Guarded

Chapter 15 - Guarded

 Paul woke early on Saturday morning. He sat up on his elbow and looked down at Corbin. The fireman was still a little irritated with him, and he thought about waking him to ask his questions. But he forced himself to let it be for now.

Instead, he got up. After his bathroom routine, he went to the kitchen. Paul pulled a frozen log of biscuit dough out of his freezer. He sliced six rounds off the log, then back into the freezer it went. He began preheating his oven and dug out a baking sheet. He placed the frozen biscuit dough onto the baking sheet. Then he pulled out a nice cast-iron pan and he put it on the stovetop to heat. Once it was hot Paul crumbled spicy breakfast sausage into the pan.

The sausage began to fry with a satisfying sound, and Paul smiled. He loved breakfast. After the sausage was nearly cooked, he threw dry sage and a pinch of black pepper in with it. Next, he shook in some flour. He eyeballed it and added more until the flour and grease became a thick paste. Then he pulled whole milk from his fridge.

The oven announced it was heated, and the biscuits went in. He knew they'd be done in 14 minutes. He had this particular task down perfectly. He went back to his pan and poured in the milk. He began to stir it and made sure to scrape the bottom of the pan as he did. Slowly the liquid began to thicken and turn darker.

The house now smelled like biscuits and sausage gravy. That's a sure recipe to wake a fella, and Corbin was not immune. The blonde man peeked around the corner from the hallway. "Hey." His hair was a little squished on one side, and he scratched his neck. "Smells good." He tried a little smile on Paul.

"Hey. Good morning." Paul continued to stir his pan. "It'll be ready in a few minutes." He jerked his head at the table. "Have a seat." No smile though and Corbin noticed.

The blonde man nodded and sat at the table. He watched as Paul finished breakfast. The fireman served them each a couple of biscuits open-face, with a scoop full of the sausage gravy over each half.

He walked over and put the plate in front of Corbin. Corbin looked up at Paul. "Thanks for breakfast."

"You're welcome." Paul sat down across from him instead of his usual spot right beside and Corbin frowned. Paul saw it, and he felt a little stab of malice. He wanted Corbin to know he was still angry. Paul picked up his fork.

The smaller man sighed. "Can we just talk now, before we eat?"

Paul looked at him. He thought, then he put the fork down. "Okay." Paul inhaled. "You'll answer my questions?"

Corbin nodded. There was no equivocation this time. "Yes. Ask whatever you want."

Paul smiled slightly at that. "Okay. First thing I want to know is why is Luca here? In Hailey?"

Corbin sighed. "I don't know. I wish I did. But he seems to know I'm Family. I'm sure he knows it. I don't think he realizes which, but … I could be wrong." Corbin frowned. "But I find it very hard to believe his being here is a coincidence."

Paul nodded. "All right. Next, I want to know why we … and everyone in that room was served an insanely good meal, for nothing."

"That's complicated." Corbin sighed. "It's partly Conspicuous Consumption, and partly to ensure there was no insult to his guests. Some of the people there were from the Old Country. Luca is showing them he has set up shop here." Corbin's eyes narrowed. "I'm fairly certain there were other Capos present, from other Families. It was an assembly of high powered folks. By attending and partaking of Luca's generosity, the other Family condone his presence and power here."

Paul frowned. "Hrmmm … okay." He cocked his head. "I could tell there was a power play between you and Luca. But people were treating you like some sort of dignitary, right off the bat. Even before that. Why?"

Corbin ran his hand through his hair. "The only thing I can come up with is because Luca told them to. An interaction with Jenoah that I had at the coffee shop told me Luca did as much with his own Outfit. It's likely he did the same with all of his guests." Corbin shrugged. "Why? I have no clue."

Paul thought about his answer, then slowly nodded. "Okay. Last one. Why does Luca want us out of town weekend after next?"

"Again, I wish I knew." Corbin shrugged. "This one? I don't even have a theory. Nothing at all." He frowned helplessly. "I just know I have to go." Corbin stared down at his slowly cooling food, then he looked up at Paul.

The fireman took a moment, then he smiled. Perhaps it was strange but Corbin's lack of knowledge made Paul feel better. If Corbin were just as in the dark as he was, then it meant the blonde man didn't keep important information from him.

