Book 4 in the Falls Chance Ranch Series

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Everest - Chapter 19

19


Excerpt from The Manhattan Times: ‘On Top of the World, Ma!’

[The first dramatic photograph of Phoenix Loudon, the triumphant Himalayan adventurer, standing on the summit of Everest only hours before the team ran into severe trouble in a storm.]


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Slightly after two am Dale stirred out of an uneasy sleep and turned over to find the other side of the bed still empty. He’d stayed well out of the way since he’d seen Tom’s shut, expressionless face and the desperate eyes in the bathroom yesterday; seen and understood it painfully well. He’d headed directly for Paul, cornering him in the kitchen since Jake was asleep, and Paul had heard his very inarticulate request that someone qualified needed to be with Tom right now, and Paul gone up to the bathroom at once. Dale had been in the family room with Jake and Flynn when Tom appeared like a ghost and towed Jake into the kitchen, and Flynn had followed while Dale faded into the background and out of sight as much as was possible, knowing how agonising Tom would find an audience watching him come apart. Particularly a brat audience.

Jasper, Luath and Riley had gone together yesterday morning with Mason who was on his first night of his scheduled lone camp out. That had been luck rather than intentional: Mason was aware of the travellers in crisis and on their way back from Kathmandu, and had joined in the discussions around making arrangements, but they’d reassured him that there was no need for his camp out to be delayed or affected, and Jasper had made very sure he spent the time with Mason through that day to help him prepare, and for the camp out to be very much controlled and about Mason rather than affected by what was going on in Kathmandu. The only difference was that it didn’t normally take three of them to supervise a client on camp out, but they’d all been aware of how Tom would find returning to a crowd in the house.

Mason would be believing right now that he was entirely alone in his wild, isolated spot where they had left him with his boundaries clearly marked out and nothing more than a basic bedroll, iodine tablets and trail rations. They would do nothing to disabuse him of this unless he was in trouble or danger. But at their camp, near to a vantage point on a plateau some way above Mason’s and well out of his sight, they would be keeping a very discreet eye on him. And so the house was quiet. Paul wanted it as quiet as possible, Dale knew he was surprised Tom had agreed to stay in the house at all and was concerned it was going to be too much for him. He was radiating the concern like a force field although he wasn’t saying much. Flynn wasn’t saying anything at all. He was just there. Abrupt and right there, every moment, in the way that Dale associated with what Riley called ‘circling the wagons’. He’d been like that all the way through the flight out to New York and reaching home hadn’t changed it. Paul was no better. At least one of them was keeping him with them and under their eye all the time they weren’t directly doing something for Tom and Jake, because, typically for them, they were worried about him too.

They had no reason to be. Crisis was one of the few things Dale knew he could do competently.

He slid out of bed, grabbing a pair of shorts and a sweater on his way, and padded very quietly up the hallway and around the corner. Riley’s room was empty tonight, his door stood open. But across the hallway from his door, against the wall beside the closed door of Gerry’s room, Flynn was where Dale had expected to find him. Sitting in the dark with his elbows propped on his knees, hands loosely linked together in front of him, his head tipped back. Not invading anyone’s space, silent and unobtrusive but there, ready. You had to love a man who would spend his night like this.

He glanced over as he heard Dale. His face didn’t change but he turned up a hand, opening it. Dale took it and sat down beside him, his shoulder against Flynn’s for warmth, and turned his cheek against Flynn’s shoulder, keeping his voice so low there was no risk of disturbing anyone else.

“How are they?”

“They haven’t needed anything so far.” Flynn’s voice was even softer, a deep rumble.

He was planning to make sure. He’d been like this ever since the phone call came in from Kathmandu, and Dale had some idea of the courage it had taken Tom to place that call. They both looked terrible. Unutterably terrible. It had upset Paul a lot more than he was showing, and Dale had seen Flynn clock that too.

Head against his shoulder, holding Flynn’s hand between both of his, Dale sat there in the dark and wondered what they were going to do about it. Flynn turned his head to nudge Dale with his chin.

“Go get your pillow and the quilt.”

