Secrets of the Heart

by Julnick


John watched from the far side of the table as Tem mouthed the pills off of his palm, watched the muscles work in Tem's jaw and throat as he downed the glass of water in three swallows, watched the slow, subtle bowing of his head as Tem stared down at the countertop.

"Upstairs."

The struggle had gone on for days, becoming a week, and then two. Every day, every morning, every evening. Defiance. Anger. Withdrawal.

Sometimes it was subtle. Avoiding his gaze, turning away from John's gentle reminders. Sometimes it wasn't subtle. Shattered glasses, pills ground to dust under a boot heel. But either way, the struggle had lasted far longer than it should.

John felt a twist in his gut as Tem continued to study the countertop, showing no glimmer of intent to follow the command. At first it was familiar, an old dance that Tem dusted off every few months. Testing the waters, testing John, testing himself. Then, after an example or two or three... Painfully reassured, Tem's defiance would fade and routine would be restored.

This war had started with all the signs of that old dance, and John, comfortable he knew his part, had played it. First gently, then firmly, then with stony defiance of his own, he played his part. Tem, however, didn't play his.

The first time John had let it go with a silent and stern insistence, placing the pills and a glass of water at Tem's seat at breakfast, quietly laying a hand on his partner's shoulder when Tem began to rise from the table, pills untouched.

Tem had hesitated that day. John had wondered if it would escalate right there, bring the emotion to the surface, push him into domination, Tem into submission, end the war in a single battle. But rather than push, Tem had sunk back into his chair and wordlessly scooped the pills into his mouth.

The incident seemed to pass without consequence, the day had proceeded, Tem even more cheerful than usual... Until dinner and another sullen and silent protest.

John raised the rebuke to words. A stern order to, "Take them..." A silent threat settled unspoken between them, Tem finally raised his gaze, seemingly searching and seemingly finding whatever confirmation he needed in his lover's face. The pills again disappeared and normalcy returned. But by then, John knew the dance had begun. He knew it would end in tears, it only remained to be seen how many tears it would take.

Tem, taking a strange turn from their usual cadence, backed down again, not escalating the confrontation, not pushing himself and John into a physical resolution. He pushed and retreated, found the line and inched his toes to it, but for three days, never stepped over it. Finally, unsettled by Tem's strange and transient moods, John redrew the line.

It was a Wednesday morning. Tem had a day of work at home. Breakfast went by without mentioning or even acknowledging the pills and water laid out by his plate. When he rose to push away from the table, pills untouched, John rose with him, snagging his arm before he was free of his chair. Tem's eyes met his in a moment of strange communication. John read in the green pools an uncertainty that he hadn't expected. But as he slid his own chair clear of the table and drew Tem toward it, the uncertainty resolved into a calm acceptance.

Tem shoved the flannel sleep pants off his hips without prompting, lowered himself over John's lap without direction, braced himself against the floor and bowed his head and took the punishment without a sound.

John, still trusting his instincts to guide him, still certain that this was the right path, made the punishment thorough and long. Tem's breath had grown heavy and ragged, but he took it without voicing a sound, without movement, and as John released him, his own hand aching, and looked into his partner's dry eyes...he knew. They weren't dancing this time.

*****

Tem didn't move, he allowed the cool of the counter to seep into his fingertips. His mind was quiet. Strangely quiet. He'd heard John's command. He'd known it would come. If not this morning then this evening or at the next breakfast. He knew it was coming. John was too good to let it go longer than that. Too smart, too good at this game that they played.

But the rules had changed this time. Tem knew John understood that, knew that his partner was meeting his defiance with fairness and understanding. Knew that his own lead had brought him to this place. By searing hand, by biting spoon, by scalding brush, he'd worked his own way to this place. Upstairs... By now it meant only one thing. His heart should be pounding, his stomach should be knotting, his knees should be weak with icy dread. He let his hands drop to his sides. His heart beat slowly, his stomach was calm, his knees were strong. He turned lazily to stare at his partner.

John met his gaze with flat expression. The command had been given, defiance would be painfully met, he showed no uncertainty, he showed no anticipation, by face and by mien he showed only the simple expectation of obedience. Tem smiled faintly and walked slowly out of the kitchen.

He was aware of John following as he crossed the living room and mounted the stairs. His heart beat unhurriedly. His stomach was peaceful. His legs carried him without tremor. With detachment he brought the lingering soreness of the past weeks' punishments to the fore of his thoughts. Even ceding without protest to John's commands as often as once, even twice some days, the sixteen day war had seen too many heated battles. He was weary, sore, tired of the fight, but fear wouldn't rise in his mind, dread wouldn't quicken his heart, in his quiet belly, a hard darkness drove him onward. He stepped into the bedroom, undoing the button at his waist, pushing his jeans down to his feet, knotting his fingers into the bed covers, bowing his head, closing his eyes.

*****

John slid the smooth rattan through his hands. He was done. Done with the fighting, done with the struggle, done with the wall Tem had mortared himself behind. Whatever it was he had to prove, John was done witnessing it. Today he was done. The wall was coming down. Tem who had walked away with stoic silence from every punishment meted out to him in the past two weeks would not walk away again. It ended now. He raised the cane.

*****

The cane moved with an eerie swish-crack that made Tem flinch even before his body registered the deep, shocking pain of the stroke. For the first time since he'd begun this siege, he felt a jolt of fear course through his gut. He gritted his teeth. Like nothing else had, the cane shredded the misty indifference with which he'd muted his senses for weeks. The third stroke fell and he had trouble finding his breath. He tightened his grip on the bedspread until his knuckles ached. The fourth stroke. He sucked air through his teeth, stubbornly clinging to his silence. The fifth.

Certainty settled heavily over him. He was going to lose. The sixth stroke. He barely smothered a soft cry. The seventh. He felt the helpless realization like lead in his belly. John was going to break him. The standoff was over, John would win, and Tem willed himself to let go, to end the torture. He knew it was in his hands, but almost against his own will, he still fought.

Though the eighth stroke cut the tops of his thighs and wrenched a strangled cry from his throat, he still fought, cursing himself with each ragged breath. Nine strokes... Ten... His breath was coming in gasps and sobs, his eyes shut tight against rising tears. Eleven strokes. Twelve... His voice broke in a strangled cry, his knees gave and he staggered, his weight thrown onto his hands.

For a moment he thought it was over, he'd broken, he'd given in, but the swish-crack of the cane sent icy fingers down his back, the nerve-jarring shock of pain drove him to his knees. He buried his face in the covers of the bed, pain radiating through him like vibrations on plucked strings. He remained, for another breath, on his knees, not daring to give thought to the truth his gut already understood. It wasn't over. John waited.

Feeling the last vestiges of resistance crumble within him, Tem slowly regained his feet. Thirteen. Fourteen. He only vaguely recognized his own hoarse screams. He fell again to his knees, pressing his body against the bed, his breath still leaving him in shuddering sobs, the sting of tears pressing insistently at his eyes.

*****

John tossed the cane aside and sank down on the foot of the bed. Violent shivers trembled through Tem's body as John reached down and gently slid one hand down the back of Tem's head, resting it lightly on the nape of his neck. His butt was striped with ridged welts. Dark bruises were already forming at the edges of the weals. John felt a sick ache in his chest and he studied the damage, but it was tempered by a deep and quiet assurance. Somehow this was right. This was what needed to be done.

John wasn't sure where the sense came from, what instinct had risen up to lead him so boldly. Even in their daily interactions, John rarely came through a confrontation without lingering doubts. Yet now, in the aftermath of the most brutal encounter he'd ever had with his lover, no doubts stirred in the shadows of his mind. He slid his hand down to the small of Tem's back, the up again. "It's okay," he murmured, barely forming the words in his mind before they fell from his lips. "It's okay, baby. It's over." He knew it was true. The cold distance that had risen in Tem each morning and evening was gone. He was miserable, trembling, tearful, but he was Tem. Warm, familiar, returned from the strangeness that had occupied him for so long. He was Tem...

And then he wasn't.

John felt the change like icy tentacles flowing up his arm... Before the rest of his senses registered it, the confidence curled and withered within him. Tem's posture changed so slightly John couldn't be sure he'd actually seen it, couldn't swear he'd felt the muscles shift under his resting hand, couldn't say he'd heard the cadence of Tem's labored breathing change... but he knew.

Tem slowly pushed himself away from the bed and stiffly regained his feet. John let his hand fall away and watched as Tem, with the exaggerated care of a wounded man, worked his jeans back up his legs, then, paling slightly, a faint sheen of sweat rising on his lip, slid them over his hips. Closing the fly, he turned away from John and took a cautious step toward the bathroom. John watched him with an increasing sense of bewilderment.

