Nathan enjoyed his attractive new boyfriend. Mack was audacious and fun to be around. As musically accomplished as he was good looking, Mack was soon offered a chance to jam with a local pick up band and later invited to play with them at their next gig. The pleasure Nathan took in seeing Mack performing faded as one late night became two became three. Nathan had a day job; Mack would have to manage his nights alone.

Mack didn't care. There were lots of new fans, lots of new friends, and lots of new sorts of trouble to get into. Not serious trouble: Bruised knuckles, a torn neckline, a few cuts and abrasions. Mack seemed energized and excited by the action. A couple of times Nathan broached the subject of Mack's late hours and questionable companions; Mack blew off his concerns.

"I'm not fucking anyone else, Nathan."

"I'm not talking about that, Mack, I'm talking about the fights. The later it gets, the less judgment you show. I want you in at two, Mackie, that's late enough. If you come in after two thirty without calling, I'm going to give you a spanking," Nathan finally said.

"A spanking?" Mack shook his head, amused at the phrase. Did Nathan think that was a credible threat?

"You won't find it as funny as you seem to think," Nathan said dryly. "Consider yourself warned."

"I hear you, Nathan." Mack didn't think that he'd have any problem getting in by two, two thirty and besides, a spanking? He could humor Nathan.

Except it was close to four when Mack crept into the house. Nathan was dozing on the love seat by the kitchen window. He swung his feet to the floor and opened his eyes as Mack came in. 

"I'm late?" Mack asked tentatively.

"Yes," said Nathan, his voice gravelly with lack of sleep, his night's growth of beard making him look darker and older than usual. "You're late and I'm going to spank you."

"Fuck. Nathan, it's four in the fucking morning, I'm tired," Mack protested.

"You're not too tired to stay out, you're not too tired for a spanking." Nathan wasn't going to permit an argument about something this basic.

"Shit. Next time I'm not coming home," Mack muttered.

"Come on now, you knew what time I expected you in." Nathan took Mack's elbow and walked him into the bedroom. "And you knew what to expect if you were late."

Mack felt curiously lightheaded. This was it, then. He watched Nathan seat himself on the bed. 

"Take your things off and come here." Nathan patted his lap.

Dismally Mack undid his tight pants and shoved them to the floor. He was bare underneath. He stepped closer and leaned unsteadily forward over Nathan's knees, feeling every bit exposed and every bit the fool.

To Mack's surprise, Nathan's hands were gentle on his hips as they rearranged him so that his torso and thighs had some support from the bed. His hand stroked the small of Mack's back, shifting his tee shirt higher.

"You know why you're being punished. I know you can do better."

Mack willed himself not to resist. He gritted his teeth as Nathan brought his hand down hard, braced himself for the next spank and the next and the next, his entire focus on staying silent. He. Could. Take. This.

It was over? Mack suddenly became aware that Nathan had stopped spanking him.

Nathan was worried. From the first swat he'd sensed that Mack was not all right, not at all. He could tell Mack wasn't very drunk or very high, but something was very wrong. He'd continued with another half dozen even smacks, hoping the physical sensation itself would change the detachment he felt in Mack, but it was clear Mack was resisting feeling anything at all.

"You can get up," Nathan said, ending the pointless spanking abruptly.

Mack did. He felt nothing. This was a far cry from what either of the men had expected.

"Thank you?" Mack said tentatively. He wasn't sure what you said after you weren't given a spanking you'd agreed to take.

"Shh," Nathan said, "Shh, Mackie, it's all right, shh..." He reached for Mack's hand.

"I'm fine," Mack said, pulling away. "Get off me, Nathan, I'm fine."

"Stay still." Nathan pulled Mack back. "I want to hold you, and you're going to indulge me. Come lie down."

"Fine." Despite his intent to resist Nathan's comfort, Mack's body had learned to trust Nathan. Mack fell asleep to the feel of Nathan's gentle hand smoothing his hair.

The next morning found Mack anxious and itching for a fight. He'd dreamed of being cold, of falling, of darkness: All the things he dreaded most. Nathan's spanking had shaken Mack; Nathan's stopping had shaken Mack more. That he had stayed, in some obscure way, shamed him.

