Sunday, February 14, 2010

Homeward Bound


Title: Homeward Bound
Author: Ranger

This is a slightly different to usual story, born from requests by K and Xanthe- ladies, it's a pleasure since I read everything I can find by you two! And written guidance of Rolf, as ever, who always gets these two to where they need to be. {}
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Some dictionary guidance for the non Brits ahead although Harry Potter fans should be fine... ;)

English public schools are the elite private boarding schools. The school is traditionally broken into 'houses', more a name for a group than an actual separate building, with children allocated to a house for their school career, under the supervision of the house master/mistress, the resident teacher in charge.

Prefects- a group of sixth formers (17-18 year olds in their last two school years) chosen to hold authority and supervision for younger boys and support the house master. Generally they organised sports and games, school facilities like the library and the running of school sports matches and took a good deal of responsibility for general discipline and organisation in the houses. Each house would have a 'head of house', the prefect in charge of the house prefects and with the ultimate authority. In many boys public schools until 10- 15 years ago, the head prefect had authority to cane younger boys. Being boys themselves and a much more dynamic force, the prefects were often a more liked and respected authority in school than the masters.

Major/Minor- boys at school were addressed by their surnames. Where brothers or cousins attended the same school, to avoid confusion the older brother was called the Major and the younger called the Minor- ie Smith Major, Smith Minor.

Masters- teachers.

Prep- preparation, homework. In a public school there were set hours in the evening when the younger boys would assemble in classrooms under supervision and older boys would go to their studies and spend approximately two hours doing the nightly homework.

Forms- classes. Public schools took boys from 11-18. First formers were the youngest boys. The Junior school was usually the first form up to the fourth form, who were around 14 years old. The Upper school was usually 14-18, the upper fourth form to the sixth forms.

-----------------------------------------------------Homeward Bound

"Nicky?"

I stirred, lifting my head from the awkward angle against the window. It was very nearly dark, the headlights picked out moorland road ahead, rough grass on either side of the thin strip of tarmac and-

"Snow?" I sat up, loving the view. It was fairly light, just an inch or two on the grass and the road. Damien had slowed the car in respect to it, not that we were in a hurry anyway. He glanced over and smiled at me.

"It started about half a mile back, we're up above the snowline now."

"It's beautiful." I rubbed my eyes, curling up in the front seat to see at much of the hillsides as possible. I knew this stretch of road. We were about twenty miles from his parents' home now, and the first of the villages was at the end of the moors, at the foot of these hills. We'd arrive at his parents in time for dinner, just as Damien had predicted. Unlike me, he could estimate time down to a matter of minutes and always make his own deadlines.

A sheep picked its way through the snow to the side of the road and paused to watch us pass, then delicately began to navigate the slush on the road itself. Up here the tarmac was thin and perfunctory, this was hardly a main road and had probably only been a road as opposed to a farm track for ten years or so. Damien slowed down a little further, taking the curves with care and I could see he was taking in the landscape as well. He loved it up here. It was far enough away that we rarely came more than once a year, but he'd been born and raised in Northumberland and these rough, usually cold and very weathered hillsides were very much what he thought of as home. As boys he and his brother had backpacked all over here, rock climbing and doing other unnecessarily vigorous activities for their Duke of Edinburgh awards. For another couple of miles we passed nothing more exciting than the occasional, white laced tree where the snow had blown deep into the branches and picked out every twig, and Damien skirted the occasional drift, dropping the car into a lower gear. At the final curve I recognised the landmark- an old shepherd's hut, no more than a stone ruin now, standing some way back from the road and marking the and of the moors and the downward turn into the valley and towards the villages. The trees grew close enough together here to have shielded off the snow. The car rounded the steep corner and I sighed, straightening up and hanging on to Damien's shoulder to lean over into the back seat and pick up the flask of coffee we'd brought with us.

I felt him stiffen before the car moved. Either he must have seen a glimpse of movement or his instincts took over and he had a flash of premonition, but I felt the adrenaline shoot through his muscles a split second before they clenched and the car started to slide. I remember being thrown against his shoulder- which can't have been helpful- and hearing his hands rapidly yanking the steering wheel round with all his strength as well as his voice, deep and shocked, in the Englishman's shortest prayer.

"Oh my God….."

There was almost no sound from the wheels or the road. The car simply spun slowly around until we were side on to the road, and slid sideways on down the slope.

I would have panicked. Damien did exactly what he's told me to do many times when driving in slippery road conditions, right before he refuses to let me drive myself anyway. Turn into the skid. Pump the brake, gently, don't stand on it. Try not to make sudden moves. The car ended up nose on against the bank as he turned the front wheels deeper into the spin, there were a few seconds where I was sure we were going to slide on at increasing speed down the steep road ahead of us, then I realised the car was still. Damien turned the engine off and put the handbrake on, slowly but with all his strength, pulling it far enough up to damage the brake cable and for once not caring. He was standing on the foot brake and he looked at me, white faced and deadly serious.

"Nicky get out. Slowly, don't shut the door, and get as far away from the car as you can. Be careful."

When he uses THAT tone I don't wait for him to repeat himself. I scrambled out, sliding to keep my feet on the ice, and stared, heart in my mouth while he carefully opened his door. And got out himself, leaving the door open and finding his footing carefully on the ice, surveying the car's position.

I slid a few steps towards him, wanting him AWAY from the car, and his head snapped round, his voice short.

"CAREFUL. Go further up the road, get into the bank, I'm not convinced it won't slide."

And if it did, this road ran down hill, ever more steeply, for about two miles on and off. Surrounded with trees and steep drops over the edge of the road.

"Come over here then." I ordered, shaking, and not just with cold.

"BANK."

"Damien DON'T stand there if you don't think it's safe!"

He didn't move. I folded my arms tighter, pleading, close to panic.

"There's nothing you can do, PLEASE come up here? Please? Damien! For pete's sake COME HERE!"

The screech reached him: it was certainly by that point earsplitting out of sheer desperation. Possibly he was worried about me starting an avalanche. He ducked his head, dug his hands deeper into his pockets and picked his way carefully across the road to me. I waited, shivering, until he came into reach, then grabbed him, leaning hard. He folded his arms around me and his chin came down heavily on top of my head, a silent and motionless grip. I glanced up and there was a grimness to his face, a tightness around his mouth that I didn't like at all. I held onto him, pushing him back towards the shelter of the bank before he got any ideas about going back to the car. Neither of us were wearing coats and it was freezing out here. He didn't argue: just steadied us both and moved until we were both standing on the rough brush underneath the trees instead of on the iced road.

"You're NOT going back to it." I said sharply when I got my breath back. "Where's your phone?"

"In the car."

"You're NOT." I snapped, hanging on to him. He didn't answer. Just gave me another, crushing hug, then peeled my hands off. "Stay here."

"Only if you stay too!" I warned. He didn't answer, just headed back, slowly, towards the car. I followed him as far as the edge of the road, shaking with cold and watching every move he made. He moves like a cat when he wants to. At the least he moved around the back of the car where if it slid further it wouldn't slide into him. I watched him open the boot and pull out both our coats, leaving the boot open too, and extract the coffee flask too before he came back to me. I took my anorak from him and pulled it on, watching him shoulder into his and zip it up. And pull his cell phone out of the pocket.

He tried several times. Then snapped it shut, grim faced. "No signal."

"Mine's on the dashboard-"

"It won't work darling, we're miles from the nearest signal or satellite or whatever the hell the damn things bounce off."

This wasn't good. Judging by his face I was starting to realise just how not good this was.

"Someone else'll come along, you carry tow ropes don't you?"

Of course he did, he always carried that kind of thing. That was my man, king of the boy scouts. Damien ran both hands through his hair, looking up and down the road.

"I've got the ropes allright. But it's nearly dark, and no one else is going to be galactically stupid enough to try driving these roads in this weather and in this light. I need my bloody head examined Nick-"

That tone was more than I could bear. I grabbed him, trying to pull his head down. He resisted for a moment, then turned his head into my shoulder. I hugged him hard, tangling my fingers in his already snowy hair.

"You didn't know it was going to be this icy, how could you have known?"

"I'm a local boy, I've got NO excuse whatever. TOURISTS get caught like this." Damien said bitterly. "I need my brains testing."

"What can we do about the car?" I said softly. Damien didn't answer for a moment, then sighed and ran a hand down my back, patting before he let me go.

"I'm sorry."

"It's okay, it's no one's fault."

He sighed again, not sounding much convinced or comforted. "I don't think there IS anything we can do about the car. Not without a heavy vehicle and ropes, and enough salt to get the wheels to grip. And I'm not insane enough to try driving it another foot, it'll slide right over the edge of the road. I'm so bloody stupid Nick."

I rubbed his back, hating his tone and his expression.

"Then we're going to have to start walking, aren't we?"

Damien didn't answer that. I looked at the car again, taking in its
angle.

"We can't wait in the car, can we? Wait until morning?"

"You're not going near the car, it's not stable." Damien gave it one last look and I realised, all this time he'd been surveying it, thinking over the angles, the possibilities. "I don't think it would take much to start it sliding again, it's only really resting now on one wheel stabilised in snow."

"How far a walk is it if we head down?"

"To the next, village, about eight miles."

We didn't really have a choice. I'd heard the stories I knew he wouldn't discuss with me now, about tourists who came up here not realising there would be snow on the tops, who walked in jeans and sweaters on the hills up here and froze to death through their lack of caution. If we couldn't shelter in the car our only option was to walk. Damien zipped my coat further up and put the thermos flask into my hand.

"Drink some of that coffee, I'll see what I can get out of the car."

As a matter of fact I hovered, heart in my mouth the whole time he was near the car. He dug in the boot, extracting clothes from the suitcase, then in the glove compartment before he finally and gently shut the doors and boot and locked up. What he brought back to me were socks, jeans, sweater and my portable nebuliser. With the car lights now switched off, it was increasingly difficult to see. Damien put the nebuliser down and handed me the clothes.

"Put those on. Over the top of what you're wearing, you're going to need the layers."

Thank God we'd had extra clothes with us. I took off my coat and pulled on what he'd given me - one of his sweaters, a thick, cable knit one, and a pair of his jeans which fit over the top of mine. And a second pair of socks which just fit under my boots. Damien shouldered into a light fleece jacket which fit under his anorak, put on his own second pair of socks and crouched beside me, setting the nebuliser.

