Monday, February 8, 2010

A Scratch on the Surface

Title: A Scratch on the Surface 
Authors: Rolf and Ranger
We're going to do WHAT?" Todd repeated, putting the last few glasses up on the shelves.
The town is celebrating Halloween English style - with a bonfire and fireworks, and of course all the requisite food. You DO want to offer Chris congratulations on his first college A, don't you?
"I heard he's got that." Todd hoisted himself up to sit on the bar. It wouldn't open for another hour, right now there was only himself and Stephen there, and the chef in the kitchen. "What IS this English thing anyway? Is it a charity do?"
"Yes, they're gearing up for 'Toys for Tots' already. It sounded like a much better way to spend a night than visiting one of the usual haunted houses," Stephen replied was he washed down the bar counter.
"Nice it's in time to celebrate for Chris then." Todd grabbed Stephen as he passed, leaned both elbows on his shoulders and kissed him. "I'm done, are you coming home?"
"I'll wait until Kerry shows up and talk to her about tonight. It can get a little wild and this will be her first Halloween weekend," Stephen said, hugging his partner to him.
"You mean I'm stuck on my own tonight.... how long?" Todd pulled back, disappointed.
"Just an hour or two," Stephen said, looking at his watch. "I won't be long, promise."
"You'd better." Todd groused. "We'll get a TON of kids halloweening tonight because it'll be quieter than tomorrow, and I hate little kids."
"Just don't eat all the candy, it IS for them. And promise me, NO scaring anyone," Stephen said, looking firmly at his partner for his response.
Todd gave him a withering look. "Save it for someone even REMOTELY scary. Mike said he'd drop by on the way home from work anyway, he might stay for a while if I plead."
"Mike definitely fits the 'remotely scary' bill," Stephen said, laughing. "You two be good, I'll be home in time to finish up the kiddies before the witching hour," he said, walking with Todd over to the door to unlock it for him.
Todd demanded and got another kiss goodbye and jogged across the now dusk lit car park. He found Mike sitting on the wall outside their house when he pulled onto the drive, sitting on his hands and fidgeting slightly. He got up as Todd got out of the car, holding out the modem.
"Here, tell Steve it's fixed and he can call me if it doesn't set up right."
"You're coming in, aren't you?" Todd asked as he accepted the modem. "I have no idea how to set this up for one thing," he said, looking at the piece of equipment he was holding in his hands.
Mike hovered, backing towards his car with his hands in his pockets. "Not tonight. I need to get home. Are you coming to this charity do thing for Chris tomorrow? "
"Come on," Todd pleaded without shame. "You're going to leave me alone to face the horde of kids, WITH a useless computer connection? That's just cruel!"
"Eric's shifts have been changed, he's got a couple of days off and I want to get home." Mike said apologetically. "I'll come over and do the modem another time if it's still playing up."
"Fine, fine," Todd groused, turning to go back to the house. "I'll see you tomorrow at the bonfire!" he said over his shoulder.
"See you." Mike waved as he pulled away and headed the last mile home.
The cruiser was on the drive, the windows were lit and Eric, in jeans and a t shirt, was leaning against the door post, talking to a small group of goblins who were helping themselves to candy. He smiled as Mike got out of the car and climbed the porch, and Mike stood back to let the goblins past.
"Hi kids. Have a good evening.
"Trick or treat!" said one tiny goblin, before being pulled off the porch by one of the other, larger goblins.
"We already got candy," she said, pulling along the reluctant little one.
"Trick or treat," Mike asked, trying to put his hand in their candy bowl.
Eric swatted his hand away. "Dinner. And this stuff is junk anyway, it was what was on special offer at the garage when I came home, I didn't have time to get anything decent. How are you?"
"Fine," Mike said, heading into the house. "What's for dinner?"
"I rang for a takeaway." Eric shut the door. The lounge was tidy as always but the kitchen held several used coffee mugs as though someone had had a restless afternoon.
"Pizza or Chinese?" Mike asked, walking over to wash his hands.
"Pizza. Did you take the modem over to Joe?"
"It was for Steve, and yes, I did. Had to wait a minute for Todd to get there," he said, tearing off a paper towel and drying off his hands.
"You didn't set it up for him?" Eric asked, starting to wash up the cups.
"No, Steve can handle it," Mike said, heading over to the fridge and pulling out a jug of apple juice and pouring himself a glass.
"I thought you said you'd stay and set it up. I'll have a glass of that too while you've got it out." Eric put the mugs away in the cupboard and dropped the cloth on the side, leaning back against the counters to look at his partner.
"Large or small glass?" Mike asked over his shoulder as he opened the cupboard door.
"Large. Why didn't you stay?"
Mike set a large glass down on the counter and concentrated on pouring the juice.
"Todd said Steve would handle it," Mike lied, taking the glass over to Eric and leaning against him as he drank his own juice.
Eric put an arm around him and drank, silently leaning his chin against Mike's head.
"What do you want to do this evening?"
Mike shrugged, and moved out of his grasp when the doorbell chimed.
"I'll get it." Eric said, putting his glass down. "It'll be the pizza." He headed for the front door, pulling bills out of his pocket and paid the boy standing on the doorstep. He was about to open the box when the phone rang and he rolled his eyes at Mike, handing the box open.
"Here, sort that out for me? Hello, Eric Davidson?"
"Hello Mr. Davidson," Rolf said as he settled against his own kitchen counter. "How was your day?"
"Rolf, hi." Eric glanced through to the kitchen where Mike was unpacking pizza. "Very quiet. Ok. Haven't heard any more."
"Are you going to be able to sleep tonight, or did you manage not to drain the coffee pot?" Rolf asked, the grin evident in his voice.
"I had to do something, it's too cold to garden." Eric managed to raise a smile in response, widening as Mike brought a plate through to him.
"Thanks honey. We're looking forward to the do tomorrow night, it's a bit different themewise. I didn't know anything about this bonfire night lark, but Mike's explained a bit."
"Matthew's looking forward to it, as you can imagine," Rolf said. "He truly should have married a fireman, or I'm just in the wrong profession."
That drew a laugh from Eric. "You may just have to change profession then, there's a lot of dishy firemen in the district, I've met them. Maybe just the uniform would do to start with."
"That IS my costume for trick or treating. Speaking of which, I need to find my little goblin before he downs the entire bowl of junk. It's gotten way too quiet," Rolf said, knowing that Eric was doing pretty good and that Mike was home to keep him company. "We’ll see you tomorrow?"
"We'll be there. About seven?"
"Seven it is. Call if there's anything that I can help with," Rolf said pointedly.
"I will. Thanks for calling Rolf, we'll see you tomorrow."
Rolf hung up the phone and headed into the living room, then opened the front door, looking at his partner's back, sitting on the front steps.
"No." Matthew said without looking round.
Rolf shook his head and opened the screen door, stepping down a couple of steps to sit next to his partner. He took a Tootsie Roll from the bowl and unwrapped it.
"Is that 'No, I haven't eaten everything,' or 'No, I haven't eaten anything' as I asked?"
"No, I haven't eaten everything." Matthew gave him a grim look. "For the three thousandth, four hundred and fifteenth time. Who was that?"
"Eric. We'll meet them at the park at seven for the bonfire."
"Kids." Matthew jerked his head at an approaching group of very small pop stars and took another wrapped bar from the bowl. "I can feel a bath coming on."
Rolf took the bowl of candy and held out his hand for the one that Matthew was holding.
"I think you've had more than enough."
"I haven't. I haven't had NEARLY enough." Matthew said, getting up. "I'll leave you with Pop Idol."
"That had better be the very last piece," Rolf warned before turning to the squeals of 'trick or treat'.
Matthew, never one to resist a challenge, waited until Rolf knelt down to bring himself to a manageable height to communicate with a two foot four Brittany Spears, put a hand over Rolf's shoulder and took another bar before he fled into the house.
Rolf finished filling the various buckets, pillow cases and plastic bags and stepped back into the house. As long as Matthew was upstairs in the bath, the candy would be safe.
Still laughing, Matthew reached the study, flicked the computer on and settled back to check his mail while the bath filled, unwrapping the first of the two bars.
Rolf ended up going back outside a moment later, and deciding that both Matthew and the cats would appreciate not hearing the bell constantly, put on a jacket and moved to the porch as the worst of the Halloween traffic made its way through their front yard.
Matthew checked through his mail, then flicked on IM and smiled at the insignia there. He clicked on it and tapped in a quick message as he ate the candy bar.
"Hi there! Is your other half driving you insane about eating candy too?"
"And you'd be talking like that about me?" Joe typed in, smiling.
Matthew sat for a moment, not at all sure who he was talking to, or what Chris was playing at. Then he tapped in a good deal more carefully, "Joe?"
"Yes, it is. Chris is handing out the candy while I get some final items straight for my current case. I'm surprised you aren't minding the candy bowl yourself."
"I left before I was thrown out." Matthew typed back, grinning. "Are you coming tomorrow night? It was great to hear about Chris's grade!"
"Yes, that's why I was working a little longer today. He's thrilled, as well he should be," Joe typed back before pulling the file closer to him to check on a fact or two.
"No kidding! I bet Marc's thrilled too." Matthew tapped back cheekily. "Got to run, I'm supposed to be in the bath! Night!"
"Goodnight," Joe replied, rolling his eyes. The art grade would have been absolutely untouchable if they hadn't had that one day during the nude modelling. Joe went ahead and turned off the IM so he didn't get mistaken for his younger lover again.
"Jooooooooooooooe........." A very plaintive voice said from the hallway corner.
Joe leaned back in his chair to check on his fair-headed one.
"No talking, please," he said, finding that the nose was still firmly planted where it should be.
There was no verbal answer but he clearly heard evidence of a frustrated stamp in reply.
