He was lying full length on the sofa when I got home, Anastasia on his chest and football on the tv. I locked the front door behind me, hung my coat up and went into the living room, leaning over the sofa arm to kiss him with a congenial sense of being done for the night. He was warm, relaxed and tasted pleasantly of chocolate and coffee.
"Hey.Did you get everything done?" Damien ran a hand through my hair, shaking it out of my eyes as I came up for air. "You look tired."
"I managed to chase up a few more designs." I rubbed Anastasia's ears so she didn't feel left out. "How are you?"
"Chelsea are losing 3-2, it could be worse." Damien gently pushed Anastasia off and got to his feet. "What did you and Beth get for dinner?"
"McDonalds. Yes I know." I added as Damien made a face, "But it was hot."
"Hot grease and salt. Go get yourself ready for bed sweetheart, we can watch the rest of the game up there."
That sounded like a truly great idea.
I left the lights off as I undressed, trying discreetly to be as quick as possible. By the time I heard Damien coming upstairs, I had a pyjama jacket on and was sorting out trousers.
"Your mum called. I said you'd give her a ring tomorrow." Damien said, nudging the door open with his elbow since he was carrying two mugs of tea. I sprawled full length on the bed and took a mug from him.
"What did she want?"
"Just a social chat." Damien put his mug down on the bedside table and began to strip, folding his clothes neatly. "She asked us to lunch this weekend."
I grimaced. Damien smiled, padding naked across to the dressing table drawers in search of clean shorts.
"That's what I thought. I begged off."
"Good, I'm going to have to work."
"You're going to need time off." Damien pulled the shorts up, put his watch on the dressing table and climbed over me for his mug of tea. I wrapped an arm around his waist in passing and kissed the smoothness of his back, watching him snap the tv on via the remote. Chelsea were still losing.
"What did you do today?"
"You ARE taking two days off Nicholas, don't fob me off." Damien settled down, tea in one hand and me in the other. "You've done enough overtime this week, it isn't as though Beth even expects it of you, and you are a part time employee."
"This project's important."
"One in particular?"
"A new one." I admitted. Damien picked up the tv remote and dialled the sound down.
"What is it?"
I turned over, balancing my mug on his chest. Damien winced and put out a hand for a book, putting it under the mug as a coaster.
"It's a big client- if we land it. There are three pubs in the district they want new trademark designs for, and we're competing against two other firms for the contract. If we get it, they've got over eighty other sites country wide we could be re imaging. So Beth's taken the Rose and Crown and I've taken the Mermaid."
"And the design's a mermaid?"
"Oddly enough." I sipped tea, curling closer and thoroughly enjoying the relaxation. The bed was warm, he was comfortable and my shoulders were gradually unwinding after a day that had been hard work to put it mildly.
"Actually it's harder than it sounds. The design can't resemble in any way any previous trademarked design- and Disney have a LOT of mermaid imagery."
"And expensive lawyers." Damien observed.
"And the firm are looking for something classic too- something old and traditional and out of the ordinary. It's not an easy subject to research. I spent most of today hunting up pictures and stories, trying to get ideas. I thought something early might give me some clues- like the mappa mundi, or early accounts of sightings from the fishing villages, something less stereotypical."
"No well groomed red heads in bikini tops, combing their hair." Damien said thoughtfully.
"What did you find?"
"A few things." I said evasively. "I need to do some more research tomorrow."
"Tomorrow's Friday." Damien said neutrally. I sipped tea, sounding calmly matter of fact with all the effort I could muster. Confident, easy going, completely self assured….
"I thought I'd just pop into the library in town-"
Damien Looked at me. I could almost hear the wheeeeeeeeeee-BOOM of that particular gambit crashing and burning.
"I said yes to you working overtime today, when it should have been a half day. Tomorrow you take the day off."
"I need to work on this design, we've only got until Tuesday."
"Then you can work on Saturday when I'm here to keep an eye on you."
Yes, I knew what that meant. I had a snowball's chance in hell of getting anything actually DONE around him hoovering and checking up on me and distracting me in every Damien way known to man. And he can be incredibly distracting when he puts his mind to it. Damien kissed me firmly, nipping my lower lip which he clearly felt was protruding a little more than absolutely necessary.
"Put it away. You don't need to work any more hours than you do, and you're not going to. You'll get done what you need to get done, I'll give you plenty of time. Just not the entire weekend. Go and clean your teeth before you fall asleep, hmm?"
Damien has strange ideas about my working part time, part of which is that I don't need to get up on non working days just because he does. Personally I think he needs to believe that some mornings he CAN make it out of bed before I do. He got up with dogged determination and a few pokes from me not long after his alarm went off, and I lay and dozed, listening to the familiar sounds of him down in the kitchen talking to Anastasia, and making tea. He left a cup cooling on the bedside table for me while he showered, but being allowed to legitimately carry on dozing was far more fun than tea. I heard him come in a while later, bringing with him the tranquil morning scents of soap and cologne, and the familiar sounds of the wardrobe door and the rustle of shirts. The peace was rudely interrupted by his hand on my arm, pulling it out from under the covers.
"Nicky? What's that?"
I glanced down, still mostly asleep, and realised with a mild thunk of horror that my sleeve had ridden up during the night. And Damien now had my wrist in a firm grasp and was pushing it up still further, already frowning at the black marks he was discovering.
"How on EARTH did you get those?!"
