If the fantasy of a discipline relationship between two adult men offends you, so will this story.



It was a gloomy fall day. A last few yellow leaves still shivered on the trees. Mack sprawled listlessly on the chilly deck outside Nathan's Vermont house. He sneezed, coughed and glared malevolently at his cell phone, daring it to chirp again.

Noah had called earlier from New York to talk to him about heating his father's old house through the winter so that the pipes wouldn't burst.

"Fuck it, Noah, I hope they fucking do." Mack really, truly didn't care. Yes, he'd asked Noah to keep an eye on the house for him, but it had been a reflexive request, nothing more. He hadn't counted on Noah's strong sense of responsibility.

"Talk it over with Nathan and call me tomorrow when you're thinking straight." Noah had tried to keep the censure out of his voice, but Mack knew Noah was pissed at him. Noah had never liked when he blew things off.

That fucking house! I fucking hate it, Mack thought bitterly. I hated it then, growing up; I hate it more now. If only I could get rid of it.

Mack had had a desultory conversation with a hungry real estate agent and had listed the house with her agency, as much to be doing something as because he had any faith in her ability to get rid of it. Although he'd been assured that he could sell the place, he still wondered why anyone want it. He despised it; he'd have burned it to the ground if he dared. He coughed again, rubbed his aching chest and blew his nose disgustedly. His head hurt.

Mack's descent into misery was interrupted by Nathan's arrival home. He heard Nathan's car pull up and heard its door slam. He heard Nathan calling for him as he entered the house. He didn't budge.

"What's the matter, Mack?" Nathan emerged through the back of the house.

"Nothing," Mack lied. He was cold, Noah was mad at him, he hated the house, his head hurt, his throat hurt, his–

Nathan took in Mack's blotchy face and reddened eyes and nose. "Are you sick?" Nathan saw Mack flinch. "You can admit it, you know, there's no shame in being sick. Tell me what hurts."

"Nothing!" Admitting to being sick was risky. Mack's father had hated illness and hiding it from him had been a very good idea, one Mack had learned early. However Noah had always been especially kind when Mack was sick and even Noah's mother's obvious dislike of Mack's hanging around with her son had softened in the face of illness.

"I'm fine." For all that Nathan had been kind when he had been ill before, Mack was still uncertain enough where Nathan fell out on the spectrum not to want to test his patience.

Nathan leaned in and brushed his lips over Mack's forehead. "I can feel you have a fever and I know you had no appetite at breakfast." Nathan softened his voice, aware of how anxious Mack felt. "Now, what else bothers you? "

"My head. My throat. I've got a cold?" Mack sounded tentative.

"Come on inside then; you certainly don't belong out here." Nathan took Mack's hand and helped him to his feet. "Let's get you into bed and get you some medicine and we'll see if that doesn't help any."

"All right." Relieved by Nathan's matter of fact kindness, undone as always by the simple gesture of being taken by the hand, Mack let himself surrender to the comfort of being cared for.

"It's not your fault you're sick." Nathan knew Mack well enough to know exactly what the issue was. He forced himself not to focus on the probable reasons Mack needed precisely this reassurance and instead focused on the small and practical present day rituals he knew would help Mack feel better.

Now that he was assured that Nathan would fuss over him, Mack willingly stripped and got into bed. Nathan already knew Mack's strong preference for suppositories over pills and without asking, he took one of the bullet shaped Tylenol inserts from the bathroom cabinet and after running it under cold water to harden it, slit the foil covering with his nail and brought it into the bedroom. "Let's get this into you and give it a chance to work."

Mack rolled obediently onto his side, drawing his leg up, and let himself relax as Nathan slipped the suppository inside. "Thanks, Nathan," he said softly. "You're good to take care of me like this."

"You're sick, Mack, of course I'm going to take care of you." Nathan rubbed his hand gently along Mack's hip before drawing sheet and blanket up and tucking them around him. "Do you think you could drink a little tea?"

"Coke?" Mack asked hopefully. "Noah..." His voice trailed off. "Noah's the only one ever took care of me when I was sick, before you," he said apologetically. "I'm not saying you don't know the right stuff to do, just..."

"...just Noah knew how to make you feel better." Nathan completed Mack's sentence when it became clear Mack wasn't going to. Thank God Noah had been there, thought Nathan. Noah was as close to real family as Mack had and Nathan saw him as a strong ally in his campaign to help Mack heal from the neglect and abuse he'd suffered as a child.

Nathan was not jealous of Noah's place in Mack's life. Quite the contrary: Nathan knew full well that without Noah's encouragement, he would never have had a chance at claiming Mack as a boyfriend. From the first, Noah had supported their relationship. He and his partner Jim had done everything they could to help Nathan and Mack over the rough spots. They had helped Mack out when he was drinking and behaving badly and had shared their own relationship openly with Mack, modeling perhaps the only healthy and mutually supportive relationship Mack had ever known. They had encouraged Nathan to take Mack in hand despite Mack's claims that he didn't need anyone's help. No, Nathan was not only not jealous of Noah, he was grateful beyond words for the many times Noah had steered Mack in the right direction. Nathan doubted that Mack would still be alive save for Noah's frequent interventions.


"Yeah," Mack said. "Nathan? I'm being a pain, I know it. You don't have to do any of this."

"Mackie." Nathan's voice was gentle. "Mack, I'm glad you're asking for my help. I'm glad you trust me enough to know that I do want to help you when you're not feeling well. I'm proud of you for willing to risk asking."

"Yeah?" This time Mack sounded hopeful rather than apologetic.

"Yes." Nathan ruffled Mack's hair with his hand before smoothing it back from his hot forehead. "You've got a fever. You take it easy now and let me take care of you, got it?"

"Yeah." Mack's eyes closed and his breathing evened out as he fell asleep.

Nathan smiled to himself. He wasn't exactly glad that Mack was sick, but he was glad about Mack's decision to trust him to take care of him. He knew it frightened Mack to be vulnerable and that he'd been willing to risk it seemed to him a very positive thing.

Mack slept most of the next two days. It was only a bad cold and he was an easy patient, happy with whatever care Nathan provided. Nathan taught his classes and came home to find Mack sleepy and non-communicative.

It was morning, the third day. Mack lay quietly in the quiet house, enjoying the knowledge that he was safe there. That he could rest in this warm bed until Nathan came home and offered him something to eat. That there was nowhere he needed to go, nothing he needed to do, except wait and he'd be taken care of. It was a lovely feeling, something he'd never imagined he'd get to experience.

"Mack?" Nathan was finished with his classes for the day. He came through to the bedroom, smiling as he took in his drowsy lover. "I brought some nice treats for lunch. Do you want to eat in bed or do you feel well enough to get up?"

"I'll get up," Mack said. He yawned. "In a second, 'kay?"

"No rush," Nathan said. "I'll start a pot of coffee, I need some myself, and you can have some if you feel up to it." He was heartened by Mack's showing some interest in moving; yesterday Mack hadn't wanted to budge.

Nathan smiled at Mack as Mack entered the kitchen, looking considerably better than he had.

"Can I help?" Mack asked, sliding himself onto a stool before the breakfast bar.

"You can tell me what you have a taste for," Nathan said.

"A sandwich?" Mack asked hopefully. He was starving now that he was feeling better.

Nathan carefully layered turkey breast and cheese on whole wheat, sliced the sandwich in half and slid the plate across to Mack.

"Thank you." Mack tasted the sandwich. "Really good, Nathan."

Nathan smiled; Mack's pleasure in his meals made Nathan happy. Left to his own devices, Mack didn't cook and didn't appear to think much about food at all, but he was unfailingly appreciative of Nathan's ability to orchestrate good things. It was rather flattering.

"I hope you don't catch what I had." Mack watched Nathan's face carefully. "It'll be my fault if you get sick."

"I feel fine so far." Nathan shrugged. "There's nothing we can do in any case, so let's not worry about it."

"Okay." Mack was relieved at Nathan's matter-of-fact attitude. He had worried that Nathan might blame him for bringing the sickness into the house in the first place.

Nathan waited for a moment to see whether Mack would volunteer anything else, but Mack returned to his sandwich, apparently satisfied by Nathan's response. Nathan knew he wouldn't get more from Mack until Mack was ready, so he let merely topped off their cups of coffee and smiled at Mack.

"I feel a lot better," Mack said. He got up, put his plate in the sink and leaned over Nathan's shoulder, rubbing his cheek against Nathan's. "Thank you, Nathan. You take really good care of me."

