Pairing: Rick/Andrew
Warning: It's kind of sad in places, Andrew's old dog dies.
Implement: Paddle
Author: Jenny


Just a Dog

Andrew twisted the handle of the can opener, wrinkling his nose as
the strong odor of the contents was released. He lifted the lid,
careful of the sharp edges and turned over the tin, emptying the
food into the metal dish on the counter. Hearing the back door
open, he looked up as his partner came in, bringing a gust of cool
fall air with him.

"I hope that's not supper I smell," Rick teased, shedding
his heavy jacket and hanging it one of the hooks on the wall.

"No," Andrew smiled ruefully, acknowledging the dig at his
lack of culinary skills. "It's for Nikki." He held up
the empty dog food container to show Rick before tossing it into the
garbage and closing the lid.

"Why?" asked Rick with concern. "Is she having trouble
eating, Andy?"

"No," denied Andrew, shrugging a shoulder. "I just
thought she'd like a change from that boring dry stuff." He
unnecessarily mashed the already soft food with a fork, before
picking up the dish and starting for the door.

Rick, recognizing a less-than-truthful answer, stepped in front of
him, blocking his exit and waited.

"Okay," Andrew admitted reluctantly. "She hasn't
been eating very much. I thought maybe this would be easier for
her."

"The vet is coming tomorrow to inoculate the calves; do you want
him to have a look at her?"

"No," answered Andrew tightly. "I know what he'll
say. He'll want to put her down."

Although Rick shook his head and said, "You don't know
that," he realized that Andrew could be right in anticipating the
vet's opinion; the old dog had been failing lately.

"She's not hurting, Rick," pleaded Andrew. "She's
just tired out from keeping up with the other dogs."

"Okay, Andy," soothed Rick. "It was only a suggestion.
You can talk to the vet another day. Maybe there's something he
can do her."

Andrew nodded hesitantly; grateful Rick wasn't pushing the
discussion further, it was painful to even consider the possibility
of Nikki being put down. When Rick moved away from the door, he
grabbed his jacket and went outside to find his dog. Spotting her
lying in the grass near the barn, he rushed over to eagerly offer
her the soft food. Placing the dish on the ground in front of her,
he tried to entice her, "Go on, girl. It tastes better than it
smells." He added, "I hope. But the dog just sniffed
indifferently at the food and turned her head away. Andrew sat
down, leaning his back against the side of the barn and drew the
Collie's large head into his lap. Stroking her soft fur, he
swallowed down the thick lump in his throat and spoke gently to the
dog, "You've got to slow down a bit, Nikki, you're
wearing yourself out." Her tail thumped in response to his voice
before she dozed off under her master's petting hand.

Rick found him still cradling the dog's head in his lap when he
came to call Andrew for supper. His own throat tightened when he
reached down to stroke her head. Such a sweet dog, he thought
sadly. Although she was as shy and uncertain of her place on the
ranch as her owner, she was slowly working her way to be an accepted
member of Rick's pack of dogs. But it was painfully obvious that
she was nearing the end of her life. Rick could see it even if
Andrew couldn't and he knew he would have to broach the difficult
subject of the vet again, and soon by the looks of the aged Collie.
But Andrew was right, she didn't appear to be in any pain and the
discussion could be postponed for the moment.

"Supper's ready," Rick said. "Why don't you
bring her up on the porch, Andy? It's kind of cold tonight."

"Sure," answered Andrew thankfully. Calling to the dog to
wake her first, he stood up, easing the heavy dog from his
lap. "Come on, Nikki," he coaxed and she got to her feet to
amble after him to the house.

The next morning Andrew had more success tempting the dog to eat,
scrambling eggs for her and smuggling them out to the porch for her
to dine on in peace. Buoyed by that small achievement, he went
happily to the barn to saddle his horse. It was his turn to ride
the perimeter of the ranch to check the condition of the fence,
something both men loved doing and he couldn't help gloating a
little when he said good bye to Rick.

"Beautiful day," Andrew said, looking up at the clear sky.
"Have fun vaccinating the calves."

Rick reached out to pat the side of the horse's neck and
groaned, "You have all the luck. When it was my turn to check
fence it was raining."