 I do not need the –

That was not going to go down well, and disturbing the two in their room was unthinkable. Dale got up and went to retrieve the requested articles, bringing Flynn back a sweater as well. Flynn took the sweater, put the pillow in his lap and tapped it, waiting until Dale lay down against him, then covering him with the quilt. Dale settled with him, with a fair idea that Flynn’s intention was to wait until he fell asleep, then carry him back to bed and go on sitting in this hallway alone. It was not going to work. Dale had waited out many more stressful nights than this and had schooled his body to sleep only when he was ready and not before. It was one hell of a lot harder when made to lie down and get comfortable, against Flynn’s warmth, feeling his breathing and with Flynn’s hand resting on his hair – but certainly not impossible when there were things to be figured out.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Flynn was stepping out of the shower when he heard Riley’s footfall run up the stairs and Riley’s cheerful voice singing one of his various pieces of nonsense with which he killed time while he was washing or dressing and there was no one to talk to.

I’m not a pheasant plucker
I’m a pheasant plucker’s son
And I’m sitting plucking pheasants
til the pheasant plucker comes….

Grabbing a towel, Flynn opened the door to stop him, and heard the sharp, low growl come from the far end of the hall.

“Riley, stop that racket.”

There was a few seconds of shocked silence. Flynn had never heard that tone from Jake before in all his time on the ranch and Riley certainly hadn’t. Toweling off rapidly and heading out on to the landing he was in time to hear Riley’s very soft, “Sorry,” and Riley headed past Flynn fast towards the bathroom, flashing Flynn a quick apologetic look with eyes that were soft with understanding. Jake, still in those hospital scrubs, was standing at the far end of the landing looking about nine feet tall, eyes blazing. He’d clearly wanted to say a whole lot more and was restraining himself with an effort. Flynn let Riley past, closed the bathroom door quietly behind him and wrapped the towel around his waist.

“Are you ok?”

Barefoot with one sleeve of the scrubs hanging empty, Jake never usually looked anything like this large. Or pale. The vague look about his eyes had cleared and there was a whole lot of tension there instead. So he’d burned off most of the painkillers in his system and hadn’t replaced them. It took him a minute to control himself before he nodded curtly.

“… sorry.”

“Riley’s heard a lot worse than that. How’s Tom?”

“Asleep.” Jake was still blocking the hallway like a large crowd of one. He was not doing it consciously but everything about his body warned off. Flynn took his good arm and drew him, pulling when Jake resisted, into his and Dale’s room, where he opened the dresser and found clean clothes, starting to dress. Jake sat down on the immaculately made bed. It was more because he was too exhausted to stand up any longer than any sign of relaxation; his whole body was still tuned to the hallway.

“Has Tom woken at all?” Flynn asked him, shouldering into a shirt. Jake shook his head.

“No. Emmett said he’d sedated him pretty good. Wanted to cushion the pain once the shock started to wear off, and keep him still. He thinks from the bruising Tom’s probably separated a rib through coughing.”

He said it almost tonelessly. Flynn buttoned jeans, watching him acutely.

“How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine, it’s just a broken arm.” He got up abruptly, restlessly, and Flynn put out a hand to stop him.

“You need to eat, you both do. Come down, tell me what you need and I’ll bring a tray up.” 

“I’ll come down when he wakes.”

“You won’t want to leave him then either.” Flynn held on to his good shoulder, waiting until Jake looked at him, understanding the rigidity in his face. “You’ve got a few hours to put together all the strength you can.”

“I had no idea no one had thought to check him over.” Jake said shortly. “No idea. It’s ridiculous, I should have made sure,”

“You weren’t able to, they wouldn’t have let you travel at all without taking the medication and I saw you on the plane yesterday, you were barely aware of what was going on.” Flynn held on to his shoulder, “Come on Jake. You are both ok. Battered, bruised, but nothing permanent and you’ve got a houseful of people here to help, so calm down. Get something to eat, get yourself together, get yourself ready to stabilise him because he’s going to need you.”

Jake got up slowly and Flynn walked with him, not touching but close enough to be ready to grab and steady him as Jake made his way slowly downstairs. Breakfast was on the table, Paul had Dale on his lap, dark, immaculately dressed even in jeans and a navy sweater. It looked like they’d been sharing a mug of tea between them and Jake saw Dale quickly glance up, flush and move as if he’d been caught doing something shocking, shifting across to a chair of his own. Paul passed the mug across to him and gave Jake a quick smile, trying to make it welcome rather than concern.

“Good morning. How are you doing?”

“He needs some supplies upstairs for him and Tom.” Flynn pulled a chair out at the table. “Jake, sit down and tell me what you want. Riley came upstairs like a herd of elephants, I’m guessing Jas sent him home for breakfast?”

