Shade of the Stag

by Julnick


~I~

He tossed restlessly. Disturbing images flashed across his mind's eye. On a misty field, a huge, silver deer stepped out of the fog; its intense eyes burned into him. Pale directionless light cast strange, faint shadows amidst the many-pronged antlers. The animal stared at him, unblinking. He knew it was telling him something, something he had to understand...

Abruptly, something penetrated the veil of haze dragging him up to a pretense of consciousness. The disturbance intruded again, pushing his mind to the surface of the murky darkness.

He opened his eyes, disoriented, trying to shake the lingering effects of the dream. The phone rang again, and he looked at the bedside clock. Who the hell was calling at two in the morning? It should have gone through to his service... Diane shifted beside him as he fumbled to pick it up before it woke her.

Juggling the receiver with dulled reflexes, he finally got it to his ear and closed his eyes. "What?" he mumbled. His eyes opened wide and his body stiffened the instant he heard the voice on the other end. Barely more than a whisper.

"Please help..."

"Okay," he said softly, easing out of bed, uneasily aware of Diane's eyes now on his back. "Is it Tem?"

"He's bad. I can't reach him."

Jay held the phone on his shoulder as he pulled on jeans. "I'll be there as fast as I can, can you hang on? Do you need the cops?"

There was silence on the end of the line for a moment, then breathing and a distant crash. "No," was the quiet response. "Not yet..." There was an incoherent scream and thudding in the background.

Dim light illuminated the room. Diane was sitting up, looking at him her delicate features etched with concern. He shook his head at her, trying to convey reassurance. He grabbed a shirt, pulling it over his head while he shifted the phone awkwardly. "Can you restrain him?"

"No." The answer was immediate and definite. The icy grip around his chest tightened.

"I assume he's non-communicative." He forced his running shoes on, barely tying the laces well enough to keep from tripping over them.

There was no reaction to his attempt at humor. "He's non-communicative," the voice said flatly.

Jay jerked his head toward the door and Diane nodded, wide-eyed but resolved. She understood. He stumbled into his study and through things into a bag.

"Are you safe?" There was no answer. He waited, his heart pounding. "John? Are you safe?"

"I don't know..."

He carried the phone with him through the dark house to the entryway, grabbing his coat and keys.

"Call the cops." He sifted the house key from the bundle on the ring and waited, swallowing. "John, call the cops. I'll be there as soon as I can."

"No. Just get here. Please."

Jay swore softly. "I have to hang up, John. I'll call you back." He shook himself. "No, sorry." The sound of a ringing phone would probably make things worse than they already were. "You call me back on my cell. Okay?"

"Yes."

He cursed under his breath as he locked the front door and stamped down the driveway. The night air chilled him from the outside meeting the cold dread that was already eating away from his core and he found his teeth chattering as the car's engine turned over and rumbled to life.

He set his cell phone on the seat beside him and pulled onto the main road, heading for the highway. "Come on, John," he muttered, staring into the gloomy darkness beyond the reach of the headlights.

There was a sudden blur of movement from the side of the road. Reacting on instinct, Jay stomped on the brake pedal, the tires screamed. For a heart-stopping moment, it seemed to be the death cry of the creature behind the luminescent eyes, suddenly trapped by the fatal glow of the twin headlamps. Jay couldn't tear himself away from that stare as the car rushed forward despite everything he could do to stop it. Time twisted, events happening at the same time, too fast and too slowly. Though it had been years before that Jay had abandoned the church and his faith, he closed his eyes in a desperate prayer. "Please, God."

Suddenly, time snapped into focus. The car was humming softly. The deer turned its head and bounded across the road and out of sight in the dark woods. Jay let his breath out in a short gasp then let his head fall forward onto his hands atop the steering wheel. "Oh Christ..." he breathed.

He jerked, yelping in surprise as the phone's shrill tone shattered the quiet. He snatched it up. "What?" he nearly shouted in a backlash of fear and adrenaline.

"Jay?"

He panted, wrestling his emotions down. "John! Are you okay?"

"Yes! What's wrong?" John's voice edging on panic.

"Nothing! Nothing. I'm fine."

"What's wrong?"

Jay gritted his teeth, he had to be a twin... Although, he thought upon contemplation, he probably wasn't being amazingly subtle. "I'm okay, I almost hit a deer. Everything's fine, just scared me. For Christ's sake tell me you're all right!"

"I'm all right," John answered quickly. "Tem is bad. I don't know what to do."

Jay steadied his breathing as he slowly accelerated. "Can you get him in the shower?"

"I can't get in five feet of him!" John's voice was beginning to sound frantic.

"Okay," Jay had to calm him down. At the moment, he was the only rational being in a five-mile radius of a very disturbed individual. "It'll be fine, I'm on my way there, we'll take care of this. It's just like all the other times..."

"He has a knife!"

Jay blinked. "What??"

"He has a knife! I don't know where he got it!"

"What kind of a knife?"

