Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I Wanna Be Like Mike


Title: I Wanna Be Like Mike
Authors:  Ranger and Rolf



"No," Rolf said without hesitation. Matthew gave him a look of flat exasperation across the roof of the car, perilously close to throwing the hose down.

"WHY? Michael's going, for Pete's sake, ERIC doesn't think it's a problem-"

"Because it's too late and I don't want you walking around that site on your own, especially with a concert going on."

"The concert's the whole point! KIDS go to the concerts!"

"And the answer is no." Rolf took the hose out of Matthew's hand and carried on rinsing the car.

Matthew, furious beyond measure, flung the sponge down and stalked, uncaring of wet jeans and wetter trainers, into the house. Rolf took no notice until the door slammed. Then he sprayed off the last traces of soap, turned the hose off and followed his partner into the house. Matthew was in the kitchen, burying himself in a coke, and from the half-angry, half-apprehensive look he gave Rolf, he wasn't sure how he felt yet.

"Do we slam doors around here?" Rolf asked calmly.

"I didn't slam the stupid door!" Matthew said, slamming the coke on the counter.

Rolf LOOKED at him. For what seemed like three hours. Matthew melted under the gaze.

"It's NOT fair! Michael gets to do -"

"Matthew, I don't live with Michael. I live with you. And you know as well as I do that there are different rules for different reasons. I don't agree with Eric that Michael needs to be running around the park either, but that is none of our business. You asked me, and my answer is no."

"It's just a concert," Matthew said, his lip slipping out into his famous pout as he realized the battle was well and truly lost.

"I said no. I mean no. Is that clear?" Rolf said sternly.

Matthew fidgeted for a minute trying to come up with any other answer than surrender, but he was out of options. "Yes, sir," he said quietly.

"Thank you. Get some paper and a pen then, and settle yourself at the table."

"WHY?" Matthew exploded, temper promptly rising again. Rolf's eyes didn't waver, getting very steady.

"Because I said so, and I'm not going to repeat myself any more tonight."

Matthew glared at him, on the brink of flat out refusing- and yet knowing perfectly well there was no point. He would end up doing what Rolf asked in the end- if he argued now, he'd just end up doing it with a sore backside and red eyes. And the few seconds satisfaction he'd get from letting his temper go would not be worth it. With a serious effort, he pulled paper and a pen out of the drawer and flung himself into a chair.

"I will not slam doors. One hundred times please," Rolf said steadily, folding his arms.

Stifling the urge to swear, Matthew picked up the pen and began to write, angry, upset and hating every scribbled word.

He was still furious an hour later when he pushed the paper at Rolf. Rolf took it, glanced over the amount and nodded, laying his book aside.

"Thank you."

Matthew shrugged, heading for the chair furthest from Rolf's. Rolf leaned over, snagged his wrist and pulled.

"Come here."

"NO."

"Come here and talk to me a minute."

Matthew stood still but fixed him with a glare, coming no closer.

"It's NOT fair."

"I said, I didn't want to hear any more about that," Rolf said firmly.

"Then what DO you want to talk about?" Matthew demanded. Rolf pulled him closer and made him sit down, keeping hold of his hand.

"Want to tell me what's bothering you?" Rolf began.

"You think I'm three," Matthew spat ungratefully.

"If I thought you were three, I'd have you on one of those leash things at all times, and sleeping in a crib," Rolf said, laughing.

"It's NOT funny!"

Rolf settled back down. "I do not think you're three. They've been having that concert for years now, and every year someone is in the paper having been arrested for carrying a weapon, or drugs, and last year that young girl was raped. It's NOT a safe event, and the music you can hear on the radio."

"But Mich-"

"If you say that one more time, I'm going to wash your mouth out. All that matters is you and I. That's it, there're no ifs, ands, or buts."

Matthew sank down in his chair, but came when Rolf pulled him into his lap.

"We can do our own thing that night. Just because the concert's gone as an option, doesn't mean the rest of them don't remain open. I was thinking maybe dinner out and a movie?"

Matthew wrapped his arms around Rolf's neck and kissed him. "All right, I suppose."

He started laughing when Rolf began tickling his sides. "All right, ALL RIGHT, I give in! I give in!" he screeched, trying to fall onto the floor.

Rolf leaned forward and kissed the bare neck presented to him, sucking hard at the taut flesh. Matthew curled up into himself and tried to push away, Rolf always finding his most sensitive parts. When he was finally released, he took off screaming, breathing hard. Rolf chased him outside, where Matthew had the hose manned and sprayed him.

*

Nothing more was said that evening, nor the following day. Matthew went to class as usual, and rang at lunchtime to say he was going to a ball game with Michael and would be home by eight. Rolf got home ahead of him, made dinner and settled down with some work, waiting for the usual crash of Matthew arriving home, hungry and eager to talk about his day.

The cat interrupted his work some time into the evening. Rolf looked up and realised with a jolt of shock that it was almost dark outside and a quarter after eight.


An hour later, he resisted the urge to check the driveway for the third time, headed into the kitchen instead and took his feelings out on the dishes, which were polished within an inch of their lives before they were stacked in the cupboard. The sound of a ball crashing into the garage door made him leave the cupboard door swinging. Michael was bouncing the ball down the driveway, trying to fake out Matthew who had dropped his bag on the doorstep, books spilling in all directions. They both spun at Rolf's bark.

"Matthew, up to bed, NOW."

In that tone, Matthew didn't risk arguing. Leaving the books, he headed inside, giving Rolf a wide berth. Rolf turned his glare on Michael and the second dropped bag by the gate.

"IS that any way to treat books?"

"No sir." Michael hastily picked the bag up, stuffing the ball in on top of the books. Rolf waited, arms still folded.

"Does Eric know where you are?"

"He's on late shift tonight, he won't be back until ten," Michael mumbled, looking at his feet.

"Then you'd better get home."

Muttering affirmation and something resembling goodnight, Michael headed down the street, thinking sympathy in the direction of Matthew.

Matthew himself was pyjamaed, damp and sitting on the side of the bed, having clearly showered at the speed of light in the effort not to draw any more fire. Rolf, having worried for over an hour, was not at all interested.

"WHERE is your phone?" he demanded as soon as he reached the bedroom, snapping the light on. Matthew blinked on it, slightly shamefaced.

"The battery was running flat, I turned it off-"

"It's nearly nine thirty, Matthew; you said you'd be home by eight at the latest! Do NOT tell me the two of you have been kicking around the streets until this hour?"

All of Matthew's preparations to avoid further trouble went right out the window. He jumped to his feet yelling.

"I am twenty-four years old! Even if it DID get dark it doesn't matter! I HAD the phone, the battery was getting low so I TURNED IT OFF." Matthew didn't miss the opportunity to stamp his feet, orating back and forth in front of the bed. "I was with another MAN. We're weren't doing anything illegal, immoral or stupid. I am ONLY an hour late AND I DON'T SEE WHAT THE BIG DEAL IS!" Matthew finished, nearly out of breath.

"Are you finished?" Rolf asked easily.

Matthew took a moment to collect his bearings, and realized with a jolt that the line he normally took great care in dancing down and only occasionally sticking his toes over to see what happened – was about five long miles behind him. He gulped and nodded.

"ARE YOU FINISHED?" Rolf asked again, several notches louder.

"Yes, sir," Matthew managed.

"Get the paddle."

Matthew nearly ran from the room. Rolf waited, well aware Matthew was stunned enough by his own daring not to make this the usual, slow trek. He heard the point of indecision: Matthew's footsteps faltering as he returned back up the stairs, and raised his voice, barking the one word that swiftly hurried them again.

"MATTHEW."

Matthew appeared, pale, wide-eyed, artlessly pathetic, but Rolf was in no mood to appreciate it. He took the paddle from Matthew's hand, turned his partner around by one arm and brought the paddle down three times in swift succession across his thinly pajamaed bottom, ignoring Matthew's instinctive arching away from its reach. Matthew's eyes filled with involuntary tears and his throat tightened painfully with the effort not to cry. Rolf turned him back, paddle still in his hand.

"DO you shout at me, young man?"

"No sir," Matthew said quickly and sincerely.

"Then let's try that again, and we'll discuss the tantrum in a minute. WHAT were you doing hanging around in the dark with your phone OFF, over an HOUR past the time you told me you'd be home?"

"I TOLD you, the phone was going flat-" Matthew said with a brief flash of his former anger. Rolf promptly reversed him again and the paddle swat this time was harder.

"WHY was it flat, Matthew?"

Matthew, voice starting to crack and eyes now thoroughly blurry, surrendered promptly. One hand crept behind him to rub. "I didn't charge it- I didn't want it to go completely flat so I turned it off-"

"Why didn't you call?" Rolf demanded. "You HAD the phone, you KNEW I would call it when you didn't show on time."

The answer, they both knew, was unpolitic and Matthew was in no condition now to think of anything more creative. Rolf waited, voice rising a notch again when no answer was forthcoming.

"MATTHEW."

"You'd have made me come home," Matthew said despairingly. "We were only walking, we didn't DO anything-"

"IS that the point?"

Matthew shook his head hard, wishing with all his heart he hadn't made what would have been an unpleasant enough conversation so truly horrible.

"No sir."

"What IS the point?"

"I was late and I didn't call.."

"IS that ok?" Rolf demanded. Matthew shook his head again, tears starting to escape.

"No sir."

"Do you choose to ignore me when what I say is not what you want to do?"

"No, sir," Matthew replied again, wiping at the tears on his cheek.

"Come here," Rolf said, mowing over and taking a seat on the bed, paddle still in his hand.

Matthew walked to his partner, a sob escaping. He was pulled between Rolf's legs and bent over his left thigh. Rolf put the paddle down and lifted Matthew's shirt hem and yanked the pjs down. He didn't waste any more time with lecturing, just brought his hand down in ever increasing force across Matthew's white bottom, quickly turning it pink, then red.

Matthew sobbed into the comforter, all desire for arguing gone. He knew he had pushed by leaving the phone off, but he certainly didn't mean to push this far. He was reaching incoherency when Rolf lifted him to his feet, steering him by the hand towards the bathroom. Matthew trailed with him, past seeing the facecloth Rolf ran under the tap and used to cool off his face which was as scarlet as his bottom. When Rolf sat down on the edge of the bath and held out his arms, Matthew dived into them and clung, crying hard. Rolf held him, folding the cloth and pressing it to the back of his neck.

It helped. Gradually sobbing trailed off into gulping and hiccuping. Rolf leaned over and ran a glass of water from the tap, handing it to Matthew. It said a great deal that Matthew made no demur about it being tap water, just gulped it down, eyes still pitifully red. Rolf pushed his hair back off his forehead and waited until he'd finished before he took the glass and cloth.

"I ought to send you straight to bed, but I think we need to talk about this."

That was not promising. Matthew swallowed on fresh tears, wanting nothing more than to escape to bed and forget all about it.

"I'm sorry. I'm really sorry, I won't do it again-"

"You were late and I worried about you; we dealt with that." Rolf threw the cloth in the tub and took Matthew's hand, pulling him close. "I'm not cross with you, it's ok. I want to know what you were so angry about."

Matthew tried to pull away, claiming he was tired, but Rolf saw through that and kept him there, badgering until Matthew started to speak. It wasn't like him to argue so vehemently when he knew he was at fault. Something, he suspected, was running deeper than just wanting to come home an hour late.

"It just seems like sometimes that I can't.....that you baby me so much more than say.....Eric does Michael," Matthew ventured when he realized there wasn't any other way out of the bathroom.

Rolf blinked, understanding now that this was still related to the request to go to the concert. And having spent time with Michael today, he'd probably compared notes with him and come up on the short end.

"I'm not Eric and you're not Michael," he pointed out gently, more or less as a prod for further information. Yesterday he would have used that as the final line of the argument and expected Matthew to accept it, but this was clearly taking greater proportions than he'd realised.

Matthew shrugged, not looking at him.

