Nathan brought home a copy of his college's catalog, "just to look at." Mack chucked it into the recycling bin when Nathan's back was turned. Nathan didn't say anything, but he brought home a second copy. It met with the same fate. Still Nathan didn't say anything. Nathan brought home a third copy. This time he labeled the cover in heavy black marker: Do Not Discard.

Mack chewed his lip, trying to decide whether making a further point about his lack of interest in returning to school was worth the trouble it would probably buy him. Nathan was pushing too fucking hard! Making his decision, Mack tore the cover off the catalog, stuck it in the stove, and put the catalog in the recycling bin: There, Nathan, take that.

Nathan took it about as well as Mack had in his heart of hearts known he would. Mack tried to accept the inevitable with grace. Nathan stripped Mack of his jeans and hauled him over his lap.

"And what part of 'do not discard' did you not understand, Mack?" Nathan took a deep breath, centering himself, and then brought his palm down sharply across the crest of Mack's buttocks, watching Mack carefully. Mack's head came up and then was drawn resolutely down. Nathan could feel Mack's stomach muscles constricting against his thighs.

"Mackie, breathe," Nathan said quietly. He knew how much it meant to Mack to be able to accept this punishment without panicking. "We can get through this, but you have to work with me. Breathe." He spanked Mack a half dozen times in quick succession, alternating from one buttock to the other, trying to keep an even rhythm. "Breathe, Mackie."

"Can't," Mack choked out.

"Can't or won't?" Nathan murmured to himself, unsure which it was. He rubbed the small of Mack's back in careful circles with his warming palm, but Mack's convulsive breathing didn't even out. "We're stopping. Shift back for me now, I want you up. Come on, Mackie, sit up, this isn't doing us any good." He manhandled Mack onto the couch alongside him. "Look at me."

Mack forced himself to relax his teeth and let his bitten lower lip go. He tried to meet Nathan's eyes, but couldn't. He didn't understand his own panic. Nathan's discontinuing the spanking had done nothing to untangle the jumble of feelings welling in his chest. Mack felt like shit.

"Mackie." Nathan was glad he hadn't continued. He hated when Mack fought for control by hurting himself, as if by inflicting his own pain he could protect himself from worse suffering. It probably was true with his father, Nathan thought grimly; from what he'd pieced together, the old man had no compunctions about beating Mack harder for crying out. Nathan reminded himself to stay in the present. Mack needed his reassurance, not his second-hand fury.

"Can you let your arm go, Mackie?" Nathan asked, stroking the back of Mack's hand gently. Mack was reflexively digging his nails into his opposite forearm, trembling at the effort to stay quiet. "Mackie. There's no punishment here for crying. It's all right to let your feelings out." When his gentle attempts at intervening in Mack's unconscious self mutilation had no effect, he tapped Mack's hand more sharply. "Don't hurt yourself."

"I'm not." Mack's voice was flat.

"Look." Nathan took Mack's wrist and extended his forearm into Mack's line of sight; the half moon ridges Mack's fingernails had left in his skin were mute evidence to the contrary.

"I didn't mean to." Mack jerked his arm back to his side. He still felt as if he were choking; he had to get out.

"Go on, get dressed, Mackie." Nathan handed Mack his jeans. "We're going for a walk."

"Stop it, Nathan." Mack's eyes teared up as he realized that Nathan knew exactly what he was feeling.

"Stop what?" Nathan wondered out loud.

"Stop being so nice!"

"Why so angry, Mack?" Nathan asked.

"F–" Mack looked abashed. "I don't know," he muttered.

"We'll figure it out," Nathan said comfortably, appreciating how much effort it took Mack to admit even that much.

Nathan didn't love the woods behind the house the same way Mack did, but he did appreciate the pleasure of tramping through them on a brisk day. Mack had found routes through the trees Nathan hadn't discovered in his decade of owning the property. Nathan followed Mack's lead along the side of a small ravine, to a clearing where they could look out and over the countryside. There was a wavy line of boulders that might once have been part of a stone wall. Mack perched on one on the rocks, his knees drawn up to his chin, and looked into the distance. Nathan came up behind him and rested a hand lightly on Mack's shoulder. Mack tilted his head, brushing his lips across Nathan's fingers.

"I was fine," Mack said eventually. "You didn't have to stop."