"What are you doing?" he finally asked as Tem opened the bathroom door and positioned himself in front of the sink.

Tem took his toothbrush from it's cup. "Going to work," he answered. His tone bore no hint of defiance or resentment. His expression, when he finished and returned to the bedroom, was calm, open, sincere.

"Call in." It wasn't spoken as a request, but it wasn't a command, either. Tem studied him for a moment then shook his head slightly.

"I can't. I have a meeting."

John, still struggling to fit together pieces that seemed to have no common edge, frowned and said again. "Call in."

Tem gave him a crooked smile, touched his face gently and bent to brush a chaste kiss across his lips. "I can't," he said again, the fragile smile still on his face. "I love you."

As Tem began to pull away, John caught his wrist. He held it for a moment and Tem looked solemnly into his eyes. Finally, John sighed, allowing his grip to loosen and his hand to slide down into Tem's. "I love you."

The smile flickered back across Tem's lips then fled as he turned, wincing slightly and walked out into the hall.

John sat on the bed, listening numbly to the faint sounds of Tem gathering his things downstairs. He heard the soft whoosh of air changing pressure as the front door opened and closed again, sinking the house into an empty silence.

For several more minutes, John sat, listening to the stillness. Wolf was out in his run. Buck was most likely curled into the couch cushions downstairs. John thought about Tem's strange behavior, thought about the work waiting for him in the den, thought about calling his brother and finally sighed and pushed himself off the bed.

The covers were twisted and rumpled. John smoothed them with one hand and reached to take the cane from the floor where he'd cast it, when he felt something small and hard under his fingers. Frowning, he turned it over in his hand and a cascade of emotions tumbled over him. In the palm of his left hand, he turned the object over once, a small, round, white pill... A dividing line marked one side, several letters had been pressed into the other. John turned back to the bedspread, smoothing his hand over the creased folds where Tem had clutched it. His fingers found another... small, blue, divided, imprinted letters... A soft curse escaped his lips.

A quick search of the floor at the edge of the bedspread revealed what he already expected to find. Two more pills, one a faint peach shield, the other round-faced and yellow. Far out of character, John cursed again, more viciously this time. He dropped the pills on the center of the bed and went to Tem's nightstand, the bold instinct had returned, he followed it.

The nightstand revealed nothing unusual, and John turned to the bed, pulling back the sheets, hunting under the pillows, then under the mattress. Nothing. But John knew. He knew it was here.

*****

John paced the kitchen, stopping occasionally to glance at the tabletop, cursing, pacing again. He thumbed the power button on the cordless phone and dialed Tem's cell again. It rang five times and the voicemail picked up. John hung up. Opened the line again. Dialed again. Straight to voicemail. Between John's second and third calls, Tem had turned off the phone.

John already knew he wasn't at his office. Hadn't come in at all a coworker told him. John muttered under his breath and dialed another number, waited as it rang through to another voicemail box, the message ended with a low tone.

"Jay, I need help."

John turned the phone off again and leaned his back to the kitchen wall. Slowly he let himself slide down to the floor, cradling the phone against his belly. He sat for several minutes, watching through the kitchen window as the high, thin clouds moved across the sun-bleached blue sky.

Suddenly, he snatched up the phone again, frowning. He punched it on and began to thumb through the caller ID file.

*****

Michael grabbed the buzzing phone from the edge of his desk. He glanced at the call screen, flipped it open and put it to his ear. "Hey."

"Had lunch yet?" Tem's voice sounded tinny, the reception in this building was crap. Michael pressed the phone closer to his ear.

"No. Are you down here?"

Tem said, "Meet me at Juanita's."

Michael brought the phone down and stared at the flashing disconnect signal. He closed the phone, frowning slightly, and shoved it into his pocket.

*****

Tem was in a booth near the front window. The booths were actually unpadded, wooden benches with high backs that rose nearly five feet from the floor. Colorful serapes were draped over the seat backs, strings of paper prayer flags decorated the ceiling.

Michael eased into the seat across the table and winced at the sight of the dark bottle in Tem's hand.

"Tem..."

"Don't." Tem shook his head. Michael looked more closely at his friend. Tem's pupils were wider than they should have been in the spill of light from the window. There was the faintest sheen of sweat on his upper lip and dampening the hair at his temples. Michael frowned, shifting on the unforgiving surface of the bench. A glimmer of suspicion crept up from the depths of him mind.

"Tem? Are you okay?"

Tem was peeling the gold and red label from the bottle. He nodded, seemingly engrossed in his task. Michael worried his lower lip with his teeth.

"Is John okay?"

"Sure." There was no avoidance in Tem's face or tone. Michael frowned, accepting the answer, but still certain there was more to know.

"Did you have a fight?"

Tem finally looked up from the bottle and met Michael's eyes. His pupils were definitely wider than they should be. Tem started to say something the closed his mouth, glancing out at something on the street. Michael waited. "No," Tem said finally. Again, Michael sense the answer was truthful, yet, not all of the truth.

Michael glanced down again at the bottle in Tem's hands. "Hey, let's go get coffee, huh?"

Tem followed Michael's gaze and grinned slightly. "It's fine, Mikey."

"It's not worth it, Tem," Michael worked his expression to his most beseeching. "Come on... Let's go get coffee. It's not worth it."

Tem's smile widened. "I'm not afraid of John, Mikey."

"I'm not talking about John, Tem." He dropped his voice a fraction, "It'll fuck you up, it's not worth it."

Tem shook his head again. "It's okay." His gaze was steady, his expression open. Realization hit Michael as if a heavy weight was sinking into his belly. Tem wasn't reassuring him. He was saying something else completely. Michael drew an unsteady breath.

"Tem, you didn't..."

Tem had returned his attention to the foil label. He began working it from another corner. He shifted on the bench, turning his back to the wall and pulling one foot up onto the wooden seat. As he moved, Michael caught a glimpse of tension around Tem's eyes, his pupils widening, a flicker of muscles tightening in his jaw. He was hurting. A lot.

"John knows?" Michael asked softly. Watching for the slightest changes in his friend's expression. Tem didn't blink. He slowly pulled the new corner up from the glass. Finally he sighed and set the bottle down on the table.

But whatever he might have been ready to say was lost as a waitress appeared at the table, pad in hand.

"Hi." She glanced at the table, they hadn't even taken the menus from the wire holder against the wall. She hesitated for a moment then looked at Michael, "Can I get you something to drink?"

Michael glanced at Tem then back at the waitress. "Water."

The girl nodded and gave them an uncertain smile. "Okay."

She headed toward the rear of the restaurant, and Michael returned his attention to Tem who was focused again on the street outside the window. Some of the pieces weren't fitting. If John knew, Tem would be back on the drugs. If John didn't know, what had happened between them that Tem was in enough pain to make him sweat. At the outside, it could have been no less than an hour since Tem had left the house. Even if he'd called Michael from the outskirts of town, it took at least that long to get from their place to here.

Still hurting this much, at least an hour out, the beating had to have been severe. Yet if John didn't know about the meds... Michael studied Tem's face. Maybe he was wrong, maybe something else was making Tem uncomfortable. But, in his gut, Michael sensed with the surety of experience that Tem was squirming on a welted ass.

But if John didn't know... If Tem was this confident that the alcohol wouldn't hurt him... Michael searched his mind for another explanation, despite the certainty with which his instincts were speaking, something still didn't fit.

"Did you get a whipping?" he asked, finally deciding to confront Tem face on.

Tem turned from the window and looked into Michael's eyes. There was faint surprise in his expression. He huffed softly, sudden amusement curling his lips. "I got a whipping," he confirmed, still smiling faintly, his gaze slid past Michael again. He nodded. "I got a whipping."

Michael leaned forward slightly, trying to bring Tem's eyes back to his. "For what?"

Tem's face abruptly darkened, his expression closed. He hooked his fingers around the neck of the bottle and lifted it. "Have a drink with me, Mikey."

Michael shook his head. He knew that the window of opportunity had closed. Tem would volunteer no more information. He slid to the edge of the booth. "I gotta piss," he muttered.

Tem glanced at him without expression. "Okay."

*****

It had been barely five minutes. It was the top of the hour, his message had caught Jay at the end of an appointment and his number now glowed in the ID window. John opened the line and raised the phone.

"Okay, what's up?" Jay sounded calm, assured, John took a breath, letting his brother's confidence steady him.

"Tem's off his meds."

There was a brief silence before Jay spoke again. "Is he okay?"

Now John hesitated. "I don't know. He's been acting strange, but..."

