Monday, February 8, 2010

Feud

Title: Feud
Authors: Rolf and Ranger 


"Todd called." Joe said over his shoulder, watching Chris peel his jacket off. "Poker tomorrow night."

"Matthew'll be there." Chris said shortly. Joe sighed, turning back to the salad.

"That's no reason not to go."

"It's EVERY reason."

"Chris, you do actually like the guy. You've liked him for years."

"He's a total....."

Chris caught Joe's eye and subsided, dropping down into a chair at the table.

"YOU heard what he called me."

"And why did he call you that?" Joe brushed his hands off and leaned against the counter to look at him. Chris shrugged, not looking.

"Christopher..?" Joe prompted. Chris scowled.

"Because I threw one stupid prawn at him."

"You threw a handful of prawns and about an equal handful of chilli sauce right into his face."

Chris wriggled, flushing. "We've DONE that..."

"Yes, we have. But there are still consequences to your actions and some of them are that Matthew was the one who ended up dripping prawns and getting chilli mayonaise in his eyes. You can't expect him to be happy about it."

"You made me apologise."

"Rolf made him accept your apology. I don't know how that affected the fact that chilli is very painful once in your eyes."

"I didn't mean to do that!" Chris said bitterly. "EVERYONE blamed me for that like I did it on purpose!"

"I know you didn't mean to and I'm the only one you need to worry about. I know you just grabbed the nearest thing to hand." Joe pulled out a chair and sat down beside him. "It still wasn't Matthew's fault, and he didn't do anything to provoke you."

Chris didn't answer. Joe shook his head at him, voice steeling slightly.

"Christopher. He didn't do anything wrong. Did he?"

"He still TOLD you." Chris burst out. Joe mentally sighed, wondering how often they were going to go over this ground.

"About school and you having a job that was dangerous and making you miserable? He cares about you, what did you expect him to do?"

"I KNOW, but he still went and told you."

"Actually Rolf told me."

"And guess where HE heard it?"

"From Matthew I would think, who was probably very worried about you."

Chris scowled at the table. Joe put a hand out, half exasperated, half comforting, and ruffled his hair, smoothing it back off Chris's ever tense forehead.

"In his position, what would you have done?"

"We KEEP talking about this!"

"Because we don't seem to get anywhere." Joe pointed out. "What would you have done?"

"Probably the same! But I STILL don't have to like it!"

"What's bothering you Chris? That I found out and you got into trouble? That you're embarrassed that Matthew and Rolf got involved? That you didn't keep control of the situation?"

"I don't know!" Chris said hotly. "It's NOT a big deal!"

"Then why don't you pick a corner and give it some careful thought." Joe said getting up. "I want a better answer than that."

*


Rolf leaned on the counter and pressed the button on the machine, listening to two messages from double glazing salesmen before Todd's voice reminded them about poker tomorrow night. Matthew avoided Rolf's eye and headed upstairs.

Rolf sighed as he erased the messages. It didn't help reminding Matthew that he'd done the right thing in telling him about Chris, when Matthew remained so upset because he thought his friend hated him. There wasn't even much he could do in this situation: it was Chris and Matthew that had to work our their differences. He just hoped it would be sooner rather than later as all four of the younger men remained on edge, two actively arguing and two trying not to take sides, and they were all starting to feel the strain.

*

Chris angrily wiped away a tear and laid his forehead against the corner. He'd spent far more than his fair share of time facing corners since trying to quit school. As thankful as he was for being able to pick up the semester where he left it, and working with his professor and Joseph on his exam technique, he still couldn't get over his friend's betrayal. Joseph had been tough, and still was, with anything and everything Chris was doing. He'd made it more than clear on several occasions that only stellar behavior was acceptable, and every time Chris was punished he found a way to ultimately blame Matthew. It had been hard enough going to Stephen's bar for the party, knowing that everyone knew what he'd done, and ultimately, what Joseph had done to him for that. But when Matthew spoke and the prawns went flying, Chris thought he'd die of embarrassment and shame. And Matthew was there again! With front row seat. Chris didn't even get a sense of satisfaction from the flung prawns. He'd watched in horror as Matthew had dug his hand into the potato salad, raising it to throw, and Rolf's hand clamping down on his arm before the chili sauce started to seriously sting Matthew's eyes. A split second later as half the restaurant had watched, Joseph had shepherded him into the kitchen, Rolf and Matthew hot on their heels. He had been unceremoniously washed at the sink, been given a seat and had to sit quietly as Rolf, Joseph and Stephen fussed over the over-dramatizing Matthew, trying to get his eyes washed out with the saline solution in the emergency kit.

Stephen quietly cleared the kitchen of the few personnel that were there, leaving the two older men to sort out their brats without prying ears and eyes. Chris wiped away another tear as he remembered the look Joseph had given him, the one that mixed up equal amounts of anger and disappointment. All Chris wanted to do at the time was crawl down the nearest drain and slither away into the sewer, but Joseph had other ideas. He'd been made to apologize to Matthew, when he'd far rather have kicked him, knowing Joseph was going to kill him within a few minutes. He'd have smirked at Rolf having to tell Matthew to accept his apology if Joseph hadn't immediately yanked him towards the back exit.

"Are you ready to talk about this some more?" Joseph asked from behind him, bringing him back to the present.

"NO." Chris snapped reflexively. Joe, who knew him, didn't move.

"Sure?"

"it's NOT FAIR!" Chris turned, slamming his shoulders against the wall. "He gets to act all noble, like he did it all for my own good and HE was the one who-"

"Got you into trouble?"

"NO!" Chris said in frustration. "I did, you don't have to go over all that again!"

"Chris, calm down." Joe said warningly. Well aware he was near to facing the wall again, Chris took a long and difficult breath.

He'd gotten into a LOT of trouble about chucking the prawns. Actually he'd started to feel bad about it from the moment Matthew's eyes started to stream; he hadn't actually intended to HURT him- but Joe had taken a seriously dim view of the whole incident. And yet again, Saint Matthew had come out of it the innocent victim and the centre of all sympathy.

"What IS it that bothers you so much about this?" Joe asked him gently. "Think about it."

Joe had a certain tone that got into his guts when he was angry and moved around, making him melt just when he seriously didn't want to melt. Angrily, Chris buried himself against Joe and shut his eyes as Joe hugged him hard.

"I don't know."

"Talk to me Christopher."

Chris shut his eyes, knowing he wasn't going to get away with any more opting out. Whether or not he knew the answers, Joe expected him to make a serious effort to find them.

"He SHOULDn't have said anything. It's not up to him, it was up to me."

"You know why he did."

"He's NOT someone who can be all righteous about it, he screws up as much as I do!"

"He understands our relationship and he understood the situation. BECAUSE he understood he had a responsibility to do something about it. If it had been Eric or Stephen who walked into that store and saw you, they wouldn't have just told me, they'd have probably dragged you out of there and handed you over personally."

