Saturday, February 13, 2010

Shhh


For Steven, Burnetta, Tammy, Candy, Second Skin, Pam, Hisnibbs and Larrkin, who's gentle hints for another story did not go unappreciated or unheard, and for Rolf, who listened to me telling him I was stuck midway in this story and then told me sharply, "because you're not trying hard enough". Ok, ok. I tried harder. {} Happy New Year everyone.

Title: Shhh
Author: Ranger


Saturday

"Nicky," Damien said in that tone which means, sweet though he is, he's about to get thoroughly difficult. "I've had enough of this."

Had enough of what exactly? Apparently I was supposed to pick this up intuitively, rather than look around the room and wonder if he meant the washing up, the coffee he was drinking in between drying breakfast dishes, or the colour of the kitchen tiles. When I pointed this out, I got stood in a corner, which was hardly fair.

No one has yet issued a book on Top behavioural problems, or what you're supposed to do about them. Whapping them on the nose with a rolled up newspaper, unless they're in the mood, is right out of the question. I still maintain there are times when, properly speaking, Damien should stand himself in the corner to calm down instead of gaining the necessary time and distance by sending me. I pointed that out too, and heard the intake of breath that precedes that tone of careful patience.

"Nicholas Martin Hayes, I'd think long and hard before you say another word."

You see? He's impossible.

Christmas has this effect on his nerves. We had both been doing our usual flat-out winter stints at work: in Damien's case it was people urgently wanting building projects completed ASAP despite worsening weather, and in my case it was the pre Christmas rush for signs and motifs. The workshop had been frantic all week and we'd both worked several late evenings. It happens every year. We'd both taken ten days holiday over Christmas though. We'd spent some of it with my family and some of it with his, and it was apparent to me if nobody else that Damien now needed a holiday in which to get over his holiday. Or possibly Valium. I was mentally scaling that down to a stiff gin and tonic and wondering if that might chill him out a little when he called, still with the distinctly sardonic tone that means as far as he's concerned I'm skating on thin ice.

"Nicholas?"

"Yes." I turned around, doing the best Sensible And Attentive expression I could manage at short notice. And winced at the notebook and biro he'd laid out at the kitchen table. I'd spent more than one hour during the Christmas holidays in writing lines. Damien tapped the notebook with one finger rather more crisply than was quite necessary.

"If you're ready to be civil, you can sit down and copy that out fifty times please."

Was I ready to be civil? Saying no would mean an instant return to the corner until I WAS ready to be civil – I know how the man's mind works. So yes, under the circumstances, being civil sounded reasonable. I sat down at the table and picked up the biro reluctantly, looking at the line at the top of the page in Damien's neat handwriting.

I do not need to argue every household chore I am asked to do.

Well no, not every one. Only the ones he was being neurotic about. Like hoovering the stairs, which did not need doing more than once a week, or dusting perfectly dust free banisters, or cleaning a bathroom which really didn't need cleaning, or tidying the shed which was a complete waste of everyone's time. He was gearing up for spring cleaning, poor darling. It took him like this every year.

"I didn't argue EVERY one." I pointed out to him reasonably.

"It sounded like it." Damien put the rest of the dishes in the cupboard and shut the doors firmly, wiping down the counters.

"It was only-" I began, and he paused and turned around to Look at me in a way that suggested saying anything further right now was not going to be advisable.

"Nicholas, unless you want a further fifty lines on the definition of a sea lawyer, I would leave it. Now."

You see? Short fuse and nerves in shreds.

He didn't cheer up any as the day went on. Being the sixth of January, we took down the Christmas decorations in the lounge when I'd finished the lines. Damien pulled the lights off the Christmas tree during which he cut himself which didn't make him any happier, and I put the decorations back into their boxes which took some time as we have a lot of them.

"Nicky," Damien said eventually, still hoovering pine needles off the carpet- we have a red carpet in the lounge, its deep which is great to lie on but means we go on finding pine needles for weeks after the tree has gone – "Just put them in the box."

I gave him a flat, "What does it look like I'm doing" stare. Damien shut the hoover off and leaned on it.

"They're decorations. They go in the box, the box goes in the loft, we won't touch them again until next December. They don't all need facing the same way or lining up, just put them away."

"I'm doing it properly!" I objected. "What's wrong with doing it properly!"

"It takes forever and it's a waste of time and energy when there's a lot of other things to do." Damien turned the hoover back on again.

"You're the one always TELLING me to do things properly," I said, continuing to face the decorations all the same way in their cardboard holes and to stand them exactly straight. "I like them to look-"

The hoover snapped off again. "Ok," Damien said matter of factly, "Then I'll finish doing them. You can go and start on the bathroom please."

"It doesn't need doing." I pointed out. "Why make additional work on a weekend cleaning a room when it's a waste of time and energy and there's a lot of other things to do?"

"Because I said so." Damien took the decorations box out of my hand. "Go on."

I huffed a sigh as I headed towards the door. I suspect it was that which got me swatted.

The bathroom still didn't need doing. I gave it what Damien terms as 'a lick and a promise' and I was finishing that when he hovered the stairs, working his way up towards the landing. I sat on the top step to wait for him, moving my feet out of the way to let him get to the step in question, and he stooped and kissed me before he turned the hoover off. Even grouchy, he is still rather lovely.

"Tescos." he said, winding the cable round the hoover and carrying it downstairs. "Then we're done."

"Tescos is going to be horrible." I told him. "It always is on a Saturday."

"But since neither of us had time to go yesterday," Damien said heartlessly, "We still need to shop."

"We could go sailing instead?" I suggested. Damien gave me a wry look that took in the view beyond the window.

"Darling, it's pouring with rain and there's a howling gale out there."

"It would still be better than shopping."

"Coat." Damien gave me another one of those Looks. "This isn't going to take long."


Tescos was heaving with people, in particular noisy and stroppy children who were aiming trolleys at everyone in sight or actively dive-bombing pedestrians. I stepped over two small boys wrestling on the ground despite their mother's repeated growling of "Get UP… STOP it…." and trailed after Damien through the fruit and vegetable aisles. He had the trolley and was ploughing through the shopping list like a Sherman tank, dark head bent over it and his shoulders wide as if he was preparing for a scrum. The way the salad section was crowded, the chances were pretty good that he'd get one.