Jay broke in when John faltered. "How long has it been?"

John glanced at the tabletop and took a deep breath. "At least a month."

The silence lengthened. John chewed his lip. "That's..." Jay paused, "that's not good. Have you called his doctor?"

John stared out at the clouds. "He'll have him hospitalized."

John could hear the exasperation beginning to color Jay's tone, "John, that would actually be a reason *to* call his doctor."

"He's made it past withdrawal."

"So that makes him safe?" Jay demanded. "Are you serious? Call his fucking doctor, John!"

John flinched at the profanity, although he'd been practicing his own most of the morning. "I don't want him in the hospital, Jay, not if we can avoid it."

"Yeah?" came the reply, bittered by sarcasm, "You've got a better plan, then?"

John took another breath, irritation now adding to the brew of emotions already stirring in his chest. "If I have to, I'll have him committed, but I want to try something else first. I just need some information before I take it to his doctor."

*****

Michael ducked into the narrow hallway that led to the restrooms. On the far wall was a pay phone, Michael wedged himself into the corner beside it and opened his cell. He punched in a three digit speed dial code and pressed the phone to his ear, pinching a fold of his shirt between the fingers of his other hand and rubbing it worriedly while he listened to the phone ring at the other end of the line...

*****

Michael slid back into the seat and Tem fixed him with a steady stare. "Did you tell on me?"

Michael felt a cold tightening in his belly. "What?"

"Did you call John?"

Michael returned the stare for a moment, prepared for this moment, he shook his head, holding Tem's gaze. "No."

Tem would have read a lie as clearly as a neon sign across his face. Michael knew his only safety was in honesty. He knew it when he dialed the phone. Now he hoped only that Tem kept asking the right questions.

But Tem seemed satisfied to let the subject drop. They sat for a few minutes in comfortable silence. A glass of ice water had arrived in Michael's absence and he nursed it, thinking. Finally he looked up at Tem who'd reduced the level of his beer by half and was busily working at a third corner of the label.

"Was it bad?" Michael asked, interrupting Tem's industrious attention.

Tem looked up. "Was what bad?"

"The whipping. You look sore."

Tem arched one eyebrow slightly. "Do I?"

Michael shrugged. "Not to anyone else, but..."

Tem smiled. His eyes were still distant. "It wasn't a walk in the park."

"What'd he use?"

Tem ran his tongue over the tips of his teeth. "Cane," he answered finally.

Michael winced. "Man, you must have pissed him off."

Tem nodded and again gave Michael a faint smile. "Yeah, I must have."

Michael sensed that he was coming to end of Tem's tolerance for this line of conversation. He poked his straw at an ice cube. "I hate the cane."

Tem said nothing, Michael glanced up and saw the other man's eyes fixed on his face. Suddenly he was embarrassed and felt himself flush. Stubbornly he pressed on. "That and the strap. I don't know why, the strap is just brutal for me. I'd take a paddling over a strapping any day." His face was burning hotter. Tem's gaze was still focused intently on him, making him even more ill at ease.

Tem finally spoke. "Have a drink with me, Mikey."

Michael looked up and shook his head. "Nah, I've gotta drive home."

Tem tilted his head. "One drink."

Michael shook his head again. "I value my ability to sit comfortably."

Tem suddenly grinned widely. The first genuine smile Michael had seen on him today. Tem laughed softly and set his bottle down. He looked ready to say something else, then he froze, his eyes fixed on the window.

Michael watched his face uneasily. Tem's gaze tracked toward the door and Michael dared to glance up.

*****

Ryan strode into the small vestibule to the jingling of a bell above the door. He shrugged out of his coat, taking the two steps up into the long, narrow, front room of the restaurant. He turned toward the booth by the window and found himself caught by a steely, green gaze. He was pressed into the corner of the booth, one knee pulled up, foot on the bench, Ryan strode up to the table and swatted Tem's knee lightly. "Scoot."

Tem raised an eyebrow and for a moment, made no indication of cooperation. Then, slowly, he slipped his leg back under the table and shifted his body until he was faced properly in the seat.

Ryan slid into the booth beside him, noting the well-restrained, but still visible signs of pain that skittered across Tem's face as he moved, then disappeared into a stony expression of annoyance. Ryan saw Michael shift uncomfortably in his own seat as Tem's gaze fell upon him.

"You did tell," Tem said, his tone flat.

Before Michael could answer, Ryan laid one hand firmly on the table. "Tell what?" he asked lightly and glanced from one man to the other. "I heard we're drinking."

Tem cast him a withering glare. Ryan ignored it and motioned for the waitress. As she approached, Ryan turned Tem's bottle until the half-peeled label faced him. "Dos Equis, huh?" The waitress was at the table. Ryan jerked a thumb toward Tem. "I'll have the same. And, another for you?"

Tem stared at him. "Yeah," he said slowly. "Sure." Ryan nodded at the waitress, who seemed unsettled by the tension at the table and fled quickly toward the bar.

She returned in less than a minute, placing two more bottles on the table, and a frosted mug for Ryan which he waved away. After she left once more, he raised his bottle and clinked the narrow neck against the one of the half-finished bottle in Tem's hand. "Cheers."

Tem gave Michael a hard look, then returned his stare to Ryan. For a moment, he didn't move, then he put the bottle to his lips and tipped back most of the remaining liquid into his mouth.

Ryan sipped more conservatively at his own beer and cast a circumspect gaze over Tem. John was worried. Michael was worried. Ryan felt a cold knot sink into his belly. He thought they were right.

Michael was stirring the ice in his glass with a straw, pausing periodically to poke an ice cube down deeper into the water. His expression was guarded, a faint frown creased his forehead.

Tem's movements were slow, concerted, his cool stare moved from Michael, to Ryan and back. Ryan saw no twitch or stutter in the fluid tracking of the man's eyes. His hands were steady. His posture, while alert, was not taut with unexpressed tension. Ryan allowed himself a slow breath, ratcheting his own uneasiness down to a less detectable level.

Tem finished the first beer and slid the bottle toward the outside of the table. Smoothing the rim with one hand as he drew the new bottle toward himself, he glanced at Ryan again.

"What are you doing here?" he asked coolly.

Ryan looked at him, then at Michael. "Well," he said, taking another sip of his own beer, "taking in the sight of my beautiful lover." Michael gave him an exasperated look that made Ryan smile then renewed his study of the slowly melting ice in his glass. "Having a drink with a dear, old friend," Ryan continued, tipping his bottle in mock salute toward Tem who stared at him without expression. "What else could a man wish for such a fine afternoon?"

Tem raised an eyebrow and took another long draught from his beer. He wasn't buying it, he was guarded, but he wasn't yet to the point of agitation or outright anger. He seemed to be taking his friends' obvious maneuvering with uncharacteristic grace and acceptance. Strangely, that only increased Ryan's unease.

*****

Ryan, his beer only a quarter finished, glanced over as Tem set down his second empty bottle. Despite the two beers, his gaze was steady. Michael was right about the meds. On his medication, two drinks would be already affecting Tem's fine motor skills, but his eyes were still moving fluidly, his movements were crisp and precise as he drew a sugar packet from the basket at the end of the table and carefully tore it open.

Michael watched him, an almost anxious expression on his face. Tem tilted the sugar from the packet, creating a small, white peak on the dark, lacquered wood. Then, again with precision undiminished by alcohol, he tore the empty packet into a second pile of rough, white confetti.

As Tem reached for a second packet, Ryan cleared his throat. Setting his beer aside, he nodded Michael toward the door, and was gratified when his partner nodded his understanding and reached for his coat.

"I've gotta get going," Michael said, sliding toward the end of the bench. "I've got a class tonight."

Tem watched him rise and pull on his jacket. "What class?"

Ryan felt a twinge of dread. Michael opened his mouth soundlessly for a moment, then said smoothly, "Life drawing. Hot naked guys. You should come sometime." Ryan stared at his lover with a mixture of awe and pride.

Tem studied Michael for a long moment, his eyes narrowed slightly. Michael, bless him, Ryan thought, held the piercing stare without blinking. After a moment, he gave a half shrug and added, "You could come tonight, if you want... I've got extra supplies in my car."

It was a dangerous gambit. Ryan held his breath, not daring to glance back at Tem, instead he stared steadily into Michael's face, willing his own strength to supplement the sheer audacity of his lover's courage.

Seeing the faintest sagging of Michael's shoulders, Ryan knew without looking that Tem had released him from his gaze. Not daring to take the shuddering breath he longed for, Ryan turned back toward Tem who was poking at the pile of sugar packet debris. "Nah," he said, now plowing a track through the sugar with one finger. "I'm gonna go home. Have fun."

