the glove box. He pulled out the plastic sleeve that held the insurance and registration documentation.

"John?" he began as he slowly handed the case over the console.

John took the sleeve and rolled down his window. "Don't say anything," he murmured, sparing only a quick glance in Tem's direction, then an officer was leaning toward the window.

"Evening, sir," the officer said. "I stopped you because your passenger side tail light is out. May I see your license, registration, and proof of insurance, please?"

John's face was a mask as he handed the documents through the window. The night air wasn't cold but Tem shivered and sank lower in his seat as a soft breeze raised goose bumps on his arms.

The officer was examining the documents with a flashlight, then he looked carefully into the car, first at John, then appraised Tem, before saying, "Sir, this insurance card expired in February. Do you have proof of current insurance?"

Tem felt his jaw tighten and closed his eyes for a moment. He could feel John's eyes on him, even with his own closed. He shook his head slightly and heard John's soft exhalation. He heard John speak again, his voice so deceptively calm.

"I'm sorry officer; I must have forgotten to replace the card. I just paid the premium this month, the car *is* insured."

The officer said he'd return momentarily and John rolled the window back up. Without taking his gaze from the windshield in front of him, he shot out his right hand and landed a brutally hard slap on the middle of Tem's left thigh. The shocking sting of it made Tem jerk and suck in his breath with a squeak. He rubbed desperately at the sting and hissed.

"John! There's a cop behind us! No sudden movements!"

"Shut up," was the snarled reply. John was still staring intently at the windshield; muscles were jumping in his jaw. He was breathing heavily through his nose and Tem squirmed in his seat. His thighs felt incredibly vulnerable and as he continued to rub the stinging mark, he casually shifted his right forearm to protect his other leg. "February, Tem," John spoke again, sounding even more angry. "That's three months ago, Tem."

Tem didn't like how often his name was being repeated in that furious, clipped voice.

"That's four months since we got the cards and you *told* me they were in the car."

Tem didn't say anything. Didn't mention that he'd put the new insurance cards in *his* car. Didn't tell John he'd intended to get up early and put them in John's car before he left for a work meeting, but wound up staying up late the night before, overslept, John had already left. Meant to put them in that afternoon, but got caught up in something and forgot. The quick lie, "Oh yeah, I took care of it..." was easier than getting out from under his drawing pad and blanket in front of the fire and going to put them in that evening when John had asked.

Then, of course, he couldn't just leave the envelope sitting out where his lie would be found out, so he slipped it under the mattress on his side of the bed, intending fully to put it into the car the next morning.

He intended it fully for several mornings. And again a week later when he suddenly remembered but was in the middle of a drawing and figured it could wait another hour. He intended it three weeks after that, when he realized with a guilty start that he'd completely forgotten about it, but he was curled up against John and cushioning the dog's head and the cat's hindquarters and promised himself he'd do it when they got up to go to bed. But he'd gotten distracted.

Now the smarting sting of the slap on his thigh was fading to a prickly heat while the temperature in his gut was dropping rapidly.

"I know where it is, I didn't lose it," Tem ventured finally into the silence that seemed as if it had stretched for an hour already but the officer hadn't yet returned with John's license and paperwork so it couldn't have been more than a few minutes.

John drew in a deep breath and Tem tensed, but then John exhaled again slowly. "Fantastic," he said, coolly. "Why isn't it in the car?"

A sudden rap on the window made them both jump and John scrambled for the controls. The officer handed John's documents back to him and said, "I'll let you go with a warning for the tail light..." Tem felt a spark of hope. "But driving without proof of insurance is a mandatory court appearance." Tem closed his eyes and tried to shrink deeper into the seat. The officer handed a clipboard into the car. "This is the citation. It has your court date listed, the twenty-fourth of this month, 1 o'clock P.M. If you understand this citation, I need you to sign here," the man indicated with his finger. "You signature is not a declaration of guilt, it only signifies that you understand the citation. Do you understand what I've explained to you?"

"Yes, sir," John said quietly and Tem sagged further.

