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Central Metropolitan University. Late Friday Afternoon.

Lieutenant Jon Lyle grinned at Cutter’s use of the term wastebasket genus.

That was exactly where he’d like to leave most of the vermin they encountered. In a wastebasket. Preferably in small pieces. Very small pieces. The good thing about small pieces was that they couldn’t bite him. Or stamp on him. Or rip his head off.

Lyle had enough Latin to know that Megalosaurus meant Big Bugger and he didn’t like the look of the ugly sod on the Professor’s slide one little bit. Even if it was just an image created out of umpteen miscellaneous bones that couldn’t be assigned to anything else. It’d still be his luck to meet the damn thing, or something very like it, one dark night.

His grin broadened, to hell with it, he hadn’t met the artist’s impression yet that couldn’t be blown to bits with one well thrown grenade.

The soldier glanced at his watch. If Cutter wrapped this lecture up quickly, he’d probably have time to grab a couple of beers in the bar with Connor before hitting the road. There had to be some compensations for the fact that the last lecture of the week started at four o’clock on a Friday. Heading straight for the bar afterwards was the main one.

He wasn’t sure if he’d get away with what he had planned for the weekend, but he still reckoned it was worth a try.

They found Stephen Hart lounging against the bar already, three pints lined up next to him.

“Kermit’s just arrived with Blade, so you’re off duty,” he said, sliding the beer over to Lyle.

The soldier nodded. The lads had made better time than he’d expected. He’d had a text in the lecture from Kermit a while ago saying they were stuck in traffic on the M25. They all kept their phones on silent mode now. Cutter really bitched at anyone who forgot.

The 24 hour cover wasn’t working out too badly now, they had the rota sorted out and Connor’s rumour had done the trick nicely to explain their presence. The canny old bugger who ran University Security clearly didn’t buy the fundamentalist nutters sending death threats to the Professor excuse, but everyone else seemed convinced.

Half way down the third beer, Lyle looked at his watch again. He was starting to wonder if he’d been stood up. He also checked his mobile for missed calls, studiously ignoring the amused glances traded by Hart and Temple.

“Motorway’s crap on Friday night,” said Stephen, kindly.

“Maybe he’s gone to see Cutter first,” offered Connor, failing to disguise a smirk.

“Maybe he’s washing his hair,” muttered Lyle. “By the way, your attempts at concerned sympathy suck, have I told you that?”

“We’re just trying to be nice,” said Connor, mischief dancing in his dark eyes, “and if this is a first date, you shouldn’t drink too much, it’ll give the wrong impression.”

Lyle nearly answered It isn’t but narrowly stopped himself rising to the bait. “Thanks, Connor, I’ll remember that. Haven’t you got a database to snog, or something?”

The student grinned. “Nope. Abby’s coming up later. We’re going to see a film.” Before Lyle had a chance to reply, Connor whistled through his teeth, eyes riveted to the doorway of the student’s bar. “Oh, wow. Just wow. Stephen, got a camera? I do believe he’s wearing jeans.”

Lyle looked up just a fraction too quickly, entirely ruining his carefully constructed air of nonchalance.

Connor was right. Sir James Lester was indeed wearing a pair of jeans. Old jeans which had something that looked suspiciously like a paint stain on one knee. The black cotton button down shirt had seen better days as well. He looked almost totally unlike a top ranking civil servant. In fact, he bore a startling resemblance to a human being. So much so that even Lyle failed to disguise his surprise.

“Should I have worn a suit?” asked Lester, raising one eyebrow carefully, a trick that never failed to impress Connor. “Sorry, I was doing some clearing up at home and forgot the time.” He glanced at the pint in Lyle’s hand. “I take it I’m driving to wherever we’re going?”

“You know you don’t trust me with your Merc,” grinned Lyle, finishing his drink. “I need to chuck some kit in your boot, then we’re good to go.”

“Looking forward to it already,” muttered Lester darkly, having noted the reference to kit.

