An Officer and some Gentlemen

This part of the story runs on from Officer Down and Officer Resurgat. Do yourself a favour and read those first if you want to read this one.

Well, of course we had heard all about it, in uneven chapters. Piet and I both have contracts with the same mobile phone company and that unfortunately means that if you can’t get one of us, chances are you can’t get the other either. The coverage while we were in Italy was patchy to say the least. Tim had left a message on Piet’s phone which we got 24 hours later; after that we tried phoning, texting, the Italian phone system, and hotel email, so we got all the news one way or the other, just not always quite as soon as we would have liked.

But we heard what was going on, and yes, when Tim told me that he was making hay in my freezer, I said to go for it. I’ve eaten things from the kitchens in that hospital; I’m not in the least surprised that Nick wouldn’t. He’s a fussy eater. Well, no, that’s not exactly right. He’s not faddy, he doesn’t say ‘oh, I don’t eat this, I don’t eat that’, the way Harry does – Harry was a bloody pain in Italy because he doesn’t like Foreign Food, by which I think he means anything not out of a packet. Nick eats most things. Not cucumber, which he says disagrees with him, and not, I remember him saying, quiche, because he doesn’t like the texture of baked egg custard. But I can’t remember him refusing anything I’ve cooked, and when we go out for a Chinese or an Indian or whatever, he doesn’t go all picky, he eats what the rest of us do. He’s just not very interested in food, I think, so he’s always the first of us to stop eating and he rarely finishes anything, and we know that when he’s stressed, it upsets his stomach. I can well believe that hospital food and temporary blindness would stop him eating at all, so if Tim had the mother-wit to find something in my kitchen to tempt the man and bribe the nurses, I wasn’t bothered.

Anyway, we came home from Italy late on the Wednesday and Piet left a message on Fran’s answer-phone that we’d visit on Thursday evening, and I made a big chocolate cake on Thursday morning. Nick likes my chocolate cake (there aren’t many people who don’t!) and I thought the nurses probably would too. Then Fran called at lunchtime with the brilliant news that Nick was being released from hospital on Friday, although he wasn’t to be allowed back to work until he’d had another scan in two or three weeks. I hastily shuffled the plans about.

“Look, I expect you’ll want a day or so to get settled at home, so how about if we come over at the weekend? We’ll give you a ring on Saturday morning, how’s that?”

And that was cool all round. Tim called later and we bickered gently about Friday night. He wanted us to go over there; we’d had ten days in hotels of varying quality and I wanted to stay home. He gave way easily enough.

“Shall we pick up a takeaway on the way over?”

“No, don’t. I’ve eaten other people’s cooking since we went away. I’ll cook.”

I made steak and kidney. I just fancied it, you know? Something solid and traditional. Piet likes it with herb dumplings rather than pastry – I taught him that. I made it early and left it in a low oven, and Tim and Hansie came over and we cracked a bottle and they sat down at the kitchen table to tell us all the goss while I peeled potatoes and sliced carrots. I was facing the kitchen window over the sink, so I saw the car turn into the yard, and recognised it as Nick’s. Actually, I had a moment of ‘were we expecting them?’ and then I thought, ‘no, we weren’t’, and turned back to the others.

“Here, that’s Fran and Nick outside.”

Hansie was over at once. “Ach, really? Is… oh.”

Because Nick had got out of the car, and there was something about the way he looked which I recognised, and plainly so did Hansie. Tim came to the window too; Piet went to open the kitchen door and a moment later Nick was in the doorway.

Well, if this was supposed to be Nick-being-much-better, I was glad I hadn’t seen Nick-not-at-all-well. I was shocked by how much weight he had lost, even after Tim’s intervention, and he’d had his hair cut like Piet’s, a number one crop making the planes of his face very angular, and with the line of stitches crawling conspicuously across his scalp. He looked older, and much harder, and, between you and me, not the least bit submissive. He looked the way he had looked that night Hansie and I got into trouble at the concert, when my reaction to him had been ‘Fran tops that?’ – only multiplied up by lots. He looked, in actual fact, extremely dangerous, and he was in an incandescent rage.

Trust me on this, it is not usual for people to come past Piet, particularly not in his own house, without so much as a glance; Nick’s manners are generally very good, so I wouldn’t have expected him to come into my kitchen without acknowledging my presence. Come to that, I don’t know if it’s just basic politeness or how he behaves with his Top, but Nick never precedes Fran into a room. Never. This time, though, he did; he cut Piet dead, I might as well not have been there, Tim opened his mouth to speak and was completely ignored, and Nick marched up to Hansie and roared in his face, “Why the fuck didn’t you tell me?”

“Pardon?” said Hansie, in apparent bewilderment, taking a step backwards.

