Elizabeth Marshall Stories


It was well past midnight and Nathan had already turned the heat down for the night. Warm beneath his heavy robe, he sat at the kitchen table, a cup of tea close at hand, reading by the cool glow of a compact fluorescent light. He laid his magazine aside at the sound of the outside door opening and stood up. "Mackie."

"I didn't drive and I'm not drunk," Mack said defensively as he stumbled into the kitchen. "Really, Nathan." He knew Nathan wouldn't punish him despite the late hour and his disheveled condition, but he also knew Nathan wouldn't be happy with him.

"I believe you." Nathan was careful not to give any outward sign of displeasure as he stepped forward, catching Mack in his arms and sniffing. "You may not be drunk, but you have been drinking. Any particular reason?"

"Tooth hurts." Mack shrugged. "I just had a few extra." He considered his statement. "Five?"

"That bad, Mackie?" Nathan's voice was gentle. He knew any hint of annoyance would just guarantee that Mack wouldn't trust him with the truth the next time. He steered Mack into the bedroom and eased him out of his clothes, taking the opportunity to check him for bruises. At least Mack hadn't been fighting. "I'm going to get you some water or you'll have a headache as well as a toothache tomorrow morning. You need to get in to the dentist." He gave Mack a gentle shove toward the bathroom. "Go on, take care of whatever. I'll be right back." He returned from the kitchen with a tall glass to find Mack huddled under the covers. "Come on, sit up for a moment."

"I'm cold and my tooth hurts." Mack didn't move. "I'm not thirsty."

"I'll warm you up in a minute." Nathan tugged Mack upright. "Come on, Mackie, drink your water. You'll feel a lot better tomorrow if you do. Be a good boy now." Nathan's mild admonishment had the result he'd hoped.

"Yes, Nathan." Mack took the water from Nathan and drank obediently. "I'm cold," he complained.

"Come here." Nathan slipped out of his robe and turning back the covers, lay down. He drew Mack to him, arranged him carefully across his chest, and pulled the covers back over both of them.

"I don't feel good, Nathan. My tooth hurts." Mack twisted unhappily, rubbing his cheek against Nathan for comfort.

"I know, Mackie. Just rest now. We'll get you better tomorrow. Go to sleep." Nathan smoothed Mack's hair. "Go to sleep."

"I don't want to go to the dentist," Mack said softly. "I hate dentists."

"I'm taking you tomorrow. He's a nice man, he's very gentle, there's nothing to be afraid of." Nathan tugged Mack closer. "It's going to be all right. Shh, just try to sleep now. Shh."

Alcohol really was a wonderful painkiller, Mack had gotten that right, and comforted by Nathan's warm presence, he fell asleep. He didn't rest easily, though. The pain kept breaking through and he slept lightly and fitfully, his dreams vivid and unpleasant. He was glad when morning came; less glad to enter the kitchen just as Nathan finished talking to the dentist's service.

"He'll see you this afternoon. It won't be as bad as you think." Nathan saw Mack wince. "What is it, Mack? The needles?"

"It's not just the needles, it's his stuff in my mouth," Mack said unhappily. He wandered restlessly around the kitchen. "Nathan? Did you ever wonder? The pills, the food things, this? Did you ever think that..." He fell silent. "Never mind."

"Did I ever wonder if there was a connection?" Nathan asked, corralling Mack in his arms. He kissed Mack softly. "Did you?"

"Let go." Mack didn't pull away. "Yeah."

"There probably is, don't you think?" Nathan didn't push. He'd wondered for a long time if Mack was ever going to want to trust him with this.

"Yeah." Mack closed his eyes and dropped his head to Nathan's chest. "I don't feel good, Nathan. I just want to lie down."

"That sounds like a good idea," Nathan said. "Couch or bed, Mackie?"

"Couch." Mack sighed. "I can't really sleep anyway, Nathan, my tooth hurts too bad."

"I know," Nathan said sympathetically. "What about we get some medicine into you and you try and nap for a little while? I can't give you Tylenol when you've been drinking like that, but I've got baby aspirin."

"Okay," Mack said. He liked being fussed over like this. Nathan had learned some of the same tricks Noah had for working around Mack's sensitive spots. Nathan brought Mack the chewable aspirin and Mack downed it, relieved as always that Nathan had accepted his hatred for swallowing pills.

Nathan made Mack comfortable on the couch and kissed him good bye. "I've got class. You take it easy this morning and I'll be back before your appointment this afternoon."

By the time Nathan returned, Mack was up, showered and dressed. He was sitting at the kitchen counter sipping what looked like water.

"Hey, Nathan," Mack said. His eyes were suspiciously bright and his speech careful.

"You've been drinking." Nathan struggled to keep the judgment he felt out of his voice. He took the glass from Mack's hand and sniffed at the clear liquid, then replaced the glass on the counter. "Vodka?"


"Maybe?" Mack said evasively, then shrugged in acknowledgment. "Yeah. Nathan, I need this."

"You're telling me you can't do this sober?" Nathan asked. "It's that bad?"

Mack looked down, not wanting to meet Nathan's eyes. He toyed with his glass, tipping it back and forth.

"Mackie, I'm not angry," Nathan said very softly. "I want to understand. You seem to have planned this out. What is it, if you've got enough of a buzz on, you can nerve yourself up to do this?"

"I don't want to go," Mack said. "My tooth hurts so fucking much though, I have to go. I just thought...this would make it easier. I didn't want to smell like a stinking drunk, so I thought vodka..." His voice trailed off. "Nathan, this is so fucking scary."

"I understand," Nathan said. "Thank you for admitting it. Mack, I'm not saying you can't handle it like this, unorthodox as it is, it makes sense to me that you'd want to be emotionally numb. I'm just concerned about your safety."

"It's safe enough. I've done it before, Nathan," Mack said. "I know it works." He shivered. "I can't do it any other way, Nathan, I can't."

"I don't think this is the best way, Mack," Nathan said gently. "I wish you'd talked to me about this first."

"You'd have said no," Mack said glumly.

"Mackie." Nathan rubbed his hand over Mack's forearm. "I'm going to call the dentist and re–"

"No!" Mack pulled back. "I want to get this done now, Nathan, my tooth hurts so bad, I'm as ready as I'll ever be. Please, Nathan, you can't do this to me!"

