Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Knife to the Heart

Title: Knife to the Heart
Authors: Rolf and Ranger



"Are you going to work all night AGAIN?"  Todd whined into his coke.

Stephen rubbed Todd's neck gently.

"My manager is sick tonight, someone needs to help out Tyler."

"Why does it always have to be you?"

"Because I own the place?"

Stephen pulled out a chair and looked into Todd's eyes.

"You know I try not to work more than I have to.  Tyler can't tend bar AND take care of the rest of the work as well.  We have several shipments coming in tonight, all of which has to be inventoried and Tyler can't do that if he's serving drinks.  You could see if someone would want to go to a movie tonight."

"Matthew and Marc are grounded until the cows come home.  Michael and Eric are celebrating their union
tonight.  Chris has to work.  So NO, I don't think I'll be going to any movie tonight."

He looked up, pleading.  "I COULD go to work with you."

Stephen was already shaking his head.  "Thanks, but no.  Why don't you just curl up in front of the tv here with a good movie?"

Todd slammed his hands down on the table and stood up quickly.  "BECAUSE its BORING as HELL!"

"HEY.  Unless you want your mouth washed out, cut the language."

Stephen stood up, putting his chair back under the table and pulled Todd to him for a hug.

"You know I'd rather spend the night with you but owning this business sometimes means I have to do a little extra.  I'll be home as soon as I can, and I promise we'll spend tomorrow together.  Will that do?"

Todd's words were muffled into Stephen's chest.  "I guess it'll have to.  Sorry for getting upset."

"It's alright."  Stephen pushed his hair back and kissed his forehead.  "I know you want the company.  But I don't want you sitting around in a bar.  No work you can do tonight?"

"Not until the meetings are finished about the new series."

"So why don't you have a bath, watch some tv and get an early night, hmm?  I'll come home as soon as the inventory's done."

"Promise?"

"Promise.  Eleven thirty at the latest.  By which time I expect to find you in bed with the light out.  Got that?"

"I'll go run that bath."  Todd stretched for another kiss.  Stephen lifted his chin, grinning.

"Try again sunshine.  Lights out and the bulbs COLD.  I'll check."

"If you're not here-"

"Todd."

"OKAY-"  Todd rolled his eyes, close to smiling.

"Eleven.  Promise."

"Cheeky."  Stephen swatted him gently and let him go.

"I've got to get ready, I'll see you later."

Todd headed upstairs.  He heard Stephen's call of goodbye and the front door shut a few minutes later.  Bored and somewhat lonely he got into the bath and tried to relax.  Without anyone even to talk to on the phone, the evening seemed long and very empty.  He toyed briefly with the idea of ringing Matthew, then abandoned it.

Stephen wouldn't be too happy if an irate Rolf complained to him.  There was nothing for it but the early night.

Stephen pulled into the back parking area of his restaurant and bar.  It looked like a packed house, several people were waiting out front for tables.  He locked the car door behind him and headed in the back entrance.

"Hi Stacy."

"Hey.  Didn't expect to see you tonight."  Stacy replied washing some of the piles of dishes.

"Didn't expect to be here myself.  Anthony's sick and we've got inventory coming in.  How are things going?"

"Fine.   Busy enough that I can't seem to get ahead of the dishes."  Stacy laughed as a busboy set down another tray.  "I still think paper plates would be better."

She winked at her boss.

"But then YOU would be out of a job and I'd miss that smile and laugh."

Stephen returned the wink and went into the kitchen area, Stacy's laughter ringing in his ears.

The smells were wonderful in the kitchen.

Stephen quickly did a cursory inspection of the area.

"Rebecca, get that can of cleaner put away.  If an inspector walked in right now that's an immediate ten points off the score.  And Theo, your drink should be in the break room, not on the counter please."

"Yes, sir."

Stephen walked on past the kitchens and went into the office to check on the schedule and menu for the evening  .It looked like it was going to be a good night.



*******



Todd stirred at the slam of a car door outside.  He jerked upright in bed, heart thumping and instinctively turned to Stephen.  Stephen's side of the bed was empty.  Todd glanced at the clock and his stomach tightened.  Three am.  His throat dried, his heart started to pound with shock.  Immediately he slid out of bed, heading for the answer phone – Stephen HAD to have left him a message – then the front door shut softly.  Todd snapped the light on and nearly fell downstairs, panic changing to anger.

"What time is this!  Do you KNOW how scared I was?  It’s the middle of the night-"

Stephen was very white, untidy, his shirt was stained and some of the stains were red.  Todd clutched at him and Stephen automatically put his arms around him, but he was shaking and his grip wasn't nearly tight enough.

"It's ok.  I'm sorry, I thought about calling-"

"What happened?"

"I didn't want to wake you."

Stephen let him go, took two slightly unsteady steps towards the kitchen then dropped onto the bottom step.

"Todd – can you bring some water here?"

"Steve?"  Todd's voice rose in panic, tears starting to sting.  Stephen glanced up with a serious effort.

"It's alright baby.  Just get some water and bring it here.  I'm fine it's ok."

Todd stumbled into the kitchen to get some water, his stomach churning in terror.  He barely managed to get a glass of water without dropping it, though he left a trail of water back to Stephen.  He handed the glass over, his hand shaking visibly.  Stephen took the water and drank gratefully, concentrating on making his hands NOT shake so as not to scare Todd any further.

Todd dropped to the ground, curling up as best he could to Stephen.  His normally robust and tan lover was white and shrunken now.

"Tell me.  Stephen, what happened?"

He couldn't keep the panic out of his voice.

Stephen let go of the glass with one hand and wrapped it around Todd, holding him as best he could.  Then he abandoned the glass on the steps above him and slid down on the floor, next to Todd, wrapping both arms around him and holding him tight.  He kept muttering that he was fine until he found the strength to speak.

"There....there was an incident tonight.  Two young men were drunk and started to fight – a knife-"

"A KNIFE?!?"  Todd shrieked, pulling at Stephen's shirt."  That's BLOOD!"

"It's OKAY Todd.  Shhh,  I'm fine.  It's not my blood, I wasn't there until after the boy was disarmed."

"You SAID it was an easy night, JUST inventory!"  Todd got to his feet, shaking and agitated past listening.  "You LIED to me!  How COULD YOU!"

Stephen wanted nothing more than to curl up and hide, let the events of the past few hours wash over and past him, but Todd was in the middle of a freakout and Stephen worked on putting his feelings aside for a moment, understanding what a shock this was for Todd.  Bad enough to scare him so badly by turning up so late, never mind covered in blood.

"Now stop."  He said in the steady tone that always pierced through Todd in screeching mode.  "It's alright, I'm fine, we can talk about it when you're calmed down a little."

"You turn up here, looking like THAT -  "Todd said, voice still wavering.  "You SAID-"

"I know what I said, thank you."

Stephen got up, taking the water glass with him, and held out his hand, clicking his fingers briskly.

"Come on.  You're going to go back to bed while I get washed, and then we'll talk this over."

That was the tone and expression Todd knew.  Relief made him break from shock into tears.  Stephen put the water glass down on the bookcase and pulled him close, hugging him tightly before he pushed him gently towards the
stairs.

"Straight up, straight into bed.  Go on, I'll lockup."

Todd moved automatically.  Feeling distinctly calmer at the familiarity of it, calmed by his own tone and Todd responding to it, Stephen locked the doors and followed him, stripping his shirt off and stuffing it in the laundry basket on the way out of Todd's sight.  Whatever else went on outside the house, here his priority was and was always Todd.  Nothing else outweighed him.  Remembering that in the light of what else he'd seen tonight, Stephen went into their room, nearly overwhelmed by his own feelings of tenderness and of establishing a sense of being centered.  He knew what to do, he knew what Todd needed and knowing it he was no longer tired or shaky or panicky.  He turned the overhead light on and put the lamp on instead, a quieter light, before he sat down on the edge of the bed.  Todd promptly scooted across to him, curling up with his head against Stephen's stomach.  Stephen stroked his hair, smoothing it back from his face and held him.

"Did you get the lights out on time?"

"Nearly on time."

"How nearly?"

"That doesn't matter now!"  Todd pulled away to see his face ,still white.

"What happened?"

"Just a fight, that's all.  They happen sometimes, and I had to deal with it."

"Who got hurt?"

"Just a kid.  And I asked you a question.  What time did the lights go out?"

"It was...11:45.  I had the tv on and they showed a clip of Robin Williams on the Tonight Show.  I wanted to see that," Todd finished quietly, the events of the evening not mattering nearly as much now that he was focused on Stephen and his reaction to that news.

"Well, young man, you can count on an early bed tomorrow night, and I don't want to hear a SINGLE complaint from you about it.  I can't be here every minute of the day, and I expect you to obey me when I tell you to do things
in my absence."

Todd ducked his head back into Stephen's lap without a word.

"Understood?"  Stephen prompted.

"Yes, sir," Todd muttered, sounding a little more sleepy.

"Let's get under the covers, and I'll tell you what happened."

Todd scooted over to his side of the bed and slid back down into the covers, curling up against Steve.

Stephen absently ran his fingers through Todd's hair and began to recount the evening.  From his tone it was like any of the other evenings they talked about when he came home.  He made it as unsensational as possible, a group of kids, one of whom drank a little more than he should have done.  The barman on duty had refused to serve him when he tried to order more drinks, an argument broke out and the kid's friends intervened.  A knife was pulled and one of the kids...

Stephen didn't reach that point   Todd was quiet against him, relaxing gradually.  Stephen leaned closer on impulse and kissed him, reminded of another kid who was in hospital, badly hurt tonight.  Had he buckled and allowed Todd to be in that bar – Stephen pushed that thought away and concentrated on what mattered.  Them.  Here.  Now.

"It's late, sweetheart, you shouldn't be awake now.  Move over, I'm going to get ready for bed and we're going to get
some sleep."

"Okay," Todd said sleepily.

Stephen got up and took a shower.  He tried as best he could to wash the memories of the night down the drain with the few spot of dried blood that remained on his chest.  He kept picturing the boy's look of fear as he had cradled him until the paramedics arrived, Tyler having disarmed and subdued the one that did the stabbing.  The paramedics said it looked pretty bad, that the boy might not make it.  After the boy was removed, the questioning went on for what seemed like forever.  There'd been so many officers, and questions, and investigators taking pictures of everything.  And once they finally left, Stephen, alone, cleaned up the mess.  He'd sent everyone else home, refused the help.  And while he was cleaning, he couldn't help but think of the repercussions that were going to take place. WOULD there be business in the future?  WOULD he be dragged into a lawsuit for serving beer to people that might have had a little too much to drink.  He fumed silently about the law that was recently passed, holding bar tenders somewhat responsible for the acts of their customers if they do something stupid after drinking too much.  And all the while, thanking the heavens above that he'd not allowed Todd to help
tonight.

The water running cold finally brought Stephen out of his musings and he rinsed the soap from his chest, surprised to find that he'd reddened the skin with the force he'd used.  He toweled off and slid into bed next to Todd, who was sound asleep.

Todd slept soundly. Stephen eventually gave up trying to sleep and lay listening to his breathing, deep and soft and steady.  He was grateful when there was enough light outside to get out of bed and head downstairs.  There were some drops of blood in the hallway that he hadn't noticed last night.  Stephen wiped them up and checked there was no other evidence in the hallway.  It was warm enough that he opened the back door and the windows, breathing in the dampness from the garden.  It helped.  Tired, head aching, stomach tight, Stephen stood in the doorway, making
a deliberate effort to relax.  The dishwasher was unemptied, the light still blinking.  Stephen stifled a smile in spite of himself.  Todd.  He turned the machine off and opened the door, making a mental note to remind Todd about basic household maintenance.  Again.  He opened the fridge and  began to take things out.  If he had the time –and the bar wouldn't open this morning – they could have the kind of breakfast that took serious effort.

He was in the process of cracking eggs into a bowl when he heard the unmistakable sound of the newspaper hitting the front porch.  After he fished out the shell he had dropped into the eggs, he rinsed his hands and went to get the paper.  As he suspected, the story was front page news.  He skimmed the article, his stomach twisting in horror at the picture showing the blood on the floor of his bar.  The article stated that the victim's condition was unknown at the time of printing.  He took the paper and laid it down under some others in the recycling bin, not wanting Todd
to see the carnage.  He sat down for a strong cup of coffee before getting up to finish making the breakfast.

Twenty minutes later he had everything nearly completed.  He climbed the stairs slowly, stepping into their bedroom.  Todd as sprawled sideways across the bed, the sheet barely covering one leg.  He went around to the side where Todd's head lay, gently brushing the mess of hair out of his eyes.

"Wake up sleepy head.  I have breakfast ready."

"Hmm?" Todd rolled over towards him, stretching, and smiled.  "Hi.  Wow, what are you cooking?"

"Breakfast, I told you."

"You don't usually cook midweek -" Todd broke off, remembering last night.  Stephen touched his face.

"The bar's going to be closed for a few days.  Which means I have all the more time and attention to put in around here.  Put a robe on, breakfast will be cold in a minute."

Todd rolled out of bed and grabbed for a robe.  "What are you going to do all day?"

"Garden.  Clean."  Stephen looked at Todd, eyebrows raised.  "Empty the dishwasher."

"I meant to-"

"Somehow that never works out though, does it?"  Stephen swatted him firmly as they headed for the stairs.  "How about instead of meaning to, you just do it?"

Todd rubbed the sting out of the swat.  "Ow, meanie.  If you haven't noticed, I don't wear Nikes."

"What does - oh.  You're a funny one this morning, aren't you?"  Stephen replied as they walked into the kitchen.

"I try,"

"Anything else needed?"  Stephen asked before sitting down.

"No, oh wait.  Jelly for the biscuits?"

Stephen got the jelly and sat down to eat.

"Last night?"  Todd said hesitantly, stirring eggs.  Stephen glanced up.  Todd swallowed.

"Is the kid okay?  I heard it on the radio upstairs-"

Damn.  Stephen put his fork down and put a hand out to cover Todd's.

"I don't know.  I'll ring the hospital this morning but there isn't much we can do.  He's in the best hands."

Todd nodded.  Stephen squeezed his hand.

"Try not to worry about it."

"Are you in much trouble?"

"No.  No, just that we need to cooperate with the police gaining evidence.  It's okay.  Eat, come on."

"I can't eat this much this early."

"Then try.  You never eat half enough breakfast."

"You fix enough for three people."

"Don't argue, eat," Stephen replied, taking a bite of his eggs.

Todd screwed up his face for a retort, but the look he got across the table caused him to skip that and begin eating.

Stephen ate a few more bites of food before he put his fork down.

Todd did the same and went to get up.

"Where are you going?"  Stephen asked.

"You look done, I think I'm done too."

"Sit down."

"Why?"

"NOW," Stephen said, his voice in the most warning tone.

Todd flopped back down.  "Why?" he ventured again.

"You need to finish your plate."

"But you aren't!"  Todd replied.

"I will, but that doesn't affect you," Stephen said.  He picked up his fork and began eating again.

Todd groaned inwardly, but soon finished what was on his plate.  He picked up his dish and placed it next to the sink."  I need to get ready for work."

"Yes, don't want you to be late.  But you're coming STRAIGHT home afterwards and finish the chores that should have been done yesterday."

Todd rolled his eyes skywards.

"You SAID have a good evening-"

"And clean."  Stephen caught his chin and kissed him.  "Five pm."

"Five thirty."

"Five."  Stephen snatched another kiss and let him go.  "What do you want for lunch?"

"I'll get something."

"No, what do you want to take?  I've got the time and it's better for you than the junk you buy.  Sandwiches?"

"Stepheeeeeeennnn...."

"Cheese?"

"Arg!"

"That's not a word."  Stephen said, grinning.  Todd ran upstairs, shaking his head.  Stephen made sandwiches, found fruit and found himself whistling, his mood lifting as he heard Todd clunking about overhead.

"There." He said when Todd came back down, suited and ready.  "Take a coat.  And some water."

"I like it better when you work!"  Todd complained.

"I know.  So I'm taking FULL advantage while I'm home.  Get used to it."  Todd grabbed a jacket and took his lunch and a bottle of water, shoving it into his briefcase.  He kissed Stephen quickly before running out the door.  "See you at five-thirty!"

Stephen caught the door on the rebound.  "Unless you want it to be the rest of the week, I'll see you at five."

Todd grinned and slid into the drivers seat, making sure to buckle the belt before turning on the ignition.  He backed out of the garage, waving as the door closed down.  He got to work fifteen minutes later, pulling out his lunch and tossing it behind him on the filing cabinet.  He dug around in his top desk drawer and found fifty cents, walked down the hall to the employee break room and bought a coke.  That was his wakeup call for the day.

He checked over his schedule and realized that he needed to review the news notes for the noon news.  He printed out the copy from the computer and began skimming it.  The first headline took his breath away.  "Young man in critical condition after stabbing at a local bar."

He read it quickly, picking up the many details Stephen had left out.  By the time he finished he felt faintly sick.  Stephen was – at best – over protective.  And tending to censor any information he thought might prove upsetting, mostly which Todd appreciated.  But he'd done himself proud this time.  Todd's eyes were stinging when he finished reading, and he picked the phone up, dialing rapidly.  Stephen answered, sounding distracted.

"Hello?"

"It’s me.  I just wanted to say hi."

"Did you make it into work on time?"

"Yes, of COURSE.  What are you up to today?"

"I was thinking about going outside and enjoy the sun, maybe mow the lawn."

"That sounds good," Todd said as he absently played with a pencil.

"I thought so, since that is one of your least favorite chores," Stephen said, laughing.

Todd wisely didn't say anything and hung up, feeling a little better that Stephen was still home and didn't sound like he was brooding or upset.

Stephen WAS busy fielding phone calls from everyone.  Before lunchtime, Rolf and Joseph called, both anxious and offering any support they could.  Eric was the last to call, and from his tone, knew all about the incident from the station.

"Hey Steve.  How are you holding up?"

"Not bad."  Stephen pulled out the kitchen chair and sat down.  The lawn was mowed to within an inch of it's life.  The house sparkled.  Todd's shirts were ironed to the point of standing up on their own.  It was something of a relief to have a fresh distraction.

"Have you heard anything about the kid?"

"I'm sorry Steve, that's why I'm ringing.  I'm afraid he died an hour ago.  We've just been notified."

"Ohno."  Stephen said softly.  Eric's voice was very gentle.

"I'm just coming off duty and Michael won't be home for hours yet.  Want some company?"

"No."  Stephen pulled himself together with an effort.  "No, I need to ring around the bar staff, make arrangements - we're going to have to stay closed until this is sorted out."

"I'm guessing you'll have to give a further statement."  Eric said gently.  "While the situation's under review.  I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault."  Stephen rubbed his eyes, very tired suddenly.  "He was only a kid, Eric.  Looked just like Todd and Michael used to when they were finishing college.  Just a boisterous, over hyped kid."

"You're sure you don't need some company?"

"Yes, but thanks," Stephen said, standing up.  "I do need to get things in order at the bar.  Shipments, people...."

"Call if you need anything.  I'm SERIOUS."

"Thanks.  Talk to you later."  Stephen hung the phone up, resting against the counter.  Dead.  The boy was dead.  He stood against the counter lost in thought until the phone rang again, startling him.

"Steve?  I just heard on the news.  He died."

"I know," Stephen said, pacing in his kitchen.

"What does that mean for us?"  Tyler asked, sounding more worried and upset.

"We'll have to give another statement as they continue to investigate.  I've got about three hours before Todd comes home, let's meet at the bar and see what we can do about the schedule."

"See you in fifteen then?"

"Yes," Stephen said, hanging the phone up.  As long as he had things to do, he was able to push the thoughts from his mind.  He grabbed his wallet and keys, checking to make sure the answering machine was on and headed over to the bar.


*****


Stephen was still locking his car when Todd pulled onto the drive.  He got out, eyes on Stephen standing on the doorstep and waiting.  He looked tired and strained and untidy.  Stephen was never untidy.  Todd dropped his jacket what and bag and walked straight into his arms, pushing his hair back.

"What?"

"Nothing.  Hi."  Stephen kissed him.  "I had a few things to sort out at the club."

"Like what?"  Todd demanded, letting him go.  Stephen touched his face.

"Just organizing things.  How was your day?"

"Fine.  Except I was worrying about you."

"Pick your things up."

Todd jogged back to lock his car.  Stephen opened the front door and headed through towards the garden.

"How about we barbecue tonight?  It’s the right weather, we can sit outside and eat."

"My God Steve what DIDN'T you polish?"  Todd dropped his jacket on the table and stared.

Stephen stopped at the door, turning around.  "I didn't polish EVERYTHING.  And I didn't empty the dishwasher," he finished pointedly.

"Okay. I get the message," Todd groused as he pulled down the door to the machine.  "And barbeque sounds good."

"I'll get the grill started then.  Get out of your work clothes before you come outside,"  Stephen said as he closed the screen door behind him.

Todd put the dishes away, grumbling the entire time.  He headed upstairs and took off his clothes and slid into shorts and a tshirt, grabbed some sandals and headed back downstairs, leaving the clothes on the floor.

He poured himself an iced tea, then looked in the pantry for something to eat.  Grabbing a handful of cookies and a paper towel, he headed outside to sit on the porch while Stephen worked his magic on the grill.

"Todd?  You can put those cookies away, dinner will be ready in under thirty minutes,"  Stephen said as he reassembled the cleaned grill.

"I just have a couple-"

"Put ALL of them back," Steve said as he passed by and held open the door for Todd.  "You know how I feel about eating before dinner."

Todd put his glass down a little harder than he needed to, and spilled a little tea.

Stephen gave him a long, warning look.

"Put the cookies back, right now, clean that up and think VERY carefully about pouting at me."

Todd pouted, but got up and went back to the kitchen.  There he ate one of the cookies for form's sake before he put the rest away.  Stephen was lighting the grill when he went back out.  Todd mopped up the spilt iced tea, watching his shoulders - hunched, quiet  .He realized after a minute that Stephen had no awareness he was there.  The realization made him feel as if he were miles away and suddenly very lonely.  Unable to stand it, he went across and wrapped his arms around Stephen's waist, laying his head against his back.  Stephen put a hand over his but otherwise didn't respond.  Todd hugged him a little harder, even more disturbed.

"Steve?  Do you want anything out of the freezer?"

"No, I'll get it."  Stephen gently disentangled him and went back to the kitchen.  Todd sat down on the steps, unhappy.

Stephen reemerged a few minutes later with a plate of chicken and some ears of corn for the grill.  He stepped around Todd and went to work, lost in thought.

Todd watched for a moment before he got up and walked back over to Stephen, circling his waist again with his hands.

"Sweetheart, I don't want you to get burned, and I need to move.  Have a seat on the porch."

Todd sighed and let go, wonderingly unhappily back to the porch.  He only sat there for a few minutes before going back inside.  He couldn't stand to see Stephen so quiet.  He quickly got the table set and started a sink of water for the dishes to be washed later, washing up the few that had already been used.

Stephen brought the plate of meat and corn in a minute later, doing nothing more than glance at the now immaculate sink and washed dishes.  Todd silently put two plates down on the table, sat and concentrated on being as quiet as possible while they ate.  The grill, as always, was done to perfection, but Todd still nearly choked on it.  At the end of the meal he rose and took the plates, clearing the debris and running the plates under water before putting them in the dishwasher.  Stephen didn't look round, eyes still fixed on the table, face impassive.  Even when Todd put a mug of coffee in front of him he did no more than glance up briefly, lips twitching just a little in what might have been a split second smile.

Todd wasn't up to more silence, so he headed upstairs and started cleaning.  He worked slowly, stopping every once in a while to listen for sounds of Stephen, but the house remained eerily silent.  Finally he couldn't stand the silence any longer, and went to find his lover.

When he entered the kitchen, he found Stephen in the same place, the newspaper spread out before him but looking untouched.  He walked around behind Steve's chair and hugged him.

"Want to go for a walk?" he asked quietly into Stephen's ear.

"Sure, baby," Stephen replied, blinking back to the present.

"I'll get my shoes."  Todd went over to the closet and pulled out his tennis shoes and slid his feet into them, anxious to get out of the house.  "Ready," he said, returning to the kitchen.

Stephen folded the unread paper up and put it in the pile with the others and grabbed his keys.  "Front door locked?"

"Yes," Todd replied, opening the side door.

The evening was warm and sunny and once outside, Stephen's hand automatically slid into Todd's.  Todd gripped it, feeling his tension ease a little.  They walked in silence to the end of the road and turned into the park, following their usual route towards the river.  Todd absentmindedly began to scuff at the leaves, kicking them out of the way, then cast a guilty look at Stephen as he realized what he was doing.  The usual lecture on damage to shoes and gutters was not forthcoming.  Stephen wasn't even looking.  Dispirited, Todd once more returned to walking meekly and quietly beside him.

When they neared the river, Stephen took a seat on their usual bench, overlooking the curve in the water.  Todd sat down beside him for a few moments, but couldn't stand the distance in his eyes, or the sad slump of the shoulders any longer.  He stood up and walked a little ways away.  He looked back and noticed Stephen was still lost in thought.

Looking back towards the river, he spotted the rock outcropping he usually sat on when alone.  Stephen wouldn't let him climb it when they were together.  He took one more look at Stephen and headed in that direction.  He slowly made his way out to the point, expecting at any moment to hear Stephen roar his disapproval.  When he got to his spot and sat down, he was seriously upset that Stephen hadn't even noticed him.  He turned around, finding Stephen still staring sightlessly at the river.

Todd pulled his legs up to his chin, wrapping his arms around them and laid his head down on his knees. He remained that way until he noticed something out of the corner of his eye.  When he moved his head in that direction, he saw a large spider about a foot away.  He let out a strangled yelp and quickly stood up, rocks being dislodged and clattering down the steep embankment and onto the rocky beach far below.  The rock under his left foot gave way, and he fell full-length on the outcropping, a loud scream ending when the wind was knocked out of him.

Stephen jumped up, his gaze quickly scanning the area in near abject terror, certain Todd's lifeless body was lying next to the river.  He spotted Todd standing up unsteadily, looking as if he were in one piece, still precariously balanced on the rocks.  His shout was loud enough to startle even himself as he started to run, heart thumping.

"TODD STAND STILL!"

Todd froze, head jerking up towards him.  Stephen hesitated at the foot of the rocks, checking them for a safe foothold before he braced himself against them and held out his arms.

"Come here.  Right now."

Todd moved unsteadily towards him and Stephen grabbed him by the waist, lifting him down to the grass.  There he made a hasty and thorough check of his partner, looking for any signs of breaks, bleeding or concussion.  There were two good scrapes, one along his forearm, the other on his knee from the fall.

"There was a spider-" Todd began, recognizing the look on Stephen's face which said if he wasn't worried how damaged Todd was, he'd be thoroughly swatted by now.  Stephen's Look made him trail off.

"You KNOW you're not allowed up there and I've told you exactly why!  You could have broken your neck up there!"

"I'm sorry-"

"What hurts?"  Stephen turned him around, running his hands over his ribs.  "Did you knock your head?"

