Authors: Rolf and Ranger
Luke was surprised when his phone rang. "McNeil."
"George - Luke, the hotel room has been breached."
Luke swallowed on the lump that instantly formed in his throat, working hard at leaving his body language relaxed.
The rest of the conversation drained some blood from his face. There were some personal items that seemed to be missing, though that wouldn't be completely confirmed until Luke had a look around. But the thing that upset Luke the most is what they found. A microphone from the studio. A freshly washed studio employee t-shirt. And a photo album with four pictures of Val taken over the past two days.
He heard George out in silence, aware of Val's eyes on him, working on keeping his face straight and his voice even.
"Allright." he said when George finished. "We've always had a plan for this, let's do it. Sort a couple of cars out for us, meet us here."
"Where to?" George said grimly. "I'd want a THOROUGH check done on any hotel we try now Luke."
"I'll let you know when you get here. Bring everyone, full security transfer. I'll do the personal guard, you for one driver and Brad for the other."
"You got it. No more than twenty minutes." George put the phone down and the line went dead.
Luke took another careful breath and pocketed his own phone. "Kitten, where's your coat?"
"What's going on?" Val demanded, aware even with Luke's calm facade that something wasn't right.
"Your jacket?" Luke said firmly.
"The closet, where -"
"I've got it," Brad said, heading out the door, closing it behind him.
"WHAT is -" Val stopped when Luke nailed him with his patented look, appearing larger than life and in no mood to argue.
"NOT now. Let's just get your things together and get ready to leave Val, move it."
Val glowered, but collected together his belongings. Luke was waiting and as soon as Brad appeared with the jacket in his hand, Luke took a firm grasp on Val's hand, drawing him close as they walked through the recording studio door and towards the front door of the foyer. Within minutes two cars were waiting on the doorstep, unfamiliar and unremarkable cars, neither of which Val had seen before. The men driving them were in plain clothes and looked relaxed and normal, no headsets in sight, they appeared casual but the cars were parked closely together and the entire team were spread between both cars. Luke steered Val with him to the first car and kept him close, posting him rapidly into the back seat before he got in beside him. Brad took the driver's seat and Justin moved over to the passenger seat, both cars starting up together.
"Where to Luke?" Brad said quietly as he reached the end of the driveway. Luke glanced at his watch and briefly into the rearview mirror, checking the closeness of the following car with the rest of the team.
"The Chilterns, we're going to the cottage."
"That isn't searched." Brad pointed out.
"We'll search it." Luke said briefly. "It's safer than hotels."
"Luke?" Val said very softly beside him. Luke looked down and his heart turned over at the expression on Val's face.
He placed his hand over Vals, giving it a gentle squeeze. "It's going to be fine. I'll explain later, but right now I need to stay focused." The gentle smile didn't quite make it to his eyes.
Val looked away, outside to the passing scenery. In the heart of downtown, there wasn't much to look at. Unremarkable buildings sandwiched together between streets too small to hold the amount of traffic that constantly tried to pass along on the way to more exciting destinations. Val could feel the tension in the car and didn't miss the quick glances all three men were doing through every available window. As they passed out of the city limits, the buildings faded away into rolling hills and everyone was able to relax a little more, though the radios incessant chattering was a constant.
They were taking a route too that made no sense. Val was used to that, Luke who was born suspicious never drove the same route twice anywhere. Tired, somewhat anxious, he leaned his head against Luke's shoulder, sliding his hand into Luke's fingers.
"Can we have the radio on?"
"In a bit kitten." Luke's thumb rubbed over his knuckles. "Why don't you try and doze for a bit, it'll be a good couple of hours yet."
"What's wrong with a hotel?"
Luke hesitated. They were all on red alert here, there was no telling what might happen- they were keeping to public and well occupied roads, but it took only a moment for a car to block them in, for a well planned ambush to take place. He had no wish to scare Val. On the other hand, Val anxious, annoyed and likely to become obstreperous, was not going to help anything.
"The cottage is safer and out of the entire area." he said to compromise. "It's ok Val, we're not going to let anything happen. I'd rather be overcautious."
Val sighed, all too used to Luke and his over-cautiousness. He was used to it, but it still didn't sit well with him.
"How long are we going to be there?"
"Until we know it's safe," Luke replied, continuing to rub the knuckles under his.
"Can I use your phone?"
"Why?" Luke asked casually, on full brat alert as well as watching for any possible danger along the way.
Val shrugged. "I want to ask Diane to bring up my computer, if I'm going to be stuck there."
Luke relaxed somewhat, but answered with caution, this evening he wanted no one but his own team involved.
"No kitten, no talking to anyone until tomorrow when we've got things straightened out a bit."
And the computer was going to be thoroughly checked as well before Val touched it. Luke put an arm around his shoulders and drew him down to lean against his chest, rubbing the slender and toned arm under his hand.
"Settle down and get some rest."
It was somewhat of a reassurance to cuddle. Val turned his face against Luke's black jacket and shut his eyes, listening to the slow rise and fall of Luke's steady breathing.
It took nearly three hours before they turned into the long driveway to the cottage and Justin got out to unlock the gates. Brad parked the car by the house and Justin locked the gates again behind them, jogging across to join the other six men getting out of the rear car. Brad and Luke sat where they were, Luke not moving to disturb Val who was still dozing against his shoulder. The rest of the team quietly entered the cottage where Luke knew they'd search thoroughly.
Luke's phone rung on the silence, awakening Val with a start.
"Fullerson, McNeil. We need to know where Val is."
Luke's jaw tightened noticeably and, at least as far as Val was concerned, his voice got clipped and short.
"He's safe, Tom. That's as much as you're going to get for now."
"McNeil, you know the drill. We are to -"
"There's a stalker out there that has gotten entirely too close. Until I and my personal team are assured of Val's safety, we're taking every precaution available to us. That includes keeping his whereabouts on a very strict, need to know basis."
"We ARE part of that list, McNeil. It's in -"
"That list has shrunk. You have my number, and you'll have more information when it's safe. Good day." Luke clicked the phone off.
"Let's go in?" Val asked, starting to open the car door.
Luke had a hand on the door before it moved.
"Not yet Val, let's wait for the all clear. Hungry?"
"Very." Val said, subsiding. There was a distinct pout to his face and voice. So far he'd actually coped incredibly well, he'd more than risen to the occasion, but Luke was well aware that was the first storm cone. He needed to get Val fed, calmed and reassured quickly or they were going to be handling his temperament in addition to everything else. The radio
bleeped and Brad picked it up.
"Thanks." Brad turned and looked back at Luke. Luke nodded and took Val's hand.
"Come on kitten, let's get the heating on and get something to eat."
He was still wary as they entered the house, aware of Brad following them and locking the door once they were through it. The team were finishing their last sweep and George met Luke's eye, nodding assurance. They were an experienced team and Luke trusted them to do their jobs. He nodded towards the kitchen, looking around the group.
"Make yourselves some tea guys. Justin, fish and chips all round, you know your way into the town."
"Do you KNOW how many calories are in fish and chips?" Val said in outrage.
Justin, who was fond of Val and one of the youngest of the guards, got up and patted his arm as he passed.
"It's ok Val, I'll find something more your style while I'm out."
Luke relaxed a little more, knowing Val was going to be taken well care of. He went over to talk to George when Val disappeared upstairs for the quiet of the bathroom.
"Draw the curtains, sort out some shifts for me. Four hours on, four hours off, no less than three on duty at any time. I'll stay the personal guard with Val. There's two spare rooms off the other staircase, beds, the sofa, tell everyone to help themselves- the other bathroom is by the back corridor."
"I need to talk to you." George said darkly. "That hotel room-"
"Wasn't good." Luke agreed. "I know. Let me get Val settled and fed, we'll talk then."
