Thursday, February 11, 2010

Strike 3

Winner of 2004 Reflections Award for Wittiest Comeback - Top 

"It's eight thirty!" ~ Nick
"Not only am I not joking Nick, my powers of observation 
really aren't bad for my age." ~ Damien

This is the final part of the trilogy that began with The Seventh Day of Christmas, and follows directly on from My True Love Gave to Me. As usual this story made it out of my PC due to M+MC, both of whom patiently gave me the benefit of their wisdom.
This is dedicated to Jennifer and to her little girl. She may never read it Jennifer, but it was written with a good deal of thought and love with her in mind.
Title: Strike 3
Author: Ranger

"In here."
I heard Damien shut the front door and a minute later his arms folded around my waist and the roughness of his late afternoon stubble grazed my cheek as he kissed me.
"Hello. What's that?"
"It will be a casserole. Hello. Are you tired?"
"No." Damien paused, looking suspicious. "Why?"
"It was just a question." I rinsed my hands under the tap and put the casserole in the oven. Damien muttered something, picked up the detergent and sprayed the counter.
"That was semi cooked chicken, use soap."
"I washed my hands."
"Now wash them again with soap."
I muttered. Damien didn't comment, but he leaned past me to get the sink sponge, smelling faintly of his morning cologne still, and one deft hand swatted my backside lightly as he moved away to sponge down the work top.
"I talked to Allen today."
Oh no. I shook my hands out and backed away from the sink. "I think I'll have a shower."
"He said Robin tried to ring you this afternoon."
"I don’t want to talk to him."
"It's been nearly two weeks."
"I still don't want to talk to him."
"Sit down a minute."
I headed determinedly for the stairs.
"I only want a quick-"
Damien caught my wrist with one hand, opened the fridge with the other and extracted a bottle of wine before he pushed me into a kitchen chair. I flopped down and watched him get two glasses out, apprehensive and wary.
"It's no good going mad, you can't MAKE me talk to him-"
"Don't you get stroppy with me young man." Damien tipped up my chin and kissed me, taking the chair beside mine. "I don't 'go mad'. I just want to talk to you."
"Which means you're going to make me do something!"
"And if you get upset about talking about something, it generally means you know there's something you SHOULD be doing that you're not." Damien pointed out with horrible logic. I glowered at him.
"I don't WANT to talk to him."
Damien poured two glasses and pushed one to me. "I'm not about to pick your friends for you, now or ever. You don't have to be anything more than civil to Robin if you don't want to be-"
"I don't."
"Allright." Damien said firmly enough to make me realise I was scowling possibly a little too hard. "But Robin owes you an apology, and he's waited for some days because he knew you didn't want to talk. You know how you feel when you want closure on something, I'd like you to think about how fair you're being."
"You want me to forgive him."
"No, I want you to allow him to apologise to you, that isn't the same thing at all. You don't have to like him. Why do you think you can't forgive him?"
"Because he's a bastard!" I said hotly.
"Maybe." Damien agreed. "But is that grounds for making him miserable?"
 I shrugged unhelpfully. Damien picked up my hand, mechanically checking my fingernails before he started to massage my fingers. I was still too cross to care whether or not my nails looked too obviously bitten, or about the fact he wouldn't like it if they were.
"I don't care." I warned him. Damien didn't answer for a minute.
"What do you mean by forgive?" he said eventually. I glanced at him, cautiously.
"I don't know."
"When we talk about forgiving between us, we mean we've wiped the slate clean." He said calmly. "Nothing held back, nothing that matters any more."
"What he did-"
I trailed off.
"Does still matter to you." Damien finished. "Allright. You can't pretend it never happened, and it may mean you can't forgive him, at least presently."
"Ever." I said stubbornly. Damien didn't argue.
"You can however accept his word that he is aware he hurt you, and that he is sorry for it. And you can do him the courtesy of allowing him to tell you and believing he's sincere."
"Just because he says the word sorry to me it doesn’t make me any less angry." I said irritably. "It isn't a button to press, I'm not magically going to feel better about it."
"No. But that isn't the same as allowing him to tell you and accepting that he means it. I DO want you to hear and accept his apology. Nothing more."
I didn't answer, as there was nothing whatever I could say. Damien tousled my hair, then leaned forward and kissed my forehead.
"I know. I'm not interfering Nicky. I don't expect you to have anything more to do with him if you don't want to, but I DO expect you to behave decently. And that means accepting a genuine apology graciously in front of him, whatever you say to me afterwards. And yes, you do have to."
I scowled at the table, thoroughly fed up. Damien's hand moved down to my neck and rubbed soothingly.
"I'll ask him to drop by tomorrow, I'll be here with you."
"I don't want to."
"I know, but I want you to."
"Yes?" Damien said mildly. "Please?"
"Yes." I said, very ungraciously. 
Seeing Robin was horrible. I came home dreading what I was going to find, and the sight of his car on the drive made my chest tighten painfully. I was already wheezing when I got out of the car, fumbled my inhaler out of my pocket and took a sharp breath from it. Damien was half way down the drive to me before I felt it start to work. He took my car keys from me and locked my car before he put an arm around my waist and pulled me close.
"It's okay, stop panicking. I'm coming with you, I won't leave you alone with him, it'll be fine. You only need to listen to him."
The sight of Robin standing in the hall was a solid shock. Damien held on to me, preventing my automatic move behind him. My stomach was rising up into my throat and I wondered for a moment if I was going to be sick. I wanted him out of the house more desperately than I'd ever wanted anything. Robin cleared his throat, looking at me as if he was trying to sound sincere.
"Hi." I said as if he was someone normal.
Robin cleared his throat. "I wanted to say- I'm really sorry for that stupid trick I played on you and Damien. I know it really upset you and I didn't mean it to. I'm sorry."
The agony of how on earth I responded to that- TRIPE - felt like it lasted for hours.
Damien was standing there, looking encouraging. I knew what he wanted. I knew what Robin, standing there STILL in my house, wanted. There was nothing whatever that I could do but surrender. It was hard. But I did it. I numbed out everything, took a deep breath and found some point of artificial calm I could hold on to.
I even managed from somewhere to find a voice of sincerity that over rode the numerous other voices screaming at the back of my head.
"It's okay. Thanks."
Robin gave me a tremulous smile. I had no clue what my face did, it didn’t feel like it belonged to me.
Damien shut the front door after him and held out his hands to me.
I nodded. Damien kissed my forehead and gave me a hug.
"Thankyou for doing that."
I more or less summoned up a smile which suggested I was okay.
Half way through the evening news I had a major asthma attack which took some time to stop, and when it did, Damien made me go to bed. 
I was no better in the morning. Damien sat with me while I used the nebuliser, watching me with concern in his face that I couldn’t stand looking at.
"You're not going to work." He informed me at seven am. "I'm not sure that I am either."
Usually I would have tried everything I could to persuade him to stay with me. This morning the very thought of it made my stomach twist still further.
"No, I'm fine. You go. I'll be okay, I'll do another nebuliser at lunchtime."
Damien looked at me for a long time, then nodded without enthusiasm. "Ok. I'll phone you at nine and see how you're doing. You've only got to ring and I'll come straight home."
"I'll be fine." I repeated.
I managed to stay together until his car was out of sight. Then I sat down on the foot of the stairs and cried for nearly half an hour. 
I had decided in my own mind that Nick would be less panicked once he saw Robin face to face again.
He very clearly wasn't.
It took close to brute force to get him over the doorstep, knowing Robin was in the house, and from the tension in his face and shoulders, Robin might as well have been aiming a gun at him. He did however respond, politely, just as I'd asked. And then went back to being Quiet as soon as Robin was gone.
He'd been quiet for days, it was starting to seriously worry me. There was nothing actually wrong, nothing I could get him to talk about and when I tried to bring it up, all I got was that sweet, vague look that means he's working very hard on not knowing what he's thinking. Nick's primary defence against anything alarming is to lose himself in a fog of fragmented thoughts.
"I'm sorry." Allen said again, unhappily, when I phoned him to say Robin had apologised as asked. "I know Robin really didn't mean to upset him like this, I don't think it occurred to him it was a possibility."
"I'll leave it until the weekend, then I'm taking him down to Southampton and we're going out on the boat." I said, trying not to let myself get pulled back into worrying. "He always relaxes there, the fresh air does him good and I'll drag it out of him, get this sorted out."
It was never good to let him pull the fog trick. Except making him shake it off and pull his head together was time consuming and hard work, and I didn't particularly want to upset him like that in the middle of a week when he still had to be at work each morning. And his chest wasn't good, which is the usual side effect to stress. He was out of breath at the slightest thing at the moment, and wheezing a lot at night. This needed dealing with before he had time to get himself into a real state, and I intended to do it, very soon.
I should have realised of course, that Nick is incapable of leaving any complicated situation to look after itself in peace. 
"I've got to go to Bristol." I told Damien at the end of the week. Damien looked at me in surprise.
"Whatever for?"
We were eating dinner, which gave me the excuse to pause and make sure my voice was clear. There was no option. No other choice I could see. I couldn't stand this situation any longer and there was no other way I could see to get out of it. I lifted my head, looked him right in the eye and lied to him. Clearly and confidently.
"There's a company down there that are thinking of taking a contract with us. They want me to do some drawings to their order, and Beth said while I'm down there I can do some sales calls on a few other companies."
Damien looked at me until I was sure he was seeing through me. My heart was thumping unpleasantly but I kept my head up and looked him right in the eye.
"How long for?" Damien asked eventually.
"A week."
"Where will you stay?"
"Probably the motorway trusthouses. I don't know, I'll look at that on the way down."
Silence. A long one.
"I'm really not happy about it." Damien said eventually. "I don't think this is a good time and I'm not at all sure you're fit enough."
"It's not like I'm going to run a marathon."
"You'll be stressed, more tired than usual, eating differently and you'll be on your own. I'm not sure this is a good time for you to be away from home or me."
"It's business, I need to do it."
"Why can't Beth?"
