Thursday, February 11, 2010


Title: Counterweight
Author: Ranger
Author’s Notes: A huge thankyou and kisses to Hedeia for being the ultimate Damien beta… if not for her, this story would have been binned several times over.

Thanks too to Jose for plot comments and suggestions at a timely moment. And Rolf, who once again flatly refused to let my brat off the hook- that guy is TOUGH- and who put up with the whining and stropping throughout with his usual patience. If you don't talk about the air you breathe, its because its too much a part of everything you do, and because you know nothing much would get done without it.
Someone waving a gun in your face is NOT what you expect when you stop to fill up with petrol. One minute I was peacefully standing flicking through the headlines in the telegraph while I waited in the queue. The next minute the white and trembling girl behind the desk was feverishly unpacking cash from the till and the three other customers and I were frozen in shock, backing away from the teenager in a denim jacket who was waving a small hand gun at us.
Guns aren't something you see in the UK, and the sight of one is enough to petrify most people. The next few seconds lasted for hours. In a maniac series of thoughts I moved from wishing I'd chosen any petrol station but this one, to thanking God Nicky was curled up in front of the fire at home, still buried in his book. I can't honestly say I realised what happened. The man on the other side of me suddenly moved, grabbed the wrist of Mr Denim jacket and as the gun came towards me, I instinctively knocked it out of his hand. The other guy promptly folded Mr Denim over the desk and kicked him sharply enough to stop him struggling and I more or less took hold of his wrists to stop him hitting out. The girl behind the desk came to life and hit the alarm, and I remembered I was carrying a mobile phone. It seemed to take several months before the police arrived and took over.
They wouldn't let anyone go until they had a statement. I ended up sitting on the step to the now-closed garage, drinking coke which was about the nearest the garage could supply to a coffee, and trying to stop my hands shaking.
"I really wouldn't try driving, sir." The policeman said who wrote down my version of events. "Your car will be safe enough here for a few hours. Can I give you a lift home?"
And scare Nick out of his wits? No. I pulled myself together and politely declined before I pulled the phone out. From the length of time it took Nick to get to the phone, either he was enjoying his book to the point of excluding all else, or he'd taken it upstairs to the bath. He sounded wary as Nicky always sounds on the phone, as if he's expecting bad news or some kind of personal assault.
"Its me." I said as lightly as I could manage. "There's a problem with the car, can you come and get me? Queens Road, the corner by the park."
Two minutes walk from here and a route which meant he wouldn't drive past the police cars.
Except being Nicky, he naturally came the most complicated and difficult route he could possibly manage, and I saw him come down the hill directly past the garage, now cordoned off and filled with blue flashing lights. The car swerved as he saw them and stood on the brake. I hastily got up off the kerb and waved, hard enough to attract his attention. He no longer had his mind on driving. I had to press right back against the hedge to avoid being run over as he screeched to a halt more or less in the middle of the road and abandoned the car.
"What's going on? What happened? There's police all over the place, where's your car-"
I grabbed him to forestall any more questions, putting aside my own panic to deal with his. I was not at all sorry for the distraction.
"Its okay. There was a break in-"
"You were there?"
"Yes. It's fine, but the police won't let the car go for an hour or two and I don't feel much like driving."
Despite the fact we were standing in the middle of a public street in full view, Nick got both his hands out of mine and his hug made me stagger. With an armful of warm Nicholas there is never much you can do apart from hold on. And I've always found, once attached, there's never much incentive for letting go.
"I thought there was an accident or something!"
"Why on earth you had to come that way I don't know" I pointed out into his hair. "If you'd come straight from home you wouldn't have seen it all!"
"I went wrong at the roundabout." Nick let me go and headed serenely for the driver's door. I followed him, distracted from the still flashing blue lights with the familiar sensation of exasperated affection.
"HOW many times a week do you do that route? How long have we lived here again?"
"I know, but I was thinking."
"I suppose I'm lucky you got here at all."
He grinned at me, quite unrepentantly, and crunched the gears hard enough to make me wince.
"Do you want to go back via Bristol or Tonbridge Wells?"
"Don't joke about it." I warned him. "Home will do." 
Anastasia zoomed out of the front door the minute I unlocked it, as though she'd been kept a prisoner all her life. Nick clicked to her and once she realised we were going indoors, she shot between my legs, slave to her usual ambition of Getting There First. We followed her into the kitchen and on autopilot, I put the kettle on. In any crisis, big or small, the first step is obviously to make a mug of tea.
Nick's arms wrapped around me from behind with a hesitancy that made me glance down and realise what he'd seen. My hands were still shaking, if anything, still harder. I kicked out a kitchen chair and hastily sat down before my knees gave out too. My body seemed to be reacting entirely independently of me. Nick's arms rested on my knees and I looked down at him, soft eyes anxious, his butterfly hands clasping my hips with surprising strength in their grasp.
There is far, far more to Nicky than ever meets the eye. 
About four years ago, one summer evening, I accepted an invitation to go to the theatre with some friends. Some comedy I wasn't terribly interested in, but it was a better option than another night at home while David was on yet another of his endless business trips. I knew why Jack had invited me. He was no admirer of David's, nor could he understand why David and I continued to be happy to live together.
"That isn't a relationship." He pointed out to me over the phone when he rang with the invitation. "What you two have is casual sex and a three piece suite."
Actually I knew for a fact that wherever David was this week, and whatever his business hours were, he would certainly not be spending his leisure hours alone and in boredom. And I honestly didn't mind. That would have infuriated Jack still further and it was something else I couldn't summon up the energy to explain.  Instead I just accepted the invitation and went to the theatre.
"Who are we waiting for?" I asked Jack when the curtain went up and the sixth seat in our row still wasn't filled. He rolled his eyes at me.
"Someone or other Hayes. Friend of Peter's. He'll turn up sooner or later."
I glanced at my watch as the lights dimmed and the audience settled down around us.
"Is he always this late?"
Peter grinned from Jack's other side. "Nick operates on a different time zone to everyone else. He'll show up."
"The answer is," Jack said under his breath, "To always tell him things start about forty minutes before they actually do. That way he's more or less on time."
I settled down to watch the play, frowning a bit. For all Peter and Jack's good nature, this chap sounded either seriously disorganised or just downright rude.
About half an hour into the performance, I became aware from the vibrating of my phone that I'd forgotten to turn the wretched thing off. I slipped it out of my pocket, tapped Jack's arm to warn him and went up to the foyer as quietly as I could. The call was from David oddly enough. We chatted about this and that for a few minutes. He was spending the night in Birmingham and was deeply amused I'd agreed to sit through a play I usually would have avoided. He was always entertained by Jack's opinion of him as some kind of rakehell. He said he would be home on Friday. I was about to go back in to the theatre, the phone firmly off this time, when two wide, appealing brown eyes caught mine across the room and stopped me more or less in my tracks.
That look made me forget all about the theatre, Jack, David and anyone else. It was a look that begged, clearly and simply, Help Me; and I couldn't have walked away from it if I'd wanted to.
Not quite sure of what I was doing, I found myself crossing the foyer and touching the attendant's arm, although my attention was completely on the young man she was talking to.
"Can I help?"
The brown eyes were still more devastating at close quarters. Heavy hair slipped into those eyes, which were filled with a vague and mildly distressed bewilderment. The attendant shrugged at me, apparently close to despair. Her customer looked up at me with simple trust, and held out his ticket.
"I'm lost."
"How can you be lost? This is a theatre." I took the ticket and read it. And realised. "You ARE lost. This is for the Royal theatre. You're in the Aldgate."
"Oh." He looked blankly at the ticket as though it had been lying to him.
"And," I added, re reading the date, "That performance was three months ago. I don't think you stand much chance of seeing it tonight."
"You know forcing entry to the auditorium is a serious matter-" the attendant began to say, obviously feeling left out. I ignored her. There was something in that bewildered face that made me want to smile.
"Why don't you check your pockets. You've probably got the right ticket on you somewhere."
The man had the pockets of a small boy. Conkers, elastic bands, parking tickets and an electricity bill all came out and started to spill through his fingers onto the floor. Resisting the urge to laugh, which would have been most unkind, I relieved him of his handful and watched him check his jeans, then his jacket in turn. The attendant rolled her eyes to heaven and remarked that should we find the right ticket, would we mind letting her know. The lost individual before me pulled a handful of loose smarties out of his pocket and looked up at me brightly, apparently not in the least phased by melting chocolate.