"I don't know. I don't know. A hunting knife or something. It's serrated. Its black..."

"Black...?" Jay said, mostly to himself.

"The blade and everything. Its all black."

Jay's mind raced, running down the implications. A black, serrated knife. Military.

"Is he threatening you with the knife?"

"No..."

Something in his tone left Jay with an uncomfortable ache for more information. "What *is* he doing with it...?"

There was a long silence. "He cut himself..."

Jay, flicked on the high beams and switched the phone to his other hand. "Okay...he's done that before. Right?"

"Yes..." The answer was weak. Jay felt his grip slipping.

"John?" There was silence. "John!"

"I'm here..."

"I'm not. I need to rely on you. You've got to pull through for Tem, now. Do you understand?"

"Yes."

"How badly is he hurt, does he need paramedics?"

A pause. "I don't know. I don't think so."

"John. Pull it together, that's not good enough."

"Uh. No. He doesn't need paramedics."

"Okay. And, he hasn't threatened you?"

"No. I don't think he knows I'm here. But, he screams if I get too close."

Jay clamped the phone between his ear and his shoulder and made the tight turn off the highway onto the road into that ran through the small town nearest their home. "Okay. What's he doing right now?"

"Rocking."

Jay took a deep breath, consciously releasing the tension in his muscles. "Does he still have the knife?"

"Yes."

"Okay. Let him be for a minute. Is he in a room that you can lock?"

"The bedroom..."

"Get out and lock the door."

"I can't leave him!"

"Do it, John!"

"He'll hurt himself!"

"Then call the cops."

"I can't! They'll lock him up!"

"John, I'll be there in twenty minutes. You have two choices. Either you lock him in until I get there, or you call the cops and let them deal with it. If he wants to hurt himself, there's not a damn thing you can do to stop him, and you're not going to do him any good at all if you let *him* hurt *you*."

There was a long silence on the other end of the line. Then, Jay heard a door close and the knob rattle.

"All right."

"Good. I want you to go downstairs. If he tries to get out of that room, call the cops." Silence. "John?"

"I understand," he said dully.

Jay was on the outskirts of town, periodic street lamps made pools of light on the deserted pavement. "Do you want me to stay on the line until I get there?"

"You don't have to, I'm fine."

He sounded anything but fine, but Jay didn't argue with him. "Okay. I'm just heading up the mountain now. Be there soon."

"Okay."

The phone went dead.

Jay drove down the center of the sleeping town, too small even for a twenty-four hour gas station or a Seven-Eleven. All the storefronts and signs were dark. A virtual ghost town at this time of night.

He set the phone down again on the seat. The greenish glow of the keypad and display had shut itself off, and it lay dark and lifeless. Jay knew he was driving too fast. He forced himself to slow down as he passed the shadowy buildings. Near the end of town, a single stoplight glowed red, a fiery eye in the blackness.

Jay listened to his heart beating rapidly in his chest as he watched the cross-traffic light tick over from green to yellow and finally to red. There was a long moment as both lights blazed crimson before his winked green. He turned left onto the scenic bypass east-west highway.

Passing a few more darkened houses, the speed limit changed back to fifty-five, and he accelerated up the curving slope of grey asphalt. The night was dark, only a sprinkling of stars lit the sky, occasionally blotted out by patches of black clouds. Jay nearly missed the giant tree that marked the road off the main highway. He braked hard and slowed to make the hairpin turn. The road wound downward steeply into a small meadowed valley.

For several minutes he could see only darkness to either side of the car. Then, suddenly, a blur caught the headlights and a white wooden fence flashed past on his left, the regular breaks of the posts creating a hypnotic rhythm. There was an occasional glint as the light caught the eye of an animal grazing or standing near the fence. Horses. Large, glowing eyes.

On his right, the trees had begun to rush by again. He slowed as the road edged to the right. The headlights caught the gleam of a white and green street sign. He turned left again and immediately began climbing a steep, winding road, which turned to dirt within half a mile.

It wound past long driveways, some gated with wood or chain-link, the houses far from the road. He listened to the rattle of gravel under the car, and licked his lips nervously. The phone remained silent beside him. He hoped that was a good sign.

Finally, a bank of mail and newspaper boxes came into view on his right. He turned left once more, making the final approach up the mountain. Occasionally the trees would reach close enough to the side of the road to be caught in the headlights, sometimes a boulder flashed past, but mostly he drove through darkness.

At one point the road widened and his heart nearly stopped as a giant creature bounded out of the trees into the edge of the light. The glare caught a silver-brown body and an intricate rack of antlers. The deer bounded alongside the car for several seconds, keeping pace with the headlights then disappeared once more into the forest.

Jay stared, trying to slow his pounding heart. "What the hell?" he muttered, gently easing the car back up to speed.

As he continued to climb the side of the mountain, the road began to glitter with a thin layer of powdery snow. He pulled into the circular driveway of the house and parked, the snow was nearly an inch deep on the ground. It whispered around his feet as he left his prints along the fifty foot trek to the front door. He tried the knob, finding it turned easily in his hand and let himself in, closing the door quietly behind him.