Chris didn't have an answer for that, knowing it was probably exactly what would have happened.

"Let's sit down," Joe said, pulling Chris with him over to the couch and pulling him down next to him. "Matthew did what he thought he needed to."

"I was GOING to tell you," Chris said, pulling at straws.

"Have you ever really thought about how Matthew feels?"

"He's probably laughing at me, and feeling smug -"

"Christopher, you simply canNOT believe that. Did YOU feel smug and
  laugh when Marc and Matthew got into that mess with the internet pshycho? Did you?"

Chris remembered vividly the stories that were told, by everyone else at first, and then Matthew and Marc when they were later allowed to talk to anyone outside of Rolf.

"No, but that's different. I didn't tell on him."

"Did you know about it?"

"No!" Chris said, defensively.

"And if you did know, what would you have done?" Joseph continued on point, never wavering.

Chris shrugged, hating the direction this was going in.

"Christopher."

"OKAY," Chris exploded. "I would have tried to talk him out of it, and if he didn't listen I'd have told someone! Are you happy now?"

Joseph wrapped his arms around Chris to keep him from jumping up.

"I am not happy, no. Would YOU have been happy, going behind Matthew's back?"

"No! But you don't -"

"Just THINK a minute. Matthew saw you in the morning, right?"

When Chris nodded, Joe continued.

"Had Matthew WANTED to tell on you, he'd have gone straight to Rolf and I'd have gotten the call immediately. If you remember, I didn't get a call from Rolf until the following morning, which tells me that Rolf didn't know at any sort of reasonable hour. Therefore, I'm assuming that Matthew couldn't sleep and was trying to think of any way in the world to get the problem fixed without anyone else knowing. Rolf probably had to talk it out of him. Don't you see? Matthew didn't want to tell on you. And if you don't believe me, then just ASK him."

And it was that kind of summing up that made Joseph such a bastard to face in court. Chris, who was very experienced in Joe's calm logic, scowled at the sofa cushions.

"I don't want to ask him anything."

"So you're never going to speak to him again?"

"I don't WANT to talk to him. Not at the moment."

"Chris, sometimes when things go wrong, the only thing you can do is face up to them and accept you made some mistakes."

Chris flushed hotly and darkly scarlet. Joe pulled him closer in a rough, tight hug.

"I want you to come with me to the poker game. I think you need to get over this as soon as you can, and - no, listen to me. I'll come with you."

"I don't WANT to! It's a game, it's a flipping LEISURE activity, I'm even GROUNDED for God's sake!"

"Let's call this a supervised visit then." Joe said dryly. "on the grounds of it being theraputic. We're going. And so is Matthew, I'm pretty sure of that."

*

"I'm NOT going." Matthew said for the second time, sliding deeper under the shower. "You go. I'll have an early night."

"Come with me."

"The lawn needs mowing."

Rolf leaned against the wall and folded his arms. "Can I have that in writing, signed? Come on, it'll be fun. You haven't gone out anywhere other than work all week."

"I'm tired, I just want to stay here."

"We don't have to stay late."

"I've got a headache."

"Then I'll get you some tylenol, you'll feel fine by the time we're ready to go."

"I need to STUDY," Matthew tried as a last resort.

"And if you give that as an excuse, along with the lawn mowing, then it's time to see a shrink. I'll call one for you tomorrow, as you're going to poker tonight," Rolf said with a tone of finality.

Matthew rolled his eyes and continued to shower. Rolf may be able to drag him to see Chris, but he couldn't make him talk. Finishing with the shower, he dressed and headed downstairs for dinner.

"Sandwiches?" he asked disdainfully, peering under the top slice of bread.

"Yes. You know Stephen and Todd don't do any get-togethers without enough food to feed an army. Get yourself something to drink that's not coke."

Matthew pulled out the milk and poured a small glass. "Why can't we just skip dinner and eat there?"

"Because you'll choose only junk, and you need a better balanced meal than that."

Sitting down, Matthew took a bite of carrot stick. "What if I don't finish?" he tried, hopefully.

"Then I'll spank you, you'll eat, and THEN we'll go," Rolf said firmly.

Matthew ate slowly, but it wasn't slow enough. He finished with plenty of time to help clean up the kitchen before they were ready to leave.

"Want to drive?" Rolf asked, stopping by the basket for the keys.

"Sure, then we can leave -"

"When the game is over, and not before," Rolf said, seriously. "You'll be in trouble if you ask to leave, or otherwise present any problems tonight. Is that clear?"

"Rolf -"

Rolf caught Matthew before he walked past him. "I asked you a question."

"Yes, SIR," Matthew said, before getting released.

Rolf gave him a warning look and followed him out to the car, fairly sure he was looking forward to this evening as little as Matthew was.

Eric and Michael, well aware that this evening was going to be strained, had arrived early and were doing their best to make the room look fuller and the atmosphere lighter. Eric, who could radiate affable goodnature, grinned at Matthew from the fireplace, tossing a bag of marshmallows across to him.

"You're good with the sweet stuff, come and tell me what I'm supposed to do with these. Michael told me but it sounds too disgusting to believe."

Casting a quick look around and finding to his relief no sign of Joe or Chris, Matthew knelt beside the fire and began to skewer marshmallows on forks.

"I'm sure marshmallows aren't part of poker." Rolf said dubiously, accepting a drink from Stephen. Who shook his head.

"Explain that to Todd. Actually I think he's comfort eating. Or setting Matthew up to comfort eat. Was it much of a battle?"

"He offered to mow."

Stephen winced.

"They just need to get over the awkwardness." Rolf said determinedly. "It'll be fine."

Stephen patted his shoulder. "You believe that if it makes you happier."

The knock at the door made Matthew turn further towards the fire place. Todd got up to answer it, and his voice sounded louder and more cheerful than was natural.

"Chris! Hi, hey Joe."

Matthew stared fixedly at the marshmallow he was toasting until Joe's hand ruffled his hair.

"Hi there."

Matthew glanced up, managing something approximating a smile, and stole a quick glance at Chris. Who was looking anywhere but at him.

"Your marshmallow!" Joe said quickly.

Matthew turned back to find his marshmallow on fire. He jerked it out of the fireplace and blew it out. He started to get up to take the charred marshmallow to the kitchen to throw it away. Just as Rolf tried to tell him to be careful, the overheated sweet slipped off the fork and landed on the carpet. All thoughts went immediately to the carpet and Chris slipped over to the couch and sat down, trying to melt into the fabric. Todd was busy with Stephen and the marshmallow, Michael, seeing Chris's face, moved over to him, trying to keep his voice normal. Friendly.

"Hi."

"Hi," Chris said without looking.

"Long time no see. How are you doing?"

"Fine."

"Feeling lucky?"

"No."