"I bet I left it in the car."
The thought of what his car must look like if this was a sample of his pockets finally made me laugh out loud. He stuffed the tickets and bill back without regard for what was mixed with what. I grabbed his wrist before he could stuff the chocolate in on top, guided him across to a bin and tipped the melting sweets off his hand.
"Where's the car?"
"In the Lyons street car park." He said reasonably. I sighed. There was a theatre car park attached to the building, which he could easily have accessed and which was well guarded. The Lyons street one was a good half mile away and in the middle of nowhere.
"Well you can't wander over there on your own at this time of night. Are you meeting anyone here?"
"Peter Holden." He said obediently. Light dawned.
"Let me guess. You're Nick Hayes?"
The brown eyes went wide again. I shook my head.
"I'm with them too. Damien Mitchell."
We shook hands without thinking.
"Sorry." Nick said apologetically when I realised I now shared his handful of chocolate. "It IS Cadburies."
And it was the BEST butter.
He trailed me towards the wash room, apparently bewildered by the fact I was laughing.
There was no sign of his car of course.
"What car is it?" I said patiently when he walked down the fifth row as he apparently wasn't at all sure where in the car park he'd left it. He gave me a look that suggested the car changed type without warning on a regular basis, in a deliberate attempt to catch him out.
"Green. Nissan."
"Micra? Sunny?"
"Micra."  He wandered down the sixth row.
"Are you SURE you parked in this car park?" I asked, beginning against my will to enjoy myself. Nick hesitated, clearly considering the possibility.
"I think so."
"But you're not sure?"
"Well sometimes I park on Mereway."
I sighed. "Much as I hate to ask, if you looked at the pay and display ticket, it would probably tell you the name of the car park."
"But this is an evening, you don't need to pay and display on an evening."
"On a weekday evening." I pointed out. "Weekends have their own parking rates, which is why there are notices placed at strategic intervals around- you didn't get a ticket did you?"
"I thought-"
I headed for the security guard's office on the corner. "What's your registration number?"
"It changed recently and-"
"R reg? S?"
I attracted the attention of the security guard and established to no one's very great surprise that the car had been towed away. I was about to give Nick the recovery receipt when I thought of the junk already in his pockets and put it into mine.
"Come on."
"Well you can't get into the theatre and I can't just leave you here, we'd better go and collect your car." 
Pathetic as it sounds, the entire garage incident bothered me deeply for I suppose about a week. No one seemed prepared to let it drop. The police called round before the end of the day, wanting to check my statement and to give notice I would be required in the magistrates court in case I was needed as a witness. While I was talking to one officer, Nicky corralled the other one in the kitchen and dragged the entire story out of him, which I was less than happy about. On top of which the local press then got involved and I came home the following day to a wildly excited Nicholas and a newspaper front page, about Two Local Men Disarm Gunman.  That would have ended up stuck to the fridge, had I not put my foot down. Along with two plastic penguins and the handful of magnetic letters which he insists no fridge should be without, and which he hides whenever I try to 'lose' them. I did succeed in losing the newspaper article, but failed to prevent him buying another copy of the paper and mailing the article to my parents.
I kept dreaming about the incident, although oddly enough it was never nightmares about the gun actually going off. Mostly it was watching the events happen and worrying about whether I was in the right place and making the right moves when the time came for me to knock the gun out of his hand. They reminded me vaguely of dreams I used to have at school when an important cricket match was coming up- mentally rehearsing and rehearsing a vital wicket. Nicky didn't say much. He often doesn't, but he was 'around' more than usual. Whatever I did, from mowing to drawing, he was within arm's reach, chin on his knees, buried in a book or a sketch pad. Wherever I sat down I seemed to have a brat trying to occupy the same square inch of floor or chair with me. And a jealous cat trying to prise her way in between us. When Nicky did his St Francis act with her, I don't think he realised how much competition he was setting up. On Wednesday night- actually VERY early Thursday morning- I got tired enough of the dreams to go downstairs, make coffee and try to think of something to do at two am that wouldn't disturb Nicky. I was only at the table five minutes before arms slipped around my neck from behind and I felt Nick lean on my shoulders.
"You know what we haven't done for ages?" he said above me. I tipped my head back against him to see his face.
"Walked around the castle."
He was right. It was a clear, warm night and the streets were deserted when we abandoned an indignant kitten and walked through the back roads and alleyways to get to the castle site. The inner keep was locked, but the outer bailey and the earthworks were grey in the moonlight and the two huge floodlights shining up on the white castle stone. We spent two hours drifting around the site, hand in hand, re reading the National Trust information boards in peace and tranquility, and went back to bed cold but drowsy enough on medieval history to sleep.
We were wandering around a shopping centre about a week later when it dawned on me just how self absorbed I'd let myself become in all this. Nick loathes crowds and shopping bores him to tears. It usually takes cajoling and brute force to get him into anything other than the local supermarket on a Saturday, and he'd come with me this afternoon like a lamb. The revelation struck me somewhere in the middle of John Lewis when I automatically looked around for him, expecting to find him sitting cross legged on the floor with his little Orphan Annie look, or slipped quietly away to find something more interesting. He was standing exactly where I'd left him, bored but plaintively attentive. That brought it home to me as nothing else could have done: I'd been in a world of my own all week and he was obviously, patiently doing his best to help. I hadn't even noticed. Feeling thoroughly guilty, I abandoned the drills I was inspecting and went to release him from his misery. Further down the hall were bookshops he'd happily bury himself in while I carried on looking for the drill bits I wanted. Usually he would have made it abundantly clear what he thought of drills and abandoned me in short order: how ever desperate he must be for my- for any- attention, he didn't have to torture himself quite so severely.
"Had enough?"
He looked up and smiled. The I'm more or less listening but the mind is on other things smile. I tousled his hair.
"Come on. I'll try somewhere else."
He drifted with me towards the door. I realised with a jolt of shock somewhere along the line that he was snuffling, and as he vanished with alacrity into Waterstones, I heard him cough.
That about trebled the guilt.
Colds aren't something we can afford to take lightly with him, they're one of the worst triggers for his asthma. I should have been watching him like a hawk, not to mention making sure he did extra peak flow checks. Things he never thinks about without nagging. I couldn't believe I'd missed something so important.
I headed for the nearest hardware store, not very happy with myself. When I first met him, his asthma wasn't under any kind of control. It took hard work and several months before we had it pinned down and got the panic out of our lives, I had no intention of letting it back in. I was reflecting darkly on that when I passed a display that caught my eye. Mobile phones. I've long since carried one for work. And admittedly because I can spend not a little time working on site, and it's worried me that Nick might not be able to get hold of me in an emergency. I'd tried to talk him into having one for a long time, but he shied away from the whole idea, he hated seeing people use them and he hated using mine. He'd probably be happier with a carrier pigeon, but I couldn't help thinking of  the risks we both ran when he had colds. I'd feel happier knowing he had immediate access to me or to any other help he needed. Glancing over the rack of phones I once more found myself thinking of last Saturday and the group of us stuck in the garage in front of a maniac with a gun. If not for my mobile, we'd have been unable to call help. I shook off the chills that image brought back and decided on the spot.
 Maybe it was time to get him over this phone phobia. 
There was no point arguing with him about it tonight. If I handed it to him on Monday morning, with luck he'd have no time to think too much about it, or argue too much with it. With that in mind, I put it away in my desk and settled to get some work finished. It was nearly ten when I turned the desk light out and went downstairs. Nick was curled up on the sofa, engrossed in something which I realised after a second glance was totally unsuitable, and which in the usual way he wouldn't have tried watching under my nose. Well, I hadn't been paying him much attention this week, he wouldn't be human if he didn't take some advantage. Unfortunately for him, I was once more concentrating and as far as he was concerned, the film was finished. I took the remote out of his hand as I passed him and turned the set off, aware of Nick's glare of indignation.
"I was watching that!"
"Not any more you're not." I reassured him.
I handed him back the remote and headed for the kitchen in search of coffee. Nick followed me, still scowling. He does it well.
