Thursday, February 11, 2010

Second Innings

Title: Second Innings
Author: Ranger

It takes dynamite to get Damien awake before eight am on a Sunday morning. My boy is not naturally a morning person.
I opened the kitchen door into the garden and watched Anastasia determinedly bullying the mayflies by the pond as the kettle boiled. This was her first summer and she was in danger of exhausting herself by keeping the wildlife in the garden under strict control. The garden was already faintly misty, promising a hot day. I filled the teapot and snatched the toast from under the grill, scorching my fingertips in the process, left the door open to let the cool and the fresh air percolate through the house, and took the tray upstairs. Damien was still dead asleep, bare from the waist up and sprawled over his pillow like a jaguar over a branch. The duvet was draped sideways over him from hips to knees, the rest trailing on the floor. I put the tray down on the dresser and drew the curtains. The church bells began in the distance, trickling their slightly discordant chimes to announce the morning services. I sat down on the edge of the bed to admire Damien for a minute, his bare shoulders stretched and beautifully defined, then I leaned over and kissed the middle of his back.
"Good morning."
"Hmmmm." Damien squirmed slightly. I ran a finger down his spine and crawled up him, nibbling more determinedly at the nape of his neck until he stirred and rolled over, stretching his arms above his head, then bringing them down around me.
"Hi." he mumbled into my neck.
"Hi." I nudged until his eyes opened, kissed him and leaned back to smile at him. "Happy birthday."
Damien managed a sleepy smile and reached for another kiss. We spent several minutes necking, peacefully and unhurriedly, until a particularly muddled run from the bell ringers made us laugh and forced us to separate.
"You know who that is don't you?" Damien inquired, pulling himself upright. I collected the tray and brought it across to him.
"Mrs Hammersmith."
"Amongst others. It’s the Women's Institute, they were saying at the club house last week. They've all joined the bell ringers together. The poor vicar's getting organised to within an inch of his life. This is very civilised, darling."
Damien accepted a cup from me and ran a hand over my thigh, rubbing gently. I poured a second cup and leaned against him.
"Have to do it properly."
"Now that I'm getting old." Damien said ruefully. I grinned.
"You'll get like your father and refuse to drink out of mugs any more."
"I think it took six months to get you to use a saucer after I moved in. Or even own a collection of matching mugs."
"You threw away all my good mugs in the first week."
"Only the ones with mould in over three feet tall." Damien stretched past me for a piece of toast. "Are you going to come to the match with me this afternoon?"
Mmn. Actually, cricket on a hot, sunny afternoon, a nice stretch of grass to lie on and Damien jogging up and down in his whites always strike me as pretty much a perfect way to kill a few hours.
"Of course I am. I'll bring a book and clap at the right intervals."
And then, he didn’t know it, but we were taking a picnic up to the park when the match finished. There was a bottle of champagne chilling in the fridge, and one of our favourite spots in the park was a ridge overlooking the reservoir- I intended to be up there at twilight tonight, with him in a mellow mood, and for it to be a LONG evening. Damien finished his toast and went back to stroking which parts of me happened to be in easiest reach.
"Why don't you finish that tea, hmm? While we've got plenty of time."
I took the hint. And put everything breakable WELL out of reach.
I was curled up with a book on the patio, waiting for him to finish dressing when the phone rang. I didn't even bother getting up, just called up towards the open window.
"That's your mother."
"Don't broadcast it to the neighbours then." Damien said mildly from our room. I snorted and turned the page.
"Tell her yes I HAVE fed you."
"Hello Mum."
I glanced up, listening. Damien leaned on the windowsill above me and grinned.
"Yes he did, I got breakfast in bed-"
"I swear, she weighs you every time she sees you just in case I've starved you."
Damien snorted and shut the window. The phone rang at intervals all morning, Damien's numerous and extended family doing the bi-annual check in. Actually he rings and sends cards out religiously to all his clan and to mine, he forgets nothing: it's one of the many reasons my family think he's so wonderful. I spoke to one or two of the most familiar ones, but mostly left the phone to him, engrossed in my book until somewhere around mid morning he folded both arms around my neck from behind, leaned over my shoulder and kissed me.
"Is that all of them?"
"More or less. And Richard just phoned." Damien nipped gently at my ear. I twisted around to look at him suspiciously.
"Richard? What did he want?"
"Just to wish me happy returns." Damien leaned against my shoulders. "And to ask if I could find us another bowler for this afternoon."
"Oh God….." I moaned, slamming the book shut.