"No-"

"Then we're going to walk back to the bench and sit there for a while until you're in a fit state to go home.  And when we do, young man, we are going to discuss why you couldn't remember you are NOT allowed upon that rock heap."

Todd hung his head and walked quickly over to the bench ahead of Stephen, trying not to favor his leg or his arm but wincing just the same.  He settled down, letting Stephen fuss over him until he was assured that he was going to live.

Ten minutes later when Todd had recovered some of his normal energy and color, Stephen stood up, holding out his hand."  Let's get back to the house and get those cuts cleaned."

"Yes, sir," Todd said quietly, sliding his hand into Stephens and standing up.  He tried dragging his feet a little, not interested in getting home anytime soon, but Stephen was walking with purpose.

"Unless you want to start our discussion on the side of the road, I suggest you walk with me," Stephen said conversationally.

Todd gave up and walked along without protest, noticing that Stephen was quite focused in the here and now, his shoulders no longer slumped.





_________________________________________________________________

They passed several neighbors on the way home, all of which were met with Stephen's usual nod and smile and the easy chat Todd often envied.  Part of him was reaching his usual pre-trouble stage of wishing Stephen would shut up and stop annoying him further.  But another part of him appreciated seeing him smile about anything.  It had to be better than the mood he'd been in all evening.

They reached home far too quickly for Todd's liking.  Stephen led him through to the kitchen, keeping a firm hold on his hand, and deposited him in the nearest chair while he took the first aid kit down from the shelf.

"Does any of that still hurt?"

"Sore like I've bruised it."  Todd conceded, looking down at his knee.  Stephen sat down beside him, antiseptic in hand and began to go over him calmly and gently, cleaning each scrape as he found it.  Despite himself, Todd began to relax, his jangled nerves soothed by Stephen's steady voice and hands.  Stephen took the longest to clean the cut on his knee as it was still bleeding, sluggishly but steadily, until finally Stephen sat back and pulled Todd out of his chair and into his lap where they could both relax while he put sufficient pressure over the cut to stop the blood.  Todd curled up against him, the scrapes stinging slightly from the antiseptic, but feeling warm and clean and cared about.

Once Stephen was sure the bleeding had stopped, he settled Todd back into the chair and bandaged the leg.  He dropped a couple of bandaids on the scrapes on the arms and put the first aid kit back on the shelf.  He settled against the counter, eyeing Todd sternly.  "Now WHY was it you're not allowed on that pile of rocks?"

Todd wriggled uncomfortably in his chair in the face of the stern look.  "Because I might get hurt?"  Todd said, nearly swallowing the last of his sentence.

"Very good, and exactly what happened tonight," Stephen said, eyes not wavering.

"But there was a SPIDER," Todd said in his defense.

"And you almost fell!" Stephen said as he stood up from the counter.  "Do you think it's going to help me any to be able to point the spider out to the police and emergency personnel and say 'It was his fault'? Do you think I can take that spider to court and get any sort of payment for my grief over your death or grievous injuries?"

Todd dropped his eyes, unable to handle the shame he felt. He absently started to pick at the bandage on his arm.

"Todd," Stephen said with authority.

Todd quickly dropped his hand and looked up with wide eyes.

"Those rocks are off limits. You knew that and chose to disobey me. Get upstairs and get ready for bed, I'll be up in a few minutes to help you remember to do as I say."

Todd headed upstairs, resisting the urge to pull a face. Upstairs, he dithered for a while, half debating turning the computer on and trying to mail Michael. Or Matthew. Matthew might be banned from computers but Todd - along with Michael and Chris- had a running book that that didn't slow Matthew and Marc up for long. The sound of Stephen headed upstairs made him abandon the idea in a hurry and dive into the shower.

Stephen heard the shower start as he reached the top of the stairs. He shook his head but decided not to drag him out of the middle of it. After the fall, a shower was exactly what was needed.

Todd used up all the hot water he could find before turning off the taps and getting out. He started a rough rubdown, but winced when he hit one of the scratches and slowed down. He heard one of the springs creak on the bed and his stomach flipped.

After brushing his teeth he finally opened the door, wishing he had thought to bring his pajamas into the bathroom with him. He headed towards the chair where they were, when Stephen's voice stopped him.

"You won't be needing those yet. Come here, please," Stephen said evenly.

Todd stopped and turned towards Stephen, his feet dragging on the carpet.

"I'm really sorry about the rocks."

"So am I," Stephen said, his hand outstretched. "It would make things a lot more pleasant if you learned to listen to me speaking, and not my hand."

Todd had the grace to blush, timidly holding out his hand to Stephen.

Stephen pulled Todd to him and bent him across his left thigh. He left his left hand across Todd's lower back raised his right up and delivered a series of stinging swats to Todd's white bottom.

The only sound in the room was the slapping of skin, and Todd's quick breathing. After about a dozen of the swats, Todd could no longer swallow around the lump that had formed in his throat and began sobbing, his hands curling in the comforter over the bed, his toes doing the same thing to the carpet. He tried shifting weight on his feet, but the swats still rained down mercilessly.

Just as Todd was about to start begging for the end, Stephen stopped.

Todd quickly stood up and buried his face into Stephen's neck, sobbing more from the embarrassment and shame than the pain, even though it DID hurt.

Stephen turned him around and pulled him into his lap, shifting them both backward until he could lean against the headboard. It took several minutes before Todd's sobs moved from 'it hurts' to 'you're mad at me'. Stephen palmed his smooth back in long, slow strokes, outlining his spine from neck to waist, feeling the shuddering under his hand gradually quieten. Todd shifted inside his other arm, not trying to get loose, just wanting to turn his face to breathe more easily.

"I'm sorry."

"I know." Stephen said softly, "It's allright, it's over now."

Todd didn't answer, turning his head more deeply into Stephen's shoulder.

"Here." Stephen said after a minute, reaching with Todd still locked against him for the abandoned pyjamas, "You're going to get cold, put these on."

"Nooooo..."

"Yes." Stephen said gently, pulling the t shirt over his head. Todd unwillingly let go and co operated, wincing and tears welling afresh when Stephen helped him into the shorts. Stephen didn't comment. Just kicked the quilt out of the way, held out his arms again and settled back, Todd deep in his arms, his lips against Todd's hair, and let Todd fall asleep that way.

Todd woke up only enough to roll over when Stephen slid out from under him and tucked him in. He was back asleep almost instantly.

Stephen went back downstairs and into the office. The flow of paperwork didn't stop, even if the bar was currently closed. After an hour of the boring stuff, he locked up downstairs and retired for the night as well.

Sunday came quietly, just the way both men preferred it. The birds started chirping outside in the trees, bringing them slowly to consciousness.

Todd rolled over and buried himself against Steve's side, savoring the warmth still there.

Stephen instinctively pulled Todd closer before he was even fully aware of what he was doing.

"Morning sweetheart,"

"Morning," Todd mumbled.

"Looks like the sun is up already. At least we don't have the rain that was forecasted," Stephen said as he stretched.

"It'll rain as soon as I'm ready to go outside," Todd said as he rolled over and stretched to fill every available inch of the bed.

"You were a cat in a previous incarnation." Stephen said, grinning. "Come here-"

Todd grunted at the tight hug Stephen gave him, then rolled to his feet, going to the mirror and slipping his shorts down enough at the back to see the colour of his skin.

"Not a mark." Stephen teased him, following with another gentle swat. "Get dressed and come downstairs, I'll sort out breakfast."

"It's Sunday morning!" Todd said, somewhat surprised.

Stephen raised his eyebrows. "Yes. So come straight down for breakfast please."

That was a little more authoritative for a usual Sunday morning, unless he was in trouble, but Todd knew the tone and didn't argue with it.

Stephen headed downstairs and set out some bacon and eggs and started some toast.

Todd took a few minutes to stretch while he had the full area of the bed, then sat up, rubbing his eyes. He wasn't sure what the day held as Stephen usually didn't have command performance breakfasts. He pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt, pulled some socks on and headed down as the smell of bacon began wafting up the stairs.

As he stepped into the kitchen, he wrapped his arms around Stephen's waist and leaned against him. "Smells good."

"Yes, it does. Why don't you pour some orange juice and I'll get this on the table."

Todd pulled two glasses from the cabinet and got the juice from the fridge, taking a swig before pouring it into the glasses.

"Todd!"

"Sorry," Todd said sheepishly, pouring the juice.

Stephen just shook his head and served the breakfast.

He was putting the plates on the table when he saw Todd's glass and frowned.

"Todd, that isn't enough to keep a flea alive. Try filling it up."

"I don't like this brand." Todd said mildly, "You have it, I'll make some coffee-"

"You need the vitamins."

"I don't LIKE it." Todd repeated, a little taken aback at the tone. Stephen held out a hand for the glass. Todd surrendered it, a little unsure of what Stephen intended. Stephen filled the glass to the top with juice and put it down on the table.

"Sit down and drink that. And I don't want to hear it. You need something decent inside you with all the junk you eat."

"WHEN do I get to eat junk???" Todd said indignantly, but under his breath. Unlike SOME people he knew, he didn't get to sit in an office and eat candy out of sight of the diet police. Stephen sat down opposite him and started to eat, watching him in a way that suggested he was going to be all over Todd if he didn't do the same. Obviously it was going to be one of THOSE days. Todd sighed and picked up his fork.

"What are we going to do today?"

"Clean. And get the garden under control." Stephen leaned back to glance out of the window. "Maybe think about washing the windows while we're at it."

SO typical, Todd reflected. A few days off work and were they used for a little R&R? OH no. Lets scrub the world clean and then polish it.

"I did say I'd call Michael..." he risked gently. Stephen didn't even rise to the bait.

"You have as much responsibility here as I do. You can call Michael this evening."

"We meant to go out." Todd pointed out. Stephen shook his head.

"You don't need to go anywhere today."

"I didn't do anything except fall off some rocks!" Todd said hotly. Stephen glanced up at him in surprise, then put a hand out to stop his banging his fork down.

"Sweetheart I know. I'm not mad at you, its okay. I promise."

"Then WHY can't I go? This is the weekend for goodness sakes, I'd like some time to play!"

"You usually have time to play, but I'm going to be home instead of working, and that's the best time to get some of these larger chores done. Michael will be able to go during the week or next weekend."

"But I --"

"That's enough. Finish your breakfast." Stephen got up and carried his plate over to the counter and started filling up the sink to do the dishes.

Todd sat back, huffing with disgust.

"Todd..." Stephen said warningly, turning around.

"WHAT?" Todd exploded, standing up. "What NOW? What ELSE does Your Highness require?" Todd said, shaking with anger. Stephen's eyebrows rose, along with his finger, directed at the patch of kitchen floor directly in front of him.

"Here. NOW."

Todd hesitated. Stephen's voice sharpened.

"NOW."

Todd moved, unwillingly. And found himself steered to the sink, where he watched a bar of soap being lathered up.

"I'm sorry," he managed before the soap reached his mouth, "I didn't mean it, it just isn't fair! I haven't done anything awful, you DON'T need to be all over me like this, I don't understand what you're mad about!"

"Right now, about you speaking to me in that tone of voice, never mind that language." Stephen said sternly. "Open."

Todd glared at him, eyes full of tears, partly of distress, partly of fury. Stephen saw them and slowed down, quietening his voice.

"Todd. How ever upset you are with me, is it okay to speak to me like that?"

He waited. Eventually Todd shook his head. Stephen's voice was still calm.

"Do I speak to you like that?"

Todd shook his head again, not looking at him. Stephen put a hand under his chin.

"Does it help anything to be rude or unkind, especially between the two of us?"

Todd shook his head once more, eyes really full now. Stephen tapped his shoulder.

"Open please."

Todd shut his eyes as Stephen put the bar of soap into his mouth and moved slowly towards his allocated corner.

The first few minutes of standing with the soap in his mouth weren't bad, but before too long the soap flavor worked it's way around his mouth, and the spit worked its way around the bar. He wanted to cry at his predicament but knew that would only make the situation worse. He cupped his hands, trying not to make a mess, and moaned at Stephen as if to say "get this out".

Stephen let him stand there for ten minutes, finishing up the dishes from breakfast. "Come here."

Todd turned and walked quickly to the sink, wanting to spit the bar out but waiting for Stephen to grab it. As soon as Stephen had the bar, Todd started spitting furiously into the sink, trying to get the flavor out of his mouth. Eggs weren't his favorite food, but combined with soap he decided he'd never again run his mouth at breakfast time.

Stephen ran a small amount of water into a glass and handed it to Todd, who took it and drained it in one gulp, swishing it for all he was worth.

"That's enough." Stephen took a paper towel and handed it to Todd, who used it to wash his face and then spit into it two or three times more, before Stephen confiscated that.

"Go upstairs and get your jacket and old jeans on. We'll start in the garden now while it's still cool. NO WATER," he reprimanded as Todd ran up the stairs.

At the top of the stairs, out of sight, Todd paused and angrily wiped at the tears gathering. It took several minutes of standing, breathing hard and swallowing hard before he could go into the bedroom and start dressing. The phone beside the bed rang while he was fumbling his way into jeans, and he sat down to answer it, trying to keep his voice steady.

"Hello?"

"What's up?"

"Matthew. You're nuts, I thought you were grounded until the next millenium."

"I laugh in the face of danger. And Rolf's mowing." Matthew sounded cheerful, as he usually did when he was tightrope walking. "What's the matter? You sound......"

"Stephen is being an ass. I just finished eggs a la Dove. And I don't mean chocolate."

"MMmmmmm, makes me feel lucky today. Thanks!"

"Dumbass. What ARE you doing?"

Matthew sighed. "I'm fucking ass bored - to - death! I'm tired of reading. I'm tired of puzzles. I want a tv, a computer, Nintendo - shit, I've got to go. Bye!"

Todd didn't even get the chance to say bye before he heard the dial tone. He finished putting on his clothes, his mind momentarily off his own troubles and hoping that Matthew was quick enough not to get caught. He headed downstairs.

"Who was that on the phone?" Stephen asked as Todd rounded the corner.

Todd nearly choked. "God, you don't NEED to scare me!" he said, looking up at Stephen.

"Sorry, didn't know you were jumpy today. Who was it?" he asked again.

"Just a wrong number. Some guy trying to reach the Randolph residence. Didn't quite take no as an answer," Todd lied smoothly, wanting in no way to add to Matthew's or his own troubles.
"Ready to get started?"


*************


"DON'T mow there you'll hit a rock. Come AWAY from those bushes, they're thorned. Have a drink, it's hot out here, you'll get dehydrated. LEAVE those tiles, you're not safe climbing the ladder. Wash that scrape NOW, and I'll put disinfectant on it, and a band aid, you can get tetanus from getting earth in cuts. Take a nap, you've been working hard all morning. Nap indoors, it's too bright out here and too noisy, you won't rest."

By lunchtime, Todd was seriously considering going insane. Stephen ought to have lost his voice by now. He wasn't snappy either: patient, interested and supervising every breath Todd took and every inch of earth he touched.

Somewhere during the debate on the nap, Todd's temper snapped. There were a few shouted comments, one hurled spade and Stephen manhandled him up the back steps into the kitchen, shutting the door behind them.

He was straightening the still immaculate kitchen when the phone rang half an hour later. Stephen picked it up quickly, mindful of Todd who was asleep and still sniffling faintly on the sofa in the darkened living room.

"Hello?"

"It's Rolf. How are things?"

Stephen pulled out a chair at the table and sat down. "Not bad. Someone I know is being a bit of a handful, but that's nothing new when there's gardening to be done."

"That sounds familiar. I have it on good authority that things weren't going too well today."

Stephen frowned for a moment, confused, then groaned. "Yours or mine?"

"Matthew. Apparently bored with lack of contact."

"That didn't take long," Stephen said, shaking his head.

"No, but then it never does. I may be assuming incorrectly, but the only thing I can think of is that he was missing me for those few minutes he was out of my sight," Rolf said, chuckling.

"I'll bet he'll get enough of you for the next couple of days anyway."

"Probably entirely too much, but we'll get through it. Speaking of too much time together, you are still planning on the weekend at the cabin, aren't you?"

"I'm not entirely sure," Stephen responded, sitting back. "Even with the bar closed down, there's still endless paperwork that needs to be done, the attorneys are --"

"What is the latest news from Joe?" Rolf interrupted. "I thought you were free to re open from what he told me."

"Not exactly. I don't want to re open until the inquest is done. They're probably going to press charges."

"Steve there's no reason why they should. You know that," Rolf said gently. "You did nothing wrong, the bar did nothing wrong."

"But they can charge us for allowing the kid to get drunk on the premises. He was so young."

"What are you and Todd doing for dinner tonight?" Rolf said matter of factly. Stephen rubbed his eyes, glancing through the doorway.

"Todd's pretty unsettled by all this- we're having a rough few days, he's needing a lot of attention right now. I think we're better off staying home and taking the time alone together."

"I can understand that. Matthew probably shouldn't be left alone tonight anyway. But you DO need the weekend away, both of you. Use the next few days to reconnect with Todd, then take a few days off with the rest of the gang. Then I think you need to come back and think about re opening."

"Yes, you're probably right. The weekend away will be nice before getting back into the groove. I'll talk to Todd about not speaking to Matthew if he tries to call again."

"Thank you, though I hope my discussion with Matthew cleared up that particular issue," Rolf said.

"I'm sure it did for the immediate future," Stephen said, laughing.

"Take care," Rolf said before hanging up.

Stephen replaced the phone in the cradle and looked in on Todd, who still seemed to be resting. He headed back to the kitchen to figure out what they were going to have for dinner.



********************



Todd came home from work on Monday, finding Stephen at work in his office. After changing into his sweat pants and favorite shirt, he headed back down to find out what was for dinner. After finding nothing started in the kitchen, he headed back into the office.

Wrapping his arms around Stephen's neck and planting a kiss on his cheek, he asked, "What's for dinner?"

Stephen was in the middle of a stack of paperwork for the business. He had shuffled some papers over the pictures of the bar after the stabbing, blood stains clearly visible, that he had been looking at before Todd came home.

"Hello Steveo, anyone home?" Todd asked again when Stephen didn't answer right away.

Stephen pushed the papers away with an effort and turned the chair around.

"Hello sweetheart. Sorry."

"What's that?" Todd asked, peering over his shoulder. Stephen swept the papers into the folder and filed them.

"Just accounts. How was your day?"

Todd shrugged, all enthusiasm ebbing out of him. Stephen looked tired. And grim. And shuttered.

"Okay."

Usually Stephen would have asked further. Now it was obvious he was barely listening; he accepted that without a word. Just got up and headed for the kitchen.

It was spotless again. Todd wandered around it, watching Stephen silently produce a perfectly cooked meal, without even a suggestion that he change out of his rattiest shirt. Todd opened the fridge, peered at it and shut it again. Opened the back door, peered out, and shut it on the cold draught that entered. Then got a beer out from the cellar. Stephen sat down at the table and picked up his glass without comment. Todd pulled his chair out, sat down and ripped the top off the beer bottle.

Todd poked around with his food, before finally giving up and just eating. He was hungry, and Stephen cooked a good meal. He kept watching Stephen, and tried a time or two to get a conversation going, but Stephen remained distant and quiet.

Halfway through dinner, Todd got up to get a second beer. Again, nothing was said. At the end of the meal, Todd got up and silently cleared the table, stacked the dishwasher and tidied up around Stephen who sat where he was, staring into his glass. And still there was not a word. Todd took the hint, slipped away and lay on the bed upstairs to watch tv, fighting the selfish urge to cry. This was not Stephen's fault, he was obviously weighed under with problems and Todd's place was to help him- not make things worse by demanding attention just because he felt left out.

He tried changing channels but couldn't find anything on. Finally totally frustrated, he flipped it off and headed downstairs. He went into the office and turned the light on, settling at the desk and computer. As long as Stephen was in a coma in the kitchen, he could get online and at least maybe have some luck finding someone to chat with.

He waited a few moments as the computer made its various connections and signed into his instant messenger. As he expected, neither Matthew or Marc was online, but Michael seemed to be.


Hottoddy: Buddy, you around?

Michaelobe: Yeah. What's up?

Hottoddy: Thought I'd see who won the bet on Matthew and Marc. Seen 'em around?

Michaelobe: No, I haven't. You?

Hottoddy: Matthew called yesterday while Rolf was mowing, but nothing on computer.

Michaelobe: He's crazy. You going this weekend?

Hottoddy: I HOPE so! Stephen needs some time away, he's thinking too much about the bar.

Michaelobe: Eric said things were finished at the bar as far as he knew. Opening again soon?

Hottoddy: I don't know. He's always doing paperwork, but he hasn't gone back over there that I know of. If only he would, when he's here he's either lost in thought or all over me!

Michaelobe: It's going to be quiet at the lake without Matthew and Marc.

Hottoddy: No, it's going to be quiet at the lake without Rolf. LOL

Michaelobe: LOL His voice does tend to carry, doesn't it? LOL LOL

Todd was going through the files on the desk, looking for a pencil and piece of paper to doodle on when Stephen walked in.

"What are you doing?"

Todd jumped and turned around. "Just talking to Michael, why?" he asked defensively.

Stephen crossed his arms and LOOKED at Todd. "Don't you have some chores that need to be completed before you play?"

"It's not like the trash will get up and walk away in the next fifteen minutes!" Todd spat.

Stephen yanked him out of his chair in one clean swipe and swatted him hard towards the kitchen.

"Do NOT use that tone of voice to me. Go do it NOW."

Todd moved, scowling. Stephen sat down, flicked hurriedly through the files and found to his flooding relief that Todd had not managed to find the picture. He locked them safely away in his drawer, turned the key and pocketed it before he turned the screen towards him.

Michaelob: Hello?

Michaelob: Hi?

Michaelob: Anyone oooooooooooooout theeeeeeeeeeeeeeere?

Hottoddy: Todd says goodbye.

Stephen typed it in and broke the connection. Todd slammed the kitchen door and Stephen shut down the computer, heading after him.

The garbage was being put out with vigour and scowling. Stephen, still caught up in the rush of adrenaline from one horrible moment of finding Todd rifling through his papers, opened the door and snapped across the driveway,

"Put that up against the wall, properly, and get yourself back in here."

"I didn't DO anything but talk to Michael!" Todd snapped back. Stephen held the door open, waiting for him.

"Since when do you sort through my papers? Do I sort through your brief case? Do I go through your private papers?"

Todd flushed. "I wasn't looking for anything other than something to draw on!"

"DO I sort through your private papers?" Stephen repeated. Todd flushed still more darkly.

"No sir."

"Exactly. NOR do you use my computer without permission, you KNOW the chances are it's set up in the middle of the accounts programme and MSN crashes it. If you need reminding of that, I can do it. For a start, the stairs need hoovering, then you can polish all the woodwork in the livingroom, skirting boards and all. Jump to it." Stephen stood aside, waiting. Todd's pout could have enabled the serving of soup from his lower lip, but he moved.

Stephen didn't move out of sight or earshot the entire time Todd was engaged in polishing. Every time Todd went to say something or stop, Stephen was clicking his fingers or making grunting noises, or worse yet, threatening bodily harm. It was nice to see Stephen out of his stupor, but this constant breathing down his neck was about to drive him insane.

When Todd had the wordwork polished perfectly, Stephen looked pointedly at his watch. "Head on upstairs and get a bath."

"It's only 9:30!" Todd said heatedly.

"And you're in need of an early night. Go on."

"So my night is DONE?!? I can't --" Todd stopped yelling when Stephen started advancing towards him.

"But that's not fair," he finished on a whine, backing towards the stairs.

"It can get a lot less fair if you don't get upstairs right now," Stephen said, swatting Todd efficiently towards the stairs.

Todd went to stomp upstairs but thought better of it as the handprint on his backside was stinging fiercely.


He ran a bath, muttering savagely at the mirror throughout, until it dawned on him that things were quiet downstairs again. No tv. No music. No sound of the computer working. Just quiet. Stomach tightening, Todd moved into the doorway of the bathroom and listened.

"I thought you were having a bath?" Stephen's voice said sternly from the foot of the stairs.

"I don't WANT a bath." Todd said automatically. And bolted for the safety of the water as Stephen's footfall headed upstairs. Stephen stayed in the vicinity of the bathroom for the next ten minutes, making several threats to bathe Todd himself if the mutters and splashing didn't stop, and to see it was a less than pleasant experience. Ten minutes later, he pulled the covers over Todd and shut the light off, pulling the curtains closed. Todd rolled over, knocking the pillows off the far side of the bed onto the floor. And looked back at Stephen with large eyes.

"It was an accident, I just stretched."

"I'll stretch you in a minute, go to sleep."

Stephen retrieved the pillows. Todd kicked the quilt off his feet and caught the Look of Certain Death, but Stephen put on the nightlight on his side of the bed, sat down and picked up a book. He was obviously going to stay around. Todd lay back, but concentrated on keeping the look of mutiny clearly visible. Stephen settled back with his book, and a few minutes later absently tangled a hand in Todd's hair, petting gently. Todd relaxed a little further, reassured, and began to think about letting himself fall asleep.


He woke early, stomach tight, mouth dry without any real understanding of what the matter was. Stephen was asleep beside him. At some point he'd clearly gone for a shower and undressed; Todd hadn't noticed him leaving. The clock by the bed stood at five am. Todd lay still for a moment, wrestling with an impulse that didn't really have words or logic to it, then slid out of bed and headed downstairs. The tv at this time of night showed only garbage anyway, but the volume always had to be VERY low not to wake Stephen who had a third ear for people watching tv during the night. Todd left the volume at it's usual setting and settled on the sofa, heart thumping. Within a minute and a half, Stephen came down stairs, blinking and with his hands planted on his hips.

"BED. NOW."

Todd shook his head, giving Stephen the most appealing look he could.

"I can't sleep."

"Then you stay in bed and rest, it's the middle of the night. Move."

Todd switched the tv off and went to Stephen's outstretched hand, dragging his feet up the stairs until Stephen swatted him to get him moving.

Actually, it was morning. This was just an early start.

Todd had unknowingly figured out that when he was keeping Stephen busy, Stephen didn't slip into the quiet and reflective moods that he had been in since the accident. Over the next couple of days, Todd played the dangerous game of cat and mouse. He tried to do just enough to gain and keep Stephen's attention, without crossing the line into serious punishment or restrictions. There were a time or two he thought maybe he'd stop when Stephen had given him a few well placed swats, but as soon as Stephen went quiet, Todd couldn't stand it and did something else. Finally it was Friday morning and time to head to the lake.

"Do you have everything packed?" Stephen asked, checking the truck for the hundredth time.

"YES," Todd said, more than ready to get on the road. He'd been able to stop by the store on the way home from work the previous day and load up on some chocolate and coke, which he had stored carefully in his back pack in the front seat. "Can't we go NOW?"

"There isn't a rush to get there," Stephen said, going back into the house to make sure things were situated for leaving.

Todd sighed dramatically and settled on the steps, eating one of the candy bars while he waited. When he heard the door open, he stuffed the wrapper in the bag and stood up. "Ready now?"

"Yes, I think we're all set. Go on in and use the bathroom before we go."

"I don't HAVE to," Todd said, already half way to the truck.

Stephen was holding the door open. "TODD." He waited until Todd turned around. "Go on, I'm not stopping five miles down the road."

