Adult readers only. M/m sex, discipline, spanking. Memories of abuse. ANIMAL CRUELTY AND ANIMAL DEATH. If the idea of a discipline relationship between consenting adult males offends you, so will this story.

ELIZABETH MARSHALL STORIES

Strays

"Alex!" Walter roared.

Alex reluctantly put down the comics and the bag of M&M's he was working his way through and sauntered into the living room.

"Why are you yelling, Walter?" he asked.

Walter glared at him.

"What did I tell you about watching the dog when she's out of her crate, Alex?" Walter said, trying to keep his irritation in check.

"I was watching her," Alex protested. He had been. Sort of. He whistled softly, and the young Irish Setter came eagerly to him. Alex petted her gently.

"Alex. If you want to do something else, that's fine, but put her back in her crate first."

"Cara doesn't like being in that cage, Walter." Alex toyed with the dog's silky ears.

"Crate, Alex. It's not a cage to her; it's a den. It's her home. That's why she instinctively keeps it clean. Believe me, Alex, I've had many, many dogs. This is the kindest and best way to housebreak one. But we need to be consistent. Look at this!" Walter pointed to a puddle on the hardwood floor.

Alex gulped. Felt a visceral flash of shame, as if he were the one responsible for the accident.

"You should punish her, Walter," Alex said tensely.

Walter shook his head, trying very hard to be patient. Alex had never housebroken a dog before. As well, Alex had no experience of kindness, outside of what Walter had provided him. The Consortium's training methods had been harsh. No wonder Alex seemed unable to believe that anything but punishment would be efficacious.

"Alex, I've explained this to you before. If we keep her in her crate except when she's outside, or when we can supervise her inside, she'll be housebroken in no time. But every time you let her have an accident, you make it that much harder for her to learn."

"I'm sorry about the mess," Alex said nervously, his eyes down. Then, harshly, "She's a bad girl. Bad." The dog looked at him uncertainly and backed away.

"Alex," Walter said sharply. "I've told you, over and over, don't scold her after the fact. She doesn't know what you're angry about. Put her in her crate and clean up that puddle." Alex grimaced. His stomach hurt.

"Here, Cara," Alex called. She wagged her tail, but didn't move.

Why wouldn't the damn dog come to him? All right, he'd yelled at her. Big fucking deal! The lightning flash of anger he felt caught Alex by surprise. He forced himself to keep his expression neutral.

"Come here, pretty baby," Walter coaxed, snapping his fingers. She came eagerly. Walter ran his hand over the young setter's shiny red coat, still puppy soft. In a few short months it would be glossy and sleek.

Sullenly, Alex got the paper towels and cleanser. He hated this. Somehow it felt as if someone should be punished for this mess.

"There you go," Walter crooned, as he led the dog to her crate and gently pushed her in. "You're a pretty baby. You're a very, very pretty baby."

"I'm dropping my car off at the shop, Alex. Pick me up downtown at three, OK? And Alex...be there at three. I find waiting an hour for you to show up very frustrating."

"Yes, Walter," Alex nodded distractedly.

"Alex, I'm serious. Be on time," Walter said sharply. "Consider yourself warned."

Alex's hand strayed reflexively to his butt.

The floor clean and Walter gone, Alex and the dog set out for the wooded part of the park. Alex needed the walk to settle himself down. Housebreaking a dog was the pits. Being cautioned by Walter in that cool, sharp tone bothered Alex intensely.

Alex lost himself in the pleasure of movement. The young setter was inexhaustible. Alex enjoyed her light hearted frisking, the way her plumy tail waved gaily over her back as she wound her way through the foliage.

They stayed out a long time, both man and dog glorying in the freedom the park offered. Seeing the sun dropping lower in the sky, Alex reluctantly steered them towards home. The setter danced at his heels.

Shit. Alex glanced guiltily at the clock as they reentered the living room. He was going to be late, and Walter was going to skin him alive. Where had that dog got to?

"Get over here!" Alex's irritated tone, a sharp change from his earlier good cheer, spooked the setter. She turned to face him, her tail twitching tentatively. He swallowed hard, tried to soften his voice.

"Come on, Cara, I just want to put you in your crate!"

Walter had made clear that he wasn't to leave her out of the crate unsupervised. Walter had made clear that he wasn't to be late.

Damn, he should have put her in earlier. Shit, he was going to be late.

Alex reached for the dog, just as she slipped under the dining room table.

He lost his balance and stumbled, whacking his hip hard against the table's edge.

"Shit!" The dog exited from the other side of the table.

She was making him later still. How the fuck was he going to catch her?

Alex began to back her into the corner of the room.

There, almost got you.

She tried to slip past his bad side. He tried ineffectively to snare her with his prosthetic hand. His own clumsiness angered him.

"Damn you, bitch! " Frightened, the young dog froze.

Alex reached for her collar with his good hand.

The dog cringed away from his touch.

"Don't be afraid of me. I'm not going to hurt you."

He seized her collar, tried to pull her towards the crate. She balked, confused. Pulled free of his grip.

"Stop it," Alex said harshly. The dog whined, pressing her belly to the floor.

The room was suddenly too hot.

"Stop whining," Alex snapped irritably.

Cara titled her head, her bewilderment plain. Alex felt suddenly nauseous.

You're a bastard, Krycek, you know that, he reproached himself.

You little bastard.

Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about.

Alex felt funny. Little white dots were popping all around the corners of his eyes, distracting him. His stomach hurt.

The dog whined again. Alex felt worse.

"Shit! Shut up! I'll give you something to cry about!"

The dog rolled over on her back, desperate to appease the raging man. She whimpered, but didn't try to escape.

It's too fucking hot in here.

Nonononononononononono

Too scared to move.

Come here now, brat, or you'll be sorry.

Alex made a grab for the dog. She sprang to her feet and backed away, her tail tucked between her legs.

The acrid odor of urine filled the air.

Did you piss yourself? You're in trouble now, boy.

Sorrysorrysorrysorrysorry

You fucking little bastard! I'll teach you!

Nonononononononononono

The dog barked sharply, frantically,

Alex shook his head dazedly. Looked at the cowering dog watching him tensely.

"Here, Cara," he said softly.

Ohmygod. Oh shit. I didn't hit her, I know I didn't, I couldn't have.

Oh god, I came so close!

Another wave of nausea took Alex. He doubled over, retching, vomit covering the floor before him. Gasped, lightheaded, for breath.

Cold. So cold.

Nonononononononononono

I've got to get out of here. I've got to get out of here before I hurt her.

