Saturday, February 20, 2010

Stalked Part 3


Title: Stalked Part 3
Authors: Rolf and Ranger


The airfield was fifteen miles away and it was approaching dawn when John drove across several miles of tarmac past a few sleepy, shut down private aircraft.
Val, wide-eyed, silent and shivering, pressed close against his side, sitting between Luke and John in the front of the khaki-coloured jeep.
To Luke's relief they saw no police cars or any of the security team cars on the way.
A lone plane was going through pre-flight checks, stood out on the runway with its lights on and John parked close beside it, flashing his headlights at the man standing beside the plane. He waved in response, but didn't move, a critical eye on the propellers being tested.

  "They're ready to go," John said softly to Luke over Val's head. "They'll copilot each other, and Del picked up all you're going to need. Are you sure you know what you're doing?"
Luke nodded shortly, opening the door. "Come on, kitten, quickly."


Val slid out onto the tarmac and let Luke hustle him, keeping close against his back to the plane steps. John circled and walked on their other side, an eye on the horizon until they were inside the cabin. It was small, just four seats and a few of the private amenities special to private aircraft. Compared to the luxury private planes Val was used to, this was Spartan to put it mildly; but the man at the controls was thickset, scruffy and greeted Luke by getting up and giving him a rough, silent hug.


"This is Del ," Luke said to Val when they separated. "Del , this is Val."


"Hey kid." Del offered a hand and gripped Val's, eyes still on Luke. "You look like shit, McNeil."
"And I owe you," Luke said shortly. "How soon?" 


"Five minutes, we're doing the last pre-flights now."
Del re-seated himself and Luke put Val down in a chair. "Stay put a minute, kitten; I need to say goodbye to John."
Val settled into the seat, looking around the small plane.  He didn't remember being able to look at the cockpit controls before, and wasn't sure he liked it.  Looking outside, he saw Luke shaking John's hand before Luke was pulled into a rough hug.


"I'll work on it," Luke said.


"You need to do more than work on it.  You never were too good at taking orders, but take that one.  SLEEP.  And I found what you wanted. You'll be able to carry it in the States." 
Luke looked down as the cold steel touched the palm of his hand.  He wrapped his hand around it, feeling the weight, then pulled the chamber back to find it was fully loaded.  Sliding it into the back of his jeans, he clapped John on the arm. 

"I owe you -"


"You owe me nothing but a promise to keep you and fancy face safe,"  John said bluntly. "You be careful, McNeil."
Luke could do nothing but nod as the first engine caught and rattled into service.  He climbed back aboard the plane and locked the door shut as the second engine burst into life.  Turning to find himself a seat, his face softened at the white in Val's face. He took the seat next to him and took his hand, holding it tightly.

 "It's ok, kitten. Really, we're safe here."


"He's right." Jacob, also in a flight suit, took the second pilot's chair, giving Val a quick grin. "We're ugly but we're licenced. We're headed out of here, strap down."


Luke gave him a silent glance of thanks and sat back, clicking the lap belt over Val before pulling him down into his arms and hugging him there, rubbing his back. "It's fine. It's ok; we're going to be fine now."


"Where are we heading?" Val said into Luke's stomach.
Luke bent his head and kissed his hair.

 "Remember Rolf and Matthew telling us about that cabin they own out in the middle of nowhere?"


Val nodded without lifting his head. Luke sat back, watching the runway zoom past at increasing speed.
"We're headed for there. I'll call them when we reach the airfield, there's one about ten miles from the forestry park."


"That's going to put them in danger," Val said thickly.
Luke shook his head.

 "No it won't, kitten. For a start, no one is going to know where we are other than the people on board this plane, and I KNOW I can trust Del and Jake. And Rolf and Matthew won't be anywhere near us, I'll check with Rolf when we get there for the forestry number and we'll take one of the rented cabins in the park, not theirs. It's going to be fine."


"Fine?" Val lifted his head.
The plane was lifting off with a stomach-wrenching jerk and Luke held him still tighter, his voice lower only for Val's ears.

 "It's ok, kitten. Nothing is going to happen to you, I won't LET anything happen to you. We are going to be safe; it's just going to be you and me and it doesn't matter WHERE we go so long as we're together. Trust me?" 
Val didn't need to think on that one.  "I trust you."  He grabbed for Luke a little tighter when the plane banked to the right at a hard angle before settling into a climb to reach cruising altitude.  His hand touched the gun and he shrank back from it quickly.  The loud and persistent drone of the engines, along with the stress of the last twelve hours caused Val's heavy lids to close and for him to sleep.
"How far out is he?" Del said softly, looking back from the copilot's seat. Luke eased himself free of his partner, pulled off his jacket and draped it over Val.
Jacob got up and came to join him, picking up a kit bag stashed in a locker at the back of the plane.


"He's well away," Luke said just as softly. "We were up most of the night and he's petrified."


"I picked up a mickey finn if you did want to slip him something," Jacob said grimly. "Not sure how ‘with it’ you wanted him to be if you wanted him out of sight."


Luke didn't answer. It wouldn't have been the first time they as a team had quietly drugged someone they were guarding to keep them still quieter and more unobtrusive, but the thought of doing that to Val was less than pleasant.

 "Not now," he said eventually. "But give it to me in case."


"Did Johnny get you the colt?" Jacob began to sort quickly through the kit bag.
Luke drew the handgun. He preferred colts, his pistol of choice, and its weight was reassuring in his hand. Jacob shook out a bag of clips.
"Ammo. And another case in the bag back there. Fatigues for you and the kid. We're travelling as armed forces under a forces licence, you two need to look the part. We'll have to break at Halifax for an hour to refuel and the kid'll be seen there."
"What about the other stuff?" Luke said shortly.
Jacob turned out the bag. "All here. Radio, survival kit, food and water, the stuff for the kid." And, packed by Jake, it would be well planned and complete. Luke gave him a nod of thanks he knew he couldn't put into words. Jake gave him a more thorough look and jerked his head at Val. 

"If the kid's down, we're in the air and I can watch him; you get some sleep, Mac."


Luke shook his head, pocketing several of the clips for the colt and pulling on the gun harness in the bag. "Too wound up. It's been a hell of a couple of days."


"Eat something then. It's going to be about ten hours to Halifax."

Val slept soundly for four out of the ten hours, and when he did wake was subdued and quiet, willing to eat and then to doze, intimidated by the two large and army-fatigued pilots. By the six hour mark he was getting decidedly restless and in the end Luke, well aware Val's nerves were already strained and that this was a small plane, stopped coaxing and slipped one of the capsules from Jacob into some of the thermosflask coffee and within ten minutes Val was deeply asleep again, leaving Luke free to sit with a notebook and maps, going over and over his plans in mind. Eventually Del came back to sit with him and they went over the planning together, the team habit years old, checking every fact, every detail, every possibility.

It was approaching mid-afternoon local time when they received landing orders at the Halifax airstrip and the runway came into view.

"We'll have about an hour." Del said over his shoulder to Luke. "Enough time for you to get the kid sorted. You'd better get him awake and dressed." 

Luke nodded and shrugged into his fatigues, a near miraculous feat in the tight quarters of the aircraft.  Once he was situated he tried to awaken Val, with little success.  It took the better part of the last thirty minutes of the flight to get Val situated in his clothing, stowing away their personal effects and buckling back up for the landing.
The landing was smooth and the taxiing short on the way to the general aviation terminal.  Val stirred when the plane's engines were silenced, blinking on the bright light of the day. 
"Where are we?"
"Halifax .  First fueling stop.  You're in army fatigues, and you're to keep this cap on at all times.  Keep your eyes on the ground and don't look anyone in the face.  We're going to head into the building and use the facilities."
Val nodded sleepily, happy to just be getting out of the plane.  He stumbled on the last step and was caught by Jacob.
"Careful there," Jake said with a brief smile.  Val quickly got his feet under him and stepped away, intimidated by the sheer size of the three men surrounding him.  Luke took him by the arm and they headed for what looked to be a side door but proved to be the main door.  Luke scanned the interior without making it obvious and headed towards the restrooms.  There were only a few people inside the office, one couple making plans for a charter flight later in the week, and a student pilot and his instructor sitting in a couple of the chairs and going over their flight plan.  There was an older looking lady sitting at the desk, and the room smelled like burnt coffee and ashtrays. 
The three army men walked calmly but angled around Val with the careful positioning of long practice. Aimed not to draw attention and to keep him as concealed as possible. Once in the restroom Jacob put his back to the door and Luke turned the taps on at a sink, watching while Val washed his face and hands. Del put a small rucksack on the table, disgorging a bottle, a towel and a pair of scissors from within it. Val glanced over and then up to Luke, eyes startled. Luke kept his voice calm, taking the towel from Del.
"Kitten, we need to get you as unlike any pictures as possible. Del picked up some black dye which we can do right here, then I'll cut your hair. From a distance no one's going to look twice at you."
He spoke gently but he saw the words hit Val like bullets. His eyes went still wider, both with fear and with total outrage, and he knew very well Val wanted to scream, to fight, to argue this bitterly. His appearance was precious to him, it was his identity as much as part of his vanity; it was an incredibly hard thing Luke knew he was asking. And it was confirming again to Val how serious this was.
"My hair?  Here?" was all Val could manage.  Those three words conveyed every bit of disbelief and anger that Val was capable of.
"Your hair will grow out, and we can color it blond again as soon as this is over," Luke said placatingly.  He silently pleaded with Val to just bend over and let him be done with this chore, hate it though they both did.  After an interminable look, Val bent over the sink, shaking with outrage as Luke quickly applied the hair treatment.  He didn't miss the few tears that dropped into the sink and wished fervently that they were alone and his hands weren't covered in the black dye.  Val refused to look at the mirror as the product set and fairly fumed as Luke washed out the excess as soon as the time had expired.  He stood mostly still as Luke clipped off the length, and stalked from the room without a backwards glance as soon as Luke proclaimed him presentable. 
"I doubt that seriously," Val ground out, walking back to the plane and flopping back into the seat.
Jacob met Luke's eyes with a look of blunt sympathy and went to help Del with the refuel. Luke sat down and pulled Val around to face him, mostly by brute force since Val's arms were tightly folded and his face set like thunder. He looked… anything like Val. The bright fair hair was convincingly black and no longer framed Val's face, clipped short and neatly. It made him look younger and somehow more vulnerable, the fineness of the bones in his face more obvious. His eyes, still dark and powerfully blue, glared back at Luke like an angry cat's. Luke held his shoulders, ducked quick enough to dodge the pout and kissed him, silently but hard and thoroughly.
It was unusual for him- Luke wasn't given to public gestures of affection, particularly ones this serious, but it said everything. Val softened and when Luke let him go there were tears in his eyes again, ones Luke brushed gently away with his fingertips.
"It's only for a few weeks, Val. It's easily reversed."
Val didn't answer and Luke let him go, getting up to pick up his notebook. 
"There're a few more things we need to go over."
"Not now," Val said, curling up with his arms around his knees. Shaken and upset, this was not what he wanted or needed, but there were only another two or three hours left of flight time and Luke gently pushed his legs out of the way, sitting again beside him.
"Yes, now. Your name. From here on, we don't even think the word Val. Daniel and Daniel only."
"When you say Daniel I feel like I'm getting told off!" Val argued. Luke smiled faintly but shook his head.
"Daniel. And no Quentin either. If anyone asks your name it's Daniel Ryan. That's near enough to Orion for you to remember it easily. I want you to write it for me, fifty times. Practice it until you can write it naturally and it's ingrained into you. Then we'll work on the rest of your story."
"Not only am I getting told off, you're giving me lines to write??!" Val exploded, unable to contain himself.
"They're not lines.  It's an exercise for you to remember your name, so that -"
"Daniel Ryan, I REMEMBER!"
"Write it.  Fifty times," Luke said firmly, his eyes locked on Val's.  When Val picked up the pen to begin writing, Luke softened his tone.  "It's not an exercise because I don't think you can remember.  It's training, stuff I had to do when I was younger and working undercover."
Val glanced up but began writing when Luke instructed him to do so again.  "What was your name?"
"I had too many to remember," Luke said bluntly, "We did a lot of missions. Come on. It needs to be second nature, no matter who says it to you and where, you need to have it straight off your tongue."
Val wrote for a minute, then paused, glancing down from the window. There wasn't much to see but clouds.
"Where are we?"
"Over Ontario ," Jacob said from the cabin. "What's your name?"
"Daniel-" Val hesitated a second before "Ryan" followed. Luke nodded.
"Keep writing."
For over an hour he and the other three drilled Val through the name and the story. Daniel Ryan. On holiday from London with his boyfriend, a dancer with a troop contracted to a London theatre. Val spent enough time with the dance troop contracted to his show to be able to answer any number of questions in that field. His boyfriend was a prison officer and rarely spoke about his job as it was strictly confidential.
"Why do you get to keep YOUR name?" Val said resentfully. Luke looked up from the notebook, not interested in the tone or the protest.
"Because I and the whole security team are damn careful that our names AREN'T known. And prison officers aren't easy to trace because of the confidentiality rights of prisoners; no one's going to be able to pull a list up and check. Go over this again. Where do we live?"
" LONDON," Val said with increasing irritation. "Tower Hamlet."
"And that's where?" Luke waited, then pushed the map towards him again. "Look. The tube station's there, THIS is how you'd get to work-"
Jacob banked the plane and moved through another cloud bank. They were less than an hour now from their destination.

