Book 4 in the Falls Chance Ranch Series

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Friday, September 18, 2015

Chapter 12 - Ranch

12



Mason was trying to move cattle and getting increasingly mad at them.

Riley leaned on his saddle bow on the hill a good half mile away, watching the man push and nudge at the big bullocks, flap his hands and wave his arms, and after a minute or two of getting increasingly red in the face, shout and start slapping the large, solid red haunches around him. The cattle, who didn’t care, were winning the argument hands down. So far, most of them had gone back to grazing.

It was not an uncommon sight with a client. There was an extremely healthy lesson to be learned about management and interpersonal skills when you were relating to beasts a lot bigger than you were, who were unimpressed by shouted threats and ravings, and who kicked or chased anyone who annoyed them. Their anger management clients tended to be particularly helped by a the practical experience of finding out the hard way that with large animals, patience, mutual respect and problem solving was the sole and only way of achieving what you wanted. Jasper was  in sight walking down the next pasture, bringing the other herd down ahead of him, and Riley knew that having shown Mason what he wanted, Jasper would now stand back and give Mason his trust that he could do this, splitting the task between them. Their clients were dynamic people, used to an active role and a lot of responsibility, and these real, practical skills tended to be something they learned fast and were a solid basis for developing a man’s self image and confidence. But the first stage, the hard learning part often came down to this: a really mad businessman, fruitlessly yelling at, swearing at and slapping at a herd of We Don’t Care cattle.

Dale, who always thought tactically, would have done this successfully without blinking on day one. Probably having reviewed several plans and examined their statistical probabilities first.  

“Stop gloating.” Flynn drew Leo in beside him and Riley glanced up, giving him a grin that understood Flynn wasn’t lost to the amusement of the scene in the next pasture.

“I’m not. I’m wondering how long it’ll be before he accepts this isn’t working and gets around to trying something else. He’s been yelling at them for five minutes now and he went through all this with Moo a couple of days ago. Not applying any of that knowledge.”

“Stuck. He’s not that strong a problem solver.” Flynn shaded his eyes to watch. Riley snorted.

“If he can’t boss it, charm it or yell it into doing what he wants, he has a fit. Yeah. His life strategy basically boils down to ‘do what I say or I’ll scream’.”

It was a typically incisive comment from Riley, and Flynn nodded slowly, adding that to his own growing picture of Mason.

“He even sulks like a teenager.” Riley said without rancour. “The other night when Jasper sent him up to bed, it was real passive aggressive stuff. He doesn’t dare flat out try intimidating Jas now, or refusing, but he huffs and scowls and he’s got a clear expectation of someone fixing it or coaxing him round, not that anyone here’s going to do it. Personal power. He’s used to having everyone around him bothered about what he thinks and what he wants.”

Flynn pushed his Stetson back a little to watch Mason stalk away from the grazing cattle and hurl his hat on the grass. “He’d been in his post a long time at the corporate, and that’s time to get very comfortable. Tight group around him,”

“Having got rid of or stamped out anyone who stood up to him or didn’t see things his way.” Riley said acutely. “Which was what got him sent here.”

Flynn mentally ran over the file in his mind, the several cases that had nearly cost the corporate a great deal in harassment and unfair dismissal law suits.

“Someone like Mason is usually looking out for another strong character, with the aim of taking them down.”

“Yeah. Reach for your blackberry kind of stuff. Which translates down to ‘I’m the only stallion in this band’.” Riley turned a fidgeting Snickers in a circle and calmed him. “At least he’s not trying that act on us at home.”

Largely because neither he nor Paul possessed the character type that hit Mason’s buttons, and because Mason’s first few testing pushes at Jasper and Flynn had elicited strong and immediate pushes back that had shocked him. Dale was the one he couldn’t figure out. Riley saw Mason watching Dale covertly, trying to fit Dale into a box with a label he understood. He recognised the strength in Dale, but not in any way he could get a hold on, which amused Riley no end.

Mason was still yelling out his frustration to a field of cattle and grass, neither of which were bothered about his problems. Jasper, who would be far more aware of what was going on than Mason realised, wouldn’t step in and rescue him either. He’d give Mason plenty of time to get around to realising he had no other option but to get a hold of himself, engage his brain and do some problem solving. Mason didn’t realise it, but he was already a different man to the one that Jasper had met off the plane a few weeks ago, in more ways than just being sober and his tighter and more toned waistline. In a situation and a routine that threw him off balance, that gave him no comfort zone, he was constantly processing new information, new perspectives. Many of their clients came to them feeling ‘stuck’. The routine for a client was designed to jerk them out of their rut and off the road altogether, to do the physical and sensory work that rebalanced and fed brain and mind and spirit as much as body, and there was a strong spiritual element to being out here in this open space, this quiet, in the beauty of the landscape of the ranch.

Philip had understood very well that a lot of healing could be done simply by being in this place, being outside in full contact with it for most of your waking hours, and Riley knew first hand that he was right. Experiencing real silence, where willing or not, you could hear yourself think, gave you a clarity you got nowhere else.

“What do you think his mom’s like?” Riley followed Flynn as he turned Leo away, heading further up hill.

They were working their way up through the stock pastures to look over Bandit’s herd, and they were reaching the open ground now with nothing but a long and always pleasurable ride ahead of them. Flynn gave him a look, one hand relaxed on his blue jeaned knee, the other light on the reins as Leo picked his way over the rough ground. It said go on, that’s interesting, and Riley went on slowly, thinking aloud. 

“We know it was just him on his own with her as a kid, do you think she had much control over him? He’s successful, he obviously did well academically, you don’t work your way up to his kind of rank without a lot of motivation and hard work and talent, but....”

People with strong, exceptional personalities who grew up to be the kind of high level executives that came to the ranch had often presented exceptional parenting challenges to their families. It wasn’t an unusual issue with their clients.

“A boy with a single mother?” Flynn said to Riley, who gave him a nod.

“Yeah, I know, you run the risk of getting into the whole man of the house thing, responsibility and all the rest of it, but I want to know when his dad left, and how. I’ll bet it was when he was around thirteen.”

“What makes you think that?”

“You say if someone’s experienced a trauma then the damage done by it stays at the age the trauma happened, and Mason reasons like a kid when someone’s made him mad. And Dale saw it.” Riley eased his weight to let Snickers bound up a steep bank, and waited at the top for Flynn to follow. “He said when he watched Mason arguing with Jasper he saw a kid. A teenager.”

If you knew Dale, you learned to have faith in him. Thinking about several things, Riley rode in silence for a moment, then gave Flynn a blunt look.

“We’re going to need to warn Gerry and Ash that if they need to fight, they do it out of the house.”

Flynn gave him a brief nod.

“They don’t fight. You mean warn Gerry about not yelling, but yes. Paul warned them the morning Ash arrived, and he had a word with Luath too. They’re not going to do anything Dale can’t handle.”

“But you still don’t think we’ve got to the bottom of what’s going on with him, do you?”

Flynn shook his head. They were both experienced horsemen, they both spent months of every year in intensive training with the colts with the love of the work being something they shared between them, and it was common knowledge to them both that while you might get down through the layers to a plateau with a horse you were training, where most of the time things looked ok, where mostly the horse worked with you and you had a good relationship - unless you were prepared to keep on working down through that plateau and push further through those layers to the heart of the problem, the root of them, unless you were prepared to be persistent and work harder, the horse was never what it could be. You never truly moved on.

“I think he’s trying to tell us about more than what he told Paul. That was the first part, not the last.”