"Love my boy," Nathan said, turning to kiss Mack, aware as always of the frisson of pleasure that being called his boy brought Mack. "My good boy," he repeated, as Mack opened to his kiss and leaned into him, Mack's growing arousal obvious. "You must be feeling a bit better."

"Oh, I am," Mack purred, his pupils widening with lust. "I feel a lot better, matter of fact. Take me back upstairs and I'll show you."

Nathan didn't need to be talked into it. Mack had made the bed when he'd gotten up; Nathan grabbed the covers in one hand and turned them down and tumbled Mack onto his back. He pushed down Mack's sweats and grasped Mack's tumescent cock in his spit moistened hand, stroking firmly, enjoying Mack's squirming attempts to change position. "Be good now, lie still for me, that's it, you're so hard, come on now, come for me–"

Mack's head snapped back and he groaned as he came, cum spilling over Nathan's hand. Nathan grinned and stripping Mack of his sweats, wiped them both off.

"Oh yeah," Mack panted, struggling to pull free and turn himself quickly so that he could reach for Nathan's zipper.

"No, no, there's no rush, be a good boy for me," Nathan coaxed, cuddling Mack closer, kissing him.

Mack acquiesced with a sigh. He kept his eyes on Nathan's face, trying to read what Nathan wanted.

"Just let me enjoy holding you, Mackie. That's a good boy."

Mack didn't pull away harder or protest beyond another sigh. He didn't know whether he actually like the way it felt to be held after sex, but Nathan's "good boy" inevitably sent Mack into a different space. It spoke to some deep need of Mack's for approval and possession. It was nice to belong to Nathan, to be his good boy, Mack thought, even as he drifted deeper into that special place.

Stroking Mack's dark hair, watching Mack's face as Mack accepted his caresses, made Nathan feel powerful and happy and also clued him in to the fact that he was earning more and more of Mack's trust. It had been a struggle to get Mack to accept this sort of touch, yet as Nathan continued to use the period of exhaustion that followed orgasm as a time to hold and pet Mack, Mack relaxed into his embraces with gratitude. Nathan realized that these affectionate touches had been previously been more often denied than granted and that Mack had trained himself out of hoping for them.

"My good boy." Nathan kissed Mack's soft hair.

Mack pressed closer to Nathan, his lips warm against the side of Nathan's neck, his hips tucked against Nathan's. The long moment's silent embrace ended with Mack's falling asleep as he lay.

Nathan laughed to himself; he was hard and would have been glad to make love, but it seemed as if Mack's illness had taken more out of him than Nathan had realized. Ah well, it'll keep, Nathan thought to himself, tucking blankets around Mack's sleeping form and easing himself out of bed. Struck by how young Mack looked when asleep, he leaned over and touched Mack's cheek gently. He was taken aback when Mack's breath caught at his caress. Nathan pressed his lips together tightly, unhappy at the realization that Mack's body had assimilated the idea that his touch might as well mean pain as tenderness.

Another afternoon in bed and another early night and Mack was feeling fully recovered. He listened to the messages on his cell phone and crossing his fingers for luck, returned the one call that interested him.

The real estate agent chirped brightly. "Tell me, my records show you as the owner of the adjacent lot as well," she said. "Is that correct?"

"Yeah, that's mine, too," Mack said diffidently.

The agent's smile was practically audible. "I actually have a buyer, an up and coming drugstore chain, looking for a piece of land that size, in an area with open zoning. I have to warn you though, they would want to take down the house and replace it with a commercial building and use the adjacent lot for a parking lot. It's liable to meet some pretty heated opposition from the neighbors, if that's a concern of yours."

"What do you mean?" Mack asked.

"Your neighbors would like to see the house bought by someone with an interest in renovating it."

"Do I give a shit?" Mack asked. "Sorry. Get me a good offer from the drugstore people and they can have it," Mack said. He thought with angry relish of how good it would be to see the house torn to the ground. With savage glee, he called Noah to share the good news.

Mack hadn't bargained on Noah's disappointment. Noah tried to downplay it, but it was there in his voice. Mack hung up the phone feeling like shit.

Noah didn't feel much better. "I screwed that up," he said to Jim, who had overheard the whole call.

"Well, it was a shock." Jim leaned into Noah, jostling him gently. "I mean, in theory I'm against outside chains encroaching on the village, too. But in this case, just getting Mack out of that house seems so important that I'm willing to forget principle and tell him to go for it."

"Call him back, okay?" Noah sighed. "You sound more convincing than me. Tell him we're glad for him." Noah appreciated Jim's light touch with Mack. Jim and Mack were recent friends; they'd only met when Jim and Noah had first gotten together. Yet Jim had never seen Mack as a rival, only as a friend going through a hard time. Jim understood Noah's loyalty to Mack and at the same time, saw Mack's strengths as a survivor in a way that Noah found hard to. Noah had felt responsible for Mack for so long that it was hard for him to pull back and let Mack find his own way. Jim wasn't critical of Noah's overprotectiveness, it was a deep part of who Noah was and one of the things Jim appreciated in his lover, but he also saw that Mack needed to learn to trust himself.

Much as Mack appreciated the thoughtfulness inherent in Jim's call, it didn't wipe out the initial silence his news had met with from Noah. Mack was uneasy and trying to explain his distress to Nathan just exacerbated the tension being at odds with Noah left him feeling

"He's being a real prick about it!" Mack complained. "Why the fuck should he care what I do with the place anyhow! I don't care about the money, he knows that, I should have just burnt the house down when I had the chance. I would have, too, if you hadn't interfered. Damn you, Nathan, why couldn't you let me alone?"

"Shh," Nathan said gently. He could tell Mack was trying to provoke him. Mack needed Noah's support and when it wasn't immediately forthcoming, Mack's feelings were hurt and he reacted furiously. Nathan knew that Mack wanted an equally violent response from him. He wasn't about to provide one.

Mack tilted his head sideways, trying to figure out why Nathan wasn't angry yet. "Fuck you," he said experimentally, hoping for the explosion of pain he needed to take himself out of his own body.

"Shh." Nathan took Mack's arms and tugged him closer. "Shh, it's all right, I know. I know, Mack." Far from wanting to hurt Mack, he wanted to console him.

"Fuck you! Hit me already, why won't you fucking hit me already?" Mack cried out, trying to pull away.

"I know it hurts." Nathan wrapped his arms around Mack despite his struggles. "It'll get better, I promise. I know, Mack, I know."

"Fuck!" It made no sense to Mack. He tried again to get loose, but Nathan held firm. "Please let me go, Nathan, I'm sorry, please."

"Stay here, stay with me," Nathan coaxed. "It's all right, Mack. You didn't do anything wrong, you're safe, you're all right. It was your house, you had the right to sell it to anyone you wanted. It's all right, Mack, it's all right. Try and trust me on this. You didn't do anything wrong."

Mack heard the words, but they didn't make sense. He tried to steady his breathing, tried to stop the harsh gasps that came from his mouth, but it was a futile struggle.

"It's all right now, I've got you, you're safe." Nathan repeated the words like a mantra, hoping that Mack would hear him, hoping that Mack would trust him. "I've got you now, stay here, stay with me, you're all right."

"But Noah–" Mack's voice broke. The thought of Noah being disappointed in him hurt so badly Mack couldn't even find words to express his pain. Noah had been the one safe person in Mack's life, the one person he could turn to and trust. He hated when he and Noah were at odds.

"Noah understands, Mack, I know he does. You just caught him by surprise." Nathan shook his head. He didn't blame Noah for his uncensored response; no one could be perfect and someone a little more resilient than Mack would not have reacted this way to Noah's understandable disappointment at the idea of his town's downtown being further encroached on by commerce. Jim's phone call, offering congratulations and encouragement for the sale, reflected the couple's true feelings. "Noah understands better than anyone else why you would do that. Noah loves you, Mack, don't you know that by now?"

"I don't know." Mack did know, though. "Yeah. I guess so. You don't mind, do you?"

"I'm thankful every day that he does love you, that he did love you," Nathan said quietly. He meant it sincerely. Noah had been the best thing that had ever happened to Mack. The thought of how lost Mack would have been without him made Nathan shake his head. He'd be dead or in prison, Nathan thought. I'd never have found him in time. "You would have been all alone if it weren't for him. Of course I don't mind, Mack. I'm just glad you had someone who loved you. God knows you needed someone."

"So you don't think what I did is wrong?" Mack asked. "It's not about the money, Nathan, I swear that's not it. I just hate that house so fucking much, Nathan! Nothing good ever happened to me there."

"I know, Mack, Noah knows that too, and you more than earned that money," Nathan said. "Believe me, none of us begrudge you that."

