In the Hearts of Men

by Julnick


"Do you know what today is?"

"It's Friday."

"John!"

"Tem, of course I know what day it is... I have something special planned..."

Tem grinned. "What?"

"Dinner, candles, champagne... One glass..." he warned.

Tem scowled, but regained his good humor quickly. "Do you even remember how we met?"

"Tem, it's only been six years, I'm not senile yet..."

~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~

~~~Night Moves~~~

"Yeah?" He caught the ball with his left hand and swung it in the direction of the nearest player. He turned and walked away from the court to hear over the shouts and pounding of the ball. "Hey! How did it go? Are they going to give you the contract?" He winced, pressing the phone closer to his ear. "That's great! Why don't you come on down and meet some of the guys? Wabash Park... Yeah... Right... Okay, I'll see you soon. Congratulations."

Jay punched off the phone and went back to the edge of the court, dropping it into his bag. He trotted back into the game, catching a pass and turning quickly to shake a defender.

*****

John pulled into the parking lot and spotted the game immediately. He got out of his car and walked slowly up to the courts. He stood outside the chain-link fence for several minutes, watching the men racing up and down the pavement, sweating and joking. He smiled slightly.

One of the men caught his eye immediately. He was shorter than any of the others, probably only five-six, but he was well built. He was wearing loose shorts, his torso was unclothed and glistening with sweat. As he moved, his muscles shifted enticingly. And when he smiled, perfect, white teeth contrasted brightly with his tanned skin. His hair was dusty brown and cut short, it rumpled slightly as he ran a sweaty hand through it. John felt his stomach turn warm and fluttery as he watched the man.

He jumped as the ball suddenly crashed into the fence in front of him. The object of his study came trotting over to retrieve it giving him a smile, then did a double take and blinked.

"Hi," the man said, smiling again though looking somewhat disconcerted.

"Hi," John said uncomfortably, his heart was beating hard. The man's voice was smooth and warm and held a trace of accent. English, or Australian...

"Take it you're Jay's brother," the man said, his smile widening. "You're on the wrong side of the fence, mate."

Definitely Australian. Before John could embarrass himself, some of the other men joined them at the fence. "John!"

Jay pushed the gate open and motioned him through. John nodded and shook hands through the overwhelming number of introductions, certain he would remember none of them save one. The final person Jay introduced him to.

"And this is Temoko." He gestured to the man John had been watching before. The man cast Jay an unpleasant smile, then grinned at John, holding out his hand.

"Tem," he corrected. "Tem Reece." He glanced between the two brothers. "Didn't tell me you were twins," he grumbled at Jay. Jay took the ball from his hands.

"So sorry, Temoko, silly of me, here I thought you could figure it out yourself."

Tem threw him a tight smile, then gave John a more genuine one. "Don't worry. I won't hold him against you." He snatched the ball back. "So whose team's he on, then?" he asked Jay. The other men were dispersing back onto the court after taking advantage of the break to pour water down their throats and over their faces.

"Oh, I forgot to mention. He plays for your team." Jay held Tem's even gaze steadily for a moment. Then Tem shifted his eyes to John, glancing over him appraisingly. John licked his lips nervously.

"Take off you shirt," he said.

John blinked. "What?"

"Your shirt, mate. We're skins. We're goin' to have enough trouble keeping you two apart as it is."

Jay clapped John hard on the back and wandered back onto the court. Tem bounced the ball once as John pulled off his T-shirt and dropped it with the other bags.

"You know how to play, right?"

"Yeah," John said, feeling uncharacteristically shy in front of this man. Tem nodded. He turned and began to dribble the ball slowly onto the court.

"Plays for my team..." He snorted and flung the ball around his shoulder toward John.

Off guard, John barely caught it and hesitated for a moment before realizing they were waiting for him to throw it in. He blushed.

*****

As play progressed, John began to relax into the rhythms of the game. He watched, with some private envy, the way the other players interacted with easy touch. Especially the light swats several of the men gave Tem after a particularly pretty lay-up.

He sank a three-point shot and caught Tem watching him. Tem gave him a smile and a nod and trotted back up the court. He smiled back. Then he saw his brother looking at him appraisingly. Jay winked.

John turned back to the play in time to see two of the men collide, one falling into Tem and taking all three of them to the ground. As the other men pulled them to their feet, a small knot gathered around Tem. Jay broke them up and John caught a glimpse of a scraped and bleeding left palm.

"Come on, you can't play like that," Jay was saying.

Tem looked at him stonily. "Not all of us have AIDS."

John frowned in confusion. Jay's face turned equally hard. "You'll get blood on the ball. Get over here," he said coldly.

Slowly, Tem sauntered through the crowd and over to Jay who was pulling a roll of gauze from his bag. The other men went back to their water bottles. John walked over to his brother.

"You okay?" he asked the young man.

"I'm fine," Tem growled as John quickly wrapped and taped the bleeding hand.

"Tem is invincible. He was a very special member of our United States elite forces..."

"Don't ask, don't tell, brother," Tem said, smiling unpleasantly. He flinched slightly as Jay ripped the tape less than gently and tossed it back into his bag. Jay didn't respond, just kicked his bag back against the fence and strode back onto the court.

Tem watched him with a slight turn at the corner of his mouth, then turned to John. "Want to go for drinks with us after the game?"

John felt his heart thump hard. "Sure." He smiled. Tem, reached out and gave John a light slap across the palm as he turned and trotted back onto the court waving for the ball.

*****

The men were chatting comfortably as they finished their water bottles and packed their things. John watched Tem out of the corner of his eye as he waited for Jay to come over. The young man was alive and animated, pulling his T-shirt over his head, his green eyes shining like emeralds in the pink-orange light of sunset. John tore his gaze away as Jay approached, his blonde hair darkened with sweat.

"Tem invite you to the bar with us, already?" he asked as he threw his water bottle into his bag.

"Yeah... He did," John said, distracted, glancing over at the young man once more. "Is he...?" John balked at saying the word. When he looked at Jay he found his brother studying him.

"He's a good kid. You'll like him." John raised an eyebrow, but before he could say anything Jay pushed his T-shirt into his hands. "Know how to get there?"

*****

They sat on high bar chairs around a raised table. Some of the guys had gathered around another table where they could watch the end of the baseball game. Tem and Jay were engrossed in a terse discussion about the military which John couldn't follow. He sipped his beer quietly, listening to the men talk and sneaking surreptitious glances at Tem as often as he dared.

Several men at another table had been drinking heavily since they'd arrived and their conversation had become increasingly loud and obnoxious. Scraps of it began floating clearly over to the table where John sat with Tem and his brother.

"Fags... Lousy, fucking... Taking over the country..."

John stared into his beer uncomfortably. Tem cast the table a sideways glance as he listened to Jay respond to his last point.

"Ignore them," Jay said quietly, interrupting himself. John looked up, unsure whether the comment was meant for him or for Tem. Tem settled back easily in his chair, seemingly completely intent on what Jay was saying. John concentrated on his drink once more.

More bits of conversation drifted across the bar. John pointedly ignored them, but Tem was catching his attention more and more. The man's expression was set and stony. He was still staring into Jay's face, but his eyes were distant.

John watched inconspicuously as one of the men at the other table got up unsteadily and wove his way down the hall marked restrooms and telephone. Tem glanced at him, then back at Jay. As the man came stumbling back down the hall a few minutes later, Tem abruptly slid off his chair and turned in that direction himself.

"Tem..." Jay said warningly.

"Just taking a piss, relax," Tem said evenly, but something in his tone made John sit up and watch, the hairs rising at the back of his neck in tense anticipation. Jay began to rise slowly from his own chair.

Tem sauntered toward the restrooms, his path intercepting the returning man's about halfway. Without warning, Tem grabbed the man's face and kissed him full on the mouth. The man floundered comically for a moment, before getting his hands on Tem's chest and shoving him away hard. Tem grinned. Jay was moving even as the man hauled back and plowed his fist into Tem's face. Several of his companions jumped up from their table and ran to pull him back. Jay grabbed Tem in a bear hug dragging him backwards as well.

The man was red-faced and bellowing curses. Tem, bleeding profusely from his nose and mouth, laughed and taunted the man, struggling against Jay's grasp. Several of the other men from the team joined in separating the two.

"Fucking cocksucking queer!" the affronted man shouted over the arms of his friends, who were pulling him back toward a farther corner of the bar. "Fucking leper! Keep your goddamn diseased, filthy..."

"Fuck yourself, asshole!" Tem shot back, grinning through the blood. "Or's your dick too short?"

The man stared for a moment uncomprehending, then his face darkened and he launched hard against the restraining arms.

