Book 4 in the Falls Chance Ranch Series

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Saturday, September 19, 2015

Chapter 15 - Ranch

15

It was a kind of numb, sterile dream about sitting alone on the stairs with a book, and it dragged on for a long time. Dale sat against the cold of the wall and at times he disappeared into the words on the page, and at others he thought of and felt nothing at all. At times when he looked down at the hands holding the book he felt a vague confusion as to whose hands they were, as if they weren’t connected to him at all.

He wasn’t sure what drew his attention to upstairs. It wasn’t exactly a sound or movement, it was more an awareness that there was something up there. It bothered him, as if it was something that shouldn’t have moved, as if it was breaking some kind of rule. At first he tried to ignore it, but it was relentless in not moving and not making a sound and yet it still dragged his reluctant awareness back. Eventually, deliberately, he closed the book and got up. Just facing upstairs made his heart thump; he had no idea why. Cold, knees trembling slightly, he held onto the banister and made himself take a step up further towards the landing. And another. And another. Eventually he was only one step from the landing, and there he hesitated, seeking for the courage to either turn his back on whatever it was, or to face it. The landing was dark, and colder still. 

Dale steeled himself, and walked slowly into the darkness. 

It was grey there. Large shapes were greyer in the darkness, looming above him like the now familiar giant building blocks. Dale walked slowly between them, following the long path over the grey carpet, through the shadows. One of the giant shapes had a handle that was set high above his head. Another of them had a sweater draped over it, so big it could have been a tent, the sleeve hanging down like a scarf. Ragged stone pillars and torn spars, twisted and piercing up out of the ground were blurred in thick, choking, acrid smoke, and –

No.

Dale stopped, taking a breath.

Roger, sitting on the grass with his back against the tree, his fingers idly turning over a twig and his glasses reflecting sunlight, and he looked up from his book with a very private smile that was meant for only one person – Dale looked down at his hands, recognising the large, strong, black fingers that stretched and flexed when he moved, and the wash of warmth in the sunlight that was entirely private for the man with the glasses, and the sensation of looking at the world through a filter of colour that came from outside him.

Luath. This is Luath, not me.

He shut his eyes for a moment, bracing himself, then breathed out and opened them again. The giant building blocks were once more grey and on either side of him, looming over his head, and his hands were once more his. The shapes grew closer and closer together like a lumber room as he walked, until he had to edge between them. The hallway ended with a dirty and jagged broken window with a torn and filthy curtain blowing against it. A book was open on the floor in front of it, splashed with rain that came in on the wind through the shattered pane. Dale crouched down to look at its open pages, blowing back and forth. It was an elderly, battered Boys Own annual, dated 1921 and open at the black and white colour picture of the prince. Dale picked it up, handling the antique book gently. There had been a set of them in one of the unused rooms upstairs in the London house. Filed in an unused bookcase in a room on the second floor, where all the furniture was as old as the books and even older, where the old fashioned fat and salmon pink silk eiderdowns on the beds were thick to lay on and warm to crawl under; where the wardrobes smelled of mothballs when they were opened, and where in one room on a dressing table a set of  tortoiseshell clothes brushes and hairbrushes were laid out for an owner who had left them there decades ago. The dressing table had a large, ornate mirror at the front and two moving mirror wings at the sides. When you moved the wings creakily on their old, stiff hinges you became magnified by hundreds, until it was like looking into the facets of a diamond with your face reflected over and over and over in the glass to infinity.

And abruptly he choked on a mouthful of sheet as a heavy hand gripped the back of his neck, forcing his face deeper into the covers, and a knee pressed painfully on his back, and panic and terror closed his throat. He was too light to roll over, too light to rear up and throw the man off, and the smell of sour sweat and beer that rolled off him was choking. He twisted any way he could to get a purchase, frantic, and he knew as he twisted that it was that dream, yet again, and that all he twisted against was his own bed covers, and as he realised, his throat opened and he screamed as he had done again and again, night after night,

“Philip! Philip!

No, this is not mine! This is not mine!  

Dale fought to turn over, aware his throat was hot and sore and the last shout hadn’t been just in his head.

“It’s ok, it’s me. It’s me.”

Riley’s voice was easy and he pulled the covers away, the light switched on beside the bed, and Dale blinked, taking another deep gulp of air. Riley sat down on the edge of the bed and put a hand on his shoulder that felt burning hot, and Dale hauled himself upright, sweating, aware he was still shaking all over with the memory of that knee in his back. Riley was in sleep wear, his eyes clear but his hair tousled as if he’d been asleep, and behind him in the doorway, Dale caught sight of Gerry, heavy eyed with sleep, and Mason looking concerned, barefoot and bare chested in shorts. Luath, also in sleep wear, shouldered rapidly past them both to get to the bed, his deep voice concerned.

“Dale? Are you all right?”

“Sorry.” Dale said, slightly hoarsely. “Sorry, I’m awake. I should either keep that door shut at night, or hand out earplugs.”

“That did not sound like a joking matter to me.” Luath said grimly, looking very much as though he was going to put Riley out of his way too.

“I’m fine, I’m just sorry I woke you. This happens.” Dale eased past Riley and got up fast before Luath touched him, and ran his hands through his hair to try to stop them trembling. Flynn, still fully dressed, came past Luath.

“It does. Gerry, Mason, it’s ok. Go on back to bed.”

Gerry said something to Mason, touched his arm and both of them moved out of sight. Flynn hooked an arm around Dale’s neck, pulled him around and hugged him, strongly. The pressure went bone deep. Dale hugged him back just as hard, turning his face into the warmth of Flynn’s neck and feeling the shaking squashed out until it began to ease and breath once more went to the bottom of his lungs. There was a moment’s silence, and Dale heard Luath’s hand drop on Flynn’s shoulder and his quiet footfall as he headed back down the hallway towards his own room. 

“What was that about?” Riley asked when he was gone.

“A whole muddle of things.” It wasn’t easy, but Dale made himself let Flynn go and sat down on the edge of the bed. “Nothing worth talking about.”

Flynn yanked straight him up again by the forearm and Dale grimaced at the hard swat against his hip, somewhat sheepishly stepping back into Flynn’s arms. Flynn growled something against his ear that sounded like “don’t you dare...”, holding him too firmly to pull away, and bone by bone Dale put his head down and relaxed against him.

“...odds and ends. I keep dreaming about some kind of junk room, same thing over and over, nothing there but it feels-”

“Horrible.” Riley supplied when Dale trailed off. Dale glanced over at him, embarrassed, but as not as badly as he might have been.

“Yes. And there were other bits.” He hesitated, not sure how to explain it. “Someone was being attacked. I don’t know who, but it wasn’t me. It’s difficult to explain but I know the difference. It feels different.”

“Anything to do with this guy you saw in the woods by the hot spring the other night?” Flynn said quietly.

No, actually I’ve got a pretty good idea who. David, who the hell are you nagging me to go look for this time?

Dale took another slower breath, not keen to try explaining and fairly sure too that the person involved wouldn’t thank him for sharing the information. Flynn looked hard at his face for a moment and then put both hands on his hips and kissed him. Briefly, very firmly, imprinting himself on Dale’s lips.

“Stay here with Riley. I’m going to get ready for bed, I’ll be right back.”

“Who was the guy by the spring?” Riley said curiously as Flynn headed for the bathroom.

He was sitting cross legged on the end of the bed, his bright hair dishevelled, his t shirt hanging off one smooth shoulder, and he looked awfully good in the lamplight. Still trembling slightly, Dale slid back to lean against the pillows and kept his voice stable with an effort while explained the child and the trapper, and Riley listened with interest, his fingers fiddling with the fringe on the edge of the blanket. 

“Do you think David knew him? Do you think that’s why he kind of got pointed out to you?”

Dale shook his head. “I think – for what it’s worth – I just happened to pass this trapper and notice him, and David ‘did’ something about him. I’ve seen something like it before.”

“On Mustang Hill.” Riley said, looking at him with more comprehension than he said out loud. “Look, I saw you find Gam Saan and figure out whatever the hell you figured out with Jas about the weird storms  up on Mustang Hill, but both those times, you were dreaming about it, you were wound up about it and you couldn’t think about anything else.”

“If I’d have walked away from the trapper I suspect I’d have had the same problems.” Dale said wryly. “Once you know there’s a problem, you have to do something about it.”

You have to do something about it.” Riley corrected, uncritically. “It bugs the hell out of you once you’ve noticed something ‘wrong’, you’re a compulsive sorter outer. I can stick my head in the sand quite happily. So what was this dream about tonight?”

“I wish I knew.” Dale said with all honesty. “Believe me, if I knew how to stop doing it, I would.”

Riley looked up at him with some sympathy, but after a moment, with a sensitivity Dale appreciated, he changed the subject, voice light.

“What I want to know is why David isn’t helping with this whole train robbery mess? We know for a fact that he knew something about it. Why is it he turns up instantly when you walk past some trapper in the woods, and yet we’ve been trying for weeks to find out everything we can about the train robbery and you’ve got no help at all?”

It was a good question. Dale shook his head slowly, considering it in the light of his previous experience. “...I don’t think he’s interested. The times I’ve seen him it’s never exactly been a two way conversation. He’s got his own priorities.”

“That has to suck.” Riley said, considering it. “Doesn’t that bug you? Everything on his terms?”

“I haven’t questioned it too closely.” Dale said wryly. “This is one of a number of conversations that if I’d over-heard a year ago I’d have thought we were both insane.”

“So what was it in the woods with two of them that afternoon?.” Riley’s hazel eyes were amused but acutely perceptive where they rested on him. “A spooks anonymous meeting, or was that just a weird coincidence? You must have been ‘high energy’ that day, you’d let go of a huge amount. You told me that helped.”

It was difficult to explain the hours of thought, theorising, comparing evidence and trying to make sense of it, and that at the end of all that analysis there still only remained gut instinct, which was not at all the same as hard fact. Dale sat up, reaching for a couple of books and the alarm clock on the night stand.

“Think of categories.” He grouped the items on the blanket between them. “Based on extremely limited evidence and generalisations backed up with sheer supposition. There are the ones Jas sees which he calls replaying recordings. I’ve seen a few, they just replay, and when you look at what is known scientifically so far about sound vibration and image and sound extraction it makes sense to me that under certain conditions -”

“Ouch?” Riley interrupted and Dale gave him a brief smile, putting the alarm clock down in a separate group.

“Imprints of an event that play back, and they can be people, animals, objects, actions. Call them category one. Category two, people.” He placed a mug in another separate place. “Kind of time looped in a moment, and they seem to be location specific. Category three;” Dale put the other book out in the third space, “A person, not time looped, and they do seem to interact on their own terms. If they feel like it.”

Riley reached across the bed, taking category two and category three, one in each hand.

“So what’s the difference between these two?”

Dale took a deep breath, thinking about it and summoning together information that wasn’t altogether comfortable to repeat.

“.... the looped ones seem carry a lot of – information.”

“Like what?”

“It doesn’t come in nice orderly lists.” Dale said wryly. “It’s flashes. Ideas. A lot of it doesn’t make much sense at the time, but it tends to be quite – unpleasant. There was a flash of chest pain and tightness around the trapper. If I had to guess, I’d say he probably died of a heart attack.”

“On that bank?”

“Not necessarily.” Dale said, thinking of Roger. “I don’t think it’s anything like that neat and tidy. They seem to be, to an extent, where they think they are. Or maybe just where I think they are, who knows?”

Riley was quiet for a moment, looking thoughtful. “So what’s the ‘loop’ about?”

That was also something relatively easy to extrapolate and not too comfortable to explain.

“....... the couple I’ve met were frightened.” Dale said after a minute, hearing the detachment in his voice. “So they focused on something else, something safer, and it’s taking all their attention, and they get ‘stuck’ in that focus. And yes, I could write a thesis on ‘the Projection and Externalisation of  Denial in Crazed Execs’. This is just me projecting my problems on an innocent wood when I’m alone and wound up, isn’t it?”

Riley smiled, but shrugged. “Who knows? I don’t, but I do know you’re one of the sanest people I’ve ever met.”

It was simply and matter of factly said, and Dale looked up at him, surprised and touched. Riley looked right back, frank and waiting for more information.

“You can’t talk to them.” Dale steepled his hands in front of his face, thinking again of the man on the bank, and of Roger, who was far harder to think of. “Or yes, you can, if you talk to them about what they’re thinking about and interested in. It seems to be a comforting thought to them, you have to stay on the subject and within their comfort zone. They can’t move outside it. Which is probably just as well, I’m not the right person to be explaining highly complicated, upsetting facts to anyone. But both times it’s happened, I’ve got their attention by talking about what they’re immediately interested in, and David’s walked past me and taken over.”

“I guess he and Philip always did approach people in trouble.” Riley said, considering it. “Which category was Gam Saan?”

Dale shook his head. “I don’t know. Jas saw him, I never did. Jas saw him moving around, like he was aware of the situation, which to me would make him category 3. I know the difference if I can see them, there’s something about the quality of light, but I think David wanted Gam Saan found, the same way he wanted Mustang Hill sorted out. He was the one trying to tell me to go there and look.”

“So what does that make David?” Riley said curiously. “Category 3?”

“Yes.” Dale said slowly, “I suppose you could call the category threes ‘visiting’.”

“And they don’t ‘feel’ upsetting?”

“... there are things I can pick up on around them, but there’s not the ‘dread’ or the heaviness.” Dale paused to think about it, “Again it’s just flashes. Fragments. Mostly things I know, as if it needs to be things we have in common, or I have to have the knowledge of what they know to be able to feel it.”

“Like what?”

“The little girl by the river.” Dale smiled faintly, thinking about it. “I could pick up on the taste of fried trout – standing on the stones by the river with bare feet – the smell of smoke from a wood fire -  things we both knew. It’s like having a common language. But it’s just flashes and guesses and nothing specific.”

“I guess with practice you learn the language.” Riley said thoughtfully.

Flynn was leaning against the door post with his arms folded, listening. Dale looked up at him, reading the line of his brow, his eyes, the set of his shoulders. Watchful. Flynn came across to the bed, taking off his watch and abruptly snapping out the light.

“Ri, staying or going?”

“Staying.”

“Then don’t yatter.” Flynn walked around to his side of the bed and Riley pulled a face at Dale and scooted up the bed as Dale pulled the covers aside for him.

“How do you sleep every night with someone this grouchy?”

Flynn leaned over Dale to land a swat on the seat of Riley’s shorts as he crawled under the covers, and hooked an arm around Dale, yanking him close as Riley settled on Dale’s other side.

“He doesn’t yatter.”

Riley made a sound suspiciously like a blown raspberry, and Dale felt the full warmth of Riley curling up against his back, sandwiched close between the two of them.

“This is all just externalised imagination, isn’t it?” he said after a long silence in which he mentally ran the data, re ran and re checked it and reached the same conclusion on each evaluation. “It’s obvious, it’s the equivalent of 3D hologramatic problem solving. I’m the one who’s stuck.”

There was another silence, then Flynn shifted to fold an arm behind his head, his voice level.

“You see a child running through the woods. Your impression is of a free, happy kid. You’d spent the morning reliving highly charged memories of yourself and what you lost at that time in your life. You see the child as a girl, and maybe that means you can distance yourself a little more. Then having seen the remains of a cabin which probably called up all kinds of information in your memory about the period and the history of the area, you see a frightened man who you see as being stuck and have a lot of sympathy for, and David effectively comes to rescue him. Think about what David represents to you and I agree, I can see the symbolism in it.”

“What about knowing the man died from a heart attack?” Riley demanded. Dale felt Flynn’s shrug against him.

“Maybe there were enough traces on the ground that some part of your mind identified an unmarked grave. You collect and process details at a level you’re not always consciously aware of as well as the information you are; you put the pieces together and surmise what’s missing, and make educated guesses at what fits the story. You’ve been doing it with far more complex information all your working life.”

“Wouldn’t you start to worry if you were past thirty with imaginary friends?” Dale said acidly. Riley laughed, and Flynn shook his head.

“If you think aloud in this way to yourself and it helps, why worry about it? Exceptional people do exceptional things. Jas would see it very differently and call it by other names just as valid. It doesn’t do harm and often you find it helps so I don’t think it matters what we call it, kid. I really don’t.”

“I know, we’ve been over and over this. A point will come where I just shut up about it.” Dale said under his breath, and felt Riley knee him gently, somewhere personal.

“No you won’t, that’s the brat thing, and the whole obsessive thing, live with it. Who do you think’s minding?”

Dale didn’t answer him, and a moment later heard Riley’s grunt of exasperation and a less gentle poke.

“Ugh, I swear you don’t get spanked nearly often enough or hard enough. We don’t mind, and that’s distancing you’re doing, not connecting. For fricks sake Dale, you’re not going to have to make yourself clear off and leave us when you think you’ve finally made us sick of you. We are not your fricking mother, and anyway, we wouldn’t fricking let you.”

.......Do I think that?!

Aware of Flynn putting a hand over him to prevent Riley poking any further, Dale thought about it at lightning speed, with a sense of cold shock. Riley had cut unhesitatingly straight down to the heart of it and put into words something he hadn’t even been aware of.

My God, I’d do it too. I seriously would. I’d walk away.  

Aden, you sod. You unutterable bastard.

  
*

  

He barely dozed for the rest of the night, laying looking out of the window at the dark while his thoughts wound on and grew colder and bleaker. Even after dawn finally came, after Riley had padded down the hall to dress and Flynn had got up to strap his watch on and pull out clothes, Dale still lay where he was, chilled and feeling very distanced from the sounds outside the window, the familiar colours and textures of the room around him, which last night had meant ‘home’. There was no desire at all to move, or get up and face the day. Even at the point that Flynn paused to look at him and he knew he’d given himself away, it still wasn’t possible to get up. Which was going to lead to all kinds of awful questions unless he did something indefensible.

Oh why not Aden? You lie all the bloody time, you lie so much you don’t even realise you’re doing it, so what’s one more?

Flynn sat down on the edge of the bed beside him, and put a hand out to rub his hip, his eyes very kind in a way that made Dale look away. 

“You know I got like this in Cairo, once?” he said lightly to Flynn, hating himself for knowing that giving him a little information would deter more awkward questions coming. “The whole time I was there I had to set the alarm for about four am to have the time to talk myself into getting up. Too much time on my hands, usually I didn’t have time to think too much first thing in the morning. Needed to get up and gone to wherever I had an appointment.”

