Shadows of the Mind

by Julnick


"Goal! Twenty-two. Tem Reece." The announcement echoed hollowly in the large arena.

Tem smiled darkly and trotted back up the field, slapping hands with his teammates. He liked the game. It was fast and rough. The ball played off the walls, like hockey, adding a level of challenge that didn't exist in outdoor soccer. The kick-off went to the red team. Tem blocked a shot on his goal and tried to turn, but the shooter was on top of him. He tried to block another shot and tangled his feet, taking them both down.

The whistle shrieked and the referee motioned. Tem shoved himself upright, furious.

"Bullshit! HE tripped ME!"

"This is your last warning, twenty-two! Watch the language!"

Tem scowled and lined up shoulder to shoulder with two fellow players in front of the goal, grumbling. He clasped his hands in front of his groin and waited for the penalty kick.

The red team player took a step and nailed the checkered ball directly at the goal. Tem didn't have time to react before it hit him full in the face, knocking him a step backward. It went careening off toward the far wall.

Tem blinked; his eyes were tearing from the sting of the impact, and he was vaguely aware of blood streaming from his nose. Voices echoed around him but they were garbled; for a moment he felt like he was standing at the end of a very long tunnel. He shook his head, trying to clear the confusion. Slowly, the tunnel opened.

"Hey man, are you okay?

"Tem?"

"Reece? You all right?"

Tem blinked again, cupping his hands to keep the blood from spilling onto the Astroturf. "Uh huh..." he mumbled, still mildly stunned. He felt hands taking his upper arms and guiding him out of the field into the players' area. Someone had run to the bathroom and was holding out a wad of paper towels. Tem took them and tried to stem the flow of blood.

*****

The ball impacted with a gunshot crack, knocking Tem backward. His two companions grabbed him, keeping him on his feet. John stood immediately and jumped down from the aluminum stands. He strode across the concrete and stared through the Plexiglas.

Blood was soaking Tem's shirt and spilling over his hands. He stumbled drunkenly as he was led toward the arena exit and John hurried around the end of the soccer field and up to the players' area.

By the time he got there the whistle had blown and play had resumed on the field. Tem was pulling off his bloody shirt and wiping his face and chest with paper towels. The other players parted as John approached and discreetly moved to the other end of the benches. John grabbed Tem by the arms, looking anxiously into his eyes.

"Are you all right? Are you dizzy?"

"I just took a fucking penalty kick in the face, of course I'm fucking dizzy," Tem growled, trying to pull loose from John's grip.

John ignored the outburst. "Look at the lights."

Tem huffed in annoyance but raised his face to the ceiling. John put a hand over Tem's eyes and pulled it away quickly, staring intently into the green pools.

"I want you to sit out the rest of the game."

Tem gave him a look of complete indignation and disbelief. "No way! It's the championship!" John didn't respond.

Tem pulled his arm out of John's hand. "I'm playing, you can't stop me."

"I'm betting I can, young man. I don't think you want to find out."

Tem's eyes widened in rage. "NO! I'm fine!"

"No, you aren't. You got hit in the head."

Tem took a deep breath, then reconsidered and let it out slowly. "Do I have a concussion?"

John hesitated. "I don't think so..."

"Then why can't I play?" Tem demanded, flushing slightly as he realized they were drawing looks from his teammates.

"Because I said no," John said in a low voice that made it clear he would brook no further argument.

Tem scowled darkly but finally flopped down on the bench. "At least let me watch with my team."

John looked at him for a moment. "All right... But you do NOT go in again. Clear?"

Tem stared straight ahead, lips pressed tightly together. "Crystal," he said coldly.

John hesitated another moment before turning and making his way back around the arena to the small bleachers. The two teams took turns scoring. They were tied four to four when the next substitutions were made. John suddenly sat straight up. Tem, in a clean shirt, trotted out, slapping hands with a teammate who was now leaving the field. John felt his mouth open in complete disbelief. The whistle blew and play began again: rapid-fire passes, thuds of bodies colliding and air-rattling crashes of the ball against the boards.

John jumped down from the bleachers once more and began the long trek around the end of the field to the players' area. He was near the goal box when he glanced over just in time to see Tem drop his shoulder into an oncoming forward. His foot slipped between the other's and he twisted his arm, sending the runner hard to the floor. There was a long shriek of the whistle.

"I'm going to kill him," John muttered, quickening his pace. He kept one eye on the game and stopped dead as the referee held up a small card and approached the score table.

