Thursday, September 24, 2015

Chapter 19 - Ranch


Jasper was still carving whatever it was he was working on, his head tipped forward, one booted foot braced against the grass, the other leg curled under him, and he was turning the wood over in his long fingers as he worked. He’d been keeping the small fire well fed. It was  burning strongly, red and orange and white where the wood was glowing, and snapping and crackling softly. Its smoke rose slowly and its light spread out over the grass, creating deep shadows out to where the town was hidden in total darkness. The stars were bright and crisp in a navy blue sky overhead and the night smelled of damp grass and woodsmoke. Tam, rolled on her side with her belly exposed to catch as much warmth from the fire as possible, lifted her head to look at him. Giving up on what had been, for over an hour, an uneasy doze at best, Luath ran a hand over his eyes and glanced from the firelight where Dale lay curled up and clearly asleep close to Jasper’s side, to a lonely figure sitting some way off on the grass by the river. Moving cautiously, quietly, Luath slid out of his sleeping bag and Jasper glanced up at him. He said nothing, just gave a brief, quiet nod of hello, and went on carving. Beside him, Dale was very still, his eyes closed, his face half hidden in the curve of his arm, and Luath was glad to see it; the poor kid needed the rest badly. Luath found his boots and his jacket and paused on the cold grass beside Mason’s sleeping bag to look down at the other more vulnerable member of their party. Mason, like Dale, looked to be soundly asleep, his body relaxed, his bearded face mostly hidden in his sleeping bag. Apparently sleeplessness tonight was solely a Top problem.

It was Paul, with the neck of his jacket turned well up, who was sitting some way off from the camp beside the river and watching it run by. Luath, digging his hands deep into his pockets and seeing his breath steam slightly in front of him, gave him a sideways glance as he reached the river, keeping his voice low.

“Want some company, or did you come over here to get away from us?”

There had been times, a long way back in the days when they both lived here, when Paul had needed a few hours to get away from organising chaos. Unlike many of the family, neither Luath nor Paul had grown up in a rural setting, it hadn’t come naturally to them, and Luath understood in a way that Flynn really wouldn’t, that sometimes you needed to see lights and people, hold a cup of Starbucks and reconnect with the idea that it was all still out there.

Paul looked back towards the river with a deprecating grimace that might have started out as a smile. “I’m fine, I just can’t sleep. Even with Jas sitting right there, if Dale so much as twitches I have to check on him, and if there’s a couple of us sitting awake around him I know he won’t be able to stay asleep for long. So the best thing I could do was come away.”

It was a slightly brittle tone for Paul, and it didn’t surprise Luath at all. It went right along with the painfully sharp concern and distress Luath been swallowing on himself ever since the small hours of last night when they first started watching Dale come apart. He’d seen Dale’s face when he threw his journal into the fire, an act so totally out of keeping with Dale’s carefulness and containment; you rarely so much as saw the man frown, and Luath had seen the care and the time he took in writing in that book. He’d seen Dale’s face, numb and white with what Luath thought was probably shock, as he sat on the bank against Jasper while they rested yesterday. Paul and Jasper were definite that this was fine and it looked worse than it was, and they were best placed to know; Philip wouldn’t have been at all afraid of it either. With powerful memories of Philip, whom he’d loved dearly and learned a very great deal from, Luath knew Philip would have been right at home on the river bank with them here tonight, and he’d have understood exactly what was going on, the way he’d understood it with Gerry and Bear and others, including Luath thought, probably David. If you lived in Philip’s household you learned not to be afraid of honesty or acted out emotion, and you learned to see where it was going: like those of them who suddenly got on planes to Texas as an indicator that they’d like to talk, please. And most significant to Luath’s thinking, Flynn, who in Luath’s long experience didn’t take risks with his people except in very calculated ways, obviously wasn’t rattled. If anything, Flynn was staying almost curiously hands-off, when Luath would have expected him to be here, right in the middle of it, the best qualified of all of them to manage it. He would very much have liked a quiet half hour alone with Flynn tonight to talk this out, and was willing to bet he wasn’t the only one. Luath sat slowly down on the bank beside Paul, easing himself somewhat stiffly onto the cold grass.

“I think I’m in much the same state, I couldn’t get any deeper to sleep than dozing. Doesn’t this remind you of one of those nights when Philip wouldn’t go to bed?”

He saw Paul smile a little, his eyes on the river, and knew they were both thinking of Philip settling himself to read in the study or out on the porch or quietly in an armchair in the family room, in pyjamas and his dark red dressing gown, waving everyone else away to go to bed and leave him alone and he used to be immoveable on those nights to Luath or Paul’s persuasion. He only did it occasionally, and never with any kind of explanation, but Luath knew from experience it was invariably timed with someone in their household who in the small hours of the night would discover that they needed him, even if they didn’t think so now. Roger, who had understood Philip at the same gut level he did the rest of the family, had always been blunt about the need for Luath to just come to bed and leave Philip to it. Roger would be completely unmoved if he was out here with them tonight, and he could be very logical.

“What exactly are you going to do?” Watching the river run by, Luath could hear it as clearly as if Roger said it out loud, and see him fold his glasses and put them randomly down on the grass by their sleeping bag where he could guarantee rolling on them or mislaying them during the night unless Luath confiscated them and put them somewhere safer. “If we need to wake up and do something then we’ll wake up and do something, and by that point we’ll have some idea of what it is we need to do. You can’t all stand around braced like a bunch of midfielders, leave the guy alone.”

He’d have been equally calm about retrieving Gerry in high drama from Texas, as matter of fact that this was just what Gerry sometimes did as he always was about Flynn’s temper, Darcy’s enjoyment of being shocking and Bear’s propensity for freezing to the spot and denying the power of speech when things went wrong. He could get fed up with them sometimes, he bickered with them sometimes to the point where Luath had confiscated his phone or banned him from email for a day or two while things cooled off, but Roger never confused frustration with wanting to them to be anyone else. There had been no judgement anywhere in Roger; he just loved who he loved.  He too would have been perfectly calm and accepting tonight. He also would have liked Dale, he would have found a very kindred soul in Dale in ways that none of the other brats in the family shared; Luath had thought it several times in those still regular moments when he saw or heard something and mentally made a note to tell it to Roger as something he’d enjoy, before his brain reminded him that technically that it was no longer possible.

There was still a real and physical ache where Roger should be. It was not so sharp now as it used to be, but it was still powerfully there at unexpected moments, and it was especially strong out here under the stars, on the open land Roger had loved, where they’d first met and both regarded as home. Biting back a familiar rush of bitterness and well aware of exactly what Roger would have been doing right now with one of their oldest and dearest friends, Luath put an arm around Paul’s shoulders and gave him a hug, strongly enough to pull Paul against him, rubbing his far arm where his hand rested.

“Are you ok? What do you need? You must be exhausted.”

“Actually no, I’m not at all.” Paul put an arm around his waist, gladly accepting the hug. “That’s another reason I can’t sleep, I’m in high gear.”

“I don’t know how you handle it.” Luath said honestly. “It’s is hard enough just to listen to, I wouldn’t know where to start.”

“Yes, you would.” Paul said with conviction. “If if was Roger, you’d have figured it out. When I see what Dale’s got the courage to do and how hard he’s trying – he’s the one with all the energy to keep on going and to push himself harder, he helps us every way he knows how, there isn’t a way he could tire me out. He’s an amazing man.”

Knowing that feeling well, Luath listened, going on holding him, and after a minute Paul said softly and with a strength in his voice that was powerful even by Paul’s usual standards.

“When I get a few minutes with him like I did this afternoon.... you saw him sitting with me picking out quartz? ....I don’t think he’s ever let go in his life the way he does with us.”