"She has children." I said, so automatically I flushed. When did I turn into this horribly accomplished liar? I waited for Damien to put down his fork with that decisive click and ask me why I was feeding him this load of nonesense. Instead he said rather grimly,
"I'm not happy about it."
"I need to go."
Silence. He always listened to me if I was serious, he always respected my work even if he wasn't happy about it. I stared at my plate, knowing he'd give in and hating myself for the trick I was playing on him.
Eventually Damien nodded, unwillingly.
"Ok. But only if you're fit enough. And that means at least three attack free days and a decent peak flow score. When do you need to go?"
"Sunday," I said, grabbing at the nearest possible day he might allow. Damien nodded.
"Right. That gives you three days, you can let Beth know on Saturday night if you're ok."
I nodded, not sure whether I was relieved or devastated. 
The next three days were awful. Damien packed for me in the end, with my help since I was being cheerful as hard as I could pretend. It was getting easier, I was reaching a kind of hysteria now. Thank God there were no more asthma attacks. Damien watched me do the peak flow checks, morning and evening, waiting to see the dial each time. Thankfully they weren't dire. Saturday, thank God, I got permission to ring Beth and to go.
There were so many promises I lost track of them.
I wouldn’t work all hours. I wouldn't eat junk. I wouldn't skip any medications. I'd phone him at least twice a day.
"Why don't you just come too?" I demanded eventually when there was yet more things on his list.
"I would, but I can't take the time off work." Damien said bluntly, shocking the living daylights out of me.
Sunday morning he handed me the peak flow monitor and stood, waiting. I took it from him and blew.
The dial stopped at 230. My stomach clenched at once.  Damien held out a hand.
"What is it?"
Oh God.
"Best of three." I reminded him, hastily re set it and tried again.
Damien held out a hand, waiting.
Anything under 250 always made him freak. At 200 he would call our GP. My damn body was about to betray me yet again.
"Nick?" Damien said, clicking his fingers.
I was saved by the phone ringing.
Damien picked it up one handed. I heard no part of the conversation. A few weeks after we met, a few weeks after we started the whole discipline part of our relationship, I went out with him for the day, 'forgetting' to tell him about a peak score of 250 in the knowledge he wouldn't let me go if he knew.  I had a major attack, and when he found out I'd known I wasn't fit, he'd nearly strangled me.
I'd never done it since.
Now I stared at his dark head, turned away from me, and knew I had no option. I had to get out of here.
I took a deep breath and discreetly let my thumb ease the dial up to 330. Damien put the phone down and took the monitor from me, glancing at the dial. Then he handed it back to me and turned away.
"Ok. I'll pack your nebuliser, don't forget your inhalers. All of them."
My knees shook with the aftershock, my voice almost failed me.
"I won't."
"I'll check."
I finished my packing, feeling like Lucifer incarnate. The hug I got from him on the door step brought tears to my eyes. Damien pushed his fingers through my hair, looking far from happy himself, which made it still harder.
"Ring me when you get there. Take good care of yourself."
I felt for and got another, longer hug. Damien pushed my chin up and kissed me thoroughly.
"If you can't manage it, come home. Promise me? Or tell me and I'll come up and stay with you."
"I'll be fine." I pulled myself together with a final effort, knowing I only had to stay together a few more minutes and I'd be gone. Safe.  "It's Bristol, not Outer Mongolia." 
He was still standing on the doorstep and watching as I rounded the corner. 
When I got onto the motorway, I ignored all the signs for Bristol and continued south. I finally found a trusthouse hotel near Bath, pulled in and found a vacant room for the week. Then I rang him and lied some more. Bright, cheerful lies. There was a kind of mad safety in knowing he had no way of finding me.
Then I curled up on the bed and wondered why it was I felt worse still. 
The next few days sort of blurred together. The feelings of panic gave way to a grim kind of depression, which was slightly better. Most of the time I barely felt real. I rang Damien twice daily as promised. He told me a lot about home, the minor details you get into in a shared daily life. He asked me what I was doing. I told him about the hotel. And the Little Chef restaurant next door where I ate at least once a day as he always asked what I ate. I wandered in Bath city centre, seeing virtually nothing and getting more miserable by the minute. It was like sitting at a train station, waiting for a train that never came. On the Wednesday I rang Damien's office around four pm and flinched when Robin's voice answered.
"Hello, can I help?"
"Damien Mitchell please."
"He's not here at the- Nick?" Robin said, trailing off. "Is that you?"
No, get away from me.
"Yes. I'll call back-"
"Nick wait!" Robin hesitated a minute. "Look. I just wanted to ask. How's Bristol? Damien said he thought you were hating it."
My boy could read me like- well. No he couldn't. I wished he could.
"It's ok." I told him. Robin sighed.
"Look, I SAID I was sorry."
"I don't know what you mean."
"I made a mistake. Are you going to hate me forever?"
"Yes." I said flatly.
"Why'?" Robin demanded. "I didn't MEAN to make you this upset, Damien said you were taking it badly- I don't know why you have to-"
"I don't want to talk to you."
"You're making a real drama out of this, Nick, it's all attention seeking rubbish and-"
"HOW DARE YOU?" I exploded. "Do you know where I am? I'm in bloody Bath, on my own, because I can't stand being in the same bloody house as Damien after you walked in and-"
I stopped, stomach lurching as I realised what I'd said.
"I meant Bristol."
"You've run away, haven't you?"
"I wouldn't give you the satisfaction."
"NICK- Damien'll go mad, what are you doing?"
I had no clue.
"I meant Bristol, I'm in Bristol and I don't have to explain anything to you."
I slammed the phone down. It was nearly an hour before I was calm enough to call Damien's cell phone and when I did it was switched off. 
I missed him like hell when I wasn't worrying about him. Several times I nearly drove down to the lodge intending just to stay the night with him, except I knew it was stupid. He was a grown man, with responsibilities, and I'd made sure he was physically fit enough to do the job. I had to let him get on with it. We talked on the phone several times a day and while he sounded to me as though he was tired, fed up and lonely, it was only a week. When he came home I'd drag him out for a long weekend. Cheer him up, get this Robin situation fixed and finished with.
I was in the office about four pm on Wednesday evening when Robin tapped on my door and leaned against the frame. I knew the expression. I put the file down that I was working on and gave him what I hoped was a patient look.
"Allright, what have you done?"
"Nothing!" Robin took his hands out of his pockets and came in to sit on the corner of my desk. I leaned on the desk to watch him.
"What are you doing up here anyway? I thought you were out at a site."
"I came back early." Robin sat on his hands and swung his feet for a minute. "You know Nick?"
"Yes." I said regretfully, glancing at my watch. By now he ought to be headed for the hotel, settling down for the night. And I got to spend another night with his cat. She was no substitute. Robin hesitated.
"If I did something awful?"
"HOW awful?"
"I haven't." Robin said, sticking his tongue out. I waited. He took a deep breath.
"How bad would it be before you told Allen?"
I looked at him. "If he needs to know, I will. What's up?"
"It isn't me."
"So what's wrong?"
Robin winced. "Nick called." 
I ate that evening- or rather picked- at the Little Chef, who's limited menu I now knew by heart. About eight pm I wandered back in the rain, knowing I would have to call Damien at home. Furious with Robin again, for getting rid of what little quiet I had here away from him.
Outside the hotel, a man was standing, arms folded, waiting. As I crossed the road, his arms dropped and he began to cross the carpark to me. Someone very tall, very dark, very cross: with hazel eyes that pierced me right through the rain and the cold, making my heart jump as though it was Christmas. I dodged two cars across the road and picked my pace up to a flat run by the time I reached him. His arms wrapped around me as I bulleted into him, he picked me up off my feet to hug me and for a minute we just held on tight, ignoring the passers by. Then he turned his lips against my hair and kissed me, hard enough to let me know I was in disgrace. His face confirmed when he put me down: he was NOT happy.
"Inside, young man."
It was not a request.
"I just need to-" I began, stumbling on the words with shock.
"Right now, Nicholas."
I swallowed and shut up. Damien turned me around with a discreet swat that was by no means gentle. "Move."
I trailed him into the hotel, with the now unshakeable, sick conviction I was about to die. He watched me fumble with the lock to my room for a minute before his hand came over my shoulder, took the keys away from me and he unlocked it himself. Then he took my wrist, steered me ahead of him to the bed and sat me firmly down.
Oh this was not looking good.
I watched him apprehensively while he took his coat off, every movement crisp and clipped with unspoken exasperation.
"What are you doing here?" I said, licking very dry lips and trying to sound casual, "You didn't say you were planning to come up-"
"No. And I can imagine you weren't expecting me, as you TOLD me you were in Bristol."
Damien folded his arms, propped his hips against the table and Looked at me.
I flushed slowly and hotly scarlet under that look. Oh God I was dead. I was so dead.
"Have you any idea just how annoyed I am at this moment?" Damien said conversationally when I didn't answer. "Where do I start, Nick?"
"I don't know." I admitted very quietly. "Did you uh- did you talk to Beth?"
"No, Robin told me where you were."
The shock of that made me jerk my head up, outraged. "How dare he!"
"That is the very least of your concerns at this moment in time." Damien said sharply. "We are not going to debate anything here and now. Go down to the desk, tell them you are checking out immediately and pay the bill."
He pulled my suitcase out of the wardrobe and began to pack my clothes, rapidly and efficiently. I got up and hovered, twisting my fingers a little with growing anxiety.
"I just-"
Damien grabbed my wrist, turned me around and the smack I got made me yelp.
I fled, grabbing my wallet on the way out. 
I could have KILLED him. From what Robin said, Nick had stopped thinking about four days ago. Well when I was done with him, he was going to have his brain in gear and in overdrive. I couldn't believe he'd do something this - blatant. I fumed the whole time while  I rang around every Trusthouse in the south west. It took me nearly an hour to find him. When I did find a receptionist who had his name in the book, I found it as ridiculous as it was predictable that Nick could go and hide from me under his own name. His logic is entirely his own.
The answer was of course he'd been patiently waiting for me to pick up my cue.
