Monday, February 8, 2010

When the Bough Breaks

Title: When the Bough Breaks
Authors: Rolf and Ranger



Matthew... at home...... was plotting.

He grabbed his first opportunity and Rolf, and plotted further with him. And the results of their confabulations culminated in a ritual held under the moon on a Saturday evening at the very end of the month. Matthew, on all the invitations, insisted on terming it a 'getting out of jail free' party.

Chris, Todd and Michael, all newly released after several weeks’ grounding, were making the absolute most of the evening. The floodlights were on in the garden and around the pool, the evening was still and hot, and all three of them, plus Matthew and Marc, were in the water, making enough noise for Rolf to thank God that the neighbours had chosen that weekend to go on holiday.

Stephen and Eric were both swimming, taking their opportunities to dunk whichever brat came near them with any of the pool toys, and leaving Joe and Rolf in peace to work on a bottle of wine between them and admire what could be seen beyond the pool of the garden.

"Whose side is Marc on?" Joe inquired, watching Eric fight Michael off an inflated whale and climb up on it himself. Michael surfaced with a gasp and returned to battle.

"Probably his own," Rolf said thoughtfully. "He has a certain sense of independence. Matthew once said we should get him a reversible t-shirt which he could change according to his mood at the moment."

As Matthew currently appeared to be trying to drown him, his mood wasn't easy to judge. Joe tried for a while, then gave it up and poured himself another glass of wine.

"This was a great idea you had."

"It was Matthew's. I told him to quit focusing on what everyone couldn't do, and plan something for when everyone could."

"I couldn't agree more. You think any of them are getting tired yet? They've been at it for two hours now."

"Nah. The lot of them have a few weeks of energy to release and I think they're still only skimming the surface. I do think I know a way to make it dissipate faster," Rolf said with a wicked grin.

Joe's grin matched Rolf's, and they stood up as one and ran to the pool with yells louder than had been heard yet, shocking everyone in the pool for a moment before they both hit the water. People scattered in all directions, swamped, then Chris struggled to the surface and flung himself on Joe.

*

It was long past dark when Matthew lit the last of the lamps on the porch. Eric and Michael had gone back to the water and were swimming a lot more quietly, covering lengths in slow, easy strokes. Todd had taken a seat on the porch steps, his head against Stephen's knee and Chris, finally pulled out of the water by Joe, was shouldering into jeans and a sweater against the cooling night air while Rolf continued to grill the steaks. The cell phone's ring was so faint it was a minute before Rolf heard it and Joe got up, searching through the several piled articles of clothing on the porch seat before he found Chris's jacket and flipped his phone up.

"Hello?"

"Matthew, find me some plates?" Rolf said, wiping his hands. "Are we being civilised and eating inside, or sitting on the steps?"

Matthew gave him a Look as he headed into the kitchen.

"I think that means the steps," Rolf said resignedly. Joe didn't answer, just turned his back, putting his free hand up to cover his ear.

"I'm sorry? Yes. Yes, thank you. Thanks."

Rolf waited, curious. Joe shut the phone down and stood for a moment, not moving. Then he pocketed it and turned around, a little pale.

"What?" Rolf asked with concern. Joe gave him a brief and distracted glance.

"That was the police, looking for Chris. His brother's been in some road accident."

"I'm so sorry, where is he?"

"He's dead," Joe said helplessly. "There's no point even in going to the hospital, they said. They're taking Chris's mother home now; they wanted Chris to go and be with her."

"Oh God." Rolf turned the grill off and put a hand on Joe's shoulder. Joe took a deep breath.

"I've got to tell Chris."

Rolf looked down at the pool where Chris was walking around the side, laughing at something Eric was saying. A little further away, Stephen and Todd were watching them, aware something was wrong but not what. Rolf looked around and found Matthew in the kitchen doorway, a little pale, trying to figure out what was happening. He held a hand out to him, lowering his voice for Joe.

"Take him inside; I'll keep the others out here."

Joe headed down the porch, his face losing the look of stress, and Matthew heard his voice as he called across the pool.

"Chris...? Come here a minute."

Chris's face was mildly interested as he straightened up. Joe put an arm around him and steered him into the house.

"What? What's going on?" Matthew asked as Rolf towed him down to the pool.

Rolf didn't answer, just walked down to where Todd and Stephen were standing with serious looks on their faces. Just as Rolf got within their circle, a stomach-dropping cry could be heard from the house.

"Rolf?" Stephen asked, looking like he wanted to run to the house.

Rolf pulled Matthew and held him tightly, feeling him shake with fear. "That was the police calling Joe. Chris's brother was in an auto accident....and he didn't survive."

Michael and Eric had gotten out of the pool as the mood had turned a little strange all of a sudden, and they got there just in time to hear that. Eric and Stephen both reached out instinctively to pull their partners into a crushing embrace. Eric looked over Michael's head.

"What happened?"

"Joe didn't say. Just that there wasn't reason to go to the hospital. Matt, no. Leave them alone, they don't want us around right now."

"I want to HELP," Matthew said angrily. Rolf, seeing the tears under the scowl, hung onto him.

"I know, sweetheart. The most we can do right now is give them some space."

"I'll go move my car," Stephen said quietly, digging in his pocket for his keys. "I'm blocking them in."

"Where are they headed?" Eric asked. "Chris's parents?"

"His mom," Rolf said subduedly. "About ten miles away- I don't know where his father's living at the moment; I haven't heard much about him since he got married a few years back. David was the only other family Chris had really, apart from his mom."

"Was he married?"

"No, thank God. No kids. I think he mostly worked at the hospital, I'm not sure what he did."

"STOP yattering on!" Matthew exploded, trying to pull out from under Rolf's arm. "He's been dead an HOUR and you're making bloody obituaries; what about Chris?!"

"Joe's looking after him." Rolf pulled Matthew with him to the nearest of the pool chairs and took a seat, pinning Matthew on his lap. "There's nothing we can do right now, it's okay."

"It is NOT okay!" Matthew spat. Eric picked up a towel, passed another to Michael and deliberately took no notice, temporarily becoming deaf and blind. Todd, awkward and upset, followed Stephen, walking around to the front of the house and watching him move cars.

"No, you're right, it's not okay. Right now, Chris is getting news none of us ever wants to hear. And he's going to be sad and upset. But the biggest thing he'll want is Joseph to hold him. Chris is going to need you too, but not right now," Rolf said gently, trying to soothe Matthew's hair down.

"Why did this have to happen?" Matthew asked, the tears falling of their own accord.

"Some things just happen. There aren't explanations for everything, and most of the time, the timing sucks. Part of life is living through the punches thrown at you."

"But it's David. We saw him three months ago, and he was fine," Matthew said, looking at the house every couple of moments.

Eric glanced up as Joseph came out of the house, holding a very distraught Chris next to him. He went immediately towards them, Michael trying to follow. Rolf caught his arm and pulled him down next to him, one arm across his shoulders.

"Stay here, sweetheart. The fewer people the better."

Michael leaned heavily against Rolf, his breath coming in short gasps as he tried to control his emotions. Eric walked steadily up the porch towards them, heart twisting at the sight of Chris's red-eyed, stunned face. Joe looked more together but no less shocked or distraught. He'd seen faces like this before when he'd been asked to break this kind of news to total strangers as part of his job, and it was hard enough to be with them and share their grief - people he had no connection with. It was unbearable to see it on the faces of people he loved. Instinctively he held his arms out to Chris and Chris leaned against him for a moment, swallowed up in Eric's big, stolid frame. Eric's bear-hugs were comforting at the best of times and Chris felt the gentleness of this one, and the sympathy.

"We're headed over there," Joe said quietly beside him. "I'll call you when we know anything more."

"If we can help, you know where we are." Eric kissed Chris's forehead, his big hand gripped the nape of Joe's neck for a moment and then he stood, running a hand through his hair and watching the two of them walk towards the driveway. Todd was standing well back on the sidewalk, Stephen's arms folded over his chest. Eric watched Joe reverse his car back out onto the road and pull away, then turned and walked slowly back to the pool. Rolf had one arm around Matthew on his lap and the other holding Michael's hand. Michael looked close to tears. Chris's brother was- had been- about the one close member of Chris's family, they'd all known him and they'd all liked him. Lively, good-looking, charming, he made an easy and a welcome guest. It was difficult to think of lively youth just snuffed out like that.

"Why don't you come back up on the porch and we'll eat like we planned to? Or at least have something to drink," Eric said mildly, holding out a hand to Michael. "It's getting cold out here."

Rolf slid Matthew to his feet and pushed him gently after them. Todd and Stephen came back around the house, still close together, faces subdued.

"Where does Chris's mom live?" Todd asked, curling up on the steps against Stephen as they sat down.

"The next town, I think." Eric took the swing and pulled Michael down against him. Rolf kept hold of Matthew's hand and steered him into the kitchen with him to make coffee. They were all unashamedly cuddling, with the automatic need to make sure of their own loved ones. A silent admission of luck. Thank God it wasn't me. Thank God it wasn't you. And there, but for the grace God, go us.