As John scribbled his signature and handed back the clipboard the officer said, "If you can get proof from your insurance company that your car was insured at the time you were stopped, you can take that into the county building before your court date and they may dismiss the ticket."

Tem contemplated opening his door and running into the night. The county building in *this* county, of course, not their own. This county which was a two and a half hour drive from home. At least there wouldn't be a fine, points taken off John's license, a spike in his insurance...

"I guess it's good you didn't get pulled over in New Mexico," Tem said softly as John eased the car back onto the highway. John shot him a look that literally made him flinch and Tem shifted his legs closer to his door.

John drove in silence while Tem stared listlessly out of his window at the blurred and shadowy landscape that flitted past in the headlights. He was tired. They were both tired. The architecture conference had been long and wearying, too many people, too many names, too much forced polite interest in tediously mediocre people who earned three times Tem's salary did for half the talent and skills.

They'd decided John would join him and they'd make a road trip of it, thinking a change of scenery might ease the block that had erected itself midstream in John's creative flow. The first night they had wandered Santa Fe, eaten good food, looked at strange art, generally enjoyed being together away from the stresses of home.

The second night...there was an open bar at the evening reception. Tem had to be physically removed from the reception by hotel security.

John actually went out and found an all-night drugstore and bought a wooden novelty paddle, that, despite its cheerful slogan and light weight, stung so intensely that Tem had barely been able to keep himself over John's lap as it was applied, firmly and at great length.

The next morning, Tem was asked not to return to the conference. Irritable and hung over, he picked a fight with John and worked himself up to a second blistering round with the novelty paddle. Then they packed up and left a day early. John didn't get any writing done and Tem squirmed on the car seat for the next five hours.

After an hour of darkness and silence, a glow ahead resolved itself into a smattering of lights and civilization. To Tem, it meant another two hours until they were home. He desperately longed for the familiarity of their home, of their bed, but his stomach churned at the thought of the inescapable confrontation that waited for him. He half-decided that he wanted it over with tonight, no matter how exhausted they both were. If it was put off until morning he wouldn't sleep all night, eating himself up with misery, guilty, and anticipation.

He was started out of his thoughts by the click-click of the turn signal and stirred in his seat. John was steering onto an exit.

"What are you doing?" Though Tem tried to keep his tone neutral, it suddenly struck him that the novelty paddle was in the top of the bag on the back seat, and that Castle Rock was a small enough town that it would take almost no time to find a dark and deserted stretch of road...

But John turned the car in the direction of a cluster of fast food restaurants and gas stations.

"We need gas?" Tem asked, uncomfortably aware that his first question had been met with stony silence.

"Food."

Tem started to open his mouth to protest his utter disinterest in eating, but he could still feel the echoes of John's stinging hand print on his thigh and he clenched his teeth. Stopping to eat meant they'd be home even later, they were pushing a ten o'clock homecoming already. He sighed and leaned his face into his seat belt while John maneuvered the car through an intersection and pulled into a parking lot.

A diner. Tem scowled. "Couldn't we just do drive-through?"

John turned off the engine and opened his door. "Out."

Tem unclasped his seatbelt, carefully curtailing his impatience, he thought, until John cast him a hard look. Tem opened his door and scrambled out onto the pavement before John could make another swipe at his thighs.

*****

The waitress led them to a booth and Tem slid in to the bench opposite John. The menu the waitress put in front of him was a laminated book promoting all manner of pancake creations in addition to traditional dinner fare. He shoved it aside plucked a packet of sugar from the little wire basket against the wall.

John fixed him with a steady look, then he raised one eyebrow. "You know what you want?"

"I'm not hungry." Tem tore the packet open and dumped the contents onto the table. With one finger he began to trace a pattern in the white granules.

"You haven't eaten anything all day."

Tem started to offer a smart reply then closed his mouth. He didn't understand why when he was so clearly in the wrong, when he'd most plainly screwed up, he became most rebellious and angry. He almost resented the fact that he couldn't blame anyone else for his mistakes.

Tem jerked back as John suddenly reached out and swiped the sugar off of the table. Tem looked up at him, torn between surprise and anger. John's look froze him before either emotion could take hold.

