The old sanitarium had been expanded in the early 1980's into a modern hospital and the landscaping around the new wing had taken hold over the intervening decades, giving the facility the appearance of an established community landmark. There were mature maples shading the paths from parking lot to hospital entrance. Deep beds of hostas, their scapes heavy with white and lavender buds, were flanked by the seasonal blooms of impatiens mulched with shredded bark.

Nathan had been here many times before, when his father was ill, and he knew the hospital layout intimately. He took the shortcut through the warren of hallways the renovation had created to the emergency room, his pressed trousers and hopsack blazer sufficient camouflage to deter any inquiries. He paused at the entrance to the emergency room, scanned the curtained bays and spotted a familiar form lying still and listless.

"Hey, Mackie," Nathan said softly as he approached the bed. Mack's eyes opened at his voice. "What were you doing, testing to see just how hard the ground was?"

"Nathan. Ugh, don't make me laugh, it hurts." Mack swallowed hard. "I'm glad you're here. I hoped you'd come."

"What, were you worried I wouldn't?" Nathan cupped his palm gently around Mack's jaw and stroked his cheek with his thumb. "Of course I came, Mack. Now tell me, how do you feel?"

"I'm okay."

"Mackie." Nathan ran his thumb over Mack's dry lips. "Come on, a real answer, please?"

"What do you think? Like shit." Mack started to shrug, then caught himself as even the slight movement of his shoulders jarred his aching head. "Sorry. Just I don't even remember falling, Nathan. First thing I knew I was on the ground with guys staring at me."

"Losing your memory is pretty normal for a bad knock on the head," Nathan said, trying to keep his dismay out of his voice. "It may come back to you."

Mack made a face. "Every fucking piece of me hurts." Mack saw Nathan's wince. "I'll live. I've fallen before, Nathan."

"I know, Mack." And I've talked to you about using a safety line while you're up on a roof, Nathan thought.

"I'll be okay in a day or so." Mack saw Nathan's grimace. "I'm sorry, Nathan." Mack thought he knew what Nathan was thinking. "Really sorry, Nathan."

To Mack's relief, Nathan's reply was gentle. "Shh, I know, it's all right, Mack. Don't fret." Nathan took Mack's hand. "How about I just stay here awhile with you and you rest?"

"Please don't go away." Mack closed his eyes without waiting to see if Nathan would listen.

"Don't worry," Nathan said. "I'm staying right here. You're going to be all right, Mack."

"Yes you are, hon," a nurse's aide said. "How are you feeling?" She pressed a plastic sheathed thermometer under Mack's tongue and wrapped a blood pressure cuff around his arm. "Any nausea? Any dizziness?"

"No," Mack lied.

"You can get a chair from over there," the aide said to Nathan, gesturing toward the wall. "If you want to sit."

"Thank you." Nathan smiled. "I appreciate it."

"Doctor will be over in just a bit. If he says okay then you're good to go," the aide told them.

"Thank you," Nathan said again.

It was close to an hour before the doctor came by. He looked at Mack's chart and repeated the nurse's questions. "Any nausea? Any dizziness?" Not responding to Mack's muttered "no," he shined his light into Mack's eyes, dilating the pupils.

"All right, you look okay, I'll get your paperwork together and then you can get going," the doctor said to Mack, ignoring Nathan. "No heavy work for a week and stay off anyplace high until the dizziness is entirely gone. And for godssakes, use a safety line the next tine you're up on a roof. You were lucky this time."

Mack's head hurt too much for him to nod, so he mumbled his agreement. Nathan knew he was angry at being scolded and he mentally gave Mack points for civility.

"Fucking bastard," Mack hissed to Nathan after the doctor walked away.

"Pretty overbearing. Bossy," Nathan agreed, naming Mack's feeling for him. "Never mind, Mack, you never have to see him again. Don't waste your energy." He helped Mack sit up and retrieved Mack's shoes from the plastic bag at the foot of his bed. "Here, I'll help you lace these up. You just concentrate on keeping your head still."

