Authors: Rolf and Ranger
Matthew swallowed, watching the door shut on the big bodyguard and a rather subdued Val. Rolf put a hand on his shoulder, not about to add to the very effective chewing out that Luke had just administered but most certainly about to reinforce that lecture very clearly.
"Where?" Matthew said with an effort, trying to sound innocent.
"To the clearing. March."
Matthew started towards the clearing with heavy feet. As anxious as he was not to be anywhere around when the paddle was in use, he had a seriously sinking feeling that they weren't going to the clearing just to give Val and Luke privacy. He said nothing on the short walk up the hill, and neither did Rolf, which was not good. His palms were wet and his stomach was churning when they reached the leaf scattered grass clearing in the woods. Near to the lake, he and Rolf had come up here several times to be alone when their friends were staying in the cabin with them. This time didn't look like being nearly so much fun.
The clearing was blocked on three sides, making a kind of room. One side was pine trees, their needles abundant on the ground. One side appeared to have a rock wall, but was only a natural ridge of rock sticking up about knee height. The third wall was a downed tree, now well worn where they'd sat on many a day when the heat was too much and the water uninviting. The sun shown through the patches in the trees overhead.
Matthew came to an uncertain halt, resisting the urge to rub his palms down his shorts. Fifteen minutes ago it had seemed such a beautiful morning. Now, he looked rather anxiously at his partner, who, paying him no attention, went across to the nearest tree and searched the branches for a moment. His stomach promptly tied itself into a knot when Rolf reached into his pocket for a knife, confirming what he wasn't daring to believe. A moment later Rolf had in his hand what had once been a beautiful piece of nature, but was now a dreaded piece of life.
"Roooooooooooooolf," he tried less plaintively than downright pleadingly, but Rolf shook his head, giving him a brief and piercingly blue eyed look before he went back to stripping off the leaves.
"I don't want to hear it Matthew. Luke was VERY clear about what he wanted from us and what you two could and certainly could not do."
"But it was just a walk," Matthew couldn't help but add, his eyes never straying from the work Rolf was doing.
"He was clear, and I was just as clear. You obey him in matters of security. That was most definitely a matter of security. Over to the tree please, and bare."
That was about the least palatable suggestion of the morning. Matthew swallowed and stalled for time, hovering where he was.
"It's been so quiet - and there's no one around - and it was just Mr Winters, there wasn't any harm done-"
"You do not want me to help you, and I won't ask again," Rolf said firmly, giving Matthew a long look before folding his knife and pocketing it.
This couldn't get any worse. Stomach churning to the point of seriously considering throwing up, Matthew took a few very slow steps towards the heavier of the trees lining the clearing. He had very little difficulty in working out which one his partner meant: he was every bit as sensitive as Rolf to the spanking potential of the surrounding environment, and one of the trees had low, broad branches. Standing there, knees unsteady, Matthew very unwillingly began to unfasten his belt, looking back apprehensively to Rolf.
Rolf had every sympathy with Matthew, but that wasn't going to change his mind at all. If he could get the very serious message across in one go, and not have to then worry about Matthew's safety, he was willing to do it.
"Let's get this over with," Rolf prompted at Matthew's look, taking his time to make sure the switch was smooth and safe to use.
Switches were not something Matthew had very much experience of. Tears already pricking he managed to unbutton his jeans and then summon up the nerve to slide them down to his knees, edging forward to lean against the lower branch of the tree.
"Shorts too, please," Rolf said, walking over to where Matthew stood.
That was the last hope. Somehow, Matthew got a hand back and slid his shorts down at the back, no more than he absolutely had to.
Rolf didn't argue, but pulled the shorts down clear of his target. "Spread your legs a little, and stay in position," Rolf demanded. Rolf didn't torture Matthew with any more lecture, just brought the switch down with a loud swoosh, catching Matthew fully across his bare bottom.
It stung like fire. Matthew jumped and hissed, clutching to the branch to stop himself reflexively jerking upright and clutching his backside. Rolf meant business, the lick was hard and it hurt. Rolf continued bringing the switch down on his target, turning the once white skin into a mass of angry, red welts. It was about four strokes in that Matthew started to squirm, and two more before the tears started to flow and he stood up, grasping his bottom with both hands in an attempt to squeeze out the smart. It was even worse than Rolf's belt.
"We're not done yet," Rolf said sharply, wanting this over almost as much as Matthew did.
Matthew gave him an appealing look through his tears, rubbing hard. Rolf wanted Matthew safe far more than he wanted to give in at the moment.
"Now," he said firmly, levelling his gaze and fixing Matthew with a very firm look.
It wasn't easy to move. Matthew hesitated a moment more, sparing one hand briefly from the blazing stripes to wipe his eyes which were streaming.
"I promise it won't happen again, at all, I'm sorry-"
"Thank you," Rolf managed, fighting his natural urge to hurry things along. "Bend over."
He clearly wasn't about to give way. Matthew stifled a sob and somehow bent over the branch once more, hanging onto it with both hands.
Relaxing only slightly that Matthew was in position again, Rolf raised the switch and continued, finally putting his hand on Matthew's back to keep him somewhat in position as he was in danger of falling off the tips of his toes. He laid the final six swats on the very underside of Matthew's curves. Matthew was sobbing wildly by the time he finished, tears streaming.
Rolf tossed the switch on the ground, pulling Matthew up the arm and wrapping him into a big hug. Matthew's face was hot and wet against his chest but Rolf paid no attention. Just kept up a soothing mantra, waiting for Matthew to be able to contain himself. It took some time, not least before Matthew was able to take his hands from his backside which was smarting more fiercely than he was able to cope with. He had absolutely no desire ever for a repeat of that performance.
"Matthew. Slow, deep breaths. Come on," Rolf kept saying. Matthew was breathing in sharp, short gasps in between sobs and Rolf was afraid he would pass out. He bent over and pulled Matthew's clothes back into place, leaving the belt unbuckled. Leaning against the trunk of the downed tree, he pulled Matthew against him, rubbing his back and continuing to calm down his partner.
Matthew did what he could to follow the instructions and managed with effort to quieten down, breathing more quietly although he still sobbed, as much with the knowledge of the severity of the offence - and the danger - as with the effects of the switching. It was some time before he settled down to sniffling and buried himself as tightly in Rolf's arms as he could get.
Rolf gave Matthew as much time as he needed, waiting until he was sure Matthew would hear him. He took him by the shoulders and held him away for a moment.
"Follow what Luke says, to the letter, or we're going straight home for a repeat performance."
"We can't leave them here," Matthew said thickly, shocked. "If it means that Daniel is safer by taking you home, yes, we will," Rolf said gently. "And more than that, if it means you're safer I will."
Matthew digested that with some shock. Not that he hadn't taken in or appreciated the danger Val stood in - he had- but he much preferred not to think too hard about it. And here, in the last couple of days in the cabin, life seemed so normal that it had been easy to forget all about the danger.
"You may not understand all the reasons for the instructions that Luke gives, but he gives them with the knowledge of years of experience in being a bodyguard. I know you didn't take the walk this morning to push limits or because you were bored. But Luke had said neither of you were to leave the house without one of us present. You can't forget that instruction again."
"I won't." Matthew promised, swallowing. "I won't, really. It scared the hell out of me when I realised that guy was behind us, V- Daniel really thought he was in danger."
"Good." Rolf pushed a hand through Matthew's hair, smoothing it back. "Let's go for a walk then. Let Daniel and Luke come to us when they're ready."
Matthew nodded quickly, not at all eager to see either Luke or Val after his switching, and knowing Val wouldn't be feeling much better after a paddling. He stood up and tried to ignore the throbbing his backside was making with each step.
In the cabin, Val eased himself back from his lover's lap with Luke's powerful hands on his biceps. He didn't at that exact moment in time feeling cuddling Luke or doing anything else nice, but Luke was right there, his backside hurt like hell and sobbing bitterly, Val gave way to temptation and buried himself in Luke's neck. Luke folded both arms over his shoulders and held him tightly and in silence, resting his chin on Val's dyed, dark head and letting Val cry himself out into his shoulder.
It took longer for Val to settle down than it had for Luke to paddle him. Luke had been all business, making absolutely sure that Val would take the time to think through a decision to head out, rather than just do it on a whim. While Val was aware of the danger, it was Luke who was plagued with the images of the complete picture of the stalker - complete that is except for his identity.
The relief that this had been a false alarm was overwhelming - although that was no reason to be over confident. Luke's morning jog took him past the front gates where the newspapers were laid out on the stands of the small shop. The British police were not reporting success, and that would be the only reason to break cover. Luke stroked Val's hair, waiting until Val's tears settled, then turned his chin up and looked at him. He didn't need to say a word. Grey eyes simply looked down at blue, and finally Val nodded, tears welling again. Luke kissed him and got up, pulling Val with him.
"Go and wash your face. We'll go down to the lake."
Val headed slowly into the bathroom. It took some time to make repairs, though nothing really helped. His eyes were still bloodshot and swollen and his nose was still stuffed. Knowing Luke wasn't going to wait too long, and thankful for a few more minutes outside of the cabin, Val headed back out of the room and downstairs where Luke was waiting.
They found Matthew and Rolf on the small beach by the lake, hand in hand and close to the water's edge. Val hung back slightly, edging a little behind Luke, not at all used to being confronted with people so soon after a confrontation with his partner- well that wasn't strictly true. He was not used to facing people who knew exactly what had just happened and why.
Matthew kept his head down and eyes averted. He may have been used to seeing a few select people after spankings, but Val and Luke were a little different. He also wasn't sure if Val didn't somewhat blame him for going out, and with their relationship having been rocky most of this time, he wasn't going to risk getting hurt. Luke, giving Rolf a brief nod, looked out over the lake. The morning, despite its stormy start, was fresh, bright and already warm.
"We talked about taking a boat out? Where do we go to hire?"
Matthew looked quickly at Rolf and shook his head slightly, not in the least bit interested in being stuck sitting in a boat at the present time. Rolf understood, but his reasons were a little different when he answered Luke.
"I checked the weather earlier and it's ripe for a thunderstorm. We should probably think about a boat ride tomorrow rather than today."
Luke, not at all used to the weather of the southern states, nodded agreement and pulled gently at Val's hand to draw him out from his position half hidden behind Luke's breadth.
"How about a walk then? What about that cliff Matthew saw the ghost on?"
"That's a good destination," Rolf agreed. "We'll be given plenty of warning and time to get back to the cabin if the weather turns. We just need to head along to the left here," Rolf said, gesturing down the beach.