"Don't be a child. Pick something to eat or I'll order for you and you WILL eat it."

Tem snarled softly and slapped his menu open.

When the waitress came back to their table, he ordered a bowl of fruit, carefully avoiding looking at John's face. John ordered soup and coffee and the waitress took the menus away with her. Tem suddenly felt vulnerable without the bulky menus between him and John. He reached for another sugar packet but John's hand descended over the basket and slid it to his own side of the table.

Tem risked a glance at John and found himself abruptly caught in an unblinking stare. He squirmed and tried to look away but found himself strangely compelled to hold his partner's gaze. He felt the resentment fade, the rebellion dissolve, and he tried to shrink down into his seat.

"I'm sorry about the insurance," he muttered, still unable to look away.

John didn't answer right away. When he finally did speak, he didn't sound angry but rather almost sad, defeated.

"I feel like I can't trust you."

The words and the tone hit Tem like a punch in the gut. He actually felt himself gasp to bring air into his lungs.

The waitress arrived at that moment and slid their plates in front of them. She seemed to sense the mood at the table and didn't ask if they needed anything else, just offered them a somewhat subdued "Enjoy," and walked away quickly.

Tem stared at the chunks of melon and red grapes. He thought if he actually put anything in his mouth, he'd throw up. John seemed to be equally disinclined to eat.

Finally he said, "I don't know what to do, Tem."

Tem concentrated on taking breaths through his mouth.

"I don't know what to do if I ask you a question straight out and you lie to me."

Tem still had no answer, his throat felt tight and he had to work to swallow. He felt the tightness in his chest that would become tears and thought how very much he didn't want to cry in public.

"That's not just forgetting, Tem. That's not your memory, that's not your brain, that's..." John trailed off and was silent for so long that Tem risked a glance at his face. His eyes were on the bowl of soup in front of him but Tem didn't think he was seeing it. "I can handle everything else, Tem. But I don't know what to do if I can't trust you, not even over the simplest thing, the stupidest thing, if I can't trust your word... What am I supposed to do?"

Tem stared at the table top. He felt a pressure, a dark weight pressing in on him from all sides. With it a sick and mocking voice whispered at the back of his mind, *You did it, you finally went too far, pushed the one person in the world who could love you past his breaking point. You always knew this day was coming... Congratulations. Now you don't have to wonder anymore.*

"I'm sorry," he whispered. He wasn't sure John even heard him.

"I *asked* you Tem. I asked you and you told me you'd done it. I wouldn't even have been angry, you wouldn't have been in trouble, I just would have put them in myself, but I asked you and you said it was done and I *trusted you.*"

Tem felt the tightness in his chest begin to ease, the pain crushed to dust beneath the dark weight pressing in on him. He was almost relieved at the emptiness that replaced it. He felt the tension melt from his shoulders and he slumped down into the booth. He nodded, but more in answer to an inner conclusion than to John's words.

"I'm sorry," Tem said once more, this time with more strength in his voice.

John shook his head. "Sorry doesn't fix the problem, Tem."

Tem nodded again and picked up his fork. His body would need food, he thought, spearing a piece of melon. He would need sustenance to maintain him for what he had to do.

*****

The ride home was long and silent. Tem leaned his face into his seatbelt and stared out at the darkened countryside. He felt weary and exhausted, wrung in the way he usually felt after a heavy punishment that brought him to tears. The numbness that permeated his heart at the diner remained blissfully intact until John made the final turn onto the dirt and gravel approach to the house. Then Tem felt a twinge, but lower than his heart, deep in his gut, the gnawing anxiety of knowing punishment was imminent. Usually that anxiety was accompanied by a heartache of guilt, but tonight, that part of him remained coolly detached from emotion as John navigated around the final turn and into the driveway.

The motion-sensitive flood lamp washed the yard with bleaching light and Tem heard Wolf barking inside the house. He fumbled his cell phone out of his back pocket and sent a text to Michael that they were home early and didn't require dog-sitting services the next morning.