"I know it happened a long time ago." Mack sounded bewildered.

"That doesn't mean you've forgotten," Nathan said. He thought of how long Mack had kept secret both his abuse and his reaction to it. Mack was just beginning to come to terms with his miserable childhood and to work his way through the painful memories. "You're doing the right thing, Mack, letting the house go. Nothing good comes of holding on to old hurts."

"Fuck you, Nathan, you don't know everything!"

"That's enough now, Mack. Stop cursing at me unless you want a spanking." Patient as Nathan was, he had limits, and being cursed at by his lover was a hard limit. Nathan was prepared to punish Mack if he continued to violate one of the most basic rules of their relationship. Mack knew better than to speak to him that way. If Mack was pushing deliberately, well then, Nathan would push back. Nathan felt he was being more than fair to give Mack a final warning.

"I hate this. I hate you." Mack wrenched free and made for the door. "Fuck you."

Nathan sighed. He checked the clock and decided to give Mack half an hour before going after him. With neither coat nor sweater on, he doubted Mack would go far. When half an hour had passed without Mack reappearing, Nathan slipped into his jacket. Taking Mack's fleece with him, he went to look for his lover.

He found Mack in the woods behind the house, perched on a rock. Mack shrank into himself as Nathan approached, closing his eyes.

Nathan slipped the fleece around Mack's shoulders. "You'll catch cold again."

"Go away," Mack said. "I don't need you. I don't need anybody. Don't fucking touch me. I'm not going to let you spank me. Leave me the fuck alone."

"Mackie." Nathan didn't budge. "Don't shut me out. What's going on, Mack?" Nathan asked. "Are you angry or are you scared?"

"So fucking scared." Mack didn't open his eyes.

"Ah." Nathan stroked Mack's cheek. "Come on, Mack, come back in the house, let's have some coffee and talk about this. I hate to see you sitting out here freezing."

"I'm so fucking stupid!"

"You had it right the first time. You're not stupid, Mack, you're scared. There's a world of difference."

"Maybe." Mack sounded confused and discouraged.

"It's cold out here. Why don't you come inside and we'll talk about it," Nathan suggested.

"I won't let you spank me," Mack warned him. "I won't."

"All right, Mack, I hear you." Nathan took Mack's hand. "I won't spank you. Come home, Mack, please."

"Okay." Mack got up and let Nathan lead him home.

Once inside, Nathan made coffee, poured them each a mug and settled with Mack at the table. "Talk to me."

"I didn't know I'd hate it so much," Mack said.

"Go on," Nathan encouraged him.

"I just..." Mack hesitated; began again. "It's not that I don't deserve to be punished, Nathan, sometimes I do, I know it. I get why you slap me, I don't like it, but I get it and it doesn't scare me. But being spanked...I hate it. So much. And don't say you won't if I behave myself, that's not what I'm talking about. I hate knowing you can and that I have to take it."

"Are you sure that's not a plus, rather than a minus?" Nathan put up his hand at Mack's glare of protest. "No, hear me out. Are you sure that's not something you need? To know it's your job to submit to me, to do what I tell you? Even if it means lying across my lap for a spanking?"

"I hate it." Mack's voice was flat. "I had to take it from my father, too. I didn't have any other choice."

"It's never your only alternative, not with me. If you're really sure you can't take a spanking, I'm not going to give you one. "

"It's not as if you'll hurt me! I mean, yeah, you'll hurt me, but you won't...hurt me."

"Maybe even that's too much for you right now," Nathan said quietly, hearing the bewilderment in Mack's voice.. "We'll think of something else. It's good you're telling me this. It's important that we talk about this together. I'm very glad you're talking to me now."

"Do you really mean that?" Mack sounded stunned. "I thought you were going to tell me to get lost."

"Mackie." Nathan's voice was soft and reproachful. "Never. Don't you know I love you?"

"But I said I would! I promised, Nathan!"

"You meant it when you said it. It's not your fault that you feel differently now." Nathan shook his head. "Feelings change, Mack, we can't always predict how we're going to feel about something in the future."

"Love's a feeling."

"It's not the same thing," Nathan said.

Mack's tightened jaw and inability to meet Nathan's eyes made clear that he saw no difference. "It's okay. I don't care. It's not like I haven't gotten beaten before when I didn't want it. It doesn't matter."

"It matters to me," Nathan said. "Beaten." Nathan shook his head. "Jesus, Mack, I don't think you have any idea how little I want for that to be the relationship we have. I'm not going to spank you if that's what it seems like to you. You had enough of that as a kid to last you a lifetime. No more corporal punishment, Mack. It's not your decision any more. I've decided. That's it."

"Just like that?" Mack looked at Nathan. "Nathan, you can't just–"

"I can. I have. No more, Mack." Nathan reached his hand towards Mack's face, slowing the gesture when Mack flinched. "No slaps. No spanking. That part of our relationship's over now." He stroked Mack's face gently. "Come here, Mack, I want a hug." He rose to stand alongside Mack.

Mack let himself be embraced, his eyes full of doubt, his body stiff.

"Easy, that's my boy, easy now." Nathan jostled Mack, trying to relax him. "It's going to be all right, Mack, I promise. We can make this work."

"Fuck you!" Mack said, pushing back, his face tilted upward, waiting for the slap he just knew would follow.

"We're not doing that anymore," Nathan said. "Don't curse at me, Mack. I don't like it and I'm not going to tolerate it."

"Fuck you, you bastard!" Mack glared at Nathan, daring him to respond.

Nathan turned and walked out of the room.

Mack swallowed hard, not sure what to do next. He had meant to provoke a slap and to prove to Nathan and himself that it wouldn't be so easy for Nathan to forgo the physical component of the discipline that kept him in line. Nathan hadn't taken the bait; he'd walked away.

It would have been impossible for Mack to understand, but for the fact that that had been precisely Noah's reaction for years, whenever Mack pushed too far. Noah had never withdrawn his friendship, he had accepted Mack's refusal to be physically punished, but he hadn't accepted that that meant no discipline at all. Noah would walk away, he would withhold his usual support, he would withhold money and approval, and Mack had learned, grudgingly, to accept Noah's limits.

Mack followed Nathan into the living room. "I'm sorry, Nathan," he said softly. "I shouldn't have said that to you. I know better than to curse at you like that, especially the second time, that was hateful of me. I'm sorry."

"I know you can do better, Mack," Nathan said quietly. "I understand that you're upset, but cursing me out isn't the way to handle it. I wouldn't speak that way to you; I'm not going to tolerate you speaking that way to me."

"I'm sorry," Mack said again, face flushing at the scolding. "Don't be mad, Nathan."

"I am mad, Mack," Nathan said. "I don't like to be cursed at."

"I'm sorry!" Mack said a third time, his voice higher and more agitated.

"I know you are," Nathan said. "It's all right, Mack, it's not the end of the world. I don't want you to do it again."

"Sorry." Mack couldn't think of anything else to say. He felt as heartsick as he ever had after a slap from Nathan, as guilty and as in the wrong, and he knew now that this was punishment, that Nathan might be willing to eschew corporal punishment, but that that didn't mean there would be no repercussions for wrongdoing.

"Come here," Nathan ordered and when Mack obeyed, Nathan wrapped him in a firm hug, kissing him as he did so. Mack closed his eyes, unsure as always about any affection that didn't immediately lead to sex, and leaned into Nathan, reluctant to admit even to himself how much he welcomed the embrace. "Don't do it again. We're all right now, Mack." Nathan's annoyance at Mack's cursing at him had waned quickly. Mack's bleak expression made clear that his verbal reprimand had been heard and felt.

Mack nodded, not knowing what to say. He'd pushed for this and now that he'd gotten it, he wasn't sure he knew what to do with it. Although he never liked to think too hard about it, he was aware that he had pushed Noah away with his refusal to follow even Noah's most reasonable rules and part of the reason he'd felt free not to follow them was his refusal to let Noah lay a hand on him when he didn't obey. To lose Nathan would be horrible, but to continue to let Nathan hit him was worse. He sighed.

"Why don't we lie down together for a bit?" Nathan turned Mack toward the couch. "Come on now." He drew Mack down with him and lay there holding him, his hand warm on Mack's back.

"I never used to dream about it, ever," Mack said softly.

"About what?" Nathan rubbed Mack's back.

"Any of it: being beaten, being cold," Mack said. "Being hit by my father. I never used to dream about any of it."

"Do you dream about it now?" Nathan's hand stilled at Mack's nod. "I'm sorry, Mack."

Mack turned so that his face was hidden deeper in Nathan's shirt. "That's why I can't do it anymore," Mack said. "I dream about him hitting me. I dream about you."