"I want you to do one of these now, before we start. And DRINK some of that coffee while it's hot, we might as well be as warm as possible."

Unwillingly, I unscrewed the top of the thermos and poured coffee, gulping it back. Hot still, despite that we'd made it at home, nearly six hours ago, and bitter. He swapped the cup with me for the nebuliser and I leaned against his chest, breathing in the medicated fog and feeling his arm wrap around me while he drank.

"Okay?" he asked when I was done. "Give it here, I'll carry it."

He took the nebuliser and re packed it into it's shoulder bag. I took the thermos and zipped it inside my anorak. It was somewhat like walking with a hot water bottle; now only my face was aware of the bite of the wind.

"How long is it going to take us?" I asked, looking down the long road ahead of us. Damien zipped the case shut and stood up.

"Not that long. Where are your inhalers? Better let me have them."

"Why?"

"Because if I need them in a hurry I don't want to be searching you in the dark."

"You're no fun." I dug out the two I could locate and handed them over. "Lead on McDuff."

"We need to stay off the road if we can, no need for broken legs."

Or for being standing targets if the car slipped free of the snow.

I took his hand and he started down the steep, bracken covered banks beside the road, leading me into the woodland.


The first fifteen minutes were pretty grim. Within minutes of moving away from the car and the open moor where there had been enough natural light to see, it got DARK. We were walking on uneven ground and Damien moved slowly a half step ahead of me, sounding the ground out and where necessary taking both my hands to steady me down steep inclines and drops. I couldn't see his face but his silence alone was awful. Not withdrawn, Damien never does withdraw, but I could feel his anger. Not in the least directed at me or the car, but chewing away at him like acid. Somewhere in the anonymity of dark and the vague shape of trees around us, I pulled on his hand to stop him and cautiously felt for what was beneath our feet, trying to sit down. He pulled me back up at once, voice quiet.

"No, Nicky. We need to keep moving."

"Talk to me then?" I said plaintively. I couldn't make out his expression but I knew the sigh, not of exasperation, just unhappy and apologetic. He stooped into my arms and hugged me, hard, one of his bone crushing hugs that leave the physical memory of him long after he's let go.

"I'm sorry."

"It's allright." I ran both hands through his hair and held his head, talking into his ear. "We're not lost, you KNOW this ground, we're going to be careful."

"Are you okay darling?" He peeled me back far enough to rest his forehead against mine. "Cold? We won't be in this kind of dark for long."

"I'm fine, I'm warm, it's okay."

He didn't respond to that and I knew he wouldn't. Nor would he talk about anything except the positive fact that eight miles was no distance for two grown men to walk. He just kissed me, the heat of his breath warm between our two cold faces, and took my hands to steer me down after him.

"Come on baby, we need to keep moving."

"How far is Castle Greyskull from here?" I asked, trying not to stumble as we clambered down over a couple of rocks. Damien waited until I had both feet firmly on the ground before he moved on.

"Greystoke Abbey thankyou."

"I know what it was, I've seen your school tie with the sword on it."

I could hear his smile.

"About forty miles or so west of here."

"Is it such rough ground as this?"

"Yes, for miles around. We used to run miles around the local moors on cross country routes and think nothing of it. Must have been hard as nails."

I snorted and he nudged me in the ribs.

"I bet you never ran a cross country run in your life."

"You're absolutely right; I waved my inhalers and read in peace and quiet by the radiators in the library." I said firmly. "Far more sensible."

Damien paused, stopping me, and in the silence I heard running water near by. Damien kept hold of my hand and moved to our left, I could hear the rustle as he felt for ground, and then the clearer sound of his boot on tarmac.

"Over here, I think we've found the road."

"How icy is it?" I said dubiously. Damien let go of me for a moment, taking a few steps out.

"Not bad. Safer than the brush. Come on."

I felt for his hand and we moved out of the woods onto the narrow tarmacked road. There was no snow here. The woodland had given too much shelter and we were further downhill now from the open moor. Our pace picked up and it was easier walking; my legs stopped aching and the anxiety that had been chewing at me in the dark of the woodland began to fade.

"Did they really make you run around miles of open ground? All the school?"

"Most of it was farm land, it was perfectly safe." Damien said cheerfully. "The prefects were sent out with the younger forms to keep an eye on them, but there wasn't really much chance to get into trouble."

"And you always just happily trotted around the course with the proper gung ho spirit?"

"We weren't allowed to hide in the library, if that's what you mean. The prefects ran games, not masters and they took a roll call, the whole school had to do games on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, and the head prefect in each house got the names of anyone who didn't show up. If you didn't, then your name was read out after tea and you went and got three of the best in his study before prep."

"How incredibly PG Wodehouse." I teased him. He didn't answer, but I could feel his smile.

"It was regarded as fair enough. And it was usually the same few boys who tried to skip it. Although when the weather was really good, the queue outside his study used to get a little longer with people sloping off to go swimming."

"And of course you never sloped off." I said mischievously.

"Of course not!"

"Never?"

"I went swimming a few times." Damien admitted. "Although we said as much when asked, we never tried faking notes like some did."

"I did it papa with my little axe….." I said nobly. Damien dug me in the ribs. I dug him straight back and we wrestled for a minute until he got me firmly pinned under one arm, not breaking his stride.

"We DID acquire the gerbils by re routing a cross country run. THAT wasn't sloping off though."

"Re routing?" I demanded. Damien sounded serenely matter of fact about it.

"There was a pet shop in the town, which was about a mile and a half off the route. Strictly speaking, if you gave your name in to the prefects on duty when the run started, and you STILL got back before tea at five, you weren't actually missed if you- er-"

"Sloped off!" I said triumphantly. "How old were you?"

"Thirteen." Damien admitted. "Old enough to know better I suppose. It was the year my brother was the head of my house too, and he nearly wrung my neck in private every time I got in to trouble."

"What did you want gerbils for anyway?"

"Watch your step, it's slippery here." Damien paused for a moment to help me scramble down a particularly uneven section of road and we picked up an even pace again through the dark. "It wasn't my fault, someone in my dormitory had this gerbil cage and his wretched gerbil escaped one night, WHICH he blamed on us knocking the cage over. Actually that gerbil was a determined little bugger anyway and acted like Steve McQueen without the motorbike."

"How did the cage get knocked over?"

Damien took a deep breath.

**************************************************

They made it back into bed a split second before the door opened and the master on duty snapped the light on. Seven small boys, all apparently asleep, lay blamelessly in their beds. The master cast a quick look around the room before saying, pointedly,

"If I hear one more sound from this dormitory tonight, I'll see you ALL in my study after breakfast. Mitchell, draw the curtains."

Damien slid out of bed and hastily pulled the heavy drapes over the window at the end of the room. The clock across the quad struck ten as he climbed back in, and the prefect in charge of the dormitory arrived in the doorway, looking somewhat bewildered at the sight of the master standing there. The master moved to let him past, watching Damien settle back down.

"It's allright Thompson, just a minor riot. Goodnight boys."

"Goodnight sir."

The chorus was deceptively sleepy. The master gave Thompson a brief smile and shut the door behind him, leaving the light on. Thompson, who by virtue of being seventeen as opposed to thirteen and fourteen like the fourth form boys he supervised in dormitory seven, owned a bedside lamp, turned it on and went in silence to turn the central light off. And then walked slowly around the dormitory, scanning the floor and the form of each apparently resting boy. Two pillows were pulled out of position, but otherwise the dormitory was as neat as was possible when housing eight teenagers. Nobody moved, and nobody spoke. And no one tried any fake snoring, having established within two days of the start of the autumn term that Thompson didn't suffer teasing gladly. Dormitory seven had a reputation of housing some of the worst demons of the junior school, including Granger, Harrison and Mitchell Minor, all of whom required a firm hand. Finally, finding no cause for suspicion, Thompson sat on the edge of his bed, took off and wound his watch, picked up his towel and headed for the bathroom, leaving the dormitory door open behind him.

Harrison slid the empty gerbil cage out from underneath the blankets and glared at Granger who was nearest.

"I TOLD you you'd break it!"

Granger gestured to him to be quiet, cast a cautious glance at the door and slid out of bed.

"He went behind your locker, I saw him go."

"So move the locker!"

"Shhhh." Damien grabbed his towel from his bedrail and came to join them, helping Granger wiggle the cabinet slowly forward, ignoring Harrison's agonised squeak of, "You'll squash him!"

"We will NOT squash him, your bloody gerbil is invincible." Granger said sharply. "The little bastard's faster than a speeding bullet and-"

Both he and Damien yelped and dropped the cabinet, fast, as the gerbil in question shot out between their feet, looked at the circle of small boys around him and made a break for freedom towards the open door. Damien flung the towel after him and missed, Harrison chased him out onto the landing. And Thompson, thankfully missing the small, brown rodent zooming joyfully down the main stairs, emerged from the bathroom with a a look of thunder on his face. Granger, ever quick to think, hastily stuffed the empty cage back under the covers of Harrison's bed.

********

"If you beggar about ONE more time after lights out," Miles said grimly, "I'll have you in here with me, I'll put Harrison upstairs in dormitory four, and you three won't see each other outside of break times."

There were downsides to being the younger brother of the head prefect. Damien, well aware that everyone else had now escaped from the dormitories and were assembling for breakfast, shifted from foot to foot, watching his brother with growing aggravation. Miles pulled his tie straight and shouldered into his blazer, sitting where he was on the edge of his bed.

"What were you doing anyway?"

"Nothing!" Damien said indignantly. Miles snorted.

"We HEARD the crashes! You woke up half this dorm, and Thompson said from what he saw, you and Harrison were having some kind of towel fight in the doorway!"

Damien considered his options and went for the best one, which was looking totally innocent of the possibilities of towels as offensive weapons. Miles was a fairly patient and even tempered prefect who mostly liked the younger boys and tried not to lose patience with them. And he was in many ways quite a tolerable elder brother. But even he would not take the news of a gerbil in school very well. He was likely to take the news of an escaped gerbil still LESS well.

Miles waited, then leaned across to his dresser in exasperation, picking up his hairbrush.

"YOU are a confounded little nuisance. Come here."

"That's not fair!" Damien said hotly, "We ALL got lines from Thompson-"

"For mucking about in HIS dormitory." His brother, taking extremely unfair advantage of being a foot and a half taller and nearly three stone heavier, turned Damien over his knee, pinning him there without difficulty. "THIS is for inciting riot and being a pest in MY house when we're related."