Taking their time, they walked together down the sand and Val kept hold of Luke's hand. Walking was not too comfortable - but then nothing would be for a while. Matthew slowly dropped back as they walked and eventually when the path became narrow through the woods, Val moved in front of Luke and found himself walking close to Matthew who glanced back and gave him a rather sheepish smile.
"We never did know for sure if it was a ghost or what it was. It was just weird."
"Why do you think it was a ghost?" Val ventured, wondering for a horrible moment if he had been the only one punished.
"I wrote you the whole story." Matthew shrugged. "Just a very weird night."
Rolf turned off the path ahead of them, onto the narrow cliff overlooking the lake, and Luke stepped up onto the rocks to survey the view. Val stood where he was in the shade and despite himself put a hand behind him to massage rather tenderly at the seat of his jeans.
Matthew wanted badly to sit down but decided he'd rather be tired than in more pain. He leaned against a tree close to Val. "And Luke wanted to take the boat out......"
Val looked at him, not quite sure what he was saying and distinctly defensive if it was what he thought it was.
"I can't even sit in the grass," Matthew muttered when Val didn't say anything, starting to move away as it felt distinctly cooler all of a sudden.
Val hesitated a minute, then looked away, flushing hotly. "Did you have to keep a damn paddle in the house?"
"If it was up to me, no. And you wouldn't find a tree within five miles either. Belts would be outlawed and only forks allowed for cooking."
That, being news to Val whose experience of such things was actually very limited as Luke rarely needed anything more than his hand to make a very powerful impression on his partner's backside, he blinked somewhat slowly on that information, not sure what to make of it.
Matthew was just about to ask the question on the tip of his tongue, but got interrupted by Rolf as the wind started to pick up.
"We should head back towards the cabin. The clouds are starting to build."
Luke nodded and stepped back, gesturing to Rolf to lead the way and falling in behind the group as he usually did. Val, finding himself once more walking next to Matthew, gave him a rather curious glance.
"What did you mean by.....?"
Matthew scowled at Val for a moment, trying to determine whether his leg was being pulled. Looking to make sure no one was paying them much attention, he answered.
"I got switched."
"Switched." Val echoed, for a moment lost in visions of electric lights and exchanges. Maybe this was some American form of positioning he hadn't heard of; he was fully prepared to admit that Luke represented his entire understanding of this lifestyle.
"You've never been switched?" Matthew asked incredulously.
With what? Val bit back the question as obviously stupid and struggled for any kind of sensible response.
"I don't-" he began eventually, casting a brief look around to make sure that neither Rolf nor Luke were close enough to be in earshot, "We just -"
"You don't get away too often," Matthew said without rancour, understanding dawning.
"We don't, er-" Val hesitated. "Mostly just over his knee, I er-" Floundering and completely out of his depth, he flushed still deeper scarlet and dug his hands in his pockets. "I really don't know what you mean?"
"I'm jealous," Matthew said into the embarrassed quiet. "A switch....well.....they're all around us. Tree branches before they become instruments of destruction."
Light dawned in one awful flash, and hideously embarrassed, Val stifled a nervous giggle. "I kept thinking electrical-"
Matthew snorted before he knew what happened. He couldn't help then laughing as Rolf turned and gave him a curious glance.
"No. I don't think electrocution is a corporal thing, more capital. Seriously, only ever........?" he trailed off out of delicacy and Val gave him an awkward shrug.
"Pretty much. Once or twice over a desk or a chair or something."
Matthew chewed on that for several steps down the path. It was hard to believe that someone he thought of as worldly really had no experience in certain areas of life that Matthew took for granted.
Val, aware of his curiosity, found himself not at all sure what he felt. Partly he was embarrassed, he felt suddenly extremely naive- not a feeling he was at all used to as the sophisticated, looked up to Val Quentin who was streetwise in stage, music, and numerous other skills... in a life now several thousand miles away that involved some maniac who wanted to cut him up.
The wind was picking up, making Luke's job a little harder. Each snap of a twig garnered a look, each gust of wind that moved the trees had to be investigated. He stopped several times to stare hard into the surrounding trees, making sure the sounds were making no pattern.
Val felt rather than saw him stop and looked around, somewhat fearfully. Luke waited, making sure, then as Matthew emerged out of the woods and caught up with Rolf on the slope below, Luke came to take Val's hand, squeezing it reassuringly as they followed. "Just checking, don't look so worried."
"Do you really think he can find us here?" Val asked tentatively.
"I think we've made it as hard as it could be made." Luke said with decision. "And I'm here and I'm not going to let anything happen to you. I've only got you to worry about, I don't have to think about the rest of the team, it's much, much easier."
Val nodded, confident in Luke's assessment, even if it didn't quite take the fear completely away. It was definitely much nicer than it had been in their own cottage, with the entire team around and STILL having to run and hide.
Luke kept hold of his hand and they walked down the rough slope that led to the cabin, just as the first distant rumble of thunder came from across the lake.
"I think we timed that about right." Rolf said, opening the door. "Matt, check the windows? We'd better make the house rain proof."
"Okay." Matthew headed inside and made sure that all the windows were closed and locked against the coming storm. It wasn't something they had to worry so much about at home, as the house was usually heated or air conditioned, but up here where it was cooler they more often than not left the windows open to catch any hint of a breeze. He made a pit stop in the bathroom on the upper floor, pausing to check out the damage once he'd used the toilet. The sharp pain was gone, but he was left with a mass of red welts and the slow, dull throb of a well-spanked bottom. Spending the next few hours cooped up in the cabin wasn't going to be much fun. He washed up and finished the check of the windows downstairs.
Rolf had checked the downstairs windows, put the bolt across the front door as the wind could rattle hard when it came in across the lake, and in the kitchen was marinating meat. Luke, his heavy shoulders braced, was sitting at the kitchen table and reading the paper he had picked up on his morning jog. And Val was lying on his stomach in the lounge, picking rather moodily at the rug in front of the fire place.
Matthew was shooed out of the kitchen without the chips he had gone in to get and headed over to where Val was lying on the floor. He might have laughed, knowing why Val was lying rather than sitting, except for the fact that he was in the same boat and no happier about that himself. He grabbed a pillow from the couch and settled down on the floor on the opposite side of the coffee table, looking at the empty fireplace. "So much for a snack."
"It's only about eleven." Val said, resisting the urge to glance at his wrist which he knew had no watch on. One of the things left behind in the cottage in England when they fled. He twisted his head on his arms, wanting to re open the previous conversation - and struggling still with a mixture of embarrassment and fascination - but with no idea of how to go about it.
"I'd say we could watch the storm but with the mood everyone is in, I'm sure we'd be shredded quicker by the two of them than any wind," Matthew groused.
"Why?" Val asked, confused. "Luke and I go out and watch storms at the cottage when they're around - they're beautiful over the hills?"
"They're beautiful here too, but we get a lot of cloud to ground lightening, which freaks Rolf out to no end. It only bothers me when it crashes immediately, which isn't TOO often. Don't you get a lot of lightening since you're surrounded by ocean?"
"Sheet lightening." Val said, thinking about it. "It's not often you get forked lightening which actually hits anything. We've walked outside during storms and it's not been dangerous."
"That would be nice," Matthew commented. "Just don't even THINK about walking outside with lightening in the area around Rolf. It's like one of his top ten button pushes."
"I don't plan on doing anything to upset your other half at all."
Val said dryly. "And right now I don't feel much like pushing Luke
"No," Matthew said slowly, "that paddle has a tendency to leave me sore for at least a couple of days, and in no mood to think of doing anything else."
Val nodded wryly, well able to understand. "Luke has one. It's not something I see that often - ghastly thing, someone actually gave it to him."
"How do you luck out without anything worse than that?" Matthew asked without tact.
Val shrugged, starting to blush again but without ever having had the chance to really speak about this to someone who actually got the idea, he didn't try to brush the question off.
"I don't know. It just is - how things are I suppose. Just how Luke is. Don't you mind about Rolf using...." he trailed off, wondering whether that was a rude question.
"I mind," Matthew said, finishing the question himself. "It's just that I trust he uses the right thing at the right time, even if I'd rather move to the North Pole when I see him coming at me with anything more than his hand."
Val took that in silence, really not sure what he thought. The first time Luke had spanked him, it had not been anything discussed or planned - Luke had simply taken him in hand without troubling to negotiate, and Val had been annoyed - and impressed, and definitely not keen on provoking his bodyguard any further, but he knew he hadn't as such actually minded. And knowing that Luke spanked if you pushed him far enough had not in the least precluded Val from falling in love with him.
"There's only been a couple times when I thought I was unfairly spanked," Matthew continued, speaking mostly to the pillow in front of him. "And for those few times if I quit being angry at the situation, I'd realise that I was just as culpable as the others."
"I've always deserved it." Val admitted. "I push pretty hard sometimes. But it isn't like we sort of - planned it, it just pretty much is how Luke is-"
"That's pretty much how it is here too," Matthew admitted. "It isn't like we drew up a contract and said if I do this, I get fifteen minutes in the corner. If I do that, I get grounded, and if I do this and that I get spanked. It's just how it is, how we work together."
"I feel like a kid next to you." Val blurted out in the end. "You and Chris and Tim or whatever his name is-"
"A kid? To US?" Matthew asked incredulously.
"Yes, I know nothing. Absolutely nothing. I sing, Luke does the rest, I don't - GET it - the way you do-"
"But you - you travel the world. You talk to people I only ever see on TV. Everybody KNOWS you! I could walk down the street even in my own town and I'd be lucky to see one person I knew or that knew me! Just because you're lucky enough not to get spanked by anything other than hand 99% of the time, doesn't make you a kid!"
Val took a breath to answer and stopped, not sure how to explain. "But it's all one part." he said eventually. "I can do photo calls, I can tell you what to wear and how, I can dance, I can sort out an act and run it- that's a job. It's fun too, but it's what I've always BEEN good at, it was being good at it that got me into the first contract. If it was just me and Luke- like it's you and Rolf every day, just the two of you and your life and your home-"
"But you DO get it," Matthew interrupted. "I've seen that part of you and Luke a lot these last few days. You two have outdone me and Rolf on a bad week," he continued, his eyes dancing. "You don't hate him for doing what he thought was right, do you?"
