Book 4 in the Falls Chance Ranch Series

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Saturday, September 19, 2015

Chapter 14 - Ranch

14

  
Is this attachment business something we need to worry about?

With the hands of the clock on the night stand slightly past five am, Paul lay with an arm above his head, deliberately keeping still to avoid disturbing Riley who was asleep beside him. With half the covers kicked off; Riley didn’t do hot or being crowded unless he was in the mood for it, the man liked space when he slept.

We knew he had some traumatic stuff surfacing, we’ve seen it often enough with clients to know what to expect, but I knew there was something more that he was trying to explain to me that he didn’t have the words for. If Flynn thought for a moment that we had a problem or we needed to worry he’d have said so, and he’d have done something drastic about it weeks ago. He watches this kind of thing like a hawk even if he doesn’t talk about it, and he thinks we’re on the right track and that we just need to let it come in its own time. Ri’s the other one who says loud and clear if he sees anything to worry about in Dale, he picks up on it fast, and he’s perfectly calm, it isn’t bothering him.  Jas is not worried. And he’s right, we’ve always taken our lead from Dale. I couldn’t have had these conversations with Dale six months ago, he couldn’t have confided in me or let me as close as he can now. This has taken him time and a hell of a lot of effort, and he’s been the one who initiated it. When he’s got a goal in mind he goes straight for it.   

What Gerry’s told us is exactly what you’ve been trying to ask me to do, isn’t it darling? To close the loop holes and help you stop being able to avoid confronting it. You aren’t sure how or why, but you know how much you want it and you trust us to be able to help. And this is going to be ok. We are going to work out how to get it right for you.

Poor Gerry. I had no idea, I don’t think any of us did, he and Ash never mentioned any of this, and it was obviously so hard to talk about, even to us. Dale’s just the same whenever he can make himself talk about this in himself, both of you have the same awful sense of shame around you, as though it’s something awful you’ve done. I saw Philip reel in Flynn and Jas, I watched him do it, and I saw him get the confidence of a lot of other people, but I had no idea he knew what this was all about. I wish he’d told me some of it.

Which is ridiculous. Gerry knows. The knowledge is still in the family, that’s why he’s teaching us. 

When the clock chimed five thirty downstairs he got up, leaving Riley sleeping and silently collecting his clothes with the intent as usual to shower downstairs where it wouldn’t wake people who weren’t natural dawn risers. He met Luath on the landing on his way back from the bathroom, bare foot, blue jawed, heavy eyed and looking somewhat sheepish as he met Paul’s eyes. The man looked huge in shorts and a t shirt, barefoot, the grey of his shirt shadowed against the blue black of the long legs, still solidly muscled. Paul gave him an experienced look and understanding the sheepishness caught him for a quick hug, swatting his hip.

“Hi. You don’t need to be up for another hour, go back to bed.”

“I don’t get how you have all this energy before sunrise.” Luath answered in the same soft undertone. “Look, I’m so sorry about last night. I’ve got no business telling you whether you’re right or wrong with Dale, you’re absolutely right I don’t know and I can see I hit all kinds of buttons-”

“You do know, you’ve just got too much going on in your head to pay attention.” Paul interrupted him firmly. “This isn’t the time. Stop worrying, go catch up on sleep.”

“There isn’t even any damn coffee in this house, I may never wake up.” Luath said ruefully, padding towards his room.


“You don’t need coffee.” Paul told him just as softly. “A week in bed and your ass kicked, possibly. I’ll deal with you later.”

He saw the wryness in Luath’s smile at him.

There was always a kind of balance in having the house full – as if normality had resumed, and Paul was aware of it as he showered, shaved and dressed downstairs as the oven warmed the kitchen. It wasn’t that they didn’t enjoy time alone, just the five of them, but this house belonged to more than just them and there was a warmth and energy that always came with any of the others being here.

Dale loves it too. You’d think it would be terrifying for him but he’s got the family instincts as much as Flynn has. I think we’ll have waffles for breakfast. We’ve got a few people in need of comfort food this morning.

He heard the sound of people upstairs and paused, then went to the doorway to listen. No voices, but if you knew the sounds of this house well that was the sound of two people heading into the bathroom together, which indicated Flynn having taken Dale into the shower with him. That was the hallmark indicator of a seriously grounded day for Dale, of being under the eye of one of them constantly, and knowing clearly what the day’s expectations were. It was an action that would have seriously subdued and upset Riley, but it was one of the fastest, most effective ways to settle Dale down, and it didn’t upset or demoralise him in the slightest.  

No choices, no ability to get it wrong or to have to worry about getting it wrong, you’ve always told us what a relief you find it when you’re feeling burned out. We must be the only experience you’ve got of time where you’re not the one responsible for getting it right.

And it was a short, sharp way Flynn had of pulling Dale close to him and making it clear that Dale had his full, undivided attention, and that was never lost on Dale either. The man understood a hell of a lot more than he often let you see he did.

They came downstairs together ten minutes later, Flynn with his shirtsleeves rolled above the elbow and his face impassive in a way that Paul recognised. Matter of factly normal, and not missing a move Dale made. Dale, following him in jeans and socks and bare chested, looked impassive too but there was something about straight and immaculately combed dark wet hair and the immaculate line of his jeans that drew Paul’s eye like a magnet. He wiped his hands clean of batter and put an arm around Dale to kiss him, aware there was no eye contact and no attempt at a smile either, and of the tension in the shoulders he hugged.

“Good morning, you two are up early. Hey mister, we say hello around here.”

“Hello.” Dale said briefly, more Paul thought because it saved argument. Flynn, who came to get plates down, indicated a seat at the table.

“Sit.”
 

If we’re down to one word orders, things aren’t going well.

“Anything you want, hon?” Paul said gently to Dale, wanting to save him any awkward questions when the others came downstairs about why people had taken to coming to breakfast half dressed. Flynn glanced up, giving him a clear look of no, do not make it too easy. Dale turned to face Paul and there was a weariness in the movement that implied it was an effort to have to participate in something so ridiculous.

“Would it be quite all right to have a shirt please?”

Paul took the waffle iron off the heat, dropped the tea towel on the counter, clicked his fingers sharply and pointed right in front of him.

“Come here.”

Dale always moved with an old fashioned kind of bearing that became almost military when he was in one of these moods. Paul put a hand behind his neck, speaking low enough to make Dale have to focus to hear him.


“Darling, you have got every reason to be feeling horrible this morning. Look at me.”



Dale met his eyes – actually met them – and Paul saw his eyes soften enough to show a very brief but visible flicker of extremely freaked out behind the reserve.

“Better.” Paul told him very softly. “Way better. Now try breathing. What do you want right now?”

Dale took a breath, almost imperceptibly. His voice was so soft Paul could barely hear it, but it was a much realer tone.

“To go for a run.”

To get out of sight. Self medicate. Sublimate the stress until it was bearable. Paul gave let him go. 

“Get your jacket and boots, and wait for me outside. Don’t look so horrified, you can put a jacket on without a shirt, I promise it won’t bring on the apocalypse.”

Dale’s eyes lit briefly but his mouth didn’t relax. He did however grab a jacket and took his boots out onto the porch, escaping swiftly and quietly. Paul stood the batter beside the waffle iron in clear sight for the next person who came downstairs wanting breakfast, and followed. Flynn hadn’t said a word but he already had a jacket on and handed another to Paul, and Paul pulled boots on and went out onto the porch with him, shutting the door behind them. Dale was at the foot of the porch steps, hands in his pockets and not really aware of the dogs around his knees. Flynn whistled to them and the dogs bounded out into the home pasture, and the three of them walked after them, out over the rough grass.

It was wet and cold at this hour of the morning, the air was very fresh and the sky had the thin grey colour of the sun not having been up for very long. Paul dug his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders to push his collar up to protect his neck from the cold wind. Dale was oblivious. Walking slightly ahead of them with a long, rapid stride that ate ground, his face was expressionless and Flynn reached for his hand, holding it strongly enough to pull his pace down to theirs and keep Dale beside him. Dale didn’t look round at him, but he didn’t pull away either. About five minutes walking took them into the middle of the pasture, well out of earshot of the house and within view of the river, and there Flynn stopped and turned Dale to face him.

“Ok. If you need to freak out, let’s do it. No one can see us out here, no one can hear us, get it out. Yell it.”

Dale’s face said so frankly how appalling he found that idea that Paul smiled. Flynn waited, making it very clear he was serious.

“Go ahead.”

Dale looked from him to Paul, obviously not seeing much attraction to yelling anything, or in having either of them out here looking at him like this.


 “... I have no idea-”  

“Option one,” Flynn interrupted, “You talk about this, you get rid of some of it and today goes better. Option two, I provide motivation to talk about this, and then you get rid of some of it, and either way, today goes better. Which do you want to go for?”

Dale gave him an expressive look that made Flynn give him one of his very brief, crackling smiles, arms folded across his chest.

“Yeah, I know. Which?”

“There...” Dale trailed off, wincing. Paul nudged Dale’s shoulder with his.

“Honey, say it. Mutter it. Sign it. I’m right here.”

Dale looked down and his voice was very soft. “....there are rather a lot of people around, which I know is not strictly accurate, they are not just ‘people’-”


Oh hello rabbit trail number one.

“Good.” Paul said firmly, interrupting, and yelled at the top of his lungs to the pasture and the sky above them, which echoed slightly in the misty, early morning air, “There are too many people in this house and I can’t manage all of them!”

There was a silence in the pasture following the yell while both Dale and Flynn looked at Paul in amazement, and then Dale said carefully to Flynn, straight faced.

“Oh my God, I want an exit visa.”

Paul laughed and Flynn, shook his head.

“Not a chance. Go on?”

Dale gave Paul a half apprehensive look mixed with a little real amusement that was very different from the poker face in the kitchen, and this one came easier.

“I made a total fool of myself in front of all of them yesterday morning by having yet another freak out-”

Paul bellowed that one even louder, with flailing, which added to the effect,

People saw me upset and out of control and now they know stuff, and that is fricking terrifying!”

That made him laugh, a real laugh if rather a shaky one, and Dale crouched down in the grass, resting his elbows on his knees. The tension was draining from his shoulders and Paul thought that without it he looked worn out. This was how he must have looked in New York with no one who knew how to help him. Time and time again in this kind of state he’d gone off alone, forcibly pulled himself around and worked out a new plan of action and somehow kept on going. And kept everyone else going too, just as he’d always done. Flynn put a hand under his chin, extremely gently, which said a lot more about what had been going on between the two of them this morning.

“Go on. And look at me.”

“Look, I’m British. I don’t have to do emoting, I’ve got a note.”

“Only if I write you one.” Flynn crouched down in front of him, close to him, and Dale ran his hands through his hair, looking directly up at Flynn’s face.  

