Authors: Ranger, Rolf, Gayspankee
Characters: R/M/M and Company
Warnings: The hand is quicker than the eye, brief nudity
How many times does "it" change hands?
The sudden silence was deafening.
"There's an old lady in Guatemala who wants to hear track five again." Joseph called into the living room.
"Ha ha." Chris dropped his books and came out into the hall. Joseph paused, halfway through pulling his jacket off, and kissed him.
"Aren't your eardrums bleeding?"
"I LIKE music while I study."
"You DON'T need it that loud, I could hear it in the street. How's it going?"
Chris pulled a face. "NEARLY done."
"Enough to BE done by tomorrow night?" Joseph asked warningly. Chris held up both hands.
"YES! Nothing due after that until next week! Did you talk to Rolf and Matthew?"
"I did, and we have five tickets. Marc's going too," Joseph said as he finished shrugging out of his jacket.
"Hot damn! We're going! WOOOHOOOO HOOOOOO!!!" Chris yelled as he danced around the entryway.
Joseph couldn't help but laugh. "Nice to have ticket connections, isn't it?"
"Rolf is a God where that is concerned! When are we leaving? Where are we staying? What are we eating?"
"Saturday morning. Nashville. And at as yet, undetermined Nashville restaurant," Joseph teased as he made his way into the kitchen. "Did you take out the chicken like I asked?"
"Yeessssss," Chris said in exasperation.
"If you're finished for the moment, why don't you grab the lettuce and things and throw together a salad?"
"Okay," he replied, not at all anxious to cook, but hungry enough to help.
"Oh, before I forget, Eric and Michael are coming over for pizza and a movie tomorrow night."
"What are we going to see?"
"Michael's turn to choose."
"Great," Chris said sarcastically. "Another space movie I'm sure."
"As it's his choice, we'll have to wait and see." Joseph said calmly. "Lettuce?"
Chris grabbed the lettuce out of the fridge, and paused to touch an object sitting in the pocket of his jeans. It had resided there since yesterday morning, and he was in a definite hurry to get rid of it, as quickly and as discreetly as possible. If Michael was coming over- even if he wanted to see a truly stupid movie- he might prove very helpful.
Joseph brought the pizzas home with him on Friday evening, demanded and approved the small mountain of assignments Chris presented him with and watched Chris shove the entire lot into a bag and put them at the back of the hall closet.
"Are you packed? It'll be late when we get in and we're leaving at eight tomorrow morning-"
"Yes, done. And your things."
"Yes. And a change of shoes. Everything."
Joseph dropped a kiss on his forehead and went to plate up the pizzas. The knock at the door heralded one large police officer and Michael in custody.
"Mike!" Chris said cheerfully, grabbing his hand to shake it. Michael dodged behind Eric, grinning.
"You're nuts, you."
"Hey!" Eric said as he was off balance and almost fell when Michael swung around his body. "Does Chris have cooties or some other disease I need to know about?"
Michael snorted. "It's all mental. He's a nutcase!"
Chris went to punch Michael but was brought up short by Eric grabbing his arm.
"If you two don't mind, I'm a little hungry." He stepped between them and headed into the kitchen. "Hi. Looks like we got here in good time. Anything I can help with?"
"Grab the beer there and that should be it." Joseph said over his shoulder.
"OW!" Michael's voice said indignantly from the hallway.
Joseph looked at Eric quizzically. "Chris?"
Chris came into the kitchen, smirking. "What?"
"What was that?"
"Oh, nothing," he said, taking a beer and popping the top.
Michael came into the kitchen and grabbed a cold one for himself.
"It better be..." Joseph said warningly, heading towards the table to put the plates down. "Come, sit down."
They ate, taking their time and chatting over a range of subjects, including the trip Joseph and Chris were taking this weekend. Michael, who wasn't much of a long travel fan, had little patience with a journey just to see a match and said as much, making Eric grin.
"I'll remember that the next time we're offered tickets."
"It's better than nothing, just not worth the journey." Michael leaned over for another slice of pizza. His yelp made Eric glance up.
Michael dropped the slice on his plate and hurriedly rubbed his fingers on his jeans, glowering at Chris.
Chris snorted and apologised when Joseph looked at him. "Sorry."
"It's not exactly funny if Mike burnt himself- run it under the tap."
"It's not that bad."
"Do it anyway." Eric pulled Michael's chair back, moving his plate out of reach. Michael got up, scowling, and held his hand under the cold tap for a few seconds.
Eric got up and put an arm around him, holding his hand under the cold spray. Michael gave Chris a second, poisonous glare over his shoulder.
"Thanks a BUNCH..." he hissed in Chris's ear as they reached the cinema foyer. "Frozen fingers!"
"You took it!"
"I don't want the damn thing!"
"Well I don't want it either!" Chris jogged a few steps to catch up with Joseph, sliding around his partner to hold his hand and get well out of Michael's reach.
"Let's get some popcorn and coke," Michael said, pulling Eric towards the busy counter.
"HOW can you be hungry? We JUST finished eating!"
"I'm not starved, but you don't go to the movies without it," Michael finished, digging in his pocket for money.
"Small. On both counts," Eric said.
Michael scowled, but ordered the smaller size knowing he'd not get any tonight or on future visits if he didn't.
Chris stopped, then followed behind Eric. "I need something to drink too."
He was careful to stand behind Eric at all times, making Joseph wonder what in the world was going on. He watched as Chris also got a small drink and shook his head when he turned with a box of candy as well.
"Come on, let's get our seats," Joseph said, walking towards the theatre doors. He nearly tripped as Chris cut in front of him. "Chris, PLEASE slow down."
Chris headed down the aisle and walked through the center, sitting down. Joe was a little surprised as he expected Michael to follow, but he stopped and let Joe in front of him. Eric followed next, leaving the younger two on the outside.
"What is this movie again?" Chris asked.
"It's the re-released version of ET," Joseph replied.
"Oh, right, it's got aliens in it," Chris said snidely, loud enough for Michael to hear.
"At least it's not a cartoon!" Michael shot back.
"That's enough," Joe said, eying Chris sternly.
Michael got the same look, huffed and settled back in his seat.
Thirty minutes into the movie, Chris opened his box of candy.
"Shhhhhh!" Michael hissed.
Eric squeezed his leg.
Joseph turned to Chris and whispered, "you need to offer that to everyone."
"No, I don't. I bought it!"
"Share, or hand it over. They're not going to eat it all."
Chris pulled out a few candies, huffing as he handed it to Joe, who turned and offered it to Eric and Michael. Eric passed, but Michael didn't. His eyes lit up and he put his hand in, pulling out a few candies and handing it back nonchalantly, ears tuned into Chris.
Chris took the box back and stuck it into the coke holder and ate what he had in his mouth. When he ran out, he picked the box up and dug back in.
Michael had just taken his last mouthful of coke, and couldn't help a huge laugh, coke streaming down his chin. Eric, unamused, tapped his knee, not very gently. Michael sputtered, fumbling for a handkerchief. Joseph took Chris by the neck, pulled him to his feet and pushed him up the aisle ahead of him and out of the door into the foyer.
"What on EARTH was that about?"
The look and the tone were not promising. Chris swallowed the last of the candy in his mouth and hastily dug both hands into his pockets.
Joseph just stood and waited, arms folded. He was not given to shouting, nor to prevarication: it was the look Chris always thought must make him hell to face in court. He cleared his throat, knowing his only hope was to talk, quickly and sincerely.
