Friday, February 5, 2010

When it All Goes Wrong

Title: When it All Goes Wrong
Authors: Rolf and Ranger

The house was lit up like a Christmas tree and Mike's car was already on the drive when Matthew delivered the customary pounding that passed for a knock in a good mood. He heard the thud thud thud of someone in an equally good mood flying down the stairs and then Chris unlatched the door, pulling it wide for him.
"Hi, about time. Mike's setting the computer up now."
"I have the Kailua." Matthew told him, flashing the bottle. Chris grinned and led the way to the kitchen.
"And Todd has gone for pizza, we're all set. What did you tell Rolf?
"That we're going to a movie."
"Well that's not far wrong I suppose." Chris decided, pulling down glasses. Several bottles of beer stood on the kitchen counter, one open and testament to Michael's presence. Matthew slopped Kailua into a glass, slopped more into a glass for Chris and trailed him upstairs to where Michael was stretched full length on the carpet doing something complicated to the computer in the office. He grunted at the sight of Matthew, something approximating hello, and went back to his wiring. Matthew slouched comfortably on the study couch and sipped Kailua.
"How's it going?"
Michael grunted again, checked another wire and then sat up.
"I THINK I've got it - turn the monitor on and see? I should have hit the pay per view channel."
Matthew obligingly leaned over and turned the monitor on, nodding approvingly as an image cleared.
"There's a picture."
Despite himself, Michael had a cautious peer at the screen, and then got up with a crow of decided self satisfaction.
"We're set! Am I genius or what?"
"You're a what." Matthew told him kindly. "But we love you anyway."
Michael aimed a kick at his ankle, leaning over to collect his beer.
"I can download this and copy it for anyone who wants."
"What, exactly is it?" Matthew inquired, watching the monitor. "You don't think they can find out we're doing this, do you?
"Nah, I saw the codes the other day, I told you, when I was doing the computers at the tv station place with Todd." Mike said easily. "It's pay per view movies, that's all. I hack into that, we link into the line, I can download straight to the computer
"So we're watching a pay per view movie by downloading off their line, and you could make us a copy if we wanted it for posterity's sake?" Matthew asked, impressed despite himself.
"Yep." Mike said with satisfaction. "And these are movies not yet ON video, so it's pre view."
"Niiiiiiiiiiice." Matthew approved, getting comfortable on the couch. "turn the sound up, this looks good."
"I can probably capture two or three," Mike mused aloud, fiddling to get the volume up. "What is it?
"I think it's the new one with Jodie Foster." Matthew looked up as Chris came to join them. "Hear of it?  On the airplane."
"You much of a Jodie Foster fan?" Chris demanded, wrinkling his nose. Matthew stuck his tongue out, seeing no reason to bother with a more sophisticated response when this basic one did perfectly well.  
"This one looked good, where you don't know if she's crazy or someone is after her kid."
"What IS it with you and chick flicks??" Mike demanded. "We'll have Todd back in a minute wanting to see Alice in Wonderland or something."
"That isn't a chick flick!  It's a mystery!" Matthew protested.
"With girls in it!" Chris retorted. "There's that action thing with Matt Damon-"
"Has it started already?" Mike interrupted. Chris picked up the tv scheduler which was on the magazine rack and flicked through.
"In about ten minutes."
"Then we can watch that since we'll get all parts of it." Mike decided, giving Matthew a brief grin. "Don't panic, I'll download you Jodie to take home."
"You can do that at the same time?" Matthew asked, impressed. Mike gave him a casual shrug.
"It'll take about three minutes to download on this connection. Joe has broadband here – nothing but the best."
"For an entire movie????  Marc would worship you as a God if he knew." Matthew marveled. Mike winced.
"For God's sake don't tell him! I daren't keep this connection open more than eight minutes, they scan the line every fifteen."
Matthew laughed but shook his head. "Don't worry. According to Rolf he doesn't need another movie until 2020 anyway. When's Todd getting here with the pizza? I'm starved."
"He shouldn't be long," Chris said, getting up as the phone rang in the hall. "Did anyone say specifically they weren't here?"
"Rolf told me not to stay." Matthew admitted. Chris gave him a pointed look.  
"Great. Anyone else's story I need to get straight?"
"I'm fine." Mike said casually.     
"What about Todd?" Matthew asked, prepared to protect a brother brat from crisis. Chris shrugged running downstairs to get the phone.
"I have no clue. Let's hope it's not Steve."
"You could just NOT answer?" Mike suggested. Chris gave him a yeah, right look and picked up. "Hi? Yes."
Matthew and Mike followed him onto the stairs, taking a seat with their drinks in order to listen in, and they both heard Chris's voice promptly change, getting a lot quieter in the space of a single word.
"Yes. Yes. Ok, in about ten minutes. Thanks."
"What happens in about ten minutes?" Mike demanded as Chris put the phone down. Chris gave him a rather sick look.
"I have to go get Todd, he's kind of - mixed up in a problem?"
"What kind of a problem?" Matthew asked, trying to lighten the mood. "Did he steal the pizza?"
Chris picked up his coat, pulling it on with slightly unsteady hands.
"There was a hold up in the shop - they've cordoned off the area, he can't get to his car."
"WHAT???" Matthew demanded in shock. Chris dug in his pocket for his keys.   
"He wasn't involved, he's ok - he was at the back of the shop and they all ran - but the whole area's shut off and the police won't let him get to his car, they want me to go get him."
"Wow." Mike echoed. "Want me to go with you?"
"We- have a bit of a problem here?" Chris said a little more slowly. "The car won't be released until tomorrow. And Steve's going to want to know what Todd's doing with his car at the far end of town when we were going to the movies over at Shillingford."
"We should be able to figure SOMETHING out there." Matthew said, putting a practiced brain to the matter at once. "Maybe we just wanted THAT pizza before the movies and instead of all of us going, one went while the rest of us waited?"
"Over there?" Chris said wryly. "It's fifteen miles from the movies and THREE miles from here!"
"Its not out of the VERY ordinary.  Isn't that the only location of that brand of pizza?"
"Yes –" Chris admitted, "but I was also told I wasn't to have you lot in here en masse....
"Then we..." Matthew broke off and shook his head. "Oh, go on and get Todd and we'll work it out."
"Anyone coming?" Chris said hopefully.
"I'll go." Matthew took another mouthful of Kailua and got up. "You have to stay to finish the downloads, right Mike?"
"Yes, I'll keep this going." Michael agreed somewhat more subduedly. "I hope Todd isn't too freaked, you know what he's like."
"Shit, I hadn't thought of that." Matthew said wryly. "Maybe we'll just get a few beers in him and he'll settle if that's the case."
"This is going to go seriously wrong," Chris muttered as he headed out of the door towards the car. "I know it is."
Matthew shook his head, climbing into the passenger seat. "It can't go any more wrong than it has already, chill."