"Mackie." Nathan shook his head; sleep had done nothing to erase the bad feelings between them. Mack had spent the morning slamming his way through the house. "Come on now, settle down or I'm going to settle you down."

"Fuck you."

"Enough! Sit down, Mack, we need to talk," Nathan ordered, pointing to one of the bentwood kitchen chairs. Mack sat. "Look at me, Mackie, don't space out on me now. Focus." He patted Mack's cheek; to his chagrin Mack flinched.

"I don't want to talk. I hate you," Mack said heavily.

"Maybe," Nathan said. "Or maybe you're angry at me."

"Maybe," Mack agreed. "I'm going home, Nathan. I don't want to be here anymore."

"Mackie. You are home," said Nathan very firmly. Nathan took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, softening his voice perceptibly. "Mackie, this is your home now. Go shower and while you're doing that I'll make coffee. We need to talk."

"I don't want to?" Mack sounded less sure now.

"Mackie. Is there anything you *do* want to do right now?" Nathan's tone was light, his question clearly meant humorously. "Be a good boy, Mackie, take your shower."   Nathan deliberately turned his back and began fussing over his coffee things.

Mack watched Nathan play with his blends of beans, grinding and brewing. Nathan's calm, cheerful detachment was not something Mack had any experience with. He decided that he might as well take that shower, which suddenly sounded very good.

Like everything else in Nathan's house, the shower reflected his principled Vermonter's ecologically correct take on the good life. It was heated by a separate, continuous water heater, and the shower stall was spacious and made of oiled hardwood. Nathan had made a point of the wood being something in particular: Renewable old growth? Sustainable new growth? To his shock Mack realized he was shaking. He finished showering quickly and dried off, pulled on boxers and a tee and padded out to the kitchen.


"Come here." Nathan was sitting on the love seat by the window, two cups of coffee on the handcrafted twig table before him. "Come on, Mack, before it gets cold."


Mack settled uneasily alongside him, not sure what to expect.


"Mack, breathe." Nathan's voice was gentle. "I want you to try to relax."


"I am trying," Mack said defensively. "It's hard, Nathan."


"I understand that," Nathan said. "I still expect you to try. Come on, grab your coffee, lean back and pretend you're my best boyfriend and you're glad to be here with me."


"I am glad to be here." Mack's voice was ragged with suppressed emotion. "It's just–shit, Nathan, I don't know what's wrong with me!"


"We can work through this," Nathan said, unfazed by Mack's agitation. "We're going to be all right." He cupped Mack's chin in one hand, his thumb stroking Mack's upper lip gently. "Promise."


This time Mack accepted Nathan's caress without flinching. He closed his eyes, shifted his feet onto the love seat and flopped sideways, his head in Nathan's lap. He reached for his coffee carefully, cognizant of his awkward position. He didn't want to burn either his mouth or Nathan's thighs. He sipped cautiously at the hot liquid.


"Good boy," Nathan said approvingly. He stroked Mack's hair back from his face, careful not to jar him. He loved watching Mack's movements; Mack was lithe and supple as a cat. Nathan petted Mack through his thin cotton tee, decided Mack felt shivery, and pulled a wool blanket over him.


"I'm going to fall asleep," Mack warned him. "If you make me this comfortable, you'll have to wake me up to beat me." He was suddenly flooded with an old and ugly memory of waking to the painful crack of a belt across his hip.


"Mack? Mackie?" Nathan knew something had spooked Mack; Mack had gone in an instant from sleepy and relaxed to rigid with apprehension. He also knew that Mack would be desperate not to reveal anything. Therefore Nathan concentrated on the most physical of responses. He took Mack's coffee and replaced it on the table, focused on long, soothing strokes of his hand over Mack's torso. Noting how Mack winced as his hand traced his hip, Nathan retraced the same path, but more slowly and more deliberately. He leaned over and kissed Mack, a sideways sort of kiss, more tender than passionate.


"I love you." Mack swallowed hard. "Cuddle? A little?"


Nathan eased Mack higher so that Mack's head was securely on his chest. Mack buried his face tightly into Nathan, his shoulders trembling.