"I caught my - my fingers on the box- a paper cut-"
"Where?" Joe demanded, holding out a hand. Chris surrendered a finger. Joe looked and shook his head.
"NOT a mark."
"It FELT like a cut, it hurt!"
"Is that a reason for resorting to that kind of language?"
Chris shook his head. Joseph took the box of candy from his hand and pocketed it.
"You have an appointment with a bar of soap when we get home, young man. I do NOT expect to have to speak to you again this evening. Is that clear?"
Chris flushed as two teenaged girls passed, giving him a curious look as they overheard Joe.
"You'll apologise to Eric and Michael after the film."
Joseph opened the door and held it, waiting. Chris walked slowly ahead of him, avoiding Michael's eye as he sat down.
After the film ended, the four men headed back to the car. It was a more subdued ride home. When they pulled into the driveway and got out, Joseph prompted Chris for his apology.
Chris blushed and fidgeted but got his apology out.
"Wait for me in the kitchen, please," Joe said, and watched as Chris ducked his head and went inside.
"Wait for me in the car," Eric said to Michael, who did as asked.
"What was that about?" Eric asked when Michael's door closed.
"He said papercut, but with Michael's timing on the laugh, it seems a little more than that."
"I don't know what that's all about, but I hope this was the end of it," Eric said, heading towards the car.
"I hope you're right," Joe said as he turned and headed back into the house. He went directly to the kitchen, finding Chris seated in the chair by the door, looking penitent.
"Any more explanation on your behavior?" Joe asked as he got out the bar of soap and ran it under the tap.
Chris wriggled nervously in the chair, mouth already dry at the thought of soap. "No, sir."
"I don't expect to hear anything of the sort this weekend, is that clear?" Joe stopped in front of Chris's chair.
"Yes, sir," Chris said miserably, eye to eye with the soap.
Chris swallowed loudly, then opened his mouth, slowly closing it around the bar of soap.
Joe busied himself in the kitchen for the next several minutes, then turned and took the soap from Chris's mouth.
"Go on and shower, we're leaving early tomorrow."
Chris bolted from the chair and flew upstairs, spitting furiously in the sink before starting his shower. Joseph finished straightening up, locked up downstairs and headed up, checking the last of their packing while the shower ran next door. Chris emerged a minute later, wrapped in a towel and still dripping. Joe kissed him as he passed, wincing slightly on the taste of soap as he encountered it.
Chris passed him without argument. Joseph showered, putting out the last few articles they would need, and followed Chris into the bedroom. His lover, still towelled, was sprawled across the bed, reading. Joseph took the book and the towel, flicking it gently across the upturned rump.
"101 new and inventive ways of not exactly going to bed."
"I'm ON the bed." Chris rolled up and found his nightwear. Joseph set the alarm and climbed under the covers, waiting for him.
"What WAS all that with Michael tonight. Did you two have an argument?"
"No, he was just being a pain."
"About what?" Joseph moved over, wrapping an arm around Chris as he lay down. Chris rolled over, snuggling up.
"Nothing really. Just being Michael."
To Chris, that was probably perfectly logical statement which made sense. Joseph gave it up as a bad job, kissed him and turned the light out.
"WHERE is Marc?" Matthew fumed, pacing in the living room.
"He said he'd be here by eight. It's just a few minutes after."
"I KNOW. AFTER. If he doesn't hurry...."
"We're not going to lose too much time. Go use the bathroom, we don't need to stop five minutes down the road," Rolf said, catching Matthew on another pass-by and gently pushing him towards the hallway.
"He better be here when I come out."
Rolf went back to the kitchen and checked through the small cooler and food bag. He looked under the carrot sticks and found three candy bars. He shook his head, removing two and took that out to the truck. Just as he shut the door, Marc pulled in and parked.
"Hi! Sorry about being late, I couldn't find my jersey," Marc said, pulling out his overnight bag and shutting the door.
Just then the door flung open and Matthew raced down the steps. "You're late!"
"Good morning to you too, fruitloop," Marc said, putting his bag in the back of Rolf's truck.
"Matthew have the tribe got water?" Rolf called. Matthew pulled a face.
"I was doing it-"
"Then do it and we can go."
Marc trailed Matthew into the house and to the kitchen, stepping over the several cats on the way.
"Have you got it?"
"No." Matthew grabbed up the water bowls and quickly brimmed them. "I think Michael has."
"He said he'd get rid of it as soon as he could, but I haven't heard anything else. There babies." Matthew grabbed up the nearest cat and kissed it. "Be good, see you Monday."
Rolf was waiting on the doorstep, keys in hand.
"Got everything? Sure? Ok, lets go."
"About time!" Matthew said, digging Marc in the ribs.
Joseph and Chris was sitting on the wall at the end of their drive, Chris glaring at his watch.
"They SAID ten minutes ago!"
"It's a nice morning, enjoy it." Joseph said calmly. "There."
"YES." Chris got up, following Joseph's glance to Rolf's truck. He grabbed both their bags and waved as the truck pulled over.
Matthew and Marc were in the backseat, leaving the middle seat for Chris. Joseph took the front, and after a final check, Rolf pulled out of the driveway and headed towards the interstate. The five hour trip was underway.
"I thought you'd never get here," Chris said to the backseat.
"Blame him!" Matthew said. "He couldn't find his clothes."
"Jersey. I couldn't find my jersey. It's not like we get to these hockey games all the time anymore."
"It should be hanging on your wall! It's a souvenier," Chris said.
"It doesn't quite mean the same thing when the team....and the player....are no longer in town," Marc groused.
"It makes it that much MORE valuable," Matthew interjected.
"I'd like to see how much I could get for it on Ebay."
That pronouncement was met with shocked silence. Matthew recovered his voice first.
"Don't you DARE!"
"What? Sell the jersey?" Marc asked.
"YES, dumba....dickhead. It's not something you sell like that!"
Chris turned around. "Here, I'll give you this much for it," and held out his hand.
Marc opened his hand, and groaned when he saw what it was. "Daggone it, you did it to me AGAIN, you turd!"
"Ha ha," Chris said smugly, turning around.
Matthew burst into laughter. "OW!" he yelled when Marc punched him in the arm.
Rolf looked into the rearview mirror. "Do I need to separate you two?" he asked sternly.
"No, sir," Marc replied, quickly slipping his hand into his pocket.
Joseph had to stifle a laugh at the comment, remembering his own childhood. Rolf glanced at him and grinned.
"It's okay. If things get difficult we can always sing. Can't we Matthew?"
Matthew slid down in his seat and pulled a face. "NO way."
About an hour later Matthew was long past coping with the tedium and Chris was starting to get restless. Marc, settled peacefully with his book, pushed Matthew off as he hung over Rolf's seat.
"I'm hardly touching you! Can we stop yet?"
"We're not even a third of the way there yet." Rolf said without looking. "Sit down, put your seat belt back on."
"It's tight over my neck."
"There's a service station there?" Chris pointed out. Joseph leaned down for a bottle of water and passed it back to him.
"Where's the coke?" Matthew asked, peering.
"At home. Sit down." Rolf said firmly. Matthew dropped back into his seat, pouting.
"Here peanut." Marc took the water from Chris and passed it to him. "Cool off."
Matthew took it, pulling a face at him. "Don't we have anything to eat?"
Marc went to put his hand in his pocket, causing Matthew to back up, hands up in surrender. "No WAY! Forget it!" he shrieked.
Chris turned and laughed, watching the antics.
Rolf looked up in exasperation. "WHAT is going on back there?"
"Don't TOUCH me!" Matthew said again, backing away from Marc.
