Saturday, February 6, 2010

Beyond the Call


Title: Beyond the Call
Authors: Rolf and Ranger

The rehearsal was grinding through it's pre show routine of lighting cues, wirings, microphones failing to work, introductions and staging routines without any real singing or performance getting done. Luke stepped over a tangle of wires and two stagehands trying to organise them, and reached Val who was twirling slowly round and round on the piano stool, waiting yet again for the lighting rigs to get the right light on him for this song. Usually by this time Val was ricocheting off the wall, screeching at everyone and threatening, if not actually storming out. This afternoon he looked too tired to care much. Luke pushed his hair off his forehead, half wondering if he had a temperature. To him, Val had been looking pale and fragile for days now.

"Kitten? I've got to go and check the new hotel over, Clark's on duty if you need anything."

Val didn't answer, just nodded. Luke took advantage of the chaos going on around them to crouch in front of him, hands on his knees.

"Are you okay? You look shattered."

"Headachy. The mikes have been screaming ever since they got the power going." Val flinched again as someone dropped a piece of scaffolding behind them. "It won't take long, we'll run through a few of the songs in a minute."

"You could do this concert in your sleep." Luke hesitated, still not happy. "Do you want to come with me? I'll check this place out and you can get a few hours to lie down before tonight."

"I'm fine." Val tried to summon up a smile and more or less managed it. "You go, I'll be fine once they stop crashing and banging. And there's some things I need to go over before tonight. Go on."


"Are you sure?"

"Sure."

Luke brushed his forehead with a rough, discreet kiss as he stood. "I think we're going away this weekend. You need a few days out of here."

"You'd make someone a wonderful wife." Val said behind him. Luke gave him a grin over his shoulder and swung himself down off the stage to head for the exit. Val dragged himself together and tried to read the music that was jumping in front of his eyes.

After four concerts a week for three months, five some weeks, he was exhausted. The energy that possessed him in each concert, now vanished with a vengeance an hour or two after the end and left him more and more drained with each show.

Spotlights flashed on in from the lighting rig, piercing his eyes and making him wince. Someone shouted from the floor, demanding to know if he was ready to test the sound levels again. Val got up, more than willing to take the chance to run the musicians through the paces. The band quickly collected together, took their cue and they launched into one of their less well practised songs. Val waved them to a halt at the point it went wrong, found a pencil and began to try to explain the music to yet another stand-in keyboard player. Half the musicians had gone for rests and holidays during this everlasting tour, they were playing with new instrumentalists nightly. The lights changed constantly as the teams tested new lights, blinding one minute, creating darkness the next. The heat radiated off the lights, contrasting with the chill emanating from the frosty stadium. Val shivered as he walked back to centre stage and collected yet another microphone which screamed as he picked it up.

"One more time. Watch me for the changes."

The musicians counted in and began to play. Val waited for his cue, shaking the microphone cable into place. His hands felt like lead. The lights seemed to be buzzing louder and louder and the heat pouring down from the spots were unbearable. Val was vaguely aware of the mike slipping from his hands. He didn't realise he'd fainted until he found himself with his head on someone's knee. Mick Henson's voice was above him, shouting for water. Val struggled upright, accepted the bottle of water pushed into his hands and drank deeply, trying to get the buzzing out of his ears. Henson hooked an arm around his shoulders and helped him to his feet.

"Are you allright? You went down like a tree then, you look like a bloody ghost-"

"Just the heat of the lights. Sorry." Val pushed Henson off, shook some of the water into his hands and splashed it over his face. Henson planted his hands on his hips, still anxious.

"You ought to go somewhere and sit down for bit. You look terrible."

"I'll be fine." Val handed the water back and fixed the team with the Cross Me If You Dare look.

"If anyone tells Luke about this….. it could be worth your job. I mean that. He's got enough on his plate. This was only a dizzy spell."

Mutters. Val waved at the lighting team who were leaning over the edge of the gantry to watch the drama, and headed for his dressing room. In there, in the cool and privacy, Val dropped into a chair and flopped over the table, head on his arms. He felt like hell. Sick, dizzy. And he'd been feeling lousy for some days. It was getting hard to keep from Luke just how little he could actually eat- Val was keeping the secret as best he could, aware that once his bodyguard cottoned on he was likely to find himself dragged to the nearest GP in this city and life would get complicated. The rap at the door made Val sit back, gathering himself with all the speed he could. He relaxed a little at the fat, suited man in the doorway.

"Max. Come in."

"I came to see how you were." The agent shut the door and came to take the opposite chair, dropping a heavy hand on Val's shoulder as he passed. "I saw what happened on stage."

"I'm fine." Val said automatically. Max lifted an eyebrow.

"Are you?"

"No." Val admitted. "I feel like hell Max. I don't think I've slept in two weeks. All I think about all night is the bloody songs- its like I spend all night doing another concert, I'm going over and over the words and the cues and the lighting scripts. Maybe I need a break, I don't know."

"You're kidding aren't you?" Max said jovially. "This is where things get really big! You're right on the threshold here, Orion's thrilled with you! We've got to keep the pressure up, keep you travelling!"

"But I'm so tired, Max."

Max looked at Val, realizing with an unpleasant jolt that what he said was true. He took out his calendar, making a show of reading it through.

"Alright Val. Let's see. Hmmmmmmm. Oh here, right here." Max showed the calendar to Val. "Yes, you can take those three days off right there. I'll pencil it in right now. Want me to make any reservations for you?"

"Max! That's two months away!"

"I know, but you're booked until then. We can't change the whole concert schedule because you're tired. And you always get energized for the concert itself, I've seen you do it. There are too many people counting on you Val, to live up to this schedule. Think how many people lose their jobs if you stopped working even for a few days? You know I'd change it if I could, right?"

Val pondered that for a moment, too tired to think. "Yeah, I guess so. But what if....what if I faint on stage? What will people think then? The publicity....." Val trailed off.

Max's phone rang.

"Henson. Just a moment."

Max got up and ruffled Val's hair. "I've got to take this call. You'll do fine Val, I have faith in you my boy. Just try to relax between the concerts, the vacation will be here before you know it." He walked out, softly closing the dressing room door behind him.

Val collapsed back down on the dressing room table, unsure of how to keep Luke from blowing a fuse should he find out how really run down he was.

Max finished up his phone conversation and headed out to lunch. Val's last comment had him seriously worried. He had to figure out a way to keep his star going on the schedule they had, it was making him a rich man.

As he situated himself at a table in a posh restaurant, a thought crossed his mind. Tony. Tony could give him something to help energize Val. It wouldn't be the first public figure they'd bailed out. He picked up the phone and dialed.

The rehearsal appeared to be continuing without Val. Luke came in through the stage door and saw one of the stage hands, jeaned and t shirted, standing in Val's place, hands in his pockets and a bored look on his face while the lights were altered around him. Good. If the music was set up and organised, then Val was out of here for a couple of hours. Luke edged around total chaos going on backstage and went down to Val's dressing room. He found the star of the show asleep over his dressing table, head down on his arms. Val glanced up at the hand on his shoulder, blinking until he focused.

"Luke. You're early."

"I take it you're done?"

"Not quite. There's a few more-"

"The answer was yes, kitten." Luke picked his car keys up off the table, collected Val's personal possessions and pulled him to his feet. "You're out of here until seven tonight."

"Luke I've got a million-" Val found himself talking to the corridors, walked towards the car park at a speed beyond arguing with. Luke paused in the doorway to grab a stage hand.

"Find Henson and tell him Val's gone, will you? We'll be back by seven."

"Gotcha Luke." the stage hand looked curiously at Val, but said nothing further. Val thanked God, following Luke towards the still battered, still unfashionable truck he refused to trade in for something more appropriate. If Val didn't know better, he would have suspected his bodyguard had some sort of attachment to the old rust bucket.

"What's the hotel like?"

"Ugly, over sized, over furnished and completely over the top. You'll love it." Luke flipped the locks and watched Val get in. "I spoke to your father an hour ago. We can have the London house over the weekend. Just get away from the crew and hotels and schedules for a few hours. We can go up late Saturday night and we don't need to be back here until Monday morning."

"It's just more hassle." Val leaned against the door as Luke pulled out of the carpark. Luke glanced across at him, concerned but keeping his voice light.

"What hassle? I'll drive. I'll even pack. All you need to do is sleep and laze around once we get there. Right up your street."

That raised a faint smile. The hotel suite was the same as a hundred other hotel suites they'd stayed in. Val headed straight for the bar, got a hand on the door and was interrupted by a firm swat from behind.

"You'll find water over there. Lots of it."

Val didn't argue. He flopped down on the overstuffed sofa and reached for the clipboard laid out on the table. "I see Diane's already been. Interviews. Another tv show next month-"

Luke heard the crash of the clipboard tossed down. "Do I even get consulted about any of this?"

"You've got the right to say no." Luke paused by the phone, picked it up and listened, frowning.

"I haven't." Val said, oblivious. "Orion insists due to the publicity. I'm denying them money if I turn down publicity- what's the matter?"

"No dial tone." Luke put it down. "Stay put, I'll talk to maintenance downstairs."

"I'm not going anywhere."

Except to the bar the minute the door closed behind Luke. Val nearly went through the roof as the door opened a few seconds later, but it was Max's head that appeared.


"Val? Henson said you'd taken the afternoon off. Not actually sure you ought to be sneaking hours off like this with a show tonight, but I won't say anything!"

"Good. Care for a drink?"

"Never pass one up!" Max said jovially as he crossed the floor over to the counter. "You're looking better than you did earlier today."

"Really, hadn't had time to notice." Val poured both of them a strong shot of bourbon, splashed in a little water, then set Max's glass down in front of him, before throwing back his drink in two swallows. "Ah, the pause that refreshes."

Max watched in silence as Val rinsed the glass, dried it off, and put it back in the cupboard.

"Didn't know you were so domesticated."

"That's what happens when you're followed around by a gorilla." Val said laughing.

"Speaking of gorillas, where is Luke?"

"Maintenance, the phone wasn't working."

"Good. I had a little something I wanted to talk to you about, without being interrupted. Come on over to the couch, let me show you something." Max ambled over to the couch, Val trailing behind.

"What is it Max? Another day off? Now THAT would be a surprise."

Max took the opening. "Now Val, you know you can't take any more time off than is already scheduled. It just won't do. But I have something that should help you. I've used it myself on occasion, and most of my clients use or have used these. It's a simple, easy and effective drug that can help you re energize." Max took out a small bag with a couple dozen small white pills in it. "These are tiny, but pack a powerful punch. You take one when you're feeling down, and within just a few minutes you'll get your second wind."

"What are they?" Val flipped one over in his palm, frowning. "Speed?"

"Nothing so dramatic. You could get it on prescription if you went to see a doctor."

Val pulled a face. Max gripped his shoulder.

"Don't look so suspicious! Would I give you anything dodgy? I've taken these myself when I'm under pressure, it's just a little something to keep you going over a tough patch. No different to taking vitamins or those herbal sleeping pills. Why don't I leave them with you? You can keep them for when you need them, just see if they help."

"Maybe.." Val said doubtfully. Max got up.

"Good lad. I can't stop. Oh and I'd put them out of sight. Can't imagine McNeil would approve."