Flynn went on rubbing, watching him. “What was so bad about Cairo?”

Nothing in particular, except it had felt a bit like this. He remembered staring at a whitewashed ceiling for hours and listening to the hum of the air conditioning, willing himself to get up, to dress, to get himself back into the rhythm of thinking, talking, moving. It had been a kind of weary numbness. Nothing like as bad as the knowledge he was facing this morning.

“The last project hadn’t gone well,” he said automatically to keep Flynn occupied. “I went out to Cairo to sort out some minor issues, I suppose there wasn’t enough to think about. Not enough distraction. It was only for the week or so I was there.”

“But it felt like this.”

No, by comparison that was a walk in the park.

Watch it Aden. Show a flicker now, break eye contact and he’ll know. He’ll push straight down through this in thirty seconds flat, you know he will.  

Forcing himself, Dale met Flynn’s eyes, keeping his own quiet enough to be subdued. Normally, convincingly subdued.

Normally neurotic. You do it every day.

“Yes, somewhat.”

“So what happened when you ran out of the energy to handle it?” Flynn said quietly.

Dale shrugged, aware of the bitterness in his voice and he didn’t have to act it. “Nothing. You still have to get up and do it, whether you can or not.”

“When did you feel like this before?”

Oh leave it Flynn, what the hell does it matter anyway?

“Cairo.”

Flynn shook his head. “I don’t think it’s Cairo that you’re remembering.”

Dale swallowed to stop his throat closing, abruptly torn between wanting Flynn to see through him, right now, and demand that he stopped the bullshit, make him stop - and holding with all his strength on to the mask that he knew would convince Flynn that he was merely subdued. Thinking. 

Making any kind of attempt at all to be real with him. You know him well enough to play him, you’re bright enough to do it. You son of a bitch.

Say anything now, and he’d give it away; he knew he would. Flynn read his voice far too well. Instead, Dale held his eyes, and after a moment Flynn touched his face and got up, pulling the covers back, and horribly, Dale knew he’d won. 

“Shower. It’s all right kid, we can handle today.”





He hustled Dale through showering and dressing, which helped as it gave no time to do anything but think about the actions involved. It was possible to go automatically through asking Paul for a shirt, in fact far easier to do when he made no attempt to feel it. Breakfast was loud and busy and that was good too because it was easy to be quiet and to listen, and to smile in all the right places, and make all the right noises, and to make a quiet place in his mind underneath it all to hit against that knowledge, over and over again.

Who the hell were you kidding, Aden? Open yourself up to them? You’ve never even tried! All those high drama scenes with Paul, he believed you and he listened to you and you never once had the decency to admit to yourself it didn’t matter anyway because all the time you had an escape route planned. When it gets too tough, you know you’ll walk. You’ll do it. You coward. You foul, despicable bloody coward.

Riley knew it. In some ways that was the worst part. When the Japanese warriors of old were disgraced or shamed, they ceremonially cut their own guts out.

The back door was open and sunshine streamed into the kitchen, the morning air was fresh and cool and mixed with the smell of bacon and the taste of juice, both of which turned Dale’s stomach.  He jumped at Paul’s hand on his knee, and the understanding in Paul’s face and the kindness of his tone was as painful as a knife.

“Hon, you’ve got five minutes to eat before I start helping.”

You’re wasting all that attention on a useless case here, Paul.

Unable to stand it, Dale got up, grateful for the chatter and the number of people at the table which made it far easier to hide. “Sorry, excuse me a minute.”

Paul still got up and followed him to the doorway, catching his arm.

“Dale-?”

“Bathroom.” Dale tugged gently free, moving fast enough to be credible, and he must have looked convincing enough that Paul actually let him go. With a fervent hope that he wouldn’t follow, Dale took the stairs several at a time, and at the top, bypassed the bathroom and instead went into the hallway through the closed door that led to the short flight of stairs to the office.

It was a quiet, utilitarian room without much in it, small and lit only by the skylight in the roof, the least family-like room in the house with the fax machine and the computer on the desk. Dale shut the door behind him and leaned on it, closing his eyes.

Pull it together Aden. Now.

What the hell am I going to do?

For a start, you’re going to get it together.

You unutterable, unmitigated swine.

Dale folded his hands behind his head, pacing the short space across the floor between the desk and the filing cabinet. Four steps. Turn. Four steps. Ten feet. One hundred and twenty inches. Three hundred and four point eight centimetres. Three thousand and forty eight millimetres. The numbers lined up and marched out like soldiers, one after the other.

That’s bloody child’s play, shut up!

The filing cabinet was in front of him and Dale slammed both forearms down on to it, striking the flat top so hard that it rang like a gong. The impact made both his forearms blaze in a way that said he’d hit a lot harder than he meant to, and there was a kind of release in it that made him hit it again, harder, hard enough to hurt. Three more times he thumped the top of it, battering his arms against it, slammed a knee into the side of it with enough strength to dent it, leaned hard on the top of it with his hands gripping his hair hard enough to hurt, really hurt, to find a moment of calm deep enough to think –

“-what exactly is going on in here?”

Dale jerked upright, horrified. He hadn’t heard the door open. It was Jasper, who moved like a cat and who was silent on stairs, who was standing in the doorway with his eyes extremely serious.  And Dale was aware of a ball of iced calm that hit his stomach and took him over.

Jasper had a choice of which way to walk around the desk to reach him. The second he chose his route, Dale took the other, passed him and cleared the stairs to the hallway. He didn’t remember afterwards how he got down the main stairs. No one was in the family room, no one called out to him, and he had no memory of it if Jasper called or whether he followed. He had a faint memory of taking the door from the study out onto the porch, vaulting the rail to land on the hard red earth of the yard where the gate into the home pastures stood open.





            In the kitchen, Paul heard the study door open. Quietly. Afterwards, the most surprising thing was how quietly it all happened. There were perfectly normal reasons why Jasper or Dale might be in the study; Paul looked up but the conversation around the table didn’t pause. Then Jasper walked through the kitchen, unhooked a jacket from the peg and took his boots out onto the porch in a perfectly ordinary way, but Flynn looked up at him, spun out of his chair and followed him fast enough to stop the conversation at the table dead. By the time Paul reached the door after them, Dale was visible far out into the pasture, and you couldn’t have called what he was doing ‘jogging’. He was covering ground fast, hard, going at it like he went at everything he put his mind to, and to Paul’s mind it was a very clear and honest action. Fleeing, like a man running for his life.

Flynn went to grab his own boots, voice curt to Jasper.

“Go, I’ll saddle up and follow you.”

“I let him go.” Jasper sounded perfectly calm about it and he wasn’t hurrying. “There’s no sense in chasing him. I’ll keep an eye on him.”

He walked down the porch steps – walked, calmly – pausing by one of the sheds to take one of the rucksacks and drop a few items into it, and then he headed out into the pasture. The dogs, puzzled by first Dale’s swift exit without speaking to them, and now Jasper’s, hesitated in the yard, looking from him to Flynn and Paul with obvious confusion.

Flynn hesitated for a moment, braced, still half way to jogging for the corral, and then he swore, quietly and in detail. Paul put both hands on his shoulders and took a slow breath to make his own throat unknot, whistling to the dogs to reassure them.

“Ok guys. Stay. What set that off?”

“At the moment?” Flynn gave him a savage look that wasn’t aimed at him or Dale. “Anything, he’s raw. Damnit.”

“What the hell’s going on?” Riley demanded behind them. Paul turned, putting reassurance into his voice that he didn’t feel.

“It’s all right hon. Dale had a bit of a meltdown.”

“Where?” Riley followed Flynn’s gaze, and Paul saw him breathe out as he saw Jasper walking across the pasture. Dale was out of sight now, but Jasper’s intention was obvious.

“He’ll run until he wears himself out and starts thinking again,” Paul said calmly, “Let him and Jas get on with it and come finish your breakfast.”

Flynn didn’t want to any more than Riley did. In the doorway, Paul saw Luath watching, his eyes sharp, and Gerry’s voice from the kitchen said cheerfully candid.

“You’ve have to hand it to the man, he doesn’t flip often, but when he goes he really goes. It’s full five star, gold medal stuff.”

“This from the guy who calls me at a quarter to ten at night to say he’s boarding a plane to Texas.” Ash said conversationally. Gerry snorted.

“Oh that was so different it isn’t even funny.”

“Let them handle it.” Paul said again to Flynn, who growled, but stalked away, towards the barn rather than the corral. He’d work to make himself stay put; hard and isolated work, the yard chores would be done to within an inch of their lives this morning. Paul knew it, and put a definite hand on Riley, steering him back towards the kitchen and well away from Flynn.

“You come finish your breakfast.”

“No one else is!” Riley pointed out. Luath caught Paul’s eye as he passed them, on his way to the door. He’d go out and join Flynn, work alongside him, and Paul gave him a look of mute appreciation for it as he chivvied an unwilling Riley inside where Ash was tactfully distracting a bewildered looking Mason. 

“We are. And I can make sure you do. Dale’s all right, let him be.”

                                                                                                                      


He had no idea of the distance. The ground was hard going, through rough and deep grass that gave him something tangible to pit himself against. He finally had to slow to cross the river when he reached the crossing place, it was impossible to run over the wet, slippery stones inches deep beneath the surface, and the cold water against his legs was a sharp, sudden shock that penetrated through, broke his rhythm and brought him to a stop. It was the first time he realised he was wearing no shoes.

Stiffly, Dale waded to the far bank, slowing down, aware that his chest was burning and that his legs had long since turned to jelly. Drenched to the knees in jeans and socks, he climbed out on the opposite bank and stooped, resting his hands on his knees to ease his breath. Then stepped into the deeper grass and leaned over, bracing one hand on the smooth trunk of an aspen tree while he threw up. It was the mechanism of the gesture that caught his attention; he’d done it plenty of times before. In New York. In Tokyo. In Milan at night, when the parks were lamp-lit.

You stupid git, Aden. Do you even remember where you started this habit?

It had been at university, the first year he left school, when he was working full days, taking in information all the time, and had no time to ride, and no stables near enough, but there were a few hours late at night when the streets were quiet, when he could run for miles.

Idiot. Idiot, idiot, idiot. Never even occurred to you to think about what you were actually trying to run away from.

Of course it wouldn’t you twit, you learned that kind of thinking from Flynn. Who you lied up and down to this morning. Oh God.

Chest still burning, Dale dropped down on the grass and lay back, looking straight up at the sky overhead.

Can’t pass this off as going for a jog, can you? What the hell have you done? How exactly do you plan on explaining this to the others? How is this going to make them feel? They’ve worked bloody hard for you, and you promised them you’d quit doing this. You’ve let them down, yet again, and probably scared them spitless, and Flynn’s probably out looking for you instead of being able to do anything more useful with his day.

And what the hell are you letting him do it for if you know under it all you’re just planning to walk away when it gets too tough?

Idiot. You git, Aden. You bloody fool.

There was no more immediate way to reassure them or to stop any further rescue attempts either than to go home, as directly as possible. And yet he went on lying there, looking up at the sky. His legs were aching savagely, but the exhaustion and the pain were a welcome distraction.

Self medicating. Flynn’s always said it. You bolted like a bloody horse, in sheer panic because Jas saw you lose it. You hadn’t got the balls to stand there and admit it to him. Get your stupid backside off the ground and go home. Do something to salvage this. Try!

He still didn’t move.

It was only a short while later that he heard someone come down the bank behind him. Someone who moved so softly that it was only the whisper of the grass that gave him away, and Dale didn’t need to look up to know who. Jasper. Who had somehow, somewhere, got across the river and ahead of him. If he’d kept running on the path he’d taken, Dale would have run smack into him.

Yeah, he knows this land and he knows you, Aden; both a hell of a lot better than you do. What are you so surprised about?

Jasper unhurriedly crouched on the grass, elbows on his knees, his body quiet as if they’d just met casually on a morning stroll. His eyes were on the water running by. Dale made himself sit up, aware his stomach had clenched and his throat was tight and once more that stupid urge was in him. Run.

You’re worse than a bloody child, get a grip. Apologise. Open your bloody mouth, pretend you’re some kind of a competent adult and do something.

The water splashed against the rocks and made its steady, quiet, rushing sound as it flowed past them.

“I’m sorry.” Dale said eventually, and heard the detached tone in his voice. Jasper looked across at him. It was an uncritical look, and it was worse than if Jasper had knocked him down. Dale got stiffly to his feet, clearing his throat.

“I apologise. That was completely unacceptable, there is no excuse I can make.”

Our customer complaints department will be contacting you shortly to discuss compensatory reparation for your poor experience of service on this occasion.

You pointless swine.

Jasper just went on looking at him, his voice as calm as his eyes.

“Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine. Thank you.”

What he deserved right now was a sharp lecture and a sharper tanning and he would have welcomed either. Jasper merely leaned over to grasp his wrist, pulled, and hooked an ankle behind his to sweep his legs out from under him. It happened too fast to resist. Dale found himself sitting on the bank between Jasper’s legs, his back close against Jasper’s chest, and Jasper calmly collected his wrists, each hand taking and holding Dale’s opposite wrist so that Dale’s arms were crossed over his body, fencing him in. It was a gentle, painless but totally immovable grasp, Jasper was warm against him and around him, enclosing him, and it was a position that gave no leverage at all. He had done this once before and the memory of it brought an immediate swell of panic in Dale’s throat knowing how inescapable Jasper could be when he wanted, and how much harder it was to contain anything when Flynn, Paul or Jasper touched him. And they knew it.

“No.” he said as forcefully as he was able, trying to get his hands free and pushing hard back against Jasper’s chest which didn’t give an inch. Jasper just absorbed his force, without apparent effort, and his arms were too strong to fight off.  “No, we are not doing this. This is not the time, this is not the place, I will not be party to this.”

Yeah, the man handled cattle for a living. He was taller and considerably stronger, and he wasn’t impressed by half witted CEO ranting.

Who do you think you’re talking to Aden? It’s not up to you; you know it isn’t. Want to try facing that you’re not going to be the one who decides how this goes?

Shut up.

Unable to stand it, Dale tried this time with all his strength to wrench his hands loose, to twist around and get a purchase, to duck under Jasper’s arm, and none of it worked, none of it even nearly worked. And the second he lost that control, the second he started to fight in earnest -

-it was like yanking a cork out of a shaken bottle of pop. The wave of panic burst up without warning, and everything else exploded after it. The rage of this morning briefly released at the filing cabinet, the panic, the disgust, the fury. It was as if his body took over. There was thrashing and kicking and twisting to get his arms loose, and some part of Dale was shamefully aware that this was no longer to do with getting away. It was about wanting to fight, to batter himself against something with all his strength. Jasper simply sat and held him close. Effortlessly, as if he was no effort to hold, as if he weighed nothing at all. And the silent fighting began to involve gasps and sounds as the detachment slipped further and further away, until Dale was fully aware of himself gasping and making awful primal noises that no adult being should be allowed to, and of being sore muscled, exhausted and running out of the strength to fight any more. Jasper shifted his grasp unhurriedly, gathering Dale further back against his chest so his cheek was against Dale’s, and he mercilessly did the unkindest thing he could have done. He rocked, slowly, saying something deep and soft against Dale’s ear in a language Dale didn’t understand the words of but the tone was impossible to block out. It was loving and soothing, and Dale found himself shaking all over, and tears helplessly starting to run. After a while, just as quietly, Jasper let his wrists go, turned him around and Dale got both arms around his neck and hung on to him. 

He had no idea at the time of how long they sat there, Jasper relaxed as if it was no problem to spend the rest of the day out here by the river. Only that when Jasper finally let him go and reached over to his rucksack for a water bottle, his eyes were sore and blurred, his face was stiff and he was as chewed up as if he’d run a marathon. He drank deeply from the water bottle and Jasper took it and drank when Dale was done. They were still pressed close. Or if Dale was honest he was pressed close, huddled against Jasper. Jasper twisted the top closed on the bottle, put it down on the grass and ran a gentle hand over Dale’s head. He didn’t say anything, and Dale knew him well enough to know he wouldn’t. That was both the beauty and the challenge of Jasper; he wouldn’t do it for you. He’d wait for you to be ready, no matter how long he had to keep you sitting with him.

Trying to put it into any kind of words was hard. Dale cleared his throat a few times, digging in his pocket for a handkerchief to try and make some repairs to his face.

“I am so sorry. I swore I wouldn’t bolt again and I meant it, I’ve got no excuse. I’ve let you down, I don’t try anything like hard enough-”

“No.”

Gentle, but Jasper didn’t need to say anything else to make himself clear. He was right. Nothing but total surrender would show any real remorse for causing this nightmare. Dale took a deep breath, more afraid to say this than he’d ever been in the most pressurized of meetings or presentations.

Because it didn’t matter. Not like this does. You didn’t have to feel it like this.

“Riley told me yesterday I was prepared and ready to leave when I messed things up enough here.” he said eventually.  It wasn’t possible to do more than mutter it. His voice was hoarse and he was ashamed to think why. “He was right, I hadn’t realised, but he’s right. When I thought about it, I’d actually got a few plans to deal with it, I’d imagined what I’d bloody do when-”

When, not if. That said it all.

Bastard.

“Have you ever imagined anything about Flynn dying? Or Riley? Or any of us?” Jasper said mildly. It was so shocking a question that Dale looked up at him.

“How about a horse being seriously injured?” Jasper went on when Dale didn’t answer. “Dale?”

“...both.” Dale said very reluctantly. Jasper nodded.

“You’ll have thought about things like how you’d need to deal with it. Where the gun cabinet keys are. Which ammunition.”

“I’m nuts. And obsessive, I know.”

Jasper gave him another quiet nod. “You think in detail, and yes, you obsess sometimes. Particularly about thoughts that upset you the most. It’s self defence. Preparing yourself with a plan to hold on to if the worst happens. All it says to me is that you don’t feel very safe, and that’s my problem to deal with.”

How is that your problem?” Dale shook his head, resisting a very hollow urge to laugh. “There is nothing more any of you can possibly be doing, for pete’s sake Jas, put the blame where it belongs!”

