Thursday, February 11, 2010


Title: Secrets
Author: Ranger

Allen's call came in the middle of the England match against Germany. That was the FIRST thing wrong with it. Damien answered, still with most of his attention on the TV. Faithful to the last to the England squad, he'd been glued since the pre game discussions began at seven and was sticking by them with no more than the odd reproachful mutter.
"Yep? Oh, hi Allen. Why aren't you watching the game? No, still nil-nil. Ah."
He went into the murmurs that meant he was listening to whatever Allen was telling him and trying to watch the game at the same time. After a minute he held out his hand to me, clicking his fingers to attract my attention.
"It’s Nick you want, not me. He's the computer literate one."
"What’s the problem?" I rolled off the sofa and took the receiver from him. Damien pulled a face at me.
"Something with the disk drive. What do I know?"
"You just want to go back to admiring Shearer's rear view." I said cynically. Damien grinned at me and settled back down in front of the box. I sat down with the phone and began to straighten out a very temperamental disk drive, interrupted briefly by Damien when England scored the one and only goal of the evening.
The score was still one- nil when Allen hung up, happy with a more or less functional computer. I nudged at Damien until he moved over and let me cuddle up. It was starting to cool down after a hot day, we had all the doors and windows open and the evening breeze was wonderful through the house.
"You could have fixed that."
"Actually I couldn't." Damien slung an arm around me and winced as Shearer was floored for the second time that evening. "Now THAT was uncalled for-  no, not without it in front of me. You're the computer whiz, not me."
"An unemployed computer whiz." I reminded him. "If I was that good, they'd be queuing up on the doorstep."
"The right thing will turn up." Damien's fingers tangled in my hair, tousling gently. It was a nice gesture but badly timed. When extra time finished two minutes later, his jerk of excitement nearly tore my hair out by the roots and he spent most of the re plays apologising. 
It was nearly four weeks since I resigned from my job. It was something Damien had pushed me into doing, but once I made the first move towards ending a post I had grown to hate, the rest came entirely of my own volition. The world of deadlines, meetings, piling workloads and never ending tension could survive without me. I'd spent my new found free time straightening out the house and garden, doing the odds and ends of decorating we'd meant to do for months and never got around to, I had time to cook, to read, to draw, all the things I'd forgotten I enjoyed. I spent a lot of it trying to make up to Damien for the several months of hell I'd put him through prior to resigning. It was working. He certainly had no problems in coming home to an immaculate house, a cooked meal and an unstressed, un tired partner. He was going to find it quite a culture shock when I DID find another job and we went back to eating fish fingers.
I was doing nothing more exciting than sprawl on the living room carpet where it was coolest, devoting all this time and energy to reading one of Damien's detective thrillers on Tuesday afternoon when the doorbell rang. I recognised the outline through the glass before I even got the door open. Robin. Not my favourite person, and at three pm on a weekday, someone who ought to have been in Damien's office and at work. He gave me a hopeful smile, oblivious to my glare of welcome.
"Nick, have you got a minute? I really need to talk to you."
"What have you come to pinch this time?" I said nastily, following him into the living room. He took no notice, just sat down in the nearest armchair and gave me his puppies and kittens on a postcard look. Those incredibly soft eyes had to be the main reason his partner put up with him. I knew Allen: a nice, uncomplicated bloke who couldn't have been more different to this lunatic he lived with. Robin sounded unusually agitated.
"I am in awful trouble. You have got no idea of the shit I am in."
Oh dear, what a pity, never mind.
Robin cleared his throat when I didn't respond. "Look. I did something really REALLY stupid last night. I didn't think it through, and when Allen finds out I am going to be dead. I mean there will be an actual death involved, he is going to go spare. The thing is, it's on the computer and Allen told me you were good with computers? I kind of wondered if you could do anything to help?"
I looked at him. Robin winced.
"Oh come on. Who among us is perfect? Can you tell me you've never done anything stupid? Ever?"
"What happened?" I said unpromisingly. Robin ran his hands through his hair.
"I lost my temper basically. You know Jerry?"
The managing director of the company Damien and Robin worked for. He was a friend of Damien's, I knew him quite well.
"He was being a total git about these designs I handed into him- we had a bit of a barney and in the end he told me to re do them the way he wanted. So I kind of lost my rag."
"And?" I said, not unintrigued. Robin sighed.