Andrew laughed, "My reward for clean living." He leaned down
from the saddle to steal a last kiss from his lover, smiling at the
slight pout on Rick's handsome face. "See you this
afternoon."

"Have you got your cell phone, Andrew?" asked Rick. "And
your lunch?"

"Yes," Andrew assured him, patting his saddlebag. "And
the tools to fix the fence." There were always minor repairs to
be done on the miles of barbed wire fence that encased their
property.

"Have a good day," said Rick. "Ride careful."

"I will," promised Andrew. "Can you hold Nikki, Rick? I
don't want her following me."

"Sure," said Rick, stooping to grasp the dog's collar,
even though he knew it was unnecessary. She wouldn't have made
it more than a few hundred yards following her master on
horseback. "It's okay, girl. He'll be back soon,"
he assured the dog who was looking longingly after her departing
owner. Her days of accompanying Andrew on a ride were over, even if
he didn't want to admit it. Rick watched as the dog slowly made
her way to a sunny spot in the yard and curled up to sleep the
morning away.

Rick didn't have time to give the dog another thought as his day
passed quickly helping the vet with the calves and completing the
other chores. He was in the barn, finishing mucking out, when
Andrew led his horse through the open doors. "Hey," he
greeted him with a smile. "How was your day?"

"Great," Andrew answered, his own face split by a wide grin.
"That north quarter was in a bad way though. Damn cattle have
been rubbing up against the posts there. There was a lot of wire
down."

Rick reached out to take the horse's reins, holding him while
Andrew uncinched the saddle and lifted it from the horse's back.
Leading him to a stall, he called to Andrew that he'd take care
of the horse if he wanted to shower.

But Andrew ignored the offer, placing the saddle on the rack; he
asked anxiously, "Do you know where Nikki is?" His dog never
failed to greet him when he arrived home.

"Nikki?" echoed Rick absently as he removed the horse's
bridle. "I don't know, Andy. I haven't seen her for
awhile."

"Did the vet come today?" demanded Andrew, following Rick to
the stall, his voice rising in agitation.

"Yeah, of course. To inoculate the calves," answered Rick,
picking up the brush to begin a quick grooming of the tired horse.

"Did he `look' at Nikki?" he asked suspiciously.

"What? Of course not," said Rick, the implication of
Andrew's question clear. "Nikki's your dog. I would
never make that kind of decision for you."

Andrew could hear the hurt in his partner's voice at his
accusation and his face flushed, "I know. I'm sorry," he
apologized.

Knowing how anxious Andrew was about his dog; Rick nodded, accepting
the apology.

"She could have gone to the coulee," Andrew offered
hopefully, it was close enough to the house that the old dog could
have wandered there on her own.

"She could have," agreed Rick, trying to keep the doubt out
of his voice. "She loves it over there." But an uneasy
feeling in the pit of his stomach was saying something else; animals
often went off by themselves to die when they were old or sick. Rick
couldn't bring himself to say it out loud though.

"You go in and shower. I'll ride over and check,"
suggested Rick, already grabbing his horse's bridle off the rack
on the wall.

"I'll go too," insisted Andrew. "I'll take one
of the other horses
though, this one's worked hard enough today," nodding toward
the stall where his tired horse stood.

The two men quickly saddled their horses, Rick all the while hoping
that Andrew's dog would miraculously appear. They led the horses
out of the barn to mount and Rick called to his dogs, knowing they
would find Nikki long before the men could. Andrew urged his horse
into a gallop as soon as his seat touched the saddle, Rick and the
dogs trailing him. As they headed into the ravine both men scanned
the rolling hills anxiously, a dog alone would be an easy mark for
the coyotes that denned here. They split up when they reached the
trees that bordered the small valley and moved more slowly,
searching the long grass for signs of the Collie.