He was already beginning to regret giving Lyle the choice of this weekend’s activities.

Maybe dragging the Special Forces lieutenant to a concert at the Albert Hall last weekend hadn’t been one of his better ideas.

 

The Hotel, Forest of Dean, Early Hours of Saturday Morning.

Even a combination of a three hour drive on a busy motorway, a late meal, and a lazy shag wasn’t enough to allow Lester an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

At 4 am he was awake, shaking and shivering, heading to the bathroom to throw up.

“I won’t tell Mary if you don’t,” remarked Lyle, as the other man climbed back into bed and pulled the quilt around his shoulders. “She’ll think it was her cooking.”

“She’s already told me I’ve lost weight,” muttered Lester. “Don’t give me grief, Jon, I really don’t feel up to it. I did see the doctor. He prescribed sleeping tablets. They didn’t work. Just made me feel even more crappy the next day, and left me with a muzzy head. Ditzy says I need to see a shrink, but he offered to stick a thermometer up my arse as an alternative.”

Lyle already knew the medic’s verdict. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As a result of finding a guy’s dismembered head rolling around by itself in a flooded cave passage. Being left alone in a cavern afterwards, not knowing whether he was going to live or die hadn’t helped much either. They’d hoped the nightmares and the panic attacks would gradually fade, but it was clear that the after-effects were just getting worse. The throwing up was a new development.

Claudia, Lyle’s main informant, was worried about her boss to the extent of wondering whether something should be done to force him into compulsory sick-leave. Both Cutter and Ryan had looked mildly alarmed at that suggestion. Neither relished the idea of working with anyone else on the Anomaly Project. Lester was at least a known quantity.

Lyle had told Claudia to leave Lester to him. For another week at least. After that, if his idea didn’t work they’d go with the thermometer up the arse plan. It would amuse Ditzy, if nothing else.

He pulled the still-shivering Lester into his arms and tried to settle him down in the hope of another couple of hours sleep. Whether it would be uninterrupted or not remained to be seen.

 

Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, South Wales, Late Saturday Morning.

“Is this your idea of gestalt therapy, Lyle? If it is, I have to warn you that even if I survive this trip, you bloody well won’t. Not for more than five minutes after we reach the surface, anyway.”

“There was absolutely nothing wrong with that handhold!”

“Apart from the fact that the only part of my hand that fitted into it was my index finger? And apart from the fact that it parted company with the wall two seconds after I let go of it? A bit like the foothold you directed me to earlier. The one the size of my big toe. The one that gave an entirely new meaning to the term bomb-proof.”

Lyle laughed unsympathetically and kept moving. That way, if Lester wanted to snark, he had to keep up.

This trip was a gamble and Lyle knew it. If he fucked up and they ended up being rescued, it would hardly improve his companion’s confidence, or serve to drive away the nightmares, but he was working on the same theory that said if you fell off a bike, the best thing to do was get straight back on again.

They’d had a problem on the traverses on the way to Smith’s Armoury when Lester’s foot slipped. Fortunately, the other was well wedged, but it had given the pair of them a nasty moment. It was straight drop of around 25 metres to the passage floor at that point.

Lyle had already learnt that the only time he really needed to worry about his companion was when he went quiet, not when he snarked. Snarking was simply Lester’s default setting.

* * *

Lyle leant back against a boulder, gave a brief glance around the chamber then turned his light off.

Lester stood a few feet away from him, tension showing in the set of his shoulders and in the angular lines of his face. He hadn’t been in true darkness since his time in the Devil’s Crowll. He knew it was stupid, but the trouble was that he couldn’t console himself now with the thought that monsters didn’t lurk in the dark. He knew they did. He’d seen them. And they’d tried to eat him.

Since then he’d slept with a light on. When Lyle was with him he compromised and left a light on in the bathroom and the connecting door open. It helped. A bit.