"Twenty-two..." The rest of his statement was drowned out by the howls of the crowd and Tem's teammates and the thundering of feet kicking the boards. Tem had climbed to his feet and was standing with his hands on his hips, face dark with rage. Yellow card.

"What are you, blind?" John hissed as he passed the goal box. "Give him a red!" He approached the player area, looking around for the captain. The players backed away quickly as they saw the expression on his face. John found the captain near the gate. "Sub him out," he said calmly.

The man turned, his eyes widening slightly. "John!"

"Now."

"Let me wait for a break in the..."

"Sub him out, now," John repeated, enunciating very clearly. The boards shook as the ball banged into them again. John glanced across the field. Tem and a red player chased the rebound, Tem reaching it first, trapping it and quickly passing it up to the center. The red player, the same one Tem had tackled earlier, didn't slow; he slammed into Tem, sending them both crashing into the boards, Tem's significantly smaller body between himself and the Plexiglas.

The whistle screamed. Two of Tem's teammates ran at the red player, and his own teammates came rushing to his defense. Tem stumbled backward and fell, lying still. John vaulted the gate and ran across the field, white shirts pouring out behind him.

*****

Tem looked up at the high ceiling; for some reason he seemed to be lying on the ground. His head was spinning nauseatingly and he thought he was going to throw up. His mouth tasted bitter and coppery. Carefully, he turned over onto his hands and knees and tried to push himself to his feet. The floor lurched unpleasantly, knocking him down again. The spinning in his head worsened and he decided to stay where he was.

*****

An icy hand gripped John's chest as he saw Tem drop to the floor, then try to rise and fall once more. He sank to his knees in front of his partner, gently taking Tem's face in his hands.

"Tem? Baby?"

Tem blinked, his eyes unfocused. John took a deep breath, trying not to panic.

"Tem, talk to me, baby."

Blood was dripping from Tem's mouth and nose. "Hi," he slurred, attempting a lopsided smile. He nearly fell sideways. "Whoa..."

John eased him into a sitting position, his back against the boards. Tem's teammates were beginning to gather a respectful distance from them.

"Do you need a cold pack? We've got a first-aid kit..." One of them offered.

John looked at them. They were wide-eyed and white-faced. "Um, yeah. That'd be great, thanks." He actually had no idea what to do. Someone else knelt beside him and offered a handful of damp paper towels. "Thanks," John muttered and carefully dabbed the blood from Tem's face. Tem winced. "I'm sorry, baby..."

"I gotta... Need to call you..."

"What?" John asked gently, fear gripping his stomach.

Tem blinked hard, his head rolling slightly from side to side. "Sorry..." His speech was slurring. John wasn't sure if it was because of swelling in his mouth or a concussion. He heard the referee talking to the team captain and ignored them.

"Baby, it's okay. Do you know where you are?"

Tem looked around carefully, making a face. "Oww..."

"What hurts, baby?"

"Head."

John took his chin gently. "Don't move, just tell me where you are." The cold pack arrived and John put it in Tem's hands. Moving uncertainly, he pressed it to his forehead.

"Floor?" Tem blinked innocently.

John managed a nervous laugh. "What building, hon?"

Tem furrowed his brow, thinking. "Dunno..."

"Do you know what day it is?"

"Umm... I can't remember..." Tem looked at John, suddenly worried. "I can't remember!"

"Shh... It's okay, baby. You just hit your head. We're going to go to the hospital, okay?"

"Okay," Tem said agreeably, trying to get to his feet and nearly falling again.

"Whoa, baby, let me help you, okay?"

"Okay."

John stood up and took Tem's right arm, the team captain stepped forward and took his left and carefully they eased him up to standing.

"Are you okay, Tem?" John asked.

"Okay," he said again, sing-songing. John frowned and slid an arm around his ribs, letting Tem put his weight against him.

"C'mon, guys, let him through," the captain said gruffly. The line straggled apart and John brought Tem, stumbling, back off the field. As they passed through the gate, he heard footsteps pounding up behind them. A player John recognized as one of Tem's friends slid his shoulder under Tem's other arm.

"I'll help you take him to the hospital," he offered; he was nearly as pale as Tem. John began to decline, took another look at the man's face and stopped himself.

"Thanks," he said. Working together in silence they got Tem's coat on him and put on their own, then made their way through the rec center into the cold December air.

*****

Tem tried to be helpful but his body didn't seem to be responding to his addled commands. He spit out a mouthful of blood.

"You okay?" he heard John ask.

