Sunday, February 7, 2010

Stalked Part 4

Title: Stalked Part 4
Authors: Rolf and Ranger

Val rose slowly to consciousness the next morning. He was aware of birds chirruping first. As his sleep addled brain tried to deal with that, he felt a cool breeze move the sheets against his leg. Cracking an eye open he found the usual empty pillow next to him. He sat up quickly, heart thumping as he tried to get his bearings.
He slithered off the bed and stood against the wall as he heard movement in the hallway. Trying to swallow his fear, he stood there shaking until Luke's voice drifted in the open window. It took only a minute more for the previous day to come flooding back and he sank back down on the bed in relief. They were at Matthew and Rolf's cabin in the woods and Luke must be talking to one of them. He jumped when a knock sounded on the door.
"Are you awake?" Matthew asked quietly.
Val started to open his mouth- and then hesitated. It had been borne on him yesterday that Matthew was perhaps not QUITE the easy, sweet natured character he'd seemed from a little over a year's intermittent contact over the net and the phone. Parts of yesterday had not been fun, and Val was not keen, either to run into the edge of Matthew's razor sharp tongue or his teasing. On the other hand there was little point in staying up here.
"Yes." he said, somewhat warily. Matthew opened the door and grinned at him, apparently having forgotten totally the blazing row they'd had yesterday afternoon.
"We were holding breakfast for you. Come on, I'm starving."
"I need to shower." Val said automatically, running a hand through his hair. Matthew snorted.
"For what? No photographers around here, who's going to care? Come on."
Since Matthew himself was clearly still in his sleep wear and totally unfazed by it, he clearly expected Val to do the same. Val, on principle, silently picked up his towel and headed for the shower. No one was ever going to see Val Quentin in public looking like a tramp.
Matthew rolled his eyes and headed downstairs. He had a try at putting the jacket Rolf had sent him upstairs for on the porch railing rather than wearing it.
"The jacket was to be put on," Rolf said pointedly from his chair on the porch. "Daniel on his way down?"
"His highness must shower in case the paparazzi are in the bushes," Matthew replied, pulling the jacket on and sitting down in the swing.
Luke stifled a smile. "He won't be long. It's my turn to make breakfast, what do you guys want?"
"You know how to cook?" Matthew asked questioningly.
Luke gave him an innocent look, lounging his full six foot four length back in his chair.
"Well being in hotels all the time, with all the exotic stuff we get there, I suppose I don't really get the chance to try- but it can't be that hard."
Matthew's mouth opened in surprise, then he shut it quick, unsure whether he was being teased or not. Rolf was buried in his coffee, trying to hide his laugh.
"You could try pizza. That isn't too difficult."
"For breakfast?" Luke said quizzically, looking shocked. "You eat PIZZA for breakfast?"
"Yes, of course. Don't you English eat pizza for breakfast too?" Matthew said innocently.
"Well Val might, given the chance, but it would be over my dead body." Luke pulled himself out of his chair. In black jeans and a black t shirt stretched tight over his chest and biceps, his dark hair still wet from the shower, he looked surprisingly large and glowery, an image belied by a distinct twinkle in his eyes.
"I'll try cooking toast, shall I? That shouldn't be TOO complicated."
Rolf's voice was an octave higher as he struggled against all out laughter.
"Are you sure you don't want to start out with JUST bread? It's a delicate operation, toasting it."
Luke paused in the doorway, giving it careful consideration, then shrugged. "Where's the fun in life if you don't live dangerously? The worst I can do is serve up burnt toast, right?"
He vanished into the kitchen and shut the door behind him.
Matthew glared at Rolf for a minute, before asking, "Do you think he was serious?"
Rolf leaned over, snagged Matthew's wrist and pulled him down into his lap, enjoying the morning sunshine, the peace and quiet and the wonderful feeling of a week ahead of them with nothing to do except enjoy the good weather.
"He's ex army Matthew."
"Oh," Matthew replied, as if that explained everything. He snuggled back into Rolf's shoulder, enjoyed the morning as well. He loved the big wooden chairs they'd found at a small, one owner wood furniture store on the way home from a trip to the beach. Matthew had been tired of sitting, and the store had a bunch of flags and other wind-catchers making it one of the brightest places along the road. Rolf had pulled over just to let Matthew wander, and instead of the usual drink of water they purchased whenever they stopped, Rolf had picked out four of the big chairs, along with the swing for the cabin porch.
Val came out onto the porch, still shaking out his newly dried hair. He'd chosen a white shirt this morning and hadn't troubled to button it. Hanging over his bare and tanned midriff and draping down to the top of his thighs, it drew eyes to the slimness and the suppleness of his various curves and jeans that appeared to have been sprayed on. He was barefoot and the over all impression made Matthew think of a boat deck photospread. Rolf, looking with Matthew, was much more aware of just how carefully the look- and the entrance - had been engineered. Where Matthew stared, he merely smiled.
"Morning Daniel. Sleep well?"
"Yes, fine, thank you," Val replied graciously.
"It was long enough," Matthew replied, taking a dig at how early Luke had sent him off to bed.
Val looked at him, not at all unaware of the jibe, but chose not to answer. Instead he went to sit on the porch rail, tucking one leg under him and lounging with studied casualness that raised a dual urge in Rolf to laugh, and to pull him down off the rail and tell him to quit. Instead he took no notice, turning his attention back to the lake which was glittering blue at the bottom of the hill.
"Luke's making breakfast."
"Is he?" Val said casually.
Matthew felt seriously underdressed, being the only one that hadn't taken a shower yet. With all eight of them in the cabin it took a long time to get everyone ready, so he was more than used to running around after having just gotten up. He slid off of Rolf's lap.
"Yeah, toast, if he can handle it. I need a shower," he finished, opening up the door to head inside.
"This will be horrible cold." Luke warned him, handing him a plate. "Take that one to Rolf."
Matthew looked down at bacon, eggs and toast. "You cooked all that?"
"I got by." Luke said cheerfully, bringing the other plates out. "Daniel get down off that rail, stop tossing your hair about and don't even start to tell me about calories, I don't want to know."
Matthew carried his two out and handed Rolf one, settling on the porch stairs to eat, trying not to pay attention to Val and how polished he looked.
Val slid sulkily down off the rail and accepted the plate, his voice rising in horror.
Matthew looked up, mouth open.
"Not a word." Luke said firmly. "Just eat it."
Val went and sat on the swing, refusing to continue arguing with Rolf and Matthew on the porch with them. He picked slowly at his food, eating the eggs but leaving the toast.
Luke settled down with his plate, winking at Matthew. "Will that do? I'll wait for marks out of ten."
Matthew took a bite of the 'fried bread' and chewed thoughtfully for a few minutes.
"That's not like any toast I've ever had.
"Fried bread." Luke said, grinning. "Part of the full English breakfast. Really you should have it with tomatoes, mushrooms and black pudding, but it's nice on its own too."
"Tomatoes, maybe. No shrooms or pudding, unless it's chocolate and on the side," Matthew replied. "It tastes like bacon."
"It's a heart attack on a plate." Val said mutinously. Luke gave him an amused look.
"And you like it, so just eat it. No one's measuring your waistline."
Val glared, finished his bacon and took two bites out of the bread. He did like it but wasn't going to eat it on principle.
"I'm going to take a walk around the lake this morning," Luke went on, taking no notice. "Have a proper look around. Rolf thought you and Matthew would be happy to go on swimming kitten?"
"Maybe later," Val said loftily, getting up to carry his plate into the kitchen.
"Sit." Luke said without moving.
"I'm finished with breakfast."
Luke turned around and gave him a steady look. Val put his plate on the porch and settled into the swing with both feet up, resting against the side bar. Luke took another forkful of bacon, then leaned down to put his plate down, got up without hurry and went across to Val, jerking him to his feet and swatting his bottom soundly.