"Cauliflower – onions – Nicky, get a cabbage, will you?"

"I don't like cabbage." I told him, digging my hands in to his pockets. He gave me a brief look from his list, brows down over his eyes.

"You've always liked it before."

I shrugged, in a way meant to indicate that tastes change. Damien nodded me towards the racks of green vegetables.

"What do you want instead?"

How was I supposed to know? I looked with disfavour at carrots, swede, turnips and parsnips, all of which were at this moment far from appetising.

"I don't know."

"How about sprouts?"

"I don't feel like sprouts. We had them all over Christmas."

"Get a bag of carrots and a head of broccoli then." Damien said, once more consulting the list.

"I'd rather have cabbage than broccoli."

Damien looked at me, but that was the only hint of exasperation.

"Then get whichever one you'd rather have."

It was a tough call. I grabbed a bag of carrots from near an elderly lady who appeared to be selecting her carrots by intensive, individual interview and dodged around several bored husbands stationed with trolleys in front of the cabbages. I knew just how they felt.

"We need chicken." Damien said to me as I rejoined him and dropped the vegetables into the trolley. "Careful, you'll smash the fruit hurling things about like that."

"I didn't hurl anything. What kind of chicken?"

"Get a packet of thighs, I'll casserole them – what's that face for?"

"Nothing." I said hastily as he leaned on the bar of the trolley, dropping his voice for my ears only which had a distinctly sinister effect.

"Nicholas. I'm not going to negotiate with you on every item on this list. If you want to get something different say so. Otherwise, settle down or go and sit in the car."

With dignity I held out my hand for the car keys. Damien pulled them out of his pocket to hand them over.

"All right. Leave the radio alone and stay in the car."

I didn't say much when he came back to the car with the shopping, nor on the way home, and as soon as we'd brought the shopping into the kitchen, Damien pointed me towards the lounge.

"You can go and lay on the sofa, please."

"I'm NOT being that much of a pain," I informed him. "I can put the shopping away first-"

"No, actually you can't." Damien shouldered out of his jacket and peeled me out of mine with an uncomfortably firm swat towards the doorway. "Go."

Grrrr.

He was like that all the rest of the weekend.


Monday

Beth was late into the office on Monday morning. When she did arrive I was busy with some papers and I didn't immediately notice until she said right behind me,

"Well that ought to teach them."

I jumped and stopped with the papers I'd been – er - busy with. The ones I'd just hurled across the room were still floating gently down to rest on the carpet, on top of the several files, folders and pens already scattered all over the floor.

"Everything kept getting in the way," I said rather lamely.

"That's one way to clear your desk." Beth agreed. She wasn't surprised. I have seen Beth periodically get frustrated enough to knock things off her desk too. I went to help her as she knelt on the carpet to pick up the debris, organising them back into stacks.

"What's the problem? Bad weekend?"

I made an expressive grunt of agreement. "Too much housework. I hate clearing up after Christmas. You spend weeks gearing up for Christmas, there's the intense rushing about AT Christmas, seeing family and doing the Christmas thing, and then suddenly it all stops."

"And there's an awful mess." Beth said with feeling.

"And the weather's awful, and it's grey and cold, and months ahead of it BEING cold." I dumped the files and papers back on my desk and Beth glanced at the clock.

"Come on. It's coffee time. Leave that, let's get out of here and find a café for half an hour."

"I've got too much to do." I said grimly. "I've hardly started the drawings for the Blakeney Inn,"

"And they'll wait another half hour, come on." Beth pulled my coat off the hook on the door and threw it over to me. "You work too hard, Nick."

I pulled a face and let her pull me out of the office, locking it behind us.

We ended up sitting in the garden centre café. The coffee was nice, and it was nice too to stop and chat for a while, socially instead of purely about work, which was what most conversations had been over the past few weeks. I forgot sometimes how much I liked Beth as a friend as much as a colleague. We were walking back up the workshop steps to the office when she touched my arm and said a lot more gently,

"Is anything wrong Nick? You're looking a bit – rattled? - at the moment."

Arg.

"No," I said firmly, "Nothing at all. Just hung over from Christmas I suppose."

"If you're sure?" Beth unlocked the door but didn't move out of my way, looking a lot more sympathetic than I liked. "If you want to work at home for a few days, or if you need to shift some of your work load back to me, just say so. You always take more than your fair share when we're busy."

"It's fine, really." I steered her gently through the door and headed towards my desk, refreshed and ready to dive back into the drawings. "January has this effect on me."


Monday being one of my Mitchell declared half-days at work, Beth made a few tentative noises at twelve about it being time to leave. I don't know why, but despite the clock standing clearly AT twelve, I hadn't even started to pack up. Instead I looked anywhere but at the clock and kept on working. Beth didn't say anything further, but she made another pot of tea and put a fresh cup on my desk, a gesture I read the sympathy in.

It was nearly two pm when my cell phone rang and I fished it out of my pocket, stabbing at the 'talk' button. Damien sounded appallingly cheerful for a Monday.

"Hi darling. I couldn't get you at home. How is your day going?"

"It's going." I said sourly, dropping the pencil. "Where are you?"

"Just coming off the Medway site. It's pouring over here." I heard the slam of his car door and knew from the faint sounds and long experience that he was shaking his head like a dog as he does when his hair's wet. "What are you doing with your afternoon?"

Uhm. I cast a discreet look across at Beth, who was working over her own drawings. There were no tell tale sounds to speak of in the office here, no way Damien would know where I was- and the fact he was ringing my cell phone for a casual chat and not the office phone to be sure I'd left as he had done plenty of times in the past, said how much he trusted me. Which was not a nice thought. I mentally sighed and confessed.

"I'm still finishing the Blakeney work. Are you going back to the office?"

There was a brief pause on Damien's end of the line, and then he sounded a good deal more direct.

"I don't remember us discussing you working overtime?"

"Just a few odds and ends." I said lightly. "Shouldn't be too much longer."

Beth might have swallowed that. I could hear Damien not swallowing one single syllable.

"No, Nicky. Unless we've agreed it before hand, your day finishes at twelve. You need to go home now, and we'll talk about this when I come home."

"When I'm done."

"Now."

"All RIGHT." I said shortly.