“About your brother – why didn’t you tell me? I wouldn’t have asked you to do that if I’d known. Of course I bloody wouldn’t. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me. I could have managed perfectly well, or it would have waited another day for Fran or that nurse, it didn’t need to be you.”

I was fascinated, and completely in the dark. I couldn’t make anything of this at all, and glancing round, I wasn’t the only one. Piet’s eyebrows were arching, Tim’s mouth was still open. Fran slipped quietly into the room behind Nick; she did know, obviously, because she winced, and from the rather shifty look on Hansie’s face, so did he.

“It did need to be me. You could not see what you were doing and there was no reason for it not to be done at once. If you had done it yourself, you would have made a complete mess and then we would both have been in trouble with that nurse.”

Curiouser and curiouser.

“Like fuck! You only needed to say you didn’t want to. What on earth were you thinking?”

“I was thinking,” snapped Hansie, losing it himself, “that it was none of your damned business – and that it is still none of your damned business!” And he spun away and stamped across the hall to the sitting room, with Nick in pursuit, and the door slammed, and there was a moment’s silence.

“Good evening, Fran; how are you?” enquired Piet gently, leaning down to kiss her. I went for a hug myself, and took a proper look; Tim had said, amid nervous laughter, that he’d had to get quite stroppy with Fran to make her look after herself, and she seemed more fragile than I could remember having seen her before. She wasn’t interested in us, though. She was looking anxiously at Tim, as we heard the explosion of bad temper from across the hall. I couldn’t make out the words, but the tone was unmistakeable. Calm, placid, unemotional Nick had completely lost his rag; Hansie, who was always so concerned to be on good terms with his big brother, was giving as good as he got.

“Tim, he honestly didn’t know. He would never have done it if he’d known. He’s not really angry with Hansie, he’s furious with himself, and desperately hurt on Hansie’s behalf, worried that he’s made everything worse for Hansie, and I suppose a bit offended that Hansie didn’t feel able to tell him.”

I looked at Piet; he shook his head at me. Tim had his mouth open again, and was plainly not making much of this. Piet pulled a chair out from the table and ushered Fran to it.

“Frances, Tim may know what you are talking about, but I doubt it, and I at least do not. What did Hansie do to Nick, or Nick to Hansie, that he is so upset? It cannot be good for him.”

The door opened again and Nick appeared, turning back to say something I didn’t catch. I heard Hansie’s response, though, an “Ach, voertsek!” which made it sound much harsher than it usually does when he says it. He says it’s not particularly rude, it’s a ‘sod off’ type of expression, but that was definitely a ‘fuck off’ with all the gestures, and Nick stormed across the kitchen, flung open the outside door and disappeared into the dark. A moment later, the security light came on, and I could see him over by the corner of the barn, moodily kicking the corner of a pallet which had once had white tiles on it. Fran made an abortive movement to get up and follow him, and then sat back down with a sigh.

“The day Tim took charge and made me go home, Hansie went to visit Nick, and Nick wanted a bath, so Hansie went with him because they wouldn’t let him go on his own.” Piet nodded encouragingly; we’d heard about that. “And Nick was desperate to wash his hair, so Hansie helped him. It hadn’t been done since he’d been admitted, it was all matted and still bloody.”

We all thought about that for a horrified moment, and Tim gave a mew of dismay. Obviously Hansie hadn’t told him that.

“He didn’t know, Tim. Oh, he knew that Julius killed himself; we all know that. But he said to me, he’s dealt with a dozen suicides, and never one involving a gun. He’s always been a city policeman rather than a country one, or maybe it’s just that gun ownership isn’t as common in this country, or I don’t know, maybe just chance, but I think he rather assumed it was pills, or that he’d hanged himself, because that’s what Nick’s met professionally. He never thought about guns. And then tonight I was teasing him; when he came out of hospital he insisted that he wanted to go for a haircut before we went home because the uneven bits annoyed him, so I took him to the Buttermarket – that’s where he usually goes, to the place on the corner. While he was there, I went up into town for bread and milk and something for lunch, and when I came back, he’d had that bloody” (she winced: that was a poor choice of words, but she swallowed and went on) “clip so that he looks like a gangster. So I was pretending to be cross about it and he told me, quite innocently, about Hansie helping him wash his hair in the hospital.” She looked at Tim again. “I was horrified, and he picked it up; I couldn’t keep it from him. And then he did his nut, insisted on coming to see Hansie – we’ve been to your house first, before we worked out you’d be here – and I really thought that if I didn’t bring him, he’d do something stupid. He’s not to drive until he’s had another scan.”

Hansie stamped across the kitchen just as Nick crashed back in and they came up against each other in the middle of the floor. Nick got in first. “Just how uncivilised do you think I am? Did it never occur to you that you could just say that you didn’t want to do it?”

Ja, it did occur to me, and did it never occur to you that I am capable of telling you to fuck off if you ask me to do something I do not wish to do, hey?”