 They were about three miles from home when the car made a dreadful grinding noise and slowed down to a halt. Chris stood on the brake and turned the engine off in alarm.  
"What the hell was that?"
Matthew twisted in his seat to look at the dashboard. "You've got no lights on – what happened?"
"I don't know." Chris said anxiously, struggling with the ignition. "It won't start!"
"What do you MEAN it won't start?" Matthew said impatiently. "It was fine a minute ago!  Put it in park and try again."
Chris parked and turned everything off, taking a breath before he tried again. The engine spluttered a few times but they could both hear the grinding without the engine actually turning over.
"You didn't run out of gas did you?" Matthew asked suspiciously. Chris spared him a savage glare.
"No, I filled it up yesterday!"
"Then what's the problem?"
"I don't know, I'm not a mechanic!"
"How the hell are we supposed to pick up Todd if we're stuck here?" Matthew inquired. Resisting the urge to brain him with the car log book, Chris turned off the ignition and sat back.
"I don't know! What are we going to do?"
Matthew took a breath, trying to think calmly. "Do you have AAA?"
Chris gave him a rather embarrassed look. "......I haven't updated the membership...."
Great. Where were friends with braincells when you needed them. Matthew dug his hands in his pockets and nodded at Chris's phone on the hands free set.
"Call Mike.  He can come get us and then Todd."
"And we do WHAT about the car???" Chris demanded. Matthew gave him an impatient shrug.
"That obviously has to be TOMORROWS problem if you don't have AAA!"
"Joe is going to go MAD if I leave the car here!" Chris said furiously. Matthew gave him a pointed look.
"What are you going to do, push it home?"
"I don't know, I have to do something! If I leave it here it'll be vandalised!"
"Then I guess you'll need to come up with $100 for a tow someplace." Matthew said shrugging. Chris glared at him.
"Have you got any cash?"
"About $20."
That was it. They were sunk. Chris tipped his head back against the seat rest, staring at the ceiling.  "I'm going to have to call Rolf."
"WHAT???!!" Matthew said in horror.
"Joe said if anything went wrong to – what else can I do?! He'll manage a tow,"
"Yeah, he'll manage a tow of you across his knees, followed by ME." Matthew said with horrible emphasis. "I don't THINK so."
"What do YOU suggest then!"
"You've got a credit card, don't you?"
"Not on me!"
"Is it something Mike could bring you? And WHY don't you carry it in your wallet?"
"I didn't BRING my- hey, Mike could tow us!"
Relieved for simple solutions, Chris grabbed his phone and dialed. And looked up, annoyed.
"His cell's going straight to messages."
Matthew frowned, surprised. "THAT's odd - what's he doing??"
Chris gave him a withering glare. "What do you mean?  We're supposed to be at the movies? He'll have it set in case Eric phones, thickhead."
Matthew, who had forgotten the laws of cell phone evasion, slumped back in his seat. "Oh DAMN."
Keying in again, Chris tried his own home phone number, listening through the answer phone message and then calling.
"Mike? Mike it's me, pick up. MIKE PICK UP."
To his deep relief the phone line clicked and Mike's voice came on to the line, sounding surprised. "Hi, what's up?"
"We're stranded," Chris gave Matthew a look across the car, sounding as fed up as Matthew looked. "The car's broken down - can you get the tow rope from the garage and come get us?"
"Are you SERIOUS?" Michael demanded. Chris's patience, never very long, snapped.
"NO, I'm joking! Get over here ferret brains!"
"Where exactly IS here?" Michael pointed out. "Or do I just guess?"
Chris looked to Matthew for confirmation. "We're on the A14 between Harcourt and Dover, by the bakery."
"You haven't got Todd yet?"
"NO, we broke - what's that?" Chris said, breaking off in mid diatribe.
"What's what?" Michael asked, and froze at the repeated sound of hammering on the front door.  "Chris? Are you expecting anyone?  I think someone is here."
"No, it's probably a neighbour- get RID of them, get a tow rope and get out here!"
"OKAY." Not envying Matthew stuck in a car with a fizzing Chris, Mike hung up and went to answer the door. There was not a neighbour on the doorstep. There were two policemen, large and well built, the larger of whom said politely,
"Excuse me sir, we've got a complaint from GNTV station that equipment is scanning their computers from this address."
There are a few sentences in the English language guaranteed to reduce a computer geek to a blubbering idiot in seconds. That is one of them. One of the policemen took hold of Mike, hustling him into the house. The other shut the front door behind them, but gave the now streaming Michael a second look.
"Hey – are you anything to do with Eric Mayhan?"
The conflict presented by that question was extreme, but Mike didn't hesitate, doing his best to wipe his eyes.
"I'm..I'm ... I'm Michael, his...his partner."
"I knew I recognised you." The policeman said more gently. "What's going on here?"  
"I..uh...." Mike began valiantly, and burst into tears.
The policemen exchanged glances and one of them – Mike didn't see who - steered him into the kitchen and pulled out his radio. "Base? This is nine one seven at 320 Linden Street - find Eric for me?"
It was a moment or two before Eric's voice answered pm the radio and Mike heard fragments and static while the other cop went upstairs. Finally the radio was turned off and the policeman gave Mike a fairly kind look.
"He's on his way over. You want to tell me what's going on?"
Mike shook his head, between shock, horror and the knowledge that Eric was on his way, not at all ready to hold a conversation.
"I was just messing on the computer, I didn't know it was illegal."
That was a major lie but the only possible answer. The other cop came downstairs, catching his partner's eye. 
"The computer's off - no sign of any recording equipment. We have to check out in case you're a pirate station," he added to Mike, "but there's no cutting equipment here. Did you hack into the station?"
"I..I guess so." Mike said as carefully as he could, aware of just how hard he was shaking. "I had a set of numbers, I was just wondering what they were for."
"And did you record anything from what you found?" The cop inquired.
" thing maybe," Mike said unsteadily. "But, I'll erase it if it's wrong."
"Lose those numbers." The cop told him, giving him a warning look. "Permanently."
"Yes, sir." Mike said fervently.
There was the sound of a car turning into the drive and a second later Eric appeared in the doorway, looking anxious with his partner just behind him. Mike heard very little of what happened next. The cops conferred with Eric and the gist of the conversation appeared to be that if the disks were erased and the tap into the tv network lost and not set up again that no harm was done, the report would reflect an accident. Which, Eric reflected as his colleagues left and his partner discreetly went out to the car, was a good deal more than was deserved.
"What the hell is going on here Michael?" he demanded as soon as the front door shut. "What DID you think you were doing? You are never going to convince me that was an accident! And where is everyone else?"
Mike, unable to cope with a more dignified response at that moment in time, burst into tears of sheer relief. Eric relented long enough to hug him for a moment, aware that Michael was at least deeply shaken up, but as soon as he started to calm Eric pushed him back to see his face.
"What's going on? Where are the others?"
"We were mucking around with the computer –" Michael began unsteadily, "That's all-"
"Mucking around doesn't include a visit from our city's finest." Eric said sharply. "What were you doing?"
"I had those codes," Mike said, sniffing, "like I said - and I tried them and they went into the tv station pay per view."
"You were illegally downloading movies from the tv station?" Eric said, shocked. "You deliberately set OUT to download?"
"I didn't mean it exactly like that –" Mike began despairingly, but Eric shook his head, far less sympathetic than the cops had been.  
"That is exactly what it sounds like.  Show me the computer, please."
The goose was officially cooked. Mike led the way upstairs, still gulping.
Eric, who was no computer expert but was married to one, looked over both computer and disks with a fair idea of what was going on before he gave Michael a sharp nod. "Delete what you've copied."
The order was quiet but in drill sergeant tones that suggested arguing would not be met with patience or understanding. As quickly as he could Michael deleted everything captured, broke the connection to the tv station and shut down the computer.  
"Where are the codes?" Eric said when he was done. Michael surrendered the paper out of his pocket and winced as Eric tore it up and dropped it into the waste paper basket by the computer.
"Where is everyone else?" Eric said for the third time. Michael took a deep, shuddering breath, wondering if it was worth even making the attempt at stalling. He eventually decided it wasn't going to help: Eric wasn't getting any happier waiting for answers.
"Todd" he said somewhere incoherently, "- the pizza place got raided, his car's impounded, he's stuck at the pizza place on 4th street - Matt and Chris's car broke down, they're waiting for a tow."
It took Eric a distinct minute to process all that information. After which he sat down on the couch, took out his cell phone and dialed Steve's number. Michael listened to half of that conversation, wincing as Eric gave him a short and in Michael's view extremely tactless version of events, ending with information on where Todd could be found. After which he cut the connection and Michael watched with far more trepidation as Eric dialed Rolf's number.
It took a minute before the phone was answered and Mike fought with a hope – at least on Matthew's behalf – that Rolf wasn't home. Then the phone was picked up and Eric cleared his throat, sounding extremely short. "Hi Rolf, It's Eric."
"Hey." Rolf sounded surprised from what Michael could hear faintly through the phone. "Aren't you on duty?"
"Yes, I am." Eric agreed, giving Mike a pointed look. "I was called to Joe's residence because Mike was downloading a few movies from the tv station illegally.  I thinking movie night was going to be here as they have all the supplies downstairs for it."