The horse stepped delicately through the assorted rocks and fallen
trees as Andrew watched for his dog. He stopped short, reining in
the mare and a shiver ran down his spine as he heard Rick's dogs
start to bay. Turning towards the sound he saw them a short
distance away, clustered in a small group, barking restlessly.
Trotting over, Andrew felt his stomach twist as he recognized the
familiar brown and white fur of the dog that lay motionless in the
grass. He slowly dismounted and knelt beside her, reaching out a
tentative hand to touch her side. It was still and cold. Andrew
quickly checked the dead animal for signs that she had been
attacked. An irrational anger surged through him, hot and powerful,
at the thought that she had been killed by coyotes. But there were
no tell-tale marks on her body, it was as if she had just lay down
and gone to sleep and the fury that had overwhelmed him was just as
suddenly gone, leaving him empty and shaken.

The other dogs had moved forward to sniff curiously at their dead
companion and Andrew shouted at them to get back. They moved a
distance away, whining anxiously as Andrew held the dog in his arms.

Rick had been farther away when he heard the dog's howls and when
he rode up to find Andrew holding his obviously dead dog, his eyes
filled with sympathetic tears. His partner seemed unaware of his
presence though and he took a moment to reassure his dogs, patting
their heads and praising them for finding Nikki. Then Rick knelt
beside Andrew, saying softly, "I'm real sorry, Andy."
When he went to place a consoling arm around his partner though,
Andrew flinched away. Laying down his burden on the ground, he
said, "Just a dog," his voice so flat and emotionless that
Rick wouldn't have recognized it as his lover's. Stunned by
Andrew's harsh words, Rick attributed his attitude to shock,
knowing how much he loved his dog.

"Do you want to take her home and bury her by the house,
Andy?" asked Rick gently.

"No," answered Andrew, getting to his feet. "I'll
bury her here."

"Okay," Rick agreed, not surprised his partner would find it
fitting that she be buried in a spot she loved so well.
"I'll ride back and get some shovels," he offered,
thinking it might help to give his partner time alone to grieve.
But Andrew didn't give any indication he had even heard him,
staring blankly down at his dog.

Worried at Andrew's reaction, Rick called to his dogs and quickly
remounted his horse to ride home. For all the tough posturing
Andrew did, he was at heart a kind young man and he had owned Nikki
since he was a child. Her death was certain to hit him hard.

He found two small shovels in the barn, tied them to the back of his
saddle and hurried back to Andrew, expecting to find signs that he
had been crying. But his partner was dry-eyed, his face set in an
impassive mask as he shed his coat and took one of the shovels from
Rick and began to dig. He worked without pause, digging with an
alarming intensity that Rick didn't even try to match. When the
hole was large enough to accommodate the remains of the dog, Andrew
shifted her into the opening and immediately began to shovel dirt on
top of her.

"Wait," said Rick quietly and bent to remove the dog's
collar, holding it out for Andrew to take from his hand. But Andrew
shook his head, refusing to touch it so Rick put it into his coat
pocket before helping to cover the dog with dirt. By the time they
were finished, both men were breathing hard and they paused to catch
their breath.

"The damned coyotes will dig her up," Andrew said, kicking at
the ground in frustration. The thought of his dog's body being
scavenged sickened him.

"We can cover her with rocks, Andy," Rick suggested, bending
to pick up a good size stone from the ground.

Without comment, Andrew began to gather rocks and place them over
the freshly dug ground, covering the dog's grave. By the time he
was finished his arms were trembling with fatigue and the back of
his shirt was drenched with sweat. He knelt beside the dog's
grave, making sure the newly broken earth was completely covered.
Rick bent down beside him to lay a hand on the stones and said
softly, "Its okay, Andy. She's safe now."

Andrew nodded and slowly got to his feet. Silently, he picked up
his jacket, turned his back on the grave and went to his horse. By
the time Rick had swung into the saddle, Andrew was galloping
towards home.

When Rick arrived, he found Andrew in the barn, already brushing
down his sweaty horse. Unsaddling his own mount, he watched his
partner with increasing unease. His face was frozen in a blank
expression and he shut out all of Rick's attempts at
conversation. When he was done grooming his horse he said
abruptly, "I'm going to shower."

"Sure, Andy," replied Rick. "Take your time. I
haven't started
supper."