“I don’t feel particularly together  and I don’t know what the hell to do with myself.” He steepled his hands in front of his lips, one tanned, one bandaged, and Paul could see his hands were trembling, although his voice was conversational. “I would like to go a long way off on my own and do something that takes up as much concentration as possible. And I know that’s about the least helpful thing I could do and that I only want to do it because it’s the familiar way, and I know it’s about separating which I’m also trying very hard not to do because let’s be honest, it’s no different to a bloody animal wanting somewhere dark to hide, but I’m really not sure what to do instead. A manual would be good. Diagrams.”

Flynn put a hand behind Dale’s head and pulled, and Dale knelt down in the wet grass, folding his arms around Flynn’s neck with a strength that roped out the muscles in his shoulders and forearms. Flynn hugged him just as bruisingly tightly, Paul saw the strength in his grip, hard enough for Dale to feel the deep pressure right down into his bones, and the expression in his face. Often hard, often grim when he understood the most, and Dale never misunderstood it any more than Paul did. Paul crouched down beside them, running a hand in gentle circles over Dale’s back. Dale was silent, but he was shaking slightly under Paul’s hand. They were hidden in the long grass out here, and the clouds were slowly starting to clear overhead as the sky moved from dawn grey to blue. Sheep were audible in the distance, and the wind rustled the grass softly around them.

“This is a sensible, proportionate reaction, we can handle it and it’s going to pass.” Flynn said quietly against Dale’s hair. “It is ok. Your brain is reorganising itself to integrate new information, as far as your body knows you re lived those events yesterday, let’s take it as read that you’re going to feel a mess for a few days. Trauma takes time to recover from, kid.” 

“It was not trauma,” Dale said sharply without moving, “It was years ago and nothing like that bad-”

“By definition, yes, it was trauma.” Flynn said unequivocally. “It takes time to process, and it takes energy.”


“This is worse than yesterday.”

There we go, that’s what’s really panicking you, isn’t it? You’ve done it; it should be fixed now. 

“I’m not sure it’s going to take orders from you about sticking to a schedule, hon.” Paul squeezed his shoulders and got up, keeping his voice matter of fact. “You need breakfast, you need a calm, quiet day and we’ll work through it. This is going to get easier.”


“There is a name for this balls up with emotional literacy or whatever it is. Isn’t there?” Dale let Flynn go and ran his hands over his face, looking straight at him. “Gerry told me last night that he had it too. He knew exactly what it’s like and how it feels, he recognised it. This isn’t just some random mess I stumbled into, this is some named, recognised thing.”

Flynn nodded, holding his gaze. “Yes. It’s often termed as ‘attachment’. Issues around attachment.”

Dale looked at him for a moment more, eye to eye, then nodded slowly.

“Go on.”

“It’s not a mental health or a chemical issue; you’re not nuts and you’re not sick.” Flynn gave that a moment to sink in before he went on. “It’s a kind of neurological conditioning from having a distorted template of how to do emotional attachments. There’s a continuum of difficulties running from mild to severe, and there are different forms it can take. Gerry told me he had some attachment problems years ago and recovered from them.”

“When he first came here to Philip. Yes. He called himself ‘unattached’.” Dale’s eyes had the assessing expression Paul associated with him processing and reviewing information, and scanning his mind for every relevant known fact and detail. “So it’s something that can be repaired.”

“If the person is willing to address it and work on it, yes.” Flynn was speaking very, very gently but in the same matter of fact tone, mirroring Dale’s. “It’s a long, slow process, but all this has come up because you’re already doing the work. You’ve been working on it since you first came here, I don’t think you have a severe version. It’s more issues around attachment than a disorder. You are attached to us.”

“In a vague and semi literate kind of way.” Dale said it lightly but there was a bitterness behind it that made Paul put his hands back on his shoulders.


“No, not at all, you’re deeply and extremely responsibly committed to us. You’ve told me you’re aware you don’t find it easy, Gerry’s put a name on it and I agree, this is exactly what you’ve been telling me. It is because of the pattern you first learned with your mom, that’s why those memories are bothering you, but you’ve got the information now to be able to look back and know, that was wrong, that isn’t how people love each other, and that was no way to treat a bright, fantastic and very loving child – you were honey, don’t cringe. I know you.”

“I will not blame it all on her. I’m responsible for whatever mess I’ve got myself in, I had nothing but good experiences from the time I left home and even before then it wasn’t that bad.” Dale said tiredly. 


“I’m not saying it was her fault, I’m saying it wasn’t a good situation. And you were taken care of by professionals, who were kind to you but you weren’t attached to them.” Paul crouched down to see his face. “Do you remember the first time you and I went shopping in Cheyenne? You froze up and you told me you were flashing back to being at school. You had no idea how to cope with doing a domestic thing like that with someone, the only experience you had was institutional. You know about these gaps, you tell me about them. This is exactly what we’re working on, isn’t it?”

“Sometimes more willingly than others.” Dale said, half to himself.

Another discreet rabbit trailhow often do I let those go by? Paul thought, and gentled his voice further, understanding the evasion.  

“Isn’t it?”

Dale glanced up at him, and this time he nodded, slightly, acknowledging it. “Yes.”

Paul helped him up as Dale ran his hands over his face again and pushed to his feet, and Flynn got up with him, putting a hand against his jaw to make Dale look at him, then giving him a rough, hard hug that Dale discreetly clung to.  

“We’ve got it covered. We can do the same with this as we did with the perfectionism. We’ll look at some assessments together, we can find information on it.”

“You usually say you’re not giving me third hand information.” Dale said against him. Flynn shook his head.


“Too right I won’t. You don’t need any detached, academic standpoints. I will help you find answers to any questions you have; it’s not the same thing. It’s the same reason we wouldn’t give you exit criteria when you first came here, kid. You need to think, and feel, and work this out first hand yourself to make a difference, you’re literally trying to change your brain.”

“I want to talk to Gerry again.” Dale walked slowly with them and Paul slipped his arm through Dale’s, aware that he and Flynn were still gripping hands on the other side.

“I think we all need to talk to Gerry together, if he’s willing to. But right now, you need breakfast, and you need a quiet day with me, at home, taking some time to recover. Yes, at home. That’s the part you need the practice with, that’s where the problem is and you need to be with me at the moment.”



And I can see you love it and you hate it when I say it straight out like that.

“If the horse shies at gates, you go through a lot of gates.” Dale grimaced. “Yes, I know, I know. I’m sorry. This is an appalling way to start a day,”

“We’re glad to yell in pastures with you any time of the day or night,” Paul said cheerfully enough to block both the apology and the shame behind it, which he recognised now. “and I’ll let you know any time I need you to come yell with me.”





When you can defuse him, he feels better. Paul thought it while he cooked waffles, watching Dale not exactly eating, but sitting with the others around the table, with his shoulders down and his face mobile, and responding to the conversation. Acting silly helps. If I can raise a smile or laugh or even a groan at me, we’re in a place where he unfreezes a bit and we can talk. Being cheerfully insistent and annoying the hell out of him unfreezes him. I don’t know why, but it helps, like it takes the fear out of the situation or connects him up with emotion again. He looks tired this morning, and fragile, and I swear he’s losing weight again, but I’ve seen him look a lot worse.

“Ash, could you and Gerry make a run into Jackson for me this morning?” he said aloud in a break in the conversation. “There’s shopping I need, and Dale and I are staying home and resting that hand.”

“We can.” Ash put plates down on the table. “By the way, Gerry and I contacted our hospital consultant this morning. Gerry’s scheduled his surgery for a week on Thursday.”



There was a murmur of relief around the table and Paul saw Dale glance up and catch Gerry’s eye with something between sympathy and a tired smile that held a lot of reassurance.

“I think that’s a very good decision.” Luath said gently to Gerry.


“Surgery?” Mason asked Gerry, who winced but nodded.

“Gall bladder. Laparoscopic or something, they’re promising me I won’t be in hospital long and it’s supposed to be a quick recovery time.”

“Yeah, colleague of mine had that done last year.” Mason swallowed a mouthful of waffle, glancing back to Gerry. “Said afterwards he wished he’d done it months earlier.”


Gerry gave him a brief smile and Paul, reflecting on the difference between the ‘screaming queen’ comment a couple of days ago and that smile, thought that the fishing expedition to the hot springs last night had made a difference. It was hard not to like Gerry when you got past the showmanship and spent some time with him. Paul paused with a plate of hot waffles in one hand to give Gerry a close hug with the other, aware he was looking brittle this morning.  

“I’m glad you’re going to get something done about it. Who’s back for lunch today?”

“Riley, I’m going to need you and Luath with me,” Flynn said bluntly. “We’re going to rotate the mile pastures when we’ve done the stock work, so the stretch of river below the crossing place needs digging out again and the fence line between the mile pastures needs straightening out and all the fence posts re seating-”

“Flynn! They don’t, they’re fine and that’s going to take forever!” Riley protested. “I’ve got a stack of other stuff that needs doing and that’s a waste of days-”

Flynn shook his head, unmoved. “I’d like them done before we’ve got too many loose. So we’ll be gone all day.”



“We’ll be gone the rest of the bloody week.” Riley said darkly, glaring at him.

“Mason and I will deal with the yard work and then we’ll go up and do the cattle work,” Jasper added calmly, “So probably not us either.”

“We’ll come up and help with the fence as soon as we’re back.” Ash said to Flynn, who nodded.


“Thanks.”



“How is your hand?” Mason asked Dale. Dale turned it up to look at the bandage as if he hadn’t really noticed or thought about it this morning.

“Fine, it wasn’t a bad cut.”

“Speaking of which, there’s Emmett.” Paul said, glancing up through the kitchen window. “Good, he made it in time for breakfast, I’m sure that man doesn’t eat unless one of the households around here sits him down and feeds him. Riley, set another place?”


Emmett was as much friend and neighbour of this household as a doctor, and he and Ash greeted each other with a warmth that Dale knew sprung from years of fishing together, Ash being one of the keenest fishermen in the family. Mason initially looked anxious, having last seen Emmett in the throes of severe withdrawal, within a few minutes of listening to the casual and very un-medical chatter, relaxed and joined in. Paul, who had known Emmett for years, knew he carried out a good deal of his work by chatting like this with his patients, knowing them and their lives well and spending time watching them in context. Emmett’s eye lingered several times on Luath as he talked with Mason about the fishing up by the springs, and Paul saw Dale watch him do it, grey eyes astute, and then glance over to catch Flynn’s eye and raise an eyebrow imperceptibly. Flynn gave him a slight nod in return.

As they finished eating, Ash and Gerry took the keys out to take one of the four by fours, and Riley went out to start his chores, and Luath put his plate aside, clearing his throat.