“Yes. Mason spent a lot of the night sitting looking at the river from what they saw. He’s lit a fire, set up a shelter, seems to be doing fine. Jake; he and Luath and Riley thought it would be easier on you and Tom if they went out with Mason for a few days, Mason’s doing his lone camp out, so you and Tom get some peace and quiet.” Paul put one plate in front of Jake and took another one, spooning on some scrambled eggs, mushrooms and sausage and adding a slice of toast before he passed it to Dale who looked somehow quieter and more shuttered than Jake remembered him. Paul put a hand on Dale’s head as he let go of the plate and Dale picked up a fork at the unspoken message. “Now I’ve got oatmeal, I can do eggs any way you like and the toast should be gentle enough for you and Tom to stomach? What would you like?”

“Tom’s still asleep.” Jake accepted the glass of orange juice Flynn poured him. “I won’t stay to eat, I don’t want to leave him alone.”

“Then let me know what he feels like when he wakes and I’ll make it fresh; reheated oatmeal is disgusting.” Paul got up to collect a tray, took Jake’s empty plate and loaded it with eggs and toast. “Flynn, take a pot of tea upstairs for them, and the rest of that juice. Do you need those hot water bottles re filling?”

“The room’s warm thanks. Bit surprisingly warm.” Jake absently gulped orange juice since he happened to be holding it. “We’re not used to it.”

Flynn added the loaded plate to the tray he’d assembled and Jake walked with him out of the kitchen towards the stairs. Paul leaned on the table for a moment, looking at the empty doorway where they’d gone, then reached over and touched Dale’s face, making Dale look up at him.

“You, eat. Three of you walking around looking like skeletons is more than I can take, and you I can do something about. And don’t sit there with that nobody’s-home expression, we’re all shaken up and it’s ok, it’s not a secret. We can talk about it. Did you get any sleep?”

“Yes.”

Dale did not enter into the details of it taking only about fifteen minutes before Flynn won that round hands down: he did not remember falling asleep, only waking up in bed this morning. It was only a moment before Flynn came back and took his seat, digging into the dish of sausages.

“I got him to take at least some of his medication, but he won’t touch the painkillers. Won’t risk being anything less than alert. Tom looks like he’s right out to me, Jake said Emmett sedated him to try to keep him still.”

“That’s the next thing on my list, how the hell are we going to keep Jake still?” Paul sat down beside Dale, nudging his hand until Dale started to eat. “I’ve never yet seen Jake able to do sitting around even in the worst weather. I don’t know Tom well enough to be sure but if he keeps up with Jake 24/7 I think we can probably assume he’s going to be about the same.”

“We’ll cross the bridges as we come to them.” Flynn said quietly. “He’s a better colour and I think he’s steadier on his feet this morning.”

Riley came into the kitchen, grimaced at Flynn and stooped over his shoulders to give him a quick, apologetic hug as he passed him to sit down.

“I’m really sorry about that, I thought they’d be awake, they’re usually up at dawn. How are they? Other than Jake being mad at me?”

“It’s not you he’s mad at.” Flynn said succinctly. “Don’t worry about it halfpint.”

“He said Tom’s still asleep.” Paul said calmly. “Probably will be for a while yet, Emmett’s due back this morning to have another look at them. Like I told you, we had a scare that Tom had some frostbite to his feet, Jake was a bit shaken up by it.”

“Yeah, it’s not like I don’t understand.” Riley grabbed a couple of pieces of toast from the pile and sat down to butter them. “I just haven’t seen Jake do that before, I didn’t know he could. Full blown lion on the landing stuff. Who’s that?”

Flynn leaned back with him to see the van pulling into the yard and Riley got up, heading out onto the porch with his toast in one hand.

“Mail. Must be a parcel or something.”

They heard him talking to someone outside, then two sets of footsteps up the porch and an apologetic looking man took his cap off in the doorway, holding up an envelope.

“Mr Winthrop Forbes?”

“He won’t let me sign for it on his behalf.” Riley said behind him. “Legal something.”

“He’s got a broken arm and he’s only been back in the country a few hours on a med evac flight,” Paul began. Riley shook his head.

“Yeah, done all that.”

“I’m sorry,” The man said apologetically, “If he’s here I have to serve him directly.”

Serve?

