Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What I Did On My Summer Vacation


Title: What I Did On My Summer Vacation
Authors: Rolf and Ranger

"Joseph Robertston to see Marc Diablo," Joe said to the secretary at the front desk.

"I'll take you back, he's waiting," she said, standing up and preceding Joe down the hall, stopping at an office door.  "May I get you anything?" she asked.

"No, thanks Irene," Marc answered after checking with Joe, shaking his hand. "Come in, have a seat."

"Thanks, Marc.  Nice office," Joe said, sitting down.

Marc snorted.  "It's nice if you appreciate small, cluttered spaces.  What do I owe the honor of your visit to?" Marc asked, unable to contain his curiosity.  This would be the first time Joe had seen his place of work.

"It's a very large favor I'd like to ask, concerning Christopher," Joe began.

"How is he?" Marc asked at once.

"He's still recovering, but I see a little improvement everyday.  And that's why I wanted to talk with you.  School is about to end, and I think the normal day to day routine for Chris; the reason to get up, the reason to continue DOING, is going to be a large loss to his recovery.  I was thinking about summer school, but I seriously think he needs the break from his studies, but I don't want him at home everyday, alone, with nothing to keep him occupied."

"I see your concerns there," Marc said thoughtfully.  "How can I help?"

"Rolf was telling me about your summer schedule this year.  How you were going to be visiting all the locations and initiating the changeover for each location."

Marc sat back.  "Yeah, it's going to be one busy summer," he said.  "I'm thinking anywhere between one and two weeks at each location, changing the computer systems, inventory systems, and all the store fixtures as well. It's going to be a real challenge."  Light started to dawn.

"And you might need some -" both Marc and Joe said at the same time, then laughed.

"Yes, I was wondering if you might need some assistance with the changeovers.  I wouldn't ask, except I really think Chris needs the routine, and needs a friend there who knows what he's been through." Joe said apologetically. "Does that sound at all possible?"

Marc thought about it, hesitating slightly as he thought over what he knew of Chris.

"I'm sure he's got the skills-" he said eventually, slowly, "Things like the cataloguing and so on-"

"That's just it," Joe said, forestalling him. "I need someone- especially at the moment- who understands brats, to put it bluntly. I think he needs the structure as much as the work, and it would help him a lot to be with one of us."

Marc raised his eyebrows, flushing a little.

"I'm not exactly-"

"You come highly recommended," Joe said teasingly. "Matthew was the one who suggested this."

Marc resisted the urge to call his secretary for his revenge file.

"Really, I think you'd be one of the best fits.  You're just as much a friend as you are a 'responsible party,' and I think Chris would find that a lot less overwhelming," Joe said sincerely.

Marc hesitated a moment, then nodded, a little uncertainly. "I really could use the help with the cataloguing, free me up for the problems that are sure to arise.  Let me run this by my boss, and I'll get back to you in a few days?"

Joseph stood up and held out his hand.  "Thank you.  I'll let you get back to work."

Marc sank back into his chair when he'd gone, a cross between thunderstruck with incredulity and overcome with curiosity.  He looked over at the computer and signed into his IM.  As usual, he found Matthew already connected.
MosterMunch:  You little .....................
TiggerMC:  Hi!  What did I do NOW ???
MosterMunch:  A certain someone stopped by my office today.  Your name came up.
TiggerMC:  I didn't DO anything!  Who and what?
MosterMunch: Joe. And you are SO dead.
TiggerMC: LOL LOL LOL
MosterMunch: ShurrUP
TiggerMC: LOL going to babysit? C’mon you'll be great! Look at all the practice I give you!
MosterMunch: I suppose it's nice to be asked. And I DO need the help.
TiggerMC: You said yes?????
MosterMunch: if the boss says so. So, guess I need to get the moster muscles in shape and get in ALL the practise I can.
TiggerMC: Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek! Lunchtime!
MosterMunch: B
MosterMunch: R
MosterMunch: A
MosterMunch: T
TiggerMC: {}

Matthew grinned and signed off, grabbing his jacket before heading out the door with the other office staff he usually ate with. He had every faith in Marc: he had the perfect balance between humour and clear boundaries; Matthew couldn't imagine anyone better for the job.

Marc signed off, amused and a little touched by Matthew's uncomplicated and obvious confidence in him. Truth be told, he was a little taken aback by Joe's request. All the tops in their circle of friends were used to assuming he would take a responsible role when with the brats of the party, and they certainly expected him to let them know if things started to get out of hand- but apart from Matthew, Marc had never by any means taken any real hand in managing or disciplining them. And his management of Matthew tended to be something he and Matthew were discreet about with everyone except Rolf.

On the other hand, his experience with Matthew had been somewhat won the hard way. Marc smiled a little, thinking about his friend and his various quirks. Chris couldn't be any harder than Matthew in full bounce. Maybe he needed to have a word with Rolf, talk this through with him and get his advice.

His reverie was interrupted when his phone rang.


*****


"Hi, Hon," Joe said, kissing the fair hair bent over the books.  "How was class today?"

Chris took the opportunity to lean back and stretch like a cat.  "It was okay.  Finally got the papers back in econ."

"You did?  How did you do?" Joe asked as he put his briefcase down in the chair.

Chris pushed a paper at him.  Joe opened up the front page, reading. "’Extremely well thought out and documented, but a little short on your own personal theory.  Well done.  B+’.  Congratulations sweetheart!" Joseph said, pulling Chris up for a large bear-hug.  "That paper deserved that grade, that's wonderful!"

Chris hugged his partner back, not even able to hide his large smile. "Matthew helped me earn it."

"Matthew helped you organize your notes, but that paper was 
ALL you, sweetheart.  I think that deserves dinner out.  If you'll give me a few minutes to get changed, we'll head out wherever you wish," Joe said, kissing his partner again.

"Can I invite Matthew?  He really did help," Chris said.

"You're more than welcome to invite him 
AND Rolf, but this is pretty short notice.  Give 'em a call and see," Joe said as he headed upstairs.

Happy with that, Chris dived for the phone. Rolf answered, from the sound of things in the middle of feeding cats: the background mewing was loud and he sounded distracted.

"Hello?"

"Who's shouting?" Chris demanded, laughing. Rolf sighed in relief.

"Chris, give me a minute while I sort out the monsters, I've only just walked in the door."

Chris waited, hoisting himself up onto the kitchen counter. A minute later Rolf picked up the phone again, the mewing hushed.

"What can I do for you?"

"Come out to dinner?" Chris said hopefully. "I just got my paper back – the one Matthew helped me on?"

"And?" Rolf said hopefully. Chris grinned.

"B plus."

"Well DONE, love!"

"Well done, Matthew, too!" Chris said laughing. "We're celebrating, want to join us? Please?"

"I haven't started cooking yet and I'd love to- and Matthew will love any idea that involves eating out," Rolf said cheerfully, "Thanks, I'll phone him and he can meet us there. Where will you be?"

"
 JOE ??" Chris bellowed upstairs. Rolf winced, covering the receiver. A moment later Chris said more moderately,

"Applebees?"

"Matthew'll definitely insist we're coming," Rolf said laughing. "When?"

"
 Seven thirty ?"

"Ok. See you then." Rolf cut the line and redialled, trying Matthew's office. The voice he got was abstracted and irritable.

"Mocoso, what?"

"Is that any way to answer the phone?" Rolf remonstrated. Matthew sighed and from the bleeps, had poked his computer.

"I HATE this printer."

"How about I come over tomorrow morning and have a look at it for you before work? Chris just phoned, that paper you helped him with, he scored a B plus on and he's over the moon- they've invited us out for dinner at Applebees. At 
seven thirty so-"

"I'll have to meet you there.." Matthew said promptly, "I'm not going to escape from here until at LEAST seven."

The doorbell rang. Rolf shifted the phone to his shoulder and opened it, giving Marc a quick smile as he came in.

"You're NOT working this late next week, sunshine... hi, Marc."

"I'll see you at Applebee's at 7.  Put Marc on."

"Don't be late," Rolf said, holding the phone out for Marc.  "It's Matthew."

Marc took the phone.  "Hi, fruitloop.  Where are you?"

"Still at work, what do YOU think?  What're you doing there, getting advice?" Matthew said, snorting.

"That, my dear, is none of your business.  But....if you really want to know....."

"WHAT?" Matthew said.

"I have this huge box of chocolate that I was going to share with both of you, but I think Rolf and I will finish it off.  Too bad you had to work. I'll see you another time," Marc said, hanging up the phone.

"You LIE - Marc?  Damnit, you do NOT hang up on me!" Matthew said, fiercely dialling home.  The busy signal that greeted him only incensed him further. He was in the process of redialling when the checks he was trying to print came out chewed and unreadable.  He turned his fury on the printer.

Marc left the phone off the hook for just the time it took to put it back in its cradle.  He hoped that that was long enough to keep Matthew from interrupting him as he didn't have too much time and wanted a few uninterrupted minutes with Rolf.

"Well, that's a new way of getting him to come home," Rolf commented, putting the cat food away. "I didn't expect to see you tonight- nothing wrong, I hope?"

"No-" Marc said a little hesitantly, "Just wanted a quick word with you and thought I'd call in."

"Come on then." Rolf opened the fridge, pulled a couple of bottles of water out and threw one to Marc, leading him out onto the porch. Marc took a seat on the swing, pulling his tie loose with a sigh of relief.

"Joe came to the office today."

"I thought he might," Rolf commented, settling on the porch rail. "He asked a few days ago if you had anyone in mind for the assistant work over the summer. What did you say?"

"That I needed to check with the boss, but there seemed no reason why not." Marc gulped water and tightened the lid back on the bottle. "But I wanted to talk to you too."

Rolf waited. Marc flushed a little, starting to peel the label off the bottle.

"Matthew's one thing...I'm not sure Chris isn't another. I don't know him 
ALL that well and-" he trailed off, a little awkward.

"Not sure you can handle him?" Rolf suggested.

"I just don't know what Joe's expecting from me." Marc said honestly.

"I don't know you need to take it that seriously. It's not as if you're entering into any arrangement with Chris like supervising homework grades or work quality- Chris'll be employed like any other employee; he has a responsibility to earn that wage or he can expect to be fired. And Chris IS a worker, I don't think you need to worry about that."

"But why pick me?" Marc asked, still not understanding.

"Chris is still struggling with David's death," Rolf said, taking a sip of his water.

Marc rolled up the bottle label in his hand, looking up.  "I know.  That's what worries me."

"Joe didn't want to throw Chris into completely unfamiliar territory.  He thought about trying to get Chris a library assistant position at his firm, but decided that would probably cause more problems than not.  Along the same line of thinking, Stephen and myself would probably be more of a distraction than a help.  With you, though, Chris can rely on you for more friendship rather than direction, if you see what I'm saying?" Rolf asked.

"Yeah, I suppose I do," Marc replied.

"Joe won't expect you to discipline Chris.  He'd want to know if Chris presented you with any problems, but I doubt you'd have to have anything more than a stern word with him on occasion."

Marc pulled a face. Rolf smiled.

"That much you CAN do, Chris is easily more impressionable than Matthew. Don't worry about it."

"I suppose so," Marc said slowly. Rolf glanced at his watch and got up.

"I hate to hurry you but I need to have a shower and change; we're meeting Joe and Chris in town at seven."

"Ok, I just wanted to check with you." Marc got up, pocketing the torn label. "It's fine, I know the boss'll be happy with anyone I know to do the job- and it won't be hard or complicated work, either."

"I think to have somewhere to go and someone to be with that he likes will make a big difference." Rolf said mildly. "If you're going out by the gate, lock it behind you. See you this weekend?"


*****


Rolf got ready and headed down to the restaurant, arriving ten minutes before seven.  He found Joseph and Chris already there.  After giving the nearly bouncing Chris a firm hug, he settled down in one of the two empty chairs on the far side of the table.

"Congratulations on that grade."

"Thanks!  Where's Matthew?"

"He'll be here.  He was having trouble with his printer," Rolf said, accepting the glass of water from the waitress.

"Taking bets on who survives intact?" Joe asked, laughing.

"I bet...neither," Chris said, giving a sideways glance at Joe.

"Don't be cruel," Joseph warned, swallowing a laugh of his own. "Matthew can kill his printer if he wants."

"That's the truck," Rolf said, getting up. "The printer lives."

Matthew jogged across the car park, face lighting up as he saw Rolf in the doorway.

"Hi, I was as quick as I could-"

"Did you get it working?"

"Yes, finally, but it's not right." Matthew swapped a quick and discreet kiss and trailed him into the hall. "How are you?"

"Fine. Matthew-" Rolf grabbed Matthew's arm, slowing his step. "Joe hasn't spoken to Chris yet about the job so not a word, ok?"

"I'd love to be around when Joe breaks it to him," Matthew said wickedly. Rolf grabbed his collar before he could duck past.

"Ok, promise me."

"I didn't-" Matthew began innocently. The hand on his neck didn't waver.

"PROMISE."

"Okay, okay!" Matthew crossed his heart, laughing. "But I WOULD."


******


"WHAT?" Chris demanded, looking blankly at Joe.

"I said, I thought since you weren't going to summer school that you could find emplo-"

"I HEARD that!" Chris said heatedly.  "I just don't underSTAND."

Joe took a moment to swallow, knowing this was going to be hard to talk him around to, and it had to be done carefully.  "Marc has a position open, and I thought it best that you work with someone you know."

"No, what you MEAN is you want me to have a paid babysitter!" Chris said angrily, jumping up from the table.

"Sit down, please," Joe said easily.

"No!  I'm not -"

Joe's eyebrow raised up, and that was all the warning Chris needed – at least this time.  He huffed and flopped back into his chair.

"Thank you.  Marc is no more a paid babysitter than I am," Joe said calmly. "I gave you the option of school this summer.  It was completely your choice to skip it, and I agree that it's a good thing to take a break from your studies.  But I also told you, you were NOT going to be sitting around without anything to do all summer long.  A job is the logical choice."

"That's FINE, but I don't need to work with MARC."

"You like Marc," Joe said patiently. "And he's urgently in need of someone he can trust 
AND get along with to do a few weeks casual work over the summer. I thought the two things went together."

"To do what?" Chris demanded, in spite of himself. Joe stifled a smile.

"Mostly bookkeeping. Marc has to update all his branches, change the computers over and do a full stock take. It's the catalogues and stock taking he needs the help with."

Chris didn't answer. Books, lists, the slow and patient checking and comparison that Matthew found tedious to the point of insanity, he did actually enjoy. And was good at.

"I still don't see why it has to be Marc," Chris said grimly, glaring at Joe. "And it's STILL paid babysitting."

It was a challenge, and Joe declined to rise to it, merely asking, "Why?"