"I'm not going to spank you if you're so upset you can barely breathe, Mackie," Nathan said quietly. "You need to think about what you're doing. You need to decide whether you feel safe trusting me, whether you want to let yourself take that chance."

"You should just do it!" Frustration in Mack's voice.

"I know it's hard for you to understand that being forced into complying isn't the way decent relationships work. Mackie, I do understand that it feels very, very risky to you to choose to cooperate, to choose to submit. This is part of why I think it might be good for you to talk to a therapist–"

"No." Mack shook his head. "Noah suggested the same thing. I can't talk to some stranger, Nathan, why can't you understand that?"

"I can understand you being nervous about the idea," Nathan said. "I also know you've done a lot more than talk to strangers, you've gone home with them, you've had sex with them. How is that safe and this threatening?"

"I don't know," Mack said. He sounded hurt and he was hurt; he hadn't expected Nathan to say anything so harsh.

"Mackie? I'm sorry." Nathan regretted his choice of words. He'd wanted to cut through Mack's defenses, not to devastate him. "I shouldn't have said that."

"Who cares?" Mack said bleakly, all his pleasure at being outside with Nathan now gone. "It's true, Nathan. About the men. About the sex. I'm not going to lie to you."

"You never have," Nathan said gently. "That doesn't mean it was fair of me to push your face in it like that. I am sorry, Mack, that was a low blow."

"I don't know," Mack said softly. "I don't know why that doesn't scare me and this therapist thing does. It's just different, talking to someone who's going to tell me everything I'm doing wrong."

"That's not what a therapist does, Mack," Nathan said.

"Yeah, well, they ask you all sorts of shit, things I don't want to tell anyone about," Mack said dismally. "I don't want to tell anyone about growing up. About my father. About anything at all. I don't want to think about any of that shit. It happened, it's past, I've moved on."

"Have you?" Nathan took a deep breath. What he wanted to point out to Mack was that he really hadn't. He still held on to his father's house, still returned to it like an unrepentant prodigal. However, he'd already hurt Mack's feelings once this afternoon. He didn't want Mack to feel he'd been verbally battered. Wisely, Nathan held his tongue, and instead of speaking, held out his arms. "Come here, Mack."

Relieved at being back on territory he understood, Mack leaned into Nathan's embrace.

He kissed Nathan tentatively and Nathan cupped Mack's jaw in his hand, kneaded his cheek with his thumb and kissed him carefully, his eyes on Mack's.

"I love you, Mackie," Nathan said, drawing his lips away long enough to speak. "I want you to know that. You don't have to do anything for me to love you." He kissed Mack again. "I want you to be happy, Mackie, that's really all I want from you."

"Fuck you, Nathan," Mack said bitterly. He tilted his head back, waiting for the slap he was sure would follow. When it wasn't forthcoming, he shivered nervously. "Nathan?"

"I'm sorry, Mackie," Nathan said quietly. "I'm not going to slap you, because that was my fault. I just keep putting my foot in it this afternoon. Come here, Mackie, it's all right. You don't have to be happy to make me happy, Mackie. I know it's not that easy to feel happy, don't fret, I didn't mean it the way you heard it."

"Oh God, Nathan." Mack's shivering increased. "I'm sorry, Nathan."

"I know, Mackie, I know. I'm not angry at you." Nathan held Mack in his arms and rubbed his hands up and down his back, gratified at how quickly Mack calmed for him. "Come on, Mack, it's time to go home."

"Are you going to spank me?" Mack's blunt question hung in the quiet, piney air.

"Yes," Nathan said simply. "You don't curse at me, Mackie, there's really no excuse for that. I'm not perfect, I won't always put things exactly the right way, but I don't deserve to be spoken to like that."

"Yeah. Shit." Mack clung to Nathan for a moment longer and then turned to retrace their steps. Mack walked quickly, his anxiety translating itself into speed.

"Right now?" Mack asked, as soon as they were safely inside. He looked uncertainly at Nathan.

"I think so." Nathan gave Mack a gentle shove toward the living room. "Go on, take your jeans off," Nathan sat down on the couch and patted his lap encouragingly. "Come here. Up and over."

"You don't need to look so cheerful." Mack squirmed awkwardly over Nathan's knees, trying to find the least uncomfortable position. "This is horrible."