Luath had seen them together in the shallows for a while, talking, and he’d seen the handful of quartz pebbles Paul had put into his rucksack. Obviously there had been something more than what an outside observer could ascertain, something far more important, and from Paul’s brief, apologetic glance at him Paul wasn’t going explain either, which Luath also understood. There were things too private to be shared even with the closest family, and that was right and as it should be. It had been in Luath’s mind today when he’d gently pushed Dale back to Jasper, he’d done it on nothing more than instinct, but as he’d done it he’d realised that Dale needed the information as much as to feel where that boundary lay.

It isn’t me you need to be with right now.

Luath forgot sometimes how powerful the emotions were in this dynamic; what it was like to think like this and feel like this all the time. It was unsettling to reflect on his normal daily life was in the apartment in New York and how numbed he’d become used to being.

They both turned at the sound behind them, nothing more than a quiet pop of something snapping in the fire, and Jasper stilled too, lowering his hands to his lap, but neither Dale nor Mason stirred, and after a moment Luath turned back to the river, shaking his head.

“I wish Jas would let me have a watch. We must be getting on for two or three am and we’ve had no nightmares so far.”

They were all three of them braced for it.

Yeah, like a bunch of midfielders.

Luath smiled at the thought, and Paul went on watching Dale for a moment more before he finally relaxed a little.

“Hold that thought.”

Dale woke gradually with the sound of the fire quietly crackling in a way that meant new wood had just been added. Its warmth was strong against his side and the sky was a deep and soft grey. Jasper was in sight in the distance on the misty river bank, fishing, and Luath was knee deep in the river some way further on. Paul was sitting on the grass close beside him, his dark blue jacket rucked up around his shoulders and neck, his elbows on his knees, watching the fire and the river beyond it. It was early – very early, the valley was very peaceful and very still. There wasn’t even bird song to hear yet.

The image of that child walking out into sunny pasture was still powerfully clear in his head. It was even stronger now he saw the grass and the valley directly in front of him, and the sense of peace left by the dream was so potent that it was hard to move. The fire colours in front of him were intense, as if they were newly painted. The grass, even in the mist was a vivid green. The familiar lines of Paul’s face looked crisper, his hair and his eyes darker and every plane of his face seemed magnified, Dale found himself noticing intensely every crinkle of his eyes, the light within the dark blue. Paul didn’t stir or glance around when Dale got up. The valley was intensely hushed in those few moments before full daylight. Dale stood for a moment, watching Jasper in the river, Luath’s hands skilfully re casting a line from the makeshift rods they’d manufactured, hearing the soft rush of the river, then he walked slowly towards the river well upstream from them. Some several hundred yards up the bank he paused and then crouched, looking for a moment into the grey and transparent rushing water with the mist hovering over its surface, then putting a hand down so that his fingers touched the water’s surface. It wasn’t as cold as he expected. Crouching there, Dale reached for the idea Jasper had taught him at dawn a few days ago; to gather up what he felt and to separate it out, to make it a colour, a texture he could visualise in the water travelling towards him, something apart from himself, calling to mind Jasper’s soft voice to hear the words.  

Think about what’s in your mind this morning. Find one thing at a time and separate it out from everything else. Emotions. Thoughts. Concerns. Sensations. Memories. One at a time, everything you’re aware of.

It came without difficulty this morning, it was no effort to imagine and to see. Initially it was a grey colour in the water ahead of him. A dark and a muddy brownish grey, vast, slow moving and syrupy it filled the river from bank to bank, and it was something so grim that Dale almost instinctively recoiled from the water as it approached. He knew it for exactly what it was. The grimness radiated off it, like toxic waste. But it passed him and flowed away, down river, breaking up and disappearing into the clean water beyond him, and gradually the oncoming flow of grey changed. It began to dissolve into something that was first an indigo blue, much thinner, swirling, like ink flowing past, and it softened at the edge into almost a violet. That edge of colour as it passed was bright, soft but clear, and it reminded Dale sharply of the flashes of light he’d seen up on Mustang Hill that had been shot with violet. Jasper had said something then, a little reservedly, that it was not a colour indicating something wrong. And it travelled away from him. It passed, leaving him behind.

The colours had disappeared beyond sight downstream, the water was clear again. Clean.  

Dale watched it flow for a few minutes more, not so much coherently thinking as just being there, and his brain appeared to just do the projecting on its own for a moment later there came those delicate, translucent colours like refractions from a perfect glass crystal under sunlight – a bright, strong, orangey red colour that lit up the water in front of him with all the warmth of the heart of a fire, merged at the edge with a rush of vibrant blue that might have come from a Caribbean ocean, and beyond that a soft violet that flowed from mauve to pink as it travelled, and touching edges with it, a delicate, reflecting gold. Dale found himself smiling as he watched them, the light that came from those intense colours, the names of which he knew very well although he had no coherent reason for why. Flynn, Riley, Paul, Jasper.

And beyond it came an equally bright light turquoise and green, a soft but vibrant colour as bright as the gold, swirling and sparkling as it ran over the river stones.

That’s a new one, who’s that?

Dale watched it pass, aware of nothing more than calm interest; frankly this kind of thing happened so regularly now that there seemed little point in trying to summon up alarm or concern about it. In fact he was mildly amused at the fact that he felt he probably ought to.
Jasper and Luath were still fishing in the river. Luath had moved further downstream to a deeper stretch. Paul was still sitting beside the fire, with Mason asleep in his sleeping bag  some feet away, and another sleeping bag beside Paul –

-          filled with a sleeper with dark hair, face down, head on his arms.

Dale saw and recognised him with a jolt that shook him to his core, and it was like a physical tug, a yank. Abruptly he was aware that his face was pressed to his arms, the fire was warm against his side – Dale lifted his head, startled, and found himself lying in his sleeping bag beside Paul.

Sheesh, these dreams get weirder!

Except Luath was at the exact same deeper stretch of river Dale had seen him move to, Jasper and Luath were fishing exactly where he’d seen them just a few seconds ago, Paul was sitting exactly as he’d been sitting –

Ok, what the hell was that?

Paul put an arm around his shoulders as Dale dragged himself up on one elbow, and hugged him, closely and tightly with a gesture that said simply: it’s good to see you, and Dale swallowed on a rush of emotion that seemed to sear through places as tender and sore this morning as his throat and stomach. But it was good. It was on top of that wash of calm he’d felt by the river a few minutes ago and of the child in the pasture, of something having passed on. Left him. He freed an arm and hugged back, hard.

“Good morning.” Paul said against his hair. “No more dreams?”

Ha.  Well not bad ones.

Paul turned his chin up when he didn’t answer. His eyes were gentle and they were concerned, and with Mason asleep behind them Dale reached to kiss him, briefly and with all the reassurance and the warmth he could put into it. Paul ran a hand over his face, and Dale saw his eyes change from concern to surprised pleasure and questioning as he understood.

Ok, what? What’s different?

I have no idea how to explain it to you.

It was hard to say anything. Mostly a need to be still, to be quiet, when everything seemed so bright, so crisp and intense around him, and yet it wasn’t in anything like a bad way. Paul seemed to understand it too; he said nothing, just sat there with him while the sun went on slowly coming up behind them.

Mason joined them briefly when he woke up, then headed down to the river to join in the fishing, and by the time the sun was making the dew sparkle on the pasture and the sky was bright blue overhead, they were finishing the last of a batch of fried trout, heavily jacketed and gathered close around the fire against the chill of the morning. Very little tasted as good as very fresh trout on a cold morning in the open air, particularly as a change from granola and trail mix. Dale ate a little of the one on his plate, fragments that were so strongly flavoured they were close to overwhelming, good with wood smoke, with the river, with the green of the wet grass and the loud voices of the others. Paul looked across at him, watching him set the plate down barely a third finished.

