It was far from the first time that Noah had come home to find Mack on his back porch.

"You may as well come in as sit out here," Noah said reasonably.


"I don't care," Mack said, but he rose from his perch on the steps and moved toward the door Noah was holding open for him. "Thanks, Noah."

"You're always welcome in my house, Mack, you know that," Noah said, ushering Mack into the kitchen. "The key's under the rock by the shed if the door's locked. Here, sit in the light, let me look at your face." He turned a chair around so that it faced the window. "You don't look so hot."

"I'm just tired." Mack kept his hand cupped to his cheek. "Let me alone, Noah."

"Put your hand down, let me see your eye," Noah said patiently, folding Mack's arm down across his chest. "Mackie, I want to be sure you're okay, come on now, tilt your head, that's it. You're going to have some shiner." He turned to the sink and wrung out a clean dishcloth in warm water.

"You should see what the other guy looks like," Mack said, trying to laugh it off.

"Right." Noah dabbed at the cut along Mack's cheekbone. "You want me to take you over to the clinic? You might need a stitch or two."

"Nah." Mack shrugged. "It'll heal on its own, Noah, it's fine."

"It'll be a neater scar if you let them pull the edges together," Noah said, but he didn't try to convince Mack to go in. Not his responsibility, not his call. "Can I get you some ice or a coke or something?"

"I guess," Mack said. His head hurt more than he wanted to admit and being fussed over was pleasant. Noah wrapped a frozen gel pack in a paper towel.

"It's going to feel too cold," Noah warned as he placed the icy compress on Mack's cheek, overlapping his eye. Mack hissed. "I know, sorry. The cold will keep the swelling down, so hold it there as long as you can stand it. Come on, Mack, why don't you stretch out for a little while?" He gestured toward the living room.

"Thanks, Noah." Mack held the ice to his cheek as he followed Noah's suggestion. He dropped onto the sofa, shifted back and swung his legs up. "God, I'm so tired."

"I bet. Stay put while I get you a drink." Noah stepped back into the kitchen and grabbed a coke from the refrigerator.

"Here you go." Popping the top and inserting a straw, Noah handed the can to Mack. "Nice and slow now, easy, that's it."

"Thanks," Mack repeated. "I'm sorry, Noah, I'm such a screw up. Is my being here going to make trouble for you?" He yawned.

"No," Noah said kindly. "Jim will understand. Here, Mackie, give me the coke so it doesn't spill and sleep a little."

As sheer exhaustion hit him like a sedative, Mack closed his eyes and curled deeper into the couch. Noah watched Mack's face soften as he slept and tried for the hundredth time to think of a way to change things. Mack would come to him when he was hurt; he always had. And Mack would leave him as soon as he was well enough to walk away; he had always done that, too. There was no way to make a life with Mack, which was why Noah had long since given up on the idea. He'd moved on, he'd made friends, he'd dated and he'd finally met someone he really, truly liked. Jim was special.

So what the hell was he going to do about Mack, now that he had Jim to consider, too? Noah reached for the folded throw at the foot of the couch and shook it out over Mack. It was there Jim found Mack, fast asleep, his eye already purpling.

"What happened to his eye? Did you hit him?" Jim sounded horrified.

"No," Noah said, understanding why Jim might ask and not taking offense. "No matter how angry he's made me, I've never hit him, Jim. He sets himself up for this, goes places he shouldn't, picks fights...he's tremendously self destructive, Jim."

"It looks like someone really nailed him," Jim said ruefully.

"He looks for fights," Noah said. "Believe me, he's not going to learn a blessed thing from this, he never does." He sounded sad.

"What a waste," Jim said, coming closer to Noah and leaning in for a kiss. "A lot of baggage there, huh? So what does he do for money, Noah? I mean, he's a decent drummer, but there're a lot of decent drummers, you know what I mean?"

"Yeah," Noah said. "I think he's probably working days for the county on the road crews, he's a hard worker when he's sober and God knows he's not the only man up here who drinks too much."

"Can you make a living off that kind of work?" Jim asked.

"You can if you don't have to pay rent or a mortgage," Noah said. "He's got his father's house. It's paid off, all Mack has to do is make the taxes. I honestly don't know if it's a blessing or a curse."

"He owns that?" Jim looked surprised. "Noah, I thought it was a cheap rental. It looked like he was practically camping out in the living room, you know?"

"I know," Noah said. "He's stuck, Jim. He hates the place, but he can't seem to move on, either. I've suggested selling it; he won't even talk about it."