There was a silence on the end of the phone, powerful enough to make Mike cringe. Then Rolf said grimly, "If you could send Matthew straight home then please?"
"I would," Eric told him, "Except things are a little more convoluted than that. Want to sit down? Todd was picking up dinner at a pizza joint that got raided.  Steve's on his way over for them, as the car that Chris and Matthew were driving in on the way to pick him up quit.  They're currently parked on the side of the AI near the bakery.  If you wouldn't mind picking those two up and sorting out the car, I'll lock down the house here for the night."
In Eric's opinion Rolf took that quite admirably in his stride. There was barely a five second pause before he said, quite calmly,
"Thank you. I'll keep Chris until Joseph comes home."
"That's probably best." Eric said grimly, looking at Mike. "I think Michael would like some privacy this evening. Thank you."  He hung up and got to his feet, sparing his partner a glare that did not bode well.  "Have you had dinner yet?"
Michael shook his head, adding a hasty and quiet, "No sir." Sir wasn't a word he used frequently with Eric, but there were times and places where there was no sense taking any risks and grabbing instead for anything at all that might help. Eric jerked his head at the door.
"Get yourself straight home.  Get a sandwich for dinner and when you're finished, go straight to bed.  We'll discuss this in the morning."
Michael, sparing a very brief thought for Todd, Chris and Matthew, all about to be scared out of their wits, booked it downstairs with all speed and escaped into his car, entirely too sorry for himself to be sorry for them too.
Matthew and Chris, who were rapidly moving from bored to freezing, looked up in relief as a car pulled in behind them, snapping its lights off. Chris sat up to look better and paused, surprised.
"Hey, Mike wasn't driving a .......oh SHIT."
Matthew, jaw dropping, sat frozen in his seat.
Rolf swung out of the car, came over and tapped on the window, seeing Chris's face, white and rigid through the glass. With some effort Chris got the door open and received a sharp nod at the pavement.
"Out. Matthew, get the tow rope from the boot."
They both moved, extremely fast. Rolf tied the rope with Matthew, the two of them working in practiced co operation despite Matthew doing everything he could not to actually have to meet Rolf's eyes.
"You drive the truck," Rolf told Matthew when they were done, "I'll drive the car on tow, straight home. SLOWLY."
Matthew hesitated, extremely torn but not at all willing right now to take risks.
"What?" Rolf asked, seeing the signs of conflict. Matthew winced.
"I had about half a glass of Kailua –"
The look he got should have turned him to stone. Rolf looked sharply at Chris, voice extremely grim.
"Have you been drinking?"
"No sir." Chris said promptly. "I hadn't started my drink-"