"About me?" Nathan asked.

"About you spanking me," Mack said. "Hitting me. In my dreams it's the same thing. I can't tell if it's him or if it's you. I can't do this anymore. I can't."

"And we're not going to," Nathan said, more certain than ever that his decision had been right. "It's going to be okay, Mack, I promise. A lot of things got stirred up with the house. You're going to feel better, it's just going to take some time." He tilted Mack's face to the side and kissed him. "It's going to be all right."

"Maybe." Mack wasn't so sure, but he didn't feel like arguing. It was nice to trust Nathan. "Nathan? I do love you."

"I love you too, Mack." Nathan snuggled closer to Mack. "I don't want you to worry. I can handle you, Mack, I'm not worried about that. We're going to be okay, you hear me? It's going to work out."

"You're the boss," Mack said, meaning it. Whatever Nathan decided was what they were going to do. He closed his eyes.

Nathan stroked Mack's hair. Mack looked thin and tired. Nathan laid his hand gently on Mack's cheek and gritted his teeth as once again Mack flinched ever so slightly at his touch. It wasn't what he'd ever wanted, that Mack would cringe from him. It made Nathan faintly queasy to realize that Mack on some level did expect a quick slap rather than a caress and confirmed his determination that the part of their relationship that involved corporal punishment of any sort needed to end and end now.


FIC: Diffraction 2/3

The next two days were quiet. Nathan taught his classes and returned home to find Mack asleep. Mack seldom napped, so Nathan was a little worried to find him in bed for a second time.

"You feeling all right?"

"I guess," Mack said with a shrug and then, when Nathan didn't look away, added with reluctant honesty, "No."

"Want to tell me about it?"

"Noah's mad at me; I can't go stay with him and Jim. My fucking house is gone--thanks a lot--so I can't go there, but I can't live here; it feels too weird," Mack blurted out. "I don't belong anywhere!"

Nathan felt his heart race. He took a deep breath and then another, forcing himself to calm down. "This is your home now, Mack, you know that, right?" Ever since Mack had consented to move in with Nathan in Vermont, Nathan had tried to get Mack to accept that where he now lived was home, that he wasn't forever tied by his bad memories to his childhood house.

"I guess." Mack sounded unconvinced.

Nathan tried another tack. "You said weird. What feels weird, Mack?"

"It's too fucking quiet!" The fury of Mack's response took both men by surprise.

Of course calm would seem abnormal to a man raised in the chaotic environment Mack had grown up in, Nathan thought, understanding warring with frustration. Not being on high alert might register as too quiet, too boring, for a man who'd spent his entire life waiting for the next blow. The question was what to do about it. Nathan was very, very glad he'd already found a couples' therapist with whom Mack was comfortable. Despite Mack's initial reluctance about therapy, Mack had taken to their therapist, Jared, and Jared's reassurance that he was there to help, not to give orders, had eased Mack's fears.

"Let's talk about that with Jared, okay?" Nathan said gently. "I think we may need a little outside help sorting that one out. There's no point worrying over it right now, Mack, it's not an emergency."

"It feels like one," Mack whispered. "I can't stand it. It's like I'm going to jump out of my skin."

"I can help with that," Nathan said, on safer ground now. He pushed Mack over, making room for himself in the bed. "You've got too many clothes on, Mack."

"No." Mack pulled away.

Nathan rolled with Mack and kissed him, gently and persistently. "Come here," Nathan coaxed. "Too many clothes." He eased Mack's shirt off and then shrugged out of his own. He pressed his body to Mack's, letting his familiar weight settle Mack back onto the mattress.

The steady pressure felt good and Mack began to relax. He returned Nathan's kiss with interest and let the fullness in his cock distract him from further thought. Wordlessly he shrugged out of his jeans and still without talking, undid Nathan's zipper and pushed his pants and underwear down.

Nathan shifted helpfully, easing his clothing all the way off, and arranging himself on top of Mack so that their engorged cocks pressed against one another. He reached over for lube and insinuated his hand between them, first grasping both their cocks together and then lubricating his own more carefully. He slipped his legs inside of Mack's and slid downward, pressing Mack's thighs apart and up and positioning his cock at Mack's opening.

Mack gave way easily as Nathan entered him, a guttural groan of satisfaction rumbling deep in his chest. He pressed his pelvis into Nathan, relishing the deep penetration, his cock growing harder at the friction between their bodies. Nathan took it slow, letting the pressure grow until Mack gasped and arched against him, grinding into him. Nathan thrust another few times before finding his own release. A panting and exhausted Mack clung to him as he slid free. "Love you, Nathan."

"I love you, Mack." Nathan kissed Mack gently and rearranged them so that Mack's head was his shoulder, Mack's arm resting across his chest. "Everything's going to work out, you'll see."

Good sex only contained Mack's anxiety for so long. Nathan was unprepared for how quickly Mack woke up and how restless he felt. "I need to get out of here, Nathan," Mack begged. "Please."

"All right," Nathan said. "We can do that. It's cold, Mack, bundle up first, why don't you. Grab an extra sweater for me while you're at it."

Mack was glad for permission to move and even gladder that Nathan seemed to take his need to escape the house in stride. He tossed Nathan a sweater and dressed swiftly. Nathan kept pace with Mack, not wanting to test Mack's patience.

Mack set a brisk pace up the side of the mountain, surefooted despite the late afternoon's darkness. There was still some light from the low sun and Nathan was glad of it. He didn't try to slow Mack down, confident that Mack would double back if he got too far ahead. His confidence wasn't misplaced.

"Sorry," Mack said after about fifteen minutes. "Shit. It's fucking cold out here. I know you hate this, Nathan. Let's go back."

"Feeling any better?" Nathan asked.

"I don't know," Mack said softly. "I don't know, Nathan." He came closer to Nathan.

"Come here." Nathan tugged Mack into a hug and kissed him. "We'll figure this out together. You don't have to know anything." Cupping Mack's cheek in his hand, he tilted Mack's face toward his so that their eyes met. "You're not alone anymore."

Mack closed his eyes, unable to meet Nathan's direct look for long. He still felt wild and needy, wanting something that Nathan wasn't offering: a fight.

Nathan knew better than Mack realized just what Mack was craving. It frightened him. He didn't want to hurt Mack, he didn't want to hit him and yet he could do it, he knew, if it would keep Mack from walking out to find the fight he craved with a stranger. This was where Nathan thought a hard spanking could help, could offer Mack the intensity of physical sensation he craved. But how to broach it when he himself had ruled corporal punishment off their agenda? Rough sex was an option, a little harder, a little harsher than they usually enjoyed, but Nathan was always reluctant to indulge Mack's cravings for pain during sex. Nathan's gut told him that they came from a place that wasn't healthy; he was not about to be one of the men in Mack's life who hurt him for pleasure.

"We're going home now," Nathan said very firmly and took Mack's hand in his own. "Come on."

Being led by the hand was still something new and Mack was still surprised enough by it that he followed Nathan without resisting. Nathan led him inside and closed the door behind them. Both men sighed with pleasure at the house's warmth.

"You want coffee, Mack?" Nathan had already reached for his beans and electric grinder and at Mack's nod he measured out a four cup portion. The grinder's high pitched chatter echoed in the kitchen and then stopped abruptly. Nathan set water to boil and balanced the thin metallic filter over the clear glass carafe.

"Is there cake?" Mack asked hopefully. He didn't look for it himself, but rather waited for Nathan to nod and set it on the table. Interlacing his fingers, Mack braced his elbows on the table and leaned his forehead into his hands. "Shit, Nathan, I can't take feeling like this."

"You ever think a spanking might help?" Nathan hazarded, curious as to whether his inquiry might strike a chord with Mack.

"No," Mack said, flatly rejecting the tactfully worded idea. "I meant it, Nathan, what I said. I don't know what I need, but I know it isn't that. I don't want you to hit me anymore, not now, probably not ever. I can't do it, Nathan, if I could I would, I swear I would. I can't. I can't let you hit me any more. I won't."

"All right," Nathan said calmly. "I hear what you're saying and I accept it. We'll work this through, Mackie, I'm sure of it. There's no need for you to be afraid. I won't hit you. I won't let you go. I still love you just as much. I mean that, Mack, just as much as you mean what you just said."

"Nathan." Mack couldn't go further. He sighed, folding his arms on the table and dropping his head to them. "Thanks," he said, his voice muffled.

Nathan touched his forearm gently. "It'll all work out."

Mack jerked away. "It won't. Things never work out for me."