"No one else I KNOW gets interfered with over what they watch!"
"Probably they have partners who know they won't be upset by what they watch." I suggested cheerfully, kissed the expertly stuck out lip as I passed it and hooked two mugs out of the cupboard. "Besides which, it's too late to be getting into any film. The way you're sniffling you could do with an early night."
"If you had your way, I'd watch nothing but Walt Disney." Nick muttered under his breath.
"And Blue Peter." I reminded him. "You forgot Blue Peter."
"YOU're the one who makes me watch horror films!"
"I know you're never going to sit through one of those alone."
I could hear him muttering. Nick headed towards the stairs.
"If that TV goes on up there, there'll be trouble." I called after him.
He didn't QUITE stamp upstairs.  Yep, I had definitely let things slide over the last few days. Mind you, Nick is a sweet natured, easy going boy, never exactly hard to manage. 
We picked his car up, but I never did make it home…
It very quickly got to be a habit that he would phone about mid morning, and we'd meet in town for lunch, and one of us would have a good reason why we needed to meet after work, and then somehow the evening would disappear without us noticing. It quickly got so that little happened without me mentally recording it to repeat to him- nothing passed through my head that I didn't want to see through his eyes too.
David had a prior claim on my time, and mostly through guilt I arranged with Nick to meet him after work and spared David forty five minutes for lunch one day in that first week. Where we went, what we ate and what we talked about I have no idea. David and I were used to communicating almost entirely through casual conversation, and still now we can talk for hours without effort. I still excused myself somewhere during the meal, slipped outside and called Nicky.
We'd known each other less than seven days, but I recognised the different tone in his voice the minute he answered the phone. Bright, sweet and charming, with the manic edge that sets off warning bells. He was fine. He was in the park enjoying his lunch break and eating lunch. Yes he was fine. Absolutely fine. Yes.
I shut the phone off and wandered back to David. I still, to my shame, have no idea what David was talking about. I sat down at the table, completely oblivious, until David paused for breath. Then I knew it was no good. I made a brief and from what I've been told, a completely incoherent apology, and fled.
The park appeared to be knee deep in highly irate geese. They were everywhere. Covering the grass, sitting on the benches, chasing OAPs. Nick was in the middle of a large crowd, explaining something at length to a park keeper, while the rest of the crowd shouted at him and each other. His look when he saw me was open delight and not a little relief. Well this was going to be a challenge… I waded into the circle, put my hands on his shoulders and caught the attention of the park keeper as the noisiest combatant.
Apparently Nick had met up with a noisy and rather aggressive stray dog, who had been bothering several people in the park. Not happy with the barking and growling, and seeing a fenced enclosure, he opened the door, let the dog in and closed the gate. A few minutes later, he realised from the panicking of the geese, he'd let the dogs into their aviary. So, concerned the dog was chasing the geese, he opened the gate at the other end of the enclosure and let the geese out. The park keeper had apparently taken exception to this, and remonstrated with the geese with a litter stick. Nick had felt that this was unnecessarily stressful for the geese and had removed the litter stick from the situation by throwing it out of reach into the lake. Which was unfortunate, as the keeper clearly set a great deal of store by his stick, which as I was repeatedly informed, was council property.
It took sincere effort and several minutes to talk the entire group around, but they dispersed, leaving Nick still clutching my hand. The council number the park keeper provided, led to the dispatching of someone to contain the dog, recover the geese and replace the litter stick. When the park regained its tranquility, I steered Nick into the nearest café where I ordered several coffees and then tried gently to point out to him that he possibly shouldn't have involved himself quite so deeply in the situation. I realised within a few minutes that he was still panicked enough that not a word was entering his mind, they were just bouncing straight off, and that he was still talking hard enough to deflect everything I said. He was such a mixture, this boy. Genuine innocence, dreaminess, without the forethought of basic cause and effect- anyone who lived with him would have to be prepared for full time crisis. Or they'd have to learn the knack of staying one step ahead of him and of making sure they knew how to make Nick listen to them. When I found myself mentally planning exactly how I'd do it, I swallowed and stopped, thinking of David. 
"Where are you going?" Nick rolled over and pulled at my t shirt to stop me. Usually he's out of bed hours before me; Sunday is the one day he'll lie around and read. I leaned back for one last kiss before I got up.
"I want a paper."
"We can get one later…" he gave me the look he's learned from Anastasia and it's about as irresistible, but I prised myself away from temptation.
"I know your idea of later. The shops will be shut. I won't be long."
It's about a half mile walk to the nearest garage and it was a lovely morning. Warm enough to cover the chill when I reached the garage forecourt. Of course nothing happened. I knew nothing would but it still helped to go in and do it. There were multiple places I could have gone for a paper this morning, but when I came out of the garage, paper in hand, I felt a lot better. Nick had actually suggested doing this more than once, and he was right. I knew had I told him where I was going, he would have offered too to come with me, but I wanted to face the room alone. Now I'd done it, I knew I'd have no more problems with it.
The house was empty. Anastasia skipped across the carpet to me, leapt up onto the telephone table and pushed the paper onto the floor. There IS nowhere in the house that's out of her reach. I left her murdering the broadsheets and opened the kitchen door, frowning at the sound of the motor coming from the garden.
Nick was mowing.
Apart from the fact that it usually takes coercion and outright threats to get him to do anything in the garden, I'd actually banned him from mowing a couple of months ago, out of fear he would significantly mutilate himself. Organisation and safety are not things he is good at, and he'd finally taken one risk too many for me to be able to bear. I clicked the plug out of the wall in the kitchen, killing the mower instantly, and headed across the lawn to him, not amused. He worried me badly, handling machinery alone.
"I thought mowing was something you didn't get involved in?"
Nick's usual caught-out look is somewhere between guilt and bewilderment. This look was flat out mutiny. I realised, startled, this was not Nick being muddled.
This was Nick about to be thoroughly difficult.
"It's my damn grass and mower as much as yours. It needs doing and I'm doing it."
In the tone he used, that was a challenge, not a comment, and it came as quite a surprise. Twenty minutes ago he'd been sleepy, relaxed and happy- what on earth had set him off like this I had no idea, but if he wanted to debate rules with me, he was going to have to work on a different approach. I put a hand on his shoulder and steered him across the lawn ahead of me.
"WHAT?" Nick said angrily, "I CAN mow! I did actually manage to survive before you come along!"
I led him across to the corner of the kitchen, arms folded, visibly fuming. I left him to fulminate, turned the socket back on and finished mowing the lawn. He can throw a surprisingly good tantrum for someone so quiet, but he usually blows himself out fairly quickly. I expected to return to a subdued and penitent brat when I put the mower away.
"Have you finished with me yet?" he snapped as soon as I came in the door. I frowned, beginning to be thoroughly annoyed.
"So long as I hear that tone of voice, we won't even be starting. Turn around."
He turned back to the wall. Loudly. I shut the kitchen door on him and left him to stew for the best part of twenty minutes, wondering what on earth had bitten him. In a minute he'd calm down to his usual sweet nature, we'd talk and I'd find out what had flipped him.
It was apparent as soon as I opened the kitchen door, that it wasn't going to happen. Obviously no calmer and no happier, he was still seething with a face like thunder.
"Sit down." I said firmly, giving him no time to dig himself in any deeper. He sat, but wouldn't look at me, slumped back in his chair.
"I thought we established that you didn't mow?" I said as an invitation. Nick didn't take his eyes off the table.
"I'm perfectly capable of mowing the damn lawn. What do you think I did before you lived with me? Chewed it down?"
I glared him down, sharpening my voice. "Nicholas. That is NOT the issue. I forbade you to use the mower because you wouldn't use it safely-"
I heard the mutter this time, half under his breath but a good old Anglo-Saxon response to a disputed fact. I got up and found what I wanted in the cupboard, a bottle and spoon, growing less amused by the minute.
"Right. I am not debating anything whatsoever with you in this kind of temper or in this kind of language. NOR will I tolerate being sworn at."
