Saturday, September 19, 2015

Chapter 13 - Ranch



Riley, both hands braced on the counter, turned around and Flynn picked him up in a bear hug, holding him tight as Riley wound both arms around his neck, turning his face hard into Flynn’s shoulder. The kitchen was deserted but for them, and the house was quiet. Luath and Ash had tactfully herded Mason and Gerry outside a long time ago and they were well into the daily yard work. The sky outside was slowly clearing and the rain had stopped. It took a while before Riley let go and Flynn put him down, keeping hold of him to see his face. Riley was white and while he’d washed his face, his eyes were still red. He looked drained and upset, and Flynn tugged him back into his arms, wrapping him closely. 

“I know that was rough.”

“It was horrible.” Riley leaned hard against him, his voice very soft. “We joke about him being James Bond. All he ever wanted to do was be the hero. That was all he tried to do and he was only a little kid.”

“I know.” Flynn went on holding him, strongly, rubbing slowly up and down his back, and after a minute Riley gave him a hard hug back, his voice strengthening. 

“Was that what you think he was trying to remember?”

“I think that was it.” Flynn said with conviction. “I don’t think there’s anything worse to come.”

“Good. Because that was frickin’ bad enough.”

Riley let him go and pulled mugs down out of the cupboard. His colour was better, and Flynn got the milk out of the fridge to make tea the way Dale liked it, appreciating not for the first time that Riley’s instincts would have made him an extremely good therapist. It was the emotion, not the information that he really took on board when things got rough, he sought and took comfort, processed, and then he let it go. And he wasn’t worried or anxious, because Riley would understand, however hard it had been to watch, that it had been something positive; necessary, not alarming. Like Jasper, Riley wasn’t afraid of mess. And from his own experience, he knew that sometimes the most intense emotional conversations were the ones that broke down the most barriers and brought the deepest relief. All the brats in this family understood that acutely.

He put an arm around Riley’s waist and kissed him, firmly and possessively enough to make Riley’s eyes lose the last of their redness and regain a little of their usual energy, and spoke against his ear. 

“Come out with me. We’ll get the stock work done and then we’ll take our time and ride up to look at Bandit and the girls. I’m going to get Paul and Dale settled, you go get out Leo and Snickers.”

“I don’t want to go anywhere, I want to stay right here.” Riley said frankly. “Don’t you?”

“Yes.” Flynn tightened the arm around Riley, a hug strong enough to lift him off his feet again for a moment and Riley wrapped his arms around Flynn’s neck to hug him back, hearing the tone in his voice. “Yes, I do. But Dale needs time to process and he’s going to do that better with quiet and normality, not with the four of us hovering over him. Nothing awful just happened halfpint. It’s going to be ok.”

Their demonstrating it was important for Dale: he needed to see their proven confidence that their life went on, that the normal threads of his day were there for him to hold on to.

Paul came into the kitchen while Flynn was putting away the milk. Two mugs of tea stood out on the table. The others had cleaned up from breakfast before they left, the kitchen was immaculate. Paul came past him and leaned on the counter for a minute, looking out of the window to where Jasper was helping Mason mount up, and where Riley was leading Snickers and Leo out of the corral.

“He’s in the bathroom, I think he wanted five minutes to himself. The hand’s fine, I cleaned it out and steri-stripped it, it’s not very deep.”

“Are you all right?” Flynn said quietly.

“No.” Paul said frankly. “Are you?”

Flynn didn’t answer, but he turned Paul around and Paul buried himself gratefully in a long, hard hug. 

“I understand now what you meant about telling family secrets and what kind of loyalties he’s splitting for us, I never realised who we’ve been asking him to betray until we were into deep water. Thirty years he’s kept that secret for her. The loyalty in that... he loved her, you can hear it in how he talks about her.”

Flynn still didn’t answer for a moment, and then he said roughly and half under his breath,

“You realise this is about giving up that stuck loyalty to her to consciously give it to us?”

“I know.” Paul took a rather unsteady breath himself. “I know. It took everything I had to make myself let go of him, walk away and give him a few minutes to himself. Have you been picking up the pieces of Riley too?”

“Riley’s ok. We’re heading out in a minute and I plan on staying with him.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Dale look so disconnected as he did standing there dripping blood.” Paul let Flynn go and ran his hands over his face.  “My heart just about stopped. I’ve never watched you really working before either, not like that. Although I don’t know Dale could have done it for anyone but you.”

“It’s classic,” Flynn leaned back against the counter, folding his arms with a reserved look to his face that said to Paul he was deep in thought and not nearly as unmoved as he looked.“I should have seen it before. A child that age, developmentally that’s the stage of magical thinking. ‘If I do this, I can make that happen’. ‘If I don’t step on the cracks, the monsters won’t get me.’ So logically, if a child who thinks in magical constructs believes he has the powers to make the most vital person in his world shut down, and what he does can make the whole world more dangerous or less dangerous, he also has to believe he has the powers to make everything right again, and if it doesn’t happen then he’s obviously not trying hard enough. I understand a lot more now about why he feels safest about us in a crisis when he takes over.”

“What on earth do we do now?”

Flynn shook his head. “We don’t do anything. Dealing with trauma is about re-experiencing the memory in the context of safety and comfort and being able to process it. Dale’s done that. He made the decision he was ready, you and he have been working up to this together for days, now we go on supporting him while he works through it. He’s trying to change core beliefs. It’s a huge thing.”

“You know the worst to me is what it must have been like for him those first few months – the first few days at school?” Paul said heavily. “I can’t stand to think about it and I can’t get it out of my head. Seven years old. He must have been shattered. Absolutely shattered. I can see it in him, that’s exactly Dale, that’s exactly what we picked up on when he first came to us. He was used to being looked after by people who were nice to him at a polite and professional distance. Professional relationships. Touching, loving, communicating on any kind of personal level- that’s something that happens to other people, it isn’t for him. Argh, I’m so angry, and that doesn’t help him at all.”

“Why not? I’m sick to death of having only half the picture.”

Paul turned around at the sound of Dale’s voice, his face alight with sympathy. Flynn, watching Dale come to sit down at the table, very pale, his eyes very dark and slightly vague, and in clean clothes with his hand neatly bandaged, thought that it actually did Dale no harm at all to see other people’s less skewed perspectives alongside his own. He added a couple of spoonfuls of sugar to one of the two mugs of tea on the table which was not at all to Dale’s taste but would cushion shock, stirred it and handed it across the table to Dale.

“Take that and lay down on the couch in the family room.”

“I’m not going to break.”

Flynn raised his eyebrows, saying nothing except letting Dale hear the pointed silence. Then Dale got up, picking up the mug, and while his voice was soft, Paul heard weary amusement and a lot of affection in his tone. 

“Yes sir.”

He had to pass Flynn to get to the family room and Paul saw the hand he ran down Flynn’s back as he passed him, a silent gesture that said a lot.

Flynn waited until he was well out of earshot, then leaned on the table, face near to Paul and said softly and very gently, “Don’t let yourself act any differently now because you’re upset for him, love. That’s exactly what he’s braced for and you’re the one of us that’s going to have to prove him wrong. Don’t let him think that telling you has changed anything, or that he’s managed to scare us, or that this is something we can’t handle.”

That was enough. He saw Paul look back at him, then gather himself, nod and his usual tone came back into his voice. 

“Yes. You’d better take lunch with you. If you’re going to meet up with the others, take food for them too, Dale could do without a houseful for a few hours.”

“Are you going to be all right?”

“I’m fine.” Paul bolted about half the tea and put the mug down, meeting Flynn’s gaze squarely. “I am. I’m shaken but not stirred, and you’re quite right. Go on, go catch up with Riley, I’ve got this.”

Flynn said nothing else, just stooped a few inches further to kiss him and went to get his jacket, disappearing with it into the family room. Paul left them alone, putting the last few bits and pieces away from breakfast until Flynn came back to put his boots on and headed outside to join Riley.

When he’d gone, Paul took his mug into the family room. Dale was sitting with his elbows on his knees, his hands around his mug, uncharacteristically limp and slow moving as he glanced up. Flynn was right; he was in shock, and it no longer took any thought or planning to know what to do. Paul sat down beside him, put an arm around his shoulders and gave him a hug.

“Drink that, don’t stare into it hon. Unless it’s going to tell you anything useful.”

“Reading tea leaves not something I’ve tried yet.” Dale swallowed tea and Paul heard the tone behind the familiar, wry humour. He pulled Dale closer, resting his head against Dale’s for a moment, and speaking gently and very sincerely.

“Nothing awful is about to happen, stop panicking.”

“Are you freaked?” Dale put the mug down on the coffee table and ran his hand over his eyes before he turned to look at Paul. He’d washed his face, and he was dark enough that unlike Riley, he rarely looked red eyed or in a mess for long, which could be very deceptive. “I’m freaked. I admit it freely, I’m incredibly freaked. That’s an extremely useful Americanism, that’s another one I’ve learned from Riley, like ‘sucks’. And ‘ew’. There’s no actual British equivalent that does half so useful a job.”

“And you only chatter like this when you’re upset, yes I know.” Paul nudged him. “Drink that tea. I’m not freaked. I’m angry it happened to you, I wish it hadn’t and I wish I could have stopped it, and it’s very sad to me that you and your mom both lost what you could have had together. And I’m upset for you about what you had to go through this morning, although I’m very proud that you did it. That took an enormous amount of courage.”

Dale didn’t answer. He picked up the mug and gulped the tea, wincing on the sweetness, and Paul drank his own. Then put a hand on Dale’s knee with decision.

“Come on sweetheart. Come with me.”


The steam hovered above the water at the hot springs. There was no other human in sight, nothing but the river moving slowly, running around the rocks and boulders and the rain washed, blue-grey sky heavy with clouds above the woods on either side, and the smell of the minerals in the air. The stones were still wet from the rain.

Dale undressed slowly, following Paul down the grey rock beach and stepping down into the steam, where the hot springs were encircled by a pool of rocks. His eye caught the line of the rocks, following it, checking it by habit for faults or breaks in the line: they’d come here last in the snow, around Christmas time, and they’d done some repair work on the walls then. Their work was still holding good. The temperature of the water was hard to assess without getting in, and as he stepped down into it, the sudden and firm pressure of solid heat against his skin stole a lot of coherent thought. It was intense physical comfort. Dale walked slowly down the shelves to the deepest part of the pool, the hot pressure moving further up his body until it pressed against his chest, enclosing him, forcing his mind onto the purely physical. He walked to the edge of the pool and folded his arms on the highest rock, feeling the splash of cold water from the river running around them. A hand, trailed in the river, was pushed insistently by the flow of the current, the water icy compared to the heat of the springs. And it was silent.