George nodded and Luke headed up the side stairs that led to the single room above the kitchen that he and Val kept as their own when they stayed here. Val had kicked his shoes off and was lying face down on the bed, his chin on his arms. Luke sat down beside him, running a hand slowly down his back.
"We're going to stay here with ALL of them stalking about downstairs?" Val said acidly.
Luke rubbed both of Val's shoulders. "Yes, for a few days. We -"
Val rolled over and sat up, staring indignantly at his partner. "This is OUR home, not everyone's place to crash."
"They're here to do a job." Luke said pointedly. Val gave him a boiling glare.
"This is getting STUPID. You're TOTALLY over reacting-"
"And I'll go on over reacting until I'm satisfied things are how they should be." Luke interrupted shortly and sternly enough to interrupt what promised to be a long tirade. "The hotel was breached. Whoever this guy is he's got way too much information about where we were and what we were doing. Therefore we come here and we STAY at full alert until the police have him, and you're going to do EXACTLY as you're told, is that clear?"
Val scowled, not meeting his gaze. Luke leaned over, grabbed his wrist and jerked him to his feet, in no mood for pouting.
"VAL. Is that clear? Or do we need to discuss this with you over my knee for you to be clear on what I mean?"
Val's face immediately flushed, well aware of all the ears that could be within hearing distance. He tried to remove his arm from Luke's grasp and got one all too firm swat.
"Yes, sir," he said hurriedly, thankful when his arm was released and he could rub with both hands.
"I know this isn't fun - for you OR for anyone else here. But until I'm assured of your safety, we're all going to have to work together. Which means everyone is going to have to give and take. And no matter who it is that's telling you something, if it deals with your safety you LISTEN. You listen and do, without questions," Luke finished sternly.
"You ALWAYS carry on like there's some Jack the Ripper behind every lampost!" Val said, still pouting, but it was more a whine now than a yell. Nevertheless Luke's hand promptly snapped back over his wrist and pulled, and Val found himself tipped over his lover's powerful thighs and pinned there while Luke's strong hand landed again, hard, across the skin tight seat of his jeans.
"I said WITHOUT questions Val. Without whining, without pouting, without stropping, this is WORK. You WILL behave and you WILL take this seriously, or I'm going to pull out the paddle and MAKE you take this seriously, ARE WE CLEAR?"
"Yes!" Val said, struggling, before he thought to lower his voice a notch. "Yes, sir."
As soon as Luke let him, he scrambled to his feet, hot faced and somewhat shocked. Luke's expression was unrelenting.
"I am deadly serious here, Daniel."
Val nodded, tears stinging his eyes. He dashed into the bathroom and shut the door, willing his breathing to settle down, and for the tears not to fall.
Luke let him go, hoping that would make a strong enough impression. He got up, keeping his voice stern as he headed for the stairs.
"Two minutes, then I want you downstairs."
He didn't wait for an answer. In the kitchen Brad and George were unpacking fish and chips- and one of them had taken pity on Val, there was a salad and yoghurt, which were far more to Mr Quentin's picky tastes and svelte waistline. Luke kicked out a chair and accepted a plate, waiting while the rest of the team assembled around the table.
"Shifts worked out?"
"Yes." George handed paper over. "Two with Val, two on premises duty at all times. Are you going to London?"
Val's footfall on the stairs made Luke shake his head in warning and the team ate, chatting about football and trivialities.
Val finished his dinner without participating too much in the dicussions and headed over to the couch to stretch out. Usually a night of doing nothing but lounging in their cabin wasn't bad - but there were entirely too many people there to feel comfortable with. All of them he knew, all of them he liked to some degree but to have them forced into his and Luke's more private space was more than he could handle. Shortly thereafter he retired upstairs, pulling out a book and trying to ignore the low rumble of conversation coming from below. The book didn't interest him, so he settled into the bath for a long soak.
It was the creak of the stairs that gave away the presence outside.
Val froze where he was, listening. Then sat up.
"It's me Val."
Brad sounded perfectly calm about it. Val errupted out of the bath and stalked into the bedroom, grabbing a towel. Brad was sitting at the top of the stairs which led without a door from the kitchen to the bedroom.
"WHAT do you think is going to happen in there?!" Val demanded. Brad spread his hands.
"Makes no difference. This is what we do on an alert. I'm not looking Val, I'm just going to sit here."
Val gave him a daggers look, resisting the urge to scream. Then stamped back to the bath. Brad continued to sit there, and when Val pointedly threw himself down on the bed later on and turned out the light, Brad did nothing more than a move a few steps further down towards the light of the kitchen. Furious and fed up with life in general, Val turned over and sulked himself to sleep.
Knowing that Brad had things well in hand and would alert him if Val was headed downstairs, Luke talked in detail to George about what was found, and they discussed their options. It took a while, none were tempting and Luke was more than reluctant to consider leaving Val, but the fact stood- he needed to head directly back to the hotel room to confirm
exactly what was missing, as well as view the items that were found, in particular the photo album. He also needed to meet with the local police to get everyone on the same page. It wasn't what he wanted to be doing right now, but it was also work he couldn't delegate.
Upstairs, he sat on the edge of the bed and brushed the hair from his sleeping lover's eyes. Val was the picture of innocence and quite beautiful when he slept. The idea that someone else was after his love awakened strong feelings of protection and emotion that mingled to make his stomach clench. He kissed him gently on the forehead and pulled the quilt up over his shoulder, deciding to leave him sleeping in peace after his stressful day. He'd be back before dinner the next day and would be in good hands until then. He'd feel much better if he actively doing something towards stopping this menace.
He left the guards off duty playing cards around the kitchen table and Brad once more sitting at the top of the stairs in Val's room, picked up his jacket and headed towards his car.
The hotel didn't make comforting viewing. The detectives in charge had searched the room for prints and for anything else different- George's discovery still lay on the bed, and now Luke could see George's main concern. The photographs were indisputably from the recording studio. Luke flicked through them, sickened. Someone had been prepared, ready and waiting for them at the studio, knew the schedules, had got THIS close to Val and photographed him without being spotted.
"You do realise this is looking like an inside job?" the detective said bluntly. Luke nodded, shutting the small home made album.
"That's pretty damn obvious. There's no one near him right now but my own team, and I'm keeping it that way until we work out WHO's got the false ID or who's got a fixation on him. That's ALL the studio staff, ALL the team that travel with us, every last one of them."
"We're looking now at backgrounds, profiles, interviewing." the detective said soberly. "McNeil- there was one more thing."
The tone in the dectective's voice snapped Luke's head up. "What?"
"They've got a picture at headquarters that's making everyone a little more uneasy. It's looking like trophyism."
Luke's stomach jumped, hard, although he made very sure that nothing reached his face.
"What gives that impression?"
The detective sighed. "It's - parts. Pictures of Val cut up and reassembled, he's clearly got a serious thing about Val's body and control of it, and I don't like the violence implied by the separation of body parts. Our psychologist's looking at it, but it confirmed-"
"That this one's a real lunatic and probably violent." Luke said grimly.
The detective gave him a reluctant nod. "I think we're going to have to take this very, very seriously. On the other hand, a crazy like this is going to be easier to profile."
"I need to be kept informed." Luke said brusquely, getting up. "And I need to get back."
"We need to know-" the detective began. Luke shook his head.
"No one needs to know where. I've got my team, they're hand picked, they're well trained, we live every day with these plans ready to be put into action. We need to be let to do our jobs."
The detective nodded, agreeing with Luke but also knowing he was going to be hard pressed to tell his boss they didn't know where Val was.
"I've got to get a few items together, if you're finished here?" Luke asked, already heading into the bedroom.