Michael didn't even bother sitting down as Chris's one word answers didn't invite further conversation, and his face warned off any attempts at trying. He headed into the kitchen to get a drink, trying to look as though he wasn't too obviously escaping. Matthew was apologising in a quiet, upset tone that was so unmatthewlike that people were rapidly starting to talk about how easy it was to get marshmallow out of carpet, and that worse than that would happen to a carpet in its lifetime. Todd, with the remains of the marshmallow, retreated to the kitchen and dumped it in the bin, rolling his eyes at Michael. Michael pulled a face back, in no rush to leave the kitchen.

"Isn't this fun?"

"Maybe once we start playing." Todd said hopefully. "This is just awkward."

Michael snorted. "I told you Chris didn't want to know. He said he wasn't going to come tonight, he didn't want to be anywhere near Matthew or Rolf."

Stephen put his head around the door and gave Todd an encouraging smile.

"Ok? Get yourself a drink, we're about to start."

"Got anything for the frostbite?" Michael muttered, trailing him back into the lounge.

They played for some time with two of their members abnormally quiet and avoiding all eye contact across the table. As far as was possible, Matthew avoided having anything whatever to do with Chris, making more decisions based on avoiding interaction with him than on winning the game. Todd and Michael made determined attempts to chatter for a while but gradually gave up in despair and the conversation was filled almost entirely by the four older men around the table. Chris kept his eyes on the table, getting more miserable by the minute, staying put only because Joe's free hand was discreetly under the table and rubbing his knee, communicating support the only way he privately could. Shortly after nine, Rolf gave up out of sheer pity, claimed the effects of a long day and an early start in the morning, and Matthew silently got up to follow him without protest. The goodbyes from Eric and Joe were warm but the most dreaded interaction was quick and almost toneless.

"Goodnight."

"Bye."

On the drive once the door shut, Rolf put an arm around Matthew, trying to shake the frozen look on his face.

"Ok? Thankyou, you were very good."

Even though you clearly hated every minute of it, he finished silently.

"That is the LAST time I have anything to do with that little shit," Matthew spit, shrugging out from underneath Rolf's hands.

"Matthew!" Rolf admonished.

"I KNOW. Stop cursing. Soaped mouth when we get home. FINE, as long as I don't have to see him again," Matthew said, getting into the passenger side of the truck and slamming the door.

Rolf shook his head and climbed in, wondering how long this feud was going to last. He hated to see Matthew this upset.

"Did he say anything to you?" he asked, starting the engine. Matthew shook his head angrily.

"You saw. He just ignored me the whole time."

"You pretty much ignored him too." Rolf pointed out. Matthew curled up in his seat, radiating Not Wanting To Talk About It. He kept quiet through the rest of the journey home, trailing Rolf inside still scowling. Rolf shut the door behind them and nodded at the stairs, voice quiet.

"Get yourself upstairs and ready for bed, the hockey starts in twenty minutes."

Matthew glanced at him, eyebrows slightly raised, then took him at his word and ran upstairs. Rolf hung his jacket up, glad Matthew hadn't pushed as he was in no mood whatever for soap. The chilli had been a very unpleasant experience: Matthew had been both hurt and frightened, and then afterwards seriously upset at the proof of Chris's outright anger with him. Which in pure self defense had moved from distress to anger right back at Chris. Rolf himself had been pretty angry- Chris's gesture was unnecessary and while thoughtless rather than spiteful, had been potentially very nasty, caused Matthew considerable pain and frankly Rolf thought at the back of his mind that Chris ought to know better than to blame Matthew instead of accepting responsibility for his own bad choices. Except he did know Chris had a difficult temperament. Joe had been very apologetic and still more upset with himself for not foreseeing the explosion: obviously things were still difficult in that household.

The phone rang in the kitchen and Joe's voice was on the other end, wearily concerned.

"Rolf? I'm sorry. I seriously did think once they came face to face it would blow over."

"It's alright. I was thinking the same thing, but it looks like these two are going to fight it out to the very stubborn end."

"How's Matthew? He surprised me, not doing any provoking," Joseph said. "He doesn't usually take Chris quietly."

"Surprised me too," Rolf said, laughing before sobering up. "He's still pretty distressed at Chris's anger with him. He just doesn't understand why. Hockey should cheer him up for now, but this is really on his mind."

"I think deep down that Chris knows his anger is directed at the wrong person, but he just can't seem to get around it yet. We've talked more in the last few weeks than I think we've ever done, but it's an issue that is remaining unresolved," Joe finished quietly.

"How were things after we left?"

"Chris is still having problems talking to anyone at this point. We only stayed another thirty minutes before we left, and I think Chris said a total of about 10 words."

Matthew came in and got a coke, then, feeling ignored, he worked his way onto Rolf's lap. When Rolf said Chris's name, he tried to get off but was held there by Rolf.

"We'll just have to wait patiently until Chris wants to talk," Rolf said quietly. "We can do that."

"Thanks. And make sure Matthew knows we're sorry?"

"No problem. Goodbye."

"What are you talking to HIM for?!" Matthew demanded the second the phone was put down. "What does he want now? He wouldn't speak to me EITHER-"

"Matthew no one's blaming you for anything, settle down." Rolf interrupted firmly. "That was Joe, he wanted to be sure you were allright and he was sorry the evening was so uncomfortable for you both- and this whole thing is getting WAY out of proportion."

"I HATE this old boy networking." Matthew struggled, trying to slide off Rolf's lap. "Where ever one of us breathes, the other three get action replays-"

"Hey."

Matthew stilled, scowling but knowing the tone. Rolf spoke quietly, making Matthew have to concentrate to hear him, which meant temporarily lowering the priority of how angry he was.

"That's enough. This whole situation is a mountain made out of a molehill and we've got better things to do. Like watching hockey. So put that coke back in the fridge and come on."

"Roooooooolf-"

"It's too late for coke. Milk, tea or water. Come on."

Matthew got up, still pouting, but far more about the coke now than anything else. Rolf followed him upstairs, determinedly pushing Chris to the back of his mind. Chris WOULD get over this, there was no reason for this to become a full scale drama.

*

"Hey, how was the English class?" Michael demanded, grabbing another donut off the stack and carrying his tray across to join Matthew. "Is that all you're eating?"

"Canteen food SUCKS." Matthew picked up another candy bar and added it to his tray. Michael grinned.

"Does Rolf ever ask what you had for lunch?"

"That's a salad."

"It's three lettuce leaves."

"Exactly. A salad. And it's on the tray."

Michael shook his head and paid for his lunch, following Matthew to the nearest spare table. Half way across the hall he spotted Chris's fair head and hesitated. There was only one afternoon in the week that all three of them were in school together and they usually lunched together, but today-

"Want to sit with Chris?" Michael ventured before sitting down.

"Fuck, no, are you crazy?" Matthew spat, opening his candy bar and popping the top on his coke.

Michael sat down and opened his drink as well, at a loss for words.

"How was your lecture today?" Matthew asked after a few minutes of uncomfortable silence.