For a long time, Dale leaned there, his fingers drifting in the icy current, the rest of him immersed to the chest in heat, and he watched the water and the silence flowing by. There was something deeply stabilising, both about the running water, the heat against his body, and the sensation of the rough rocks under his arms, under his feet. The effects had never worn away since the first day at the ranch where he had really looked up from his own preoccupations and seen what lay around him here. The mountains in the far distance were white capped above the trees. The trees were beginning to whisper with green, young and light green. Deep puddles lay here and there on the banks, reflecting back the sky above. Space. Everywhere there was space. Light. Timelessness. This river had run for centuries, connecting the snow on the mountains to an ocean somewhere that was washing against shores of other continents right now, the tides moving as the earth rotated, water endlessly travelling. It had run yesterday, it would run tomorrow; no matter what happened in their little lives it would all still be here. Dale rested his cheek against his arm, close to the running water. The air of its movement brushed against his face, the ice cold droplets splashed as the water passed by.

How did you explain the sense of ground having shifted under you? It wasn’t something you could put into words. It wasn’t something that could be categorised. It was raw. Whenever his mind moved towards any coherent thought, it was there, that rawness. It underpinned everything, along with a gnawing, painful sense of shakiness, heaviness. But the tension was gone. The awful, dragging, animal dread, was gone, leaving a hole that Dale could feel. He could feel too the stillness in his body, the stillness in his mouth and tongue as if they were too heavy to move, as if he’d forgotten how to move them.

A soft splash in the water as Paul changed position reminded him that Paul was there too. Some feet away in the water with his back against the stones, his head tipped back, his eyes on the sky. Quiet, his presence very comforting. Able to be with you without intruding, as if he understood.

Which was a stupid thought; of course he did, and the wash of emotion that came with the knowledge was enormous. Finding out how unconscious a habit it was to bypass it came as another shock.

How much of the time do you run on autopilot without even realising you’re doing it?

Dale pulled himself up off the rock ledge and waded across to Paul. He would normally have settled beside him, resumed his position on the rock ledge at a discreetly polite distance, that was the habit that pulled on him with all the familiar awkwardness attached to it.

And there you have it Aden. You’re such a damned good boy, aren’t you?

Oh screw it. Screw all of it.

Paul hadn’t looked round, but when Dale put both arms around his waist and leaned hard against him, his arms came straight up and hugged, tight, one hand clasped and sheltering over Dale’s head as if it belonged there.

“Come on then.” he said softly against Dale’s hair after a minute. “Stop chewing and tell me.”


“Any of it. All the things I know you’re thinking of.”

Dale turned his face against Paul’s shoulder, warm wet skin against skin. “Just.... sensations. Not incidents. Not actual things.”

“Tell me about those then.”

Being very small, in an oak panelled hallway full of boys, where the noise was deafening and the bustle overwhelming, and being frozen to the spot under a tidal wave of utter, stifling terror, bewilderment, a numb kind of desolation. Dale took a breath and with difficulty tried to find something to describe.

Initially it came in fragments, stiffly. And then it began to flow, in no particular order, often probably objectively making no kind of sense, but Paul listened, quietly, occasionally making murmured sounds of agreement or interest, and occasionally asking a question. For hours, while they soaked in the steaming water with the river running, by Dale talked, and Paul gently but insistently reminded him to talk face to face and to look at his eyes which made it far, far harder to do this dispassionately. And hard as it was, Dale understood exactly why he was asking. It wasn’t possible to keep himself detached when he had to really look at Paul and read his face and the emotions reflected there, and see how what he said affected Paul. Seeing his reactions called up Dale’s own, they were inescapable. And to talk to him instead of just to talk aloud in Paul’s vicinity. Telling him was a very different experience. It was the difference between telling something very personal to one of the men you loved, and being a client talking to a caring professional. Paul wasn’t allowing him to get the two confused. 

But a whole stilted muddle of information came out in one long rush. It was things he had never said to anybody, as though he was listening to himself downloading files he’d long forgotten he’d even stored. As he went through them there was the slow, steady experience of a series of faint, unpleasant shocks, of seeing events like a replaying film through objective adult eyes, and understanding – admitting – things he had not seen in them before. It wasn’t possible to do it and keep control either, but there was something about the isolation of where they were along with being alone with only Paul to see that made it bearable. It was only Flynn, Jasper, Riley and Paul he had ever talked to like this, who had ever seen him cry, who had seen him with all his guards down and taught him how to do it, even about this, even about things that happened so long ago that they should no longer be important, or about incidents that in rational comparison were not terrible enough to justify feeling such a mess. By the time he finally tailed off, his throat was sore, his voice was hoarse and his eyes were stiff and blurred. They went on leaning against the rocks in the hot water in silence together for a while before Paul glanced at his fingers and smiled rather wryly at the wrinkles.

“I think we should take a break before we dehydrate completely. Make a fire for me?”

Paul, who never did anything like this unprepared, had brought towels and a bag with him, and they rubbed down on the bank and dressed, and Dale took the kindling and wood out of the bag and laid and set a fire in the shelter of the rocks, somewhat hampered by the plastic covering thickly taped over the top of the bandage on his hand. Another adaptation of Paul’s, who was infallibly practical. Paul filled a pot with fresh water and stood it over the flames. They drank scalding tea by the fire, and Paul put a hand across to brush Dale’s hair back from his face and lay the back of his hand against Dale’s forehead in a way that made Dale’s throat tighten. It wasn’t something he’d come to take for granted and he didn’t think he ever would.


“Slight.” Dale admitted. “Not bad.”

Actually, he was exhausted. Bone exhausted to the point of being light headed and nauseous, which was a feeling that belonged light years from here, mostly to offices and hotels in cities in the early hours of the morning. Paul’s expression said it was no kind of secret either.

“And that hand’s still dry? Do you want to go home and rest, honey?”

Dale shook his head. “Not unless you want to.”

Paul pulled a couple of the old blankets they kept in the stables for sheep watch and camp outs from his bag and spread them on the bank in the lee of the fire.

“Lie down here then.”

It was not a suggestion and the comfort of giving into it was as strong as the steady warmth from the fire. Dale lay on his back beside it, one of the blankets rolled up into a pillow, and Paul took a book from his bag, made himself comfortable next to Dale, and settled down to read. What Paul read was invariably eclectic to the point of being impossible to predict; it could be anything from research material on any topic you liked, to classics, to biographies and crime fiction, to what Dale would have thought of dismissively as ‘children’s fiction’ if it hadn’t been that it was Paul who was reading it. This current book was a copy of Swallows and Amazons, a hardback, obviously years old, and other than an awareness that it was British in origin and a classic of sorts, Dale had no idea what it was about. Fiction belonged mostly to the days of the prince on his horse and the black and white tiled hall; he’d mostly chosen and read reference books at prep school, factual ones, moving on to research reading as he grew older. Fiction had been something Paul had reintroduced him to when he first came here.

“I’m not exactly earning my keep at the moment.” Dale said, half to himself and half to Paul as Paul opened the book. Paul lowered it and looked at him.

“No, do not mess with me. You know perfectly well why this is more important, you know it as well as I do, so what is that actually about?”

Dale blinked, shocked. Paul waited, eyebrows raised, not softening, and after a moment Dale sat up, half in self defence, feeling extremely exposed and far too tired for this.

“.... I feel guilty and I’d much rather work.”

Paul’s eyes didn’t soften. Dale folded his arms across his knees, hearing his voice lighten in a ridiculously childish attempt to get those eyes off him or to lighten their disapproval.

“What? I’m obsessive, we know this.”

“That’s another decoy.” Paul laid the book down. “Which I’m not buying. Repeat after me, ‘I feel very vulnerable’.”

“I said I felt guilty.”

“Yes, I know that’s a more comfortable word. ‘I feel very vulnerable’.”

“I feel very vulnerable.” Dale looked him straight in the eye, reciting the words with enough exasperation to make them into nothing more than sounds. Paul nodded appreciation and went on, looking right back at him.

“‘And alone, and unsafe’.”

“...........and alone, and....”

It wasn’t possible to keep the lightness in his voice, or the crack out of it. Paul shifted around the fire and Dale buried himself in Paul’s opened arms. Paul lay down, pulling Dale down with him and running a hand under his jacket and shirt until he could reach Dale’s back, rubbing slowly, palm against bare skin, and it was getting to be a familiar form of touch that was deeply, penetratingly comforting. 

“You know you’re not alone. You belong to us and you’re safe with us, and you won’t have to get through this by yourself, we won’t let you. Darling you’ve got a body full of adrenaline and you’re tired. The best thing you can do now is to let it go for a while and sleep. Give yourself some time to get some perspective. We are going to be ok.”

            He slept for several hours, between the fire and Paul and the river, surprisingly deeply. It was late afternoon when he woke, finding himself warm and comfortable and covered with a blanket, and for a minute with no idea where he was, and then with a slight jolt it all came back with the same wash of shakiness and nausea. Paul was relaxed back against a rock beside him, reading, and glanced up at him to smile.

“I just boiled more water if you want a drink?”

“Thanks.” Dale got up, stretching his neck and shoulders to cover up some of the tremor he was aware of in his hands, and looking across at the river. This was a beautiful and a very serene place, it was easier to face all this somewhere so quiet and deserted, and it was with reluctance and the pull of responsibility that he glanced at his watch.

“Shouldn’t we think about heading home?”

“No.” Paul turned another page. “I left a note and said if we weren’t back when they came in, to grab towels and come join us. I’d think they’ll be another hour or so.”

That was a nice thought. Dale zipped his jacket and dug his hands in his pockets.

“Excuse me a minute?”


Dale walked up the bank and into the woods to locate a convenient tree. Somewhere very early on he’d become very accustomed to handling calls of nature wherever he happened to be; they were all often out on the ranch most of the day where bathrooms were in short supply. His head was still throbbing faintly, his eyes were still stiff, and he was aware it took effort to move, as if he was heavier than usual and slightly distanced from everything.

Oh be honest Aden, you feel absolutely bloody awful. And fragile. As if someone’s going to raise their voice and you’ll shatter.

Which went along with a desire to just sit down, somewhere quiet, be very small, and not move much at all. Which was totally inappropriate for an adult male, supposedly competent, responsible and sane. Making himself walk properly, upright, looking at least half way collected, Dale was making his way back through the woods towards the bank when he heard a giggle. A child’s giggle. It was a happy sound, somewhere through the trees to his left, and as he looked, he saw her. Perhaps four or five years old, barefoot, dark haired, in a faded blue cotton dress, running down the path towards him. She ran like one of their young lambs, a pace interspersed with skips and hops and not a whole lot of speed, and there was something subtle about the way her skirt and hair moved, just fading out at the ends into a kind of blurred light like a film moving in very slightly slower motion, and the very slight transparency of her dress – not just of her dress but her bare feet and her arms – that made him realise. She didn’t hesitate in the slightest as she passed him, but she looked him straight in the face with a smile that lit up her whole face, from her eyes to her baby teeth, and went on hopping and bouncing down the path beyond him. She was singing to herself and the sound was faint and very slightly out of kilter, like the movement of her dress and hair. The song was in German.

Dale turned to watch her, his heart rushing in response and probably a lot more freely than it usually would, but not with any tension or fear. It would have been impossible to have been afraid of her, or to watch her without a smile for her delight in the afternoon. Instead, instinctively, he crouched down, bringing himself much nearer to her height, and said softly, “Guten tag!”