The house was dark and silent. He pushed off his shoes respectfully and walked silently down the hall through the living room toward the kitchen. There was a muted cry through the ceiling above him and a distant thudding. His grip tightened on the small bag, and he stepped into the kitchen. A single thick candle flickered on the table. John sat on the opposite it, the light creating eerie shadows on his face. He was moving his hand absently back and forth through the flame.

"John?"

John froze mid-pass and glanced up. Then hissed and yanked his hand back, shaking it. Jay winced. "Sorry," he said.

John put his palm to his mouth for a moment then dropped it and slid the candle to the center of the table. There was another scream, louder, and more thudding. It came through more clearly here. John flinched visibly.

"What is he doing?" Jay asked, sliding into the chair across the table.

"Hitting his head on the wall," John said, dully, staring into the candle flame. Jay was pulling things from his bag. John watched with disinterest.

"What triggered him?" Jay asked as he began to fill a syringe. He didn't see John's shrug and looked up when he didn't answer.

"He got a package this afternoon..." he muttered. "Took it upstairs with him tonight. Started a few minutes after that."

Jay filled a second syringe. "What was in it?"

"Wait." He got up and disappeared into the darkness of the den. He reappeared a moment later with a small box wrapped in brown paper. He handed it to his brother. Jay glanced at the return address. "Mary Whitehorse? Does that mean anything to you?"

John shook his head as Jay opened the box. A small piece of paper dropped onto the tabletop. He unfolded it and held it up to the flickering candlelight, a message was written in a graceful hand. "He wanted you to have these," he read, "Who's he? What was in the box?"

John slid something across the table. Jay's brow furrowed as he picked it up. It was a piece of carved stone on the end of a long loop of leather thong. The leather was soft and worn, supple with use. The stone was worn smooth and shiny across the back. He turned it over in his hand, letting his thumb linger over the notches chipped from one edge. As he held it he was flooded with a profound sense of timelessness, the odd disorientation of his dream swept over him again. "What is it, a deer?" he asked softly, strange thoughts tugging at the back of his mind.

John shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. This was with it."

John slid a second object across to his brother. It glinted in the yellow glow. Dog tags. Jay picked them up slowly, feeling icy cold settle in his stomach. The name on the tags read Jackson Whitehorse. "Oh, god... He lost a brother..."

As if on cue, there was another cry above them and more thuds, this time seeming to come directly through the ceiling, then a crash that rattled the walls. John and Jay looked at each other. Jay started to pick up the syringes and hesitated. He reached into the bag and withdrew a different vial from which he filled a third syringe. Capping the needle, he palmed all three, grabbed the bag and nodded at John. They rose silently and walked without speaking through the living room and up the stairs to the bedroom door.

Jay listened intently, but there was only silence from the room. He glanced at John, whose face was now lit by a small nightlight near the baseboard. John looked at him and nodded resolutely. They'd been too close for too long to need words. John pressed his back to the wall beside the door as Jay flicked on the overhead light, flooding the hall with harsh brightness. His heart was pounding. A trained SEAL with a weapon. Now was the moment when someone could die. He focused his mind, trying, by sheer force of will, to reach Tem, to emanate safety, security. He eased himself against the wall on the other side of the door and slowly turned the key. There was still no sound. Turning the knob, he pushed the door open wide and flattened himself to the wall, ears straining for any clue to Tem's position in the room.

Silence.

He took a deep breath. "Tem?" he called gently. "It's Jay. I want to help you." There was no answer. He glanced across at John who was staring blankly at the wall across from him. "I can make it stop, Tem... Can I come in and help you?" There was a scrape and shuffling from the far corner of the room. Offering a silent prayer to any deity who'd listen, Jay risked a quick glance around the doorframe. On the near side of the bed, the nightstand was on the floor several books lay scattered near the walls and a lamp was overturned and lying near the foot of the bed, casting odd shadows around the room.

Tem was crouching in the corner under the window, in the shadows. Dark blood slicked his left forearm and dripped from his elbow. He was wearing black combat boots and pants and a black T-shirt, which clung to his body, the tension in his shoulders, outlined clearly through the fabric. Sweat glistened in his hair and had soaked the shirt, creating patches of blacker on black. His face was hidden, both arms wrapped protectively about his bowed head. He grasped a knife tightly in his right hand.

Jay took a silent breath and stepped into the room. His palms were sweating and his heart pounded painfully against his ribs. He took another step closer and was aware of John moving into the doorway behind him. Keeping a careful eye on the still figure in the corner, he set down the bag and sorted the two original syringes in his hand. He slowly eased one of them behind his back and felt John take it from his fingers. The second, he put between his teeth as he edged forward, keeping his hands loose but ready at his sides. He motioned John to stop and made his way slowly around the end of the bed. Two more steps brought him within ten feet of Tem and he stopped, lowering himself into a crouch. Tem rocked slightly but made no sign of noticing Jay's presence. Jay took the syringe from his mouth and palmed it in his left hand. He eyed his patient warily.