"It was alright. The guy was from WTBS TV. I swear, he epitomized talking heads. GC looks and nothing up here," Michael said, knocking his head. "Now I have to come up with a three page paper on the lecture, and I don't think he even SAID enough to fill up three pages."

"That sucks. And so did English. I actually fell asleep during the middle fifteen minutes. I was taking notes, and a quarter of the way down the page my writing becomes unintelligible before it turns into a solid line down the rest of the page," Matthew said, laughing. "Why I care about the writings of the fifteenth century and what it has to do with numbers and accounting, I'll never know."

"At least I'm down to the last few classes, and they're all about the industry. Just PLEASE, give me people who actually 
RUN the shows, not the pretty boys that sit in front of the cameras."

Michael finished his donut and salad pretty quickly, while Matthew made short work of the two chocolate bars and three cookies. He ate one lettuce leaf for good measure, then went up to dump his tray. He looked surreptitiously around until he'd spotted Chris, mostly in an effort not to catch his eye. Chris was sitting, shoulders hunched, the perpetual scowl etched on his face. Just looking at it made Matthew's own temper stir. Typical Chris. Being the centre of the universe, the only one with any feelings, the only one ever right- Matthew resisted the urge to pull a face at him and headed back towards Michael. Then stopped on impulse and looked back at the canteen line. Chris's attitude was still festering in Matthew's mind from the poker match- the awful, silent, awkward poker match- impulse bit like a fish on a hook. Chris needed to cool off. Did he EVER need to cool off. Matthew grabbed for and paid for the jello special, returning to the table.

"Ready to go?"

"Sure? Are you really -"

"No. Come on," Matthew said, walking towards the far exit and past Chris, who was still eating, with his nose and the scowl buried in a book.

Michael got up and headed after Matthew, confused until he saw what direction he was headed. He quickened his step, but not soon enough.

Matthew had reached Chris and quickly pulled his shirt away from his neck, dumping the red and green jello down the back of his shirt and not so gently placing the bowl upside down on Chris's head.

Chris jumped to his feet, spitting mad, turning to find out who had insulted him. In one swift movement, the bowl of vegetable soup he had been picking at splattered the front of Matthew's shirt, the plastic bowl clattering to the floor loudly as the surrounding students looked up in shock. That was all the provocation Matthew needed. All the anger that had been simmering for two weeks exploded, he grabbed up the pepper shaker, ripped the top off and flung the contents into Chris's face. "See how YOU like it!"

"MATTHEW!" Michael knocked Matthew's arm, hard enough to deflect his aim and most of the pepper. "Stop it for God's sake!"

"Food fight food FIGHT.." the chant began in the background as most of the students began to take closer notice. Chris grabbed for Matthew's collar and Michael shoved him back, doing his best to stand between them.

"You two are going to get yourselves KILLED- back OFF-"

"Tell HIM, he started it!" Chris snarled, shaking jello out of his shirt. Matthew growled right back, shoving at Michael.

"He's the bad tempered little prick who-"

"GENTLEMEN." someone said very loudly behind them. All three glanced around, startled. The Dean of the college looked very grim and very unimpressed. He lowered his voice, sure he had their attention, but his tone was no less grim.

"Would you come down to my office please. Now."

*

It was the final degree of humiliation. Chris and Matthew sat in the outer office, both determinedly avoiding each others eyes and thinking bitter thoughts about the other.

As a direct result of Chris's difficulties and quitting attempts at the end of last semester, there had been a note added to his file saying that in any event of trouble or interaction with authorities, Joe was to be notified.

So Joe had been notified. And he had promptly requested the Dean to tell Matthew that he would be notifying Rolf and to be kind enough to wait decisions until they got there.

So here they sat, two grown men, waiting to be collected from the Dean's office like two small boys from school.

Chris was still wriggling on the jello down his neck and Matthew's shirt was still dripping soup. Michael, somewhat thankfully, had been able to plead no part in the proceedings whatever and had gone home, very glad to be out of the whole business and making it very clear that he was not happy with either of them.

Both Joseph and Rolf had had to cancel at least one meeting on their schedules for the day in order to head down to campus and sort through what had happened, leaving both of them a lot less than happy. Joe was the first one to arrive and Chris slid further down into the seat at the sound of his voice at the receptionist's desk.

"I'm Joseph Robertson. I have a meeting with the Dean."

"If you'll have a seat over there, we're still waiting on -"

"Rolf Monet," Rolf said as he walked in the door.

"If you'll have a seat, I'll tell Dean Peterson you're here," the receptionist said, indicating chairs next to Matthew and Chris.

Chris had tried to melt through the chair but was unsuccessful. He felt the cold stare of his partner as Joseph sat down next to him, without saying a word.

Rolf sat opposite those two, next to Matthew. With the two secretaries sitting on the opposite side of the desk, neither Joe nor Rolf attempted any conversation, knowing that their presence alone was speaking volumes to their partners. And anyone with half a brain could see how uncomfortable the younger men were.

"The Dean will see you now," the receptionist said, re emerging.

Matthew and Chris got up on shaky legs, and preceeded their partners into the inner sanctum of the Dean's office.

What followed was less than fun.

A lot of comments such as 'hooliganism' and 'delinquent' and 'mature student' were bandied around. The Dean described the entire incident from his bird's eye position across the canteen, including much of what had been said which he was happy to repeat verbatim. Matthew and Chris were both ready to open a vein with the dean's paper knife by the time he finished. If not each other's veins.

"This kind of disgraceful outburst," the Dean wound up, "Is totally unacceptable- it's not something I will tolerate in a place of higher education- a place supposedly full of the elite intelligent youth of our community. I have no other option but to suspend both of you for ten days. And that will not include excusing you from your classes: any ground you are not able to make up, WILL mean you have to retake the class. I have no other option than to treat this kind of thing with the utmost severity."

"I do understand." Joe said calmly, "I agree, this is totally unacceptable. However if my friend and I were to take responsibility for ensuring that this doesn't happen again, perhaps Christopher and Matthew could use their time for the next ten days more productively?"

The Dean looked at him suspiciously.

"I can think of a couple of good themes for term papers for a start." Rolf said grimly, looking at Matthew. "Public image and appropriate social behaviour for example."

"Obviously they can't be allowed to continue using the canteen." Joe added. "However if they were escorted to and from classes, and left the premises immediately after their classes, and submitted a good quality paper to you by the end of the ten days that would mean thoroughly researching and considering their behaviour and it's consequences, would you consider allowing them to continue to attend classes?"

"Along with a full written apology to the canteen staff and yourself." Rolf continued. "I can assure you that in addition we'll be discussing this matter thoroughly at home and Joseph and I will be quite ready to take responsibility for seeing this doesn't happen again."

The Dean looked between the four men, seeing his two students looking horrified by either prospect. He steepled his hands and considered that for a moment.

"Christopher, Matthew, do you feel a term paper would help you to understand the consequences of acting as you did today?" the Dean asked.