"Pick your plate up, finish your breakfast and can the attitude. Now."
Val's eyes blazed and he was in the process of gathering enough air to screech when a second, and harder swat fell. He snapped his mouth shut, leaned over and picked up his plate before flopping into the swing, his face as red as his bottom must have been. Rolf winced for a moment before he was assured that the swing wasn't going to come out of the ceiling.
Luke finished the last of his bacon and picked up his plate, catching Rolf's eye as he headed into the kitchen. "More coffee anyone?"
"That was enough for me," Rolf said, draining the last of his mug. "Matthew, you get dish duty this morning."
He took no notice of Matthew's grimace and followed Luke into the kitchen, letting the door shut behind him. Luke gave him an expressionless look over his shoulder, filling his mug again with strong, black coffee.
"Judging by the mood, I think I'm going to have to shelve the plans this morning."
"Only if you want to," Rolf said, putting his dishes down on the kitchen counter. "Matthew should chill out as soon as he gets his shower. If not, I can make a few suggestions on behaviour."
"It's not Matthew I'm worried about." Luke said dryly.
"Daniel seems like a very smart young man. I don't think it would take him too long to figure out what is and is not acceptable if we disagree on something," Rolf replied, watching Luke for his reaction.
It gave Luke pause for thought. Propping his hips against the counter he drank coffee, surveying Rolf as openly as Rolf was surveying him.
"You have to remember, we'll have four couples up here at one time and things can get quickly out of hand if boundaries aren't set. We all take care of each other, otherwise havoc would quickly ensue."
Rolf's tone was calm and Luke listened to that as much as the words. Then nodded briefly.
"If you're sure."
"I'm thinking you'd like a good idea of what's around us, for security purposes. If Daniel is the only question in your mind right now, I just wanted you to know that you have nothing to worry about."
That raised a smile. Luke unwound himself from the counter and nodded.
"Thank you. I just hope you don't have anything to worry about either. I won't be long. You've got that bell, ring it and I'll be straight back. Just keep him under your eye at all times if you can, and out in the open. I don't think anyone would try anything in front of witnesses."
"I don't think you'd mistake this bell for anyone else's, but I'll ring a set of two, a rest and a set of two more if it's needed. There are cliffs to the west so watch your footing there. A cave to the east which you'll find if you're following a path. Enjoy the walk, the woods are nice this time of year," Rolf said, following Luke out into the living room. He held the door open after Luke headed out onto the porch.
"Matthew, get started on those dishes."
Matthew got up with a groan but went inside. Luke sat on the arm of Val's chair, looking at the last fragments of bread.
"I'm fairly sure I said eat."
"I'm fairly sure I did." Val said snidely.
"Do you want to go upstairs and talk about how you're going to behave today?" Luke said quietly and matter of factly.
Val glared up from behind long lashes, but managed a pretty sincere, "No, sir."
"Last warning." Luke tapped the plate. "Finish it."
Val finished the two bites of bread, wincing on the texture since it was now cold.
"Thank you." Luke said, putting the plate down and cupping Val's face in his hands to brush his hair back. He was still faintly tired and anxious looking. He'd slept the night through but Luke had heard the start to several dreams in the night and woken out of his own uneasy doze to soothe him back into sleep again.
"I'm going to have a scout around. Rolf'll keep an eye on you and if there's any problems I'll be straight back down. All right?"
"I can come with you!" Val said, sitting up straighter.
"I don't want you to try," Luke said quietly. "It's going to be a lot of scrambling around with very little of interest to look at. Just a long jog and you hate jogging at the best of times. Stay and mess around with Matthew."
"I can scramble around with you just fine," Val replied, standing up. "I'd rather not be here alone."
"You're not alone, you're with Rolf and Matthew, Kitten. And you're staying here, I'm not going to be long. You'll be fine, you're quite safe."
"Luke! I've been with you everywhere else, why can't I go walking with you now?"
"No." Luke drew Val to him and hugged him tightly, hard enough to take the worst edge of his anxiety away. "Go on, go get ready to swim. Don't give Rolf any trouble, and I'll be back by eleven at the latest."
Val watched as Luke headed off into the woods. He turned and headed inside and straight up to his bedroom, slamming the door behind him.
Downstairs in the kitchen Matthew paused, hands dripping, and looked up at the ceiling. Rolf picked up a tea towel and came to take the plate from him.
"Leave him until we're ready to go, he's got a lot to deal with."
"HE'S got a lot to deal with?" Matthew asked incredulously. "He hasn't been on OUR side of things."
"Our side of things?" Rolf asked, stacking plates.
"Dealing with his sour puss," Matthew said expressively.
"He's still tired and he's been badly frightened, let him settle down." Rolf said peaceably, slotting the plates into the cupboard. "Are you done?"
"If he's going to wash his OWN plate. I only had three."
Rolf went out on to the porch and retrieved it, handing it over. "There. Are you going to shower, or just go straight down to swim?"
"No point in showering before swimming," Matthew replied. "Can I go get started or do I have to wait for his majesty?"
Rolf gave him a warning look. "With that attitude, you'll be spending most of your day sitting on the dock. Is that what you want?"
Matthew scowled and ducked away from the glare. "No. I'm going to get my towel and head on down," he said as he headed out of the kitchen.
"Don't go in the water until I get there." Rolf called after him.
Matthew grabbed his towel and headed outside. The day promised to be a warm one and the walk down only confirmed it. He threw his towel on the dock before bending over to splash some water on his face. Looking back up the hill he wondered how long it was going to take Val to prep before he came down to the water.
In the cabin, Rolf finished clearing the kitchen, thought for a moment and then shut the back door before he headed upstairs. Val and Luke's door was firmly shut and he tapped on it.
"What?" Val asked, stretched out across the bed.
Rolf opened the door. The sprawl across the bed was artfully posed, even with Val in a temper. Rolf gave him a straight look, jerking his head at the door.
"Time to go. Matthew's waiting."
"I'll just stay here," Val replied as he turned to look at Rolf.
"No." Rolf said simply. "Get a towel and anything else you want. Quickly."
Sitting up slowly, Val replied "it's safer here."
"You're quite safe." Rolf picked up the towel from the towel rail and the book on the bedside table. "Is this yours? Come on. Don't look so worried."
"I need to get changed then," Val said as he stood gracefully to his feet. "I'll be down in a minute."
That was easier than Rolf had expected. He gave Val a nod, but didn't move from the doorway, leaning against the doorpost to look at the back of the paperback. It was one of the several kicking around the cabin that they'd brought with them over the years. From the look of it, Joe or Todd were most likely to be the original owner, it was a biography of a writer whose name Rolf only knew vaguely.
Val turned and went over to the towel rack that was holding his borrowed suit. He returned to the bed, surprised to still see Rolf there. He looked pointedly at Rolf, waiting for him to move. Rolf looked just as blandly back, then returned his gaze to the book.
"Come on, Matthew's waiting."
"I need to use the restroom first," Val said haughtily, snatching the suit from the bed before stalking past Rolf on the way to the bathroom.
Rolf didn't move or look up from the book, apparently uninterested in Val's movements and giving the distinct impression of Waiting.
Val changed in the bathroom, making sure his hair was combed just so before heading back down the hall. He had to step around Rolf again to toss his clothes on the bed, then again to head down the stairs. He found the pair of sandals he'd used the day before and walked out the front door. It genuinely felt weird to be stepping outside without Luke hovering, having checked out every available hiding place for scary people. Val couldn't help but scan the area quickly himself.
Rolf locked the door behind them, not missing the anxious glance around, and kept pace with him on the steep path down towards the lake.
"Are you planning to swim? Matthew's got the bottle of sun lotion with him, you're about as fair skinned as he is. If you're going in the water you'll need to put plenty on, it's brighter out here than it feels."