"I know.... but I'm talking about us. I'm not stupid, I'm not THAT much younger than Michael and Chris and it's not like I'm twenty any more.."

"What do you want to do that you can't?" Rolf asked calmly, trying to give him a clear lead.

Matthew looked up at him briefly, embarrassed but reassured he was listening.

"I don't know- to go places with the others without someone there to watch us like we're kids who need carpooling home- to be out a little late sometimes with a friend-"

"There are plenty of times and places that you can do both of those things," Rolf pointed out.

Matthew sighed, temper getting shorter but not sure of how to explain it.

"Eric isn't on Michael's back if he's out an hour after dark, or if he puts the TV on before any homework's done, or if he isn't hungry at dinnertime-"

Here they went again. Rolf fought a brief desire to wring Michael's neck.

"Joe is definitely on Chris's. Probably a lot more so than I am with you."

"Chris'd self destruct in about ten minutes otherwise," Matthew said shortly. "I'm not that neurotic. And Todd IS, and Stephen STILL isn't all over him like that. I've got a lot in common with Mike, we have the same kind of jobs, we're the same kind of age, we don't have nervous breakdowns if you and Eric don't call twice daily-"

Matthew trailed off and Rolf kept hold of his hands, processing. Temperamentally, he could see why Matthew would identify with Michael over the other two. Michael had the same kind of good-natured confidence Matthew did, he held down the same kind of job and they were both the most independent of the four. What Matthew didn't see, was-

"But what Michael needs isn't what you need," Rolf said gently, trying to find the words to explain. "It isn't a one size fits all thing."

"I KNOW..." Matthew said in frustration, "But I DON'T need so much babying- I won't break, I won't get myself into trouble if I'm out of your sight for ten minutes-"

"Matthew, you're very frequently out of my sight for hours at a time and I don't think twice about leaving you alone here, do I?"

"No, but it's....it's just TOO MUCH," Matthew said, getting upset again. "It's a concert. It's an hour late. Neither of which will kill me but you act like it's the end of the world!"

"That's enough yelling," Rolf said sternly, still holding onto Matthew. And that brought more tears. Rolf finally stood up, his butt not able to take the weight of the two of them on the side of the bath. He helped Matthew to bed and sat there, caressing, until the sobs ended and the soft, gentle snoring began. Then he pulled the covers up and went downstairs. After pacing for a few minutes, he picked up the phone and called Eric.

Eric accepted most of the tirade in patient silence, letting Rolf get everything off his chest and talk himself to a natural stop. Then he suggested mildly,

"Would it help if I told Mike this concert's out?"

Rolf took a deep breath and collapsed into an armchair.

"I don't think that's really the issue. And there's no reason for Mike not to go just because I'm not happy with Matthew being there."

"He's going to have to accept sooner or later that it ISN'T one rule for everyone. They all do. And that it's the principle, not the individual incidents- it isn't HOW late he is, the issue is YOU set the line and he doesn't cross it. "

"He knows that really," Rolf sighed, pushing his hand through his hair. "I suppose it's a case of waiting until it blows over."

"It sounds like pride more than anything else," Eric said gently. "Not easy to accept the differences, especially if they seem like failures to him. But at the end of the day it's based on want and need. Otherwise it couldn't work. Matthew wouldn't put up with more than he wanted- and it isn't you he has the problem with; it sounds like it's his self image in front of the others."

"I know. It just-"

"Worries you," Eric said gently. "Rolf I'd swear it isn't you. He'd damn soon change his mind if you actually DID drop the maintenance level, you know he would. Like Michael would take a steak knife to me if I upped it too much."

"You're right," Rolf said tiredly. "Thanks for listening. I think that's all I needed right now."

"No problem. And I WILL warn Mike to back off him if that'll help at all. We'll see you at poker?"

Rolf hung up the phone and rested his head against the back of the chair. Eric's offhand comment about loosening the leash had him thinking. Thirty minutes later, he headed to bed.

*

Rolf had an eye on the clock when he heard Matthew in the drive way. Not LATE as such.. just five minutes or so. Which was Matthewese for 'I heard you but don't think this is surrender'. Rolf didn't say anything. Just leaned across the counter to kiss him and went on chopping salad. And obviously it was still on his mind: Matthew just quietly took a drink out of the fridge and headed upstairs to change without his usual chatter and bounce. Rolf dropped salad in the bowl and gave up on a quick solution to this. Still running over it in his mind, he set the table, took a seat and waited.

Matthew came down ten minutes later, changed and damp from the shower, and still quiet. There were several muted exchanges about the day while they ate. Rolf waited until Matthew had nearly finished eating before he changed the subject, keeping a discreet but close eye on his face.

"I was thinking over what you said last night."

Matthew flushed, poking salad.

"I'm sorry. But-"

"If that's how you feel that's fair enough." Rolf put his fork down and moved his plate away, steepling his hands.

"I say we try it. Say a trial period. And see how we feel about it afterwards."

"Try what?" Matthew demanded, shaken.

"Letting you decide a bit more where you go and when you return," Rolf said, looking at Matthew.

"How....how would that work?" Matthew asked suspiciously.

Rolf bit back a smile. "If you want to go to that concert, that's fine with me. I just want to know where you're at, and that, as usual, you have your phone on and IN WORKING ORDER. We'll try this say, for a month. Outside of anything majorly dangerous or outrageous, I'll let you decide for yourself whether you want to attend certain events or whatever, and organise yourself in coming and going."

Matthew was still looking at Rolf suspiciously. "Why are you doing this?"

"Because I can see you've been unhappy with the choices I've made for you," Rolf said matter-of-factly. He could see Matthew looking more worried by the second.

"That hasn't affected the... the rules before."

"I'm willing to give it a try. Are you?"

"I don't get it," Matthew said again, still more suspiciously. Rolf sat back, letting him look until he saw Matthew begin to be reassured.

"This is about both of us. I can't hold to a system you're not happy with. I'm willing to try and see if we can find ground that you feel better about."

Silence. A long silence. Matthew stared at the table for a while, then said very quietly,

"Are you mad at me?"

The answer was quick and reassuringly emphatic. Rolf pushed back from the table and held out his arms.

"Come HERE."

Matthew only hesitated a moment. Rolf pulled him down into his lap and hugged him, hard, feeling Matthew's arms wind around his neck.

"I'm not mad at you. We don't have to do this if you've changed your mind. You've just been telling me you're not too happy with some of the limits on you and I'm willing to try and see if this is better. Are you?"

There was no answer for some time, then Matthew nodded slowly.

"Ok.. I guess so."

"Yes or no." Rolf pushed him gently back to see his face. "This was what you wanted, you make a decision on it."

"Yes," Matthew said, still a little uncertainly.

*

"If you could, try to be home by midnight, and call if you're any later?" Rolf asked as Matthew headed out the door with Michael. They'd chosen to walk to the concert in order to skip the horrific traffic jams that happened every year.

"All right!" Matthew said, jogging down the steps with Mike.

Rolf closed the door and took a deep breath. He really didn't like the idea of Matthew going, but as they'd agreed, Matthew had decided he wanted to go.

"What came over Rolf?" Michael asked as they headed down the street.

"I don't know. He just said I could make up my own mind on things of this nature now. It's .... weird, but nice."

"I never thought you'd get around Rolf by making a fuss about it," Mike said, laughing. Matthew smiled but changed the subject quickly. He appreciated Rolf listening to him- too much to have Michael laugh about it- but he wasn't sure about it yet. He'd never left for anything of this kind before without a long list of do's, don'ts, demands for phone calls, a deadline cast in stone and a checked cell phone in his pocket. Not that he wasn't ABLE to do it himself but-

It felt odd.

It was a fair walk to the concert site and the place was filling up by the time they got there. The crowds alone made Matthew stare as they pushed through, having rarely seen such an assortment in the town. A large group of bikers were sprawled on the grass outside the main gate, several of the bikes revving loud enough to challenge the music inside. Michael coughed on the sweet smell of pot as they walked through the gate and pulled a face at Matthew.

"Let's head down the front."

"Where are we sitting?"

"You don't sit, you fruit cake, this isn't the National Youth Orchestra."

Matthew dug him in the ribs, a little embarrassed and increasingly nervous. The crowds were huge and without seats there was nothing to stop their movement. This was the sort of situation that made Rolf start heading for the exit, deaf to all protests.

They found a place about halfway to the stage and spent the twenty minutes until the beginning of the concert in people watching, Michael joining in the pushing and shoving of the crowd with a will. Matthew, less happy about it, made a few good shoves of his own when hassled but got out of the way as far as possible, trying to find a space to stand in. Michael grabbed his arm when the lights went down and the laser lights started to spin, bracing him as the band came out on stage and the crowd surged forward, nearly separating them and carrying them a long way from their original position. The band struck up, Matthew fought his way out from under the feet of two large men with painted chests and dragged Michael back.

"It's too crowded here, let's move back!"

"This is the fun part!" Michael shouted back.

Some fun. Increasingly nervous, Matthew tried to concentrate on the music. The fight broke out some way through the fourth song: the first the boys heard was shouting and then the crowd began to move like a living thing, pushing and pulling in waves that nearly dragged Michael in. Matthew yanked him back and Michael caught an elbow in the ribs that nearly knocked him over. He found his feet, beginning to look scared and this time when Matthew pulled him, followed willingly, the two of them fighting their way through struggling bodies, bruised and shaken, until they reached the quieter fringes and made their way rapidly back into the park. The music was still echoing from here. Somewhat shaken, Matthew collapsed onto the grass and Michael dropped beside him, throwing one arm over his eyes.

"Don't EVER tell Eric we were involved in that."

"I thought he didn't mind you coming," Matthew snapped. Michael shook his head.

"Not down the front like that."

"Then why the hell did you drag me down there??!" Matthew replied angrily.

"It's your first time! I did that once, I wanted you to experience it."

"Oh what fun THAT was!" Matthew growled. He laid back and stared up at the tree, slowly chilling out now that the immediate danger was past. It soon became dark save for the lights directly around the stage, and then a few over on the side where the food vendors were.

"Thirsty?" Mike asked after a short while.

"Yes. Is that the only place they have drinks?" Matthew asked, pointing towards the food vendors.

"Yeah. Let's go the long way around. We'll be fine," Michael replied, as much for Matthew's relief as his own.

The two young men made their way around the fringes of the crowd, sliding into a line at one of the booths. By the time they made it to the front of the line, both were starved and more than ready to eat whatever was for sale after having smelled it for so long. When the boys left the line, one had a plate of cheesy french fries, the other had a funnel cake, Matthew topping his off with a large coke and Michael chugged on a large beer. The food would have been eaten by the time they'd made their way back to their tree, but neither had a hand free.

"Can I have a fry?" Matthew asked as he took one.

"As long as I can have some of your grease," Michael said, pulling off a large chunk of funnel cake.

They polished off their plates and their drinks in about ten minutes, then sprawled backwards in the grass, both moaning about being too full. A half-hour later they got up again and came back to their tree with popcorn, chips, drinks, and an ice cream each. The ice creams were polished off first, and the popcorn and chips savored about a half-hour later. They were enjoying the music and the relative quiet of their area of the park.

The concert was still going strong at 12:15 when Michael's phone rang and woke up both boys.

"Shit! It's after midnight!" Matthew sputtered as he looked at his phone to make sure it wasn't his ringing.

Michael fumbled in his pocket and dug the phone out, wincing as he saw the number.

"Hi-"

He flinched as Eric rapped out a few stringent demands in his ear.

"Yes- no, we're in the park. No, we- ok. Yessir."

He shut the phone and pulled a face at Matthew. "The corner by the news stand, five minutes, he'll pick us up and drop you home."

"Did he hear about the fight?"

"If he brings his car he will." Michael said subduedly, "He'll put the radio on, it's bound to be talked about."

