(with many, many thanks to Dizzy for the beta!)
Ben gritted his teeth when he heard another cupboard door bang in the kitchen. Whatever had the poor doors done to be treated this way?
After his visit with Dora yesterday, Joey had been quieter than usual. It set Ben's inner Joey-in-distress-alert off. Since then Ben had kept a very close eye on his partner.
Today Joey sulked, stomped, glared and only answered in one or two word sentences. His behavior seriously grated on Ben's nerves.
Ben had hoped sending him into the kitchen to prepare something for lunch would help Joey to calm down as it often did wonders for Joey's temperament. Instead he had listened to a bitchy rant until he stopped it with the threat to wash Joey's mouth out. Joey had relented, turned and stalked into the kitchen.
Ben tried to ignore the clashing sounds of pots, crockery and whatever else Joey slammed around. Normally Joey would talk to him, especially when he knew Ben needed the quietness to grade his students' papers. Joey might be on the impulsive side but he usually had a firm grip on his emotions when necessary. He never acted so inconsiderate, which only increased Ben's worry.
His concentration long gone, Ben gave up on correcting the papers when another loud clash, immediately followed by the crashing sounds of splintering crockery and a stream of curses, occurred. Taking a few seconds to steel himself for the oncoming argument, he focused on breathing in and out deeply.
With a last deep sigh, he got up and walked toward the kitchen. There, he watched Joey sweep the last splinters on a dustpan. Angry red spots appeared on Joey's cheeks as he straightened up, discovering Ben. He quickly dumped the content of the dustpan into the bin, put the pan into its usual place and washed his hands at the sink.
“Come on, start it.”
“Start what, sweetheart?”
Joey whirled around, his large dark eyes blazing. “Your lecture of course! And don't sweetheart me!”
Ben counted inwardly to five, still wondering what had caused Joey to spin like this. He crooked a finger at his lover, beckoning him to come closer. “Joey, I believe we need to talk, don't you?”
“No, I don't.”
Ben bit hard on his inner cheek. Damn the brat! “Okay, let me word this differently. Joey, come here. We're going to talk about what's got you upset.”
“I'm not upset. You sent me to the kitchen to make lunch, and being such a good boy that's where I am, heeding your word. Now, if you excuse me, I'd like to get on with it!” Joey snapped, his voice laden with exasperation. He turned back to the counter, reaching for the knife on the cutting board.
Joey's hand jerked away from the knife. “What?”
Momentarily, Ben was too stunned to react. Open defiance? Seriously? Something bad was going on and he needed to get to the bottom of it. Right now. Gathering his wits, he phrased his next statement in the hopes of getting through to a part of Joey that mostly operated subconsciously. “I told you to come to me and I expect you to obey me.”
The demand of obedience went deep, and at last Joey turned around and took a few tentative steps toward Ben. The older man waited patiently, letting Joey set the pace. It also allowed him to survey his lover closely. Whole body posture tense—check. Lips pressed together into a tight line—check. Hands stuffed into his pockets—check. Zero eye contact—check. Conclusion: Joey in full-blown spin.
When Joey was close enough, Ben cupped his face in his hands, needing the physical contact to gauge how bad Joey felt. The younger man didn't look up, didn't speak, merely radiated misery and anger in equal proportions.
“Joey, look at me.”
Slowly, Joey lifted his eyes. In a clipped tone he said, “There is nothing to talk about. May I go back and make lunch now?”
Ben shook his head. “Nice try but no. Come on, we'll get comfortable and you can tell me what's going on.”
Ben slid his hands off Joey's face, took one of Joey's hands in his own and tugged. For a moment he thought it would be easy—Joey would go with him, permit Ben to help him out of whatever turmoil he was in. The moment passed too quickly for Ben's liking.
Joey slipped from Ben's grasp, hastily stepping backwards, his eyes again hefted onto the floor. “No.”
“No!” Joey's anger flared to life anew. “What exactly is it that you don't understand about the word no?”