Joe gave Chris another ten minutes to stand there before calling to him. "Chris?"
"Yes?" Chris said plaintively.
"Think you can find something to occupy yourself for the time being?"
"It's Fridaaay........" Chris stifled the whine as best he could. "And if you're going to get mad about the paper I want to do it NOW, not wait all evening."
"Come here."
Chris scuffed slowly across to him
Joe leaned back in his chair and pulled his partner down into his lap. "That paper got left out of the homework journal, didn't it?"
"It was only an extra credit one." Chris mumbled, head down.
"It's extra credit that you need, but that's beside the point, isn't it?"
"No, it wasn't urgent-"
"Christopher," Joseph gently interrupted.
Chris flushed, ducking his head further down.
"What goes in the journal?"
"And extra credit is part of 'everything',"
"I wanted this weekend off, we're supposed to be celebrating."
"You managed to get most everything else done on Thursday night so that this weekend was a little slower. You still need to finish your maths for Monday and now, this paper. You and I both know the paper could have been done before now and not interrupted the weekend at all."
"It would, it's going to take ages and I DON'T need to do it, it's optional-"
"We've already discussed this. The paper gets done this weekend, no longer optional," Joseph said, pulling Chris' face up to meet his.
"Noooo I want to have FUN this weekend, it's a holiday!"
"We're going out tomorrow night to celebrate the holiday. You've got plenty of time around that to get the work done.
Chris pulled away, scowling. "I want the weekend OFF. I work all the time, I work HARD, I NEED some time out! And I earned it, how many As have I brought home?"
Knowing that they were going over the same ground covered earlier, Joe wanted to put a stop to it. "That's enough," he said, hugging Chris tight. "While your A is a great thing, it doesn't lessen the rest of your schedule. The work needs to be done and that's that."
"I don't WANT to!" Chris said more forcefully, squirming against the arms around him. "I ALWAYS do all the extra credit stuff-"
"STOP," Joe said firmly, not letting go.
"Why?" Chris demanded back. "You're going to make this weekend suck too!"
"It's going to suck a lot more if you don't settle yourself down Sunshine," Joe said meaningfully.
Chris had a serious try at sliding off his lap, declining to answer that.
Joe let Chris slide off, then swatted what he could reach of Chris' right buttock while keeping firm hold of his arm.
"Ow!" Chris said resentfully, scowling at him and putting a hand back to rub.
"Find yourself something to do for the next hour while I finish up here."
"I don't have to do the paper tonight?" Chris said a bit more hopefully
"I'll help you get started on it when I'm finished here. The paper IS getting worked on."
"Then I'd rather go to bed." Chris yanked his arm free and headed out of the room, running loudly upstairs
Joseph sighed, rubbing his temples. Knowing he had to get the case notes complete, he turned his chair back to the desk and began working, hoping that Chris sulked quietly so he could finish.
Upstairs Chris threw himself down on the bed, slightly surprised and not entirely comfortable that Joe hadn't come after him and pointed out how storming around and scowling didn't do anything for domestic harmony. He rolled over and lay with his chin on his arms for a while, reflecting savagely on the ills of papers and school in general, and then as his mood began to cool, he began to wonder what the others were doing this evening. He and Joe lived at the far end of town in an area with few families, and they tended to get few Halloween callers.
Joe was able to work through his notes quickly, finishing within thirty minutes instead of the hour he thought it would take. He logged out of his files on the computer and left it on, stacking his files back in the box he'd brought them home in before he headed slowly up the stairs.
Chris heard him coming and turned on to his back, pulling a pillow under his head, not at all sure whether he intended to carry the battle on any further. His mood had begun to cool but he was irritable, still tired, and still without any enthusiasm at all for the paper. And still convinced in his own mind Joe was being distinctly pedantic about it.
Joe walked in and over to the bed, sitting down next to Chris and pushing the hair from his eyes.
"How are you feeling now?"
"Not happy." Chris said frankly, somewhat comforted by the gesture despite himself
"Why are you letting this paper be such a big deal?" Joe asked, gently rubbing Chris' arm and shoulder closest to him.
That tone always did it. Almost reluctantly, Chris rolled over and settled with his head in his partner's lap, relaxing a little under his hand. "I don't know. It was a long day and I'm looking forward to the weekend, I didn't want to do yet MORE work."
"You have work every weekend, that's what happens during the run of the semester. The paper is a chance to make some points up so that you're not so stressed later on. It's a good thing, not an awful one which you seem to want to make it."
"I don't want to DO it." Chris said sourly.
"I know. But it needs doing and the sooner you get started on it, the sooner it will be finished. Let's do some of the research tonight and maybe an outline, then you can write it on Sunday. I'll help."
"NOT tonight." Chris buried his face in Joe's thigh. "Please not tonight."
Joe ran his hand down Chris' back. "Allright, I'll make you a deal. If the research doesn't get done tonight, it gets done in the morning. Would you prefer that?"
"Yes." Chris turned his head far enough to see Joe's. "If I don't have to shop with you.
Joe nodded. "Deal."
Chris gave him a small smile and settled down again. "Thankyou."
"Want to take a walk, see if we can spot any ghosts or goblins?"
Chris shook his head, not moving. "Why don't we just watch some tv in bed? There'll be all kinds of horror marathons on tonight."
Joe thought that was a marvelous idea after the busy week he'd had. "Move over," he said as he took the remote from the side stand.
That raised a real smile and Chris shunted over. "Didn't you say you wanted to call Eric?" he said as he settled down again against Joe's side.
"I will in a bit," Joe said, sliding over next to Chris and putting an arm around him. "What channel has the marathon?"
"Go for CB1, that's doing a Nightmare on Elmstreet night- girls waving in bodybags, it's hilarious. Why do you need to call Eric?"
"I wanted to make sure he and Michael were planning on the bonfire tomorrow night."
"They are, I saw Mike in the canteen at lunchtime."
"That's good to know. How was Mike doing?"
"Fine, we had lunch together." Chris shifted his head on Joe's shoulder to see his face. "Why?"
Joe turned to look at Chris, rustling his hair. "Just thought I'd ask," he said, smiling.
They were the last to arrive at the park the following evening: Chris, following Joe out of the dark carpark spotted Matthew and Rolf's four by four near the gate and pulled a face.
"Trust THEM to get the nearest parking spot.
Joe just shook his head, taking Chris by the hand and walking up to the gate to make payment.
"I can see the bonfire." Chris said, pausing to look up at the hill. "Is that all we do? Watch a bonfire?"
"No. There's some live music, the food, and when it gets darker, they set off fireworks. Rolf said they'd try to get up on the opposite hill, ready to go find them?"
"How ARE we going to find them? There must be five hundred people here!" Chris followed Joe into the park, heading with him up the hill towards the tree line.
"Rolf IS the tallest person we know?" Joe asked.
Chris grinned. "Yeah, but unless he's fluorescent coloured his hair we're still not likely to spot him in the - MIKE!"
Mike was waving wildly towards Chris and Joe.
Chris arrived first, jogging up the hill to barge into Mike. "Hi! This is cool. A bonfire. We never would have thought of THAT in the US ."
"It's fire season, that's why," Eric said, standing up to welcome the new arrivals. "Congratulations on your terrific grade," he said to Chris.
Chris gave him an exuberant hug, stepping around the rugs laid out on the grass. "Thanks. You'll have to ask marc if you want to see the picture, it's x rated."
"Not unless you really changed your prelim drawing," Matthew said to Chris.
"How are you?" Joe said as he finally made it to the group.
"Good." Eric gave him a quiet smile and took a seat on the rug again. Matthew and Rolf were sprawled out on the other side of him, both well wrapped in jeans, jackets and boots, with several folded blankets which Matthew was currently using for a pillow. Stephen and Todd beyond them were spreading out their rug on the grass.
Matthew sat up, glad that the main reason they were there had finally showed up and the party could begin. "I think it's time for some food. Anyone with me?"
"We just GOT here!" Chris complained, taking the backpack Joe was shrugging off. From inside he took out several blankets and a thermos flask, and Joe took the thickest blanket, spreading it out on the grass.
"I KNOW. Now it's time to eat. And drink, there has to be a toast for that WONDERFUL art grade," Matthew said, scrambling to his feet.
"Sit." Rolf said without looking round.
"But I'm HUN-"
Rolf grabbed his hand and pulled him down onto the rug. "You'll live. There's fruit in the bag if you're THAT hungry."
Matthew scowled and remained silent.
Joe sprawled full length on the rug and wrapped an arm around Chris as he settled down beside him, pressing close as the evening wasn't warm.
"What time are they lighting this bonfire?"
"Any minute now apparently." Eric said, glancing at his watch. "And the fireworks start at nine."
"I want to go over to the bonfire, it'll be warmer over there," Matthew said as he sat, hugging his knees to him.
"You don't need to be any closer, if you're cold wrap up in one of the blankets." Rolf said firmly. "NO ONE is getting any closer to the bonfire."
"I didn't say I was going to try lighting it," he groused.
"What part of 'no' didn't you get?" Rolf said in an equal growl, just as softly
"I got it," Matthew snapped, face flushing as he turned to grab one of the blankets and wrap it around himself.
Rolf leaned over, took the blanket and everyone else looked away, not at all surprised at the sound of a sharp swat.
"We can stop now, and enjoy the fire, or we can go down to the truck and talk this over." Rolf said quietly. "Which is it going to be?"
Matthew jumped and his lip went far out. "I'll stop," he said quietly, pulling his knees closer to him and burying his head in his arms.
Rolf didn't comment, but he wrapped the blanket around Matthew's shoulders.
"Did you have any trouble parking Joe?"
"No trouble, just ended up at the back of the lot," he replied. "The walk was nice and we should be one of the first to get out when it's time to leave."  