John was already pulling bags from the back seat of the car. Tem felt a lurch in his belly as the bag containing the novelty paddle was thrust into his hands, but he said nothing, just trailed John to the front door and into the warm interior of their home.

*****

John still didn't speak as he tossed his bag onto the bed and began to unpack. Tem would have left his bags until morning, but he didn't want to face the awkward silence with no task for his hands and so he slowly pulled his things from his own bag, watching surreptitiously for the novelty paddle to make an appearance.

When John pulled it from his bag; Tem paused, prepared to obey whatever command his partner made. But John tossed the paddle onto the bed and continued to unpack clothes and toiletries, walking briskly back and forth from the bathroom and closet as he put things in their places.

Moving more slowly, Tem had only put away half of his things by the time John was finished with his. He felt another twinge in his gut when John's attention fell on the paddle and for a moment, Tem felt the tingling anticipation that preceded a spanking. Then John took the paddle and tossed it into the bottom of his travel bag and carried the bag into the closet.

Tem, a T-shirt still loosely clasped in his hands waited to see if John returned from the walk-in with the cane, and felt strangely disappointed when John stepped back into the bedroom empty-handed and headed for the bathroom.

Tem shoved the T-shirt back into his bag and took the entire thing into the closet, tossing it to the corner where John wouldn't trip over it in the morning. Then he went to the bathroom door and stood, watching John brush his teeth.

When John spit a mouthful of rinse water into the sink and wiped his mouth with a hand towel, Tem swallowed and spoke for the first time since they left the restaurant. It felt strange and awkward in the stretching silence.

"Are you going to punish me tonight?"

John didn't look at him. He pressed his palms to the counter top and leaned slightly onto them, his gaze unfocused for a moment, then he sighed.

"No. I don't want to deal with it tonight."

Tem nodded impassively, though the words struck a terrible blow against the numb protection wrapping his heart.

John looked at him finally, and Tem saw only weary sadness in his eyes. It was a second blow and his apathy cracked.

John stepped close to him and slid one hand around the back of Tem's neck. "I love you," he said, softly, his hand was warm and his breath smelled of toothpaste and Tem's belly knotted painfully.

John leaned in and kissed Tem gently on the lips. "We'll talk about it in the morning."

Tem only nodded once more. He wished it didn't have to go this way. He'd have vastly preferred to take the punishment he deserved tonight. But, he thought, perhaps it was better this way. More fitting. He turned to allow John past him through the doorway then went to brush his own teeth. Probably better this way, he thought, feeling the detachment reassert itself.

*****

John came awake slowly. The weekend had been draining and they'd gotten to bed after eleven. The six o'clock wake-up snuffling of Wolf was even less welcome than usual. Then John frowned, the fog of sleep clearing slowly. Why was Wolf snuffling at this side of the bed? Tem usually got up and fed him in the morning.

John rolled over, simultaneously reaching out to Tem's side of the bed. It was empty, the sheets cold. John's frown deepened and Wolf huffed anxiously.

Tem had likely gone downstairs early. Maybe woke up and couldn't get back to sleep. It happened sometimes. John would find him on the couch wrapped in a blanket...but always with Wolf curled up at his side.

Muttering to Wolf to move out of the way, John swung his legs out of the bed and went to the bathroom. No water in the sink or the shower... He took care of his own necessities then padded down the stairs, Wolf thumping down behind him.

Tem wasn't on the couch and John went into the kitchen. The dog's bowl was still on the edge of the sink where Michael had left it the night before - Tem always left it on the floor. John stepped into the dining room, his eyes seeking the window seat where Tem sometimes curled up to draw, but it was empty.

Though a cold certainty had settled itself in the back of his mind the moment John touched the cold sheets on Tem's side of the bed, he searched the rest of the house quickly and confirmed that Tem's car was still in the driveway before returning to the kitchen.

"Probably went for a run," he murmured to the dog who wagged his tail and gazed up at John hopefully. "He'll be back, he never goes for long," he said again, taking the bowl to the pantry to fill it with kibble, firmly smothering the cold certainty that his words were hollow lies.