"Never?" Nathan asked. "You sold the house, Mack, you moved here with me. Is it really true that things never work out for you?"

Mack shrugged. "That's what it feels like at least," he said sullenly.

"Listen, Mack," Nathan said firmly, "It's going to be all right. I'm going to take good care of you." It made little difference whether Mack would accept corporal punishment at his hand or not; Nathan was still the one in charge, still the leader in this relationship. He nudged a cup and plate over toward Mack. "Come on now: drink your coffee, eat your cake."

"It's good coffee," Mack said, sitting up and sipping cautiously from the hot brew. "I hope you know what you're doing."

Nathan hoped he did. At the moment, it seemed the only thing to do was what he was already doing: prompt Mack through the motions of living together, reassure him when he could, push him when reassurance wasn't enough.

Curled together that night in bed, Nathan stroked Mack's back, thinking back to the beginning of their relationship. He'd met Mack in a bar in Mack's hometown on karaoke night. They'd flirted and headed back to Mack's house for the night. Mack had been pushing, hard, and Nathan had semi playfully threatened him with a spanking. To Nathan's surprise, Mack had panicked and darted off into the night.

Nathan had taken a chance and called an old local friend, Noah, looking for a place to crash for the night. To his surprise it turned out that Noah knew Mack very, very well. The two old friends had spoken late into the night and Noah had told Nathan a little about Mack. A different man might have been deterred from attempting to build a relationship with Mack; Nathan only felt more for him and resolved to try harder.

"Remember the first night we met?" Nathan asked.

"Yeah," Mack said. "You scared the shit out of me."

"You scared me too," Nathan said. "I didn't think I'd get another chance with you. God, talk about getting our signals crossed. If Noah and Jim hadn't interceded, I doubt we'd be here."

"I'm sorry," Mack said.

"Nothing to be sorry about, Mack. You're a good boy." Nathan kissed Mack gently. "I love you. We're going to be all right." We are, Nathan thought, refusing to consider any other possibility.

We're going to be all right, Nathan reminded himself grimly the following evening, as a disheveled Mack walked through the door. Nathan took in the bloodied lip, the already darkening bruise across the cheekbone and the half shut eye. "What does the other guy look like?"

"Not much better," Mack said with a smirk.

Nathan resisted the impulse to reply sharply. He wasn't sure what was going on with Mack, but losing his temper with him wasn't going to make it any better, that was for sure. "Come on, Mack, let's get you cleaned up."

"Okay." If Mack was surprised at Nathan's response, he didn't show it. He let Nathan sit him at the table and swab his face tentatively with a damp towel. "Ow."

"I know," Nathan said, bracing Mack's face with a hand on his jaw as he examined the damage. "I'm sorry."

Mack looked at Nathan. "No, I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I'm the one who fucked up. You're just helping me."

"I thought we had an understanding? No fighting," Nathan said. He shook his head. "I know I told you I'd take my belt to you if you did it again."

"Yeah, you did. So...are you going to beat me?" Mack sounded more curious than anything else.

Nathan sighed. "Ah Mackie, if I won't spank you, I certainly won't take my belt to you." Even though at the moment I wish I could, he thought to himself. "You're going to get yourself killed if you're not careful."

Mack shrugged, a gesture calculated to irritate.

"Don't." Nathan recognized he was being baited. "I'm not happy with you, Mack, and your pretending none of this matters to you is making me very angry."

"Oh." Mack digested that information. "Are you going to punish me?"

"Just how do you suggest I punish you, Mack?" Nathan wondered if Mack would answer his question.

"I don't know!" Mack glared at Nathan. "It was a stupid fight, Nathan, I'm not hurt, nothing happened, it's the big fucking deal you're making of it that's the problem."

"Okay, Mack, maybe you're right," Nathan said, deliberately taking an unexpected tack and heartened by Mack's surprised expression and softened demeanor. "This time. What I'm afraid of is what happens next time, when you pick the wrong man to wind up. I don't understand you, Mack. What makes a fight with a stranger feel safe, when it's not, yet makes a spanking from me something you just can't steel yourself too? What's going on in that head of yours that makes you make this kind of decision?"

"I don't know." Mack hated for Nathan to be mad at him.

Nathan knew now how Noah had felt when Mack refused to be disciplined and at the same time, seemed unwilling to rein himself in at all. He was worried, frustrated, angry and hurt and the conflicting emotions made it difficult for him to act effectively. He stroked Mack's bruised cheek and kissed him gently on the edge of his lip, avoiding the split place.

Mack's arms came up and he clutched fiercely at Nathan, not letting him go. "I didn't mean for this to happen, Nathan. I'm sorry." He wished he could go on, he wished he could tell Nathan that it would be all right to punish him, that it would be all right to spank him. He couldn't get the words out. It wasn't okay with him, not at all.

"Mack?" Nathan couldn't read Mack's expression; for once, he didn't understand what Mack needed. He could feel Mack's hands biting into him, not releasing him, even as Mack began to shake. "Let go now, Mack, you're hurting me."

Mack let go. "Sorry."

Maybe, Nathan thought, the seemingly purposeless fights replicated the only way in which Mack's father had ever expressed any interest in his son? Being hit hurt, but it was less painful to Mack than no contact whatsoever. His father's neglect was worse than his abuse, which had at least left Mack feeling as if, on some level, he mattered. Mack had been so starved for any sign of interest that even physical pain was welcome and that pattern was deeply ingrained.

Nathan knew better than to broach the question; Mack was resolutely closed to any discussion that linked his past experiences with his present motivations. To undertake a discussion of this magnitude would require a far calmer moment and perhaps even the supportive presence of a therapist, for both their sakes.

"Bed, Mack," Nathan said, trying to keep himself in the present. To his relief, Mack obeyed without resistance.

Mack mounted the stairs slowly. Every step hurt. The adrenaline rush of the fight had long faded. Mack was angry at himself for being an asshole and at Nathan for not knowing how to make things better. He undressed and slid under the covers. Curling away from Nathan, he tried with everything that was in him to disappear.

Nathan could feel Mack's tense shudders through the mattress. He rolled over and tugged Mack to him, a gentle stroke of fingers over wet cheek confirming what he already suspected: Mack was crying.

"I've got you, it's all right now, you're safe." Nathan tried to turn Mack toward him.

"No," Mack moaned. "Don't. No."

"It's going to be all right," Nathan repeated, settling for spooning around Mack.

"I don't know what to do," Mack said harshly. "I can't stand feeling like this, but I can't let you spank me, Nathan, I can't, I won't. No. I'll leave." He tried to bring his tears under control; failed.

"I understand, Mack, and we can deal with that," Nathan said. "I won't spank you. I'll still love you; I'll still take care of you. It's all right."

Mack curled into a tighter ball, his misery evident in every line of his tense body. "I don't know," he moaned.

"It's going to be all right." Nathan stroked his hair and back, trying to relax him, trying to get him to uncurl. "Come on, Mackie, let me help you, you're a good boy, I've got you now."

"NO!" Mack pulled away. "Don't you see, Nathan, I can't get used to this, if I get too used to it I'll stay no matter what you do to me and I can't live with you spanking me, I just can't."

"I won't spank you," Nathan said. "Please, Mack, let me hold you. I need you, too, you know."

Surprised at Nathan's plea, Mack rolled back into his arms. Grateful, Nathan hugged Mack to him, kissing him, stroking his hair. "I'm not going to hurt you. I'm not going to quit on you. I know you don't get this, but I love you, Mack." Nathan tried to steady his voice, wanting to be truthful at the same time that he didn't want to alarm Mack further. "We can talk about this. We can work this through." Nathan knew Mack was still more comfortable with straightforward sex than with the ambiguity of trying to get his needs for contact and comfort fulfilled.

"What does that mean though?" Mack asked. "If it means corporal punishment, then no. I won't do it any more. I waited too many years to get free of my father, Nathan. I see that now. I'm grateful you helped me; without you I would never have gotten to the place where I could sell the fucking house. But it changes things, Nathan."

Nathan was pleased and surprised by how coherent Mack sounded. It was not what he generally expected from Mack. Even a degree of insight was unusual for Mack, who was resolutely closed to introspection. Nathan felt a sudden spark of hope, which was reflected in his smile. Mack looked at him, clearly puzzled that his refusal would meet with such open pleasure.

"It does change things, Mack, it certainly does," Nathan said serenely. "And that's a good thing. Come on, let's get a good night's sleep and I'll take you out for lunch tomorrow when I get back from class."

"Lunch? Out? Tomorrow?" Mack practically squeaked, dumbfounded by Nathan's invitation and not sure why his outright refusal to be punished had been met with not only acceptance but seemingly approval.