"I think you know why I'm spanking you," Nathan said, rubbing the small of Mack's back. "You think first. You remember that it's me, that it's *us,* that there's no need to panic and say hateful things. All right?"

"Yeah." Mack forced himself to breathe evenly. He didn't think Nathan was really going to lay into him, or at least he hoped not. To his relief he was right; the spanking Nathan administered was light by any standard, and very brief. Still, as Mack let himself recall his reaction out in the field, he found his throat tightening at the memory, his tears springing at the thought of Nathan's gentleness.

"All done, Mackie, come here now," Nathan said with great kindness. Mack let himself be drawn into Nathan's arms and he turned and buried his flushed face and stinging eyes in Nathan's shoulder. "Good boy." Nathan rubbed Mack's back. "You did great, Mackie. I know that wasn't easy."

"It wasn't that hard?" Mack sounded surprised. "I don't mean just the spanking," he added hastily. "Just...I feel okay, Nathan, I do." He closed his eyes. Yes, he'd been spanked, but cuddling here with Nathan, being comforted, left him feeling cared about and safe in a way few moments in his life ever had.

"I'm glad, Mackie." Nathan understood how difficult it was for Mack to reveal himself. Nathan shifted that he was lying on the couch, Mack's head on his chest. "My good boy." Nathan smiled as Mack nodded without opening his eyes. He could feel Mack relaxing into him, the last residue of tension leaving his body as Mack gave himself over to the pleasure of trust.

"I have no idea what I'm supposed to look at in that catalog."

"There are dozens of classes at the college. I want you to take one."

"Which one?"

"You like music. Take a music class," Nathan suggested.

"A music class?" Mack giggled at the thought. "You make it sound so simple, Nathan." Mack's voice sounded considerably brighter.

Nathan smiled; he loved Mack's rare giggly moods. "That's why it's important for us to talk." He kissed Mack softly. "I'm always glad when I can make things a little easier for you. You deserve it, Mackie."

"Nathan? What if I'm too stupid for this?"

Nathan gaped at Mack. Of everything he'd expected Mack to say, this wasn't it. He stroked Mack's cheek gently.

"You're a very smart man, Mack. Not to worry."

"I don't know." Evidently Mack was not reassured.

"Mackie. Trust me on this." Nathan kissed Mack firmly. They lay quietly together for a quarter of an hour, their bodies shifting subtly until it seemed they were one comfortable organism.

"I have to play tonight," Mack said softly. "Come watch me?"

"That didn't work out too well last time." Nathan tilted Mack's face toward his own.

"I'll be good this time." Mack rubbed his cheek against Nathan's chest. "I promise, Nathan. We can go over together in your truck, okay? And I'll come home when you say." He shivered. "Give me another chance, Nathan?"

"You get as many chances as you want, Mackie," Nathan said softly. "There's no limit. Come on then, you go shower, I'll make us some dinner, and then I'll shower before we leave. All right?"

"I love you." Mack closed his eyes. "I'm tired, Nathan."

"Shower, Mack, it'll wake you up," Nathan said.

"I really don't feel good, Nathan," Mack said.

"Can you get someone to cover for you tonight?" Nathan asked. He knew Mack would never just stand the band up.

"Maybe. I'll make a few calls." Mack sounded a little spacey. Nathan stroked his hair gently.

"What aren't you telling me, Mackie?" he asked quietly.

"Nothing. This therapist thing." Mack close his eyes. "What if I tell them something really bad. Something really, really disgusting. How am I ever going to be able to forget it after that?"

"Mackie." Nathan tried to slow his own breathing. It was hard witnessing Mack's pain without overreacting. "I don't think you've forgotten much, Mack. I don't think finally saying it is going to make it any worse." He swallowed hard. "You were a child, you know. Very little is ever a kid's fault."

"That's not what my father said." Mack shivered. "I really don't feel good, Nathan. I'm not faking."

"I know that, Mackie," Nathan said. "I'll get you the phone. Call the guys, let them get someone to cover."

"Yeah." Mack looked green. "I don't know what's wrong with me."

"You're sick," Nathan said. "It happens to the best of us." He wasn't sure if Mack's sudden illness was entirely physical, but he was very sure that Mack wasn't faking. Mack hated being sick, if he was looking this bad, whatever the reason, he was sick and he needed to be home where Nathan could keep an eye on him.