It was approaching twilight when the little plane came in and taxied to a very quiet area of the small airfield. No one else was in sight, and no one saw the small group of men climb down with the two heavy backpacks. Luke turned Val towards him, checking the rucksack straps, then turned back to grip Jacob's hand in a hard, downward tug.
"I won't forget this. Now you forget where you left us."
"You leave a message at the office here if you want a lift out; we can be back within 24 hours," Jacob said quietly. "Take care of yourself, Mac."
Del said nothing, just gave Luke a swift, hard hug and another to Val, then stood back to watch Luke grip Val's hand and lead him quickly towards the airfield building.
"Do you even think this place is open?" Val asked, feeling like they were the only two people in the world, outside of the two men climbing back into the plane.  A moment later the engines started.
"I don't know," Luke said, eyes scanning the surroundings, taking in possible escape routes and safe zones on the short walk across the tarmac.  The weight of the gun in his holster felt good, and was in perfect position should he need to use it.
Luke reached the door, standing within the dim glow of the single light bulb over the door.  He pulled it open and felt for the light switch inside the door.  The room was immediately bathed in the florescent light and Luke knew there was no one present before Val even got his eyes up from the floor to the desk. 
"They just leave the door open?" Val asked, the sound of the departing plane growing dimmer as the door shut behind him. 
"Come away from the windows.  Over here," Luke said, pointing to a chair off to the side.
"I think I've-"
"SIT down for a moment, please," Luke said, walking over to the desk. 
Val shrugged out of his backpack and sat gingerly on the arm of the worn chair.  He was wanting to tell Luke he didn't sit in places like this, but decided now was not the time to go into the finer details of What Being A Star meant. Val looked around the small room.  Down a hall he could make out the obligatory coffee stand, complete with styrofoam cups and sweetner packets.  There were about four groups of seating around square glass tables, worn magazines spread on each one.  There was an acrid odor of burnt coffee, cigarettes and only God knew what else in the air.   
Luke headed for the payphone, picked up the receiver and poured in a handful of the US currency small change Del had sorted out for him. The number he dialed was answered to his relief, the voice cheerful.
"Hello, good evening and welcome, what can I do for you?"
Luke took a breath, keeping his voice as relaxed as possible.
"Hello, Matthew, it's Luke McNeil. Is Rolf there?"
"Hi! Yes, is Val there?"
"Not this time, love; I need to speak to Rolf," Luke said calmly. "Is he there?"
"ROLF!" Matthew yelled for answer. A minute later the phone was taken and a quieter voice pointed out that they occupied a house, not a ballpark.
"Hello?"
"Rolf, it's Luke McNeil," Luke said steadily. "I need to ask you for a little advice."
"Sure, anything.  What's up?"
"My partner and I have a serious problem." Even here, Luke avoided saying the name, hoping Rolf would pick up on the slight emphasis on the words. "You and Matthew told us about the park where your cabin is - we're right now about ten miles south of that park. Can you give me an exact location for it, and a phone number to book a cabin there?"
Rolf sternly pointed Matthew back to the puzzle he'd been working on and headed into his office for a little more quiet.  "You're at the lake?"
"Nearby. We need somewhere quiet and unknown, Rolf; this is something of an emergency."
"You can have our cabin, by all means," Rolf said graciously. "It's a busy time of year, I'm not sure there would be any other properties open."
"That’s very kind but we need somewhere unknown. If I can have the number I can see what I can find."
Rolf could hear the stress in Luke's voice, very unlike the one he'd previously known.  "Tell you what.  I'll call the caretaker's home, the office is closed already.  Is there a number I can reach you at?"
"Not right now." Luke glanced at his watch. "I can call back in ten minutes, but we're on a tight schedule. I'm sorry, this is not exactly polite I know."
"It sounds serious.  Call me back in ten, I'll let you know then if there's anything available."
"Thank you." Luke hung up and went back to Val, sitting down beside him with a quick and hard look at his face. He was well aware that stress had encouraged Val to sleep as much as he had on the plane: he didn't look rested. He looked white, large-eyed and taut. And strange, dark-haired and in the army fatigues. Being here was not good; the longer they sat the shorter were the odds on someone seeing them there and remembering them. Trying not to glance at his watch, Luke sat back and took Val's hand.
"Hungry?"
Val shook his head. "What are we waiting for?"
"A number. We'll walk down to the park and find somewhere to stay."
Val didn't answer, just nodded and drew one knee up, wrapping his arms around it.
It was an effort to wait ten minutes before picking up the phone again, and to Luke's relief Rolf answered quickly.
"As I expected, they're booked solid.  My offer still remains open.  The cabin is empty and ready."
Luke hesitated, thinking things through. "Thanks. If it's all right with you we'll strike for there now and I'll find a tent in the morning, we'll move on and camp. From the maps the park's large enough to find privacy further up in the hills?"
"Strike for there now?  You don't mean you're walking, do you?
"We'll make our own way. Can I pick the keys up from the warden's office?"
"You said you're ten miles from the park.  I'm certain you can walk that with no problem, but can V.....your partner?"
Thank you Rolf, Luke thought silently. "We'll manage," he said aloud. "Don't worry, Rolf. Right now the less anyone knows the better."
"Look.  You're going to meet the warden anyway.  He's a vet from several wars and knows how to keep his mouth shut.  Let me send him with a car, let you get settled without that walk?"
"Better we make our own way," Luke said steadily. "Just give me a fix on your cabin and the warden's office and we'll be fine."
"All right.  The main entrance is the east one, off the west park road running off the main highway. About four miles down.  That's where the bulk of the rental cabins are, along with the office.  The warden, Col. Merriweather, lives in a home off the east entrance.  You'll swing a left when you enter.  The office will be the first cabin on the right, labeled as such.  He lives in the trailer you can see from that parking area.  I'll let him know you're coming.  When can he expect you?"
"Better I just turn up." Luke glanced at his watch. "I owe you, Rolf; thank you. You can count on us to leave things as we find them. Goodnight."
"Take care," Rolf said before hanging up.  The warden would direct them to the actual cabin, situated on the west side where more of the private residences were located.  He sat back in his chair and went over the conversation from beginning to end, trying to figure out what was going on. Luke and Val, a superstar, were some ten miles from the middle of nowhere, on a continent that wasn't their home, and with no transportation.  A ten-mile hike wasn't an impossible distance to cover, but it was more than the average hiker was likely to do, especially in the dark.  There was nothing near that was going to be open in the way of supplies, and if they were intent on leaving the next day to camp, he was going to have to move fast.  His mind made up, he called Col. Merriweather to expect a key pickup within several hours.
Luke put the phone down and held out a hand to Val. "We're fixed, kitten. Come on, we need to get going."
Val got up without comment, and took his hand. Luke led him quickly out of the airfield centre, over the fence at the perimetre and into the woods.
"Where are we going?" Val said quietly as they started to walk through the trees. Luke relaxed slightly away from the airfield. Seen from here they would look like a couple of holiday makers. Hikers or walkers, a common sight around here.
"Rolf's lending us their cabin, it's not far."
"How far?"
"A few miles," Luke said calmly. "We'll walk for a while, rest for a while. I've got a map; we're not going to get lost."
Val didn't answer. Which was so unlike him, Luke looked across at him in concern, aware he was probably in shock. Worry would come later. For now his sole priority was to be sure that their approach to the cabin was risk free: there would be no cars, no one with memories of two men entering the park, nothing unusual that would pull anyone's eye or attention. And then possibly they would have somewhere safe to hole up for a while. They could rest at the cabin, pick up a tent locally and head up into the hills, set up a site well off the beaten track.
*
"Why can't I go?" Matthew asked, his lip out fully.
"I don't know the situation," Rolf said for the third time. "I've explained that already.  All I know is that they're not going to have food or drink, nor can they pick any up this late.  I'm going to take a few supplies to get them through a day or so and come back tomorrow."
"If it's not safe for me, then it's not safe for you," Matthew persisted. 
"Most likely Luke's being overcautious, that's his job.  Besides, you have that install you're doing at work tomorrow and I don't think you should be gone for that.  Do you?"
"But it's VAL !" Matthew argued. "What chance do we EVER get to actually meet up?!"
"Something's clearly wrong and until I know what, then you stay here," Rolf said firmly. "You stay here. I'll be back tomorrow; I'll call you before I start home. And it might be better in the meantime not to say anything to anyone about them."
"I'm not stupid," Matthew said shortly. "If you're taking the truck, what do you want to take with you? Most of the cabin gear's in the garage."
*
They'd been walking nearly two hours when Luke stopped and slipped the backpack down off Val's shoulders.
"We'll sit down here and rest for a while, kitten. We've made good progress."
Val sat down without a word and put his head down on his arms. Luke slipped off his own rucksack and opened it, finding water and a couple of wrapped, high energy bars.
"Here, kitten. Eat that."
"I'm too tired," Val said without looking up. Luke sat down beside him, wrapped an arm around his shoulders and pulled him down until he flopped and half lay with his head in Luke's lap. Luke stroked his hair, discreetly checking his temperature. It was a warm night, he wasn't cold, just tired, shocky and bewildered past making sense. It was only a few minutes before he dozed off and for an hour Luke let him sleep, ears and eyes alert as they sat on a woodland bank. A deer moved silently out of the trees once, stood motionless for a moment, staring at Luke, then disappeared as quickly and as silently as it had come. Luke looked down and jumped before remembering that Val's hair was colored dark.  He wiped his own eyes tiredly and gently shook Val's shoulder. 
"Daniel?  Sweetheart?  We need to get moving again."
Waking in the darkness, out in the woods, exhausted, disoriented and scared, Val was beyond argument.  Luke wasn't sure he was even fully awake. He stood unsteadily to his feet and moved almost without thinking when Luke prompted him to.  The ground was uneven, even on the paths they found to walk on, with steps built in, or mud holes to walk around.  Luke watched with some concern as Val walked ahead of him, not even giving second thought to his own unsteady gait.
It was a long way to walk, especially in the dark. Val was fit and healthy, he could dance for hours on the adrenaline of a show or in rehearsals, but the strain of the last few days was showing. Luke took another stride forward and gripped his hand, keeping him close and they continued on through the woods.
It was early morning when they reached the park gates and Val flopped straight down on the bench outside the warden's office. Luke stooped over him, pulled the water out of his backpack and put it into his hands.
"Wait here a minute, kitten. We're five minutes from the cabin, you can have a bath and go straight to bed, I promise. We're done, it's all over now."
Val didn't answer or drink, or open his eyes. Luke touched his face and went into the warden's office. The man was yawning in the first few moments of the day's business, but he reached immediately for a key and a phone message.
"Mr. McNeil? Yes, Mr. Monet rang and said you'd be arriving this morning- can't wait to get on vacation, eh?"
Luke took the key with a brief smile, in no mood to chat. "Yes. Thanks."
"Have a wonderful holiday," the warden said genially. "The cabin's up the hill, around the lake, the first cabin towards the woods."
A five minute walk if that. Luke went back out and picked up Val's backpack as well as his own, taking Val's hand. "Come on, kitten. Just the other side of the lake and you can sleep all day if you want to. Come on baby."
Val slid a little on the bench, dead asleep.  It took Luke a couple of minutes to revive him, worried about being seen or remembered.  Finally he had him up and going, down the road towards Rolf's cabin. The lake was shining in the early morning sun, the wash of the waves sparkling as they walked, the birds the only noise other than the water. A single truck was parked outside the cabin, and Luke's heart started to thud as he saw it, he was already starting to reach for Val's hand to divert him when a tall, dark man rose to his feet on the cabin steps and came down to meet them. And Luke relaxed. Annoyed, but reassured.
Rolf, watching the two come hand-in-hand towards him, was shocked. Val's bright fair hair was gone, the two men were in dust greens and both looked exhausted.
Luke held out a hand.  "Thanks again.  You didn't -"
"I wanted to help," Rolf said, brushing the excuses aside.  "I'd ask you to tell me you haven't been walking all night, but I think I know the answer to that.  Come on inside, I think you both could use some rest." 
Rolf held open the door and watched as Val almost stumbled up the stairs and into the house, Luke looking none too steady himself. Rolf had followed some of what had been happening via the British headlines on the internet - knowing that what was printed needed to be taken with a grain of salt.  But between what he'd read, what Matthew had said, and how Val and Luke just arrived, all set off warning bells that something pretty serious had to be going on.  But now was not the time for questions.
"There are four bedrooms upstairs; you take any of the four that suit you.  From the look of this guy, I think the bed is a great idea," Rolf said, rustling Val's once-fair head. 
"I think you're right.  Come on Daniel, shower, then sleep," Luke said, pulling Val towards the stairs.
"You might try that in reverse order," Rolf said, watching the two head up the stairs. 
Luke checked out the bedrooms as they walked down the hall, easily picking out the one that Matthew and Rolf frequented.  He looked at the other three and chose the one with a view to the lake, with less chance of being seen through the windows by casual passersby.  Val sat, then lay back against coverlet and was soon fast asleep.  Luke carefully removed Val's clothes, wincing at a blister that had started on his left foot.  With a little work, he situated Val under a sheet and kissed his forehead.  "We'll be done with this madman soon.  I promise."  He brushed the dark hair from his forehead before getting up and heading downstairs.
The kettle was on in the kitchen, it smelled warmly of breakfast and Rolf put two plates down on the table, casting a curious and somewhat apprehensive eye over Luke. Heavy eyed, grim faced, he looked thinner than the last time Rolf had seen him. Dirtier and a good deal tauter.
"I was starving," he said casually. "I thought you probably would be too. I'm guessing Daniel's too tired to eat right now."
"He'll sleep for hours," Luke said shortly, not unappreciative of Rolf picking up and following his cue in the change of Val’s name. Even here it wasn’t safe to lose the habit; here there WAS no Val Quentin. Only Daniel Ryan.
"Rolf, you shouldn't be here. I can't thank you enough for lending us the cabin and coming out here but-"
"It's six-thirty in the morning, the park's quiet, no one knows I'm here but Matthew and he's at home," Rolf said simply, sitting down. "Come and eat."
There was a moment while the large bodyguard looked at him through heavy, wary eyes. Then Luke silently went to the sink and washed his hands, before sitting down. He was starving. Rolf ate in silence, watching Luke bolt the bacon and eggs as if he hadn't eaten in several days and as if there was a time limit set. Rolf made no comment, just quietly made more toast and pushed the coffee pot closer, watching Luke until finally he sat back, cradling the mug between his hands.
"When did you last get to eat?" Rolf said mildly. Luke shook his head.
"On and off. We've had a busy couple of days and the less you know the better right now."
Rolf nodded once, sipping his own coffee.  "What are your immediate plans?"
"Better you don't know those either," Luke said shortly. And sighed. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to be rude or uncooperative, but it's best you just don't ask. The best thing you can do is head home. We'll leave the cabin as we found it; you'll never know we were here."
"You're not still planning on camping from here, are you?"
"That's our safest option." Luke drained the coffee mug. "I'll let Daniel sleep it out then we'll head up this afternoon."
"And you?  When are you going to sleep?"
"At the moment?" Luke raised an arm and slid the jacket back, letting Rolf catch a glimpse of the colt in its harness.
"That may scare off attackers, but it'll do nothing to provide the rest you need," Rolf said pointedly.
Luke gave him a grim smile and shook his head. "I got some sleep on the plane, and I want us safer than this first. Once Daniel's recharged a bit we'll move on."
"And when you're alone with him you'll feel safer about leaving him awake while you sleep? Or sleeping while he sleeps?"
Rolf got a short glare in response to that. And shook his head.
"Go and get some sleep. We'll lock up down here, set the alarm if you like, the cabin's safe." 
"I'd feel better if-" Luke began. Rolf cut him off, gently.
"You're going to fall asleep on your feet, you look terrible. Are you really so sure you're not safe even here?"
Luke didn't answer for a moment, then sighed and slumped back in the chair. Rolf poured him more coffee.
"I've got the day off.  There won't be anyone around here to bother you, and who better than to allay suspicion than the cabin owner, here with friends?  Get some rest - THEN decide what your next step will be."
Luke didn't answer, staring into the coffee mug. Then put it down. Rolf waited, knowing the other man was thinking rapidly. Casual friendship and companionship was one thing- to trust, truly trust under threat, was something else, and they hadn't spent the time together to build that trust yet.
"No one knows about the flight over here except two friends of mine. Both ex-SAS, private plane, they're sound," Luke said eventually. Tonelessly. "They didn't know where we were headed or why. No one else knows we've left the UK ."
"Then I think you have your answer as to what's next," Rolf said gently.
"There's a mole on my team." Luke ran both hands over his face and leaned on the table. "Daniel's being stalked, and this guy is serious. The threats are violent."
"I suspected as much with the way you arrived here.  You're certain a team member was compromised?"
The blue eyes were steady, the voice calm and relaxed. As it was whenever they'd spoken, about the weather, about their partners, the social chatter they'd managed on one visit and several phone calls. Luke, long used to judging character, read the body language one more time and took a decision.
"Yes. It has to be. Every time we've put together plans to protect Daniel, they've been breached. Someone who knows what plans are there, where we're going, what the set up is day to day- we had one major attempt a few days back and the stalker got VERY close. The only thing I could do was take it RIGHT down to just Daniel and me, not let anyone else at all know where we were going."
"That must be tough," Rolf said slowly.  "For both of you."
Luke ran both hands through his hair. "Daniel's - shaken. I virtually had to kidnap him, he's had no time to understand what I'm doing or why. The only thing I could do was get him out of there and keep moving, and come over here to find somewhere safe. We can't use cards, anything traceable. All I can do is get him clear and KEEP him clear until the police track this maniac down."
"Any idea on how long that could take?"
"No clue. It's entirely down to the British police; the only interest I have is in keeping Daniel safe while they do it."
Rolf didn't miss the heavy lids, nor the slightly shaking hand as Luke put the coffee down.  "I'd like to discuss this more, but now isn't the time.  Go rest," he finished, his head shaken towards the stairs.
Luke hesitated for a long moment, seriously torn. Part of him was certain the only way to be sure they were safe was to continue watching Val himself- a good bodyguard in mid-alert, did not risk falling asleep. On the other hand, he was tired to the point of being disoriented, and right now he could be pretty sure that no one outside personal, trusted friends would have any idea at all of their general location- and Rolf alone knew their exact location.
"Swear to me," he said eventually and grimly, "Not a word to ANYONE about where we are. Not a hint, not a slip, not a WORD. And that has to go for Matthew too."
"Neither of us would do a thing to bring harm to you, and if that means we've never met, then we've never met," Rolf replied, just as serious. 
"And you can swear that for Matthew too? He understands he MUSTN'T say a word about Daniel to anyone?"
"Matthew can be trusted implicitly," Rolf said, understanding why Luke was being so careful but trying not to prickle at the question of Matthew's trust just the same.
Luke gave him a short nod. "Thanks. I have to be sure. If anyone comes, yell. Please."
"There's a bell on the front porch that can be heard quite a distance.  I'll plan on using that as a warning if needed, otherwise, I've got a book and I'll settle on the porch for some much needed reading."
"Thanks." Luke headed upstairs, wondering just how you thanked someone for this kind of trouble and security. He wasn't used to depending on other people, especially where Val was concerned, and not sure how much he liked it. Val was asleep, face down and dead to the world. Luke lay down beside him fully dressed, shut his eyes and more or less passed out.
Rolf quickly cleaned up from breakfast and took his book to settle outside.  The little he'd gleaned from Luke left him with an uneasy feeling for their safety, though not here at the cabin.  Rolf was certain no one would know where they were, given that only two people knew of only their general destination, and Luke trusted them implicitly.
It was late afternoon when Val stirred and turned over, head aching dully, his mouth dry. Luke was beside him, silently asleep, gun harness still on. Val sat up slowly enough not to wake him, looking down with some tension into Luke's face. He needed a shave, badly, and even in sleep his forehead was lined. Neither was a good sign. Careful not to disturb him, Val slid out of bed and hesitated, then looked in the backpacks. Jeans and t-shirts, underwear and socks were there, unfamiliar, new, but his size. He dressed slowly, aching, his legs and feet very sore from the long walk, back aching from the long journey. Stiff and miserable, he left shoes and socks off and padded very gingerly onto the landing. The cabin was totally unfamiliar- he barely even remembered arriving that morning.
Val followed the stairs down into a lounge with several large sofas and armchairs on a wooden floor, and a door opening out onto a verandah. And a tall, dark man sitting out there looking at him over his book. Rolf. Matthew's Rolf.
The genuine smile he was flashed was a nice contrast to everything else that had gone on in the last......several days.  He started to return it and head outside to say ‘hi’ before he remembered that someone was chasing them and maybe he shouldn't leave the house.  And he shouldn't leave Luke, either, who'd freak out to wake up and find him gone. 
Rolf watched the smile slip as he stood up, shutting his book.  "Hi there.  Feel better?" he said, stepping into the living room.
"Thirsty," Val said, by way of answer. 
"Hungry too I bet.  Your partner managed to eat some breakfast before he slept.  Can I interest you in some eggs and bacon?"
Val shook his head a little, not at all interested in food right now. Rolf dropped a hand on his shoulder on the way past into the kitchen.
"We have water, tea, coffee, juice, coke, what's your pleasure?"
"Water please," Val said softly. Rolf opened the fridge and handed him a bottle.
"How are you feeling?" 
Val shrugged slightly gulping water. "Aching a bit. I didn't expect to see you here."
"I thought you two could use some supplies and some help." Rolf opened a cupboard and offered Val a packet. "That's Tylenol- it's a painkiller, much like paracetamol if you want it?"
Val gave the packet a longing look but shook his head, backing away.
"I don't know until I ask Luke and he's asleep."
"Let's not wake him, hmmmm?  When did you last eat? 
Val shrugged.  "Sometime last night, I think."
"I don't mean snacks from your rucksack.  When did you last have anything resembling a real meal?" Rolf said, following Val out into the living room and speaking softly so as not to awake Luke.
"I don't know," Val said tonelessly, sitting down with a grimace onto one of the chairs.  "I'm not hungry."
Rolf gave him an experienced and somewhat concerned look, but didn't argue. Just took another bottle of water for himself and held out a hand.
"It’s way too hot to be in here, why don't we sit out on the steps until Luke wakes?"
Val shook his head, curling tighter around his water. The boy was like a cat, beautiful but thinner than Rolf remembered.
"I'd better not without Luke."
Rolf didn't argue. Instead he picked up one of Matthew's favourite videos and put it on, giving Val a casual smile.
"Why don't you stretch out on the couch?"
Rolf's only response was a negative shake of the head.  Considering how much sleep Luke could use and not knowing what their next step was, Rolf wasn't going to push any harder with Val.  He settled into another chair and pretended interest in the film, keeping a wary eye on Val and hoping he'd fall asleep again soon.
It was another quarter hour before he heard the first caught breath that warned him, and he looked over in time to see Val wipe his eyes. And got up. He came back with two Tylenol and more water, taking a seat on the arm of the couch to hold them out.
"Here you go. Take two of these, they'll help."
Val went to shake his head and winced on the pain. 
"Luke would hate to wake up and see you in so much pain, and I'm not going to sit by and watch you suffer either.  Take these, please," Rolf said firmly, holding them out.
Val took a minute to look at the imposing figure in front of him, then gave in because his head hurt horribly.  He took the Tylenol from Rolf and carefully swallowed them. 
"Thanks."
"I'm going to make a sandwich, I'm hungry.  And I want you to eat something too, so that the drugs don't upset your stomach.  I've got turkey, ham and cheese, along with peanut butter and jelly.  One chance to tell me what you like, or you eat what I fix," Rolf said, intending to cut out any arguments before they could begin.
"I'm not hungry," Val said yet again.
"I hope none of those choices will disappoint you then," Rolf said, walking into the kitchen.
Val watched him go, his tired brain trying to work out if he really meant what he said.  Luke was the only one that ever spoke to him in that manner, and it was disconcerting and a little aggravating to be talked to like that by Rolf.  He was Val Quentin after all, and deserved more respect than that.  His stomach growled and lurched, and the thought of peanut butter on bread being the sandwich he was faced with got him up and moving slowly into the kitchen.  Rolf was already at work, and turkey and cheese were out on the counter.
"I don't eat cheese," he said immediately. "Too many calories. And I don't eat butter or spread either- or bread-"
"This is just plain white bread and turkey then," Rolf said calmly. "You'll find chips in the cupboard there."
Val gave him a blank look. Rolf searched his vocabulary, pausing in mid cut. "Er- crisps."
"I don't eat them either, too much fat," Val said as a matter of course.
"Well I eat them," Rolf pointed out, cutting sandwiches. Val slowly got them out of the cupboard and put them on the table. Rolf handed him a plate, poured a generous handful of crisps onto the side of it and picked up his own plate.
"Come on. I do expect that eaten, you walked miles last night and you're jet lagged into the bargain."
Val looked at his plate in silence. And a firm hand took his arm and steered him back into the living room. Rolf put him down on the couch and sat beside him, putting the TV back on. And settled down to eat.
Val, with caution, peeled back the top of his sandwich. And then very cautiously began to pick out the bits of turkey. Stopped by a calm, disapproving voice beside him.
"Does Luke allow you to play with your food like that?"
"When it's high calorie-" Val began indignantly and caught Rolf's eye. He recognised the look and it shook him. Quietly he folded the sandwich back together and risked a bite. He'd managed three or four when he laid the plate down, very pale.
"I can't, it's making me feel sick."
"Leave it awhile and then try again," Rolf said more gently, putting the plate on the floor for him. "How's the head?" 
"Thumping," Val admitted. "And my legs."
Rolf put his plate on the floor with only a few chips left on it.  "Swing your legs this way," Rolf said, guiding Val's legs up and onto his lap.  "Slide down a little and rest your head on the arm there.  More comfortable?"
"Yes," Val said, a little awkward with his legs across Rolf's.  He started to pull away, then settled back with a contented sigh when Rolf gently began to knead his calf muscles for him.
Rolf slid out from beneath Val's legs about ten minutes later and retired to the porch to finish his lunch and cool off.  He sorely wanted to call Matthew, but until Luke woke up and filled him in a little more, he wasn't sure of his own, next move. 
Val watched TV for a while longer, somewhat soothed and reassured by the quiet presence out on the porch. Part of him wanted to follow. Another part of him was still vibrating to last night's stress. Finally, compromising, he slid off the sofa and crept upstairs. Luke was still lying on the bed, and the hand on his chest didn't wake him. The dig in the ribs worked better. Luke jumped awake, rolled over- and lay back with a sigh of relief as he saw Val. He ran his hand through Val's unfamiliar, short black hair and dredged up a smile.
"Hey, kitten. Sorry, was I out long?"
"It's nearly four," Val said softly. "Rolf's still downstairs."
"Ok." Luke sat up with an effort. "I'm going to shower and I'll be right down, we can make our plans then. Your eyes look red, what's wrong?"
"Headache," Val said lightly. "Rolf gave me something. Tyl something."
And Val took them? Rolf's reputation was justified. Luke stifled a smile and nodded.
"Ok, Kitten. Go on, I'll be right down."
Rolf was still on the porch when he made it downstairs, in clean clothes, his hair still damp. Val was curled on a corner of the couch and gave him a small smile.
"You look better."
"You look hot." Luke held out a hand. "Why don't you come outside?"
"He didn't want to without checking with you first," Rolf said from the porch. Luke sighed and pulled Val up, giving him a quick and tight hug on the way to the porch.
"It's all right, kitten. Unless I tell you something isn't safe don't worry, leave that to me. That's my job."
"It's okay," Val said, looking immediately to Rolf to check his reaction on his pet name.  Seeing that it didn't register with Rolf as strange, he said, "It's okay."  He followed on Luke's heels until Luke pushed him down in a chair. 
"Relax.  Let me look around a minute," Luke said, surveying the area as he hadn't since he'd arrived.  Once he was satisfied with his options, he returned to the porch and sat down on the steps, back against the railing.  "Nice place you've got here."
Val got up and settled two steps down, in front of Luke.
"Thanks.  We find it to have wonderful recuperating powers.  This side of the lake is much quieter than the more public areas.  Sometimes we can spend an entire week here without seeing another individual." 
"I'll bet Matthew loves that," Val said softly. Rolf smiled.
"When he's in the mood. Although we do often come up here with friends. The regulars around here are very used to Matthew and me hosting various other couples when we stay here."
Luke nodded, taking that in. "What about the shop by the gate? How comprehensive is that?"
"Fairly," Rolf said carefully. "What are you thinking? Are you still considering camping?"
Luke nodded, glancing to Val. "I think that's the safest option."
"I'm no military expert, but I think you'd draw far less attention staying here in the cabin as a couple of our friends than you would if you disappeared in the bush with equipment, only to reappear once a week or whatever to get more supplies."
"We're not going to have a lot of control who sees us or who gets near us," Luke said quietly. "And we can't take up much more of your time."
"How would they track you here?" Rolf asked with a glance at Val, not sure if he should be part of this conversation.
Luke followed his glance, not too happy either at the question in front of Val, but Val's arms were around his knees, his chin down.
"It shouldn't be at all easy. So long as we're extremely careful who we make contact with and no one realises who we are, we'll be fine."
"Given that," Rolf said carefully, "then I think this cabin is about as safe as the tent.  And at least here you don't have to worry about the weather or garnering extra attention as you come back for supplies or to wash up in the lake.  The cabin was going to stand empty anyway.  It's actually better that you're here and watching it than leaving it empty."
Luke's eyes were still on Val, expecting immediate and enthusiastic agreement, but Val didn't answer or react, not looking up
"Maybe a shower would get us more response?" Rolf asked casually.
"That's a very good idea." Luke pulled Val to his feet. "Go on, kitten. You'll probably feel a lot more comfortable, go and have a soak."
"I'm ok," Val said without enthusiasm. Luke got up too and steered him to the door, pausing there to squeeze his shoulders.
"Take your time. See if it wakes you up a bit, hmm?"
"What if someone comes?" Val said without much expression. Luke looked down at him, troubled, then kissed his forehead, hating the dullness and the anxiety in the blue eyes.
"Let me do the worrying, kitten; I'll tell you what isn't safe. I'm right down here, you're fine. Rolf's right, no one knows where we are, we're in the middle of nowhere. Go up and shower, make yourself comfortable. It's fine."
He watched as Val slowly climbed the stairs and disappeared into the upstairs hallway.  "Can I get you a drink?" he asked Rolf.
"A fresh water would be nice, thanks."
Luke returned a moment later, handing over a cold bottle.  "You really stocked the fridge, thanks."
"These woods are good to relax in, get away from the busy, or real, world.  But the grocery stores don't quite live up to the ones in the city," Rolf said, laughing a little.
"I bet." Luke pulled the top off the bottle and sat down, mind still on Val.
Rolf didn't miss the faraway expression in Luke's eyes.  "He's quite tired and stressed, isn't he?  Not the same young man we visited with before."  Rolf didn't add that Luke wasn't quite the same robust looking man he'd been either.
"He's probably very jetlagged," Luke said absorbedly. "He said you'd given him something- painkillers. Thank you."
"You could see the pain behind the eyes."
"It was quite a walk." Luke gave him a quick glance and sighed. "We left our previous safe house in the middle of the night. The stalker was outside, we saw enough to go onto alert; by the time we searched I found a few things to prove the guy was right outside Daniel's window. I got rid of the rest of the team and Daniel and I hiked five miles through woodland to get to a friend of mine, and got straight on the plane. And he was finding things very difficult at the safe house, since we had to keep him in view at all times and what he could do was so very limited. No phone, no computer, there's no TV out there. He was getting pretty strained."
"There's no phone here at the cabin, we use cells phones when we come.  And the TV only gets the three main channels.  I refuse to spend money on cable since I intend we watch little to none when we visit, though it's good if the weather turns bad.  We've got a few tapes, so Daniel should at least find something to his tastes," Rolf said, taking a drink of water when he finished, the sweat from the bottle dropping onto his leg.  He absently brushed it off.
Luke glanced at him, rolling the bottle between his hands. "I can't deny he's going to be better here. I don't want to take him out into the woods; it isn't going to be low stress."
"You've got four solid walls and a roof here, along with the usual home amenities.  It'll be a chance to look like normal tourists here for some R&R, even if that isn't the case."
"That's very true," Luke said slowly. "Are you sure you don't mind us here? We've bulldozed you more than slightly."
"As I said earlier, I'd rather have someone in the house than it stand vacant.  No one's asked for use of it this month so there are no set time limits either.  You're welcome to it as long as you need," Rolf finished calmly.
"That's very kind of you. We'll pay you rent, no question." Luke drank deeply from the water. "I don't think there'll be any danger to you or to Matthew. I really don't. This guy's after Daniel, it's an obsession with him, there's nothing to suggest he could mean harm to anyone else. The police have no concerns about Daniel's family and friends."
"I'm sure that doesn't do much for your sanity," Rolf said kindly.
Luke snorted, shaking his head. "I'm more worried about this being someone who knows us well. I suspect we're not just going to have to deal with the threat and risk now, but also that someone we trusted wanted to hurt-" he didn't say the name but his nod took in upstairs. "Look, we're stalling you and you've had a hell of a drive to get down here to us. You must be dying to get back to Matthew."
"The drive isn't bad, but I'd rather not tackle it tonight. I'll stay the night, if you don't mind, and leave tomorrow."
Luke's brief look contained some relief as well as agreement. "By all means, I'm sorry. We've given you a hectic day. I'd better go see how Daniel's doing."
"Think you and he would be ready for dinner? I've got some fresh steaks, and potatoes and vegetables I can toss on the grill as well. He only managed about four bites of his sandwich earlier."
"Did he?" Luke got up, anxiety crossing his face. "I'm starving, thanks, that sounds great- and Daniel would love that too, I'm sure it's the journey that's knocked him out."
Rolf stood up as well, straightening his shorts. "I can imagine. This place should allow both of you to settle to some degree, and I hope you'll be able to enjoy it even after the stalker is caught." He stopped in the doorway to the kitchen. "I hope that's soon, for both your sakes."
It was a quiet, sunny evening, and the food Rolf cooked was delicious- it should have been a very pleasant few hours. In any event, Val emerged from his shower with his headache still worse, tired and miserable, and despite all Luke's coaxing refused dinner. Rolf supplied Tylenol and he drank water, but pleaded to be allowed to go to bed and was asleep within a few minutes of lying down. Luke, too anxious to leave him long, soon followed and Rolf went to bed not long after, having been up for most of the night himself.
He woke at four AM in response to Val's single, incoherent shout and Luke's low voice calling and reassuring. When he heard the landing creak Rolf got up and went to the door, catching Luke in shorts, a glass in his hand.
"Is he ok? Can I do anything?"
"Just a dream." Luke looked harassed. Rolf took a robe from behind the door.
"Let me get you some tea and more Tylenol. There's plenty of water in the tank if you think a bath might help."
"Rolf, please, go back -"
"I'm perfectly capable of going back to bed if I want to," Rolf said, not unkindly. "I could use some tea myself."
Luke sighed audibly. "Thanks. Again."
"Don't mention it. That's what friends are for," Rolf said, heading down the stairs without turning on a light. He flipped the one on over the sink to avoid being blinded and quickly made three mugs of steaming hot, chamomile tea. He hoped it would soothe both men under his roof. Carrying it upstairs, he dropped off his mug and gently tapped on their door.
"Hello," Luke said softly. Rolf opened the door and put the two mugs down on the bedside table. Val was clearly still tearful, heavy-eyed and shaky, and Luke had a damp towel in his hand with which he was sponging down Val's face. Rolf took the Tylenol bottle from his pocket and handed it to Luke, voice soft.
"The blurb's on the back if you need to check, it's mostly Paracetamol. It's cooler downstairs if you'd be more comfortable there, and there're plenty of videos."
"I'd rather be downstairs," Val said unsteadily. Luke hesitated, about to adhere to his usual rule that nights were spent in bed, and nodded.
"Ok, drink the tea and we'll go down, you can stretch out on the couch."
"Give me a call if there's anything I can do," Rolf said lightly and left them alone, leaving the light lit on the landing.
*
Val was still asleep on the sofa at seven when he came quietly downstairs, and Luke was in the kitchen, dressed only in jeans and damp from the shower. He looked a good deal better despite the disturbed night and he greeted Rolf with something approximating a brief smile.
"Good morning. Hope we didn't wake you again, the kettle's hot."
"Another cup sounds great," Rolf answered quietly. "And I didn't hear a thing the rest of the night. Did you sleep well?"
"We did actually." Luke leaned against the counter, hands wrapped around a mug giving off a strong scent of coffee. "Daniel fell asleep in front of the TV within fifteen minutes and he didn't stir again."
"That's good to hear. His color had definitely been off, but that could also be the hair coloring I'm not used to. 
"No, he's not that well," Luke said bluntly. There was no small amount of self-recrimination clear in his voice. "Stress, nerves and exhaustion, it's going to take him a few days to regain ground."
"I put some thought into something last night, and wanted to run it by you," Rolf said thoughtfully. "Daniel seemed to have a good time when you were at the house last year. It might help settle him down to have some company in the form of Matthew." Rolf held up his hand. "Wait, let me finish," he said as soon as Luke started to speak. "I know you're worried about us, and about Daniel's safety. But there's something to be said about safety in numbers. Aside from that, the two of us are an established part of this community and we won't get a second glance in our direction while we're here. We can handle the supplies for the weekend, and get you good and stocked up before we head back for the week."
Luke looked at him hard for a moment, taking that in. Rolf returned his gaze calmly, inwardly somewhat worried. He didn't at all like the thought of leaving these two alone here, they'd been through enough. And he could see clear evidence of a badly stressed top and a very unhappy brat, both of whom needed immediate first aid. Matthew would make all the difference to Val.
"Are you sure you want to bring Matthew into this?" Luke asked eventually. "I can't promise what'll happen. I've thought we were safe before."
"Do you expect him to be able to follow you in the next three days?"
"I'd seriously hope not," Luke said seriously. "But I'd have to ask you and Matthew to follow precautions to keep things safe."
"I'm hoping that if the guy somehow gets wind of where you are, that he'll be here several days after we leave, if at all. With that in mind, I think Matthew visiting for the weekend would be a good idea," Rolf said, eyes leaving Luke's for his partner who quietly appeared.
"Matthew's coming?" Val asked hopefully. He looked heavy-eyed but he headed straight for Luke, his face coming to life for the first time since Rolf saw them arrive yesterday morning.
"Really? When? Today?"
Rolf lifted an eyebrow at Luke, who put an arm around Val's slim waist and drew him down into his lap.
"Yes, if that's ok with Rolf."
"I'll ring him," Rolf said easily, getting up. "He'll most likely be here around dinnertime."
*
The rest of the day was quiet. Val didn't say much, staying close to Luke and pretty much speaking only when spoken to. He picked at breakfast and dinner, despite all of Luke's persuasion, and spent most of the afternoon curled up on the swing on the porch, looking out over the lake while Rolf read and Luke tried to look as if he were reading.