"It isn't about that." Val said somewhat unsteadily. "It isn't about not being ok with it, I am, I always have been- Luke gets me and he always gets it right, but you are part of that with Rolf. You both get the idea, you both are part of it - I can sing and dance and look pretty in front of a camera but I don't get it – not in the way you do - if it was just me and Luke I don't know-"
"You haven't been singing and dancing for a couple of weeks now, and living with pressure I can't imagine. You're doing fine," Matthew said with conviction. "You'd adapt. Luke would still do what felt right to you, wouldn't he?"
"I'm hanging around like a lost soul and he's doing the bodyguard thing." Val wrapped his arms around his knees and rested a perfect chin on a slim wrist, adopting an offhand tone. "If he didn't have his job to fill his space, and I didn't have mine to fill his space-"
"He'd be the lost soul."
"Yes. Because he wouldn't have enough to do. I couldn't do what you do here." Val said rather tonelessly.
"You're really bothered by that, aren't you?" Matthew asked softly.
"It isn't something I've thought much about before." Val ran a hand through his dark hair, flicking it back into shape, and rolled to his feet, stretching his long legs and his arms in a deliberate pose, heading for the kitchen, the conversation clearly at an end.
Matthew's slowly increasing sense of closeness ended as abruptly as the conversation. He stared moodily into the empty fireplace, silently cursing the idiot that may or may not have been chasing Val.
Luke in the kitchen caught a glimpse of Val's legs passing and knew without turning his head that Rolf was being treated to the walk a professional model used on a runway, complete with pose as he opened the fridge for water. Legs braced, butt out, a photographer would have loved it.
"Daniel? While you're in there, could you hand me the squash and carrots?" Rolf asked, spreading out a large piece of tin foil.
Luke hid a faint smile in the newspaper, but Val only handed him the carrots, hesitated for a moment looking for a bottle of squash and shrugged as Rolf pointed him towards another vegetable. Shutting the door with his hip he drank water, then passed Luke and wrapped an arm around his neck, stooping to brush his cheek against Luke's rougher one. There was more to the gesture than simple affection. The legs were still perfectly braced, Luke glanced up and was aware of the brush of Val's hair, not immaculate but extremely fashionably untidy, and had the uncomfortable feeling of being posed on. And yet he knew Val showing off, and this wasn't aimed at Rolf. Or Matthew. The energy was elsewhere, Val wasn't working for an audience and he usually only slipped into model mode when he was feeling insecure. If in doubt, he played Val Quentin to the hilt; he always had done.
Luke leaned back for a kiss, which was readily granted. Before he had time to recover from that, Val's hands were slowly making their way down his chest. Val was also nibbling on his ear and the results of that attention were becoming obvious, if only to Val.
Luke coughed and cleared his throat, catching Val's hands before they could go below the edge of the table. Rolf was busy with the squash- whatever that was and would turn into - and Matthew, from what Luke could see of jeaned legs - was sprawled on the hearthrug. Keeping hold of Val's hands Luke pushed back from the table and got up, taking Val with him outside onto the porch. It was raining outside and the wind was up, thunder rattling somewhere across the lake. Luke shut the door of the kitchen and took Val with him around the corner of the porch, keeping close to the wall under the porch roof. Well away from the windows he put his shoulders to the wall and pulled Val to stand in front of him.
Val put his hands automatically up against Luke's broad chest, feeling Luke's hands run over his shoulders, up his throat to cup his face. Luke's eyes were searching, and Val was abruptly aware of how tensed he was. How much he was watching, the grimness and the anger that was not just tangible in the muscles under his hands, but in his eyes. What was that, when you could look and see something in your partner's eyes, something no one else would see or understand? It raised in Val more than the need to hold Luke's attention, remind him firmly that he was with someone who at least could offer him the physical attraction he deserved. His hands were no longer artful, he gently pushed Luke's hands down and reached for Luke's head, smoothing his hair back from his forehead.
"Don't look so worried."
"You're worth worrying about," Luke said, his voice gruff with emotion.
"And you keep telling me nothing's going to happen." Val said softly. Luke's hair was rough under his hand, it always was, but it was another reminder. He was prepared for action and had been from the day of the first threat. He had done the work, the worrying, the organising, taken the responsibility, and there was a part of him that Val knew usually enjoyed it. Like himself on stage, Val knew Luke was good at what he did and he loved the demands and the excitement of it. He was hating this. Rough with sympathy Val brushed the back of his knuckles over Luke's cheek and drew his head down, kissing his eyes. There was a brief explosion of muscle around him and Luke's arms closed around his waist, physically lifting him so that their heads were on the same level. Val wound his legs around Luke's waist and Luke's kisses were a good deal rougher and more demanding.
They were out of breath when they were interrupted by a large tree snapping some ways off. Luke's head snapped around on instinct, before common sense took over and he realised what had happened. Val had loosened his legs and landed back on his feet with a small sigh. Maybe when this was all said and done they could relax peacefully in their own cabin, where the kissing would have led immediately to sex on the porch, lunch all but forgotten.
Luke however kept hold of Val's hand, taking a minute to survey the landscape around them. The wind was wild - there was no doubt of that - and both he and Val were now wet through, but the thunder was some way off and the lightening was no real danger. Tugging Val with him further around the corner to where the tarpaulin covered wood pile sat in the shelter of the porch rail, Luke lifted Val up to sit on the bar and Val, pausing only to shake rain out of his eyes, buried himself once more in Luke's arms.
Matthew got up when he realised that Val and Luke weren't coming back in immediately and headed straight for the back door himself.
"I think not." Rolf said without looking up from the squash. "Leave them alone."
"They're out in the storm, I want to watch IT, not THEM," Matthew said, opening the door.
Rolf leaned past and pushed it shut again. "And there's a storm out there. No."
"What, am I the only one the lightening is looking to strike?"
"You're the one I'm responsible for." Rolf said, passing him a chunk of carrot.
"If you go out WITH me, I won't have to worry!"
"Pass the salt."
"How about a shower cap instead, and you and I can have sex on the porch too."
Matthew snapped it out half in annoyance, but had the satisfaction of seeing Rolf pause in mid chop, eyes and mouth dropping open.
"We can put on rubber soled shoes too, if that makes you feel safer." He added.
"Matthew Christopher." Rolf put the knife down, trying not to laugh. "Go - somewhere else."
"What's the matter?" Matthew demanded. "Haven't you tried it wet yet? Just close your eyes and IMAGINE the thunder is the fireworks."
That was it. Rolf put the knife down, lifted the saucepan off the hob and turned the gas off, taking the tea towel with him to grab for Matthew. He half expected Matthew to take off up the stairs, laughing, but Matthew stood with his feet planted, eyes just short of blazing.
Rolf hooked the tea towel around his neck and looked at him, taking in the seriously fed up expression before he stooped and kissed Matthew firmly.
"Enough. You've got nothing to be jealous about, anyone would think you were neglected."
"I AM being neglected, for carrots of all things."
"You're going to feel less neglected if you don't eat?" Rolf ducked slightly as thunder crashed across the lake, and glanced reflexively back at the porch. Luke was entirely capable of judging what he and Val needed to do - even in a lightening storm. Taking Matthew firmly by the hand he took him into the lounge and shut the kitchen door. Matthew followed sulkily, not sure exactly where this was leading to.
Rolf led him upstairs, their room being at the front of the house and well away from whatever it was Val and Luke felt the need to talk about on the porch, and shut their door on the rest of the cabin. The lightening was visible through the window and Rolf collapsed full length on the bed to watch it, holding out a hand to Matthew.
Matthew was still somewhat angry, but more sore and feeling sorry for himself than that. He snuggled down on the bed against Rolf, watching out the window as the lightening lit up the darker clouds. Rolf stroked his back absently, aware of the rain strengthening outside. It was going to be a blustery night - the kind of night storm that often cleared to a beautiful next day. And there was something very calming about being inside and watching the rain, which seemed nearer here than it ever did at home. Matthew turned against Rolf, running his fingers up and down his chest in long, lazy circles. His eyes stayed on the storm outside for some minutes, before Rolf became the sole focus in the world.
Diane unlocked the office door and turned on the light. She had an extra bounce in her step having heard from Val the previous day. She fully believed that Luke was taking good care of him, but it was still a relief to have talked to him firsthand. Turning the coffee pot on, she hung up her raincoat and massaged her arms to get rid of the chill. As usual, it was a misty, cool morning, leaving her feeling chilled to the bone. The coffee would be welcome as soon as it was done.
She sat down at Kate's desk and sorted quickly through the mail. Tossing away the junk mail left her with only three items which she opened, leaving one on Kate's desk and taking the other two into her office. Her computer booted up along with the coffee pot, and with one eye half on the screen, Diane poured herself coffee and sat back. Until something in her in box caught her attention. She sat up straighter and looked, then set the cup down and double checked. And frowned, looking in puzzlement at the computer.
"Hi." Kate called, coming into the outer office. "You're in early. Want some coffee?"
"I've got the pot going in here," Diane said absently. "Kate - has anyone touched my computer?"
"Why?" Kate asked, coming into the office somewhat nervously, not keen to mention her mistake last night. Diane indicated the screen.
"I could have sworn I deleted that mail last night. I DID delete that mail - with the security scares I've deleted EVERYTHING on receipt, and it's been called back into my inbox. Someone's been meddling here with my mail."
Kate sat down with a puzzled expression in the chair across the desk from Diane. She had done nothing in the deleted mails section of her program. It took only a minute before the colour started to drain from Kate's face as she put two and two together.
Mick's actions during their short courtship were easy to explain away one at a time. Several people that Kate knew enjoyed talking to her because she knew Val, and she knew that. Mick had been the same way, always checking in about Val and whether they'd heard from him. Kate had been able to explain it away as normal curiosity, but knowing it had to be him that had tinkered in the email program connected the dots and made Kate sick to her stomach to contemplate.
"I was here last night," she said to Diane's concerned inquiry. "The report didn't get mailed before I left work, so I stopped by with Mick on our way to dinner. I....I had to use the restroom," Kate continued, blushing, "and he offered to shut down your machine. It......it had to be him that got into the program."
"HE came into the office?!" Diane's voice rose in horror. "Kate! He handled my machine? You seriously think he got into the mail?"
Kate, seeing her expression, found tears rising. "I'm sorry - we've been dating for a while, I never thought twice about him coming in here - he loves Val, I didn't think he'd fish about on your computer to see-"
"Has he asked you many questions about Val?" Diane demanded. "Has he accessed your laptop?"
"Yes," Kate began uncertainly, "A few times -"
"And did he know about the cottage? Kate!"