I peered, trying hard to sound convincing. "I don't know, probably knocked it on something-"
I really didn't want to go there, but he pulled me up and peeled me out of my pyjama jacket, gently turning my arm to see the full extent of the bruising. Okay, in the cold light of day it WAS pretty -
- extensive. Large, black and blued in the centre of the worst bruises, moving from just above my elbow to half way up my upper arm.
And Damien was waiting, looking at me with those steady and rather gorgeous hazel eyes and the crease right down between his brows that he gets when he glares.
"You didn't have those yesterday. How did they happen?"
"I told you," I said soothingly, "I probably-"
"Rubbish." Damien interrupted. He turned my arm again gently, rotating it, then looked at me with the glare still harder. "That's a hand print Nicholas, who grabbed you?"
I opened my mouth. Damien spread his hand over my arm, his fingers covering the bruise pattern. A hand a little larger than his with blunter fingers.
There was something about that tone just fractionally dangerous, and I knew perfectly well that it wasn't me who stood in any danger. And awkward as this situation was, I wasn't actually averse to hearing it either.
"Just a guy at work-" I said, eyeing him somewhere between nervously and with rather shamefaced appreciation. "It's really-"
Damien's voice was still calm, but distinctly grim. I took a deep breath, trying to keep eye contact and to sound reassuring.
"It's ok, he was helping. I slipped and he caught me."
"Slipped off what?" Damien said unpromisingly.
"Scaffolding- it was scaffold for a sign at work, I went up to have a look and lost my footing. He grabbed me and pulled me back up."
Damien sat down on the edge of the bed and stripped me of my pyjama trousers, ignoring what feeble protests I managed. He found the bruise on my hip without difficulty.
"You went right over the rail, didn't you?"
I flushed, trying to turn out of his hands. He didn't let go, just swatted me soundly enough for me to stand still in a hurry.
"Under it? He grabbed my arm and I got the second one when I swung back against the scaffolding. He pulled me up. I was fine, I just didn't want to scare you-"
Damien didn't comment but I got another swat, still sounder than the first, before he felt his way a lot more gently over the bruise on my hip.
"Does that hurt? If I'd known you had these last night I'd have had ice on them, they're nasty."
"My arm's sore, that’s all." I said honestly. "It's allright, really."
Ha. I ended up downstairs at the kitchen table with my arm wrapped in a towel and a bag of frozen peas while we ate breakfast. At least he didn't insist on icing my hip.
"So what ARE you going to do today?" Damien asked, working through his third cup of tea. He can drink enough to sink a battleship in the morning. I gave him a pleading look, carefully not dislodging the ice. Which by now was bloody cold, but with luck it might win me a few brownie points.
"JUST going to the library? Please? I'll do an hour and come away."
"It's not a work day." Damien said simply. "What are you going to do?"
"HALF an hour? I just need to pick up books-"
"No. We'll do it on Saturday, no worrying."
He smiled at my glare and poured us both more tea. I glared at him over the edge of my cup.
"I don't know how you manage to get to work without stopping at every tree between here and Marston Mortaine."
"Practice. What about the CDs you wanted to borrow from Allen? He's usually very happy for an hour of distraction around mid morning."
That was an idea I could cope with. Damien finished his tea and took the ice off my arm to have a look.
"Keep that on another ten minutes or so. I think it's probably too late to help, but we might as well try. And if you want to meet for lunch I'll wait for you?"
"About one?" I accepted and returned his kiss goodbye and followed him to the door. "Have a good morning."
He smiled at me as he got into his car. I leaned against the doorframe and waved, watching him pull out into the road. I waited there until I heard the sound of the engine die away, simply for the pleasure of taking my time. I liked Fridays. It was a gentle run into the weekend, a day when I liked to get the house straight and to take my time over it, as the more I got done today the more time we had free together tomorrow and Sunday.
I was still fairly discreet about it as Damien didn't like me regarding my days off as time to do housework, but we did both like the extra time. And actually I was starting to find that I enjoyed the time I spent taking care of the house. Everywhere I'd lived before I met Damien had looked like a tip, and without Damien's insistence things like laundry and dishes rapidly started to pile up- but the house looked good, and I knew it, and I knew Damien loved it. He's a naturally orderly person, who always said he couldn't relax anywhere untidy or grubby. And I was starting to understand what he meant: there was a sense of relaxation in the order I created. So by eleven am the house was gleaming, the washing machine was running, the kitchen floor was drying and I headed over to Allen's house.
It was freezing outside. Allen opened the door with the look of absorption he usually has when disturbed in mid work, but the smile I got was more than genuine and rapidly brought his face to life.
"Nick! Hi, come in."
"I just came to pick those CDs up." I stepped inside and waited for him to close the door before I hugged him. "How are you?"
"Bored to tears. I hate write ups." Allen led me into the kitchen. The kitchen table was piled high with paper around his open lap top. "I DO however have those files you asked me for. The mappa mundi I found a few facsimiles of, but I don't think there were mermaids. I've got a copy for you just in case. I did find a few oral histories from some north east coast fishing villages, mixed in with some folk songs, and a couple of illustrations from woodcuts. That seems to be the main source of original images. Did you track down the Renford ones?"
"Yes, you were right thanks." I took the sheaf of papers, scanning through them. "I made a few copies of those two, and I found a few images on some other old map facsimiles. I'll keep on collecting. Thanks for these, they'll be a great help."