“What he told Paul was less information than instructions.” Riley said bluntly. “He can’t always not withhold and he knows he can’t, but he can teach us how to see through it. You set yourself up like that if you know there’s something you need to let out that you don’t want to have to. You give yourself away. I’ve done it plenty of times, I’ve seen the others do it, Like Gerry texting Ash from the airport, hey I’m running away over here, do something. It goes with the territory and it’s hard.”

“Particularly if you’re afraid of what will happen if you do.” Flynn’s voice was calming and pointed out that none of them were criticising or blaming Dale.

Aware he was sounding defensive, Riley rode in silence for a moment, trying to calm down the faint knot at the back of his stomach and knowing it was probably only Flynn he could have said this to.

“....Do you think this is going to turn out to be something bad? I don’t want to push him into having to think about something really ugly, we don’t have to dig that up.”

“Halfpint, if it was something that ugly, it would be all the more reason it would need getting to and dealing with. That’s not a foundation stone you want to try building the rest of your life on.” Flynn’s voice was gentle. “But no. I don’t think this is going to turn out to be anything much past what we already know. This is burning off stuff he knows he doesn’t need to hang on to any more. You did it when you first came here. I did it. It’s not easy but you think back to your first year here? Was it terrible?”

No. Riley was silent for a moment, thinking it through. It had involved battles over schoolwork, which initially had been hated stuff; it had involved heated arguing about rules and boundaries and expectations all of which were new to him, and it had involved letting loose a whole backlog of frustration, but they were anything but bad memories. He’d been happier here – in the midst of those battles – than he’d ever been before in his life.

The river was coming into view and Flynn guided Leo towards the shallowest spot, taking the lead as the horses splashed across.

“It’s going to be ok, Ri. Trust your instincts, and we need to stay the distance. That’s all.”
  

*


Mason looked tired and slightly brittle when they came in for dinner. Riley, coming back from the shower still shouldering into a clean shirt, heard something about successfully moved cattle, and saw Flynn drop an arm around Mason’s shoulders and give him a rough hug with the same enthusiastic pleasure and praise Paul was showing, which pulled Mason off balance and brought a reluctant but pleased smile from him. Riley joined them, catching Mason’s eye and giving him a warm grin.

“That’s great! You must have done great at sticking at it to get that lot shifted where you wanted them. Did you get as wet as we did coming home?”

“Drenched.” Mason gave him a slightly shyer grin back, his hair still damp from the rain, but that too was a solid part of the learning out here. It didn’t rain on you because the weather didn’t like you. The wind didn’t blow because it planned on making your day harder; weather just was and the work still needed doing. You learned to stop projecting yourself over your environment when you were outside every day, and you developed a thicker skin to handling the way things were instead of the way you wanted them to be.

There were nine of them for dinner, which meant pulling out one of the many table leaves, and meant a noisy, crowded kitchen of people setting the table and washing hands together, and a lot of passing dishes and chattering as they settled down to eat. Gerry, pouring gravy over a plate of pot pie and vegetables said with satisfaction,

“This makes a real change from take out and deep frozen hamburger. I don’t remember the last time I cooked properly at home.”

Ash said nothing but Riley saw him look at Gerry with affection and his mouth twitched under his moustache. Having been left alone all day to talk, or to do whatever it was they’d been doing, seemed to have helped. He and Gerry both looked relaxed and cheerful, and Gerry very much more himself in a way that suggested to the experienced a brat who was no longer in trouble and felt that things were resolved and under control.

“There is,” Gerry went on, digging into the meatloaf, “A fantastic little Thai take away near us which has just opened and which is pure heaven. It’s become a bit of a Friday night habit, which would be fine if we didn’t also love the Mexican restaurant in town, and the bistro near my office and the meze place in the precinct, which Ash hates but he has no sense of adventure. We’re running out of any motivation to own a kitchen. The meze also does the most amazing business lunches, I had a whole exhibition launch meeting there the other day and everyone was so busy eating that no fights happened at all, it was heaven.”

“You see why you need music on in the house?” Mason said cheerfully, for no apparent reason and a little more loudly than usual with his L.A. drawl a little more pronounced. “Atmosphere, man. A little good sound in the background, perfect way to chill,”

“And the exhibition ran without any kind of hitch either, apart from the champagne, and the delivery of that was a nightmare and a half, you wouldn’t think three crates of champagne could be a problem.” Gerry went on.

“We like to talk when we’re together,” Paul said to Mason under Gerry’s chatter, “We’re mostly apart through the day so it’s nice to get the time to talk in the evenings,”

“- delivery van couldn’t find us, I don’t know what city his GPS thought it was in, but it wasn’t ours and he finally called me from some underpass in the middle of-”

“I couldn’t work in a building without a good sound system, no sir. I spent a small fortune on the building in LA where-”

“Three times he missed us, and by this time I was out on the pavement jumping up and down and waving – I probably needed one of those firework things they have in boats, distress flares,” Gerry paused as Luath laughed and Jasper smiled at him. As always around this table he naturally gathered people around him like people gathered around a fireplace in a cold room. People laughed easily at what Gerry said even if it wasn’t particularly funny, but then Gerry could make the simplest story entertaining.

“And decent stuff, no elevator music either,” Mason went on, louder, “I wouldn’t have that junk in the – hey buddy, tune it down a bit will you?”

“It’s fine, I can hear you no problem.” Paul reassured him.

Gerry, pausing in his story to pick up his glass and give Mason a cheerfully interested look, took a sip of water and commented, “I didn’t think I was the one doing the bawling?”

Ash put a hand over his, and Mason got up, flinging his chair back.

“Hey. I didn’t come here to sit with some screaming queen shooting his damn mouth off about-”

“That’s enough, sit down.” Flynn said very sharply.

There was an abrupt silence in the kitchen and Mason looked at him, pointedly not moving and leaning forward on the table with both hands. It was a looming, intimidating gesture, aimed at all of them. A board room gesture of I am the boss. Flynn got straight up in one swift movement, Riley saw his arm tuck under Mason’s before Mason had time to realise or pull away, and Jasper, without getting up, co-ordinated an equally swift move with Mason’s other arm and pushed the chair against the back of Mason’s knees, and a second later Mason was sitting, looking shocked.  

Gerry smiled at him, voice as sweet as ice cream. “Who rattled your cage, sweetheart? Someone poaching your audience?”

Mason slammed a hand on the table and Ash looked at Gerry. That was all he did, but Gerry said nothing else.

Both of you,” Flynn said sternly, looking between Mason and Gerry, “What are the rules of this house?”

“Chores get done properly, promptly and without arguing,” Gerry said unenthusiastically, but fairly quietly. “Private rooms entered by invitation only.”

“And?” Flynn looked at Mason, who glared at him. Flynn looked right back, waiting, and Riley, knowing exactly what it was like to look at Flynn’s eyes when they were that hard, wasn’t surprised to see Mason drop his own. He hadn’t followed up on his threatening bang on the table; it implied violence, but from the way he buckled down to Flynn’s stare, it was nothing more than a display, another intimidation tactic, not a real warning.  

“... respect and consideration.”

Mason admitted it grimly but with the immediacy of someone who’d written about that rule a couple of times now for breaking it, and Riley swallowed an untactful smile.

“Swearing and name calling is not respectful. Provocation and sarcasm is not respectful.” Flynn said flatly. “Mason, that corner there, put your hands on your head.”

“Hey, no way-” Mason began in outrage, flushing, and Flynn shook his head.

“It’s nothing new to anyone in this house, Mason. Now.”

“And you.” Ash said quietly to Gerry. Gerry had been looking distinctly apprehensive since he heard Mason ordered to the corner, and turned an appealing look on Ash, but Ash moved his plate away and pulled his chair back.

“Go ahead.”

