Rolf and Ranger
The last paper landed on Chris's desk and the professor gave him a faint, kindly smile.
"Can you talk to me after class Chris?"
Chris nodded, trying to swallow. It took effort to turn the paper over. The D plus marked there was not a reassuring sight. Chris looked at it, then folded it over, no longer hearing what was said, eyes stinging, throat tight. There was no WAY he could take home a D.
The rest of class passed by in a blur, Chris hearing none of it. When the bell rang, he slowly put his books into his bookbag and headed towards the professor's desk. He hung in the background until the rest of the students had gotten their questions answered.
"Chris, thanks for staying. I wanted to talk to you about your grades. Have a seat."
Chris sat down at the first table, the professor leaning against another desk.
"How did you find that last assignment?"
"In what way? The arguments needed? The amount of writing required? The research?"
"The research is easy, I can find that without a problem. It's just - trying to argue a point I don't get, you know? Inflation. I get that. It's a tangible word, there's a definition, there's history behind it. If I needed to write a 20 page paper on the history of it, I could do that with my eyes closed. But trying to come up with five pages to support the theory you asked....it...I can't do. I just can't do it."
"Its the thinking on your feet you really struggle with, isn't it?" the professor asked, not without sympathy. "All your research work is good, everything you can take away and study, it's when you're in a test situation and you have to organise the knowledge quickly that you struggle."
Chris shrugged awkwardly. The professor leaned on his desk, eyes gentle.
"I don't want to stop you taking the exams Chris, I think the experience would be helpful- you need to practise the skills- but I wonder if it might not be a good idea if we plan on not officially grading your exam papers, and re entering you for this class next semester."
Chris's head shot up in shock.
"Re - No. I'll get it this time, I'll just work harder."
"Chris you DO work hard, that's not an issue." The professor took his paper from him, turning the pages. "I can see the knowledge- most of it- is there. It's the organisation and the exam skills, plus the speed that I think you need more time on. Why don't you come and see me on Monday and I'll re enroll you for-"
"No." Chris grabbed the paper back and got up, stuffing it in his book bag. "Thankyou. I'll be fine, I'll pass the exam."
"Talk to me about it on Monday anyway." The professor said firmly. "I can't in good conscience enter you for a paper that I don't think you have a good chance of passing."
Chris managed to keep his mouth shut for the short journey into the bright sunshine outside. There he slammed the bookbag down onto the concrete, dug in his pocket for change and stuffed coins angrily into the coke machine. Joe wouldn't be happy, but Joe was not watching, nor had any idea right now of the situation at hand. The coke clanked to the bottom of the machine. Chris pulled it out, yanked the top off and set off towards the end of the school drive, drinking as he walked.
He spotted Matthew in conversation with a few people and kept walking, still too angry to want to chatter. He flung open the door to the library, dumped his coke in the waste paper basket and headed upstairs to the reference section. Once he found a quiet, unoccupied corner, he pulled the paper out and looked over it, tears stinging his eyes again. He'd put so much time and effort into this paper he was SURE he'd at least get a B. Finding himself short not only on that paper but the entire class left him extremely frustrated.
He finally wadded the paper up and tossed it into the bottom of his bookbag, pulling out history book to refresh himself for the lecture to come. At least the papers in history were dry facts and he could handle that.
It was his 'late' day. Joseph's car was in the garage and his jacket was hanging in the hall above his briefcase, the clatter of dishes announced that dinner was well under way and the clock was standing at after six in the hall. Chris dropped his bag beside Joe's and let the door slam. If he was about to get hell for his timekeeping, Joseph could bring it on, he was certainly in the mood. Glowering, he yanked his jacket off, hung it up and stalked into the kitchen, heading straight for the fridge. Joseph's arm slid around his waist while he was hunting for coke and a kiss dropped on his cheek.
"The class ran late and I couldn't get a lift." Chris snapped without looking round.
"How was the class?" Joe's hand rubbed his back, circling soothingly for a moment, then he leaned past Chris to take the meat out of the fridge. Chris shut the fridge door after him and ripped the top of the coke.
"F-" Chris paused, wanting to, then cut it off. "-ricking tedious."
"That bad?" Joseph dropped the chicken into the pan, gave it a quick stir and wiped off his hands before he turned, leaned against the counter and held out his arms. Chris slouched across to him, head down, coke still in his hand. Joseph wrapped both arms around him and gave him one of his long, strong hugs. Chris leaned his head against Joseph's chest and shut his eyes, feeling Joe's fingers thread through his hair and massage his scalp. It was calming. Which did not help when you were working hard on staying mad.
"What was the grade?"
And that was Joseph. Straight to the point. Chris had a try at pulling away but Joseph kept hold of him, gentle but immoveable.
Chris had been prepared for this, and he'd already planned his answer. Nevertheless he went through a split second of doubt and consideration before he made the final decision.
"We didn't get the papers back, the professor hadn't finished the marking."
"So what was wrong with the lecture?" Joseph said gently. Chris shrugged, resting his head back against Joe's chest.
"Just a rotten day."
"Why don't you go and have a quick shower, hm? Change out of those clothes."
Joe being reasonable was also not at all helpful when he was being lied to. Chris pulled away from him and swigged the coke, glowering.
"Because I'm tired. I've been working all bloody day, I just want to sit down and have ten minutes peace and quiet."
"Then why don't you settle in the living room?"
"FINE. I know when I'm not wanted!" Chris said ungraciously and stalked out of the room.
Joseph washed his hands properly and took the chicken off the burner before heading into the living room. He took the coke from Chris's hands and put it on the table next to him before sitting down on the edge of the table himself.
"Alright. Tell me what happened today."
"Nothing!" Chris spat, trying to hang onto his temper and his tongue. Joseph was making it very hard to continue lying.
"If it's nothing, then you're either coming down with something or you haven't had enough sleep. Would you like to go directly to bed when dinner is finished?" Joseph asked reasonably.
Chris shook his head angrily, eyes down. Joseph put a hand under his chin and lifted it up.
"Tell me then."
Chris slid his eyes down as far as he could. Joe gave him another long look.
"What was the grade?"
He was psychic. And Chris knew from long experience, Joseph wouldn't let him go or change the subject until he came up with the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
"D." he mumbled eventually. Joe let his chin go and ran a hand over his hair, pushing it out of his face.
"Oh honey. I'm sorry, you worked so hard."
"I DO try, I'm sorry-"
"Christopher, when have I ever been annoyed with you about a grade when you did your best?" Joseph said firmly. Chris shrugged, mouth twisting slightly. Joseph put both hands on his knees, shaking them.
"Look at me."
Chris unwillingly lifted his head. Joseph's eyes were gentle which made meeting them all the harder. It was the expression he loved in Joe's face and the one he thought sometimes he was the only one who got to see it. His brown eyes soft, his usually so definite mouth gentle and mobile.
"You worked hard, you try your best, that's the most you can do and I'm proud of that."
"It was a freaking D!"
"The grades aren't important."
"That's crap, if I don't get the freaking grades I don't pass the freaking class and there's no point in me being at that FREAKING school in the first place-"
"Stop." Joseph interrupted firmly. "I know you're upset, I know you're frustrated, but lower your voice and stop swearing."
"You want me to show you what swearing is?" Chris demanded furiously. Joseph looked him straight in the eye, voice quietening.
"YOU don't want your mouth soaped out Chris."
Chris flung Joe's hand off and balled up on the sofa, hugging his knees.
Joseph moved to sit beside him, put an arm around him and pulled, gathering Chris into his lap.
"Did you talk to the professor about it?"
"What did he say?"
"I can't do the exam technique."
Joseph kissed the top of his head with sympathy. "We need to practise that then. We can do that."
"I'm not going to pass the damn exam, there's no POINT in me being at that damned school, I've told you before." Chris burst out, trying to sit up. "I want to pack in, I've tried and it ISN'T working."
"You have tried and you HAVE succeeded." Joseph tightened his arms, not letting Chris move away from him. "This is
"You don't KNOW that." Chris said bitterly.
"Neither do you." Joe pointed out. Chris didn't move. Joseph held him, aware of his tension, feeling the anger radiate around Chris's familiar body with the sense he sometimes had of containing a detonation. Chris was a man of strong emotions, they tended to get away from him like a too powerful dog yanking at a leash, leaving Chris shaken and distressed in their wake once they passed. Right now the important thing to do was to help him weather this particular storm and to minimalise the damage it did.
Chris couldn't move, he couldn't blow up, so instead he broke into the frustrated sobs that had threatened all day. He buried his face into Joe's neck.
Joseph rocked him, rubbing soothing circles on his back and letting Chris get past the bulk of his emotions. When Chris had settled down, Joseph sent him upstairs for a quick shower while he finished dinner preparations. After dinner, Chris helped with the dishes for lack of anything better to do. They were just finishing up when the phone rang.
Joseph draped the dishtowel over a chair and forestalled Chris with one hand, picking the phone up himself.
"It's probably a client."