 He was nothing like the vibrant, outgoing young man Rolf remembered from last summer on the few visits Val and Luke had made to their home. He looked drawn and fearful, and Luke was clearly aware of it: he did his best to persuade Val out of the house but Val didn't want to be interested in anything and Rolf was aware of how anxious he was about staying close to Luke. Even with him upstairs showering as it grew close to evening, Val fidgeted downstairs for only a few minutes before he quietly followed. Rolf went into the kitchen and started to plan for dinner, hoping Matthew could offer the distraction and incentive for him to relax a little, since until he did, Luke also wouldn't.
Rolf had just pulled out enough chicken for the four of them when Luke came downstairs, still damp from the shower.  Val followed and settled into a kitchen chair while Luke put on the kettle for coffee. Rolf felt the entire room become charged with electricity immediately before he could hear tires on the gravel road.  Val's face lost its color and he looked frankly - panicked. 
"I'm pretty sure - now definitely sure that it's Matthew," Rolf finished as the truck could be heard sliding in the gravel as the driver put his foot on the brake - hard.  Luke was at the window with the corner of the curtain held up until he was assured it was Matthew, jumping out of the truck.
"I'M HERE!" Matthew hollered, grabbing a box of groceries from the back seat and bouncing up the stairs. 
 Luke opened the door and Matthew went straight into the kitchen, dropping the box onto the table roughly before landing in Rolf's open arms.  Not giving a thought to anyone else for a moment, Matthew hungrily kissed Rolf hello, feeling immediately at home.  When Rolf was allowed up for air, he breathlessly managed "Say hello -" before Matthew had bounced over to Val and ran his fingers through his hair. 
"Danny boy, you're in serious need of a stylist.  Oh, hi, Luke," he said as he entered the kitchen with another box.  Matthew completely missed the pale face and lack of response from Val.
"Did you leave anything in the store?" Luke asked as he set his box down on the table, looking at the bags of chips and cookies that were nearly overflowing. 
"Matthew!" Rolf admonished, looking at what was already on the table and wondering too if his brat had left any junk food in the store. 
"What?" Matthew said innocently, a smile wide across his face.  "You know the stores around here are expensive.  I got what you asked for; it's still out in the truck."