"Chris won't have to identify him, will he?" Michael said suddenly, looking around at Eric in shock. Eric winced.

"I certainly hope not."

Stephen gave him a speaking glance and Eric returned a slight shrug. The police were more likely to ask a brother than a mother to do the distressing task - unless Chris's father was in the area, which Eric doubted.

Matthew trailed Rolf back out to the steps, sliding down onto one and resting against the railing. Rolf set the tray down within reach of everyone, handing Eric his cup of coffee in the swing, then resting his long frame on the top step of the porch next to Matthew. And they sat in silence, thinking of Joe and Chris.

*

"Hello?" Rolf said, snagging the ringing phone a split second before it was going to trigger the answering machine.

"Rolf, hi," Joseph said.

Rolf pulled out a kitchen chair and sank down into it. "How are you? How is Chris?"

"I'm all right. Chris is coping, though I think he's still in shock," Joseph said as he leaned back into the couch cushions. "We only got back an hour ago. We didn't really want to leave his mom alone."

"How is she doing?"

"Not very well," Joe said wearily. "Having Chris there helped a lot. I think this morning she felt she wanted some time by herself - the funeral's going to be on Friday, it's pretty much all organised now. Chris and I spent most of yesterday on the phone and dealing with paperwork. You wouldn't believe the crap you have to go through to get someone buried; it makes everything ten times worse."

"I can imagine," Rolf said sympathetically. "Why don't you two come over here and eat tonight, save having to cook. You don't need to stay, just drop by and eat with us."

"That's very kind, Rolf. Thanks, but I can cook and we'd like tonight to ourselves I think."

"The offer's open anytime. Is there anything we can do to help?"

Joe sighed, running a hand over his face. "Not really. David's at a funeral home now - we got that sorted yesterday morning. There had to be an autopsy which Chris and his mom found very upsetting. And the police insisted either Chris or his mom had to do the identifying, which was worse. Of course he wouldn't let his mom do it. It was awful, Rolf; I went with him but he had to do the looking and answer the questions."

"I'm so sorry."

"He's hardly said anything about it. He's walking around the place on autopilot."

Rolf's heart constricted as he thought about Matthew having to go through that, and being unable to do anything but be there. Joseph was obviously upset and worried about Chris.

"You're doing the very best you know how, and just by being there, you're helping Chris tremendously. You make sure that you're taking care of yourself as well. You'll call if you need ANYTHING, you got it?"

Joseph couldn't help but smile. "Thanks Rolf, you know I will. I'll call again later with the details on the funeral. Goodbye."

After Joseph hung up the phone, he went back upstairs where he'd left Chris soaking in a hot tub. He took a seat on the edge, hand on Chris's head, seeing the tears streaking down.

"What are you thinking about?" he asked gently.

Chris took a long time to answer. When he spoke, it was in a monotone and directed at the bubbles in front of him. "I was just remembering one time with David, one of the last times we took a bath together. I don't remember everything, except that I had gotten in trouble over something, and mom was still a little mad at me. She wanted me to get ready for bed, and was in the process of giving me my bath when the phone rang. She made David stay with me. Instead of him just watching, he got undressed and got in the tub with me. We had the best time…" Chris trailed off, still lost in his memories.

Joseph couldn't stand the still-falling tears. He stood up, undressing himself and stepping into their tub, thankful as always that they'd spent a little extra money and got a tub that would fit them both. He slid in next to Chris and pulled him close, simply holding him for a long while. When the water started to cool a bit, Joseph gently washed Chris from head to toe. He took his time, making sure the movements were gentle and soothing, covering every inch of his lover's body. After a final rinse, Joseph wrapped them both in a bath sheet and carried Chris over to the bed, drying first Chris and them himself.

Chris snuggled into the fur blanket at the end of the bed and watched the television that Joe turned on.

Joe headed downstairs and made quick work of dinner, carrying it up on a tray and settling down on the bed to eat. Chris sat up and tried to eat, as Joe had made a point of stuffing food into him at the appropriate mealtimes even though he didn't feel much like eating. The last few days had been - strange. After the initial, grim few hours at the hospital and the formalities - which they'd gone through in the numbed automaton state one apparently reached beyond the point of endurance when asked to do unspeakable things with your loved ones - they'd mostly been worried about his mom. Chris had never been so grateful for Joe's calm, kind good sense as when faced with his mom, white-faced, beyond tears and hardly able to hear him. Joe had taken over when the police left, talked her into taking Tylenol and found the only alcohol in the house. Chris, who rarely, if ever found any reason for drinking, found the strange taste of the brandy just another unreal element to that awful day. No one went to bed that night. In the end, when they'd discussed the endless number of issues that arose - which they had discussed simply and flatly as though they were talking about someone else instead of David - they just sat there in the last of the dark, Chris holding his mom's hand. Most of the time it all seemed like it was happening to someone else; there were just the occasional times - like about twenty times a day- when something would trigger a thought of David, and open pain and horror was where a familiar thought should be. Several times Chris had slipped into the kitchen or bathroom and cried, silently and hard for a few minutes. Almost every time, Joe saw and found a reason to follow. Chris had a vague memory of sitting on the floor of the bathroom, stifling the sound of his sobbing in Joe's chest and feeling Joe's hands clasped over his head, cradling, both of them silent since his mother was downstairs.

"Think you can sleep?" Joe asked gently, lifting the tray down to the floor. Chris looked around, aware he was not entirely awake now.

"I suppose so."

"Mind if I watch the rest of this game?" Joe said easily, pulling the pillows out from behind them. Understanding and once more silently loving him for his never needing to be told, Chris turned over and curled into Joe's arms, hugging him tightly and closing his eyes. The comforting chatter of the TV masked the darkness as Joe turned out the light.

*

"Mom? Mom?" Chris asked, letting himself into the house, followed by Joseph.

"In here, dear," Maria said from the kitchen.

Chris walked through the living room and into the kitchen, kissing his mother on the cheek.

"Hi," Chris said to Karen, one of his aunts.

"Hi, sweetheart. How are you doing?"

"Okay," Chris responded, as he had to numerous questions about himself. He sometimes wished people would quit asking because he was tired of lying. He was very far from all right, and today, he thought, was going to be the hardest. Joseph had persuaded him that he needed to be there early, as everyone was going to gather before the funeral and had packed his suit, leaving him in more comfortable clothes until the time to leave for the funeral home came near. He settled in at the table, Joseph automatically taking over and making sure that the coffeepot was on and everyone had what they needed. Chris made a serious effort not to trail him. Joe, for all his togetherness and the quiet presence of an incredibly confident man, was not at his best with strangers or with crowds. Some of his fading into the background here was deliberate, to free up family members who needed to be together, and to work as part of Chris's family - but some of that was also to evade the socialising, and Chris understood it. His mother looked pale but she was concentrating on too many details to let any other thoughts escape. Right now, her world consisted of flowers, arriving cars, family dietary needs and remembering the names of family partners. Chris - who with Joe had dealt with the less domestic aspects of the arrangements- quickly found himself with nothing to do. Family gathered. Talked. Drank coffee. The kitchen and living room filled with people in black. Chris collected coffee cups and escaped, finding Joe stacking the dishwasher. He glanced over, not exactly with a smile but with a flare of warmth in his eyes that Chris felt. Nor did he ask if Chris was ok. Chris handed him the cups, watching him stack them deftly, shut the machine and switch it on. Then he took Chris's hand and towed him into the utility room, shutting the door behind them. Amid a pile of half-done laundry, Joe sat on the tiled floor and held out his arms, waiting until Chris knelt beside him, keeping his distance.

"Come here," Joe said gently, pushing a hand through his hair. Chris winced away.

"Don't. Touch me here and I'm going to fall apart."

"No you won't."

"Believe me, I will. NO Joe-"

Joseph caught his other hand, pulled and lifted Chris into his lap, wrapping both arms tightly around him.

It was easy to take anything other than someone being 
NICE . The tears welled up out of nowhere and Chris took a deep breath to hold the sobs down, keeping as quiet as he could. Joe kissed his hair, a hard, fierce pressure, his arms tight, rocking a little, slowly.

"This is horrible," Chris said unsteadily when he had the breath, "I just want to get out of here and go home."

And that was a confidence, not a request. Joe didn't mistake it. He untangled Chris's tousled hair with his fingers, a gesture that usually calmed him, aching with sympathy. And a longing to do what Chris and only Chris needed.

"I know, sweetheart. It's very hard."

Chris soaked up what he could of Joseph's strength then stood up unsteadily. "We need to get back out there before we're missed."

Joseph stood up as well, wiping a stray tear from Chris's face. "We'll get through today, I promise."