“How do you know that there is nothing more we can be doing?” Jasper crossed his legs and leaned his elbows on his knees, looking directly at Dale. “Have we discussed this?”

“It is not easy to let you see what a pathetic, useless bastard I actually am.” Dale said wearily, and jumped as Jasper’s voice went a note considerably deeper, no louder but pitched in a way that Dale knew, and which made his stomach jolt in response.

“I would not allow you to speak to anyone else in that tone, or allow you to batter anyone else in the way you were battering yourself in the office. You are done with the tantrum.”

It was unequivocal, and there was something about the word ‘tantrum’ that made Dale flush.

Tantrum; noun; uncontrolled outburst or violent display of rage, frustration or bad temper; earliest known reference circa 1714 ‘tanterum’-

Shut up Aden.

“This is something we all need to discuss together,” Jasper said just as quietly, and he was holding Dale’s whole attention “But realising you are afraid of losing us is not the same as an intent to leave us. Nor does it mean that the trust and the openness you’ve given to us in the past few days is false, or devalued, or that you’re not doing it right.”

The use of that phrase was another jolt; you’re not doing it right. Between themselves it was a code phrase, a kind of affectionate joke at times that took all the sting out of its meaning, and as soon as Dale heard it, he realised. It wasn’t unusual for the perfectionism to creep up and bite him on the ass. In high gear, on high stress things, he didn’t always recognise what was colouring his thinking until it had taken him over entirely.

I missed it! Damnit, I missed it totally, I only ever get this bloody crazed when I’m obsessing– damn.

It was almost a relief.

Hit the bloody trigger and you go off like a clockwork toy. And it does feel like the end of the world when it’s in full force, you lose all sense of perspective. For crying out loud, Aden, you know this stuff, you have rules to deal with this stuff, you’re supposed to be bright!

Jasper got up and held out a hand to Dale, who took it, wincing slightly as he got to his feet. Now the adrenaline was wearing off, his feet were sore, his legs were stiff and his arms ached unpleasantly. Jasper turned him around, peeling his sweater off over his head and turning his hands over to look. There were tell tale marks on the side of both his forearms, several of which looked like they would bruise, and Jasper felt his way along the bone on both arms, thorough and gentle. There was dominion in it, and it was deeply calming. At Jasper’s indication Dale removed the leg in question from his jeans and let him look at his knee where a scrape indicated where the sharp edge of the filing cabinet had caught it and a bruise surrounded it. Jasper helped him out of the jeans and Dale walked with him hand in hand down onto the rocks of the crossing place into the river. They stood there for a while in the icy water, facing up river and letting the rushing water run over him to numb his feet and the stiffness in his legs, and take the heat out of the bruised knee, and at Jasper’s prompting, Dale stooped and washed his bruised arms and his stiff face and sore eyes. Watching the water flow past and over you was strong – it was a sense of seeing what soiling you let the water clean from your skin rush away, washed away out of reach, you could almost watch it go.

When they finally climbed out on the far bank, Jasper took one of the small first aid kits from his rucksack, the same as the ones they each carried in their saddle bags when they rode out, and Dale let him cover the scrape with antiseptic. He would have pulled his jeans back on when Jasper was done, save that Jasper shook his head, taking hold of his hand again.

“Leave them off, I’m going to spank you.”

That came as more of a shock than it probably should have done, not least because Jasper said it so mildly. It was as inexorable as having his arms examined or being held on the bank; he was merely being given the courtesy of being informed of what would happen. Jasper led him to a larger boulder among the ones that were scattered on the bank, one large enough to serve the purpose, and took a seat on it, drawing Dale around to his right side, and waiting.

Painfully aware of what he was waiting for, and equally aware of the ridiculousness of standing bare legged and in soaking wet socks on a river bank going through this formal ritual, Dale somehow got his hands to the waist of his shorts, eased them downward, and stretched himself over Jasper’s lap, his hands just about reaching the grass and the sun-warmed surface of the rock, and the scent of the earth and the grass near his face and the early wild flowers budding further down the bank were as strong in his nose as the feel of the damp grass under his fingers. Jasper had chosen a high enough boulder that his feet hung nowhere near the ground, he had no control over his position at all. His entire weight was draped over Jasper’s lap and Jasper’s arm over his waist was most of what was keeping him balanced. It was pointed how very easily Jasper did it too. It wasn’t possible to feel any more present or managed, or culpable than in this position, it was undramatic and ordinary and what had seemed like a monumental disaster right now felt a lot more like foolishness, just plain and easily dealt with disobedience.

Rule one; if you’re stressed find someone and talk about it. Rule two; no withholding. Rule three; no lying. Rule five; no disappearing anywhere. Rule eight; ask permission to go anywhere outside directed chores. Rule eleven; no bullshit.

Six smashed in one morning, Aden.

Jasper’s palm was warm and heavy as it rested on him for a moment, a deeper weight and warmth than the feel of the sun and the breeze along the river against bare skin, and that was the sum total of any warning or lecture. Jasper’s hand simply lifted and Dale winced at the first ringing spank, the sharp sting that made him jump in spite of having been braced for it, bringing the usual shock with it of how much this hurt, and how in that first, acute second of feeling the reality of that swat he always wholeheartedly regretted ever having done anything so stupid as to get himself put back in this position. And it was way too late to remember that now. Before the sting had fully registered another fell on his other cheek, Jasper’s hand moving back and forth soundly in a steady rhythm, working its way up and down and side to side, lighting up every inch of his bare backside and covering and re covering already well stung and smarting skin. Like Flynn, Jasper spanked with the same calm strength and commitment he gave to any job he put his hand to, whether he dug out a choked river bank or handled a steer. Gulping, out of breath and helplessly twisting over his lap, Dale could feel the muscles of his torso moving, the steadiness with which his arm rose and fell, the hand on his hip that held him easily in place, and Jasper had a knack of a flexible wrist and long fingers which stung like all hell with each hard spank, and he went on working on Dale’s backside with his whole attention for what felt like several years.

When he finally stopped, and after a moment or two more, helped Dale stand up and get his balance on the grass, which wasn’t easy after several minutes of hanging with his head down, Dale caught his breath and couldn’t help putting both hands back to cover his blazing rear, no matter how undignified it might be. Jasper put a hand under his chin, cupped it and lifted Dale’s face to his, looked directly at him for a moment with his dark gold brown eyes gentle, then kissed his forehead, and Dale got hold of him and hung on. He had no idea either how long they stood there in the deep grass, but eventually Jasper kissed him again, quietly, and patted his back.

“Come on now.”



*



Flynn saw them coming a long way off; two figures appearing in the distance in the home pastures.

There was no one else around. Luath, Riley and Gerry had taken the others out with them to start on the day’s work over two hours ago, none of them surprised by Dale’s disappearance and all of them familiar with similar incidents in their own experience. This family held a number of high keyed men; this was nothing particularly unusual. Absolutely forbidden by Paul to go anywhere near Flynn, Riley had taken charge, split the group and the day’s labour, and taken Mason out with him. Luath had discreetly offered, but they’d all seen Riley go back again and again to a difficult or bad tempered horse, never quitting.  Whatever Riley might say to them in private about his frustration, Mason wouldn’t see any more of it than Riley intended.

Which left Paul, who’d been weeding the vegetable patch with his eyes on the pasture. He’d put his whole heart into Dale these past few weeks. The intensity between them was as tangible as the storm of dammed up feeling Dale was trying to free up with himself, and his anxiety was just as tangible although he’d said nothing. Dale wasn’t someone who called up mild or easily manageable emotion. Once the yard was empty, Flynn had walked down to the vegetable patch to him, helping him haul the several large sacks of loam from the barn that he was spreading over the newly planted hardy seedlings, aware his voice was rough and that Paul wouldn’t mistake it.

“It’s bloody amazing he’s held out as long as he has without bolting. He couldn’t be under much more pressure, this is nightmare stuff. Personal, messy.”

“I know.” Paul knelt to open the sack, and Flynn stooped, opening his knife to rip the plastic for him. “Like you said; the programming cuts in and hijacks the system, he doesn’t choose to do it.”

Which was mostly what they were both worried about. If he’d stormed off in temper, if it was deliberate, he would be far less vulnerable and not likely to find himself several miles away, badly shaken up, with no very clear idea of how or why he came to be in a mess he’d blame himself bitterly for.

“In a way, it’s good for him.” Paul said matter of factly, spreading loam around the new seedlings. “Every time he really loses it he sees again that we can handle it and the world doesn’t end. There’s no sense in talking Dale through this kind of thing, he has to actually experience it.”

That was true. And yet every time he reached the point of experiencing a reaction this severe, and the loss of control was terrifying to Dale, it gave him another powerful reminder of how terrible these emotions were. Another powerful reason to shut himself down for fear of what might burst free if he didn’t. Much of what Paul had been doing with him lately had been taking the fear out of the low levels of these emotions, drawing him briefly and often into looking at them rationally, taking the power out of them. But those were the foothills. This was the full blown mountain.

Dale’s sense of self was not a sure thing. It was there in his work, he knew how to relate to clients, he knew the technical skills of management, how to navigate a whole host of sequences and processes and to engage with the stability of data. It was there with Hammer and the horses; Flynn watched him ride and work with the colts not just with the trained and honed skills of a compulsive perfectionist who had to know and achieve, but with himself too; the horses gave without expecting much back, they made few personal demands, they responded to the respect and the quiet competence he treated them with. And it was there too with the four of them and with other men in this family; but like a flaring candle; strong in some areas, leaping bright in others, and dwindling down to something very faint and flickering in a few  deep places in him, which were the places where he could get lost.

If your initial relationship to the world and to yourself was through a woman whose own relationship to the world was one of withdrawal, if that initial relationship consisted of quiet and distance and forced equanimity – your sense of self became subsumed, something quiet, to be poured deep down into books, into private thought, to imagination, to intense protective maintenance of those boundaries because Dale was not a man whose emotions burned palely or coldly. It was when they most called that sense of self out of him, when it fought back with selfishness, refusal, demand, the most primal of human feeling, when he was overwhelmed with who ‘I’ was in a sense he couldn’t cope with, that he slapped it down the hardest. Stifled it like a man smothering a fire. Physically fled from it. That was what gave this the potential to be a serious setback.

They worked in the yard for a good two hours more before Flynn first saw them, the two figures in the distance, walking across the home pasture. Paul got up, brushing off his hands while he stood for a moment to watch, then began to put away the tools and the left over loam and went inside to wash. Flynn shut the corral gate and went to join Paul in the kitchen to spare Dale having to face them standing there waiting for him.

He looked pale when he walked into the kitchen hand in hand with Jasper. Damp from the knees down and with nothing on his feet but muddied socks, his eyes still slightly bloodshot, but without the numbness that Flynn been prepared for. A little awkward but when Paul went to him with his arms out, Dale hugged him, not woodenly but with his body fitting against Paul’s and his head down against Paul’s shoulder. Paul hugged him hard, freeing one hand to soundly swat the seat of his jeans.

“About time you horror, I’ll teach you to go running off without boots on. I’ve been worrying myself crazy about you all morning. Get out of those wet jeans and socks. Jas, give me yours too, you’re no better off.”

Dale wearily started to unbutton the jeans. Flynn came around the table to him and Dale glanced up, with a lot in his face that Flynn read and understood and put aside for the moment by picking him up in a hug that lifted him off the floor. Dale’s arms wrapped around his neck so tight in return that there was a moment where breathing was difficult, and then Flynn kissed him and put him down, taking a seat to peel him out of his clothes. He was cold. While Paul brought dry jeans and socks and a heavier sweater from the laundry room, Flynn took the towel from where it hung on the stove rail and rubbed him down, noticing the scrape and bruise on his knee and no few bruises on his feet. Jasper filled the kettle and stood it on the stove, dug in the pantry and put a box of muffins down on the table, taking one to eat while he set out mugs.   

“Here.” Paul put dry clothes down on the table beside Dale, wincing at the bruises. “That one on your knee looks nasty, hon.”

“We have these too.” Jasper said through muffin, reaching over to turn up one of Dale’s forearms. “Both arms.”

“How did this happen?” Paul demanded, checking the other arm. Dale let him and Flynn saw the faintly shamefaced look Dale gave him, although nothing worse. He and Jasper had obviously dealt with this, Dale was very definitely in the mindset of this being done with, paid for, and it helped a great deal.

“I beat up the filing cabinet in the office.”

“Ok, explain some of this.” Paul pulled out a chair and sat on his other side, watching Dale pull socks on and get up to find his way into the jeans. “What on earth happened this morning to make it look like the wreck of the Hesperus?”

Jasper put four mugs of tea down on the table and pushed one towards Dale, taking a seat opposite him. Dale buttoned the jeans and sat down, and Flynn saw the slight wince as he did so, which confirmed his suspicions.

“Perfectionist crap, the usual stuff, I’m really sorry. Riley said something last night that hit a nerve and it boiled out of all proportion-” Dale stopped and leaned both elbows on the table, pushing his hands through his hair, and taking a deeper breath. Paul put a hand out to turn his face up.

“No. Stop addressing the board and tell us, we’re right here.”

Dale breathed out again and sat back, looking from Flynn to Paul, his voice softer but fairly clear.

“I was obsessing on it all night, so I was in a real state by this morning. And I covered it up mostly – when I went upstairs it was because I knew I was getting past controlling it, I went into the office and battered hell out of the filing cabinet, and Jas caught me at it. Which I couldn’t face and I panicked.”

There was a moment’s silence, then Paul said roundly, “What happened the last time you looked me in the face and told me you were fine, young man?”

“I dealt with it.” Jasper said quietly. “Thoroughly, before we came home.”

“I’m not sure that makes a difference.” Paul gave Dale a look that made him wince, although he didn’t drop his eyes. “You don’t lie to us like that, you don’t play us like that. What on earth did Riley say to you?”

“That I was preparing myself to leave when I’d messed things up enough.” Dale said even more softly. “He was right, I hadn’t realised.”

“That was not what he said.” Flynn said just as quietly. “He said you needed to realise you were not going to have to make yourself leave us when you thought you’d made us sick of you. Very different thing.”

“But I have actually thought about what I’d do if I needed to leave,” Dale sounded hollow. This must have been an awful thing for him to admit to Jasper; Flynn could hear the hole where the emotion had been. “I have. Not consciously but even so, in a vague kind of way I’ve made plans.” There was almost a plea for forgiveness in that tone, a desperation for any kind of mitigating circumstances. “What sort of a bastard does that make me? If I’m planning to leave then in every way that matters I’ve already quit, it makes everything I’ve said to any of you in the last few weeks worthless-”

“You make plans about the things that frighten you most.” Jasper told him, and from the way Dale glanced up at him, they’d had that conversation in detail. Paul reached for a muffin, matter of fact.

“Of course you’ve thought about it; leaving was exactly what you had to do the last time you had a permanent home, and it was devastating for you. What other experience have you had to work from? You didn’t walk away from your mother, you went where she sent you without complaint because you thought it was what was best for her. Trust me, noble gestures of that kind are not going to go well around here. We talk about problems and we sort them out in this house, nobody is getting sent anywhere.”

He broke the muffin into several chunks, put one of the chunks in front of Dale as he ate another, and Dale was so obviously flummoxed by the briskly scolding tone that he actually picked it up and took a bite. It was the incongruity that was getting to him. People didn’t generally have disasters while companionably eating muffins together. Flynn picked up one himself to support it, and Paul went on slightly indistinctly through  a mouthful of nuts.

“This is mostly about you being afraid of getting too attached to us because the last time you loved anyone that way, it hurt you so much you never wanted to risk it again. And about all or nothing thinking that you’ve failed. Isn’t it?”

“Yes sir.”

“Drink that tea, you’re freezing.” Paul put a hand up to shake Dale’s hair back from his forehead into its usual neatness. “You’ve opened a whole new door to us and it’s terrifying hon, we know it is. Nothing you’ve said to us is ‘worthless’, this isn’t something easy that you can just do or not do, and sometimes it might get away from you. It’s about trying, day in and day out, and taking each day as it comes. Which you’re doing.”

“I didn’t this morning, I gave up.” Dale sounded faintly despairing about it, even with a mug of tea in his hands. “I gave you a lot of baloney about the shirt, I was worse with Flynn when we got up-”

“It does not take a lot of words to be sorry or to be honest.” Jasper said mildly. “You’ve shown us repeatedly the past few weeks that you trust us and you’re willing to be entirely honest with us, even when it’s taken great effort and been painful for you. Mistakes happen, but you’re still here wanting to be honest with us, you’re taking responsibility. That’s all we need.”

Dale didn’t answer. He propped his elbows on the table against and drank tea, and it was only because he was watching that Flynn saw his eyes fill and blur, and how carefully Dale was breathing. It was the first time, in over a year, he’d ever seen Dale reach the point of real tears simply for something that was sad, or which touched him. Across the table he saw Jasper had noticed it too, and it was too fragile a moment to say anything.





When he was warmer and he’d eaten, Flynn hustled him through a hot bath that soaked out muddied and bruised feet as well as some of his tension, and put him to bed. The power of rest, real rest, without books, without conversation, without distraction, was something they’d learned from Philip, although it was something strong in Jasper’s beliefs too. Peace for both body and mind, and after one of his real meltdowns, Dale needed it.

Staying with him was equally vital if you wanted him to rest and not mentally digest himself, and Flynn took his book off the night stand, stretching out on his side of the covers alongside him. In the last few weeks it had mattered that he gave Dale and Paul the space to work out their own ground however hard it was, and Jasper had done the same. Riley understood it too; like Flynn he had once gradually built the deeper layers of his own separate relationships with Paul and with Jasper, and Riley knew the value of it; it was essential to all of them. The space in your own time, on your own terms, to find out who the two of you naturally were together, beyond sharing in loving the others in the group. But at night Dale came back this room, to him, to the stability of his most established roots, and Flynn had kept that a safe space for him to retreat to and ground himself in. He’d seen Riley and Dale seek each other out and do much the same thing at least once in an evening, Dale’s other closest and deepest relationship between the five of them, which told him Dale didn’t need it explaining to him. But right now, after the morning he’d had, he needed all the stability and reassurance he could get, and Flynn wanted him certain that he came first, that he didn’t have to ask for or hope for Flynn’s entire attention.