A curt nod was the only reply he got and Rick gazed after him with
an anxious look. Their relationship still so new, he had never seen
Andrew deal with grief but his reactions hardly seemed like a
healthy response to the very real loss of his dog. But Rick knew
many men wouldn't allow themselves the release of tears, at least
in front of anyone. While Andrew had invariably cried the few times
Rick disciplined him, it was the only time he ever seemed to permit
himself to let go of his strictly enforced self-control.

Finished in the barn, Rick went to the house to begin supper.
Hearing the thump of his partner's boots coming down the stairs
he called to him to join him in the kitchen. Andrew went straight
to the fridge to take a bottle of beer from the open carton, popping
the metal top off against the counter. Rick gritted his teeth,
he'd broken his partner of that habit just recently but he
didn't reprimand him. The meal was a somber event, Andrew
drinking far more than he ate. When he got up to get a third beer,
Rick said quietly, "I think that's enough, Andy."

Andrew hesitated in front of the fridge, obviously gauging how
serious Rick was in his comment. Deciding that Rick would follow
through on his remark, he turned and walked into the living room.
The next moment the loud blare of the television could be heard.
Usually the two men would have cleaned up the kitchen in easy
companionship but Rick didn't insist on it tonight. When he was
done he joined Andrew on the couch where he was pretending to watch
television, his unseeing eyes fixed on the screen. The exhausting
day, both physically and emotionally, soon had him dozing off. Rick
rearranged his deeply asleep lover so that Andrew's head lay in
his lap. He stroked the waves of Andrew's hair back from his
face, taking the opportunity to study the enigma that was his
partner. His appealing face was, without doubt, masculine but the
angles were softened in a way that gave the young man a deceptive
air of innocence. Andrew sighed in his sleep and turned onto his
side, snuggling into Rick's hard stomach. The small act of trust
reassured Rick slightly; his lover's brutal suppression of his
emotions today was troubling.

The next three days brought little change in Andrew attitude. He
didn't initiate any conversation and kept his responses to
Rick's attempts limited to mutters and hand signals. When he
wasn't working balls-out on some chore, he was parked on their
sofa, staring at the television, drinking beer.

"Andrew?" Rick called from the kitchen where he was cooking
supper. "Feed the dogs, please."

"They're your dogs. You feed them," came the surly
response.

Rick took a deep breath, steeling himself to have the conversation
he should have insisted on the day Nikki died. Andrew had even been
avoiding the dogs, carefully steering clear of anything that would
remind him of his own dead companion.

Determined to break through Andrew's emotional repression, he
went into the living room. "Up," he ordered Andrew who was
sprawled on the soft couch. "I told you to feed the dogs."

"I don't see why I have to feed your dogs," he replied,
his mouth set in a belligerent scowl.

"Because I just fed your horses," said Rick evenly. "And
because I told you to." When Andrew still didn't move, Rick
took him by the arm and hauled him to his feet. He placed two
sound swats on Andrew's backside before the other man had a
chance to react.

"Ow," Andrew gasped, belatedly putting a hand back to protect
his bottom. He glared at his partner, surprised by the unexpected
discipline.

"Do as you're told," said Rick, his voice filled with a
resolve he didn't feel.

Andrew moved unwillingly towards the door, looking back at Rick, but
there was no uncertainty in his partner's manner. Rick was back
in the kitchen, finishing preparing their meal when Andrew came back
in. He looked shaken and upset and Rick felt his stomach twist with
guilt but he knew Andrew couldn't continue to remain shut down
indefinitely.

"I'm going to town," said Andrew abruptly.

"Why?" Rick demanded.

"I just…want to go for a drive," he answered, his eyes
giving away his lie.

"No." The only place open in town was the bar, the last
place Andrew needed to be right now.

"I'm going," said Andrew, taking his truck keys from the
counter, but he didn't make any move towards the door.

"You're not," said Rick calmly and held out his hand for
the keys.

Andrew clutched the keys tighter in his hands, shaking his head in
defiance but he looked uncertain and Rick could see the faint shine
of tears in his eyes. "I need….I don't feel good,"
he said plaintively, his hand moving to hold his chest.

The expression of pain and confusion on Andrew's face convinced
him to continue. "You're sad, Andy," Rick explained
gently. "Because Nikki died. Drinking isn't going to make
that go away."