"Yeah, why not? It'll be fun." Nathan kissed Mack thoroughly and Mack melted into him, his legs splaying apart. Nathan slicked himself quickly and they came together silently, their bodies comfortable with each other. That much at least was good between them.

Nathan woke before the alarm rang. Mack was curled on the other side of the bed, curled away from him. Nathan stroked Mack's hair gently, his fingertips skirting the bruises on Mack's face. "Come here, Mackie," he coaxed.

"What? What?" Mack muttered, only half awake. "What do you want, Nathan?"

"Come here," Nathan repeated. He tugged Mack into his arms, his morning hard cock nudging Mack. Mack groaned and widened his legs, his own cock responding automatically. Nathan rolled them over and pressed into Mack, both of them still slick enough from the previous night that Mack only panted a moment before yielding easily. Nathan took Mack slowly and gently, kissing him throughout and gripping Mack's cock at the end, bringing him over the top with him.

"That's a wake up call," Mack said softly.

"It's supposed to be," Nathan said, kissing him again. "You're mine, Mackie, don't you forget that. I'm going to take good care of you, but you are mine and I am going to take care of you. Now be a good boy, get a little more sleep, and be ready for lunch out when I get back this afternoon."

"Yeah," Mack muttered, closing his eyes. "Yours. Lunch." He wasn't sure how he felt about any of this. It was disorienting, being awakened for morning sex, when it wasn't something Nathan often did, and even though he'd only actually tightened for a moment before realizing that it didn't hurt, it had been a scary moment. He'd been afraid that this was the trade off for no more spanking and even though the thought had barely lasted a second then, it now came back to him. Unable to fall back asleep, Mack waited only until he heard Nathan leaving to sit up and get out of bed himself. He stood before the window, gazing out at the bare trees of Nathan's beautiful woods and feeling very, very alone.

What to do? Mack took a deep breath, shrugged into jeans and a flannel shirt, and went downstairs. He looked at the time and taking a chance, called Noah's cell phone.

"Mack?" Noah was surprised to hear from him. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah. No. I don't know," Mack said. "You still mad at me?"

"I wasn't mad, Mack, just a little disappointed. I understand why you did it. I don't blame you for wanting the house gone. It just took me by surprise. It's not as big a deal as all that, anyway. I'm sorry I overreacted. I'm not angry at you, Mack."

"I don't know what to do," Mack said.

"What do you mean, Mack? Are you having second thoughts about the sale?" Now that he'd had a little time to get used to the idea, Noah was wholeheartedly in favor of the sale. "It's a good decision, Mack, there's no reason for you to hang on to the property any more. You did the right thing."

"Oh, that." Mack hadn't been thinking about his house at all. "No. It's..." His voice trailed off. "Shit."

"What is it, Mack?" Noah asked quietly. "What's wrong?"

"Remember you said you needed more control than I'd give you?" Mack asked.

Thrown for a moment by the shift in the conversation, Noah was silent.

"Never mind."

"Please, Mack, don't hang up, I want to talk with you, I was just surprised," Noah said. "You mean when we talked about being together, a long time ago?"

"Yeah." Mack took a deep breath. "Noah, I told Nathan I didn't want him to, you know..."

"You told him what?" Noah wasn't sure he understood. "You told him you didn't want him to spank you anymore?"

"Yeah." Mack could feel his face flushing. "This is so fucking hard."

"I know, Mack, I know," Noah said. "It's not easy talking about this. What did Nathan say?"

"He said all right," Mack said. "He said he wouldn't. And he's taking me to lunch this afternoon. What the fuck is that about, Noah?"

"What do you mean?" Noah asked. "Mack, you're in a relationship, there's nothing wrong with you asking and there's nothing wrong with Nathan agreeing and as far as lunch, he just wants you to know you two are still solid, that you're okay, that this doesn't change the basics. Relax, Mack, let Nathan handle this." Noah knew how important it was for him to convey his trust in Nathan. His approval had always been important to Mack and never more than now, when Mack was trying to negotiate the rules of the first healthy relationship of his adult life.

"You think?" Mack sounded doubtful.

"I do. Try and trust Nathan, Mack. Let him guide you through this. Don't cut and run."

"I wanted to leave," Mack said. "I called you instead."

"That was a very good choice," Noah said. "Now can I trust you to stay put until Nathan comes home, or should I give him a call?"

"You think I should stay?"

"I know you should, Mack."

"I'll stay. Don't call him, Noah, please. I just needed to talk to you." Mack was silent for a moment. "Thanks, Noah."

"It'll be all right, Mack," Noah said firmly. "Talk to Nathan, Mack, don't make him guess what you're thinking. Can you do that?"

"I'll try. Thanks, Noah, bye." Mack hung up the phone and stood indecisively for a moment. Taking a deep breath, he headed toward the bathroom. He stripped quickly, stepped into the shower and turned on the water full blast. He loved this shower, loved the generous wooden surround, loved the heat and the pressure and the steam. Mack let himself relax into the sensual pleasure of it, comforted by its familiarity and soothed by the scented soap and shampoo Nathan stocked it with.

Mack rubbed himself dry, appreciating the softness of Nathan's towels. Clean and warm, he padded back to the bedroom and dressed neatly. He felt better with every passing moment. Maybe he did deserve to be here. Maybe he did deserve Nathan. Maybe he did deserve to be happy. The sense of possibilities he felt was exhilarating.

Mack felt fine until the moment when he turned to the mirror to comb his hair. He saw the dark bruise under his eye from yesterday's fight, the scratch across his cheek, the barely healed split in his lip and all his fine confidence skittered away. He hadn't told Noah about the fight or else Noah would have had some choice things to say. Nathan wouldn't be able to overlook all that. Mack sighed. It had been nice to feel good. Naturally it hadn't lasted. It never did; it never could. What else was new?


FIC: Diffraction 3/3

Fortunately Nathan pulled up into the driveway just as Mack was walking out the back door onto the deck. Nathan could tell from his posture that he was feeling very low. He left his briefcase in the car and walked over to greet Mack. Wrapping his arms around him, he kissed him gently. "Your eye's bruised. Hurt a lot?"

"Not really," Mack said. "I look fuck ugly though."

"Still up for lunch?" Nathan asked. "You look good, Mack."

"I do?" Mack didn't even care if Nathan were lying; he needed the reassurance that badly.

"Yes. Come on, Mack, let's go." Nathan was pretty sure he knew what had happened. He imagined Mack had been fine until he saw his own reflection in the mirror. It wasn't the first time he had been overcome with a mixture of guilt and despair at the evidence of his previous night's activities. A good spanking would help assuage that, Nathan thought to himself, but since that was off the menu, a good lunch would have to do.

"People will think you hit me."

"Right," Nathan said. "I sincerely doubt it, Mack. Come on, I'm hungry and I bet you didn't have breakfast, am I right?"

"You're right," Mack said, his mood lifting at Nathan's matter of fact acceptance of his bruised face and his hunger returning as he cheered up. "Where are we going?"

"The place over in the old mill is nice," Nathan said. "How does that sound?"

Expensive, Mack thought, but aloud he said only, "Very nice."

"Let's go then," Nathan said. "My car; it's already warm. You want a coat or you warm enough?"

"I'm good," Mack said, getting into Nathan's car. "I didn't think you'd want to go out once you saw me."

"You forget, Mack, that I saw you this morning, too," Nathan said. "Now we're not going to focus on a few bruises on your face all afternoon. You've had worse, we both know that. Let's try and focus on the future."

"All right," Mack agreed, relieved that Nathan seemed to have a plan.

"Good boy," Nathan said, knowing how much the phrase meant to Mack, who relished the feeling of being Nathan's boy. He could sense him relaxing into the seat next to him, could sense his relief at being praised rather than scolded. Mack was completely transparent at times like this, opaque as he was at other times.

The interior of the old mill had been tricked out with bits and pieces of the mill's original machinery. Displayed on walls and used as part of the furnishings, the old iron looked picturesque. Nathan and Mack exchanged a smile. They both found it funny that the junk they remembered clambering over as rural kids was now being displayed as vintage artwork.

Nathan studied the menu with interest. "Maybe the pumpkin ravioli?"

Mack looked at him. "You're kidding?"

"No, it's good stuff, I've had it before. Tell you what, I'll get it and you can try mine so you know for next time. Do you know what you want?"

"Are sweet potato fries any good?" Mack wondered. He hadn't had them before, but the novelty appealed to him.

"Yeah, orange and crunchy, you'll like them. What are you having, the burger?"