Todd dropped his bag and stomped back towards the house.

"Sometime before Christmas would be nice." Stephen said politely.

The journey was long, and Todd kept an anxious eye on Stephen, fidgeting with his seat belt and the radio and the door locks until Stephen threatened to pull over if he didn't chill out. The windows went up and down like yoyos, the fan heater went on and off, the music grew louder and softer by turns as they bickered over the volume control.

Finally Todd reached into his bag and pulled out a coke and candy bar. He had barely gotten the lid unscrewed when Stephen held his hand out.

"I don't remember packing that. Hand it over, you don't need all that sugar right now."

Todd pulled away. "It's just a little coke! I'm thirsty!"

"No," Stephen said clearly.

Todd took a quick drink, and nearly spit it back up when Stephen slowed and pulled over on the side of the road. He quickly screwed the lid back on and pushed both items at Stephen. "I'm sorry, here!"

Stephen got out of the truck and shut his door, walking around the front end.

Todd lost all desire for coke and chocolate and tried to melt into the seat.

Stephen opened the truck door and grabbed Todd's bag. He took the candy bar and coke and put them back in the bag, then tossed the bag in the back seat, while Todd tried to decide if shutting the door was a good idea.

Stephen shut the back door, then Todd's door and went back around to the drivers side and got in, started the truck and went back to driving.

It took Todd several miles to swallow the lump in his throat and feel comfortable that he wasn't about to be killed. It was only about twenty more miles to the lake, and he just pretty much stayed silent, as Stephen wasn't acting calm, cool and collected.

Stephen turned off on the final road, followed that for several miles before finding the driveway to the cabin. He pulled in alongside Joe's truck and parked.

Everyone on the porch got up and headed down to help the new arrivals, Michael and Chris bounding out first, to welcome Todd.

"Todd, I want you to go straight inside to our room," Stephen said as he opened the truck door.

Todd jumped out, Stephen's comment taking a moment to register. "WHY?!? We JUST got -"

"NOW!" Stephen said sharply, pointing.

Todd ran inside, ignoring everyone else. "YOU ARE SO MEAN!" The door slammed behind him loudly.

Chris and Michael went back to the porch, talking between themselves.

"Steveo, everything alright?" Joseph asked as he reached in to help unload the truck. Stephen gave him an expressive grimace.

"Just a friend of mine in a truly wonderful mood. How was your drive down?"

"Fine, we seemed to stay ahead of the traffic on the way out of town. The new bypass is a nightmare and a half."

"I can imagine, I've seen the comments in the papers."

"It's all true. I blame the police of course."

Eric, who had sauntered across to help, grinned but said nothing, heaving the last of the backpacks out of the truck and taking it over to the porch. Then he waved to Michael, signalling him over.

"I'd guess we've got an hour or so to swim-"

He didn't need to ask twice. Chris promptly moved as well and Eric followed them, leaving Joseph to give Stephen one last, slightly wary look. He'd had a phonecall from Rolf earlier this week, one that outlined several hunches and insights that Joseph was beginning to think were well founded.

"We'll leave you two in peace for a while. Give us a shout when you start to get hungry."

"He'll settle down." Stephen said easily. "He's had a tough week."

Joseph raised his eyebrows slightly at that, but headed for the lake without comment.

Todd was curled up on the couch before the empty cabin hearth, visibly smouldering. Stephen shut the door behind him, went over and pulled Todd to his feet, taking a seat in front of him.

"Drop those jeans."

Todd's stomach plummetted and his mouth dried as his suspicions were bluntly confirmed.

"I was thirsty!"

"And there was plenty of water. What did I say about the coke?"

Todd's lip slipped out and he stared at the floor. Stephen took his hand and gave him a shake.

"Todd."

"I don't know, I didn't hear you!"

"Then let me help you with your hearing." Stephen said exasperatedly, pulling Todd closer and unbuttoning the jeans. "I said NO. Which MEANS No. Which is NOT up for discussion or negotiation, it MEANS no. And you do NOT smuggle junk food into the car when you're depending on me having my hands too full with driving to be able to stop you."

Todd's eyes filled with tears as Stephen pulled him down over his lap and his shorts followed his tugged down jeans. A hard and well placed smack made the tears overspill.

"IS THAT CLEAR?"

"Yes." Todd choked out.

Stephen let his hand fall again. The sound of the spank was almost defeaning in the silence of the cabin. All too soon those gunshot like sounds were joined by sobbing, then outright crying as Todd could do nothing but accept the spanking.

When Stephen had finished the assault on Todd's backside, he clambered up and quickly pulled his pants into place before diving into Stephen's neck. It was natural that when the gang got together that spankings would happen, but Todd hated that it was him that started off the weekend. He sulked for a long time against Stephen, who sat and just petted Todd absently until he calmed down.

"Let's go bring our stuff in, and then start on dinner?" Stephen asked when Todd had been silent for a while.

Todd pulled away and nodded, still not happy. He trailed Stephen outside.

"It's gorgeous weather out here. I'm thinking tomorrow will be picture perfect for some time on the water," Stephen said, grabbing a couple of bags from the porch.

"I guess," Todd said, taking a couple of bags and following Stephen inside and to their room. They then picked up a couple of boxes of food and brought that inside and put it away in the kitchen.

"Steaks sound good? Corn on the cob? Potatoes?"

"Yeah," Todd said, opening a bag of chips.

"Take some out and put the bag away," Stephen said as he pulled some ingredients from the fridge.

Todd grabbed a paper plate and dumped some chips out and tossed the bag back onto the counter and was going to head to the porch.

"I could use some help here. Cut an onion please? And help with the corn and the foil."

Todd was still trying to sulk, but Stephen didn't give him a chance, and when Todd realized that Stephen was actually a lot more chipper and talkative, he slowly loosened up. In just twenty minutes they had everything ready to go on the grill for everyone and Todd had recovered most of his good humor, thanks to Stephen's incessant chattering while preparing the food.

"Head on out and ring the bell for the gang. I'll get the grill started."

Todd nearly skipped outside to the bell and rang it forcefully several times. He could just barely make out the war hoop of Chris when the bell stopped clanging. He went over to the porch swing and settled down, albeit slightly uncomfortably, and watched as Stephen started the grilling process and waited for the gang to make it up the hill.

Michael and Chris arrived some way ahead of their partners, Chris as usual moving like a bat out of hell once he reached open ground. He swung up onto the porch rail ahead of Michael and grinned, an expression which wrung a smile out of Todd.

"You're nuts."

"Nah, just fast. Feel up to swimming later?"

"No one's swimming." Stephen said without turning around. Chris shrugged.

"Joseph said we would- it won't get dark until nearly ten."

"Well Todd's not swimming then." Stephen said calmly.

"WHY?" Todd demanded, startled. Stephen shifted corn onto plates.

"Because I don't like you swimming after heavy meals."

"Chris said LATER."

"And I said no." Stephen said, unrattled.

Chris and Michael exchanged glances. Obviously their friends were still in the middle of something and they knew from experience the last thing Todd would want right now was witnesses. Chris muttered something about washing and the two of them slipped out of sight into the cabin.

"WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?" Todd said, standing up. "All this over a stupid fucking coke?"

"Come here," Stephen said, turning around.

"Forget it!" Todd said, jumping off the porch and heading towards the path to the lake.

Just then Joe and Eric came though the trees.

"TODD COME HERE!" Stephen said as he put the plate of food down.

Eric caught Todd. "Hey, hey. That isn't going to help."

Joseph went on up to the porch, putting a hand on Stephen's shoulder. "Give it some time. Let's get dinner eaten before it gets cold."

Stephen looked at Joe, then at Todd who had settled in the grass, his head on his arms, Eric bending down next to him. He took a steadying breath and then turned to get the food off the grill. Joseph followed to help him.

"Let's get on up to the cabin and get some of that food before there isn't any left," Eric said gently.

"I'm not hungry," Todd replied.

"I know you and Stephen are having a bit of a hard time right now. You don't really want to ruffle his feathers any more by refusing to eat, do you?"

Todd shrugged.

"I know you better than that. Come on." Eric pulled Todd's hand up.

Todd got up, looking up at the porch to see if Stephen was standing there, waiting to yell.

"We'll eat, and after dinner we'll worry about anything else." Eric wrapped his arm around Todd and gave him squeeze, then walked with him up to the cabin. Todd walked with him slowly, reassured by the calm tone. The way Stephen usually spoke to him when he was in a state. Except Stephen was still scowling. Eric caught Joseph's eye and saw a faint shrug. Chris and Michael, moving the long way around the grill to sit as far away as possible, looked equally uncomfortable. Still keeping hold of Todd, Eric steered him towards the swing seat and sat down, using his weight to move the swing gently.

"How about a walk after dinner instead?"

"You said we could swim!" Michael said indignantly. Eric gave him a quick look of 'please?'.

"It might be nice to find something to do that we can all do together."

"Todd take your feet off the seat." Stephen said mechanically. Todd swung his feet down and hunched up in the corner of the seat, scowling still more fiercely.

"And take that look off your face." Stephen added more sharply.

"FINE, I'll take my face right away shall I?" Todd snapped back, ducking out from under Eric's arm. The door slammed behind him. Stephen swung around, about to follow him, and Eric caught his arm before he reached the door.

"Mike, take those things off the grill and you and Chris go back to the lake. NO swimming until Joe or I get there. Clear?"

Michael murmured a response, grabbed Chris's arm and Chris followed him at a nod from Joseph.

"Why don't you two go for a walk, or better still YOU swim and relax a bit, hmm?" Eric said calmly, still holding on to Stephen. "I'll make sure Todd's okay."

"He's not, he's under a lot of stress." Stephen said angrily. "I knew I should have kept him at home-"

"You're the one under stress and he's very likely just reacting to that. They don't like us off balance. Do they?"

Stephen shook his head slowly. Eric squeezed his shoulder and let go.

"Go on. The best thing you can do is cool off and calm down. I'll settle Todd down. You both need a break. Start again in the morning when you've both had time to rest."

Stephen knew he was outnumbered and started down towards the tree line with Joseph.

Eric went inside to find Todd.

"Won't you just lea --" Todd put his head back down on arms when he realized it wasn't Stephen. He was lying full length and face down on the couch.

Eric moved over to the couch and settled on the edge, one hand on Todd's shoulder. "Things are a little on edge, aren't they?" Eric said gently.

Todd's only response was a snort of laughter.

"Sit up and talk to me, hmmm?"

"No," Todd said, the pout in his voice clearly evident.

"Come on. It helps if we can talk face to face," Eric said, pulling up a bit on Todd's shoulder.

Todd heaved a great sigh, but sat up and curled into the far corner of the couch.

Eric settled back and took his hand. "Stephen's having a hard time with the events at his bar, isn't he?"

Todd nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

"He's distant and distracted some days?"

Todd nodded again.

"And when he isn't, he's concentrating only on you."

Todd couldn't help it and the tears overflowed. He didn't put up any resistance when Eric pulled him close and held onto him, and he let the sobs wash over him. Eric rubbed his back slowly, massaging the tenseness there and letting him cry himself out. He had every sympathy for both partners: this was a hard situation for Stephen and Todd couldn't help but be affected.

"I can't do anything right." Todd sobbed out eventually. "He gets mad at me if I breathe or he doesn't know I'm there-"

"Yes he does, he always knows you're there." Eric said quietly. "He's got a lot on his mind, a lot hanging over him, he must be very stressed."

"I KNOW THAT! I'm trying to HELP!"

"I know you are sweetheart, I'm sure you're the best help he has to deal with this." Eric said gently. "And it must be just as hard for you trying to work out what he wants from you and coping with things being different. That's not your fault and it's not his fault either. Stephen's trying to deal with too much to be able to be consistent- and it's unfair on you to try and cope with inconsistency-"

"He doesn't mean to!" Todd said angrily, snapping to Stephen's defence. Eric shifted him more comfortably in his arms and went on stroking his back.

"I know he doesn't. Its one of the risks you take in this kind of relationship- when you hit a crisis like this, the two of you are so intertwined it's going to put you both under a lot of strain."

"I don't know what to do to help." Todd said softly and miserably, subsiding back into Eric's neck. Eric hugged him tightly.

"You ARE helping him, you're the one that's there with him every day. And if things get hard you've got me, Joseph and Rolf to talk to, we all understand you two are under a lot of pressure. You can come and let off steam to us whenever you need to if you don't want to let it out to Stephen. This isn't going to go on forever. Once the bar reopens and things settle down you'll both be fine again. Its just waiting until the water calms a bit."

Todd nodded slowly against his neck. Eric eased him gently to his feet.

"You look exhausted. How about I get you something quick to eat and get you settled down for the night? You can get some peace and quiet before the hordes turn up and start fighting over the bathroom."

That sounded an inviting idea: Todd realised his head was pounding and he was more than ready to lie down. Eric helped him upstairs, fed him a sandwich, a glass of milk and a couple of Tylenol and finally left him under the covers, dozing in the gathering dusklight that came through the curtains, calmer and somewhat reassured.

Down at the lakeside, Stephen was sitting drying himself off on the edge of the dock, Joe a few feet away reading and keeping half an eye on Chris and Michael who were messing about in the shallows in the last of the evening sun. Stephen looked up quickly as he heard Eric, eyes anxious.

"Wouldn't he come with you?"

"He was tired out, I got him to bed." Eric sat down beside his friend, keeping his voice light. "Too much angst and drama. I gave him a couple of Tylenol, he's fast asleep."

"I should go check on him-" Stephen began, getting up. Eric grabbed him.

"You should let him sleep, he's okay. Now talk to me about you?"

Stephen subsided slowly onto the dockside. "I'm wading through the paperwork right now. You'd think it would slow with the doors closed but so far it hasn't. But in between trying to get that done and keeping the house going, Todd is requiring so much of my time."

"You've gone through a lot, and your sense of balance has been shattered. I think Todd's reacting to the loss of routine and sameness," Eric said.

"Aren't you going to reopen soon?" Joe piped up from the chair.

Stephen looked back at Joe. "It's not an overnight process. I've got to think about the changes that need to be made. I've got to get the supplies in order. I've got to get --"

"Have you been back yet?" Eric interrupted.

"No. Anthony has handled the deliveries that we didn't stop, and dropped off whatever mail got delivered there."

Eric looked into the water, thinking. Finally, he spoke up. "I think you need to go in and work on at least a partial remodel. Get yourself into looking forward, instead of back. The sooner you do that, the sooner you can open, and the better things should be between you and Todd."

"I agree," Joe said, standing up. "We've got all the proof and crime scene pictures we need, and there are no injunctions that can be brought against you not to reopen. You should work on that. And once you get the carpet up, I'd let Todd come in and help, so he can also see that things are going forward."

Stephen and Eric both stood up as well. "I think you're right. I'll work on that next week."

"Chris, Michael. Let's head on up," Eric said before turning back to the guys. "I'm famished, and I'd like to get started on those steaks you had going before the wildlife gets them."

"Be quiet when you get to the cabin, Todd's sleeping!" Eric yelled to the backs of the two younger gentleman, already scampering up the hill to the cabin. He watched Stephen's back as they followed at a slightly more dignified pace, picking up on the same tension in Stephen's broad shoulders as he'd found in Todd's. He hoped sincerely that a few days away from town would be a good start to helping them both over this hump, but he also found himself wishing Rolf and Matthew had been able to join the trip. It struck him that they needed the full complement out here to help with this one.



**************************



Todd woke late as a result of the Tylenol Eric had insisted he swallow. The sun was high outside and the cabin was quiet- a sure sign that everyone else was out. He lay for a few minutes, the tranquility and relaxation of sleep rapidly passing for a dry mouth, twisting stomach and faint nausea as reality sank back into him. From the rumpled covers beside him, Stephen had slept beside him last night. Which was vaguely reassuring. Todd's mouth dried completely as the door opened and Stephen appeared with a mug in hand. Dressed, his hair still damp, his face- still anxious. Todd's stomach promptly tightened still further in sympathy.

"Hi- I'm sorry-"

"How are you feeling?" Stephen sat down beside him and pushed his fingers through Todd's hair, straightening it. Todd climbed into his arms, the familiarity of the gesture making him want to cling. Stephen gave him a long, strong hug, kissing the top of his head.

"It's okay. It's okay. I think we should call yesterday a bad day for both of us and write it off. Lets start again today and enjoy the vacation, we both need it badly."

Todd nodded against Stephen's chest, not letting go.

"You've got to be pretty hungry. Want some breakfast?"

Todd sat up. "Yes, I am hungry. Where's the tea?"

Stephen took the mug from the dresser and handed it to Todd, who gratefully sipped it. He stood up when Stephen pushed him gently, and headed out to the kitchen table.

"Where is everyone?"

"They're at the lake. We'll go join them when we're finished eating."

"They been down there long?"

"Only about an hour. Everyone slept rather late, it being the first full day here, and after the workout they got yesterday. Eggs and bacon?"

"Yes, please. Maybe that means I'll at least get some uninterrupted time on the wave runners."

"You won't be able to stay out too long today as it's the first time you've been in the sun for such a long time."

"I'm SURE you'll coat me in grease," Todd said.

"Yes, BOTH of us. But you still won't be able to stay out long.

Todd bit back the angry response that flew to his lips. Once he got down there, there was precious little Stephen would be able to do to keep him in the shade. And with the rest of the guys, he should be fine.


"Don't lick your fingers." Stephen requested, taking the butter away from him. "Wash your hands."

"They're clean."

"We're about to eat."

Scowling, Todd got up and stuck his hands under the tap. Stephen tipped bacon and egg onto his plate. Todd took half a mouthful and reached for the salt. Stephen moved it away without looking.

"You don't need it, the bacon's salty enough."

"There's hardly any salt in it!"

"It's fine the way it is, Todd. Eat. And no, you don't need the ketchup either, that's full of additives."

"You don't usually mind about ketchup!" Todd protested. Stephen took it out of his hands and tossed it onto the draining board.

"You're not usually this wound up. You don't need any more chemicals inside you."

Todd slammed his fork down. "I'm not hungry."

"You're not going outside until you eat." Stephen said implaccably. Todd dodged around the table and headed out of the door and down the steps. He was aware of Eric sitting on the porch reading the paper as he sprinted past, heading for the woods, and of Stephen's shout behind him.

"JAMES TODD MCLAREN, COME BACK HERE!" Stephen yelled, bursting onto the porch.

"Starting again already?" Eric asked as he put the paper down.

"He didn't even get three bites of breakfast eaten before he took off," Stephen fumed. "He's going to be the death of me this weekend."

"He headed down that way. I'm sure you'll find him perched on the cliffs."

"Right where he KNOWS he's not supposed to be. I'll be back shortly." Stephen stepped off the porch and headed down the path, taking the left turn partway down that led off to the cliffs. As he suspected, Todd was sitting, arms crossed, on one of the rocks.

Todd worked hard at keeping his back to Stephen, even knowing Stephen was going to be upset about him leaving, AND coming to this place.

Stephen walked purposely up to Todd, took him by the upper arm and lifted him up. He pulled him back away from the rocks, then swatted him several times. "You do NOT run from me and you do NOT hang around these cliffs. It's dangerous."

Todd bit his lip to keep from yelling at a few particularly well aimed swats. He didn't answer, and went without argument when Stephen went back up the path, not letting go of his hand.

Stephen walked Todd back up the porch and into the kitchen, setting him at the table. "Finish that breakfast."

Todd grabbed his fork and silently finished his plate. Stephen took the plate and put down some paper with a short paragraph, and a pen. "Copy that fifty times please."

Todd snorted.

"You're not to move from that chair or utter a word until it's complete," Stephen said warningly.

Todd sat back, crossing his arms.

"I'm quite relaxed here with a book," Stephen said as he went over to the couch and picked one up. He settled down and began reading.

The pen sailed over his head and the paper tore in half.

Eric, still sitting on the porch, heard that with more than a little surprise. None of their brats, no matter how angry, he would have thought could come up with that kind of defiance. If Todd was seriously so upset and acting so out of character then obviously Stephen had every reason to be so concerned. And it was no wonder he was struggling so much to keep his cool; this kind of behaviour would push a saint to screaming point. Not wanting to interfere but also convinced now that Stephen should not have to struggle with this alone, Eric got up and quickly went into the kitchen. He caught the two of them at bay, just as Todd overturned his chair. Stephen was headed around the table to take Todd's arm. He glanced at Eric and Eric caught the brief flush of embarrassment but Stephen's voice came out a lot quieter and steadier for seeing the other man.

"Pick that up."

"NO."

Todd looked on the brink of tears. Stephen steered him to the overturned chair.

"Pick it up."

Todd, twisting in Stephen's grip, kicked out at it. Eric, used to dealing with teenagers out of control in his line of work, reacted instinctively. He grabbed Todd's wrists, twisted him around and wrapped him, folding Todd's arms across his chest and holding him off balance where he couldn't kick.

"Allright. Okay kiddo, no one wants to get hurt here. Lets sit down, hmm?"

Stephen collapsed into a chair, watching him blankly. Eric judged the distance to the nearest two chairs and moved swiftly, keeping Todd off balance and dropping him into a chair to the side of his, arms still locked around him in a professional wrap.

"He's okay." Stephen said eventually, quietly. "I'm sorry, we can handle this. We're just having a bad day."

Eric didn't move. He had restrained men professionally who were out of control, through drugs, alcohol, emotional difficulties, and he could still feel the thump of Todd's heart against his chest, see the slightly swollen veins in his wrist that meant his blood pressure was still shooting, feel his trembling and shallow breaths. And he was leaning hard against Eric, not fighting the restraint. This wasn't a strop, Todd was seriously upset.

"Steve," Eric said eventually, picking his words very carefully. "Why don't you go outside and give Joe a shout? Wait with him a while."

"No, I'm sorry you had to get involved. I can handle it from here." Stephen said wearily. Eric shook his head, trying to signal over Todd's head how seriously he felt about this.

"I need you to trust me Steve."

Stephen hesitated for a long minute, then silently got up. He took his time moving towards the door, Eric thought as if hoping that Todd would beg for him to stay. It said a lot that he didn't. For several long moments after the door shut behind Stephen Eric maintained his grip, sitting quietly, silently, waiting until the tension began to ease very slightly in Todd's body and his breathing began to calm. Gradually Eric began to shift his grip until rather than restraining he was holding, gently rubbing the arms under his hands, conveying comfort as much as containment. While he waited, he found himself wishing that Rolf had come with them: he and Joe could urgently do with a third pair of hands here.

Joe appeared fast in response to Stephen's signals, started for the kitchen door but Stephen put up a hand to stop him.

"Eric said to leave Todd to him."

"What happened?" Joe demanded, casting one more anxious look to the lake where Michael and Chris, oblivious to the crisis, were swimming.

"Todd just lost it, and Eric intervened. I asked him to copy a paragraph fifty times and got the pen tossed at me, the paper shredded and the chair overturned and kicked."

"That doesn't sound like Todd at all," Joe said.

"No. I've never seen direct disobedience like that."

"Has he mentioned anything to you about the shooting, or anything else that may be bothering him?"

"No. He's been pretty hard work since the shooting, but he's not said anything to me about being upset about it."

Joe sat down on the porch swing beside his friend and put a hand on his shoulder, worried by the exhausted tone.

"He adores you, some of this has got to be that he's picking up how upset you've been by all this. That's not your fault."

Stephen didn't answer. Joe glanced again towards the kitchen.

"Is he allright?"

"Eric -" Stephen trailed off and got up. "If anyone's going to sort him out it should be me."

"Stephen you need a break. If he's been such hard work the last few weeks then it's time to let someone else take care of him for a while and recharge yourself. And if it's your stress and strain he's so upset about then that's even more reason to leave him to someone who's not involved. Just for a few hours, that's all."

"He's MY problem." Stephen said shortly.

"I know." Joseph held up his hands, blocking the way but speaking gently. "I know fella. I know how you feel."


************************



"Todd, I'm going to let go." Eric said quietly. "Okay?"

Todd didn't answer. Eric slowly withdraw his hands and moved back, braced for another kick out or push at the table or chairs. Todd only leaned forward over the table and put his head down on his arms. Eric sat with him for a minute more, then got up and filled a glass of water at the sink, putting it down in front of Todd.

"How are you feeling?"

Todd didn't answer.

"Todd?" Eric said again, more firmly. Todd lifted his head slowly.

"M'okay."

"Are you going to tell me what that was about?"

Todd shrugged, slowly and hopelessly. "Its my fault."

"I've never seen you lose your temper like that." Eric said mildly. "Especially not on vacation."

"I'm sorry."

Again, that tired, hopeless tone. Eric sat back in his chair, watching him.

"What happened?"

"It was me, I was being horrible. I didn't mean to, I just- got mad. I'm sorry."

Eric came to a decision and got up, putting a hand on his shoulder.

"If you're feeling calmer, how about you go down to the lake? Chris and Mike are down there- no, they don't know anything about this and they won't know anything you don't tell them. Come on. You could do with some air and sunshine."

"Stephen-" Todd began unhappily, "I probably ought to talk to him-"

"I think you should take some time for both of you today before you try talking this over." Eric steered him gently to the back door. "Go on. Straight down to the dock, stay with Chris and Mike. And I CAN see you from here, I don't expect you to be anywhere else until one of us comes down there for you."

He watched Todd walk slowly down the hill towards the lake, waiting until he saw Todd reach the other two, then he shut the door and walked through the cabin to the porch where Joseph and Stephen were sitting in silence.

Stephen looked up. "Todd?"

"He's been sent to the lake," Eric said.

"What?!?"

"I decided the best thing for him right now is to be with the other boys. He was seriously upset, not just acting out," Eric said as he took a seat on the bench.

"He needed to have his hide tanned!"

"He and you BOTH need a break, Steve. He must be suffering from the shooting incident, but doesn't yet know how to handle his feelings. That, and I can easily see you're stressed, and you know that carries directly over to him. He could probably use a few good sessions with a therapist and work through whatever's bothering him. Until you can get him back home, I suggest that Joe and I take care of Todd WITH you."

"What do you mean?" Stephen asked, rubbing his hands through his hair in a gesture born of frustration.

"You're obviously his tension target. I suggest that if something needs to be said to him, that either Joe or myself say it. That way, Todd should listen and not immediately lash out because it came from you. He's a good kid, I doubt very seriously anything will need to be said at all."

Stephen dropped his hands with an angry hiss. "I do NOT need to be told how to look after my own partner!"

"Stephen we're friends, yes?" Joseph said, interrupting before the protest became a fully blown outburst. "And we understand your relationship. Yes?"

Stephen didn't answer but waited, eyes on Joseph. Joe nodded slowly.

"Yes. Then believe us. You two need to back off each other, and Todd has a genuine problem. This is not the Todd I know. No matter how you jump all over him now, it's not going to help and it's not going to achieve anything, because he isn't in control of this. Is he?"

Stephen shook his head. "I don't know."

"Have you ever seen him lose it like that?" Eric said gently. "You've seen him angry before, you two have clashed plenty of times, has he ever flipped like that?"

"No." Stephen admitted. Joseph dropped a hand on his shoulder and squeezed.