He wanted to reassure him; he sounded worried, but he couldn't think clearly. All he could say was, "Okay." He was afraid he'd been saying that a lot recently. Someone else was helping him walk; he knew the person, but the name was escaping him.

"Step down, Tem."

What? He stumbled over the edge of the curb, nearly falling and pulling his supporters down with him. They staggered and pulled him up again.

"Sorry..." He felt like his mouth had been shot with Novocain, save for the pain. That was still throbbing brightly. He couldn't quite form his tongue around his words. His head ached, his stomach was churning threateningly and the ground kept tilting under his feet. All in all, he decided, he was feeling considerably unwell.

*****

John opened the car door. "Here," he said to the other man. "We can fit three in front; you can watch him while I drive. Um, I don't know. Maybe you're supposed to keep him awake or something..."

"Yeah... I think I heard that somewhere... I'm Mike, by the way." He held out his hand.

John looked at him and gave a faint smile. He shook the man's hand. "John. Thanks for your help."

"It's okay..."

Tem watched mutely as John reached across him and fastened his seat belt. Mike slid in on his right, and John got behind the wheel. Tem was sleepy. His eyes began to close.

"You were great tonight, Tem," Mike said brightly.

Tem dragged himself awake. "Uh, thanks," he mumbled.

"That second breakaway was just a beauty. I wish I had your speed. They totally didn't expect that."

Tem took a deep breath, forcing his eyes to remain open. "I'm tired..."

"Yeah... but you gotta stay awake 'til we get to the hospital, okay?"

"Why?" Tem moaned. He felt AWFUL, and he just wanted to close his eyes...

He felt John's hand touch his briefly. "You have a concussion. I don't know if it's okay for you to sleep, so just wait until we can ask a doctor, okay?" He said gently.

Tem groaned. He glanced over at Mike's worried face. "Okay," he sighed. "Talk to me."

*****

The Emergency sign made a red glowing halo in the frosty air. The man whose name he couldn't remember had been talking non-stop for fifteen minutes, except for the questions he threw in about every two sentences and expected Tem to answer coherently. Tem was close to throttling him when John pulled into a parking space near the emergency room doors. The man finally fell quiet as John unbuckled Tem's seatbelt. He climbed out his side and helped. Tem slide across the seat and step out into the icy night. Tem coughed at the cold and winced, realizing for the first time that his ribs were hurting with every breath. When did that happen?

The world was still spinning lazily and the ground was moving in slow waves that seemed to come up and drop from under Tem's feet in random patterns. He stumbled. The two men grabbed for his arms, keeping him from falling on his face, but the movement sent stabbing pain through his chest. He hissed.

Mike held him upright while John locked the car, then they guided him slowly through the sliding double doors and into a warm waiting area. The reception desk was empty. John let Tem slide into a chair beside Mike and went to put Tem's name on the triage list. Tem gazed around the room. It was relatively deserted. There was a mother sitting in the far corner with a little boy in his pajamas looking decidedly unhappy and an older man in the center island of chairs staring blankly at the soundless movie on one of the televisions. Tem turned to his companion, finally. "Who are you?" he asked in frustration.

Mike looked at him, startled. "I'm Mike, Tem. We're friends."

"Yeah, I know that," Tem said dismissively. "I just couldn't remember your name."

Mike glanced at his watch nervously, then back at Tem, who was now busy surveying the room again. John had put them with their backs to the wall. That was good. Tem liked his back to the wall. Moments after John returned and sat down on Tem's other side, a man in green scrubs came out of the triage office and scanned the list.

"Temoko Reece?"

Tem-AH-ko. "Its Tem-OH-ko," he muttered under his breath. Tem hated it when people did that. He thought it sounded like some kind of Italian dessert. His parents just had to give him an unpronounceable name. He made a face and stood quickly, but regretted it immediately as John snatched his arm to keep him from falling on the tilting floor. Mike was holding him again from the other side, and the man in scrubs rushed forward to help them bring him into the office.

He stared at the wall, vaguely aware of John's voice above him. The green man was asking him questions but he couldn't concentrate. The floor dipped and rolled beneath him. Finally focusing his attention on the attendant, he said -- quite clearly, he thought, although to his ears it came out as if he'd just had dental work -- "May I use the restroom?"

The man licked his lips, looking worried, but allowed Tem to stumble into the small bathroom the next door down. John stayed at his side, keeping the swaying earth from knocking him from his feet.