"Then you drive. Move."
They moved. The drive home was slow, exceptionally careful, and carried out in silence in Matthew and Chris's car, both of them too shocked to communicate. Rolf parked Chris's disabled car behind his own, locked it up and disconnected the tow rope, aware of Matthew and Chris hovering on the drive, Matthew not quite daring to unlock the door and go in without instructions. When he got them, they were short, sharp and accompanied by the keys being tossed to him.
"Matthew, that corner there. Christopher, that corner there. Now."
Matthew unlocked the door and fled, followed by Chris. Rolf peeled off his coat, hung it up and went into the kitchen.
"Because we broke down?" Chris muttered to Matthew, hesitating a few feet shy of the designated corner.
Matthew, firmly planted in his and radiating firm intentions of staying there and shutting up, turned around and LOOKED at him.  Chris, struck with second thoughts on arguing, went over to the corner. Rolf couldn't know much – if anything – but there was no harm in being careful.
In the kitchen Rolf made sandwiches and warmed soup, setting the table more to give himself time to calm down a little as he was NOT happy. That was putting it mildly. His current state of non-happiness was sufficient to register on the Richter scale, and judging by Matthew's expression he at least was well aware of it.  
As a matter of fact, taking the time and silence of the corner as an advantage, Matthew was working furiously on ideas for damage control but without knowing exactly what Rolf knew it was extremely difficult. It would help – hugely – if he would share what he had been told and by whom, but Tops never did realise how important it was to share this kind of information. Rolf's voice, extremely short, interrupted his planning.
"Both of you come and sit down."
Matthew caught Chris's eye, signaling what he hoped was a clear, "Shut UP, we know NOTHING," as they both sat down at the kitchen table.  
The situation was not at all helped by Rolf sitting and watching while they ate. Nor by the fact that both Matthew and Chris were entirely too nervous to eat. Chris himself was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, feeling all kinds of guilt purely from Rolf's expression and manner without any idea of what he was actually being held responsible for. Within a few minutes he couldn't eat any more,  but didn't actually dare to say so – Matthew, equally unkeen, was resorting to stirring soup to at least look as though he was maintaining diplomatic relations with his meal while they both hoped Rolf suggested they might have finished.
What they actually got was one word, shortly said and in an unmistakable tone.
That was it. Chris gulped and pushed his plate away. "I...I'm finished." 
Rolf looked with polite inquiry at Matthew, who pushed his plate away quietly and carefully. "Me too."
Rolf nodded, not arguing. "Clean up."
Matthew got up and hurriedly rinsed the dishes, putting them in the dishwasher, aware throughout of Rolf's eyes on his back. He strung it out as long as he could, but all too soon he ran out of things to do and Rolf pointed at his chair, waiting until Matthew seated himself, apparently keen to take up as little space as possible.
"Matthew, have you got any excuse for this evening?"
Matthew gave him a slightly panicked look, not liking that question at all.
"I...I can't help that Chris's car stalled on us-"
Both Matthew and Chris jumped and Matthew winced.  "We sent Todd out for pizza and something happened there....Todd's still waiting!" he added in horror, having forgotten entirely in the shock of Rolf arriving.
"No he isn't." Rolf said shortly. "Go on."
"He isn't?" Matthew queried cautiously. Rolf LOOKED at him.  
Matthew swallowed and tried again. "We were just going to collect him when the car stalled."
"Christopher?" Rolf said sharply for verification.  
Chris dropped his eyes but nodded.
"And that's everything?" Rolf inquired.
That was a nasty question too. Chris tactfully didn't answer it. Matthew, with less leeway, managed a not particularly convincing, "Yes sir."
Nothing happened. Rolf simply sat there and waited.
Chris blew under the pressure first. It was nearly a minute before he said, quietly, "We were going to eat the pizza at home, before the movie."
Rolf looked at Matthew who nodded.
"I see." Rolf folded his arms, leveling his full gaze on his partner. "So what happened to the plan I was told about the movies?"
"We just decided to eat dinner first, at Chris's house." Matthew said awkwardly.
Rolf nodded acceptance of that. "I thought you were told not to stay at the house? And Christopher I KNOW you were told you were not to bring the whole group into the house because Joe told me – it was one of the reasons Matthew was told not to stay."
"It wasn't going to be for long."  Matthew tried, and flinched as one of Rolf's eyebrows rose.
"Did anyone say it was ok if it wasn't for long?"
", sir."
"And the plan was to eat pizza before the movie."
"Yes, sir."
Rolf sat back and looked at them both.
"The police were called to the house to deal with Michael's computer hacking. Eric explained to me that the house was set up for you to watch the films he was hacking and downloading."
The two sentences, mildly said, landed like grenades. There were two audible gasps from around the table. Chris sank down in his chair and Rolf saw tears quietly start. Matthew had gone rather red in the face and had his eyes fixed on the tabletop.  
"Is there anything else you need to tell me?" Rolf suggested.
Matthew answered first, very quietly. ", sir."
"No, sir.  That's all."
"Why was it necessary to lie to me Matthew?"
Matthew took a breath, valiantly trying to find some – any – excuse for the situation.  "I...I didn't lie.  We were going to watch a movie-"
"Matthew Christopher DID you lie to me?!" Rolf said sharply. That was the end of Matthew's nerve. Tears flooded up abruptly. It made no odds: Rolf's voice grew distinctly louder and deeper.
