Saturday, February 6, 2010

Ringing in the New Year



Title: Ringing in the New Year
Authors: Rolf and Ranger

The stadium was filling up with fans almost as fast as Val was filling up with coke. Luke McNeil ended his call to the security guards on the door and realised with exasperation that someone had given the hottest pop star in the UK yet another bottle. Which would add to the three he'd already confiscated so far this evening. Val and sugar was a bad enough combination. Val, stressed, hyper and with pre performance nerves needed no added stimulants whatsoever. The bodyguard pocketed his phone and quickly walked over to Val. "Hand it over," he said, holding out his hand.

Val's eyes instantly took on all the appeal and innocence of Bambi in the forest.

"What?"

"The bottle. You should be drinking water, not this slop right before a concert. Now." he finished, ignoring the eyes.

"Luuuu--"

Luke took the bottle from his hands and replaced it with bottled water. He looked around to be certain of no eavesdroppers. "That is the last bottle I'd better see in that hand or we can go someplace private for the next discussion. Clear?"

Val huffed in frustration, but knew that was the final word. "Yeah," he muttered, stalking off with his water over to the dancers crowded around the backstage radio.

"What's up?" one of the dancers muttered, glancing from Val's scowl to the face of the big, dark bodyguard who usually skulked back stage whenever Val was around. Val pulled a face. "The gorilla doesn't believe in coke before a show."

"Want some of mine?"

"I'd give ANYTHING for a bottle."

Val's huge blue eyes took on an angelic warmth that was irresistible. The boy swallowed and looked again at the bodyguard, who shook his head very firmly. "No."

"Seems he's still watching you closely," the boy muttered under his breath.

Val turned around and scowled at his bodyguard again. Realizing he wasn't going to get help with him anywhere in the vicinity, Val walked farther away, towards a bench. He sat down but was back up again in two minutes. He was a jangled bunch of nerves at the moment, with the warm up band finished and less than fifteen minutes to showtime. Luke drifted closer out of sight of dancers, band, technicians and over excited teenaged stage hands, and let his own hands settle on Val's shoulders, rubbing out the knots.

"Why don't you sit down and try to calm down?"

"Times like this I wish I smoked." Val said under his breath.

Luke smiled but didn't answer. A minute later Val slipped away from him, too tense to stand still, and continued to pace. Luke stood, arms folded, propping up the wall. The dancer came over to Val, water bottle in his hand.

"You forgot this."

"I don't want any wat--" Val stopped when the dancer pushed it closer to him and Val realized it had coke in it, not water. He thanked the dancer by giving him one of his award winning smiles and a quiet "Thanks." He took several large gulps of it, certain that even though it wasn't obviously coke, that Luke's radar would go off and he'd lose his fifth try at a full bottle of coke.

Luke had an eye through the open stage door at the crowd assembling and the noise of chatter becoming deafening beyond the stage. Used to judging the mood quickly and accurately after months of touring, he thought this lot seemed unusually restless. Val had attracted the usual screams and shouts as he drove through the gates a few hours earlier- Orion and Luke no longer let him walk through the crowds of sign autographs, it was no longer safe to go near the crowd without more than just one bodyguard handy. Even if that bodyguard was Luke. And it was getting close to Christmas; the crowds were excited and drinking more than usual. Luke keyed his radio and checked in with the rest of the security team. It was his usual last minute check of all available eyes, the last chance he had of canceling or delaying a show if he felt the situation warranted it. All security checks came back clear, leaving him with no tangible evidence of any problems. He again looked out at the crowd who continued to appear restless, but not enough that Luke thought he could call off the concert. He headed over to Val.

"Security checks all clear. Ready to knock 'em dead?"

"Yeah," was all Val could manage. He was always at the extreme limit at this particular time.
Luke keyed his radio and alerted the stage manager that security was a go, the last check in before the lights were dimmed. Thirty seconds later the lights were lowered and the crowd went wild. Luke always laughed to himself about the crowd yelling when the lights went out, wondering silently if they screamed at home when they went out. He rubbed Val's shoulders and then took up his usual place of residence in the wings, with a view of the stage and the first few rows of the crowd. He watched as the band took their places and got ready for the first quiet notes. A single guitar started to play in the dark, the crowd going wild with excitement and anticipation, waiting for the star to make his appearance on the stage. Val walked silently onto the hydraulic stage and Luke could see his shoulders clenched, his arms tightly folded as he waited for the stage to move up and forward. Luke absently took a mouthful of water from Val's forgotten water bottle and choked as coke fizzed up his nose. A boding look cast at the back of the superstar's head was drowned out by a yell from the crowd as Val began to sing the opening lines of one of his hit songs. Luke frowned a little. The usual response to this opening was a deathly hush. Tonight people were chanting almost until the lights came up and the hydraulic staging showed them Val, glistening in white and raised high above the crowd. Then the scream drowned out the beginning of the chorus. From the other side of the stage, Howard caught Luke's eye and pulled a face. Luke could have agreed happily. Eight months ago, the concerts had been packed, but Val had been pulling mostly young teenagers. Now, as his fame grew and the publicity monster rolled and rolled, he was pulling the older crowds, adults, and the crowds were growing steadily rowdier and harder to manage than the thirteen and fourteen year olds had ever been.

Halfway through the opening number the crowd finally quieted the yelling, though everyone present had to be singing along. Luke was always continually amazed by that response.
Val finished up that number and rolled directly into two more songs before stopping to talk to the crowd. His singing was always interspersed with talking, as Orion knew how wonderful a spokesman Val could be. Val could hardly get out his hello to this venue before the screaming began again.

"Noisy bloody lot." Scott said into Luke's ear through the RT. "Luke there's some scuffling up here at the back. The police are handling it now."

"Bad?"

"Not SO bad. They're restless this lot tonight...." Scott trailed off. Luke watched Val pause and hold the mike out to some kids singing a line from one of his songs.

"This is going to be a short performance. The way they're going they'll have him exhausted inside an hour."

Scott snorted. "Now are you going to tell him or shall I?"

Luke smiled in the darkness of the stage wings. He would have taken his eyes off Val to see what was going on in the back, but knew the spotlights would make the rear of the venue impossible to see.

Val had settled down and was in his element. He launched into one of his more energetic numbers and bounded around the stage, dancing with the guitarists and consorting with the drummer, which the crowd always loved. He followed that up with two more fast songs, then a slow one. For the slow song, the lights were lowered and centered on Val and the pianist. Val had taken a seat on the edge of one of the stage projections. It wasn't near the edge as Luke never  allowed that, but was instead just back from center stage. Sometimes during this particular song, Val would stop singing and hold the mike out, indicating to the crowd to pick it up louder, which they always did. As the lights went out at the end of the song, Val prepared to stand up and talk. Within a few seconds he realised the crowd wasn't going to settle enough for him to do it. Luke pulled his shoulders up off the wall and watched, aware from the note of Val's voice, he was beginning to be concerned. Scott's voice once more quietly notified him of the police intervening in a scuffle at the back of the arena. Val tried a few wolf whistles into the mike, which only raised whistles back. Luke moved closer to the edge of the wings, worried, but Val was never at a loss for what to do with a crowd. Luke saw his discreet signal to the band and they moved off the agreed programme and into a few quieter, familiar numbers usually used in the second half. Val had used them before to calm an audience down; usually he could play them like an orchestra, but even after a few minutes when the sound level came down, Luke was aware they were still unsettled. Raking the crowd he was aware of waves of movement. Some of the younger fans were down the front- young teenagers, a few starting to look a little scared at the noise and the pushing and shoving going on around them.  Val moved forward, a little further forward than Luke usually allowed, and it had it's usual effect- the crowd at the front did still a little, but those at the back grew noisier and the movement increased with people struggling to get closer. Howard, on the other side of the stage, spoke into the RT, voice sharp.

"Boss. There's a struggle going on at the side here- a crush. The police are trying to get in and break it up."

"Fight?" Luke snapped.

"No- just too many people shoving- the police just called for back up."

Luke stepped forward into Val's line of vision and waited to catch his eye. Val must be well aware of the situation: he noticed almost at once and looked straight at Luke as though he'd been waiting.  Luke gave him the single sign that meant 'end and get off stage'. Val gave him a slight nod and signaled to the band to wind up the song. Val walked to front, center stage to finish the song. On the last note, the lights went out and everyone but the drummer and Val ran off the stage. The lights came back up slightly, allowing the police the light they needed to see. Val waved at the crowd as the drummer played solo, and blew kisses as he slowly exited to the left, towards Luke. The crowd realized that Val was leaving, and they pressed forward more, trying to get a glimpse of him. The slight disturbances that had gone on in the back and on the side overflowed as people remained over-excited and now felt unfulfilled.  Val made it to Luke and stopped, turning to look at the crowd. They both stood and watched in horror as the teenagers in the front row were pushed against the stage by the enormous and boisterous crowd. Luke took firm hold of Val's hand and kept hold, turning the RT mouthpiece downwards. He felt Val pull once against him, voice rising in horror.

"Oh my God, Luke someone's going to get hurt!"

Luke tightened his grip, afraid of Val pulling away from him and diving to the rescue. Police were running down the corridors alongside the crowd and Luke could see Howard backing away from the floor, a hand on his mouthpiece.

"Luke this does NOT look good-"

The sound track of one of Val's albums started and some of the dancers began one of the interval numbers. It made no impact at all on the crowd below. The floor was now moving in waves of people, many of whom now had faces twisted in open panic. Val pulled hard on Luke's hand, watching in distress as the police moved in.

"Luke, get me a mike, let me try and calm them down!"

"I don't think you can." Luke had to pull him close and shout almost in his ear, "Let the police try but we may just have to get out of here."

"I can't do any harm trying!" Val shouted back. Luke hesitated, then keeping hold of Val, followed him onto the stage. It was too dark for anyone to see him and attention was now focused on the riot below. Val grabbed one of the band mikes, turned it up high and his beautiful, musical voice soared over the top of the shouting in a startlingly calm, easy request for people to stand still. To move back. Luke stood close to him, heart thumping at the few screams beginning to come from the pit below. The police were moving in the shadows, but it was clear they couldn't get down to the front where the real crisis was. Val's voice was having an effect, the crowd was listening, but suddenly the stage technicians were on the front of the stage itself and people were being hauled up from the floor below, kids being yanked out of the crush, the audience rapidly overflowing onto the stage. That was it. Luke hooked an arm around Val and found his ear.

"We have to get you out of here, now."