“Actually Emmett, if you’ve got a minute I’d like to have a word with you.”

“Sure.” Emmett handed his empty plate over to Paul and got up. “Want to use the study?”


“Thanks.”

“SSRIs.” Flynn said quietly to Luath, who gave him a nod that held appreciation in it.

“Got it.”



“We’re headed out too.” Jasper said, getting up. “Mason, go ahead and get Moo and Gucci tacked up, I’ll be there in a minute.”

It was the first time he’d sent Mason to do the job alone and unsupervised, Paul saw Mason glance up, surprised, but he took down a jacket and headed out onto the porch without complaint. Jasper put his own and Mason’s plates in the sink and paused behind Dale, resting both hands on his shoulders so Dale glanced up at him from the waffle he was pushing around his plate in a way that looked remarkably like eating it. 


“Try eating that rather than stirring it. You have an easy day. I’ll see you later.”

Dale didn’t answer, but Jasper stooped and kissed him, leaning there with him a little longer than perhaps he ordinarily would, and Dale said nothing but he didn’t move either, dark head against dark head. Paul didn’t look, put a moment later Jasper stooped to kiss him too as he passed by, headed outside to join Mason. Flynn went on drinking juice, giving Dale a look that made Dale automatically straighten up and take a firmer grip on his fork.

“You’ve got exactly two minutes.”

Dale winced and laid the fork down.

“I’m really not hungry.”

Flynn said nothing at all other than glancing at his watch, and Dale shook his head, picking up the fork again.


“Ok, ok. Do you want any of the yard work done?”

“Not by you today.” Flynn poured himself another glass of juice, watching pointedly as Dale got waffle from plate to mouth until it was gone.

“I’m here with nothing better to do.”

Paul put the stack of dishes he was carrying down by the sink and gave him a pointedly surprised look.


“Pardon? We went through this less than half an hour ago.”

And the pushing is for a reason. It’s always for a reason, you’re a logical thinker, so never mind the words, what’s the intention?

“Which bit do you want to argue?” Flynn said matter of factly, sitting back in his chair. “Needing to look as if you’re not staying here with Paul willingly, because that’s admitting all kinds of things you’re not comfortable with, particularly while you’re watching the rest of us headed out? Or my use of the word ‘trauma’, which is a term you don’t like for much the same reason? Where shall we start?”

Straight for the jugular. Paul saw Dale look at Flynn with an intensity of expression that you rarely saw from Dale, a flash of something completely unguarded that came from deep down, and it was fury. Real fury. Flynn had seen it and there was something in the way he looked back that reminded Paul abruptly of times he’d seen Flynn look at Philip like that, and the way Philip had always looked back at him. Calm, unmoving, often unspeaking, and with an equally intense kindness in his eyes.  

It was only a few seconds, that was all. Riley would have swept the plate off the table or stalked out, needing something explosive to express that fury. Dale’s fingers were tense on the tabletop as his hand lay palm down, but that was all. He looked steadily back at Flynn, and his voice was controlled. Flynn had always made this kind of discussion black or white with him: if he evaded, refused to answer or pushed back, Flynn would calmly get up, take him somewhere more private,


And change his mood. Effectively. He takes the fear away, that’s what works. This is always about him feeling threatened. Fight or flight.

“I don’t agree,” Dale said, levelly, “That ‘trauma’ is an appropriate or truthful term for this.”

Flynn nodded, compassionately. “I’m sure you don’t. Ok. The prep school you attended is still running, isn’t it? Would you like to phone them, or I’ll do it on your behalf if you’d like, and ask them for copies of written progress reports for your first year there? If they’re describing a happy, settled child then maybe we need to look at other terminology.”


Dale didn’t move, still looking straight at him.

“Will they keep information this long?” Paul said to Flynn in the silence, taken aback even if Dale wasn’t. It was full frontal; a straight response to Dale’s challenge, and Flynn gave him a brief nod.

“There are strict rules on preserving formal records. Plus, I’d think it very likely that Dale’s one of their more well known alumni and they’ll have kept record of his time there very carefully. Dale, what do you think?”

Dale got up and held out a hand to Paul, who handed him the phone from his pocket. He always made this kind of call so swiftly, with the practical speed of someone used to reaching for whatever data he wanted, with the expectation of receiving it immediately. It was in his tone, always courteous but a very different tone to the one they were used to at home.

“Good afternoon, I would like information on a number in Berkshire, England please.”

Flynn got up and continued to help Paul clear the table and clean up, not watching or listening while Dale slowly paced the kitchen, speaking to a number of people and going through identification checks, until he finally shut the phone down, turning to face Flynn. He was slightly pale, his voice was expressionless but Paul thought there was still something deeply angry in his eyes. 

                                                                                                                  
“May I use the fax please?”

Flynn nodded him towards the stairs. “Go ahead.”

They heard him go upstairs and Paul picked up another glass to dry, giving Flynn a rather wary look. They were both listening, as if they could hear what was going on in the office, and part of Paul desperately wanted to go with Dale and wait with him, but there was no question that Dale would bring the papers back down to them, no matter what they said.

It was more than ten minutes before they heard him come downstairs, slower than he’d gone up, and he had a small sheaf of papers in his hand. Flynn took a seat at the table and drew one out beside him for Dale, who lay the sheets down on the table where Flynn and Paul could see, sorting them into groups with a few brief, deft movements. Two end of term reports. Two letters, addressed from a Mr Johnston, House Master, to a Mr and Mrs Gordon. Paul, scanning the black and white fax printed addresses beneath the ornate school name and crest realised that Gordon must be the name of Dale’s stepfather.  He leaned on the table, scanning the nearer of the two letters with growing distress as he moved down through the paragraphs, and looked back to Dale, horribly aware that to him this must feel like defeat, and of the courage it must be taking him to stand here and face them. It was at times like this, he wished sometimes that Dale would yell, or refuse, or slam doors, or do anything but be so brutally, quietly logical.

“Do you remember this Mr Johnston?” Flynn said when he finished reading.


Dale gave him a curt nod, and Flynn turned the papers back towards him, indicating the paragraphs.

“He was concerned enough to write to your mother and step father, on two separate occasions, to say that staff found you well behaved but withdrawn. Overly serious, subdued. Difficult to draw into conversation or any kind of play, and only when directly requested to by an adult. Academically very successful but often appearing to be day dreaming. Often doesn’t eat much at mealtimes. This is discussing a seven year old little boy. Does that sound to you like a happy or well settled child?”

There was no mention of Mr and Mrs Gordon’s replies. Paul scanned through the second letter again, which was dated a month after the first one. The terms between the adults, reading the tone of the letter as much as the words, appeared to be discussion about a ‘quiet’ child. It was still easy to think of Dale as quiet and reserved and to look no further, especially if he didn’t want you to.

Flynn’s voice was gentle. “Withdrawal and daydreaming are classic red flags in children. It often isn’t daydreaming, it’s shutting down because they can’t process what’s going on. Or that they’re using coping strategies like intense visualisation or imagination to escape. Like you did with the prince.”

Dale had no idea what to do with that information. Paul watched him steeple his hands in front of him, fingers interlinked, and rest his lips against them, face unreadable. Flynn said nothing, not putting pressure on him to respond or ostensibly saying anything else. Giving Dale space to take it in; Paul picked up his cue and did the same, neither looking or not looking, just being there. Then Dale bowed his head slightly against his hands, and Paul realised he was holding his breath and his shoulders were tight with the effort of containing himself. Discreetly, so subtly that if you weren’t watching and aching for him you’d miss it. Flynn hooked an arm around his waist and lifted him, physically, from his chair into his lap, and Paul watched him wrestle down Dale’s immediate pull away, holding on to him for the few seconds it took for Dale to go from rejection to twisting around to grip him, hard, arms around his neck and his face hidden. Flynn held him just as tight. He said nothing at all, but he rocked slightly, back and forth while Dale gripped him.

It was as painful to watch as it had been almost an hour ago now, out in the pasture, and it said a lot to Paul about Dale’s state of mind. Swinging between anger and distress and confusion, and between the sharp, rational and incisive mind they were used to, and the shattered little boy they’d caught a glimpse of yesterday in the attic. Paul sat with them, watching them, not wanting to move away or to disturb them, reflecting on knowledge he’d had for years when they’d supported another burned out or depressed exec, no few of whom had PTSD, and not finding much help there.

Recovery is about re experiencing those emotions in the context of support and safety. This isn’t just one incident to remember, this is the whole context he lived in, and he’s not just a client, he’s ours. This is completely different.

If someone gave me that shattered child right now, what would I do? How would I deal with him today? Can we connect to that, because he can’t, he’s got no experience to relate to at all, but he might be able to if we could show him how.

 The study door opened and Dale got up at once. Flynn let him go and gathered the letters together, moving them out of sight. Emmett was alone, and he put his battered, black bag down on the table.

“Dale, want to let me take a look at that hand?”

It was awful timing, but Dale mutely leaned against the table with his face expressionless and let Emmett unwrap the bandage. He was thankfully quick; other than to comment on the neat job Paul had done with the steri strips, Emmett replaced the bandage and let him go, nodding at Flynn.


“I gave Luath a prescription for Zoloft and said to let me know if he’s bothered by any side effects, you’re used to watching the first few days and what to expect. Unless I hear from you sooner I’ll drop in on Monday and see how he’s doing. Thanks for breakfast, Paul.”

“Any time.” Paul straightened up to walk with him to the kitchen door. “Thanks Emmett, always nice to see you.”

Flynn leaned across the table when Emmett was out of earshot, taking Dale’s un-bandaged hand and tugging it until Dale looked at him.

“I’m going to get Luath to go up with Riley-”


“You don’t need to stay.” Dale held onto his hand but he interrupted quietly, sounding more tired than anything else. “I’m ok here with Paul, I won’t drive him mad.”

“You never do.” Paul said firmly. Flynn got up and turned Dale’s face towards him, looking at him, and Dale held his eyes and reached up to give him a brief kiss.

“I know, I’d say I was fine anyway, but I mean it. I’ll be all right. Go ahead.”



*



He was quiet the rest of the morning, and it was a numb kind of quiet. Still thinking, Paul kept him gently occupied in things that took no thought but meant them working together; stripping and changing all the beds, moving the furniture in the family room to vacuum, and baking. Several times Paul saw him sitting with his hands still, half way through a task, looking into nothing with his face sombre. The first couple of times Paul chattered gently about nothing in particular until his face regained animation. The third time he put a hand out to cover Dale’s, and Dale jumped, glancing up at him.  

“Sorry.”



“Honey, you’ve got nothing to be sorry for.”