"A curse," Jim said sadly. He felt for Mack; it was no good to be that mired in the past. "God, Noah, what parents do to their children, you know?"

"Mack could have left," Noah said. "Plenty of people do."

"If he could have, he would have," Jim said quietly. "People do what they can, you know?"

"You're a kind man, Jim," Noah said heavily.

"So are you, Noah. Listen, let him hang out with us for awhile. Maybe it'll help somehow if he sees that there are ways he can get his needs met without looking for men who'll hurt him. You never know."

"I know him too long to be optimistic," Noah said. "Okay, Jim, I see your point. Let's leave it at that and see what happens."

A very bad day and Jim in a very bad mood, pushing at Noah. And here they were, in the bedroom, whispering fiercely at each other.

"I know what you deserve, but I don't want to embarrass you," Noah said. "I suppose it can wait till after he leaves."

"Maybe you're making this harder than it has to be, Noah," Jim said. "Just leave the door open." Jim flushed. "I don't care what he hears. Maybe it'll help him to know it's not as bad as what he imagines."

"Are you sure?" Noah asked. "You're entitled to your privacy."

"I don't care," Jim repeated. "I'm a little bit of an exhibitionist, you know. I mean it, Noah: Leave the door open."

"Jim, you make it really hard for me to remember why I was going to spank you," Noah said ruefully. He knew Jim was doing this for Mack's sake.

Mack trembled at the sounds of someone getting a hard spanking, yet part of him was aroused by the idea of Jim bare-assed and vulnerable across Noah's knee. He envied Jim his easy trust. Mack's heart thumped fearfully at the sound of Jim beginning to cry. Crying had infuriated his father.

Only instead of responding with anger, Noah was murmuring reassurances to Jim, his voice warm with affection. Mack shivered and let himself out of the house. He stood on the porch for a long time, staring out into the night. He stiffened as he heard the door behind him open and close.

"You okay, Mackie?" Noah asked.

"No. You beat him," Mack said harshly. "Fuck you, Noah."

"Not a beating, Mack, a spanking. Only a spanking, only my hand." Noah's voice behind him was gentle. "Jim's all right, Mackie. Trust me."

"I can't," Mack said softly. "Noah, you have no idea how fucking hard I've tried to get past this. If I could trust anyone, it would be you. I can't."

"Is there anything at all I can do for you?" Noah asked Mack.

"Nothing." Mack looked away. "I'm going, Noah. Tell Jim goodbye from me."

The bar was crowded. It was karaoke night, which Mack despised, but he was looking for company and distraction and the vile music was a small price to pay. It didn't take long to catch Nathan's eye. Nathan seemed less interested in than bemused by the karaoke; it was easy to charm him into coming outside, into walking Mack home.

"I like you, too." Nathan considered whether to accept Mack's invitation inside. He wasn't sure what to make of the whiff of desperation he got off Mack, of the sense that Mack was less taken with him than anxious not to be alone. "Maybe we should wait on this."

"Fuck you!" Mack flared, overtired, overwrought, and infuriated by Nathan's hesitation.

"Do not curse at me, Mack," Nathan said sharply, enunciating each syllable. "You won't like the consequences if you do."

"What are you going to do, kick my ass?" Mack taunted him, starting to back away.

"Talk to me like that again, curse at me like that again, and I swear to God I'll turn you over my knee." Nathan took Mack's hands in his, looking at him directly.

"Fuck you, you bastard, I'd like to see you try it. Get off me!" Mack jerked back, but Nathan held on. "Nathan, please, I'm sorry!"

"Mack, are you all right?" Nathan asked, releasing him. He had thought they were on the same page, but one look at Mack's eyes told him otherwise.

"Fuck it, Nathan, I'm not all right at all," Mack said wretchedly. He twisted sideways and was gone into the shadows edging the yard.

"I'm sorry, too," Nathan said to himself. He reached for his cell phone.

"Sure, we've got space," Noah said. "Come on by." He hung up the phone and replied to Jim's unspoken question. "Nathan. Nice guy, I know him from leather stuff. He's looking for somewhere to crash."

"What a night," said Jim. "I think I'm just going to turn in, okay?"

"I'm sorry," Noah apologized. "You're being a very good sport."

"I'm not really," Jim laughed. "I really am okay with this, Noah. Just so long as I don't have to sit and talk. I'll be sociable in the morning. Sitting right now isn't the most comfortable."

