By Hedeia

Stephen sighed and rolled over, trying to find a more comfortable
position without disturbing the man sleeping next to him. He
stretched slightly, squeezing his eyes shut against the insistent
brightness outside, pressing his face into the pillow to muffle some
of street noises. Surreptitiously he checked his watch. 4:22 am.

During the day he found himself adjusting quite well to their new
home; it was Declan who seemed lonely and disconnected. At night,
however, it was Stephen's turn to feel out of sorts. Declan could
sleep through a nuclear standoff, but the constant light and sound
kept Steve awake more nights than he wanted to recall.

Beside him Declan made a soft sound and thrust an arm out without
waking, reaching for Stephen. The older man sighed again and pulled
Declan against him. His partner's steady, soft breathing, heavy with
sleep, finally closed Stephen's eyes and allowed him some rest.

Something shook his leg, dragging him out of his slumber.


The voice was as insistent as it was familiar.

"I'm awake. What time is it?" Stephen asked automatically, half
sitting up and covering Declan's hand where it rested on his thigh.

"Almost six," Deck said triumphantly. A naturally early riser, it
had been a struggle in the early days of their relationship to keep
Declan in bed until a decent hour. He could adjust quickly and
easily to any time change, never got jet lag, snapped to attention
the moment the market opened. It made him invaluable as an analyst…
and challenging as a roommate. What passed for roll-with-the-
punches, well-adjusted stoicism during the workday, however, turned
too easily to competitiveness, false bravado, and an intense desire
to conform. But they were working on that, Stephen reminded himself,
looking fondly at the sleep-creased face of his lover. Behind the
pillow marks Declan's eyes were bright.

"What's for breakfast?" Satisfied his partner was awake – even if
Stephen's slow greeting of the morning didn't really count as "awake"
in Deck's book – Declan launched out of bed and bounded toward the
bathroom, stopping just long enough to toss a heart-breaking smile
and a "You're cooking, right?" over his shoulder.

The bathroom door slammed before Stephen could answer. He shook his
head, marveling as always at Deck's energy level, not to mention his
gift for manipulation. Stephen stretched again, then dragged himself
out of bed, dressed, and padded to the kitchen to hunt down
breakfast – preferably something calming enough to keep Declan from
bouncing around the apartment, but energizing enough to keep him
awake through the inevitable lecture on how to close a door quietly
and properly.

It was classic Declan…when he was angry, he sulked, pouted,
occasionally acted out. But if he slammed doors, it was out of sheer

Stephen couldn't help smiling as he opened and closed cupboards and
refrigerator, taking out cereal and fruit. "Last chance, kiddo," he
said, half to himself since Deck couldn't hear him over the roar of
the shower. Stephen glanced out the small window above the kitchen
table. People walking, running, driving, biking, shouting. Their
street was alive every minute of the day. Which meant, of course,
that it was a struggle to keep Declan on any sort of normal
schedule. A morning person, he could also be a night person. A
middle-of-the-night person, too. When he slept, he slept like a
baby, but he had to be persuaded first.

"Coffee! I need coffee!" Declan bellowed cheerfully as he twisted the
taps off hard enough to squeak and emerged from the tiny bathroom
with a towel wrapped carelessly around his hips.

He gave Stephen a long, toothpaste-flavored kiss. "What's on the
menu?" he asked, batting the long lashes that had melted previous
lovers, but never seemed to work on Steve. Not when he wanted them
to, anyway.

Stephen kissed him back. "Go dry off and get dressed, Deck."

"I AM dry," Declan protested. "See?" he asked slyly, whisking off
the towel and striking a brazen pose. "Dry as a…bone."

Steve rolled his eyes, purposely keeping his gaze above waist level,
not giving in to the seduction. He turned Deck around with a firm
swat to his damp bottom. "Get dry and dressed. Now!"

"Fine!" Declan pouted for only a second before flouncing toward the
bedroom, but even in the short distance between kitchen and bedroom
the bounce returned to his step. He wasn't one to hold a grudge,
Stephen noted, watching the retreating and still bare bottom with
affectionate frustration. Of course, while that quality meant a
minimum of sulking, it also meant the shortest of short-term
memories. Deck could be chastised for some misdeed, sulky at being
caught, sincerely apologetic after the fact, angelic post-
forgiveness, and then cheerfully oblivious again all in the time it
took most people to experience just ONE of those emotional states.