No, Luke would certainly not approve. Max shut the door behind him. Val surveyed the pills, rolling them around. For a minute, he had every intention of dropping them straight into the waste paper basket. Except as he looked at them, he started to have doubts. Eventually he got up and went to his suitcase, slipping them deep into the side pocket. Maybe they'd be useful things to keep around for emergencies. No different really to a strong cup of coffee. Just a pick-me-up.

Val began to wander and once more to go over and over the words of the songs on the list for the concert tonight.

The afternoon was a washout. Val was too strung up to sleep and the skies opened after a lunch Val had no intention of eating. He managed to get room service in and out successfully while Luke was in the shower as Luke tended to be picky about him skipping meals, but in this weather not even Luke could be persuaded into a long walk. Or to returning to the arena. Val flopped around the sitting room for what felt like eternity, half watching tv that made his fingers curl with boredom.

"I refuse to be a prisoner here!" he eventually snapped at Luke. "I'm going back to the damn rehearsals, I've got things to do!"

"Val, I don't think that's a good idea." Luke said patiently.  "You're just over tired. You need to rest."

"I can't rest! I'm going stir crazy here. Do I need to call a taxi, or are you driving me?"

"You are NOT going by yourself mister. Don't even think of it." Luke got up and walked to Val. He placed a hand on his chin and raised his face up. "We'll go back, but you must promise me to take it easy."

"If you want something to mother, buy a cat," Val snapped, flinging his hand away. Luke's hand snapped up and caught his wrist.

"Now listen. If you want to go anywhere at all you get a handle on yourself and calm down. Otherwise you're going to find yourself facing a wall or in bed until I say it's time we leave."

"Go and fuck yourself McNeil."

Val wrenched himself free, snatched up the first thing that came to hand and hurled it. Luke ducked the missile and walked towards him, lips compressed. Val's second choice of missile was pulled out of his hand, Luke gripped his wrists and steered him through the sitting room and into the bedroom, oblivious to Val's wrenching and swearing. Once there, he drew the blinds and pulled the covers back.

"Bed. Now. If you're tired enough to act like this you need all the extra sleep you can get."

Val opened his mouth. Luke caught his eye and drowned him out.

"Strip."

"Go to hell." Val folded his arms and glowered at Luke. Luke actually looked anything but angry which was still more annoying. "What are you going to do McNeil? Sit and watch me? I'm going back to the arena."

"You're not, Quentin." Luke said mildly. "You had that option, you decided against it remember? You must have had your reasons. And if you throw one more thing at me, you're going to regret it I promise you."

Val tried to bustle past Luke but was brought up short by a heavy hand on his neck.

"Damnit, I CAN'T SLEEP!" Val yelled.

Luke pushed Val down on the bed, hands on his shoulders. He had lost the uninterested look and spoke firmly. "I have heard entirely TOO much swearing from you. One more word and I'll wash that mouth out. And I don't care if you can't sleep, you're going to lose those clothes and lie down. ANYTHING but a yes, sir, and the crowd tonight will be dazzled with more than just your rosy face."

Val twisted inside, wanting to say so much, but not wanting to be facing the floor while saying it. Finally he managed a short, biting "Yes, sir." And started to take his shirt off.

Luke stepped back and watched Val as he tore the clothes from his body, totally ticked off at the world. He bit back a smile as he watched Val about bust a blood vessel when his shoelace got knotted until he finally just kicked the shoe off.

Val flopped back down on the bed and pulled the covers up, huffing aloud several times.

He was awakened two hours later by Luke gently rubbing his hand on his face.

"Kitten, time to get going."

Luke had to try several times to get Val out of bed, finally resorting to pulling the covers off and bodily standing Val up.

Val was upset about being awakened, but even more upset when he realized Luke was right all along in that he needed the nap. He managed to make it into the shower, but that didn't wake him up at all. He fussed and fumed the entire time it took him to get ready, never feeling really with it.

Luke was at the door, yelling at him to hurry up.

Val walked towards the door, still feeling like he was walking in a fog. He wasn't going to survive the evening and he knew it now. He was in no state to go anywhere, never mind perform and his only option now was to tell Luke and hope he could stand buffer against Orion and Max and everyone else in the crew who was counting on him to perform. Unless…. Just as Luke stepped outside, Val made the decision that right now would be a perfect time to try one of those tiny pills, see if it couldn't clear the fog.

"Just a sec, I forgot my chain."

He left Luke at the door and quickly grabbed one of the pills, tossing it back with a splash of water from the bathroom. He followed Luke down the hall, hoping the pill at least kept his eyes open.

Forty minutes later Henson came across to Luke, glancing over at Val who was laughing in the middle of a small crowd of stagehands, dancing the Time Warp to someone's radio, amidst the chaos of preparation.

"Oh to be twenty again."

Luke gave him a brief grin but his eyes were on Val. "I know. He's a walking yoyo. Either right up or right down, and nothing in between. This is after just two hours sleep."

"You know he keeled over just before you got back at lunchtime?" Henson said lightly. Luke shot him a sharp look, eyebrows snapping down.

"No. He kept that quiet."

"He issued threats to anyone who told you. Guess with the all the pressure at the moment he's getting pushed a little hard. Obviously these afternoon siestas agree with him."

Luke kept his opinions to himself. The concert as usual flowed like magic. Val might be hard to work with but he was an acknowledged professional once he was actually on stage. He might never have been the same, exhausted youngster flopped asleep over his dressing table that morning. Ten minutes after the end, Luke fought his way downstairs, expecting to find Val on his usual adrenaline high, still in costume and sheer hell to calm down enough to get him out of the arena with anything like dispatch. He was more than slightly surprised to find his lover sitting in a small, white shirted huddle at the foot of the stairs beside his dressing room door, his arms wrapped around his knees and his head down. Luke wondered for a minute if he'd fallen asleep. He sat down beside Val on the cold concrete and put an arm gently over his shoulders. Val turned his head towards him and managed something approximating a smile.

"Hi."

"Hey. What's the matter?" Luke rubbed the limp shoulders under his hand. "That was a great show, you're usually flying about now."

"I've got a headache, that's all."

"Come here." Luke pulled him close and kissed his temple. "Get changed and we'll get out of here. Your work's finished, let everyone else do theirs."

"In a minute." Val's shoulders hunched and he turned his face into his knees again. Luke tried to pull him up and Val twisted away from him, voice rising.

"Damnit I said NO! Just leave me alone for a few!"

"Val what's the matter?" Luke demanded. Val pulled his hands over his face.

"NOTHING! Just leave me alone will you?"

"Not while you're screaming at me, no." Luke got hold of his wrists and pulled them away. "What is this? Post show nerves?"

He expected another earful- Val was usually vitriolic once upset. He was not at all prepared for Val to burst into tears.

Luke dropped Val's hands and pulled the boy into his arms, gently rocking him until the sobs subsided. "Love, that can't be good for the headache. What's the matter? What's gotten you so upset?"

Val mumbled into his chest "I think I'm just tired, that's all." He really didn't want to admit that, but it was better than the alternative, telling Luke he had a splitting headache and was nothing short of shattered. The little "pick me up" pill had worked wonders for the show, it was exactly what he needed. But now he was left feeling completely out of sorts. He couldn't quiet the thoughts racing though his brain at breakneck speeds, couldn't focus on anything for more than a fleeting moment, and was tired beyond belief.

Luke disentangled himself from Val's arms and took a good long look at the face. It was white and drawn save for the redness of the crying. He made a snap decision. He picked Val up and carried him directly out to the truck.

"Give me just a minute to see Henson, then we'll be off."

He got a listless nod of agreement.

It took Luke only ten minutes to wrap up things at the arena before returning to the truck. He found Val snoring gently, head against the window. There was no visible signs of movement as Luke started the truck and drove to the hotel.

Val jerked awake as they reached the hotel carpark. Luke put a hand across to steady him.

"You're all right. Come on, let's get you upstairs and you can go back to sleep."

Val staggered out of the truck and stood shivering. Luke put an arm around his shoulders, increasingly anxious, but by the time they reached the room, Val slipped from under his arm.

"Actually I'm not that tired. I just want a shower and a few hours in front of the box, it's been a hell of a day."

"I'll come with you then-" Luke started to peel off his jacket. Val flinched away from his touch.

"I- I'm better on my own. Just let me settle down a bit Luke, I'm okay."

"Do you want something for the headache?"

Probably mixing aspirin with the- whatever it was- wasn't a good idea. Val agreed to keep Luke quiet, vanished into the bathroom and flushed the aspirin down the sink. Then he locked the door, sat on the bathroom floor and pressed his head against the chill of the tiles.

Never again. Never again would he touch those blasted pills.

It was hell keeping Luke out of his hair for the rest of that evening. Thankfully within an hour or two the effects wore off, Val was once more exhausted and had no problem settling to bed. Sleeping was another matter. Eventually Val slid out of bed, careful not to disturb Luke, and went into the sitting room to turn the tv on very softly.

He was dressed when Luke got up shortly after five. Luke halted in surprise in the doorway of the bedroom.

"What on earth are you doing awake?"

"Too hot to sleep. I couldn't turn the radiator down." Val gave him a faint smile. "I've already eaten. Want me to order you breakfast?"

"I'll have something later. Thought I'd go for a run- didn't know you'd be awake."

"Go, I'll be okay."

"Want to come?" Luke invited. Val's nose wrinkled in a far more familiar gesture.

"It's cold out there and it isn't even LIGHT yet-"

"Okay okay, just stay in the apartment."

"As if anything is open in the real world at this ungodly hour."

"Perfect for running!" Luke said as he closed the door behind him.

Val got up and wandered aimlessly through the apartment, exhausted but unable to sleep. He went over to the suitcase and took out the pills, trying to decide whether to throw them out or keep them. He did feel great when he was onstage, but every hour after that was pure hell. But HOW was he to make it through this day? He couldn't sleep, but he felt like the walking dead. And if something didn't change and soon, Luke was going to mother him to death. His face brightened at an idea. If these drugs were harmless and kept him awake, surely there were drugs that were harmless that would let him sleep! He immediately picked up the phone and dialed Max, not even caring that it wasn't quite yet 6am.

******

Henson saw Luke walk onto the stage at Birmingham and waved to him. Luke shaded his eyes, watching the stage manager set up the lighting rig. Their opening night was only eighteen hours away and this was their third change of venue in a week.

"Mick? Seen Val?"

Henson shrugged. Luke headed backstage, muttering. Something about Val was touching a nerve with him at the moment. The kid was either sky high, bounding around with his normally buoyant spirits driving his bodyguard and lover to screaming point- or he was asleep and harder to wake than a brick. And his jangled nerves were apparent in the occasional moods Luke caught him in where he was nervous and jumpy and likely to get hysterical over the slightest thing. This pace was ridiculous. Max ought to be shot for pushing the kid so hard. He was getting thin, he was starting to look strained and it was only a matter of time before either his voice or his strength gave way.

Val was hiding out in the upper deck of the arena. It was like watching ants at work on the stage from this high up. It still blew him away thinking that people paid upwards of $30 a ticket to sit this far from the stage! And the venues were always close to, if not a full sellout.