“Stomach sore?”

Dale gave him an apologetic look, and Paul took a couple of antacids out of his rucksack, handing them over to Dale.

“Take those, try eating again in an hour or so, hon. Little and often is probably going to work better today.”

Luath took the small bottle of pills out of his own rucksack and swallowed his morning dose. He’d been quiet at home before the hike. Not really noticeably unless you knew him as well as they did although Paul thought Gerry had been as aware of it as he had, but half inside himself. Heavy. Less involved than he usually was with whatever was going on around him, and with less patience. Out here in the last couple of days, Paul thought he was moving with more of his usual energy. His eyes were more alert, he was less inside himself – although they’d given him little choice, he’d been involved every day in helping them with Mason and with Dale, and Luath was a long experienced Top and member of this family here where he had strong habits of not staying politely hands off with them. It was yanking on his instincts, and it showed.

Dale was watching Luath knock the pills back; Paul saw it with a stab of realisation that Dale must know very deeply what it felt like to be near someone depressed, and it made Paul think that when they’d climbed in the canyon, Dale had taken his time, just happening to be where Luath could take his arm at any time with the same tact Philip used to have. Almost a protective instinct.  

Luath put the bottle away and came back to the fire with his mug of tea, and Paul thought he’d seen Dale watching him too and he understood it the way Paul did, since he wrapped an arm around Dale and pulled him over into a strong hug without comment. Dale was almost swallowed up against him. Mason, who by now they must have rendered shock proof, didn’t even glance round, and Paul leaned on his shoulder to get up, saying to him with affection for his clear enjoyment of the fish he was finishing the last scraps of.

“You’ve got a definite knack for fishing, Mason. I’m stuffed.”

“I could get into fishing.” Mason, scruffy and shaggy beneath the brim of his hat which emphasised the increasingly weathered tan he was acquiring, gave him a quick grin, knocking back the last of his own tea before he shook his mug out. “Are we moving on?”

“We’re moving on.” Jasper confirmed. Mason leaned over to tip the last of the water over the fire with a practicality that he’d picked up after several days of fires at every camp, one elbow braced on his knee.

“So which way are we headed today?”

“Northwest.” Jasper indicated the woods ahead of them. “There were elk down that way last night, we’ll follow them and pick up the path.”

Mason raked out the smoking ashes which intensified the woodsmoke smell, scattering them before he got up. Jasper held a hand out to him.

“Where are those rocks of yours?”

“Yeah, I’ve got the lot, relax.” Mason pulled several out of his jeans pockets and several more from his jacket. “Ten, there you are. All present and correct.”

“Give me three of them.” Jasper kept his hand out, waiting, and looking wary, Mason gave him three. Jasper said nothing more, but put one down beside the ashes of the fire, another by the makeshift fishing rods and another by the bank of the river before he went to pick up his rucksack. Mason’s eyebrows rose as he watched, he looked faintly amused, but he zipped his jacket and went to get his own gear together.

“I spent most of yesterday holding everyone up,” Dale straightened up from his pack and Paul knew his expression. It was the one that flatly said the most brutal things straight out loud, because blaming himself first and hardest was fractionally less awful than being blamed by others. While his voice was very soft as if it was an effort to speak at all this morning, his tone was quietly matter of fact. “Including making a scene about half past one yesterday morning and hurling a journal into the fire. No one’s said a word about it, which isn’t fair or appropriate, particularly to Mason. We have the same expectations for all of us.”

 “Hey, that was crisis, not bad temper. I’ve got nothing like your problems to handle.” Mason said quite gently from where he was packing his rucksack. “Let it go, man. No one wants to see you with a pocket full of rocks.”

“That doesn’t make it fair.” Dale said quietly to Jasper. Jasper shrugged into his pack, moving calmly and returning Dale’s gaze but not answering.

“When did we start worrying about ‘fair’ around here?” Luath said conversationally, clipping his harness on. “I’m pretty sure that used to be a banned word.”

Dale gave Luath a straight look, and Paul said firmly, “Dale, look at me. Why did we spend yesterday getting held up? Give me the other half of the story.”

It was a hard thing to ask him to say and it was a powerful cue for a mouthful of icily and courteously worded defiance, or for convoluted rabbit trails; Paul was prepared to work through either. Dale swung his pack up, shouldering into the harness, but he met Paul’s eyes, his voice quiet.

“Mostly because I was freaking out around flashbacks. It wasn’t a good day.”

“It really wasn’t.” Paul agreed. “And you made up your mind to let us help and to talk it out. You could have shut down and denied that anything was bothering you, you could have bolted, you could have dissociated, you could have played us, I know it took everything you had not to. But you didn’t, even though it was ugly and it was messy. I know you want to feel bad about that now. You know why?”

“Because the programming says it’s unacceptable.” Dale admitted even more quietly. “In her house, that was the worst thing I could do.” 

It was an effort not to visibly react with shock or delight that he just said it. He’d spent all of yesterday going through hell to force it out in syllable by painful syllable, but today, now, they had the words for it.

“That was her house, not here and now.” Paul agreed gently, in the same low key tone, catching sight of Mason’s expression which was fixed on Dale and deeply sympathetic. “You spent yesterday doing exactly the right thing, love, I’m very proud of you, what on earth would we want to consequence about that? ‘Please be traumatised quietly?’”

It didn’t get a smile out of him but it got something in his eyes that Paul read without difficulty, that went to his heart and mostly said thank you. He held out a hand and Dale took it, holding on to it tightly enough to let slip that however calm he looked, he was desperate for the comfort. Paul wrapped his fingers around Dale’s holding them just as tight, and pulling Dale close to him as they started to walk, Tam trotting ahead of them. They left a little flattened grass, the raked out ashes and Mason’s rocks behind them.

Luath dropped his hands on Dale’s shoulders as he walked alongside them towards the woods. “I remember now. It was Bear and Roger banned it on the grounds of over-use on Gerry’s part, and Gerry refused to talk to pretty much any of us for two days. I’d forgotten the havoc Gerry can cause when he really sulks, I spent most of those two days keeping Rog busy so he didn’t cave in and apologise just to calm him down.”

“I’d have thought Bear would be the one who’d find it hardest.” Dale’s voice was still very soft but he was distracted; there was very little in the history of the ranch that didn’t fascinate him. Luath smiled at him.

“You’d be surprised, Bear’s not easily persuaded to do anything much. He said the whole point was that Gerry used the word ‘fair’ or rather ‘not fair’ as a get out clause to avoid justifying what he actually minded about,”

“Bear did not put it like that.” Paul said with amusement. Luath shrugged good naturedly, catching Mason’s eye who was listening with interest.

“Ok, put that into Bear speak, but that was the gist, and he said Gerry was proving them right with a whole lot more refusing to communicate. We thought Bear and Roger had a good point and were staying out of it so long as nothing worse than sulking was happening. Then Wade got involved didn’t he?”

“I think Gerry wrote to him looking for moral support and sympathy,” Paul said regretfully, “He got a letter back from Wade agreeing with the others and Gerry melted down completely. At which point Philip did one of his nobody-leaves-the-table-until-you’re-desperate-to-get-along things.”

“Did he take much of a hand in it?” Dale asked him. Jasper shook his head, walking with Mason on Dale’s other side.

“I never saw him have to. He didn’t say much at all if there was a falling out. He just put a paddle down on the table and pleasantly invited us to talk it out. And people did. Quick.”

“Mostly because the paddle wasn’t an empty threat.” Paul said reflectively. “People got pretty motivated to start listening, being honest and taking responsibility for their part in any bickering, and once they started doing that, problems generally vanished straight away. I don’t remember anyone getting up from a session like that still mad or upset. Rather a different spin on your work kind of conflict resolution isn’t it hon?”