Choking it out around what were threatening to become sobs, Matthew managed, "Yes, sir, I'm sorry."
"DO you hack into illegal movie channels? Is that a good thing to do?"
"No, sir."
"Then what on earth could make you think it was ok? I am VERY disappointed in the pair of you, you could have gotten Mike into terrible trouble."
"It was HIS idea." Chris said plaintively, "He was just going to download one thing, then sign off." 
"And you agreed that was a good thing for him to be doing?" Rolf inquired.
"It was just one movie." Matthew managed between gulps.
"IS that being a good friend?"
Matthew shook his head, losing the battle with sobs.
"Christopher?" Rolf inquired. Chris shook his head quickly, eyes down.
"No sir."
"So you two both knew Mike was doing something wrong." Rolf said, beginning the summing up since neither Matthew or Christopher seemed capable of further discussion. "You made no attempt to talk him out of it or stop him, and you cheerfully went along with it, allowing him to do something illegal and use Joe and your house and computer to do it Christopher Steven?"
That question, asked quietly, made Chris sob quite as hard as Matthew was now doing.
"CHRISTOPHER." Rolf said sharply. Chris took a breath with an effort.
"Yes, sir."
"You have a lot of explaining to do with Joseph tomorrow Christopher Steven, and I don't think Joe is going to be very pleased, is he? Go upstairs; you know where the guest room is. Get yourself ready for bed."
Glad to escape at any price, Chris hurriedly went upstairs and shut the door of the guest room behind him, heading directly to bed. Left alone with his partner in the kitchen, Rolf unfolded his arms and gave Matthew another of those looks.  
"You lied to me about where you were going this evening. You joined in and supported a friend in an illegal activity where you had a responsibility to him to keep him out of trouble. And you lied to me when I asked you what went on this evening. That's before we even consider the fact that you had a drink this evening and you were planning to drive home later."  
That was awful. With nothing to say, unable to feel any worse, Matthew slipped out of his chair and buried himself in Rolf's neck, losing any control over the sobs.
Rolf made no comment but held him tightly for a moment, giving him time to calm down with some awareness that Matthew was past hearing much at all right now.
" Mike in trouble?" Matthew asked at last, easing back a little and with his breathing a little more controlled.
Rolf shook his head, linking his hands around Matthew's hips. "Only with Eric. They let him off with a warning since he wasn't printing or distributing the material, but it could have turned VERY nasty. Not to mention how humiliating for Joe it would be to be pulled into court for owning the equipment being used for piracy."
He felt the relief in Matthew as he heard that. He put Matthew back to see his face, keeping his tone quiet but Matthew had no trouble understanding it.
"You are grounded my lad, and indefinitely until I am sure that I can trust you to tell me where you're going and what you're doing. And I don't expect to hear any complaints about it, is that clear?"
Matthew nodded slowly, biting his lip to keep from bursting into more tears.
"You owe an apology to Michael and to Joseph, which you'll give tomorrow." Rolf continued. "Are you sure why?"
"Yes, sir."
"Then we need to deal with your lying to me. I am very unhappy about that Matthew. And I'm still more unhappy about the drink driving."
"I didn’t-" Matthew pleaded.  "and I had a half Kailua and cream, hardly anything – I wouldn't have had a full one-"
Rolf shook his head. "I'm not interested in how little it was, and the only reason you didn't drive was because I was there. You do NOT mix alcohol with driving, ever, for any reason. If I haven't made that sufficiently clear to you then I'm going to make it a lot, LOT clearer to you Matthew. I don't EVER intend to be picking up the pieces of you in some emergency room because you weren't sure about drink driving. Get the paddle please."
Matthew tried for a moment to push back into Rolf's arms, since clinging around his neck was a far, far safer place to be right now, but Rolf disentangled his hands and gently stood him back, waiting.
Very slowly Matthew walked over to the drawer, stomach apparently dropping down a well as it heard the ominous sound of a chair being pulled out. When he summoned up the courage to turn around, Rolf was holding out a hand, waiting.
Unable to help himself Matthew shook his head, no, and got nothing more than a click of the fingers from the outstretched hand and a determined; "Matthew, now."
Matthew took the very few steps slowly across to the outstretched hand, close enough that Rolf leaned over, took the paddle from him and sat down in the kitchen chair, drawing Matthew to him by the belt. Matthew stood helplessly, tears running as Rolf unbuttoned his jeans and pulled them down, drawing Matthew to his right side. His underwear swiftly followed and Matthew blindly went where he was drawn, settling as best he could over Rolf's knees in the few dreadful split seconds of anticipation before the paddle landed.
It was a long and extremely sound paddling; Matthew was hoarse and sobbing hard by the end of it, scarlet from hip to thigh and bitterly regretting ever having set foot outside the house this evening. Rolf didn't stop until he was quite sure he had made a serious impression, and when he did lay the paddle down on the kitchen table Matthew lay limply over his lap. Rolf eased him down to his knees and smoothed his hair for a moment, giving him time to get his breath and to calm down a little. When the harsh sobbing quieted, Matthew took a few deeper breaths and began to cry again, but a good deal more quietly. Rolf tugged gently at his hand.
"Come here."