“I don’t know what to do.” Dale put the spoon down in a half mixed batter and sat back. “I’m not good at this, Paul, I don’t know what to do with myself. I can’t concentrate, I’m all over the bloody place,”

“And you’re cold.” Paul felt for his other hand which was just as chilled. “There’s a stack of sweaters on the dryer, go and get one.”

“It isn’t cold in here.” Dale got up, and Paul watched him find one of Flynn’s sweaters, large enough to pull on over the top of the one he was already wearing.


“A lot of people say grief feels cold. You don’t need to worry about what to do with yourself,  this is our problem, not yours. We’ll decide how we handle it.”

Dale paused on his way past and hugged him, wrapping his arms around Paul’s neck from behind. Paul turned around to return the hug and Dale leaned against him, letting his head sink forward against Paul’s shoulder for a moment. His voice was soft to the point Paul had to concentrate to hear it.  

“You want to know something? I’m terrified someone’s going to call and make me go out to New York or Tokyo or somewhere full of suits and blackberries. It’s a ridiculous thought, I know it is, but it’s been driving me mad since the moment I woke up.”

“What do you think it means?” Paul said matter of factly. Dale didn’t answer for a moment, and Paul instinctively slid his hand underneath Dale’s sweaters and his shirt to find his back, running his palm over bare and slightly chilled skin.


Which helps. I don’t know why, but it helps.

“That at any minute I may have to pull myself together and be functional. And if I do, it’s going to be much easier if I haven’t let any of this out of the box.”

“ Translation, you don’t feel safe to let go.” Paul tapped his back. “You decided to quit A.N.Z. for exactly this reason, didn’t you? So you could let go. You’re free lance. You pick up the phone only when you have permission. Are you seriously expecting to get my permission today?”


Dale made a faint sound that might have been a snort of laughter.

“Rationally? Er, no.”

“I’m glad. You’re only ever going to get my permission anyway when I’m convinced you’re taking the call because you want to. Dale, I promise you, any necessary coping around here will be done by us, and we can do it, you are not going to have to deal with this alone. Looking after you is within our capabilities. I know it’s going to take time and a lot of experience before you really believe it enough to just rely on it without thinking like Riley can, but you need to try to remind yourself that you trust us.”


 “I do.” Dale said apologetically. “I really do. And if I’m honest, I’ve got to ask myself, however much I’m dreading it, how much am I also hoping A.N.Z. call because that gives me a way out?”

“I know.” Paul drew back and smoothed a hand over his forehead, brushing his hair back out of his eyes. “I know, I can understand, this is horrible, horrible stuff.”

“I am not good at this.”

His eyes were wry and honestly on Paul’s, and Paul went on smoothing his hair back, stroking his face, looking for the right words and anything that might offer some comfort and some focus to him. And aware too that Dale was lost because this wasn’t something all the capable and competent and academic parts of him could get hold of or act on, and it wasn’t that part of him that needed explanations or comfort.

“What you told us yesterday was scary.” He said after a moment, gently. “The conversation you had with Flynn this morning was scary. Really, profoundly scary, it must feel like you’ve ripped the lid right off Pandora’s box. And now you've got the choice to take another step towards us which is even scarier, or to shut down and take two steps backwards to where you know you feel safer.  I know your brain is screaming at you to pull back, and if you need to, it’s ok, you’ll move forward again when you’re ready. But you are an incredibly strong and courageous guy, and I know when you’re thinking clearly you want this. It’s still a new idea to you that thinking and talking about this kind of stuff is something brave and something strong to do instead of a sign of weakness, but you can keep taking steps forward if that's what you choose to do. It’s the harder choice, but you do have a choice.”

He saw that go home. There was a particular way Dale looked at you when you gave him information that connected up, you could see the cogs turning, and that gained him a long, steady look from grey eyes that for a moment seemed to be trying to look right through him. Paul went on stroking, letting him look, understanding what he was trying to do and deeply sympathetic.

I don’t have all the answers honey. I can’t give you the formula we apply here, you can’t download it, there’s no other way but working this out for ourselves. 

“I don’t know what to do,” Dale said after a moment, and he sounded faintly bewildered. “I have no idea what making that choice actually looks like.”

“It’s taking the next calculated risk.” Paul said gently. “Talk to us about what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling, and we’ll find a way to get it into words. If you let it go it’s going to be hard, but I think you’re going to feel better. We can find information about attachment and trauma and think about it with an open mind and see if we find anything useful. I think just staying present, and staying with me, and feeling this are probably one of the biggest steps forward you can take right now.”


“I feel like I’m on the edge of losing it.” Dale muttered, not looking at him, but he hadn’t moved away.

“What’s the very worst that can happen today?” Paul went on stroking, watching his face. “Really? What’s the worst possible outcome?”

“That it gets too much, I lose it and do something stupid. Bolt.”



It was typical that his worst envisioned scenario involved him failing.

“You’ve bolted in the past because you’ve hit panic.” Paul said mildly. “I think that’s probably is the worst that can happen, that you have the kind of panic attack you had yesterday, but you stayed with us and didn’t bolt. It’s going to feel horrible if it happens, but I’m right here, and if it happens we’ll get through it. I’ve seen you do it before, it isn’t slasher movie stuff. I promise your head doesn’t spin round.”

That raised a very faint smile. “If I’d ever seen a slasher movie I’d have some frame of reference.”

“I saw a few as a teenager, I promise you it isn’t even close.” Paul pulled his head down to kiss his forehead. “It’s all right. This is all right. Go get your journal and bring it in here.”


It lived on the shelf in the study, he heard Dale walk through the family room and he came back a moment later with the journal in his hand, a pen attached neatly to the book’s spine, and pulled out one of the wood chairs from the table to sit down. Paul glanced up at him, going on working the dough on the table opposite him.

“Write yourself a list of reasons why you trust us. You don’t have to show it to me; just make it real enough and strong enough for yourself that you’ve got something to go back to and remember when it’s difficult.”

“It shouldn’t be difficult, I’ve never had a reason not to feel safe here.” Dale said with what sounded like a trace of frustration as he opened the book. “Coming here was the first real...”

He trailed off, and Paul went on kneading dough, watching him. 

“Yes. But why do we know it still is still going to be difficult?”


Dale paused for a moment at the page with the poem, his eyes on it, then he turned to a fresh page, the pen tapping on the paper, and Paul waited a moment more before he said calmly,

“Because you’re not just thinking and feeling about now. The part of you that does trusting people and intimacy is being piloted by a scared and alone little kid who’s had some horrible experiences and doesn’t understand the war’s over.”

Dale grimaced, physically cringing away from the thought.  “That’s not just wet, it’s revolting too.”

Yes, way too direct, that just spooks you.

Paul shook more flour over the dough, keeping his voice calm.

“Write anyway.”







They ate lunch alone together, soft boiled eggs that Paul put on the table with bread still warm from the oven, and he followed Dale’s example of cutting the bread into strips thin enough to dip in the egg, something Dale did on autopilot as if he’d done it many times before, somewhere, at some other time in his life where people had put boiled eggs down in front of him. It was bland, easy to eat and easily digestible and comfort food; instinctively Paul had been choosing those kind of foods for days and now he found himself doing it with more purpose, thinking consciously, what could I get a stressed, unhappy kid to want to eat? It was a very different perspective, particularly when you were looking at the full six foot of the very reserved and worryingly adult man you loved who was sitting right across from you and found it hard enough to do intimacy on properly mature and adult terms.

They washed up together, something else that involved having to touch and interact as dishes were passed hand to hand, and this was the kind of thing Dale was good at and tended automatically to gravitate towards helping him with on a normal day. It wasn’t just the calmness of creating order; there was comfort in caring for a home and stability in these most simple, rooting tasks that took care of what they ate, where they slept: it was a soul-deep organising and orienting thing that Jasper believed in strongly, and it was something still new to Dale, that Paul thought he more consciously valued than the others did.

We do need this time here together, this isn’t just time out to rest. There are things we need to be doing here, you need those roots and they need to be good, strong ones. This is your home, not just somewhere you live, I’m not sure you’ve ever learned the real difference.  

When the kitchen was straight again, Paul took him into the family room and lit the fire there, and Dale didn’t argue about stretching out on the couch under a blanket. He was exhausted, you could feel the bone weariness in him, the energy it took to deal with whatever was going around inside his convoluted head. Paul sat with him, pulling a cushion into his lap for Dale to rest his head on, and he read while he found his way under Dale’s sweaters again to rub his back, skin to skin, the way he had been doing on instinct for some days. The connection, the intensity of touch; initially Dale had frozen when he did it. Now he accepted it, it was becoming habit for both of them, and Paul went on rubbing slow circles over smooth skin even long after he knew Dale was asleep.




The fence, as Riley had predicted, took all bloody day. Mason, Jasper, Gerry and Ash joined the group in the early afternoon, and Gerry moaned expressively at the sight of fence posts out of their holes and laid down on the grass and the neat line of re dug, re seated posts that stretched away down the hill.

“Oh God. Seriously? We’re doing ALL of them?”

“He’s developed a thing about fence posts being unstable.” Riley gave Flynn’s back a glare from under the brim of his Stetson. “There’s no arguing with him, I shouldn’t bother. Today he’s digging out post holes. Properly. Dale’s having a bad effect on him.”

“If they’re not seated right, as soon as the cattle start leaning up on them or scratching on them we’ll have wire down. Most of them do move when you push on them and some of these posts are years old and need checking for rot.” Luath, gloves on, carried on digging out another hole, never co operative to anyone growling about anyone else. He was handling the spade with steady competency, his shirt sweat stained between his broad shoulders. “Ri, come on, I need that post.”

“There are so many other things I could be doing right now that need doing.” Riley said savagely, hauling the heavy post upright to drop down into the hole.


Jasper, going to help Flynn with digging out a post that had splintered and broken when it was rocked free, nodded Mason over at Riley.

“Go help Riley, he’ll show you what to do.”

“It’s not difficult.” Riley said, glancing up to nod hello as Mason came to join him, looking at the next fence post he was digging out. “It’s just bloody hard work and a waste of fricking time.”

“Enough.” Flynn said without looking round. His tone was not encouraging.


Riley grimaced at Mason and nodded him at the post.

“Get hold of it and try rocking it while I dig – work it back and forwards, you’ll have to put your weight on it.”

Mason stepped forward, cautiously putting his hands on the post. “Don't you have machines, or contractors to do this?”


“Nope, just hands.” Riley stooped to dig, standing and jumping on the spade shoulder to add his weight to push the blade deep into the turf. He’d long since taken his jacket off, the sun was high above them and while the wind was fresh, it was a bright day. Newly green grass spread out in all directions around them and the aspens in the distance were showing bright new leaves.