Michael nodded. "Okay." He started to turn away, then stopped. "Tem?" Tem's eyes shifted back to his face. "Tell John."

Tem's expression was empty. He held Michael's gaze for a moment, then turned back to the sugar on the table. He said nothing. Michael stood silently, watching him for several long seconds, then he gave Ryan a final beseeching look, that said I love you, be careful...be careful. Finally, he turned, strode to the door and was gone.

*****

Tem pushed a new pattern into the scattered sugar. He sensed Ryan's eyes on him, but he didn't look up. He was tired of sitting on the hard bench. He was tired of being watched. He was tired of the constant drone of pain pressing at the back of his mind. He traced a complex pattern in the sugar, destroyed it with a swipe of his hand, began another.

Ryan sighed heavily beside him. "Do you want to talk?" The blasé indifference had faded from his tone. Tem heard the undercurrents of worry and felt a tinge of remorse for the misery he was causing. The least of which was Ryan's. John was probably out of his mind worried. Tem hadn't dared turn on his phone again, distantly afraid that the number of missed calls would stir even deeper shame from the dark lockbox where he'd hidden it away from himself. He shook his head and continued to draw in the sugar.

Ryan was silent for a few more minutes. Tem risked a sidelong glance and saw that he was watching the foot traffic on the street outside. It was approaching the dinner hour, people were dressed for the evening, on their way to destinations full of light and noise and laughter. Another pang of guilt broke loose and made Tem's chest ache. He wanted to go home. He wanted to end it, wanted to walk back into John's arms and kiss him and hold him and tell him he was sorry for it. Sorry for all of it. It seemed stupid now. A childish, stupid, worthless game.

He shook his head roughly. Those thoughts were what he was trying to escape. Escape the weakness, the fragility, the emotions always so close to the surface. Escape and reclaim who he used to be. Who he was *before.*

He heard Ryan's voice again, "Let me drive you home."

Battening down the shutters over his indulgent fit of self-pity, Tem took a heavy breath and shook his head. "I'm fine."

"Tem..."

Tem gave him a hard look. "I'm fine, Ryan. Leave it alone."

Ryan shook his head. "Tem, you're a hundred forty soaking wet. You've had two beers in half an hour..." He'd actually had four in an hour, but he didn't elucidate. "If I let you drive, yours wouldn't be the only neck in the noose..."

Tem knew that Ryan had nothing to fear from John. That blame would fall solely on him. The cops wouldn't care either who had allowed him behind the wheel only that he'd chosen to stay there. It was a play to his softer sentiments. Ryan didn't realize that Tem's softer sentiments had been locked away with his shame and his guilt. However, his reasoning remained sharp. He knew with certainty that the moment he was out of Ryan's sight, John would be called. Despite his show of indifference, the caning had hurt beyond imagining. The thought of facing another punishment so close on the heels of the last was beneath contemplation. Secondly, the combined alcohol of four beers, though he was disguising it well, was significantly stifling his coordination. Tem sighed.

"Michael can pick me up after his class. The drive would give us a chance to catch up."

There was nothing in the recent past that Tem particularly wanted to catch Ryan up on. Again, the irksome whispers of shame began to stir. Despite the necessity of his actions, he was less than proud of his recent behavior. And he was more than slightly embarrassed by the thought of Ryan knowing he'd been punished as if he were an unruly child, not once but nearly daily for a fortnight. There was past between them that Tem was reluctant to taint with the less flattering details of his present.

But the fact remained that driving himself would be stupid and dangerous and not in the best interests of his already battered hide. With a final sweep of his fingers, Tem scattered the sugar and brushed it from his hands. "Okay," he muttered, and slid his keys down the table.

*****

The ride was more comfortable than Tem anticipated. It was pleasant to watch the scenery pass by outside of the window without worrying about the road. The two men spoke only sporadically. Sometimes reviving old memories, sometimes talking shop, but often lapsing into long, comfortable silences.

As they crested the long, final ascent to the house and turned into the wide driveway, Tem saw that John's car was still in front of the house. He had half-hoped for a chance to settle in, change clothes, get something to eat, before he had to face the inevitable oncoming row.

Letting himself out of the car, he muttered a silent prayer to any deity listening asking for a delay of the fireworks at least until Ryan had gone. He continued the silent monologue as he walked up to the house and let himself into the mudroom.

He held the door open for Ryan, then toed off his shoes and padded down the darkened hallway toward the warm glow of the kitchen.

*****

Jay heard the rustle of clothing, the soft footsteps in the hall, then Tem appeared, disconcertingly, before the source of the sound. He'd moved silently, stealthily as a cat, even unaware of the reception awaiting him. The demonstration brought back to the fore of Jay's mind the very real danger that faced them in the coming minutes. The years separating Tem from his warrior past had not dulled his instincts nor muted the skills that had meant his life or his death in distant jungles.

Only a heartbeat behind Tem, another figure, the source of the soft sounds of approach, filled the doorway and only exit back into the front of the house. Tem spun on him, his movements gone strangely fluid. Jay felt his heartbeat quicken. Tem was sinking into battle-wariness. He was coiling. He spun back on the open kitchen. Another scuffing sound marked the entrance of the young man introduced to Jay as Michael. He stepped out of the short hall leading to the pantry and the back door. With solemn resolve, he positioned himself between Tem and access to the dining room and the back yard.

Seizing the precious moments of distraction, Jay studied his brother's lover. John was right, Tem's eyes were steady, no tics or tremors showed in his face or hands, he was well beyond withdrawal. Tem's gaze leapt from Michael to John who stood with his back to the stove. Jay frowned, something didn't fit. A distant thought scratched at his mind, but before he could examine it, the cold, green eyes had found his and he felt an icy finger trace his spine.

He could almost see the processes ticking over in Tem's head. A quick and brutal threat-assessment, ordering his targets. Jay had landed the honored position at the top of the list. He carefully lowered his arms from across his chest and let his hands dangle loosely by his sides. Slowly, he lowered his gaze from Tem's, refocusing his attention on the floor near Tem's feet, carefully keeping Tem's body in the periphery of his vision, ready to move when Tem did.

But Tem didn't move. Although he radiated tension that triggered in Jay the same primal instinct to flee as does the warning hiss of a coiled snake, Tem didn't not strike. He stood still and silent for an achingly long stretch of slow seconds. Jay risked raising his eyes slightly. Tem's gaze was no longer fixed on him, Jay looked up at his face. His expression was chillingly blank. His eyes looked flat as smooth steel, unreadable. He was looking at John, now. Though by the slow weave and tilt of his head, Jay could tell he was keeping the other three men in his line of sight.

Suddenly Tem broke the silence with a soft hiss of breath. "What is this?" his voice was low, soft, "a fucking intervention?"

John moved slightly, and Jay tensed. His brother raised one hand slowly and motioned toward the table. Tem's gaze flickered momentarily, following John's hand, then darting back to his face. Jay saw something shift slightly behind the flat stare, something faintly human, vulnerable, and wounded showed itself for a moment. On the center of the table John had piled the store of pills he'd found in a Ziploc bag, hidden in the top of the closet under bulky sweaters that wouldn't come down until fall.

"There's thirty-four days there, Tem," John said. Jay was impressed at the steadiness of his brother's voice. His own heart was beating so hard he was sure his voice would tremble in time to it if he spoke. Tem's eyes had gone hard again, whatever emotion had risen in him had been ruthlessly smothered. "Is that all of them?" John asked, his tone still calm and steady.

The thought began scratching again at the backdoor to Jay's brain. He reached for it, trying to pull it forward into the light, but it slipped away from him.

Tem glanced at the pills again, his flat expression shifting so slightly and so momentarily that Jay couldn't see what was underneath it before it settled into place again. "Yes," Tem said softly.

"Thirty-four days?" John repeated, incredulity putting an edge on his voice. "You've been off your meds for thirty-four days?"

The thought scratched again, more insistently. Jay stared at the table, there was something there... Something significant.

John seemed to be waiting for an answer, but Tem said nothing. Jay thought furiously. Thirty-four days... He'd have had violent withdrawal symptoms for at least a week. Tremors, headaches, violent mood swings, nightmares. John knew the symptoms, he'd have recognized them immediately...

John was taking a step closer to Tem. Jay felt his pulse quicken. John took another step, keeping the table between them. "Thirty-four days, Tem?"

The thought scratched once more and Jay seized it, wrested it forward. "No," he said suddenly. "No." He was distantly aware of John's eyes on him, but his attention was held firmly by Tem's. "You stepped them down." Tem's gaze was terrifyingly empty. Jay pressed on, more certain by the second. "Half doses... Quarters... John would have recognized the withdrawal symptoms, you couldn't stop them cold."