Matthew hesitated as they gathered up their few belongings, then pulled out his own phone and called home. Michael shot him a look of sympathy and kept pace with him around the edge of the crowd towards the road. Rolf answered within a few rings, and to Matthew's slight indignation sounded sleepy, as though the phone had woken him.

"Hello?"

"It's me," Matthew said uncertainly.

"Hey, sport." from the sound, Rolf had sat up and turned the alarm clock round. "It's a little late, everything ok?"

This was not how this conversation should go. Matthew cleared his throat, trying not to brace himself for the bark of outrage. Which should have come an hour ago.

"Yes- Eric's coming to pick us up, I'll be home in fifteen minutes or so."

"Ok, sport; the front door's on the latch. Don't forget to lock it when you come up."

"Did you go to bed?"

"Yes. Early start tomorrow. See you in a while."

"See you."

Matthew shut the phone, uncertain and vaguely unhappy, and trailed Michael across to where the squad car was already waiting, with Eric leaning on the open window. His look over them both took in the state of their clothes and Matthew's face.

"Are you ok? Anywhere near that fight?"

Michael started the long tango around that one as Matthew slid into the car, too preoccupied to listen. Eric caught his hand as he got out of the car on his and Rolf's drive, stopping him.

"Are you sure you're ok? Not battered?"

Matthew shook his head and gave a slight wave to Michael.

"No. Thanks for the lift Eric, I'm fine."

"Goodnight then." Eric backed off the drive and pulled away. Matthew let himself in the front door and locked it behind him. The hall light was on, enough light for him to find his way to bed. Clear proof he'd been thought about this evening- but it wasn't somehow the same as Rolf on the doorstep. Their bedroom light was off. Matthew undressed quietly, snapped the hall light off and slid into bed, fidgeting somewhat obtrusively without being able to help himself. Rolf stirred and put a sleepy hand out towards him.

"Hi. Good concert?"

"It was great," Matthew said, trying to sound upbeat. Even to his own ears it didn't sound all that convincing.

"Glad you went?" Rolf asked sleepily.

"Yes. All the bands were pretty good. The food was great. Michael and
I walked around the place and watched from several different locations."

"Great," Rolf said, and three minutes later Matthew heard him snore.

Matthew curled up on his side and tried hard to sleep, but it was a long time coming.

*

"Matthew, it's nearly seven."

"Mmn," Matthew muttered without opening his eyes. Rolf gave him one more shake without getting the green eyes open, leaned over and turned the radio up, and went back to fastening his tie.

"Matthew. Come on, you'll be late."

Which is why in the usual way, at ten past six, he would have had Matthew on his feet and moving, awake or not. But a deal was a deal.

Rolf hesitated a moment, very unwilling to leave him to get himself into the kind of panic he knew would strike when Matthew finally realised what the time was and managed to wake up. Then made himself lean down to kiss what he could reach of Matthew's face, saying again, loud enough to penetrate sleep,

"UP, sport. I'll see you later; have a good day."

Which was highly unlikely if he began by being this late and panic stricken. It took a lot of effort and Rolf couldn't resist pulling the quilt off him, giving him one more chance to stir before he left. Matthew rolled over, yanking it around himself again with a mutter of protest, and this time all Rolf could do was head downstairs and make his own way to work, knowing his own day was going to be less than happy.

Matthew dragged himself upright in response to the phone's ringing some time later, and fumbled the receiver up from the bedside table without opening his eyes.

"Yeah?"

"Are you up yet?"

"Huh?"

Matthew was so bewildered at waking to Rolf's voice on the end of a phone that it took him some seconds to work out what was going on. Then he saw the alarm clock and errupted to his feet in horror.

"WHY DIDN'T YOU WAKE ME!"

"I tried, you didn't want to know this morning," Rolf's voice contained the very clear, Don't even THINK about yelling at me tones. "I left breakfast out for you, don't forget to lock up."

"It's past nine!" Matthew said in total shock, not interested in locking up. "I should have been at work an hour ago, WHY didn't you tell me!!"

"I did, several times," Rolf said firmly. "You really didn't want to wake up."

That never usually stopped him. Matthew swallowed on shock, panic and outrage.

"I gotta go," Matthew said, hanging up the phone and running for the shower.

Ten minutes later he ran out of the bathroom and threw on his clothes, ran down the stairs, grabbed his keys and hit the door, slamming it hard enough behind him to send four cats streaking for furniture to hide under. His drive to work was fast, thankfully without the usual morning backup and no officers on patrol.

"Hey. We were just starting to wonder about you," the receptionist said as Matthew closed the office door behind him.

"Sorry. The friggin' alarm didn't get me and Rolf left early," Matthew said, passing by the desk and heading for his office. He was one of the lucky few that could basically come and go as he pleased, so the only one disappointed in his arrival time was himself.

His mood didn't improve as he checked his voicemail and found two problems to start the day with.

By the time eleven-thirty came, he was hot, frustrated, thoroughly fed up and still trying to chase one of the problems. The ringing of the phone did nothing to improve his temper since the receptionist seemed too occupied with clients this morning to field the steady flow of calls. Matthew grabbed up the receiver on the fifth ring, slamming papers to one side.

"HeLLO."

"Hi, it's me."

Rolf's voice was somewhat more sympathetic than most of the clients were. Matthew pushed his chair away from the desk and slumped back, not at all ready to be friends yet.

"I'm AT work, I was over an hour late."

"I'm sorry," Rolf said gently. "Maybe you should try going to bed earlier?"

"Why didn't you just WAKE me!" Matthew burst out, finding with some surprise he was near tears. It felt like betrayal and he didn't even know why.

Rolf could hear those emotions in Matthew's voice and winced on them, trying to sound calm rather than sympathetic.

"Because we agreed that you wanted to take more responsibility for yourself. Part of that is getting up for work without me physically pulling you out of bed."

Matthew fought back his tears with effort. "You should have tried," he said plaintively.

"I did try, Sport. Several times. I'm sorry you were late today."

Rolf waited for a response but none was forthcoming.

"I was calling for a lunch date. Joe B's at noon?"

"No, no, I have too much to do. I'll just grab a burger at McDeaths."

"You get an hour for lunch like everyone else. Meet me at Joe's. I'm looking forward to it."

Matthew tried one or two more excuses, but Rolf was adamant. Finally he agreed and hung up the phone. Rolf sat back with a sigh. If he'd not insisted on lunch, Matthew more than likely would have found a way to forget and that wasn't going to happen if Rolf could help it. A bad day made worse was to be avoided if possible. Besides, this was hard enough already: if they had to go through it, they didn't have to do it alone.

He waited for ten minutes at the restaurant before he saw Matthew jog across the road, dodging traffic. An action which automatically brought a frown. He was heading swiftly through the crowd before Matthew was half way there and reached the kerb in time to grab him and yank him onto the pavement.

"WHAT are you doing? There are lights twelve feet further down!"

"Crossing," Matthew said shortly.

Rolf gave him a flat glare in return. "Cross like that again and I'll cross you. Come on."

Make me, Matthew's eyes said clearly over the pout.

Rolf resisted the urge to shake his head or to let a hand stray where it wanted to go, and instead took firm hold of Matthew's arm, steering him into the restaurant. They found a table straight away and Rolf handed Matthew a menu, ordering a jug of water from the waiter.

"How hungry are you?"

"I'm not," Matthew said flatly, shutting the menu.

"Did you eat the breakfast I left for you?" Rolf asked shortly.

"Like I had TIME!" Matthew spat.

Rolf sharpened his tone and brought it down for Matthew's ears only. "Your being late to work was NOT of my doing and I'm not going to listen to any more about it. Is that clear?"

Matthew had had little control of his temper so far this day, and Rolf's words snapped it quickly.

He shoved his chair back, storming towards the front of the restaurant.

"Fine, I'll leave then,"

Rolf put down his napkin and got up to follow, catching up with his wayward lover three steps out the door.

"HEY."

"WHAT?" Matthew demanded, swinging around on him. Rolf grabbed his hand, pulling him against the restaurant wall and talking quietly and sharply enough to escape the attention of the passersby.

"You do NOT speak to me in that manner and I will NOT put up with tantrums. We WILL be discussing this when we get home tonight. Right now you are going to pull your temper under control, we are going to go back inside and you are going to eat. And you're going to settle down. Otherwise, I will call into your office, tell them you're sick and I will take you home."

Matthew looked back at him, too furious to take the scowl off his face. Rolf's blue eyes looked straight back at him, stern and matter of fact. Matthew knew from long experience Rolf was not in the habit of idle threats or bluffs: he would have no hesitation in doing exactly as he said. On the other hand, he was in no mood to settle down or go quietly. Allowing the demon full possession, he wrenched his arm out of Rolf's and headed back towards the curb.

"STOP right there," Rolf said firmly, causing Matthew to stop, but not turn around. "My car is in the side parking lot. Unless you want things to escalate right here, I suggest you find it and wait for me."

Rolf's tone was his most no-nonsense one, and Matthew knew full well Rolf wouldn't hesitate to make a further scene on the sidewalk. He changed directions and headed towards the side lot, fear now about on equal terms with anger.

Rolf went back into the restaurant, told the hostess they wouldn't need their table and walked back to the lobby. He pulled out his phone and called Matthew's office, telling the receptionist that Matthew wouldn't return due to falling ill while at lunch, but should return the following day. Then he called his office and said lunch would be extended for a bit, but he'd return in time for his two pm appointment. Then he headed for his car.

Matthew was sitting in the passenger side trying to look at anything but Rolf. The ride home was silent and cool.

"Kitchen corner," Rolf said as he parked the car in the driveway.

Matthew walked up to the door and unlocked it, finding some solace in the quiet of the corner for the first few minutes. He heard Rolf come into the kitchen, then heard sounds of the breakfast being put away. Then came the unmistakable sounds of Rolf making sandwiches. He heard the chip bag open and the plates go on the table before Rolf told him to take a seat.

When Matthew was seated he finished with, "eat your lunch, and I don't want to hear a word of complaint."

Matthew chewed on the sandwich, not really tasting much but not willing to try skipping it. Within ten minutes he had his plate cleared. He was just about to get up, thinking they'd return to work when his hopes were shattered.

"Come here."

Matthew moved slowly, not at all sure what to expect. Rolf pushed his chair back from the table and took Matthew's hands, drawing him in between his knees.

"You have got a lot of thinking to do this afternoon. I telephoned your office, they're not expecting you back today. You'll spend this afternoon in bed, giving some serious thought to what happened today and reasons why. I'll expect you to have some answers for me when we talk about it tonight."

"I need to work!" Matthew said in outrage.

Rolf shook his head, interrupting before Matthew's voice rose any further. "I warned you clearly at the restaurant what would happen and you knew I meant it. Upstairs, into bed. I'll be up when I've washed the dishes."

Matthew stamped, about to lose his temper entirely.

"NO, it isn't FAIR!"

"It's going to get a lot more unfair if you don't get upstairs, NOW," Rolf said firmly.

"You just don't CARE-" Matthew's shout ended in a shriek when he found himself face down over Rolf's knees with no clear understanding of how he got in this position. His next thought was "OW!" followed by more and more clarity on the issue.

Rolf administered a short, sharp spanking, intent only on getting Matthew's attention and getting him upstairs without further problems.

"Are we going upstairs now?" he inquired when he was done.

"Yes!" Matthew yelled between sobs. As soon as he was released, he bounded for the stairs, slamming the bedroom door when he got there, falling face first on the bed.

Rolf did the dishes before he headed upstairs, not responding to the crash of the door. When he did make his way up to find Matthew still fully dressed and still sobbing face down on the bed, he accepted what he'd suspected for the past fifteen minutes- that he wasn't going back to work that afternoon. Apart from that Matthew was upset enough now that to leave him alone was impossible, Rolf was well aware what underlay this. He'd given on one issue: Matthew couldn't help but feel insecure, and to test whether he could be moved on other issues and boundaries. The question was whether over time he'd settle down and cope with more leash, but to leave now, no matter how urgent his afternoon appointments were, would do nothing but heap more petrol on the flames of this current problem. He picked up the phone and cancelled the rest of his day's engagements, then pulled Matthew up.