"I really lost it. I mailed the details of the client to a rival company. I was going to apply for a job there, I was thinking about resigning and going to this company-"
"And they'd give you the job for the work you'd take away from Jerry and Damien?" I stared at him in frank dislike. "I can't BELIEVE you came here to tell me-" 
Robin winced. "I know, I know! I told you it was really stupid. Anyway, I had time to think last night and Damien made me go out for a drink after work and gave me an earful about the way I acted with Jerry and I realised what a prat I'd been. Trouble is I emailed the whole client package across to this company and it's worth a lot of money. I'll bet we lose it, and if Jerry finds out I handed that one away I'll probably lose my job."
"If you've emailed it there isn't much anyone can do." I said bluntly. "It's gone."
"I mailed it to the company website." Robin looked at me, desperately hopeful. "Chances are they won't have processed it yet. Is there ANYTHING you can do to get it off the website before it's read?"
I frowned. "Apart from crash the website, no."
"Can you do that?"
"I'm serious! Look, if I lose this client, I'm going to lose my job, Jerry and Damien are going to lose a big client and a lot of money and Allen is going to wring my neck. If you crash that website, it just takes them a day to sort it out and no harm done!"
"I'm pretty sure there are legal implications for sabotaging-"
"Will they be able to trace it as being you?" Robin demanded. I thought, not happy about it.
"I don’t think so. I could get onto the site and cause enough natural errors to make it crash, which would probably lose most of the stuff on temporary memory- mails, that kind of thing."
"That's great!"
"I didn't say I'd do it!" I reminded him. "Apart from how ethical it is, why should I bail you out?"
"Sympathy for a fellow brat and not wanting to see Damien lose a major client?" Robin coaxed. "Please? Come on Nick, please? Just try?"
Get lost.
I started to say it and then hesitated. Robin's pleading eyes moved from picture postcard to genuinely desperate.
"Look. If this goes through, Damien's going to lose a big account. And he's going to be pretty damn upset too. He's spent a lot of time with me, he was the one that got me into his department, he doesn't deserve this- please Nick."
I glowered at him. He was right; Damien for some reason I couldn't fathom, thought a lot of this berk. He'd take this very personally. Which served Robin right, but wouldn't make Damien feel any better.
I must have had a screw loose.
I took him upstairs, logged onto the net and we did it. 
He was gone by the time Damien came home. And my initial feeling of wow, I actually managed to do it, was starting to be replaced by a nagging sense of I probably shouldn't have done that.
"What are you reading?" Damien inquired, stepping over me and yanking his tie loose. I got up to kiss him.
"One of your thrillers."
"Don't give yourself nightmares."
I pulled a face at him. "Good day?"
"Yes. Well sort of." Damien trailed me into the kitchen, opened the fridge and found a bottle of wine opened. "Robin may get his neck wrung by Friday, he's just about pushed Jerry to breaking point now."
Uh oh. I turned my back, carefully getting down plates and bowls.
"What’s he done?"
"Turned in some bloody silly designs yesterday, then had an almighty wobbly when Jerry told him they were no good. Then vanished for two hours this afternoon without a word to anyone and said he was researching. I suspect he was researching the pool table at the local pub with his mates. I don't like telling tales but if he doesn't pull his act together shortly, I'm going to take Allen aside and explain to him just how many problems we have with that boy."
"I thought you were supposed to be able to handle him." I teased, not looking around as my face was hot. Damien's arm slung around my neck from behind.
"Ah but I'd far rather be handling you, that's the problem. What's for tea?"
"I thought we could barbecue? It’s a lovely evening."
"Mmmn." Damien took another swallow of wine with a sound of deep appreciation and let me go. "Have I got time to shower?"
That sounded a great idea. Anything to avoid talking about Robin.
I made salad, listening to the shower running upstairs, starting to realise how much trouble I was in. I was not good at secrets. My conscience was never very good with this kind of thing at all. I knew all I was going to think about now was that I shouldn't have done it. I shouldn't have interfered, I shouldn't have sabotaged a website, I should go straight upstairs, pull Damien out of the shower and tell him.
Had it been just me involved, I would have done. I would have given it until about four am. before I cracked and told him.
But it wasn't just me. I didn't like Robin, but Damien wasn't just his friend, he was his colleague and supervisor. If I told him, he would have to take action against Robin and it could well mean he lost his job.
The full implications sank in as I lit the barbecue outside. I had done something- awful- and there was no way I could get it off my conscience now.