“Then why the hell didn’t you?” and this time Nick went for the sitting room and Hansie for the yard. I reached into the cupboard for flour. “Piet, set two more places.” And Tim, I thought, was about to get all weepy on Hansie’s behalf, and if he cried in front of Fran he’d never get over it, so he would be better with something to do. “Tim, can you peel another couple of potatoes and carrots?” Fortunately the dumplings weren’t on yet – I strain my casserole, cook the dumplings in the gravy and add the whole lot back at the last minute – so I had time to make some more. Fran looked at me wearily.

“Phil, we’re not staying. God knows how I’m going to get Nick out, but I can’t think it would be a good idea to let him and Hansie…”

I shook my head. “Look at them. Look at the body language: they’ve nearly finished, they’re only sniping now. That last bit was hardly more than peevish. Oh, and am I the only one to notice that Hansie is feeling confident enough to quarrel properly with Nick? I mean, he’s picked a fight often enough, although I grant you he hasn’t done it for a while, but this is a real quarrel with something behind it.”

Tim and Fran were looking at me oddly, but Piet knew what I was expressing so badly. “You mean, koekie, that it is a fight they are both comfortable will be made up? I believe you are right.” The door banged again as Hansie came in, just as Nick appeared from the hall; they came face to face again, only I think this time Hansie saw just how tired Nick was.

Ach, sit down, you bloody fool, before you fall down. Yes, go, sit.” And Nick did sit down, and all the fight went out of him, and he said quietly to his hands in his lap, “I just wish you had trusted me enough to tell me, that’s all.”

Somehow that hit the spot. Hansie crouched down in front of him and put his own hands over Nick’s, and said gently, “But boet, for once even I could see that it was not about me. It was about you. Ja, it is true, my brother Julius shot himself.” I glanced at Piet, who raised one eyebrow back at me; I put out a hand and drew Tim to me. He was trembling and I hugged him, but he didn’t offer to interfere. Hansie went on.

“You see, boet, we never said that aloud. Always we carried on the fiction that maybe it had been an accident; always we knew that he had done it on purpose. Julius took a gun and killed himself.”

“Not all he killed, either,” whispered Tim; Hansie didn’t hear him, but Piet did, and shook his head gently at Tim.

“There is nothing I can do about that, Nick. Nothing I can do to help Julius now. There was nothing I could do then. I think it is merely something I have to live with. Why did I not tell you? I don’t know, Nick. It never even occurred to me. Ja, when I saw you first in the hospital that night, with your face all cut and your head bloody, I did indeed think about Julius. It would have been very strange had I not, ja nee? I was very upset, Tim will tell you. But by the time I came to help you, I did not see Julius, I saw Nick: I saw Nick who trusted me enough to let me see him at his most vulnerable. Julius was beyond my helping but you were not, and your needs outweighed his. And that was all. I do not say that I was not for a moment uncomfortable, but I promise you, that is all it was, a moment. After that, it was not – it was not even important enough for me to need to tell Tim about it.”

I think he just ran out of words; in any event, Nick leaned forward a little and rested his forehead against Hansie’s and hooked an arm over Hansie’s shoulder. It surprised me a little: I knew how important Nick was to Hansie, but I don’t think I had realised until then just how important Hansie was to Nick. Tim gave a hiccup and ducked under my arm, heading for the cloakroom, just as Nick said, ungraciously, “And I don’t know what you’re all staring at.”

Hansie turned a little inside Nick’s arm, and agreed. “No, can I not even have a minor disagreement with my brother without everybody minding my business for me?”

Fran shook her head, smiling at them both, and Piet got up and opened the cupboard for glasses. “Well, if you two boeties have finished your ‘minor disagreement’, I can perhaps give Nick and Fran a drink? And then, yes, Phil, I will reset the table.”

Nick sat up and objected weakly in his turn. “Oh, no, we’re not staying…”

“Why not?” I enquired. “It’s a casserole, there’s lots. Anything like that, I always make loads and then put whatever’s left over in the freezer.”

Nick winced at that. “Um, about your freezer, Phil…”

“I know, Tim told me about it days ago. It’s all right. See, Nick, when I make that sort of thing, pastry and cake, it’s more for the making than the eating. I’m not supposed to eat vast amounts of it, it doesn’t tie in with my nutrition plan, but I love cooking it, palmiers and napoleons and whatever, and it’s more or less understood at the club that I’ll bring stuff in for people’s birthdays and so on. I don’t make it to eat, I make it to give away; if it was good for you and the nurses, I’m cool with it.”

He subsided, although he wasn’t done: apparently he got onto Piet to know what was on my bookshelf, and ten days later I received a terrifically beautiful and technical cookery book demonstrating the methods of making pastry shapes I’d never even imagined; anyway Piet put the glasses on the table and Fran shook her head at him. “Nick’s on the wagon until he’s finished his painkillers and I’m going to be driving him everywhere until his next scan.”