Dale lay on his stomach, his head on his folded arms, which wasn’t entirely to do with Jasper having spanked him. Having see him in the bath, he was definitely pink behind but while Jasper had done a thorough job, it was by no means a heavy one. Small, every day punishments for small, every day crimes; Jasper had put it clearly in proportion, with the consequence being a tanned behind, not devastation. He was calm, too. Thoughtful, but his shoulders were loose and his head was relaxed on his arms,

“I told you about Cairo.” he said eventually, without lifting his head. Flynn put a hand over to pat his hip, not looking up from his book.

“Quiet.”

“I want to tell you this.” Dale pulled the pillow further under his chest, wrapping his arms around it so he faced Flynn. Flynn put the book down, watching him.

“I didn’t think it was all bullshit.”

“I knew it was enough to distract you.”

It was said brutally frankly, the way Dale could be when the barriers went down. All or nothing. Flynn nodded, not commenting. Dale looked past him for a moment, chin on his arm.

“You said you thought it wasn’t Cairo I was remembering. I think I was remembering the same thing when I was at Cairo, I just didn’t know it.”

“Memories stack on a trigger.” Flynn watched him, speaking quietly enough not to break his thread of thought. “It’s like you have a mental box for ‘difficult waking up times’. Your subconscious adds each experience on top of it and each time you’re triggered you feel everything in that box, whether it’s actually happening or not.”

“I know what it was.” Dale glanced up and met his eyes, and Flynn could see the effort it cost him. “I can’t feel it now, I could this morning, but I know rationally what and where it was. It was the first few months at school. It was waking up in that dormitory not wanting to move, not being able to face the day, knowing I had to.  I’ve had a lot of mornings like that. Not here. It was a shock, that’s the first time I’ve had it here.”

“You’re opening the lid on unprocessed stuff, kid. It’s just passing through, you’re getting rid of the bits you don’t want.” Flynn put the book out of reach and slid over to take the place of the pillow, gathering Dale into his arms to make him feel the comfort he could only partially absorb through listening. He rubbed Dale’s back, held him, feeling him hang on as though they were somewhere a lot less safe than their own bed. “It’s ok. It’s going to be ok. Sometimes you’ll remember something without any feelings attached to it. Sometimes you’ll get a whole bunch of feelings and sensations without any idea what memory they fit with. A lot of what you’re remembering, you were too young to put it into clear thought or language or understand what you were feeling at the time. In time it’ll link up and you’ll make sense of it. The only thing you need to do is let yourself experience what comes up. Let it happen. That’s all. Most of this just wants to be acknowledged.”



*



Dale knew before he woke that someone was beside him. Their hand was resting on his back, warm and heavy, there was the scrape of a page turning. He turned over and found Paul laying on the covers beside him in the mid afternoon sunlight, reading, and Paul laid down the book, putting a hand out to stroke his face.

“Hey darling.”

They all did it so simply. As if there was nowhere more important to be and no one more important than you. At times like this it raised so much emotion it was painful. Dale sat up, not wanting to pull away but not able to bear looking at his eyes any longer, and Paul rubbed his back instead, his voice gentle.

“Come back here and look at me. Yes, I know it’s not easy, you can do it.”

He waited, a hand on Dale’s shoulder, and Dale took a deep breath and turned back to him. Paul put a hand under his chin.

“My eyes, not my eyebrows. I do know the difference.”

It took serious effort to make himself look, really look into Paul’s eyes. They were painfully soft, uncritical. Making contact with them raised an inexorable wave of emotion in the pit of his stomach and Dale felt his eyes sting in response and all control disappear straight out of the window.

“Atta boy.” Paul went on stroking his face with a lot of understanding in his tone. “I should have done this first thing this morning and we might have had an easier day.”

“I screwed Flynn up, down and sideways.” Dale said unevenly. “One of the worst things is knowing that if I want to fool you into thinking something then I probably can.”

“Don’t make it sound like you’re some kind of evil genius.” Paul said mildly. “You only do it when you’re stuck in panic and it feels to you like there’s no other options. We know why it happens, we’re working on you remembering you’ve still got other choices no matter how upset you are, and on us getting better at spotting when you’re in trouble. We’re going to figure it out, it just probably won’t be by this afternoon.”

“You make it sound so understandable.”

“Which is a polite way of saying nope, not buying.” Paul gave him a faint smile. “It is understandable. It’s perfectly understandable. I understand it, I don’t blame you, Jasper doesn’t, Flynn doesn’t, Riley doesn’t. That’s pretty much all that matters. Did you really want Flynn to believe you this morning, hon? Really.”

Yeah, Paul understood way too much. Dale sighed and admitted it.

“...Yes and no at the same time. I needed him off the subject, fast,”

“But you also wanted him to make it stop.” Paul ran his fingers gently through Dale’s hair. “That makes sense to me.”

“You know I could have a conversation with you about any corporate matter you want to name?” Dale held his eyes with an effort, resisting the urge to roll onto his back and address this to the ceiling and telling it instead to Paul. “I can do any academics you want, I have several bloody degrees. It’s high level stuff. And I know no one’s impressed with kind of thing here, it’s nothing special, Philip was a serious player in his field, Flynn is, you are, Luath is-”

“Where’s this rabbit trail going?” Paul interrupted him. Dale grimaced.

“Why do I keep finding myself having conversations with you where I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, I know nothing, and I feel about six years old?”

“You know why; this is new ground. You don’t have to prove brains or maturity to us, we know who you are. We can handle it.” Paul patted where his hand rested. “I know you’re tired but I don’t want you to sleep any more now or you’re not going to sleep tonight. Put something warm on, and you can come sit with me for a while in the office until it’s time to start dinner.”

He let go, and Dale leaned forward for a moment, elbows on his knees, stretching the stiffness in his spine. Then he leaned back, put a hand against Paul’s face and kissed his cheek before he got up.

Flynn had gone out after lunch to help the others with the stock and the fence work. There had been an extremely blunt conversation that preceded his leaving that stated since Dale was currently not calm enough to communicate his stress level rather than act on it, he wasn’t going out of reach of either himself, Paul or Jasper. It was known and safe ground, the same ground Flynn had pulled him onto on every occasion he’d ever been out of his depth since he first came here, and while it wasn’t comfortable listening, Dale was aware of the calm that spread through him. No choices, no responsibility, the wheel taken from his hands by a man who wouldn’t negotiate, who demanded plain, explicit obedience, and had all of his trust. There was calm in Flynn heading out too; Flynn understood him and Dale appreciated it. It meant being able to share in Flynn’s fixed conviction that today was just the same as any other day, nothing bizarre, not a disaster. 

It was comforting to simply sit on the floor of Paul’s office while Paul worked on his lap top a few feet away, in a room that was very much Paul’s, filled with books, with the several plant pots on the windowsill and the deep fire colours Paul loved; the terracottas and golds of the curtains and the rug. Flynn had taught him the peace in simply stopping. Having no responsibility, having nothing more to do than just ‘be’. Something most adults tended to spend very little time doing, and Dale knew he needed explicit permission to stop to be able to do it. Flynn would have been tougher; he’d be sitting upright, still, quiet, and very aware of doing nothing; something that always cleared Dale’s head and got his attention rapidly back on what ‘calm’ meant. Paul was perfectly happy for you just to be doing nothing in particular near to him, and there was a unique kind of peace that came with that too. The box stood in the corner was filled with the odds and ends and papers Dale and Riley had brought back from the Three Traders saloon and the notes they and Paul had been taking as they read through them, and Dale leaned against a bookcase and idly sorted through the box, handling the papers quietly to avoid disturbing Paul. He was fairly familiar with the information in the newspapers now, sorted into date order and representing a whole muddle of social information that at one time had been crucial to the few hundred people who lived and worked on their land, and there was a peculiar feeling of inclusion in their world just by belonging to their town too, even eighty years later. He was looking through the third or fourth paper when something caught his eye and he neatly folded the one he was holding, laid it down and checked the next one, and then the next, making a neat line of them, all folded at the same place. Paul glanced back at him, then sat back in his chair.

“What have you got there?”

Dale didn’t look up, sounding absorbed as he added a fifth paper to the line. “I thought this  seemed like an unusual thing to announce, I supposed it was to do with hunting or something – here. Look, this is 1928, the year of the train robbery.”

The notice in the announcements columns was small; just a single printed phrase.

Full moon Monday March 12th

“I suppose it could be to do with hunting?” Paul said, following his finger to the line. Dale picked up another paper.

“Yes, but look at this.”

Paul scanned down the line to where Dale pointed; an identical line, hidden this time near the bottom of the page. If you weren’t looking for it, it would have been hard to spot.

Full moon, Friday March 30th

A third paper carried the same notice.

Full moon, Friday 13th April.

“That’s a bit inaccurate isn’t it?” Paul leaned down to look more closely. “Three full moons in a month?”

“It’s obviously nonsense, but I can check the dates of the full moons that year.” Dale turned over one of the scrap pages of their notes, held out a hand for a pencil and Paul found one on the desk and handed it to him, raising his eyebrows as Dale started to scrawl neat, rapid equations.

“You can figure the full moons of 1928?”

“It’s a relatively simple formula,” Dale said absently, scribbling fast. “Linear approximation of a full polynomial with the lunation length and an accumulator which corrects the mean syzygy, then you’re straight into sine terms and you can calculate the new moons which in turn give the full moons-”

Brackets and figures were appearing in neat lines and Paul watched him totting up without the faintest hesitation, no pauses for thought. It was at moments like this, when Paul was reminded of how normal it was to him to think at this speed and in this complexity, that he caught a glimpse of how terrifying it must be to Dale to be faced with things that he couldn’t understand. He made so little fuss about it, he had so little pity for himself that he didn’t show it until with all his brilliance, he was driven to the point of physically fleeing.

Oblivious, which was probably just as well as for a moment Paul had to swallow to control himself, Dale wrote a rapid line at the bottom of the calculations, underlining it with a brisk stroke of the pencil.

“Full moon March 6th  in 1928, which would have been a Tuesday, and full moon April 5th, which would be a Thursday. The notices here have nothing whatever to do with the full moons.  My guess, for that phrase hidden fortnightly in the town notices, would be it was the town code for ‘moonshine ready and available. Although that’s pure supposition, there’s no way to prove it.”

The mild irritation in his voice was another giveaway. Paul controlled his face with an effort, managed to smile at him, and ran a hand over his dark hair with a lot of contained tenderness.

“Informed guesses are ok.” he said firmly. “Aren’t they?”

Dale glanced up and Paul caught the faint smile.

“Yes sir.”

“It is ok not to know. I need to think about dinner, put that away now.”



We only do conclusions based on quantified, proven, verifiable facts. If you can’t find them, that’s when the dreams start. Even in your sleep you can’t stop chewing.  

Mixing together a cinnamon crumble, Dale’s attention was occupied and he had a light enough touch that he was extremely good with pastry of any kind, with a mathematician’s mind that meant proportions were exact. Baking was something that invariably worked if you wanted to get Riley to relax, and it worked with depressed clients too whenever Paul tried it;  a physical and organising task, the sensory stimulation of both hands in something messy and tactile with sweet scents that most people found calming and connected with good feelings. Cooking was also something that involved working together and something Dale didn’t have enough confidence in to be able to shut down and do by himself without communicating, which made it a good way to spend time with him. It was getting on for four pm when Paul put the fruit crumble in the oven, alongside the cheese bake he had finished preparing, and Paul washed dishes while Dale wiped the table down and swept up crumbs with an efficient speed that would leave the area far cleaner than if anyone else had done it. He liked order, particularly in the kitchen.

“It’s logical to think,” he said as he took a dry tea towel from the drawer and came to dry the dishes Paul was stacking to drain on the draining board – in proper sequence, starting with the glassware which he always did – “that the Three Traders paper didn’t circulate beyond the town. It’s a small, local news sheet. The notification of the moonshine is in amongst children’s birthdays and puppies free to good homes, it’s all very domestic, immediately local information, being printed for the sole interest of the town residents. So the moonshine advert is addressed to someone or to people within the town.”

“A small local still would be for the use of locals, wouldn’t it?” Paul shook off another dish and laid it down to drain. “Private source of alcohol, at a time when the town couldn’t import it.”

Dale put several polished glasses away. “The stash Riley and I found in the siding was hardly a small private concern, it was over five hundred bottles. That’s an amount for export, not a small town. We know it was a large enough racket that the Connelly gang were involved, and they were relatively small timers as crooks go, but not that small time. They were big enough for the Cheyenne police to be interested and to come out here.”

“It’s rather like that song of yours, four and twenty ponies.” Paul observed. “A town with a little open secret in smuggling. Maybe it began as a little local concern and grew- what?”

Dale had stopped dead with his hand on the cupboard door and the look on his face was pure exasperation, which meant it was directed at himself, he never showed that kind of frustration towards anyone else. “I should have thought of that! The whole song is about don’t look, don’t tell, we’re all in this racket together – watch the wall my darling while the gentlemen go by. It was all I could think of in the town, I never remember this!”

“Remember what?”

“Symbols, it often works in symbols.” Dale shut the cupboard and came to dry plates. “With Mustang Hill I kept dreaming of Gerry and Wade and Bear – I didn’t realise they were symbols for Roger who I didn’t know.  I didn’t have an image for Roger, so the images I got were ‘brat’, and ‘one of that group’. I kept dreaming of falling, them falling from roofs or ladders here, because that used the material I had in my head for ‘falling, connected to here’, and it meant Roger and the Trade Tower. It’s not exact. It’s as if what I know is the library or the vocabulary that exists to be used. If I don’t have the exact word or the exact image then it’s the nearest match, a code for. I know the smugglers’ song, and it was pulled up because it’s the same idea: a community quietly helping each other operate under the radar of the law, a community secret.”

“It’s not all symbols though,” Paul shook off the last dish and handed it to him. “When I’ve seen you pick up things from objects or pictures sometimes it’s more exact, like the smell of lavender soap.”

“It doesn’t come with a translation, there are bits that mean what they look like they mean, and other bits that turn out to be symbols or code, and there’s no way to tell which is which.” Dale took the dried dish across to the shelf and placed it, sounding somewhere between exasperated and absorbed. Paul could see the energy in him. “It’s not until you have more data that you start to be able to test and make sense of and fit what you’ve already got, and a lot of the time it is open to interpretation, it isn’t exact fact.”

“You’re pretty much having to go on faith.” Paul said with sympathy. Dale quirked an eyebrow at him, and Paul smiled, flicking a handful of dish soap foam at him from the sink.

“Don’t give me that look, it’s a lot of what you’re having to do right now in a lot of ways, isn’t it? Have faith that what you’re thinking and feeling is valid, even if you’re having to believe you’re right without any facts to back it up..”

Dale had ducked and laughed at the flicked foam. Now he brushed it off his sleeve, smiling, and Paul, on impulse with both hands covered in foam, leaned on the edge of the sink and ran the web of his thumb and finger against the web of his other hand, then drew his hands gently apart to make a bubble film. He blew gently against the film, watching the bubble grow between his hands, until he blew it softly from the palm of one hand and it launched into the air, large and iridescent, floating slowly towards the ceiling on the warm air from the stove. It was something he had last done years ago in the kitchen at the boarding house in Maine, mostly for his Grandmother’s cat who slept most of the day on the faded and ancient embroidered cushion on the chair in front of the range, but sat up and stared wide eyed at bubbles when you were washing up. This bubble popped in a tiny shower of droplets by the top of the window, and Paul dipped his hands in the soapy water again, blowing softly to make a far larger bubble, and launching it gently from his palm towards Dale. This one was large enough to wobble, changing shape in mid air, and Paul was watching it with amusement, when he caught sight of something in Dale’s face that grabbed his whole attention.

He had been relaxed, amused, the sense of warmth between them was tangible and when you teased him or flicked anything at him these days he often laughed instead of that look of mental gears having crunched to a halt. He was watching the wobbling, unsteady bubble in the air between them, but there was suddenly something larger than usual and undefended about his eyes, and he wasn’t exactly smiling but he was captivated. Absolutely captivated. In some way it wasn’t one of his usual expressions, and Paul felt the jolt in his chest as he saw it and recognised it. It was the spellbound look of a young child. In his eyes, in his face, even in his body language – the open hands, his eyes, his mouth, the position of his body, you could see the child there quite unconscious of being watched – and then Dale caught his eye and Paul saw him realise. His face changed in an instant like a gate slamming down and his eyes went ice cold, he physically drew back like he’d been hit, and Paul grabbed a tea towel and followed him fast as he headed for the porch.

He’d already run once today. Well versed in handling clients and other stroppier members of this household Paul was well aware how long it took for the body chemistry from severe stress or a meltdown took to disperse, and how easy it was for someone still in the come-down stages to be triggered straight back into meltdown, and his first and most horrible thought was that Dale would do as he so often did when he hit panic, and run. Instead of going down into the yard, Dale stalked along the porch alongside the laundry room and study, and Paul instinctively moved instead to stand by the porch steps, putting himself in the way of the exit. It was a token gesture and he knew it; another set of steps lay around the corner of the porch that led down to the vegetable garden, and the rail was only waist height and no real barrier at all. Heart thumping, Paul held on to the rail and watched him. Moving fast, a rigid, rapid stride that said he was barely containing himself, his shoulders were stiff, his arms were folded tightly across his chest and while his face was expressionless, he was very white and the brief glimpses Paul caught of his eyes were enough to see they were blazing. Almost at the corner of the house, he turned on his heel and came back a few sharp strides before he turned again. Pacing, keeping his distance, staying well away from Paul and averting his face.

Trying not to run.

Paul took a deeper, slower breath, holding onto the porch rail.

Panic. This is panic, it just looks like anger. He doesn’t know what to do, he’s barely hanging on to himself, and this is not coming from the adult. Emotionally not all of him is thirty one, and we know it, and the damaged bits are very near the surface right now. He  said this morning that when things got rough he felt about six years old.... Darling, I hate to say it, but I’d put it a lot nearer three or four, and that’s probably around the age that you were first able to figure out a plan of how to cope when things went wrong.

Instinctively, watching the battle going on inside him, Paul kept his mouth shut and stood still, wanting to do nothing that tipped Dale into having no other option but to bolt. Right now one wrong word would be enough.