Reaching into his jacket, Alex took his keys from his pocket. He tossed them on the floor before the dog, backed out of the house and pulled the door closed behind him. He sighed with relief as he heard the lock snap shut. Cara was safe.

"I'm sorry, Cara," Alex whispered. "I fucked up everything. I'm so sorry."

The dog barked furiously.

"Shut up!" Alex slammed his hand into the heavy door, hard. Felt warm blood spill over his knuckles.

He couldn't get back inside even if he wanted to.

Cara was safe.

He licked his bleeding hand. Shit, that hurt. Shit, shit, shit. How the fuck would he ever explain this? Walter was going to kill him.

Bad boy. Stop that. Don't cry.

Alex wormed his way under his car, the fear that tight spaces inspired eclipsed by an older terror. The need to hide erasing all else. The pavement was cold, hard and uncomfortable.

Bad boy. Stop that. Don't cry.

Walter paid the cab and, thoroughly annoyed, let himself into their house. Paused, his hand still on the doorknob. The living room stank of vomit and urine. The dog raced anxiously to and fro, shoes, the contents of the garbage can and an unidentifiable object that might once have been a hairbrush strewn in her wake.

What the hell happened here, Walter asked himself, his hand dropping automatically to where his gun would have been. Where was Alex? Why was the dog loose?

"Come here, pretty baby, that's it, come to me," Walter crooned. Wagging her tail happily, she obeyed. Walter scratched her chest gently. He ran his hands over her, found no signs of damage.

What could possibly have happened? The pools of urine and vomit gave clues, but no answers.

"Alex!" Walter called. No reply. He's got to be here, Walter thought. Those are his keys. He absentmindedly retrieved them from the floor. He gave the dog a treat, put her in her crate and searched his way methodically through the house.

There was no sign of Alex. Walter checked their bedroom, looked at the empty bed. He hoped against hope that Alex was not hiding underneath it. With a sinking heart, Walter knelt on the floor and raised the edge of the bedspread. No one there.

Where the hell was Alex if he wasn't in the house? Alarmed, Walter looked out the window. Sighed with relief. Alex's car was still in the driveway.

Walter did a double take. There was something under the car.

No, not something. Someone. Alex. Dear God.

Walter flew down the stairs and out the door. Dropped to the concrete and peered under the car. Alex was chanting hoarsely.

"Bad boy. Stop that. Don't cry."

The green eyes that met Walter's showed no sign of recognition. Alex was as far away as Walter had ever seen him. It had been a long time since Walter had seen that kind of terror in Alex's eyes. Walter would just as happily never have seen that expression again.

"Bad boy. Stop that. Don't cry."

"Alex? Come here, Alex, easy now, come to me," Walter said softly. Alex shook his head, fearfully, desperately. No.

Walter forced himself to breathe deeply, calmly. One of them had to stay in control or they were both lost.

"Come on, Alex," Walter coaxed. "Nothing's so bad we can't work it out." He extended his hand slowly towards Alex.

Alex spat at him. The gob of saliva caught Walter on his cheek.

Walter took a deep breath.

"Alex, come out here. Now," Walter ordered in his sharpest, most authoritative voice. Was momentarily relieved when Alex blinked once, then obeyed. He smiled as Alex emerged. Alex's next words eliminated any hope he had felt.

"Get rid of that fucking bitch, Walter. I hate her."

"Get rid of...Alex, do you mean our dog?" Walter asked, completely taken aback.

"I hate her," Alex said implacably.

"Alex, what happened?" Walter asked, watching Alex's expression carefully.

"She's a filthy bitch and I hate her," Alex shrugged. His eyes were dark, the widened pupils barely rimmed in green. The black centers showed no emotion at all.

"That's quite enough, Alex. We're going back in the house, " Walter said sharply. "Come with me quietly if you know what's good for you."

Listlessly, Alex obeyed.

I'm cold, I'm so cold. Help me, Walter.

Walter entered the kitchen, his thoughts a blur.

It's not that I didn't know Alex was capable of being cruel, he thought. He was an assassin; that's not exactly a humanitarian calling. But he loved that dog. What the hell happened here?

"I'm getting the dog out of here tonight," Walter said.

Alex nodded, accepting Walter's decision without protest. He made no attempt to pet the dog he had loved. He didn't even glance towards her crate. To all appearances, Alex was indifferent to her departure.

Walter was still reeling, at a loss to understand what was going on with Alex, when Alex unwittingly drove the last nail into his coffin.

"Want to fuck me now, Walter?" Alex offered, his hand scrabbling at his zipper. Walter's jaw clenched.

"Find a corner in our bedroom, Alex. Don't move from there until I tell you that you can." Alex's heart sank even lower at Walter's icy tone. He walked slowly up the stairs.

Walter placed a call.

"Lone Gunmen," Ringo answered the phone.

"It's Walter. I need you to bring the van over. I want you to take my dog back to the bunker with you."

"Be there in twenty, man," Ringo said, not asking for an explanation. Walter let the dog out of her crate and sat alongside her on the floor. He petted her sadly as he waited for the blond man to arrive.

"Shit!" Ringo looked around the disheveled living room in dismay. "What the fuck?"

"I need you to hang onto the dog for a few days, Ringo," Walter said. "Just until I can make some arrangements. I bought her from a responsible, reputable breeder. I signed a contract agreeing that if ever I could no longer keep her, I would send her back. God, Ringo, I never imagined that day would come. I've never given up a dog in my life. But I can't trust Alex around her any more."

"What happened, Walter?" Ringo asked tentatively, scratching the dog behind her ears. "She's such a pretty little thing. Shit, Walter, can't you give them another chance?"

"You're a good friend to Alex, Ringo. I know you hate for him to lose her. So do I. But this gal is bringing out something in Alex that scares me. Jesus, Ringo, I found the dog running loose, the house a shambles and him locked outside, hiding under the goddamn car!" Walter's voice trailed off. He forced himself to continue. "She's pretty and she's well bred. Her breeder's not going to have any trouble finding her a new home. And Ringo? Don't help Alex look for her. I mean it. If he should ask you, say no. I'm going to tell him I warned you. "

Alex was staring into space when Walter returned to their bedroom, still standing where Walter had ordered him, his back to the wall. He looked at Walter expressionlessly. Walter reached for Alex's good hand. Alex stiffened.

"Alex, we need to talk about this."

Alex stared at Walter blankly.

"I don't remember anything," he said flatly. "Let me alone, Walter, please let me alone. Isn't it enough that you sent her away? I loved her, Walter, she was so sweet. I didn't mean to frighten her. You think I don't care, well, fuck you, Walter, you don't understand at all. I don't know what happened! One minute I was trying to get her in the crate before I went to pick you up in the fucking car, and the next she was cowering in the corner..." Alex closed his eyes.