"Hey!" The manager strode into the middle of the confrontation. "You! Out of here!" He gestured toward the spluttering man, who began cursing once more. "Now, or I call the cops!"

Grudgingly, the men dropped some money on their table and shuffled out of the bar. Then the manager turned on Jay, who still had a restraining hand on Tem's chest. "Get him cleaned up, then get him out of my sight. Y'all have had enough fun for one night."

"John," Jay called, motioning him over to them. "Help Tem clean up. Make sure he stays out of trouble."

Tem opened his mouth and looked about to say something nasty, then looked at John and closed it again. "Okay," he said amicably and led John down the hall to the men's room.

The restroom was deserted. John gathered a fistful of paper towels while Tem splashed water over his face and swished blood out of his mouth. He took the towels John offered silently and wiped at his nose and lip which were still oozing slightly.

"Why'd you do that?" John asked, leaning against the tiled wall. The room smelled of disinfectant and deodorizer. Tem sniffed.

"I'm a firm believer in giving everyone exactly what they want." He studied his face in the mirror. "Am I still pretty?" he asked, turning on John with a mischievous grin.

John felt his stomach plunge as the deep, green eyes focussed on him. His mind scrambled for a reply. "You look pretty good to me," he said nonchalantly, watching keenly for Tem's reaction. Tem gave him a sly look and turned back to the mirror. He pressed his front teeth lightly with his finger. John decided to retreat to safer ground. "What do you mean, 'what they want?'"

Tem winced slightly as he touched his rapidly swelling lip. "The ones who complain about it the most are the ones who are most afraid of it. They're afraid because they don't understand it. And they might even have had thoughts about it. Dreams about it. And what does that make them? Who am I to deny them the inner peace of self-enlightenment?" He threw the towels into the trash can and sighed heavily. "People are assholes. Don't let it get you down."

At that moment, the door opened and Jay peered in. "What are you two doing in here?" John blushed but Tem just grinned. "Get a move on." He disappeared again.

John followed Tem back out into the bar. The guys were saying goodnight and making their way out into the parking lot. As John approached his car, Tem touched his arm lightly.

"So, what're you doin' now?"

John shrugged. "I don't know. Nothing really."

"I make good coffee..."

John looked at him, then glanced at Jay who was watching over the roof of his car. He gave a small jerk of his head and raised his eyebrows at John. John looked back at Tem. "Uh, sure..."

*****

John followed Tem for about ten minutes, into a part of town he hadn't been in before. He parked behind Tem in a pleasant-looking neighborhood. As far as John could tell through the darkness. Tem led him up a well-kept stairwell and unlocked a third-story unit. He went in first, flicking on the lights and waiting for John to follow before closing the door quietly behind them.

He went into the open kitchen, separated from the entryway and living room by a bar-style counter. There was a new couch and loveseat of dark blue plush facing two sides of a large, square, oak coffee table. On a third side was a small, brass-fixtured fireplace with an oak mantle, and in the far corner was an oak and glass entertainment center with television, stereo, speakers. Two remotes were set neatly in the center of the table.

On a brass stand, a single pillar candle stood on the hearth. On the mantle were several framed pictures and an American flag folded into a neat triangle inside an oak and glass display box. There was a small plaque on the bottom edge of the box. Tem was setting up the coffee to percolate in the kitchen. John edged his way between the couch and loveseat and approached the mantle, looking more closely at the plaque.

"Commander Jonathan O'Malley." John jumped at the voice. He hadn't heard Tem approach. "It was my father's." Tem's voice sounded deadened and hollow. John turned to look at him, but the young man had his back turned and was returning to the kitchen. Dishes clattered as he pulled cups and saucers from the cupboard. All the dishes were neatly stacked and lined in tidy rows. "Do you like cream and sugar?"

"Black is fine," John answered, frowning slightly. The place had a showroom quality to it. Barely lived in.

"Make yourself at home," Tem said, his voice was warm and friendly once more. He set the cups on the counter. The small percolator began to hiss and gurgle. John walked back toward the kitchen, catching a glimpse of the bedroom as he passed. The bed was neatly made. The only hint of human touch was the desk. The computer was piled and surrounded with crumpled papers and sketches, pencils and rulers. John smiled faintly. It was an odd dichotomy. He slid onto one of the bar stools and pulled the cup of coffee Tem offered closer to him.

Tem pulled a stool around the other side of the counter and sat down himself, dropping his chin into his hands and staring at John. The intensity of the gaze made John squirm.

"So," he said, trying to deflect attention away from himself. "Your dad was in the army?"

"Navy."

Tem didn't seem to want to talk about his father, and John was just trying to think of another topic to open up the conversation when Tem spoke again. "I didn't really know him 'til I got older. He beat me mum when I was little. She took me back to Australia with her when I was two."

"I'm sorry," John said, feeling uncomfortable. "I mean that he beat her..." He wasn't sure what to say.

"It's okay, she left him."

John nodded.

"He decided to fight for custody when I was fourteen. Had me brought back to the States." Tem shrugged, staring into his coffee. "He was a bastard. One of those that's scared inside. Had to make everyone else hurt to feel like he'd got control of his life."

"I'm sorry," John said again.

Tem shook his head. "He taught me things. About life. Even when he didn't mean to." He smiled. "And he kicked off when I was seventeen."

John nodded sympathetically. "My mom died when I was ten. I got sent to live with my dad. Most of us did. Two of my sisters were already married."

Tem's eyes widened. "How many of you were there?"

"Eleven."

"Fair dinkum?" Tem exclaimed, nearly spilling his coffee.

John blinked. "Sorry?"

"Sorry," Tem set down his coffee. "I mean, honest to God? Really? Eleven kids? Your poor mum!"

John stared at Tem for a moment, the young man's eyes were wide and sincere. John started to laugh. "I never thought of it that way. I guess you're right." Tem grinned, looking very young and childlike. John looked at him thoughtfully. "How old are you, Tem?"

"Twenty-six," he said.

"God, you make me feel so old!"

"How old are you?" Tem demanded.

"Twenty-nine..."

Tem stared at him. Then suddenly, "Oh my God! I've only three years left! What've I done with my life?" He gave John a hard look. John couldn't help laughing again.

"In one evening you've made me feel like a naive teenager to an old man and back again. How do you do that?"

Tem looked suddenly serious. "I seen things. Had a lot of time to think. That makes me old. Old enough to know how to be young."

"You make it sound like you were in prison or something."

Tem contemplated him for a moment then grinned. "No, wa'nt prison. Guess some people would think so though."

John thought about what Jay had said on the court earlier that evening. "The military?"

"Was in the Navy."

John looked down, not wanting to press a sensitive topic, and Tem didn't seem to be offering any information. "You don't have to act like it was a death in the family or somethin'" Tem said with a sudden smile.

John looked at him. "Sorry, I didn't want to push you or anything..."

"Nah, it's okay. People react different ways so I just don't talk about it much. Some people don't believe me and I don't like to prove it."

"Why wouldn't they believe you?"

"Because I was a SEAL. Because I'm gay. Because no gay man could possibly be a Navy SEAL."

John glanced away, suddenly shy about the frankness of Tem's comments. "The, uh, Navy... They didn't have a problem with you... Being..."

"They never asked, and I never felt any obligation to tell them. It's none of their damn business who I sleep with as long as I do my job... And I did my job..." he said darkly, then flicked his tongue over his lower lip.

John decided to change the topic. "Sore?"

Tem glanced up at him. "Yeah..."

"Worth it?"

Tem grinned. "Definitely."

*****

It was well into the wee hours of morning when Tem finally walked John out to his car.

"Know how to get home? Where're you staying anyway?"

John leaned against the side of his car, the lamplight casting strange, dark shadows over the street. "With my brother and his wife for a week or two, 'til I find a place."

Tem nodded, his eyes scanning the darkened buildings. "He told me you were new in town. Why don't you let me show you around?"

John smiled. "I'd like that..."

~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~

Tem twisted his fork around his plate and looked at John thoughtfully.

"Did you really like it up here? Or did you just do it for me?"

"Tem, of course I liked it. I love it here. I wouldn't have done it if I didn't."

"You wouldn't have moved here for me?" Tem's pupils were large and black in the candlelight. The bright green irises were barely visible. He stared at John over the candles, his expression innocent.

John smiled. "No dice, kid. You're not getting me into that old trap. If either of us hadn't wanted this, *neither* of us would have moved."

"I would've moved for you," said Tem with a hint of sullenness.

John gave a silent laugh. "No, you wouldn't. Eat..." He watched Tem play with his food for a moment. "Okay. If it makes you happy, yes, I'm completely miserable here, I only did it out of devotion to you."

Tem wrinkled his nose and stuck out his tongue.

John laughed out loud.

~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~