"Nicky for Pete's sake look what you're doing!" Damien yanked me away from the barbecue as the flames shot up, reacting to the bottle of spirit I was pouring without paying much attention. I dropped the bottle in shock. Damien pushed me behind him and kicked the bottle out of the way, watching until the flames died down. Then he turned me around and swatted me, hard.
"WILL you be careful? I thought you were going to catch your face alight!"
"Sorry, I wasn't thinking." I put a hand behind me to rub, stung and shaken. Damien pulled me closer and pushed my hair back, checking for scorch marks.
"Stick to cooking man, and let me handle the fire! What are you in a dream about?"
"I don't know, I just wasn't thinking."
"Not thinking like that is going to leave you without eyebrows."
Thank God he left it there. We sat outside to eat, enjoying the slowly cooling evening. Or Damien enjoyed it. I concentrated on forgetting all about computers and websites and Robin.
"Leave the dishes." Damien said when we finished, locking the back door behind us as we came in. "Lets go over to Newsham park, I could do with a walk."
I trailed him towards the car, trying to look enthusiastic. Damien started the engine and I jumped at the hand dropped on my knee.
"What? You're very quiet, what are you thinking about?"
"Job applications." I said as the first thing that came to mind. Damien's hand ran soothingly over my thigh and let go.
"They'll be fine. God knows you're good at writing them, you know how to put yourself into words, just have some confidence. The right posts will turn up."
"It’s the interviews I'm worried about."
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Don't sell yourself short, sweetheart. You're a damn good artist."
Had that truly been the problem, that would have helped a lot. As it was, I gave him a tight smile and tried to look convinced.
Damn Robin. I ought on principle, never to open the door to the man. 
We walked around the park for an hour, through the mile or so of cultivated woodland to the rolling hills that looked out over the reservoirs to the south of the town. Damien dropped onto a bench at the peak of the hill and I sat down beside him, looking with him over a pink sky and several miles of farmland and blue, sparkling water.
This, if anywhere, if any time, was the time to tell him. My heart thumped at the thought, my throat tightening as I tried to summon up the best way of putting this.
You know that company you spend most of your time fighting for clients? Well I sort of wrecked their website. For no reason of course. And with no one else involved.
Right. Yes. He'd believe that allright…in my dreams.
I gave up, swallowing hard. I knew my boy. Once I started, he'd have the whole story out of me within ten minutes, he could read me like a book. Oh he'd be startled. He'd be annoyed- and Damien annoyed is worth a great deal to avoid- but he wouldn't be angry. Within an hour or two, things would be straight between us and it would be over with. much as I dreaded telling him, I knew without a doubt things would quickly be allright.
But I couldn't implicate Robin. It wasn't fair, it wasn't right. And he had FAR more to lose than I had.
Damien's hands wandered over my shoulders and started to rub at my neck. I shut my eyes and bent my head, letting his fingers sink into me.
"The idea of you not working was supposed to be that you were less stressed."
There was no one around. I curled up on the bench and leaned against him, burying myself in his arms.
"I'm not stressed."
"You're suspiciously quiet." Damien stroked my back, his palm heavy and very soothing. "What's the problem?"
"Really nothing. Maybe I'm just tired."
Amazingly, he didn't argue any further. Just nudged my head up and we devoted some time to necking like teenagers until I saw an elderly couple approaching with their dogs and hastily nudged him in the ribs. By the time the couple reached us we were sitting primly side by side, ready to nod politely and wish them good evening. Damien grinned at me as soon as they were out of the way and held out his hand.
"Want to negotiate somewhere a little more private?"
That was the best offer I'd had all day. 
Out of habit, I still got up when Damien did. He came into the bedroom just after seven, dressing while he watched me steam gently on the end of the nebuliser.
"What are you going to do today?"
"If the weather's good I was going over to Wenlock. Add some more up to date sketches to the portfolio. I out to get some more technical work in if I'm going to stand up to an interview." I glanced at my watch and turned the nebuliser off. At the moment I barely needed it. I hadn't been this healthy in months. "And shop, probably."
"Want to meet me over there for lunch?"
"Since when do you get lunch breaks long enough to drive to Wenlock?" 
Damien gave me his unique shrug and smile, the one eyebrow quirking gently in the way that means he's teasing.  "I am senior management."
"You don't have to. I'm not that depressed."
"Why do you have to be depressed for me to have lunch with you?" Damien demanded. "You know the Blue Boar? About 1.30?" He strapped his watch on and paused to kiss me as he picked up his jacket, voice softening out of flippancy. "Cheer up darling."