"Please? One match? And you probably won't have to bowl more than half of it?"
"I can't bat to save my life."
"We've got plenty of decent batters, all you need to do is go in, hit what they throw at you and run when your partner does, Richard'll send you in with someone who'll keep you going."
"Richard already calls me a rabbit."
"Darling, if you'll bowl for him this afternoon, he won't do anything to upset you no matter HOW you bat."
I glared at the patio.
"Please?" Damien said gently. It’s a tone that's never easy to resist, even on days other than his birthday when I don't feel- entirely- compelled to be nice to him.
"I suppose so then." I said ungraciously. "Don't even ask me where my whites are-"
"With mine."
In which case then, they were no doubt pristine and perfectly ironed. Bang went THAT line of defence. Damien kissed the top of my head and got up. "Thankyou."
So much for the peaceful afternoon I had planned.
Damien and I have had this basic clash of perspective ever since we met. I see a wet, cold winter afternoon as a perfect time to curl up by the fire and eat chocolate. Damien USED to see it as a perfect time to go out and roll around in the mud with twenty nine other men in pursuit of a rugby ball, wandering back around tea time, plastered in mud, blood and bruises. If I like a colleague, I suggest we find a pleasantly situated pub and have a beer together. Damien wants them to strip down to shorts and play squash with him until one of them has heart failure. On summer afternoons, when the outdoors beckons and there are books to read in the sunshine, he puts on white flannels and races up and down a cricket pitch. Cricket is the worst of his sporting bugs: he's not quite as bad as he used to be, but I still catch him sometimes on summer mornings, heading to work with his cricket bat sticking out of his bag, as if he's ready and willing if anyone suddenly appears in his office looking for an emergency couple of innings. The sad thing is, he would be. He plays for the local team most Sunday afternoons in season, and has been known to join the group of players who tutor local kids on a Saturday morning during the school holidays. As a result, I know most of the team pretty well, having hung around with them in the regular club dinners and socials, not to mention joining them in the local pub after the Sunday matches. And having been dragged to fill in whenever the team is a player short and Damien can talk me around.
I therefore got a warm round of nods and smiles in the pavilion as Damien and I came over, Damien hefting the bag containing towels, his bat and several bottles of water. Richard straightened up and came over, giving me his usual assessing look as though wondering what I was worth per pound, fingers rasping through his beard.
"Nick. Thanks for turning out, mate. I thought we were stuffed for this afternoon. Peter Wainwright's kid got a standby call from the hospital this morning to go and have some revolting child thing done- tonsils or something. Why any decent cricket player would have kids beats me."
Damien grinned and hit my shoulder lightly on the way past. "Come on, I'll kit you out."
I trailed him to the club storeroom, watching several of the older members setting up the pitch out in the sunshine.
"Who are we playing anyway?"
"Ampthill. Just the village team. It's a friendly, not a serious match, don't worry."
"I suppose that's something."
"You'll be fine."
I caught the shin pads he tossed me, and watched while he sorted through the bats, hefting a few before he found one of the right weight. That he handed to me, hooking his free arm around my waist and pulling me close in the shelter of the door for a quick hug.
"Thanks for doing this. I'll make it up to you later."
I snatched a quick kiss, which was as thorough as all Damien's kisses are. "It's your birthday, I couldn't very well say no. But you can still make it up to me."
Damien grinned and blew down my neck before he let me go. The cars were arriving bringing the Ampthill team, people were assembling on the pitch. Damien watched me gather up my stuff, tucked his own bat under his arm and we went out to join them.
There was the usual standing around while the talking and setting up and negotiating was done, then the umpire flipped the coin and Ampthill went out to field. Richard assembled the rest of us and cast a quick look over everyone.
"Damien and Mark to bat first. No one do anything flashy, this is a good team we're playing. Just good, steady batting, and then we'll work on getting them fielded out in the second innings. And please, try and keep the wild balls to a minimum?" he added, carefully not looking at me. I caught Damien's eye and pulled a face at him. Then settled down on the grass, pulled my book out of Damien's bag and paused long enough to watch my long legged, dark haired lover, dressed from head to foot in crisp whites, go out to bat.
I got to read in peace for nearly an hour and a half before Richard poked me in the ribs. He'd batted after Mark, Damien so far had forty not out, and we were 93 for nine according to the chalk board the elderly local pharmacist was keeping for us.
"Nick, you're the next one in. You know that partner of yours could play for the county if he really wanted to?"