Recognising the term and what it was likely to mean, Dale rose quietly to his feet and jogged upstairs. The door to Gerry’s room was closed and Dale tapped discreetly and very softly before he opened it. He couldn’t see much of Tom other than a shape under the blankets. Jake was sitting on the side of the bed between Tom and the door and his look wasn’t promising at the interruption, but Dale had seen plenty of harder stares than that from far less pleasant men than Jake, and Jake picked up on cues fast. There was no need to speak; he rose at the sight of Dale’s indication and followed Dale slowly and stiffly downstairs into the kitchen. The man gave him an apologetic nod.

“Mr Jacob Winthrop Forbes?”

“Yes.” Jake accepted the clipboard, signed and handed it back, taking the envelope. The man gave him another nod and went back out to his van. Jake stood in the middle of them, towering over them all, ripping the envelope open, unfolding the single sheet inside, and he read it with his face absolutely expressionless. Then he laid it down on the table and put a hand on it.

“Right. Paul, may I use the phone please?”

“Here.” Not asking questions since this was clearly a crisis, Paul pulled it out of the cupboard and handed it across to him. “It’s all right, I’ll go keep an ear out for Tom and I’ll call you if he stirs.”

Jake nodded something short in the way of thanks, dialed and went to lean against the kitchen doorway, looking out into the yard. Flynn leaned both hands on the table, listening. Dale, rapidly and quite immorally absorbing the content of the letter by reading it upside down, heard Jake’s tone sounding radically unlike itself, grim and extremely curt.

“This is for Emerson from Jacob Forbes, I want an immediate call back at this number.”

He hit the cut off button on the phone and looked around for a clock. “What’s the damn time?” “

A little past seven.” Flynn nodded at the letter. “What’s happening?”

Jake kicked a chair out at the table and sat down. “The mother of the client that nearly got us killed is suing the expedition and Tom in particular for assault.”

Since Jake didn’t appear to mind them knowing, Dale turned the letter around and read it while Jake found a number in Paul’s telephone and address book and dialed. It seemed to take a few moments for the call to connect and then Jake sat up sharply, holding the phone to his ear.

“Max? It’s Jake. I need Beau or Bill, right now.”

There was another few moments while Dale digested the implications within the legal terminology on the paper, then Jake said curtly,

“Beau, what the hell is going on? Yes I’m fine, we’re both fine, what’s going on?”

The line was loud enough for Dale to make out most of the first few words, and then Jake clicked it over to speaker phone and put the phone down on the table between them. The voice was female, cultured and abruptly English.

“Don’t tell me you’re fine, Forbes; I last saw you being stuffed into a chopper! Do either of you two know how to use a phone?”

“We got stateside last night, we’ve been here less than eight hours and Loudon’s mother just served me with legal papers. She’s suing Tom, as a guide of my expedition, for assault.” Jake said levelly. “So what the hell is going on over there, Beau?”

“She’s done what?” Beau’s clipped voice sharpened. “I saw Tom thump him. It was one good one on the jaw. Split his lip and knocked him down, but it wasn’t anything like Tom’s full weight behind it and Loudon knew damn well he’d nearly killed the both of you. No one left him in any doubt of that when we knew you and Tom were missing on the mountain.”

Riley glanced up to catch Flynn’s eye across the kitchen, eyebrows raised. Flynn, hips against the kitchen counter and his arms folded, looked grim. Dale was sitting like a statue, his attention was on the phone and on Jake and Riley knew the lack of expression in his face and the focus in his eyes. Missing nothing, thinking of pretty much everything.

“Whoa, stop.” Jake ran a hand over his eyes, leaning on the table. “When did Tom hit him? I didn’t see any of this.”

“Yes you did, you were standing right there, you were just too out of it to know. You were being loaded on to the chopper and Loudon was rubber necking. He wasn’t trying to apologise or even talk to Tom, he was gawping. I pulled Tom off him.” Beau said grimly. “Not that I think Tom would have done anything more to him, it was reflexive, not pre meditated. Tom looked as bad as you did and he was as hypoxic as hell. I told Loudon that too. Tom only did what the rest of us would have loved to do.”

“Where is Phoenix now?”

“Oh ‘Phoenix’ is it? You’re too damn patient by half. I stuffed Mr Bastard Twat Loudon on a chopper and flew him and his gear and his pink romper suit to Kathmandu the morning after we flew you out. He got dumped at Kathmandu airport and we didn’t care what the hell he did after that. Bill read him the agreement he’d signed with you which said any more screwing about and he was out of the expedition on the spot.”

“I’m going to need a copy of that agreement faxed here, and his original contract.”

“I can do that.” An American male voice said in the background.