And if it wasn't, he didn't want anyone else winding Chris up tonight. Chris put away the last few dishes, eyes still stormy, listening to Joseph's quiet "Mmn. Right." Then a more definite, "Not tonight Todd, we've got other plans. I'll ask him to give you a call back tomorrow, maybe you can fix something up for Sunday."
Chris glared as he put the phone down, knowing there was no point in arguing. "WHAT other plans?"
"TV and bed, it's past eight now." Joseph said matter of factly. "Stephen's working the night shift and Todd's looking for company until the early hours."
"You could have at least invited him over here if you didn't trust me to come home on time!" Chris said angrily.
Joseph caught him before he could pass him out of the kitchen. "I didn't say no because I don't trust you. I said no because it's late and neither Todd nor you need any working up at this hour. Why don't we watch that movie we have on tape?"
Chris shrugged. "I guess so," he said, walking into the living room and settling down on the couch. He didn't feel much like doing anything, but the thought of going directly to bed was even less entertaining.
Joe opened a beer and poured it into a mug, carrying that out and handing it to Chris before putting the movie in and joining him on the couch.
"And that's for sharing," he quipped, taking the mug back and getting a healthy swallow from it. Chris accepted the mug from him, resting his head against the back of the sofa. The small amount of alcohol did what dinner hadn't been able to do- Joseph felt him start to relax as it hit his blood stream and began to take effect. A few minutes later he turned on the couch and lay down, head against Joseph's chest and Joe quietly smoothed his hair, combing it out with his fingers.
"You have a thing for my hair." Chris said irritably, not moving. Joseph smiled, bent his head and kissed the hair in question.
"It's the colour."
Joseph went on smoothing out strand by strand, half an eye on his partner's face. Within about ten minutes Chris's eyelids started to droop and by the end of the evening news he was asleep. Joe stayed where he was for another twenty minutes, giving him time to move from dozing to deeply asleep, then gathered up Chris's long limbs, got them under control and picked him up. Turning the light out downstairs with an elbow remained a challenge, but Joseph put in enough practice at it to be efficient. Chris didn't stir on the way upstairs, nor when Joseph eased him out of the sweater and socks he'd put on in addition to t shirt and shorts after his shower. Joseph pulled the quilt over him and left the main light off, leaving the door ajar as he went down the hall to the office. He had paperwork in need of finishing, but Chris had been in no fit state to be alone downstairs tonight. Joseph sat down at the computer and waited for it to load the program he needed, mind still on Chris. The studying was important, and it had been causing Chris a serious headache for several years now. Chris needed the qualifications, still more he needed to get his skills up to a high enough speed to find the sort of job that would hold his interest for the next forty years of his working life. The skills however did not come easily to him. Chris was intelligent, he was a worker, but he was by no means an academic. And he was painfully aware of his own shortcomings.
Joseph was in the middle of writing one of his endless legal briefs when the phone rang. He answered it quickly, but knew the extension in the bedroom usually rang first. He hoped that he'd gotten it fast enough to keep Chris asleep.
Silence greeted his word.
"Hello?" he tried again.
"Yes, Todd, what is it?" He looked up to see Chris, standing in the doorway and rubbing his eyes.
When Chris heard Todd's name, he held out his hand for the phone.
"Back to bed with you." Joe said, covering the phone with his hand.
Joseph raised his eyebrows slowly, Looking at his partner.
"Joooooooe......" Todd's voice said on the other end of the phone. Giving Chris a look that meant We'll Discuss This in a Minute, Joe turned his chair back to the desk.
"What's the matter? It's nearly young man-"
"There's something in the
"What's in the hall?" Joseph said calmly. Todd sounded near tears.
"I don't know......"
"Have a guess. Is it human? Animal?"
"Todd, whatever it is, it's MUCH smaller than you."
"But it could STING!" Todd said defensively. "I know these things."
"Have you seen whatever it is?"
Knowing Todd would have called Stephen if it were anything but boredom, he didn't find it a problem getting a little stern.
"If you don't know what it is, and you're larger than it, I suggest, young man, that you get yourself upstairs and to bed. I don't think Stephen would be very pleased to come home and find you downstairs because something was buzzing in the hall, do you?"
Reacting to the tone as Joseph knew he would, Todd said "No, I suppose not. Thanks."
"You're welcome. Sweet dreams, kiddo."
When Joseph hung up the phone, he turned to Chris who had settled in the chair by the door, the full pout in place.
"You could have let me talk to him," Chris said accusingly.
"Todd was looking to relieve his boredom, and as I said earlier, neither of you need winding up, especially at ." Joseph was shutting down the program he was in as he was talking.
"He didn't call for you."
"Do you know that?" Joe said as he stood up.
Chris didn't answer, lip protruding still further. Joe pulled him out of his chair and to his feet in one clean yank.
"Bed. Like I said, two minutes ago." Taking Chris's arm he steered him bedwards, hastening his lover's steps with a series of crisp and extremely firm swats. "And you do NOT say no to
"Ow! Okay! STOP!" Chris said as he tried jumping ahead of Joe. When he made it to his side of the bed, and relative safety, his lip slipped out again.
Joe saw that and forestalled any eruption. "Another word and I'll spank you. Get. Into. Bed."
Chris didn't press his luck any more and slid under the covers, his sigh saying everything he couldn't. He kept his back to Joe as Joe got ready for bed himself.
When Joseph got into bed, he could still feel Chris' displeasure. He put the book down that he was going to read and instead put a hand on Chris' shoulder.
"Turn over and talk to
"You said I couldn't," Chris answered sarcastically.
"Do you really want to get smart with me?"
Chris gave that a moment's thought. "No," he said as he turned around and slid closer to the man he loved.
Joseph ran his fingers through Chris' hair again. "That was one test sweetheart. The grade isn't final, and we can practice the exam technique you need. It'll just take a little more time."
Chris' eyes burned when he thought again to the professor's decision to possibly take the class again.
"Its not FAIR. I work, I study, I do everything I'm supposed to and it DOESN'T work."
"It will in time."
"Its been three years!"
"And you've done well."
"Not well enough."
"Chris." Joe pulled Chris's head down against him. "It takes time. You just have to be patient sweetheart."
"You got through college in three years."
"I didn't have the problems finishing school that you did. You've worked harder to get where you are now than I ever did."
"You didn't have to."
"No. But don't you think that makes what you've achieved that much greater? Every grade you've got you've worked for and you've earned, step by step. Do you know how proud I am of you for that?"
"I know your secretary knows every class I ever get." Chris mumbled. Joe smiled.
"He knows your schedule better than I do. And he's the only one who can always get you on your cell phone."
"You'd better believe it," Chris said as he snuggled down against Joe and worked on going to sleep before he burst with the information about his class.
"I NEVER got economics," Todd said as he pulled another piece of pizza from the box.
"Where's the coke?" Matthew asked as he went to the fridge.
"Second shelf in the back," Todd said around a mouthful of pizza. He'd invited the guys over while Stephen was working another later night.
"I never got it much either. But my economics elective, man was I LUCKY," Matthew said as he settled down at the table and popped the top on his drink.
"What happened?" Todd asked, as Chris scowled and kept eating.
"We had this old guy. I mean, he was OLD. Been teaching the class for ages. He didn't believe in taking tests, thought that wasn't the best way to learn monetary economics. So when we first went in, he told us there were 6 five page papers, and two books of essays, one 20 essays, and one 10 essays. That was the entire class."
"Are you KIDDING me?" Todd asked as he got up for another beer for himself. "Chris, did you have any classes like that?"
"No," Chris said and quickly took another bite to avoid more conversation about school.
"So what happened? That's a hell of a lot of writing!"
"Well," Matthew said as he grabbed another piece of pizza, "he lectured the first three weeks of class. It wasn't about anything in particular that I could discern. Just odds and ends, and boy, when he got off subject, he got OFF subject. I mean one morning, he went on for fifteen entire minutes about him and his wife driving somewhere and getting into a minor traffic accident."
"That's the kind of profs I have," Chris volunteered.
"He was BORING. I mean, monetary economics isn't fun by any stretch of the imagination, but he made it even LESS fun."
"So if he lectured for three weeks, that compacted the writing schedule, didn't it?" Todd asked.
"Yes, it did. He never really spoke of what we're to be doing, and when someone would ask, he would say we'll get to that later, and don't worry, I'll give you plenty of time. So anyway, he kept on and kept on, and finally, somewhere after a month of classes, we do our first paper. It's on the Russian Ruble. By this time, he hasn't said two words about he ruble, nor has he made the FIRST reference to our book for class. I'm out in left field on this, totally."
"What did he want to know about the ruble? That seems easy, just looking up some statistics on it, or whatever," Chris said, trying to figure out the problem.
"It's not that simple, Chris. He didn't SAY what it was about. It was supposed to be five pages. He didn't give us ANY direction at all!"
"Library. You just --"
"I KNOW. I can look up Russian Ruble. I can say, this is the currency of
"You just keep looking, it's all there," Chris said.