"Tem?" he kept his voice low and even. There was no response. He eased a half-step closer. Tem uncurled suddenly, fluidly, his movements reminding Jay uncomfortably of a cobra rising to strike. He brought the knife down in front of him into a defensive position, eyes focused intently on Jay. Jay ground his teeth, muttering a silent curse and raised his open hands. The cold gaze shifted to the syringe in his left hand, then back to his eyes. Jay met the stare, unflinching. "Tem, its Jay. Do you know who I am?"

There was no recognition. No acknowledgment. He was looking into the face of a stranger. A stranger he'd known for five years. "I can help you, Tem." Tem shifted his weight forward, striking position. Jay's instincts were screaming but he kept his expression still. He could feel his brother's anxiety pressing on him, a tangible force behind him. "Put down the knife, Tem... Reece." Tem's expression changed momentarily, a nearly imperceptible shift in his eyes. Confused. Then back to the wary, armed killer. Jay grasped at it. "Put it down, Reece," he said firmly.

Fear began to creep over Tem's face. Jay felt his gut tighten. A frightened SEAL was much more dangerous than a clear-headed one. This was something he'd hoped to avoid. He kept his hands spread, but tensed imperceptibly, ready to fight. Tem was crumbling. His eyes widened and he pressed himself against the wall, the knife began to shake slightly. Jay weighed his odds at taking it away and discarded the idea quickly.

"Get away from me..." Tem said in a hoarse whisper, beginning to tremble. "Get away from me..."

Jay rose slightly and backed away a foot, then dropped back eye level with Tem. "I can make them go away."

Tem shook his head violently, his eyes wild. "Get away from me!" he cried, and his face contorted he covered his head with left arm, curling up tightly. He sobbed. Then just as suddenly he unwound and slammed his body back against the wall, Jay could feel the impact through the floor and flinched. Tem looked stunned for a moment, then his eyes focussed on his right leg. He screamed in terror, sending icy chills down Jay's back and making the hairs on his neck prickle. Before Jay could move to stop him, he slashed down on his calf with the knife, opening the thick fabric of his fatigues and cutting through skin.

"NO!" Jay wasn't sure if it was directed at Tem or at John who had moved the instant the knife rose. Jay lunged forward putting himself between Tem's chest and his knife hand, wrenching the man's arm until the weapon dropped to the floor. Tem came out of his crouch, slamming his body into Jay and twisting his arm loose from his grip. Jay didn't have time to think, his instincts moved his body as he ducked a bone-shattering blow to the face. He caught Tem's arm and yanked his wrist up into the middle of his back then hooked his foot around the man's ankle and shoved him hard, dropping with him to the floor. He put one knee in Tem's back and put his other hand on the back of his shoulder to keep him from wrenching it out of its socket.

John was beside him, adding his weight to pin the struggling man to the ground. Jay held on grimly as John quickly yanked the cap off the needle with his teeth and sank it into Tem's arm. They held him for a long time as he nearly struggled free despite their combined efforts. He screamed incoherently most of that time, his voice going ragged by the end. Even to Jay's experienced ears the sound of abject terror cut deeply. John's face had gone grey-white and he'd bitten his lip, bright crimson blood trickled down his chin in cruel contrast to his ashen skin.

Finally, the screams settled into sobbing cries and the strength went out of the struggles. Jay nodded to John and watched as his brother eased his weight off Tem's back. Tem didn't try to rise. Jay threw a glance in the direction of the knife and John picked it up.

"Wait downstairs." He caught John's eyes, sending a silent message of reassurance. John looked sick, but he nodded and walked out of the room.

Warily, Jay lessened the weight on the shaking man. Tem made no sign of fighting, so Jay leaned back completely and loosened his hold on Tem's wrist. Tem pulled lightly in an attempt to bring his hand to his side. Jay let him go and rose taking several steps back, his body was still thrumming with adrenaline, ready to fight once more if Tem attacked, but he didn't.

He got unsteadily to his hands and knees, then knelt back on his heels and worked his shoulder gingerly. Jay lowered his hands slowly. Tem caught the motion out of the corner of his eye and jerked, spinning to face Jay and scrambling several feet backward his eyes wide. Then he stopped, weaving slightly, fighting the drug.

"It's okay, Tem."

Tem's eyes darted to the right and he yelped, batting away an imaginary enemy. Jay tried to look at the damage to the man's leg, but he couldn't see well enough to see more than blood past the slit in the fabric. "Reece..." He tried the original tactic once more. Tem's head swung around, and he struggled to focus on the source of the voice. "You're wounded, Reece. I need to get you to a medic." Tem's eyes traveled slowly down to his arm and he started, blinking. Panicky, he swiped at the blood. "No! Reece, listen to me!" Tem was getting frantic, phantoms swept past him from all sides. His movements were dulled by the drug, but he wasn't giving in to it. Jay cursed. He took a deep breath. "Sorry, kid..." he muttered. "Hey, SEAL! The FUCK is wrong with you?" Tem turned abruptly to stare at him. "Get off your ass, seal! Move it!" Tem hesitated, opening and closing his mouth silently. "Today is the hardest day, seal," he said in a very slightly gentler tone. "Get up."