"I tan well," was all the reply Val gave.
"Finally," Matthew muttered, diving into the water the second he could see a body on the path. He struck out in broad strokes over to the small pile of rocks closer to shore than the island, which was going to be his next stop.
Rolf took a seat on the dock, watching Val stand and look around the lake. No one else was in sight and Luke was right: no one was going to approach without being seen several minutes walk away.
Val sat carefully down on the edge of the dock, soaking in the warm sunshine. It felt like weeks they'd been running, hiding from everyone it seemed. It was very strange to be sitting there as if nothing had happened, and nothing could happen in the future. He knew very well that the guy hadn't been caught yet. It was just hard to believe that Luke wasn't .... here.
Val looked over at Matthew, who was poking in amongst the pile of rocks. When Matthew happened to look his way, Val quickly turned his attention elsewhere, as if swimming was beneath him.
"Put some of the lotion on." Rolf said calmly from a few feet away, leaning over to hand him the bottle. "Don't forget the back of your neck. You know the shop at the front sells books if you're short on things to read?"
"I'm fine, thanks," Val replied, slowly pouring out some of the lotion into his hand. It wouldn't do to get burned, even if there were no photographers around to snap pictures of him. He slowly rubbed the lotion over his body.
Rolf left his own book lying where it was and absently watched Matthew swimming, well aware of Matthew avoiding looking at the dock as much as Val was avoiding looking out over the water.
"Do you read much on tour?" he said casually, watching the progress of the lotion.
"No. There's always something to do or sign or someone to talk to."
"What do you do with your evenings?" Rolf accepted the capped bottle back and put it on Matthew's towel, deliberately keeping his tone light. The more Val could be persuaded to talk, the less brooding he was likely to do.
"If there isn't a show, there's usually an interview or two if we're at a venue," Val replied, standing to his feet.
"So what do you do to relax?"
"Swim," Val replied, diving off the dock into the clear water. He started off in the direction of the island, intending to do a few laps worth of exercise.
This clearly wasn't going to be straightforward. Rolf watched him swim, aware even now that Val was putting on a performance for him and for anyone else who might conceivably be watching- it might even be subconscious, but he was making very sure each stroke was perfect, the moves graceful, Val clearly felt eyes on him. And was determined they were going to see the full performance, with no holes. Matthew was heading back to him and pulled himself out of the water, streaming and looking far from happy.
"Took you long enough to get him down here."
"How's the water?" Rolf asked, ignoring that.
"Fine. Are you going to swim at all?" Matthew asked as he settled on the edge of the dock after wiping his face dry.
"Yes, in a bit. Enjoying this sun at the moment." Rolf passed him the sun lotion. "Do the honours, I don't want you burnt."
Matthew scowled but took the lotion and slapped some on in his most vulnerable spots.
Rolf took the bottle back from him and a lot more gently applied some to the back of his neck and shoulders.
"Be patient with him. Give him an hour or two and he'll settle down."
"Why can't he just be NORMAL ?"
"Because he's scared."
And temperamental, and not at all sure where he stood or who was in control of the situation. Rolf didn't go into that part of it, recapping the sun lotion and giving Matthew a quick and somewhat slippery hug.
"Let him be and he'll realise nothing awful is going to happen to him."
"But it's boring swimming alone," Matthew said, kicking his feet in the water.
That wasn't exactly what he meant. Rolf shouldered out of his t shirt.
"Come and swim with me then. Daniel!" he added more sharply, getting to his feet. "Back towards the island, you don't know the currents out that way."
Val slowed down, then turned back towards the dock. The second lap could be a little farther away. Matthew smiled and jumped back in the water, glad of the company. Rolf dived in after him and surfaced, running water off his face and looking for Val. Reassured, he struck out after Matthew in long, easy strokes that gave Matthew plenty of time to get ahead of him.
Val made it partway back to the dock, then turned again and struck out away from the island, covering the distance at a rapid pace. Rolf, following Matthew, saw his direction and halted, treading water.
Val was swimming hard enough that he couldn't hear the yell.
"Stay here." Rolf called to Matthew and followed Val, quickening his own pace.
Matthew stopped swimming enough to huff indignantly, barely escaping without swallowing a mouthful of water. He wasn't going to be denied the pleasure of witnessing anything and headed off behind Rolf at a quick pace as well.
Rolf swam quickly out towards the deeper and colder stretch of the lake where the currents were much stronger and very few swimmers ventured- certainly none of their friends who knew the lake well.
"DANIEL." he called again, sharply when he was near enough. "Back this way right now."
Val came to a stop, treading water. "I'm getting my exercise laps done. I won't be too much longer," he said, starting again to stroke away from Rolf.
" NOW ." Rolf said in a tone that was unmistakeable.
Matthew stopped for a minute to wait for Val's response.
Val stopped again. "I'm in no danger of drowning and I must get some exercise."
Rolf said nothing, waiting very pointedly and treading water where he was.
"There IS no one around watching, you know," Matthew said loudly across the water.
Rolf looked around in exasperation and found Matthew fifteen feet away, glaring at Val. He looked from Matthew to Val, raising his voice to a bark that Matthew at least should know, not in the least prepared to argue any further.
"Why?" Matthew demanded, slapping the water next to him. "I'm not the one WHO DIDN'T LISTEN."
Val glared at the back of Rolf's head, then turned and dug in with a vengeance, swimming hard back towards the dock. Rolf waited until Val passed him, then turned his glare onto his partner, striking out towards him in swift, powerful strokes. Matthew got that familiar lurch in his stomach, but wasn't prepared to give in yet.
"What did I DO?" he demanded, treading water slowly back away from his oncoming partner.
Rolf covered the distance in about three strokes, catching his arm to halt the retreat.
"YOU know exactly where is safe to swim in this lake and you do NOT need to get in on the act. Dock, right now."
Matthew turned and started stroking for the dock, temper starting a slow burn.
Val's crawl slowed noticeably by the time he got close to the dock. He was a great swimmer and in reasonably good shape, but more used to swimming in heated pools than cooler lake water.
Rolf caught up with him at the foot of the ladder that led up to the side of the dock and gripped the rail. "Up. Move, and sit down on the edge."
Val glared at Rolf in outright disbelief. He stepped up on the ladder, making sure his steps were measured and unhurried.
The dark hair, short as it was, was still being tossed, the hips were still swinging- Rolf resisted the urge to shake his head and instead barked across the water to his distinctly slow moving partner. "Matthew NOW ."
"I didn't DO anything!" Matthew replied, still moving slowly towards the dock and appreciating the protection the water provided him at the moment. "It's Dannyboy you're supposed to be upset with."
Rolf held onto the ladder and waited, half an eye on Mr Quentin who had reached the top and rather than sitting as requested, was standing with his arms folded across a slender chest, hips canted, head tossing- all they were missing was the paparazzi. Who were about to get the picture spread of the decade if they were anywhere around.
Matthew eyed Rolf warily as he got closer, not anxious to climb out of the water. Having no other options, he swam with last few feet quickly and climbed the ladder past Rolf.
Rolf followed him up to the dock, aware of Matthew getting out of his reach with discreet haste. Standing in the sudden heat of the sun, regaining his breath, Rolf fixed him with a glare, ignoring Val.
"What part of 'stay there' did you not understand?"
Val walked a couple steps over and got his towel, drying off his face before he gave Matthew a look of "well, are you going to answer the man?"
"We were supposed to be swimming together!" Matthew replied heatedly, catching sight of Val, looking down his nose at him. He pointed, in case Rolf wouldn't understand, "Dan the Man was the REASON we were there."
Val hooked the towel around his neck and gave Matthew a poisonous look, his own voice containing sufficient acid to melt the dock under them.
"DanIEL, thank you. And I wouldn't swim with you if you were the last wet fish in the entire damn lake."