"It should take you no more than fifteen minutes to get home." Damien said, quite unimpressed and apparently not about to thank me for my magnanimosity. "It's now two pm. I expect a call by two fifteen to let me know you're there."

"That isn't-"

"Two fifteen please. Drive carefully."

GRRRRR.

It's very hard to slam down a cell phone. Beth gave me a wry look as I got up.

"Your hunk wanting you home?"

"Yes. Although it isn't as if he's there and missing the company." I shut the folder and put the pens away, grabbing my coat. Fifteen minutes was not long to get home and I knew Damien would actually mean fifteen. Not sixteen. Seventeen would be Right Out.

"The drawings will wait." Beth said sympathetically, being used to me and Damien, although I don't think she has any idea at all of the implications. "Have a good afternoon, go and do something more fun. I'll see you tomorrow love."



Tuesday

"So did you make it home within the deadline?" Allen asked wryly. I growled, accepting the mug of tea he passed me.

"With about thirty seconds to spare. And he was sitting on the phone, waiting."

"Serve you right." Allen said heartlessly. I snorted.

"He made me swear to leave work today at three to make up for the two hours extra yesterday. AND he rang my office phone at five to three to remind me."

"Are you surprised?" Allen asked.

Unfair question. I drank tea, muttering to myself. Allen's own work was scattered all over the table, but I regularly dropped in for a chat on the way home, and as he worked from home and alone, he was often ready for the company around the middle of the day.

"Is work that pressing at the moment?" Allen said with a blunt lack of tact that was really very kind. Sometimes it was a relief to talk to him knowing he did fully understand things at home, and that he wouldn't politely shut up when it meant wandering onto awkward subjects.

"Not really." I said, thinking about it. "It's all manageable. We're busy but it's a lot easier now than it was before Christmas. That's always when the rush is bad."

"So you didn't need to ask Damien for overtime?"

"…..no." I admitted. Allen raised an eyebrow.

"So what was worth staying late for?"

I drank more tea, not sure about how to answer that. Damien actually hadn't asked questions: he'd confined his attention to reminding me very clearly that there was no excuse or reason acceptable for staying unless I cleared it with him first. My ears were still ringing from that lecture.

"Did you go to Robin's family for Christmas?" I asked, hopefully changing the subject. Allen smiled.

"Yes, his grandparents. They're quite elderly now, a couple of hours visit is about all they can handle, but it was nice to see them. And we dropped in on Robin's old House master on the way home, which we always try to do if we're in the area. Robin's very fond of him. How was Damien's family?"

"Loud." I leaned on the table, glad for the successful subject change. "His sister was there with all the children and his brother came for Christmas day, so the house was packed."

Having grown up in a house where I'd been the only child that always came as something of a shock to me. In Damien's family home you got to do virtually nothing alone unless you were in the bathroom.

"Was that ok?" Allen asked.

I sighed. He IS a Top. He's a lot more easily distracted than Damien is, but he does eventually pull the conversation back where he wants it.

"Yes, it was fine, we had a good time."

"Long journey."

"It was fine!" I said with annoyance. Allen dropped a hand on my shoulders, rubbing in a way that was a good deal more comforting than my tone deserved.

"Then what's up?"

"Nothing. Really. I'm just-" I stopped and thought about it, not liking the thought much at all. "Work's busy, Christmas is over, everything's just a bit –"

I trailed off, not knowing how to put it. Allen watched me over the rim of his tea cup.

"Have you talked to Damien about this?"

"No." I gave Allen an Are You Insane look. "There's no need. It's just a hang over from the holiday, that's all."

And I knew my boy. He'd want to make a serious deal of this, when there was really no need. It was fine. Everything was fine.

I drove home absolutely fine when I left Allen. I parked absolutely fine. I then realised I'd left my house keys on the desk at the office and had to drive all the way back to the office to collect them. I barely had time to be in and have the heating on to get the winter chill off the house, AND to calm down, before Damien came home at five thirty. I was reading in the kitchen armchair when he came in, and he leaned over the back of it to kiss me.

"Hey beautiful. Had a good afternoon?"

"I saw Allen. He's fine. Bored with his current project." I got up, marking the place in my book, and went to turn the oven on with poise and tranquillity. I didn't see any pressing need to mention any more details than that. It was only when I saw Damien starting to sort through the mail I'd dumped on the side without opening, that I recognised the envelope and felt a chill smash through my sense of unruffled control.

"Tea or coffee?" I asked, leaning past him to snap the kettle on. "Dinner'll be about an hour."

"I might shower then, the sites were freezing." Damien responded to my arm around his waist as I'd hoped he might, and abandoned the mails to give me a hug. "Coffee please."

"I'll bring it up?" I offered, feeling horrible for manipulating him-not that I don't bring him coffee anyway, but on this occasion I wanted him upstairs as soon as possible. Thankfully he pulled his tie loose and I heard him run upstairs, whistling to himself. I fell on the pile of letters and grabbed the envelope at the bottom. The library books it was demanding were already three weeks overdue, and Damien had seen the first reminder when it came: he'd be less than happy that I had a second and the books were still upstairs. I'd meant to deal with this. I was furious with myself for forgetting. It was one MORE thing on the list of things that were fraying and I was being stupid with at the moment. Pull yourself together for Pete's sake Hayes.

Shoving the reminder and the envelope under everything else in my briefcase with the firm intention of putting it through the office shredder first thing in the morning, I made a pact with myself to get the library books back on the way home tomorrow afternoon and the fine paid off. It WAS under control. It would be fine.


Wednesday

"Nicky?" Damien called from the bottom of the stairs before I was half dressed.

"What?" I hung out of the bedroom door and saw him put a foil wrapped parcel on the bottom step.

"Sandwiches. Don't forget them."

That to me is the definition of someone worth marrying: a man who'll cut you a set of marmite sandwiches along with his own when he's busy getting ready for work in the morning. It's something he tends to do when he knows I'm busy at work, a quiet signal that he knew and was doing what he could to make my day a little easier. Barefoot and wearing nothing but cords, I went downstairs and he returned my hug, wrapping me up against his work jacket.

"Thanks." I said, meaning it. "Have a good day."

"You too." Damien dropped one of his single, hard kisses on my hair that always to me feels like a banker's stamp. It says loudly and categorically: Mine. "Don't worry about dinner, I'll bring something home with me."