The fluid movement of his eyes from one brother to the other was suddenly jerky. There was a jittery quality to the tilt and turn of his head. Jay felt his own body coiling, digging into old instincts. Tem's breath was coming quickly now. Jay could see it in the rapid rise and fall of his chest. "Go to hell," it was barely more than a whisper, but Jay believed he'd never heard any words more sincerely felt. From the corner of his eye, he saw John take another step. Tem's head whipped around, his eyes focusing on John's face.

"Tem..." There was a tremor now, fear had reached John's voice, but anger had as well. The muscles were working trigger-quick in Tem's jaw. Jay saw Michael and Ryan both shifting uneasily, inching deeper into the room, closing ranks around Tem.

Tem's head snapped back toward Jay who had eased himself away from the counter. The emptiness had left his eyes, his face twisted with fury, "Fuck you!" he spat, his fists tightening and opening convulsively at his sides.

"Tem!" John's voice was hard. Tem jerked. Jay saw something else rising, mingling with the rage. Fear. Dangerous, deadly fear.

Tem shook his head suddenly, violently, as if something had buzzed in his ear. Jay took another step. Tem shuddered. The stress was undoing him. Without the support of medication, his mind's grasp on reality and his own body was slipping. John was rounding the table, approaching Tem with measured steps. Jay inched closer to Tem's left. Ryan was coming up from behind him, Michael stepping closer to his right. Tem, his eyes gone wide and slightly wild, glanced back then forward, then abruptly, he drew his arms into his belly, hunched into himself and bowed his head. His body still trembled but he was clearly making a concerted effort to draw deep and steady breaths.

Glancing at Jay uncertainly, both Michael and Ryan froze in their places. John frowned, and Jay stared, open-mouthed at the inexplicable transformation. It didn't make sense. Tem had been deteriorating at record pace, then from somewhere within had found the fortitude to halt his own decline. That just didn't happen. Psychotics don't pull themselves out of their own psychosis.

Tem was still drawing heavy but controlled breaths as John took the last step to close the gap between them. "Tem?" he said gently. Jay inched closer, more worried by this new, strange behavior than he'd been by the rapidly worsening psychosis. Tem raised his head suddenly, the mingled grief and despair on his face was heart wrenching enough to freeze Jay in his place. He glanced at John and saw his brother's eyes were startled wide, his expression troubled. "Tem?" he said again, raising his hand to brush Tem's shoulder.

"Why is he here?" Tem asked, casting a glance at Jay, his eyes tormented. "Why did you bring him here?"

John slowly withdrew his hand, Jay could see him bracing for the reaction to his next words. Knowing what was to come, Jay shifted his stance and saw Ryan and Michael doing the same. John swallowed. "He's here to give you a shot."

At the words, Tem straightened, his arms dropping to his sides, his face morphing to a mask of distrust. "No."

John drew a quick breath, "A low dose of Haldol."

"No." Louder this time, Tem's breath was coming more quickly.

"Your doctor made a dosing schedule. Three weeks..."

Tem cut him off. "No shot."

John closed his eyes briefly. "One shot tonight. One shot in the morning..."

Tem was shaking his head. "No Haldol."

"Morning and evening until your meds are at therapeutic levels."

"No!"

"This or the hospital, Tem."

Tem was trembling again, in the grip of barely contained fury. "NO!"

John flinched, for the first time Jay saw his conviction wavering. "I'm sorry, Tem."

"Fuck you! Fuck off! No drugs! No shots! Stay the fuck out of my HEAD!" In an explosion of movement Tem drove his right fist hard into the side of his own face. Jay and Ryan were moving even as the blow connected with a sickeningly hollow thud. Michael snagged Tem's right arm, Ryan struggled to bring pin it to Tem's side. Jay caught Tem's left arm, but hissing and spitting like a wildcat, Tem freed his arm from Jay's grip and landed a second brutal blow to his left temple.

Jay finally maneuvered himself close into Tem's body, pinning the struggling man's arm against his own belly. Tem was kicking and cursing, letting his weight fall into the arms of the men restraining him. Ryan stumbled, his grip slacking and Tem surged up, nearly breaking free. Jay struggled to get Tem's arm pinned long enough to force his head down into a restraint hold, but Tem fought with the strength of wild rage and Jay was barely able to maintain the hold he already had.

Ryan and Michael were shouting over Tem's curses, communicating amazingly well through the chaos and were finally able to restrict most of Tem's violent writhing. In a sudden, strange oasis of calm, Jay realized John was slipping in under Michael's shoulder. With one hand he was pulling the material of Tem's jeans taut against his skin, then he sunk the thick needle of the syringe clasped in his other hand through the thick denim just below Tem's right back pocket.

Tem gave a startled yelp and, realizing what was happening, renewed his struggles. No longer cursing now, but crying out desperately, "No, no, no, no, no!"

Fear seemed to lend Tem even greater strength than fury, even with John now helping wrestle Tem to the ground, Jay was afraid he'd break free before the drug had worked itself through is body. But the furious pace of his own metabolism carried the drug rapidly, and in moments Tem's strength began to flag. His eyes glazed slightly and his head lolled.

Jay released Tem's arm and sat back on his heels. Following his example, Ryan and Michael carefully extricated themselves from the tangle of limbs, and John helped Tem up to a sitting position. Tem's eyes weaved slowly.

Focused on Tem, Jay didn't notice until he saw Ryan's arm move toward Michael that the young man was trembling violently. Ryan pushed himself away from the others and slowly drew the boy toward him. Settling cross-legged on the floor, he hooked one arm around the trembling shoulders. Jay glanced at John who was occupied with Tem, then rose and made his way carefully toward the other two.

Sinking to the floor beside Michael, he reached out and laid a hand on the boy's arm. "He'll be okay," he said softly. He looked into Ryan's eyes and saw the terror, delayed through the crisis, now mirrored, though muted, in the other man's eyes as well. "It's okay," he said again, this time to Ryan.

Ryan nodded, there was experience and wisdom in his eyes as well. Jay knew he'd recover quickly. But in Michael's eyes he saw a disturbingly deep well of horror, the boy's skin was pale and the trembling was worsening by the moment. Concerned, he glanced at Ryan again and realized that the fear in the other man's eyes wasn't meant entirely for Tem. Jay looked again at Michael whose breath was now coming in shallow gasps. Ryan was murmuring softly, slowly stroking the boy's chest, but Michael's eyes had unfocused.

John had realized now that something was wrong and was looking at his brother, deep worry etched on his face. Jay, cursing himself for his slow assessment of the situation, rose quickly and went to his bag in the kitchen. Still berating himself under his breath, he picked two vials and a syringe and returned to the boy's side. Jay dropped to his knees, wincing, the kid was past seeing, his gaze was fixed, he was lost in whatever nightmare world had seized him. Ryan looked panicky, but he focused quickly on Jay's voice.

"I can give him something," Jay said, raising his voice only enough to be heard clearly over the boy's ragged wheezing. Ryan glanced at Tem then looked at Jay and nodded quickly. Jay uncapped the syringe. "Is he allergic to anything?"

"No." He glanced again at Tem. "What are you going to give him?"

Jay had another delayed realization. God. "It's not haldol. It's diazepam. Valium. He's having a panic attack, it's just enough to calm him down." He worked quickly as he spoke, drawing the drug into the syringe. He glanced at the boy. He was wearing long sleeves and a sweatshirt over loose jeans. He was kneeling, sitting back on his heels, curled against Ryan's side. "Alright," Jay said making a quick assessment. "I need his hip. About here," he tapped a spot an inch below the kid's waistband.

Ryan looked at the needle, then at his hands. He took a deep breath and murmured something to Michael as he undid the button at the top of the boy's fly and eased the waistband of his jeans down just enough for Jay to give the shot.

Michael, staring into the middle distance, didn't respond when the needle sank deep into muscle and Jay released the drug. Jay watched him worriedly as Ryan straightened the kid's clothes and began murmuring to him again. "It's okay, Tem's fine. Do you see Tem? He's fine. He's okay."

The drug absorbed quickly, in moments Michael's breathing was beginning to slow, the tension was easing from his eyes. Jay glanced over at John and Tem, starting to feel his own delayed stress response. Small tremors were working their way down his arms to his hands. He pressed his palms to his thighs and sat for a minute, taking slow, steady breaths. A glance at Michael confirmed the drug was working successfully, so Jay rose to his knees and made his way over to Tem.

