Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Let it Snow








Title: Let it Snow
Authors: Rolf and Ranger
Characters: The Matthew/Rolf Universe
Warnings: Stay off the creek and don't play with fire, and Eight is Enough should be Eight is TOO MUCH

Author's Note: This is a tiny bit of the Christmas in July we're trying to set up on our website. The group of stories all were born in the snows of the winter and it's only now that it's clearing enough to finish and post them.


The weather outside is frightful 
But the fire is so delightful 
and since we've no place to go, 
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.  


The snow had cleared enough from the roads that despite Stephen having insisted on driving, it was a fairly easy journey to Eric's house. The Christmas lights were on outside, surrounding the porch - Michael and Eric prided themselves on a well decorated house and living out on the very edge of the town they weren't bound by the regulations of the inner town neighborhoods. And the drive was dug, evidence that Michael had been hard at work that day.

Stephen put the car behind Michael's, noting that Eric's cruiser was parked on the pavement side where it would not be blocked in. Clearly, despite it being a holiday, Eric was ready for a call back to duty if the New Year's celebrations in town got out of control tonight. Todd fished both bottles of wine out of the back of the car and got out, waving at Joe's car which was turning into the end of the street. Eric opened the front door and Stephen pushed Todd gently ahead of him, shivering in the evening wind.

"Come on, it's too cold to stand around."

"I only wanted to wait for Chris." Todd handed the wine to Eric and returned his hug, hit by the rush of warmth and light from the house.

"Go inside and wait, it's freezing tonight." Eric recommended. "Michael's in the kitchen. Hey Steve."

"Hi, happy New Year!" Stephen edged around Eric's bulk to let him push the door to, pulling off his coat. And noticing the few flakes on his shoulders. "Looks like more snow's due."

"Another inch or two apparently, nothing serious." Eric said cheerfully. "I think we did the right thing agreeing to watch the game here though, the arena wouldn't be easy to reach tonight, never mind how packed it would be."

"The roads in the town looked crazy." Stephen agreed. "I went in earlier to open up, it's packed with people out for the sales."

"And heading to the main square for the ball to drop tonight. This is the first New Year's Eve I haven't worked in years." Eric opened the door again as Joe and Chris came down the drive, Chris keeping firm hold of Joe's arm and walking gingerly over the ice. "Hi there. Were the roads okay?"

"Hi, Eric," Joe said, shaking hands. "The roads were fine except for our neighborhood. That's always the last scraped though, and as it's still coming down, it'll be a while before it gets done. LOVE the four wheel drive."

"Hi sweetheart," Eric said, hugging Chris as he walked in behind Joe. "How are you?"

"Cold," Chris said, his teeth chattering. He quickly handed his coat over and went straight to the fireplace, sitting down with his back to it to warm up.

Michael came out of the kitchen with a tray of hors d'ourvres, Todd trailing behind him and munching on one already.

"Hey Chris. You found the warm spot I see. Want a snack?"

"Need to ask?" Chris said, laughing and taking several, along with a napkin. "Need to get a few eaten before 'the mouth' arrives and inhales it."

"Oh, he won't like these. They've got onions," Michael said, laughing.

"He won't LIKE them, but he'll pick the hell out of them trying to get to the good stuff," Todd said, settling down next to Chris.

Eric returned from the bedroom, having dropped off all the winter wear with the help of Joe.

"Chris, boots by the door please," Joseph said, nearly tripping over his partner's shoes.

Chris sighed, but got up to get his shoes out of the way. Michael quickly dropped into his place by the fire. Chris then set on the floor at Joe's feet, resting against the sofa. Joe dropped a hand on his head, brushing the last few melting flakes of snow from his hair.

"Warmer?"

"Mmn." Chris accepted another snack from Michael's plate and passed one back to his partner. "Were there any accidents in town?"

"We weren't called out to any." Eric had a last glance out the window and let the curtain drop, coming to settle beside Michael and nudge him over to share the hearthrug. "The snow ploughs get out so early that the roads never really have the chance to ice over. And it's always quiet after Christmas. How did the Christmas party go at the bar Steve?"

"Good, the biggest turn out yet." Stephen said cheerfully. "And all regulars, which was nice. It felt like a family affair."

"Both our parents came which helped." Todd added, grinning. "Which was wonderful. My mom hit on every man in the room under sixty, and Steve's Dad tried everything he could to escape into the kitchen and join in the cooking."

"He doesn't do social well." Stephen admitted. "He did enjoy himself though."

Todd tipped his head back to smile at him. "He just loves cooking like you do. In a crisis, when bored, when stressed, go cook."

Joe cast a slightly anxious glance down at Chris, but went on absently teasing the hair at the nape of his neck, curling over his collar. Chris was watching the fire and didn't react. This had been their first Christmas totally alone, and at first Chris had shown every sign of wanting to downplay the whole idea of Christmas as much as possible. Eric caught his eye and leaned over to take another snack from Michael's plate.

"Who'd like a drink? I've got non alcohol beer for the drivers, I'm guessing I can identify them- Todd I know you like vodka and tonic- Chris, wine?"

"Please." Chris glanced up and more or less managed a smile. Michael got up to help, and saw the flash of headlights turning into their drive.

"That looks like Matthew and Rolf."

Eric brought the bottle he was uncorking into the living room, watching through the door with his partner until the headlights went out, then put the bottle down and followed him to the door, looking out into the somewhat snowy darkness. Michael shivered and folded his arms against the sharp wind, watching Rolf follow Matthew down the driveway.

Matthew hit a slippery spot and landed squarely on his backside. He shrugged off Rolf's help and scrambled to his feet, grabbing enough snow for a snowball and zipping it straight at Michael who was laughing in the doorway. The snowball hit the doorframe and half of it sprayed inside, catching Michael and Eric across the legs.

"Matthew!" Rolf admonished as soon he hit the porch.

Michael had bent down to pick up a few of the leftovers and was set to snap it back at Matthew when Eric took his hand. "On the porch." Michael dropped it and backed into the house.

"How's the tailbone?" Eric asked Matthew as he brushed past him.

"JUST fine, thanks," Matthew retorted, shrugging off his coat.

"Happy New Year," Rolf said, entering the house. "Matthew, boots off here, they're full of snow."

"Happy New Year!" several answered in reply.

"Nice entrance," Chris said as he sat back down in front of the vacated fireplace.

Matthew stuck out his tongue as he stepped out of his boots.

"Want a drink?" Michael asked Matthew. "I've got Vodka."

"Kahlua?"

"Uhm.....of course," Michael finished, laughing. Come on."

Matthew followed Michael in to supervise his drink, snagging some chips from the counter. Rolf snagged him a second later, fully intending to supervise Matthew supervising his drink.

"Only ONE form of alcohol makes it into that glass, none of your peculiar cocktails you two."

"Pure Kahlua." Michael promised, pouring both drinks. "What'll you have?"

"Water at the moment please." Rolf watched Matthew pick up the drink and caught the quiet grimace his partner shot him.

"You are TOO good to be true."

"I'm just thirsty." Rolf ran a discreet hand down his back, rubbing to find any bruises left by the fall. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"You are NOT checking for bruises until we get home." Matthew snatched a quick kiss and escaped into the living room. "It's fine."

Eric had put the tv on in the living room and the early game preliminaries were starting with the sound on low as Chris and Stephen were animatedly discussing the town's local team. Rolf took the chair across from Joe and Matthew joined Chris in front of the fire, making only one attempt at sitting upright before wincing and sprawling full length on his stomach.

The discussion about teams grew steadily more animated over the next half hour, interrupted briefly as the action started on tv. Once it started, everyone was mostly quiet unless a call looked particularly bad. Then there'd be a LOT of loud discussion until the next play started.

When halftime was called, everyone used that time to get up and use the restroom and refill their drinks or plates. Matthew moved over in front of Rolf, having gotten too hot in front of the fire. He pulled  Rolf's hand over to his shoulder when Rolf didn't do it fast enough and settled in.

"Is that the wind?" Chris asked when the flames in the fireplace went dim for a moment.

Michael got up and looked outside. "Wow, it really IS getting windy!"

Eric got up as well and looked out, Matthew hot on his heels.

"You're not kidding," Eric said, trying to judge what the roads looked like. He couldn't tell if there was more snow falling or if it was just getting blown around by the wind.

Matthew looked out, not able to tell the difference either. Since it wasn't patently obvious that it was snowing a lot, he went back and settled again at Rolf's knees, enjoying his partner's touch. Eric stood by the window a moment longer, trying to make out the snow fall. Joe looked round and caught his eye lifting an eyebrow. Eric shook his head slightly and let the curtain fall, coming back to the group and pulling Michael with him. Michael dropped his voice, knowing his partner's professional expression somewhat better than the others.

"Are you worried about the roads?"

"Not yet. We'll keep an eye on it, it's not like they aren't thoroughly salted anyway."

"We could go and have a look out of the back?"

"I don't think we need to." Eric took a seat on the floor and pulled Michael off balance, down beside him. "It's only what's on the ground blowing about."

Michael leaned against him, turning over to rest his chin on Eric's knee, but kept an eye on the window, well aware that Eric was doing the same. Half an hour later while Rolf was refereeing a passionate debate between Chris, Stephen and Matthew on the subject of the match referee, Joe followed Michael into the kitchen and shivered at the blast of icy air from the open backdoor.

"Mike you'll freeze, what are you doing?"

"I can't see the roads from here." Michael pulled the door to behind him, padding further out onto the porch. Joe followed, putting his drink down on the counter.

"Mike come back in here."

"The snow's getting worse." Michael reached the porch rail and leaned over it, blinking on the whirl of snowflakes blasted into his face. The wind had risen and the noise of the gale whistled against the side of the house. Eric, hearing the door, got up and came into the kitchen, shutting the lounge door behind him.

"Michael David-"

"The roads are covered." Mike slid down off the porch rail and came back into the kitchen, shivering. Eric peered past him, frowning, then locked the back door and swatted his partner with a good deal more firmness than Michael felt was necessary.

"You DON'T walk around outside without shoes on, change your socks right now."

"It's getting deep." Mike warned, moving. Eric pulled his jacket down off the peg and pointed him at the stairs.

"I know, I'll go out and look. Go on."

Joe followed him. Rolf glanced up as they went to the front door and got up, standing in the hallway to watch Eric ease the door open against the wind.

"Getting bad?"

"It looks like a storm starting." Eric admitted. "I want to look at the roads. And much as I hate to break up the party, I'm not sure it wouldn't be better for you lot to go home while it's still fairly light."

Joe took his own coat down, following Eric out of the door. Both of them walked against the wind to the end of the drive, heads ducked under the hail of snow. Rolf shut the front door behind them and shook his head at Matthew who was getting up.

"No, stay put, it's okay."

"I just want -"

"No," Rolf said firmly. Matthew crawled over to the fire and dropped down in front of it, then realized that it was dying down. He grabbed  a log and put that in, then reached for some of the kindling.

"No, the one log is enough," Rolf said as he walked over to the fire. "The kindling is needed to start the fire, not keep it going."

"But it's not burning," Matthew replied.

"Give it a few minutes to catch fire. Close the screen so we don't start a fire on the rug."

Matthew rolled his eyes when he turned back towards the fireplace, but did as he was asked. He then stretched out full length in front of the warmth.

"Man did it get cold out here!" Eric said from beneath the depths of his collar.

"The wind is definitely wicked," Joe said, still peering to see the end of the street. "It's not accumulatingon the roads, but you can't see five feet in front of your face with this wind. I think we're better off staying put until at the very least the wind dies down."

"Think you're right. Let's get out of this wind!" Eric gave one last look down the road. It was definitely windswept, and having been scraped he could see there would be problems with the ice.

Joe opened the door and the wind blasted into the living room.

"Shut the door!" Chris yelled, burrowing deeper into the couch.

Eric quickly shut the door and shrugged his coat off. Joe hung his up and walked over to the couch and touched Chris's neck.

Chris yelped and ducked out from under the hand. "You stayed out too long and died!" he said as he scrambled over to the fire.

"And this is how you'd act towards my withered corpse? Christopher I'm touched." Joe followed and grabbed him, sliding freezing hands under Chris's shirt. Michael got out of their way, wincing on Chris's scream.

"What are the roads like?"

"Icy more than anything." Eric took a seat, turning up the tv. "No sense in anyone driving anywhere now. What's the score?"

*

They were playing trivial pursuit at midnight, half an eye on the tv and split into two teams which prevented most of the arguments. Mike found the remote control as the countdown began, and turned the sound up, kneeling beside Eric on the carpet. The game finished amidst choruses of Happy New Year and assorted kisses as the ball began to drop. Eric retrived fresh drinks from the kitchen and filled everyone's glasses. And looked up at the screen as a tickertape across the bottom began to announce storm warnings. Rolf watched, taking in the areas named and wincing as theirs came up.

"It doesn't look like the weather's getting any better tonight."

"I'm starting to think you'd all do better to spend the night here." Eric said dryly. "We're not even that far off morning now."

"A slumber party!" someone announced as Auld Lang Syne started playing on the tv.

Rolf looked to Eric, then grabbed Matthew's champagne and took a long gulp. The other two men did the same as the liquor flowed for all since no one was needing to drive that night. The television stayed on with the festivities and within a half hour, everyone had settled down and with the help of the champagne, became sleepy. Joe and Chris were the first to turn in, taking the guest bedroom. Michael went up a few minutes later to get the second bedroom sorted, blowing up an air mattress they had so that one couple could sleep on the futon and the other on the mattress. Once the bed was ready he went back down.

"I'm going up to bed. The room is ready for everyone."

"Thanks Michael. I think we're not too far off," Rolf said, looking at Matthew. When Matthew felt the gaze he tried to perk up but failed miserably.

"Goodnight," Mike said, heading up the stairs.

Rolf clicked his fingers to attract Matthew's attention and held out his hand. Matthew slid further down behind the remains of his champagne, pretending not to see, but Rolf merely took the glass out of his fingers and pulled him to his feet.

"Say goodnight Gracie."

"Goodnight Gracie." Matthew mumbled to Todd and Stephen and leaned heavily on Rolf as he was steered upstairs. Getting to the futon meant climbing over the mattress on the floor, and Rolf sincerely hoped no one suffered too much with effects of champagne, or they were likely to spend the night falling over each other. Matthew more or less got himself undressed, crawled under the covers and collapsed face down with a sigh of comfort like a cat settling into a blanket. Rolf leaned over him to move the curtains, peering at the snow in the street below. It was hard to tell how much was actually falling and how much was being blown around, but the effect was definitely pretty.

"There's still a snow storm going on out there. Must be three or four inches on the ground now."

"Mmn." Matthew murmured, not interested in snow.

"Road looks covered too, I'd think it's iced over enough out there that the snow's laying."

Matthew found the curtain, pulled it out of Rolf's grip and tugged at him until he lay down. They were both fast asleep by the time Stephen and Todd, both far more innured to late hours, came upstairs and settled fairly quietly on the mattress nearby.


Stephen woke with a pained yelp of agony some time later as something tripped on him and fell full length on Todd. Todd, never good at being suddenly woken, yelled like a steam engine. Stephen, blinking on the dark and for a moment wondering where on earth they were, grabbed him and fended off whatever it was. Behind him, the light snapped on and Rolf leaned over the edge of the bed, helping Matthew to his feet who looked equally shaken.

"Sorry. Matthew be quick."

Limping slightly and muttering to himself, Matthew slipped out into the hallway. The light snapped on out there and Michael's voice demanded out of sight what was going on. Matthew's reply included comments on the unwisdom of placing mattresses beside futons. Eric interrupted from some way off, calling Michael back to bed, then peered around the doorway.

"Everyone allright?"

"No." Todd said plaintively.

"Just working out the geographics." Rolf said apologetically. "Suppose we leave the bathroom light on? Gives enough light for people to move around without tripping."

"I can't sleep with any lights on." Todd protested. Stephen straightened the covers over them and half got up.

"You come over on the other side."

"I ALWAYS sleep on the right-"

"Well try the left for tonight, that way I'll block the light and if anyone gets stepped on it'll be me."

Matthew came back immediately after Steve and Todd had changed places. He yelped when Todd's fist connected with his calf.

"What did you do that for?" Matthew said, sitting on the side of the bed and rubbing his leg.

"You stepped on me!" Todd shot back.

"Would you rather I pis-"

"Matthew!" Rolf said sharply, pulling him back down. "That's enough."

"He -"

"Shhhh," Rolf said, turning out the light.

Todd got a blast of hot air in his ear from Stephen and settled down as well.

Michael tossed a few times, hearing his partner's soft snore. Finally he gave up trying to sleep and headed downstairs for a glass of warm milk, which usually did the trick for him. He was settled at the table, reading a book while the milk warmed on the stove when Chris wandered in.

"Hey. You can't sleep either?" Michael said after he got over the initial fright.

Chris walked past the table without comment.

"Fine, don't talk to me," Michael mumbled before burying himself back in his book. He didn't look up again until he was nearly blown on to the floor by the bitter outdoor wind.

"What the fuck?" he said as he got up. "Chris?"

Chris walked out the door, into the snow. Michael dumped his chair over in his rush to get to the door. Chris's shriek as he hit snow left no doubt either that the cold was shocking, and he was far from happy. Michael tried to grab him and caught a flailing fist in the face which made his eyes stream. Barefoot, freezing and losing patience by the second, Michael tried without success to grab his other arm, trying to keep his voice down.

"Chris- for pete's sake! Calm DOWN, it's okAY- come inside will you before we both bloody freeze out here!"

Joe appeared in the doorway, Eric close behind him, just as Michael succeeded in yanking Chris back onto the porch. Joe caught the second waving arm, pinned it and pulled Chris's head into his neck, walking with him into the warmth and light of the kitchen. Eric held out a hand to Michael, pulling him close for warmth while he locked the back door.

Michael, shivering hard, pushed as close to him as possible and folded his arms, watching Joe kick out a kitchen chair and take a seat, pulling Chris down into his lap. It was unsure whether Chris was shivering or shaking, either way Michael could see the tremors from the other side of the room. In spite of himself he peeled himself away from Eric and went into the utility room, grabbing a towel from the stack on top of the dryer. Joe glanced up at him with a brief nod of thanks and wrapped it around Chris, most of his attention taken. Eric hooked an arm around Michael and kissed his forehead.