She didn’t answer or stop, but she glanced back and beamed at him before she disappeared around the bend in the path. It was enchanting. Dale straightened up and followed her, walking slowly not to alarm her. She was gone when he rounded the bend, there was no sign of her, but in a hollow set well back from the path, among overgrown creeper and moss, some broken walls made of the grey rocks from the river bank were still visible, deep in the shelter of several large trees, marking out what would once have been a small cabin. This would have been an ideal place, near the hunting on the river banks and the fish from the river itself, near the water, with the woods sheltering out the worst of the weather. Following his instincts, although not sure why, Dale crouched down on the bank of the hollow and put a hand out, running his palm gently over the broken, mossed stone wall. This was a good place. The smell of the water and the wild garlic in the woods, of damp moss and the feel of it, velvet and soft brown crumbly earth, the smell of wood smoke from the chimney, the feel of smooth grey rocks under bare feet on the bank, the taste of fresh, fried fish. He knew them all, first hand, but -

This is her, not me.

He’d felt it a few times before, that sense of seeing something through an overlay of a different colour. Feeling something not originating from his own senses, although it was very hard to separate out the two. Just flashes, and they were linked to his own memories, because he knew too how good hot, fried fish was just minutes out of the river, he knew too the smell of wood smoke at a hearth where you were wanted, where you were happy. As if he could meet with her where their common experiences just touched fingers for a second. And it was still her, because it came with that happy rush of wanting to run because today was good, the flashes of experiences trailing behind her like a hair ribbon streaming out in the wind.

You couldn’t feel it and not smile. Dale straightened up slowly, still feeling her lift within him, and grateful for it as much as he was touched by it. 

He was walking back on the path towards the bank and Paul when he was hit with a sharp and overwhelming kind of ...... tug. It brought to him to a sharp halt it was so strong, and for a minute he looked stupidly around him for some evidence of what it was. There was nothing there. Just the woods. But when he took another few steps down the path, it came again so strongly that he stopped dead. It wasn’t a sensation as such. Not exactly an emotion either, more a sense of something sharply urgent, like sensing someone following you down a dark street, or having left a crucial door unlocked. 

This is a wood, no one has left the gas on out here.

But even thinking about taking a step further down the path amplified the warning instinct to unbearable levels, when he didn’t feel too resilient to start with. Gathering himself, shaken, Dale turned to face the way he had come, trying for a moment to see or hear anything that had alerted him. There was nothing to see. But when he turned his gaze towards the left of the path – through thick, un-cleared brush – he was hit with a wave of agitation that attacked him right where he felt rawest and most fragile, so strong and dark and dragging that he froze to the spot, feeling his hands start to tremor in his pockets.

He’d felt something like this only a few times before, up on Mustang Hill, and the experience of Mustang Hill had made a strong, warning impression on him. Walking away, trying to ignore it, only made it stronger. The nagging of Mustang Hill had grown worse, and the dreams had followed and become unbearable until he finally made up his mind to walk into the place instead of away from it, and when he stood up to the awful atmosphere on the hill and faced it squarely, it had dissolved away. It was the same lesson Flynn had been patiently teaching him for months; walk towards what scares you and see it for what it truly is: it’s rarely as terrible as you think. It was what exactly he’d done this morning when he walked into the kitchen with his hand dripping blood, and his knees were still shaking from the after effects. Dale stood still on the path, and his hand in his pocket felt automatically as it often did for the rough, cold rose quartz crystal he carried with him by habit. It’s familiarity was stabilising, and it made it easier to call to mind the image of the safe golden light surrounding him. Then he stepped off the path and walked directly towards where that agitation radiated most strongly.

The sense of agitation became fiercer as he walked, a real fear that radiated from gut to throat, tightened his chest painfully, and Dale held onto the crystal, with an effort keeping the agitation separate from him, because it was very, very hard to bear today, and yet he knew too with a growing certainty that it wasn’t him. It wasn’t his fear any more than the sense of joy on the path has been his. 

The brush was so thick he was wading through creeper, so deep that every step was an effort, and he was negotiating a particularly thick patch of it when he saw the old man ahead of him, climbing up the bank. Small, hunched, his white hair and beard long and ragged. He was wearing an equally ragged coat over baggy and stained trousers and heavy boots and carrying a fishing rod, and he was muttering, his back to Dale, clutching at trees for support as he walked.

“Hello?” Dale called to him. The man glanced sharply around, saw him, and his pace quickened. He was hobbling, his face twisted and his eyes over bright and protruding slightly. There was something about them and the fear in them that caught Dale’s attention and made him gentle his tone, recognising now where the sense of agitation came from and whose it was.

“Good afternoon.”

He had seen the outlines of light like very old cine film that Jasper had shown him – the wagons that ran over the pasture below the woods at night. The children playing in the river. The Shoshone group on horses that came out the woods from Mustang Hill at night. Like recordings on the land, imprinted, that played back like old movies if you knew where to look and if the conditions were right. He’d seen Roger just that once, up on Mustang Hill. And he’d seen the little girl running by the ruins of what had once been a cabin. There was a difference between each experience; he’d categorised each one carefully. The imprints were made of light and no more ‘there’ than images in a photograph: quite likely just some trick of the land in replaying recordings. The little girl was quite different, she had been aware of him and responded to him, but had been happily busy with her own plans. And Roger had been lost in his own moment, oblivious to anything except what he was thinking and what had meaning to him. This man reminded Dale most of Roger. In a split second Dale’s brain ran through the data, pulling up the conclusions, the comparisons, the memory of what had worked, and he changed his tone automatically from questioning or tentative to something cheerful. Easy going and friendly, his body language adapting to support his tone in the way he would with a nervous project manager or a distraught client he wanted information from. 

“Nice afternoon for fishing. I’ve tried low bait out in the pool beyond the rocks.”

The man hesitated at the top of the bank, his eyes shifting as he glanced back at Dale. It appeared to take him a minute to make up his mind to answer, and when he did it was harshly, in fragmented bursts.

“Under the trees – up there – over hang. Flies.”

Yes, like Roger. Looped in what had meaning to him right now because it blocked out the fear. Stuck. 

I get that. Happens to me all the time.

Speaking gently, smiling at him, Dale took a few steps closer, ignoring the tightness in his chest, a phantom squeeze and a flash of pain that shot through his left arm and neck, because he knew now what that was too, and as he recognised it for what it was, it faded away. 

“What size do you pull here?”

The man gave him another sideways look, then made a brief gesture with his hands and gave him a faint, conspiratorial smile through his beard when Dale smiled. 

“Seriously? In that stretch they’re that big?”

I’ve got his attention, I’ve got him talking, would anyone like to share an objective because I have no idea what to do now......?

It was then he saw David walk slowly up the bank. He had no idea where David had come from. Only that he was wearing a black cloth coat, like the man’s but longer, almost to his knees over his riding boots, he was hatless with his hair wild, and his face was intensely gentle as he looked at the old man. He had an electric smile. Dale recognised it, it went through him like a bolt of warmth, and it seemed to penetrate through to the old man and make him look up, directly into David’s face. Dale was too far away to hear what David said to him, but after a moment he slipped his arm through the old man’s and guided him gently down the bank and the man walked hesitatingly but willingly with him. Within a few steps they began to fade out, until by the time they reached the path they were gone. Without a word or a hint that Dale was even there. Dale found himself looking somewhat wryly at the spot where he had last seen David fade away, and gave it a more than slightly sarcastic little bow, his hands outstretched. 

Oh you’re most welcome David, please don’t mention it.

Down on the bank, Paul glanced up from his book at the sound of Dale’s boots on the rocks, inwardly relieved. Backing off Dale and leaving him alone at times when he looked like he wanted to be left alone was usually the least helpful thing you could do, and whether it invaded Dale’s privacy or not, he’d been debating getting up and following for the last minute or two. Dale looked thoughtful and the shadows under his eyes were obvious, although the cool of the afternoon and the breeze gave a little colour back to his face. The deep green sweater Dale wore under his jacket was a thick roll neck that lay over the jacket collar and was the same shade as Flynn’s eyes – Paul doubted Dale had consciously realised it – and he walked with his hands in his pockets against the backdrop of the rocks like an advertisement for outdoor clothing. Even his dark hair tended to respond to being windblown in an orderly way, in the same way his jeans always looked precisely creased no matter what he’d been doing.

“Hey. I was getting to the point of coming to look for you.” he said mildly, and watched Dale sit down on the rug and pick up and snap more sticks from their pile of firewood, adding them expertly to the fire with long, deft fingers that worked without him taking conscious notice of what he did.  

“Sorry. I got held up.”


They’d been talking all day, and he saw Dale take a breath, visibly bracing himself, then glance up to meet his eyes.

“There was a girl in the woods. Maybe five or six, running around the ruins of what looked like a cabin.”

“A girl?” Paul said, startled. “Who was up there with her? Tourists?”

 Dale inclined his head slightly. “It’s all right, I’m not sure that child services are going to mind that much about appropriate supervision for her.” 

Paul looked at him more sharply, reading his face, the rueful frankness there.

“Appropriate – you mean like the times when you’ve seen David? She was ... what?”

“Yes, she was definitely a ‘what’.” Dale gave him a brief and tired smile. “Just running around and playing, it was quite sweet. And further on down the path was another one, an elderly gentleman who looked like he had some mental health problems and probably I think a heart attack, and David turned up to deal with him, so I got a little held up.”

David? Really?” Paul said blankly, and Dale laughed, wearily but with sincere humour.

“Yes, I know, it’s ridiculous. Sorry.”

Paul reached for his hand, grasping it firmly before Dale could withdraw. “What did David do? Honey, I’ve seen you do this kind of thing several times now and you’ve told me a little about it. I’m just surprised.”

“Yes, me too.” Dale said sincerely. “I don’t know what he did. Well.”

He paused, discovering that wasn’t exactly true. He hadn’t said this aloud to anyone before, not even Flynn or Jasper. “He talked to the man and they went.... somewhere.... together. I’ve seen him do it once before.”

“And David just materialised in the woods?” Paul asked. Dale shook his head.

“It’s really not that dramatic. I had a very – strong feeling I suppose is the nearest I can explain it – about turning back off the path, and there was the man. I talked to him, it wasn’t easy to get his attention. And then when I did, there was David.”

“What about the girl?”

“She was fine, she didn’t need any help.” Dale said without thinking. It was only when he heard what he’d said that he realised how true it was and that he’d known it from the first minute he saw her. “She was different to the man on the bank, there is a qualitative difference.”

Primarily in the way she felt, as much as the quality of air and light around her, the micro-differences that gave it away.

“He was stuck, and it’s as if David - unstuck - him. There really ought to be a more scientific way to express that. Deconglutinate? An alteration of polarity under solvent influence? The Grunwald Winstein scale possibly? I saw him do it once before.”

Dale was quiet for a long time, thinking about it before he added detachedly,

“It’s as if I can get their attention, David can reach them.”

That’s why he was going on and on at me about Mustang Hill, the dreams, all of it. He was trying to get me to get up there, and get on with it.