"How's the design coming?"
"Slowly." I said, sighing. "How's your write up coming?"
"Slowly." Allen grinned. "Sit down, I'll get the CDs. You've got time for a chat I hope? I seriously need a break."
Damien stirred when I did, peered over me at the clock, then flopped back down and groaned. I turned over and curled up against him. Anastasia leapt up on to the bed, chirped and walked over Damien to get to me. He is the lord of the universe as far as she's concerned, except at breakfast time. She knows which of us is most likely to get up and feed her, especially on a weekend. I surrendered at the point she began chewing on my hair, left Damien still buried under the quilt, and padded barefoot downstairs.
The first action of the day in winter is always to whack the heating up. The second is to push food into Anastasia's mouth fast enough to stop her talking me insane. She climbed up onto the counter to shout at me better while I found her biscuits- and froze, looking out of the kitchen window in amazement. Then dived for the front door.
Two minutes later Damien yelped in protest as I slid under the duvet and wrapped myself around him.
"NICHOLAS you're freezing!"
"Only my feet."
"GerROFF me you monster." Damien rolled over and pulled me closer, mostly to evade my feet. "You can't come back to bed. You come back to bed and neither of us get up before lunchtime, we've worked this out through trial and..."
The sentence was interrupted by him sinking his teeth into my neck. He likes to do that entirely too much, it's just as well I don't mind. I squirmed under his hands, but not by any means enough to distract him.
"We're not going anywhere today."
Damien managed to get his head off the pillow and one eye open. I smirked at him.
"Take a look out of the window."
Damien looked blankly at me, then rolled out of bed and pushed the curtains back. And blinked.
Living where we do, surrounded by countryside and miles from the nearest big town and any real source of heat pollution, when we get snow we GET snow. It was perfectly obvious from the window that neither car was coming off the drive this morning, and the road beyond was covered in several inches of untouched snow.
Damien opened the window and peered down towards the direction of the war memorial, beyond which are the few shops the high street boasts. Then, with a cheerful and purposeful air that raised my spirits considerably, he drew the curtains and came back to bed.
We didn't get up until lunchtime.
Damien lit the fire in the lounge, and it was crackling beautifully by two pm. I finished the washing up from lunch and peered out of the lounge window where Damien was energetically shovelling snow from the driveway. Why he was bothering I had no idea, until we had a thaw the cars weren't going to get far down the road even if they got off the drive. I actually suspected it had more to do with Damien liking being out in the snow than anything else, but if it made him happy, so be it. And while he was busy…. He HAD said I could have time to work today, even if we weren't going to make it to the library.
I took the mermaid pictures out of the desk and settled down to study them.
He was still out there an hour later when I paused for coffee. And finished the packet of biscuits in the tin. While the kettle boiled, I took the empty packet to the bin - and therein lay my whole problem.
The bin was actually full.
There are rules about this kind of thing. Set by Mr When The Bin Is Full We Don't Just Push The Lid On Tighter DO We? Who can get startlingly crotchety on the subject. I hooked the bin liner out, knotted it, and biscuit still in mouth, padded around to the front door. The bin is stood, on the designated slab, by the back gate. And because of further certain rules about shoes being kept in boxes upstairs, inaccessible to people needing them for a minute to go to the bin, there were none in reach. I peered through the glass. Damien's head was JUST visible above the hedge, talking to someone further down the street. The coast was clear. I slipped the latch quietly and nipped around the side of the house, wincing as the snow struck up through my socks. Damien had cleared MOST of the path around here, it was wet more than snowy really. I was definitely going to need to change my socks. I dropped the bag in the bin, shut the lid noiselessly and zoomed back towards the front door. And jumped at the resounding bang as it slammed shut.
The front door has a yale lock.
And when it blows shut… it is openable from the outside only by key.
I did not have a key on me.
And, I reflected, getting hastily out of sight around the side of the house before Damien looked up and caught me coatless and shoeless, the back door was still locked.
I had two choices here. The first was to call Damien and see whether he had a key on him. He probably did, he carried keys most of the time. Of course that meant explaining about walking around in the snow in socks, and the fact that I was now shivering like a dog. That was not tempting. Actually he'd made threats about that only a few weeks ago, and they'd been fairly impressive ones.
The other was to find an alternative way inside, quick. Moving as quietly as possible and hoping Damien's conversation was interesting and prolonged, I let myself in through the back gate. Maybe the back door was unlocked. It was certainly worth a try. The snow was deeper around the back of the house. I was seriously cold, wet and wishing I HAD gone upstairs for shoes by the time I
- froze and realised the bback gate had been unlocked.
Damien had been working out the front. I knew that. And the gate was hard to open from the front. I cast a quick look around the garden and saw the footsteps in the snow, leading towards the shed. And not away from it. I swallowed. And moved cautiously closer. Damien was out the front- I'd seen and heard him out the front- and when I had a clear view of the shed, I could see the padlock on the door was open and the vague shape of a man was moving around inside.
Obviously someone had been wandering around our neighbourhood and had taken refuge in the shed- and if it was a tramp, I couldn't blame the poor man, sleeping out in the snow was not a reasonable option for anyone- but talking to him and dealing with the situation definitely fell under Damien's responsibilities and not mine. I retreated rapidly back towards the front garden, shivering still harder. And then realised. If I went to Damien now and confronted him shoeless, coatless and having obviously wandered around the back garden first, we were going to get into a very complex and unpleasant conversation. Which really was not necessary at this point. MUCH better to get properly dressed first and then go and find him. And just to be on the safe side…. Since I did NOT want to confront an unknown man in the middle of the garden who Damien was bound to have major problems with me dealing with alone and unsuitably dressed- I noiselessly stepped up to the shed and softly clicked the padlock shut. Then feeling much better, headed for the garage.