"You don't have to."

"It's my turn, you've cooked all week. Get a move on; you're going to be late. I'll see you tonight."

He let me go with a gentle swat behind and I ran upstairs with an eye on the clock as his car pulled out of the drive. It had been a long time since I'd had trouble getting to work on time: so long that Damien would give me that gentle 'hurry up' hint rather than the pushing I'd needed at one time when it had been a daily problem.

We'd been late getting to sleep last night. He'd said that was my fault. I said that was something that couldn't be helped. There WERE several muddy footprints on the duvet cover from Anastasia- who was now lying on the newly changed quilt and looking at me as though she'd never dream of having muddy feet. I couldn't sleep in a muddy bed, it was perfectly logical to change the quilt whether it was ten thirty or not. We were grown men, no one was going to turn into a pumpkin. Then it had been too hot, and Damien had said we didn't need anything more than the top vent window open a little. How little was something we'd debated a couple of times, until he got up, set it how he thought it should be and told me not to get out of bed again. The fact I'd needed to go to the loo, and that I'd forgotten to check Anastasia had fresh water, and that the washing machine then finished washing the duvet and since we were awake I might just as well put it into the dryer and get it sorted now than wait until morning – were all ones Damien disputed. At about eleven thirty when I wanted to go and turn the dryer off, he sat up, put me over his knee, and the six or so swats I'd been given had been a lot less gentle than the one he'd just said goodbye with.

I finished dressing as fast as was possible, kissed the cat, grabbed my sandwiches and fled. This time I was turning into the office car park before I realised I'd forgotten my briefcase. At the moment I was in serious danger of forgetting my head. There was no sense in going home for it either: I could manage without it, but it was as I was reminding myself of that, that I remembered the library books letter at the bottom of it.

I'd forgotten the library books too.

Ok, I admit it: things weren't fine. We'd had the manic run up to Christmas, the high speed and stimulation of Christmas itself, and now we were back into reality again and I was aware I was still running too fast like a motor that wouldn't drop back down to idling. I was edgy, I kept catching myself chewing at my nails, I was forgetting things and losing track of things that always made me start to feel a little out of control. I was bickering over things at home that I knew didn't really matter, and like the nail chewing I kept catching myself pulling at routines we had long since established – like 101 reasons not to just put the light out and go to sleep, or to go home on time. Why, I had no idea. It was all little stuff- petty stuff. But the end result was it made me rattled, just as Beth had said.

It was a familiar feeling, and one Damien and I had handled many times before. I knew too just what Damien would do about it: he would start with making me accountable to him for everything I was likely to forget, which tended to get my attention focused very fast; he'd check up on it a lot, and things at home would get a lot tighter. And therein lay the rub. At the moment, things were comfortable. Comfortable like we got when things were calm and going well, and I had everything under control. I liked the freedoms and the flexibility, the occasional late nights we had without it being an issue, and that I could leave work late with nothing more than a scorching lecture and an expectation that I wouldn't do it again, at least for a good while. I liked the extra chances of hints and warnings Damien would give me before he moved on to anything firmer.

The gentle tip-off of 'watch the time' when I was running late was a perfect example. If Damien thought I was struggling, that would morph quickly into 'leave by 7.30 or…', with flat consequences I wasn't going to wriggle out of. There was no need for that. I liked it when warnings and the occasional swat or lecture were all and enough: there was no need at all to lead Damien to believe that we needed anything firmer. We really didn't. I could sort this out myself, I just needed to pull myself together and we'd go right back to being comfortable.


Beth was out of the office most of the day with clients, and a Wednesday is a full working day. I spent it busy with drawings, finished at five when she did and left for home with absolutely no time to collect library books and go anywhere before Damien got in. Which meant another day's fines. Magic. Wonderful. We could just take out a second mortgage to pay off the effects of my own total disorganisation.

Muttering, I fed Anastasia, changed my clothes and drew the curtains upstairs against the dark, grey damp outside. I was drawing our bedroom curtain when the curtain pole abruptly lurched above me and I put a hand up in time to catch it as one end slid down. We have an old house, the curtain poles are wooden and heavy, and periodically this happens. It was just a case of getting a screwdriver and putting it back. I'd done it plenty of times. I had no idea why suddenly I was standing here in tears, holding a slipped curtain pole.

I was still crying when I saw the flash of headlights outside as Damien's blue Laguna turned into the drive, and that made me pull myself together. Leaving the curtain pole to dangle, I went into the bathroom, took a few deep breaths and washed my face in cold water. When I checked, any evidence of my having melted down was gone. The door opened downstairs, followed by the familiar crash of Damien's keys landing in the dish.

"Nicky?"

"Hi." I called back, snapping the landing light on and heading downstairs.

"I got Chinese." Damien held up the carrier bag in his hand, smiling at me as I came down to him. "What are you doing up there in the dark?"

"I was watching tv up there and forgot the time."

Nicholas Hayes, you are going to hell for being a liar and a disorganised wimp.

*

I was woken at some point in the night by the long familiar sound of an old, rusty radiator grinding away. When I opened my eyes I realised, it wasn't actually that loud yet anywhere but inside my head, but my chest had seized as if a hand had closed around both lungs and clenched hard. I was drenched in cold sweat. It was an effort to turn over, and before I managed it, Damien stirred and I saw his eyes glint in the dark as they opened.

"What?" he started to say and then I let out a wheeze and Damien rolled straight past me to snap on the light, all the sleepiness going out of his voice.

"Sit up and breathe slowly. It's okay Nicky."

"I don't……." I paused again to take a breath and Damien pulled the nebuliser up onto the bed, setting it with the speed of long practice.

"Shh."

I leaned against the pillows and pulled the mask over my face, breathing in the green mist that began to flow as Damien hit the switches. Then he got out of bed and drew the curtains over the windows, opening both so that cold, frosted air came across the room. The coldness often helped, just in convincing me I was getting more air than I thought I was. Damien pulled the pillows higher for both of us as he climbed back into bed, wrapped an arm over my shoulders that held me tightly, and he sat close against me, warm, big and solid to lean against.

"Slowly, it's ok. Want the tv on?"

I usually did, it was distraction, something else to think about other than struggling for breath, but tonight for some reason I shook my head. Just to be here and close against him was enough.