"Testing 1,2,3 testing." Rang out over the sound system, startling Val. He silently cursed, hating that the pills drove him to jumping out of his skin at the slightest provocation. But it seemed to him to be the only way to get through the days now. He tried twice to skip the pills, going 24 hours both times. But when he did that, he felt like the walking dead, and Luke practically glued him to the bed both days. But he could never sleep. And then at night, he'd slipped out of bed both times, unable to close his eyes for more than 15 minutes at a stretch. So now he had a routine down. One small white pill in the morning. One in the early afternoon. And if he wasn't feeling well, another right before the concert. And then before bed, one of the little pink ones. The pink ones at least quieted his thoughts, allowed sleep to come. The hard part was keeping all this from Luke. Luke had been, and still remained, very suspicious. As long as Val kept going during the day, and sleeping during the night, he figured he could fend off any other inquiries from Luke.

Val kept seeing Luke running around downstairs, checking the doors, doing his "Mr. Security" routine. He couldn't make out any distinct conversations going around, just a low grumble here and there. The stage hands had a radio going, not too loudly. All of a sudden Val just about had a heart attack as Luke's voice boomed out over the sound system. "Val, I'd like a word with you."

"Great." Val said aloud. "Now he's not only got the Supreme Being complex, he's getting the voice too."

He didn't move. It would take Luke a good while to think of looking up here, and it was easy to see him coming- plus there were sufficient exits from up here that Val knew he could appear down on stage looking innocent long before Luke started to lose his rag. It was recognising the black suited, rotund figure on stage a few minutes later that brought him to his feet. Max.

Val slipped around the back entrances and down towards the carpark, meeting Max by the long, black Mercades. The agent lifted his eyebrows and smiled.

"I was beginning to think you'd slipped out for a smoke."

"Are you joking? Luke'd kill me." Val flushed a little, even as he said it. Luke wouldn't be happy about cigarettes. But he'd be far less happy about the little supplements in his pocket. Max pulled a packet from his own coat pocket.

"Here. And try and make these go a little longer this time."

"Do you want me to do this run or not?" Val snapped. "Its me that gets up on the stage and works my ass off, not you."

"Easy, easy. I'm just saying, these don't grow on trees. You are coping with the run aren't you?"

"Watch a concert and see." Val said unpleasantly. Max put an arm around his shoulders and gave him a hug.

"Now come on. You know I'm your biggest fan, I'm always there rooting for you, it just takes someone like me to keep drumming up business for you and making sure you stay on top, right where you belong. You just keep singing and everything's going to be magic."

"Sure." Val said softly, feeling slightly ashamed of himself. Max was one of his oldest friends in this business, Val knew the man had his interests at heart.

"Val! I've been looking all over for you. Max." Luke said as he walked up to them.

Val jumped when he heard Luke behind him and quickly shoved the bag into his pocket before spinning around to face Luke. "H..hey." He stuttered with a slightly sick smile on his face.

"Val, you know it's not a good thing for you to be out in the carpark without me or another security agent. Anything could happen out here."

Val's dander instantly went up at what he took as a condescending tone from Luke "I'm out here with my agent, Mr. get a fucking grip. I had business I needed to discuss, and I did. Excuse me."

Val turned on his heel and went back inside the arena, intent on another hiding place after getting rid of the pills in his pocket before Luke grabbed him.

Luke turned to Max. "I really think you scheduled far too much for him. He's been wound up like a bow string for days now. And his moods, they've been all over the scale. Have you even noticed it?"

Max never had liked Luke or his overbearing presence. "It's just the usual "star" problems. He's got a lot to deal with, I think he's doing fine. A lot better than some of the others I've worked with. Oh, here are the schedule updates, Diane asked that I give these to you. I've got to run."

Max got back into his car and drove off, leaving Luke with a bad taste in his mouth.

He began again what was becoming a familiar task- and one he wasn't keen on. Hunt the Star. He finally ran Val to earth behind a locked dressing room door, the sheer familiarity of which made him wince. Val's voice responded sharply to the knock.

"WHAT? Who is it?"

"Mr Get a fucking grip. I'd like a quiet word with you."

"I'm changing! Don't I ever get a MINUTE to myself?"

Luke leaned against the doorframe and looked skywards. "Kitten, if you make me break another door, I'm going to make you fit the replacement."

He counted three before he mouthed the word he didn't even have to hear. Short, sharp, frustrated.

"GORILLA."

The door unlocked. Val threw himself back into his chair.

"NOW what do you want?"

"I thought you were changing."

"Unless you want a strip tease- and I'm not in the mood- I'd rather have a little privacy."

"I've hardly seen you all day, I just wanted five minutes peace and quiet with you."

"Well sit down and shut up, it kind of helps if you want quiet. You're down to 4 minutes 30 seconds."

Luke shut the door firmly and turned to face his mouthy lover. "I hardly think I deserve this kind of treatment and I'm getting very tired of it. And your mouth has -"

Val jumped up out of his chair. "If you are so tired of this treatment, THEN LEAVE ME ALONE LIKE I ASKED YOU TO! You are hanging on me EVERY SECOND and you're SMOTHERING ME! Get the HELL OUT OF HERE AND LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE!"

Luke was shocked and hurt by that outburst. Instead of punishing Val for the outburst and language, Luke just turned on his heel and left, closing the door quietly behind him.

Val watched in shocked silence at Luke's departure. Then he threw himself face down on the couch in tears. He felt horrible for treating Luke like that. The outburst was borne of fear of his secret being revealed, and his emotions were in complete turmoil anyway, never sure from one minute to the next whether he was happy or sad. He felt he had no one to talk to.

Luke stopped in the corridor, frozen by the sound of Val in tears. He had his hand on the door, ready to go back in, to get hold of him and not stop pushing until Val once and for all explained just what was on his mind at the moment. Then he made himself stop. Maybe Val was right. They were together nearly 24/7, Val was under a lot of pressure, maybe smother was the right word. Luke made himself take his hand off the door and step back. It was hard- very nearly too hard- but he made himself walk away.

Val lay on the couch for what felt like hours, trying to stop crying without any clear idea of what he was crying for. Eventually he dragged himself to his feet, wiped tears off his face and surveyed himself in the mirror. He looked like hell, there was no doubt of that. He made himself sit down in front of the mirror and pick up the stage makeup box. Once he was on stage he would be fine. He was always fine. The energy of the crowd, the excitement and adrenaline, the music itself, it always took him over and it was no effort to perform. The two girls who organised his costumes came in and out, edging nervously around him. Val ignored them both. As soon as he was done, he headed backstage, intending to go over the music, get it clear in his head what was going to happen and in what order tonight. Maybe that would clear his head. He got the music and found a relatively quiet corner on a box behind piles of even MORE boxes. He started reading the music but pretty soon wasn't feeling well at all. He started to sweat, and shivering both at the same time. He got very nauseous and retched a few times, though nothing was coming up. He laid his head down on the cool vinyl of the box and drifted into a semi doze, hardly aware of his surroundings.

It was thirty minutes later that he came up missing. The concert was set to begin in just 45 minutes. Luke began to panic, Val was ALWAYS around the stage within an hour of the opening number, obsessing about the small details and generally driving everyone mad with his moods, no one knowing which of his multiple brat personas was going to show up before the real Val took over on stage. The opening act was already setting up, creating the usual ruckus backstage as stagehands continually moved things about, getting ready for the quick changeover from opening act to Val's act. Luke grabbed his radio.

"McNeil here. Anyone seen Val lately?" The radio clicked off, then one by one the security detail and anyone else on the same frequency all reported not having seen Val in over an hour. He keyed the radio again. "Clark, Watson, Stewart and Hopkins, take the four corners of the arena, search. I'll head upstairs and try there."

Luke ran upstairs to the dressing room. He passed by one of the costume girls. "Sally, when did you last see Val?"

"Oh about 45 minutes ago, we got his costume out for him and then he left. He didn't look too well."

"Did he say where he was going?"

Sally snapped her bubble gum, irritating Luke to no end. "Nah, he didn't. He's lost?"

"He's missing. Could you take a look around? It wouldn't be too much to ask would it?" Luke said rudely as he walked past her towards the dressing room.

"He's not up there, I just left."

Luke didn't even bother with a response as it wouldn't have been something that would bear repeating.

If Val had decided to walk out in one of his strops, Luke fully intended on wringing his neck- except he knew at gut level, this was more than just Val in a brat attack. Twenty minutes later no one in the arena was doing anything except search and Henson found Luke once more searching the dressing room for any kind of clue.

"Luke? They're howling at the gates down there, the police have just sent for back up to keep the crowd under control."

"Until I know where he is, no one's coming in." Luke said flatly. Henson ran a harassed hand through his hair.

"Luke he'll be in the middle of a tantrum somewhere, trying to scare us, if not annoy the hell out of us- he'll turn up. He's sitting tight, laughing at us all running around like fleas in fits. He'll be here in time for the start of the concert."

"Not this time." Luke pulled an item out of his pocket. "He left everything. Keys, wallet-"

"So he's not gone anywhere, he's just messing around."

"He's been strange for the last few days."

"He didn't look too good when Max left." Henson said, thinking about it. Luke glanced up sharply.

"Okay, I'm starting to get-"

His R/T buzzed static, then a stage hand's voice said sharply, "Luke? Get up here, backstage, we've found him."

Luke abandoned Henson and ran upstairs, heart thumping.

Val was limp on the ground between the small group of stagehands, his eyes closed, his face a colour that terrified Luke. He felt gently at Val's throat, trying not to think of other faces that colour and other men he'd searched for pulses in Ireland, not too long ago.

"Anyone called an ambulance?"

"They're on their way."

"Luke?" Henson said sharply.

"He's unconscious." Luke pulled his jacket off and spread it over Val's shoulders, easing him over onto his side. Val was limp in his hands. Luke stroked his hair, not sure what else to do for a minute and too upset to think- then slid a hand down Val's hip and searched his pockets.

He found a small plastic bag in the front pocket and pulled it out. When he saw what was in his hand he fell from his crouch onto the floor in shock for a moment.

"Paramedics!"

"Here!" Luke said as he again brushed the hair on Val's head.

"Coming through, room please." The emergency workers knelt down beside Val and began searching for the pulse and taking the blood pressure. "Name, what's his name?"

"Val. Uh- Quentin. Daniel Quentin, but he'd recognise Val." Luke tried to make himself get out of the way and think clearly.

"Does anyone know how long he's been unconscious, or what happened? Anyone?"


"We just found him when we called. Before that, we don't know. But I just found these in his pockets. I recognise them, it's a form of speed." Luke said anxiously.

"When did he last take one?"

"I don't....I didn't know he was taking any! Will you people back the fuck up and give us some room?" Luke's eyes returned to the emergency workers. "Is he going to be alright?"

"I'm sure he'll be fine."

The voice was professionally soothing and did nothing except scare Luke still further. Henson pulled him back as Val was lifted onto a stretcher, still white and limp under the oxygen mask now being fitted. Veins were being found, lines inserted, why Luke had no idea. He looked again at the bag of pills now sitting on the blanket over Val. Where the hell had the kid been getting the stuff from? He was never alone long enough, had no friends or contacts Luke would have suspected as using this kind of stuff- and when had he become sufficiently desperate to take it? How long had this been going on? Weeks? Months?