Andrew flinched visibly at the sound of his dog's name but he
snapped, "For God's sake, Rick. She was just a dog."

"That you loved, Andy," protested Rick softly. "And
that loved you. She deserves to be mourned."

"No," said Andrew, his voice harsh. "You don't cry
over a fucking dog."

"Why?" asked Rick. "The day my first dog died was one of
the saddest days of my life."

"Then you mustn't have had many sad days," said Andrew.
There wasn't any bitterness in his voice, just a longing that made
Rick's own eyes fill, wondering at the sad times in Andrew's
life. He ached to go back and soothe every hurt his lover ever had.

"You're right, Andy. I've been a lucky man but everyone
has some sadness in their lives. But I've always had someone to
share that with, and now you've got me."

He was trembling with the effort to hold back his tears but still
Andrew resisted. When Rick held out his arms to embrace him,
knowing the moment he felt his lover's touch, he'd crumble
into a million pieces, he begged, "Don't." But Rick
resolutely took Andrew into his arms, drawing him tight against his
chest. Groaning with misery, he held himself rigid in Rick's
embrace, before suddenly giving in to his sorrow.

"It's all right, Andy," whispered Rick. "I've
got you." He managed to sit down on a kitchen chair, before
Andrew collapsed, kneeling at Rick's feet. Rick held his
partner's
head against his solid chest, rocking him as he sobbed. He cried
for a long time, oblivious to the discomfort of his knees on the
hard floor, until finally his violent sobs slowed to ragged breaths.

"Come on," urged Rick. "Let's go to bed." He
helped his shaky
partner to his feet, supporting him as climbed the steep stairs to
their bedroom. Uncharacteristically compliant, Andrew let Rick
undress him, allowing him to wash his tear-stained face and
accepting the toothbrush he put into his hand. Rick started to
strip off his own clothes once he had Andrew in bed, but his partner
was already gone, fast asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow.

Rick completed the evening chores, and ate a late supper before
going back to their bedroom. When he checked on Andrew, he was
surprised to find him awake, staring miserably at the
ceiling. "Hey, sweetheart," Rick said softly. "Can I
bring you some supper?"

Andrew shook his head, his breath hitching. "Andy? You all
right?" asked Rick, sitting down on the bed and reaching under
the blankets to rub his bare stomach.

Starting to cry again, Andrew choked out his reply, "I'm such
a selfish bastard."

"Why do you say that?" asked Rick.

"I should have listened to you, about the vet. She didn't
have to die out there alone," he sobbed.

"Andy," Rick reproached him softly. "That wasn't
your fault. That was instinct; it's what animals often do. And I
wouldn't have put her down, either. She wasn't sick or in
pain. You didn't do anything wrong."

"Are you sure, Rick?" he begged. The need for reassurance
raw in his voice, he clung to Rick's hand.

"I'm sure, Andy. You didn't do anything wrong," he
repeated, realizing that his partner had been suppressing his
feelings out of guilt as much as sorrow. He lay down beside Andrew
and drew him into his arms again. This time he came without
hesitation, eagerly taking the comfort Rick was offering.

 

But when Rick woke in the morning, his arms were empty. Hoping
Andrew had just decided to get an early start on the chores, he went
to the barn to look for him. His concern only increased when he
found a half-broke gelding that was no where near ready to be ridden
outside of the corral, missing as well as Andrew. Rick swore
expressively before going back into the house, looking for a note to
give some indication of where Andrew had gone. There on the kitchen
table, in plain sight, was Andrew's cell phone; a blatant message
to Rick that he couldn't be reached.

All morning Rick wavered about taking a horse out and trying to find
Andrew but he knew, realistically it would be impossible, he could
be anywhere. He did the chores automatically, his mind fully on his
partner, out there on a horse, quite likely to buck him off with no
way to contact anyone if he was hurt. When he saw the truck pull
into the yard, his heart jumped unpleasantly, thinking it was bad
news about Andrew. He sighed with relief when his mother climbed
down from the cab, bringing several bags with her.

"Hi, Mom," he greeted her, bending to kiss her cheek.

"Hi, Rick," she smiled and cheerfully held out her laden
arms. "I was baking today and I thought you might like some
fresh bread. I know how much Andrew loves it."