Mack bit back a groan as he got to his feet. He felt much worse than he'd realized, achy and shaky. The trip home was rough. Nathan drove as smoothly as he could, but the road was curvy and it was with an open sigh of relief that Mack got out of the car once they were home.

"Come on now, take it slowly." Nathan tried to ease Mack toward the bedroom, but Mack hung back.

"Nathan, are you going to–?" Mack licked his lips nervously. "Me?" Mack was pretty sure he was going to be spanked since Nathan had read him the riot act last time out, but secretly he hoped that the fact he'd gotten hurt would buy him some clemency.

"No, Mackie, how could I?" Nathan said, understanding Mack's question. "I'd have to be pretty mean to spank you when you're already all bruises."

"I don't know why you put up with me, Nathan." Mack struggled to keep his voice even.

"I don't 'put up with you,' Mack, I love you." Nathan saw how his bold declaration unnerved Mack and he touched Mack's arm gently. "Nothing's changed, I promise. Come on, let's get you some Tylenol and get you into bed." He propelled the now unresisting Mack into the bedroom and seated him on the bed. "I'm just going to get you something for that headache."

"I'll throw up." Mack looked glumly at the glass of water and two caplets that Nathan held out to him. "Can't you give me something else? Please?"

Nathan kicked himself for not remembering Mack's quirk. "We have acetaminophen suppositories," he said. "Is that what you what you want?"

"Please?" Mack repeated hopefully. "You always say you don't mind..." He toed off his shoes and rolled over on the bed, facing away from Nathan. "Please, Nathan."

"Sure, Mackie, no problem." Nathan stroked Mack's back and Mack snuggled deeper into the pillows. "I'll be right back." Nathan didn't fully understand Mack's qualms about swallowing pills, but he could see it was of a piece with Mack's fussiness about certain food tastes and textures. He filed his questions away for a more opportune time. Taking the package of suppositories from the bathroom wall cabinet, he extracted two foil-wrapped bullets from the blister pack. He held them briefly under the cold water tap to harden them and then slit them open with his fingernail and wet them to make them slippery. Returning to the bedroom, he found Mack had already pushed his jeans and underwear down to mid thigh.

"You want me to insert them?" Nathan leaned over and ran his free hand gently over Mack's bare buttocks, noting how Mack arched into his hand like a cat being petted.

"Please." Mack closed his eyes, clearly focusing inward. It was an exchange he loved, one that Noah had initiated long, long ago and one that was entirely about comfort, comfort and love.

"Okay, Mackie. Breathe easy, this will just take a moment." Nathan cupped one pale cheek in his hand and shifted it to expose the small opening hidden in the cleft. Centering one damp bullet, he gently pressed it inside. He inserted the second suppository after the first, just deeply enough that the tight ring of muscle closed over it, keeping the medication in place. "All done." He eased the waistband of Mack's briefs back into place, tugged off Mack's jeans and pulled the old crocheted afghan at the foot of the bed up to cover him. "That should start to work soon."

"You don't mind, do you?" Mack whispered, his face deep in his pillow. "It's so good."

"I don't mind at all, Mackie," Nathan said, shaking his head. It was a strange little kink, but it seemed to satisfy a large need. Nathan rubbed Mack's back and felt his muscles soften as he relaxed beneath his circling hand.

"Oh, ow, oh yeah, that feels good," Mack mumbled. "Owww. God, I'm tired." He yawned. "Did they say I could sleep, Nathan? I'm so confused."

"Yes, you can sleep, Mack. They said it was fine as long as someone was with you to wake you up and be sure you're conscious," Nathan said. "I think you'll be fine, Mackie, you seem in pretty good shape to me."

"I'm not the one who's worried," Mack said with some accuracy. "I'm sorry, Nathan. I know what you said last time. Just not everyone brings a safety line with them, you know?"

"We're not going to talk about this now." Nathan touched Mack's dark hair so lightly he barely moved a single strand. "Don't worry about anything, understand me? Just rest now."

"I'm sorry," Mack said again, and closed his eyes.