“Orange juice? We have that ginger and lemongrass which you like? Tonic and lime?”

Tim slipped back into the kitchen; he was a little red around the eyes, but quite calm, and he smiled at me as he went back to the sink and started to peel potatoes. We did O.K. until we had nearly finished eating, although not much better than O.K. Nick and Hansie were a bit pointedly gentle with each other, and Tim was very quiet, and inclined to jump when Fran spoke to him. Nick had eaten less than I thought proper for somebody of his height, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so: when he stopped short of the plateful as usual, Piet gave him a Look.

“Just finish it, Nick. Two more mouthfuls will not kill you.”

Nick gave him a Look of his own, but he lifted his fork again obediently.

“I get the impression there are far too many Tops around here, and not half enough Subs.”

Fran agreed. “What with Tim doing an impression of Piet (and getting him to the life, I may say), and Hansie bossing me about too…”

“Did Tim really take you on?” I asked, laughing, as I collected up the plates. “I’d have paid good money to see that. I wouldn’t have dared.”

“What do you mean, you wouldn’t have dared? When you’re the man who called me an elephant?”

The cutlery went into the sink with a clatter as I spun round to deny it. Piet got in first.

“He called you a what?”

“He said I was an elephant.”

“I did not!” I denied weakly.

“Well, it was either an elephant or an elf.”

Piet turned on me such a Look, so far over the Top’s top, that all the others laughed and I pretended to faint.

“Phil, why did you call Fran an elephant?”

“Didn’t…” I whined. “At least, not on purpose. Meant to say she was an Alpha and it came out wrong…”

“Elephant…” considered Piet carefully. “Ach, I have it. It is the story of the Elephant’s Child, is it not? The elephant is given a trunk, and uses it to spank somebody. But koekie, if you wanted Fran to spank you, you should simply have said. I have no objection; Fran, do you wish to oblige him?”

“Could do,” shrugged Fran indifferently. Hansie felt the need to help.

Ach, man, you are for it now. I know what she can do, and I’m telling you, you do not want to volunteer for it.”

“Oh, you do, you do,” put in Nick dreamily, “at least I do.” And he went a little pink.

Well, if Phil had to be the clown for them…

“Aw, come on, Nick, help me! She’s not allowed to do that, is she?”

“You’re on your own here, mate. I’m not helping you. In fact I think maybe I should arrest you: I’m sure calling Fran an elephant is behaviour likely to lead to a breach of the peace.”

“You’re all horrible,” I scolded. “I’ve a good mind not to give anybody any dessert. And it’s chocolate cake, but if you don’t want any…”

“Oh well, that’s different,” said Nick. “I can be bribed; if I get the big bit, I’ll take you into protective custody, how’s that?”

I flounced at them all, which got another laugh, but I noticed Nick going into his pocket for a small bottle.

“Are you in pain, Nick?”

“Not yet, but my ribs are twinging. I’ve wrenched my intercostals; that’s why I was so long before I could sit up properly.”

I shuddered. I did intercostal damage a year or so back and I was out for ages. Hurts like fuck, even just to breathe, and there’s nothing you can do but wait for it to get better.

“Somebody fill the kettle, then, and we’ll take dessert into the living room and the comfy chairs. Go on, I’ll cut the cake.”

By unspoken agreement, we left the settee for Fran and Nick, and Nick stretched out on it without needing to be told, his head in Fran’s lap. The next time I looked over, she was running her fingertips over his scalp, very tenderly – I thought that perhaps she didn’t object to the haircut as much as she pretended – and when I brought the plates over, she took his and fed his cake to him gently, so that he didn’t have to get up. Tim saw that too, and raised his eyebrows at me, and I knew what he was thinking: that it was one thing for Fran to have to feed Nick, and something quite different when he didn’t need it, but they both wanted to do it. Piet caught my eye and smiled at me, so I deliberately licked the crumbs and icing off my fingers very slowly, and smirked at him. I noticed him shift in his chair: it gets him going every time.

It wasn’t very late when Nick heaved himself upright and looked at Fran. “Do you mind if we go? I’m tired. I can’t do a whole day out of bed yet.”

“Yes, we should be on our way too,” agreed Tim. Nick stared at him.

“Don’t disturb yourself on our behalf,” he said mockingly, with a decided ‘do you think I was born yesterday?’ look. “Besides, you and Hansie have both been drinking. You really don’t want to do anything that I might have to take professional note of. You’d do much better to ask Phil to give you a bed for the night.” And I think that might have had meant all the possibilities. Hansie kicked Tim on the ankle, very obviously; Tim blushed, as usual; Piet smiled and I got up to fetch Fran’s jacket.