With something distinctly approaching a pout, Gerry made his way to the nearest corner and took up position there, and that seemed to help; when Jasper drew Mason’s chair back to get him moving, Mason scowled and his hiss of exasperation sounded like a bursting tyre, but he got up and went to the other kitchen corner.

“You’re all friggin’ insane!”

“Even less respectful.” Jasper pointed out. “Not the fastest way to get yourself out of a corner.”

Mason muttered something else but it was too quiet to be heard. Riley, having seen far too many scenes like this in this kitchen over the years to take much notice, went on eating and cast a brief look around the table. Luath, Ash, Jasper and Paul, equally inured, were enjoying their meal and Luath was starting to talk to Paul about the vegetable garden at the back of the house. Flynn was keeping half an eye on the two in the corner and a full eye on Dale, who was eating, quietly and precisely as he always did, his face expressionless and his eyes not looking at anything in particular. Riley caught Dale’s eye and gave him a brief smile, and Paul, still chatting to Luath about vegetable gardens, glanced up, followed Riley’s gaze and immediately appealed to Dale for information about vegetables and climate – which he knew, of course, without having to stop and think – and they were still discussing vegetables when Jasper said quietly,

“If you two can behave civilly, come and finish your meal.”

Mason kept his mouth shut on what he obviously wanted to say as he sat down, which Riley noted and approved of. The man learned fairly fast if he didn’t like the consequences. Gerry looked sullen but he sat down and ate, noticeably more quietly. At the end of the meal as they were finishing, Jasper said calmly to Mason,

“We’ve had a tradition in this house for years, that if someone’s poor attitude spoils the peace of other people’s mealtimes or evenings, they have a responsibility to make it up to them.”

“You don’t still do that?” Gerry demanded, sounding alarmed.

“We do.” Jasper said serenely. “Mason, there’s seven people around this table that you and Gerry disturbed this evening and you’ll need to do a chore for each of them to give them some relaxation time back.”

“Well I’d like the washing up done for mine please.” Paul said cheerfully, putting the dishes down as Mason’s mouth opened in protest. “I’d enjoy half an hour off.”

“I was going to sweep the porch, you can do that one for me.” Flynn agreed. “Half pint, weren’t you planning to finish ironing those shirts in the laundry room?”

“That’d be great if you’ve got that covered.” Riley said cheerfully, “Any time you can have that one covered.”

“I was going to fill the water troughs again,” Luath added before Mason could say anything. “Thank you for taking that on.”

“The shires need new salt licks, you can walk down and change those.” Jasper went on. “Dale?”

Dale looked back at him, faintly startled. “There’s nothing I need doing. Thank you.”

Riley felt for his ankle under the table and kicked him firmly. Dale jumped and yelped, and Paul gave Riley a look.

“You don’t need to break his leg. Dale, you’re always as aware of what needs doing in this house as I am.”

“The fire in the family room needs raking out and re laying, and the log basket re filling?”
Dale said it more to reply politely to Paul than to Mason, and Ash followed him swiftly.

“The rental car could urgently do with a good wash, I was going to do that this evening so you’d save me a job. Thanks, I much appreciate it. Gerald, you can help with all of that, you know where everything goes. I think I’m going to sit and read on the porch.”

“You are kidding me?” Mason exploded, and Gerry gave him a bleak look, getting up to collect the plates.

“Shut up, you idiot. When Philip was here it would have been seven each.”





            It took the entire evening for Mason to work his way through the list. Mason’s immediate response to being asked to wash dishes with Gerry was violent objection, refusal and open insults to Gerry. Which led to Jasper simply excusing Gerry and letting Mason know that his objections were respected and he was therefore welcome to do the chores by himself. He was further welcome to take as long as he liked doing them, there was no hurry and plenty of lanterns available to work outside in the dark. Mason’s response to that was an outburst of temper that brought the further comment from Jasper that he could catch up on the lines that disrespect earned tomorrow evening.

After which, Mason mostly shut up and got on, although there was a fair amount of banging, muttering and doors being closed rather harder than was necessary. Gerry, at Ash’s discreet request, sat in the study and wrote some lines of his own. Ash serenely sat on the porch in his jacket and read, and Jasper, while he didn’t obviously take much notice, was around in the vicinity of Mason for much of the time.

Riley and Flynn settled on the hearthrug with the stock book to update the names of the mares in foal and their due dates; information both of them knew by heart. Luath, wandering upstairs, discovered the bathroom door partly open and Dale’s voice, calm and crisply polite, emanating from inside.

“If I wanted a bath, I would be perfectly capable of bathing myself.”

“Want to talk to me yet about why you were tapping your fingers through dinner?” Paul sounded equally incongruously breezy. “That’s ok hon, you can stick with me until you get around to feeling like talking about it. Do you want to undress yourself or do you want some help?”

“I am not in need of assistance. Thank you. So very much. I have been competent to bathe myself for a number of years on multiple continents, without once dying by drowning or requiring a life guard. I can even cope with water draining clockwise and anticlockwise directions, proving the whole coriolis myth.”

“Well done.” Paul said cheerfully. “Get in.”

There was a short silence, then a rather irritated splash of water. Paul’s voice was still calmly upbeat.

“So what’s the address to the board about bathing habits for?”

Dale sounded exasperated and Luath didn’t blame him.

What would you like me to say?  I was explaining I could take a bath myself, is there a better way I can phrase it to help you?”

“I can certainly go get the hairbrush and see if that clarifies anything?” Paul suggested. There was a moment’s silence, then Paul spoke again, more quietly. “Pointing out what you can do is not the same as telling me what you want and what you actually mean. You’re showing me upset and stressed. Want to talk to me about why?”

“No. Thank you.”

It was very courteously said but the ice dripped off the word. Luath heard the floorboards creak as Paul got up.

“Well that’s honest. No problem hon, we can work on taking the bath until you do.”

The laundry cupboard door creaked as Paul opened it and Luath heard him start to tidy the rows of towels and sheets, then break into song, loud and clear,

You never close your eyes any more when I kiss your lips....”

A shocked silence came from the bathroom.

And there's no tenderness like before in your fingertips.” Paul went on rearranging towels, building up to a crescendo as he approached the chorus and warmly addressing the open bathroom door, “You're trying hard not to show it, but baby, baby I know it...”

“Oh my God.” Dale’s voice said from the bathroom and Luath heard water splash as someone got out of the bath, fast. Paul hit the chorus like a blacksmith with a sledge hammer, belting it out so it filled the house.

You’ve lost that loving feeling.....”

Dale emerged from the bathroom, naked, dripping, and Luath heard him crack and laugh as he hugged Paul, largely to stifle him.

“Ok, I’ll talk, I’ll do anything, just please stop singing.”

Paul laughed and hugged him back. On the stairs, there was a quiet clatter and Luath glanced round. Gerry was stooping to pick up a dropped cup and tea was splashed on the stairs carpet. He looked up as Luath came to help him, looking a little upset, and Luath gave him a gentle nudge towards the kitchen, using his handkerchief to blot the carpet.

“It’s ok, it’s only tea. Go get a cloth and the carpet cleaner, quick, before it stains.”

Gerry took the cup and headed downstairs and tactfully, Luath stayed on the stairs for a moment while Dale and Paul moved out of sight so that Dale was spared realising he’d been overheard. It seemed like a rather tactless approach from Paul for what was relatively mild backchat; not unexpected from a tired and fed up brat. Dale’s nerves might be strung tight, but Luath, who had known a good deal of Dale’s history and career by reputation and report, knew they were also made of pure steel. There was a tremendous amount of strength and competence in that man, and very little he couldn’t handle, he was exceptional and that was the part of him that Flynn and Paul and the others would have difficulty fully understanding because they had never known what Dale could do in that kind of arena. A brilliant mind like that, in Luath’s opinion, fully entitled a man to occasionally slide off the rails a little.  