He was never going to mention to Paul or anyone else who it was that David had been nagging him to look for; it was distress he never intended to put them through, and he knew without having to ask that Jasper felt the same way. 

“And today he was nagging you to go and find this man?” Paul shook his head, torn between exasperation and amusement. “That would be David. Mind on his project and not thinking twice if you were feeling up to it or if you needed it today on top of everything else.” 

“I think I just stumbled over this poor chap by accident, there wasn’t any nagging. With Gam Saan, and with Mustang Hill, there were all sorts of signals and hints about get over there and look.”

Paul made a sound of interest and comprehension, still watching him, and Dale shook his head with wry amusement.

You’re being so calm about this, I’m listening to myself and thinking you should call out the men in white coats. I’m a mathematician, we do facts. Except Flynn’s always said there’s a level at which maths needs high level of imagination and existential mathematics isn’t exactly my field but isn’t exactly not either- a lot of high level corporate work necessarily is impacted by the human involvement within it, personalities and combinations of personal strength and abilities unquantifiable within pure logic or hard figures, and you have to be able to calculate intangible factors outside of that box which I suppose requires imagination again -  Paul really, tell me if you mind me talking about David like this?”

Paul put out a hand to brush his face, eyes soft enough to be reassuring. 

“You know the only one who has any kind of worry about this is you. You don’t have a responsibility to worry about what we’re strong enough to take, because whatever it is we’re going to manage. That’s a habit you are going to get the hang of.”

Dale gave him a faint smile at his tone, and Paul smiled back, aware that in this moment, this was real eye to eye contact, real reciprocation, and Dale was talking, frankly, about something he’d only ever mentioned to them before under duress. 

“It’s kind of nice to me to think David’s still around in any kind of way at all, and I knew David. I’ve got no trouble understanding why he’d like you. He could pick his times better, but I know too what that brain of yours is capable of and it makes sense to me that you see things and put together information that goes past me, I see you do it all the time.”

“And yet be thick as a plank about the simple things.” Dale said wryly.

“Stop it.” Paul laid his book face down on his lap, thinking about it. “When there still were a lot of trappers and people in the woods and the land in and around Three Traders, I know David had a lot of friends among them just from the way he talked to me about them. He was good at people, I think. Not in a Gerry sort of way, he wasn’t a naturally outgoing kind of man but from what Philip told me, an elderly trapper living out here alone, or a group of Shoshone, or a lone family settlement and he’d probably know them by name and have done what he could to help. I don’t think he was easily shocked, I’m sure by the time he came here he’d seen a lot of poverty and struggle and hard work, and he was probably a lot more streetwise in that way than Philip was. David was rather like Tom. He’d fix your roof without a word before you fully realised it was leaking, but it would be Philip who’d have a comfortable social chat with you.” 

It was the same way that Jake was the social front-man for himself and Tom as a couple. To Dale, it made a lot of sense. Paul was still watching him and he laid the book aside, reaching for Dale’s hand.

“Come on. Come and soak while we’ve got the place to ourselves and a bit of peace and quiet.”

            The others came just before twilight, emerging cheerfully and noisily from the woods, in jackets, hats and scarves and carrying several bags between them.

“This is a brilliant idea,” Gerry said cheerfully, dropping more blankets on the bank by Paul, “It’s going to be a clear night too, I haven’t had a moonlit dip here in years.”

“Is that really a hot spring?” Mason said curiously, pausing on the bank to look. Paul gave him a smile and nodded him towards the water, taking another bag from Jasper.

“Take a look. It’s quite safe, all the locals come here regularly and we maintain it well. The temperature can vary, but it’s hot today.”

“Since none of us bothered to wait to shower, good.” Riley said cheerfully, stooping to give Dale a hug. It was a warm hug, un freaked out and happy to see him, and Dale returned it gladly, reflecting how wonderful it was to love someone like Riley who wanted nothing more complicated from you than to be loved back. Riley jumped and started back a step as the fire flared up and spat, retreating to a safe distance to peel his jacket off.

“What is it with fires lately? They all hate me, I’m getting spat at every time I go near one.”

“Just a breaking log,” Paul reassured him, poking at the fire to bury the log deeper. “Are you going in?”

“Do fish swim?”

Riley stripped straight to the skin without the faintest self consciousness, and padded, naked, over the cold grey rocks to the steam rising from the water. Jasper crouched by the fire beside Dale to light one of the numerous hurricane lamps they kept in the shed and the stable, saying nothing but giving Dale a faint smile with very warm, dark eyes that Dale felt search his face and said hello and several other more personal things. Dale took another of the lanterns to fill and glanced up as Flynn put a bag down by the fire and crouched behind him, dropping a heavy arm over Dale’s chest to give him a hug and a hard kiss against his temple. The overtness and the possessiveness of the gesture was extremely comforting.

“Hi. We only brought the basics, we planned to fish for dinner.”

“Great idea.” Paul opened the bag, sorting through it for cooking items.

“How are you?” Flynn said against Dale’s ear.

It wasn’t easy to know how to answer him, especially with so many people about. Ash was carrying several rods and a box of bait and paused by the fire to put down his collection and take up one rod to prep it. Luath stripped to follow Riley, and paused at the water edge to talk to Mason, who after a moment undressed and waded into the steam after him. None of them made a fuss or did anything more than glance over and smile as they passed, for which Dale was profoundly grateful. Flynn gave Dale another brief, hard squeeze that said he understood, and leaned on Dale’s shoulder to get up and help Paul unpack. Gerry touched Dale’s arm as he set another lantern.

“Are you a fisher, a soaker, or an observer? I’m a fisher observer, I’ve never got the hang of bait.”

“I’m a fisher.” Dale admitted. “Jas taught me, it’s been rather addictive.”

Jasper smiled back at him, getting up to take a rod and a lantern and head down to the river bank.

Gerry waggled his eyebrows at Dale, nodding at a rod. “Can I observe you? I’ll stand well back and try not to scream if you catch anything, promise.”

He didn’t wait for Dale’s agreement, just collected a rod from the pile and Dale accepted it, getting up and walking slowly up the river bank with him as he scanned for a good place. It wasn’t difficult to find the spot under the trees the old man had recommended. Jasper and Ash were setting up together further down river, Jasper wading out into the water, and Flynn was talking to Paul, crouched by the fire in the growing dark which cast shadows and flickers of light over his face and hands.

Out of earshot of any of them, Gerry sat down on a boulder, digging his hands deep in his pockets.

“How are you doing darling?”

There was a sympathy in his voice that was as difficult to handle as the question. Dale didn’t look back from the river while he tried to find an appropriate way to reply, and Gerry’s voice was gentle but acute.

“Trust me, bullshitting us is even harder because we know all the tricks. Particularly me
because honey, I got the award ten years running. Are you all right?”

“I’m really not sure.”

Dale crouched on the rocks to bait his line, still not looking back at him. Gerry got up and came to crouch beside him, his arms around his knees.

“Let me guess. You don’t know what you feel, or what’s safe, or who to trust, and it all feels like one horrible mess. And half the time you want to cling and the rest of the time you want to get as far away as possible.”

Dale glanced back at him and Gerry gave him a brief and very understanding smile.

“Anywhere close? You’re a lot quieter than me, I tend to yell this kind of thing from the rooftops. Did I ever tell you how I met David?”

“Not that I remember.”

“I tried to pick his pocket in a bar in Dubois.” Gerry said baldly. “I was probably quite lucky he didn’t rip my head off. Oh I was about seventeen I think, and I didn’t have a dime, and I was only stuck in Dubois because I’d run out of men to turn tricks on and David was the only guy there and wasn’t biting no matter how much I flashed butt in his direction. Have I shocked you yet?”

“Yes.” Dale said, considering it. Gerry grinned and Dale cast his line out into the water before he looked back down at Gerry, reflecting on what Paul had said earlier. It was unlikely that a seventeen year old boy, obviously gay and in desperate straits, was going to shock a man like David, or be someone David could walk away from. 

Gerry gave him a friendly shrug.

“It’s hard to tell with you if you’re shocked or not, you don’t show it. My point – I really do have a point – is that David brought me home the most unattached, mercenary little tart you can imagine, and I lived in one whole world of taking care of me. If I’d had the brains I probably would have been dangerous. I spent most of my first few days in the house thinking mostly about what I could steal until I realised how far I was from any place money was useable, and that was a shock.” Gerry smiled, half to himself at the thought, then gave Dale a much more serious look. “I was very charming, at least on the surface. I was extremely good at getting what I wanted, and I was phenomenally manipulative. I excelled at causing fights between other people and getting the reactions out of them that I wanted, and partly you feel good when that happens because at least you’re in control, hey? You’re the strongest, you’re still the winner, and I always pushed until I won. And partly it sucks because you know you fooled them again and there isn’t anywhere lonelier or scarier to be.”

 He made no mention of how he’d come to be in that bar in Dubois, and instinctively, Dale knew he didn’t want to be asked. There were some things too private. It reminded him too how many of the people Philip and David had gathered into their home came from hard or broken circumstances, rooting people who were rootless. This was a large family with a lot of shared experience, and sometimes it was easy to forget that David was as much a part of that established experience as Philip because his presence was so much subtler. 

“I just wanted you to know,” Gerry went on, with care, “In case it helps, that while not everyone in the family knows this unless they were living at the ranch at the time, because it’s private stuff – Philip and I would know exactly what it is you’re doing with Paul and the others.”

You’re intimidating him.

Dale realised it from the careful voice, and from the tentative look on his face, connecting it to the times Gerry had said flat out, Darling, You Are A Damn Scary Man.

You’ve got two options here Aden. Keep on paying all your attention to fishing and be scary enough that he backs off- you could do it easily. Or grow a pair and treat him like he’s treating you, like you both come from the same family. The man’s throwing you a line here and it’s costing him, this is very personal stuff and the comedy’s a front to hide it.

He took a slow breath, reflecting that he still felt extremely shaky and not at all prepared for this, then with care, sat down on a boulder near Gerry. He knew a lot about body language. How to sit to put a client at ease. How to pitch his voice to reassure someone. It was mechanical knowledge he could use when he was in command of a situation with an objective in mind, and it didn’t go with this place or any of the people here that he loved, and at times like this it seemed almost something false, something soiled, that he didn’t want associated with them. And without being able to resort to that knowledge, he often felt completely at sea about how a normal person responded to this kind of thing.

“Sorry. When I’m nervous I go into board room mode, it’s habit. Paul’s started telling me to stop addressing him like a public meeting.”

“When I’m nervous I go completely over the top and get louder and camper by the minute.” Gerry said wryly, “But with men who look at me like that, with scary voices? You know me, I say yes sir and get out of their way. You’re quite an Alpha kind of a guy.”

“Sorry. It’s all mostly packaging.”

Dale checked the position of the line, took another unsteady breath, aware his hands were sweating, and made himself look at Gerry. As unscarily as possible, since he really wanted to know.

“....What did you and Philip do about it? Was it all Philip?”