I sat up to watch, shading my eyes to pick Damien out of the groups around the wickets.
"He does it for fun, he wouldn’t want to have to take it seriously."
"When he has days like this I feel like pinning him to the wall and making him think it through a bit more. Are you ready to go?"
Damn. That sounded like I was going to have to actually play. I had hoped that Damien, Mark, Richard and the other decent batters would keep things going long enough that they wouldn't get down to me. Richard gave me an apologetic shrug.
"Sorry mate. After you we're down to Derek and Bill. And Bill's a wheezing wreck after running three yards."
Arg. I rolled over and picked up the shin pads, starting to buckle them on. Richard crouched down beside me.
"You got any plans tonight about Damien's birthday? Anywhere you're going?"
"No." I said thoughtlessly. "Just for a walk if he's not too shattered after this."
"Romantic, if dull." Richard groaned as Nigel Halford was bowled out on the pitch. "Go on. Your turn. Take it easy. Let Damien do the dramatic stuff and just work on staying in eh?"
Damien gave me a reassuring smile as I took the opposite end of the pitch to him, the pads swishing around my knees. I took a few deep breaths and took up position, trying to remember the instructions Damien had invested in me over the years. The Ampthill bowler shook out his hand a few times, polished the ball against his trousers, then stepped back. It was a slow, steady spin and as usual, once the ball was in the air, all I could think about was hitting it as far away as possible. My body reacted independently of me, there was a crack and the ball shot away to the left somewhere. Damien's eye caught mine across the grass, he nodded at me and we both ran, crossing the pitch once where I jabbed my bat into the grass and saw him head back towards his own wicket at a sprint, cueing me to make the return run. There he stopped and I took a breath, catching his eye again for a quick smile. We played it that way for a good twenty minutes, knocking up runs in ones and twos, Damien's neat and heavy drives somewhat more together than my flails at the ball. Then Damien went out to a caught ball, and my nerve fell apart the minute he left the pitch. I flailed straight at the next ball, missed and the wicket shattered behind me. I left the pitch to Derek and Bill- who was already panting- and followed Damien off.
"You did a good job." Richard greeted me, sitting beside Damien on the bench as I reached them. Damien slid up to make room for me, taking my bat and watching me unbuckle my pads.
"You intimidated the hell out of the Ampthill team. They all ducked every time you raised your bat."
"Shut up Rick." Damien said amicably. Richard grinned.
"Never mind lad. Any half way decent bowler can be a rabbit in this team, no problem. And at least you are a rabbit, not a ferret."
I frowned, somewhat familiar with 'rabbit'- the less than polite term for a less than able batter. Damien patted my knee.
"Ferrets. They're what you send in after the rabbits."
In the general strolling around and confusion at the end of our innings, which came a few minutes later, Damien handed me a bottle of water and jogged back to do the nice, handing drinks around thing with the visiting team. I drifted out towards the boundary, knowing without asking where I'd be expected to be when not bowling. I was standing out there, hands in my pockets, eyes half shut against the hot sunshine and watching the swallows zoom around over the willows at the side of the field, when Mark's voice reached me.
"……..Damien, he kept that very quiet- it's okay though, I had a quick word with Keith, he said he'd meet us in the bar afterwards, so we've got plenty of people to catch him. Keith's got the train ticket…"
Trains? I edged closer, startled.
"…..not sure whether we're really mean enough to go that far, but fifty miles or so on a train, stripped down to his shorts-"
"…….and that's celebrating?"
"He's got a sense of humour! Besides it's traditional in the club isn't it? If you get caught you get the prank played on you."
"And you're that sure he won't catch on?" Richard said dryly. Mark snorted.
"By the time he's had a few pints in the club house he'll be nice and relaxed and suspecting nothing at all."
They moved back towards the club house as the opposing team began to reassemble. I was left nearly spitting with outrage. MY Damien??
I'd been aware for a long time that sportsmen had a bizarre sense of humour. When I first knew Damien and he belonged to the rugby club, some of the things they used to do to each other in the name of 'fun' made any normal person's hair stand on end. Stag night type practical jokes gone mad. What really annoyed me was that Damien seemed to find them as amusing as the rest of the club did. He had actually told me when he left the rugby club that he'd grown out of it- but apparently the cricket club was no better! I stood where I was, heart thumping. There was no WAY anyone was stripping Damien down to his shorts- other than me, IN privacy and on MY schedule- and dumping him on a train out of some misguided idea they were celebrating his birthday. This had to be stopped. Instantly. Apart from anything else, who DID they think they were intruding on our evening?