Chris remembered very little of the actual ceremony. Joe's shoulder was against his through most of it, and his mother held his hand tightly on the other side. Determined to keep his dignity and self possession, Chris stared rigidly ahead, clamping down on himself and blanking out any trace of emotion. The one time that he began to lose control was halfway through a hymn, ancient and beautiful words that reached past the shell and threatened to release tears. Chris determinedly stopped singing and instead looked hard at the woodwork on the floor in front of him, the detail, the wood quality, the angles, the wood type. Hard, academic knowledge a million miles away from emotion.

Somewhere an hour later, he mechanically went through the motions of the dance he'd been briefly trained in yesterday. He and cousins and an uncle together stepped up to the hearse, took hold of the long, shining box and lifted it to their shoulders.

Actually, at that point, Chris felt nothing. Stepping slowly, the heavy wood on his shoulder and against his cheek, he told himself over and over: This is David. This is David. It seemed like such a vital moment, such an important emotional connection to make, but within seconds it was over and the moment was gone, unfulfilled. The box was being lowered into a hole and it was over. Too late. Gone. Chris bit back on a sudden impulse to shout, demand a stop, demand time to stand and wait, to touch, to look, to be sure. Joe's hand on his neck made him jump, then step back hard, leaning against Joe whose hands closed on his, holding tightly. The impulse slowly died. To his left, his mother was standing with a blank expression as though she was planning a shopping list. This was unreal. Totally unreal. Not one face held genuine or appropriate emotion. A stifled sob somewhere behind him made Chris glance around, detachedly curious about who had such open feelings, who actually could behave properly at this mad ceremony. Matthew and Rolf were standing close together on the edge of the group, and Matthew's eyes were red and blurry. The expression on his face pierced Chris to the heart. He moved without thinking, responding instinctively to the very real distress in that familiar face, slipped around several family members and put his arms around Matthew in a close and gentle hug.

Joseph looked up when Chris stepped away. He caught Rolf's eyes and the corners of his lips went up in a small smile of appreciation. Rolf's gaze transferred to Chris, whom he hugged tightly when he'd let Matthew go. Nothing needed to be said. What could one say at a time like this? The hug and closeness were all that were needed.

Joseph headed over, hugging both Matthew and Rolf, then following Chris over to where Eric and Michael were standing, Eric looking resplendent in his dress uniform. Rolf led Matthew, who was still overcome with emotion and shaking badly with the effort to hold the sound in, away. Michael and Chris tangled together like a pair of puppies. Joe gave Eric a rueful look-over, not unaware of how the uniform added to his stature.

"Sheesh, you scrub up well."

Eric gave him his usual, easy smile, but his eyes were very gentle and he squeezed Joe's shoulder before he tousled Chris's hair.

"Hey, don't I get a hug?"

Chris disengaged himself from Michael, pale but dry-eyed and looking a little less shell-shocked. Eric pulled him close in one of his crushing, hugely comforting bear-hugs, holding him without regard for the looks and murmurs of the family and visitors now slowly making their way from the grave.

"You're doing great," Eric said in his ear. "I'm proud of you."

That helped. That helped a lot.

Away from them, Stephen was keeping hold of Todd's hand, physically making him wait while Chris and Joe spoke to their other friends, and talking to Marc who was trying to look comfortable in a suit. The effect wasn't good.

"Hey, sweetheart," Stephen said gently as Chris reached them. "How are you doing?"

Better, Joe thought, watching Chris. We're doing a little better.

"Okay. I really appreciate you showing up today," Chris said sincerely.

Stephen pulled him close for a hug. "You don't need to thank us. We knew and loved David too."

Chris caught his sob before it escaped, swallowing it hard. He then turned and hugged Todd, both of them a little stiff at the moment. Looking back towards Matthew, he saw him sandwiched between Rolf and Marc, getting the support he needed. Wishing he could have the luxury of breaking down like that, he took Joe's hand and walked back towards the limo to go back home. That's when he saw his dad.

Joseph followed his gaze and felt Chris stiffen a bit, then let go of his hand.

Chris walked slowly over to his father, who was standing with his new wife and what must have been one of her kids. He saw the lady give a nod and a small smile of sympathy before steering her son away from them. When Chris walked up to his dad, he put his hand out for a shake but was pulled into a rough and short hug.

"How are you holding up?"

There was that stupid question again. "I'm okay."

His father nodded briefly. He looked uncomfortable in his suit, restless and white as though he hadn't been sleeping well. Chris was somewhat surprised at the evidence of distress - his father never seemed particularly interested in his children. Since Chris turned ten or eleven, they'd had a relationship based mostly on civil indifference and mutual avoidance.

"Where's your mother?"

Chris nodded towards the grave. His father brushed his shoulder as he walked past, a brief and detached gesture of sympathy and affection. Chris watched him head towards his ex-wife, picking up one of the small children belonging to his new wife en route. He was a little surprised at how naturally the gesture seemed to come to him, and how the child cuddled up to him, apparently trusting. His ex-wife looked up at him and he put an arm around her, holding her in silence. Even from this distance Chris could see the tears on his face. It made him still more painfully aware that he remained the last link between them, the last evidence of their marriage. And that there was possibly nothing worse than having to bury your child.

Joseph put an arm around him and kissed his temple.

"Come on, sweetheart."

"Where?"

"Stephen's place is nearest and he always wants to cook when he's stressed." Joe waited, still talking softly, "Chris. No one's going to miss you, come on now."

He took one last look towards his mother, then followed Joe. There wasn't anything he wanted more than to do something completely without his family, without reminding him that he just buried his one and only brother.

*

Rolf, Matthew and Marc arrived at Stephen's house about fifteen minutes behind the others, Rolf still with an arm around Matthew who was red-eyed and looking thoroughly embarrassed. Aware of the looks of sympathy being cast and how hard Matthew would find them, Chris went immediately over to him, pushing a coke into his hands.

"I thought you might be thirsty. I sure was."

"Thanks." Matthew used that as a hint to start drinking, glad of the excuse to do something. He was trying to figure out why Chris didn't seem nearly as affected by the day as he was. He knew that if any of his family members died, he'd be inconsolable.

Joe held out a hand to Chris, seeing the puzzlement on Matthew's face. Now was not a good time for the two of them to start to rub each other the wrong way. Nor did he want Chris to distract himself by rushing around any further. It had been a hard day, following several long hard days; he needed time to rest and to process. Chris went to him, and Joe pulled him down into his lap, wrapping both arms around his waist and settling back with him. They were all on the porch since the afternoon was hot - Chris, who had been cold all day, was faintly surprised at how hot. Numbed, not really feeling anything, he lay back against Joe's broad chest and let the conversation flow over him in a way he hadn't since he was a child. Joe's voice made a comforting rumble in his chest; Chris could feel the vibrations of his voice in the same intense detail that he could see the veins in Joe's hands, laced over his stomach. Familiar hands, brown, long fingered, graceful. He traced a finger over the line of the veins, following them from finger to wrist. Joe's life force. The familiar warmth and resiliency that meant Joe. Safety. Love.

The tears came out of nowhere, just rose up inside him in a wave and spilled over before he was even aware of their coming.

Joe lifted and turned him, pulling Chris's head into his chest, prepared to gather him up and go somewhere more private, but the others moved in a body, into the house, and someone – Stephen - shut the door behind them, leaving them in the tranquility of the garden.

Once the dam broke, there wasn't any holding back. Chris sobbed hard as the full realization that everything 'David' was finished. Over. Not a chance to ever set eyes upon his face. No worrying or planning to do for his funeral. Nothing remained of David save for a few pictures that Chris had packed away. Chris couldn't seem to even bring up David's face in his mind's eye. All he could dredge up was a blurry image of sandy blonde hair.

Joe continued to rock him, knowing that Chris needed this release, and thankful it came pretty soon after the funeral. He'd known how much Chris was holding back - it could be seen in his face, in his eyes, and felt in tense muscles. He knew there would still be many tears shed in the coming days as Chris came to terms with the loss of his brother, but these tears were the first that told Joe he was healing.

The rest of the older men were trying to keep the atmosphere as light as possible inside. Talking about the fun times that they'd spent with David, and the little things they remembered. As everyone told their stories, that brought up yet more, unrelated stories, and the afternoon passed rather quickly. When Eric, nagged, bullied and coerced, took Mike, Matthew and Todd in search of ice cream, Rolf helped Stephen clear up the last of the dishes and let himself out onto the porch. Joe lifted his eyes, not moving. Chris's head was under his chin, he was still tearful but Rolf could see the tension gone from his body and his face was quiet. Rolf put a can down in Chris's lap and touched his face, moving past them to sit on the steps.

"Thought you might be ready for a drink."

Joe cracked the can and held it for Chris, watching him drink before he took a long swallow.

"It's quiet in there."

"The troops were getting restless," Rolf said mildly. "They worked on Eric until they convinced him they were too hot and Stephen had all the wrong kinds of ice cream."

"Do you want them on a sugar high in this heat?" Joe asked wryly. Rolf smiled.

"Just once in a while it's entertaining."