*****

The lies, weak at inception, frayed beyond repair as an hour stretched into two. The sun rose higher in the sky, cheerfully filling the atrium with warmth and light that somehow made the shadows in the rest of the house seem darker, more sinister.

John didn't even try to write. He occupied himself with cleaning the already spotless kitchen, then the bathrooms. The noise of the vacuum cleaner seemed too abrasive, as if the silence were a fragile thread holding back his dread and to break it would let the darkness of fear flood into his heart, and he left it in the closet.

At eight, he made coffee and sat down at the table, waiting... though he couldn't admit that to himself, yet.

At nine, he carried a cup from the second pot into the atrium, thinking to sit on the bench and watch the line of trees, but realized he couldn't stand to sit any longer and stood near the glass, staring... waiting... he admitted it now, waiting for a shift in the shadows, for Tem's lean body to appear between the trunks.

He replayed the previous night in his mind, his words, Tem's face, the slack look of shock as John drove the pain deep, deeper than he'd intended. He told himself. But as he realized he was pacing restlessly along the length of the atrium, he admitted with sick acceptance, his words did not hurt Tem more deeply than he intended...not in that moment. In that moment he'd wanted to hurt his partner. Hurt him in a way that physical punishment couldn't reach. He wanted to *hurt* Tem, and with that thought his throat seized and his stomach heaved and for a moment he thought he would throw up.

Grief pressed at his throat, at his chest, at the backs of his eyes, and the patterns of the rug beneath his feet blurred behind unshed tears.

"I'm so sorry..." he whispered into the silence.

Abruptly, John felt seized with energy. He had to move. He had to *do* something. He sat down heavily on the bench and pulled on his hiking boots. Breaking his own rules, he stomped through the house in his shoes and upstairs to the bedroom. In Tem's closet a quick shuffling of clothing revealed Tem's overnight pack was missing.

John tramped downstairs and banged open and closed kitchen and storage cupboards, taking a rapid inventory, his skin prickling uncomfortably as if an electrical storm were gathering around him. Missing - alcohol stove, filleting knife...a bottle of scotch. John's gaze swept the counter and he let out a short laugh, though to his ears it sounded more like a sob. Tem's medication was gone. He'd taken his medication with him. For a moment, John thought that would undo him. He rested his hand on the counter where the pill bottle always stood, tears pooling in his eyes even as he smiled grimly and shook his head. "Good boy," he murmured, then froze, his gaze unfocusing for a moment, then he turned and strode back to the stairs, taking the steps two at a time.

In his own closet he swept sweaters down from the shelf and closed his hand around a cloth bag tucked back into the corner of the high shelf. He stepped over the mess with uncharacteristic detachment and strode back downstairs.

He filled a water bottle and whistled to the dog as he opened the door.

*****

At the edge of the forest, John paused. Wolf, looking up at him with tongue lolling, whined softly.

"Which way, Wolf?" John muttered almost to himself. "Which way did he go?"

The dog whined with more urgency and John glanced at him.

"Go. Find Tem," he said more loudly. But the dog just pranced, eager at the sound of his voice but comprehending none of the words. John sighed and scanned the ground between the trees, wondering if he'd recognize the signs of Tem's passage, if any existed.

Wolf bounded off a short distance then came back, wagging his tail so vigorously that his entire hindquarters were swaying in rhythm. John chewed at his lip, staring at the thin trail that led to the hollow tree where Tem maintained a shrine for his fallen comrades in arms. Tem wouldn't have gone there, though, it would be too obvious if he was truly trying to disappear. Of course, if he was truly trying to disappear, he'd have taken his car... John set his feet on to the trail and Wolf gave a yip of excitement and thundered ahead on the dusty track.

*****

It took an hour to hike to the clearing with the hollow tree. John tried not to think about what he'd do if he was wrong. There were miles of forest and Tem was both a strong hiker and capable outdoorsman. If he chose, he could disappear in these woods indefinitely. Almost as frightening, John's mind fixated briefly on what he'd do if he *did* find Tem. What could he say? What was Tem thinking right now? Could they repair the rift John had torn between them in a moment of exhausted frustration? John focused on his feet, counting his footsteps in groups of ten, then a hundred, anything to push away the thoughts, the dread, and the worry.