“Well I’m not saying it wouldn’t be effective.” Dale said with conviction and a hint of his usual dryness when he was amused by something. “I’d be willing to give it a go. But yes.”

“You’re all nuts.” Mason said uncritically. “First you want to live out here in the middle of nowhere with no tv and a whole lot of sheep, then you live with a guy with a paddle who uses it.”

“He had a large group of men in the house, most with strong personalities, a lot of whom weren’t the ‘let’s talk about this’ type. Discipline was how he kept the peace.” Luath said cheerfully. “I was a bit taken aback too at first, but it worked. Seen any blazing rows at home yet? People sniping at each other – and I mean the mean stuff – or the silent treatment, or people refusing to come to meals or sit with each other?”

“No.” Mason admitted a little unwillingly. “And yeah I get it, you guys are all stuck in the 1930s and it’s kind of cute in a way,”

Luath’s eyebrows rose. “Good manners and conflict management is out of date in your workplace? Dale, you ever noticed that in New York?”

Mason grimaced.  “Ah come on, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“You have some of those values yourself.” Paul pointed out to Mason. “Sixteen tons and what do you get? The music you love isn’t light on values at all, it’s got very strong cultural roots in what makes for a good man.” 

Mason paused as they reached the edge of the woods where the light struck down through the trees in shafts, putting a hand up to stop the others. Elk were grazing at the bottom of the hollow, several hundred yards away, several massive bulls with their new, heavy antlers still velvet covered and their winter coats ragged and coming off them in patches now it was spring, tearing slowly at the grass and rooting amongst the leaves. Their haunches would be shoulder high on a man, they weren’t so very much smaller than the horses. One of the bulls lifted its head and turned to look at them, studying them while it chewed, but the rest of the group took no notice.

“No hunters out here.” Mason said softly. “Are there? Look at that. They’re not scared of us at all.”

“They see us go by and do our thing, we don’t disturb them. And we’re bordered by ranches, no one around here is going to shoot at them.” Jasper nodded at the largest of the elks. “He’s one of the oldest, I know the antlers. They don’t go that far off our land even in the winter. The coyote or the wolf packs will sometimes go after the calves or a weak or old bull on its own, but I’ve seen the mess those antlers will leave a coyote in.”

 They stood for a moment more, watching the elk graze before Jasper led the way round the wall of the hollow, a route that wouldn’t disturb the grazers. As they climbed down the hollow on a route that would eventually lead them back to the river, Jasper paused, took Dale’s hand and drew him towards something to the side of the path, tugging gently until Dale crouched down beside him. It was a tree sapling; Paul saw it over his shoulder. Very small, only a few leaves on a sturdy stalk. Jasper dug gently with his fingers around the stalk, easing it out of the earth until the roots were freed. He handed the sapling to Dale and straightened up.

“Find me two more like that.”

He said nothing else, which clicked immediately for Paul; he swallowed a smile and walked on with Mason and Luath, leaving Dale, probably mystified but not showing it, to search for and locate two more of the saplings, coaxing them out of the ground with their roots intact, hearing Jasper’s voice behind him.

“There’s plenty of moss there. Wrap the roots in it, keep them damp and find somewhere safe to put them in your rucksack.”

They were headed home this morning as planned, and on a familiar trail they often rode, they were only a few hours’ walk away from the house. None of them had mentioned it aloud for Mason’s sake any more than they’d shared the plans with him that had been made the evening before they hiked out; they intentionally didn’t give clients much information on what was coming up, and not until an event was imminent. Their clients were powerful and intelligent people with strong personalities who were used to having all the information that was available, to making their own plans and having total control. Part of helping them to find genuine peace and relaxation here was their learning what many of them had never experienced before in their lives even as children: to just let things happen, to be able to be secure within themselves with whatever came along instead of their stability and mood being dependent on things going the way they planned. It was something Mason was a lot better at now they were on their fifth day out here where he’d had no ability to control or predict at all.

They were covering ground quickly too. Paul, watching Dale walk at his usual pace with Jasper, was very well aware of how quiet he was – not the explosive or disappearing kind of quiet, but an utter weariness that he was trying not to let show. Jasper was keeping a firm hold on his hand and picking their route and he wasn’t taking them a step further than necessary. Somewhere on the banks of the river where Jasper and Mason climbed out on to the rocks to refill their water bottles, Luath put an arm around Dale’s waist from behind, giving him a close and crushing hug, and Paul knew he’d seen it too, and understood it.

“Not far now. Sit down, get some rest.”

Dale never usually took well at all to any implication of weakness, but he seemed to take that from Luath. He liked Luath, and Paul thought too that Dale understood and valued the hierarchy of the family he’d joined, he had a lot of natural respect and time for the older members who had been here decades before he came which had done a good deal to endear him to them; James particularly was a sucker for a good looking young man with Dale’s kind of manners and admitted it freely. Paul saw Dale nod and Luath tugged him closer and dropped a discreet, hard kiss on his forehead, helping him ease his back pack off and sit down on the bank.

“Paul, give me your water bottle, you must be short by now.”

Paul handed it over and sat down beside Dale, winding his fingers through Dale’s slightly cold ones.

“How are you doing, hon?”

“Tired.” Dale said honestly. Paul waited, watching him, aware that where yesterday his tension had been painfully visible all the time, his body language had been huddled, small, tight, today the weariness rolled off him, but it was a calm kind of weariness and while he was quiet, he was with them. Not shut down, not distressed, nothing worse at all than as he said: tired. It was as if he’d burned it all out yesterday, channelled it out, the whole feel of him was different.

“I feel rather zoned out.” Dale said after a moment, quietly. “Not really thinking anything much, just...”

“Here.” Paul offered when he trailed off. “And empty I bet. And fragile.”

Sometimes it helped if you gave him the words for it, and sometimes if you made a guess and got it wrong he could correct you and build on the start you’d made.

“It’s not bad.” Dale said after a moment and Paul could hear the effort to find the words to describe it. “It’s a bit like the morning we went to the hot springs. It’s definitely not bad, but it’s very different. It’s rather like a damn great hole of nothing where mess ought to be.”

“And you find yourself thinking, if it’s not there and it was such a big part of everything then who am I. You almost find yourself missing it.” Luath said from the river bank. Dale looked up at him and Luath brought the water canteen back to Paul, shaking it off before he handed it over, his voice very gentle. “You know I found myself guilty as hell this Christmas because I had a good time? First time in years it hasn’t been, at gut level, all about missing Rog. And in part that feels like forgetting him, and in part it isn’t who I’ve been for a long time. You’d think you’d be glad just not to feel so bad, but you end up almost grieving for that grief.”

Dale looked up at him, and Paul could see he understood, fully. It always mattered to him when one of them shared something themselves, something that made them as vulnerable, that said yes, I understand that and I’ve been there too. It was a shock too to realise how Luath had felt over Christmas; he’d hidden it well and that was as exasperating as it was sad. Jasper, sitting down on the grass beside Dale, reached into Dale’s pocket and took out the piece of rose quartz Dale always carried, putting it into Dale’s hand.

“My grandfather believed a part of people’s souls was in their bones, and in the year after they were buried, that essence of them returns back to the earth and to the life force there. Especially gathering into crystals and quartz, it’s part of why quartz has such a part in spiritual lore. When you use it, you have no idea how many people are helping you.”