He knew he needed to confront his fear of the dark, but was here the right place? Smith’s Armoury had an unhealthy reputation amongst some of the South Wales cavers. The old guy was said to be a bit grouchy around here. There were those who attributed the presence that some said they’d felt to the ghost of the unfortunate sod whose bones had been found in the shallow alcove on the hillside which used to connect with the rest of the cave.

Lyle disagreed. Smith had saved their lives twice in the Crowll. In his view they had nothing to fear from the Old Man.

Lester drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, reaching tentatively up to the switch on his light. His hand shook and he cursed his fears. He looked around. Apart from himself and Lyle, the chamber was empty. Totally empty.

A moment later, he stood there in a darkness so absolute that it was impossible to see a hand in front of your face. False lights danced in his eyes, as if they were screwed shut, rather than wide open. He closed them. It made no difference.

The blackness slid over and around him like a shroud.

Solid darkness stain’d. He’d often wondered whether Dante had caved. This was about as solid as you could get and at the moment, there were more stains in his mind than on his borrowed caving gear.

But for the first time since he’d entered the sump in the Devil’s Crowll, Lester started to feel his fears drain away. No, it was more than that, he felt like they were gradually being pulled away from him like thin skeins of silk drawn from a cocoon. And for once in his controlled and generally well-ordered life, he was content to allow himself to simply unravel, to surrender to the darkness and let it take away the memories he’d so far been unable to forget.

A soft breath of air in the stillness of the chamber finally drew his attention back to the present. The equally soft press of a hand on his shoulder came as no particular surprise.

He reached up and turned his light on.

Lyle sat two metres away, unmoving. His head resting against a boulder. Eyes closed.

Moments later, the lieutenant looked up, his expression guarded but hopeful. In response to his companion’s slight nod, he stood up and turned to retrace their steps out of the chamber.

Lester smiled into the darkness of the cave. “Thank you,” he said quietly.

Lyle added his own silent thanks. To a man, a miner, a ghost. He wasn’t sure which, but he knew with absolute certainty that that they now owed Smith more than just their lives.

His smile slid into a grin.

He wasn’t entirely finished with the therapy. Not just yet.

 

Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, South Wales, Later Saturday Morning.

Lester sat down on a mud bank, panting hard, and swiped a filthy hand across an even filthier face. “Admit it, Lyle, you’re fucking lost.”

The soldier waved a hand airily. “Bollocks. Don’t you know where we are? I thought you knew your way round here.”

The civil servant sighed. “I was last here fifteen years ago. And I was following my brother. He makes even you look slow. What I do know is that this is not a short cut between the Traverses and Top Entrance. So logic dictates that you’re lost and won’t bloody well admit it.”

Lyle threw the tackle bag down and joined his caving companion on the smooth mud floor, which sloped gradually down into thicker, wetter mud on one side of an almost circular chamber, one and a half metres high and about three metres in diameter, with three separate passages leading out of it.

“Which route do you fancy?”

Lester glared. “It’ll be the flat out crawl, won’t it?”

He was right, but the soldier didn’t think agreeing with his companion at this stage would be the best of moves.

Instead, Lyle slid a grubby hand round the back of Lester’s neck and turned his face into a kiss.

Lester opened his mouth to protest and was disarmed by the warm slide of the other man’s tongue drawing him into an expert, if somewhat gritty, kiss.

“Strip.” The word was breathed into his mouth with an intensity that sent a shiver down his back.

Lester drew back and eyed his lover warily. This wasn’t something he’d expected. He’d known what game Lyle had been playing since they’d arrived in the Forest of Dean the previous night. His only consolation had come when he realised that Lyle had taken the road to Penwyllt rather than aiming for the Devil’s Crowll. That would have been taking aversion therapy too far.

But this? No, he hadn’t expected this.

He met Lyle’s hazel eyes, noting amusement and mischief lurking there in equal measure. “It’s cold.”

Lyle nodded. “It’ll be even colder when you’re stark naked”

“What if I say no?”

Lyle shrugged. “You’ll still end up naked, but don’t let me stop you trying to assert yourself.”