Val knew that should he balk, Luke would crucify him later. Taking unnecessary risks where his life was concerned was one of the most sacred 'rules' they had between them. Luke had determined it was unsafe, and they needed to leave. Val had nothing left to do but follow. He allowed himself to be pulled by the hand by Luke, while he looked at the stage as they quickly started to make their way out of the area. He watched in horror as a young boy was shoved off the stage by a young girl in the throes of panic. He tried to stop but Luke would hear nothing of his complaints and they were soon in the carpark and in the truck, heading for their hotel room. They passed what seemed like endless amounts of police cars as they turned out of the end of the street, as usual Luke's old, unmarked truck raising no interest. No one would assume that Val Quentin ever traveled anywhere in a beaten up truck. As three ambulances followed the police car, Val balled up in the passenger seat, starting to go numb with shock. Luke spared him an anxious glance and put a hand on his neck, stroking to try and gain his attention.

"It's allright Kitten. It'll be fine, the police will handle it."

Val could only stare straight ahead with unseeing eyes. All he could see was the terrified look of the boy as he realized the stage was no longer under his feet, and that there was no soft landing below. Somewhere deep inside, Val knew it wasn't his fault. But the shock and horror of that scene wiped out common sense, and all Val could think about was that it was himself that everyone was trying to see. Himself who had raised that dangerous excitement in the crowd. And because of that, the boy was seriously injured. He should have done something. He usually handled crowds so well. Luke wanted to stop, but felt it was better if they quickly made their way to the safety of the hotel room. He continued to try to soothe Val but could tell he was having little, if any, effect on him. From the face of the hotel manager, the concert had already made national news. Luke fended off the man's concerns, wanting nothing more than to get Val out of sight and do something about the steadily growing look of shock on his face. Val visibly flinched from the several hotel staff who rushed towards them. He was aware of Luke's hands closing on his shoulders, Luke's voice in the guard dog bark that gave clear warning to back off and leave them alone. He stumbled up the stairs where he was led and collapsed into the sofa. He heard Luke moving about behind him, the sound of the door locking, then Luke sat down and put an arm around him.

"Kitten, have a drink. It's allright."

Val took the glass, looked briefly at it's contents and handed it back.

"Luke call the police? Find out if anyone's hurt?"

"Kitten, we'll worry about that later. Here, I think you need this." Luke tried to hand the glass back to Val.

"No. I want to know if anyone is hurt!"

Luke realized that sooner or later Val was going to know anyway, so he phoned the arena and talked to Howard. "Howard? We're fine, back at the hotel room. How are things there?"

Howard sounded stressed. "Thank God, I knew you'd yank Val out of the way. The mayhem has died down some. There were several injuries, mostly minor, but they're still working on a boy who fell off the stage. He's got a badly broken leg and arm, as well as cracked ribs and they think a punctured lung."

"Anything else I need to know about?"

"Diane and the Orion machinations are in high gear, but I'm sure they'll talk to you. Nothing else here but the police reports for Orion."

"Thanks." Luke hung up the phone.

"Well?" Val said, sitting on the edge of his seat.

Luke knew the news would upset Val. He sat back down next to him and took his hands. "There were minor injuries, bumps and bruises as people were pushed and shoved."

"Yes," Val said quietly, fear building in his stomach. "but there's more."

Luke nodded his head slowly. "There wasn't anything you could do Kitten. You can--"

"Just tell me!" Val interrupted.

"A young boy. He's critically injured, but expected --"

Val jumped up from the couch. "We have to go back. I've got to see him. Luke, we have to go."

Luke stood up and caught Val, hands on his shoulders. "We aren't going back, it's too dangerous."

That was a tone and expression Val knew, and it was final. Val collapsed back into the sofa and wrapped his arms around his knees, burying his face.

"He wasn't that old. I saw him fall."

Luke crouched in front of him, stroking his hair for a minute.

"I know. But it wasn't your fault."

"How can it not be my fault? It was because of me they were there in the first place."

Luke untangled his arms and lifted his chin.

"Listen to me. It is not your fault. Did you send that crowd out of control?"

Val looked at him, huge blue eyes that turned Luke's heart over.

"You've been tightening up on security for weeks. The crowds are getting bigger. They're getting rougher. They're getting more STUPID and hysterical each time-"

"No, Kitten. It's not that bad. Yes, I've tightened up on security, but that's only being cautious, not because all of the crowds are going out of control. They are getting bigger, but that's not necessarily a bad thing."

"We've got to go to the boy." Val said quietly, nearly breaking Luke's heart.

"The doctors are doing everything they can. Our presence there would only make things more complicated- the family won't want us for a start. Not while they're still so worried. We can go tomorrow if you want, once he's settled in and comfortable. That way he can know you're there, and enjoy the visit."

Val was coherent enough that Luke's comments made perfect sense to him. He started looking around.

"Here." Luke said, as he handed him back the drink.

Val drank, slowly, choking slightly on the alcohol.

"What pushed them over the edge?" he said eventually, very quietly. "I've done a hundred concerts, I've never seen a crowd turn like that."

Luke briefly thought about debating, then shook his head, knowing this was no time to add to Val's worries.

"I don't know Kitten. That isn't our problem."

"What IS my problem then? I was the reason they gathered in the first place." Val gave him another look, his blue eyes dazed enough to tell Luke he was slipping into shock. He put a hand on Val's shoulders, rubbing deeply and gently, the other hand pushing the cup back to Val's lips.

"OUR problem is keeping you safe and well looked after, and enabling you to do your job without any additional hassles. Our job tonight was to stop, to get away as quickly and as safely as possible, and to let the experts handle the problem without hindering them. It's okay Val. You did everything right."

Val's hands started to shake. Luke gripped the cup and hooked an arm around Val, lifting him over to his lap. Val balled up in his arms, burying his head in Luke's chest. Luke held Val, comforting him as best he could. It was several minutes before Val quit his shaking and settled down, the alcohol having the sedative effects that Luke was hoping for. When Val was mostly calm, Luke placed him on the couch and covered him with a blanket.

"Give me a couple minutes, I'll be right back."

Val slid down into the couch and curled under the blanket, the kid's terror stricken face stuck in his mind.

Luke went into the bathroom and ran a steaming hot bath, filled it with calming scented oils, and went to collect Val. He undressed him on the couch and carried him into the bath, Val not reacting to much. Once in the tub, Luke took his time and gently washed Val from head to toe, the heat and gentle ministrations loosening him up visibly. Once the water began to turn cooler, Luke grabbed one of the oversized towels and dried Val off, before carrying him into bed.

Val was asleep within seconds as his head hit the pillow, stunned with shock and alcohol.

Luke pulled the covers around him and went back to the living room. Truth be told, he was not much less shaken up than Val. This had turned so nasty so fast. He was more than slightly alarmed about what this was likely to do to Val's nerve apart from anything else. Val was so highly strung, the tours ran on his nerves- he kept the whole of the rest of his team afloat. If his nerve broke...

This could mean Orion putting more pressure on Val. Terrible pressure.

Luke sat down on the couch, picked up the rest of Val's drink and finished it, trying to think about what to do.

He went to bed more for Val's sake than his own. Val slept badly enough to make him wish he'd called a doctor out to prescribe a sleeping pill. He managed to keep him from ever actually waking completely, mostly by holding him, coaxing and petting him back into quiet sleep whenever he stirred, but from the sounds he made in his sleep, he was reliving the nastier moments of the concert. About three am he woke in tears and Luke gave up and turned the light on, gathering Val deeper into his arms to rock him. It took a long time to calm him down, and when he finally settled, Luke poured a second large brandy and made Val swallow it, coaxing and bullying until it was gone. The effect was almost immediate. Val sank quickly into sleep and this time slept through until morning. Luke covered him over again at seven, turning off the alarm, and went to answer his messages.

Orion predictably, was in the middle of a panic attack.

Luke sighed and put their messages aside. He needed a strong cup of coffee before returning those calls. He started the coffee brewing and checked on Val, who was still sleeping soundly. Once the coffee was finished and half of a cup gone, he picked up the phone and called Orion.

He was put instantly through to a senior director who promptly began to give him numerous directions to repair the PR damage done last night. Luke who had neither seen a paper nor a news broadcast, fended him off with difficulty.

"WHAT are you going on about?" he interrupted bluntly in the end. "WHAT happened last night?"

"The child who was injured." The director calmed down fractionally, realising Luke genuinely didn't understand. "He collapsed in hospital with a missed head injury. Some sort of cranial bleed. Comatose now and looks like snuffing it any minute, and the minute he does Orion will start being called the child killer of the century. WHERE is Val?"

"In bed, asleep-" Luke began grimly. The man nearly detonated.

"Then get him up and downstairs immediately! He'll be giving a press statement at ten in the hotel lounge, the statement is on your fax machine. Then a car will be waiting to take him directly to the hospital where he will visit for ten minutes- showing his PRESENCE only. You are NOT to allow him to speak to the parents or to any other relative of the kid, all contact with them comes through Orion solicitors. His PA will meet him at the hotel at twelve with three appointments being set up now.."

"Right." Luke cut in, not prepared to stand another word. "MR Quentin goes nowhere in a car not driven by me or my team. Secondly he is SERIOUSLY shocked and distressed by last night's events and is not fit to go anywhere-"

"He WILL be in front of the press at ten am." the director said flatly. "Val Quentin is an Orion product, and the company is in SERIOUS danger this morning."

Luke's face began to flush as he took a moment to gather steam when he was shocked by a gentle touch on his arm. He turned quickly at the contact.

"Is that Orion?" Val asked quietly.

Luke covered the receiver and said "Yes" before immediately asking Val what he was doing up.

"I'm fine, Luke. Let me talk to them." Val held out his hand for the phone.

"Kitten, I real--"

"Please? It's MY boss." When Luke still didn't turn the phone over he said  "I'm fine, really."

Luke turned the phone over, not at all sure he wanted Val to talk to them directly.

Val took the receiver, his voice still an unnaturally low, soft tone that made Luke look hard at him in growing anxiety.

"Hello? Please tell me what you want-"

Val broke off, listening while his fingers twisted in the phone cord. Luke lifted his hands to Val's waist, folding his arms slowly around him.

"You don't have to do ANYTHING you don't want to, Val."

Val moved a hand down to grip Luke's. His fingers were freezing and he was shaking slightly.

"I'll make the statement." he said into the receiver. "But no appearances. No. I said no. Cancel the rest of this week's concerts, they won't be taking place."

Luke swallowed on that. Val had to be dying before he'd stop a concert. Val's fingers tightened on his and the usual Quentin authority surfaced in his voice.

"No. I have SOME rights in my contract. Very well Mr Walsh, I'll organise my own solicitor and make a claim that Orion stands in breach of my contract or setting me up in a venue not properly policed or controlled. Yes please do discuss that with whomever you like. I'll make A statement at ten, I won't promise to say anything on the fax. I will not be Orion's mouthpiece. Good day."

Luke took the receiver from him and stooped to kiss him briefly and very gently.

"Well handled."

