Watchfire

by Paulus the Woodgnome


Authorís note: This story is a sequel to , and will make a lot more sense if read after that story.

By day 12 I was definitely going mad. About 10:30 I made a fresh pot of coffee, and took a cup - well, a large mug, actually - to Steve, who was hammering away at the computer keyboard in the smallest bedroom, the one we had had converted into an office for him. He muttered something, not really aware of me at all, his mind far away in whatever strange place it was that he had dredged up his latest storyline. Beyond the Fields We Know.

I stood in the doorway and studied him, his broad shoulders hunched in front of the pale square of screen. They say that being watched gives you a creepy sensation, because of the latent ESP we all have. Steve's ESP was obviously more latent than most. I sighed a little. Then I did it again, louder, since the first time seemed to have no effect.

"Why don't you go dig the garden ?" he said, without turning around.

"I already did that. Besides, you're the one with green fingers. Look at the fuss you made when I helped with the weeding."

"Those weren't weeds, those were the hardy geraniums I'd just ordered."

"Well, you didn't tell me that," I pointed out, in a reasonable if somewhat aggrieved tone.

"No," he agreed, equally reasonably, picking up his mug and turning to face me. "And I didn't spank you for it, either, which I certainly would have done if you had had reason to know what they were."

I stuck my tongue out at him, and he laughed and took a big swig of the coffee. An expression of bliss crossed his face. I swear that man's bloodstream is 50% caffeine.

"I could arrange your files for you, though," I suggested, looking at the heaps of paper and less nameable detritus that surrounded him.

"No ! I know exactly where everything is, thank you very much, and I do not want to have the same paperchase I had the last time you got your hands on my stuff."

"It was completely systematic," I said aggrieved. "And all in proper files instead of this . . ." I waved a hand at the midden heap.

"This is systematic," he returned, "and it's my system. Hands off, all right ? I mean it, Rich."

"OK, OK." I sighed again.

"You're bored," he announced with the air of someone coming up with a great insight.

"Of course I'm bored. I've been stuck at home now for two weeks. Nearly two weeks. That's half a month. I want something to do."

"And re-landscaping half the garden, painting and decorating the bedroom, and alphabetising your spice racks doesn't count I suppose."

"I did not alphabetise the spice racks !" I glared at him. "I mean I want something real to do."

He looked at me strangely.

"This isn't real ?" he asked. "This life we live isn't real ? Only the office is real ?"

"I didn't mean it like that." That is one of his most irritating habits. He can make your words come out differently than you intended. Words sit up and beg for him.

He grabbed me and pulled me down to sit on his knee. "Honeybuns, this is life. All this day-to-day stuff. The washing, the TV, the deciding what to have for dinner this week. It's what we have. Yes, it's a quiet life. It isn't glamorous, and it isn't paid, but it's real. It's the realest thing there is."

"I . . ."

"Wait. You have to learn to look at it right. If you go into our 'ordinary' back garden you'll see something different every time. A new flower, a new trick of the light. There was a flock of long-tailed tits this morning, and a rim of frost on all the grass blades like tiny blades of white grass itself. You have to learn to value the world for what it is, and stop wishing it was something else. The water under the bridge never flows back."

"Steve - are you saying that I shouldn't go back to work ?"

"No. But you need to remember that there are other sorts of work, other sorts of worth."

I hugged him, remembering that he passed all his days in this world he described so lovingly, even if his mind roamed in far less mundane places.

"I do value it," I said. "I love our house, and I love us being together. I need a quiet place to be safe in. But I can't stay here forever."

"You certainly can't," he agreed. "I'm going to wring your neck if you hang around under my feet for much longer distracting me, and I never fancied doing a prison novel."

"Brute," I said softly, punching him in the arm.

"Brat," he returned, with a swat to my bum as I hopped off his knee not quite fast enough to escape retaliation.

"So seriously, what should I do ?"

"Well, you did say that Jonathan Yates over at Almagest more or less offered you a job when you did the negotiations with them on behalf of your last place."