Both Chris and Matthew would have far more appreciated the ten days suspension and no parnter involvement in the entire situation, but they'd had little choice in the matter, and even less choice now.

"Yes, sir," Matthew managed quietly. Chris agreed as well.

"Then I must admit to preferring that route. Losing ten days of classes means losing the perfect opportunity for further growth. You'll be on report for ten days, during which you'll avoid the canteen and be escorted while on campus. At the end of ten days, a written report and apology will be expected. I suggest, gentlemen, that you thank your partners for their support. And the only time I want to see you in this office again is to turn in those reports. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," both Matthew and Chris said quickly, eyes down.

"Thank you both," the Dean said, shaking Rolf and Joe's hands.

"Thank you Dean," Rolf said a hand on Matthew's shoulder as he headed out of the office and towards the steps that lead outside, Joe and Chris following.

Since the entire incident had been discussed in minute detail in the Dean's office, the two couples went directly to their cars without further discussion. Matthew didn't even ask Rolf about his truck that was in the student lot. He didn't think he could drive it home even if he wanted to. The silence was deafening, and the ride home endless during it, but entirely too quick when they pulled up at home.

"Have a seat in the kitchen," Rolf said sternly as he got out of the car. Matthew scrambled up the steps and into the kitchen, dropping his bookbag on the floor by the door. He quickly took a seat at the kitchen table, head on his crossed arms, waiting for the assassination to begin.

Rolf walked around outside for a few minutes, gathering his thoughts and quelling his anger. He knew this had to be the direct result of the feud and wanted to make sure he separated the issues so that Matthew wasn't punished for not talking to Chris, only for his bad choice in provoking him.

Matthew quickly sat up when he walked into the kitchen, somewhere between apprehension and despair.

"I'm sorry, I don't know why I had to......" he trailed off, helplessly.

"Why you had to do what?" Rolf demanded. "Put food down his neck?"

Matthew flushed a dark scarlet. Rolf folded his arms, leaning against the counter.

"Did Chris provoke you in any way?"

"YES."

"How?"

Matthew looked up at him, clearly very embarrassed. "BEING there- I was so mad at him and he was right there STILL ignoring me-"

"Did you make contact with him in any way?"

"No...."

"Did Michael?"

"No...."

"So you just walked up to him and tipped a carton of jello down his neck, just as the Dean said? He must be wondering if he's running a college or the local junior high! And once you'd tipped jello down him, you and Chris got into a free fight and a swearing match until he intervened. Is that correct?"

The truth was hideous and Matthew couldn't find any way to make it sound even slightly better.

"Yes sir." He mumbled eventually, eyes down.

"So all this was about you feeling angry with Chris and just letting your impulses rule the day?" Rolf said mercilessly. Matthew went still deeper red.

"He reacted-"

"Matthew, if you tipped jello down the neck of a saint, they'd react. Do you realise I just had to abandon two clients in a meeting to collect you from the principal's office for a food fight?"

"Dean-"

"There is NO difference!" Rolf barked loudly. "Chris is behaving badly by being upset with you over his OWN actions, but that does NOT free you up to be ugly back at him! For goodness sakes, Matthew, you acted like a five year old today! *I* was ready to die of embarrassment in the Dean's office, and I had nothing to do with it!"

"I'm sorry!" Matthew yelled, tears stinging his eyes.

"You're going to be a lot sorrier when I finish with you. Get the paddle."

Matthew's eyes got larger and the tears that were stinging his eyes overflowed. "I didn't mean -"

"What you didn't mean to do, and what you did are polar opposites. Get. The. Paddle." Rolf said, pulling out a chair.

Matthew stumbled to his feet, out of options. He tried to blink to clear his vision, finding the paddle where it was kept and walking back to Rolf.

Rolf took the paddle and placed it on the table, pulling Matthew forward and working on his button. When his pants were lowered, along with his shorts, Rolf pulled him down across his knee. "Throwing food at people, particularly in public, will not be tolerated. Shoving your friends and otherwise trying to injure them will not be tolerated. Swearing like a sailor in front your classmates will not be tolerated." Rolf was punctuating every third word with a solid swat to the rapidly reddening backside across his lap.

Matthew managed a few apologies before his throat closed up with tears. He tried everything he could to move his backside from the line of fire, but Rolf's hands had him in a steel-like grip and he realized he wasn't going to move until Rolf thought he should. He laid mostly still after that, his cries raising every few moments as Rolf hit a particularly sensitive spot. His kicking began anew as Rolf picked up the paddle and brought it smartly down across the red bottom.

Rolf landed just enough paddle swats to cover every inch of skin at least twice, before putting the paddle down. He pulled Matthew up almost instantly, his arms wrapping firmly around his partner and holding him close, letting the sobs work their way up and out until Matthew could breathe again. At that point, Rolf left Matthew in the corner to finish settling down while he changed shirts and prepared to go back to work as he had a second meeting that he felt he needed to attend. When Matthew's sobs had quieted and only an occasional hiccup could be heard, Rolf called to him.

Matthew turned and walked gingerly over to Rolf, accepting the tissues and trying to clean up his ravaged face.

"I want you to go upstairs and lie down. I've got an hour long meeting that can't be missed, but will return home as soon as that's over. You're not to leave the bed, and we'll discuss the rest of your punishment when I return home. Clear?"

Matthew nodded, tears starting again. Rolf kissed his forehead and gave him a gentle push towards the stairs.

"Go on then. I'll be back as soon as I can."

*

"HE started it!" Chris said furiously. "I didn't do a THING, HE threw jello down my neck in the middle of the canteen!"

"Why do you think he did that?" Joe said patiently. Chris's voice rose several decibels louder.

"BECAUSE HE'S A PRICK!"

"If I hear 
ONE more word like that," Joe said, just as mildly, "You'll have your mouth soaped out now as well as after we've talked this through."

"You've already decided I'm guilty!"

"Christopher." Joe snagged Chris's wrist before he could get up and put him very firmly back down in his chair. "We are talking. NOT yelling. And guilty of what? Throwing food in the canteen? Swearing and screaming at Matthew? Fighting with him? Getting called into the Dean's office and nearly suspended?"

"You ALWAYS believe everyone but me!" Chris said bitterly, "You ALWAYS think the worst of me!"

"That isn't true and you know it isn't." Joe put an arm around Chris before he could get up again and captured both hands, holding him too tight to squirm away. "DID all that happen or did it not?"

"Its not FAIR!"

"Did it, or did it not?"

"YES!"

"Why did it happen?"

Chris struggled without moving an inch. Joe waited until he stopped.

"Why?"

"Because Matthew hates me!"

"I don't think he does. I don't think Matthew would give the time of day to someone he hated, he wouldn't be bothered with them."

"He wanted to get me!"

"Why?" Joe said patiently.

"Because he's like that!"

"Chris, you like Matthew. I like Matthew. He isn't like that at all. Why would you think he was out to get you? Hmm?"