"Eric's right. You need a break. Swim. Take a boat out. Walk. Sleep. The best way you can help him right now is to calm yourself down and get some rest."

"Why don't you two take the boat over and get something to eat for tonight? Walk around, take your time." Eric suggested. "I'll watch the boys, see no one gets overambitious on the water. Go on Steve. Go and think about something else for a couple of hours."


******************



Stephen and Joseph were gone until mid afternoon. Eric sat on the end of the dock and patiently worked his way through his book, his eye on the three active young men who were in and out of the water around him. Initially Todd had been very quiet and withdrawn, shying away from the other two if they got too close or too boisterous, but gradually he warmed up and by the time Eric called them over for lunch, he settled in the sun and ate, joining in the chatter, the lines starting to leave his face.

They finished up lunch and Eric asked them to stay out of the water, and if possible, the sun for the next thirty minutes. The boys went along the edge of the water, looking for rocks and shells. Fifteen minutes into break, Eric looked up and saw Todd push Chris off a rock into the water. He stood up. "Todd! Get over here!"

Todd was going to help Chris out of the water when Michael pushed him and said he'd help Chris. He walked over to the dock, head down.

Eric waited until he got over to him. "What was that all about?"

"I was just playing. Chris was in a good position, and I pushed," Todd said quietly.

"You DO realize how dangerous that could have been, don't you?"

"Yes, sir," Todd said.

"Then you can take a seat in the shade over there. I don't expect to see anything like that again, is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," Todd said, then headed over to the bench.

Eric said back down, a thoughtful look on his face.

Joseph and Stephen brought the boat back to dock shortly after three pm. All three of the boys were out near the island in the middle of the lake, having worn themselves out enough to be taking their time and enjoying the sun and the water. Stephen climbed up onto the dock and peered out towards the boys, trying to pick out Todd.

"How was your trip?" Eric asked, laying his book down. Joseph lifted a couple of bags out of the boat and sat slowly down on the warm dock beside him.

"Pretty good. Hot. There's not a bad antiques market just outside the village, we walked around there for a while."

"How's Todd?" Stephen asked.

"Fine." Eric said calmly. "All three of them. They've been swimming peacefully on and off most of the day."

"If he's been in the water that long it's about time he came out and got dried off-" Stephen began. Eric interrupted, leaning over for the bags.

"He's not been in as long as the other two and they're fine. Why don't you two put these away and get yourselves into a little less clothing?"

Joseph took one of the bags and handed the other to Stephen, making him take his eyes off Todd.

"Come on, it's too hot to sit around here fully dressed."

"Has he got sun lotion on?" Stephen demanded. Eric nodded, returning to his book.

"All three of them. They're fine."

He was aware that it took Stephen barely five minutes to change and get back down to the dock, some way ahead of Joseph. He'd brought a book with him, but the first thing he did was sit on the edge of the dock, watching the three still swimming around the periphery of the Island.

"Aren't they a long way out?"

"There's no currents around here, they know the waters." Eric laid the book down, looking at his friend with sympathy. "Come away from the edge, I'll watch him. Read. Sleep. Chill."

Stephen reluctantly got up and settled himself into the lounge chair and opened his book. He tried reading, but after having to reread one paragraph three times, he gave up and put the book down. He closed his eyes after checking once more on Todd and tried to sleep. Every time he heard one of the young men shout, he had to sit up and look.

Joseph came down a few minutes later and traded quizzical looks with Eric as they watched Stephen.

The guys finally tired of exploring the island and swam over to the rope swing. Before too long, they were whooping and hollering as they took turns swinging out over the water and letting go.

Stephen stayed quiet as long as he could, but finally he could stand it no longer. He stood up and walked to the edge of the dock. "Todd. Come on out of there. I think that's enough for one day."

Eric watched as Todd immediately went silent and got out of the water, not paying any attention as the other two splashed at him. He stood up to try to prevent Todd blowing up. "Michael, Chris, you too. Come on."

"Party poopers," Michael said as they got out of the water and followed Todd around the edge of lake.

"Why don't you three stretch out in the shade over there and dry out?" Eric said, pointing at a small portion of the dock that was under the trees.

"I think Todd and I will return to the cabin. He could use a nap," Stephen said as Todd was walking towards him.

"I can lie on the dock for a bit and relax," Todd said evenly.

"You've been in the water far longer than you should have, and I think a shower and a nap at the cabin will do you good," Stephen replied.

"I am NOT three, I do NOT need a nap!" Todd said in exasperation.

Joseph stepped forward, snagging Chris's hand. He whispered 'take Todd, please' to him, then said "I think showers and rest for all THREE of you is a good idea."

Chris could tell something was going on, and just did as Joe asked. He turned back towards Todd and pushed his shoulder gently. "We can get some candy when the guys aren't looking. Let's go!"

Todd turned since the other two guys were going with him.

"Todd, you don't need any more sugar -" Stphen started.

"FUCK YOU!" Todd took off running up the hill.

Before Stephen could move, Joseph stepped in front of him. "Let him go."

"I will NOT --"

"LET HIM GO."

Eric walked over and stood next to Joe, blocking Stephen's exit down the dock.

"That is MY PARTNER and he needs a sound spanking. Get OUT of my WAY!"

Eric simply grabbed Stephen's arm and pushed him back down into the chair. Chris and Michael froze where they were: Joseph looked up at Chris, caught his eye and signalled after Todd, a mute appeal to him. Chris nodded, looking shaken, but took off after Todd. Michael looked more hesitant and stood where he was, sounding panicky.

"Eric......?"

"Its okay Mike, go on." Eric said steadily. "Keep the other two in the cabin until I get there, get yourselves dry and fed. Its allright."

Michael looked very unwilling, but he knew too that this was not a conversation that would take place in front of him, and it clearly needed to take place. He took a step back, turned and slowly jogged after the others.

Stephen shut his mouth, picking up on the anxiety in Michael's face. He was angry and he was worried about Todd but he had no wish to scare the other two. He waited until all three of the boys were out of sight and earshot before he yanked away from Eric.

"I thought the idea was you'd support me, not that you'd encourage him to play me off against you two-"

"Rubbish." Joseph said shortly.

"If Chris behaved like that to you-"

"If Chris behaved like that at all, I'd be most worried about what had pushed him so far, Chris DOESN'T behave like that and neither does Todd."

"I know what's wrong, he's stressed and so am I! And we need some time spent together-"

"Stephen, why do you think he flipped just now?" Eric said quietly. Stephen shook his head angrily.

"Because he's feeling neglected, he's attention seeking-"

"Stephen you've been all over him since the minute you stepped off the boat." Eric sat on the edge of the bench, trying to pick the right words. Joseph stood where he was, folding his arms, not liking this situation but following Eric's lead.

"That's true Steve. You haven't been able to take your eyes or your mind off him for two minutes together."

"I'm WORRIED about him!"

"I know. But you know something else?" Eric said quietly. "I pulled him out of the water this afternoon for pushing Chris over, and he didn't shout or swear or lose his temper or need to run away. He was his usual, calm, polite self."

"Like you said- something about a tension target?" Stephen pushed a hand through his hair, starting to feel very hurt and very attacked. "I'm the one who's upset him, I'm the one who hasn't been paying him enough attention, it's me he's upset with! Come on, we've been through these rough patches before- we all have! What he needs me to do is be firm for a while, a short leash, a lot of time-"

"That's what I thought." Joseph interrupted. "But Eric's right. Todd isn't starting any of these detonations, Steve: you are. You're watching him all the time for anything you can pick him up on."

"Oh, that's a load of rubbish, and you know it." Steve said angrily.

"Is is? Tell me about breakfast," Eric said, hoping Stephen would think about it, instead of just getting angry.

Stephen bent over, elbows on knees and head in hands. "He wanted salt. Or ketchup."

No one said anything.

"It WAS me, wasn't it?" Stephen said quietly.

Joe sat down next to him and put his arm around him. "I think this entire matter is bothering you more than you care to admit."

"He died. A young child died in my bar. His blood stains are on my floor. He was so young."

"I know. We both do, we were there. But you had no more control over the situation than either of the two of us." Joseph said.

"I was THERE. I should have been able to do something, stop him -"

"You couldn't have stopped it. It happened too fast, and Tyler did what he could and he was truly right there. No one knew the knife was there, or that the guy would pull and use it."

Stephen kept his head down.

"I've got a suggestion Steve. You more than likely won't like it, but I think it's the best thing."

Steve sat up, looking expectantly at Joseph.

Joseph took a deep breath. "I think you need this weekend far more than Todd does. I'd like to take Chris - and Todd - home tonight. I --"

"No," Stephen said, interrupting. "He can't be left alone at home."

"I'd take him home with me," Joseph said. "He should stay with us for a few days, until you've been able to work through some of this."

"No, I can't ask that of you. He's my partner, we belong together."

"That sounds to me like the best idea for both of you." Eric said gently. "Come on Steve, think about it. You need a break and you need to sort out your feelings here. You need to sort the bar out and get your life back in order again."

"You're winding Todd up." Joseph said bluntly and brutally. "You're using him to distract yourself and it's making him very unhappy. Isn't it? You need to do the best thing for him now."

Stephen took a few deep breaths, steepling his hands against his face.
Eric waited, watching him with sympathy.

"How is going to help to carry on the way you are at the moment?" Joe asked.

Stephen took one last breath and sat back.

"A few days."

"A week." Eric said, looking at Joseph. "Long enough for you to do something serious about sorting things out. And long enough for Todd to settle down."

"I can't leave him for a week, what's he going to make of that?" Stephen said grimly.

"You're not leaving him, you're doing what you need to do to keep you both safe and healthy." Joseph told him. "He'll understand that and that's your responsibility to him. You know where he is, there's no reason you can't come over and see him when you want to, you've got the phone, and Chris and I will look after him. Come on Steve. I'm going to get him and Chris packed up now and we're going to head out. You take the rest of the weekend and use the time, you NEED this break. It's going to be okay."

"I don't know how to explain this to him." Stephen said uncertainly. "Oh God-"

"If you want, I'll tell him." Joseph got up, waiting. Stephen shook his head at once.

"I can't do that, it's not fair."

"Then let me tell him and then the two of you can talk."

"You're not going to give up, are you?"

"No."

"I'll be up in a few minutes then," Stephen said wearily.

Joseph patted him on the back and headed up the hill.

"You're doing the right thing," Eric said.

"It doesn't feel like it right now."


Joseph made it to the cabin and headed inside. Todd looked up with a panicked look when the door opened, but settled again when he realized it was Joe. "I see you've dived into the good stuff," Joseph said as he eyed the chips and dip and cokes on the table.

"Yeah. It's hard work swimming all day long," Chris said with a wink.

Joe went over to Todd and put his hand on his shoulder. "I'd like a word with you? In your room?"

Todd looked down, but got up. He knew his outbursts were probably not appreciated and Joseph was going to let him know that. He went ahead of Joe, and sat down on his bed. He got a little more nervous when the door shut.

Joseph went over to the bed and sat down next to him, taking his hand. "It's okay, you're not in trouble."

"I should be."

"Under normal circumstances, I'd agree. But things are a little different, aren't they?" Joe asked gently.

"Yeah, I guess so."

"Stephen has been under tremendous pressure with the stabbing in his bar. It's affected him a lot more deeply than even he realized. Don't you think?"

Todd nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

"It wasn't until today that we could see what was happening. He's unconsciously been setting you up to be difficult, so that his mind is taken up with you, instead of the stabbing."

Todd immediately jumped to Stephen's defense. "He's NOT making things harder, *I* am! I shouldn't be --"

Joseph took his chin and turned it up. "Shhhhh, it's okay. I'm not insulting Stephen, I'm simply stating what I've seen, and what I think you know. He's been much more picky lately, hasn't he?"

Todd looked away. "Yeah, I guess so."

"When he's picky, you get upset. When you get upset, his mind is off his troubles, and on you, trying to settle you down. When you settle down, he probably gets quiet again. And then it starts all over."

Todd couldn't argue with that. "What am I going to do?" he asked miserably.

"I think the best thing would be to come home with Chris and I, and stay with us a week or so."

"No, I won't leave him. I can't do that."

Joseph heard the door open. "That's probably Stephen now. How about you talk with him, hmmmm?"

Todd nodded and watched as Joseph left the room after giving his shoulder a good squeeze.

"He's waiting," Joseph said to Steve.

"Thanks." Steve headed into his room, shutting the door behind him.

Joseph took a seat at the table, and grabbed a few chips. Eric sat down as well.

"It's a little uncomfortable around here, isn't it?" Joseph asked quietly.

"Yeah," Chris said. He waited a minute before venturing "What's going on?"

"Stephen is dealing with a lot right now."

"The stabbing?" Michael asked.

"Yes, that's at the core of it. He needs a few good days of doing absolutely nothing, and he's not going to do that with Todd here. Stephen is telling Todd right now that he's coming home with us." Joseph was looking at Chris.

"When?"

"We're going to pack in a few minutes."

"But this is MY weekend too!" Chris said quickly.

"I know." Joseph swallowed the last fragments of chips and held out a hand to him. Unwillingly Chris came to him and Joseph pulled him down into his lap, needing a hug badly himself. "I'm sorry love, I was looking forward to this weekend too, but Todd and Stephen need some friends badly right now."

Michael moved discreetly around the table, edging closer to Eric, who silently held out his arms.

"Are we staying here?" Michael said softly. Eric nodded.

"We're staying with Stephen."

Michael didn't answer but it was clear from his expression and his tension that he wasn't sure that was the better option. Neither Michael nor Chris argued: it was plain enough that this was serious and the best thing they could do to help was to go along with it.


"I don't want to." Todd said for the tenth time, trying to stop crying enough to be coherent. Stephen zipped his case closed, sat down on the bed beside him and hugged him hard, pulling Todd's head close under his chin.

"I know sweetheart, I don't want to either but this is the best thing to do. It's okay. It's going to be okay, it's only for a week."

"I don't need to be anywhere else, I need to be with you!" Todd clung to him, his sobbing growing steadily more hysterical. "I'm sorry, I won't do anything else wrong, I promise I won't be hard work-"

"Todd you didn't do anything wrong." Stephen pushed Todd back with an effort and held his chin, making Todd look at him. "Listen to me. This is NOT your fault. I'm not upset with you, the only reason I want you to do this is that I'm not handling this business with the bar well at all and I don't want my problems to affect us or affect you any more. You need a rest-"

"I DON'T, you need me with you! I want to help!"

"I know sweetheart, and you do-"

"Then I'm NOT going!" Todd looked at him appealing, tears of outrage and distress streaming down his face. Stephen's stomach twisted and tightened, reminding him of another young and panic stricken face looking at him in terror from the floor of the bar. He shut his eyes on the image and kissed Todd hard, resisting his own longing to grab Todd, cling and abandon this whole idea.

"LISTEN to me. I love you. I love you very very much and I promise you, it's going to be allright. I'm going to ring you tomorrow, I'll ring you every day-"

"NO!"

"-Todd, you're going to have to trust me and do as I say." Stephen kissed him once more and put him on his feet, collecting his jacket. "You do as Joe tells you."

There was no sign of Michael or Chris in the kitchen; only Joe who came straight across to them, wrapping an arm around Todd and pulling him close, giving Stephen a chance to peel off Todd's clinging hands. He was past all dignity now, Stephen was rapidly approaching tears himself.

"He'll be fine." Joseph promised over Todd's head, steering him towards the porch. Chris was already in the car and at Joe's nod, slid over behind the wheel. Michael was sitting on the porch beside Eric, scared and distraught at Todd's frank distress. Stephen stayed where he was in the kitchen, staring at the ceiling and hearing the door slam on Joe's car, then the engine turn over and the car move out of earshot.

The silence once they were gone was deafening. Eric sat for a moment more, arm around Michael.

"Are you okay?"

Michael nodded uncertainly. Eric kissed his forehead and got up.

"I'm going to check on Stephen and then we'll get something to eat. Stay within shouting distance?"

Michael nodded, red eyed. Eric got up and headed inside.

Stephen's eyes were very red but his face was set and his arms were tightly folded. Eric shut the door behind him, walked unhurriedly across to him and pulled his friend into his arms.

Once those arms were around him, Stephen finally let go. Eric helped him over to the couch and they both sat down, Eric holding his hand until Stephen was back under control.

Michael left the front porch, not wanting to overhear anything he wasn't sure he could handle. Seeing how upset Todd was left him shaky enough. He went a little ways off the path to a small clearing around some pine trees. He settled down on a rock and started drawing in the pine needles.

Steve squeezed Eric's hand. "Thanks," he said huskily.

"You're welcome. Todd will be fine, and so will you."

Steve shook his head in the affirmative.

"Why don't you get a shower? I'll get to work on some dinner, then maybe we can get a walk in before the sun sets."

"Good idea," Steve said, standing up. He headed into the bathroom and under the warm spray. Washing the sweat and salt from his skin helped him to feel a little more together, and when he got out, almost looked as good as new. After toweling off, he changed into some comfortable shorts and a t-shirt and headed out into the kitchen.

"What's on the menu?" he asked, grabbing a handful of chips still on the table.

"I thought since we had the picky fish eaters out of here, I'd make fish packets" Eric said, cutting up some vegetables to go with the fish.

"Sounds good. I haven't had seafood in a while. Where's Michael?"

"He's somewhere in the woods I suspect," Eric said.

"I hope he's not too upset."

"He was a little, but he'll be just fine. Don't worry, these guys are a lot hardier than we ever give them credit for."

"You're right. Sometimes it's hard to see that. Can I do anything to help?"

"No, I've - yes, there is. You can get a couple of beers from the fridge."

Stephen went over and pulled two cold ones out, popping the tops for both he and Eric. "To good friends," Steve said holding up his beer.

Eric picked his up and saluted Steve. "To good friends."


******************


Todd levitated off the floor at the sound of the phone as he had every single time it had rung since Friday. Joe got up unhurriedly, fixing him with a look that made him subside again, picking up his dropped book.

"If it's Stephen, I'll tell you."

If it wasn't Stephen, Todd was going to spontaneously combust before nine pm. Joseph went into the kitchen, shutting the door behind him before he picked up the phone.

"Hello?"

"It's me."

Even after three days, Stephen sounded a lot better. Calmer and more together, with the exhaustion out of his voice.

"Hi Stephen."

"We're home- got in about half an hour ago. How's Todd?"

"He's doing okay." Joseph pulled a chair out from the table and sat down. "We spent most of today at the game- Chris is loving the company."

"Is he sleeping better?"

"He's a lot more settled. He misses you a lot but he's allright. How are you?"

"Missing him a lot." Stephen said wryly. "I think better. Eric and I must have talked most of the weekend- poor Mike, he's had a rough time trying to keep a tactful distance. I'm going to see Rolf in the morning- talk about the redecoration for the bar and get that underway as soon as we can. Maybe gut the place totally and remodel it."

"That sounds a good idea." Joseph said warmly. A creak at the door made him glance around.

"There's someone here about to explode if he doesn't get to talk to you....."

"Put him on," Stephen said, smiling.

Joseph held out the phone, and gently rubbed his hand when it was nearly taken off by Todd.

"Steve! Are you home?" Todd said quickly.

"Yes. Got in about an hour ago. How are you?"

"Good, then I'm coming home," Todd said eagerly.

"Whoa there. I asked how you were?"

"I can tell you when I see you. You going to come pick me up?"

"Todd, I've missed you too, but you're staying put."

"Noooooooooo, I want to come HOME." Todd said.

"Hey now, we talked about this. Friday at the earliest, you know why."

"But that was when you were at the cabin. You're at home, I want to be there with you," Todd said plaintively.

"I know honey. I want you here too, but you're staying with Joe until Friday at the earliest. How are you doing?"

Todd sighed, hearing the determination in Steve's voice. "Okay," he answered quietly.

"What did you do today?"

"Went to the game. What did you do?"

"Packed up the cabin. Eric took Michael home a little while back, then I rang Rolf and talked to him about the plans to remodel the bar. I'm going to see him tomorrow and make plans to get the work started," Stephen said.

Todd sat down and started absently playing with the phone cord. "What do you think you'll do with the bar?"

Stephen lightened his voice, trying to get Todd interested in the plans. "I thought make some major changes. Maybe split the bar, have two at either end, move the lounge forward and put the restaurant down by the big windows."

"That sounds nice. What colors?"

"I don't know, I thought maybe when it's done we could go out and spend a day looking at colours and materials- strip the whole place and start again."

Todd's voice became hopeful once more. "Can we do that this week?"

"No sweetheart. When it's gutted- probably week after next."

"We don't have to wait, I can help this week," Todd tried again.

"Todd," Stephen said sternly.

Stephen could hear the pout in Todd's voice, and it hurt. "What?"

"You know what. I need to go honey. I love you. Be good, I'll call tomorrow."

"Steve, noooooooooo don't hang up!"

"Todd it's okay. It's allright, it's going to be fine. Is Joe still there?"

Todd sniffled, then said "Yes."

"Okay, put him back on. I love you. Sweet dreams sweetheart."

"I love you too." As Todd handed the phone back to Joe, he said under his breath "And I'll see you tonight."

"Steve?" Joe said when the phone was on his ear.

"This is going to kill one or both of us well within a week. Take care of him?"

"He'll be fine. You take care." Joe hung up the phone, and before Todd could escape the kitchen, grabbed his wrist. "And you, my boy, are going upstairs for a bath."

"I don't need a bath," Todd said, trying to pull his wrist free.

Joseph swatted him, letting go of his wrist. "Go on anyway."

"No, I want to go home. I'm getting packed."

"Just a minute there," Joseph said sternly. "I know you want to go home, but the agreement was through Friday. Stephen won't be happy to have you disobeying him, now would he?"

Todd's mouth slipped awry and his eyes filled with tears yet again. Joe sighed and pulled Todd against his chest, holding him tight.

"I know this is hard. I know this seems like a crazy idea to you, but you know deep down why Stephen needs this time and why you two need some time apart. Don't you?" He peeled Todd back to look at him. "However much you miss him you do know."

Todd nodded, slowly and very unwillingly. "I know.. but I want to go hooooooome..."

"Of course you do." Joe gave him another, hard hug. "Come on. Bath. Chris'll be home from football any minute and you two'll be fighting for the bathroom."

Todd moved unwillingly, still sniffling. Joe found things to do upstairs, not going too far away until he had his friend settled in the spare room, more or less comfortable and more or less tearful as he had been every night since they arrived home on Friday. Joe sat down on the edge of the bed and pushed his hair out of his eyes, wondering how Stephen was coping with his first night home alone. At least he and Chris slept with their door open and he slept with an ear out for any signs of distress from Todd.

"You warm enough?"

Todd nodded, sliding deeper under the covers. Joseph leaned over to snap the light off.

"Stay in bed then please. Sleep tight, call if you need anything."

Only Stephen.





Todd turned over, lonely and miserable as he heard the front door open down stairs and a minute later Chris and Joseph's low voices talking quietly and easily as they got ready for bed.

Except this house was quiet. Joe was calm and consistent and easy to please- and Todd was not by nature difficult. And around Joe, Todd had the comparison to see how far offline he and Stephen had wandered. He's begun to think it was his fault- his for winding Stephen up, wanting him to pay attention, do anything other than be self absorbed- Todd finished that thought, swallowing hard. He hated and could never bear to think anything ill of Stephen. He slid out of bed and padded into the bathroom, startled by Joe's quiet voice a minute later.

"Todd?"

"I'm okay..... just wanted a drink."

Joseph appeared in t shirt and shorts and watched him pour a glass of water, before he leaned past Todd to the bathroom cabinet and handed him a tylenol.

"Here. Yes please." he added as Todd started to object. "You need to sleep."

Todd swallowed it unwillingly and trailed Joe back to the spare room. Joe pulled the covers over him and snapped the radio on, turning it down low.

"Why don't you listen to that while you try to fall asleep? Take your mind off it."

"What'll he do if he's at home alone?" Todd said miserably. Joe ruffled his hair.

"Probably just what you're doing. Rest. Look after himself. Concentrate on working through the problems he needs to deal with. You concentrate on what you need to do, and right now you need to get some sleep."



*********************************




Joseph had gone over to Stephen and Todd's the day before with Todd, and collected his car and clothes for work. Todd got up on Monday and got ready for work, still a little dazed from the Tylenol. Joseph made him jog on the treadmill for five minutes to get his blood flowing before he got into the shower and by the time he emerged he felt a little more human. After a full breakfast, Joe sent him off with hug, telling him that dinner would be at 5:30 and not to be late.

Todd had to drive straight to work in order to avoid being late, but he had every intention of trying to find Stephen later that day.

Stephen woke up and immediately reached over before realizing that Todd wasn't going to be there. He sat up, rubbing his temples. He headed downstairs for some coffee, and to read the headlines in the paper. Then he worked on cleaning the already clean house. When that was done, he got ready and headed over to Rolf's office for lunch.

As soon as Rolf's secretary said that Stephen was there, he saved the letter he was working on and got up to greet his friend.

"Hey," Rolf said, pulling Stephen's outstretched hand towards him so he could hug him. "How are you?"

"I think I'm doing better," Stephen said. "Ready for lunch?"

"Let's head downstairs to A La Lucie. Sound good?"

"Good choice," Stephen said, following Rolf out to the elevators.

"How's Todd?" Rolf asked once they were settled in the resteraunt. Stephen shrugged somewhat awkwardly.

"Not very happy."

He was more than certain either Eric or Joe would have filled Rolf in on the weekend and it was a few days he wasn't very proud of.

"I'm sorry." Rolf said gently. "This must be very hard."

"It is." Stephen admitted. He said nothing more and Rolf reached for the files he'd brought with him, opening them where Stephen could see them.

"What did you have in mind with the bar?"

"A fresh start." Stephen pulled himself together and regained some energy in his voice. "Something new."



*****************************************



The bar was dusty and stale smelling from having been locked up for so long: when Rolf left, Stephen left the doors open, wandering slowly around the building from the unused kitchen to the semi dark bar area. It had seemed unfamiliar when he walked in, still full of the sounds and emotions from the night of the death. A boy had died in here. The blood was still on the carpet.

Stephen paused, standing and looking down at the stains.

Taking measurements, reducing the building to pencil marks on the walls, colours and data had helped. The place needed gutting. There was no way to fix what was in the past- only plans to make the future better. And the first step was to get rid of the bad memories and the proof of the unfixable. Stephen hesitated for several minutes, then crouched and with a few rough tugs pulled the carpet free of it's fitting against the wall. He tore about half of it away. Muttering, he moved along and picked it up further along, and heard the footsteps behind him quicken into a jog.

Todd's hands closed over the carpet next to his. Stephen glanced over. Todd looked nervous and uncertain- as though he wasn't quite sure of his welcome. Stephen straightened up, put an arm around him and pulled him close, holding him tight. They were both somewhat shaky and red eyed when they separated.

"You're going back to Joe's until Friday." Stephen said a lot more brusquely than he felt.

Todd didn't answer. Just stooped and took his grip on his side of the carpet. Stephen watched him anxiously, aware of his eyes on the blood stains just a few feet away, but Todd only looked to him, waiting. Stephen took his hand hold, and this time the shared pull tore it away from the wall.