"Are you coming with him?" one of the paramedics asked. Luke glanced at Henson.

"Yes. Mick, find Max. Call him, call Orion, get the concert stopped."

Henson rolled his eyes, looking anything but pleased.

"There's going to be a riot."

Luke couldn't have cared less. He sat for the ten minutes it took for the ambulance to get through the streets, never taking his eyes off Val. The paramedic spared him a brief glance somewhere in the town centre.

"Has he seemed depressed? Did you know he was taking these?"

Luke shook his head. "He's been edgy the last few days. Why isn't he coming round?"

"He's dehydrated." The paramedic said reassuringly, "Probably just a reaction from mixing the uppers and downers-"

WHAT? Luke's hearing cut out at about that point. In the yard at casualty, Val was whisked away and Luke was gently pointed towards the reception area. He found himself standing at a reception desk, racking his brains for the simplest of details. Val's age. His next of kin. The Quentins were going to have to be contacted and informed, Luke knew he owed it to them to do that personally.

He sat down in a chair, and put his head in his hands. He sat there for maybe an hour, damning himself for not seeing the danger signs sooner. He'd had signals, he just chose to ignore them. But he wasn't good at self pity. Self pity turned to anger at Val. Anger because his own lover didn't feel he could confide in him the stresses that he must have been feeling. Anger because he took his own life in his hands without regard to himself. He got up and started pacing furiously, wanting someone to throttle, most preferably the individual who gave Val the access to the drugs. Val was so young, so vulnerable in some ways, so under pressure from the ridiculous life Orion expected him to lead day in day out. Who could take advantage of him? Who would manipulate him so brutally?

Finally, Luke had more than he could take. He stormed down to the nurses desk to find out where Val had been taken.

"Where is Mr. Quentin?" Luke said, his presence almost overbearing.

"Sir, he's in room 124, but you, sir, SIR!" The nurse was talking to Luke's retreating back.

Luke enterered the room where two nurses were setting up IV bags and situating Val, who thankfully, was awake and complaining. Luke's heart rate slowed a little at the familiarity of that wail, open and alert eyes, a face with a little more colour to it.

"Owwwww, that hurts! Please, I really don't need that al- LUKE!" Val yelled as he spotted his lover. "Please make them leave me alone!"

"Val, shut up and let them do their job." Angry or not, Luke couldn't resist the appeal in the blue eyes or outstretched hands. Val hung on to him, disoriented, scared and more than slightly alarmed by the grimness around Luke's eyes and mouth. Luke got out of the nurses' way and held Val's hand, waiting in silence. Somewhat intimidated, the nurses finished and left, muttering something about an SHO and blood results. Val gave Luke a very anxious glance under his eyelashes. He felt in no fit state for combat, he was still very scared about how bad he felt. Luke stood for a minute, surveying the IV bags. Then he sat down and let Val cling to him, not yet able to respond himself.

"Have they told you anything yet?" he asked eventually. Roughly. Val didn't let him go, too worried now to meet his eyes

"No.. I only just woke up in here- I don't know what happened. I felt like hell backstage- I just wanted a few minutes peace-"

"You passed out from an overdose. A combination of uppers and downers." Luke said shortly.

And God knows what damage he'd done to his liver, to his kidneys. What were you thinking of, how could you be so stupid! Luke bit down hard on the rant trying to burst through his lips. Right now he was so angry with Val he could put his fist through the wall. He pulled out of Val's arms and got up, trying to keep his voice level.

"I've got to call your parents. They ought to know you're in hospital."

"Luke?" Val's voice was trembling. Luke didn't look at him.

"Don't worry. I'll say you just collapsed. No need to tell them you're on hard drugs just yet."

The door swung closed behind him. Luke seriously considered smashing the hell out of the wall on the other side of the corridor. Instead he folded his arms and pressed his forehead to the cool plaster.

If he was honest- truly honest- he was angriest with Val for scaring him so badly, for coming so close to the edge. And more than anything else, he was furious with himself.

He'd let Val work, knowing how exhausted and drained he was becoming. Knowing the pressures on him. Leaving him to reach the point of desperation alone, where he was willing to try any alternative offered to him. When Luke found out who....

Just then a commotion at the end of the hallway got Luke's attention. He looked up to find Max barreling down the hall, followed by a dozen or so concerned individuals. Max yelled down the hall "LUKE! How is he?" The nurses were trying to stall the crowd of people but having no luck.

Luke stepped into the middle of the hallway and whistled sharply, startling everyone. Then his voice boomed out over the silence. "NO visitors. Everyone wait in the reception area. Max, stay."

Everyone obeyed Luke's demands without question and quietly turned and walked back the way they had come. One nurse said thanks before turning and heading back to her nursing station.

Max did not like being barked at like a dog. He started to go around Luke, but Luke put out a hand to stop him. "He's going to be allright. No business discussion, got it? Five minutes." Luke let go and Max went into the room alone.

Val was shaken, scared and miserable, and to him Max looked like a good friend. He was badly shaken when Max shut the door and said urgently,

"Where's the stuff? You weren't carrying it on you were you?"

"Luke found it-" Val's eyes widened at Max's expression.

"You little fool, do you want to get me arrested? I told you to keep it quiet!"

"Max I collapsed! I didn't choose to do this!"

"Tell McNeil one of the stage crew gave them to you." Max ran a hand through his head. "Pick one."

"I can't just accuse-"

"It's allright, I can slip him something in return, it'll get McNeil off our backs."

"Max, you said the pills were just energy boosters and to help me sleep. Luke knows I was taking them! Why must-"

"You CANNOT tell him they came from me. They ARE fine, I wouldn't give you anything that would hurt you, you know that. Val, you know he doesn't much like me, and that would only make our working relationship harder. You don't want that, do you?"

"No Max, but why did you say arrested? I thought-" Val was thoroughly confused and feeling more miserable by the minute.

Max backpedaled, he didn't want Val to know that the drugs were illegal.

"It was just a figure of speech."

Luke opened the door and walked in. "I think he should rest Max. Take a hike."

Max ignored Luke's comment and turned back to Val. "Remember what I said. And get better as we need you back on tour-"

"Get out Max. NOW." Luke said in his best military voice.

"Get better." Max said before scurrying out the door, afraid of walking past the overbearing bodyguard. Val gave his partner a look of half reproach, half tearful amusement.

"Luuuke, why do you have to torture him?"

"I'll be back in a minute." Luke shut the door firmly on Val. "Ryman! I want a word with you."

Max shrugged, still walking. "Things to do McNeil."

"You can stop or I'll call the police."

"Leave it McNeil. You can't prove anything."

"He'll tell me you know. It might take a while, but sooner or later he will tell me. If you had anything to do with him touching this stuff, believe me Ryman, I'm going to feed you head first through a meat grinder."

The lift doors closed on Max. Luke took a few deep breaths and made himself calm down. It took everything he had not to chase after Max. His last comment "you can't prove anything" made Luke believe without a shadow of a doubt that Max had at least known something about the drugs. He turned and went back in to see Val.

Val had his eyes closed and looked to be sleeping. Luke sat down in the chair by the bed. He was glad to see a little colour returning to the white cheeks, but he still looked a long way from healthy. He ran his fingers down Val's cheek and then rested them in his hair. Five minutes later
the nurse returned to take his blood pressure.

"I'll just be moment, no need to move." The nurse said as she bustled over to the far side of the bed and lifted Val's arm.

Val awoke when his arm was moved and he immediately tried to pull away.

"Noooo, please no more needles."

"No needles dear, just your blood pressure. No pain I promise. She again took his arm and began her work.

Val turned his head and realized Luke was sitting there. "Luuuke, when can I go home? I want to go home." A tear escaped his eye and rolled slowly down his face.

Luke brushed the tear away and took hold of his hand. "As soon as the doctors clear you, we'll go home."

"When will that be?"

"Soon I'm sure, as long as you keep doing as they tell you. You gave me quite a scare, you know that?"

"I didn't mean too. I'm sorry." Val started to dissolve into tears.

"Now stop." Luke said firmly. "It's okay, you're allright, this isn't the time or place to start worrying. Settle down and we'll talk about this when you're feeling better."

"Did you call my parents?"

"I didn't get round to it." Luke admitted. "Do you want me to?"

"No." Val rolled over closer to Luke. "I still feel like hell."

"I know. You go back to sleep, you're going to be fine."

"I can't." Val's eyes were huge and still scared. "You're angry with me and Max-"

"Max-" Luke choked himself off. "Can do the other thing. And I'm not mad at you. I was scared as hell when you collapsed and I'm not thrilled about you taking crap like that but I'm NOT mad at you. And we're not getting into that now. Stop worrying about it and go back to sleep. I'm not going anywhere."

"Promise?" Val said quietly but in a tone that was nothing less than a demand for a blood oath. Luke tightened his grip on his hand, his other hand sliding naturally into Val's soft hair and beginning to shake and smooth the strands away from Val's eyes.

"Promise."

Val gave Luke's hand a squeeze, gave him a lopsided smile, then shut his eyes, exhaustion overtaking his fear.

Luke sat with Val for about 15 minutes making sure he was soundly sleeping. He finally got up and headed outside, into the total chaos that was forming in the hospital waiting area. He found Diane and pulled her aside.

"What are you going to tell them?"

"Simply that he overworked himself and needed some rest."

"Thanks Diane, that is exactly what happened." Luke said giving her shoulder a squeeze. "He'll be fine."

Luke turned and found hospital security and got a guard set up outside the room with strict instructions not to let anyone in except family and known hospital workers. He then went to call Val's father, he had to know from them before he found out in the press.

The call was not an easy one, nor a particularly happy one, but Luke put the phone down at least assured the Quentins weren't about to rush up here and add to the complications of this situation.

He found the guard on the door had already turned away three Orion staff, all wanting to talk to Val about legalities. They were not going to be too thrilled about the Quentin image involving itself with drugs when the main market was young teenagers. Luke once more warned Diane who promised to deal with it. He went back to Val, wondering just how many performers eventually turned to chemical survival. He'd read other people's horror stories in the press- he still couldn't believe Val had become sufficiently desperate to get himself into it. Or that he had calmly stood around for two- three- how many weeks? And watched Val get on with it. How could I not realise? Luke silently demanded of himself, shutting the door softly to avoid disturbing Val. How could I just LET this happen?

The craziness of the waiting room had quieted, but the deliveries to the hospital were just beginning as fans from all corners of the world responded en mass upon learning of Val resting in hospital due to being over worked. The staff delivered some of the stuff directly to Val's room, but soon it wouldn't hold another thing. So Diane set up a few people cataloguing what came in, and having it delivered to all the other patients in the hospital. It took two people just to keep up with what was being sent.

Luke stepped over the piles of soft toys with open distaste when he passed through the waiting room in search of coffee.

"You can tell Orion now Diane, all this is dealt with by photocopied letter - if they want Val's signature on any reply letters for this junk it's going to be forged by one of their office boys, Val's not dealing with this."

"How is he?" Diane looked up from the floor, pushing her hair back behind one ear. Luke grimaced.

"So so. I'll talk to Orion later today. As soon as he's discharged we're getting out of here. Away from Orion and the tour and everything else. I should have done it months ago."