"Yes, sir..." It was barely audible, but Jay heard it. He held his breath. Tem staggered to his feet, wincing slightly as he put his weight on his right leg. He kept his eyes desperately on Jay.

"Sit down." He nodded toward the bed. Tem stumbled forward and turned to sit on the edge of the bed. Jay glanced at the floor where he'd dropped the second syringe and shrugged. He figured the kid could use the other drug more. He pulled the third syringe from the bag and approached slowly. He carefully put one knee on the bed to Tem's right and took the man's arm in his hand turning it over and finding a vein. Tem stared blankly as Jay uncapped the needle and slipped it under the skin.

Jay watched as the drug took hold. The paranoid flinching slowly faded and the panic in Tem's eyes calmed. He began to rock drowsily. "All right, seal. Get up, I need to clean you up."

Tem stood and nearly collapsed. Jay caught him and helped him into the bathroom. He set him down on the toilet seat and quickly untied his boots. "Get your pants off, seal," he ordered. Tem looked at him, sleepily confused but obediently staggered to his feet and worked them off.

Jay crouched and sucked in his breath through his teeth. The gash in Tem's leg was not good. He sorted through the cabinet under the sink and came up with peroxide, gauze and steri-strips. Tem watched silently, blinking slowly. "Stay here," Jay growled. Tem nodded slightly.

Jay went into the bedroom and took a case from his bag. Kneeling in front of Tem again, he thanked once more the horror that had taught him field medicine. He cleaned the wound and numbed it, suturing it carefully but quickly before turning his attention to Tem's arm. Most of those gashes weren't deep. He put a few stitches in the worst ones to keep them closed and sealed the others with steri-strips. Tem had closed his eyes and was threatening to tumble over by the time Jay finished bandaging him.

"C'mon, kid," he said softly, helping Tem to his feet. Tem was nearly dead weight in his arms as he half stumbled to the bed. Jay threw back the sheets and sat Tem down, roughly pulling the man's shirt over his head before letting him fall back onto the mattress. It was beginning to stiffen with drying blood, Jay took it into the bathroom and tossed it in the pile with the other black clothes. Tem mumbled something incoherent as Jay walked back to the bed and pulled the blankets over him.

He sat down on the edge of bed and sighed heavily, looking down at the young man, his face now calm and innocent in dreamless sleep. "What did you see, kid?" he murmured, smoothing the covers. "You're too young to have this many ghosts..."

He gave Tem a shot of anti-biotic, then rinsed the blood from Tem's clothes and hung them up in the shower. It was the last thing John needed to deal with. He swept all the bloody gauze and sponges into the wastebasket and pulled out the liner, tying it tightly, gathered it and his bag and went downstairs, leaving them in the mudroom before walking down the hall to the kitchen.

The light was on over the stove casting a dim glow in the room. John was sitting at the table once more, a throw blanket wrapped around him, his knees tucked up against his chest, and cupping a steaming mug in both hands. He had cleaned up his lip and the kitchen smelled warmly of coffee. He mumbled something about getting Jay some but Jay motioned him back. "I've got it."

He stood in front of the sink, wearily pouring himself a cup of the dark, hot liquid. He glanced out the window into the dark night. The light from the kitchen cast a very faint glow on the ground outside. For a split second, Jay thought he saw something moving beyond the influence of the light. He stared hard into the blackness, but he could distinguish nothing but inky night.

Frowning slightly, he brought his own mug back to the table and sat down across from John. "He's okay. He's sleeping."

"The sedative kicked in?"

"I gave him something else. For the hallucinations. It knocked him out."

John nodded mutely, staring into his coffee. "You could talk to him..." he began. Jay closed his eyes. "Sorry."

"I'm doing everything I can to help him."

John looked at him, his eyes hollow. "Maybe it would help him if he knew..."

Jay bit back his first response and sipped at the coffee, burning his tongue while he composed his answer. "What I went through..." he began slowly. Then took a breath and redirected himself. "What he experienced is beyond anything I will ever know."

"You *do* know." John pressed.

Jay gave him a long look.

John's jaw tightened but he didn't push it further.

"Has he thought any more about therapy?"

John looked at him crossly. "Have you?"

"I'm not the issue," Jay said getting annoyed himself. John stared him down. Finally he said, "No... I don't need it."

"Healer heal thyself?"

"Something like that," he muttered, playing with his mug.

"How's that workin' for you?" There was fire in his brother's voice.

Jay looked at him. "Why are you so angry at me?" he demanded.