He didn't say anything further. Chris curled up closer into Joe's arms and went on drinking the coke, comfortable in the quiet and the companionship.

*

"Christopher," Joe said in that quiet, warning tone that Chris knew well. He glowered right back, folding his arms.

"No."

"It needs doing."

"I don't care."

"I do." Joe took his arm and planted him firmly at the table. "Paper. And you're not getting up until I see two sides of paper covered."

"I don't 
CARE ," Chris said again, more hotly. It was true: currently he didn't. In the last few days, his perspective felt as though it had changed entirely. What did it matter if homework was done or the grass was mowed? Would David have cared about the lawn if he'd known he was counting down his last twelve hours of life? In hindsight, what of his life DID matter? All the priorities changed. Or so he thought.

"If you get up from that table before there's enough written, I'm going to spank you, and then sit you down until it's done," Joseph said firmly, heading into the next room. He wasn't going to be drawn into a discussion or argument if he could help it.

"I don't 
CARE !" Chris said angrily, kicking the chair leg. He waited for a response, but none was forthcoming. He sat and steamed, refusing to work at all. After fifteen minutes passed of actively not doing anything, he started to pout.

"Joooooooooooooooooooooeeeeeeeeeee." He waited, but Joe didn't answer.

"Joe?"

"What?"

"I need a drink."

"Write two pages on your paper."

"Joooooooooooooooooooooooeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee."

"Joe!" Chris tried again when he didn't get a response.

"Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy aren't you taaaaaaaaaaaaaallllking to meeeeeeeeeeeeeee? Jooooooooooooooooooooooooeeeeeee. I need to go to the baaaaaaaaaaaathroooooooooooooom."

"Write two pages on your paper."

"That's SO MEAN!!!!!!!!" Chris said, stamping his foot on the floor.

Joe, long used to Chris at his best and at his worst, carried on drying dishes and took no notice. From the thud, Chris had tired of inaction and hurled his pencil at the door. Joe waited, leaning on the counter. Then smiled at the sound of Chris getting up and stalking across the room to retrieve it.

"Joseph!"

"Christopher?"

"I don't WANT to work!"

Now they were getting to it.

"Why?" Joe asked, resuming drying.

"I'm not in the mood!"

"I took that as an excuse yesterday. And the day before. Its expiry date is passed. Write please."

"NO."

Joe ignored that, putting the last of the dishes away. When he'd wiped down the kitchen counter and put the tea cloth in the washing machine without hearing any sounds of action from Chris, he glanced at his watch and added,

"You have a deadline of nine PM Christopher. You do not want to show me blank sheets of paper, believe me."

"You're MEAN."

"Definitely."

The phone rang in the hall and Joe moved at once, forestalling any action next door. "I'LL get it."

The voice on the other end of the phone was cheerfully professional.

"Good evening, I'm looking for Mr Christopher Stevens?"

"I'm afraid he's busy at the moment, can I take a message or get him to call you back?"

"This is Thompson and Darnley Solicitors, I'm ringing to tell him, his brother- Mr. David Stevens- was his father's executor for his will. In the event of his death, the duty passes immediately to Mr. Stevens' second son - in this case Mr. Christopher Stevens. I was wondering if he could come in to sign the forms as soon as possible so we can make the transfer."

"Yes of course." Joe picked up a pen and scribbled the number. "I'll ask him to call you in the morning."

"Thank you."

"Who was that?" Chris asked from the other room.

"Write," Joseph said, putting the number on the refrigerator.

"But -"

"WRITE," Joseph said firmly, walking into the living room and settling down with a case file. He listened until he heard a frustrated huff, then a book slam open on the table.

About an hour later he heard the next sound- a deep sigh. Putting his pen down on the open file, he went quietly to the door of the dining room. Chris was still working, leaning over two open books and tapping his pen, frowning. Joe went to stand behind him, putting his hands on Chris's shoulders.

"You can read two at once?"

"Two sets of so-called facts. They don't match up."

"What’s the bias?" Joe suggested. Chris frowned, glancing at the covers of the books.

"Both written around the same time. Both American authors."

"What can you find out about the writers?"

"There aren't author biographies in the book-"

"Can you find a list of other books written by them?"

"I can do an internet search, I suppose?" Chris suggested. Joe nodded, glancing at the sheets of scribbled notes. Well over two pages.

"Good idea. You can do that tomorrow. Pack it up for tonight, sweetheart."

"Work, stop work, get it out, put it away....." Chris muttered, sweeping the books into a pile. "You're hard work, you know that?"

Joe, waiting for him, caught the familiar flashed and wicked smile. Chris's sense of humour when the defensiveness and self-consciousness slipped was mercurial and it was beloved. They were making progress. It was coming in slow steps, getting Chris back into the habit of eating regularly instead of when he was starving enough for hunger to penetrate grief. Picking up the normal threads of chores and routines again. Each new step was an effort and preceded by a minor battle, but they were getting there. His sparkle was starting to re-assert itself.

"Who was on the phone?" Chris asked, following him upstairs.

"Your dad's solicitor." Joe pulled his tie loose and went to put it away. "David was his executor; they need you to take over the legal responsibilities. Or rather to sign the papers to state that you know the terms of it all and you WILL take over the legal responsibilities if need be. You need to phone them in the morning."

"I didn't know David did that." Chris dropped full length on the bed to watch Joe undress.

"He was your father's first next of kin- and legally, you're encouraged to look for younger generations than your own to do the duties. It just automatically passes to you. You'll only have to sign the papers, not actually do anything."

"I've got no clue about the terms of his will," Chris said doubtfully. "I'm sure SHE's involved. And the kids."

"Its only a signature." Joe pulled him off the bed, swatting him gently. "Don't just lie there looking beautiful, try getting undressed."

"You're such a slave driver," Chris said, starting to unbutton his shirt in a seductive manner.

Joseph saw the gleam in Chris's eye. He settled on the bed, watching closely. This was the first time that Chris seemed interested in sex, which meant his world was starting to stop the crazy spinning it had been doing. Joe leaned back on one elbow and started humming the stripping song. 
"Na na na NA na na na NA na..."
Chris slowly unbuttoned his shirt, his hips wriggling seductively. When he got down to the last button, he pulled the shirt off his shoulders, looking at Joe over one of them. He then slid the shirt back on, then yanked it off in one clean move, tossing it onto the chair in the corner. Then he proceeded to dance slowly, and worked on his button, losing his shorts a few short moments later. Then he moved seductively around the bed, within Joe's reach. When he got close, Joe reached out and tried to snag Chris by his shorts. Chris smacked his hand and kept dancing. Without batting an eye, he hopped onto the bed, hips gyrating, his legs now on both sides of Joe.

Joe slid up the bed, Chris dancing up as well. When Joe determined the distance was right, he yanked Chris, who fell flat on his back and before he knew it, his shorts had been removed and Joe's hot kisses were burning up his chest and his hands were doing things to him that were sending cold chills up his body.

*

"I'm home."

"Hey, sweetheart." Joe sat back in his office chair, smiling. "How was your class?"

"Pretty good." Chris dropped full length on the sofa and kicked his trainers off. "You need to read the rest of the book, it gets better. We were covering the political themes today - that and the history context, it was cool."

"This weekend," Joe promised. "Did you call the solicitors?"

"Yes...." Chris's voice changed slightly. "I asked to make an appointment and they said there was no need. Apparently they rang me automatically - it just DOES pass to next of kin. When they checked with my father, he said no."

"No?"

"Didn't want me doing it, I suppose," Chris said lightly.

Joe hesitated a moment, then sighed, "I'm sorry, honey."

"It’s the gay thing. He's never been comfortable with it. He never has been. He knew from when I was nine or ten and he always hated it."

"I am sorry."

Chris didn't answer for a moment. Then said quietly, "Mom left a message on the machine. We need to think about what to do about David's flat. Start packing up stuff."

"It's all right. We can do it. We can go over on Saturday and make a start, see what needs doing. And check on your mom."

"Mmn."

"It'll be all right, Chris. Really." Joe glanced at the clock over his desk. "What are you going to do now?"

"I don't know. Read."

"Why don't you go and get some steak and we'll barbecue tonight? While the weather holds? I'll try and get home early."

Silence. Joe thought silent sympathy at his lover over several miles of phone line, wishing he could add a hug to his words.

"Come on, baby. I'll grill, we'll curl up on the swing and leave the phone off the hook. We'll have a great evening."

"Ok," Chris said softly. "I love you."

"I love you too. I've got two more appointments, then I'll come home. You chill out, hmm?"

"I'll get the steak."

"Atta boy."

Chris hung up the phone and grabbed his keys. Without even knowing why, he took the keys to David's place. He headed towards the grocery store, but when the right hand turn came up for David's house, he took that instead. He pulled up into the driveway and parked, sitting in the car for several long minutes. Taking a deep breath, he stepped out of the car and headed to the door.