I woke again when he changed the masks, recognising the steady draft from the oxygen tubes he hooked over my ears, and the faint hissing from the cylinder under the bed. I stirred against his shoulder and found he'd turned the light out. We were still banked up against pillows and Damien settled the duvet up over us both, pulling me back against him.

"It's all right darling, I've got you. Go back to sleep."

"Sorry." I said thickly. Damien's hand ran over my hair and I felt his kiss against my temple, rough from his jaw and reassuringly firm.

"It's fine. Go back to sleep baby."


Thursday

He was dressed when I woke, and carrying a mug of tea and my pills which he put on the bedside table before he sat beside me, pushing my hair back from my forehead.

"How are you feeling?"

"Ok." I said automatically, although I really didn't feel too bad. I was still sitting up, still sounding a little rusty, but nothing awful. Anastasia lay across my feet, blinking regally, and the clock on the table beside me stood at five to eight.

"I rang Beth and let her know you wouldn't be in today." Damien said, apparently reading my mind. "She said to tell you not to worry. Do you want me to stay at home this morning?"

"No, I'll be fine." I said positively, and meant it. This was a splash in a paddling pool compared to some attacks we dealt with, these were a fact of life and we'd got off quite lightly this time. "I'm sorry I kept you up." I picked up the tea and gulped back the pills, watching Damien pull out the small plastic case the drugs and syringes lived in, and fill a syringe.

"You hardly did, love. It wasn't a bad one and you fell asleep again as soon as the nebuliser started to work. I don't think either of us were up more than twenty minutes."

I doubted that was entirely true: Damien doesn't sleep well sitting up and the pillows were still banked on his side of the bed as well as mine. I suspected he'd spent a little more time than that watching me so that I didn't have to stay awake. I ran my fingers down his cheek as his head was still bent over the syringe, and he turned his head to drop a kiss into my palm, offering me the set syringe.

"Will you or shall I?"

I pulled the quilt back and shifted far enough to my side to let him get at my hip. I was long used to the damned things now, and the drug made a huge difference through the winter. Damien was always far gentler with the shots than I was and I found myself watching him, hazel eyes steady and his face set with concentration while he worked. He put my nebuliser on the bed when he was done, already plugged in and set, and pulled the quilt back over me.

"Check your oxygen sats when you've finished that, and check them again mid morning. I want you to stay in bed until at least twelve. Ring me if you want me, and I'll come straight home."

I saluted, which is not easy in bed. Damien shook his head at me, handing me the nebuliser mask.

"Are you sure you don't want me to stay for a couple of hours?"

"Don't worry." I pulled him down by the collar to kiss him, freshly shaved and currently heady with the combined scents of his cologne and the hair gel that kept his dark hair back from his face. "Go to work."

It was actually quite a nice day. Which sounds odd, but other than being a little on the wheezy side, I didn't feel too bad and there is a kind of peacefulness to forced inactivity. I spent the morning in bed, read, stroked Anastasia who adores it when one of us is ill, and dozed on and off. Damien rang mid morning, and around lunchtime I heard a key in the lock downstairs and Allen's voice from the hall.

"Nick? It's Allen. Can I come up?"

He was in jeans and a heavy sweater against the grey fog outside, his version of working clothes, and he smiled when he saw me. I pushed the quilt back and got up, pausing for a quick hug as I passed him.

"Did Damien send you?"

"Of course." Allen said cheerfully. "I said I'd see how you were doing."

"Give me a minute and I'll get dressed and make you some tea." I told him. "I was about to get up anyway."

"You don't sound too bad." Allen said, watching me sort out clothes.

"It wasn't a bad one. Damien over reacted a bit, I probably would have been ok at work."

"Hm." Allen said, which was politely skeptical without saying so. "I'll put the kettle on. Damien said to remind you to check your oxygen? I have no idea how you do that, but you're supposed to."

I pulled the monitor out of the drawer and flashed it at him before I put it on one finger, Allen nodded and went downstairs. Anastasia followed him, tail high, and I could hear him talking to her in the kitchen while I finished dressing. The monitor recorded 96. Which was ok, enough not to spend any more time tubed up, and I pulled the quilt straight over the bed and went downstairs with a sense of satisfaction. Another bullet dodged, everything fine. Which gave me a marvellous idea. Allen gave me an askance look as I went back upstairs, returning a minute later with my arms full of books.

"I didn't think you were supposed to rush around?"

"This is not rushing." I sat down at the table, breathless from the stairs. "Allen, could you do me a favour? These need to go back to the library."

Automatically, and this has to be another Top trait, Allen opened the front cover and whistled at the date printed on the front page.

"I'll say they do. How much do you owe in fines on them?"

"I'll pay them by phone, you'll only need to drop them in." I said confidently. "I meant to do it today."

"Does Damien know about this?" Allen inquired.

Arg.

"…..not exactly." I said after a minute's thought. "But if the fine's paid and the books are back, there isn't a problem."

"So I'm covering up the scene of a crime?" Allen leaned on the table to drink tea, face serious but I could see his eyes laughing.

"No." I protested. "You're helping me deal with the problem at hand. If it's solved then that's the end of it."

"And Damien would see it that way?"

Uhm.

"Possibly." I said hopefully. "You're not going to tell him, are you?"

"No." Allen said simply. "But I think you need to."

"Why?" I demanded. "There are laws about having to incriminate yourself-"

"Would you rather I did?" Allen asked kindly.

Grrr.

"Forget I asked." I said shortly. Allen laughed and pulled the books back across the table.

"No, I'll see they get back to the library which solves your immediate problem. But I'm not being an accessory. Let Damien know they were late back please."

There is just no answer to this. I sighed and surrendered. "Ok, ok. I will."

"Thank you." Allen said mildly.

He is no Damien, who would instantly have set a deadline around that, understanding that 'ok' means, 'at some point', which can mean… well. Pretty much anything really, it being flexible to interpretation. He did however put the books in his car, which got them out of any risk of Damien's sight, and I phoned the library and paid the fine on my bank card, wincing slightly on the amount. I'd have to hope Damien didn't read the bank statements too closely this month.