The shiver intensified and headed straight for Lester’s groin. Much to his own surprise, he found himself getting hard.

Lyle leant back on one elbow, a slight smile curving his lips, and in a voice that had been used to exceedingly good effect on numerous subordinates, both on parade grounds and battlefields, he ordered, “Strip. And if I have to tell you again, you’ll regret it.”

For a brief moment, Sir James Lester considered continuing the debate, but one look at Lyle’s face, decorated with a day old growth of stubble and a liberal splattering of mud, decided him. The soldier was just too fucking attractive. He was also more than capable of carrying out his threat, which rather tipped the balance in these particular circumstances.

Lester bent down and started to tug at one filthy Wellington boot. He placed it carefully to one side of the chamber. The second followed. Strangely, or maybe not strangely at all, the hardest item to part with was his helmet. The caving light was attached to that. Lyle nodded approvingly as he reached up and turned the light off, before undoing the catch and reaching over to put the helmet on the growing pile of gear. All neatly folded like clothes placed on a bedroom chair at night.

They might be god only knew how far underneath a Welsh hillside, but Lester felt it was important to maintain some standards.

When the last item of clothing had joined the others on the pile, he made a deliberate attempt at nonchalance, ignoring the cold, and raising both eyebrows, enquiringly. “Is this where you run off and leave me in the dark, lieutenant?”

Lyle started to manoeuvre his own boots off, not taking his eyes from Lester’s naked body. “No, sir, this is where I fuck you senseless, using wet mud as a lubricant.”

Lester’s eyebrows shot up even higher and he made a grab for his gear. “No bloody way, Jon. You can forget that for a kick off.”

With a movement that reeked of years of practice, Lyle caught the other man’s hands in his, looping his caving belt round the thin wrists and drawing it tight.

Another shiver hit Lester’s groin as he found himself flipped over onto his stomach, and pulled into an ungainly sprawl across Lyle’s thighs. A strong hand ran roughly over his back and sides, tracking lower, nails dragging painfully hot furrows into cold skin. Then he was flipped again, his back bent at an almost painful angle, but before he could protest, a pair of very insistent lips fastened themselves on his and his complaints were obliterated with a searing kiss.

Lyle’s hand rubbed across his chest, working first one nipple, already tight with cold, then the other. The same hard, demanding fingers moved inexorably downwards, through a tangle of tight muddy hair to meet his already erect cock and an equally hard demanding mouth sucked at his neck and bit its way along his collarbone and back up to his lips, leaving behind a trail of fire and ice.

Lester moaned into Lyle’s mouth.

The soldier drew his head back far enough to mutter, “So, I can forget it, can I, sir?”

Lester’s answering groan was lost in a warm press of lips and tongue as the soldier ruthlessly plundered his mouth at the same time as he ran insistent fingers up and down the length of his cock. Moments later, he found himself turned again and pressed down into the mud of the chamber floor, as Lyle started to strip off his own caving kit.

Then a warm body was pressed alongside him and teasing lips started to suck and bite at the back of his neck, and Lester suddenly realised that at some point in the last minute or so, Lyle had discarded his own helmet, that the light was out and they were both writhing naked in the soft mud.

“This is bloody crazy,” groaned Sir James Lester, wondering how the hell he’d ever manage to pretend this hadn’t happened if there was anyone else in the showers when they did finally manage to get back to the Caving Club cottages.

And then he was pushed onto his side as a disconcertingly slick finger slid inexorably into his arse and an equally slick hand started to move up and down his cock.

“Stop thinking and just feel,” breathed Lyle into the back of his neck. “No-one can see you, no-one can hear you. It’s so fucking dark even I can’t see you ……” and with those words, a second finger joined the first and started to graze just the right spot, driving Lester over the edge of thought into feeling, into exactly the state Lyle had been aiming for.

His breath came in short gasps, driven out of him in time with the thrusting of the soldier’s fingers. A third finger followed, stretching, burning, almost but not quite hurting, pulling a raw, ragged gasp from his lungs.