*****************************

"Does anyone want my Major?" Damien inquired, joining Granger and Harrison at the table and sliding- carefully - into the seat they'd left for him. "You can have him for free. Scruffy, oversized, thinks he can bowl and drives like he's wearing boxing gloves."

"I'll swap you for the prat who lost my gerbil." Harrison said sourly, glaring at him. Granger, ever more philosophical, helped himself to more toast.

"He'll turn up. There aren't that many places he could have gone, he's probably around the kitchen somewhere."

"He'll probably nip under the nearest door and go wild." Harrison pointed out. Damien caught Granger's eye and grinned. In his and Granger's opinion, that would be no sad loss. Harrison's attachment to his killer gerbil was the one flaw in his otherwise excellent character.

"Did you find out what they were up to?" Thompson asked at the prefect's table as Miles took his seat. Miles shook his head, burying himself in his coffee.

"Not a word. He's forever scrapping with Granger and Harrison, they practice on each other to hone their skills for scragging the Upper Fourth. They were probably just messing about. Little beggar. I said if it happened again, I'd move them into different dormitories."

"Well I'm not having him." Howell said cheerfully. "You're not palming any of those brats off on me."

"I'LL have him." Miles said darkly. "IN the bed next to mine, and I'll keep a hairbrush in hand at all times."

Howell, who was both his and Damien's cousin and therefore regarded them both in a vaguely affectionate light, patted his shoulder and handed him a folded sheet of paper.

"Deep breaths. That's the lists for games this afternoon. You get the fifth form for football with Scotty, I'll go with Campbell and take the third and fourth over the cross country route and Thompson and Burrow take the second form rugger. And the first and second eleven get the rugger pitches for practice as soon as the second form is done at four."

"Okay." Miles scanned through the lists, then got up to pin the list to his house's notice board in a corner of the dining room. Damien, who didn't miss much his brother did on sheer principle, leaned across the table and peered until he made out the wording on the list.

"Cross country this afternoon. Do we chase the cows in Conger field or will they chase us?"

"They've been moved, we saw when we climbed the fence yesterday." Harrison pointed out. "They're down in the field now on the road towards town."

Damien's eyes met Granger's across the table with the bright expression that invariably meant to Granger's experienced eye that he'd been struck by one of his ideas.




"We won't have time." He pointed out reasonably as they clopped in football boots out towards the rugby field which was the starting point for the school cross country route. The fields were wet and slippery and without spiked shoes they stood little chance of staying upright for long.

"We will." Damien said with confidence. "If we get ahead of everyone and then go over the hedge at Conger field instead of through the stream, we can duck behind there until everyone's gone and then cut across to town. We can replace his wretched gerbil, hopefully with one less suicidal, and we'll easily be back by five. Miles takes most of the fifth and sixth up for rugby practice anyway at fourish, they won't pay any attention to who comes in late."

"Harrison'll wonder."

"Harrison won't say anything."

Granger shrugged, but after two years of Damien, had learned by experience to follow and take what came, a la the asking no questions and paying the price bit in ways they sang about in school prayers. It was usually worth it.

Howell, big, square and not at all pretty in shorts, sheltered a clipboard from the rain and raised his voice to cover the crowd of third and fourth form boys.

"Roberts!"

"Here."

"Wilson!"

"Here."

"Mitchell Minor!"

"Here!" Damien waited until Granger's name was called and dived after the first few boys already ticked off the list, jogging down the line of the hedge to the first gate into open fields. Granger followed him, keeping pace, well aware of Harrison giving them a filthy look as he was left, still stuck waiting for his name to be called. Damien led them at a brisk run past most of the others who were running without enthusiasm and with their heads down against the driving weather of a British May.

They were leading the field by some way at the point they reached Conger field, and Damien didn't bother looking back: just scrambled through the hole in the hedge made by generations of Greystoke boys taking short cuts, and headed around the perimeter of the field. Granger kept pace with him, shaking rain out of his eyes.

"How much do gerbils cost anyway?"

"I've got no idea." Damien said cheerfully. "Not much, they're only little things. We might even get two."

"Why does he want two?"

"We could race them."

"The one that got away wouldn't race that spider, he just ate it."

"He can't eat another gerbil."

Granger hesitated over that, thinking of his own elder brother and several husbandry experiments at home. "My brother's mice eat each other."

"Then it stands to reason that they're going to be fast. They'd have to be."  Damien's logic was always irrefutable. Behind them, in the distance, three more fourth formers squeezed through the hedge and began to pound over the soggy grass in their wake.



Howell kept pace at the back, encouraging a handful of third form boys who struggled with the heavy ground and fixing two lazier members of the fourth with glares that suggested they needed to find enthusiasm and fast. Campbell, who had stopped only to shut the school gate as they left, caught up with him and nodded at the straggling line of boys running over the half mile of field ahead of them.

"Do you want to take the front or shall I?"

"I'll go." Howell moved around the third formers and was about to pick up speed when a shout behind him made him turn. His elder cousin, Miles, also in running kit, was jogging towards them with the heavy speed that made him formidable on the rugby field.

"Hey!"

"What's up?" Howell jogged back to him, leaving Campbell's stentorian roar in the ears of the slower boys.

"Come ON Harrison, this isn't a Sunday stroll!"

"Change of plan." Miles said as Howell reached him. "Can you take over the football practices and I'll run with this lot?"

"Sure." Howell gave him a suspicious look, reading his cousin's face without too much difficulty. "What are you worried about?"

"Nothing in particular." Miles paused, looking down the field at the long line of boys. "Something about those brats last night and Damien muttering with Granger at lunchtime."

"Well if you want to keep an eye on them, they're all yours." Howell said cheerfully. "I wish you joy of 'em. Harrison's there with Campbell, Granger and your minor are up at the front somewhere, I was about to go and catch them up."

"Thanks, I'll see you at practice." Miles gave him a brief grin and broke into a steady run again, passing the smaller boys at a rapid pace and heading for the front of the line. He got several grins and nods from the younger ones as he passed them: they all knew the head of their house and he was well liked amongst the younger forms. Not least for having a speed and stamina they all envied, Greystoke put a lot of time and effort into sport.

It took Miles only a couple of minutes to reach the top of the field where he SHOULD have had any more leaders in clear sight moving across the Conger stream towards the woods. There Miles paused, confused, running his eye rapidly over the numbers of boys in sight. By all rights, twenty eight boys should be between him and Campbell. He counted approximately sixteen. Hands on hips, gaining his breath, he turned to survey the landscape and saw two more boys wriggle through the hedge and start down the field towards town. And the thin line of boys ahead of them, doggedly following that route.

It took Miles a moment to get through the hedge, and when he made it he was scratched and still less pleasant tempered than he'd been before he'd made the attempt. Covering the field in long strides, he raised his voice, bellowing across the field.

"OI! THIS way, turn BACK!"

Several boys looked back inquiringly.

At Miles's repeated bellow and the sight of his face, they hurriedly turned and went back the way they'd come, assured as they passed him that the usual route had NOT changed and he would be sure to inform them if it did. At the front of the line he found two keener elements of the third form, Ryan and Pascoe, who at his bark to explain what they thought they were doing, pointed further into the series of fields leading towards town and explained they'd followed two fourth formers, assuming they knew the way. Campbell, attracted by the shouting, stuck his head through the hedge. Miles herded the two third formers back to him and Campbell moved to let them through the hedge, raising his eyebrows in mute inquiry. Miles growled.

"Two fourth formers. Heading this way, and the rest just followed like sheep."

"Heading off to town." Campbell commented. They'd both done it in their own youth. Which didn't mean they wouldn't do their best to discourage it happening again, just as the prefects of their day had. It was a matter of pride with every prefect body that their authority was not to be flouted.

"And guess which two?" Miles invited, having run his eye over every boy he'd passed. From long experience he could pick Damien's dark head out of a crowd in seconds, and wherever Damien was, Granger's red head was also usually in sight. Campbell grinned.

"He's your brother. I'll see this lot safely home."

Miles growled. And began the long slog over the fields towards town to round up his strays.



The village was used to Greystoke boys; it saw plenty of them. A few cast their eyes over the big, dark young man in muddied running kit, leaning against the village gates with his arms folded and an unpromising expression on his face. From there he had a clear sight of the village green and all the shops that led off it, and he immediately saw the two when they emerged from the pet shop, heads bent over a small box that one of them was carrying. Breaking into a jog, he crossed the green towards them. They heard him and looked up, but not in time to hide the box. And the dismay on the face of his young brother was some reward for the run and for fifteen minutes silent muttering and exasperation. Miles slowed to a walk, taking his time towards the two frozen younger boys, and held out a hand for the box.

"WHAT do you two think you're doing here? What's that?"

"Careful-" Damien warned as he surrendered the box. Armed by several years of hard experience, his brother heeded the warning and merely glanced under the lid. Both the younger boys were delighted by the curse that slipped loose in response, something Miles was usually careful never to let his brother hear.

"WHAT are they?"

"Gerbils." Granger explained. "Only two gerbils."

"What are they for?" Miles asked suspiciously. Damien sighed.

"They're for Harrison, we lost his gerbil."

He didn't explain how or where. Miles shut the box again and handed it back.

"Well you can't run with those things, and you ARE running. I'm going to run your little socks off, this is a games afternoon. Give them back to the shop and you can collect them some other time. ON the bus, where the poor things won't be shaken to death or bite you."

"Miles-" Damien began, using the name he rarely used in school and which tended to slip under his brother's grimmer glares. This time it didn't work. His brother merely turned him by the collar, giving him a brisk hand up the shop steps and an equally brisk clip across the back of his head.

"I don't want to hear it! You've got no business being here and when I'm done with you kiddie you're going to realise it! Go on. Hurry up."

His brother grimaced, but turned back into the shop. He re emerged a minute later, boxless, and Miles dropped a firm hand on both boys shoulders, steering them back towards the village gates.

"Now how about we try the course PROPERLY this time? All the way round please, move."

He chased them mercilessly over the course at a pace that meant, out of breath and stumbling as they were, they reached the changing rooms not long after the last of the stragglers, and harassed them through the showers until still damp and unnaturally tidy, all three of them arrived at tea on time. There, with one final glare, he left them and went to join the prefects table. Howell's eyebrows shot up at the sight of him.