Allen stayed much of the afternoon, which was nice, since we have a shared taste in books and films that Damien and Robin just don't get. We have all gone to the cinema together before now and paired off for Damien and Robin to salivate over fast cars and action heroes in one theatre while Allen and I watch period dramas and literature in another. We watched A Room with A View for the first part of the afternoon- a film guaranteed to send Damien either to sleep or to mow the lawn within the first ten minutes since he just does not get the gentle eroticism of Forster. The second part of the afternoon I'm less sure of since I slept for most of it, lulled by the prose and by men in pale linen Edwardian suits. I woke when the front door shut and Allen stooped down, jacket in hand, to drop a kiss onto my cheek.

"Nick, I'm going. Hope you're feeling better tomorrow."

I didn't feel that bad now. I struggled up from under the sofa's fleece blanket which someone had spread over me, and watched Allen head down the drive towards his car and Damien shut the front door behind him. I don't think anything of much import got said – as far as I remember Damien pulled off his jacket and tie, came to sit with me on the sofa and I dozed off again with my head in his lap while he carried on watching whatever Allen had been watching on tv.

We had a very peaceful evening. Most of it was spent on the sofa, we had a bath together which is always an entertaining way to kill an hour or two, and we ended up in bed fairly early, where Damien continued reading from the Terry Pratchett we were currently working through when we felt so inclined. I'm fairly sure his clients couldn't imagine him sprawled out full length and doing all the voices of the Ankh Morpork guard: he has absolutely no self consciousness when it's just the two of us and he gets as deep into a book as I do. Since I was the one who loved reading when we met and he essentially only reads books I put in front of him, it's long since been a way to enjoy books together, and there are so many books that only really come to life when read aloud. He does a marvellous Harry Potter: we've gone all through the series more than once. I don't remember the light going out, which suggests to me I fell asleep half way through a chapter. Which is rather rude, but Damien never seems to mind.


Friday

I don't usually work Fridays, but Damien heard me out through a plea to go into the office for at least a couple of hours to make up for having lost yesterday. He made me do two peak flow checks before he'd give me an answer: one when I got up and one after breakfast, both of which were fine. After which he agreed on two hours, if I came straight home afterwards.

"Scouts honour." I promised him, finishing getting dressed since I had his Majesty's seal of approval. "I only want to finish the Blakeney drawings and get the draft sent out. It won't take long."

"All right." Damien turned back to the mirror to get his tie straight – he does the proper, public school boy knot on a daily basis- and came around the bed to get a jacket out of the wardrobe. I sat down to put socks on, dressed, sorted, the bed made at only seven twenty am. Who said I couldn't organise myself? I was darting off in search of the hoover, meaning to run it around the carpets as we did daily in the name of keeping the dust out of my lungs, when Damien cleared his throat.

There are ways in which he makes the most simple, ordinary sounds, which freeze the blood if you know him like I do and you know what he means by them. I'd stopped dead, looking at him to see what on earth it was I'd just done wrong, and my stomach chilled still further when he beckoned to me. It was his sinister headmaster look, which is bad enough considering he's a good head taller than me.

"What?" I demanded, going to him very slowly. So far as I could see I'd done absolutely nothing blameworthy since I woke up this morning, and I knew there was nothing incriminating in the wardrobe at the moment, which was where he was standing. Damien said nothing at all until I reached him, then he took my hands and turned them palm down.

I swear my heart sank. How he'd caught sight of them I didn't know, but I wasn't happy that he had.

"It's only been a few days," I said with all the confidence I could muster. "I broke one, and that always makes me chew at it."

Damien didn't query that: he just looked at me with one eyebrow raised in a way that says, "Really?"

With him still holding my hands outstretched with several, admittedly rather chewed nails in plain sight, that wasn't easy to stand up against.

"Mmn." Damien said, letting my hands go. "We'll talk about that tonight, my lad."

What?

I stared at him, horrified. When we'd first met he'd been death on bitten nails – admittedly at the time I chewed them down until they bled, and I didn't really have fingernails to speak of. But it had been years since he'd done anything more than swat me if he caught me biting them.

"They're not THAT bad-" I started to protest and stopped as that eyebrow went up even further. He can make whole speeches with that eyebrow.

"Is it ok to bite your nails?"

Ok, there was one answer to that only, but I was rapidly running out of manoeuvre room which was just plain unfair.

"No, but-"

"No." Damien agreed. "We'll talk about that when I get home. Have a good day."

I was too pole axed to do much more than acknowledge the kiss he gave me, or listen to him walk downstairs, take his keys and calmly go to work as if he hadn't just declared Armageddon. I knew exactly what that particular tone and those words and that eyebrow meant when you added them all together. It's the kind of manner in which headmasters say 'see me afterwards'. He was not seriously about to go berserk over a few bitten fingernails?? They weren't even that badly bitten!

"Do you think these look bitten?" I demanded of Beth when I got to the office, not having hoovered since pulling myself together enough to get my keys, shoes and coat all in one place and drive had been hard enough. Beth peered at the hands I held out to her.

"Well. A bit. Is this a New Year's resolution? To stop nail biting?"

Well it was clearly Damien's. Maybe what he needed was a cape and a lycra cat suit and he could stop nail biting throughout the world. I couldn't imagine Damien in a lycra cat suit. Sitting down at my desk and furious with myself for even trying, I stared at my drawings and tried to get hold of my tumbling stomach. I was NOT in this much trouble over a few bitten nails. It was ridiculous.

I spent the next two hours not drawing anything useful and trying to convince myself that I was blowing this out of all proportion. It didn't work. The clock ticked on to eleven with relentless bloody mindedness, and at two minutes to eleven my desk phone rang.

"It's me." Damien said calmly, as though everything was fine. "Time to go. I'm coming home for lunch, I'll see you there."

Arg. Trying to drop my voice out of Beth's earshot I fumbled for any way to express what was on my mind that wouldn't give Beth a vivid insight into our personal lives.

"They are NOT that bad."

"I'll see you in a while." Damien said, avoiding the subject in a way that I am never allowed to.

"That was the go home call?" Beth said cheerfully as I put the phone down, seriously considering the longest, most complex routes home I could think of. "Have a good weekend, love."

I thought that was distinctly unlikely, myself.

Damien's car was already on the drive when I reached home, not exactly having dawdled or gone out of my way, but not exactly having hurried either. There were herds of dinosaurs galloping around in circles in my stomach. Damien hadn't made the Serious Trouble noises at me in a good few weeks – possibly even a couple of months, and I still couldn't believe he was about to start over a few bitten fingernails. Apart from which, if he IS going to start serious trouble, I much prefer him just to get on with it and not notify me of the fact and then happily walk away for the day, leaving me to sweat.