It was a lawyer technique and one that never failed to irritate Chris, who would much prefer an argument.

"Because you want someone who'll be all over me if I put a foot wrong!" he snapped. "Someone 'responsible'!"

"If I'd been that concerned, Chris, I'd have found you something to do in my office," Joe said simply. "Or Rolf's, paid or not. Wouldn't I?"

That was undeniably true.

"Marc just happened to be the one who had an opening at the right time."

"I'll think about it," Chris said casually.

"That's all I'm asking you to do.  Marc needs an answer by the end of the week.”

Chris glowered but commented no further.

Joe counted that as a victory.


*****


"How did your final go?" Matthew asked, glad for a reason to shut his own books.

"I think okay.  The multiple choice tests are the easiest, I think, at least," Chris said, sliding into a chair across the table from Matthew.  He dropped his bookbag on the floor of the nearly empty library.

"I agree.  Only those that don't have four good answers and your job is to pick the best.  Those are impossible to do and the reason I like my numbers. Black and white, no two ways about it."

"Yeah," Chris said, crossing his arms and resting his head upon the table.

Matthew watched, DYING to ask if Chris was going to work for Marc.  No one was saying much of anything and Matthew did NOT appreciate being out of the loop.  Finally he could stand it no longer.  "Anything new and exciting planned for summer?"

"Joe has a fantastic idea," Chris said dryly. "I get to work for Marc all summer. Which I bet he told you," he added accusingly.

"You said yes?" Matthew demanded. Chris pulled a face.

"Yes. I'm not going to get another offer, and I don't want to sit at home all summer- and I'd rather be paid if I'm going to be doing something; Joe carries us both as it is."

"He wants it that way," Matthew pointed out. "He won't LET you work, it's not like you just sponge."

"I know, but I don't have to like it."

Matthew grinned. Chris shook his head.

"Ok, so I do. But I'm taking the job."

"You'll be fine," Matthew said confidently. "Marc's a pushover, he's no problem to anyone."

"He's pushed you before now!" Chris pointed out. "Remember when you threw his clothes into the pool? And that double marguerita you mixed at Stephen's place when you thought no one was looking- and the sneakers on the roof of the-"

"That was before I got the hang of him," Matthew said, sweeping all objections superbly aside. "He's a pussycat."

"Uh huh." Chris slammed another book down at the table and returned the librarian's stare with wide and friendly eyes. "Yes, WHAT?"

"He is," Matthew insisted. "And if he DOES get heavy, then he's never yet figured out how to deal with the subject being changed- or babble-"

"Babble?"

"Mmn. You pick any subject- or any area of the subject- and talk about it at great length in as much complexity as possible. He gets hopelessly lost. And if all else fails, the big puppy eyes do it every time."

"What in the world are you talking about?" Chris asked with a sideways look at Matthew.

"Ask me a question, like I'm in trouble."

Chris took a long look at Matthew.  Finally he said "Did you have lunch today?"

"What do you mean by lunch?"

"You know, the food you eat?  A square meal?" Chris said with a stupefied look on his face.

"Ah the square meal.  Well....I did eat food, but I must say it wasn't in a square.  It actually came off of a plate, which happens to be round.  Does round qualify as a square meal?  Never mind, it came out of a box before it went on the plate, and the box was square.  Why is square the shape that takeout is put into?  You know a sandwich can be cut into a triangle, and if they stacked the two sides up, you could use a triangle box, which would be cheaper-"

Chris was laughing hard.  "Okay...okay, I get it.  Oh my God, you really DO that to him? Joe would kill me."

"You can just 
SEE his head spinning," Matthew said, laughing hard as well. All the laughter stopped when the librarian shhh'd in a disapproving manner at them.

"When do you start?" Matthew whispered.

"I get a week off next week, and start the following Monday."

"Then we'll have to think of new and adventurous ways to torture Marc," Matthew said with a wicked grin.

"He'll be my employer!" Chris said quickly.  After several moments of silence, he grinned.  "Okay."


*******


"We'll start here," Marc said, pointing a pencil at the shelves that filled the store cupboard. "I've got the computers to set up, new software to install, that'll take the best part of two days. I need you to check the stock against the inventory, then catalogue the new stock that'll arrive tomorrow."

Chris cast a faintly anxious look at Marc, nervous in spite of himself. Marc messing around with the group was one thing- Marc, in a suit, all efficiency, was something else. Marc, well aware he was dealing with one of the more fragile of Matthew's friends, tucked the pencil behind his ear and gave him a kindly smile.

"Does that make sense?"

Chris hesitated. Marc turned the catalogue around. "It's easy. Just check off the ones in THIS column today, as you find them. Subject sections, alphabetical order. Got it?"

The kind tone was reassuring. And inviting. Chris mutely shook his head, keeping his eyes wide. Marc blinked, but patiently turned the book around. And began to explain again.



"How are you doing?" Marc asked an hour later when Chris emerged from the storeroom. The computer downloads were moving slowly, he was still trying to set up the printers and extract the bugs.

"Good," Chris said confidently. "I was getting thirsty though-"

"Yes. And there's nothing to drink in here." Marc dropped the computer manual and stretched. The branch was shut for the two days they were there: they were the only ones there. "How about you go over to that coffee place and pick up something? Here- I'll take it out of petty cash; I think we've earned it."

Chris accepted the five dollar bill, sliding it into his pocket.  "I'll be back," Chris said, letting Marc unlock the door for him and heading slowly down the mall.  When Chris made it to the coffeeshop, he headed in and straight over to the fridge.  He opened it and stood there for several minutes, looking through to see if they had any of the water he liked.  They seemed to only sell Dasani, and that never seemed to sit well with Chris.  He closed the door, turned and made his way slowly back to the store.  When he got there, he peeked in for Marc and didn't see him, so he shook the door hard and knocked loudly, setting off the alarm.

Marc came flying out of the back room, quickly punching in the keycode to alert the alarm company that it was a false alarm.  He unlocked the door and held it open.

Chris walked in wide-eyed.  "I'm sorry!  I didn't know it'd do that!"

"It's okay.  Just in the future, remember that most of the doors are set in the same manner.  Knock on the window, or just wait, I'd have looked out here," Marc said, locking the door behind Chris.

"Where're the drinks?" he asked once he was finished.

"Oh, sorry.  They didn't have the water I drink.  It's okay, I'll do fine until lunch," Chris said, heading back to the desk he was working at.

Marc just shook his head and went back to the computer systems.

Within twenty minutes he became aware of Chris peeling his collar further open, and shifting a little closer to the AC vent.

"Hot?" he said mildly shaking out his hands. Chris glanced up and nodded.

"A little."

"Didn't the shop have some soda or something? You must need a drink by now."

"I don't like soda." Chris ran his hands through his hair, shaking it off his forehead. Aware for the first time that he had some responsibility here- and that Chris was somewhat less
resilient than Matthew who was equally unwilling to eat or drink if his attention was being held by something else- Marc sat back, glancing down the street.

"Why don't you have a look down the street, there must be something you can drink. Go on, you've still got the cash. I'll have a coffee."

"They only had a brand of water I hate and coffee or soda."

"There must be something you can drink," Marc said firmly. "Go on, go and look."

He went back to work, and was absorbed in the computer when the alarm once more went off. Marc jumped and dived for the alarm, giving Chris a glare. Chris gave him a repentant smile and a coffee.

"Sorry, I knocked but you didn't hear me."

"Never mind. Thanks for the coffee- what did you get?"

"Nothing. I'll be ok." Chris settled back in his place at the table. Marc frowned, locking the door.

"NOTHING?"

"I hate coke when it's hot, and tea; I'm not supposed to drink coffee and the water's HORRIBLE," Chris said expressively.

"Well get yourself some tap water then, you need to drink something," Marc said firmly. Chris looked at him in horror.

"I don't drink TAP water."

He was as bad as Matthew. Definitely.  Thinking whether it was better to have Chris go yet again, or go himself, he decided an early lunch would be the best bet, and he'd be better prepared the following day for Chris's finicking before he ended up with a dehydrated assistant.

"We'll take off for lunch in a few minutes then," Marc said, heading back to the computers and hoping that the download was close to completion.  Ten minutes later it was, and he headed back to the office.

"Let's go on to lunch.  Any preferences?" Marc asked, waiting at the door.

"I'm not really hungry," Chris said.  "I had a big breakfast."  He continued his work.

Marc tried not to scream.  He was quickly finding out that choices were not the way to get things done.  "We're going to lunch now.  Come on," he said firmly.

Chris shrugged and got up, following Marc to the door.

"Did you have any preferences?" Marc tried again.

"No," Chris said simply.

Marc got into his truck and waited for Chris to get in and get buckled.  He turned right out of the parking lot and went a short distance down to a sandwich shop.  He parked and started to get out, but stopped when he realized Chris wasn't going anywhere.

"Are you coming?" Marc asked.

"No, I'm not hungry," Chris said placidly.

"You can sit here, or you can come and choose what you'd like to eat, but either way, I'm walking out of there with a sandwich for you that you WILL eat.  What's your choice?"

Chris gave a dramatic sigh, but he unbuckled his belt and stepped out of the truck.  He trailed Marc into the small shop.

"I know what I'd like.  How about you?" Marc asked once inside.

"I don't know," Chris said slowly, perusing the menu above the counter.

"It's a sandwich shop," Marc said exasperatedly.  "Pick a meat, pick a bread.  It's simple."

"I never know when I'm not hungry," Chris said, shrugging. Marc rolled his eyes.

"Okay. Chicken and sweetcorn for me, tuna for-"

"I don't eat tuna."

"What DO you eat?" Marc demanded. Chris visibly jumped. Trying to control his tone and his temper, Marc repeated the question more quietly.

"Chris. What DO you eat?"

"Chicken- but NOT with mayo- OR butter- and no salad- and not too dry."

"Chicken and what then? Ham?"

"I don't eat ham."

"Ok, he'll have chicken and bread. Brown-"

"White."

"-White-"

"Seedless."

"Seedless," Marc repeated. "And water. Two please."

"I don't drink-"

"Water." Marc repeated more firmly. "Of whatever kind. Thank you."

He recognised the way Chris's lip crept out- not quite as impressive as Matthew's pout but definitely more plaintive. Feeling like he was starting to get somewhere, Marc accepted the two paper bags, handed one to Chris and took the two bottles of water.

"Come on. We'll eat in the park."

"I'm not allowed in the park," Chris pointed out, following him.

"Ok, we'll eat in the car."

"It's hot in there."

"We'll go back to the store then," Marc said, getting into the truck.  When they got to the store, Marc pointed Chris to the floor in the corner.

"It's dirty down there," Chris said, remaining on his feet.

"We're not eating over our work.  Sit."

The pout got a little more pronounced, but Chris sat and began to unpick his sandwich, examining the chicken carefully and rejecting any dry or discoloured sections. Marc, who had seen Matthew do the same on many occasions, shook his head and ate his own sandwich, settling down beside Chris.

"How are you getting on with the catalogue?"

"Pretty good, it's all well laid out. We've got a few extra copies of things than the catalogue says."

"Some of those will be damaged stock. Mark off where you find the extras and when you're done we'll go through and get rid of them: they've usually got a red sticker on that means discontinued use."

Chris nodded, reducing the sandwich to the crustless sections of bread and two pieces of chicken. Marc rolled his eyes skywards.

"Make sure you drink, even if you don't eat."

"I AM eating," Chris said indignantly.

"Maybe you'd better bring a lunch tomorrow."

The lip crept out again. And Marc, a little apologetic, backed off. It wasn't for him to interfere in what Chris ate or drank: Chris was here as an employee and any other employee Marc knew he would have left in peace to starve if that was their choice. They ate the rest of lunch in silence and Chris picked up the catalogue when he was done, heading back to the storeroom. Marc, feeling a little uncertain, went back to his own work. It was hard to turn off that side of himself- he was used to being relaxed around Chris and any of the others, into saying and doing what came naturally- but Chris had Joe and he didn't need any other keepers, that wasn't what he was here for. Determining to keep a stronger hold on himself, Marc returned to work.

The crash brought him running.  When he entered the room, he saw tapes scattered all around Chris, who was standing there with a dumbfounded expression on his face.

"Are you all right?" Marc asked quickly.

"Yeah....yes, I'm fine," Chris said as he bent down to pick up some of the tapes.

"What happened?" Marc replied, stooping to help pick up the clutter now around Chris's feet.

"I was just trying to stack these tapes up and one fell and they 
ALL went."

Marc was looking at the mess on the floor and realized that Chris must have had them stacked pretty high.

"Why don't you try putting them in shorter stacks?"

"Because there isn't much room here," Chris said without looking at him. Marc shook his head, barely able to see Chris's rather red face behind the tapes.

"Well I'd make some room. Apart from getting hurt, you're likely to damage the tapes if-"

"It was an ACCIDENT!" Chris said hotly, slamming his pile of tapes down. "I'm sorry!"

"Hey," Marc said sharply, surprised. "There's no need to-"

"I'm SORRY you think I'm too dumb to do this stupid job!" Chris spat, jerking away before Marc could touch him. "Well that's fine, I don't have to do it at all!"

"CHRIS, there's no need to rant at me-" Marc began, but Chris pushed past him and slammed the door to the storeroom behind him. Marc waited for the bang of the front door, hands on his hips, somewhat frustrated and not a little shell-shocked. It didn't come.

He went out into the main office, and found, to his horror, Chris with his back against the wall and his head on his arms, clearly in tears.

This one was not in Matthew's repertoire.

Marc swallowed, not at all sure what to do and all irritation rapidly being overtaken by pity. Finally he crouched down and tried to put an arm around Chris's shoulders but Chris flung him off as soon as he was touched, voice fierce despite its unsteadiness.

"Get OFF me."

"
 ALL I said was to stack the videos in small piles." Marc said gently. "Nothing more. There isn't any need for-"

"LEAVE ME ALONE!" Chris spat, cutting him off.

Marc swallowed, beginning to feel distinctly out of his depth. All instincts and previous experience told him this was the point to put his foot down and he made his voice sterner although no louder, trying not to in any way let his uncertainty reach his face or body.

"That's enough, Christopher, don't shout at me please-"

"Fine, I'll leave then!" Chris said bitterly, shoving himself to his feet. Marc automatically grabbed his arm to stop him- and found himself in a flat-out struggle as Chris flipped, using a lot more strength, speed and effort than Marc had been at all prepared for. Not at all sure now what to do without backing down, Marc hung on to him as long as he could, grabbing one wrist and clutching until Chris succeeded in wrenching himself free. Before Marc could grab for him again, he fled into the storeroom, shut the door and to his horror, Marc heard the lock turn.