I poured cod liver oil into the spoon and held it out to him. Soap admittedly is more usual, but more than a few chemicals in food exacerbate his asthma, and apart from that I was seriously against doing anything likely to obstruct the airway of someone who suffers with or has been seriously frightened by breathing problems. Nick loathes fish with a passion and the sight of the bottle is enough to make him think long and hard. He was looking at me now as though I was holding a live snake out to him. This is usually the point he resorts to charm, apology and anything else he can think of. What I got was a glower of completely un-Nick like ferocity and he knocked the spoon out of my hand. Followed by the bottle, which shattered on the floor. I was too surprised to react for a minute, and I suspect, so was Nick. Then shock gave way to wry determination. This was a new innovation and it definitely was NOT getting the chance to become a habit. I drew out a chair, took his wrist and pulled him around the spilt oil and glass.
"Take those jeans down. NOW. And if I hear another WORD from you, you'll be going upstairs to get the paddle. MOVE."
That startled him. His hands hastily went to his belt and he slowly lowered his jeans to half mast. I drew him down over my lap and pulled his shorts down, aware his back was still taut with defiance as much as apprehension. I brought my hand down hard and felt him jump with surprise at how hard. If it took the rest of the day, he was going to find this a convincing argument. I moved from one cheek to the other, scalding both a darker and darker pink. He was kicking within a minute, and in another minute hisses and yelps changed tone and began to be communicative rather than resentful. At the point I started to hear my name mixed in with whatever else he was saying, he sounded pretty well convinced. I didn't stop until he was sobbing and then I picked him up before he could slide down into broken glass. Anastasia galloped across the room and leapt up onto the sofa arm as I sat down, Nick on my lap. He twisted around and got both arms around my neck, clutching. I fended Anastasia off his hair, picked her up with one hand around her ridiculously small body and put her down on the floor. She did her crabwise gallop, tail raised, fur fluffed, highly indignant, then zoomed off in search of something else to attack. I held Nick tight and waited, turning my chin against his hair. It was a while before he started to relax and I freed a hand to stroke his back, tracing the familiar outline of shoulders and spine.
"What on earth was that about?"
He turned his head and curled up tighter against me. "Sorry."
He'd been saying that incoherently for some time.
"I know. Do you want to tell me what you were so furious about?"
"I can mow. I'm not entirely useless."
If he'd tried that tone of voice to begin with, he might very well have got his own way.
"I know you're not." I said gently, "But I said no. You lose your temper with the mower and forget to use it safely and I'm terrified you're going to hurt yourself. Anyway, what's this sudden, desperate urge to mow the lawn?"
"It was there and it needed doing." Nick said unsteadily. I nearly smiled. Anything he was forbidden instantly became attractive. It wasn't like him to defy me like this though. Not without a reason.
"I can use it safely. I managed before I met you."
I stroked his hair, wondering where this was coming from.
"You DON'T use it anywhere near safely enough for me to be happy about it. No."
I pulled his chin up and kissed him, aware he was still far from happy. He turned and got his arms around my neck again. 
His response to the phone on Monday morning reminded me of one of my mother's puppies when first introduced to a lead.
A look of shocked, heartfelt outrage and betrayal, followed by bouncing up and down with indignation, then sitting down and refusing to go anywhere.
"It's a phone," I said soothingly, trying to persuade him to put it in his pocket. "You don't need to do anything with it, just put away and it's there if you need to use it."
"I wouldn’t have a clue how to use it!" Nick said from the doorstep where he was sitting, preventing me from locking the front door. One of our neighbours came to collect the milk from the doorstep and I saw the look as she caught Nicky's eye- no doubt wondering what I was doing to my poor, fragile, helpless boy now. Nick gave her a look of pure tragedy. I gave her a polite smile that in no way convinced her I wasn't a brute, and once more put the phone into Nick's hands.
"I can show you how, it isn't difficult. It’s the simplest one I could find. Come on darling, it won't bite you. I'll charge it, it's on now, put it away and forget about it."
"You KNOW I hate mobiles!"  Nick told me for third time. "They're horrible things, and you're going to make me use the blasted thing, I know you will-"
"I only want you to carry it. That's all. At least then I know if you need help you've got means of contacting-"
"Why don't you just buy a pair of handcuffs and be done with it!" Nick glared at me with the same flash of anger I'd seen yesterday morning. I lifted an eyebrow at him, quietening my tone beyond earshot of any witnesses.
"Unless you want to go back inside and debate that, I'd stop. Now. Put it in your pocket, I don't want to hear any more about it."
Lip out, Nick got to his feet. I caught his eye before I pulled the door closed.
"And if it gets lost, broken, stolen or drowned, we will spend the following Saturday at Alton Towers. All day. And I will drag you on every single rollercoaster I can lay my hands on."
His eyes went wide with horror. I locked the door, fairly sure that was not a risk he was about to take. 
He was so late home Monday evening that I rang the mobile in the end. He usually finishes hours before me. The message on the cellphone was short and to the point.
"The customer you are calling may have his cell phone switched off.."
The customer I was calling was going to get a flea in his ear when I got hold of him. He finally appeared at ten to seven, looking tired and fed up. I was so relieved to hear the car in the drive I had the door open before he could unlock it.
"What on earth happened to you?"
"I went for a drink with a friend."
He walked past me, dropped his coat over the bannister and headed for the sink.
Okay, it was going to be one of those evenings. Why, I had no idea, but the storm warning signs were loud and clear.
I shut the door and went after him, keeping my voice calm.
"Allright. Sit down. Let's take this a step at a time."
"Oh God." Nick said to the ceiling.
"Sit!" I said sharply. He sat. And looked at me with the same flat defiance I'd seen yesterday.
I leaned against the counter and folded my arms.
"You're carrying a phone. I'll assume wherever you went for a drink there are phones. You couldn't call me?"
"I forgot." Nick said bluntly.
"You forgot? What time are you supposed to be home? If you DON'T ring first to warn me you'll be late?"
Not mumbled. Not evaded. This was a flat out challenge.
"Phone." I said shortly, holding out a hand. Nick shrugged.
"It's in the car."
"Then get it. It doesn't stay in the car, it stays with you."
I watched him move past me, with a deliberate casualness that made me long to clobber him. Maybe he was eating too much sugar. Maybe this was to do with his cold. He handed me the phone. I checked the battery and found he'd had it turned off all day. 
I put it down on the table and fixed him with a Look.
"That stays turned on. I'll ring it during the day and if it isn't turned on and you don't answer, there is going to be trouble. Understand?"
From his scowl he understood. I leaned on the table, meeting him glare for glare.
"And you can consider yourself grounded until Monday."
"WHY?" Nick demanded. I raised an eyebrow at him.
"Take a wild guess. You get yourself home by six or you telephone. Go upstairs, change, bring your medication down here."
I could hear him stamping about upstairs while I reheated the parts of dinner that had cooled waiting for him. This was going to be a fun evening, I could tell. He reappeared in jeans and a sweater, obviously sullen and without medication. I put the plates down and looked at him.
"Medication. Inhalers, peak flow log."
"I'll do it after tea."
"I said I'll do it later!"
"One." I said, losing patience. "Two…."
He moved. I heard him thumping all the way upstairs. He returned with the inhalers and dropped them on the table, picking up the steroid one first. I sat down and reached to pull it out of his hand.
"Peak flow."
"I don't NEED to do a test."
"Peak flow."
"They're MY lungs!" Nick shook hair out of his eyes and reached again for the inhaler. I pocketed both of them. He shoved his chair back from the table and I wondered why I'd bothered to take anything out of the oven. We obviously weren't going to get around to eating in the next half hour or so. I caught his hand and stopped the storm out before he had it fully choreographed.
"I'm getting tired of all this stamping about. Go upstairs, get the kit, bring it down. Now."
"Now." I repeated, more firmly. And waited. Nick muttered something under his breath and ran upstairs.
"I'll do the damn tests when I need to do them! I DON'T see why we have to do them on your timetable!"
Control freak control freak control freak. He didn't have to say it. I unpacked the kit and handed him the monitor.
"Because I say so."
I could see him seriously thinking about throwing it back at me. I mentally shook my head and reached to take it back before he made a still more serious mistake.
"Sit down."
"Do you want me to do the damn tests or-"
"Nicholas. Sit down and calm down." I said sternly. "If you've got a cold, you need to do more regular tests than usual and I need to know what the readings are."
"Anyone would think it was your bloody condition."