Nathan thought for a few minutes. He could see Mack's point, and even though it seemed like a wrongheaded strategy to him, it made sense on so many levels.

"Fine. I'll drive you." Nathan felt as well as saw Mack's sigh of relief. "I don't know, Mack, you sure know how to get your own way sometimes."

"I *hate* going to the dentist," Mack said vehemently. "It's not about getting my own way, Nathan, it's about trying to do this without freaking out. I'm trying here, Nathan, you just don't see that."

"I do see that." Nathan touched Mack's hand gently. "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings, I understand that you didn't do this to challenge me. I just wish there were a better way."

"There's not," Mack said glumly. "Believe me, Nathan, there's not."

Mack didn't talk at all on the way to the dentist's office and after awhile Nathan got tired of the sound of his own voice and turned on the car's radio. Once there, Mack was quickly ushered inside while Nathan made small talk with the receptionist and thumbed through lifestyle magazines. He was glad when Mack emerged looking only slightly green. He waited for Mack to finish signing off on some paperwork and then they walked together to the car.

"How did it go?" Nathan asked.

"I hate it," Mack said. "God, I hope I don't have to go back."

"We'll be home soon," Nathan said. He drove as smoothly as he could, aware that Mack was uncomfortable and unhappy.

"Don't worry," Nathan said softly, slipping a comforting arm around Mack as they walked toward the house. He could feel Mack shaking. "I've got you. You'll feel better once the numbness wears off."

"I'm going to be sick," Mack whispered. "Let me go, Nathan, I feel sick."

"Come on then." Nathan unlocked the door swiftly and eased Mack through the kitchen into the bathroom. "You're going to be all right."

"I think I'm okay?" Mack sounded uncertain. He looked at his face in the mirror. "God, Nathan, I look like shit. I feel like shit, too."

"Would a shower help?" Nathan asked. "Warm bath? I'll join you if you like."

"I don't know." Mack looked forlornly at Nathan. "I don't feel good, Nathan. I think maybe I just want to lie down. I don't know."

"Here." Nathan handed Mack a glass of water. "Rinse your mouth."

Mack spat into the sink.

"Wipe your face." Nathan handed Mack a damp washcloth. "Good boy. Let's get you into bed." He shepherded Mack into the bedroom. "I don't think alcohol and anesthetic go together too well," Nathan lectured as he watched Mack toe off his shoes and slide off his jeans.

"Fine, Nathan, punish me then, if you think I deserve it. I don't care!" Mack shrunk down on the bed.

"Mackie." Nathan wasn't sure how they'd gotten here, but he was sure about one thing: Mack was thoroughly wretched. "Mack, of course I'm not going to punish you when you feel this lousy. Why would you think that? Take it easy, it's going to be all right."

"It's never all right!" Anguished eyes met Nathan's. "Nathan, you don't know me, I'm, I'm, I'm fucked. It's never going to be all right again, never!"

"That's not true," Nathan said firmly, wanting more than anything to reassure Mack. "I know the visit to the dentist really shook you up, but–"

"I remember how it felt. His, his, his thing, in my mouth." Mack turned anguished eyes toward Nathan. "I'm trapped there, on my back, with his thing in my mouth. I can't breathe."

"The dentist reminds you of it." Nathan instantly grasped Mack's meaning. Goose bumps rose on his arm. "That's what this is about, isn't it?"

"It's such bullshit," Mack said miserably. "I don't want to talk about it. I mean, how many guys have I sucked off, why does it matter when I did it the first time, huh?"

"It matters if you didn't have a choice," Nathan said quietly. "It matters if you were a child. Tell me what happened, Mack."

"They lived next door. She worked. He said I should be nice to him, that's what he called it, being nice." Mack's eyes searched Nathan's face for signs of censure.

"Mackie." Nathan seated himself beside Mack. He cupped his hand carefully around Mack's jaw, mindful of his sore tooth, and stroked Mack's cheek gently with his thumb. He felt Mack flinch. "I'm sorry, Mackie, so sorry."

"I told my father. He didn't believe me." Mack said, his breathing quickening. "He hit me, he said I was a liar, that if I told anyone they'd take me away, they'd put me in jail, that I was bad, that I was lucky he didn't throw me out. I was a kid; I was scared. I didn't have any place else to go. It happened over and over again and I didn't have any place else to go. It wasn't my fault, Nathan."

"Oh Mackie, of course it wasn't your fault. You were only a kid." Nathan eased Mack to him, holding him loosely. "I'm glad you're telling me this; I understand better now. I am never going to let anyone hurt you again. You're mine now. You're safe."

Mack curled into Nathan as Nathan stroked his hair. In a few minutes he was crying without a sound. Only a few hard gulps of air and his wet cheeks gave him away.

"It's all right to cry, you don't have to be quiet, I love you." Nathan kissed Mack's fine, dark hair gently. "Let go, Mackie, I've got you."

Mack nodded as if he understood, but his tears continued soundlessly, his breath rigidly controlled. Silence was too deeply ingrained to be easily overcome. He shuddered, wanting to trust Nathan, but unable to make himself obey.

"Just try and trust me, okay?" Nathan could see how hard Mack was struggling.

"Okay." All of this outpouring of emotion had caught Mack completely off guard. He hadn't meant to freak out this way. He was very embarrassed and he wanted nothing more than to erase the last half hour from both Nathan's memory and his own.

"It really is okay," Nathan repeated the word firmly. "I'm not disappointed in you, I'm not angry with you, I'm not judging you. You're okay, we're okay, everything's going to be okay. I promise."

Promise, the magical word. Mack believed Nathan meant it. Mack's tooth hurt, his throat hurt, his head hurt, his stomach hurt...he couldn't think any more. Closing his eyes, he gave up struggling and let himself fall back on the bed. Let Nathan deal with this, Mack thought. I can't.

Nathan sensed something of Mack's surrender and curled around Mack protectively, sheltering him with his body. He held Mack securely and was gratified when Mack didn't struggle, only sighed and moved closer into him. He stayed with Mack until Mack fell deeply asleep, exhausted from the combination of stress and sleep deprivation.