"We're finished with the prints and everything else is in the lab. We'll keep you informed of our findings - we're holding a bull session every morning for new information and leads. I'll call you after those with any updates. Good luck."
"Thanks." Luke said, dismissing the dectective. He quickly tossed together a few outfits for Val and himself and headed over to Orion to update them.
Val slept late, tired after a long, annoying and stressful day, and soothed by the quiet of the cottage compared the usual rattle and noise of a hotel. He stirred some time after ten and rolled over. Luke never slept late- sometimes it seemed like he never slept at all- but Val never woke without seeing or hearing him immediately, always in the vicinity. Justin gave him a faint smile from the top of the stairs where he was sitting.
Val gave him a look of disgust, rolled out of bed and stalked into the bathroom, slamming the door. He dressed in yesterday's clothes with some distaste and Justin got up, heading downstairs ahead of him. There were two of the team still playing cards at the table. Another one was drinking coffee, walking by the french windows, and another was sitting in the lounge, flicking through a magazine.
"Morning Val," Ethan said from the kitchen table. "Fancy a doughnut?"
He caught Justin's wince as soon as he shut his mouth, but it was too late. The yell shook the windows.
"A doughnut? You expect ME to eat a doughnut? Do you KNOW how many calories are in that, not to mention fat? Just because I'm stuck in the middle of the countryside does NOT mean I have to eat like a farmhand!" Val finished, stomping his foot for emphasis.
"Bad morning," Justin mouthed behind Val's back, as Ethan quickly reverted his attention back to the card game. He managed to fix a smile in place when Val turned on him.
"You of all people should know what I eat. Someone SURELY can be spared to run to town and fill the fridge with something edible. Or do I need to make a few phone calls?"
"Nothing doing Val," Justin said apologetically, spreading his hands. "None of us can go anywhere until the boss gets back, and he put the phone out of action as soon as we arrived. No one in, no one out. He said to tell you he'd be back as soon as he could this morning-"
"Luke's GONE? Where did he go?!" Val demanded in outrage.
"London." Justin winced slightly on the e flat screech. "He had to talk to the police, and to Orion-"
"And he just LEFT?"
"We've been on duty all night Val, you've been safe all that time-" Justin began. Val stalked past him, heading for the front door. Several looks were exchanged between the body guards between him and the door and Curt, one of the tallest and the oldest of the guards, quietly got up and got in his way.
"Why don't you get something to eat Val?"
"Why don't YOU get out of my way." Val said unpromisingly, glaring at the man who loomed nearly two foot taller than him. Curt shrugged.
"Not a good idea this morning is it?"
"Why don't I make you a coffee," Justin said easily. "I'm sure there's something around here you can eat and once Luke gets back-"
"If you load of gorillas won't go shopping then I'll go myself." Val grabbed his coat from the door and ducked under Curt's arm. Curt blocked his way- and jumped, swearing, as his client kicked him sharply in the shins.
"I SAID MOVE!" Brad was jogging back towards the front of the house and didn't miss the unmistakeable sound of Val in flat out tantrum. He'd taken Tony and Sam on a run, both to scout out the drive down to the main road, as well as keep them all in shape. He was breathing hard when reached the door, just as Val slammed it open, nearly running into Brad.
"It's not safe for you out here," Brad got out before Val recovered his wits. Val found himself propelled back inside the house before he found his voice again, turning to confront Brad.
"SOMEONE has to drive to town for food," Val shouldered past Brad before running into a wall made up by Sam and Tony, side by side.
Val was getting ready to kick out at the two when the sounds of a car key rattling stopped him.
"I have the only keys to the car," Brad said calmly, holding them up for Val to see. "And the car isn't moving an inch until Luke returns," he finished, pocketing the keys as Val turned on him.
Val used his vitrolic tongue as a weapon for a few minutes and when that didn't produce any results he grabbed the nearest object to hand - a crystal bowl on the table by the door - and aimed it at Brad's head. The bowl would have made a wonderful mess of either Brad's head or the wall, whichever it hit first, if it wasn't for Sam seeing the move a second earlier and stepping foward to grab it on the backward swing of Val's. His move was graceful in the execution, but the bowl still smashed when it hit the floor.
Val whirled around, fire in his eyes. "HOW DARE YOU-"
His shriek was cut off when Brad wrapped his arms around Val from behind, quickly pinning his arms across his chest and making breathing difficult for Val. His legs still free, he kicked with gusto and was awarded with a satisfying grunt in his ear from Brad, who quickly made his way backwards to the couch, sitting down heavily and pinning Val down in front of him, his legs now useless as weapons.
"Remind me who we protecting again?" Curt muttered to Tony.
"Now listen Val." Brad said sternly, following the tone he often heard Luke use to their difficult client. "We've got a job to do here, and it's going to get done. Without the five star performance from you. Nothing else is going to get smashed, NO ONE else is going to get hurt, you're going to settle down and we're ALL going to wait for Luke. Is that clear?"
Val twisted and struggled free of Brad's restraining arms and spun around, taking all eight of his bodyguards in his furious glare. Then he began to explain what he thought of them. It took a while, and most of it contained invective that made even the ex army guards blink. Still more of it was carried out at a volume likely to permanently damage hearing.
Somewhere during it, Brad nodded to the others who more or less went back to what they were doing, trying to ignore Val. It ended with Val sweeping the entire contents of the coffee table off onto the floor and running back upstairs, slamming the bathroom door.
Justin gave a muffled curse as he heard the lock turn. "He's locked himself in."
"It's a child lock." Brad said resignedly. "I'll go Just, take a break. Someone want to give Luke a ring and say his Majesty's flipping his lid?"
"He's not going to come to any harm in there." Curt pointed out. "Let him sulk."
"No locked doors." Brad said simply, "Luke's very clear we're cutting no corners here. Chuck a teaspoon over mate."
Curt tossed a teaspoon across from the kitchen door and Brad ran upstairs.
"Unlock the door, Val," Brad said when he got to the door.
"Fuck you!" Val shouted through the door.
Brad took a moment for a deep sigh, then tripped the door open with a quick flip of the teaspoon. He opened the door, cutting across Val's indignant shriek.
"Luke specifically said no locked doors. He's going to be FAR from happy upon his return, and I, for one, am going to do nothing more to incur his wrath. I strongly suggest you do the same." Brad didn't wait for a reply, just hoped that his own veiled threats got through Val's outrage. If he thought it was his place, he'd have blistered Val's backside by now and he
waited impatiently for Luke's return, knowing Val would be taken well in hand. It was dangerous enough from the outside at this point, they needed everyone on the same page inside to deal with that threat.
"SHUT THE DAMN DOOR!" Val screamed at him. Brad didn't move, except to duck the hurled bath brush.
"No. If I need to I'll take it off it's hinges, you know how this works Val. COOL DOWN."
Val stalked past him and flung himself down on the bed. Taking a deep breath Brad pocketed the teaspoon and went back to the top of the stairs, taking a seat. Val could at times like this be HARD work, to the point where the impulse began to occur to tell him to take his own risks.
However once Luke made it back Brad knew well, Val would settle back into the usually sweet young man they knew and liked. He was worth the trouble.
Curt opened the door at the foot of the stairs and mouthed up to him.
Brad nodded, thanking God.
Luke took the opportunity while George drove back from London, to snatch a couple of hours sleep. They were approaching the Chiltern hills when his pocket phone rang. Curt sounded wry.
"Boss, it's Curt."
"Everything allright?" Luke demanded, throat tightening.
"Yes, fine. Well. Val's not happy."
Curt was not given to drama, and Luke had a fair idea what that meant. He pulled a face, well able to imagine how unhappy Val was capable of being. Stressed, confused, confined and probably feeling deserted, he had a hot temper at the best of times and a high sense of what was due to him.