"Tem?" he said softly. Tem didn't respond. "Tem," Jay said raising his voice a notch. Tem's eyes moved slowly back and forth for a second, then he slowly turned his head and focused on Jay's face. Good. Jay raised his hand and snapped his fingers three times in front of Tem's eyes. Tem blinked rapidly and pulled back slightly. Jay nodded. "Okay," he looked at John. "He's okay, see how he's doing in the morning. Maybe hold off the next dose, see how he's doing."

A soft voice reached them from the edge of the kitchen. "Is he okay?" Jay glanced up. Michael, his eyes focused again, the violent tremors faded, was staring at Tem intently.

Jay took a deep breath, visualizing the tension leaving with the unused air. "He'll be fine."

Michael didn't meet his eyes, continued to watch Tem. "Is he gonna be...like that? For three weeks?"

Jay shook his head quickly, "No, no. I figured he'd fight us tonight, this is a heavy dose. John will just be giving him enough to keep the edge off of his symptoms until the pills kick in." He didn't say, until we can trust him with the pills again. A glance at John revealed a steely resolve. Jay knew that one way or another, every one of those pills would find Tem's stomach.

Jay got to his feet and reached down to take Tem's arm. "Let's get him upstairs."

*****

John felt as if his entire body had been beaten with foam bats. His muscles were so drained they trembled when he tried to stand and he could barely keep his head upright on his neck. Reaching down to take Tem's other arm, his hands felt so weak he was afraid Tem would slip from his grasp.

With both hands, he managed to help pull his partner to his feet and Tem seemed steady enough to walk without support. Jay, who always seemed calm and collected, now led Tem through the living room and helped him negotiate the stairs. Behind him, John spoke a steady monologue of encouragement as Tem managed stumbling progress up the stairs.

In their bedroom, Jay helped John strip Tem out of his clothes and get him under the covers. "He'll be okay," Jay said when John hesitated at the doorway. Jay reached around and flipped the lights off. "He'll be fine."

*****

Downstairs, Ryan and Tem had already gathered the medical supplies into a pile on the counter. Two chairs had been tumbled during the struggle and they were now back in their places at the table. The coffee pot had been filled and was burbling and the rich aroma lent a comforting warmth to the kitchen.

Ryan looked up as the brothers entered and gestured toward the coffee maker. "It's been a long night, got a long drive."

John nodded. Strangely the clock over the sink read only seven-thirty. Full night had not yet descended outside the windows, but inside the warm kitchen, it felt as if an eternity had passed.

John sank into one of the kitchen chairs while Jay packed his bag and Ryan found mugs and crackers in the cupboards. Michael had hunted up a block of cheese and was cutting it into cubes. The two of them set out the meager spread on the table. Jay snagged a trivet and the coffee pot and seated himself in the last empty seat.

For several minutes they all sat in unmoving silence, each lost in his own thoughts and exhaustion. Jay finally broke the spell picking up the glass carafe and filling the mugs. "Come on," he said, setting down the coffee and grabbing a cracker. "Gotta eat something."

Ryan slowly followed Jay's example, then Michael, and finally John picked a cracker and piece of cheese from the plate.

They lapsed back into silence as they ate and sipped cautiously at the hot liquid. As John forced himself to swallow the lump of cheese and the dry flakes of cracker, he thought for a moment that he would throw up. But then the nausea passed and as if suddenly awakened, a desperate hunger surged through him. His body was suddenly screaming for replacement of its depleted reserves, and he carefully ate another piece of cheese, then four crackers.

The others seemed to be feeling the same thing. Suddenly they were eating with enthusiasm, washing the food down with long draughts of hot coffee. John rose and brought the rest of the crackers in the box over to the table and hunted down a package of cookies in the cupboard and a bag of baby carrots in the fridge. No one seemed to mind the strange contrast in foodstuffs. They ate indiscriminately until finally the fierce pangs of need subsided.

Released once more from the frenetic drive of hunger, John felt deep fatigue seeping through his body. Suddenly, despite the coffee, it was hard to keep his eyes open. Jay had risen from the table and was helping Ryan clear the dishes to the sink. Michael washed them and put them out in the drainer. In minutes, the table and sink were clear and clean.

John felt vaguely guilty for sitting while guests cleaned up, but when he started to rise, Jay laid a restraining hand on his brother's shoulder. "It's okay," he said softly. "You need sleep. Do you want me to stay? Do you want me to come up in the morning?"

John sighed and shook his head. "No. He should sleep the night." Jay nodded his agreement. "We'll need to talk in the morning. It should just be us."

"Okay." Jay lifted his hand. He picked up his bag, slung it over one shoulder and looked at Ryan. "How we going to do this?"

Michael looked at Ryan, "Our cars are down at the mail stop."

John stood and retrieved his keys from a basket near the hallway. "Take my car, I'll walk down and get it tomorrow."

Ryan cast him a worried look. "Are you sure?"

John nodded pushing the keys into Jay's hand. "It's not that far. I'll make Tem walk with me."

Ryan managed a weak smile. "Okay." He started to turn, then stopped and glanced back. "Call us tomorrow..."

John nodded, caught Jay's eye and nodded again. "Thank you," he murmured. Ryan reached out and laid one hand on John's shoulder for a moment, then dropped it and turned down the dark hallway. Michael caught John's eye and nodded slightly before following Ryan into the shadows.

Jay stood with him for a moment longer, saying nothing, but he didn't need to. John sighed, feeling his brother's strength beside him. Finally, Jay touched John's arm and headed down the hallway as well.

John stood in the bleeding light from the kitchen, listening to the soft voices in the mudroom and then the swish and soft thump of the front door opening and closing. Minutes later, the muted sound of an engine turning over reached his ears and he walked slowly down the hallway to the mudroom and threw the bolt on the door before making his way back upstairs.

*****

Morning came too early. Tendrils of gray misty light slipped between the slats of the blinds, casting themselves over the bed. John muttered and turned his face from the window.

The wispy tendrils gained strength, the grey giving way to glowing, ruddy amber, stretching, creeping up the rumpled covers, stealing over the pillows... John sighed, rolling onto his back, he threw one arm across his eyes, but the warming sun slunk over his face.

John sighed again and surrendered. He uncovered his eyes and turned to check the alarm clock. It was set to go off in ten more minutes anyway. John fumbled at its buttons and found the one to disengage the alarm. He'd let Tem sleep.

John eased himself out of the bed and went into the bathroom. Uneasy, he left the door open, keeping one eye on Tem as he peed and brushed his teeth. Then, feeling at least slightly more awake, he crawled back under the covers and scooted his body up behind Tem's still form, wrapping his arm around Tem's chest, and pressing his chest firmly against Tem's back.

Tem stirred slightly in his sleep, then settled again. John laid his head down on the pillow and let his thoughts drift.

*****

The morning sunlight was streaming through the gaps in the blinds. Tem felt it pressing at his eyelids, dragging him reluctantly from the comfort of sleep. Slowly, his mind shed the cobwebs of dreams and reconnected itself to the outside world. Piece by piece, Tem felt awareness returning. The sunlight on his face, the warm pressure of John's body against his, John's arm draped comfortably around his chest. Then, creeping back into his consciousness, a dull, persistent ache pressing at his skull. Brighter pain along his right cheekbone that matched the ache in the knuckles of his right hand. His left temple throbbed slightly, as did his left hand. He shifted his hips slightly and felt the tender sting and deeper ache of the welts and bruises tribute to the caning that was still less than a day past. He sighed heavily and wrapped his right hand around John's encircling arm.

He was weary. Weary in his body and more weary in his heart. He wanted to forget the past few weeks, forget the tension, forget the fighting, forget last night, god he wanted to forget last night. He wanted to start over. Wipe the slate clean. Be done.

He remembered vague snatches of conversation from the night before. A new dosing schedule. It would take weeks to build his meds back up to therapeutic levels. Suddenly his rebellion seemed so pointless. He couldn't remember what it was he wanted to prove.

More scraps of memory drifted to the surface. Jay was there, and Ryan and Michael. Tem felt a flush of embarrassment creep across his face. Shots... Haldol shots. Tem squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn't face that. Not that.

John, apparently realizing that Tem was awake, murmured softly in his ear. "Hey, baby. How are you feeling?" Tem turned his face into his pillow. He couldn't face this. He wasn't ready. John kissed the back of his neck softly. "We need to talk."

Tem shook his head into the pillow. Not ready. Not now. He heard John sigh, and felt the bed move as John worked his other arm under and around Tem's waist. He hugged him tightly for a moment. "It's going to be okay, baby. We're going to fix it. I promise."