I was plotting new and inventive ways of wringing his neck when I found his room at the hotel empty and his car sitting in the carpark. He was going to have to do some phenomenally fast talking this time.  I paced around outside, watching the street in all directions, still unable to get my head around the fact he had lied. Frankly and blatantly LIED. However much I kept worrying about him getting himself into enough of a state- AND hiding it from me- to do such a thing, I also kept choking on that fact. I have a business trip, Damien. I need to go to Bristol Damien. I'm FINE Damien.. I'd known him for several years now and he could still leave me breathless with disbelief.
I saw him crossing the road from the café, as usual oblivious to traffic or to where he was going. The Green Cross Code is something that happens to other people. I stood where I was and waited for him to see me, deliberately meaning to scare the living daylights out of him. I intended this to be the wake up call of the year. If he thought he was behaving like this for any reason whatsoever, he had another major think coming. He had his head down, he looked small and tired and completely lost, his shoulders up around his ears, his arms tightly folded against the evening chill. I saw his face when he spotted me. That reaction was honest enough. Total shock, followed by open relief. He nearly walked straight under the wheels of another car he didn't even see, and ran at me as if he hadn't seen me in a month.
"What on earth do you think you're doing?" I nearly said about three times, except that he was clutching me and shaking, and when I saw his face I realised what a lot of the problem was. There was no point in asking him what he thought he was doing. The panic autopilot was running, and he had no clue.
I got a grip on myself and him, and made absolutely no effort to keep my general exasperation out of my voice or face. If he'd lost the plot, he was damn well about to get a revision course in it. 
The journey home was over way too fast. Damien stood me beside my car outside the hotel and issued me with a brief, precise and extremely vivid series of threats about what he intended to do to me if I failed to drive home immediately, carefully and safely. Since it was clear we were warming up to a main event that would make Pompeii look like a slight hiccup, I had no wish to push him into more physical demonstrations of his displeasure. I was already getting the impression he was keeping his hands off me only by sheer force of will. He drove behind me onto the M4 and we headed east. For the next 200 miles I kept catching glimpses of Damien Mitchell glaring at me in my rear view mirror. 
I got home ahead of him, and was locking my car when his dark blue Laguna swept into the driveway. Damien slammed his car door, grabbed my hand as he passed and towed me inside.
"My suitcase-" I said as he locked the front door behind us. Damien dropped his keys into the dish on the shelf and pushed me upstairs ahead of him.
"I have NO interest in whatsoever in your suitcase, Nicholas. That is the LEAST of my worries."
Someone really ought to be playing the funeral march about now. Damien snapped our bedroom light on, drew the curtains and sat on the bed to pull me in between his knees. I was already whimpering as he yanked my jeans down and my shorts after them.
"Look, I know you're less than happy-"
"That is the understatement of the year." Damien yanked again and I found myself over his knee, his arm already locking me against him too closely to allow for face to face negotiation.
"I cannot BELIEVE you cleared off to Bath for a week and LIED to me about where you were!"
His hand descended, hard, in the first of a hail of powerful swats that made me yelp and squirm as much with distress as discomfort.
"WHEN exactly did we come up with this new method of handling things, Nicholas? That if we have a problem one of us clears off out of reach for a while? How exactly did you envision this working? If you leave your clothes on the floor I get a day trip to Bognor? If I'm late home two days running you get a weekend in Paris? Is that it?"
"No!" I wailed, already near tears. And not just because of what he was currently doing to my already blazing backside.
"WHEN did we decide that instead of talking we just ran away from problems Nick? Since WHEN has that been acceptable?"
"It isn't! I'm sorry!" I sobbed, almost in relief as the tears started in earnest. Damien sounded far from pacified, and his pace wasn't slowing either, despite the fact I was kicking like mad.
"You do NOT dispose of me when you want to do your own thing, this is a relationship we have here. You swapped 'I' for 'us' some time ago.  You do NOT have the option to alter that at whim, on your own. Do you understand me?"
"I'm sorry!" I said again, more or less out of ideas by now, and crying too hard to be coherent.
"Why?" Damien demanded. "Because I'm cross?"
"For - clearing off- and lying- I didn't - it was horrible, I hated it -"
"You don't DO it Nicholas! Then you have nothing to worry about! This is so not allowed I don't have the words to explain it, but you ARE going to get the idea."
He leaned over me and I heard the drawer open; an ominous sound which made me sob in earnest.
"Damien… I'm sorry, I AM sorry- really -"
"And I'm furious." Damien said roundly. "Neither of which has anything to do with this. You do NOT run away from problems, Nicholas, and you do NOT, EVER, deceive me like that again. Not if you intend on spending any part of your future sitting down."
From the way the paddle snapped down, that was a dim possibility even now. 
On reflection, it was one of the worst spankings I've ever had from him. Not necessarily in severity, although he seriously meant it and it was extremely painful. But in that I was utterly distraught by the time he put the paddle down. Damien was so rarely ever angry with me. I'd forgotten it was possible to cry this hard. I was more or less oblivious to Damien until I found myself lifted over to the bed and he lay down with me still in his arms. He stroked my hair off my forehead and I felt his handkerchief against my face. Like the boiling ache of my backside, I shut it off, limply embracing the helplessness of the sobbing, letting the rhythm take over and dominate. I hurt from throat to chest and from hips to thighs, my face ached from the grimace of sobbing, until Damien's voice invaded, deep and calm in my ear. I had no idea what he was saying at first. Then his fingers found my chin, he turned my face up to his.
"Nicky. You're going to make yourself sick if you cry that like that. Come on baby, stop it now."
I wasn't sure I could if I wanted to. Damien carried me into the bathroom, stood me in front of the sink and turned the cold tap on, palming handfuls to my face until the shock of the cold made me stop and gasp. Shivering, barely able to see, I clutched the basin and he washed my face gently and with immense care around my swollen eyes. I remember him undressing me, the resonant calmness of his voice as I lay down and the cool of the covers he pulled over us both.
I woke at three am.
Not with the asthma attack I expected, but with a thumping headache. Damien was awake and up, the bathroom light was on and before I got my eyes fully open he brought tablets and a glass of water to me, sitting on the edge of the bed.
"You were moaning in your sleep. Head?"
"Among other things." I said thickly. Although my backside, sore as it was, no longer actively hurt. Damien took the glass from me and put it down, resting the back of his hand against my forehead. He opened the window before he lay down again and pulled me close, wrapping both arms around me.
"You're ok. Go back to sleep, I've got you."
"I missed you so much." I said into his neck, close to crying again. His lips found my eyes and began to take an unhurried catalogue of my face.
"I missed you too. We're going to sort this out, it's okay."
"I'm sorry. Not just because you're angry-"
"I'm not angry. I don't get angry with you. Exasperated maybe, but that we can fix."
"I didn't do it to hurt you. Really. I was trying NOT to hurt you, that was why I went-"
"Shhhh, it's okay." Damien said softly as I began to lose coherency. "A week from now this won't matter. We're going to sort it out."
"I'm sorry."
"I know."
There was a world of calm and acceptance in that simple phrase in his voice, as if that was a full stop. A pact between us that still held total commitment. He kissed my forehead, one of his hard, registering kisses that stamped me as his. Banked, located, filed.
"Right now, I want you to stop thinking about it and get some sleep. This isn't the end of the world."
Cheap as it sounded, I said it and meant it. For his gift of the words and tone that could lift the world off my shoulders.
"I love you. And I'm not just saying that-"
"Darling. Shut up and sleep."
"I do."
"I love you too. It's okay. Go to sleep baby."
I tried.
I lay rigidly still not to disturb him, and tried. I thought he was asleep when I heard him sigh and he pulled me over, pushing the quilt out of the way.
"Come here, you."
I tried fending him off at first and found him too strong and too determined. He gave no option on reciprocating either. One arm held me tightly against him, his mouth closed over mine and his other hand found its way expertly into my shorts. He has never explained where he learned this particular skill but I suspect, based on my own experience, that Damien could grope me efficiently if I was wearing a suit of armour at the time. He took my tension, turned it into something else altogether and disposed of it, leaving me out of breath and boneless. I prised his mouth off mine long enough to breathe and he rolled over, yanking me with him.
"Go to sleep."
Sprawled on top of him and going nowhere, it wasn't difficult to comply. 
I woke when he did, rocked by him stretching beneath me like a rough sea crossing. He dug me in the ribs when he'd finished.
"Ok ok ok." I was already halfway out of bed, groping for a sweater, when my backside protested. I was not moving anywhere fast or very comfortably today. Damien snagged my hand and pulled me back.
"It's Saturday, relax."
A lead weight hit me in the stomach. He'd be here. All day. And he was going to want to talk. A lot. About things I really didn't want to think about. I slipped out of his grasp and very quietly went to throw up. Damien padded after me. I heard the door open at a point where turning around was more than slightly inconvenient. He crouched and held my shoulders until I was finished, rubbing them soothingly, then flushed the loo and got up to run a glass of water. I rinsed my mouth out and spat mechanically, too miserable to care now. Damien took my hand and towed me back down the hallway, sat on the edge of the bed and pulled me over his knees, sliding my shorts gently out of the way to check the damage.  What he made of it I had no idea, but when he ran his palm gently over both cheeks they were sore as hell. He helped me up and gave me a crushing hug, nipping gently at my neck.
"What do you want for breakfast."
"Nothing. Get off Dracula." I pushed at him half heartedly. He tipped me back at the Rhett Butler angle and kissed me, but too gently to make it the proper dramatic gesture.
"Get dressed."
I stumbled into the loosest and admittedly thickest jeans I owned. They wouldn't help much in a crisis but the psychological protection was what I needed most. I found one of Damien's sweaters, too big, too long and smelling comfortingly of him, and pulled it on. Damien glanced around when I walked into the kitchen, put down scrambled eggs and held out his arms before I could take refuge behind the table.
"Come here."