“Come again soon. Nick, if you’re not going back to work yet, my day off next week is Thursday: if you want a change of company, get Fran to bring you as far as the studio and I’ll come and get you.”

“Might do that,” he agreed, and then looked very deliberately at Piet. “You know, Hansie and Tim were wonderful while you were away. They did everything for us. Somebody really ought to do something about a reward for them.” Right. He had meant all the possibilities. Bloody detective. Tim had gone a most peculiar puce.

“Do you think so?” asked Piet, non-committally.

“I do. And if Fran’s an elephant, you must be an elephant too, so I reckon it’s your job.” Bloody Nora, that elephant was going to do the rounds for months, I could just tell.

“As the elephant in this house, I will take it under advisement,” agreed Piet, gently. “Take care of yourself, boet. Do not try to do too much.”

“Do you reckon those four are –” Fran hesitated delicately.

“I’ve got no evidence to back it up,” I said, carefully, “but yes, since you ask, I do.”

“Hansie hasn’t said anything?”

“A couple of hints, that’s all. And I’m not asking.”

“No, nor me. I thought some time ago that they were, but it’s no business of mine. I just wondered if you thought the same thing.”

“Are you jealous?”

“Jealous? Of what? Who? They’re hardly going to let me play, are they?”

“Of Pieter de Vries having three men at his beck and call where you’ve only got one.”

“Oh God, no. Not my thing at all. I’d rather have one and just be sure it’s the right one.” She let go of the steering wheel to pat my knee.

“Am I the right one?” I asked wistfully.

“Do you doubt it? Shall we rethink the tattoo idea, get ‘Fran’s Man’ imprinted on your bum?”

“You know I like it when you mark my bum.”

“Well, you’ll have to be patient. We’re not clubbing until after your scan.”

“I’m just grateful we’ve got the option of doing it at all. I was beginning to be afraid we never would again.”

I saw the flash of her eyes as she shot me a glance before she changed down for the roundabout. “Why would we not?”

I shrugged. It wasn’t logical but… “I didn’t know how you would feel about a disabled Sub. I can’t think of anybody in the club with any sort of disability.”

“Except for a couple who are seriously lacking on the brain side of things, no,” agreed Fran, thoughtfully. “No, I don’t think I know any… Oh, there used to be a Top in a wheelchair. I can’t think where he played. I don’t think I ever met him, but I heard about him once or twice. He made some people twitchy, though, I remember that. No good reason for it, people just got yippy about him. I can’t see why you couldn’t be a Sub and blind. Hell, that’s maybe not the way to word it?”

“Would you want a blind Sub?”

She gave it some thought. “I don’t know if I would take on a blind Sub from scratch. I’d like to think I would if I thought it could work, but I really don’t know. But in terms of what we’ve already got? We’d work round it. There was never any doubt about that. Even if you hadn’t wanted to club, we could have played at home.”

“You would still have wanted to?”

The hand searched for my knee again. “You’re my Sub. I’m your Top. I’ll still be your Top when I have to bend you over your own zimmer frame. When we play non-stop for hours because we’re both too ga-ga to remember what we’re doing or whether we’ve already done it.”

I laughed a little. “Fran? Spank me tonight?”

I startled her. There are ways of asking, but I don’t do it quite that obviously. I don’t want to say in words: do this, do that. “Not anything serious, I don’t mean that, just… just…

“Just to remind you that you’re mine?”

“Please. And – hell. Fran, I don’t know if… about the blindfold.”

The car swerved a little. “No, not the blindfold.”

“No,” I agreed. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that again. Maybe… I don’t know. I think I might freak? I know you like it, and I always did, and maybe it would be all right, only…”

“Only maybe it wouldn’t. It doesn’t matter, darling. Really it doesn’t. We can leave it for a while and see how you feel – do you know, I never realised how often one says ‘I see’ or ‘look’ or ‘watch’ or whatever – and if you feel you want to try, we can go back to basics so that you know you can get it off if it panics you.”

I nodded. “And I’ve always got my safe word.”

“As long as I can trust you to use it.”  

“For that, yes, I think so. But maybe not yet.”

When we went upstairs, Fran sat on the end of the bed and watched me undress, and then she laid her hand gently on my hip, and turned me so that she could inspect my back and arse. “You’re a mess still. You’ll have to tell me if I touch anything that… anyway. I don’t like you marked unless I’ve done it. I’ll tell you what, open the wardrobe door.”

“What? I mean, why?”

“Because of the mirror inside. Look, if I sit this side of the bed instead of the other, and you come down here… now, can you see yourself?”