Deep breath. I put the kit in front of him and gave him a pleasant smile.
"You are going to do those tests. Without another word. And then we are going to eat. Do it."
We had a few options if he refused, most of which meant affecting his breathing, which would blow the whole point of doing a test in the first place. On the other hand, he'd grown up in a household where he had his parents over a barrel, never wanting to push too far because of the risks in stressing his asthma. He hadn't manipulated them intentionally, but like any kid, he'd found what worked. It didn't work with me, and he'd always known that.
However I wasn't sorry when he picked up the monitor and did the tests. The results weren't bad. At least I knew, looking at the figures, we weren't like to be dealing with serious panics in the middle of the night. Once he'd given in with the tests, he took the inhalers without me commenting. He was quiet all through the meal, not eating much and clearly not happy. I watched him, somewhere between exasperation and concern. It took a lot to push him out of temper like this and it was never a good sign. Nick is a man of  many talents, but handling stress- emotionally or physically- is not one of them. He curled up in the armchair in front of the tv all evening with Anastasia asleep on his lap, and pretended I wasn't there. I took no notice. Just got up at nine thirty and turned the tv off, holding out a hand to him.
"Come on. Bed. I think you could do with an early night."
"I know when I'm damn well tired thankyou, and when I am, I'll go to bed. If you're tired, YOU go."
If there is a better argument for an early night, I have yet to hear it.
"I BEG your pardon?" I said sharply.
He glowered at me but dropped his voice a little. "I said, I'm not tired." 
I put a hand over his wrist and pulled him to his feet. "Point one. If you use that tone of voice to me one more time tonight, you and I are going to fall out. Point two, I did not ask you if you felt tired, I said, I said I thought you needed an early night. Point three, get yourself upstairs. NOW." 
Make Me. I could see it in his eyes. At this moment he was too wound up to care what happened, he was just going to fight me, flat out, for as long as he could. 
Allen met me in the Green Man at lunchtime, put a pint down in front of me and sat, waiting patiently.
"Maybe it's a full moon or something."
I snorted. "If he keeps this up for another twenty four hours I may have to do something to him. Like wring his neck."
"Things okay at work?" Allen said gently. I pulled a face at him.
"Yes. Well as far as I know. He's usually an open book. I know that hold up shook me, I didn't pay him much attention at all for a week- I'm starting to worry something happened and I missed it."
"Something gone wrong and he's not telling you?"
"No." I said at once. "I know Nick guilty, it's not that. Apart from which, he WOULD tell me. I don't know if he's upset about something that passed me by or he's just annoyed I blanked him out- I tried to get him to talk last night, but by the time I actually got him to bed, I was exhausted and he was too upset for either of us to say anything."
"Damien he was worried to death about you that week, I doubt he thought about anything else but you for the entire time."
I deserved that. I scowled at the lager, tilting the glass between my hands.
"I know. He was wonderful- the whole week, I was sleeping like hell and I know I pretty much ignored him- he spent hours with me, he was the one who talked me into going back to the garage- then he went from Jekyll to Hyde at about nine thirty am. Sunday morning and he's been hell on wheels ever since."
"You've had a few near misses with his asthma, haven't you?" Allen interrupted me. I looked at him, confused.
"Yes. A couple."
"New Year wasn't it? A year or two back, you seriously thought he wouldn't come out of that?"
I frowned. Allen picked up his pint.
"When you realised he was going to be allright and the crisis was over, how were you?"
"Bloody thankful." I said sharply. Allen shrugged.
"He must have scared the hell out of you. Doesn't that ever annoy you? I know it's irrational, but most people would be very, very angry with someone they loved making them that frightened. Whether or not it would be their fault would probably be irrelevant."
I looked at him, shaken. Allen shrugged again.
"I wouldn't know. Just wondered."
"No." I said eventually, not thinking about asthma at all. "I mean he was very honest with me right from the start, he has brittle asthma as well as the chronic- he can deteriorate very fast. It's something we just live with."
But Nicky wasn't at all used or prepared to me being at risk like that. Thinking about it, it made perfect sense. He wasn't just angry, he was bloody furious with me; and what he was doing- not defiance so much as challenging me on his independence. His message had been consistent all along. I don't have to need you. 
It's always the way. You walk in the door, ready to sit them down and talk, and they make sure there are at least two hundred things you have to do first.
I came home to find the hall strewn with his belongings, jacket, shoes and bag abandoned, the milk left out of the fridge and the kitchen looking like a bomb had hit it. I took a few deep breaths and went upstairs in search of Nick. He was in the shower and my request to talk was met by a snap and the shower door jerked out of my hand.
"I'm having a bloody shower, can't you leave me in peace for two minutes!"
Allright. There was no way I could talk to or negotiate with him in that kind of language, and I was not prepared to put up with another second of this, no matter what his reasons were. If he spent the whole of the rest of the month in the corner, I was not listening to another word in that tone or looking at one more scowl. I abandoned all thoughts of negotiation, pulled him out of the shower and sat on the edge of the bath to turn him over my knee, still dripping.
"RIGHT. This is where it stops young man. I have had ENOUGH! You have pushed your luck as far as it goes, do you understand me!"
Silence. I swatted him, hard.
He burst into tears. Not at all sure if I was more worried or exasperated, I let him squirm free, turned him around and held him, quite prepared to put him right back over my lap if he wasn't about to talk sense.
"NOW what's the matter! No, you're not going anywhere, stop it."
He stopped struggling. I pushed his hair back out of his eyes and prised him away to see his face. No clues there. Nick swiped a hand over his eyes and I got another glare so ferocious I winced on it.
"You have to be so bloody tough, don't you!"
I looked at him blankly. Nick fought me off and got to his feet. After the wrestling match, I was now wetter than he was. Nick snatched a towel off the door and began to scour himself down as if he was trying to take limbs off, heading for our room.
"You always have to go one further! Like you couldn't stand in that bloody garage and keep quiet, could you? Oh no. Mr Damien Bloody Mitchell to the rescue again."
"I didn't-" I began, startled, following him.
"The police told me what you did!" Nick's voice reached a flat out shout, angrier than I'd ever heard him. "You told me you just knocked the gun out of his hand! They said you and that other guy jumped him! You couldn't just stand out of the way, you had to jump him and make the world safe for the rest of humanity- give you your cricket bat and you'd die like a man-"
"DON'T you Nicky me." Nick spat, pulling my jeans on instead of his. They didn’t fit him. I watched him struggle with growing distress and sympathy but couldn't imagine it would help to point out to him what the problem was.
"I didn't mean to do it, I just saw the hand come towards me and-"
"Jumped a man with a loaded gun. Yes. I'm sure your funeral would have been lovely. They could give me the George Cross for you and I could hang it on the mantelpiece. I'm sure that would have been fine. What the FUCK is the matter with these wretched jeans!"
"They're mine," I said gently, finding his, "Why don't you-"
He ripped them out of my hands and hurled them at me. "THAT IS SO TYPICAL OF YOU!"
I grabbed his wrists and pushed until he folded up on the end of the bed, holding him tightly enough to keep him face to face with me.
"Allright, that's enough. If you're angry with me, tell me, but you're not going to throw another paddy. Talk."
He glared at me, his brown eyes glinting he was so furious.
"WHY do you always have to step in? He could have shot you!"
"I don't know." I said honestly. "I didn't think about it, it just happened- the other guy jumped him and needed help-"
"And you're under compulsion to save the world."
"I didn't do it on purpose, Nicky. The guy moved and I grabbed, that was all. I'm sorry."
He looked at me.
There was nothing else I could say. He wasn't going to stop feeling like this just because he'd told me about it. It was going to take time for him to get past this. And I wondered to what extent this was also a reaction to my ignoring him for a week while I was so upset. We weren't in the habit of being 'unavailable' to each other, I'd withdrawn and left him miserable and alone, with no way of controlling the stress I'd put him under. He'd been fine while we were actually under pressure, he'd done his best to support me- but now we were back on an even keel, I couldn’t expect him not to react, whether or not he realised what he was doing.
"Okay." I said gently. "I can understand you're not too happy with me, and I know I haven't been too consistent the last week or two-"
"For God's sake, you're not under contract to be so bloody perfect!" Nicky pulled his hands away from me. I held him where he was on the end of the bed.