Val gave a weak smile and settled into the chair that Luke had vacated, placing his head in his hands.

Luke hung up the phone and returned to the chair, settling on his knees in front of Val. He peeled the star's hands from his face and looked deep into the depths of the blue pools. What he saw shocked him.

"Kitten, tell me what you are feeling."

Val shrugged. Luke shook him gently.

"Val, talk to me?"

"What about?" Val didn't look at him.

Luke watched Val's reflection in the window, the play of emotions in his eyes. He gently placed his hands on Val's shoulders and spoke.

"I know you're upset. Did Orion tell you not to speak to the boy?"

"They're worried about their image and that's all." Val gently shrugged Luke away. "I don't want to talk about it, let's forget it."

"Kitten?" Luke said, stepping towards Val.

"I said, let's forget it!" Val escaped to the bathroom for a few minutes of privacy. Luke let him leave, not happy leaving the events buried, but he hoped that the agitation would wear off and they'd be able to discuss it.  In the mean time he thought for a few minutes, then picked up the phone and called the hotel desk, asking them to contact Val's doctor. At the very least he needed treating for shock, if not given help to get through the next few days. That done, Luke hesitated, then tapped on the bathroom door.

"Kitten?"

"What?" came the muffled reply.

"Are you going to go ahead and shower? The press conference is little more than an hour and a half away."

"Yeah." Val turned the water on, thankful for the few minutes more of privacy the shower afforded him. He knew Luke meant well, but he just couldn't face him yet.  Luke paced, not sure what to do and not happy. Finally he dressed himself in the 'press statement' type suit he kept for occasions when jeans would not do, and ordered a good sized breakfast. Val emerged, looking still whiter and still more fragile than he had when he went in. He visibly blanched at the sight of the tray the waiter brought in.

"I don't think I'll --"

"Yes, you WILL eat." Luke cut him off in mid sentence, knowing what he'd say.

"I'll be sick." Val countered.

"Then you'll go no where today. I'm certain aside from the press conference, you'd like to head towards the hospital, and NOT in an ambulance. You're not looking at all well, and you'll need your strength for the press.

"That's ridiculous." Val said frankly, calling his bluff. "You can't make me eat and I'm really not going to no matter how much you gorilla, so-"

Val found himself talking to the table as Luke took his arm, steered him across to the table and sat him down.

"Eat, Val." Luke said as he sat down opposite him. Val looked up at the set and determined face of Luke and sighed. He decided trying to eat would be less painful than not.  Once Val began eating, he realized he was famished. It ended up being Luke that had the most problem trying to clean his plate. As soon as he'd finished, Val was back at the fax machine, glancing through the pages of the statement Orion had issued. Luke had a brief look through it as they caught the elevator downstairs, handing the pages back to Val before his usual, brief and curt instructions as the doors opened.

The foyer exploded in flashing light bulbs. Val ducked instinctively behind Luke, who put an arm around him and steered him rapidly through the crowds to the conference room. The officials shut the door behind them, letting Val take the stand. Luke as usual let him go once he reached the microphones, took a couple of steps back and folded his arms, becoming part of the wallpaper.

Val started to read the prepared script. The farther along in it he got, the more upset he became at the spin Orion was trying to put on it. Finally, Val had had enough. He put down the papers and looked up at the press.  Luke sensed the change and instantly became worried. He stood up a little straighter, waiting for Val to speak. Val looked around at the press, gathering his thoughts.

"Ladies and Gentlemen I have nothing further to add to Orion's statement, except that in view of yesterday's disaster and my concerns towards the policing and management of the event, I shall be tendering my resignation this morning. There will be no further concerts or live performances. Good morning."

Luke's mouth dropped open about as far as the rest of the press. There was a moment of stunned silence, which Val used to step down off the podium. Then all hell broke loose. Luke wasn't ready for the stampede that ensued. he'd have set up a back exit had he known what Val was going to say. Instead he had to quickly grab him and barge his way through the room, and again through the lobby before escaping into the quiet confines of the elevator. He waited until the elevator had begun it's ascent, then pulled the emergency stop button. Luke stood Val at arms length, and locked onto Val's gaze.

"Kitten, was that REALLY wise?"

Val's eyes met his, frank and absolutely unreasonable.

"I don't care. They can't MAKE me work."

"Kitten you're contracted to them-"

"I'm TWENTY." Val said sharply. "They can take every damn penny I've ever made, I DON'T CARE!"

Luke took a deep breath, let him go and started the lift again. Val folded his arms tightly, a model of self  possession and fury. The corridor outside their room held three of Luke's team, keeping it empty. Luke glanced around, unlocked the door and ushered Val in, locking it again behind them. He was alarmed and upset when Val's first action on entering the flat was to drop down onto the sofa and burst into a torrent of tears.  Luke went over and sat down next to Val, pulling him close and running his fingers through his hair, pushing the blond locks out of his face. Val took several long moments to calm down, snuggling into the warm chest. He was completely confused, certain he hated Orion, but also certain he'd made a mistake he couldn't take back, having called it quits.  It wasn't three minutes later that the phone rang. Luke got up, knowing that the desk would only put through someone important. It was Diane. She sounded more than slightly upset. Luke spent several minutes trying to calm her down before Val leaned over, put the receiver down and pulled the phone out of the wall.

"I mean it." he said when Luke looked at him. "I AM leaving. There IS nothing they can do."

White faced, tearstained, a few inches away from hysteria, Luke looked at him and knew there was no point in arguing here and now. What he wanted to do was take Val and get out of here, go somewhere far enough to calm Val down and talk properly. But the hotel was surrounded and they would be at siege for some days Luke made up his mind.

"Bed."

Val met his determined gaze with one of his own. "I'm NOT going."

"Uh-huh," Luke said as he took Val by the arm again and steered him into the bedroom. Val tried to wrench free, but the grip on his arm was tighter than steel. He jumped when the other steel hand landed across his bottom. "OW!" he said, shocked and outraged.

"Please get undressed and into bed." Luke said implacably.

Val was in the middle of a loud and obnoxious reply when Luke turned without a word to answer a knock at the door.  Luke opened the door to admit the doctor.  Val took one look at him and snatched up the nearest heavy object to hand, which happened to be a book. Luke made it across the room and grabbed his wrist in time to ruin his aim. The book crashed harmlessly into the wall and Luke hooked an arm around Val's slight, furious body, pulling it tight against his.

"STOP IT. You're allright, you're going to be fine, just calm down."

"LEAVE ME ALONE!"

It was a spirited attempt to scream, but with his face buried in Luke's chest it wasn't easy. Luke picked him up and lifted him onto the bed, looking across at the doctor. He knew Val and was already hunting through his bag, unmoved and unsurprised.

"I heard the statement downstairs." he said to Luke as he sat down on the edge of the bed. Luke gave the doctor an attempted smile, but was too busy with Val to do more than that. He finally got a screaming and hysterical Val locked down enough so the doctor could lower his pants and give Val a sedative shot in the left buttock Val screamed as if he were bitten by a thousand wasps and renewed his useless struggle to break free. Two minutes later the sedative took effect and Val slipped into sleep against his will.

"Thank you." Luke said as he was finally able to release his hold on Val. "I'll be out with you in a moment," He began to undress Val and put him in something more comfortable. Once he had Val situated in the bed, he went out to the doctor.

"How long will that last?" he asked first.

"He'll be sound asleep for at least four hours, then too tired to do much for the next eight. I've got ten sleeping pills here, and if you feel he needs them, can be administered one every twelve hours. It will make him sleepy, but it won't knock him out."

Luke accepted the bottle and placed it on the table.

"Is it true? Is he seriously done with the business?" The doctor asked with a grim look on his face.

"Ask me when he's calmer and thought this through." Luke said grimly. "I shouldn't have let him come back here last night. He was in shock then. The kid was mauled right under his feet."

"Poor little brat." the doctor muttered, leaving Luke in some doubt whom he was talking about.

Luke opened the door for him, glancing at the minor fracas of two hotel security guards removing a reporter from the lift.

"I'll call you if we need you. I'm not sure how he's going to handle this."

"Leave a message with the service, they'll know how to find me." The doctor headed down the stairs, not wanting to get in the middle of the fracas. Luke closed the door, leaning against it for a few moments. Then he went back over and reconnected the phone. Thankfully Val had only pulled the cord out but not damaged anything. As soon as he got it plugged in, he was startled by a ring.

"Yes," Luke said sharply.

"Sorry to disturb you, but you've had numerous calls from Orion as well as sponsors and many other interested parties. Diane has also called again, leaving several messages." The hotel desk clerk was usually quite serene, but the amount of phone calls had flustered even her.

"Give me Diane's number, hold all other calls, thank you." Luke said brusquely.  The hotel clerk gave Luke the phone number where he could reach Diane. He dialed as soon as the clerk hung up the phone. Diane sounded as if she was in tears.

"The child's stable." she said at once, "Please tell Val. I made some discreet inquiries this morning. Luke - you don't want to see what's coming out of Orion. This is horrible, I don't know how to pass it on."

"Then don't." Luke said brusquely. "Val's ill- severe shock. His doctor just prescribed a sedative, he's sleeping and he won't be going anywhere until tomorrow at the earliest. He was in front of that crowd when they fell apart. He's said nothing against Orion, he's said nothing incriminating"

"Luke, he's threatened to walk out on them." Diane said urgently. "They're seeing millions go up in smoke here, a multi million corporation won't just let a money machine like Val walk away from them."

Luke sighed and sank into the couch. "I know. There was nothing else that could have been done other than letting him rest. I don't think Val's even sure of what he's said."

"How long will he be resting?" Diane countered.

"At least four hours, six is more like it. He'll be waking up in time for dinner."

"I know you probably want to talk to him alone, and help him figure out what he DOES want. But Orion and the press, they're only going to get more insistent the longer it is with nothing from Val. I'm going to find out what I can, from all angles, and I'll bring over dinner for the three of us, say seven?"

Luke hesitated. His instincts were to protect Val, to shut the world away from him if that was what Val wanted. Diane's voice gentled again.

"Luke. I promise, I won't say anything you don't want said. If necessary I'll just talk to you. But we have to do something. Diane was one of the few people that Luke felt completely comfortable with. She worked directly for Val, and had, on more than one occasion, helped them slip away for some much needed vacation. He managed a smile which was evident through the phone lines.

"Seven will be fine. See you then." Luke walked out into the hall and talked to his team, letting them know the situation.  He found them anxious and concerned mostly for Val, but several of them also wary about their own positions. As far as Luke could see, Val cut loose from Orion could be still more vulnerable than Val as the Orion flagship. He calmed them down as best he could and went back to Val, sitting on the edge of the bed beside him. The sedative had done it's work. Val was asleep, deeply and quietly, looking about ten years younger with the trouble and shock wiped from his face. Luke stroked his hair out of his eyes and lay down beside him, not sure what else to do now.  It was nearly four pm when Val stirred and with difficulty rolled over.