"It's all right, you're all right, I've got you," Nathan said quietly, rubbing the back of Mack's neck, easing the tight muscles. "I love you."


Gradually Mack started to breathe again, but whatever he'd remembered had tainted the moment for him. He sat up, reclaimed his coffee and cradling his mug, looked across the room into the dancing flames in the tile stove.


"I won't come home." Mack's voice shook. "If you're going to beat me when I'm late then I just won't come home at all," Mack said.




"I won't. I'll just stay out," Mack said miserably.


"I see." Nathan sat quietly for a few minutes, thinking. "Mack. If I were to promise never to punish you for coming home, would that make you feel safe? Would that feel fair?"


"Not fair to you, maybe." Mack said slowly, his face a study in tension. "But hell yeah, I'd take that, Nathan."


"I will never again punish you for coming home, whatever time it is, whatever condition you're in. I promise."


"Nathan, that's really...you're really..." Mack's throat was so tight he could hardly squeeze the words out. He pressed himself into Nathan's arms, seeking comfort.


Nathan didn't say another word. He hugged Mack's tightly. Lulled by the familiar warmth of Nathan's body, Mack sighed deeply.


"I won't be a jerk about it, Nathan, I promise." Mack closed his eyes. Nathan eased him onto the love seat and Mack slept out the afternoon.


Mack did his best to do justice to Nathan's carefully prepared dinner of tender organic lamb with fresh garlic and salad with chunks of local chevre. Nathan noticed how much of Mack's meal went into the garbage when they cleared up after the meal. Nathan noticed how Mack's eyes cut sideways toward him whenever Nathan brushed by him.


"Mackie, I'm a little concerned. I want to talk--"


"No. It's all bullshit, Nathan. Talking isn't going to change a thing."


"Then come to bed," Nathan said. If Mack could not make himself move beyond this cold and frozen place, they were skating on thin ice indeed.


Under the cover of darkness Mack edged closer.


"Nathan?" Mack asked tentatively. "What you said before, did you mean it?"


"Yes," Nathan said firmly. "I don't make idle promises."


"Oh," Mack said soberly. "Because I just can't go there again, Nathan, I'm sorry. My father would beat me when I got home late. After awhile I didn't go home at all. I slept in the shed. I stayed over at Noah's. I knew places outside I could sleep." He shivered. "In the winter it was cold and I had to go home."


"Mackie." Nathan thought sadly about the boy his lover had been, trying to imagine what it all meant to Mack as an adult. "I meant what I said. I will never again punish you for coming home."


"Thank you, Nathan. I just need to know it's safe to come home."


"I love you," Nathan said. "It's always going to be safe to come home."


"I know sometimes I deserve a beating," Mack said glumly.


"No you don't," Nathan said. "A few whacks with a belt, maybe."


"I don't see that I get the difference, Nathan," Mack said with a shrug. "I don't really care what you call it. It still hurts." He closed his eyes. "It's all too much." Mack lay still and quiet and eventually Nathan fell asleep beside him.


In the morning Mack was gone. Nathan called him and got his voice mail.


"Call me, Mackie. We can work this out." Nathan shoved the heels of his hands roughly against his eyes and scrubbed his palms briskly over his face. He wasn't going to despair. Yet.


Noah drove up to find a familiar truck in his driveway and a familiar figure on his porch.


"How's it going, Mackie?" Noah was pretty sure he knew the answer.




"You've left Nathan, then?" Noah grimaced.


"Nathan was really kind, Noah," Mack said hastily, not wanting Noah to misunderstand. "It's all me. I don't know what to do with all this shit inside, you know? And I don't know who else to ask..."


"And you tried talking about it with Nathan?" Noah asked.


"Yeah. I mean, shit, Noah, I don't want him to know this stuff about me." Mack sounded miserable.


"I've suggested this before," Noah said. "And you always say no. But Mackie, this is what therapists are for."


"No." Mack shook his head. "Let it go, Noah."


"Did you tell Nathan you were going?" Noah asked, pretty sure he knew the answer to that question, too.


"Jesus, you're being a bastard," Mack said dully.