Mack felt lousy enough for a couple of days that he didn't chafe under the restrictions Nathan zealously imposed. He napped on the couch, ate what Nathan made for him, gratefully accepted the medication Nathan inserted at appropriate intervals. His head hurt constantly and noise made it worse, so canceling his weekend gigs was no hardship. Gradually, over the course of a week, he began to feel more himself. He went back to playing the bars.

Nathan bided his time. He wanted to be certain Mack was well recovered before broaching the subject of his return to outside work. His opportunity came the first time Mack got a call about a day job from one of the contractors he regularly did work for. Nathan shook his head negatively and signaled to Mack to cut the phone call short.

Mack was pissed. "You're making too big a deal of this, Nathan. I feel fine. I'm ready to go back to work." He rolled his eyes. "Stop fussing."

"You're not working on roofs anymore, Mack," Nathan said flatly. "I don't think it's safe. Another fall like that, you might not bounce back so easily."

"But I like it. And it's good money," Mack protested.


"I'm taking the job, Nathan. I'll wear a fucking safety line, all right? But I'm taking the fucking job!"

"I'm telling you you're not," Nathan said. "This isn't negotiable, Mackie. Another fall and you might not be so lucky."

"You can't tell me not to take work if I can get it," Mack said disbelievingly. "No. Nathan, you can't–"

"I certainly can," Nathan said firmly. "I can and I just did, as a matter of fact. This discussion is over. Now drop it, Mack. If you keep arguing with me I'm going to spank you."

"No." Mack was adamant. "No!"

"I'm warning you, Mack. Let it go, now." Nathan was not happy.

"No!" Neither was Mack.

"That's it. I'm going to punish you," Nathan said.

"No." Mack backed away, shaking his head in refusal. "I'll leave you, Nathan, I swear I will."

"Uh huh." Nathan didn't believe him.

"I will," Mack insisted. "I can't stay here, Nathan. I don't want you to spank me--I'm not going to let you spank me just because I said no. You have to understand, I can't do this. I grew up with my dad's belt, I'm not going to have a lover who beats me, too."

"I don't beat you," Nathan said. "I punish you. Sometimes you deserve it. And you're not going to dictate to me what you will and won't do."

"Then I'm leaving," Mack said miserably. "Fuck you, Nathan." He looked at Nathan, daring him to slap him.

"Watch your mouth," Nathan said sharply. "If you think you're going to goad me into slapping you when you're just getting over a concussion, you're mistaken. I'm not going to hurt you."

"Yeah, well you'd fucking beat me, how the fuck should I know?" Mack glared at him.

"Mackie. A spanking is not a beating."

"It fucking is!"

"It's punishment," Nathan said. "The word is punishment, Mackie. I think you know as well as I do that this isn't about me beating you, it's about you trusting me to set limits for you, Mack."

"Nathan, I can't, I fucking can't!"

"Do you want to?" Nathan asked very softly.

"Fuck you, Nathan." Mack was silent. "Yes, for all the fucking good it does."

"Then let me help you learn to do this," Nathan said.

"I don't want you to fucking help me! I don't want you to fucking spank me! Nathan, can't you fucking see that I need you not to do this?"

"You say that," Nathan said implacably. "But then you know and I know that you go looking for men who hurt you for real, even as you say 'no' to me spanking you and threaten to walk away from me. You tell me what that's about, Mack."

"SHUT UP!" Mack screamed.

Nathan didn't reply. He looked at Mack, his expression resolved, and let Mack's scream echo in the silence between them.

"You're not being fair," Mack said bitterly. "You know I can't fucking talk the way you do. You're not being fair, Nathan, you're fucking not. This is bullshit. You don't fucking care how I feel, the only fucking thing you care about is whether you can give me a fucking order to shut up and whether I bend over for a fucking spanking. Well fuck you! Go ahead, asshole, hit me!" Mack braced himself for a slap.

Nathan shook his head at the frantic barrage of obscenities. "Mackie, seriously now, I'm not going to slap you when you just had a concussion," Nathan repeated, sounding faintly amused. It was more than Mack could comprehend.

"Why the fuck are you laughing at me, you fucking asshole?" Mack glared at Nathan.