"Go back up and get in to bed, you're freezing."

"I was making a drink."

"I'll bring it up, go on."

Michael gave Chris one last, doubtful look, and headed upstairs. Eric turned the stove off and split the milk, pouring half into one mug and half into another which he put on the edge of the table near Joe. Chris's head was down on his shoulder, he was still shaking a little but from what Eric could see of his eyes they were closed. Joe caught his eye over Chris's head and gave him a somewhat worried shrug.

Eric inclined with his head towards the stairs, eyebrows raised and Joe shifted Chris's weight, lifting him up as he stood. Eric held the door open, retrieving the spare mug of milk, and followed Joe upstairs, watching him lay Chris down on the bed. And they both stood for a moment, watching him. Then Joe shook his head, voice so low it was nearly inaudible.

"Whatever that was, he's fast asleep now. He only had a small glass of wine and half a glass of champagne this evening - I've never known him to do this before."

"Christmas must have been hard this year." Eric said softly. "I know you were expecting him to be stressed."

"I'll be watching him like a hawk the rest of tonight." Joe said wryly.

Eric put a hand on the door, holding it to to shield the light from Chris.

"Will you be allright?"

"Yes, I'll pull the dresser across the door. If he gets out of bed again that'll stop him. Sorry."

"I hope he sleeps through." Eric said softly. "Goodnight. Shout if you need us."

"Goodnight."

Joe waited until Eric shut the door, then pushed the heavy oak dresser quietly across the doorway. And sat down on the edge of the bed, watching his partner sleep for some time before he lay down and let his own eyes close. Eric took both mugs into his own room, handed one to Michael and slid into bed beside him, wincing as Michael wrapped still chilled limbs around him.

"Is Chris allright?"

"Seems to be. He was asleep by the time Joe brought him upstairs, I'm not sure he ever actually woke up."

"He just came downstairs, didn't say a word to me when I talked to him. It was weird."

"I'd say the stress from the holidays, the late night and drinking probably brought that on. He'll be fine and probably not remember anything tomorrow."

"How can you forget walking out into the freezing snow and waking up out there?" Michael asked as he drained his glass of milk.

"The mind can be quite powerful in it's own right," Eric said as he finished off the part he had saved for Chris. "Good idea, this milk. How about we let this work, and get some rest?"

"Yeah," Michael said, snuggling down and curling up against his partner.

*

Eric was the first to awaken the next day, to the insistent buzz of his beeper. He silenced the beast before checking the number, letting Michael rest. When he saw it was headquarters, he crawled out of bed and took the phone around to the other side of the dresser and called.

"Officer Davidson. What's going on?" Eric said.

"Hi, Eric. Just wanted you to know you're on call today due to the snow."

"How bad is it?" Eric asked, heading towards the window.

"I think they said ten inches, but with the wind there are drifts three feet high. We're in a state of emergency and everyone is asked to stay at home. Shouldn't need you, but one never knows."

"Thanks, Susan. I'll keep my ear out for the phone. Just call if you need anything."

"Thanks. Happy new year!" Susan said as she hung up the phone.

Eric hung up the phone and looked outside. The wind was still blowing, though not nearly as hard as it had been, but it was hard to tell with the filtered, winter light how good, or bad, things were.

The clock stood at eight am. There was no good reason to wake anyone else: Eric softly drew the curtains again and moving as quietly as he could, headed downstairs. He reached the foot of the stairs before he heard their bedroom door creak and stopped, shaking his head in exasperation at himself. Never, in all the time he and Michael had been together, had he EVER succeeded in getting up quietly enough not to disturb Michael's ever light sleep. Michael caught up with him, tying the belt of his robe, giving him a sleepy smile. Eric went with him into the kitchen, shut the kitchen door and took advantage of the privacy to demand and get a kiss.

"Good morning. I'm sorry, I thought you'd hear the beep."

"I heard. It sounded dramatic." Michael rolled up the kitchen blind and squinted out at the garden. "I hope they don't bother you today, you've worked more than your fair share of holidays."

"I won't go unless it's an emergency." Eric watched Michael flick the kettle on and start to make tea. "What do you want for breakfast? We might as well eat and let the others sleep as long as they can, they're not going anywhere today."

"Just cereal." Michael handed him a mug and leaned against the counter, sipping from his own. "If they have to spend a second night, we should set the air mattress for Todd and Steve down here. Everyone might sleep better if they're not all under each other's feet."

Eric tried not to wince on that. This was not a big house- he actually had his doubts about how some of the more restless of their friends were going to cope with another 24 hours indoors.

"Videos." Michael said, grinning at him. "Lots of videos."

"And board games." Eric added, sighing. Michael shook his head.

"NOT unless you want Matthew and Chris to kill each other. Remember last Easter and that monopoly game?"

Eric shook his head at that. "All too well. I hope the videos we have are new to most here then," He pulled a couple boxes of cereal from the pantry. Michael got two bowls out while Eric pulled out the milk. A few minutes later they were both enjoying their breakfast in the relative silence of the house.

Michael finished his bowl first and went immediately to the living room to work on the fire. At least anyone now coming down would have the benefit of that. Within minutes Michael had the fire lit and burning hot enough to push the cold air out of the chimney. A few minutes later, Rolf made it down.

"Good morning," Rolf said, rustling Mike's hair. "Thanks for the accommodations last night. Has the snow stopped yet?"

"No, it's still coming down a little. Eric's on standby."

"That's a shame. He needs the time off."

"Don't I know it," Michael agreed.

Rolf headed into the kitchen, finding Eric setting out some more bowls.

"Good morning. On call I hear?"

Eric nodded. "State of emergency. Ten inches at last count, but drifting to three feet and more. Don't think they'll need me as everyone should be at home, but one never knows. Tea?"

"Yes, please. Something warm sounds perfect."

"Three kinds of cereal there to eat, or I can do some eggs and bacon -"

"No, no need to go making all that mess. Cereal will be fine, thank you," Rolf said, pouring out a healthy amount into one of the bowls.

"Matthew still asleep?" Michael inquired from the doorway. Eric gave him a look.

"No one needs to be woken."

Michael pulled a face but went back to the fire. Eric went back to the cereal, giving Rolf an apologetic glance.

"I'm afraid you're snowed in with us this morning. The roads aren't passable and the station's giving instructions for people to stay inside. They're talking about three foot drifts after the gales."

"I thought that might happen last night." Rolf said wryly. "Matthew and I can try walking I suppose-"

"It's a good three miles with no clue on what ground you'll be covering on the way." Eric pointed out. "I don't think that's a good idea this morning. Will your cat tribe be okay?"

"They'll be fine for twenty four hours, we always leave plenty of food and water down when we go out in case of something like this happening. I'm sorry, it looks like you're got the entire ensemble under your feet today."

"We'll survive." Eric grinned, passing him coffee. "With a little careful planning and tight surveillance, we will survive."

*

"SNOW!" Matthew announced, nearly falling downstairs. Rolf, hearing the yell from the lounge, got up and headed quickly into the hallway, catching Matthew in mid bounce and stifling him efficiently.

"Shhhhh, people are still asleep!"

"There's SNOW out there! REAL snow! DEEP snow!"

Rolf, dragged to the window, leaned against the glass and obediently admired the snow. Deep was the word. He didn't remember ever seeing snow like the peaks and drifts and thick coverage outside. It was still falling, fast and heavily, in large flakes that promised to continue the depth for some time to come.

Matthew made a dive for the stairs and Rolf hung on to him, keeping his voice low for the sake of the others upstairs.

"Listen. You're not going out in it while it's still snowing like that, the gales are still fairly strong and the wind chill is serious. The roads aren't passable this morning-"

"I won't GET cold!" Matthew pleaded, wriggling to get away. The swat he received caused more wriggling but he stood in one spot.

"You're NOT going outside yet," Rolf said firmly, holding steady eye contact with Matthew. "You can get yourself into the kitchen and get something to eat. There's cereal -"

"I don't like cereal," Matthew said sourly.

Rolf took Matthew's arm and guided him into the kitchen and into a chair, taking a seat next to him. "We're here as guests of Eric because of the snow. EVERYONE is. That's a lot of people and personalities in a small space and everyone is going to have to work hard on keeping the peace. I don't want to have to repeat myself to you several times just because you think there's too many people for me to argue. I will NOT hesitate to punish you if work yourself into deserving it. Am I clear?" Rolf finished.

Matthew's eyes dropped back to the table and his lip crept out.

"That's not an answer," Rolf reminded him.

"Yes, sir," Matthew responded, his lip creeping further out.

"If the lip goes out any farther, you won't need a bowl for your breakfast," Rolf joked, standing up. "You've got corn flakes, Cheerios or raisin bran to choose from. Which is it?"

"Doughnuts?" Matthew tried.

"You'll need one to sit on if you don't stop," Rolf said, nibbling on Matthew's exposed neck, causing the younger man to giggle and try to move away.

"Okay, OKAY! Cheerios I guess," Matthew said, the mood effectively lightened by the kisses.

Rolf kissed him gently on the lips and went to the cupboard to pull out another bowl, pouring the cereal into it.

"Not that much!" Matthew said quickly.

Rolf didn't respond, pouring milk over the cereal and putting it down in front of him.

"Was anyone else awake up there?"

"Not a sound from Chris and Joe's room. And Todd woke up and talked for a minute when I got up, but Stephen's still asleep so he won't get up."

"I'm amazed you managed to make it out of bed without standing on them."

"I got dressed on the landing, it was the only way NOT to." Matthew peered past Rolf at the buried garden. "I wonder how deep it IS out there?"

"Dismiss ALL thoughts from your mind, because you're not going to see." Rolf said heartlessly.

"Roooooolf, I'm five ten and it's a back yard! I'm not going to get lost-"

"Apart from anything else, once you get wet you've got nothing here to change into. And we're not going to make still more trouble for Mike and Eric."

"What was Chris screaming about last night?" Matthew paused in mid cereal as Eric came back in. Eric pulled out the chair opposite to pour himself another mug of tea.

"Got a bit confused to where he was."

"He was sleepwalking." Michael said with far less diplomacy, joining them and shutting the lounge door to keep the heat in. "Walked right past me, out into the garden and screamed like a stuck pig as soon as he touched the snow-"

"I don't think he was doing anything so extreme, real sleep walking is a consistant habit." Eric said matter of factly. "Chris was just half asleep and confused, in a strange house- not surprising really. There's no need to embarrass him about it either, he probably doesn't even remember it happening."

"How can you not remember!" Michael protested, "He had hysterics out there-"

"I can have entire conversations with you in the middle of the night that you later deny all knowledge of." Eric pointed out.

"But I don't go outside," Michael countered, looking down.

"No, you don't thank goodness. That's enough about Chris. What would you like for breakfast?"

"Got any yogurt?" Michael asked.

Matthew made a face. "How can you eat stuff that is....alive?"

"It's good, you should try it."

"No, thank you," Matthew said, taking another bite of cereal and pulling another face. He pushed the bowl away.

"Don't tell me you're done," Rolf commented.

"It's soggy now."

"You can finish the bowl, please," Rolf said firmly.

"But -"

"The longer it sits, the more soggy it'll become."

Matthew took in the look, and pulled the bowl back towards him, dipping his spoon in it and pulling out a few cheerios.

Eric passed Michael the yoghurt and took a seat to finish his coffee.

"If I get the beef joint out to finish defrosting, that'll do lunch for everyone and there's plenty of vegetables in the garage. Just in case I DO get called out to work."

Michael gave him a grimace and a wry nod. "I hope they manage without you, this is the first holiday in years-"

"They prioritise the people with kids love, that's fair enough." Eric said mildly. Michael gave him a half smile.

"Yeah, but it doesn't make holidays any less special for the rest of us, we've all got family."

"We'll keep hoping. But if I do get called in, at least you have lunch covered." Eric gave Matthew a sympathetic smile. "Matthew, do you want some toast to go with that."

"He's going to eat that first." Rolf said firmly. Eric drained his coffee and got up.

"Then how about we brave the garage and sort vegetables out now? And more wood."

"Want a hand with that?" Rolf got up, collecting his dishes and gave Matthew a warning look as he followed Eric and Michael out of the side door and down the covered passageway that led to their garage. Matthew waited, listening to the door unlock and light snap on in the garage. Then hurried disposed of the rest of his cereal down the sink, poured himself a glass of milk and took it into the lounge. The fire was crackling, and admittedly getting a little short of wood. Matthew took a seat in front of it and opened the door, picking up the poker to give it a few strategic pokes. The log crumbled still further into ash, leaving the fire in some danger of sinking beyond repair. Looking around, Matthew spotted a pile of newspapers.

Checking the date to make sure it wasn't today's news, he rolled up several sections and stuffed them into the grate. The ashes that were left weren't hot enough to set the paper immediately on fire. Matthew sat, fascinated, as the rolls of newspaper began smoking. He was so intent on the smoke coming off of the papers, that he didn't realize that the fire was no longer hot enough to pull the smoke up the chimney. Instead, it was billowing out into the living room above Matthew's head. Just as he realized the smoke was entering the house, the smoke detector began it's extremely loud - and annoying - screech. Matthew quickly blew on the paper until it burst into flames, keeping any more smoke from entering the living room. The paper itself unrolled and filled the entire area in the fireplace with bright flames as Matthew quickly tried to pull shut the screens, trying at the same time to cover his ears and not freak out from the sound of the alarm.


From upstairs, the sounds indicated several suddenly awoken people and moving furniture as Chris and Joe attempted to escape from their room. Matthew, struggling with the screens, gave up and dived for the windows, throwing them open. Joe appeared downstairs at a jog, dressed in very little and looking more than slightly concerned at the smoke filled room. The look turned to exasperation at the sight of Matthew's guilty face. He knelt down in front of the fire, raking the paper over and burying it under the ashes, then picked up what was left of the paper and fanned the detector. Chris, sleepy, stumbling, hands clamped over his ears, came down the last few steps and fixed Matthew with a glare.

"WHAT did you do?"

"Nothing!" Matthew said defensively. The kitchen door opened and Eric appeared, pursued by Rolf.

"What's going on here?!" Rolf thundered, just as the alarm stopped it's hysterical screeching, Rolf's words being swallowed up by the vacuum of nothingness.

Matthew stood, shellshocked and unable to say anything. Michael burst through the kitchen door with a bucket of water ready. "Where's the fire??"

"It's alright, sweetheart. Just smoke, no fire. Go toss the water out before it gets spilled," Eric said, opening the door into the kitchen. Michael headed into the kitchen, the door closing behind Eric. Joe gently pushed Chris ahead of him, back up the stairs to get dressed, Todd and Stephen ahead of Chris.

Matthew felt everyone's presence leaving the room as quickly as the smoke was. He didn't dare look towards Rolf.

"You thought you'd try burning a little paper?" Rolf inquired, surveying the evidence.

Matthew flushed, digging his hands into the pockets of his jeans.

"I was just trying to get it to burn a little brighter so it didn't go out before the wood arrived... except it didn't burn too well, maybe it wasn't dry enough or-"

"How many times have we discussed you and fire and what you SHOULDN'T be doing?" Rolf asked, his eyes on Matthew.

Matthew started to shrug again, before quickly answering "Many times," when Rolf made it clear that they were having a discussion.

"We're guests of Eric and Michael. The house now reeks of burned paper, and you woke half of the guests up with a heart attack. Do you think that was very helpful?

"I didn't MEAN to do anything!" Matthew protested, wishing Rolf would lower his voice and very sure there were three brats in the house with ears on full alert right now. "It was a complete accident-"

"Which would NOT have happened if you left things alone." Rolf said sternly. "DO you mess around with fireplaces?"

Matthew answered quickly, trying not to look at the floor. "No sir."

"HAVE we discussed that before?"

"Yes sir."

"So WHY were you messing with a fire when you've CLEARLY been told not to?"

"I was JUST trying to help," Matthew said, on the verge of tears.

"ARE you allowed to play with fireplaces?"

Matthew shook his head hard.

Rolf waited, arms folding, eyes no less impressed. "I didn't hear you."

"N..no, Sir."

"Have I NOT made that clear enough in the past?"

"Yes!" Matthew answered passionately, wanting more than anything to get out of any punishment for the current crime.

Rolf took a seat on the sofa, holding a hand out to Matthew, unsympathetic. "Obviously I haven't. You do NOT play with fire, in any context, for any reason, and in particular you do NOT play around with other people's fireplaces, endangering them and their property. Come here please."

Matthew's throat closed up and his stomach plummeted. He looked  pleadingly at Rolf as he stepped closer to him. "I didn't mean it.....plleeeaasseeeee. I'm sorrrrrryyy."

Rolf didn't move or waver, just said again, firmly and not unkindly, "Here please."

Matthew stepped close enough to put his hand in Rolfs, his lip trembling. Rolf pulled him gently to his right side, unbuckled his belt and pulled jeans and shorts down before drawing Matthew down over his lap and anchoring him there.

"Fire is DANGEROUS. In particular the way you play with it. When you've apologised to the others, you're going to scrub down the hearth, and clean the windows from the smoke, and do anything else that needs doing to make this room pristine, is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," Matthew said, his hands on the carpet, trying to make himself comfortable. The air was cool on his bare backside, though his face was heated up from the embarrassment. As many times as it had happened before, he still hated being spanked when anyone else could hear.

Rolf didn't make him wait any longer; he simply delivered a swift and very sound spanking, intending to get this over as quickly as possible for the comfort of everyone else in the house. Several minutes later he helped Matthew to his feet, helped him dress and then sat further back on the sofa to draw Matthew down on top of him, wrapping both arms comfortingly around him. Matthew sobbed into Rolf's shoulder, glad it was over but in no mood to see anyone in the near future. He let his whole world be Rolf's shoulder.

Rolf rubbed his back, trying not to cough on the last of the smoke. The room was rapidly chilling as the opened windows and doors lost the heat into the room as well as the smoke. Well aware of HOW cold it was outside, Rolf got up, keeping hold of Matthew, and shut the windows and the kitchen back door, ending with the kitchen sink.

"Wash your face sweetheart."