Matthew got up and fumbled with his clothes, evading Rolf's eye and wanting only to get upstairs and away as fast as possible. Rolf's hand didn't move from his.

 Unwillingly Matthew looked at him. And the tears began in earnest. Rolf steadied him as he stepped out of his jeans, then drew Matthew down into his lap and held him, rubbing his back as Matthew turned and clung to him, crying into his shoulder. It took him a long time to cry himself out. When he had reached the point of fairly steady breaths, Rolf turned his head against Matthew's speaking almost directly into his ear.
"You know why you got that paddling?"
Matthew managed something approximating "Uh huh."
"Are you going to remember that you need to stop Michael when he gets a bright idea - or if you can't stop him, not participate with him?"
Matthew nodded into his shoulder.  
"What about lying to me?"
Matthew took a breath, very sore but absolved and knowing there was no blame in that question. "I'm sorry, I won't."
"I don't want us to worry about whether or not we can trust each other."
Matthew nodded, not just a subscriber to that theory but an active supporter of it. "You don't have to worry."
"Then this is over with and we don't need to worry about it any more." Rolf said quietly.  "Go wash your face and get into bed. I need to talk to Christopher. And no tv."
Matthew took a breath, holding on to him for a minute more, then got up and went into the bathroom, closing the door behind him.
Rolf picked the paddle up from the table and headed upstairs, tapping at Chris's closed door. Chris had clearly wanted no part of what had gone on downstairs. There was no answer. Rolf opened the door and found Chris curled up under the covers.
He looked up rather nervously at the sight of Rolf and sat up. Rolf took a seat on the edge of the bed.
"Out of bed please. We need to have a talk."
That was not tempting. Chris scooted over on the side of the bed until he was sitting on the edge, head down.
"Most of this situation you need to discuss with Joseph." Rolf said quietly, "But I'd like to know why you lied to me this evening."
Chris swallowed, head still down. "I'm sorry.  I....I didn't want to get Matthew in trouble by contradicting."
"That's a reason for lying?"
There was a long pause, Chris was well aware of what he was committing himself to. Then eventually, well aware there was no other answer, he said very quietly,
"No, sir."
"No. It's not acceptable, you know it very well and I won't tolerate it. Stand up, turn around and put your hands on the bed."
Chris finally looked up far enough to see the paddle in Rolf's hand. His eyes went straight to Rolf's huge in a white face.
"I didn't mean it!"
"It happened, it's not acceptable, I won't tolerate it."
"I'm sorry, please?  It won't happen again."
"Come on Chris. Now please"
A look containing all the pleading Chris was capable of achieved nothing; Rolf went right on waiting. Very, very slowly Chris stood up, turned and faced the bed, still more glacially slowly bending over to put his hands on it. Rolf waited until he was still, then gave him one, sound swat with the paddle. Chris jumped, inhaled sharply and bit his lip, trying hard not to move too much as the sting exploded. Rolf waited a few seconds, then swatted again, just as soundly.
"Stand up."
Chris stood up, breathing very hard and trying not to dissolve into tears, shifting his weight to try and stop some of the pain. Rolf gave him a level look.
"Am I ever going to need to do this again?"
Chris shook his head vigorously. "No, sir."
"Good. Come here."
Chris took the two steps into Rolf's outstretched arm and the tears overflowed. Rolf hugged him, well aware that Chris needed some closure in order to get through the night. For that reason he sat down on the bed and pulled Chris down beside him, still with an arm around him.
"What time are you expecting Joe home in the morning?"
"Just before lunch." Chris said unsteadily. Rolf nodded understanding.
"All right. You can phone him in the morning and let him know that you're here and we'll talk to him together."
That was not something to look forward to, but better than trying to explain alone. Rolf dropped a kiss on the top of Chris's head, getting up and pulling back the covers. Chris crawled into bed and curled up, letting Rolf pull the blankets over him.
"Sleep well. We'll straighten this out tomorrow, it's not the end of the world.”
No, that would happen tomorrow when Joe found out.
Chris wasn't sure how he managed to fall asleep – he had initially been sure he wouldn't sleep at all – but he woke early. It was beginning to get light outside and when he found his watch, the dial stood at just past five a.m. It was not going to be a good day. Somewhat bitterly envious of Matthew, who no doubt was very sore this morning nevertheless had gone to bed absolved and with the disasters of yesterday left in the past where they belonged, Chris slid out of bed. He chose the downstairs bathroom – mostly as a reason in his own mind to go downstairs – and finding a cat on the sofa, which stretched and purred at him, curled up beside it. He'd been there barely a moment before he heard footfall on the stairs and glanced up to find Rolf, half way down the stairs and looking none too pleased.
"It's not morning yet. Come on, back to bed."
"I'm ok here." Chris said without much hope. Rolf said nothing, just waited pointedly. Chris sighed, got up and trailed reluctantly back upstairs.
Rolf followed him back to his bed, waiting until Chris once more climbed under the covers and lay down, looking very far from happy. Which Rolf fully understood: the sooner Joe came home this morning the better things would be. Not unsympathetic, he said firmly, "You stay put please until breakfast. Go back to sleep, today isn't going to be a disaster."

He received an expressive look and shook his head at it.
"No, it isn't. You'll sort this out with Joe, the problem will be over with and you'll feel a lot better about it. This isn't the end of the world."

Chris rolled over and declined to answer that.
Rolf pulled the door softly closed behind him and went back to bed. While the night was a long time to wait, it wouldn't do Chris harm to think seriously about why he didn't want to be in this situation again. 
He was showering two hours later when he heard Matthew pad downstairs. Drying off and finding jeans and a shirt to wear since it was unlikely he and Matthew would go anywhere today, he tapped at Chris's door and pushed it open. Chris was lying on the bed, hands behind his head and didn't look around.
"Breakfast time." Rolf said matter of factly.  "Go shower, it'll be on the table in fifteen minutes."
He didn't wait for a reply. Matthew was downstairs, dressed and buried in the fridge and a box of orange juice from which he paused briefly to demand and receive a kiss.