Ash came upstairs, book in hand, avoiding the tea splashes, and gave him a quick smile on his way to his room. Luath followed, leaning in the doorway to watch Ash put the book away in his case and take out another. And then sit down on the bed, giving Luath a look that fully understood why he was hovering. He had a gentle face that went with the big feet and the floppy moustache, and he said it lightly and with amusement, but with a lot of sincerity.

“Yes, I know. We’re not ready to sit everyone down and talk it through yet, but Gerry is ok. This was mostly a roundabout way of  making everything stop and getting to come here, although I could wish he’d just told me instead of buying a plane ticket and texting me from the airport.”

Gerry had looked anything but tearful or upset or withdrawn at dinner. Ash nodded slowly, reading Luath’s face.

“We talked this morning about bolting to Texas. It was panic, he’s very worried about having to consider this surgery and it’s been murder to get him to talk to me about it, especially with us both busy at work. We’ll stay a few days, take some time to calm down and talk and make some plans.” He put his hand over his heart, mouth twitching slightly under the moustache and his soft eyes humorous, “I promise, on oath, I have not bullied, harassed or otherwise mistreated your boy.”

He was partly joking, but Ash had been part of this family for long enough to know as the in-laws did, that as far as Luath was concerned, the other men who belonged to this household were more his family than anyone he shared DNA with.

“Sorry.” Luath pulled himself up off the door jamb and came to sit in the small chair at the end of the bed, resting his elbows on his knees which brought them fairly close. “I don’t mean to pull the mafia act on you. Gerry’s been telling us since the moment he saw us what he’d do to us if we blamed you, it’s just been a while since he last bolted.”

Ash smiled but shook his head. “He’s been under pressure at the gallery lately because he’s tired and not feeling well, and he’s refused to tell anyone at all about the gall bladder issues, even Bear and Darcy. We were working on that, but having to fire an employee and let me know he planned to pick up the extra hours at the gallery when he knew what I’d make of it were just one thing too many to handle. Cork out of a bottle. Bang.”

Sudden and drastic action; that was very in character. Gerry, like no few other brats belonging to this household, tended to go about things in convoluted ways, and Gerry in particular was a family man who needed his family enmeshed firmly into his life, and loved Ash who understood it and willingly went along with it. There was a time Roger would also have been in the thick of this muddle and another recipient of the flying text messages, one of the main reasons Luath was very used to helping with Gerry’s crises, and Roger would have been deeply sympathetic to both Ash and Gerry. Luath dropped a hand on Ash’s knee as he got up.

“I’m very glad you’re both staying a while.”

  

*

  
The saloon was crowded, so crowded with men and women and even with children that there was barely room to get in the door. It was cold outside, but the fire and the slightly steaming clothes of so many people pressed in the room gave off heat, and someone was standing on the bar and talking. What he was saying was impossible to hear, but when he stopped, the room exploded with shouts and cheers and clapping, and men pounded their fists on the bar and on the tables until the room shook.... beyond that came a flash, like the flash of a camera bulb, and in the brief flare of light there was a small cluster of men, crouched and grinning, and then a smash of glass. Glass everywhere on the ground, broken and shattered beyond recognition.... and then it wasn’t possible to see more than a few feet ahead through the gloom. Large shapes were greyer in the darkness, looming above him like giant building blocks. Dale walked slowly between them, following the long path over the grey carpet, through the shadows. One of the giant shapes had a handle that was set high above his head. Another of them had a sweater draped over it, so big it could have been a tent, the sleeve hanging down like a scarf. The shapes grew closer and closer together like a lumber room until he had to edge in between them, a more crowded, more secret place, that ended in a broken window with a torn curtain swinging against it. A book was open on the floor. Dale crouched down to look at its open pages, blowing back and forth in the wind through the broken window, and put a gentle hand down to still them, opening them out on a black and white picture of a prince, a crowned boy on horseback, his sword raised in his hand. The wind smelled like mothballs, and the floor was made out of tortoise shell, and the broken window shivered, reflecting a thousand broken images like the facets of a diamond.

Dale blinked, waking out of the dream with the muddle of images still in his mind. The broken window and the broken glass, the flash like a camera bulb firing, and strongest of all, the press of bodies in the saloon bar. He’d stood with them, shoulder to shoulder in that crowded room, he could still faintly smell the wet clothes and the smoke of the wood fire, and feel the heat in the room. Flynn’s arm slid around his waist from behind and pulled him over, close into the warmth of his body, the deep New Zealand accent in his ear.

“What woke you?”

Just over a year ago he could never have imagined stirring out of a dream in the safety of Flynn’s arms, who had no problem with waking up to listen no matter how many times this happened. Dale relaxed down onto the pillow again, half amused, half exasperated.

When did peculiar dreams start becoming a bloody habit? I barely used to dream at all!

“Some dream about the saloon at Three Traders.”

Not in the least an upsetting one. In the dream he had been – distanced. Mildly curious. And watching people who were enjoying themselves.

“What about?”

“Nothing much. People talking, and glass breaking, and then something like a lumber room or an antiques store room. Nothing happening, just walking through them.”

Flynn’s hand massaged soothingly where it rested, his breath on the back of Dale’s neck, his hard body spooning the entire length of Dale’s from head to foot.

“Any idea why?”

“None whatsoever.”

“Mmn.” Flynn rolled over, abruptly reversing their position so he laid Dale on his back and was braced above him, tenting the quilt up over his bare shoulders. Dale automatically reached to grasp them, very well practiced at how they filled out and fit the palms of his hands and the velvet of his skin, already distracted before Flynn began to move, without any hurry, gently and firmly at the same time, his dark green eyes locked on Dale’s and his weight not letting Dale reach up to kiss him or to participate, or do anything at all except lay right where he was and look at him. Which in a few seconds was enough to make Dale laugh, while he still had the breath to do so. And then get lost in a whole lot of squirming without the faintest care about dignity or glass or trains or gradients, or breathing.

He was running his fingernails lightly up and down the bare contours of Flynn’s back a while later, feeling infinitely better and laying on his side beside Flynn who was sprawled face down. Both of them were damp with sweat and not caring very much about the cold breeze that came in the open window, or the covers now mostly on the floor. It was raining again outside, and the soft sound of the rain filled the room. Flynn was mostly asleep but his shoulders were twitching lazily under Dale’s fingers, and his head was turned into Dale’s shoulder where strands of dark gold tickled as Dale breathed.   

“What happened between Ash and Gerry?” Dale said mostly into his hair.

“I didn’t ask.” Flynn’s voice was sleepily muffled. “They seemed cheerful enough when Ri and I came home, and Gerry’s a lot happier. I guess they’ll tell us when they’ve got something to say, but Paul said they’re staying a few days.”

Which was good; Dale was picking up Riley’s love for having other members of this extended family at home whenever possible, and he was fond of both Ash and Gerry, and Luath- although at the moment, there was also some discomfort at having their scrutiny in the house.

Don’t chew about it.” Flynn said shortly, and Dale smiled faintly, not asking how he knew.

“I’m not. Or I’m trying not to. I admit it, I don’t feel particularly together at the moment, and Paul went all over why this is not a problem.”

 “- But this is already hard enough without an audience. And you don’t much like people bickering. Yeah.” Flynn lifted his head long enough to see Dale’s eyes and hold them. “They’re not an audience, they’re family, and I’ll manage any bickering. Never mind them, concentrate on us. You know what you’re doing.”

He had the power of lifting stress away with that blunt this is how it is tone of voice. Dale looked back at him and Flynn gave him a brief, hard kiss and lay down again.