I leaned against him while he buttered toast one handed, then sat with me on his lap and fed me eggs and toast with a matter of factness that implied that refusal on my part didn't enter into his plans for the day. I took my time. But we still ended up in the lounge where Damien turned the fire on and pulled on my hand until I lay down on the carpet beside him.
This was where it got nasty.
"Okay." He said calmly. "From the beginning."
I shook my head silently. Damien ran a hand over my head, tousling.
"Yes. I know you're upset, I know you don't want to, but we are going to do it Nick. If it takes all day and no matter how upset you get, we ARE going to do it."
"That part doesn't matter." I said unsteadily.
"What part?"
"The why. I shouldn't have, I'm sorry, I won't do it again-"
That tone made me jump and pay a lot of attention. Damien's eyes were uncomfortably steady.
"Don't even TRY that act on me."
I was standing on a precipice with an abyss whichever way I jumped.
"I don't know." I said hopelessly. "I SAID I couldn't apologise to Robin. I TOLD you."
"What did you tell me?"
"That I couldn't mean it. It's all his fault, it always HAS been, he's a total bastard and I hate him!"
"It's Robin's fault you went to Bath?" Damien repeated. I shook my head, irritated with his slowness.
"NO. I went to Bath to get away from him."
"Was he bothering you?" Damien's voice hardened. "Nick? Did he bother you in any way?"
Yes. Then he'd kill Robin. Hopefully where I could watch.
"No." I admitted. "Just by being around.." I trailed off, near tears with how pathetic it sounded. "You SAID it was over! You said forget about it, it didn't matter and it DID! It felt like it did all the time, I couldn't stand it! I just wanted to get away."
"From me?"
"From everything." I said miserably. Damien didn't react, still picking his way calmly through my incoherency.
"What did I say was okay?"
I went scarlet and put my head down on my arms. Damien waited a minute, then put a hand into my huddle, found a wrist and pulled until I uncurled.
"Him- being here with you- " I flushed still darker and waved at the stairs. "That stupid joke. Which I KNOW was a joke. And I KNOW I'm being stupid, but I HATED it! I really hated it and you just said forget about it!"
"You mean him being in the bath." Damien said, unphased, as if I wasn't dripping tears and humiliation in equal quantities. I leaned into the hug he was offering and buried my face. He let me cling for a minute, then once more grasped my chin and made me look at him.
"Honestly. I mean honestly, Nick. Does any part of you worry about me having sex with or being in any way attracted to Robin?"
I pushed his hand, but he wouldn't let go. "I KNOW rationally."
"Rationality is a small percentage of anyone's mind." Damien said heavily. "I wish I'd clobbered Robin when I had the chance."
"I don't think you would go and have an affair with him or anyone." I said, trying not to cry too obviously. "I just look at him and he's younger and fitter and -"
"Nicky, shut up." Damien interrupted, pulling me back down against him. "Darling, there is nothing I can say that is going to convince you, but look at the facts. There is not one single legal tie between us, no children, no dependents, nothing whatever to MAKE me come home to you each day except that I want to. Think that one through."
I thought about it. Damien kissed my forehead and let me go.
"Why couldn't you just tell me instead of vanishing?"
"Because you said to forget about it." I muttered. Damien looked at me. I buried my face again.
"I tried! You said forget it so I couldn't keep saying-"
"Nicky, I say don't leave your socks on the floor. It doesn't sink in very often!"
"This is different!"
"So you cleared off to a Trusthouse for a week."
"I wanted to get away."
"And told me Bristol."
"I wanted to know that you didn't know where I was." I said unsteadily.
Damien didn't say anything for a minute, then hooked an arm around me and once more pulled me against him. I couldn't tell what he was thinking.
"If you ever do that again," he said into my hair, "I will strangle you with my bare hands."
"I won't." I said, fast, before he could get the idea that he hadn't made enough of an impression on me last night.
"No." he said sternly. "Running away is irresponsible and it's OUT. Never again, and I mean it."
"If there's a problem you TELL me. If you can't make a sensible decision on what you need to tell me I'll take the choice away and ASK you everything. And don't think you'll get an option on not saying."
"No sir." I said very quietly, still sniffling. Damien sighed.
"I told you to forget it because I was trying to stop it turning into too big a deal. I didn't want you upset. It's clear now you already WERE upset. I'm sorry Nicky. I'm terribly sorry I made you feel you couldn't say anything. Or that it sounded like I didn't think it mattered."
That finished me.
I would rather be hung, drawn and quartered than have Damien apologise to me. 
"It wasn't very bright." He said gently, a lot later. I was lying on the sofa, my head still in his lap. "If you'd been ill- if your asthma got bad- what if you needed me and I didn't know where you were?"
There were things here that he would never find out about.
If I chose not to tell him now, he would never know. But I knew, and lying here, feeling his hand moving gently and steadily over my hair, I knew there was no way I could go on hiding them.
"What?" Damien said quietly.
I hesitated one long, horrible moment, then took the plunge. I wanted this over. No more fences between us. No more of this dirty, muddled landscape I'd been standing in for two weeks. I just wanted to feel clean and close to him again.
"I ate junk the whole time I was there."
"I thought you probably did." Damien said resignedly. "You usually do once I'm out of sight."
"And I didn't tell you the peak flow before I went." I added tightly.
"I checked," Damien said, puzzled. "You were fine."
"I shifted the dial." I blurted out.
"From what TO what?" Damien said grimly.
"230 to 350." I said softly.
"You WHAT?" Damien demanded. "230?"
I shut my eyes. The volcano gathered steam for a few seconds, then burst over my head.
"NICHOLAS MARTIN HAYES I thought we got this one straight YEARS ago! What possible excuse can there be?"
"I knew you wouldn't let me go if I told you." I pleaded.
"Why wouldn't I?" Damien snapped.
"Because I might have an attack. I didn't-"
"LUCK Nick! That's ALL! With a reading like that I wouldn't have let you out of my sight!"
"I know." I said softly. "But I wanted to go. It wasn't an easy decision-"
"It was the WRONG decision!" Damien said sharply. "You have a condition which can be life threatening, you are DEPENDENT on drugs and good management, that is what keeps you safe! If I can't depend on you to make sensible decisions for yourself, based on you having some respect for your own safety then I'll damn well see to it that you make the right decisions out of respect for what I'll do to you if you don't!"
I had long since hidden my face in my arms, miserable and so ashamed I was in serious danger of evaporating. Damien tapped my head, sounding appallingly grim.
"Get yourself upstairs and change out of those jeans. Cords, chinos, whatever. And bring the cane down with you."
"Damien-" I said, horrified. Damien gave me a look of flat determination.
My stomach twisted into knots and made a spirited attempt to exit via my mouth.
"Damien no… nothing happened, it wasn't as bad as it sounds-"
"We've gone over this enough times, Nick, you knew exactly what to expect the minute you decided to change that dial. Go on, right now."
Oh God. Stifling yet more tears, I got to my feet and unsteadily went upstairs.  My knees were already shaking by the time I reached the landing. Standing in front of the wardrobe I tried to make the ridiculous decision of which pair of trousers were the least painful to be caned in, then surrendered and took the nearest pair. I found myself getting slower and slower as I changed. Damien's voice at the foot of the stairs was horribly grim.
"Nick, I'm waiting."
I knew. And it wasn't helping. Any more than the fact that he was demanding I brought the horrible thing down to him. He wouldn't even give me the support of escaping to a corner. My hands were shaking as I buttoned the cords I'd chosen. Much as I knew I'd asked for serious trouble, I'd hoped that the fact I got spanked- and seriously spanked- yesterday would mean he'd go easier on me But no. This foul, slim little piece of wood was cordially loathed by me because it stood for the fact I had, beyond the shadow of a doubt, seriously screwed up.
"One." Damien said at the foot of the stairs. I swallowed hard on a dry throat and somehow opened his half of the wardrobe, taking the Thing down from the shelf where it lay. I should have gone to Bristol. And jumped into the harbour.
No, I should never have been so stupid as to run away.
Or lied to him like this.
I started the long journey downstairs, my trembling knees stiff. 
Robin rang around seven pm. Damien was making me do horrendous, inhuman things like move and answer the phone, so I got the full beauty of his mid London accent.
"Hi, can I speak to Nick please?"
Damien appeared fast, possibly alerted by my screech or at the very least by my hurling the phone. He rescued it from the far corner, picked it up and grabbed me before I could bolt.
"I don't think he wants to talk right now Robin."
I repeated, clearly for the record, that Robin was a person of uncertain morals, with suspect elements to his disposition and highly doubtful parentage. Damien tactfully refrained from commenting. Just took the phone off the hook before he led me back into the lounge and the film which I was watching from the marginal comfort of my stomach, pressed tight against his hip and clutching his hand. 
Allen rang about nine pm. Mostly to make sure we were both back and that Nick was in one piece. He listened in silence as I gave him a brief run down of the day's events.
"Did you get to the bottom of it?" he said eventually. "Why he ran away in the first place?"
"I got a lot of going around in circles about Robin." I sat down at the foot of the stairs with a glance upwards. Nick was in bed. Apart from still being thoroughly in disgrace, he was worn out with stress and emotion. Caning scared the hell out of him. Which was very often the main reason I did it.
"I don't think he really knows what he's so upset about."
"And you do?"
I sighed heavily. Nick's basic problem is- and has always been- he is incredibly elusive. To himself as much as anyone else. In the early days he used to wander off into his vague fog when ever he was asked to do something he didn't want to do, or when he was under pressure he didn't like. It's the quickest way of making most people shut up and leave him alone. It was a bad habit and a lot of the reason why under stress he just stops thinking. He's perfectly capable of holding himself together if someone's around who won't put up with it. He's always drifted out of reach from any kind of conflict. Getting caught in it scares him to death.
"I think he's basically scared of how Robin makes him feel." I said wearily. "Although he has no clue what he DOES feel."
"I am sorry Damien."
"He can't go through life wrapped in cotton wool, people are going to upset him."
"Not this much and not this often." Allen said ruefully. I sighed.
"He's going to have to straighten this out with Robin, we can't drift on like this."
"Allright, let me make a suggestion." Allen offered. "You're after two things here. You want to stop him covering all this up and make him deal with it, and you want him to cope with being around Robin."