“Well that was random. And a really disgusting thought.” Mason commented, giving the quartz a wry look. He was standing calf deep in the water near them on the shallow shelf of rock at the crossing place, and he’d been standing there for a moment or two, frowning into the depths of the relatively clear water. A few days ago he’d have complained loudly about having to step in running, freezing water, but being constantly muddy and dirty and frequently wet tended to shift your tolerance to it a lot. Having followed the wagon trail in the past few days and slept last night in the town built and settled by them, it was also a far sharper experience to see the wagon frame deep under the water. Someone’s home and transport had gone down with it, this had been someone’s major disaster once, although in this depth and in clear water, most if not all of their possessions must have been recovered. When you knew yourself, directly, what it was like to sleep out on this land and how dependent you were on shelter, dry clothes, dry firewood and what food you could catch or carry, it was far easier to understand the plight of the wagon’s owner.

Dale turned the large chunk of glittering, rough quartz over in his hand, holding it up for Mason to see.

“It’s not random at all. I dug this up here, it was formed on our land and we’ve had a lot of people move through or live on this land. To me that’s a pretty wild thought. And there’s healing influences associated with rose quartz. Peace. It clarifies and amplifies the qualities it identifies with.”

Mason gave him a brief and uncritical grin, looking back down into the water and the downed wagon and digging his hands into his pockets.

“Totally random. Ya gotta love guys this weird. Luath, I’m really sorry about Roger, man. That must be hell.”

“It is.” Luath said to him, and Paul, watching Mason, saw him appreciate the honest reply to a friend rather than the polite ‘thank you’ a stranger might have gotten for a formal expression of sympathy. “It has been. I still miss him all the time, sometimes I do better with it than at others. The tough thing is getting real about it, when it’s been a long period of time and everyone else has moved on, when you have to stay functional and if you’re numbed out then hey, at least you’re coping, right? You’re getting on with your life. Except you’re not, and deep down you know you’re not. Hardest thing in the world to let yourself face the bad. Not just face it; go dance with it.”

“Oh man, you lot need therapy,” Mason started to say as he waded across to the bank, and Paul saw him look at Dale and wince, “Shoot, look, I don’t mean that. I’ve got a big mouth and I’m lousy at talking about this kind of stuff with anyone, find me a guy in my line of work who is? I get embarrassed and I mouth off.”

It was one of the most honest confessions Paul thought they’d yet heard him make.

“Oh I get being avoidant, I was just the same until I came out here.” Dale said gently. “Trust me, I get it. I managed an entire career on polite small talk until I flipped my lid.”

Mason gave him a rather strange look; Paul saw it and saw Jasper see it too; Mason had looked uncomfortably towards Dale a couple of times today, and it wasn’t discomfort with what Dale had confided in them yesterday. If anything there had been a lot of sympathy and Paul thought no little protectiveness in Mason for Dale that had come out in a number of ways as an older man to a younger. It was something else bothering Mason.

When they got up to move on, Paul noticed that Dale kept the rose quartz crystal in his hand, turning it absently over and over in his fingers.

They passed the cairn on the way through the pastures, the pink quartz within the structure glinting in the midday sun. Luath stopped beside it, putting an affectionate hand on the stone, then crouching down in front of it. There were no words on the cairn, nothing official there to mark it, but in the deepest grass growing against its foot, there were still dried flowers left from last summer, when they’d buried Gam Saan at Three Traders. Several awkward posies from men who wouldn’t usually pick flowers had been quietly tucked at the foot of the stones, and a very few were not quite disintegrated or blown away.

“What does this mark?” Mason asked, shifting his rucksack a little higher on his shoulders. “It’s the same kind of rock you’ve got, isn’t it? It’s a beautiful thing and it’s in the middle of nowhere.”

“This is where we buried David and Philip.” Luath brushed more moss off the base of the stones, more to touch it than because anything needed clearing. “This quartz is from the ranch too.”

It never failed to give Paul a deep sense of peace to see the cairn. There was still the memory of watching them cut the turf and turn the soil over, of several of them gently lifting the blanket wrapped figure from the hay cart they’d walked beside through the pasture, the blanket from Philip and David’s bed that they laid over them both when they were side by side again. Like everything initiated by Philip, it had been calm and peaceful and this was a good place, with good memories. Jasper, standing with Dale and keeping hold of his hand, glanced down into Dale’s face for a moment, then silently unclipped Dale’s rucksack harness, took it down from his shoulders and Luath got up and came to help him separate its contents, stuffing a good part of it into his own backpack. Dale looked too shocked to argue for a moment, and Paul got hold of him to stop him interfering as he got his breath back, sounding extremely formal but too tired to explode. “Jasper. It’s only a couple of miles, I’m perfectly capable of-”

Actually he wasn’t. Seeing what Jasper had seen, the slightly drunk cast of his eyes that said he was pushing well beyond the point of exhaustion now and no longer really aware he was doing it, Paul put Dale gently out of the way and pulled off his own backpack to take a share of the load.

“No sweetheart. Let it go now, you’ve got enough of a job moving yourself.”

Mason swung his own pack to the ground, gruffly taking Dale’s bedroll from Paul.

“Give me that.”

He roped it to his own pack, efficiently with a few practiced yanks of the elasticated rope he’d been using for days to rig his night shelter and to wrap his own belongings, which were much tighter wrapped today than they’d been five days ago.

“Why don’t we rest here for a while?” Luath said quietly. “We’re in no hurry and we could all probably do with something to eat.”

Dale winced involuntarily, and Paul sat down on the grass and tugged until Dale lay down in the grass beside him, shoulders against the turf. Luath dug in his pack and handed Paul the bag of granola.

“Here. Jas, you too, you could do with it. Have you got any left?”

Jasper accepted the handful Luath passed him, sitting down on the grass on Dale’s other side to share it with Mason.

“Mason, give me one of your rocks.”

Mason glanced up at him, startled, then took another rock from his pocket, handing it over. Jasper put it firmly down on the grass where Dale’s pack had rested.

Paul, laying back on the grass, watched the sunlight glinting off the strands of Dale’s dark hair. His eyes were fixed on the sky above them, and it made Paul think again, with intense tenderness, of sitting with him picking pebbles in the water yesterday afternoon. He had suggested it at the time on impulse as a distraction, something sensory and physical to do that would be calming, and the signs were so slight and so fragile that it was like watching a deer graze or a bird pick grain out of your hand, while you barely dared to breathe for fear of startling them. He didn’t think Dale had ever consciously realised which part of him was so involved in sorting and collecting stones, doing something Paul was willing to bet he’d never been able to relax and do with someone he loved as a preschooler. He’d been far calmer afterwards, as if something at a deep level had been soothed.

“Do you know,” Dale said to him softly and quite conversationally, “Before there was a town at Three Traders there were just a few tents on the river bank, under the shelter of the hill.”

“Were there?” Paul glanced down at his face, thinking of other things and only peripherally aware of the actual words. Dale’s eyes were still on the sky.

“The tents were mostly trappers and traders, they traded furs as the wagons passed through on the trail which was more or less where the main street comes down the hill and down to the river, this was a rest stop because of the water. And then a kind of rough mercantile building went up near to where the hotel is now. One rough timber building with a green sign, hand painted.”

“Did you read about it?” Paul asked him, and Dale shook his head slightly.

“I could see it. It’s like seeing pictures. Flashes of it.”

“Like photographs?”

“In a way.” Dale sounded calm about it, the calm of exhaustion but there was a kind of mild interest in his voice. “It’s very like imagining. Mind’s eye. Glimpses, except I know where each bit should have been. If I stood on an oil rig or on a building field with a plan, I often used to mentally plan out a kind of visual construction of where things would be and what they would look like. I wish I understood more about the difference between imagining and something else.”

The something else was a euphemism and Paul understood it.

“You said with Mustang Hill, it was as if David was nagging you to understand something.” he said softly. “Is that the way this time?”

Dale made one of his very British hmph sounds and it was a cheerful one.

“No. As a matter of fact, from what I can ascertain I really don’t think David gives a toss about the Silver Bullet, he’s not interested. This just seems to .... be.”