"I don't mean to be," Noah said. He felt for Mack, but he'd also been in Nathan's position and he knew what that felt like, too. "I just want you to be fair. Call Nathan."


"I can't," Mack said. "I don't have anything to say to him. I'll go if you want, Noah."


"Stay for dinner," Noah said resignedly. He knew Mack's dinner would be entirely liquid otherwise and he didn't want to be responsible for that. Jim would understand, Jim always understood, that was how Jim was. He seemed to have accepted that Mack came as part of the package.


Mack kept up his pretense of brashness for most of the meal. It wasn't until Jim stood with Noah to help clear the dishes that it hit Mack that he no longer had anyone who wanted his help.


"Thanks, guys, I'm gone," Mack said, and slipped into the dark. They heard the cough of his engine and the crunch of his tires on the gravel as he drove off.


"He's in trouble," Noah said succinctly. "Damn it, Jim, what am I doing wrong?"


"Nothing, Noah," Jim said. "You and Nathan, you're just collateral damage for him. He's his own target."


As luck would have it, a long-planned interdisciplinary, multi-university symposium, "Maple: Substance and Symbol," was being held on Noah and Jim's campus that week, part of the institution's bid for a higher profile. Jim's paper considered the maple as a tonewood and discussed its use in musical instruments; Nathan had been invited to present a paper that paper considered the maple's distribution and discussed brand names of maple syrup. Both men were good at behaving well. It was only natural that when they ended up in the cafeteria line together during the afternoon break, they would sit together.


Jim and Nathan sipped their coffee quietly. It took the burgeoning silence to push them into conversation, and then it was tentative, both of them careful to avoid any hint of prying into matters not their concern.


"So you came up to the region to teach?" Nathan asked.


"Yeah, I wanted a tenure track job and I wasn't picky about where," Jim said. "I actually work on electronic music theory and that's not exactly in great demand at the moment."


"I don't know much about modern music," Nathan said candidly. "This area attracts very traditional music lovers. I grew up here, we used to go to the concerts in the summer, my family was very into culture and education, which was why I ended up in academia. I wrote my dissertation on economic botany, but I never did the sort of travel you need to to make a fast track career of it. My father was sick for a long time and though it was my mother who actually cared for him, it didn't seem right to leave her to do it all alone."


"That's not an easy situation," Jim said.


"It was tough for awhile. But hey, it could have been a lot worse. There's no justice, you know? Mack's father was healthy as a horse until the day he died and he was a real bastard." It was the first mention he'd made of Mack. "He never forgave Mack's mother for leaving him and he never forgave Mack for being her son. And Mack's never forgiven himself for disappointing him."


"I know," Jim said. "Nathan, Noah and I are both worried about Mack."


"Tell him to come back with me," Nathan said. "He's got nothing here, Jim, he's wasting his life. Working a day or two when he needs the money, playing at night, getting into as many fights as he can stir up: What kind of a life is that?"


"Not an easy life," Jim said. "Nathan, he's not happy being back here. I don't know what happened between you, but Noah says Mack always runs, it's the main reason he and Mack never got together permanently. It's none of my business, but my gut feeling is that if you want Mack back, you're going to have to take him back. Mack understands force."


"So I kidnap him?" Nathan said, only half kidding.


"Something like that," Jim said lightly. "Throw him over the back of your truck, drive across the mountains and ravish him. Your basic romance novel plot. He might be more open to it than you think."


Noah was curious to know how Jim's encounter with Nathan had gone.


"I get a good feeling off him, Noah, he's thought about a lot of stuff, he's not just into Mack because Mack's...I don't know, trouble? He likes Mack."


"Yeah, I got that feeling too," Noah said. "So you think Nathan..." Noah swallowed hard.

"I don't know what Nathan does with Mack," Jim said. "He didn't even hint. Which I think is a good thing, you know? It's Mack's business, telling you, telling us, whatever."


"If only Mack were talking," Noah said heavily. "Who the hell knows what's going on with him? He's got it all locked down so tight that I doubt he himself has any idea."