“Paul and I checked out Dead Man’s Hill today.” Dale ran his fingertips in a slow circle, tracing the line of Flynn’s shoulder blade and breathing the cold air from outside, the smell of the grass and the river across the pasture, fresh on the rain. “We worked out the gradient. The phosphorus covered drummer boy would have needed to appear suspiciously close to the woods. And that’s around the spot the train would have slowed down enough to possibly unload. Although as Riley’s pointed out, fifty crates with one man needing time to handle each crate, plus a moving train, makes it highly unlikely.”

“Think we need to go take a look at what the track’s near to?”

“I’d like to map out the woods.” Dale dropped a kiss on Flynn’s back and sat up to look out of the window at the dark pasture outside. “I’d like to check the figures on the gradient too. It was very approximate.”

“Is it going to make a serious difference if you’re a few feet out?”

“Possibly.” Dale reconsidered, and sighed. “Ok, probably none at all, bearing in mind that we have no further information anyway and the slope is a defined enough space that there’s not a lot of margin for significant error. But I’d still like it to be right.”

“Why have you still got the energy left to worry about this?” Flynn demanded. Dale gave him a pointed look.

“Because you and Paul are forcing me to spend all my waking hours sitting on my bum beside him, doing absolutely bugger all, and have been doing so for days. I could handle a forest full of lumberjacks right now, no problem. Bring them on and have them form an orderly queue.”

Flynn snorted and pulled him down into his arms.

“Come here.”
  

*



The rain had stopped by breakfast time, but the yard had numerous standing puddles and the sky was a dark, heavy yellow grey. Dale, joining Paul in the kitchen to help with breakfast, saw Jasper in a jacket and Stetson unlocking the barns and outbuildings as he did most mornings, and feeding the dogs. The horses in the corral were fidgeting by the fence, gathered in a way that meant they had a problem, and Dale, recognising the signs, grabbed a jacket.

“Paul, I’m going to empty out and refill the feed troughs, they’ll be flooded.”

“Troops getting restless?” Paul glanced up out of the window. “Thank you love, come straight back. Better check Snickers hasn’t bust the gate catch too, he’s been a beggar lately about chewing it when the wood’s wet.”

The grass in the corral was not yet recovered enough from winter to provide sufficient good grazing for all the horses there, all of whom worked hard on a daily basis and needed quality feeding to stay in the condition needed to be able to do it. As well as getting time out on the lusher grass of the pastures to graze, they were also still regularly getting dry feed and oats, which they liked. They did not like it soggily mixed with several inches of rain water which happened when there was wind and rain, even despite the shelter over the troughs, and recognising his approach with a bag of feed and lined up at the gate, snorting and whickering approval and instructions to hurry up. Dale shouldered his way through several enthusiastic greetings and Hammer’s nose in his back, put the feedbag out of reach and spent several minutes detaching, emptying and rinsing out the saturated mess in the troughs, before he collected the sack and refilled them. The horses gathered around, waiting impatiently and stuffing their noses in as soon as a gap was available, and Dale put enough for only one good feed in each trough, with an eye to the fact that more rain was obviously due. It was good to be outside. It was good to be doing.

The horses’ big bodies were pressing around him and he heard the snap and whicker of two horses squabbling, but had no time to see who reared and backed into him. He was barged hard against the feed bin and the rail, and then as the pressure just as suddenly released, he was dropped sideways. He felt his hand snag on the metal catch of the trough as he fell, and instinctively rolled, tucking his head and arms close into his body to get under the bottom rail and out of the corral before heavy hooves landed on him. He was winded, but unsurprised; this was the reality of working around horses and you got used to it. It was only when he sat up and looked at what was causing the burning and dripping sensation in his hand that he saw the blood. A lot of blood. Dale turned his hand over and found the tear, superficial but wide, across the base of his thumb, and his initial thought was a mild, oh damn. Particularly at the amount of blood.

Then, as coherent thought came back, he was hit with an abrupt, tidal wave of panic that came out of nowhere, strong enough to freeze him to the spot.

You cannot hide this. There is no way you can hide this. They are going to see, they are going to know.

Heart starting to thump, painfully, Dale leaned back against the corral rail and tried to breathe, keeping his hand down and out of any sight of anyone looking from the kitchen window.

Don’t be ridiculous. You have no business even thinking about hiding it, this is exactly the kind of thing you know you can’t run away from!  

But not this. This is too hard.

He was starting to pant, to lose his breath in sheer stress, his heart was starting to race and sweat to run on his face and burst out along his shoulders, and he clamped down on himself in fury.

No. You are a grown man, Aden, you’ve dealt with all kinds of crisis without losing it and behaving like an idiot, get a grip! What are you so afraid of? You’re acting like someone’s going to attack you!

Phrased rationally, the answer came straight back in images rather than words.

Paul with that concerned expression, his gentle voice, wanting to touch, to look, to reassure, to fuss -

-          and the horrible, conflicting mixture of both need and revulsion, the urge to run, get away, be alone and safe until he had had the time to get himself calmed down and in control again –

You cannot bolt. You cannot bolt, you can’t do that to them again. It’s a minor bloody cut. So just tell them back off, I don’t want this, leave me alone for a bit.

Yeah right, that’ll work.

Throwing up was becoming a serious possibility. Stalling for time, and knowing he was doing it, Dale made himself walk calmly around the side of the corral to the winter shelter and rinsed the hand in the water trough, willing it to quit bleeding.

A little cold water. Stop panicking, just wash it. It’s just a minor cut, you’ll wash it off, it’ll be fine, there’ll be nothing to see or make a fuss about.

It kept on running with blood, clouding the water. As soon as he lifted it out of the water it was visible, not drops but a steady stream, and the academic part of his mind pointed out to him that a cut this wide was going to need a considerable amount of pressure and dressing to stop the bleeding and to close it, and that he had no access to the materials with which to do that without taking them from the kitchen. It was starting to rain. The sky was darker overhead, casting an odd yellowish light over the yard, and raindrops splashed, creating ripples and circles in the water trough in front of him.  

Oh God, what am I going to do? What the hell am I going to do?

He’d forced himself to do difficult and alarming things plenty of times. And often they had involved feeling the same level of desperation, and he’d coped by internally taking that step back, away from it, separating from himself so he felt nothing but calm. If he did that now, then the cut wouldn’t hurt, and whatever happened in the kitchen wouldn’t hurt. He wouldn’t have completely let go.

That’s running away too. If you do this, then you do it consciously. You can be brave enough to feel this.

He was finding it increasingly hard to get enough breath, aware that he was breathing far too shallowly and too hard, and that it was making his head start to swim and his chest to hurt. Dale held on to the side of the water trough and held onto himself, and tried to take a couple of deeper, slower breaths. And then before he had time to change his mind, he straightened up and walked fast, straight around the corral and towards the house.

He was shaking all over by the time he reached the kitchen door, it was like bracing himself to face an axe murderer. Real, biting, physical fear.

Which is ridiculous. It’s Flynn. Paul. Riley. Jasper. You love these people. You know damn well you are safe in this house, what do you think is going to happen?

I wish I knew!

He held onto the door frame to get his boots off, aware his legs were trembling to the point it was hard to stand up, and his voice sounded strange and inappropriately cheerful,

“Paul? I think I cut.....”

He ran out of words or any way to explain it and the kitchen seemed very hot and blurring slightly, full of people and noise, much of it alarmed, including Luath’s deep chocolate voice,

“Paul, that’s a lot of blood!”

And Paul’s voice, calmly competent, and Flynn’s hands closing on him before his knees went.

“Ok, a crowd won’t help, sit down and finish your breakfast. It’s all right honey, let me have a look.”