He stood there, panting, terribly confused, and beginning to be seriously alarmed as he heard Chris's sobs begin again on the other side of the door. And when he thought about it, from the tingling of his hand, he was more than slightly worried that he might have used more force than he intended in the struggle- exactly what Joe would say if Chris came home bruised, Marc did not want to consider.  He fought down the desire to call in the troops, fought down his insecurity, and walked over to the door, knocking loudly.

"Unlock the door this instant," he said sharply.

"Go to hell!" Chris spat from the other side of the door.

Fighting back the desire to batter the door down, Marc walked back to the front desk and grabbed his set of keys, finding the one to the manager's office.  He went back to the door and opened it without a problem.

He went immediately to a chair, pulling it away from the desk.  "Sit down," he said to Chris.

"Leave me ALONE!" Chris said heading for the door.

Marc caught him by the arm, and without thinking, landed two firm swats to his backside.  "SIT DOWN," he barked in a perfect Rolf imitation, keeping a firm hold on Chris's arm and guiding him that way.

Chris jumped when the swats landed and took a seat, his crying momentarily stopped from shock. Marc took a breath and a brief feeling of triumph. It was interrupted by a tape flying past his ear.

Ducking, Marc swept the tapes off his desk and out of Chris's reach, and fixed Chris with a glare that always froze Matthew. Chris simply dissolved back into tears.

Marc subsided back onto the edge of the desk and folded his arms, trying to work out what the hell to do.

Finally, he said as gently as he could, "There is NO need for this kind of scene, I only asked you to-"

"I want to go home," Chris said between sobs. "I'm sorry, I can't do this, I don't want to, I just want to go home."

"Okay," Marc said soothingly, trying not to give into an increasing sense of panic. "It's all right. I guess we both got a little heated. Why don't you call it a day and we'll start again tomorrow. Do you need a lift home?"

Chris shook his head, getting to his feet quickly with relief. Marc watched him grab his jacket and vanish down the street at a pace perilously close to a run.

That had not gone well.


******


He spent the evening waiting for a call from Joe.

Thankfully, it didn't come. Instead, about 
eight PM , Matthew called, full of cheerful curiosity.

Marc resisted the urge to pour it all out and changed the subject, chattering for a few minutes about inconsequentials, until Rolf prised the phone out of Matthew's hands.

"Hi there. How did today go?"

Marc hesitated. Then gave in to his own demons.

"Not bad- there's a lot to do, the computers are hard going-"

The computers managed to keep Rolf occupied in conversation for the rest of the fifteen minute conversation.  When Marc hung up, he sat back, rubbing his temples.  He dreaded to think of what tomorrow might bring if Chris wasn't in any better frame of mind.

Marc tried to get interested in a movie, but the brat olympics of the day had worn him out.  He headed upstairs shortly after nine for a long bath and an early night.


*****


Marc was at work early, wanting to try finishing up the computer bug problems before lunch so the time after lunch could be used to help Chris finish sorting through all the tapes.  The third day would find the manager there helping to repackage and renumber all the tapes and set them back out on the floor.  At 
7:50 , Marc tried to pay close attention to the door, knowing that Chris should be there by 8.

When 
8:15 came and went, Marc quit paying close attention to the door, and was engrossed in a particular problem he was having with the computers. When the alarm sounded in the dead silence of the store, he nearly had a heart attack.

Truth be told he wouldn't have been surprised if Chris hadn't turned up at all today- or if Joe turned up with him. Chris however pulled his jacket off and settled down into his chair as though they'd parted on perfect terms yesterday. Marc hesitated, wondering whether to bring the subject up- but Chris already had his ledger open and his head down. Maybe least said soonest mended. Marc returned to his computer.

Whatever else Chris might be, he was a hard and efficient worker: when Marc caught sight of the ledger awhile later it was clear he was getting through the cataloguing fast and accurately.  Marc left him alone and finished up with the computer.  It was an hour before lunch, and he was able to call it fixed.

"I think I got it," Marc said, sitting back.

"Got what?" Chris asked from the other room.

"The computers fixed," Marc said, going back to the manager's office.  "How are things here?"

"Fine," Chris said.

"Did you bring your lunch?"

"No."

Eh.

Chris ducked his head further over his work. Marc clearly wasn't going to ask about yesterday, or apologise. Chris, who had been lost in thoughts of David when the tapes went flying, was well aware he'd more than overreacted. But if Marc couldn't even be bothered to ask if he was all right- then he clearly didn't deserve the apology Chris had rehearsed.

Marc resisted the urge to bang his head hard on the desk and instead got up, picking up his coat.

"Come on, we're going to Ruby Tuesdays."

And I've SEEN you in there with Matthew young man so don't even 
TRY telling
me you don't like it.

Chris opened his mouth and Marc opened the door, already halfway out.

"Come on, I'm starving."

He was relieved when he heard Chris following. Marc led him around the back to his car and got in, throwing his jacket onto the back seat. Chris opened the passenger door and slid in. And looked at Marc, surprised when he didn't start the engine.

Marc looked back, waiting. "Seatbelt?"

"I never wear one," Chris said dismissively.

"I'd like you to," Marc said firmly. "I bet Joe likes you to wear one."

"He doesn't. Joe NEVER wears a seatbelt," Chris protested.

"My truck, my rules.  Put the belt on or we won't go anywhere," Marc said.

Chris smiled to himself, having led Marc straight to the trap and left him there.  "Fine, we won't go anywhere. I'm not hungry."

Marc was certain that there was steam clearly visible coming from his ears. He got out of the truck, walked around and opened Chris's door.  He then took the seatbelt and put it on Chris, staying his hand when he went to reach for it.

"Touch that, and so help me...."

Chris folded his arms, glowering straight ahead. Marc, feeling like a total heel, walked back around the truck after shutting the door and got into his side, only marginally pleased that Chris hadn't touched the seatbelt.  Since Marc wasn't sure what to say, and the silence was the least threatening, the short drive to the restaurant was done in complete silence.  Marc pulled in, thankful to see that the parking lot was as yet not nearly as busy as it usually got during lunch.  That was probably due to them getting there a good half-hour before the usual lunch crowd descended.

Marc got out and shut his door, huffing in frustration when he realised that Chris wasn't following him.  He walked over to open the door and nearly ripped off two fingernails when the door was found locked.

This was not even funny.

Marc pulled out his keys, unlocked the door and resisted the urge to thump hard on the window when Chris promptly snapped the lock down again.

"WHAT is the matter?" he demanded through the window. Chris folded his arms, once more scowling.

"I told you I wasn't hungry."

"Does Joe take that as a reason to behave this badly?"

"You're not Joe," Chris pointed out with perfect truth and no little resentment.

Marc rolled his eyes skywards, yanked out his keys, opened the door before Chris could get the lock down and held it open.

"OUT. We're going to eat. And Joe asked me to look after you so yes, in a way, I AM here on Joe's behalf."

"Joe," Chris said, surveying him with large eyes, "Doesn't yell OR hit me."

"Neither do I," Marc said grimly.

"You hurt my wrist yesterday," Chris pointed out. "
 AND swatted me. I bet Joe never asked you to do that."

Marc pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and held it out.

"Why don't you call him and we'll talk it over?"

"He's in court," Chris said sweetly.

Realising, yet again, that he'd let Chris pull him RIGHT into this situation on his terms, Marc shrugged and did the only thing left to do.

"Ok. Well I'm going to have lunch. You do whatever you think best."

And taking the keys with him, Marc headed into the restaurant.

When he looked around, Chris hadn't followed. Wondering how on earth Joe stayed sane, and what game exactly Chris thought he was playing, Marc grabbed for his cell phone again, at the end of his tether.

"Mr. Monet."

"Hi, Rolf.  Is this a good time?"

"Yes.  What's up?" Rolf asked, sitting back in his chair.  The secretary, who was working with Rolf at the time, stood up and made a quiet exit to leave Rolf in peace.

"It's Chris.  I don't know what to DO with him!" Marc said, wishing for a hole to crawl into.

"What do you mean?  Is he not doing his work?" Rolf asked kindly.

"No.  No, his work is FINE.  It's just that if I say anything to him, he argues with me.  Like now.  It's lunchtime, but he's not hungry and he's got an answer for everything I try.  Matthew I can threaten, Chris...." Marc trailed off.

"You've tried telling him to eat?"

"Yes.  We're here at Ruby Tuesdays.  It took forever to get him to put his seatbelt on so I could drive over here.  Now he's sitting out in the truck, refusing to come in."

"...IS he?" Rolf said, somewhat grimly. "I shouldn't worry Marc, it's not your job to get him to do anything but the work you're paying him for. It's up to him and Joe as to whether or not he skips lunch, you go and eat as you want."

"I don't want to leave him alone in the shop," Marc admitted. "Yesterday he spent half an hour trawling up and down the street looking for a brand of water he'd actually agree to drink and he still didn't find one. And he ended up locking himself in the store cupboard in tears in the end because I asked him not to stack the tapes in piles too high- I don't think this is going to work out Rolf, I can't come to work dreading what he's going to do - I've got a lot to do, I don't have time for this!"

"Hey," Rolf said gently. "Now look. You have lunch, take no notice of Chris. He's not going to starve and that's Joe's problem anyway, not yours."

"But it IS-" Marc began, not knowing how to explain it. "I KNOW- and he knows- and we can't help but get INTO those dynamics, want to or not! Except my hands are tied."

And Chris probably knew it. Rolf was regretting not having taken Chris on himself at the office: however unsettled he was he wouldn't have tried sitting in cars or locking himself in store cupboards.

"Marc, I'm going to talk to Joe, he needs to have a word with Chris. And that's not your fault either, that's exactly what you should have done the minute he put a foot wrong. In the meantime, you make sure you eat and plan on spending the evening with us, ok? I'll call Matthew and drag him out of the office early, you pick some films we haven't seen yet and I'll see you here at six?"

"That's another four hours of fighting to do when I need to work," Marc said helplessly.

"If he puts a foot wrong, tell him to get his coat and go home," Rolf said bluntly. "He's there to work, not to get you running around in circles. And if you get any whining about being hungry then tell him it was his choice not to eat."

"I don't want this to go straight back to Joe-" Marc admitted. "I ought to be able to handle this myself, if I was better with him this wouldn't have happened."

"I'm going to speak to Joe anyway," Rolf said firmly. "He needs to know about this, and if you get pushed to the point of firing Chris, he needs to have some warning."

"I wouldn't fire him. He's working hard, he's just being a complete and total-"

"Brat?" Rolf suggested. Marc smiled wryly.
"No, a pest. He IS a brat."

Rolf hung up the phone, laughing.  Marc snapped his phone closed and put it back in its holder and walked up to the hostess stand.  He was quickly seated.  Marc kept having second thoughts about leaving Chris outside, but he stuck to Rolf's advice and concentrated on his own meal.

Chris realised after about fifteen minutes that Marc really wasn't going to come get him.  He looked around, trying to find a McDonalds or something else close and cheap, but there was nothing in the vicinity.  He crossed his arms and steamed quietly, waiting for Marc to finish his lunch.

Marc had ordered a quick entree, and ate quickly, not enjoying it in the least.  When he finished he dropped the money on the table without waiting for the ticket and headed out to the truck, breathing a bit more easily when he saw Chris's fair hair through the back window.  He opened up his door and got in.

"Still not hungry?" Marc tried again.  "This is your last chance."

Chris's stubborn streak could rival Matthew's.  "Nope, not hungry."

"Your choice," Marc said.  "Put your seatbelt on, please."

"I told you -"

Marc got out of the truck, went around the side, unlocked his door and put the seatbelt on Chris.  He stopped at a minit mart on the way back to the store.  "What brand of water do you drink?"

"I don't know the exact -"

"Do you want to come in and see?" Marc cut him off.

Chris folded his arms, a definite pout forming. "No thanks. I'm not thirsty."

"Then I'll choose," Marc said calmly, getting out of the truck.

"Fine," Chris said as he shut the door. "I won't be drinking."

Marc headed for the door, silently counting to ten.

*******


"So he didn't drink again, all day," Marc said despairingly, pushing his dinner in yet a new and interesting pattern. "OR eat. If I send him out to get anything, he wanders for half an hour, comes back and says there was nothing good."

"So let him go without, it won't kill him," Rolf said firmly. "It's not up to you to make him eat; if he faints you call Joe and tell him exactly why."

Matthew's hot green eyes met his over the table and Rolf returned the look with a reassuring signal to calm down and keep quiet. He could clearly tell his lover was furious and more than ready to leap to Marc's defense, which would do nothing to make Marc feel any better or make this seem less of a problem.

"I can't tell Joe I can't handle him after two days."

"Marc, you don't NEED to handle him. Treat him like you would any other employee." Rolf said firmly. "And stop pushing that around, it's perfectly edible."

Marc looked down at his plate as though he was seeing it for the first time and picked up some of the corn. Matthew pushed his plate away and Rolf caught his hand before he could open his mouth.

"If you're done, could you run those flyers down to Mrs. Anstey? Go on, it'll take two minutes and when you're back we'll start on the films."

Matthew's look of mutiny was met by Rolf's look of 'please?'. Scowling, he picked up the papers and left without a word.

"Most of what Chris is doing," Rolf said, getting up, "Is for effect. If you stop giving him an audience, he'll stop playing to the gallery."

"I just feel like I should be DOING something, not just tattle telling," Marc persisted.

"You're in a different, and slightly difficult, position.  When Chris goes with me, he knows he behaves or is subject to whatever discipline I decide may be necessary.  He doesn't have that same expectation with you.  Matthew does, because we all agreed that it would benefit all parties involved.  You don't need to even think about disciplining Chris unless they specifically ask you to.  If, and until that time, you treat him as you would any other employee and he'll either come around, or you fire him."

"I'm back!" Matthew said, popping in the door, out of breath.

"Did you run?" Rolf asked, trying to give Marc a reassuring look.

"Yes.  She tried to talk to me, but I said dinner was burning on the stove."

"Brat," Rolf said, swatting Matthew's behind as he passed him.

"OW!  It's time for the movie, isn't it?" Matthew said, wanting more than anything to know what they'd been discussing.

"Yes," Rolf said, picking up the coffees for himself and Marc, "And leave the coke alone. Marc?"

Marc accepted the mug, trailing Rolf into the living room, so Matthew had no choice but to follow, frustrated and curious. Rolf pulled him down on the sofa, hooking one arm around him and picking up the remote with the other.

"What's this one, Marc?"

"American Pie 2. It's pretty good." Marc settled on the floor, stretching out full length. Matthew fidgeted restlessly, looking from him to Marc.

"What are you and Chris sorting at the- mphh" Matthew added as Rolf put a hand firmly over his mouth, pulling him deeper down against him. Stifled, Matthew got the message and bided his time, keeping an irritable eye on the movie.