"But I haven't left Compass Rose yet. Officially I'm still using up accumulated leave."

"So go talk to Almagest. Then you go and see Darren, see what he offers, and you decide where you think you'll be happiest. Whatever happens, things will never be quite like before."

I admit, the idea of walking back into my old office, wondering what everyone had heard, what people had been saying about me, didn't fill me with enthusiasm. But it had to be done, and soon. Office politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. And going there armed with a counter offer from Almagest would certainly strengthen my position. But the truth was, I wasn't certain I wanted to work for Almagest either. They were much bigger, much more corporate, much more stuffy. I couldn't imagine my partner being invited to company dinners after the first time the directors realised that it was a 'him'.

It was as I was on my way down the stairs that the idea struck me. If I wasn't keen on working for either of the alternatives, why do it ? Why not make a virtue of necessity and work for myself ?

Eventually Steve appeared at the door of my study - a room a good deal tidier than the one he uses, I might add, which is why it doubles as the guest bedroom - and made plaintive noises about lunch.

"Hmm ?" I said, looking up distractedly from the spreadsheet projection I was running. "Oh, yeah, sure sweetheart. In five minutes or so. Could you wait till 1 o'clock ?"

"It's already 1:30," he said. "What are you working on that's so interesting ?"

"Oh, er, nothing," I said, hastily closing down the window.

Yes, I know, tangled webs and all that. If I'd just told him, none of what followed would have happened. Probably.

I don't even know why I did it, except a primitive superstitious fear that if I talked about it before I had everything nailed down the whole idea would fade like fairy gold.

"Nothing ?"

"Nothing important. Just a few ideas I want to kick around before I go and see anybody about a job." See, not even a lie. Not exactly.

"In that case, lunch. Which is important."

"OK, OK. I was going to stir fry those salmon fillets with ginger and the rest of those mangetout ?"

"Sounds good to me. Mind you, right now, stir-fried toenails would probably sound good to me."

"Uck, that is disgusting. I've a good mind to give you stir-fried toenails and make you eat them."

He grinned. "I can think of something else I'd rather eat."

Exit, in the direction of the kitchen, pursued by a bear.

But later, looking over the figures, I saw two things. It could be done. And it was going to be a gamble, at least at first. I'd have to plough all my savings into it, and I would have to take a minimal salary for at least a year or so, until we were on our feet. If we ever got onto our feet.

Oh I was confident of my own ability, but these things are about more than just ability. Luck, and being in the right place at the right time, and knowing the right people are all just as important. That was the bit that made it a gamble, and I don't have a gambler's soul. I worry too much for that.

As we were undressing for bed that night, Steve put his arms around me from behind. "Care to tell me what the matter is ?" he said.

I wriggled out of the embrace. Normally I love his arms around me, it makes me feel so safe, but this time it just made me feel obscurely guilty.

"Nothing, I told you."

"Hmm," he said, in a considering, all-right-I'll-let-it-pass-this-time sort of way. Worried that he was going to pursue it, and still uncertain in my own mind about what to do, I grabbed a convenient handful of him and kissed him ferociously. That shut him up, at least temporarily, and had other pleasant consequences as well.

Later, much later, though, I lay awake, unable to sleep and watched him. I love to watch him sleep. Sometimes when I see him like that my heart just seizes up with how much I love him and it's hard to breathe. My life. My whole life, held in those strong hands, that wise tongue, that unexpectedly tender smile. And sometimes it seems that I have too much, more than should be allowed, and I wonder how it would feel to look down on him not sleeping but dead, and then I have to check, panicking, that he's still breathing. Innoculating myself against the worst, and knowing that one day, for one of us, that worst will inevitably come and none of my fears and torments will be the slightest use.

I told you I was a worrier.