*****

John helped Tem stumble into the triage office. He explained the events of the evening as coherently as he was able, hearing his own voice, calm and rational, while his gut churned with icy tension. Tem stared blankly as the nurse asked him his name, where he was, the year. Finally, he asked for the restroom, sounding like he was talking through a mouthful of cotton. The man looked uncomfortable about letting him go but conceded on the condition that John was with him to keep him from falling.

Tem was leaning heavily against him. That very fact made John's stomach tighten and ache. Tem never took help from anyone. Keeping a hold on Tem with one arm, he pushed the restroom door open and guided his staggering partner inside, locking it behind him. He waited for Tem to make some movement toward his shorts, but he simply stood for several seconds, staring into John's eyes, swaying.

"I don't feel good..." he whispered, then dropped suddenly to his knees in front of the toilet and began to vomit. Startled, John quickly knelt beside him, rubbing his back and stroking his hair while he retched violently.

Finally, the heaves slowed and lessened until Tem eased himself back onto his heels and panted heavily. John grabbed a paper towel and dampened it, gently mopping Tem's face.

Tem's eyes closed and he rocked silently for a moment. Then his face crumpled; he turned, looking ready to cry as he burrowed against John's chest.

John wrapped his arms around him and held him, feeling helpless and frightened. He'd never seen Tem cry over anything but a flashback or punishment, something John still didn't understand. He didn't know what to say so he was silent, pressing his lips against the top of Tem's head.

*****

Tem sat back on his heels, his mouth tasting bitterly of blood and bile. John was wiping his face with a cool towel, but it wasn't enough. He trembled. His head was splitting, his stomach felt like it was going to turn inside out, his ribs were screaming, his mouth was hurting, and the room was spinning. His senses were overwhelmed. His nerves were screaming. His thoughts were moving in aimless, uncontrollable circles. Suddenly a wave of helpless tears surged to the surface. He fought them back, burying his face in John's chest, seeking the only source of comfort he knew.

He felt John kiss the top of his head gently. "Are you ready?" John asked softly. Tem whimpered. He didn't understand. He'd been tortured and took it better than this. The tears threatened again. He wrested them back and nodded carefully.

John rose and with strong hands helped Tem to his unsteady feet. Somehow they made it back to the office without Tem falling or throwing up, both of which seemed good bets to him at the moment. He staggered into the chair again and tried to focus on the man in scrubs.

*****

Mike had been filling in what information he could while the other two were gone. He looked at them nervously as they re-entered the room. John let Tem drop into the chair and he finished answering those questions Mike hadn't been able to.

The man gave one last attempt at asking Tem about his surroundings, but Tem only dropped his head into his hands, grimacing, a new trickle of blood tracing a thin line down his chin from his lip. It had been an eternity by the time the man told John and Mike to wait outside while he took Tem into the emergency ward. John took a deep breath.

"I'm his partner. I'm staying with him."

The man looked at him. "Are you next of kin?"

Mike discreetly slipped out of the office. John's heart was pounding but his resolve didn't falter. "I'm his partner." He'd never said it to a stranger before...

The man stared for several seconds, then sighed. "All right. Come with me."

They helped Tem to his feet again and took him through the back door of the office into the ward. An island of counters stood in the center of a wide room ringed with curtain-partitioned cubicles. On the wall behind one of the counters was a large dry-erase board tattooed with incomprehensible symbols. John felt a chill trickle through his bones but gritted his teeth and kept pace with the man who guided them into one of the cubicles and left them alone, pulling the curtain closed behind him. Tem climbed onto the bed and eased himself onto his side, closing his eyes.

"No." John didn't like the shaking in his voice. He swallowed. "Sit up, Tem. Don't go to sleep."

Tem pried one eye open to look at him and let it drop closed. John looked at him, grinding his teeth as he made a decision. "Tem." He kept his voice low, but this time there was strength and authority in his tone. The authority that could bring Tem out of the darkest flashbacks. "Sit up now, or so help me, concussion or no, I WILL make you regret it."

Tem opened two eyes and looked at him. "I hate you," he mumbled.

"And you'll hate me even more if I spank you in the middle of a hospital," John said, loud enough only for them to hear. "I wouldn't bet on that stopping me..."

Tem glared at him and forced himself upright, cringing.

"Head?"

"And ribs."

John's brow furrowed. "Your ribs hurt? Why didn't you say that before?"

"Dunno."

John sighed. Tem's eyes began to close. "Tem. Wake up. You think I'm joking?"

"No... Too tired, John," he moaned. "Spank me, I don't care, just let me sleep through it."

"Do you want to take off your shin guards?"

Tem sighed in resignation. "Fine."