Matthew turned on the hot water and willingly scrubbed his face clean. After drying himself off with a paper towel, he blew his nose and threw it away. His eyes still felt puffy, but at least he didn't feel sticky from crying. He quickly went back to Rolf for a hug. Rolf held him tight, lifting him off his feet for a moment, well aware of how he was feeling. The house was full, today wasn't going to be easy for any of them, but it would have been a lot less easy handling a guilty and apprehensive Matthew. The snow was still coming down in large, heavy flakes beyond the glass of the kitchen window, building on what was now just vague curves and lumps in the snowscape in the garden. Matthew's breathing was slowly calming and Rolf put him down, opening the cupboard under the kitchen sink. He extracted a bottle of cleaner and a sponge and handed them both to Matthew. Matthew took the cleaner and sponge and headed obediently into the living room. At least this way he was doing something to fix things, and he didn't have to look at anyone that came downstairs. He cleaned the first window without really seeing outside. Once he got to the second one, he stood still, staring outside in wonder. Rolf knelt in front of the fire and rebuilt it, quickly getting the blaze started once more. There was plenty of wood, enough to heat the living room even if the power went off. Rolf sincerely hoped it didn't. Feeding and entertaining four brats would become traumatic for all concerned if it did. He glanced up, realising there was no movement at the windows.

"Clean, Matthew please, the snow's not going anywhere."

Matthew shifted his weight, the smart in his bottom still lively. He continued the work on the window, though slower now that the snow was taking up his attention. He didn't even hear anyone else enter the room. Eric cast a brief look at Rolf as he reached the foot of the stairs, but got nothing more than a faint smile of hello. Leaving Matthew in peace, he went through to the kitchen to collect the wood he and Rolf had abandoned at the first rolls of smoke. Matthew jumped at the clatter of wood on the hearth and glanced around, sure that since Eric was alone, it'd be the easiest to apologize now.

"I'm sorry for the smoke. It's not really on the windows, so hopefully nothing's been damaged."

"Thank you." Eric said seriously, giving him just long enough of a look to make his eyes drop. "And no, I don't think any harm was done."

Matthew went quickly to the next window, his face burning again.


Michael crashed down the stairs, landing at the foot with a thump and a cheerful, "It smells AWFUL in here, like a burned barbecue."

"Do you NEED to crash about the house like a stampede?" Eric asked, eyeing his partner sternly.

"Well it DOES." Michael said cheerfully, giving Eric a wide berth. "And it's cold."

Eric kept his eye firmly on his partner until Michael's eyes dropped and he got the message. "The fire will heat it up quickly, put on a long sleeved shirt if you're cold now.

Michael pulled a face, but ran back upstairs.

"Find a sweater for Matthew while you're at it." Eric called after him. "Matthew, give me that one, it reeks of smoke. I'll run it through the machine."

Matthew peeled the sweater off and handed it over, returning to cleaning.


Michael returned a minute later with an extra sweater in hand.

"There you go, try not to burn that one, hmm?"

Matthew took it without looking at Michael and put it on, returning to his cleaning. Rolf turned from where he was watching the fire and gave Michael a long, slow look. Michael returned it with one try at innocence, then flushed and dropped his eyes.

Joe and Chris came downstairs, Chris with his arms folded and Joe's arm was casually draped over his shoulders. Chris looked pale and more than slightly dark eyed. Clearly the rest of their night hadn't been peaceful. Rolf straightened up, brushing off his hands and clearing the sofa area which was warmest.

"Anyone ready for more coffee?"

"Yes, two cups would be wonderful," Joe said, guiding Chris over to the couch to sit down with him.

Chris promptly tucked his feet under him, leaning against Joe with his eyes fixed on the fire. Matthew gave him another, more concerned look and went back to wiping down the windows. Rolf went into the kitchen, snapping the kettle on. Eric followed him, stretching both big shoulders until they cracked.

"I'm going out in a minute to try shovelling some of this off the path. And see how much ice there is."

"Want some help?" Rolf offered, getting out mugs. Eric shook his head.

"No sense in any of you getting cold and wet. I'll take Mike with me."

"Where?" Mike inquired, coming into the kitchen. Eric tossed his coat across to him.

"Outside to get some of this shovelled off the path. Find some gloves-"

"Why me?!" Michael demanded. "There's Rolf and Steve-"

"Who are company. Gloves." Eric said firmly. "Come on Mike, get cracking, I don't want this to get much deeper."

Scowling, Michael went to the coat rack and found gloves and a scarf. Rolf poured coffee and took two mugs into the lounge, handing one to Joe and the second to Chris, running a gentle hand over his head once he'd put the cup into Chris's hand.

"Did you sleep any better this morning than you did last night?"

Chris looked up and nodded before burying himself in the warmth of the coffee.

"I'll help out with the shoveling," Matthew prompted, having cleaned the last living room window quickly in hopes of being allowed outside.

"You have the kitchen windows to clean too, as well as the front door," Rolf said as he bent back down to poke at the fire again.

Matthew pouted, giving Rolf the best look of pathos he could manage. "That won't take long- and I can do it later?"

Rolf Looked at Matthew.

Matthew held the look, relying on the fact his eyes were still blood shot and Michael still looked extremely sulky. "Rooooooolf - come on, I don't mind helping and I WILL do this later? Please?"

Rolf knew both Michael and Eric would appreciate the help, and Matthew was more than eager to get out. "Alright - WAIT just a second. Upstairs, get another layer on, and make sure you get your scarf. The last thing we need is your asthma getting aggravated by the cold."

Matthew's eyes lit like magic and he whirled around to Michael, who looked distinctly more cheerful. "Can I borrow another t shirt?"

Michael ran upstairs with him. Rolf sighed and picked up his own jacket.

"I think if he's going, I'm coming too. NOT that I don't trust him....."

Chris nearly inhaled coffee at that comment and took a moment to stop from spluttering.

Rolf gave him a smile and headed for the door after Eric.

"Stay warm you lot."

"We may be gone some time." Eric added.

"Wow," Rolf said, upon stepping off the porch. "And it's STILL coming down."

"Looks like a good eight inches, at the very least, not to mention the drifts."

Matthew and Michael appeared together and Rolf grabbed Matthew in time to stop him wading waist deep into the drifts on the lawn. "HEY. We're digging, and that's all we're doing, you've got no idea what's under that."

"It's JUST grass," Matthew said, walking down the walkway area.

"Matthew."

"Where's the shovel?" Matthew asked, turning towards Rolf.

Eric pulled three out of the shed and handed Michael the salt and they worked- or Rolf and Eric worked- for the next half hour, building up steep banks of snow on either side of the scraped path.

"My father used to say," Eric observed, standing up to stretch his back and watch Michael chase Matthew down into the snow covered road, "One boy will do one boy's work: two boys will do half a boys work and three boys together are nothing but a hinderance."

"I suspect that's true of brats too." Rolf commented, brushing snow out of his eyes. "MATTHEW. If you get wet, you'll be in bed until your clothes are dried, you're not borrowing anything else."

"It's not wet, it's snow!" Matthew said, still exuberant even after thirty minutes in the cold air. He shrieked when Michael hit him with a snowball in the chest, the remnants of which made his neck cold. Matthew took his shovel and whacked a layer of snow towards Michael, spraying him from head to toe.

Rolf, with longer legs, climbed straight over the hedge and confiscated the shovel.

"Enough. Matthew go back and clear the doorstep."

"And I need salt here." Eric said firmly. "Come on, it's too cold to mess about."

Matthew dodged Rolf and headed, laughing, back towards the door, taking Rolf's shovel when he passed by it. Michael also made a wide berth around Rolf and headed to where he'd dropped the salt, dragging the bag towards Eric.

He jumped when a snowball hit him squarely in the back, but when he spun, Rolf was digging, his attention entirely focused on the task at hand.

He glared at Rolf, who never looked up. Finally he went back to shoveling the walk, planning his revenge.

Matthew dug for about two more minutes before an aching back and boredom finally got the better of him and he dug the shovel into the snow, straightening up to look around. "Where's the creek?"

"No one needs to get near the creek," Eric said without waiting for Rolf, while Michael pointed straight towards it.

Matthew peered, interested. "Is it frozen? Bet its skateable-"

"It might be," Michael began, before being interrupted by Eric.

"That creek is completely off limits, you can just forget it now. Michael, get that area started, please.

Matthew pulled a face at Michael and stepped off the cleared path into the deeper snow, marking neat footsteps out towards the middle of the lawn.

"Matthew."

There was that one word again.

Matthew looked back, trying not to look too impatient. "It's okay, I'm only taking a break."

"If you're ready for a break, you can go inside and get warm. Otherwise, get your shovel and get back to work," Rolf said sternly.

He just had no sense of fun. Matthew bent and drew a quick circle in the snow, gave it eyes, a wink and a large smile, and tramped back towards the path, keeping half an eye on his partner. Rolf tried, but Matthew still caught the flash of a smile in response.

At the other side of the path Michael saw Eric bending over to inspect something on the ground, and couldn't resist. With a rebel yell, he hit and knocked Eric straight into the snowbank.

"That's IT." Eric said, struggling to his feet and wheezing with the shock. "Michael David, get yourself inside. Move."

"Are you going too?" Rolf asked Matthew, who was grinning. Matthew shook his head and went back to shovelling.

"It was JUST a joke!" Michael said, shaking snow off himself.

"Inside." Eric repeated. He didn't sound particularly cross- but then he never did. Michael scowled, but turned and tramped back to the doorstep, kicking the snow off his boots. Eric followed him, glancing back to Rolf.

"I think we're pretty much done, no sense in trying to go much further."

"Ok. We'll finish this patch and come in." Rolf said calmly, still digging. Eric followed Michael inside and shut the door.

"You two just have no adventure in the snow," Matthew said, shoveling the last bit off his corner of the walkway.

"I think we just have a bit more concern for getting wet or getting injuries when there isn't much we can do about it." Rolf said firmly, straightening up. "Salt that bit and I think we're done."

"You really need to quit worrying, it's bad for your heart," Matthew said, bending over for the salt bag but coming up with a snowball instead. He laughed evilly. "I have you in my sights..."

"And I'm a LOT bigger than you." Rolf reminded him, looking him RIGHT in the eyes. And waiting. It took a moment.

Matthew couldn't fight the very obvious challenge in Rolf's eyes. He put the snowball down and salted the area instead.

Rolf stifled another smile, not having been at all sure what Matthew would do. He waited until Matthew straightened, then wrapped an arm around him, picking up the salt bag.

"I think we're done. Warm enough for a short walk? See how bad the main road is?"

Matthew would have said yes if he'd just lost five toes to frostbite. "Yes!" he said exuberantly, dropping his shovel.

Rolf put the shovels and salt back in the garage, came back to him and held out his hand, wading through the deep drifts on the pavement and out into the street itself.

Matthew had to step a lot higher than Rolf, who had legs like a giraffe. He didn't mind, the snow was intoxicating. "How are they ever going to clear these drifts?"

"I don't know, I'll be interested to see." Rolf said calmly, waiting for him. He hoped they weren't going to be stuck at Eric's house for more than twenty four hours- the drain of eight grown men on the food supplies would be appalling, particularly considering it was several miles to the nearest shop.

"It seems lighter, like the snow is stopping." Matthew said hopefully.

"I think it might be." Rolf agreed, shading his eyes. It was certainly getting brighter. A bright, crisp cold that suggested a frost tonight over the top of the snow. Matthew paused for a minute, out of breath.

"Do you think we COULD walk home?"

"No. It's too far and too deep. I'm thinking they'll be out clearing the roads already, and will be out in full force if it is stopping."

However, when they reached the end of the road that led onto the main road back into town, there was no sign of any snow ploughs. And more to Rolf's surprise, the snow was as deep and thick as on the side roads. He stood for a moment, shading his eyes and trying to see to the end of the road.

"What are you looking for?" Matthew asked, kicking at a snowdrift.

"Wondering if it's this deep the whole way into town." Rolf dropped his hand and took Matthew's again. "Okay. Let's go see what the others are doing and see if we can get the snow off ourselves before we get soaked."

Matthew turned and followed Rolf, looking for the perfect snowdrift. They were coming up on one, and Matthew tugged hard at Rolf's hand, sticking his leg in front of Rolf so he'd fall into the bank.

Rolf, concentrating on keeping his feet and Matthew's, missed it totally and went down like a felled tree.

Matthew took the only opportunity he had and jumped right on top of Rolf, holding him down. "Now who's bigger than who?"

Rolf's yelp was far from amused and he pushed Matthew off with more efficiency than gentleness, struggling to get one ankle untwisted from beneath him.

"Matthew get OFF!"

Matthew rolled off and laid there, his lip out in full pout.

Rolf sat up, struggling not to swear, or at least not swear out loud. "Matthew Christopher..."

"What?"

"If you EVER do that to me again young man, I'll WHAT you!" Rolf said sharply. "Get up, you're going to get drenched."

Matthew got to his feet and started stomping off towards the house.

"And while you're at it," Rolf added, "You can ask Eric and Joe to come out here and give me a hand please."

Matthew turned around at that. "What's wrong?"

Rolf looked up, no more amused but not intending to scare him either.

"Nothing major, I've just twisted my foot."

Matthew went back quickly. "Did I do that? I didn't mean to!"

"It's okay, it's probably just a twist." Rolf gripped his hand but gave him a push back towards the house. "Give Eric and Joe a shout."

"I can help," Matthew said, trying to get to Rolf's side to help him up.

"No you can't and I'm too heavy for you," Rolf said firmly, "Go get Joe."

Matthew turned and quickly made his way to the house, going in the front door without knocking any snow off. "Joe? I need your help, Rolf's twisted his ankle."

"How did he do that?" Joe demanded, letting Chris go and getting up from the couch. Eric grabbed his coat from the peg and headed towards the drive. Joe picked up his own coat and followed, closing the front door behind them.

Matthew dropped his coat and went upstairs without a word, flopping onto the bed and wondering why he had to push Rolf.

Rolf looked up as the two hurried across the road to him, Eric in the lead, looking worried.

"Are you okay? What happened?"

"Matthew clowning around." Rolf said acidly. "And I think I'm fine, I just can't get a purchase to get up and check, there's solid ice under the snow here-"

Joe grabbed one hand and Eric took his other arm, the two of them managing to lift him far enough to the side for Eric to pull his leg around out of the bank of snow and make a quick check of his ankle.

"You haven't broken anything."

"Thank God." Joe said dryly. "Want to try standing on it?"

"Yes. I'm sure it's fine," Rolf said, allowing the guys to help him up. He gingerly put weight on it, wincing for only a moment. "Yes, that works."

Joe pulled one of his arms over his shoulder and Eric took the other, steadying him as he limped back towards the house. By the time they reached the drive he was already taking most of his weight and walking more easily and at the front door he moved out of their support, kicking snow off his boots before he pulled them off and hung up his coat.

"Okay?" Stephen said anxiously from the doorway. Rolf went past him and flopped on the sofa next to Chris, leaning down to rub.

"Yes, fine thanks. Just a twist."

"Come in, let me get the door," Stephen said, as he shut the door behind the other two men, cutting off the cold air. "It looks like it's stopped snowing. That HAS to be a good sign."

"It's brightening up." Rolf confirmed. "But ALL the roads are well covered, no sign of the snow ploughs yet."

"They've been given the signal to start running full force," Michael said, having been listening to Eric's radio.

"That's good news." Eric said cheerfully. "Mike, put the kettle on. And get Rolf some ice for that ankle, I'll get a towel."

He ran upstairs, taking a towel out of the airing cupboard before he tapped on the door of the guest room.

"What?" Matthew asked sourly from the bed.

"Is that any way to talk?" Eric said mildly. "Rolf's downstairs."

"He doesn't want to see me."

"Don't be silly." Eric said very firmly. "He's allright, he just couldn't get a purchase on the ice to get up, but he's a bit shaken up and not very comfortable and I think he could do with you."

Matthew's desire to pout and play the victim fought with his desire to be a lover, and the lover won. He got up and opened the door, passing Eric with only a slight smile touching the corners of his lips. Downstairs, he found Rolf on the couch and curled up on his left side. "I'm sorry."

"If you do that again I'll kill you." Rolf said sternly, hugging him. "How cold are you?"

"Not bad," Matthew said, rubbing his nose with his sleeve. Are you cold?"

"No, just my fingers." Rolf slid a couple down the back of Matthew's neck to make the point. Michael brought him an ice pack and put a coffee on the table.

"Eric said did you want a Tylenol?"

"That couldn't hurt at this point, yes, thankyou." He leaned over to remove his sock, then placed the ice on the ankle for a moment. "Ouch, that's cold."

Michael brought a couple of tylenol from the kitchen and took his place by the fire, waiting until Eric settled before leaning back against his knees. Eric tangled a hand through his hair, ruffling it back.

"How about a video?"

"Yeah! We've got American Pie and Something About Mary. Those would be good!"

"Something about Mary sucks." Todd said, entering the conversation for the first time in a while.

Michael turned quickly towards him. "It's one of the funniest damned movies in a long time!"

"It's pathetic." Todd said succinctly. "I'm not seeing THAT again."

"I thought it was hilarious," Chris joined in. "American Pie was funny, but it got on my nerves. 'This one time, at band camp," He intoned in a high voice.

Matthew laughed. Todd got up, pulling away from Stephen. "That's JUST as crude and just as pathetic. I'll be upstairs."

"No, Todd, you don't need to hide upstairs. We can pick a different movie, right Michael?" Eric asked, eyeing his partner.

Michael shrugged as both Chris and Matthew groaned. "Noooo, they're GOOD movies! Todd'll only want to watch Buffy or some rubbish like that-"

"We don't HAVE Buffy" Michael pointed out, "You need Marc for that."

"What DO you have?" Chris asked, getting up and heading over to the video rack.

Michael followed him, sprawling full length on the carpet to look. "HUGE amounts of football- more of Tom Cruise- Eric's, not mine I'll add-"

"Tom Cruise is so yesterday," Chris said, pulling out a few titles. "Wrestling Mania 4? Who watches THIS trash?"

"Me." Eric said nobly before Michael thought of a convincing lie. "What about Titanic, you and Todd both liked that."