The next day I saw the Sign. Divine guidance, something like that. Steve had to go up to London to see his publisher, so after I'd dropped him at the station, I'd decided to drive into the county town for a couple of things I needed that our local Waitrose, good as it was, didn't have. And on the way, I saw a sign for a new business development, offices and light industrial units combined. I wondered if someone was trying to tell me something, so I had a look around. Very nice, landscaped settings, architect designed offices, all pre-wired for a local network and broadband Internet connection, all the things we would need if I set up on my own.

The price was - well, higher than I had originally figured, but not outrageous for what they were offering, and some of the costs I had figured on for setting up would be covered. And it was only 15 minutes from home.

I never did get my shopping done. Instead, I went home and began frantically reworking my tentative figures into a proper business case. Then I phoned my former secretary and arranged to have lunch the following day, so that I could, very delicately, set about poaching her from Compass Rose. And then I phoned the bank manager and set up an appointment to discuss my business plan and what help the bank could offer.

I was just refining the figures on what seemed to me really a rather convincing set of projected profits (and believe me I've seen a few that weren't) when the phone rang.

"Hallo, gorgeous," said Steve's familiar tone.

"Hi, do you want a lift from the station ?"

"No, I'm still in London. Our discussions took a bit longer than planned and Jenna wants to take me to dinner this evening, so I'll be late back."

"Oh. OK." I couldn't keep from sounding slightly disappointed, I guess, even though it gave me more time to work on the business case. "Ring me when you get back and I'll come down and get you."

"No, I don't know what time I'll be back, and you should be taking adavantage of this break to rest."

"But . . ."

"I'll take a taxi from the station, hon. You make sure you're in bed by 10:30, you know you aren't one of nature's night owls. No 'buts'," he added firmly enough to forestall any further disagreements, "that's an order."

"Yes sir," I said as sarcastically as I dared.

"Hey, it won't be that bad. I'll be back by 12 at the latest. Anyway, what have you been up to today ? Did you get the stuff you were after ?"

"Umm - no, no, they were out of it. So I've just been sort of pottering about, doing some stuff on the computer."

"Don't spend too long on it, it's not good for you. OK, got to go. Love you."

"Love you too. Bye."

Well it wasn't the time to discuss my plan, was it ? Well, OK, so the bit about the shops being out of what I was after was - um - technically a bit misleading, I agree, but they probably were. Would have been. Whatever. So it was statistically valid.

And when I heard Steve's key in the lock (needless to say I hadn't slept a wink, though I did go to bed by 11 pm) and later felt him slip into bed beside me all that was appropriate was a kiss and a snuggling together.

Somehow I couldn't find a good opportunity to talk to him about it the next day, either. Or the one after that. By this stage, of course, I felt horribly guilty about not discussing it with him, and the longer it went on, the worse it got, and the more nervous I got about broaching it, and the more snappy and difficult my guilt made me, which would have earned me more than the few well-placed swats I did get if Steve hadn't been being all indulgent because he figured I was still upset about the whole business with being outed at work. So to try to make up for it, the next day I cooked him a fried breakfast, which is a pretty rare indulgence.

The phone had just gone while I was cooking, and Steve came back into the kitchen to the sight of a large white plate piled with sausage, proper Suffolk bacon fried to crispness the way he likes it, egg, a pile of mushrooms (for which he has a hobbit-like passion), baked beans, a tomato, and, crowning it all, the holy of holies (or in my view, queasy of queasies), two triangles of fried bread.

"Well, what did I do to deserve this ?" he asked.

"I decided I want your insurance money," I said, sitting down and taking a swig of orange juice. "So I thought a heart attack on a plate was just the thing."

He smiled, tightly. "Going to put the insurance money towards your new business, are you ? That was Denise on the phone by the way, she says yes, she's in."

I tried to breathe orange juice, which was not, perhaps, one of my smarter ideas. When I'd finished spraying the room with the aforementioned fluid, and coughing, I opened my mouth to explain but he forestalled me with a raised hand.

"No, Rich, I don't want to hear it right now. We'll talk presently. For now, I'm going to finish this lovely breakfast, and you are going up to the spare bedroom to think about what you are going to tell me when I come up. Off you go."