"Bed, come on."

Matthew stumbled to his feet and Rolf helped him out of his clothes, sent him to wash his face and pulled the covers back, waiting until Matthew emerged, still sniffling but marginally calmer. Rolf pulled the quilt over him and took a seat on the edge of the bed, pushing his hair back off his forehead.

"Do you want to tell me what this is all about?"

He almost wondered whether Matthew really knew or understood what he was acting out, apart from wanting to hear him put it into words. Matthew shook his head hard, rolling over. Rolf rubbed over his back for a moment, then got up.

"If I hear you go anywhere other than the bathroom, there'll be trouble. And I want you to do some thinking. When I come back up here we're going to talk about this and I want some answers."

Matthew didn't respond. Just waited until Rolf's footsteps moved downstairs before a few more sobs found their way out. He was glad that Rolf was staying, but at the same time, felt horrible that he'd made him HAVE to stay. And he KNEW the discussion later wouldn't be at all pleasant.

He tossed and turned, mad and upset, but the lost sleep from the night before and the stress of the day caught up with him, and he dropped off into a light doze. Rolf checked when things got too silent, finding his partner sleeping and looking particularly angelic. He went back downstairs and did what he could from his home computer.

Matthew woke up when the phone rang an hour later. His first instinct was to fly out of bed, but the phone stopped ringing before he had to make that choice. Once the heart rate returned to normal, he realized where he was and why. And the anxiety hit back full force. He lay for some time, stomach churning, wondering what on earth to do about it, until it got too much to lie there any longer.

Rolf glanced up from his computer a few minutes later, brows snapping together.

"I told you to stay in bed until I came up to you."

"I'm going to throw up," Matthew pleaded, trying not to shiver. He was still in pajamas and it wasn't warm under the air conditioning. "Please can we talk about it now? Please?"

"Go and put a sweater on." Rolf shut the computer down and got up. "Go on, I'll be up in a minute."

That was a little better than it could have been. Matthew headed back upstairs, pulled a sweater on over his pyjamas and slid back under the covers, waiting with his stomach in knots. Rolf came up a moment later. He'd changed out of his work clothes, but he still looked grim. Matthew slid further under the covers, stomach tightening still further. Rolf took a seat on the edge of the bed and pulled the covers out of his grip, waiting until he sat up.

"Well?"

Matthew was fiddling with the covers, a clear sign he was nervous.

"I..I'm sorry about earlier. It was my fault that I slept late."

"And?" Rolf said.

"And I'm sorry I acted up at the restaurant and I'm sorry I didn't let you go to work, and I know I'm horri-"

"Stop it right there, young man," Rolf said firmly, before Matthew could try sinking into a pool of self destruction. "Your actions have truly been horrible, but you aren't. Most of this is no doubt due to lack of sleep, but that in no way excuses your actions, does it?"

Matthew wilted under Rolf's steady blue-eyed gaze. "No, sir," he said quietly.

"You wanted a little less supervision, and that's exactly what you got this morning," Rolf pointed out quietly. "I tried without pushing to get you up, but you wanted nothing to do with that. You were late, and only needed to deal with whatever consequences that caused with those at work and what you expect of yourself. If I didn't try and have lunch with you today, you more than likely would have skipped that, and we both know how that conversation will end. Right?"

"Yes, sir," Matthew said, still staring at, and playing with, the covers.

"So instead of eating with me, you do everything you can to get yourself into trouble. Why is that?"

Matthew shrugged.

"Look at me and give me an answer."

Matthew forced his eyes up, wishing Rolf would just cut to the chase and make this easy for once. It was a vain hope, Rolf just went right on waiting.

"I'm sorry," he said eventually.

"Still not an answer," Rolf said calmly. "Try again please. Why did you try so hard to get yourself into trouble despite every chance I gave you?"

"I don't know," Matthew said, flushing still darker. Rolf shook his head.

"Still not an answer. I've got all evening, Matthew."

Silence. Matthew ducked his head again, picking at the coverlet. Rolf leaned over and pulled him over into his arms. The contact startled Matthew, but oh it helped. He wound both arms around Rolf's neck and buried his face, letting Rolf settle him into his lap and hug him back, rocking slowly.

"Talk to me," Rolf said gently in his ear. "It's not hard, try explaining."

Matthew still wasn't sure what it was he needed to explain to Rolf; he was having a hard enough time trying to figure it out himself. But it was obvious he needed to say something or they'd be here all night and the knot in his stomach would settle in permanently.

"I....I guess I just didn't think you'd actually DO anything this afternoon," Matthew said quietly. "I just wasn't in a good mood. I'm sorry."

"Matthew, you know very well I don't play games, and whether or not I follow through on my threats STILL doesn't explain why you were misbehaving to begin with," Rolf said, his fingers gently brushing Matthew's hair.

"I shouldn't have been mad at you for me not getting up. That was my fault," Matthew replied.

"Why were you mad?" Rolf said simply. Matthew shrugged, not looking
up.

"Because I was late and I hate being late. End up feeling rushed all day- so I was mad with everything, and I took it out on you I guess."

"You guess?"

Matthew didn't answer. Rolf mentally sighed. This wasn't the conversation they needed to have- or that he wanted to have. On the other hand, he couldn't push it. It had to come from Matthew; Matthew had to gain this understanding himself and be ready to talk about it- otherwise they would just keep coming back to this point over and over again. This wasn't about uncertainties, or anything misunderstood between them- what they had worked well, was wanted and accepted by both of them- this was a question of lines and degrees, and those Matthew had to accept part in agreeing.

And right now, he was at the end of his tether and too stressed to think any more clearly. Rolf kissed his forehead and put him on his feet.

"I know you had a bad start to the day and a bad morning, but that doesn't excuse your behaviour at the restaurant. Does it?"

Matthew shook his head, dragging his eyes up from the carpet. "No sir."

"We're going to meet for lunch the rest of this week and practice getting it right. And that ought to prove to you that I do mean what I say. And if it upsets you that much to be late, then if you want we can go back to me waking you."

"I can do it," Matthew said at once, flushing. Rolf waited for a moment, then when nothing more was forthcoming, said calmly,

"Okay. Which means we just need to discuss that tantrum you threw for me when I asked you to eat."

Matthew knew this was now the crux of his problems, and there WAS no excuse for his behavior. The only thing he could try was just being totally down to earth.

"I'm sorry. I was just mad about the morning and I let it carry over into that discussion too. I embarrassed us both, and it won't happen again." Matthew couldn't hold eye contact and dropped his head down.

"Thank you," Rolf said gently. "I know you're upset about it. And I know too that today wasn't a good day. Getting up isn't something you find easy."

He waited, hoping that Matthew might pick up on the opening to talk, but he knew the expression on his partner's face and it was a plea only to get this horrible situation fixed and over with. Rolf resigned himself to waiting and drew Matthew around to his right, aware that he moved without looking up and without protest, a clear indication of how he was feeling. Usually a tantrum of this magnitude- not to mention several instances of outright defiance- would have involved the paddle and a lengthy chewing out, but Matthew's penitence was very obvious and right now Rolf didn't have the heart to send him downstairs. A hand spanking would do and it could be made to count: right now the last thing either of them needed was a guilty Matthew trying to get himself into deeper trouble because he didn't feel adequately punished for this incident. 

Matthew settled over Rolf's lap, folded his arms and buried his face, trying not to feel
the arm that wrapped around his waist or the firm hand that pulled his shorts down to his knees, leaving him feeling temporarily very cool and very vulnerable as the air hit his bared bottom. The thought of this afternoon- the scene he'd made at the restaurant- the way he'd spoken to Rolf, the way he'd acted- made his face burn. Miserable, Matthew was very well aware he'd been as horrible as he knew how, and that Rolf had handled him with a good deal more patience and consideration than he'd deserved. Even now, well aware he was in trouble, Rolf hadn't blamed or accused and despite all provocation he'd remained understanding as to why his partner had chosen to make both their afternoons particularly unpleasant. There had been no recriminations about wasted time, no resentment of the fact that he'd had to give up whatever had been planned for this afternoon- and no hesitation in abandoning his plans and staying. Matthew just found himself wishing desperately that Rolf would stretch his ESP and patience a little further and understand just how he felt about what now seemed to him a very stupid and entirely unnecessary idea.

Rolf raised his hand, wishing it was the end of this particular problem, but knowing instead it was another bump in an already very bumpy road. He brought it down sharply on his lover's bare bottom, pulling against Matthew's immediate attempts to crawl away. He settled into a steady rhythm, covering every inch of the bottom from hip to thighs with scarlet hand prints. When he finished with a third circuit and the heat was intense, he stopped, resting his hand on the small of Matthew's back, feeling the smaller body heaving with sobs that went far deeper than from just the physical pain.

As soon as he was allowed, Matthew scrambled to his feet and kicked his shorts off, diving into Rolf's arms and burying his face into his neck. The arms were wrapped around the older man in an almost death grip, trying to convey without words how very sorry he was. Rolf continued to hold him for a long while, hoping that as the sobs and hiccups faded away that he'd take the opportunity to talk. Unfortunately, Matthew remained just as quiet after the spanking as he had been before.

"All right, sport, it's time for me to get back to work. I'd like you to get some pants on and come downstairs with me. You've got some writing to do," Rolf finished as he walked out of the bedroom.

Matthew was about to complain when he rolled over onto his far too tender skin. He shut his mouth and jumped up, tears stinging his already swollen eyes. Rolf had a pad and pen out at the office desk when he came downstairs and Matthew hesitated, not feeling at all inclined to sit. Rolf handed him a cushion but waited, taking the seat at the other end of the desk in front of the computer. Pulling a face, Matthew slowly sat down.

"I'd like you to write out for me ten things you could have done about being so upset this morning other than throwing that tantrum. Ten ways to handle it when you feel like that. Let me know when you're done."

Oh great. Matthew picked up the pen, well enough aware that Rolf's main intent was to keep him occupied and in sight, but also not that sorry to have an excuse to be close. Taking a deep breath and trying to take his mind off how uncomfortable it was to sit down, he racked his brains for possible and even vaguely doable alternatives to getting thoroughly pissed. It took him nearly forty minutes to come up with his list, by which time Rolf had shut down the computer and was making dinner. He took the list from Matthew and read it, leaning against the counter. Matthew slid as unobtrusively as possible under his nearest arm and leaned against him in turn. Rolf threaded a hand through his hair and tousled gently, catching his eye.

"Ok, which of these could you do?"

"Some?" Matthew said, trying to sound positive. Rolf smiled and swatted him gently.

"Ok, I believe you. I like the one about talking to me."

Matthew nodded but didn't take the hint.

He stayed quiet through the rest of the short evening, while they ate and while they watched the evening news, Matthew curled up as close to Rolf as he could get. Clearly still not happy, clearly still in need of reassurance. Rolf had less than half his mind on the TV, most of his attention on Matthew. Instinct was strong to call a halt, he hated to see Matthew upset at any time- to play an active part in it was almost more than he could stand. But this had to come from Matthew, he couldn't pre empt it.

*

To his relief, Matthew dragged himself awake when the alarm rang in the morning and made it out of bed and under the shower. He didn't look too rested or too happy, but at least he was up and awake.

"Don't forget lunch," Rolf said on the drive when they said goodbye half an hour later. "I'll meet you at twelve-thirty, Ruby Tuesday."

He got a nod and a very brief kiss but no smile. Obviously last night's feeling of reconnection had passed and Matthew was once again starting to brood. Sincerely hoping the result wasn't another lunchtime detonation, Rolf headed to work and tried to keep his mind on the job.

Matthew fidgeted with his own work, snapped at his secretary, snapped at Marc when he called and eventually claimed a meeting to avoid Marc's demands to know what was wrong. He made it to lunch on time and managed to sustain enough conversation and choke down enough food to keep Rolf from commenting, and escaped as soon as he possibly could. He felt increasingly--awful.