"Don't let him bully you." Luke said shortly. "No matter what he says, stick to the action plan. I'll be there in about an hour."
The sleep that overtook Luke earlier wouldn't return. The last hour of the trip was spent worrying about Val and what he'd learned over the past twelve hours. Orion wasn't going to put up with not knowing where their star was for too long, and Luke was going to need every minute available to him to try to find the - lunatic was the only word that came to mind - before he'd have to tell someone their whereabouts. He knew Val wasn't going to be happy with the hour by hour confinement, particularly with everyone there and underfoot, but it was something they were both going to have to deal with.
At the moment he didn't dare do things any other way. Throughout the night he had gone over and over and over the security plans for the recording studio. There was no way their security should have been breached and yet it had. There was no escaping the fact that it had. And that it had been breached by someone who intended Val harm.
Luke glanced restlessly at his watch and then at George who was driving, nodding at the motorway ahead. "Come on, put your foot down."
"He's not going to score at the cottage." George said with some sympathy. "Come on Luke, who knows about the cottage? Not even Orion. You two have kept that so private it's stayed safe. And Val's got the whole team there on full alert, there's no chance of anything or anyone getting to him. He's safe while we sort this out, stop worrying."
"This one's a real crazy." Luke said grimly. George nodded.
"Yes. He is. But the police will get him. That's THEIR job Luke. Ours is to keep Val safe, we're good at it and we'll do it. It isn't going to kill him to be annoyed for a few days."
It seemed to take forever to drive yet another complex route towards the cottage. George put the unmarked car behind the second team vehicle and Luke got out, waving to Tony who was sitting by the hall window. Tony rolled to his feet and came to unlock the door, giving him a faintly bored grin.
"Hey boss. Anything new?"
"We'll talk in a while. Where's Val." Luke shouldered out of his jacket and glanced around the open plan downstairs. Most of the team were in sight but there was no small, slight and pouting Val Quentin. Tony jerked his head at the stairs, expressively.
"Upstairs and not happy. Brad's sitting with him."
"I'll check on him. Put some coffee on, then George if you keep Val upstairs, I'll brief the others."
"Got it." George said mildly, pulling his own jacket off.
Luke walked up the stairs, stopping to speak to Brad.
"Asleep?" Luke asked, nodding at the room.
"Sulking I think. Had a paddy when he realised you weren't here, though he's been settled since then."
"How bad?" Luke asked quietly.
"I'll let him tell you. And I'll scatter the troops," Brad finished, heading downstairs.
Luke looked to the heavens for support, and continued up the steps and into the room, shutting the door behind him.
Val remained face down on the bed. All the anger of earlier had morphed into dread and was knotted in his stomach. He hadn't heard the words exchanged between Luke and Brad, but he had a fair idea of what they consisted of.
"Val? Sit up please," Luke said, his back against the door.
"Maybe I'm asleep?" Val said, not moving.
"Now, please," Luke tried a little more sternly.
"Where WERE you?!" Val said, sitting up in a huff. "I wake up and find you just GONE."
"I needed to go and talk to Orion and to the police." Luke said in a tone that left no room for argument. "What happened here while I was gone Daniel?"
The use of that name was never good. Val felt himself flushing, even as he summoned up his temper. "For all I knew you could have-"
"Rubbish, there were eight people here to tell you where I was." Luke said sternly. "I explained to you clearly last night what I expected of you, I want an explanation NOW of what you've been doing this morning?"
"I was upset you weren't here." Val muttered. "AND they tried to make me eat donuts-"
He risked a peer up under his long eyelashes at his lover, who didn't so much as blink.
Val shrugged one shoulder, getting more awkward.
"I got mad."
"AND?" Luke barked. Val jumped, and his fingers began to twist.
"I kind of tried to go out and shop, but Brad wouldn't give me the keys-"
"What was the damage?" Luke demanded sharply. Val risked another, still more nervous look under his lashes, voice placating.
"Ok, I'll check that." Luke said, getting up. Val stopped him before he reached the door, twisting on the bed to see his face.
"What?" Luke said, turning back and planting his hands on his hips.
"I may have pushed some things off the table?" Val volunteered unwillingly.
"I kicked Brad. But not hard!"
Val's eyes got very large when Luke made no reply but to head over to the bedside table and withdrew a certain object from it. His voice shook despite his attempts to keep it steady.
"Luke, I didn't mean to! You can't - please!" He pleaded, well aware that everyone was downstairs.
Luke pulled Val up, paying no attention to the trembling lip or the tears starting in Val's eyes. "I warned you last night, clearly, that this is a dangerous situation and you were expected to behave in a manner that promotes your safety, not make it harder on ALL of us to protect you. These guys are trained professionals in security, just as you're trained in singing. Their job it to take care of you to the best of their ability, and you are NOT helping them in the least when you're acting like a five year old."
Luke had taken a seat, unbuttoned Val's jeans and yanked them unceremoniously to his ankles, his underwear following a split second later.
"You are an adult, Daniel, and currently an adult with a stalker after him. Whether you care or not about that doesn't change what our jobs are, which is to protect you. As long as he remains on the loose, we're going to have to remain on full alert." Luke pulled Val forward and tipped him over his knees. He could hear the fear in his partner's voice.
"Luke! PLEASE, don't!" He struggled to get up, thoroughly embarrassed that should this continue, hewas going to be giving a show to everyone that worked for Luke and knowing that more than a few of them would probably be cheering his partner on.
"You've left me no choice, Daniel," Luke said without rancor. "Your safety is not only my job because I'm employed, it's my job because I love you. I warned you several times that this was a serious issue, now I'm going to make sure you remember that well."
Val redoubled his efforts to get up, face hot, throat tight, and tears streaming down his face. He HAD been warned, HAD been well aware that he was asking for this, but with the team roaming around downstairs, his distress was evident.
Luke at that point in time had little sympathy. He'd seen the album this evening, he'd seen that room, he knew very well how close this lunatic had got to Val. That in itself was enough to make him pin Val where he was over his knees, determined by the time he was done Val was not going to consider being difficult or obstructive for several days to come. The biggest risk to a security team was a difficult client. Without hesitation he raised a hand and brought it down sharply across Val's small and shapely behind, raising an immediate shriek of protest. He took no notice. For several minutes he spanked, controlling Val's squirming across his knees, making sure that he neither hurt himself nor escaped from the safety of his position, and making sure too that Val's perfect bottom was thoroughly reddened from hips to thighs. Val was sobbing when he was done and his sobs redoubled as Luke picked up the paddle, voice very stern.
"I am utterly serious Val. While we are out here, while this maniac is at large, I am going to drop on you like a ton of bricks EVERY TIME you give me or anyone else one WORD of trouble. There won't be warnings, there won't be discussions, there is just going to be YOU doing exactly as you're told. Is that clear?"
Val quickly sobbed out his answer, and the pleas that he was in the process of uttering ended in a high pitched squeal as the paddle made it's presence known on his already hot left cheek. He bucked and kicked, crying without shame as Luke continued bringing the paddle down in circuits across his partner's backside. He landed a further three after Val settled down into acceptance before putting the paddle down on the bed beside him and relaxing his grip on his partner.
Val slid to his knees, unable to get his breath back for a few minutes. When he did, the sobs redoubled as he buried his face in Luke's lap, the hands on his back soothing. Luke was going to stay with Val for as long as it took for him to calm down. He really hated the distress his partner was in, but that was better than the possible distress he'd be in if the lunatic got anywhere near.