"Marc, keep your hands to yourself. Matthew, stop yelling. Chris...behave."
Joseph turned the radio up a little louder, just to cover himself trying to stifle his laughter, as he knew Rolf was trying to be serious.
Rolf eyed the guys in the mirror until he saw them all settle down, then shot a piercing look towards Joseph. "You're not helping any."
"Yes, sir," Joseph said seriously, before biting his lip and holding his stomach.
Rolf's blue eyes twinkled, though his face remained stern.
Five minutes down the road there was a rest stop, and he pulled in. Matthew and Chris nearly tumbled out of the truck in a heap, both of them excited about getting out. Marc followed a little more sedately.
"Get to the restroom, use that, then jog around the trail there," Rolf said, pointing to the path.
"Oh, come on, I'm not jogging around it," Matthew said.
"Ha ha -" Marc started.
"And you too, Marc. Go on, get some of that energy out of your systems, we've still got a ways to go."
Amid moans and groans, the guys headed over to the restroom, while Joseph got out of the truck and leaned against the front, looking at Rolf. It took only a moment before they both burst into laughter.
"You sound like my father did, when I was six!" Joseph said once he recovered his breath.
"I've become my father," Rolf replied, eyes dancing merrily. "I swear, it's like they ARE six when they get together. 'Don't touch me! You're on MY side!'"
"Aren't we nearly theeeeeeeeeeere yet?" Joe whined, grinning.
"I swear someone trains them in that whine." Rolf said, shaking his head. "Coffee?"
"Please. I'll keep an eye on the zoo."
Rolf jogged towards the building. Joseph stretched and headed towards the trail, watching until he saw the three young men emerge, moving down the track at a slow walk.
"RUN guys." he called after them.
There was a few sour looks cast in his direction. Joseph shook his head and started towards them at an easy jog. Pretty much immediately Chris and Matthew took off and Marc followed, working on staying well ahead of Joe.
The trail led to a picnic area and the three paused there, Matthew leaning on a table to catch his breath, watching Chris drop into a seat.
"This is a BAD idea... Rolf better not be planning on making this a habit."
"Do you good." Marc said heartlessly, catching him up and swatting him as he passed. Matthew straightened, yelping.
"Just thought you might be numb with all the sitting." Marc said cheerfully.
Joseph reached the clearing and shook his head. "RUNNING. You're supposed to be using energy, not preserving it. Come on, car. I'll give you a ten second start."
"I can't go any further." Matthew moaned, dragging himself up off the table.
"Why don't you check your pocket?" Marc suggested. "Maybe you're weighed down."
Matthew dived a hand in his pocket and glared hard at Marc.
Marc winked at him and took off as Matthew grabbed up a handful of leaves.
He tried catching Marc, but with his headstart, Marc made it to the vehicle and jumped in, shutting the door and locking it against Matthew's attack.
"Let me in you stinker!" Matthew said, beating on the door.
Marc stuck his tongue out and sat back, grinning.
Chris made it to the truck and opened the other door, climbing in and locking it behind him. Matthew had just dove to that side of the truck when he flipped the handle up and realized it was locked as well.
"The front!" Marc yelled, and Chris dove immediately for the lock button next to Rolf's seat, locking all the doors in one shot.
"LET ME IN!" Matthew said, beating on the door in frustration.
"Hey, hey. I seriously don't think you'd want to bust that window in, do you?" Joe asked as he came around the side of the truck.
"They won't let me IN!" Matthew said, stomping his foot.
"Chris?" Joe asked to the window, indicating he wanted the door unlocked.
Chris rolled his eyes, but hit the unlock button.
Rolf walked up with the coffees. "What's going on here?"
"Nothing," Matthew spat, yanking the door open and trying to slide past Chris to get into the rear seat.
"Matthew, sit there."
"I don't want --"
"SIT DOWN." Rolf said sternly.
Matthew flopped into the seat. "WHY?"
"Would you like to finish this discussion in the restroom?"
Matthew's tart reply died on his lips. He closed his mouth.
"No, sir," Matthew finally managed, mad that he was getting spoken to, AND for what was in his pocket.
"Thank you. Now, why don't you try getting out a book and reading?"
"It's too sunny, I'll get sick."
"Then close your eyes and rest. Quietly," Rolf said, shutting the door. He took a couple swigs from his coffee, then settled in the front seat next to Joe, who had already gotten in. "Are we all set?" Rolf backed out of the parking spot and continued down the road, the first few miles in silence. Marc buried himself in his book again. Joe tipped his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. Chris dug in his bag and found a packet of bubble gum, which he offered to Matthew. Matthew shook his head, still scowling. Within a few minutes his view of the back of Rolf's head was made still more irritating by the popping of gum. He shot a glare towards Chris, who grinned and blew a bubble at him. And muttered as the gum burst, splattering his chin.
"Chris......" Joe said without opening his eyes. Matthew stifled a laugh, watching Chris scrape the gum off. Annoyed, Chris blew another, larger bubble and Matthew yelped as it burst, this time splattering his jeans.
"You did that on purpose you prick!"
"Matthew!" Rolf said sharply.
"Did not!" Chris retorted, ducking as Matthew grabbed him.
Joe turned around and swatted what he could reach of both legs, sharply enough to separate both brats. Then he held out a hand for the gum. Chris surrendered it, glowering.
"I didn't DO anything-"
"I don't want to hear another word from either of you." Joseph let his glare sink into first Chris, then Matthew. "You do NOT fight and yell when someone is trying to concentrate on driving."
Chris slumped deeper into his end of the seat, folding his arms. Matthew shifted, trying to get his long legs comfortable, and slumped equally angrily into his corner. Unfortunately, getting their upper bodies as far away from each other as possible involved their legs getting dangerously close. Marc swiped Matthew across the back of the head at the first bout of discreet shoving, but Rolf had felt the kick. He pulled over to the side of the road and brought the truck to a stop.
"Okay, that's it. All change."
Joseph got out of the front seat and opened the door on Matthew's side, waiting. Furious, Matthew shoved Chris's jacket and book over into his hands, grabbed up his own and got out. Joseph got in beside Chris, leaving Matthew to walk slowly around the car and get in beside Rolf. The look he received on taking his seat was not promising. Matthew buckled up silently, hearing a sudden mutter from Chris as he unwrapped his book from his jacket and something dropped into his hand. That, despite Rolf's icy gaze, brought a faint smile to his mouth.
"What exactly are you finding funny?" Rolf inquired, not sounding at all amused.
The smile slipped from Matthew's face. "Sorry, sir," he mumbled.
"What was funny?" Rolf persisted sternly.
Matthew slipped down in his seat, the rest of the car silent. "Nothing, sir."
He couldn't control the flush that arose in his cheeks as he could feel Rolf's icy glare still focused on him.
"I've got to go to the restroom," Marc piped up from the back, trying to save Matthew any more embarrassment.
Rolf turned towards Marc. "Excuse me?"
Marc swallowed hard, his voice cracking just a bit. "I have to go to the bathroom?"
Rolf started to ask a question, then just gave up. He turned back around and put the truck in drive, heading down the road.
Matthew didn't dare risk turning around, so chose to close his eyes instead. The fun was over in the front seat, nothing to do but sleep.
Rolf pulled over at the next rest area and parked. Matthew remained asleep, while Chris took the chance to run and use the restroom. Rolf turned around and eyed Marc sternly. "This stop was for you," he said pointedly.
Marc took in the tone and the expression and flew out his door.