"Yes, that would be good," Michael said, searching for the video."

"It would NOT." Matthew said firmly. "Who wants to watch people drown?"

"It's a GOOD movie!" Michael said, pulling it out.

"It's GRUESOME!" Matthew snapped back. "I hated it the first time!"

"How about an action movie?" Stephen said from his chair.

"I get enough of that at work, we're more drama, romance and sport types." Eric said apologetically. "There's Notting Hill in there-"

"Snotting girl? WHO want's to watch THAT sop?" Chris asked, still surveying the cabinet.

"Chris....." Joe said mildly. "I've got a better idea here- Rolf what would YOU prefer?"

"The Emperors New Groove."

"I agree with that entirely." Joe got up and scooped the video off the top of the pile, handing it to Chris. "That'll be a good start."

"You've GOT to be KIDDING me. A cartoon??"

Joe gave him a friendly smile and waited. Muttering, Chris put it into the machine and sat back with bad grace.

Michael got up and pulled Chris with him towards the kitchen. Once inside, he muttered "cartoons are always better with beer. Want one?"

"I'm going to NEED one." Chris said sourly. "Why do you have crap like that anyway?"

"Because Joe saw it and told Eric that the star reminded him a lot of you," Michael said, laughing as he pulled out two beers and got a couple of plastic cups. Chris shoved him hard, trying not to laugh. "Shut UP you'll have someone in here supervising. And I bet Rolf'll have kittens if anyone drinks."

"That's why we're drinking out of cups. This looks a little more like Mountain Dew in here."

"Just hope no one tastes it." Chris said wryly. "Is there ANY way out of this damn cartoon?"

"As long as Todd is bitching, probably not. Matthew could mostly care less, besides, he's on Rolf's short list anyway. Here," Michael said as he handed Chris the cup. He took a long swallow and then topped his off with the rest of the beer.

Chris gulped, leaning back against the counter. "I'm READY for this... my head's still thumping from last night."

"The cold wake up call didn't cure that?" Michael asked slyly.

Chris flushed, shoving him. "I was AWAKE, I meant to go out there."

"You meant to go out the back door?" Michael asked, trying to trip up Chris to see if he even really knew where he'd been.

"Yeah, I was way too hot up there and I was pissed too, it seemed like a good idea!" Chris snapped back. "So leave it!"

Michael held up his hands. "Okay, okay, whatever you say," he said, as if he didn't believe Chris, and headed towards the door to the living room.

"PRICK." Chris spat at the back of his head.

Michael didn't bother to reply, just opened the door and headed out and found a spot on the floor, well away from the eyes of his partner.

"Michael? You didn't ask if anyone else would like anything," Eric said from his chair.

The loud slam of the back door made them all look up, as Michael opened his mouth to answer. Joe cast a quick look towards the kitchen and got up.

"Where's Chris?"

"I guess that was him," Michael said helpfully.

Joe headed for the kitchen. Eric got up too, frowning at a tone he recognised in Michael, not to mention the angel face. The first thing he did was steer him into the kitchen. The second thing he did was pull the cup out of his hand, sniff and then taste it. And then look at his partner.

"What?" Michael asked when he couldn't take the look any more.

"It's eleven o clock in the morning, Michael, why are you drinking in private and being careful no one else spots it?" Eric glanced up as Joe opened the back door, voice sharp.

"Christopher Stevens, inside this minute."

Michael jumped a bit at Joe's tone, and looked down. "I wasn't trying to hide it."

"No? Why didn't you ask anyone else if they wanted one?" Eric said mildly. In the doorway, Joe's voice rose a notch further to the I'm REALLY Not Kidding tone.

"Christopher, if you make me come out there and get you, I promise you'll regret it."

"I just didn't think to ask, I'm sorry," Michael said, as Chris walked back into the kitchen with a dark look towards him.

"Because you knew the answer would be no." Eric pointed out. "Pour both of those down the sink please, right now."

Joe shut the back door, turned Chris around and swatted him sharply.

"GET those socks off right now. What DO you think you're doing?"

Chris sat down with a scowl that could have turned Methusela back into human form and ripped his socks off. "Nothing."

Michael sighed and poured the beer down the sink.

Joe walked across to the kitchen door into the lounge and shut it, sparing those in the living room witnessing. "What were you doing outside?"

"I thought I'd see how deep the snow was," Chris said darkly, not looking up.

"Give me another answer like that and I promise you I'll see how red your backside can get." Joe said sternly. "WHAT was going on in here?"

"Ask HIM," Chris said, pointing and looking straight at Michael.

Eric raised his eyebrows at Michael, folding his arms. "Mike?"

Feeling two sets of eyes burning into his head, not to mention the evil glare from Chris, he finally managed to mutter, "He said his head was thumping, and I just asked if the cold wake up call helped any...."

"Mike......" Eric said reproachfully.

Michael flushed, shifting his weight back and forth.

Joe gave Michael an irate look and clicked his fingers at the stairs. "We'll talk upstairs while you get warm, come on."

Michael had all he could handle not to burst out laughing, thinking of the way Joe might just warm Chris up and talk at the same time. He swallowed the laughter with difficulty, as Chris stood up and stalked out of the room.

"Finding something funny?" Eric inquired once Joe shut the door behind them.

The light left Michael's eyes immediately. "No, sir."

"I thought I told you there was no need to embarrass or pressure Chris by talking about what happened last night?"

"I wasn't trying to embarrass him. It was all in fun," Michael said quietly, feeling smaller by the instant.

Eric gave him a thoughtful look, arms still folded. "You know, this night terror thing is probably born of stress, since Chris is under a lot of it right now. The more stress, the more likely he is to do it again. And the more upset he gets about it, the more likely he is to be stressed. You didn't do a lot to help him with that, did you?"

Michael shook his head no, not meaning to have upset Chris THAT much.

Eric crossed to him and took the now empty cups out of his hands. "I don't want to hear that it's been mentioned again, at ALL, is that clear? And you can consider any form of alcohol off limits."

Michael wanted to complain, but knew he was getting off easy. "Yes, sir."

"Thankyou. While you're out here and the others are watching the video, you can make a start on lunch. Carrots, potatoes, broccoli, you know where they all are. Peel and chop enough for eight and let me know when you're done."

"WHAT??!" Michael exploded. "You mean -"

Eric waited, eyebrow raised.

"It's not fair that I have to do it all!"

"Would you prefer a spanking?"

"No!"

Eric waited, arms still folded, still calm faced.

Michael turned and went to the refigerator, not too carefully opening it up and pulling out the various vegetables.

"WITHOUT banging around please." Eric warned, and went back to the lounge, leaving the door open.

Michael waited a good few minutes before he started to mutter as he pulled out the various items he needed to chop everthing with, casting smoldering looks out into the living room.



Upstairs Chris threw himself full length on the bed and buried his face in his arms, blocking out Joe and the noise of the film until Joe shut the bedroom door.

"Sit up, please," Joe said, standing at the side of the bed.

It took a moment and a lot of effort but Chris rolled over, sat up and dragged his arm across his eyes, trying to clear his face.

"What were you doing outside in just your socks?"

Chris shrugged a little, eyes down, but knew Joe well enough to know prevarication was a waste of time. "Michael was digging at me about- last night- and I got mad. I just wanted to get away from him for a few minutes."

"We talked about that this morning, didn't we?"

Chris shrugged, eyes still down, visibly upset.

"You know these guys, and that they'd more than likely ask you about it. What did I say you should do?"

"Ignore them." Chris muttered. "I TRIED, he kept on about it."

"And if they kept on, then what?"

"I don't know." Chris said still more quietly.

"You come and tell me. Remember that?"

"It wasn't that bad, I just got mad about him teasing - like I did something stupid- I don't even REMEMBER doing it!"

"It's allright, Christopher," Joe said, crouching down in front of Chris. "It's not something to be ashamed of, and it certainly isn't something worth getting upset over."

"It IS, its totally stupid!" Chris said hotly, folding his arms and glaring down past Joe at the carpet. "I DON'T remember doing it and that scares the HELL out of me, you didn't even know I'd gone!"

Joe took Chris' hand in his, waiting until he had eye contact. "It's not stupid. That was just your body's way of dealing with stress. We talked about that this morning."

"You didn't tell me Mike and Eric were down in the kitchen laughing about it at the time!"

"Is that what Mike said?"

"No......" Chris trailed off, not wanting to get Michael into trouble. "Just sounded like he found it pretty funny."

"Does it really matter what Mike thinks?" Joe asked gently.

"Yeah when he knows more about what stupid things I'm doing in the middle of the night than I do or you do!" Chris said bitterly .

"It was a one-time incident. You haven't done that before, and I don't think you'll do it again. I think it was just too much alcohol and excitement, and a crowded place to sleep that caused it."

Chris thought about that for a moment, not responding. Then gave him another of those uncertain, half shrugs.

"What if I don't wake up once I get outside next time? Or I head out onto the road?"

"I'm a little more aware of you now." Joe said calmly. "Sleepwalkers usually can't undo locks, and I don't think you were even really sleepwalking- just not properly awake and confused. You were just able to go outside because someone had already opened the door and you woke up almost as soon as you felt the change of temperature."

"Can you lock the bedroom door?" Chris said uncertainly

"We can do that, or we can put a chair in front of it. Anything that impedes the door."

"So long as you wake up."

"You'll come back to bed if you can't get past the door, or at the very least, make some sort of noise that would awaken me. You're not going to be injured."

"I was really scared." Chris mumbled, not looking at him. "I don't even remember what I was thinking or if I was dreaming or what was going on, I just didn't know where the hell I was."


"I know," Joe said, standing up and pulling Chris up with him to give him a bone crushing hug. "I'm sure it's unsettling, but it's nothing to worry about."

Chris cuddled up to him, reassured by the matter of fact tone of voice and by Joe's certainty. And held on, trying not to think of Mike still downstairs, or the headache, or the fact he could cheerfully have laid down now and caught up on what felt like an entire night of missed sleep.

"I think between Mike's help, and your busy night, you could do with a lie down until lunch. Why don't you get those pants off and under the covers, hmmm?"

Chris shook his head hard, not wanting to be up here alone, nor to try sleeping, despite Joe's reassurances. "No, I'm okay. Just want to be downstairs with everyone else."

"You can be downstairs with everyone else at lunch. Come on, pants off."

"I don't wannnnnnnt tooooo......" Chris said plaintively. "Please? It's cold up here."

"Not under the covers it's not. Do I need to undress you myself?"

"Plleeeeeeeeeeeeeeease.." Chris tried again, appealingly.

Joe responded with his warning tone. "Chris..."

"That's MEAN!" Chris said hotly, "I don't want to be up here alone!"

"That's enough," Joe said firmly. "You could use a rest. I won't ask again."

Chris turned away without a word, but the tears started again as he undressed.

Joseph stood, watching, as his younger lover got undressed and under the covers, clearly not happy. He bent down to kiss his forehead gently.

"I'll be just downstairs if you need anything. You'll feel much better after lunch, I'm certain of it."

Chris curled up under the covers and didn't answer. Joe got up after brushing Chris' hair from his face and shut the door behind him as he headed back downstairs.

Angrily, Chris brushed the tears from his eyes, kicked the covers off and sat up. Bad enough to be left alone up here, never mind to have the door shut on him. He slid out of bed and went to look out of the window, ignoring the cold.

Joe settled down on the couch, taking a sip of his now cool tea and trying to get involved in the movie. Eric cast a glance across at Joe, voice quiet enough not to reach Matthew and Todd on the hearthrug.

"Is he allright? I apologise for Mike, tact isn't his strong point."

"That's allright." Joe said easily. "Chris is fine, just over tired. Hopefully a nap before lunch will cure that."

"Mike's peeling vegetables for eight. That ought to give him time to reflect on the virtues of not teasing the living daylights out of his friends."

"Are we having vegetables or mashed vegetables?" Joe asked with a hint of laughter in his eyes.

Eric grinned. "Relax, I'll keep an eye on him- Rolf sit DOWN, the snow isn't going anywhere."

"No, it's not," Rolf said ruefully after having checked out the window yet again. The clouds are trying to lighten though."

"I don't think you're going to be going anywhere tonight no matter what the weather does."

Rolf grimaced. "Let's not tempt fate by discussing it in those terms? Can I get a refill for anyone?"

"Me." Stephen said, raising a hand. A crash from the kitchen brought Eric to his feet.

"I'll get them, I think I'm needed."

Rolf sat back down and eyed Matthew sternly when he tried to get up to see what the ruckus was all about.

Mike was sitting on the floor, trying to pick up slivers of vegetables and waste which had landed on the floor along with the cutting boad.

Eric shut the kitchen door behind him and moved the knife out of reach from it's perilous position on the edge of the counter before he stooped to help.

"How did THAT happen?"

"I didn't have the cuttingboard all the way on the counter and when I tried to cut a stupid carrot it flipped," Michael spat as he threw cuttings back onto the board.

"NOT very sensible using a sharp knife. And don't growl at me please, it isn't my fault. Are you allright?"

"I'm fine," Mike replied, a shade lighter.

"Then carry on please. I'll make a start on the meat."

Mike didn't dare grumble out loud. He was only partially pleased that he wasn't going to be in the kitchen alone any more.

Matthew rolled over on the hearthrug in the lounge, sat up and stretched. "I'm getting stiff.... can we go for a walk or something? Just a short one?"

"Yeah! I could use a walk too," Todd added.

Matthew fixed a hopeful look on Rolf.

Rolf asked a question, even though he knew the answer. "You want to walk out in that slop again? We only came in an hour ago."

"Yes, it's boring in here." Matthew said bluntly. "Come on, just to the end of the street and back? Please?"

"Is that allright with you?" Rolf asked Steve.

Steve grinned, waving a hand at Todd. "If Rolf's mad enough to go out there with you, be my guest. I'll be right here by the fire."

"Rolf, you don't have to go. We'll be fine by ourselves," Todd said.

"Can I go too?" Mike said from the doorway, looking hopefully at Eric.

"I need to stretch my legs as well," Rolf said, even though he really wasn't looking forward to the cold. "Eric?"

"I'll carry on with lunch thanks, they're all yours if your ankle's up to it." Eric said cheerfully.

"Thanks, and it feels fine." Rolf said in a tone a voice that didn't match the word, as Michael zoomed up the stairs to get more socks and a sweater to wear.

Matthew and Todd fled for coats and boots. Joe gave Rolf a friendly smile.

"If you're not back in an hour we'll send out search parties."

"I appreciate the support," Rolf said, grinning, as he slid his feet back into his still cold boots. "Maybe you should open the door and let the smell of lunch bring them back."

"You've got a good hour." Eric commented. "Don't get too cold out there."

"Hopefully they won't last an hour," Rolf said as he followed the three younger men out the door. It might however settle them down a bit, and three restless brats were hard company.

Matthew was already half way down the salted drive and Todd was picking his way out across the deep drifts in the front lawn as Rolf came outside. Michael paused, giving a considering look towards the back garden

Rolf continued down the drive, grimacing as some cold snow worked it's way in his boot. "Michael?" he asked as he came to the end of the drive.

"Just coming." Michael said cheerfully and started after him, heading towards Matthew.

Rolf, even with his longer stride was soon outdistanced by the three young men. Figuring that there was little danger from traffic or problems along the road, he didn't ask that everyone stay with him, taking time instead to walk in footprints already visible in the snow and enjoying the quiet of the day.

"I can't even SEE the creek." Michael informed Matthew as he reached him. "I bet it's solid ice for miles."

"No doubt," Matthew said as he took another step forward. There was a car parked on the road and the snow had drifted as tall as the front hood on the one side. He took one look at Michael, who had the same idea, and they both grabbed an unsuspecting Todd and pushed him into the drift.

"HEY." Rolf said from the other end of the street, heading towards them. Michael grabbed Matthew and both of them fled, laughing, leaving Rolf to extricate Todd.

Rolf helped Todd to brush snow from his back. "Are you allright?"

"Yes...." Todd wriggled, shaking snow out from the back of his neck, well aware the other two had vanished from sight into the back garden and NOT amused by it. Rolf brushed snow out of his hair and off the back of his jacket.

"Want to continue the walk?"

"I'd like to see what the main street is like." Todd admitted, covering for the other two despite himself.

"Where did Mike and Matt get to?" Rolf asked as he looked around.

"Towards the garden I think." Todd said guilelessly. "Some of the deep drifts there."

"Michael! Matthew!" Rolf yelled towards the house.

"Coming!" Matthew yelled back, not moving. Michael, by dint of scuffing at the snow, had managed to locate the creek and it was indeed ice as far as Michael could uncover it.

"How hard would it be to clean some of this off?" Matthew asked Mike.

Michael grinned at him for answer, bent down and pushed with both hands, clearing the snow back as he walked down the winding length of the creek. Todd had waited long enough and headed towards the main road. Matthew caught the glimmer of movement from the road and glanced up, digging Michael in the ribs.

"Watch it, they're headed back this way."

"Todd, we'll have to wait on the walk. I need to see what they're doing," Rolf said, waiting for Todd to turn and follow him into the garden.

Todd pulled a face and trailed him. Michael took one more step, kicking the snow clear of the ice- and Matthew jumped at the loud CRACK as the ice fractured beneath him. There was another, louder series of cracks- and suddenly Michael was sitting, waist deep, his coat floating around him.

Matthew scrambled backwards up the bank, his feet soaking wet but otherwise unscathed. He looked at Michael for a moment, noticing he was still rather stunned. "Man that must be COLD."

Michael looked too surprised to respond. In fact, he simply sat there with his mouth open, arms outstretched above the ice.

Todd had jumped ahead of Rolf when he realized what the guys were probably doing, and broke into a hopping run when the ice broke. It took a moment for Rolf to realize what the cracking sound was, but he was hot on Todd's heels when it occured to him that it was ice breaking.

Matthew caught sight of the two bursting into the garden and hurriedly grabbed Michael's hands, pulling with more good will than caution

Matthew's foot slipped and the edge of ice he was standing on broke. His leg went up to the knee in the water before he hit bottom, yelping at the cold and managing to scramble backwards. Rolf's hand on his coat was a welcome relief.

"Stop struggling, Matthew. Todd, help Matthew back up the hill, be careful," Rolf said, turning his attention to Michael.