Chris glared, his temper slipping. "You want me to say because I was being mean to him."

"Is it true?"

"NO!"

"I think you know perfectly well what I mean, and you understand it too." Joe said mildly. "Its purely a case of pride that you won't face it and you won't admit it. Sooner or later, you're going to have to. And until you do, you clearly aren't in any fit state to be left alone anywhere that Matthew might be. As for that disgraceful display in the canteen today- WAS there any excuse for that?"

Chris felt the noose tighening yet again. He'd had more than his fair share of trouble since the day he decided to quit, and he knew how this discussion was going to end.

"No, sir."

"I didn't think so. Can you imagine my embarrassment at having to be hauled before the Dean to discuss your actions? To find out directly from him that you threw food, were trying to punch Matthew, and uttered a mouthful of abuse in front of half the canteen? In plain view of the Dean?"

Chris flushed darkly, eyes down.

"My name is in your file to help facilitate any discussions that are needed with the school personnel. I did NOT expect to be called in for this." Joseph let his words sink in. "Alright, then I think we can get on with washing that mouth of yours out. Sink, please."

Chris got up slowly and walked over to the sink, head down.

Joseph got the soap ready and thoroughly washed out Chris's mouth. He continued to lecture Chris about language as he washed, with Chris spitting soap bubbles about every third word. When Joseph was certain the mouth was clean, he allowed Chris to spit.

Chris spit furiously, and used his glass of water as best he could to rinse, but he knew he'd be tasting that a lot longer than he desired. He could only hope with all the tears of the spanking that he could wash more out.

"Thats enough," Joseph said too soon for Chris. He pulled Chris's face up. "Will that be all the reminder you need about language?"

"Yes, sir," Chris sputtered quickly.

"Good. Then you can take a seat at the table and start on your homework."

Chris blinked, taken aback. That was NOT what he'd been expecting. For one horrible moment he thought Joe was going to make him wait for it- and then as soon as the thought occured, he put it aside. Joe never teased him like that: if he was headed for a spanking, Joe told him, clearly; he didn't leave him to sweat.

"Allright?" Joe said when he didn't move. Chris looked up at him, still confused. Joe pushed a hand through his hair.

"Go on. I'll have a look through that English paper when you're done."

Chris took a seat at the table, too bewildered now to care about the taste of soap. Almost, he opened his mouth to ask straight out. Then shut it again. It was too embarrassing to discuss it, there was too strong a risk of being asked the question, "Do you NEED a spanking?" because unfortunately, the answer was probably yes. Chris flushed, thinking through the horrible afternoon again. The shouting, the swearing, the pepper, the soup- things had got seriously out of control. It had been awful. Really awful. All the things Joe never tolerated. Several weeks ago, he'd used the belt when Chris and Matthew got into a fight- Chris winced at the thought of it, that was about as severe as Joe got- and he'd got another, very thorough spanking for throwing the shrimp during Stephen's re opening. In fact the last few weeks, he'd got it several times, pretty severely, pretty much for the same damn things.

Miserable, Chris picked up a pen and aimlessly drew on the paper in front of him, thinking.

Maybe Joe was just getting to the end of his tether with him. Nothing worked. He was grounded to infinity already, Joe was supervising him to within an inch of his life out of school, there weren't many sanctions left in their repertoire that weren't already in place.

Meet Christopher Stevens. The world's greatest living screw up. Covertly, anxiously, he watched Joe's face as he worked at the counter, pulling dinner together. Joe loved cooking. It was something he did effortlessly, smooth, deft movements of his hands, this went into that and that turned into this- everything Joe did was deft. Thought out, precise, unfumbled.

Joe didn't MAKE random decisions.

One of the things Chris loved most about him was his calm surity. He assessed the evidence, made the decision and moved on, unruffled- if Chris was getting out of hand, if Joe was running out of the steam to cope with him, Joe would have planned for it, it would be made clear to him, it would be a problem Joe would expect them to fix together.

Hypnotised by Joe's face and hands, Chris watched him, trying to add thoughts up in his mind. Suddenly he was aware how tired he was. Of the sudden ache in his forehead where his brows were permanently knitted together in a slight, defensive scowl. How tight his stomach was. Impulsively he slid out of his chair and went to Joe, ducking under his arm to bury himself in Joe's chest.

Joe hugged him back without saying anything, the words not needed. When he felt Chris start to relax a little he let go with a kiss to the forehead. "Why don't you shower? Dinner should be ready when you're done."

Chris wandered upstairs, grabbing a couple of Tylenol on the way before climbing under the spray. Both the Tylenol and the water started to unwind the muscles and allowed Chris to think a little more clear.

He was beginning- unwillingly- to realise that everything was up to him. Joseph had tried to help him by putting Matthew and he together, but the timing was just off. He'd taken a huge blow to his self esteem, and it was just now starting to return. He'd made it through the end of the semester thanks to Joe....and Matthew's....help. The beginning of the current semester was going pretty well, and Joseph was really pushing him hard, but he could tell his writing was getting better. He'd had little time to himself, and the time spent with Joseph was pretty much close contact. Joe was making him think, making him work, not giving him time to brood. And with the time had come the realization that he WAS going to make it through the class. Eventually. And if he kept screwing up like he was, he was going to have far more practice than he ever thought he needed in that exam technique. The next ten days at school were not going to be fun, being shuttled from class to class with either Joe or Rolf, or according to Joe, even with Marc when either of the other two weren't available. Knowing that Matthew was going to be suffering the same 'ill-treatment' made it slightly more bearable, but not much. He just didn't know how he was ever going to figure out what to say to him. And he obviously wasn't going to be given any private time in order to do it. He gave up thinking on it as the hot water ran out at the same time as Joe called from downstairs. He hopped out and dried himself off, tossing on some comfortable shorts and a tshirt and headed downstairs with a wet head.

Joe's smile at the sight of him was reassuring. There was no hidden agenda here. There never was. Calmed, Chris settled at the table to eat. Things with Matthew could be sorted out.

Possibly.

Once he'd had time to plan it thoroughly.

Joe watched him eat, realising with slow relief that he had made the right decision. This afternoon, faced with an angry, confused, scared Chris, still feeling attacked from Matthew's assault on him- and so defensive he was barely thinking about anything but withstanding the next attack- Joe had known perfectly well that the last thing he needed was a spanking. He was so angry now, and so entrenched in that anger, it would only feel to him like one more assault and from the one source he had left to open up to for support. He'd learn nothing at all, it would be a pointless exercise in commitment to a system, not to Chris. They'd come to this particular point over and over again in the last few weeks- Chris's anger with Matthew slipping the leash and darting beyond his control. He'd been repeatedly punished for it and it was doing nothing to help him. They'd tried all those solutions, and for this particular problem, they were failing.