"DANIEL." Rolf barked, turning from Matthew for a moment.
Matthew picked up the bottle of suntan lotion and squeezed it hard in Val's direction. The lotion made very satisfying white lines across Val's arms, legs and chest, just before the mostly empty bottle hit him in the leg. Val screamed like a stood on cat, losing all his poise. For a few seconds he stood, hands outstretched, gasping with outrage, then threw himself at Matthew, grabbing handfuls of Matthew's hair.
Rolf grabbed Val unceremoniously, wondering if there was anyone in the entire lake area that hadn't heard the screeching. Hoping that Luke wasn't on his way back at a run and thinking his partner was dead or dying, Rolf landed three very firm swats across the still wet backside of Val.
He then stopped Matthew from going in for round two by swatting him just as firmly.
Val caught his breath in mid screech and stared at Rolf in utter shock. He was used to Luke- and used to strategies of noise and drama that worked on every other person than Luke he'd ever met. NO ONE spoke to him in that tone except Luke, and no one else had ever swatted him either. And the big man looked every bit as disapproving as Luke ever could.
Matthew rubbed the handprints burning across his backside as he glared at Val. When he caught Rolf's glare he looked down quickly.
Val took another deep gulp, on the brink of trying his second never-fail strategy and bursting into tears. Rolf forestalled it with a bark that made him jump.
"SIT. The pair of you. NOT a word Matthew, I don't want to hear it."
Matthew dropped down quickly, ears burning. He couldn't help but notice that Val had done the same, though he'd had a shocked look that Matthew hadn't seen before.
Rolf stood where he was, glaring at them both long after both were sitting on the dock, side by side and both of them silent. Then he picked up his book, took it over to the bench, sat down in the shade and took no further notice of either of them.
Matthew didn't risk a glance up for a long time, feeling that glare to the centre of his being. When he finally risked a look, he saw Rolf casually reading and paying them not a bit of attention. He sighed quietly, wondering how long they were going to be stuck sitting.
Val shot him a very uncertain look, matching the few very uncertain ones he'd shot at Rolf. He didn't feel at all inclined to attract Rolf's attention or disapproval any further, but this was outside his experience. He'd been stood in corners, he'd been sent to bed or to a chair before now- but to be sitting here, shoulder to shoulder with the person he'd just been screaming at - this was out of his repertoire and he had absolutely no idea what he was supposed to do.
Matthew barely shrugged, not quite certain how things should go either but knowing he didn't want to risk Rolf getting upset again. He hated to be yelled at, and in front of someone he was trying to impress wasn't his idea of a good impression. Rolf's swats could very easily turn into a spanking and that he definitely didn't want.
"What are we supposed to do?" Val said very quietly, wrapping his arms more tightly around his knees.
"Sit here, I guess," Matthew replied quietly, wincing and waiting for Rolf to yell.
Rolf turned another page, apparently deaf as well as oblivious.
"What does he want?" Val said again, still less certainly.
"I don't KNOW," Matthew replied a little louder, wondering that himself. When nothing was said, Matthew continued quietly. "Why did you have to swim way over there anyway?"
Val looked down at his knees, trying not to flush. Somehow that question, honestly asked, made him feel thoroughly ashamed. "Well you weren't going to talk to me, were you?" he said defensively.
"I didn't think you were interested in hearing anything I had to say," Matthew shot back.
"Why wouldn't I be?" Val snapped, just as shortly. "It wasn't me being vile yesterday afternoon."
"You act like you're performing all the time! Why can't you just be YOU?" Matthew replied, trying not to raise his voice too loud. So far, Rolf hadn't said anything and he was certain they could be heard at some level.
Rolf turned another page, deeply engrossed in whatever he was reading. Val gave him another furious look, his fine boned face stained with red along both cheekbones. His eyes were slightly blood shot too, in a way Matthew recognised. Val Quentin or not, he was close to tears.
"I AM me. This IS me. If you don't like it it's not my fault."
"It's NOT you. Do you shower before Luke sees you in the morning? Do you walk around like you're going to be photographed in your hotel room? Do you?" Matthew demanded.
"You have NO idea what it's like!" Val snapped back. "There ARE people everywhere. Luke's team. Hotel people. They ALL expect to see Val Quentin. Do you KNOW how hard it is to make sure that someone doesn't snap a picture or see something I don't want them to and sell it to a paper? It's headlines the following morning, Val Quentin flossing his teeth. Val Quentin, what a SHAME about his last haircut. I get taken apart, cut to pieces, every damn THING gets criticised, what do you think that's like? I don't just live with Luke, I live with a team of TEN bloody bodyguards, they're around ALL the time." Val's voice had risen and his eyes were visibly wet now. He stopped, took a breath and wiped a hand over his eyes, taking a slightly shuddering breath. "You have NO idea."
Matthew risked another look at Rolf, then gave up worrying about him.
"No, I don't know about that," he said calmly. "I DO know that out here that it doesn't matter. I won't sell your picture to anyone, or tell secrets on you. And Rolf wouldn't either. You don't have to worry about it here. And I could promise you too, if any of my friends came to visit, you wouldn't have to worry about them."
"No?" Val shot back. "They wouldn't be taking the mickey out of me like you do? 'Kitten'. I know about being watched and criticised Matthew, I know ALL about it."
Matthew's face scrunched up in confusion. "Mickey? Taking the mickey out?"
"Taking the piss." Val said impatiently.
"I don't know how the heck this conversation turned to bathroom matters, but I'd call that teasing. wasn't very nice, but I was just teasing," Matthew countered.
Val shot him another hot look, not at all sure.
"You were being a drama queen," Matthew said, shrugging.
"Drop DEAD." Val spat back, turning his head away.
"You were."
Val hunched his shoulders and didn't answer.
Matthew slid forward just enough so that he could kick the water. He was starting to get rather warm in the sun.
"Why do you have to be that nasty anyway?" Val said after a minute. "It's not like I made fun of you."
"I didn't mean to be nasty," Matthew replied sincerely. "It's just...."
Val turned his head back towards Matthew, resting it on his arms.
"I'm sorry," Matthew finally said, unable to figure out what to say.
"Yeah, you said that yesterday." Val said shortly. "Still didn't stop you."
"Look, I didn't mean anything by it," Matthew said defensively against the flush that was rising in his face. He turned around to his partner. "Rooolllfff."
Rolf lifted his head and gave him a flat, unpromising look.
Matthew scowled back, choosing not to complain about being hot. He started to pull his legs up to wrap himself up but decided he was still too hot. He kicked the water again.
"What do you mean you don't mean anything by it?" Val asked in an undertone as Rolf went back to his book. "You just go around randomly taking the mickey out of people?"
"It's called teasing. It just happens," Matthew said shortly.
"Well if your friends are like you I can't wait to meet them." Val said shortly. "It'll be like a bloody press party without having to wait to read the clippings in the morning."
"You don't have to take it personally you know."
"I hate it." Val said flatly. "I hate being here, I hate being scared all the time, and I hate having to be scared of what you're going to see and what you're going to say. I thought you liked me."
Matthew looked up at that, hearing the crack in Val's voice.
"I DO like you. I like YOU, not the prima donna you're trying to show off all the time. You don't HAVE to worry about me and what I might see. Do you think I'm any more excited about you seeing or hearing what you have so far?" Matthew added, giving Val a steady look.
"It's actually kind of - well nice isn't a good way to put it." Val gave him a somewhat awkward shrug. "It's just me and Luke usually, no one else gets this sort of thing, I couldn't even TALK to anyone else about this. It's nice to see it's not just us."
"I know," Matthew replied. "I've got a few friends at least that get it, but the general public doesn't. They half the time don't get gay, much less gay discipline. The only difference between me and you is that you sing."