“Bart’s doing that now.” Beau confirmed. “Loudon didn’t argue. Shem was just about keeping her hands off his throat from the moment she realised you were missing, and he knew it. Bill had to send Spitz out of the compound before he wrung Loudon’s neck, Loudon knew he wasn’t popular. I thought he was scared. What were you thinking letting a drone like that get up the mountain in the first place, Forbes? You know the type if Bill and Spitz don’t. He’s got ‘bloody liability’ written all over him, and once you knew the media were involved – why the hell didn’t you throw him out? How did Tom allow it?”

“That’s a good question, and because I convinced him.” Jake said bitterly. “I was stupid. When did you get into base camp? Tom and I knew nothing about what happened to Loudon from the moment we got him off the ropes and I got in the way of a rock. We last saw Pemba and Lobsang getting him down towards camp two.”

Beau didn’t answer for a few seconds. Dale glanced at Flynn, wondering if he’d heard the faint hesitation in the woman’s voice that suggested she was as disturbed by Jake’s tone as Dale was.

“I hiked up to base camp the day you summited, I was in the communications tent when you radioed in that you and Tom had come down off the summit to camp three. I was hoping once you’d got the summit out of your system I’d get some sense out of you lot about heading out to Cambodia instead of ‘stuff off, we’re playing with our mountain’.”

“Beau, forget about Cambodia.”

“You wait ‘til you see the maps and you’ll-”

“Loudon.”

“Yes all right, all right. They saw the rock hit you. Pemba said Tom told them to get Loudon down to camp two and he’d help you, and then a few minutes later the visibility was bad enough they couldn’t see you anymore. No one on the mountain could see a damn thing. They got Loudon down to camp two, he walked under his own steam once they got him up and going, and Shem climbed up and met them there, stuffed him in a sleeping bag and got him warm. Pemba went straight back out again to try to look for you but he couldn’t get more than a few yards out of camp in the storm and he came back in tears. We thought you were stranded out on the Lhotse Face and we had a collective nervous breakdown.”

“We climbed back up to camp three. It was about our only option.”

“Yeah, I heard about that. Smashed arm and a storm coming in, and you two go back up? That’s serious athletic stuff even by your standards.”

From Beau’s slightly admiring tone she would have been ready and willing to join them and make the attempt herself under the same conditions.

“Tom did it all, not me.” Jake’s tone was expressionless. “He short roped me up there, he got me warm and out of shock or I’d have died up there. How did Loudon get stranded out on the Lhotse Face in the first place? The last I heard he was at camp one with the Canadians, I thought he was safe there.”

“Oh I got that story out of the Canadian team myself once Shem told me who to ask.” Beau said dryly. “He flirted enough with them that a couple of them helped him up to camp two, no one knew. At camp one he was in their tents most of the time and he told Pemba in no uncertain terms to leave him alone. Shem knew he was being difficult but didn’t want to disturb you and Bill with it when you needed to stay focused on your climb. She thought he’d just screw around there for a few days until you all came back down and then come down with you. She and Pemba had no idea he’d even left camp one until they realised the Canadian team were gone too. From what I was told, the Canadian women he climbed with were thoroughly pissed off with him by the time he made it to camp two, they realised he didn’t know the first thing about climbing and just wanted them to get him up there, and they refused to help him any further. It looks like he went out alone towards camp three the following day, late morning after everyone else had set out, climbed slower than hell in his own little Loudon world and no one by then had any idea where he was or what he was doing. By the time he foundered there was no one else in sight of that stretch. We never got out of him exactly what he was planning.”

“Who is this Loudon git?” Riley demanded behind him. Jake saw Flynn move from the counter he’d been leaning against and hook an arm around Riley’s waist, pulling Riley back against him and muttering something into his ear. Riley looked angry but he shut up and he didn’t fight Flynn off either. Across the table Dale was discreetly writing a brisk, short list in his neat handwriting, his face dispassionate and his eyes gone to ice.

“Was he hoping if he made it to camp three I’d have to let him make a summit attempt with Shem?” Jake said blankly. “He couldn’t have still thought he had a chance?”