"I'm not laughing at you, Mackie," Nathan said. "It's just...do you think that you could possibly cram any more variations on 'fuck' into what you're saying to me?"

Mack was blind-sided by Nathan's equanimity. The flood of adrenaline that had fueled his tirade began to ebb. Shit, Mack thought dispiritedly, Nathan's right. I've gotten the shit beat out of me by plenty of guys I've hooked up with. Why can't I take what I've got coming from him? I know I deserve it. I mean, how much does a spanking hurt? "You think I'm an asshole."

"No, Mack, I don't. Try to trust me." Nathan knew that there was no way this was going to be settled quickly or easily. "I promise I won't spank you today. Now promise me you'll stay here tonight, Mack," Nathan said firmly. "Can you do that for me?"

"Yes?" Mack tilted his head back so that his eyes met Nathan's. Mack forced himself to breathe deeply and slowly exhale. "Yes," he said more certainly.

"That's right, breathe." Nathan was gratified to see some of the coping strategies he was trying so hard to teach Mack were taking hold.

"Nathan?" Mack swallowed hard. "I won't take any more jobs you say no to, okay?" Mack asked, his eyes searching Nathan's face for a clue. "Please don't hurt me, Nathan."

Macks's choice of words wasn't lost on Nathan. "I'll make you a deal, Mackie. I'll skip the spanking this time, but you are going to learn to listen to me, the way you promised you would. Because you are going to get a spanking the next time you say 'no' to me, understand?" Nathan's voice was gentle.

It was too much. "I need to get out," Mack said shortly. "I. Can't. Breathe." Each word was a separate gasp.

"Yes you can," Nathan said calmly. "Easy, Mackie, you're all right." He eased his arm around Mack's waist. "We can go out if you need to, you know that. Just give yourself a few minutes to settle down."

Mack swayed slightly, turning so that he was within Nathan's arms. "Please, Nathan, I need to go out," Mack said piteously.

"All right, Mack, we can do that. Why don't you wash your face and grab a long sleeved shirt? I'll get my shoes on." Nathan understood that Mack needed to get out of the house, needed to move, but he wanted Mack to begin to frame it as a healthy desire, not as desperation to escape. Slowing down the process, insisting Mack organize himself rather than just bolt, was Nathan's way of trying to integrate this need of Mack's into their life.

Nathan's shaping of his behavior was so subtle that Mack didn't fight it. He washed his face and automatically combed his hair. The familiar actions helped center him, without his even realizing what was happening. By the time he had found a flannel shirt and made his way to the door, he was calmer and less distressed. Nathan kissed him gently and Mack sighed softly and kissed Nathan back.

"Where to?" Nathan let Mack take the lead. He was always intrigued by Mack's ability to find a way through the woods, and with Mack's sure sense of direction. This time Mack led him to a part of his own property Nathan knew he himself had never seen.

There was a small stream that trickled over a steep rock bed, not high or fast enough to be called a waterfall proper, but with enough force that individual drops of water were flung free and sparkled in the air.

"It's beautiful," Nathan said sincerely. "I'm impressed, Mackie." He sat down on a flat rock to watch the stream. Mack eased himself down alongside him. He lay his cheek on Nathan's thigh so that his hair spilled across Nathan's lap. Nathan ran his fingers through the dark strands, tugging gently, and Mack sighed with pleasure and tipped his head back further. Nathan kissed him.

"I love it out here," Mack said softly. "You have such beautiful land, Nathan. I wish I could stay here forever."

"Why don't we camp out here some night?" Nathan suggested. "It'd be fun, Mack."

"Yeah?" Mack thought about it. "I'd love that, Nathan." He smiled, the first easy smile Nathan had seen from him in a long time.

It wasn't until that moment that Nathan fully realized how tense Mack habitually was. He cupped his hand around Mack's jaw and kissed him again, tenderly. "Let's do it this weekend, all right? Or are you working?"

"I'm playing both Friday and Saturday nights," Mack said, his face falling.

"Then we'll come up Thursday night, after I'm done teaching," Nathan said. "Sleep out that night and go back down Friday for breakfast. It's not like it's a long hike."