They watched until nearly eleven, when Rolf glanced at his watch and switched the TV off.

"Marc, are you staying the night?"

"No thanks, sir." Marc rolled over on the floor and stretched. "I need to be up early."

To spend another day locked in combat with the brat from hell.

Rolf nodded, getting to his feet. "Get your jacket then, you need to be getting home. Matthew, upstairs and ready for bed."

"When Marc goes," Matthew said, uncurling unwillingly from the sofa cushions where he'd been dozing.

"Marc's going now and it's late, go on."

Matthew pulled a face but hooked an arm around Marc's neck and kissed his cheek.

"Goodnight."

"Night, fruitloop. Sleep tight."

Rolf, halfway to the door, stopped as the phone rang and went to answer it. Matthew, half way upstairs, stopped and sat down, peering over the banister at Marc.

"Is Chris REALLY being such a pain?"

Marc shrugged with a somewhat wry smile. Matthew slid a few steps down with a cautious glance at the kitchen.

"You know, you can outsmart Chris if you try."

"Why do you think I need to outsmart Chris?" Marc asked quizzically.

"Cut the bullshit.  It -"

"HEY.  Language," Marc said sternly.

"WHY won't anyone -"

Rolf rounded the corner, a forbidding look on his face.  "I thought you were headed home?" he asked Marc.

"Yes, sir," Marc said, quickly sidestepping Rolf and heading for the door, hearing Rolf's question and Matthew's response before closing the door.

"And you were heading to bed?" Rolf asked Matthew, who was scrambling to his
feet.

"Why didn't you just ask me to STAY upstairs tonight?" Matthew replied, quickly turning and stomping up the stairs to his room.

Rolf debated chasing him up the stairs, but chose to go ahead and lock up. Five minutes later he found Matthew in bed, snuggled deep in the covers, his head barely visible in his "I'm mad at you and I don't exist" posture.


There was only ever one answer to that. Rolf got himself ready for bed, snapped the light off and slid under the covers, getting an arm under Matthew and pulling him firmly over.

"Going to talk to me? And you're in no way asleep."

"I'm TIRED," Matthew said, squirming to get away. Rolf pinned him without difficulty, dragging the fair head into his shoulder and holding it there.

"What?"

Matthew subsided, no less sulky but at least resigned.

"You didn't want me around all evening!"

"Of course I did."

"You DIDN'T. You spent the whole evening trying to make me shut up and go away, that was all you did! You might as well have sent me to bed straight after dinner."

"I didn't want you to talk any more to Marc about Chris," Rolf said firmly. "That was all, and with good reason. He came here to calm down and cheer himself up, not to chew it all over some more."

"YOU talked to him about it!"

"Yes. To tell him to stop worrying and forget about it. 90% of this problem is Marc's conscience. He's not responsible for Chris, and once he's sure about that and makes Chris sure about that, Chris'll stop playing him."

"90% of it is Chris being an ASS!" Matthew said furiously.

"Hey.  I really don't feel like getting out of bed to go to the bathroom. Do you?"

"No," Matthew said quietly.

"Chris is testing boundaries and having fun - at Marc's expense right now. But as I said, that's because Marc isn't in his own comfortable place yet. Once Chris realizes that Marc isn't going to 'play' then he'll stop."

"That's still not right," Matthew said, still feeling jealous.

"Marc and Chris will work it out.  Marc is NOT going to forget about you," Rolf said, somehow knowing exactly what Matthew was feeling.

"All right," Matthew said, subsiding against Rolf and ready for sleep.  Things were finished for tonight, but he WAS going to visit them tomorrow while he was out running errands for his company.  Chris WAS going to hear about it.


******


Chris arrived for work slightly more than twelve minutes late and with a coke in his hand. Marc let him in, not amused and on the phone, which precluded more than a preoccupied wave and a nod towards the work still piled around them. Chris leaned on the desk, still in his coat, and drank coke, watching him talk.

Marc held onto his patience with an effort and looked out at the mall while he sorted a staffing problem at another store. His patience was further unsoothed by the sight of Matthew rounding the corner of the mall, five miles from work and clearly headed in their direction. Shaking his head, Marc tucked the phone under his chin, unlocked the door and glared at him as Matthew slipped past into the store.

"WHAT are you doing here?"

"Thought I'd see how you were doing," Matthew said cheerfully. "Do you always keep the door locked?"

"Come in," Marc said acidly under his breath as Matthew breezed past him. Chris pulled up to sit on the desk, crosslegged.

"Since when has your office been in this direction?"

Marc finished his call, put the phone down and rounded on Matthew, unamused. Chris alone was hard enough: the two together...

"You know no one else should be in the store while it's closed. Chris, you can get started on the rest of that section."

"I'm still finishing breakfast," Chris said placidly.

"It's not like I'm going to steal anything," Matthew pointed out, glancing meaningfully at Chris. "And I think you're the boss."

Resisting the urge to growl, Marc looked at the lesser of his two problems.

"Chris, you can eat while you work."

"Joe says you shouldn't," Chris contradicted. "Bad for digestion."

"Bad or not, you were nearly fifteen minutes late, AGAIN, and we have A LOT
 to do.  Get started please, I won't be long."

"I AM getting the work done," Chris said acidly.

Matthew snorted derisively. "Yes, I heard how."

Chris paused, halfway off the desk. "What's THAT supposed to mean?"

"Chris, go get started," Marc said with authority. "Matthew's just leaving-"

"YOU are just trying to cause trouble," Matthew said sharply, taking no notice whatsoever of Marc. "I know you Chris Stevens-"

Marc grabbed, but too late. Matthew's poke in the chest resulted in Chris spluttering on coke and whether by accident or design, the cup was tipped, ice and all, down the front of Matthew's jacket.

Matthew's splutter in response was unrepeatable and Marc was in no mood to listen to it, raising his voice above the hissing.

"Hey, 
COOL it, you two. This is a place of business!"

"Yeah, where people should 
WORK , not fuck around!" Matthew said hotly, giving Chris a shove. Unfortunately Chris lost his balance and Marc grabbed for Matthew as Chris hit the floor, pushing him out of the way.

"Chris! Are you all right? Matthew get out of here, I'll deal with you later!"

"HE'S the one causing all the trouble!" Matthew spat back, not moving. Marc reached Chris and helped him up, to his relief seeing no signs of blood.

"Are you okay? Sure? Go get started, I want a word with-"

He was left standing as Chris lunged past him, grabbed Matthew by the lapels and shoved him as hard in turn.

"WHO'S fucking around?! Go screw yourself, Mocoso!"

"SCREW YOU!"

In volume and language Marc was prepared to call it a draw. Chris, unsatisfied, swung a roundhouse punch at Matthew's head and the two of them locked together, grappling. Marc grabbed them both, catching two collars and wrenching without success to separate them. Somewhere in the struggle Chris finally managed to insert a knee where it was intended and Matthew let go, curling up with a groan of agony.

Furious, Marc pushed Chris back and glared at him.

"Go wait in the backroom. 
NOW . Shut the door."

Chris didn't move. At the end of his tether. Marc rounded on him, voice sharp.

"Backroom or leave, make a choice and make it 
NOW ."

The glare he got showed exactly what Chris thought of that. The snarled "Whatever." also clued him in. Chris grabbed up his keys and stormed out of the front door, heading down into the mall.

Marc swore, quietly and comprehensively for some seconds. Then turned his attention to Matthew, jerking him to his feet without sympathy.

"Thank you ever so much!"

"You're welcome," Matthew retorted, wincing as he straightened. "Maybe now you can hire someone who'll work."

Marc lifted a hand, fixing him with a glare that withered all further attempts at humour.

"You have somewhere to be, GO there. We will discuss things later."

"There isn't anything to discuss, I just did you a favour," Matthew said shortly, stalking towards the door with as much dignity as he could muster with a limp. Marc followed him, sharpening his voice.

"If you EVEN 
LOOK at Chris I will take care of you in the middle of the mall."

Matthew didn't look back. Left alone in the store, Marc drew a deep, deep breath and resisted the urge to call Rolf.

Matthew didn't make the end of the corridor before he saw Chris, slouched on a bench by the fountain, scowling blackly and steadily at the water. Matthew cast a quick glance behind him and checked there was no sign of Marc before he headed over. Chris glanced up, apparently warned by some sixth sense alert, and gave him a poisonous glare.

"WHAT?"

"Want some of this coke back?" Matthew invited. In this mood, Chris needed no further invitation. He squared straight up.

Marc finally got his self control back, picked up his own keys and locked the store behind him, intending to see whether Chris's car was still in the carpark. If Chris was there, maybe they could talk this out. If he wasn't, then it was time to talk to Joe. Either way, things had gone far enough.

He was approaching the fountain when he saw the security guards separate Chris and Matthew. The sheer bolt of anger it sent through him gave him the speed to cover the distance before the guards took any further action- they were both frozen by a furious, square shouldered and suited young man who exploded between the two of them and barked out in tones a drill sergeant would have envied,

"Unless you want SERIOUS trouble, Matthew go! Chris, office 
NOW !"

The security guards, not unimpressed with the demonstration of authority, released both young men. Matthew smirked at Chris and turned to leave. Chris promptly lunged forward and smashed Matthew in the nose, too fast for Marc to stop him. Blood immediately flew everywhere. Matthew straightened slowly, both hands to his nose, too shocked to retaliate. Marc yanked Chris out of reach and pushed him hard towards the store.

"Go and wait for me. 
NOW !"

It took several minutes before Marc and the security guards made sure Matthew's nose wasn't broken, that the bleeding was stopping and that no further action was needed. Chris stormed towards the carpark, more than ready to head home- and then hesitated.

Anger would carry him so far, but he knew quite well- he'd gone too far to simply leave. Joe would take a dim enough view of this without his actually leaving the scene altogether.

"Look what he did!" Matthew spat when he could talk again, "I didn't do anything!"

"YOU did plenty," Marc said sharply. He nodded to the security guards who walked slowly back up towards the second level, and carried on steering Matthew towards the exit. "I told you to go home, or wherever you needed to be, and you didn’t listen. WE have plenty to discuss, and you can bet while Rolf is at that meeting tonight we will do just that."

"Chris went that way, why don't you talk to HIM! He's the one that punched me." Matthew pleaded. Marc growled.

"And who went after Chris? Did I NOT ask, TELL, you to go where you needed
to be?"

"I was going to the car! He's the one that spoke first! I didn't even touch him!"

Marc pulled him to a halt, fixing him with a Look.

"HOW is going in that direction going to your car?"

Matthew flushed slowly and hotly. "I don't know?"

Marc steered him into the carpark itself. "What time will Rolf leave for his meeting? Or we can deal with this while Rolf is present if you prefer."

That was NOT an attractive proposition. Matthew sighed and surrendered.

"Seven."

"I will see you then. For now, I suggest you get to your destination."

Released, with Marc standing in the doorway, Matthew had no alternative but to get into his car and drive away. Marc waited until he saw Matthew out of sight, then turned back into the mall. And locked eyes with Chris, standing on the far side of the hall.

Chris glared back, angry, upset and now not just a little scared. Marc's grim nod towards the store scared him still more. Without much option, he fell into step and followed.

Once in the store, Marc locked the main door and jerked his head at the backroom.

"Go sit in the office, I'll be there in a moment."

It was somewhat reassuring to be told what to do. Chris went into the office area in the backroom and collapsed into a chair, trying to breathe slowly and to lose some of the tension making his neck and back hurt.

Marc took a few deep breaths, working on calming himself before he followed Chris into the office and took the other chair, launching straight into the briefly prepared speech.

"We can handle this two ways, with two very different outcomes. I can either speak to you strictly as your boss, or as your friend, who happens to be your boss. Which would you prefer?"

Chris looked at him, somewhat uncertain of what that meant- and with a nasty idea of where it was leading.

"HE started it- he walked in here and PICKED a fight with me- he even came looking for me when I left like you asked!"

"No, I told you to go to the OFFICE or leave, and you chose to leave." Marc corrected. "But that isn't the only issue at hand here. Now I ask again, am I your boss, or your friend who happens to be your boss?"

Chris shook his head, the injustice fuelling his temper once more. "The issue is HE came in here and beat up on me!!"

"CHRISTOPHER!" Marc snapped in frustration. Chris flung out his hands.

"WHAT? He DID, you SAW him!"

"We are NOT talking about Matthew," Marc said sharply. "We are talking about YOU and your performance at work. And it ends 
NOW !"

Chris stared at him blankly, going a little white. "Marc, I haven't done ANYTHING!!!"

"No, that's the problem," Marc said sharply. "I think everything is salvageable with no damage aside from a MESS, but that little rumble could have cost serious money to the company. Do you understand that?"

"NO!" Chris flung himself out of his chair, furious and ready to leave. "I just see that he came in here for a fight and YOU think that's okay!"

"SIT DOWN!"

Chris took no notice. "You just like him better than me! Well you can stick your job, I'm going!"

THAT was it. Marc had never taken that kind of talk from Matthew and he was not about to start now with this brat. Reflex kicked in, he spun Chris around by the arm and landed half a dozen fast and hard swats to the seat of his pants.

"SIT DOWN, 
NOW !"

He was too angry to really notice or care when Chris burst into tears, not even sure if they were tears of frustration, anger or distress. Chris certainly made no move to sit down. Which did nothing to ease Marc's frustrations.

"This conversation has been on the verge of boiling over for two days now. This has NOTHING to do with Matthew or the events of this morning. Understood?"

"NO!"

Sobbing, Chris tried to get past him to the door. Marc took a seat at the desk and picked up the phone.

"Ok. I thought we could deal with this by ourselves. I guess I just have to call Joseph and let him deal with it."

"You're determined I'm wrong," Chris said bitterly. "I SAID you hated me!"

"You refuse to let me speak to you one on one," Marc said simply. Chris snorted, still gulping on tears.

"When have you tried to talk to me?!"

"
 ALL morning."

"CRAP! I only just walked in the door when HE showed up and pushed me off the desk!"

"This has NOTHING to do with Matthew. And if you mention this morning again, you WILL regret it," Marc said sharply. Chris shook his head in disbelief.

"So it's fine for him to walk in here and hit me."

Marc glared at him, finger still on the phone dial. "I am NOT going in circles with you. Either you drop the events of this morning, and we talk. Or Joseph can come pick you up. Which is it?"

Chris gave him a look that was distinctly nasty.

"A minute ago, you told me talking was out. Now you're telling me you want to talk. What do you want to do, Marc?"

Marc stared at him with a feeling that somehow, in a way he didn't understand, this was sliding out of his control.  He stared at Chris for a long moment, then put the phone down and sat back.

"Take a seat, Chris."

In overdrive now, too upset to be anything but detached, Chris took a seat with a courteous "Thank you."