"Yes. The first one's the most important." I added. "He can't afford to bottle things up, it's about the worst trigger for asthma he has."
"So let me have him." Allen said calmly. 
The judgements handed down at the end of that awful day might as well have been carved in stone and were just as unpalatable. I was grounded, indefinitely and completely, and Damien declined to set a time limit. If he couldn't trust me alone, then I would not be allowed to BE anywhere alone. I was to go nowhere and do nothing he didn't supervise, and go nowhere he didn't take and collect me. He took my car keys. That came as no surprise. I also realised at eight pm that evening that he had no intention of letting me do my own medications. I had no grounds whatever for arguing but the basic and obvious fact he couldn't trust me was not exactly fun. Life was filled with doom, gloom, misery and Damien being cross with me.
I ended up in bed by nine. I was aware of his voice downstairs, the click of the phone and a long conversation.
"That was Allen." He told me when he came upstairs at ten. "You finish work at five pm. He'll collect you from the office then, and keep an eye on you until six when I can pick you up."
I looked up at him in horror. Damien, being a keyholder at the office, worked later than me- on the rare occasions I'd been seriously grounded, I'd been told to either to wait at my office for him, or he'd come to get me and taken me to wait at his office.
"I don't want to hear it Nick." Damien said before I could say anything. "Right now I don't feel inclined to let you go as far as the garden without supervision."
But Robin- Robin went home at five. As I did.
"Robin-" I began, shaken.
"Robin WILL be there with Allen." Damien said bluntly. "Don't even THINK about starting Nicky. You two are just going to have to learn to get on together."
"I HATE him!"
"You don't hate anyone." Damien hung his shirt up and shut the wardrobe door with a very final click. "Allen and I are friends, you ARE going to see Robin around and I won't let this situation fester on any longer. I left you to sort this out in your own way and it most definitely didn't help. You're going to have to face him and you two are going to have to figure out for once and for all just who does have the alpha brat status."
"I'm NOT going to do it!"
"You're going Nicky." Damien finished undressing and got in beside me, turning out the light. "I'll be there by six, I promise. But he won't eat you."
I shut my mouth, tears stinging yet again. I seemed plugged right into the waterworks this weekend. This had to be the worst Saturday in living memory. I rolled away from him and started to get out of bed until he grabbed my hand.
"Bedtime. Lie down."
"I want to go to the loo."
"No you don't." Damien pulled me down and against him.
"How do you know?" I demanded. Damien didn't answer. I flopped down as much as his arms would allow, swallowing hard.
"My head aches and my backside HURTS and you won't let me move, and you're going to make me spend every night with Robin-"
"Nick you're not going to work yourself into a state, stop that now."
That tone made me realise, fast, I was whining a little too obviously. Deprived of any other course of action, I swallowed on the tears again as they started to flow.
"Maybe I'll just drown."
Damien pulled me over, ignoring my yelp as my bottom touched the mattress, got my onto my other side and yanked me close until my face was buried in his chest and I had no hope of going anywhere. One leg wrapped around mine, his arms folded tight over my shoulders, pinning me against him and he began to rub my neck and head, slowly and comfortingly.
"Go to sleep, it's going to look much better in the morning."
"No it won't."
"Yes it will." Damien said in tones of utter finality. 
By Monday morning I'd decided the answer was an asthma attack. Allen would have no clue, Damien would leave work and come to get me, and if I had it at the office just before leaving, he'd probably take me straight home. As a child I'd learned to have mild ones at will: if Damien wasn't watching, he'd probably put it down to stress.
The plan held together perfectly until we reached my office at eight am, where Mr Mitchell, bless his size ten cotton socks, kissed me goodbye and handed me my nebuliser, neatly packed in it's travelling case.
"Just in case. Allen knows how it works, he'll help you if you need it."
I stared at him in outrage. "What if I have a really REALLY bad one?"
"Then I'll meet you at casualty." Damien said placidly.
"And Nick?" Damien said, propping his elbow out of the open car window. "Be good."
There was a whole WORLD of meaning in those two words. 
I was actually nervous enough by the time that Allen pulled into the carpark at five pm, that I was wheezing without any conscious effort. Allen leaned over to open the door for me and sat back to watch me get in.
"Hi. Don't look so worried."
There was nothing I could politely say.
I want to go home. I'd rather run than go near your partner.
Allen gave me a concerned look, glancing at the nebuliser I hadn't quite dared to forget. After Saturday, Damien was very much less than pleased with me: it wouldn't take much to remind him HOW not pleased he was and I didn't feel up to withstanding his lightenings at the moment.
"You sound rough. Have you taken anything?"
"Is that enough?"
He was no Damien, who would have grabbed on any non committal sound instantly. The knowledge of that was not exactly satisfaction, but a realisation that unlike Damien, he wouldn't notice anything I chose to slip past him. He probably only picked up on obvious stuff, living with Robin. Allen turned the ignition over.
"If I can help, I expect you to tell me. Even if it's just to make reassuring noises. Yes?"
I nodded, unwillingly remembering that while I could probably get away with murder with him, I did actually like him.
I felt like a trapped rat in their house. Allen made me come into the kitchen with him, put a mug of tea down in front of me and started to clear up the stack of papers from the kitchen table. I couldn't sit down. I was braced, listening for the car. It came within five minutes. Robin shut the front door, came in, gave me one look and went straight past me to Allen's lap.
The message was loud and clear.
"I can't." I said as quietly as I could, "I'm sorry. I'm going."
I didn't stop to see Allen's face. I grabbed my coat, pulled it on and headed down the drive, close to tears. Damien was going to be furious, but he was going to have to understand. I couldn't do this. It was about a two mile walk home. Damien would make it before I did. Possibly when Allen told him I'd gone, he'd come and meet me. And then he'd be furious. My eyes stung still more at the thought. He was already fed up enough with me.
"Nick." Allen said gently. I shook my head and kept walking.
"I'm sorry."
Allen followed me, zipping up his coat. "Its cold, why don't I drive?"
I hunched my shoulders and couldn't think of a civil answer. Allen's hand offered his cell phone.
"Want to call Damien?"
"There's no point. He'll kill me anyway." I said bleakly. Allen's arm slipped around my shoulders and tightened.
"Damien loves you desperately."
But he didn't understand. He LIKED Robin. Allen for God's sakes liked Robin.
"Robin isn't Lucifer incarnate you know." Allen said mildly. "He's very young, admittedly tactless and he can be difficult I know. But he doesn't do anything with any real intent. He doesn't mean to hurt."
"I am so TIRED of people telling me how upset Robin is!" I said bitterly. "HE started it! Why do I have to be nice to him when he's made ME feel-"
"Unsafe, threatened and invaded." Allen said calmly. "I know. And Damien knows. But the only way you're going to feel any better about it is to realise for yourself that Robin isn't as bad as you feel he is now."
I scowled at the ground. This was rubbish. Total rubbish. I wanted Damien. I wanted to go home and lock the door. Allen walked with me in silence most of the way home before Damien's car glided to a halt beside us. Damien was half way out of the car and I was braced, close to tears and ready for him to detonate when Allen squeezed my shoulder and gave him an easy smile.
"Damien he's fine, it's allright. I'll see you tomorrow Nick."
I caught the brief, silent conversation that went on over my head. Damien didn't comment, but as Allen turned back towards his end of town, he opened the passenger door for me and gave me a brief, hard hug.
Damien kissed my forehead and started the car.
I picked up Anastasia in the hall at home, buried my face in her coat and took her upstairs with me. I was halfway up when Damien's voice followed.
"Change and come straight back down."
Anastasia wriggled free and fled. I screamed. A lot. I managed to get out about four times that I was less than happy with him before he reached me and swatted hard enough to make me stop shouting abuse. I started to cry instead then. It was becoming such a familiar reaction I was more than slightly bored with it.
"THIS is exactly what I went away for!" I told him bitterly, "This is exactly WHY. We didn't have to go through this!"
"You don't need to be on your own or anywhere else, you need to be here with me." Damien said with infuriating calm. "Stop creating."
"Get knotted." I informed him. Damien swatted me firmly as he hustled me upstairs.
"Get yourself changed and come straight back down."
"I hate you!" I spat at him.
"Change." Damien repeated, unmoved.
Snarling, I flung the door open and grabbed a sweater and jeans, completely unpacified by his definite and cheerful
"Good boy."
We ate in a one sided war, Damien serene, me on the brink of throwing something at his head. I was too upset to be at all hungry and would have refused to eat on principle except that Damien interrupted before I opened my mouth.
"I won't argue Nick. You can eat now, or you can pick a corner to stand in until you're ready to eat. Your choice."
I knew he meant it.
We washed up together with him humming to the radio, then he grabbed my hand, towed me to the sofa and made me sit with him, both arms too tight around me to let me move away. Balked of any means of annoying him further, I folded my arms and concentrated on icy silence.
I went to bed and got through breakfast on Tuesday morning without using more than monosyllables. He was doing his most infuriating 'I haven't noticed and if you want me to notice you're going to have to tell me' act, which I was loathing, but just made me all the more determined. He kissed me goodbye outside the office, took my briefcase to check I hadn't managed to dispose of the lunch he'd packed for me and handed me my coat.
"Be good. I'll see you at six. "
I glared at his car as it drove away. At four thirty I packed my case, collected my belongings and went and sat in the park, several streets away from the office. It was a pleasant evening. I'd go home the back way at six. And that ought to make Damien talk to me.
In fact he'd probably go mad, but I was so angry now I didn't care. At five forty five my phone began to ring. I took it out of my pocket and glared at the display. Damien. Naturally. I nearly didn't answer it. Then thought a little more and clicked the reply button.
"Can I help you?"
"Are you going to tell me or do I just look?" Damien inquired. "I thought I'd ask."
I hate that tone of unctuous courtesy.
"I'm in the park." I informed him. "Victoria street."
"I'll pick you up from the front gates in five minutes."
Fine. I collected my belongings and went to meet him, not exactly triumphant but not exactly subdued either.