"Good morning. Get a glass."

"There's only the tail end left anyway." Matthew drained the box and binned it, watching Rolf put the kettle on to boil.
"Is Chris awake?"
"Yes. Waffles or pancakes?"
"Whatever is fine.” That tone and that phrasing indicated very clearly Matthew's mood of the morning.
Recognising in his own mind that yes, it was going to be one of THOSE mornings, Rolf  pulled out the makings of pancakes and the skillet.
"Okay. Set the table please. And make some tea for Chris."
Chris appeared before the pancakes were cooked, sliding into a seat at the table with his head down although he drank the tea Matthew put in front of him. Matthew, looking extremely reluctant, hovered by the table for a moment or two before he gathered sufficient nerve to sit down and winced as he did so. Rolf took no notice, put plates and pancakes down and ate without looking at the gloom and misery occupying either side of the table. All three of them had to survive intact until Joe reached town. Rolf, who had left a message on Joe's cell and home phone last night to make sure he knew where to find Chris, knew that Joe would come as soon as he was able. In the meantime the less opportunity either Chris or Matthew had for thinking about their situation the easier things would go.
Matthew had finished his breakfast and Chris was still picking when Rolf got up, taking his empty cup and plate to the sink.
"Matthew, make a start on the lawn please with the hand mower. Christopher, I want that finished."
"It's already too hoooooooooot." Matthew said plaintively.
"I'll be out to check in an hour." Rolf said heartlessly. "Stripes, properly, go on."
Looking far from pleased Matthew headed slowly upstairs to change, muttering, and went outside before his temper got the better of him within Rolf's hearing. Outside, yanking the mower out of the shed, he let his temper free in peace and muttered in detail about why it was law that the lawn always got done the morning after a paddling.
Rolf began to wash up, waiting until Chris choked down most of his pancakes before he held out a hand for the plate.
"Thank you. You'll find the hoover in that cupboard, hoover the lounge and kitchen please."  
Silently, with about the same amount of enthusiasm as Matthew was showing as he stalked up and down with the mower, Chris got out the hoover. Outside on the lawn, the mower died.  Through the window as he washed plates, Rolf saw Matthew try to restart and was not entirely surprised when Matthew straightened up and kicked the mower in frustration.
Leaving the door open, Rolf dried his hands and stepped out onto the porch.
"It won't start!"
Resisting the urge to point out why, and that the mower worked perfectly well when handled without thumping and yanking, Rolf crossed the lawn and started it efficiently. And straightened up to Look at Matthew.
"If I see anything else kicked, hit or scowled at you'll be in trouble. Got it?"
"Yes." Matthew said very ungraciously.
Without comment, Rolf turned him around by the arm and swatted him soundly. Matthew was breathing very hard when he was let go but his answer was promptly rephrased.
"Yes sir."
Rolf walked back to the house, leaving Matthew to start mowing again, very near to tears.
In the kitchen Chris was putting the hoover away. Rolf cast a quick look at the carpet and opened the cupboard, taking out window cleaner and a cloth.
"Thank you. The lounge and dining room windows please, no smears."
Without comment Chris accepted the bottle and cloth and went slowly into the living room. That kept the peace for the next half hour. Chris cleaned.
Matthew mowed, getting visibly hotter and damper as the day reached its full morning heat.
Rolf watched him complete the last stripes from the kitchen window and went out to help him put the mower away, which was done in sufficient silence to make it clear that Matthew was currently not at all happy. Trailing Rolf inside, Matthew flopped down into the seat Rolf indicated at the kitchen table, stifled a prompt yelp having forgotten his current difficulty with sitting, and glared at the bottle of water that Rolf put down in front of him.
"I'm not thirsty."
"It's hot out there." Rolf said matter of factly.
"I'm done with the windows." Chris said, bringing the bottle and cloth back. Rolf took polish from the cupboard and swapped it for the bottle.
"Thank you. You can start on the banister please."

Just about restraining the urge to pull a face, Chris took it and went to the stairs.
Rebel number two had ignored the water and was now resting with his head on his arms in an attitude that someone less charitable might have called 'sulking'. Deciding there was no point in getting into an argument, Rolf picked up the cleaner he was using to wipe down the kitchen counters and carried on, paying no attention but to say clearly,
"Matthew I want to see that water drunk please. Five minutes."
"Not thirsty."
That was in many ways a hurled gauntlet. Rolf carried on cleaning, doing nothing more than keep an eye on the clock. In his experience, this kind of confrontation often came when Matthew was anxious and upset and it was better to confront, put the rebellion down early and solve the problem rather than allow the situation to build.
Matthew made no move, continuing to rest his head on his arms.
The clock slowly ticked through five minutes, and as the five minute point was reached Rolf put his cloth down, took Matthew's arm and put him on his feet, swatting him soundly. He picked up the water bottle from the table, took the top off and handed the bottle to Matthew, giving him a very steady look.
"Think about how far you want to take this."