~~~A Place in the Heart~~~

Two weeks wound up being over a month. Housing proved to be a scarce commodity. John let himself in to Tem's apartment late one afternoon. Tem was scribbling furiously on a notepad, sitting with his back to the wall in the bedroom, knees tucked up to his chest to provide a slanted platform for his sketching.

John closed the door and wandered into the bedroom, seating himself on the bed and watching Tem silently as the young man finished his drawing. The green eyes came up and settled brightly on his face.

"Hi."

"Hi." John smiled. "I found a place, I'm going over to sign the lease now, you want to come? I'll buy you a drink afterward."

"Mm..." Tem stood and brushed his lips lightly across John's before walking to his desk and tossing down the sketchbook. "Plying me with liquor? Planning on getting me drunk and having your way with me?"

"Oh..." John pushed himself off the bed and stepped over to Tem, putting his hands around the back of Tem's neck. "I don't need to get you drunk to have my way with you..." He kissed Tem more deeply. Tem slid his hands down John's back and hooked his thumbs into the back of his waistband. He pulled back from the kiss and took a deep breath.

"Okay," he said agreeably and tilted his head as John bent toward him again. When they parted once more, he took a step backward and looked up into John's eyes, his expression very serious. "Your lease?"

John looked down at him. "Yeah?"

"Make it six months..." John raised an eyebrow. Tem shrugged looking at him wide-eyed. "You never know..."

*****

John was lying on their neatly made bed, tossing a baseball high into the air. Tem closed the window. The sun was barely peaking over the horizon, not yet warming the cool morning air with the intense heat of August in Colorado.

He looked at John. "You're goin' to miss that thing one of these times and knock yourself smack in the face." John glanced at him and nearly fumbled his catch. Tem rolled his eyes. "And I'm goin' to laugh." John grinned and set the baseball on his chest.

"So? What's the big plan?"

Tem went to his closet and pulled out his hiking boots. He tossed them over near his desk chair. Then he produced two day-packs, throwing one onto the bed beside John. "Put your stuff in there."

John sat up and began stuffing the supplies Tem had demanded he come up with into the small pack. He watched Tem sit down and pull on his boots, tying them tightly.

"My uncle left me some twenty acres up the side of this mountain. My great grandfather bought it, been passing it down through the family. Nobody's done anything with it, just sits there, but it's real nice.

"Ah," John said, shoving his water bottle in on top of his raincoat. He zipped the pack and followed Tem into the kitchen where he was throwing sandwiches and fruit into his bag. "For this you drag me out of bed before the crack of dawn..."

Tem gave him a look. "There's something I want to show you."

*****

The drive took over an hour. They took Tem's Jeep up the freeway fifty miles, pulling off on an exit in the middle of expanses of farmland. Tem turned and they drove westward seeing nothing but fields for another fifteen minutes before there were any signs other signs of civilization.

John leaned back and enjoyed the view of the high, blue-grey mountains rising majestically from the foothills that looked like frozen waves crashing up against the base of the mighty peaks.

The engine hummed quietly as they sat at the first stoplight they'd come across in close to an hour. A town sprawled out to the South along the cross-route, while to the North, it extended into the flatlands paralleling the distant foothills.

The light changed and Tem accelerated, they passed a large church on the right, and several small roads leading off to the left, none large enough to warrant a light. Finally, they hit a second light, then a housing development to the left, then more farmland.

They were getting closer to the foothills now. A steep bank rose up on the right side of the road, and they passed a flagstone seller on the right. As they continued to pass tiny roadside stands and businesses, John saw large jagged, flat-topped hills rising on his right. The sides were ragged cliffs of red flagstone. On the tops was dry grass and brush.

"Rattlesnakes," Tem said. Nodding toward the hills. "They like the hot and dry."

John felt his stomach twist. "Is that where we're going?" he asked, nervously.

"Nah," Tem said, and fell silent again.

John watched the hills pass, soon they came into a tiny town. Tem slowed down as they passed a large flashing sign, giving their speed and the local speed limit in side to side comparison.

"It's one big speed trap, this town," Tem said, easing onto the left fork of what appeared to be the main drag. "They've got nothing better to do all day." And indeed, moments later, John spotted a white patrol car parked up one of the side streets, radar gun set in the window.

The town was cute in a quaint sort of way. There was a tiny antique shop, a gas station, a small market with a large mural painted across one side. It read, "Welcome to Lyons!" in faded letters and featured a cartoonish lion lounging in a shopping cart being pushed by an Italian-looking butcher and trailing strands of sausages behind it. John stared at it, smiling, not even realizing they'd stopped until Tem accelerated to the left and they passed the mural, giving John a good, full view of it.

"Cute town," he murmured.

"Yeah, I've always thought so," Tem replied, increasing his speed as they climbed a steep incline, taking them out of the town.

Neither of them spoke again for some time. Tem slowed and turned in front of a giant cottonwood tree that marked a barely visible road, which dropped off immediately into a wide meadow. They crossed the sea of grasses and flowers and broke into a darker section of road, shaded by large cottonwoods and pine trees. Here and there the white bark of an aspen flashed into view. To one side, horses grazed behind a white, wooden fence.

Tem made another sharp turn and began winding up a steep dirt road, passing houses set well back from the road, many of the driveways were blocked by gates, and the yards were fenced along the road. Eventually, they came upon a bank of mail and newspaper boxes. The road split, one fork continuing straight ahead and the other veering off to the right. Tem slowed.

"This is the property line. The access road will take us about half a mile in." He continued straight on the gravely road. Within minutes it narrowed so that the trees were nearly scraping the sides of the Jeep. In another minute, it was nothing but a set of tracks in the rich undergrowth.

They bumped along until the trail disappeared completely. Tem stopped the car, pocketed the keys and got out. John followed suit, breathing in the fragrant, mountain air.

Tem wrapped a bandana over his head and tied it neatly in the back, giving him a rather pirate-ish look. John found it quite a nice look for him. He pulled his own baseball cap off the seat and put it on. It shaded his eyes from the sun which was already beating down heavily through the trees. They both donned sunglasses and their backpacks and Tem set out, leading the way through the thick trees.