Noah cuddled with Jim until he heard Nathan's car pull up, then kissed Jim a grateful goodnight.

"I'm fine," Jim said, pulling out his IPod and putting in his earphones. He waved Noah away.

"He just took off." Nathan toyed with his mug of tea. "It was bad, Noah, he was really scared. I didn't realize he wasn't playing around until I saw his eyes."

"My boyfriend Mack was just like that," Noah mused. "He'd seem to be begging for a spanking and then would panic if I tried to follow through. We'd grown up together, so I knew what it was about. His father used to leave welts that would last for days."

"Mack," Nathan said quietly. "Dark hair, dark eyes? Musical?" He waited for Noah's nod. "This is one small world."

"It is," Noah agreed. "He bolted, huh? I don't know this helps you any, Nathan, but that's how it is with him."

"At least I know who I'm dealing with now," Nathan said. "He's a beautiful man, Noah."

"He is that," Noah said. "He's also skittish as hell."

Jim was asleep when Noah came to bed. He turned in the night, snuggling into Noah, and Noah kissed his soft dark hair and gave thanks for his extraordinary good luck in having found so sweet a boyfriend.

In the morning they saw Nathan out and headed down to the college together. It was a long day for both of them. Noah was immersed in his graduate seminar in geology and surprised to hear a tap at the lab's closed door.

"I'm sorry, Noah, a minute please?" Jim peered into the geology lab. Noah came quickly to the door and stepping into the hall, shut it behind him.

"What's wrong, Jim?" Noah asked. It was unheard of for Jim to interrupt him while he was working with his grad students.

"Mack called." Jim swallowed hard. "He's in the emergency room. Come on, I'm parked right outside the building." Jim drove quickly and competently toward the hospital, talking as he drove. "Someone found him in the parking lot up top the lookout by the overpass. You know, where the interstate cuts over the highway? Mack was lucky; they called an ambulance."

"I warned him, over and over, it's not safe up there," Noah said, more to himself than to Jim. "He liked the danger, he liked cruising up there, the more I said, the less he listened. I should have done something, Jim."

"What could you do?" Jim asked. "Noah, you did everything he'd let you." He pulled into the parking lot. "Let's find out how bad it is."

It was very bad. Mack was still in the emergency room. He looked small and battered, the white hospital sheets emphasizing the bandages and bruises on his face. His eyes sought Noah's.

"I should have listened to you."

"Hey, Mackie," Noah stroked Mack's hand, careful not to disturb the IV line. "You never do take the easy way, do you? You're a mess. You want to come home with us? You'll be more comfortable than at your place."

"Yes, please," Mack said. He closed his eyes. "They said a physician's assistant was coming in to show me what I'm going to need to do. I'm sorry, Noah. Jim. Thanks for coming, both of you."

"We're your friends," Jim said. "This is what friends do."

Back at the house Jim sat by Mack's bed, talking softly to him of this and that. He mentioned Nathan's visit and was surprised at Mack's reaction.

"I know Nathan," Mack said. "I wish I hadn't scared him off."

"Don't be so sure you have," Jim said slowly. "Noah! Come here a moment, you and Nathan talked last night. Did he say anything about Mack?"

"He did," Noah said, coming into the room.

"What, that I was a fucking asshole?" Mack said nastily.

"No, that he was sorry he'd spooked you," Noah said.

"Oh." Mack was quiet.


Jim slipped out of the room, checked the phone's list of incoming calls, and placed one to Nathan's cell phone. It was a little over four hours before Nathan was back.

"Hi Mack," Nathan said. He touched Mack's cheek gently, carefully avoiding the bruises. "What does the other guy look like?"

"Don't make me laugh, it hurts too much." Mack's eyes searched Nathan's face, looking for signs of censure. "How come you're here?"

"I'm worried about you," Nathan said frankly.

"Oh." Mack hesitated. "I'm all right."

"Want to tell me what happened?"

"There's nothing to tell. I met a guy, we were getting it on, he wanted to fuck me bare, I said no, he hurt me. I don't fucking care!"

"Damn it to hell," Nathan swore. "God, I'd like to kill the guy who hurt you."

"Yeah?" Mack looked pleased.

"I've got an ice pack for you, Mack." Noah tapped gently on the doorframe.

"All right." Mack looked sideways at Nathan. "I need help with it," Mack said defensively.