He had changed into home clothes, a rugby shirt and jeans, which was a mixed blessing – he clearly wasn't going back to work today, which would probably mean he'd want to get on and discuss my nails now. On the other hand, there was this massive downside that he clearly wasn't going back to work today, which would probably mean he'd want to get on and discuss my nails now. He was in the kitchen, but he came to the kitchen door as I came into the hall, looked at me, and then nodded at the stairs.

"Ok, let's deal with this now. Go and change, and pick a corner."

"If you want to have lunch first," I said generously, "It's-"

"Go on Nicky."

Damien pulled himself up off the doorpost he was leaning against and went back into the kitchen. The dinosaurs were bored with galloping and had apparently acquired pogo sticks. I trailed upstairs, changed out of my work clothes, considered the pointlessness of dressing in anything else, and then found myself a sweater and jeans. The corner on the landing remains a calm shade of cream: I've checked this out in some detail. Not eggshell, not off white, it really is cream.

"Nicky, stop picking the plaster." Jove said from downstairs.

I could have pointed out that he couldn't see me doing it from the kitchen so how did he know – but I didn't. Right now, that seemed tactless and probably unwise to the point of lunacy. I really did not want to make Damien take anything more seriously than he already was right now. I stood. And stood. And felt my back involuntarily tense as I heard him coming upstairs.

If there is any chance that I'm going to be able to defend whatever it is we're supposed to be discussing, if we need to talk about it, we usually do that on the landing. Being sent up to this corner is the equivalent of the black cap, but sentence is never actually passed until he's heard me out. On this occasion he didn't take a seat on the stairs. I heard him reach the landing and stop in the doorway of our room, which meant as far as he was concerned this was a done deal and beyond defense.

"Nicholas."

I did not deserve to be Nicholassed over a few mildly bitten nails!
The look on his face was determined enough to make that VERY difficult to express to him. I trailed to his outstretched hand, far from happy.

"They're not that bad! It's hard not to chew when I break one, and there was a lot of work before Christmas, I only bite them when I'm edgy and I haven't for ages-"

He'd led me across to the bed and had taken a seat there, drawing me to stand beside him. I realised I was babbling, and probably incriminating myself, and shut up.

"That's a habit we've broken once," Damien said matter of factly, "And I don't intend on us having to break it again."

Yes. Call it aversion therapy but it works for me, damn it: far better than bitter aloes ever did.

"What's got you edgy?" Damien inquired, holding my hand so that I didn't get to fidget far from where he'd stood me.

Nasty question. I hovered, twisting a little on one foot.

"I'm not. Like I told you, there was a lot of work before Christmas."

"And that stressed you out enough to start biting?"

"I suppose so?"

Damien looked at me. We have talked about what he thinks of mild replies that basically translate as noncommittal sound-making rather than an actual answer to a question, and I could see he wasn't pleased. I took a deep breath, aware I was beyond the point of pardon now for a spanking and deciding I might as well clear my conscience in one go.

"There's something else I probably ought to tell you?"

"Is there?" Damien said politely. I took another breath, hating that courteously interrogative look he gets.

"Allen took some library books back for me yesterday, they were about three weeks overdue."

"So you didn't take them back after the reminder we had last week?" Damien asked. I shook my head reluctantly.

"I forgot all about it."

"Did we get another reminder?"

Hail Caesar. We who are about to die salute you.

"Yes. I got rid of it. Allen said he'd take the books back- otherwise I'd have done them myself yesterday – but he said I needed to tell you."

And hopefully that might count for something. Damien nodded slowly.

"When did you get the reminder?"

What did that matter for goodness sake? I stood on the other foot, wishing he'd just get on and get it over with.

"Tuesday night. I meant to take them back on Wednesday but I forgot- I forgot my briefcase and the books and I didn't have time to go to the library after work."

"You don't think worrying about that might have contributed to you having an attack Wednesday night?" Damien said mildly.

"That's not fair," I protested. "Anything might have caused it; it isn't a direct result of anything that happened the day before!"

"Worrying and feeling guilty often helps one along though, doesn't it?" Damien said with unfortunate truth. "Were you upset about it?"

"No!" I said firmly. "I was more bothered about forgetting – I was forgetting everything all week. And they were only books."

"What were you forgetting?"

He was still holding my hand. I could feel his thumb running over the back of it, a slow up and down pressure.

"The books. The reminder. My briefcase." I took a breath, thinking about it. "My keys at the office one night, it just wasn't a great week."

"You didn't tell me about your keys or your briefcase." Damien said quietly. "What happens when you get stressed out or upset and you cover it up?"

"It was only a couple of minor things!" I said hotly. "Trivial things!"

Damien was shaking his head slowly before I'd even finished that sentence.

"All of this," he said in the same quiet, even tone, "comes down to the one same thing, doesn't it? Bitten nails. Forgetting things. Disorganisation. Covering up to hide the tracks. It all comes down to you getting wound up. I could add a few more things to that list over the past week. Arguing. Pushing about time limits. Answering back. Being short tempered. Tearful. Nicky, did you really think I wouldn't notice?"

It was gently put, but I'd been working myself up to facing this all morning, we were in the middle of the routine that said to me serious trouble, and I had a very good idea of where he was heading.

He pulled me down beside him on the bed when I dissolved into tears, and I coiled both arms around his neck, turning my face into his shoulder. He hugged me for a minute, then pulled me over against him so my face was free against his chest and I had no excuse for pretending I couldn't hear him.

"Tell me about it."

Open up. Dig out the words and the feelings flying about and try to share them with him. It seemed so obvious. I took a breath, aware of my throat feeling blocked and hard. If I couldn't say this to him of all people, who could I say it to? I was past the stage of having to deliberately drop myself into trouble. I was already up to my neck; explaining now wouldn't make things any worse.

"I kind of – didn't want you to know how bad things had got? I thought I could straighten it out, it was only a few things, but they kept adding up."

"Just slightly." Damien said quietly. "You should have told me this a week ago. Shouldn't you?"

"If I'd told you, you'd have…." I trailed off, not wanting to specify.