"He - might have done," Kate said uncertainly. "I don't really-"
"Kate. I need you to calm down and think. Could he be the person that has been stalking Val?" Diane asked firmly.
"Mick?!" Kate said in disbelief. "No! No of course not, that's ridiculous- he must just have been curious-"
"Did he ask probing questions about Val's whereabouts and what he was doing?"
"No-" Kate said, dropping into a chair, "No he couldn't have done- he's interested, he LIKES Val - he's my boyfriend, he isn't a stalker! You've SEEN the letters, the police are looking for some total crazy-"
"Where is he now?" Diane asked, trying to keep the alarm from her voice.
"At work of course," Kate, brushing at tears now starting to stream, shook her head firmly. "You can't tell the police about him - he'll go mad, and I KNOW it can't be him-"
"We can't take any chances," Diane said, picking up the phone. "If Mick likes Val he'll understand, and you had a responsibility NOT to involve anyone here, you knew the risks-"
"I didn't mean him to see it!" Kate sobbed, not moving to stop Diane as she dialled the Scotland Yard incident room that had been dealing with Val's stalker for the past weeks. "I KNOW he wouldn't do anything - it can't hurt for someone I KNOW to know these things!"
"It happens that way - Yes, Detective Inspector Monroe please. Yes, fine. We have a possible new suspect here. It's Mick - Kate? What's Mick's last name and where does he work?" Diane asked, holding the phone away from her mouth.
"He'll kill me!" Kate said through her tears. "Diane-"
That comment sent warning bells through Diane. "We'll worry about that later. I need that information Kate."
"Michael Telford," Kate said, taking a deep and unsteady breath. "He works at the Redding offices in Camden."
"Michael Telford, Redding offices in Camden. It's possible he has Val's current location from an email I just received from Val. Keep me updated? Thank you." Diane hung up the phone. "They're going to question him and we'll know soon enough if he has had anything to do with this."
"He hasn't," Kate said fervently. "I'd KNOW if - Mick isn't that kind of person! He likes to know what's going on with Val and he likes to hear about what I do - anyone does about their girlfriend, he says I have an interesting job, but-"
"If he cares as much about Val as you say he does, then it shouldn't be too upsetting to answer a few questions from the police to rule him out as a suspect."
Taking no further notice of her sobbing secretary, Diane scanned once more through the email, her heart thudding. Kate was very likely right- it was unlikely to be Mick, it was unlikely to be anything more than another blind, but the risk was too great to take. Unable to help herself, or bear to wait for the police to arrive, Diane picked up the phone and rapidly dialled the number Val had emailed
Luke started at the sound of the phone ringing, something that had hadn't happened since he'd plugged it in shortly after he and Val arrived. Rolf kept a receiver in case of emergencies or power outages, but kept the phone connection unhooked to secure their privacy and keep things focused on the outdoors and relaxing, rather than keeping up with daily life. It was however a precaution that Luke felt was worth the loss of relaxation.
"Monet cabin," Luke said once he'd located the phone.
"Luke." Diane said urgently. "Thank God. I've just spoken to the DI in the incident room, we have a new suspect and he knows this phone number -"
"Diane? This number? Where did YOU get this number?" Luke asked in some confusion.
"Val emailed me, it was in my box yesterday morning. I deleted it, it was pulled out of my computer hard drive and read by the suspect." Diane glanced at the still whimpering Kate. "We're looking into it now, he should be arrested within the next hour, but you need to know, the number you're on is known. I don't know how easy it would be to trace?"
"Easy enough for the right person," Luke replied. "The police have been contacted?"
"Yes, we're looking into it now, but the information would have got out some time yesterday evening, between seven and nine. That's a good twelve to fourteen hours Luke."
"What's the name and description?" Luke asked, stomach tightening.
"He's the boyfriend of my secretary. Michael Telford. Kate, description?"
"About five nine," Kate said thickly, "Dark, short hair, clean shaven -"
"I got it," Luke said tersely. "Thanks, Diane. I need to make a few calls, I'll be in touch." Luke hung up the phone and immediately dialled the cell of the DI.
"DI Monroe," the voice snapped promptly at the end of the line, which was crackling faintly at the distance. "McNeil where in HELL are you?"
"In the US. Where's this Telford guy?" Luke snapped back.
"He's not at the office, they haven't seen him this morning." Chapman said grimly. "I've got uniform headed for the house now, we're talking to the airports, but he could have easily taken a plane out last night, you need to be aware he could well know your location. What are you going to do?"
"We're going to move again. I can't take any chances that someone is on their way here. I want to know the moment you find him, I'll be in touch," Luke said, hanging up the phone without another word. He quickly grabbed his gun and headed out the door.
Seated on the edge of the dock, Rolf looked up in surprise as someone made their way towards Val and Matthew, who were messing about on the shore.
"Val? Val, is that really you?" the stranger asked, immediately tightening Rolf's stomach. He got up quickly and made his way over to the boys. Val was staring at the man in surprise, up to his waist in the water. The man held his hand out, sounding delighted.
"Well I never would have recognised you with the dark hair! It suits you- although what you deserve for making me come all this way to find you I really don't know. Do you know what you've put me through?"
"Sir. Excuse me?" Rolf said, coming up behind the stranger. The tightened stomach was turning sour from the vibes the guy was putting off.
The man's smile was not a pleasant one, and Val's expression finished any doubts Rolf had. "Daniel," he said firmly, "Matthew, up the beach please, we need to get going. I think you must have mistaken us sir."
"Val - you don't have to go," the stranger started, turning to take a few steps towards Matthew and Daniel who were quickly making their way out of the water at an angle to him.
"Run Matt!" Val yelled, taking off down the beach at the same time that Rolf had grabbed the stranger by the arm.
The man moved a good deal more swiftly than Rolf was prepared for. Something came swiftly out of his sleeve and cracked hard across the back of Rolf's skull, and Matthew froze on the sand as his partner went down on the dock full length and hard.
Val looked back when he didn't feel Matthew behind him.
"Matthew! RUN TO THE CABIN!" Val pleaded, watching in horror as the guy turned away from Rolf and started to head towards Matthew and himself.
Matthew stood rooted to the spot for a moment, then to his great relief saw Rolf stir. Val, seeing only the dark man looking for the quickest way down onto the beach, grabbed for Matthew and pulled hard. "MOVE. Run, MOVE!"
Matthew started to move, following Val with his one thought to get to Luke as fast as possible, but within a few steps the man saw their intention, stopped trying to climb off the dock and instead walked simply back onto the path, standing waiting for them.
"Val, come up here please. Quickly, I've waited quite long enough."
Val snapped out of it first, grabbed Matthew's hand and pulled. "Run!"
Matthew followed Val's lead, taking off down the beach and up another, far less used path. The boys had a hard time going as both were in bare feet, and it wasn't long before they could hear the crashing behind them of the stranger, in shoes and far quicker because of it.
Val fought for several seconds with the urge to scream for Luke as loudly as possible - except that it would give away immediately their location. Instead, gathering the training Luke had pushed into him over the past few years, he made for where the bracken was thickest and hauled Matthew with him, yanking him down to the ground.
"Lie STILL! SHH!"
Matthew landed hard on his knees, his legs and one arm scratched by the bramble. His head was pounding with his hard breathing and he was sure that alone would pinpoint their position immediately. He was shaking from head to foot with the adrenaline rush and was worried sick about Rolf.
Val, currently more concerned about their own necks and with a vivid memory of what little he knew of the investigation into the stalker in England, yanked at him until they were both lying flat on the ground, the bracken closing over their bodies where they lay. And trying to pant quietly, they lay still and listened to the crashing footsteps coming closer. If they only waited until he passed, Val thought, they could run down the hill to the cabin, to Luke and the gun.
The footsteps slowed as they got closer and Matthew was certain he was going to pass out, trying to breathe quietly when he needed huge gulps of air to recover from the wild run. There was the sound of the footsteps moving past, then almost instantly returning.
"Val? I'm getting more than a little angry with you at the moment. I don't understand why you're running and making this more difficult. I finally have a chance to talk to you one on one and you act like I'm someone to be feared. You know, you really shouldn't be listening to those others, they just don't understand."
Val, who had been vigorously defended from reading anything other than sane and normal fan mail by Luke over the past couple of years, rolled his eyes at the turf just below his nose. Nut. The man was clearly a complete nut.
"I know you're around here somewhere. I have a gun and while that's the last thing I want to use, I will if you make me. I don't think you want to make me that angry though, you're not that kind of person."
Matthew went cold at the mention of the gun. He didn't dare stir. The man's footsteps moved by them and were punctuated by a sudden and vicious kick at the bracken near them, then the sound of his feet moved up the hill. Val's hand tightened on Matthew's, waiting, then as soon as the steps died away he was up like a cat, hauling Matthew after him.
"I wouldn't go anywhere," Mick said calmly, the gun levelled at Matthew. "I don't think you'd like to be responsible for your friend's untimely death."
Matthew froze in horror. Val, a few steps further down the hill, paused, horribly aware that both he and Matthew were naked but for their swimming trunks, wet, out of breath and in no condition for a fight. And the man was clever enough to move nearly silently on the grass.
"Val? Why don't you come on back here?" Mick said, moving a little closer back to the path.
"I don't know who you think I am," Val said calmly, copying Matthew's accent as accurately as he could. "I think you've made a mistake here-"
"Please don't talk in that disgusting American accent. It does you no justice at all. There's a cabin up ahead on this path. You lead the way, your friend and I will follow. The walk will give me time to decide what to do about this friend," Mick said, closing the distance quickly to Matthew and poking his gun into Matthew's side to get him ready to move.
Ok. That one wasn't going to work. Val walked up the path and put a hand on the man's arm, pushing the gun gently away.
"All right. But leave him be. It's me you want, he's nothing to do with this."
"Thank you," he said to Val, reaching out a hand to cup his face for a moment. "He's involved now and needs to come along. Head on up the path."
"We don't need him." Val took the man's hand, starting with him up the path. "It's fine. We can talk without him, it's all ok. Better if we're private, hmm?"
Mick turned quickly, the gun pointed back at Matthew. "Get in front of us, now."
Matthew, raising his hands and trying to control their shaking, stepped quickly where he was told, his heart thumping until he was in serious danger of being sick. Val's voice sounded quite ridiculously casual, as if he was chatting to someone he knew well.
"When did you get here? I didn't think you'd know me with dark hair."