"Okay, where DID you find them?"

"Buying gerbils." Miles dropped into his chair and scowled at what he could see of his brother's dark head across the dining room. "I swear, I'm going to take that little horror out behind the bike sheds one night and wring his neck."

"All you need to do is send a letter to Aunt Lydia." Howell pointed out. "Tell her ALL about it. She and your dad'll be up to see you two at half term, won't they? She'll tell him his fortune allright, I've seen her do it."

Miles winced, thinking of his mother's somewhat formidable wrath when either of her sons were behaving in a less than -

gentlemanly - fashion.

"I'm not THAT mean."

"Does Damien know that?" Howell inquired, winking at him.

Harrison, at the fourth form table, gave Damien and Granger a suspicious scowl as they sat down.

"Where did you two go? You might have told me!"

At the prefects table Miles rose, lifting his voice over the babble of seventy assorted boys.

"The following boys to see me in my study before prep. Evans, Hartwell, Langtree Major, Granger, Mitchell Minor and Williamson."

"That's not fair, we DID the run." Granger said indignantly. "We probably ran about a mile and a half further than everyone else!"

***********************************

"You made me have to leave the rest of the forms to chase you over that distance." Miles said severely, glaring from one to the other of the two younger boys. "Wasting my time. Not to mention how many boys went off course following you two."

"That's not our fault if no one else thinks about which way they should go!" Damien protested. "They know as well as we do what the course is!"

"Should you have BEEN off that route in the first place?" Miles demanded. Neither of the two boys answered him. Last in a line of seven outside the study, they'd already seen and heard the unnerving evidence of his authority, and Miles had left them until last quite deliberately. Unless firmly impressed upon, his minor tended to have an answer for most things.

"You do not," He said grimly, "Slope off from games for your own purposes. Apart from the danger of it, it's taking advantage of the fact that we send you kids out with only two prefects watching you instead of the whole gang of us and a master breathing down your necks and watching your every move. That's actually because in this school we have a code of conduct which most of us regard as a matter of pride to adhere to. You're expected to use that trust responsibly, not regard it as a challenge to see whether a prefect can watch and manage the lot of you in one go. I won't have that kind of attitude or behaviour in my house, and I won't have prefects treated with that kind of disrespect for their authority. If anything like this happens again I'll report you both to the house master."

Howell, leaning against the table with his arms folded and a suitably grim expression on his face, nodded for emphasis. Miles picked up the cane from the table.

"Granger."

It was not, by any means, the first time they'd been caned, either singly or together. It was an experience that got no pleasanter by repetition, but one they were both more or less innured to by custom, and Granger silently moved to the designated chair placed on the hearthrug, bending over with both hands gripping the wooden seat. Damien watched the floor, hearing the six, sharp swishes and cracks of the cane landing with energy and precision across the seat of his friend's grey flannel trousers, and the one or two hisses in response from Granger.

"Mitchell."

He and Granger passed each other on the hearthrug. Granger was a little pale and his eyes were very bright but he managed something like a grimace at Damien. The chair placed out in sinister isolation seemed a particularly horrible thing. And Miles, waiting, the cane matter of factly swinging from his hand, was no more an inviting sight. Taking a deep breath, Damien bent over the chair, took a firm grip on the seat and shuffled his feet into a squarer position to handle the impact.

Miles never mucked about. A second later he heard the swish and then the loud crack as the cane struck. And a second later the line of acid fire across his backside, making him involuntarily duck his head and shut his eyes as it bit. Two, he counted silently to himself. Three, four, five -

The second swipe landed, squarely across the seat of his trousers, making him jump. The sting this time was worse: Miles now had his aim and he was more than slightly irritated. Damien clenched his teeth and counted again. Four, five, six -

CRACK.

Ouch. To put it mildly. Damien shifted his weight, keeping his eyes firmly shut. Three more, that was all. Resisting the urge to wriggle his hips or to put his hands back to rub at the maddening sting, he gripped the chair and waited, wishing his brother would get on with it.

Three, four,

CRACK. Four, five, six, CRACK.

That one was lower and Damien just about stopped the yelp from escaping as the sting rushed through him a split second after the sound of the impact. Miles had struck cleanly - as he always did- no wrap around like some less expert prefects, no imbalance. The weight and the bite of the cane fell cleanly and exactly across both buttocks leaving you with your breath taken away and a maddening urge to clutch the site hard and jump up and down with the sheer sting of it. He had risen on his toes, subconsciously, and it took a minute to make himself straighten up, well aware his brother wouldn't continue until he did.

Three, four, five, six-

CRACK.

It was the hardest, and the lowest of the six, and Damien stifled a hiss with difficulty as the stroke made itself known. The actual second of impact was NOT what hurt most with a caning. The stripe once placed rapidly began to sting and throb more with each passing second, until by the time Damien straightened, all six lines across his rump were making themselves very clearly known. Resisting the urge to clutch himself, he met his brother's eye and deteminedly kept his face straight, blinking to clear his blurred vision.

Miles laid the cane back in its accustomed place on the mantelpiece and glared at both of them.

"Strictly speaking I need a master's permission to gate you two, so I won't. But just so we're clear, if I find either of you two off the school grounds or NEAR the village in the next two weeks, there'll be trouble."

"What about the gerbils!" Damien managed to say it fairly politely, but after the efforts he and Granger had put into this afternoon he was not prepared to write them off. "The man won't hold them for two weeks and we DID owe Harrison a new gerbil-"

Howell met his elder cousin's eye and rolled both of his eyes skywards. Miles jerked his head at the study door, rapidly losing patience.

"Allright I'LL get your bloody gerbils! Go away the pair of you!"

***************************

"Did he?" I asked, stopping as we came to the reservoir. The wide lake stretched out ahead of us, shining in the moonlight. Ice was forming at the very edges, the water was very still.

"Yes, he did actually." Damien reached inside my jacket for the thermos. The coffee still steamed like our breath in the darkness. "That Saturday. Although he made us keep them in the tool shed and swear they wouldn't come into the school. Harrison had that pair until we left school. The original one disappeared without trace. Don't sit down darling. We don't need to get comfortable, we're not stopping."

"Two minutes?" I pleaded, sitting on the wide stone wall anyway. Damien heartlessly pulled me up from it.

"Too cold to sit anywhere, you'll get piles."

"That's disgusting."

He swatted me lightly; through the two sets of jeans and the cold I was only just aware of the contact.

"Come on."

I took the coffee cup from him and drained it, shook the cup out and watched him screw the top back in the thermos as if he was expecting to defend the contents from some vulnerable small child. Who presumably was going to leap out of the bushes and wrestle us for the coffee. I could never get the lids off anything in our house, from pots of jam to the toothpaste, his wrists are unnecessarily strong. .

"It's about five miles from here, and it's all road now."

"How long?" I asked, looking down the road into the gloom. Actually I'd expected it to look off putting at the very least- but it was a cold, crisp night, everything around us was very still, and while I was tired I wasn't in the least sleepy. Damien pulled out his cell phone as he had done at fifteen minute intervals on the way down, and tried it again. Then pocketed it.

"About two hours I suppose. Shouldn't be much more than that."

I zipped the thermos back inside my jacket and grimaced at the inhaler he handed me. Two rabbits, grazing slowly across the grass some way from us, raised their heads in shock at the click and hiss of the medication and shot for cover. Damien waited, accepting the inhaler back.

"Okay? How's your chest?"

"Fine."

It was the truth. I wasn't coughing, it wasn't tight. Damien took my hand again and we started on down the next long stretch of road.


Somewhere down the long lane that led between two high banks of woodland, Damien's hand tightened on mine and I stopped with him. A deer froze on the bank some way ahead of us, I could see the shine of it's eyes, then slowly it stepped down onto the road and made it's way to the opposite bank, disappearing into the woods once more. It was getting harder to see the further down this road we went, until we were seeing barely a metre in front of us. There were no houses around here. No streetlights, no traffic lights, nothing whatever except open moors and woodland. No light pollution to spill over, and
the trees here arched up over the road, blocking the moonlight. Our pace slowed and Damien drew me closer, sliding an arm under my jacket and around my waist, steering us both over the tarmac. We'd been in serious dark for only a few moments when something very fast rustled near my foot and shot out from the bank. I felt the impact of it hit my foot without slowing it, and I admit, I shrieked like a steam engine. Damien tightened his grip on me, voice immediately soothing.

"It's allright, it was probably a stoat or something, it's gone."

"I HATE THIS!" I informed him, refusing to move another step. Damien simply exerted pressure on the arm around me, dragging me sufficient steps for me to surrender and start my feet moving again.

"It was only a stoat or a weasel or something like that, it was tiny."

"Or a rat!"

"Rats are bigger."

"I DON'T like this!"

"I know." Damien said gently.

As usual, the understanding in his tone woke me up to the fact that I was being a- well. Brat. Or at least being slightly more difficult about this situation than was strictly necessary.

Arg.

He already felt bad enough about this, I knew he did. He invariably blamed himself horribly for anything that went wrong, and anything that affected me, whether it was by any stretch of the imagination his fault or not, he worried still more about.

"I'm sorry." I said penitently. He hugged me, not in the least accusatory.

"It's allright. You're tired and you're cold and this isn't nice. The best thing we can do is keep on moving and get to the village as quickly as possible."

WE were tired and WE were cold. And one of us was still capable of being civil. I bit my lip, looking for some conversational gambit, anything that wasn't a tacit demand for reassurance. It wasn't easy.

"Didn't you find it hard at home living with your brother when he'd been authority at school?" I said eventually, picking up on a thought I'd had while he told me about the gerbil incident. Damien considered it.

"No- things were pretty much the same AT home if I really pushed him too far. Except at home he didn't have a cane to hand."

"And your parents didn't mind?"

"I don't know they really thought about it?" Damien steered me around a jutting out tree limb before he continued. "Dad and his brothers and my grandfather were Greystoke boys too, it was the way we were all brought up. And it wasn't like Miles was responsible for me at home, it wasn't really discipline- he only ever clobbered me for annoying him personally. More likely to be a swift clip around the ear than anything drastic."

"But it was different at school."

