"Tip your seat back and have a nap, Chris."
"I'm all right," Chris said quietly, curling deeper into the seat. Joe looked at him and raised his eyebrows.
"That wasn't a suggestion. Right back, try keeping that arm up for a while."
Chris looked down but he tipped the seat back to almost a full recline and folded the swollen arm over his chest. When Joe looked over a few minutes later, he was asleep, the tension easing out of his body, his good hand half-curled over the swollen one. The crossed hands made him look deceptively saintly. Not angelic in the way Matthew and Todd could with their wide eyes and innocent faces, but the tortured saints of the Renaissance art, beautiful men with dark and hunted eyes. It was as deceptive as Matthew's angel face- at the heart of Chris was a mischievous, lively boy, just not many people were privileged to meet him. Although, Chris with his slight, long limbs would look incredible in the draped robes of the painted saints. Joe put the image away with some difficulty, keeping his eyes on the road and clearing his mind. Chris was in no mood for anything tonight except fluids, painkillers and bed.
It was getting on to twilight by the time they pulled into the driveway. Joe parked, turned the car off and gathered up his keys, walking around the car to open Chris's door. Chris murmured in response to the gentle shake, staggered to his feet and leaned against Joe, eyes still closed, while Joe unlocked the front door. In the hall, he pushed Chris gently towards the stairs.
"Go on. Straight up, get ready for bed, I'll be up in a minute."
Chris stumbled up the stairs. Joe took a moment to collect their own bottle of aloe and antihistamine cream and to make up a jug of rehydration powder before he followed. Chris had managed to peel himself out of his clothes: they lay in a heap on the floor and Chris himself lay stretched out face down on the bed, arms above his head. Joe sat down beside him and dipped a finger in the jug, letting a few drips fall onto Chris's bare back. Chris wriggled half-heartedly but didn't open his eyes. Joe leaned over to put the jug down and took the cap off the aloe, pouring some into his hand.
"You've got more burn than tan now."
"Didn't realise it was so hot. No shade anywhere."
"Is it sore?"
Joe ran his lotion-covered hands gently over Chris's shoulders and from Chris's jump, they were more than a 'little' tender. He spent some time massaging the lotion into the worst of the burn sites, taking the heat out of them, then tousled Chris's scattered hair gently.
"Roll over, sweetheart."
Chris groaned, burying his face deeper in the quilt. Joe put a hand on his hip and pulled him over, bullying gently until Chris roused enough to drink most of the contents of the jug and swallow two more Tylenol. He dozed off while Joe was covering the wasp stings with antihistamine cream. The arm was already less swollen. Joe put it under the covers and got up, heading to wash his hands and shower himself. By the time he was ready for bed, Chris was deeply and peacefully asleep.
Joe let Chris sleep the following morning, occupying himself with the Saturday morning housework and gardening, and the washing of both cars. It was past and he was wiping down the windscreen of Chris's car when he saw a still pyjamaed figure sit down on the doorstep, tousle-haired and yawning. His arms and chest still looked red but the stung arm looked a good deal less swollen. Joe flicked the hose in his direction, eliciting a half-hearted squeak and jump, then turned the tap off and put the hose away, locking the garage door before he came back to Chris and pulled him to his feet.
"How are you feeling? You look a lot better."
"Ok." Chris leaned against him, shutting his eyes and purring as Joe rubbed his back. "Tired. And my head aches a lot, but I'm ok."
The arm when Joe ran a hand over it, was rapidly returning to its usual size and shape. Joe kissed his forehead and steered him back over the doorstep towards the kitchen.
"Would you like breakfast or shall we go straight for an early lunch?"
"Not that hungry." Chris settled into a kitchen chair and put his head down on his arms, watching Joe pour orange juice. "Just sleepy. And a bit zoned out."
"Zoned out?" Joe put the orange juice in front of him and brushed his hair off his forehead, discreetly checking his temperature. He felt cool but his eyes still looked a little vague. Chris shrugged.
"Like being drunk. Spaced out."
"Do you need to go back to bed?"