Mick watched Matthew until he was in front of them, then turned his attention, and a happy face, towards Val. "You surprised me with that look. I wouldn't have thought you'd be nearly as beautiful with dark hair, but I think it's your eyes that make the look work," Mick replied, as if they were two old friends that hadn't seen each other in a while.
Val smiled back, the professional mask slipping effortlessly into place as if he took a deliberate step back inside himself. Used to interviews, to judging faces, to creating impressions, he was taking in every detail of the man's face and adapting his face and voice to fit, making it light and easy. "Thank you! That's nice to hear. It's a bit of a new look, but then it's nice to try these things out on holiday. Where are we headed? It would be nice to sit out here and chat."
"There's a cabin just up ahead. I think you've spent enough time outside and in the sun today, can't take a chance on burning that lovely skin of yours."
"I need the fresh air." picking up on the slight change of tone, Val tried the slightly lordly tone that worked on make up teams and supporters, "It's too hot and stuffy inside, I'll sit in the shade out here. I'm ready for a drink too."
Matthew didn't dare turn around, certain the gun was still aimed straight at him and certain he'd pass out if he saw it again. He couldn't focus on the conversation between the two, but was confused as to why it sounded so casual.
"We'll go inside to begin with. I have to figure out what to do with your friend there. He wasn't part of my plans. Ah, there's the cabin ahead. I apologize, it's not what you're used to I'm sure, but we'll get something better in the next day or so."
"He'll go away if I tell him," Val said indifferently. "He's only staff, I have to keep a P.A. but he's only from some American firm."
"You're so sweet in your naivety," Mick said to Val before turning his attention back to Matthew who had slowed. "Up the steps and inside, it's unlocked."
"It's hot in there." Val said in his snottiest tone, halting on the steps. "And dirty. No, I'm not going in there, that isn't appropriate at all."
"That tone isn't very nice to use with me, Val. Not nice at all. Go on inside," Mick said directing Val with the gun.
"I can't believe you're suggesting I set foot in that place!" Letting the prima donna tone rise, Val started to flounce down the steps with the stride that had intimidated photographers and directors world wide.
Mick took two steps down and laid a restraining hand on Val's upper arm.
"There are just some things you're going to have to give up for me, like there have been things I've given up for you." Mick pulled Val up the steps and pushed him inside the front door. "Now I need your help Val. I've got some tape here. I need you to tape up your employee for me."
"You have got to be kidding!" Val's outrage was accompanied with a stamp any diva would have envied. Matthew, who had seen Val flip in the last few days with Luke, suddenly found himself wondering how much it was an act at any time, and if Luke knew the difference. Val's voice and face were equally insulted.
"No. Absolutely not, I'm not someone to be ordered around and you know me better than that. I know you do."
"I know that you'll do what you're told to by me, or your friend dies," Mick said, levelling the gun at Matthew again. I'm shocked that you're making me get this way Val, I really didn't expect it to happen,"
Val, taking his life in his hands and trusting to his own experience, tossed his head, folding his arms tightly. "I never thought YOU'D treat me like this. Never."
Matthew had all he could do not to wet himself, expecting at any moment the sound of a gun firing. He was surprised as the gun dropped somewhat, and ever so slowly started to slide towards the door.
"Val, Val, you have it all wrong. We're working together for the common good here," Mick said, turning his full attention to Val.
Val, starting to breath again that he had the man's full attention, gave the most hurt, doe eyed pout he had ever managed and folded his arms more tightly. It was the injured innocent look that usually inspired Luke to laugh. Mick, seeing that look, felt compelled to explain.
"We don't know who he knows, and how quickly he'd get back to someone. I don't want us to be interrupted for a bit, that's all."
"That's no excuse for snapping at me or ordering me around." Val said with an artist's blend of accusation and self pity. "It isn't what I expected from you."
"You don't know what's best, that's my job," Mick continued. "There will be times like that and you'll need to defer to me. Other times I will defer to you."
Matthew had made it to the door but was almost too afraid to open it up, certain that Mick's gun would find him before he could stumble out into the open.
"I need to have more time with you to know," Val said, aware of Matthew's movement and holding the man with his eyes at their most doe like. "We just meet up ten minutes ago and you're barking orders at me with hardly a hello, you know better than that."
Matthew had slowly raised his hand until he'd gotten hold of the door handle. He got barely a nod from Val and yanked the door open and heading outside at a flat run.
Mick's gun hand went up and he started to swivel around when he was stopped by Val's hands on his arm.
"Oh let him go, I don't need him if you're here."
He held onto the man with all the strength he could put into his eyes and a butterfly touch on the man's arm. Was the man gay? Was this a sexual thing? It was impossible to tell. To be too overt could be as dangerous as not being overt enough. Playing it safe, Val just made his face confidingly appealing and risked flirting no further.
Mick's desires only had to do with Val, and the thought of chasing Matthew didn't appeal to him. Knowing they didn't have long before someone would come looking, he turned his full attention on Val.
Matthew didn't dare take a chance at looking back. He simply headed back down the path they'd come on at full tilt, mindless of the battering his bare feet were taking. He stumbled once, flying headfirst into a somersault. That barely stopped him as he continued on down the hill, looking for Rolf or Luke, whichever came first.
He was approaching the lowest slopes covered with pine needles when Luke's hand abruptly closed on his arm and Matthew, unable to help himself, frankly screamed. A split second later he saw the gun in Luke's hand and the expression on his face, and panting almost too hard to talk, stumbled straight into Luke's chest, clutching.
"That guy- got him - up the hill, old cabin-"
Luke gave him a powerful push on down the hill and sprinted up the slope into the woodland, the gun pointed down at the ground. Matthew continued on, wanting only to find Rolf in one piece at the end of this run.
He was sobbing for breath by the time he broke onto the path that led to the beach and saw Rolf, extremely white in the face and sitting on the dock, his head held in both hands. Very groggy but conscious and definitely alive. Never more happy to see his partner than right then, Matthew ran down the beach and onto the dock, falling at once to Rolf's side and into his waiting arms.
Rolf clutched him, barely able to see from the crack on the head, but extremely glad to have hold of Matthew. "Luke - did you see Luke? Where's Val?"
"Old cabin," Matthew sobbed out, leaning back to make sure Rolf was okay, before bursting into tears of frustration and pent up fear.
Unable to do much more, Rolf hugged him tightly, taking a few deep breaths and trying to see past the pounding in his skull. It took all his effort to stumble to his feet and he had to lean heavily on Matthew. "Come on. We need to get to a phone, get some help-"
They both jumped, hard at the sound of a single gunshot further up the hill.
"Oh my God he shot Val!" Matthew yelled, forgetting for a moment that there were two guns up there.
"We don't know that." Scared stiff and horribly aware that he had no skills to deal with this situation and had Matthew to think about, Rolf took a firmer grip on his partner. "We need to find cover. Come on. Matt move."
Matthew moved with alacrity ahead of Rolf and towards the path that led to their cabin. It took them nearly twice as long as usual to make the climb, but they got there, locking the door behind them. Rolf immediately picked up the phone and dialled 911, calling in the police and ambulance with a possible gunshot wound, then took Matthew upstairs and settled on their bed.
There was blood on the back of his hair. Matthew saw that with a still sharper bolt of terror, that worsened as Rolf drew him further back from the window.
"What if one of them is hurt up there? What if it's Val?"
The Daniel code name was gone and forgotten: Matthew might have always known Val as Daniel, but here and now he was Val Quentin and that was the source of the whole problem.
"Luke is much more equipped to deal with the situation than we are," Rolf said, pulling Matthew down on the bed. "We're going to trust that he's taking care of everything, at least until the police arrive. We're going to sit here and remain safe, it's the best thing we can do for Val and Luke right now."
"What if it's Luke he's shot?" Matthew said, shaking. "What if Val's on his own? That man's nuts, he's insane-"
"Shhhh," Rolf said, an arm around Matthew. "We don't know, and there's no sense worrying about what we don't know," he said firmly. How about you find a washcloth and help me clean up my head?"
Matthew mechanically went to the sink and soaked a cloth, and folded it, kneeling on the bed. The sight of the blood finished him off. Tears swelled up in a rush and he found himself actually gagging, shock and sheer horror overwhelming. They were actually at siege. A man was out there with a gun. Rolf had been hurt, attacked and hurt, and ten minutes ago Matthew had been standing in front of a man who was holding a gun at him. This was insane.
Rolf caught Matthew's face, holding it firmly and making him look. "MATTHEW. We're fine now. We're okay."
That wasn't true. Matthew shook his head, tears streaming, although he clutched Rolf's hands so far he felt his fingers creak under the pressure. It was well meant, but it simply wasn't true.
Val managed to breathe a bit easier when the madman actually did let Matthew run. As scared as he was with this guy, that was going to be the best way out of this mess, even if it left him alone with him. Trying not to reflexively tighten in fear, Val kept his eyes open and wide with some effort. There was a moment where the dark eyes looking at his were almost confused, then the man abruptly smiled and patted Val's cheek.
"All right. Just you and me. Sit down over there."
"If it's -"
"Sit," Mick said firmly, indicating a chair somewhat close to a window that looked out away from the path. The door was situated to the other side of the room, and another window showed the path down the hill.
Val moved slowly, sitting down in the rickety chair.
Mick unzipped his coat and took out from the inner pockets a ball of string, a knife and a roll of tape, all of which he laid out on a black plastic sack on what was left of the table under the window. He placed each item carefully, handling it with love.
Val was getting more and more numb with fear, the initial triumph of getting Matthew free wearing off quickly.
"I'm really glad that we were finally able to meet face to face. I've tried several times but no one seemed to understand that it was going to be okay, that you'd have said it was if you'd only known," Mick said, keeping a close eye on Val and the windows at the same time.
"Did you write to me?" Val said as gently as he could, gritting his teeth to stop them chattering. Mick picked up the tape, flicking the end free.
"Don't play that game with me. You know I did. I expected you to try harder Val, to make time, to sort out the arrangements."
Val watched in trepidation as Mick started towards him with the tape. Hanging onto the chair with both hands to stop himself from getting up, he looked up again with wide eyes.
"Sometimes things don't always make it back to me." Val kept talking as it seemed to keep Mick from actually doing anything. "You have me at a slight disadvantage. You know my name but I don't know yours."
He saw Mick's eyes go cold. They turned in an instant from calm to hard, to ice, and Mick shook his head slowly, softly, tutting.
"Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear. We talked about this Val. You saw my letters."