John took advantage of the time to take in the scenery. The sky, the foliage, his lover from behind... Tem's legs were strong, well-muscled but not bulky. Just like the rest of him. John watched Tem walk for some time as they made their way up the side of the mountain.

Eventually, his interest was attracted by his surroundings, and he stared around him at the beauty of the trees, grasses and wildflowers. Occasional chipmunks would scurry over boulders and stop to stare at the two of them. Birds scolded from above, and the beating of wings told them when they'd gotten too close.

John lost track of time. He'd left his watch at home. But the sun was nearly directly overhead in the sky when Tem slowed and turned to him. He reached out a hand. His skin was hot and moist as he grasped John's hand and pulled him forward through a last copse of trees and into a huge, flat meadow.

John stood for a moment, awed. A soft breeze whispered across the grasses. The sun glowed. On the far side of the valley, the mountain rose sharply into the sky. John followed it with his eyes. It was a tall and commanding presence, but strangely comforting. Like an ages-old sentry that had been sheltering this valley since the beginning of time. John breathed.

"I used to come here. When I was a kid," Tem said softly. "My dad lived back down that road. I would hike up here to get away when things got really bad and I'd sit here and it was like the mountain would speak to me." He slid his backpack off and set it on the ground, then settled down cross-legged. John sank down beside him, listening quietly. "Then when I came back from the war... I came back here... And it listened to me. Until I had nothing left to say." His voice broke slightly. John squeezed his hand, wishing he could see Tem's eyes. Tem cleared his throat. "I used to think, maybe, if I ever met someone. Someone real. We'd build a house..." He was quiet for a moment. "You're the only person I've ever brought up here."

John looked around the clearing once more. There was indeed more than enough room to put a good-sized house here and still not encroach upon the surrounding forest. They'd have to build a road, the equipment would have to be brought in. He shook his head quickly, suddenly realizing what he was being asked. Tem was looking at him.

"It's okay to say no," he said quickly, pulling his hand out of John's.

"No!" John grabbed Tem's hand again. "I mean, not no, I mean... Me?" It had been just over a year now since that first night on a basketball court. John had had thoughts of Tem being the one, but he had never seriously considered them in any existence outside their status quo. He stared out at the meadow again. "Me?" he said weakly.

"You don't have to say anything now, you can think about it, I mean it doesn't have to happen right away or anything..." Tem was looking miserable and pulling slightly against John's grip. John let go his hand, reached up and carefully took off Tem's sunglasses. Then his own. Tem scowled slightly against the bright light. It angled across his eyes making them look like green moss trapped in perfect crystal. John took back Tem's hand in one of his, then took up the other and held them firmly in his lap. He looked down for a moment, then back into Tem's eyes.

"Yes."

~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~

"One glass, Tem."

"It's our anniversary!"

"And we've had this conversation every year. No alcohol with your meds. I'm making an exception for tonight, but only one glass."

"It's only champagne, it's not like I'm doing shots or something..."

"No. Do you want to spend the whole evening arguing about it, or would you prefer to spend it standing?"

Tem's face hardened. "Since when are those my only options?"

"Since it seems you have no intention of letting it go."

Tem's jaw worked, but he said nothing as John handed him his glass.

"I hate meds..."

John toasted him gently and kissed him. "They're good for you."

"You didn't think so when you first found out..."