"And you're not being chased by psychos who want to carve you up." Val added.
"Well, that too," Matthew admitted, sobering.
Val gave him a brief and somewhat watery grin. "One to me."
Matthew shrugged with a return of a brief smile.
"Do-" Val hesitated. "Do you get into fights with the other guys who come here? Chris and whatever he's called? Tim? Tom?"
"Chris, Michael, Todd, even Marc," Matthew admitted. "It happens....sometimes," Matthew said, not wanting to actually say usually that it did. "We're good friends, but we get on each other's nerves sometimes. It never lasts for long," Matthew said, seeing the disbelief in Val's face.
Val watched him, unwillingly fascinated. There were plenty of people around who he knew, who he spent time with, who he liked- but it wasn't the same and he knew it.
"We came up here one time," Matthew said, looking back over the water. "It was all eight of us, which gets pretty loud sometimes. There were four of us playing Trivial Pursuit. Ever play it?"
"I've heard of it." Val said curiously.
"We'll have to play it sometime then," Matthew said, surprised. He looked back over the water, pulling his knees up and resting his arms and head upon them. "Chris was cheating and it pissed me off. I pushed him over on his ass - didn't hurt him at all. At least not physically," Matthew amended. "Anyway, I got it good, right then and there. We were fine the next day."
"You got into it with him?"
"Yes. He's got a short temper. So do I sometimes, I guess. We snap, bite, hug and make up."
Val gave him a half smile, half a look that was processing and trying to imagine. "I slapped the stage manager and this bitchy backing singer once."
"You did?" Matthew asked, looking back at him with a funny look on his face.
Val snorted on a laugh and covered it, risking a quick look at Rolf. "Yes. The singer was REALLY getting on my wick, he spat chewing gum at me. So I slapped him and the stage manager came over to try and calm things down- poor guy, he's really sweet actually, he just got in the way at a bad moment."
Matthew grinned, trying to imagine what someone would do after having been slapped by THE Val Quentin.
"Was Luke there?"
"The stage manager kept paging him over the radio." Val said, grinning. "He turned up but too late. And he DID have a word with the backing singer, we got rid of him after that venue."
"Nice to know he supported your obvious decision."
"My venue, my show, my staff," Val winked at him.
Matthew sat for a short time, not saying anything. He was now beyond bored to tears and getting hotter by the second. Looking over at Val he shook his head towards Rolf.
"You going to ask him this time?"
Val risked another look backwards. "Are you kidding? He terrifies me!"
Matthew sighed. "Yeah, I hear that a lot." He turned again and adopted his most puppy dog expression. "Rooooolllllfffffffffff."
Rolf looked up from his book again with a politely inquiring expression.
"It's hot here. We want to go swimming," Matthew tried, at least not getting the glare this time.
"I'm sure." Rolf agreed, turning another page on his book.
"Pllllleeeeeeeaaaassssssseeeee," Matthew said, trying to keep the whine from his voice as things weren't going quite to his taste.
"We tried swimming." Rolf pointed out. "I could have sold the movie rights to the cat fight that led to."
"We won't fight again," Matthew said, looking at Val. "Right?"
Val's wide and beautiful eyes were innocent and as plaintive as a child on a poster campaign.
Rolf looked from one face to the other, unmoved. "It's too hot to referee, I'd rather read thanks."
"Then can we at LEAST walk over to the shore and along it?" Matthew pushed.
"No." Rolf said simply.
"Rolf!" Matthew said indignantly.
Rolf raised an eyebrow at him.
"Coommeeee oooonnnnnn, please?"
"I heard all the apologies and promises last night. So something didn't work out right then." Rolf shut the book, laid it down and leaned on his knees, looking from Matthew to Val. "So maybe it's better all round if you two just sit here and stay out of trouble."
Matthew turned his back on his partner and kicked the water again in anger, bumping the back of his foot against the dock. He bit down on the curse he wanted to utter and sat, steaming, as the pain subsided.
"I'm sorry for being a pain." Val said softly beside him, to Rolf. "I won't again. Or at least I'll try not to. It was my fault this morning."
"I can't have anyone swimming in that lake who isn't listening and isn't willing to keep to the rules on safety." Rolf pointed out. "I'm responsible for you, and more than that, Matthew and I know this lake and where it's safe to swim."
Val flushed but kept his head up, meeting Rolf's gaze. "I know. I'm sorry. I wasn't listening, I was in a mood- I won't do that again."
"I'm also not having any more cat fights." Rolf said, looking from Val to Matthew. "I'm not interested in who said what to who, we went into all that yesterday and as far as I can see this morning's fight was about very little."
"I didn't mean it!" Matthew said heatedly, then calmed when he saw Rolf's expression. "I won't fight anymore either," he said softer, his face slightly flushed.
"I'm not interested in blame." Rolf said slightly more crisply. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm happy for you two to spend the day in the water and on the beach, or sitting right there in silence. However, it's going to be quietly and amicably, without making life unpleasant for everyone else around you. It's entirely up to you which it is."
"We can be quiet and amicable," Matthew said, looking at Val for confirmation.
"We can." Val said at once. "I promise I won't make any more scenes."
Rolf looked at them both, in no hurry to make a decision.
"Pllleeeeeaaaasssssssseeeeeeee," Matthew implored, with all the sincerity he could muster.
Rolf gave him another long look, then finally nodded. "All right. Beach only, neither of you go any deeper than up to your waists. And one cross word and you can spend the rest of the day sitting right there. I really won't mind."
"Thank you!" Matthew said, scrambling quickly to his feet and holding out a hand to help Val up. They both quickly escaped the end of the dock and headed directly for shore.
Rolf watched them for a while, the two of them walking together, clearly talking. They were close enough on the beach that he'd hear the first raised voice. Then he picked up his book once more. A quarter of an hour later Luke came down the path onto the dock and took a seat beside him.
"Hey. How's it going?"
"Fine." Rolf said peaceably, laying the book aside. "No problems."
Dearest Val
This is the third time now that you've stood me up on a date, and I really am beginning to lose a little patience with you. A certain amount of temperament is understandable in a beautiful star such as yourself, but Val, is this any way to behave towards me? I would hate to have to start curtailing your activities more seriously, but if you don't take care I may have to get your attention a little more firmly than I have done so far, and it won't just be the costumes that take the brunt of my feelings.
I've tried very hard to work with you and your personnel. Maybe you need to talk with them and it's only a small matter of miscommunication. On your last photo shoot, I was denied entrance even after showing my credentials to your staff. I had my camera all ready, and was prepared to sweep you off early to a dinner of your choosing. I just don't understand why you didn’t make arrangements in advance so I was spared the scene that followed and was refused entrance. These are very mixed messages Val, and not ones that please me at all. Fond as I am, and tolerant as I'm prepared to be, you may find that I am not the best person to tease in this way. I will expect to see you at the hotel bar of the Grand in Kensington on Thursday at 7pm , suitably penitent and with a sincere apology, and if it's good enough we will say no more about this. You forget just who you belong to.
With love, always, and with clear warning Val. Do not disappoint me again.
"There's no signature." Diane said, handing it over. Kate read it through, wincing.
"We get some crazies, but this one....... have the police seen it?"
"This is our copy of the letter. I have the original with the envelope in a bag for the police. They'll send someone over today to pick it up," Diane said as she took the letter back from Kate.
"This is awful." Kate said softly. Beside the door of the reception office a large poster of Val smiled down, bright and sunny blue eyes- he looked young, happy and oblivious to anything ugly in the world. From Diane's drawn face the last few days, Kate doubted very much that it was true.
"Have you heard anything?" she asked somewhat tentatively. Strictly speaking they knew- Luke had taken Val into hiding. Somewhere so secret that it wasn't clear anyone knew at all.
"No, nothing yet," Diane confirmed. "Luke will be taking very good care of him, wherever they are."