"Wow." Mack's eyes were shining. Nathan's ability to plan was a mystery to Mack, but one he appreciated. Mack didn't understand how Nathan was able to orchestrate pleasure, but he recognized that it was a skill Nathan had that he himself lacked. Whether it was planning dinner or planning an outing, Nathan seemed able to make things go right. To Mack, the way Nathan created structure and meaning where there were none seemed a complex kind of magic. Mack could only be glad he was included in Nathan's creations.

Thursday evening found Mack and Nathan lying comfortably inside Nathan's light and spacious tent with its hubbed pole design and wraparound mesh designed for star watching. Mack was most impressed with Nathan's luxurious self-inflating mattresses, which were warmer and thicker than any closed cell foam pad he'd ever slept on. Nathan lay back and Mack fitted himself neatly into Nathan's body. He rested his head on Nathan's chest and kissed him. Nathan kissed him back, enjoying the relaxation he felt in Mack. Mack seemed happier than Nathan ever remembered him.

"I love this. I wish we could do this every night," Mack said softly.

"Well, why not, in the summer time?" Nathan mused out loud. "We leave the tent up with our stuff, we walk up after dinner, we go back for breakfast. If you like it this much, then we should definitely do that."

"It's so much better outdoors than inside," Mack said. "Except when it gets cold," he added.

Nathan could feel the shift in tension as Mack's thoughts moved to winter. "Mackie, don't worry about that now." Nathan kissed Mack again. "It's warm, we're together, things are good."

"I love you, Nathan," Mack said simply, relaxing at Nathan's reassurances.

"I love you, Mack." Nathan was touched by Mack's declaration. He knew "love" was not a word that came easily to Mack. He took Mack's face in his hands and kissed him deeply and thoroughly. Mack sucked eagerly on his tongue, moaning with pleasure. Nathan explored Mack's torso with his fingers, tracing the puckered nibs, ghosting over the old scars. He licked and kissed his way lower. Mack giggled. Nathan loved Mack's giggle; it was a sound he rarely made, only when he was at his most unguarded. Nathan lapped at Mack's cock, teasing his tongue over the ridge between head and shaft, cupping his balls in his hand and kneading them gently with his thumb.

"Please," Mack moaned. "Please. You're killing me."

Using his forearm across Mack's hips to keep him still, Nathan continued his steady rhythm, enjoying Mack's throaty groans as Nathan slowly, inexorably pulled him over the edge. Nathan wiped his mouth with his hand and slid back up the mattress, smiling smugly. He took Mack in his arms and kissed him again.

"Nathan." Mack yawned. "Just a minute, I'll–"

"In the morning," Nathan said firmly. "Shh, I'm all right. Let's just sleep now." He was pleased when Mack didn't protest, just closed his eyes and snuggled into his chest.

Mack thrived on the new routine of regular visits to what Nathan laughingly termed "the summer place." Since their Vermont town itself was a summer place to many city dwellers, his little joke struck Nathan as hilarious. Mack was less attuned to the region's peculiarities and so found the joke less funny, but he loved their retreat in the woods. The campsite felt like home now and Mack could make the hike up in the dark and often did if he'd been playing the bars till late.

"You know, Mackie, you'd make an excellent wilderness guide," Nathan said idly as they cuddled in the tent after making love. "You could work toward that, it's not a bad way to make a living."

"I don't know anything about how that works," Mack protested, his contented post orgasmic haze fading abruptly. Nathan's penchant for thinking out loud about the future always unnerved him.

"I know there are associations and licensing exams," Nathan said. "It's something we could look into."

"We?" Mack asked tentatively.

"Of course 'we," Mackie," Nathan said gently, understanding the question. "I can help you find out about this, about what opportunities exist, about what you'd have to learn to do something like this. That's what partners do; they support each other's aspirations."

Mack was silent.

"What's the matter, Mackie?" Mack tried to pull away, but Nathan held him. "I wasn't scolding you. Stay with me."

"Let. Me. Up!" Mack kicked out and Nathan rolled on top of him, pinning him to the ground. "Let me go!" He struggled to get away.

