Winter of the Soul

by Julnick


John carefully dabbed the blood from his mouth.

"You should let me go."

"I told you I handled it, Tem, drop it."

"Handled it? I'll handle it, I'll fucking kill them!"

John folded the cloth over again and fixed Tem with a level stare. "Drop it." His tone was cool and carried a firm, unspoken warning. Tem ground his teeth and glared but remained silent. John winced at the deep gash inside his lower lip, but a quick examination with his tongue revealed no chipped or loose teeth. The bleeding had nearly stopped. He could live without stitches. He got up quietly leaving Tem to stew in the living room and dropped the bloody dishcloth in the kitchen sink.

He leaned heavily against the tile countertop staring, unseeing, into the yard beyond the window. Clouds had moved in during the morning, the sky was now the color of worn slate and the wind was picking up, whipping the scrubby grasses and the thick pines. He shivered despite the warmth in the house.

A soft but audible footfall was Tem's attempt at not giving his partner a heart attack every time he came up behind him. But old habits die hard. John jumped as Tem put a gentle hand on his back.

"Sorry." Tem murmured.

John blinked, drawing himself back from that place. He turned and gave a faint smile.

"I'm okay." He opened his arms, drawing Tem close to him, ignoring the protests of his swollen ribs.

"Just tell me who did it. I won't do anything. I promise..."

John was shaking his head as he disentangled their bodies. "Leave it alone. Please?"

The younger man looked unhappy, but he changed the subject. "The storm's coming in. Do we need anything from town?"

"No, I don't think so. Did you pick up the dog's food?"

"It's in my car."

"Get it please, before the snow starts." John knew he sounded weary. Tem gave him a lingering glance before heading into the mudroom and pulling on his shoes. John looked in the freezer for something to warm up for dinner.

*****

The snow began falling as they were washing up the dinner dishes. Wolf trundled into the kitchen bumping his huge head into the backs of their knees until he was rewarded with rubs and scratches behind the ears.

"Get him some food please, Tem."

Tem wiped his hands on a towel and trotted to the pantry, cooing to the giant woolly creature. Wolf barreled after him, tongue lolling, tail swirling in delight. John shook his head and set the last of the dishes in the drainer. He filled the teapot and set in on the burner listening to Wolf devour his meal noisily, getting as much food on the floor as in his mouth. Tem knelt and rubbed the dog affectionately murmuring to him and deflecting the occasional swipe of the huge, pink tongue.

John began to run a hand over his face, winced and stopped. He sank down at the kitchen table and watched Tem and Wolf tussle until the kettle began to shriek. He slid it off the burner. "Let him go out before the snow's too deep. Don't let him run far. And wear your coat!" He shouted after the retreating back. He sighed and poured water into too large mugs, stirring in several spoonfuls of cocoa mix.

The fire was crackling warmly, pillows and blankets were piled on the couch, and cocoa was waiting when the man and dog tramped back into the mudroom, shaking a layer of snow from coat and fur. Tem began hanging his overclothes on the hooks while Wolf trundled into the living room and jumped onto the couch with John, wet and smelling it. "Wolf! Down!" John tried shoving the beast off, but was outclassed in sheer mass. "Tem! Get your dog off the couch! He's soaked!"

Tem whistled sharply and Wolf leapt from the couch, sending a cascade of pillows to the floor. Tem grabbed an old towel and began to scrub the dog's coat. "How come he's only MY dog when he's bad?"

John wasn't up to rising for that bait. Released from Tem's grasp, and sensing John was unhappy, Wolf once more bounded up to him, planting his giant paws in his lap and nuzzling his face. "Wolf! Down!"

Tem flopped on the couch and patted the cushion to his side. Away from John. Wolf obediently jumped up and settled in the indicated spot, laying his head on his forepaws which now rested on Tem's leg. "You don't have to be mean to him. He's just being friendly."

"I wasn't being mean," John said wearily, handing a mug to his partner.