"Mark can you bowl first?" Richard yelled across the pitch. Someone from the far side lobbed the ball in my general direction. I caught it and turned to throw it to Mark who was standing waiting at the crease. My heart was still thudding. BLOODY cricketers. What a damn silly way for grown men to spend their Sunday afternoons anyway. There was NO way Damien was getting near the bar at the end of the match. No matter what I had to do, no matter how I had to do it, they were not going to play any form of joke on him. I'd burn the pavilion down first.  I flung the ball in Mark's direction.
The crash of the pavilion window took me slightly by surprise and made me realise I'd thrown a lot further and a lot harder than I'd meant to. And just how much anger I'd been concentrating on the pavilion building.
There was a minute's silence on the pitch, while everyone looked at the shattered window. Then I cleared my throat and tried to stop blushing.
"Sorry, it slipped."
"They're not going to let him bowl, are they?" one of the Ampthill batters said quite audibly.
Damien was giving me an inquiring and rather searching look from the opposite side of the pitch. I shrugged, mouthing to him,
"It's allright mate." Richard said mildly, heading past me to get another ball. "It's only money. What are you trying to do, get the opposition to surrender before the innings?"
I went right back to my distant fielding post and concentrated on being very quiet.
The game started up again, far enough away from me that I could think in peace. If I got hold of Damien's cell phone and called Allen- maybe HE would ring Damien and give us an excuse to get out of here early.
Except then bang went our evening together, we'd be spending it with Allen and Robin.
Fate worse than death.
I sighed and started again. Suppose I developed a headache?
Damien would recommend tea, two of the aspirin he always carried on him and a quiet half hour in the cool of the bar…. No good. Okay, plan three, suppose-
A shout from the far end of the field made me look up and realise some misguided idiot had hurled the ball in my direction. Without time to look or track, I saw the brown blur flash by just as I looked up, I jumped and grabbed with both hands and to my relief made a clean catch. There were then a horrible few seconds while I realised, in a jumbled and unpleasant collation of data, that the game was still ongoing- Richard was running across the field to pick up the ball which lay in a totally different direction- and the cricket ball I was holding was not red nor hard, nor nearly circumferenced by white stitching. It was brown, it had wings and it's heart was thumping against my fingers. I stared at my hands, frozen with shock and panic. I appeared to have fielded a swallow.
"What's up mate?" someone shouted across to me. I spared a brief glance away from my hands, realised the game had stopped and that better still, Damien was jogging across the pitch in my direction. He reached me, looked at my outstretched hands and slowed down, walking the last few steps to me with sympathy and amusement in his voice. Bless him, he didn't laugh.
"It's okay, it's fine, just open your hands and let it go."
My hands weren't moving. It was a bird. I was somehow holding a live bird. Damien put his hands on my wrists.
"Nicky it's okay, just let go."
"I can't." I told him sincerely. "I don't know what to do-"
Damien gripped my wrists, lowered them slightly then pulled them apart in a sharp upward movement that sent the bird zooming in a panic into the air. I yelped reflexively, then, thank God, it was gone. There was a round of applause from the two cricket teams watching.
"Okay?" Damien said softly, still holding my wrists. "How on earth did you do that?"
"I wasn't looking." I admitted. "I saw something come past and grabbed."
"Then pay attention. If you don't watch you're likely to get hurt." Damien let me go and touched my cheek lightly. "Sure you're allright?"
I nodded. He gave me a smile and jogged back to his post.
I went on thinking while the fast bowlers worked. I'd still come up with nothing useful when Richard waved me over, and we were half way through the Ampthill side batting.
I knew then I was in trouble. Slow bowling isn't something you can do without giving it a lot of attention.
The next half hour was busy. We went through three batters, getting down quickly to the least able and dexterous of their batting side. Which made bowling hard-to-hit balls steadily easier to do. It was when we got the third one out and he was walking away, I saw Mark behind the batting wicket, standing calmly, shin padded and helmeted as though nothing whatever was wrong. The ball was thrown across to me and I held it, twisting it in my hands as the fourth batter walked out to take up position. Maybe I had the answer. One slip of the hand now…… and Mark might not feel up to a long, complicated evening…..?
I took a few steps back, thinking it over, then took a short run up and bowled a sharp spin straight past the batter, putting as much weight behind it as I dared.
It caught Mark right on the shin pads.