This was an odd and undefineable balance, Joe reflected, watching Chris with love as he picked the carrots out of the casserole, laying them in a neat line. There was consistency. And that was vital. And there was commitment to rules- again consistency. And then sometimes Chris needed disciplining even when technically it was unjust- and at other times, when it was just, it wasn't helpful. At the end of the day it was far more about Chris, knowing him, understanding him and staying in orbit around him no matter what particular trajectory that he happened to be on at the moment, than about any definable, justifiable- measurable- system.

The rules are that there are no rules.


Quad Erat Demonstradem.

"Eat your carrots." he said gently, and the look he got was authentic Chris- subdued, but a real, Chris smile, without the tautness of the last few days.

*

"Matty I'm warning you. CAN it." Marc said sharply, glancing at his watch. "I said I'd watch the pair of you, I promised Joe, that's the END of it."

Matthew kicked the dirt in front of him, sitting on the side of the fountain. He'd regretted his jello dump seriously three days ago when Rolf was in the process of spanking him for it, and he regretted it seriously now. He could almost see the leash he was on at school, and hated every minute of it. With Rolf or Joe he didn't dare say anything about it, but with Marc, he thought he'd be given a little leeway. Unfortunately, Marc had taken just as dim of view of things as Rolf and Joe had.

"There he is," Marc said, waving at Joe as Chris got out of the car. He watched as Chris stood by the door getting last minute instructions, then a kiss before Joe headed off to work.

Chris walked slowly towards Marc and Matthew. He stopped at the edge of the pavement that circled most of the fountain.

"Good, you're both here. It's about time for the previous classes to end, so lets head first to Matthew's class. You lead, Matthew, and remember what I said."

"Yeah, that we must protect prick's feelings -"

Marc took two quick steps and turned Matthew around, standing right at his ear and speaking very forcefully. "I hear another word, no matter how sweet, and I won't care who's standing around to watch, I'll wear your tail out for you, is that clear?"

Matthew blanched but managed a quiet yes sir when he finished.

Chris continued to walk towards his class.

"CHRIS. THIS WAY." Marc said, standing and waiting until Chris turned around and followed them quietly.

Marc delivered Matthew, scowling fiercely enough to make people dodge out of his way, to an accounting and law class, and steered Chris in the other direction to his English class, leaving him at the door with the same instructions he'd given Matthew.

"Rolf is coming to collect you at twelve. Stay in the classroom, by the door, and wait until he comes for you."

"I KNOW, Joe SAID." Chris said savagely. Marc gave him a look.

"Now I'm saying too, so it should be very clear. Wait right here. Have a good class."

Chris pulled a face after Marc, watching him head down the hallway towards the front of the building where he'd left his car.

Still scowling, Chris pulled out a chair, sat down and tried to focus on English literature. Matthew wouldn't even look at him. No eye contact, not a glimmer of his usual friendliness. He'd really blown it this time. Seriously blown it. And being dragged back and forth from classes like this gave them no time to negotiate- Marc walked between them, keeping Matthew well away from him. Joe marched them between classes like a drill sergeant, watching him like a hawk. Rolf conducted the corridor tours in freezing silence that didn't encourage any form of conversation.

When the bell went, Chris had no clearer ideas.

Frustrated and worried, he stood in the door way of the classroom and bit his nails. He was still biting fifteen minutes later. Even walking from Matthew's classroom downstairs, Rolf and Matthew had had plenty of time to cover the distance. Rolf wasn't usually someone to be late. When twenty minutes passed, in sheer curiosity, Chris headed down the stairs, peering through the classroom doors. People were still milling around downstairs, most of them on lunch breaks. Matthew, back against the wall, phone in hand, was punching numbers with a fed up look on his face. Chris took a deep breath, trying not to reflexively glower.

"What's wrong?"

Matthew glanced up at him and just as quickly looked away.

"Don't know."

Silence.

"I suppose we could walk." Chris offered. Matthew shrugged.

"Rolf said wait."

"Is he answering?"

"No. Maybe a client's over time."

Silence again.

"Joe said to wait, but he didn't say I had to waste my life here. I'm going," Chris said, turning to stalk off.

Matthew angrily hung the phone up, wondering what in the hell was keeping Rolf. It was bad enough to have to wait, but to be forced to wait longer was just ridiculous. He looked at Chris's retreating back and turned to stalk off the other way. He'd taken about two steps when an excited titter made it's way down the hall towards him, setting him on edge. He barely made out the words "He's got a gun!" before he saw the shiny chunk of metal in a student's hand. He turned around quickly, searching for a place to hide when he saw Chris still casually walking away. Matthew didn't think for a second; he just took off running, knowing there was a janitors closet around the next corner. He ran full stride into Chris's back, knocking them both to the ground as the first shot whizzed over their heads and slammed with a loud pop into the metal door at the end of the hall. A split second later the glass shattered, raining down on them as Matthew scrambled to his feet first and pulled Chris around the corner, praying that the door was open.

He grabbed the knob, Chris still in the midst of shock, having not the first idea of what was going on, but getting angrier by the second as he realized Matthew was the one that had gang tackled him to the floor, leaving him breathless and with a very sore knee and elbow. Chris was just about to let loose with a roundhouse punch when the front of his shirt was grabbed, more glass shattered behind him and suddenly he found himself in the dark, on top of Matthew. The jabbering in the hallway had exploded into screams at the first shot. Chris dragged himself over Matthew's legs, dragged the door shut and scrambled backwards, dragging what he could reach of Matthew with him. From the yelp it raised, some tender part of Matthew scraped over the concrete floor, but he felt Matthew's hands grip him as he hauled himself upright, and Chris gladly clutched him back, the two huddling together in the dark against the wall. They were both rigid with shock.

"Who the FUCK was that?" Matthew hissed in his ear. Chris shook his head, still clutching.

"I didn't see him."

"I thought it was a fucking 
TOY - everyone was looking and laughing! MANIAC-"

"Shhhh."

They listened, straining their ears. There had been no more gunfire. There was no sound coming from the corridor at all. Clinging together, they waited, both of them shaking.

"What do we do?" Chris murmured eventually. Matthew slid into a little more comfortable position, blinking on the pitch darkness of the cupboard.

"Wait. There is NO way I'm opening that door until I hear police."

They both shut up, fast, ducking their heads down together as footfall ran past the cupboard door. Whether the gunman or some terrified student, there was no way of knowing.

"What makes someone flip like that?" Matthew said in Chris's ear, not able to stand the silence. Chris shrugged.

"I don't know."

"A loaded GUN-"

"It happens all the time on the news."

"You never think it'll happen HERE!"

Chris snorted very quietly. "Want to know something?"

"What?"

"I'm fucking terrified."

"Me too." Matthew admitted without hesitation. "It's not like this in the films."

"Die Hard."

"With glass everywhere."

"And the white t shirt."

"I'm not even wearing a t shirt."

"I am." Chris stifled a snort of hysteria. "I could tape a mop to my back-"

They both clung again, silent as more feet passed the closet.