He was a wild ride, Declan.

Mornings had been something of a challenge since the move, with
Stephen—who preferred to shower in the evenings—devoting most of his
time to keeping an overexcited Declan reasonably in line. Waking him
was never a problem, but preventing him bouncing all the way to the
job he loved was a full-time assignment.


Stephen appeared in the bedroom doorway, potholder-clad hands on his
hips. "Deck, please don't shout across—"

"My green shirt. I need my lucky green shirt."

Steve raised his eyebrows, his gesture for: what would you like me to
do about it? Declan scowled. If he wasn't going to be helpful…

"I have to wear it today!"

"Why do you have to wear it today?" Stephen asked patiently.

"I just do. With the lucky darker green tie," Declan explained. "I
can't find it!" He kicked at the bedpost.

"Hey, hey." Stephen was at his side in a moment, pulling him away
from the bed and toward the closet. "Did you look, Deck?"

"Of course I looked," he snapped. "Do you think I'm stupid?"

"No, but I think you're behaving rather rudely," Stephen said
firmly, "and I suggest you change your tone."

"Sorry," Declan muttered. "But I DID look and I can't find it."

"It's probably at the cleaners then," Steve suggested
reasonably. "It might have gone in that pile we took in Sunday."

"But when will they be ready? I need the shirt now!"

"Deck, calm down. Tell me why this shirt is so important."

"It just is. Llewellyn says…"

Stephen closed his eyes briefly as he listened to the inevitable
explanation, presumably another passage from the Gospel of Llewellyn
St. John. Steve was careful not to be overly critical of Llewellyn—
he of the oddly orange-tinted skin and perfectly blond-streaked hair
and obscenely expensive trend-slave outfits—since Declan was quite
fond of him. But while Stephen wanted Deck to have friends, he was
far from certain Llewellyn was the best choice.

Declan was in some ways still very young. A standout junior analyst,
yes, but at the same time a young man with an intense desire to
please, the urgent need to fit in that most of peers had left behind
after their teen years. Llewellyn was everything Deck wanted to be:
striking-looking, bright, a star at the company where they worked
together. For his part, Llewellyn seemed more than happy to take
Deck under his wing, Steve noted grimly. He didn't fear romantic
entanglement so much as Llewellyn's irritatingly shallow influence.
He braced himself now for another lecture from Declan on Llewellyn's
impeccable fashion sense, presumably ending in the reason for the
green shirt search-and-rescue mission.

Watching his lover's intense, anxious expression as he explained
himself, Stephen was reminded of how he had worried for Deck when
they made the move. "It would just be for a year," Steve had
explained, watching Declan carefully for some sign that it would be
too much, that the readjustment would take too high a toll.

Stephen had been very happy with their life in Columbus. They had a
little house on a quiet street, a garden with a lush plot of tomatoes
and basil. Declan loved his job at McKenzie Barnes; they'd nurtured
him from a newcomer, able, to their credit, to see beyond some of his
immaturity and seize on his natural talent for the market. And
Stephen for his part immersed himself in his work at the university.
He had a diverse and interesting group of students, stimulating
peers, and loose hours. The two men had time for themselves and time
for each other. All other things being equal – more than equal, in
fact, quite exceptional – they were able to work on the parts of
their relationship that demanded time and effort, steady input from
both men. Together they'd curbed some of Declan's excesses, turned
their home from frequent battleground to the cozy truce of partners.
Stephen was even getting used to Deck's musical tastes…

And so, when he was offered a prestigious one-year guest position
teaching in New York, Steve had worried about disrupting their
pleasant routine. Worried, mostly, for Deck.

It wasn't an employment issue. One of the benefits of working for
a "huge, faceless multi-national conglomerate," as Declan had joked,
was how easy they made moving to a new city. Deck had secured a job
with the New York branch of his firm, and was before long crunching
numbers in the financial district with the best of them. He thrived
on the energy and pace of the city's market scene.