"I....I didn't," Val stuttered out, aware now that he'd made a huge mistake. His next attempt at words was impossible, as the madman had torn off a piece of tape and put it squarely across his mouth.
Val's immediate response was to raise his hands up, but he put them back down quickly, breathing hard and noisily through his nose when the man picked up the knife and threatened him with it.
"You've done this one too many times," Mick said with reproach, so gently that Val's stomach turned over and he retched against the tape. "I warned you, if you didn't start paying attention I'd have to teach you a lesson and you never listened. You have to learn Val."
Val tried talking against the tape, shaking his head no but got nothing but a couple of strips of tape around both wrists, tying them together in front of him. He had to work hard not to pass out. He felt as if he'd run a marathon, and instead of being able to take in huge gulps of air to breathe and recover, was instead breathing through a straw.
"I really didn't think we'd have to do this so soon," Mick continued quietly, though all senses on alert. "I tried warning you. I tried warning everyone that it was going to be okay, but it seems no one wanted to listen to me then. Well.....now that it's just me and you......"
Mick's musings were cut short as he saw something move in the trees. The knife went to the left hand and the right picked up the pistol from the table. He levelled it quickly out the window and fired a shot, the sound deafening in the small room.
The shock of the gunshot, along with the certain knowledge that Luke was the most likely target, and that he himself was going to be bodily harmed in only a few minutes time if not worse, brought Val to his feet. Rage took over and in one swift move, he'd picked up the chair by one leg and slammed it hard against the madman's head. Mick had been so focused out the window that he lost a grip on the gun and it went clattering to the ground beneath the window. He went to one leg but was up again in an instant, hardly phased by the rickety chair across his back. Because the chair was so old, the majority of the energy was spent when it broke into several pieces.
Val had taken two steps towards the door but was tripped up when Mick's hand closed on his ankle. With a sickening sense of death, Val landed hard on his elbows, the only thing he could do with his hands taped together. The air from his lungs blew out explosively through his nose and the room started to darken slowly. He lay stunned for only a moment, coming to as Mick's hands at his waistband pulled him over onto his back.
Val had never seen a face so ugly as Mick's, the eyes cold, with no soul visible behind them. He put his hands up towards Mick's throat, pushing at him, but Mick simply batted his hands out of the way and put the tip of the knife to Val's throat, tracing it gently down towards his adam's apple.
"You never HAVE got it Val. You're mine. You're all mine, and you're going to stay mine this time. You belong to me."
Val, sick and dizzy, felt the prick of the knife reach the base of his throat and only Luke's training saved him. He turned his head as far as he could to the side, pulling the vulnerable windpipe to the side, and took a deep gulp for air. The weak point of any grasp is the point of connection - Luke had told him that over and over. The weak point is the connection. The knife was loosely held in Mick's palm and his fingers pointed down towards his chest, the fingertips barely touching around the knife haft. The weak point of the grasp. As hard as he could, Val brought his clenched fists sharply down on the hands and felt the knife cut for a split second as it slid out of Mick's grasp. Then as it slipped Val slammed his hands into Mick's face and rolled with all his strength. It worked. Mick fell, Val scrabbled desperately up and half crawled half ran to the door. The force with which it was kicked in knocked him down, and knowing, with flooding relief who was behind it, Val rolled, clenching his arms tightly over his head. There was a second gunshot, then a third, so loud his ears hurt. And then there was silence.
The silence seemed to go on forever. Then a hand brushed Val's hair and Val let out a sob of pure relief, fighting his way upright. Luke was sitting on the floor, white faced, and he dragged Val against him, hugging him so tightly that Val felt his ribs creak in protest. Neither of them could talk for a minute. There was just physical fumbling of trying to pull each other closer, to hold on tighter, to reassure themselves that both were breathing, alive, real. Then Luke pushed Val back, not at all gently, his hands painfully clenched around Val's face.
"Are you hurt? Kitten? Did he hurt you?"
Val shook his head, fighting to get back through Luke's hands to bury himself in Luke's arms again but Luke held him off and peeled the tape from his mouth, tore at the tape around his wrists and wrenched them free. Something huddled was lying on the floor behind them, and Val spared it a brief glance, shaking all over.
"Is he out? Is he dead?"
"He won't hurt you now, Kitten. I made sure of it," Luke said, pulling Val against him again, dropping a few kisses into his hair. He felt Val's arms go around him, but couldn't stifle the groan that the hug wrung out of him.
"What?" Val demanded, squirming to get free. "Luke?"
"He caught me," Luke said, drawing in another ragged breath. He leaned back on his elbow to take a look at his front. Val, increasingly feeling as though he was moving back out of his body and watching his hands from a long way off, knelt up and tore at Luke's shirt. Grass stained, dirty, there was something else, something dark and wet and spreading high on his chest on the right hand side. Val froze, staring, feeling the wetness move over his hands. Blood. That was blood. Luke, even in his weakened state, could see Val's face whiten noticeably.
"Kitten. VAL. It's not going to kill me, at least not right now. If it was a deadly shot, I wouldn't have made it in here."
That didn't even bear thinking about. Val took a deep breath, then with shaking hands felt rapidly through Luke's pocket. He hadn't under estimated him. Trying to ignore the body on the floor a few feet away, trying not to look at Luke's increasingly straining chest as he breathed, Val straightened up with the cell phone in his hand and punched in the US emergency code. Luke, who could do nothing more, lay back on the floor and tried to concentrated on breathing.
"They're on their way," Val said a moment later, sounding steadier, "Rolf called them, police are five minutes out, a chopper's coming-"
"It's going to be okay," Luke said, reaching out a hand to hold on to, closing his eyes against the pain as the adrenaline rush slowed.
"Yes." Val sat down on the floor as close as he could and put a hand over the wound, pressing over it to slow the bleeding. "Yes. They're coming, it's going to be ok."
The police sirens were the most reassuring sound that Matthew had heard all day. Clutching Rolf he stood on the porch and watched the stretcher being carried down the hill, one of the paramedics walking holding an IV bag. Luke's eyes were closed and he looked very pale, but Val, still holding his hand, was more than collected.
"We're going to Memphis. They're flying Luke out now." he said to Rolf quite steadily. "You two need to get some clothes together fast, two minutes. I'll be there as soon as I can." he added softly to Luke bending to kiss him. "It's ok. See you soon."
"But -" Matthew began.
"Come on. Let's get packed," Rolf said, guiding Matthew back to the cabin. He didn't know what the plan was, but Val obviously had a very clear idea and with Luke on the stretcher, it was the only course of action at the moment.
A helicopter was coming in over the lake, blasting the water in waves as it landed on the dock. The paramedics made their way down towards it carrying Luke with them. Upstairs, hauling on clothes over his still damp swimming trunks, Matthew leaned out of the window in shock, watching Luke lifted inside and the doors slammed before the chopper lifted up again and flew out over the woods, the trees leaning in the blast.
"What's Val- Daniel – what is HE going to do? He's going to LEAVE Luke? We're driving to Memphis?"
"He wouldn't leave Luke unless he had a very good reason, Sport. That guy chased them across continents. It's a huge news story that's about ready to break and Val is going to spearhead it. Please, let's just do as he asked? My head hurts and I really don't want to argue," Rolf came across to the window, pulling Matthew into an embrace.
"You should have been looked at too," Matthew began in agitation, "The police barely spoke to us and the medics didn't even ask - I CAN'T drive to Memphis now, I really can't!"
"Let's see what Val-" Rolf broke off as the sound of chopper blades sounded again, above the cabin. A sleek, black and enormous helicopter, very different to the air ambulance was lowering slowly on the dock.
Val, pulling on the clothes he'd left just an hour ago at the dock when he and Matthew began to swim, was talking swiftly to one of the police standing with him, and they opened the doors to the chopper, the blades still turning. A tap at the open bedroom door heralded another of the police, looking somewhat dazed.
"Excuse me sir- Mr Quentin asked if you could come down directly, he wants to stay near to the medics if he can-"
"We're going in the helicopter?" Matthew asked, sounding as dazed as Rolf looked.
"Two minutes," Rolf said, quickly getting out their bag and throwing in the few clothes from the dresser. "Get the bathroom stuff Matthew."
Matthew walked in and tossed the few essentials into their travelling bag and brought that out to Rolf.
"We're ready," Rolf said, shouldering the large duffel, speaking to the officer in the hall. He pushed Matthew ahead of him, locking up the cabin as they left, thankful he'd thought to shut all the windows while they were waiting to find out what happened at the cabin up the hill.
The police handed Matthew up into the helicopter on the dock, and Val, already aboard, leaned over to help Rolf. "Someone is coming for the car. Don't worry. We need to move quickly now."
Matthew would have liked to have asked why, but one of the two pilots came to shut the copter doors and the blades began to whirr at full speed again. A few seconds later the chopper lifted straight up into the air and sped off over the lake, gathering height and speed. Val, buckling in, had a phone handset to his ear and was dialling rapidly, his face absorbed.
"Diane? Di it's me. Yes and no. Listen carefully love, I need you to pull out every stop you can lay your hands on. Find me a PA in Memphis, the best you can find, get them to the Metropolis hotel. Get clothes there, you know how to do it; get whoever you can get, I don't care about labels or designers, get me a hair stylist and someone for makeup, prep for a tv and photo call. Fix it. Then locate the rest of the security team, I need them and you on the next flight out here, as soon as you can arrange it. In the meantime find me a security firm and get them to the hotel. Find professionals, tell them to look the part and do all the stuff Luke would throw a fit at. Shades, the works. I'll brief them when I get there. DON'T say a word to Orion, I'll handle them and the press."
Matthew couldn't quite make out what Val was saying, the flight sounds were too loud. He felt like he just walked onto a movie set, being spirited out like James Bond after the bad guy was killed, and feeling ever so out of place. He looked at Rolf, who had his head lying back against the seat and his eyes closed, though his hand was still tight around his own. He sat, wired, confused and getting slightly indignant at feeling like a third wheel. Val hadn't asked once if he was okay, nor said what had happened at the cabin after he'd managed to escape.