I hate that man, Nathan thought to himself, his movements as he made himself a sandwich and cleaned up the kitchen sharp and abrupt. He wasn't sure who he meant by "that man": The neighbor who had taken advantage of a boy? The family "friend" who had abused a teenage Mack on hunting trips? Mack's physically and emotionally abusive father? Ah, he hated all of them, he hated anyone who had ever laid hands on his Mack, he hated every one of the bastards who had hurt his Mack. Nathan fought to breathe through the unaccustomed rage he felt. Mack had enough anger in him to fuel both of them; Nathan knew he had to stay calm. It was hard.

Mack slept through the night like a dead man. The next morning was awkward. Mack was quietly tense. He watched Nathan nervously, startling every time Nathan's hands came close to him.

 It's as if he expects to be grabbed and hit, Nathan thought sadly to himself. Here I'm on his side and it's me he's afraid of. The unfairness of it hurt.

"Mackie." Nathan's voice was gentle. He slipped his arm around Mack's shoulders and hustled him closer. "Relax, please. I know you're nervous, but you know I'm not going to harm you. Come on, Mack, we've been living together for months now. You know me better than this."

"I just don't want it to hurt anymore! I don't want to remember anything, I just want to not think!" Mack was angry at how vulnerable he felt. "Fuck you!" He watched Nathan's face.

"You can curse at me, you can try as hard as you know how to provoke me, and I'm not going to beat you," Nathan said sharply. "That's not to say I like this, Mack, because I don't. You're really not being fair."

"I'm sorry," Mack said glumly. ""Nathan, I didn't mean it, I'm sorry. You can still smack me if I talk out of turn, I understand I deserve that. I just feel so..." His voice trailed off. "Shit."

"Let's go for a walk, Mack," Nathan said, pretending an ease he didn't really feel. He knew they had to do something different, something positive, to interrupt the cycle of tension that was building.

"It's cold out," Mack said doubtfully. "You don't like hiking in the cold."

"I'll make an exception," Nathan said. "Take me somewhere pretty, okay?"

"There's a way I found up to the ridge," Mack said tentatively. "It's not too steep, though you have to bushwhack some, but it opens out beautifully at the top. It's a nice view."

"Let's go." Nathan knew that nature sometimes soothed Mack when nothing else could. He'd gladly suffer through a walk in the chill woods if it would help Mack get past this frantic, unhappy mood.

The climb to the top of the ridge was rough. Mack moved quickly and Nathan barely managed to keep pace. Both men were winded by the time they reached the summit.

"Made it." Mack grinned at Nathan, the first honest smile Nathan had seen out of Mack in two days.

"When did you last come up here?" Nathan asked.

"A few weeks ago." Mack gestured toward the edge of the ridge. "It's pretty, isn't it?"

"I miss our summer place," Nathan said, coming up behind Mack and hugging him. "You really know your way around these woods. Have you looked at any of those sites I found on wilderness guides and licenses?" He knew it was a mistake as soon as he said it, even before he felt Mack tense.

"No." Mack pulled away from Nathan. "Let's go back down. I'm cold."

"Sure, Mack." Nathan had wanted to distract Mack and give him something positive to think about, forgetting in his eagerness how stressful Mack found any discussion centered on future plans. He debated apologizing and explaining his question; decided to let it go. He'd talk to Mack about it later, when Mack was calmer and less reactive.

Mack led the way down at breakneck speed. He wanted to get away from Nathan and his questions, his optimism, his patience. He didn't want to talk, to think, to feel; he wanted to forget everything. Moving on auto pilot, he beat Nathan back into the house, grabbed his wallet, grabbed his keys and headed out again just as Nathan was letting himself in.

"Easy, Mack, where's the fire?" Nathan asked. Mack stared at Nathan and shoved past him. Before Nathan had even regained his balance, he heard Mack's truck start and then Mack was gone. Nathan sat down heavily at the kitchen table. He hadn't anticipated this.

Mack was both a good driver and a lucky one. Despite his fury, despite the fact that he took the mountain passes at well over the speed limit, he made it across in one piece. He didn't start drinking until he reached his old haunts and then he made up for lost time in spectacular fashion.

Noah and Jim swung by Mack's house on a routine check on their way back from campus and were startled to see Mack's truck.

"Damn it, Mack, what happened?" Noah swore softly under his breath.

"You think he's left Nathan?" Jim asked.

"I wouldn't be surprised." Noah had no reservations about using his key when his knock went unanswered. He found Mack sprawled on the couch and dead to the world, an assortment of cans and bottles littered around him. "Mack! Mack, wake up! Come on, Mackie."

"Shit, ow, what?" Mack startled awake. "Noah?"

"Who else? When did you get in, Mack?"

"Last night? No, this morning," Mack said tiredly. "Does it matter, Noah? I'm here now. Shit, my head."

"Does Nathan know where you are?" Noah asked.

"I don't fucking care either way," Mack said softly. "Leave it alone, Noah, it's over." He looked up as Jim came through the door. "Hey, Jim."

"Hey, Mack." Jim took in the bruises on Mack's face. "What happened to you?"

"Fight," Mack muttered. "I'm okay."

"You don't look it. You should come home with us, Mack, it's no good drinking alone."

"Jim's right," Noah said. "Come on, Mack. There's no reason to punish yourself like this."

"The fuck there isn't," Mack said. "Ask Nathan about that. I'm fine by myself."

"Whatever happened between you and Nathan doesn't change the fact that you out in the bars alone is a bad idea," Noah said. "Get up and get in the car; we're taking you home." Noah had taken charge of Mack many times in the past and he knew Mack would respond better to an order than to a suggestion.

Mack was quiet on the way back to Noah and Jim's house. He was hung over and nauseous and he gratefully sipped coke and passed out again on their couch.

"I'm afraid Mack's going to lose Nathan," Noah said sadly to Jim. "He's going to keep pushing Nathan away until Nathan finally gives up. I wish I knew how to help Mack, Jim, I wish I knew."

"I don't think you can do anything but encourage Mack to call Nathan when he wakes up," Jim said. "And pray that Nathan has some patience left."

It wasn't until early evening that Mack was able to sit up and hold a conversation. Noah brought him the phone and stared at him until Mack reluctantly dialed Nathan. "Hey."


Mack caught his breath at Nathan's gentle, reproachful use of his nickname.

"Thank God you're safe." Nathan recognized Noah's number. "Mackie, we had a deal. You come home and I don't punish you. I don't care how late it is, I don't care how wrecked you are, you come home. Why did you run away?"