And he still wasn't really sure why.

He was still fiddling with work when the office cleared at five; not doing anything as such but in no hurry to go home. By five-thirty he was actively starting to watch the phone. And to his surprise and growing irritation, it didn't do as it was supposed to and ring. No wolf calling to bark at him about coming home on time. Nothing.

He was fiddling around online when his instant messenger beeped and Marc sent a surprised hello.
Scoobydoo:   Matthew? What are you doing online?
TiggerMC:      Hey. Had some things to finish at work, why, is it a crime or something?
Scoobydoo:   Just didn't expect Rolf to allow you to stick around this long, that's all. You sound in a mood, everything ok?
TiggerMC:      I'm not in any damned mood, sheesh. FYI, Rolf and I have a new agreement, it's up to me when I go home.
Marc sat back and pondered that for a minute. Rolf would have called if he expected Matthew home, but he also knew Rolf preferred to eat at dinner time, not three hours later and then head to bed.
Scoobydoo:  I hope Rolf didn't make dinner for you.
TiggerMC:  I can just eat later.
Scoobydoo:  Don't you think it's rude leaving Rolf wondering what's going on?
TiggerMC:  Look, I can handle it. I need to go print something, I'll catch up with you later.
Matthew disconnected without a goodbye, too pissed off because Marc did a good job at making him feel ashamed.

Ok, he GOT the idea. With the freedom came responsibility, he was supposed to think about things LIKE Rolf sitting at home wondering where he was and when he was coming home and why he hadn't been told- except that WASN'T how things worked between them. There wasn't any guilt or doubt or uncertainty. And it wasn't as if, before they came to this ridiculous arrangement, that he hadn't cared about that kind of thing anyway. He did care about Rolf. A lot. He did THINK about Rolf. They'd never had these stupid rules because he didn't care or because he was mean.

Angrier still, Matthew slammed files into the drawer and glared at the phone as it started to ring.

Rolf KNEW how this was supposed to work, he UNDERSTOOD this. It didn't involve guilt and worry at all, it was just totally clear cut. ROLF was the one screwing this up.

Rolf was the one who suddenly didn't seem to care where he was or what was going on.

Ignoring the phone and crosser still with himself for doing it, Matthew headed into the hallway, on his way to the bathroom where he couldn't hear any more ringing. And gave up halfway down the stairs. The building was deserted at this time of night. Furious, Matthew sat down on the stairs, folded his arms around his clenching stomach and looked at his watch.

The kitchen clock stood at seven pm when he walked into the house. Rolf glanced up from the dining room table where he was working and gave him a Look.

"Why was your cell phone off?"

Matthew shrugged, dropped his coat over the nearest chair and went to the fridge. Rolf's voice promptly deepened.

"Matthew Christopher, come here."

Matthew got the familiar jolt feeling and automatically turned. Then stopped, took a bottle of water out of the fridge and took his time shutting it.

"What? I was working."

"HERE."

That tone you didn't argue with unless you needed a frontal lobotomy. Matthew moved to the designated spot, trying not to look as if he was scuttling. Rolf sat back, surveying him.

"I asked you a question."

Which was? Matthew ransacked his memory. Cell phone. Yes.

"It was charged, I just didn't turn it on."

"Why?"

"I forgot it was off."

"I tried to phone you five separate times. I would have come looking for you an hour ago if Marc hadn't phoned and said you told him you were working late," Rolf said sternly. "Is this what you mean by taking responsibility for making your own schedule?"

Matthew didn't know what to do with his pent up anger as Rolf STILL wasn't getting this. Usually he was incredibly smart about everything, he just couldn't figure out why Rolf couldn't SEE what was wrong and fix it.

"What, is Marc spying on me now??!! Are YOU -"

"THAT is ENOUGH!" Rolf's bark cut through Matthew's shriek like a hot knife through butter. "While we HAVE agreed that you can make your own schedule, that does NOT entitle you to pretend that I don't even exist as far as dinners are concerned. It is common courtesy to tell me when you'll return so I can eat or make any arrangements *I* need to make instead of leaving me hanging without a word! IS THAT CLEAR?"

Matthew tried valiantly to swallow the rush of emotion that Rolf's sharp words and stinging lecture created, but he wasn't able to. He dissolved immediately into tears and dove for Rolf's neck for comfort. Rolf pulled Matthew close and got him situated on his lap, brushing the hair away from his face. He wished again, fervently, that Matthew would just put into words what he was feeling. He held him for several minutes, until the crying slowly quieted, well aware they were dancing this particular tango a little too regularly at the moment without actually getting anywhere.

"Have anything to say for yourself?" He asked gently.

Matthew shook his head no, still not leaving the safety of Rolf's embrace.

"Then you can warm up the plate in the fridge for dinner. When you're
finished you can get ready for bed."

Matthew could only mutter "but the gaaaaaammmmeeeee."

"The game is off limits to you. I don't like being treated in such a manner, and until you can learn that, you can do without the television. Go on," Rolf finished, putting Matthew on his feet. Trying to stifle any more tears, Matthew got the plate out of the fridge and put it in the microwave, feeling his head starting to throb. It had been a long and unpleasant day, and it looked like getting no better. Rolf got up and Matthew leaned back against him, hard, as an arm came around his shoulders.

"Was work all right?"

"It was ok," Matthew managed, noncommittally. As that didn't tally with Marc's version of events, Rolf drew his own conclusions. He kissed what he could reach of Matthew's forehead and let him go.

"You feel a little warm, sport; what's up?"

"Just a headache."

"Take some Tylenol then."

Perversely, now Rolf was showing concern, Matthew found himself in no mood to make it easy for him.

"It's not that bad, I'll be fine."

Rolf mentally sighed and let it go for now. Matthew put the warmed over plate at the table and sat for a while, his head on one hand, poking at the casserole with his fork. He'd eaten very little twenty minutes later when Rolf put two Tylenol and a glass of water down beside him.

"Ok, take those and get yourself to bed if you're not hungry, I'll bring you some milk up in a while."

"I don't need them," Matthew said sharply.

"I can tell by your eyes that you do." Rolf took a seat on the edge of the table and handed the pills over. "Come on."

NOW he was hassling. There was no happy medium here. Irritated and his headache rapidly turning him sick, Matthew filed both pills under his tongue, gulped water and thankfully abandoned the plate to Rolf. On his way upstairs he removed the pills and inserted them down the side of the nearest plant pot. Hugging the thumping headache to himself, he stomped fairly quietly upstairs, got ready for bed and curled up, glad to leave the lights out. Half an hour later Rolf softly opened the door and shut it again behind him at the clear wince Matthew gave on the light.

"No better?"

"It's fine," Matthew managed as he curled up around the pillow. Rolf ran a hand over his forehead. Then got up and Matthew heard the tap run in the bathroom and a cloth wrung out. The bed gave as Rolf sat down beside him and Matthew turned over, keeping his eyes shut as Rolf ran the wet cloth over his face and neck.

"Sit up a moment, take these."

Matthew opened his eyes, saw the two pills in Rolf's hand and looked up at him. Rolf gently pushed the pills into his mouth.

"The plants don't like them."

"If they're telling tales, we're replacing them with plastic," Matthew mumbled, gulping water and lying down again. Rolf leaned over to put the glass down and lay down beside him.

"So what were you doing today?"

"The usual."

"The usual what?"

"Answering stupid questions and making copies of things I'd done fifteen times before," Matthew said before moaning again.

Rolf left the subject alone and gently soothed Matthew's temples until his breathing became slow and even. Obviously talking was not on the agenda tonight. At least tomorrow was Friday. With luck they'd get enough time together over the weekend for Matthew to get out some of what was bothering him and they'd find a solution. Because if they didn't, Rolf was not at all sure how much longer he could keep quiet.

*

"Matty, it's me," Todd said cheerfully, raising his voice over the clatter at Matthew's end of the phone line as half the office staff left for dinner.

"Hi," Matthew said without enthusiasm. "I can't meet you for lunch, I've got a wolf slavering outside Ruby Tuesdays, and I'm late."

"I was ringing to see if you wanted to come to the pictures tonight? You, me and Chris, it's the new Harry Potter? Come on, you'll enjoy it!"

Matthew hesitated. Usually he'd have called Rolf first, in the hope they could work out more personal plans before he agreed to outside plans. But this hadn't been a normal week. Which was entirely Rolf's fault.

"Sure. Where do we meet?"

"I can pick you up?" Todd said.

"No, I'll just drive there. Is it at Cinemark?"

"Yeah, the one at the mall. 5:30, we can grab dinner after, at least you and I because Steve's working late."

Matthew hesitated again. "Okkkaaaay. Pizza? All you can eat?"

"Sounds good. I'll see you at Cinemark."

"Yes. See you then." Matthew hung up the phone and sat back, wondering exactly what he needed to tell Rolf. Then he picked up the phone again and dialed.

"What time will you be back?" Rolf asked when he finished explaining. Matthew picked up a pen, scratching a diagram on the pad in front of him.

"Midnightish probably."

"Okay. Cell phone on please."

Grrr.

"I CARRY it with me, it's THERE-"

"Just leave it on."

"Fine," Matthew snapped back. Rolf's voice crispened, enough to bring his tone down.

"Are you coming home to change?"

"No, I'll go straight there. I'll see you tonight."

"Have a good time."

Matthew hung up the phone. Rolf STILL didn't get it and he was getting thoroughly peeved about it. Rolf wasn't SUPPOSED to be that nice about letting him do practically whatever he wanted without even setting a deadline to be home by. Rolf KNEW midnightish meant any time between midnight and dawn- he knew perfectly well about creative interpretation and usually he guarded against it without giving Matthew an inch- which left Matthew with a pile of responsibility and pressure that made him want to hit something. Rolf didn't even seem to care that they could have had plans together!

He finished up with his work, snarling at his secretary before he realized it. Softening his tone, he headed out the door with her and wished her a goodnight.

Todd, who knew Matthew from long experience, recognised his expression before he was half way across the carpark. Matthew, spoiling for trouble. Not quite pouting, not quite scowling, moving with a restlessness that had got them into trouble numerous times before- Chris glanced over, saw Matthew dodging between cars and rolled his eyes skywards.

"Oh heck."

"We are NOT going in the arcade, whatever he says," Todd said rapidly, looking around at the amusement areas in the leisure centre with a quick eye for trouble, "OR the French bar at the end. Stephen nearly strangled me last time."

"We're only going to see a film and get a pizza and the film starts in twenty minutes anyway," Chris said philosophically. "There isn't any time to go anywhere else- hey Matt."

"Hey." Matthew reached them and dug his hands in his pockets, giving them something like a smile. "When's the show?"

"Five-thirty, we can eat when we're done." Todd opened the door to the cinema building and headed straight for the popcorn counter. "I told Stephen I'd be back by ten, we're driving up to his parents for the weekend tomorrow morning."

"And the film lasts forever I suppose?" Matthew said sourly. Chris grinned at him.

"Three-and-a-half hours."

Matthew rolled his eyes up and demanded the large popcorn from the salesman on the counter. They settled in the middle row of the cinema according to the seats named on their tickets, which didn't please Matthew. He would much have preferred the back. Chris settled beside him and dug a hand without apology into his popcorn.

"What's the grousing about?"

"Bad day?" Todd asked, shoving his coat under the seat. "Client playing up?"

"Rolf playing up?" Chris said without tact. Matthew gave him a sideways glance. Chris snorted.

"I knew it. What is it this time?"

Todd was listening, mildly interested and ready to be sympathetic- this was the one audience Matthew knew he could always rely on to understand and to be understanding without criticism, but things were difficult enough and he had no desire to try to explain. He sank deeper in his seat as the lights dimmed and the trailers began, muttering rather than answering.

"Oh, just the usual."