Chris shook his head emphatically, draining the glass of juice. Ten minutes later he was working his way through the second, lying on the porch swing in the shade with another dose of Tylenol, aloe and antihistamine, content to listen to the radio and to watch Joe carry on with the garden work. Which was a sure sign he wasn't feeling well. Joe suspected it was emotional as much as physical: Chris was highly strung at the best of times and since the death of his brother, he'd been strung yet higher. And yet despite the fact that yesterday had clearly been traumatic, he was encouraged that for the first time since David's death, Chris had not only wanted to spend a full day out of his company and with a friend, but also shown a flash of independence and mischief Joe hadn't seen in a long time. If, in reaction to that, he was feeling fragile today, then Joe didn't intend on rushing him: it was reassuring to see some evidence of progress.
Sundays were by tradition THEIR day: the one day neither of them had to get up and go anywhere. Joe, too, usually managed to all needed chores done on Saturdays and had a cast iron rule about homework being done on Friday nights, so it was usually a day free of all encumbrances, which began with a lie in. This morning however, Joe dragged himself awake at eight, rolled over and excavated Chris from under the quilt, nipping at his ear until he stirred.
"Hey, sweetheart. Breakfast."
"It's Sunday," Chris muttered, rolling over and burying his face in Joe's chest. Joe hugged him, fighting his own compulsion to shut his eyes and relax back into sleep.
"I know. But you've got homework that needs doing to make up from Friday. And we didn't shop yesterday."
In fact they hadn't done much of anything yesterday. Chris had been quiet and obviously not fully himself all day: they'd spent a long afternoon cuddling in front of the TV and Joe had sent him up to bed not long after seven, wanting him to sleep off the last of the effects of the wasp stings and sunburn.
Chris muttered, burrowing deeper. Joe kissed him and determinedly let go, rolling out of bed.
"Come on, let's go. Breakfast."
One of the things Joe really didn't appreciate was people turning up late for meals. Chris heard him head downstairs and the radio snap on in the kitchen, and knew he had only a few minutes grace to follow. It took effort, but he struggled out from under the quilt and sat up, looking cautiously at his arm. The swelling was nearly gone: there was only a red lump where the two stings had been, still tender to the touch. Chris probed it doubtfully and decided it was ok so long as he wore a shirt with long enough sleeves that he didn't have to look at it. Bearing that in mind, he pulled a robe on before he headed downstairs.
Joe, who loved cooking, was whistling to the radio and making pancakes. Chris pulled the necessary things out of the fridge, set the table and opened the back door, sitting on the step in the morning breeze. A minute later Joe nudged him gently in the back and handed him a plate of pancakes.
"Why don't we eat outside?"
"We're not dressed?" Chris said dryly. Joe grinned and headed back to the stove, sucking butter off his fingers.
"We've both got nice legs, let 'em look."
"You have no idea." Joe collected the jam off the table and came back to the door with his own plate and a mug of coffee. "Go on, out. Out out out, no one's going to jump on you around here except me."
Chris retrieved his plate and coffee and moved to the steps, leaving room for Joe to settle on the bench under the kitchen window. Still wearing the shorts and brief t-shirt he slept in, barefoot and tousled, Chris watched him with sleepy appreciation, loving the familiarity of his movements, the way he sat with his elbows on his spread knees, the way he held his coffee mug securely in both hands, cradling the warmth. Joe's eyes met him over the rim of the cup and grinned, taking in the expression.
"I like looking at you," Chris said simply. Joe blew him a kiss.
"Eat your pancakes while you look then, they're horrible cold."
Chris put his back to the stairpost and ate, scuffing one foot gently over the surface of the morning damp grass. He looked a much better colour this morning, his shoulders were relaxed, his face was relaxed and the tight lines around his eyes were gone: Joe who was used to picking up the radar signals of Chris under pressure thought he looked good- calmer than he'd looked in some time. He further hoped Rolf didn't decide to ground Matthew for his part in Friday's events. He and Chris fought like cat and dog but the sibling relationship extended in other directions too. If anyone was going to fill the gap David had left in Chris's life, Joe suspected he knew who it was most likely to be.
They ate an unrushed breakfast and Joe took the plates from Chris before he could reach the sink.
"I'll clear up in a while, when you're doing homework. And we need to talk about Friday. Don't we?"
Chris surrendered the plates, looking resigned more than worried.
"I would have been back by six-"
"Christopher Stevens, how is THAT the point?" Joe demanded, amused. Chris shrugged.
"If you mean I wouldn't have needed to know or worry about it, that's CERTAINLY not the point I want you to get," Joe said firmly. "Upstairs and corner please, I'll be up in a minute."