At the other end of the spectrum was Declan at his cuddliest and
neediest, wracked by insecurity, terrified of not measuring up to the
big boys in the big city. There was the man who sometimes liked to
sleep with two stuffed animals: a small plush bull and a thick, furry
bear, presents from Steve to remind him that most things in life,
like the market, went up and down but, with patience and hard work,
eventually stabilized.

Deck loved the toys, even if Stephen could be heavy-handed at times.

So it wasn't a matter of the work. McKenzie Barnes was a welcome
constant for Declan. The office here was larger than their Columbus
branch with considerably more employees, but the company still lent
crucial stability.

There was, however, their neighborhood to contend with. Columbus had
a small, closely-knit gay scene with a few haunts worth frequenting.
It was a comfortable, low-key atmosphere that Stephen hadn't
appreciated enough while he was there, he noted ruefully. In stark
contrast, their street in the Village throbbed with a constant hum of
people and partying. The sublet offer, from a former coworker, had
been too good to pass up, and at the time it had seemed a decent

Declan's eyes had lit up when he heard. "Christopher Street! God,
Steve, that'll be so cool. Right in the seat of history. Stonewall
and all that." Stephen had watched his lover's gaze glaze over a bit
as he dreamed, no doubt, of the excitement to be found in their new

There was excitement, all right. And endless nightlife, and high
fashion, and, Stephen found himself aware most mornings, upon seeing
various paraphernalia scattered about, a seemingly endless array of
vices, any day of the week.

It wasn't all bad – the neighborhood was filled with character and
pride and diversity – but the high pace and endless energy, the noise
twenty-four hours a day, had been a big change. Stephen looked
around the small apartment. It had been difficult to adjust to less
than a quarter of the living space they were used to. Their first
few days in New York it seemed they couldn't move in the apartment
without tripping over each other. Stephen took a deep breath.
They'd grown more used to moving in the tight space of the rooms, but
he was painfully aware that as close as they stood now, something
stood between them.

"Declan, love. Just because Llewellyn thinks you should wear more
green does not mean you need to wear a green shirt today," Stephen
explained quietly, reasonably, aware but not at all resentful that
the argument he made so patiently was more suited to a fifteen-year-
old's ears than those of a grown man. Steve accepted willingly that
there were gaps in Declan's maturity, recognized that in spite of
these tendencies Deck was a loving and very intelligent man, capable
of great sensitivity and insight…

"Steve, I NEED to wear that shirt!" Deck cried.

…at times.

"You don't need to wear it," Stephen corrected firmly. "And you
don't need to do something for the sole reason that Llewellyn says
you should. Perhaps you're mixing him up with me…" Steve kept his
tone lighthearted but met Deck's gaze with steady eye contact to make
his point. "Just because Llewellyn likes green doesn't mean you need
to as well. His friendship isn't dependent on…"

"He is TOO my friend," Declan interrupted, tears shining in his
eyes. Steve put a hand on his shoulder, aware he'd touched a sore
spot. For all his enthusiasm about moving to the big city, Deck had
been terrified of starting out in a new place far away from all his
friends. From the first day Llewellyn had befriended him, and
especially from the first time Stephen had voiced some of his
hesitation when it came to this budding friendship, Declan grew
increasingly sensitive.

Not for the first time, Steve wondered if he'd been wrong in his
hands-off attitude toward the matter. Worried about Declan being
lonely, and feeling responsible for his happiness after the move, he
hadn't wanted to interfere with the first close friendship his
partner had developed. "Don't you WANT me to have friends?" Deck
would inquire, eyes huge with hurt, making Stephen feel terrible. A
part of him knew he was being manipulated and suggested a harsher
course of action, but he hadn't been able to bring himself to carry
it out.

"I know he's your friend," he continued patiently, keeping his voice
calm and level to bring Deck's down. "But just because he's your
friend doesn't mean you need to be exactly like him. He may like
green; that's his business. You're not going to go out and highlight
your hair just because he does, are you?" He asked only to be
horrified when Declan looked down at his feet, chewing on his lower
lip with the unmistakable manifestation of a guilty conscience.
Inwardly Stephen groaned. He'd meant it teasingly, much the way his
parents used to heckle him as a teenager ("If all your friends jumped
off the Sears Tower, would you?").