"Thanks," said Rick, his eyes showing his worry at the
mention of his partner.

"Where is Andy?" asked his mother.

"I'm not sure," answered Rick, telling the truth, knowing
those sharp eyes didn't miss anything.

"Oh?"

Rick sighed, more than ready to share his worry with someone
else. "Can you stay for coffee?"

"He's trying to provoke me," said Rick angrily, toying
with Andrew's cell phone.

"Why would he do that?" asked Lily, calmly picking up her cup
to sip the hot liquid.

"He left his cell phone right here, right where I would see
it," insisted Rick. "And took off on that half-broke horse.
He's trying to piss me off."

"Why would he do that?"

"I don't know," snapped Rick, his anxiety getting the
better of him.

"Rick," she said quietly, but the censure was still there.

"I'm sorry, Mom. I'm worried."

"I know," she said. "He must be pretty upset with his
dog dying."

"But we talked about it; I thought he was all right."

The older woman fiddled with her cup, obviously wrestling with a
decision. Finally, she spoke, a sad smile playing on her lips,
"I never told you I used to know Andy's mom, did I?"

"No," said Rick, surprised that she had never mentioned it.
While Andrew had grown up in the next county, he was a few years
younger than Rick and had attended a different school. They
hadn't known each other as children and Andrew's family had
moved several years ago to a larger ranch, further north. It was a
revelation that his mother had known Andrew's mother.

"She was such a pretty lady. We shared a room in the hospital
when I had David," she said, taking a deep breath. "And she
had Andrew's brother."

"You're confused, Mom. Andrew doesn't have a brother,"
Rick said condescendingly.

"Rick, I'm not even fifty. I'm not senile," his
mother protested mildly.

Rick blushed and muttered an apology.

"He did have a brother, honey. But he died when he was a
baby," she said sadly.

A cold chill swept over Rick, that he never knew something so
important about his lover stunned him. He was barely paying
attention to his mother's words.

"She wasn't the same, after. It was such a shock to her; she
loved her children very much. When the baby died, she never really
got over it." She paused for a moment, remembering. "I went
to see her after, to say how sorry I was about her loss. But it was
like he'd never existed, all his pictures and things were gone
and I never heard her say his name again. I'm not blaming her,
it's a terrible thing to lose your child, Rick but it must have
been very hard for Andrew. He was old enough to know the truth; he
must have been badly confused."

God, thought Rick, no wonder Andrew had said you don't cry over a
dog, if you weren't allowed to cry over your brother. He thought
of the weekly phone calls Andrew made home, his voice always gentle
when he spoke to his mother. Deeply disturbed, his anxiety about
Andrew's whereabouts only increased.

Seeing how upset Rick was, Lily leaned over and took his hand, "A
little patience, honey. He's a good boy, his parents are good
people and they loved him very much. Sometimes it takes a little
while to find your way home again."

Rick nodded, unable to speak. They sat in silence while they
finished their coffee.

"Do you want me to stay until he comes home? I don't
mind," offered Lily.

"No. I'm sure he'll be here soon," replied Rick,
trying to sound confident.

After his mother left, Rick sat on the veranda, thoughts of how
he'd pushed Andrew to deal with his loss, tormenting him. One of
his dogs approached him, nuzzling at his hand, demanding to be
petted. He absently stroked the soft fur of his dog's head,
wondering if things would ever be the same between them or if his
partner had retreated emotionally from him for good.

Startled when the dog under his hand started to bark, Rick looked up
to see the distant shape of a man on horseback, crossing the field.
Relief washed over him, so strong it left him weak-kneed and shaky.
Standing up, he watched as they drew closer, scared to take his eyes
off them, in case they disappeared Unable to remain still, he
started to walk towards his approaching partner, the need to make
sure he was unharmed, overwhelming.

His face was grey with exhaustion; his body slumped over the saddle
horn so far his head almost touched the horse's neck, Andrew made
a feeble attempt at a grin, patting the horse's flank,
"He's all broke, now." Indeed the horse hardly looked
capable of trotting, let alone bucking anymore.