"It IS a beautiful evening- aha." Rolf nudged Matthew as the bonfire suddenly blazed into life, echoed by a cheer from the people spread through the park. "Wasn't there something about burning guys? Whatever they are?"
Matthew looked up for a moment, then put his head back down on his knees
"I don't know," Eric replied. "Anyone still have the brochure we got at the gate?"
"In here." Mike dug in their backpack and pulled it out. "English tradition to do with the gunpowder plot- some Jacobean plot to blow up parliament."
"Who's getting burned?" Chris asked as he watched the flames climb higher.
"Guy Fawkes apparently, it's supposedly him in effigy- although the tradition now is kids making a scarecrow type thing and taking it through the streets asking for pennies for the guy- and the guy's burned on the bonfire."
"Guy Fawkes! He's the guy we had a dance for in October in high school. I never knew he was the same one as they're burning," Todd said, perking up.
"ALTHOUGH," Mike said, shifting over to get the light on the brochure as he read on, "This Jacobean incident provided an acceptable Christian front for what had been an ancient Celtic festival of fire in Britain at the end of October. Based on the customs of the death of the old year and of sacrifice at the end of the harvest, this ritual probably at one time included actual blood sacrifice now represented by the burning. The festival of Halloween with its links with the dead and the spirit world are very likely also connected."
"Yuck!" Todd replied. "I like the idea of candy a lot better than sacrificing, but that bonfire is pretty cool too."
"Has anyone seen the guys?" Stephen asked, shading his eyes to see the fire.
"Look, down the hill to the left," Rolf said. "There's some sort of group movement towards the fire."
Todd got up and peered, watching a procession of scarecrow type figures carried down towards the fire. And winced. "This is barbaric, no wonder we don't do this."  
"All the parents would be happy, there's no chance of the kids getting poisoned," Matthew added grouchily as he watched the procession without getting up
"I don't think they do Halloween much." Chris commented. "Do they? You're the anglophile."
"I don't think so," Matthew said without further explanation.

Todd and Chris exchanged glances and an eye roll over Matthew's head. Matthew In A Snit. Obviously he and Rolf were in the middle of something and Matthew was less than happy.

"Anyone want coffee?" Todd asked, sitting back beside Stephen and pulling out one of the several thermoses they'd brought. "Coffee or hot chocolate, take your pick." 
"Coffee, please," Michael said first, followed by Rolf and then Stephen.
 "Hot chocolate would be nice," Eric said, to which Chris replied he'd have some as well. Todd passed a thermos across to Steve and started to pour.
 "Steve packed them. Incapable of going anywhere without provisions OR cooking."
 "I’m not." Steve said mildly.
"You're deprived, not doing the Halloween dinner at the bar." Todd teased. Steve smiled and accepted the kiss Todd gave him in passing as he leaned over to hand a cup to Chris. Who grimaced.
 "You two are getting SO sloppy."

 "What does that mean?" Todd asked quickly.
"You're forever smooching in every corner we end up in."
 "Jealous are we?" Todd said snidely.
"More like embarrassed." Chris snapped back.
 "Matthew?  Would you like Todd to pour you some hot chocolate?" Stephen asked, trying to divert Todd's attention before anything more was said. Matthew shrugged without looking up.
 "Drip." Chris said shortly, under his breath.
 "Sod." Todd snapped back, hotly.
"That's enough," Stephen said firmly, taking in both Todd and Chris with a disapproving look.
 "They're almost to the bonfire," Rolf said into the silence that fell.
 "Matthew." Stephen said again. "Hot chocolate."
"No.  Thanks," Matthew added, in case Rolf got any ideas on him being rude.
 Joe, looking around now three scowling brats, got to his feet, putting a firmness in his voice that got the attention of four of their party in a hurry.
 "I think we need a closer look at that fire, a walk, and hotdogs if we can find them, come on. All of you, come on."
 Todd handed over to Stephen the thermos he'd been working with and got up.  Matthew looked back at Rolf for permission before getting slowly to his feet.  Now that it was Joe's idea it didn't sound like as much fun but at least he wasn't stuck on the blanket. Michael got up as well and held out a hand to Eric.
 Eric shook his head, giving him a quick smile.
"I'm ok here, go on. Bring me back a hotdog, plenty of mustard."

 "Come on." Joe said shortly.

 "What is this," Matthew muttered to Mike as they started up the hill after him.
 "A night out or a bloody route march-"

 "It'll BE a route march if I hear much more pushing." Joe halted at the top of the hill out of sight and earshot of the other three before he looked hard around the circle of his four younger friends
 "Chris, YOU'RE celebrating, we ALL need a night out, I for one do NOT want to spend the evening listening to sniping, bickering and sulking, and I can think of three other people who can do without it too. It stops RIGHT here, and I want a promise on that, otherwise I'm going to get unpleasant. It's a Saturday night, at the end of a long week, this is NOT necessary. Am I making myself clear?"
 "Bet he couldn't get unpleasant if he wanted to," said a very rough looking teenager to his just as rough looking girlfriend, who giggled.
Joe lifted his head and gave both teenagers a very long, steady look. Then looked back at the group around him.
"Am I?"
Chris, Todd and Michael were sufficiently embarrassed to quickly answer in the affirmative.  Matthew was closest to the teenager and wasn't about to answer Joe in front of them.  He turned to say something to the boy. Joe saw his mouth open, took Matthew firmly by the arm and nodded to the other three.
"Hotdogs, go on. Matt, QUIET."

Leaving the teenagers giggling, he steered Matthew well out of sight and turned to face him, giving him a rare look of open disapproval.

"Are you going to tell me what this sulk is in aid of?"

Between the look and the teenagers no longer in the vicinity, Matthew crumbled quickly. 
 "I'm not sulking," Matthew said quietly.