The film took his mind off things for a while. Matthew settled deeper into his seat and lost himself in the characters and the fantasy without too much difficulty, enjoying the story. Chris began to fidget about half an hour from the end and by the time the credits rolled all three were glad to stand up and stretch, stiff from the long sitting still.

"What time is it?" Chris asked, pulling his coat on and scuffing dropped popcorn out of the way as they headed for the stairs. Todd held his watch up to the dim light to see the readout.

"Nine thirty. I guess we'll have to skip the pizza, I'm sorry."

"You don't need to go, do you Chris?" Matthew said shortly. Todd gave Chris a quick glance. Chris shrugged a little. Todd sent him another look, one that said clearly "you're on your own".

"I told Joe around ten-thirty," Chris admitted. "I didn't know exactly what time the film finished-"

"So lets get the pizza, we won't be THAT late."

Matthew headed out the door towards the pizza hut without a backward look. Chris rolled his eyes skyward and followed.

"A QUICK pizza then."

"Have fun. See you when I see you," Todd said, heading thankfully for his car. Matthew gave him a brief wave and continued on his way. Chris said his goodbyes to Todd and caught him up, quickening his stride to match Matthew's.

"What time are you supposed to be in by?"

"Midnight."

He didn't quite dare come out with the 'ish' part.

Chris' mouth dropped open and he nearly tripped over his own feet.

"Midnight??!! What the ....??!!"

Matthew opened the door to the place, where the music was loud. They paid their money as they walked in, and headed over to fill up their plates. Chris was still trying to figure out what was going on, and was no clearer by the time they found a table far enough away from the kids to be bearable. He waited without eating until Matthew settled at the table.

"Midnight? Is the problem with you and Rolf his drug use?" Chris asked.

Matthew couldn't control the snicker that erupted. "No, he's not on drugs. We...we just decided that I could determine what I did and when."

Chris stared at him in disbelief, then shook his head slowly.

"Oh he is SO on drugs. ROLF?"

"He's reasonable," Matthew said defensively. "And I'm not twenty anymore."

Chris, three years older than Matthew, two years longer in his relationship and with a partner who had a good deal in common with Rolf, gave him a speaking glance. Matthew shrugged, picking onions off his pizza with total absorption.

"It's no big deal."

"Uh huh. This was your idea right?"

"Why?"

Chris snorted. "Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. What time did you get home from work last night?"

"Normal."

"Eight?"

"Seven," Matthew said shortly. Chris stifled a laugh.

"Right."

"It's up to us. Just because Joe and Steve want you two in by dark-"

"And Michael runs around until all hours? When Eric's on late shift that is?" Chris said acidly. "Grow up for heaven's sake, Matthew."

"I know what I can do," Matthew said, stung.

"Or rather Rolf's hoping you'll catch on soon," Chris said derisively. "Did he say anything when you rolled in last night?"

Matthew shrugged without answering. Chris shook his head and carried on eating pizza.

"Maybe it's you he should be medicating."

*

"It's not dark yet," Matthew said when they left the warmth of the restaurant. Chris shook his head, pulling out his car keys.

"You might be immune, Mr. Independence, I'd like to sit down this week."

"It'll only take you ten minutes to get home."

"And I'm going now," Chris said sweetly. "Goodnight."

Matthew shrugged and started walking, heading away from the carpark towards the road. Chris watched him, hesitating. Matthew reached the dark of the roadside and stepped up onto the two foot high barrier, walking slowly along it. Chris shook his head. And locked the car again, jogging after him.

"Where are you going?"

"The river?" Matthew said, glancing back at him. "There's the ice cream parlour down there-"

"No, no WAY, Joe'll kill me," Chris said decisively. "And Rolf'll kill YOU, no matter how PC you may think he's being. Every right wing nut and gay basher in the town hangs out around there- Matthew I am NOT going to get beaten up and neither are you, just because you're pissed at Rolf! If you've got something to say to him, for Pete's sake pull your finger out, go home and SAY it!"

Matthew kept walking. Shaking his head, Chris stopped and pulled out his cell phone.

"MATT. I'm serious, head down there and I'll call Joe. Think of somewhere reasonable to go and hurry up, I'm bloody freezing."

Matthew finally stopped. And turned to face him.

"The arcades?"

Well at least it was safe. And warm. Raising his eyes to heaven, Chris nodded and trailed him up the hill towards the arcade halls. Clearly Matthew was in no fit state to be left alone yet.

*

"Christopher, that had better NOT be arcade games I can hear," Joe's voice said acidly into the cell phone at five to eleven. Chris stepped back, covering his free ear with his hand, not a little relieved to hear his partner's definitely irritated voice.

"I'm running a little late-"

"You're telling me," Joe agreed.

"I should be home -"

"In fifteen minutes, and not a second later," Joe interrupted. "Ten-thirty was the agreement and if you needed it changed you could have called before ten. Fifteen minutes."

"Yes, sir," Chris said as he pushed the end key on his phone. Joe obviously hadn't missed the time, which meant he was going to have some explaining to do - even though it'd do him little good in the long run. He pocketed the phone and turned to Matthew.

"Are you ready to go home now?" Chris asked.

"Are you?" Matthew taunted. "I have until midnight."

Chris was mad at himself for allowing Matthew to push him beyond his limits, and he was getting pissed off at Matthew for being so stubborn.

"I don't know about you, but I LIKE spending time with my partner and I have some clue why I DO come home at the times he sets. And I'd rather NOT spend all that time with him over his lap! You need to lose your stubborn streak. Later," Chris said as he turned on his heels and jogged out of the arcade and down to his car.

Matthew thought about yelling after Chris, but turned his anger towards one of the arcade games. He grabbed one where he'd shoot people and put in the dollar it required to get started, and furiously shot and killed the targets as they appeared on the screen. When the time was up, he fed in the fifty cents it required and continued on that way for five minutes, until he was out of pocket change. He then tossed the gun down and headed out of the arcade, headed slowly to his car. As mad as he was at Chris for leaving him, he knew he'd have done the same thing if Rolf had called. The awful thing was, Rolf WASN'T calling. Rolf didn't seem to care that it was close to midnight, and he was in the middle of a mostly deserted parking lot. The only people he saw were a few stoned individuals, and kids on skateboards that obviously had parents that cared little where they were. Matthew didn't do drugs or drink. He had a home to go to and a partner he THOUGHT cared about him. He just couldn't for the life of him figure out WHY he was in the parking lot with people like that.


Rolf completed a third circuit of the kitchen, oblivious to the cat trailing him in hope of a late snack. It was past eleven pm. Really, he knew, he was stalling. He needed to go to bed, to follow through on his half of the bargain and look casual when Matthew came home. On the other hand, he knew well, Joe and Stephen would have demanded their partners' return by ten-thirty at the latest on a Friday night when they were both tired from work, and Matthew was unlikely to hang around for long on his own.

Theoretically.

Matthew, fed up and angry, was likely to do almost anything. Including proving beyond all reasonable doubt that he should never be trusted out alone after dark.

Rolf was starting to wonder just who was being strangled the most by this long leash. He had to allow Matthew the opportunity to rise to the occasion as he'd asked- and just hope that if he didn't, he remained safe. And that if he was as unhappy as Rolf suspected, he could find a way to say so without resorting to acting out in the hope of being understood, as Rolf was very afraid he might.

Another half-hour, Rolf promised himself. Just another half-hour. Trust. This was about trust. About allowing Matthew to demonstrate trust if it was what he wanted.

He trusted Matthew, all right. He just trusted him to be angry and upset somewhere unsafe, alone, without thinking too hard about the possible consequences.


Maybe Rolf WANTED him to get beaten up. It certainly didn't seem to be worrying him at all.

Matthew gave the gang of teenagers another look and slipped back into the arcades. He was- admittedly - - getting close to wishing he could go home. But if he went home now, then he was going to have to admit to Rolf that this leash was too long. And it was going to make him look as though he was feeling ignored and uncertain. Matthew flushed at the thought, too proud to even consider that. He pulled out his last ten dollars and exchanged it for quarters and continued playing in the arcade, only leaving when they closed at midnight.

He headed back down to the car, quickly slipping in and locking the doors. Pulling out the phone, he looked at the time. It read 12:05. Rolf obviously wasn't worried, or he'd have called at midnight on the dot. He was probably asleep, not even knowing if he was home or not. Matthew pressed the off button and threw it in the back seat, frustrated and bitter. There was no way he just going tamely home as if everything was fine. Matthew thought for several moments, not really sure what to do, then turned the engine over and deliberately headed for the river.

*

"Joe?" Rolf moved the curtain aside to see the drive, carrying the cordless phone with him. "Is Chris home?"

"Yes, about ten minutes ago," Joe said calmly. "Are you a brat short?"

"He's late and he hasn't called, I'm starting to get worried."

"Chris said they were in the arcade, playing the machines. He was over an hour late himself, he stayed with Matthew- apparently Matthew said he didn't need to be home until midnight which I thought sounded odd."

“It's a long story," Rolf said grimly. "Where was Matthew when he left?"

There was the quiet hum of voices in the background, then Joe said soberly, "I'm sorry, he said Matthew was still in the carpark when he left."

"What was he planning to do?"

"Chris thinks go back to the arcades- which close at midnight don't they, Chris? Did he say anything about going home?"

There was silence for a moment, then Chris's voice, soft and hesitant. Joe's voice instantly gravened in response.

"Chris said he dissuaded him once from going down to the river after ice cream- look, I'm nearer, want me to go and do a drive past and see if I can see him?"

"No, it's ok." Rolf picked up the car keys and grabbed his jacket, hanging up the phone as he left.

If Matthew was at the river, then he was communicating loud and clear in a way he knew full well would be understood. And if he was sitting in the car park of the cinema, miserable and not knowing how to explain himself, then Rolf had no intention of leaving him there any longer. Either way, this charade was going to end tonight.


Matthew was parked at the far end of the lot at the river bank. Again, there were the dregs of society, drinking beer, smoking more than cigarettes, and running off behind the trees to shoot God knew what into their veins. Matthew kept the doors locked, a little more afraid now that he was alone. He kept looking in his rearview mirror, trying to see if Rolf was back there somewhere, looking for him, not sure whether he dreaded seeing the car or wanted it. He kept picking up the phone and debating calling in, giving Rolf whatever excuse he could think of for being late, just to see if Rolf was even remotely interested in what was going on.

Each time though, he stopped short of dialing. If Rolf really wasn't worried, then he was at home in bed. Maybe even soundly asleep. And while that thought hurt badly, Matthew didn't like the thought of disturbing him just to more or less say "Hi, Rolf, wake up. I'm feeling neglected just because you listened to what I said and you gave me what I asked for."

How self centred was that? How unreasonable was that?

He was so busy staring at the phone that the knock on the window almost made him wet his pants. Eric looked very far from amused. In fact, underneath the peak of his cap, he looked livid. Matthew swallowed hard, heart still pounding from the shock, and responded automatically to the jerk of Eric's thumb, getting out of the truck. Eric, uniformed and with the police cruiser a few yards away down the road, gave him a glare that made Matthew wish he was anywhere at all but here.

"Matthew Christopher, WHAT are you doing here? Do you have any idea what the time is?"

"It's a little after midnight-" Matthew began, looking at his feet. He had no idea if Rolf had discussed this with any of the others- knowing Rolf it was unlikely. Which meant Eric was likely to think he was insane if he tried explaining. Eric put a finger under his chin.

"Look at me when I'm talking to you, young man. Is Rolf away?"

Matthew shook his head, too miserable to be more specific. Eric's eyes sharpened.

"Then what on earth are you doing out here? Does Rolf know where you are?"

Matthew went redder still. Eric shook his head and pulled out his cell phone, dialling. Matthew's heart started to thump still harder. Eric let the phone ring for several minutes, then frowned and redialed.

"I would imagine he's out looking for you; there's no reply on your home line."