Spare bedroom. Very bad sign. Spare bedroom is reserved for very serious screw-ups. Spare bedroom has the wardrobe with the Implements of Death in it. Spare bedroom has an Atmosphere of pain and suffering (mostly mine) imbued in its walls like some ancient dungeon. Dogs howl if forced to enter, and guests who spend the night there wake up white-haired or mad. Well Jack came out white-haired, though admittedly he was before, and my mother was definitely mad, though again unbiased observers might claim that this state pertained prior to entry.

I went to the spare bedroom without having to be told twice. No sense in adding further charges to the sheet. And to be honest maybe a trip to the spare bedroom was in order. What was I thinking of, shutting him out of such a big decision ? This wasn't my decision to make, it was ours.

I was so dead.

I sat on the edge of the bed in the spare bedroom and stared at that hateful wardrobe as it sneered at me. I stuck my tongue out at it, and opened the door to show it I wasn't afraid of it or its contents. The slipper lay there on the bottom, lasciviously entwined with the strap, and winked at me. The paddles leered glossily, the light and the heavy neatly arranged on a shelf. And in the shadows at the back loomed the pale spectre of the cane.

I shut the wardrobe again, breathing heavily. We just needed to talk this thing through, was all. Yes, I should have told him. And I would have. Really very soon.

"How soon ?" I jumped. How can such a big guy move so quietly ? I hadn't heard him come up the stairs at all. "How soon were you going to tell me ? When they needed my signature to mortgage the house ? Or were you going to forge that, and not tell me till you were up and running ?"

"No, of course not, I'd never do that."

"I really hope not. The Rich I thought I knew would never do that, but then he'd never do something as major as start his own business without even mentioning it to me." His voice was calm, quiet, apparently unemotional. Only if you knew him as well as I did would you realise just how much pain was registering.

I felt like someone had reached into my chest and torn my heart into shreds. Because I could see - feel - that was what I had done to him. I swallowed.

"Steve, it isn't like that, honestly. I had an idea, I wanted to explore if it was even feasible before I talked it over with you. I started to get some figures together, then I saw the new development down at Little Hedingbury, got enthusiastic and things sort of snowballed. I never meant to keep you in the dark, and of course I was always going to discuss it with you once . . ."

"Once you could present me with a fait accompli and it was too late for me to talk you out of it."

Ouch.

"You think it's a bad idea, then. Damn, I knew . . ."

"So you did intend to avoid me talking you out of it. And no, I don't think anything, bad or good. I don't have any of the facts, because you've kept them from me."

"But I didn't mean to. The right time just hadn't come up."

"And it never would have, would it ? Rich, you may not have consciously set out to lie to me and deceive me, but that's what you've done. You've lied."

"No, no, I didn't. Well, except . . ." My voice trailed away.

He raised an eyebrow.

"Except about the shopping. When I said they didn't have what I wanted. I never got that far."

He laughed, harshly. "Compared to the rest, that's almost trivial."

"Steve, please . . ."

"Please what ?"

"Please don't hate me."

He grabbed me by the upper arms and shook me, almost savagely.

"You little fool. If I hated you you wouldn't be able to hurt me like this."

My own eyes filled with tears.

"God, I'm such a screw-up," I said. "I wouldn't blame you if you did hate me, I hate myself for what I've done to you. Steve, please believe that I love you more than anything in the world. I wanted to make you a gift of a new, successful business, show you what I could do, for you. Always and only for you. None of it would have any meaning without that. You're my life."

He put a hand under my chin and looked at me.

"Don't make me your reason for living," he said. "That's too much of a burden for any man. I won't say it of you. But the lodestar of my life, you are that, the point around which it revolves; and if you say I'm yours, then I'll believe you."

I put my arms around him, but he pushed me gently back. I looked at him, hurt by the rejection.