 "Then what would you like to call it?" Joe said sharply. "And look at me please when I'm speaking to you."

 Matthew brought his eyes up to Joe's, embarrassed and ashamed.
 "I'm sorry.  I'll try to be more... pleasant."

"You're going to need to try HARD." Joe commented. "Because I'm done with the muttering, scowling and not talking, it's pure bad manners. And you do NOT ignore me when I'm talking to you Matthew Christopher, or when I ask you a question."
 "Yes, sir," Matthew replied quickly, eager to get out from under the scrutiny and before he made a fool of himself and started crying.

"Come here." Joe said just as sharply, holding out his arms.

Matthew jumped from the tone and stepped towards Joe, unsure of his welcome.

 Joe pulled him close and hugged him tightly, rubbing his back with a heavy and very warm if exasperated hand.
 "What's the matter, eh? You've been looking ready to bite all evening. What's wrong?"

 "Nothing, really," Matthew said, fighting back tears against Joe's unexpected but expected gesture, his face buried against a strong chest.

"I don't believe that and you certainly don't. And we can sit here until you tell me, which won't be much fun, so why don't we cut to the chase?" Joe said in his ear. "What's the matter?"

Matthew bit down on his emotions.  It bothered him when someone was upset with him, but it bothered him just as much when someone was being too nice when he wasn't ready for it.  Knowing that Joe would keep him there until something was situated, he mumbled, "Rolf's being unreasonable, that's all."

"In what way?" Joe said calmly. There was no surprise or hesitation in his tone, it was a language they all spoke, a daily situation likely to arise in any of their homes and they were old enough friends for their to be no issues of embarrassment or fear of being misunderstood.
"I was supposed to be working on homework yesterday. I WAS...just not the whole time. He took my network card and won't give it back," Matthew said miserably.
"Why did he take it that seriously?" Joe said mildly, still rubbing his back.
"I've got a math test next week and I just can't get it."
"And you’re finding that hard?"
Matthew nodded.
"It sounds like he's wanting to help."
"But now I can't use my computer for anything BUT homework," Matthew tried, even knowing the reasoning behind it.
"So I can concentrate," Matthew finally conceded. "But that sucks!" he said, trying to stand back from Joe.
Joe held on to him, voice gentle. "And probably to make things simpler and less stressful."
"It sucks," Matthew said again, holding onto Joe.
"Yes. I know. But sometimes what you need isn't what you like, isn't it?"
After a long, drawn out sigh, Matthew finally, sort of, agreed. "Maybe."
"Rolf couldn't be mean to you if he tried." Joe said firmly, dropping a kiss on his forehead. "So there's no point in being mad at him. It’ll be ok.”
Matthew managed a half shrug. Joe lifted his chin and looked at him, taking in the heaviness of his eyes and feeling pretty sure in his own mind why Rolf was simplifying their routine this weekend.
"Come on. We came here to have fun, it's a beautiful evening, let's make the most of it. Come get something to eat."
"Okay," Matthew said, grateful for having been able to get that off his chest, but unable to say it. He allowed Joe to take his hand and followed him back down the hill in search of the rest of the gang.
Joe pulled him into a run, keeping hold of his hand and by the time they caught up with the others they were both out of breath, faces scalded by the wind and frost, and Joe hoped, the edge of Matthew's mood worn away.
Back on the other side of the hill Stephen waited until the others were out of sight, then leaned over, put an arm around Eric's shoulder and gave him a rough and very sincere hug.
"How are you doing?"
"Frankly? I'm going nuts. It's simple procedure which I'm familiar with, but it doesn't make it any less feeling like I might have done something wrong, nor aggravating to not be doing my job," Eric said in a rush.
Rolf leaned forward, elbows on his knees, saying nothing but listening in silent sympathy. Stephen kept his arm around the broad shoulders, which unusually for good tempered Eric were slumped and unhappy.
"You know you didn't do anything wrong."
"Yes, I know. It was the very last option open to me, and something I never take lightly. It's just the procedures that the department has to go through in case any citizen thinks I could have done something better. Seriously leaves you feeling unsure of yourself," Eric replied. He'd been thinking through all of this during the day and doing a pretty good job of talking himself out of it, but it felt good to finally say the words to someone.
Stephen squeezed the shoulder under his hand, shaking gently.
"No one thinks you did anything wrong mate. You said yourself the chief told you there was nothing else you could have done."
"Have you talked to Mike?" Rolf said quietly.
"No - I haven't yet figured out how to tell him. Rolf, I can't scare him," Eric said, looking between the two men for confirmation of his choice.
"I think you're shutting off your biggest source of support." Rolf said gently. "It's your choice Eric, you know him best, but don't think HE can't handle it."
"I agree," Stephen said as well. "You two share everything else, this shouldn't be treated any differently."
Eric opened his mouth and closed it again, taking another deep breath while he tried to find the words to explain.
"I don't know. It's not that I don't think he could take it- I just couldn't stand for HIM to look at me and think- it's too ugly. I don't ever want to see that look on his face, I couldn't stand it."
"What look," Rolf asked gently.
Eric shrugged, looking down at his hands. "I'm being selfish. I just can't. I don't want him to know, or to worry about it, or to even think about it. It's the ugliest part of my work and it isn't something I want to touch him."
"Don't you think it does anyway?"
"Not if I can help it." Eric said grimly. "He hasn't asked any questions or noticed anything yet."
"I wouldn't be too sure," Stephen said. "You know how to read Michael better than anyone. Michael may not know or understand exactly how it works, but he reads you just as much."
"I don't want him to know." Eric said stubbornly. "And I want a promise from you, not a word of this. Not to him or any of them."
"You have our complete support," Rolf said firmly.
"It's your decision to make," Stephen said. "We wouldn't dream of making it for you."
Eric nodded, once and shortly, getting to his feet. "Thanks. I'm going to see where they've got to, it's been a while."
Rolf watched as Eric walked off, then looked over at Stephen, a glint in his eye.
"Think a spanking would help at all?"
"You'd need a crane." Stephen said, smiling. "Even you. Poor so and so, he's shattered isn't he?"
"Yes," Rolf said resignedly, lying back down on his blanket. "He'll get it figured out, I just hope it's soon."
"Mike's as sweet tempered as they come and he's level headed- even if he finds out later on, I can't see him holding it against Eric, he'd understand." Stephen said shrewdly. "
"It's not Mike I was worried about," Rolf replied.
"I know. But it's his choice." Stephen said, stretching out beside Rolf. "If that gives him SOME comfort then so be it. That sounds like the tribe."
Rolf leaned up on an elbow just as Matthew dropped down next to him, putting a nicely warm hotdog on his side.
"Hurry, before it's a frozen one," Matthew said, immediately taking a bite of the one he was still holding.
Mind still on Eric, Rolf wrapped an arm around Matthew's waist, pulling him closer. "Warmer over here. Was it busy over there?"
"Packed." Chris said through a mouthful of his own hotdog. Joe emptied his pockets of foil packets onto the rug.
"Baked potatoes. Probably nicer to hold as hand warmers than eat."
"Now that's an idea I can warm up to," Stephen said, snagging one of potatoes.
Eric took a seat on the rug and Mike sat cross legged, running one finger down his back. "They're starting the fireworks soon. And the music, there's an orchestra tuning up down there."
"What kind of music would they play anyway? Thriller? Monster Mash? I've never heard an orchestra do those before," Chris said.
"Apparently the Royal Fireworks Suite." Joe said, reading from the leaflet. "I suppose that makes sense. Followed by a compilation from Starwars and Startrek and ending with the 1812 Overture. What THAT has to do with Halloween I have no idea."
"That's quite a range there," Rolf replied. "Star Wars and Star Trek followed by the 1812 Overture. Talk about a time warp...."
"At least they're not playing that." Joe pointed out. "I look awful in a corset. The potatoes aren't bad are they?"
"Actually they're pretty good," Stephen said as he took another bite of his own. "I think they used sea salt on the outside, which is what gives it the great flavor."
"I can feel a change coming up to the menu." Todd said, grinning at him. "We don't have many English dishes."
"People do enjoy baked potatoes, and fixing them this way means we can do a lot at once and they'll remain fresh for the evening."
"Told you." Todd rolled over onto his back on the rug, leaning against Stephen's knee. "Bangers and mash. Bubble and squeak. Scouse. Toad in the hole."
"Bangers and mash is what YOU do, bubble and squeak is what the food does, we won't even DISCUSS scouse, and I'm not eating ANYTHING that comes out of a hole, much less a toad," Matthew said vehemently.
"It's sausages in batter, chill out." Todd said soothingly. "We had it when we were in England , it's pretty good. So's spotted dick."
"That's something you should enjoy," Mike said to Matthew.
Matthew gave him a speaking look.
"Spotted dick," Chris said, laughing at the look on Matthew's face.
"The jam roly poly wasn't bad either." Todd said, trying to carry the conversation over the sticking point. "We had that in this pub in the wilds of Yorkshire- which was pretty cool. Large open fires and little dark pubs."
"That sounds like a band," Michael said at the same time Matthew spat back
 "What the hell do you mean?"
"The orchestra's starting." Joe said clearly, tossing a baked potato across to Matthew and giving Chris a glare.
"I'm thirsty," Michael said, getting up and stalking off without a backwards glance.
"It's going to be one of those nights." Eric muttered under his breath.
Stephen gave him a 'what can you do' look and went back to eating his potato as the orchestra rose in volume.
"What's the potato like?" Rolf said softly to Matthew, watching him unwrap it.
It really WAS going to be one of those nights. Settling back on the rug and determinedly taking no notice of either the tone or the two cold shoulders Matthew was turning in his direction, Rolf concentrated instead on the orchestra playing below.
Mike wandered down the hill towards the crowd. As usual, none of them keen on a lot of people, they'd picked a spot to settle that was a long way back from the crowds and overlooked the site, rather than on the fringes of it. The fire was quite a long way off.
He continued on over to the hill where the fire was, having to take long side trips to keep from stepping on blankets that people had lined up next to each other with no stepping room between them. There had been a large number of people around the fire when the effigy had been brought over, but now there was only a small group of kids standing to one side. Mike moved around to the other side, kicking gently at the barriers the city felt needed to be placed there so that someone wouldn't just accidentally walk into the fire and burn themselves to death. He stood, transfixed by the flames.
The heat from the fire was intense- the bonfire stood a good twenty feet high, the organisers had surpassed themselves. The out line of one of the guys was still distinguishable at the top, a figure outlined in flame, rigidly sat on the boards and wood making up the fire.  