"You are NOT eating all that rubbish this weekend, you hear me?" Rolf asked as he followed Matthew out to the truck, Luke and then Val following.
Luke put a casual arm around Val's shoulder, watching Rolf lift another box out of the truck. "Was it an easy journey?"
"Not bad," Matthew said airily, locking up and running back up the steps with another bag in his hands. "I left around three-"


Rolf put a box down and looked at his watch, turning around on his brat in horror.  "HOW fast did you cover those roads?"
"Maybe a little earlier!" Matthew said cheerfully. "It was a straight run, it was fine. I'll put that away, Rolf-"


"You will not," Rolf said firmly, "I'll put it away and then I'll know exactly what there is, how much of it and where it is. Why don't you get yourself a drink and see if our guests want anything?"
"Chips?" Matthew snaffled a bag from Rolf's hand on its way to the cupboard and grinned at Val. "What are you drinking?"
"N..nothing, thanks," Val said a little hesitantly.


"Luke?"


"I've got coffee on, thanks, Matt."


"Well I'll have a coke to start out with," he said, digging in the box and picking one out.  "What have you been doing?" he continued, bustling around to get a glass and fill it with ice.  He missed Rolf taking his chip bag and pouring out a small amount onto a paper plate.
"Why don't the two of you retire to the porch or living room so I can have the kitchen to cook in?" Rolf asked, trying not to get bounced on by Matthew as he got his drink together.


"Rooooolllffff, that's not enough," Matthew said, spying his plate of chips.


"That's all you’re getting before dinner.  Scoot!" he said, gently pushing Matthew towards the door.


"My welcome sure didn't last long," Matthew replied.  "Come on Dan, let's go outside." 


"Go on," Luke said, cutting off Val's excuse.  "He's out there waiting."


Val gave him a distinctly torn look. Luke gave him a smile and deliberately took no further notice, going to make his coffee. It took Val a moment and an impatient yell from Matthew before he moved, and then only to the porch doorway, folding his arms tightly. And watched Matthew drape himself down the steps, munching chips.
Matthew gave him a cheerful grin and pushed the plate towards him.

" Come and sit down, they'll be hours. I know Rolf cooking."


Val sat down cautiously on the top step, glancing around in all directions. The park was always quiet in this area and at this time of day it was totally deserted, there was no one else in sight. 

It didn't make him feel any safer out here with Luke out of sight, but then there WAS one thing on his mind, pressing, beyond any other consideration.

 "Is my hair REALLY that bad?"
"Yes," Matthew said frankly. "You look like you've been mown."


"Luke did it in a bathroom at the airport," Val confessed, running both hands over it. "I've hardly seen a mirror since."
"You probably don't want a mirror, and you definitely want to keep him out of your hair," Matthew said, laughing at his own joke.
Val smiled abruptly and faintly, but tugged at the ends. "He did his best. We had to run in a panic." He gave Matthew a quick look, not sure what to say. "It was awful."


"Why?" Matthew asked, not really comprehending the seriousness of the situation. 


"I didn't see. Luke did." Val hugged his knees, paling as he thought about it. "We had an alert while I was asleep, the rest of the security team saw or heard something and Luke went to look. Then he sent the other guys out and told me to get dressed, and we went out of the window."


Matthew laughed, still missing the reactions of Val as he ate his chips and enjoyed being on the steps of their cabin in the late afternoon. 
"You went out the window?" he asked, laughing. 
"Where did you go?"


"Through the woods - in the middle of the night- and over the fields to a friend of Luke's. We had to ditch the rest of the team."
Val swallowed, trying not to think of individual faces. Justin. Brad. Men he'd liked and trusted and lived under the care of for over a year. "It had to be one of them who betrayed us."


The sound of Val's voice finally cracked through Matthew's cheerful mood.  He turned around to get a good look at his friend's face and realized how stressed and upset he actually looked. "But you're safe now, out here.  Right?" Matthew asked, wanting to be comforted as much as comfort.