Opening the door, he was hit with everything that was David. The smells, the feelings, the looks. He shut the door behind him, sliding down it to the floor, overcome with a crushing sense of loss that took his breath away. No tears were cried; he simply had a hard time breathing for several long minutes. He looked up to find a picture of himself and his brother on the desk across the room. Standing up, he slowly walked towards it.

David's desk was tidy - David's things were always tidy. They'd been total opposites, even as brothers. Always close, always good friends. The picture was taken on David's graduation day - the year he'd met Joe. Joe had taken the picture; David had liked him so much. When the early days had been rocky, he'd repeatedly encouraged Chris to keep going back, to hold on to his nerve and listen to what Joe had to say. To stay with him when things were scary and when commitment began to loom. He'd never really known the details of their relationship but he'd trusted Joe.

He was never going to see Chris's graduation - if it ever happened. Chris laid the photograph down, pulled David's chair out and looked defeatedly at the desk.

Where did they start? How did you take apart someone's life? They were going to have to sell the house - dispose of his belongings- somehow put all of this in boxes and disperse it. Chris pulled the nearest drawer over and flipped through the contents, turning over bills, work documents, insurance documents. The next drawer held work files only. The drawer below that the house deeds, the other legal documents. David must have had a solicitor, somewhere they might even be a will. Maybe their father would know about it - their father had always been proud of David, they'd stayed friends in ways Chris had never managed. Seeing a solicitor's logo with the house deeds, he pulled the whole wad of papers out and thumbed through them. Halfway down the pile, his father's name jumped out at him. Chris pulled the document out and scanned it. A mortgage document - he and Joe had signed a similar one when they bought their house - but this was a copy, and David's signature was halfway down it, underneath his father's.

Sole dependent: David Michael Stevens.

The addressee was his father's bank.

Chris flicked slowly through the paper, frowning. With Joe being a lawyer, he understood a lot of the legal jargon and he knew the purpose of this paper. It was the document which in the case of their father's death would prevent his dependents claiming against the bank for the property to regain the mortgage loan.

The line still stated: Sole dependent: David Michael Stevens.

David was three years older; it was possible this had been written when Chris was still a minor and no threat in the sight of the law- Chris checked the date. No. This was two years old. About the time of his father's second marriage.

Sole dependent: David Michael Stevens.

Chris went on staring at it for some time, going slowly hot, then cold. Then he got up, grabbed his car keys and let himself out of the house.

His father's house was on the other side of town, and children's toys were scattered in the front yard around the new and shiny car SHE drove. Chris parked on the kerb and stepped over the trikes and balls, headed for the front door. It was opened by a child, one of the several of hers that his father had inherited.

Chris looked at it, struggling to keep his voice down and calm.

"Is your father home?"

The boy looked at him blankly. Chris rolled his eyes and slammed his fist on the door, raising his voice.

"Dad!"

A door shut somewhere inside the house and a woman came into the hall. She looked at Chris and held her hand out to the little boy, pulling him close to her. Chris's father came out of another doorway and frowned, moving towards the front door.

"Chris? What's wrong?"

Chris pushed the paper towards him. His father took it and turned, voice quiet to his wife.

"It's okay, we'll go into the garden."

"I won't bite any of your damn kids," Chris spat. His father shut the front door behind them as his wife steered the little boy away.

"Whatever's wrong, I'd appreciate you not frightening the children. What's the matter? Your mother?"

Chris hit the paper. "Read that."

His father sat down on the bench in the front garden and skimmed it.

"It's my mortgage document."

"I LIVE with a lawyer," Chris said grimly. "I was of age when it was written, why does it list David as your sole dependent?"

"An oversight," his father said, shrugging.

"BALLS." Chris grabbed the paper back, crushing it in his fist. "They would have ASKED you to list your children, you only told them David."

"It’s just an oversight."

"And your solicitor rang. You stopped the order for David's duties as executor to pass to me," Chris said icily.

His father sat back, sighing. "What can I say Chris? I wasn't comfortable for you to do that, particularly regarding your attitude towards my wife and her children. And my will naturally reflects them as well as your mother."

"It’s your damn will, you think I'd be mean to your children because I resent the fact you ditched my mother?"

"Chris, I'm sorry; it's my choice and I didn't want you doing it."

"You hate me that much?" Chris demanded. His father looked skywards.

"Chris, I don't hate you."

"Have you disowned me? If I go through enough of David's papers will I find you legally disowned me?"

"Of course I haven't-"

"I'd just like to be told is all. I hope you've warned HER kids that you'll divorce them if you discover they happen to be gay."

"Christopher, calm down."

"I live with a fucking LAWYER, Dad! HOW did you get around this? You legally HAVE to name all your dependents, I KNOW you do! You can't just skip the son you don't like because I still have legal FUCKING claim on your goods and your house when you're dead. I'd have thought you'd have accepted you needed me named just to protect your new kids' rights-"

"Actually, you 
DON 'T have any legal claim," his father said icily. Chris stopped and looked at him, confused.

"Unless you can prove you legally disinherited me-"

"Will you STOP saying that!"

"I'm HERE! You can't ignore me, you can't pretend I don't exist, David was NOT your only child!"

"Christopher, you're not mine," his father said sharply. Chris stopped, aware he was shouting and his throat was sore. His father got up, trying to put a hand on his shoulder.

"It mattered when you were a kid, it doesn't matter now. I never got why it had to stay some big secret anyway. You're not mine. David's my only child from my first marriage. Legally you and I have nothing between us except that I was married to your mother for a while."

Chris stared at him. His father gave him a rough and awkward shrug.

"I knew before you were even born; it was up to your mother to sort it out with you. I thought she had."

"This isn't true," Chris said slowly. His father shook his head, exasperated.

"Chris, look in the damn mirror. David had my height, my eyes, you look nothing whatever like anyone in my family. You should be fighting this out with your mother, not me. It's nothing to do with me; you're not a child anymore."

Silence. Chris looked down at the paper in his hand. Then headed, fast for his car. Behind him, he heard his father swear softly.

"It's nothing personal, Chris. Just fact."

Joseph pulled into the driveway, immediately aware that Christopher's car wasn't there. He parked and headed inside, looking for a note. He didn't find one, deciding that maybe Chris had waited awhile to go to the store. It wasn't until he went to set his keys down on the table that he noticed David's keys weren't there. Cursing softly, he went to the phone.
Thankfully they hadn't had the phone disconnected yet, but when he rang through, there was no answer. Next choice was to ring Chris on his cell phone. He cursed again when the bookbag next to the door started to ring in response to his call. He snatched up his keys and headed briskly out the door. There was no telling what being at David's alone was doing to Chris.

Pulling into David's driveway, he found no sign of Chris. Just in case, he tried knocking at the door, getting no response. He quickly dialed Maria, who said she'd not heard or seen her son, but that she'd tell Chris that he was looking for him if he appeared. Joseph got back in his vehicle and drove back home, hoping he'd find his partner there, freshly returned from the store.

*

Chris drove straight to his mother's, barely able to see through his anger. He nearly got pulled over as he tore around a corner without stopping but luck was with him and the officer was called to a burglary as he sped out of sight.

Chris screeched to a stop in front of his mom's house, slammed the brakes on and left the car unlocked, jogging across the lawn with a pace born of pure fury. He was going to get to the bottom of this. His mother looked up as he slammed the door into the kitchen, jumping with shock.

"CHRIS- Don't bang like that! Joe just phoned, he-"

"Where's my birth certificate?" Chris interrupted. His mother stopped, her eyes widening at his tone. Chris slammed a hand on the kitchen counter.

"WHERE'S THE DAMN CERTIFICATE?!"

Veteran of two teenaged sons, Maria put down the spoon she was holding and turned the gas off at the stove, turning to him outwardly calm and inwardly anxious.

"Chris, stop shouting. What's wrong? Did you go to David's?"

Chris shouldered past her. Maria followed him into the living room, starting to be frankly alarmed. For a moment she considered calling Joe - her fiery youngest was always amenable for him- then Chris started hurling handfuls of documentation out of the desk and she forgot all about coherent strategy.

"Chris, STOP IT- What are you doing?!"

Chris paid no attention, sorting through a handful of papers and throwing them aside. "WHERE 
ARE THE CERTIFICATES?!"

"What certificates? Chris, what are you looking for?"

"I want to know whose fucking son I am!" Chris flung a handful of insurance documents at her and Maria flinched, throwing up her hands to protect her face.

"Chris!"

"HE told me all about it! Whoever the fuck HE is - he's no relation of mine, IS HE?"

"Chris, don't!" Panic-stricken, Maria tried to put a hand on Chris's arm and retreated fast as he yanked away from her.

"WHERE 
ARE THEY?"

For the first time in her life, Maria was actively frightened of her son. Chris had always had a temper. From a small child he had been capable of tantrums that left him exhausted and distraught, but she'd always been the one person able to handle him, until Joe. She'd always managed to get close to him, to talk to him, to get him to confide in her, no matter how upset he was. Now, that anger was directed entirely at her and there was no vulnerability in it that she could see. Only physical threat in his body and voice, and disgust in his eyes. She moved away from him, folding her arms in some semblance of self-protection.