Michael's mouth dropped open when it looked as if the outline stood up and jumped at him, a yelp being voiced against his will when he looked down and found his pant leg on fire. He fell backwards into the damp grass and rolled his ankle over to smother the small flame. The hairs on his neck stood up and a chill crept along his spine when he heard a low and faint, but very sinister laugh.
It was lost in the gasp from the crowd and then shrieks of laughter from the kids as the organisers rushed forward with poles to poke the burning guy back into the fire. Michael stood back, his thumping heart slowly calming. The guy had been toppled by the boards it was supported on burning through- it was only the manlike outline of it moving that had been so realistic. Annoyed with himself for being so easily freaked, Mike walked away in search of a drink.
Mike stood in line, unable to stand still with the adrenaline rush from earlier. He looked down to inspect his jeans, finding a small hole with darkened edges, and a dark spot on his boots underneath. He could still feel the flush on his face, more from the embarrassment of catching fire and overreacting rather than the heat. He was certain the entire group would have seen the commotion at the fire, even if they didn't know it had been him, but put two and two together when they'd see his pants. He felt like he was being watched, and turned quickly to find no one there. Stepping forward, he looked back into the darkness behind the well-lit drink stand, and saw the figure of a teenager.   

The boy was stark white and sickly looking, with dark lips and eyes. He was wearing a flannel shirt, stained and open to show some stain on his chest. He turned away when the person in the drink stand yelled "Next."
Mike stepped up and ordered a coke, walking back to the right to see if the guy was still there. Something had seemed familiar about him but he was gone. Thinking it must have just been someone in costume, he turned and started to make his way back to the group and dreading having to explain the burnt pants.
A group of teenaged girls with the same ghastly white faces and red lined eyes passed him, giggling. Their necks had been carefully drenched in fake blood around two 'bite marks'. Obviously corpses were the in thing to be for Halloween this year. Several boys in zombie outfits were trailing them. Fed up with the hyena sound effects Mike took his coke around the edge of the crowd and up the hill.  It was WAY colder up there away from the fire. Rolf usually was good at picking the right spot at functions like this- tonight they might have to move before they all got frost bite.
"Did you go into the next town for that?" Chris asked as he saw Mike approaching their blankets
"No, I just went to have a look at the fire." Mike said reservedly. Despite the small amount of rug left on Eric's left, he still sat there, keeping the burnt side of his jeans well out of Eric's sight.
"Did you see the guy fall?" Todd demanded. "It was great, it was like he stood up and jumped."
Mike's head snapped up, trying to determine whether Todd was pulling his chain or not. "Yeah, I saw it," Mike answered, scooting closer to Eric for warmth.
"How close were you?" Eric asked, shifting over. "I tried to spot you but there were too many people down by the fire."
"The other side of the fire," he answered carefully, taking another sip of his coke. "Want any?" he asked, holding it out to Eric.
"Thanks." Eric took it, giving him a slightly more careful look. "You're shivering."
"It was a long walk," Mike replied.
"Yeah, but you were close to the fire down there." Eric hugged him, rubbing his arms to try and get some warmth back in him. "Many kids in costume down there? We had a gang of tinies up here while you were gone, all in Harry Potter gear."
"Zombies or corpses seem to be the rage down by the drinks stand. This one boy was painted white with dark eyes and mouth and his skin even seemed to want to peel. I assume he was acting like he was shot, he had a blossom of color on a white t-shirt under an awful looking flannel shirt." He leaned back into his partner, needing the warmth.
"What's wrong with witches and cats and tv personalities?" Chris demanded. "I can't stand the goth look, it's annoying. WHO wants to wander around disguised as a corpse? It's all this vampire slayer crap."
"Vampires have class." Todd pointed out. Mike snorted.
"This guy was just a mess."
"Keep rubbing," Mike said when he realized that Eric's hands had stopped moving. "That's warming me up.
"Mmn." Eric resumed rubbing, but more slowly.
"There goes the Star Wars theme," Rolf said as the orchestra moved into the newer age music. "I assume the fireworks come after this?"
"I'd think they'll go with the 1812, and be the cannons." Stephen said, shading his eyes to see the stage.
"Give me one of the extra blankets?" Todd asked, shivering in the coldness as the sun had completely vanished by this time.
Stephen pulled one out of the pack, glancing around. "It does seem to be getting chillier up here. I thought the forecast tonight wasn't too bad."
"It hadn't been," Rolf confirmed. "I guess it cleared off more than they thought."
"There's a real bite in the air." Satisfied the dark gave enough cover, Todd curled up and lay with his head on Stephen's lap, nudging until Stephen's hand came up to pet his hair. Rolf fumbled through the pack he'd brought and withdrew a candle lantern and some matches, shading the flame carefully while he lit it.
"That adds a spooky influence to the night," Eric said when Rolf put the lamp a little off to the side of the blankets for light.
"It's Halloween." Rolf gave him a grin. "We should have thought to bring pumpkins."
"Noooooo pumpkins," Todd said. "They're spooky things."
"Oh come ON." Chris said irritably. "Wet scooped squash, terrifying."
"They stink, but hardly scary," Matthew added in helpfully.
"Like most of these traditions they're a lot darker if you know the reasons behind them, which I'd think Todd probably does." Joe pointed out. Todd shook his head, not appreciating the defence.
"I just don't like the faces."
"If I carved out a face from an orange, would you quit eating them?" Chris asked.
"I've seen your art, it's all x rated." Todd said sweetly.
"There's no need to malign artistic talent or fruits and vegetables," Rolf said firmly before anyone else could speak.
"Well YOU'RE no fun." Joe said dryly.
"WHAT is that smell?" Michael said as he sat up, his face wrinkled in disgust.
Eric, glanced around, sniffing, and winced. "I don't know, but it's dead. A skunk or a squirrel maybe. The wind must have changed."
"That is DISGUSTING," Chris said, pulling his shirt up to cover his face. "Matthew, if you really HAD to go -"
"ENOUGH." Rolf said again, more sharply. "Let’s move down the hill a way, it's not a major crisis. And you can stop it too." he added under his breath to Joe, who grinned at him.
Everyone stood up, and trying not to breathe too heavily, picked up various blankets and bags and moved downhill until the stench was left behind. Matthew was moving slowly, as was Eric, who sniffed the air again as he moved away from the flattened grass where they'd been. He was looking around to make sure nothing had been left behind when he spotted footprints in the grass that led away and up the hill, rather than down toward where the group was reassembling.
"Are you coming?" Matthew asked from beneath his shirt.
Eric nodded, moving down the hill towards him and taking his hand, steadying him on the rough ground in the dark.
"Yes, just some footprints- fairly fresh too. Did anyone see any people around us earlier?" he added more loudly. Joe looked up, frowning slightly.
"We ran across some teenagers earlier who were finding us funny, I'd hope they're not messing us around?"
"No. No, I wouldn't think so," Eric said, aware that several ears were turned in his direction and not wanting anyone to worry. He forgot about the footprints when he hit a slick spot in the grass and almost went down. Matthew felt the grip on his arm tighten and stopped, allowing Eric to get his legs back under him as applause broke out from the blanket area.
"Nine point one for style!"  Stephen said, laughing.
Matthew handed him with exaggerated courtesy across to the rug where Mike was already crashing out, and bowed as Mike pulled him down.
"I can't take you anywhere."
"I didn't see any kids." Matthew added. "And it was mostly me they were laughing at."
"Why would they be laughing at you?" Rolf asked as he stretched his long legs back out on the blanket.
Matthew flushed, avoiding his eye. "No reason- anyone want more potatoes?"
"We've got more? Hand it over!" Todd said, holding up his hands.
"I meant going down to get them." Matthew got up, digging his pockets, then pulled a face at Rolf. "That's if you've got any cash, I've got the wrong jeans on."
Rolf rolled over and pulled out his wallet, handing a few bills to Matthew. "No chocolate," he said, not letting go of the money.
"That's mean, it's a holiday." Matthew said, tugging gently.
"We've brought some, you don't need to buy anymore," Rolf said as he let go of the money.
"I'll save some for you." Matthew blew him a kiss and dodged out of reach.
"I'll go with you," Todd said, standing up. "I could use a handwarmer."
"You'll get a warm something else if I see chocolate." Rolf warned, settling back on the rug. Chris grinned, but got up and followed the other two. Rolf waited until they were out of earshot before he looked for Joe.
"What happened with those kids?"
"Just some boy and his girlfriend making a few comments about us," Joe said casually. "Nothing threatening at all."
"Would they be likely to trail us up here?" Stephen said dryly. "We might do better moving further down if so, away from any cover."
"I think we're fine here," Eric said, looking around. "If we move too far downhill we'll miss some of the fireworks. They should be about ready to set them off, I'd think."
"I'm not thrilled with the orchestra." Mike said wryly, "This must be the Starwars we didn't see,”
"What on EARTH happened to your jeans?" Eric interrupted, grabbing his ankle.
Mike blanched, having forgotten about his burned jeans. "Nothing, it's just a little burned is all," he said, trying to pull his leg back.
Eric didn't let go, leaning over to pick up Rolf's lantern for a closer look. "HOW did it get burned? That's gone right through!"
"*I* didn't get burned," Michael protested hotly. "I was just too close to the fire and it just lit up. I'm fine!"
"You got that down by the fire?" Eric said sharply. "HOW?"
Mike sighed loudly. In the same instant the lantern went out. Rolf silently took it and checked the candle, then found the lighter and began to work on re lighting.
"The stupid dummy thing fell, and a log must have rolled out and hit my leg. It's NOT a big deal, I don't know why you're making it so!"
"Possibly because you shouldn't have been that close to the fire and you didn't say anything." Eric said in a tone that rapidly quietened Mike's. "Are you sure you didn't get burned? How did you put it out?"
"I rolled on the ground," Mike said more quietly. "It wasn't like I was in danger of being engulfed in flames
Rolf got the lantern relit and handed it back to Eric. "Need this?"
"Yes." Eric took it and Mike's ankle, peeling back the jean leg. Mike sighed again but surrendered, well aware Eric wouldn't give up until he was sure there was no third degree burns anywhere in sight.
"Your boot is burned as well. Did your leg get hot?" Eric asked as he looked at the spot.
"The whole thing caught on fire, fire feels hot." Mike said impatiently. "It’s fine, I'm not burned."
"Let's get that boot off and have a look anyway," Eric said, starting to pull on it.
The lamp blew out again. Rolf picked it up and checked the shutter.
"There is NO point looking for burns I can't even feel in pitch darkness." Mike said irritably. "And what are you going to do about them out here anyway?"
"The lamp will help," Eric said as he pulled the boot off. He set that aside and took the re lit lamp from Rolf. It went out again just as he set it down next to Mike's leg.
Rolf picked it up and found another candle which he used to replace the one in there. This time the candle flatly refused to light.
"See." Mike said vengefully.
"I've got a flashlight," Joe said, pulling his keys out and handing them over to Eric, who pressed the small button, emitting a very bright light.
"Wow, now that's a good thing to have," Eric said, checking out Mike's leg.
Mike gave Joe a clear "Thanks a bunch" look.
"There IS a mark." Eric said grimly. "It's not bad, but you were burned. I'd think if it weren't so cold out here you'd have felt it."
"It DIDN'T hurt."
"Good." Eric glanced at his watch. "Do you think the coke stand would have ice?"
"I don't need ice!" Mike said, pulling his leg back.
"I won't be long. You stay put." Eric got up, tossing the flashlight back to Joe. Mike dropped back on the rug, resisting the urge to swear.