So pull yourself together Paul. In real terms, this is a three or four year old who’s lost it. There’s not a lot of rationalisation or logic or language involved. Not at the level this is affecting him. What would you do with a child that age in this state? He doesn’t know how to use you for help because when this first happened to him you weren’t there. You’re not in the plan. He was alone, no one was coming to save him; letting himself long for help just made him feel more vulnerable and made it hurt more.

The nearest I’ve ever seen him to this is the day of the thunder storm when I put an arm around him and he sent the books flying. This is all kinds of conflict in him, it’s not rejection of me. This is: ‘I want you to stay and I’m afraid you won’t, I want to throw myself at you for comfort but I can’t’ – you know this, he’s tried to explain it, he’s being pulled in different directions. You know him way, way better now than you did then, you’re a lot closer than you were then, he’s tried so hard to confide some of this in you. Think.

Slowly, Paul did what Flynn and Jasper often did with clients in mid rant or rage in the pasture. He crouched down, resting his elbows on his knees. Relaxed, unthreatening, his head lower than Dale’s. It said I’m here, I’m listening, I’ve got all the time you need. And with a child it was instinctive to go down to their level to make contact with them.

Dale was pacing rapidly, head down, and he wasn’t making a sound but Paul could almost hear the vicious inner dialogue and he had a good idea of what it sounded like. Dale had his hands linked behind his neck, elbows sharp, shoulders sharp, it made him look taller, angular, and there was a tight control to his stride, an assertiveness in every move.

And that’s an act. An adaptive skill, like the intellectualising and the rabbit trails. I bet when you were four years old that talking to you would have been like talking to an adult, because it engages people on equal terms. It takes control. It keeps them on the other side of your wall. It’s like a cat making itself look bigger and fiercer when it’s afraid, it’s another way you learned to protect yourself.

Not moving, not talking, Paul waited. With an effort keeping his shoulders relaxed, his face relaxed, his eyes soft, making himself breathe and calm down and not pick up on and react to the stress radiating off Dale. Just waited.

This is not dangerous. This is not a cause for panic. I’m here and we’re ok honey, take your time.

It took several minutes, during which the pacing gradually slowed down a little. Dale’s shoulders softened a little, at first so little that Paul wasn’t sure if he’d really seen it, but slowly after a moment more, his hands came down and then he leaned with both hands on the porch rail. Shoulders arched, head down in a very adult stance. Braced. But still.

Moving unhurriedly, Paul got up and closed the distance between them. Not coming too close, but sitting down against the porch rail a few feet from him. Dale didn’t look towards him, and Paul thought for several minutes more before he casually drew one of the plant pots on the porch near enough to rifle through it, gently removing the few dead or damaged leaves. It was a purple sage, one of Paul’s favourites for cooking with, and the scent of it rose up from the picked leaves, faintly sweet.

“My Grandmother used to make sage batter, little cakes of it like sage pancakes when she cooked chicken. And sage tea. She used to swear sage tea was good for coughs. And thyme tea for headaches, although I like thyme leaves plain in salad or on bread and butter. It reminds me of the yard outside the boarding house, that always smelled of thyme plants when the sun was on it.”

Paul leaned over to the golden thyme in the next pot and picked a couple of the newer little shoots, sniffing them for the spicy scent before he put a shoot in his mouth. He held the other sprig out to Dale without looking, but heard him shift his weight and after a minute Dale crouched down, accepting the shoot at arm’s length which he then twirled a little between his fingers. Still white faced and expressionless, head down, very tense. Paul twisted the heavy thyme plant pot over to Dale.

“Can you take the dead leaves off that one for me? Just pick them, it’ll green up again now it’s getting warmer out here.”

He drew the mint over to work on himself, leaning back against the porch rails and taking his time, and after a moment without looking, he was aware of Dale silently and delicately removing the few tiny withered leaves from the thyme. Paul held out a hand to take the dead leaves when he was done, adding them to his handful of dried sage and mint, and held out an arm to him.

“Need a hug?”

Probably a dangerous question. He asked it gently, fairly casually and not too directly which made it easier to say no to if Dale wanted. Dale didn’t respond for a moment. Then Paul heard the porch boards creak as he sat down within reach: not curling up to him as Riley would have done, but within reach. In Dale, right now, that was the equivalent of a whole hearted yes. Paul wrapped the arm around his shoulders and pulled gently, tugging Dale over against him, and sat back against the porch rails, tipping his head against Dale’s. He was stiff, unyielding, and while his body was contained, outwardly quiet, after a few seconds of Dale’s body against his, Paul was shockingly aware of Dale’s heart hammering in his chest. It convinced him still further, this was not at all what Dale made it look like. He rubbed Dale’s shoulder where his hand rested, deeply and soothingly, keeping his own body relaxed, trying to radiate calm, comfort. 

“I bet that felt like I tricked you in the kitchen.” he said softly after a while. “I used to blow bubbles like that for my Grandmother’s cat at home, it was one of the few things that ever woke her up. I hadn’t thought of it in years.”

Dale didn’t answer. After a while Paul squeezed the arm around him gently and took his hand.

“Come on sweetheart. Let’s go somewhere more comfortable.”

He had meant the couch in the family room, but as he helped Dale up his eye fell on the swing on the porch and he thought abruptly of Jasper and having many times seen Jasper sit with Dale on the swing to talk.

How do you rock an adult male without terrifying him? Trust Jas to have that one figured out! He’s a movement addict himself, so is Ri.

Dale sat down on the swing beside him, and Paul tugged until Dale abruptly tucked his feet under him and leaned with his full weight, a very definite commitment towards him. Paul relaxed back against the swing, feet braced against the porch floorboards, letting the swing rock slowly under their weight. It was far easier to hold him like this. Really hold him. And the rigidity was starting to reduce, even if he wasn’t exactly moulding. He loved being touched; his body knew what his head didn’t.

“I know that must have been pretty frightening. No,” he added in response to Dale’s tensing against him, “I’m not going to shut up and let it go, you might as well unfreeze. That must have been really hard. One minute we were having fun together and then you realised I’d gotten way too far in, too fast, before you realised I was there. Like you let me see way too much because I caught you out.”

Dale didn’t move, but the tension was easing a little further. By habit, Paul found the hem of Dale’s shirt and slipped a hand under it to reach his back.

“Hey. This is a two way conversation, you need to join in. I know you’d far rather not have to think about this but when you’re calm, you know that hiding these feelings never helps, they don’t go away. To change what you feel means talking about it, getting help with it.”

“We keep going over this.” Dale said evenly.

Yeah and I’m not fooled by that tone either.

“James Bond has no place in this conversation.” Paul said firmly, and heard a faint sound from Dale that might have been a very forlorn nod towards amusement. “Courage has nothing to do with being tough when things are going well, hon. It’s about being able to do when it feels like the worst and hardest thing in the world, and you’re doing it. You didn’t let yourself run just now. I know you wanted to.”

More silence. Paul went on rubbing his back as the swing swung slowly and rhythmically to and fro, aware that there was not that sense you occasionally got with Riley or Flynn when they were furious or upset, that there was a sealed shell you weren’t penetrating. Dale didn’t necessarily let you see it, but what you said to him was going in. It wasn’t unwanted.

“Look at me,” he said gently, and Dale did, not willingly but he made the effort. His eyes were a lot more shielded than they’d been in the kitchen, harder, cooler, the expression that always alarmed Darcy. Paul spoke to them gently, keeping his own eyes soft. Letting Dale see the emotion there.

“I didn’t do that to you on purpose hon. I think you’re going to have to accept, like we’ve talked about, there’s a part of you stuck at the time this happened to you. At times you’re being piloted by someone around four years old, with limited information and understanding, who isn’t qualified to be making decisions for you.”

Riley had a variety of sounds to express this kind of emotion, which he did well. Ew. Ick. Urgh.  Dale just looked at you as if you’d just grown a second head but he was too polite to mention it. It was a balancing act. To say what needed to be said out loud, without pushing him past the point of tolerance, and Paul thought he got a little closer each time. Enough this time that he could say gently,

“And who was living in what must have been a very sad house, and must have been very angry about what was going on there.”

“I doubt it, I was a horrible child.” Dale drew gently away from him and Paul let him go, watching him sit up and push his hands against his forehead as if it ached.

“You think so?”

“Oh what’s worse than a precocious kid?” Dale pushed to his feet, visibly wanting to get away from the subject and the thought. “Do you need any other help with dinner? Salad? Vegetables?”

“Rabbit trail.” Paul caught his hand, holding on to it, and after a minute where he didn’t pull and Dale didn’t pull away, Dale let go a short hiss that was half a sigh and half exasperation and perched on the arm of the swing beside him. Paul hugged his waist, keeping his voice calm. 

“Darling this is something you need to let me help with. The brave thing to do is let me help. I’m sorry there’s no quicker way I can make this go away for you, I really, really wish I could.”

“It’s schizophrenic.” Dale folded his arms across his stomach and Paul began to rock the swing again, holding him, watching him, hearing the irritation in his voice. “One minute we’re talking about smuggling, the next, bang, all hell breaks loose. There’s no way to see it coming, it gets into everything.”

“Of course it does, it underpins pretty much everything. You’ve been telling us you knew there were gaps in your foundations from the first few days you were here.” Paul said gently. “And I don’t think the two things are unconnected. I think it’s interesting that you started to open this up with us at around the same time you really started to experiment with and explore what you can pick up on. Both take a lot of self knowledge, a lot of being open to what’s going on around you, a lot of faith and trusting yourself that you can get it right. I don’t think they’re unconnected at all. This is ok to do. It’s going to be ok.”



*

  

Riley and Mason were the last back that afternoon. Most of Riley’s day had apparently been occupied with several sheep who had trampled down a stretch of fence to reach grazing that was obviously far better than the several miles they had free access to and needed rounding up, herding back and the fence re wiring, and a lamb determinedly stuck under a water trough with a mother that charged anyone who tried to help it, and a choked stretch of river that had to be cleared and dug out. He had been working on the river when Flynn found him to see if he needed help, Mason had been digging too in a desultory kind of way, and Riley had explained their day so far, then indicated politely but firmly that he was ok, managing and didn’t appreciate being interrupted. Jasper, Ash, Gerry and Luath had met the needs of the cattle, and moved on to help with the fence posts still needing re seating, they were rubbing down the horses and tack and the yard was busy, and Flynn had been starting to watch the pasture when Riley and Mason came into sight. Not quite late, but with only minutes to spare. Mason looked genial, he gave Flynn one of his lazy grins and nods as he dismounted with a lot more ease than he’d shown a week or two ago, and Riley gave him a nod towards the stable, voice calm.

“Make a start on getting Moo untacked and rubbed down, I’m around if you need a hand.”

“Sure thang pardner.” Mason clicked to Moo who walked with him across to the one remaining free tethering ring on the barn, and Riley walked with Snickers across to the corral, tethering him to the rail near to where Jasper was working on Gucci. Flynn followed him, coming to unbuckle Snickers’ girth.

“Halfpint?”

“What.” Riley kept his voice even, mostly Flynn thought for Snickers’ benefit, as he picked up the curry comb from the fence that Jasper had been using on Gucci. Across the yard, Mason was chatting to Luath and Gerry as he untacked Moo. Flynn hooked the saddle on the fence and took the comb out of Riley’s hand, saying nothing but starting to work on Snickers in long, firm strokes. Riley gave him an expressive look, but stepped back and climbed to sit astride the corral rail between him and Jasper, keeping his voice low.

“This isn’t getting us anywhere with Mason. He’s not learning a damn thing, I don’t think he’s got a clue. He’s just coasting hour from hour.”

We’ve pulled Mason’s whole identity down. The biker image, the social approval and admiration, his distractions, his routines, his drinking.”  Jasper leaned on the fence beside Riley, rubbing Gucci’s nose as she nudged at him. “He’s a big image guy who’s got nothing left to hide behind, he’s getting a clear look at himself for the first time in a long time and I don’t think he much likes what he’s seeing. That’s a lot to face.”

Riley snorted. “He isn’t facing anything. He’s concentrating on how pissed off he is or how bored he is, or he’s acting like this is some kind of joke. He didn’t make much effort yesterday once the novelty wore off, none at all today and he isn’t admitting he’s got any kind of problem or that this takes any kind of work from him, he’s just pissing about. That guy needs a serious wake up call.”

“What do you want to do?” Flynn asked him. Riley sniffed, shortly.

“The first thing I need is for one of you to go let him know now that he’s knocked back to stage one and he’s going to do it over again until he catches on. He deserves it for today, and he needs to realise there’s consequences for screwing around. He’s actually got to make some frickin’ effort to get real and help himself.”

“I agree.” Jasper said calmly. “We’ll let him know together after dinner, he needs to realise what about today made us reach that decision.”

“But?” Flynn said, still watching Riley. Riley gave him a short glare.

“Why take up his time and ours with another week of games while we wait for him to catch on? Let’s just cut to the chase and hike the crap out of him. That always shakes the bullshit out of the tough ones and Mason needs it. He’s going to be a classic for a solo camp out when he finally gets his head together so we’re going to need to teach him the skills to do it anyway, let’s get two birds with one stone. Take the bare minimum with us and let’s go.”

Flynn glanced at Jasper, who nodded, thoughtful.

“It occurred to me too. The night we spent out by the springs struck a real spark with him.”

“Then let’s get on with it.” Riley slid down from the rail and hacked a loose rock out from under the fence with the heel of a boot, kicking it slightly harder than necessary out towards the rough grass by the gate. “I’ll come with you, I don’t mind the work. Flynn’s got enough help with Luath and the others to keep things going.”

“That kind of a hike would be good for Dale too.” Jasper said mildly, looking at Flynn. “Good timing for him. And Luath.”

“Then take them with you and I’ll stay.” Riley said impatiently. “Flynn and I can handle what needs doing here, we’ve got Ash and Gerry for help, and Dale and Luath can handle any shit Mason throws.”

“Hey.” Flynn said shortly. Riley glared straight back.

“It is shit, and you know it is.”

Flynn went back to grooming Snickers, eyes steady. “If you’re mad at me, or Mason or Dale, all of which I’d understand, then stop the attitude and say so.”

“Why would I be mad at you?” Riley snapped back. Flynn nodded at the porch.

“Over there, face the wall, hands on your head.”

“Yeah like that’s going to help.”

Flynn swatted him, hard, and Riley grimaced, stalking away towards the porch.

Any time spent in a corner usually made Riley initially furious and then very quickly penitent. Flynn, watching his shoulders as he dealt with Snickers, and very familiar with the line of them that usually defined Riley’s change of mood, didn’t see them go from stiff to slumped over the next twenty minutes, and that was very unlike him. Once he’d turned Snickers loose in the corral, Flynn headed up the porch steps, glancing through the kitchen door. No sign of Paul or Dale, and the others across the yard were taking their time finishing the yard chores, the conversation was cheerful and only Mason was casting the occasional curious glance across at the livid brat on the porch. Flynn heeled off his boots, went into the kitchen and poured two glasses of juice, putting them down on the table before he nodded at Riley.

“Come in here and sit down.”

The thud of Riley kicking his boots off was loud, and Riley picked one of the glasses up off the table, draining it without taking his glare off Flynn.

“If you’re planning on giving me a talking to about my mood you can forget it. You screw around with Mason all day and see how you feel at the end of it. I didn’t let it show, I handled it, don’t even start that I don’t have to do it-”

Sit.”

Riley looked him straight in the eye, raised his hand with the empty glass and opened his fingers. The glass smashed on the floor. Flynn slid his chair back, hooked an arm around Riley’s waist and lifted him out of range of broken glass. Riley fought him every step of the way to the kitchen door, where Flynn put him down and took him by the back of his belt, walking him towards the study in a way that made it extremely difficult for Riley not to walk with him.

In the study, Riley glared at Flynn who shut the door and took a seat in the middle of the couch, indicating the rug in front of him. Flynn had absolutely no concern about having to loom over you; the man could sit with his head at your waist height and still make damn sure he had your entire attention. In fact just standing in front of him when he’d taken a seat like this, particularly in this room, tended to make Riley’s stomach start twisting and his palms start to sweat in spite of his mood. Flynn took his hand, leading him a few steps closer so Riley stood between his knees, giving him a level look that made Riley’s mouth dry still further. 

“Anything you want to talk about?”

Riley shook his head, still mad enough not to be careful. “Nope.”

“Sweet.”

Flynn let go Riley’s hand to unbutton his jeans, hooking his thumbs into the sides of Riley’s shorts as well as the denim so both were slid briskly straight downward, far further south than was at all comfortable. It was at times like this, pride be damned, Riley found his mouth opening and starting to function even as Flynn took his arm and guided him around to his right side.

“Ok, I’m sorry, that was stupid and I’ll clean it up. Flynn, I said I’m sorry, I’ll stop now-”

Yes, like when he’d just lowered your pants to half mast, any apology was going to make him pause and agree that ok, in that case you obviously didn’t need a spanking. Flynn simply patted his knee and heart starting to thud in earnest, Riley unwillingly lay over his legs, settling himself into an all too familiar position and damning the fact that Flynn always tipped you so far you felt like your butt was sky high behind you. He’d seated himself well forward too so that instead of being able to lay with his upper body and elbows on the couch which at least afforded the minimal dignity of being able to keep your head up, Riley was forced to drape himself over Flynn’s lap with his hands on the floor and his toes off it, head down, and he understood that too. The warmth of Flynn’s palm brushed the back of his sweater further up and then grasped his far hip, a firm grasp that went with Flynn’s solid forearm weighting down his lower back in a way that precluded too much squirming.

He meant business. Not that Flynn ever didn’t, but it was easy to forget how damn hard he spanked; the man had a steel palm. The first swat was sharp enough to make Riley jump and hiss in dismay, and there was no pause to catch his breath in; the swats marched noisily and efficiently back and forth from cheek to cheek, up and down, accurate and scalding. Riley clutched the rug tightly for support, his weight on his hands and his legs moving a whole lot more than he intended, trying not to yelp or think too much about the fact that he was already very keen for this to stop, while knowing full well that Flynn was only just getting started. It was about that point that Flynn stopped going back and forth and simply concentrated on one cheek and the same damn place, and within six or seven of those sound spanks Riley was squirming fluently to the extent he was able and his hissing rose up into a yelp of protest.

“Flynnnn......! Ok, I said I was sorry! Flynn I’m sorry, I’ll never do that again- it was just a hell of a day and – Flynn, please!”