"In- in my drawer upstairs- the wallet at the back-"

Oh my God don't let him read it, she prayed uselessly as her son ran upstairs. She heard the drawer slide open and could do nothing else but stand where she was, shaking, waiting in terror for the next sound.

It took a long time to come.

Finally she heard him get up and start down the stairs, moving slowly and heavily. Unable to help herself, Maria moved behind the table, fingers clasping tightly on the back of the chair there, keeping the heavy furniture between them.

Chris had the certificate in his hand. She knew what it said. Her husband had accepted the child before it was born, they'd settled their differences - or had agreed to try to - but he'd refused to have his name put on the birth certificate. Chris, to him, from the day of his birth, had been another man's child and nothing more to him than a social responsibility. With no other alternatives, Maria had named the child herself and eventually filed the certificate with 'father unknown' on it.

Chris looked very white, but beyond angry. He folded the certificate and put it into his pocket, looking at her as though he'd never seen her before.

"Who was he?"

"I don't know-"

"LIAR," Chris spat before she got the words fully out. Maria folded her arms again, tightly, trying to swallow back tears.

"Chris, please-"

"I don't think it's too much to ask. I think I've got some fucking right to know since I was a by-product of this fling of yours. Was it a fling? Was it an affair? Were you raped? WHO WAS IT?"

Maria covered her face with her hands. For one horrible moment she truly expected Chris to strike her. She could feel him come towards her, the fast and barely controlled pace of rage, then the door slammed and she sagged against the chair, shaking with relief. When she heard the car start up outside she grabbed the key in the door and turned it, locking herself in, then collapsed into the chair at the table and let the tears go.




There was no sign of Chris at home.

Joseph wasn't one to panic, but it was hard not thinking something had gone wrong so near to David's death. To combat that, Joe headed upstairs and took a quick shower, changing into more comfortable clothes. When he was done with that, he went back downstairs, and finding the mail nowhere, went outside to the mailbox to get that.

He spent the next fifteen minutes going through it, and paying an odd bill or two. When he finished with that, he headed back to the kitchen, now actively starting to worry. He thought about calling Maria, but figured she'd call if she'd seen him. The next possible place was Rolf's.

"Hi, you've reached Matthew and Rolf. Please leave a message, we'll call you back."

"Rolf? This is Joe-"

"Hi. Sorry about that," Rolf said, having been eating and choosing to ignore the phone as it was usually salesmen that called.

"I know I probably caught you eating, but I wondered if you or Matthew have seen Chris anywhere this afternoon?"

"I haven't. Matthew, you heard from Chris this afternoon? No, neither of us have. Everything all right?"

"I'm sure it is. I just sent him to the store for steak tonight, and I've yet to see him. He took David's keys."

"Did you try him over there?" Rolf asked, concern evident.

"I did. No sign of him, nor any signs of life inside the house. He may have just gotten sidetracked at the video store or something."

"Probably. We'll call if we see him, let him know you're worried."

"Thanks, Rolf. Bye."

Joseph hung up the phone, deciding it was ridiculous to call and upset everyone. Chris would come home soon, though having a good excuse for his absence was going to be a tough one.

He jumped when the phone rang.

"Hi Joseph, it's Lucas Stevens. I was calling to check on how Chris was doing."

Joe raised his eyebrows, somewhat surprised. Chris's father was by no means in the habit of taking much notice of Chris at the best of times; he hadn't even realised the man had their phone number.

"Hi, Mr. Stevens. I'd like to know how Chris is doing as well this evening. I'm afraid he isn't home if you wanted to talk to him."

"You...you haven't seen him?"

Joe was picking up a sense of a problem. "No. Is there something wrong?"

Mr. Stevens sighed. As much as he was uncomfortable with Christopher's relationship, Joe needed to know.

"He found a mortgage paper of David's. He's not listed on it as my next of kin - because he isn't. Chris came over demanding to know what had happened. He was furious. It was his mother's decision to keep that from him, and I assume he headed to her to find out - there was nothing else I could say," he added somewhat defensively.

Joseph sat down heavily, for a moment not able to take that in. Then shock turned rapidly to extreme concern. Chris had had a tough time with David's death. Finding out his father wasn't his father - there was no telling what he was going through. Pulling himself together fast, he summoned up what little civility he could manage for the man Chris had never felt wanted or valued by.

"I'm going to call his mother's. If you do hear from him, let him know I'm looking for him?"

"Certainly," Mr. Stevens paused. "Tell him I'm- I hope he's ok?"

He was speaking to a dial tone. Joe redialled rapidly with no interest or thought for Mr. Stevens or his guilt.

Of all the lousy times to tell someone this kind of news..... a week after his brother's funeral had to rate pretty high. Whatever Chris had found had to have been fairly conclusive proof too. Heart thumping, Joe waited for Mrs. Stevens to pick up, hoping to God Chris was with her and at least being offered some kind of support or comfort.

"Pick up. PICK UP."

Beep.

"Hello, this is Maria Stevens. I'm not home right now but if you leave a message I'll call you back."

Beep.

"Maria. Maria, it's Joe, if you're there PLEASE pick up."

The silence went on for almost too long, then the phone was lifted. Maria sounded a long way away.

"Joe."

"Maria, is Chris there?"

"No-"

"He's on his way over. He's probably going to be in a state too-"

"He's gone. He came- twenty minutes ago." Maria sounded badly shaken, Joe could hear the tremor in her voice. "He'd seen his dad-"

"I know what happened," Joe said shortly. "Where did he go?"

"I don't know. He came- wanted his birth certificate and he found it- I couldn't stop him. He read it and he walked out- I thought he was going to hit me-"

"DID he hit you?" Joe said in shock. Chris adored his mother. Maria sounded close to tears.

"No. Just screamed at me and he stormed out-"

"Did he say where he was going?"

"I don't know."

"Maria, think." Joe kept his voice calm with an extreme effort. Maria sobbed once, audibly.

"No."

"Ok. Are you all right? Call a friend, someone who can come over. Will you do that?"

Maria sobbed again, but Joe had no more time for her. There were other people who would take care of her, other people she could depend on. Right now, Chris had nobody and he was heaven knows where thinking heaven knows what. He grabbed his car keys off the side and dialled again.

"Rolf, it's me, pick up."

"What's wrong?" Rolf's response was immediate, the machine didn't have time to complete the message.

"Chris. I've got a real problem here, I can't just wait for him to come home. Will you come over here in case he comes back while I'm gone? Someone's got to be here who can handle him."

"Where are you going?"

"I don't know," Joe admitted. "Anywhere I can think of."

"Slow down." Rolf from the sounds of things was taking the phone somewhere more private. "I'll be over there in ten minutes, I'll call Eric to come over too, let's do this systematically. Just wait a few minutes, I'll be as quick as I can."

"Warn Matthew. For Godsakes, warn him if Chris turns up there to be careful."

"For who? Him or Chris?" Rolf demanded.

"Chris. He's going to be damned unpredictable, I don't know what state he'll be in."

"Okay. I'll be there in ten minutes."

"Thanks."

Rolf hung up the phone, going back to the dinner table. "Matthew, that was Joe. Chris has gone missing, I'm guessing some family problem. What – I don't know. I'm going over to see if I can help with the search."

"I'll help," Matthew said, standing up.

"The best way to help is stay here. He may come to you to talk, and if so, you need to be here. Just call me on the cell the instant you see him, and try to keep him entertained?" Rolf already had his keys and phone. "And be gentle. It sounds like he's pretty upset."

"Okay," Matthew said, sitting down dejectedly.

Rolf dropped a kiss on his forehead and headed out the door, calling Eric before he left the driveway.

Both of them arrived at Joe's at the same time. Joseph opened the door before they had a chance to knock. He clearly hadn't done much else but pace while he waited for them, his nod at the kitchen was pure autopilot hospitality.

"Come in."

"What's made you think Chris has gone missing?" Rolf said, following him into the kitchen. Joe sighed, running both hands through his hair.

"Long story short, Lucas isn't his father."

"WHAT?" Eric said, startled. Joe shrugged helplessly.

"I don't know any more, except he decided to drop that on Chris this afternoon. Chris went over to his mother's to confront her, found the proof and took off."

"Oh, the poor boy," Rolf said. "That news would be difficult to swallow at any time, but this has to be about the worst."

"I called Todd and he's not been there, Steve isn't at the bar tonight- no one's seen him since about 
4 PM ," Joseph said shakily.

Eric put a hand over Joe's. "He's impulsive, but he's not stupid. He'll turn up, or we'll find him, but either way he's going to be all right."

"Have you given any thought to where he might go?" Rolf asked quietly.

"He likes Dix Dam. That’s the first place we visited after his restriction ended. Wolf Run and 
Cave Lake marinas are a good idea to check as well. Campus, in case he wanted to hide in the library. Other than that, I'm not sure."