Marc leaned on the desk, choosing his words carefully.

"I know we haven't always been the closest of friends. I am sure it isn’t easy knowing how to act around me, since I am in that zone between brat and top. But we are friends. Right?"

Chris quirked an eyebrow at him, maintaining the polite tone.

"I'm not sure, Marc. Are we? Or are you a friend of a friend of Joe's?"

Marc ignored the dig.

"Right now, I am your boss. And I am NOT happy. Care to venture a guess why?"

"That would imply a professional concern," Chris said unpleasantly. "And a professional relationship has to be mutual. You won't listen to my concerns."

Marc hesitated. And thought of Matthew. Don't be sidetracked. Don't get drawn into arguing.

"You have taken advantage of our friendship," he said instead, "You pick and choose which portions of my authority you would like to adhere to. You 
ARE a good worker, when you want to be."

Chris shrugged, looking coolly back at him. "I've worked HARD here. I left on Monday because you hit me. I worked all day yesterday, just a few minutes late, and I only left for lunch because you made me. And I was fifteen minutes late today, which I would have made up at lunchtime. May I list my concerns now?"

WHY would he not just admit he was wrong? Marc wondered in growing frustration.

"I never hit you. 
Pseudo-discipline perhaps. But never hit. You were given a chance at this job as a favour to you and Joseph. The pay is better than some jobs and so is the work. Yet I haven't seen much courtesy in the way you've acted around me in the last two days."

"And allowing Matthew to walk in here and start a fight is demonstrating good office policy?"

This was getting to be more like a stiff inspection from a health and safety officer than the lecture of a brat, and Marc had no real idea now who was in charge of this conversation. He had a nasty feeling that it wasn't him.

"Matthew wasn't allowed in here to do anything of the sort," he said, trying to regain a calm, matter-of-fact tone. "Nor will his actions go unpunished. But neither will yours!"

"I still haven't heard it listed yet exactly what it is I'm supposed to have done," Chris said coolly. "Unless you're simply mad at me for messing up your precious Matthew?

Marc had to swallow several times before that comment sank in.

"Again, you came in fifteen minutes late. 
AND you STILL weren't ready to work. You know employees aren't allowed on the counters and that is where you plopped down first thing! It doesn't matter who started the fight, you were ALL too eager to get in on it. Yes I KNOW Matthew started it. I WAS there. You are far from innocent in this."

"Do you feel better having got all that off your chest?" Chris inquired.

Marc shook his head in disbelief. "Would you treat Rolf this way? How about Eric? Stephen? Would you talk to them with a complete lack of respect?"

"I can't see Stephen, Rolf OR Joe going off the rails like this simply because I was fifteen minutes late and sat on a counter," Chris said flatly.

Marc flushed, temper rising. "You know if it was Matthew sitting on that side of the desk and acting like this, he would be sitting on a VERY sore behind right now."

"For being fifteen minutes late," Chris jibed back. "Oh, and sitting on desks. Don't forget sitting on desks."

That was the end of it. Marc got up and yanked Chris to his feet, pulled his pants down to his knees and jerked him down over his lap, bringing his right hand down hard on his brief-covered behind.

"I have had ENOUGH of that smart mouth."

He expected protest - or apology, with Matthew it could have been either – or silent sulking which would be temporary. What he got was hysteria that startled even him. Screams. Wild and uncoordinated thrashing. Not protest or fussing, just absolute hysteria.

Wondering if this is what Joe dealt with each time and determined to stick to his guns, Marc swatted harder, covering every square inch of briefs and upper thigh. Chris sounded completely beside himself. Worse, he was thrashing around without any thought of safety. Marc heard the crack when he succeeded in whacking his head against the side of the desk, and despite himself, paused to slide Chris down to his knees, taking his head gently in his hands to check.

"That wasn't clever.  You didn't cut yourself, but you will probably have one heck of a goose egg. Keep your hands at your side and go stand in the corner. We are NOT done."

He wasn't prepared for Chris to twist out of his reach, still crying hysterically and breathlessly, and to make a bolt for the locked front door. Marc caught him as he reached the door, and pulled him back, resisting the urge to swat him again.

"CHRISTOPHER. I said corner!"

He realised when Chris didn't move, that actually he was shaking - shaking all over, from head to foot, very white and nearly breathless with sobbing. His voice sounded strange. Distant and high.

"If you don't unlock that door, now, I'll scream until someone calls security. I'm leaving. Call Joe, call whoever, but I'm leaving now."

He was in deadly earnest. Marc glared at him, for a moment thinking this was another trick. And then reading Chris's face properly. What he saw there made his stomach lurch and his heart thump.

"Chris, for God's sake, what did you expect would happen if-"

Chris opened his mouth and Marc had no doubt about the determination in his eyes, or the awful fear behind it. Hurriedly- and trying not to look hurried, or panicked, Marc unlocked the door.

"Fine. You've wasted enough of my time today."

Chris shoved past him and fled. Marc took a step after him, instinctively, hating the distress in his face, then made himself stop. From experience with Matthew he knew, angry brats were best given time to calm down. Taking another deep breath, he came back inside and locked the door again.

Chris's jacket and keys were still lying on the counter when he turned around. And when he checked the jacket pocket, somewhat hesitantly, Chris's wallet was there too. Marc thought once more about following him, very worried about him on the street in this state, alone, without means of getting home-

- and then thought again. Chris, screaming, tears streaming, accusing him in a public place -

- this was possibly one of the less good things Marc could remember happening. His own hands were somewhat shaky and he felt rather sick, and for the first time he acknowledged to himself what that look had been in Chris's face.

HAD that been assault? Surely Chris had known he could only push so far- Marc knew from clear experience, Chris would not dream of pushing Rolf, or any of the other tops in their group nearly so far without fully accepting there would be consequences, and there definitely would have been. He'd been almost looking to provoke this reaction for two days. But he'd been genuinely........

.......... scared. Marc swallowed, remembering the look on Chris's face in the doorway. Was it possible that instead of being a challenge, all that smart-mouthing had come from panic? Marc had heard Rolf talk about it before, without really taking in what it meant.

In all responsibility, he needed to call Joe. And say what? Marc found himself somewhat unhappy at the idea of explaining what had just happened, either to Joe or to Rolf. Which meant he was left wondering what on earth to do now.


******


Chris ran for the first half-mile, too blinded with tears to care where he was going or what was happening. When he finally ran out of breath, he stopped, gasping, and leaned on his knees, realising at last that Marc wasn't following. He was shaking all over. And passers-by were watching him curiously, alarmed by the tears that wouldn't stop. Chris swiped at his face, trying to calm himself and failing miserably. He still felt ready to throw up. He was on the outer edge of town, approaching the main highway out towards their suburb. Only ten minutes from home. Fuelled with distress and adrenaline, Chris once more started to run and found he couldn't hold it down to a jog. The urge was too strong to go home. Just go home.



Joe was working at the kitchen table, frowning into the depths of his laptop when the front door slammed open, making him jump a mile. He was about to call out when he heard the unmistakeable sounds of Chris sobbing, and abandoned his work in short order. Chris hadn't managed to shut the door behind him. He was standing in the hall, chest heaving with the effort to breathe, shaking and crying hysterically, and from the disorder of his clothes- heart thumping Joe grabbed him, pulled him close and rocked, feeling him shudder all over. Chris clung to him with a death grip, fingers so tight they hurt. He still hadn't relaxed a minute or so later when Joe kicked the door shut and steered Chris with him towards the living room, taking a seat on the sofa and pulling Chris down with him.

"Chris, shh. It's okay. It's all right, honey, I've got you. What's happened? Tell me, what happened?"

Nothing. Chris's sobs hadn't decreased. Joe gave him the once-over with his hands, finding nothing wrong, no blood, nothing broken, and resorted to deepening his voice, on the brink of calling the police.

"CHRIS. Just tell me, sweetheart, come on. What happened, what's wrong?"

Chris still had his head buried against Joe's shoulder, and only moved away when Joe pushed him.

"WHAT HAPPENED?" Joe asked firmly, trying to break through Chris's obvious distress.

The calm voice reached Chris. "M..M..Marc," he managed between sobs, struggling to get the word out.

Joe pulled Chris to him, now knowing that it couldn't have been as awful as Chris was making it sound.  Marc could have only exchanged heated words with Chris and provoked a reaction such as he was getting. He continued holding Chris, feeling him at last start to relax.

"Did you two have a fight?" he asked softly when Chris was quiet enough to hear him, still rocking. It had obviously been bad, Chris was still trembling.

"You terrified me, Chris; I thought you'd been mugged or something."

"He hit me," Chris said into his shoulder. "He locked the shop door- I couldn't get away, Joe, he wouldn't let me go!"

"Wouldn't let you go where?" Joe demanded, the chill starting to settle again in his stomach. He peeled Chris away from his chest and held his head, cupping his face in his hands gently. Very pale, eyes swollen with crying, there was nothing overdramatic about this. Chris was badly scared and very upset; whatever had happened had clearly been bad.

"Chris? Talk to me, baby. Why did he lock the door?"

"Because I tried to run away," Chris said between breaths. "I tried to get out into the mall where there were other people-"

"WHY?" Joe said sharply. "What did you need to run away from? Chris?"

Chris flinched at his tone, shrinking back into himself. Joe pulled him back down and cradled him, rocking, his head over Chris's and his voice much, much softer.

"It's all right. It's all right; I'm not mad at you, I'm sorry. I'm just worried. You're safe
now, I've got you."

"He wouldn't listen-" Chris said between gasps. "I was screaming and he wouldn't listen-"

"It's all right, I've got you." Joe settled him into a more comfortable position, calming himself with a serious effort. "Get your breath, there's no hurry. I'm not going anywhere. What happened to your jacket? How did you get home?"

"Ran," Chris said with an effort. "My coat's still at the shop."

Joe didn't ask further, just went on stroking Chris's head and back, feeling his trembling start to die away and feeling his own anger stoke and begin to burn with a steadily increasing force. He couldn't believe Marc would do anything to hurt Chris or any one of the brats- over the last few years he'd spent plenty of time with him in a group; he seemed a good-tempered, gentle and thoroughly trustworthy boy. On the other hand, Chris wasn't given to fantasies. Something had happened and obviously something serious.

"Matthew came-" Chris said eventually, still between sniffles, "And he was in a hell of a mood, and we had a fight."

"Was that what upset Marc?" Joe said softly. Chris shook his head.

"He broke it up and told me to go into the office or to get out. So I went out into the mall, I was going to go home."

"Mmhm. Then what?" Joe said a lot more calmly than he felt. Chris settled deeper into his arms.

"Matthew followed and we got into a fight again."

And the fact he was admitting that, up front and without hesitation showed clearly how upset he was: that to him right now was of no importance whatsoever. Joe went on rubbing his back, badly alarmed now.

"And?"

"Marc broke that up too and told me to go back to the office. So I went. And he came-"

"With Matthew?"

"No, I don't know where he went," Chris said more calmly. "Marc came back and started on at me about it was my fault and I was late and I'd spilled coke on some papers; he got really mad."

"About you being late?"

"And the coke. I tried to talk to him about Matthew starting the fight and he said he didn't want to hear about that. And then he said he was going to call you and how if it was Matthew he'd be in bad trouble by now."

"And then what?" Joe said mildly, keeping his voice even.

Chris's voice started to waver again. "I got mad and I got mouthy with him. And then he said he'd had enough and he yanked my jeans down and pulled me over his lap-"

His voice broke. Joe hugged him, taking a deep and calming breath.

"And then?"

"He hit me." From Chris's voice, the tears had started again. "I hit my head
against the desk and he stopped and told me to stand in the corner and we weren't done- I tried to get out of the door and he caught me and pulled me back into the office and locked it. I told him I wanted him to call you, and I was going, I wanted to get out, and he wouldn't unlock the door."

"What did you do?"

"I tried to get out of the door and he tried to drag me away, we had a fight and people started to look so he yelled at me and then he did unlock the door so I ran." Chris put his head back down against Joe's shoulder, shuddering. Joe tightened his arms, rocking and talking softly and steadily against his ear.

"It's all right baby. I've got you, you're safe; it's over now."

It took a long, long time before Chris calmed down, and when he did, there was no question of leaving him alone. Joe took him into the kitchen, parked him at the table and despite his pleas, called the store. There was no answer. Either Marc was looking for Chris or had wanted out of the office. Settling Chris with a coffee, promising to stay in sight, Joe went out onto the porch and shut the glass door between them, dialling the number of Rolf's office. It took a moment for his secretary to put him through, and
when he did, he sounded abstracted.

"Hello, Rolf Monet."

"Rolf, have you heard from Marc?" Joe said abruptly. He heard Rolf pause, registering his tone, then deepen in concern.

"No, why? What's wrong?"

"You might want to warn him to steer very clear of me for a few hours, because right now I won't be responsible for what I do to him."

"What happened?" Rolf demanded. Joe glanced at his watch.

"How far are you from your lunch break?"

"I can come over now," Rolf said at once. "I'll be twenty minutes."

"Thanks, that might be a good idea." Joe broke the connection and stood for a moment, taking another deep and slow breath. Then opened the glass door, returning his voice to the calm and easy tone that always worked on Chris in a state.

"There, I told you I wouldn't be long. Rolf's coming over. It's all right, Chris; we're going to sort this out."


******


Rolf left Joseph's house after getting Chris's side of the story, and decided he'd go straight to Marc.  He could tell that Chris was seriously upset, but he knew Marc almost as well as he knew Matthew, and Marc wouldn't do anything to hurt Chris if his life depended on it. He pulled into the mall lot and walked down to the store, rapping sharply on the door.

Marc nearly went through the ceiling when Rolf knocked, and flew to his feet to see if it was Chris returning.  When he realised it was Rolf, his stomach turned over.  He walked quickly to the door and opened it, standing back to let Rolf in before locking it behind him.

"Hi," Marc said.

"Hi, yourself.  Can we talk in the office?" Rolf asked immediately.

That demand didn't sit well with Marc, but he knew things needed to be discussed. He silently waved Rolf ahead of him, shut the office door and braced himself, not at all wanting to look up and see the ice blue gaze.  He'd realised some time ago- before he was left in the office following Chris's exit- that he'd made a very serious mistake. And he was going hot and cold now at the thought. He'd acted on instinct, done only what he would have done with Matthew or any of the others when left in a position of responsibility, and yet the memory of Chris crying was extremely nasty and right now Marc couldn't have felt less confident or qualified to supervise so much as a goldfish. He was startled and robbed of all breath as a powerful arm hooked around him and hugged hard.

"Are you all right?"

Marc surrendered gratefully to the comfort of that embrace, letting go to his own shakes.