*****

Within a few minutes the nurses had Tem attached to monitors and machines and were making marks on his chart. John stumbled to keep out of their way as they bustled about him.

A ginger-haired man in a white coat and a mustache came into the cubicle. He made small talk with John that John responded to numbly as he watched the doctor flash a penlight into each of Tem's eyes and had him squeeze his finger with each hand.

The doctor ran his eyes quickly over the chart, frowning. "How long ago did this happen?"

"Um, I don't know." John looked at his watch. "Probably half an hour, forty-five minutes since he first got hit in the face."

"Do you know what day this is?" The doctor directed the question at Tem, who scowled.

"No one will tell me," he said querulously.

The doctor nodded and made another mark on the chart. "How old are you?"

Tem looked confused; no one had asked that before. "Um..." He glanced at John. John watched him anxiously. The doctor looked up at him. "I'm..." The doctor started writing again and Tem put his hands to his head, rocking in frustration.

"All right, first thing we're going to get a CAT scan, make sure there's no bleeding. We're going to want to keep him under observation for several hours at least, you may want to go home and get some sleep," he said to John, who shook his head.

"I'll stay here."

The doctor nodded. "I'll have a better chair brought in for you. If we find that there is bleeding in the brain, we'll need to do emergency surgery. Otherwise, we'll keep him under intense observation. If he's going to deteriorate he'll do so in the next few hours."

John nodded. "He says his ribs hurt, too. And he was throwing up." He glanced at Tem, who was still rocking, apparently oblivious to the conversation.

The doctor frowned and looked over the chart, then wrote again. "If the CAT scan looks good, we'll take him for some X-rays, make sure nothing is broken. Keep an eye on him for a while. Hopefully it's nothing worse than a bad bump on the head." He gave a quick smile at Tem. "If everything looks good, we'll get you some Tylenol and let you get on home, all right?"

Tem looked at him. "Uh huh."

*****

John paced for a few minutes after they took Tem to the CAT scan. Then he wandered out into the lobby and found Mike, pale-faced and fidgeting. He glanced up and stood as John approached. "Is he okay?"

"They don't know yet. They're doing tests." John rubbed a hand over his face wearily. "I'm going to stay here. Is there anyone you can call to get a ride home?"

Mike looked at the floor, then back at John. "I'd like to wait and see if he's okay. If it's all right? I already called someone to pick me up, but he'll wait until they know... If you don't mind, I mean..."

John put a hand on the man's arm gently, silencing him. "It's fine. I'm happy to have his friends nearby. I'll come and get you when they know something else."

Mike bit his lip nervously and nodded. "Thanks."

John smiled slightly and left the young man pacing around the plastic chairs of the waiting room.

*****

John paced too, sat, paced some more. His chest was aching with cold fear. He rubbed his hands on his jeans and sank into the chair again. Finally there was a bustle of motion and Tem was wheeled back into the room. John stood anxiously. The doctor strode in behind the attendants who were re-attaching the monitors. Tem was blinking drowsily.

"Well, the CAT scan looks clear. We took head and chest X-rays. Everything looks fine in the head and jaw, no broken ribs but there's some deep tissue bruises; he'll need to take it easy for a few weeks. Same for the concussion. No sports for a while. " He smiled at Tem.

"The season is over," John said numbly.

"Well, good. That shouldn't be a problem then. I still want to keep him here for a while to make sure the disorientation goes away and there's no deterioration in his condition. If all goes well, you should be able to go home before morning."

*****

Tem let himself drift in a strange limbo between sleep and wakefulness. He was dragged into consciousness periodically by nurses asking him questions, looking in his eyes, checking his grip. Eventually he was able to remember his name, the date, the president and all the other common knowledge he'd seemed to have lost earlier. He still didn't remember the actual incident when he was injured, though a nervous-looking Mike filled him in on the details during one of his more lucid moments.

He was vaguely worried about the repercussions John would bring down on him once they left the protection of the hospital. But at the moment John only looked weary with the whisperings of fear lingering in his manner.

*****

It was nearly three hours before Tem began to seem like himself again. Mike was allowed to come in and see him. Another man accompanied him, standing back, giving the two players room. He nodded at John and held out a hand. "Ryan," he said his voice low and gentle. John attempted a weak smile and returned the handshake.

"John."

Mike had changed into jeans and carried in Tem's bag, which someone had apparently brought over from the rec center. John watched Mike discreetly. There was something about his manner, a gentle touch to Tem's leg. John glanced at Ryan: the man's eyes were on the young man, something familiar in his gaze as well. Protective and soft at the same time.