"You were yelling at him. He's worried about you." John cast him a skeptical glance. "Well, he is. Dogs are sensitive, they can tell when something is wrong."

John let it drop. He wasn't in the mood to have this conversation. He sipped the cocoa, staring silently into the fire. Tem sighed and leaned his head against John's shoulder, his left hand massaging Wolf's neck. Buck meowed softly from the far end of the couch and alighted on the arm, picking his way through the pillows to curl up on John's lap. John sighed and kissed his quiet partner on the top of the head. The wind stopped howling and they watched the snow drift down in large, heavy flakes, blanketing the landscape in a thick draping of white.

By the time Tem went upstairs for bed, the snow was a half foot up the sliding glass door. John stared out at the darkness the snowflakes gleaming in the light spilling out through the kitchen window. Then he shut off the lights and climbed the stairs.

In the bedroom, Tem was already dressed in flannel pants and a T-shirt, toothbrush firmly wedged in his mouth. "Have you seen my book?" He mumbled through the foam.

John shook his head, crossing to the bathroom. As he relieved himself he glanced down and went cold. Footsteps approached from the outer room. John quickly dropped the seat and flushed the toilet before Tem could see the blood. Tem squeezed past him, spitting out his toothpaste. He gave his partner a long look. "What's wrong?"

John grabbed his own toothbrush. "Nothing." And shoved it into his mouth to avoid more conversation. Tem blinked, looked at him for another moment, then slid past into the bedroom again. John finished brushing his teeth quickly and went out to find Tem sitting on the edge of their bed with a book. "Is that it?"

"Mmhm."

John went into the large closet to change clothes, not ready to deal with the fallout when his partner saw the extent of his injuries. In sweats, he crawled into his half of the bed. Tem glanced up from his book.

"Shouldn't you put some ice on that or something?"

"Its fine, lie down."

Tem tucked himself under the blankets obediently. "Is it still snowing?"

"Yeah. We'll be working here for a couple of days at least."

"Mmm, how romantic..."But, he didn't sound completely thrilled with the idea. Wolf jumped onto the bed between their feet, turned around a few times and flopped down in a furry heap. John sighed and Tem grinned at him. "Do you need some aspirin or anything?"

"No, I'll be okay, Hon, thank you."

"Goodnight."

"Night."

Tem flicked off the light.

*****

John's dreams were violent and disturbing. Fists and shouting, obscenities, disapproval. He was being shaken, screaming. He started awake. Wolf was whimpering and barking, Tem's screams dissolved into choking gasps as he thrashed, tangled in the sheets. John grabbed him in the darkness. "Tem!"

He switched on the lamp. Tem was wheezing and coughing. "Tem! Wake up!" The young man's eyes snapped open, wide and unseeing. His hands went to his throat. "Tem! Its a dream! Wake up! You're home! You're at home, baby..." Tem looked wildly about the room, his eyes finally stopping on John's face, focusing slowly. He moaned softly and coughed, then abruptly stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom.

John followed him, rubbing Tem's back as he threw up. The routine was old and familiar. John cradled his partner against his chest as he wiped his face with a damp cloth. Tem coughed violently. "Come back to bed, baby."

Tem's breathing was rough and he was coughing badly as they tumbled back into the bed. John gathered him close to his body, pulling the blankets around them both. Wolf crawled up on Tem's other side, pressing his huge body against Tem's back. "Tell me about the dream, hon."

Tem shook his head. "I don't feel like talking." He was beginning to shiver. His skin was cold.

"You're going to work yourself into pneumonia if you don't talk it out."

"That's ridiculous," he wheezed, coughing again.

"The mind is an amazing thing, Tem. You've done it before. Tell me about the dream."

He sighed, pressing hard against John's chest. John breathed against the ache of his ribs and held Tem closer. "Jardins was point. We were going up river. In the reeds..."