Matthew rolled his eyes at Todd. "SOME of us aren't good at papers," Matthew said.
Chris's temper was slowly heating up. He took another bite instead of saying what he wanted to.
"So what happened?" Todd asked.
"I spent I don't know how many hours printing off anything I came to on the internet about the ruble. I then pieced together what I found and somehow made it flow together for five pages and make sense. We turned it in, and it was at least two weeks before we got it back. By this time, we're over halfway through the semester and written 5 pages out of some 150 that we were supposed to attempt. FINALLY he hands the papers back, and at the top of it there was a 5."
"Five?!? You got five points for that?" Todd asked in astonishment.
"Yeah. And that was a perfect score. I have NEVER turned in a paper that took SO much thought, and I felt LESS happy with, and did perfect, and perfect being ONLY 5 points. That was SO depressing!"
Chris kept eating, wishing Matthew would shut up.
"What about the rest of the papers? I mean, you had so many to do!"
"To make what has been, and continues to be a long story, short, he ultimately fiddled things around so that we only have the
Chris was steaming mad, listening to how Matthew breezed through a class, and here he was struggling. "Take a breath, why don't you?"
Matthew looked at Chris, then back at Todd and continued speaking.
"So he had us in for a meeting at the end of class, to discuss our grade. I was nervous going in, but there wasn't anything else I could do. I went in and talked with him. He loved the first book, said I did excellent. In the second, he noticed I didn't do any writing, and that he'd read my note. I just explained to him that after reading the first twenty chapters and writing the papers, I learned a LOT, and I learned it MUCH better than taking tests. I did that to butter him up, make him feel good about the way he taught the class, but I also DID mean it. Do you know what he did?"
"No, what?" Todd asked, anxious to find out.
"Gave you an A, no doubt," Chris said sarcastically.
"No, not an A, but he gave me a B. I mean, he GAVE me a B. And in the process of giving me that grade, he went on to explain why he couldn't give me an A. I nearly flew through the roof about the B though! Had he given me an A, I might have kissed him!" Matthew said, laughing.
Todd was laughing too when the remains of Chris's chunk of pizza bounced off Matthew's head and flopped undramatically onto his shirt. Matthew's yelp of surprise and indignation stopped the laughing dead. Chris swiped the empty box off the table to the floor, face and ears bright red. It was a sign both Todd and Matthew knew well.
"I don't see what's so frickin' great about coasting through a class on charm! Any idiot can do that! Just because the guy was stupid enough to fall for it-"
"Hey." Matthew snapped, "I worked damn hard for that class, and this is a good shirt buddy-"
Chris snatched up his glass and hurled the entire contents straight at him.
"Yeah well try this too!"
"CHRIS, for Godssakes!" Todd hastily got in Matthew's way as Matthew, now dripping coke and fury in equal amounts, took a step in Chris's direction. Chris threw the glass down onto the tiled floor and it shattered in every direction.
"You make me sick!"
"You're something of a prick yourself you know Chris?" Matthew's bright green eyes were gleaming and his own temper, slower to rouse than Chris's, was nevertheless capable of running pretty high. And his mind and tongue ran a lot faster and more fluently than Chris's did. Todd, who'd seen battles between them before, did the only thing he could think of and looked pleadingly at Chris.
"Come on, we came over here to watch the movie, not to fight- lets get this cleaned up before Stephen sees it-"
"If you even knew what a B looks like," Matthew said with deathly precision, making any kind of compromise way too late, "you'd realise what the work looks like that earns those kind of grades. It's a little higher class than what scrapes you a pass, dickhead."
And that was Matthew. Straight for the jugular. Todd flinched and got out of the way as Chris threw himself at Matthew. There was broken glass all over the floor, the fight was going to land both of them in it at any minute and there was no hope of Stephen walking through the door for at least another half hour. In sheer desperation, Todd grabbed up the phone.
"HEY. Stop it
He was close to screaming himself and his tone cut through the fight. Shaking a little, Todd held onto the reciever.
"I mean it."
In many ways it was too late. Matthew had a split lip now as well as the pizza stain and Chris's shirt was equally drenched with coke. Chris gave Matthew one last shove that sent him staggering across the glass strewn floor, and snatched up his jacket.
"Whatever. Fuck the pair of you."
The kitchen door slammed behind him. Todd held onto the receiver, really trembling now, and very close to calling Stephen on his own account.
Matthew looked down at his shirt, then over to Todd. He was furious, but when he saw Todd still held the receiver, fear overtook the fury. "Hang up the phone. Please?"
Todd put the phone down. "Your lip. It's -"
"Bleeding," Matthew finished, grimacing when he touched it. "What was WRONG with him?" he asked as he walked gingerly over to the sink to get some paper towels and water to try to stop the bleeding.
"I don't know! He just flipped. I mean, he was included in the conversation and everything." Todd was surveying the floor.
"Oooowwwww," Matthew said as he pulled the paper towels away from his lip. "My shirt is ruined, the floor is a mess..."
"Rolf's going to go nuts when he sees your lip." Todd said unhappily. Matthew dabbed cautiously at the lip a couple more times.
"Thankyou, he's getting a very edited version. I'll say we were mucking about and I fell- he won't be happy but it's better than saying it was a free fight- come on, we'd better get the glass cleaned up."
"Give me that shirt, I'll run it through the washer. Put your sweater on." Todd took the coke stained shirt and stuffed it in the machine as Matthew started to gingerly pick up shattered glass. "Lets just hope Chris has the sense to keep this quiet from Joe."
Chris drove straight over to the game complex and paid the five bucks it cost to get a large bucket of baseballs. The look he gave the kid taking the money made the kid think twice before saying anything about his stained shirt. Chris dropped the balls in the hopper, set the timer and got into position with the bat. He cranked through all the balls in fifteen minutes, working out his excess anger with strong swings of the bat. When the balls ran out, so did his anger. He walked back to the car and drove home, settling on an excuse for the shirt if Joseph asked. He pulled into the garage and shut the door behind him, dropping his keys in the basket by the door. He grabbed a water from the fridge and took a healthy swallow.
"Hey, I didn't expect you for another hour or two," Joseph said as he walked into the kitchen.
"The movie sucked, I just decided to come home," Chris said as he took another drink.
Joe walked over to him and looked down at his shirt. "I'm sorry to hear that. What happened there?"
"A bouncing Matthew," he said, not exactly lying.
"I see. I was just going to put another load in. Give me that and I'll wash it before any stains set."
"I hate this shirt anyway." Chris dumped his jacket on the table and ran upstairs. The shower door slammed in the distance. Joseph considered the evidence, then picked up the jacket and looked it over, finding another coke stain, before he checked the pockets. There was a distinct lack of movie tickets. There was however a receipt to the game complex. Putting the jacket in with the next load of laundry, Joe went unhurriedly upstairs. Chris was standing under the shower: from the sounds of it doing nothing more than soak.
"What movie did you see?" Joseph asked over the fall of the water, finding his partner's ruined shirt in the pile of dropped clothes. Chris didn't answer.
"Did the others stay to the end?"
Yep, this had all the hallmarks of a quarrel. Joseph had hoped Matthew and Todd would be enough to raise Chris's mood a little, but apparently not. Leaving Chris to finish his shower, Joseph went into their bedroom and dialled the phone. The answers he got confirmed the evidence.
"Who was that?" Chris said shortly, reappearing in a towel. Joseph put the phone down to look at him.
"Rolf. Matthew came home with a split lip and no memory whatever of the movie."
"I told you it sucked."
Joseph didn't reply to that. Just Looked. Chris withstood the pressure for about six seconds before he collapsed onto the end of the bed and buried his face in his arms. A little exasperated but mostly concerned, Joe put a hand on his head, tousling gently.
"I don't want to talk about it," came the muffled reply.
"Come on kiddo, sit up," Joe chided gently.
"Jooooooooooooooeeeeeeeee," Chris whined, knowing the word no would not have been met kindly.
"Matthew has a split lip and that needs discussing. Sit up." Joseph said, switching from gentle to a little more authoritative.
Chris knew that he'd be spanked if Joseph knew it was his fist that had connected with Matthew's lip to bloody it, and he could feel the net shrinking tighter around him.
"Doesn't Matthew know how it happened?" he offered, stalling for time. Joe shook his head.
"Apparently not. So you, Todd and Matthew meet up. You're home less than two hours later. None of you made the movie. You're drenched in coke and obviously upset. Matthew's lip is split. If I ring Stephen, how is Todd going to be?"
"I don't know, how should I know that!"
Joe's eyebrows raised at the tone. "Christopher?"
Chris flushed darkly, fiddling with the bedclothes. "Well. It's like in court- you're not supposed to speculate on unknown facts, are you?"
"Ok, then lets look at the facts." Joe said calmly. "Todd is not the fighting kind. You and Matthew can wind each other up like clocks. Matthew's hurt and he doesn't want to talk about it. What's the obvious conclusion Chris?"
"You think I hit him!" Chris flared. Joe didn't move.
"I think you two had a fight. Why don't you tell me what happened?"