Rick lifted his arms and Andrew reached out to him, letting himself
be half-dragged down from the saddle. Once on his feet, he
staggered from fatigue and the stiffness in his muscles but his
first thoughts were for the horse, "He needs to be brushed
down." Rick nodded, "I'll see to it." Taking the
reins in one hand, his other under Andrew's arm, supporting him,
they made their way slowly to the barn. "Go and shower,"
ordered Rick softly, pushing Andrew towards the house. "I'll
take care of the horse." With his muscles somewhat loosened,
Andrew made his way slowly to the house.

Working quickly, Rick fed and watered the tired horse, grooming him
as efficiently as possible. As soon as he was done, he went to the
house to check on his partner. Stripped to his boxers, Andrew was
sitting on the closed lid of the toilet, shivering and waiting for
the tub to fill. "I thought it might be easier to have a
bath," he said awkwardly, not wanting to admit he was too
unsteady to stand in the shower.

Nodding, Rick reached over to turn off the taps before the tub
overflowed. Unsure if Andrew wanted his company, he turned to leave
the bathroom but was stopped by his partner's hand on his arm.
"Can you help me, please?" he asked shyly.

"Of course," answered Rick, surprised at Andrew's
request. The most private and self-reliant of men, he'd never
asked for Rick's help before. Gently he eased Andrew to his feet
and stripped off his underwear before assisting him into the tub.
Sinking into the hot water, Andrew couldn't stifle the loud groan
of pleasure as his muscles reacted to the heat. "Oh God, that
feels good. I'm half-frozen."

Picking up a washcloth, Rick knelt beside the tub to wash his
partner's back, "Where did you go?" he asked, his voice
hoarse with emotion. He felt the shrug of Andrew's shoulders
under his soothing hands, "I dunno."

Deciding it wasn't important where he'd been, Rick let it go,
continuing to gently wash Andrew. It was a surprisingly satisfying
to intimately touch his lover in this way, his touch comforting, not
sexual. He added more hot water before getting to his feet,
"I'm going to warm you up some soup, Andy. You must be
starving."

"I am," he admitted reluctantly and sank back into the water
to soak some more.

Not wanting Andrew to fall asleep in the tub, he prepared a simple
meal, heating the soup and slicing some of his mother's bread.
But by the time he went back to get Andrew his eyes were already
half-closed and he was fighting to stay awake. Trying to coax him
out of the tub was difficult but Rick lured him with promises of
fresh bread and Andrew's stomach growled loudly in response.

Dressed in t-shirt and sweats he followed Rick to the kitchen. When
Rick placed the food in front of him though, Andrew's eyes filled
with tears and he opened his mouth to speak. "It's
okay," Rick said gently. "Eat first." Ravenous, Andrew
choked down half a loaf of bread along with his bowl of soup before
pushing away the empty dishes and resting his head on the table.
Then exhausted with his full stomach adding to his fatigue, he was
able to slur the words, "I'm sorry," before falling fast
asleep, his head pillowed on his arms.

Sighing, Rick finally let himself feel the full extent of his relief
at having Andrew home safe. Reaching out he rested his hand on the
back of Andrew's head, gently stroking the thick waves of the
sleeping man's hair. Knowing he wouldn't be able to carry
his partner up the stairs he went to make a bed for him on the
couch. He lifted Andrew's dead weight with some difficulty,
although smaller than Rick he was still a muscular young man, but he
managed to carry him the short distance to the living room without
waking him. Settling him on the soft couch, he covered Andrew with
a blanket before sinking onto the other couch to watch him sleep.
The stress of the day wearing him out, Rick quickly followed his
partner, falling deeply asleep despite sitting upright.

When he woke he was surprised to see Andrew sitting up, carefully
watching him. "Are you all right?" asked Rick, stretching
his stiff muscles.

Andrew nodded, his eyes ducking downwards to avoid Rick's
questioning gaze. Swallowing hard, he spoke so quietly that Rick
had to strain to hear him, "I'm sorry," he started before
trailing off briefly and then beginning again, "Sorry for
worrying you today."

"I was worried, Andy. Why did you take off like that?" asked
Rick, caught between hurt and bewilderment.