~ THE END~






KNIFE TO THE HEART





"Are you going to work all night AGAIN?"  Todd whined into his coke.

Stephen rubbed Todd's neck gently.

"My manager is sick tonight, someone needs to help out Tyler."

"Why does it always have to be you?"

"Because I own the place?"

Stephen pulled out a chair and looked into Todd's eyes.

"You know I try not to work more than I have to.  Tyler can't tend bar AND take care of the rest of the work as well.  We have several shipments coming in tonight, all of which has to be inventoried and Tyler can't do that if he's serving drinks.  You could see if someone would want to go to a movie tonight."

"Matthew and Marc are grounded until the cows come home.  Michael and Eric are celebrating their union
tonight.  Chris has to work.  So NO, I don't think I'll be going to any movie tonight."

He looked up, pleading.  "I COULD go to work with you."

Stephen was already shaking his head.  "Thanks, but no.  Why don't you just curl up in front of the tv here with a good movie?"

Todd slammed his hands down on the table and stood up quickly.  "BECAUSE its BORING as HELL!"

"HEY.  Unless you want your mouth washed out, cut the language."

Stephen stood up, putting his chair back under the table and pulled Todd to him for a hug.

"You know I'd rather spend the night with you but owning this business sometimes means I have to do a little extra.  I'll be home as soon as I can, and I promise we'll spend tomorrow together.  Will that do?"

Todd's words were muffled into Stephen's chest.  "I guess it'll have to.  Sorry for getting upset."

"It's alright."  Stephen pushed his hair back and kissed his forehead.  "I know you want the company.  But I don't want you sitting around in a bar.  No work you can do tonight?"

"Not until the meetings are finished about the new series."

"So why don't you have a bath, watch some tv and get an early night, hmm?  I'll come home as soon as the inventory's done."

"Promise?"

"Promise.  Eleven thirty at the latest.  By which time I expect to find you in bed with the light out.  Got that?"

"I'll go run that bath."  Todd stretched for another kiss.  Stephen lifted his chin, grinning.

"Try again sunshine.  Lights out and the bulbs COLD.  I'll check."

"If you're not here-"

"Todd."

"OKAY-"  Todd rolled his eyes, close to smiling.

"Eleven.  Promise."

"Cheeky."  Stephen swatted him gently and let him go.

"I've got to get ready, I'll see you later."

Todd headed upstairs.  He heard Stephen's call of goodbye and the front door shut a few minutes later.  Bored and somewhat lonely he got into the bath and tried to relax.  Without anyone even to talk to on the phone, the evening seemed long and very empty.  He toyed briefly with the idea of ringing Matthew, then abandoned it.

Stephen wouldn't be too happy if an irate Rolf complained to him.  There was nothing for it but the early night.

Stephen pulled into the back parking area of his restaurant and bar.  It looked like a packed house, several people were waiting out front for tables.  He locked the car door behind him and headed in the back entrance.

"Hi Stacy."

"Hey.  Didn't expect to see you tonight."  Stacy replied washing some of the piles of dishes.

"Didn't expect to be here myself.  Anthony's sick and we've got inventory coming in.  How are things going?"

"Fine.   Busy enough that I can't seem to get ahead of the dishes."  Stacy laughed as a busboy set down another tray.  "I still think paper plates would be better."

She winked at her boss.

"But then YOU would be out of a job and I'd miss that smile and laugh."

Stephen returned the wink and went into the kitchen area, Stacy's laughter ringing in his ears.

The smells were wonderful in the kitchen.

Stephen quickly did a cursory inspection of the area.

"Rebecca, get that can of cleaner put away.  If an inspector walked in right now that's an immediate ten points off the score.  And Theo, your drink should be in the break room, not on the counter please."

"Yes, sir."

Stephen walked on past the kitchens and went into the office to check on the schedule and menu for the evening  .It looked like it was going to be a good night.



*******



Todd stirred at the slam of a car door outside.  He jerked upright in bed, heart thumping and instinctively turned to Stephen.  Stephen's side of the bed was empty.  Todd glanced at the clock and his stomach tightened.  Three am.  His throat dried, his heart started to pound with shock.  Immediately he slid out of bed, heading for the answer phone – Stephen HAD to have left him a message – then the front door shut softly.  Todd snapped the light on and nearly fell downstairs, panic changing to anger.

"What time is this!  Do you KNOW how scared I was?  It’s the middle of the night-"

Stephen was very white, untidy, his shirt was stained and some of the stains were red.  Todd clutched at him and Stephen automatically put his arms around him, but he was shaking and his grip wasn't nearly tight enough.

"It's ok.  I'm sorry, I thought about calling-"

"What happened?"

"I didn't want to wake you."

Stephen let him go, took two slightly unsteady steps towards the kitchen then dropped onto the bottom step.

"Todd – can you bring some water here?"

"Steve?"  Todd's voice rose in panic, tears starting to sting.  Stephen glanced up with a serious effort.

"It's alright baby.  Just get some water and bring it here.  I'm fine it's ok."

Todd stumbled into the kitchen to get some water, his stomach churning in terror.  He barely managed to get a glass of water without dropping it, though he left a trail of water back to Stephen.  He handed the glass over, his hand shaking visibly.  Stephen took the water and drank gratefully, concentrating on making his hands NOT shake so as not to scare Todd any further.

Todd dropped to the ground, curling up as best he could to Stephen.  His normally robust and tan lover was white and shrunken now.

"Tell me.  Stephen, what happened?"

He couldn't keep the panic out of his voice.

Stephen let go of the glass with one hand and wrapped it around Todd, holding him as best he could.  Then he abandoned the glass on the steps above him and slid down on the floor, next to Todd, wrapping both arms around him and holding him tight.  He kept muttering that he was fine until he found the strength to speak.

"There....there was an incident tonight.  Two young men were drunk and started to fight – a knife-"

"A KNIFE?!?"  Todd shrieked, pulling at Stephen's shirt."  That's BLOOD!"

"It's OKAY Todd.  Shhh,  I'm fine.  It's not my blood, I wasn't there until after the boy was disarmed."

"You SAID it was an easy night, JUST inventory!"  Todd got to his feet, shaking and agitated past listening.  "You LIED to me!  How COULD YOU!"

Stephen wanted nothing more than to curl up and hide, let the events of the past few hours wash over and past him, but Todd was in the middle of a freakout and Stephen worked on putting his feelings aside for a moment, understanding what a shock this was for Todd.  Bad enough to scare him so badly by turning up so late, never mind covered in blood.

"Now stop."  He said in the steady tone that always pierced through Todd in screeching mode.  "It's alright, I'm fine, we can talk about it when you're calmed down a little."

"You turn up here, looking like THAT -  "Todd said, voice still wavering.  "You SAID-"

"I know what I said, thank you."

Stephen got up, taking the water glass with him, and held out his hand, clicking his fingers briskly.

"Come on.  You're going to go back to bed while I get washed, and then we'll talk this over."

That was the tone and expression Todd knew.  Relief made him break from shock into tears.  Stephen put the water glass down on the bookcase and pulled him close, hugging him tightly before he pushed him gently towards the
stairs.

"Straight up, straight into bed.  Go on, I'll lockup."

Todd moved automatically.  Feeling distinctly calmer at the familiarity of it, calmed by his own tone and Todd responding to it, Stephen locked the doors and followed him, stripping his shirt off and stuffing it in the laundry basket on the way out of Todd's sight.  Whatever else went on outside the house, here his priority was and was always Todd.  Nothing else outweighed him.  Remembering that in the light of what else he'd seen tonight, Stephen went into their room, nearly overwhelmed by his own feelings of tenderness and of establishing a sense of being centered.  He knew what to do, he knew what Todd needed and knowing it he was no longer tired or shaky or panicky.  He turned the overhead light on and put the lamp on instead, a quieter light, before he sat down on the edge of the bed.  Todd promptly scooted across to him, curling up with his head against Stephen's stomach.  Stephen stroked his hair, smoothing it back from his face and held him.

"Did you get the lights out on time?"

"Nearly on time."

"How nearly?"

"That doesn't matter now!"  Todd pulled away to see his face ,still white.

"What happened?"

"Just a fight, that's all.  They happen sometimes, and I had to deal with it."

"Who got hurt?"

"Just a kid.  And I asked you a question.  What time did the lights go out?"

"It was...11:45.  I had the tv on and they showed a clip of Robin Williams on the Tonight Show.  I wanted to see that," Todd finished quietly, the events of the evening not mattering nearly as much now that he was focused on Stephen and his reaction to that news.

"Well, young man, you can count on an early bed tomorrow night, and I don't want to hear a SINGLE complaint from you about it.  I can't be here every minute of the day, and I expect you to obey me when I tell you to do things
in my absence."

Todd ducked his head back into Stephen's lap without a word.

"Understood?"  Stephen prompted.

"Yes, sir," Todd muttered, sounding a little more sleepy.

"Let's get under the covers, and I'll tell you what happened."

Todd scooted over to his side of the bed and slid back down into the covers, curling up against Steve.

Stephen absently ran his fingers through Todd's hair and began to recount the evening.  From his tone it was like any of the other evenings they talked about when he came home.  He made it as unsensational as possible, a group of kids, one of whom drank a little more than he should have done.  The barman on duty had refused to serve him when he tried to order more drinks, an argument broke out and the kid's friends intervened.  A knife was pulled and one of the kids...

Stephen didn't reach that point   Todd was quiet against him, relaxing gradually.  Stephen leaned closer on impulse and kissed him, reminded of another kid who was in hospital, badly hurt tonight.  Had he buckled and allowed Todd to be in that bar – Stephen pushed that thought away and concentrated on what mattered.  Them.  Here.  Now.

"It's late, sweetheart, you shouldn't be awake now.  Move over, I'm going to get ready for bed and we're going to get
some sleep."

"Okay," Todd said sleepily.

Stephen got up and took a shower.  He tried as best he could to wash the memories of the night down the drain with the few spot of dried blood that remained on his chest.  He kept picturing the boy's look of fear as he had cradled him until the paramedics arrived, Tyler having disarmed and subdued the one that did the stabbing.  The paramedics said it looked pretty bad, that the boy might not make it.  After the boy was removed, the questioning went on for what seemed like forever.  There'd been so many officers, and questions, and investigators taking pictures of everything.  And once they finally left, Stephen, alone, cleaned up the mess.  He'd sent everyone else home, refused the help.  And while he was cleaning, he couldn't help but think of the repercussions that were going to take place. WOULD there be business in the future?  WOULD he be dragged into a lawsuit for serving beer to people that might have had a little too much to drink.  He fumed silently about the law that was recently passed, holding bar tenders somewhat responsible for the acts of their customers if they do something stupid after drinking too much.  And all the while, thanking the heavens above that he'd not allowed Todd to help
tonight.

The water running cold finally brought Stephen out of his musings and he rinsed the soap from his chest, surprised to find that he'd reddened the skin with the force he'd used.  He toweled off and slid into bed next to Todd, who was sound asleep.

Todd slept soundly. Stephen eventually gave up trying to sleep and lay listening to his breathing, deep and soft and steady.  He was grateful when there was enough light outside to get out of bed and head downstairs.  There were some drops of blood in the hallway that he hadn't noticed last night.  Stephen wiped them up and checked there was no other evidence in the hallway.  It was warm enough that he opened the back door and the windows, breathing in the dampness from the garden.  It helped.  Tired, head aching, stomach tight, Stephen stood in the doorway, making
a deliberate effort to relax.  The dishwasher was unemptied, the light still blinking.  Stephen stifled a smile in spite of himself.  Todd.  He turned the machine off and opened the door, making a mental note to remind Todd about basic household maintenance.  Again.  He opened the fridge and  began to take things out.  If he had the time –and the bar wouldn't open this morning – they could have the kind of breakfast that took serious effort.

He was in the process of cracking eggs into a bowl when he heard the unmistakable sound of the newspaper hitting the front porch.  After he fished out the shell he had dropped into the eggs, he rinsed his hands and went to get the paper.  As he suspected, the story was front page news.  He skimmed the article, his stomach twisting in horror at the picture showing the blood on the floor of his bar.  The article stated that the victim's condition was unknown at the time of printing.  He took the paper and laid it down under some others in the recycling bin, not wanting Todd
to see the carnage.  He sat down for a strong cup of coffee before getting up to finish making the breakfast.

Twenty minutes later he had everything nearly completed.  He climbed the stairs slowly, stepping into their bedroom.  Todd as sprawled sideways across the bed, the sheet barely covering one leg.  He went around to the side where Todd's head lay, gently brushing the mess of hair out of his eyes.

"Wake up sleepy head.  I have breakfast ready."

"Hmm?" Todd rolled over towards him, stretching, and smiled.  "Hi.  Wow, what are you cooking?"

"Breakfast, I told you."

"You don't usually cook midweek -" Todd broke off, remembering last night.  Stephen touched his face.

"The bar's going to be closed for a few days.  Which means I have all the more time and attention to put in around here.  Put a robe on, breakfast will be cold in a minute."

Todd rolled out of bed and grabbed for a robe.  "What are you going to do all day?"

"Garden.  Clean."  Stephen looked at Todd, eyebrows raised.  "Empty the dishwasher."

"I meant to-"

"Somehow that never works out though, does it?"  Stephen swatted him firmly as they headed for the stairs.  "How about instead of meaning to, you just do it?"

Todd rubbed the sting out of the swat.  "Ow, meanie.  If you haven't noticed, I don't wear Nikes."

"What does - oh.  You're a funny one this morning, aren't you?"  Stephen replied as they walked into the kitchen.

"I try,"

"Anything else needed?"  Stephen asked before sitting down.

"No, oh wait.  Jelly for the biscuits?"

Stephen got the jelly and sat down to eat.

"Last night?"  Todd said hesitantly, stirring eggs.  Stephen glanced up.  Todd swallowed.

"Is the kid okay?  I heard it on the radio upstairs-"

Damn.  Stephen put his fork down and put a hand out to cover Todd's.

"I don't know.  I'll ring the hospital this morning but there isn't much we can do.  He's in the best hands."

Todd nodded.  Stephen squeezed his hand.

"Try not to worry about it."

"Are you in much trouble?"

"No.  No, just that we need to cooperate with the police gaining evidence.  It's okay.  Eat, come on."

"I can't eat this much this early."

"Then try.  You never eat half enough breakfast."

"You fix enough for three people."

"Don't argue, eat," Stephen replied, taking a bite of his eggs.

Todd screwed up his face for a retort, but the look he got across the table caused him to skip that and begin eating.

Stephen ate a few more bites of food before he put his fork down.

Todd did the same and went to get up.

"Where are you going?"  Stephen asked.

"You look done, I think I'm done too."

"Sit down."

"Why?"

"NOW," Stephen said, his voice in the most warning tone.

Todd flopped back down.  "Why?" he ventured again.

"You need to finish your plate."

"But you aren't!"  Todd replied.

"I will, but that doesn't affect you," Stephen said.  He picked up his fork and began eating again.

Todd groaned inwardly, but soon finished what was on his plate.  He picked up his dish and placed it next to the sink."  I need to get ready for work."

"Yes, don't want you to be late.  But you're coming STRAIGHT home afterwards and finish the chores that should have been done yesterday."

Todd rolled his eyes skywards.

"You SAID have a good evening-"

"And clean."  Stephen caught his chin and kissed him.  "Five pm."

"Five thirty."

"Five."  Stephen snatched another kiss and let him go.  "What do you want for lunch?"

"I'll get something."

"No, what do you want to take?  I've got the time and it's better for you than the junk you buy.  Sandwiches?"

"Stepheeeeeeennnn...."

"Cheese?"

"Arg!"

"That's not a word."  Stephen said, grinning.  Todd ran upstairs, shaking his head.  Stephen made sandwiches, found fruit and found himself whistling, his mood lifting as he heard Todd clunking about overhead.

"There." He said when Todd came back down, suited and ready.  "Take a coat.  And some water."

"I like it better when you work!"  Todd complained.

"I know.  So I'm taking FULL advantage while I'm home.  Get used to it."  Todd grabbed a jacket and took his lunch and a bottle of water, shoving it into his briefcase.  He kissed Stephen quickly before running out the door.  "See you at five-thirty!"

Stephen caught the door on the rebound.  "Unless you want it to be the rest of the week, I'll see you at five."

Todd grinned and slid into the drivers seat, making sure to buckle the belt before turning on the ignition.  He backed out of the garage, waving as the door closed down.  He got to work fifteen minutes later, pulling out his lunch and tossing it behind him on the filing cabinet.  He dug around in his top desk drawer and found fifty cents, walked down the hall to the employee break room and bought a coke.  That was his wakeup call for the day.

He checked over his schedule and realized that he needed to review the news notes for the noon news.  He printed out the copy from the computer and began skimming it.  The first headline took his breath away.  "Young man in critical condition after stabbing at a local bar."

He read it quickly, picking up the many details Stephen had left out.  By the time he finished he felt faintly sick.  Stephen was – at best – over protective.  And tending to censor any information he thought might prove upsetting, mostly which Todd appreciated.  But he'd done himself proud this time.  Todd's eyes were stinging when he finished reading, and he picked the phone up, dialing rapidly.  Stephen answered, sounding distracted.

"Hello?"

"It’s me.  I just wanted to say hi."

"Did you make it into work on time?"

"Yes, of COURSE.  What are you up to today?"

"I was thinking about going outside and enjoy the sun, maybe mow the lawn."

"That sounds good," Todd said as he absently played with a pencil.

"I thought so, since that is one of your least favorite chores," Stephen said, laughing.

Todd wisely didn't say anything and hung up, feeling a little better that Stephen was still home and didn't sound like he was brooding or upset.

Stephen WAS busy fielding phone calls from everyone.  Before lunchtime, Rolf and Joseph called, both anxious and offering any support they could.  Eric was the last to call, and from his tone, knew all about the incident from the station.

"Hey Steve.  How are you holding up?"

"Not bad."  Stephen pulled out the kitchen chair and sat down.  The lawn was mowed to within an inch of it's life.  The house sparkled.  Todd's shirts were ironed to the point of standing up on their own.  It was something of a relief to have a fresh distraction.

"Have you heard anything about the kid?"

"I'm sorry Steve, that's why I'm ringing.  I'm afraid he died an hour ago.  We've just been notified."

"Ohno."  Stephen said softly.  Eric's voice was very gentle.

"I'm just coming off duty and Michael won't be home for hours yet.  Want some company?"

"No."  Stephen pulled himself together with an effort.  "No, I need to ring around the bar staff, make arrangements - we're going to have to stay closed until this is sorted out."

"I'm guessing you'll have to give a further statement."  Eric said gently.  "While the situation's under review.  I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault."  Stephen rubbed his eyes, very tired suddenly.  "He was only a kid, Eric.  Looked just like Todd and Michael used to when they were finishing college.  Just a boisterous, over hyped kid."

"You're sure you don't need some company?"

"Yes, but thanks," Stephen said, standing up.  "I do need to get things in order at the bar.  Shipments, people...."

"Call if you need anything.  I'm SERIOUS."

"Thanks.  Talk to you later."  Stephen hung the phone up, resting against the counter.  Dead.  The boy was dead.  He stood against the counter lost in thought until the phone rang again, startling him.

"Steve?  I just heard on the news.  He died."

"I know," Stephen said, pacing in his kitchen.

"What does that mean for us?"  Tyler asked, sounding more worried and upset.

"We'll have to give another statement as they continue to investigate.  I've got about three hours before Todd comes home, let's meet at the bar and see what we can do about the schedule."

"See you in fifteen then?"

"Yes," Stephen said, hanging the phone up.  As long as he had things to do, he was able to push the thoughts from his mind.  He grabbed his wallet and keys, checking to make sure the answering machine was on and headed over to the bar.


*****


Stephen was still locking his car when Todd pulled onto the drive.  He got out, eyes on Stephen standing on the doorstep and waiting.  He looked tired and strained and untidy.  Stephen was never untidy.  Todd dropped his jacket what and bag and walked straight into his arms, pushing his hair back.

"What?"

"Nothing.  Hi."  Stephen kissed him.  "I had a few things to sort out at the club."

"Like what?"  Todd demanded, letting him go.  Stephen touched his face.

"Just organizing things.  How was your day?"

"Fine.  Except I was worrying about you."

"Pick your things up."

Todd jogged back to lock his car.  Stephen opened the front door and headed through towards the garden.

"How about we barbecue tonight?  It’s the right weather, we can sit outside and eat."

"My God Steve what DIDN'T you polish?"  Todd dropped his jacket on the table and stared.

Stephen stopped at the door, turning around.  "I didn't polish EVERYTHING.  And I didn't empty the dishwasher," he finished pointedly.

"Okay. I get the message," Todd groused as he pulled down the door to the machine.  "And barbeque sounds good."

"I'll get the grill started then.  Get out of your work clothes before you come outside,"  Stephen said as he closed the screen door behind him.

Todd put the dishes away, grumbling the entire time.  He headed upstairs and took off his clothes and slid into shorts and a tshirt, grabbed some sandals and headed back downstairs, leaving the clothes on the floor.

He poured himself an iced tea, then looked in the pantry for something to eat.  Grabbing a handful of cookies and a paper towel, he headed outside to sit on the porch while Stephen worked his magic on the grill.

"Todd?  You can put those cookies away, dinner will be ready in under thirty minutes,"  Stephen said as he reassembled the cleaned grill.

"I just have a couple-"

"Put ALL of them back," Steve said as he passed by and held open the door for Todd.  "You know how I feel about eating before dinner."

Todd put his glass down a little harder than he needed to, and spilled a little tea.

Stephen gave him a long, warning look.

"Put the cookies back, right now, clean that up and think VERY carefully about pouting at me."

Todd pouted, but got up and went back to the kitchen.  There he ate one of the cookies for form's sake before he put the rest away.  Stephen was lighting the grill when he went back out.  Todd mopped up the spilt iced tea, watching his shoulders - hunched, quiet  .He realized after a minute that Stephen had no awareness he was there.  The realization made him feel as if he were miles away and suddenly very lonely.  Unable to stand it, he went across and wrapped his arms around Stephen's waist, laying his head against his back.  Stephen put a hand over his but otherwise didn't respond.  Todd hugged him a little harder, even more disturbed.

"Steve?  Do you want anything out of the freezer?"

"No, I'll get it."  Stephen gently disentangled him and went back to the kitchen.  Todd sat down on the steps, unhappy.

Stephen reemerged a few minutes later with a plate of chicken and some ears of corn for the grill.  He stepped around Todd and went to work, lost in thought.

Todd watched for a moment before he got up and walked back over to Stephen, circling his waist again with his hands.

"Sweetheart, I don't want you to get burned, and I need to move.  Have a seat on the porch."

Todd sighed and let go, wonderingly unhappily back to the porch.  He only sat there for a few minutes before going back inside.  He couldn't stand to see Stephen so quiet.  He quickly got the table set and started a sink of water for the dishes to be washed later, washing up the few that had already been used.

Stephen brought the plate of meat and corn in a minute later, doing nothing more than glance at the now immaculate sink and washed dishes.  Todd silently put two plates down on the table, sat and concentrated on being as quiet as possible while they ate.  The grill, as always, was done to perfection, but Todd still nearly choked on it.  At the end of the meal he rose and took the plates, clearing the debris and running the plates under water before putting them in the dishwasher.  Stephen didn't look round, eyes still fixed on the table, face impassive.  Even when Todd put a mug of coffee in front of him he did no more than glance up briefly, lips twitching just a little in what might have been a split second smile.

Todd wasn't up to more silence, so he headed upstairs and started cleaning.  He worked slowly, stopping every once in a while to listen for sounds of Stephen, but the house remained eerily silent.  Finally he couldn't stand the silence any longer, and went to find his lover.

When he entered the kitchen, he found Stephen in the same place, the newspaper spread out before him but looking untouched.  He walked around behind Steve's chair and hugged him.

"Want to go for a walk?" he asked quietly into Stephen's ear.

"Sure, baby," Stephen replied, blinking back to the present.

"I'll get my shoes."  Todd went over to the closet and pulled out his tennis shoes and slid his feet into them, anxious to get out of the house.  "Ready," he said, returning to the kitchen.

Stephen folded the unread paper up and put it in the pile with the others and grabbed his keys.  "Front door locked?"

"Yes," Todd replied, opening the side door.

The evening was warm and sunny and once outside, Stephen's hand automatically slid into Todd's.  Todd gripped it, feeling his tension ease a little.  They walked in silence to the end of the road and turned into the park, following their usual route towards the river.  Todd absentmindedly began to scuff at the leaves, kicking them out of the way, then cast a guilty look at Stephen as he realized what he was doing.  The usual lecture on damage to shoes and gutters was not forthcoming.  Stephen wasn't even looking.  Dispirited, Todd once more returned to walking meekly and quietly beside him.

When they neared the river, Stephen took a seat on their usual bench, overlooking the curve in the water.  Todd sat down beside him for a few moments, but couldn't stand the distance in his eyes, or the sad slump of the shoulders any longer.  He stood up and walked a little ways away.  He looked back and noticed Stephen was still lost in thought.

Looking back towards the river, he spotted the rock outcropping he usually sat on when alone.  Stephen wouldn't let him climb it when they were together.  He took one more look at Stephen and headed in that direction.  He slowly made his way out to the point, expecting at any moment to hear Stephen roar his disapproval.  When he got to his spot and sat down, he was seriously upset that Stephen hadn't even noticed him.  He turned around, finding Stephen still staring sightlessly at the river.

Todd pulled his legs up to his chin, wrapping his arms around them and laid his head down on his knees. He remained that way until he noticed something out of the corner of his eye.  When he moved his head in that direction, he saw a large spider about a foot away.  He let out a strangled yelp and quickly stood up, rocks being dislodged and clattering down the steep embankment and onto the rocky beach far below.  The rock under his left foot gave way, and he fell full-length on the outcropping, a loud scream ending when the wind was knocked out of him.

Stephen jumped up, his gaze quickly scanning the area in near abject terror, certain Todd's lifeless body was lying next to the river.  He spotted Todd standing up unsteadily, looking as if he were in one piece, still precariously balanced on the rocks.  His shout was loud enough to startle even himself as he started to run, heart thumping.

"TODD STAND STILL!"

Todd froze, head jerking up towards him.  Stephen hesitated at the foot of the rocks, checking them for a safe foothold before he braced himself against them and held out his arms.

"Come here.  Right now."

Todd moved unsteadily towards him and Stephen grabbed him by the waist, lifting him down to the grass.  There he made a hasty and thorough check of his partner, looking for any signs of breaks, bleeding or concussion.  There were two good scrapes, one along his forearm, the other on his knee from the fall.

"There was a spider-" Todd began, recognizing the look on Stephen's face which said if he wasn't worried how damaged Todd was, he'd be thoroughly swatted by now.  Stephen's Look made him trail off.

"You KNOW you're not allowed up there and I've told you exactly why!  You could have broken your neck up there!"

"I'm sorry-"

"What hurts?"  Stephen turned him around, running his hands over his ribs.  "Did you knock your head?"

"No-"

"Then we're going to walk back to the bench and sit there for a while until you're in a fit state to go home.  And when we do, young man, we are going to discuss why you couldn't remember you are NOT allowed upon that rock heap."