"All right then," Rolf said briskly. "I'll stay here. If you've both got phones, call in and let me know where he's not, I'll keep track. If I get any calls or whatever, I'll call either of you."

"I'll take the marinas for now, and Michael's at the library. I'll call and see if he can scout that out if you'll take the dam," Eric said, standing up.

"Thanks. Really," Joseph said, walking out the front door.

It was a relief to be actively doing something. The dam was one of Chris's favourite places and Joe thought there was a good chance of finding Chris there if he was looking for somewhere to think, but as soon as he got there he knew he wasn't going to find him. There was no sign of Chris's car in the car park. Joe got out of the car and walked a few hundred yards along the dam, but there was no small, blond figure anywhere in sight. This was no good. Joe headed back to the car, moving fast. More and more, he could see Chris, lost and distraught, just turning his car down the highway and driving. Heading wherever. He had no clue whether Chris had money on him, or a full tank of gas or any other detail. Increasingly anxious, he pulled out his cell phone. Rolf picked up immediately, voice quiet and reassuringly calm.

"Hello?"

"It's me. He's not here."

He's nowhere at college that Michael can see. And no one at Wolf Run has seen him. You think he'd look for water?"

"I don't know, Rolf." Joe leaned against the hood of his car, trying to force his brain out of anxiety and into action. "He might just have got into his car and gone- just drove."

"In which case, he'll come back when he's ready, or he'll call," Rolf said quietly. "This is going to be a hell of a shock but it's not going to send him over the edge."

"He just lost his brother. Now he finds out he doesn't have a father either. He isn't even who he thought he was."

"He's got no reason to hurt or harm himself in any way. Once he calms down, the only person he's going to want is you - he'll contact you then."

"I doubt he's even thinking." Joe took a deep breath, forcing himself to calm down. "I'm sorry, I'm freaking. I've always had the feeling with Chris - I know it isn't true- that I'm the only friend he's got. Or that he feels like I am. He's always seemed to me to be a terribly lonely person."

"He's going to be fine. He's most likely just wanting some space to think in," Rolf said gently. "But he WILL come back."

"I just don't want him to be alone."

"I know."

"There's no point in just taking off," Joe said after a long moment of thought. "I want to go and check the highways but that isn't going to help."

"No," Rolf said kindly. "Why don't you come back here and wait until we hear something?"

"I suppose you're right," Joseph said, standing up. "I should be back in thirty minutes." He hung up and slid into the front seat, starting the car. He couldn't resist a drive around the small lake, and headed home when he didn't find anyone.

Eric was already there. The two men stayed to keep Joseph company, knowing he couldn't help but be worried. Joseph started up several times to head out in various directions but was stopped by Rolf and Eric.

"He'll call us when he's ready," Eric said.

"Damn it, Eric, that's not good enough!" Joe spat, near the end of his tether. "He's out there somewhere, it's nearly 
nine PMand dark and God alone knows what state he's in! I can't just sit here."

"All right. Let me call the station and see if there's anything in procedures we can do. Just wait here," Eric added as Joe started to follow him.

"Let me get some coffee on," Rolf said, getting up as well. He put the pot on and worked on getting out the mugs, sugar and cream while Eric made his phone call.

"Hey, Joe? Do you have Chris's credit card number?"

Joseph walked quickly into the kitchen. "Yes, we share the same account. It's this one," he said, pulling it out of his wallet.

Eric took the card and gave the information to the person on the other end of the phone, spoke for a few minutes and then hung up.

"What did you need that for?" Joseph asked quickly.

"I pulled in a favor, and they're keying in that credit card number into the computer. If Chris uses the card, we'll be only five minutes or so behind him. They'll call if it's used."

"Thanks," Joseph said, thankful as always that he had friends in the right places.

It got steadily darker while they drank coffee and tried to keep Joe's mind distracted, but the kitchen quickly fell into silence. At nine PM Eric quietly rang Michael and told him he wouldn't be home, and Rolf took the phone when he'd finished, making his own arrangements with Matthew.

"Matthew thought of Marc," Rolf said when he put the phone down. "Marc hasn't seen him but he'll keep an eye out on shift tonight."

Joe gave him a brief, abstracted glance of thanks. And they went on waiting. At 
eleven PM , Joe couldn't stand it any more and reached for the phone. Eric swiped it gently out of his hands.

"Come on. Who is there to call?"

"Hospitals."

They couldn't argue with him. Eric made a fresh pot of coffee, listening to Joe's quiet voice ask the same question of every hospital in a fifty mile radius. Fair-haired, slightly built, Christopher Stevens.

Nothing.

It was nearly 
one AM when the phone finally rang. Joe spun around. Eric, who was nearest, picked up the phone, grabbed a pen and hastily scrawled a name down on a paper, repeating it back to the caller before he slammed the phone down.

"He used the card. A motel, about two hundred miles north of here. You were right by the looks of things, he just drove. Straight up I75."

Joe got up, grabbing his coat. Eric picked up his own keys.

"I'll drive. You're in no fit state to and you'll need to drive his car back-"

"I need to handle this," Joe said decisively.

"Yes, but you're still not in a state to drive," Rolf said matter-of-factly. "Let Eric take you. He can drop you there and you can drive Chris back."

Joseph realized they were right, aside from the fact that he didn't think he'd be able to get in his own car with them there.

"I'll lock up here and head home. Go on, and call me when you can."

"Thanks Rolf," Joseph said gratefully, following Eric out to his car.

Rolf put the coffee mugs in the dishwasher and washed the coffeepot before turning on the porch light and locking the door behind him. He was glad Chris had been located, and didn't envy either Eric or Joe's long night ahead. He was more than ready for bed.

*

The motel had been the last option when he was nearly out of gas. Tired, well aware that for the last half hour he'd been coming closer and closer to falling asleep behind the wheel, Chris finally gave in and pulled over. He was past knowing what he was feeling, there were no words for it. To begin with there had been rage, pure and simple. And then fear. And it had been mostly the fear that had kept him driving, wanting desperately to be as far away from the town as he could possibly get. And beyond that- had been numbness. And an overwhelming urge to sleep, and leave it all behind. He sat for a long time in the car, dozing on and off, without any thoughts beyond physical sensation. He wasn't aware of his body being in shock and wouldn't have known what to do about it if he had. Finally a dry mouth and aching back drove him out of the car and he stumbled up the porch of the all-night diner and found a credit card in his pocket which bought him a cup of coffee and several semi-stale donuts. They fought back the gnawing in his stomach. Beyond that, he had no clue what to do. There was a vague heat in the warmth of the coffee. Finally he bought another one and wandered back through the dark to the car, getting into the back seat and curling up with the paper cup cradled in his hands. Body fighting physical shock and his mind wrestling with information it knew was too much to handle, both shut down on him and he fell almost instantly asleep.

The diner crew watched his car for several hours through the night, unsure if he was sick or drunk or both, and worried why a guy with plastic would sleep huddled up in the back of a car rather than rent a room and a bed.

Some time towards morning, a police cruiser drew up in the car park. No one at the diner took much notice- most of the local highway patrol depended on them for food while on duty- but the two men who got out of the car were in plain clothes and had no interest in coffee. The taller of the two scanned the car park rapidly and headed at a jog for the diner. The other man, larger and heavier built, locked the cruiser and went to the car at the back of the car park, shading his eyes to look through the windows. Then he straightened up and leaned on the roof, waiting. Joe ran his eye over the diner and his heart sank. He would have recognised Chris's fair head in seconds: only a few truck drivers were sitting at the tables. If Chris had got a room, it was going to take some persuading to get the motel authorities to infringe on his privacy and Eric was going to have to pull police ID to do it-

Eric was leaning on the roof of the car, waiting for him. Joe broke into a run.

Chris was tightly huddled on the back seat, clutching a long since cold cup of coffee. Pale, shivering and fast asleep, he looked alarmingly young. Joe drew the first deep breath of the night, quickly followed by a rush of anxiety that rivalled anything he'd felt so far. Eric put a hand on his shoulder.

"You all right?"

Joe nodded, opening the car door. Chris's head was almost tucked onto his knees; God alone knew how he'd managed to sleep in that position without breaking his neck. Joe crouched in the dust of the car park and slid a gentle hand under his head, cradling it and pushing dirty fair hair out of closed eyes. His face was tearless. Just pale. Blank.

"Chris? Chris, wake up, baby."

A small smile flickered over Christopher's face when he heard Joe in his dream, but his dream was shattered when Joe shook him again. He cracked one eye open and scrambled up and backed into the far corner of the backseat.

"Chris, it's okay," Joseph said when he saw the fear on the face of his lover, which turned quickly to anger.

"What are you doing here? How did you find me?" Chris looked around and spotted Eric.

"Son of a BITCH! You had the fucking police track me down? Is that it?"

"I was worried about you, baby," Joseph said, speaking softly as he watched the rising emotions.