It didn’t make Flynn hesitate for one second.

Riley was kicking helplessly and making an embarrassing amount of noise when Flynn finally turned his attention to the other side, and with shifting his hips around making absolutely no difference, and putting a hand behind him simply resulting in getting the hand collected and held out of the way against his hip, Riley pressed his forehead against his forearm and his body against Flynn’s, making the helpless and increasingly unhappy and semi tearful ‘ow’ sounds that inevitably preceded actually crying. Having evened up his ground, Flynn said nothing at all but the swats abruptly changed to a rapid and ceaseless flurry moving backwards and forwards again from bare cheek to cheek, and on an already thoroughly warmed butt that stung way too much to handle. Despite the responsibility to at least try to stay in place, Riley twisted against his lap, his voice rising in an extremely undignified whining sound of protest. Flynn was showing no signs of stopping, and it ended a few seconds later with Riley dissolving into tears. Not quietly, not a little, a burst of full blown tears. His backside was on fire when Flynn finally stopped, palm resting on his butt, and able to catch his breath again, Riley sobbed a little harder.  It was rather like clearing the tubes. He was aware of Flynn letting go of his wrist, and of his hand rubbing a little where it rested for some minutes, until after a few more coughs and swallows, Riley leaned up on one hand and wiped his face with the other, sniffing back the worst of it.

“Are we done with the paddy?” Flynn said above him. It was a calm question, firm but uncritical, and Riley nodded without hesitation, whole hearted.

“Yes sir.”

Flynn’s hand grasped his arm, helping him up, and Riley stumbled to his feet, hissing as he eased his pants up over sore, flaming skin, then running his hands over his face. Flynn turned him around by the hips, yanked him down into his lap and Riley tucked his feet up on the couch to curl up hard against him, accepting the handkerchief Flynn gave him and wiping his face. His breath was still hitching and he felt like he’d sat down on a hot stove, and Flynn wrapped both arms around him and hugged him. 

“Sorry.” Riley said when he could talk coherently. Flynn’s arms tightened around him and Riley shut his eyes, leaning against him inside a bone crushing hug, and felt Flynn’s hard kiss somewhere in the vicinity of his damp face.

“Do you want to tell me what that was all about?”

Riley managed a rather damp snort. “No.”

“I know this wasn’t an easy day.” Flynn’s voice was quiet. “You had Dale to contend with first thing this morning-”

“This is not Dale’s fault.” Riley wiped his face again, taking a deep, shuddering breath. “That’s part of what hacked me off so much today with Mason. He’s screwing around, and Dale tries. He’s always tried.”

“He’s ok.”

“I know he’s ok, I’ve been through all this crap myself, you have, it’s something a lot of us have to do, I just don’t like it. I don’t have to like it. I don’t like him disappearing out into nowhere first thing in the fricking morning and knowing he’s going through hell and I’m not there. And then there’s fricking Mason making stupid cowboy jokes and acting like he’s here for comic relief when the guy came to us in trouble with his corporate and a frickin’ alcoholic his life was so grim....”

Flynn made a sound of understanding, going on holding him, and Riley let go another long breath, leaning against him.

“I’m not really mad at Mason. He’s been irritating the hell out of me today but I get why he’s doing it, and he’s got no idea what’s going on with Dale. It was just listening to him drawling and making stupid comments like I’m supposed to find him funny when he’s not doing a damn thing but follow me around and find any reason he can to not work, and I know Dale’s..... who found him?”

“Jas did. Dale stopped up around the crossing place. He and Jas walked back together, we got some breakfast down him and sent him back to bed. He’d settled down when I left around one, he’d got his head straight and he was mostly tired and embarrassed it happened.”

“What set him off, do you know?” Riley said subduedly. “More dreams?”

“He was awake half the night chewing on himself. You told him he wasn’t going to have to make himself leave us, and I think you hit the nail on the head.”

“Of course he’d think that, he’s got no experience of permanency or not having to sacrifice himself.” Riley said flatly. Flynn nodded slowly.

“Dale managed to twist that around in his head enough to hear ‘you’re planning to leave us’ and all the perfectionist triggers kicked in; he’d let us down, he was quitting and giving up on us, and he obsesses on thoughts that scare him,”

“- So naturally he’s tried not to think about walking out on us, which is like trying not to think of a pink rhinoceros, and he got that confused with actually doing it.” Riley rolled his eyes skywards. “My God, you could stick a bottle in his ear and use the guy as a corkscrew when he’s stressed out.”

“What you said also needed him to sympathise with himself.” Flynn said dryly. “It’s a straight truth, it was about facing that he’s afraid and believing you that he doesn’t need to be; it’s a lot easier to flip that over to working himself into enough of a state to do something he can be critical about. He’s proving it over again to us and himself, he’s a dead loss, we might as well give up on him. A lot less painful if he makes us do it on his terms.”

“Hard to blame him, I tried that one out myself.” Riley admitted. “For about two weeks, until you got sick of it.”

Flynn grunted, sliding a hand down to rub gently and comfortingly over the seat of Riley’s jeans.

“It worked. He’ll catch on the same way you did. Are you ready to go pick that glass up?”

“Yeah.” Riley twisted around to give him a hug and a rather shamefaced one. “Sorry.”

“Go ahead. Then you can shower and stand in the corner until dinner time.” Flynn put him on his feet and got up, raising a hand to stop Riley’s protest. “Don’t want to hear it. We don’t chuck glassware to communicate around here. Halfpint?”

Not looking happy, Riley paused, and Flynn tugged on his hand, turning Riley back to face him.

“You know how this works with Mason.”

“I know.” Riley tipped his head back, sounding resigned, but he met Flynn’s eyes. “Listen to Mason’s crap, don’t try to fix it. I can listen, I can be someone safe for him to let it out to, but it’s his decision to think it through and change it. I’ve been saying it to myself all day.”

“Yeah. I think you’re right and the hike’s a bloody good idea.” Flynn dropped another kiss on his forehead. “We’ll plan it out this evening. Thank you, you did a good job with him today. Go pick the glass up before Paul sees it.”




*



            Dinnertime was dominated by Mason, who was determinedly doing what Paul called his mein host thing in between Paul, Luath, Ash and Jasper’s steering of the conversation to gently but consistently prevent him. The man did not take hints. Dale, finding it difficult to face swallowing, stirred cheese bake more than ate it. Riley, fidgeting a lot in his chair, ate like he was starving but didn’t say much, and Gerry, alternating glances from one to the other of them and paying no attention at all to Mason, finally cast his fork down on his plate with a loud clatter that interrupted Mason in mid flow.

“Are you two ever planning to explain the static in here, or are we just supposed to guess?”

Ash put a hand out, covered Gerry’s and moved it off the table. There had been a few times Dale had seen him simply look or reach for Gerry’s hand, a discreet touch, and he never looked at all authoritative while he did it, but usually that was all it took for Gerry to stop, sometimes with a smile and a comment that ooh look, there was his cue to rein it in. Neither he nor Ash appeared to take it terribly seriously. This time Gerry pulled his hand away with more vigour than necessary, and his voice had taken on his performance tone; just a little too loud, a little camper than usual.

“I asked because the atmosphere in here is just about cuttable with a knife, and frankly it’s getting on the nerves. We used to mind about this kind of thing around here. It used to be considered unacceptable.”

“It still is and that’s a fair comment.” Flynn, who also hadn’t said anything while he ate, leaned an elbow on the table, looking from Riley to Dale. “Do you two want to talk about this, or do you want me to?”

That was a seriously alarming thought. Flynn had been in the kitchen when Dale came downstairs with Paul to set the table for dinner, and Flynn hadn’t asked questions or said anything much, but his hug had been one of his engulfing, bone crushing ones that surrounded you and sank deep into you so that long after he let go you could still feel it. Riley, emerging wet haired from the bathroom, had simply given Dale a rather red eyed and rueful smile that Dale recognised along with the way Flynn was standing over him and which very much indicated Riley in a little trouble and not minding that much, and he’d given Dale a swift, tight hug too, summarising the day and all the mayhem with a mildly uncritical,

“Idiot. Try washing your ears out.”

Riley gave Flynn a grimace now that said he didn’t want to talk at all, but put his fork down, looking direct at Mason.

“Mason and I didn’t have a great day, and I’m not too happy with him right now.”

He said it levelly, and Dale, in the first wash of relief that this was apparently about Mason and not irresponsibly freaking out partners, looked at Riley’s eyes and the way he was leaning back in his chair and having detailed, thoroughly categorised knowledge of how Riley sat and stood and moved and smiled and the many different facets of his moods, saw both the frankness and the care behind it. Riley would naturally care about Mason no matter how difficult the man was being. What was more surprising was discovering that Riley liked him too. For the first time it also occurred to Dale that a lot of Mason’s loud and genial life and soul of the party business so far this mealtime was likely an attempt to prevent anyone challenging him about his behaviour today. The man was certainly looking at Riley as if Riley had pulled a knife on him.

“Hey, if I’m getting on your tits you just say so,” Mason said loudly, and Riley sat back in his chair, voice still calm.  

“I am saying so, I’ve been telling you so all day. You didn’t make any kind of effort today, and I’m mad about it. Some because that left me to do the work when I needed help, and I don’t appreciate it, but some too because you came here to sort your problems out and I don’t see you making much effort for yourself. It’s not our job to fix you, Mason. We can help you, but you’ve got to help yourself, you can’t graduate out of here by freewheeling through.”

Mason only hesitated a second, just enough for Dale to see the mental gears grabbed and changed, then he shrugged his big shoulders and smiled at Riley.

“.....Yeah I’m sorry, I guess I was tired today, it’s been kind of hard getting by without the booze, you know? I know I need to be here and I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do, I just need a little time to understand myself and-”

“Oh complete bullshit.” Gerry said dismissively. “Not even good bullshit. Darling, I really shouldn’t bother until you can do it a lot better than that, you’re in front of three experts here.”

It must be a shock after years of impressing powerful people, to be sitting in a kitchen on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, losing hands down to one man who was camping it up while he ate macaroni and another who was telling you, seriously and to your face, that you were behaving like an ass. Dale bit back a smile, looking down at his own plate, and Paul put a hand over his to make him scoop a forkful of pasta, not caring in the least who was watching or who heard.

“Honey, eat that, don’t stir it.”

He didn’t let go of Dale’s hand, his fingers were warm and certain and very comforting, and Dale put the forkful in his mouth, feeling more like eating than he had all day.

“Hey this isn’t easy, you know?” Mason said hotly to Gerry, who grinned, which made Mason still madder. He was starting to slip from the drawl into the tone they knew; the loud, angry and slightly whining one.

“I came here, I’m still here aren’t I? I haven’t quit? You’re not giving me any help, you give me pointless things to do-”

He’d turned his whole body towards Riley, leaning forward on the table. A dominance display, the early stages of a threat. Not a very convincing one, but still a threat, the like of which Dale had seen hundreds of times in hundreds of rooms and did not appreciate seeing here in this room, particularly after a day like today.   

“Which are boring, repetitive, menial and hands on.” he said before Riley answered, looking straight at Mason. “Which you don’t currently have the self discipline to do without opting out, losing your temper and blaming everyone else. That’s what you’re learning. If you can handle yourself in the minor things, you might handle yourself in the things that are going to finish your career if you’re not very careful.”  

Mason looked back at him, stopped in the same way that men shouting at each other in offices used to stop.

“Jas, pass the bread over?” Luath said to Jasper in the silence that followed. Jasper passed the bread basket to him, voice gentle and looking at Mason.

“Privileges and responsibilities are earned around here, Mason, and they’re only kept so long as that person shows they’re able to handle them. You’re showing us you’re not ready to go out and work with us right now, which means you go back to the beginning again. Yard work, with me, with a lot of time to think about what you’re here for and why.”

“You’re kidding me?” Mason demanded. He sounded a lot more subdued, but astounded. Jasper shook his head.

“Not at all. We don’t leave people in situations they’re not ready to handle.”

“I’m ready.” Mason said sharply. “Ok, I get it, I’ll pull it together now.”

Flynn went back to eating the last of his pasta. “We don’t need to hear you say it. When we see you’re ready, when you’re consistently doing what you need to do without needing us to police you, we’ll know you’re ready to move on. That’s ok.”

Mason had flushed, the humiliation plain in his face because right now he understood nothing more than that he’d lost.

Come on Aden, show the same generosity they’ve always shown you, that’s what it means to belong. Throw him a line, give a hand here. David wouldn’t have sat like a lemon and let the man go down.

“My part of it,” Dale said evenly to Gerry, “was obsessing all night on a problem instead of talking about it, until I lost the plot and bolted this morning. I didn’t handle it well at all. I have a bad habit of keeping problems to myself until I’ve lost all sense of proportion, and it can get a bit explosive after that.”

He added the last sentence to Mason as an explanation, aware that his voice was cool and detached and that he couldn’t really help it; it was hard enough to get it out at all. Across the table, Ash’s eyes were very kind and not at all shocked, and Luath was listening with the same calm interest.

“Where did you go?” Gerry asked, calmly leaning across Luath to help himself to a roll from the basket and ignoring Luath’s digging him in the ribs. “Well pass them dear heart, instead of hogging them and then I wouldn’t have to lean. I used to mostly clear off to the barn or the hayloft. Philip always said he appreciated having me at home as I never left the yard when I stomped off, and everyone else always made him walk miles.”
                                                                                    
“The river.” Dale said slightly more carefully than he was aware sounded quite normal. It was difficult to try to consciously feel his mouth moving, his hands on the table, to be present, and the more he focused the more he became aware of minutiae, like the smooth wood under his hand, the wooden chair under him, his collar against the back of his neck. The eight men seated around the table with him, the clink of china, the look Luath gave Gerry that made Gerry grin and Ash’s moustache and his eating with his fork in his left hand which meant his right was under the table on Gerry’s knee much as Paul was loosely leaning on the table very close so that Dale could feel the warmth of him, and his hand covered Dale’s, resting there and actively guiding if he took too long between mouthfuls. The familiar lines of Paul’s fingers, the nails, the deftness with which they moved and with which Paul did everything. A tiny red line across the side of his finger, a burn from the grill. An old scar, star shaped on his furthest knuckle.  

Flynn was watching him, his brows slightly lifted. Looking into his face was stabilising. It always was. Jasper shifted his weight slightly beside Flynn, enough to make Dale glance at him, Jasper’s warm, liquid eyes held his and he mimed drawing in a breath, a deep, slow breath. Dale did as he suggested and breathed with him, the way Flynn and Jasper had both taught him, a breath that reached the bottom of his lungs and made his abdomen lift rather than his chest, holding the breath for a few seconds before he let it go and consciously let all his muscles drop along with the released breath. It brought the world back together. Flynn’s nod was very slight, but it was deeply comforting. Dale gave him an equally slight nod in return, him and Jasper.

“So I’m another one currently grounded.”

Mason was staring at him across the table as if he’d grown another head.

“I came here to be fixed,” he said hotly after a moment of obviously struggling to find something to say, “I came here for damn help, you lot are supposed to have the magic twelve step programme for execs aren’t you?”

“Oh balls.” Dale told him, losing what very little patience he had left. “Riley told you perfectly clearly, it is not the job of other people to make you feel better or solve your problems for you. Put a man under pressure and you see the repertoire of coping skills he’s got. Your skill set is shouting at and intimidating people until you get your way. Mine is shutting down, disappearing and then doing things my way. Both ways suck about equally.”

Riley grinned at him across the table and Dale scooped more pasta before Paul steered his hand.

“However the up side is that just because that’s the programme you’ve currently got on your mainframe doesn’t mean it’s the one you’re stuck with. You can learn new programmes if you so choose, you can talk with us and we’ll help you. You can grow beyond nonstop law suits for bullying and unfair dismissal if you want to. Or you can just go on shouting, it’s pretty much up to you.”

Gerry sat back in his chair, raising his glass to Dale with a warm smile. “Mmn. Somebody throw that man a banana.”




“Did you get in much trouble for disappearing?” Gerry asked casually as Dale dealt out cards on the hearth rug.

“With Jas?” Dale completed the deal and laid the rest of the pack down between them. “No more than I expected. Or asked for.”

Paul was reading on the couch a few feet away from them, having left Jasper and Mason to do the kitchen clear up together. Mason was rather quiet. Ash, Riley, Flynn and Luath had walked out together to do the evening rounds and lock up, and on a sunny evening they’d take their time about it. Considering the events of the day, it was a staggeringly normal evening. It was Gerry who had opted out of the evening walk and pulled out a pack of cards, inviting Dale to join him with a glance at Paul for permission, apparently understanding without difficulty or the faintest surprise that Dale was restricted to within Paul’s reach.

Gerry spread his cards out in his hand, surveyed them, then selected and dropped a card on the stack, giving Dale a brief look with his voice low enough to evade Paul’s direct attention.

“You know I talked to them about you and this attachment stuff?”

“Yes.” Dale said matter of factly, laying a card down. It hadn’t been hard to surmise, and it appeared to be a subject determined to permeate every inch of today, whether he was willing or not.

Gerry laid another card from his own hand. “Private stuff is stuff that happened before you lived here, and that’s what Philip always called gossip. You share it if you want to, but no one else tells tales about what you shared without your permission. Jas feels strongly about it too. But there’s kind of another policy that –“

“- Whoever’s part of the family now is involved and responsible for whatever goes on with everyone else?” Dale finished for him when he tailed off. “Yes, I’ve pretty much got that. You might have noticed I live with three Tops, one of whom is Flynn.”

Gerry grinned. “Yes. You’re a braver man than me, ducky.”

“To borrow Riley’s phrase, he’ll battle anything down for you, but he won’t think twice about kicking you out of his way while he’s doing it; solving the problem is what matters. Yak whomping. Tact and diplomacy aren’t going to play a large part. It isn’t something Riley or I spend a lot of time worrying about.” Dale selected and dropped a card of his own, aware he was speaking with affection as much as truth to a man who understood what he meant, and there was a real warmth in sharing it.

“You’ve really got him sussed, haven’t you?” Gerry said with amusement and Dale gave him a faint shrug. Yes, he understood Flynn, and who could mind when a man like Flynn loved you and went head on at any threat he saw to you with all he had? Who needed that dressed up in false diplomacy or finagling?