Tem didn't move, the pillow against his mouth and nose was making it hard to breathe. He wondered if he could make himself pass out. But then John was talking again and he found himself listening despite himself.

"Your doctor wants you in the hospital. I convinced him we could make something work at home, but there are going to be some rules around here the next few weeks. If you can't follow them, the deal is off and this gets done inpatient."

Tem breathed slowly into his pillow, becoming irritated by the stale air, but not willing to lift his face. John said nothing for several minutes. Tem finally tilted his head up into cleaner air and grudgingly gave in. "What rules?" he mumbled.

He heard John take a deep breath. This wasn't going to be good. "First, you don't go out of my sight. Ever. Not for a second. Not until I know your meds are right and you are totally stable. You and I are going to be joined at the hip for the next three weeks."

Tem sighed. It would quickly drive them both crazy, but for now, Tem admitted to himself, it sounded comforting.

"Second," John hesitated and Tem knew this wasn't going to be as pleasant as the last demand. "Second, you take the shots." Tem felt his body stiffen and John's arms tighten around him in response. "I know... I know you hate them. I talked to your doctor for a long time, we'll keep the dose as low as we can..." Tem squirmed, trying to break free of John's embrace. "Tem, this isn't a choice."

Tem managed to wriggle himself around in John's arms until he was able to hunch his shoulder over, it was as far as he could physical get himself from his lover's body. He scowled at the wall. "You don't know," he said softly. "You don't know."

"I do, Tem, I know it makes your brain slow, it makes your body slow, trying to keep a thought in your head is like slogging through knee-deep mud. I know."

Tem tried to pull farther away. "That's not knowing, that's saying words. Words aren't knowing."

John was silent for a moment. Tem let him stew. He didn't care. Finally John spoke again. "I do know, Tem. I took it."

Tem frowned, not certain of what he'd heard. "When?" he demanded.

John's voice was soft, hesitant. "I took it for three days when you were in Arizona for that conference. I asked Jay to prescribe it. I took the dose they had you on in the hospital. Jay stayed here for three days because I couldn't even get myself up to eat or pee. I know, Tem. We'll make it as low as possible. You'll determine a lot of that by your own cooperation."

Tem still glowered at the wall, but he was slowly digesting what John had said. Finally he said, "Why?"

He felt John's lips against his hair. "For you... To understand..."

Tem didn't know what to do with those words. Didn't know what to do with entire admission. He allowed some of the tension to melt from his hunched shoulders.

"There's more, Tem." Tem waited, wondering whether John was listing his rules in increasing order of intolerance. He wasn't sure he wanted to hear whatever John considered less tolerable than Haldol. "Your pills. You're going to take them. And you're going to give me every liberty in making sure they go in your mouth and down your throat. You lied to me, Tem. You lied to me for a month, and not on an impulse, you planned this, it was premeditated." Tem felt his heart sink. He wasn't at all happy about that revelation coming to light. He had no answer or defense to offer, so he said nothing.

"There's one thing I don't understand, though, Tem. You hid the pills. You could have flushed them, made all the evidence disappear. But you didn't. You kept them. Why?"

That was a question Tem had asked himself already a hundred times. It was a question he couldn't answer. He didn't know why. He didn't understand the impulse that had driven him to hoard and hide the pills rather than flush them away into oblivion.

"Why, Tem?" John pressed. But Tem still had no answer. He studied the orange peel texture of the painted wall. "Did you want me to find them?"

Tem thought about it, tried the explanation out in his mind, tried to make it fit. "No," he said finally. He didn't know the reason but he knew that wasn't it.

John, though Tem knew he was dissatisfied with the unexplained mystery, let it drop. "Okay, the last thing." Something in the words or the tone left Tem with a sense of anxious dread. "I think we need to..." John hesitated. Tem closed his eyes. This wasn't going to be good. "You are going to be punished." Tem had known it was coming. "You need to remember some things about us. About how we fit together." Tem felt his brow creasing. He wasn't sure where this was going after all. "I know how you used to be, before... Before you got wounded." Tem winced. He didn't want to talk about this. This hurt. "I know Jay knew you then. I know Ryan and Michael did. I know you don't like how it changed you." Tem felt hot tears rising unexpectedly to his eyes. He tried to blink them back. "But Tem, I didn't know you then, I never met that man. I've only known who you are now. And I love the man you are now, not who you used to be. Who you are now."

Tem shook his head, the tears were falling freely. He didn't trust his voice, didn't want John to know he was crying. This was it, this... This was what he hated. His nose was starting to run, John would know if he started sniffling. He eased one hand casually up to his face, carefully wiping his nose with the back of his hand.

"You showed me you're tough, Tem. I saw it. I saw you take that caning, and I couldn't even believe it. I know you have it in you, Tem. But, I don't need it. I need you to be you. I need you to remember who I am. I'm yours, baby, I'm yours forever. Out of everyone in the world, I know you who you really are. I love who you really are. You never need to hide from me. Not your pain..." John shifted, lifting his upper arm. "Not your tears..." With his thumb, he gently smoothed the dampness from Tem's left cheek. Tem sniffed. "Not your fear. Not anything."

"But, I shouldn't be like this," Tem whispered, his throat still to tight to speak. "I shouldn't be like this." He swiped angrily at the tears that were still welling up in his eyes. John scooted back toward the middle of the bed and pulled Tem over onto his back, then propped himself up on one elbow so that he could look into Tem's eyes. Tem turned his face away, still angry and embarrassed by his tears. John sighed.

"Tem..." John bent down and kissed him lightly. "Tem." Tem could hear a slight smile in his lover's voice. He didn't want to be smiled at, he wiped away more tears. "Want to know a secret?" John asked. Tem didn't. He tried to roll over onto his side, but John pulled him back. "Do you?"

"No."

John kissed him again. Tem scowled. "I like it when you cry." Tem shifted his glare to John's face. John shrugged a little, smiling. "Not if it's over something bad, of course, not if you're really sad, but... When I spank you, like when you ask for it..."

Tem huffed. "I never ask for it."

"Sure you do. When you come in and drop your clothes all over the downstairs. Or when I ask you to do something and you just 'forget,' two or three times..." John's smile had widened. "I know you. Remember?"

Tem snorted and tried again to turn over. John sighed and rose to his knees, planted one on either side of Tem's waist, took his wrists firmly in his hands, and pressed them to Tem's chest. "That isn't asking for it," Tem said grumpily, avoiding John's eyes.

"It is in my book." John settled more of his weight onto Tem's hips. Tem squirmed. "And when you cry, I know it's not because it hurts, it's not cause you can't take it. You know how I know?"

"Is this twenty questions?"

"I know because the meds don't change how much pain you feel. So on them or off, it still hurts. They only change what your HEART feels." Tem rolled his eyes, and John leaned closer to him, still smiling like the Cheshire cat. "So, I know if you're crying it's cause your heart feels it. It means you care. It matters. It matters that I spank you. It matters that we have rules. It matters to you.

"You could have flushed all those pills. You could have pretended to take them and I would never have known. But you didn't flush them. You saved them. You saved the evidence that would hang you. And you didn't just pretend to take them and let us go on our merry way, you refused, you resisted, you asked to be punished. It matters. It's a way that we love each other. That's why you cry."

"I thought your brother was the shrink," Tem growled.

"This isn't psychology, this is instinct." John looked into Tem's face for a long moment. "But I'm right, aren't I?" His face had gone serious. "Nobody else ever has to know. It's just us. It's just us, the two of us, with all our secrets laid out."

"Oh yeah? What's your big secret?"

The smile reappeared. John bent low to whisper his answer into Tem's ear. His breath was warm. "That I like to make you cry..."

John lowered his mouth to Tem's neck and Tem squirmed. He couldn't help smiling slightly in spite of himself.

*****

Tem loved sex in the morning. He figured it was about the best way that anybody could ask for to start a day. The twinge and ache of the stripes on his ass hadn't been as distracting as he'd expected, and now in the floating glow of endorphins, he didn't mind the soreness at all.

Tem would have preferred to spend another hour in bed, but John was up and had him by the wrist, pulling him out from under the warm comfort of the sheets. "Come on, shower," John tugged him harder.

Tem tried to free his trapped wrist, and scowled darkly. "You don't need me for that!"

"Joined at the hip, remember?"

Tem groaned. "In the shower?"

John waggled his eyebrows. "It'll be fun."

*****

Clean and dressed and feeling better about life than he had in a month, John turned to Tem who was still in boxers and working himself into a T-shirt. John felt a small pang of regret that this moment of relative bliss was about to expire. Tem reached for his jeans and John reached out a restraining hand. "Wait."