“Philip and David, but in that way yes, mostly Philip.” Gerry gave him another, faint smile that held some anxiety in it and told Dale again the effort Gerry was making for him. “He was very good at it. Reading me and knowing what was real and what was an act and not quitting about pushing through it to reach me, what was actually me, and making it clear I was who he wanted to be talking to. He told me flat out when he knew I was putting on an act, and he often told me flat out why I was doing it too.”

“Paul’s good at that.” Dale said wryly.

“I heard him do it with you, that’s what made me realise.” Gerry said rather gently. “I  always hated it when Philip did that to me. Not that it stopped him. And he and David did a hell of a lot of the basic bonding stuff with all of us anyway, it was how they thought things should be. We all still do it, we all believe in it.”

“‘Bonding stuff’?” Dale said, confused. Gerry shrugged.

“You do it all the time without noticing, we all do. We eat together, we have a daily routine and we all know it. We spend the evenings together, and actually doing things together, not in front of a tv, and there aren’t a whole lot of distractions. We all contribute to the house and ranch, we work together, we all have chores. The whole culture: respect, honesty, clear limits, talking and sorting things out when we argue or things go wrong. We do the occasions together like birthdays and Christmas and Thanksgiving with all the traditions we do every year, and we often do stuff like tonight – picnics and camping out and fun stuff just because it’s fun to do together. We’re a physical bunch in case you hadn’t noticed, we hug a lot. It’s all part of it. It’s all what keeps relationships solid.”

“So what was different about what Philip did with you?” Dale asked very awkwardly. Gerry shrugged, good naturedly.

“He kept me with him a lot – right with him. I must have spent months on the couch in the study, especially when I was screwing up, and if I’d really screwed up it was right on the floor beside him. He challenged every trick I pulled, there were consequences every single time until I figured out it was less hassle to do what he wanted the first time than to fight about it. He made me look at him the way Paul makes you look at him, until I admitted the only reason I was doing it under protest was because I wanted to stay in control. I loved Philip to pieces you know? I mean what do you owe the guy who taught you to be able to say ‘I love you’ out loud?” Gerry gave him another, wry smile. “I was a complete little sod to him for a while. I caused havoc in the house, I threw fits like you wouldn’t believe, I’m ashamed to remember what I was like at first, but he wouldn’t quit. I never managed to make him mad or frustrated or disgusted or bored or anything else, and I really tried. He scared the crap out of me because no matter what I tried, I couldn’t manipulate him, and he got to be this awful fascination for me – I didn’t want to go near him and at the same time I couldn’t make myself stay away.”

“Pushing and winding them up because you can’t leave them alone but you don’t know what you’re trying to say. And wanting them to ...” Dale trailed off, bitterly embarrassed that he was even acknowledging this, and looked at his hands before he got it out, “Wanting that kind of attention, and angry with yourself for wanting it, while being braced and ready to fight it off the second they try. And feeling like a bastard because you know you’re shooting them down in flames over and over again. You never let them win.”

Paul. He knew he was talking almost entirely about Paul. Jasper, Flynn and Riley all fought back and had very clear ground rules that didn’t allow for messing about.

“But you’re terrified they’ll give up. Yes.” Gerry paused, giving him a look with a lot of compassion in it. “Yes, exactly. I was angry all the time, and the smallest thing felt like a nuclear attack and I’d explode, and then I’d be so ashamed afterwards because I’d made yet another scene or over reacted and made a fool of myself, or screwed up something else and that made me angrier. I don’t know how Philip explained to his business visitors about the raving maniac teenager he had around the house but he and David never made it feel like a problem. Not once.”

There was tangible love in his voice. This was a loving, open hearted man; Dale knew it well. Gerry was one of the warmest people in the family, demonstrative, dramatic and emotional, and he lived with Ash who was gentle, easy going and as warm as Gerry was.

“What made the difference?” Dale said very softly.

Gerry shrugged a little. “Eventually, after Philip dinning it into my head long enough, I think I started to realise that I was walking around on a default setting of defensively angry, and that was why things went wrong. If you realise you’re doing it, it gets easier to stop yourself and think through it instead of just – reacting, I suppose. Question it and think about why you’re reacting. There were a lot of things made the difference, I suppose I got calm enough to think and be less sensitive and a lot of other things too, but that one was the biggest.”

“With me it’s fear.” Dale gave him a tight, mirthless smile, aware as he did it that it was another habit, a well practiced way of distracting people away from seeing the strength of emotion behind what he was saying, including himself. “I’m a professional coward. Almost all the crap I pull is about being afraid.”

“Philip used to say to me anger is just fear with a different coat on.” Gerry hugged his knees in the dark. They were neither of them looking straight at each other, it was too difficult to do while talking this personally, but Gerry’s voice was softly sincere. “When you look – really look – at what makes you angry, it’s always about feeling threatened in some way. Everyone has their buttons, the things they’re most afraid of. I told you, I’m a yeller and screamer. You’re not, you’re a thinker so you see it exactly for what it is. Or maybe you’re just more honest about it than I was, or braver and you just call it what it is.”

Dale’s fishing line jerked and Dale got up, easing it in. Gerry stood well back, watching him land a fat trout and detach it from the hook, waiting until he re cast his line.

“I just wanted you to know, there’s someone around who does understand. And it does get better. Really, it gets easier and better, and I remember so well how horribly scary it was at this point when someone’s pulling holes in every trick you’ve got.”

“Thank you.” Dale said it softly and sincerely, with no other idea of what to say to him. He glanced down the bank and saw Mason’s eyes reflecting back at him as the steam cleared slightly from the pool. Gerry followed his gaze and smiled.

“Yes, that one’s fascinated by you, isn’t he?”

“I have no idea why.” Dale said slightly irritably, “I have less to do with him than anyone else in the house, I have all the purpose of a chocolate tea pot at the moment in doing anything useful for him.”

“I can tell you exactly why, it’s blatantly obvious.” Gerry said with amusement. “He can’t figure you out, darling. You walk around radiating authority and control, and Mason likes powerful men. So do I, come to that; I know what he’s looking at. You do things like you’re in charge of them, and yet he’s seeing you take orders, and you do that way more gracefully than most of us do which has to be messing with his head in all sorts of ways. If I get stuck about someone the way he’s stuck about you, it’s usually because I’m dying for them to notice me.”

“The only real contact I’ve had with Mason was to bite his head off for saying something tactless to Riley.” Dale said shortly. “And that was a mistake on my part. I probably should have apologised for it.”

“And you’ve said nothing much to him since?” Gerry asked. Dale shook his head.

“That flipped him. He’d been doing ok until I put my foot in my mouth with him. He spent the rest of the day and half the night in battle with Jasper, so after that I stayed out of it.”

“So the one time you really took any notice of him you told him off, and it had a big effect on him but you never said anything more to him, and now he’s watching you all the time?” Gerry said with far too much enjoyment. “That makes it pretty obvious. The guy’s probably desperate for some sign of approval from you. I’ve heard the other four pour praise all over him for stuff he’s doing right, is that something you do?”

“Who the heck am I to be telling anyone they’re doing anything right here?” Dale demanded. Gerry laughed.

“Oh right on the nail! Darling he’s a bit of a prat, but I don’t think he means half of what he’s mouthing off about.”

“Did you mind the ‘screaming queen’ comment?” Reminded of something from yesterday evening – which now seemed a very long time ago, but which he had really not appreciated – Dale frowned and Gerry raised his eyebrows.

“Ooh there’s the scary look again. No, it went over me. I heard that and far worse than that from David if we were having a row, or come to that if Wade or Darcy and I have a row.  Mason’s a bit of a poser but I don’t think it was meant so much as his mouth running because he was mad and not thinking. He’s not the only mouthy guy I’ve ever-”

Flynn interrupted them, getting to his feet by the fire.

“Dale, enough now. Bring that rod back here.”

“You did well to get this far away for five minutes.” Gerry said, watching with distaste as Dale reeled his line in and picked up the trout. “And to make it out of the house, actually. If I walked in dripping blood and gore and shock like you did this morning it’d probably take me three days to calm Ash down enough to let go of me or to be allowed up off the couch.”

He said it cheerfully and naturally, just a man talking about his partner with affection and it still touched Dale just how comfortable he was with Ash’s authority.  He wasn’t sure how to answer either. He had no doubt Ash had no hesitation in restricting Gerry, knowing that Gerry wasn’t likely to create mayhem because of it.

And why do you instantly start telling yourself you’re doing it all wrong, Aden? What do you seriously think you can do that Flynn or Jas or Paul can’t handle? If they wanted you on a couch you’d know about it.

Yes, but how much do I manipulate or freak them to the point they don’t risk pushing as hard as they probably should? I screw with this all the time and I don’t always even realise I’m doing it!

“I still need to scale and clean this one,” he said to Flynn, briefly aware that even the smell of the butter Paul was melting in the skillet turned his stomach. Flynn gave him an experienced look, and took the rod from him.

“Give it to Paul, we’re headed home.”

Dale surrendered the trout to Paul, and Flynn picked up one of the lanterns to light their way back through the woods.

“Sleep well honey.” Paul said softly to Dale, and Flynn put a hand in the small of Dale’s back, guiding him up the dark bank with the lantern raised to cast light in front of him, and within a few yards the smell of the wood smoke faded, the sound of the river was lost in the woods, and it was just him and Flynn, in the dark and the relative chill of the spring wind away from the fire, and the lantern casting shadows on the path that wound between the trees.

It felt like a very short drive home, through the pitch black of the road where they didn’t pass so much as one other vehicle, and then the long, bumpy grass track that ran under the wooden sign that read Falls Chance Ranch all the way to the house where the porch lights had been left on and the dogs got up and came to greet them. Flynn put the four by four in the garage, put the keys away and they hung up their jackets in the kitchen, leaving their boots by the door.

“Go run a bath.” Flynn opened the fridge to take out the milk jug. “Deep, hot. I’ll be up in a minute.”

The electric light felt very sharp after the softness of the lantern light and the natural light at the river. Dale left the bathroom light off and sat down on the side of the tub to run the taps. His limbs were heavy, his head and shoulders were aching slightly, and he still felt faintly sick to his stomach. He heard Flynn coming upstairs when the bath was only half full. Flynn was carrying a mug and a plate, both of which he put on the counter, and he stooped past Dale to put a hand in the water. Then he dumped in a good handful of the salts Paul kept in a jar beside the bath, and drew Dale to his feet, gently and efficiently taking his sweater and shirt off over his head. Dale co operated wearily, stripping off jeans, socks and underwear and automatically stuffing them in the laundry hamper. He was slightly more surprised to find Flynn following his example, and when they were both naked, Flynn took his hand and stepped into the bath, turning the taps off and pulling Dale in after him.

The tubs in the house were big. All the furniture in the house was on the large size; this was a house furnished with men in mind and David and Philip at some point must have decided that baths weren’t necessarily for the use of one person only. It was a truly fantastic idea. Flynn, sitting back against the slope of the bath, fitted it comfortably and he guided Dale down between his knees to lean back against his chest, which sank him to his neck in the water. And in the dim light from the landing, in the heat of the faintly scented water, Flynn folded both arms across him, surrounding him, relaxed back in the water and let the contact and the heat and the peace of the house sink into them both.