"It was different at school. For a start, he was my brother and we were away from home, he was in loco parentis." Damien said simply. "He often picked up on things that were going too far and straightened me out in private before I got into real trouble. And the system itself just IS very much the public school system. We were there twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, for terms at a time. Boys that age don't want adults constantly breathing down their necks and they seriously do need supervision and discipline, especially when they're in large groups. The prefect system was a half way house, safe supervision without adults watching our every move and knowing everything we did."

I nodded, understanding that. Damien gave me a quick half smile.

"Likewise the rules and training kids from the start that they had personal responsibility to follow those rules and to behave to a certain code to protect that freedom. This was a big public school, it's been there being a big public school since 1826, the traditions get laid down and built on. Almost those traditions run the school, and I suppose they stay very old fashioned. It did, generally, turn out confident, independent kids who had a clear sense of right and wrong. Not a bad way to bring up a child really."

I could see that in him. And that was always how he had approached discipline between us- matter of factly, without rancour, without allowing it to become a big deal. If you broke the rules, you accepted there was a price to pay and you got on with paying it without making a fuss. And with no bad feeling on either side afterwards.

"What if you got a group of less - conscientious - prefects?" I asked, thinking of my comprehensive school where mostly I'd worked on staying out of the way of known trouble makers. Damien shrugged.

"The prefects were carefully chosen each year, a good eye was kept on them, and it was very much a culture of the school that power wasn't abused."

"Never?"

"I honestly never once got a walloping I didn't deserve. Greystoke actually turns a lot of boys out into the armed forces, where there's constantly other men you're responsible for organising, disciplining and taking care of. It's a good background of experience to start from."

We emerged from the lane into a patch of moonlight that lit the road ahead. Damien once more tried his phone, and growled.

"I don't know how anyone manages around here, they obviously use semaphore. This way."

Hand in hand we got back into a steady pace, picking up speed as the road smoothed out.

"You ended up the head of your house, didn't you?" I said, thinking of pictures I'd seen at his parents' home. Damien in school uniform, tie, as always, pulled loose from his collar, hands dug in his pockets, surrounded by a group of other large and well built
teenagers. All with the same look he'd had at that age of being willing to drop everything for an emergency game of cricket. Or rugby. Thankfully he'd stopped the rugby not long after we met. He'd said at the time it was because he was too old. Actually I suspected he'd given it up knowing how scared I was of him getting hurt. I'd managed to watch one game about half way through before the sight of him spitting blood and hurling himself back into the fray got too much and I escaped into the carpark.

"Yes, in my last year there."

"Did you manage to keep the cross country runs on track?"

Damien grinned. "You mean did I have a group of brats as horrible as I was at that age? Yes. There was a kid called Gallagher in the third form when I was the head of the house, somewhat like Robin. No harm in him-" he added as I snorted. "No spite. Just no impulse control whatever."

"What did he do?"

"He wasn't exactly BAD, he never really meant any harm, he just never thought before he did anything." Damien paused to check a sign post and squeezed my hand. "Four miles. Are you cold?"

"Not really." I kept pace with him, walking a little closer as we moved into more open land where the wind blew a little stronger and a little crisper.

"Did you ever cane him?"

Damien snorted. "Several times. It wasn't really THAT big a deal, Nick." He added, seeing my expression. "If you got reported to the house master or the head master for something really serious, THEN you got a thrashing worth worrying about, but really from a prefect it was a fairly minor punishment. Quick, instantly over with. Apart from low numbers of lines- and 150 was the maximum we could hand out- we weren't allowed to hand out any extra work or any restrictions to the house, anything that was likely to have more than an immediate effect or take up a boy's time, only the masters could hand out that kind of punishment and supervise it. Given the option most of us preferred caning to detention or gating- grounding-" he added as I looked blank. "Just because it WAS quick. You really don't need to cane very hard at all to make an impression, and only the head of house was allowed to cane, under very specific guidelines. It really wasn't as dreadful as it sounds."

I had my doubts about that. His cane seriously scared me, it was something he only ever used for major transgressions and it hurt like hell.

"Anyway." Damien went on. "If you straightened things out with a prefect the masters never found out and you stayed in a lot less trouble."

Knowing my Damien, I had my doubts about that.

"Like absconding from games?"

"Mostly fighting with the local comprehensive school boys." Damien said wryly. "That happened a lot, mostly with the fifth form boys, but all the way through the school too. That came under the heading of yobism according to the headmaster, if you got caught in a fight off school grounds you were in real trouble. MUCH better to be caught
by a prefect. You'd still get walloped but they didn't like the comp kids either and they'd probably been in a few conflicts with them themselves."

"What were the fights about?" I said curiously. Damien snorted.

"They thought we were stuck up- didn't like our uniforms, didn't like our accents- most of us did have BBC English accents while they had the local area accent- they thought that us being under much tighter rules than them was funny. Greystoke boys tended not to take kindly to the teasing if things were shouted at us in the village. Occasionally the local kids would catch one of our kids alone and rough him up. Which usually made everyone else at the school ready to start trouble. There was a long history of it. Not easy for kids in a village area like that to have five hundred boys en masse on their turf."

"Did you ever get into any fights?" I asked. Damien glanced at me and for a moment actually looked ashamed.

"Once or twice. When I was in the fifth form there was one serious fight in the village and one of the house masters came out of a shop and broke it up. At least our staff were usually not very far away from where we were. There was awful trouble about that."

"What happened?"

Damien gave me a wry shrug. "We got hauled back to school and into the headmaster's drawing room. He really DID hand out a caning and a half and he did it amidst threats of expulsion. And none of us were allowed into the village for the rest of the term. That was about the most trouble I ever got into."

I thought that over while we walked, glancing up at him until he smiled.

"What?"

"Just thinking."

"What?"

I hesitated, wondering how to put it into words. "I'd have been scared stiff of you if we'd been in the same school."

Damien laughed. "I wasn't vicious. Honestly. Just too much testosterone."

"I don't mean that-" I paused again, thinking of the kind of boy he would have been. The kind of boy I'd watched at school when I spent my time quietly buried behind books and inhalers, with a talent for being invisible. The big, noisy, good looking, active ones. The ones who did the pushing and shoving and shouting, who seemed to enjoy everything, who lived for kicking footballs around people who were trying to read, and who did frequently get into trouble. I never did. I was far too good at looking bewildered. At that age he wouldn't have given me a second glance if he actually noticed me at all, and I would have worked hard on staying out of his way. Or at the very least admiring from a distance. Quite how I'd ended up being the partner of one of the school bad boys was beyond me. I explained that, probably not well, and Damien dug me in the ribs, still laughing.

"I was fairly human! And not in constant trouble. Most of the time, anyway."

No, he wouldn't have been a trouble maker. Just that he would have had the energy and action that would have brought him into contact with authority far more than I ever did.

"Did you get into any more trouble with the other school?" I asked, trying to imagine my Damien in his mid teens. Good natured, outgoing, but he didn't suffer fools gladly my boy. And he didn't put up with any form of bullying or unfairness, that was one sure way to annoy him. Damien was digging in his pocket. What he came up with was a tube of mints, of the type he usually kept in his car glove compartment. I accepted one and we chewed in companionable silence for a moment.

"Not directly. I was a prefect the year after that fight, which pretty much meant I had to behave in public. Gallagher and his gang got into trouble with the comprehensive's football team, that was about the worst it got."

"Why the football team?"

"It was a bright idea on the part of the headmaster," Damien swallowed his mint and continued. "The idea being that we'd get on better if we had a chance to meet and socialise. So the third form football team went over to the comp, played a match there and swiped their school mascot on the way out. This painted shield thing that hung over the school's front door."

"HOW did they hide that?!" I demanded.

Damien grinned. "Badly."

************************************************

Actually, it was the scuffling that alerted his attention first. Damien watched for a moment, picking up the shuffling and muttering from the back of the chapel. Then handed his hymn book to Granger and slipped out into the aisle, heading rapidly and quietly down the lines of five hundred boys to the line at the back which hastily stood still and reorganised itself at the sight of him. Twenty assorted boys stood earnestly holding hymn books, eyes fixed on the stained glass window ahead where the headmaster at the lecturn was leading the singing, surrounded by a semi circle of masters and the school choir in their cassocks.
I vow to thee my country all earthly things above
Entire and whole and perfect the service of my love
The love that never falters, the love that stands the test
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best
The love that asks no questions the love that pays the price-
Damien found the fair, curly head he was looking for and Looked at it. Gallagher would have brought tears of pride to the eyes of his mother. Singing, earnestly, his large blue eyes innocently wide. The boys on either side of him flushed and casting anxious glances towards Damien with the corners of their eyes. And a bulge, suspiciously mishaping his blazer. Damien made his way along the row, put a hand on Gallagher's collar and pushed him gently out of the chapel, into the corridor, shutting the door on five hundred assorted voices, a number of which were breaking, commenting on undaunted final sacrifices.

Gallagher looked extremely daunted.

"I didn't DO anything!" he protested as soon as the door shut behind them. "I was singing, I didn't SAY a word-"

Damien held out a hand. He was treated to a further widening of Gallagher's large blue eyes. Losing patience, Damien spun him around and tugged up his blazer.

The shield had been inserted, point downwards, into the waistband of his trousers, and the wooden side wings into the top of the sleeves on either side. From the back it gave Gallagher a somewhat unconvincing impression of having wings. Damien yanked it free, recognising it immediately. Apart from anything else, it bore the words "Daughton Comprehensive School" in gold letters above the crest.

"WHERE did you get this?"

Gallagher had finally lost the look of angelicism and was starting to look like a twelve year old boy caught red handed. Damien waited, aware even in irritation that this child was only twelve, half his size and frightening him was unlikely to elicit the information that he wanted. When no answer was forthcoming, he frowned at the miscreant, making his voice sterner.

"When? The football match this afternoon?"

Gallagher gave him a reluctant nod. Damien ran his mind over the players on the third form football team. "Who else was involved? Do I need to call in the whole team or will you give me names?"

Gallagher sighed and gave him the list. And a pleading look. Damien, not altogether in response to that look, tucked the shield under his own blazer, relying on the fact that being a good deal larger and broader than Gallagher, the shield was a lot less perceptible on him.

"Stand there, be quiet, wait for me."

The school was murmuring the last of the daily prayers as he softly opened the door and Damien waited until they were finished before he quietly resumed his place on the front bench among the prefects. The headmaster read out a few notices from various staff, then nodded to Damien who got up where he stood, turning to face the rows of boys.