I listened to him run downstairs, now seriously feeling like hell. What could be crueller than Damien being nice to me?
As soon as the front door shut, I turned the computer on and checked the website. It was still down. 
"What do you want me to do about it?" Robin demanded when I rang him. "No one's going to trace it to you, are they? It's not exactly your fault!"
"Not my fault?" I said indignantly. "Who crashed the site Robin?"
"Yes but you did it on my behalf, I don't know what you're coming over all pure about. Just let it go!"
I hesitated, not at all happy with that idea and more than a little puzzled. Damien and I had been together a lot longer than Robin and Allen, but still- in my limited experience, people who lived in the kind of relationships we chose, tended to care a bit more about right and wrong than most. It could be well hidden, but it was usually there. Either Robin was hiding it exceptionally well, or he really was as comfortable about betraying his colleagues and lying to his partner as he sounded. At times I wondered why on earth Damien liked him.
"Doesn't this bother you at all?"
"Its over with. Finished." Robin sounded exasperated. "God, that's the last time I come to you for anything! You're not going to make anything better by clearing your precious conscience, are you? All you'll do is make things worse for everyone- you, me, Jerry and Damien! This is just some sort of nobility kick on your part, I don't believe this I must tell Damien act for two seconds! Look, you said yourself, Damien won't be thrilled at your part in it- unless it's that you're dying to see me get hung, drawn and quartered, leave it alone!"
"It's tempting!" I snapped back, and put the phone down, hurt. Honestly, I had no desire to get him into trouble.  But at the same time, I had no idea how he could go home to Allen with this on his mind, and carry on as though nothing had happened. 
I waited in trepidation for the sky to fall for about two days. I don't know what I expected. Damien to come home and announce there was a saboteur on the loose, wrecking websites left and right, or the police to appear on the doorstep maybe. Nothing happened. The website re appeared within thirty six hours with no message to say what had happened. The internet wasn't the most stable force in the world: the company probably took it as a natural hazard. Robin was right, this was going to pass without trouble, and yet I still felt like hell.
I put two applications in the post on Thursday. One for a post with a commercial designers office which I thought Damien would probably be less than happy with when he realised what it entailed, and another post for a sign writers which I applied to with vague interest in the job description they sent me. Neither of them had my full attention. 
"Aren't you hungry?" Damien said when I spent Thursday dinnertime pushing a plate of salad around. I gave up the pretence and dropped my fork.
"Not very. Too hot."
"What have you been doing all day?"
"This and that. Varnishing the gates mostly."
"That should have worked up an appetite." Damien picked up his plate and paused to put a hand over my forehead before he took mine. "Why don't you go and have a bath? Cool down a bit."
"I'm okay."
"You never handle heat well. Go on, I'll deal with the washing up."
If he didn't stop being so nice, I was going to go batty. I got as far as the top of the stairs and sat there, staring out of the window at the bottom. This was horrendous. I was going to tell him. Damien was nothing if not honourable: if I told him in confidence he wouldn't tell Robin he knew.
Yep, sure. Another great plan Nicholas.
"Nicky, bath." Damien said firmly from the foot of the stairs. I shook my head.
"Not in the mood."
"Did I ask if you were in the mood?"
"Oh whatever!" I exploded and stormed the rest of the way up the stairs. He caught the bathroom door on the rebound.
"What was that about?"
"Nothing!" I sat on the edge of the bath and turned the taps on full blast. Damien pulled me to my feet with one hand and shut off the taps with the other. Then he looked at me and waited. I grimaced, without the will or energy to see this battle through. Surrender was a lot quicker and a lot easier.
"Sorry. It's so hot and I've been in a lousy mood all day. I put those two application forms in this morning and I've been thinking about them all day-"
That was an outright lie and I more than expected him to reject it, but all he did was reach past me and turn the taps on again.
"If you're this wound up about the forms, what are you going to be like over the interviews?"
"Mmn." Damien swatted me, fairly gently. "I can't wait."
"I'm sorry." I said suddenly and sincerely, pulled his head down and he hugged me hard.
"I know it's not easy. It'll be allright."
Arg. He went down to finish the washing up and left me feeling nothing short of terrible. 
I slept more or less through the first half of the night, then drifted into some horrible dream where Robin and I argued endlessly about who told who and when and how, and the police charged us both for computer hacking. In the end I got up, left Damien asleep and went downstairs to make tea.