"I didn't hurt her, Walter, I swear I didn't. But I was afraid I would. I didn't know what to do. You weren't there. I left my keys inside with her and locked the door behind me so she'd be safe from me. My own dog, Walter. And now you hate me. I asked you if you'd fuck me and you sent me to stand in the corner. I hate you, Walter, I hate myself, and I fucking wish I were dead." Alex slammed his hand into the wall, hard, reopening his abraded knuckles, already raw from the outside door.

Walter was stunned. He had been too shocked to realize that he had hurt Alex.

"Alex, no, you misunderstood. I didn't mean to make you feel this way. Alex, we'll get through this." He watched Alex wipe his bloody hand across his tee shirt.

"Alex. Look at me. Suicide is never, ever an option. Do you understand that?"

Alex nodded, looking down.

"Yes, Walter," he whispered.

"Look at me, Alex," Walter insisted.

Alex raised his eyes.

"I want you to promise me you won't hurt yourself," Walter said.

"I promise, Walter," Alex sighed.

Walter let out the breath he hadn't realized he was holding.

"Are you going to spank me?" Alex asked. Walter was silent.

"I can't, Alex," he said at length. "I'm too upset. I'm sorry, Alex." He walked out of the room.

Alex shivered. I hate him, he thought. I fucking hate him.

Walter put in an emergency call to the therapist.

"I need to see you today. It's urgent."

"Thank you for making time for me," Walter said, sinking tiredly onto the therapist's couch. He explained what had happened.

"I just don't understand," Walter said, his frustration evident. "He loved that dog. What could have prompted this? " The therapist shook her head.

"I don't know. Something triggered this, Walter. These things don't happen in a vacuum. I'm really at a loss to advise you. I am concerned at how quickly Alex seems to be deteriorating. Go see Graham. Call him now. You can use my phone. Have them page him."

They arranged to meet at Graham Miller's office.

"How is Alex?" Dr. Miller asked.

"A wreck." Walter massaged his temples.

"And how is the dog?" Dr. Miller continued.

"She'll get over it, probably faster than we will. I hate to give her up. She's such a pretty baby..." Walter's voice trailed off. "I wonder..."

"Yes?" Dr. Miller prompted.

"I called her 'pretty baby,'" Walter explained. "I'm just remembering one time when Alex had an extreme reaction to being called 'pretty boy' by a cop. Alex hates pet names. He never calls me anything but Walter, and I always call him Alex. "

"Interesting," Dr. Miller said. "We can assume Alex was abused from a very young age. It is possible the endearment 'pretty baby' triggers some very painful memories. You said that you found him under the car chanting to himself. What was he repeating?" Dr. Miller asked.

"Bad boy, stop that, don't cry." Walter took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes harshly.

"My best guess is that it was some sort of flashback," Dr. Miller said. "I think he identified so closely with the dog that he lost himself. Nothing I've seen makes me believe he would ever hurt a dog deliberately. That's not to say you shouldn't have sent her away. Keeping her was a risk." Dr Miller sighed.

"He needs your love and care, Walter, not your censure. Pulling back now is cruel. It is typical of someone with a borderline personality disorder to react to loss and perceived rejection with anger. Yes, he is terrified and acting out. But this is an illness, Walter, not a choice. We can up his current medication and add something else to it. However, what he really needs is all the love and support you can muster. More care...and more structure. We can choose to hospitalize him, if you feel it's beyond your capabilities. "

"I don't know what to do with him," Walter said.

"Let's try to remain rational, Walter. Alex is ill. He needs our help. I want to see him, today, whether or not he feels up to it. I think you need to insist."

Walter overrode Alex's objections and ordered him into the car. Taking Alex's good elbow, Walter marched him into the psychiatrist's office.

"Hello, Alex," Dr. Miller said. "I hear we've had a little trouble. Tell me, what prompted this? Walter tells me he nicknamed the dog 'pretty baby.' Did that upset you?"

"No," said Alex flatly. He shivered. "Fuck you, you're wrong. I don't care about a few words. No."

"So, pretty baby, you're not frightened at all." Dr. Miller watched Alex swallow convulsively.

"Shut--shut up," Alex hissed. "I mean it." His voice was ice. Walter prepared himself to restrain Alex if need be.

"Pretty baby," Dr. Miller said. "Sit down now. Be good."

"No! Walter, take me home, now!" Alex begged. "Please!"

Walter glared at Dr. Miller.

"Stop it," he said protectively, his arm around Alex. "You've made your point. Help him, man, don't frighten him like this."

"Walter, he needs you to model appropriate behavior," Dr. Miller warned.

Chastened, Walter closed his eyes for a moment, nodded his head.

"I'm sorry, Doctor," he said. Dr. Miller looked at him compassionately.

"It's hard, Walter," he acknowledged. "But I can't treat Alex if I don't know what I'm treating. I need to understand what triggered this reaction."

"I know, Doctor," Walter said. "But as you said, it's hard."

"Alex," Dr. Miller said. "Will you talk with Walter in the room?"

"I can't," Alex said tensely.

"Walter. Let me work with him, alone."

Walter hesitated.

"I am the only one who will punish him," Walter said, locking eyes with Dr. Miller. "The only one."

"I understand, Walter. I give you my word," Dr. Miller replied. Walter left the room.

"All right, Alex, we're going to start again from the beginning, " Dr. Miller said quietly. He noted Alex's pallor and labored breathing. "Alex, what are you feeling, right now?"

"Who are you?" Alex whispered.

"Who do you think?" Dr. Miller asked.

Alex screamed. And continued to scream, and scream, and scream.

Walter had been back in the room within seconds of Alex's first scream. He helped Dr. Miller restrain his hysterical lover. Used his full body weight to pin Alex flat as the psychiatrist quickly prepared a sedative hypo and emptied the drug into Alex's vein. Together, the two men lifted Alex on to the couch.

Alex woke to Walter's concerned hand stroking his hair out of his eyes, Walter's soft, familiar touch on his cheek.

"What--what did I do?" Alex moaned. He felt sick.

"Nothing bad, Alex," Walter said soothingly, reading the fear in Alex's eyes correctly. "You didn't do anything wrong. You panicked, that's all. We don't know why. Can you talk to me? What happened?"

"He was here," Alex said sickly.

"Who, Alex?" asked Walter.

"The English bastard," Alex whispered. Graham Miller inhaled sharply and Alex flinched.