Chris stared at the bedclothes. Joe put a hand up on his hair and tousled again, pushing it out of his eyes.
Chris dropped flat on the bed and curled up, head against Joe's knee. Joseph went on stroking his hair, waiting.
"He was being such a prat." Chris said eventually. "Going on and on, HE started it. Carrying on like he'd done something clever. I got mad, I couldn't help it."
"Going on about what?"
"This was about a grade?"
Joseph was way too acute. Chris nodded slowly and reluctantly.
"He didn't even EARN the grade- he doesn't have to work! It just HAPPENS for him, he knocks up the work and hands it in and they just stick the grades on him, just because he charms the socks off everyone in the place- smile and chatter look pretty and they just
"He does work, he works hard and I'm absolutely sure he doesn't do it by corrupting the entire staff." Joe said gently but firmly.
"Its not FAIR." Chris said bitterly. "He breezes through, he doesn't even have to try - oh allright, he doesn't even have to try that HARD all the time, and he can get the grades."
"No, it's not fair. But different people learn in different ways-"
"That's balls Joe! He's just damn cleverer than me, why don't you just say it!"
"CHRISTOPHER, that's enough," Joe said firmly. "We've discussed this over and over. You have a tougher time with school but that makes you NO less smart, clever, charming, or any OTHER adjective than anyone else. And you have
"Did you punch Matthew in the face?" he asked mildly.
Chris barely nodded his head yes.
"Is there anything else I need to know?"
Again, the head shaking no this time, as tears stung Chris's eyes.
"Get the belt," Joseph said more firmly than he felt.
Chris tried to swallow the lump of tears stuck in his throat before getting out a strangled "Noooooooo," curling up tighter against Joe's leg.
"Now." Joseph said simply.
Chris slid off the side of the bed, walking the three miles to the closet in record time, finding the hated piece of leather where it was always kept, and returning slowly to Joe. He felt entirely vulnerable being clothed in only a towel. Slowly, he raised his hand up and a sob escaped against his will when Joseph took the belt from him.
Joseph reached out and pulled Chris across his left thigh, and with one clean yank the towel fell to the floor. He doubled the belt over and rested his free hand on the small of Chris's now rigid back, not unsympathetic, but with no intention of wavering.
"What am I upset about Chris?"
From the sound of it, Chris was keeping back tears by sheer effort of will, his voice sounded an octave higher and the words came very unwillingly.
"I hit Matthew- in the face- and smashed the glass- and threw the coke at him-"
He sounded about ten years old when he was really upset: it was one of the many reasons why Joseph never found it hard to keep his patience. There was enough sternness in his voice to get through to Chris, but he couldn't have found a harsh tone if he'd tried. Chris's demons were not easy to wrestle; he understood that very well.
"Hitting out is totally unacceptable Christopher, it's dangerous, it's childish and it's illegal. You are NOT a child, when someone of your weight and strength hits out, you are going to do damage and that damage today you caused to a friend. I won't tolerate it. I will NOT allow you to cause pain, distress and injury to someone for no better reason than they made you angry. Is that clear?"
Chris was shuddering by now, between stress and distress and the answer was unintelligable. Joseph waited, not moving. Chris took a few more deep breaths and another sob escaped around the edges of a fairly clear,
"Thankyou." Joseph said quietly. He didn't make Chris wait any longer. He raised the doubled up belt and brought it down fast and firmly across Chris's upturned bottom, prepared for Chris's immediate and involuntary attempt to levitate off his lap.
"Noooo! Joe pleeeeeease......"
"Hands OUT of the way Christopher." Joseph said sternly. Since the arm around his waist was too heavy and too strong to allow for anything else, Chris collapsed forward onto the bed and began to cry in earnest. Joe resumed work with the belt, moving quickly in hard and accurate swipes down Chris's buttocks, turning them scarlet from crown to thighs. Chris was squirming and sobbing before he was half way there.
Joseph brought the belt down one more time, right across the most tender area of Chris's bottom before laying the belt on the bed. He kept a firm but soothing hand on Chris as he worked to get past the immediate and overwhelming stinging of the spanking.
It took Chris a moment or two to realize that there were no new blossoms of pain. As soon as he realized it, he relaxed his body and gave into deep, heaving sobs. He felt Joseph try to move him but couldn't make out what he was saying. He slid to the floor on his knees, head buried in Joseph's lap, barely feeling the hands that soothed his head.
Several, long minutes later, Joseph got up and returned with a wet washcloth and tissues, which Chris accepted gratefully. Joseph helped him up off of sore knees and into the warm and inviting lap. When Chris could finally garner enough breath between hiccups, he spoke.
"Matthew probably hates me," he mumbled into Joe's neck.
"I'm sure he's not really happy with you right now, but I doubt very seriously that he hates you. Both of you are quick to anger, but it doesn't last long," Joseph said as he brushed the hair back from Chris's face.
"He just made me SO mad."
"What exactly did he say?"
"He was just talking about this class he didn't do all the work in, but still got a B. I sort of.....my pizza landed on his shirt. And it just escalated from there. I'm sorrry," Chris said, ending in another sob, hating that he did that.
"Shhhhh, it's alright now. All that's left to do is apologize to both Todd
Chris nodded miserably against Joe's chest, his bottom no longer excruciating, but definitely very sore.
Joseph set Chris on his feet. "Come on, under the covers with you." When Chris had laid down, Joseph tucked him in, kissing him firmly on the forehead. "I'll be back in a few minutes." He left the bedroom and locked up the house and got ready for bed himself. As soon as he slid under the covers, Chris attached himself to his side and fell almost immediately asleep.
Joe lay in the dark for a while, holding him with sympathy for the still occasionally hitched breath and the arms clinging, and for this current grade. Chris took things so much to heart. It was going to take a while for him to get his confidence back, and he found these classes hard enough without having to worry about his capabilities too.
He gave Chris no time for brooding in the morning: the alarm went off at six and Joseph harrassed him, still mostly asleep, into the shower and down to breakfast in plenty of time for them to make and eat a cooked breakfast. Not something they usually did during the week, but Joseph was well aware Chris had bypassed dinner last night. As soon as Chris had worked his way through bacon and eggs- never something he found difficult- Joseph handed him his jacket and picked up his own.
"Come on, I'll drop you at school."
Since school was out of Joe's way, Chris walked to and from his classes; this was an occasional treat and he accepted with alacrity. Joe had the radio on in the car and sang most of the way, again something Chris never objected to. Joe had a voice he loved listening to, and his mood was infectious. By the time they reached the school gates, the day was seeming considerably less bleak than it had done earlier. Joe leaned over and kissed him, opening his door.
"Have a good day. Call me when you get home?"
"Sure," Chris said as he got out and shut the door behind him. It was sunny and warm, though there were clouds on the horizon. He walked slowly over to his first class, enjoying the fresh air and the quietness of the early morning campus. Most students didn't get moving until 10am. His first class was history, and they were covering a very interesting point in the past, and he was anxious to see what was uncovered into today's class.
Settling into his seat, he pulled out his book and his notepad and reread yesterday's notes while the rest of the students filed in slowly. When the professor arrived, Chris started with a fresh sheet and soon became engrossed in the lecture. It seemed like five minutes later, but the clock had moved to 8:50 and it was time to head to his next class.
He walked slower this time, debating whether he wanted to go or not. He realized that if he skipped class, he wasn't going to show the professor how serious he was about passing and went on in. He sat down in his usual chair and waited for class to begin.
The professor walked in right on time. "Alright class, we're going to try another practice test." Amid groans and the like, the professor handed out one sheet of paper, face down on each desk before returning to the front of class. "There are three questions on your paper. Pick two, and spend twenty minutes on each. I'll have the grades back on Wednesday, we'll wrap up the last two days of class, and exams next week. Go to it." He sat back down as the pages were turned, then opened a book and started reading when the class became quiet.
Chris read through the questions carefully, making himself give time and attention to exactly what each one wanted from him, the field of knowledge and the angle required before he marked off the two he felt best able to respond to. One was a purely technical question, based on the effects of the stockmarket. The other, more complex one was based on taxation and the legal obligations of a business. Which he had read plenty about, but needed more arguing. Sorting out two sheets of paper, Chris rapidly wrote down a list of relevant information on both topics, everything he could remember about them and the sources. Then he bit his pencil and re read the questions. And re read the questions.
Explain the effects of a variable stockmarket on a small company's investments.
The information on stockmarkets in different states was already listed. Chris looked down the list, starting to sweat. The information was THERE. What to do with it now was too complex to manage. Eventually, painstakingly, he pulled out another sheet of paper and began to write in longhand.
The professor raised his head five minutes later as the bell rang.
"That's it everyone. Papers to the front please. Chris, we were going to meet-"
Chris didn't hear what he said. He had a paragraph and a half in front of him, beside the two lists, his face was already scarlet as everyone around him moved to the front with several sheets of paper, covered in writing, and glanced at his two sparsely covered sheets.