"I think so." Mack licked his lips. "I'm really hungry."

"You want the onion soup or the chowder?" Nathan smiled. "Wine? Let's live a little."

"Beer?" Mack asked tentatively. Wine at lunch pushed a limit of sophistication that he didn't even know he had.

"That's fine, I'll have one too, then," Nathan responded.

The waitress took their orders and brought their beers swiftly.

Mack sipped his and smiled, looking out the window at the bare trees and white-capped water of the river beyond. "This is nice, Nathan, thank you." He was silent for a moment. "You really aren't going to change your mind?"

Familiar with Mack's thinking process and understanding the short cut he had taken, Nathan reached across the table and stroked the back of Mack's hand. "I'm not going to change my mind about wanting you. I love you, Mack." He smiled at the look Mack gave him. "What? It's true."

"You can't just say stuff like that without warning me," Mack grumbled.

"I'm still in charge here," Nathan pointed out. "I can say whatever I want, Mackie. You're a good boy. I love you."

"Stop!" Mack looked around quickly. "Jesus, Nathan, you're doing this on purpose."

"Yep," Nathan said. "It's fun to tease you, Mack, but it's also true." Nathan's systematic campaign to teach Mack that it was okay to express affection was beginning to bear fruit. However Mack was still more comfortable with straight transactions of sex than with the complexity of conversation.

The waitress brought their food. Nathan smiled at her. "Thank you, nothing else for now."

Mack withdrew his hand from Nathan's and reached eagerly for the fries. "You're right, Nathan, they're good. Want to try them?"

"Here, try the ravioli," Nathan said at the same moment, sliding his plate closer and easing a sample onto Mack's plate. He snagged one of Mack's fries. "Good, really good. I'm so glad we have good restaurants in this town."

"Did you always know you'd end up back here, where you grew up?" Mack asked Nathan.

"No, not always. Until my father got sick, I thought I'd go someplace else. Someplace larger, with a larger gay community." Nathan shook his head, remembering. "It was harder growing up gay here than it is to be gay here as an adult. Things have changed a lot. A lot of the second homes up here are owned by gay couples and there are a lot more places that are genuinely welcoming to us. Like this place we're eating today; it wouldn't be in business if people with disposable incomes didn't patronize it. No, I didn't plan for my life to work out this way, but I'm glad that it did. I like it here."

"I didn't think things would ever change," Mack said. "So many times I ran away and the local highway patrol brought me back to my father.." Mack's voice was quiet and bitter. "They had to know he beat me. Fucking faggot kid." He took a perverse pleasure in seeing Nathan put his fork down, his appetite gone.

"Don't, Mack," Nathan said softly. "Don't use it like this, to hurt me. I'm on your side."

"Is that what I'm doing?" Mack sounded bewildered.

"That's what it feels like to me," Nathan said. "Or maybe you're just beating yourself up and you don't see that that hurts me, too."

"I don't know," Mack said quietly. "I'm sorry? Oh, Nathan, I don't know about this sort of shit, I don't get it. I just..." His voice trailed off. "I'm sorry."

"You just can't stand feeling this way," Nathan said. "Angry, off balance, stressed. You'll do anything, say anything, not to have to sit and feel these things. I know, Mack, I know."

"What am I supposed to do?" Mack asked rhetorically.

Nathan answered as if it were a real question. "Take a deep breath. Look at the scenery. Look at me. Take another deep breath and remember, I'm on your side. You're safe now, Mack, no one can hurt you any more. Take a swallow of your beer, smile at me, try and focus on us and on lunch. You don't have to do anything, Mack. You just have to stay here." Nathan hoped Mack could take in what he was saying. He didn't want Mack to bolt from the restaurant and it was all too possible with Mack in this restless mood. Nathan took a deep breath himself and willing his voice to sound firm and authoritative, said, "Stay here, Mack."

Mack responded to Nathan's firmness with a hard swallow and a nod. "Yes, Nathan," he said, dropping his eyes to his plate and returning to his meal. "This is good," he said after a few bites of his burger. "I'm good with here, Nathan."

Relieved, Nathan let himself relax enough to enjoy the rest of his meal. "You want coffee, Mack? Dessert?"

Mack shrugged. "We've been sitting a long time," he said. "I could do with a walk or something first if you'd be up for it. I just need...I'm just not hungry anymore right now."

"That's fine," Nathan said easily. "We can walk up the river a bit from the parking lot here, there's a path I know. Let me get the check." He signaled the waitress.

Mack was quieter and more subdued than he had been earlier in the day. The edge of angry energy was gone, but what was left was less calm than resignation. Nathan took Mack's hand as they walked along the river and Mack's fingers tightened on his. "Thanks for lunch, Nathan."

"Did you enjoy it?" Nathan asked.

"It was a nice place and I liked the food," Mack said. "I don't really think I earned it."

"What do you mean, earned it?" Nathan asked, puzzled. "Just what do you think you have to do to earn a lunch out, Mackie?"

"Be good? Behave?" Mack shrugged. "I don't know, Nathan. Just I know telling you I don't want you to hit me anymore and then turning up with my face bashed in isn't it."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Nathan said. "Slow down a minute, Mack." Nathan hated the way Mack calmly equated his punishing Mack with Mack getting into a fight at a bar.

"Shit," Mack said. "Whatever I said that's making you look like that, Nathan, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it." Mack looked sincerely distressed.

"I know, Mack, I know," Nathan said. He slipped his arm around Mack's waist and pulled him into a hug. "Let's head back to the car, okay? I'm getting cold out here."

"Okay," Mack said, but he looked sadder and even less at ease than he had before their walk. "I'm just going to fuck this up, Nathan. I'm really good at fucking things up."

"I'm not going to let you fuck up," Nathan said quietly. "I promise, Mackie. It's going to be all right." He had made this promise to Mack more than once before, he knew, and he had meant it every time. He meant it now, too, only it was becoming more and more difficult to know what "all right" looked like.

They drove home in silence. Mack was out of the car and into the house before Nathan had even turned off the engine. Nathan followed him inside slowly, trying to think of a way to shift the tension between them.

One of the reasons that Nathan had always wanted a relationship that included discipline was that it gave him a level of control he craved. Lacking that control over Mack, he found living side by side with him difficult. And asserting his authority without having the ultimate sanction, corporal punishment, at his disposal was even more difficult. Still, Nathan believed he could do it. It was just going to take a little more time to get the hang of it.

"You ready for coffee now?" Nathan asked, striving for normalcy.

Mack looked at him. "I guess." He slid into one of the chairs at the kitchen table. "Yeah, I could stand a cup, if you're making it."

"Coming right up," Nathan said. "So Mack, what are you up to the rest of the afternoon?"

"I don't know," Mack said. "You have any ideas?" He put his index finger in his mouth and stroked it in and out slowly and suggestively, his eyes on Nathan's face, ready to turn it into a joke if Nathan frowned at him.

"All right," Nathan said agreeably. "I won't say no to that." He shook his head. "Sometimes I think you have a one track mind, Mack."

"Got to admit it's the right track though," Mack replied, laughing. He was relieved that he and Nathan seemed to be back on the same wavelength. He took the cup of coffee Nathan handed him. "Thank you, smells good."

"Got to make sure you stay awake," Nathan teased, sitting down with his own coffee. He passed the cookie tin over to Mack. "You're going to need your energy."

"More like you will," Mack said, but he helped himself to a cookie nonetheless. He loved this part of living with Nathan. The domestic routines and comforts that were second nature to Nathan were still novelties to Mack and he enjoyed them more than he admitted. Nathan's calm and organized existence was faintly mystifying to Mack. Sometimes the quiet made Mack nervous, but most of the time, when he actually thought about it, Mack just wondered at it. He had no idea how to express his thoughts to Nathan, who clearly took all this for granted.

Nathan knew Mack was thinking about something and as always, he was curious what that something was. He knew from experience that direct questions were difficult for Mack and often felt like criticisms to him, no matter how they were intended. Nathan tried to reflect back what he thought Mack might be feeling. "It's nice sitting here together, Mack."

"Yeah," Mack said with a heartfelt sigh of relief. He didn't know how Nathan guessed what he was thinking, but that he did, that he seemed able to anticipate and formulate Mack's inchoate thoughts, meant a great deal to Mack. "It really is, Nathan." He sighed. "Do you think I did the right thing, agreeing to sell the house?"

"I think you made a good decision," Nathan said. "Have you heard anything more from the real estate woman? What happens now?"

"She said maybe three weeks before the closing," Mack said. "Apparently the buyer has the money and wants to move fast. I said fine."