Kate gave her a sympathetic smile and turned her chair back around to the desk. Diane went into her own office, closing the door. She and Kate owned these two offices alone and discreet in a large multi business building, so they were picking up none of the media hassle that was besieging the Orion offices. A pile of todays papers sat on her desk, and Diane was prepared for the fact that most of the tabloids were filled with photo spreads, wild speculation and pictures of police. Orion and the police were struggling for a restraining order, since the stalker was bound to be loving the attention.
Val and Matthew were supposed to be upstairs resting, as they'd been busy all morning and half the afternoon getting on each other's nerves, as well as those of Rolf and Luke. Lying down and sleeping wasn't something either of them were currently interested in, so Val was in Matthew's room on the bed, taking turns playing Hearts on the computer.
"This is getting boring," Matthew said, flopping onto his back on the bed.
Val turned off the game, idly checking through the rest of the laptop menu.
"Do you have an email connection here?"
"It's a slow as Christmas dial up," Matthew muttered. "I've been trying to get Rolf to install a cable modem, or SOMETHING else, but he won't. The plug is over there," Matthew pointed at the small desk in the room. "Just be careful, you don't want to interrupt anyone's phone conversation downstairs."
"Go check for me?" Val wheedled, getting up. "And keep an eye on the stairs? I only want two minutes."
Matthew got grudgingly to his feet and opened the door carefully. He listened for several moments to see if he could hear anyone. Val plugged in the computer and hit dialup.
"I just hope I can get into my account."
"You should be okay on this end," Matthew said quietly. "They must be out on the porch or something.
"Well don't mention it then." Val said, typing rapidly to get into his account. "I'm not- strictly- supposed to do this."
Matthew pushed the door mostly shut but stood there in case someone came in downstairs. "What do you mean? You're not allowed online?"
"Not supposed to phone, use the internet, anything- you know what Luke's like. As if anyone knows where a hotmail email comes from!"
"That would suck! I'm sure you have friends and stuff that would like to talk with you. Any messages?"
"Nothing!" Val glared at the box. "That's odd, even my stored stuff is gone! I bet the bloody police have been through EVERYTHING- I only want to mail Diane, I'm not THAT stupid to talk to anyone else, but Diane's ok."
"I don't see a problem with that," Matthew said. "Just hurry, I'd rather not have Luke up here removing your head for you in my bedroom."
"NO kidding." Val typed rapidly. "All I want to do is say hi, and get her to send a message to my parents, AND a phone out here."
"Hurry," Matthew said, getting increasingly nervous.
"What's the phone number here?"
"555-678-3352," Matthew replied quickly.
Val typed it in, hit send and broke the connection. "There, no panics. With luck she'll get that - what time is it over there?"
"You're asking me - turn it off, someone just came in!" Matthew finished in a hiss, shutting the door carefully behind him. "Just lay down on the bed, they never did say we had to be in separate rooms," Matthew said as he quickly and quietly climbed onto the bed.
Val lay down beside him, stifling a smile. "Luke's not THAT bad, relax."
"That, I don't want to test," Matthew replied, relaxing.
Val grinned at him and settled back, folding his arms behind his head, as Luke came up to check on them and call them down for tea.
Diane, checking her mail as she arrived at work the following morning, saw the mail in her box and dropped into her chair, reading it almost too fast to take in.
Kate arrived thirty minutes later, shrugging off her raincoat before going in to say hi to Diane. "Good morning, coffee?" she asked as she entered Diane's office.
"Yes......." Diane put the phone down and gave her a slightly shaken smile.
"What's the news?" Kate stopped in the doorway, knowing something was up.
"I heard from Val this morning. They're ok, he's with Luke, safe- I'm still a bit shaken having had news!"
Kate broke into a smile as well. Even feeling certain that Luke was taking good care of Val, it was nice to have heard from him anyway.
"That's great! Any news on the maniac yet?" Kate asked as she headed over to the table in her office that held the coffee pot.
"Only from the police, it was another handwriting match, could well be the guy they're after. They want to bring in Jefferson again for questioning, the guy that was arrested in Birmingham in February." Diane sat back in her chair where she could see through the doorway. "There's a few things Val has asked me to do, I need to head over to London in about an hour. Can I leave the accounts to you to print out and mail over to Orion? They do need to go tonight if you can."
"Sure, that'll be no problem," Kate said as she finished the preparations for coffee. "We just need to get them this month's information, correct?"
"Yes, the programme's all set." Diane took her coffee with a grateful sigh. "Thank God. I feel so much better just knowing! Not a word to Orion or anyone else though, lips sealed. I'm surprised Luke let him mail us."
"He knows what he's doing. At least he always exudes that in my opinion," Kate said with a halfway dreamy smile. The black t-shirts and the muscles rippling underneath never failed to send her heart rate up. Kate returned a moment later with her cup of coffee and a pad of paper to begin discussing the day's work. "Are we cancelling Yorkshire today?" she asked, consulting her schedule.
"We just keep cancelling everything and playing dumb." Diane glanced at her watch. "There's the papers to go through, I'll do that now- the mail Orion forwarded needs sorting, the secretaries checking on and new work allocating for them, the finance reviews, and for the moment that's it. Val isn't generating much work himself."
"I hope it's not too long before he's back, even with the increased workload," Kate said, scribbling fast. "I'll start on the finance reviews, get that nasty chore out of the way." Kate headed back to her desk to begin the workday.
Diane finished her coffee, read the email once more and then reluctantly deleted it before she pulled her coat on. "Have a good afternoon." she called to Kate as she left. " DON 'T forget the accounts."
"I'll get it taken care of," Kate promised, finance paperwork spread completely across her desk. She worked hard, breaking for a quick sandwich around one in the afternoon. She finished up the finance paperwork around four and quickly sorted through some work for the secretaries. Checking her watch, she was surprised to see it was already ten after five. Knowing she only had a short time before Mick picked her up for dinner, she began to hurry. He didn't like to be late and she wasn't in the mood for an argument before dinner. She quickly shut the office down and locked the door behind her, hurrying home.
Mick was on the doorstep at the dot of seven, square shouldered, dark, and wearing a jacket that had been crisp and in fashion a few years ago. Kate accepted his kiss, walking around the car to get into the passenger seat.
"Hi, how did your day go?"
"Not bad." Mick gave her a look as he started the car. "You forgot to call me at lunchtime."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Kate replied, colouring slightly. "Diane had to run some errands for Val and it was a busy afternoon. Oh, I haven't had a chance to tell you, but we heard from him today," Kate gushed, hoping that distracted Mick from pursuing the missed phone call. He could get really particular about things like that.
"You heard from him?" Mick spared her a glance from the busy afternoon traffic. "He phoned?"
"No, not phoned. I think Diane said it was an email, just letting us know he was safe."
"Did he say where he was?" Mick asked curiously. "They've been gone a while now. I'm surprised no one doubts this bodyguard of his- if Val hasn't fired him. There can't be total surety that the bodyguard isn't the stalker."
"Oh, no- Luke could be trusted, no one doubts that," Kate said at once. "That's why, I think, that Luke took him away from the rest of the team. He wasn't sure who to trust, so they went off together. And no, I don't think he said where he was. I don't know, I didn't see the email myself. Drats," she added involuntarily.
"What?" Mick gave her a sharp look. "If you've forgotten your coat or your purse again-"
"No, no, nothing like that," Kate quickly said. She'd forgotten to send the accounts to Orion as Diane had asked and she wasn't sure she wanted to say anything about that to Mick. He never did like to deviate from his schedule.
"What then?" Mick raised an eyebrow at her.
"I....I need to send a quick email from work. Some accounts that Orion needs. It was just so busy with Diane gone that I forgot," Kate said, wincing inside as she waited for his reaction.