“Mhm?” Paul made it a quiet sound, an I’m listening sound. Dale didn’t say anything further for a moment. There was something studiedly casual about it, something that warned Paul he was trying to screw himself up to something, and finally Dale cleared his throat carefully.

“That cloud over that way, towards the town. That one looks like a ship in sail.”

Paul couldn’t answer for a moment, startled and with his eyes stinging. Keeping his own voice relaxed he lay back on the grass, his shoulder against Dale’s, feeling for his hand.

“Top gallant? Oh go on, tell me. You know you want to.”

He felt Dale break into a laugh and his fingers squeezed Paul’s.

“British Admiralty square rigged, 44 gun frigate, circa 1800. Shut up and play properly.”

The house came into view in the distance first.

The warm colour of the roof reflected back the sunlight, emerging out of the green pasture in the far distance, and Mason looked sharply towards it, then looked back to Jasper, his face lighting up.

“That’s the ranch, isn’t it?”

“Hot showers and a decent meal tonight, son.” Luath slung an arm around his shoulders as they walked through the deep grass. “If they’ve left the kitchen intact.”

“Oh believe me, they will have left the kitchen intact.” Paul said definitely. “They know me too well, they won’t risk it.”

“How many miles do you guess we’ve walked altogether?” Mason turned to walk backwards, looking out towards the pasture stretching behind them, with respect in his voice as much as a little very justified pride.

“Forty plus. Maybe forty five.” Jasper told him.

Paul, expecting Dale to give the precise figure, which he usually would have done automatically, looked at him and found him walking with his eyes on the house, all his attention on it, and there wasn’t just tiredness in his face now. Paul squeezed his hand, with the same rush of home in his own stomach. It was an intense victory after five days of hiking, with those miles laying behind them, Riley and Flynn ahead of them, Gerry and Ash, home with everything it meant, and Mason felt it too. That last mile they walked faster, enjoying the view, and there was a swagger in Mason’s step that Paul understood and liked him for, something that said he knew he’d faced down a challenge and done it well.

The red dust yard was its usual tidy, orderly self. Tam darted ahead of them and Shane bulleted out of the corral, leaping up at her with his tail flailing. Paul’s heart leaped at the sight of Flynn beyond them in the corral, in shirtsleeves and work gloves, filling the feed bins. He glanced up towards them and Paul saw him empty the sack into the last bin, rolling up the bag as he climbed the rail. Luath shrugged his pack down and dropped it by the barn door, tipping his head back and stretching until his big shoulders cracked. Paul put his own down beside it.

“Mason, why don’t you go grab the kitchen shower and have a good soak? There’s no need to hurry. You’ve got clean clothes in the laundry room. Luthe, want to grab the bathroom by your room?”

“I would pay serious money for a shower.” Luath dropped his arms and met Flynn with a rough, hard hug that lasted a few seconds too long to be casual. “Hey brat, it’s good to see you.”

“You made good time.” Flynn hugged him back, slapped his back and let him go, dropped an arm around Mason’s shoulders and gave him an equally rough hug. “Hey Mason. Think you could have got any muddier?”

“Hey, these are my clean jeans.” Mason said, grinning. “The muddy ones are in my pack, they practically walk by themselves.”

“So how was it?” Flynn asked him. Mason paused on the porch steps, following Luath, and gave him a brief, reluctant nod, still smiling.

“.. okay, so it was damn good. Don’t tell anyone.”

Flynn gave him one of his very brief, crackling grins and Mason headed inside, stopping with Luath to get heavily muddied, soaked hiking boots off his feet.

“Don’t anybody walk through the house in those filthy clothes, strip in the kitchen!” Paul shouted after them, and Luath waved back. He was moving casually enough but he was discreetly herding Mason out of sight; Paul knew it and appreciated it.

Dale could have made a fortune at poker. His face was calm and he wasn’t looking at anything in particular while they waited. With deep sympathy, Paul held on to his hand until Mason and Luath were both inside, then Flynn swung around, hooked an arm around Dale’s neck and yanked him over against his chest, and Dale put both arms around his neck and clenched them, his face buried. Paul ran a hand over Dale’s head and rubbed his back, watching Flynn turn his face against Dale’s. If he was saying anything, it was out of anyone else’s earshot. Dale looked very slight against him, even in the heavy jacket, Flynn’s arms so tightly around him that the muscles stood out on his forearms.

“Bath.” Paul said after a moment with his voice rather shakier than he’d meant. “Flynn, get him out of those clothes and get him in the bath. Don’t for goodness sake leave him alone in there, he’s barely awake as it is.”

Neither of them moved for a moment, then Flynn kissed the side of Dale’s face, hard, looking past him to Jasper, then to Paul, without letting Dale go. His eyes were very dark, they were the only place he didn’t effectively have himself under control.

“You two ok?”

“Fine.” Paul put a hand against the side of Flynn’s face, kissed what he could reach of him and headed up the porch steps. “We’re good. Where’s Riley?”

“Should be back in the next half hour. Ash and Gerry went up to the horses, they’ll be back by four.”

            Flynn waited for him strip to the skin in the kitchen, which was remarkably tidy and if Dale was any judge, had been thoroughly scrubbed this morning. The house was warm and quiet and wonderfully familiar, the carpet was shockingly soft under foot, the shower was already running in the bathroom at the far end of the landing near Philip and David’s and Luath’s room, and Flynn steered him into the bathroom at their end of the landing, letting him go to run the bath. Dale ran both hands through his hair, well aware that despite river bathing and washing, he could smell himself and it was not pleasant.

“I’m going to shower first.”

“You can’t be any muckier than you were coming out of the mine. In.” Flynn dumped a handful of the salts Paul kept in a jar by the side of the bath that were good for easing out the sore muscles they often came home with, and gripped his arm, steadying him as he stepped in. The touch of the hot water was mind blowing. Dale found himself groaning with the sheer luxury of it, heat and steam and the pressure against sore muscles, and sinking down in it was fatal. The comfort of it rushed over him, Dale felt the last of his energy slip away and the aching of his legs and his head redoubled in response. He could have just laid back in the hot water, closed his eyes and let himself fall asleep right there. He didn’t ever in his life remember being this tired. Flynn put a hand under his chin, lifting his face to look at him, then pulled the blind down over the window, dimming the room.

“What hurts other than the headache?”

“Legs. A little. Stomach.”

And that part was worrying him slightly. Dale made himself sit up with an extreme effort, reaching for the soap. The bath wasn’t half full yet, the taps were still gushing in an amazing way, spilling out endless hot water, and the soap smelled fantastically clean. He lathered the bar up and began to wash silt, sweat and mud from his skin. Flynn reached for his hand, turning it up to see the palm. Dale had forgotten about the now sealed cut below his thumb, it had been several days since Paul let him stop wearing a dressing despite the mud they were covered in. The line where it had been was still vivid on his skin and he suspected it would probably scar, but it was neat. Small. Flynn ran his own hand over it, then took the soap from him, sitting on the edge of the bath to soap him thoroughly from neck to feet, his hands as much massaging as washing, and in some way taking a kind of very comforting inventory that was sure and strong and measured all of him, from ribs which Dale was fairly sure were protruding more than was attractive and more than they had a few weeks ago, to parts of him that were definitely interested despite being exhausted and argued that there was no such thing as that tired. The entire inventory was of Flynn’s property after all, piano ribs and all; Dale would have been prepared to defend that in court, in armour and to dragons if necessary.