"The first eleven list will be posted in the dining room tomorrow, all players coming to the Anbridge match on Saturday need to be on the front drive and ready to leave at eight thirty. The junior school first eleven selections will be made on Sunday at three o clock and is open to everyone who wants to try out." Those were the two messages that he'd told the headmaster he had when asked before prayers. The third- he looked at the back rows, towards the leading lights of the third form football team.

"I'd like to see the following boys in my study immediately after prayers. Collins, Bell, Edwards Major, Rowan and Johnson."

That caused a stir in the lower ranks. Damien gave a brief nod of thanks to the headmaster and took his seat, aware of the slightly inquiring look the headmaster gave him and pretending not to have noticed it. The music master seated at the big chapel organ began to play and with the quiet efficiency born of daily practice, the boys began to file quietly out of the chapel, bound for their hour or so of free time before bed.

"What was that about?" Granger murmured as they waited for their turn to leave. Damien didn't react. Granger simply raised his knuckles and tapped on the back of Damien's blazer, producing the clear ring of wood. Damien gave him a glare.

"Knock it off!"

"What is it?" Harrison, on Granger's other side, leaned to see Damien's back. "What's Gallagher's lot done now?"

"I'll tell you when I know." Damien said unhelpfully. Their line began to move and he picked up speed, edging around the orderly queues of boys. "I'll come and find you when I'm done."

Granger gave him a laconic salute. Gallagher, looking miserable in the corridor, was still standing where Damien had left him. Damien jerked his head to call him over and led him through the stone corridors, around what several centuries before had been abbey cloisters, and up the stone stairs to the corridor where his study and the prefects common room were located. Outside his study, five third formers were standing looking very far from comfortable. Damien opened the door and waited, letting the boys troop in ahead of him and gather around his desk.

To him, the room looked pretty much the same as it had in the days that Miles had owned it. Except it was smaller. To the youngsters now examining the hearthrug, it probably was a room they associated with unpleasantries and authority, and the d├ęcor was the last thing they were interested in. Damien leaned against the desk, withdrew the shield and held it up.

"How was this acquired?"

There was a studied silence. Damien looked from face to face in turn, finding no interest in any of them for explaining to him. He straightened up off the desk, making his voice calm.

"You can either talk to me, or we can take this straight up to the head. It's up to you. You've got a piece of property here belong to the comprehensive, it's clearly found its way into your hands illicitly, and you know very well the school does NOT need trouble with them! This could mean serious trouble!"

Silence. Damien gave them one last warning look.

"LAST chance. You can explain this to me, or I'll take you up to the head's study. Which is it?"

Several looks were cast amongst the boys, then Gallagher reluctantly stepped forward.

"I nicked it. We lost the match and the comp team were -"

he hesitated, looking for the right word.

"- not very polite about it? And they left us in the entrance hall while we were waiting for Mr Brent to come down and walk us back, and it was there……just on this hook."

"And what do you think'll happen when they realise it's missing?" Damien demanded, exasperated. "They'll be straight on the phone to us to complain! The whole point of the match was supposed to be to foster good feeling between the schools, you lot have just totally scotched that!"

Silence. Gallagher gave him an apologetic look and once more stared at the floor. Damien sat back on the edge of the desk, thinking fast.

This WOULD be without doubt a very serious issue. The headmaster was worried about the history of clashes between the two schools, and had throughout Damien's entire school life come down like a ton of bricks on any Greystoke boy who by any way or means antagonised or involved himself in trouble with a Comprehensive boy. This series of arranged matches were a new initiative to try to ease bad feeling between the schools- Damien who as representative for the prefects had sat in on not a few meetings on the subject knew the headmaster would be furious when this came to light. These kids were likely to be in real trouble.

And when all was said and done, they WERE only kids.

Damien surveyed Gallagher, who looked nervous and totally innocent of what was about to break over his thick, curly head. As usual. Gallagher gave him a faintly tentative shrug.

"They're a day school- they'll have locked up now, they won't open until tomorrow- maybe they won't notice for a day or two?"

Endless optimism. Damien put the shield down on his desk.

"Okay, listen. I'm going to see what I can do to sort this out before all hell breaks loose. You are NOT, ANY of you to mention a word about this to anyone. If this gets to the headmaster tonight, I think you can count on being suspended."

At a boarding school, that threat carried a great deal of weight. Damien waited until he was sure it had sunk in, then nodded at the door.

"Go on. I want to see all of you in here after breakfast tomorrow morning. With luck I'll be able to deal with this myself and you won't end up in the trouble you deserve to be in. Vanish."

They vanished on the word. Damien gave the shield another grim look. The boys were right: unlike Greystoke where the school and it's authority ran for twenty four hours a day, the Comprehensive would have been locked up and all the staff at home well over two hours ago. It might well be that the loss of the shield wouldn't be noticed until tomorrow morning. Putting the shield out of sight under a pile of papers, Damien locked his study door behind him and headed out of the cloisters door into the well kept school grounds.

At this time of the evening, as always in good weather, there were no shortage of boys scattered around on the grass. A football match was going on at the far end of the lawn, well away from the front of the building, but mostly there were small groups talking. Older boys. The second form had already vanished inside to bed and the third formers bed time wasn't far away. One of the masters- Damien couldn't see which - was strolling down the drive, smoking. Two more were sitting with groups on the grass, enjoying the evening sunshine and joining in the conversations. The live in masters took their responsibilities very seriously and usually took every chance to be part of the social lives as well as the educational lives of the boys in their houses. Granger and Harrison were sitting under the elm at the end of the lawn and Damien sprawled on the grass beside them, stretching out full length. Harrison tossed a packet of polos across to him.

"So? What was it?"

"The shield from the Comp. The little buggers only pinched it on the way out of their football match this afternoon."

"WHAT?" Granger caught the mints, took one and handed them back to Harrison. "Was that what Gallagher had under his blazer?"

"Of course. Having nicked it, he walked into prayers with it. With no clue as to what to do with it." Damien rolled over, propping his chin on his arms. Granger gave him a steady look, reading between the lines without being told.

"So they're extremely dead. Did you report them?"

"If I do, I'll be staggered if they're not suspended."

"You don't really have much choice." Harrison pointed out. "The minute the comp spot that it's missing they'll have a good idea where it went."

"They apparently left our crew standing around in the entrance hall waiting at the end of the match." Damien said grimly. "They lost the match so the comp team had been twitting them, and temptation was just too much."

"Worth getting Gallagher to go up with you to the head now, and confess before they're caught?" Granger suggested quietly. "Maybe if the shield's returned with an apology first thing in the morning-"

"It'll make things better for the school, but the kids are still going to get suspended. There's been a lot of trouble the last couple of years, the school governors are starting to get fed up about how often fights come up in the reports, the head's under serious pressure to start making examples of anyone who gets involved in trouble with the comp. STARTING trouble is going to be even worse."

Harrison raised his eyebrows at Damien. All three of them had been involved in last year's fight, and the punishment they'd received for their involvement had been impressive enough. And somewhat justified since they'd been old enough to know what they were doing and understand about the school's reputation.

"I don't see what else you can do. Those kids are brainless, they knew they were asking for trouble, it more or less serves them right."

"Gallagher's only twelve, who's got a brain in gear at that age?" Damien demanded. Granger leaned over for another mint, watching him calmly.

"So what are you plotting?"

*******

The fifth form's official bed time was nine thirty, and the sixth form were supposed to follow by ten pm, either to the sixth form dormitory, or for those who were prefects, slipping quietly into the dormitory they were responsible for, where the younger boys would already be - theoretically- fast asleep. Once they were in the dormitories, the master on night duty would go to his own rooms, or more likely another master's room for a chat, and apart from the school groundsman making his last walk around school at ten thirty to check all the doors and windows were shut and locked before he went to bed, no one else would come near the boys dormitories again before morning, unless someone was taken ill.

The dormitories supervised by prefects either held the younger boys, or else boys who needed supervision and a firm hand. The dormitory Damien slept in, like Miles before him, tended to hold a mixture of upper fourth and fifth form boys who left to their own devices could become extremely rowdy, but for once all seven of them appeared to be soundly asleep when he came up to bed. Apart from a quick glance around to make sure he hadn't disturbed anyone, Damien sat down on the end of his bed and waited, watching until he saw the beam of light flash under the door, verifying that the groundsman was passing by on his night rounds. A few minutes later the clock in the bell tower above the chapel quietly struck eleven pm. Damien picked up a torch, cast one last quick look around, and moved silently out of the dormitory and down the main stairs. Harrison, who slept in one of the second form dormitories, met him at the foot of the stairs, and a minute later Granger came down from the fourth form dormitory on the top floor, a hand shading the beam of his torch. Moving silently on the stone steps, all three headed downstairs, through the white moonlight streaming through from the arched windows in the cloisters, and Damien paused outside his study to collect the shield, once more slipping it under his blazer, before he locked his study door behind them and unlatched and slid open the sash window of his study.

It was a slight drop to the grass below, and all three of them slipped out without a sound, leaving Damien to slide the window shut. Then staying close to the walls, they jogged through the school garden and up towards the rugby field, on the route out towards the village.


All three of them were fit enough to find the two mile run easy going, despite the rough ground they covered. When they reached the village they stayed on the farmland, going through the fields and over the fences rather than through the village itself where it was all too likely they'd be seen. The comprehensive school stood on the edge of the village, backing on to a big playing field surrounded by farm fields. It was approaching eleven thirty when they climbed the fence and cautiously moved down the playing field towards the building. There were no nightlights, nor, since the front gates were high and securely locked, any night watchmen. Harrison found the front door and shaded his eyes, peering through the glass.

"That's the entrance hall."

Granger came to a halt behind him and leaned down, propping his hands on his knees to get his breath back. Damien pulled the shield out from under his blazer.

"Any way in?"

"Just leave it on the doorstep," Harrison advised. "It's here, they'll wonder how but no harm done."

Granger, who knew Damien better, waited, watching him. Damien took another long look around, then headed towards the side of the building.

"Which windows at school are never secure?"

If was unofficial but well known knowledge. Harrison straightened up and followed, muttering.

"The changing rooms- but we don't know our way around the school and I don't fancy getting lost in there-"

"It can't be that hard to navigate around a school." Damien climbed a small wall and kept walking. Granger took his time, keeping a sharp eye on the windows they passed, then finally gripped Damien's arm.