They stopped an hour out of their destination for lunch, Rolf having to awaken Matthew. Matthew stayed close to Rolf, moving slow and being crotchety as he was half asleep. He got more animated as the meal went on, and was fully awake and going strong as they finished.
"Come on Rolf, you don't need anymore coffee. We have places to be. Soon."
"Settle down. I'm not finished yet," Rolf said, turning back to his conversation with Joe.
"Marc, got a quarter?"
"Yeah, a couple, why?"
"Betcha I can beat you at pinball."
Marc decided pinball was better than a conversation. "You're on."
"I got to see this!" Chris said, getting up.
"And somebody would STILL be having their meal?" Joseph said pointedly. Chris stopped, not pulling a face with an effort.
"Can we be excused?"
"Please?" Matthew added. Rolf nodded, picking up his coffee again.
"Go on. Ten minutes. We'll meet you at the front door, yes?"
The three younger men left with alacrity. As it turned out, the pinball machines were too crowded to get near. Disappointed, Matthew did a lightening scan of the games area and found every machine in full use. Marc shrugged and tapped his arm.
"There's the shop-"
"You only want to look at the DVDs, you can do that anywhere." Matthew complained. Chris shook his head.
"Nothing wrong with DVDs, come on."
"You don't KNOW him like I do-" Matthew began. Chris grabbed his arm and frogmarched him into the shop.
"Just WAIT a minute."
Matthew stood for a moment, still in Chris's grasp, watching Marc become absorbed in the several shelves of DVDs on sale. Then Chris discreetly towed him around the corner.
"Just what kind of a brat do you call yourself?"
Candy, in every colour and form, lined the shelves around them. Chris grinned and pulled a couple of dollar bills from his jacket.
"Shall we have a little fun?"
They spent the next few minutes discovering new flavours of jelly beans and left the shop with a packet each in their pocket, although Chris, knowing Joe's candy radar, was doing his best to eat as many as possible now. They were both stuffed by the time Matthew glanced at his watch and dived back into the shop to grab Marc.
Joseph and Rolf were leaning against the rail outside the front door, enjoying the sunshine and neither looked at their watch as the three came outside. Joe smiled at Chris, watching him head down the steps.
"The machines were in use, we went DVD hunting instead."
"Broke the bank?" Rolf inquired, looking at Marc who grinned and spread his hands.
"Not one. Nothing worth buying that I don't already have."
"How far off are we now?" Matthew said, grabbing Rolf's arm and bouncing across the carpark.
"Another hour, hour and a half. Not long."
"Great!" Matthew took off, standing at the side door to get in. Rolf waited until he was closer to unlock the doors.
"Front seat, Matthew."
"Excuse me? Did you just say no?" Rolf asked pointedly.
Matthew kicked the ground and started to say something when the rest of the bunch made it to the truck. He settled for a strong pout and climbed in the front seat, closing the door a little harder than necessary.
"Watch it," Rolf said to Matthew, as everyone else climbed into the truck.
Marc was stuffed, and tired of reading, and since he had the entire backseat to himself, loosened his belt a little and stretched out, falling asleep almost instantly.
Matthew was wired, his short nap, lunch, and enough jelly beans to feed a third world country all combining to leave him very restless. He tried to read, but gave that up fairly quickly as his stomach started to roll, then started fiddling with the radio.
"No. Leave that alone," Rolf said, gently removing Matthew's hand from the volume controls.
"I just wanted to turn it up louder. I can't hear it very well."
"We don't need it any louder. Makes it hard to talk."
"I don't see anyone talking," Matthew groused.
"Matthew," Rolf said warningly.
Chris was just as wired and tried moving around in his seat, accidentally kicking Matthew's.
Matthew turned around, glaring. "Do you HAVE to kick me?"
"It was an ACCIDENT!" Chris spat back.
Joseph's calm voice cut through the argument. "Chris, would you like a spanking?"
"I didn't DO --" Chris began, before seeing the look of no return start to settle on Joe's face. He finally managed to stammer out, "No, sir," embarrassed.
Rolf eyed Matthew sternly. "And you?"
"No, sir," he said quickly, crossing his arms and thinking how unfair life was, watching the side of the road.
"Good. Because if I have to say anything else....."
Matthew wisely turned away from Rolf before he rolled his eyes.
The rest of the hour passed by relatively calmly, both young men having pushed as far as they could without major trouble.
Rolf turned into the town just before three. Marc and Chris were both asleep. Matthew, stomach still churning on jelly beans was debating whether or not he'd need to ask Rolf to pull over when finally the truck halted in front of a hotel and Joseph gently shook Chris awake.
The sun was hot outside. Matthew climbed out, stretching. Rolf came around to get the bags and hooked an arm discreetly around him as he passed.
"Okay? You're very pale."
"Mmn." Matthew said with a twinge of a guilty conscience. "Just a little travel sick."
"We'll get you some water and you can lie down for a bit." Rolf pulled their bags out of the truck. "Give me a minute to put the truck away."
Matthew pulled a face, not interested in lying down, but by the time they were booked in and Joe had steered Chris towards his room and Marc had headed theirs, voicing the intention of having a shower, it looked as if mass resting was the only thing on the agenda.
Matthew followed Rolf to their room, Marc already in the shower. It seemed like a nice place, smaller than the last hotel they were at, but clean. He made his way through the room and tossed his bag on the bed. The room was a bit warm, so Matthew peeled off his hooded sweatshirt and began to fold it. As he did a tiny item dropped on the bed, falling from the hood.
"FFFFFFuuuuuuu----ddddgecicle." Matthew caught himself in mid curse, scooping up the tiny item and securing it his front pocket.
"WHAT was that?" Rolf asked with a tone that was not to be reckoned with.
"I would like a fudgecicle. Do you think they have them here?" Matthew's quick wit swooped in with a hopeful attempt at a save.
Rolf eyed his little brat without being even slightly taken in, and decided no harm, no foul.
"Doesn't matter, you are going to be laying down as soon as we get our bags unpacked."
Matthew pulled his famous face again, but opened his bag and started the organizing and unpacking. It took only a few minutes. And as soon as the last item was out, Rolf was in front of Matthew with a glass of water and a tylenol.
"Get yourself a nap in, probably won't be going to dinner for another hour and a half or so. And I do NOT want to have to speak to you twenty times tonight, reminding you to behave. Understood?"
Matthew took the pill, and nodded in the affirmative. He had a few wisecracks ready to roll, but knew it wasn't going to get him anywhere. Surrendering fairly gracefully, he laid on the bed, and was soon fast asleep.
"Matthew. Matthew?" Rolf said, increasingly louder, with a gentle shake.
"Hhhmmmm?" Matthew said, still in slumber.
"Time to get up."
"No. I just laid down."
"Sweetheart, that was an hour and fifteen minutes ago. Come on, up and at 'em, unless you would prefer to stay in."
Matthew rolled over and quickly sat up.
"I am UP!"
"Marc?" Rolf said.
Marc slowly sat up on his bed. "I'm ready. I think."
"Good. Get your jerseys if you're going to wear them, and put something with long sleeves on for the game. They're keeping the arenas colder now to keep the ice in good shape," Rolf said as he headed to the bathroom to brush his teeth.
Matthew stood up and went over to the dresser and pulled out the drawer.
"Why don't you put your sweatshirt back on?" Marc suggested.
"Because I don't intend to be an easy target," Matthew shot back, pulling out a long sleeved shirt.
Marc took off his tshirt and exchanged it for a sweatshirt he had packed, pulling it over his head. "What, did you -"
"YES," Matthew spat, pulling on his own shirt.