The words were familiar but never lost their power. John closed his eyes, willing his own warmth into his lover's body. Eventually, the story played out to its gruesome conclusion, the coughing stopped, and Tem's breathing steadied and slowed. John turned out the light, but it took him a long time to fall asleep again.

*****

The snow was three feet deep by morning and plows didn't come this far up the mountain. Tem was unusually quiet as he worked on schematics at the kitchen table. John tried to concentrate on his writing, but he only had a few pages done by lunchtime. Tem burned his mouth on the soup and cursed. John thought about reprimanding him, but stopped, unable to find the energy.

Later, Tem wore his wet boots through the hallway. John simply cleaned up the mess. Clothes off the hooks in the mudroom, dishes left stacked in the sink, dog food scattered on the kitchen floor, John wearily and quietly cleaned up Tem's silent rebellions.

For two days the unspoken battle continued. The snow continued to pile up outside, and Tem's temper was running short. John merely withdrew deeper into himself. On Wednesday, John went into the kitchen to begin lunch. Tem was emailing schematics to his office. "Tem, your morning pills are still on the counter."

"So?" came the querulous reply. John sighed and set them on the table in front of Tem with a glass of juice.

"Take them please."

"Its one o'clock!"

"So?" John said back.

Tem swallowed them, scowling. He was silent for several minutes while John made sandwiches. "Aren't you going to spank me?"

John sighed and wiped his hands on a towel. "All right."

"Well, don't go to any trouble on my accord," Tem snapped.

John pulled a chair out from the table. "Come here, please."

Tem scowled at him. "No..."

John was mildly surprised, but he simply went to the utensil drawer and withdrew a sturdy, wooden spoon. Tem's scowl wavered. John set the spoon on the table. "Now, please, or should I get the brush, too?"

Tem rose slowly and came around the table to the waiting chair. John sat down and unbuttoned Tem's jeans, tugging them down to his knees. Tem just stared at him, a slight frown tilting the corners of his mouth. He patted his leg, and Tem lowered himself obediently into position. Then John slipped his fingers into the young man's shorts and pulled them down to join his jeans. Tem gripped the chair rungs and lowered his head.

John didn't even bother using his hand as he usually did. He picked up t he spoon and smacked it down hard. Tem's head jerked up and he yelped. "Ow!"

"You've been trying to get me to do this for days. Are you happy now?"

"Ow... Ow!" He hissed, clenching his teeth. "John!"

John cracked the spoon down again and again, ignoring the protests. Tem's bottom was quickly turning a bright pink. He was squirming and kicking slightly with each swat. John knew what he was feeling. His mother had used the same spoon on him until she died and he was sent to live with his father...

All bitterness was gone from his voice, Tem was pleading, very sincerely. His bottom was glowing red and hot when John finally set down the spoon. He pulled up Tem's shorts and jeans and let him off his lap. "Corner."

Tem cast him a forlorn look and shuffled to the kitchen corner. He slumped against the wall, sniffling softly. Wolf, who had wedged himself under the stairs during the spanking, crept into the kitchen and pushed his mammoth head under Tem's hand. John let it go and finished preparing the sandwiches. "Come eat," he said gently.

Tem eased himself into the hard, wooden chair, shifting uncomfortably, new tears coming to his eyes. John said nothing as he set a plate in front of him, and sat down with his own across the table. They ate in silence. Rather, John ate. Tem picked at the food, took a few tentative bites and set the plate on the floor where Wolf immediately pounced on it.

"Tem..."John heard his own voice, more weary than angry.

The tears spilled, and Tem turned quickly getting out of his chair and running up the stairs. Wolf bounded up after him. John dropped his head into his hands and closed his eyes.

He waited about half an hour before going up to the bedroom. Wolf was lying at the bottom of the bed by Tem's feet. Tem was on his belly, face buried in his arms. John sat down beside him, rubbing his back and leaned down to kiss his hair. "Baby? Are you okay?"