"No, Alex," Walter soothed. "Just Dr. Miller, that's all. Not him. He's dead, Alex. You don't ever have to be afraid of him again."

"You're lying!" Alex yelped, panic in his eyes. "He was here, I know he was." He closed his eyes.

"You're trying to trick me," Alex said hollowly. Walter looked at Dr. Miller in dismay.

"We need to increase his medication, Walter," Dr. Miller said. "This increasing paranoia is not a good sign. I want to start him on Haldol, in addition to the Paxil. It'll work on the dissociative symptoms and paranoid ideation."

"I hate to see him on so much medication," Walter said.

"This is serious, Walter. He's decompensating. We need to nip this, now. Either follow this regimen at home, or agree to hospitalize him."

Walter carefully secured the bottle of pills Dr. Miller handed him deep in his pocket.

"Come on, Alex," he said gently, taking Alex's good arm. "We're going home." Alex sagged against him in relief.

"No hospitals, Walter," Alex whispered. "I'll be good. I promise I'll be good."

True to his word, Alex swallowed the additional pills Walter fed him without protest. He allowed Walter to clean the dirt from his wounds without a sound, although he gritted his teeth and his face went white at the feel of the soap. Walter covered Alex's knuckles with antibiotic ointment and lightly bandaged his hand with gauze.

Over the course of the next forty-eight hours, Walter began to feel as if he had stumbled down a rabbit hole into some inverted looking-glass world. The Haldol left Alex sedated, but with muscle spasms. The antihistamine Dr. Miller added to counteract the spasms exacerbated Alex's sedation and made him nauseous. The anti-nausea drug made Alex's dry mouth even drier and left him agitated.

"Please, no," Alex moaned. Walter took his jaw gently in his hand and slipping his thumb and forefinger between Alex's teeth, opened his mouth and placed the newest tiny pill on the back of his tongue.

"Swallow, Alex," he said, holding the glass of water to Alex's lips. Alex obeyed, but the green eyes that sought Walter's darker ones looked dazed and confused.

"I know," Walter soothed. "You're scared and you don't feel good. I know, Alex, I know." He stroked Alex's cheek gently.

Drawing Alex down on their bed, Walter pillowed Alex's head in his lap and rubbed his back in gentle, lazy circles. Gradually, Alex's eyes closed and his breathing slowed. There was a slight tap at the door.

"Walter?" John said quietly. Walter put his finger to his lips.

"He's asleep," he mouthed, carefully easing Alex's head from his lap and onto the pillow. Walter stood slowly and carefully tugged the covers over Alex. Closed the door gently behind him.

"How bad is it?" John asked.

"Bad," Walter said succinctly. "His mouth is dry all the time, he's sleepy, he's jumpy. Every time I complain to Miller about a side effect, he gives him a different medication to treat it and Alex ends up with more side effects. It's a nightmare. I have no idea if I'm doing the right thing or if I'm killing him. Both Miller and the therapist think I should hospitalize him."

"You can't, Walter," John said. Walter took off his glasses, wiped at his eyes tiredly.

"Thank you for saying that, John," he said gratefully. "I know that, it's just hard to keep believing I'm right when two professionals I mostly trust say differently."

John grimaced.

"Walter, you know Alex. He would be terrified. There's no way."

"What I need, John, is a babysitter. He can't be left alone. He just falls apart."

"Look, if you need a break, I'll sit with him. Melvin will sit with him. Hell, Ringo will sit with him, too."

"Thank you, John. I just need to get out for a little bit. The pressure..." Walter's voice trailed off.

"I know," said John kindly. "Look, Walter, take as long as you need. I've got all the time in the world. I'll stay here until you get back."

Alex struggled awake despite the medication. He registered John's concerned presence alongside him.

"Where's Walter, John? I need Walter!" Alex begged. "I don't know what to do!"

John stroked Alex's hair gently back from his eyes.

"Walter will be here soon," John said soothingly. "Alex, you don't have to do anything. You're OK now, I'm right here. Easy, Walter will be here soon, I promise. Shh..." Despite John's reassurances, Alex lay rigid and silent, waiting anxiously for Walter to return.

"Please, oh please, Walter, " Alex begged. "Don't hurt me. Walter, it was an accident, I'm sorry."

Walter hesitated a moment, confused. His nostrils caught a faint whiff of urine. He touched the sheets gingerly. They felt damp. Jesus. Poor Alex.

"You're going to leave me, right?" Alex said. Walter closed his eyes.

"Alex, I love you. I'll never leave you. Why would you think that I wouldn't want you anymore?"

"You got rid of the dog," Alex pointed out. "You said you loved her, and you sent her away. Maybe she had too many accidents?"

Walter winced at Alex's confusion.

"Please Walter, I'm sorry! Don't send me away. I didn't mean to pee. It was an accident, I'm sorry. Please don't punish me!"

"I know it was an accident, Alex. It's probably the medication. It's all right. Alex, you know I never punished Cara for an accident. I'd never punish you for one, either."

"They did," Alex whimpered. "No, please, don't hurt me! Don't hit me! Please, don't leave me alone in the dark...oh please..." His voice trailed off hopelessly. He sounded very, very scared and very, very young.

Walter closed his eyes. Those bastards...he hated the Consortium more at that moment than he ever had in his life.

"It's all right, Alex. You're safe now. I'll never let anyone hurt you again." Walter tugged Alex close, rocking him against his chest.

"I got beaten. Bad. And then they left me alone in the dark place," Alex said, his voice flat. He shivered. Striving for calm, Walter held Alex close until he finally relaxed enough that Walter could park him in the armchair while he stripped and remade the bed.

It took a long time and a lot of reassurance, but finally, Alex slept.

Walter was tired and discouraged. This mixture of urgency and tedium reminded him of those awful last weeks spent nursing Sharon. As he straightened the kitchen, he wished fervently for a free hour.

Ringo materialized at the door.

"Hey man, could you use a little time? I'll keep an eye on Alex."

Walter thought wryly that Ringo's blond locks had never looked so much like angel's ringlets.

"Bless you, Ringo. Thank you so much. Go on up. Alex will be glad to see you. I know I am."

Ringo slouched up the stairs and moved carefully into Alex's line of sight.

"Hey, dude, you awake?" Ringo asked gently. "I got a game for us."

Alex struggled to open his eyes, then closed them wearily. Ringo sighed.

"Alex? Alex, try to wake up now.''

Alex shook his head.

"Can't, Ringo. 'M'sorry. I'm so tired," Alex said, his words slurring slightly. His eyes closed again. Ringo ground his teeth angrily. He was going to talk to Walter when Walter got back. This was just wrong. He scowled.