Diane gave him a small, amused smile of approval. "Yes sir. Want a few brochures?"

Luke looked at her. She shrugged. "I AM the PA. I can even pack for him if you want me to. Sort out tickets, charter a plane, employ a housekeeper for when you get there- or a house boy-"

"You're getting out of control young lady."

Diane grinned. "That's the first smile I've seen from you in a week. Tell you what, you leave it with me. I'll fix it all up, somewhere perfect where Orion has NO contacts-"

"What about Val's contract?" Luke said unwillingly. Diane's innocent eyes smiled at him.

"I don't know about contracts Mr McNeil. I work for Val, not for Orion."

Luke shook his head at her and went back to Val. Rest had to be a good thing, but he was getting worried at how much Val seemed to be sleeping. Almost as if he didn't want to be awake.

Luke walked in and over to Val's bed. "Hey kitten, how are you?"

Val didn't move a muscle.

Luke watched, and could tell Val wasn't really sleeping. "Quentin, I think it's time we had a talk." He placed his hand on Val's shoulder and shook him.

Val pretended to wake up. "Hey, I was slee-"

Luke cut him off, in no mood to deal with prevarication.

"I don't think we need to start this discussion out with a lie young man. I want to know where you got those drugs. NOW."

Val wasn't ready for this discussion. He was still unsure about pointing a finger at an innocent man, even if he was being paid off. He was just in so deep. Max was right, if he told Luke it was him, it would just make life too hard. Still he didn't want to say anything.

"It's not really drugs,  Luke, it's just pick me ups and sleeping pills."

"Quentin, we've already had THAT discussion before, remember? You were to take NOTHING that wasn't prescribed to you by a doctor. I don't think you have a doctor's excuse do you? No, I didn't think so, but then that discussion is for later. For right now, I want a name. Who gave you the drugs?"

"Luke, doe-"

"THE NAME."

Val looked miserably towards the window, hating to lie, but not seeing a way out.

"James." Val picked a name at random. "James Ethington."

He was poised for an earful, and was shocked when he heard the door to his room close. He looked around and Luke was gone.

Luke was headed over to the arena, the crew would be busy packing everything up. He had a few choice things he wanted to say to James.

Val lay for five minutes, wondering what was going to happen with James. He didn't like the man all that much, but he'd never done anything to him to deserve a gorilla attack. Val then realized that Max had no idea who he had just named. He looked around the room, but the phone had been removed. He buzzed the nurse, pushing the button frantically as panic set in. It was ten minutes later that he finally got someone to bring him a phone, complete with threats as it seemed Luke had forbade the phone in his room. He quickly dialed Max's number.

Max interrupted him before he'd poured out more than half the story.

"Ethington. Allright, it'll be taken care of."

"You don't understand Max, Luke's headed over there-"

"I told you, Ethington is going to be very well paid for this, he'll only be out of the arena until the tour moves on, it isn't like he's going to lose his job-"

"What if Luke hits him?"

"I'd like to see McNeil sued for assault." Max laughed. "Don't worry your head over technicalities, that's what old Max is for."

The connection was cut off. Val shut his eyes, distraught and worried. Then he got out of the bed and found his clothes. Easing the IV cannula out of his hand was almost more disgusting than he could cope with- he managed by shutting his eyes and avoiding looking at any of the thing as he laid it down on the bed. His knees were shaky as he dressed and when he caught sight of himself in the mirror on the far side of the room, he had to admit he didn't look much like a Val Quentin that would be recognised in public. The waiting room was full of personnel including Diane. Val pushed up the window in his room. This was an old hospital with the old fire escapes running down the wall, for which Val was grateful. He didn't feel up to a complicated climb. He made his way down the fire escape on unsteady legs, found a taxi rank and thanked God there was cash left in the pockets of his jeans.

Now all he had to do was get to the arena before Luke was arrested for the murder of Ethington.


The taxi driver was concerned about the white faced, gaunt boy who leapt into his taxi and asked him several times if he was allright. Val had no answer but just please hurry to the arena. It was a
fifteen minute drive.

Max hurriedly called the arena and was finally connected to James. He quickly filled in James, who was ultimately happy with the deal. He was to receive $5,000 from Max, and would be out of work for just a couple of weeks for telling Luke that he was the one who supplied Val with drugs. That didn't sound like a bad deal, a two week, WELL paid vacation. What he failed to realize was exactly HOW upset Luke was.

Val saw Luke's truck in the car park as the taxi pulled in, threw some cash at the driver and fled. It wasn't hard to find the argument going on in centre stage- about half the stage crew were standing in a crowd, listening. At the moment Luke was using nothing more than his vitriolic tongue, but Val knew Luke McNeil: he was a trained fighter, and in defense of anyone his instincts to fight were too strong. Sooner or later Val knew Luke would no longer be able to keep his fists down. Val forced his way through the crowd on sheer personality as he had no physical strength left to put people out of his way. James Ethington was looking uncertain in front of the angry bodyguard. There was no shouting going on yet, but Luke never needed to shout to get his point across. Val heard the warning signals in his tone- tones Luke never let into his voice when they were together- and pushed between the two of them, leaning his full weight against Luke's chest to force him back.

"Luke don't. Please don't, it isn't worth it."

He was standing sufficiently unsteadily for Luke to reflexively grab and hold him. Ethington's face promptly relaxed and he nearly smiled.

"Told you, McNeil. Supply and demand."

"Shut up you fool." Val ordered. "Get out of here, you know the contract."

Not the contract Luke was thinking, but Ethington understood. The crowd dispersed, taking Ethington with it, his pockets no doubt full of Max's donation. Luke took a few deep breaths, still holding Val.

"You should have let me get on with it."

"He's ugly enough without a broken nose." Val shut his eyes, fighting off the dizziness. "It's MY fault, if you've got to blame anyone, blame me for taking the stuff. He's right. Without demand there's no supply."

"I can understand why you felt that was an option." Luke's arms tightened on him, then Luke stooped and picked him up. "I might not approve but I understand. I've got less time for anyone prepared to give you the stuff and think it's a good idea. What the hell are you doing here?"

"Didn't want you to kill him."

"Have some faith." Luke said dryly. "I probably would have stopped at the broken nose."

"Gorilla."

"We're going back to the hospital. You are unbelievable, you know that brat?"

"Luke, I don't want to go, just take me back home, please?" Val looked up with pleading eyes.

"We're going back. You shouldn't have left, and you won't leave again until the doctor has released you. And I'm sure they're missing you about now."

Just as Luke finished that, his phone rang. "Kitten, get that for me?" Luke asked as he carried Val off the stage and towards the car park.

Val reached around Luke's waist and got the phone. "Hello? Luke's phone." Val smiled up at Luke's stern look.

"Oh thank goodness. Val? You had us worried." Diane breathed a sigh of relief, knowing Luke had things under control. Luke McNeil was the one person guaranteed to be able to handle her difficult employer.

"Hi Diane, I'm fine. Luke's taking me back. Think you can talk him out of it?"

"No love, I think he's doing the right thing. I'll alert the doctors to your immediate arrival. You need to learn to listen to Luke, you know that?"

"Yeah, that's what he says." Val hung up and snuggled closer to Luke.

*******

There were several people who would have given Val a far more thorough earful- a renal consultant among them- but Luke's grim face and folded arms disposed of them rapidly and effectively, leaving his brat unscathed. Val was exhausted and glad to be left in peace. Luke settled him and would have sat with him but for Henson's frantic gestures through the glass of the door.

"Tell me you didn't beat up Ethington?" he pleaded as soon as Luke joined him. Diane had organised her clearing operation and moved it. Probably back to the hotel where her room usually served as her office. The waiting area was peaceful and apart from two security guards plus another member of Luke's own team, there was no sign of Val's room containing anyone other than a member of the general public. Luke sat down on a bench and leaned his elbows on his knees, past fury now.

"It wasn't Ethington."

"Val said-"

"Val did everything except semaphore it to me. It wasn't Ethington. I've a fair idea what role Ethington's playing in this and why- and why Val's carrying out orders he isn't happy with."

"Orion." Henson said grimly. Luke didn't answer.

"He'll tell me. Eventually. He's told me the important things already."

"So you're going to leave it there?"

He got Luke's wolf smile, the unpleasant, humourless grimace. "Something like that."

Henson left on that note, not wanting to know what Luke's response would be when he found out the answers he was looking for.

*****

It was late the next afternoon that all the test results came back to the doctor's satisfaction and Val was released into the care of Luke, with strict instructions on lots of fluids, gentle food, and lots of rest. Luke made Val ride in a wheelchair out to his waiting truck, Val complaining the entire trip that he was well enough to walk. None of it had any effect on Luke. He saw the weariness on Val's face as they reached the hotel. Yet another faceless, nameless, rootless hotel, one of the hundreds stayed in as they toured. Never a home, never somewhere to relax or feel safe. Luke put a hand under Val's chin, drew his face up and kissed him.

"Stay here. I'm picking up bags, that's all."

"Where are we going?" Val's expression warned he couldn't face a new hotel now.

"Streatfield airfield. It's okay, it's going to be fine, just wait two minutes."

"Luuuuuuke..." Val said in panic, retreating at the thought of facing an airport and a flight.

"It's okay." Luke said again firmly. "Just wait for me."

Diane met him in the foyer, two suitcases, two passports and a wallet of air tickets ready and waiting. Luke pocketed the tickets and passports.

"Anyone phone for me?"

"Max has cottoned on that Val's left the hospital." Diane said dryly. Luke grunted.

"You don't know where we are or when we'll be back."

"I only arranged the tickets, Mr McNeil, I don't remember reading them." Diane gave him a sweet smile and a nod at the door. "Have fun. I'll be on the other end of the phone if I can help at all."

It took only forty minutes to reach the small, private airfield and to locate the single jet Diane had chartered. Val was in no condition to withstand a commercial flight, it's waiting and delays and stresses. The pilot waiting for them had no interest in pop stars or in the two men who settled themselves in the small cabin, in seats far deeper and wider than commercial flights allowed. Luke saw Henson's car peel off at the side of the airfield and let out the stage hand who would drive Luke's truck back to the hotel carpark. There would be no clues for the media or Orion to follow for a week or two. Val's eyes followed him as he sat down beside his lover. Shadowed, bruised eyes in a thin face, exhausted and already stressed. Luke slid an arm around him and pulled him close as the jet began its preflight checks.

"Come on. You've got nothing to worry about, settle down. Why don't you try and sleep?"

"Where are we going?" Val pleaded. Luke smiled.

"What do you care? We're not going to another hotel, I promise."

Val wanted to argue and beg and plead, but he had no strength. And the warm shoulder he was snuggled against felt too good. He was soon asleep, not having any idea where they were or where they were headed.


Diane was a miracle worker. The beach house was small, in the middle of nowhere and so isolated that Luke was a little uncertain of how a twenty year old would feel about being so cut off. But they were in no danger of seeing anyone but the occasional fisherman go by, no one else was going to talk to them, certainly no press could get near them. The house was already equipped and ready, Val's own belongings in the cupboards and dressers, no staff anywhere to intrude on them, no reception desks. Val was beyond caring where they were or what they were doing by the time the plane touched down on the small landing strip above the cliffs. There was no way off the island without the plane or without chartering a boat, and no one else on the island but locals who had no interest in media stars. Luke steered Val ahead of him to unlock the door, half an eye on the plane taking off. It would be two weeks before the western world would manage to get near them again.