~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~

~~~Doubts~~~

The air smelled of sawdust and raw wood. They carefully stepped through what would eventually be the front door and looked around the skeletal frame, imagining the rooms that were outlined in studs and beams. The gritty footprints of workboots littered the plywood floors. Sunbeams danced through the dusty air, splitting and painting the floors with geometric patterns.

The noise of the workers had quieted for the day. The last truck had trundled back down the crude road. Tem pushed his hands into the pockets of his jacket and shrugged, looking at John.

"Is it everything you wanted?"

"I... It's amazing..."

Tem pulled a folded paper from his pocket and smoothed it flat. In the middle of the page was a pencil sketch of the exterior of the house. Split log sided, glass atrium, sun deck off the master bedroom. Then around the edges of the drawing were smaller representations of the interior rooms. John looked down at it again, still numbed by the reality of it all.

"We're really doing this," he said softly.

Tem looked at him. "Having second thoughts?"

John shook his head. The sun was just cresting the top of the mountain now. It cast its jagged shadow across the meadow. John watched the edge of the sunlight creeping across the ground, feeling safe and warm. "No. No second thoughts."

*****

John sighed. His current chapter was giving him hell to write. Finally, he gave up and wandered into the bedroom to continue the seemingly endless task of packing their lives into cardboard containers. He scribbled 'bedroom' on the side of a large box, climbed onto the short step-stool and began pulling sweaters off the top shelf of the closet, throwing them down into the box. Then his hand hit something small and hard near the back of the shelf. Three things. He wrapped his fingers around them and pulled them down. He stared at the small bottles in his hand.

*****

Tem stomped through the front door scowling. He stomped into the bedroom and threw his satchel onto his desk chair. He scowled at John who was sitting on the bed not looking at him. He took off his jacket and threw it onto a stack of boxes near the closet.

"The builders are behind schedule. They won't be finished 'til after the first snow. The contractor has more questions about the bloody blueprints, the architect needs to meet with me *again* tomorrow." Tem stopped in front of John. "What's the matter with you?"

John looked at him. "Tem," he said slowly. "What is seroquel?

Tem swallowed, his face registering shock and a hint of fear. He had gone very pale. "It's..." his voice cracked, he swallowed again. "It's for migraines..." he said weakly.

"You don't have migraines, Tem." John kept his tone very low and very even. "And the wellbutrin is to help you quit smoking?" A muscle flickered in Tem's jaw, but he didn't speak. "You haven't smoked since I've known you." He looked at Tem for several seconds. "And what is ativan?"

Tem didn't meet John's eyes. He twisted his fingers together. "It's an anti-anxiety medication," he said, almost too softly to hear.

"And wellbutrin is an antidepressant, right?" Tem nodded mutely.

John hesitated for a moment, not sure he wanted the answer to his next question. "What's seroquel, Tem?"

Tem stared at the floor in front of John's feet. "Anti-psychotic..." he whispered.

John swallowed. He felt very uncertain, torn between anger, fear and sympathy. "Don't stand here like you're waiting for a spanking," he said gruffly. Tem looked at him quickly. His eyes were glistening. "Sit."

Tem walked slowly to the desk, pushed his bag onto the floor and sat down on the chair. He huddled into himself, looking very small and miserable. "Why didn't you ask Jay what they are?" he asked, barely audible.

"I wanted to ask you... How long have you been on these?"

"Three years..."

"Were you ever planning on telling me about it?" Tem studied his feet. "Why did you hide this from me?"

"I knew what you'd think," Tem said.

"What would I think?" Tem was silent again. "And since when have you cared what people think about you anyway?" he demanded.

Tem looked at him. "Since it was you," he said, the tears finally spilling down his face.

John sighed and ran a hand across his eyes. He looked at Tem with resignation. "I have to go out," he said. "I need to go out. For a couple hours. Will you stay here? Please?" Tem nodded, tears dripping onto his shirt. John felt his throat tighten. "Baby?" he said. Tem didn't look up. "I love you." He got no response. He sighed again and rose from the bed, touching Tem's shoulder lightly as he passed him and went into the living room. He pulled his coat off a hook near the door and quietly let himself out.

He dialed his cell phone from the car.

*****

Jay sprinkled salt in his beer and watched the bubbles rise from the tiny grains. "I can't talk about this, John..."

John stopped tracing patterns in the condensation on his glass and looked at him. "Why not?"

"You need to discuss this with Tem."

"I did. I need information."

"What did he say?"

"He said they're an antidepressant, an anti-anxiety and an anti-psychotic."

"He's right. You should listen to him."

"But, what..."

"John," Jay interrupted. "I can't tell you anything, please don't ask me to get involved."

John stared into his beer. "I just need to know..."

"No. You don't need to know anything from me. Tem is a smart boy, and he understands his condition. Ask him. He'll tell you the truth."

"But what *is* his condition?" John insisted. "Is he crazy?"

"He is *not* *crazy*!" Jay was staring at him, his face darkening slightly. "And he's not dangerous. And he's *your* damn boyfriend, shouldn't you be asking *him*?"

John blinked, slightly taken aback by his brother's anger. "Sorry," he muttered.

Jay hunched over his drink and stared at the table for several seconds, frowning. John watched the baseball game on a television set on the far side of the bar, but his mind was far away.

Finally, Jay said "Look, I'll give you the name of somebody you can ask some general questions to if you want. I can't tell you anything myself. But, my best advice is talk to Tem, don't go behind his back." He finished his beer quickly, drew out his wallet and threw a ten down on the table. "It's on me." He rose, gave John a pat on the back of the shoulder and walked out of the bar.

John stared at the bill for a long time.

*****

It was cold and dark when John quietly opened the door to their apartment and locked it behind himself. The lights were on in the bedroom. He hung up his coat and walked slowly toward the lit room. Stopping in the doorway and leaning against the jamb.

Tem was lying on the bed, curled into a fetal position, John couldn't see his face. He crossed to the closet, pushed off his shoes and changed into a T-shirt and sweats, then closed the closet door and sat down on the desk chair.

"Are you awake?" he asked softly.

Tem nodded, his face still mostly hidden.

"Can you look at me?"

Tem uncurled slightly, bringing his face into the light. His eyes were hauntingly sad, John felt an immediate tug in his gut. He licked his lips.

"I think we should talk." Tem looked away. "I'm not angry with you," John said quickly. "I just need to understand some things." He waited for a response, but none came. Tem continued to stare listlessly at the wall. John thought for a moment, choosing his words carefully. "Can you tell me why you're on medication?"

"PTSD, Depression with psychotic features." Tem's voice was dull and lifeless.

"What's PTSD?"

"Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder." When John didn't answer, he added, "Shell shock."

"Oh..." John had learned to live with many of Tem's small idiosyncrasies which he had attributed to Tem's time in combat, but he'd never thought of it having more widespread effects on his lover. He swallowed, uneasy about approaching the subject which disturbed him the most... "What does psychotic features mean?"

"It means I..." Tem curled tighter on the bed and his face slipped out of view again. "Hallucinate."

John felt a rush of alarm. "Hallucinate?"

"I see movement, out of the corner of my eye, or flickering. Or I hear a footstep when there's no one there."

John felt a mixture of fear and relief. It was much better than what he'd expected to hear. It even made sense considering what Tem had probably been through, but the thought of living with that kind of uncertainty. Hearing and seeing things that didn't exist. He imagined it would be terrifying. He felt a sudden strong urge to take Tem into his arms and protect him from everything he'd seen, everything he'd experienced, keep him safe and unafraid.

"Why didn't you ever tell me, baby?"

Tem's answer was muffled and soft, but John heard it with painful clarity. "You'd think I was insane."

John sighed and crawled onto the bed next to Tem. "I don't know what I would have thought before I knew you. But I love you, and if medications make your life easier then I have nothing against them. And I don't think you're insane. And I want to be with you for the rest of my life..." He gently put one arm around Tem and pulled him close. Tem let himself be untucked until he was spooned against John. John kissed the top of his head gently. "However," he said, with mock sternness. "If you make me sleep outside the covers all night, there will be serious consequences." He felt the final vestiges of tension melt from Tem's body. Tem twisted in his arms to look at him.

"Like what?" His eyes were dancing mischievously.

John pushed himself onto his elbow to look down into Tem's face. "You don't want to know," he growled and bet to kiss Tem firmly on the mouth. Then he separated himself before they became too distracted and neither of them got any sleep.

Once they were both safely under the covers and the lights were out, John allowed himself to snuggle close to Tem once more. He was just drifting into a comfortable sleep when Tem's voice roused him.

"John?"

"Mm?"

"About what you said earlier..."

"Which part?"

"About the spanking..."

John opened his eyes, trying to remember when the conversation had turned to spanking. "What spanking?"

"You said I was standing like I was waiting for a spanking."

"Oh," a vague memory of the comment drifted back to him. He waited for Tem to continue but was met with silence. "What about it?"

When Tem spoke again, he sounded nervous. "Would you really do that?"

"Do what?" John was beginning to feel that he was missing the thrust of the conversation.

"Spank me?" Tem said in a small voice.

"What?"

"Would you really spank me?"

John was quiet for a moment, thinking. "You mean like S&M?"

"No... Never mind..."

John pushed himself onto his elbow again and turned on the lamp. "Don't do that. Tell me what's on your mind."

Tem squirmed farther under the covers until his face disappeared. John frowned and pulled back the sheets. Tem looked at him, "I just, uh, wondered what you meant."

"I didn't mean anything. I wasn't thinking."

"Okay." Tem tried to pull the covers back up, but John held them.

"Tem, I would never hit you..."

"I know that," Tem said quickly, sounding somewhat indignant.

"Okay..." John said, still not satisfied with how the conversation had been resolved. He threw the blankets back up over Tem's head. Tem yelped in protest and wriggled back up to the head of the bed just as John flicked off the light once more.

~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~

They cleaned the dishes side by side, John washed, Tem rinsed and set them in the drainer. They left the kitchen lit only by the candles. They cast warm and dancing shadows across the walls. Wolf pushed at the back of their knees hoping for a treat or a scratch behind the ears.

"Wolf!" John finally exclaimed when he nearly tripped over the giant dog. "Tem, do something with your dog!"

"He's not *my* dog. He's *our* dog."

"Wolf, get out of the way..."

Tem whistled and Wolf followed him to the pantry where he was treated with a crunchy snack.

"What kind of name is 'Wolf' anyway. He looks more like a black Snuffleupagus without the trunk..."

Tem laughed. "It's your own fault he's Wolf."

~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~

~~~Puppy Dog Tales~~~

Tem was standing very still, two boxes stacked in his arms, staring across the meadow into the woods.

John stepped over the threshold and walked towards him. "What are you doing?"

"Shh..." Tem glanced at him and shoved the boxes into John's arms. John looked at him.

"What...?"

"Be quiet!" Tem hissed. Very slowly, moving with the silent, fluid grace of a large cat, he made his way across the expanse of grass to the edge of the trees. John set the boxes down on the ground, put his hands on his hips and stared at Tem, frowning.

Tem stopped just beyond the line of trees, looking intently at the ground. Slowly, he lowered himself to a crouch and reached into the high grasses. He rose with something in his arms and turned back toward John. John's eyes widened. It was an animal. Something small and black and very furry. Tem walked over to him, smiling.

"What is it?" John asked, eyeing the creature suspiciously. "A wolf?"

"No... It's a puppy." Tem grinned at him, holding out the small dog.

"Oh no..." John stepped back. "We are *not* falling in love with this thing. It probably belongs to someone."

"Who? There's nobody up here."

"Maybe one of the workers left it."

Tem gave him a skeptical look.

"Tem... We aren't keeping it."

Tem frowned. "Stop calling him an it, he's a..." He turned the dog around, letting it dangle, tail down, between his outstretched hands. "He's a he. And we can put up signs, see if anyone claims him, then if no one does..."

"Uh uh. We don't need a dog."

"Why not? We have plenty of room now. And space for him to run."

"You're getting attached. If no on claims him, we can take him to the humane society."

"No!" Tem clutched the animal to his chest, looking horrified. The dog looked at John with huge, sad brown eyes. "They'll kill him!"

John sighed. "No, they won't, Tem. Someone will adopt him. He's cute. He's a puppy..."

"See? You think he's cute!"

John rolled his eyes. "Find a box to put him in for now."

"I'm not putting him in a box!" Tem exclaimed indignantly.