It was by far the best moment of a very difficult day.

It was several hours later when Flynn heard the four by four outside. He eased away from Dale without waking him, covered him over and pulled a pair of jeans on before he softly closed the bedroom door and headed downstairs.

There was a small but quiet crowd in the kitchen where Paul was supervising the stashing of the bags and cooking equipment in the laundry room to unpack tomorrow. Mason, tired and dishevelled but with one of the most open and warm smiles Flynn had yet seen from him, met him in the kitchen doorway and nodded towards the stairs.

“Hey. Dale asleep? How’s his hand?”

“He’s ok, he’s been asleep for a while.” Flynn dropped a hand on Mason’s shoulder, squeezing it as he passed him. “Did you have a good time?”

“Yeah, pretty good thanks.” Mason said, considering, and then grinned. “Ok, it was great. I get why there’s all the fuss about camp fires now, I never did any of this camping stuff as a kid, this was pretty much the first time. I’m so looking into making some camping trips when I get home.”

“Did you try fishing?”

“Caught two. They tasted great.” Mason’s grin was abashedly proud and Flynn gave him a quick and one armed hug around the shoulders, which was at the moment what Mason was comfortable with and which widened the grin.

“For a first time that’s pretty good going, you’ll be a useful person to camp out with. Sleep well.”

“Goodnight.” Mason headed towards the stairs, and Paul removed the milk jug from Riley’s hand.

“If you want a drink I’ll bring you one up. Go shower and get ready for bed.”

“I’ve been hanging around in hot water for hours.” Riley said cheerfully, “How clean do you want me?”

“Clean of whatever else swims in the river. Quick, it’s past eleven.”

“Actually, I know it’s late-” Gerry, who had been standing well back with his arm through Ash’s, sounded tentative but definite enough for all of them to look to him. “I’m sorry, but this is about the one time I’m going to get to talk to all of you.”

“Dale’s not around?” Riley pointed out, and Gerry gave him a rather nervous look but shook his head. 

“This is about Dale. I think it’s probably important.”

There was a slightly surprised pause, then Luath said tactfully,

“I’ll head on up to bed.”

Gerry looked up at Ash, who cleared his throat. “Luthe, we don’t know that this won’t be helpful for you too, Dale’s pretty fond of you. Are Dale and Mason both settled for the night?”

“I’ll go up and check on them before we start. I want a minute to say goodnight to Mason.” Jasper hung his jacket on the hook and headed upstairs. Paul filled the kettle, glancing back to find Gerry.

“Do you want tea, honey? Hot chocolate?”

“Hot chocolate please.” Gerry leaned a little harder against Ash, who put an arm around his shoulders and hugged him, pulling out kitchen chairs for them to sit down. Riley found mugs and marshmallows for Paul and they waited without saying much at all until Jasper came back about five minutes later and closed the kitchen door quietly behind him.

“Dale’s sound asleep and Mason’s at the go away and let me sleep stage, I don’t think we’re going to bother them.”

Flynn slid out a chair next to him and Jasper took a seat, picking up the mug in front of his place. There were seven of them around the table. Riley next to Paul, Luath on Paul’s other side, Jasper and Flynn, and seated close together, Ash and Gerry, with Gerry looking extremely uncomfortable. He had kept hold of Ash’s hand, but he did the talking, leaning his elbows on the table and mostly looking down at the grain of the wood in front of him.

“This is pretty hard to talk about, so please don’t ask a lot of questions. It isn’t something any of you really know about, I don’t think anyone does except for ‘Lito and Colm because they were here at the time, and private stuff is private unless we want to share it and that was Philip and David’s rule so I know they wouldn’t have talked about it either.”

He broke off, sounding rather strained, and Ash spoke much more quietly, looking at Gerry.

“Gerry noticed and I agree that we recognise what you and Dale are working on.”

“I talked to Dale a bit this afternoon, just to say I understand because I used to do it.” Gerry seemed to find Ash’s cue a little easier to follow. “I was a lot like Dale is now when I first came here. Not the James Bond stuff, I don’t mean like that. I did a lot of screaming and yelling and throwing stuff and being a total pain in the ass, and you couldn’t pay Dale to act like that, he wouldn’t know how, but- I’m making a hash of this, I knew I would.”

“There was a time you had difficulty trusting people and building relationships with them?” Flynn suggested quietly, paraphrasing, and Gerry gave him a grateful look, still holding on to Ash.

“That’s a nice way to put it. When I first came here I was quite happy with superficial, easy come easy go terms with everyone. I’d come on to total strangers..... I’d snuggle up to someone I’d known five minutes and never planned to meet again, but if I’m honest it was about taking what I wanted from them on my terms without any kind of risk because there was nothing real about it. I manipulated everyone. Everyone. If people liked me it was because I wanted them to like me. If I wanted to disgust them or scare them or upset them I could do that too. I had a good and convincing outer shell that no one saw past because I made damn sure they didn’t. And there was about a year I suppose, the first year I was here, when Philip went after me the way I saw him go after Flynn when he first came here, or the way you’ve gone after Dale. Really sorting out the mess. What I’m saying is I know what it is that Dale’s got because I had it too. So I know what it is you’re trying to help him do, and I think you probably need to know that I can see you’re making mistakes with him that matter. A lot, because it makes it harder, and makes it take longer and Philip and I went all over this ground.”

He sounded shaken, and uncharacteristically inarticulate. Paul glanced briefly across at Flynn and saw the level expression in his eyes that got when he was working with a client or researching a paper, the deep attentive interest that meant he was reeling away every word of this. He spoke again when Gerry didn’t follow up the pause, his voice gentle and quiet enough not to shake Gerry out of his line of thought, and using Gerry’s own phrasing. 

“What mistakes, Gerry? Can you tell us about what you and Philip did to go after this with you?”

“In a lot of ways no, because I don’t like admitting I actually did half of what I did.” Gerry took another breath and looked at Ash, who was listening without stepping in. “Philip picked up on the manipulation – I think he had some idea of what to expect actually, I don’t think I was the first one he’d seen with this issue.”

“What issue, hon?” Paul said softly. “Flynn was like a hurricane when he first came here, a lot of people in this family came here with problems-”

“No, I’m not talking about bad experiences or being a brat.” Gerry said sharply, and it was the brittle sharpness of upset rather than frustration. Watching him, Paul could see the difficulty it was taking him to sit here and say this, and it was painfully unlike Gerry to the point the silence and stillness of the men around the table watching him was tangible.

“It was a whole thing, a whole problem about not giving a damn about anyone but me, and being afraid all the time and not letting anyone near me and paying them back if they got too near, and it took a hell of a lot of work to get past it which I wouldn’t have done if Philip hadn’t-”

He trailed off, and Flynn spoke quietly and evenly, picking up from his trailed off sentence.

“It’s called an attachment disorder, although I doubt you and Philip called it that at the time. It’s all right Gerry, I know what you mean, and you’re right. Dale has it too.”

“What does that mean?” Luath said after a moment when Gerry didn’t look up or answer.

“It isn’t a mental health or behaviour issue,” Flynn said, watching Gerry, and Paul could see him leaving pauses to let Gerry take over if he wanted to. “It’s a form of neurological conditioning. From birth, a child has to attach themselves on to an adult protector or they can’t survive. Their brain receives the programming on how to do personal relationships from that first relationship, based on what you’ve learned from your experience. It’s not conscious, it’s not a choice or decision, it’s the kit you build from what you get given.”

And in Dale, the lessons had been not to be demanding or to show need, to be quiet and self contained. And to be the one responsible. Paul breathed out as a few more puzzle pieces came together. This was information they knew, but were still coming to understand the import of. 

“If your conditioning is that people are good, they won’t hurt you, they won’t frighten you, that you will get food when you need it, you’ll be kept warm, loved, interacted with, that pattern and the trust in that adult forms your personal relationship pattern with the rest of the world.” Flynn said quietly. “If your conditioning is that people are unpredictable – or that the people you love hurt you – or you’re only safe if you act in certain ways, like flirting or charming to get what you need, or being very quiet and not getting too close so you’re allowed to stay, that’s the conditioning you’ll base your ability to form relationships on. You’ll have problems forming relationships – there’s degrees of it, a continuum, and Dale’s pretty good with everything but personal relationships – and you’ll form a lot of adaptive and defensive behaviours, and manipulation is one of them if you’ve learned you’re only safe when you’re in control. It isn’t a choice, it’s your programming on how to survive, and it’s a very difficult thing to face and to learn to overcome.”

“I don’t think I was the first one Philip saw with it.” Gerry said subduedly in the silence that followed. “I guess he recognised the signs in me from whoever that was. Although you know what he was like about privacy, he never mentioned a name to me. He saw through a lot of what I did to keep people away from me right from the start, and over time he got to the point of picking up on pretty much all of it, and telling me straight out what he knew I was doing and making me admit what it was really about. I heard Paul doing it with Dale yesterday and it hit a lot of buttons. I hadn’t realised before but when I watch Dale I know he’s the same way. I can see what he’s doing because I’ve done it. Not like he does it, Dale’s your really seriously functional adult – my God, I’m more than twenty years older than him and I’m never going to be as grown up as he is - and I was just a kid at the time, I was about seventeen and I was a young seventeen, and Dale could never be the conniving little bastard I was at that age, I don’t think he’s completely aware he’s doing it, but-”

He broke off again and looked at Ash for help, who squeezed his hand, reassuring without stepping in or saying anything.

“I see him steering my attention away to things he feels safer with.” Paul said gently. “I know that’s a part of it, I was watching him do it this afternoon and it’s taken me a long time to pick up on. He’ll start off a whole conversation on a safe topic to distract me away from anything he doesn’t want me to notice or he doesn’t want to think about.”

“Philip used to call it rabbit trails.” Gerry said, giving him a wry smile and ducking his eyes quickly back to the table again. Paul reached over for his hand, holding it firmly over Ash’s.

“Gerry, no one here thinks any the worse of you. I don’t know much but I know you had a hard time before you met up with David, there are reasons why at the time this seemed to you like the best and safest thing you could do, the same way I know it makes sense to Dale. If you know how to help I’d value anything at all that you can tell us that’s going to make this easier for him, because Flynn might know about this but I don’t.”

“We’ve talked about it in general terms and I told you I suspected it.” Flynn said when Paul looked at him. “The general theory’s standard basic training and I’ve read a bit, we look at relational and attachment skills with clients, but this is out of my field, I’m no expert. What’s been important is that you and Dale have done a lot of figuring out together and you’ve made a lot of progress with him. Which is I guess what Philip helped Gerry do.”

“Philip called it being all the way part of the family.” Gerry said softly. “But yeah. I had to want to do it, badly enough, and after I’d been here a while I really did. And I know what worked and what didn’t, so I can see with Dale -”

“....what we aren’t getting right yet.” Paul said when he trailed off. “We’re handling this by trial and error and as I told the man over there with the doctorate some days ago, I find this useful information. So I’d appreciate any clues at all that you can give us, hon.”