It was casual and matter of fact as he moved into the lane that led off the ring road towards the office. "Well that's no problem. It's not far from the restaurant."
Kate relaxed visibly, but didn't say anything. She hoped whatever had put him in such a good mood was going to last the rest of the evening. As she unbuckled her belt, she said "I'll just be a minute, promise."
"I'll come up with you." Mick said, getting out of the car. "Don't like you walking around these buildings this time of night."
The building was deserted and Kate had to use her key to access sections of it. In Diane's office she set up the computer and quickly found what she wanted.
Mick watched as Kate accessed Diane's mail program and attached the requested files to her short note and pressed send, then leaned over and pulled Kate's face toward his for a quick inspection.
"Why don't you head to the bathroom and touch up your face? You look smudged. I'll shut down in here and lock the door.”
Still relieved that he was taking this change in routine so well, and embarrassed that he’d found fault with her, Kate went without question. Mick waited until the door shut, then sat down at the computer desk and began quickly to check the email file.
Kate was on her way back to the office when Mick closed and locked the door.
"Get everything shut down?"
"Yes it's all fine." Mick followed her down the stairs, pausing at the bottom with a grunt of discomfort, putting a hand to his forehead. "My head is really starting to thump - do you think you'd mind if I took you straight home?"
"No, no of course not," Kate replied, a little hurt but afraid to show it. "I could fix something at home?" she asked as they walked out to his car.
"No- I just pretty much want to lie down. I'm sorry. It's been coming on all day and it's getting bad."
"It's okay," Kate said quickly. The ride back to her house was quiet. "I hope you feel better," she said as she stepped out of the car.
"Thanks." Mick gave her a tight smile. "I'll go home, take some pills and head to bed. Have a good evening."
Matthew slid out of bed, leaving Rolf quietly sleeping. Usually it was the other way around at home, but something about being at the cabin got Matthew up early and Rolf to sleep a little later. He pulled on a pair of sweat pants and his hooded jacket, intending to head outside to listen to the rest of the world wake up. He took care on the third step from the bottom, the one that creaked the loudest. He found the front door unlocked and went out onto the porch, wondering who was already up. Val was sitting on the railing, looking anything but starlike.
"Couldn't sleep?" Matthew asked as he settled into a chair.
"I woke up when Luke did." Val gave him a smile, twisting on the rail to see him. "He's jogging. You're up early."
"I like the morning time here. Sometimes during the busy season you can hear people from a long way away getting their boats ready to go fishing."
"It's beautifully peaceful." Val gazed around the woods that hedged the valley bowl around the lake. "In fact, it's just beautiful. Is Rolf awake?"
"Not yet. Want to go for a walk?" Matthew asked, standing up as he was getting chilled sitting still. "It's really nice this time of morning."
Val hesitated. "Luke didn't even know I was downstairs...." he began slowly, aware that in England, in their usual round of hotels, he wouldn't have thought twice
"There's no one around here, really. We won't be gone long. Please?" Matthew asked, eager to show off his favourite places along the way to someone that hadn't seen them before.
It was quiet. And there ways no one in sight, they'd seen no one all of yesterday. Their evening had been a long, peaceful one on the porch, sitting talking, grilling, with not another soul in sight..... Val slid down off the rail. "Ok. But not far."
"Want a jacket or are you good to go?" Matthew asked as he hopped down the steps.
"I'm fine, it’s hot already." Val headed with him on the path up towards the woods. "Where are we going?"
"Just around this way a bit. There's a path that goes around to other cabins, but that's a long way off. We'll go partway and head back," Matthew said as he headed out near the road where the path started.
"How far up does it go?" Val kept pace with him. "It goes out around the lake doesn't it?"
"I think there's a path that goes around a good part of the lake. Too big to be able to follow the whole thing, that's for sure. You'd never get bored on this water."
"It really is so beautiful." Val stretched his arms above his head, making his slender shoulders crack, then turned to walk backwards to admire the view. "And very different to English landscapes- we have a cottage in the Chilterns, which is beautiful- a lovely part of England- but it's totally different to this."
"How different? I thought trees were trees and grass was grass?" Matthew said as they walked in under the tree canopy where it became noticeably cooler.
"Something in the colours?" Val said thoughtfully, looking at the trees lining the lake. "There's a lot of red in the soil here- a lot of STRONG reds and greens, where at home the strongest colours are golds and browns. It's hard to explain. You'll have to come and stay with us at the cottage and see yourself."
"That would be nice. Lake nearby there too?"
"Rivers." Val said, smiling. "The cottage is out in the middle of nowhere, farmland. There's several rivers in the district, one at the bottom of the hill near us."
"What do you do there?" Matthew asked sceptically. A cottage in the middle of a field didn't sound like much fun.
"Nothing." Val gave him a more mischievous smile. "That's the whole point. We don't have a tv there, no computer, it's wonderful. We walk and sit in the garden and Luke's forever working on DIY, he's great at furniture restoration if he thinks no one's looking."
"Okaaaaay," Matthew said, smiling back. If that's what they enjoyed. Something behind him made him glance back for a moment. "Stop a minute.” He called to Val. 
“What?” Val called back.
“Ssshhhh!" Matthew said, straining to hear once Val got the message and quit moving his feet.
"What?" Val looked around. "Luke?"
"SSSHHHHHH," Matthew hissed, waving his hand. He was looking down the path in the direction they were moving.
Val rolled his eyes and shut up. Luke moved pretty much silently even if he was running: if it was him he'd appear without warning and without ceremony.
Matthew stood where he was for a few minutes, trying to see what had made the noise. When it stayed silent, he turned to Val.
"Sorry. I thought it might be an animal. Let's continue?"
They both froze at the heavy, crunching footsteps in the bracken. Val gripped for Matthew's arm, pulling him back off the path, his voice high and soft.
"Where?" Matthew hissed back, panic stricken. The footsteps were getting closer. Val yanked him into the bracken and down to the ground, both of them lying flat to let the green fronds close above them, concealing them from view. The boots that came into view on the path were huge, dark and stained.
Matthew's hand dug hard into Val's arm as he tried hard not to make a sound. All the horror movies that Marc subjected him to were crashing back in wave after wave. He was certain the guy had an axe and within a few minutes there would only be pieces left of them both. Val was motionless for a minute, watching the feet stand on the path, the heavy breathing of a smoker, then steps moving away from them. Val yanked on Matthew's hand, dragged him deeper into the undergrowth, then he was up and running down the hill towards the cabin, voice at full echoing blast.
Rolf threw open the door of the cabin, landing at the bottom of the steps in one leap. He sprinted towards the trail, looking beyond the two young men, trying to see the cause of their distress. He thought he saw Luke sprinting down from the road, but lost sight of him as the boys barrelled down the path towards him.
"In the cabin, go GO," Rolf shouted, watching behind them for a moment before he was assured that no one was actually following them. He debated running back down the path but decided staying with the two boys as the last line of defence was a better option. Matthew grabbed him, out of breath and eyes nearly circular.
"There was someone up there! Someone followed us!
"Move." Rolf pushed him after Val, chasing them both down towards the cabin. Val stumbled up onto the porch steps, white and amazingly unhysterical considering the situation. Rolf steered Matthew through the door, caught Val's arm and pulled him in, closing the kitchen door behind them before he moved to the window.
"Matthew, lock the front door."
Matthew moved quickly into the living room and snapped the lock shut before heading straight back into the kitchen. He was still shaking with the rush of adrenaline.
Rolf had one arm around Val and held the other out to him, his eyes still on the window.
"What happened? Did you see his face?"
"We just heard someone moving around," Val replied. "Ducked into the bushes. I saw boots, but that was it."
Matthew took quick refuge under Rolf's arm. Rolf hugged him, watching the hillside. Luke appeared on the path, a man in front of him with both hands apparently tied behind him, stumbling on the rough ground. Rolf gave Matthew and Val both another squeeze and let go, opening the back door.