Marc laughed, backing up. "No fair I have to stay in the same room with you and it.
"ShutUP." Matthew sat down and pulled on his shoes.
"Do we tell people to shut up?" Rolf asked as he came back in the room.
"Depends." Matthew said, looking narrowly at Marc. Rolf gave him a push towards the door and a swat.
"The answer you're looking for is 'no'. Marc, come on. Joe and Chris are already in the dining room."
The hotel dining room was large and dinner was simply a row of long tables with a buffet laid out. Marc found several things he liked the look of and went to join Chris and Joe who were already eating. Joe gave him a quick smile and pulled out a chair for him.
"Raring to go." Marc sat down and glanced back for the other two. It took him a moment to find them, then he located Matthew and Rolf deep in discussion back at the start of the buffet line. Rolf was holding a full plate. Matthew's plate held a handful of fries and nothing else, and his lip was out in a distinct pout. Chris caught Marc's eye and grinned. A minute later Matthew joined them with a plate which he put down in Rolf's place, and sat back, folding his arms, the pout yet more pronounced. Joseph looked up and fixed a gaze on him of mild surprise. After a moment, Matthew flushed, sat up and unfolded his arms, less with grace than resignation. Rolf appeared with another plate in hand which he put down in front of Matthew.
"Chicken. Salad. Bread. All of which you eat."
"The chicken's got veins and the salad's got nuts in-"
"ALL of which you eat." Rolf said again, more clearly, taking his seat.
Matthew picked up his fork and stabbed at the chicken in disgust. He'd have preferred no bones, but it looked like he wasn't going to be given a choice.
"The salad is pretty good," Marc said to no one in particular.
"Yeah. I didn't think I'd like the nuts, but it goes well," Chris replied.
"I can give you more," Matthew said pointedly.
"No, I don't need any of your nuts, thank you," Chris said, pulling his bowl closer to him and laughing.
"Yeah, who knows where his nuts have been?" Marc added with a snicker, causing Chris to spit out his drink in his napkin.
"ShutUP!" Matthew spat.
"That is ENOUGH of that," Rolf said pointedly, staring at each young man in turn, his eyes lingering longest on Matthew. "And I don't want to hear shutup again, is that clear?"
Matthew shifted uncomfortably in his chair before finding his voice. "Yes, sir," he mumbled.
"I suggest you finish eating if you'd like to see the warm-ups. We'll have to leave within thirty minutes.
"I'm there!" Marc said, digging back into his plate.
Matthew picked and poked at his food, eating just enough to please Rolf. The check was soon settled, and off they went to the arena. The ride was quiet, everyone saving their energy for the game. Saving their energy for when Rolf and Joseph had less opportunity to strike. Once they arrived at the arena the boys jumped out almost before the truck was in park.
"Hold it right there!" Rolf yelled after them.
"What?" Matthew asked, turning around.
"You guys aren't goning to get far without tickets!"
"We know, we're going to check out the gift shop." Marc replied.
"Yeah, he wants to see if they have any DVDs!" Matthew quipped, poking Marc in the side.
"You are such an a--horse!" Marc replied with a gentle punch to the arm.
The boys took off, well in front of Rolf and Joseph. They quickly found their way into the gift shop. As they entered, Marc placed his hand in his pocket and felt a small item present.
"Arrg! You best watch out Peanut!" Marc snapped, rolling the item around between his fingers.
Matthew just laughed, and started looking at everything.
"Oh my god, they DO have DVDs." Matthew said, laughing.
Marc shook his head and made his way over to Chris who was looking at the sweatshirts.
"Too heavy," Marc said.
"The sweatshirt, it's too heavy. Perhaps a tee would be better," Marc added, picking up a nice one. He put it down, trying not to be obvious.
"Or perhaps a hat?" Marc picked up a denim hat, and slipped the item in the inside flap. "Here, try this," he said, as he handed it to Chris.
Chris grabbed it and tried it on. "Ow!"
Marc began laughing and made his way over to the DVDs. Chris took the hat off, and looked inside.
"Well I don't want it!" Marc said, grinning. "It's your problem now."
"Yeah, it keeps ON being my problem." Chris groused.
"What's your problem?" Joseph asked behind him. Chris turned around, flushing.
Joseph raised his eyebrows but didn't argue. "Come on, Rolf's got the tickets and the warm ups are about to start."
Matthew passed him, bounding in search of Rolf. Joe waited for the other two, shepherding them ahead of him, and heard Chris's voice in an undertone.
"That was NOT fair, I KEEP getting stuck and it SUCKS-"
"You've got the same responsibility the rest of us have," Marc said back quietly, "Matt and I have both carried it this weekend-"
Joe frowned, trailing them.
Rolf handed the tickets over and they headed into the arena. He quickly found their seats and everyone settled down just as the skaters came out for warmups. For the next twenty minutes Marc, Matthew and Chris were spellbound, while Joseph and Rolf watched and talked. When the players left the ice and there was twenty minutes to game time, the boys thought it was a good time to get food and drink.
"Climb over the seats," Marc said as he stood up to leave.
Matthew and Chris did that, finding that row without anyone present yet.
"Hey, where are you off to?" Rolf asked, leaning back in his seat.
"Just to get something to drink," Matthew replied.
Matthew stopped, huffing, and turned around. "What?"
"ONE item of chocolate, and if you get popcorn, a small one. Got it?"
"Yyyyeeeessssss," Matthew said sarcastically, before getting the sterner LOOK. "Sir," he finished.
The guys took off to the concession stands.
"Are you getting the impression something is going on between them?" Joe asked as soon as they were up the stairs.
"There have been a few more looks passed between them than usual, but I put it down to being locked in the car for so long," Rolf replied. "Did Chris say something?"
"No, actually it was Marc telling Chris something about responsibility for carrying something this weekend? Have you seen anything?"
"No, I haven't, but I'll keep an eye open. Would you like anything, since the guys didn't get around to asking if we wanted anything?"
"A beer would be good," Joe said, getting out his wallet.
Rolf waved the beerman over and picked up a small one for himself and a larger one for Joe.
Chris was the first in line and ordered two candy bars, a large coke and a large popcorn. When he handed the money over, he surrepiously glanced back and saw Matthew and Marc in conversation. He reached back in his pocket and handed something to the cashier. "Do me a favor and hand this to my friend when he pays? Just don't let him see it before you do." Chris winked and smiled, and the girl put the item behind the register.
"Can I help you?" she asked Matthew.
"Two candy bars, the plain ones. Small popcorn and large coke, please."
The girl gathered up the items and took Matthew's money. She only had change to give back and scooped up the item and dropped everything into Matthew's hand. He looked down in surprise when he felt the difference.
"Damnit, Chris, that wasn't FUNNY!" he yelled towards his friend, shocking the girl at the register.
"Hey, be nice," Marc prompted.
Matthew flushed, putting everything in his pocket. "Sorry, not mad at you. Thanks," he said as he picked up his stuff and headed over to the side counter where Chris was. He quickly opened and ate one candy bar while Marc was busy at the register.
Marc soon made his way over to the other two guys, pretzel and soda in hand. He eyed Matthew's dwindling stash.
"I would ask for MY candy bar, but you would probably give me the one with nuts!" Marc said, laughing.
"Oh hahahaha. So NOT funny!"
"Game's about to begin, we should head to our seats."
"Those lines were long!"
The guys hurried back to their seats, getting eyed from Joseph and Rolf.
"Long lines." Chris and Matthew said in unison.