A girl who sat beside him gave him a look of obvious pity as she got up and that was the last straw. Chris grabbed his bag and headed for the door, leaving the papers where they were.
"Chris?" the professor said anxiously. Chris shoved two slow moving students out of his way and fled. Straight to the office, his pace quickening with rage and humiliation. The secretary took one look at the scarlet faced, furious young man in front of her and backed off a pace. Chris banged his student ID down on the counter and pushed it towards her.
"I want to quit. Now."
Chris walked out of the office into the pouring rain. His temper was still running high, and he cared not one bit that it was raining. In fact, it seemed just. His tears mingled with the raindrops as he walked slowly home. He had no idea how he was going to tell Joe that he quit. It wasn't like it should be a huge surprise, but he knew Joe wouldn't take it well. The only thing Chris knew was that he needed to find a job sometime soon, as he wanted to be a contributing member of their relationship. Joe would find out later, when Chris was more settled into his new lifestyle.
Chris got home and headed straight upstairs. He dripped water all the way up, stopping in the bathroom and pulling off all his clothes and dropping his bag on the floor. He turned on the showers and warmed up under the strong spray, trying to let the hot water work out the knots of tension in his shoulders. It didn't work. Eventually he pulled sweats on and curled up on Joseph's side of the bed, pulling the quilt over himself. The pillow smelled comfortingly of Joe and Chris pulled it down into his arms, hating himself for the childish gesture. More than anything he wanted to pick up the phone and call Joe, except he was well aware if he did that he would blurt out everything. And right now he didn't feel in any fit state to deal with Joseph's disappointment with him. The best thing to do was to wait. When he had a job, when he was earning and could make a steady contribution to the household, that was when he could make it up to Joe.
He was not exactly asleep and not exactly awake either when the bedroom door creaked and he felt the bed give. He jumped and Joseph's hand brushed through his hair, instantly familiar.
"Hey, it's me. What's the matter babe? Not feeling well? I called twice but all I could get was the machine."
Chris rolled over and buried himself in Joe's stomach. Joe stroked his hair, slipping his fingers down Chris's collar to check his temperature. Warm, but not hot. He prised Chris gently away from him, taking in bloodshot eyes.
"What hurts? Talk to me."
"Nothing. Just a headache." Chris wriggled to get back into his arms. Joe kicked off his shoes, lay down and gathered Chris closer, rubbing his neck.
"Mmn. I came home at lunchtime."
Which was true. Joe kissed his forehead.
"What have you taken?"
"I didn't want to unless I had to."
"Well now you have to, believe me." Joe said mildly. "I'm going to get you some tylenol and something to eat. Did you have lunch?"
Chris shook his head, somewhat guiltily. "I didn't feel much like eating."
"Well that probably hasn't helped either." Joe gave him another firm kiss and sat up. "Suppose I bring something light up here, we have an early night and watch TV up here? Hmm?"
"Sounds nice," Chris said, and meaning it. He took the Tylenol that Joe held out for him, and curled back up under the quilt while Joe made dinner downstairs. Chris simply concentrated on the normal sounds of the household, pushing away all other thoughts. He was a little more settled emotionally when Joseph came upstairs with a tray of soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
"Looks good," Chris said, sitting up slowly.
"I don't think you've ever met a cheese sandwich that you'd turn away," Joseph said, laughing. He settled the tray down on the table and settled in the bed himself, turning on the television to a favorite movie of theirs. They ate in companionable silence, Chris managing to laugh at the appropriate times during the movie. Once dinner was finished, he had pretty much put a lid on all his feelings about the day. There just was no sense in getting Joseph all upriled when he didn't yet have a job.
Snuggling down into Joseph's chest, he relaxed as Joe's fingers worked their usual magic on his neck and shoulders. Between that, the tiring day, and the Tylenol, he was asleep before 9pm.
It was nice to be able to smile again without the split lip promptly pulling, if not bleeding. Having heard Joseph's side of things as well as Matthew's, Rolf had actually been fairly sympathetic about it too, which Matthew hadn't expected. Apparently it wasn't your fault when someone else's pet lunatic hauled off and hit you for no reason. Matthew left his meeting, glanced at his watch and decided he needed fuel and lunch before he tried finding his way back to the office. This side of town was unfamiliar ground to him. He followed the road back into the town centre and saw a gas station sign within a mile, up against the car park of the railway station. He filled the tank and wandered into the shop, checking over their fridge compartment for coke and something edible for lunch. Figuring that out took some time. Finally he settled on a chicken sandwhich and grabbed a chocolate bar to take the taste away afterwards before he headed to the counter. The guy in the uniform green t shirt rang up the till without looking up from his newspaper. It wasn't until Matthew failed to hand over any cash that he looked up and saw Matthew's eyes, wide and shocked.
"What the HELL are you doing here?"
Chris flushed scarlet. Then, angrily, he took the money from Matthew's hand, rang it up and slammed the till.
"Working, what does it look like?"
"Joe would NEVER let you work in a place like this, he deals with too many people who get robbed in them! I've HEARD him talk about it! It's the middle of the morning, why aren't you in school?!"
"No classes this morning."
Matthew looked at him, shaking his head. "No. Joe wouldn't let you do this, he wouldn't even let you pick up those few hours at the weekend with Stephen at the resteraunt. He doesn't know, does he?"
Chris couldn't get any redder, or look any more upset. He leaned on the desk and Matthew saw his hands press against his head as if it was aching.
"I quit." he mumbled eventually. "It was a waste of time, I couldn't do it anyway, I wasn't going to pass anything-"
"You quit without telling Joe?"
"He'd have made me stick it out to the end. Heroic failure. It sucks." Chris pushed himself upright with an effort. "Once I get a better job I'll tell him, it'll be allright."
Matthew looked at him, increasingly upset. "Are you walking home from here each day?"
"No, a bus runs from the station."
"You're walking around the street outside on your own?"
"It's only part time hours, its not like I'm here after dark."
"HOW are you keeping this from him?!"
"I'm a fucking grown-up Matthew. I can make decisions on my own. I can walk without a parent or guardian by my side," Chris said angrily. "Just keep your damn mouth shut, and we'll all be fine. Excuse me, I have a customer." Chris walked from behind the counter and outside to see what assitance he could give to an older lady who had pulled up.
Matthew stood watching for a moment, still in shock. He and Chris fought like cats and dogs, but those arguments were always forgotten when one of them was in need. And it looked like Chris needed him. He walked out and got into his car and headed back to work, wondering what he was going to be able to do.
He could hardly concentrate all afternoon. Several times he picked up the phone, wanting to call Rolf, but put it back down. He'd tell Rolf, Rolf would tell Joe, Joe would kill Chris. He had to find a better solution.
By eleven thirty that night he still hadn't come up with one. Every possible solution ended in one of two conversations. The one where Chris stood, eyes blazing, spitting at him about telling tales. Or the one where Rolf was the one with the blazing eyes, saying in icy tones, "and you KNEW about this??"
Neither was tempting. And if he kept quiet and Chris DID come to any harm, Joe and Rolf would be quite right to blame him: he HAD known about this and allowed the situation to continue. Matthew rolled over, thinking of the few times when Marc had been forced by circumstances to go to Rolf and tell him things Matthew had- at the time- found it quite unneccessary for Rolf to know anything about. And he'd been mad enough about Marc having done it. But every time- he'd needed Rolf to know. And had instantly found the help he wanted. Even if at the time he hadn't admitted he wanted it. Chris NEEDED Joe to know. But to actively get him into trouble with Joe- serious trouble- that was another matter.
There was a basic fellowship between all of the 'brats' in their friendship group- it came naturally. Matthew flopped onto his back and stared at the ceiling, relecting on that. They all knew what it was like to be grounded, to be less than comfortable sitting, to live in the kind of relationship they did- and they had the same sort of respect for the others' tops as they did for their own. Matthew briefly returned to an earlier idea of approaching Joe directly himself and instantly abandoned it. Apart from NOT wanting to break that kind of news to him, and imagining himself a stammering wreck- it was not his place. He couldn't imagine trying to sit Joe down and start a conversation with him about the current foibles of his partner, when Matthew was well aware Joe knew about all too many of his own foibles.
He jumped at the light being switched on. Rolf rolled over and looked at him, eyebrows raised.
"Allright, I can't stand the suspense. How big is it, how much did it cost, where is it hidden and what's its name?"
"Rooooooollffffff," Matthew said, stifling a smile and gently punching the older man.
The fact that Matthew wasn't immediately defensive helped Rolf to feel a little more secure that it wasn't something horrible that was bothering him. There was definitely something going on though. "So if we don't own an elephant now, what is it?"
"It's nothing," Matthew tried.
"Well it's a pretty big nothing if it's keeping you tossing and turning and sleepless. Out with it."
Matthew picked at the sheets, still unsure as to what the right direction was.
Taking Matthew's hands in his, Rolf sat up, pulling Matthew up with him and turned to face him. "Is this concerning you?"
"Sort of," Matthew said slowly, looking at the cat on the floor.