Todd hung his head and walked quickly over to the bench ahead of Stephen, trying not to favor his leg or his arm but wincing just the same.  He settled down, letting Stephen fuss over him until he was assured that he was going to live.

Ten minutes later when Todd had recovered some of his normal energy and color, Stephen stood up, holding out his hand."  Let's get back to the house and get those cuts cleaned."

"Yes, sir," Todd said quietly, sliding his hand into Stephens and standing up.  He tried dragging his feet a little, not interested in getting home anytime soon, but Stephen was walking with purpose.

"Unless you want to start our discussion on the side of the road, I suggest you walk with me," Stephen said conversationally.

Todd gave up and walked along without protest, noticing that Stephen was quite focused in the here and now, his shoulders no longer slumped.





_________________________________________________________________

They passed several neighbors on the way home, all of which were met with Stephen's usual nod and smile and the easy chat Todd often envied.  Part of him was reaching his usual pre-trouble stage of wishing Stephen would shut up and stop annoying him further.  But another part of him appreciated seeing him smile about anything.  It had to be better than the mood he'd been in all evening.

They reached home far too quickly for Todd's liking.  Stephen led him through to the kitchen, keeping a firm hold on his hand, and deposited him in the nearest chair while he took the first aid kit down from the shelf.

"Does any of that still hurt?"

"Sore like I've bruised it."  Todd conceded, looking down at his knee.  Stephen sat down beside him, antiseptic in hand and began to go over him calmly and gently, cleaning each scrape as he found it.  Despite himself, Todd began to relax, his jangled nerves soothed by Stephen's steady voice and hands.  Stephen took the longest to clean the cut on his knee as it was still bleeding, sluggishly but steadily, until finally Stephen sat back and pulled Todd out of his chair and into his lap where they could both relax while he put sufficient pressure over the cut to stop the blood.  Todd curled up against him, the scrapes stinging slightly from the antiseptic, but feeling warm and clean and cared about.

Once Stephen was sure the bleeding had stopped, he settled Todd back into the chair and bandaged the leg.  He dropped a couple of bandaids on the scrapes on the arms and put the first aid kit back on the shelf.  He settled against the counter, eyeing Todd sternly.  "Now WHY was it you're not allowed on that pile of rocks?"

Todd wriggled uncomfortably in his chair in the face of the stern look.  "Because I might get hurt?"  Todd said, nearly swallowing the last of his sentence.

"Very good, and exactly what happened tonight," Stephen said, eyes not wavering.

"But there was a SPIDER," Todd said in his defense.

"And you almost fell!" Stephen said as he stood up from the counter.  "Do you think it's going to help me any to be able to point the spider out to the police and emergency personnel and say 'It was his fault'? Do you think I can take that spider to court and get any sort of payment for my grief over your death or grievous injuries?"

Todd dropped his eyes, unable to handle the shame he felt. He absently started to pick at the bandage on his arm.

"Todd," Stephen said with authority.

Todd quickly dropped his hand and looked up with wide eyes.

"Those rocks are off limits. You knew that and chose to disobey me. Get upstairs and get ready for bed, I'll be up in a few minutes to help you remember to do as I say."

Todd headed upstairs, resisting the urge to pull a face. Upstairs, he dithered for a while, half debating turning the computer on and trying to mail Michael. Or Matthew. Matthew might be banned from computers but Todd - along with Michael and Chris- had a running book that that didn't slow Matthew and Marc up for long. The sound of Stephen headed upstairs made him abandon the idea in a hurry and dive into the shower.

Stephen heard the shower start as he reached the top of the stairs. He shook his head but decided not to drag him out of the middle of it. After the fall, a shower was exactly what was needed.

Todd used up all the hot water he could find before turning off the taps and getting out. He started a rough rubdown, but winced when he hit one of the scratches and slowed down. He heard one of the springs creak on the bed and his stomach flipped.

After brushing his teeth he finally opened the door, wishing he had thought to bring his pajamas into the bathroom with him. He headed towards the chair where they were, when Stephen's voice stopped him.

"You won't be needing those yet. Come here, please," Stephen said evenly.

Todd stopped and turned towards Stephen, his feet dragging on the carpet.

"I'm really sorry about the rocks."

"So am I," Stephen said, his hand outstretched. "It would make things a lot more pleasant if you learned to listen to me speaking, and not my hand."

Todd had the grace to blush, timidly holding out his hand to Stephen.

Stephen pulled Todd to him and bent him across his left thigh. He left his left hand across Todd's lower back raised his right up and delivered a series of stinging swats to Todd's white bottom.

The only sound in the room was the slapping of skin, and Todd's quick breathing. After about a dozen of the swats, Todd could no longer swallow around the lump that had formed in his throat and began sobbing, his hands curling in the comforter over the bed, his toes doing the same thing to the carpet. He tried shifting weight on his feet, but the swats still rained down mercilessly.

Just as Todd was about to start begging for the end, Stephen stopped.

Todd quickly stood up and buried his face into Stephen's neck, sobbing more from the embarrassment and shame than the pain, even though it DID hurt.

Stephen turned him around and pulled him into his lap, shifting them both backward until he could lean against the headboard. It took several minutes before Todd's sobs moved from 'it hurts' to 'you're mad at me'. Stephen palmed his smooth back in long, slow strokes, outlining his spine from neck to waist, feeling the shuddering under his hand gradually quieten. Todd shifted inside his other arm, not trying to get loose, just wanting to turn his face to breathe more easily.

"I'm sorry."

"I know." Stephen said softly, "It's allright, it's over now."

Todd didn't answer, turning his head more deeply into Stephen's shoulder.

"Here." Stephen said after a minute, reaching with Todd still locked against him for the abandoned pyjamas, "You're going to get cold, put these on."

"Nooooo..."

"Yes." Stephen said gently, pulling the t shirt over his head. Todd unwillingly let go and co operated, wincing and tears welling afresh when Stephen helped him into the shorts. Stephen didn't comment. Just kicked the quilt out of the way, held out his arms again and settled back, Todd deep in his arms, his lips against Todd's hair, and let Todd fall asleep that way.

Todd woke up only enough to roll over when Stephen slid out from under him and tucked him in. He was back asleep almost instantly.

Stephen went back downstairs and into the office. The flow of paperwork didn't stop, even if the bar was currently closed. After an hour of the boring stuff, he locked up downstairs and retired for the night as well.

Sunday came quietly, just the way both men preferred it. The birds started chirping outside in the trees, bringing them slowly to consciousness.

Todd rolled over and buried himself against Steve's side, savoring the warmth still there.

Stephen instinctively pulled Todd closer before he was even fully aware of what he was doing.

"Morning sweetheart,"

"Morning," Todd mumbled.

"Looks like the sun is up already. At least we don't have the rain that was forecasted," Stephen said as he stretched.

"It'll rain as soon as I'm ready to go outside," Todd said as he rolled over and stretched to fill every available inch of the bed.

"You were a cat in a previous incarnation." Stephen said, grinning. "Come here-"

Todd grunted at the tight hug Stephen gave him, then rolled to his feet, going to the mirror and slipping his shorts down enough at the back to see the colour of his skin.

"Not a mark." Stephen teased him, following with another gentle swat. "Get dressed and come downstairs, I'll sort out breakfast."

"It's Sunday morning!" Todd said, somewhat surprised.

Stephen raised his eyebrows. "Yes. So come straight down for breakfast please."

That was a little more authoritative for a usual Sunday morning, unless he was in trouble, but Todd knew the tone and didn't argue with it.

Stephen headed downstairs and set out some bacon and eggs and started some toast.

Todd took a few minutes to stretch while he had the full area of the bed, then sat up, rubbing his eyes. He wasn't sure what the day held as Stephen usually didn't have command performance breakfasts. He pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt, pulled some socks on and headed down as the smell of bacon began wafting up the stairs.

As he stepped into the kitchen, he wrapped his arms around Stephen's waist and leaned against him. "Smells good."

"Yes, it does. Why don't you pour some orange juice and I'll get this on the table."

Todd pulled two glasses from the cabinet and got the juice from the fridge, taking a swig before pouring it into the glasses.

"Todd!"

"Sorry," Todd said sheepishly, pouring the juice.

Stephen just shook his head and served the breakfast.

He was putting the plates on the table when he saw Todd's glass and frowned.

"Todd, that isn't enough to keep a flea alive. Try filling it up."

"I don't like this brand." Todd said mildly, "You have it, I'll make some coffee-"

"You need the vitamins."

"I don't LIKE it." Todd repeated, a little taken aback at the tone. Stephen held out a hand for the glass. Todd surrendered it, a little unsure of what Stephen intended. Stephen filled the glass to the top with juice and put it down on the table.

"Sit down and drink that. And I don't want to hear it. You need something decent inside you with all the junk you eat."

"WHEN do I get to eat junk???" Todd said indignantly, but under his breath. Unlike SOME people he knew, he didn't get to sit in an office and eat candy out of sight of the diet police. Stephen sat down opposite him and started to eat, watching him in a way that suggested he was going to be all over Todd if he didn't do the same. Obviously it was going to be one of THOSE days. Todd sighed and picked up his fork.

"What are we going to do today?"

"Clean. And get the garden under control." Stephen leaned back to glance out of the window. "Maybe think about washing the windows while we're at it."

SO typical, Todd reflected. A few days off work and were they used for a little R&R? OH no. Lets scrub the world clean and then polish it.

"I did say I'd call Michael..." he risked gently. Stephen didn't even rise to the bait.

"You have as much responsibility here as I do. You can call Michael this evening."

"We meant to go out." Todd pointed out. Stephen shook his head.

"You don't need to go anywhere today."

"I didn't do anything except fall off some rocks!" Todd said hotly. Stephen glanced up at him in surprise, then put a hand out to stop his banging his fork down.

"Sweetheart I know. I'm not mad at you, its okay. I promise."

"Then WHY can't I go? This is the weekend for goodness sakes, I'd like some time to play!"

"You usually have time to play, but I'm going to be home instead of working, and that's the best time to get some of these larger chores done. Michael will be able to go during the week or next weekend."

"But I --"

"That's enough. Finish your breakfast." Stephen got up and carried his plate over to the counter and started filling up the sink to do the dishes.

Todd sat back, huffing with disgust.

"Todd..." Stephen said warningly, turning around.

"WHAT?" Todd exploded, standing up. "What NOW? What ELSE does Your Highness require?" Todd said, shaking with anger. Stephen's eyebrows rose, along with his finger, directed at the patch of kitchen floor directly in front of him.

"Here. NOW."

Todd hesitated. Stephen's voice sharpened.

"NOW."

Todd moved, unwillingly. And found himself steered to the sink, where he watched a bar of soap being lathered up.

"I'm sorry," he managed before the soap reached his mouth, "I didn't mean it, it just isn't fair! I haven't done anything awful, you DON'T need to be all over me like this, I don't understand what you're mad about!"

"Right now, about you speaking to me in that tone of voice, never mind that language." Stephen said sternly. "Open."

Todd glared at him, eyes full of tears, partly of distress, partly of fury. Stephen saw them and slowed down, quietening his voice.

"Todd. How ever upset you are with me, is it okay to speak to me like that?"

He waited. Eventually Todd shook his head. Stephen's voice was still calm.

"Do I speak to you like that?"

Todd shook his head again, not looking at him. Stephen put a hand under his chin.

"Does it help anything to be rude or unkind, especially between the two of us?"

Todd shook his head once more, eyes really full now. Stephen tapped his shoulder.

"Open please."

Todd shut his eyes as Stephen put the bar of soap into his mouth and moved slowly towards his allocated corner.

The first few minutes of standing with the soap in his mouth weren't bad, but before too long the soap flavor worked it's way around his mouth, and the spit worked its way around the bar. He wanted to cry at his predicament but knew that would only make the situation worse. He cupped his hands, trying not to make a mess, and moaned at Stephen as if to say "get this out".

Stephen let him stand there for ten minutes, finishing up the dishes from breakfast. "Come here."

Todd turned and walked quickly to the sink, wanting to spit the bar out but waiting for Stephen to grab it. As soon as Stephen had the bar, Todd started spitting furiously into the sink, trying to get the flavor out of his mouth. Eggs weren't his favorite food, but combined with soap he decided he'd never again run his mouth at breakfast time.

Stephen ran a small amount of water into a glass and handed it to Todd, who took it and drained it in one gulp, swishing it for all he was worth.

"That's enough." Stephen took a paper towel and handed it to Todd, who used it to wash his face and then spit into it two or three times more, before Stephen confiscated that.

"Go upstairs and get your jacket and old jeans on. We'll start in the garden now while it's still cool. NO WATER," he reprimanded as Todd ran up the stairs.

At the top of the stairs, out of sight, Todd paused and angrily wiped at the tears gathering. It took several minutes of standing, breathing hard and swallowing hard before he could go into the bedroom and start dressing. The phone beside the bed rang while he was fumbling his way into jeans, and he sat down to answer it, trying to keep his voice steady.

"Hello?"

"What's up?"

"Matthew. You're nuts, I thought you were grounded until the next millenium."

"I laugh in the face of danger. And Rolf's mowing." Matthew sounded cheerful, as he usually did when he was tightrope walking. "What's the matter? You sound......"

"Stephen is being an ass. I just finished eggs a la Dove. And I don't mean chocolate."

"MMmmmmm, makes me feel lucky today. Thanks!"

"Dumbass. What ARE you doing?"

Matthew sighed. "I'm fucking ass bored - to - death! I'm tired of reading. I'm tired of puzzles. I want a tv, a computer, Nintendo - shit, I've got to go. Bye!"

Todd didn't even get the chance to say bye before he heard the dial tone. He finished putting on his clothes, his mind momentarily off his own troubles and hoping that Matthew was quick enough not to get caught. He headed downstairs.

"Who was that on the phone?" Stephen asked as Todd rounded the corner.

Todd nearly choked. "God, you don't NEED to scare me!" he said, looking up at Stephen.

"Sorry, didn't know you were jumpy today. Who was it?" he asked again.

"Just a wrong number. Some guy trying to reach the Randolph residence. Didn't quite take no as an answer," Todd lied smoothly, wanting in no way to add to Matthew's or his own troubles.
"Ready to get started?"


*************


"DON'T mow there you'll hit a rock. Come AWAY from those bushes, they're thorned. Have a drink, it's hot out here, you'll get dehydrated. LEAVE those tiles, you're not safe climbing the ladder. Wash that scrape NOW, and I'll put disinfectant on it, and a band aid, you can get tetanus from getting earth in cuts. Take a nap, you've been working hard all morning. Nap indoors, it's too bright out here and too noisy, you won't rest."

By lunchtime, Todd was seriously considering going insane. Stephen ought to have lost his voice by now. He wasn't snappy either: patient, interested and supervising every breath Todd took and every inch of earth he touched.

Somewhere during the debate on the nap, Todd's temper snapped. There were a few shouted comments, one hurled spade and Stephen manhandled him up the back steps into the kitchen, shutting the door behind them.

He was straightening the still immaculate kitchen when the phone rang half an hour later. Stephen picked it up quickly, mindful of Todd who was asleep and still sniffling faintly on the sofa in the darkened living room.

"Hello?"

"It's Rolf. How are things?"

Stephen pulled out a chair at the table and sat down. "Not bad. Someone I know is being a bit of a handful, but that's nothing new when there's gardening to be done."

"That sounds familiar. I have it on good authority that things weren't going too well today."

Stephen frowned for a moment, confused, then groaned. "Yours or mine?"

"Matthew. Apparently bored with lack of contact."

"That didn't take long," Stephen said, shaking his head.

"No, but then it never does. I may be assuming incorrectly, but the only thing I can think of is that he was missing me for those few minutes he was out of my sight," Rolf said, chuckling.

"I'll bet he'll get enough of you for the next couple of days anyway."

"Probably entirely too much, but we'll get through it. Speaking of too much time together, you are still planning on the weekend at the cabin, aren't you?"

"I'm not entirely sure," Stephen responded, sitting back. "Even with the bar closed down, there's still endless paperwork that needs to be done, the attorneys are --"

"What is the latest news from Joe?" Rolf interrupted. "I thought you were free to re open from what he told me."

"Not exactly. I don't want to re open until the inquest is done. They're probably going to press charges."

"Steve there's no reason why they should. You know that," Rolf said gently. "You did nothing wrong, the bar did nothing wrong."

"But they can charge us for allowing the kid to get drunk on the premises. He was so young."

"What are you and Todd doing for dinner tonight?" Rolf said matter of factly. Stephen rubbed his eyes, glancing through the doorway.

"Todd's pretty unsettled by all this- we're having a rough few days, he's needing a lot of attention right now. I think we're better off staying home and taking the time alone together."

"I can understand that. Matthew probably shouldn't be left alone tonight anyway. But you DO need the weekend away, both of you. Use the next few days to reconnect with Todd, then take a few days off with the rest of the gang. Then I think you need to come back and think about re opening."

"Yes, you're probably right. The weekend away will be nice before getting back into the groove. I'll talk to Todd about not speaking to Matthew if he tries to call again."

"Thank you, though I hope my discussion with Matthew cleared up that particular issue," Rolf said.

"I'm sure it did for the immediate future," Stephen said, laughing.

"Take care," Rolf said before hanging up.

Stephen replaced the phone in the cradle and looked in on Todd, who still seemed to be resting. He headed back to the kitchen to figure out what they were going to have for dinner.



********************



Todd came home from work on Monday, finding Stephen at work in his office. After changing into his sweat pants and favorite shirt, he headed back down to find out what was for dinner. After finding nothing started in the kitchen, he headed back into the office.

Wrapping his arms around Stephen's neck and planting a kiss on his cheek, he asked, "What's for dinner?"

Stephen was in the middle of a stack of paperwork for the business. He had shuffled some papers over the pictures of the bar after the stabbing, blood stains clearly visible, that he had been looking at before Todd came home.

"Hello Steveo, anyone home?" Todd asked again when Stephen didn't answer right away.

Stephen pushed the papers away with an effort and turned the chair around.

"Hello sweetheart. Sorry."

"What's that?" Todd asked, peering over his shoulder. Stephen swept the papers into the folder and filed them.

"Just accounts. How was your day?"

Todd shrugged, all enthusiasm ebbing out of him. Stephen looked tired. And grim. And shuttered.

"Okay."

Usually Stephen would have asked further. Now it was obvious he was barely listening; he accepted that without a word. Just got up and headed for the kitchen.

It was spotless again. Todd wandered around it, watching Stephen silently produce a perfectly cooked meal, without even a suggestion that he change out of his rattiest shirt. Todd opened the fridge, peered at it and shut it again. Opened the back door, peered out, and shut it on the cold draught that entered. Then got a beer out from the cellar. Stephen sat down at the table and picked up his glass without comment. Todd pulled his chair out, sat down and ripped the top off the beer bottle.

Todd poked around with his food, before finally giving up and just eating. He was hungry, and Stephen cooked a good meal. He kept watching Stephen, and tried a time or two to get a conversation going, but Stephen remained distant and quiet.

Halfway through dinner, Todd got up to get a second beer. Again, nothing was said. At the end of the meal, Todd got up and silently cleared the table, stacked the dishwasher and tidied up around Stephen who sat where he was, staring into his glass. And still there was not a word. Todd took the hint, slipped away and lay on the bed upstairs to watch tv, fighting the selfish urge to cry. This was not Stephen's fault, he was obviously weighed under with problems and Todd's place was to help him- not make things worse by demanding attention just because he felt left out.

He tried changing channels but couldn't find anything on. Finally totally frustrated, he flipped it off and headed downstairs. He went into the office and turned the light on, settling at the desk and computer. As long as Stephen was in a coma in the kitchen, he could get online and at least maybe have some luck finding someone to chat with.

He waited a few moments as the computer made its various connections and signed into his instant messenger. As he expected, neither Matthew or Marc was online, but Michael seemed to be.


Hottoddy: Buddy, you around?

Michaelobe: Yeah. What's up?

Hottoddy: Thought I'd see who won the bet on Matthew and Marc. Seen 'em around?

Michaelobe: No, I haven't. You?

Hottoddy: Matthew called yesterday while Rolf was mowing, but nothing on computer.

Michaelobe: He's crazy. You going this weekend?

Hottoddy: I HOPE so! Stephen needs some time away, he's thinking too much about the bar.

Michaelobe: Eric said things were finished at the bar as far as he knew. Opening again soon?

Hottoddy: I don't know. He's always doing paperwork, but he hasn't gone back over there that I know of. If only he would, when he's here he's either lost in thought or all over me!

Michaelobe: It's going to be quiet at the lake without Matthew and Marc.

Hottoddy: No, it's going to be quiet at the lake without Rolf. LOL

Michaelobe: LOL His voice does tend to carry, doesn't it? LOL LOL

Todd was going through the files on the desk, looking for a pencil and piece of paper to doodle on when Stephen walked in.

"What are you doing?"

Todd jumped and turned around. "Just talking to Michael, why?" he asked defensively.

Stephen crossed his arms and LOOKED at Todd. "Don't you have some chores that need to be completed before you play?"

"It's not like the trash will get up and walk away in the next fifteen minutes!" Todd spat.

Stephen yanked him out of his chair in one clean swipe and swatted him hard towards the kitchen.

"Do NOT use that tone of voice to me. Go do it NOW."

Todd moved, scowling. Stephen sat down, flicked hurriedly through the files and found to his flooding relief that Todd had not managed to find the picture. He locked them safely away in his drawer, turned the key and pocketed it before he turned the screen towards him.

Michaelob: Hello?

Michaelob: Hi?

Michaelob: Anyone oooooooooooooout theeeeeeeeeeeeeeere?

Hottoddy: Todd says goodbye.

Stephen typed it in and broke the connection. Todd slammed the kitchen door and Stephen shut down the computer, heading after him.

The garbage was being put out with vigour and scowling. Stephen, still caught up in the rush of adrenaline from one horrible moment of finding Todd rifling through his papers, opened the door and snapped across the driveway,

"Put that up against the wall, properly, and get yourself back in here."

"I didn't DO anything but talk to Michael!" Todd snapped back. Stephen held the door open, waiting for him.

"Since when do you sort through my papers? Do I sort through your brief case? Do I go through your private papers?"

Todd flushed. "I wasn't looking for anything other than something to draw on!"

"DO I sort through your private papers?" Stephen repeated. Todd flushed still more darkly.

"No sir."

"Exactly. NOR do you use my computer without permission, you KNOW the chances are it's set up in the middle of the accounts programme and MSN crashes it. If you need reminding of that, I can do it. For a start, the stairs need hoovering, then you can polish all the woodwork in the livingroom, skirting boards and all. Jump to it." Stephen stood aside, waiting. Todd's pout could have enabled the serving of soup from his lower lip, but he moved.

Stephen didn't move out of sight or earshot the entire time Todd was engaged in polishing. Every time Todd went to say something or stop, Stephen was clicking his fingers or making grunting noises, or worse yet, threatening bodily harm. It was nice to see Stephen out of his stupor, but this constant breathing down his neck was about to drive him insane.

When Todd had the wordwork polished perfectly, Stephen looked pointedly at his watch. "Head on upstairs and get a bath."

"It's only 9:30!" Todd said heatedly.

"And you're in need of an early night. Go on."

"So my night is DONE?!? I can't --" Todd stopped yelling when Stephen started advancing towards him.

"But that's not fair," he finished on a whine, backing towards the stairs.

"It can get a lot less fair if you don't get upstairs right now," Stephen said, swatting Todd efficiently towards the stairs.

Todd went to stomp upstairs but thought better of it as the handprint on his backside was stinging fiercely.


He ran a bath, muttering savagely at the mirror throughout, until it dawned on him that things were quiet downstairs again. No tv. No music. No sound of the computer working. Just quiet. Stomach tightening, Todd moved into the doorway of the bathroom and listened.

"I thought you were having a bath?" Stephen's voice said sternly from the foot of the stairs.

"I don't WANT a bath." Todd said automatically. And bolted for the safety of the water as Stephen's footfall headed upstairs. Stephen stayed in the vicinity of the bathroom for the next ten minutes, making several threats to bathe Todd himself if the mutters and splashing didn't stop, and to see it was a less than pleasant experience. Ten minutes later, he pulled the covers over Todd and shut the light off, pulling the curtains closed. Todd rolled over, knocking the pillows off the far side of the bed onto the floor. And looked back at Stephen with large eyes.

"It was an accident, I just stretched."

"I'll stretch you in a minute, go to sleep."

Stephen retrieved the pillows. Todd kicked the quilt off his feet and caught the Look of Certain Death, but Stephen put on the nightlight on his side of the bed, sat down and picked up a book. He was obviously going to stay around. Todd lay back, but concentrated on keeping the look of mutiny clearly visible. Stephen settled back with his book, and a few minutes later absently tangled a hand in Todd's hair, petting gently. Todd relaxed a little further, reassured, and began to think about letting himself fall asleep.


He woke early, stomach tight, mouth dry without any real understanding of what the matter was. Stephen was asleep beside him. At some point he'd clearly gone for a shower and undressed; Todd hadn't noticed him leaving. The clock by the bed stood at five am. Todd lay still for a moment, wrestling with an impulse that didn't really have words or logic to it, then slid out of bed and headed downstairs. The tv at this time of night showed only garbage anyway, but the volume always had to be VERY low not to wake Stephen who had a third ear for people watching tv during the night. Todd left the volume at it's usual setting and settled on the sofa, heart thumping. Within a minute and a half, Stephen came down stairs, blinking and with his hands planted on his hips.

"BED. NOW."

Todd shook his head, giving Stephen the most appealing look he could.

"I can't sleep."

"Then you stay in bed and rest, it's the middle of the night. Move."

Todd switched the tv off and went to Stephen's outstretched hand, dragging his feet up the stairs until Stephen swatted him to get him moving.

Actually, it was morning. This was just an early start.

Todd had unknowingly figured out that when he was keeping Stephen busy, Stephen didn't slip into the quiet and reflective moods that he had been in since the accident. Over the next couple of days, Todd played the dangerous game of cat and mouse. He tried to do just enough to gain and keep Stephen's attention, without crossing the line into serious punishment or restrictions. There were a time or two he thought maybe he'd stop when Stephen had given him a few well placed swats, but as soon as Stephen went quiet, Todd couldn't stand it and did something else. Finally it was Friday morning and time to head to the lake.

"Do you have everything packed?" Stephen asked, checking the truck for the hundredth time.

"YES," Todd said, more than ready to get on the road. He'd been able to stop by the store on the way home from work the previous day and load up on some chocolate and coke, which he had stored carefully in his back pack in the front seat. "Can't we go NOW?"

"There isn't a rush to get there," Stephen said, going back into the house to make sure things were situated for leaving.

Todd sighed dramatically and settled on the steps, eating one of the candy bars while he waited. When he heard the door open, he stuffed the wrapper in the bag and stood up. "Ready now?"

"Yes, I think we're all set. Go on in and use the bathroom before we go."

"I don't HAVE to," Todd said, already half way to the truck.

Stephen was holding the door open. "TODD." He waited until Todd turned around. "Go on, I'm not stopping five miles down the road."