"You're NOT planning on going out and highlighting your hair, are
you?" he inquired gently.

"Well…I want to!"

"All right. We'll talk about this later."

"Why can't we talk about it now?" Declan asked, hearing his tone move
dangerously toward a whine and catching himself almost in time. A
part of him he didn't like to acknowledge reminded him Stephen would
probably let it go. Would probably let something even more go,
too. "I DO want highlights. I was going to tell you but…"

"If you really want them, then we can talk about it when we get home
tonight," Steve responded.

"But what if I want to get them before then?" Deck asked
unreasonably, voice rising slightly. Stephen ignored his tone.

"Let's discuss it later, Declan. If this is something you really
want, then you'll certainly still want it tonight. I'd like to see
that you're not just doing this because of what I said," he added.

"So what if I am?" Deck asked but his tone was more apprehensive
than challenging.

"Sew buttons," Stephen replied cheerfully, refusing to be drawn into
an argument, ruffling Declan's rust-colored hair. "And speaking of
buttons, you're going to be late for work if you don't get dressed,
pronto." He stood up, reasserting some control over the situation,
and pulled an aqua dress shirt from their shared closet. "Here.
This is close enough to green. And I love the way it brings out your
eyes," he added, partly to appease his younger lover and partly to
remind him whose opinion Deck should really be concerned about (read:
NOT Llewellyn's.).

"I guess it's almost green," Deck murmured. Subtlety tended to get
lost on him.

Anxious at the thought of being late for work, Declan dressed at
breakneck speed while Stephen leaned against the doorjamb, watching
him. Deck dragged him toward the front door with a wide smile, all
animosity forgotten. His memory for spats was remarkably short, as
Steve was reminded when his partner pulled him enthusiastically down
the stairs of their building and out to the street. At the top of
the subway stairs, Declan wound his fingers in the front of Stephen's
sweater and kissed him long and thoroughly, sneaking a hand down to…

"Hey!" Stephen swatted away his lover's wandering paw. Still a
Midwesterner at heart, Steve blushed at the public displays of
affection so common in their new home. At Deck's hurt look, Stephen
kissed him again, brushing his hair out of his eyes. It was
Christopher Street after all; most likely no one would notice even if
someone planted a passionate kiss on a farm animal.

"About those highlights…"

"We'll discuss it tonight," Stephen told him firmly; hearing the
familiar rumble of the train beneath the street, he urged Deck toward
the stairs. "Go on, I can hear the train coming. Have a good day.
Try to be home by six," he added, stealing one last kiss and
hovering at the top of the stair far longer than he needed to,
watching the familiar red head disappear into the throng of

On some level Stephen was aware he'd handled the situation badly.
Declan was frustrated and unhappy, he knew, as much as his bravado
tempted him to act in love with his new environs. But if Deck was
leaning on Llewellyn to model behavior for him, then surely Steve was
somehow failing in his responsibilities. He sighed, rested his chin
in his hand and stared out the window of his office onto the park
below. Students, small as dolls, sprawled across the grass and
curled up on benches; people jogged by in pairs and dogs gamboled
about. The pastoral scene was reassuringly familiar, more so than
the skyscraper intensity elsewhere in the city, the packed, bustling
financial district Deck loved.

Steve peeled his gaze from the window and refocused it on the stack
of papers in front of him, waiting to be graded. A thick manuscript
rested on the corner of his desk, awaiting proofreading. There was
plenty to be done, but he couldn't shake the nagging feeling,
disguised slightly as homesickness, that something was awry.

He needed to talk to Declan. On the walk home Stephen had convinced
himself, with more than a little guilt, that he was simply not
attuned enough to Deck's needs. Perhaps he wasn't being sensitive
enough. The move had meant big changes; Declan, with all his
overpowering insecurities, was no longer the big fish in the small
pond of McKenzie Barnes' Midwestern branch. It was only natural for
him to seek out a role model among his new office mates, Steve

Llewellyn wasn't that bad, after all – a bit shallow, prone to such
flights of fancy as tanning, highlighting his hair, and dressing in
Marc – but certainly bright, if his work record was any indication.
And probably, he thought grudgingly, a reasonably decent person. As
he sometimes asked himself, when he dared, what did people who didn't
know his lover like he did think of Declan? Surely an outsider might
mistake his self-conscious bravado for arrogance, his enthusiasm for
rudeness, his anxiety for moodiness?