Tem began to look sleepy again and Ryan moved closer to Mike, slipping his hand into the waistband of his jeans and pulling the younger man back gently. The movement was discreet, and mostly hidden by their bodies. Only from his particular angle did John notice the act.

"Why don't you let him rest for now, Mike," Ryan said quietly. "You can always call tomorrow when he's feeling better."

Mike hesitated, looking at Tem with concern, but his eyes flickered to the man behind him and he stepped toward the curtain. "You'll be okay?" he asked.

Tem gave a weary smile and waved them away. "I don't break that easy," he said, lightly thumping his chest with his fist.

Mike returned the smile, looking unhappy. "I'll make sure he's thrown out of the league..."

Tem shrugged.

"I'll call you tomorrow, okay?" Mike was being gently guided out of the cubicle. Tem nodded weakly and gave another wave as they disappeared through the drawn curtain.

John waited until he was sure they were out of earshot, then looked at Tem who was blinking slowly.

"They're ... more than friends, aren't they?" He didn't know many gay couples. He didn't know many gay people, period. It felt strange and oddly comforting to have been in the presence of people he felt a camaraderie with.

Tem was looking at him. "Why does it matter?" he asked, irritable, misinterpreting John's reason for asking.

John was too tired to explain. "It doesn't, I was just... The way they looked at each other..." He closed his eyes for a moment. "How are you feeling?"

"Shitty. I thought they were going to let me have Tylenol or something."

"I don't know, baby. Do you want me to go ask?"

"No." Tem banged his heels against the legs of the bed. John watched him for several seconds, then opened his gym bag.

"Why don't you change your clothes. It'll be cold when we get out of here."

"Ah, you are assuming we will get out of here..." But he accepted the jeans John handed him. He was quiet for several minutes as he struggled into his street clothes. When he spoke again, he was subdued. "Mike is... like me. And Ryan's like you."

John glanced up at his partner, skimming his mental files for something to connect with those statements. Coming up empty, he said, "What do you mean?"

"Like us," Tem said, sounding a bit more exasperated. John got the feeling he was missing some important element in the conversation.

"Gay?" he asked, quietly.

"No! I mean, yes, but... Mike gets in trouble..." Tem had dropped his voice until he was barely audible. John slid his chair close to him to hear.

"Okay..." he said, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It didn't. Tem looked at him intently. "I'm sorry, hon, I don't understand what you mean."

Tem huffed and flopped onto his back in frustration. He immediately gasped, then whimpered and pressed his hands to his head. "Ow..."

John put a hand on Tem's thigh. "Probably shouldn't do that, baby."

"I want to go home," he moaned.

"I know, baby. Me too."

*****

Several centuries had passed by the time the doctor swept the curtain open again. Tem looked at him, too tired to glare or he would have melted the man on the spot.

"I want to go home."

The doctor smiled. "Of course you do. It doesn't seem like you're going to deteriorate; let me give some information to your friend here and we'll see how well you're walking. Dizziness gone?"

Tem realized suddenly that the seasick, queasy feeling had lessened significantly when he wasn't looking. "I think so."

"Why don't you get up and we'll see how well you're walking."

Carefully, Tem slid off the bed and tested his feet. The floor didn't lurch beneath him. He tried a few tentative steps. He was weak and unsteady, but he could keep his feet without assistance. The doctor watched appraisingly as he had Tem pace up and down the length of the ward. As Tem was walking, the doctor discussed some things with John and handed him some pieces of paper.

Tem felt a stab of guilt as he looked at his partner. John looked exhausted and drained. Tem felt another wave of tears surface and fought them back. He didn't like being buffeted by his emotions this way. Then he felt anger replace the sadness and would have stomped back into his cubicle if he weren't afraid it would split his head open.

*****

"You can let him sleep through the day. Wake him up every couple hours; if he's more difficult than usual to wake up, bring him back in. If he throws up again, anything on the list, bring him back."

John looked over the list of symptoms the doctor had handed him while Tem was walking stiffly to the other end of the ward. He sighed heavily.

"He'll probably be very sleepy; it's fine to let him sleep. He may have mood swings. That's normal. This should tell you everything to expect." The doctor handed him another sheet. John scanned it. "And he might need to consider a mouth guard if he's going to continue playing sports. After one head injury, it's easier to get another." He handed John a pamphlet.

John closed his eyes. "Okay. Is that everything?"

Tem was approaching, looking angry and miserable.