John dropped his eyes. "I don't know. I'm sorry. I don't know who to be angry at." He played absently with a gold band on his finger. Jay glanced at it, noticing it for the first time. He nodded at it.

"You and Tem...?"

John glanced at the ring blinking. "Oh. Yeah."

"You didn't tell me. Did you have a ceremony?"

"Sorry. No. Not yet."

There was a long silence. Jay took another sip of coffee, trying to find a way to soften what he was about to say. "Are you going to be able to handle a lifetime of this?" he asked quietly.

John looked at him and said coldly. "I have handled it, I am handling it and I will continue to handle it."

Jay winced. "Okay," he said gently, backing off.

John stared into his coffee again. "I just don't know what to do..."

"Do you...punish him for it?"

"No!" John exclaimed quickly, looking offended. Then his expression changed to one of uncertainty. "Should I?"

He held up his hands. "Don't look at me, they didn't teach Spanking 101 in shrink school." Then more seriously, "My gut says you shouldn't, if that helps..."

John shrugged looking unhappy. "So does mine, but sometimes I'm not sure if I'm doing the right thing."

"Was the whole discipline thing your idea or his?"

"His... Why?"

Jay sighed heavily. "We never get the luxury of being sure of anything we do in life." John looked at him owlishly. "We just make the best decisions we can and hope that our intentions are understood if sometimes our actions are misguided." He picked up the carved stone again, feeling the notched antlers press against his fingers, the strange sensations washed over him once more. "We have faith."

John put his elbows on the table and dropped his head into his hands. "How can he have faith in anything anymore?"

"I don't know... But he does."

John raised his head, too weary to ask the question, but Jay heard it in the silence.

"In you," he answered.

John let his gaze drop to the table. Finally he said, "What if *I* don't have faith?"

"You do," Jay said with quiet certainty. "You'll find it again."

They didn't speak for a long time. John broke the silence. "Will you?" he asked softly.

Jay looked down at the talisman in his hand, he rubbed it slowly. "Someday..."

*****

The night was still black when Jay stepped out into the frigid air. He stood for a moment, letting his eyes adjust. Suddenly, there was a glint in the darkness. Nearly out of reach of the faint light bleeding from the mudroom windows a giant, silver-brown stag was standing in the snow before Jay's car. Jay took a deep breath, willing his heart to slow.

"You scared me, Jackson" he said softly to the animal. It stared at him, unblinking, for a moment, then tossed its head and snorted looking upward. Jay followed the creature's gaze to the upstairs window, which glowed dimly. When he looked back, the stag was watching him. Feeling foolish, he spoke again. "He'll be all right." He wasn't sure if he was saying it more for the deer's benefit or his own. "Watch his back for me, huh?"

The stag snorted again and raised and dropped its head, pawing once at the snowy ground. Then it turned and walked away into the night. Jay listened to the footsteps fade until silence enveloped him and the cold started his teeth chattering. He shook off the mystical spell of the wee hours, when reality seems to give way to fantastic possibilities, and gave a soundless laugh. "You gotta get more sleep, Dr. Doolittle," he muttered, stepping off the stoop and crunching back along the path he'd made earlier. Watching the ground as he walked, he stopped in front of the car, frowning, and looked up. He turned and gauged the distance back to the front step. He was standing in the very spot that had been so recently vacated by the huge animal. As he looked down once more, icy fingers tickled his spine. The only footprints in the dimly sparkling snow were his own.

~II~

John slept fitfully. He woke just as grey, dawn light was filtering through the bedroom window. He rolled over to look at Tem. The young man's face was ashen and lifeless. His breathing was so shallow John couldn't be sure he was still alive. A moment of irrational fear tickled the back of his mind. He reached out and gently stroked Tem's jaw. The skin beneath his fingers was cool.

"Tem?" he whispered. For heart-stopping seconds Tem was still, then abruptly he drew a deep breath and shifted in his sleep. John swallowed. His mouth had gone dry. Carefully, he eased himself out of bed and went quietly into the bathroom.

Tem was still sleeping when he finished showering. He dressed silently and nodded to Wolf, who lunged up and followed him eagerly down the stairs.

In the mudroom, he pulled on boots and a coat and let the dog bound out before him into the powdery white world beyond the front door. John walked down the driveway as Wolf rounded the side of the house, yipping happily as he scooped up snowflakes on his nose.

The snow had nearly covered Jay's tire tracks from the night before. That seemed so long ago. Almost unreal now in the quickly brightening daylight. There was another yelp from the side of the house, but this time it sent an icy spike through John's heart. He spun and ran in the direction of the cry.

Wolf was cowering against the outer wall, tail tucked between his legs, whimpering. John quickly scanned the yard for a sign of a mountain lion, which had been his first thought upon hearing the frightened bark. But there was nothing but small trails of footprints. Many trails. Then he looked down.