His hand was turned over, his jacket peeled off, then a chair scraped and Dale let Flynn pull him down, sitting him on the floor with his back against Flynn’s legs, and Flynn put his hand hard over the cut, gripping it tightly and holding his hand up above his shoulder.

“No, that isn’t anything awful, it’s like getting a cut in your scalp or lip,” Paul said calmly, moving away for a minute, “Bleeds a lot without much damage.”

A rumble of thunder sounded not too far from the house behind the sound of the rain. Oh that was it. It couldn’t get any worse now. Th-th-th-that’s all folks.... Dale shut his eyes and laughed, aware of Riley’s voice from the doorway.

“There’s a thunderhead right over the tops.”

And Flynn’s voice, a lot nearer and deep in a way that grabbed Dale’s attention very fast.

Stop that right now.”

It was hard then not to hate him, because that stopped anything being funny, that brought the kitchen back into sharp focus, and made it utterly impossible not to be here, surrounded by watching faces, panting and shaking and making more of a fool of himself than he’d ever managed before in his life. Mason looked seriously alarmed, Ash concerned, and he was holding on to Gerry’s arm to keep him in his seat. Riley was on his feet, watching, feet braced apart, his arms folded. Luath was still in his chair but he was making no pretence of eating, his elbows on his knees, his big, dark hands linked together as he leaned forward to watch. Jasper was standing behind Paul, more cotton ready in his hand as Paul needed it, watching what Paul was doing. All of them focused on him like some kind of zoo exhibit.

Some years ago he had been on an oil rig, the Delta Five, with a visiting team of execs when an accident occurred with a blowback in part of the machinery. Some of the injuries had been devastating. Alongside the rig medics and the crew and among panicking businessmen he had used his hands to hold a man’s leg together, closing off the artery that was pumping out blood and pulling the memory from somewhere of a textbook and the picture that enabled him to find the artery further up the leg and press down, hard enough to slow the blood loss. It had been only five minutes before the rig’s medical team had choppers landing on the upper deck, but the floor had been slippery with blood, his suit had been ruined, the clients had been willing to do more or less anything he asked of them afterwards, and he’d felt as detached as an engineer or surgeon, doing the technical job in front of him. He’d changed his suit and carried on working. It had been the last occasion he’d seen this much blood.

This is a minor cut!

“And you can stop that too.” Paul said firmly, kneeling down on the floor to take his hand from Flynn, lay a wad of cotton over the cut and put Flynn’s hand back in place. “Riley, shut the door and sit down, we’re eating a meal here. Dale, breathe slowly. Slow down, you’re all right. Let the bleeding stop.”

Flynn’s hand was hard over his, Dale had his back braced hard against Flynn’s legs, and he was crazily aware of how calm Flynn was against him. A relaxed body, slow moving, and Flynn’s voice near his ear, quietly making the wordless hushing sound he made to a stressed horse. Paul had a damp wash cloth, wrung out and warm, and he matter of factly started to wipe off the rest of the blood, which seemed to have got to an improbable amount of places, his face calm and his hands gentle. It still felt like being touched by sandpaper, too painfully intense to endure.

“French toast loses an awful lot of its appeal when you’re watching somebody bleed to death on the floor.” Gerry pointed out, not unsympathetically. “Darling, would you like me to get you a shirt that isn’t drenched in gore? That one’s going to make the front page for all the wrong reasons.”

“He’s fine Gerry, leave him alone.”

Another roll of thunder sounded, louder and closer, and this time a visible flash came through the kitchen windows as the sky lit up for a second, illuminating grey yellow clouds into an eerier gold. Dale wrapped his free arm tightly around his knees and shut his teeth, putting his chin down against his arm with the impending feeling of trying to hold in an explosion. Flynn, his free hand on his shoulder, slowly squeezed and rubbed, discreetly but strongly enough to say he knew. Paul, lobbing the washcloth back towards the sink with an accurate hand, picked up the several packets he had brought with him from the extensive first aid cupboard and got up.

“Right. Let’s go somewhere quieter.”

“I’m coming too.” Riley’s voice said fiercely from somewhere nearby and Paul put a hand under Dale’s arm as Flynn lifted him to his feet, giving him no say about it and no time to resist.

Flynn kept hold of him the entire way up the narrow, winding staircase, and it was only when he reached the top that Dale realised they were in David’s map room, the attic room at the top of the house. Long, with its low sloping roof, it was one of the quietest places in the house to be, with the least amount of windows, and at the top of the stairs, Dale wrenched away from Flynn and went to the furthest wall, crouching down and resisting the urge to put his arms over his head. He was still shaking, he could see his hands trembling like they were someone else’s, and the wad of cotton was stuck to his palm.

One of them had shut the door on the kitchen. Paul, sitting down on the floor beside him, ran a hand down his back and took firm hold of the cotton covered hand again.

“Keep that up, honey.”

“Leave me alone!”

It burst out faster and harder than Dale intended, and it sounded more vicious than he ever would have meant. He tore his hand away, raised both hands to ward Paul off and Paul caught him in time to stop him jerking up to his feet, tugging him off balance so that instead he sat down on the floor rather hard. It brought them closely face to face and Paul put a hand up to prevent him turning his head away.

“Look at me. I’m right here.”

“I didn’t mean it.” The shaking was getting worse, and Dale ducked his head as thunder crashed again, directly over head now. Paul once more gripped over the cotton, holding his hand up, and his other hand ran over Dale’s face, cupping it, holding it and making Dale meet his eyes, which took away any last remnants of self control he might have hung on to.  

“Dale, look at me. I know. I know this feels horrible, I know you don’t feel safe, it’s ok. We can handle this. Nothing awful is going to happen, I won’t let it.”

Who talked to men like this? What sorry excuse for a man actually needed it?

Or wants it the way you do. You’re a liar, Aden. A liar and a coward, whining on the floor like a child! You’re pathetic!

And yet he still didn’t get up off the floor, or pull away from Paul, or do anything to reclaim himself.

“Is he still bleeding?” Riley demanded.

“Yes, but it’s slowed down a lot and it’s fine.” Paul said calmly, “Come sit down and stop hovering.”

Dale,  pulling himself together enough to get his eyes off Paul’s face, found Riley looking white faced and Flynn standing with both arms around him. Flynn let Riley go and came to sit down on the floor on Dale’s other side, putting his back against the wall, and Riley fidgeted for a moment, then crouched to turn on the lights on David’s contoured, miniature world on the floor. It lit the harbour lights, the town lights and the boat lights, a soft glow in the room. Thunder rumbled again a long way off. Flynn shifted, Dale felt him move, and then Flynn’s sweater wrapped around his shoulders. It smelled very comfortingly of him, and it still carried his body warmth.

“Tell me about the storm you remember at school.” Flynn said quietly.

“No.” Dale put his forehead down on his arm, trying to control some of the shaking. It was like trying to contain something that was trying to break its way out, holding it, hanging on to it. It was all he could do to sit still.

“The dormitory at school, the night you remember there being a storm.” Flynn said as though it hadn’t just been made it clear this wasn’t up for discussion. “Dale.”

It wasn’t an easy tone to refuse. Dale swallowed, not wanting to talk. Even talking let go far too much. Lightning flashed above the skylight, lighting up the room and sending another jerk of shock through him. It was like trying not to explode.

“You already know it all. I was a kid, it stormed, everyone in the room was scared and talking about how they weren’t, and you said it was an indirect stimuli phobia. I’d just left home, a lot of things to be worried about, it all focused on storms as an acceptable topic. QED.”

“What do you mean you’d just left home, you were seven?” Paul pointed out. “You’d gone to school for a term, you hadn’t moved out.”