Luke turned over and pulled him close, rubbing his back.

"Hey beautiful."

"Wha's going on?" Val clung to him for a minute, then reached for the clock. "Oh God."

"The doctor gave you a sedative, Kitten. You were in shock."

Val didn't answer. Luke gently turned his chin up and found his eyes blurred and a little frightened.

"I don't remember much." he admitted. "Just talking to the conference."

"Do you remember what you said?"

"Yes." Val said softly. "And I meant it."

Luke pulled Val closer and continued to gently rub his back and shoulders. He opted not to say anything, and within another couple of minutes, Val was sleeping again. Luke got up and headed for the shower. He needed something to clear his head before Diane arrived and a boiling hot shower sounded like a good plan. He emerged ten minutes later refreshed, though not any less confused and worried.  He checked briefly on Val, made sure he was comfortable and still fast asleep, and went out to answer the door in reply to the soft double knock.  Diane looked harassed, and her arms were full of files. Luke took some from her and closed the door. Diane dumped the rest on the sofa.

"Half the national press is out there. Where's Val?"

"Asleep. He isn't well." Luke said shortly. Diane gave him a look of sympathy and took a seat on the edge of the sofa.

"Orion demand a meeting with him within 24 hours. I CAN go as his representative if necessary."

"I would love to say yes, but I think Val would disagree with that. As much as I'd like to protect him, he's the one who needs to make this decision."

"I agree," Diane said. "That's why I brought all this here. It's copies of all of his current contracts with Orion and with the current advertising sponsors. He needs to be aware of what his obligations are to each."

Luke shook his head, looking at the volume of files. If Val was certain he was leaving, there was a LOT they needed to do. Diane spoke gently. "I think Val will need his own attorney, one that should be present for ANY meetings about ending his career with Orion."

Luke nodded in agreement. "I've been trying to not think that far ahead. Guess I need to."

Diane glanced through the papers and then up at Luke, eyes a little alarmed.

"Is he serious? Really serious? This is going to be NASTY Luke."

"I don't know." Luke said grimly.

Diane shook her head. "They can't ruin him. Val's a public figure in his own right. But they'll take him for every penny they can get, and they'll tie him up in knots- they'll stick a hundred legal regulations on him about what he can do- it's going to take months."

Luke glanced through the papers. "But if he WANTS to go-"

"There are people on his side. Us for a start." Diane gave Luke a brief glance of  deep sympathy.

"But I think he has to be sure. REALLY sure."

"I agree. Thanks," Luke said, meaning it.

Diane buried herself back in the files, while Luke consulted his phone records and dialed the number of the attorney that Quentin senior had given him several years ago. Luke's call went through immediately.

"Mr. McNeil, what can I do for you?

Luke took a deep breath and explained in a nutshell what was happening. Mr. Robertson assured Luke he'd be there within two hours and hung up. He had his secretary clear his calendar for the next two days and was quickly out of the office and on the way to the hotel. Diane and Luke were deep into the files fifteen minutes later and didn't hear Val pad softly into the room.

"What's all this?" Val said unsteadily, looking at the files. Luke put the file down he was holding and got up, holding out his hands.

"It's okay kitten, Diane came to talk about the legalities. Go and put a sweater on, you'll freeze."

"I'll order a meal if you're awake." Diane gave Val a quick smile and leaned over for the phone.

"What do you want sweetheart?"

"Just ask for anything you feel like." Luke said when Val didn't answer and guided Val into the bedroom.

Val sat on the end of the bed, watching Luke find his clothes.

"What is she really here for?"

"Orion are going round the twist." Luke said bluntly. "Kitten listen to me. If you want out of Orion, we can do it. It's going to be hard, but we can do it. But you have to be sure"

Val didn't answer. Luke sat down beside him. "Val?"

Val shook his head. "I don't know."

"Not at all?"

"I don't know." Val turned his head against Luke's shoulder. "I don't want to do any more live performances. I don't know I want out of Orion altogether."

"Kitten, we don't have to make the decision quickly. I did contact the attorney that helped you when you got into this business. He'll be here in another hour or so. We'll talk to him, make sure Orion doesn't pressure you, and we'll figure this thing out together, alright?"

Val looked gratefully into Luke's eyes. As much as he declared to dislike Luke and all his rules and regulations, he really did love his Gorilla. Luke tousled Val's hair, thinking things over.

"Do you want to negotiate with Orion or do you need some thinking time Kitten? I know you don't want to talk about this now, but we have to- otherwise you're going to find yourself in the middle of a legal fight without even knowing what you're fighting FOR. If you want time, the lawyer can buy that for you."

Val nodded slowly. "I don't want to do live performances."

"But you'd do anything else. Recordings. Albums."

"No concerts. No tours."

Luke thought privately Orion would refuse to accept those terms but didn't say it. Instead he got up and held out a hand to Val.

"Come and eat with us. Lets talk this over."

Val stood up a bit unsteadily. Luke was there to steady him and they walked back out to join Diane. She was just hanging up the phone and couldn't resist holding out her arms in welcome. Val smiled and hugged Diane back.

"You're the best, you know?" He whispered into her ear.

"Thanks, love. How are you?"

She stood back to look at Val's face, finding it tired and drawn, but not dangerously so.

"I'll be fine. These drugs, they knock me for a loop. It'll be days before I can think clearly." Val winked at Diane.

Luke sat down and plated up a meal from the tray which he put into Val's hands and they ate quietly while Diane went over the data she had. By the time she left, Val at least knew his options and his restrictions. Whether he was listening and whether he cared was another matter. Luke looked at him anxiously as he and Diane said goodbye. Val was barely twenty. Not old enough to understand the legal traps he was in, not able to see much beyond the tremendous emotional energies that ruled him, for the good or for the bad.

So far he'd made no mention of the concert. Not to ask about the child hurt, not to ask what had happened or why. He was acting as though he'd made a completely academic career move based only on his own decisions. And that worried Luke.  Val was leafing aimlessly through the files when a knock was heard at the door. Luke got up and admitted Mr. Robertson.

"Thank you for coming so soon," Luke said, shaking hands.

"Not a problem, Mr. McNeil. Mr. Quentin is a dear friend of mine and I'll do anything to help him." He spied Val and walked over, holding out his hand. "Nice to see you again Mr. Quentin, it's been a long time."

"Val, please," he said, shaking the proffered hand.

"Val, then. You've had quite a few busy years since the last time we talked."

Val gave him a wry shrug. "Not sure I've got any more idea of what I'm doing now than I did then."

"Well I'm here to talk over your options." Robertson said calmly. "I take it your PA has covered your contractual obligations?"

They sat and listened to legal jargon until Luke saw Val's eyes start to glaze over. Then he quietly got up and held out a hand to Robertson.

"Thank you sir, for coming so quickly. There is a room reserved here for you, the key is over on the table. I'd like to get Val in bed, he's had an exhausting day."

Mr. Robertson took the not so subtle hint and stood, shaking hands with Luke. "I'll call in the morning, after I've had a preliminary meeting with Orion, and let you know where we go from here."

He turned and made his way to the door, snagging the key on his way past the table. He turned as he opened the door.

"Take care Val, we'll get through this with minimal trouble."

Val waved in reply, not even hearing what he said.  Luke waited until the door shut, took the entire heap of files and shut them away in the hall way cupboard. Val looked at him, slightly surprised.

"Aren't we supposed to be reading those?"

"Not now we're not, no." Luke came back to him, turned him around and laced his fingers in the small of Val's back.

"Right now you're going to have a mug of tea, another of those pills the doctor left you and an early night. Tomorrow's going to be just as hard."

Val was too tired to argue. He allowed himself to be led to a chair, and a few minutes later a cup of hot tea was placed in his hands. He closed them gratefully around the warm cup and inhaled the steam, before sipping slowly.

Luke gave him no more than two minutes before he glanced at his watch. "Come on Val, get that down. Bed."

"It's hot."

"Blow on it." Luke sat down on the arm of his chair and handed him two pills. Val looked at the for a minute. Luke clicked at him.

"No arguments. Come on."

Val picked them out of his hand. And let them slip down his sleeve while he pretended to swallow them.

Val finished off the tea and was quickly escorted towards the bathroom to brush his teeth.  When Luke left to turn the bed down, Val let the tablets slide out and down the sink.  He finished brushing his teeth and went into the bedroom.

"Clothes off," Luke indicated with a wave of his hand.

"I think I can handle this."  Val started to undress slowly.

Luke stripped and sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for him to undress.

"Warm enough?"

"Fine. Just too early to sleep." Val sat down beside him and reached for a book. Luke pulled it out of his hand.

"Go to sleep."

"Luuuuke-"

Luke snapped the light off and pulled him flat, holding him too tight to let him fidget. Val was locked in Luke's embrace with no where to go.  He fought against sleep, but before too long, he fell into a restless doze.

Luke stayed with Val, waiting for the deep sleep that the drugs should have induced.  When Val remained restless, Luke realized that he was somehow fooled again.  He stood up, immediately awakening Val.

"Whazzzzup?"  Val murmured.

Luke sharpened his voice.  "Did you, or did you not take those sleeping pills?"

"No, don't neeeeeeed."  Val was caught somewhere between asleep and awake, which was one of the few times he told the truth always. Luke sighed, got up and got two more pills and a glass of water.

"Open."

"Luuuke-"

"Open NOW if you want to sleep on your back tonight." Luke said bluntly. Val shut up and opened his mouth. Luke put both pills on his tongue, handed him the water and opened his mouth to check both were gone when he swallowed.

"Gorilla." Val mumbled.

"Brat," Luke said gently.

It was twenty minutes later before he knew that Val was deeply asleep.  Luke got up and went back into the living room and pulled out a few more files.  He was too wound up himself to sleep. The phone woke him on the sofa at seven am. It was Robertson, sounding tired and grim.

"Luke it's me. I've been negotiating about half the night. Orion have decided nothing and they won't allow Val an inch. They'll cancel his engagements for the rest of this week on the grounds of shock, but he HAS to continue recording the current album, and they've brought the deadline forward. They insist he turns out today and records at least another two songs as proof of goodwill towards the company."

"Oh God." Luke said grimly.

Robertson sounded wry. "I think it's the very least they'll let him do. If he does the recording they might calm down a little. If he doesn't, they will definitely proceed with legal action this morning. Which we DO want to avoid."

"I'm not sure he'll be fit for recording, but I can get him to the studio.  It's what comes after that that worries me."

"If he at least shows up and seems to make an effort, then it will probably keep Orion at bay, or at least give me more room to maneuver.  He's one of, if not the biggest star they have.  They're fighting nasty."