"-And I know it's been a rotten couple of weeks for you."
"I am NOT the self centred bastard you think I am!" Nick managed to wrench away from me and folded his arms tight. "Do you think I don't care how upset you were? You had nightmares for days!"
I sighed and held out my arms to him.
"Come here."
"Nicky.  Pick that towel up off the floor and come here."
"No!" Nick scowled at me, arms still tightly folded around himself. "At this moment, I don't want to do anything much for you. I don't want to talk to you, I just want you to leave me alone for a while."
"That isn't going to happen." I said gently. "I don't expect you to stop being angry with me, that's fine. And you don't have to say any more than the basics of civility if that's how you feel. But it doesn't mean you can behave any differently to usual."
"I'll do whatever the hell I like." Nick said sharply.
I shook my head. "You won't. If you want to fight about it, we can do that, but its not going to be much fun for either of us and we both know how it's going to turn out. Pick that towel up and come here. Come on."
I seriously wondered if he'd lose his temper, but after a moment's pause, he moved the wet towel from the floor to the radiator. Slowly and sullenly he came to me and I pulled him down into my lap, holding him as much for my own comfort as for his.
"Listen to me. I'm sorry this robbery upset you so much. I'm sorry I got involved in it. I wish to God that blasted copper had kept his mouth shut. But how ever you feel or how ever obnoxious you feel like being, you know I love you."
Nick snorted faintly. "I love you too. I just want to wring your neck."
"That's fine. That you can do whenever you want."
I heard his forlorn sputter of amusement and smiled.
"Just don't go using the rules as an offensive weapon, hey? They're not going to budge an inch and you're going to make yourself as miserable as you can make me."
 He was pale but he nodded slowly. I pulled his head down and kissed his forehead, snatching a quick hug.
"So go downstairs and straighten that mess out. You've got five minutes. And if I see the hall in that state again, I'm going to find a few more housework jobs that need doing. You've been warned."
He slipped off my lap and this time found the right jeans to put on. The hall was immaculate when I went downstairs and he was buried in the freezer, looking for ideas for tea. The look I got was still edgy. We might have come to an understanding, but I had a fair idea we were in for a rough few days. 
"I don't KNOW where it is!" Nick said for the third time. I paused, tie half knotted and looked at him.
"Alton Towers…."
"If I knew, I'd get it! How should I know where it is?"
"Because," I said, resisting the urge to debate that, "It stands to reason that where ever it is, you probably put it there."
The bedside phone bleeped as I dialled. When I heard the ring, I put the receiver down and followed Nick downstairs. The ringing was clearer down there. I wandered into the kitchen, thought for a minute, then checked the freezer. The phone was cold, but apparently in perfect working order. I handed it to him by the aerial.
"I'd be careful which pocket you put it in."
He grabbed it and stormed upstairs. I let him go, amused. So far, without actually 'losing' it, he'd tried putting in the washing machine, burying it in a flowerbed along with newly planted petunias and now deep freezing. None of it actually deliberate of course. In between times he told me about how it microwaved the brain. I kept finding internet articles on the subject laid out on the desk upstairs.
"I'm going to be late home tonight." He said from the top of the stairs. I finished knotting my tie in the downstairs mirror.
"Actually, you're not. You're still grounded, remember?"
"That was Monday!" Nick said in a voice which suggested I was being completely unreasonable. I tugged the knot straight and went upstairs for my jacket. Anastasia swiped at me through the banisters as I passed her on the landing, then cantered off, tail raised.
"And you stay grounded until this Monday coming."
"It’s a commitment I can't get out of!" Nick paused on the landing, sweater half on. "I SAID I'd drive Robin to this rally tonight-"
"He's going to have to find someone else to go with, Nick. Ring him and explain, he'll understand."
Nick yanked the sweater on the rest of the way and stormed into the bathroom, slamming the door. So much for effective reasoning. I caught it on the rebound.
"Come here."
He came very slowly, somewhere between hesitancy and sullenness. I fixed him with a steady look.
"I SAID, ring him, he'll understand."
Silence. I waited. Nick folded his arms and scowled at the floor. I resisted the urge to sigh and drew him out of the bathroom into the nearest corner. He stood there, head against the wall, arms still folded while I made the bed and fed Anastasia. It was twenty past seven when I came back upstairs.
"Decided yet?"
Nick didn't turn around. Okay, it was his decision. Personally I hated him being late. Spanking him was never the way I wanted to start a day, and sending him to work when he was tearful and still upset came somewhere between germ warfare and being dragged over a mile of broken glass on my list of favourite pastimes, but it looked like he was going to insist.
"Fine." I said, and left him where he was. Anastasia leapt onto my lap in the kitchen and I devoted a few minutes to telling her how beautiful she was. It was something of a change to talk to someone in a good mood. At seven thirty I once more went upstairs.
He turned this time, but the answer I got was the increasingly familiar scowl. I glanced at my watch.
"Okay. We haven't got the time to talk about this any further now, we'll deal with it after work. Finish the hoovering and get your coat."
"It's too LATE to do the hoovering, I'll do it tonight!" Nick said hotly.
"YOU made yourself late." I pointed out. "Get on with it. Now."
Muttering, Nick got on with it.
I waited downstairs, listening to the crash of the hoover against as many pieces of furniture as he could find. I wondered if he was managing to be in a better temper at work, or if everyone else in the company was wearing crash helmets. He stamped downstairs two minutes later, dragging his coat on. I glanced at my watch and turned it to show him.
"Seven forty. Come on." I opened the lounge door. Nick gave me the look that suggested I'd crawled out from under a rock.
"YOU made me late!"
"I gave you the option of coming out of the corner twenty minutes ago, you turned it down. Unless you want to be later still, I suggest you move."
I waited, holding the door open. Nick gave me a poisonous glare and stormed past me.
It was no pleasanter to kiss him goodbye, still sniffling and miserable, than it had been the two or three other times we'd had to do this.
"Six pm." I told him, locking the door behind us. "No later, Nicky. I really wouldn't push it."
I could still feel his breath hitching as I gave him one last, quick hug.
"Have a good day baby."
Arg, to coin one of Nick's pet phrases. I watched his car back out the drive, hoping to God this wasn't going to go on much longer. 
I rang him at lunchtime, partly to check his phone was on and mostly to see if he was allright. He was civil, but definitely not chatty. About mid afternoon I caught myself thinking about ringing again. What I really wanted was to keep it firmly in his mind that he needed to come straight home. If he decided to go with Robin tonight, we were going to have to have a major showdown, and it would take more than a few days. The thought of being locked in combat with Nick like that, on top of the current situation, didn't bear thinking about. In the end I decided against it. At the end of the day I couldn't be on top of him all the time, it was his decision. I was just going to have to hope. 
His car wasn't on the drive when I got home at five thirty. I paced, talked to the cat, sweated blood and knew long before the deadline struck- he wasn't going to come home. This was another gesture as to what he thought of me at the moment, he was striking out at me in the most obvious way he could think of, and it was going to do nothing except make him still angrier and still more unhappy. We both knew there was no way I could let this pass. At ten past six, I let go the last, forlorn hope of heavy traffic and dialed Robin and Allen's number. Allen answered with a mouthful of something, barely coherent.
"Its Damien. Did Nick go with Robin to this rally?"
"Picked him up about half an hour ago. They should be there by now. Why?" Allen cleared his mouth and I heard his voice change. "What's the problem?"
"I told Nick to cancel with Robin. He's grounded."
"Ah." Allen said dryly. "Things still that good, are they?"
"It's like being at Butlins 24/7." I informed him. Allen laughed.
"Suppose I give you a lift over there? I'll have to go, pick up Robin- I'm guessing you're going to want to go and collect Nick?"
Yes. This wasn't something I could leave until Nick wandered home. Apart from anything else, he'd be a nervous wreck by the time he summoned up the courage to face me tonight if I waited for him to come home by himself. Allen grunted.
"I doubt you two are going to want company tonight, but you can let off steam at me at least. Might save you breaking Nick's neck."
"That's a foregone conclusion." I said grimly.