“Who the hell sends a child away at seven anyway?” Riley said half under his breath and sounding like he wanted to bite someone. He was fidgeting around the edge of David’s map, moving some of the ships. “I wasn’t even allowed on a frickin’ sleepover at seven, and I thought my dad was pretty clueless.”

“A lot of free floating fear looking for something to focus on. Yes. What do you remember about the day you left home?” Flynn said just as quietly. Dale shook his head, putting his chin harder against the arm on his knees.

“It is not necessary to talk about this.”

More thunder.

“Do you remember packing?”

No.”

Black banded trunks. On a red carpeted landing beside a white banister. Dale blinked to get rid of the image, shaken.

“What was the house like where you lived before you went to school?”

“I don’t want to talk.”

“Try.”

It was as implacable as a wall. Paul was still rubbing his neck, holding his other hand upright with Dale’s elbow resting on his knee. The warmth of Flynn’s sweater was penetrating some of the chill against his back, and Flynn, an inch away, radiated more warmth. A solid, stable wall of it. Flynn’s hand rested on his thigh and tapped. There was nothing warning about it, it was a gentle touch, but Dale knew exactly what it meant, and Flynn would follow through if necessary, calmly and without minding in the slightest about blood or storms or anything else. If he asked a question, he expected a proper, truthful answer and he had no hesitation in enforcing it. As always, there was infinite safety in that.

“Damn you.” Dale said savagely, more or less to the floorboards, and the hand tapped again.

“Fair enough. Try.”

“It was a house.”

“Go on.”

“In Ludlow, with gardens.”

Red carpet, white banister. Which wasn’t in the Ludlow house.

“Georgian kind of-”

Four storeys, you could look through the banisters and see down the flights of stairs to the black and white tiles of the hall at the bottom where people’s shoes clacked on the floor.

That wasn’t the house in Ludlow.

“What are you thinking?” Flynn said quietly. Dale shook his head, hard, flinching at another and simultaneous flash of lightning and a crash of thunder so loud that his voice involuntarily jumped half an octave.

“Wrong house. It was a long time ago.”

“Breathe slowly. Shhh, slow breaths. That’s it. Which house was this?”

“The.... first one in London. We lived there maybe for a couple of years.”

“What part of the house are you thinking about?”

“The stairs.” Dale turned his head slightly against his arm, resting his cheek rather than his teeth against it. It stopped them chattering. “White banisters. I spent hours on the stairs.”

“What did you do there?”

“Read. Books. Lay on the carpet and read.”

Not always reading. Sitting, looking through the banisters at the black and white chequered floor below, like a giant chess board.

“Who else was in the house?”

“People were around. They didn’t come upstairs much.”

Paul said softly, “You told me you remembered your mother being in rooms off the landing that you weren’t supposed to go in to.”

“It wasn’t ‘not being allowed’.” Dale said irritably. “She didn’t appreciate an audience when she was upset. She’d just been widowed.”

“What was she like then?” Flynn asked. Dale shrugged, increasingly exasperated. The lightning flashed again, lighting up the room momentarily and the lights on the tiny model harbour flickered, and Paul held his hand tighter when he jumped, with no self control like someone had shoved a cattle prod against his back.

“What does that have to do with anything! She was very young. Quiet, self contained, she didn’t like people to see her unless she was dressed, prepared and ready for them.”

Pretty. With a delicate face and a softness to her that was accentuated by the floating things she liked to wear. Soft blouses. Soft colours.

 “....It was just an awful time for her. She was on her own, with a small child, there were all sorts of problems with the house and the in-laws and the legal issues with the army,”

“Which is the adult perspective you must have been able to gain with hindsight.” Flynn leaned back against the wall beside him. “From what you’re saying, you were there at a very bad time in her life to ask for parenting.”

“I was.”

“Mmn.” Flynn sounded as if he was processing that. “Not very considerate of you to be born at such an inconvenient time for her.”

“Oh don’t be ridiculous.” Dale said flatly. “She didn’t ask for my father to be killed, she had no plan to deal with that.”

“Neither did you.”

“I’m saying I can understand, from an adult point of view, that she was a young girl going through an intensely difficult time in her life, when it was impossible to meet the needs of a demanding small child,”

“Demanding?”

“And,” Dale went on, ignoring that, “I understand too that she wanted to start again. She was entitled to find some happiness, to have a fresh start.”

“So when you were grown up enough to go to school that was the end of her first life, she could start her second life in peace.”

“Yes.”

“You’d grown up and left home, so she could move on.” Flynn repeated.

“Yes.”

“You were seven years old.”

This was a truly pointless conversation.

“You don’t understand the perspective of that aspect of British culture and that way of life.” Dale said curtly, as if explaining it to the terminally slow. “My father went away to school at seven. His father did. The boys I went to school with came from the same kind of families and the same expectations, that going away to school was an experience that built character and made you self reliant.”

“And boy, did it ever work.” Paul said dryly. “What I want to know is why is she the only person in this situation deserving of understanding or sympathy? You’ve taken her side completely, you’re very protective of her, it’s like you were never there in this situation at all. You’re getting angry with us saying anything that even hints towards criticism of her.”

“She did the best she could in the situation she was in.”  Starting to feel acutely sick, which was probably down to the blood loss, Dale tried unsuccessfully to pull his hand away from Paul, who moved the cotton long enough to look at the cut.

“It’s slowed a lot, but no, we’re not done yet. Sit still.”

“Oh go to hell. Leave me alone.”

“Yes, you’re saying that but you’re not going anywhere.” Paul said gently but bluntly. “You’re not even saying it with any real feeling.”

There was that sickening, awful feeling of something rising again. Something deep and ugly stirring and bringing with it a still sharper fear.

“It must have been awful being somewhere on your own at seven.” Riley said from a few feet away. There was no criticism in his voice, no malice, just Riley’s always open hearted response to whatever he thought about. “I’d have been terrified. I mean I travelled over most of the states with my dad from when I was younger than that, but it was always with him. I couldn’t have handled being anywhere he wasn’t.”

Flynn’s voice took over again, quiet and calm. “What did you do to give her space when you were in that house, Dale?”

It was a far safer, easier thought to latch on to.

“Read. There were a lot of books in the house. Children’s books. Probably my father’s old books.”

The nausea rocked through him again, harder, and Flynn put an arm down over his back, steadying him.

“Breathe, kid. Shhh, it’s ok, take a breath. Don’t hold your breath. What did you read?”

“All kinds of things.” Swallowing to get the excess water out of his mouth and to try to control his stomach, Dale hugged his knees tighter against the shivering. He could see the pictures in his memory without effort, yellow butterflies on the smooth, old colour plates in the encyclopaedias. The prince on his horse. The faded colours in the annuals, bears and squirrels in a wood.

Jasper was sitting cross legged on the floor beside Riley, still and with his face sober. Listening. Dale hadn’t heard him come upstairs and he had no idea how long Jasper might have been sitting there, but his eyes were very dark and very gentle and looked directly back at Dale’s, saying something Dale was having to work very hard to not understand.

“What were you thinking about when you shuddered?”

“I didn’t.”

“You did, hon.” Paul said gently. “Think about it. You are safe, we’re right here.”

The instinct was strong to shut it down, fast, before it rose any further or became any clearer. It was like walking down a path, knowing full well that something terrible lay there, and no sane person would willingly go towards it. Except that in this room were the safest and the strongest people Dale knew. They would not allow cheating or evasion, they were clear in their reasons why they wanted him to do this, but they were encouraging as well as insisting, unafraid of dealing with whatever might emerge. Whatever it was, he knew without question that it would not have to be faced alone, and whatever it was, they were strong enough to contain it.   