The big ladder reached the roof, since I lived with a man who thought about things like keeping the gutters clear. It would easily reach the bathroom window. Beneath which was a deep windowsill with plenty of room to stand on. I could get inside, get some shoes and a coat on, unlock the back door, put the ladder away- and be explaining calmly and reasonably to Damien about our shed occupant before anyone noticed anything odd.
The ladder slid beautifully and easily into position, I propped it, made sure it was braced securely, and with another quick look around to check the coast was clear, headed up it. Which was not at all comfortable in cold, wet socks. My hands were freezing on the iron rungs and I was shivering all over. I reached the bathroom window and pulled with numb fingers at the latch, opening it to its fullest extent. It opened easily and I pushed the few bottles on the windowsill out of the way. In order to get my feet onto the windowsill I was going to need to get above it- I climbed further up the ladder and tried. A little higher still. I held onto the edge of the roof, and heart thudding, put one foot carefully on the windowsill.
And that was when the ladder slipped. Not badly- just far enough to the side to make me get off the windowsill and up the last two rungs of the ladder, quick, following the tight and secure handhold I had on the roof. As soon as my weight was off the ladder, it crashed down across the lawn, landing softly in the snow.
And I was left, perched and rapidly freezing, in several inches of snow on our roof.
NOW I had a problem.
And sadly, there was only one solution to it.
Moving as carefully as I possibly could, I edged a few feet along the roof and then decided I was way safer staying where I was. Not only was the roof steep, it was also incredibly slippery. I clung on, raised my voice, and shouted.
Silence. Damn it was cold.
The front door shut downstairs. I swore quietly and shouted again, louder.
"DAMIEN, OUT HERE!"
Silence. Then Damien's voice, sounding puzzled, floated up from below, through the open bathroom window.
I shut my eyes.
"I'm on the roof."
"The ladder fell-"
He must have followed my voice and seen: I heard his stifled exclamation. A minute later the back door opened and Damien came into view, peering upwards. I gave him a weak smile.
"The ladder fell."
As justification, I admit it didn't sound good. To do him credit, Damien gave me one, staggered stare, then shook his head, grabbing the ladder up from the snow.
"Nicholas Hayes what the HELL are you doing up there?"
I didn't feel up to explaining at this exact moment in time. Damien laid the ladder gently against the wall and leaned his full weight on it, standing with both feet jammed against the bottom struts.
"Take it slowly for Heaven's sake. SLOWLY Nicky, be careful."
Oh I had every intention of being careful. Damien stared upwards, fixedly, watching every move I made as I edged towards the ladder, gripped it as hard as my shaking hands would allow, and got one foot, then the other down to the ladder. Getting down it seemed to take hours and it was getting increasingly hard to feel my feet. Eventually I felt Damien's hand grip my ankle, then the waistband of my trousers, steadying me over the last few feet and I stood on the ground again. And reflexively clung to him. He hugged me tightly, lifting me off my feet and walking across to the open back door. I stood where he put me and watched him lock it behind us. Then he turned to look at me, politely quizzical.
"Have you noticed the weather at all this morning?"
"There was a good reason-" I began, trying to stop my teeth chattering. Damien turned me around and pushed me ahead of him towards the stairs.
"I can't wait to hear it, Nicholas. As I can't think of even a BAD reason for perching on the roof in half a foot of snow, it defeats me totally."
"It wasn't how it looked."
"You don't need to worry at all about that." Damien assured me, steering me into the bathroom. "I know it can't BE how it looked, I have no frame of reference whatever for how it looked. With the possible exception of migrating sparrows."
Freezing to death while your lover reaches new heights of sarcasm. It doesn't get much worse.
Damien shut the window and turned the bath on full blast. He then turned his attentions to me, stripping me out of my clothes, rapidly and very efficiently, sitting me down on the toilet seat to peel off my socks. They were drenched, and melting snow was clinging to them. He picked up a towel and began to scour my feet, which initially I couldn't feel at all and then which quickly became downright painful as sensation returned to them. When the bath was full he helped me into it and for several minutes my hands and feet prickled horribly until my eyes teared up. Damien disappeared for a moment, and came back with a mug of coffee. I took it gratefully, the shivering finally dying off. Damien sat down on the edge of the bath.
I settled deeper under the water, not keen on seeing his expression.
"I'm sorry, the ladder slipped and I couldn't get down- otherwise I wouldn't have scared you-"
"You locked yourself out, didn't you?"
The man unfortunately reads me like a book. I sat, sipping coffee for a moment and reviewing the situation as rapidly as possible for some- any- way to make this sound a little better. I didn't come up with one. Damien was still waiting when I looked up.
"HOW did you get locked out?"
This wasn't going to be pretty. I swallowed, putting it as calmly as I could in hopes of it sliding as soothingly as possible into his ears.
"I just went to put rubbish out in the bin, the door must have blown shut."
"And you couldn't find a single pair of shoes?"