"Shouldn't that be, ‘is Chris all right?’"

"Right now I want to know about you." Rolf steered him across to a chair and took the other seat himself, looking Marc over somewhat anxiously. "
 ARE you okay?"

Marc nodded, not very confidently. "How is Chris? Did he go home? I thought about following but he was so upset I didn't think I was going to make things any better-"

"He went home; Joe was there, he's still very upset," Rolf said quietly. "Do you want to tell me what happened?"

"Didn't he?"

"I want to hear your version."

Marc was able to relax a little, seeing that Rolf truly was interested in what happened, even with hearing Chris's version first.  It wasn't The Inquisition he was expecting when he first saw Rolf.

"I...I don't know where to start," Marc said, not wanting to get Matthew in trouble.  Rolf took the question right out of his hands.

"Start with Matthew's arrival this morning," Rolf said.

Marc nodded.  "Okay.  Matthew came in and said hi, then walked over to Chris who was sitting on the counter drinking coke.  Within like two sentences, they were at each other's throats.  Matthew 'helped' Chris off the counter, then they started wrestling and knocked videos far and wide.  Chris connected with a kick before I could grab either one of them.  I finally got them separated and told Matthew to go to work, and Chris to go to the office."  He paused for breath.

"Did Matthew leave?"  Rolf asked.

"They were still snapping at each other.  Chris stormed out into the mall.  I told Matthew to go, and I was going to try to find Chris. Matthew found him first, in the middle of the mall."

"What happened then?" Rolf asked gently.  He could see that Marc was on the verge of tears, whether anger or sadness he wasn't sure.

"Chris punched Matthew.  A lucky punch landing squarely on his nose. He bled like a stuck pig for a moment, but there didn't seem to be any permanent damage.  I....I swatted Chris to get him to go to the office. That's all I wanted, just to separate them.  I thought he'd go."

"He didn't?" Rolf replied.

Marc shook his head no, willing the tears not to come.  He was feeling as if he did everything wrong.  "He looked like he wanted to leave completely, but wasn't sure he should.  Probably shocked; I should have seen it," Marc said angrily.

"Don't blame yourself," Rolf said, taking one of Marc's hands.  "Those two can mix it up in the blink of an eye, and then before you know it they're best friends again.  I know Chris was back in the store; how did that happen?"

"I sent Matthew away once he stopped bleeding.  I am....was...never mind.  I saw Chris standing a little ways away, and thought it was best if we just got things straight right then.  We came back to the store and I locked the door like I always do.  We ended up here, and I tried talking to him.  Rolf - he didn't listen!" Marc said, anguished.

"Imagine that," Rolf said, trying to lighten the mood a little.

Marc didn't react to the crack, looking increasingly upset.

"He was horrible- REALLY horrible, Matthew wouldn't dream- or DARE- go that far-"

"In what way? Yelling? Swearing?" Rolf said quietly. Marc glanced at him, troubled.

"Pushing. Whatever I said, whatever I tried, he had a smart answer for it; nothing was touching him at all. It was like he was in control of it and he was laughing at me the more I tried to talk to him- I mean he'd been pushing me since Monday, I've done nothing but make a mess with him. And then he and Matthew had that major fight and Matthew got hurt and that was my fault too-"

”You think you took any of that frustration out on Chris?" Rolf said shrewdly.

"No!" Marc said quickly, sincerely.  After a moment's thought, he continued.  "I mean, I don't know, really.  I mean - damnit, I don't know what I mean!" Marc exploded, jumping up.

"Sit down," Rolf said firmly.  "I know you're upset, but it's not going to help anything to get angry.  SIT," he said again when Marc hesitated.

The Tone did its usual trick and Marc settled back into the chair, huffing.

Rolf quietened his voice but kept the authority clearly there.

"WERE you mad at him? Marc, look at me."

"I don't know," Marc said despairingly. "I get mad at Matthew when he's really going for it but not lost-it type mad- and he STOPS, he doesn't wind up higher and higher!"

"I know," Rolf said calmly.

"Maybe I DID lose it with Chris, I don't know- I was trying to get him to stop and listen so we could talk!"

"So what did you do to try and stop him?" Rolf asked, not responding to Marc's raising voice.

Marc got up again, starting to pace.

"Tried every strategy I could think of- threatened to call Joe, I thought he'd rather talk to me than get into trouble, but he just kept arguing- I tried explaining how I felt, I tried reasoning, I tried asking him to explain- nothing worked. He just kept on and on about Matthew coming in and the fight. Finally he got so smart with me I did - I suppose what I'd do with Matt and turned him over my lap." Marc's mouth twisted with distress at the remembrance. "He went nuts, he even hit his head on the desk he was thrashing around so much. I let him up to let him settle, and he wouldn't go to the corner, just tried to make a run for it. That made me so mad I grabbed him, and then he started shaking and saying he was leaving and if I tried to stop him he'd scream until security came-"

"What did you do then?" Rolf said gently. Marc folded his arms tightly.

"Let him go. Told him he'd wasted enough of my time and to get out. And he ran for it." Marc looked at Rolf, almost not daring to ask. "I shouldn't have spanked him, should I? That wasn't my place, I shouldn't have touched him."

Rolf stood up and went to Marc, again closing his arms around the younger man.  "You were in a tough position it sounds to me," he said gently over his head.  "Neither Joe nor Chris ever specified to you in exactly what capacity they wanted you, did they? I'm not sure they were even that clear on it themselves."

Marc shook his head no, not trusting himself to speak.

"We'll have to straighten that out with both of them.  Sweetheart, you did what you thought you should do with Matthew in that situation. It's a natural reaction, and with Matthew, one I would have accepted, but Chris is a different person entirely from Matthew.  You failed to take that into account."

"But he's a - brat," Marc finished miserably against Rolf.

Rolf pulled away, making Marc look at him.  "You don't believe that, do you?" Rolf asked gently.

Marc shook his head no, a tear finding it's way out of the well in his eye.

Rolf brushed it away with his thumb, still looking at Marc.

"No, you shouldn't have spanked him. But you were in a tough position and you did at the time what you thought was best. And what would have worked with Matthew when he was upset and out of control."

"Chris acted like I attacked him, he was terrified," Marc admitted.

Rolf winced. "I know. He was badly scared. But he isn't blameless, he was playing with the dynamic himself, you just neither of you know each other's script when things get rough. Some excuse for him is he's spinning at the moment, with all this business with his brother and family- which is why Joe wanted him to be with one of us who'd keep an eye on him and be more than just a manager. I think the mistake we all made was not to be absolutely clear on what your role was and how we supported you in it."

"You told me yesterday not to get involved, just to hand him straight back to Joe," Marc said miserably. Rolf tousled his hair roughly with sympathy.

"Listen to me. I want you to pack up here, finish what needs finishing, then go home, pack an overnight bag and come over to us for the night. I'll expect you in time for dinner at 
six thirty . No, I don't want to hear it, Marc. You put it out of your mind for now. We'll talk more about it this evening, this isn't a disaster."

"It just feels like one," Marc mumbled. Rolf shook his head.

"It's not."

"Joe must be furious."

"I said stop. We'll talk tonight; until then, get the work finished here as soon as you possibly can and be over by six-thirty."

"Thanks," Marc said as Rolf picked his coat up. Rolf paused, looking at him with concern, but Marc only put an arm around his neck and kissed his cheek.  "I'll see you later."

Rolf walked out into the mall, watched Marc lock the door behind him, then pulled out his cell phone while he walked back towards the carpark, dialling Matthew's private line.

"It's me," he said as soon as Matthew answered. "I want you home early tonight. I don't even want to 
HEAR it, Matthew; do not start with me. Four-thirty, on the dot. Clear?"

******


Matthew pulled into the driveway, his stomach clenching in the familiar way.  He'd not had the courage to call and feel Rolf out, nor had he tried to call Marc.  From the short, sharp phone call he'd received, Rolf knew about the fight with Chris, and from past experiences, was NOT going to be happy.  He was hoping for sympathy as he still had some bloodstains on his shirt.

Opening the garage, he sighed heavily.  Rolf was already home and no doubt, waiting 
JUST for him.  He parked the car and walked up to the door, shutting the garage before he entered the kitchen.  Rolf looked up from his paper, a very forbidding look on his face.

Matthew tried charm.  "Hi?" he said uncertainly, walking over to Rolf for a kiss.

Rolf relented for a moment, kissing his lover.  "Hi."

"Good day?" Matthew said lightly. Rolf folded the paper and laid it aside.

"Not especially, no. Hang your coat up, put the briefcase away and sit down. How much of that blood is yours?"

"
 ALL of it," Matthew went for straight piteousness, taking the jacket off so Rolf could see the full extent of the stains. "And-"

"Hurt anywhere else?"

"Bruised. I'm not showing you where down here either." Matthew added dryly.

Rolf nodded at the hallway, not noticeably impressed.

"Jacket and briefcase, I'm waiting."

Uh oh. Matthew scurried to put them away, not liking that tone at all. Bruised and still bloodied, he was back within seconds to take the seat Rolf indicated. Rolf turned his chin up and looked carefully at his face, long enough to be sure his nose was unswollen and definitely unbroken. Then let him go and gave him a long and steady glare that sent Matthew's eyes down in a hurry.

"Did I, or did I not, tell you yesterday evening that you were to leave Marc and Chris alone to sort out their own issues?"

Against his will, Matthew felt the colour rise in his face and his ears start to burn. Which was so not helpful as it made any protestations of innocence obviously uncertain.

"I just dropped in to see Marc this morning-"

"Which is five miles out of your way from work, why?"

"To say hi......" Matthew mumbled. Rolf's response to that was immediate, deep and loud enough to make him jump.

"MATTHEW."

Matthew's eyes stung and his mouth opened involuntarily, blurting out exactly what was least politic to explain. "I was mad at Chris, I wanted to see he wasn't being mean to Marc-"

"And?"

"He was?"

"How?"

By sitting on a desk, being present in the same room as Marc? Matthew swallowed. Rolf's frown deepened.

"Matthew. Did Chris actually DO anything to Marc that started off this fight?"

"He was drinking coke... and Marc asked him to start work and he said when he finished his drink."

"And for that you pushed Chris off the desk?"

Matthew's colour promptly deepened. Rolf didn't accept the shrinking violet
look for more than two seconds.

"DID you?"

"Yes.....?"

"SO at that point you and Chris had at it hammer and tongs."

"And Chris kicked me-" Matthew trailed off. "Somewhere painful-"

"And then when Marc DID get the two of you separated and told you to go to work, you went out into the mall, straight up to Chris and continued where you'd left off?"

"I was 
MAD -" Matthew protested, not liking the way this was going at all. "He's been horrible to Marc all week, Marc was really upset yesterday evening and you wouldn't let me talk to him about it or HEAR anything about it-"

"From which you might infer that it was nothing to do with you," Rolf said crisply.

"It IS my business, he's my friend!"

"Had you not walked in this morning and started that fight with Chris, he and Marc might very well have sorted their problems out on their own. Marc certainly would have had a lot more strategies to try," Rolf said sternly. "As it was you pushed things to a head, Marc ended up having to deal with Chris in mid tantrum and understandably somewhat upset from having you walk in looking for a fight with him for no reason he could see-"

"He's been horrible to Marc all week, you know he has!" Matthew said hotly.

"DO you know the entire circumstances?" Rolf demanded. Matthew glared at the table.

"NO, you kept sending me away yesterday when you and Marc were talking about it."

"For your information," Rolf said grimly, "You left Chris in quite a state, Marc also somewhat stressed and upset, and the rest of the morning did NOT go well for them at all."

"Oh," Matthew said weakly. Rolf's glare didn't lift.

"As a matter of fact you made things considerably harder for Marc than helped in any way. And I STILL haven't heard a reasonable explanation as to why you thought you needed to push Chris off a desk and start a fight with him, not once but TWICE, and to pay no attention whatever to what Marc told you."

There was no answer to that. Highly miserable, Matthew stared at the table and wished he was anywhere else but there. It didn't work. Rolf got up, pulled his tie loose and took off his jacket.

"Upstairs, young man; get yourself ready for bed. You have five minutes. And I do not even want to 
HEAR what the time is."

That was so not a good sign. Matthew booked it straight upstairs, not sorry to escape the glare even for a few minutes, and hurriedly changed into pyjamas, not daring to dawdle. He was given five minutes on the dot: he was still putting clothes away when he heard Rolf start upstairs and got the cupboard door shut and himself parked on the end of the bed just in time before the door opened. Rolf had the paddle in his hand and he looked no more amused than he had done five minutes earlier. Matthew's nerve disintegrated at that point and he dissolved into tears. Rolf took a seat beside him, from the sound of things entirely unimpressed.

"I've got no sympathy, Matthew. You had absolutely no business interfering this morning, and Marc and Chris are both a lot unhappier than you are right now. And there IS no excuse whatever you can offer for picking a fight, or for totally ignoring what Marc tells you to do. You knew perfectly well what I'd make of that, and you knew when you decided to do it, so you take the consequences you chose. Get up please."

"He was being MEAN to Marc!" Matthew choked out. Rolf didn't answer that, merely pointed to the floor beside him. Fussing now was not going to help this horrible situation in any way, and Matthew knew it well. Slowly he got to his feet and moved to Rolf's side. Rolf took his hand and pulled him down across his lap, settling him before he pushed the pyjama pants south. Feeling horrendously vulnerable, Matthew twisted, peering back over his shoulder.

"He WAS; it was Chris's fault!"

For answer to that, Rolf picked up the paddle and landed a swat that made Matthew screech, tears returning thick and fast.

"DID Chris start either fight?"

"No....." Matthew managed between sobs.

"DID he follow you and pick a second fight?"

"No......"

"DID he drive five miles out of his way to find you, intending to interfere in something that had nothing whatsoever to do with him?"

Matthew hesitated only a split second, in no mood to provoke any further.

"No..... I'm sorry!"

"So is Marc," Rolf said dryly. "And Chris. That was totally unacceptable, Matthew."

He didn't lecture any further. Just began to use the paddle, purposefully and practisedly on his upended and quickly squirming lover, aware from his tears and cries that the message was more than getting through.



"Come here," he said a lot more gently, some time later. Matthew turned gladly out of his corner and buried himself in the arms opened to him, still sniffling. Rolf held him, feeling the last of the shudders and Matthew's somewhat hiccupy voice from the depths of his neck.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to."

"I know you didn't and it's over now. You don't need to worry about it."

"What about Marc?" Matthew asked, peeling himself away. Rolf pushed damp hair back off his forehead, reflecting on the face before him.

"Sweetheart, you're a mess. Wash your face and get into bed."

"Roooooooooooolf........" Matthew began in somewhat lukewarm and uncertain protest. Rolf shook his head.