Todd dropped his bag and stomped back towards the house.

"Sometime before Christmas would be nice." Stephen said politely.

The journey was long, and Todd kept an anxious eye on Stephen, fidgeting with his seat belt and the radio and the door locks until Stephen threatened to pull over if he didn't chill out. The windows went up and down like yoyos, the fan heater went on and off, the music grew louder and softer by turns as they bickered over the volume control.

Finally Todd reached into his bag and pulled out a coke and candy bar. He had barely gotten the lid unscrewed when Stephen held his hand out.

"I don't remember packing that. Hand it over, you don't need all that sugar right now."

Todd pulled away. "It's just a little coke! I'm thirsty!"

"No," Stephen said clearly.

Todd took a quick drink, and nearly spit it back up when Stephen slowed and pulled over on the side of the road. He quickly screwed the lid back on and pushed both items at Stephen. "I'm sorry, here!"

Stephen got out of the truck and shut his door, walking around the front end.

Todd lost all desire for coke and chocolate and tried to melt into the seat.

Stephen opened the truck door and grabbed Todd's bag. He took the candy bar and coke and put them back in the bag, then tossed the bag in the back seat, while Todd tried to decide if shutting the door was a good idea.

Stephen shut the back door, then Todd's door and went back around to the drivers side and got in, started the truck and went back to driving.

It took Todd several miles to swallow the lump in his throat and feel comfortable that he wasn't about to be killed. It was only about twenty more miles to the lake, and he just pretty much stayed silent, as Stephen wasn't acting calm, cool and collected.

Stephen turned off on the final road, followed that for several miles before finding the driveway to the cabin. He pulled in alongside Joe's truck and parked.

Everyone on the porch got up and headed down to help the new arrivals, Michael and Chris bounding out first, to welcome Todd.

"Todd, I want you to go straight inside to our room," Stephen said as he opened the truck door.

Todd jumped out, Stephen's comment taking a moment to register. "WHY?!? We JUST got -"

"NOW!" Stephen said sharply, pointing.

Todd ran inside, ignoring everyone else. "YOU ARE SO MEAN!" The door slammed behind him loudly.

Chris and Michael went back to the porch, talking between themselves.

"Steveo, everything alright?" Joseph asked as he reached in to help unload the truck. Stephen gave him an expressive grimace.

"Just a friend of mine in a truly wonderful mood. How was your drive down?"

"Fine, we seemed to stay ahead of the traffic on the way out of town. The new bypass is a nightmare and a half."

"I can imagine, I've seen the comments in the papers."

"It's all true. I blame the police of course."

Eric, who had sauntered across to help, grinned but said nothing, heaving the last of the backpacks out of the truck and taking it over to the porch. Then he waved to Michael, signalling him over.

"I'd guess we've got an hour or so to swim-"

He didn't need to ask twice. Chris promptly moved as well and Eric followed them, leaving Joseph to give Stephen one last, slightly wary look. He'd had a phonecall from Rolf earlier this week, one that outlined several hunches and insights that Joseph was beginning to think were well founded.

"We'll leave you two in peace for a while. Give us a shout when you start to get hungry."

"He'll settle down." Stephen said easily. "He's had a tough week."

Joseph raised his eyebrows slightly at that, but headed for the lake without comment.

Todd was curled up on the couch before the empty cabin hearth, visibly smouldering. Stephen shut the door behind him, went over and pulled Todd to his feet, taking a seat in front of him.

"Drop those jeans."

Todd's stomach plummetted and his mouth dried as his suspicions were bluntly confirmed.

"I was thirsty!"

"And there was plenty of water. What did I say about the coke?"

Todd's lip slipped out and he stared at the floor. Stephen took his hand and gave him a shake.

"Todd."

"I don't know, I didn't hear you!"

"Then let me help you with your hearing." Stephen said exasperatedly, pulling Todd closer and unbuttoning the jeans. "I said NO. Which MEANS No. Which is NOT up for discussion or negotiation, it MEANS no. And you do NOT smuggle junk food into the car when you're depending on me having my hands too full with driving to be able to stop you."

Todd's eyes filled with tears as Stephen pulled him down over his lap and his shorts followed his tugged down jeans. A hard and well placed smack made the tears overspill.

"IS THAT CLEAR?"

"Yes." Todd choked out.

Stephen let his hand fall again. The sound of the spank was almost defeaning in the silence of the cabin. All too soon those gunshot like sounds were joined by sobbing, then outright crying as Todd could do nothing but accept the spanking.

When Stephen had finished the assault on Todd's backside, he clambered up and quickly pulled his pants into place before diving into Stephen's neck. It was natural that when the gang got together that spankings would happen, but Todd hated that it was him that started off the weekend. He sulked for a long time against Stephen, who sat and just petted Todd absently until he calmed down.

"Let's go bring our stuff in, and then start on dinner?" Stephen asked when Todd had been silent for a while.

Todd pulled away and nodded, still not happy. He trailed Stephen outside.

"It's gorgeous weather out here. I'm thinking tomorrow will be picture perfect for some time on the water," Stephen said, grabbing a couple of bags from the porch.

"I guess," Todd said, taking a couple of bags and following Stephen inside and to their room. They then picked up a couple of boxes of food and brought that inside and put it away in the kitchen.

"Steaks sound good? Corn on the cob? Potatoes?"

"Yeah," Todd said, opening a bag of chips.

"Take some out and put the bag away," Stephen said as he pulled some ingredients from the fridge.

Todd grabbed a paper plate and dumped some chips out and tossed the bag back onto the counter and was going to head to the porch.

"I could use some help here. Cut an onion please? And help with the corn and the foil."

Todd was still trying to sulk, but Stephen didn't give him a chance, and when Todd realized that Stephen was actually a lot more chipper and talkative, he slowly loosened up. In just twenty minutes they had everything ready to go on the grill for everyone and Todd had recovered most of his good humor, thanks to Stephen's incessant chattering while preparing the food.

"Head on out and ring the bell for the gang. I'll get the grill started."

Todd nearly skipped outside to the bell and rang it forcefully several times. He could just barely make out the war hoop of Chris when the bell stopped clanging. He went over to the porch swing and settled down, albeit slightly uncomfortably, and watched as Stephen started the grilling process and waited for the gang to make it up the hill.

Michael and Chris arrived some way ahead of their partners, Chris as usual moving like a bat out of hell once he reached open ground. He swung up onto the porch rail ahead of Michael and grinned, an expression which wrung a smile out of Todd.

"You're nuts."

"Nah, just fast. Feel up to swimming later?"

"No one's swimming." Stephen said without turning around. Chris shrugged.

"Joseph said we would- it won't get dark until nearly ten."

"Well Todd's not swimming then." Stephen said calmly.

"WHY?" Todd demanded, startled. Stephen shifted corn onto plates.

"Because I don't like you swimming after heavy meals."

"Chris said LATER."

"And I said no." Stephen said, unrattled.

Chris and Michael exchanged glances. Obviously their friends were still in the middle of something and they knew from experience the last thing Todd would want right now was witnesses. Chris muttered something about washing and the two of them slipped out of sight into the cabin.

"WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?" Todd said, standing up. "All this over a stupid fucking coke?"

"Come here," Stephen said, turning around.

"Forget it!" Todd said, jumping off the porch and heading towards the path to the lake.

Just then Joe and Eric came though the trees.

"TODD COME HERE!" Stephen said as he put the plate of food down.

Eric caught Todd. "Hey, hey. That isn't going to help."

Joseph went on up to the porch, putting a hand on Stephen's shoulder. "Give it some time. Let's get dinner eaten before it gets cold."

Stephen looked at Joe, then at Todd who had settled in the grass, his head on his arms, Eric bending down next to him. He took a steadying breath and then turned to get the food off the grill. Joseph followed to help him.

"Let's get on up to the cabin and get some of that food before there isn't any left," Eric said gently.

"I'm not hungry," Todd replied.

"I know you and Stephen are having a bit of a hard time right now. You don't really want to ruffle his feathers any more by refusing to eat, do you?"

Todd shrugged.

"I know you better than that. Come on." Eric pulled Todd's hand up.

Todd got up, looking up at the porch to see if Stephen was standing there, waiting to yell.

"We'll eat, and after dinner we'll worry about anything else." Eric wrapped his arm around Todd and gave him squeeze, then walked with him up to the cabin. Todd walked with him slowly, reassured by the calm tone. The way Stephen usually spoke to him when he was in a state. Except Stephen was still scowling. Eric caught Joseph's eye and saw a faint shrug. Chris and Michael, moving the long way around the grill to sit as far away as possible, looked equally uncomfortable. Still keeping hold of Todd, Eric steered him towards the swing seat and sat down, using his weight to move the swing gently.

"How about a walk after dinner instead?"

"You said we could swim!" Michael said indignantly. Eric gave him a quick look of 'please?'.

"It might be nice to find something to do that we can all do together."

"Todd take your feet off the seat." Stephen said mechanically. Todd swung his feet down and hunched up in the corner of the seat, scowling still more fiercely.

"And take that look off your face." Stephen added more sharply.

"FINE, I'll take my face right away shall I?" Todd snapped back, ducking out from under Eric's arm. The door slammed behind him. Stephen swung around, about to follow him, and Eric caught his arm before he reached the door.

"Mike, take those things off the grill and you and Chris go back to the lake. NO swimming until Joe or I get there. Clear?"

Michael murmured a response, grabbed Chris's arm and Chris followed him at a nod from Joseph.

"Why don't you two go for a walk, or better still YOU swim and relax a bit, hmm?" Eric said calmly, still holding on to Stephen. "I'll make sure Todd's okay."

"He's not, he's under a lot of stress." Stephen said angrily. "I knew I should have kept him at home-"

"You're the one under stress and he's very likely just reacting to that. They don't like us off balance. Do they?"

Stephen shook his head slowly. Eric squeezed his shoulder and let go.

"Go on. The best thing you can do is cool off and calm down. I'll settle Todd down. You both need a break. Start again in the morning when you've both had time to rest."

Stephen knew he was outnumbered and started down towards the tree line with Joseph.

Eric went inside to find Todd.

"Won't you just lea --" Todd put his head back down on arms when he realized it wasn't Stephen. He was lying full length and face down on the couch.

Eric moved over to the couch and settled on the edge, one hand on Todd's shoulder. "Things are a little on edge, aren't they?" Eric said gently.

Todd's only response was a snort of laughter.

"Sit up and talk to me, hmmm?"

"No," Todd said, the pout in his voice clearly evident.

"Come on. It helps if we can talk face to face," Eric said, pulling up a bit on Todd's shoulder.

Todd heaved a great sigh, but sat up and curled into the far corner of the couch.

Eric settled back and took his hand. "Stephen's having a hard time with the events at his bar, isn't he?"

Todd nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

"He's distant and distracted some days?"

Todd nodded again.

"And when he isn't, he's concentrating only on you."

Todd couldn't help it and the tears overflowed. He didn't put up any resistance when Eric pulled him close and held onto him, and he let the sobs wash over him. Eric rubbed his back slowly, massaging the tenseness there and letting him cry himself out. He had every sympathy for both partners: this was a hard situation for Stephen and Todd couldn't help but be affected.

"I can't do anything right." Todd sobbed out eventually. "He gets mad at me if I breathe or he doesn't know I'm there-"

"Yes he does, he always knows you're there." Eric said quietly. "He's got a lot on his mind, a lot hanging over him, he must be very stressed."

"I KNOW THAT! I'm trying to HELP!"

"I know you are sweetheart, I'm sure you're the best help he has to deal with this." Eric said gently. "And it must be just as hard for you trying to work out what he wants from you and coping with things being different. That's not your fault and it's not his fault either. Stephen's trying to deal with too much to be able to be consistent- and it's unfair on you to try and cope with inconsistency-"

"He doesn't mean to!" Todd said angrily, snapping to Stephen's defence. Eric shifted him more comfortably in his arms and went on stroking his back.

"I know he doesn't. Its one of the risks you take in this kind of relationship- when you hit a crisis like this, the two of you are so intertwined it's going to put you both under a lot of strain."

"I don't know what to do to help." Todd said softly and miserably, subsiding back into Eric's neck. Eric hugged him tightly.

"You ARE helping him, you're the one that's there with him every day. And if things get hard you've got me, Joseph and Rolf to talk to, we all understand you two are under a lot of pressure. You can come and let off steam to us whenever you need to if you don't want to let it out to Stephen. This isn't going to go on forever. Once the bar reopens and things settle down you'll both be fine again. Its just waiting until the water calms a bit."

Todd nodded slowly against his neck. Eric eased him gently to his feet.

"You look exhausted. How about I get you something quick to eat and get you settled down for the night? You can get some peace and quiet before the hordes turn up and start fighting over the bathroom."

That sounded an inviting idea: Todd realised his head was pounding and he was more than ready to lie down. Eric helped him upstairs, fed him a sandwich, a glass of milk and a couple of Tylenol and finally left him under the covers, dozing in the gathering dusklight that came through the curtains, calmer and somewhat reassured.

Down at the lakeside, Stephen was sitting drying himself off on the edge of the dock, Joe a few feet away reading and keeping half an eye on Chris and Michael who were messing about in the shallows in the last of the evening sun. Stephen looked up quickly as he heard Eric, eyes anxious.

"Wouldn't he come with you?"

"He was tired out, I got him to bed." Eric sat down beside his friend, keeping his voice light. "Too much angst and drama. I gave him a couple of Tylenol, he's fast asleep."

"I should go check on him-" Stephen began, getting up. Eric grabbed him.

"You should let him sleep, he's okay. Now talk to me about you?"

Stephen subsided slowly onto the dockside. "I'm wading through the paperwork right now. You'd think it would slow with the doors closed but so far it hasn't. But in between trying to get that done and keeping the house going, Todd is requiring so much of my time."

"You've gone through a lot, and your sense of balance has been shattered. I think Todd's reacting to the loss of routine and sameness," Eric said.

"Aren't you going to reopen soon?" Joe piped up from the chair.

Stephen looked back at Joe. "It's not an overnight process. I've got to think about the changes that need to be made. I've got to get the supplies in order. I've got to get --"

"Have you been back yet?" Eric interrupted.

"No. Anthony has handled the deliveries that we didn't stop, and dropped off whatever mail got delivered there."

Eric looked into the water, thinking. Finally, he spoke up. "I think you need to go in and work on at least a partial remodel. Get yourself into looking forward, instead of back. The sooner you do that, the sooner you can open, and the better things should be between you and Todd."

"I agree," Joe said, standing up. "We've got all the proof and crime scene pictures we need, and there are no injunctions that can be brought against you not to reopen. You should work on that. And once you get the carpet up, I'd let Todd come in and help, so he can also see that things are going forward."

Stephen and Eric both stood up as well. "I think you're right. I'll work on that next week."

"Chris, Michael. Let's head on up," Eric said before turning back to the guys. "I'm famished, and I'd like to get started on those steaks you had going before the wildlife gets them."

"Be quiet when you get to the cabin, Todd's sleeping!" Eric yelled to the backs of the two younger gentleman, already scampering up the hill to the cabin. He watched Stephen's back as they followed at a slightly more dignified pace, picking up on the same tension in Stephen's broad shoulders as he'd found in Todd's. He hoped sincerely that a few days away from town would be a good start to helping them both over this hump, but he also found himself wishing Rolf and Matthew had been able to join the trip. It struck him that they needed the full complement out here to help with this one.



**************************



Todd woke late as a result of the Tylenol Eric had insisted he swallow. The sun was high outside and the cabin was quiet- a sure sign that everyone else was out. He lay for a few minutes, the tranquility and relaxation of sleep rapidly passing for a dry mouth, twisting stomach and faint nausea as reality sank back into him. From the rumpled covers beside him, Stephen had slept beside him last night. Which was vaguely reassuring. Todd's mouth dried completely as the door opened and Stephen appeared with a mug in hand. Dressed, his hair still damp, his face- still anxious. Todd's stomach promptly tightened still further in sympathy.

"Hi- I'm sorry-"

"How are you feeling?" Stephen sat down beside him and pushed his fingers through Todd's hair, straightening it. Todd climbed into his arms, the familiarity of the gesture making him want to cling. Stephen gave him a long, strong hug, kissing the top of his head.

"It's okay. It's okay. I think we should call yesterday a bad day for both of us and write it off. Lets start again today and enjoy the vacation, we both need it badly."

Todd nodded against Stephen's chest, not letting go.

"You've got to be pretty hungry. Want some breakfast?"

Todd sat up. "Yes, I am hungry. Where's the tea?"

Stephen took the mug from the dresser and handed it to Todd, who gratefully sipped it. He stood up when Stephen pushed him gently, and headed out to the kitchen table.

"Where is everyone?"

"They're at the lake. We'll go join them when we're finished eating."

"They been down there long?"

"Only about an hour. Everyone slept rather late, it being the first full day here, and after the workout they got yesterday. Eggs and bacon?"

"Yes, please. Maybe that means I'll at least get some uninterrupted time on the wave runners."

"You won't be able to stay out too long today as it's the first time you've been in the sun for such a long time."

"I'm SURE you'll coat me in grease," Todd said.

"Yes, BOTH of us. But you still won't be able to stay out long.

Todd bit back the angry response that flew to his lips. Once he got down there, there was precious little Stephen would be able to do to keep him in the shade. And with the rest of the guys, he should be fine.


"Don't lick your fingers." Stephen requested, taking the butter away from him. "Wash your hands."

"They're clean."

"We're about to eat."

Scowling, Todd got up and stuck his hands under the tap. Stephen tipped bacon and egg onto his plate. Todd took half a mouthful and reached for the salt. Stephen moved it away without looking.

"You don't need it, the bacon's salty enough."

"There's hardly any salt in it!"

"It's fine the way it is, Todd. Eat. And no, you don't need the ketchup either, that's full of additives."

"You don't usually mind about ketchup!" Todd protested. Stephen took it out of his hands and tossed it onto the draining board.

"You're not usually this wound up. You don't need any more chemicals inside you."

Todd slammed his fork down. "I'm not hungry."

"You're not going outside until you eat." Stephen said implaccably. Todd dodged around the table and headed out of the door and down the steps. He was aware of Eric sitting on the porch reading the paper as he sprinted past, heading for the woods, and of Stephen's shout behind him.

"JAMES TODD MCLAREN, COME BACK HERE!" Stephen yelled, bursting onto the porch.

"Starting again already?" Eric asked as he put the paper down.

"He didn't even get three bites of breakfast eaten before he took off," Stephen fumed. "He's going to be the death of me this weekend."

"He headed down that way. I'm sure you'll find him perched on the cliffs."

"Right where he KNOWS he's not supposed to be. I'll be back shortly." Stephen stepped off the porch and headed down the path, taking the left turn partway down that led off to the cliffs. As he suspected, Todd was sitting, arms crossed, on one of the rocks.

Todd worked hard at keeping his back to Stephen, even knowing Stephen was going to be upset about him leaving, AND coming to this place.

Stephen walked purposely up to Todd, took him by the upper arm and lifted him up. He pulled him back away from the rocks, then swatted him several times. "You do NOT run from me and you do NOT hang around these cliffs. It's dangerous."

Todd bit his lip to keep from yelling at a few particularly well aimed swats. He didn't answer, and went without argument when Stephen went back up the path, not letting go of his hand.

Stephen walked Todd back up the porch and into the kitchen, setting him at the table. "Finish that breakfast."

Todd grabbed his fork and silently finished his plate. Stephen took the plate and put down some paper with a short paragraph, and a pen. "Copy that fifty times please."

Todd snorted.

"You're not to move from that chair or utter a word until it's complete," Stephen said warningly.

Todd sat back, crossing his arms.

"I'm quite relaxed here with a book," Stephen said as he went over to the couch and picked one up. He settled down and began reading.

The pen sailed over his head and the paper tore in half.

Eric, still sitting on the porch, heard that with more than a little surprise. None of their brats, no matter how angry, he would have thought could come up with that kind of defiance. If Todd was seriously so upset and acting so out of character then obviously Stephen had every reason to be so concerned. And it was no wonder he was struggling so much to keep his cool; this kind of behaviour would push a saint to screaming point. Not wanting to interfere but also convinced now that Stephen should not have to struggle with this alone, Eric got up and quickly went into the kitchen. He caught the two of them at bay, just as Todd overturned his chair. Stephen was headed around the table to take Todd's arm. He glanced at Eric and Eric caught the brief flush of embarrassment but Stephen's voice came out a lot quieter and steadier for seeing the other man.

"Pick that up."

"NO."

Todd looked on the brink of tears. Stephen steered him to the overturned chair.

"Pick it up."

Todd, twisting in Stephen's grip, kicked out at it. Eric, used to dealing with teenagers out of control in his line of work, reacted instinctively. He grabbed Todd's wrists, twisted him around and wrapped him, folding Todd's arms across his chest and holding him off balance where he couldn't kick.

"Allright. Okay kiddo, no one wants to get hurt here. Lets sit down, hmm?"

Stephen collapsed into a chair, watching him blankly. Eric judged the distance to the nearest two chairs and moved swiftly, keeping Todd off balance and dropping him into a chair to the side of his, arms still locked around him in a professional wrap.

"He's okay." Stephen said eventually, quietly. "I'm sorry, we can handle this. We're just having a bad day."

Eric didn't move. He had restrained men professionally who were out of control, through drugs, alcohol, emotional difficulties, and he could still feel the thump of Todd's heart against his chest, see the slightly swollen veins in his wrist that meant his blood pressure was still shooting, feel his trembling and shallow breaths. And he was leaning hard against Eric, not fighting the restraint. This wasn't a strop, Todd was seriously upset.

"Steve," Eric said eventually, picking his words very carefully. "Why don't you go outside and give Joe a shout? Wait with him a while."

"No, I'm sorry you had to get involved. I can handle it from here." Stephen said wearily. Eric shook his head, trying to signal over Todd's head how seriously he felt about this.

"I need you to trust me Steve."

Stephen hesitated for a long minute, then silently got up. He took his time moving towards the door, Eric thought as if hoping that Todd would beg for him to stay. It said a lot that he didn't. For several long moments after the door shut behind Stephen Eric maintained his grip, sitting quietly, silently, waiting until the tension began to ease very slightly in Todd's body and his breathing began to calm. Gradually Eric began to shift his grip until rather than restraining he was holding, gently rubbing the arms under his hands, conveying comfort as much as containment. While he waited, he found himself wishing that Rolf had come with them: he and Joe could urgently do with a third pair of hands here.

Joe appeared fast in response to Stephen's signals, started for the kitchen door but Stephen put up a hand to stop him.

"Eric said to leave Todd to him."

"What happened?" Joe demanded, casting one more anxious look to the lake where Michael and Chris, oblivious to the crisis, were swimming.

"Todd just lost it, and Eric intervened. I asked him to copy a paragraph fifty times and got the pen tossed at me, the paper shredded and the chair overturned and kicked."

"That doesn't sound like Todd at all," Joe said.

"No. I've never seen direct disobedience like that."

"Has he mentioned anything to you about the shooting, or anything else that may be bothering him?"

"No. He's been pretty hard work since the shooting, but he's not said anything to me about being upset about it."

Joe sat down on the porch swing beside his friend and put a hand on his shoulder, worried by the exhausted tone.

"He adores you, some of this has got to be that he's picking up how upset you've been by all this. That's not your fault."

Stephen didn't answer. Joe glanced again towards the kitchen.

"Is he allright?"

"Eric -" Stephen trailed off and got up. "If anyone's going to sort him out it should be me."

"Stephen you need a break. If he's been such hard work the last few weeks then it's time to let someone else take care of him for a while and recharge yourself. And if it's your stress and strain he's so upset about then that's even more reason to leave him to someone who's not involved. Just for a few hours, that's all."

"He's MY problem." Stephen said shortly.

"I know." Joseph held up his hands, blocking the way but speaking gently. "I know fella. I know how you feel."


************************



"Todd, I'm going to let go." Eric said quietly. "Okay?"

Todd didn't answer. Eric slowly withdraw his hands and moved back, braced for another kick out or push at the table or chairs. Todd only leaned forward over the table and put his head down on his arms. Eric sat with him for a minute more, then got up and filled a glass of water at the sink, putting it down in front of Todd.

"How are you feeling?"

Todd didn't answer.

"Todd?" Eric said again, more firmly. Todd lifted his head slowly.

"M'okay."

"Are you going to tell me what that was about?"

Todd shrugged, slowly and hopelessly. "Its my fault."

"I've never seen you lose your temper like that." Eric said mildly. "Especially not on vacation."

"I'm sorry."

Again, that tired, hopeless tone. Eric sat back in his chair, watching him.

"What happened?"

"It was me, I was being horrible. I didn't mean to, I just- got mad. I'm sorry."

Eric came to a decision and got up, putting a hand on his shoulder.

"If you're feeling calmer, how about you go down to the lake? Chris and Mike are down there- no, they don't know anything about this and they won't know anything you don't tell them. Come on. You could do with some air and sunshine."

"Stephen-" Todd began unhappily, "I probably ought to talk to him-"

"I think you should take some time for both of you today before you try talking this over." Eric steered him gently to the back door. "Go on. Straight down to the dock, stay with Chris and Mike. And I CAN see you from here, I don't expect you to be anywhere else until one of us comes down there for you."

He watched Todd walk slowly down the hill towards the lake, waiting until he saw Todd reach the other two, then he shut the door and walked through the cabin to the porch where Joseph and Stephen were sitting in silence.

Stephen looked up. "Todd?"

"He's been sent to the lake," Eric said.

"What?!?"

"I decided the best thing for him right now is to be with the other boys. He was seriously upset, not just acting out," Eric said as he took a seat on the bench.

"He needed to have his hide tanned!"

"He and you BOTH need a break, Steve. He must be suffering from the shooting incident, but doesn't yet know how to handle his feelings. That, and I can easily see you're stressed, and you know that carries directly over to him. He could probably use a few good sessions with a therapist and work through whatever's bothering him. Until you can get him back home, I suggest that Joe and I take care of Todd WITH you."

"What do you mean?" Stephen asked, rubbing his hands through his hair in a gesture born of frustration.

"You're obviously his tension target. I suggest that if something needs to be said to him, that either Joe or myself say it. That way, Todd should listen and not immediately lash out because it came from you. He's a good kid, I doubt very seriously anything will need to be said at all."

Stephen dropped his hands with an angry hiss. "I do NOT need to be told how to look after my own partner!"

"Stephen we're friends, yes?" Joseph said, interrupting before the protest became a fully blown outburst. "And we understand your relationship. Yes?"

Stephen didn't answer but waited, eyes on Joseph. Joe nodded slowly.

"Yes. Then believe us. You two need to back off each other, and Todd has a genuine problem. This is not the Todd I know. No matter how you jump all over him now, it's not going to help and it's not going to achieve anything, because he isn't in control of this. Is he?"

Stephen shook his head. "I don't know."

"Have you ever seen him lose it like that?" Eric said gently. "You've seen him angry before, you two have clashed plenty of times, has he ever flipped like that?"

"No." Stephen admitted. Joseph dropped a hand on his shoulder and squeezed.