"How sort of?"
"Like.....I know something?" Matthew replied.
"What about Chris?" Rolf said patiently. Matthew managed something between a squirm and a shrug.
"Matthew.......?" Rolf said again, more warningly. Matthew more or less got his eyes up to meet Rolf's.
"If I tell you, promise you won't tell Joe."
"No." Rolf said simply.
"If it's something Joe needs to know about, of course I'll tell him. And if it's something I need to tell him about, you need to tell me. Don't you?"
"Yes." Matthew admitted in a small voice.
"So is it?"
Matthew shrugged, not happy. "Chris'll kill me."
"And you need to trust me." Rolf shook Matthew's hands gently. "What?"
Matthew took a deep breath. "He's working at a gas station down by the railway, I saw him there this morning on the way back from my meeting- Joe doesn't know. He quit school. He was REALLY upset, I thought he was going to cry when he saw me, and I knew Joe didn't know, he wouldn't let Chris work in any gas station, never mind in that area-"
"Slow down, slow down," Rolf said, squeezing Matthew's hands. "Chris actually said he quit school?"
"Yes. He said he'd tell Joe when he got a better job. Said it was a waste of time and Joe wouldn't understand. He's working at a gas station. Rolf," Matthew looked up, panicked. "You can't tell him. He'll hate me."
"Do you agree that Chris has dug himself a hole here that he's going to have trouble climbing out of?" Rolf asked gently.
"Do you agree that he's in a potentially dangerous situation, working at the gas station?"
"Yes," Matthew conceded again.
"And do you agree that he is probably very unhappy, living a lie?"
"Yes," Matthew said quietly.
"Partners are there to help. Joseph will do everything he can to make sure that Chris gets his questions answered, his problems solved, his life back to a place that makes him happy. Chris may have a few unhappy moments during that process, but the end result will be very worth it, don't you agree?"
"Come here," Rolf said, lying down and turning off the light. Matthew snuggled up underneath his chin, pressing his head back into the hand that soothed him.
"I'll call Joseph tomorrow, and see about getting Christopher back on track. It'll be just fine."
Matthew's mind was soothed by his partner's gentle words and unmistakable logic. Things would work out.
Chris dressed slowly, looking for his oldest jeans. He'd had to hide two pairs already that carried fuel and oil stains before Joe started to get suspicious about how he was getting so dirty in a library. He was already asking about homework and assignments.
THAT had been a hard one.
Chris sat down on the edge of the bed, pausing for a moment, socks in hand. The whole idea made him go hot and cold, red faced and mumbling- he hated lying to Joe. It was very very rarely he got away with it either, part of him was amazed Joseph hadn't seen straight through him. The rest of him was just bitterly ashamed. He'd managed to forge assignments in his notebook- mostly reading, which he still did at home in the evenings. As much as he hated it, it was a simple choice between doing the reading or confessing to Joe. And that was unthinkable. Well aware he was getting himself in deeper and deeper, and that he was very far from happy with himself, Chris had kept on reading. And fixed his thoughts on making things up to Joe when this was all over, when he had a decent job and he could at least bring some money into the house on his own account. Maybe save enough to take Joe away for a weekend somewhere, the kind of break they'd never managed in the last year or two because weekends and vacations were spent with him studying and Joe encouraging, coaxing and bullying for him to catch up and get his assignments done.
"Chris, breakfast will be cold." Joseph called upstairs.
"I'm coming." Chris called back with an effort, pulled his socks on and padded downstairs. Joe had cooked breakfast again. Chris was starting to hate the smell of bacon. Joe looked up from the plates he was setting out and caught his wrist, pulling him over and looking long and hard at his face before he felt his forehead and throat.
"How are you feeling? You look awful."
"If you send me to bed any earlier there's hardly any point in getting up." Chris said wearily. Joe let him go, far from happy.
"Maybe we need to get you in for a physical. I'll call and -"
"I don't need a daggone doctor, Joe. It's just the stress from the final weeks at school," Chris said, somewhat truthfully. He poked at his eggs, uninterested.
"I'll reserve judgement on that," Joseph said, digging into his plate. "Are you practicing the exam today in class again?"
Chris took that opportunity to put a forkful of egg into his mouth to hopefully fend off further inquiries. "Yeff."
Joseph finished first, taking his plate to the sink and washing it off. "I can take you to class today if you'd like."
"No, I'll walk. The air is good," Chris lied smoothly.
"Good luck then. Can you get the dishes before you go?"
Joseph dropped a kiss on Chris's forehead. "Try to cheer up sunshine, the semester is almost over. I'll see you after work."
Chris slumped down in his chair the instant Joseph was out of sight, sick to his stomach of the lies he had to keep telling, but knowing he couldn't stop now. He tossed the rest of his breakfast down the disposer and washed the few dishes Joe had used to fix the meal. He sat down and leafed through his books, trying to come up with assignments that looked official, yet not to difficult to accomplish. Finally it was time to head out. He left the heavy books on the desk and carried his bookbag out with him into the sun. He walked down to the bus stop and boarded the bus when it arrived, getting to the gas station five minutes later. He settled back behind the counter, talking to the manager that was working that day.
Joseph was settling into his office when his secretary buzzed through.
"Joe? Just a quick call before you start work? It's a Mr Monet on line one, he said it was a personal call."
"Put him through please Marie." Joe dropped into his chair and picked up the phone. "Rolf? This is an unexpected pleasure..... another hockey win?"
"Yes, at about three thirty this morning," Rolf said acerbically. "I had to sleep with the remote to keep Matthew away from it."
"So what was the score?"
"3:1 with another play off tonight- Joe, Matthew had a word with me last night and I'm afraid it was something you needed to know about."
"What?" Joe said, sobering fast. "Chris?"
"Matthew went to some meeting across town yesterday morning, and stopped for gas. He found Chris behind the till at the gas station."
Joe closed his mouth, carefully biting back any sounds of shock. Then he said with studied calm,
"Did he make any explanation?"
"Matthew said Chris told him he'd quit school. He also said Chris seemed very upset."
"He's going to be more upset when I get hold of him." Joe said darkly. "At least that explains why he's been looking so ill."
"It's the Texaco station on Third, to be exact. Matthew was really worried about him."
"Thanks for the call, Rolf. I think I'll stop by there as soon as I get my 9am meeting wrapped up. I'll call you back later so you can let Matthew know he's okay."
"Thanks, and good luck," Rolf said, hanging up.
Joseph sat back in his chair, connecting all the signs that he'd been given in the last few days and coming to the conclusion that he needed to pay closer attention to his instincts. Having done that, his immediate urge was to go and find his partner and wring his neck. His annoyance rapidly built as he realised the depth of the deception Chris had managed to pull off: how long he'd been working Joe had no idea, but Chris had been settling to homework every night and walking- apparently to school every morning. If he'd been walking to Third- working there was bad enough; Joe in his line of work had run across plenty of people from that district who'd suffered attacks he had no intention of ever allowing Chris to be at risk from. So long as Chris allowed himself to be so protected. And WHY did Chris make such a major decision alone, not wanting to share it with him or ask for help? Frankly, that hurt. Joe sat back in his chair, worried and upset, the anger starting to ebb. Why on earth would Chris find this kind of lying and secrecy better than coming to him for help?
Finally he grabbed his planner and called Marie. "Could you cancel Mr. Anderson at 3? See if he can make it at the same time tomorrow? And you can mark me out as soon as Mr. and Mrs. Gentry leave this morning, I have something that just came up. Thanks, Marie."
Joseph prepped for his meeting with the Gentrys, putting thoughts of Chris in the back of his mind with an effort. As soon as the Gentrys left, he locked up his files and said a quick goodbye to Marie and headed to his car.
He parked on the far side of the building, looking around outside for a moment before heading into the store. He spotted the blond head immediately and headed for the counter. Chris's look of boredom was quickly replaced with stark terror mixed with shame. Joe gave him no time to get a word in edgewise, leaning on the counter and talking quietly.
"I'm parked outside. I want you to quit, right now. I know that may take a while, I'll be outside and I'll wait."
Chris still hadn't reacted when he walked out, headed back to his car. It took nearly forty minutes. Another car pulled up, settling into the staff lot, and a man in his mid fifties went inside. A few minutes later Chris came out, pulling his jacket on, clearly in tears. Joe waited, making himself stay put until Chris opened the car door and got in, unable to look him in the face. His whole expression and demeanour spoke total misery and it was heartwrenching. Joseph put an arm over his shoulders, pulled Chris down against his chest and held him, dropping a kiss into the always untidy fair hair. He felt Chris disolve instantly into sobbing, not even trying to hold on to him. It took only a few minutes before the hard, serious crying began to ease. Joe kissed his forehead again, pushed him gently away and started the car.
Neither of them spoke on the twenty minute drive home. Joe parked on their drive and opened his door, looking at Chris.
"I've taken the rest of today off, we seriously need to do some talking. Inside please. The first thing you can do is get yourself into clean clothes."