"Shit, Walter, so he screwed up with the dog. Big fucking deal! I grew up on a fucking farm; I know dogs. She won't even remember it. You're not being fair. It was a dog! Those Consortium fuckers did worse shit to Alex and he was a kid! You're being a prick, Walter."

Walter stared at Ringo. He had never seen the blond man so upset. Ringo glared back.

"OK, Ringo, OK," Walter said. He touched Ringo's shoulder gently. Ringo looked away.

"This is wrong, Walter," Ringo said. "He's overmedicated, they've got him fucked up so bad I'm amazed you're not on the phone screaming malpractice. Get him off that shit. Don't make him into a basket case."

Walter put in a call to Dr. Miller.

"Six to eight weeks, Walter, absolute minimum," Dr. Miller said implacably. "I can't in good conscience recommend stopping the medication before that. Alex needs the Haldol; we need to stabilize him. We are talking about a serious condition that involves a real risk of suicide. I understand you are concerned by how disoriented he seems. Let me remind you again that you have the option of hospitalizing him."

"I can't," Walter said. "I won't."

"The worst of the side effects should drop out within a week or two, Walter," Dr. Miller said. "Until then, you have to bear with them. There is nothing else I can suggest. There is absolutely no question in my mind that Alex needs this medication."

The therapist empathized with Walter's frustration.

"However, there is every reason to believe Alex will get past this, Walter. You can't expect recovery for a survivor of severe trauma and abuse to proceed in a straight line. There are going to be setbacks."

Walter nodded. It made sense.

"Perhaps you should look into opportunities for volunteer work at an animal shelter once Alex is feeling better," the therapist suggested. "I think it would be beneficial to let him work this through."

The new medications did their job. Gradually, Alex seemed to resurface. He wasn't a hundred percent. But he was much better than he had been. Cautiously, Dr. Miller reduced the dosage of Haldol and withdrew the antihistamine and anti nausea drugs. Alex seemed stable once again.

After much encouragement from the therapist, Walter broached the idea of volunteering at a nearby animal shelter with Alex.

"You're fucking crazy!" Alex exploded. "I can't do that! I won't! No!"

Alex seldom defied him so openly.

"I think it would be a positive experience for you, Alex," Walter said, gritting his teeth. "You don't have to agree with me, Alex. I won't make you do it. But I'm warning you, watch your mouth. Curse at me again and we'll be discussing this with you upside down over my lap. I'm very serious."

Alex shuddered. There was no warmth whatsoever in Walter's voice.

"All right, Walter, I'll do it, if you want me to," Alex said placatingly. He looked hopefully at Walter, eager for any hint of approval. His shoulders slumped when Walter merely nodded.

"Then we're agreed? You'll give it a try?"

"Yes," Alex said quietly. He tried to ignore his disappointment at Walter's coolness.

I deserve it. I've been a real shit.

The shelter volunteers were glad for the new recruit. Alex spent his first few hours washing food bowls, folding old towels and stacking cans of dog food.

"Fetch that dog for me, will you please?" The older woman volunteer pointed Alex towards a cage and handed him a lead.

Obediently, Alex approached the little blond cocker spaniel. Her chocolate eyes reminded him of Walter. He leaned over her, intending to clip the leash to her collar. Without warning, she sank her teeth into his good hand.

"Ow! Ow!! " Alex yelped. Then, catching himself, he fell silent. He shook his hand violently, trying to free himself from the small dog's jaws. Blood flew everywhere. Alex tensed in pain.

"What happened? What happened?" Several other volunteers converged on the scene. The little cocker spaniel retreated and was shooed into an open pen.

"Did she just go for you for no reason?" demanded the woman who had sent Alex to fetch the little spaniel, glowering at the dog.

"Umm--" Alex stuttered.

"I knew it!" The woman sounded angry and certain. "I never liked these badly bred cocker spaniels. She just went for you, didn't she? That's must be why her owners gave her up. She should be put down."

"I provoked her," Alex said stiffly. His hand hurt, but his heart hurt worse. Put down. Killed. No.

"You provoked her! That's outrageous! What are you doing here? We're supposed to be helping these dogs! Go home. We don't need you." The woman's tirade left no room for argument. She abandoned Alex on a battered leather couch outside the office door. His shoulders hunched, Alex painfully eased his cell phone from his pocket with his bloody hand and called Walter.

"They're sending me home. Pick me up."

Walter had scarcely parked his car when he was mobbed by several volunteers. There seemed little doubt about what had happened. They all agreed that Alex had admitted provoking the dog that had bitten him.

Goddamn it! What was it with Alex and dogs, Walter asked himself. What the hell had Alex been thinking? He headed in to where Alex sat, waiting.

"I am going to punish you, you do know that," Walter said. Alex huddled sadly into himself, cradling his wounded hand against his stomach. It hurt, it hurt a lot. Almost as much as his feelings did. Walter hadn't even asked him for an explanation. Alex felt totally alone. Walter was never this mean.

Walter studied Alex's pale, hopeless face.

"Alex, I'm sorry," Walter said, feeling like a heel. "Shh, come here now, I know it hurts. I know you're scared." He put his arm around Alex's shoulders, tried to tug Alex closer. Alex flinched.

"I am sorry," Walter said gently. "Please, Alex, I want to help you." Alex studied him apprehensively.

"You're mad at me," he said. Walter sighed.

"Alex, it's been rough for both of us. Let's not make it any harder. Let me help you. I promise we'll work this out. Shh, that's it, I've got you now. Easy, Alex, you're going to be OK."

Alex had turned into Walter, burying his face in his chest. Walter stroked his lank hair gently, noting how lackluster the dark strands were. He hadn't brushed Alex's hair since the day he had been forced to give Cara away.

Christ, Alex felt like ice. Walter worried about the possibility of shock. There was a small coffee and tea station set up by the abandoned receptionist's desk. Walter helped himself to a styrofoam cup and placing a tea bag in the bottom, added hot water. Let the tea steep briefly before stirring in several generous spoonfuls of sugar.

"Can you drink a little something?" he coaxed, holding the cup of hot, sweet tea to Alex's lips. Alex sipped, shook his head.

"You're going to get stuck feeding me again," he whispered. "I'm sorry to be so much trouble, Walter."

"You're no trouble," Walter said, feeling his heart break at the pain in Alex's voice. The fear. He had been cruel, he thought. Alex was not a well man. What had happened with their dog had not been within Alex's control. He had been wrong to pull back from Alex in disgust. Slowly, he rubbed Alex's back. Alex seemed grateful for the attention.