"So he doesn't get underfoot while we unload the van!"

Tem gave John a suspicious look, but carried the dog into the house, presumably to find a good box.

*****

That evening, they unpacked the computer and took a digital photo of the puppy. They printed fliers to post around town, called to make sure none of the builders had lost a dog and argued for half an hour over whether the puppy got to sleep on their bed that night. Tem won.

*****

New buds were beginning to appear on the barren branches of the white aspen. Delicate flowers sprinkled the meadow with a flourish of color.

"How big is that thing going to grow?" John said irritably, watching the puppy gorge himself from the stainless steel bowl he'd finally broken down and bought for its food.

"I don't know," Tem looked at John over his coffee. "He will probably keep growing 'til he's at least a year old. And we've only had him for six months."

"Yeah," John said. "About that..."

"We aren't getting rid of him," Tem said stubbornly. John sighed. "What do you have against him?"

"Nothing," John answered wearily. "We just don't have time for a dog right now."

"We've got plenty of time. We've been finding time up 'til now haven't we?"

"We've never even given him a name," John insisted. "This was a temporary arrangement from the beginning.

Tem looked at him, his bright green eyes registering hurt and betrayal. "You can't. We've had him this long. You can't get rid of him now."

John felt his gut tighten at the look Tem was giving him. He fell silent, watching the huge puppy eat, its tail wagging happily. Oblivious to the fact that the fate of its existence was being discussed over its head.

"It's not even a dog," John mumbled. "It's a freakin' wolf."

~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~

The music was soft and slow. Tem laid his cheek on John's shoulder as they stepped in smooth symmetry with the beat.

"You wouldn't really spank me tonight, would you."

"I'd really rather not," John said into Tem's hair. "Did you have something planned I should know about?"

Tem shifted and kissed John deeply. As they separated, John looked down into the dark eyes. "Mmm, bribery, now I'm definitely worried..."

"John?"

"Yes?"

"Do you ever regret spanking me?"

"On a case by case basis or in general?"

"In general, I mean, that we brought it into our lives..."

John guided them past the crackling fire, thinking. "Tem... I have many regrets in my life. Honestly? That isn't one of them..."