"That should do ya. Get outta here. And we hope not to see you again." The doctor winked. John looked at the man's retreating back and shook his head.

"Are you ready to go home?" he asked as Tem reached him.

"Yes," he whispered.

John gathered Tem's things and led him out into the cold gray of pre-dawn.

"Want to tell me about Ryan and Mike now?"

Tem shrugged. "Mike gets spanked," he said casually, sliding into the car and closing the door, leaving John to stand open-mouthed on the pavement.

*****

"Upstairs, Tem."

Tem knew there was only one reason John would take him upstairs. If he were going to get the hairbrush he'd be sent to fetch it himself. "No, my head hurts..." he said desperately.

"It's been a week; your head is fine."

"No, you can't cane me, it's not fair!"

John tilted his head to one side. "Why isn't it fair?"

"Because!" Tem floundered.

John waited. Then, "Upstairs, Tem."

Tem took a deep breath and said "No."

John's eyebrows rose. "It's not up for debate, Temoko."

Very calmly, Tem repeated himself. "No."

John raised his chin slightly and looked at Tem for a long moment, then he pulled a chair out from the table. "Come here."

Tem's breath quickened, and he shook his head. "No."

"Now, Tem."

"I said, no!"

"Sit! Down!" John barked. Tem jumped.

"Oh..." he said meekly and slid sheepishly into the chair.

John rounded the table and sat down across from him. He slid his chair forward and set his elbows on the table, resting his chin on folded hands. He looked at Tem. The silence lengthened.

"It isn't fair," Tem finally said.

"Why isn't it fair, Tem?"

Tem looked at the tabletop, running his finger along the swirling grain. "I felt like shit for days; I learned my lesson. I shouldn't be punished again." He waited for John to comment on the language, but it didn't happen.

"And what lesson did you learn?" John asked, reasonably.

Tem couldn't meet his eyes. "Not to disobey you," he said, squirming on his chair.

John was quiet for a long time. Finally, Tem glanced up at him. "I'm not God, Tem. I don't require or request blind obedience from you."

"I know," Tem mumbled, fascinated by the swirls in the wood tabletop once more.

"Why should you have obeyed me in this situation?"

"Because I got hurt..." John's gaze bored into him.

"Do you understand that after one blow to the head a second one is seriously compounded?"

"Yes, sir..."

John took a deep breath.

"Why else are you being punished?

Tem looked up at him, surprised. "...Because I knocked the guy down?"

"Want to rephrase that? I saw exactly what you did."

Tem opened his mouth but no words came forth. He closed it again. John waited patiently. Tem swallowed. "I threw him." His answer was nearly inaudible.

"Why did you do that?"

"Because I was angry," he whispered.

"Do you know what that means?"

Tem shook his head quickly, head bowed.

"It means you lost control. You can't afford to lose control. Do you understand?"

Tem nodded slightly.

"Your body is a weapon, your training makes you a weapon." Tem raised his eyes slowly. "You let yourself lose control and you used a weapon against someone who did not deserve it, in a situation that did not warrant it. If you do that, someone is going to get hurt. Very badly. You will not let that happen. Understand?"

"Yes, sir." John couldn't even hear the words, only see Tem mouth them.

"Now do you understand why you're being punished?"

"But I did get punished. I got slammed into the boards... I got a concussion... I was sick..."

"As far as he was concerned you knocked him down; he slammed you into the boards. All's fair on the field. I'm not punishing you for the yellow card. I'm punishing you for what the ref didn't see and what that player didn't know. Something a lot more serious. And the concussion shouldn't have happened -- you took the risk, you deal with the consequences. You are being punished for disobeying a reasonable demand. Do you understand?"

Tem stared at his lap, frowning. "No... Can't you use the brush instead?"

"It's not negotiable, Tem. It's not your choice."

Tem looked at him steadily. "It is if I withdraw my consent."

John blinked. "Is that what you're doing?"

"Would you leave me if I did?"

John's face went blank with shock. "Of course not," he said quickly.

"What would you do?"

"WE would find another means of keeping your life in control." He paused. "Is that what you're doing?" he asked again.

"I don't know," Tem said to the wood.

John slid his chair back from the table. "Think about it. I'm going to work for a while. Tell me when you know what you want."

*****

Tem put his face in his hands. Finally, he roused himself and went to the phone to call Mike. He listened to the dial tone for long seconds, then hung it up again. He could hear John's footsteps above him in the bedroom and his heart jumped momentarily. The cane was too much.