He took another breath, and tried to let it come.

“.....Something about a prince. I remember the picture. I’ve dreamed about it a few times recently, that book and that picture. I used to spend hours, imagining being that prince, all kinds of things that he did.” He smiled faintly, swallowing again on his twisting stomach and faint amusement at the thought. “Climbed. Swam. Fought things. There was always some kind of dramatic battle involved, which of course he always won.”

Flynn shifted against the wall to get comfortable. He was relaxed, his free arm loose on his knee. “What happened when he won?”

Dale swallowed, trying to control the flinch as thunder sounded again overhead.

“....Just the same as in all the stories. He rescued the princess. From dragons, up towers, in caves, from monsters.... the princess was something of a major liability, she’d have been completely uninsurable, but he always saved her in the end. According to the principle set forth in all good fairytales. I used to sit on the stairs for hours at a time with that book open at that page. If was upset about something, I’d go up to the top of the house where I could see right through the banisters all the way down and lose myself in it.”

It was still a vaguely comforting thought even now. Flynn nodded slowly, his voice gentle.

“Who do you think the princess was?”

“It was just the end of the fantasy, it might as easily have been chalice or a chest of gold. It was just the – winning outcome. Like playing a computer game.”

“Children think a lot in symbols.” Flynn said slowly, “Does it make any sense to you that if a child’s sitting outside a room where someone he loves is in distress, he might fantasise about being strong enough to save them?”

“No, it didn’t have any symbolic bloody meaning, it was just day dreaming.” Dale had another fierce and ineffectual try at freeing himself from both Paul and Flynn, aware he wasn’t trying nearly hard enough. “For God’s sake, it’s a minor cut! I’m going to change my shirt, I’ll put some bloody gloves on-”

“And go do something useful.” Paul finished for him. “Yes, I know. Keep that hand still hon.”

“You don’t think, from a probability point of view, that a small child with a repeating themed fantasy – something he spends hours thinking about – of rescuing a woman from all kinds of dangers, could have nothing to do with the obvious distress of his mother?” Flynn repeated. “Particularly when he’s the lone male in her life, and probably feeling very powerless. You don’t think there’s any chance of that theme being wish fulfilment? Or showing any understanding of the situation she was in? Or a desire to be the one to rescue her?”

No one said anything for a moment, and then Flynn said quietly, “You must have loved her very much to be able to go away to school, give her up and let her have her new life. What an almighty sacrifice. You must have wanted more than anything to be able to make her happy.”

“This is such bullshit!” Dale snarled at him, and Flynn said it matter of factly, with the gruff kindness that always went through him.

“We don’t do bullshit, Dale. If a man tells me he’s sorry for a parent – particularly when the only pity or compassion he has is for the parent and not for himself as a vulnerable child in that situation – then that tells me he’s carrying someone else’s feelings for them. If a small child is in a situation where their parent can’t function, that child will do whatever it has to in order to keep that adult together. It’s a survival instinct. Toddlers will lift heavy furniture off a parent, or make a phone call to emergency services with language no one knew they had yet. They will figure out what that parent needs and they will do it, even if it means co operating with and finding a way to justify and sympathise with what the adult does to them. They take on the responsibility, and young children are astoundingly strong and astoundingly loyal.”

There was another long silence. Dale, more nauseous now than he knew what to do with, tipped his head back against the wall and shut his eyes. The sense of agitation had faded. He didn’t feel much of anything now except sick.

“You knew how to help her.” Flynn said very gently. “You knew what she couldn’t handle.”

What made her cry. Or get agitated. It was like watching it play back on a screen, things he hadn’t thought about in years. Decades. Dale found himself saying it aloud, the thought that wandered through his head.

“Noise. She couldn’t tolerate noise.”

“Or you asking for things?” Flynn said, still in that way too gentle tone that called up way too much emotion. “Getting upset? If you hurt yourself? Probably anything that needed her to handle emotion or demands. It sounds like she was depressed.”

“The curtains were always drawn in her room.” Dale said automatically, and then shook his head, sharply. “No. No, it’s not that simple.”

“No, it’s not. But I think it’s likely to be a part of it.”

More silence. Dale sat with his eyes shut, stomach rocking, thinking of grey shapes in a black room and knowing something that he didn’t want to say aloud. Or think. Or even acknowledge might be there.

And that always works so well, doesn’t it? They’re here, Aden. You’re safe. Do it.   

“There was always that sense of something terrible being about to happen in that house.” he said at last, viciously, in a way that left the are you happy now? trailing cruelly in the air behind it.  “I remember feeling it there.”

Flynn hadn’t moved and didn’t comment on his tone. “Children pick up and sense what their parents are feeling. They internalise it, whether or not they understand it. You’ve said it yourself, very accurately. Your mother was a young adult, barely out of her teens. Widowed, shockingly, without warning. With a baby dependent on her, a tremendous responsibility.”

“With no idea what was going to happen to her or what she was going to do.” Dale blinked on a swell of memory that went with a dark room and the banisters. “I can remember feeling that kind of-“

“Terror.” Flynn supplied.

“Atmosphere. In the house. All the time. That something awful was going to happen but I didn’t know what.”

“And if you did anything that rocked her stability, you probably picked up that fear from her even more strongly. You wanted so much to connect with her that you took on her perspective and tried to feel what you thought she must be feeling. You took on her stance towards yourself to be closer to her. Be quiet. Don’t need. Be grown up. You were trying to protect her.”

A step ahead of him, the conclusion already clear in his head, Dale put his head down on his arm, but Flynn said it anyway, gently relentless.

“The panic you feel about letting us see that you’re hurt, or needing something? The voice in your head in the habit of telling you to shut up, that you’re in the way, being a nuisance and it’s dangerous? You’re being ordered around by a scared preschooler, who was trying his best to figure out how to keep everybody safe, and is probably somewhere around three or four years old.”

“I’m going to throw up.”

“That’s physical stress, and this isn’t physical.” Flynn didn’t move, and nor did the arm around him. “You can get rid of the pressure that way, you’re very good at it, but that isn’t where the problem is. When you cut your hand, when you saw the blood, what did you think? What were you saying to yourself?”

Dale took an deep, unsteady breath, hugging his knees tighter to control the shaking and his twisting stomach. He was clutching Paul’s hand over the chunk of cotton with all his strength, so tightly that his fingers were aching, and he hadn’t realised that he was doing it until now, but he couldn’t make them slacken or let go. Paul was rubbing his knuckles slowly and with unbearable tenderness. He’d been doing it for a long time and Dale hadn’t consciously noticed that either.    

“.......That I couldn’t hide this. There was no way-”  he paused, taking another breath, which was harder to pull down into his lungs “ - I could hide this - ”

The shaking went out of control. It was that terrible sense of something rising, a bubble bursting, and Paul gripped his hand back, and Flynn held him tightly, his voice quiet and near to Dale’s ear,

“I’ve got you, don’t fight it, kid. Say it again. Louder.”

“I couldn’t hide this.”

“Louder.” Flynn said again, firmly, and Dale heard his voice crack and turn to something not taut, not anxious, but despairing as it burst out of him. Like someone else’s voice rupturing free, bitterly angry and addressed to someone who wasn’t there. 

I can’t hide this!”

He hadn’t realised when he’d started to cry, but he doubled over with the effort of it and Flynn held him, rocking slowly, his arms so tight that Dale could still feel him, feel him breathe, feel the vibration of his own sobs against Flynn’s body and the strength of his fingers still biting into Paul’s.

“No, you can’t.” Flynn said against his head. “You can’t. You don’t have to, and you can’t help her by doing it now.”


~ * ~ 



Copyright Rolf and Ranger

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