I could. There was the dressing table mirror in front of me, angled down, and the wardrobe mirror behind me, and I could basically see my own rear view, and Fran’s hand resting on my back and smoothing down towards my bum. Which was, as she said, a mess. The whole of my back was still green and grey with bruises, and the back of my left thigh had a huge purple and yellow stripe. It looked horrible. What’s more, I could see what everybody meant about me being too thin. Every bump on my spine had a hollow underneath it; even I had to admit that I was past lean and into bony.

“Hell… Fran, do you want not to do this? Is it too nasty? Do you want to wait until the bruises are gone?”

She patted me lightly. “I’ll do it. But I’m only doing a little and I’m counting on you to be sensible about telling me if even that’s too much, O.K.? Are you mine, Dominic?”

And at once I was. It was almost enough for her just to ask – that was the way she had asked for my consent every time we played at first. Every single time, until she was sure that I was confident about what I was doing. Even now, she still asks before we do anything absolutely new. This was not new. This was not even a proper spanking – it was a couple of dozen pats interspersed with enough sharper slaps (carefully delivered, I could see, to the less bruised bits of me) for me to know that she understood my need to have her anchor me in my life. It was all lopsided, because my left thigh was sore and my right only tender, and there was a point just above the centre of my left buttock which hurt all the way up to my shoulder, and which made me jump and yelp. It was perfect, specially since I could see what she was doing. I like that. I want to do that again when I’m feeling better.

And afterwards? That wasn’t great sex, not like we’ve had in the past. Fran can get me so that the term ‘fuck-stupid’ is a factual description, but not this time. Not great sex. What it was, though, was great lovemaking, tender and affectionate, emotionally comfortable, even if it took us three attempts to find a position in which my back didn’t hurt and I could get any leverage, and even if we both had it in mind that perhaps this was not the time for prolonged teasing, but a good night for getting right to the point and then snuggling up and going to sleep.

And you know the funny thing? After we’ve played, I always sleep well, bang off the edge of consciousness and down to drown – and apparently, that counts when the play hasn’t even been enough to raise a blush or warm my skin. That probably ought to tell me something, something about Fran and me and my life. I’ll have to think about it. Later.

We waved them off, and when the tail lights vanished behind the barn, we turned back into the kitchen and I started to stack the dishwasher. Hansie came to help me, glancing back at Tim.

“Tim, what on earth were you thinking of, hey? Telling Nick that we must go home?”

Tim dropped into a chair and shook his head. “I have no idea. None at all. He knows we stay over on Boys’ Night, he stayed himself once. I don’t know what possessed me, except – well, except that Fran had me rattled.”

“Fran did? Why?” I asked, filling the basin to wash up the half dozen things which won’t go in the dishwasher. Piet picked up a tea towel and came to help.

“It’s just that I keep thinking about what I said to her, about getting all bossy with her, and well, I think maybe I overdid it.”

“She doesn’t seem to mind,” I observed. He looked at me rather pathetically.

“D’you think not? I mean, I really wasn’t very – I was a bit pushy. Not awfully polite.”

I wrinkled my nose. “Well, however bad she was feeling then, she’s obviously not much more than tired now, and I didn’t get the impression that she was huffy with you. She’d be quite capable of letting you know it if you’d hurt her feelings. And she’s not stupid either, she’ll know that you were only looking out for her when she wasn’t fit to do it herself.”

“Suppose so,” he said rather uncertainly, but he was looking at Piet, rather than me. Piet put away the cake knife, hung up the towel, and patted Tim lightly on the behind; Tim jumped.

“Come, Timmy. I know quite well what you are doing. Come and we will have it out.”

Tim swallowed rather nervously, but he trailed after Piet back towards the sitting room; Hansie and I exchanged glances and followed. Piet sat judiciously in the armchair; Hansie and I took the sofa, and Tim was heading for the other chair when Piet said, “So come here, my Tim.”

He went obediently enough, and stood in front of Piet who reached out one huge hand, caught Tim’s wrist and yanked, landing Tim with an “oof!” in his lap.

“So you will not stand before me like a naughty schoolboy, because we have not yet established what fault and blame there is to consider, have we? Come, tell me, what are you worrying about?”

Tim was stiff and uncomfortable, but Piet pulled him closer, and when Tim didn’t snuggle down at once, admonished him with “but I want to cuddle, Timmy.” Then suddenly he relaxed against Piet’s shoulder.

“Now what is wrong?”

“I don’t know if anything is. I was a bit – a bit harsh with Fran.”

“And tell me why?”

“Because nothing else was getting through. She’d had it, Piet. She was done. She’d managed all that time going to Malpersham before Nick was moved to the Lufton, and she was there all the hours God sent, and juggling her work into the gaps, and then doing her developing and so on at night, as far as I can tell. And she had Karen in the house to start with, and they didn’t get on.”

“Why not?” I asked, interested. He twisted to look at me.