*****

John's heart began to pound as he ducked under branches approaching the last rise before the clearing would come into view. Wolf had strayed ahead on the trail and hadn't returned in the last fifteen minutes. But neither had John heard happy barking of discovery. Wouldn't he have? If Tem were really here?

He steeled himself and pushed forward up the last slope, the small clearing in the trees opened before him. The leather flap protecting the hollow in the tree Tem used as a shrine was undisturbed, beneath it, tucked against the broad base of the trunk, sat Tem.

John nearly stumbled under the onslaught of emotion, his breath suddenly stolen from his lungs, but he managed to hold onto his silence as he came to an awkward stop.

Wolf curled in the dirt beside Tem, his large head wedged in Tem's lap. He looked up at John under eyebrows that made him look perpetually worried. His tail lifted and gave a single thump against the earth before going still again.

For a moment John wondered if Tem was aware of his presence. The man had his back to the rough bark, his head tilted back to rest against the tree, his eyes focused on some distant point beyond their shared surroundings. Cradled against his belly, one hand wrapped loosely around the glass neck, was the open bottle of scotch. John couldn't see how much of the liquor was gone, it was still full enough that Tem's hand obscured the level, but when Tem's head turned slowly, with careful precision, John thought he had to be drunk. Then Tem's eyes focused on his face. John felt as if the ground shifted unsteadily beneath him as he was trapped by that clear, green gaze.

"Hey," Tem said softly, not taking his eyes from John's face.

"Hey," John breathed, and surrendered to the disequilibrium, sinking to the ground and crossing his legs in the dirt.

John waited for Tem to say something else, but the silence stretched, then Tem turned his face and his eyes back to the vague distance.

"What 'cha doin'?" John finally asked, trying to make the question sound casual despite the torrents of conflicting thoughts fighting to spill from his mouth.

Tem frowned for a moment then lifted the bottle and his head, casting his gaze upwards, "Having a drink with my mates." His accent was stronger than usual and it sounded like "a dreink with me mites." He cast John a brief smile that was barely more than a white flash of teeth before settling back into motionless staring.

"And after that...?" John had to fight to keep his tone even, to keep the desperate pain and worry from his voice. Somehow, with all they'd been through, all of the difficult times, somehow this felt the most fragile. Somehow, in his gut, this time felt like it might be the one that broke them.

Tem turned his head again, his gaze fixing on John's face, his expression strangely empty. John wondered again if he was drunk. He didn't answer, nor did he look away again, just looked hollowly at John's face until John couldn't stand the silence and asked the question to which he wasn't at all sure he wanted to hear the answer, "Are you leaving me?"

A flash of emotion crossed Tem's face and was gone before John could identify it. He waited, aching, as the silence stretched and Tem opened his mouth, looked as if he was going to speak, then closed it again and turned his head away. His chest was moving visibly now, his breathing clearly heavier and he dropped one hand into the thick fur around Wolf's neck.

John struggled to wrap numbness around his heart and let the silence stretch.

Finally Tem spoke, though he kept his face turned away.

"You're a good man, John..." It sounded as if Tem were going to continue, but then he turned his head farther away and the silence filled the space between them once more.

John shook his head, denying the unspoken message that Tem left hanging... "You're a good man... You will meet someone else... You deserve better... You'll land on your feet..." John wasn't sure exactly what words Tem meant to say but he knew the tone, and he knew his lover's heart and mind.

"Tem..." John's voice almost broke and he paused to regather himself. "Tem, I made a mistake. I'm sorry."

Tem's head swiveled quickly and this time his expression was clearly readable. Incredulity. Confusion. "No, you didn't."

"I did. I made a very serious mistake."

Tem's confusion deepened and his eyebrows drew together with a hint of something that could have almost been annoyance though John didn't know if it was with him or himself. "You didn't do anything. I fucked up, not you." His voice was stronger, strident, angry.

"I did. I said things in anger that I didn't mean."