Stephen resolved to be more patient, more tolerant of Deck's
friendship with Llewellyn. Perhaps they should have Llewellyn over
to dinner sometime…if the apartment were bigger than a shoebox, he
corrected himself ruefully. Filled with good intentions, he pushed
open the door to the apartment.

"Deck?" Silence answered him.

He let himself into the empty apartment, set down his books, settled
into the evening routine.

Half an hour later, he was reading in the easy chair in the living
room when a key turned in the door.

He looked at his watch. Six-ten. A mere ten minutes after he'd
asked Deck to get home, but it wasn't the first time he'd been late
this week. It was a minor act of rebellion yet blatant in its sheer
disregard for Steve's wishes. He tensed slightly, the familiar
nagging sense of worry tugging at him.

"Declan?" Stephen called after a moment, when his partner failed to
come in to greet him. It was unlike him; Deck usually bounded
straight for whatever room Steve was, throwing himself at his lover
with the unrestrained affection that was so much a part of his

Tonight though he hovered in the entryway, one foot in the kitchen,
nervous. "Coming!" he called, throat a bit dry. He tried to conceal
his worry with a swagger as he made his way, slowly but too fast for
his tastes, into the living room where Steve was waiting.

Patience and understanding, Steve reminded himself. With enough of
that, they'd get through whatever hurdles faced them. Declan just
needed to be reminded that he was loved, that he was cared for, that
he was…


Stephen's mouth dropped open.

Declan stood miserably before him, hands twisting anxiously, unable
to meet his partner's eye. Steve looked him up and down briskly,
horrified. Deck's lovely fair skin had been stained bright orange,
nearly as red as his hair. Patches around his eyes and ears looked
ruddy and burned. His hands, clenched nervously at his side, glowed
with that same unnatural shade.

"WHAT did you do?" Stephen demanded.

"I…" A tear splashed off Declan's mottled skin. "I went tanning,"
he whispered.

"Oh, Deck," Steve breathed, still lagging behind shock, lost
somewhere between anger and sadness it had come this far.

"I'm sorry!" Deck choked out, unable to bear the expression on his
lover's face.

"How far does the damage go?" Stephen's voice was perfectly even
and, to Declan's ears, cold. His eyes swam.

"It's not…"

"Take off your shirt," Steve ordered and Deck complied, sniffling as
he stripped off the aqua shirt Stephen had picked out for him that
morning and handed it sadly to his partner. Stephen tossed the shirt
over the back of the couch, an uncharacteristically careless maneuver
that made Declan's stomach turn over in fear at how angry Steve must
be with him.

That damned aqua shirt. Steve shook his head. The bright scrap of
fabric was a symbol of all their problems: too worried about Deck's
tender feelings, Stephen had been unable to put his foot down this
morning. If he'd simply said NO about the shirt; if he'd told Deck
in no uncertain terms that wearing green because Llewellyn said so
was silly and unacceptable; if he'd taken a white or a yellow shirt
out of the closet and instructed Declan to put it on *because he said
so*, would they be standing here now?

Under Steve's watchful eye Deck stripped to his underpants, shaking
with silent tears. Stephen rotated him, occasionally lifting an arm
or brushing aside his hair to inspect the burned skin.

"Are you in pain?" he asked quietly.

Declan shook his head but Stephen assumed shock was keeping him from
feeling the effects of the tanning bed.

Anger flushed his cheeks as Steve surveyed the damage. His partner's
delicate pale skin looked cheap, distorted and painful. The orangey
color was sickening.

"I hate it. I didn't know it would look like…I'm sorry," Deck cried
as Stephen folded his arms, fury giving way to calm decisiveness.