"Bed."

Matthew moved with near alacrity. Rolf brought a tray upstairs a few minutes later and put it down on the bedside table. Matthew eyed the sandwiches and milk without enthusiasm but kept his mouth closed. Rolf pulled the covers straight and leaned down to kiss him.

"No TV. And I want to see all that eaten when I come to bed."

Matthew grimaced but didn't answer. Rolf paused in the doorway to give him a look that made him flush, even without having done anything to deserve it.

"And if I hear this door open or one 
FOOT on the landing....."

The threat trailed off, but Matthew's imagination had NO problem in supplying various solutions. He slid down deeper under the covers as Rolf closed the door, with no wish to draw any further fire tonight.


*****


Marc appeared almost an hour later, by which time Rolf knew for certain, worn out with emotion and left in boredom, Matthew would be fast asleep. Which left his faculties entirely free to deal with the next problem.

Marc looked equally tired and far more demoralised. Rolf took his coat from him and held out a hand, pulling Marc against him and holding him for a moment. Marc simply leaned, accepting the comfort and the reassurance gladly. It had been a ghastly day and had grown no better as it progressed.

"Come and eat," Rolf said quietly. "And then we'll talk about this. It's all right, Matthew's upstairs, in bed and asleep; he won't surface before morning."

There was a certain part of Marc that thought a good deal of sympathy upstairs, familiar as he was with the terminology of this household. But he also wasn't sorry to have Rolf to himself. Tired, upset, with his self esteem currently distinctly fragile- Rolf gave him a gentle push towards the kitchen.

"Go and wash. And take that tie off; you're not going anywhere tonight."

"I have to go home, I've got some things to pick up-" Marc began. Rolf didn't even look up.

"You can get them tomorrow on the way to work; you're staying here tonight."

Two plates hit the table and Rolf took a seat. Since he'd never been a fan of being kept waiting, Marc found himself automatically washing his hands with all due speed, pulling off the tie and taking a seat. Rolf gave him a half-smile that held a fair amount of sympathy.

"Good. You look tired, sunshine."

"It was a hell of a day," Marc said heavily. "Have you spoken to Joe? Is Chris ok?"

"He's still pretty upset." Rolf picked up a fork, matter of fact. "He's with Joe, Joe will look after him. You need to eat. How did the rest of the cataloguing go?"

Marc picked at the casserole in front of him, not in the least hungry.

"Ok. I didn't get much done."

"How much is left to go?"

"Not that much. Chris actually worked pretty well. Not fast, but methodical; there're no mistakes. I looked this afternoon."

Which didn't serve to make him feel any better.

"He is a good worker," Rolf said mildly. "It's harder to stop him than get him started. Marc, eat, don't pick."

Marc dropped his fork, frustrated beyond any further pretence. "I need to call Joe."

"You do NOT need to call Joe."

Marc gave him an apprehensive look. Rolf shook his head.

"He's not happy but he's nothing if not logical and he knows this wasn't anything you meant to happen. He needs to concentrate on Chris. He'll come to us when he thinks it's necessary."

"Then what do I do?!" Marc demanded in despair.

"You eat," Rolf said firmly. "And then we'll talk. Come on, Marc."

Marc ducked his head and did his best to choke down most of the casserole, holding onto himself with an effort. The food did actually help. A headache and an acid stomach that he'd only been partially aware of faded away, leaving him calmer. Rolf enlisted his help to wash up, taking his time until the kitchen was immaculate, then he steered Marc with him into the living room and parked him on the couch.

"Make yourself comfortable. I'm going to check on Matthew."

Marc slumped back on the sofa and waited, listening to Rolf head upstairs. A moment later the footfall came back down and Rolf shut the living room door behind him.

"Fast asleep."

"Was he okay?"

Rolf gave him an expressive look. Marc winced.

"I meant his nose?"

"Nothing broken or bruised." Rolf took a seat on the opposite end of the sofa, made himself comfortable and looked across at Marc. "Right. I know what happened, I heard Matthew's, Chris and your sides of it."

"It was my fault," Marc said flatly. "I overstepped my authority, I shouldn't have pushed him-"

"Whoa." Rolf put a hand on his knee, shaking gently. "Listen. Yes, you did overstep your authority, and I'm guessing too that you got frustrated when the strategies you were trying that should have worked, didn't. But you were also in a very difficult position, and with Matthew, that would have been the right way to handle things. Why didn't it work with Chris?"

"I couldn't get through to him at all," Marc said, trying to keep his frustration down. "I tried every strategy that ever works on Matt- he's TWICE the brat Chris is-"

"No, just a different kind of brat," Rolf said quietly. "But that isn't the main reason why it wouldn't have worked, whatever you did."

Marc flushed, hotly and darkly, staring at the floor. "I don't have the relationship with him that I needed to be able to discipline him without scaring him."

"Yes. You didn't have the relationship, but moreover you didn't have the commitment that has to come from you BOTH," Rolf said gently and a little sternly. "There's an issue of consent here Marc, and it's NEVER taken lightly. You have that from Matthew and you have that from me: you don't have it from Joe and you didn't have it from Chris. I know your role there was ambiguous and that Chris was pushing you into that role until you did more or less what came naturally. Another time though, unless you're absolutely sure of your ground and your responsibilities, 
AND of the feelings of the person you're with, you don't get involved in that way, no matter what."

"Oh, you don't have to worry," Marc said bitterly. "He was terrified. I felt like I'd committed assault."

"And you have to accept that to him it may have felt like that," Rolf said quietly. "You have to think too that if it hadn't been Joe involved, you might have found yourself facing charges for assault. As it happened though, there were extenuating circumstances. So you can stop worrying about it."

Marc looked at him. Rolf gently shook the knee he was holding.

"To some extent, it sounds to me like Chris WAS playing with you, and he wasn't entirely innocent of the dynamics involved. Joe and I both know that from what you told me yesterday, and from what Chris told us today. He was in many ways pushing you to BE the top figure he wanted; he's in search of security at the moment and he sees you in that role. He just is used to people who know him and how to handle him. I suspect your approach scared him out of thinking about anything except getting away."

"I should have done what you said," Marc said unhappily. "Sent him home. Talked to Joe. TAKEN him over to Joe."

"Yes. You shouldn't have let him back you into a corner where you had no other options left," Rolf agreed. "But that's also the other issue. What works with Matthew won't work with Chris, and you DID get cornered."

"Surely the expectations have to be the same," Marc said in genuine confusion. "That was exactly HOW he was playing with me- I'm not doing THIS, what are YOU going to do about it?"

"What should you have done?" Rolf said pointedly. Marc flushed again.

"Told him, clearly, I wasn't playing and gone to Joe."

"Yes."

"Ok, so say it was you," Marc asked. "You DO have that relationship with him and with Joe. I know he wouldn't even have tried that on you."

"Probably not. But then he knows me well and he's known me for a long time. And Chris won't 'play' with you like Matthew might. That's not to say he won't push, but it isn't just natural mischief or seeing how far he can go; if he pushes it's usually a sign something's wrong and he's already angry or stressed or upset. And he isn't going to stop until you get to that problem."

"So all that stuff about not drinking? He was driving me crazy."

"Probably insecurity. Feeling unsettled, wanting attention, and you're right, you have your limits and expectations. It doesn't become a game. So find an answer and keep things on your terms. You've seen him drink milk- if he refused to buy water, go with him to the shop and offer the choice, milk or water, he chooses or you choose and that's the end of it."

"He'd have just refused to drink."

"Then you're into the realms of you do this without arguing or we're onto consequences. Not a battle, just cause and effect. You can scare Chris very easily," Rolf paused and looked at Marc. "And you won't always see when you do it. When he feels cornered, when he's scared, he will panic, and he'll lose all sense of proportion. He'll go to any length, he won't think about what's happening or what he says or what the consequences will be unless you slow him down, calm him down and help him do it. He hasn't got a third of the confidence Matthew has."

"Roooooooooolf?" a very sleepy voice said from the top of the stairs. Rolf sat back, sounding resigned.

"WHAT did I say about if I heard you come out of that room?"

"There's no Tylenol in your bathroom and my head hurts...."

Rolf got up at once. "All right, I'm coming."

"I think I'll head to bed, too." Marc said, getting up. "If that's ok."

"Of course it is," Rolf paused, giving him a careful look, but Marc looked less stressed than he had done earlier. "I'll call you early; you'll have plenty of time to pick up whatever you need before work."

"Thanks."

Rolf kissed his forehead and headed upstairs. "No brooding hmm? It's all right, this can be sorted out."

Marc followed more slowly, still thinking. And wondering, how, across town, Joe was coping with his still distraught brat. That was still not a nice thought.


******


Joe was half expecting the call and had a hand on the receiver before the shrill began, interrupting it fast enough not to disturb the sleeping head in his lap.

"Hi?"

"It's Rolf."  Rolf's own voice was muted, suggesting he was on the qui vive for his own brat. "How's he doing?"

"He was already tired and I got him to take a Benadryl, I don't think we're going to wake him." Joe ran a hand gently over Chris's hair, smoothing it back from his eyes. "He's still shaky. I'm not planning on either of us going to work tomorrow."

"I'm sorry."

"Rolf, it's ok. I'm not going to eat your brat. If Marc is a brat of yours."

Rolf didn't debate that. "He's upset. And very ready to blame himself. He knows very well he shouldn't have taken matters into his hands."

"No, he shouldn't," Joe said simply. "There's no excuse for that. But I know Chris. I think all four of us have some blame here and there's no sense focusing on it. I'm just interested in Chris not going through the rest of this year terrified of Marc, or Marc convinced that Chris and I are angry with him."

"If you can talk through with Marc HOW to be with Chris," Rolf suggested, "Bearing in mind that Chris SEES Marc in that role, which was the problem to start with, then maybe they can finish this week's work together. I know Marc will do anything he can to make Chris feel safe to come back-"

"I'm not leaving him," Joe said matter-of-factly. "I'm sorry, Rolf, but however much I understand why Marc acted as he did, Chris wasn't THAT in the wrong, he was badly frightened and he's got no reason right now to believe he's safe in that store or alone with Marc. I agree he needs to finish the job and that he's not entirely innocent here, and I'll go with him while he completes the work, but there is no way I can ask him to walk back into that situation alone."

Rolf sighed, but well aware that even with his own far more resilient brat, he would have felt much the same way, he didn't argue.

"That's fair enough."

"I'll see how Chris is doing by tomorrow evening and talk to you then. He'll finish this store, you can tell Marc that for certain. Whether he carries on working through the rest of the stores I don't know. That's partly his decision, and I'd need to know he's going to handle it."

"I'll let Marc know. Give my love to Chris."

"I will. Thanks, Rolf."

The click of the phone was ever so slightly abrupt. One still unhappy top, and Rolf couldn't blame him. In many ways he wasn't sure who he felt most sympathy for.


*****


"Marc, it's Rolf."

Marc sat down on the desk and put down the files he was carrying, shifting the phone to a better position.

"Hi."

"How's it going?"

"Slowly," Marc admitted, looking around at the chaos. "The bookwork's getting done, it's the cataloguing."

"I wanted to let you know, you're going to get some help with that today. Joe called; he and Chris are on their way over."

He'd been expecting it, but Marc still felt his stomach jump. Rolf sounded calm, matter of fact but Marc heard the concern behind it.

"Do you want me there? I can be over in ten minutes."

It was tempting. Marc took a deep breath.

"No, it's fine thanks."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, it'll be okay. Thank you."

"You call me before you go home. Clear?"

"Yes sir," Marc said lightly. "I'll talk to you later."

And hung up, sliding off the desk to hurriedly straighten out the room as best he could. He wasn't nearly done when he heard a tap at the glass. Joe. Tall, out of his usual workday suit and wearing jeans and a jacket. As was Chris, standing some way behind him. Marc unlocked the door, trying to keep the colour out of his face and to look Joe in the eyes. Joe didn't smile, but there was nothing accusing or unfriendly in his nod.

"Hey, Marc. We've come to finish the cataloguing."

Marc stood back to let Chris in, locked the door again behind them and took a deep breath, looking at Chris and talking as gently as he could.

"I'm glad to see you. I wanted to tell you how sorry I was about what happened on Wednesday. I overstepped the mark and I apologise, to both of you. It won't happen again. Chris, I'm sorry you were so upset. You must have been very scared and that was my fault."

Chris was very white and he'd moved at once to Joe, taking firm hold of Joe's hand. Joe squeezed his fingers reassuringly, well aware of how cold they were.

"Thank you, Marc. Chris? You weren't blameless either."

"I'm sorry I was a pest," Chris said almost inaudibly, not looking up. Joe put an arm around his waist.

"I think we've got work to do. Why don't you show me where to start?"

Chris silently led him into the back room. Joe pulled his jacket off and glanced at the stacks surrounding them, then took a seat on the table, pulling a sheaf of papers out of his jacket.

"Got everything you need?"

Chris nodded, kneeling down by the nearest stack. Joe turned his attention to his own work. A few minutes later, it struck him that nothing much was happening. When he looked up, Chris was still kneeling beside the stack. Joe waited a minute, then knocked on the desk.

"Chris?"

Chris glanced up.

"Problem?" Joe prompted. Chris shook his head.

"No."

Ok, this was going to happen the hard way, obviously. Joe got up, cutting straight to the chase.

"Show me what you've done so far?"

Chris hesitated, then surrendered without a fight.

"I haven't."

"What's the problem?"

Chris looked back at the floor. "Nothing."

"Christopher."

"I don't want to be here," Chris said quietly and hard. "I hate him and I hate this place-"

"We went over this at home," Joe interrupted gently, "You have an obligation and this job needs to be completed. You're not going to wind yourself up into a state about it, just get it done."

"I CAN'T DO IT," Chris snarled back, still in an undertone. Joe shook his head, crouching to bring them closer and gain eye contact. Chris never found it so easy to flip if he had to look Joe in the face and do it.

"Why?"

"BECAUSE I CAN'T!"

Joe mentally sighed and reached for Chris, overwhelming the initial shove Chris gave him and pulled him to his feet, holding him too tightly to struggle. After a minute or two Chris angrily wrapped his arms around Joe in turn and held on, stopping the fight if not actually relaxing. Marc reached the doorway, alarmed by the raised voice, saw Chris lean against Joe and hastily backed out of sight. There, just beyond the doorway, he stopped and waited, heart thumping, not at all inclined to do the decent thing and go out of earshot as well.

Joe held Chris for some time, strongly enough that Chris's own clenching grip on him eased somewhat. When he felt calmer, Joe let him go and stepped back, keeping his voice calm and matter of fact.

"Do you raise your voice to me when I ask you a reasonable question?"

Chris shook his head miserably. Joe ran a hand over his hair but turned him around and steered him gently towards the corner.