"Calm down, Mackie," Nathan said sharply. "Stop this right now. I mean it, Mack. Stop fighting me, breathe." Nathan didn't budge until Mack gave in and went limp beneath him. After a moment Nathan rolled off him, though he watched Mack carefully. Something was going on with Mack that he didn't have a handle on. "Mackie, what's the matter?"

"I don't know how to work shit through, alone, together, whatever." Mack sighed. "If it doesn't just happen to come out right, I'm screwed."

"You just missed learning how to plan for the future," Nathan said calmly. "That's a skill I can help you with. We'll figure this out, I promise."

"I think there's something wrong with me, Nathan," Mack said glumly. "Other people don't screw up this way."

"There is nothing wrong with you," Nathan said. "There are some skills you need to learn, that's all. It isn't magic, Mack. You can learn to do this." He tugged Mack closer and wrapped his arms around him. "You're going to be all right."

Mack let Nathan's certainty lull him into temporary calm. He slept that night in Nathan's arms, but by the following day, his anxiety had returned full strength. They headed back to the house early because Nathan had to teach. By the time he returned home, Mack was gone.

Nathan tried Mack's cell phone, but coverage was uncertain in the mountainous area and he couldn't tell if Mack was just out of reach or if he had turned his phone off. Nathan had a strong feeling that it was their discussion of the previous night that had spooked Mack; any conversation about plans for the future very often had that effect. He made himself a solitary dinner and waited, hoping that his instinct was right, hoping that Mack had not gone far.

Still, it was past midnight before Nathan heard the crunch of Mack's boots on the porch. Mack opened the door and stood there, swaying. Nathan could smell the alcohol at several paces.

"I didn't drive," Mack said. "I walked. I'm tired, Nathan." He stumbled forward and Nathan caught him.

"You came home. That was the right thing to do," Nathan said. "Come on, Mackie, bed. We'll talk tomorrow." He shepherded Mack into the bedroom, stripped him, and covered him.

"Thank you," Mack whispered. He closed his eyes.

Nathan was glad that he'd agreed to let Mack come home without sanctions, no matter the time, no matter his condition. He stroked Mack's cheek gently, and was happy when Mack turned into his caress.

"I love you, Nathan," Mack said. "I'm so tired."

"I imagine so," Nathan said. He yawned. "So am I, Mackie." He wasn't surprised when Mack pressed closer and rested his head on his chest. Mack had done this before; he needed to test the rule, Nathan knew. He needed to know for certain that it was safe to come home, no matter what. Nathan never regretted having given Mack his promise. Mack didn't really abuse the privilege, he never drove when he'd been drinking and of late he seemed to stay out of the fights that used to inevitably accompany a binge like this.

Morning, and Mack was thoroughly hung over. He dragged himself out of bed and out to the kitchen. He sat silently as Nathan ate his own breakfast, nursing the cup of black coffee Nathan handed him.

Nathan kissed Mack's hair in a quiet good bye and left for the college. Mack got himself a second cup of coffee and tried to jump start the process of feeling human again. He took inventory: Headache, but no bruises. At least he'd watched his mouth down at the bar, he thought ruefully. He remembered the walk home, the night cool and damp, his hike made easier by the knowledge that Nathan would welcome him home, drunk or not.

It wasn't fair, Mack thought to himself, to ask Nathan grant him this concession. It wasn't fair, but it was very, very nice, to know that having made the agreement, Nathan would keep his promise. Mack slowly put his dishes in the sink and headed into the bathroom for a shower. He wanted to look alive by the time Nathan came home.

He wanted to show his gratitude for Nathan's forbearance. Mack stood a long time in the warmth of Nathan's generous shower, enjoying the way the wood muffled the sound of the spraying water. The quiet eased his pounding headache and after awhile he realized he was feeling almost entirely better.

Nathan came home to a damp and repentant Mack, who returned his kiss with interest, rubbing himself against Nathan. Nathan recognized he was being made nice to, and he backed Mack into the bedroom and tumbled him gently onto the bed, happy to take advantage of Mack's repentant state. Mack let himself be undressed and turned onto his belly, his knees under him.