"Do I have to go to the doctor?" Alex asked softly. Walter nodded.

"Animal bites get infected very easily, Alex. We need to be sure it's clean."

"Will you stay with me the whole time?" Alex asked. "Or do you think I'm being stupid about this?"

"I'll stay, Alex. You're not stupid, just frightened of doctors. Everyone has something that scares him. It's nothing to be ashamed of. " Walter felt his heart soften. This was Alex as he knew him, not the cold stranger who had turned from their dog and let her be given away without a word of protest.

"I need him to let me examine the wound," the doctor said, looking at Walter. He obviously understood their relationship. "Would you help him extend his arm, Walter, please?"

"Let the doctor see," Walter coaxed. Alex froze. Walter rubbed his back reassuringly.

"Lean back against Walter. That's it. Let him support you. You don't have to watch." Alex buried his face against Walter, flushing at his own weakness, but relieved. The doctor studied the wound.

"We have to clean it, pack it with antibiotics. Does the dog have proof of vaccination against rabies?"

"Yes," Alex whispered.

"At least we don't have to worry about that then. I'm going to give you a local anesthetic. It will only hurt for a minute. Take a deep breath and hold still." Carefully, the doctor slid the needle under Alex's skin. Alex stiffened. Walter stroked his hair comfortingly, his anger all but gone. Poor Alex. He had forgotten just how frightened Alex was of doctors.

Alex stayed absolutely still as the doctor cleaned the wound, packed it with antibiotics and bandaged it. His harsh breathing was the only sound in the quiet room.

The doctor took Walter aside.

"He's not reacting normally. I would strongly recommend you get him some psychiatric support."

"He's in therapy," Walter said.

"Good. Be sure he continues. He is not a well man," the doctor said sadly. "By the way, Walter, I pulled your chart. You're way overdue for a checkup. As far as I can see, no one's followed up with you since your hospital stay."

"I'll get to it," Walter said unconvincingly. The doctor nodded.

"That young man needs you. You have to take care of yourself," he said, cleverly deducing that this would be the best way to convince Walter to come in. Walter grinned ruefully.

"You're good," he said to the doctor. The doctor smiled.

"I come to it honestly. My father was a doctor. He practiced 'family medicine' long before it became a specialty. Make an appointment, Walter. For both of you. You both need full physicals."

"I'll take it under advisement," Walter said in a noncommittal voice. Hell would doubtless freeze over before he would be able to get Alex back in here.

Prescription for painkillers in hand, Walter ushered Alex back into the car and headed for home. Although Alex was drowsy and subdued, he refused to let Walter settle him in their bedroom. It was clear that he badly needed to be close to Walter.

Walter let Alex sit at the kitchen table, nursing a cup of coffee and nibbling on crackers, while he started dinner. The ringing phone broke the comfortable silence.

"Hello?" Walter said. He listened quietly, his eyes on Alex.

"Are you absolutely certain?" Walter asked, listening some more.

"Yes, I see. Yes. All right. Thank you very much for letting me know." Walter returned the phone to its cradle, shaking his head.

"That was a very interesting call from the animal shelter, Alex. Apparently your little cocker spaniel bit the child of another volunteer in the face, for no reason.

A little girl who needed twelve stitches to close the gash. A little girl who is lucky she didn't lose an eye, Alex. Do you want to tell me something?"

"Umm...no?" said Alex softly.

"Alex, you were supposed to help evaluate the dogs for temperament. Now tell me, why did she bite you? Did you provoke her, like you said?"

"Walter, she didn't mean it, she was scared! I leaned over her to snap her leash on and she panicked. It wasn't her fault. Fuck you, fuck all of them! I didn't want them to kill her." Alex glowered at Walter.

"Alex," Walter said softly. "There are dogs like that. She's a fear biter."

"A fear biter," Alex mused softly. "I think that's what I am, too." He looked at Walter miserably.

Wincing, Walter closed his eyes. Alex was exactly right; that was what he was.

"Oh God, Alex." Don't bite, Alex.

"Come here, Alex," Walter soothed. "Nothing's going to harm you. Shh, I have you now."

Alex resisted Walter's embrace for a moment, then sagged gratefully against him.

"What's going to happen to the dog?" Alex asked.

"A dog like that is dangerous. A child is in the hospital because of her," Walter sighed. "They may have to put the dog to sleep, Alex."

"She was so pretty," Alex said softly. Then, even more quietly, "She was so scared. Like me. Walter, how long before you get rid of me?" Anguished eyes sought Walter's.

"Never, Alex," Walter answered, his own gaze steady and reassuring. "Never." A fear biter. He hugged Alex, saddened by his roughened breathing.

"Walter? I should have told you the truth, right?" Alex asked tentatively. Walter sighed.

"I really didn't give you a chance to explain, Alex. I wish I had. We might have been able to prevent the dog from biting a child. We might have been able to save the dog." Walter suddenly felt very tired.

"I'm sorry," Alex said despondently. "Walter, are you going to punish me? Walter, are you going to spank me?"

Walter considered the question carefully. On the one hand, Alex had lied. Lying was strictly prohibited. On the other hand, he had not even attempted to talk the incident through with Alex. If Alex had really provoked the dog, he should have been punished. Walter had felt too heartsick to press Alex on that point. If only he had! The truth might have surfaced sooner and this second incident might have been prevented.

Alex watched Walter's face, careful to keep his own expression neutral.

He had many years of practice at anticipating punishment. Walter noticed how Alex's eyes darted anxiously from side to side despite his best efforts at concealing his worry.

"Alex, I'm really at a loss here. You deserve to be punished. You deserve to be spanked. But I don't see how I can, when I dropped the ball like this. I should have insisted we talk about this, as soon as we were done at the doctor's. Instead, I let myself be deluded into thinking I understood what had happened."

Alex's head drooped.

"Shit, Walter, I never imagined I'd be sorry to avoid a spanking. But it hurts when you assume what I've done is so bad that it's not even worth trying to correct me. I didn't provoke her, Walter. I just said it so she wouldn't be punished." He looked at Walter reproachfully.

"I understand, Alex. I'll take care of you. Come here now." Walter felt chastened. Helping Alex stand, Walter ushered him into the living room.

Walter rummaged through the shopping bags near the front door and drew the fine new hairbrush he had bought earlier that morning from its packaging.

"Come here, Alex," Walter repeated, wanting to make up for his earlier neglect. Alex turned to him and froze, looking at the hairbrush with horrified eyes.