It took Mark about two minutes to stop hissing and swearing and get his pads back on. I don't know what he was fussing about: due to the pads the very worst he was likely to suffer was a bruise and the limp was overdoing it. I apologised to him several times, increasingly aware of Damien's eyes boring into me from behind. I could explain later: once he understood I was sure he wouldn't mind. The Ampthill guy who was umpiring for us, stepped back once he was satisfied Mark would continue playing, and gave me, then Richard a hard look.
"I'd like you to be aware that if your bowler had hit one of the opposition team, I'd be sending him off. That ball did not classify as an accident. However, since there is nothing in the regulations about the bowler not being allowed to maim his own team, play on."
Damien fixed me with a long, slow stare as Richard handed me the ball back. I tried to stop flushing quite so hotly. Richard turned me back towards the crease, shaking his head.
"LOOK. Us good. Ampthill team BAD. Kill THEM, not us. Got it?"
I played appropriately for the rest of the match. Damien was now watching me so closely I didn't dare do anything else. By the time I was headed for the club store cupboard to return my kit, I was out of ideas and reaching panic. Behind me, I was aware of Mark, Richard and Keith gathering together and talking, while Damien innocently drank tea, sitting on the pavilion steps. Now thankfully cleared of broken glass. I had about five minutes before the bar would be opened, we'd be into the early evening post-match drink and Damien would be………
I returned my bat to the rack, unbuckled my pads and reached up to put them back in the overhead locker. It was a heavy, wooden one with a lid you lifted up and latched on a hook to the ceiling to keep it clear. Footsteps were approaching behind me, other team members coming to replace borrowed kit. The idea hit me suddenly and with panic for the thought of having only seconds of privacy left. Otherwise, I think my nerve might have failed me. The one thing that always got Damien's undivided attention fast- I raised the hinged lid of the locker, put the pads in and released the lid, bracing myself.
It whacked the top of my head so hard I actually saw stars.
For a minute I wasn't aware of much else apart from the dazzling throb of my head and the strange smell of stored leather and bats. Then I realised I was sprawled on the floor of the store cupboard and Bill and Nigel were kneeling over me, both of them white faced. Damien exploded through the door of the cupboard, stepped over me and took Bill's place, pushing his fingers through my hair until he found the lump.
"Nicky? Are you allright? Nick?"
He sounded so ridiculously calm, I responded in kind. So polite. So courteous. And not at all as though we were flat out on the floor in a cupboard. Damien helped me sit up, got to his feet and more or less lifted me to standing.
"Nige, see if you can find some ice?"
Nigel jogged towards the pavilion. Damien guided me into the sunlight and onto the pavilion steps where I sat and nursed my head. Someone put a bottle of water into my hand. Damien sat down beside me and lifted my chin.
"Nicky? Can you see allright? Anything blurred?"
Damien's voice was very soft, pitched for my ears only.
"Do you know where you are? Come on darling, talk to me."
"The cricket club. And it's Sunday. July the something or other, 2001." I pulled myself together and got my head up, wanting to reassure him. I only wanted us to go home, not to scare him.
"Feel sick?" Damien went on quietly. "Dizzy? No?"
"I'm fine, if we go home and I can lie down for a bit I'll be fine." I said hopefully. Damien took a teacloth filled with ice from Nigel and put it gently against my head.
"In a while. I want to be sure you're okay before we go anywhere."
"Damien?" Keith said cheerfully from the pavilion door, "How about a pint?"
Oh God.
"Maybe we should go?" I said, pushing the ice away. "I think I do feel sick-"
"If you feel that bad we should probably go to casualty." Damien tipped my head up again, looking at my eyes. "You don't LOOK that bad- you weren't knocked out, you're fine, there's just a good sized lump on your head."
Arg arg arg arg ARG.
No I did NOT want to spend the evening in casualty. I took a deep breath and gave up on that idea.
"Its wearing off, I'm okay."
"Just sit quietly for a bit. Suppose I get a couple of pints and we sit here in the shade?"
There was nothing I could do but nod. He got up, leaving me sitting on the steps. Okay, now my back really WAS against the wall. It was the last and dirtiest trick in the book, but there was nothing else I could think of to do.
It took only a few minutes of working up to it before I managed some highly realistic wheezes, and by the time Damien came back to me I had a crowd of concerned cricketers around me, watching me huffing ineffectually at my inhaler. Damien put the pints down, crouched in front of me and put his hands over mine, watching me for a few minutes. Then he said calmly,
"Is this going to be okay?"
I shook my head, not looking at him.