Tem's face twisted for a moment in real anger, then he snorted a huff of laughter and turned his eyes back to the distance, a bitter smile twisting his lips upward. "No. You didn't."

John felt like he was walking on quicksand, unsure where to place his next step. "I didn't mean what I said last night, Tem."

Tem looked at him, this time his expression was withering. "I'm a big boy, I don't need sugar with my medicine."

John gritted his teeth. "I'm not patronizing you, Tem. I mean it. I was wrong."

"No! You weren't fucking wrong, John!" Wolf raised his head slightly as Tem's voice rose and he shifted angrily towards his partner. "You were right. You were just too fucking fed up to hide how you really feel. You were telling the truth."

"That's not what happened!"

"Stop lying! I know what happened! I was fucking there, John! I know how you really feel!" Tem's voice rose to a shout as he pushed himself to his feet.

John found himself on his feet before he knew what he was doing. Fear and pain were suddenly feeding a flame of furious anger. "Don't tell me what I feel! I KNOW what I feel! I love you, you... damn... stubborn asshole!"

For Tem, profanity was as natural as breathing, but for John it remained, even years after severing his ties to his Mormon upbringing, a powerful personal taboo. Now, those forbidden words hung in the air, John blushing and Tem's mouth agape, his eyebrows raised in an expression of bemused disbelief that seemed to have deflated his anger.

"I love you, too, John," Tem said after several uncomfortable seconds, his face growing serious again. "That's why I have to let you go." John started to shake his head but Tem held up a restraining hand. "It doesn't matter if you meant what you said or not, John, the words were true. I'm not trustworthy. Not even with the smallest things. You can't trust me. You shouldn't trust me. Not ever again."

The words "I have to let you go" cut through John like an icy knife. He forced himself to look down, to gather the unraveling threads of his self-control. "Tem, I was tired, I was angry, I was embarrassed and I..." the words felt like a coal in his throat as he forced them out, "I wanted to hurt you."

Tem's expression softened, but he shook his head, his jaw set, "That doesn't mean it's not true. I lied to you. I lied to you about something so small and stupid and petty. You can't even trust me to..."

"Tem," John cut him off, and he saw a flash of irritation in the other man's eyes, but he pressed on. "Tem, you lied about something small and stupid and petty. You didn't lie about anything that really matters, you lied about putting the insurance cards in the car. You probably thought you'd do it later that night and that it was hardly a lie at all. You probably intended to get it done."

Tem flinched at hearing his own thoughts echoed so accurately by his partner.

John continued before Tem could argue. "So you lied about something minor. And you had no intention of causing harm. So, maybe I can't always trust you not to try to wiggle out of doing what I ask when you're comfortable and you don't want to get up. That doesn't mean I can't trust you with anything, Tem. I trust you with a lot of things. I trust you with my life every time I get in bed with you. You know that? You could have killed me a hundred times when you woke up in a nightmare or a flashback and you barely knew who I was. But I trust you, Tem, you've never hurt me. You never would. I trust you to love me, I trust you to submit when it really matters. So I can't always trust you not to tell a white lie that you think will never cause harm. I can live with that, Tem. I just made a mistake last night. I made a mistake. Are you really going to make that mistake cost me the man I love most in the world?"

Tem's face contorted at those words and he turned away, unspeaking.

A dark realization came to John's mind and he spoke it quietly, "I hurt you because I was angry. Maybe you can't trust me anymore."

Tem whirled back toward John, his expression a mask of fury and pain. "Oh for fuck's sake, John, don't be stupid."

John said nothing. He felt empty, his heart scraped raw and hollow.

"Of course I can trust you," Tem spat.

"Like I can trust you, even if you make mistakes sometimes."

Tem's eyes narrowed and John knew he thought he was being trapped.

"Tem..." Jon's heart began to hammer again. The ground still felt fragile beneath them, but he sensed that an opening was beginning to close and he needed to make his move. His fingers brushed almost unconsciously across the ring on his right hand, the matched mate to the one on Tem's. "You chose me to be your husband. We made our commitment to one another official with marriage, with a contract."