He came down at six, wearing only t shirt and shorts, and stood in the doorway of the living room, sleepy and dishevelled and pretty damn stunning in a Damien sort of way. His hair hangs in his eyes when the gel wears off and it makes his eyes look still darker hazel until they're green gold.
"Hi." He peered at the clock on the video, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. "You're up early."
"Couldn't sleep."
"Nicky." Damien came over, sat on the arm of the sofa and tousled my hair, shaking it out of my eyes. "What's the matter? You've been wound up all week. Is it really just these forms bothering you?"
I turned my face away from him. A childish gesture and I knew it, but I didn't want to see his eyes. His voice was the gentle, quiet tone he knows goes right through me.
"Nick. I know you're having a hard time at the moment, and I know you must see it as my fault-"
THAT shook me. I had no idea that was on his mind.
"I don't, of course I don't."
"I made you resign." Damien said matter of factly.
My poor boy. No wonder he was going so gently with me if he thought I was unhappy because of him. I rolled over and hauled myself up him to get both arms around his neck.
"Damien that's ridiculous. Completely ridiculous."
"I know you're bored, and unemployment's a good way to knock holes in your self esteem at the best of times-"
"Damien it isn't that bad!" I pulled back to see his face, worried now about convincing him. "Really. I like time to myself, I think I needed this break. And you were right; I didn't know how bad things were until I didn't have to be in that office every morning. I hated it."
That mattered to him; I could feel him relaxing as he realised I meant it. And I did. Damien shifted his weight to lie back on the sofa, I curled up on top of him and we cuddled for some time.
"So what's bothering you?" he said in my ear. "Come on Nicky. Something's on your mind."
No. No I couldn't. I pulled away from him and sat up. Damien sat up with me and leaned his elbows on his knees.
"Is it really that bad?"
He sounded so calm. So reasonable.
"It's really so terrible you can't tell me? Did you kill someone? You want to run away with someone younger?"
That would have raised a smile if I hadn't been so miserable.
"Don't be daft."
"I can't imagine anything so appalling you think I couldn't handle it." Damien ran a hand gently over my back. "I don't think there's anything you could do that would be that awful."
Silence. Damien sighed.
"Okay. Let's take this a step at a time."
"Look, there's no point, there's nothing to-"
"Just give me some clues. Is it something I've done?"
"Well that's a start. Something you've done?" He looked keenly at me, I could feel his eyes. "I don't think you've ever been unable to tell me before, and you've done some pretty hair raising things."
I glared at the carpet. Damien rubbed my shoulders again, his voice still gentler.
"Nicky. I might not be thrilled, but you know I'm not going to go mad. You don't need to be scared to tell me anything and you know it."
That was more than I could bear. I pushed to my feet and walked away. "You don't understand, just leave me alone!"
"Nick sit down."
His voice had changed again. The coaxing was gone and the tone was one I knew well. Calm, serene and absolutely inflexible. I looked at him, aware I was now well and truly in trouble and not sure whether I was relieved or petrified. He clicked his fingers and pointed at the sofa.
"Sit down. This has gone far enough, we're neither of us going anywhere until I've got an explanation that I'm satisfied with."
I looked from him to the clock on the video. It was six thirty am. By my calculations, there was less than half an hour before he needed to be ready to leave for work. Damien followed my gaze and shook his head.
"That's no problem. I can be late. Or I can not go in at all. If it takes all day, we’re both sitting here until you tell me."
He was in for a long wait. I folded my arms and sat back to indicate just how long his wait was likely to be. Damien leaned over the arm of his chair, selected a book and settled back to read. The glare I gave him should have sent him up in flames. How DARE he sit reading in mid crisis? Seven am. Seven fifteen am. Damien settled back and started on the next chapter. I felt like getting a book down myself, except I would have to pass him to do it, and I doubted he would co operate. There ought to be laws against this kind of repression.
"Can I at least go to the bathroom?"
"No." Damien said simply without looking up.
"DAMIEN!" Neither my tone nor volume succeeded in making him look up. "That's illegal! It's probably against the Geneva convention!"
He turned the page and went on reading. I resisted the urge to hurl something at his head and sat back to think furiously about how the hell I got out of this situation. My one hope was that he would buckle as we approached eight o clock, admit defeat and go to work. At eight am he got up and my heart leapt, but all he did was pick up the phone and dial.