Pain, pain, pain. Wet and spreading, warm, dark pain. With the instinct of a wounded animal going to ground, Mack sought the familiar comfort of Noah's house. Neither Noah nor Jim heard his truck in the night.


Jim was making coffee. Noah strode out on the porch to water his plants. Mack was sprawled on the steps beside the flowerpots.


"Oh Mack." Noah shook his head, but he had years of experience finding Mack asleep on his porch. "Mackie–oh shit, you're covered in blood. Jim, Jim, help!" Noah yelled. "Jim!"


"I'm right here, what–" Jim saw Mack's bloodstained shirt. "Shit. You stay here, I'll call an ambulance." He grabbed the phone, gave precise directions and then grabbed a blanket and brought it outside.


"Hang on, Mackie." Noah covered Mack carefully. Mack moaned and grabbed reflexively for Noah's hand. Noah got in the ambulance along with Mack, leaving Jim to follow in the car. Jim took a moment to place a phone call.


"Nathan, it's Jim. Mack's hurt," Jim said without preliminaries. "Noah found him passed out on our porch. There was a lot of blood." His voice cracked. "It'd be good if you could come."


"I'm leaving now. I'll be there as soon as I can," Nathan said. "Call me when you know anything more, Jim? Thanks."


Thanks to the magic of cell phones, Noah was able to fill Nathan in on the details during his drive across the mountains. Mack had a knife wound in his shoulder. It was shallow and had bled profusely, but he was basically okay and in stable, if damaged, condition.


Four hours later Nathan slipped quietly into Mack's room. Mack was dozing on the bed. There were handshakes and tense smiles and then Noah followed Jim down to the hospital cafeteria, leaving Nathan alone in the hospital room with Mack.


"Mackie?" Nathan's fingers brushed Mack's cheek gently, coaxing Mack back to consciousness. "How are you feeling?"


"Like shit," Mack said. His eyes searched Nathan's. "You hate me?"


"No." Nathan leaned in and kissed Mack tenderly. "Of course not. I got here as soon as I could, Mackie."


"Nathan?" Mack gritted his teeth as he shifted to see Nathan better. "I must look pretty shitty."


"You look like you had a rough time," Nathan agreed. "I'm really glad to see you in more or less one piece."


"More or less," Mack said ruefully. "They're letting me go this afternoon."


"And you're going–" Nathan waited for Mack to complete the sentence.


"Back to my house," Mack said. "Come with me, Nathan?" He held his breath until he saw Nathan's nod of agreement, then closed his eyes. "Stay." Without reopening his eyes to check that Nathan would, Mack drifted off.


Nathan arranged himself as comfortably as possible in the room's vinyl and metal visitor's chair and watched Mack sleep. Mack had been lucky; the knife wound, though bloody, was not serious. But how long would Mack's luck hold? He played in the bars at least three nights a week and the fights seemed a constant accompaniment.


There had to be an end put to them, before they put an end to Mack.


Nathan drove Mack home and helped him into bed. As always, Nathan was saddened by Mack's indifferently cared for house and Spartan pantry. He brought Mack prescription painkillers and urged him to rest.


By the second day, Mack was comfortable, if cranky, and Nathan felt all right leaving him on his own. He drove back across the mountains, taught two days of classes, and returned the following day. By then Mack was intent on erasing all memory of the incident.


"I'm fine," Mack said. "Leave me alone, Nathan. There's nothing to talk about! It was a freak thing."


"You take too many chances, Mack," Nathan said. "You need to make some changes before you really get hurt." He could tell he wasn't getting through.


"Fine, Nathan." Mack rolled his eyes.


"I'm serious, Mack. Don't blow me off like this."


"I don't fucking care." Mack glared at Nathan.


"Well, you will when I'm done with you." Nathan glared back. "I'm going to punish you."


"The fuck you are!" Mack watched as Nathan's hands went to his belt buckle. "Nathan, please!"


"I'm going to whip you," Nathan said, unbuckling his belt. "I want you to take off your jeans and lie face down on the bed."


"You want me to just...lie there and take it?" Mack was incredulous.


"Yes," said Nathan. He undid his belt and pulled it free. Doubled it, holding the buckle in his palm. Waited.