"That's got to be the hall. The changing rooms should lead off that."

"Down there." Damien put a hand on the wall and vaulted down into a small stairwell leading into rooms apparently under the hall. Granger took the shield from him and watched him slip his fingers under the ledge of the window, rattling it gently. Changing room windows never fit well. They were always loose, the frames always unsteady from constant exposure to the steam from showers, stray footballs, the crashing of an outside door throughout the day. And they were windows often opened and often forgotten at the end of the day. It didn't take much jiggling before the sash slid up in Damien's hand.

"You do realise," Harrison pointed out, "That this is breaking and entering?"

"It's in a good cause." Damien said, feeling for a handhold. "Keep a look out."

"And do what if I'm caught?" Harrison said acidly. Damien took no notice. Granger watched him find his way through the window and drop to the floor below, then followed him through. The corridors were dark and since the windows looked towards the village there was no sense in turning on lights or using their torches. It took several minutes of dead ends before Damien found the way into the big, empty gym, and beyond that, a stairwell up to the front entrance hall. There, above the front door, hung a hook and a shield shaped gap in the dust. Damien pulled the shield out and hung it back on it's hook, twitching it straight. And stepped back with a nod of satisfaction.

"Allright. Lets hope no one spotted that it was missing."

Harrison was still standing outside the window when they emerged, fidgeting, clearly restless and anxious and all too pleased to see them. Damien dropped to the ground and slid the window shut, checking to see it looked secure before he stepped back. And glanced at his watch.

"Quarter to midnight."

"So long as we don't meet any farmers or poachers we should be fine." Harrison said acidly. "Come on, lets get out of here, we've pushed our luck all evening."

They were out of breath by ten past midnight when they reached the school garden and made their way back along the shelter of the wall towards Damien's study. All the curtains on the upper floors were drawn, and no lights were visible; with luck all the masters by this time were in bed and asleep. Granger latched the window behind them and Damien opened the door into the corridor, listening for a moment before they slipped down the hallway into the cloisters and towards the dormitory stairs. They reached the foot of the stairs when a quiet voice behind them froze them in their tracks.

"You're up late boys."

The headmaster was still fully dressed, looking politely interested and holding a mug of coffee. Clearly the man never slept. Damien cleared his throat, aware of Harrison rooted to the spot behind him. Granger, who thought much more quickly on his feet, like him had managed a polite nod and "sir" of greeting.

"Just some house business sir." Damien said politely, linking his hands behind his back. "We were headed up to bed."

Silence. The headmaster surveyed them calmly.

"I don't like to think of house affairs costing you sleep. Is there anything I can help with, Mitchell?"

"No thank you sir, it's all sorted out."

Harrison was visibly starting to fidget. Granger stepped firmly and discreetly on his toe.

The headmaster waited a moment more, then nodded.

"Very well boys. Goodnight."

"Goodnight sir."

"Goodnight sir."

They were aware as they headed upstairs of the headmaster standing where he was in the hallway, watching their progress.


The line of boys on the hearthrug looked very small, very worried and very keen to be anywhere else other than here. Damien leaned against the edge of the desk, partly to bring his head down to nearer their height, and folded his arms, looking down the line.

"This does not need to go to the headmaster. For a start, he has enough to do and to worry about without worrying about what you'll get up to the minute you're off school grounds. And secondly he'd be ashamed of all six of you for stealing property from another school. It's indefensible! Theft and criminal damage, all of you could legitimately be charged with that. What effect is it going to have on the school and your families if the police turn up here to investigate?"

From the shocked looks he received, none of the miscreants had thought of that. Damien gave that a moment to sink in, then said crisply,

"No prevaricating. Who's idea was it and who did it?"

"My idea." Johnson said promptly if quietly.

"And I did it." Gallagher admitted just as quickly.

"So Johnson just muttered something about wouldn't it be fun to see their faces if the shield went, and you promptly grabbed it?" Damien said shortly.

Gallagher flushed but nodded. Damien gave the group a long, steady look.

"And none of the rest of you thought to stop him, or to tell Mr Brent if he wouldn't listen to you?"

He saw rather than heard the shuffle of protest and glared it down.

"Yes, you DID have a responsibility to do that. To the school, NOT to get it into trouble or damage it's reputation, to the team you'd just played for AND to Gallagher not to let himself get into serious trouble! A LOT more trouble than he would have got into with Mr Brent!" Damien straightened up off the desk as he pronounced sentence. "None of you will be playing in any more junior school matches this term, I'll be taking your names off the selection lists. And none of you will have permission to go with any off school matches to watch. I'll have a word with Mr Brent and explain that you've proved to me that you currently can't be trusted to represent the school."

In a school where sports were one of the key leisure activities, that was no mild punishment. Damien leaned over and took the cane down off the mantelpiece, the place where a cane had resided in this study for probably over a century, and flexed it, shaking the wood into pliancy.

"Gallagher, stay here. The rest of you line up outside."

The other five moved gladly, leaving one small boy, very apprehensive, very apologetic, with large and appealing eyes. From the look of his face, he hadn't slept well last night. And although he didn't think it right now, his problems were very nearly over.

Damien moved the wooden chair from the wall to the middle of the hearthrug and gave Gallagher a nod, not unkindly.

"Come on then. Hands flat, knees straight."

He was invariably matter of fact about punishment, particularly with the younger boys, giving them no chance to get upset or to in any way make a drama out of it. Handled quickly, firmly and cheerfully most of them picked up on what he'd learned in this school at their age- that if you broke the rules you accepted and paid the price, and you learned to think more carefully next time. A simple transaction.

It was never a pleasant job, but it was one he had no problem with doing either. When the sixth, red eyed and tight voiced boy left the study, Damien replaced the cane on the mantelpiece, stretched his shoulders- and jumped at the voice behind him.

"Everything allright Mitchell?"

The headmaster. Who was rarely to be found in this part of the school. Damien dropped his arms, finding himself flushing.

"Yes thank you sir. Just some - house business."

"Anything I should know about?" the headmaster inquired, looking curiously at him. Damien linked his hands behind his back, returning a polite smile as reservedly as possible.

"Just some- inappropriate behaviour at yesterday's match sir."

"That kind of thing always is best nipped in the bud." The headmaster gave him one more curious look, then a nod. "Allright Mitchell, I'm sure that you know what you're doing."

"Thank you sir." Damien followed him into the corridor, intending to head into the prefects' common room, get something to drink and settle in for a chat in the few minutes left before his next class. The headmaster's voice caught him in the doorway.

"By the way, Mitchell, when you're attending to house business, do make sure all the windows are left secure behind you. Otherwise someone is likely to make- interesting- interpretations on the business you're attending to. Particularly the groundsman."

Damien glanced back at him, shaken. The headmaster gave him a friendly smile.

"Run along boy, you'll miss your break."

******

"So he knew where you'd gone?" I demanded. Damien smiled.

"He made a few educated guesses. I saw him at a reunion a couple of years ago, and he told me he'd spotted the bulge under Gallagher's blazer. When I yanked the third form team out of prayers and the groundsman reported my window left open, he put two and two together and hung around the corridors until he was sure we were all in and safe. I think he expected to have to go down to the police station during the night and get us out on bail."

"He must have trusted you a hell of a lot just to let you get on with it."

"I'm still staggered he didn't quietly shut my study door, borrow that cane and give me what I'd just given the kids for breaking and entering!" Damien said wryly. "He did NOT mess about when he caned either. I only ever caught it from him twice and it was twice too many."

"I know just how you feel!" I said, swatting him. Damien promptly swatted me back and we wrestled for a minute on the road until he saw the flash of headlights ahead, pulled free and waved. I didn't recognise the car coming down the road towards us, but I did recognise the man who got out of it, standing with his arms crossed on the roof. Damien's height but thicker set, the same dark hair, blue eyes instead of hazel, the same friendly smile.

"Mum's going round the twist, have you two any idea what time it is?"

"Have you any idea how glad we are to see you?" Damien shot back. Miles leaned over the car door to give him a hug, tousled his hair, and grinned at me.

"Allright?"

"The car got stranded up at the top of the moor, the road's sheer ice up there. If I'd bothered to think for half a minute I'd have come around by the Fordfield Arms." Damien held the car door for me and I slid into the back seat of a blessedly warm Land rover. Damien settled next to me, hooked an arm firmly around me and pulled me close, rubbing my arms.

"We're both frozen."

"You walked all the way from there?" Miles started the engine and turned the car. "No sense going back for the car tonight, better get you home before Mum comes out looking herself. She's been pacing and muttering for hours about you weren't brought up to be five hours late without phoning."

"YOU make a cell phone work up here!" Damien protested. Miles grinned over his shoulder at us.

"Just glad to see you both okay. Are you allright Nick?"

"Fine." I said, trying not to cough. Damien ran a hand discreetly through my hair, calming, encouraging until I managed to get the better of the urge to splutter. "Damien was keeping me entertained."

"Do I want to know?" Miles said dryly. Damien snorted.

"The potted tales of Greystoke."

"Oh yes?"

"The one about the kids nicking the shield at the comp. And the gerbils."

"THAT one?" Miles met my eyes in the rear view mirror, giving me the same look of mischief Damien had when he was teasing. "I bet he never told you about the new geography master-"

"Shut UP." Damien ordered.

"Who had one strategy of handling stroppy juniors, which was to throw them out of the class the minute they put a foot wrong." Miles went on cheerfully. Damien shook his head.

"It's lies. ALL lies."

"And some bright spark in the fourth form cottoned on to this and organised the whole form three mornings in a row to see how many of them could get thrown out in the course of an hour's lesson."

"You didn't?" I demanded, fascinated. Damien shook his head firmly.

"That wasn't me, it was him."

"It was not. I caught them at it on the second day." Miles told me. "And on the third day I waited outside the room and caught each one of the little devils as they got sent out. Oddly enough they didn't try that again."


The Mitchell household was a long, low brick cottage at the end of the village, and the porch light was on over the eaved front door, a soft and welcoming light despite that it was nearly two am. Miles pulled onto the drive and before the car came to a halt the front door opened, Damien's father following his mother over the gravel towards us. Damien let me go and went ahead of me to them, wrapping both arms around his mother, in an attempt I suspect to muffle the first class lecture she was now breaking over his head. Listening to her, I had no doubt whatever as to where he learned his skills from. Miles helped me out of the car and locked it behind us, steering me past his parents and towards the house. Damien's father gave me a quiet smile, hooked an arm around my shoulders as I passed and gave me a brief and sincere hug.