It was a classic car rally, held in a park a good half hour's drive away, and by the time we got there, I was fuming. Nick was not remotely interested in classic cars. He'd agreed to go because Robin begged, not wanting to go alone and needing a driver with his own car in for repair. Allen gave me a sympathetic smile as we got out, nodding his head at the lines of shining cars stretching out across the fields ahead of us in the early evening sunshine.
"There's quite a crowd here, this could take a while."
I scanned the car park. The familiar lines of Nick's car caught my eye at the end of one of the rows. He was here. I headed towards the crowd, Allen following.
"So I take it you're still in the doghouse with him?"
"Seriously. Or I was. Now I have competition." I scanned the people around us as we walked through, looking for a slim, brown eyed maniac in a dark green fleece and jeans.
"We had one barney last night and another one this morning- he NEVER usually goes this far! I knew he would. I've been thinking about phoning him all day, I knew he'd do this is as some kind of dramatic gesture-"
"He's still angry with you?"
"I don't know what he wants me to do! It wasn't as if I actually DID anything to annoy him in the first place apart from being in the wrong place at the wrong time!"
Allen paused to admire a particularly nice Triumph Stag. "Just doesn't know what else to do to annoy you I suppose."
"He's managing." I said grimly. Allen looked at me. I let go a long breath and pulled myself up to sit on the fence beside a row of Morris Minors. The wood was warm from the sun.
"We're going to have to do the full three acts WITH the interval now. He couldn't have gone much further if he tried. And it's going to make him still more miserable."
"Maybe." Allen leaned beside me. "On the other hand, you two have been together quite a while, he knows how it works. He got himself into this situation despite every opportunity you gave him not to go there. There has to be SOME level where he wants to do this."
If he made me crack down hard enough, the issues of rules would more or less go out of the window. I'd just stop giving him the breathing space to THINK about breaking them. It would take away any choice he had about using them as a weapon. Everything done the most complicated, contorted, difficult way imaginable. That was my Nicky.
"Or else he's decided," I said dryly, "If he keeps me completely occupied, I won't go playing with any other gunmen."
Allen grinned. I shook my head. Knowing Nicky, I doubted he really understood what he was doing OR why. But he'd jumped for this decision and we were going to have to see it through. On the far side of the field the familiarity of someone's movement caught my eye. Shoulders hunched, hands dug in pockets, dark head a little bent. Nicky. And Robin with him. I slid down off the fence.
It took two minutes to get across the field and through the crowd, and another minute to find our pair. Robin spotted us first, glancing up from the displays they were looking at. I saw him elbow Nick in the ribs and mutter something to him, then Nick's jerk upwards like a shot rabbit.
I'd thought I was furious. Once I saw his face I knew I was annoyed, but that particular expression raised- as it always did- a muddle of exasperation, tenderness and a fierce sense of protectiveness in me that was difficult to swallow on.
"Prat." Robin said to Nick as we reached them. I had to agree, that was a fair assessment of the situation. Nick clearly had no idea where to look, he was already flushing scarlet. Allen gave me a quick pat on the back as he passed.
"Best of British, mate."
He hooked an arm through Robin's and led him on down the line of gleaming cars, the two of them tactfully becoming oblivious to us. I held out a hand to Nick and he surrendered his car keys to me.
"I'm sorry."
"You're going to be." I said gently. "You've had better ideas, Nicky."
He risked a glance up at me. There was no sign of defiance or anger now, he looked upset and scared, and that was about all. I put an arm around his shoulders, knowing there wasn't much else I could do in such a public place, and he moved with me towards the car park, head down. We drove home more or less in silence. Nick drew his legs up under him, curling into one of his impossibly tight huddles, and leaned with his head against me when driving allowed it. Driving on motorways is no place to get into deep discussions. It was dark when we reached home, and Anastasia was sitting in the lounge window, adding to the neighbours' suspicions I ran a house full of starved, deserted, illtreated waifs. I locked the front and back doors for the night, Nicky standing in the hallway with his hands still deep in his pockets, then captured Anastasia from rubbing around his ankles, put her in the kitchen and closed the door on her. I couldn't imagine she was going to be much help in the next half hour. I hung my coat over the bannisters and gave Nick a nod upstairs.
"Peak flow, inhalers."
"I feel fine." His voice was so quiet it was hard to hear him. I took his jacket from him.
"You were in a field full of hay with pollen and dust galore. Get the kit and check."
He went slowly upstairs. I turned the lights out in the lounge and followed, sitting on the bed to watch while he unpacked the kit and did the three tests he was supposed to. The figures were about what I'd expect of Nicky under stress. They weren't dire. Once he'd finished, I took the kit out of his hands and put it on the dressing table.
"Sit down."
"I ought to-"
He sat on the chair at the dressing table and stared miserably at the floor.
"What on earth were you doing?" I said as an opener. "We talked about the rally just this morning. I reminded you that you were grounded. I said you were not to go this evening, I told you to contact Robin and cancel."
"I wanted to go." Nick said very softly. I shook my head.
"You only agreed to go in the first place because Robin pleaded."
"I just- wanted to go."
"Because I'd said no? I told you Nicky. If you wanted to get into a battle of wills with me, you knew what would happen. You couldn't really have gone much further. Breaking your grounding is serious enough, but you were warned just this morning, and told, specifically, you were NOT to go. Blatant, willful disobedience. And you tell me you just wanted to go?"
Nick's liquid eyes were troubled and wide with the effort of trying to tell me what he was thinking. Never an easy translation.
"I knew as soon as I got there I shouldn't have gone but once I'd picked up Robin…"
I looked at him. Nick flushed scarlet and his head went down like a scolded puppy.
"He tried to talk me out of it."
That was novel. This was the first time Robin would have seen Nick in trouble and I'd have expected him to egg Nick on with enthusiasm. I filed that away for future reference and abandoned any further interrogation. This was not a good time to stress him out any further with debate, what he needed now was for me to be completely sure about what I was doing. If I was sure enough, he'd let me be sure for the both of us.
"If you break the rules, you know the consequences Nicholas. You were grounded for a good reason, and I WARNED you not to think about defying me over it. LOOK at me when I'm talking to you, please."
He got his eyes up with an effort, white and miserable. I folded my arms, sitting on the edge of the windowsill.
"You are NOT going to get away with behaving like that no matter what your reasons. I warned you several times that you were heading for deep water. If you'd simply forgotten you were grounded I'd have been annoyed enough, or if this was an isolated, one off incident, but it isn't. You've done everything you can possibly think of this week to prove to me you're out of hand, and if you wanted my attention my lad, believe me you have managed to get it. If I can't trust you not to go off at half cock the minute you're out of my sight, the answer is that you don't GO out of my sight. I'm keeping your car keys. I'll take you to and from work and that is the only place you're going for the rest of this month unless you're with me. We'll practise being grounded until you get the hang of it, I can find plenty of ways to keep you occupied and under my eye during that time. And in the meantime, this is your LAST and only warning: if you need reminding of what the rules are and that they are NOT there for you to push, we can do that too. I am going to pick you up on every single infraction, no negotiating, no second chances. Do you understand me?"
Loud and clear. I could see it without him saying a word, even before his lips more or less formed the words, "Yes sir."
It’s a word he very rarely uses to me, and when he does its very often a private joke between us. Or he's deadly serious.
There was nothing more to say.
I got up off the windowsill and took the paddle out of the drawer. Nicky silently came to me, unbuttoning his jeans. He was already on the brink of tears. I took his arms, steadying him as he laid himself over my knees, then pushed his jeans and shorts out of the way. His back was arched and the muscles were tense under my hand. He flinched, hard, when the first swat landed, but both he and I knew there was a long way to go. This was not exactly a passing thought. He was twisting over my lap and crying hard by the time we were even close to being finished. I put the paddle down on the bed beside us and pulled him closer to me, rubbing his back in heavy, soothing strokes while his heaving sobs went on and on. It was a long time before he moved, turned and pulled himself up by my shoulders to get into my arms. I held him and rocked, stroking his hair.
In all the time we'd been together, he's pushed me this far maybe three or four times. Not one of his chaos and mayhem stunts, which is just the way Nicky is- but deliberate, determined pushing at the limits we set together. It was frightening for him to go this far, to test me this hard, he needed reassurance as well as comfort from me, and there was a good deal of reassurance in the boundaries he'd made me tighten up. The next couple of weeks we were going to be breathing each other. We were neither of us going to have much fun- I could see Allen and Robin were going to start avoiding us- but we'd been together for a long time and in a lot of moods, we weren't always skipping with joy at the times we were closest. For better, for worse, we were welded together and that was the end of it. 