Shrugging, Andrew kept his eyes resolutely downcast. He drew a
shaky breath before picking up the paddle that was on the coffee
table in front of him, unnoticed by Rick. Wordlessly he held it out
to his partner.

Totally confused now, Rick looked at him in astonishment. "You
want me to punish you?" he asked.

"No," admitted Andrew ruefully. "I don't want' to
be punished." He paused to take a deep breath, obviously
gathering his nerve again, "I deserve it though."

"Why?" Rick demanded. There was no way in hell he was going
to punish Andrew if it was some misguided guilt-trip about his dog
dying.

"Because I left my cell phone at home, even though I'm always
supposed to take it if I'm going for a ride," explained
Andrew reasonably. "And I didn't tell you where I was going,
and I rode off on a horse that wasn't fully broke…"

"Enough," said Rick dryly, holding up a hand to halt the
litany of sins that were pouring out. It was patently obvious to
him that Andrew HAD been trying to provoke him, but he'd been
wrong about the purpose behind his defiance. Andrew wasn't
testing his authority, but himself when he left this morning. His
own ability to be vulnerable, which had been demonstrated so clearly
the night before, was what he was confirming.

Punishing his lover right now was about the last thing he wanted to
do but Rick considered the gift of trust that Andrew was offering
and knew to refuse it would be cruel. "All right," he said
firmly, reaching out for the paddle. "Come here."

Hesitantly, Andrew approached Rick, placing the small wooden
implement in his outstretched hand. He stood still when Rick hooked
his thumbs in the waistband of his sweats, pulling them down to his
knees. Drawing Andrew over his lap, Rick asked him, "What's
this for, Andy?" wanting to be perfectly clear why he was being
punished.

His eyelashes already glistening with tears, Andrew looked over his
shoulder, making eye contact for the first time, "Leaving my cell
phone at home, not telling you where I was going, riding a horse
that wasn't safe," he gasped out in an almost incoherent
stream.

"That's right, Andrew," Rick encouraged him gently.
"I'm spanking you because you weren't safe." He
rested his calloused hand on Andrew's defenseless bottom, feeling
it clench in anticipation. Andrew flinched at the sharp sting as
Rick's hand connected with skin but stayed stoic through the
brief hand spanking Rick meted out. When he switched to the paddle,
Andrew struggled harder to contain his reactions to the more intense
pain. Measured, firm swats made contact with already sore flesh,
making his resistance a futile gesture. All too soon, he was
voicing his protests and then pleas as Rick continued the
punishment. When he was sobbing freely Rick stopped, resting the
paddle on Andrew's fiery bottom, "I love you, Andy. I
don't want anything to happen to you. Understand?"

"Yes, yes sir," he cried out, desperately hoping the spanking
was over.

Dropping the paddle on the floor, Rick lifted Andrew to hold against
his chest, feeling his shudder of relief. Immediately lying down on
the couch, he arranged Andrew so he sprawled half on top of him.
His arms wound around his partner's neck Andrew sobbed without
restraint, Rick's heavy hand rubbing soothing lines down his back.

"I'm sorry," he sniffed, when he his crying had died down.

"I know. It's over now," said Rick, kissing his temple
softly.

"Do you still have Nikki's collar?"

"Yes, it's still in my coat pocket," Rick assured him.
"Do you want me to get it for you?"

"No, not right now," Andrew declined, tightening his hold on
Rick again, obviously not wanting to let go. "I just
wondered." He lapsed into quiet thought for a moment before
speaking again, "I'm glad I have something to remind me of
her. Thank you for keeping it for me."

Knowing the significance behind Andrew's gratitude, Rick said
thickly, "You're welcome."

His attitude lightening, Andrew gave a quiet snort, "You should
have seen that crazy horse this morning. He took off running as
soon as we were out of the corral. Didn't stop until we hit the
river."

Rick smiled at the mental image of Andrew flying over the fields, on
a horse hell-bent-for-leather. "Well, he seems like he's
broke in now."

Andrew laughed quietly, "Oh yeah."

"Well, don't get any ideas that's the way we're going
to start breaking all the horses," Rick teased.

"No problem there," Andrew said ruefully.

The End