“No idea.” Beau sounded bluntly certain. “We didn’t get much sense out of him but I don’t think it was summit fever. When Pemba had to come back and say he couldn’t reach the Lhotse Face and we thought you and Tom were stranded out there – the radio was down by then, I didn’t hear it, but Pemba told me Shem tore strips off Loudon, she told him exactly what he’d done. And Bill and Spitz got down to base camp only a couple of hours after you came in, I stopped Spitz from strangling him but Bill did a lot of bellowing, he was livid. Loudon didn’t have much to say about anything. I can witness and so can Shem: Loudon didn’t have anything but a bloody lip to show from Tom-“

There was a chorus of several male voices in the background calling something, and Shem amended,

“Ok, we can all bloody witness it, although everyone’s equally willing to swear they never saw anything at all and let it be Loudon’s word against all ours. Seriously Forbes. If he hadn’t already had chapped and split lips from the cold it wouldn’t have bled. He was eating fine that evening and the following morning in the mess tent and we all saw it. No visible injury about two minutes after the punch, no teeth loose, no damage. Tom could barely still stand up. He might have meant to but he didn’t whack him that hard.”

“As soon as it reaches office hours here Phoenix is going to be served with every counter claim I can lay my hands on,” Jake said with certainty. “Starting with breach of contract. And if he wants to stand up in a court and try arguing with me I’m going to be thrilled.”

“Jake,” Paul’s voice called down the stairs. Jake got up at once.

“Get those documents across to me now Beau, I’ll call later.”

“Jake, what the-” Beau started and Jake abruptly ended the call, leaving the phone on the table. Dale heard him take the stairs two at a time, but the footfall was uneven, effortful and slow: most unJake-like.

“What the hell went on up there?” Riley demanded. He was still standing in Flynn’s arms, still looking furious. “Whoever Tom hit it sounds like he didn’t hit them near hard enough.”


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Paul hadn’t gone into our room. I appreciated that. He was on the landing far back enough that he could see and hear Tom through the half open door, but if Tom had woken he wouldn’t have known Paul was there. The tact of that was classically Paul. So was the compassionate look he shot me and the low murmur that didn’t disturb sleeping men; Paul was an expert in that too.

“Sorry to pull you away from the call. He’s only just starting to stir but I don’t think it’s going to be long. Let me know when he’s ready to eat something.”

His eyes were gentle. He got that I needed to be here before stir became wake. Thanks was an inadequate word this morning. He hugged me back closely when I put an arm around his neck and kissed his cheek, careful of my strapped down arm.

“Jake. Whatever’s going on, you don’t need to be running around either, particularly without painkillers. Please settle down.”

“Yes sir.”

He knew the tone. It was the one I used to use to Philip that made Philip sigh, and Paul crossed his eyes at me but let me go. 

“Just be sensible then?”

Oh I was being sensible. It was well past time I tried.

Tom was still asleep but Paul was right; it was a lighter sleep than half an hour ago. I’d been deeply relieved that Emmett had given him medication strong enough to keep him out this long. Paul and Emmett had propped the end of the bed up on several bricks to raise his legs and tied several pillows together last night and stuffed them down at the end of the bed on either side to hold the covers well up off his feet so the weight wouldn’t add to his pain, but frostbite is agonising stuff once it thaws out and I knew the shin splints we’d been managing all the way up the mountain had to be bad. Emmett had muttered something to me after Tom had zoned out on morphine about the bruising around his side, probably from all the coughing. We’d known it wasn’t that uncommon for people to crack or separate a rib that way at the higher camps and Emmett thought Tom had probably at least torn cartilage there: pain was going to be a serious issue once he was awake enough to feel it and I was dreading it. But it was the unholy mess that was his feet that I couldn’t get off my mind.

He stirred again, not waking but shifting position. The Velcro contraption around my upper arm and elbow was largely supported by the sling across my chest. It was awkward but with care I managed to lay down beside him without it getting between us, sliding an arm around him and relaxing as much as I could. For a while he dozed against me, and then I felt him draw a deep, slow breath, he turned his head to find me and opened his eyes. He has such beautiful eyes. Subtle under the dark straight brows and dark lashes, like a secret hidden inside a fortress. His hair was too long and was hanging over his forehead, it had dried bedraggled from the bath last night and he shook his head to shake it back, wincing slightly.

“Hey.”

“Hey.” He sounded as groggy as he looked. I kissed his forehead. His eyes. Each temple. His mouth. Gently, he was barely awake, but he closed his eyes again and leaned against me for a moment.

“What time is it?”

“Around breakfast time. How do you feel?”