~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~

~~~Pain and Penance~~~

The morning began strangely and went downhill from there. Tem woke up irritable and progressed quickly to paranoid and jumpy. He accused John three times of trying to sneak up on him before John simply stopped coming near him.

Wolf sensed something was wrong, also. He scurried quickly out of Tem's way as Tem stormed through the house. And finally, he crawled under the stairs and settled down with his chin on his forepaws, watching the living room from worried eyes.

By noon, rain was pelting the house, making a fitting backdrop for the environment inside. Tem was snarling and restless. He stopped often in his mindless pacing to stare out the windows into the grey sheets of rain. His lunch remained untouched at his place at the table. John said nothing.

At three o'clock, John placed a desperate phone call, watching helplessly as someone he no longer recognized as his lover, slowly and deliberately opened one of the veins in his wrist.

*****

Tem struggled, the blood slicking his arms working to his advantage as he nearly freed himself from Jay's grip. Jay tripped him and fell forward with him, pinning him to the floor. Only by the grace of his greater height and weight did he keep the young man from throwing him off. Tem hissed through his teeth, fighting wildly.

John stared, he felt like his heart had stopped beating an hour ago and hadn't restarted since. Jay nodded toward a syringe that had been dropped in the struggle. "Get that," he said quickly, his voice strained with effort.

John froze for an instant then hurried forward and picked it up. He looked at Jay, questioning.

"Stop it, Tem!" Jay barked. But Tem only twisted harder in his hands. He pulled Tem's hand higher onto his back. Tem grimaced. "Here," he said to John, reaching out toward him. John quickly put the syringe in his brother's hand. Leaning hard on Tem's back, Jay pulled the cap off the needle with his teeth and sank it into Tem's arm. He yanked it out, and threw it onto the bed. "Relax, Tem... No one is going to hurt you..."

Tem lurched violently and Jay lost his balance slightly. Feeling the lightening on his body, Tem twisted and wrested himself free of Jay's grip. Jay scrambled out of reach and quickly rose to his feet. "Back off!" he shouted at John. John stumbled backward until his back hit the wall.

Tem was on his feet now, too. He crouched slightly, looking from brother to brother, his eyes wild. He backed away from them both, putting a wall to his back as well. His hands were clenching. He began to whisper incomprehensibly.

"Tem," Jay said softly. "Over here." John stared at Jay, opening his mouth soundlessly. The wild eyes focussed on the source of the voice. "I'm not going to hurt you." Jay was walking slowly toward Tem. John's heart began to beat hard. He shook his head a fraction of a second before Tem moved.

*****

Jay was talking to a paramedic about Haldol dosages. Another paramedic was talking softly to Tem who rose slowly, his eyes glassy. A third helped keep him on his feet as he staggered, and between them they led him down the stairs to the ambulance.

John just watched numbly. Jay approached him, wiping blood from him mouth with a washcloth. "He'll be okay," he said gently, reaching toward John. But John flinched away. Jay looked out the window silently for a moment. "Come on, I'll take you to the hospital."

*****

The hospital smelled of sickness and antiseptic. John hunched in his chair, elbows on his knees, chin in his hands and stared at the edge of Tem's bed. Tem lay motionless upon it, as he had since he'd arrived.

"John?" Jay stood, silhouetted, in the doorway. The hall was quiet and empty behind him. He had changed into black slacks and a turtleneck and cleaned up his face, but his wrist was wrapped in an elastic bandage and his lip was swollen. He limped slightly as he came into the twilight of the room. "Are you alright?"

John was silent for several seconds. Then he pulled his gaze away from Tem's bandaged arm. "I don't know," he said finally.

Jay sat in a chair by the foot of the bed. They were both quiet. Jay sighed. "Has he been taking his medication?"

John looked at him. "I don't know. I thought so. Is this what happens when he doesn't take it?"

Jay shrugged. "Could be, or it could happen for some other reason, or it could happen for no reason at all."

John stared. "He could just lose his mind at any time and not even have a reason?"

"He didn't lose his mind," Jay said firmly. "He had... He lost touch with what is real for a short time. He was probably living in a different time and place."

John tried to pick something to say from the whirlpool of thoughts in his mind, but he couldn't. He just looked back at Tem.

Jay stood and motioned John into the hallway. He closed the door quietly. "I'd like to keep him here for seventy-two hours. We can make sure his medication gets back in his system if that is what happened. We can get him back on his feet."

"Don't you need his permission for that?" John asked.

"No," Jay said calmly. "We need yours."

"What?"

"He gave you power of attorney."

"He's not incapacitated."

"He doesn't have the mental faculties..."

"Because you have him drugged!"

"To make any decisions..."

"No!"

"John..."

"When can he leave?"

"John!"

"I'll make sure he takes his pills! I'll..."

"What happens if he goes for the razor blade again? What happens if he goes after you?"

A passing nurse glanced at them. Jay waved her away, irritated.

John felt an icy hand grip his stomach. "He won't," he whispered. Wishing he knew it was true.

Jay just looked at him. John looked right back and neither of them spoke. Finally, Jay sighed. "Okay."

John felt a wash of relief tainted with fear. "When can I take him home?" he asked softly.

*****

Tem sat on the bed and stared at the floor at John's feet as he paced in front of him.

"I'm sorry."

"That doesn't make me feel any better," John said, still pacing.

Tem opened his mouth to say something else, then stopped and closed it again.

"Do you have the slightest *slightest* concept of what that was like for me?" John demanded.

Tem stared at the floor. "I'm sorry," he said again.

John stopped pacing and stared at him. "*You* weren't even here, *you* were in some alternate universe!" Tem winced, and John almost felt a pang of regret for the harsh words. He searched Tem's face. "Why?" he asked.

"I don't know..."

"That isn't fucking good enough!"

Tem blinked, looking at him in shock. John realized that in the over two years they'd been together, he'd never cursed save the occasional "damn" or "hell" in the heat of an argument. He even surprised himself with his behavior. He blinked and they both stared at each other for several seconds. He took a deep breath.

"Tell me why you quit taking them," he said softly. Tem was looking mildly frightened now. He looked at John, his green eyes wide, opening and closing his mouth, seemingly searching for something to say. John raised his eyebrows. Tem swallowed.

"I'm... They make me...slow...I don't know..."

"Slow?"

"My senses, my reactions, I'm dull. If I were still in the SEALs I'd be dead by now..."

John blinked again. "The SEALs? You're not *in* the SEALs," he said stupidly. "Who the hell cares what would happen if you were, you're *not*."

Tem's expression turned pained. "I know that," he said quietly.

"Then why does it matter?" John asked, trying to soften his tone.

"It matters to me."

"Why?" John insisted, some part of his mind realizing he was pressing a sore point but unable to stop himself. He needed to know. Know why he'd been put through this.

"Because..." Tem swallowed. "Sometimes I want to prove I'm not a liability, that I can still do it."

"A liability to whom?"

"My team... Myself..." Tem's voice was nearly inaudible now.

"Who says you're a liability?" John asked, gently.

Tem's eyes were glittering. "They did. That's why I was discharged. I wasn't stable, I was a liability..."

John felt a stab of pain in his heart. "I'm sorry, Tem..."

"Are you still angry?"

"No," John said slowly. "But please don't do it again. Talk to me if you are feeling that way, we'll find another way to fix it."

Tem nodded, his eyes fixed on John's. "When you're ready to move past this, will you help me move past it?"

John looked at him. "What do you mean?"

"Punish me."

John stared. "What?"

"I need...reinforcement..."

"What?" John asked again, still staring.

Tem took a deep breath and John watched the muscles tighten and relax in his jaw. "I want you to whip me, so I can accept this and let it go," he said. "If you're not angry about it anymore," he added quickly.

John opened his mouth, but no words came out.

"It's how it's always been. With my dad, and with the Navy..."

"They don't beat you in the Navy," John said, still struggling to process.

"Sometimes they do," Tem said quietly. "It just isn't sanctioned."

"Well, I'm not the Navy, and I'm sure as hell not your father, and I'm not going to beat you, and I'm not going to punish you. You're an adult. Adults don't get punished."

"Of course they do." Tem's voice was low and even now. "That's what library fines are and traffic tickets and prison terms."

"Fine, you can do the dishes for a week, that's your punishment. I'm not going to hit you."

Tem shrugged. "Okay."

*****

John set down his fork hard, interrupting the morbid silence that had been hanging over the third breakfast that week. Tem looked up at him.

"Cut it out, Tem."

Tem blinked. "What?" He sounded genuinely confused.

"Moping. You've been miserable to be around since I refused to beat you for that incident with your meds."

Tem carefully set down his fork as well and looked steadily into John's face. "I'm not moping. I didn't ask you to 'beat' me, I asked you to," he flushed under his tan. "I asked you to spank me, and stop calling it an 'incident,' it wasn't an 'incident' I quit fucking taking them."

"You're putting a guilt trip on me and you're putting a guilt trip on yourself. I told you you can do the dishes for your punishment. So stop with the gloom and doom."

"I am doing the dishes. I haven't finished the week yet so I'm still being punished, aren't I? Should I act happy about that?"

"It's dishes for christ sake!"

They both looked at each other, John feeling slightly uncomfortable. Mormons, even ex-Mormons, or this ex-Mormon specifically, still don't easily take the Lord's name in vain.

"Are you trying to manipulate me?" John asked, quickly shifting the focus of the conversation.

Tem stared at him. "What?" he asked, incredulously.

"To get me to...spank you..."

"Look," Tem said hotly. "I should pay for what I did. If you think I should pay by suffering with the guilt for a week, then that's what I'll do. It's a better punishment than being spanked, isn't it? Being spanked it's over in ten minutes."

John slapped his palm down on the table hard enough to make the silverware clatter. Wolf jumped up and ran into the living room. "Why the *hell* do you have this obsession with paying penance?"

"I just do! It's part of the package! Take it or leave it!" he shot back. He stood abruptly, grabbed his dishes, dropped them in the sink and stormed out of the room. John stared after him in stunned silence.

Finally, he rose and took his own plates to the sink, rinsed all of the dishes briefly and stacked them on the counter. Then he opened the utensil drawer, scanned the contents for a moment, took something out and slid it into his back pocket.

*****

Tem was lying on his back on the bed, reading. Wolf had jumped up and was curled at his feet. John leaned against the doorjamb and looked at him.

"Tell me something, Tem. Totally honestly... Is this about sex?"

Tem looked at him. "Honestly? If this was about sex I'd've told you a *long* time ago, mate..." He flashed him a wicked grin.

John smiled slightly. "Okay, you say it's about punishment. You want me to punish you..."

"I could say something here about the speed at which you absorb information."