Val cried hard for some minutes, purely from the mix of pain and the more basic distress that Luke was less than happy with him. He was more than well aware the morning had got out of control in ways Luke would never haveallowed, and shaken too at just how rigid were the boundaries Luke was laying down. It was confirmation that this threat was a real one and the stress that had pushed Val's mood out of control was releasing now in tears. Luke stroked him in silence, letting him take his time, then leaned down and gathered Val into his arms, carrying him into the bathroom and standing him in front of the basin. A few palmfuls of cold water on his face and Val began to calm down, moving from sobs to quieter crying. And more now in upset that he'd ended in trouble where the team were well aware of what was happening. Luke stroked his hair back from his face, put a heavy arm around his neck and hugged him tightly.
"Get yourself into bed, I'm going to get you something to drink."
Val moved slowly out from under Luke's arm and slid into bed on his stomach, burying his head into the pillow. He was thankful that he didn't have to go down and face anyone at the moment, but he'd really prefer if Luke stayed upstairs too and everyone downstairs would just go quietly away. He didn't turn over as heard Luke ascending the stairs and putting a glass of something on the bedside table. He felt the bed shift as Luke sat down.
"You've got a glass of lemonade on the table when you're ready. I'm going back downstairs as I need to brief the team. George will be on the stairs if you need anything. You're not to leave this bed unless I tell you so. Is that clear?" He accepted the nod as his answer and got up. "Remember what I said."
Val curled up and tried to steady his hitching breath, not wanting George to even sense his distress.
Luke entered the kitchen, an awkward silence prevalent. "George take the stairs, everyone else, kitchen. Grab a chair."
Everyone moved, the awkwardness over with quickly as Luke got right back down to business. Luke waited a bare moment for people to take their seats, then leaned on the table, looking around at the familiar faces turned to him.
"We have one hell of a problem. For a start, the hotel AND the recording studio were breached. That means someone has access to our movements, someone is able to get past our usual defences. In the hotel room there was a photograph album. Pictures taken of Val from CLOSE to, including ones from that day. So he got close enough that he could have attacked. And we didn't see it. And there's good evidence too that this man is violent. There's collections of material on Val including cut up images, the police psychologist isn't at
all happy. He thinks this guy seriously poses an immediate threat to Val's life. We have a potential killer who knows a lot about us and has us hacked."
He let the silence weigh on them for a moment while they took that in. Then spoke more quietly.
"We cannot afford to be breached even once more. We cannot risk this nut getting near Val, and we can't assume either that he doesn't know exactly where we are, who we are and how we work. That means from here on we take NO risks whatever. We do everything by the book. We take every bloody precaution and we make up as many more as possible."
"Who knows we're here?" Brad said quietly.
Luke met his eyes. "No one. Not Orion, not the police, no one. It's the only way we can defend against the hacking until we work out the source. The police and Orion are investigating EVERYONE involved with Val from makeup to stage technicians, absolutely everyone.Until they find something, we stay here and we defend this ground. That means we patrol inside, we patrol outside, we double check entrances and exits every hour on the hour, we stick to shifts and we limit Val's movements. We stick to the usual roles. I'll remain Val's personal protection with George as my back up, Brad's in charge of the perimetre work."
That essentially translated that in crisis Luke's sole responsibility was moving Val from the scene of trouble, leaving the team to handle any threats. There were several slow nods around the table. "Brad?" Luke said when there were no questions. Brad cleared his throat.
"We'll have two outside at all times and everyone will work on two hour shifts. Two on, two off for sixteen hour days. The two off hours will be spent either inside attending to general security, or running drills.Everyone will be given a direction for a five mile run, checking out any potential threats along the way. Justin, you'll be solely responsible for the runs into town for food. If you limit your trips to once every two days and pick a different village, we shouldn't arouse suspicion. If anyone asks, you and your buddies are renting a cabin in the forestry park."
"Yes, sir," Justin replied.
"You're not to go out of your way to pamper Val with special foods. We'll eat together, and anything basic," Luke added in.
Justin gave him a wry grin. "Yes, sir."
"Anything else Brad?"
"Nothing I can think of."
"Any questions?" Luke asked, meeting everyone's gaze.
"Boss, what do we do if we spot him?" Tony asked.
"Swear at this country's gun laws." Justin said grimly.
Luke spared him a brief glance, not without some agreement. Bodyguards in the UK were forbidden to carry guns, or to attack except in serious defence.
"What we usually do. We see trouble, we get Val AWAY from it. We aren't an army, we aren't going to hunt this guy down, our job is to get Val away from any potential threat the second we spot it. If we see him we call the police and let them handle the guy, and we make damn sure he doesn't get near Val."
There were a few dark looks at him, of men who were not happy at the threat to their client nor the laws surrounding protecting him.
Luke said nothing further. If one of them caught someone seriously threatening Val they weren't going to go out of their way to be politically correct, but it wasn't something it was a good idea to voice aloud.
"Do we have any more questions?" he said brusquely.
When no one responded, Luke stood up. "Then I'll take a path to the northeast and the river, whoever else is out on the next run make sure you cover BOTH roads."
Brad followed him out of the kitchen and onto the patio, closing the door behind him. "Don't you think you should rest? We've got things covered here."
"I need a run for now," Luke said, striding off the patio without a backwards glance, eyes scanning as he picked up the pace.
Shaking his head, Brad went inside to pick the first two team members that would take the outside guard. He could well understand Luke's restlessness. This job was hard enough on someone protecting a client only, but when things got personal it got a lot more difficult.
Luke used the run to clear his head of some of the images he'd seen over the past twenty-four hours. The countryside had it's usual calming effects on Luke, though not nearly to the depth they usually did. The ground he covered was uneven but not rough, and the sights and sounds of nature worked their way into his bones. He breathed deeply of the clean, unscented air as the sweat started to build on his forehead. His arms glistened in the bright afternoon sunshine as his muscles rippled purposely beneath his shirt. Making a wide berth around a solitary pond at the farthest reaches of their property line, Luke headed back towards the cottage.
His eyes hadn't stopped scanning since he started to run. No cars, no people, no signs of people that he could see. Scott and Justin were walking the outside area as he jogged past, warming down and taking a slower pace now. They nodded to him as he passed them, unlocked the door and went in. Two more of the team were quietly keeping searching the house, doing the hourly checks. George was still sitting on the stairs with Val in clear sight. Two more of the team were resting on the sofas. The rest were planning, maps spread on the kitchen table, charts being drawn up, Brad caught Luke's eye as he passed, the phone to his ear, and passed Luke a fax. The police had checked up on everyone at the hotel and recording studio, all was clear.
Upstairs Val was asleep, worn out with emotion. Luke slipped past George, showered and changed with the speed of long practice and nodded to George.
"Allright, I'll take over here, go help Brad."
George nodded and headed quietly downstairs.
Luke settled on the bed with a book, wanting to try to keep loose and settled. He could feel a noticeable reduction in his tense muscles after the run. Trying to keep them from tensing back up was going to be a tough job.
Val turned over and settled his head on Luke's stomach, falling back to sleep almost instantly.
Two days later Val was nearly out of his mind . So was Orion, but unlike Val it wasn't boredom they were worried about. As a result Luke had agreed to set up a meeting with Diane, and after thinking it over very carefully, bearing in mind that Orion needed Val's signature on more than a few documents, to allow her to come to the cottage. She was the ideal 'neutral' figure- Val employed and paid her personally, she didn't work for Orion and was not identifiable to them. Justin and Scott went out to pick her up from a carpark 20 miles from the cottage and brought her back their usual convoluted route, checking carefully before they entered the cottage yard.
Val was overjoyed to see her, despite the paperwork she brought. For the last two days he'd been limited to moving anywhere without Luke on his heels and the rest of the team in sight, and not allowed any further than the cottage garden. The weather didn't allow sunbathing and Mr Quentin was out of ideas to occupy himself.
Val rushed out to meet her when he heard the car drive up, after being given the all clear by Tony at the door.