"I don't need lube," Mack said hoarsely. "Just do it." He tried not to clench his cheeks as he felt Nathan move behind him.

Nathan wasn't about to let Mack do penance this way for the previous night. He flipped open the lube and coated his cock, then circled Mack's anus with a slick finger before positioning his cock.


"I was fine without it," Mack grumbled, even as he relaxed into the penetration.

"This way is good," Nathan said firmly. He grasped Mack's hips, pulling Mack back onto him. "That's it, come here, let's do this right." He reached for Mack's cock.

Mack groaned in pleasure as Nathan grasped him in his still slick hand. They moved together, their bodies finding the easy rhythm of familiar lovers, their words echoes of each other's: "Yes. So good. Oh yeah. Oh God."

"I love you, Mackie," Nathan said, flopping onto his back beside Mack and drawing Mack to him. "So much."

"That. Was. So. Good." Mack tried to catch his breath. "Love. You. Too."

"Wear you out?" Nathan teased. He stroked Mack's cheek gently. "Don't ask me to hurt you like that, Mackie, I don't like it."

Mack shrugged.

"I'm serious, Mack." Nathan cupped his palm around Mack's jaw, tilting his face up so that their eyes met. "If you deserve a spanking, you'll get a spanking. I'm not going to punish you in bed."

"It wouldn't have hurt that much." Mack shrugged again. "It's not like I haven't done it

dry. I deserved to feel it."

"Listen to me carefully, Mack," Nathan said. "Rough sex is fine, I like it too sometimes, if that's what you're talking about, then yes, we can do that. But I'm never going to hurt you sexually as punishment. That's just wrong, Mack. Lovers don't do that to each other."

"You don't know that," Mack objected.

"Lovers shouldn't do that to each other," Nathan said, not about to give up on the point he was intent on making.

"Fine," Mack muttered. He didn't feel like arguing what to him seemed obvious. Lovers did hurt each other.

Nathan knew he hadn't convinced Mack, that the only thing that would ever convince Mack would be experience. He wondered sometimes what it was that had happened to Mack growing up. There were huge areas of Mack's past that seemed to be curiously blank. Mack never spoke of them and Nathan didn't push him, but he was aware that there was a distinct absence.

Mack was distant and touchy all day. Nathan let him have his space and gradually Mack seemed to calm himself.

It was late afternoon when the phone rang. Nathan eavesdropped shamelessly as Mack made plans for what sounded to Nathan like roofing work. Nathan tried several times during the conversation to catch Mack's eye, but Mack deliberately looked away.

"Was that about a roofing job?" Nathan asked bluntly as Mack hung up.

"Yeah. So what?" Mack locked eyes with Nathan, spoiling for a fight.

"Mack, I told you after your last fall: No more roofing jobs," Nathan reminded Mack.

"I already told him I'd take the job," Mack objected.

"Call him back," Nathan said.

"I don't want to do that," Mack protested. "It's good money, Nathan. I'll wear a fucking safety line, I promise. You can't tell me to turn it down."

"We already went through this, Mack. I can and I did. Now you do what I told you to do."

"Fine!" Mack glowered at Nathan, even as he punched a number into the phone. The conversation was short and to the point. When Mack hung up he was angry.

"He made fun of me!" Mack said bitterly. "Thanks a lot. Fuck you, Nathan–" Nathan's quick slap silenced Mack mid-sentence. "Ow."

"You don't curse at me," Nathan said implacably.

"You didn't have to slap me." Mack touched his cheek gingerly. Fuck, it stung. "Ow."

"You didn't have to curse at me," Nathan responded. "You know better." He traced the blotch his fingers had left, pleased that Mack didn't flinch from his hand. That was all the proof Nathan needed that his response to Mack's cursing had been appropriate.

"He was making fun of me, Nathan. I hate that." Mack's voice was softer now.

"I know you do. What exactly did he say?" Nathan asked.

"'I guess after that last fall you got religion.'" Mack spat out the quotation. "But it was how he said it, Nathan."