It was the final spark Matthew needed. Giving Rolf a murderous glare, he took the water bottle and hurled it through the kitchen door, hitting Chris in the other room.
"I said I wasn't thirsty!"
"Christopher, are you ok?" Rolf called into the living room.
Chris, dripping and hurriedly picking up the bottle before it spilled more of its load, sounded as though he was snarling through clenched teeth.
"Yeah, great."
"Go and dry off. I'm sorry that happened, I hope Matthew didn't hurt you and he'll apologise to you when I've finished with him."
Hoping that involved thumb screws, Chris slammed the bottle down on the table, stormed upstairs and just about managed not to slam the bathroom door.
Rolf LOOKED at Matthew, well aware that Matthew's eyes were starting to resemble those of a rabbit in the headlights of an advancing car. Clearly temper had given way to a growing sense of reality.
"Matthew," He said softly, "Go pick up that bottle and bring it back here."
Matthew moved, fast, bringing the bottle back and talking rapidly as he came into the kitchen, "I...I didn't mean to do that, I'm sorry, I'll get some paper towels and get the rest of that..."
"Stand still."
Matthew stopped reluctantly, giving him an extremely anxious look.  
"Drink that please as I asked you to." Rolf said in the same tone. Matthew swallowed, but picked up the bottle and gulped, realising within a mouthful that he was actually extremely thirsty. His t-shirt was damp with sweat from the garden but right now he felt cold to the marrow. The bottle emptied far too soon.
"Thank you." Rolf said still in that soft tone. "Go and clean up the spill."
Oh, not good, not good, not good….. Matthew grabbed paper towels and fled, doing his best in the living room to dry the carpet. At least it was only water – this was starting to look to him like a very serious mistake and one he sincerely wished he hadn't made. When the towels were close to disintegrating he sidled back into the kitchen and put them in the bin, not at all keen to continue the conversation.
Rolf had no such compunction. He nodded straight at the drawer, catching Matthew's eye. "Get the paddle please.”
Less than twelve hours after a paddling that was possibly the worst possible sentence in the English language. Matthew swallowed hard, wishing very hard that the floor would oblige him in swallowing him whole.
".....Rolf, please, I didn't –"
One of Rolf's eyebrows lifted in a mild gesture that choked that sentence in Matthew's throat. He swallowed hard but managed to go to the drawer, open it and take out the hated object inside.
"Thank you." Rolf said mildly, holding out a hand for it. Matthew took the very few slow steps across to him and Rolf took the paddle, drawing out a kitchen chair.
"Do we throw things in this house?"
"No, sir."
"Drop your jeans."

It couldn't get any worse. Matthew didn't dare not comply. Tears stinging his eyes he unbuttoned his jeans and somehow pushed them down, stumbling where Rolf drew him and finding himself rapidly with his hands against the kitchen floor and his underwear around his knees, his already sore backside clenched in apprehension. It didn't help. Only six swats fell, but they were sound, and on top of last night's paddling they hurt like all hell. Matthew burst into tears at the first swat and when Rolf put him on his feet he had to struggle to lower his voice, having yelled loud enough to be aware that Chris would have heard it all.
"Corner please." Rolf said bluntly, pausing to help Matthew straighten his clothes. Matthew fumbled with the buttons and sobbing pitifully took himself to the designated corner. Rolf stood for a moment, waiting until Matthew calmed down slightly before he went upstairs to check on Chris, who was towelling off his wet sweater in the guest room.  
"Chris? Are you ok?"
Chris gave him a look torn between tears and a major rage. Clearly he was struggling with himself. Wishing Joe would make it home, Rolf shut the door behind him on the faint sound of Matthew's sniffling and went to Chris, pulling him into a rough and very comforting hug.
"Are you hurt?"
Chris shook his head, putting a hand up to wipe at his face. Two tearful, stroppy brats. The perfect combination. Rolf felt the sweater and stepped back, holding out a hand.
"Give that to me and I'll put it in the drier. You can come down and finish the banister please."
"I...I'd rather stay here." Chris said without hope. Rolf took the sweater and steered him gently towards the stairs.
"And you heard me."
Chris froze on the stairs as the doorbell rang. Thank Goodness Rolf thought inwardly. He moved past Chris, keeping his voice calm.
"Bannister, I'll get that."
Joe was on the doorstep, looking very far from happy. Rolf came outside and shut the door behind him.
"Hi, how are you?"
"I'm going to hear something horrible." Joe said bluntly. "What happened?"
Oh where to start… Rolf leaned against the wall, looking for the most positive way to explain.
"They all went to your house last night – the movie story was a bit of a myth. Michael intended to download the movie by hacking into the local tv cable channel."


"Chris and Matthew went out to pick up Todd who was stranded at a pizza place and Chris's car died. We towed it back, it wasn't driveable – sounds to me like something's gone wrong with the ignition."
"He hacked in on my computer?!" Joe said in shock. Rolf nodded apologetically.
"I'm afraid so. The tv network traced the hack and sent the police over – Eric dealt with it, there's no charge, it was agreed as an accident not to be repeated." He added quickly. "The computer's fine, no record, no names taken, they were very lucky."
Joe took a deep breath, clearly wrestling with a lot of comments. Then let the breath go in a controlled hiss.
"And Christopher?"
"Pretty upset." Rolf said frankly. "He and Matthew weren't too honest in telling me the story, which I dealt with, but he's been worried all night about needing to explain this to you."

"I bet he is." Joe said with feeling. "Thank you – I'm sorry you got landed with him overnight. I'll take him home and we'll start untangling this."
Rolf opened the door and Joe went into the living room. Chris, sitting half way down the stairs, looked up at him as though he'd been shot. The expression on his face would have been hard to pin down. Part dreading, part alarmed, part relieved, part welcome – Joe saw it too, his voice while still grim was quite different when he held out his hand.
"Come on. Get your coat."
Chris moved on the word. Rolf went towards the kitchen, aware of Chris behind him throwing himself into Joe's arms at the foot of the stairs. A moment later the front door closed behind them and the house was still.
Matthew was quiet in the corner, although he was still gulping a little. Rolf pulled out a kitchen chair and sat down, holding out a hand.
"Come here brat. "

Matthew came gladly to him, wrapping both arms tightly around Rolf's neck. Rolf drew Matthew down into his lap and hugged him, glad of the quiet.
"Sorry." Matthew said into his shoulder. Rolf bent his head and kissed what he could reach of Matthew's face.
"Thank you."
"And I'm sorry about last night. "

Rolf was absolutely sure Matthew was not the only one sorry about that right now.
"All right, that's over with." He said in Matthew's ear. "I think we'll live."
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2010

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