"Thank God, a new and friendly face," Val said, helping her from the vehicle. "How was the drive?"
"I'd never have gotten here if I was left anywhere out along the road. Didn't know some of them existed!" She turned and pulled her briefcase out, which Val took from her and followed her into the house.
"Diane, nice to see you," Luke said, pulling her to for a quick hug. "Sorry about the cloak and dagger act."
Diane sobered a little. "I guess it's gotten pretty serious, hasn't it?"
"More than I care to think about," Luke admitted ruefully. Let me introduce you to everyone. Justin and Scott you've met." Luke handled introductions while Val settled Diane's briefcase on the table and went to make some tea.
"Is there any news?" he said as soon as Val was out of earshot. Diane shook her head, looking upset.
"Nothing. I'm sorry. They've searched EVERYONE at Orion, they're all clean. We must be being hacked from outside- phones, computers, faxes. I know you're using nothing you haven't bought new since you arrived here."
"At least I know they haven't been hacked." Luke said grimly. "We haven't let Val know any details and I'd appreciate it if it stayed that way. This is hard enough for him and I don't want him frightened unnecessarily."
"Sure." Diane said sympathetically. "I've never seen you with the whole team on duty before, there's a lot of you."
"We're taking no risks." Luke looked up as Val re emerged with several mugs.
"Did you bring my computer?" he demanded as soon as he reached them. Diane shook her head.
"Sorry love. I had instructions from your bodyguard, NOTHING that might have been hacked into."
"I won't tell ANYONE where I am!" he said, stamping his foot for emphasis while looking at Luke.
Luke shook his head. "It's not that I worry about you, Val. It's what programs this guy could have on your machine that will tell him where we are."
"This is TOO stupid!" Val said, storming up stairs. George followed, taking a seat on the top step.
"He's really unhappy, isn't he?" Diane said, sipping her tea.
"Bored to death. We just can't risk it."
"If I purchased a cell phone off the shelves, one of the prepaid ones, could he use that to talk to someone?"
Luke considered, then nodded slowly. "Yes, that wouldn't be a security risk. Thanks Diane, he'd really appreciate that. Before you talk with him about the paperwork, tell me more about what you did the last few days before we came here."
Diane flushed a little and Luke gave her an apologetic look.
"I'm sorry. But we have to know where this leak came from, it might be an avenue we haven't even though of yet, and until we catch this guy we can't take any risks at all. Just talk me through."
It took nearly an hour before they were done. Val reappeared towards the end, somewhat shamefaced as he reached Diane.
Diane accepted the offered hug. "This can't be easy for you."
"Goons down my neck 24/7? No." Val subsided onto the chair by Luke, one knee under his chin. "Anything I need to do?"
"A stack of signing." Luke passed it over. "And Diane has an offer for you."
"I can get you a pre paid cell phone." Diane said gently. "Straight off the shelf, no numbers known, and not in your name. That's safe enough for Luke to be happy with. At least you've got contact with people."
"Although who you call we'll talk about." Luke interjected. "And you say nothing, absolutely NOTHING that'll cue them as to where you are or what our plans are."
"I know, I KNOW," Val said, though his happiness at least with getting a small part of the real world back was evident. "Is Orion pissed? We've missed finishing the record deal on time, or we will. I think it was supposed to be done on Friday."
Diana smiled but didn't give all the details. "That's my job to worry about. They're not happy but they'll live. We do have some contracts to look over for some guest appearances next month and one or two fan letters that could use a personal response right away. Want to get started?"
"Sure. It beats sitting around and staring at security. Can we do it in the garden? It's nice enough out," he asked Luke.
"Yes, that's a good idea. I'll get George out too, you can work on the table out there."
Val got up, his step a little lighter. Diane followed and they spent the better part of two hours going through various documents before Justin interrupted to say he was heading into town for errands and if Diane would like to go.
"Yes." Diane said cheerfully, "Perfect timing. We're pretty much done here-"
"I want to go too!" Val demanded. George grinned but shook his head.
"I want to father children some day."
"I'll bring you a phone right back." Diane promised. "And chocolate. I'll bet they're not feeding you right?"
"ALL junk." Val said, scowling. "Thanks Diane."
"Pleasure." Diane got up and kissed his cheek. "I'll get Justin to bring you the phone back, he can drop me back at my car on the way. I'll see you soon."
The phone arrived with Justin who flipped it into Val's hand with a smile at Val's yell of delight.
"There you go. With Diane's love."
"And you use it around me." Luke said from the table where he was scanning through some of the papers Diane had brought. "Who are you planning to call?"
That wasn't hard. There was one person Val knew to whom he could complain at length to about Luke and be perfectly understood.
"Matthew. I told Diane I was dying for a chat with him."
Luke gave him an approving nod. "Good choice. Come on then, we'll go into the garden. And NOT a word about where we are, is that clear? You can tell him what's happening but you're at a secret location and that's IT. No hint, no clue, NOTHING."
"He's in the US, it won't mean anything to him anyway!" Val protested. "HE doesn't know England!"
"It doesn't matter what he does or doesn't know. Mention a word about where you are and I'll break the phone, then you, and you can forget about any outside contact at all. Am I clear?"
There was one answer only to be given to that, the tone and the words clear. "Yes, sir."
Luke swatted Val gently ahead of him and out into the garden, scanning the area quickly but not seeing anything out of the ordinary. He stayed just within earshot of Val but gave him what privacy he could, trusting that Val would do as asked. Val sank down in one of the garden chairs in the last rays of sun, hoping that Matthew would answer. The phone rang three times before being picked up by a breathless Matthew.
"Matt, it's Val. Are you busy?"
"Oh, thankgod. Sec." Matthew took the phone away from his mouth to yell at Rolf. "It's Val! I'll be back out in a bit!"
"What's that all about?" Val asked when Matthew returned to the phone.
"Oh, Mr. Greenthumbs is having a field day outside. You've saved me from a few minutes of pulling weeds. Thanks, man. What's up with you?" Matthew asked as he grabbed a coke from the fridge and settled into a chair at the kitchen table.
"You have NO clue." Val subsided on his back on the grass. "I'm so glad to hear you."
"What's happening?" Matthew demanded. "Are you ok?"
"Yes. There's been this stalker who's got totally out of hand- Luke's got us all -"
Luke cleared his throat deeply and loudly. Val glared at him.
"- at a secret location in the middle of nowhere surrounded by the ENTIRE guard."
"No kidding!" Matthew said in shock. "Have you seen this guy?"
"No. He's a total whacko, Luke's completely freaked. ALL TEN of the team, every bloody minute, I'm not going ANYWHERE without one hovering, even in the bloody shower."
"NO Kidding. I begged until Diane got me this phone, a new phone so Luke isn't worried about it being hacked.... I can't even have my computer!"
"No computer?!!?" Matthew said in shock. "That's outrageous!"
"Tell me about it," Val agreed.
"That would be equivalent to me at our cabin by the lake, alone with Rolf and the other three tops. That WOULDN'T be a fun time!"
"You don't know how right you are. I'd actually enjoy being outdoors weeding right about now." Val pointedly ignored the surprised and laughing look on Luke's face.
"Tell you what. I'll trade you places if you want to pull weeds. It's 85 degrees out there!"
"Well, maybe that wouldn't be SO much fun then. It wasn't nearly that suffocating here."
"I like the sound of your weather better than ours." Matthew said, sniffing. "What ARE you doing?"
"Nothing." Val said bitterly. "There's no tv here, only a few books, the weather's not warm enough to work on a tan, everyone's too busy to talk or do anything, even LUKE if you know what I mean and there's nine other people listening ANYWAY....... what are you doing?"