Everyone got situated for the opening faceoff and the first period of play was soon under way. The first goal came early. Matthew was the first to his feet to cheer and saw his opportunity. He reached into his pocket and dropped the item into the pocket of Marc's sweatshirt, as it swayed back and forth from the hand clapping.
"Yeah! You GO! And YOU! GET OFF THE ICE YOU LOSER!" Matthew yelled out heartily to the opposing team member that skated near their side of the ice.
Marc felt something swing against him and put a hand to his pocket. Then swiped Matthew. Matthew shoved him back, grinning.
"WHAT'S fair?" Rolf inquired, Looking at him. Matthew shook his head.
Rolf raised an eyebrow at Marc, who looked innocently back.
The puck was dropped and everyone took their seats. Within just a few moments, the Predators tripped up an Av, and the Avs went on the power play. Matthew screamed heartily with the crowd as they razzed the goaltendeder, yelling out the name three times before adding you suck onto the end.
Rolf could only shake his head when Joe looked over at him.
When Colorado scored, Matthew, Marc and Chris all jumped up and booed at the ref. On the ensuing face off, Delmore won the puck and passed it up ice, his teammate rifling a shot towards the net which caught Roy off guard and scored.
Somewhere during the cheers, Marc slipped a hand into Chris's popcorn, and a moment later Chris glared at him as he found the item there. Marc grinned at him and shrugged. Matthew disolved into laughter and this time Joseph, more than slightly irritated at the pushing and giggling, hooked a hand through Chris's arm, pulled him over and changed seats so that Chris was planted between him and Rolf. Matthew hastily stifled more laughter before Rolf got any similar ideas and stared intently at the ice.
Chris found that yelling wasn't nearly as fun with Rolf towering on one side and Joe on the other. The first period break arrived and everyone stood up for a quick stretch as several people from their row went out to get refreshments. They sat down to watch the entertainment, one of the tiny tot leagues with kids skating that must have just learned to walk the year before.
Matthew stood up at one point and yelled "Check him!" when the kids skated in front of their seats. One of the parents took exception, turned and gave Matthew a dirty look, before responding, "They're only kids and don't check in this league."
Matthew had half a mind to retort but could feel Rolf's eyes on him and chose to remain quiet.
"Popcorn?" Chris invited, leaning past Joseph to offer the carton to Matthew. Who leaned away, shaking his head.
"Oh go on, try some." Chris leaned over, shaking some out into his lap. Matthew brushed it off quickly and Marc ducked under his seat to retrieve something, giving the other two a warning glare.
"Pick that up." Rolf said exasperatedly, nodding at the popcorn. "And if ANY more goes on the floor, I'll put the whole lot in the bin."
"I don't want it!" Matthew hissed under his breath as Marc offered him the object. "I didn't take it!"
"You HAVE to, it came to you!" Marc muttered back. Matthew leaned away from him.
"You've got it. Or give it back to Chris."
Chris shrank down further between Rolf and Joseph, firmly out of reach.
"Well I don't want it either!" Marc said quietly, a little more annoyed. "I just picked it up where you chucked it!"
"Then you should have left it there!"
Matthew buried himself in his coke, apparently oblivious. Marc glared at him and caught Rolf's piercing stare over Matthew's head. Flushing, he tucked the item into his pocket and slid down in his seat.
"Get that off the floor right now," Rolf said. "Before the game begins again."
Matthew shoved his drink at Marc and bent down to pick up what he could find, muttering. Marc purposefully placed the item in Matthew's hand on his way up.
"Don't want to forget this!"
Matthew bit his tongue hard, but slid the item into safety and the rest into his popcorn container. Rolf kept a purposeful eye on them. Matthew then stood to his feet.
"Where are you off to?" Rolf asked.
"To wash my hands, is that alright with you?" Matthew snapped.
"Unless you would like a chaperone, perhaps you would like to rephrase that."
"I am going to wash my hands, SIR." Matthew said through gritted teeth.
Rolf was less than pleased with the second try, but Chris and Marc chimed in.
"I have to pee any way." Chris said.
"Yeah, and I want to see what the restrooms in a joint like this look like."
"What? You have a bathroom fetish?" Chris asked wisely.
"Oh you be quiet!" Marc said as he pushed Matthew and Chris out into the aisle and up the stairs.
Once the guys were out of Rolf's sight, Marc smacked Matthew hard across the rearend.
"What the fu-" Matthew started before being cut off.
"You better lose the attitude or we are ALL gonna get roasted." Marc said sharply.
"Yeah, you signed on to play the game just as much as the rest of us." Chris added.
"Like you are the one to talk?! I am not the one seated between a rock and wolf." Matthew replied snidely.
"There are two more periods of play left, and if things don't simmer down, we aren't going to make it through it. Now let's get to the bathroom before the period starts."
Matthew gave Marc an exaggerated bow. And tucked an item inside the waist band of Marc's jeans before he ran.
Rolf turned back to Joseph, having been tall enough, despite Marc's precautions, to see most of the altercation over the heads of the crowd.
"Have you ANY clue what's going on? Or is it just a full moon?"
"I keep hearing 'it'." Joe turned around and tried to peer up the stairs, but the boys were gone. "I don't want 'it', 'it''s your responsibility."
"They're all like cats on hot bricks." Rolf looked at the toddlers on the ice without really seeing them, mentally rifling through the fragments of conversation he'd heard. "Who's got it? Whatever it is?"
"I don't know." Joseph admitted. "I thought Matthew- but there was a bit of a battle at the rest stop on the way up when I chased them around that run in the woods- Marc wouldn't take something from Matthew."
That was it. Rolf's radar was screeching loud enough to get him to his feet.
"I think I'm going to check a few pockets."
"What do you think it is?"
"Knowing Matthew?" Rolf edged gently past other people in the line. "A clicker. A yoyo. A packet of sweets. A kitten."
A packet of cigarettes. A packet of something worse.....Matthew snappy and edgy was Matthew with a problem. And while knowing perfectly well that Matthew was incapable of doing anything really wrong, his partner's propensity for quite unintentionally getting himself into tricky situations was nothing less than exceptional. Rolf covered the stairs in a few quick strides and headed for the bathroom. If Matthew had a problem, it was about to come to light.
He came upon Matthew sitting cross legged on the floor of the hallway, peacefully flicking paper pellets with the aid of a rubber band. The queues coming out of the men's room explained why he had chosen to wait outside. Rolf picked up the nearest of the pellets and Matthew glanced up, surprise quickly mutating to guilt as Rolf held out a hand to him. He got slowly to his feet, taking his time brushing off his jeans until Rolf put a hand on his shoulder and steered him to the nearest quiet corner, dropping his voice for Matthew's ear only.
"Want to tell me what's going on?"
Matthew's wide green eyes held equal amounts of bewildered confusion, injured innocence and guilt. Since he tended to look guilty whenever asked that question, whether he had cause to or not, that was inconclusive. Rolf pulled him closer and quietly sorted through each of his pockets in turn, coming up with nothing more dramatic than small change and a couple of squashed gummi bears. Somewhat relieved, he shook the gummi bears off his fingers into the nearest bin and looked back down at Matthew, who now looked totally baffled.
"What's all the pushing and stropping going on with Chris?" Rolf asked, watching Chris and Marc emerge from the bathroom and look around. He moved to block Matthew's line of sight. If Marc and Chris spotted them, they weren't likely to interfere.
"Just messing around?" Matthew said, somewhere between hesitantly and hopefully.