"Eric's right. You need a break. Swim. Take a boat out. Walk. Sleep. The best way you can help him right now is to calm yourself down and get some rest."

"Why don't you two take the boat over and get something to eat for tonight? Walk around, take your time." Eric suggested. "I'll watch the boys, see no one gets overambitious on the water. Go on Steve. Go and think about something else for a couple of hours."


******************



Stephen and Joseph were gone until mid afternoon. Eric sat on the end of the dock and patiently worked his way through his book, his eye on the three active young men who were in and out of the water around him. Initially Todd had been very quiet and withdrawn, shying away from the other two if they got too close or too boisterous, but gradually he warmed up and by the time Eric called them over for lunch, he settled in the sun and ate, joining in the chatter, the lines starting to leave his face.

They finished up lunch and Eric asked them to stay out of the water, and if possible, the sun for the next thirty minutes. The boys went along the edge of the water, looking for rocks and shells. Fifteen minutes into break, Eric looked up and saw Todd push Chris off a rock into the water. He stood up. "Todd! Get over here!"

Todd was going to help Chris out of the water when Michael pushed him and said he'd help Chris. He walked over to the dock, head down.

Eric waited until he got over to him. "What was that all about?"

"I was just playing. Chris was in a good position, and I pushed," Todd said quietly.

"You DO realize how dangerous that could have been, don't you?"

"Yes, sir," Todd said.

"Then you can take a seat in the shade over there. I don't expect to see anything like that again, is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," Todd said, then headed over to the bench.

Eric said back down, a thoughtful look on his face.

Joseph and Stephen brought the boat back to dock shortly after three pm. All three of the boys were out near the island in the middle of the lake, having worn themselves out enough to be taking their time and enjoying the sun and the water. Stephen climbed up onto the dock and peered out towards the boys, trying to pick out Todd.

"How was your trip?" Eric asked, laying his book down. Joseph lifted a couple of bags out of the boat and sat slowly down on the warm dock beside him.

"Pretty good. Hot. There's not a bad antiques market just outside the village, we walked around there for a while."

"How's Todd?" Stephen asked.

"Fine." Eric said calmly. "All three of them. They've been swimming peacefully on and off most of the day."

"If he's been in the water that long it's about time he came out and got dried off-" Stephen began. Eric interrupted, leaning over for the bags.

"He's not been in as long as the other two and they're fine. Why don't you two put these away and get yourselves into a little less clothing?"

Joseph took one of the bags and handed the other to Stephen, making him take his eyes off Todd.

"Come on, it's too hot to sit around here fully dressed."

"Has he got sun lotion on?" Stephen demanded. Eric nodded, returning to his book.

"All three of them. They're fine."

He was aware that it took Stephen barely five minutes to change and get back down to the dock, some way ahead of Joseph. He'd brought a book with him, but the first thing he did was sit on the edge of the dock, watching the three still swimming around the periphery of the Island.

"Aren't they a long way out?"

"There's no currents around here, they know the waters." Eric laid the book down, looking at his friend with sympathy. "Come away from the edge, I'll watch him. Read. Sleep. Chill."

Stephen reluctantly got up and settled himself into the lounge chair and opened his book. He tried reading, but after having to reread one paragraph three times, he gave up and put the book down. He closed his eyes after checking once more on Todd and tried to sleep. Every time he heard one of the young men shout, he had to sit up and look.

Joseph came down a few minutes later and traded quizzical looks with Eric as they watched Stephen.

The guys finally tired of exploring the island and swam over to the rope swing. Before too long, they were whooping and hollering as they took turns swinging out over the water and letting go.

Stephen stayed quiet as long as he could, but finally he could stand it no longer. He stood up and walked to the edge of the dock. "Todd. Come on out of there. I think that's enough for one day."

Eric watched as Todd immediately went silent and got out of the water, not paying any attention as the other two splashed at him. He stood up to try to prevent Todd blowing up. "Michael, Chris, you too. Come on."

"Party poopers," Michael said as they got out of the water and followed Todd around the edge of lake.

"Why don't you three stretch out in the shade over there and dry out?" Eric said, pointing at a small portion of the dock that was under the trees.

"I think Todd and I will return to the cabin. He could use a nap," Stephen said as Todd was walking towards him.

"I can lie on the dock for a bit and relax," Todd said evenly.

"You've been in the water far longer than you should have, and I think a shower and a nap at the cabin will do you good," Stephen replied.

"I am NOT three, I do NOT need a nap!" Todd said in exasperation.

Joseph stepped forward, snagging Chris's hand. He whispered 'take Todd, please' to him, then said "I think showers and rest for all THREE of you is a good idea."

Chris could tell something was going on, and just did as Joe asked. He turned back towards Todd and pushed his shoulder gently. "We can get some candy when the guys aren't looking. Let's go!"

Todd turned since the other two guys were going with him.

"Todd, you don't need any more sugar -" Stphen started.

"FUCK YOU!" Todd took off running up the hill.

Before Stephen could move, Joseph stepped in front of him. "Let him go."

"I will NOT --"

"LET HIM GO."

Eric walked over and stood next to Joe, blocking Stephen's exit down the dock.

"That is MY PARTNER and he needs a sound spanking. Get OUT of my WAY!"

Eric simply grabbed Stephen's arm and pushed him back down into the chair. Chris and Michael froze where they were: Joseph looked up at Chris, caught his eye and signalled after Todd, a mute appeal to him. Chris nodded, looking shaken, but took off after Todd. Michael looked more hesitant and stood where he was, sounding panicky.

"Eric......?"

"Its okay Mike, go on." Eric said steadily. "Keep the other two in the cabin until I get there, get yourselves dry and fed. Its allright."

Michael looked very unwilling, but he knew too that this was not a conversation that would take place in front of him, and it clearly needed to take place. He took a step back, turned and slowly jogged after the others.

Stephen shut his mouth, picking up on the anxiety in Michael's face. He was angry and he was worried about Todd but he had no wish to scare the other two. He waited until all three of the boys were out of sight and earshot before he yanked away from Eric.

"I thought the idea was you'd support me, not that you'd encourage him to play me off against you two-"

"Rubbish." Joseph said shortly.

"If Chris behaved like that to you-"

"If Chris behaved like that at all, I'd be most worried about what had pushed him so far, Chris DOESN'T behave like that and neither does Todd."

"I know what's wrong, he's stressed and so am I! And we need some time spent together-"

"Stephen, why do you think he flipped just now?" Eric said quietly. Stephen shook his head angrily.

"Because he's feeling neglected, he's attention seeking-"

"Stephen you've been all over him since the minute you stepped off the boat." Eric sat on the edge of the bench, trying to pick the right words. Joseph stood where he was, folding his arms, not liking this situation but following Eric's lead.

"That's true Steve. You haven't been able to take your eyes or your mind off him for two minutes together."

"I'm WORRIED about him!"

"I know. But you know something else?" Eric said quietly. "I pulled him out of the water this afternoon for pushing Chris over, and he didn't shout or swear or lose his temper or need to run away. He was his usual, calm, polite self."

"Like you said- something about a tension target?" Stephen pushed a hand through his hair, starting to feel very hurt and very attacked. "I'm the one who's upset him, I'm the one who hasn't been paying him enough attention, it's me he's upset with! Come on, we've been through these rough patches before- we all have! What he needs me to do is be firm for a while, a short leash, a lot of time-"

"That's what I thought." Joseph interrupted. "But Eric's right. Todd isn't starting any of these detonations, Steve: you are. You're watching him all the time for anything you can pick him up on."

"Oh, that's a load of rubbish, and you know it." Steve said angrily.

"Is is? Tell me about breakfast," Eric said, hoping Stephen would think about it, instead of just getting angry.

Stephen bent over, elbows on knees and head in hands. "He wanted salt. Or ketchup."

No one said anything.

"It WAS me, wasn't it?" Stephen said quietly.

Joe sat down next to him and put his arm around him. "I think this entire matter is bothering you more than you care to admit."

"He died. A young child died in my bar. His blood stains are on my floor. He was so young."

"I know. We both do, we were there. But you had no more control over the situation than either of the two of us." Joseph said.

"I was THERE. I should have been able to do something, stop him -"

"You couldn't have stopped it. It happened too fast, and Tyler did what he could and he was truly right there. No one knew the knife was there, or that the guy would pull and use it."

Stephen kept his head down.

"I've got a suggestion Steve. You more than likely won't like it, but I think it's the best thing."

Steve sat up, looking expectantly at Joseph.

Joseph took a deep breath. "I think you need this weekend far more than Todd does. I'd like to take Chris - and Todd - home tonight. I --"

"No," Stephen said, interrupting. "He can't be left alone at home."

"I'd take him home with me," Joseph said. "He should stay with us for a few days, until you've been able to work through some of this."

"No, I can't ask that of you. He's my partner, we belong together."

"That sounds to me like the best idea for both of you." Eric said gently. "Come on Steve, think about it. You need a break and you need to sort out your feelings here. You need to sort the bar out and get your life back in order again."

"You're winding Todd up." Joseph said bluntly and brutally. "You're using him to distract yourself and it's making him very unhappy. Isn't it? You need to do the best thing for him now."

Stephen took a few deep breaths, steepling his hands against his face.
Eric waited, watching him with sympathy.

"How is going to help to carry on the way you are at the moment?" Joe asked.

Stephen took one last breath and sat back.

"A few days."

"A week." Eric said, looking at Joseph. "Long enough for you to do something serious about sorting things out. And long enough for Todd to settle down."

"I can't leave him for a week, what's he going to make of that?" Stephen said grimly.

"You're not leaving him, you're doing what you need to do to keep you both safe and healthy." Joseph told him. "He'll understand that and that's your responsibility to him. You know where he is, there's no reason you can't come over and see him when you want to, you've got the phone, and Chris and I will look after him. Come on Steve. I'm going to get him and Chris packed up now and we're going to head out. You take the rest of the weekend and use the time, you NEED this break. It's going to be okay."

"I don't know how to explain this to him." Stephen said uncertainly. "Oh God-"

"If you want, I'll tell him." Joseph got up, waiting. Stephen shook his head at once.

"I can't do that, it's not fair."

"Then let me tell him and then the two of you can talk."

"You're not going to give up, are you?"

"No."

"I'll be up in a few minutes then," Stephen said wearily.

Joseph patted him on the back and headed up the hill.

"You're doing the right thing," Eric said.

"It doesn't feel like it right now."


Joseph made it to the cabin and headed inside. Todd looked up with a panicked look when the door opened, but settled again when he realized it was Joe. "I see you've dived into the good stuff," Joseph said as he eyed the chips and dip and cokes on the table.

"Yeah. It's hard work swimming all day long," Chris said with a wink.

Joe went over to Todd and put his hand on his shoulder. "I'd like a word with you? In your room?"

Todd looked down, but got up. He knew his outbursts were probably not appreciated and Joseph was going to let him know that. He went ahead of Joe, and sat down on his bed. He got a little more nervous when the door shut.

Joseph went over to the bed and sat down next to him, taking his hand. "It's okay, you're not in trouble."

"I should be."

"Under normal circumstances, I'd agree. But things are a little different, aren't they?" Joe asked gently.

"Yeah, I guess so."

"Stephen has been under tremendous pressure with the stabbing in his bar. It's affected him a lot more deeply than even he realized. Don't you think?"

Todd nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

"It wasn't until today that we could see what was happening. He's unconsciously been setting you up to be difficult, so that his mind is taken up with you, instead of the stabbing."

Todd immediately jumped to Stephen's defense. "He's NOT making things harder, *I* am! I shouldn't be --"

Joseph took his chin and turned it up. "Shhhhh, it's okay. I'm not insulting Stephen, I'm simply stating what I've seen, and what I think you know. He's been much more picky lately, hasn't he?"

Todd looked away. "Yeah, I guess so."

"When he's picky, you get upset. When you get upset, his mind is off his troubles, and on you, trying to settle you down. When you settle down, he probably gets quiet again. And then it starts all over."

Todd couldn't argue with that. "What am I going to do?" he asked miserably.

"I think the best thing would be to come home with Chris and I, and stay with us a week or so."

"No, I won't leave him. I can't do that."

Joseph heard the door open. "That's probably Stephen now. How about you talk with him, hmmmm?"

Todd nodded and watched as Joseph left the room after giving his shoulder a good squeeze.

"He's waiting," Joseph said to Steve.

"Thanks." Steve headed into his room, shutting the door behind him.

Joseph took a seat at the table, and grabbed a few chips. Eric sat down as well.

"It's a little uncomfortable around here, isn't it?" Joseph asked quietly.

"Yeah," Chris said. He waited a minute before venturing "What's going on?"

"Stephen is dealing with a lot right now."

"The stabbing?" Michael asked.

"Yes, that's at the core of it. He needs a few good days of doing absolutely nothing, and he's not going to do that with Todd here. Stephen is telling Todd right now that he's coming home with us." Joseph was looking at Chris.

"When?"

"We're going to pack in a few minutes."

"But this is MY weekend too!" Chris said quickly.

"I know." Joseph swallowed the last fragments of chips and held out a hand to him. Unwillingly Chris came to him and Joseph pulled him down into his lap, needing a hug badly himself. "I'm sorry love, I was looking forward to this weekend too, but Todd and Stephen need some friends badly right now."

Michael moved discreetly around the table, edging closer to Eric, who silently held out his arms.

"Are we staying here?" Michael said softly. Eric nodded.

"We're staying with Stephen."

Michael didn't answer but it was clear from his expression and his tension that he wasn't sure that was the better option. Neither Michael nor Chris argued: it was plain enough that this was serious and the best thing they could do to help was to go along with it.


"I don't want to." Todd said for the tenth time, trying to stop crying enough to be coherent. Stephen zipped his case closed, sat down on the bed beside him and hugged him hard, pulling Todd's head close under his chin.

"I know sweetheart, I don't want to either but this is the best thing to do. It's okay. It's going to be okay, it's only for a week."

"I don't need to be anywhere else, I need to be with you!" Todd clung to him, his sobbing growing steadily more hysterical. "I'm sorry, I won't do anything else wrong, I promise I won't be hard work-"

"Todd you didn't do anything wrong." Stephen pushed Todd back with an effort and held his chin, making Todd look at him. "Listen to me. This is NOT your fault. I'm not upset with you, the only reason I want you to do this is that I'm not handling this business with the bar well at all and I don't want my problems to affect us or affect you any more. You need a rest-"

"I DON'T, you need me with you! I want to help!"

"I know sweetheart, and you do-"

"Then I'm NOT going!" Todd looked at him appealing, tears of outrage and distress streaming down his face. Stephen's stomach twisted and tightened, reminding him of another young and panic stricken face looking at him in terror from the floor of the bar. He shut his eyes on the image and kissed Todd hard, resisting his own longing to grab Todd, cling and abandon this whole idea.

"LISTEN to me. I love you. I love you very very much and I promise you, it's going to be allright. I'm going to ring you tomorrow, I'll ring you every day-"

"NO!"

"-Todd, you're going to have to trust me and do as I say." Stephen kissed him once more and put him on his feet, collecting his jacket. "You do as Joe tells you."

There was no sign of Michael or Chris in the kitchen; only Joe who came straight across to them, wrapping an arm around Todd and pulling him close, giving Stephen a chance to peel off Todd's clinging hands. He was past all dignity now, Stephen was rapidly approaching tears himself.

"He'll be fine." Joseph promised over Todd's head, steering him towards the porch. Chris was already in the car and at Joe's nod, slid over behind the wheel. Michael was sitting on the porch beside Eric, scared and distraught at Todd's frank distress. Stephen stayed where he was in the kitchen, staring at the ceiling and hearing the door slam on Joe's car, then the engine turn over and the car move out of earshot.

The silence once they were gone was deafening. Eric sat for a moment more, arm around Michael.

"Are you okay?"

Michael nodded uncertainly. Eric kissed his forehead and got up.

"I'm going to check on Stephen and then we'll get something to eat. Stay within shouting distance?"

Michael nodded, red eyed. Eric got up and headed inside.

Stephen's eyes were very red but his face was set and his arms were tightly folded. Eric shut the door behind him, walked unhurriedly across to him and pulled his friend into his arms.

Once those arms were around him, Stephen finally let go. Eric helped him over to the couch and they both sat down, Eric holding his hand until Stephen was back under control.

Michael left the front porch, not wanting to overhear anything he wasn't sure he could handle. Seeing how upset Todd was left him shaky enough. He went a little ways off the path to a small clearing around some pine trees. He settled down on a rock and started drawing in the pine needles.

Steve squeezed Eric's hand. "Thanks," he said huskily.

"You're welcome. Todd will be fine, and so will you."

Steve shook his head in the affirmative.

"Why don't you get a shower? I'll get to work on some dinner, then maybe we can get a walk in before the sun sets."

"Good idea," Steve said, standing up. He headed into the bathroom and under the warm spray. Washing the sweat and salt from his skin helped him to feel a little more together, and when he got out, almost looked as good as new. After toweling off, he changed into some comfortable shorts and a t-shirt and headed out into the kitchen.

"What's on the menu?" he asked, grabbing a handful of chips still on the table.

"I thought since we had the picky fish eaters out of here, I'd make fish packets" Eric said, cutting up some vegetables to go with the fish.

"Sounds good. I haven't had seafood in a while. Where's Michael?"

"He's somewhere in the woods I suspect," Eric said.

"I hope he's not too upset."

"He was a little, but he'll be just fine. Don't worry, these guys are a lot hardier than we ever give them credit for."

"You're right. Sometimes it's hard to see that. Can I do anything to help?"

"No, I've - yes, there is. You can get a couple of beers from the fridge."

Stephen went over and pulled two cold ones out, popping the tops for both he and Eric. "To good friends," Steve said holding up his beer.

Eric picked his up and saluted Steve. "To good friends."


******************


Todd levitated off the floor at the sound of the phone as he had every single time it had rung since Friday. Joe got up unhurriedly, fixing him with a look that made him subside again, picking up his dropped book.

"If it's Stephen, I'll tell you."

If it wasn't Stephen, Todd was going to spontaneously combust before nine pm. Joseph went into the kitchen, shutting the door behind him before he picked up the phone.

"Hello?"

"It's me."

Even after three days, Stephen sounded a lot better. Calmer and more together, with the exhaustion out of his voice.

"Hi Stephen."

"We're home- got in about half an hour ago. How's Todd?"

"He's doing okay." Joseph pulled a chair out from the table and sat down. "We spent most of today at the game- Chris is loving the company."

"Is he sleeping better?"

"He's a lot more settled. He misses you a lot but he's allright. How are you?"

"Missing him a lot." Stephen said wryly. "I think better. Eric and I must have talked most of the weekend- poor Mike, he's had a rough time trying to keep a tactful distance. I'm going to see Rolf in the morning- talk about the redecoration for the bar and get that underway as soon as we can. Maybe gut the place totally and remodel it."

"That sounds a good idea." Joseph said warmly. A creak at the door made him glance around.

"There's someone here about to explode if he doesn't get to talk to you....."

"Put him on," Stephen said, smiling.

Joseph held out the phone, and gently rubbed his hand when it was nearly taken off by Todd.

"Steve! Are you home?" Todd said quickly.

"Yes. Got in about an hour ago. How are you?"

"Good, then I'm coming home," Todd said eagerly.

"Whoa there. I asked how you were?"

"I can tell you when I see you. You going to come pick me up?"

"Todd, I've missed you too, but you're staying put."

"Noooooooooo, I want to come HOME." Todd said.

"Hey now, we talked about this. Friday at the earliest, you know why."

"But that was when you were at the cabin. You're at home, I want to be there with you," Todd said plaintively.

"I know honey. I want you here too, but you're staying with Joe until Friday at the earliest. How are you doing?"

Todd sighed, hearing the determination in Steve's voice. "Okay," he answered quietly.

"What did you do today?"

"Went to the game. What did you do?"

"Packed up the cabin. Eric took Michael home a little while back, then I rang Rolf and talked to him about the plans to remodel the bar. I'm going to see him tomorrow and make plans to get the work started," Stephen said.

Todd sat down and started absently playing with the phone cord. "What do you think you'll do with the bar?"

Stephen lightened his voice, trying to get Todd interested in the plans. "I thought make some major changes. Maybe split the bar, have two at either end, move the lounge forward and put the restaurant down by the big windows."

"That sounds nice. What colors?"

"I don't know, I thought maybe when it's done we could go out and spend a day looking at colours and materials- strip the whole place and start again."

Todd's voice became hopeful once more. "Can we do that this week?"

"No sweetheart. When it's gutted- probably week after next."

"We don't have to wait, I can help this week," Todd tried again.

"Todd," Stephen said sternly.

Stephen could hear the pout in Todd's voice, and it hurt. "What?"

"You know what. I need to go honey. I love you. Be good, I'll call tomorrow."

"Steve, noooooooooo don't hang up!"

"Todd it's okay. It's allright, it's going to be fine. Is Joe still there?"

Todd sniffled, then said "Yes."

"Okay, put him back on. I love you. Sweet dreams sweetheart."

"I love you too." As Todd handed the phone back to Joe, he said under his breath "And I'll see you tonight."

"Steve?" Joe said when the phone was on his ear.

"This is going to kill one or both of us well within a week. Take care of him?"

"He'll be fine. You take care." Joe hung up the phone, and before Todd could escape the kitchen, grabbed his wrist. "And you, my boy, are going upstairs for a bath."

"I don't need a bath," Todd said, trying to pull his wrist free.

Joseph swatted him, letting go of his wrist. "Go on anyway."

"No, I want to go home. I'm getting packed."

"Just a minute there," Joseph said sternly. "I know you want to go home, but the agreement was through Friday. Stephen won't be happy to have you disobeying him, now would he?"

Todd's mouth slipped awry and his eyes filled with tears yet again. Joe sighed and pulled Todd against his chest, holding him tight.

"I know this is hard. I know this seems like a crazy idea to you, but you know deep down why Stephen needs this time and why you two need some time apart. Don't you?" He peeled Todd back to look at him. "However much you miss him you do know."

Todd nodded, slowly and very unwillingly. "I know.. but I want to go hooooooome..."

"Of course you do." Joe gave him another, hard hug. "Come on. Bath. Chris'll be home from football any minute and you two'll be fighting for the bathroom."

Todd moved unwillingly, still sniffling. Joe found things to do upstairs, not going too far away until he had his friend settled in the spare room, more or less comfortable and more or less tearful as he had been every night since they arrived home on Friday. Joe sat down on the edge of the bed and pushed his hair out of his eyes, wondering how Stephen was coping with his first night home alone. At least he and Chris slept with their door open and he slept with an ear out for any signs of distress from Todd.

"You warm enough?"

Todd nodded, sliding deeper under the covers. Joseph leaned over to snap the light off.

"Stay in bed then please. Sleep tight, call if you need anything."

Only Stephen.





Todd turned over, lonely and miserable as he heard the front door open down stairs and a minute later Chris and Joseph's low voices talking quietly and easily as they got ready for bed.

Except this house was quiet. Joe was calm and consistent and easy to please- and Todd was not by nature difficult. And around Joe, Todd had the comparison to see how far offline he and Stephen had wandered. He's begun to think it was his fault- his for winding Stephen up, wanting him to pay attention, do anything other than be self absorbed- Todd finished that thought, swallowing hard. He hated and could never bear to think anything ill of Stephen. He slid out of bed and padded into the bathroom, startled by Joe's quiet voice a minute later.

"Todd?"

"I'm okay..... just wanted a drink."

Joseph appeared in t shirt and shorts and watched him pour a glass of water, before he leaned past Todd to the bathroom cabinet and handed him a tylenol.

"Here. Yes please." he added as Todd started to object. "You need to sleep."

Todd swallowed it unwillingly and trailed Joe back to the spare room. Joe pulled the covers over him and snapped the radio on, turning it down low.

"Why don't you listen to that while you try to fall asleep? Take your mind off it."

"What'll he do if he's at home alone?" Todd said miserably. Joe ruffled his hair.

"Probably just what you're doing. Rest. Look after himself. Concentrate on working through the problems he needs to deal with. You concentrate on what you need to do, and right now you need to get some sleep."



*********************************




Joseph had gone over to Stephen and Todd's the day before with Todd, and collected his car and clothes for work. Todd got up on Monday and got ready for work, still a little dazed from the Tylenol. Joseph made him jog on the treadmill for five minutes to get his blood flowing before he got into the shower and by the time he emerged he felt a little more human. After a full breakfast, Joe sent him off with hug, telling him that dinner would be at 5:30 and not to be late.

Todd had to drive straight to work in order to avoid being late, but he had every intention of trying to find Stephen later that day.

Stephen woke up and immediately reached over before realizing that Todd wasn't going to be there. He sat up, rubbing his temples. He headed downstairs for some coffee, and to read the headlines in the paper. Then he worked on cleaning the already clean house. When that was done, he got ready and headed over to Rolf's office for lunch.

As soon as Rolf's secretary said that Stephen was there, he saved the letter he was working on and got up to greet his friend.

"Hey," Rolf said, pulling Stephen's outstretched hand towards him so he could hug him. "How are you?"

"I think I'm doing better," Stephen said. "Ready for lunch?"

"Let's head downstairs to A La Lucie. Sound good?"

"Good choice," Stephen said, following Rolf out to the elevators.

"How's Todd?" Rolf asked once they were settled in the resteraunt. Stephen shrugged somewhat awkwardly.

"Not very happy."

He was more than certain either Eric or Joe would have filled Rolf in on the weekend and it was a few days he wasn't very proud of.

"I'm sorry." Rolf said gently. "This must be very hard."

"It is." Stephen admitted. He said nothing more and Rolf reached for the files he'd brought with him, opening them where Stephen could see them.

"What did you have in mind with the bar?"

"A fresh start." Stephen pulled himself together and regained some energy in his voice. "Something new."



*****************************************



The bar was dusty and stale smelling from having been locked up for so long: when Rolf left, Stephen left the doors open, wandering slowly around the building from the unused kitchen to the semi dark bar area. It had seemed unfamiliar when he walked in, still full of the sounds and emotions from the night of the death. A boy had died in here. The blood was still on the carpet.

Stephen paused, standing and looking down at the stains.

Taking measurements, reducing the building to pencil marks on the walls, colours and data had helped. The place needed gutting. There was no way to fix what was in the past- only plans to make the future better. And the first step was to get rid of the bad memories and the proof of the unfixable. Stephen hesitated for several minutes, then crouched and with a few rough tugs pulled the carpet free of it's fitting against the wall. He tore about half of it away. Muttering, he moved along and picked it up further along, and heard the footsteps behind him quicken into a jog.

Todd's hands closed over the carpet next to his. Stephen glanced over. Todd looked nervous and uncertain- as though he wasn't quite sure of his welcome. Stephen straightened up, put an arm around him and pulled him close, holding him tight. They were both somewhat shaky and red eyed when they separated.

"You're going back to Joe's until Friday." Stephen said a lot more brusquely than he felt.

Todd didn't answer. Just stooped and took his grip on his side of the carpet. Stephen watched him anxiously, aware of his eyes on the blood stains just a few feet away, but Todd only looked to him, waiting. Stephen took his hand hold, and this time the shared pull tore it away from the wall.



~ The End~


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2010

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