"Michael, are you alright?"

Michael looked at him, too breathless to comment, then grabbed for his hands and did his best to scramble up to his feet. Rolf got a firmer stance on the bank and braced him, pulling him up and helping him scramble over the ice and onto the snow covered bank. When Rolf was certain they wouldn't slide back into the water, he put an arm firmly around him, pushing him up the bank.

"I do not believe you two. Matthew get back to the house, right now. Todd!"

Todd moved hurriedly, trailing Matthew who was shivering hard in his drenched jeans and well aware of Rolf stalking behind them with a face like thunder.

Once the front door was open Todd barely took the time to stomp his feet, going inside immediately and over to Stephen for a warm hug as he dropped his coat on the floor, not at all keen to take any part in the storm about to break.

Stephen flinched hard at the chill of him, then nobly wrapped both arms around him, pulling him closer and staring at Matthew and Michael as they dripped. Eric came out of the kitchen and stopped dead. Then nodded upstairs.

"Rolf, use our bathroom, get Matthew under the shower. Mike come in here before you freeze, what on earth happened?"

"N.n.nothing," Mike stuttered through a shiver as he headed into the kitchen.

"Except crashing through the ice into the creek." Rolf said acidly, pulling off his own coat. "I took my eyes off them for less than TWO minutes-"

Joe coughed, cleared his throat and apologised. Rolf gave him a fulminating glance and heeled his boots off.

"- and some bright spark thought they'd have a try at the icecapades- Matthew MOVE."

Matthew hung his coat on the banister and fled, looking forward to a hot shower. The only fly in the ointment was the wolf hot on his heels, still muttering.

Quietly, Joe got up and went after them, intending to wake Chris and take him downstairs. There wasn't much privacy to be had in a house this size with so many of them around, but he had a feeling that Mike and Matthew were about to appreciate all the distance they could gain from everyone else.

Rolf dropped a hand on Matthew's shoulder half way upstairs, pushed him into the bathroom and turned the shower on hot, peeling him out of his boots and drenched jeans and continuing the lecture still more pointedly now he had his partner to himself.

"I spanked you less than TWO hours ago for clowning around outside! Clearly that had no effect on your common sense whatsoever! What on EARTH possessed you to try walking on the ice? Have you any idea how many people die falling through ice?"

"I wasn't 'on' the ice. I was on the edge, and it's not deep," Matthew protested as he stripped off his underwear before getting under the spray. "Ow, it's HOT!"

"I'm sure it is, you must be frozen." Rolf said pointedly. Matthew pulled a face and ignored that, still shivering. It took a minute for the water to warm him up and feel normal again.

Rolf pulled the curtain but didn't go an inch further, sounding very far from appeased. "What were you doing on the edge in the first place? You and Mike BOTH know where the creek is!"

"Mike was the one that wanted ON the creek. I just waited on the edge, as that was the flattest - and safest - place to stand."

"WAS that a good idea?" Rolf demanded. "Tell me how that appeared anything even vaguely LIKE a good idea?"

Matthew winced on those words, wishing the hot shower would never end and unfortunately well aware that his backside was still sore from his earlier encounter with the wrath of Rolf. He pondered his answer, trying to find something appeasing.

"MATTHEW." Rolf said sharply, not appreciating the delay.

"It was supposed to be frozen," Matthew replied quickly, grabbing a bar of soap.

It was a bad move. He realised it almost immediately. Rolf, in no hurry to extract him from the shower, took a seat and began to explain, in detail, exactly what thermodynamics entailed and how they related to brats who did precisely what they were frequently told NOT to do.

Downstairs, Eric peeled Mike out of the last piece of semi frozen clothing and pushed him under the shower in the bathroom off the kitchen.

"I TOLD you not to go near the creek. I remember it distinctly Michael."

Michael managed a quick nod of his head before he felt the hot blast of the shower upon his frozen skin. He jumped back for a moment, until the water got his blood pumping again and he needed to turn the hot water on to a more normal warm temperature.

"You have five minutes." Eric told him severely. "I'm going to get you dry clothes, and then we'll discuss what 'no' means. And you'll be extremely lucky if you don't spend the rest of today in bed."

Michael shoved that part of the day into 'to be determined' box in his mind and concentrated on keeping his teeth from chattering as he slowly warmed up. When he thought five minutes was up, he turned the water off and grabbed the towel, quickly rubbing warmth back into his skin. He jumped when the door opened. Eric shook out several towels and handed him one, before laying out clean and dry sweats. And shutting and locking the door behind him. Michael took the second towel and dried off his hair, before hopefully reaching for his sweat pants.

Eric took the towel from him and blocked his way, turning him to dry off his shoulders.

"I don't think so sunshine. When did we last talk about ice? Do you remember?"

Damn that conversation went downhill quickly. There wasn't an easy way out of that question. Say no, and Eric would think he didn't make an impression last time. Say yes, and Eric would jump directly onto the fact that he'd done it again, and why? Knowing that he didn't need Eric thinking he didn't do a good job last time, he tried yes. "Yes, but -"

"So what happened?" Eric interrupted. He didn't sound particularly stern- Eric rarely did- but then Michael knew first hand Eric never needed to sound at all annoyed to make his point.

"I...I just thought it might be solid," Michael replied lamely, looking at the floor.

"What DID I say last time Michael?"

"Not to," came the quiet reply.

"Which means?"

"I shouldn't have been on it." Michael looked up earnestly. "I'm sorry, it won't happen again."

"We're going to make quite sure of that." Eric promised him soberly. "Ditch the towel Mike."

Michael realized he had been clutching the towel as a shield, and slowly draped it on the towel rack. He turned back towards Eric, tears in his eyes and clouding his voice. "Please, can't we wait until everyone leaves?"

Eric didn't even trouble to answer that, just put out a hand and gently pulled Michael to him, adjusting his seat before he turned Mike down and over his lap.

The tears fell from Michael's eyes as he assumed the position, creating two rounded puddles on the bathroom floor, about the size of a contact lens. He gritted his teeth in anticipation, dreading the first, loud slap.

"You stay OFF ice." Eric said firmly above him, not unsympathetic, but determined to deal with this now and sufficiently to avoid all future repetitions. "People DIE on ice, it's dangerous as you just proved. You don't go near ice, on ice, have anything to do with ice over water. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," Michael choked out sincerely.

Eric didn't make him wait any further. He wrapped an arm firmly around Michael's waist and began spanking, hard and accurately, covering the ground thoroughly enough to turn both white cheeks scarlet. For about three minutes his hand fell and fell, untiring and accurate, then he paused and looked down at his partner, stilling the kicking and squirming Mike was still reflexively producing.

"What are you NEVER going to do again?"

"Get on the ice!" Michael choked out, anxious to get out of this position.

"Why?" Eric said calmly, punctuating himself with another sound swat.

It took Mike a minute to stop the urge to yell before he could say, "because it's dangerous. PLEASE!"

"VERY dangerous." Eric resumed swatting, voice still calm. "I do NOT want to lose you through the ice, NOR see any of our friends go under because they followed you into some hairbrained exploration. It's LETHAL Mike, you know that perfectly well, and you knew it today before you even set foot on the ice. Didn't you?"

He nodded vigorously, unable to do anything more than sob, still trying to move his bottom out of the target area.

"NO MEANS No." Eric said firmly. "Categorically. You do NOT disobey me Michael. Is that clear?"

Gathering as much dignity as he could, and hoping a quick yes, sir would end it, Michael managed a sincere "Yes, sir."

Eric landed another half dozen, hard swats and stopped, releasing the tightness of his grip and resting his hands instead on Michael's back.

Michael sobbed hard, trying to be quiet as the bathroom echoed everything back a thousand times over. He wanted nothing whatsoever to do with ice right now, and probably would even skip having any in his drink, though he'd appreciate a seat on it at the moment.

Eric let him get his breath for a moment, then helped him up and held him tightly, letting Michael sink his sobs into his shoulder where they were muffled. He ran a hand through Mike's hair, shaking the wet strands loose and waited, letting him cry himself out. Not really wanting to let go, Michael let Eric wipe his face a little before pulling his sweatshirt down over his head. He stepped gingerly into the sweat pants and pulled them up, going immediately back for a hug.

Eric took him back into his lap and held him, knowing Mike needed to feel a lot better before he'd handle facing their friends. Michael spared a brief thought for Matthew before self pity re-exterted itself and he dove deeper into Michael's shoulder. Eric rocked him, rubbing his back and let him take his time. It was a good half hour before the last sniffle died away and Mike was merely cuddled up to him, still clinging but no longer distressed.

Eric kissed his forehead, hugging him tighter for a moment. "Okay? How about we go finish lunch?"

Michael nodded , hungry enough to deal with the thought of six pairs of eyes on him downstairs. Eric put him on his feet, kept hold of his hand and led him into the kitchen, putting him in front of the vegetables ready to cook on the stove before he went to the doorway. Todd was curled up with Stephen and Joe was sitting on the sofa with Chris, awake and dressed, sitting on the floor at his feet, all of them watching racing on the tv. Joe looked up and smiled. Todd and Chris gave him the slightly wary look of a brat well aware that he was literally red handed from his own brat.

They all looked up when they heard a slow tread on the stairs. Rolf's head finally appeared as he neared the floor, and Matthew trailed down slowly behind him, hoping his face didn't look as bad as he felt.

Eric tactfully avoided looking at Matthew, merely glancing around the room generally.

"I think the full race starts in about an hour?"

"What about lunch?" Chris asked, the only brat brave enough currently to say anything to Eric.

Eric smiled at him. "We'll eat in about half an hour, so that should work out fine. What are you drinking? Anyone need a top up?"

"Water," Joe said quickly, knowing Chris didn't need anything stronger for the time being. "And I'll have some more coffee. Can I help?"

"No, we're fine for the moment thanks." Eric said, knowing Mike would want some space for a while. Rolf took a seat on the sofa and Matthew promptly curled up beside him, face as far out of sight as possible. "What about you two?"

"Some hot chocolate and a hot tea for me, please," Rolf replied, resting his hand on Matthew's shoulder.

"And we'll have tea too please." Stephen agreed. "Got any more wood to hand Eric? The fire's going to die down in a bit."

"Out on the side of the garage," Eric replied. "I'll get it as soon as I'm done with the drinks."

"I'll go." Stephen slid Todd off his lap and got up. "Anything else out there you need?"

"The holder there is also the carrier. And I think we're fine, thanks," Eric said, disappearing back into the kitchen to gather the drinks up.

Todd followed Stephen. Matthew curled deeper under Rolf's arm and avoided Chris's eye with determination. Not much was worse than an encounter with an annoyed Rolf before one had time to get dry and he was in no mood for conversation.

Michael stirred the vegetables as Eric moved around him in the kitchen. He then opened the oven to inspect the food in there. "Is this done?"

Eric took the joint out, found a skewer and poked it. "Not far off. Shall we eat in here? I think this is the bigger table."

Michael nodded and began setting the table, still not in a conversational mood. Five minutes later that was done as the vegetables began to steam in their pot.

Eric got the meat out again, drained it and left it to stand, and began to set the table. "There's the New Year Grand prix race on tv this afternoon, that ought to keep everyone entertained for an hour or two."

"Yeah," Michael said, pulling off a piece of the meat to taste.

Eric swatted his hand away. "Plate the vegetables up then, I'll give the others a shout."

It was a noisy, somewhat chaotic meal with eight hungry grown men around the table, and even Matthew and Michael recovered their spirits a little as they ate. They were finishing and Eric was beginning to clear the table when they heard the knock at the front door- not just one knock either but a heavy banging that made the tops look around, eyebrows raised, somewhat wary.

"Excuse me," Eric said as he stood up to answer the door. "Stay," he said to Michael who was trying to get to his feet. Eric looked out the window before opening the door. "Can I help you?"

The man was heavily dressed against the weather, looked tired and seriously fed up and both his hands and trousers were slicked with oil.

"I've broken down," he said without preamble, "Could you call the breakdown service out for me? I'm going to need a tow truck."

Eric only thought a moment about leaving the guy outside before inviting him in. "Please, come in and get warm. I'll get the phonebook," Eric said, quickly going over to the table and opening the drawer that held it.

"Anyone in particular?"

"Anyone from town would be good." The man said sourly. "It's a van and it rolled right over."

"You do know the roads are blocked right into town?" Eric warned. "I don't know they'll get anyone out to you today."

"I can't exactly leave it as is," the man replied sharply, before taking a deep breath and looking up. "I'm sorry. I just didn't expect to find myself out today, much less rolled over and damaged."

Eric shut the book and surveyed him with some sympathy. "Where are you headed?"

"To my parents, I was on the main highway when it got too bad to go any further and I thought I'd come into town for the night. But the van's disabled and I daren't leave it."

"Eric Davidson." Eric said, holding out his hand.

"Jack Manterfield." The driver said, glancing ruefully at his oily palm. "I won't mate, I'm mucky enough. Do you think I can walk into town and get some help?"

"I'm an officer here in town. Let me call dispatch and find out what the roads are like. You can find a bathroom through that door," Eric said, heading back to the phone to call headquarters.

"Thanks." the driver said gratefully, heeled off oily boots and headed for the bathroom, nodding at the men around the table. Rolf got up and quietly put the kettle on.

Eric called in and found that the snowplows were just now beginning to make headway on the emergency routes and would be busy with those for most of the day. He hung up, promising to report on the accident as soon as he made it to the scene.

Joe leaned on the table, looking up at him as he came back. "Is he going to get anywhere? I wouldn't like to think of anyone walking far in this."

"Not anytime soon. I do need to walk back with him to make sure that no one else unlucky enough to be driving out there is in danger from his vehicle."

"How about if he goes back out onto the highway if that's clearer, and goes back to the motel?" Stephen suggested. "If his van can be made drivable."

"The highway would be clearer. I wonder......if the van just rolled, maybe we can set it back up ourselves...."

Rolf nodded from the counter, considering it. "I don't see why not, if there's nothing else wrong with it. He's probably safer doing that than trying to come deeper into town."

"I'll help," Matthew said immediately.

"For a start," Eric said calmly, "we have no clue how far away it is, it could be quite a walk, and I don't know yet what's wrong with it."

Normally Matthew would have had a snappy comeback to that, but after the events of the day, he subsided against the chair and continued to pick at the vegetables on his plate.

Rolf made a strong cup of tea and put it out, then took his seat back at the table. "Do you have tow ropes here Eric?"

"Yes, in the garage," Eric said as Jack re entered the kitchen.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt dinner."

"We'd finished." Eric said cheerfully, handing him the tea. "We were just talking about the best option and how your van might be got back up. Is anything wrong with it other than having rolled?"

"The side window broke, but it was running when I stopped. As long as the gas or oil doesn't leak over the road, and the sides can be pulled away from the tires if need be, I should be ready to go."

"Then you might do better going back out of town onto the west highway and trying the motel there, that'll be safe until morning when they'll get the roads clearer. Or be a safe place to stay until they are cleared. There's enough of us here, do you want us to try getting it back up?"

"That would be - that would be great," Jack said thankfully. He held out his hand to Eric, now that it was clean. "Thanks."

Eric gripped it firmly. "No problem. Rolf are you coming?"

"Yes, I'll help. Just give me a minute to get dressed."

"I'll go too," Steve added, hoping that only his strength would be needed and not his first aid skills. "I'll get ready as well."

"I will." Mike offered, echoing Matthew. Eric shook his head.

"I don't think so. Four of us should be plenty."

Mike also subsided much quicker than normal. Chris, however, had no problems asserting himself. "I'm going too. You never know when you'll need another able body."

"I don't think you or I would be any help." Joe said comfortably. "Not the muscle nor the practical skills. If they need more people they can always phone us back."

Since that was an effective volunteering to stay with four already fractious brats, Rolf gave him a faint smile of sympathy.

"Thanks anyway, Sport," Rolf said, rustling Chris' hair as he passed by.

Chris sat down hard, a pout already forming across his face.

Todd had one last try, simply getting up and getting his coat as the others moved, but Stephen stopped him at the door, sliding the coat back off his shoulders.

"No."

"I AM strong enough," Todd muttered.

"That isn't the issue." Stephen said quietly, avoiding the others hearing. "And you know it. The issue is I don't want you getting cold and wet and struggling through a mile of heavy snow for no good reason."

"But you'll do it," Todd said savagely, pulling away.

"Hey, do you speak to me like that?" Stephen swatted the seat of Todd's jeans, pulling him back.

Todd stood stiffly, folding his arms and not speaking.

"I don't remember anyone calling this relationship fair." Stephen said to him, still softly. "I make the decisions and I decide what you do. And I DON'T like you getting yourself into risky situations. You stay please, and without the pouting."

"Yes, sir," Todd said, as close to the edge of not nice as he dared tread, before turning and going over to a chair and plopping down in it.

Stephen quietly went across to the chair where Todd was sitting, took his elbow and steered him across the room to the corner, kissing his forehead before he left him standing there with a quick glance to Joe, who nodded. The others, coated up, had already headed onto the drive and Stephen followed, shutting the door behind them.

It was a long thirty minutes through the snow before the guys made it to the van. No one else had ventured out, at least not in the vicinity of the van. From the looks of things, Jack had started to slide and turned his wheels the wrong way, the van simply rolling over into the snow without too much force. Eric had brought along two flares, which he set up twenty or so yards from both sides of the van. Once that was done, places were looked to hook up the ropes to begin trying to turn the van right side up.



Joe released Todd from the corner after fifteen minutes, seeing no signs of Todd's mood having improved. In fact, looking around the living room, each face reflected back anything but joy and enthusiasm for life. Chris looked tired and fractious, Michael and Matthew still subdued. In the end he clicked the tv off and got up, stretching.

"Mike, why don't you find us some cards?"

Mike got up, but without any real interest. Chris, rolling over on the rug, actively moaned.

"I don't WANT to play poker-"

"Keep that tone of voice up and you'll be playing snap." Joe said cheerfully. "Come on, lets do something other than sit around."

"Like what?" Matthew said moodily. Joe folded his arms.

"Okay. Well there's housework if you're all THAT bored?"

"I don't want to play cards," Matthew said, flopping down on the couch. "Turn the tv back on."