The matter of fact tone got through: Chris slowly got out of the car and headed for the front door, more zombie like now than actively distressed. He was exhausted. Reflecting that he hadn't eaten or slept properly in several days, Joe paused only to pour a glass of milk before he followed Chris upstairs. He'd done his best: he was clean, damp, struggling into clean clothes with eyes that looked red and sore, and fumbling hands. Joe tugged the sweater down over his head, pulled his collar straight and put the glass into his hand.
Chris folded up on the edge of the bed, huddled into himself as if he was cold. Joe stood where he was, surveying the man he'd lived with since he classified himself as fully an adult, and made a judgement without really thinking about it on who right now Chris needed him to be.
"I'm stunned. Totally and utterly stunned. I leave you this morning, thinking you're headed to school as you have been every other morning, and I find out that you're working. You had a job I knew nothing about. You've been doing homework assignments for classes that you've clearly not attended. Exams are coming up and you tell me you're tired and stressed about them. What am I missing here?"
Chris managed to get sip of the milk taken before he lost all appetite for anything. He stared hard at the floor, watching the carpet sharpen and then fade as the tears came again, silent this time. When Joseph had been silent for a moment or two, Chris mumbled shamefully, "I quit."
"You quit?" Joseph asked incredulously. "Just like that, and without a word to me, you just quit?" With the only answer being a shake of the head in the affirmative, he continued. "Why? After all the hard work you've done, all the time we've spent getting you ready, and you just quit?"
"It wasn't worth it, I knew you wouldn't understand."
"Understand WHAT? That you're giving up? That you're going to work somewhere you knew perfectly well I would NEVER let you near-"
Chris's eyes were bloodshot and pleading, mutely pleading.
Make this allright. It's horrible, I'm scared and I don't know what to do, please make this allright.
"Christopher. You made these decision, you get to explain them." Joe said quietly but very firmly. "Talk."
"I can't graduate. I can't DO IT," Chris said, his voice rising.
"You WERE doing it. It was taking you extra work, but you were doing it," Joe said calmly.
"My professor wasn't going to allow me to take the exams! I CAN'T GRADUATE!" Chris nearly screamed.
Joseph was keeping a close eye on Chris's face, and realised that his sense of panic was only growing. He needed to stop the escalation as this was doing no good for either of them. He made a quick decision and changed his tone of voice.
"You know what? Right now I don't care why you quit and I don't care why you took a job. What I DO care about, and am most upset about, is the fact that you have lied to me, consistently, for several days now. You've lied to me about where you've been. You've lied to me about what you've been doing. You've lied to me about damn near everything lately, and that, my boy, is NOT something that I will ever put up with. Is it?"
"I COULDN'T tell you! You never understand about classes and-"
"Christopher." Joe said firmly and quietly, cutting right through the shout. "IS it acceptable to lie? IS that something we do between ourselves?"
"This is different!"
"Yes or no. Is it?"
"Yes or no isn't fair!" Chris pleaded, getting steadily more incoherent. "The context- you say the context's important, you say that in court and I've heard you-"
"The context is us."Joe said calmly, sitting down beside him. "In the context of OUR relationship, is lying something we find acceptable?"
At the end of his tether, Chris hit out at the stack of pillows beside him, knocking several onto the floor. Joe caught his wrist, pulled Chris down against him and held him tightly, not changing his tone.
With no other outlet, unable to move out of Joe's enveloping grip, Chris broke into tears again. For a moment Joe thought he was beyond communicating, then slowly, without looking up, he shook his head. On familiar and comprehensible ground, he was beginning to calm down. The tears this time were release of pressure, and Joe kept quiet, rocking him slowly and encouraging him to take his time. It took a while, but eventually Chris curled up on his side, head on Joseph's lap, more or less quiet. Joe stroked his hair, watching his face. Later he would berate himself for having missed the signs of this, for having let it go so far, for not prising more information out of Chris a lot sooner; right now all he was interested in was Chris and in getting him past his immediate wall of guilt and panic.
"Why isn't it acceptable?" he said gently, watching Chris's face. Chris answered him at once, quietly and fairly calmly.
"Because it damages trust between us- you need to know what's going on- we make decisions together."
"All true. Especially decisions where you know you have trouble making the right ones for you."
"I knew you'd say no."
"So you lie to me whenever you know you're not going to like the answer you get if you're honest?" Joe said mildly. Chris shook his head.
"I'm sorry. I didn't know what else to do."
"Yes, you did." Joe pointed out. Chris buried his face in Joe's lap. Joe left that one to be followed up later and drew him to his feet.
"I'm very sorry that you're so upset, but we've been in this game long enough for you to know exactly what's acceptable and what's not. This is not a trust issue, I know I can trust you and I'm not going to doubt you now because of this: this was just a very bad choice you made because you made it on your own with only one set of perspectives and a lot of feelings you didn't want to think about, share or deal with. THAT is not on, and you know it well."
Chris didn't answer, red faced now but fairly calm, eyes on the floor. Joe let go his hands and gave him a gentle push towards the door.
"Bring the paddle up here please."
Chris turned around, large, pleading eyes.
"Go on, let's get this over with," Joseph said gently.
Chris turned and headed downstairs, his feet dragging the closer he got to the dreaded piece of wood. He picked it up, throat closing up and headed back up the stairs slowly. He hated the wood. He hated the thought of handing it over to Joseph, so he could spank him with it. He knew the pain he was going to be feeling soon. But in the very back of his mind, almost unconsciously, he knew that it was deserved and needed, and the first step in fixing things between he and Joseph. He walked over to Joe who had taken a seat in the only chair in the room. Slowly he lifted up the paddle.
Joseph took it and set it next to the chair. He then pulled Chris to him and began unbuttoning his pants. Chris stood, shifting his weight as his lover pulled his pants down. As many times as he did it, it never became any easier for Chris. Every spanking was just like the first, embarrasing, painful, and something to be avoided. He looked skywards when his shorts landed in a pile around his ankles with his jeans. He allowed himself to be pulled down, across the knees. When his feet left the floor, he swallowed hard as the first few tears escaped his eyes and left matching spots on the carpet.
Joseph didn't waste any time. He started spanking hard and fast, covering every inch of white backside that was there. He kept Chris anchored firmly and turned the pale white skin a pale pink, then a flaming red. When he'd heated the entire area well, he bent over and picked up the paddle, ignoring Chris's pleas for mercy. He brought the paddle up and snapped it firmly down, the connection of paddle and skin sounding like a gunshot. Chris's pleas became unintelligable as he needed every bit of oxygen to breathe through the pain.
Chris continued to struggle as the paddle ignited searing waves of pain with every swat, sobbing hard and hysterically by the time Joseph leaned to drop the paddle on the bed and put much gentler hands on his back. Chris twisted around and Joe pulled him up, holding him tight, containing until Chris's crying moved from high pitched, uncontrolled gasps to steady tears, his body going limp with the release of tension. Joe picked him up then and moved them both to the bed, propping himself against the bedhead and holding Chris in his lap, arms wrapped tightly around the smaller, shuddering body he loved.
"I'm sorry," Chris said when he had the breath to talk, "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to do anything to hurt you, I really didn't,"
"I know sweetheart, you didn't think, that's all." Joe said calmly, "Its okay."
"I'm so sorry."
"We dealt with that, it's over, it's allright now." Joe pulled Chris's head more securely into his chest, stroking damp hair out of his eyes and off a hot forehead. "I know you didn't mean any harm. It was just a bad idea that went wrong."
"I didn't know what to do." Chris's voice, still rough and breathless held relief.
"You come and you tell me when things go wrong. You don't try to fix them on your own." Joe scolded gently. "Even if you're not going to like my solutions."
"I CAN'T do it. I can't do the classes Joe, I try and I can't-"
"I know it's hard. You can though. You've got through other hard classes before."
"The professor wouldn't let me do the exams, I couldn't pass that class."
"Why not?" Joe said calmly, settling back. His calm passed through to Chris: the reassurance that Joe had no plans to go anywhere any time soon, that he was listening, that he was interested.
"On that Friday, the professor handed back the papers, he spoke to me after class. Said he couldn't," Chris gulped loudly. "He said he couldn't in good conscience let me take the exams."
"Why didn't you tell me on Friday?" Joe asked gently.
"Because....because I was going to try hard on Monday and show him he was wrong. But I couldn't," Chris said, before sobbing again over his failure.
Joseph held Chris quietly until he settled down. He knew how hard Chris had tried, and how hard it must have been on him when he realized he still wasn't going to make it. "The professor only had your best interests in mind. There isn't a point in you taking the exams if you're not ready. That would only drag your GPA down and you'd still have to take the class over. It wasn't the end of the world, sweetheart."
"But I can't -"
"You stop that right now," Joseph said, a little more sternly. "You CAN do anything you put your mind to. This class may be tougher than the others, but with practice you'll ace it like you did the algebra."
When Joe saw the recongition in Chris's eyes, he continued. "Yes, just like algebra. Remember how you sat through the first quarter of the class, taking notes but not following?"