"Of course you do," Nathan said. "Let me give you some privacy–"

"Stay. Please?" Mack asked. "It's cold, Nathan, it hurts so fucking much."

"I'm sure it does," Nathan said. He watched as Noah turned back the sheet. Mack rolled onto his side and bent his top leg at the knee, giving access to his battered perineum and swollen testicles. Noah laid the ice pack carefully on the damaged area, wincing along with Mack as Mack flinched at the contact.

"I know it's uncomfortable, Mackie, just try to breathe through it," Noah coaxed.

"Cold," Mack said with a pained sigh.

"I know, Mackie." Noah rubbed small circles on Mack's back. "You're going to be all right. Easy, Mack, we've got you."

Mack closed his eyes as the initial discomfort gave way to blessed numbness. Noah cautiously tucked the sheet over him.

"He's asleep?" Nathan asked, surprised.

"Good drugs," Noah explained succinctly. "He's usually quite a light sleeper."

"Most abuse survivors are," Nathan said, and then at Noah's look, "Yeah, well, I know a little about the subject."

"He's more than just that," Noah said.

"I know, Noah. But he's fragile in ways he wouldn't be if he'd had a decent upbringing." Nathan was silent a moment. "I hoped he'd give me another chance, just I didn't expect it this soon. I don't want to blow it a second time."

"Hell, Nathan, he'll give you a second chance, and a third, and a fourth. All you have to do is be there when he finishes his last set, he'll go home with you. It's getting him to stay the next morning that's the challenge," Noah sighed.

"So it's like that," Nathan said.

"It's always been like that," Noah agreed. "Nathan, Mack will take a chance on anything except emotional intimacy. He's only here because he hurts too much to leave. I know him very well, Nathan. He'll be out of here as soon as he can walk comfortably again."

"I could give him what he needs," Nathan said. "Structure, support, discipline. I'd be kind to him, Noah."

"I wish I had the power to steer him your way," Noah said regretfully. "But I don't, Nathan. You're on your own."

"Surely your opinion matters to him?" Nathan said.

"Perhaps," Noah said. "But believe me, Nathan, if I had any real influence, he wouldn't still be out there doing his best to get his needs met in the most destructive and masochistic ways he can."

"I think I might be able to work around that," Nathan said. "I'll be back, Noah. Tell Mack I'll call him."

With one thing and another, it was two weeks before Nathan and Mack met up again. Meanwhile they called and exchanged emails. Mack moved back to his own house. Nathan sent him links to the leather groups he was a member of. Mack sent Nathan pictures that made Nathan's eyes pop.

Nathan came up on a Saturday. He and Mack had a convivial dinner, after which Nathan sat at the bar through Mack's set, enjoying the music, enjoying Mack's obvious joy in performing. It was early in the morning before they headed back to Mack's place.

All Mack's ease and good humor evaporated as the door closed behind them.

"Let's just do it," Mack said without preliminaries, walking through to the bedroom. Nathan followed, trying to make sense of Mack's change in attitude.

"I'm not sure you're ready for this yet," Nathan said. "You were pretty bruised the last time I saw you."

"I'm fine, Nathan, stop fussing." Mack flopped onto his stomach on the bed. "You can do whatever," he said to Nathan over his shoulder, before burying his face in the pillow.

"Can I? Let's see what feels nice," Nathan said, not taken in by Mack's dismissing his concern. He undressed and lay down alongside Mack, turning on his side so that he could run his hands over Mack's body. He was pleased to feel Mack arch into his touch.

 "Can I get this shirt off you, Mack?" Nathan suited action to speech. "Nice, very nice." He kissed the nape of Mack's neck and then ran his hands over his bare back, slipping his fingers under Mack's waistband. "What about these jeans? Oh yeah, you're looking very good." Mack lifted his hips and Nathan reached under him, popping the snap on his fly and releasing the zipper. He eased Mack's pants and underwear off. Mack widened his legs, and Nathan stroked his shapely buttocks, pleased to see the bruises from the attack had faded. "Relax for me, Mack, that's a good boy." Separating both cheeks, he studied the tiny crinkle between them. His cock hardened in anticipation.

Nathan prepped Mack carefully, smoothing lube over his fingers and working them slowly into Mack until Mack was sighing blissfully. Nathan checked for signs of arousal; was gratified to feel Mack's cock hard against his belly. He fisted it a few times, enjoying Mack's small, happy noises. Nathan's own cock grew even more rigid and he reached across to the night stand for a condom and covered himself hastily.