“I’ve learned to understand there are times when the best thing I can do is stand out of his way while the man does what he does best.”

“You actually don’t do a whole lot of getting out of the way. From what I’ve seen you tend to be right in the middle of the action with them.” Gerry observed, discarding another card. “It kind of goes with the whole butch Shh, I’m talking to Italy and now listen here you prat thing.”

Dale snorted, and Gerry grinned at him, lounging comfortably on one elbow which made him look a lot younger than his years.

“You are a damn scary man at times, it’s quite worrying.”

“I really shouldn’t have let loose at Mason this evening,” Dale said rather awkwardly, but Gerry shook his head.

“Not what I meant, and who around the table told you to hush up? Luath and Flynn certainly aren’t shy with the orders if they think someone’s out of line, believe me. Any one of us might have given Mason a reality check this evening and I’ve heard plenty of them given at that table to people in need. It’s what Mason’s here for.”

“I’m hardly qualified to comment.”

“Darling, you’re one of the most qualified people in the house. Who knows about this kind of thing better than those of us who screw up on a regular basis?” Gerry said wryly. “You do have rather a Toppish style at times, I agree, although I don’t buy Darcy’s theory about you actually being a Top in deep cover. You’re too good at the whole, Ok, too stressed, got to go crash and burn now thing too. Don’t wince, it comes with the territory, like what I’m sure you got from Jasper when he caught up with you this morning, and I bet that helped too. Sometimes you just need one, although catch me ever telling Ash that. Out loud anyway, I’m pretty sure he gets it.”

He said it cheerfully and the cheerfulness covered a whole lot of compassion that said Gerry comprehensively understood and had been there himself, and it dragged a question out before Dale had time to think of the tact of it, a heartfelt question, sincere and softly spoken because it was very personal and he knew the man beside him wasn’t as resilient as he could look.

“Gerry, you ran away to Texas. How are you ok with this? How do you do it?”

“Years of experience.” Far from being offended Gerry’s eyes twinkled at him with a lot of affection. “I know, it’s not fair is it? You take off into a pasture and it feels to you like the world’s ended. I get on a plane and go to the other end of the states and it’s fine. It's all in the DNA, don’t worry about it.  Me -  I get wound up – and I was born to be a drama queen, it’s not difficult - my brain stops functioning and I do something dramatically stupid.  Thankfully Ash is a lot more chilled out about stuff than I am and we’re good together.”

He waited for Dale to lay down another card before he went on, slightly less flippantly.

“Ash is very good at making things look less complicated. He can usually talk me down into sharing his point of view instead of mine, which is that everything’s awful and this time I really am fully justified in behaving like a headless chicken, and we make plans to handle whatever it is and carry on.”   

And you’re ok with that?

Dale didn’t ask it, but Gerry glanced up and gave him a small smile.

“So long as Ash isn’t mad at me I can handle most things.” He considered his cards for a moment, then discarded another one. “What can get me into trouble is that this is Ash we’re talking about. I know if he had a headache at breakfast this morning, or if he’s got the client from hell to deal with in a meeting today, or that he’s worrying himself crazy about me and this surgery, and that makes it easy to decide I’m not going to go running to him and make his day harder when I’m sure it’s petty, stupid stuff that I should be able to handle myself. Logically, I know he doesn’t mind, but I do. I’m seriously against other people messing with my guy, including me. And I know he’s never going to say for pete’s sake Gerald pull yourself together, he’s very good like that, and I know he’d far rather give up a few minutes to sort out how we’re going to handle something than to have to pick up the pieces when it’s all gone horribly wrong, but in the heat of the moment....? I’m pretty sure I can handle it right up until the second when I can’t.”

Gerry paused, sounding wry. “And then there’s the other issue that sometimes, if I’m honest, I want the mess to happen. Partly because I feel so awful nothing less than a total mess will express it properly, and the whole self destruct thing feels as bad and makes things as bad as I feel like I deserve, and then I avoid Ash because I don’t want to be talked down off the ledge. I know he’s going to be all reasonable and sensible, and it’s like that misquote, isn’t it? ‘if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, then you don’t fully understand the situation’.”

Dale processed that, matching it up against his own experience and admitting, at least to himself, that he understood it.

“But afterwards you can let things go? Really?”

Gerry shrugged. “Ash helps, it’s been a long term thing.  If he sees me chewing on it he's always ready to admit he didn't punish me thoroughly enough the first time around.  Meanie that he is. We don’t often need to do it now, but it’s been quite an incentive over the years to learn to make myself let things go, really properly let them go. Sweetie, don’t run away with the idea that I thought at any point I was doing the right thing or a good thing or I was happy about anything at all when I got on that plane to Texas. Any more than I bet you were convinced you were doing the right thing when you took off this morning.”

Dale gave him a slow, sober nod.

“I was running to Wade remember?” Gerry said dryly. “He’d have had no sympathy whatever, and I know it. Oh in front of Luath and the others he’d have come in on my side, we pretty much always will- united front kind of thing, we all do it. But alone with Wade? He’d have ripped me a new one and then made me call Ash. Bear would do exactly the same. So would Darcy. Riley. Rog would have. Word to the wise petal; if it’s sympathy that you’re looking for when you’re doing something stupid, always go to a Top. Avoid another brat like the plague, because they’ll tell it to you like it is.”

He said it lightly, flippantly, but there was sincerity behind it and Dale could feel it, the same way he could feel the warmth in Gerry’s voice, a kindness that went deep into him.

“What are you trying not to ask me? It’s all right you know. I get both sides of this; the brat bit and the whole bonding and screwed up bit, I promise you’re not going to manage to shock me.”

“There’s a difference between what I can’t help and what I do on purpose,” Dale said with difficulty, as these weren’t thoughts he could get terribly clear inside his head, never mind out loud.  

“Although not much of a difference when you’re really upset.” Gerry observed. “I got on the plane on purpose, but it really wasn’t with the intent of scaring Ash or demanding attention or doing anything malicious, it was because I got more wound up than I could handle and it seemed like the best of a lot of bad ideas.”

Dale hesitated, choosing the words slowly and with no little shame. “When I’m calm, I’m committed to doing what I know I need to do. I can make the choice and make myself do the right thing. Connect, not separate. But I can, when I’m in enough of a state, sabotage everything. I can cover up what I want to, I can get away with what I want to, I do all the things I’ve sworn I’ll never do again-”

“As smart as you are? Of course you can.” Gerry said calmly, putting his cards down. “It’s going to happen, it’s self defence. Look. When I first came here, I thought I brought nothing but bad wherever I went, and I ruined everyone’s lives. I was full of those feelings all the time. I used to set out to say the one thing I knew would push David’s buttons, or ‘Lito’s, or demand something I knew I couldn’t have or something I knew Philip wouldn’t allow, and the second I got that ‘no’, that was it, there was my excuse to explode and vent it all. Some of it was just a reason to let go a whole lot of mad I didn’t know what to do with, you know?”

And anger is mostly fear with a different coat on. But you’d never yell or make a fuss, so you go quiet, try to lose yourself in something and if the worst comes the worst, run away and hide until you can get your act together. You’re such a flaming good boy, aren’t you Aden?

“Other times,” Gerry went on, “it was a way of starting off a whole familiar, predictable routine about ‘I say this and then you say that, and then I do this, and then you do that’, and it was a script I knew and had control of and it felt way safer than just letting things roll for themselves and seeing what happened. A lot less scary to stick to what you know. I mean I knew about people before I came here. There was screaming, shouting, ignoring, threatening, people left, sometimes you hit each other, I knew where I was with that. I knew how to handle it, I was prepared. And then here’s this bunch of ranch weirdoes and nobody screams and the place is all clean and organised and they do stuff together and listen to each other and they’re nice to each other and it starts to get creepy to the point of thinking will you just for pete’s sake have a fight before you all grow tentacles and eat me? Or worse, trick me into believing you and liking you so when you beat me up it’s going to catch me off guard, I’m going to mind, and worse you’re going to get to see that I mind. To me that was just sadistic and I got mad at them for doing it. You see how twisted it gets?”

Gerry glanced up and gave Dale a faint and rather wry grin that Dale thought saw just how much he understood.

“When you’re full of feelings like that they’re going to come out whether you mean them to or not. You’re asking me how do you stop yourself winning when you’re scared enough to want to? It’s about making the decision, over and over again, to take the risk. It is hard to put it all down and be real and let it get to you, especially when things aren’t going well, it’s like voluntarily sticking your hand in a mincer. There’s not a chance it isn’t going to hurt and tear you up, it feels like a stupid, dangerous, painful thing to do, what idiot would do it? Except you know if you face the damage and you work through it, things can be better. You can love them the way you really want to be able to.”

That was it, exactly. So acutely that Dale swallowed, hard. Gerry’s voice was soft.

“You will panic sometimes and you will shut down and do all the stuff you try not to. It’s going to happen, and you’ll get through it. You survived today, didn’t you? You’re still here, and you’re sitting playing cards instead of being off your head with stress about it, you let them help.”

He gave his last four words an emphasis that Dale understood; a private way of saying Gerry knew for himself exactly what that meant. Gerry put a hand across and shook his knee gently.

“You’re doing pretty good. Really. What beats the sabotage game is joining the others’ side against the bit of yourself that’s going don’t tell them that, don’t show them that, don’t trust them. Wholly join their side and commit to it. When you’re calm, when you’re together, you talk to them about it and teach them to know the tricks. All the tricks. I know that’s a terrifying thought, it scared the daylights out of me, it took me a long time of knowing Philip and being with him to understand and know all the things I did and why I did them, and then to let Philip see through them all. There was always a couple I wanted as insurance, to keep off the table just in case I really, really needed them, but in a relationship like ours, that isn’t how it works, is it?”

Nothing’s off the table. Dale had had that conversation with Flynn several times. No, in the relationships he and Gerry had chosen, there was no off-limit ground. Ironically, the only way to get everything was to be prepared to give up everything. And when you loved a man like Flynn, it really wasn’t difficult.

“But this was done to you, love. You didn’t do this to yourself, remember that.” Gerry said quietly. “It isn’t something to be ashamed of or guilty about, you’re sorting out someone else’s mess, you’re not responsible for it. If you teach the others to be able to see through it, then they can win against it for you when you can’t. It takes real work, months of it, bit by bit by bit. You’re not going to win every time, certainly not at first, and you have to hang on in your head all the time to why you’re still slogging away at it and why it still matters. Write it down and find ways to remember it, because most of the time it would be so much easier to give up and sometimes you’re really, really going to want to. It’s honestly the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I know – believe me I know the hard way – not everyone can do it.”  

For a moment there was a strange expression on Gerry’s face and something in his voice, both guilty and sad. Then he gave Dale a quick, sideways smile. “For some people it’s too much and they can’t, or they’re not willing to. But you – you do things right, and properly and all the way if you do them, and you’re scarily strong.”

“Most of that is a veneer.” Dale said acerbically. Gerry smiled, but shook his head.

“No, it isn’t. You held it together in New York for years by yourself, you came here and you yanked yourself back on track, you are strong. ‘Mostly right’ is never going to be good enough for you, and that’s what means this is going to work out. I promise you it is going to be worth it and at some level you know it because you’re trying so hard. I know this family, I’ve known them a long time, and none of us are going to let you down.”

Flynn had said that, weeks ago when this was only just starting: I promise you this will be worth it. He knew what was happening, he believed, he knew there was life on the other side.

Gerry poked him gently in the knee. “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.  Enough to probably clothe a third world country. That’s why I wanted you to know I turned you in to the others. You need to let them help you do this, because you won’t be able to do it all by yourself, even if it looks like the more comfortable option.”

“Don’t look to another brat for sympathy, right?” Dale said softly, and Gerry gave him a soft, ironic smile.

“Not one who’s been there himself. No. It's your turn.”

Dale looked down at the cards, having long since lost all track of the game, and swallowing on a very childish urge to go find Flynn, or Jasper, or to turn around to Paul who was just a few feet away.

“Does Bear or any of the others know you got on that plane?”

“Oh I got allowed to send one email the day I got here.” Gerry said wryly. “Since they’d worry if I didn’t answer my phone or my texts. Ash confiscated my phone. I’m amazed no one’s turned up yet to demand the whole story, except I’m willing to bet at least Theo and James are in the know and are probably ordering everyone else to stay put. Try putting a card down, sweetie.”

“I think,” Dale said, laying down a card, “This is the first time you’ve been here when you haven’t wanted to call a Brats in Residence meeting.”

Which had always seemed as much a joke as any real event. Gerry laughed, laying back to survey his remaining cards.

“Darling, I avoid them like the plague if the main topic of discussion is likely to be me!  Thankfully you and Riley are probably the most tactful of the whole crew, the others wouldn’t be nearly so discreet. They’d have insisted on every last gory detail.”

“You must miss them.”

“Yes, I’m very used to the texts and calls and emails and knowing what’s going on and having them as a part of the day, it’s weird without it.” Gerry said cheerfully. “It takes a few days to adapt.  But it’s good to be here too. I love Seattle and our house to bits, don’t get me wrong, but this is still very definitely home too and I’m very lucky that Ash really gets it. I’m not sure all men could.”

Dale placed the last card and Gerry groaned, dropping the rest of his hand.

“You know Riley warned me about playing cards with you?”

Dale smiled faintly, watching him gather up the cards with something at the back of his mind that was more image than words, something abrupt and flashing and – demanding. Intrusively demanding like an odd figure on a balance sheet, despite the many other crowded thoughts currently fighting for attention. It went with the way Gerry’s hands moved, the way he sat, the gentleness of his teasing- it had been there several times during their conversation, tangible, and it added to something else from last night.  

“Gerry, can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“It's very personal and I don't mean to pry.”

“Not easy to freak me, I’m a hardened case.” Gerry tapped the cards straight and put them back in their packet. Dale sat up, crossing his legs and surveying him, keeping his voice light.

“.....I got the impression you may have been attacked at some time in your life.”

“You did?” Gerry said, sounding amused. “I was mugged a few years ago in a store, but the guy just took a few dollars and ran, it was very undramatic.”

The words came out almost without Dale intending them to, untactful and unfiltered and said almost as he saw them, the images he’d dreamed of.

“It was a motel, and it was with a man a lot bigger, who stank of beer.”

“No. How can you know that?” Gerry froze with his hands still on the cards, and stared at him with large, frightened eyes, his voice almost squeezed to a whisper. “No one knows that! Only Philip and Ash ever knew that and Ash wouldn’t have told you.”

Aden, what the hell are you doing?

“No one told me.” Dale said as gently as he could, hating the expression on Gerry’s face. “I’m sorry. Maybe something about your body language gave me the idea when we were talking at the river, I don’t know. I haven’t mentioned it to anyone else, and I won’t.”

Gerry was still looking at him, and he laid the cards down with a hand that was trembling slightly. “You’re as ill as your secrets.”

“I’m sorry?”

Gerry gave him a ghost smile, white faced. “Philip used to say that to me. What you’re afraid to let go of goes right on poisoning you. You know how everything’s always worse in your head? You can’t know about that. You might guess from body language when we’re talking, or bits of what I said that I’d been assaulted, but a motel? The beer stink? That’s specific stuff.”

“You really don’t have to answer.” Dale said very gently and with a lot of apology. “I’m sorry. I’m a data magnet, it’s a bit of a strange habit, I just know it’s been on your mind since you’ve-”

“You sit there, looking like Philip and sounding like Philip and you say you don’t know, but you know it’s been on my mind?” Gerry sat up and ran a hand over his face, sounding very shaky. Dale cast a quick glance around the room. Paul was absorbed in his book and hadn’t looked up.  

The image was – almost not an image at all, it was a fragment. Something so faint, so fleeting and quiet that it was barely there, barely recognisable amongst Dale’s awareness of the fire beside them, Paul on the couch, the scrape of the book page as he turned it, but that pressing feel was there. Strong. He’d done this before with objects, with a train in the Three Traders station, on a woodland hill in the dark where there was no one to really know what he was doing or be hurt by it, and he’d taken calculated risks all his career. Often ones that involved instinct and intuition as much as judged facts;  but this was a person, a person he cared a lot about, a person who could very easily be hurt, and this was not something to do carelessly or lightly and quite possibly shouldn’t be done at all.

And Gerry said to take the risk. Feelings only change if you talk about them.

It always took a conscious decision to turn towards it. To take a breath and let it go, let his muscles drop and let his mind step back, to bring to mind deliberately the yellow golden light of the kitchen in the evening that was always, invariably calming, comforting, and which helped him to take on that familiar, so well practiced scanning feel he associated with running data. In that state, he was aware when the fragments passed through again, so brief it would be easy not to notice them in amongst the other clutter of incoming data, save that they went with Gerry and this look on his face and the tension around him.

As if he was watching an animal, something so shy that the slightest twitch on his part would send it running, Dale leaned his elbows on his knees, took a careful breath and stepped into the void, speaking very, very gently. 

“......blue quilt. Stained. A knee was in your back. Your jeans were ripped across the back of one leg, and he could get a hand in.”

There was a long silence while Gerry didn’t look at him. Then he said very quietly,

“I never told anyone but Ash and Philip.  It...it happened when I was 14. I was in LA. Short of money.  I saw this guy working with several girls... I went up and started talking, I had no sense of self preservation and he seemed interested.  Said we needed to go back to his place, he’d get me a meal, a change of clothes.  Got into his car and drove to this seedy hotel.  He obviously knew the guy at the front desk, we were just waved on through.  Got into this hotel room and he started telling me he needed to see if I was up for the job.  I started...and before I knew it I was on my stomach on the bed and he had his knee in my back....”

That was the worst and most painful part, the acute part that he dreamed about. Whatever had happened before or afterwards, that was the moment of terror that was stuck. Dale put a hand out to take his, holding it gently, aware for a few brief seconds of the faint smell of stale beer, stale sweat, soiled linen and dirty carpet, the weight and pain in his back- it was there, so fleeting he might have imagined it behind the reality of the fireplace and the smell of the burning wood, the sound of the familiar voices around them, the hearthrug they sat on. Dale held his hand and after a moment Gerry squeezed it back, hard. 

“I fought him off. Eventually he quit trying, cuffed me and walked out. It was dark before I was able to get up off the bed and find my way out of the hotel.” 