"I don't know," Mack whispered. "I fucked up, Nathan." Mack touched his bruised cheek and winced. "I'm a fucking idiot, okay?"

"How do you want to do this?" Nathan asked quietly. "Do you want to come home by yourself or do you want me to come get you tomorrow?"

"Just leave me alone!"


"Not an option, Mack." Nathan knew Mack well enough to hear the pain under the anger. "I'll be there tomorrow. Be a good boy till then. Put Noah on, will you?"

Mack thrust the phone at Noah and fled the house. He'd left Noah's place in a hurry many times before. His feet knew the way to the nearest friendly bar. He had money in his wallet and when he got bored with the first place, he moved on. By midnight he was drunk and broke and his eye was purpling. He made it to his own yard before throwing up and through the door and onto the couch before passing out. He was still hung over and slightly green when Nathan arrived the following morning. Nathan bit back the reproaches he was entitled to make and opted for sympathy instead.

"You can't keep running, Mack," Nathan said, touching Mack's face gently. "I think we need to talk about what's going on here."

"Let me be, Nathan, I feel like shit. I don't think we have anything to talk about. I don't have anything I want to talk about!" Mack's voice was taut with pain. "I don't want to remember what happened. It was a long time ago, Nathan, why do you want to make it real again when I've almost forgotten it ever happened?"

"You haven't forgotten," Nathan said quietly. "You want to forget, because it hurts you too much to remember. But your body hasn't forgotten, or you wouldn't gag on pills, or panic at the dentist putting his fingers in your mouth." Nathan ran a soothing hand over Mack's arm. "Come home with me, Mackie. Come home with me, today. I'll help you get past this, I'll help make things better. You don't have to do this alone."

"I'm scared," Mack whispered. "If I come back, will you spank me?" Mack's question hung in the air.

"Oh Mackie," Nathan said, and he didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. He settled for a deep sigh. With gentle fingers, he touched the bruises on Mack's face, ghosting over Mack's spectacularly blackened eye. "You'll take a beating like this from a stranger, you'll look for someone to hurt you like this, but you're afraid to let me spank you? Oh Mackie, what am I going to do with you? You punish yourself a hell of a lot more harshly than I ever would." With another sigh, Nathan stroked Mack's hair back from his battered face and kissed him gently. "Come home, Mackie. This is no good."

"This?" Mack's eyes searched Nathan's face for some indication of what "this" meant.

"This house, this hiding, this running from me and finding ways to get hurt, that's what's no good." Nathan understood Mack's question. "You may deserve to be turned over my knee and spanked, but you don't deserve to be punished like this. I would never hurt you the way you hurt yourself. Don't you know that yet?"

"I don't see why not," Mack muttered, moving with ill grace deeper into Nathan's arms. He closed his eyes and let Nathan gather him in a tight hug. "You would if you knew everything."

"Tell me what you're hiding, Mack," Nathan said. "Please."

"You see that?" Pulling back, Mack gestured toward the window. An empty space was visible beyond a jagged gap in the overgrown hedge that edged his yard. "There used to be a house there. That's where he lived."

"What happened to the house, Mack?" Nathan sensed that Mack wanted him to ask.

"He smoked. He'd give me cigarettes. After awhile, I put a lit one inside the couch. It didn't work the first time, but eventually it did. I heard sirens in the middle of the night. You hate me now, right?"

"No, Mackie, I don't hate you." Nathan's voice was soft and without judgment. "A scared child, trying to escape from a bad situation the only way he could figure out how? I don't blame you, Mack, you did what you could to protect yourself."

"I always wondered if my father knew," Mack said softly. "He didn't ask me anything; he just told me to keep my fucking mouth shut." Mack smiled grimly. "He bought the lot, afterward. That's mine now, too."

Lovely, thought Nathan to himself. Aloud he said only, "You must have felt so very, very alone."

"Yeah." Mack swallowed hard. "Nathan, you know I'm not, like crazy, right? Like those guys that set fires? I'm not like that. I didn't know what else to do."

"I know that, Mack." Nathan was reeling from Mack's revelation. He couldn't begin to sort out the myriad emotions he was feeling, but uppermost among them were pity, for an abused and frightened child and gratitude, for Mack's trust in him.

"His wife got wasn't home," Mack said. "I hadn't thought about her, but I was glad about that. Do you hate me?"

"I love you, Mackie." Nathan extended his hand slowly toward Mack's face, not wanting him to misunderstand. He stroked his cheek tenderly. "I love you."

"I don't care." Mack shrugged, but he couldn't hold back the tears that spilled from his eyes, down his cheeks. "I don't care, Nathan," he repeated.

"Don't you?" Nathan drew Mack back into his arms. "It's all right to care. It's all right to feel. I've got you, Mack, I love you, I'm not going to hurt you, I'm not going to let you hurt yourself. It's all right to care. It's all right to cry--"

"Don't!" Mack was shaking. "Nathan, no!" He had no idea what to say or do next.

"Don't stress, Mack, we'll figure it out." Nathan eased Mack into a chair. "Breathe. I'm here, you're safe. Deep breath, Mack, that's my boy. That's it, breathe..." He rubbed Mack's back in slow circles. "I'm going to take care of you. You're safe, there's nothing to be afraid of anymore, all you have to do is breathe. I've got you."

As Mack's breathing steadied, the terrible trembling stopped. Mack yawned and Nathan coaxed him into the bedroom. It was chill and smelled damp, but Nathan was undeterred. He turned back the bedcovers and levered Mack into bed and lay down beside him.

"We're going to rest now. Shh." Nathan fell asleep with Mack in his arms. When they awoke, it was afternoon. Nathan was eager to get home.

"Leave your truck here and I'll drive you home," Nathan proposed. "We can come back and get the truck another day. I'll take you anywhere you need to go this week."

"I don't know." Mack shivered. "You leave your car," he suggested.

"No," Nathan said. "Either we take my car, or we drive back separately." He wanted to be sure he could follow Mack if Mack decided to bolt again; it was too strong a possibility to disregard.

"Separate vehicles then," Mack said. He swallowed hard. "I'll follow you, okay?"

"You know the way home," Nathan replied. "You have keys if you get there first. For godssakes, Mackie, there's no way I can make you come back. I want you home, I want you back, so badly it hurts me physically. It's your choice in the end, though."