“Dale thinks you’re doing pretty good.” Gerry said lightly. He took another breath and let go of Paul and Ash to pick up his mug of cooling hot chocolate, gulping back about half of it before he spoke again.

“I rabbit trailed by making stupid accusations at people. Pretending I didn’t know how to do something, it was all hugely diversionary, getting people’s attention on chasing nonsense I didn’t mind about so they missed noticing anything I did mind about. If I pushed someone into having a huge fight with me about something stupid then they were mad and all focused on that subject under my control and it made me feel good. Powerful, if I’m honest. Particularly if I was upset or bothered by something that made me feel exposed. Or ashamed. I also used to chatter nonstop- no one say a word.” he added, giving Luath a slightly unsteady smile. “On purpose. Talking gets used to connect, to communicate. If you don’t want to do it then you stuff the airwaves with a noisy lot of nonsense and make damn sure nothing else gets through. I’ve seen Dale do that. Defining words like a walking dictionary with the Latin roots when he’s mad, or calculating stuff out loud – I saw him going on and on to you some time last Christmas about the air pressure in the kitchen or something, all P equals X or something.”

“But that’s just Dale and how he gets mad,” Riley said, considering. “It’s a more controlled way to say you’re driving me crazy without actually saying something mean, and he does go around with that kind of stuff on his mind, he never just thinks about one thing at a time.”

“I’ve heard him use it as jabber that stops him thinking or saying anything he doesn’t want to, and gets your focus away from what you were just saying that got him feeling too off balance.” Gerry said succinctly. “Yes, it’s way more sophisticated than I ever did it, but I still know what he’s doing. It isn’t good, and it needs stopping.”

“You’ve always jumped on that hard.” Paul said to Flynn. “I admit I’ve tended to see where it goes or to try to talk him round until very recently.”

“That’s another problem I can see.” Gerry said apologetically. “I used to be outstanding at never letting two people get on the same team and you mostly wouldn’t have known I was doing it. Especially two Tops on the same team. The last thing I ever wanted was a joined up approach where everyone had my number. I used to do it by saying one thing to one person and another to someone else, play one off against another.”

“Dale would never do that.” Riley said shortly. Gerry gave him a rather upset glance and nodded.

“No, I know he wouldn’t. But he does tell one of you a bit of what he’s thinking, and then another of you a different bit, and there’s an awful lot of control in that. I know with the five of you things must have to work differently anyway, but I know would have been much more comfortable knowing no one person ever had the whole picture and I’d got no manoeuvring room. Ri, I really, really don’t want to imply he’s doing this because he’s mean or because he’s deliberately playing you. I love Dale and he loves you, he’s an amazing man, and mostly I don’t think he really knows he’s doing it.”

“They’re conditioned safety habits.” Flynn said quietly. “Once there’s high emotion involved his nervous system’s easily tripped into survival mode and the primal programming hijacks the system. We know why, he’s aware it happens although we’ve never talked about it in these terms exactly.”

“I think we need to.” Paul said to Flynn with a rather pointed look.  

“It’s essential you jump on the rabbit trailing and on the whole no one person with the full picture bit .” Gerry said flatly. “What really fixed it with me was having to be real all the time no matter who was there. Once Philip really got things sorted, I wasn’t allowed to be with anyone unless Philip or David were there with me so I wasn’t able to manipulate without them pointing out to me and the other person what was going on. They taught ‘Lito how to do it, they taught Colm how to do it, and for the best part of a year any time a stranger was around or we went into town I was always with at least one of the four of them because if I got wound up, I was going to try. Even if I didn’t mean to or want to, it still got away from me sometimes. Even when I got to the point where I hadn’t done it for months and I’d got the same freedoms as everyone else, if it was a rough time or something set me off, we’d go back to those rules again for a while. It’s like breaking an addiction. Even one little slip gives it a foothold again and the wall goes back up.”

“If it works, it’s very reinforcing.”


“Hang on.” Luath said slowly. It was the first time he’d spoken and Gerry looked at him a little apprehensively, but Luath spoke to Flynn, leaning his elbows on the table and his steepled hands in front of his face.

“Let’s be honest, we’re not talking about a teenager here. I know what Dale’s made his reputation doing, you are talking about an educated, exceptional man. He’s had tremendous financial, legal and management responsibilities, I know for a fact he’s outstanding even at his rank, he’s dealt with negotiations and conflicts I couldn’t begin to have the skill to approach. I know you’ve never seen him in that forum but I’m a bit concerned we’re talking about a guy with this kind of ability ‘manipulating’ like we’re discussing some kind of troubled kid.”

“We’re not talking about ‘a guy’, we’re talking about Dale.” Riley said bluntly. “It’s not difficult. Both of those people are Dale, they’re both brilliant, but one’s an act he puts on like a suit when he goes to work. You want to meet the real one, come talk to the guy I’m married to.”

“I can well understand you’re protective, I would be too in your situation.” Luath said gently. “But I still think you’re going a little over the top in sitting here diagnosing someone with this kind of a mind, which is pretty rare in itself-”

“I agree with Riley, let’s take this out of objective terms and be specific about Dale.” Paul interrupted mildly. “Because I know Dale. I’ve spent a year getting to know Dale, and I can tell you from real experience, you can go through the motions of daily life with him and he can make it look like a feature in Better Homes and Gardens. People would pay good money to be married to someone so thoughtful, and he’s so good at it that it’s easy to miss that he’s just going through the motions and he’s never really been there at all. And he knows, and he’s hating himself, and he’s got no idea how to do it any differently even though he desperately wants to.”

Luath was looking at him, slightly shocked. Paul leaned forward on the table, still speaking gently but intently, and Flynn, watching him, could see the determination in his hands as much as his face, and he could see then what Paul had spotted in Luath and what the tone meant. 

“It’s taken him a long time to get himself to the point of really trying to open himself up to me, and we’re still going back and forward between one minute he’s clinging and the next he’s furious with me because feeling like this scares the hell out of him. You can see Dale’s state of mind if you know him like I do. The more chaotic he feels and the tighter the hold he puts over himself, the tighter his hold gets on everything around him. Everything’s rigid, everything’s ordered, everything’s immaculate. I’ve learned his language the hard way and I can tell you it means scared. The next step on from everything being ordered is the perfectionism spiking and him getting stuck doing things over and over because even when he does it twenty times he still can’t feel it’s right enough. And in that state he’s still perfectly capable of working, functioning and being the consummate professional without much of a glimmer that anything’s wrong. So yes, a lot of what he needs from me is exactly to know I’ve got his number, that he’s not fooling me and to make scared something we can talk about if I plan on us being able to make any real connection. I think too sometimes, he needs to know I’m prepared to fight for him. He went through this with Flynn and Jas months ago, Flynn very early on, and it was mostly physical with them. Both of them proved to him physically that they were willing to stand up to him and win no matter what he did, and they could do it while still keeping him safe, and they’re both people that are strong non-verbal communicators and cut straight through the crap. I’m not. I’m very verbal and Dale’s one hell of a smart cookie and knows it, and that’s made me a lot harder for him to handle.”

Paul paused, still watching Luath, who didn’t respond, and everyone else around the table was quiet. Paul’s voice was gentle, but it was still the tone that made everyone in this household stop and listen very carefully, and Luath’s eyes were on the table now, his colour had changed.

“You want to talk about triggers? There are triggers to this, I’ve spent a long time figuring them out. Dealing with strangers, because he can’t go onto automatic pilot here like he would have done at work, and without a work script he doesn’t know how. There are gaps in that man’s social skills like chasms. Anything that makes him feel vulnerable –feeling he’s upset or disappointed you; being sick or hurt when he’s not in total control of his environment, you saw a demonstration of that one yesterday, because here he isn’t in a position to be able to cover it up. At work it would have been fine, he could have organised everything to be able to hide it and no one invaded his space or asked personal questions, because who messes with the boss? I know that Gerry is absolutely right about this because over and over again I’ve tried backing off when I could see Dale was losing it, I’ve tried to reason with him, or I’ve let him have space to calm himself down, which should be what you do for a reserved, highly competent man who doesn’t like fuss. At best it plain doesn’t work. At worse, it pushes him a whole lot further out of control, because this isn’t perfectionist stuff or brat stuff or brilliant and unusual mind stuff, it’s something else I haven’t been yet able to put my finger on but I can see matters like all hell to Dale. What works is for me to wade right in on a very personal level and make the mess he can’t, and refuse to quit. You cannot wing it with Dale, or make assumptions, or let him steer you away from the messy bits. There are a lot of layers to go down through if you really want to know him.”

There was a long silence. Riley was looking at Paul with his heart written all over his face, and Paul caught his eye and sat back in his chair to take Riley’s hand and drop a kiss on the back of it. His eyes were still on Luath, who looked less stunned than subdued, and his eyes were still down on the table. 

“My experience ties in with Paul’s.” Jasper said slowly and thoughtfully. “And what Gerry is saying ties in too with what Dale is telling us, which is always my first and main guide. So I’m very ready to accept any help Gerry can offer us.”

“I don’t know I can.” Gerry said softly. He’d looked near to tears when Paul was speaking, but Flynn, watching him and ready to interrupt if it got too much for him, had taken his lead from Ash and didn’t think it was necessarily tears in a bad way. Gerry cleared his throat and looked down at his hands, clasping them in front of him.

“....It’s just I wanted you to know that I can see what he’s doing, I know how hard it is to be where he is right now and I know it won’t help him to feel like he’s getting away with it. So long as he can do it, he will do it. He won’t be able to stop himself.”

“Which is exactly what Dale’s been telling us.” Riley pointed out to Paul.

There was another moment’s silence, then Paul glanced at his watch and got up.

“It’s too late to go into this any further tonight, and I’d like some time to think. I’m heading up to bed. Ri, come on.”

“Me too.” Luath got up with them, collecting together the mugs. Paul paused to give Gerry a tight hug as he passed, and Riley hugged him too. Ash got up, holding out his hands to Luath for the mugs.

“Gerry and I’ll see to those, Luthe. Get some sleep.”

“Goodnight.” Luath gave Ash a twist of his mouth that was an attempt at a smile and stooped to drop a kiss on Gerry’s cheek, and Gerry got up, burying himself in Luath’s arms. Luath hugged him tightly, murmuring something very quietly into Gerry’s ear, and after a minute Gerry nodded, looking a good deal happier.

Paul drew Riley firmly with him towards the stairs. Flynn followed Luath into the family room and at the foot of the stairs hooked a hand in his arm, tugging him silently into the dark of the study where he shut the door behind them. Luath didn’t resist but he folded his arms, giving Flynn a look that said it was late, he was tired, and he was in no mood to suffer fooling about gladly.


“You want to talk about this thing you’ve got about Dale, or about the signs and indications of clinical depression?” Flynn leaned against Philip’s heavy desk and folded his own arms, mirroring Luath and not bothering to put the light on.

Luath shook his head, sounding tired more than exasperated.