"Shut up, I'm serious. Punishment isn't something you get to choose, if you are saying you want me to punish you, you're giving me all the decisions."

Tem was silent.

"Right?" John prompted.

"Yes..." Tem said slowly, beginning to look suspicious.

"Get up."

"Why?" he asked, definitely suspicious now.

"Because I told you to. I make the decisions."

"I'm being punished?"

"Why do you think I'm making the decisions?"

Tem frowned, but he disentangled his feet from the dog and stood up. "So?"

John drew the thing from his back pocket and set it on the bed stand. Tem stared at it, then brought his eyes up to John. "My mother used to spank us with a wooden spoon," John said, his heart beating hard. "It hurt like... It hurt a lot. And I don't suppose it ever did any of us any permanent damage, so I guess it will be good enough for you."

Tem was silent.

"So..." John's palms were beginning to sweat and his stomach was twisting. Convincing himself that he was being silly as he wasn't the one getting the spanking didn't seem to calm his nerves at all. "I don't know how to do this, I've never done it before, and since I get to make the decisions, I'm not going to ask you for your input. I'm just... I'm going to do it the way my mother did. And... That'll just have to be good enough. And you're going to quit this damn skulking about the house like I... You're going to stop."

His stomach was beginning to hurt and his heart was in his throat. Tem was looking at him, his face calm. He said nothing, so John stepped over to the bed and sat down. Tem turned to face him.

"I'm sorry," Tem said softly.

John picked up the spoon and looked at him. "For what? For the sulking or the medication?"

"Both... I really do feel bad for what happened, I haven't just been sulking. And I haven't been trying to manipulate you."

"I know. This will make everything square, right?"

"Not really."

John stared at him. "What?" he exclaimed. "What the hell was that whole tantrum this morning all about then?"

"No," Tem amended quickly. "I want you to punish me for quitting my meds. It just won't ever make up for what I did to you. It will just give it some kind of closure. I know it isn't going to be a magic fix, that's why I didn't ask you until you weren't angry any more."

John was quiet for a moment, thinking. "I understand why you quit taking them. I'm not angry about that anymore. What I want is for you to promise you won't do it again. Will this guarantee that for me?"

"No." Tem looked at the floor. "I won't ever be able to give you that guarantee. And I won't ever be able to tell you I'll never go off the deep end on you again, even if I am taking the pills. I'm...damaged..."

"You're not..."

"I am, John. And I always will be. And if that's something that you can't live with...I understand what it means to have this always hanging over you. And I'll understand if it's ever too much."

John stared at him for several seconds, then reached out quickly, pulled Tem sideways and smacked the seat of his shorts with the spoon.

"Ow!" Tem yelped and rubbed the assaulted spot.

"Lesson one. Don't ever start making excuses for me to leave you."

"I'm not making excuses, you said promise!" Tem said plaintively.

John frowned. "So explain to me that you can't. That's all. I'll live with the problems. Promise me this. You'll do everything you possibly can not to let it happen again. Include me. Tell me you're having trouble. Please."

Tem was blinking quickly, one hand still placed absently on the seat of his shorts. "I promise."

"Will spanking you help you not skip them?"

"I don't know," Tem said.

"Will it help anything? I mean besides today, if I did it for every time you miss your pills once, would that encourage you to take them?"

Tem gave him a crooked smile. "Depends how hard you spank..." He looked at the floor again. "I don't know if it will. It might. It's been a long time since I left the Navy. Everything made more sense there. Out here, it's all...complicated."

"Alright, let's make one thing simple." Tem stared at him with large, green eyes. "From now on, you take your meds in front of me. If you don't... You get spanked. If you skip them... You get spanked. And I'm sure I can spank plenty hard enough with the right motivation..." He ran a finger over Tem's still-bandaged left wrist. Tem looked at him sadly. John sighed. "Alright, let's get this over with. I guess you should pull down your pants. My mom never spanked us with our pants up."

Tem's mouth quirked up. "Your mum's a real role model for you is she?"

"She knew how to spank," John said dryly.

Tem nodded, and slowly unbuttoned his shorts. When they were at his ankles, he stepped out of them and looked at John.

"Those, too."

Tem glanced down at his boxers then back at John, a flush creeping over his face. "My dad never did it like this," he mumbled, pushing them down as well.

"I'm not your father," John said coldly. Tem's eyes were glistening.

"I know."

John patted his thigh. Tem sighed and eased himself down across John's lap. John hesitated. Tem grabbed a pillow and tucked it half-under his chest hugging it and turned his face toward John. He sighed again. His eyes were fixed on a point somewhere across the bedspread. John looked at him and bit his lip. Carefully, he wrapped his right arm around Tem's waist then stopped.

"Um..."

"What?"

"I'm left-handed..."

"Yeah?" Then the light dawned. Tem twisted to look at him, a wide grin on his face. "Guess your mum wa'n't then?"

John swatted him sharply.

"Ow!"

"Yeah? Your accent is inconsistent."

Tem was pushing himself to his feet and he turned to lie down the opposite direction. He laughed. "Tha's 'cause I'm only half an Aussie. Only got half the accent... 'Sides, you wouldn't find me half so damn sexy if I..." his voice dropped half an octave and he affected a John Wayne swagger. "Talked like an American..." The over-enunciated southern drawl was so pathetic John had to laugh as well.

"Cut it out, you're ruining the mood," John said.

"But you aren't so nervous now, are you?" Tem gave him a keen look, grabbed his pillow and crawled back over John's lap.

John looked down at him for several seconds, wondering just what went on in that dusty-brown head when he wasn't looking. Then he carefully wrapped his right arm around Tem's waist, pulling the strong, lean body close to his. He raised the spoon with his left hand and brought it down with a light smack on the tan skin. He glanced at Tem's face. His expression hadn't changed. It didn't even seem as if he'd blinked. John chewed his lip. Keeping an eye on Tem's face, he brought the spoon down again, hard. It made a loud crack and Tem winced, but his face quickly became impassive again.

Determined now, John began a ceaseless assault of Tem's backside. Tem rapidly began to hiss and mutter soft "ow"s and curses. After several minutes, he was sniffling and scrabbling at the bed sheets with his hands, grabbing handfuls of bedspread and squeezing his eyes shut. His legs were twitching and kicking slightly with each smack. John held him tightly and continued.

"Ow... Oww... Ow, John!" He was beginning to sound mildly desperate. John glanced at the clock. It was going on ten minutes since he'd begun.

"Don't bother pleading, Tem. It never worked with my mother it won't work with me."

"Fuck your mother, John!"

John raised his hand high and landed ten swats double-strength. Tem nearly struggled out of his grasp, yelping and howling. "What did you say?"

"I'm sorry!" Tem shouted. "I'm sorry! It hurts!"

"As mother used to say," John continued calmly, finding he was deriving some perverse pleasure from torturing Tem with his "motherisms." "A spanking is supposed to hurt or it wouldn't be doing its job."

Tem moaned, burying his face in the pillow. His body tensed, and he was obviously making an attempt at holding still for several seconds, but he quickly gave up and redoubled his struggling efforts.

"Mother also believed that a spanking wasn't doing its job until it brought about genuine tears..."

"What?" Tem cried, raising his face from the pillow.

In pain, yes, but Tem didn't seem to be close to the point of crying yet. John looked at his brightly reddened target with some concern. "Tem," he said, suddenly very serious.

"What?" Tem groaned through clenched teeth.

"Tell me why you're being spanked today..."

Tem froze for a moment, then slowly turned his head and lay his face back in the pillow so John couldn't see his expression. His body went limp over John's knees save for the pronounced flinching brought about by each measured swat with the spoon. John frowned at the strange behavior and he slowed the spanking.

"Tem, I want you to tell me now, do you understand?"

Tem raised his head slightly. "Yes, sir."

John lost his rhythm completely. He bit back a stunned "what?" and set the spoon aside. He laid his hand gently on Tem's bottom. The skin was scorched and red.

Tem began to shake slightly. John wondered momentarily if he was going into shock. Then Tem spoke. His voice was breaking and ragged. "My decisions led to...a situation...where I...lost control. I...injured myself...and I hurt and scared you..."

John listened, tears threatening. He tenderly stroked the battered skin under his hand. Then he moved his hand up and rubbed Tem's back and his hair. Tem was shaking violently now. John murmured soft reassurances to him.

"It's okay... Sit up."

Slowly, Tem crawled back off John's lap and eased himself, grimacing, onto the bed. Tears were shining on his face. John pulled him into a tight hug which he gingerly returned.

"It's okay, baby. It's over. Alright?"

Tem nodded mutely into John's chest. "I'm sorry."

"I know. It's over. That's the deal, right? I'm over it, now you have to let it go, too."

*****

John was struggling with his newest chapter. He had a deadline in three days. Wolf laid on the floor watching him with a sympathetic expression. John looked at him and sighed. "Daddy'll be home soon. Then both our days will look better."

He looked out the large window at the aspen leaves fluttering in a breath of wind. Then Wolf jumped up, and John heard a key in the lock downstairs. He followed Wolf's rapid descent down the stairs and came upon a scene of man and dog that could have made a Rockwell calendar. He smiled indulgently. Tem looked up at him and returned the smile.

"Hi," he said brightly, wincing slightly as he rose from petting the dog.

"Hi," John said. Returning the quick kiss. "How was work?"

"Work. Hell to sit all day. I got you something." Tem was grinning uncontrollably.

"What is it," John asked suspiciously.

"It's in my car. Wait a second." He ran out and returned a moment later with something bundled in his jacket. He brought it up to John and ceremoniously unwrapped it from his coat. In his hand was a tiny bundle of fur. John stared at it. "It's a kitten!" Tem said helpfully.

"I can see that..." John said, uncertain how to take this gift.

"Don't you like it?" Tem suddenly sounded hurt.

"Of course I do," John said quickly. "I just... I'm..."

Tem grinned. "Surprise..." He pushed the furry bundle toward John. "I know you like cats. And I kinda got to keep Wolf. So..." John took the animal from Tem's outstretched hand. It immediately began to rub its tiny head against his chest and gave a rusty mewling. John smiled. Tem kissed John again and looked into his eyes. "And... Thank you..."

~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~

The candles had burned low. They'd long since moved to the couch in front of the now dying fire. It cast a pale orange glow on the room, making long shadows and dark shapes. Tem resettled his head on John's chest, gazing into the flickering embers.

"Six years..." John said quietly, stroking Tem's hair and laying a gentle kiss on the top of his head.

"Mm hm... Would you do it all again?"

John pressed his lips to Tem's hair. He kissed it lightly. "I intend to. And again... And again... And again..."


~ Julnick

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