Chris nodded slowly.
"You took the first test and failed it miserably. You went to the professor and asked to drop out and he didn't let you. He hooked you up with a tutor, and after practicing with him for a few weeks, you had that class aced. You got a B out of it, after wanting to drop out."
"But this is different," Chris tried, though he was sounding less sure by the minute.
"It's no different. All you need to do is practice."
"It's exam technique!"
"So you practice. When you're ready, you'll do it. And there's no hurry, is there?" Joe added calmly. "There's no deadline, if this takes you a year, that's fine."
Chris buried his face in Joe's stomach. Joe went on stroking his hair, patiently.
"Money's not a problem. There's no college deadlines you have to meet. The important thing is that you get the qualifications you need so that you can have a job that you really want to do and is going to keep you interested."
"Hundreds of people work behind tills."
"Hundreds of those people have kids, have other things in their life which take the priority place, and I'm not interested in any of them anyway. We're talking about you. I don't even want you to have a part time job on your hands, we've talked about this before. The money is not an issue and I want you to have all your time and energy free to put into school without it wearing you down."
"Matthew works and takes classes-"
"The only person I'm interested in here is you. What you need and what's best for you. Why do YOU need to worry about time?"
"Because I don't want to keep doing the classes!" Chris said despairingly. "I HATE doing them over and over again because I keep failing the damn things-"
"No, you're not failing." Joe interrupted. "Your professor didn't ask you to leave the class or tell you there was no point in your continuing, did he? He just said you needed more time. And the only person you and I are interested in getting through this class is you. So it doesn't matter what everyone else does."
Joseph's calm and forthright manner was finally taking it's toll on Chris and his stubborness. He was just starting to feel a bit better about school when he remembered he'd dropped completely out of college. He knew he couldn't finish up the classes he was in, which meant incompletes and he'd have to take the entire semester again to straighten out his record.
Joseph watched Chris's face as Chris ran through all of that, and when it looked like Chris was about to panic, he put a stop to it.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked gently.
"I quit," Chris said desparingly. "I'll have to take -"
"Let's not borrow worry, okay? It's only been a few days and it takes forever for the school to process paperwork. It's so close to the end of the semester that they've probably not done anything with the paperwork. We'll go down there first thing tomorrow, together, and see what we can do to salvage this semester. If there isn't anything we can do, then we'll just have to deal with that then. In the meantime, no worrying," Joseph said, rustling his partner's hair.
Chris laid his head back down on Joseph's stomach and curled up. His backside was still aching pretty good, but the calmness of Joseph had worked it's way into his system, and within a few moments he had dropped into an exhausted sleep.
Joseph laid there until he was sure that Chris was resting deeply, then moved out from under him, placing a pillow where his stomach had been. It was still going to be a long process to get through this problem, but at least they were moving forward. Not wanting to disturb Chris, or move too far away, he went into the office and picked up the phone in there, dialling Matthew and Rolf's home number. The machine clicked on after a few rings in Matthew's less than serious message. Clearly Rolf hadn't used the machine in a while.
"Hi, it's Joe. I'm just ringing to say thankyou to you both, Chris and I managed to get things straightened out. Matthew, I'd appreciate it if you could give me a ring if you have time this evening, I'd like to ask you about college procedures and rules about completion. Thanks."
He hung up, hopeful that Matthew, after several years of juggling classes and work, might have more ideas on how to salvage Chris's semester, and checked again on Chris before he took some of the stack of work on his desk into their bedroom, settling in the chair there.
The re opening of Stephen's bar involved a private party of about 200 people, spilling from the resteraunt and bar into the garden attached, and containing the staff, staff's family and friends, business associates and various others as well as Stephen and Todd's personal friends. Michael and Matthew, who had escaped to the garden as the coolest place available, and were parked on the top of the wall, with drinks, saw Joe's car pull up on the verge by the bar and Chris, slowly and unwillingly get out with Joe. Joe waited, taking his hand before they headed into the crush of the bar. Michael glanced across at Matthew, well aware from Matthew's expression what was going on in his head, even before Matthew slid down from the wall. Without asking, Michael knew where he was headed and quietly went after him. He'd heard enough from Todd to have an idea of what had gone on- he and Todd had been slightly shocked at Matthew having turned Chris in as he did- but also sympathetic. In his position, they would have faced an equally hard decision. Matthew located Rolf in a group on the far side of the resteraunt and began the long job of manoevering through the crush to him.
Joseph found Stephen near the front door and hugged him hard, congratulating him on a job well done. Stephen quickly pushed drinks into his and Chris's hands, pointing out the buffet and to get something to eat before they did anything else. Joseph had to gently push Chris forward to get him to say anything at all to Stephen. When Chris finally managed to congratulate Steve, Joseph towed him in the direction of Rolf.
"Let's say hi to our friends, then we'll get something to eat."
"I'm hungry now," Chris tried, trying to hang back.
"You owe Matthew a thankyou for helping us find the right people to talk to to get school straightened out. Walk with me, please," Joseph said sternly.
Chris knew that's what was going to happen, but still didn't want to see Matthew. He wasn't sure exactly how he felt about his friend, but he knew happy wasn't it.
Matthew, already half behind Rolf, saw who was headed towards them and made a more determined attempt to get right behind him. Rolf glanced around, took in Chris and Joe, and calmly put a casual arm around Matthew's shoulders, preventing him getting out of sight.
"Hi there." Joe smiled at Matthew, who flushed and more or less managed a twitch of his lips before his eyes hit the floor.
"We wanted to thank you for putting us in touch with the bursar. She managed to sort out most of Chris's paperwork on the spot yesterday." Joe went on cheerfully. "Doesn't look like there'll be any problems at all."
Matthew mumbled something about good and being glad and nearly fainted with relief when Rolf took over, changing the subject swiftly enough to prevent his death by embarrassment. He didn't dare look at Chris. Keeping his eyes fixed firmly on the floor, he buried himself in his drink and tried to cool his flaming face.
Chris, just as miserable and trapped in Joseph's powerful grip on his hand, stared just as hard at the wall and tried with all his strength to keep his temper. Not that he was particularly mad at anyone- himself probably the most- but it was HARD to be here and know how much trouble he was in, how awful the last few days had been, and that the impetus of that had come from Matthew. It still tasted of betrayal. This was probably his only foray outside of the house for anything other than school, and he'd far preferred it if he didn't even have to be here in the first place.
Joseph talked to Rolf for a moment, then spotted Eric sitting down, Michael now beside him.
"It was nice to see you again, Rolf, Matthew. I think Chris and I will get something to eat."
"The ribs are particularly good," Rolf said by way of goodbye.
Chris followed Joe over to the buffet table and picked at the buffet, barely getting enough on his plate to be called dinner. He followed Joseph over to the table, not seeing Michael and Eric until the last moment, and wishing to go anywhere else.
Joe pulled out a chair and waited for Chris to seat himself. Chris went to the other chair to be between Eric and Joe, instead of beside Michael. Joseph put his plate down in front of his seat.
"How are you two doing?"
"Just fine, and yourself?" Eric replied, shaking Joe's outstretched hand.
"Good, particularly now with a full plate," Joseph said as he pulled his chair forward. "Rolf recommended the ribs. It looks like I was lucky to get some," Joseph joked, looking at Michael's plate.
"I think he's planning on hibernating for the next three months," Eric said, smiling at Michael.
"You canna do rubb," Michael said with a mouthful of meat.
"If you mean I can't cook ribs like this, you're right," Eric said, taking a bite of his own.
"I think it's monster-sized covered smoking grill he has here, what do you think?" Joseph said before taking a bite of his own.
"I think you're right." Eric gave Chris a rather gentle glance, well aware he looked far from happy, and equally well aware why.
"Not hungry Chris?"
Chris shook his head, shrugging awkwardly. Joe glanced up and gave him a gentle push at the table.
"Get yourself some of the ribs."
"Get some anyway." Joe said mildly.
Chris, knowing that tone, swallowed on misery and exasperation, and headed very slowly for the table.
He was actually seriously grounded. VERY seriously grounded. In fact his life at the moment consisted of Joe and very little else- which actually, if they were at home, he didn't mind as much as he thought he probably ought to. Right now, Joe very close and very clear on what was happening was deeply reassuring after the last few weeks of feeling everything was out of control. But tonight, Joe insisted that they support Todd and Stephen, and that he faced Matthew and Rolf.
Chris cast a surreptitious glance around, still more upset at the reminder.
Rolf was easy to spot since he towered over almost everyone else. Matthew however wasn't with him. Chris turned slowly, and nearly knocked the buffet table over when he found Matthew behind him, rib in hand, doing his best to sneak away unseen.
They stared at each other for nearly a minute, Matthew flushing steadily more darkly while Chris got steadily whiter. And swallowed a lot.
"Hi." Matthew said eventually.
Chris took a deep breath, with no handle at all on what he was feeling or what he wanted to say. Then he picked up a spoonful of shrimp and hurled it straight at Matthew's head.