“I'm so sorry.”

Gerry gave him a nod, not looking at him. “. ... thanks.  It was a very long time ago.”

“But you think about that moment over and over.” Dale said very gently. “You’ve dreamed about it.”

“Several times lately.” Gerry admitted. “At home before I came out here. It’s been years since it’s bothered me like this.”

“The pain and being held down.” Dale surveyed him, thinking about it, and Gerry looked up at him.

“Yes.”

“On a table.”

“It wasn’t a table, it was a bed-” Gerry began, and broke off, his eyes abruptly filling with tears. Dale felt his jolt of fear, the connection with it. He held on to Gerry’s hand, sitting still, quiet, and after a moment Gerry gripped him hard.

“I couldn’t face the thought of surgery. I didn’t think about why – I mean it’s not a nice thing is it, the whole thing scares me, but the worst part, the very worst-”

“An anaesthetic.” Dale said softly. “Being restrained, being helpless when you’re in pain – Flynn says memories stack on a trigger. I can see why that pushes your buttons, it must call up awful associations. Does Ash know that?”

Gerry shook his head. His eyes were watering, and he was holding his breath. After a minute he took a slow and unsteady breath, and Paul held out a handkerchief to him without saying anything. He was sitting on the end of the couch near them, listening; Dale hadn’t noticed when he’d joined them and had no idea how much he’d heard.

“I didn’t make the association, there’s no reason Ash should.” Gerry said unevenly, taking the handkerchief. “My God it’s so stupid. I should have thought of it.”

“It isn’t stupid at all.” Paul said gently and Gerry managed an unsteady laugh, shaking his head.

“No, you don’t understand. I dealt with that assault years ago with Philip, it doesn’t matter anymore. I didn’t realise that was even what I was associating it with. If that’s why the idea of surgery has been scaring the daylights out of me, then the fear’s completely groundless – I know what it is now. It isn’t anything to be afraid of, it’s just – an old, bad connection. I’ve been so scared, and I had no idea why. It’s like turning the light on and finding the monster behind the door is just your robe, it’s that silly.”

“Are you ok honey?” Paul rubbed his back, and Gerry nodded, pushing to his feet.

“Yes. I think I’d like to go and find Ash.”

“Did you ever tell David about it?” Dale asked on impulse.

Gerry shook his head, pausing with a hand on the couch arm for support as he got up.

“No. I was too ashamed to tell him when he was alive. Although looking back on it now, I know he wouldn’t have been at all surprised.”

“He wouldn’t have thought you had anything to be ashamed of.” Dale said with conviction.

Gerry stooped and Dale, knocked almost off balance, hugged him back, closely. Then Gerry disappeared into the kitchen and Dale heard him go out onto the porch. Then and only then he looked up for Paul. Paul was leaning with his elbows on his knees, his eyes soft, and he reached over, holding out a hand to Dale with his fingers open.


*


“Isn’t there something we can play together?” Riley demanded when he and the others came in for the evening. It was almost dark outside. Jasper had gone upstairs to say goodnight to a rather quiet Mason. Flynn snapped off the light in the kitchen and came into the family room, folding his arms around Dale’s waist from behind and dropping a kiss on his cheek that was slightly biting in a definitely good way.

“What about cards?”

“I’m not playing cards with Dale, I’ve learned that the hard way.” Gerry said dryly. He looked cheerful enough and as Ash ambled over to an armchair and took a seat, Gerry quite unselfconsciously parked himself in Ash’s lap, shifting until they were both comfortable.

“It’s maths, don’t play maths based games with a financier.” Flynn said bluntly. There was a lot of possessiveness in those arms and they weren’t letting go, and Dale leaned back against him, hips against his, his arms over Flynn’s.

“There’s board games on the shelf.”

“Has trivial pursuit found its way to Wyoming yet?” Gerry inquired as Riley went to the shelf where the games lived, many of which were in original battered boxes that dated back to the 1940s. Paul shook his head, marking his place in his book before he set it down.

“I’ve never bought it because Flynn and Jasper have no general knowledge to speak of and would want to know the point of every question. I have thought of writing my own questions that would present a real, meaningful intellectual challenge, like ‘what date is Valentine’s’, ‘how do you get grass stains out of jeans’ and ‘where did you leave your wallet’, but I don’t think it would go down well.”

Flynn gave him one of his brief, crackling grins over Dale’s shoulder, and Paul shook his head at him. 

“Clue probably works for a large group,” Riley said over his shoulder, fishing the box down. It was an elderly version with wooden pieces and a faded board, and Riley brought it to the couch, dropping down beside Paul who helped him lay it out on the long, low coffee table. Luath took the other couch opposite them where he could reach the board, and Flynn steered Dale over to join him. Dale sat at Flynn’s feet, leaning against his legs, and took the nearest piece Riley offered him, watching Riley pick three cards at random and put them into the envelope.

“I’m only playing if I’m Miss Scarlet.” Gerry informed Riley, who handed him the red piece. Ash swatted his hip gently.

“Stereotyping. Pass me a piece.”

“You can be Colonel Mustard, darling. The moustache works well.” Gerry stretched over for the yellow wooden piece and Dale pushed it closer to him, glancing up at Paul without thinking.

“Want me to get the phone?”

Paul looked at him, puzzled, and Dale became uncomfortably aware of the echoing silence in the room that patently was not a phone ringing.

“I can’t hear anything?” Gerry objected. Flynn and Paul looked at each other, and Flynn got up and went into the kitchen, and returned with the phone to his ear.

“It was. There’s a message from Jack Dickson, one minute ago - can we call back and book a date for him to put his Arabian mare to Bandit.”

How did you know that?” Gerry demanded, looking hard at Dale. “That is plain terrifying, how can you know that!”

“I don’t know,” Dale said a little helplessly, “I just thought it might be.”   

Flynn hit a button on the phone and waited a moment with it to his ear,

“Hey, I need to test this line. Would you mind giving me a call back in a few minutes? Thanks.”

He turned the phone off, they saw him do it, and he put it down in the middle of the Clue board.

“Operator.” he said calmly to Gerry. “Let’s give it a minute.”

There was a moment of real hush in the room. Dale folded his arms and put his chin down on them, a little uncomfortable but for that Riley was lounging perfectly calmly against Paul who had an arm around him and neither of them looked at all bothered, neither did Flynn or Ash, or Luath who was pensively watching the phone. Jasper came downstairs in the quiet, and paused at the table, following their gaze to the phone laid on the table. Then in the silence they all heard the very soft, fleeting click of an electrical line activating in the house. Flynn picked up the phone and turned the ring back on, and the heard it ring out loud once before Flynn answered it.

“Hello? Yes, thank you, no problems. Goodnight.” He put the phone back on the table and gave Dale a nod. “Mystery solved.”

“You can hear that?” Gerry demanded of Dale. “We were talking, none of us heard that,”

“He’s heard it in his sleep before now, he doesn’t miss a lot.” Riley said calmly, laying the cards on the board. “He’s a vacuum for information, watch him suctioning up a book some time. Dice. Roll. Get on with it.”

Jasper took the other armchair by the hearth and silently held out his hand to Dale. Paul had seen him do it before; often in the evening Dale would sit on the floor leaning against him or Flynn, but tonight Jasper put an arm around Dale’s waist when he was in reach and pulled him over the arm of his chair into his lap, wrapping both long arms unhurriedly over Dale’s to hold him. It was a very close hold, and Paul saw Dale go still, his face unreadable for a moment. Then he shifted slightly in Jasper’s arms, turning very definitely closer, and his whole body relaxed. His face, his shoulders, his hands which were always a giveaway of tension in Dale; even something about his eyes went softer.

My God, we’ve come miles today.

“We’re thinking about a hike for Mason.” Riley said to Paul as Gerry made his opening move. Paul nodded, unsurprised.

“I thought we were probably heading that way. When?”

“No point in messing about, and nothing we need to prepare with extra pairs of hands around.” Flynn said bluntly. “Tomorrow. Starting early, just pack up and go. Ri and I will stay here and hold the fort, Luthe it would help if you’d go out with Jas and Mason.”

“What kind of a hike would you do with a client like Mason?” Ash asked with interest. “Is this something you often do?”

Paul answered him, letting Riley go to roll the dice. “Not that often,  but if we’ve got one that’s stuck or we’re not getting out what we need to get out, a hike can make a big difference.”

And Paul would know, living with two men who Ash knew sought the solitude of the ranch land when they needed peace and focus. Gerry had taught him a little of that too, having lived for years on this land.

“Always relaxing stuff, being outside.” Ash agreed, and Riley grunted, settling back against Paul with his ankles crossed on the far arm rest of the couch.

“Relaxing isn’t what we’re going for, it’s not like the kind of hike or camp out we’d do for fun. The whole point is we make it hard. As basic and challenging as possible. Go fast, rough ground, cover miles, walk the legs off them. This is where Jas has all kinds of ideas about ordeals as transitions. And his eyes just lit up, look at him.” he added to Paul, nodding at Dale. “Yeah, it’s just the kind of thing you’d love. Actually I love it too, I usually go when we need to do it with a client but Flynn needs the help here.”

“What do you think honey?” Paul said to Dale. “Shall we go along too?”

“The more pairs of hands the better.” Jasper affirmed quietly. Dale, slightly surprised, looked at Flynn who nodded.

“It’d be good for Mason and for you. We’ll be fine here.”

“I can do whatever Flynn needs doing, you don’t need to stay,” Dale began to Riley, and Flynn shook his head, cutting in without ceremony.

“No. You’re not working with me, you’ve already got a job to do and Mason doesn’t change anything. You can hang out with Paul here, or you can hang out with Paul while you hike, take your choice.”

“I can go do this any time,” Riley added to Dale, “I’m not missing anything. Flynn and I have got it covered here, it’s no problem. Breathe.” 

Dale quirked an eyebrow at him and Riley grinned, shaking his head. “Read my lips. Breathe. Chill. It’s fine.”

“We’ll be around to help too because I’m certainly not camping anywhere.” Gerry said emphatically. “No way Jose, goodnight Vienna.”

“You used to camp out with me when we went out to the south pastures,” Luath pointed out and Gerry grimaced at him.

“Yes, I was a lot younger, you got pushy about it and even then it was under protest. It’s March, it’ll be freezing out there at night!”

“Character building.” Riley said cheerfully. “Luthe, are you staying or going?”

“Yes, I’ll go if it would help.” Luath rolled the dice and moved his piece along the board without much interest. “I’ll just hope I don’t slow you down, I’m not as fit as you lot by a long way.”

“Neither is Mason, so he’ll appreciate having you there.” Jasper said calmly. “We’ll head out about four thirty tomorrow morning.”

“Shock value?” Luath said, raising his eyebrows.

“Partly.” Paul told him. “And partly a night hike and seeing the sun rise is quite a strong  experience, even if you’re used to it, which I’m sure Mason isn’t. I’ll pack for all of us, Luthe, leave that to me. We take very restricted kit with us if we do a hike like this. Flynn, there’s plenty of meals in the freezer-”

“Er, hello?” Gerry said, raising his hand. “Two people over here who cook for themselves at home on a daily basis? We really will manage without burning the kitchen down, promise.”

Ash smiled and Dale thought, not for the first time, that Ash, much quieter than Gerry, loved the entertainment of Gerry’s chatter and flamboyance and provided an appreciative audience for it. While Gerry wasn’t addressing any of this directly to Ash, there was a good deal of affection in the way they were curled up together in the chair, it was obviously a well practiced position for them. If you met them without knowing the private nature of their relationship you’d take Gerry very much as the front man and the leader of the two of them, but actually they had a great deal in common: there was a warmth and easy friendliness to them both that they always shared freely with anyone around them when they were here, two men who were happy together. Although Gerry’s slightly over the top talkativeness and vivacity tonight was also revealing; Dale understood both what it meant and what it concealed. He had his own version of it at times.

“If you’re going out at the crack of dawn you need the sleep,” Flynn said to Dale, and Jasper unwound from the chair and helped Dale to his feet.

“I agree. Ri, you too.”

“We’re in the middle of a game here?” Riley objected, and Jasper said nothing, merely waited until Riley huffed a heavy sigh of exasperation and got up.

“I’m not going anywhere in the middle of the night, why do I need the sleep?”

“Riley....” Flynn said quietly, but warningly. Riley glared at him and stooped to give him a rough and exasperated kiss, dropping an equally annoyed one on Paul.

“Yeah I know. Go anyway. Goodnight. ‘Night Ash.”

“Goodnight.” Ash included Dale in his smile and Luath, watching Dale’s silent interaction with Paul and with Flynn, caught Dale’s hand as he passed and tugged him down to kiss his cheek gently, the same as he did with Riley.

“Goodnight. Sleep well.”

Jasper went upstairs with them, and Ash patted Gerry’s hip.

“If we’re breaking up for the evening you can go take a bath and get ready for bed too.”

“At this hour?” Gerry demanded.

“I want you in good condition for next week.” Ash got up, putting Gerry on his feet. “I won’t be long.”

“Philip left way too much of a mark on you lot.” Gerry grumbled, looking pointedly at Flynn.

Paul returned Gerry’s hug goodnight and put away the barely begun game in the faded box. Luath picked up the phone from the table, looking at the turned off ringer.

“I heard on the Wall Street grapevine that it wasn’t possible to text messages in or out of a meeting even under the table or in your pocket without Dale picking up on it. And that he could watch a phone pad held at any angle and have a fair idea what was being texted on it. It’s quite amazing to see it done in front of me. Rumour had it Gerry Banks used to look for pretexts to get Dale into difficult meetings just to watch what people were doing and keep tabs on it.”

“Why worry about people’s texts in meetings?” Paul said, and Luath handed him the phone.

“The timing of them can give a lot away. You can pick up fairly easily on the ‘oh crap, we just got asked a question we don’t know the answer to’ texts and the ‘is this an acceptable offer?’ texts going out to people behind the scenes or at higher levels, but when you’re working with potential frauds and complicated deals and all the politics involved, you need people who are good at picking up every clue they can. Dale had a reputation for it that meant if he was in a meeting it got played straight and a lot of the tricks weren’t even tried. A.N.Z. must have saved billions that way.”

“He’s hypervigilant.” Flynn said abruptly. “That’s in part why he can hear phone lines click even in his sleep.”

Luath raised an eyebrow at him.

“Sensitized, over aroused nervous system. Consciously clocking stuff a regulated nervous system doesn’t bother registering.” Flynn gave him a brief look. “Some of it’s talent, some of it’s how his brain works, some of it’s conditioning. He’s made good use of the hand he got dealt. Put your hand on Dale’s back or shoulder sometime. He’s got a resting heartbeat well above average, although it’s lower now than it was when he first came to us. One of the hallmarks of trauma, it’s one of the first things I look for in clients. He’s running on high all the time.”

“You know I was thinking tonight, how many times has Riley fallen asleep on one of us when we’ve been in here in the evening, talking?” Paul said to Flynn. “Dale never does. If I’m alone with him, yes, but if we’re in a group, never, and that’s exactly why, isn’t it? He’d never let go or relax his guard enough with things going on around him. I have to keep reminding myself just how much we take for granted with each other without even thinking about it, we’re so used to it coming naturally.”

“It took Ger a while when we first met.” Ash said mildly. “And he’d been with Philip for years then, he was a long way past where Dale is now. I remember us going to the cinema on a date early on and Gerry getting hopping, flaming mad about something to do with the seats we were in and storming out and barely talking to me the rest of the evening. It took a while before I figured out it was actually to do with being with me in the dark, a new person he didn’t know too well. He couldn’t concentrate on where I was and what I was doing and on the film at the same time, and it got too much to handle.”  

“Is this hike really going to be a good idea for him?” Luath looked at Flynn, his voice soft. “We’re trying to help him not to shut down, aren’t we? A lot of exercise, outside, isn’t that giving him a whole means of escape from what he’s dealing with here?”

“A hike the way we do it isn’t any kind of escape.” Flynn said with conviction. “The whole aim is pushing buttons, it tends to open stuff up, not shut it down.”

“This is pretty much what Philip used to do with you when you got to detonation point, isn’t it?” Luath said shrewdly. Flynn gave him a short nod that took in a lot of times when Luath had seen Philip simply pick up a back pack and a bridle and guide him out to the corral to disappear for several days.

“Yeah. And if I had to guess, I’d say he learned it from David.”

“Runs in the family.” Luath said half to himself, and Flynn gave him a brief smile.

“I don’t like this beating up filing cabinets business.” Paul said bleakly. “We’ve seen him bludgeon himself verbally plenty of times, but not physically.”

“Running himself sick? Same thing, he’s always done it. Self medicating.” Flynn folded his hands behind his head and leaned back, stretching his shoulders until they cracked. “He’s talking about the real issues under it all now, he’s thinking about it so it’s stronger than usual and it’s getting away from him and it takes more to batter it down when it gets too much. It’s a necessary thing. A lot of what we’re trying to help him do is relax enough to let himself feel some of this and process it. It’s only in short bursts at the moment, that’s all he can handle so it’s explosive, but it’s the sealed down and numb bits we’re trying to help him thaw out, and it takes a lot of stability and reassurance for him to go anywhere near them.”

Luath looked at him, an acute look.

“Yeah, I’d guess you know how that feels. Just tell me what to do and I’ll help any way I can. I need to get some sleep if we’re heading out at dawn.”

“I’ll call you in the morning.” Paul told him.

“Thanks.” Luath got up and stooped to put an arm around Paul’s neck, leaning his head against Paul’s for a moment. He didn’t say anything, but Paul hugged his arm, and after a moment Luath nodded to Ash, roughly ruffled Flynn’s hair as he passed, and headed upstairs.

“Anything else you need help with?” Ash said, getting up.

“Just keep Flynn and Riley from murdering each other until we get back?” Paul said deprecatingly. “That would be good.”

“We can work on it.” Ash said easily. “Sleep well, have a good trip and don’t worry about us. We’ll give any help Flynn and Ri need.”

Flynn waited until Ash was upstairs and they were alone together, and then unhurriedly got up and went to sit beside Paul, dropping a hand on his knee. Paul didn’t move for a moment, then tucked his feet up under him and leaned against Flynn, letting his head find Flynn’s shoulder, and shutting his eyes.

“Want to hear something really – sad – about bubbles?”



Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015




   

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