Obviously Marc was right and he'd pushed a little further than was safe. Rolf carried on looking at him for a while. One of the long looks that tended to end in him blurting out all kinds of things that there was no need for Rolf to know anything about. Matthew ransacked his conscience and his memory of the last half hour for anything Rolf could be seriously annoyed about and came up blank. Rolf waited a moment longer, picking up on the growing bewilderment in Matthew's face, then gave up.
"Then can it."
"Yes sir." Matthew said promptly and thankfully. He fell into step beside Rolf, heading for Marc and Chris who were waiting further away. Within a few steps his usual bounce reasserted itself and he cast a look of mischief at Rolf.
"You know if you wanted a gummi bear you only had to ASK-"
"Come HERE." Rolf grabbed him, digging his fingers into Matthew's always ticklish ribs. Matthew let out a screech that made Marc jump, spinning around. Rolf let him go, dropping his voice for Matthew's ears only and sobering fast.
"This is your LAST warning. I don't want to have to speak to you the rest of the game concerning your behavior, I'm getting pretty tired of it today. Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir." Matthew said quickly, ducking his head away from the look he was getting.
Rolf nodded and opened the arena doors, seeing the boys in ahead of him. Matthew quickly dived in between Marc and Chris.
"What was that all about?" Marc asked.
"You were right!" Matthew replied.
"I am ALWAYS right. What did he say?"
"Nothing, I am just inches away from being eaten alive."
"Serves you right, acting like you have been given the plague." Chris responded.
"I can't help it, I don't want IT!"
"Keep your voice down." Marc said, knowing Rolf was still tailing them.
"None of us does, but we all signed up for it, so deal with it." Chris said.
The boys quickly returned to their seats, filing in past Joe. Chris tried to regain his old seat, but was quickly returned to his new seat by Joe. Rolf soon followed, giving Joe a look that didn't settle well. Joe knew something must have been up, but could tell it was still undetermined. The players retook to the ice, settling the boys back into the game.
Chris sat quietly, feeling rather safe between the two men, if a little removed from the fun. He caught several smirks from Matthew and began to wonder if he was missing anything. He quickly checked his pockets, stilling again when he got a stare from Joe. He sat back in his chair and winced when he felt something between him and the seat. Then he remembered being bumped into when Marc got to the top of the stairs. He glared at Marc, who gave him an easy grin. Great, Chris thought to himself, now he was stuck with it and was not going to be able to get rid of it in his current seat.
The game continued on with the hometown team in the lead. One fight broke out in the third period, to which all of the guys got up and cheered. Chris deftly slid the item out of his shirt and into his pocket, ready for the next opportunity to lose it.
Rolf and Joseph kept the guys in their chairs, and no more junk food or drinks were allowed to be purchased. All of the food and drink were expensive and neither Rolf nor Joseph wanted to be up half the night trying to get sugar drunk partners to sleep.
Joe and Rolf kept their eyes open, but nothing else seemed out of sorts between the three young men. When the final horn sounded, they waited for a few minutes to allow the rush to pass them, then headed slowly back up the stairs and out into the main hallway. They walked out of the arena and made the short walk to the hotel quickly, and with no incidents. Upon arrival at the hotel, Rolf and Joe went immediately to the front desk to check for messages. Chris dug his hands in his pockets, closed his fingers around the item and slouched against the wall, watching two elderly ladies tottering towards them. Once they got between him and Joe he fully intended to plant the item BACK on Marc or Matthew- which ever was nearer. The older of the two ladies glanced at him and gave him a dirty look before muttering something to her companion. Irritated, Chris realised he WAS slouching rather a lot... however having that brought to his notice did nothing for his temper.
Matthew moved out of the ladies' way with a smile, fair haired and blamelessly angelic. That was the end of Chris's patience. He caught Matthew's wrist, spun him around and tipped him backwards in an apparently passionate Rhett Butler WITH Scarlett type kiss. Deftly inserting the item down the neck of Matthew's shirt as he did so. Matthew, caught by surprise and off balance, yelped and clutched him for support. Marc and the two elderly ladies stared, wide eyed, then Marc hastily grabbed them both and yanked Matthew upright. The two ladies scuttled for cover, red faced and trilling indignation. Marc glanced apprehensively over his shoulder and thought that if Joseph's eyebrows rose any further they were going to crawl off into his hairline. He didn't even want to look at Rolf.
Matthew recovered his breath, looked up into Chris's sweet smile and Marc threw his weight against Matthew just in time to shove him out of reach before Chris got slugged.
"MATT, for godsakes! Sit DOWN, CHILL."
Matthew, fists still clenched, looked automatically towards the desk where Rolf and Joseph, in conversation with the desk clerk, hadn't QUITE got to the point of coming over, but Rolf's eyes gave him a VERY clear message. Smouldering, he yanked out of Marc's grip, moved over to a group of armchairs and flung himself down. Marc shook his head at Chris, who shrugged.
"What? You said we'd all signed up for this!"
Matthew dug under his sweater for the item, found it and looked for a moment as though he was seriously considering shying it off the back of Chris's head. Then as Joseph strode towards them, he hesitated, then stuffed it into his pocket. Joseph's expression said a good deal and his quiet, incredibly polite tone said still more.
"If you have QUITE finished this public exhibition, you can get yourselves upstairs NOW. Matthew, Rolf would like a word with you."
Marc hesitated, but Joseph nodded shortly at the elevaor.
Scowling, Matthew shoved himself out of the chair and stalked across to Rolf who was still waiting for the clerk to retrieve an email message for him. Joseph keyed the elevator and herded Marc and Chris ahead of him.
He didn't speak to either of them on the way up. When the elevator reached their floor he handed Marc the key to his room and steered Chris towards them. Muttering, Marc unlocked the door, sat down on the end of the bed and waited for Rolf to return with the dismembered pieces of Matthew.
Joseph shut the door of their room behind him and pointed at the bed.
Chris knew the tone and sat, quickly, without argument. Joseph snapped the light on and leaned on the edge of the dressing table, arms folded.
"Which of you three is in trouble?"
Chris looked up at him, blankly. Whatever he'd been expecting, that wasn't it. Joseph had the lawyer skill of cutting straight through any amount of - distraction - and getting directly to his point, but this time he'd moved a little too fast for Chris to follow.
"Christopher." Joseph said sharply. "Since Marc's played peacekeeper all day, I'd guess it's you or Matthew. I want to know who and what, and I want to know now."
"I'm not in any trouble!" Chris protested, thoroughly confused. "What would I have done! We're on holiday!"
Joseph looked at him. One of the kind of looks Chris imagined made most people think long and hard about entering a plea; it certainly worked on him.
"Nothing." He said, meaning it. "I swear, nothing I know about!"
"And Matthew?" Joseph said shortly. Chris shrugged, still more confused.
"He hasn't said anything- he's been snippy all day, but not- I don't know!"
There was a tap at the door and Joseph called to come in. Rolf steered Matthew ahead of him, Marc shutting the door behind them. Joe caught Rolf's eye and shrugged faintly, and from Rolf's nod he too had not succeeded in extracting any information yet. Matthew looked angry, Marc looked resigned; neither seemed particularly guilty or apprehensive. Matthew sat on the bed as far away from Chris as he could get and Marc took the middle ground between the two of them, as startled at the seriousness of Joe's expression as he'd been at Matthew arriving back with Rolf, apparently unscathed. He'd been expecting a short and sharp detonation based on not starting fights, and particularly not starting fights in public places, but Rolf and Joe looked more concerned than annoyed.