"Okay. Thank you." He reached across the table and patted Corbin's hand. "Can I sit beside you?"

"God, please!" Corbin laughed, and Paul grinned at him. He walked around the table, and before he sat he bent and kissed the smaller man.

Corbin and Paul had talked. And Paul made it a point to show Corbin that he still cared for, and wanted him around. And Corbin couldn't have been happier.
___________________________________

Monday morning came and both of them had to go to work. Paul was up for a 48-hour shift this time. Corbin again stayed with Paul at his house. It was easier since he had to help with the animals. And it also meant he got to sleep, warm and comfortable wrapped in Paul's arms.

Corbin rose at 5 AM when the alarm sounded. And he intended to let Paul sleep. Paul didn't need to be at the fire station until 7 AM, and so he could afford another hour in bed.

Corbin stood in the bathroom and brushed his teeth, and a sleepy, blinking Paul entered. Corbin frowned at him and spit in the sink. "What's going on? Why are you up?"

"Phone." He held up his phone and put it on the bathroom stand. "Got a notice of a fire. A few miles north of Galena." He stood at the toilet and sighed as he urinated. "Just a notice to be ready. But might as well get up."

Corbin's frown grew. "How big of a fire? Will you have to go?" He rinsed his mouth.

"Not sure yet. It's early. If it's a big one, when it's light enough we'll be able to see smoke from the living room window. It looks straight north, in the direction of Galena." He shook his cock. "Plus, if it's really something to worry about I'll get another …" his phone vibrated again on the counter. He frowned and stepped over to it. He looked at the notice, and his eyes widened.

"Shit. I have to go."

Paul dashed past him into the bedroom. Corbin followed. "What? Now? You can't even shower, and brush your teeth?"

Paul shoved his legs into his jeans. "No. It's a big fire. It must have been burning overnight, and nobody could see the smoke till the sky lightened." He straightened and zipped his pants. "The lodge in Galena is in trouble. They've already evacuated the guests."

Corbin stood there, a worried look on his face as Paul dressed. Then the blonde man started throwing on his own clothes.

"What are you doing?" Paul glanced at him as he pulled on his boots.

"I'm gonna drive you to the firehouse." Corbin had no idea why he felt like he needed to do this. But he did. "I just … I want to see you as long as I can before you go."

Paul looked at him and only nodded. "Don't forget Zampa."

Corbin ran and got the sleepy bobcat. They piled into his truck, and Zampa curled up on Paul's lap as they drove. He absentmindedly stroked her fur as Corbin made his way to town.

When they turned onto highway 75 and pointed north both inhaled in surprise. There was a pall of smoke on the horizon. Corbin felt a deep sensation of dread in his belly. "Paul … you're gonna be okay, right?"

Paul stared at the smoke. "Always have been. No reason for that to change now."

Corbin pulled up in front of the fire station. It was a madhouse of activity. Firefighters, both in their gear and in various stages of gearing up were apparent. The fire engine started, and the men quickly went through the checks required for the vehicle.

Paul gently put Zampa down on the seat, and both of them got out of the truck. He grabbed a few of his items from the back, and he turned to look at Corbin.

Corbin was pale and stared at Paul. The tall man walked around to him. "I'm gonna be fine." He smiled down at Corbin. "Okay?"

They stood close, and they attracted a few glances from the busy firefighters. Corbin barely noticed. He looked at Paul and he nodded. "Okay." He struggled hard and stared up into Paul's eyes. 'God, I love this man.' He took a breath. 'Tell him. Tell him now.' He frowned and clenched his jaw.

Paul wavered. He wanted to hold Corbin one more time, but he didn't know if that's what the smaller man wanted. Instead, he smiled. "All right. See you later." He wavered a second more, then he spun on his heel. Soon he disappeared into the fire station.

Corbin stood there a moment longer and made a frustrated noise. Then he forced himself to turn and get back into his truck. He sat, a worried look on his face as he watched the men prepare to go to battle. Then his eyes looked up at the horizon again. It had to be a monster of a fire. And now that he was in Hailey, he could smell the smoke from it.

He drove the short distance to the coffee shop. He was early, but he had a key. He let himself in through the back door. He took his wiggly lynx inside and put her in the crate under the desk.