The idea of Rolf being- upset? Angry? - enough to come looking, made Matthew's heart simultaneously leap and tighten as he realised how much trouble he COULD be in, and would have been in without question a few days ago, before Matthew opened his mouth and muddled up what had been a perfectly clear and satisfactory arrangement. Eric shook his head and shut the cell phone.

"Engaged. Right, young man, I'm on duty and I can't mess around. Give me your keys and get in the squad car, I'm taking you home."

"I can drive perfectly-" Matthew managed. And squeaked, shocked and seriously embarrassed as Eric turned him without regard for observers, his patrol partner included, and swatted him sharply towards the police car.

"IN. I am not leaving you roaming around at this hour and in this place without having a few words with Rolf."

Matthew opened the back door and slid into the seat, thankful that the interior light went out immediately upon closing the door. He sat on his hands, not looking near the front seat and the second patrolman. He watched as Eric went over to his car and collected his phone and keys, and locked it up. He looked away only when a second set of headlights illuminated the scene. When he saw it was Joe getting out of the car, he slid further down in his seat, real horror starting to set in.

"Hey, Eric, is that Matthew's truck?" Joe asked as he walked up towards Eric. "Have you seen him?"

Eric shook his hand. "He's in the back of the car there. Any idea why he would be out here at this time? Or where Rolf is?"

"Rolf called about fifteen minutes ago, looking for him. I suggested coming here but he said he'd take care of it. I couldn't resist driving by though, since it'll take him a while to get here. Did NOT want to think of Matthew around here on his own."

"You think Rolf's on his way?" Eric asked as he shut the door of Matthew's truck.

"Yes, I'm sure of it. Why he wasn't here before now is beyond me,"

"Me too," Eric said blankly. "But if he's coming over he can explain."

"He sounded distinctly panicky when he called," Joe said dryly. "You mind if I have a word with our young friend here?" he added, nodding his head in the direction of the car.

"Have at it," Eric said.

Matthew looked away the instant that Joe turned towards him, and wished for a bolt of lightening. When the door was opened, he had no choice but to look towards him, still trying to avert his eyes from the front officer.

"I'd like a word with you, please," Joe said firmly, holding the door. Matthew scrambled out of the car, moving to the back of it in a hurry. Joe followed him, leaning on the back of the car in a way that reminded Matthew that Joe was a good half-foot taller than him.

"I know that Rolf has told you not to come down here," Joe said without preamble. "Because we've all told you. All of you. Eric spends enough time picking up kids down here and rescuing others that you KNOW damn well this is an unsafe place to be. I know too that Chris tried once this evening reminding you of that. Didn't he?"

Matthew cleared his throat in an attempt to find his voice. "I-"

"And I WOULD like to know why you felt it necessary to try bringing Chris down here with you?" Joe went on coolly. "I'm very glad he had the sense to say no, and I'm guessing he made himself late and got into trouble over it because he didn't want to leave you to get yourself in to danger here. Is that true?"

Matthew felt himself flushing again in the darkness. Eric shut the squad car door and came over to join them, standing with his arms folded on Matthew's other side. Matthew risked a brief glance at him, another at Joe and ducked his head quick, feeling more than safe now but also very, very much in disgrace. Joe's voice pushed on relentlessly.

"Matthew, I asked you a question. And look at me please."

Matthew dragged his eyes up with an effort. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to get Chris into trouble-"

"Then what exactly DID you mean?" Joe said sternly. "Rolf rang me a while ago, worried sick about where you were and what you were doing. It seems to me, young man, if he's trusted you to look after yourself at this time of night, then you're doing an excellent job of letting him down, not to mention yourself. You clearly need much stronger guidelines on what you may and may not do, and exactly where you can be and when. And unless I'm happy you're within those boundaries, you may NOT go out with Chris again without myself, Rolf, Eric or Steve being present."

That hurt. Matthew swallowed hard, near to tears.

"I'm NOT incapable! I wouldn't get Chris into trouble, I wouldn't want him hurt!"

"I know very well you're not incapable," Joe said matter-of-factly. "If I wanted financial advice there's no one I'd rather to go to, but I also know what you're like out of work and in mid-spin. And this looks to me a LOT like mid-spin."

That sounded too practical for Matthew to immediately find an answer to, and oddly enough it was reassuring. He risked a glance at Eric as the last bubble of self justification rose, well aware of how childish it sounded.

"MIKE doesn't go home until midnight-"

"If I ever caught Mike down here, or messing around like this without telling me where he was and what he was doing," Eric said bluntly, "He'd be grounded into infinity, and you know it as well as I do. I sincerely hope Rolf grounds you the same way, I do NOT want to be picking you out of the river or taking Rolf to identify your body. For pity's sake, Matthew, you couldn't have been much less responsible tonight if you'd tried."

That was it. Matthew ducked his head to hide the tears. Joe glared at him for a moment, then unfolded himself from the roof of the car, put an arm around his shoulders and pulled him close.

Eric straightened up at the flash of headlights from the other end of the street and waved. Matthew glanced up from the shelter of Joe's shoulder and his stomach lurched at the sight of the car. It parked behind the cruiser, Rolf got out and his stride quickened into a jog at the sight of Joe's arm around his partner. Joe shook his head reassuringly, handing Matthew from his arms into Rolf's as Rolf reached them and grabbed for him, yanking him close.

Once in Rolf's arms, Matthew couldn't control the rush of emotion that he'd been trying to hold back for days. The tears quickened and the sobs followed soon after. Rolf said a few words to Eric and Joe over his head, then he felt himself being ushered towards Rolf's car. He sat down in the passenger seat and immediately scooted towards Rolf when he got in the driver's seat. Rolf held Matthew for a few minutes, then disentangled himself and drove home. Once there, he walked Matthew into the house and straight upstairs as it was now getting close to one am.

Matthew was still crying, feeling as if the world was pissed off at him. Rolf set down on the edge of the bed with Matthew, holding him close and brushing the hair off Matthew's forehead. Certainly unhurt, certainly scared, and certainly at this point very confused as well as miserable. This hadn't been supposed to turn into such a mess.

"Shhhhh, little one. All this crying isn't going to help," he said gently, rocking him. "Shhhh, come on. It's okay, you're home now and we're going to go to bed and to sleep, that's all we're going to do tonight."

Matthew had no answer but more tears.

Rolf held on until the tears finally slowed down. When Matthew had settled some, he helped him to undress and held the covers back for Matthew to slide into bed. He then headed into the bathroom and filled a glass of water and took two Tylenol from the drawer, bringing them into Matthew to take. Matthew relaxed a little against Rolf, feeling safe in his arms. He tried to settle down, but sleep was slow in coming. His mind kept going back over what Joe and Eric had said to him, and what he thought Rolf was going to say in the morning. Finally his eyes closed against his will and he slept. Rolf waited until he was sure Matthew was soundly asleep before he relaxed himself, putting away their problems with an effort of will. They needed rest and clear heads: tomorrow they'd sort this out. Properly. And put an end to the whole muddle.


The Tylenol and a day of stress meant Matthew slept soundly for the next four hours, but once that exhaustion wore off, he fidgeted through several restless and unpleasant dreams before he finally woke up. Then he lay, staring into the dim light of very early morning, his stomach filled with acid and his head filled with a number of worries and anxieties he didn't want to think about. And he couldn't settle back to sleep either. Rolf was still oblivious on the other side of the bed, worn out himself from a long evening of worrying. He would have woken at a word or a touch and not resented it, Matthew knew, and yet when he slid out of bed a few moments later it was with every care not to disturb him. He picked up his clothes and moved silently out of the bedroom, waiting until he reached the kitchen downstairs before he dressed. A sleeping cat opened both eyes, lifted its head and blinked at him as he unlocked the back door, slipped quietly outside and closed it again behind him.

His truck was on the drive, parked behind Rolf's car. Possibly Eric's patrol partner had driven it back last night: Matthew knew he'd been in no state to notice much. Standing under Joe and Eric's disapproval had taken up most of his attention.

And Rolf-

Matthew didn't want to think about Rolf.

He'd clearly known what time Chris and Todd would be home, and despite their agreement, had been worrying. Had been thinking about him. And yet he hadn't picked up the phone. "Come home", that was all he'd needed to say and yet he hadn't said it. Digging his hands into his pockets, Matthew started to walk, head down, not really sure where it was he was going.

The dim light began to pick up quickly. By the time he reached the park the early mist had lifted and while it was still grey, the park was fully visible. Heavily dewed and very still. Matthew scuffed over the grass, head still down. From what he could make out from last night, no one had called Rolf. Joe said Rolf had called HIM in anxiety- Matthew thought it over and assumed that had Eric and Joe not converged on him, Rolf would have found the truck.

And then done what?

Just a week ago Matthew would have been absolutely clear on what to expect. Sudden death. Now-

The kids playground was silent and deserted. Matthew stood for a while, miserable and feeling vaguely sick with tension, then wandered over to the huge climbing frame. It had been a few years- going on ten- since he'd last been here. The steel frame was freezing cold and very wet when he climbed it. When he reached the top, he made his way slowly towards the centre and settled, sitting on the topmost bars where he could see out over most of the parkland. And stayed there, wrapping his arms tightly around his knees.


Rolf turned over awhile later, roused by the changing light outside- and roused more fully as an arm stretched out towards his left didn't encounter a sleeping brat. He leaned up on one elbow, looking towards the bathroom. It was dark, and with no sign of Matthew who hated the dark and never left the lights off. And Matthew's side of the bed was cold. Rolf got out of bed, stifling a wave of irritation and concern.

Obviously he'd woken, probably in a panic about the trouble he was in, and slipped away to comfort himself with the TV or more likely anything sweet he could find in the kitchen. The kitchen was deserted. The entire house was still. Rolf checked the study with a growing sense of alarm, then looked out of the hall window. Matthew's truck was still there. And there was no fair haired brat in it. Rolf headed back upstairs, grabbed the first clothes that came to hand and picked a jacket up from the kitchen as he went out into the garden. The back door was unlocked. And beyond that, clear scuff marks through the wet grass clearly indicated the route of someone walking through and towards the gate. Swearing quietly, Rolf paused long enough to check again in the kitchen. Not one of Matthew's coats or jackets was gone. He picked up the nearest jacket, locked the back door behind him, and followed the footsteps out into the garden and through the back gate.

From here, Matthew would have had several options.

He wouldn't go to any of their friends- they would have sent him home in short order. Nor would he head into town where the shops were closed and the traffic he hated would be busy. No, knowing Matthew and his taste for quiet and solitude when upset, Rolf had a fair idea of where he'd headed. Breaking into a steady jog, he crossed the street and went north, further out into the town suburbs.


It was freezing. Matthew was cold beyond the point of discomfort now, his fingers had numbed and his feet were numbing. And he'd numbed successfully inside too. An occasional walker with a dog moved by in the distance as the light grew stronger, but paid no attention to him. Matthew watched them go by without interest. Time didn't seem to matter very much, he had no idea how long he had been sitting there or what he intended to do next. He didn't really even know why he was staying there, damp and chilled, in the middle of nowhere. Except there was no motivation to move or to be anywhere else. The first streaks of sun were starting to penentrate the clouds when he saw another figure turn into the park, heading down the steep grass slopes with a long and very steady stride. He recognised the movement instantly with a shock of adrenaline.

Rolf.

Moving fast, looking extremely fed up, and heading straight for him. Matthew willed himself to get down, fast- go and meet him and do something to make this less blatant. His body refused to obey him. Wrapping his arms tighter around his knees, Matthew sat where he was. Rolf had no difficulty in locating him: Matthew didn't even see him look around. The stride took him straight over the open grassland and down into the playground where he halted at the foot of the climbing frame. Matthew, reading his face with the fast and expert eye of a lover, saw exasperation and utter determination: the absolute surity he was very used to seeing there.

"Matthew, get down, NOW."

It was stupid. It was more or less suicidal. But Matthew didn't move.

Rolf fixed him with a stare that made his stomach tighten.

"Do NOT make me repeat myself, young man; I'm waiting."