"Just gardening." Matthew said easily. "We got up late and the weather's good, Rolf's enjoying himself with a whole lot of pruning- we might grill in a bit, that's nice when the
"Sounds good." Val said, slightly envious. The little he saw and heard of Matthew and Rolf's life, the precious hours spent with them while he and Luke were in the US, gave him a picture of what he and Luke's domestic life might one day be. Just them and their home and uncomplicated daily lives.
"Maybe you could come for a visit?" Matthew asked, He more than expected the no he received - Val was by far too busy most of the time to even think of visiting, much less thousands of miles away which made short visits impossible. Matthew knew Val's new album would be out within six months, followed up by a concert run that should bring him to their shores.
Ten minutes later Matthew hung up at Rolf's insistence that the gardening couldn't wait anymore.
"How's Matthew?" Luke asked as Val ended the call. He settled down in the grass next to Val.
"He's fine. Complaining about working on their lawn, as usual. He keeps threatening to expand their pool to Olympic sized so he won't have to work in the back yard."
"It is a serious sized garden." Luke said absently, folding an arm overVal's shoulders. Val snuggled up, needing the contact.
"I WANT to see them when we go back to the US."
"I know." Luke said gently. "We will, we'll make the time."
Matthew and Rolf were the only couple who truly understood and accepted them as nothing more than friends, another couple in a similar relationship. Val needed that kind of friendship desperately, Luke was more than happy to make sure he and Matthew were able to talk regularly- and he appreciated his own contact with Rolf just as much. Sometimes it was nice to be nothing more than Val and Luke.
They ate with the rest of the team that evening, Val hung around the cottage and eventually settled at the piano, busking through several of his favourite songs before he began to sing. The team carried on around him but Luke was aware they were all tuned into Val's golden voice, even with just simple piano accompaniment it filled the house, soft, warm and perfectly pitched. He was singing an old melody, Bye Bye Blackbird which Luke loved, and Luke let him get to the end before he glanced at his watch.
"You ought to be in bed kitten."
Val got up and stretched. And paused to smile at Luke. Kissing him goodnight in front of the team was impossible but Luke gave him a smile back.
"I'll come up when I've got the paperwork here finished, Diane left a few things to do."
Brad got up and followed Val onto the stairs. The rest of the team were settling: two asleep on the sofas who would work later that night, the rest taking up their night posts. Two outside would patrol the grounds. Luke finished his work and padded quietly upstairs an hour later, dropping a hand on Brad's shoulder.
"I'll take over. Get some sleep."
The next two days passed much as the previous several had. Security on and off, runs being done daily, and Val struggling mightily to keep himself entertained and out of trouble. Cards had lost all their appeal, as had the crossword puzzle books that Justin had brought in. The longer that nothing happened, the harder it was for Val to accept that this was going to
continue. Luke disappeared for a long time the day before and came back even more grim than Val had seen before. When he asked, his questions weren't answered the way he
thought they should, and he found himself facing the corner in their room for an extended period of time. Deciding that however boring the days had been, they'd at least beat the corner of their room, he gave up the questioning. He headed downstairs and settled at the desk to write a letter. He ignored everyone around him until he overheard Justin talking to Scott.
"Did you see anything on your run?"
"No, nothing out of the ordinary. Did you?" Scott asked as he stretched out to keep his muscles from tighening up.
"No, I didn't see anything but I was getting a weird feeling, like I was being watched."
That perked up Scott. "Did you check it out?"
"Yes. I stopped, listened, and looked for a good ten minutes. There was no movement, no flashes of light off metal, nothing. Maybe it's just the stress, getting to me."
"That or an animal. You should tell Brad anyway, see if he wants to do anything about it."
"I just feel weird, telling him, but not having much to tell, you know?"
Scott had been in the business long enough that he knew to trust instincts far more than what the eyes saw. Justin was young, though showed good promise in what he did. It was just going to take experience to bring him to the next level.
"If you're sensing something," He said lightly, "There'll be something there to sense. Go find him, let him know. Maybe we need to keep a closer watch out there, or have a full search."
Justin shrugged but jogged outside to find Brad. Val paused over his letter. He was writing to his brother, although he knew the chance of Luke allowing him to post anything to anyone at the moment was slim.
"What's up?" Scott asked, catching his eye. Val shrugged.
"The usual. Bored. Fed up. Luke came back in a vile mood."
"Shouldn't be much longer." Scott said comfortingly. "Bound to catch up with this lunatic soon and we'll be out of here."
Not soon enough for Val.
He went to bed early that night out of sheer boredom. Luke went with him, malthough he wasn't exactly sleeping. Another of the team sat in the kitchen below, there was no immediate danger to Val but sleep- real sleep- still wasn't a possibility. He dozed fully dressed on the covers beside Val for an hour here and an hour there, but mostly sat, watching, listening, still on duty.
It was shortly after two and he was sitting on the side of the bed when he heard Brad's soft voice on the stairs.
"Here." Luke got up and went to him. Brad looked apologetic.
"I'm sorry to disturb you- Luke, Justin came to me earlier saying he sensed there were eyes on him. George just came with the same feeling, there IS someone out there. We've searched the whole area but there's nothing to be seen. No tracks, nothing at all."
"Get everyone up." Luke said quietly. "Leave the house properly protected, get everyone else out and search again. Send Justin up here to Val, I'll come out and have a look around myself. If it's the bastard we want let's corner him."
Brad nodded and slipped away. Luke pulled a jacket on and waited until Justin appeared on the stairs before he slipped past and went outside. The team were making a rapid, silent and systematic search, Luke trusted them enough not to check up on them. Instead he circled the house, just letting his instincts rule. He was on the patio, beneath his and Val's window when he stubbed his foot against an object and bent to pick it up, snapping his torch on.
Once he saw it, the blood drained from Luke's face and he almost dropped the photo album he was holding. His senses were in overdrive and he could have heard a pin drop in the woods twenty feet behind him. With shaking hands he opened the book, the torch bringing the stark images to light. There were four more photos, all taken in the last few days. They weren't all of Val, two of them were members of his team, almost staring directly at the camera. The other two were from the day before, when he and Val were eating breakfast on the patio. He slammed the book shut and was going to head into the cottage when his torch caught something hanging on the wall. Luke took one look at the outfit - a recent costume of Val's, sewn together with a blonde wig in the neckline.
There was no way - NO way that someone could just waltz into their secured zone and do this, not without one of guards noticing something. Their security had been breached again,
and this was entirely TOO close to home. Luke ripped the outfit down and headed into the cabin. The first person he saw he barked. "You, upstairs, now..."
Scott headed upstairs, all senses alert. Justin stood up and was ushered into the bedroom with them.
"Security has been breached again, your instincts were right. Justin, get into these," Luke said, throwing at him a shirt and pants from Val's collection of clothes. "Put a hat on."
"Where are we going?" Justin said, doing as he was told and quickly. Luke glanced out of the window and pulled the curtains tighter together, voice low to keep Val asleep.
"Take the car, go slowly enough to make sure if anyone's tailing they follow you, the rest of the team watch- get a THOROUGH search out by the roads. If we haven't seen anything in an hour we call the police. Clear?"
"Where do we go?" Scott said shortly. Luke shrugged.
"Anywhere you like, just drive around long enough to see if you pick up a tail. You've got the radio, the others can follow you if you do and bringthe police with them. Move. I'll stay with Val."
Scott and Justin moved together. Luke waited tensely, listening until he heard the car start outside. Then he stooped by the bed, voice very soft. "Kitten."
Val stirred and Luke shook him gently. "Val. Shhh."
Blue eyes blinked open, startled, then wary as he took in Luke's face. "What?"
"Get dressed. Quietly, fast as you can."
The tone was so strange Val obeyed instantly. Luke helped him, handing him the darkest clothes from the few he had, zipping up his jacket before he gripped his shoulders.