Val shrugged, trying to keep his own voice steady. "Luke says so. He and Rolf talked about it yesterday for hours."
Matthew processed that information for a moment, then came to a quick conclusion. 
"Then you must be safe or Rolf wouldn't have allowed me to come.  He's like a maniac overprotective."  Matthew fully believed that and he hoped that Val would too.
It made sense. And Val nodded, somewhat reassured. 
"Luke wouldn't let you be here either if he thought there was a risk."


"Then it's official.  We're going to have some fun!"  Matthew got up as he was out of food and drink, leaving that on the steps.  "Come around here, let's go see if there's a rabbit near her hole.  She was when we were here a month ago."
"I can't, Luke'll go mad-" Val started to say, when Luke's voice reached him.


"Kitten, you're in my line of sight, it's fine. I'll be on the porch, you only have to yell."
"Yes, Kitten, come chase the bunny with me," Matthew said under his breath, walking quickly across the open yard."


Val looked after him for a moment, shocked. No one teased Val Quentin, except Luke. It was a totally foreign concept. Then he lunged a step and tripped Matthew up with a well timed foot between his.


Matthew stumbled but caught himself on a small tree.  He turned around, face starting to color when he caught the glint in Val's eye and grinned instead. "If you'd quit trying to trip me up, we might actually SEE the wildlife."


"So where IS this flipping rabbit?" Val demanded, trailing him. In the kitchen, Luke smiled and moved to keep both boys in sight.
"Matthew is SO good for him."


"I wasn't sure Daniel would be able to keep up with the bounce Matthew arrived with," Rolf said, putting the chicken into a fifteen minute marinade.


"When he's going he can bounce fairly well himself," Luke said dryly. "I just hope you don't see too much of the brat this weekend. He's been pretty stressed and thwarted for some time."
"Same here," Rolf said, laughing.  "Matt's very definitely excited."


"I'm going to need to talk to you and Matthew about security," Luke warned. "I don't want to put a damper on the weekend but I can't have risks."


"We'll do that after dinner.  I don't want risks either, and I want Matthew to be aware of the rules before any trouble erupts."