Tem mumbled something indecipherable into the pillows. John kissed his ear gently. "How about saying that to me instead of the bedding?"

Tem turned his head. "My butt hurts." John moved his hand down and rubbed there for a moment.

"I'm sorry, Hon." He slid down to lie next to Tem, and stroked the younger man's short hair away from his forehead. "You didn't eat much lunch, are you hungry?"

Tem shook his head. He reached out and stroked the bruise on John's cheek. "Your face looks better. Does it still hurt?"

"Not really."

Tem kissed him gently. "Does that hurt?" He asked, smiling faintly.

"Mmm, not at all."

Tem shifted, onto all fours, straddling his partner and leaned down, softly kissing his lips, the line of his jaw, his ear, his neck. John closed his eyes, enjoying the attention, but his mind drifted. He started as he realized he'd been asked a question. Tem was kneeling, still astride his hips, but his arms were crossed, and his expression was not a happy one. He was silent for a moment, then climbed off the bed and went into the bathroom. He came out and flung a bottle of pills at John's chest.

"I thought maybe you had a headache," he said bitterly and stomped out of the room. Wolf looked from the door to John, whimpering.

"Go on, then," he said gruffly. The huge dog lolled his tongue at him and trotted out after Tem. A soft meow alerted him just before fifteen pounds of sleek fur landed on his belly. Buck pushed his head up under John's chin, purring like an old radiator. John stroked him. "At least somebody still loves me," he muttered before gently removing the cat to the bed and heading downstairs.

*****

Tem was on the couch, with Wolf on his lap, looking at a photo album. "Tem... I'm sorry..."The man didn't look up. "Look, its nothing to do with you, ok? I have a lot on my mind."

"Obviously."

"Give me a break, huh? I've had a lot to deal with this week."

Tem looked up at him slowly and crossed his arms over his chest. "So, tell me about it."

"I really don't feel like talking."

"You've let me get away with hell this week you haven't even said a word. I had to practically force you to spank me. You're walking around here like you're half dead, and you don't want to talk about it??"

"Tem," he said hotly.

"No! I tell you everything! Whether I want to talk about it or not! I've told you the worst shit that ever happened in my life. I let you listen, I let you comfort me, I let you take care of me when I need you. Now you need me, but you won't let me help. What am I your child? You take care of me but I don't get to take care of you?"

John bit back an angry reply, stung. "Tem, this isn't about you."

"The fuck it isn't!"

"Stop swearing!"

"No! It is about me! I'm your partner! I'm the one you're shutting out! I'm the one getting hurt!"

John stopped and stared at him, breathing heavily, his stomach churning. "Fine," he snapped and pulled his sweatshirt off. Tem stared. The purple bruises were beginning to fade to yellow and green around the edges, but still looked plenty bad. Tem worked Wolf off his lap and rose, pulling John to the window where the light was better.

"Oh my God..."He breathed, running a feathery touch over the still swollen welts and bruises. His fingers followed the marks to where they disappeared below John's waistband. He fumbled with the buttons, and John allowed him to lower his jeans and shorts, revealing more narrow bruises on his belly, buttocks and thighs.

Tem faced him once more, his face set in a mask that gave John some idea what he'd looked like to his enemies as a soldier. "What did this?" He asked, his finger tracing one of the narrow bands.

"A belt."

He nodded slightly. "And this?"

"Belt buckle. The rest are from fist and boot." Tem absorbed the information for a moment.

"Who?"

"No retaliation, Tem."

"Who?"

"Promise."

"Who??"

"Promise!"

They stared at each other for a long moment, locked in silent battle. Finally, through tightly clenched teeth, Tem said, "I promise."

"My father."

Tem blinked. "What did? Why did? When? Why did you see your father?"

John was silent for several seconds. "I told him."

"Told him what?" Then understanding dawned and in the next breath, "You TOLD HIM?? Why in the name of God and everything holy would you tell your FATHER?? I mean why not start out with something small? Like a skinhead rally!"