“Foggy. Could use the bathroom.” He pushed me off, or tried to, which told me an alarming amount about how weak he was; it was an effort not to let anything show in my face. He lifted the covers back and looked without expression at his feet. Emmett had left them unwrapped, mostly because as I could see now, the blisters had just re filled again and his toes were grossly swollen. He was going to need a bone scan. Had this been picked up when he came off the mountain it would have been done immediately to see any frozen spots of bone; sometimes frostbite looked worse than it was.

He’d been left to walk around that hospital, alone, for hours, on semi frozen feet, too shocked and shaken up to think straight…

And sometimes it didn’t show up for a few months how bad the deep damage was. Since the tissue was fully thawed and the injury several days old, Emmett had told me to wait; that he’d book the scan in a few days at Jackson Hospital when things had progressed far enough that a physical therapist needed to be involved; that there was no longer any benefit to knowing right now if there was bone damage; that he wasn’t expecting to find dying bone. I knew he couldn’t be sure, but it would make no difference to either treatment or outcome now whether we got the scan done today or next week. To try to do it now would only subject Tom to being moved around, stressed, exhausted even further when what he needed most was rest. I still couldn’t shake the want to know, right now.

“No walking on those.” I said, starting to get up, and got a very Tom look, even through the drugs.

“Then we’ve got a problem, because you’re not lifting me with that arm. I’ll be fine, it’s carpet.”

“Flynn?” I called down the landing. Tom flushed; I could see the outrage and more than that, even through the effects of a lot of morphine, I could see the alarm. I looked at him, bracing my good hand on the doorframe.

“This Is Going To Happen Without Stressing. Got it?”

He really got it. His colour got even darker, the look I got was damn nearly imploring. I don’t usually look at him like that, or use that tone. Or rather I hadn’t before we got most of the way up that mountain. I came back to him and put my hand against his cheek for a moment, desperately aware after the nightmare I’d put him through of the past few days he was now trapped in this bed, injured, immobilised and surrounded and in this house which has always intimidated the hell out of him; he was intensely vulnerable in every way when he was least ready to handle it and I was desperately, desperately sorry about it. But this was extreme, and Tom feeling vulnerable usually triggers the bolts. If I let that happen right now, a bolt would have potentially very, very damaging consequences. He shouldn’t be walking at all on these injuries, never mind hiking the rough land, rivers and rocks of the ranch as he would if he got stressed enough. Then I folded the covers right back, not letting any of that touch my face or voice, radiating that this was all going to be Fine. Even if I felt like a lying bastard for doing it. 

Flynn must have had an ear out for us. He appeared quickly, said nothing at all and like yesterday he gave Tom no time to think, he just gathered him up with a lot of care and carried him down the landing. The bunkhouse would be harder than this. I’d thought that through up down and sideways during the night to work out if it was an option, if he’d be better off out there. It was not as warm out there as the house which usually didn’t bother either of us but it bothered me like hell right now. And the bedrooms there were upstairs, but the bathroom downstairs, which again would be no problem if I had both arms. During the night I’d given serious consideration to whether I could manage him one armed, but on stairs… I wasn’t prepared to take that risk with him. So we needed to be here in the house, we needed the help and I was going to have to get him through it.

Flynn heeled a chair into reach in the bathroom between the toilet and the sink, put Tom down on it, and left him in peace, closing the door after him. We could hear him coughing; the sound went right through me.

“I’ve got this,” Flynn said in an undertone to me while we waited on the landing, “Paul’s waiting to hear what he’ll eat and you’ll know better than we do.”

No kidding that he needed the calories, or that Flynn was trying to do something practical with me other than have me hovering. And stressing. Paul was doing something to a dough when I went into the kitchen, and he brushed off his hands when he saw me.

“How is he?”

“Early to say.” I grabbed a tray from the pantry and dug in the dish for eggs. Nothing moved in this house, it was all its familiar places where it always was and I could put my hand straight on it. That was something I really needed this morning. “Do you keep hot sauce?”

“Yes…?” Paul leaned past me to reach it down from the shelf. “He likes hot food? For breakfast? How hot?”

“We haven’t found the limit yet.”

“And no one ever told me this?” Paul took the eggs from me, getting out a skillet and chattering gently enough that I realised how fragmented I had to be looking. “Riley’ll be thrilled. I don’t make that much really spicy stuff since he’s the only one who’ll eat it. Three of you it’s worth cooking for.” He broke eggs into the skillet and handed me the hot sauce. “How much?”

He raised his eyebrows at the amount I dumped in, but just went on scrambling eggs. I got a grip on myself, grabbed a couple of the rolls from the basket in the pantry and put them in the oven to warm, put the kettle on and made a pot of tea, and poured a large glass of orange juice. Paul took the carton from me, got a second glass down and filled it and put it on the tray.