"Stay here, keep the door SHUT."
Matthew quickly went to the window to see. "It's Luke! He's got someone!"
Val folded his arms tightly, watching his lover, brows together in a deep frown, pushing the man ahead of him down the hill. Outside Rolf quickened his stride.
"Are you all right? Do you want me to call- Mr Winters?"
"You know him?" Luke asked, stopping on the path and making sure his prisoner stopped as well.
"Yes- it's Mr Winters, he works at the main office down at the lake reception." Rolf paused, heart still thundering, not at all sure what to do next- whether to start offering apologies or to call the police.
"He's worked here long?" Luke asked, not yet letting go.
"For at least five," Rolf started to say.
"Twelve years next June," Mr. Winters added without anger.
Luke snapped the handcuffs off and turned the man to face him, still not sounding any more expressive.
"I’ll need to see some identification please Mr Winters."
Mr Winters took a moment to rub his wrists before he said "It's in my back pocket. I'm reaching for it now." He carefully pulled it out and flipped open his wallet to show his employee badge for the lake area.
Luke accepted it and checked it over. "And your business up there this morning?"
"I take a different general area each day to walk. Check to make sure there are no vagrants trying to stay in and around abandoned cabins during the off season."
"You can vouch for that?" Luke asked Rolf.
"Yes, yes, of course," Rolf said, looking apologetically at Mr. Winters.
"Then I'm sorry." Luke said matter of factly. "This is a security operation, I have to be sure."
Rolf looked as if he wanted to say more, but didn't know what to say. Mr. Winters made it easy on them both. "I'll expect the rest of this story next season," he said, shaking Rolf's hand. He gave a nod to Luke and strode off down the path.
Luke didn't take his eyes off him for a moment, then gave Rolf a long, hard look.
"Can you be absolutely, one hundred percent sure this was just a mistake?"
Rolf thought for a moment. "No, not one hundred percent. But he's been here every summer I've been here. I've never seen pictures in his office of Daniel, nor do I think he's taken enough time off to stalk him in England. Ninety nine percent sure, but not one hundred."
Luke nodded slowly, pocketing the handcuffs out of sight. Then took a deep, slow breath. "Thank you. I'll make a better apology to him, I don't want to cause you any trouble."
"Thanks," Rolf said, also taking a breath now that the danger had passed. He looked up when the door slammed shut behind Matthew and Val, both of whom were headed in their direction.
"Do you have a paddle or a hairbrush in the house that I might borrow?" Luke said grimly, watching them approach.
"I do," Rolf said just as grimly.
"Then I'd appreciate the loan. Mr Quentin and I need to discuss early morning walks."
Matthew slowed his approach noticeably, feeling the radiating 'You're in Trouble' coming off of both men. He asked tentatively, "It's safe now, right? That was just Mr. Winters?"
"It was just Mr Winters." Rolf confirmed. Luke said nothing at all, other than to put both hands to Val's head, threading his fingers through Val's hair and brushing it back off his face. Val's head barely reached his shoulder.
"We didn't have time to stop and look," Val said very softly, "We just heard him coming and I grabbed Matthew and ran."
"You were very lucky," Luke said, taking in both young men.
"It was just a false alarm." Matthew said, looking to Val for help. Val tossed his hair back, easing out of Luke's hands and regaining some of his usual tone.
"Better to over react than under react. How was your run?"
"I thought," Luke said clearly, looking from Val to Matthew, "I made it very clear to you both, that Daniel did NOT leave the cabin or go out of my sight without my say so?"
Matthew swallowed hard, looking to Val for support. He was used to the early morning walks and hadn't given a second thought to Val being any different. The danger wasn't tangible here, in 'their' woods.
"It was just going to be a short walk," Val said valiantly, trying to fight the rising tension.
"Did I or did I not make that clear?" Luke asked, as if Val hadn't spoken.
"I'm sorry," Matthew said nervously. "I didn't think there would be anything to worry about."
"Daniel knows well that he doesn't go anywhere without my knowing and approving." Luke said bluntly, giving him a steady look that reminded Matthew that Luke, while not as tall as Rolf, was a big man. Hair dishevelled, his black t shirt marked with sweat and tucked into the waistband of black sweats over a washboard hard stomach and a LARGE chest- he was more than slightly intimidating. And he could look horribly grim.
"I did think I made it clear to you too that he did NOT go out of my sight. Do you remember that Matthew?"
Matthew was all of a sudden finding the dirt and grass very interesting. He nodded quickly before dropping his eyes straight down.
"Matthew." Rolf said shortly.
"Yes, sir, I remember," Matthew replied softly, still watching his feet drawing lines in the dirt.
"I also told you I was as responsible for your safety as Daniel's while we were together," Luke went on, his hands still resting on Val's shoulders. Val opened his mouth and Luke gave him a steady look. "Quiet. Partly I'm responsible for your safety too because I brought Daniel here to join you, and partly I can't let you jeopardise his safety. I NEED to know where everyone is, which is why I asked that if you left the cabin you let me know. Do you remember that?"
"Yes, sir," Matthew replied, swallowing on a very dry throat. This had gotten serious quickly. He risked a quick look up.
Luke was still looking at him.
"I also made it clear to everyone that we needed to stay together. No wandering off. If you wanted to go somewhere you needed to tell me and we'd arrange it. Do you remember that?"
"Yes, sir." Matthew pulled nervously at the collar on his shirt, the rising sun all of a sudden feeling like a million degrees.
"And all of this is perfectly well known to you, it's something you know and work with every day." Luke said to Val. "So I'd like to know from you two why you left the cabin this morning without a word to either of us or without any clue as to where you were going?"
Matthew managed to take a deep breath to try and calm his twitching stomach, hoping that Val could handle the questions for now.
"There hasn't been any danger here," Val replied, trying to hold his partner's firm look.
"I'll discuss that with you shortly Daniel," Luke said matter of factly. "I asked why you two flat out disobeyed Rolf and myself."
Matthew took a step backwards and reached for his partner's hand, wanting to stand next to him.
Val swallowed hard, willing his stomach to stay where it should, rather than filling up the back of his throat. He started to speak, coughed, then started again. It was still a very unsettling experience getting dressed down in front of someone else.
"It was just going to be a short walk. We didn't think there'd be any danger or any problems. No one knows me here, or knows I AM here," Val said, trying not to let his voice shake, nor sound as defeated as he felt.
"No, I asked why you disobeyed me Daniel." Luke repeated. His tone was still quiet, but it had a grimness Val knew well.
That was it. "I didn't MEAN too," Val replied, the sobbing starting against his will. He was mortified to be in tears in front of anyone but powerless to stop it.
"You just walked out of the door by accident?" Luke said relentlessly.
"Noooooooooo," he replied, hands now busy with his pockets and shirt. "I just wanted a walk, it wasn't supposed to be a big deeeeeaaallllllll."
Luke looked up at Matthew for his version, waiting, grey eyes steady and bluntly inquiring.
Matthew was far more used to answering to others in charge than Val was, but that only made his stomach quiver more. He was trying to hold onto his dignity, since Luke hadn't really seen him upset.
"That's all. A short, safe walk and we'd be back without a problem," he mumbled, eyes down.
Luke didn't answer, just looked at him, waiting.
Matthew's face flushed. "I'm sorry."
Luke tapped Val's shoulders under his hands. "I'd like a word with you please Daniel. Let's go inside."
Val sniffled a few times, trudging slowly along behind him.
"In the kitchen, next to the fridge," Rolf called out to Luke, while Matthew blanched, knowing what he was talking about.
"Thank you." Luke said without turning. He strode up the steps into the cabin, holding the door for Val and closing it quietly behind them.
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2010

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