There weren't many ways to defend this. I considered two possible lines of argument which we'd gone over many times before, and which I'd never yet succeeded in even a stale mate on. Then tried a third one.
"I thought you'd cleared the path out there, it looked dry."
"Ah." Damien nodded thoughtfully, taking that in. "And it's perfectly acceptable to walk around outside without shoes on?"
"We both do sometimes."
"We do?" Damien invited, raising an eyebrow. Arg. Why did I start these debates? He would patiently pursue this anyway until I surrendered, or until his logic defeated mine.
"In summer." I said, gulping more coffee to blur the statement. "When the paths are dry."
"Is it summer?"
"No…. but I was only going to be out for a few seconds."
"Are you allowed to walk around outside in socks because you can't be bothered to go upstairs and get out a pair of shoes?"
"IF we kept them downstairs, this wouldn't keep happening." I pointed out. "I wouldn't get into trouble nearly so often, and it's far more logical to keep shoes near to where they're needed instead of-"
"Put away. Yes." Damien took the mug out of my fingers, removing my one object to hide behind. "But you see I have every faith in you eventually learning that you go upstairs and get shoes when you need them, and then put them away when you've finished with them. I think that's quite within your capabilities. What did I say would happen the next time you went outside inadequately dressed?"
I flushed, remembering that conversation all too well. Damien waited, one eyebrow clearly indicating his expectation of an answer.
I sighed. "You'd spank me."
"So you decided that was a better option than going to get the shoes?" Damien leaned over to put the mug down and gave me a look of polite curiosity.
Oh I hated it when he started paring things this far down to the bone, it made me perilously close to squirming.
"No….." and I meant that. Any spanking from him was never a good option.
"I hoped you wouldn't see!" I said irritably. If that wasn't human nature I didn't know what was. Damien's eyebrow quirked still further.
"So you only need to do as you're told if I'm watching?"
Arg again. I went a still darker red and didn't answer. Damien sounded mild but extremely matter of fact.
"When I tell you to do something Nicholas, and you agree, do we mean do it only if I'm standing over you?"
"No." I admitted. That was the hard part, but no. That wasn't what we meant. Damien nodded.
"So instead of asking me for the key and going straight inside, you decided to get in through the window?"
"You would have seen about the shoes if I'd asked." I mumbled. Damien gave me one of those calm looks that are extremely hard to face sometimes.
"Should you have been wearing shoes?"
We'd gone over and over this through the years. About admitting it when caught out doing something I knew I shouldn't instead of compounding things in an effort to cover them up. I knew what he meant.
"Yes….. I'm sorry, I just-"
"Didn't want to get into trouble if you could possibly avoid it." Damien said with understanding if some asperity. "What possessed you to try the ladder?"
"I set it up carefully-"
"On two inches of snow and ice with the patio underneath? It was bound to slip once the struts reached through the snow Nick, you might have broken a leg, or even worse, your neck."
That was more severe than anything else he'd said so far. I ducked my head still further, seeing it from his perspective now and wishing I didn't. Damien's voice was extremely stern above me.
"You must and will learn to stop and to think before you give in to impulses. Especially ones that lead you into dangerous situations."
"I'm sorry," I said sincerely, really miserable now. "I didn't think of it like that, I just wanted to get inside."
"So you didn't get caught out in a minor and silly act of laziness you knew perfectly well you deserved to be spanked for." Damien said not ungently, but I still could cheerfully have sunk through the floor. "Look after and think about the little things and mostly the big things won't actually happen. Are you warm?"
I nodded, too upset to prevaricate any further. Damien ran a hand over my head and got up.
"Get yourself dry and put some dry clothes on then. I'll get rid of these soggy articles. And when you're done, pick yourself a corner please."
He took my damp clothes away. I got out and got dry, taking my time as far as possible, but I was still dressed before he came back upstairs, with nothing left to do except head towards the landing corner and stand there, wondering when I would stop finding myself in these appallingly complicated situations. Maybe what I really needed was about another five IQ points.
Damien came back upstairs, making my heart thud a little harder, especially as he walked past me into our room.
"Come here Nicholas."
I went to him, without much enthusiasm but more than resigned that I'd asked for this. Damien took a seat on the end of the bed and held out a hand to me, drawing me in between his knees.
"We've got two issues we need to deal with here. I told you I'd spank you if you walked around outside in socks, didn't I?"
I nodded, very unwillingly, stomach twisting into a knot. Damien unbuttoned my jeans and turned me over his lap, leaving me with nothing to do but hold onto the quilt and wish I'd thought a lot harder while he pulled my jeans and shorts down to my knees.
"You may not do it, it's that simple. That's all you need to remember. We've talked about it numerous times, I've asked, I've warned, you've written lines, and it's had no effect. Obviously you need a stronger incentive."
One hand folded over my hip, I felt his other hand lift and then the ringing, blazing smack as it fell. And fell, and fell, moving from one cheek to the other, making me gulp and hold my breath and jump, struggling to hold on to some semblance of dignity and self control.
I gave up on that idea about twenty seconds later.
My entire backside was flaming from hips to thighs by the time he stopped and I was sobbing and gulping, out of breath and for a while having been out of energy to squirm or to come up with any apology or reasoning to end Damien's steady and all too expert onslaught. I lay limply over his lap, very determined that I was not about to do this again any time soon. It wasn't worth it. I never understood why, when out of this position, I forgot that.