"Shit," Mack said. "Shit, Nathan, I don't know, I don't want...not here in this house. Not like this."


"I know you have some bad memories," Nathan said inexorably. "But you're not going to leave yourself a chance to make new ones if you get yourself killed in a stupid bar fight, Mackie. Which is why I'm going to make this very clear: You fight, you get a whipping. No exceptions. No second chances. Across the bed please."


"Shit." Mack took a deep breath and shifting back, undid his fly. Hooked his thumbs under his jeans waistband and shoved them down. Pulled his legs free of the crumpled garments and silently turned onto his belly, turned his face sideways so that one cheek lay on the mattress. Brought his hands forward to grip the covers in front of his shoulders. Waited.


"I want you alive, Mack. Deep breaths, it'll be over fast." Nathan brought the doubled belt down sharply, careful to hit only Mack's buttocks, aware of the scars on Mack's back and thighs. Five quick whacks in succession, and then another and another and another as Mack struggled to keep himself still, gulping with each breath. "All done, Mackie, all done."


"Uh, uh, uh," Mack panted. "Nathan, please–" He broke off midsentence. He had no idea what he was begging for.


"I'm right here," Nathan said calmly, seating himself alongside Mack and rubbing figure eights over his shoulders. "I'm right here. Breathe, Mack, it's all over now, we're all done, we're okay."


"Ow," Mack moaned. "OW. Shit, Nathan, my ass *hurts.*"


"I know it hurts," Nathan said. "Think of how much pain you were in the day you took that knife in your shoulder and tell me which hurts worse."


"Maybe I hate you."


"I know I love you," Nathan said. "I love you and I want you alive."


"Ow," Mack said, sighing deeply. He took a few long breaths and then buried his face tightly into his pillow, his shoulders trembling.


"Shh, you're all right," Nathan said quietly, stroking Mack's back gently.


"It hurt," Mack said plaintively. "Ow, Nathan, you hurt me."


"I know, Mackie, I know."


"I hate when you beat me," Mack said.


"I don't beat you," Nathan countered.


"Yes you do." Mack swallowed hard. "I mean, Nathan, I'm not saying I don't deserve it, but you do beat me. That was no spanking, you know?"


"It was a whipping," Nathan said. "You deserved every lick I gave you. It's not a beating, Mack. I can see the scars on your back; that's a beating."


"This hurt just as much." Mack was not about to concede. "You do beat me."


"Is that really what you think?" Nathan demanded.


"Yes!" Mack swallowed hard. "I'm not saying I don't have it coming. But Nathan, it is a beating. And it hurts."


"Well then." Nathan took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Did it matter in the end what name they gave it? "Fine, call it a beating if that's what makes you happy. You deserved it, pulling a stunt like that. And if you do it again I'll whip you again. You can end this whenever you like, Mackie."


"You're so mean." Mack accepted Nathan's refusal to argue terms with only a reflexive protest. He yawned, exhaustion closing fast. "I'm cold, Nathan."


Recognizing Mack's complaint for the invitation it was, Nathan toed out of his sneakers and took off his jeans. Tugging the covers from under Mack, he got into bed alongside him and pulled sheet and blanket over both of them. Mack hissed at the press of Nathan's bare thighs against his sore ass as Nathan spooned around him, but he relaxed again as Nathan massaged his hip, coaxing him closer.


"I'll warm you up. Come home with me, Mack, I miss you. There's nothing for you here."


"I don't know. I don't think I'm ready for a relationship, Nathan."


"When do you think you'll be ready?" Nathan asked.


Mack shrugged.


"You're as ready as you're ever going to be, Mackie. It's only going to stop feeling strange when you actually do it."


"I don't know how to be what you want, Nathan."


"What do I want, Mack?"


Yet another shrug.


"That's right, you have no idea. I'll tell you, all right? I want you, Mack. I want you home safe in bed with me every night. I want you goofing around in the kitchen while I'm cooking. I want your company running errands on the weekend. I want you to go back to school and find a real job."


"You don't want much, do you?" Mack giggled and Nathan smiled at the rare sound.


"Not much," Nathan agreed, kissing the back of Mack's head softly. "Just you."