Tem looked up at him, his eyes curious for a moment, then darkening with unhappy comprehension. He stared at the floor.

"We kind of skipped past that last rule about punishment," John said softly.

Tem sighed heavily and raised his eyes. "This one of those times you like seeing me cry?"

John shook his head. "No. Not this time. But I'm not going to feel bad about it, either."

Tem stared at him.

"This is going to remind us how we work. How we fit together."

"You keep saying that."

"You tried to change it. You tried to tough it out, not let it show that it got to you. You don't get to do that anymore. You've spent three weeks lying. Now you get three weeks to practice being honest."

Tem swallowed. Three weeks? "Honest about what?" he asked slowly. Afraid he knew the answer.

"Everything," John said. He grabbed Tem's jeans and socks from the bed. "Come on. Let's get this over with."

Tem stood still for a moment. "Oh, let's," he said dryly, and followed John out of the bedroom.

*****

Downstairs, John went to the cupboard and took out a small plastic cylinder and a glass. Tem watched him curiously. John took orange juice from the fridge and poured it into the glass then screwed the cap off of the cylinder and offered it to Tem.

Tem accepted it, looking down into the bottom of the round chamber. It contained a small pile of white powder flecked with peach and blue. He looked up at John.

John met his gaze steadily. "You have to earn my trust back. You can't palm that and sneak it away to your closet." Tem stared back down at the powdered pills, his face twisting with disgust. "On your tongue, *show* me, then juice."

Tem gave him John a horrified look. "You can't be serious!"

John shrugged. "You have another option..." Tem didn't think he wanted to hear it, but John went on regardless. "I can wash your mouth out with soap first, I'm sure it would disguise the taste." Tem stared at him, stunned.

"You can't be serious," was all he could think to say.

John raised an eyebrow and picked up the bar of Ivory from the edge of the sink. "Are you going with option A or option B?"

Tem quickly closed his mouth and stared down at the powdered pills. "You're mean."

John smiled. "You lied."

Tem took a final look at the pills, closed his eyes and tipped it into his mouth.

"Show me," John said, and Tem quickly offered his tongue, the powder was rapidly absorbing into his taste buds, sharp and bitter.

John pressed the glass of juice into Tem's hand and he gulped it greedily. The acidity of the citrus doing little to cleanse the taste from his mouth. He gulped it down then spent another minute gagging and wiping his tongue with his hands. John silently took the juice glass from him and placed it in the sink. Tem was still making soft gagging sounds as John took him by the arm.

"Two more things to get out of the way and then we can get on with our day."

Thoroughly occupied by the misery of his tongue, John's words passed through his mind without registering until he found himself being gently guided over John's lap. He tried to bolt up, but John pushed him down firmly.

"That was already punishment, John!" Tem found himself saying it to the floor and tried again to rise in protest. John's hand fell firmly on his back and pushed him back down.

"This is going to become routine in the next three weeks, Tem. Morning and evening."

Tem pushed up again, "What?"

"You can have the shot first or the spanking..."

Tem tried to twist himself out of John's grip, John just pulled him closer. "John..." Realizing his lack of leverage left him outmatched physically, Tem resorted to the emotional. "John, please? This isn't fair... This is out of proportion to the crime!"

"Really?" John said, but Tem could tell he wasn't actually considering Tem's assertion. "You intentionally, with malice aforethought, took yourself off of your medication." Tem felt his boxers going down. He wriggled, not willing to help put his own head in the noose. John managed to get them down without his assistance. He cursed silently. "You actually planned your deception to the point of spending an entire week weaning yourself from the drugs so that I wouldn't realize what you were doing... Oh, and you drank not one, not two, but FOUR beers with no plan to get yourself home safely."

Tem cringed. How did he know that?? "Ryan drove me!"

John rested a hand on Tem's backside, Tem flinched. God this was going to hurt... "Ryan convinced you to let him drive you. You went INTO the bar with no plan to get home."

"But I didn't drive home! You can't punish me for something I didn't end up doing."

"You're not supposed to be drinking, Tem!"

"That's only when I'm on my meds!" Tem winced, realizing that was probably not the best comeback he could have fashioned. John apparently agreed and registered his complaint with a sharp swat.

Tem squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed a curse. "I take it," John's voice filtered down to Tem's ears, "that you're choosing the spanking first."

Tem thought desperately for a moment. Spanking then shot... Shot then spanking... "I, uh..." He jumped as a second swat landed. He muttered a rapid mantra of curses under his breath.

"Too long, Tem. Spanking first."

The third swat burned across the cane stripes and brought tears to Tem's eyes. He was squirming already, three swats in. Please, God, he thought, please just his hand...

"Let's see, you also manipulated me into punishing you for two weeks to make you take your meds, when you had no intention of actually following through, regardless of my actions. Kind of a waste of time for me, wasn't it."

Tem closed his mouth. He had nothing to say.

The hand came down again...

*****

John brought his hand down hard and with a satisfyingly loud crack. Tem jerked as if he'd been shocked, then quickly bowed his head again, muttering incomprehensibly. Pausing for the last swat to be fully felt, he laid another handprint just below the last. Tem jerked and squirmed. He had certainly let go of the stoic hero act. John smacked him again.

He didn't have a number in mind, he didn't bother to count. He continued until he heard Tem sniffling and letting out mewling cries with each swat, then he redoubled his strength and quickened his pace. Tem, clearly startled, yelped and stiffened. "Ow! God... John!" He squirmed desperately, but could gain no leverage in his position and John was able to restrain him with relative ease. The swats came rapidly now, Tem had no time to catch his breath in between and he quickly fell into an erratic rhythm of yelps, squeaks and sobbing gasps.

A uniform scarlet shade had been painted over the weals and bruises of the day before. Tem lay still, taking hiccupping breaths while John rubbed soothing circles in the small of his back. Then he touched Tem's shoulder, allowing him up.

He was red-faced, sniffling and teary-eyed. John wanted very much to hold him, but he sternly resisted his softer instincts and guided Tem to the table. Tem was clenching his fists at his sides, clearly fighting the urge to rub away the sting of the spanking. His gaze fell on the table and he seemed to wilt. John turned away, pained by the look in Tem's eyes. He washed his hands and carefully dried them on a clean towel. Then he turned back to the table and picked up a pre-packaged alcohol wipe from alongside the syringe.

He patted the table in front of Tem and Tem slowly lowered himself onto his forearms. John uncapped the needle and swabbed a patch of skin. The target was high and to the outside of the muscle, mostly untouched by the caning and spanking. John waited a moment for the alcohol to evaporate as well, at his point he had no desire to cause Tem more pain than necessary.

Slightly nervous, though he'd given Tem shots in the past, he drew the skin taut between his thumb and forefinger, gripped the barrel of the syringe, took a deep breath, and held it as he plunged the needle deep.

Tem's only response was to tuck his head down slightly, only partially disguising the grimace of pain as the medicine was forced into tight muscle.

John pulled the needle out again quickly and wiped away the small bead of blood that rose on Tem's skin.

It was a considerably smaller dose than he'd taken last night, but John still watched worriedly for signs of over-drugging. Tem cast a glance back at him. "Can I get dressed?"

John nodded, still scrutinizing Tem's every movement as he tugged on his jeans and eased himself into one of the wooden chairs so that he could put on his socks.

The minutes ticked by, Tem's eyes were still tracking well. He seemed sedate, but not drugged. John put a bowl and cereal in front of him. "How are you doing?"

Tem carefully poured cereal into the bowl. He nodded. "Okay." He took the offered milk carton and was able to pour it without spilling. "I can feel it."

John nodded, he knew that was inescapable. "Think it's too much?"

Tem shrugged and sunk his spoon into the cereal. John watched him. "See how it goes." He shifted in his seat.

John caught his eye again. "Sore?"

Tem didn't answer for a moment, he seemed fixated on his breakfast. Then he sighed. "Are you going to use just your hand?" He seemed not to want to meet John's eyes. "For the rest of them?"

"Unless you give me some reason not to," John said carefully.

Tem just nodded. Then he said softly, "Do you want to know a secret?"

John stared at him. "Yeah."

"I don't mind too bad when you use your hand..."

John could have sworn a faint blush was spreading over the tan face that Tem kept carefully bowed over his cereal. John felt his lips curving into a smile. "Oh yeah?"

Tem nodded again and shoved a spoonful of cereal into his mouth. He chewed much longer than necessary. John just stared at him, grinning. Then he laughed.

Tem gave him a brooding look but couldn't help smiling as he ducked his head back down to his bowl.


~ Julnick

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