Whether it was the stress of punishment, the distress of memory, the chill air in the woods or a combination of factors, Mack was well and truly sick. By nighttime he was feverish and nauseous. Nathan undressed Mack and put him to bed. He coaxed Mack to take Tylenol and sip flat coke slowly. Mostly though Nathan let Mack doze.

"Nathan?" Mack asked hoarsely. "Would you hold me? I'm freezing." Nathan responded immediately, getting into bed next to Mack and spooning him close. Mack closed his eyes contentedly. "This is so nice. I always liked this."

"Noah must have taught you this," Nathan mused out loud, trying to place where Mack might have had this experience.

"Yeah. Do you mind?"

"Of course not, Mackie." Nathan kissed the back of Mack's head gently. "I'm glad someone was there for you. I'm glad you were able to trust Noah. I don't think you'd be able to trust me, if you hadn't had that, if you hadn't had one experience of being loved and cared for."

"Noah was my friend for a long time," Mack said. "He'd let me stay over when my father would have killed me if I'd gone home. His folks didn't like me much, but Noah...Noah was so strong, Nathan. So good. He always looked out for me."

"I'm glad," Nathan repeated. "I'm glad you had someone."

"Nathan?" Mack shivered. "Nathan, you're not going to leave me, are you?"

"No," Nathan said calmly. "I love you, Mackie. I'm not going anywhere."

"Okay." Mack closed his eyes. "I'm going to sleep, Nathan. I feel warm now."

Nathan was in no hurry to get up. It was a shame that Mack was sick, but it was a very real pleasure to have Mack turn to him so openly for comfort. Nathan intended to savor it. Accordingly he rearranged Mack so that he was comfortably snug inside their blankets. He propped himself on pillows, fished on his night stand for a book, turned on his light and began to read.

Mack woke suddenly from his nap, feeling sick and disoriented.

"Nathan?" Mack's voice was hoarse. "Nathan, I don't feel good." He shivered.

"I'll get you some more Tylenol," Nathan offered. He touched his lips gently to Mack's forehead. "You're feverish."

"I'll throw up if I swallow anything." Mack made a face. "Haven't you got something besides pills?"

"I've got suppositories," Nathan said tentatively, not sure of Mack's reaction.

"Okay." Mack sighed, relieved. "You mind?" Mack turned onto his side, seemingly expecting Nathan's help.

"You want me to do it for you?" Nathan wanted to be certain he understood correctly.

"Yeah. I don't know, Nathan, it's pretty kinky maybe?"

"Not in a bad way," Nathan said. "I mean, it's a very easy fantasy to fulfill. I don't mind at all, Mackie," Nathan said. "I'll be right back."

Nathan found the box of acetaminophen suppositories in his medicine cabinet. He tore one foil covered capsule from the strip and ran cold water over the sealed packet to firm it up and make its insertion easier. Returning to the bedroom, he found Mack waiting, relaxed and quiet. Nathan couldn't help smiling. While he was sorry Mack was sick, he liked the frank way Mack had asked him for help.

Nathan stripped the foil from the suppository and reached for the tube beside the bedside lamp. "A little lube," he said, squirting a blob onto his finger. Mack drew his knee up, clearly familiar with and at ease with the procedure. Nathan parted Mack's buttocks and stroked his slippery finger over his target and then slipped the small, blunt suppository past the ring of muscle. "There, done."

"Umm," Mackie mumbled, rolling onto his back and reaching up to hug Nathan. "Thank you. I love you."

Nathan concealed his surprise at Mack's demonstrative response and hugged Mack back. "I love you, Mackie."

"Stay with me?" Mack smiled as Nathan lay down beside him. He tucked himself neatly into Nathan, resting his head on Nathan's chest. "I feel better already."

"So when did this start?" Nathan asked Mack, stroking his back gently.

"With Noah. A long time ago," Mack said. "I used to gag on pills. Noah started giving me meds this way. I like it. I know it's a little sick, but..."

"It's not sick, Mackie, it's kind of sweet." Nathan meant what he said. It really was a surprisingly sweet and easy thing to do for Mack. He could see why Mack liked the intimacy of it; he could imagine doing it again. Noah drew the sheet and blankets up over both of them. He rubbed his lips over Mack's dark hair. "You're really something."

"Something good, I hope," Mack said ruefully.

"Very good," Nathan said. "A keeper."