Pulling himself together, Dale slid down under the water to wet his hair and soaped it vigorously, rinsed it out along with the rest of him and ran his hair back from his face as he sat up, running the water off along with it. Flynn held a towel up, not letting go of it as Dale wiped his eyes and his face, then put a hand under his chin again, stooping down to kiss him. It was a thorough, demanding and extremely searching kiss that went on for a while and it was wonderful. The feel of him, the taste of him, the utter familiarity of his mouth and his hands and the strength within them, the rush of emotion and everything else that tended to rush whenever Flynn got hold of him.... Flynn’s shirt was very wet by the time Dale came up for air, breathless and lightheaded and feeling infinitely better than he had in days. Paul tapped at the door, also wet haired and clearly straight from the shower, and carrying three mugs, one of which he handed to Dale.

“How are you doing?”

Tea. Real tea. With fresh milk. It smelled like heaven, it tasted even better. Dale shut his eyes in bliss at the flavour, stunned at how a few days of deprivation sharpened the senses.

“Hey!” Riley’s voice yelled from downstairs. Paul put his own mug down to shout back, his whole face lighting up.

“Riley we’re up here!”

From the sound of it, Riley took the stairs several at a time and he erupted into the bathroom and hurled himself into Paul’s arms, loud and delighted and radiating it at an intensity that made Dale’s ears ring. Paul hugged him tightly, laughing, Dale glimpsed his face over Riley’s shoulder, loving the joy there.

“Hi sweetheart, I missed you! How are you? How has it been going?”

“Crazed, but we’ve been fine.” Riley kissed Paul soundly. “When did you get in? I didn’t see a thing until I saw Jas in the yard just now, and I was watching all morning for you!”

He let Paul go and stooped over the edge of the bath and Dale hugged him hard, caring as little as Riley did about getting him wet. Riley was warm, vital, he felt awfully good and his arms were squashing.  

“We walked back from Three Traders, we camped down there last night.”  Paul said cheerfully behind them. “It was a beautiful walk, bright day, that valley is beautiful. It’s so still at night.”

“You look like hell.” Riley let Dale go and sat back to look at him, and Dale saw his face change from teasing to genuine alarm. “Dale, you really look like hell,”

“Relax, we’re all right.” Paul put his hands on Riley’s shoulders, gently pulling him to his feet. “He’s going to bed as soon as he’s done with that tea, don’t harass him.”

“I’m fine, this is mostly nerves.” Dale reached for Riley’s hand and gripped it. “Paul and Jas deserve the sympathy, I’ve been dragging them through the valley of the shadow of my mother for the past couple of days.”

It was only them he could have said it to, even couched in such a pathetic attempt at humour.

“Are you ok?” Riley demanded it fairly quietly, gripping him back. His eyes were warm and anxious, intensely hazel, the colour was fascinating. Dale had to draw his attention back under control to reassure him, meaning it honestly.

“I’m ok. A lot better now than I was.”

“Yeah, always all the high drama with you.” Riley rolled his eyes and stooped quickly to kiss him again when Dale laughed. “You can sit there looking all chilled out and sensible, I know you. Not like we haven’t had all that with Gerry, he’s been bouncing off the walls while you’ve been gone.”

“Are they still planning to head back to Seattle tomorrow?” Paul asked with sympathy and Riley grimaced.

“No, Gerry got a call day before yesterday, it sucks. His surgery got put back. Some kind of emergency the surgeon had come in, it messed up his schedule and Gerry got bumped for a week, they couldn’t have done anything much meaner to him. They talked it over and decided they’re staying on here rather than going home to wait it out, I think they made the right call.”

“Easier to keep Gerry busy here, and not off by himself at the gallery all day where he can get in a state.” Flynn said succinctly. Riley snorted.

“Yeah, we’ve kept him busy all right. We had them doing the scans on the horses with Clara and we brought all the calves in, vaccinated and tagged them, mowed the low meadow and got the hay dry and baled, they’ve both been asleep on the couch by eight thirty.”

“Come on honey, get out of there.” Paul handed Dale a towel. “Let’s get you to bed and I’ll bring you up something to eat. I want something gentler in your stomach than what I plan on feeding everyone else tonight.”

“The last time it was this sore, I was starting an ulcer.” Dale admitted unwillingly as he got out. Flynn steadied him and took the towel, drying off his back and shoulders, and Paul went ahead of them into their room, pulling the bedclothes back and sorting through the chest of drawers for sleep wear, sounding a lot calmer than Dale felt and it was incredibly reassuring not to be alone with it.

“You spent a lot of yesterday throwing up, you’re bound to be sore. I think it’s mostly acid darling, don’t worry. If it isn’t any easier tomorrow we’ll ask Emmett for some advice but if we’re careful for a few days it should settle down. Ri, go and shower, I’m going to start dinner in a minute.”

Riley disappeared into the hallway, they could hear him singing as he headed into the bathroom.

Forty years on an iceberg out in the ocean wide
Nothing to wear but pyjamas and nothing to but slide.....

It was the kind of cheerful nonsense he usually sang in the bathroom and while he was dressing, a familiar and comfortable sound.

Dale didn’t remember a whole lot after that. It was quiet upstairs, the room was cool from the open window, the bed was unbelievably soft and the cleanness and the fresh smell of the sheets, the softness of linen was overwhelming.  Flynn lay down with him, holding him close and being there, being Flynn, big and strong and encompassing and quiet as if he knew and understood that the perfect thing he could do right now was shut up and hold on, and that really was pretty much it.

When he woke again it was dark, and he was locked hard against Flynn, inside the circle of Flynn’s arm. Flynn wasn’t clutching him, his grasp was very gentle: Dale realised it had been him doing the hanging on and rather abashedly slackened his grip. The sky was pitch black beyond the window and it was freezing cold, and everything was - strange. Flynn spoke at once when Dale moved, his voice very quiet but alert as if he’d been laying awake.


........I’m really not sure.

Not certain of what to do about it, although disorientation was a perfectly rational response to having gone to bed at such an early hour, Dale sat up, reaching for the single reliable excuse at this hour of the night.


“Be quick.”

There were all kinds of things wrong with that instruction. Shivering slightly, Dale slid out of bed and away from Flynn’s warmth, parting reluctantly with the covers and leaving the light out. He knew Flynn still sat up and waited. It was really damn cold tonight, it felt like there was a frost outside. The bathroom was even colder, touching the taps was more or less painful. It was seriously odd. Wondering if the heating was out and that was what had woken him, Dale paused on the landing at the top of the stairs, listening for the boiler. It was running all right, he knew the familiar low distant hum and it was unusually loud; in fact when he thought about it, he could feel the vibration through the floor and all through the walls.

Is the boiler going wrong? Is there something I’m missing? What the hell is about to happen?

Part of him wanted to go back to the doorway of his room and look and check he wasn’t still actually asleep in bed, because frankly now he knew that happened sometimes it worried him – or that there were no rabid small children or toy trains or anything else bizarre that tended to occupy his nights.

“What are you doing?” Riley’s voice said very softly behind him in the dark.

If Riley could see and hear him, then apparently he was awake. Dale gripped the wall for support, trying to sound a good deal calmer than he felt.

 “Listening for the boiler.”

“Yeah because that’s always fun at three am.” Riley padded down the landing to join him. “What, is it going to explode or something?”  

“You two, get back in bed. Now.” Flynn’s voice said distinctly from the doorway. Riley took no notice. He was standing very close, and he obviously wasn’t aware of the tremors or the peculiar buzzing sound.


Dale jumped at the hand Riley laid on his back; Riley was as freezing cold as the house was. Riley gripped his shoulder surprisingly hard and to Dale’s surprise he called out loud, sharply without the slightest care for the time of night, “Flynn, come here. Paul!”

Shh,” Dale started to say, startled, and Flynn materialised on the landing, large and quiet and shockingly, he was even colder than Riley was when his hands closed on Dale’s shoulders. He hadn’t felt that icy in bed just a few moments ago.