Ben's patience had been worn thin before but right now the last thread ruptured. Pointing at the spot in front of him, he said in a cool tone, “Joseph. Now.”
Ben strode over to Joey, determination clearly visible on his face. The younger man backed up until his back hit the counter, staring wide-eyed at Ben. Suddenly he surprised Ben with a mad dash to the other side of the kitchen and ran from the room. Ben heard the bedroom door slam shut, which could only mean one thing—Joey was going to shift.
Ben hurried after his partner but was too late. Upon entering their bedroom, Ben saw the heap of clothes where Joey had left them. Stooping to gaze underneath their bed, Ben was greeted by a small, black-furred head with large, dark eyes gazing at him. “Sweeatheart, we--”
Don't sweetheart me!
“That's enough now!” Ben barked.
Damn right, it is!
Too surprised, Ben could only watch Joey sliding out of his hiding space and run away. Oh dear! It was chase-the-puppy-day! Why did he fall in love with a man who could shift into an animal? Especially one so cute and well aware of his effect on Ben? How was one supposed to stay mad for long at a puppy?
Ben sighed, stood and went to chase Joey. The puppy ran whenever Ben approached him. It took Ben more than half an hour to corner Joey and lock him into their bathroom. Joey howled his protest, his nails scratching from the inside at the door.
“Joey, you know how I feel about you shifting when you want to avoid a talk or punishment. If I let you out, will you shift back so we can talk?” Ben asked through the door.
There is nothing to talk! What's the problem with you?
“I take that as a no then?”
I shift when I want to, not when you say so. And just for the record, I'm not talking to you anymore. You locked me up!
“Have it your way.”
Ben walked back to their bedroom where he retrieved the small blue harness he had bought years ago. In the beginning of their relationship Joey often had shifted as an avoidance tactic. It had been much better for a long time but lately Joey had fallen back into his old pattern. Time to do something drastic about it.
Walking back to the bathroom Ben winced. If Joey kept up the frantic scratching neither Joey's paws nor the door would survive this incident; though the door was probably in dire need of a general overhaul anyway. Ben knew just the man to do the work, right after he got said man to shift into someone with hands instead of paws...
Ben braced himself before he hurriedly opened the door, squeezed himself through the gap without allowing Joey to slip into freedom. Catching Joey was a hard job even when the space was so limited.
Eventually, Ben managed to grab Joey and fumble the harness on him despite Joey's screeching and pleading. Ben was drenched in sweat when the harness was successfully fastened. “You want to be a puppy? That's okay with me. Tell me when you're ready to talk and I'll take the harness off.”
What? You can't do that! Get it of me!
Ben tugged at the leash, gaining him another squeal of protest from Joey. The puppy's paws found no purchase on the smooth wooden floor, no matter how much he scrabbled around. Joey fell onto his belly several times, whining and barking like mad each time he stumbled. Ben feared that Joey would hurt himself and lifted the puppy in his arms.
Ben carried the squirming puppy to his desk, put him on the floor and tied the leash at the foot of his chair. Taking his pen Ben began to correct the paper in front of him. For mere seconds Joey remained silent, probably too baffled by Ben's handling of the situation.
Ben! Get this thing of me! You can't do this!
“Are you ready to talk?”
There is nothing to talk! Untie me! Now!
Ben tuned Joey's words out as best as he could. Really—why did the shape shifting have to come with telepathy? As much as he liked it usually, right now it was hellishly annoying.
You think forcing me to stay a puppy will get me to talk? Fine! See how you'll like it if I act like a pup!
Alarmed, Ben looked down. Joey jumped on the high stack of already graded papers, knocking them over. Ben called Joey's name but the puppy was on a roll. Joey jumped on a stack of ungraded papers, toppling it over as well.
Disbelievingly, Ben blinked. It would take an hour to sort all the papers back into order. Joey sat in the middle of the chaos he'd caused, with his head held high and a defiant look in his eyes.
“You want to play pup? All right, sweetheart.”