"Which of us do you think can keep this up the longest, Nick?" Damien asked mildly when I got into the car.
"I can." I informed him. "Want to place a bet?"
"I'd be robbing you darling." Damien put the car into gear and turned back into the busy highstreet.
He took me home. I ate, purely because having ditched the sandwiches he'd given me for lunch I was starving. I then got spanked and sent to bed.
No matter how furious I am when he starts, somehow I end up miserable and genuinely, seriously sorry about whatever it is that I've done that he's not happy with by the time he's finished with me.
"We can do this on a nightly basis if we have to." Damien told me when he put me to bed. "Its up to you, Nick. You'll apologise to Allen tomorrow for making him worry about you."
Something told me that 'no' was not going to be a sensible answer at this moment in time. 
Nick, really and seriously spinning out, is a full time job. The intensity of this particular set of tantrums was demanding, and I had that feeling I get sometimes that he's going to dig us deeper and deeper in. Although often the only thing to do then is to let him and just keep shoring up the walls around us firmly enough that he can still see daylight. If this was what had been churning around inside him for the last week or two, it was no wonder he'd reacted. At least now it was coming out.
I checked with Allen, somewhat guilty over leaving him to struggle with Nick in this frame of mind, and somewhat more concerned at gut level that Allen was not up to handling Nick in this kind of state. Allen fended me off, cheerful but absolutely matter of fact. It was fine, he and Nick would sort this out.
I suspected privately that Nick would drive him and Robin to screaming point. 
"You will wait here until Allen collects you this afternoon." Damien said when he dropped me off the following morning. "You WILL go with him and you will stay with him until I collect you."
I looked at him, mutinously. Damien turned off the car engine.
"Promise me please."
I went on looking at him. Damien got out of the car and locked it.
"Ok. We'll go up to your office and discuss it. There'll be no one else around for another half hour or so."
"Then you promise me please. You'll wait right here at five pm for Allen and go with him. And stay with him until I get there."
This was called being over a barrel.
"I promise." I said bitterly.
"What do you promise?" Damien said flatly, giving me no chance to evade it.
I scowled. "I'll wait for him and I'll stay with him until you come."
"Thankyou. Then I trust you."
Damien gave me a quick hug, kissed me and got back in the car.
"I'll see you at six."
I kicked every doorpost I came across between the front door and my office.
Allen came up to my office at ten past five. I was braced for the rap at the door and barely looked up.
"Hello." Allen came in and looked at the papers still covering my desk. "Its past time you left this. Get your coat please."
"I've got things to do." I informed him.
"Then you do them tomorrow." Allen said calmly, taking my coat off the back of the door. "Come on Nick."
"I'm busy."
Allen took the pen out of my hand and held my coat out. I folded my arms and glared at him. I knew what Damien would do at this point, but Allen wasn't likely to try it. In fact I wondered what he would do. Ring Damien? I'd kept my promise. I was AT the office, I was happy to stay with Allen here until Damien came to get me.
"Nick get up." Allen told me firmly, taking my arm. "You ARE coming with me and we're not going to argue about it."
"I don't want to." I told him politely.
"Then we've got a problem, haven't we?" Allen commented. I surveyed his face, mildly interested. Allen laid my coat down and sat on my desk, folding his arms.
"So what are we going to do?"
"I'm going to finish my work and wait for Damien."
"I thought you promised Damien you'd stay with me until he came to collect you?"
"I promised to be here when you came to get me." I hedged.
"So what if I walk out of here now and go down to the car?" Allen asked. I scowled at him. Allen got up off the desk.
"Come on."
I shook my head. Allen sighed.
"If I'm in loco parentis I ought to start making threats about spanking you right now. Except I can't think of anything that would make you more miserable and I think you're upset enough already."
THAT made me jump. That wasn’t a possibility I wanted to start thinking about. Allen held out a hand to me and waited.
"Come on Nick. We're going to deal with this particular problem. You and me, not Damien. No matter what you do, I'm not going to call Damien in to sort this out. You're not going to push me into calling him or into giving up."
"This doesn't have anything to do with you." I said angrily. "I don't see why you had to get involved."
"Because I love Robin and because Damien is a very good friend. And they're both very concerned about you. They can't do anything to help you sort this problem out with Robin and I think I can. Put your coat on, it's cold."
"I don't LIKE Robin."
"I can understand why. But you do need to get over being scared of him."
"I AM NOT." I said in total indignation.
"I think you are." Allen said calmly. "But I'm not going to leave you alone with him, you're not going to have to deal with him and you're going to see he IS just a tactless, very young twenty three year old who doesn't think before he acts."
"That's easy for you to say." I muttered.
"Yes." Allen agreed, "Because I can see a lot of very good things about him that you won't want to think about now. But I don't think you need to be afraid of him."
"I am NOT afraid of him." I said savagely, putting on the coat that Allen was holding out.
It was half past five when we reached Allen's house. Allen made me take my coat off, ushered me ahead of him into the kitchen, made tea and shouted until Robin came downstairs. He gave me a wary look and slid around the edge of the kitchen to reach Allen. Allen hugged him but wouldn't let him hold on.
"Tea or squash?"
"Squash." Robin said unwillingly. Allen held out a glass to me, passed the other one to Jamie and took the biscuit tin down off the shelf.
"Come on then. Suppose we see what's on tv?"
I picked an armchair at the far side of the lounge, curled up and folded my arms tightly. We watched some game show for a while, Robin stretching out full length on the floor with a solitaire board, Allen drinking tea calmly from the other armchair. It wasn't as bad as it could have been. No one said anything much, but I wasn't quite so knotted when the doorbell rang at six.
Damien picked my coat up in the hall and stood waiting while I scuffed across to him, irrationally no better pleased to see him than I'd been to see Allen earlier. I ducked away from his kiss hello.
"Has he been ok?" he said straight over my head to Allen.
"Yes, do talk about me as if I'm three." I said, swiping my coat out of his hands. "After all I don't understand."
"Apart from behaving like he was dragged up in the nearest gutter." Damien went on, ignoring me. Allen smiled.
"He's been fine."
"I think you had something to say to Allen." Damien said pointedly to me. I spread my arms and bowed to him before I turned to Allen.
"I'm sorry I made you worry about me yesterday."
"Well he WAS sorry when I finished with him yesterday." Damien said dryly. "The effect seems to have worn off temporarily, but we can rectify that."
"Whatever." I said to him, using the one word I know he seriously can't stand. Damien put his hand on the back of my neck and gave Allen a polite smile.
"And on that note, I'll take my brat and go. Thankyou for having him."
"Pleasure." Allen said simply.
Damien picked my briefcase up and steered me ahead of him over the doorstep and onto the drive. I took my time, deliberately dragging my feet, not that it was slowing him up much. I knew perfectly well he would say nothing here and now I could use as ammunition to escalate this any higher. For some reason that annoyed me more than any scolding could have done. He unlocked the car door and left me to get in, moving around to the driver's side. I struggled a minute to get my briefcase and myself into the car, found I'd caught my coat on the wing mirror and that was all the reason I needed. White heat boiled up out of a simmering rage and I hurled the briefcase over the bonnet and into the road. My coat ripped as I tore it free and threw it after the briefcase, then kicked the nearest part of the car available. I have no idea what I said, except that it was very loud and completely unrepeatable. Damien rounded the car at a fast, steady stride, face so calm I would have thrown something at him had I anything to hand. What he did do was grab my hands, prise them off the car roof and push me down into the passenger seat before he shut the door on me. Absolutely livid, I leaned across and snapped the lock down, locking all five of the car doors. Damien took no notice. He picked up my coat and my briefcase, collecting the folders scattered across the road and returning them to the case before he came back to the car. I sat back, arms folded, and scowled at the road ahead. Damien took his keys out of his pocket and unlocked the car with the infra beam. Deprived even of that outlet, I leaned over and rested my full weight on the horn. Damien got into the driver's seat, collected both my hands in one of his and pushed me away, dropping my briefcase and coat onto the back seat. He carried on holding me until I stopped struggling. I slumped back in my seat and folded my arms tightly.
"If you've quite finished?" Damien inquired politely.
"No!" I spat at him. Damien pocketed the key and sat back.
"Fine. You tell me when you're done and we'll go home."
I glowered out of the window. Robin was standing in the living room window of the house, eyes wide. I gave him a sweet smile and raised two fingers at him.
"NICHOLAS!" Damien said sharply.
Allen appeared in the window, put an arm around his shoulders and took him away. I settled back in my seat and folded my hands behind my head.
"I'm done now." 
Damien didn't say a word on the way home. Once we got inside he took my wrist, steered me with him into the kitchen and filed me in the nearest corner. And took no further notice of me. I stared at the paintwork, listening to the sounds of him cooking, moving around, then the rustle of the newspaper and the scrape of a kitchen chair as he sat down to read. Feelings of satisfaction gradually gave way to tedium, then to irritation.
"It wasn't as if I was DOING anything on the way home," I pointed out. "I was quite calm by the time we got here."
"Quiet." Damien said without looking around from his paper. I stared at the plaster some more, beginning to feel tired and increasingly sorry for myself.
"Damieeeeeeeeen….." I pleaded eventually.
There was the crisp rustle of a paper being folded. "What's the matter Nick?"
"I'm sorry I lost my temper. And that I was rude…." I trailed off, not sure whether I was doing the wisest thing, reminding him of details.
"Come here." Damien said, getting up. I went, well aware of which shelf he was headed for and why.
"I am sorry- I just lost my temper and things kept getting worse and worse."
"And that's a reasonable excuse for that tantrum you threw in the street? Not to mention how rude you were to me and Allen?" Damien asked, lifting an eyebrow at me. I flushed and shook my head. Damien took down the codliver oil bottle and extracted a spoon from the drawer. I was in deep enough already, now was not the time to argue. I shut my eyes and accepted the spoonful he put in my mouth. It felt like about three quarters of a gallon of the foul stuff.