Val was exhausted from the trip, on top of everything else. He knew there was water, and a beach, but he couldn't care less. Luke steered him to the bed, and Val willingly allowed Luke to situate the pillows and blankets, and get Val into more comfortable clothes. Luke then opened the window to let in the ocean breeze. Val was asleep within five minutes.
  
Luke surveyed the house, finding everything that was requested, as well as quite a bit more. Diane had outdone herself again. He grabbed a book, and something he rarely did, grabbed a beer and headed out onto the porch. He situated a lounge chair by the bedroom window overlooking the ocean about 20 feet down. He settled into the chair and his book and was soon
fast asleep himself as the beer took effect on top of the travels as well.


He was woken by Val's voice somewhere inside the house, unsteady and uncertain.

"Luke!"

"I'm out here Kitten." Luke snapped awake with the practice of army years behind him, the words out of his mouth before his eyes were fully open. Val tried the screen door, found him and responded silently to Luke's outstretched arms.

"I didn't know where I was."

"I'm sorry. I fell asleep." Luke pulled Val down into his lap and held him, tight enough to stifle his shivers. "You're okay. I wouldn't leave you."

"I'm so tired." Val said into his neck. "What the hell's the matter with me? I've been sleeping for days."

"You've pushed yourself too hard for weeks. Months." Luke settled him in a more comfortable position, watching the light on the water beyond the strip of sand. "Work and chemicals."

"I'm sorry.."

"Kitten that's fact, not an accusation. I'm not mad with you."

Val didn't answer but Luke felt the tension in him and suspected it was going to take a while for Val to really believe him. And this wasn't the time to go into it. He stretched a hand down to the floor and Val got his eyes open, widening slightly at the sight of the bottle.

"I didn't think you drank."

"I don't on duty. We're on holiday."

Val's eyebrows lifted at him over still dark circled eyes. Luke passed him the bottle and watched him take several deep swallows. He was thirsty, still dehydrated from the flight, but tired as he was, it would take only the very gentle effects of the beer to relax him enough to sleep again.

******

Max was about to have a heart attack. He had tried calling everyone he knew, trying to find out any information on the whereabouts of Val, his star. It was like he and Luke had disappeared off the face of the earth! He had tried Diane, but she claimed no knowledge, though Max was certain she knew something. He tried cajoling, begging, pleading, and yelling, and Diane remained serenely nonplussed, denying any knowledge of their whereabouts. Max had already canceled the shows for the weekend, but he had hoped Val would be ready to get back on track early the following week. They had too much money riding on this. And Orion was giving him grief, threatening lawsuits if Val wasn't found and soon. Max was nothing short of ready to explode.

It wasn't until he gave up and reached home that he realised the small, unmarked car had been following him on and off all day. He was unlocking the door when three men got out and joined him on the doorstep. All well built, fit men in their early thirties, one of whom gave him a friendly smile and pulled out ID.

"Hello Max. Think of us as special forces. We've come to have a quick look around."

Max snatched the ID from the man's hand. His two companions slipped past him into the house. The ID card was inarguable. The man was with CID narcotics. The name was not one Max recognised. The officer signalled to him to turn around and began expertly to rifle through his pockets. One of his colleagues emerged from the house five minutes later with a paper bag, which he shook at Max, mouth wry in a mildly amused smile.

"Oh dear Max.... now where did these come from I wonder?"

"I won't say anything without a lawyer present!" Max said at once. The CID officer bowed politely.

"Since we can do you for possession, that's no problem at all. Paul, give uniform a buzz, they can come and pick him up as soon as they like. I can always talk to you in the morning Max. You look like you could do with a night in the cells. Very illuminating it is."

"You can't arrest me!" Max said in outrage, "They're only-"

"Max Ryman, I am arresting you for possession of illegal narcotics with intent to distribute. You are not obliged to say anything, however I must warn you that you may harm your defense if you do not produce something that you later intend to rely on in court."

****

Val fell asleep again, this time within the protecting arms of Luke.

Luke continued to hold Val while he slept, enjoying the closeness, and the solitude. It was close to dinnertime, and as much as Val needed to sleep, he also needed to eat. Luke managed to get up without disturbing Val too much, and laid him back down on the lounge. He went inside to start meal preparations.

Val had been awakened from his deep sleep when Luke moved him, and he fought the slow rise to consciousness as best he could. It was no use, so he slowly opened his eyes. He was startled for a moment when he realized he was outside, and Luke was no where to be seen. He had no energy to yell out for Luke yet. Then he heard sounds from the kitchen, and the most wonderful smells wafting through the window above him. He slowly stood up and padded back to the front door, stopping to watch Luke.


"I had no idea you could cook."

"Army. We can do most things." Luke leaned against the counter to look him over. "You're a better colour than you were. Sit down, have a drink."

"Pass the Bloody Mary." Val fell into a kitchen chair and muttered at the box of orange juice he was handed. "You are NO fun. Luke?"

"Mnn?"

"Where the fuck are we?"

"Off the map." Luke finished dicing whatever he was dicing and fried it, flicking it over with an expert hand. "As a matter of fact it isn't on any map at all. And it's nameless apart from the co ordinates, which I can't remember. It isn't that important. Kitten let me do that, you're recuperating."

Val shrugged and left the stove alone. "Give me a clue."

"There's a military base around if we need it."

"I don't even want to KNOW who your friends are. Are there any phones around here?"

"No." Luke gave him a bland smile. "Nor tvs. Radios. Computers. Magazines. Shops. Fast food OR alcohol apart from what you can find in the fridge."

"Surprised we have a roof over our heads and a working toilet."

"Funny."

"No, not really. I can't believe you've let us disappear off the face of  the earth." Val wandered over to the fridge, opened it up, and shut it quickly in disgust. "We ARE in hell."

"Quentin. You can stop this right now. You have been through more than someone has a right to, and you need your rest. Rest, and plenty of time to clear your mind of life's overload of information. You'll see, you'll come out of here refreshed, renewed, reinvigorated."

Val just looked silently, reproachfully, at Luke.

"Get the plates and silverware out, there over in that cabinet, and that drawer. I'm about done with dinner."

Val continued to look at him. Luke sighed, turned off the stove and snagged Val's wrist. Val knew that grip well. The change of mood came instantly, the large, 'I'm adorable and you're not THAT mad' eyes, the equally appealing pout, the half whine, half coaxing tone Luke knew inside out and upside down.

"Luuuuke I'm NOT having a strop, I didn't mean to snap at you, honest, if you woke up in the middle of nowhere you'd be...."

"Quentin." Luke pulled his protesting lover against his chest and kissed him, very firmly. "Shut up."

Released, Val looked up with a slightly different expression in the blue eyes.

"Do that again and I might."

Luke grinned, kissed him again and swatted him towards the table.

"Sit down and eat."

Val grabbed the plates and silverware and took a seat. Luke dished out his masterpiece onto the plates and sat down himself. It was the first time in weeks he could remember seeing Val eat with anything like interest, never mind enthusiasm.

"Luke, this is GOOOOOOD."

Luke smiled, keeping his voice off hand. "Why thank you kitten. I try."

"Maybe I could try sometime."

"We've got plenty of time, I'm sure you'll make us something fabulous."

They continued their meal with quiet, gentle conversation, enjoying the simple pleasure of eating without waiters hanging over them. When dinner was finished, they cleaned up together.

"Feel up to a short walk?" Luke asked, looking closely at Val.

"Yes, I feel like I've been laying down for the longest time. Need to stretch the legs a little."

Luke grabbed a blanket and Val's hand, and they walked outside and down the stairs to the beach. Luke held on tight to Val as he slowly made his way down the stairs, still extremely weak. Luke walked them just a few yards down the beach and spread out the blanket. Val fell willingly down on it, surprised in his lack of strength.

"Look, right over there." Luke said pointing towards the horizon. "The sun is behind that cloud, and in just about five minutes, it will drop below, and we'll have the most beautiful sunset."

Val turned his back on the sunset, rolled over and fixed his gaze on Luke's face instead.

"You know something?"

"What?" Luke ran a finger down his nose, tapped his lips gently. Val nipped at his finger.

"I don't care where we are."

Val stretched forward a little, as Luke's lips descended on his for a long, passionate kiss. When the stars cleared for Val, he noticed Luke's face was a beautiful shade of red. He rolled over, snuggled up against his lover, and they both watched as the red sun dipped slowly into the ocean.

Luke gently caressed the younger man, and almost before the sun completely disappeared, he was rewarded with gentle snore. Luke smiled into the gathering darkness. He let his lover relax for a few minutes before gently lifting him and the blanket up, and walking back up to the house. He deposited Val into bed, undressed him and brought the covers up to his chin. Then Luke settled down for some reading, before he headed to bed a couple hours later.


He was awakened by a familiar sound. Val, going through the cupboards and drawers like a terrier. Luke rolled over to watch him, ducking the few clothes that landed on the bed.

"What are you after?"

"You're serious aren't you?" Val paused and gave him a look somewhere between irritation and surprise. "There's not a phone or a radio in the place."

"Yes."

"How are you staying in contact with Orion?"

"I'm not."

Val frowned. "But we have to be."

"They employ you, Val. They don't own you. I should have pointed that out months ago."

"But what if something awful happens? Like a war or something? ANYTHING could happen and we wouldn't know-"

"It'll survive without us for a couple of weeks. Come here." Luke held out an arm and waited until Val came to him, still puzzled. Luke pushed his hair out of his eyes, looking him over more carefully. He was looking more together. Still tired, still drained. That was something they could work on, there was nothing here that Val could find to get stressed about. Well that was possibly an exaggeration. Luke smiled and drew Val close enough to kiss his forehead. But nothing that actually mattered if he got stressed about it. Luke pulled himself to his feet and found some clothes.

"We've got nothing on the agenda, kitten. What do you want to do with the day?"

From the blankness of Val's face, he realised with some tenderness that the kid honestly didn't know. Val's concept of free time was a little shaky after two years with Orion.


I should have done this before, Luke thought grimly, shutting down the now familiar guilt. I should have seen this coming.

Val frowned as he saw a shuttered look pass over Luke' face. He'd seen it a few times since the first day at the hospital and he hated it mor every time he saw it. He grabbed for Luke's hand and tried to pull him around.
     
"What? Luke, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to get us into this mess-"
     
"Stop." Luke put his fingers over Val's lips at once, eyes firm. "We're not going into that now."
     
Val closed his mouth, doubtfully. In some ways that was a relief. In others- he swallowed on the twisting in his stomach that wasn't helped by the remaining grimness he saw in Luke's face.
       
******

Over the next week and a half, Luke helped Val to return more to normal, most of it done with Val knowing what was going on. Luke kept them walking or swimming in short spurts, never tiring Val out too much, but making sure he was fully exercised each day. Luke also made sure Val ate very well.  They were actually having a pretty fun time in the kitchen,  taking turns cooking each night. Luke of course had to help Val, but Val was doing his best at learning, and was truly enjoying himself. The subject of drugs wasn't mentioned between them again. Val did see that look several more times, but never felt comfortable enough to talk to Luke about it,  certain that somewhere along the way in that conversation he'd find himself face down over Luke's lap. He would go through stages, times where he wanted to talk to Luke and get the issue out in the open, and the punishment he was sure he was due over with. But each time he thought
about that, he remembered how very hard Luke could spank, and even more so, how hard he  could swing the paddle. That always kept him from speaking.
    