Ben picked up a paper, rolled it and turned back to the puppy. Joey jumped to his feet, trying to put more space between him and Ben. The older man crouched in front of the puppy, slid one hand underneath his belly and aimed to bring down the rolled up paper.
Joey lunged forward, snarling and panting. He dug his baby teeth into Ben's jeans, tugging and shaking.
Ben's disbelief deepened into unknown territory. Whatever the hell was going on—it would end here and now! Ben grabbed the puppy tightly and landed the rolled up paper several times on Joey's behind.
Joey let go of Ben's jeans, howling more in frustration than out of pain. Wiggling frantically he tried climbing up on Ben's arms, anything to get away from the heat inducing implement.
Ben! Ben, stop! Please!
Ben set the paper aside, held the puppy securely in both hands in front of his face and glared. “This is one spectacular tantrum, sweetheart. Really impressive.”
Joey's eyes widened, reaching almost saucer-like size. Ben got to his feet, the now limp puppy in his arms to show him the mess on the floor. “Thank you for that.”
Joey's floppy ears sagged and his tail vanished between his hind legs. He cast a soulful look at Ben before he apologized softly. I'm sorry, Ben. May I... may I shift now?
“Not yet. You'll stay here with me while I sort the papers. When I'm done with it, I'll get the harness off you and we'll talk. Is that understood?”
Ben pushed papers aside so he had a free spot for himself on the floor. Settling cross-legged on the floor, he started sorting the papers. Joey sat next to him, darting uncertain glances at him every then and now. During the next minutes Joey scooted marginally closer to Ben until he could rest his head on Ben's thigh. When Ben didn't push Joey away, the puppy grew bolder.
Another few minutes later, Joey's fore paws joined his head. By then Ben had calmed down enough to have his anger and disappointment under control. He pulled Joey onto his lap, helped him to curl up in a small ball of shiny black fur, petting him every so often.
Almost an hour later, the papers were stacked in the correct order and Joey was fast asleep. Ben gave up on his papers, realizing his partner's needs were top priority at the moment.
Getting up from the floor, he muttered about his creaking knees. He headed for their bedroom, where he settled on the bed, pondering about what could have upset Joey this badly. Nothing came to his mind. He stared at the puppy on his belly, one of his arms curled protectively around the curve of the pup's spine. With his thoughts wandering, Ben dozed off.
When he woke up, it was to a cold nose nudging him. Sleepily, Ben pulled gently at one of Joey's long ears, then scratched the flesh behind it. “Hey, sweetheart.”
Hey Ben. May I shift now?
“Are you done with the tantrum?”
Ben rubbed the sleep from his eyes, sat up straight and unfastened the harness. Immediately, Joey shifted back into his human form, an action that still caused Ben to gasp softly.
“I'm sorry, Ben.”
Ben held out his arms in an open invitation. Hesitantly, Joey crawled to him. He let out a long-drawn sigh when Ben's arms enveloped him in a crushing hug. Firmly, Ben demanded, “Tell me.”
Joey swallowed and shivered but stayed silent. Ben slid one hand to Joey's ass, tapping warningly. Joey squirmed closer to his lover, his ass muscles tensing up. “It's not fair for me to be naked.”
“You don't have to use my full name so often. Are you... you're going to spank me, aren't you?”
“We'll talk about that later.”
“No, sweetheart. Who makes the decisions around here?”
Joey pushed up on Ben's chest, locking eyes before he answered, “You do. Oh God, I'll never be able to sit down again. I'm so sorry.”
“I won't ask you again, so spill.”
Joey lowered himself back onto Ben's chest, his hands clutching the hem of Ben's shirt. “I... Dora showed me some documents yesterday. She... she has some kidney problems and might be admitted to the hospital in the near future. She wanted me to promise her I'd pull the plug in case she was on life support systems. Can you believe this? How can she ask me to kill her? I told her I won't do it and she was mad at me. Like really mad.”