“It’s too late at night to start all that kind of nonsense.”

“Loss of appetite. Insomnia. Irritability. Negativity. The last two being uncharacteristic for you.” Flynn raised an eyebrow at him. “Shall I go on? Back pain. Tiredness. You’re less fit now than you were at Christmas. Have you seen your doctor?”

“No. It’s normal. Justified.” 

“Grief and depression aren’t the same thing.” Flynn said bluntly, watching Luath lean on the windowsill overlooking the dark yard beyond. “You’ve hidden it well, Darcy hasn’t spotted it and I know he’s been keeping a close eye on you. Luthe, I warned you that you needed to watch out for this. You spent so long in limbo about Rog this has been a hammer blow.”

“In a way it’s a relief.” Luath said quietly.

Flynn listened, arms still folded, and Luath drew a heavy breath, leaning his hands on the windowsill to look out.

“I feel horrible for feeling that way, but at least now I know. It’s like the whole merry go round finally stopped, and it was a relief to get off, but it’s different. Finished. In some way, no matter how awful, you miss the way things were-”

“When you still had some hope.” Flynn said quietly when he didn’t finish. “Yes. It must be hell, I can’t imagine. But that’s not the same as depression. Depression needs dealing with, it isn’t going to go away because you ignore it.”

“I’m not depressed.” Luath said wearily. “Maybe a bit run down, that’s all.”

“Would you look Philip in the eye and tell him that? Because you damn well couldn’t look Paul in the face just now.”

Luath hesitated a moment, then shook his head, giving Flynn a faint and unwilling grimace.

“No. Probably not. Like I probably deserved the earful Paul just gave me, I know what he was saying. I’m losing the knack, Flynn. Lack of practice I guess.”

“You’ve got way too much knack and not enough time with people you can usefully spend it on.” Flynn said acerbically. “You know Ash had the same issue with Dale and hero worship at first?” He surveyed Luath over his folded arms, watching Luath’s reaction. “Except you know the older generation including Banks, and you’d see Dale more as up and coming talent in the way Banks did. Why do you think you get uncomfortable when anyone implies Dale might not be as tough he looks?”

“Oh stop it.”

“I think it’s because you don’t want to think that he went down in New York when you could have made contact with him and done something that helped.”

Luath didn’t answer, neither confirming nor denying, and his face and body gave nothing away. Tiredness more than anger, or defensiveness.

“You knew of him.” Flynn went on, watching him. “You know as well as I do that Dale’s the type Philip would have made contact with and kept an eye on. You chose not to get involved, you feel responsible, and you’ve got way too much of an idea what went wrong for him, probably way more than I have. But you didn’t know at the time that he was going down, no one did, Dale’s plan was that no one knew, and you heard us tonight, we don’t find it easy to see through him when he doesn’t want us to know he’s struggling. He’d have been very polite to you but he wouldn’t have let you near enough to help, and there isn’t anything you could have done for him in New York. At best you might have deferred things a few weeks more.”

“At least he would have had someone to talk to who had some understanding of him.” Luath said heavily. 

“You’re seeing him as you know him now, with the vocabulary to talk about it and the knowledge of the lifestyle, and a friendship with you.” Flynn shifted his weight on the desk, one ankle crossed over the other. “We take CEOs as clients out here for a reason. You can’t make real progress with them unless you take them right out of the environment they’re used to, somewhere where all their knowledge and management skills and rank and the office politics and wealth and possessions mean nothing at all, and where we’ve got total control over their environment and we’re working with them 24 hours a day. We can get to issues here in a few weeks that we wouldn’t get to in years of weekly therapy. Motivation’s another huge issue. Dale needed to break; you didn’t let him down. If you wanted to do something for him, there’s a lot you can do here and now that would help. I’d like Dale to have the time to get to know you better, and I’d like you to stay a while. I think you need to be around here and around us.”

“You mean around you, brat.” Luath said wryly. “You can forget it, you’re not therapising me, and Paul isn’t either.”

Flynn grunted. “I don’t ‘therapise’ anyone. But you could do with being around people who expect you to be yourself, and that’s another reason Dale makes you uncomfortable.”

“I’m.... not planning to go anywhere.” Luath looked out of the window, his weight heavily on his hands before he spoke again, more quietly. “I don’t think I realised how bad it had gotten. I didn’t see it until I tried to fit back into the routine here.”

“Yeah, we noticed.” Flynn said just as quietly. “Emmett’s coming over in the morning to check Dale’s hand, I’d like to talk this through with him. If he agrees, I’d like you to try a tricyclic for a couple of months, it’ll make it easier to eat and sleep and to get yourself back on an even keel. Do you think you can sleep tonight?”

“It’s actually easier here than it was at home.” Luath straightened up with a sigh and turned to face him. “No habit to work through the night, and I’m programmed not to read and keep Rog awake in that room. And it’s so quiet out here. I forget how quiet. I’m sorry about this evening. I’ll apologise to Paul.”

“Part of that was Paul being mad at me.” Flynn said bluntly. “Don’t worry about it.”

“And part was get the hell away from my brat. I know.”

Luath gave him a tired, half smile that remembered what it was like to come fiercely to the defence of your own particular guy, and Flynn hit his shoulder gently, a gesture with a lot of affection and comfort in it, that made Luath sling an arm around his shoulders, pulling him over into a hug. He held on for some time. 

In the kitchen, Ash ran a sink full of water and began to wash the mugs out, hearing the rest of the family heading upstairs, and Gerry go across to the kitchen door and look out at the yard in the dark. When seven mugs were upturned and draining on the draining board, Ash wiped his hands and went to stand behind him, wrapping his arms around Gerry from behind until Gerry leaned back against him.

“I am so proud of you.” Ash said against his ear.

Gerry turned around to him and Ash held him, rubbing his neck and shoulders and reflecting, as he tended to at often inappropriate moments, how much he loved this complicated man, and how strongly Gerry was rooted here. It was no threat or competition to their home, no competition to the roots Gerry had with him; on the contrary. It was because of the strength and the stability of his roots here that Gerry had branched confidently into their home and neighbourhood and the large network of friends they’d established in Seattle, and he’d taught Ash a far more concrete and purposeful concept of ‘home’ than Ash had understood when they first met.

“I want Philip.” Gerry said softly into his shoulder.

There was enough unhappiness in his voice to make Ash hug him a little tighter, with a lot of understanding that it was in no way rejecting him.

“I know. I know you miss him. He loved you very much Ger, he’d have been proud of you too tonight.”

“He wouldn’t be too proud of me having got here through running off to an airport.” Gerry said unsteadily.

He wouldn’t have been at all surprised. It had been Philip who introduced Ash to Gerry: Philip who loved Gerry and understood him, and had taught Ash that with this man, patience paid rich dividends.

“He’d have understood.” Ash said mildly. “The same way I do.”

“It was a lot easier when he was here.” Gerry took a rather shuddery breath, hanging on to him. “I was seventeen for a start. I didn't get sick.”

“Hey, I didn’t know you back then and I wouldn’t give that up for anything.” Ash said against his ear. “But yes. It would be nice if we didn't get old some days.”

He knew he’d come close when Gerry curled up tighter to him, tears starting to run, but  quietly. Sadness rather than stress boiling off. Still rubbing slow circles over his back, Ash felt gently for the words to unknot the silence, to find an end he could follow.

“How did Philip handle anyone sick when you were here?

Gerry was quiet for a moment, head against his chest. “Philip never... made a fuss about anything. He'd just keep you with him. Mostly he'd just settle you on the couch in the study right with him.”

“That sounds very comforting.”

“It was. Sometimes I just used to come curl up there if I didn't feel good. Or for any reason. He didn't have to say anything, you knew he was there.”

Mhm. Ash went on rubbing, understanding now why they were here and what Gerry was trying to tell him.

“Ger. If you had gall stones while you were here, what do you think he would have advised?”

He felt Gerry shrink away, getting smaller and into a tighter huddle.

“...That's mean.”

“It's not mean.” Ash said calmly, “I'd like to know.”

“It is mean.”

“Because he'd feel like I do?”

Gerry didn’t answer for a minute, and when he finally did, it was very softly, almost inaudibly. “He wouldn't have said anything.”

Ash paused, surprised as that crashed with everything he’d ever known of Philip. 


Gerry shook his head slowly, and Ash tipped his head back as light dawned.

“You mean he'd know you needed to see a doctor, and if the doctor suggested surgery, then he'd just take you right to the hospital to have it.”

Gerry nodded even more slowly.

Ash put a gentle hand under his chin, pulling Gerry’s head up to look in his eyes. “Am I making things harder by not doing the same?”

Gerry looked back at him with large, wet eyes that said frankly they loved him to pieces and had no idea how to respond to that. Ash stooped a little and kissed him, gently, tasting salt as well as his mouth.

“We’ll call first thing in the morning and get the surgery scheduled.”


Having said goodnight to Luath, and seen his light go out, Flynn walked silently down the landing. Paul’s light was out, and Flynn stood for a moment at his half open door, looking down at Paul asleep and Riley sprawled comfortably across the mattress beside him, arms outflung and one over Paul, dead to the world. Riley radiated all the comfort and bonelessness of a cat when he slept. Mason’s door, also half open, showed Mason equally sound asleep. Moving softly, Flynn opened his own bedroom door, which was ajar now rather than closed, and that warned him.

Jasper had stripped as far as his jeans and he’d pulled the thong that bound his hair at the nape of his neck so it spilled over his shoulders. Bare chested, bare foot, which tended to be very much his natural state, he was leaning against the window seat, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankle, arms folded, and his eyes had been on Dale, who was asleep. Their hair was much the same colour in the darkness, all shadows, and Dale’s position reminded Flynn a little of Riley’s. Not quite the same forthright sprawl, but he was limp, well away even with the two of them in the room, one hand above his head in the way Flynn always struggled to resist, with his fingers half curled and his palm outward, and his face relaxed.

You always slept properly here from the start, didn’t you kid? You always felt safe here.

Jasper’s silver eyes lifted to his and Flynn softly put the door to behind him. Jasper tended, in any kind of difficult situation, to move away from the centre of it and instead make order from what lay around it, lifting duties and responsibilities away from others. Never the centre of the attention but very often the strength that lay behind it. He was, by deep nature, a team player in a sense and with a sense of ‘us’ that Flynn thought he still hadn’t yet learned to understand as Jasper did, and it reminded him sometimes of Bandit snaking to gather together the mares, or the dogs deftly circling a herd. Almost out of sight, their movements almost too far away to appear meaningful, but in front of them the herd gathered and moved calmly. He’d disappeared quietly away today to reassure Ash and the others, to organise work that tactfully removed curious eyes and re established the normality of the day, which had comforted all of them, not least Riley and Dale. There was a gesture of faith as much as selflessness in his belief that one did not have to handle something oneself to ensure that the group handled it well.

Flynn sat down on the windowsill beside him, and Jasper’s shoulder blocked against his, solid, warm, and the silence continued to blossom and to twine through the room, something peaceful and a fluid part of the darkness. 

~ * ~

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015

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