“You’ve got miles of fences, you do all this by hand?” Mason pulled at the post rather inexpertly, then got the knack of getting his weight behind it. “We’re doing the whole fence line here?”

“Apparently.” Riley hit a rock and for a moment had to dig around it, stifling the urge to curse.

“Isn’t your time too valuable for this kind of stuff?” Mason went on working the post, gradually freeing it as Riley loosened the earth at the base. “You’ve all got skills you could be using on more important work, and you could hire people to do the menial stuff. Contractors, probably with the machinery to get this done faster.”

“How are you going to get machinery or trucks out here?” Riley paused to scoop dirt out of the hole. “There’s a lot of places on the ranch you can only get to on horseback.”

He put the spade down and added his weight to Mason’s, and with some hard work they managed to get enough back and forth movement in the post to lift out. Riley handed the spade to Mason and leaned with his hands on his knees to get his breath.

“Besides. Our ranch, we do the work. It’s the basic stuff that most needs doing properly, and I don’t want to have to think I did a lousy job every time I pass this fence line. Ok. Dig the hole clear, we’ll make it a little deeper.”

Mason dug, clumsily without spreading his weight to balance himself, with the inexpert manner of a man more used to computers and pens than tools. Riley knelt on the grass to help scoop the dirt back, watching him chisel away at the sides and the base of the hole.

“Deeper. Some of the problem with this line’s always been they weren’t seated deep enough.”

“I thought you said they didn’t need fixing?” Mason paused, out of breath and sweating heavily, and Riley gave him a brief grin.


“I said they weren’t falling over yet. I didn’t say they were right. Bit more.”

Mason dug a moment more, and Riley straightened up and hauled the post over, waiting for Mason’s help to drop it into the hole. 

“Hold that steady and I’ll fill in. Make sure it’s upright.”

It took several minutes of hard work to fill in and stamp down the earth until they had a rigid, upright fence post once more in a newly dug patch of earth. Mason stepped back and ran his forearm over his forehead, looking at it with a visible sense of achievement.


“Cool.”

“Yeah. Next one.” Riley took the spade with him, glancing at the grazing horses who were some feet away on the pasture, and Mason followed him past Luath, Jasper and Flynn who in between them were efficiently working two posts at a time, to look with some concern at the line of posts that stretched away into the distance.


“How far are we going?”

“Don’t know.” Riley leaned his full weight against the post which shifted slightly in the earth. “I’ll rock, you dig.”



It took maybe ten minutes before Jasper, working with Flynn on the next post, heard Riley’s voice, uncritical but factual.

“Hey, you have actually got to do some digging, I can’t rock it free without anything being moved.”

“This is a waste of time, there’s no point in doing it.” Mason sounded a good deal more irritable, “And I am digging. You want to dig, be my guest.”

“Fine, if you think that’s the harder job.” Riley took the spade and a moment later Mason sat heavily down on the turf, out of breath.


“I need a break.”

“Ok.” Riley dug the spade in the ground and sat down too. Flynn, stomping earth down around the base of the post they were finishing, caught Jasper’s eye and neither of them said anything as they moved on to the next post.


“Ready to carry on?” Riley asked a few minutes later. Mason growled, but got to his feet.

“How long are we going to be stuck doing this crap-ass job?”

“Until it’s done.” Riley picked up the spade. “You dig, I’ll rock.”

“You’re fitter than me.”

“Fine, I’ll dig. Again.” Riley said shortly. There was a silence for a few minutes, then Riley’s hiss of exasperation as Mason walked a few feet away and sat down again.


“Look, this takes two people.”

“I need a break.”

“Yeah, and I need some help.”

“Will you give me a minute?”


Riley dug the spade into the earth and stalked across to Snickers, taking the water bottle from his saddle bag. Ahead of them, Flynn, Jasper and Luath moved on to the next two posts. Flynn looked over and caught Riley’s eye, raising his eyebrow in a private communication Riley recognised, and he nodded slightly in return.

Yes, it’s ok. I may whap him over the head with the spade, but I’m fine.

Gerry, coming to get his own water bottle from Nekkid’s saddle, rolled his eyes at Riley, standing with his back to the others as he unscrewed the bottle top to be able to talk out of their earshot.

“Why are we screwing with the fences anyway? They’re not that bad and this is a huge job.”

“This is Flynn circling the wagons.” Riley cast an exasperated but comprehending look at Flynn’s back as Flynn stooped to seat another post. “This is called  ‘a great way to keep Riley right under my eye all day and work him too hard to be difficult about it’, there doesn’t have to be anything wrong with the damn fencesHe’s worried about Dale, and the man’s three quarters horse.”


Gerry raised a pointed eyebrow at him and Riley grinned.

“Think of Bandit with the mares when he thinks there’s a wolf or a coyote hanging around? I’ve seen him snap and kick hell out of a mare that wanders off from the group and he’ll bunch and move them every so often for no reason, just to keep their attention when he’s on alert. He wants them all under his eye, all the time. That’s how Flynn gets. And Jas won’t say anything, he just goes along with him and looks at me if I don’t.”

“There are times I’m glad Ash is less of the Alpha Romeo type.” Gerry said dryly. “You’re quite welcome to the macho ones.”


Riley snorted, gulping back water. “What was Jackson like? Busy?”

“Not so bad. We strolled around and did the tourist thing. Looked at the elk reservation, which had no elk but a coyote was standing in for them. Walked a little way up one of the trails. Held hands a lot.” He gave Riley a brief look under his eyelashes that made Riley laugh, and smiled. “It was nice.”

On top of what must have been a very difficult phone call to make this morning, and a lot of emotions around it, Riley knew what he meant. He and Ash had needed the time alone.

“You two, daylight’s burning.” Luath said, shifting another post into place. Gerry rolled his eyes at Riley and put the water bottle back in his saddle bag.

“Slave driver. Darling, my nails. You would not believe the state of my nails, and I’ve only been here-”


“You can have a manicure when you go back to Seattle.” Luath said without sympathy. “Move your butt, Ger, and give Ash a hand before he slips a disc. You know exactly what you’re doing, you’re only pretending you don’t.”

“I happen to know that Ash is extremely flexible, thank you.” Gerry retorted, shaking his butt quite intentionally at Luath, who didn’t bother to look up. “I check on it regularly.”


Bracing himself, Riley went back to where Mason was sitting on the grass, watching Gerry with a slightly odd expression that said he didn’t know whether to be amused or repulsed. It got harder to be threatened when you liked the guy who was camping it up in front of you.



*



“So we ended up miles behind the others, and he pissed and moaned the whole time when he wasn’t sitting on his butt saying it was a waste of his time and telling us better ways of doing it. I nearly clocked him.”  Riley shifted to get comfortable, taking another sip of the juice he’d brought with him from the dinner table. “At least when we got back here, Jasper told him he’d wasted a lot of my time and he needed to make it up by doing my chores so it was him working late and not me. Now he’s pissing and moaning about that.”

“Is this usual for a client?” Dale asked. Riley grunted. He looked fed up this evening and he had done all through dinner. He was curled up in the opposite corner of the window seat with his legs slung over Dale’s lap.

“Yeah, for some. Mason’s just on the whiny side and it grates on me. He needs to figure out that if he doesn’t get on and pull his weight with something it wastes everyone’s time and his crabby mood makes the whole day suck.”

It was said in a tone that made Dale smile a little, rubbing the long, jeaned legs under his hands. “That’s pretty expressive.” 

“I feel expressive.” Riley said shortly. “I get madder when someone’s screwing around and I say it straight out more than Flynn or Jas do, and sometimes that’s useful with a client like Mason when you’re trying to penetrate through his thick head that he’s being an ass, but he was hard work today.” Riley gave him a penetrating look over his glass. “You still look awful.”


“Thanks a bunch.” Dale said philosophically. Riley gave him a twisted grin and nudged him with one knee.

“Hey, you’re still here. The bookshelves aren’t trashed. How attached are you feeling?”

Dale grabbed up a cushion and whacked him with it, and Riley grabbed up another to fend him off one handed, ducking under Dale’s all too accurate blows while they grappled and the juice rocked dangerously in the glass. They were alone in the family room; Jasper and Paul were washing up in the kitchen; Mason had unwillingly gone back out to work on Riley’s chores, Gerry and Ash had gone to take a bath, both stiff from the fence work, and Luath had taken a book out on to the porch. Flynn came downstairs with a sheaf of papers in his hand, and Riley straightened up, tucking the cushion behind his back as if they hadn’t been cheerfully locked in combat on the window seat.  

“Hey.”

“Hey.” Flynn tapped the papers against his knee and Dale met his eye, knowing what they were. Flynn had come straight into the house to find him when the fence repair party came home this afternoon, his arms and his jeans mud stained, his boots marking the kitchen floor although Paul didn’t complain, and his quiet, fierce hug had lifted Dale off his feet. He smelled wonderfully of Flynn; of grass, and clean sweat, and warm cotton, horses and saddle leather, his chest was hard and his arms were warm, and while his conversation with Dale and with Paul had been mundane and about fences, he hadn’t let go of Dale while he had it. Dale had stopped him going back outside to rub Leo down, holding onto his arm until Flynn turned back to him, grasping his hand and interlacing his fingers with Dale’s slighter ones.  

“Want to come help?”

“You said something about assessments this morning.” Dale held on to him, watching Flynn’s familiar eyes sharpen and search his face, dark green, penetrating and missing nothing, then Flynn passed his Stetson to Dale.

“Ok,  I’ll sort them out. You deal with Leo.”

The hour of grooming Leo alongside the others, the physical work in the sun and the always tactile work of handling and interacting with any of the horses, had been a good one before dinner.

Flynn nodded at him now, indicating the kitchen. 

“Dale, go ask Jas and Paul to come join us? Ri, come here a minute.”


Riley got up, stretching a stiff back as he crossed the stone floor and straightening hair dishevelled from the cushion fight.

“What’s the papers?”

“The assessments we wanted to take a look at.” Out of sight and earshot of anyone else as this was private to the five of them, Flynn gave Riley a straight look. “Do you feel up to joining in with this tonight, halfpint?”

Riley growled and hooked his free arm around Flynn’s neck to give him a rough, tight hug.

“Yeah, I’m ok. Knackered from the pointless messing about with fence posts, but I’m fine. Chill.”

“You had a hard day, you don’t have to.” Flynn said definitely. He didn’t mean the fence.  Riley dropped a kiss on his cheek and let him go to drop in a corner of the couch, slouching with one knee hooked over the arm and draining the rest of the juice.


“You’re a grumpy sod but you’re quite sweet really. Nothing to do with ‘feeling like it’, I’m involved here. I’m fine, I just want about five minutes on a punch bag, Mason got on my last nerve today. It’s not up front stuff, it’s whittling, on and on. It’s like hanging around with some whiney kid. And yeah I know I could have handed him off to you or Jas any time, I didn’t need to, he’s my job too, but sheesh. How does a guy get to that level in business being that shy of hard work?”