"Can I help?" Richard demanded, looking anxious. Damien shook his head and put an arm around my shoulders, helping me up.
"No, I'll take him home. His meds are there, he'll be fine."
I stumbled outside, wheezing hard, into the cool of the carpark. Damien unlocked his car, helped me down into the passenger seat and backed the car out of the carpark, zooming towards home. Two hundred yards down the road, he pulled in, turned the engine off and Looked at me.
"Allright Gwyneth, stop it RIGHT now."
I looked at him, wide eyed, my stomach tying itself in knots. Damien raised his eyebrows at me. I wheezed loudly and convincingly, making myself cough. Damien's voice promptly sharpened still further.
"NICK. We're in a public place, please don't make me stop you."
Oh God. That was a threat as rare as it was terrifying, and I had no intention of seeing whether or not he was prepared to follow it through.
I stopped. Fast.
Damien waited a minute while we both listened to the sound of me breathing quietly and easily. Then he shook his head, put the car into gear and headed for home.
I coughed miserably, huddling into my seat. One horrendous afternoon. Damien furious with me. Running away to sea seemed like a good option. Damien turned into our drive, parked the car and got out to unlock the door. I stayed where I was, watching him and hoping he'd forget about me. Once the front door was open he came back to my door, opened it and beckoned to me, one of his more cheerfully sadistic looks on his face. Very slowly I got out and let him take my hand, steering me ahead of him indoors. He parked me at the kitchen table, put the kettle on and then turned to lean against the counter, folding his arms.
"Where shall we start, Nicholas?" he invited.  "Can we do this off the cuff, or do I need a pen and paper?"
"I can explain." I said thickly, coughing.
"Oh good!"
Damien poured tea, plonked a mug down in front of me and pulled my inhaler out of my pocket, losing the sarcasm. "Another two, come on."
I fumbled with the inhaler and took one, hard pull on it. And realised my ability to get air into my chest was not nearly as good as I thought it was, the deepest breath I could manage was a faint gulp. Damien pulled a chair out and sat beside me, pulling the inhaler away from my mouth.
"Wait, you'll loosen up in a minute."
I shut my eyes. Damien's fingers rifled through the hair at the nape of my neck, stroking with a gentleness that was in direct contrast to his voice. That was frankly exasperated.
"You'd better have a seriously convincing reason why you just did this to yourself, or I'm going to give way to my baser instincts and see to it you don't sit down for a month. What on EARTH possessed you?"
"Glub." I said penitently through the wheezing. Damien took the inhaler away from me and went on rubbing.
"Breathe. Come on, you're okay, breathe quietly."
I turned around and leaned against him. A minute later Damien shook the inhaler and handed it back to me. This time I got a breath right down. Damien pushed the tea closer to me and got up to pour himself a cup.
"Allright," he said when he sat down again. "Lets take this nice and slowly. Then you might breathe through it, and I might manage to understand some of this without my brain leaking out through my ears."
I gave him a drop dead look over the edge of my cup. Damien sat back, quite undeterred by it.
"From the beginning please. First there was the pavilion window. Which I would have taken as an accident had you not then bowled Mark."
"That was an-"
"Nick don't even try looking helpless at me." Damien interrupted with quite unnecessary sternness. "You can look as incompetent as you like; I KNOW you can bowl, you DO know what you're doing and you ARE responsible for your own actions. If you hit something it's because you meant to. Pavilion window AND Mark."
Damn. My eyes stung, and any hope of sounding convincing faded fast.
"I heard Mark and Richard talking, they were-"
"They were doing what?" Damien interrupted curtly.
"They were planning to drag you into the pub tonight and they were talking about all sorts of horrible ideas- because of your birthday-"
"Horrible ideas?" Damien said quizzically. I looked at him, beyond tact and diplomacy.
"They were talking about STAG night type stuff- awful things-"
"Yes, Mark's brother's stag night is tonight, he's joining them at the pavilion." Damien said bluntly. I stopped.
"But I heard your name!"
"Because they asked me if I wanted to get involved. I said no, and that our plans just included us for tonight."
I swallowed, taking in the implications from that. Damien drank the rest of his tea.
"So. You bowled at Mark because you thought they were planning this stuff for me?"
"I didn't AIM at him, it just sort of happened-"
"Are you telling me it was subconscious bowling, or supernatural forces here?" Damien demanded. I flinched.
"I really didn't MEAN to…. The ball just came out of my hand in that direction- I suppose I sort of wanted to distract him. Put him off going out tonight-"
"By injuring him."