Tem was staring at him, expression wary, body tense as if preparing to physically run from the clearing. "Are you ending our contract?" he asked, a strange vibration underlying his voice.

John was startled, "No!" He silently cursed himself for dragging this out, torturing both of them. He pulled the cloth back from his pocket and shoved his hand into it. "With a ring you gave me your heart and I gave you mine." He withdrew his hand, drawing out with it a double-link, silver chain. Simple, strong, elegant. "You've given me your body and your obedience, but we've never made that official." He held up the chain, letting the light glint from it.

Tem said nothing for a painfully long moment and Jon stood, frozen, study ing his partner's face.

"A collar?" Tem said finally, his voice choked, barely audible.

"I..." John faltered, searching for the right words, "I want you to be mine. All of you. Forever."

"Are you crazy?" Tem's voice cracked slightly, his gaze skittered away and then back, he looked panicked, trapped. John's heart was thundering so hard it was difficult to breathe. "I'm already shit at following directions, can you imagine me as a submissive?"

John nodded towards the leather flap protecting the collection of dog tags inside the hollow tree. "In front of your mates you would be committing not to follow directions anymore. From now on you'd be obeying orders." John took a deep breath, "If you can accept a master who makes mistakes sometimes."

Tem's head tilted slowly to one side as he studied John 's face, his eyes flicking briefly to the collar then back to John's eyes, as if he could read something in them beyond John's words. Then, with exaggerated care, he took a step closer. "Wait," John raised his hand and gestured to the bottle still grasped in Tem's, "how much have you had to drink?"

Tem glanced down and looked surprised, as if he'd forgotten he was holding the bottle, then he gave a shrug and a tight smile. "Nothing. I was trying to work up the nerve."

"To drink?" John had never believed Tem needed to psych himself up to drink alcohol before.

A flush crept up beneath Tem's tan skin. He shrugged uncomfortably. "To disobey. Again."

John absorbed that then nodded. "Okay. I want you to make this decision yourself. Clear-headed."

Tem nodded back, took another hesitant step, then cocked his head the other way. "You really want this?"

John licked his lips. "Tem, I've wanted this for a long time. Today I was afraid I had driven you away... lost you... and I knew I couldn't put it off anymore. If you can forgive me, if you want this, I want you to be mine." John felt a thrum of energy shudder through him as he spoke the last words. *Mine.*

Tem seemed to respond to the word as well. His pupils had stretched wide and his mouth was slightly open as he took another step closer to John, then he sank to his knees, bowing his head. "I want to be yours."

John's fingers felt clumsy as he clasped the chain around Tem's neck. Every brush of his skin against the heat of Tem's sent shudders of electricity through his body. Tem's hand came to rest lightly, high on the front of his thigh, and John nearly dropped the clasp, muttering a breathless curse to himself as the sight of the back of Tem's bowed head released a surge of desire and an impulse to grab the man by the hair and haul him to his feet where John could reach every part of his body.

The clasp closed, finally, and John curled his fingers into Tem's hair which had grown out just long enough for him to grasp. He pulled Tem's head back, his face tipping upward. "Stand up." His voice was huskier then usual and Tem's tongue flickered briefly over his lips then he got to his feet. His movements were slightly awkward, John's grasp still firm on the back of his head, but his eyes were bright, his pupils wide with arousal as they came face to face.

"Are you going to punish me for the insurance?" Tem's voice was a hoarse whisper, and the bright intensity in his eyes didn't flicker, but the words cooled John enough that he leaned back slightly and his mouth tilted down at the corners as he thought about his response.

"We both screwed up, why don't we call this one a wash..."

Tem leaned close, his hands snaking around John's back and sliding over his ass. Jon gritted his teeth, determined to resolve their past before he succumbed to Tem's seduction. "What if..." Tem murmured in his ear, and John couldn't stop his own hands from finding Tem's taut backside, "you just used your hand..." His breath was hot against Jon's neck and his lithe body swayed torturously against John's pelvis.

John struggled to focus. "You want to be spanked?"

Tem tucked his face into John's neck in an uncharacteristically submissive gesture. "I want to be yours," he murmured. "Sir."


~ Julnick

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