"Kitten we're going to need to get out of here. And only you and I are going, the rest of the team don't know and I don't want them knowing. We're going to slip out of here without being seen and we're going the back way."
"Where to?" Val said softly, looking scared.
"John." Luke said just as softly. "He's only a few miles from here and I trust him. Come on kitten, quietly. We're going your way out of here. Through the window, quiet as you can. I'll go first."
Val, normally adept at scaling out of windows and the like, found himself having problems. The tone of voice Luke used, along with HIM wanting to climb out the window scared him, and his shaking hands wouldn't follow his commands as easily as they normally did. He fell the last few feet into Luke's arms, weak kneed.
"It's ok, Kitten. This way," Luke whispered, pulling him towards the back of their house.
Val stumbled after Luke, trying hard not to slow him down, but his strides were no match for Luke's. Where Luke was surefooted in the moonlight, Val was having problems. Luke slowed down enough to make sure Val didn't fall behind, but kept them at a rapid pace. He hoped none of his team noticed them missing too quickly, he didn't want them to worry. He DID want to make sure that they got far away before he contacted them, just in case it was one of them that posed the security risk, even if they didn't know it. He had to cajole Val several times to keep him moving and was extremely proud at the way Val was taking this latest shock in stride.
The woods were darker still, but provided the best cover. Luke pulled Val close to him, kept tight hold of his hand and hustled him gently on, discouraging talking. He was relieved when their path from the woods led out on to the moonlit banks of the river with clear fields on either side, no cover where anyone could follow them without being seen. There he stoppedand let Val drop onto the damp grass, kneeling beside him and hugging his shivering shoulders tightly.
"You're doing so well. It's barely a twenty minute walk from here."
"What's happened?" Val's eyes were luminous in the dark. "That stalker came didn't he?"
"Yes." Luke said quietly. He didn't mention the hung costume on the side of the house. "He found where we were. Which means the leak might even be in my team. Or else he's bloody good."
Val nodded, too shaken now to argue. "What are we going to do?"
"We keep it just you and me. John's got contacts." Luke said quietly. "Other old friends of mine. Other ex army. SAS. I know they're ok and they'll get me what I want."
"Which is?" Val said, trying to read his face. "Where are we going? Nowhere's safe is it?"
"Out of the country." Luke said lightly. "An immediate holiday. The US if we can manage it. You're not so well known there."
"I'm supposed to be working on that." Val said with a ghost of a smile. Luke smiled back, leaned down and kissed him.
"We'll try and get a flight out as fast as possible."
And in the US there were no gun restrictions.
Luke pulled Val to his feet and cast another quick look around him. "Come on Kitten. Let's move."
Val got slowly to his feet, chilled. More than anything right now, he wanted to be in a warm bed, with Luke by his side.
The twenty minute walk turned into thirty by the time they'd made it to the front gate. Luke told Val to stand by the side of the door, out of sight, and knocked loudly on the door. He tried again after a minute, then heard footfalls on the stairs though no lights were turned on. He could feel the meyes on him before the door opened.
John was a tall, rangy man with a bullet scar in his left cheek that had made an irrevocable mess of his face. His expression at the sight of Luke was still for a moment, then silently he put an arm around Luke's neck and hugged him. Luke returned the embrace tightly, then put out a hand and drew Val to him.
"John, this is Val."
"YOUR Val?" John echoed, surveying the younger and smaller man beside Luke. Val in his turn swallowed hard at the scarred face, flinching back against Luke. Luke nodded.
"My Val. We're in trouble Johnny, we need somewhere safe for a few hours while I make some plans to get us out of here."
John stepped back from the doorway, apparently unsurprised and unphased by this news, doing nothing more than cast a quick eye around the garden beyond the door.
"Are you sure you weren't followed?"
"Sure." Luke said shortly, steering Val into the hallway. "We came from the river, no way to follow without being seen."
"You don't lose your knack." John locked the door. "Get the little one a blanket and some brandy, I'll get dressed."
"Thanks," Luke said huskily, before heading over to the couch, towing Val, He wrapped the blanket around Val and got him settled, then headed over to the bar on the side of the room. Pulling out a bottle, he poured a short glass and brought that over to Val, squatting in front of him.
"Drink this. It'll warm you up."
Val took a swig, coughing on the sharp taste. He finished off the glass when Luke's hands pressed it back up, and for a moment Luke's fingers drifted up, soothed his hair back, a silent moment of private comfort and reassurance that Val clung to in this strange house in the middle of this nightmare.
John came down a moment later, dressed and with a cell phone already to his ear. He hung up after a few terse words.
"Jacob?" Luke asked, standing back up.
"Yes. He wasn't too happy being gotten up early, but he'll have his plane ready in an hour. We just need to get there."
"I need to get a safe message to the rest of my team." Luke said tautly. Partly to stop a panicked attempt to look for them or police involvement- partly a warning to George that the team was possibly hacked. The thought sickened Luke, there wasn't one man in the team he could bear to think of having betrayed Val.
John read his face and nodded.
"Phone it through - Robert or Peter maybe? Or my sister would do it. Doesn't matter if they trace the call back there."
"Thanks." Luke said shortly and went to use the phone. John gave Val a brief smile, catching his eye.
"Better? It won't take long. I'll drive you two out, the airfield's
barely twenty minutes from here."
Val nodded, looking slowly around the cluttered, old fashioned room. On one dresser was a picture of six young men in army uniform, standing grouped together in front of a heavy iron gate. Val could pick Luke's dark head out next to John's with a young, unblemished and still handsome face.
"Is that you?"
"Yes. Belfast, 1992." John followed his gaze to the photograph. "It's allright kid. We've known Luke a long time, we're all safe and he knows it or he never would have brought you here."
Between the brandy and the strangeness of the last few hours, Val's inhibitions were gone. "What happened to your face?" he said gently but simply.
John's eyes grew a little distant. "We were ambushed one day. I didn't duck in time. Luke had been doing recognizance and made it back just in time to take out their guys."
Val swallowed. Luke rarely talked about his days in the army, and none of it was of him saving other's lives. It wasn't that Luke refused to talk about those days, it was just they were never thought about when they had time to think. Seeing a new side of Luke was interesting. Val wanted to ask more but the brandy and warm blanket were doing what they should and after a few moments of silence his eyes closed and he dozed lightly.
John pulled the blanket further over him, pausing for a moment to look at the fairy tale beauty of the boy's face. The pictures and images on tv and in the media didn't do Val credit- in the flesh he was natural. Ethereal. The sort of creature artists must have seen centuries before when they drew angels and sprites based on beautiful young men. John doubted very much Val had any idea of what Luke had been doing at his age- dodging snipers on the rough streets of Belfast, patrolling neighbourhoods where one minute you played football with the local kids and a minute later held a shoot out through cars, kids trikes and washing lines. Luke had had a hardness on his face in those days that Val would never have in his life.
"Hands off." Luke said only half joking from the doorway.
"Not my type." John retorted quietly. "He's stunning Luke. I don't know how you face down the competition."
"Scare 'em off." Luke poured himself a glass of the brandy. John gave him a shrewd look.
"When did you last sleep? ARE you sleeping?"
"Cat napping." Luke said shortly. "My bloody team was breached John, one of my OWN guys, it must have been."
"Or this maniac's GOOD. Trained. Police." Luke tossed down the brandy with a bitter look. "Army. Something with high level work, he got through my team and I KNOW they don't make mistakes."
"You're doing the right thing then. Take him yourself and get out." John said bluntly. "Do you know where you're going?"
"Yes. I've got an idea." Luke ran both hands over his hair and took a breath. "I take it we're using your jeep? Let's get on that plane."