“They didn’t exactly not get on either, just I get the feeling they haven’t much in common, and they were both stressed. And Karen is still mates with Kate, so it was a bit uncomfortable, I think. Fran’s own friends helped a bit – I heard some of it from her in the car, some of her work friends took over bits of her work for her, but there was a wedding and some other things she couldn’t get out of. But the relief once Nick could see was just where her body gave up, and she wasn’t getting that, so I got a bit toppy about having her go home.”

“And were you wrong to do that?”

“No! I bloody wasn’t, even if Hansie wouldn’t back me up.” That sounded rather offended; it made Hansie jump.

“Me? I only thought that we should not bully her, she could decide for herself…”

“No, she couldn’t, Hansie, any idiot could see that. She couldn’t any more than I could when I was fucking up my MBA, any more than you could the night you heard your dad was dead. And I wasn’t suggesting that we should bully her, I was suggesting that we should spell out how things were so that even she could see it, and then sort out what we were going to do, and you tried to shoot me in the foot. If you’d backed me up…”

“I was only trying to think about what was best for Fran!”

“You weren’t. You were thinking about what Fran wanted, not what was best for her – or come to that, what was best for Nick. For God’s sake, Hansie, the woman had all but passed out at your feet, she’d been crying – Fran! Crying! – and she couldn’t stop, she looked like nothing on earth. There’s no way she was fit to go back to the hospital and I could have done without having to fight you as well as her.”

Piet interrupted. “Then that is for later. You say you were not wrong in what you persuaded Fran to do?”

Tim considered. “No. No, I wasn’t. It wouldn’t have been good for Nick to see her like that, and she shouldn’t have been driving in that state. If she didn’t kill herself she was going to kill somebody else. She’d had enough.”

“And what did you do? You took her home?”

“Yes. And I know, Hansie, I know I’d said she was having a meal and a bath and going to bed and she wasn’t doing anything else, but I’m not a complete idiot. There was stuff which actually did have to be done. She had a list of work things, and she said some of them needed to be done, and I mean, how could I say they didn’t? That’s her livelihood. So I just got her to look at the list and to say out loud which ones she had to do and which ones she didn’t, and then she did the two she thought were important while I made her something to eat. And before she did those, she had to ring her mum and Karen and Sergeant Bateman, I agreed those couldn’t wait. And Kate, actually: apparently Karen had told Kate and Kate had been talking to Fran. She rang Kate and got Kate’s husband, and that was a truly surreal conversation. But after that, she went for her bath, and then I made her a drink and she watched the news with me, and then she went off to bed quite happily. I stayed until about ten, and fielded a couple of phone calls and then I locked up and went home.”

“And did Fran say anything to suggest that she was unhappy with you?”

“No,” he said slowly, “but I was a bit – definite – about what she was doing and not doing. I don’t think I was nasty, or unreasonable. I didn’t try to stop her doing the things she thought were important – she wouldn’t have slept properly if she’d been worrying about her work, or not phoning people who needed to know, but she didn’t need to, I don’t know, to help me wash the dishes or clear the table.”

Piet shifted suddenly, and yanked again, and Tim gave a squeak of amused dismay as he spun in mid air and landed face down on Piet’s lap. One enormous palm patted his rump affectionately.

“So, then, do I need to spank you for not taking care of Fran?”

“No,” said Tim firmly. “I did what somebody ought to have done a day earlier.”

“Do I need to spank you for being rude to her?”

He hesitated. “I don’t think I was actually rude… just a bit forceful. So… No, I don’t think so.”

“Do I need to spank you for poor decision making?”

“No,” giggled Tim, bracing his palms on the floor as Piet hitched up one knee.

“And what about for over-analysing what you have done, and thinking too much about it, instead of trusting your instincts and accepting that you did what you thought was necessary, to the best of your ability?”

“Well… maybe for that one.” They were both laughing by now: Piet patted him lightly twice and let him up.

“It is your old complaint, but you did well, Tim. Fran is not offended, Phil is right about that.” He looked across at Hansie, who was frowning.

“And what of you?”

“I – do not know. I had not thought so but Tim might be right. I maybe was not thinking about what was best for Fran but only what she wanted. She had been suffering so much, I did not like to deny her when she said what she would do…” He looked rather nervously at Piet. “Perhaps I did not do so well there. Maybe I chose wrongly.”

Piet shrugged. “Maybe.” He looked round for his wineglass. Hansie’s face was a study; Piet laughed when he looked back.

Boet, I do not judge. I was not here, remember? You must fight that one out with Tim, see if you can convince him, or he you.”

“I wish you had been here,” observed Tim, fervently. “It was awful; we needed you.”

“I do not think so, Tim. All the evidence is that you did not need me at all. I wish I had been here, fersure, for I might have been some comfort to Fran, but it seems that you and Hansie contrived everything perfectly competently without me.”