"Am I here? Can anyone hear me?"
A very faint voice, almost a tickle in his ears, replied. "I can."
"NOT funny." Mike turned around to glare at Chris who grinned, blew in his ear once more and handed him another potato.
"What's that all about?"
"NOTHING." Mike said, ripping open the foil on the potato and turning his back to Chris.
Chris rolled his eyes at Joe, handing over the other potato he carried, as Matthew dropped down beside Rolf, handing back his change.
"There you go.
"Where's the chocolate?"
"Do you WANT a potato?" Matthew asked, reaching into his pocket to get them out.
"I WANT the chocolate." Rolf pushed the potatoes to safety, grabbed Matthew and dropped him on his back, ransacking each pocket in turn.
"That looks like fun," Joe said, winking at Chris.
"I don't even have a M&M on me, cool down." Chris said calmly, eating potato. Matthew, giggling and from the looks of things making a fair attempt at fighting back, rolled with Rolf off the rug onto the grass. Mike straightened with a sudden yelp, rearing up off his own rug.
Rolf stopped immediately, thinking that maybe they'd somehow kicked him. "What is it?" he asked, after realizing that they were too far away to have touched him.
"Something scratched me!" Mike felt for the back of his neck, rubbing. "Bloody hurt too!"
Joe put his potato down and stood up, bringing out his flashlight again. "Let me see, hon."
Mike twisted around, moving his fingers. "It's bleeding!"
"What's bleeding?" Joe asked, taking Mike's hand from his neck and trying to get a look while Mike was moving around.
Mike moved his hand and Joe blinked at the two bleeding scratches across the back of his neck
"You've got two small scratches," Joe said, in some amazement. "Anyone have a napkin?"
"Tissues." Stephen offered. "How did you do that?"
"I didn't do anything!" Mike said furiously, putting his hand up to hold the tissue Joe put there and moving out from underneath him.
"Well something scratched you." Joe pointed out. "Is there something on the inside of your jacket?"
"No, I don't think so," Mike said, feeling around the back of his jacket with his free hand.
"Maybe something bit you." Joe lifted the tissues again to look, then took them from Mike, pressing firmly. "You'll need that ice when Eric brings it."
"What kind of bug makes you bleed?" Mike asked, settling down again as Rolf and Matthew got back onto their own blankets.
"I don't know." Joe said frankly. Down on the stage the orchestra broke into the 1812 overture and Matthew got to his feet as the first of the fireworks shot skywards
With Matthew standing up, everyone else needed to see around him and stood up as well. Mike was the only one without a partner to his back. He looked down the hill, then back up the other side when he couldn't find Eric. A particularly bright firework lit up the hillside and Michael did a doubletake, thinking he saw something high on the hill. He shaded his eyes, peering, then yelled, waving.
Several turned to look down the hill, spotting Eric's outline walking gingerly up the slippery grass. "It's me!" he yelled up, having heard Mike call his name.
"Then who's -"Mike stopped, confused, looking from up the now once more dark hill to down again.
"I think it's those kids again, there's someone up there!"
"Where?" Joe asked, stepping back and over to where Mike was, looking up the hill as the fireworks changed the colors to reds and blues in between the white flashes.
"Up-" Mike blinked, seeing a flash of white and a glint of metal which quickly disappeared again.  He got the unsettling feeling that it was the same white face he's seen down by the drinks stand.  Joe checked the scratches while Mike was standing still..
"There's probably kids up in the trees love, they're bound to hang around up there."
Mike didn't argue but he headed down the hill to join Eric, glancing up the slope.
"Are you ready to go home?"
"No, hon, the fireworks just started," Eric said, pulling Mike up the slope with him. "What's wrong with your neck?"
"I got some scratches." Mike cast another look around, frowning. "I'm getting a headache, can we go?"
"Have a seat first, let me look at your neck," Eric said, concerned. He turned to ask Joe for his flashlight and found the keys sailing his way before he had to ask.
Mike turned, silently letting Eric look. Eric put a hand over them and rubbed gently, well aware they looked sore, and felt Mike discreetly leaning back against him. He thumbed off the flashlight and wrapped both arms around Mike's waist, dropping his voice to Mike's ear only.
"What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Michael said, relaxing a little now that Eric was there.
"Then why do you want to go home?"  
"I'm just feeling .... beat up, I guess."
"That bad?" Eric said sympathetically. "Let's get some ice on that ankle, and some on your neck, that should help."
Mike leaned forward and tried not to screech as the ice was put against his neck.  After the first moment of shock it began to feel better, and when Eric removed it a few moments later, he was very grateful.  He was in the process of turning around so Eric could get at his ankle when two things happened simultaneously.
Michael saw the lantern from the left - alight - fall over onto the blanket just as Matthew stomped in from the right, flopping down on the blanket.
He was leaning over to pick it up when there was a sudden, and explosive rush of flames that burst out of the lantern, throwing open the closed shutter, and rushing down the blanket towards himself and Matthew.
Mike's yell came at the same time as Rolf's bark to Matthew, who hadn't seen. Mike rolled back out of the way, swearing as the blanket went up in a leap of flames and Rolf grabbed Matthew, dragging him with more speed than gentleness off the blanket and out of range.
Stephen moved in quickly as everyone else was scattering backwards, yanking up the blanket closest to the one on fire and covering it with the wet side down.  Eric pulled the bottom of the lamp away from the blanket, watching as the flame quickly died.  Stephen was busily patting the blanket down, making sure that the flames were well out before he stood to his feet. 
"Everyone okay?"
Matthew, looking totally stunned, gave him a blank look. Rolf, still clutching him, yanked him backwards and hugged him hard.
"Did that touch you?"
"What on earth made it go up like that?" Eric demanded. "Thank God you were watching, Mike!"
"I don't know if it was Matthew getting onto the blanket or what," Mike said breathlessly.  "I saw him and the lamp and then poof."
"Nothing should have made it explode up in flame like that, it was like it was doused in petrol." Joe picked up the lamp gingerly. The candle was out, the inside of the lamp a mess of wax. "There's no gas on that blanket is there? Oil?"
"I can't imagine that there would have been.  I washed it earlier today," Rolf replied, still holding Matthew tightly. Matthew was still staring at the rug, visibly white faced and shaky.
"Sorry about the blankets, guys.  Was this one yours, Joe?" Stephen asked as he picked up the one used to douse the flames.
"Yes, don't worry about it. Better a rug than Matthew." Joe picked it up, folding it, giving Matthew a somewhat anxious look. "Are you allright? You look like a ghost."
"I'm alright," Matthew said, eager to be out of the spotlight. 
"If no one minds," Rolf said, leaning over to pick up some of their things, "I think we'll head on home.  We've had enough excitement for one evening."  Matthew looked up mutely.
"I'll give you a hand," Eric said briefly, picking up a second blanket and the other bag, aware that Matthew wasn't too steady on his feet and Rolf was looking for a prompt and sharp exit.
Everyone checked around to make sure nothing was forgotten before saying goodnight.  Rolf hooked an arm around Matthew and helped him down the hill, followed by Eric with the rest of their things.
Mike, somewhat shaky himself, took a seat back on their own blanket.
"This has been a horrible evening."
"It hasn't." Todd said mildly, "That wasn't anyone's fault."
"YOU haven't been burned, scratched and ALMOST fried to a crisp," Mike retorted as Todd settled on his own blanket. 
"Fair enough." Todd gave him a smile. "Maybe it's where you're sitting."
"That'll be the end of the dramas." Joe said calmly, sitting down beside Chris who leaned against him, arms folded against the late evening chill.
Todd had himself propped up on his elbows, trying to figure out whether he actually wanted to be lying down or sitting up.  He felt his right hand move a little and casually looked over to see if Mike was moving around.  Mike had his arms wrapped around his knees, head bowed down on top of them and wasn't moving an inch.  Todd's eyes travelled from Mike to his own hand and watched in confusion for a moment as the blanket moved again and something felt like it bumped into his hand.  He screeched and jumped up, dancing away from the blankets, pointing.
"There's something under there!"
"Yes. Grass." Stephen said calmly. "Come over here and stop yelling."
Mike lifted his head, looking around. Todd stayed where he was, arms folded.
"There IS something under there, I felt it move!"
Stephen got up and picked up the blanket, shaking it out.
"Look under Mike's!"
"Oh for Pete's............." Mike rolled over and got up, shaking out his own blanket.
"I DID feel something move!"
"Then come over here away from it." Stephen said firmly. "Settle down."
Eric came back up the hill, hands dug in his pockets and Mike looked up, giving him a quick and somewhat tense smile as he sat down. Eric dropped an arm around his shoulders and gave him a hard, rough hug.
"How's the neck?"
"Ok." Mike said quietly. "Was Matthew?"
"Very shaken up. You moved like greased lightening there, I didn't even see what was happening until the blanket went up."
He twisted around, feeling the movement through Eric, and peered at something Eric was idly tossing up and catching.
"What's that?"
"Oh just something in my pocket. I guess I'm twitchy now, that scared me!" Eric gave him another hug and a smile but his other hand went on restlessly tossing up and catching the coin.
Todd very cautiously took a seat on the blanket and Stephen moved over to make room for him just as Chris shot to his feet swearing.
"He's RIGHT, something touched me!"
Todd jumped back up and moved away from the blanket.  "I TOLD you!" he said furiously, not liking the fact he'd sat back down with something running around. 
Stephen and Joseph stood up together and began to shake out each blanket.  Eric tossed the wooden coin up and looked away for a second as he felt his blanket being tugged on.  He looked on the blanket for a moment before standing up.
"I think we'll take our leave as well," Joe said, picking up his own bag. 
Stephen jerked suddenly and leapt backwards, hissing. "There IS something here, it hit my foot!"
"What?" Eric demanded, peering as Joe turned the flashlight onto the grass.
"I don't know, something fairly big-"
There was a taut hush while everyone surveyed the grass, then Chris let out a scream and fled as the snake shot out from under Stephen and Todd's bag, glinting in the torchlight.
Eric snatched up a stick from the grass and flipped the snake as far away from them as he could, they saw the flash of its body fall some way away from them.
"WHAT was that?!" Todd demanded. Stephen pulled him up, grabbing their bag off the grass.
"Only a grass snake I should think-"
"We're sitting up here with SNAKES!" Chris said furiously. "Mike SAID-"
"It's okay," Joe said calmly. "The snake is gone, and we're leaving. Do you have everything you came with?
"Yes, I'll see you at the car!" Chris said, stalking off down the hill.
"Sorry, guys. We'll see you soon!" Joe said, turning to head down the hill. "Wait up there!" he yelled down to Chris.
Chris showed no sign of waiting up or anywhere else. Todd, horrified, looked at Stephen who was retreating equally rapidly down the hillside.
"We're going too, right now Stephen!"
"No kidding." Eric grabbed up their things and followed Mike out of range with no loss of speed. "I didn't expect to find snakes up there!"
"I told you there was SOMETHING under the grass!" Mike said furiously. "SOMETHING's had the hex on us all evening!"
"Rubbish, it's just been one of those nights-"
Eric grabbed, but too late as Mike stumbled and fell, rolling on the steep hillside. He rolled to his feet almost instantly, and broke into a straight run down the hill to the carpark.
"Poor Mike." Stephen said sympathetically. "Really HASN'T been his night."
"Drats," Eric said, feeling in his pocket. "I’m going to need to go back up there too, I must have dropped my keys. MIKE!"
"WHAT?" Mike yelled back from the carpark.
"I don't envy you." Stephen said grinning. "Want me to come?"
"Please. Two sets of eyes are better than one." He turned towards the carpark. "BE RIGHT THERE!" and turned to head back up the hill.