"I'll come back," Mack said softly. "I'm sorry, Nathan."

"I'm sorry you're struggling so hard," Nathan said. "I'm going to try to make it easier for you, Mack, this isn't something you have to deal with entirely on your own." He hugged Mack tightly, tilted his head back and kissed him, long and deep, until he felt Mack stir against his leg. "I love you. Remember that. I'll see you at home; drive safe."

Nathan wasn't at all surprised to pull into the driveway and discover Mack had beaten him back. He found the front door unlocked and the house dark. Locking the door behind him, he took off his jacket and hung it up. Then he made his way to the bedroom.

Mack was standing by the window. He had obviously been watching for Nathan; he had already stripped off his jeans. As usual, he was bare beneath. "I'm not going to let you beat me," Mack said, his voice tight and nervous.

How typical of Mack, Nathan thought, to rush headlong into the very situation he feared. He would have preferred to see Mack settle in first, but Mack clearly needed to just get this part over with. Nathan didn't think it was worth arguing over; he'd planned to spank Mack for running away and now was probably as good a time as any.

"Not a beating, Mackie, a spanking. You have it coming, Mack, you know I'm not being unfair," Nathan said. "I promise it won't be more than you can handle. You need to trust me on this, Mack, even though you're scared."

"I just wish you wouldn't spank me," Mack said unhappily "I really hate being spanked, Nathan, I hope you know that. I've never let anyone else do it, never."

"I know it takes a lot of trust and love for you to let me punish you as I see fit, " Nathan said. "And I appreciate that." He sat down on the edge of their bed and waited.

"All right." Mack crept closer to Nathan. "Nathan? Not too hard, please?" He bit his lip. "Please, Nathan?"

"Try and trust me," Nathan said. He eased Mack forward over his lap, hating the way Mack shivered. Taking a deep breath, he spanked Mack lightly and quickly, a flurry of stinging swats that made Mack squirm, but left almost no color behind. "There, Mackie, we're done." He helped Mack up and then stood himself. "All done. All forgiven. All mine."

"That's it?" Mack looked stunned. "Nathan, that's it?"

"You're a good boy, Mackie. That's all you deserved."

"It didn't really hurt," Mack said dubiously. "You know that, Nathan, right?"

"I know you were brave enough to tell me, 'Not too hard,'" Nathan said. "I know you were brave enough to trust me to spank you, even though you hate it, even though it scares you. I know that you won't forget this."

"I won't," Mack said. He melted into Nathan. "I love you, Nathan. You're so good to me. I really, really do love you, you know that, right?"

"I do know, Mackie," Nathan said contentedly, hugging Mack back. He was pleased he'd gauged Mack's reaction right. He'd gotten what he wanted from Mack, an expression of trust, an acknowledgment of his right to punish him, and he'd given Mack what he needed, a light punishment that couldn't in any way be characterized as a beating and that at the same time made it clear that the choice to be gentle and benign was his.

"Nathan? I'm not always going to be so–" Mack searched for the phrase he wanted; came up empty.

"I know," Nathan said comfortably. "I'm not worried about that, Mackie. We're in this for the long haul, or at least that's how I see it."

"I didn't think you'd spank me like that," Mack said, sounding somewhat bemused. "It wasn't really a spanking, was it? It wasn't like any spanking you've ever given me."

"I was making a point," Nathan said. "Don't run away again, Mack, it doesn't solve anything." He took any remaining sting out of his reproof by kissing Mack gently. "What would you like now? Food? Shower? Bed?"

"Shower," Mack said hopefully. He'd missed Nathan's magnificent wooden walled shower enclosure, his collection of scented scrubs and his soft, thick towels. They were luxuries Mack had never experienced before Nathan, and he acknowledged ruefully to himself how much he had come to enjoy them.

"Good idea." Nathan released Mack. "Shoo. I'll make us something to eat. Go on now," he repeated as Mack hesitated in the doorway. "Mack? What's the matter?"

"I'm glad I'm home," Mack said and fled the room.

Nathan could feel the grin spreading across his face. Home, Mack had said home. It made the last few days worth it. His exhaustion lifted and he began to hum to himself happily as he rummaged in the refrigerator for sandwich fixings. Home. He'd wanted Mack to consider this house his home. That Mack in an unguarded moment had said as much made Nathan very, very happy indeed.

Mack breathed deeply, letting the warmth of the shower, the quiet thud of the water against the wooden walls, surround him. It felt so good, different than any other shower he'd ever taken. He lathered himself with Nathan's good soap, enjoying the citrus smell of it, feeling himself harden reflexively, the scent prompting memories of intimate moments, of Nathan. It felt good to let the water stream over his bruises. Nathan hadn't yet seen all of them, Mack knew, and would not be pleased when he did. Still, for the moment, Mack felt extraordinarily light and hopeful. Home. Home.

He stepped out of the shower, feeling warm and loose for the first time in days. He pulled the towel from the rack and sighed with pleasure as he tugged it over his back. Like Nathan's other domestic indulgences, his thick towels had been a revelation to Mack, a level of luxury that Mack hadn't been aware existed pre-Nathan. That Nathan knew about these sorts of things, that Nathan was able to marshal pleasure this way, was something that left Mack feeling alternately lucky and bemused. He scrubbed his hair dry and padded down the hall to their bedroom, pulled on clean sweats and a tee shirt and made his way to the kitchen.

Nathan had warmed up soup and made sandwiches to go with it. Mack hooked a stool with his foot and sat down at the counter, grinning foolishly at the bounty before him. He was starved.

Fed and coaxed into bed, Mack curled under the covers, feeling warm and cared for. The contrast with the bleakness of the last three days was overwhelming. Mack turned his head away from the door and held himself rigid, so that Nathan wouldn't know he was crying.

"Mackie." Nathan wasn't fooled. "It's all right to cry, you're home, you're safe, I'll take care of you. Let go, Mackie. You don't need to hide from me." He stroked Mack's hair gently. "Come to me, let me hold you. Come on now, you don't have to do this alone." It took some tugging, but Nathan was determined and Mack's resistance was less than heartfelt and shortly Nathan had succeeded in settling Mack onto his chest, his wet face buried in Nathan's shirt. Nathan made soothing noises, his breath warm against Mack's hair, his hand rubbing Mack's ribs reassuringly. "I've got you now. I love you. Let go, Mack, let go."