"Where the HELL is Eric and his mob?" Chris muttered.

"Probably outside. Think I should try looking?"

"NO you idiot." Chris hung onto him, pulling him back down. "We stay OUT of sight and wait. Like you said two minutes ago, schizo!"

"I'm a Gemini."

"I know what else you are too."

Matthew stifled another hysterical giggle in Chris's shoulder. "Remember when Todd did all the symbols out on the table at Steve's place? The twins, the fish, the lion and no one could draw the crab so he drew......"

Chris snorted with laughter. "I remember Steve's face when he saw it. Who carved that tree at the lake?"

"Marc."

"He never looks like he's got it in him, he's so quiet."

"Oh he's got it." Matthew grinned at the memory. "Cave art."

"Obscene cave art."

"It's been ten minutes, think we should look?" Chris said hesitantly. "Its gone quiet?"

Both brats hesitated, listening.

"I can't hear a thing." Matthew said softly. Chris braced with him, trying to hear. Then snorted and felt across Matthew's pockets, making him squirm.

"HEY!"

"Shut UP." Chris dug his cellphone out and activated it. "Call you idiot. Rolf's probably in the carpark."

"I forgot I even had it." Matthew admitted, sliding back down the wall. He dialed quickly, feeling Chris's comforting weight against his shoulder. "Come on Rolf, pick up pick up pick up pick HEY-"

"Matthew! Where the hell are you?" Rolf asked, worry making him forget his usually clean language.

"In a cupboard. There were shots. We've been afraid to move," Matthew spoke quickly, thankful that at least someone now knew where they were.

"We? Who's there with you?" Rolf asked.

"Chris. Is the gunman still out there?"

Rolf, harrassed, and now horrified, mentally ran through the options of the ending of this particular drama in seconds flat. He could see the headlines.

"Two Young Men Survive Shooting Only To Kill Each Other"

"Deranged Shooter Drops Gun As Two Men Explode From Cupboard In Middle Of Argument."

"Lone Gunman Gives Up When Two Students Begin A Foodfight"

"I'm not sure yet. Thank goodness you're alright! Can you tell me where you are?"

"First floor janitor's closet. When can we come out?"

"Matthew, listen closely. You stay RIGHT there, do NOT open that door for anything. I'm going to hang up and call Joe, I'm sure he's worried. Wait for ten minutes, then call me back, okay?"

"But Rolf -"

"Sweetheart, I know you're scared. You should be fine, from what I can tell they've gotten the gunman. They're just checking the rest of the building now. I'll see if I can get ahold of Eric to let him know."

"Rolf...."

"Matthew I'm going to hang up now. Call me back in ten minutes, I have to let Joe know."

Matthew bit on air as he heard the connection break, his throat closing in spite of himself. Chris, who had been close enough to listen, tightened the arm around him and shook roughly.

"That's good news. We just have to wait."

"Mmn." Matthew sat back, the phone in his hands.

Out in the carpark, Rolf redialled, just as anxious. Police were everywhere, swarming all over the carpark. Rolf walked rapidly across, listening to the ring tone and scanning for Eric. Virtually every policeman in the town appeared to be here: it wasn't difficult to track Eric down, standing on the main path into the foyer, directing students away from the doors. His mouth twisted when he saw Rolf.

"Damn, I hoped none of our lot were here- it's ok, they've got the guy somewhere on the top floor, he's contained-"

"Matthew's ok, he and Chris are in a closet somewhere on the ground floor." Rolf shut the phone off and dialed Joe's cell phone number with slightly less than steady fingers. "They're fine, just scared. I'd guess there's a lot of students hiding in the building. Mike's not in there is he?"

"No thank God. Tell Matt and Chris to stay put. We'll worry about them when this lunatic's out and gone." Eric said wryly. "They're safe where they are."

*

Joe glanced at his watch on his way out of the court building and made a mental note to pick up a sandwich on the way- lunch was clearly going to be an on the run job today. He already had his mind on the next meeting, and he had his phone out and open on autopilot before he truly realised it was ringing.

"Hello?"

"Joe it's me, have you heard the local news broadcasts?"

Rolf sounded unusually rattled. Joe unlocked his car, dropped into the driver's seat and snapped the radio on, scanning for a news channel.

"No, what's happened?"

"Chris is fine. Matthew just rang me, they're both safe."

"From WHAT?" Joe turned the news up and his breath caught as he heard the word 'shooting'. "Oh God-"

"He and Matthew locked themselves in some closet, they're still there. Fine, just scared. The police have the guy contained on the top floor, well away from them, they're bringing him out now."

"I'll be right over, I'm about two miles away." Joe gunned the engine and turned the car, tucking the phone into his neck to spin the wheel. He was half way around when the thought hit him and he grabbed at the phone.

"They're shut in a closet together?!"

*

It was approaching two pm when the police began to sweep the corridors, collecting up knots of scared students hiding in the classrooms and hallways. Joe paced around the carpark again, arms tightly folded. Rolf, sitting on the bonnet of his car, looked no less taut. The carpark by now was full of brothers, parents, partners and onlookers. Both Joe and Rolf straightened up when the students began to come out under police escort. They'd seen the young man frogmarched in handcuffs to an armoured van twenty minutes before: the students now were in huddles, some in tears, some openly relieved. There was property damage, no injuries, just shock. The sight of two fair heads side by side at the back of a knot of students was both an open relief and the floodgate to fresh anxiety. Joe started across the carpark, quickening his pace. Chris's face looked unmarked. He looked relatively calm, but there was no saying what the effects of shock had been on him, or what harm he and Matthew had managed to wreak on each other locked up in close proximity for a few hours- knowing Matthew's vitriolic tongue and Chris's hairtriggered temper, heaven alone knew what had been said and done. At the end of the path Matthew muttered something to Chris, digging him in the ribs and Chris stuck a foot in between Matthew's ankles, making him stumble and getting pushed in return, then Chris spotted Joe and ran at him, dodging cars and students. Joe grabbed him and hugged hard. Even knowing he was safe, even talking briefly to him via Matthew's cell phone before it's battery flattened- it had still been a strain to wait the hour out. Chris held on tight for a moment, letting the shakes overtake him.

Joe's fingers were still tight on his arms when he was put down on his feet.

"Are you ok? Sure?"

"Yeah. Just scared."

Joe touched his face, pushing his hair back, unable not to look for bruises. He looked surprisingly- unharmed. Rolf, across the carpark, one arm around Matthew as they headed for his car, looked equally bemused. Chris followed Joe across to his car, slinging his bag of books into the backseat and then muttered, grabbing Matthew's phone from his back pocket.

"HEY. SCHIZO."

Matthew turned and caught the phone neatly, grinning at Chris as he slid into the passenger seat.

"Do you HAVE to yell at him like that?" Joe asked automatically, putting the car into gear.

"Yes." Chris said frankly. "Always."



Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2010

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