 “Work’s another planet.” Dale said succinctly, coming to sit on the other end of the couch with one knee up under his chin and the other leg under him, folded up in the way only Dale folded up. He looked watchful but calm, and from his tone Riley surmised that he’d known other Masons. “He’ll have delegated, he’ll be used to being the decision maker, everything being high challenge and on his terms of what, how and his priorities. He’s not used to ‘boring’. Or ‘hard’. Or ‘repetitive’. Or having to do much under other people’s eyes when they’re doing the same thing he is but doing it better.”

“Or handling himself or the situation well when something’s pissing him off.” Riley said succinctly, glancing up as Jasper came into the study. “I’m not surprised there were employment tribunals, I’m just surprised someone didn’t stuff him head first into a shredder. Is he going to be ok out there on his own?”

“Luath’s got an eye on him, he’s fine.”

Jasper came to perch on the arm of the couch on Riley’s side, and Paul closed the study door and took the space on the couch between Riley and Dale.

“I’ve got a couple of the better known attachment assessments, I talked with a colleague who recommended them and faxed them across.” Flynn leaned one palm on the polished desk top, sorting through the papers for Dale to see.  “They’re less aimed at making a diagnosis than working out the pattern of difficulty, it’s not a ‘score above this cut off point and there’s the label’ kind of thing. They’re also designed to be done by discussion with a family as a whole; attachment happens within the context of close relationships. We can talk about the content, Dale you can look through them and take some time to decide how you want to do this-”

“Or we can just go through them right now.” Dale interrupted matter of factly. 



Flynn gave him a nod in return, pulling the chair out at the desk to sit down. “Yes, that too.”

He was watching Dale closely, for any sign that there were too many of them watching. Months back when he and Dale had completed the assessments for perfectionism it had been something he had guided Dale through in privacy as he would for any client, making it very clear that it was information belonging to him and for the purpose of informing him. This was different, this affected all of them, but it was a very hard thing to ask Dale to do, to sit here like this and to openly discuss such sensitive things, and if Dale didn’t want it or couldn’t handle it, Flynn was ready to immediately change direction or slow down. But Dale was leaning back on the couch, his shoulder near Paul’s, his face subdued but not frozen, and he nodded with definite purpose that reminded Flynn sometimes that Dale was harder in some ways than any of them realised.

“It’s ok, Flynn. Go ahead.”

“Do you want to score this yourself?”


“That gives me control over what I read out and what I score,” Dale hugged his knee, voice soft but definite. “Which is a lot of the problem, and I’m not sure it’s a good idea. It’s a kind offer, but no, it’s ok. You do it.”

“We’re not forcing you to do anything, kid. You can’t go after this like a linebacker.”

Dale gave him a brief smile that held a lot of reassurance, but nodded at the papers.


“If it’s my choice, I’d like you to do it.”

Paul glanced up, looking at Flynn with a clear indication of are you happy about that? And he included Jasper in the mute communication, but Jasper nodded, calmly from his perch on the arm of the couch. Riley equally looked more interested than worried. Flynn selected the simplest and most family based of the set, making himself comfortable in his chair as the others had, and deliberately maintaining the relaxed body language to keep this nothing more than a conversation between the five of them.

“There are several different routes that issues can take and some of these questions won’t be relevant to us, but it helps to narrow down which ones are. The first question looks at connections to particular people. Ready?”

“Get on with it.” Riley said from the far side of the couch. Flynn leaned back in the admiral’s chair, folding the page back and taking a pencil from the desk.

“Ok. This is asking about how you differentiate between the relationship you have with different people. Are there people who are special to you and people you prefer? You’ve got a choice of ‘definitely’, ‘somewhat’ or ‘minimally’.”



“Definitely.” Dale said quietly.

“Definitely.” Riley said bluntly in agreement. “Of course you’re different with us, that’s ridiculous.”

“Not all of them are going to be relevant Ri, it’s ok.” Flynn began, and Dale said still more quietly,


“If you were asking me about the time before I came here, then probably I’d have said the second choice; ‘somewhat’. I know what deficit is being looked for; it’s about not having a real connection to any one person, just a general, indiscriminate, arms-length approach with everyone. The answer now is definitely yes. It’s very different with you four to the way it is with anyone else. And it’s different again with people like Gerry and Tom and Ash.”



That was brutally frank. Paul glanced up at Jasper, who was listening with his elbow on his knee, face still, eyes on Dale. Listening intently, but not worried, and he spoke calmly as Dale paused.

“You have different relationships with each of us too, and that’s exactly how it should be. You're not going to tell me one thing and then be inspired to have the exact same conversation with the others.  But I think too that you choose to reveal certain aspects about yourself to each of us based on what you feel safe with.”



It was the point Gerry had made last night. Paul tried not to too obviously watch, but Dale was looking straight at Jasper and Jasper waited a moment before he went on, his soft voice deep and quiet. 



“You may tell Riley a bit about something that happened to you, but not feel comfortable enough to share that with Paul or me because we might ask a question that’s too much to answer and we’re harder to say no to. I think there’s a lot of self defence in it.”

“How is that helpful?” Riley demanded.

“We’re talking about understanding what’s difficult.” Jasper said to him just as mildly. “To me, this is important.”

Typically for Jasper, it was said with no punches pulled, but it was impossible to hear that tone in his voice or see his eyes rest on you and feel anything hurtful or attacking in what he said. Having sat in board room meetings violent enough to require security guards present, having acted as a negotiator between many angry and vicious tongued men who had no qualms at all about what they said or did to win, Dale knew a great deal about the subtleties of one man setting out to hurt another, and this place and these men were a whole world away from it. Jasper was a deeply gentle man who didn’t avoid saying things that hurt for a reason. His beliefs were that you had a responsibility to face your demons and to learn from them, and that someone who loved you would help you to do so. It was as warm and familiar a piece of knowledge as Riley snapping to his defence, or Flynn’s level gaze with the incredibly kind eyes in a hard face that meant he was concerned, or Paul’s quiet presence that said without him saying a word, I’m right here.

This is ok. This is probably going to feel like hell, but this really is ok. Like Paul says, you can sit here like a lemon, Aden, or you can make a decision, let go and take that step towards them. You’ve got a choice.

“I think that’s probably a fair comment.” he admitted to Jasper, who didn’t confirm or deny it, just listened, his dark eyes gentle. “That’s a part of what I said to Paul when I started off this whole wretched business. I know it’s about control and I know it isn’t right.”

Jasper bent his head, acknowledging. “But it’s a strategy that’s worked to get you this far, intact, and for that reason I’m very grateful to it.”


The release of blame was a shock. Another shock in a long line of shocks, freeing up something else inside Dale’s chest, another thing he had never realised before about being loved.  

“The second category is about responses to being hurt or distressed.” Flynn went on in the same even tone when no one else spoke. “Do you think you look for comfort when you need it, and if so do you look to specific people?”

There was a moment’s silence and then Dale laughed, rather wearily.


“Oh God, this is me down to the ground, isn’t it? No, generally I’ll do anything I can not to show it and I won’t purposely go near anyone. Particularly I won’t go near you four.”

“You did yesterday.” Paul told him, reaching for his hand and holding on to it. “It was hard,  but you did it.”


“Why particularly not us four?” Riley asked him.

“It’s about risking giving in to wanting comfort or showing a need for it, and it’s harder with us because the emotions are stronger and you want it more. You’re more likely to lose control.” Paul squeezed Dale’s hand, pulling on it. “Are you going to disappear behind that knee or just slide down the back of the sofa?”


“This is slightly more fun than open heart surgery.” Dale said dryly, but sat up and put his feet on the floor, leaning his elbows on his knees although he kept hold of Paul’s hand.

“This is programming.” Flynn said gently. “Do you know how the brain builds itself? We’re all architects of our own brain. Every time you learn something new, a new concept, a new action, a new connection is built in the brain. It literally builds a new structure to run that programme on. Teach a small child that if they get hurt and they show it something upsetting or alarming happens, the structure laid down will be that showing a need for help is dangerous. The programme’s just going to run, the signals fire down those established connections, it’s not conscious any more than jerking your hand back from something hot is conscious. This is what we’re looking at, kid. Faulty wiring. If you don’t know it’s there, you’ve got nowhere to start in re wiring it.”

Dale nodded slowly, processing. “Currently, the truthful answer to that one is no. Or only on one occasion which got extremely messy.”

“The second part to the question you’ve already answered,” Flynn went on gently, “Given the choice you wouldn’t seek help from anyone at all, and you’d do what you could to avoid showing you had a problem.”

“Even if no one was there to see.” Dale said to his hands.


Flynn nodded slowly, scoring the paper in front of him. “Ok. When you do go to a preferred person when you’re dysregulated – in this context, that means any emotional state you find uncomfortable and difficult to cope with -  do you feel you definitely can respond to comfort and settle down, or somewhat respond, or rarely?”

Paul watched Dale, still holding on to his hand.


“I think you feel somewhat better, particularly if we handle it in the right way for you. I can see you look calmer, less tense, you can talk to us once you’ve settled down a little.” 

“But that tends to be about the big things.” Dale looked reserved but he glanced up at Riley. “If Riley’s annoyed he tells one of us about it. Or he comes to one of us for a hug, and you can see that’s it, he’s offloaded, it helped, he knows how to do it and it’s an everyday thing. For me to get to that point we’ve usually had a whole blow-out first. Compared to a norm, this isn’t half way there, it’s minimally there. There’s no sense downplaying it.” he added apologetically to Paul who looked concerned. “These aren’t secrets, I know it happens, it’s actually kind of a relief to see it framed as something recognisable.”


“This next one’s about reciprocal communication – conversation that moves flexibly back and forth.” Flynn went on. “Do you feel that you consistently take part in conversations that move back and forth with preferred people, sharing things like excitement or interest, with good eye contact and facial expression, do you take turns in conversations and do you often share things, or is it hard for people to know what you’re thinking or feeling.”

“Ouch.” Dale observed after a minute. “In non-personal situations – work related, with the need to communicate information – yes, probably.”

“There isn’t a lot of turn taking.” Paul said softly. “You’re a good listener, but you’re working from a position of authority and the social aspect can get a bit lost, depending on the situation. I can see when you’re holding work conversations on the phone it tends to be information gathering unless you’re working with a client. Questions and answers and instructions.”

“I know I’ve gone up to one of you in that kind of mode and downloaded a whole set of questions or demands for information and you’ve been surprised by it.” Dale admitted, thinking about it and wishing he wasn’t flushing quite so hotly. “Yes. In personal situations, I do it to the degree you’ve taught me, and I know it’s not that good. Minimally.”