He started the computer, and he went to the local radio station's website. Instead of the music they normally piped over the speakers, there was a constant stream of news on the progress of the fire. They had just started reporting, and details were still sketchy. But they knew it was a large fire.

Corbin numbly went through the start-up for the day while the news came over the speakers. After about 20 minutes Karen came in. By now the smell of smoke was obvious, and their eyes met when she entered.

"Hey." She said. She attempted a smile. "Paul at the fire?"

Corbin nodded and busied himself by cleaning the already cleaned steamer.

Karen watched him. "I'm sure he'll be fine, Corbin."

"Yeah. Of course." Corbin took a deep breath. "He'll be fine."

Their day started, and predictably all conversation from patrons centered around the fire. They left the news on, and they all sat as they listened to the progress of both the fire and the firefighters. The coffee shop became something of a meeting place thanks to the constant news piping over the speakers. At one point all seats were taken, and people stood and leaned on tables to listen or talk to each other.

Crews from the south blew through town on the way north. And soon a huge force of firefighters was 20 miles north of Hailey on the fire-line. Estimates were that it was a 4,000-acre fire, and it was forecast to increase more in size before it would be controlled.

The day flew by in a blur of news, smoke, and worry. At the end of his shift, the fire had grown another 2,000 acres. Though, a massive effort from the firefighters saved the lodge in Galena.

Corbin quietly packed up Zampa and grabbed his jacket. He returned the wave goodbye from Karen, and he exited.

The drive home he spent in a sort of daze. The radio droned on, constant updates of the fire. Hailey was only 20 miles from the fireline. It could easily sweep south, though the crews worked hard to ensure that didn't happen.

He drove up the ridge. Corbin got out of the truck and he put Zampa back in with her chicks. It would be time to put the chicks out into their coop and chicken run soon - probably next week. They looked more and more like actual chickens every day.

He entered Paul's house with the key Paul had made for him. Corbin closed the door, then immediately went to the radio. It came on and the coverage of the fire continued. He put down his coat, and then he heard wheels on gravel. He frowned and looked outside.

Chad's truck pulled up. He and Mia got out and Corbin met them at the door. Chad held something in his hands that looked a bit like an old car radio. The brown-haired man smiled at him. "Hey, Corbin. Mia and I thought you could use some company."

Mia nodded at him and smiled at Corbin. "It okay if we hang out with you?"

Corbin hated to admit it, but they were right. He did need company. "Yeah. That'd be good." He looked at the instrument Chad held. "What's that?"

"Police scanner. We'll get news that's not on the radio this way."

"Oh, okay." He let them come inside, and he closed the door.

Chad plugged in the scanner and sat it beside the radio on an end table. It began cycling through the radio frequencies used by local emergency personnel.

Corbin sat down, right beside the radio and scanner. He stared down at a spot on the floor, a few feet in front of him.

After a couple of minutes, Mia cleared her throat. "Corbin, are you hungry?" He shook his head. "Did you eat anything?" Another shake. She quietly got up and went into the kitchen.

Chad sat beside him, and the two of them listened to the sounds of the radio and the periodic communications from the scanner. Mia began frying something in the kitchen.

After about five minutes the scanner squawked to life, and a barely restrained voice spoke.

'We have an overrun position on the southern flank of Bald Mountain! I repeat fire has overrun position! Six personnel in the area! Fire shelters deployed! Request immediate air support over the area! Coordinates are …'

Corbin stood up, his eyes wide. "What … what does that mean?"

Chad frowned and Corbin could tell the man pushed back on his own emotions. "It means some firefighters are in trouble." He stood up with Corbin, and the two men hovered over the scanner. The voice continued in a controlled panic. It sounded as if the six trapped in the area were well and truly cut off. With the updrafts from the fire they couldn't fly a helicopter close, and with no way in from the ground they were on their own.

Corbin stared at the scanner, and his hands flexed open and closed over and over. "I … I can't just …" He turned, walked to the door and grabbed his coat.

"What are you doing?" Chad went to his side. The policeman looked as if he were about to start crying himself.

Corbin's eyes were wild. "I have to get up there." He started to open the door.

"No. No." Chad gently grabbed his arm. "Corbin, you can't just drive into the fire." He shook his head. "The roads are closed. You can't go."