"Hello - Robin? It's Damien, I'm going to be late in- no, just a few minor problems we need to straighten out."
"Why not say we're locked in combat and be done with it?" I demanded. He raised his eyebrows at me. I scowled at the floor and went back to trying to think of a way out of this.
Nine am. Damien finished his book, reflected for a minute and then chose another one. I considered screaming, strangling him or hurling myself through the window. The knock at the door made us both glance up, me in apprehension. This was NOT a situation I wanted to receive visitors in. Damien laid his book down.
"If I were you, I'd stay put."
I couldn't hear the voice on the doorstep. Probably double glazing salesmen. What the devil was I going to do? For one ridiculous minute I considered bolting out of the back door and making a run for it, desperate just to get out of this stale mate, because eventually I was going to have to buckle and tell him. Except I knew that would do nothing except delay the inevitable. Sooner or later I would have to come back and he would go right on waiting until I gave in. Damien ushered Robin into the living room. My heart didn't know whether to leap or sink and ended up making me feel sick. Robin looked as bad as I felt.
"This is all my fault." He said as soon as he had a foot inside the room, "I knew I should have told you-"
"Told me what?" Damien paused inside the door and put his hands on his hips, looking from one to the other of us. "What's going on? Since when have you two been on speaking terms?"
Neither of us were keen to talk. Robin looked white and miserable. I caught his eye and looked hard at him, trying to imprint a message past Damien.
This was brave. This was a step in the right direction. But if he was about to start pouring out confessions, he was doing it to the wrong people. I'd been in his situation more than once, and I couldn't imagine trying to do it without Damien at my back and on my side. Exasperated maybe, but always very much on my side.
Robin swallowed. Damien shook his head.
"Sit down. Over there. Does the office know where you are this time?"
Robin shook his head. Damien gave the ceiling a Heaven Defend Me look and picked up the phone. The first call he made was to the office. The second was to Allen. 
The rest of that morning was long and confusing. Robin and I sat in silence, Damien refusing to talk to either of us or to let us speak until Allen was here. He appeared looking hassled and more than slightly worried. Damien ushered him into the sitting room where Robin was looking more and more like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an approaching car, and grabbed my hand, pulling me to my feet.
"We'll be in the kitchen."
He shut all three of the internal doors along our way. In the kitchen he parked me at the table and made a mug of tea so strong it was almost solid.
"Right." He said, putting the mug down and taking the chair opposite. "Now you tell me what the hell is going on."
There were no sounds from the living room. I wondered just how Robin was breaking this to Allen. I took a deep breath and explained my part of it. It took Damien less than five minutes to extract Robin's part out of me in accompaniment. Then he sat back and stared at me.
"You sabotaged this website?"
I felt that was a tad unfair. Out of all the horrendous details I'd just poured out to him, that was the minor one he picked on.
"Yes, but-"
"Yes but WHAT!" Damien interrupted. "You actually played along with that lunatic child and sabotaged a site which had nothing whatever to do with you and was the result of a company's time, money and resources? Because Robin ASKED you to?"
I looked carefully at the table. Damien shook his head.
"I suppose I ought to be grateful that was ALL Robin asked you to do. God help us if he ever decides to hack his way into another company's records, or wages programmes, or bank accounts!"
"I wouldn't do that!"
"Nicky, there is no difference!"
"He said it would lose you and Jerry the client, a lot of money and probably his job," I pleaded, "And a website isn't difficult to restore, it isn't as if I destroyed it- just took it down for a few hours. Damage limitation."
"Damage…" Damien said in disbelief. "I see. So I ought to be thanking you for your prompt and effective vandalism?"
Oh I hated that tone. Damien shook his head and buried himself in his tea.
"This is what you've been worrying about all week?"
I returned to surveying the table. "I couldn't say anything. Robin-" I trailed off.
"Yes." Damien said eventually. "That's between him and Allen, but he's very young. I'll still have to talk to Jerry though. We can't afford to have junior execs throwing trade away every time they lose their tempers. In the meantime if that young maniac puts ANY suggestions to you, your answer is a clear, firm NO. I forbid you to get involved with ANY idea of his. Under any circumstances. Understood?"
"Yes."  I said meekly. "It was just-"
"He's very difficult to say no to. I know. But if he asks you anything again, you'd better manage it."
NO problem.