Ach, Tim was great,” agreed Hansie. “He saw the problem with the food and he sorted it; and ja, I suppose he was much better than me with seeing what Fran needed.”

“Sounds to me like you were being fairly great yourself,” I put in. “Washing Nick’s hair? I’m impressed, Hansie. No, honestly, I am. That can’t have been easy for you, whatever you said to Nick.” I didn't mention what he'd said about Julius: never mind his family not admitting the way things had been, I didn't think Hansie himself had ever said out loud that his brother had deliberately killed himself.

He made a face again. “It was not. It was true what I said, though; when I saw that this was not Julius, it was Nick, I could manage, but I confess I didn’t like it. I think maybe I never will. I will never be quite comfortable with the sight of blood in a man’s hair, it will always remind me of Julius. It was a rather scrappy job in the end – we should have done it a second time to be sure that we had all the dressing or whatever it was off his scalp, but I had gone as far as I could manage. I coped with it because Nick had suffered enough, because he needed me to be strong, but – ”

“But there is no ‘but’, Hansie,” said Piet firmly. “Phil is right, you did well. And yes, perhaps you are right and it will always be something which will give you an unpleasant reaction. But do not talk of what you cannot do, consider what you did do. You faced your fear, and you acknowledged it and you overcame it. You gave Nick what he needed, and if it was done in a rather makeshift manner, well, but it was done. I did not hear Nick complain about it; I think you had it exactly right when you said that this was about him and not about you. It was distasteful and disturbing to you, and you did it anyway because he needed it done. I could have done no more for him, nor could Fran. He knows that it was a sacrifice on your part, as do we all, but you managed it as far as possible so that he should not know, which was generous of you; it is not everyone who could have done it, my Hansie, and it was well done. It was very well done.”

Hansie didn’t know what to say; I don’t think any of us did, and Piet let us sit only a moment before he said, more lightly, “And Nick thinks there should be rewards for you, does he not? What shall we arrange, Phil?”

“Ah,” I said brightly, “I’ve been thinking, and I’ve had an idea.”

“Beginner’s luck,” said Tim, equally brightly. I got up and came over to loom above him (he was still sitting at Piet’s feet) and leaned over him threateningly.

“You see, Piet, Tim very stupidly let us know how much he likes big strong scary rugby players who manhandle him and don’t let him get away; he could have one of those.”

Tim raised a shoulder at me dismissively. “You don’t scare me. I’ve faced down Fran; after the Great She-Elephant, I don’t think I’ll ever be scared of a Top again.”

“No?” asked Piet very softly. “Are you sure of that, Mr Creed? Are you quite sure?” And he trapped Tim’s wrists in one enormous hand, and slid the other under Tim’s chin. “So you topped Fran; I do not think you would be wise to try it again. Elephant she may be: Alpha she most certainly is. Are you strong enough to be an Alpha Top, Mr Creed?”

Tim was wide eyed and speechless. Piet went on. “Who is the Alpha here? Is it you?” Tim’s head moved, only a fraction. “No, it is me, is it not? And you have behaved like a Top, fersure, but you are not the Alpha yet.” He had drawn Tim to his feet, and trapped both Tim’s wrist in one of his own hands, behind Tim’s back, so that Tim was pressed tightly against Piet’s body; we saw that shiver of pleasure he gives when one of us is rough with him. “I am the Alpha and I think you need a lesson in that; I will teach you myself and know you have the lesson by heart.” And his head dipped, and Tim squeaked as Piet first bit his ear and then ran his tongue over the injured place. Piet looked over at Hansie and me.

“So your idea is good, Phil, but the execution needs fine tuning. I will see to Mr Creed.”

“What about a reward for Hansie, then?” I asked, grinning.

“Hansie has an unfulfilled responsibility before he can look for any reward.”

“I do?” asked Hansie, plainly confused.

“Fersure. We really cannot have Phil calling Fran an elephant, it is grossly disrespectful. He must not do such a thing. Fran is your sister, Hansie, so I think it must fall to you to preserve her good name and improve his manners, by whatever means you think fit. And Tim and I will watch to see that you do it right.”

A slow and very wicked smile crept across Hansie’s face; I rotated my shoulders and bounced on my toes a little. “He’ll have to catch me first.”

“Well, Tim and I may help with that.”

“Three to one? That’s not fair.”

“No,” agreed Hansie, “it is not, is it? Dear me, how sad. And when I have caught him, Piet, I may do what I want?”

“I think so, yes – catch him!” and I bolted for the connecting door and the back stairs through Piet’s Dairy.

Yes, I’ll let them catch me in the end. And I know what Hansie will want to do, and I know what he’ll want to do afterwards, and after that, he’ll want to cuddle. He loves to cuddle. I dare say I can accommodate him.

But like I say, he has to catch me first.


Idris the Dragon

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