Cringing on the revolting, slimy sensation of oil and the taste and smell of bad fish, I gulped it down, struggled not to gag and with difficulty kept my mouth shut. Damien recapped the bottle and nodded at my corner.
"Go on."
I went back to staring at the paintwork for another five minutes, swallowing repeatedly to try and get the foul taste out of my mouth.
"Ok." Damien said quietly behind me. "Upstairs and get changed. And come straight down, dinner's ready."
I turned around and looked at him. Damien brushed my hair out of my eyes, tipped my chin up and kissed me, braving the remainder of the codliver oil.
"Go on sweetheart."
I went. It took a while of eating before the taste of fish left, but it helped. Damien cleared the table when we were done and I got up to help him, but as soon as the dishes were in the sink, he pointed to my chair.
"Sit down."
I sat, warily. Damien put a pen and several sheets of paper in front of me.
"Okay. I want you to write down just what you've been thinking about and feeling since you made the decision to go to Bath. Not for me to read, you don't have to show me if you don't want to, but I want you to think about it and put it down on paper. I also want to see both sides of that sheet covered. You've got until 8.30 to finish it."
"Are you serious?" I demanded. Damien looked at me, eyebrow raised.
"You keep asking me that at moment. How about I tell you when I'm joking and the rest of the time you assume I'm not?"
I resisted the urge to stick my tongue out, which was not only childish and unnecessary, but would also go unappreciated.
"I don't know what to write."
"Then write down what happened and think about it." Damien told me. "I've got some drawings to finish, I'll bring them in here and sit with you."
I sighed and stared at the blank sheet of paper. I was still staring when Damien sat down opposite me. He leaned over and knocked on the table, making me look up.
"Pick the pen up and get started. You went to Bath. What were you thinking about while you drove up there? That's nearly two hours."
"I don't want to."
"I know you don’t, but you're going to." Damien said matter of factly. I sighed and again and settled down to think of something to write.
In the end I wrote down the events more or less as they happened, and found the more I wrote, the angrier I got. In the end I slammed the pen down on the paper and flung myself back in my chair to glare at Damien, too furious to care.
"I'm NOT doing any more!"
"It's half past eight, so that's fine." Damien commented, putting his pencil down. "Two sides?"
I looked down at the notebook, slightly taken aback. When I turned the pages, I'd written closer to five. Damien tore out the pages without looking at them, handed them to me and put the notebook away.
"Go and get ready for bed, I'll be up in a minute."
"It's eight thirty!"
"Not only am I not joking Nick, my powers of observation really aren't bad for my age."
I glowered at him.
Damien put his hips against the kitchen counter and LOOKED at me. I got up, still fuming, and ran upstairs.
He was driving me mad.
I slammed around upstairs as loudly as I dared while I got undressed and showered. Damien took no notice, which didn't help.
"Why don't you kick a few pillows around?" he suggested helpfully when he did come upstairs. I threw one at him for good measure. Damien threw it back and pulled the covers down.
"Come on."
"I am NOT going to sleep at nine o clock at night."
It was his I don't care face. I flung myself down on the bed and glowered at him. Damien kissed me heartlessly.
"Good night."
"What?" Damien said calmly. I glared at him. He sat down on the edge of the bed.
"It's NOT fair." I told him.
"What isn't?"
I had no idea. Damien showed no signs of wanting to leave however, so I calmed down fractionally and thought about it.
"I HATE Robin." I told him eventually.
"I'd noticed."
"I don't WANT to be there every night, I hate it! Allen's talking a load of rubbish about me being scared of Robin and I'm not and he said if I didn't go home he'd spank me and if he touches me I'll kill him and Robin's a sod anyway, he had no right to go and tell you where I was-"
"Nick what were you going to do?" Damien said gently. "Just wander back after a week or so and pretend it never happened? Were you going to pretend to me you'd been in Bristol the whole time?"
"I'd hope you never asked."
"You wouldn't." Damien said dryly.
I went back to glowering at him. Damien touched my cheek.
"Would you?"
"Do you have to be right the whole time?"
I swiped another pillow up and thumped him with it. He fended me off but didn't take it away.
"You're going to keep going to Allen and Robin because I want you to. And no, you don't have any say in that."
"You don't care how I feel!"
"How do you feel?"
"I'm bloody annoyed!" I told him hotly. "If that stupid git hadn't forced his way in here in the first place we wouldn't be in any of this mess! HE started all this, it's all his fault! I spoke to him in Bath and all he could say was I was making a drama out of everything- attention seeking! I went to bloody BATH and didn't tell anyone, how is that possibly attention seeking? And then HE had to tell you all about it and get me into MORE trouble- I'm sure he loved that! He causes havoc and I get it in the neck from you! You've been all over me for days and you will be for weeks yet-"
I was approaching tears fast.
"Yes." Damien said firmly. "But because of the state you've got yourself into and the semi insane choices you chose to make because of it. Robin didn't MAKE you do that. Or go to Bath."
"It's STILL his fault and I bet he loved knowing you were furious with me-"
"He was in tears when he told me. And he'd talked to Allen first because he didn't know what to do." Damien leaned his elbows on his knees and looked at me. "He was seriously upset he'd pushed you into doing something so awful and he knew very well how upset you are. But he's apologised and apologised to you and you won't listen- you can't expect him to keep feeling penitent when you're treating him like this. And he knew I needed to know."
"You didn't."
"I damn well did." Damien said roundly. "Do you remember what that consultant said to us at St Barts when you went for that assessment? Asthmatics shouldn't bottle things up. Getting it off your chest, he called it. You can't handle any extra weight there at all."
I looked at the floor, digesting that. I had been shouting and ranting most of the time since I came home, and I hadn't had one attack. Not even one bad day. As a matter of fact, furious as I was, I felt a hell of a lot better. The numbness and suffocation seemed part of the bad dream before Damien appeared and made me come home.
"And it's still your fault." I snapped at Damien. "You SAID it was all okay, you made me accept his apology when it WASN'T okay-"
"I should have made you talk to him the day after it happened, before you had a chance to get panic stricken."
Damien looked at me. I flung myself over on one side and pulled the quilt over me. Damien leaned down and kissed what he could reach of my forehead.
"Get some sleep darling." 
Panic stricken was the right word. And he was finding it far easier to be angry with me and with Allen than to deal with the real person he was angry with. He has a positive gift for making himself miserable. Allen was right. He knew what he was doing here, he needed to get Nick past the point of being scared to be around Robin- less because he was afraid of Robin than afraid of exploding and letting loose some of the feelings he was taking out on me as a safe target. If it made him feel any better, I had no problem with that. Whatever he threw at me, he knew he was safe, I could handle him and I could set up walls strong enough to contain us both.
Maybe if we weathered the storm a few days more he would start to run out of steam. He was at least starting to realise now some of what he was thinking and feeling, the emotions were actually going somewhere and this was harmless noise and fury- he wasn't going to do himself or us any harm by shouting and ranting at me, and he knew it. All he needed from me was consistency and constant reassurance that I was here, I was listening and I loved him, and that I could do. It didn't feel like nearly enough, but at least we were getting somewhere. 
Damien rang at lunchtime and again at four thirty. Frankly, if he was that worried about me, he should come and get me himself. I told him so and got the blunt growl that means I'm on thin ice.
"Don't even start down that road, Nicholas. You will be there at five pm, you'll stay with Allen AND behave and I'll get you at six. Clear?"
"Yes." I said resentfully.
"Neither would I." Damien said calmly. "Promise?"
"I love you, be good."
"Can we go out tonight?" I said before he could put the phone down. "Please? Just one night? I'm fed to the back teeth of the house and Robin and the whole damn mess-"
"Which is exactly why you were grounded." Damien said calmly. "No, Nick."
"If I go mad, you'll be surprised!"
"I'll remember you warned me. Six o clock Nick."
I slammed the phone down and scowled at it. Except I did actually feel marginally better. Why, I had no clue.
Allen was in the car park again at five and gave me a cheerful smile as if I looked anything like pleased to see him.
"Hey sunshine. Good day?"
"No. Damien's locking me up until Domesday and I've got to spend an hour with the Loch Ness Monster." I said flatly. Allen laughed.
"So things can only get better?"
Tops. Who'd have them?
Robin was in the kitchen, twirling slowly round and round on top of a stool and drinking coke, which Allen confiscated as he walked past.
"Squash or tea, you can't handle caffeine on top of the amount of coffee you drink at work."
"Caffeine doesn't affect me." Robin retorted. Allen poured the coke down the sink.
"Maybe it's all the sugar then."
Quit while you're ahead, berk. I thought at the back of Robin's head.
"Want a drink, Nick?" Allen asked. I glanced around as the phone rang. Allen headed for the hall, snagged Robin's hand on the way and took him along.
"Hi. Yes…" I heard the chatter start, checked that Allen had Robin firmly corralled, and finished my tea in peace. Their garden was untidily pretty through the kitchen window, the lawn out of control but the flowerbeds full and rioting. The clock stood at twenty to six. In twenty minutes Damien would appear and I could get out of this house and away from the demon incarnate that Allen was holding on to in the hall.
"Why don't you come through and watch some tv?" Allen said, putting the phone down.
"Because I don't want to?" I suggested. Allen held out a hand.
"Come anyway."
Growl. Robin stood at the shelves, flicking through them for a video, half an eye on me.
"I saw the paddy you threw on the drive yesterday."
"Robin, shut up." Allen said calmly, sitting down with his book.
I gave Robin a slow, sweet smile that implied he wasn't worth the braincells. Robin smiled back, dropping his voice out of Allen's hearing range.
"So what DOES the drama queen feel like watching?"
I surveyed his face, from the bright eyes to the sarcastic sneer, and considered how that face had looked standing on the landing, smirking at me beside my lover. How it had felt, telling those awful lies to Damien. Sitting for days in that hotel. Damien and I locked in combat on the driveway while Robin smirked in the window. Damien sitting on the edge of my bed last night while I sulked.
Then I drew back a fist and punched him on the nose.
~The End~
Copyright Ranger 2010