They found the flattened grass with no problem, then bent down to search in the very dim lights from below, neither of them having a flashlight.
"It's SERIOUSLY cold up here." Stephen said, shutting his coat against the wind. Eric glanced over.
"What was that?"
"I said it's -"
The wind had risen, and was making the distance between them a lot more than a few metres. Stephen shook his head.  "Never mind."
 "A penny for a spool of thread, a penny for a needle-"
Stephen scuffed at grass. Eric was given to whistling, he did it a lot, but singing was a new one.
"That's the way the money goes-"
"What?" Eric said straightening up.
"I said it was cold." Stephen straightened up. "Maybe you dropped them when we moved away from the snake?"
"Pop goes the weasel. A penny for a spool of thread-"
"What did you say?" Eric said again. Stephen shook his head.
"Is that you singing?"
"No? I thought that was you?" Stephen replied, bending over to check out the ground.
"A penny for a needle, that's the way the money goes-"
"Pop goes the weasel," Eric finished, chills running down his spine. The song, while being a children's verse and usually heard while someone was turning the crank on a toy, was somehow sinister tonight.
It was being repeated, and while soft, was almost vicious.
"It's those damn kids," Stephen said softly, keeping his eyes on the ground. "It's a kid's voice- can you see them?"
"A penny for a spool of thread...."
Eric saw a flash on the ground and stooped. It was the little wooden coin he'd been fiddling with earlier. He picked it up and as he stooped, saw with relief his keys beside it. Stephen was frowning and as Eric straightened he heard the voice again, soft and harsh.
"A penny for a needle...."
Eric drew breath and let go the bark that stopped bar fights in their tracks.
There was a few seconds of silence. Eric scanned the trees, looking for a flicker in amongst them. Then Stephen jumped, leaping away from the spot he was standing and a sharp, stinging pain struck the back of Eric's neck, making him cry out.
It was enough. Hearts thumping, both men instinctively ran, straight down the hill towards the crowds by the bonfires.
"Would you look at them?" Todd asked, laughing. "Think the snake came back?"
"I don't know," Michael replied, not finding anything the least bit funny. They were standing next to Stephen's truck, waiting on their partner's return so they could leave.
Tiring of waiting, seeing Stephen and Eric slow to a walk as they reached the hill where the fire was, he kicked the bag out of sight under the car and strode in their direction.
"Are you ok?" Stephen demanded. "It was that damn snake, it came up right at my feet! What's wrong?"
"Something scratched me." Eric dropped his hand, letting Stephen pull back his jacket and look at his shoulder.
"It's bleeding."
"What's it like?"
Stephen winced, hesitating. "Fingernails? Three, parallel spaced."
Eric looked at him. Mike arrived, furious, Todd behind him.
"WHAT was all that about?"
"My keys fell out of my pocket -"
"And I was helping him locate them when the snake made a return appearance," Stephen finished, picking up the cue from Eric’s obvious reluctance to voice what they both knew well were theories and feelings FAR beneath two grown men.
"We just ran toward the light."
Todd laughed again. "Ran towards the light!" he repeated.
Mike looked back at Eric, rolling his eyes, then took in that Eric was holding his shoulder. "What's wrong?"
"Whatever bit you, bit me." Eric said ruefully, rubbing. "Maybe there's some bats up there or something. I think it was more than time to leave."
"And on that note I think we'll go home, we're done with Halloween." Stephen said, acquiring a hold on Todd's hand. Todd gripped it, then pulled him closer, rubbing his fingers as they walked away.
"Hey you're freezing! Night Eric. Night Mike."
"Night." Mike gave Eric another narrow look. "What happened up there?"
"I'm starving." Eric said, changing the subject. "Come get another hotdog before we go?"
He was denied a response as Eric took his hand and strode over to the food stand before they shut up shop for the night. Most of the people still left were gathered in groups or still around the stage where the last few costumes were being chosen. Eric paid for a couple of hotdogs and a bottle of water, quickly using some of that on a napkin to wash the blood off his hand before the hotdogs were ready. He steered them back over to the fire where the chill was chased away.
"I'm not into this English crap." Mike said sharply, glaring at the now dying down bonfire and standing well back. He’d felt one too many shoves in the back tonight- he’d have sworn he felt the last one on his way down the hill away from the snake. It had knocked him off his feet, despite Eric grabbing him.
"No." Eric agreed. "I like Halloween better, I admit. Here."
Mike took the hotdog, staying close as they walked, slowly circumnavigating the bonfire. Eric ate quickly, wiped off his fingers and dropped the napkin into a bin as they passed it. Slipping his hands back into his pockets, they closed once more on the wooden disc.
He'd been fiddling with it all weekend. A sudden flashing memory came back to him with the same washing wave of sadness, of sitting on the kerb by the squad car, watching the team start the clear up while the paramedics shifted the sprawled teenaged boy on the road. Someone had brought him a coffee, he was sitting there trying to drink it without throwing up, and to shake the smell of pot that had hung around the kid, when he'd picked up the disc at his feet. Another piece of junk in the gutter.
"Eric?" Mike inquired, sensing the change in Eric more than seeing anything obvious.  