"Go on into the kitchen Nick, the kettle's hot."

The dogs were in their baskets in the red tiled kitchen and the conservatory that led off it. One got to his feet, stretched stiffly and padded across to Miles who absently pulled its ears while he made me a mug of tea.

"Sit down, you must be exhausted. Hungry? Mum's been in overdrive all evening, she could probably feed an army."

"Just biscuits would be fine, or a sandwich." Damien said, following his father into the kitchen. He's considerably taller than his mother, but she had no trouble whatsoever in clipping him briskly around the nearest ear.

"Damien Mitchell that poor man's been wandering around on the moors all night, he's not going to bed with just a sandwich inside him! Hello Nick."

I stifled my usual urge to hide under the table and surrendered to being kissed. Miles rolled his eyes at me and got out of the way, fast, as she turned on him.

"You go and find them some towels, and turn the front light off. Go on you two, upstairs, have a shower and get warm. You've got twenty minutes before dinner."

Damien grinned at me, still rubbing his ear, and steered me with him up the front stairs to the rooms under the eaves that in the past had belonged to him, Miles and Laura. We shared a hot shower for some time, and by the time we emerged I was working hard on staying awake. The kitchen seemed vaguely foggy and the scrubbed wood table steamed under plates of casserole and a bottle of wine. I don't really remember eating, just the clink of plates and glasses and Damien defending my glass from Miles and the wine bottle. It seemed like hours before we escaped to bed, leaving Miles and his father tuning in weather reports on the radio and making plans for rescuing our car in the morning.

His room I suppose hasn't changed much since he left to go to University. The books on the bookcase reflect his tastes, a mixture of the adolescent and his favourite authors now, and the few pictures on the wall show his early interest in architecture. I collapsed under the quilt and cuddled up to him, very glad to lie down and now, conversely, less tired than I had been in the heat and noise of the kitchen.

"Are you okay?"

Damien twisted to look down at me. "Yes. Why?"

I didn't answer that. Just pulled him closer to me and shook his hair back from his forehead, smoothing it straight. He didn't move for a minute, then rolled over and buried his face in my shoulder.

"I'm sorry. I know this area, it was a stupid thing to do not to guess how the road would be, I should have known better."

"You weren't to know it would be that bad." I said in his ear, still stroking his hair. "Miles said usually even if the moors are covered that once you get out of the open land the roads are fine."

"I still shouldn't have tried it. SO dangerous Nicky-"

"Nothing happened. Did it?"

Damien snorted from somewhere in the depths of my neck. "No, thank God."

"We were careful."

He didn't say anything more, but I knew what he was thinking. Asthma attacks. Lost footing in the dark. One or both of us getting too tired to walk any further. Hypothermia. If I said any of those things he'd dismiss them instantly as overdramatics, he wouldn't let them dwell in my mind but he has a hyper alert sense of danger for us and they'd be on his mind allright.

"Sometimes I think I have it easier." I said gently into his ear.

"Mmn?"

"If I screw up, you're there to draw a line under it."

I felt him smile but he didn't answer that. A moment later he stretched up and kissed me, gently and very thoroughly. And pulled me down into my usual place against him, my head against his chest.

"Go to sleep baby. It'll be fine."

EPILOGUE

The tap on the door made Damien stir, shifting cautiously to unwind himself from Nick. Miles gave him a quick smile around the door, moving it with care to prevent it's familiar creak. His voice was soft, the same voice from the days when they'd been wary of Laura, asleep in the next room.

"Hey. Want to go up and get your car?"

"How's the ice?" Damien said sleepily. Miles nodded at the window.

"It's a bright and sunny morning."

"Two minutes."

Miles' head vanished from the doorway and the stairs creaked softly as he headed downstairs. Damien gently untangled himself from Nick, looked down at his face for a moment, then settled the covers over him and got to his feet. Nick always looked so- peaceful- when he was asleep. Unselfconscious, relaxed, his heavy hair fallen away from his forehead, curled around the quilt like a dormouse. And he was breathing softly. Regularly. Damien, who knew every nuance of his breathing from hard experience knew he was sleeping well. Soundly. It could have been very different.

He couldn't have taken much more of a risk with him if he'd tried.

Resolutely pushing the thought away, he pulled on jeans, socks and a sweatshirt, running his fingers through his hair to straighten it, picked up his boots and gave Nick one more look before he softly pulled the door shut behind him and headed downstairs.

Miles was waiting in the hallway, two of the dogs patiently hovering beside him, and watched him pull his boots on, car keys in his hand.

"Nick okay?"

"Amazingly, yes." Damien got up and shouldered into his jacket. They shut the front door softly, the dogs trotting ahead of them towards Miles' Land rover. "I thought the cold air would set him off, it was freezing up on the moor. He did really well."

"He looks very healthy." Miles backed the rover off the drive and headed slowly through the village, absently pushing an inquisitive labrador's nose out of his ear and over towards the back seats. "Much better than he did when I saw you both last autumn."

"He is doing well." Damien watched the familiar cottages flash past and the beginning of the open land start. "Much fitter. Working part time suits him, I don't think I've seen him enjoy his work this much in years."

"And how are you doing?"

Damien glanced up and caught the shrewd flash of his brother's eyes. And grimaced.

"Staggered we both got down off that moor in one piece last night."

Miles didn't interrupt, listening. Damien sighed.

"I was scared stiff he'd have an attack, and I couldn't get a signal on the phone. If he'd had an attack he could have died up there and there would have been absolutely nothing I could have done except watched. Or if we did manage to control it, he'd have been too tired to keep walking and we'd have both frozen up there. I've been hearing the stories since I was tiny, how tourists go up there without any respect for the weather, get stranded and die. I remember seeing choppers bringing the bodies down before now. And then I drive up there without thinking twice-"

"I don't think he's quite as fragile as you see him." Miles said gently. "You two walked down without any problems."

"I know." Damien took a deep breath and released it slowly. "But the potential's there. I've seen it, I've BEEN there at times when it's happened, it isn't something we can afford not to plan for. And I should know better."

"Yes." Miles agreed. "You should. It was a damn silly thing to do."

Damien glanced at him. Miles freed a hand and dropped it on his knee, shaking him.

"We're none of us perfect."

"I wanted to see the moorland." Damien said heavily. "It's been months since I've been up here, I love the drive down and you don't see the moors if you come over the motorways. I chose the harder route knowing there'd be some snow, I just didn't foresee the roads would be unsafe."

"So next time you know." Miles turned the nose of the Land rover up the steep hill to the moors and for a moment they listened to the labouring engine without speaking. The car was where it had been left, skewed across the road, nose still pressed into the bush on the edge of the woodland. Miles parked above it, glancing on up to the open moors. What was left of the snow was rapidly melting. The road was wet, but the ice was gone.

Damien got out and headed down the hill towards the car, pulling his keys out of his pocket while he checked around the wheels for hidden ice patches.

"I'd think I could probably back it straight out of the hedge and up the road."

"If that doesn't work, we certainly could push it back." Miles shut the Land rover door and came to join him, watching him kick sand under and behind the front wheels to ensure a grip.

"Considering the circumstances you had to play with last night, you did a good job."

"I shouldn't have got into that situation in the first place." Damien said grimly, heading towards the driver's door. Miles leaned on the car roof, catching his eye.

"Did you talk to Nick about it?"

Damien nodded, not altogether proud of it. "Yes, last night."

Miles gave him a faint smile. "So now you do the grown up bit."

Damien hesitated, half way into the front seat. "It's not that easy."

"If it was then everyone would do it and we'd have world peace."

Miles said pointedly. "YOU can do it. What's more, people expect it of you. Nick for one. Me for another. There's a point you pass where people stop chasing you to get you to do it, you just have responsibility to do it for yourself. Properly, because you know how it should be and you can't respect yourself if you don't."

"The mythical 'it'." Damien muttered, giving him a half smile in return. "And that's not always true. Nick knows-"

Miles grunted. "Internal standards. You've got them, I kicked them into you so I KNOW you've got them. You don't measure yourself by everyone else. You know what's right, what's wrong and what you do about it for yourself. Nick DOES know, and you two have your own answers. But you're not that type and you never were, it's no good thinking that would work for you even if right now it looks easier. You know what went wrong. Accept it, remember it and then let it go."

"So back the car up the hill and stop whining?" Damien said wryly. Miles shrugged, eyes sympathetic.

"It's your one good option kid. You're not going to accept anyone else's solutions anyway, you always were a headstrong little pest."

Damien got into the car and turned the engine over, watching Miles move around the bonnet and lean his weight on it, ready to push.

"I usually listened to you."

"When it suited you." Miles gave him a quick grin and shoved at the car as it ground into reverse. It moved easily, backing up the hill until Damien straightened it out and braked.

"Seems fine."

"I'll follow you down." Miles dusted off his hands and headed back towards the Land rover.


The cottage was warm, noisy with radio four and the voices in the kitchen, and smelled of fresh bread and bacon. Damien hung his jacket in the hall where the jackets always hung, kicked his boots off and trailed his brother into the kitchen, pausing in line for the quick and habitual kiss as they passed their mother.

"Morning Mum."

"Morning Mum."

"Did the car come back allright?" Their mother dropped the last of the bread into the basked and took it to the table, sending the dogs towards the conservatory with a snap of her fingers. "Wash your hands both of you."

"Not a scratch on it." Miles said, heading for the sink. And freezing at his mother's bark.

"NOT in my washing up water Miles Mitchell, there's a perfectly good sink in the bathroom."

Nick was sitting at the corner of the kitchen table by the window, shaved, dressed, and as Damien caught his eye, he smiled: the smile that lit up his eyes and brought his face to life. Hello, good morning and welcome, all in private and soft brown. Damien folded an arm around his neck, stooped and kissed him, reading the inquiry as clearly as if they'd spoken.

:Are you allright?:

:Yes, it's allright.:

Nick ran a hand along his knee as he sat down, rubbing over the denim of his jeans, the touch as intense as his voice was casual.

"Looks like a beautiful day."

~ The End ~

Copyright Ranger 2010

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

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





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