Damien put a hand on my shoulder and eased me down to my knees, leaning down to me as I promptly clung to him. His hands ran down my back, then his arms folded around me and held on tight, a reassuring enfoldment that contained the shuddering and took my mind off the burning smart of my rump. He held me for a moment, long enough for me to get my breath, then he drew me to my feet and got up with me, helping me to dress. Although his next words totally negated any comfort in that gesture.
"If you'd stopped and thought at that point, we'd be finished now."
I looked at him in shocked outrage, still dripping tears. Damien shook his head at me, eyes kind but absolutely immoveable.
"You seriously need to remember and to think about how much worse things can get before you let impulse take over. That was dangerous, Nicholas. Not to mention totally uncalled for."
I watched in absolute horror as he crossed to the wardrobe and took down the one thing that makes me realise, instantly, I've gone a LOT too far. My mouth dried, my knees started to shake and I began to wish, passionately, I'd never considered the wretched ladder as an option.
"We've gone over this time and time again, there's absolutely no excuse you can make, Nick." Damien flexed the hateful thing between his hands, making it come to life in a way I really did not like at all. Still gulping, still smarting badly from his attentions not five minutes ago, this seemed the absolute height of unkindness. I put both hands behind me and gave him a look of frank pleading. He shook his head at me, neither cross nor reproachful, just simply and cheerfully matter of fact. Which in itself told me I had no chance of talking my way out of this.
"You have GOT to learn to stop and think before you act, especially when it's panic actions to cover up rather than face up to something minor. And quite apart from that, if you do something that dangerous and that badly thought out and you know perfectly well what to expect. Don't you?"
Unfortunately, yes I did.
Damien nodded me towards the bed.
"Come on then, over the end of the bed please. Hands flat, knees straight. Take that look of tragedy off your face and let's get this over with."
One day, I am going to go with him to one of his wretched school reunions and point out to the antiquated retainers there the effects, no doubt totally unconsidered by them, of having raised my partner in a style which made him regard this barbaric form of corporal punishment as an acceptable means of correcting behaviour. He comes from an entire bloodline of pupils of that school who regard this as such. His father, his brother, himself- they all were canees and caners during their sojourn at that abandoned place, and I bet they all have the same revoltingly hale and hearty approach to the whole ghastly business. I bet when the head prefect of HIS house had him in this horrible position he did it quite cheerfully with the full British Bulldog Breed bit, and his knees never shook.
Mine were trembling nearly as badly as my hands.
"I need another five IQ points." I said, somehow finding the courage to turn my back and bend over. Talking helped. The faster I talked, the more distracted I got from what it was that was actually about to happen here. I hated that damned piece of wood, it scared me stiff.
"IQ points?" Damien sounded confused. I stared at the quilt, trying to lock my knees to keep them from buckling.
"Then I might be able to think before I get myself into stupid situations. They don't even SEEM stupid at the time."
"Nicholas." Damien put a hand on my wrist and turned me around. I knew the look and it was deeply reassuring. Something between exasperation, patience, amusement and a lot of affection, enough that the sight of it warmed me right through, even this upset. I don't always understand how his mind works, or what he's thinking about, but I know that look and I know exactly what it means.
"Are you seriously telling me you don't think you have the intelligence to know that deciding to use that ladder was a bad idea?"
"It didn't SEEM like it at the time!" I said hotly. "Only when it went wrong-"
"So foresight is the issue? Darling, it has nothing to do with your intelligence OR your understanding of cause and effect. Your only problem is that you just don't always stop and think before going with the first action that comes to mind. That's a learned skill and like any other skill it can be developed by practice. And maybe if it's worrying you, we need to do more practice. For a start, at you remembering and following the small rules and not skipping over them if I'm not around to insist. Hmmn?"
I flushed hotly and darkly red. Damien touched my face.
"Come on my boy, let's get this finished."
I took a deep, deep breath and turned around again. And shut my eyes, tight, as the cane touched, resting lightly across the seat of my trousers. Which felt appallingly thin and which involuntarily clenched as far away as possible.
"Stand still Nick."
Easy for him to say. I jerked, hard, mostly in reaction to the crack as the first stroke landed hard, low and fast enough that it was a second later before I actually felt the flooding, acid, unbearable sting. Already thoroughly sore there, it was even worse than I expected. My breath rushed out of my lungs and my eyes filled with tears that had absolutely nothing to do with emotion- just with pure, physical sting. I NEVER remembered how much it hurt. Never. I was aware, distantly, of the cane resting light across my backside again and the sheer touch of it made me sweat. He was waiting until I was completely still: I knew it and yet I wasn't even aware of moving. Then the horrendous silence was broken with another loud swish and crack, and the yell escaped me quite involuntarily. And I started to cry, hard.
I was still braced, somehow keeping my hands still, my head down, trying to breathe around that awful sting while I waited for the next crack, but Damien put a hand on my shoulder, pulled me up and his chest was right in front of me, a safe place to bury my face and sob and gasp. He rubbed my back soothingly, not saying anything, just holding me while I struggled to manage the appalling smart. Which, after a moment, thankfully, began to subside, if not to anywhere near comfortable proportions then at least to manageable ones.
"That really hurts." I said eventually, unsteadily, into his lapels. Damien snorted softly, chin resting on top of my head.
"That was really dangerous."
It was that simple and that sincere. He nudged my head up and kissed my forehead, our faces very close for a moment, hazel eyes into mine, then he kissed my lips, lightly and gently.