"Thanks for the update.  We'll plan on getting there by eleven."  Luke hung up the phone and immediately got up.  He took two aspirin before the headache that was just beginning became worse, as he knew it would.  He checked on Val, who was still sound asleep and looking angelic, unaware of the pressures about to be inflicted on him. Then he set about organising the recording. Val awoke at eight, groggy and for a moment uncertain of where he was. Casual clothes were laid out on the bed and Luke was putting breakfast tray down on the bedside table.

"Robertson phoned. Orion have asked you to carry on with the album recording. Get two more songs down as a good will gesture. There's a car coming at nine."

Val stared at him in blunt outrage. Luke put the tray down on his knees.

"We HAVE to do this day's work what ever else we decide."

"Orion can't make me do anything!"  Val spluttered.

"Your name is on the dotted line.  Kitten, whether you like it or not, this is a business obligation.  Some people pledge to put in 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.  You signed a contract saying you'd record this album, and it's got to be done.  If you don't, Orion can and will get more nasty in their demands.  If you show up and handle these two songs, Orion will accept that you're co operative, and cancel all other engagements.  That will give you the time you need to figure out exactly what it is that you DO want to do."

Val looked at the plate in his lap and mulled that over.

Luke had a point. More over and more strongly, Val knew Luke's tone. That was the implacable one. The one that meant whatever happened between now and nine o clock, they would end up in the recording studio just as Luke said. He picked up a fork and stirred scrambled eggs, thinking over his options. Part of him wanted to throw the plate, scream, protest, refuse. Luke was still laying out clothes, dressing himself. Val put the plate aside and slid out of bed. Ok. They could make him go to the studio. Mr Gorilla could insist that far. What they couldn't do was make him open his mouth and sing.

"Val?  Breakfast."  Luke turned and pointed back to the bed.

"I will, I need to go to the bathroom."  He headed in and returned a few minutes later, picked up his plate and polished off breakfast, colour rapidly returning to his face.

Luke was slightly surprised at how easily Val was agreeing to the day's events.  He figured either the drugs were still keeping him tame, or he actually realized it made sense.  They were ready to go when the phone rang, signaling the arrival of the car. Val moved silently ahead of Luke towards the car, ignoring his bodyguard. Luke shut the door behind them, shaking his head. He knew this mood and it rarely meant a peaceful morning.

The recording studio was barely twenty miles away. Val acknowledged Luke enough to put his head down on Luke's shoulder and doze most of the way there, oblivious to the driver who was one of Luke's team. The vans of the band were in the car park and the band themselves were standing in the corridor, warily drinking coffee. They weren't quite prepared for having to be there that day either, and knowing Val's temperament and hearing the rumors, they were all ill at ease.  Val barely acknowledged anyone, going instead directly to the studio office to talk to the manager.  Luke took his usual seat in the control room, waiting for everyone to assemble. Val got his instructions from the manager on what songs they were going to work on, got the music sheets and headed into the studio.  He spotted one Orion official already ensconced in the control room and gave him a more than slightly sarcastic thumbs up.  Luke inhaled sharply, realizing quickly that Val was indeed going to be a handful. The band quickly got into position, also with music sheets.  There was very little of the normal talking and joking around.  Val stood looking thoroughly bored until the recording manager signaled that he was ready.

The intro played for the first song. Val fiddled with his head phones, watching the conductor until he was signaled to begin.

Then he slipped the headphones off and shook his head at the band.

"That's the wrong key and the wrong speed."

The band exchanged glances. Luke sat down, leaned his chin on his hands and wondered how long the director would cope before he had to intervene. The director patiently began to adjust the key and the drummer obediently handed Val a metronome. Once everyone was ready to begin and he was signaled, Val started.  He got three lines into the song and coughed.
"Oh...sorry.  Dry throat.  I could use a drink?"

The director pointed to an assistant who immediately got a water from the refrigerator and delivered it to Val. Val opened it and took a long swallow, then without missing a beat coughed again, coating the glass between them and the director with a flood of water.  He snickered to himself as the Orion official jumped back in surprise. The director sent the assistant in to wipe the glass clean as the band sat in nervous silence and Val worked on shredding a piece of paper into a million pieces.  Five minutes later, they were set to begin. Val slid his earphones into place and adjusted his microphone as the intro began again. The mike promptly screamed and Val backed away, wrenching the earphones off.

"SHIT are you TRYING to deafen me? I WON'T work with shoddy equipment, where are the technicians for pete's sake?"

"Here Val-" the director said soothingly, "If you don't move the mike it'll be-"

"I NEED to move to work! I'm NOT a robot. When you're ready to act like damned professionals and work with me, I'll be in the hall!"

Val perfected his exit with a sweeping out and timed the slammed door to perfection. Luke slid out of the room after him and caught him in the hallway.

"Just a minute young man."  Luke growled forcefully into Val's ear as he took him by the arm and walked him into a quiet office and shut the door.

"What is wrong with you?"  Val spat, trying to get his arm free.

"The question is, what is wrong with you?"  Luke kept a firm grip on Val's arm, steering him around to face him.

"I'm trying to work, and they're taking up MY time because of their shoddy equipment!"  Val nearly screamed.

Luke took Val by the arms, set him up on the edge of the desk and got up close to his face.  His eyes were boring into Val's.

"You are acting like a three year old and it will NOT be tolerated one minute more.  You have a job to do, and I expect you to walk out of here and do it.  Without complaint, without anger, without a temper tantrum.  Unless, of course, you want to come back in here for a more in depth discussion that won't be nearly as private as you'd wish.  Do I make myself clear?"

Val glared back at him, blue eyes furious.

Luke held his gaze, refusing to let him look away. "I mean it. No shouting, no complaining, no tantrums. Clear?"

"Crystal." Val said sardonically. Luke lifted him down to the floor and swatted him, hard.

"Then get yourself back in that studio and behave like a professional yourself. Move."

Val stormed ahead of him towards the studio, not especially subdued. If shouting was banned, there were plenty of other options. Casting Luke a fulminating look under his eyelashes, he apologised at great length and with effortless charm to the director, the producer, the conductor, the entire band, all the technicians and a tea girl who happened to get into his line of sight. It was nearly lunchtime by the time they were ready for another take.

The director signaled Val and the band began the intro. Val began what was going to be a great take when the drummer broke a stick. The director just shook his head and said "Hour for lunch, we'll try again at one on the dot. Thanks."

Val took off his headphones and snickered to himself. He couldn't have planned that any
better. He met Luke in the hall.

"Let's go get a pizza."

"No, we're going into the dressing room where YOU are going to lie down until lunch comes." Luke said quietly and sternly. "Move. I am not happy with you."

"I didn't do anything!" Val protested. Luke pushed him discreetly down the corridor, into the dressing room and locked the door behind them. And pointed to the sofa, waiting.

"I'm HUNGRY."

"Lie down, NOW." Luke growled. Val took another look into the set face of Luke, and decided he'd at least sit on the couch. "Now can I have something to eat?"

Luke crossed his arms.

"One..."

"How about now?"

"TWO....."

"Fine. If I faint from starvation, it's all YOUR fault." Val flopped back down on the sofa and turned his gaze to the ceiling. Luke was surprised that holes weren't being burned above, as Val's stare was that hot.

"Two songs that you've practiced as much as you have shouldn't take that long to do. Two hours, TOPS. We'll eat when you're finished."

"LUKE!" Val said in total outrage. Luke glanced around at a knock on the door.

"Mr McNeil? Lunch is here-"

"Mr Quentin isn't hungry." Luke called back before Val could respond. Val, half way up on the sofa got all the way to his feet, nearly bouncing with rage.

"THIS IS NOT FAIR!"

Luke clicked his fingers and pointed at the sofa. Val stared at him. Luke took one unhurried step in his direction. Val collapsed on the sofa, snarling with outrage.

"GORILLA!"

As soon as the door closed, Luke turned his full attention to Val. He nailed Val's hot gaze with one of ice cold determination. "You have two seconds to lie back down. If I hear one word, or you make one movement to get up before I tell you, I'll make sure you won't sit comfortably for some time to come. I've had enough of you today. Lie down."

Val realized Luke meant business. He threw himself back on the sofa, steam rising from his ears.  Luke took the chair by the window, put his ankles crossed on the sill and settled down to wait. Val lay silently for about ten minutes in a state of Deep Sulk. Then a tentative voice rose from the sofa.

"Luuuuke..."

"I said QUIET." Luke said sharply.

Val huffed, loudly, but didn't try any further. Luke watched the band outside. One of them was doing a Val impression and doing it rather well.  Luke was certain that Val would fall asleep at some point, but Val was intent on holding onto his anger and managed to sulk and fume enough to keep him awake. It seemed like forever, but Luke finally said "Let's go."

"I'm not finished resting." Val said on principle.

Luke didn't waste his breath, just tugged Val upright by his arm and swatted him twice.

"Two songs, let's get it done."

He opened the door and followed Val into the hallway. Luke took his usual seat and Val entered the studio where the band was waiting. The director signaled go within five minutes and they had the first track finished on the first take of the afternoon.

"Great job!" The director said in relief, beginning to cheer up. "That one is a cut. Five minutes for a drink, then we'll start on the second track."

"Thank you." Luke muttered to Val as Val went past him to the editing suite. Val ignored him. Luke smiled a little grimly and didn't respond. If Val wanted to sulk, fair enough. So long as he sang. A minute later a yell of dismay from the editing suite brought him at a run. Val was apologising profusely, and the remains of a coffee was being mopped from a highly expensive editing desk.

The technician had to shut the desk down while the cleanup was in progress. When Val spotted Luke, he asked with the proper amount of concern, "Is the track we just ran alright? I didn't ruin it did I?"

"The track should be fine," the technician said reassuringly, " but I don't think we can use this today. We need to take the top off and make sure the liquid is cleaned up from inside."

He picked up the phone and relayed that to the director.  Val choked back a large smile, then turned and brushed past Luke to the control room, where the director was cancelling the rest of the afternoon due to technical difficulties.

"Francis, I'm so sorry- a whole morning's work ruined, I could kick myself!"

"That's okay, we have one on tape." the director said bravely. "Half the work done for the day. Thanks for coming in Val."

Val grinned and gave Luke a simple bow. "Where to now Maestro?"

Luke dropped a hand on his shoulder and steered him outside to the van. "What are you so happy about, Quentin?"

"Happy?" Val said cheerfully. "it's not MY fault, the coffee just fell-"

"QUENTIN." Luke said sharply. Val jumped and scowled.

"It wasn't a take they could use anyway."

"WHY?"

Val slammed his door and waited for Luke to get in. "It was in the wrong key. The backing singers won't be able to dub to it."

"Uh-huh." Luke said nonchalantly. "Then I guess we'll be headed back to the hotel."