There was a tap at the kitchen door. Allen had Robin by the hand and Robin was in tears, red eyed and miserable. Damien got up and I found myself instinctively heading for Robin with my arms out. Robin clung to me. Undamaged but emotionally strewn to the winds. I'd been there. Frequently. Allen watched me let him go with exasperated sympathy, pulled him close and wrapped an arm around him.
"I think we need to go home and straighten this out. Thanks for the call, Damien."
Robin looked awful but he was leaning hard against Allen. Damien didn't speak to him. Just opened the door for the pair of them and Allen steered Robin outside. There were mutters about leaving cars, keys exchanged and Damien followed them outside to move Robin's car, then he came back alone and shut the door behind him with a finality that meant it wasn't going to be opened again any time soon.
"You." he said, catching sight of me, "Upstairs."
"What's going to happen when you tell Jerry about this?" I said, surprised at how worried I was for Robin. Damien gave me a look of mildly amazed interest.
"I thought I told you to go upstairs? Just for clarification purposes, I meant now. NOW!"
Robin slipped from my mind. I took a few cautious steps towards the stairs, then fled as he took a step towards me, heading for the top of the stairs and the sanctuary of the corner. Damien passed me and I heard the computer start up in the bedroom.
"It's still there." I ventured. "I told you I didn't damage it-"
"Nicholas, I warn you, anything you say may be taken down and used in evidence against you."
Oh heck. I leaned my head against the paint work. Relieved he knew. Now very aware I was in deep…….
I heard the clicks of him moving around inside the net. Doing what, I had no idea. The whiteness of the plaster in front of my eyes was gradually blinding me. The computer whirred as it shut down and my heart swelled up into my throat.
"Come here."
I didn't mean it about wanting him to know. I was wrong. This would be MUCH better buried and forgotten. Permanently. I turned very slowly and trailed him into our room. Damien sat down on the end of the bed and mutely patted his knees. There wasn't much worth talking over here. I knew perfectly well what he had a problem with and in the cold light of day, I had a problem with it too. I shouldn't have done it.
For us this was relatively simple. I dreaded to think of the complexities Allen and Robin had to be wading through about now.
My eyes were already stinging as Damien pulled me closer and started to unbutton my jeans. Completely reasonable speeches came to mind about how I understood- perfectly- what I'd done and why it was wrong. We didn't need to do this. It was superfluous. After the hell I'd gone through this week, I wasn't going to do it again.
Except I was already handling enough guilt to choke on.
My jeans descended to my knees and my briefs quickly followed. Damien drew me down over his lap, one arm wrapping firmly around my waist.
"If you follow that maniac into any more trouble, your life will cease to be worth living, do you understand me?"
"I didn't exactly follow him-" I broke off and yelped as he swatted me hard.
"If he comes to you with ANY bright ideas, what do you say?"
"No." I said at once, fervently. Damien was not noticeably appeased.
"As for the sheer cavalier attitude of walking in and destroying someone else's work, someone else's livelihood-"
"Daaamieen… " I twisted in protest, beyond doing anything but wail, "it was only a website, I only put it out of action for a few-"
His hand descended hard, not just once this time but again and again and again, covering every inch of vulnerable flesh and gathering strength with every swat. I was wriggling and crying in seconds. It wasn't an argument Damien found at all convincing. It felt like it went on for hours. In fact it was a long and thorough spanking that left me sobbing hard, hurt and as thoroughly miserable as Robin had been. My backside was on fire when Damien let me slide down to my knees, one hand very gingerly slipping behind me to rub. Damien ran a hand through my hair, a gentle touch that reminded me he was there and sympathetic. I reached up and clung to him. He wrapped his arms around me and rocked, his chin on the top of my head.
"If you EVER do something like that again…"
I was crying too hard to make promises but he understood my incoherent muttering for the good intentions they were. He went on rocking, stroking my back, letting me gradually calm down until I was quiet enough to hear him, still buried against him and shuddering with the last, hitching breaths.
"You are grounded from the 'net my boy. If you need it for work purposes, you tell me and I'll come up with you and supervise. Otherwise, you give me your word you'll stay off line. Your word." He pulled back enough to see my face. "Or the connection cable starts coming to work with me."
"I promise." I said miserably. Damien pulled me back down to him and kissed my forehead.
"I couldn't tell you." I buried my face in his neck, needing to feel him as close as I could get. "I couldn't force Robin into-"
"You shouldn't have got yourself into that situation in the first place." Damien said sternly. "And don't you dare talk about damage limitation. Two wrongs don't make a right."