The matter-of-factness with which Rolf said it made Luke look at him, curious and surprised despite himself.  Despite hard knowledge it often seemed that he and Val were an isolated couple, sharing something no one else knew or understood.  It was a shock to hear ‘their’ language spoken by someone else. Rolf was aware of the surprise but didn't let it show. 
"There are usually group rules when there are more than one couple here at a time. And I want Val to know where he doesn't need to be as Matthew has a tendency to forget those details from time to time."
"I don't want DANIEL leading Matthew astray either," Luke said, trying to keep his tone light. "He's -" he broke off and tried to find a way to put it. "He's pretty spoiled in many ways. It isn't the most normal life we lead.”
Rolf grimaced, having forgotten Val wasn't Val.  It was a VERY good thing, he decided, that when Matthew met Daniel for the first time that was the name he had given his partner, and how they addressed each other normally. 
"We'll try to make this weekend as normal as possible then," Rolf said lightly, starting on some corn on the cob.
"I'm going to have to go and keep an eye on them, they're wandering," Luke said, seeing Matthew and Val move further from the cabin. On the way there he picked up his jacket from the chair, took the colt and slipped it quietly inside his waist band out of sight before he left. 
Rolf didn't miss the bulk of the gun on Luke's person.  He wasn't comfortable around firearms, but knew also that Luke was probably just as uncomfortable without one, exactly as Eric would feel without his service revolver.  For some people it was a way of life.
Luke headed out onto the porch, checking the colt was out of sight to Val and Matthew as well as anyone else around. He didn't want either of them to know what he was carrying; he was already concerned about Val's anxiety. In all the time he'd protected Val, Val had always had an infuriatingly casual attitude to his own safety, which at times was total obliviousness to it.  Now he was seeing Val looking anxious, frightened, worried about not being close enough to him and that wasn't good in any client- it was still LESS good in Val.
He was relieved out on the porch to see Matthew and Val together, talking as they walked, Val's eyes currently off the horizon and taken up with his friend.
He was just about to leave the porch and follow when they slowed down, then stopped.  He couldn't make out what Matthew was pointing to, but Val seemed to.  They stood there for several minutes, absorbed in their wildlife watching.  Val never once looked up to see if anyone was around. That was more like it. Val always needed to be aware, but protection was Luke's job- to let Val lead a life as normal as possible without permanently looking over his shoulder. It was nice to see him relaxing. Luke took a perch on the porch rail, casting a slow eye around the horizon before watching Matthew and Val.  He looked back along the horizon and when his eyes went back to where Val and Matthew had been, there was no sign of them.  His heart skipped a beat and he immediately stood up, eyes searching quick and hard, looking for and picking out anything that was moving.  Matthew's blue shirt showed through a break in the trees.  "DANIEL!  MATTHEW!" Luke yelled, walking quickly away from the porch.
Rolf was out by the grill and looked up with surprise when Luke yelled.  He turned in the direction that Luke was walking and saw both young men reappear through the trees, Val's head darting in all directions as if he were being chased. 
"It's ok," Luke said sternly, more than making himself heard over the distance. "I just want a word with you."
That was an ominous phrase to both boys: Luke saw their pace quicken and the guilty look touch both faces. Rolf wiped his hands and walked around to join Luke as the two came down the hill towards them.  Matthew, looking to his partner's face, saw the same faintly stern expression on his face and rolled his eyes as he caught Rolf's, mouthing to him, "WHAT?!"
Rolf didn't answer. Val walked slowly up the steps and Luke folded his arms, keeping his voice fairly genial despite the frown.
"Since when do you wander off out of sight?"
"You said it was ok?" Val protested. Luke nodded.
"I did. There's nothing at all wrong with you being out here when I'm watching, but you don't just wander off."
"But we were just -"
"It's different this time, Matthew," Rolf said.  "Come on inside and clean up, I'll have the food off the grill in no time.  We'll talk about this after dinner."
Matthew pulled a face at Val and went inside. Luke put an arm around Val, pulled him over and kissed his forehead, nudged up his chin and kissed what should have been a pout. And was actually a tentative chew on his lower lip.
"It's all right. Just stay in sight, or let me know first, hmm?"
Val nodded, then stayed within touching distance of Luke until dinner was ready.  He again barely ate, and only managed what he did with constant prodding from Luke.  Matthew was famished, having missed out on Rolf's cooking for a day and living on things he could grab and cook in the microwave as he got hungry.
Rolf ate with his eyes on Val, aware of the tension in his shoulders and of the difference between him and Matthew whose chatter ranged between work, the weekend and the food. As they got up to clear the plates Rolf paused, giving Matthew a nod.
"Why don't you try some of those cookies? They won't survive long in this heat; I'll put some coffee on."
That might tempt Val into eating. Matthew was happy to comply and while the coffee was brewing, Rolf had a quick search through the cupboards and came back with a trivial pursuit box.
"Anyone for a game?" he asked, setting it down on the table.
"I want to play teams," Matthew said quickly through a mouthful of cookie.  "I choose Daniel, so that maybe I can GET some of those aggravating English questions."
"In a minute." Rolf put the coffee down too and leaned over, pulling Matthew down against his legs. Matthew happily settled back against him and their closeness, Rolf saw, quickly reassured Val who moved from his corner of the swing to lean quietly against Luke. Luke wrapped an arm around him. 
"We need to talk about security while we're here. Daniel's pretty clear on all this but I'm going to need to ask you, Matthew, to follow the same rules while we're together, and for all four of us to be careful."
"Okay," Matthew said nonchalantly, opening the box before being stilled by Rolf's hands on his.
 "You need to pay attention, Matthew.  Go on, Luke."
Luke waited until Matthew met his eyes, speaking gently and lightly enough not to worry him. "They're straightforward rules, partly to make sure I can protect your security too, partly to be sure you don't accidentally jeopardise Daniel's safety. For a start I need to know where everyone is, and if you leave the cabin let me know. Secondly, we need to stay together. That means NO wandering off. At all. If you want to go somewhere tell me and we'll arrange it. Thirdly, we need to avoid talking to people as far as possible, and we need to be VERY careful what's heard. Any conversations that might give clues about where we live, what we do, who we are, even shouting names, is something we really need to be wary of outside the cabin. And fourthly, I need to ask you that if I tell you to do something, you do it immediately without question."
"What do we do if there IS an attack?" Matthew said eventually, somewhat shocked. Luke gave him a reassuring look.
"That's my problem and it's very unlikely, Matthew. If we ever do get into an incident Daniel can tell you what to do as well as I can. Mostly I'd ask you to get down on the ground, behind cover if you can, and don't get up again until I tell you, I'll handle things."
"Any other questions, Matthew?"  Rolf asked
Matthew was looking fairly stunned still but shook his head. Luke looked at Rolf, somewhat concerned about having scared them both.
"Luke and I are both of the opinion that being found here is almost completely out of the question.  No one outside these walls knows where you two are and as long as that stays that way, we're going to be fine.  But that doesn't mean we won't continue being very careful about how we conduct ourselves.  Matthew, that means you do exactly as you're told to by Luke as you would me.  Is that clear?"
Matthew turned his eyes to Luke with something between apprehension and interest, but nodded.
"Yes sir."
"And the same goes for you with Rolf," Luke added to Val. "Which just leaves us needing to ask you the cabin rules, Rolf. We're here as your guests and we appreciate that a lot."
Matthew rolled his eyes as he settled against Rolf's legs again, having heard this mantra fifty million times.
Rolf nodded to Luke.  "We're glad you chose to stay.  Now," Rolf continued, taking in Val with his look, "there are several general rules and some won't apply in this situation.  One of the main ones concerns this cabin as a place of rest.  As soon as the first person decides to sleep, that means it's quiet time.  Won't matter whether it's night or day, if someone wants to rest everyone will respect that and keep things quiet.  This cabin is a home away from home, which means everyone will pitch in to keep it clean, to get meals on the table, to make sure we have the supplies we need. If you choose to drink alcohol, you don't use the jetskis that day, and you don't swim while drinking.  Since we won't be separated I don't think the rest will matter, but I'll cover them anyway. There are some cliffs a little ways down the lake - you don't play on them, and you don't jump off them.  There is a small cave in the opposite direction - you don't go in it."
Matthew went to get up but was stopped by Rolf's hand on his shoulder.
"And finally, the only smoking allowed in here is the fireplace, and any young man's backside that refuses to abide by the rules.  Right, Matthew?"
Matthew turned around and gave him a look that should have turned him to stone where he sat. Luke stifled the smile.
"We neither of us smoke and we drink VERY rarely, certainly not when we're on alert. Otherwise, thank you, those all make perfect sense."
Val nodded, eyes down, head down, still close against Luke. He looked white, tired and upset and Luke, who knew him, gave him an experienced glance.
"I think we're actually about ready for bed here."
"I'm not," Val said shortly. Luke shook his head, drawing him to his feet.
"I think we are."
"Goodnight, then," Rolf said, echoed by Matthew.  Luke’s was the only reply.  Matthew waited until their footsteps disappeared upstairs.
"I wanted to play the game."
"There will be plenty of time for that tomorrow.  Come up here," Rolf said, patting the couch next to him.  It took only a moment for Matthew to settle next to him, curling up along his side.  "I wouldn't mind a few minutes alone with you.  How did things go yesterday?"
"Fine, except for YOUR cats, who barfed like they were trying out for the exorcist movie."
"My cats?" Rolf said, smiling. "What were you feeding them?"
"Nothing special." Matthew settled closer, fiddling with Rolf's watch. "Daniel was pretty upset when we were talking earlier. He doesn't look too good."
"No, he doesn't.  Part of it has to be the darker hair, but he's been through a lot lately and hasn't been eating or sleeping well."
"He said they thought their own team had betrayed them. This stalker really wants to hurt him."
Rolf could hear the fear building in Matthew's voice.  He tipped up his chin to get a good look at him.  "That's what Luke said too.  But they're here now, and no one knows that, not even the pilots on the plane they flew in on.  I wouldn't put you in harm's way, would I?"
Matthew shook his head slowly. "But it's awful that someone WANTS to hurt him. And that it's someone on their team who could do that."
"Yes, that isn't nice to think about," Rolf said, running his fingers through Matthew's hair and wondering how anyone could think of hurting someone like him.  "You should try spending some serious time with Daniel tomorrow, get his mind off of that.  Yours and his both."
A screech from above made Matthew jump, followed by a crash. He stared at up at the window, somewhat surprised for a moment.
"Come here," Rolf said, pulling Matthew to him for a long, mind-numbing kiss.
Matthew drew back and lifted his head again, looking from Rolf to the window, somewhat out of breath. "That sounded like....."
"Something you don't need to be concerned about," Rolf finished, kissing him again and letting his hands wander over his partner.  Matthew forgot about the two guests in the house and hungrily returned Rolf's advances.
Upstairs, Luke shut the door and advanced on Val, stepping over the chair hurled to the floor. "I don't want to hear ONE more scream from you young man, we are NOT going to disturb Matthew and Rolf."
"I SAID I wasn't sleepy!" Val said, stamping his foot.
"I didn't ask you if you were." Luke folded his arms, fixing his partner with a hard glare. "Now pick that chair up."
Val stared hard at his partner, hands balling up into fists at his side.  "No!" he spat angrily.
"One," Luke said simply. "Two."
Val, used to those tactics and what they led to couldn't help but pick the chair up, but he slammed it back down hard on the floor.  "THERE, are you HAPPY?"
Luke picked up a towel, steered him down the hallway without answering and put him into the bathroom, standing with his back against the door. "Be quick."
Val was still steaming, but a shower actually sounded good, even if it wasn't very large.  He pulled back the curtain and looked around at the supplies.  "Where's the soap sponge?"
"This is a cabin, Daniel, not the Hilton. Take a shower, come on."
Val turned the shower on and stepped in, relaxing under the warm spray.  He took his time, only slightly picking up the pace when Luke barked at him to do so. 
Luke stood over him, half an eye on his watch, the rest of Val's ribs. He'd definitely lost weight over the last few weeks, what were usually svelte curves were beginning to show definite skinniness. The hot water was relaxing him though- and tonight, under this strain, Luke was prepared to be glad about that and overlook what he’d usually have called a tantrum.
"That'll do," he said after another five minutes. "Out, come and dry off."
Val turned the water off and accepted the towel from Luke, rubbing himself dry with a grimace of distaste.  "It's not very big."
"It's for getting dry, not camping under." Luke took the towel, scrubbing him briskly down. "Brush your teeth."
Val started to remind Luke he didn't eat much that day but decided now might not be the best time to mention it.  He quickly brushed his teeth and finished rinsing.
Luke handed him the towel and put a hand on his shoulder, pushing him gently back down the hallway to their room where he pulled back the covers. "Are you going to need more Tylenol?"
"No," Val replied, going to look out of the window.
Luke followed and drew the curtains. "Bed then."
"The SUN isn't even gone yet."
"We're in the mountains, it won't get dark for some hours yet."
"And I'm NOT tired."
"One," Luke said simply.
Val turned to stare at Luke.
"Two," Luke said without heat.
Val grabbed his chest, falling back two steps before pirouetting towards the bed, his left hand flung across his forehead.  "I'm getting SOOOO sleepy," he said, falling on his back on the bed with a huge sigh.
"Good idea," Luke said wryly, and pulled the covers over him. "Settle down, kitten."
Val's glare returned and immediately kicked the covers back down.  "It's hot in here."
"The window's open, lie still and you won't be hot." Luke picked up a book from the shelf and settled himself in the armchair by the window.
For ten minutes Val tossed and turned and sighed without garnering Luke's attention. Finally he sat up and glared.
"I'm still not sleepy."
Luke looked up over his book and his look was not promising.
Val waited another ten minutes.  "I'm thirsty."
Luke mentally sighed, laid the book down and came to sit on the side of the bed, pouring water from the jug there. "Here."
"Aren't you tired?" Val asked as he sat up to sip the water.
"Not yet, but I will wear you right out if you don't settle down." Luke put the glass down as Val finished with it. "I mean it, kitten. Turn over and rest if you can't sleep."
"They're right outside the windows," Val pointed out.
"And being very quiet. This is the middle of nowhere, there's nothing to hear," Luke said firmly. "Let yourself relax and try listening to the quiet."
"I'm not done with my water yet."
"Then hurry up."
"I don't want to be sick."
Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Luke waited patiently.
Val finished the water and settled back to not be sleepy some more but the fresh air and dissipating stress did their work and he was asleep within fifteen minutes.
Luke laid his book down, not a little relieved, and got up to draw the curtains more securely. There was plenty of fresh air coming into the room which was cooling rapidly as the evening went on, the room smelled faintly of trees and approaching rain, and Val was breathing softly and evenly. What he needed now was mostly peace and quiet. Luke shut the door softly behind him and went down to the kitchen.
He could hear Matthew and Rolf's soft voices out on the porch and had no intention whatsoever of disturbing them. Quietly he dealt with the dishes left over from dinner, taking no little relaxation in doing something so domestic and normal, feeling his own nerves start to unclench a little. The last few days had been a marathon of fear as well as endurance. He still wasn't entirely sure how he'd ended up here, or how this particular plan had come about- Rolf seemed talented at getting his way, and Luke couldn't deny this was by far better an option than he'd planned, but it had taken him somewhat by surprise. Val's charm and propensity for making friends had certainly worked for him this time, they were extremely lucky. Luke spent another few minutes cleaning the kitchen itself, took a bottle of water from the fridge and paused to have a look out of the front door before he went upstairs. The lake area was deserted and offered little immediate cover, and the cabin, used to being locked and left sometimes for months, was secure. Picking up his book again, Luke went upstairs and settled once more in the chair.
Rolf and Matthew remained on the porch until the falling temps chased them inside.  Rolf locked the door behind them and followed Matthew up the stairs, grinning when Matthew pulled him directly to the bed.  The clothes that had been moved a little at a time on the porch were removed completely and the two men became one.  A while later when both were satiated, Rolf got up and brushed his teeth, leaving Matthew snoring softly on his side.  He pulled the covers up and slid back down under the covers, letting his mind wander briefly to their guests before he was also asleep.
 *
Rolf came down around seven AM the following morning, dressed and still yawning, to find Luke standing on the porch, shaved, dressed and drinking black coffee.
"Good morning. Sleep well?" 
"Yes, thanks. I'm guessing you two did? I didn't hear anything from Daniel."
"Once he settled down he was out like a light, he's still asleep." Luke finished his coffee with another longing look at the lake. Routine dictated a jog at this point, and habit died hard, but right now he had other commitments. Rolf poured himself a coffee and came out onto the porch to join him.
"Matthew is as well.  The fresh air lends itself to playing hard and sleeping hard.  Wanting to check the lake out today?" Rolf asked, having seen Luke looking.
"I'd love to go for a run," Luke admitted. "But not a good idea. The lake would be great, I'm sure Daniel would love that."
"I'm sure he'd easily be able to burn off some of the stress that he's still hanging onto," Rolf said, sipping his coffee.  "There's a small amount of beach you could use to run along, but I'd think the swimming would be better exercise if you don't feel like you can go out of sight."
"Swimming sounds good. It's Daniel's favourite form of exercise, that's usually the first stipulation when we relocate- we commandeer the pool for an hour a day."
"That's got to be somewhat lonely," Rolf said quietly, thinking of the fun they had when all four couples managed to make it to the cabin at one time.
Luke shook his head, wrapping both hands around his mug. "Actually it's often one of the best times we get alone. We're not short of people around us on a day to day basis; we do get very short of time alone together."
"Maybe this will be even better," Rolf said, dropping a hand on Luke's leg before getting up.  "I'm going to get started on breakfast and see if we can't drag them down with the smells."
In the event the smell of bacon woke Matthew and the singing of Matthew in the bathroom woke Val, who lay for a minute, listening in growing amusement before he went out on to the landing.
"I'll pay you NOT to sing?"
"I'll kick your ass for free?" Matthew retorted, hoping Val was the only one within hearing range.
Val laughed, and Matthew abruptly realised he was standing on a landing with THE Val Quentin, half dressed, tousle-haired and sleepy. And with the dazzling smile on the cover of the albums Matthew owned as he blew Matthew a kiss and went past him into the bathroom, his own golden voice picking up from Matthew's.
"...... Give ‘em the old razzle dazzle- razzle dazzle ‘em! Give ‘em the old -"
"Daniel," Luke called from downstairs.
"What?" Val yelled back, finding a shirt to ward off the cool morning air.
"Don't sing!" Luke called back. Matthew stifled a laugh and ran downstairs, pausing to kiss Rolf on the way into the kitchen.
"You tell him! Hi, Luke."
"Morning, Matthew.  Sleep well?"
"Yeah, it was good.  Did you?  It sounded a little loud to begin with," Matthew finished quietly, pinkening up under Rolf's glare from behind Luke.
Luke frankly laughed. Not used to people who understood and would react openly, he was as surprised as he was amused- he guessed several of the guards realised he wasn't above spanking Val when really pushed too far, but it was certainly something unmentioned and unsaid.
"Just a little disagreement on whether or not he was tired." he said, giving Matthew a smile. "I said he was and he said he wasn't. Once he settled down we were fine, it's so quiet up here."
"It's very quiet," Matthew said, quickly busying himself in the fridge, getting out some juice. Luke's answer was nice enough but Rolf's glare was still etched in his mind.
"Rolf was talking about going down to the lake this morning?" Luke said, trying to get the smile back.
"Yes, we HAVE to go down to the lake," Matthew replied, brightening immediately. "We have a dock with some toys, and two jetskis we can use, and if we go around to the public dock we can even rent a bigger boat and try water skiing! Does Daniel like orange juice?" Matthew finished, pouring himself a rather large glass.
"Yes, loves it. And that sounds great. What can I do to help here?"
"Clean up?" a grinning Matthew replied, pouring a second glass for Val.
"Matthew," Rolf handed him a couple of plates. "Set the table. Luke, want to see if Daniel's ready to eat? We usually try and eat early on in the day before it gets hot, by mid morning no one'll be wanting anything much other than water and ice."
"I'll be right back," Luke said, smiling and relaxing as he hadn't in a long time, heading up the stairs to see if his partner was dressed and ready yet. "Daniel?"