"And get a medic to the Metropolis to wait for us, someone decent." Val added. "Quick Diane, the quicker the better. See you soon." He cut the line and without looking back, dialled again, a number from memory. And smiled. "Jerry. Yes it's me, you've got an amazing ear for voices- Jerry I have the story of the year and I'm going to hand it to you on a PLATE if you'll do me a favour and do exactly as I tell you to now. Yes of course it's worth it, when have I ever let you down? Call out the circus. Spread the word, every hound you can think of, and pull some strings in the states for me? Freelancers, anyone at all, just spread the word – I'm headed to Memphis, Tennessee and the stalker is caught. Yes. Seriously, Jerry I know you can do it or I wouldn't have rung you -" Val paused and laughed, an easy laugh as though this was a totally normal day, an every day chat with a dear friend. "You'll be a star, you always are. And I owe you and I'll be making that right up to you as soon as you get out here. I'm at the Metropolis, Memphis, and the exclusive is for you. I'll see you as soon as you can arrange it."
Matthew sank back in the seat as Rolf's grip loosened on his hand and crossed his arms. Val looked totally at ease and at home, leaving Matthew feeling very much like a trespasser in another world. Val was someone who could make a phone call and things would happen - obviously, they were flying in helicopters no less, on the way to one of the bigger cities in the area. Obviously their little cabin in the woods, with only a dial up connection for a computer, and no television worth watching, was far too small and worthless as to be used a second longer than absolutely necessary.
The countryside was flying away beneath them and it was barely half an hour before they began to see the build up of the city beneath them. Val looked down at the rooftop they were homing in on, seeing with satisfaction nothing less than a small crowd of people standing waiting. The chopper landed gently and several men in black suits ran to open the doors, followed by people in suits and hotel staff, all of whom promptly surrounded Val. Val, jogging away from the blast of the chopper, turned at the top of the stairs into the building and took the arm of the nearest woman, holding onto her as they made their way down.
"Now, I need a room cleared down stairs for a press conference in half an hour, set up a reception room for the press and lay out food, alcohol, buy in whatever you need: this is going to be a press party with all the stops pulled out. I have clothes and make up coming in, a security team and a PA who will take over when she gets here - get me a decent meal, water, bring up the police, I promised a police statement the minute I got here. You," he added to another woman, "Contact Memphis hospital, I want updates on Luke McNeil, get someone out there with a phone and stay with him. Get him whatever he needs. You, find me a secretary, find me an events organiser to come direct here, I'll pay whatever's necessary."
Rolf woke when the chopper set down and the doors opened. He let Matthew go before him, then stepped down on the rooftop and walking bent, stepped away from the chopper and over to the door. Once that closed behind them, a hotel employee spoke. "Are you Rolf and Matthew?"
"Yes," Rolf said startled, pausing. Val and the entourage were out of sight, the crowd frantically scuttling after Val.
"We've got a room reserved for you, if you'll follow me?" She bustled down the short hall to the elevator, having to wait as Val and his entourage had taken it down first. "You'll be in suite 1818, with a lovely view of downtown Memphis. There's a bar in the room if you want anything to drink and room service is available 24 hours a day. Mr. Quentin wasn't sure if you wanted dinner in the dining room or if you'd prefer something private in your room. Just let me know." She stepped onto the elevator and held it as the two men boarded, pressing the button for the 18th floor.
"The hotel has a doctor on staff, he'll be up directly to check you both over with your permission." The elevator stopped on a well- appointed floor and the two men followed the lady without a word.
"Here you go," she said, opening the door on what to Matthew appeared to be someone's condominium. "My name is Sheryl. I'm the concierge and you can find me at extension 105 if there's anything at all I can get for you. Here's your key, and I hope you enjoy your stay here at the Metropolis." The door shut, leaving Rolf and Matthew staring after her for a moment, completely at a loss for
"What the hell," Matthew said slowly, "Is going on? What IS this? Will you LOOK at this place-"
He took a few steps into the room, staring at the lush furnishings of a large sitting room. Rolf, massaging throbbing temples and struggling with an increasing sense of unreality, answered the door as someone tapped at it. A middle aged man gave him a smile, carrying a small bag into the room.
"I'm the hotel doctor, I was told that you might be needing assistance?"
"Rolf got knocked on the head," Matthew said quickly, knowing his partner was suffering even if he didn't complain about it.
"Rolf?" the doctor gestured to Rolf to come to a chair. "Whereabouts? Were you knocked out?"
Rolf sat down in the chair with some effort to steady himself and winced as the doctor felt gently through the dried blood on the back of his hair.
"Only for a minute or two, my vision's a bit blurry but I'm all right."
"You've got some good bruising there. I'll clean that and check it properly - you sir - Matthew? Are you hurt?"
Matthew shook his head, coming to watch with some anxiety as the doctor opened his bag. "Shouldn't he have a scan or something? It was a real blow-"
"I'll have a closer look." The doctor said calmly. "Why don't you have a shower if you're all right? You're a bit of a mess there. And I'll have some tea and something to eat brought up."
"I want to-" Matthew began but Rolf shook his head and then winced as though he wished he hadn't.
"Go on. You'll be still covered in leaves and lake water under those clothes, get into something clean. I'm fine."
The shower did help. Matthew stood under the water for some time in a shower about the size of the bathroom at home, the warmth of it finally reaching him. It was only then he realised he had been shivering. Wrapping himself in one of the two huge towelling robes hanging in the bathroom he emerged barefoot, gradually realising just how sore his bare feet were on the carpet. The trek up through the woods from the lake and the wild run down had left damage - both his feet were badly scraped and bruised.
The doctor had clipped Rolf's hair short over the cut and there was a bowl of water stained red with blood and holding no few chunks of wet lint. Rolf was a better colour and looking far more awake, sipping tea from far steadier hands. A silver tray of tea and pastries were laid on the table near him and a girl with a notebook and phone was writing briskly.
"That's size nine and size twelve - yes sir. I'll see to that straight away. And contact Mr Robertson. Mr Quentin told me about having the car driven back, that should be done this afternoon, and they'll check the cabin was safely secured."
"Thank you." Rolf put down the tea and gave Matthew a brief smile. "I think Val's thought of everything."
"He'll be with you as soon as he can," the girl said with sympathy. "He's preparing for a press conference right now, the hotel is swarming with press. I've never seen so many photographers."
"Have a seat Matthew. I noticed your shoes had blood in them. Let me get a look at your feet as soon as I'm done here," the doctor said, putting a bandage over the cut on Rolf's head. "You were lucky. No stitches needed, though you'll have quite an egg of a bruise. You'll need to take it easy for a few days and if you notice even the slightest change in vision or balance, you go straight to the nearest emergency room."
"Yes, sir," Rolf said, putting down his tea. "I already feel much better, thank you."
"You're welcome," the doctor replied, heading over to where Matthew was checking out his feet. "What have we here?"
"I had to run barefoot- it was all woodland." With some trepidation Matthew let the man see. "It's mostly just sore."
"Did he get his hands on you?" Rolf asked quietly. Matthew shook his head.
"Val kept talking to him, he talked until I could get past him and run, I came straight down towards the cabin and Luke came up past me with the gun."
"You must both be pretty shocked." the doctor said calmly, reaching for his bag. "I'll leave you something for that."
He left them in peace soon after, having watched Matthew swallow the pills he was offered, and Matthew, pastry in one hand, tea in the other, drifted across to the window and looked down. They were high but on the pavement far, far below he could see the road blocked with police cars and crowds of people.
"What IS Val playing at?" he said to Rolf in bewilderment. "What's going on?"
"I don't think he's playing, hon. This IS his world and he's taken control of his situation. Do you blame him after a few weeks of him feeling, and being, totally out of control?"
"He's acting like he doesn't even know who we are." Matthew said hotly. "He ignored us all the way over here- I guess not wanting anyone to steal his thunder-"
"Matthew. Come here," Rolf said, holding out a hand.
Matthew turned away from the window, aware that Rolf was still pale and heavy eyed, and looked very unlike his usual self. It added to just how horrible, terrible a day this had been all around.
Rolf waited, then pulled Matthew down to sit in his lap. "If you'll forgive me for not taking a shower yet?" Rolf asked with a gentle smile.
Matthew twisted around and hugged him tightly, keeping his arms well away from the bandaged part of Rolf's head. "Let's go home. Now. Let's just get out of here."
"We're not going anywhere today. I'm in no condition to travel too far. Besides, we have this lovely appointed suite to enjoy for the night. It doesn't sound a bad idea to me?"
"Being ignored by the superstar?" Matthew cast a look towards the door, more hurt than he was prepared to admit. "Luke's in the hospital- we don't even know how bad he was hurt, if you were in hospital you think I'd be able to be anywhere else giving press conferences? He doesn't even care!"
"On the contrary, I think he cares enough about us and the entire situation to NOT be at Luke's side at the moment," Rolf said calmly.
Matthew shook his head, too upset to take that in. The doctor's pills were helping, he was no longer cold or shivering, and the morning had taken on the unreal quality of a nightmare, something that happened a long time ago to someone else. "What if Luke was shot? We should be there. We should know if he's ok."
"I don't even know what hospital Luke's been taken to." Rolf brushed Matthew's still damp hair back out of his eyes. "I still need a shower, though I guess I won't get to clean my hair. Why don't you have a lie down, and we'll figure out what to do when we're both a little more refreshed."
That wasn't tempting. Matthew shook his head, tightening his arms around Rolf's neck. "I just want to go home. I want to check that Luke's ok, and then I want to get out of here and go."
"Val brought us along for a reason, and I think we need to stay until we hear from him. Don't you think he'd be seriously upset if we just disappeared without a word?"
"You think he'd notice or care?" Matthew demanded. "You're going to say any minute you feel you can't leave HIM!"
"Calm down a minute," Rolf said, pulling away from Matthew a bit to get better eye contact. "Think for a moment. Val could have taken off with Luke without another word, leaving us not knowing a thing at the cabin. He didn't do that, did he?"
"Then what the hell IS he doing?" Matthew demanded. "WHAT is he playing at? I don't much feel like being a pawn on his chess board right now, he nearly got you killed this morning!"
Rolf pulled Matthew's hand back down in his lap. "We are not pawns on his chessboard. We have minds of our own here. If he'd left us at the cabin, just think what could have happened. Any ideas?" Rolf prompted, wanting to get Matthew past his hurt feelings.
"Yes, you might have died of a skull fracture!" Matthew snapped back, quite unpacified.
"Matthew," Rolf said, firmly enough to settle him down for a moment. "Val is known practically worldwide. His stalker, and that story, has been splashed across all the papers and tabloids as the details were released. Can you imagine the zoo that our quiet, lakeside cabin would have become if Val hadn't moved all of us here?"
Matthew as quiet for a moment, taking that in. It was hard to reconcile dark haired Daniel, the friend Matthew had grown increasingly close to over the past week to Val Quentin. To the point where he no longer could even think the 'Daniel' name.