Despite Nathan's reassurances, Mack wouldn't, couldn't, let Nathan hold him as he cried. He struggled to steady his breathing, going still against Nathan as Nathan continued to pet him.

"I'm sorry." Mack's voice was tight.

"Shh, don't struggle so hard." Nathan stroked Mack's damp cheek. "You're allowed to cry. You're allowed to make noise. Our house, my rules, you're allowed. You're safe."

"Don't talk anymore," Mack begged.

"All right," Nathan said, sympathetic to Mack's need for retreat and glad that Mack had asked for silence rather than bolting from their bed. He let his body speak for him, holding Mack close, settling sheet and cover over them until Mack's breathing slowed and deepened and he slept. Even as he eased himself out from under Mack and rolled him back onto the pillows, Nathan heard a sigh escape Mack and saw him tremble and tuck his head tightly to his chest, simultaneously silencing and protecting himself. Even asleep Mack was wary.

Nathan went back to the kitchen to clean up and to make himself a cup of tea to settle down with. He was thankful Mack was home; there had been awhile when he wondered if he would ever have the pleasure of Mack here, in his house, again. But Mack needed more help than Nathan thought he could give. Still, Nathan was ambivalent about overriding Mack's objections to therapy. He decided that a consultation with a therapist who specialized in relationships could only help. If it didn't seem like the right thing, he simply wouldn't go back. Continuing to struggle with the ghosts of Mack's past without some professional support just didn't feel feasible. He thought over the professionals he knew in the area who were comfortable both with gay men and with the leather community and began to think out just how to go about this. He shuffled through the kitchen drawer for his insurance carrier's book of preferred providers and reaching for a pencil, began to check off the names he recognized and the therapists whose backgrounds looked promising. He didn't see any point in arguing about it with Mack until he'd gotten a response from someone and made an appointment; he thought it would be better to set the wheels in motion and then see if Mack wanted to jump on board or not. He made a few preliminary notes and set the booklet aside before joining Mack in bed.

Mack slept late. He dimly felt Nathan kiss him goodbye when he left for the college, but by the time he was properly awake, the house was quiet and empty. He got up slowly and pulled on a long sleeved shirt. The house felt cool in comparison to the warm bed and for a moment Mack allowed himself to consider returning to bed. No, he decided; it was late enough. He found the coffee keeping warm on the counter and poured himself a cup. Nathan had left a loaf of bread on the table, along with softening butter and jam. Mack cut himself a hefty slab and dragged a barely visible amount of butter over it, ignoring the jam. He was hungry, but the idea of scrambling himself some eggs or checking the refrigerator for some cheese never occurred to him; Mack ate what Nathan offered, no more. No matter how many times Nathan had encouraged him to forage for himself, Mack's relationship with the kitchen was more guest than resident.

Mack reached for what he took to be a magazine that Nathan had left behind on the table and then hesitated as he realized it was a copy of some insurance information. He would have put it aside had his eye not been caught by a page folded up in Nathan's distinctive style, a double fold that left a half inch tab of paper protruding from the booklet's top.

Mack studied the listings Nathan had placed checkmarks by, color rising in his cheeks as he read. I'm not going to do this, Mack thought grimly. Moving as if on automatic pilot, he tore the book in half, then, with a determined strength borne of fury, ripped each half in half again, grunting at the effort it took. He walked to the stove, opened the metal framed glass door and put the quarters of paper inside. Closing the door, Mack returned to the table and sat watching with bitter satisfaction as the flames licked the paper and burnt high and hard for the ten minutes it took to render the insurance company's booklet charred ash.


Mack didn't know what to do next. He didn't dare run away again; he was afraid that this time there would be no second chance. He didn't want to leave; he didn't want to stay. He laced on his boots and careless of the wind and weather, strode out into the woods behind the house.

Moving helped. It took twenty minutes of furious walking, most of it uphill, but gradually Mack's head began to clear. He slapped his sides, noticing the chill for the first time. Shit, it was fucking cold. He couldn't go on dressed like this, he'd freeze, he realized dispassionately.

So fine, I'll go back. Mack headed back downhill, holding his righteous anger to himself like a warming flame. If Nathan touches me, I'm out of here for real, Mack thought. That bastard, how dare he. He licked his lips reflexively, knowing just what Nathan's response to being cursed out like that would have been. Ouch. So all right, he wouldn't say it aloud.

Only what would Nathan say about the burnt book? Would there be enough ash left to give him away? Mack shrugged. He wasn't fucking going to lie. He wasn't the one sneakily planning a surprise attack. He–

"Mack!" Nathan hailed him from further downhill. He was still wearing his teaching clothes; obviously he'd come up here when he hadn't seen Mack at home. "I thought I'd find you out here. For chrissakes, Mack, you're not wearing a coat! Aren't you cold?"

"Yeah, now," Mack muttered, even as he shook his head negatively. "I'm fine."

"You're freezing." Nathan closed the gap between them, wrapping his arms around Mack. "Silly boy." He swatted Mack's ass playfully and hustled him back toward the house.

Back in the kitchen, Mack looked quickly at the stove. There were no visible signs of what he'd done. Nathan didn't seem to notice the missing booklet. He filled the kettle and put it on to boil.

"How was your morning?" Nathan asked, smiling at Mack.

"Fine," Mack said. "I slept late. Had breakfast. Went out for a bit."

"I know you're impervious to the cold, but you really should put something on when you go out for more than a few minutes," Nathan lectured. "I know it's warm in here, the stove's up pretty high, but your body cools down pretty fast once you're outside. If you're going up the mountain you need to wear something warm."

"Yes, Nathan," Mack said. He looked at the stove again, but couldn't see anything that gave him away.

"I wanted to talk to you about something," Nathan said. He sat down at the table and gestured for Mack to join him. "I made a few inquiries this morning. Mack, I want us to meet with a therapist. There are some things going on in our relationship that I think could benefit from talking with an impartial third party–"

"Fuck that!" Mack sprang up and away, his eyes on Nathan's hands. "I never agreed to anything like that!"

"All right, easy now," Nathan said quietly, not reacting to Mack's angry tone. "You're not listening. I said I wanted to talk to you about this. If you want to come with me, I'd be thrilled, but otherwise I'll go by myself. It's not something to work yourself into a lather over, Mack."