"I didn't injure him, I got his legs and he was wearing pads- and I thought he was going to do something horrible to you!"
"And you couldn't just have asked him? Nicky, do you think they'd pull anything like that without consulting you anyway?"
"Yes…….?" I hazarded, looking at him for help. Damien tipped his head back and looked at the ceiling tiles.
"And the concussion via the store cupboard door, and then the asthma attack, I'll guess those were attempts to get us both off the premises?"
"Except I didn't want you to spend the evening in casualty-"
"So you had the attack instead?"
I nodded, aware from his tone that I was walking into a minefield.
"I just wanted to leave- discreetly and make sure you came too-"
"You couldn't take me aside and tell me- calmly and simply- Damien I'd like to leave now?"
I blinked at him. Damien sighed.
"Apart from that seeing you start wheezing like that, without warning, more or less puts the fear of God up me, messing around with your breathing is NOT an intelligent OR a healthy thing to do! IS it?"
"I don't know…?"
Damien Looked at me. "IS it?"
"No." I admitted hastily. Damien sat forward and put his cup down on the table with a distinct click that made me jump.
"You are VERY lucky that no one was hurt this afternoon as a result of your actions, yourself included. You do NOT compromise anyone's safety OR assault them no matter how justified the cause may seem to you at the time! I do seem to remember saying that to you before once or twice, does it ring a bell?"
"Yes…" I said unhappily. "I didn't mean to-"
"But that didn't stop you." Damien pointed out. "As to staging attacks or any other kind of injury to manipulate me- have we talked about that before now?"
Oh God. We were into DEEP water now. I'd sort of tried that with him in the very early days, when like my parents he couldn't actually sort the real attacks from the 'encouraged'  ones and I was in a situation I really needed out of. I never did work out how he knew, but once he realised he was less than pleased about it.
"I'm sorry, I just couldn't think of anything else to do- it wasn't like I was trying to get out of anything, I just needed to get us both out of there quick!"
"And that's the same reason for you whacking yourself over the head with a locker door?" Damien inquired.
That was it. I ducked my head, but the tears still started. I heard Damien's exasperated sigh, then his hand closed over my wrist, pulled me out of my chair and into his lap.
"What am I going to do with you?"
Right now, that was a question I didn't want to think about. I got my arms around his neck and buried my face in his shoulder. Damien hugged me, a strong enough hug for the physical memory of it to linger long after his arms released, then I felt his hand move through my hair, looking for the lump that marked the locker fall.
"Does that hurt?"
I'd been going to say no, but even his light fingers made me hiss and jump as he found the bruise. He turned my chin up and looked at my eyes for a minute, long and hard, then let me burrow back against him.
"You're lucky you're not concussed. Allright my boy, I make that a grand total of endangering yourself, staging an attack- and whatever your reason, that isn't on and you know it-" He added before I could protest. I subsided back against him, shutting my eyes and hoping somehow, magically, this would all just go away. Damien's voice continued calmly against my ear.
"The breaking a window I'll take as more or less an accident, but Mark- that was a straight forward attempt at disabling him."
And anything that hurt or endangered me or anyone else, he was death on. I knew what that added up to. I took a deep breath and pulled myself together before Damien did anything else, like make any hasty decisions.
"Ok, I know. But it's only half past five, we can still salvage this evening. I've made enough of a mess of today, let's forget about this for now and try to make up for it? We can deal with this later. Or tomorrow. We don't have to wreck the rest of the day too."
"Darling," Damien said gently. "If we leave it, you are going to be a nervous wreck."
"I won't. I promise."
"It's got nothing to do with promises, you won't be able to help it." Damien slid me off his lap, keeping hold of my hand. "Apart from which, you've had a good sized whack on the head this afternoon and upset your chest. I don't think it would be too sensible to go anywhere this evening."
"But it's perfectly sensible to whack me some more." I grumbled as he pushed me ahead of him to the stairs. Damien patted my rump to get me moving upstairs.
"It's allright, Nicholas, I know what I'm doing."
In our room he paused to turf Anastasia off the bed before he headed for the wardrobe. Anastasia paused in a patch of afternoon sunshine and stretched luxuriously, arching back from her long and immaculate forelegs, then strolled past me, oblivious to my now twisting stomach, dry mouth and increasing conviction I was about to throw up or burst into tears or possibly both.  Damien took the cane down from the top shelf and flexed it a few times, bringing the dreadful thing to life in his hands. I hated it. I seriously, passionately hated it. Even though I'd known what was coming, my nerve broke at that point and my mouth started working independently of me.