“Ok. The next one is about expressing emotion and the flexibility of it.” Flynn turned over a page. “Do you feel you show a range of flexible emotions and move between them, or do you often feel or show reserved, serious, sad, or irritable, more so than is usual for most people. Would you say you tend not to respond to something sad, or have difficulty in crying even in appropriate situations?”

“They’d take him on Planet Vulcan, no questions asked.” Riley said, and laughed as Dale raised an eyebrow at him. “Yeah, there you go, just like that.”


“Why Vulcan?” Dale said quizzically, and Paul squeezed his hand, aware that Flynn and Jasper were no wiser.

“Star Trek, hon. An old tv programme, don’t worry about it. I think you’re reserved and I think you’re more serious than most, partly because I think a lot of the time you’re either worrying or you’re being careful you don’t show anything you shouldn’t. You smile a lot more than you did, but I think you’re careful what you let yourself show.”

“That isn’t intentional.”

“I know it isn’t.”


Dale sat for a moment, looking at his hand in Paul’s while he thought about it, then looked at Flynn. “I’m not good at processing emotion. Or recognising it. It’s a lot better than it was when I first came here but we’ve talked about not being good at being aware of much my body’s doing.”

“You’ve had a long term habit of shutting off emotion.” Flynn said quietly in agreement. “To the point you’re not aware of doing it, which is why it can be such a shock when a strong emotion catches up with you; it feels like it’s hit out of nowhere. You don’t pick up on or respond to early warning signals that you’re bothered by something or upset or anxious, you tend to shut it down and it’s an old enough habit that you can do it on auto pilot without realising.”


“Or that you’re hungry, or tired, or in pain.” Paul added. “Although some of that is personality as much as habit, you’re very focused and you’re not someone who’s going to give up on a goal no matter what gets in your way, that’s a lot of what’s made you exceptional in your field.”

Dale gave him a wry look. “It’s the Russell Conjugation, isn’t it? The same trait seen from different perspectives. ‘have an independent mind, you are an eccentric, he is round the twist’. ‘I am goal driven, you are obsessed, he needs a strait jacket’. In the field this was all a positive asset. Witness Mason.”


“What about Mason?” Riley said curiously.

“At the top levels you’re mostly with men, and it is mostly about having or acting like you have the biggest dick in the room.” Dale gave him a dry look as Riley grinned. “The standards are high, there’s serious ambition, overt aggression, the internal politics are as bad or rougher than the external ones, you’re in an environment where everyone’s a dominant, overachieving bastard. Not the easiest people to be around, but the qualities involved make good money.”

“At the moment Mason’s got less trouble acting like he’s got the biggest dick than un-wadding his panties long enough to find it.” Riley said graphically. Jasper put a firm hand on his shoulder.

“Thank you, that’ll do.  Go on, Flynn.”

“This one asks about checking back in with preferred people- like for example when you were in New York, setting things up to come back here.” Flynn went on. “Do you think that come easily and definitely happens, or sometimes happens, or rarely happens?”


“Definitely, I’d have been on the phone all the time if I could.” Dale said flatly. “I lived for the evening calls.”

Flynn scored it and turned the page again. “Want a break, kid?”


“No, I’m fine, go on.”

“Would you say you either go looking for risky situations, or tend to be unaware of risk to the point of self endangerment, or show some difficulty with cause and effect thinking in risky situations?” Flynn said it evenly, but Riley grunted.


“Like sticking your face in a barrel of phosphorus?”

“Or stepping off a ten foot roof.” Paul added mildly. “I agree, I don’t think you’re always aware of what’s a risk to you, or count it as a priority.”

Flynn scored it, moving his pencil down to the next paragraph.

“Would you say you used strategies to manipulate people or situations for the purpose of keeping control?”  

“Yes.” Dale said bleakly. “Obsessively. Although that’s a whole other problem.”

“They’re two separate things.” Paul squeezed his hand, his voice soothing. “The obsession part is getting stuck on a pattern and needing things the same. The only time I see you managing situations to keep control in the way we’re talking about is when something’s hit your buttons. It’s defensive. It isn’t intended and it’s never meant maliciously.”


“Would you say you had difficulty with or avoided physical closeness or physical affection from preferred people?” Flynn went on quietly.

Dale gave him another grim nod. “Yes. At times. Although that isn’t the same as not wanting it.”
“Or enjoying it, which you’d rather be shot than admit to.” Paul added, and Dale glanced at him, his eyes lighting a little.

“And is different again from touch with definite purpose involved. Working with someone is fine, helping someone is fine, sex is fine. It isn’t that cut and dried.”

Flynn scored the section, moving on down.

“Would you say that you can be superficially engaging or charming?”

That was how Gerry had described himself.

“No.” Riley said flatly. Dale winced, thinking about it.

“Unless it’s in the context of wanting to steer people a certain way for good reason. Then, yes, I’m probably bloody good at it.”



Flynn leaned on the desk, watching him. “Ok. To what extent is that a work skill, and to what extent is that a steady pattern of avoiding real engagement with people you should be engaging with? Because I’d say that was a professional work skill.”

“So would I.” Paul agreed. “It’s not the same as rabbit trailing conversations to get people away from subjects you don’t want to talk about, or going off into mathematical formulas to distract yourself and everyone else, that’s another defence mechanism you do use with us, and I think that’s what you’re meaning.”

“Which leaves a few questions here that aren’t relevant to us unless you want to talk about them?” Flynn went on, “Binge eating or hoarding food; difficulty with conscience; argumentative or defiant irrespective of situation; destructive particularly towards own possessions: inappropriately demanding or clingy; irrational lying in the face of obvious evidence.”

“What would cause those?” Dale looked up, elbows on his knees, eyes serious. Flynn sat back in his chair, looking at the list.

“Things like conditioning that you can’t trust that given to you when you need it, and you’re at risk of starving if you don’t take it or hide it for yourself. Destructiveness can say ‘I’m a bad person, I don’t deserve to have this’ or ‘I’m afraid to get attached to this object because it’ll hurt too much when I lose it’. They aren’t rational ideas, they’re survival instincts in pre verbal kids and they override information about the situation you’re actually in.”

“What do you do about it?”


“If you’ve learned to drive an automatic car, you can still learn to drive a stick shift.” Flynn said simply. “It’s a case of recognising the brain connections that you have and learning to deliberately interrupt them, and with practice and a lot of repetition you construct and lay down new ones.”

“Gerry said if he slipped into one of his habits even once it set him back.” Riley said from the far end of the couch. He was listening, absorbed, and caught Dale’s eye as Dale looked at him.

“I see why some of what we do with our clients works. Walking them through new habits over and over, like teaching Mason to stop short circuiting to ‘mad’ when he thinks he’s bored.”

“You did this with learning not to do everything at high speed.” Jasper said quietly to Dale. “I haven’t seen that happen for a long time, and the last few times I saw it, you realised and made yourself stop and change what was happening. You changed the pattern of running or exercising to burn off stress and learned how to stay and talk to us. It was hard to learn, but you did it. I learned how to live indoors, and that took me several months and a lot of work.”


When one of them shared something like that, a flash of their own vulnerability, their own effort, it was like seeing the ground shift. In those few words Jasper put himself on the same terms as Dale, with the same struggles. Flynn turned the page over, starting to scan through the scoring code and for a moment flipping between pages as he wrote.  

“Ok.” he said after a minute. “For what it’s worth, all the scores we’ve given fall into the ‘avoidant attachment’ category group, and it is a significant score, enough to say that we’re on the right lines.”

There was a blunt kindness in the way he said it. It was an odd experience to be talking about any of this so openly and matter of factly, as a normal, recognised thing.

“The other thing you need to be aware of is this isn’t a one-step fix. No one incident is going to solve this, it’s going to be months of practice, mostly just through living in a culture of practicing better responses and better connections just like we’ve always done. The time and the repetition is what will help.”

But confirming it and naming it like this is important, Paul thought, watching Dale’s face as he turned the papers over. This needs to be something we can talk about, openly in plain language, and to all be on the same team for. This needs to be explicit between us.

It was like watching him burning off the extraneous and the unwanted layers, bit by bit, the defences, the confusions, down to the man he had always been intended to be. 

“There’s a few repetitions I’d still like to make to your mom.” Riley said darkly, getting up. “I know you don’t want to hear it and I’m sorry, but she pisses me off.”

Dale tipped his head back to catch his eye, laying the assessment papers down. “After yesterday this is a walk in the park, it’s ok. We’ve talked about this stuff for a long time, it’s nothing new, it’s just clarifying.”

“Yes, I haven’t got any kind of problem with it, this is normal brat stuff.” Riley said bluntly. “In some shape or form at some time we’ve all had to figure this kind of thing out. Not to your extreme but you’re an extreme kind of  a guy, it’ll be fine. And shit happens, it just does, it doesn’t have to be anyone’s fault, my dad didn’t set out to get widowed or be left alone with a kid. But at least he tried, you know?”


“She did her best-” Dale began and Riley cut him off, apologetic but short. 

“In the situation she was in, yeah I know, but she isn’t the one I care about. What I care a lot about is she screwed with you. You were a kid. You had no responsibilities, she did. She had the choices, she was old enough to fricking know what was going on and to see the whole picture and you weren’t, and however tough things were she was the grown up. It pisses me off a lot that you aren’t mad about that, because someone ought to be.”




*


The light was lasting long enough into the evenings to make sitting out on the porch something possible and even pleasant to do. It was very different from the view from the New York apartment balcony, and a long familiar one. An eye on Mason, who was mucking out the corral roughly in a way that suggested bad temper, but briskly enough to demonstrate that he was keen to get it done and finished, his book face down beside him, Luath rocked the swing slowly, aware of the weight of his shoulders against the wooden swing back, the porch boards under his feet, the pastures stretching out beyond the house and turning grey and gold in the twilight, and Dale in the doorway of the porch.

The boy looked long and lean in jeans and the dark blue sweater he wore, dark hair slipped forward over his forehead, balanced on both feet in a way that made Luath think of the James Bond label Darcy used to refer to him. Look a little closer and he looked tired too; the poise didn’t quite cover that if you were experienced in seeing below the surface in men with a gift for being convincing. Luath patted the swing beside him.

“Hey. Have a seat.”

“Thank you.”


The politely British voice was formal. Dale sat down beside him, leaning with his elbows on his knees, and Luath put a hand out to rub his back with compassion.

“How are you doing?”

Any of the other brats would have leaned into the touch, or quite frankly shaken you off, depending on their mood. Luath felt Dale jump. Not rejection; not a flinch away, more surprise, and he glanced up with a steady eye contact that startled Luath. Intent, comprehending.  