"Back to the hotel? What about lunch? I'm STARVED!"

"We have something to discuss first. Then we'll have lunch in the room."

Luke proceeded to drive out of the parking lot for the studio.

"Discuss? What are --"

The realization hit Val that Luke was upset.

"Luke?"

"Yes, Val?"

"Do you think I did that on purpose?" He ventured quietly, trying to gauge the upcoming 'discussion'.

"I'm not even going to debate that with you Val." Luke said simply. "I have more respect for your intelligence."

"LUKE you can't seriously think-" Val began. Luke turned and looked at him. Val slid down in his seat.

"I'm SO hungry." he said plaintively as they neared the hotel. Luke took no notice. Just parked in the hotel carpark, got out and held out a hand. "Come on Val please."

Val briefly considered locking the car doors. Then slowly opened the door and got out. Luke took firm hold of his hand and walked him through the lobby and up to their room. Where he locked the door and took off his coat.

Val tried to slink away while Luke was taking his coat off but was brought up short.

"Stop," Luke said, calmly hanging up his coat. Val knew by the tone of Luke that things had progressed much farther towards the discussion than he had ever wanted to be. He stopped by the sofa arm and fiddled with a pillow. Luke snagged Val's wrist on his way to the sofa and took a seat, standing Val in front of him.

"Lower your jeans, please." He said firmly. Val turned the charm up a notch.

"I'm real--"

"NOW, Val." Luke interrupted grimly. Val sighed and started to fiddle with his button. After several half hearted attempts, Luke took hold and snapped the button and pulled the zipper down. The jeans pooled at Val's feet, followed quickly by his shorts. Without being able to get a word in edgewise, he found himself looking at the carpet.

"Luke..." Val began in a wail

"Yes?" Luke said mildly.

Val drew a deep breath. "Ok, I didn't want to do the recording-"

"I noticed."

"But I DIDN'T sabotage anything delib- ow!"

Val twisted in protest as Luke's palm landed, hard, across both buttocks.

"RUBBISH Val. You decided from the start those takes were not going to happen."

"I DIDN'T!"

"You were TOLD you needed to do those songs and you knew why. I warned you, if you skipped that obligation you'd be in trouble and you chose not to listen."

"I went and TRIED to -- OW! -- but I can't help it -- OOOWWW! LUUUUKE!"

"You went under protest and you made it VERY clear to everyone you weren't happy. That is NOT how a professional acts, and over and above that, that is NOT how my partner acts."

Luke landed two more full force swats on the lightly pink bottom. Val jumped and
squirmed.

"I'm SORRY!"

"You're only sorry because I'm unhappy. And you're about to find out just HOW unhappy I am."

With that, Luke turned his full attention to the task at hand. The slightly pink bottom quickly turned darker under the barrage of swats that Luke was landing, while the cries rose in pitch and volume in proportion to the redness. Val gave up trying to negotiate with Luke and held on, barely managing to breathe between the swats lighting fire to his bottom.

It seemed like several months before Luke pulled him to his feet and straightened his clothes Val stood, crying helplessly and with undignified clarity. Luke buttoned his jeans, put both arms around him and pulled him close, holding him until his breathing started to ease a little. Then he turned him and steered him towards the corner. Val was past wanting to argue. He leaned against the wall, pushed his hot forehead to the cold plaster and failed to concentrate on anything at all except how much his backside hurt. His hands slipped behind him and rubbed, gingerly. Once the initial pain and anger dissipated, he began to get restless. All that was left was a runny nose and a dull ache where once there was fire. Finally Luke called to him.

"Kitten, lunch is here. Come have some of this soup, you must be hungry."

Val turned from the corner and went to the bathroom to clean up. He looked at his still red eyes, and splotchy face. Sometimes he laughed, wondering if any of his fans ever guessed he'd be in such a state....and far too often for his tastes. He sighed, knowing it WAS something he could avoid if he tried hard enough. He grabbed a pillow on the way past the couch and took a seat at the table. A quick intake of breath was all he allowed when he did manage to get all the weight on his still sore bottom.  Luke said nothing, just passed him a plate of soup and put a couple of pieces of bread on his plate, then settled down to eat in silence. Val picked at the soup, no longer as hungry as he'd thought. The phone rang when they were half way through. Luke dropped a hand on Val's shoulder to pick it up.

"Hello? Yes. Yes. Thank you."

Val looked up at him as he put the phone back. Luke settled back to his soup, keeping his voice steady. "The little boy. The hospital just announced, he's conscious, he's going to be okay."

"Are you sure?" Val asked anxiously.

"Of course I am. I --" He was interrupted by another phone call. He picked up the phone again. It was Robertson.

"Just heard the news about the kid. Orion is going nuts, wanting Val to go visit the kid, but again, not talk with family, in lieu of any possible lawsuits. I think he should do it."

Luke glanced at Val who was still stirring his soup

"I'll talk to him. I agree with you."

"How did the recording go?"

"Don't ask." Luke said bluntly. "He tried."

From Robertson's laugh he knew Val

"That was Robertson." Luke said, putting the phone down. "The boy is definitely awake and okay. He'll be in hospital a week or so yet, but he's certainly in no danger. Several people- Orion and Robertson included- think you probably should go and see him-"

"No." Val said flatly. Luke's eyebrows rose, a little surprised. Val rarely had to be coaxed to do anything child related.

"Val- the kid's a fan of yours, I don't think it's likely to be difficult or turn nasty and you never find it hard talking to children-"

"I said NO."

"Will you tell me why?" Luke ventured.

"He was hurt because of me, and I am NOT going to go over there and smile and pretend everything's fine, because it ISN'T!" Val was standing by the time he finished. He turned quickly and stalked off to the bathroom, closing the door firmly behind him. Luke wasn't happy with that response, but he knew Val was hurting. It wasn't going to help anything to press him now. And to have to tell him the restrictions Orion wanted would have only escalated his fury. He finished the piece of bread and cleaned up from lunch. Val had managed to get most of the bowl eaten, and probably wasn't wanting to finish it anyway.  Robertson rang back half an hour later, apologetic but clear.

"Luke, Orion are agitating. They want Val at the hospital now. The day's papers weren't good, they're upset about the publicity."

"He's made one major concession in recording." Luke said grimly. "They're going to have to wait. Why not send Diane for this afternoon?"

"Can you talk Val into going in the next 24 hours?"

"I wouldn't try."

Robertson sighed. "I'm sorry Luke. I think he's going to have to do it if he's going to keep any kind of peace with Orion."

Luke shook his head in disgust. "Thanks, I'll talk to him." He hung up the phone and walked out onto the balcony, overlooking the park across the street. Orion was making this hard and Luke would do anything he could to smooth the way for Val. But this was about as out of his hands as it could get. Val had been in this business long enough to make his own decisions. Luke was just going to have to sit back and offer advice, and let his love make his own way. It wasn't a position he was used to, or happy with. Val wanted a long, hot soak, but his still sore bottom was going to prevent him from enjoying it. After a few minutes of deep thought, he again washed his face and walked out of the bathroom.

"Luke? I'd like to go swimming. I think the exercise would help. Think they'll give me some time? Luke?" He finally noticed that Luke was outside, leaning on the railing of the balcony.

Luke glanced around and found his watch. "Ok. I'll ring the desk, see it's clear."

Val changed with relief, found a towel and trailed Luke downstairs. The lobby was empty, but the view through the front doors showed a drive packed with Val Quentin fans. Teenagers. Adults. Val looked once at them and turned away.

"Look at them. I don't want anything to do with them- druggies, alcoholics, they don't want concerts, they want an excuse for a fight."

"That isn't true of all of them. Why are they standing on a cold street for a glimpse of you if that's all they want?"

"You'll have to ask them." Val said as he dropped his towel on the nearest chair and dove cleanly into the cool water. Luke didn't allow his dismay to show, instead just dropped
down into a chair with a clear view of the pool and the exits. He hoped that the exercise would help clear up Val's confusion. Val put all of his anger and confusion into long strokes and began doing laps. He swam hard and continuously until he couldn't pull another stroke. He pulled himself up, resting his arms in the gutters of the pool, his head in his hands, his body resting against the wall. And then, finally, he let things sink in. Emotion and exhaustion swept through him and he was left sobbing piteously.

Luke watched Val swim harder than he'd done in a long time. He was shocked a while later to hear sobs coming from the far side of the pool. He jumped to his feet and strode quickly over to him, alarmed by the suddenness and the uncontrolledness of the tears.

"Kitten? Sweetheart, are you alright?" He bent down to place his hand on the side of
Val's face.

Val could do nothing but sob, deep, heart wrenching sobs from the depths of his soul. He felt himself pulled from the pool and into the safe and warm arms of his lover. He leaned against Luke, barely able to feel Luke's caresses, trying to quiet the tears. Luke finally just picked him up, grabbing the towel and throwing it across Val's head as a shield to those that might get curious, and strode upstairs to the room. Val struggled to his feet, found the sofa and curled up there, making room for Luke to sit next to him. Luke stroked his hair, watching him with growing concern.

"Kitten, you know I'll stand by you whatever you decide to do. You don't HAVE to make any decision until you're ready, it's going to be okay."

Val turned his face into Luke's lap and didn't answer.

It felt like a long evening to Val, constantly aware of the crowd on the street outside. Luke forced him to take another sleeping pill for the night, and Val found himself unable to hold his eyes open by 10 pm. He wandered back to the bedroom and slid into bed. Luke joined him a few minutes later to find him dead asleep. He woke pale, fragile and shattered.

Luke gently nagged and coaxed until Val ate and more or less dressed. Seriously worried about his health now, Luke left him alone, working with Robertson on stopgap measures until they felt Val had recovered from the shock and was ready to start making decisions. Val moved only from the chair to the couch to the bed all day, not interested in doing much of anything. Luke did what he could, which wasn't much in his opinion. Again Val took another sleeping pill without a fight and was out for the evening.

The following day, Luke was woken by a call from Robertson.

"Luke, Val is needed at a meeting this morning with Orion. They are chomping at the bit, and if we don't give them something, I'm worried which rug they'll try to pull out from under us."

Luke looked over to Val, who remained on the sofa, watching, but not paying attention to the television.

"Val is in no shape to go anywhere. I'll come with you, explain what I can to them. It'll have
to do."

An hour later Robertson knocked on the door. He took one look at Val and quickly realized Luke had been telling the truth. He looked almost comatose to Robertson. Luke left Val alone, with extra security posted outside in the hallway. Val continued watching television, hardly aware of Luke's absence. He was startled by a knock on the door. He ignored the knock at first, but managed to gather the energy when he heard Diane's voice.

"Val? I know you're in there. I have a letter I think you should read. Val?"

"Here." Val dragged himself to his feet and unlocked the door.