"Tanning is dangerous and stupid," he said, looking Declan in the
eye, holding him loosely by the arms. "You've damaged your skin and
to what end? Not to mention," he added, his tone deadly
serious, "blatantly disobeying me. You know how I feel about
tanning, and I also specifically told you never even to consider it.
Would you climb into a microwave, Deck? Because that's basically what
you did."

Tears slid down Deck's cheeks. "Llewellyn said it was safer than
going to the beach. He said then you build it up slowly and…"

"Llewellyn is wrong," Steve said simply. "And he may be your friend,
but it's me you have to answer to. You seem to have lost sight of

"I just thought…"

"No, you clearly didn't think," Stephen cut him off sharply. "For
God's sake, Declan, Carson was younger than you are now when he had
melanoma. Did you think of that? Do you remember what he looks like
now, Deck?" Steve closed his eyes for a moment, willing his voice
lower and his stance calmer, pushing the thoughts of Carson out of
his mind, his back striped with scars, the flesh a lumpy dark pink.

"I'm not him!" Declan cried.

"You're not *he*, and that is not the point," Stephen retorted. "You
were well aware of the dangers of tanning beds; I warned you
repeatedly, and you disobeyed me anyway."

"I'm sorry…"

"You're going to be sorrier," Stephen said, his tone free of malice
but imbued with an authority Declan hadn't heard lately, and which
made his stomach clench further.

Clad only in a pair of briefs that stood out starkly white against
his orangey skin, Declan watched in horror as Stephen put his hands
to his own waist and, with short, sharp movements, unbuckled his belt
and whisked it out of his belt loops with one clean yank.

"If you're so determined to get an all-over tan, kiddo, I'm going to
help you out. Starting with your hide," Stephen said grimly, and
with that he took Deck's wrist and drew him over his lap. There was
no sense in dragging this out; Steve was acutely aware of his
responsibility in this mess: his hesitancy, his worry these past few
months over Declan's emotional state had caused Deck more distress
than a firm hand would have.

He steeled himself to Declan's pitiful cries, reminding himself of
the course of action he needed to take.

"No, Steve, please." Deck buried his head in the side of the
armchair, the position as awkward emotionally as it was physically.

Stephen looked at him with some sympathy, stroking a hand over Deck's
shaking back.

It had been a while since Stephen had taken him over his knee in any
formal sense; the occasional couple of swats were fairly inevitable,
but it had been too long since he'd reinforced this part of their
relationship. It was his fault, he knew, that Declan had forgotten
some of the rules, had grown lax in his behavior. It was his
responsibility to keep his partner aware, and he had failed.

Stephen paused, his arm looped around Deck's waist, one hand at the
waistband of his briefs, frozen with indecision. How could Steve
spank Declan for taking advantage of the situation when it was he who
had failed him?

"Steve, please," Deck begged, bucking against his hands, and his
words galvanized Stephen. Declan might not have realized it at the
time but a part of Steve realized he was begging him not to stop, but
rather to reassert his control. Tipped over his partner's lap, legs
dangling awkwardly, blood rushing to his head, Deck was in miserable

just as he had been, Steve realized, since they'd moved to New York.

What a time for an epiphany, he thought, shaking his head bitterly.
Once and for all he resolved not to let Deck suffer any more, and
with that he pulled his partner's briefs swiftly down to his knees.
The skin of his buttocks was white and unmarked, set off by dramatic
orange tan lines. Shaking his head, focusing on the task at hand,
Stephen doubled the belt in his palm and smacked it down, firmly,
across the center of Declan's backside.

He howled immediately, shrieking and kicking as Steve delivered
another blow, and another, to his burning flesh.

"Stop!" Deck yelled, wailing out of proportion to the pain – Stephen
brought the belt down steadily and firmly, but in no way at full
strength. The carpet blurred through his tears as Declan collapsed
limply over Steve's lap.

But Stephen was through feeling sorry for both of them, ready to get
their life together back on track. Angry with himself for waiting so
long, for his role in Declan's distress, he aimed a few more stinging
smacks at Deck's upturned bottom, then cast the belt aside.

"Okay. It's okay, baby. Calm down." He ran a hand over Declan's
damp spine, feeling him shudder with powerful sobs. "Breathe."