"Relax for me, Mack," Nathan said again, now positioning his own cock against Mack's well lubed opening. Mack tensed, and Nathan resumed stroking Mack's cock and nibbling his ear. Mack writhed happily under the dual stimulation. When he judged Mack was hot enough that desire would overcome the vestiges of fear, Nathan repositioned his cock and pressed inward. Mack's body contracted in protest and then, as Nathan spoke lovingly to him, opened to Nathan's persistent cock.

"Good, so good, oh Mack you feel so hot, so good," Nathan crooned, sheathing himself to the balls. "That's it, take it, take all of it."

"Good, good, good," Mack chanted, intent on exorcising the memories of the attack and reclaiming his body's right to pleasure. "Oh Nathan, so good, so fucking good." His reluctance faded before the onslaught of sensation. He tightened around Nathan, threw his head back as Nathan thrust deeper.

"I'm going to come in you." Nathan breathed into his ear. "Oh Mack, so good, so very good!" He thrust rapidly and then, sighing, drew Mack into his arms as he lay back on the bed. Mack groaned, his own cock hardening as Nathan stroked it, and came, suddenly and hard in Nathan's hand.

"God." Mack closed his eyes and stretched, yawning luxuriously. "That was so good. I can't believe how good that was, Nathan." He kissed Nathan, giggling.

Nathan returned Mack's kiss gently, enjoying Mack's demonstrative affection. It was a side of Mack he hadn't seen before.

It developed into a routine. Nathan would drive over the mountains Saturday morning, spend the night, and go back home to Vermont on Sunday. As long as it was new to both of them, there were no problems. Gradually Nathan fell into the habit of doing his errands with Mack on Sunday before heading home.

"What a fucking waste of time," Mack said grouchily, as they left yet another hardware store, in search of an elusive piece of gadgetry Nathan needed. "Finding this fucking thing is going to take an entire fucking day!"

"Stop cursing, Mackie. You need to learn some manners," Nathan said quietly as they approached the car. He looked around him: They were alone.

"Fuck you, Nathan." Mack looked straight at Nathan.

Nathan cupped one hand around Mack's chin, steadying him, and with his other hand slapped Mack sharply across the cheek. One fast, four-fingered slap, carefully judged to sting, no more.

"Hey!" Mack yelped.

"I told you to stop cursing," Nathan said calmly, releasing Mack. "Next time you'll listen."

"You hit me, Nathan!" Mack was stunned.

"You deserved it, Mackie." Nathan didn't apologize.

"Nathan?" Mack sounded a little less certain. "That's not fair, Nathan, you can't do that!"

"I disagree," Nathan said gently. "I won't slap you without good reason, Mack, but you don't make the rules about what I can or can't do."

"I hate you, Nathan." Mack's cheek stung, but matching the flush of heat in his cheek was a rush of heat in his groin. 

"I know you do, right now," Nathan said. "Come on, get in the car anyway."

"Why the fuck not?" Mack said bitterly. "Shit, I've gone home with guys hit me harder than that!" He took bitter satisfaction in seeing Nathan wince at his words.

"I know you have," Nathan kept his voice even, knowing Mack had emotion enough to fuel both of them.

"You hit me! Noah never slapped me, ever."

"There isn't one right way to do this," Nathan said, not backing down. "I told you a dozen times this morning to stop cursing. You needed to stop. I gave you plenty of chances, Mackie."

"You hit me!"

"Come here," Nathan said. Mack stepped toward him as if mesmerized. "Let me see." Nathan brushed his fingertips lightly over Mack's cheek. "Not a mark."

"It didn't hurt," Mack said sullenly, his eyes on the ground.

"Mackie, I know it stung, and I know it hurt your feelings. Shh, of course I know that," Nathan added, as Mack looked up at him, startled. "I may not know you as well as Noah does, not yet, but I do know you a little."

"Yeah. You do, Nathan." All the fight went out of Mack at that admission. "I don't know what to do. I'm sorry, Nathan."

"I know you are. Come here now," Nathan said, drawing Mack into his arms.

"It did hurt." Yet Mack rubbed his cheek against Nathan's shirt, in love with the sensation of soft cloth brushing sensitized skin. "I don't know about any of this, Nathan. I don't know you."

"Yes you do," Nathan reassured him. "You know I won't ever harm you. I won't put up with your crap, but I won't ever harm you."

"You hit me," Mack reminded him. "You're just another guy who'll hit me when I make him mad."