“I came to ask you the same question. This must be an extremely difficult time for you. Is there anything I can do?”

“I’m doing ok.” Luath said mildly after moment to regain his breath. Under that gaze, back rubbing was suddenly inappropriate. “I’m tired and I’m stiff, out of the habit of hard work, and I guess the meds will take getting used to, but nothing that won’t fix. You’re looking tired yourself.”

Dale inclined his head slightly, acknowledging but not answering. “How far did things go with the fence? Will it be as heavy a job as it looked?”

Oh he was good. It was effortless and powerful with authority so subtle that it looked like simple good manners, and anywhere but here, it would have established them as equals in a politely amicable working relationship. Jasper ambled across the porch to them and took a seat on Dale’s other side, relaxing back with his feet against the boards to sway the swing to and fro.

“It’s nice to answer people, not change the subject. How tired are you?”

Dale glanced up at Jasper and Luath saw the smile reach his eyes more than his mouth and hold wryness and intense affection; it was an expression that reminded him of Flynn. Jasper rocked the swing slowly, and Dale leaned back beside him.

“It’s not like I’ve been doing anything physical.”

“I think you're working pretty hard.” Jasper said mildly.

Dale didn’t answer. Luath dropped a hand on his knee and squeezed briefly.

“You're a strong guy Dale, and you should keep that in mind when things get tough.  You're tougher than anything that can be thrown at you, and you'll always have plenty of people here to lean on.”

He read the kid’s glance. It said, sincerely, you really don't need this from me, you've got enough to handle right now.

Luath let him look, and waited until he saw the boy pick up what he meant.

I’m in the same boat, son. That’s why I’m here.

Across in the corral, Mason paused for a moment, leaning on his shovel. Jasper glanced at his watch.

“Dale, bed time. Luath, can you keep an eye on Mason's chores and check on them when he's done?

“Sure. What's he have left?”

“The water troughs to fill when he’s done with the corral.”

“Will do.” Luath gave Dale a smile as Jasper got up from the swing and held out a hand to him. “Sweet dreams.”

Mason stretched his shoulders a few times in the corral and then doggedly went back to work.
Luath watched Dale pause in the kitchen behind Paul who was putting tomorrow’s bread to rise, and give Paul a brief, hard hug from behind, wrapping himself around the older man’s shoulders. Jasper walked with him into the family room and Paul put the last of the bread on the counter in the tins, covered them with a cloth and brushed off his hands, coming out onto the porch to sit down in the basket chair near the pots of herbs.

“He does that a lot with you.” Luath said casually. “Always from behind. I suspect there’s meaning in it if I knew where to look.”

Paul ran his hand over the thyme bush and picked a spring, sitting back to sniff it. “I think it’s a little less personal, that’s all.”


“Bull. That boy adores you.”


There had always been a certain amount of joking in the family that no one in the family truly knew what the hell went on between Paul, Flynn, Jasper and Riley – now Dale too – and there was a certain truth behind the jest. They had always been extremely private, to the point where day to day it looked the same as the easy friendship they had with anyone else in the house, there was no exclusiveness visible on the surface. It was partly, Luath thought, how they made clients feel so welcomed, and it was the same knack Philip had owned of creating an atmosphere where everyone belonged. It was new to see Paul focused so intently on Dale, the way Luath knew he had done on Roger at times, the way Ash was on Gerry. The way a man got about his guy.

Gerry wandered out of the house in socked feet, hair damp from his bath.

“Hey. Aren’t you two cold sitting out here?”

Paul tipped his head back to smile at him. “No, it’s sheltered. Where’s Ash?”

“Reading. I got bored. It takes time to get back in the habit of being text and internet free, it’s like abandoning civilisation, I have no idea what Darcy or Bear are up to.” Gerry sat down beside Luath on the swing, tucking his feet up the way he used to when he was in his twenties and they sat on this porch in the evenings.  “What’s Darcy’s current show like? Is it really as ghastly as the pictures he sent me?”

“Much, much worse.” Luath said emphatically. “The designer had a thing for apricot silk, Darcy couldn’t talk him out of it. The whole catwalk looks like a brothel from the Arabian Nights.”


Gerry grinned and shifted over to lean against him, coiling both his arms around one of Luath’s, his cheek against Luath’s shoulder.  Luath glanced warily from him to Paul, suddenly aware he was in a vulnerable position, and Paul gave him a pointed look, twisting the thyme between his fingers.

“Yes you’re right we’ve got you alone, so don’t you give me that ganged up on look. I said I wanted a word with you. How many of us are there if you’re having a hard time, Luath Ian? I know how often James writes to you, I know how often Wade calls you,”

“How often we call you, and Bear does,” Gerry added. “Who lies to Bear? That’s right up there with machine gunning teddy bears.”

“I know Jake’s stayed in touch, there’s all of us here.” Paul went on, and Luath winced. 

“I know, I know.”

“If you know then tell me what you were thinking, because you’d never let one of us get into that kind of a state alone somewhere, you wouldn’t allow it.” Paul said shortly. “You and Gerry, both heading for the hills to do anything that distracts you from actually dealing with the problem, or telling any of us about it-”

“Hey, you’re yelling at him, not me.” Gerry protested.


“It crept up on me, I’ve been down before and it felt like the same normal, justifiable down, I expected it after the funeral.” Luath said apologetically, and Paul heard the lightness in his voice for Gerry’s sake. The shutting down, the distancing from family and friends was a typical symptom, they encountered it with depressed clients, but Paul still leaned over and batted Luath briskly across the back of the head, making him duck and yelp. 

“You made damn sure Darcy didn’t notice it. You know better. I know you’ve kept an eye on Darcy, you know what to look for.”

“It felt like the same as the first time around.” Luath said more heavily. “Not sleeping much, the usual stuff. I thought I just needed to wait it out this time too.”

There was a long silence before he said, quietly, “I’ve been thinking of selling the apartment, I had a realtor round to value it a few weeks ago, but I couldn’t make a decision either way.”

“If it’s going to make you feel less like you’re waiting for him to come home, then it might be an idea.” Gerry was still wrapped around Luath’s arm, his head against Luath’s shoulder, and his voice was subdued. “I can’t imagine having to make the decision to move on, but I guess there comes a point where you have to.”

“This must be some of what Dale’s dealing with.” Luath rocked the swing slowly, and Paul saw his eyes on the far paddocks, distant and dark. “It’s hard to let things change. However rotten it is where you are, at least it’s familiar and it’s hard to let go of. Even if you’re hanging on to something that isn’t really there anymore.”

Gerry looked up, distressed, and Luath put an arm around him, pulling him close and hugging him when Gerry wrapped his arms around his waist.


“It’s ok. Emmett prescribed me something to rebalance the chemistry, and make it easier to sleep. He said I’d get the rest of what I needed if I stayed here a while. He wanted four weeks at least.”

“You can work from here if you stay, Dale does.” Gerry said from Luath’s midriff.


“He does.” Paul agreed. “There’s everything you’d need in the office.”

“There’s nothing I’m going to be that needed for, I’ve been on and off on leave of absence anyway.” Luath gave Paul a brief and rather frank look. “Not been able to concentrate or been that interested. One of the luxuries of being semi retired, they don’t miss you that much when you’re not around. Look, you say the more people around the better for the clients, but is Dale going to handle us being around right now?”


“Of course he is, what kind of question is that?” Gerry demanded. “Think Philip would have told any of us to get lost because one of us needed space? Jeez you need those meds!”

 “I know.” Luath said dryly, reading Paul’s look which said exactly what Gerry was saying. “He’d whap me upside the head and remind me of what my responsibilities are around here.”

Gerry subsided back against him, shaking his head.

“Yeah, no kidding.”  





There was no sign of Flynn or Riley inside, and Dale thought that was probably significant. There were no shortage of places in this house to go if you needed some private time with someone, and Riley liked the smaller and more secluded ones. Jasper took a seat on the end of Dale and Flynn’s bed and nodded Dale at the bathroom.

“Go ahead and get ready.”

Having someone quite blatantly sit and wait for you had a strong effect; Dale found himself moving more quickly than usual and preparing for bed with greater care, even though he was well out of Jasper’s line of sight. Sometimes it was this most simple kind of supervision that had the strongest impact. It kept constantly at the front of your mind that you weren’t alone, you weren’t a free agent, you were willingly accepting your accountability to the guy who was bluntly waiting for you to do as he asked, and it meant letting go of a whole lot of other stuff in order to focus on him.


Jasper had turned the bed down when Dale came back in sleep wear, and he pulled the covers aside, moving to let Dale past him.

“Strip off and roll over.”

You could argue when you got an instruction like that. You could ask why. In Dale’s experience Jasper might or might not answer if you did, but the point was that he had a plan  that your job was to go along with and he sounded very tranquil about it. Dale shouldered out of the t shirt, slipped his shorts down and off, appreciating that Jasper wasn’t looking, and lay down on his stomach, naked and feeling extremely tangible as he turned his head to watch Jasper roll his sleeves back. Jasper tanned darker than Flynn; the muscles in his forearms were long and smooth and sculptured like his face and shoulders were, his face was calm, and he shifted his seat further up the bed to sit at Dale’s waist level, putting both hands out to grasp Dale’s shoulders, gently but firmly.  


“Put your head down on your arms.”



Dale obeyed him, feeling Jasper press him forward until he had settled right down, and then draw his shoulders down and out, holding them there for a moment with strong, cool hands, making him shift his position in a way that stretched out his neck and the full length of his spine. Then his hands slid quietly inwards along Dale’s shoulders to his neck and the back of his head and began to work, thumbs pressing deep and unerringly finding spots that Dale hadn’t realised were sore until Jasper touched them. There was some kind of oil on his hands, something with a woody and spicy scent, and his hands glided smoothly, evenly. Jasper had the knack of wringing you out bone by bone; he invariably reached down to a level of muscles and tension that made Dale twitch and murmur and sometimes involuntarily squirm, with a firmness that kind of hurt but in the same kind of way well that worked muscles hurt at the most satisfying part of a work out. And it left boneless, blissful limpness behind.

Dale shut his eyes, aware of the breeze from the open window across his lower back and legs, the warmth of the covers against one hip, and of Jasper’s warmth and the denim of his jeans against his other hip, and the slow, deep rhythm of the familiar hands covering him.  Jasper worked steadily down his neck and the full length of his spine, his lower back and his butt where his hands sank what felt like inches deep, and on down Dale’s legs, in a way that should have left any normal red blooded man ready to tear shirt and jeans off with his teeth. Liquefied by then, Dale had a lot of trouble thinking anything coherent at all, and the last thing he remembered was Jasper being somewhere in the vicinity of his calves.



*


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015







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