"I want you to stand there, do some calming down and think about some better answers then."

That finally snapped Chris's self control and Joe saw his eyes start to fill, his voice low and cracking.

"Joe please....."

"I'm not going anywhere, Chris. Go on please, you need to calm yourself down and get a handle on this situation. I'm right here, you can do it."

Chris moved, slowly and very unwillingly.  Joe waited, watching him with a good deal of sympathy. Taking the short term perspective, he could see entirely where Chris was coming from and it was perfectly reasonable- Chris's instincts when hurt were always to shut down and hide. However in the long term perspective, he could see Chris needed to face this situation- and Marc- down. And however hard it was, he needed the help to do it and succeed at it.

He made himself wait, watching Chris's shoulders gradually regain control until he walked over and dropped both hands on them, massaging and coaxing them to relax.

"It's really not worth getting yourself this upset, sweetheart. We're only here to finish the job; it's going to be fine."

Chris shook his head, not looking at him. "I can't. Please let me go home."

"We talked this through yesterday," Joe said kindly but with a finality he didn't feel. "You have a job to finish, and an obligation to do it."

Chris shook his head again, harder, voice rising. "I can't do this with him around, I can't be here, Joe; PLEASE."

"Chris, what can happen? I'm here, I'm not going anywhere, and neither are you until the job is finished, so you need to calm down and get started on it. I'm here and I'll help, but you are going to do it."

It took a moment, but finally Chris took a deep breath and glanced somewhat hesitantly back at him.

"I don't know what to do. Some of the stacks are different, I don't know where Marc got to-"

"Then you need to ask him."

Another moment's long silence, then Chris said with more certainty, "I can figure it out."

Joe resisted the urge to smile and shook his head.

"No you don't. Ask him to come in here and check on what needs to be done."

"Joe..." Chris turned, eyes actively pleading now. "I'll DO the work, but please, I don't have to talk to him, I'll get it finished and we can go."

Joe shook his head, not even prepared to negotiate. The UN would have nothing on Chris in the right frame of mind for plea bargaining.

"You can ask him, or you can carry on with that corner until you are ready to ask him. You don't have to do it until you're ready but you DO have to do it. And 
DON 'T wind yourself up," he added, immediately and sternly before Chris could begin the next round. "Choose and choose now: ask or corner?"

Chris hesitated, caught out and uncertain. Then swallowed.

"Ask."

"Good boy." Joe leaned down and kissed him, firmly and thoroughly enough to take his mind briefly off his troubles, running both hands down his back and squeezing when they reached the seat of his jeans. "Come on, get to it and we'll have an afternoon to ourselves."

That got him to the door and got the door open. There he hesitated, then Joe saw him draw a breath, talking fast and not too clearly.

"Marc? I've got a problem, the stacks have moved and I don't know where to start or what needs to be done next-"

Joe, watching Marc's face beyond the door, saw relief cross it before he came into the storeroom, glancing somewhat uneasily over as he passed.

"I'm sorry; I should have thought to show you first thing.  I finished up the fantasy stack and moved it.  You just need to do horror and romance."

Chris hesitated, not coming any closer.

"What - there are a few fantasy on the floor, labelled but not on the list-"

Marc peered at the labels and nodded. "Good catch!  If they have labels, then they do need to be on the list.  You just enter them fresh into the computer. Anything else?"

Chris shook his head, eyes still down. "No, that's fine. Thank you."

Marc glanced again uneasily across at Joe, who gave him a reassuring nod.

"Thanks, Marc. We'll call again if we get stuck."

Thankfully, Marc vanished back into the front room.

Joe waited until Chris reached him, put an arm around his shoulders and pulled him close, mutely kissing his forehead. Chris hugged him back, rolled his eyes expressively and went back to the videos.

Once settled, as always, he was efficient, fast and methodical. Joe watched him for a while, partly for the pleasure of watching his long legged, fair-haired partner, head down, eyes intent, his entire attention focused on the job at hand. Then he settled to his own work and for a while neither of them spoke.

It was a pressing need for the bathroom that brought Joe to his feet an hour later. Chris looked up, read his face and grinned.

"Other side of the hall."

Joe grimaced at him. "I'll be right back."

"Do NOT leave."

"I won't leave."

"Do NOT wander off and shop," Chris added more sternly. Joe raised his hands.

"I won't wander off and shop. I'll be five minutes. Sure you don't want to come with me?"

Chris hesitated only a split second, then shook his head.

"I'm not far off done."

The smile he got more than rewarded that. Joe headed towards the main door and Chris heard him call to Marc. He filed the last of the videos on the shelf, got up and went to enter the list into the computer, punching return with a sense of satisfaction. Two hundred and fifty videos, logged, filed and catalogued.


The computer made a horrible bleeping sound, the screen flickered for a minute and then jumped to the blue error screen. Chris stared at it, throat drying. The bleeping raised to a high, electronic wail. Chris hesitated, then instinctively grabbed for the wall socket and turned the machine off at the mains. Then swallowed hard. And went to the door.

It still took a minute before he got it open and called.

"Marc? The- I think I just lost the catalogue-"

Marc looked up, shocked. "What?!"

"I didn't do anything to it, just hit enter and it went crazy. I had to turn it off."

"Damn." Marc headed past him into the storeroom and turned the computer on again, watching it anxiously as it loaded. Chris stood where he was, feeling his stomach churn and acid at the back of his throat. Right now, the thought of Marc getting annoyed- even mildly irritable- was not at all a pleasant one.

"I'm sorry, I didn't do anything to it-"

"Do you remember exactly what you hit?"

"I know how to use a computer," Chris said defensively. "I didn't do anything wrong!"

Marc glanced up at him and felt his own stomach lurch at the expression on Chris's face. He looked scared. And that was exactly what Marc had been trying to avoid all day.

"I'm sure you didn't do anything wrong," he began, trying to sound calm without sounding patronising. The more he thought about it, the harder it got to separate the two in his mind. "You just might have filed something in the wrong order, or tried to load too much information at once, or-"

It wasn't going to work, he saw Chris's eyes flash right before his temper detonated, his ears reddening to scarlet.

"WHAT? That I'm stupid as well as hysterical?  Well you can think what you like, Marc, I'm out of here"

"Chris, there's no need for that!"

The shut look was back in Chris's face and he was already moving away. Marc silently swore to himself, put aside everything he knew about Matthew and instead tried to think about what he'd overheard earlier. Joe's tone. Quiet, unhurried, reassuring.

"Chris. Listen to me a minute. It's okay. Nothing has happened that can't be fixed. I'm not mad. I'm not even annoyed."

Chris stood where he was, not looking any happier, but not going anywhere either.

Marc hesitated, trying to keep the same tone in his voice.

"You don't have anything you need to be worried about, I promise you. We're going to look at the computer, we'll call back the files, if we can't, then we re-enter what's missing. It'll be fine."

"I have plenty to be worried about!" Chris snapped back. Marc swallowed and turned to face him, keeping his hands down, his face and voice relaxed. However he was feeling right now, Chris was the one who'd been made to feel vulnerable and been hurt, and Marc's instincts drew him in, making him read Chris's body language, concentrating hard. Fear. There was a 
LOT of fear about Chris. Tension, anxiety, a hyperalertness that wasn't ever a part of Matthew. It reminded him more of one of Matthew's cats. Slow down, it told him. Relax. He's looking for warning signals, don't give them.

"Can you tell me what?" he said lightly. Chris laughed.

"Three guesses? Last time you lost it with me I got hit."

"No, I didn't hit you," Marc said steadily. "I would never hit you. I did spank you. I shouldn't have done it at all, and I certainly didn't do it well, and I'm sorry, Chris. It was a serious mistake on my part and it must have been very frightening."

"It was," Chris said tightly.

Marc didn't argue, standing where he was and waiting. Chris looked up at him, still glaring, but it was more of a defence than an offence.

"It had better not happen again."

"It won't," Marc said decidedly. "Unless you do something dangerous, or you're in a situation where I can’t responsibly act any other way, and I'm the only one with you who can handle it."

Chris's head shot up. Marc waited, half expecting an explosion.

"Would you expect anything less of Rolf?  Or of Stephen or Eric?"  Marc ventured when Chris didn't say anything.

Chris looked long and hard at Marc, and Marc never lost eye contact.  It was Chris who finally broke it, looking down.

"You know me, Chris," Marc said gently. "You know when you push me to act a certain way, that you can't just change your mind and say you didn't mean it.  It wouldn't fly with the other guys, and it's not going to fly with me."

There was another long pause, then Chris looked up and nodded, briefly and matter-of-factly.

"Okay," he said steadily.  Then he looked back over to the computer and his stomach tightened again, his voice gaining more strength.  "What about that?" he asked smartly.  "What does THAT earn?"

"Not a spanking," Marc said evenly.  "It wasn't a malicious act, was it?"

"And if it was?" Chris said in the same tone. Marc shrugged.

"You're fired. And you can tell Joe why, but it's hardly dangerous."

"It was an accident," Chris said still more lightly. Marc gave him a slight smile, heading towards the computer.

"I don't think it was even that. I blame the computer. In fact I'd ground the computer if I could, it does this regularly. Want to see if we can retrieve those files?"

Chris came willingly across to him as he logged on to the network and stood beside him, arms folded, eyes on the computer screen.

"You know the fit I threw about the tape stacks falling?" he said softly a moment later, summoning up the courage. Marc glanced up, startled. Chris shrugged, awkwardly.

"I was thinking about David. And I get in a state whenever I start thinking, it wasn't the tapes. Just when they fell I was already upset-"

Marc straightened up in distress. "Why didn't you say?"

"I don't know," Chris said uncomfortably, "I wasn't thinking too clearly. And then you thought I was just freaking for no good reason and that made me mad so I wasn't too nice to you the next day- I'm sorry."

"And things snowballed from there," Marc said wryly. "Chris I'm sorry. If I'd have known I would have been a lot more sympathetic."

"I don't usually lose if just because a stack of tapes go over," Chris's face lit up as the computer bleeped and offered to retrieve the lost files. "Thank God, I didn't lose them."

"I told you it was unlikely, this computer's nothing if not temperamental." Marc caught Chris's eye and winked. And caught a brief smile in return. And beyond Chris, a glimpse of Joe, leaning in the doorway with his arms folded, clearly having stood there for some time. And as Marc caught his eye, he got a slow, and definitely approving nod.

...............a few weeks later............


Matthew was sprawled facedown on the floor - just as Rolf had predicted - when Marc arrived, books strewn about him, the television on and tuned to a hockey game.  Marc came in the side door and headed towards the sound of the TV.

"Studying hard I see."

"Sheesh!  You could knock!" Matthew said, sitting up.  "And I AM."

Marc shook his head, walked over to the television and turned it off. "That should help you concentrate. And I DID knock. Rolf said you'd be knee deep in hockey instead of homework."

"HEY!" Matthew said, turning the television back on with the remote. "That's the Red Wings I was watching!"

"You can't very well watch television and study PROPERLY at the same time," Marc said removing the remote from Matthew's hand and turning off the television. "Besides, I thought it was the Sharks you liked?"

"I like HOCKEY!  They are fighting tooth and nail, turn it back on!"

"Sit!" Marc said firmly, before lightening up. "What are you working on?"

"Nothing," Matthew said, folding up his papers.  "I’m done, now turn the game on!"

"Then you wouldn't mind if I took a look?"

"Go RIGHT ahead," Matthew said, stepping past Marc and turning the TV on.

Marc looked over the work, then picked up Matthew's homework journal, flipping through to the day's date.

"Can I see the economics paper?"

Matthew fixed him with a thorough glare. "Did Rolf tell you to be this much of an........"

"No, just to help with your homework," Marc said, straight-faced. "Economics?"

"Economics is a very relative term, especially in first world countries, not to mention the effect on third world countries.

"I am sure," Marc agreed. "The paper?"

"There is paper everywhere.  See?"  Matthew asked, pointing around on the floor.

"You haven't done it yet, have you?"

"I have economically used the various sheets of paper you see before you.  Now, if you 
DON 'T mind," Matthew ground out, "The Wings are on the power play."

Marc turned off the television again, irrespective of the Wings winding up for a shot.

"I see you have used your resources wonderfully. But you have it written here that you had a three page paper due on the 'Rise and Fall of 
IBM stock’. Where is that?"

"You just made me miss a possible scoring attempt!" Matthew yelled. "It's a friggen paper that is due TOMORROW!  I -"

"And homework is done the night before, is it not?"

"You have 
GOT to be kidding me??!!" Matthew said in disbelief, trying to get around Marc to turn the TV back on.

Marc blocked him without difficulty. "Do you have the articles listed here? Where were you supposed to get those from?"

"The net....the library...WHEREVER," Matthew said in frustration.

"So these articles are going to mystically arrive on the desk in front of you when you're ready to do this paper. Which will be when exactly?" Marc invited. Matthew glared at him, speaking slowly and clearly.

"Before it's due."

Marc shook his head, steering Matthew ahead of him into the hallway.

"Get your coat, fruitbrat. We're going to the library and the paper's getting done BEFORE Rolf gets home tonight."

"You," Matthew said politely, walking where he was steered, "Will have to catch me first."

Marc grabbed a split second too late. Matthew took off up the stairs, the bedroom door slammed- and locked. Marc hit it a second later, hearing Matthew's giggle and the TV switch on loud- playing hockey.

Marc leaned against the door, laughing himself, but under his breath as he thought. Matthew would be waiting for the bark and the threats- which he would answer with his usual patter and charm, with a tongue that moved three times as fast as Marc's. That was the usual game plan. Which, if Marc knew Matthew, would end in him coming out too late to hit the library.

Marc racked his brains for a moment more, then stood back, softening his voice.

"Matthew. It's okay, listen to me."

Matthew, who had been waiting for the first yell of outrage, heard the call and turned down the TV, grinning.

"Yes, Marc?"

"You know that paper needs doing, and you know why I want you to do it. You CAN do it, you don't need to worry about that, I'll help you with it. And the hockey will wait, I promise. How about we video it for you to see later?"

Matthew picked up the remote and muted the TV, staring at the door with an "oh my God" expression on his face.

Marc grinned at the horrified silence and softened his voice still further, talking gently and sincerely. "Matt, if you're worried about the paper, or you’re upset about missing the hockey, if you're upset with 
ME- then come out and we'll talk about it. I promise I'm not mad."

That was it: he stifled the urge to laugh as he heard Matthew hurl himself off the bed, stamp to the doorway and hurl the door open.

"What the fuck is WRONG with you??!"

Marc collared him in the doorway and batted him smartly across the back of the head, pushing him back towards the stairs.

"Not a thing. Go get your coat."


 ~The End~

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2010

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

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