Chris grimaced but went. Joe finished clearing the kitchen enough for Chris to work in, and wiped the table and work surfaces down, taking his time before he followed Chris upstairs. He was occupying a corner in their bedroom, valiantly not fidgeting, although Joe suspected that was because he'd been heard coming upstairs. He took a seat on the bed and waited another five minutes, long enough for Chris to think things through, before he held out a hand.
Chris came and sat down beside him, shaking his hair back out of his eyes. Still fairly innocent eyes too: this had been mischief and thoughtlessness, nothing more. Joe kept hold of his hand, saying quietly,
"What was wrong about Friday?"
"I said I was going to the library and wasn't," Chris said just as quietly, flushing a little at the catechism.
"You don't mind me going to Nascar," Chris said reasonably. Joe lifted an eyebrow at him.
"I was with Matthew."
"Would I let you two go alone?"
"I'm twenty-seven!" Chris pointed out. Joe shook his head.
"That's got nothing to do with it. Would I?"
Chris didn't answer. Joe waited, hanging onto his hand when he tried to withdraw it. Eventually he shook his head.
"Right," Joe agreed. "If you'd have asked, I probably would have come with you- although I get that that wasn't the point. And I know Rolf wouldn't have let Matthew get tickets from the touts: I'm not happy about that either. Quite apart from the unneccessary expense- which the tickets AREN'T worth- you have no way of knowing how valid those tickets are, how they've been gained or what underhand dealing you're supporting by buying them."
"Matthew was careful," Chris argued.
"That's not the point. And he DOESN'T know how those tickets were gained. But the main issue is that you lied to me and you took off for an entire day, some serious distance, without letting me know where you'd gone."
"I'm NOT a child," Chris said hotly. "Anyone would think I was under ten and couldn't go anywhere without telling mom-"
He stopped there, hearing the word and Joe stepped into the breach, a little stern.
"I don't care how old you are young man, you don't get to go out without letting ME know where you are, who you're with and when you'll be back. That's not up for debate, that's the condition under which you go out and you're well aware of it. As it happened, when things went wrong Matthew was the one who called home so Rolf and I knew to come and help."
"I did call Mike," Chris mumbled.
"Yes," Joe agreed. "And he was ready to come and help, and he was a good choice IF you couldn't get hold of me."
"You'd have been mad."
"Chris," Joe said patiently. "Do you really think you'd have walked in here with a whopping case of sunburn, an arm up like a balloon and dehydrated to the point of being cross-eyed - and convinced me you'd been in the library all day? I'm a lawyer, I make a living out of seeing through badly put together stories! How do you think I'd have felt, hmm? What if you'd had a bad reaction to those stings and had to go to the hospital? What if something else had happened to you? How do you think it would feel for someone to ring me and say while I thought you were safe and a few miles away you'd taken off without telling me, you'd spent the day doing something I knew nothing whatever about, and you hadn't even wanted me to know when things went wrong."
"It WASN'T that bad," Chris said unhappily.
"No," Joe agreed. "But it could have been, and you have a responsibility to me to think about these possibilities. As it was, I had a very similar conversation with Rolf and Michael. When Rolf rang me, no one knew where you were. All we knew was you'd had a row, Matthew was upset, you were bound to BE upset and no one had any idea where you'd gone or what had happened to you. How do you think that made me feel?"
"Scared," Chris mumbled, giving Joe a sideways look. Reading the guilt and the apology combined, Joe softened his voice but the lecture didn't pause.
"Exactly. I don't appreciate being scared like that and I certainly don't appreciate being treated like I don't need to know what's going on with you. I've got that right, I expect that trust, I don't want to have to wonder what is happening to you that I don't know about. I understand things sometimes go wrong but when they do you come STRAIGHT to me or I'm going to want to know why."
Chris nodded slowly. Not happy but accepting and understanding.
"Why did it seem like a good idea to get out of the car when you and Matthew fell out?" Joe went on quietly. Chris winced.
"We had a row- and he said get out- and I was so mad I thought-"
Screw him. Yes. Joe mentally sighed.
"Not very mature really, was it? Either of you. He was terrified when he calmed down and couldn't find you. If you can't control your temper around your friends then maybe I need to be there to do it for you. That's the alternative; you have a think about it."