Eric was still on the kerb, the pot strong in his nose. While his insides tumbled and rolled, the other officers looking upon Eric could only sense the strong personality that he usually projected. The one that calmed frightened children or those injured, as well as calming some of the roughest people in all manners of situations.
He looked over the crime scene again. A teenager, now loaded onto a stretcher and covered by a sheet, but the white outline of where he'd been with a large, dark puddle in the centre of it. Two cups turned upside down where the bullet casings had landed from Eric's gun. A bright pink X where the boy's gun had landed as he fell. A few dollar bills, fluttering away from the boy, and the bag of drugs over on the sidewalk where he'd thrown it. Eric kept looking, searching, trying to figure out if there was any way he could have handled the situation differently, and why he pulled the gun as quickly as he had, and fired with no hesitation at the time.
He was lost in the scene again, and finding nothing that set his mind to rest. As he started to remove himself from the scene and answer Mike's question, he took in a wider picture of the street on that hot, dry afternoon. He heard a soft voice, skipping small feet in white trainers, a small head bent, and the boy moving slowly behind the chanting child.
"A penny for a spool of thread, a penny for a needle-"
The boy's pace quickened, the gun slid into his hand. The voice was breathy, as small children sing.
"That's the way the money goes, POP-"
There was a fleeting image of blonde hair and pink dress, running behind a dumpster. It was the little girl. Eric blinked, clearing the sting, partly of grief, partly of relief.
There had been a moment where he'd stood looking at the boy's face and dazed eyes, seeing the gun in his hand. The details, each one vivid. How YOUNG he was. How spaced out his eyes were. How tightly his fingers gripped the gun. Broken, dirty fingernails, white, nervous fingers, a green snake tattoo curling up the back of the wrist. Eric had known from the first that the boy was too doped to negotiate with. He'd still tried. But from the first he'd tried knowing, that if he didn't stop the boy, here and now, there was a child within reach of that gun. A little girl without a weapon or a reason, might become involved, or die on the street. Eric wasn't going to let that happen. He'd fired first, but only by a few seconds, he'd seen the boy's fingers move.
"Eric?" Mike said, a little more worried.
Eric reached for his hand, needing the comfort, and with the other, flung the little wooden disc towards the fire. He jumped at the sudden flash as the wooden disc caught alight, and a face turned towards him in the flames, mouth wide and emitting a violent hiss of rage- and then there was just the flicker and hiss of fire and crackling wood as the collapsing logs slid deeper into the embers. Eric shook his head and acquired a tighter grip on Mike's hand, realising Mike's other hand was locked on his arm in a painful grip.
"I'm done with this," Eric said somewhat unsteadily. "You ready to go home?"
Mike was white faced and it took him a few seconds to drag his eyes off the fire. Then he moved with alacrity towards the car park, dragging Eric after him.
"Oh I’m gone. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
~ The End ~
~ (Demonic laughter) ~
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2010


Anonymous said...

Jeesh! this freakd me out!

Lady in Red said...

I wish Eric had resolved to tell Mike about the shooting and why they were thus being tortured.

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