    
Luke on the other hand kept switching between anger at himself, and anger at Max. He had asked for, and received word that Max had indeed been arrested and was currently awaiting trial. He wasn't sure how to approach Val with that news, he knew the idea of a brand new agent would seriously upset Val. The timing just wasn't there, but then again, the plane would arrive
in two days to take them back to reality.
    
"Whatcha thinking about?" Val's arms hung around his neck from behind and Luke twisted to pull him down into his lap. It was late evening and the sun was setting, casting shadows on the steps where Luke sat.
   
"Wondering what the diving's like out here."
   
Val didn't argue. Just cuddled up, lifted his feet onto the steps to take some of his weight off Luke's knees and followed his gaze out over the sea.

"You know we don't HAVE to go back?" he said eventually. "I've got enough from two years of doing this to buy this island and keep us here forever."
   
"You'd be at screaming point in a month." Luke said with amusement. "No room service out here. No taxis. No tv. I'd have to get your father to airmail a strait jacket over."

Val said nothing. Luke stroked his back, trying not to hear the undercurrent in his voice and wondering just how long they were going to go on NOT having this conversation.

"Don't you want to go back, Kitten?"
   
"Oh come on." Val said crossly. "This is the first time since we met we've had 24/7 alone together without a schedule that would break a bloody army platoon. Of course I don't want it to end. I do actually quite like you when you're not pounding on your chest. Do you want to go for a walk?"
   
"It'll be dark in a minute." Luke said calmly. Actually it was part of his campaign to keep Val as rested as possible before they returned to England. He had no doubt that Orion would expect Val to plunge straight back into the routine of concerts and tours, although Luke had a few stringent plans for changing that routine once they were home. Val didn't argue, just lounged back against him, but his sigh was heavy.

****
   
The scream dragged Luke out of dreams so fast he was on his feet with a gun in his hand before he'd fully woken. One lightening fast look around convinced him there was no danger, but that Val was in the throes of a particularly vile dream. He replaced the gun under a casually dropped sweater on the chair by the bed, and sat down to grasp Val's hands, calling him quietly until Val roused enough to break the dream. He didn't wake fully. Luke pulled him up and rocked him, stroking his neck and back, waiting for him to find a deeper and more peaceful level of sleep.

It was clear from Val's heavy eyes at breakfast time that peaceful wasn't a good description of his night.
   
"How did you sleep last night kitten?" Luke said casually, sitting down opposite him.
   
"It wasn't restful." Val said, playing with the food on his plate.
   
Luke gently probed, trying to find out if Val remembered the dream.

"Why not?"

"I don't know." Val remembered bits and pieces of a dream, one he wasn't comfortable with sharing with Luke.

It was clear from his face he remembered all too well. Luke felt another wave of guilt rushing up to engulf him. He pushed back from the table and walked outside, the house suddenly becoming confining. Val watched the emotions change rapidly over his face as he disappeared outside. Things seemed to Val to be spiraling out of control. He had been enjoying the quiet days, but he longed for the comforts of home. But he was certain that before he got there, he'd have a long, painful conversation with Luke about the drugs. One of the biggest rules between them had been broken. Val longed for the conversation to be over, but was too nervous about the punishment to push for it. Luke seemed to get very angry each time they got close to the subject at al.

And there was something else between them that Val was dreading just as much.

Ethington. He had blamed Ethington for the drugs. After the entire Photoshoot incident, Val wasn't sure he could bear explaining to Luke that he'd lied and spread false blame yet again. Miserable, angry with himself, Val wasn't sure how much longer he could keep that secret. And yet he didn't dare tell Luke. Not yet.


"Kitten." Luke said behind him. Val glanced around, hastily pulling himself together.
  
"I'm sorry. It's okay."
  
"It isn't." Luke took a few deep breaths, made himself reach for Val's hand and pull him around, keeping his voice gentle. "We have a lot we need to clear the air about. Our plane is here late tomorrow and we've got to go back and pick up where we left off."

Luke watched fear, anger and something else flicker across Val's face. Before Val could say anything, Luke pulled him into a tight embrace and delivered a deep, biting kiss that covered Val's lips completely.

Luke moved them out to the back, into the lounge chairs to begin to conversation. It was going to be a long tough one, but Luke was certain this was the right time to begin. He looked at the ground for a moment, gathering his thoughts. Val sat in silence, not sure he wanted to hear anything at this point.

"Kitten." Luke began slowly and quietly. "A lot has happened since we've been here. Things that are going to affect your singing career." Luke reached out, his hand capturing Val's.

Val reacted the only way he felt comfortable with at the moment. Anger.

"How do you know? We've had no television, no radio, nothing!"

"I made a phone call. I ha-"

"Why didn't you tell me earlier? If it's going to affect my career, I should have been told immediately!"

Luke was stung with that comment. He was too unsure with  everything that had happened to feel at all in control.


"There was nothing that you could do at the time, and with your health, we didn't want to worry you." Luke tried to catch Val's eyes but Val was staring in stony silence at the ocean. "Kitten I was only doing what I thought was best."

"You don't always know what is best." Val said without thinking.

Luke was seriously hurt by that comment, coming at the time that it did, with his shattered self image. He felt completely at fault that he hadn't seen the drugs coming, hadn't noticed his life partner was having such serious problems.

Luke swallowed his hurt pride, and tried to put it out of his mind. He needed to tell Val that Max was no longer his agent, and set a plan of attack on getting back into the swing of things.

He did just that. Luke spent a couple of hours with Val, going over what happened with Max. Val managed to tell Luke that he spread false blame again, fearing an explosion that never materialized. At the time, he wasn't interested in why that happened, only thankful that he wasn't over Luke's knee for the spanking of his life. He was also wondering in the back of his mind why Luke wasn't yelling, or punishing, or threatening punishment. Drugs had always been a huge issue, one that Val knew should he abuse, carry serious consequences. But something about this time, this episode, was different. And it was unsettling. Not that Val wanted punishment, it was just expected.

And for such a long and involved conversation, it left the atmosphere unusually chilled between them. There was a long silence when they'd finished. Eventually Val got up and drifted down the steps towards the beach. He'd gone some way before he realised fully that Luke wasn't following him. The knowledge of that made his eyes sting, angry as he was.


They conducted the evening meal like strangers. Val muttered something about being tired and went to bed early. He lay for some hours listening to the silence of Luke sitting at the kitchen table. It felt like he'd barely fallen asleep when Luke touched his shoulder and woke him into
daylight.

"Val. We need to think about packing, the plane's due at three."

Val sat up, gripped by a chill of apprehension and growing desperation. He knew what they would walk back into in London. Noise. Press. Meetings. An hour or two of privacy snatched where they could take it, no time to talk. If things weren't right between them before they got home, there would be no time AT home to fix them. He hugged his knees and watched Luke, not
sure what he could say or do.

"Do you want me to pack?" Luke said without looking at him. "Come on Val. Get up, get dressed, we don't want to be doing this in a rush."

That was NOT the gorilla tone. Val scowled at him, growing more upset by the second. He flung himself down on the mattress so hard the bed bounced.

"Get up yourself. It's the crack of dawn, leave me alone!"

"I'm sorry I had to wake you." Luke pulled the suitcase down from the wardrobe. "I don't want to have to rush you later. Pack your clothes and we can go for a walk or something, swim maybe before the plane comes."

Val stared at his back, thinking rapidly and hard through his entire repertoire of Tricks Guaranteed To Make A Gorilla Furious. Locking himself in the bathroom came fairly high on the list. If you could depend on the gorilla to coax you out. Today Val was less than sure.

He decided that maybe locking himself in the bathroom wasn't the best choice, and instead settled on the tantrum. He picked up a book, and chucked it directly at the back of Luke's head, hitting him squarely with a corner of it. As Luke was turning around to confront Val, Val stood
up on the bed and screeched at earsplitting level

"YOU CAN GO FUCK YOURSELF MCNEIL, I AM NOT GOING ANYWHERE!"

The Luke that turned around to confront Val was still not the right one. Instead of yelling, or immediately pulling Val off the bed to spank him, he just said "I'm sorry. I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't throw things at me." He turned back around to continue packing.

Val was working himself up into full brat mode on purpose, but when Luke practically ignored him, the brat turned on full force, against Val's will. He flew off the bed and collided with Luke, sending both of them sprawling on the floor. Luke landed hard, not having expected that attack, and his head hit the ground hard enough to daze him.

Val took that opportunity to sit on Luke's stomach, pinning him to the ground.


"What the hell do you think you're doing McNeil! What do I have to do to make you talk to me! Are you going to do anything about this situation or do I have to torch this Godforsaken place and us in it?!"

Luke stared at him, shaken. Val got up, grabbed Luke's wrists and yanked until Luke stumbled to his feet, followed his partner's push towards the lounge and collapsed on the sofa where Val pushed him. Val folded his arms and fixed Luke with a glare he could feel burning his eyes.

"Whatever your damn problem is we are going to talk about it! Now! Or else I'm going to work out how to get something around that bullneck of yours and strangle you! WHAT is eating you!"

"Don't-" Luke started, raising his voice. Val drowned him out instantly with the prima donna e flat screech, punctuated with a sharply stamped foot.

"DON'T YOU DARE blow me off again McNeil! I have had it with you and your reasonable excuses! I swear to God I am going to make your life a living hell for every minute you hold out on me! WHAT is your problem!"

Luke slowly collapsed back into the sofa and stared at him.

Val surprised himself with his assertiveness. It was rather exciting telling the gorilla what to do, and to see the shocked look on his face.

"Talk, you know how to do that?" Val slowed his speech down, emphasizing his point. "You...just...open...and...cl-"

"I KNOW how to talk, you-"

"Then fucking do it!" Val demanded, stamping his foot again.

"I'm sorry." Luke said, looking at the carpet.

"You're sorry? SORRY? What do YOU have to be sorry about?" Val was practically bouncing around the room in frustration. "It seems I am the only one wh-" He was interrupted by a crushing hug from Luke.

"Kitten, do you have any idea how much I love you?" Luke whispered against the feather soft hair.

Val sensed the change in Luke, and hugged back tightly, feeling more afraid by the second.

Luke continued talking over Val's head, the floodgates released. "The drugs, I can't believe I didn't see it coming. You were different, and I didn't see it. I allowed you to get overworked, you went to drugs for solace, I couldn't help you. I'm sorry for failing you."


Val clung to him and resisted the urge to lose the anger and burst into tears. Because there was just enough truth in what Luke said to hurt.

"You didn't fail me! I should have told you. I hid it from you, I didn't want you to know."

"It's my job to know." Luke said unsteadily. "Whatever you do and say, I know you, I should know when you need help. Not leave you to it."

Val trembled, not sure where this was going but not liking it much.

"It was my fault too." he said at last. "I knew I shouldn't have taken what- what Max gave me. You know Max gave them to me, don't you?"