"Nope, we're done with tv." Joe said firmly. "Cards or housework, take your pick."

Michael went to the table and opened the drawer with the cards, extracting one box and sliding the door closed. He tossed the cards on the coffee table and sank down on the couch without interest.

Joe waited. Gradually Todd, then Chris surrendered and came to the table. Only Matthew stood where he was, still scowling on the couch.

Finally he too gave in, staring blankly at the table, waiting.

Joe sat down and dealt out the cards, taking no notice of scowls.

"Are we going to bet, or just play by hand?" Matthew asked, rolling his eyes.

"Just play." Joe said cheerfully. "Anyone who loses horrifically can do the washing up."

"Great, fun," Matthew said as the others groaned. Each one put down between one and three cards and Joe dealt out the rest.

"Alright, time to show them."

Matthew tossed his hand on the table "Jack crap."

"Pair of kings," Todd said.

"Nothing," Chris and Mike said simultaneously.

"I've got three fours," Joe said, putting his hand down.

"Of course," Matthew replied.

Joe scooped up the cards and handed them to him. "Deal for me?"

Matthew accepted the pack, scowling. The phone ringing in the kitchen raised several sighs, mostly of relief. Joe got up and went to answer it.

"I don't know what the fuck we're doing here like kids," Matthew fumed once he was sure Joe was out of hearing. "We can help with the van."

"We're not the He-men." Mike pointed out ironically.

"I may not be a fucking giant, but I'm no wimp either. We need to get Joe occupied and just leave. Who's with me?"

Todd promptly lifted a hand. Chris shook his head. "Pull it in Mocoso, aren't you sore enough about the seat already?

Matthew's glare towards Chris could have set him on fire. He didn't bother with a remark. "Mike?"

Mike hesitated, shifting somewhat uncomfortably in his seat. "I don't know, Eric wasn't happy about the ice.."

"We can take the road," Matthew replied as if he were talking to an idiot.

"So?" Mike snapped back, not liking the tone. "Joe'll know, Eric'll go nuts, who wants to take bets on being paddled here?"

"Full house." Chris agreed, tossing cards at Matthew.

Matthew's sour mood wasn't improved by truth of the matter. "Fine, we don't need you. Just tell your mommy that Todd and I went to take a nap," Matthew snapped at Chris as he stood up and quickly suited up, keeping an ear on the phone.

Chris sat back, folding his arms, a thoroughly unpleasant sneer coming to cover the hurt at Matthew's dig.

"Fine. I'll enjoy listening to you yell the bathroom down. Again."

Matthew turned to tear into Chris when he was pushed along by Todd. "Go, the back door, or we won't make it," he snapped quietly, hoping he didn't get a fist in his ear for his troubles. He was far more interested in getting out and trying something, as he was still feeling pretty left out for the day.

Matthew moved. Mike cast a look towards Joe, hesitating.

Chris caught the movement and wasn't about to be the only one left in the house. "Oh, the TWO of you going would be priceless. AGAIN."

That swung it. "FUCK YOU." Mike spat under his breath, getting up. "That was a spiteful dig at Matt, you're such an ass when you get going. Have fun."

Chris was shocked that his tactic to keep Mike there backfired. He managed to hide that shock behind his next words. "Oh, I will. You can bet your paddled ass I will." Chris got up and strode into the kitchen, not even wanting to see them leave.

Joe, half way through a complicated set of messages for Eric, gave him a quick glance and sighed. Matthew and Chris alone together never worked out well.

Mike caught up with the other two on the drive, shutting the door softly behind them, and they ran as best they could through the heavy snow, following the footprints that led down the road and out of town.

"Think Chris'll tattle?" Matthew asked Mike, forgetting immediately that Mike had almost been a traitor earlier.

Mike shrugged. "I plan on being out of sight by the time he decides. I think we're pretty much dead anyway."

"Not if we manage to help them," Matthew said, ever the optimist.

"We're only trying to help," Todd said, also sure that if they made it there and did manage to help, all would be forgiven.

Mike shook his head and ploughed on after them. "At least this is less boring."

"No kidding," Matthew said, his usually cheery mood returning in full force. "Can you believe all this snow?

"I've never seen it this deep." Mike agreed happily. "It'll be days before Eric makes it back into work."

"The bar will be empty too," Todd said, thinking of some alone time with Stephen.

"How far do you think they are?" Michael asked, having thought they would be in view by now.

Mike paused, looking around. They were moving out of the street now, there were no longer houses to take their marker by, and since the road was no longer visible, it wasn't easy to see which way to carry on. Matthew shivered and turned his collar up as it began to snow again.

"It's EASY idiot, turn right here and head out towards the highway."

"And where IS the road?" Mike retorted.

"Can you not see the tracks?" Matthew said, following along those, and only those, and hoping that the snow coming down now wasn't going to make them disappear anytime soon.

The other two ploughed after him. The snow was getting deeper here, it was no longer just up to their knees but beginning to creep over until it was an effort to move from step to step. Todd's energy petered out first and he began to lag back, then stopped and leaned on his knees, trying to get his breath.

Matthew stopped and looked back. "Come on. If we're going to help, we need to keep moving. If we meet them on the way back, we're toast."

"Just a minute." Todd said, still panting. Despite the thickening snow, he was red in the face and his legs were shaking with the effort of striding through the snow. Matthew and Mike who were taller were struggling less but Michael wasn't sorry to stop and rest either and shook his head at Matthew.

"Two minutes, come on. We can't be more than ten minutes behind them anyway."

"You forget it was fifteen minutes that Todd stood in the corner," Matthew replied, also catching his breath but trying to pretend he was fine.

"Yes, but they can't have got THAT far in this." Mike argued. "Where IS this damn truck anyway?"

"I didn't get the address," Matthew said, turning to start walking again. His resolve that things were fine was starting to crumble. "Come on, we have to stay warm."

Todd pulled himself up with an effort, hanging on to Mike's arm. "Maybe I'll go back, I don't think I can keep up anyway."

Matthew stopped immediately. He was the reason they were out there, and he wasn't about to let them split up and something happen. "No. We have to stick together. They can't be that far from here. Remeber, we're trying to show them we can handle this," Matthew finished, sounding as sincere as he felt.

Todd hesitated, not at all sure about this. But gripped Mike's arm and began to wade through the snow again, head down against the increasingly heavy flakes.

*

Joe put the receiver down with no less than ten messages for Eric, and held out an arm to Chris.

"Dont look so fed up sweetheart."

Chris went to him, taking a seat on his lap and curling up sullenly. "Matthew's an-"

"No, we're not going to say anything that we're going to regret later...are we?" Joe interrupted before Chris could finish the sentence.

Chris closed his mouth for a moment, then changed topics. "Who called?"

"The station." joe said, glancing at the page of messages. "They're missing Eric badly from the look of things. Did you and Matthew have a fight?"

Chris had yet to make up his mind whether he was going to say something now, or just wait and see what happened later. Again, he skipped over the sore point. "What kind of messages? Murder case investigations?"

"Was it bad?" Joe said mildly.

"I don't want to talk about it," Chris said resolutely.

"I do." Joe said simply. "Are you going to tell me or do I need to go get Matthew too?"

Chris realized that Joe would go get Matthew if he didn't get him to stop talking about it. "No, it wasn't bad. I just didn't feel like staying in the same room. I came in to see what you were doing and to get a drink."

"What happened?" Joe slid Chris off his lap and got up, taking a glass down from the cupboard. It seemed extremely quiet in the living room. He glanced through on pure suspicion, and then went for a closer look when no one seemed to be left at the table. Chris slid lower in his chair, studying the table.

"Where did they go?" Joe asked Chris.

Chris stared at the table harder, feeling himself flush slowly from the neck upwards.

"Matthew!" Joe called sharply into the house. "MIKE!"

The house was silent in reply.

"Christopher, where are they?" Joe asked in his most authoritative voice.

Chris felt himself flush still more darkly, hating that tone which always made him squirm.

"I don't know."

Joe didn't waste any time, anxious to know where the boys went. He stepped to Chris quickly and lifted up his chin. "Where?"

"Out." Chris said reluctantly. "I think they went to help with the van-"

"How long have they been gone?"

"Since I came in." Chris muttered.

Joseph immediately went to the door and stepped out, trying to see three heads above the drifts of snow. As expected, he could make out none. He immediately grabbed the phone and called Rolf's cell, the only phone the group had.

Rolf picked up almost immediately, sounding out of breath but cheerful. "Hi Joe. It's upright, we shouldn't be much longer."

Rolf picked up almost immediately, sounding out of breath but cheerful. "Hi Joe. We found the van, going to have to dig it out before we move it but we shouldn't be too long."

"Do you happen to have seen three brats around there anywhere?" Joe asked.

Rolf blinked as the import of that hit him. Then spun around, scanning what he could see of the landscape. "WHEN did you miss them?"

"About fifteen minutes ago. Chris stayed put, but the other three left. Can you see them on the road?" Joe asked, hoping against hope that it would be that easy.

Rolf scanned again, glaring through the snowfall.

"No. We'll start looking Joe. Don't worry. And stay put, it's DEEP between here and there and they may well turn back."

"I'll call as soon as I've drawn and quartered them," Joe promised. Good luck with the van, and don't worry. They're smart enough to stick to the road."

"We hope." Rolf said under his breath, shutting the phone down. "Eric?"

Eric looked up from the energetic digging he was doing around the van wheels and stopped at the sight of Rolf's face.

"What?"

"They've given Joe the slip, guess who's on their way over?" Rolf said wryly. "Are you ok here and I'll start walking back, see if I can spot them?"

Eric was going to have a good laugh over this later as he never expected Joe to have the wool pulled over his eyes, but right now he was too worried about their assorted brats being stuck in the snow. His police training took over. "When did they leave?"

"About a quarter of an hour back, they won't have got too far yet."

"Let's give them another fifteen to get here, that's how long it took us." Eric said after brief reflection. "Better than you going off alone. We'll do better as a team going back than one at a time."

"It's not too much of an effort for me wading through this," Rolf pointed out, "And I'd rather think one of us was heading towards them than just wait. I'll phone back when I spot them."

"Ten minutes?" Eric offered.

"Ok, I'll phone then if I've seen them or not." Rolf was already walking, anxiety written all over him. Eric let him go, hoping that he'd meet them sooner rather than later as he didn't want to have to remain outside longer than he had to.

Rolf headed back the way they'd come, covering the ground fairly easily as he was by far the tallest of their group. The road was barely identifiable but with luck the brats would have kept track of the landmarks and know where they were going.

Matthew was trying to set a fast pace, but he was quickly tiring out himself. He kept checking to make sure Mike and Todd were keeping up. He looked back again and saw that Todd was a little white. "Okay, let's rest here, shall we?"

Todd sank down without a word, sitting waist deep in the snow and dropping his head on his arms. Mike hesitated, but did then sit down beside him. Matthew folded his arms, shivering. The snow was definitely getting stronger and he wasn't entirely sure where they were now. The snow was deep enough to cover what was fairly open ground out here, there were very few trees to give any landmarks to the area

They were climbing a small hill, and Matthew hoped that the van was just on the other side, out of sight. He sank down in the cold snow to rest his own legs for a minute. "I'd think the van is over the hill," he said through teeth that chattered.

"If it's not, I want to go back," Todd said. "At least that way I might not shatter like ice when Stephen gets his hands on me."

"I think it's further back now than to get to the van." Michael said uncertainly. "Maybe we'd better keep going."

"Has anyone got a phone on them?" Matthew said tentatively, feeling in his pockets. There was a silence while the other two checked their coats.

"No," Todd said.

"Mine's at home," Michael finished.

Todd looked up the road, wondering if he was going to make it. "Hey. What's that?" he asked, pointing a shaking finger up the road.

Matthew peered, trying to make out what Todd could see. And then recognised the flash of green jacket, familiar and bringing a rush of relief, even before he saw dark hair and six foot eight height.

"ROLF!"

Rolf glanced up at Matthew's bellow and quickened his stride, moving easily over the deep snow towards them. All three of the brats struggled to their feet and waded towards him, Matthew hanging somewhat back.

Rolf was very relieved himself, seeing all three were up and functioning. He closed the gap quickly, saving his breath for when he made it to them. "How are you three, aside from tired?" Rolf asked, looking over each with a critical eye.

"Cold, but fine," Mike said first.

" 'mmmkay," Todd managed.

"Ready to help," Matthew said with as much energy as he could muster.

He got a long and steady look through the snow that made him drop his eyes and despite the chill, begin to feel distinctly hot.

"I'm taking you with me," Rolf said finally, crisply, "ONLY because Eric needs my help to get the van up and I don't want you three out of my sight. So don't any of you run away with the thought for a moment that you've gotten your own way."

"Come along," Rolf said, once his last sentence had time to sink in.

The three young men walked a little quicker, though with heavy stomachs behind Rolf. Between the cold, the heavy snow that made walking most difficult, and especially knowing what awaited them later, none of the three thought that their idea had been a good one to begin with. Nothing to do now but make it through the day.

Rolf slowed his stride somewhat, well aware of the other three floundering somewhat. Mike and Matthew were out of breath but tall enough and fit enough to be able. Todd was genuinely beginning to stumble and Rolf hooked an arm through his, keeping him on his feet and sheltering him from the wind and some of the snow. At the top of the hill they paused and Michael caught sight of a glimmer of red paintwork of a van under the snow, and three distinctly snowy men digging around it. He trudged down the hill towards Eric, quickening his pace as the snow grew somewhat shallower.

"Need some help?" Michael said as he got close enough to the van.

Eric walked to meet him, his face showing none of his relief. "What the devil are you doing out here? You were told to stay home, SAFE."

Mike stopped short, his stomach really plummeting. Eric rarely got irritated and it was clear he was now, the breath visible in the cold air in short, sharp bursts.

"We thought you could use -"

"WHAT?" Eric interrupted. "Something else to worry about?"

Michael winced, somewhere between hurt and guilty. And looking at his partner's face, Eric clearly looked tired, fed up and with enough to do. Trying not to look at him, Michael picked up Eric's abandoned spade.

"Where are we digging?"

"You're NOT." Eric pulled the spade out of his hand. "Stand back, stand STILL, stay out of the way."

Michael moved off to the side where Matthew was standing. Todd joined them a moment later. "So much for that great idea," Michael muttered, hurt and angry at the same time.

"They won't be able to right that without our help, there's no way," Matthew said under his breath. "Then when they ask, maybe I'll say no."

Todd just stood, miserable and cold, wishing he was back at Eric's and playing cards in front of the fire.

Rolf, taking no notice of them, went back to steadying the van as the driver and Eric continued digging and within a few minutes he and Stephen were able to rock the vehicle freely from the snowdrift. Todd, shivering hard, sat down where he was and hugged his knees. Eric dug the spade deeply into the snowdrift and walked around the van to survey it.

"I think we should be able to do it now. Probably better to rock it over than try straight lifting. Rolf, want to take the other side?"

"There," Rolf said, getting ready to push from the back end. Stephen and Jack were in the middle.

"Allright, on the count of three we start trying to rock this up. You two, just make sure you don't step under the vehicle in case we don't get it up. Ready?"

"Ready."

"One, two, THREE," Eric yelled, pushing with all his might.

The van rocked up twice, and the second window cracked with a loud pop. Eric slipped to his knees in the snow and they stopped.

That was enough for Matthew and Michael, they both darted to help. Eric met Michael with a growl and a glare once Michael helped him to his feet.

"I thought I said stand back?"

Matthew, avoiding Rolf's eye, simply went to his side and took a similar handhold, somewhat reassured that while silent, Rolf moved over, making room for him.

Stephen stood back for a moment and brushed snow off his face, trying not to look too anxiously at Todd.

"Try again?"

Eric glared at Mciahel for a moment longer, then moved over to allow him room. "Yes, let's try again. On the count of three. One, two, THREE."

The van rocked once, twice, then with a mighty groan from everyone, the van landed on all four tires.

Rolf yanked Matthew clear, braced in case the van overturned on their side, but it steadied and stayed upright. Eric let go a breath and walked around the vehicle, quickly checking the tires and kicking at the back ones.

"They're sound, Jack. If she starts, she's probably drivable. Mind the glass."

The driver climbed into the drivers seat and turned the engine over. It spluttered a few times, then fired. Rolf shut the driver's door for him and Eric shielded his eyes from the snow, pointing down the road and left.

"Go back the way you came, turn left at the cross roads, you'll see the motel signposted. Good luck."

"Thanks," Jack said before driving slowly back the way he had come.

Any relief that Matthew and Michael had felt at having helped was quickly replaced by the churning their stomachs were doing when corralled by their partners.

"Let's go back," Rolf said, his arm around Matthew to help him along.

Stephen helped Todd to his feet and Eric closed on his other side, the two taller men steadying him as they started back, Eric keeping firm hold of Michael's arm. Mike followed, scowling, hanging back as much as he dared. The firm swat across his icy bottom hurried him along without another word. They rested twice on the way back, letting everyone catch their breath. The short snowshower had ended and the landscape was brightening considerably, though no sun would shine down before it set.

The three younger men could almost hear the bagpipes playing on their funeral march back to the house. It was a somber and quiet group that reached the house ten minutes later. Joe had the door open before they were half way up the path, all of them on slightly shaking legs as they no longer had to wade through deep snow. He looked very far from happy and several feet taller, and all the brats hung back as they reached the doorway, avoiding his eye. Joe stood back to let them past, addressing Eric in distinctly icy tones.

"Is everyone okay? Safe? Did the van get straightened out?"

"Yes, we got it upright and it was driveable." Eric hung his coat up, looking across at Mike. "I'm sorry you had to spend an hour worrying, today's been difficult enough all round without that kind of stress too."

"If you don't mind, I'd like to have a word with the three escapees?" Joseph asked.

"I think they all have something to say to you anyway. Mike, have a seat on the couch, please," Eric said firmly.

Matthew looked at Rolf, preferring to escape upstairs. Rolf shook his head.

"I agree with Eric. Have a seat, Matthew."

Matthew gave him a pleading look which didn't work in the slightest. Stephen hesitated a moment, well aware Todd was tired, quiet and cold, but gave him a gentle push after the others and he moved slowly to join them. The three tops went into the kitchen and Joe gave Chris, hovering in the kitchen doorway, a firm look.