"Oh no my lad, it doesn't get resolved quite as easily as that." Oh shit. "We have rules in this relationship, and you've broken just about all of them. Badly. You've lied, and you've kept silent, and those lies and silence have grown into a gulf between us and hurt me. Hurt me badly, Rich. Hurt us. Haven't they ?"

I hung my head. "Yes," I whispered, trying to keep my voice from breaking into tears. "I lied directly and by omission, and I wish I could take back the pain I've caused but I can't. So punish me as I deserve."

"Pain for pain ?"

"No. It can't be that easy, I know that. Just balance. I agreed to the rules too. I broke them. There have to be consequences."

"Yes," he said, bleakly. "There are. I'm going to give you a dozen with the cane, Rich, and then I'm going to spank you within an inch of your life, so that if you ever so much as think of pulling a stunt like this again you'll remember today and be deterred. And when I'm satisfied that you've learned your lesson, I'm going to give you a final six of the best to drive the lesson home. I thought you'd learned from that evening at Jack's place, but evidently I have to take harsher measures to get through to you."

I swallowed, dizzy with fear. I'd never been punished with anything like such severity. But I couldn't argue that I hadn't earned it. As I'd just said, actions have consequences.

"Come here," he said.

I stood up and approached him. His hands unbuckled my belt and unfastened the waistband of my jeans, then brusquely slid both jeans and briefs down around my knees.

"Take them off," he ordered. "You wont be needing them."

I closed my eyes for a moment. It just got worse. A dozen with the cane on the bare backside, unprepared. I removed the faded denim and the briefs in a single tangle of cloth, folded them as best I could, and placed them on the bed.

"You know what to do," he prompted. I did. I walked over to the writing table in the corner, pulled it out into the centre of the room, then spread my legs, and bent over it, grasping the legs on the far side.

"It's not a very dignified position for a 29-year-old man, is it ?" said Steve.

"No sir."

"No. Then remember what got you into it, and what you're getting this for. Hold on tightly to those legs, because this is going to hurt, and if you get up I will start again, understand ?"

"Yes. Yes sir."

He went to the wardrobe, and I heard him taking out the implements and laying them on the bed, though I couldn't see much except for the patch of carpet immediately under the table, which could do, I thought, with shampooing. Odd the things the mind finds to think about when you're in these situations.

The gentle tap of the cane on my backside brought me out of my domestic reverie. I swallowed again, bracing myself.

The force and cauterising pain of the first blow brought a raw involuntary 'augh' of sheer agony to my lips. The second was as bad, the third and fourth seemed slightly more bearable. Five and six were bad, seven made me cry aloud in pain, eight crossed the weal of a previous blow, re-igniting it. He paused, and I could feel my backside throbbing and stinging. It was excruciating stuff, and I wondered how I could possibly bear any more. Then nine and ten, in quick succession as I flinched and squirmed.

"Keep still or you'll get extra."

"Please Steve, I can't take it."

"You will take it, Rich. This is the consequence of your actions, remember."

I bit my lip as hard as I could. Eleven - I cried out my pain. A pause again, the anticipation almost as raw as my backside. Twelve. I yelled, and then began to sob, helplessly.

"Get up," said Steve, mercilessly. I rose, awkwardly and stiffly, every movement seeming to set off a new symphony of fire in my beaten behind. Tearful and ashamed, I hung my head, unwilling to meet his eyes. He pulled me to him, drew me over to the bed. They were all there, the lurkers in the wardrobe. He picked up the heavy paddle, sighed, put it down again.

Then he sat down and pulled me over his lap. His hand came down on my welted backside. And again. And againandagainandagainandagain . . . I squirmed and tried to present places that weren't as sore to the onslaught but he pinned me too firmly to move much, and anyway there weren't any, and the longer it went on, the sorer all my places grew.

I was crying freely, and begging, and promising to do anything he wanted if he'd only stop, stop the goddamned spanking (which earned me a quick swap from hand to paddle, which added new levels of pain to an agony I had assumed was already at a maximum), stop it pleeeease, pretty please, oh God, Steve I love you and I deserve it but please stoooooooopppppp !