"Please, Walter, no! I was bad, I know I was bad, but you promised..." he wailed, his eyes pinned to the brush. Too late, Walter realized what Alex was afraid of.

"No, Alex, no. Never. Only my hand, only ever my hand. Shh, don't panic, it's all right. Alex, look at me. Stay still. I'm going to touch you now, all right?" He laid the hairbrush aside.

Alex trembled as Walter took his good hand and drew him in, snaking his other arm around his waist.

"Shh, it's OK, easy now, that's it." Walter murmured reassurance as he shepherded Alex towards the couch. He drew Alex down with him, rolled sideways so that they could talk face to face, their bodies touching.

"Alex. I didn't mean to frighten you. Cara ate our old brush, that last day."

Alex winced. Walter sighed.

"We will have to talk about it sometime, Alex. But not now, when you're this upset. The new hairbrush was supposed to be a present for you, Alex. I bought it to replace our old one. Alex, you know what I promised. My hand, only ever my hand. Shh..."

"I'm sorry, Walter," Alex whispered. "I do trust you. I just..." He shrugged, helpless to explain.

"I know," Walter said. "I know. You were startled. Shh, it's all right now. Stay put, OK? Just for a sec..." He stood and retrieved the brush. Held it where Alex could see it. Alex studied it, reached tentatively to touch its satinwood back. Sighed.

"May I?" Walter asked softly. Alex nodded apprehensively.

Wordlessly, Walter seated himself. He cradled Alex's head in his lap and began to brush the dark hair back from his forehead. One, two, three strokes, and Alex's eyes closed. He sighed with pleasure.

"I love you, Walter," he said simply.

"I love you too, Alex," Walter said, his throat tight. "I would never hurt you, Alex. You are my heart."

"Walter, could we go back to the shelter? You said they might put the dog down. Could we help her? Could we take her home? Please, Walter, please."

"All right." Despite his own reservations, Walter couldn't resist the naked longing in Alex's voice. Alex clearly identified strongly with this damaged dog. If she could be redeemed, perhaps Alex would believe that he could, too.

The kind-eyed volunteer at the desk shook his head at their inquiry.

"I'm sorry, guys. That little dog doesn't look so good."

The blond cocker spaniel lay on her side in her cage, her eyes dull, her labored breathing audible. She thumped her tail half-heartedly, then growled feebly as Alex and Walter approached her cage.

"Please Walter," Alex begged. "We have to help her."

Walter and the volunteer exchanged glances. Wordlessly, the volunteer handed Walter a towel. Carefully, keeping his hands well clear of her mouth, Walter lifted the dog from her cage and carried her to the car.

Alex held the limp form in his lap as Walter drove carefully, yet swiftly, to the vet's office. Walter tried to breathe deeply and calm himself. He was prepared for what was undoubtedly going to be a very, very bad scene. He knew dogs. The one in Alex's lap was dying.

Alex held the dog gently. He felt ice cold. What...his mind tried to cope with what had happened.

"I didn't hurt her," he whispered to himself.

Walter looked over.

"No Alex, you didn't. She's sick, Alex. It isn't your fault."

"Walter." Alex's voice was flat. "Walter, she's not breathing."

Not sure what else to do, Walter carried the limp body into the vet's office.

The vet took one look and cursed bitterly under his breath.

"Probably a heart defect. Common with this kind of cocker spaniel, unfortunately. Goddamn puppy mills." He took the body from Walter. Shook his head. No.

Walter watched as Alex's face whitened and his eyes went blank.

"What's a puppy mill?" Alex asked woodenly.

The vet grimaced.

"It's a business, a dirty, sordid business. The female dogs are bred over and over, forced to birth litter after litter, until their bodies give out. The puppies are taken from their mothers too early and kept in wire floored cages, untrained and unloved." The vet looked sadly at the limp body he still held in his arms. With a sigh, he laid the animal across the reception counter.

"Pet stores buy the puppies, triple the price, and sell them to well-meaning, ill-informed dupes who want a 'purebred dog.' When their new masters can't cope with the dog's lousy temperament and expensive health problems, the dog ends up at a shelter. It' s a circle of misery. Poor thing, she's probably better off dead." The vet shook his head regretfully.

Alex's face didn't change. The vet recognized his lack of affect for the mask it was.

"You held her until the end," the vet said to Alex, his voice gentle. "She knew she wasn't alone; that counts for something." The vet turned to Walter.

"I'll take care of the body. You two go home."

The two sober men returned to their car. Alex turned to Walter, his eyes dark and unreadable.

Walter tried to hug Alex, but Alex held himself rigid and aloof.

"I just want to go home now, Walter," he said, shrugging off Walter's embrace and slipping into the car. He leaned back and closed his eyes.

"Please Walter, take me home."

Walter did his best to salvage their interrupted dinner, but neither he nor Alex had any appetite. Wearily, they prepared for bed.

"Walter?" Alex asked softly. "I deserve to be punished. Please, you have to help me. You have to spank me."

"Isn't there any other way I can make you feel better, Alex?" Walter asked. "I'll cuddle you. We can make love. I really don't want to spank you, Alex."

"Please, Walter. I was bad, so bad. I don't want to feel this way. I want you to forgive me. I need you to punish me. I need you to spank me."

"Alex, I can't do this tonight," Walter said wearily. "Come here. I want--I need to hold you, Alex."

Alex blinked.

"You need to hold me, Walter?" he asked softly, confused. "All right. Whatever." He curled into Walter's arms.

"Do you want me to suck you, Walter?" Alex offered hesitantly.

Walter sighed.

"No, Alex. Just let me hold you." Walter stroked Alex's hair lovingly.

Alex shuddered.

Walter sighed again. This was clearly not working for Alex. Alex needed to be spanked.

"It's all right, Alex. Just sleep now. I will take care of you, I promise. We will talk about your punishment in the morning. I will spank you then."

With a sigh of relief, Alex relaxed into Walter. Buried his face in Walter's furry chest, twined his fingers in the dark tendrils.

"Thank you," Alex whispered. "I love you, Walter. Good night."

Morning brought a change of heart.

"I'm an asshole," Alex announced, staring moodily into his coffee cup. He scowled at Walter.

"Yes?" Walter waited for an explanation.

"What the fuck was I thinking last night? I can't believe I do this. I can't believe I fucking ask you to spank me!"

Walter smiled. Defiance was always an indication that Alex was feeling better.

"Finish your breakfast, Alex," Walter said mildly.

Alex chopped his eggs into little bits and shoved them to the side of his plate, shredded his toast in a neat pile, and pushed away his juice.