"Who is Daniel, what IS he?" Val groused, coming out of the bathroom. His black hair looked different this morning- carefully combed and styled; on Val, the cut was beginning to take on a designer air. As was the t-shirt knotted up and baring a slender midriff over the jeans. Pouting, Val put both arms around Luke's neck and kissed him.
"Good morning. And you don't deserve it. Since when don't you like me singing?"
"Since it could give us away." Luke kissed him back and swatted his rump gently. "Breakfast is ready and Matthew's dying to go swimming. Sound good to you?"
"I'm not hungry," Val said as a matter of course.
"You haven't really tried Rolf's cooking yet, you may be surprised," Luke replied, not letting go.
"It's going to be full of fat and -"
"And protein and everything else you need. And the fat won't do you any harm," Luke said, rubbing his hands long Val's sides. "You've lost a little weight."
"When we get home Orion's going to take one look at me and go nuts, I'll probably have spots and stretch marks and-"
"Can it," Luke said firmly. "You'll eat like everyone else and you'll be fine, a few days won't hurt you. And you can swim and burn it off, so don't even THINK of being rude about anything that's cooked for you; are we clear?"
"If I DO end up looking like an elephant it's your fault," Val said sourly. Luke shook his head.
"You won't. And I'll love you anyway, come on."
"Good morning!" Val said as they reached the kitchen. "Isn't it a beautiful day? The weather here is wonderful."
"Hot," Matthew said succinctly.
"And beautiful," Rolf agreed. "Good morning, you look a lot more lively. Bacon, eggs, toast, take your pick. And, or, any combination of."
Val started to object but felt Luke's hand on his shoulder and chose an egg, a slice of bacon and a piece of toast for his plate. Luke filled his plate up and tipped another egg and slice of bacon onto Val's before sitting down beside him at the table.
"Did you cut your hair?" Matthew asked, staring hard at it.
"No, but it does need it after the butcher job," Val replied, picking at his food, "except there's not that much left TO cut."
"It looks better."
"Thanks," Val said, rolling his eyes. "Can't we talk about something else? Like YOUR hair?"
"What's wrong with MY hair?" Matthew asked, immediately running a hand through it. "I haven't had a shower like some people."
"Nothing's WRONG as such....." Val gave him a quick smile, nibbling toast. "The windswept look was very in last year. It's salvageable, don't worry."
"You can shower after breakfast," Rolf said before Matthew could answer. "Although you'd probably rather swim I bet?"
"We can swim in the lake?" Val looked at Rolf, eyes lighting up. "It's safe?"
"Not only safe, it's set up for no small amount of water sports," Luke said, taking another piece of toast. " EAT , kitten."
"I'm not that hungry."
"Eat anyway," Luke said calmly.
"If you don't like eggs and bacon, I'm sure there's some loose kitten chow in one of the boxes I brought," Matthew said.
"That's enough," Rolf said firmly, cutting off any chance of argument.
Val glared at Matthew, shocked and outraged. He was still more annoyed that Matthew missed his glare completely.
"I'm ready to go," Matthew said, standing up and putting his plate over on the sink.
"We'll take care of the cleanup, Rolf, since you did all the cooking," Luke said as he stood up with his plate.
"Thank you. Matthew, I'd like a word," Rolf said, walking over into the living room before Matthew headed upstairs.
"What?" Matthew asked a little apprehensively.
"That wasn't at all kind or necessary, was it?" Rolf said as soon as Matthew joined him. Matthew shrugged a little, flushing.
"It was funny- that was all-"
"Then you didn't see Daniel's face. Want me to pull out a few pet names for you that he can make fun of?"
"If you tried calling me 'kitten' you wouldn't live long," Matthew said dryly. "That's pretty lame-"
"And it's nothing whatever to do with you," Rolf said firmly. "Daniel is NOT Chris or Mike, he's a guest and you will not make him uncomfortable, is that clear?"
"I'm only kidding!"
"Then stop. Because if I hear another crack like that you'll be upstairs on your own."
Matthew scowled but discreetly, dropping his tone. "Yes sir."
"He is such a bitch!" Val exploded in the kitchen as soon as Matthew and Rolf had left. Luke put the plates in the sink and pulled Val to him, linking both hands behind his back. He'd winced for Val at that particular crack-
Val was extremely unused to being teased, or to holding his ground with people his own age- he was very used to being treated with the respect and consideration due to Val Quentin, and he liked Matthew- and wanted Matthew to like him, that part Luke was aware of and thought too that Val probably wasn't.
"He was only teasing," Luke replied calmly.
"How do YOU know?"
"Because he's not a mean person. You two haven't had a cross word in your few meetings, have you?"
"No," Val admitted against his will.
"He likes you, and that's his way of showing you. People only tease those they love."
"He can leave the kitten jokes behind."
"I'm very certain that Rolf is telling him exactly that right now. Come on, let's finish these dishes and go down to the water."
"If he does that again, we're leaving," Val said sniffily. "I don't have to listen to that kind of crap from anyone."
"Hey." Luke caught Val's hand, fixing him with a level look. "We are here, as their guests and they've bailed us out of a nasty situation. We are staying and we are going to get along. Matthew was teasing and that's all. Now put those dishes away please."
Val scowled but stacked the dishes as Luke finished washing the last few. Rolf and Matthew were both waiting on the porch ten minutes later when Val and Luke emerged with towels, books and underwear since their packing hadn't extended to swimming clothes. Val gave Matthew a short look and stepped away to stand next to Luke, making sure Matthew had a good look at the cant of his hips and properly styled hair and giving one of his moodier glares out over the lake. It was the kind of look the press loved. Rolf took it in with a slightly raised eyebrow and looked at Luke who raised his eyes mutely skywards.
They settled in their usual spot on the dock and Matthew promptly stripped, diving straight over the side into the water where he trod water.
"Come on then!"
"I think that was to you," Luke said to Val, sitting on the edge of the dock as Rolf settled with his book. Val shrugged, taking his time stripping.
"I assume you're coming in too?"
"Yes, I'd like to do a few laps," Luke replied, eyes scanning the surrounding area as he removed his shorts.
"I'll wait for you," Val said before turning to Matthew. "I'll swim my exercise laps first," he told him, stretching and making sure that Matthew was getting a good look at his long, fluid form.
Matthew whacked the top of the water, sending a small spray towards the dock and Val. "Isn't all swimming exercise?"
"Hey!" Val barked, jumping back. Luke looked heavenwards and dove off the end of the dock, barely making a ripple when his leanly muscled body hit the water. Val had to make a quick choice and chose to dive in after Luke, starting out behind and staying that way until Luke had swum far enough out and turned to make his way back to the dock. Matthew watched for a minute, then turned away a little hurt that Val would rather swim laps with Luke than play in the water with him. He tried to amuse himself in the water but found that extremely difficult when he'd rather have Val's company.
Luke kept pace with Val, well aware his brat was deliberately giving Matthew the cold shoulder. He said nothing but kept going without a pause, knowing within a few laps Val was rapidly going to lose interest without conversation or slowing the speed. On the fourth turn he heard Val's hiss behind him, irritated and breathless.
"SLOW DOWN."
"Keep up or go play," Luke said matter-of-factly. "If you want to exercise we're exercising."
"Great," Val said sourly. "I'll go play with Mr Comedy Act of the Year."
Matthew paused in his diving near the dock, seeing Val making his way over with some relief. He'd actually considered once or twice apologising- Val WAS a star, it just had come naturally to act towards Val as he would towards Chris or Mike, but he didn't want to alienate Val by any means. Val's expression as he reached him, however, subdued all apologetic instincts. If a small, well-shaped nose could be in the air, Val's was, and his expression was anything but encouraging.
"You do know this water is probably full of all kinds of bugs?"
"It's fresh water," Matthew said, straightening up and running his hands over his hair to push it out of his eyes. "Want to swim across to the island there?"
"And what's over there?" Val said snottily. "More diseased water and rocks? Thrilling."
"The water's never done me any harm," Matthew said flatly. Val gave him a condescending look.
"Well obviously. You don't have to take the same care over your skin. No one minds how YOU look. And we don't all have the same quality or fineness of skin, or we'd all be making the front covers."
"That 'kitten' comment didn't go down too well I see," Rolf said dryly as Luke hauled himself out of the water and onto the dock. Luke sat down on the dockside and looked out across the water to the scene Rolf was watching. The conversation wasn't audible but Val's attitude was immediately apparent from his expression, Luke knew it well. Two weeks ago he'd watched Val trying it out on a photographer, right at the start of this entire mess.
"He's not used to it. Daniel has way too many people following him around telling him he's wonderful and jumping when he shouts. I sincerely hope Matthew won't." Luke got up and wiped his face and arms off with the towel, casting a quick look around. He'd been doing the same at two minute intervals throughout his swim. Rolf put the book down, watching him.
"What do you need to do to be sure you and Daniel are safe here?"
"Keep him well in my sight and have a clear sight of what's going on around us." Luke put the towel down beside the backpack he'd brought, which Rolf was fairly sure held the gun.
"If you can do that from here, it might be a better cover if you can look as if you're relaxing," he said lightly. "We don't need to draw attention; no one around here would expect to see a bodyguard."
"What you mean is, take a seat and stop pacing around," Luke said dryly. Rolf smiled.
"Ok, that too. But Daniel's not the only one who needs to relax."
"I'm on duty and I'm on duty alone," Luke said bluntly. Rolf nodded.
"I can imagine that's a strain. But I'd imagine too you do it automatically, you've been mixing the guarding with your private life for some time."
"And the outside image is important." Luke took a seat on the deck beside Rolf, leaning his elbows on his knees. "You're right, we don't want anyone seeing us as anything other than a couple on holiday."
"Are we going over to the island or not?" Matthew said shortly out in the water, not impressed by Val's comment or the pose.
"I suppose so if there's nothing better to do." Val leaned out into a long, languid stroke than ended in an ungraceful screech and splash as Matthew grabbed his head and shoved it under the water.
Rolf sat up almost immediately, ready to yell at Matthew. He stopped when he felt a hand on his arm.
"Give them a chance to work this out themselves," Luke said dryly. "Daniel could use the practice."
"It can go wrong quick," Rolf replied.
"They'll have a hard time doing much damage in the water."
Rolf wasn't sure he agreed with that, but decided to see what happened. He settled back in his chair again and continued to fight the urge to end the bickering.
Val's head broke the water and he came up spitting and swearing. "You BITCH! Don't you KNOW who I am?" Val asked, angrily treading water and trying to straighten his hair and wipe his face off at the same time.
"I know you're a wuss," Matthew said, grinning.  "Get over it, there're no photographers here."
"How would YOU know about photographers? They wouldn't follow you around if you paid them," Val snapped back.
"Is that what you do?" Matthew said innocently.  "Pay them? Or do you just depend on your natural charm?"
"You bloody fucking git!" Val nearly yelled, splashing water towards Matthew.
"You just need to fucking ‘git' over your big bad self, Kit-ten," Matthew said with a nasty sneer on his face.
"And YOU need a fucking punch in the mouth, you styleless, drawling, yankee BLOODY QUEEN!" Val screeched back, storming towards the shore as best he could through the water.
Matthew followed, drinking and spitting equal amounts of lake water as he followed Val to shore, determined to have the very last word in this argument.
"I have NEVER," Val spat, storming up the sand and shale, "Been so BLOODY insulted! I don't HAVE to get out of bed in the morning for anything less than half of what YOU'LL earn in your entire LIFE -"
Matthew stumbled from the water and followed Val to where he stopped on the shore. "And I don't HAVE to have a fucking audience to make myself feel worthy of a DIME!" Matthew yelled even louder than Val.
Val stamped his foot, voice rising in a deafening e flat. "I DON'T HAVE TO LISTEN TO THIS!"
"AND I DON'T HAVE TO LISTEN TO YOU EITHER!" Matthew roared back.
Val produced another stamp and was outraged when Matthew produced an equally well practiced and effective stomp of his own.
"Someone's going to get hurt," Rolf said getting to his feet. Luke gripped his arm, braced to go himself but watching with something between extreme sympathy for his partner and wry appreciation for Val that this was an entirely new experience for him.
"Just a minute? Please?"
"What are you wanting to see happen?" Rolf had to ask.
"For Daniel to get to the end of this fight without pulling the star trump card," Luke said with some pity. "He can't do this with anyone else, he doesn't see enough of his brothers, there's no one who'll yell back at him like this."
Rolf looked again at the two young men, all instincts yelling at him to end it, but Luke was trying to prove a point to Val and he'd respect that.
"I'd like him to have ONE friend who doesn't give a damn about the stardust and won't take any nonsense from him," Luke said apologetically. "He won't hurt Matthew; the absolute worst he'll do is try slapping him and I don't think Matthew'll take that quietly, will he?"
"No, not at all," Rolf replied.
As if on cue, Val raised a hand and slapped Matthew hard across the cheek, and without a second's hesitation Matthew slapped him right back, every bit as hard. Val's shriek of outrage sent birds soaring out of the trees nearby and Luke got up, wincing. 
"Ok, that's my cue-"
Rolf moved at once, heading rapidly down towards the beach, voice raised and grim.
"MATTHEW."
Matthew's squinting glare at Val slipped from Val's face and widened when it caught sight of Rolf and Luke walking purposefully towards them. His guard dropped and he completely missed the two-handed shove Val delivered to his chest until he was scrambling back to his feet to shove back.
"You STUPID - OW! Rolf!" Matthew screeched as more than a few very well-placed swats landed across his still wet shorts. He danced in place for a minute, outrage battling with embarrassment as both the swats and the words landed home.
"You STOP that RIGHT now, you do NOT raise your HAND in anger against ANYONE," Rolf said, swatting hard to make sure his immediate point got across the last of the argument.
Matthew's free arm went behind him to rub at his still stinging flesh, the words having problems being said around the lump of tears that had formed in his throat. "I'm sorry," he said breathlessly, knowing Rolf had to hear most of what was said and definitely saw the slap. He was SO dead, and Val and Luke were going to know it too.
"That's not an answer, young man," Rolf prompted, letting go of Matthew's arm now that the immediate danger of fists flying was over.
Matthew swallowed a few more times, trying like hell to not dissolve in floods of tears, even though that's exactly what he wanted to do. "We…we were arguing and it got a little...out of hand."
"A little out of hand?" Luke said grimly, folding his arms and looking at Val. "A little out of hand? Is THAT what you call hurtling insults and hands at one another?"
"It was HIS fault!" Val said furiously, "He spoke to me like- like I'd just crawled out from under a rock! He can't ACT like that around me-"
"And that spoiled brat act is so deserving of respect?" Luke said sharply. "Stop screeching right now, Daniel. DO you hit out at people when they annoy you?"
Val gave him one last look of outrage and burst into tears of rage as much as distress. Luke shook his head, quite unmoved.
"Daniel, answer me please."
"He hit me back!" Val said bitterly, gulping, still rubbing one flaming cheek.
"And you hit him first," Luke said severely. "You do NOT strike anyone for any reason, particularly not because you've heard something from them you don't like. NOR do you scream and shout at people like a bargee because you don't feel you're getting your due."
"You know WELL, Matthew, how arguments should be handled, and I don't think a mouthful of abuse and a few slaps is the answer. IS it?" Rolf added. His stern blue gaze moved over and Val's eyes opened wider as it fell on him, NOT at all amused. "I do NOT expect fighting, brawling and slapping at ANY time for any reason; that is not something I will EVER put up with. Nor do I expect YOU to treat a guest in this appalling manner, Matthew, NOR for a guest to behave in this way. It is COMPLETELY unacceptable."
"Still more so," Luke agreed, "Since we need to be careful about attracting attention right now."
Matthew gulped a few times. "Yes, sir," he said quietly, somehow managing to take in both sets of eyes on his before dropping his own eyes back to the ground and fidgeting in place.
Val couldn't stand the silence nor the looks and added his own "Yes, sir," between sniffles, shocked to the core at how he was being treated.
"I didn't expect you to let a friend see that kind of behaviour, and you know exactly what I think about it," Luke said to Val.  "No one here cares what kind of treatment you think you deserve, there are no photographers here, no journalists, no PAs and no one who cares what your current album is, Daniel. None of that is going to score you any points, you need to get all that rubbish out of your head right now. It's not impressing anyone and it's going to get you nothing but a lot of trouble. And I'm equally surprised at you, Matthew, I thought you had more sense than to rise to that kind of prima donna rubbish."
Some of the tears that Matthew had been fighting slid down his cheek against his will. Things HAD just got out of hand and as usual, it got way worse before he realised it was getting that way. He hated to disappoint Rolf, whenever he did that he felt awful. And to show a couple of friends that he rarely saw, the wrong side of his vitriolic tongue and usually sunny disposition wasn't what he planned on. There was no reason in the world that Val had to like him, no reason that they should even be considered friends. Val WAS a star and lived a life that Matthew couldn't even begin to imagine in his wildest dreams. It was a fluke that they even met, much less spent any time together. And after this wonderful morning, he wouldn't blame them on not ever wanting them to visit again.
"You know," Luke said to Val, totally unimpressed by the tears running down from long lashed eyes, "Exactly what to expect if you use that kind of language or engage in those kind of tantrums, and we've talked before about you slapping out when someone annoys you. You are not entitled to any special treatment here young man; no one here is going to put up with any temperament from you."
Val was already pleading when Luke took him over to the side of the dock, took a seat and turned the English popstar over his lap, peeling wet boxers down from a perfect and tight little backside.
If Val had been mortified before, there wasn't a word to describe how he felt now. Wishing he'd never met Matthew in a cupboard, never left his native England, and above all, never said a cross word to anyone ever again. Luke didn't care at all about his name, what he did, or who was in love with him. All Luke cared about was that he'd behaved in a manner that was disrespectful. As the swats began to rain down in ever increasing force, he tried to eradicate any thoughts of Rolf and Matthew, who must both be standing on the shore and thinking how good it was to see such a spoiled brat get his just desserts. What he didn't know was that Matthew was in about the same position and wishing almost the same things.
Rolf hustled Matthew up the shore to the bench in the shade. "I really am ashamed of you, behaving like a five year old in the middle of a temper tantrum. Not only did I hear your sailor's language, I heard the name Kitten, which I distinctly remember telling you I didn't want to hear again."
Matthew tried a few sorries along the way, but knew without a shadow of a doubt how the conversation was going to end. He'd visited that bench a few times in his life, and if he hadn't been spanked on it, he was usually sitting there after having been spanked, or thanking the heavens that he'd missed one by inches. He soon found himself face down on the bench, legs hanging off the one end, his suit around his knees and a cool breeze across his now bare, and still very white, bottom
"However provoked you were," Rolf said sternly, "I will not put up with that kind of retaliation or behaviour, is that clear?"
There was one answer to that and one only. Matthew lost the battle with tears and tried not to think too hard about Val and Luke witnessing this.
"Yes sir."
Rolf wrapped an arm around his waist and spent a few minutes administering a short but very sound spanking. Had he intervened when he'd first seen the disagreement starting, the worst Matthew would have received would have been a couple of swats and a while sitting on his own.
Luke had asked for things to take their course, but at the same time Matthew knew very well what was and was not acceptable behaviour- he'd been handed the rope, it had been his decision to hang himself. Matthew was sobbing when Rolf put him back on his feet, helping him straighten his clothing.
"I want you to sit here and I don't want to hear a word from you. If you two can't keep civilised company, you don't need to be company at all," he said sternly.
Matthew dropped full length on the bench at once.
Some way off on a shaded part of the dock, Val was also curled, sobs dying down but clearly not at all happy, and Luke was standing at the end of the dock, looking out over the water.
"I feel somewhat responsible," he said as Rolf joined him. "I didn't think Daniel actually WOULD hit out."
"I had hopes that Matthew would have managed to rein in his desire to hit back. I think it shocked the both of them."
Luke gave his partner a rueful look that contained no little sympathy. "A lot of it in Daniel comes from insecurity as much as belief that he's some kind of superior being. I don't suppose you'd consider lending us Matthew for the next tour?"
Rolf couldn't help but laugh. "You have NO idea what you just asked for."
"My team would love it," Luke said dryly. "Matthew just did what most of them would LOVE to do and will never have either the nerve or the flair to try. Daniel's face when Matthew stamped back....."