Deck choked on his heaving breaths, trying to scramble up from his
undignified position, looking for comfort.

"Not yet. We're not done," Steve told him quietly, but with
surprisingly little regret, maneuvering him back down over his lap.

"No…" Deck hiccupped. "Please…"

"That's exactly what I want to talk about," Stephen said. "The
word `no.' We talked about tanning in the past, and I told you `no.'
In no uncertain terms, Deck. Isn't that right?"

"I'm sorry," Declan whimpered.

"I know you are and that's not what I asked. I asked you if I
said `no' about tanning in the past?"

Deck nodded slightly, lost in his despair.

"Declan!" Steve said, bringing a hand down sharply on his rear. "I
asked you a question."

Deck sobbed once. "Yes, yes, you said `no,'" he answered hurriedly.

"Was there anything unclear about how I said it, Deck?"

"No," he whispered.

"So you knew full well that I did not want you to go tanning."


He rested his hand on the heated, reddened flesh. "What happened,
love? Why did you do it?"

"I don't know! I wanted to!" Deck cried desperately, bursting into
fresh tears and Steve landed a series of solid smacks on his upraised

"But I said no!" Stephen reminded him. "You may have forgotten what
that means but we're going to have a crash course in it until you
remember." With that he stopped speaking and concentrating on
spanking Declan, focusing intently on his partner's movements, his
cries, the color and heat of his flesh, taking his cues from there.
When his burning buttocks were extremely hot and red and Deck was
collapsed in surrender across his thighs, Steve stopped and rested
his hand gently on the inflamed skin. He waited for Declan's tears
to subside enough that he could hear him.

"Things are going to change around here," Steve lectured when Deck
had calmed a bit. "I've been letting things slide that I shouldn't
have. From now on, when I say be home at six, you say `how high?'
Do you understand me?"

He sensed rather than saw Deck's nod.

"I know you've been unhappy; I know this move has been hard…no, you
listen to me," he said firmly, pushing until Declan subsided against
him again. "I know it's been difficult. But I'm not going to let us
get out of sync. I'm not going to let you be so unhappy anymore. I
won't let that happen. Do you understand me?"

Deck was quiet for a moment, his breathing ragged. "Will it hurt?"
he whispered.

Very carefully Stephen pulled him up into his arms, rocking him
tenderly, mindful of his battered bottom. "It hurts now, doesn't
it?" he asked quietly.

Declan nodded against him, tears wetting Steve's neck.

"It's going to get better. I promise," Stephen said.

And then there was nothing left to do but to hold Declan, whose hot,
damp body molded itself to his, shaking with sobs. "I promise,"
Steve told him again, holding him tightly, concentrating on believing
his own words hard enough to make Deck absorb his certainty.

"Are you mad at me?" Declan whispered hoarsely some time later, his
voice muffled in Steve's chest. He lay on his stomach, exhausted and
drunk with emotion, draped across his partner.

"No, baby." He stroked Deck's hair in a steady rhythm, combing his
fingers through the soft strands.

"You were before…"

"I wasn't very happy with either of us. But that's over now. It's
done with," Steve said soothingly, petting the bare skin of Deck's
back with extreme care. He allowed himself only a moment of regret
as he saw once again that Declan had nearly forgotten how this
worked. It was okay, Steve reminded himself. He wouldn't give
either of them another chance to forget. "It's going to be all
right, love," Stephen whispered, kissing the top of Deck's head.

Chastened, forgiven, cleansed, the younger man was covered with aloe
from head to foot, falling asleep above the covers. The only touch
his sensitive skin could bear was Stephen's hands. Next to his head
two small stuffed animals perched on the pillow, bull and bear, rise
and fall; Stephen could feel every contraction and expansion of
Deck's belly on his as he breathed long and slow. So quietly Stephen
almost missed it, Declan murmured drowsily: "I love you, too."

On the street below, as it had every night, life continued at a
frantic pace, strobe lights and car horns and loud voices, while
inside the little walk-up apartment a long-awaited calm descended.
For the first time the traffic and shouting and thumping music
blended into a lullaby, rocking both men to sleep.