"I don't know if he did that to protect us directly, or if he's wanting to protect the cabin as a piece of property he can come back to under far happier times. Didn't you see him start to relax and enjoy himself a little, even with the threat of the stalker hanging
"It would be like him to think of himself and what HE wants." Matthew muttered.
"But he's not just about himself. If the press descended at the cabin, and we became known as Val's friends, do you think we could see him again, at least in any kind of normal way we can imagine?" Rolf asked, in the process of trying to settle Matthew down starting to realise himself some of what Val was actually doing for them. If the press got any hint that Val considered them friends, they'd be hounded by the paparazzi at least whenever Val was in town, and probably even more. And as much as Rolf appreciated the room they were currently sitting in, and what the cash and fame could actually buy, wasn't the least bit interested in becoming part of that world.
He patted Matthew's hip firmly, not unsympathetic, but equally worried about Val downstairs. Knowing how he would feel in Luke's place with Matthew left alone to deal with the situation, he couldn't help but feel responsible, and while Val clearly had things in hand Rolf was not about to leave him alone with it.
"I'm going to shower. I want you to finish that tea and lie down."
Matthew slid to his feet when prompted, and pouting, took his cup of tea and headed back over to the window to look outside.
Rolf headed slowly into the bathroom, also marvelling at the size. He shook his head in chagrin when he opened the shower door. Here was a shower that would drench him from head to foot rather than the usual that hit him in the chest and neck at it's highest, at a time when he couldn't enjoy it. He found the shower cap and put that on to protect his bandage, then let the strong stream of hot water pound out the stress that had been steadily building in his neck and shoulders. He took his time in the shower, using the sea sponge and body wash provided to work up a solid foam before rinsing. It was hard to shake the feeling of being dirtied from the morning's events: he was aware he was washing away emotions far more than any actual grime accumulated since he showered at the cabin before breakfast, only hours before. It felt like several years ago.
When he finally emerged, Matthew was in the armchair by the window and left to himself, had dozed off. The room was warm, sun came in through the window overlooking the city. Rolf poured another cup of the cooling tea and stood for a while looking out over what he could see of Memphis, aware that the streets were still blocked below. Then he sat down beside Matthew and prepared to wait.
That was it. Val put a hand over the microphone and stepped back, smiling as the hall erupted in flashing cameras. For a minute he deliberately gave them a short repertoire of poses, using his expressive eyes and the draping shirt he had grabbed from the huge selection a delighted and very excited manager from one of Memphis's top clothes stores had been all too happy to lay out for him to choose from. Its light drapery clung in all the right places: the pictures would show vulnerability, the waif like look that would strike into the photographers and journalists as much as their readers. He knew it would make the front pages of the British tabloids and no few of the US ones as well. Val Quentin, bravely soldiering on despite shock and the dreadful events of the past few weeks, which Val had described with an eye to making the story exciting enough to hold the press's attention and distract them from exploring other aspects of it. Several of the hired bodyguards, large, black suited and wearing the shades that screamed American Bodyguard in a way that Luke would have never, under any circumstances allowed his team to do, stepped forward to surround him and Val let them escort him into the private suite beyond the press conference room. The journalists, with a large reception room set up and offering them the means for a serious press party were going to leave in a good mood with a good story, which meant their versions were likely to be sympathetic. And attention stealing. Sometimes the best defence was a powerful offence.
Finding the capable looking woman in a suit that had appeared in response to Diane's search for a personal assistant, Val gave her another of his dazzling smiles.
"That was perfect, thank you. Now I'd like you to talk to the tv stations, let it be known I'll be happy to do two appearances tomorrow on anything you think is good, and then that I'm in the states for a week. Out of thanks for the American police's help in catching this maniac I'd be glad to offer a short charity performance anywhere that would be willing to host it. And talk to Diane, get the band and the dancers together and over here as quickly as possible."
The woman finished writing her notes almost as soon as Val had finished talking.
"I'd think the Today Show would be good, which would mean an early start. Probably at six or seven in the morning, will that work for you?"
"Anything you think good." Val turned around to the bodyguards and the rest of the entourage. "Ladies and gentlemen thank you very much. We'll set up in the Hamilton room of the suite tomorrow afternoon for the magazine spread and photographs, please let me know about the flower arrangers. Right now I need a bath, something to eat and some time to sleep."
"Right this way Mr. Quentin," the head bodyguard said. He led the way out the back door and accompanied Val up to his suite, also on the 18th floor. As soon as the door closed on the bodyguard, Val dropped down on the floor, his back to the door.
The army of maids that had swept through the suite earlier while Val showered, had his hair styled, make up applied and rapidly selected a pile of clothes that suited both image and reputation of Val Quentin, had left the rooms looking untouched. The clothes were put away, the desk was cleared of all but the bunch of flowers in the vase stood on it - the rooms were immaculate and as hushed as a church. Val looked down at his hands for a moment, taking a few breaths to steady himself. Then got up and made his way through the suite to the balcony. Luke, who knew him, usually had a problem with balconies on the suites. Val, trained enough by Luke to make very sure who could gain access and how before he accepted the suite, opened the French windows, climbed straight up on the rail and swung himself down to the next balcony below, knowing exactly who was in those rooms and how safe they were. Once there, he tapped on the window.
Rolf looked towards the entry door from the magazine he'd been reading, wondering if that was the source of sound he'd just heard. When the tapping came again, he looked back towards the doors that led to a balcony. Shocked, Rolf immediately started to wonder if it was someone trying to get a picture of them. Matthew stirred beside him, blinking.
"What was that?"
"Stay there," Rolf said, moving over towards the doors that led to the patio. There were sheer curtains so that he couldn't make out the details, but the cant of hips and the litheness of the body reminded him very much of Val.
"Rolf? It's me," Val said, seeing a shadow of a person inside.
Comments like "What the..." and "How....." and "But...." came to mind, and Rolf let them struggle for supremacy, opening the balcony doors. Eighteen floors above street level Val gave him a quick and somewhat harried smile, slipping past him into the room.
"Are you both all right? Did the doctor see you? Has anyone fed you?"
Rolf stepped outside, just to make sure there wasn't a separate door that opened right onto their balcony, confirming his original fears. He shut the door and turned towards Val's questions.
"I've got a question for you, first." he said, giving Val the patented LOOK that could have sold no few magazines itself. "Why, when there's a few perfectly good elevators, and a few perfectly good stair cases, did you find the need to scale the side of the building THIS HIGH UP?"
"That doesn't matter now," Val said, pushing past him. "Did they-"
Rolf's hand on his arm stopped him short. "I asked you a question, and I expect an answer."
"I had to," Val said patiently, "I didn't want to be followed, and it doesn't matter."
"It matters to me, and I think I can safely say that it would matter just as much to Luke. Where is your room?" Rolf wasn't going to have the subject changed.
"Just above," Val said, trying to get past him to Matthew. "It's only a few feet, it's ok."
Rolf swatted Val, once and hard before letting go of his arm. "DANIEL. You don't dismiss me like that young man. And you don't EVER let me catch you doing something that stupid again, is that clear?"
Val looked up at him in complete shock, freezing to the spot. Rolf's glare didn't waver, waiting on a response. Val didn't move, for the first time in hours jolted out of the autopilot that had been running him from the moment he first saw the blood on Luke's shirt.
Matthew had gotten up from the chair when Rolf had headed to the window. He stood and watched, wondering who was going to win the battle of wills. Rolf watched the play of emotions across Val's face, and realized just before he crumpled into Rolf's arms what he was thinking about. It made perfect sense- it was just such a departure from the dynamic, controlled and commanding man who had made helicopters come out of the sky and sent an army of people running to create the situations he demanded. Rolf held him tightly, stroking his back and letting him take a few, heaving breaths.
Matthew, at a loss for words and unsure of what to do, went to the well appointed bar and poured out some bottled water over ice and hovered around the couch. Rolf eased Val over to the couch and sat down, keeping an arm around him. He wasn't crying. He was shaking a little and he was gulping, but quiet, and Rolf spoke very gently, continuing to rub his back.
"Have you heard about Luke? Do you know how he is?"
Val shook his head slowly. "He had surgery. There's someone from the hotel at the hospital, she phoned when he went in and said she'd phone when they were done- I can't go there, he'd kill me-"
"Shhhh, it's ok. They're taking very good care of him," Rolf said, shocked at the news of surgery but very careful not to show it. He nodded to Matthew and accepted the water, putting it gently into Val's hands. "Take a drink, you probably haven't even thought of food or drink for a while, have you?"
"He was shot." Val said very carefully. "In the chest, high up on the right. He was having trouble breathing. The guy - the stalker - had me on the floor and taped, he was trying to cut my throat when Luke shot him. He'd been shot in the chest and he still got up and made it into the cabin."
"If he could do that, Val, he'll come through this surgery with flying colours." Rolf looked over at Matthew, thinking how closely all of them came to evil, and what he would have done if anything had happened to Matthew in that cabin. Matthew, having heard the calmly listed sequence of events straight out of a horror film, sat down on the other side of Val and gently opened his collar. The cut at the base of his throat had been covered by the collar, it was small but deep and had clearly bled.
"He...he cut you," Matthew said, his voice shaking.
Rolf moved his collar to see and shut his eyes for a second, swallowing as it sank in just how bad this morning had truly been. Then he pulled the collar closed again and hugged Val, keeping his voice calm.
"Matthew ring down and find that doctor that saw us. And ask them to bring up some tea."
Matthew stumbled over to the phone, dialling the only extension that had stuck in his head. The same pretty voice answered as had been in their suite earlier, and Matthew was able to tell her what was needed without too much trouble.
"They're sending someone up." he said when he put the phone down. He drifted back, hands in his pockets, not at all sure what to do or to say. Rolf gave him a brief look of reassurance, leaning down to pull Val's shoes off.
"Find a blanket Matt. Let's crash out here for a while, we're none of us going anywhere else now for a few hours."
Val helped Rolf to remove his shoes, all of a sudden too tired to argue. His thoughts drifted to Luke and his eyes filled, wondering how he was.
Rolf pulled cushions over and Val curled up under the blanket Matthew brought, numbed. The hotel secretary had orders to ring the moment she had news - the lack of it meant that Luke still had to be in surgery. And it was awful, truly awful, that the strongest gesture of loyalty he could make to Luke was NOT to be there, but to do what he knew Luke would want. To be safe, to protect Matthew and Rolf. That was the only thing left to do other than wait.