"
 DON 'T call me that." Chris got the door open behind him and struggled out into the dark car park. Joe straightened up, watching him with growing concern.

"Are you okay?"

"I'm a fucking ADULT, Joe! I can go wherever the fuck I want to go, I can leave whenever I fucking WANT to leave, I am not a fucking CHILD any more!"

"You do NOT, however, get to run out on me without a word - no matter how you're feeling," Joe said sternly.

"FUCK YOU."

"Chris, I'm sure there are bathrooms here," Joe pointed out. Eric, trying not to too obviously stand and listen, raised his eyebrows. Joe didn't let his eyes waver from Chris's. Chris looked at him and frankly laughed.

"You think I give a damn about you and your stupid soap and something so bloody PETTY as language? What does it matter? What the fuck does any of it matter?"

"It matters because I love you."

"You don't even know who I am!” Chris said, slamming the door hard enough to crack the window.

Eric discreetly flashed his badge towards two truckers who came out of the restaurant to see what the ruckus was. They turned and went back in, leaving the parking lot abandoned save for the three friends. Joe hadn't even seen them.

"You're my partner. My lover. My friend. What else do I need to know?"

"I'm a bastard child, Joe!" Chris said, eyes blazing. "The man that's barely been my father told me I'm not his! I've been living a lie all my life! I don't have any family now that David's dead!"

Joseph was watching Chris with concern. Usually his face would be three shades of red, but it still remained pale and sweaty looking. When Chris wasn't shaking with anger, he was shaking with fear.

"You have your mother -"

"DAMN that bitch! She can go straight to fucking hell for all I care! She LIED to me! She had a fucking affair!" Chris laughed, nearly hysterical. "Fucking affair. How appropriate."

Joseph started to walk around the car to Chris. When Chris saw the movement, he tensed up, raising his hands. "Go away, Joe. I didn't want you here-"

"Why?" Joe demanded. "What do you think I'm going to do?"

"FUCK OFF, Joe!"

"Did she tell you it was an affair? Did she say that?"

Chris took a breath and stopped, his gaze changing. Joe saw the faint tremor in his lips.

"She didn't say anything. She wouldn't explain. Just told me where to get the certificate."

"Did you find it, honey?"

Chris felt in his pocket. Joe gently took it from him, unfolding it.

"See?" Chris asked tightly. "You see? 'You're not mine'. That's what he said to me. 'I just was married to your mother for a while'. So how the hell can you know who you're married to?"

Father unknown. It was there in black and white. Joe read it, then folded it with deep sympathy for his partner. What it must have been like to take and read that, he could only imagine. Chris had his arms tightly folded, he wasn't really looking at anything and his voice was very soft.

"David was their only kid. I saw his face at the funeral, I should have known, David was the only kid they had-"

"Your mom is still your mom, Chris," Joe said gently and firmly. "David's still your brother."

"HALF brother," Chris said bitterly. "And what about my mother? What do I know about it? For all I know she was bloody raped-"

That was more than he could stand. Joe hooked an arm around Chris's neck and pulled him against his chest, wrapping both arms tightly around him to choke off the rest of the sentence.

"Your mother loves you," he said fiercely into Chris's hair. "I've seen the way she looks at you, the way she touches you, the way she thinks about you; you don't hold any bad memories or associations for her. Maybe you even hold good ones for her that David never had, you don't know. Try not to think now. I know it's hard but you just need to take it in, try not to think it over right now. Let's get you warm and you can sleep; it's going to look better in the morning, sweetheart, I promise. I'm not going to let anything happen to you."

Eric assessed the situation and decided that neither Chris nor Joe were going to be in any shape to go far tonight. He walked over to the motel and paid for the room on the end of the building, the most private one available. He wasn't in any shape to make the two hundred mile drive home now either, but he'd find another motel to give the two more privacy; it was about all he could do for them now. They were still standing together beside the car, Chris clutching Joe's shirt, Joe's arms wrapped tightly around him.

"I'm not even a Stevens," Chris said, his voice cracking. "My family is gone, there's nothing left. It's all gone, Joe..."

It was as if saying it made it real. Chris felt his knees give and the shuddering tension in him abruptly broke into hysterical tears.

Joseph sank down as well, awkwardly freeing one hand to break their fall and holding Chris tightly, not caring about the curious eyes peering at them from the restaurant. He'd heard Chris cry - all too many times. In anger, in pain, in regret, in sadness, in fear. He'd never heard him make the terrible, desolate, tearing sounds he was making now. And there was nothing he could do except hold on, rock and make meaningless, soothing sounds that might reach Chris and tell him he was there and he cared. Footfall made him look up sharply, ready to warn off any intruder. Eric's face was distressed and very kind. Joe breathed deeply when he saw the key Eric was holding out. He stood up, pulling up Chris from the ground and carrying him over to the hotel room, thankful to be out of the public glare.

Eric opened the door, placing the key on the table and shutting it quietly behind him. Christopher's cries pierced his heart; he could just imagine what it was doing to Joe. The only thing he could do for them now was leave them alone. He headed out to the cruiser and drove about twenty miles towards home before finding another motel. He parked there and signed in, falling asleep almost as soon as he lay down.


It took Joe longer than he wanted to think about to get Chris calmed down enough to sleep. This wasn't a release of grief and anger: this was something shattered, beyond conscious control. Joe got him undressed, turned the lights out and lay down with him, hoping exhaustion would take over or that he would cry himself to sleep, but there was no stopping the tearing, awful sobs. He'd handled Chris semi-hysterical before, he knew Chris's highly strung nature, he knew how to talk firmly and if need be sternly enough to break through and hold his attention. Now, he doubted Chris could hear or was even much aware of him.

For hours, Joe moved between holding, talking, sponging him down when Chris's temperature seemed to be soaring, until he was seriously worried that Chris would make himself ill. Nothing seemed to help. Eventually Joe left him long enough to search the car and find Tylenol in the glove compartment. He managed to get three into Chris at about 
six AM , and gradually over the next half-hour, he began to quieten. By seven, he was finally asleep, white, hot and his eyes badly swollen, but quiet. Joe sat watching him for some time, too scared to move and risk waking him again. He felt as though he'd run a marathon. He dreaded to think how Chris felt.

He could understand well what had prompted Chris to run. Back in town, he was aware of Lucas Stevens, defensive and still bearing a grudge against his wife and against another man- whoever he was- who had planted a cuckoo child into his family. Maria. Joe stifled an immediate wave of fury against her. She and Chris had always been close. Her little secret he could see being the end of that closeness. Chris was a volatile person, of strong emotions and with a lot of fear driving them. Joe had been aware for years, Chris had never truly believed he was wanted, never truly believed he was loved. He'd taken it for insecurity, part of Chris's defensive and anxious nature, but Chris was deeply perceptive too. Obviously he'd picked up something from Lucas without fully understanding it.

He had no idea what they did about this now.

Well he didn't know what the family were going to do about this now. He knew what he and Chris were going to do. They were going to go home, exist in the tight, stable routine that was Chris's security when things were rough, and Chris would realise, as he always did, that the world hadn't ended.

Chris stirred and Joe looked across at him, instantly anxious and then faintly self-loathing that his first impulse had been dread. The last few hours had not been fun. Chris just rolled over onto his side, settling in a more familiar position, and his breathing again became deep and even. Relieved, Joe pulled the blanket up over his shoulders and reached for the phone.

From the way it was caught up, Rolf had clearly been waiting for the call.

"Joe?"

"We've got him." Joe got up, carrying the phone to the window. "Eric found us a room at a motel last night - I think he took a room here or he went home, I'm not sure which."

"He's on his way home, he called an hour ago. How's Chris?"

Rolf sounded anxious. Joe looked across at his sleeping partner.

"Asleep, thank God. I don't ever want to go through a night like that again. I think between the shock and the time he'd had to work himself up, he had more bottled up than we could do a controlled detonation on. It was awful."

"What are you going to do?"

Joe took a deep breath, looking at his watch. "Let him sleep. And depending on how he is, maybe find somewhere more comfortable and stay out of town a couple of days. I think we need some time together without any added complications."

"Want me to call the office?"

"Please. I'll ring them later when I'm a little more together."

"You look after yourself," Rolf said gently. "If we can help, just call. To come and get you or whatever."

"I hope that's the worst of it past. I had to force-feed him Tylenol in the end," Joe said tiredly. "Thanks Rolf. Give my love to Eric, tell him I owe him half a dozen favours for this."

"I'll tell him. Keep in touch."

"We will." Joe put the phone down and gave Chris another cautious look. Tired as he was, he was too anxious to sleep yet. It was still early; Chris could sleep another hour or two then they'd find the next nearest town and a decent hotel. A well cared for, comfortable body always had a good influence on an unsettled, unhappy mind. They'd see to the basic essentials of life: a decent meal, a comfortable bed, sleep, calm. Then they'd figure out where they went from here.
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2010

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