He slid down and sat, his knees tucked against his chest, his back to the wall. He closed his eyes. The click of toenails on the tile heralded the entrance of a monstrous, shaggy black creature, which flopped down on Tem's right side and tried to work its nose between his stomach and legs. Tem sighed and slid his legs out flat so the dog could rest its chin on his lap. "Hi, Wolf." He stroked the giant head.

He reached above him and knocked the phone off the hook, bringing it down. He turned it on and slowly dialed the number.

A gentle voice answered. "Hello?"

"Hi..." Tem wasn't sure what to say now. "It's Tem."

"Hello, Tem." He could hear a smile in the brightening of the tone. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm doing okay, thanks..."

"Good, glad to hear that. Did you want to speak with Mike?"

Tem hesitated for a moment, then surprised himself. "Actually, I have something I'd like to run by you, if that's all right..."

"Of course," said the soft voice. Ryan sounded like what Tem had always thought Jesus would sound like. He found it hard to imagine him giving a spanking.

"I, um... I have a problem..." He quickly summarized the situation for his friend's partner. Ryan listened quietly and without interrupting. When Tem finished, there was a long pause. Tem waited nervously, twining his fingers through Wolf's fur.

"Do you think you deserve it?" Ryan asked finally.

Tem hesitated. "I don't know..."

"I think that's what it comes down to, Tem. Maybe you need to give it some more thought."

"What if I do deserve it, but I can't take it?"

Ryan paused. "Do you trust John?"

"Yes," he said immediately.

"Would he give you more than you can take?"

Tem looked down at Wolf's head, blinking back tears. "No," he said, nearly choking on the word.

"Do what you think is right, and I think you'll be okay," the gentle voice said. "John is your ally, not your enemy. If you trust him, trust him. And we are your friends too; you can always call us if you need someone else to talk to."

"Thanks," Tem whispered, tears dripping into Wolf's tangled mat.

"Don't torture yourself." The voice was warm, smiling. "If you're going to do it, do it now."

"Yeah... Thanks, Ryan."

"Anytime, Tem."

Tem turned off the phone and set it on the floor beside him. He bent forward and wrapped his arms around the dog's neck for a moment, then eased himself to his feet.

*****

John was typing carefully, trying to work through a complicated scene, when he heard soft footsteps on the stairs. He took a deep breath and continued to work, letting Tem set the pace.

When Tem entered the office, he turned to face him. In the young man's hands was the cane. His face was expressionless.

"It's not what I'm doing," he said softly. "You're right."

John looked at him, and nodded slowly. He rose and took the cane from Tem's hands, only then noticing how pale his lover was.

Tem led the way into the bedroom, undoing his jeans and pushing them down without prompting. He put his hands flat on the comforter at the foot of the bed and took a deep breath.

*****

Tem stared at the comforter, summoning his courage. He heard John step into place behind him and to his right. His heart was pounding. "Five minutes," he thought. "It will all be over in five minutes."

There was a swish and he felt the impact before the line lit with fire. He squeezed his eyes shut. The second stroke cut barely above the first, his body tensed as he fought the instinct to fling his hands back and rub the burning stripes. A third fell above the second, and then a fourth, immediately after. He hissed through his teeth, his tears spilling onto the bed, but determined to take the punishment he deserved. The fifth stroke lit up the underside of his bottom and made him jump and stamp his foot. He held still. The last caning he'd gotten was only four stripes. He was already beyond that and had no idea how long John intended this one to continue. He began to sob softly. The cane swished again. The lowest yet, burning a brand nearly across the tops of his thighs. He cried out, gripping the blankets tightly.

"That's enough," John said gently.

Tem barely heard him. He sank down onto the bed, sobbing into the comforter. He was vaguely aware of John sitting down next to him, stroking his hair and his back. Slowly, his sobs faded to gasps, then to soft, regular breaths. John kissed his hair.

"I'm sorry it's been a rough week, hon."

Tem turned his face toward John, but had nothing to say. He was afraid to even try to move. John twisted around to look at the clock.

"It's five-thirty; get dressed, we're going out to eat."

"What??" Tem demanded, incredulous. "You've got to be out of your tree!"

"Come on." He got up and went to the closet to get a sweater. Tem slid to his knees and stared at him in disbelief.

"I am NOT going anywhere I have to sit down!"

"Well, you're free to eat standing up, but you might get looks..." He pulled the sweater over his head and smoothed his hair.

"I hate you."

"Ah, but I love you. And all's fair in love and war, dear." He smiled and bent to kiss the top of Tem's head.


~ Julnick

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