"You too please."

Chris pouted, but followed the others into the kitchen and the door shut. Joe turned back to the brats on the sofa, folding his arms and surveying them with a slow, steady look that travelled from Matthew's snow damped hair to Todd's white and pinched fingers, starting to tingle as they thawed in the warmth from the fire.

"Could someone please tell me who thought leaving this house without a word to me was a good idea?" Joe's courtroom skills were in fine tune as he calmly questioned the witnesses. He waited, knowing that the silence was uncomfortable for the young men, and waiting for the first one to speak.

None of them did for a moment. Then Matthew slowly lifted a hand, looking tired and fed up.

"It was my idea, I thought staying here sucked and it did. We COULD get down there, we COULD be useful, we DON'T melt in a few inches of snow and without us the van wouldn't have gotten upright."

Joseph turned his full attention to Matthew. "You did get down there. You - look at me young man, when I'm talking to you," Joseph interrupted sharply. When he again had Matthew's attention, he continued. "You were useful, and you didn't melt. Does that excuse the fact that you left here, without a word to me, against your partner's EXPRESSED wishes?"

Matthew looked straight back at him, past all sense of caution now. It had been a long, hard day, he'd been in trouble twice, he was tired, fed up and well aware Rolf wasn't happy with him. As far as Matthew was concerned that left him with a bare inch of temper and very little left to lose. He didn't answer, just returned Joe's gaze in a manner very far from polite or apologetic.

"Stand up, young man," Joe said sharply, stepping right in front of him. He knew he had to best Matthew in this test of wills.

Matthew considered for a moment just sitting where he was, but he'd known Joe long enough to know he meant what he said. Slowly, keeping the insolent gaze, he got up, dripping melted snow still from his hair.

Joe stayed right in Matthew's face, forcing him to keep eye contact. "I don't care how tired you are, or how fed up you feel at this moment. I don't care that you've been spanked twice today, or that you deserve far more from your partner for disobeying him. I will NOT tolerate your insolent attitude one MORE SECOND." Joe stopped, letting his almost roared words sink in. He dropped his voice a few notches. "I will not hesitate to remove this belt and make my point more clearly understood. Are - we - clear - on - this - point."

A few seconds ago Matthew had been convinced things couldn't get any worse and he might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. At Joe's threat, the lurch of his stomach rapidly reminded him that YES, things could get worse and he'd be extremely stupid to take that risk. Swallowing, he hastily
muttered, "Yes sir."

Joe gazed at him, long and hard, making sure his point was well received. "Sit down."

Matthew dropped hastily down onto the sofa.

The other two managed to breathe, having unknowingly held their breath until Matthew's surrender.

"Rolf - and Eric and Stephen for that matter - will deal with you for disobeying them." Joe took in all three young men again. "But that doesn't excuse you having left me without a word, does it?"

Three sets of eyes mutely looked at him with a plea for understanding and sympathy. Joe shook his head.

"I'm VERY unhappy with all three of you. How do you think it felt to be here for an hour worrying about where you were, if you'd managed to find the others, if anything had happened to you while I was responsible-"

"We're NOT kids for Godsakes!" Mike said more pleadingly than in protest.

"I realize that." Joe agreed. "You weren't disallowed from going to help because you're too young, or too small, or too anything else. Eric thought he could handle the situation with the people that volunteered. It was a long, cold walk, and there's no reason for all of you to be out there walking in that mess when it's not needed." Joe held up his hand before anyone could protest differently.

"You ended up helping, yes, I know that. That argument you can save for your partners, though if I were you I'd can that as it's not going to fly." He watched as the three shifted uneasily in their seats. "If there were no discipline relationships present, that STILL doesn't excuse you leaving without telling me. As simply a friend, it would have been the nice thing to do to tell me what you were doing. As it is, you know the rules we live by, which is WHY you chose to leave without a word, as you knew I'd say no. Isn't that correct?"

No one answered him. Todd looked close to tears, as much from exhaustion as anything else. Matthew and Mike both looked sullen, which Joe knew said more about them feeling ashamed than resentful.

"Isn't it?" he said again, more clearly. There were several murmured replies, more he thought in hope of making him stop than in agreement.

"Sneaking out was a dishonest as well as a rude thing to do. And you were all WELL aware that as far as I was concerned I was responsible for you. The three of you can go upstairs NOW, get dried off, I'll give you ten minutes. Then I want you down here and I'll find you each a corner. You're going to know exactly how long an hour can feel."

The three young men all got wearily to their feet and slowly and quietly made their way upstairs. Matthew slid his jeans off and put on the pair of sweats he had been wearing earlier. Mike changed quickly, and silently carried in a pair of sweats for Todd to wear.

Matthew went downstairs first. He was handed a kitchen chair by Joe and pointed towards a corner. He didn't have the energy left to argue. Or the will to hope Rolf would interfere: he knew very well Rolf would say he deserved all he got. He collapsed into the chair and began to accustom himself to the paintwork in front of him, hearing the other two come downstairs and be similarly dispatched. Leaving the kitchen door open, Joe left them to sit and went to join the others at the table.

Eric looked up with a faint smile and Joe returned it, sinking into one of the remaining kitchen chairs.

"What's left of them is all yours."

"Thanks," Eric said wryly.

Chris was at the counter, pouring himself a glass of juice. He would have enjoyed the lecture more if Joe had continued at full volume, especially when that volume had been directed at Matthew. The silence in the other room was deafening and he was enjoying the activity in the kitchen. He just wondered when the REAL fireworks were going to begin. He pulled over the last chair from the wall and settled at the table.

Rolf stretched, arms back over his head until his shoulders cracked, sounding more than slightly tired.

"Judging by the news and forecast, we're going to have the snow ploughs out to these roads by morning and we'll be out from under your feet by breakfast time Eric. I'm all for getting Matthew to bed ASAP if you don't mind and we'll discuss this tomorrow at home. Write today off at a loss."

"I think that's probably a good idea," Eric said. "Dinner should be ready in 45 minutes. I think directly to bed would be an excellent idea."

Chris tried not to show his disappoinment at that news.

"I'll bring the mattress down here," Stephen said getting up. "Todd and I can bed down in the kitchen, that's everyone in separate rooms."

"You might as well take it in the living room and enjoy the fire," Eric said. "Leave it until the three musketeers are done in there, and I'll help."

Chris got up, intending to sit in the living room and watch tv while his three friends sat in their respective corners.

"Where're you going?" Joe asked.

Chris shrugged, looking awkward. "I don't know- watch tv?"

"Not in the living room, you're not. Why don't you go upstairs and see if Eric can find you a book to read, and you can stay here at the table?"

"I don't want to-" Chris began, not trying too hard to keep the whine out of his voice, "It's not MY fault they all-"

"You're not sitting in the living room tempting them with the television on. The paper's over there, want to try the crossword?"

Chris scowled. "No, that's boring."

"You could lie down until dinner."

Chris glared at him. Joe shook his head, in no mood for any further bratting from anyone tonight.

"Crossword, nap or I'll find you a corner of your own. Choose."

Chris walked over to the side table and swiped the paper off of it, slouching into his chair. He listlissly flipped through, finding nothing of interest. When he found the crossword puzzle he looked up at Joe. "I don't have a pencil."

Eric leaned over to the nearest drawer, fumbled through it and tossed a ballpoint across into Chris's hands.

"What if I mess up?" he asked insolently.

There was a moment's silence at the table, while three tops pretended they hadn't heard, then the fourth got up, took Chris's hand and led him out of the kitchen and upstairs to the guest room.

"I just asked a question," Chris tried once they got upstairs.

Joe swatted Chris towards the bed, letting go of his hand. "You'll stay here until I call you for dinner. One word, one SOUND from you, and I'll spank you."

"That's NOT fair!" Chris said hotly. "I didn't do anything, it's not MY fault they were all thick enough to walk out-"

"Which is why you're up here, and not in trouble, instead of downstairs and in loads of trouble. There ARE four corners in that room......."

Chris scowled and curled up in a ball on the bed. "Whatever. I'll go to bed then. I might as well have gone with the others, at least I'd have had some fun!"

"ExCUSE me?" Joseph asked sternly.

Chris didn't answer, curling up tighter.

Joseph sighed inwardly, in for a penny, in for a pound. He took Chris by the arm and pulled him upright, before then sitting down and pulling him face down across his lap. He landed a dozen stinging swats to Chris' bottom before stopping for a moment.

Chris, after a few hissed objections and struggles had shut his mouth and his ears and was rigid over his lap with the strain of controlling himself and refusing to be moved. Chris in flat out tantrum. It didn't happen often, and this was the result of a long, stressful day of four brats rubbing each other up the wrong way.

When Joe realized that, he stopped the spanking that was intended to get Chris' attention. At this point that tactic wasn't going to work. He took hold of Chris' arm. "Stand up."

Chris didn't move, still rigidly refusing to let Joe get through to him. Then Joe pulled and he found himself on his feet, willing or not.

"Enjoying your friends' discomfort isn't all it's cracked up to be, is it?"

Chris looked up at him, shocked. "I'm NOT! That's horrible!"

"They left you here, didn't they?"

Joe's tone was gentle, the one that was always the most difficult to shut out. Chris glared at the floor, trying to fold his arms, except Joe still had firm hold of his wrist. "I didn't want to go."

"No, but that's probably because I was the one here. But being the only one left didn't make you feel very good, did it?"

"They can do what they want, I don't care." Chris said sharply, well aware he was sounding sourer and more petty by the minute. And hating his own tone.

"So you weren't thoroughly disgusted with them when you came into the kitchen and I was on the phone?"

"We had a fight." Chris mumbled. "Or I did with Matthew, he was being an ass."

"Because you wouldn't ditch me?"

"I suppose so. I said it was stupid."

"And that went against what Matthew wanted, so he wasn't in to listening to you, was he?"

"He was horrible. And so was Mike."

Chris pulled to try and get his hands free of Joe's clearly upset about that- or something that lay beyond that. Joe held on, not letting Chris escape. He continued on in his gentle tone. "So there is a small measure of satisfaction in knowing that they're in trouble and you're not."

"I'm NOT that mean!" Chris said furiously. "I know you think I am but I'm not!"

"I think no such thing, and I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't put words in my mouth. It's not a mean thing to think. It's natural."

"Gloating." Chris said bitterly.

"No, I don't mean gloating. You haven't done that, and I don't expect you will, because you know exactly how they feel at this moment, and that it isn't a pleasant feeling."

Chris looked at him, speechless for a moment. Then stared hard at the floor, voice still hard and angry. "Matthew said something about 'tell mommy we're gone'. He's such a-"

"Hey. You know he'll say what he wants to get you to change your mind."

"Why did he have to say THAT?" Chris said bitterly.

"Why do you think?"

Chris shrugged, eyes still down. "He doesn't even KNOW about my mom unless you've told him. And you're NOT a substitute for her, if he thinks that he's still more of a prick than I thought he was-"

"He was angry that you weren't going, because he knew you were in the right. He said that to make you angry enough to leave."

"How ever angry he was, he didn't have to be that mean." Chris said stubbornly.

"No, he didn't," Joseph said quietly.

Chris looked at him, uncertain but disarmed. Joe pulled gently on his hands.

"Do we have that settled now?"

Chris shrugged, still not happy with himself or anyone else.

"Do we have that settled now?" Joe asked again, waiting.

Chris shook his head, sliding through his hands to get both arms around his neck. "I want to go hoooooome......"

"We all do, but we can't," Joe said, making it easier for Chris to hold him. "We're here for another night."

Chris buried his face, resisting the urge to let go to the stinging in his eyes and throat, not even sure why he was so upset. "I don't want to see ANY of the others, I just want to go."

"No one's going to bear a grudge Chris. Everyone's tired and fed up and grouchy, it'll be very different in the morning." Joe said firmly. "And you won't have to see the others tonight. You're staying put this evening while I make us some sandwiches for dinner. We'll leave tomorrow morning."

That helped. Chris settled down against him, relaxing a little. "I was pretty horrible to Matthew too." he admitted after a while, soothed by Joe's arms around him.

"I'm sure Matthew's already forgotten it. You two fight like cats and dogs one day and you're like siamese twins the next."

Chris shrugged, uncomfortable but wanting to confide. "I didn't mean to exactly. I knew they were going to get into so much trouble, I didn't want them to do it but I got sarcastic about it and it came out wrong, and then Matthew started snapping back- it was my fault, I started it."

Joe ran his hand through Chris' hair, brushing it back. "You can apologize to him tomorrow before we leave, if that would make you feel any better."

"He probably hates me now." Chris said dispiritedly. "Are you coming to bed too?"


"He doesn't hate you, and I don't think your words are high on his list of priorities right now. He has Rolf to deal with, remember?"

That was true. And while he was fed up with Matthew, Chris felt a rush of sympathy. He knew, he'd been there, he was well aware of how miserable Matthew was at this moment. He snuggled closer, trying not to think too hard about it. "ARE you coming to bed too?"

"Yes." Joe gave him another squeeze. "I'm going to make us dinner and say goodnight. You - stay put."

Chris let him go reluctantly but curled up on the bed, content to stay and wait for him. Joe made his way downstairs, shutting the door behind him and reflecting that after the less successful aspects of the day they would probably be far better off if none of the brats got a chance for conversation with each other again tonight. The livingroom was still silent and sombre with three brats scattered to the corners, although it was clear Todd was in tears.

"Chris settled down?" Rolf asked over a cup of tea.

"Yes, finally. Eric? If you'll point me to some paper plates, I think a couple of sandwiches should do us for dinner and we'll call it a night."

"That's a good idea," Rolf said wryly. "Where's the bread?"

Eric got up and pulled out the bread while Rolf grabbed lunchmeat and toppings from the refrigerator. Stephen glanced at the clock and towards Joe.

"I know strictly speaking it's not an hour, but Todd's working himself into quite a state..."

"I'll bet they can't see a clock in there." Joe said matter of factly, "They won't know."

Heading to the door, he lifted his voice to reach the three unhappy brats in their corners.

"All right you three."

Todd quickly tried to wipe the tears from his eyes before standing up. Matthew pushed his chair back and went directly to the couch to sit down. Michael carried his chair back into the kitchen and stood, trying not to look at anyone. Stephen quietly held out a hand to Todd who took it and pressed close to him, trying to be quiet and failing miserably. Rolf paused in the doorway for a moment, taking in Matthew's face and expression, and the shortness with which he picked up the remote and began to flick rapidly through channels.

"Steve, why don't you take the room upstairs? Matthew and I can stay down here." Rolf meant it as much because he was sure Matthew wasn't finished with his tantrum as he was sure Todd could use the privacy behind a closed door.

Stephen nodded thankfully and led his charge up the stairs.

Matthew gave Rolf a short, suspicious look, something else penetrating what was clearly a temper still running well. Rolf gave him a steady look
in return.

"You may put the chair back in the kitchen where it belongs, please."

Matthew hesitated, strongly tempted not to move.

Rolf didn't say a word but stepped into the living room, advancing on Matthew, who quickly got up and headed into the kitchen with the chair. Rolf picked the remote up from the couch and shut the television off, placing the remote on the tv. He turned and waited for Matthew to return. No one else had noticed the brief interaction, but Matthew, returning the chair to it's place, was well aware of his heart starting to thump and of Rolf's eyes still steady on him. He hovered in the kitchen, trying not to return the look and instead watching Joe and Eric knock up sandwiches.

"Matthew."

Matthew reluctantly looked up, brows setting back into a scowl. It had been a long day, he was well aware Rolf wasn't happy with him, that he was already in deep trouble and that he stood an excellent chance of making things far, far worse as the evening went on.

Rolf slowly raised his eyebrow, his gaze sharpening as he pointed down in front of him, without taking his eyes from Matthew's.

Well aware there was no good in making a scene here and irrationally infuriated all the more by it and the impulse to simply refuse, right here, and force that scene before the apprehension got too much, Matthew dug his hands in his pockets and compromised by taking all the time he could to reach Rolf.

Rolf waited patiently, working hard to control his own blood pressure. When Matthew made it to him, Rolf picked up his chin and looked sternly into his eyes.

"You're in trouble young man, I strongly suggest you don't add to it."

Matthew didn't answer but his eyes weren't exactly subdued.

"You are going to sit down on that couch. No talking, no tv, no nothing. Is that clear?" Rolf asked, keeping firm hold of Matthew's chin.

As soon as he was released, Matthew dropped on the couch and folded his arms. Joe took a tray upstairs, giving Rolf a quiet nod and smile of goodnight as he passed and leaving Eric to turn the lights off, a quiet and sullen looking Michael heading upstairs ahead of him.

"Do you two have everything you need?"

"Yes, we'll be fine, thanks," Rolf said graciously. Eric carried his tray up, wondering what Rolf's night would be like. Judging by Matthew's expression, restless was a good guess.

Matthew sat on the sofa, still glaring at the wall and listening to the sound of Eric's footfall fading away, well aware that the silence and space was no good thing.

Rolf brought the last two plates into the living room and set one down in front of Matthew. He returned a moment later with a glass of water. "Eat up, please."

"I'm not hungry." Matthew said as politely as he could manage.

"You've got twenty minutes to eat that," Rolf answered without  missing a beat.

"I'm still full from lunch."

"Twenty minutes, Matthew, I'm not kidding," Rolf said after taking a bite of his own sandwich.

Matthew scowled but began to pick at the sandwich.

Rolf finished his meal quickly, knowing he was going to be ready if he couldn't get Matthew turned from his path of destruction fast enough. He played with a few chips, eating more slowly, to fill up the last of the twenty minute time limit. Matthew carried on picking, stomach churning way too much to eat. He knew the looks he was getting, this was going to be a long night and a longer morning until they got home and got this straightened out- the sheer pressure of the wait was starting to fray until swallowing was nearly impossible

"You're not going to eat that, are you?" Rolf said eventually.

"I really can't." Matthew said frankly. "I tried."

"Alright," Rolf said, standing up. "Go ahead and get ready for bed while I clean up the kitchen."

Thankfully, Matthew handed the plate over and headed into the downstairs bathroom. He came back still fully dressed against the cold and by no means keen to try settling to sleep.