"I know. But once I did, I couldn't say anything. He would have got into such awful trouble with you and with Jerry and Allen- he might have lost his job."
"And that's a sensitive point for you. I know." Damien's arms tightened around me. "I know what you mean. That's not to say I approve, but I can see why you kept quiet."
"I'm sorry."
"No, we've sorted it. Over. Finished with."
"What about Robin?" I said anxiously. Damien pulled me to my feet, helped me straighten my clothes and pulled me down into his lap.
"That isn't your problem." 
Robin dropped in on Monday afternoon. I hesitated when I saw him on the doorstep but he looked nothing more than sheepish and mildly, apologetically hopeful.
"Hi." I glanced at my watch. "Don't tell me you sneaked out again?"
"Actually I got suspended from work." He said it flippantly, but he was very white. I stood back and let him in.
"Damien said it would be okay to drop round- at least he said I could see if you wanted to talk to me." He said when he was curled up in a corner of the sofa, drinking coffee. Like this he looked only twenty two, twenty three. Young, nervous and without the arrogance that I found so infuriating.
"Suspended?" I said again, gently. "What happened?"
"Damien, Jerry and the other senior shareholders are holding a meeting. It was very official. Until it's been held, I'm suspended. I could be unemployed by Friday."
Oh God.
"Does Allen know?"
"He came with me. He dropped me off-"
"Is he outside?" I demanded. Robin shook his head.
"He said he'd pick me up in half an hour. He's NOT exactly happy with me at the moment."
There was something in his tone that hit a nerve in me. I found myself thinking Poor kid. He and Allen were still in the early months of their relationship and I remembered how difficult it had been to suddenly find myself accountable for behaviour which as an adult I was used to simply smoothing over. Yes I'd wanted that supervision, but it was still hard to get used to.
"It'll pass." I said with several years of hard experience behind me. Robin shrugged, smiling a little but not a happy smile.
"I should have told him. I know. Except he would have made me tell Damien and I don't think I could have done that. So bloody stupid. I'm so sorry I dragged you into it."
"I could have said no." I pointed out. Robin gave me a faintly embarrassed look.
"Is Damien- upset with you?"
"You could say that." I said, amused. "But we made it up."
"I hate Allen being angry with me." Robin said miserably. I shifted seats, put an arm around him and gave him a hug.
The phone made me jump. I left him sipping coffee and heard the short message with a dignity that surprised me. Allen knocked at the door as I hung up. The smile he gave me was genuine and as easy going as ever. I still found it hard to imagine Allen getting seriously annoyed about anything.
"Did Robin apologise to you?"
"It's okay." I said cheerfully. "Right now I don't mind too much about anything."
Robin came into the hall and Allen automatically put an arm around his shoulders.
"I'll add my apologies too. It won't happen again."
I picked up my keys and followed them out onto the drive, patting Robin's shoulder as he and Allen headed for their car.
"Give me a ring. Tell me how it goes."
His smile was startled and a lot stronger. I unlocked my car, backed out of the drive and whacked the radio on full.
It took ten minutes to get across town to Damien's office. The receptionist did no more than wave to me across the entry hall and I ran upstairs without being stopped. The door to Damien's office was open and he was sitting at the desk, flicking through a sheaf of papers he looked less than enthralled with. I leaned in the open doorway and rapped on the doorframe. His face lit up as he saw me, such a strong response I felt my own mouth helplessly respond to him.
"Hey gorgeous. Feel like letting an employed man take you out for lunch?"
"You got a job!" Damien erupted from behind his desk, arms held out. I flung myself at him and he swung me off my feet, picking me up as if I was four.
"Well done! Congratulations!"
"The sign writers." Legs wrapped around his waist, I grinned down into his face. "They want an artist, pictorial illustrations and designs. I'll be designing pub signs for a living." I found my breath with difficulty as he kissed me firmly and put me down. "So are you coming for lunch?"
"Definitely." Damien dismissed his papers with an uncharactistic lack of responsibility and grabbed his jacket. "Where to?"
"A pub of course." I towed him down the stairs, a weight completely gone from me. "I need to get some research done."
"That's your excuse and you're sticking to it." Damien said cheerfully. I grinned at him across the roof of my car.
"There's a lot of pubs in this county to research. This could take a while."
Damien pulled a face in the direction of this office. This must have been a lousy morning for him too, he needed cheering up.
"Darling, you know I always support you fully in any venture you undertake." 
~ The End ~

Copyright Ranger 2010

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