"I know." Luke said quietly. Val shot him a fearful look.

"I asked him. Not for drugs, but I said to him I was running out of steam and I needed help. When he gave me those pills- I tried one and it worked. I could get through the afternoon. But when I started to come down it was terrible."

"So he gave you the downers as well." Luke said tonelessly. Val buried his hot face in Luke's neck.

"Once I'd started I didn't know how to stop. There just didn't seem any other options. And I was desperate to keep you from finding out- I knew you'd be furious."

"I am." Luke said slowly and heavily. "But with me, not you."

Val's face remained nestled against Luke's neck. He didn't know what to say. He was torn between fear of punishment, and wanting to let Luke know it wasn't his fault. He fought with himself for only a moment, love winning. He backed up, and forced Luke to meet his eyes.

"You are NOT at fault. Yo-"

"I don-"

"STOP IT. I am my own person. I am old enough to vote, I can make my own decisions. I made a wrong one. You are NOT responsible. I hid it from you, and obviously I did a damned good job. You cannot be responsible for things I choose not to tell you."

Luke looked deep into Val's eyes, drowning in the liquid pools of blue. He knew Val was speaking from the heart, and it warmed his own heart.

"And I should have told you." Val added more quietly. "I just knew if I did you'd MAKE it stop. At first that you'd make the tour stop. And later you'd make me stop the pills. And at the time that seemed even worse than going on with it."

"Worse than making yourself so sick?" Luke gripped him, feeling his temper start to flare again, "Do you know how sick you were? You could have died with that combination you were taking!"

"They weren't that bad Luke!" Val sat back, trying to see his face. "I  know they weren't GOOD to take- and I shouldn't have taken them at all- but I'm not that naiive. I didn't overdose and I was careful. I still don't know why I reacted so badly to them. Just bad luck I suppose, although it
served me right in the end."

Luke hesitated for a minute. So many times he'd bitten his tongue over Max Ryman, not wanting to break Val's trust in him. Not wanting to show him one more flaw in a multiflawed world. But this was a time for truth.

"Val." he said gently. "The hospital analysed the pills you were carrying when you collapsed. They do it routinely, although I would have had the pills checked by the police if they hadn't. They weren't a pure cut by any means."

Val frowned at him, eyes uncertain. "What do you mean?"

Luke stroked his back, wanting to soften the blow and not knowing how.

"Like a lot of cheap narcotics, they were cut with other things to make the real drug go further. There was soap powder in what you were taking. Salt. Aspirin. You might as well have gone to a drugs cabinet and made yourself up a cocktail. It was the side effects of the mixture and the bad cut that made you sick. You were lucky your liver wasn't damaged."

Val thought for some time, almost oblivious to the hand stroking his back, trying to comfort him from a realisation he was fast approaching.

"Max couldn't have known what he was buying could he? He could have been duped as well?"

"Kitten, Max is a very wealthy man. And a very streetwise one." Luke said heavily. "If he wanted good quality drugs- he probably could have found someone with a doctor's licence bent enough to prescribe you the real thing."

Silence. Val slipped off Luke's lap and wandered away, arms folded.

"So he wanted me sick." he said eventually. Luke got up and went to him, resting his hands on Val's shoulders, aware for the hundredth time of how slight and small they were for the burden they were asked to carry.

He wanted so desperately to deny it. To give Val the hope it might have been an accident.

But it was no longer right or kind to do so.

"Yes. I think he did. There's a lot of money and publicity when a star of your name gets into trouble. Orion made a lot of cash out of news broadcasts and paper sales when the concerts were cancelled, there were huge amounts of press around the hospital while you were there, it's raised feeling among your fans ten fold."

"And he wanted to control me." Val said tonelessly. "I knew that. He hasn't liked it since you came along. He knows I listen to you now and not him. He wanted us to have something you weren't part of- some hold over me."

Luke sighed heavily. "I'm afraid so Kitten. And he didn't care that it was your life he was taking a chance with. He's lucky the police caught him, I wouldn't have been near as kind."

Val turned and looked into Luke's eyes. He saw that Luke had been telling the truth, there was extreme hate there, directed at Max. "How has Diane handled the press, what are we going back to?"


Luke shrugged a little. "That was Orion's problem. It's been kept very low key. As far as the public know you collapsed from exhaustion and that's all.The rest of the tour was suspended. The story about Max hasn't got out and any rumours have been crushed, the Orion publicity machine is probably as strong as the popular press anyway."

"This could have killed my career, couldn't it?" Val said lightly. "I could have finished it with all this-"

"You could have killed yourself!" Luke said sharply. "Orion will hang on to your career, never you fear, you're worth a damn sight too much money! No one's going to hang onto you but me. And I nearly screwed that up this time."

Val buried his face in his hands. Luke stopped himself with an effort, turned Val around to him and held him tight, rocking him.

"Come on. Come on, it's okay."

"You always hated Max." Val was in tears, Luke could hear the choke in his voice, "You've been fending him away from me for months, I watched you do it. I just thought you were jealous of each other. You knew what he was like, you've been protecting me from him all along."

"I'm sorry." Luke said helplessly. "I couldn't tell you. You get put through so much by Orion. I didn't want you to have to see any more of their crap than you absolutely had to, and you trusted Max-"

"You protect me too much!" Val said angrily. Luke held on to him when he tried to pull away.

"Val. You're barely twenty."

"That doesn't matter a damned bit! I've lived lifetimes more than some people my age! I can handle things myself! I can....I can....oh fuck, I can't do shit." Val burst into tears, too far gone in self pity to take comfort in Luke's warm embrace.

Luke held Val tightly, his hand running gently through Val's hair, hoping the tears would stop soon. It was breaking his heart. When it dawned on him that it wouldn't end soon, he guided Val over to the sofa, and sat down, pulling the younger man into his lap, offering soundless words of
comfort as the entire situation crashed around Val's shoulders.

Val continued crying for some time. When he was able to speak again, all he could repeat was his career this, his career that.

Luke sat still, trying to offer soundless comfort, but slowly realized that Val was looking at the entire episode from a completely wrong angle. He STILL didn't get the point that he'd put his life in danger, and that was all that truly mattered. He had had no intentions of spanking Val over
this entire episode. There was too much hurt, too much time elapsed, too much blame to do that. But he realized that what Val really needed was to be grounded again. He'd come unglued from reality, from life, and was simply floating out with the rest of the stars, in outer space. It was time for a reality check. Luke steeled his nerves, took Val's face in his hands, and hardened his voice.

"Quentin, stop it right there. I've sat here and listened to you cry about the possible damage to your career, the money you'd lose, the standing in the community you'd lose. You're missing
the big picture."

Val was shocked into silence by the tone of voice and demeanor of his bodyguard. The look of shock went still deeper to Luke's heart. Val was just twenty. Too young to be tangled up in business and propaganda, none of which he understood fully anyway. Someone needed to cut through the uncertain fantasy of his world and keep him in touch with the basic facts. The realities he did understand. Luke held his chin and spoke firmly.

"What did I tell you about drugs when I caught you mixing antibiotics and alcohol that time?"

He saw instantly in Val's face that he remembered. And that the memory had several strong emotional ties, far more genuine than concerns about money and public image.

"You- you said if you caught me taking anything I couldn't show you a prescription for- I was dead."

"Why?" Luke said firmly. "Why would I say that?"

"B-because they're dangerous." Val flushed, voice getting less certain by the minute. Luke didn't let him go.

"And why would I worry about that, Val? In case Orion lost some of that money tied up in you?"

Val was bright red now. "No...."

"Why then? Why would that be a problem?"

"Because I could get hurt?"

"Or dead." Luke said grimly. "You could have ended up dead this time. For what? For a few hours stood on a stage in one year of your life. This time next year, Orion could be bankrupt. They could be gone. YOU are still going to be here. Whether you're singing, whether your dancing or whether you're waiting tables you are STILL going to be here and you have a lot of life ahead of you. And no matter what I have to do to stop you taking stupid risks with your life and your health, we are going to survive in one piece through this year and next year and a damn sight longer than Orion will survive for. Do you understand me?"

"Yes." Val said in a very small voice.

Luke let him go, doing an extremely good impression of being both determined and annoyed.

"So we obviously need to work a little harder on basic safety regulations with you. Drop those jeans Quentin. Now."

Val stood a moment in shock, wondering how the conversation had gotten turned around so quickly and he was going to end up getting his butt blistered yet again. The entire conversation had started with him being mad at Luke! He took a quick look at Luke, trying to see if there was any way to talk him out of this. The look of determination set on Luke's face led led him to drop his jeans without complaint.

Luke gently pulled Val across his knees. He locked his arm around the waist and raised his hand up, bringing it smartly down across the white mounds of flesh upturned and waiting. A large, pink handprint was left when the hand was removed. Another spank landed on the other cheek  leaving a matching handprint. Luke didn't think talking was necessary at this point, and he didn't trust his voice to hold out. He simply continued to bring his hand down again and again, covering every inch of the bottom on his lap.

Val was quickly brought to tears. He also didn't feel the need to talk, to beg for Luke to stop. Deep in his heart, this is what he felt he needed. His emotions had been false all along. He had dammed up his true feelings of guilt, and hid behind a mask of nonchalance. Each spank that landed opened the dam wider, until the emotions overflowed and Val was crying as if his heart were breaking.

As soon as Luke heard the crying change from that of physical pain to that of emotional pain he stopped. He pulled Val up and held him close.

Val buried his head deep into the neck, hanging onto Luke as if his life depended upon it, wave after wave of tears tearing through him, exhausting him, but also cleansing him.

"You touch ANYTHING anyone other than a doctor gives you and you are TOAST." Luke said into his hair. "Do you understand me?"

Val nodded, not able to talk. Luke rocked him, holding him tight.

"And when things go wrong, you tell me. Promise me."

"I'm sorry." Once started Val couldn't stop. "I'm sorry. I'm SO sorry."

"Shhh." Luke stroked his hair, hushing him until he calmed down. "Its okay. It's going to be fine, we can handle this. We can handle Orion, we can even handle another agent like Max."

"Do I have to have an agent?"

"I think you have to have a manager." Luke said regretfully. "There's work Max did that's under no one else's brief. It's okay kitten. I made Orion's life hell over this and Diane's put her pennyworth in as well, she's a lady to be reckoned with. They'll take better care of you this time. And I will. No more working until you don't know what to do with yourself. No more tours booked day after day in a row."

Val curled up to him, wanting nothing more now than to cuddle.

"I wish the damn plane would- well not crash exactly."

"I know."

Val twisted to see his face, eyes a little desperate. "I need more time with you."

"Sweetheart, we've been here two weeks together."

"It isn't enough."

Luke lifted his chin and kissed him, deeply and thoroughly, then drew him back down to hold him. "It's a start."

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2010

1 comment:

Sierra said...

sigh.......gosh this is wonderful

Most of the artwork on the blog is by Canadian artist Steve Walker.

Rolf and Ranger’s Next Book will be called The Mary Ellen Carter. The Mary Ellen Carter and other works in progress can be read at either the Falls Chance Ranch Discussion Group or the Falls Chance Forum before they are posted here at the blog. So come and talk to the authors and be a part of a work in progress.





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