"Go and wash your face. And bring a sweater down with you."
Sniffing, I walked- carefully- towards the bathroom, hearing his voice behind me.
"If you get another cold from wandering around out there half dressed, I swear I'll sit you down with the entire cod liver oil bottle and a straw."
Downstairs he wrapped both arms tightly around me when I crawled into his lap and I curled up to him, still not able to stop crying. He stroked my hair, running his fingers through it over and over again for a long time, and went on saying nothing which was about the most helpful thing he could do.
"How are the sketches going?" he asked eventually. I glanced over at the ones on the table and winced, snuffling. I'd forgotten I'd left them out.
"I'm sorry, I would have asked but you said I could work on them-"
"Shh, it's allright. I did say you could work on them while I was here, it's fine. And you enjoy drawing."
I relaxed back down into his arms. Damien kissed the top of my head.
"I'm not being mean for the sake of it. I just don't want you to get into the habit of bringing work home or of gradually knocking your hours up. You've been a lot happier since you went part time."
"I know. It's just this one project."
"So how's it going?"
I leaned over for the drawings, wincing at the movement. It really wasn't comfortable at the moment.
"It isn't really. I still can't find a real image I'm happy with, I've hardly even tried any sketches."
I watched him sort through the pages of printout, wrapping one arm back around me. He's a technical drawer, not an artist as such, but he has the eye.
"I see the problem. It's a very stereotyped theme."
"What does it associate with for you?"
Damien tipped his head back, shutting his eyes. I love the way he gives things serious thought, even minor ideas.
"Towns like Rye." He said at length. "The steep streets and smugglers inns, and the top gallant sails. I suppose Tudor type images of the early new world."
"Maybe a ship instead of the traditional mermaid woman." I said heavily. "Or a figurehead."
"Those are ideas to try." Damien looked down at me. "Not right?"
"It'll come." Damien went back to stroking my hair, steadily and with just enough weight behind the combing fingers. "The right thing will come."
I moved, letting him go as the phone rang. He left the door open and I heard his voice in the hall, calm and soothing.
"Hi Margaret. No, no burglar, just Nicky. Yes, just checking the gutters and tiles, always wise after this kind of snowfall. No. Thankyou for checking. Talk to you soon."
He came back into the lounge chuckling, where as I was bolt upright on the sofa, absolutely horrified.
"One of the neighbours saw you up on the roof and told Margaret- what?"
"There's a man locked in the shed! A tramp! I forgot all about him!"
"You what?" Damien demanded, following me into the kitchen.
"A tramp! I found him in the shed when I went for the ladder, I was going to put some shoes and a coat on and come and get you so I just turned the padlock before he came out and things got-"
"STAY here." Damien ordered, running upstairs. He came down a moment later with shoes and a coat on in the properly prescribed manner and pulled the key out of the back door. "Keep the door locked."
He locked it behind him as he went out. Heart thumping, mouth dry, I peered out of the kitchen window, trying to see the shed door. It seemed to take an awful long time. Then Damien tapped on the kitchen window and I hastily opened it, very relieved he was still in one piece with no visible fist marks. Damien looked cold but not at all discouraged and the look he gave me was not at all indicative of disaster.
"Could you make a strong cup of tea, plenty of sugar, and then bring me my wallet?"
"Are you allright?" I demanded. "Is HE allright?"
"He's the window cleaner." Damien said soothingly. "And he's a little surprised, somewhat annoyed and extremely cold, but a serious tip and a cup of tea should help."
"What was he doing in our shed!" I demanded, horrified. Damien leaned on the windowsill.
"Using our outdoor tap as he always does. What IS this thing you have with locking people in, Nicholas?"
"I had no clue who he was!" I protested. Damien gave me a sympathetic grin.
"I'd just make him a really good cup of tea. I don't think he'll make that mistake again."
"I'm SORE." I told Damien crossly, peering at the damage in the mirror. Actually it was limited to a faint pinkness and two red lines which you could just make out if you really peered, but the whole thing was still very tender. Damien looked over my shoulder then gave the area a pat that lacked any sympathy or regret.
"So I should hope."
"Excuse me?" Damien paused, half way into the wardrobe. I glared at him. He shut the wardrobe and I hurriedly capitulated, raising both hands.
"Okay, it was my fault, I KNOW-"
He grabbed for me, I screeched and he landed on top of me as I overbalanced onto the bed.
"Come here you stroppy so and so. I think we should get to the bottom of this fascination of yours for locks and bolts. I'm starting to wonder if you've got a kink or two you've been keeping quiet about."
"Shut UP…" I demanded, outraged.
"No?" Damien teased, not moving. "You don't feel like playing with a few chains and handcuffs?"
"NO. Never. Not EVER. And certainly not in broad daylight!"
I struggled out from underneath him into a more comfortable position, scarlet faced, and thankfully his fingers stopped digging into my ribs and wandered in a much more soothing manner.
"How about going out this morning?"
"Where? It's snowy."
"The roads are clear now. Come on, just for an hour or two, get some fresh air."
"I need to work on those drawings, I've still barely started."
"You'll have time this afternoon. We could do with a walk?"
Actually it was a drive. I curled up and tucked my feet under me in the passenger seat of his Laguna, trying anything that would take the weight off parts of me that did not want to bear weight this morning. Damien put a hand out and pushed my feet down to the floor.
"Sit up. The seat belt can't hold you in that position."