No one ever believes Nick could want or need the tight limits we set. He's too gentle. Too quiet. Yes he's scatty, he's given to doing the most outrageous things with his eyes wide and completely innocent to the chain of events he's setting in motion.
I remember the early months of our relationship, the two or three weeks he spent working out if I really did mean it, if I was serious that we could make this work. Even Nicky, alarmingly trusting as he is, waited and talked and made absolutely sure it was what I wanted. And then my gentle, thoughtful boy turned into a demon. His parents witnessed a very little of the transmutation and were downright alarmed. Never as a child or a teenager had he ever been difficult, demanding, challenging: their boy was quiet, well mannered, his aggression was entirely passive and perfectly sociably acceptable... I knew what he was doing and we weathered the storm for the few weeks it took. He wasn't testing me. His trust was already given or he wouldn't have risked pushing my feelings for him. What he was doing was letting go. The security of limits, of having barriers he knew weren't conditional or damageable- the rules within our world were different and he opened his defences to me. All the way. 
"So what are you going to do?" David asked me, not entirely seriously. He was a little pale but his eyes were laughing at me and my dilemma. We were very fond of each other,  but this was no tragedy and we both knew it. Out of the three of us, the one most upset was Nicky. He was desperately worried about David, and the reason I'd come to David sooner rather than later to explain the situation. Although I doubted Nick had casual emotion in his vocabulary, to him you lived with someone because you couldn't envisage living without them. Not because you were keeping each other company while you marked time.
"He's on his own. He's got a flat over in Maythorpe, I'll camp there with him until we find a house we like the look of."
"My dear boy, take that look of tortured guilt off your face. I noticed the number of nights you were away from home. You know I don't mind."
"That's it though." I said seriously. "Nicky does. Or would. Terribly."
And hurting Nick was on my list of things to do after removing my own head with a hacksaw. It worried me somewhat that I was prepared to throw over a five year old friendship, two of which we'd spent as lovers- for a man I'd known only three weeks. David grinned at me, making no attempt to realise the seriousness or dramatic potential of the moment.
"I hope you've prepared this poor gentleman to deal with that over developed conscience of yours."
That made me smile. "Actually, I think he may even be worse than I am."
"It isn't possible." David said flippantly. I shook my head.
"He's terribly upset about the idea of breaking us up. I need to move my things out of here and make this a clean break as soon as possible, for him if not us. I'm sorry."
"No, you're not." David said without a hint of rancour. "Actually, you're not in the least bit sorry."
He was right. David was a free agent and so was I. I was very fond of him, but- looking at Nicky, I knew, it was going to take me years to know everything there was to know about him, it was going to be a full time job and it would never be anything less than completely, hypnotically fascinating. Exasperating, yes. Frustrating, possibly. Entertaining, always, addictive- very possibly. All I knew was that I was never going to be bored, and it was going to mean a depth of friendship I'd never experienced with anyone else in my life. Nick's dramatic gestures are more in the lines of killing dragons to lay at my feet. Mine are simpler. I was utterly willing to defend him from any scrape he could get himself in to. Or to do anything else he needed me to.
I didn't exactly want to leave David. But I knew I'd trust no one else to defend Nicky's butterfly gentleness properly, or to understand it deeply enough, and I knew it would mean an intensity of feeling and a depth of involvement I'd never give to anyone else. Nicky's energy would occupy every minute I had, and I couldn't think of any more exciting or absorbing way to spend the rest of my life. David didn't want or need that from me and never would.
Thinking about it, and how ridiculous it was- and yet how utterly serious I was, I started to laugh. David gave me a tolerant smile.
"Before you go off to burn Rome to the ground for this man, you'd better let me meet him."
"He'd have a nervous breakdown."
David got up to offer me another drink. "Ah well. At least invite me to the wedding. I'll stand at the back and wear a large hat, looking suitably jealous." 
I gave it a lot of thought, and there seemed to me no good reason why Nick could not be just as effectively grounded on the boat as at home. The forecast for the weekend was perfect, and sailing is for both of us the ideal way to let off some steam- hard physical exercise combined with long and very lazy evenings, no distractions of tvs or anything else, and a small space where we'd spend the entire weekend together. Exactly what we both needed. And it wouldn't do Nick any harm at all, health wise. I made the necessary phone calls on Friday morning. We'd head out of Southampton and wander around to Lyme Regis, no need to rush or think about schedules. Nick loved the beaches around Lyme and at this time of year they'd be more or less deserted. As we keep the boat pretty well stocked anyway, all I needed to do was collect Nick from work, dive into the nearest supermarket and then stop off at home to pick up the basics of clothing.
Nick was sitting on the wall outside his office, looking small, forlorn and demoralised. I gave him a quick, tight hug and turned the engine over, glancing at the folder in his hands.
"Is that urgent?"
"This?" Nick shrugged and put the folder on the backseat. "No. I just thought if I've got nothing else to do this weekend, I might as well be working on designs."
"If it's not urgent, how about taking the boat around to Lyme this weekend?"
I nearly ran the car up a lamp post as Nick flung his arms around my neck. I kissed his hair and fended him off.
"I'll take that as a yes? I phoned through this morning, she'll be out and ready to go as soon as we can get down there."
"Want to drop me at home and I'll pack?"
That had made his eyes shine again. I pulled into our road and turned the car around to let him out.
"Twenty minutes?"
"Damien-" Nick paused, half in and half out of the car. "What on earth do we do with Anastasia?"
"Are there rules about kittens on boats?"
He grinned and jogged up the drive.
He and Anastasia met me twenty minutes later, Anastasia complaining loudly and clearly in her basket. I came to take a couple of bags from him and opened the boot, rearranging things in packable order as he stuffed them in any old how.
"Yes. And tablets. And inhalers."
"Peak kit."
"We're only going for two days!"
"Go and get it."
Anything else we could replace easily enough- knowing Nick there'd be at least one glaring omission from the packing, but that was hardly a problem. Anastasia wailed from her basket and I put a hand back to rub her ears through the bars. She butted hard against my hand. Nick slammed his door shut.
"That's it."
"Show me."
He pulled a face at me and turned out his jacket pocket, letting me count the medications.
"All of them. I swear."
"Thankyou." I started the engine and backed out of the drive. The crunch made me stand on the brake. Hard. "WHAT was that?"
Nick's eyes had gone wide. I opened the door and walked- not without trepidation- to the back of the car. Nick trailed me, peered at the back tyre, and then stooped to pick up the flattened remains of what had once been his mobile phone.
"I think it's dead."
He was right. I stared at it, then at him. Nick's expression was changing from shock to unadulterated joy.
"YOU packed the boot my boy, don't look at me!"
He was right. Damnit, he was absolutely right. Nick gently handed me the debris.
"You killed the phone… Damien killed the phone…Mr Perfection himself… " he carolled, louder in case anyone in the neighbourhood had missed his first announcement. "Mr Damien Mitchell has JUST killed my phone…"
One of our neighbours paused across the street to give him a faintly alarmed look. I bowed politely to her and put both hands on the top of Nick's head. "Stop bouncing, you'll take off!"
Nick grabbed my hands and dragged me in a quicktime waltz around the car.
"Never mind, sweetheart." He told me consolingly when I managed to slow him up enough to breathe. "Maybe it just wasn't meant to be. I'm not a phone person."
I growled and accepted the quick kiss he gave me.
"It was probably subconscious." Nick added thoughtfully, "The only way you could think of to surrender without losing face..."
He made it out of arm's reach before I could swat him. 
~ The End ~
Copyright Ranger 2010


Anonymous said...

It was very interesting to read a story out of Damien's point of view. Thank you very much for this wonderful story!

Key said...

I am re-reading all your Nick and Damien stories yet again because I love them both so much, I really like this one as it goes a little bit into how they first met, maybe one day you will write the full story? I can beg if you want me to! I just think it would make such a great story to read the full background story into how they met became a couple and about their first months together and how Damien helped Nick with his asthma. xxx

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