He stopped. The hand of punishment became the hand that rubbed my shaking shoulders as I lay over his strong, denim-clad legs, that ran gentle fingertips over the scorched, devastated, nuclear wasteland to the south.

I kissed his leg, which was the only part of him within reach.

"I'm so sorry," I whispered. "I'm so sorry."

"So am I," he said in a small voice. "I hate having to do this, you know. To be honest, spanking you is sometimes fun, but having to dish out punishment on this scale is no fun at all. For either of us. Please don't make me have to do anything like this again."

"I won't. Or," I was overcome by a sudden fit of honesty "I'll really try not to. Believe me, bad as it might seem to you it's a whole lot less pleasant from my perspective."

"Get up," he said, more gently this time. I kind of collapsed sideways onto the floor, and he helped me to rise.

I folded my arms around him. I needed a hug so badly. But instead of wrapping me in the safe, strong wall of his own arms he gently disengaged me.

"Sorry," he said, "but we're not quite done yet, remember ?"

I met his eyes, saw there only love and a certain wry humour. The anger and pain were gone. For that I'd take whatever I had to.

I smiled, a rather watery and red-eyed smile I expect, but a smile nonetheless. Then I picked up the cane and handed it to him, and went and bent back over the table.

He swished the cane experimentally through the air. Every nerve in my exposed, helpless cheeks screamed. Then it tapped gently against my flinching bottom. "Don't" - another tap - "make" - tap - "me" - tap - "have to do anything like" - swish-CRACK-OOOWUH !!!! That one was full force - "this" - tap - "ever" - tap - "again." SWISH-THWACK.

"Oh God, that was seven," I complained, as he lifted me up and folded me into the embrace I so wanted.

"That was for the lie about the shopping. Anyway, are you counting ? Want me to start over ?"

"NO. No, sir. Oh Steve . . ." but whatever else I was going to say was lost to posterity because he fastened his mouth on mine and distracted me. Even from the fire in my backside.

Much later on, after we'd finished making up properly, and then showered (not together, because we knew from experience where that led), and my bottom had been salved and surgical spirit and a dressing applied to a couple of places where the skin had broken, I showed him the business case I'd drawn up.

Figures aren't his strong point. "Do you want to do this ?" he asked. "I mean, really want to do this, as opposed to simply wanting to stiff Darren and everyone else that you think has let you down."

"This isn't pique," I said. "There's a real gap in the market there that a small, flexible, innovative outfit could fill. There is some risk, especially in the first year. But we could do it, and we'd be good at it."

"But is it what you really want to do ?"

I gave that the consideration that it deserved.

"Yes," I said at last. "I'm ready. This is the right thing for me, and the right time."

"Then do it. I'll support you all the way."

Figures aren't his strong point. But he's very good at hearts. Mine overflowed with love for him.

"But what are you going to call it, your new business ?" he asked when I let him up for air.

I hadn't even thought of that. "Don't know. The current fashion seems to be for vaguely poetic names: Compass Rose, Stardream, Wild Water."

"I have a suggestion."

"?"

"Born in Fire, plc."

"Very funny." I felt my backside, which was still stiff and swollen. "As if I needed reminding. And no, 'Shadow of the Cane, Inc.' or 'Black and Tanned' wouldn't be an improvement."

"Pity: given that Denise is going to be an equal partner, 'Black and Tanned' is really rather good. And I hope you won't ever need reminding, but cane marks fade, and a name that carried some - um - associations for you might not be such a bad idea. What about 'Watchfire' ?"

And that, in the end, it was. So now you know how we got our name, which is, if I may say so, fast becoming one to watch in the field.

And yes, that name carries associations for me, but not just the one Steve meant. Sentries have watchfires, as they patrol, keeping an encampment, a city, a country safe from the enemy. As long as I have him, I know someone will be watching to make sure I'm safe too.

My sentry, my soldier, my firm hand and safe harbour.

This, like everything else, is for you.


Copyright © 2002

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