Nathan's reassurance took Mack by surprise. He was so sure that Nathan was going to insist that it took him a moment to take in what Nathan had said. Along with understanding came the sick, sinking feeling that he'd overreacted to his discovery of the booklet that morning and that burning it had been entirely unfair and uncalled for. Shit.

Nathan watched Mack worriedly. Mack didn't seem to be calming down; he looked, if anything, more agitated. "Come on, Mackie, sit down, that's a good boy."

"I'm not." Mack sat down.

"What's the matter?" Nathan asked. "I'm not going to force you to come with me, if that's what you're worried about. I think it would be a good idea if we did this together, but if you won't come with me, then I'll go alone. I need some support. I need some feedback."

"I burnt it." Mack refused to look at Nathan. "In the stove," he added hastily. "I was careful."

"You burnt my insurance booklet? You couldn't think of anything better to do than that?" Nathan forced himself to stay calm. Overreacting would only make this worse.

"Are you going to spank me?" Mack didn't care about Nathan's questions; he was only worried about the final answer.

"I won't spank you this time. I'll take it as a rather dramatic demonstration of just how upset you were. Just don't ever set fire to something in a fit of pique again or I'll take my belt to you. Understand?"

"Yeah. I'm sorry, Nathan." Mack was both ashamed and grateful that Nathan wasn't going to punish him.

Nathan knew Mack meant it. He walked over to where Mack was sitting, wrapped his arms gently around his shoulders and kissed the top of his head. "I wish you would come with me to talk to this therapist. I've never met him. You and I would both be on an equal footing if we did this together. You don't have to go back if you hate it. Let's just go in and have a conversation with him."

"You really think this is a good idea?" Mack asked.

"Yes, Mack, I do. It's very safe, I promise. I'll be right there," Nathan reassured him. "Mack, I'd like you to come with me."

"It's expensive, Nathan, this sort of stuff costs a lot."

"So does keeping everything bottled up inside," Nathan said with conviction, "If it'll help us understand each other better and build a better relationship, it's well worth the money."

"I don't know." Mack sat stiffly as Nathan rubbed his back gently, uncertain of Mack's mood, wanting to be sure Mack knew it was safe to express what he was feeling, safe to show some reaction.

"Ahh..." Mack sighed and stretched.

"What's on your mind?" Nathan asked.

"I don't know. I just can't imagine how it would be," Mack said softly.

"Therapy?" Nathan asked.

"Yeah." Mack was quiet. "You really think talking is going to help any?"

"Talking, and the possibilities talking opens up, yeah, I think it's helpful," Nathan said. "It's worth trying, anyway."

"It's a waste," Mack muttered, unable to explain how wrong it felt to him. You either did stuff or you didn't, you didn't think about it, you didn't talk about it! "Let me up, Nathan, please, I can't breathe. I need to get out."

"I'm not stopping you," Nathan said quietly. "Look, Mackie, you can get up. You can do whatever you need to do."

Mack shivered, but he didn't move away. "You really think I should do this, Nathan?"

"Yes. You don't have to talk about anything you don't want to talk about." Nathan looked directly at Mack. "I really would like you to come with me."

Mack thought about how Nathan had forgiven the burnt booklet, he thought about how Nathan had made the drive across the mountains to retrieve him when he'd bolted for his old house, he thought about the comfort of Nathan's shower, he thought about the warmth of Nathan's bed and he thought about Nathan's coming up the mountain after him earlier.

"I'll come with you." He owed it to Nathan to give this a chance. "Just to see what it's like. One time, that's all I'm agreeing to."

"Fair enough," Nathan said. "Thank you, Mack."

Mack nerved himself up for the appointment with therapist the way he would for a show. He looked hot; he looked confident. Only someone who knew him as well as Nathan did would be able to see through his surface calm to the roiling emotions beneath.


The therapist Nathan had chosen, Jared Salton, had warm brown eyes, brown hair and a dark, neatly trimmed beard. He was very slender and dressed in neat chinos and a button down shirt without a tie. He shook hands with Mack and with Nathan and let them choose their places in the office. They took the couch, sitting side by side, not touching.

"What is it you'd like to accomplish here?" Jared asked.

Mack lowered his eyes, not wanting to speak first. Nathan cleared his throat.

"We've been together a little less than a year," Nathan said. "I would say overall it's been a good year, but we've had some misunderstandings and it's been hard to work through them in a constructive manner."

Mack shifted restlessly.

"I see. And you, Mack, would you agree with what Nathan's saying?" Jared asked.

"Yeah. Sure," Mack said. He hesitated a moment. "I'm not sure about any of this," he said softly. "I don't see how talking to you is going to make any difference to us."

"You wonder whether talking with me is going to help strengthen your and Nathan's relationship." Jared reflected what Mack had said. Mack nodded, surprised at how right it sounded. Jared's educated accent reminded Mack strongly of both Noah and Nathan; Mack found it reassuring.

Nathan was glad to see Mack relaxing. He knew that he himself could work with a far wider range of therapists than Mack could; he was pleased that Jared seemed to have a feel for Mack. Not, he thought ruefully, that it was rocket science, picking up on how anxious Mack was.

"Is there a particular reason you're here today?" Jared asked.

"I ran away," Mack said softly, much to Nathan's surprise. He hadn't expected Mack to frame it that way.

"Would you like to talk about that?" Jared settled back in his chair receptively.

Panic-stricken, Mack looked at Nathan, his eyes begging for help.

"We had a difficult few days," Nathan said slowly, wondering how exactly to start. "Mack had some dental work done and that brought up some old issues. We kind of got off track a little and Mack went back over the mountains to what used to be his father's house. It's always been the place he's run to when something's gone wrong with us. I drove out and eventually he agreed to come home."

"I hate the dentist," Mack said glumly. "I don't want to talk about that at all." He spoke so softly that it was hard to hear him. He looked down at his hands, his shoulders hunched, seeming to shrivel into himself.

"You don't want to talk about your experience at the dentist or what happened afterward." Jared put what he was sensing from Mack's body language into words. He saw Nathan nod, comfortable with his summary, and saw Mack shrink further into himself, afraid to agree or disagree. "Mack, I'd like you to look at me. Can you do that?"