Corbin's face had a lost expression. "I … but …" he felt like he was going to vomit, "I have to go." He looked into Chad's eyes.

"You can't." Chad pulled him into a hug. "I know you're worried. I am too." He swallowed, and Corbin squeezed him tightly. He felt Corbin hitch once in a sob. "But it won't do any good to go running into the fire."

Mia had quietly walked over, and she gently put her arms around them both. "We don't know anything yet, guys." Her voice was low, calm, and soothing. "Dial it back. Okay? Dial it back. Both of you."

Chad nodded. He frowned as he tried to wrangle his own worry.

Corbin shook his head. And very quietly, he said, "I didn't tell him." His head was down and he bit his bottom lip. "I didn't … I didn't tell him."

Mia rubbed his back. "Then fix it. When he gets back." She bent a little so she could look at his face. "Okay?"

Corbin looked at her. The worry was plain in his eyes, but he nodded.

Their food was forgotten in the kitchen, and the three of them spent an anxious evening by the scanner. Eventually, the firefighters were rescued. Two were badly injured and required evacuation to the hospital for burns. The other four were okay.

Corbin called the hospital and asked if Paul Boyd had been admitted, but they wouldn't give him any information. He and Chad both were about to head there when they all heard wheels on gravel.

Corbin opened the door, and one of the fire department pickups sat in the drive. Paul got out of the passenger-side. He was dirty and covered in ash, but he smiled at Corbin. Corbin met him as he walked to the door, and the two of them embraced in the headlights of the pickup.

Corbin clung fiercely to him. Paul smelled of fire, sweat, and dirt, but he didn't care. The fireman in the truck rolled down the window. "Get a room!" He laughed, and the truck pulled around and headed back down the ridge.

Chad and Mia joined the two of them. "See?" Chad punched Corbin's arm lightly. "Told you he'd be fine." He sniffed, and Mia rolled her eyes at him.

"Good to see you, fireman." She said and smiled at Paul.

He nodded. "Thanks, guys." Corbin still hadn't let him go and he patted the blonde man's back. "I'm home till the day after tomorrow. Doc's orders. Then I'll head back out."

"Okay. We'll head out, give you guys some time to yourselves." Mia said. Chad went inside to get his scanner. "There are some burgers made." She smiled. "I made four of them."

Paul grinned. "Keeping the faith. That's good. Thanks, Mia."

Corbin finally let go of Paul, though he kept one arm around his waist and they all entered the house.

Mia and Chad took a burger each. And with a final goodbye, they left for their own home.

Paul went into the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed. He wearily removed his clothes. Corbin stood nearby and watched him.

"Were you with that group? On Bald Mountain?" Corbin asked.

Paul grimaced. "You were listening to the scanner." He sighed. "Damn it, Chad." He looked up at Corbin, then he nodded. "Yeah. Luckily, the fire shelters worked."

Corbin frowned, and Paul watched as emotion rolled through him. Corbin struggled, but he managed to control himself. "I thought you might be dead." His voice was hollow and quiet.

Paul smiled at him. "Nope. Not yet." He stood up. He was still filthy, but not as bad now that his first layer of clothing was off. Now he wore only a t-shirt and his briefs. He walked over to Corbin where he leaned against the doorframe. "I'm fine, Corbin. A little smoke inhalation, and a little singed. But nothing bad."

Corbin looked up at him and he licked his lips. "Paul … I think," he frowned, "no, I am in love with you." Paul's eyes widened. Corbin shook his head. "You don't have to say anything. And I'm sorry if this isn't what you wanted. But it's how I feel. And I wanted you to know. Before you have to go back out there."

Paul put his arms around Corbin's waist and pulled him close. He stared down into those blue eyes. "I don't really know what I can offer you, Corbin." He shook his head. "I mean, you come from this … this crazy world. And if that dinner was any indication, it is a very opulent one." It was one of the rare times Corbin ever saw doubt on Paul's face. "You already know that I can't match that."

Corbin smiled. "I don't want you to." He reached up and rubbed his hand along Paul's bearded jaw. "If it weren't for Luca, I would never be involved in that world again. And I don't need it." He swallowed. "But, I DO need you."