Rolf shook his head. "That's old hat for Matthew.  He's got a very good friend, believe it or not, who goes at it with him toe to toe.  A stranger would think they're mortal enemies, which they are at the time.  But five minutes later the two of them will be inseparable.  He's just used to arguments coming and going."
"It would do Daniel a lot of good to get that from a friend," Luke said wryly. "He's been surrounded by people telling him he's wonderful and running around after him since he was seventeen, he doesn't have anyone but me to stand up to him or to tell him when he's over the line. He doesn't hang around with the wild crowd he used to but I wouldn't have called them friends."


"Will he bounce back from this quickly?"


"I don't know," Luke admitted. "I hope so. But I think the more important thing is that he realises he can't throw his weight around at Matthew without being pushed right back."


"If he didn't figure that out today, trust me, he will.  Matthew will tell him exactly what he thinks, no holds barred."


Luke glanced at the two subdued brats separated by the dock. "I can keep an eye on these two if you want to swim? I don't think they're going anywhere."


"I wouldn't mind a few laps.  We've still got to get the two of them talking when this is done," Rolf said, taking off his sunglasses.

"
Go ahead, I'll watch them," Luke said easily, settling on the side of the dock. "I'll try and look like a tourist while I do it."
"They should be easy work," Rolf said, winking before he walked to the far end of the dock and dove in.
Luke smiled and sat back on the dockside, watching Rolf strike off across the lake. It was a beautiful day, clear and fresh, the view was tranquil and despite his own sense of wariness, Luke was aware of his tension easing. He cast a brief look at Val. He was no longer in tears, just looking very downcast, his eyes down as he fiddled with something in the sand. Matthew, on the other side of the dock, was lying on his stomach on the bench, one finger trailing slowly on the ground.
Rolf completed about ten laps, taking about twenty minutes to do so.  Both young men should be more than ready to be released from their posts, particularly with the beautiful day beckoning.  He pulled himself out of the water onto the dock and ran his hands through his hair, getting the bulk of the water out. 
"No mutinies I see," Rolf said, walking past Luke to get his towel from the railing.
"Not a word," Luke said peaceably. "Except some very subtle signs that the troops are getting restless."
Rolf toweled his hair dry, then dried off his shoulders and chest before putting the towel back on the railing to dry.  "Ready to wrap this up then?"
Luke held out a hand to Val, lifting his voice. "Daniel. Come here."
Rolf walked the few feet down the shore.  "Matthew?  Come here, please."
Both brats stirred and Val, carefully avoiding any look at Matthew or Rolf, went to Luke. Who took his hand, voice calm.
"Are we done with the prima donna-ing? And the paddies?"


Val nodded promptly, eyes still down. "Yes. I'm sorry."


"You need to tell Matthew and Rolf that, brat," Luke said gently.
Val flushed darkly. "I can't, Matthew'll hate me."


"No one is going to hate you and Matthew is going to understand if anyone does," Luke pointed out. "And whether you want to or not, you are going to. A guest doesn't behave like that."


Val went still darker red but slowly went across to Rolf.


Matthew kept his eyes down as well, knowing as soon as he looked at Val there'd either be scorn, or worse yet, hate.  Rolf dropped Matthew's hand and draped an arm around his shoulder, both to keep him there and to show his support.  Luke's heart went out to his brat, watching him stop in front of Rolf. He looked very small in front of the two of them.


"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have acted like that. I won't again. I'm sorry I hit Matthew." 

 
Rolf gently shook Matthew, who only managed "'M sorry too," while staring at the dock.


"You can do better than that, young man." 

 
Matthew slowly raised his eyes to find Val's, finding only a reflection of his own feelings.  "I'm sorry too, I shouldn't have hit you. You...you make your money that way...I don't."


"It doesn't matter out here," Val said softly. "I hit you first, it was my fault."


"Thank you," Rolf said for the both of them.  "Think you can both behave for the rest of the afternoon?"
Val nodded, looking about ready to run away. Luke put his hands on Val's shoulders, giving Matthew a quick smile.


"Then go on back in the water. You're missing the best of the day."
"And if I have to remind EITHER of you about this discussion again today, you'll find yourselves in your room for the rest of the day at the very least," Rolf added for emphasis.  He leaned over Matthew's shoulder and kissed his cheek before letting him go. 

He watched with some sympathy as both young men slunk away towards the water, very unsure of what to say to each other even though they were both happy to be done with their punishment.
"Are you going back in?" Luke said, taking his seat back on the edge of the dock. Well aware of Val's hesitance and the way he was avoiding Rolf and Matthew's eye, he was determined not to comment on it. His brat for the first time was seriously worried about what damage his temperament might have done, and it wouldn't hurt him to worry.
 "No. If either one of us goes in now, that'll give both of them reason to continue ignoring each other. Give them time to sort through this on their own - they'll forget there ever was an argument in thirty minutes.”
Out in the water Val took a few strokes, cooling his face as much as his pride, aware of Matthew striking out some metres away from him. He risked a sideways glance, not at all sure of what to expect.
Matthew for a moment headed towards the island, equally embarrassed himself and not a little ashamed. Val wasn't just anyone, he certainly wasn't someone to be treated with casual familiarity- except he'd just been told off in no uncertain terms by his big, dark body guard, and Matthew had heard enough to know Val had been spanked just as summarily as he himself had been. Which would leave Chris- or Mike- or anyone else Matthew knew who understood their kind of relationship- a little upset, a little embarrassed, penitent- and very glad to forget all about it. He took a deep breath and sculled across to Val, pausing to find his feet. Val cast him a quick glance, not at all sure what to expect, and something in his clear apprehension touched Matthew to the heart.
"Want to try the island over there? It's a way to sort of get away from their eyes," Matthew said, nodding in the direction of Rolf and Luke. "It takes some time to get there, but it's worth it."
Val looked again at the distance. "I can handle that," he said, taking off in that direction.
Matthew followed, stroking hard and just managing to keep up with Val's fast pace. The hard workout, and concentrating on keeping up with Val drove all other thoughts from his head. He arrived on the island winded, but in much better spirits, the only remnants left from earlier being the dull ache in his backside. Val was stretched out on the sand, arm across his eyes, also getting his breath back. Matthew lay down in the sand next to him.
"Luke hasn't yelled," Val said without uncovering his eyes. Matthew nodded.
"There's no way onto the island without swimming or boating and he'd have a clear view of anyone trying. He's a little scary, your other half."
"And yours isn't?" Val demanded. Matthew glanced across at him in surprise, and then laughed.
Val uncovered his face a little, looking over at him. "I'm sorry about being a prat. Really. I don't mean to. Luke hates it when I get like that. And I didn't want to be like that around you."
"I didn't mean to make fun of you either," Matthew said, leaning up on his elbow. "I'm just used to my friends, where it's kill or be killed. I shouldn't have said what I did."
"I started it." Val said honestly. "I wanted to get you back for that kitten dig." He gave Matthew a quick look, flushing slightly. "I know it's wet. But he's always called me that, right since we first met, and he's not a guy that's given to endearments, you know?"
"I know," Matthew said seriously. "I'd have kidded him for saying it since it doesn't go with the look, except I didn't want to take a chance on being squashed flat."
Val smiled. "I wish he wouldn't in public, but he won't listen and he doesn't care- and I can live with it. Does that make sense?"
Matthew lay back on the sand, arm across his face to block the sun. "It does. There's a LOT of things Rolf does in public I'd rather him not, but I don't always have a say in the matter. At least the name doesn't hurt," he said with a short laugh.
"At least Rolf isn't given to calling you silly names," Val said, flushing a little. "And ditto. I hadn't planned on that exhibition earlier, but it's been worse. Dressing rooms. carparks. He has NO sense of embarrassment."
"No, Rolf doesn't have a name that embarrasses me, that's Marc's job. He's got some good ones, but I can at least deck him most of the time for it. And Rolf doesn't know the meaning of the word embarrass, except if *I've* done something to embarrass him," Matthew concurred.
Val shut his mouth on the comment that if Matthew found the name 'kitten' so amusing he had no wish to spend enough time with Marc to see what Marc would make of it in private. Unused to friends he could be open with, he was beginning to see very good reason to be wary. "Anyway," he said more reservedly, sitting up, "I'm sorry. I'm going to have a quick look around."
"I'll come with you," Matthew said, sitting and then standing up, brushing the sand from his body. "There's nothing TOO exciting here, but it IS an island."
They wandered for a while, picking at shells and wading in the rock pools. Val was pleasant but quiet, and after a while conversation withered and they were glad when Luke's yell across the lake summoned them back to the dock. They spent the rest of the day swimming, sunbathing, reading and dozing around the dock, enjoying the slow passing of the hours. Val settled by Luke for most of the afternoon, reading one of the books that resided on the cabin shelves, his chin on his hand, and Luke, accepting that this was the first tranquil day after a lot of difficult ones, left him in peace as much as possible. It was approaching early evening when Rolf got up and stretched.
"I'm about ready for a shower. I'm going to head on up, change and start thinking about dinner. Matthew, going to come back with me?"
"Yes!" Matthew said, jumping up from his spot on the dock. He'd long since gotten bored with everyone reading or relaxing.
"Get the cooler!" Rolf yelled at Matthew before he'd left the dock. Turning back to Luke he said, "Give us about an hour and we can have dinner almost ready?"
"Sounds great," Luke said cheerfully. "Thanks."
"No problem," Rolf said, picking up his supplies and hurrying up the hill behind Matthew.
Luke got up from the bench and stood for a moment looking out over the lake. Then sat down on the wooden dock and put a hand on Val's back. "Are you warm enough, kitten? It's starting to cool down a lot out here."
"Yes, I'm fine," Val said, even though he really would have preferred a blanket.
"Nice to have some holiday time?" Luke pressed, gently. "You seemed to have a good day."
"Yes," was Luke's only response.
"What's wrong?" Luke said quizzically. "Kitten?"
"Can't you find something else to call me?” Val asked, shutting his book and looking up.
"Why?" Luke said bluntly. "Is Matthew still bothering you about that?"
"No. It's just that they might not understand. It's personal."
"And they walk around holding hands which is so much less personal?" Luke said gently. "We're not on tour, kitten, this is one time we don't have to be careful about what we say to each other. And it's nice."
"Yes," Val said, but not fully believing it himself. "Want to swim before we go up?" Val asked, standing up to end the conversation.
Luke noted the tone and the evasion, but didn't pursue it, just shaking his head. "I'd rather watch you swim. Go on if you want to, we'll need to head back in a while."
"Did you have a good afternoon?" Rolf asked as Matthew stowed the cooler in the cabin and followed him upstairs, stripping off sandy clothes.
"The afternoon was better than the morning," Matthew replied, shaking sand out of his shirt.
"You should try that outside next time?" Rolf asked, taking off his own shirt and heading into the bathroom for a shower.
"Sorry." Matthew sat on the bed and kicked his shoes off. "Rolf..........?"
Rolf paused in removing his suit. "Yes?'
"You know I'm due leave. I've got about three weeks this year I haven't taken and things are slow at work now."
Rolf poked his head out of the bathroom. "And?"
"You have leave due too?"
"Yes, of course."
"And the weather's good."
"I couldn't agree more. Are we getting any closer to a point here?" Rolf asked without rancor.
Matthew pulled a face at him, unconvinced. "Rolf. You know exactly what I mean, stop messing around."
Disappearing for a minute, Rolf came back into the room with a towel wrapped around his waist, taking a seat on the side of the bed next to Matthew. "You want a few more days here?"
"I think it would be good?" Matthew tried, leaning against him. "It's bad enough for Luke and Val to be here without them being on their own- and it's kind of nice too to get the time with them- and a good time to take that vacation. Don't you think?"
"But to give our offices no notice?" Rolf asked, though thinking he'd feel better if they were here with Val and Luke a little longer, faith in the police that they'd catch the lunatic before the end of their vacation.
"I can ring through," Matthew said confidently. "It's not going to be a big deal, this is a low time and I've been asked to catch up on leave anyway."
"Let me think on that," Rolf said, getting up after rustling Matthew's hair. "This sand is seriously getting on my nerves."
"Please?" Matthew said hopefully.
"Shower," Rolf replied, turning on the taps and sliding under the spray as soon as it was warm enough.
Matthew flopped back on the bed and waited, listening impatiently to the sounds of the shower.
Rolf enjoyed his shower, thinking through Matthew's proposition. He'd been going over options for their next vacation without success. Not wanting to spend a lot of money, staying at the cabin for the week would fit the bill nicely. And being able to get to know Val and Luke a little better at the same time was a nice idea. He knew they could keep themselves occupied if he and Matthew went home, but all four of them would have a better time together. He could see Luke easily slipping back into his bodyguard role without thinking. He turned off the taps and ran his hands through his hair, getting rid of the bulk of the moisture.
"Rooooooooooooooolf...." Matthew said outside, losing patience.
His brat's whine brought a smile to his face. Getting to spend a week away from home with him sounded like a very good idea. He quickly toweled down and stepped into the room. "Tomorrow, we need to call our offices, and Marc, and make sure the house will be taken -"
Matthew hit him in the chest, knocking the breath out of him, then wound both arms around his neck, finishing the job.
Without knowing exactly how it happened, Rolf found himself drying off from a second shower about twenty minutes later, this time a little weak in the knees.
Refreshed, if slightly aware that they had guests around, he headed downstairs, leaving Matthew dozing in a contented sprawl on the bed. Luke and Val were on the porch, Val perched on the rail at a distance from Luke who was on the swing.
"Are you two ok? Did you find drinks?"
"We even started dinner," Luke said cheerfully.
"I thought it was smelling pretty good out here," Rolf replied, sniffing appreciatively. "I'll join you as soon as I get a glass of wine." Rolf returned a few minutes later and settled into a chair.
"Did you enjoy the water?" he asked of Val.
"Yes." Val gave him a quick smile and looked away again. "Yes thanks, it was great. Where's Matthew? Changing?"
"Dozing on the bed, actually," he said, taking a sip of his wine.
"I thought he was the tough guy?"
It was nicely said, but Luke glanced at him.
"He's probably tired, kitten. Like you look, you two were swimming most of the day."
"Thanks," Val said sarcastically, heading inside and flopping down on the couch.  He turned on the TV and was sorely disappointed in the three channels’ offerings.  He was used to far more options than that.
"Tired?" Rolf said discreetly to Luke, who nodded.
"He's had a better day but it's going to take a few to recharge. He's got amazing stamina, he stands up to a horrendous schedule on circuit, but we've burnt him right out in the last few weeks. Once we've eaten I'll get him to bed."
"It takes Matthew a few days here before he manages to fight the desire to fall asleep in his dinner plate," Rolf replied, leaning forward with his arms on his knees, twirling the wine glass between his fingers.  "Matthew asked me a question earlier and I wanted to run it by you."
"What's that?" Luke gave him a straight look, the bodyguard immediately superceding the easygoing man Rolf had spent the day with. It confirmed- however relaxed Luke looked, however easy their day had appeared, Luke was alert, aware and ready for action the instant it was necessary, and weighing any decision and change minutely for danger to Val. Rolf couldn't blame him. In Luke's place he'd be frantic with fear for Matthew and willing to do anything to avert that danger.
"We've got a stack of vacation time we need to use.  I was debating where to go on a tight budget when Matthew suggested we just stay here for the week," Rolf said, keeping eye contact with Luke and reading the body language to see if it was any different than Luke's answer would be.
Despite himself, Luke knew his immediate reaction was relief. The company was good for Val- with Matthew for distraction he was more active, more relaxed, a good deal less fearful. And the cover was better for them both- two couples, one well known in the area, instead of two strange men, one of whom was obviously frightened and disoriented.  If anyone came looking for them here, they would not suspect Val Quentin would be roughing it in a cabin with two unknown men, swimming in a lake and barbecuing on the porch, untidy and hot. Even fairly close too, they'd have a hard time seeing Val as anything but an ordinary young man on holiday.
"Thankyou," he said slowly. "Val and I would love your company."
"And we'd love yours as well," Rolf said, relieved.  "I may need to drive back to attend to some office business, but that could be a day trip if at all.  We'll also need supplies, unless you want to live the next week on chips and cookies, which I think the four of us could thanks to Matthew's shopping," Rolf said, laughing.  He took a drink and settled back in the chair.  "I hope that by the end of the week, we can ALL go home."
Continue on to Stalked Part 4
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2010

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