Each set of tracks converged on the house, ending in a packed area, maybe six feet wide and extending the length of the house. John followed the track around the back of the house and back up the south wall to the front yard. Wolf followed, keening softly. John frowned and knelt, touching the packed snow lightly with his fingertips. Deer prints. As if a hundred deer had circled the house, tramping and pawing the snow. And another hundred sets of trails led to and from the path into the woods. John reached out and absently petted the back of Wolf's neck, murmuring reassuringly, although his own heart was beating hard in his chest.

*****

John hung up his coat, watching Wolf slink under the staircase and curl up in a tight corner. "Wolf, it's okay..." he coaxed, but the giant dog only pressed himself further against the wall. John sighed. He traded his boots for tennis shoes, setting them neatly by the door, and went into the kitchen.

The odd behavior of the deer was eerie, and it tugged at his mind as he quietly took dishes from the drainer and stacked them in the cupboards. Then he wiped down the already immaculate counters and chewed his lip, at a loss for anything to keep his mind occupied. Finally, he set the teakettle on a burner and sat down at the kitchen table.

It was just beginning to steam when Tem appeared silently in the doorway. He'd put on a sweatshirt, tennis shoes and jeans over his bandaged leg. John watched him cautiously. In the end, he and Jay had decided to leave the fetish and dogtags on the kitchen table. Tem could do with them what he chose.

Tem limped across the kitchen, his eyes falling briefly on the tabletop. He continued into the den without a word and closed the door. John sighed. The teakettle began to whistle.

*****

John rinsed the rubber spatula and set it in the drainer. He carefully turned the pancakes and brought down two plates. Tem had not emerged from the quiet den.

Butter.

Syrup.

Fork.

Knife.

John set the plate and silverware on a tray and carried it to the closed door, knocking lightly. There was no answer. He turned the knob and stepped into the darkened room. Tem was sitting at the desk, his back to the door. John frowned immediately. Long years of living with a combat-damaged partner had trained him well. Tem always kept his back to a wall.

"Tem," he said softly from the doorway. "I want you to eat something."

Tem didn't answer. John crossed the room slowly, coming into Tem's field of vision before coming within striking distance. Carefully he approached. Tem was staring silently at the wall in front of him.

John set the tray on the desk and slid it in front of the young man. Tem looked down abruptly as if coming out of a trance.

"I don't want it," he said sullenly.

John ran a tongue over his lips. "You need to eat. A little. Please."

Tem picked up the fork and knife and began to hack the pancakes into crumbs.

"Just eat it, Tem..."

Tem ignored him, continuing until the food was complete confetti. John sighed. "If that's how you like it..." He turned to leave the room. A sudden movement out of the corner of his eye told his baser instincts "duck." The plate shattered against the wall inches above where his head had been. He whirled on Tem. Tem stared at him, emotionless.

"I said... I don't want it."

John felt a surge of anger and suppressed it. He tightened his jaw and went into the kitchen after a broom. Tem had turned back to the wall as John swept up the mess.

John took the pile of pancake remains and crockery to the trash and closed the den door. He took out Tem's pills, set them on the counter with a glass of water and went upstairs for his laptop. He set it up on the kitchen table and was halfway through his third chapter when the den door opened. Tem disappeared down the hallway toward the bathroom.

When he limped back into the kitchen, John pointed at the pills on the counter. "Take them, please."

Tem looked at him. "No."

"Why not?"

"I don't want to."

John gave him a gentle smile. "Take them anyway."

"No."

The smile disappeared. "Tem, take them now."

Tem stared at him, his face hard. "No.

"Do it," John said, expression equally stony.

Tem stood for several long seconds, not moving, his bright green eyes locked on John's blue ones. Finally, he raised his chin slightly and sauntered over to the counter. He opened the pill bottle. He looked at John, raised his hand, and dropped the cap. It bounced and rolled under the table. John watched him in confusion.

Not taking his eyes off his partner, Tem slowly tipped the bottle, letting a stream of round, blue pills pour out and scatter, bouncing across the wood-slat floor. John opened his mouth.

Tem looked at the glass of water and picked it up. He raised his eyes to John's once more, tipping the glass gently letting a slow and steady stream splatter amongst the pills. As the glass emptied, he stared defiantly into his partner's face and let go of the glass. It shattered loudly.

"Tem!" John exclaimed, too stunned to act. Tem blinked at him, eyebrows raised. He turned and opened the cabinet, taking out another glass. He held it out and released it. The crash of breaking glass filled the room. "Tem!" This time he found his voice enough to shout. But Tem was holding out a third glass. As his fingers opened their grasp, he found himself in the vice-like grip of a lightning-fast partner's hand.

John hauled the man through the water and broken glass, grabbed the rubber spatula as he passed the sink, hooked the leg of the kitchen chair on the opposite side of the table with his foot and pulled it out into the room. Before Tem had a chance to shout a protest, he found himself face inches from the floor and gasping as a bright pain exploded across the seat of his jeans. The spatula hurt! Even through the protection of thick denim, it stung deep into his flesh. He twisted, yelping. "John!"