"I can't wait anymore, Walter. Let's get this over with. Shit. I really am a fucking asshole. I'm a full-grown man. Why the fuck did I ever agree to this?"

"Stop cursing, Alex," Walter warned. "You know how I feel about cursing."

Alex gulped. Ouch. He did indeed. He had no intention of exploring that subject with Walter again.

"Come, Alex. Living room." Alex padded reluctantly after Walter.

Walter seated himself on the couch and drew Alex in front of him.

"What is this spanking for, Alex?"

"Because I'm a nasty sonofabitch. I made you give our dog away. I fucked up at the shelter. I'm a worthless piece of shit."

"Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. You're going to have to do better than that, Alex. Try again."

Alex glared at Walter. Walter held him firmly in place.

"Try again, Alex," Walter coaxed, his voice gentle. "What is this spanking for?"

"I scared Cara," Alex said softly. "I lost my temper and I frightened her."

"That's part of it, Alex," Walter agreed.

"I lied about how I got bitten and because of that a kid got hurt," Alex said quietly.

"Now you're thinking clearly, Alex," Walter said approvingly.

"I wished I were dead," Alex whispered.

Walter sighed.

"Nothing I can do will ever make up for all you suffered, Alex. But you are safe now. That I promise. I will never let anyone hurt you again. And you are never to hurt yourself. You are never, ever to forget how important you are to me. You talk to me. You tell me when you're scared. I love you, Alex. I'll always help you. Suicide is never an option. Do you understand me, Alex?"

"Yes, Walter. I talk to you if something's wrong. I tell you if something scares me. I let you help me."

"Very good, Alex. I am going to spank you now. And then we are going to go upstairs and make love. I am going to show you just how much you matter to me, and just how much I love you. Come here."

Carefully, Walter drew Alex forward and across his lap. He rubbed Alex's back gently, then slipped his hand under the elastic waists of Alex's sweats and boxers and tugged them down past his thighs. Alex closed his eyes resignedly. He cringed at the first stinging smack. Jesus, Walter had a hard hand. Alex clenched his jaw. He would not cry. He deserved this.

Walter spanked Alex thoroughly, carefully, until his bottom was shaded red. Despite his resolve to take his spanking bravely, Alex began to whimper as the hard, implacable smacks continued.

Walter rubbed his sore hand gently over the small of Alex's back.

"Easy, Alex, easy. It's over. All done here. Shh, you're OK. Come with me now." He eased Alex's clothing back into place and drew him upright. Alex leaned into Walter, content to be lead upstairs.

Walter pushed Alex gently onto his back on their bed. Alex flinched as his smarting ass touched the mattress. Walter winced sympathetically. He stripped first himself and then Alex. He seated himself alongside Alex, stroked his sweaty hair gently.

"Thirsty, Alex?" Walter asked softly. Alex shook his head. No.

"Stay with me, Walter," Alex begged. "Hold me."

Walter stretched out beside Alex and took Alex in his arms. Alex licked his lips and leaned in for a kiss. Walter kissed Alex deeply, thoroughly. Alex closed his eyes trustingly, opened his mouth to Walter's explorations. Alex moaned as Walter stroked his hand over Alex's flat stomach, grasped his eager, rigid cock. His back arched reflexively.

"How shall we do this, Alex?" Walter asked, teasing his thumb over the head of Alex's cock. "Hmm?" Drops of clear fluid beaded the tip.

"I don't care! Please, Walter, you're killing me, oh god, just do something!" Alex moaned. Walter released Alex's cock, trailed his finger around Alex's balls and over the tender flesh behind them. Alex bent his leg over Walter's hip, allowing Walter easy access to the tight opening in his ass. Scooping the lube from their night table, Walter coated his fingers and began to massage Alex. Worked first one, then two fingers deep inside. Enjoyed Alex's desperate writhing.

"Please, Walter, put it in me already," Alex begged. Walter covered his own rigid cock with lube and guided the slick shaft into position. Alex strained against him, widening himself, and Walter slipped inside. He paused a moment to allow Alex's muscles time to accommodate to his girth.

"So good, Walter, so good," Alex moaned. Walter fucked him slowly and gently, at the same time working Alex's cock in his fist. Alex twisted desperately, trying for more friction. Taking pity on his lover, Walter thrust harder and faster. He tightened his grip on Alex's cock. With a groan, Alex shot his cum over Walter's fist, moaning his pleasure. The sound pushed Walter over the brink. He felt his own cock pulse deep inside Alex. Knew Alex felt the hot cum spilling into him.

"Oh, shit, Walter," Alex gasped.

Walter smiled with satisfaction.

"Love you too, Alex " he said, amused. He kissed Alex gently and sprawled on his back. Snugged Alex next to him and guided Alex's head onto his chest. Alex closed his eyes.

"Don't ever leave me, Walter," Alex whispered hoarsely. Walter stroked his face gently. He could feel traces of moisture at the corners of Alex's eyes.

"Don't you ever leave me either, Alex," Walter said quietly. "I love you. Shh, it's all right now. I've got you. You're safe."

"Walter?" Alex said softly. "What the vet said? It was almost like that for us. We weren't in wire cages, at least most of the time. But we didn't have mothers and no one loved us. They beat us if we made mistakes, if we broke a rule, if we annoyed them. Sometimes we were sold. Our masters weren't very nice."

"My God, Alex," Walter forced the words past the lump in his throat. "I'm so sorry, Alex."

Alex nodded.

"I get scared, Walter. I understood why that little cocker spaniel bit. She knew it didn't do any good to beg. Cara didn't know that. She cried when I frightened her, Walter. She cried like a fucking baby. Do you know what they did to us when we cried? They beat us, Walter. They beat us until we learned to stop crying. I didn't hit Cara, Walter. But I came so fucking close. Oh shit. Why am I crying now, Walter?" Alex's voice broke.

Walter stroked Alex's hair.

"It's safe to cry here, Alex. I'll never hurt you. You don't have to be afraid anymore."

"Walter, the vet was right. That dog was better off dead. Would I have been better off dead, too?"

"No! Dear God, Alex, no! I can't imagine my life without you. Alex, you promised me. No more suicide attempts. No matter what. Never."

Alex closed his eyes.

"That was a hell of a spanking you gave me the time I tried that," he said softly. "I don't ever want a spanking like that again. I guess I'd better be good, huh? I guess I'd better stick around."

"You are my life, Alex. You'd damn well better stick around."

"I love you, Walter. So much."

"I love you, Alex. Forever."

***FIN***

THANK you, Lorelei, my beta and my friend. EM

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