Oh God. No wonder Joey was melting down. Dora had been and still was one of the most important people in Joey's life. Joey didn't need her as much as he had needed her when they first met but she was a significant person in his life. One, Joey didn't want to lose.
“You're her emergency contact and the one to make the decision in case she can't anymore. I'd say it's a great honor that she's trusting you with her life.”
“She wants me to kill her!”
“No, that's not what she wants. To me it sounds as if she wants to die with her dignity intact. I doubt she'd like to spend years in a hospital or hospice, merely kept alive by machines,” Ben reasoned.
Joey didn't comment but Ben knew he was listening. His breathing came in less jerky gasps and the death-hold on Ben's shirt lessened.
“She's not asking you to euthanize her, sweetheart. Dora would never ask such a thing of you, she knows how much you love her.”
“But I don't want to make the decision.” Joey's voice trembled before a strangled sob tore free. Ben pulled the comforter over Joey's naked form, cradled his lover even closer and occasionally pressed kisses on the tousled hair.
Ben held Joey for a long time, keenly aware of Joey's body language. His earlier anger about Joey's behavior had vanished completely and made place for sympathy and the urgent wish to somehow help his partner. Unfortunately, the only thing Ben could do was to be here, to be willing to listen and comfort him.
“What else did she say?” Ben asked.
Joey curled his legs around Ben's waist, probably in an attempt to crawl inside Ben. The older man gave Joey's ass a firm tap.
“I didn't listen. She... I didn't want to hear any more. I was... ah damn, you want me to go back and try to understand where she comes from, don't you?”
“Yes, I think that's a very good idea. You might want to wear some clothes though.”
Joey lifted his head from Ben's chest, allowing Ben a good look at his lover's face. Joey hadn't cried—not yet at least—but his eyes were red-rimmed and his complexion nearly translucent. Ben pulled his hands out from underneath the comforter and cupped Joey's face. Brushing his thumbs over Joey's cheekbones, he lifted his head a few inches to kiss Joey with as much tenderness as he could muster.
“Aren't you going to spank me for, uh, my creative approach at ordering your students papers?”
Ben laughed. “Creative approach, huh? I have to admit I was pretty mad at you but given the circumstances I don't believe a spanking is what you need. Or am I wrong?”
Joey hurriedly shook his head.
“But, just to be clear, if you choose to avoid talking or facing the consequences of your actions again by shifting in your puppy form I'll put the harness back on you. The next time it will be for a whole day.”
Joey blanched. “But Ben! You know I can only shift under extreme pain and with great effort if I'm wearing anything.”
“Oh believe me; I'm very aware of this fact. Do you understand what I told you?”
“Yeah,” Joey offered reluctantly. “I just didn't know how to talk to you without flipping.”
“You flipped anyway.” Ben took the sting out of his words by adding, “Anyone would have flipped, sweetheart. Come on, get some clothes on and go over to Dora. Tell her how you feel about this arrangement and listen to her, okay?”
Joey pecked Ben's cheek before climbing off the bed in search of his clothes. Ben watched him dress, noticing the trembling hands and wobbling legs. When Joey was dressed, Ben got up, wrapped his arms around his lover and said, “I'll be here. If you need me, come and get me.”
Joey turned in Ben's arms to kiss him, and then sucked in a deep breath.
“I'm afraid,” Joey admitted.
“I'm sure Dora is afraid too.”
Joey's eyes widened in surprise. “I feel so bad about leaving her without really listening.”
“I know but you were taken by surprise and scared. Dora will understand. Now go and talk to her.”
Ben pushed Joey into the direction of the door. Hesitantly, Joey walked over but stopped on the threshold. “Can we talk about this when I come back?”
“Of course. Actually, I think I'm going to insist on that.”
Relief shone brightly in Joey's eyes. “Love you.”
“Love you too, sweetheart. Now go.”
Joey nodded and left their apartment. Ben couldn't help but peer through the peephole. Dora opened the door, immediately took Joey's hands in her own and pulled him into an embrace. Ben smiled—those two would figure it out, no matter how painful it was going to be for both of them.