Silence. Matthew stared back at him, wondering why on earth he wasn't responding but still not able to move. Rolf looked back, waiting. Then hung the spare jacket over the nearest bar and swung himself up the heavy duty frame. It took him seconds, he covered the ground easily and Matthew unfroze as a strong hand caught his arm, pulled him up and locked on to his belt, pulling and steadying as he brought Matthew to his feet. Twelve feet above ground wasn't an intelligent place to argue. Matthew gripped the bar as best he could with numbed fingers and moved where Rolf steered him, following him down until Rolf reached ground, hooked an arm around his waist and lifted him the rest of the way to the grass. And then swatted him, sharply enough to break through the effects of sitting on cold steel for an hour.

"JACKET. HOME. MOVE."

Matthew knew when Rolf was down to one word sentences, he'd better do as he was asked. He thankfully grabbed the jacket and pulled it on, immediately putting his hands in the pockets. He started back towards the road, following the footsteps that were barely visible from Rolf's trip. The sun was quickly drying the dew and the birds were eagerly squawking at the rising sun as the day was getting started in earnest.

He walked pretty quick, knowing Rolf was slowing his stride some as it was. The closer he got to home, the tighter and more uncomfortable his stomach was, so by the time they reached the door he was shaking as much from the chill as he was nerves. Rolf didn't miss the shaking and immediately upon entering the house removed Matthew's jacket.

"Upstairs, into a hot shower. Now, please."

Matthew turned to get a hug, got a swat instead and headed upstairs. Quickly undressing, he turned on the taps until the steam started to rise and slid under the spray, relishing the warmth. His fingers and toes lost the ache and he drained the hot water tank before he stepped out. He dried off slowly, wishing he didn't have to leave the warmth of the bathroom to find warmer clothes. He wrapped the towel around his waist and opened the door.

"Come here, please," Rolf said from the edge of the bed.

Matthew froze in his tracks, heart stopping. The bed was neatly made, Rolf was sitting with his elbows on his knees and the paddle was laid on the quilt beside him. Rolf held out a hand, voice quiet and very firm.

"Matthew. Let's not draw this out any more, hmm?"

Swallowing hard, Matthew walked the few steps to him and let Rolf take hold of his hand, drawing him around to his right side.

"What have I told you about the river?"

"Not to go there," Matthew said softly, looking at the floor.

"I'm up here," Rolf said crisply. Matthew snapped his head up in a hurry.

"I'm sorry."

"Categorically that you were NOT to go there. Ever. What part of that didn't you understand?"

Matthew opened his mouth. Rolf shook his head.

"No. There are no possible excuses you can make, Matthew. However you felt, whatever happened, whatever leeway I may have given you, you knew perfectly well you were completely out of line. Going there, ESPECIALLY after dark, is totally unacceptable and I will NOT allow it."

Matthew jumped at the bark, feeling his eyes start to sting. Rolf pulled him forward over his lap, and the towel disappeared in one firm yank.

"Trying to persuade Chris there is still LESS acceptable. It is dangerous, you KNOW it is dangerous; if you ever go there again you will get a spanking that will make this one pale into insignificance, and you'll lose your car keys until you prove to me I can trust you out of my sight, is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," Matthew nearly squeaked. As much as he thought he wanted Rolf in control, being in this vulnerable position, with the paddle near at hand, was NOT making him feel any better.

"And you KNOW how I feel about you disappearing without a note, particularly when you know you're in trouble. For that you are grounded, and it better not happen again if you like the outdoors, understood?"

"Yes, sir," Matthew said, the only appropriate response in this situation. He felt Rolf move and the hand tighten on his waist. He immediately tried to look back to see what was going on but didn't quite make it before the first swat of the paddle landed square across the center of his cheeks. He gulped hard, swinging around to the front, and tried to swallow his tears. The paddle landed again far too soon to deal with. And it fell again, and again. Within moments, Matthew was trying very hard to plead, as well as crawl, off of Rolf's lap. He used the paddle far too effectively, and it was always a shock to him just how much it hurt.

Rolf didn't waste any more time talking, under no illusions that Matthew was able to hear him now. He just took his time administering a thorough paddling, until Matthew surrendered all attempts at struggling or negotiation and went limp over his lap, sobbing his heart out, no thoughts of protest or justification left.

Rolf landed another three or four hard swats on the now scarlet bare bottom over his knee and laid the paddle down beside him, putting both hands on Matthew's back and massaging gently, giving him a few moments to regain his breath and realise the ordeal was over. It took a while. When finally he began to calm a little, Rolf lifted and turned him, moving them both back onto the bed and drawing Matthew into his arms. Matthew clung to him, crying hard. Rolf leaned against the pillows, held him and stroked his head and back, letting him take his time.

"I'm sorry," Matthew managed, a long time later, trying to see his face. Rolf didn't move, still soothing his hair.

"I know. It's over now, we've sorted it out."

"Have we?" Matthew asked disconsolately. Rolf kissed his hair, firmly enough to leave him in no doubt whatsoever.

"The river incident and sneaking off this morning, yes, we have."

Matthew looked at him, well aware from his words and tone that there was a very large three letter word at the end of that sentence left unsaid. But.

But we have more to deal with.

But we have another issue to discuss.

But you have something to say to me now.

"Our arrangement the last few days is another matter," Rolf said mildly. "That I think we do need to talk about. When I said you could organise your own schedule, it was because you felt I was babying you and that I had a stronger hand on you than you wanted."

Matthew ducked his head against Rolf's side, no longer able to reach for the eye contact. Rolf being gentle about the issue was exactly what he didn't want. The last few days were all about Rolf not asserting himself when Matthew wanted him to, allowing him to take the easy way out.

Rolf peeled him gently away. "No, this is something we're going to have to talk about, because it's clear to me it's not working. Is it?"

Matthew shook his head no, still trying to lie back down. Rolf's hands wouldn't let him, and he sat up, wincing as he settled himself on the bed.

Rolf waited. And waited. Matthew glanced at him once or twice, nerves starting to fray badly.

"Matthew. We have a partnership, not a dictatorship. We need to resolve the underlying issue here, and that means you're going to have to talk to me."

Matthew stared at the floor, feeling his ears start to burn. Say what? Explain what? That he wasn't able to take care of himself or be responsible without the kind of orders he'd claimed he resented in the first place? Explain he'd spent the last week feeling neglected and ignored because he'd been given exactly what he'd asked for? Rolf put a hand on his knee, shaking it gently.

"Matthew. What were you thinking when you went down to the river last night, hmm? What was in your head?"

Matthew shrugged his shoulders, his face burning.

Rolf sharpened his voice, enough to crack through the wall Matthew was trying to build.

"Look at me."

Matthew raised his eyes up immediately, tears threatening.

"What was in your head?"

"I thought you were asleep," Matthew choked out, stung into saying what was at the top of his mind.

"And if I was?" Rolf asked gently, knowing the wall should come tumbling down quickly.

"That meant you weren't worried about me!" Matthew said quickly.

"Matthew, you were out past midnight with no set time to be home and I knew the other two would go around half past ten, of course I was worried about you."

"But you didn't call!"

"You said you wanted the freedom to organise your own time, and I agreed to it."

Rolf waited, watching Matthew to see how he reacted to that.

Matthew shrugged, upset to the point of no longer knowing if he was closer to tears or losing his temper. "You didn't have to listen! You never HAVE to listen- you usually know-"

"I usually know when not to listen to you?" Rolf said gently.

Matthew angrily knocked tears out of his eyes, not looking at him. "I don't mean you don't ever listen to me- you KNOW what I mean!"

"Yes, I do," Rolf said gently, "But I thought you had a right to ask for more freedom and for us to try it."

"But you KNEW this would happen! You KNEW-"

"I did NOT know, or I wouldn't have suggested we change things. I'm not trying to make your life harder, I'm trying to make it better," Rolf said, cutting across Matthew's steam.

Matthew glared at him. Rolf shook his head, keeping eye contact.

"Sweetheart, I did NOT set this up to make you admit you were wrong, that was NOT why I agreed to it."

"It felt like you didn't care what happened." Matthew said miserably. "You knew what I'd do, you knew I'd take advantage and you just expected me not to do it. I can't do that! It just leaves everything to me!"

"Would you have been happy if I told you that?"

Matthew started to sputter, then stopped. The silence grew long as he pondered that thought.

"It works for Michael," he said eventually. "I'm not like Chris, I'm NOT a nervous wreck."

"I agree, you're more like Michael than you are Chris, but you're still not Michael. If you were Michael, you'd like Eric over me. If you were Michael, you'd be building computers, not doing accounting. Your needs and desires are what make you, you, as much as your looks, your DNA, make you the person you are."

Matthew pulled a face on that. Rolf got hold of his hand, stopping him pulling away.

"Do you look down on, or think less of Chris for being who he is?"

Matthew went to give the reflexive answer and then hesitated. Chris's temperament could get on his nerves all right- but the ways in which he and Joe managed it never annoyed him in the slightest or even made him look twice. The same as with Todd and Stephen- or Eric and Mike on occasions- he saw it automatically as proof of love and understanding, mutual understanding, rather than any sign of immaturity on Chris's part.

Which meant that one of the reasons he thought he wanted the longer leash - to show Michael he wasn't a baby - was now sounding completely ridiculous to him. And to be honest, he'd known it all along. Rolf did anything BUT baby him.

Rolf watched Matthew's face as he worked through the problems and saw the first few flickers of something very like guilt take over the confusion.

"What?" he said mildly. Matthew shrugged, looking distinctly sheepish.

"I was only mad about Mike going to that concert when you wouldn't let me go. I WANTED to go."

Rolf cocked an eyebrow at his young lover. "So you're saying that all of this was a very long and very loud strop?"

Matthew flushed absolutely scarlet and looked at the floor again.

"I really DID want to go. And you wouldn't let me."

Rolf pulled Matthew's eyes up to his, and LOOKED hard. He waited a good, long while for that look to sink in. When he didn't think Matthew could look any redder, or feel any more shame, he spoke. "If you EVER throw a strop like that again because you heard the word no, sitting will become a long forgotten past-time for you. Am I perfectly clear?"

"Yes, sir," Matthew said, as near to tears as he'd been through any of the conversation. Rolf finally let go of his chin and Matthew immediately buried himself against Rolf, knowing this horrible day, week, event, was over.

"You don't get to go ANYWHERE I don't know about or without my permission, and without a fixed curfew," Rolf told him. "And if you don't choose to stick by that curfew then you don't have to go out at all; I have no problem with grounding you until you're forty if necessary."

"It's not," Matthew promised, "Really."

"And I don't ever want to hear about Michael, or Chris, or Todd or anyone else in conjunction with that. If you have ANY doubts about what you may or may not do, you come and ask me. Mine is the only opinion you need to do ANY worrying about, is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," Matthew said, snuggling back down into Rolf's shoulder.

"And that's exactly what you wanted me to say the first time, isn't it?" Rolf said into his hair.

"How did you guess?" Matthew said tremulously.

"Because I know you," Rolf said wryly. "Now suppose you get yourself dressed and we have breakfast, hmmn?"

Matthew untangled himself slowly, rubbing the last of the tears from his face.

"Pancakes," Rolf said, getting up. "In ten minutes. Downstairs. Yes?"

"Yes." Matthew reached for his clothes, moving slowly and a little stiffly. Rolf was at the door when he heard the soft but extremely sincere "Thanks."


The day passed quickly, Rolf keeping him busy with odds and ends that had needed doing for a while. Matthew grimaced a lot during dinner, but didn't complain. When the clock struck nine, Rolf put Matthew to bed, again without complaint.

When Rolf slid in an hour later, Matthew curled up to him and tickled his chest. After several minutes of playful petting, Rolf grabbed Matthew's hand.

"What are you doing?" Rolf asked lovingly.

"Starting to be even happier that I'm not Mike," Matthew said with a wicked grin.

~The End~

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2010

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