“Feel that?” Riley demanded. “How did you not notice that?”

Flynn’s hands were extremely firm and Dale found himself moved without his conscious permission, hearing Flynn’s voice, low and definite in his ear.

“Come on kid, it’s ok. Halfpint, stop yelling, let’s get back in bed and we’ll talk about it.”

“You want to look at him?” Refusing to be hustled anywhere, Riley snapped the landing light on and Dale winced, putting a hand up to shield his eyes. The light was searingly bright, the floor was vibrating under him along with everything else, and his ears were ringing, it was downright alarming.

“What’s going on out here?” Paul came out of his room, and Jasper, who had apparently been standing on the landing in the dark listening to all this, quietly closed Mason’s door and came to join them. Dale went where Flynn took him, slightly surprised by the strength of Flynn’s arm wrapping around his waist as if Flynn expected him to fall. Flynn put him down on the bed and Paul put the back of his fingers against Dale’s forehead, then inside the neck of his t shirt.

“All right. It’s all right honey, we’ll get you some Tylenol, get under the covers. Riley, go down and put the kettle on for me? Make him a cup of tea, let’s get him warm.”

“Something’s making a strange sound, I can feel the vibration but I don’t know what it is.” Dale said as clearly as he could. “The boiler might be going wrong, we probably need to check on it.”

“The boiler’s fine, this is called sick.” Paul pulled the covers up around his shoulders and put a hand under his chin, making him look up, and even in night clothes, his hair rumpled, his eyes were warm and very comforting. “Nothing’s vibrating, you’re shivering and you’ve got a fever, that’s why you feel a bit strange. Look at your hands. You’re just sick baby, that’s all, it’s ok. Nothing you need to worry about.”

Paul was right; he was shivering hard enough that his teeth were chattering with the cold. Dale shook his head, too surprised to take that in.  

“No I can’t be, I never get ill.”

Never. There had been the occasional cold, the headaches and irritations that bothered everyone but nothing a few paracetamol didn’t handle enough for him to keep on going with whatever he’d been doing at the time. The stomach ulcer had been by far the worst he’d ever encountered, and even that had been shut up by the antibiotics and medications some hotel doctor in Tokyo had prescribed one night. It had never got in his way. He’d never in his life felt like this.

Riley made a sharp sound that expressed oh for pete’s sake, but he headed downstairs, not particularly quietly. Flynn came back with a packet and a glass which he gave to Paul, and he sat down on the bed with something in his hand. Dale flinched as Flynn put it gently against his ear, holding his head still.

“I honestly don’t get ill, I never have done, even as a kid. I’ve never had anything worse than a cold.”

Whatever it was against his ear bleeped. Flynn took it away and turned it for Paul to see.

“Hundred and two.”

“Ok.” Paul sounded very calm about it, every movement he made was calm as if this was no kind of a problem and happened all the time in the early hours of the morning. He put two pills in Dale’s mouth, holding a glass for him to drink and swallow them. “We’ll give it an hour and that should come down two or three points. I’m not surprised hon, you’ve had a very rough few days. I’m right here, there’s nowhere you need to go and nothing you need to do or worry about. Are you going to trust me to handle it?”

Dale looked back at him speechlessly, and Paul ran a hand gently through his hair, pushing it back from his face.

“Are you?”

Saying it made it real. Paul knew it the same way Flynn did; that consciously and deliberately agreeing it together made it real. Dale nodded, slowly, aware that it was alarming to say but that he meant it, and there was an immense relief in it. The sense of letting go.

“Yes sir.”

“Good.” Paul gave him a smile that was as comforting as it was relaxed. “Then we might as well relax and let it roll.”


“He’s asleep.” Flynn sat down on the end of Jasper’s bed with a half drunk mug of tea in his hand. Riley, sitting cross legged on the bed beside Jasper, glared at him with a mutinous expression that said he was staying put only because Jasper had insisted.

“That is not asleep, I saw him after dinner and he was out like he’d been coshed.”

Flynn put an arm around Riley and pulled until Riley unwillingly gave way, uncurled and lay down against him, head against his knee.

“I told you everything he let go of,” Jasper said quietly, “He’s just got rid of all that poison he’s been carrying around for years.”

“And it leaves a damn great hole, yes, I get it, now is someone going to call Emmett or shall I?”

“Half pint, it’s ok.”

“No, it’s not.”

Paul came to join them, closing the door very quietly behind him.

“He’s down to just over a hundred and one, the Tylenol’s working. I don’t want to call Emmett unless we really need him, he’s the last thing Dale’s going to want to deal with right now. I’m willing to bet this is mostly nerves and reaction, he’s fully entitled to it and he needs peace and quiet and us, that’s all.”

They didn’t often hear that tone. They all knew what it meant.  

“How do you not notice someone get that hot when they’re in bed right beside you?” Riley demanded of Flynn again, who didn’t let him go.

“He was asleep, that was what he needed most.”

“If he never gets sick, and you come back after days out there soaked and filthy, and I got sick with Lepto from the water just last year-”

“It’s a known phenomenon, traumatised kids have immune systems like horses, the subconscious is a bloody powerful thing.” Flynn glanced up to meet Paul’s eyes. “Body in survival mode, getting sick is dangerous. They’ve got to feel pretty safe to let go and let it happen.”

“I feel like the meanest bastard on the face of the earth,” Paul said to him, “Because most of what I’m thinking right now is yes! Perfect timing and a brilliant opportunity, I could cheer. Poor Dale.”

“An opportunity for what?” Riley said angrily, “Want to see how sick we can make him? Because things were pretty much bad enough before you hiked out, if it was this rough you should have come home!”

“If you want to call Emmett, we’ll call Emmett.” Flynn told him. “If that’s what you think we need to do then we’ll do it, it’s ok Ri. We’re not taking any risks with Dale, I promise you. I’m not taking any risks with either of you, you know I won’t. But if he’d had open heart surgery yesterday we wouldn’t expect him to be back to his normal self today.”

“That is a horribly apt way to put it.” Paul said bleakly. “You’re absolutely right, that’s exactly what it was like.”

“Was it really that bad?” Riley said shortly. He’d propped himself on one elbow, not actually pulling away from Flynn but not co operating either. Uneasy and angry and alarmed, Paul looked at him with a good deal of sympathy.

“It was pretty bad. Very much like we saw in David’s map room when he cut his hand, but worse. More intense.”

He saw from Riley’s face that Riley fully understood; he looked appalled.

There was a moment’s quiet, then Riley looked across to Jasper, who so far had been listening in silence.

“Well? What do you think?”

“I think what happens to the body is going to be a part of what's happening in mind and spirit.” Jasper said mildly. “You know why we hike. It doesn't just detox the body, we’ve seen that plenty of times.”

“It pulls this kind of garbage out." Riley said subduedly. “Yeah, I know.”

Jasper nodded slowly, reflectively.

"It's no surprise to me his body needs to cleanse itself, that’s what a fever does. Healing takes rest, peace and time. I’m not sure Emmett’s going to have a pill for it.”

“I’m still not celebrating that he’s sick.” Riley said grimly. Paul reached over to ruffle his hair, wry and apologetic.

“I don’t mean it like that. It’s just that Dale needs to feel very safe and looked after, he’s fragile and his walls are right down. We know he craves being fussed over as much as he’s scared of allowing it: this gives him every excuse to let go. We get a whole few days to do a lot of proving to him how good we are at looking after him and what we’re for when things get rough, and he gets a lot of practice in at letting us. Especially when he isn’t going to be well enough to fight us off.”

“Halfpint, what do you want to do?” Flynn said to Riley. Who didn’t look happy but finally sighed.

“Ok. If the fever goes down I’m ok with seeing what happens. If it goes down.”

Copyright Rolf and Ranger

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