Diane's eyes told him he looked anything but good. She looked more than slightly shocked as she came in. Val glanced down at the envelope in her hands and shied away as he recognised the handwriting.

"Oh no..."

"Val do me a favour? Please? I really think you should read this one." Diane said gently. "At LEAST this one. I'm processing thousands, and 98% of them all say the same thing. How much they understand how upset you must be, how awful it was that an accident had to happen, that they hope you'll come back to them."

"I am NOT theirs." Val snapped back. Diane folded her lips. She found her employer far easier to relate to when his bodyguard was around. She simply put the letter down on the table.

"Please read it Val. Please."

Val dropped back down on the sofa. Diane went out, closing the door quietly behind her.

For several long moments, Val seriously considered destroying the letter. All that held him back was the knowledge that Luke was currently in a meeting he ought to have been at- Luke was carrying the can for him yet again. He owed Luke at least this small gesture towards responsibility. He picked up the envelope and took out the crayoned card. What he read made his eyes sting. He read it four or five times, turning the slightly crumpled paper over in his hands. Then he got up, blew his nose and headed for the shower. Luke had left orders- he'd heard them. No one in or out. And Luke's pet He Men tended to take his orders pretty seriously. Val brushed his hair, picked jeans and a discreet jacket, climbed from his balcony to the next door balcony- then stopped and thought for a minute. Then he returned to his room and scrawled a quick note.

"Back soon. Stay put, won't be long. Love you. Val."

Then he climbed back over the balcony, over the next balcony and down the drainpipe. He had a car waiting downstairs which took him close to the hospital. He got out at the shopping center across the street, to throw off Luke, who'd check with the desk first thing. Once the car had driven off, he pulled the baseball cat down lower over his face and walked across the street and into the hospital. He didn't want anyone to know he was there, so fumbled around for several minutes until he figured out which floor the kid would probably be on. He headed upstairs to the fourth floor, the children's ward. When he walked through the doors into the child's wing, he was immediately caught by surprise as he heard his latest CD over the hospital speakers. He walked down the hallway and was stopped before he got too far.

"Sir? Sir? Who are you here to see?" Val turned, taking the hat off his head and turning the charm on full. The nurse was blinded by the megawatt smile.

"Oh....you're here to see Michael," she stammered.

"Shhhh....it's a surprise." Val said, putting his hat back on. He was rewarded with a small nod, and followed the nurse to Michael's room. It was immediately apparent that the child was a HUGE fan. There were posters of himself stuck haphazardly around the room, a calendar and various other items that Val had endorsed or been associated with. A lady sitting by the bed looked up and almost immediately her eyes glistened with tears. She stood up, gently shaking the little boy asleep in the bed.

"Sweetheart......Mike? Look who's here."

Val hesitated only a minute in the doorway of the room. Then glanced quickly down the corridor and closed the door softly behind him. The little boy in the bed stirred, then turned over and got his eyes open. Val gave him the smile and wink that always made his brothers smile. It worked on Michael too. His mouth fell open and he visibly drained of colour. Val laughed and sat on the edge of the bed, leaned over and on impulse, kissed the boy's forehead.

"Hi. I wanted to make sure you were ok. That was quite a price you paid for your ticket."

"He wanted to see you all year." his mother said unsteadily.

"He begged and pleaded and saved for months-"

"I'm so sorry you had to pick a night things went so wrong." Val said soberly. Michael's eyes grew rapidly distressed.

"I didn't see what happened-"

"He doesn't remember much about it." his mother said quickly. "Just people pushing. His father was behind him. They were separated in the crush."

"I read your card." Val said gently to the little boy.

"I wasn't sure you'd get it." Michael replied with an eerie sense of adulthood in one so young.

Val felt the need for total honesty. "I don't read everything first hand, though I try to answer as many as I can personally."

"I'm sure you get all kinds of mail, I can see why you couldn't." Michael said simply.

"You're right about that." Val smiled again.

"May I.....I'd like to get my camera from the car, for a photo? Would that be alright?" The mother asked quietly.

Val turned to her. "I don't think I can leave until that picture's taken."

The smile the mother gave caused a tear to slip down her face.

"Thankyou. You really can't know how much this will mean to him."

She quickly walked out of the room.

Val turned his attention back to Michael. "How are you feeling? No pain?"

"There was some...but to be honest? I'd not trade it for anything, to have you sitting here talking to me."

"It's a pleasure to talk to you Michael." Val said frankly.

Michael sat up a little taller, eyes anxious.

"Mum said in the papers- you were going to stop singing."

"The accident upset me a bit." Val said lightly. "I was worried about you. I don't like people getting hurt."

"Dad said he'd take me to your next concert as soon as he can get tickets." Michael said urgently. Val looked at him.

"You'd still want to come? After what happened at the last concert?"

Michael looked at Val as if he had another head sprouting out. "It was an accident. It doesn't change how much I love your music. Besides....I haven't seen you perform live yet."

Val sat back and digested that information. Then he ventured quietly "What do you like so much about it?"

The boy answered quickly. "You have a wonderful voice. I love your songs, especially 'You Can Fly.' I mean....I know you're not singing just towards me, but your songs make me feel that way. You're always nice on camera, you're funny......." The boy trailed off, at a loss for words.

Val gave him a faint smile and shrugged.

"I'm no different to anyone else you've ever met."

The boy looked at him blankly. "You're Val Quentin!"

Val laughed. And sobered fast as his cell phone began to ring.

The little boy looked at him wide eyed as he pulled it out and checked the number.

"Is that someone important?" Michael asked in rapt fascination. "REALLY important?"

"Incredibly important." Val said wryly. "The gorilla. That's my bodyguard. I should have brought him with me. And if you promise not to tell anyone-"

The little boy crossed his heart. Val leaned closer and whispered.

"I ditched him. And I'm not supposed to."

Michael looked thoughtful, as though he understood that.

The phone continued to ring.

"Shouldn't you answer that?" Michael asked.

"I would....but he'd only yell. He really can be....quite a gorilla sometimes." Val placed his finger upon his lips and shhhhhhh'd. Michael looked thoughtful for a second, then ventured
uncertainly, "Want me to answer it?"

Val looked deep into Michael's eyes, and saw the mischief mirrored in his own. He handed the phone over. Michael beamed, then sobered, wanting to act like a professional. He hit the talk button and the phone immediately silenced. He swallowed, then managed to speak.

"Gorilla? Val is busy and he'll talk to you later."

"Was that okay?" he said hopefully to Val, handing the phone back. Val grinned, pocketing the phone.

"Oh that should do it allright."

"Why do you have a gorilla bodyguard if you don't like him?" Michael asked curiously. "You could have anyone you wanted!"

"Really? I DO like him.  A lot." Val admitted. "He has his moments."

Michael's mother came in with the camera and Val with the long expertise of being photographed and posed, quickly organised the taking of several very good pictures with the little boy, by now confident they would not end up in public media hands. The boy's father
said as much when he got up to say goodbye.

"We do appreciate this you know."  The man looked awkward. Gruff.  "The press have been talking a lot of nonsense- and the Orion contact we've had said very little- but you've been nothing but natural and it's clear how much you care about our son. And I saw what you did on stage when the crowd started to go wrong. You don't have to worry about us causing any trouble. For a start, Michael would never forgive us."

Val smiled at him- the genuine, sweet smile very few people ever got to see. The man, touched, patted his shoulder.

"I think Michael could do far worse than take you as his hero."

Val waved to Michael and escaped, eyes stinging. Amazingly, no one recognised him running loose in hospital corridors. He reached the pavement downstairs, well aware he was loose in the city, alone, unsupervised, against most of his contract and all of his rules with Luke. Who was going to be throwing a fit around now. What he SHOULD do, was find hospital security, stay with them and call Luke. Val reached for his phone. Then stopped and mentally apologised to Luke. There was something more important to do first. He flagged down a taxi, gave him the address and pulled his phone, rapidly ringing around a number of contacts. There was a recording to set up.

Once the phone calls were completed, Val turned off his phone. He had some business he needed to handle, and he didn't want to be interrupted by a stampeding gorilla. Within thirty minutes, everyone was at the studio and ready to go. The band was quietly awaiting Val's arrival, wondering what was up. When he walked in, they noticed a distinct change. Val went directly into the studio and asked the director for a few moments alone with his band. The director killed the sound and left them in privacy. Val took several minutes to apologize to the band, direct from the heart. He assured them that the rumors of his quitting were in error, that it was all a misunderstanding. He wanted to get these two songs cut quickly today to mend fences with Orion before the holidays. The band knew Val was speaking from the heart, and that the professional that joined them on stage was with them today. It was going to be quick work to record the singles. Once they had that, there was no question of them doing anything but their best. For all of Val's tempers and foibles, the band were more than loyal to the young man who led them. Val was a natural musician and a natural performer, and his vitality and his genuine enthusiasm for the music always infected them all. When Val signaled for a take, they might have been on stage in performance. There were no hesitations, no difficulties, just musicians working together in complete synchrony. The takes were effortless and perfect.  Luke made it through the door about three pm, hot, tired and thoroughly fed up after a nightmare two hours of trying to trace his elusive charge.  He was waved in by the producer who was sitting in the recording room, listening to a performance Luke quickly recognised as Val at his best. He paused outside the glass window, watching Val's face, concentrating, calm, oriented, his attention on the band as he sang. When the music died away, Val slipped his headphones off and waved to the band for silence until the director lifted two thumbs from behind the glass.

"Perfect Val. Thanks, that's cut."

Luke shook his head, totally bemused and fighting with the immediate urge to take Val somewhere quiet and explain to him at great length all the many things on his mind.  Val thanked the band for their quick response to his request to cut the songs, and went into the director's room. He smiled brightly at Luke before turning to the director to make certain everything was done for the day. Five minutes later the band were informed they could leave, and Val turned to Luke.

"I've got one more thing to do...hang on."

Val went back into the studio and picked up his headphones and spoke for a moment.
When the director motioned to him, he laid down the headphones and returned to the control room. The director pulled out a CD and handed it to Val.

"Thanks. I owe you one." Val said as he turned to leave. "Come on Luke, we have a couple of stops to make."

Val brushed past Luke and headed out the door, not giving Luke time to argue. Once in the truck, Luke turned to Val.

"Do you have --"

"Luke, I'm sorry. I can guess that I'm in the very BACK of the doghouse with you. You've got to trust me, we have more important things to do. We need to head over to the hospital, to see Michael."

"Michael? Who . . . . . the boy who answered your phone? The one --"

"Yes, he's the one who was injured. Please, let's go?"