John slowly got dressed, weathering the tirade in silence. "Tem..."

"Your FATHER?? He's got no business in your life, period! Let alone your SEX life!"

"Tem!"

Tem blinked. "What??"

"I needed to tell him."

"Why??"

"He's my father."

Tem stared. "The only contribution he ever made to your life was fucking your mother."

"I needed to do it, Tem. He's dying."

Tem's expression softened slightly. "I'm sorry." They stood in silence for a long moment. "I still hate him."

"I know. Its okay."

"Are you all right?"

"I guess so. I didn't really expect anything to be different. Stupid as it sounds, I still wanted his approval."

Tem put his arms around John, gently putting his forehead to his lover's. "You're never going to get it, hon."

"I know... But I had to try, before he's gone or I'd always regret it." Tem kissed him gently and pulled away, crossing into the mudroom. "Where are you going?"

"I'm going to kill him."

"Tem, you promised."

"So spank me."

John looked at him. "Tem there is six feet of snow outside how are you going to get anywhere?"

Tem hesitated and set down his boot. "I can wait."

"Tem, you will not do anything. Do you understand me?"

"I'm afraid you'll have to punish me. I can't let this go."

John's voice got very soft. "You will NOT do anything. That's an order."

Tem raised his eyebrows. "You can't pull rank on me. You don't have any, and I'm retired."

"Go upstairs."

"Why?"

"Now, Tem."

John followed him up the carpeted steps.

*****

Tem stopped in the bedroom and turned, looking at John inquiringly.

"Drop your jeans please."

"Ohh, John, I'm still sore from before..."

"Now, please."

Tem sighed and began unbuttoning his pants. John went to the closet and withdrew a thin cane. It had never been used. Tem blanched and his hands froze.

"No, John, please, I didn't do anything wrong!"

"You defied my authority."

"You've never caned me for that before!"

"You threatened to kill someone."

"What do you want me to do? Let him get away with what he did to you?"

"Yes. Its my battle, not yours. I'm a grown man. I don't go out and beat up anyone who hurts you. I know you can take care of yourself. I am just here to comfort you when you come home. That's what you did for me. That is perfect. That is enough."

"He BEAT you!"

"Tem, he beat me for years. I know how to fight back. I just needed you to be here when I got home. Pants down."

Trembling, Tem managed to slide his jeans down, and bend over the edge of the bed. Without further discussion, John laid the first stroke. Tem jumped up, clutching his bottom. "Tem, get back down."

"God! Please, John! I'm sorry!"

"You seem to have forgotten how we work around here. You do not defy me, no means no. You did not do it in the service you do not do it here."

"Yes, sir! I'm sorry! Please!" He struggled to put his hands back on the bed. The second stroke cut across his bottom. He stamped his feet. "Ow! Ow! God!" The third left him with tears streaking his face. John stopped after four.

Tem sank to his knees, burying his face in the blankets and rubbing furiously. John put away the cane and came to sit beside his lover. Tem flinched as John touched his hair.

"Come on, now, it isn't as bad as all that. Its over now."

Tem moaned. "It fucking hurts."

"Watch your mouth," John said automatically. Tem began to giggle through his tears. "What's so funny?"

"You're back," he said, wincing as he crawled up onto the bed. His face fell. "I'm sorry I was such an ass all week, I wasn't there for you when you needed me."

"Its ok, you didn't know what was going on, you were great today." He didn't look much cheered by that. John looked at him and pushed him onto his back, swinging his leg over to straddle his hips. Tem cringed as his backside touched the bed. "Oh, my poor baby." John kissed his forehead. "I believe we were interrupted earlier... Too sore now?"

"I'll make the sacrifice..."He slid his hands under John's sweatshirt. John winced, and Tem looked sympathetic. "Sorry..."

John chuckled. "We, the walking wounded... If you can sacrifice, I certainly can too." Tem smiled and met the kiss eagerly.


~ Julnick

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