"What do you want, Tem? What are you asking for? Is this what you want?"

"No! Ow! John!"

"Tell me what you want me to do! Tell me how to help you!"

Tem kicked and cried out but remained stubbornly uncommunicative. He bit his lip, writhing. The sting was overwhelming. His eyes and nose were beginning to run. "Ow... John... Please!"

"Tell me, Tem. Talk to me..." He continued to bring the spatula down hard and fast on the squirming bottom. Tem was struggling in earnest. Trying to get off John's lap. John readjusted his grip, pulling his partner's body closer to his own but did not let up on the assault. "Tell me..."

"Nothing!" Tem cried, beginning to sob. "There's nothing you can do! He's dead! He's dead..." The words dissolved into incoherent crying. John stopped. Staring down at the shuddering form across his knees. Gently he pulled Tem up to his feet. Tem's hands flew instantly to the seat of his pants and rubbed furiously. He stamped his feet slightly, sobbing. John stood, realizing that his own breath was ragged. He watched his partner helplessly.

"Baby... I'm sorry..."

Tem looked up at him, his face and eyes were red and wet with tears. Tem stepped closer and leaned into John's chest. John wrapped his arms around the shuddering figure. Slowly, Tem sank to his knees, bringing John down with him. They knelt on the floor for several minutes, Tem still sobbing inconsolably. John stroked his back, kissing what he could reach of his lover's face and hair.

"It hurts..." Tem moaned eventually into John's shirt. John wasn't sure if he was referring to the spanking or the grief. He silently kissed the top of Tem's head.

"What do you want, baby? What can I give you?"

Tem pulled away, his breath still hitching. His face was swollen and splotchy. Carefully, he eased himself to his feet. He turned to the table and pulled the dogtags and fetish up into the palm of one hand, then without a word, he walked through the water and glass, slipping slightly, and headed down the hallway toward the mudroom.

John stood and quickly swept the broken glass and pills into the dustpan, dumping it into the trash under the sink, then he followed Tem down to the front of the house. Tem was finishing putting on his boots, still sniffling. John quickly considered his options.

"I'm going with you." He steeled himself for argument, but none came.

"You'll want your boots on, then."

*****

They tramped through the snow, up the steep side of the mountain. The pine trees were thick and the boughs dipped under the weight of the snow. The air was cold and fresh. It would be a pleasant hike if John weren't watching Tem struggle to hide the limp that was getting progressively worse as they walked.

Wolf trailed behind them, his eyes weaving from one side to the other. He was still wary, and didn't bounce or play as he would usually do. When he drew up equal to John, John reached down and scrubbed him behind the ears. The dog looked up at him with sad, brown eyes. The innocent expression tugged at his heart. He looked at Tem again.

They had been walking in silence for nearly an hour. Tem had made no indication of wanting to talk, or even of telling John where they were going. And John made no attempt to press him. They just continued on, listening to their own footsteps, muffled by the snow, and listening to their own heartbeats and breath.

The sun was approaching zenith when they came to a low ridge. The mountain dipped into a valley beyond it then continued to climb against the blue, crisp sky. Tem turned right and they walked along the crest of the ridge for another fifteen minutes. Slowly, a giant ponderosa came into view. It was very large and very old. The bark was rough and cracked and the smell of vanilla hung about it invitingly.

Tem approached it, reaching out and pressing his hand to the trunk. Stumbling slightly over the rough ground and upraised roots, he made his way around the side of the tree to the opposite face of the trunk. John followed, slipping slightly on the snowy hillside. Wolf followed, more sure-footed.

Rounding the tree, John stopped and stared. The tree had split, apparently some time ago by the greying of the weathered wood. The living tree continued to grow around a small, protected hollow.

Tem was pulling the tags and fetish from his coat pocket and untangling them. Several sets of tags were already hanging in the hollow on small nails that had been hammered into the back wall of the hole. John looked at them. One of them had a small gold cross on a gold chain hung with it. Another had a silver Celtic knot on a leather thong hung with it.

Tem straightened the dogtags and fetish in his hand and reached into the hollow, gently hanging them from another nail. A mewling whimper from Wolf drew John's attention away from the ceremony.

He glanced down the hillside and drew in his breath. Not ten yards from them stood the largest stag he'd ever seen. The animal's rack seemed too heavy for even its thick neck to hold up. Wolf was whining and pressing back against John's legs. A sudden movement drew John's attention back to Tem.

Tem had raised his fist to his chest. He held it there for a moment then slowly lowered his hand. "Goodbye..." he breathed.

John turned back toward the stag and blinked. The giant animal was gone. Soundlessly disappeared. Before he could say anything, he felt Tem's fingers slip into his own. He looked back at his partner.

Tem was staring at the hollow in the tree. "I want..." His fingers tightened slightly. "I want to go home. I want..." He turned his eyes to John. "You..."


~ Julnick

Send warm fuzzies to Julnick.

Read more of Julnick's writing.

Return to the Stories page.