"Please, I swear I won't ever do that again, I promise-"
"Over the bed please."
I didn't actually intend on being unco operative, I was just frozen to the spot. Damien put a hand on my shoulder to move me.
"Come on Nicky, don't drag it out."
Somehow I got myself over the end of the bed, my weight on my hands, my knees stiff  mostly to keep them from buckling, my eyes trying to make sense of the blurred duvet cover in front of me. My hands and face were sweating already with sheer anticipation.
"What do you do when you run across a problem you think needs solving?" Damien asked from behind me. I swallowed, trying to find my voice. To stand still like this, surrendered and just- waiting- was about the hardest thing in the world to have to do. My feet were rooted to the spot, it was the only way I was managing to stand still.
"Talk to you…?"
"Before you take ANY action."
Yes, allright, whatever, get ON with it……….
"I know, I'm sorry."
I felt the cane rest gently against both buttocks, which involuntarily clenched as far away from it as possible as Damien took his distance.
"And whatever happens, you do NOT assault anyone. For any reason. OR take any risks with yourself."
The cane lifted away, making me screw my face up in preparation for the first thwack of descent. I was reaching screaming point when I heard the swish and the distinct CRACK a split second before a line of fire lit up across my backside.
I never remember how much that hurts.
I jumped a mile, the breath rushed out of my lungs and my eyes filled with involuntary tears.  The sting was searing enough to make me gasp with the sheer spite of it. The second CRACK came way too soon and landed more or less in the same place, and it took all of my nerve not to reflexively get up or put my hands behind me as the sting intensified.
"OW! Damiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeen-"
"Stand still." Damien said calmly.
Easy for him to say. I stared at the duvet, trying to breathe around the awful, biting sting eating away into my behind. Swish, crack. OUCH. The tears started in earnest then. Damien, thank God, doesn't lecture when he canes. I wouldn't hear a word he said anyway. The fourth stroke was harder still and this time I did jerk upright, grabbing at the seat of my flannels with both hands and squeezing hard in an attempt to try to quench that awful, acid sting. "AGH, OW Damien PLEASE-"
The look I got was of so much disapproval that the tears redoubled, although I didn't have sufficient breath to cry. Damien took no notice whatever. I couldn't see his face clearly now, but his voice was stern enough to make me jump.
"Nicholas bend over. Right now."
Between a rock and a hard place, I did the only thing I could do- and what I knew I would have to do in the end anyway- some how took my hands away, turned around and bent over once more, trying not to shake too obviously.
The fifth stroke landed across the lower curves of my rump, adding a new band of fire to the general inferno and making me screech without any dignity whatsoever. The sixth stroke was just as hard and the lowest of the six lines now scalding their acid across my bottom. I stood where I was and gasped for several minutes, rigid from head to foot with the sheer tension of containing that appalling, unbearable sting. Damien put a hand on my shoulder and pulled me upright, his voice gentle now and very very soothing.
"Come on, that'll do."
I straightened up, trembling, and he put his arms tightly around me. That broke any self control I had left. I started to cry, hard, and he rocked me, saying nothing, just letting me get on with it.
By the time I was done, I had more breath than when I'd started and the maddening smart  was diminishing to manageable proportions.
"I swear you practice that." I said into his lapels eventually. Damien snorted.
"Darling, I've been playing cricket all afternoon. If you don't want me warmed up, don't maim anyone during cricket matches."
"I DIDN'T maim anyone." I stepped back, sniffing. Damien smoothed my hair out of my eyes.
"How about you wash your face, come down stairs and we have some tea? Hm?"
I nodded, using the heel of my hand to wipe my eyes. "I'm sorry for messing up this afternoon."
"Its not important." Damien caught me before I could get past him and kissed me quickly and firmly. "The weather forecast for tomorrow is just as good, we can walk then."
"Actually, we can't," I said tentatively. Damien raised his eyebrows at me.
I headed for the wardrobe, walking stiffly, and sorted through the pocket of my coat until I found what I was looking for. And handed it to him. A small, white envelope.
"I meant to give these to you this evening. Jeff knows, and Beth- we've both sort of got tomorrow off."
Damien opened the envelope, face bemused. The tickets inside were for the test match at Edgebaston tomorrow. England against Pakistan. From the look on his face I knew I'd managed to surprise him in a good way. It wasn't something I often managed to do.
"Happy birthday." I said lightly.
~The End~
Copyright Ranger 2010

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