I sighed, but yielded, fairly gracefully.
Snow banked the usually green fields and woodlands for miles around. Damien switched the stereo on and I admired the scenery until I recognised a sign post and realised with a shock where we were going.
"Yes." Damien glanced over and smiled at me. "Nice shopping centre there."
Well that was allright. Just shopping.
It was actually a pretty little market town and the centre of it held some unusual shops which we wandered around for some time.
"I have this urge to buy weird coffee." Damien said in my ear in one of them. "Do we need coffee that tastes of strawberry and mocha? What IS mocha?"
"I have no idea." I put down a piece of wood that appeared to be the shape of an elephant having a meaningful relationship with a palm tree and found his hand. He was actually being incredibly good, since he loathes what he calls executive tat shops, and only ever goes in them to let me poke around. Usually by now he's resorted to quietly insulting the products and trying on hats. "We don't need the coffee."
"I don't know how places like this make a living." Damien peered at a row of fierce faced dolls wearing chimney sweep outfits as I pulled him out of the door. "What do people buy these things for?"
"They give them to each other as presents." I explained. It was freezing outside. I walked closer to him for shelter against the wind and we headed down yet another narrow alley way. "Then you unwrap it, wonder what to do with it, and either put it in the attic or donate it to a raffle."
"That seems logical."
I halted as something large and very unwelcome loomed up at the end of the alley.
"Let's go back down the other side of the square, there's a coffee shop there- NOT with strawberry and mocha-"
"We can have a walk around the cathedral, the morning service is over." Damien kept walking a few steps, then glanced back at me, surprised. "Come on, you usually love churches."
I managed something approximating a smile and fell into step with him again.
His hand slid into mine, engulfing it. "It'll be warmer inside."
The cathedral WAS beautiful. We walked in silence down the side aisle, stopping to read the name plates under the regiment flags on one wall. I left Damien scanning through them and moved on, edging around a large flower arrangement to slip into the lady chapel. The simple altar stood beneath a large, ornate stained glass window and equally ornate stone work dividing each alcove into a separate and beautifully decorated shrine. The peace in here was tangible. I heard someone come in behind me and didn't need to look to know who it was. Medieval architecture makes him purr like Anastasia. I gave a discreet bow to the altar and went to stand with him, watching his eyes stroke the lines of the arched ceiling.
"Mmn." He said eventually with satisfaction. I glanced at my watch.
"Ready for that coffee?"
Thank goodness. I walked with him back into the main aisle, as quickly as I could persuade him to move. We were nearly at the door when a man strode down towards us, short and stocky in a sweatshirt wearing a Renford Cathedral logo. Damien glanced up in surprise. The man levelled a finger at me, shaking it and barely keeping his voice to respectful levels considering our environment.
"I WARNED you about coming in here, I made it very clear you were banned-"
"BANNED?" Damien turned to look at me with deep interest. I gave the man a hasty nod of agreement, towing Damien towards the exit.
"I'm leaving now, I'm sorry."
"I don't want to see you here again!" The man said sharply. "The next time I'll talk to security!"
"Security?" Damien pulled me to a halt in the doorway, making another quick scan of the hall. I had one last try at dragging him out of the door and failed to move him an inch. Instead, his eyes took in a sign by the cathedral shop which begged to draw the attention of all visitors to the newly restored Tudor bosses, which included designs of the Tudor rose, several famous ships and a collection of five mermaids. Following the directions given on the sign, Damien looked up and found the gallery, with the scaffolding surrounding it, and his face lost all curiosity.
We didn't often go to London. From the train which dropped us at Victoria, through the tube ride to Kensington during which Damien never once let go of me- which I didn't actually mind since the time we got separated on the platform at Covent Garden and took two hours to find each other again- he wouldn't explain where it was we were going or why.
I didn't appreciate all the sitting.
I tried explaining that at one point and got reminded, extremely crisply, that if I chose to go climbing scaffolding in places where I had no business to be climbing at all, then I deserved all I got. Damien hadn't exactly gone back and measured up the man's hand print to the bruises on my arm, but he'd pried the entire story out of me in the carpark. The reasoning that I had been trying to make sketches of the mermaids hadn't cut a great deal of ice. Nor that having been spanked just the day before, I should be exempt from further such attentions.
It was still freezing in London but at least there was no snow. We walked through an apparently never ending tunnel from the tube station, which finally emerged in a park, and Damien led me up sweeping stone steps into a Victorian fronted building, where I finally spotted a sign. The Natural History Museum.
"Dinosaurs?" I asked as he led me through the front entrance hall. "You're in need of a dinosaur fix?"
"Upstairs." Damien said simply. I trailed him, past cases full of stuffed bears, penguins, deer and elk, down another gallery and pushed open a yellow fire door. I followed him inside.
And stopped dead, mouth falling open.
When I remembered Damien again he was sitting on a bench at the far end of the gallery and a pen and sketch pad was sitting beside him.
At this hour of a week day we had the gallery to ourselves: I leaned on his shoulders from behind and kissed him, thoroughly.
The blue whale skeleton, complete, incredible in size, majesty and aquine fluidity, hung the entire length of the gallery, surrounded by whales, dolphins, seals and porpoises. Damien pulled me down on the bench beside him and handed me the pen and paper.
I tucked my feet up under me, turning around to use him as a back rest and stared again, mesmerised, at the blue whale. And drew.