Rolf had put the air mattress down in front of the fire and was making it up with sheets and blankets. Matthew hovered where he was in the doorway, hating the room, the snow, the situation and life in general and the kick at the nearest chair happened almost without his realising. "It's going to be WAY-"

Rolf looked up from making the bed and saw confirmed the unmistakable signs of his brat forcing the issue. Knowing Matthew as he did, if they didn't do the scene tonight they'd both be at each other's necks by morning. Matthew needed resolution tonight and asked for it in every way he could, since that first bad tempered flop onto the couch. The kick on the chair sealed his fate.

"Come here," Rolf growled deeply, dropping the pillow he was trying to stuff into the pillow case.

Matthew glanced up, startled at the tone in spite of himself.

"Don't make me repeat myself." The tone was deep and quiet and might have been funny in other circumstances. At this moment in time Matthew didn't find it at all funny. He moved. Rolf waited, blue eyes gone to ice.

"DO you kick unsuspecting and completely innocent chairs, ESPECIALLY when they're not yours?"

Matthew flushed, currently in no mood to pick up on the irony in that question and responding more to the tone and expression than the words. "No sir."

"You have been banging around here in a temper, and it's gone far enough. Find your shoes and put them on, NOW."

"I only SAID-" Matthew said, recognising a bad cue and trying to back pedal.

"NOT another word. SHOES."

In that tone, you didn't argue. Matthew grabbed his shoes, fast.

Rolf waited wordlessly while Matthew took his time with the laces, heart starting to thump and his stomach clenching still further as he straightened up. Taking his partner by the upper arm, Rolf marched him out of the side door, under the awning and out into the garage, closing the door firmly behind him as soon as he found the light switch.

Matthew swallowed hard in the chill of the garage, well aware they were now well out of earshot of the rest of the household.

"I'm sorry?" he tried belatedly. "It's been a really long day and-"

"Whether or not it's been a long day does NOT excuse your behavior, either just recently or earlier!" Rolf interrupted sternly. "I warned you of exactly this first thing this morning. We're in tight quarters in a tough situation and you've done nothing to help matters all day. First the fire, which you knew perfectly well was totally unacceptable. Then you and Michael dodging off to mess about on ice. Then I asked you to stay put while we tried to help someone out with an overturned van, and instead of doing that, you drag two of your friends out into deep snow, into trouble and real potential danger, and scare just about everyone else to death in the process. WHAT is your reasoning behind that??"

"I thought we could help." Matthew muttered, feeling his face start to burn.

"You thought you could help?" Rolf asked incredulously. Without having to be quiet, his voice rose to his usual level when upset with Matthew. "So in order to do that, you slide out of here without a word to Joseph? How does THAT help matters?"

Matthew found his own voice automatically softening in response, as his own temper rapidly diminished like a tide hitting a harbour wall. "I thought you'd need more pairs of hands- we wanted to be out there with you- Mike thought-"

"WHY did leave behind Joe's back?"

Matthew jumped and looked at the floor. "He wouldn't have let us go."

"I said no. Eric said no. Stephen said no. You KNEW Joe's answer would be the same. There is NO EXCUSE Matthew, NO EXCUSE WHATEVER, for taking off without a word. HOW do you think Joe felt?"

Matthew carried on staring at the floor, eyes starting to sting. "We didn't WANT to stay like we were a bunch of kids who couldn't survive in the snow, we wanted to-"

"It doesn't matter what you wanted to do," Rolf interrupted. "You were told no. THAT is all you needed to think about at the time. There were MANY very loud, very clear, and particularly red stop signs shown to you today, and you ran past all of them. I know it's a tough day. I know you're not happy being stuck here in close quarters with everyone. But that does NOT excuse your behavior in any form or fashion. If you're not going to stop and pay attention to the red stop signs on the front side, then I'm going to make darned sure that you listen to my stop signs on the backside, so that this doesn't happen again. Pull down your pants, please, but leave the shorts on," Rolf finished, unbuckling his belt. Matthew's eyes started to sting in earnest but he moved quickly to do as he was told, even as he tried to meet Rolf's eyes.

"I'm sorry, it's been a horrible day, it won't happen again-"

"Good, I'm glad. Bend over and put your hands on that bench, please," Rolf said, sliding the belt from it's loops and doubling it up.

The tears started then. Matthew unwillingly let the jeans fall but didn't move. "Rolf? Pleeeeease, it's late- I won't say anything else-"

"I know it's late, so let's not delay this anymore," Rolf said a little more gently. "Bend over."

There was never any point arguing beyond this point and somewhere in Matthew was some relief that at least they'd reached a point of inevitability. Swallowing on tears, he turned around and rested his hands on the bench, bracing himself.

Rolf had every bit of sympathy with Matthew and the hard day they'd had. His belting, as most spankings were, was simply the result of rules that were broken knowingly by Matthew, without thoughts to the consequences. Rolf's job was to see to it those consequences were delivered in a fair, impartial, and even manner. It would do Matthew no good to overlook things and send mixed messages.

He placed his hand on the small of Matthew's back and let the first lick land, squarely across the middle of the shorts.

Despite the distance between them and the rest of the household, Matthew still shut his teeth and worked hard on staying quiet, although the tears began to flow faster.

Rolf landed a dozen licks with the belt by the time he was done. Matthew had jumped up on several occasions to clutch at the stripes on fire across his bottom, but Rolf made him bend back over and receive the rest of them. Rolf knew that the choice of the belt sent it's own message to Matthew, signifying that this was to be taken a little more seriously. He liked the belt for that reason. It made what could have been a long, drawn out process quick and less messy.

Matthew was past being quiet by the time Rolf let him stand, he was shaking with sobs and fumbled with his jeans, not at all keen on pulling them up. Rolf let him gather himself for a minute, buckling his belt back on, then put a hand on his shoulder. "Bed."

Matthew left his jeans unzipped and walked quickly back into the house. He tried to stay quiet but couldn't, kicking off his shoes and letting his jeans drop. He then knealt down and crawled onto the mattress, burring his head in his pillow.

"Get yourself undressed." Rolf said not unkindly. He dimmed the lights down one by one, checking the security of the doors and windows, then came across to the hearth. Matthew slowly peeled the shirt off his back and kicked off his socks, curling up in the blanket, his back to Rolf's side of the bed.

Rolf shut the fire screen door, peeled off the last of his clothes and got under the covers, settling down before he hooked an arm over Matthew's waist and made him turn over. "Come here brat."

Matthew finally relented and snuggled against Rolf's chest, sobbing through the last of the wicked stinging the belt had left in it's wake.

Rolf held him, rubbing his back, his cheek against Matthew's tumbled hair. "Come on. It's okay, it's over. Not a good day hmm?"

"No," Matthew managed to say as the sobs were replaced with hitching breaths. "I'm sorry," came a few minutes later when he could speak in fuller sentences.

"It's over." Rolf said again, firmly. "Hard day for everyone. We'll go home in the morning, the roads are clear now. Go to sleep sweetheart."

Matthew didn't need any further urging. His backside had cooled into a dull roar and his conscience was clear with nothing to 'look forward' to in the morning. As bad as the day was, it WAS over. It took about fifteen minutes for Rolf to hear the first light sounds of his brat snoring, then he relaxed and slipped off as well.



Upstairs, Mike didn't look around as Eric came back from the shower, only his hunched shoulders facing his partner as he read, lying on his side on the bed.

Eric put on his shorts and went over to Mike's side of the bed, taking the book from his partner's hand. "Let's talk about today. Please sit up."

"You're mad at me, I'm sorry, I suck, I won't go out in the snow again." Mike said bitterly, releasing the book. "The end."

"No, that's not the end, and that's not what I'm mad about, is it?"

"Can we just leave it that you're mad at me, and I get it?" Mike got up and stalked towards the bathroom.

"Michael David Kearney come back here this instant," Eric said sternly, before Mike could make it to the door.

Mike stopped, shoulders still hunched. "Whhhhaaaaaaat?"

"You do NOT stalk off in the middle of a conversation. Do NOT make me repeat myself."

Very slowly Michael turned around and stood where he was, hands dug into his pockets, looking anything but receptive. Eric gave his partner one LONG stare, and a second chance to come back to the bed where they had been talking. It worked. Despite being a long day, despite his mood, Mike ducked his head and scuffed unwillingly to the edge of the bed. Eric nodded.

"Thankyou. Now please tell me exactly why I'm upset with you, and without any smart comments."

"I knooooooooooooow why," Mike meant it to sound assertive and it came out in a definite whine. "I'm tired, we can talk about this tomorrow-"

"We're talking about it tonight," Eric said patiently. Mike was usually pretty accepting of any punishments that he deserved, but tonight it was different. He knew it was because he lost his temper with Mike earlier, something he usually didn't do. He knew Mike needed to talk about it.

Mike thought at this moment he'd rather do anything except stand and talk to Eric when he was this upset with him. It wasn't often Eric ever glared, that look in the snow earlier, the snap in his tone, had been a nasty shock. He shrugged one shoulder, trying not to look up. "I shouldn't have gone out after you said no. I know. I'm sorry. Can I go shower please?"

"That's right. You asked, and I said no. I don't say no just to hear myself talk, nor do I say no just because it was something you wanted to do. Why did I say no?"

Mike went still redder. Eric clearly intended to drga this right out. "It was dangerous, you didn't want to worry about what we were doing while you were working, you told us to stay here with Joe. I KNOW."

"Then why did you proceed to leave the house?" Eric asked calmly, hoping that Michael could match his tones in volume.

"Because I SUCK, okay? We know this!" Michael flared. "We were all mad about having left, we're not kids. And I KNOW you don't want to hear that but you asked!"

"Michael, there are others in this house. Please keep your voice down." Eric stopped a moment to give Michael time to settle down a moment. "You do NOT suck, and I don't want to hear that again. I didn't say no because I thought you guys wouldn't be able to handle it. I know you well enough to know you're in good enough shape to handle time out in the cold and deep snow. I said no, because I had no idea how far away that guy's van was going to be. It was a long, white, walk, and the guy could have easily been two or three miles farther on down the road. I also didn't think we'd be able to right the van. It was dangerous enough that we even attempted that, and I didn't intend to put you or any others into that danger when the van could have been righted by a tow truck in the morning."

"It's as dangerous for you as for me." Mike said quietly but defiantly.

"It is. I don't refute that in the least," Eric replied. "If we weren't going to be able to do anything, then I had the tools to mark the accident scene to keep other people from being injured. That is part of my job, and an accepted risk for me. It's not for you, is it?"

"I've got MORE right to be out with you than any of the others!"

Eric took Michael by the shoulders. "Whether or not you've got that right isn't the issue. I said no, and that's the bottom line."

"So where's the point in discussing it?" Mike said grimly. "You're mad, I'm in trouble, I get it."

"I'm sorry that I snapped at you at the accident scene."

Mike paused, looking at him.

Eric held his eye contact, making the apology sincere. "I went out to help someone, and I felt responsible for taking Rolf and Stephen and putting them in danger. When we got word that you three had left the house, that worried and upset me even more. Not only did I have us, at the scene to worry about, I had the three of you walking out in the cold and snow. You've been out enough and heard a few stories about how dangerous snow like that can be."

"You do treat us like kids." Michael said, but half heartedly.

"I have never treated you as a child. You're an adult in a discipline relationship and expected to do as you're told or face the consequences. If you'd like, I could get a tape of Barney, a playpen, and leave you to it...."

That didn't raise a smile. Mike scowled, still half heartedly, but sat down. "There's no reason why we should have stayed and Rolf gone though."

"Rolf is taller and stronger than any of us. Stephen has medical skills in case we needed them. I'm the officer. If you were in my shoes, would you have chosen any differently?"

"I'm your PARTNER."

"Yes, you are. But that doesn't make you the best choice for every job. If a computer crashed down the street, and you could only take one person from this house, would you take me?"

"If I wanted company, yes." Michael said tiredly.

"But you need help to fix the computer. Would I still be the number one choice?" Eric persisted.

Michael slowly shook his head. "Rolf. I know. But I COULD have helped today- oh crap, forget it, I don't want to argue any more, I'm tired."

"I did what I thought I needed to do. That meant you were to stay put, whether or not you understood the reasons right then. I only ever have your best interests in mind, you need to remember that. We will finish this discussion tomorrow, after everyone leaves. In the meantime, you can stop spitting and hissing at me. Understood?"

Tired and now miserable too, Michael nodded, eyes starting to sting. Eric dropped a kiss on Michael's forehead, hugging him. "You've got fifteen minutes for the shower."

"I'm sorry." Mike mumbled into his neck, not returning the hug but not pulling away either.

Eric tightened his arms, drawing him closer. "Thank you. And I'll try not to snap at you in the future."

Mike's arms slid slowly around Eric and held on.



Stephen shut the door softly and turned out the light. It had taken some time to settle Todd down, less because he had anything on his mind than he was tired, stressed, fed up and overwhelmed. In the end Stephen had refused to talk any more and laid down with him, petting until Todd unwillingly dozed off.

Joseph and Chris settled down as well, and the house grew quiet save for the occasional snore. Eric was the first to wake up the next morning, sliding out of bed and heading downstairs quietly to get some coffee started. Rolf joined him a few minutes later in the kitchen.

"It's almost too quiet," Rolf said by way of greeting.

"Yes, isn't it? I hope I didn't wake you."

"I don't think we heard a thing after we settled down. Did Chris make it through the night?"

"I heard Joe saying something very firm about coming back to bed around three this morning, but no one came onto the landing. You two?"

"I missed that. I take it Matthew didn't let you rest until he had it out last night?"

Rolf gave him a wry look. "I hoped we wouldn't disturb anyone."

"You didn't. I just heard the door and took a guess. Coffee?"

"Please. And yes. No one was getting any sleep until we were done."

"That's usually the best way anyway." Eric poured a cup and passed it over to Rolf, poured himself one and put it on the table before going to the front door to peek out and see if there was a paper. He couldn't make one out, but did notice that the road was clear, though the driveway was going to need to be shoveled before the vehicles could leave. He headed back and settled at the table.

"One hurdle at the bottom of the drive and it looks like the roads should be driveable. I'll doublecheck the routes with dispatch before you leave."

"That sounds good. I'll go get Matthew up in a minute and we'll head out, give you some space. We're nearest, our roads should be cleared." Rolf sipped coffee. "How's Mike?"

"He's fine. We talked through most of it last night, and I think he understood. Mostly upset because I snapped at him."

"I don't think any of them appreciated being left." Rolf said wryly. "What is it about snow?"

"I don't know. All I know is that we can do without it on our next gathering! It definitely leads to temporary insanity."

"It's still nice to get together." Rolf said mildly. "It WAS a nice New Years party, just an awful weather forecast. I'll go get my brat up."

"There's really no rush," Eric said, more because it was the normal thing to say rather than something he meant.

Rolf smiled and got up. "I think I will anyway. Two less people underfoot, I'm sure you and Mike are ready for a few days holiday in peace."

"Did you want something to eat before you leave?"

"No, we'll get something at home, it's fine thanks." Rolf went through to the lounge and gently shook Matthew awake.

It took Matthew a moment to figure out where he was. He sat up, wincing, and pulled his socks on, still half asleep.

Rolf quickly folded up the bedding and deflated the mattress, leaving the living room looking neat and tidy by the time Matthew was dressed.

"Go say goodbye to Eric and we'll head straight home, you can shower there."

Matthew walked into the kitchen to do so, but Eric wasn't there. He went to look out the door at the snow. "We can't leave without shoveling. The snow is piled at the end of the drive."

"We'll shift that in a few minutes, it's not impacted." Rolf took his coat down and handed it over. "Come on., lets get to it."

Matthew put his coat on and headed out into the biting chill of the morning. The shovels were still on the front porch. He grabbed one and started down the drive.

Rolf picked up the other and followed him, turning the car engine over on the way to warm the engine.

Matthew finished up his part of the drive and headed back on Rolf's insistence, to say goodbye to Eric. He found Chris downstairs. "Hey," he said, stopping to get warm at the fire that had been reignited while he was outside.

Chris looked tired but gave him a hesitant smile, straightening up from the hearth. "Hi. Are you headed out?"

"Yeah. There's a least a path out to the road now."

Chris looked, fidgeting. Matthew's tone was perfectly normal for early morning when he was half asleep- but then Matthew, although mercurial, was naturally sweet tempered and didn't by nature bear a grudge. Chris cleared his throat. "I'm sorry I was so foul yesterday."

"That's ok. I should've just listened to you to begin with," Matthew said, rubbing his right hip self-consciously.

Chris saw and winced. "Rolf not happy?"

Matthew shook his head vehemently. "No. Great new years, huh?"

Chris pulled a face. "No kidding. Maybe it'll be better once we all get home."

Rolf appeared in the doorway, still jacketed, and smiled at Chris. "We're off Chris, say goodbye to Joe for us? I'll ring around tonight, we're going to get out of the way for now. Come on Matt."

Matthew smiled at Chris. "Wish the others well for me? Rolf, I still need to find Eric."

"I don't know where he's got to." Rolf shut the front door behind him. "Try upstairs, be quick and don't wake anyone."

Matthew went upstairs and found Eric helping Joe put the furniture back where it belonged. He was still a little self-conscious around the two of them, but did want to say goodbye. "Eric? Thanks for the party, and for putting up with all of us. Sorry if I made it any worse."

"Pleasure and of course you didn't." Eric paused and gave him a bear hug, one of his rough and crushing ones that was infinitely comforting. "Drive safe, let me know when you're home hmm?"

"We will." Matthew promised.

Joe leaned across the bed to give Matthew a quick hug and tousled his hair.

"See you soon. Safe journey."

Eric followed Matthew downstairs and pulled his coat on. Upstairs Joe stood in the window to watch Rolf wait until Matthew got into the car, then back off the drive and with a wave towards the house, head slowly towards their end of town. Joe put an arm around Chris who came to stand beside him and saw Eric glance at the still snow covered front lawn. And start to laugh. Joe opened the window and leaned out to peer. The large happy face Matthew had drawn in the snow was still there, and beneath it, in large letters, was written.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

~ The End ~


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2010

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