Luke took an extra minute to look into Val's eyes. What he saw there was the young man he fell in love with. He pushed aside the discussion he wanted to have, and reveled in the feelings of happiness that seeing Val's face unworried gave him. He put the truck in drive and headed towards the hospital. They drove over in an easy silence. Luke had a million questions he wanted to ask, but followed Val, hoping the answers would be revealed.  Val went directly upstairs and to the room he had visited only a short while ago. He opened the door and the room immediately warmed ten degrees. Luke stood in the doorway in awe. There were about ten family members sitting around the room. The mother and father stood up, both beaming. The rest of the family were frozen, their mouths open in awe.  Val didn't exclude anyone, but was intent on only Michael. He walked up to the bed and pulled out the CD.

"I just recorded this, kiddo, and all because of you. My cell phone number is inside, As soon as you're better, call me. We'll sort out those tickets for the next concert.  Thanks."

Val squeezed Mike's hand gently, and turned to leave.

Mike was unable to say anything at all, and neither was Luke. He stepped back to allow Val to leave. Luke was unable to put into words what he just witnessed, and what he was feeling. He simply got in the truck and started it up. Val gripped his hand before he could put it into gear.

"The Orion offices, we need to go there."

It took Luke a moment to respond. "Don't you think we should call Robertson? He --"

"There isn't anything he needs to say right now. I need to say it."

Ok, the afternoon was just getting steadily crazier. Luke put the truck in drive and headed to Orion.

"What are you going to do?" he asked as he parked. Val slid out of the truck and waited for him.

"Just come with me and chip in where you need to."

"Val-"

"Shhh." Val held out a hand and waited until Luke got close enough, slipping his fingers into Luke's in the familiar way, the gesture captured in picture after picture and accepted world wide- Val Quentin and bodyguard hand in hand.  The Orion secretaries did very little more than gape blankly at them both as Val walked through the offices to the senior directors' rooms. He was enough of the Orion flag ship to command instant attention. people began to assemble from all over the building as the word spread from reception. By the time Val led Luke into the main office, three of the board were already gathered. Val accepted the chair they gave him, demanded two other witnesses to be gathered plus a secretary and began to talk, calmly and firmly. Luke initially sat tensely, not at all sure what was going on. Then he began to relax and to listen with growing respect as Val laid down quietly and precisely his legal position and his rights over his contract. Luke realised belatedly and with pride, that Val had not only been listening to Robertson but had actually read and understood the files- and this was the same boy who a year ago could barely be made to sign a pay slip. Val's conditions were clear and reasonable and very, very well thought out. Luke sat back, arms folded while Val restructured most of his contract, leaving the Orion officials with little to do but listen to him. He had them over a barrel as he was prepared to continue being Val Quentin, with them, with no restrictions on performances or recording.  Luke rose to his feet and followed him without a word as he left the offices, following him downstairs and out to the street. The man he was following seemed miles away from the boy he initially was employed to protect, and yet it was still Val. Completely his Val.

They were scheduled for three days off for Christmas at the end of the week. Val and Luke loaded up the truck with all the stuff for Val's family and headed up there for the holiday. It was the one place to Luke that felt like home and for the first time he shared Val's open excitement in leaving the hotel, heading for a few days of family life. It took several trips to get everything in the house and once done, the door shut on the outside world and Val reveled in being at home, a regular guy once more. After the last few weeks, he needed the break badly.  Luke seriously wondered if he was having some kind of nervous reaction when Val took his suitcase and started out of the room with it the next morning.

"Hey, what are you doing?" he yelled to Val's retreating back.

"Moving it out of the way." Val yelled back. Luke shook his head and went back to shaving. Val was sitting at the bottom of the stairs, list in hand when he reached the hall.  "Mum left us a shopping list. Up to a wander around the supermarkets?"

"YOU want to shop?" Luke demanded. Val shrugged. "We'll go to an out of the way one, I won't be recognised."

"Fine."

Luke followed him out to the carVal took the keys, since he hardly ever got to drive while they were working.

Luke settled into the passenger seat to enjoy the scenery. He liked to be a passenger out of sheer novelty value, almost as much as Val liked to be the driver.  After thirty minutes of city driving, they reached the outskirts of town.

"I think we could stop here, don't you?" Luke asked.

"No, it's still too close. I want it to be really quiet, no fans. Just a little further."

Luke didn't say anything, just enjoyed the drive.

After another thirty minutes, he again asked "You want to stop now?"

"No, Luke. I'll know it when we get there."

They were within thirty minutes of the cabin they had used a few times when Val pulled into a parking lot at a grocer. "I think this is good."

"I hope so, it's far enough out!" Luke joked as he got out.  Val towed him into the shop and pushed the list into his hands.

"You find, I'll push."

It was a basic grocery shop, boring and straight forward- food, household supplies, and Luke got on with it without much notice. Once they loaded it Luke got back in the car and within a few miles fell asleep. Val drove, half an eye on his gorilla.  The afternoon they got back from the recording studio had been- mixed. In many ways. Luke hadn't questioned him much about it, or put any pressure on him as to what happened with Michael or with the recording studio. He also made it very clear how proud he was of his actions in the studio and in the Orion offices. That however hadn't stopped him sitting Val down and having a serious conversation with him about walking through London without a guard no matter WHAT his reasons, or climbing down drainpipes.  It had been ONLY a conversation- rationally Val had expected more- but Luke had done no more than talk, quietly and intently for some time, and the conversation alone had left Val near tears. His reverie was interrupted by Luke shifting in the seat. Val held his breath, then let it out slowly when Luke settled back down, never opening his eyes. Twenty minutes later, Val pulled in and parked at the cottage.  As soon as the engine stopped, Luke awoke. He blinked several times, then looked over at Val.

"Kitten?"

Val broke into a huge smile and handed over a small box, wrapped in red paper and tied with a gold bow. Luke looked quizzically at Val, but accepted the gift. When Val waited for him to open it, he pulled the bow which untied effortlessly. He lifted the lid and pulled back the paper. There, nestled in the bottom of the box was a key.

"What's this?" Luke said in confusion. Val leaned across and pulled his head down to kiss him.

"Happy Christmas Gorilla."

"Val? Luke opened the door and got out, pursuing Val across to the cottage.  Val turned at the doorstep and waited.

"Come on then. You have the key."

Luke looked at him. Val took the key out of his hand and opened the door.

"I signed the papers a month back. The house is yours. In your name. Ours if you want it that way. It was about the one thing I could give you that I knew you really wanted."

"You're not -"

Luke found himself talking to empty air. The cottage was immaculate inside. Furnished. The garden was trimmed and well kept. And yet nothing was redecorated. Nothing had changed from the first time they had come here, seeking peace and sanctuary to be together.  Val had used none of his money here. Luke remembered a few jokes they'd had about decorating the place together some day. Val had obviously remembered their plans too. And put some value on them.  He snagged Val's wrist and pulled him into a crushing bearhug, kissing every bit of his face.

"Hey! Gorilla! Stop... STOP!" Val was laughing and working on trying to get out of the hug to no avail. Finally he just gave in and started kissing back.

Two hours later Luke left a purring Val on the couch and started a fire. It was cold in the cabin, not that the guys had felt it up to now, but the heat of the fire would be needed later. Val finally gathered the energy needed and went outside to bring in the groceries and luggage. Dinner was started and thoroughly enjoyed, sitting on the floor in front of the fire. About an hour later, Luke leaned back against the sofa, feeling his shoulders crack with the effort of releasing weeks of tension. He was sitting on the floor in front of the heat of the fire. Val was sprawled full length, his head in Luke's lap, his hair scattered where Luke's fingers could tangle and comb through it easily. No tv. No conversation, nothing needed except for them both to be here. Luke stretched, slowly and deeply.

"How long did you plan on us being here Kitten?"

"We shopped for ten days." Val said softly. "We've got people coming for lunch on new year's eve- well, quite a serious housewarming party actually, but no one ever gets to stay the night if you know what I mean. I- I sort of planned on us doing Christmas day on our own."

Luke just leaned down and kissed him again. Val ran a hand gently down his face.

"What?" Luke said gently. Val shook his head and smiled.

"Nothing."

"What?" Luke repeated. Val sat up and hugged his knees, silent for a minute. Luke ran a hand down his back, tracing the outline of his long, graceful spine. Then Val turned and knelt up in front of him, putting his hands lightly on Luke's knees.

"I kind of don't want to wreck the mood. But I want to -"

"What?" Luke leaned back, holding out his arms until Val leaned against him for a quick hug. Then sat back again.

"Do you remember York?"

"Yes." Luke said dryly. "In detail."

Val smiled faintly. "I bought you - something there. Remember that? You didn't want it then."

Blue eyes flickered up to his, then slid away, frightened.

"I just- wondered if now was a time you might want it."

Luke was silent for a minute.

Val risked catching his eye, no flippancy left in his voice or face.

"I know why you didn't want it then. You thought it was just a gesture- just me glad you were bailing me out one more time."

"That makes you sound shallow and you're not." Luke interrupted gently. Val shook his head.

"It WAS partly that. You'd made things right, which always reminds me how much I love you- but -"

Luke silenced Val with a kiss. A long, deep and passionate kiss that took Val's breath away.

"Go get it, and try again."

Luke said quietly. Val slowly got up and went into the bedroom to get the ring. He walked back and dropped down on his knees, looking deep into Luke's eyes.

"As much as I claim to dislike you on certain days....as much trouble as I get us into....." Val took a deep breath, the emotions stealing his words. He choked back the lump that was forming in his throat, even while a tear ran unbidden down his cheek, the firelight making it shimmer. "I love you." He said, his voice cracking, as he held out the ring. Luke said nothing for a long time, then simply held out his left hand, palm down. Val slid the ring over both knuckles until it snagged into place. Luke twisted his hand, admiring it for just a moment. Then he took something out of his shirt pocket, where gold once again shown in the firelight. Val's intake of breath was audible in between the crackling of the logs on the fire. Luke held out a matching ring.

"It's engraved. It says 'always yours'. I have been, since the day we met." Luke slid the ring on Val's finger.

The fire was allowed to die in the fireplace, while a new one was created in front of it.

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2010

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Every time I read this I laugh to myself.
Val is trying to power down Coke before the performance, and I keep imagining that he gets on stage, opens his mouth to sing and... well, doesn't quite sing... lol
Sorry. :D

Melissa Williams said...

I so adore ur boys. I started reading stalked. Then i stopped and had to go read the stories befor. So glad i did. I wish u would write mire of them. Great stories. Melissa

Lady in Red said...

Awwwww, this one was moving. The scene with Michael and the cabin.

Most of the artwork on the blog is by Canadian artist Steve Walker.

Rolf and Ranger’s Next Book will be called The Mary Ellen Carter. The Mary Ellen Carter and other works in progress can be read at either the Falls Chance Ranch Discussion Group or the Falls Chance Forum before they are posted here at the blog. So come and talk to the authors and be a part of a work in progress.





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