"Do you have anything you want to pick up at the house?" Nathan asked. "We can make a trip over any weekend you like."

"There's nothing there. I don't want anything," Mack said. "She said I didn't have to clear it out. Anything I leave they'll just take away when they tear it down. I don't want a thing from that house, Nathan." Mack shuddered at the idea of any of the bits and pieces from his previous life coming to rest in Nathan's beautiful, safe home. "I don't want anything."

"No photograph albums? Nothing?" Nathan persisted. "Do you have pictures of your mother? Any pictures of your father and you together that you want to keep?"

"There aren't any fucking photo albums," Mack said bitterly. "My father burnt some of them a long time ago and I burnt the rest after he died. Guess I learned something from him after all."

"Oh Mack," Nathan said. "I don't know what to say."

"You don't fucking have to say anything." Mack glared at Nathan. "Just forget it. I don't care. I don't care about any of it. I just want the money and then it's done as far as I'm concerned, all right?"

"Come here," Nathan said quietly. When Mack didn't move, he stood and walked to Mack. "Up you go, Mack. Come on now, it's all right, come to me." He hugged Mack tightly to him. "I've got you. You're going to be all right. I've got you now." Nathan steered Mack toward the bedroom, his hand firm on the small of Mack's back.

The closing date came up fast. The chain that had bought the property was eager to seal the deal before any of the town's activists managed to solidify in opposition to their encroachment into the village. Nathan drove with a silent Mack over the mountains for the closing, where Mack signed documents and accepted checks and said little. By mutual agreement, they made the drive home the same day, without stopping in at Noah and Jim's.

Nathan knew Mack's calm was entirely illusory. Another few days' peace and then Mack wandered off and didn't come home for dinner. Nathan drove into town and began to search his lover's usual haunts. Pay dirt; Nathan took a quick look around the bar and immediately spotted Mack. He took a deep breath, calming himself. He was glad that Mack was, so far, still in one piece. Now to get him out of here before anything happened. He walked quietly over to where Mack was sitting.

"Come on, Mack, you've had enough. Let's get you home," Nathan said.

"No, go away," Mack moaned. "I'm fine. Nathan, leave me alone."

"Mack, don't be difficult. We're going." Nathan levered Mack out of his seat and herded him out the door. Ignoring Mack's feeble attempts to turn aside, he guided him to the car and shoved him in. "Get your seatbelt. We're going home."

Mack was silent on the short trip back to the house. He threw up in the bushes beside the driveway after the car pulled in. Nathan stood by silently, torn between sympathy and annoyance.

Mack straightened up and meekly followed Nathan inside. Nathan closed the door behind him and turned to face Mack.

"Hit me." Mack looked tiredly at Nathan. "Go on, Nathan, hit me. I deserve it. Do it for godssake, hit me, I know you want to."

"No," Nathan said. "It's not going to solve anything, Mack. It's not going to make you feel better, no matter what you think."

"It will," Mack insisted. "I deserve it. Why the fuck won't you hit me? Go on, take your belt off, I know you're dying to beat the shit out of me. I have it coming, I know that, just let's get it over with. Please, Nathan, I'm fucking falling apart here. Please, Nathan, hit me."

"You're a good boy, Mackie," Nathan said softly, pity overwhelming any irritation he'd felt earlier. "You don't deserve to be hit. You don't deserve to be beaten. You're a good boy, Mackie, come on now, come here, come to me." He backed Mack into the corner of the room and wrapped his arms snugly around him, not letting Mack pull free. "Stop that." Nathan caught the back of Mack's flailing head in his hand and pressed Mack to his shoulder. "You're a good boy."

"No!" The cry Mack gave was so full of pain that it hurt to hear it. "No, no, no. No!"

"I've got you." Nathan pulled Mack toward the couch and tumbled them both down onto it. "I've got you, Mack. You're mine, you're my good boy, I'm never, never going to hurt you. I've got you now."

"I'm not good," Mack said wretchedly. "I gave up trying to be good a long time ago. It isn't worth it. It doesn't matter anyway. No matter what I do, it's always the wrong thing."

"That's over," Nathan said. "Your father's dead, he's gone, his house is gone, you're free. You're mine now and you need to listen to me and I'm telling you, you're a good boy." The phrase had been a loaded one for as long as Nathan had known Mack and Nathan was taking a chance in repeating it now, hoping that it would work the way he needed it to.

"I don't know what's right, Nathan," Mack said hopelessly. "Use your belt. I deserve it, the way I've been acting. You know I do."

"No," Nathan said. "I'm not going to change my mind while you're this vulnerable, Mack. We can revisit this once things settle down a little, but for now, my decision stands. No corporal punishment. You're in pain, tremendous emotional pain, Mack. I know you're hurting. I'm going to help you get through this. You don't need to be distracted by physical pain."

Mack sank deeper into the couch, not sure whether he was upset or reassured by Nathan's statement. "I don't understand you, Nathan."

"I love you," Nathan said. "I know this is a very tough thing for you."

"I thought I'd feel better! I didn't think I'd feel like this! I don't know anything, Nathan. I don't know how anything's going to turn out. How the fuck can I trust myself to decide anything if I can be this wrong about how it's going to feel?"

"Give it a little time, Mack," Nathan suggested. "See how you feel tomorrow, the next day. I think you'll find you feel relieved that you did this. That you've closed a chapter. Give yourself a few days to find your feet again before you decide that you made a mistake."

"All right," Mack said dubiously. "You really think that'll help, Nathan? Just waiting a few days?" It sounded too simple to possibly be true.

"I do, Mack, I really do," Nathan said. "You won't lose anything by giving it a try and you stand to gain a lot."

"I just want to stop feeling like this," Mack said piteously. "Get drunk, get in a fight, anything not to feel this way. I can't breathe, Nathan."

"Let's go up the mountain," Nathan suggested. "You usually feel better up there."

"It's cold. You hate hiking in the cold." Mack looked uncertain.

"I'll make an exception," Nathan said. "I really don't hate it, Mack, it's just not my favorite time of year to hike. I want to go up with you today, though. I really think you'll feel better."

"Yeah," Mack said. "Probably. Okay, let's go!"

It was the first glimpse of Mack's usual liveliness Nathan had seen in days and it made him smile. "Sweaters, coats, let's go," Nathan said. "Oh, and water bottles."

"Sure, I'll get them." Mack darted into the kitchen for the water bottles and Nathan shrugged into his coat. Even if exercise heated him up, it was cold out there.

Mack took just his sweater. The cold seldom bothered him and he was more apt to overheat than to feel chilled.

They walked until Mack was exhausted. Nathan was winded, too, but for once he had the advantage: unlike Mack, he'd started out sober. Shivering, Mack turned for home.

Inside again, Mack silently headed for the bedroom, Nathan trailing him. Mack kicked off his shoes and flopped on the bed; Nathan did the same. Mack curled up with Nathan, his head resting on Nathan's chest. Nathan smiled, enjoying the way Mack sank into him, clearly confident that Nathan would hold and pet him.

Mack felt loved and more than just loved, known. Nathan had accepted him, flaws and all, and even when he'd reneged on the most basic part of their understanding, Nathan had kept caring about him, kept loving him. Mack trusted Nathan more now than he'd ever trusted anyone in his life, even Noah. Nathan, Mack realized, could help him change his life.

"Nathan?" Mack's voice was barely audible. "I'm not sure about anything. I'm not even sure I don't want you to spank me. Just not now. I can't let you now. It might be different after awhile. Oh Christ, Nathan, I don't know, I don't know."

"Don't stress over it. We can talk, we will talk, about what we want to do about corporal punishment. Just not now, Mack," Nathan said comfortably. "Let's take this a day at a time. For now, all you need to focus on is that I love you and I want what's right for you."

"I just don't know what I want. Can't you just decide for me?" Mack asked wistfully, half joking, half serious.

"No," Nathan said. "That wouldn't be right, Mack, and it wouldn't be fair to either of us. You deserve to have a choice in the matter and I deserve to know that you understand what a relationship that includes corporal punishment is about. We'll sort it out. "

"I need it finished, done, now!" Mack sounded frantic. "But I just don't know! I can't even think right now, Nathan." Mack rolled free, turning away from Nathan.

"There's no rush and there's no reason to tie yourself up in knots over this," Nathan said firmly. "Let it go for now, Mack. I'm not going anywhere. I'll still be here when you're ready to figure this out." He lay quietly behind Mack, rubbing his back, until Mack let out his breath with a sigh.

"Yeah, all right," Mack said. "What the fuck, you're good at this kind of shit. I'll do it your way, Nathan."