Paul frowned. "I don't understand why." Then his expression softened. "But I'm glad." The tall man buried his face against Corbin's neck. "Because, I love you too, Corbin." He breathed, warm against Corbin's skin. "I thought about you. When the fire swept over us, and we could feel the heat, and my eyes burned from the fumes. I wanted you to be the last thing I thought about if …" he swallowed, "if I wasn't gonna to make it."

Corbin's arms tightened around him. "Fuck, I don't want you to go back out there."

Paul laughed quietly. "Well, I don't want you to be caught up in Luca's mess. But here we are."

Corbin finally was able to turn him loose long enough for Paul to get into the shower. The fireman cleaned himself up and coughed a bit in the steam of the shower.

After his shower, Paul and Corbin went out to the living room. Corbin put their burgers together, and Paul gratefully took the food. He was hungry and tired, and periodically he would have a coughing fit. But though it was getting late he wanted to sit on the couch and listen to the radio. So the two of them sat together and they both ate while they listened.

After they finished Corbin took their plates into the kitchen. Paul lay his head on the back of the couch, his hands in his lap. Corbin washed up the few dishes and walked back into the living room. He watched Paul as his eyes struggled to stay open.

Corbin sat back beside him, and he gently pulled Paul down, so the fireman lay with his head in his lap. He looked up at Corbin. "You'll tell me if anything happens?"

"Yeah." Corbin rubbed his face lightly. "Go to sleep." Paul smiled at him. Then he rolled on his side and was soon asleep. Corbin ran his hands through his black hair.

He sat there and continued to stroke Paul's head. And on the radio, he heard a hopeful report of potential rain in the near forecast. There was a storm system that moved toward them from Canada, and it looked as if it were on track to land in Hailey tomorrow afternoon.

"Oh … PLEASE rain." Corbin whispered.

He sat up for another hour. But now Corbin was getting tired too. He shifted a bit and leaned back. He lay his head back on the couch cushion behind him, and he blinked a few times, each a little slower than the one before. It wasn't long before he too slid off to sleep.

The two men rested. The radio went on. And far to the north clouds began to gather.
____________________________________
Stefano wearily got off the bus. It was 2 AM on Tuesday morning, and he stretched as he stood on the sidewalk beside the bus. The trip from Des Moines was long, but he was finally in Helena.

He picked up his bag, and he walked away from the bus stop. His booked motel was only a block away, and he covered the distance quickly. Soon he was inside the drab room, and he set up his equipment.

As his laptop booted up he got on the phone. He scrolled through his contacts and selected one. Then he sat back, phone against his ear.

After a few rings a sleepy, female voice came over the receiver, "Hello?"

"The long sleep is done. Family calls." His voice intoned the words.

He heard a sharp inhalation. A man's voice asked a question in the background. She spoke to the  man, then he heard movement as she went into another room. "I awaken. Family responds."

He smiled. "Sorry to wake you, Robin. But it couldn't be helped."

"It's more than fine, cousin! It has been so long! What can I do for you?"

"Well, I'm going to need a place to stay in Hailey. Someplace discreet, and off the main roads." Stefano glanced at his laptop, which had just booted to the log-in screen.

"I knew this was coming. Hold on." He heard the clacking of a keyboard. "I've got a number of places that are unoccupied and awaiting offers. One is WAY overpriced. The owners are out of town. And nobody has asked to look at the property. We'll go with that one."

He logged onto his computer. She gave him the address, and he typed it into his search engine. Soon he looked at a map of Hailey, and he nodded in satisfaction. "This will work well. Thank you, Robin."

"No problem. Do you need money wired to your account?"

"No. But I will need food, bathroom items, things like that. I won't be able to roam the main part of town. The FBI now has my actual photo, so I have to avoid cameras." He frowned. "I have to assume they know I'm headed to Hailey. So they'll be looking through surveillance footage. There will probably be facial recognition programs in play."

"I'll handle it." He heard the keyboard again. "As far as I know we're on schedule. If anything changes I'll inform you."

"Sounds good. Thanks again." Stefano smiled. "Good luck explaining this call to your husband."

She laughed. "Travis is a little clueless. Adorable, but clueless. It won't be a problem."

A short time later the call ended, and Stefano smiled.


Author's Note: Please let me know your thoughts about the chapter at the following email address link.   Wayne Gray

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