"I don't want that," Chris said almost inaudibly. Joe nodded.
"I can imagine. So you need to work on controlling what you say and what you do when you're angry, not just act. And last of all, I don't like it when you lie to me," Joe went on firmly. "We don't do that, there's no excuse for it."
And now they were at the top of the slippery slope: Chris's stomach lurched as he recognised the cue. Joe never listened to any arguments once they got into the subject of lying. It was just black and white: a total no-no.
"I'm sorry," Chris tried anyway, giving Joe his most sincere and appealing look. It didn't work, Joe still took his hand, drawing him closer and helping him out of the robe.
"Pull those shorts down, young man."
"Joooooooe….." Chris said plaintively, "I won't do it again, I got horribly stung, we had an awful day-"
"I'm sorry about that, but it doesn't change the things I'm unhappy about," Joe pointed out. Chris wriggled, still not inclined to give up.
"It won't happen again- Joe I've got to sit and do homework this afternoon- I need to concentrate-"
"You need to do what you're told," Joe said mildly. "Come on, please."
Refusal never went down well at this point; nor did stamping, arguing or tears. Chris went for a compromise of a well-disguised stamp and a whine incoherent enough not to be immediately obvious as 'no'. Joe's tone promptly crispened into a matter-of-factness that brought Chris upright in a hurry.
"Christopher. DID you lie about the library?"
"Yes….." Chris admitted, quickly and very quietly.
"DID you go off without telling me where you were?"
Chris's hands moved automatically but he still flushed scarlet. Somehow he got the shorts to half-mast and Joe took his hand, guiding him over his lap. Chris buried his face in his arms on the side of the bed as Joe shifted him further forward, lifting his bottom higher over one knee before he pushed his t-shirt up and rested one hand on the now bare small of his back. Heavy and warm, it was some measure of comfort. Joe didn't waste any more time in talking. His right hand lifted and swatted down hard in the first of a long series of swift, sound smacks that covered both upturned cheeks from hips down to thighs and gradually grew in strength and accuracy as Chris's jerks and yelps turned into wails and active squirming. When his cries and gyrations began to indicate that the smart was building up into unmanageable proportions, Joe paused, resting his hand for a moment on both hot and flaming red buttocks. Fingermarks were visible on the far right side and he rubbed at them a little, voice stern.
"Lying is NOT acceptable, it is never acceptable, and I don't expect you to give me false information about where you're going, ever again. Is that clear?"
Chris's voice was high and tearful, beyond full coherence, "Yes, I promise!"
Joe hardened his heart and his hand and landed another sound dozen on the lower slopes of his partner's upturned bottom, hearing Chris break into hard and serious sobbing. He was limp when Joe lifted him upright, turned him around and pulled him into his lap, holding him tight. Chris curled up against him, instinctively getting one hand to his bottom and trying to rub at the sting there. Joe cuddled him for several minutes while his crying moved from gulping sobs to sniffling, then lifted him over onto the bed, crawled up to the pillows and lay down, holding out his arms. Chris rolled over and buried himself in Joe's side, winding both arms around his neck. Joe ran his fingers gently and smoothly through Chris's hair, combing it away from his face.
"What homework DO you have, baby?"
And currently, judging by available evidence, he didn't care. Joe gave him another fifteen minutes, not trying to talk, until the sniffles and hiccups had settled right down. Then he bent his head to kiss Chris's forehead, patting the shoulder under his hand.
"Come on. Homework."
"You can." Joe pulled him to his feet and gave him a gentle push towards the shower. "Go on. Downstairs in ten minutes, you've got a lot to do. Don't cry, sweetie, I'll help you, you'll get it done."
Chris pulled himself together with an effort and let Joe steer him into the bathroom, reassured by the sounds of Joe making the bed and moving around in their room next door as if he had no immediate plans to go downstairs and leave him alone. The sound of the radio switching on was still more reassuring.
Chris turned the shower on and pulled his t-shirt off, catching sight of his red eyes and white face in the mirror. The sunburn was rapidly starting to peel on his shoulders and nose. Scratching at it, he got under the tepid spray, wondering if he'd get a chance today to phone Matthew and see how he'd fared: he hoped somewhat better than himself, even if it was something of a vain hope. It had been a good idea, the Nascar races were always fun.