"I hear you," Nathan said. "I understand you were embarrassed. But Mack, I'd rather we did without the money than you take chances like that." Nathan drew Mack forward into a hug. He could feel Mack trembling. "Deep breath, that's it, let it out, another, that's it."

"Let me go?" Mack asked tentatively. "Please, Nathan, I want to go out."

"In a bit." Nathan stroked Mack's hair gently. "You're okay here for now, Mackie."

"Can we still sleep out tonight?" Mack asked.

"Of course," Nathan said. "One thing has nothing to do with the other, Mack." It always saddened him that Mack's expectation was that anything he liked would be taken away from him as punishment. That wasn't Nathan's idea of discipline at all. "Come on, Mackie, grab a warm shirt and we'll go."

They'd taken to leaving everything inside the tent up by the stream. After they made love, Nathan lay back and Mack fitted himself into Nathan's body. They lay in the quiet, breathing the resinous smell of pine and the loamy smell of forest floor damp with leaves.

"I love this," Mack said. "I love you, Nathan. Everything is better when we're out here together. Everything is cleaner out here." He sighed. "Mostly."

"Want to tell me about it?" Nathan asked, hearing something in Mack's "mostly" that concerned him.

"What's to tell? He was my father's friend. He liked to hunt. He used to take me out with him sometimes." Mack was quiet. "I liked him. I would have done a lot more than he let me." Mack shrugged. " A little touching...I liked it, Nathan. It wasn't bad to be touched. I liked it."

"How old were you, Mackie?"

"I don't remember really. I wasn't a little kid, if that's what you mean. Don't look at me like that! I don't want to think about it like that. I liked it, Nathan." Abruptly Mack pulled away and stumbled out of the tent. Nathan followed him.

"I'm not judging you, Mackie." Nathan took Mack's hand.

"Let. Me. Go." Mack choked down the words he really wanted to say: Fuck you. The flash of shame and fury he felt ebbed, leaving him cold and empty. "I don't feel good."

"Take it easy, Mack," Nathan said softly. "Sit down and I'll make us some tea." Mack nodded yes and Nathan led Mack to the stones they'd set before the camp stove and sat down.

Nathan poured water into a pot and set it to boil. He hummed to himself and Mack's breathing began to steady again at the familiar sound. Nathan made a cupful of tea and handed it to Mack.

Mack cupped his hands around his mug, enjoying its heat. "Have we got any cake?" he asked hopefully.

"We certainly do." Nathan opened the clean, metal garbage can where they stowed their food, found the cake he'd brought up and unwrapped it. He smiled as he watched Mack break off a piece and begin to munch on it.

Mack smiled in response. "This is good stuff," he mumbled through a mouthful of cake. He swallowed, shrugged and sighed. "I don't want to be like this, you know?"

"I'm not sure I understand," Nathan said. "Tell me what you mean?"

"This." Mack spread his hands helplessly. "Wrecked. If I could be all right I would be all right, you know?" He ground his teeth audibly, frustrated at his inability to explain himself more clearly. "Shit."

Nathan knew Mack was struggling to put his feelings into comprehensible words. "Don't be so hard on yourself, Mack. I don't expect you to get over what happened to you growing up just like--" Nathan snapped his fingers.

"Just I keep fucking up," Mack said.

"I don't think so," Nathan said. "I think you keep trying to get it right and I think you get a little closer each time."

"You think?" Mack studied Nathan's face for a long moment. "You really think so?"

"I really think so," Nathan said. "Mack, there was a time you'd be halfway across the mountains by now, don't you remember that? That you're here talking to me, that you're able to muster enough trust to do that is a huge thing."

"I guess?" Mack slid closer to Nathan. "Could we just go to sleep now, Nathan? I'm so tired."

"Of course," Nathan said, taking Mack's hands and tugging him up. He understood it was time to move beyond words. Leading Mack back to the tent, he drew him down next to him and curled his body around Mack's, holding Mack close. Mack shivered, but didn't speak. Nathan let his presence ground and comfort Mack and eventually the two men slept.