"Done something about it. Yes. And a lot of other things too. Which would have helped." Damien said severely. "Wouldn't they?"

"That's not a nice question to ask," I remonstrated. "I don't WANT you to make me cut back on work, or anything else!"

"So it's better to hide it from me?" Damien asked me. "It's my job to watch you and guess? I look after you forcibly, in spite of you working around it, do I?"

I flushed, well aware of what he meant. We'd had this conversation a few times, and while I DID much prefer leaving it to him to do the thinking when I could, I did know better.

"No." I said rather shamefacedly. "Of course you don't. It's my responsibility too. I'm sorry."

"Thank you." Damien pulled me back down to him, giving me another crushing and very comforting hug. "We're not always going to do what you want, either. You need to TALK to me Nicholas. Not flash me a few vague hints and hope I catch on."

Yes but the few vague hints usually worked and were SO much more comfortable….not that I'd thought I was hinting anything to him at all, I had no idea where he'd got that idea from. As far as I was concerned I'd been worked damned hard to see he didn't catch on.

Damien put a finger under my chin and made me look at him.

"Are we clear?"

Oh, crystal clear. I nodded fervently. Damien's look didn't waver, which was not a good sign.

"What did I say would happen the next time I had to remind you to talk to me when things went wrong?"

I flushed, giving him a look of appeal.

"I'm sorry, I should have thought-"

"Then you definitely need help to think next time, because this is important." Damien said simply. "What did I say?"

There was no help for it, there really wasn't.

"You'd paddle me." I said unhappily. "I AM sorry. Really I am."

"I know you are, you don't have to convince me." Damien pulled me closer and I buried myself in his chest, feeling the tightness of his arms around me, the strength of his hug. "I'm not upset with you, I'm not angry with you. But I am going to paddle you. You tell me why this is so important?"

"Because we do this together." I said into his neck.

"Exactly." Damien gave me another strong hug and let me go. "Go get the paddle please."

He made me help, which I hate. I really hate. But I understood too why he was making me do it. He made me take my cords off, pull my own shorts down and lie across his knees, and then he made me account each separate contributing incident to him, taking one item at a time and prompting me whenever I missed one. There were quite a lot of them, since he included most of the things I'd been writing lines for over Christmas. And when we'd done talking about the ins and outs of each item, he gave me one hard, sound swat to punctuate it. Lying bare to the breeze across your partner's lap while he has a paddle in his hand, and then managing to think and talk coherently is not an easy or a fun experience, trust me. Particularly knowing the next swat is due any minute. Damien was rubbing my back much of the time we were talking, which was a nice gesture, but since the paddle was resting somewhere a lot more personal in his other hand, it was hard to take much solace from it. The whole horrible process took what felt like several years, including time to calm down after each item and each swat to the point where I could talk again, until it felt to me more like a number of separate spankings instead of single swats.

"Do you think this is the easier way to tell me about things we need to work on?" he asked when we had listed and punctuated the last of those items, the covert returning of the library books. He had broken that down into three separate items, all of which we'd gone through in detail: losing track of the books in the first place; getting the second reminder note and still not telling him; and then getting Allen to return them for me to avoid having to tell him about it. Which I couldn't really argue: that had been my main motivation for getting Allen involved and Damien knew me far too well.

"No." I said fervently and meant it. This was going to stick clearly in my memory as a particularly horrible way to hold a difficult conversation.

"Good." Damien said gently. "I'd rather you just talked to me. But if this is how to get your attention and get you to be open with me, then this is what we're going to do. We don't keep secrets from each other, we don't cover things up when they go wrong, and your responsibility is to be honest with me. You don't get to pre-empt me or to manipulate me, my lad. Your job isn't to decide what we need to do."

Sometimes it isn't until he says that kind of thing that I really see outside my own actions – another reason why he is the Captain of this ship and he stops being so over my dead body. I could tell myself, repeatedly, I was just adopting a wait-and-see policy and kindly not worrying Damien while I did it: I didn't really believe it. I'd known very well I was keeping things from him in the direct hope that it would all just go away, and I'd go on doing that until I was in real trouble, if he'd let me.

"I know. I'm sorry." I told him, not for the first time and with serious sincerity. Not that he was demanding apologies, not that he was looking for some heroic vow of never doing it again. I was simply telling him how I felt and I knew he understood that. He was doing pretty much the same.

The paddle landed, hard and rapidly, four more times, which reduced me straight, back to tears, but I recognised a full stop when I felt one. He eased me down to my knees on the carpet and I leaned into him, feeling his arms wrap around me. My backside stung and blazed to the point where it was hard to keep my hands away from it, much as I knew it was not going to want to be rubbed at this point in time. Damien helped me to my feet after a moment when I continued to squirm, helped me to dress and pulled me down into his lap.

"I'm going to take your diary." He said after a while, when I'd settled down enough to be listening. "And I'll have your library card and your cheque book too for the moment please. When you need to use them we'll do it together so I know the dates and times. And we'll go back to you ringing me when you get home on your half days so I know you've left on time."

"I only did that the once." I objected, without much conviction. Damien shook his head against mine, warm and heavy. Right now he surrounded me entirely, his whole body wrapped around mine like a suit of armour, and I could feel the vibrations of his voice through his chest as much as I could hear it, deep and immensely comforting.

"You don't need to worry about it, and that isn't the point."

No, it wasn't. This was the start of it: I knew the signs. He'd keep a much stronger hand over pretty much everything: where I went, what I did, times and activities, and what I got away with. He was, in short, going to make himself a total pain in the neck, and I knew too if I gave it a few days I was going to feel a hell of a lot better about most things. Right now I felt fragile and tired and distinctly tearful, and, if I was honest, seriously relieved. I still didn't know if what I'd worried about losing by telling him, was my freedom or my own sense of competence – sometimes that was the hardest thing to admit: that I DID need to him to straighten things out, and that for no real reason I saw or understood, at times I did start to fray at the edges.

It was hard to put myself into his hands and let him deal with that. The point of decision was hard, and I still needed him to yank that decision from me; I really didn't know if a time would ever come where I would be able to do that myself. But in his hands was an incredibly safe place to be.


~ The End ~

Copyright Ranger 2010


1 comment:

Dark said...

such agreat sexy story
love it

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

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