He pushed back, wanting more. Not sure if he could take it, but wanting it nonetheless.

He got it.

Strong fingers slithered across skin, hot and slick and soon Lester wasn’t sure whether Lyle’s hands were on his body, or in it and he didn’t care. All that mattered was sensation, not thought. Lips joined hands in their work and took him close to the edge ……… and then held him there.

Lester’s own hands, freed now from the confines of Lyle’s belt, dug into the mud, striving to get some purchase as he writhed in the darkness. Then he felt the warm weight of Lyle’s body shift over him and the blunt head of Lyle’s cock starting to push inside. Without waiting to allow his lover’s body time to adjust, the soldier drove himself forward in a hard, deep, demanding rhythm, slamming home with a force that shoved the breath out of Lester’s body.

With each stroke his hips were driven down into the yielding mud of the chamber floor, adding to sensation in a way that in the light would have been faintly obscene. But here, now, in the blackness of the cave every movement felt delicious. Felt so damned good that no massage oil in the world could have bettered the slip and slide of the soft mud on his skin. And for the second time that day, Sir James Lester allowed himself to surrender to the darkness without fear.

Any distinction between his own cries and Lyle’s was lost in the utter blackness of the cave as the sensations driven into his body by hands, cock, lips and teeth forced him beyond the realm of darkness into a brighter world. A final sunburst of pleasure cauterised any remaining fear, leaving behind nothing behind but a warm golden haze dancing in front of his eyes like dream lights.

And Lieutenant Jon Lyle, of Her Majesty’s Special Forces, continued to make good his promise, fucking his lover senseless, using nothing but the slick wet mud of the cave as a lubricant.

 

The Hotel, Forest of Dean, Late Saturday Night.

“I intend to seek medical advice,” announced Lester, as he padded naked out of the bathroom and back to the bed, “concerning the effects of mud on various delicate parts of my anatomy.”

“Go ahead,” grinned Lyle. “I’m sure Ditzy’ll be only too glad to give you the full rubber glove treatment, just to check for internal abrasions.”

Lester snorted. “OK, maybe not, but if I fart mud, and it ends up on the sheets, you’re the one who’s explaining to Mary. Got that?”

Lyle slid down the bed and started yet another unnecessary but enjoyably thorough check for any after effects of their morning’s activities. He drew his tongue slowly across the head of the other man’s cock, wondering at what point he should tell Lester that it was actually Mary Mitchell who had described the whereabouts of that particular chamber.

She’d also been the one who had extolled the virtues of the pleasantly non-abrasive nature of the mud. And she’d been right.

The civil servant reached over and flipped off the light switch, plunging the room into comfortable and enveloping darkness.

And a while later, for the first time in six weeks, Sir James Lester enjoyed a untroubled night’s sleep.

 

The Hotel, Forest of Dean, Late Sunday Morning.

Mary set a tray of coffee, tea and bacon sandwiches down on the table.

Lyle was sitting up in bed reading a book, one arm tucked round his companion’s pale shoulders. Lester lay in a comfortable sprawl, an arm looped across the soldier’s waist, his head pillowed on a strongly muscled chest.

Lester opened his eyes and smiled up at Mary, without embarrassment. “Thanks. I tried telling the lazy sod to go down and fetch breakfast, but you know what he’s like.”

“Lunch in two hours,” announced Mary, noting with quiet satisfaction that Lester’s eyes had finally lost the haunted look that had lurked there like a shadow since the afternoon he’d emerged from the Devil’s Crowll. “Jim says your kit’s nearly dry, if you want another trip this afternoon.”

Lyle’s face creased into a speculative grin.

He’d already been threatened with a visit to the Royal Ballet next weekend. One more trip couldn’t make matters worse, could it?

Was there anything worse than ballet?

If there was, he’d have to retaliate with a cave dive.

There was some interesting mud on the far side of sump six in Little Neath River Cave…………….