"If any of you," Joseph said, taking in all three on the bed with his glance, "is carrying anything that we ought to know about, THIS is the time to say. Did any of you shoplift anything from the rest stop this morning?"
The looks he got were of shocked confusion and three indignant denials.
"Any of you buy anything you shouldn't have done." Rolf added quietly. "Alcohol? Cigarettes? ANYTHING else? Any animals?"
Matthew looked at Marc, bewilderment over taking temper. Rolf pulled out the dressing table chair and sat down, talking gently and seriously.
"If we need to, we can search the car, all the cases and all three of you, and work this out the hard way. I don't want to do that, and I'm sure there isn't any need to. But we need to know NOW what's going on and get this straightened out. Whatever this is, we can fix it. No one needs to be scared and you know that."
Again he was met with three looks of total confusion and increasingly plaintive denial. Joseph fixed his eyes on Chris.
"Okay. What is 'IT'? Who's got it and what is it, let's start there."
There was a stunned silence.
"Matthew." Rolf snapped. "WHO and WHAT. NOW."
Matthew slipped a tentative hand into his pocket, hesitated for a minute and then drew an item out. Rolf held out a hand to him, bracing himself. Matthew opened his fingers.
Joe and Rolf looked in confusion at the small, brown walnut sitting on his palm.
"That's a walnut." Joseph observed after a long pause.
Rolf took it from Matthew. One plain, ordinary walnut.
"THIS is 'it'?!"
"It's just a nut....?"
"It was just a game-" Matthew hazarded, looking very uncertainly from him to Joseph.
"THIS is what you've been whispering about all weekend?"
Rolf looked at Marc who gave him a slightly embarrassed nod. Chris's nod was just as definite.
"WHAT game?" Joseph demanded. Matthew cleared his throat.
"It was this old theatre game I read about- with a walnut? The actors sort of took it onto stage with them - and they had to find ways to get it into someone's else's hand - the aim was kind of to get rid of it if you got it? And whoever was stuck with the nut when the curtain went down, had to - er- pay a forfeit?"
"Of what?" Rolf said unpromisingly. Matthew swallowed and looked at Chris. Joseph followed his gaze, raising his eyebrows.
"We- I -" Chris hesitated. "We were going to see who still had it at the poker game on Wednesday- us and Todd and Michael? Whoever had it when we sat down at the table paid the forfeit."
"Of what?" Joseph said again.
Chris flushed. "They um- had to streak right round the outside of the house."
There was a studied silence. Then Rolf passed the walnut to Joseph.
"WHERE is the next poker game being held?"
"Eric's." Joseph said absently. Rolf sighed. Then shook his head and started to laugh.
"Thank God. I'd rather not be drummed out of the neighbourhood this close to winter."
"Matthew, if you want a lift to this poker game, come ON." Rolf shouted up the stairs. Matthew ran down a moment later, pulling a sweater over his head.
"I'm here, I'm here. Are you coming?"
"No, I'm meeting Joe- I'll pick you up afterwards. Got everything?"
"One more thing before we go," Rolf said to Matthew as he grabbed his jacket from the closet by the door. "Here."
Matthew held out his hand and his eyes went wide when the nut was dropped in. "I don't want this! The game was over!"
"Was it? You had it last and Todd and Michael are expecting a forfeit from someone."
"That's not fair! I wasn't allowed time to get rid of it!"
"Consider it payback."
"Payback?" Matthew asked questioningly.
"For driving Joseph and me spare throughout the drive up, and making me worry all day Saturday. Your game, your idea, you deal with the consequences," Rolf said as he headed out of the house.
Matthew, for about two seconds, thought about tossing it out the door at Rolf but thought better of it. He shoved it into his jeans pocket and slammed the door behind him, deciding right then to NEVER suggest such a dumb game again.
Matthew slid into the front seat and buckled up, the nut aggravating him. By the time they arrived at Eric's house, Matthew was set for a night of major pouting. Rolf pulled him over by the collar and kissed him when he pulled up outside the house.
"Be good. Have fun."
"Mrph." Matthew mumbled ungratefully and climbed out of the car.
Marc was already inside. He glanced up at Matthew from the table and managed a faint smile, but with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Michael and Todd looked equally subdued. Already fed up, Matthew was in no frame of mind to complain. Hoping sincerely that no one remembered about the nut, he settled down at the table beside Marc. Chris arrived shortly afterwards, also pouting. No one inquired why. Eric, who was reading in the corner chair, shut the door after Chris and strolled across to the table, watching Todd deal the cards. Then cleared his throat pleasantly.
"So who has the nut?"
Matthew's heart sank. Obviously Rolf had been gossiping. Eric smiled at the five uncertain faces.
"Come on? Who's got this famous nut? This is the deadline isn't it?"
Silence. No one moved.
Eric held out a hand.
Very slowly, already flushing and hoping to God no one was going to insist on seeing this horrible situation through, Matthew slid the nut out of his pocket and leaned over to drop it into Eric's hand. He looked up when his hand hit someone else's. Chris, looking equally embarrassed, was also holding a walnut. Matthew looked around the table. Marc, as scarlet as his tshirt, had a walnut in his hand. Todd was trying to hide his in his fingers, eyes widening as he looked around the table. Michael was looking pleadingly at Eric, another walnut in his hand. All five looked at each other, stunned.
"How-" Matthew began to Marc, who glared.
"Rolf. He gave it to me last night when he gave me a lift home- I hoped everyone would forget about it-"
"Joseph gave it to me when I got home tonight-" Chris said uncertainly.
"Rolf gave it to me when we got here-" Matthew began. And looked again at the five nuts. "This isn't the deal!"
Eric folded his arms comfortably across his chest. "The deal WAS that whoever had the walnut paid the forfeit. Right?"
Light dawned. Some EVIL minded person- one of their partners- clearly thought this was funny. ONE of them had bought the nuts. And handed them out. As some kind of highly sick top type joke. Or more likely, it was a gesture pointing out that making them worry over the weekend was less than appreciated.
"But there was only ONE walnut!" Chris protested. Eric shrugged, unmoved.
"Whoever had a walnut. You ALL have walnuts."
"It was a joke!" Michael pleaded. Eric shook his head.
"You gentlemen had a deal. And you'll keep your word please. I believe the forfeit was.....?"
Five acutely embarrassed young men avoided his eye.
"Michael?" Eric said mildly.
"Streaking." Michael mumbled eventually. "You CAN'T be serious!"
"Oh I'm perfectly serious." Eric assured him. "You made the bet- everyone here who was a part of that, and bets are affairs of honour. You gentlemen have a duty to keep your word."
"I'm waiting." Eric pointed out.
"Its a beautiful night." Joseph commented. Rolf followed his gaze up to the stars and smiled.
"Very peaceful. Did you think any more about planting out those trees while the weather's this good?"
"I thought I might look this weekend and see if I could find what I wanted."
"If you want any help putting them in, Matthew and I can come over and lend a hand-" Rolf straightened as a door opened some way off. "Aha. I think...."
"You could be right." Joseph leaned on the fence beside him. "How much do you think this'll be worth?"
"Oh, priceless. I'm keeping a copy on me at all times." Rolf raised the camera, primed the flash, and as five young men shot out of the bushes, moving fast, with a distinct lack of anything other than socks and trainers, clicked the shutter.
"Smile!" Joseph called to Chris, leaning further over the fence to click his own camera.
He heard only a yelp of horror before his partner dived into the doorway Eric was holding open, stifling his laughter with difficulty. Joseph framed and took one last picture before he glanced back to Rolf, straight faced.
"Full moon tonight."