Anonymous said...

Hahahaha best ending to a story ever!!

Rayne Thackery said...

Sorry, but I think Damien was very dense about the whole thing. Maybe I'm a different type of brat :P but there would've been a brat fight the night the incident with the bath happened and I would have made it clear I wouldn't speak to Robin for 1 year. Damien got what he deserved from Nick.

Emy said...

I agree with the rest of you I was very much on Nick's side throughout all this. And kept feeling sad for him.

As much as I love the series I never warmed up to Robin and wished Damen could see him for the git that he is :p

Anonymous said...

I am continually annoyed at Damien's dense refusal to protect Nick from Robin. If my spouse forced me to continually socialize with someone who tormented and tortured me in the way Robin does, I'd leave them, no matter how in love I was. This is downright abusive, to force this acquaintance. If Damien wants to be friends with Allen, he should hang out with Allen alone, not force their partners along. Every time Nick gets in trouble for doing something to Robin, all I can think is, "This is entirely Damien's fault, and how dare he punish Nick for this. You can't punish someone into liking another person."
That makes these stories hard to read.

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

Rolf and Ranger’s Next Book will be called The Mary Ellen Carter. The Mary Ellen Carter and other works in progress can be read at either the Falls Chance Ranch Discussion Group or the Falls Chance Forum before they are posted here at the blog. So come and talk to the authors and be a part of a work in progress.

Do you want to read the FCR Books
and Short Stories on your E-Reader?
Well, lucky for you, e-book files can be found in
both the Yahoo Group and the Discussion Forum.