"You *look* for guys who'll hit you, Mack." Nathan said. "How many bar fights have you been in in the last year? How many times did you go cruising and get hurt? For godssakes, Mackie, if you want someone to take you in hand, then choose me, or choose someone else safe and sane, don't keep setting yourself up!"

"Is that what you think I do?" Mack asked shakily.

"Yes." Nathan looked at Mack. "I like you, Mack, I like you a lot. I'm worried for you."

"I don't care." Mack shrugged. "Nathan? Take me home?" He opened the door and slid into Nathan's truck.

"Let's go then," Nathan said, getting into the driver's seat.

Once back at Mack's place, they moved by mutual agreement to the bedroom. Mack stripped quickly, dropping his clothes where he stood and sprawling face down on the bed. Nathan undressed more carefully, placing his folded garments atop the dresser.

"Talk," Nathan ordered, rolling Mack onto his back and pushing himself up on his elbow. He kissed Mack, first his cheek, which showed no mark, then gently on the lips, then more deeply.

"Ah!"" Mack's mouth opened to his. "Please," he begged. "Do me, Nathan, please!"

"Talk first," Nathan said, stroking his hand down Mack's chest and then caressing his cock. "Tell me what you want."

"You!" Mack said. "Anything you want, please, Nathan, please, I'm dying here!"

"Anything?" Nathan rolled over so that he was poised above Mack. Nudged his legs apart, reached below.

"Anything you say," Mack groaned, pulling his knees back.

"Come home with me," Nathan said.

"All right," Mack said.

"I make the rules," Nathan said, lowering himself onto Mack and thrusting inside. "I'm in charge."

"Yes! Yes, Nathan, yes," Mack gasped, arching upward to meet him. "Yes."

They lay together afterward, panting, hands clasped.

"You won't beat me?" Mack spoke to the ceiling.

"I won't ever beat you," Nathan said. "If I think you need it, I'll give you a few whacks with a belt, but I won't ever beat you."

"That's just great," Mack said grouchily, but his face relaxed and he yawned tiredly as he snuggled into Nathan. "Okay."

"I'll be good to you," Nathan said. He stroked Mack's hair gently back from his forehead. " You won't be sorry, Mackie."

"So you say," Mack grumbled, but he didn't pull away. "All right."

Noah and Jim listened to Mack describe his weekend with Nathan. Jim saw Noah tense at the detail of the slap, and he nudged Noah's foot under the table, warning him to back off. With a nod, Noah forced himself to relax.

"Would you do me a favor?" Mack asked. "I think I'm going to try Vermont for bit. Could you drive by the house once in awhile, see it's okay?

"Sure, Mack, no problem," Noah said easily.

"Nathan's invited me to stay with him. I'm going to go for it, Noah."

"Are you sure, Mackie?" Noah asked. "Is this what you want?"

"Yeah," Mack said.

"I wish you luck," Noah said." He kissed Mack gently. "Be good, Mackie. Be happy."

"Yeah, well, it'll be an experience," Mack said. He shook hands with Jim and was off.

"You look upset," Jim said mildly. He brought Noah another cup of coffee.

"I don't know how I feel about it," Noah said. "I don't like that Nathan slapped him across the face, that just seems wrong to me somehow. But can I really make that judgment? I mean, done carefully, it's really no worse than a spanking."

"Do you trust Nathan?" Jim asked.

"He's a decent man," Noah said staunchly. "A little harsh for my taste, but he seems fair. Very warm, very calm, very consistent. Yes, I do trust him."

"Then I think you have to let it go. Mack wants that level of control," Jim said softly, snuggling into Noah. "I mean, it's not for me, and it's not your sort of thing either. But Mack wants that." 

"I know," said Noah heavily. "He's always needed more than I was willing or able to give him."

"No," Jim objected. "That's not what I meant. You are the givingest man I know." He kissed Noah, trying to lighten the mood. "What Mack wants is a kind of..." Jim searched for the word. "A kind of hardness you don't have." When Noah didn't respond, Jim tried another tack. "Of course, you're plenty hard for me," he said teasingly, resting his hand lightly on Noah.

"Oh, Jim," Noah said. "You're very good for me, do you know that?" He gathered Jim in his arms, kissing him. "I appreciate you being patient about this."

"Hey, I like that you're loyal to Mack, it shows character," Jim said. "It means I don't have to worry, you know?"

"I do love you, Jim," Noah said quietly. "You're a very special man."