"Yessir." Mack looked up quickly at Jared, swallowed hard, and then looked at Nathan, clearly asking for something.

"Easy, Mack, it's all right," Nathan said reflexively, offering what comfort he could. It hurt him to see how upset Mack was. Jared took note of Nathan's protectiveness and of the way Mack nodded quickly, accepting Nathan's reassurance.

Jared began to get a clearer sense of the dynamic between the two men. He smiled at Mack encouragingly. "I can see this is difficult for you. Is there anything you need from me at this moment that would be helpful?"

Mack looked puzzled. "I don't know what you mean," he said tentatively. "I don't need anything, I don't think? What do you mean?"

"Is there anything you want to ask me?" Jared asked.

Mack thought about the question. "Do you...have you...are you going to tell us what to do?" He wasn't sure that was what Jared meant, but he suddenly needed to hear his answer.

"You want to know if I'm going to tell you and Nathan what to do?" Jared waited for Mack to nod yes before continuing. "I can help you and Nathan figure out what you want to do, but you two are in charge here. It's your ideas, your choices, your decisions that matter. I can help you see what your options are, but in the end, you and Nathan are the ones in control."

"Oh." Mack was surprised; this was not at all how he had thought therapy would work. He sighed with relief, reassured by Jared's low key approach. "That's good then."

Nathan smiled, glad that Mack seemed to be taking to the therapist, glad that Jared had proved to be a good choice. He himself could have worked with any number of people, but he doubted that Mack was that flexible and he was glad he and Jared seemed to have clicked.

Jared asked Nathan and Mack a little about the history of their relationship and then it was time to go. Nathan handed Jared a check and Mack craned his neck curiously, trying to see the amount. Nathan shook his head. "Don't worry about it," Nathan said.

They shook hands with Jared and left.

"How much, Nathan?" Mack wanted to know.

"I can afford it," Nathan said. "I told you, Mack, don't worry about it. It's fine."

"All right," Mack said doubtfully. He was used to Nathan deciding what was and wasn't worth purchasing, though. Nathan didn't stint on the things he wanted, whether they were groceries, home improvements or, Mack guessed, therapy. He also didn't like Mack prying into exactly how much things cost and Mack had gotten used to backing off.

Mack was silent the rest of the way home. He came quietly into the house with Nathan, hung his jacket up and made his way to the bedroom. Nathan followed, uncertain of Mack's mood.

The room was bright and warm. Kicking off his shoes, Mack flopped face down on the bed, not reacting when Nathan sat down alongside him. Nathan rubbed his back gently.

"Ahh..." Mack sighed and stretched. "That's nice, Nathan."

"What's on your mind?" Nathan asked, wanting to be sure Mack knew it was safe to express what he was feeling, to show some reaction.

"I don't know," Mack said. "I just want–" His voice trailed off. "Could you just do that and we not talk?"

"Sure." Nathan was impressed that Mack had managed to ask. "Sure, Mack." He continued to rub Mack's back, gradually working his way lower in response to Mack's small noises. His palm circled Mack's buttocks.

"Yeah." Mack squirmed, pushing back into Nathan's hand, his burgeoning erection pressing into the mattress. He reached underneath himself and undid his jeans, making it easy for Nathan to help tug them off. He was naked beneath.

"Nice. Spread them, that's a good boy." Nathan ran his hand up the inside Mack's thighs and under his pelvis, checking out the promising bulge beneath, cupping his balls. "Can you relax for me?"

"Oh yeah," Mack moaned. "Nathan, what are you going to do to me? Nathan?" He quivered as he felt Nathan trail his fingers over the back of his balls and across the soft skin behind. Nathan tapped gently on his anus.

"I'm going to take some lube," Nathan said, suiting action to words, "And put some on my fingers. And push my fingers--that's it, relax, let's take this slowly--deep into your ass. That's one, that feels good, doesn't it? And this is two, that's a good boy, open for me now. Should we go for three? Yes, that's right, you've done this before, you can do this."

"So good," Mack sighed, his legs splaying wider, his cock leaking against his belly. "Oh God, Nathan, what are you doing to me?"

"Just playing," Nathan said, continuing to turn the cone of his fingers as Mack pressed back into him. "Is this nice, does this feel good?"

"Mmm," Mack moaned. "Oh, ah, oh yeah, oh oh..."

"I guess so," Nathan said contentedly, continuing to work his fingers inside Mack's ass, enjoying his lover's groans of pleasure. "Can you come for me, if I do this?" He concentrated his strokes in the place that brought the most intense response from Mack. "That's it, that's right, let go, let me."

"OH!" Mack came, hard, his body convulsing, his orgasm fast and unexpected. "No more!"

"Mine." Nathan held him tightly as he tried to pull away. "So hot." He eased his fingers from Mack's ass. "Good?" Nathan laughed smugly.

"I'm dead," Mack muttered. "I think you killed me, Nathan."

"Hmm," Nathan said, laughing. "You seem to still be breathing. Should I check?" He ran his fingertips of his other hand up under Mack's shirt, laughing even harder at the goosebumps his light touch produced. "I'd say you were alive."

Mack began to giggle. Nathan loved that sound, he only heard it when Mack was totally at ease, and it always reminded him of just how sweet Mack was. He kissed Mack carefully and thoroughly.

"I love you," Mack said sincerely. "That felt so good." He stretched pleasurably, enjoying the way he felt, alive, totally alive. "It wasn't at all how I thought it would be."

"Therapy?" Nathan asked.

"Yeah. No. Any of it," Mack said. "Leaving here, going back there. Coming home."

"It takes time to figure it out," Nathan said. "That goes for everyone, Mack, not just for you."

"Maybe." Mack was silent for a moment. "Nathan? What sort of price do you think I could get for that fucking house?"

"This is pretty sudden, Mack." Nathan stroked Mack's hair back from his face, wanting to see Mack's eyes. "Why now?"

"I never want to live there again," Mack said softly. "I was never happy there. It's not my home. This is my home now." He laid his head down on pillow, turning his face away. "I don't want to talk anymore, Nathan, please. I love you."

"I love you, Mack." Nathan stroked Mack's cheek, discreetly checking for dampness. It was dry. "We do need to talk more about this, but it doesn't have to be this minute. You're right, you are home now. This is your home."