You need to get all the calories down that you can too. Emmett called, he’ll be by in about half an hour.”

He put the eggs in a dish, loaded up the tray and carried it upstairs. Tom was back in bed, sitting up rigidly as if a poker was down his back, but he’d let Flynn help him under the covers. Flynn had opened the window, probably at Tom’s request, and was spreading an additional blanket over the bed since the breeze coming into the room was fresh. Paul put the tray down on the dresser, smiled at Tom and would have disappeared again but for Tom’s slightly exasperated, “Look,”

Paul paused. Flynn glanced up. Tom looked for my eyes first and I thought they were blindly distressed. It was horrible to see. I felt horrible for doing this to him. I sat down beside him on the bed and took his hand. He wound his fingers tightly through mine, which he usually wouldn’t do in front of witnesses, but he kept his voice steady.

“I’m an antisocial bastard. I know I’ve never given you the best impression, but I’m damn grateful. I won’t explode or freak out or-”

“We live with Jasper, we did live with Jake and I lived with David,” Paul interrupted gently, “We understand and you don’t have to be grateful for anything. We just don’t want to make it harder for you.”

“Then just please, treat me like I’m normal and I’ll try to be?” I heard the plea in that undertone if they didn’t; it ate at me like acid.

“You are normal.” I said to him very firmly. “We are fine.”

Flynn sat down on the windowsill. “I know Jake’s diagnosed. Are you?”

Well that was Flynn. Straight down to the bone, no waiting, and no warning that he was coming. I’d learned to fence at school; Flynn would have been lethal with a foil.

“… No.” Tom said after a slight pause. “Which he finds very funny as he says I’m worse than he is.”

I tried to return something like a smile. “I only got diagnosed because Philip suspected it, and he chased it through school for me. It wasn’t a well-known thing at the time.”

“And you deal with more of the sensory type issues than Jake does.” Flynn said to Tom. His eyes had gone very dark and his voice was gentle the way it went when he was talking to a very freaked out brat. “Crowding, noise, people. It all gets a bit much when you’re under pressure.”

“… Yes.” Tom sounded startled. Flynn nodded.

“Right. It’s nothing personal, just how things can get for you. You’ve seen Dale have a lot of trouble with the same thing at times, he confides in you, so you know this is what normal looks like for us too. We get it. So when you feel like a chat or being sociable then great. When you don’t, you don’t need to worry that anyone’s looking twice or judging, and we’ll know you’re not judging us either.”

I could see Tom processing that, and he was processing rather than being desperate for Flynn to shut up and leave. He looked at me again before he spoke, not for help, just for reassurance.

“… How is Dale? He said things had been hard the last few weeks.”

“He’s fragile.” Paul handed Tom the dish of eggs in an oddly offhand way for Paul, at arms-length and without eye contact, and he went to sit beside Flynn on the windowsill which I could see gave Tom as much space as they could manage in this little room. “We’re keeping him pretty close, he’s not ready to be working yet.”

Tom took a forkful of the eggs without much interest, mostly to be polite, but I saw him pause as the heat hit his throat and then he gave Paul a small smile.

“… That’s good.”

Paul returned the smile, getting up. “Jake knows how you like it. Make Jake eat. Dale and I will be here all day so just shout if you need anything.” 

In the kitchen, as soon as they were alone Riley grabbed for the letter and read it through again, bringing it to where Dale could read over his shoulder.

“Who the hell is this Loudon bastard anyway? What do you know about the legal crap of all this? How much trouble are they in?”

It was there in Riley’s absolute faith that he would know. Dale put the plate with the uneaten half of his breakfast on the counter, reflecting at speed for the seventh time through the rapid, thorough summarisation he’d made, with everything he could recall from years of working with countless legal teams on matters that mattered far less than this one.

“I need the internet.”

“Well I don’t have any rules about that, and you’re with me so let’s go.” Riley said flatly.

The office was cold. The heat from the house didn’t penetrate up here much and Riley switched on the small wall heater and booted up the computer. Silently they were both working together to let Riley do the deed itself although Dale reflected they were probably equally aware that Flynn wouldn’t buy that as an excuse for a moment. Once he had a browser open he turned the screen to Dale, sat on the desk where he could watch and Dale searched rapidly for the specific answers to the several questions and hypotheses he had in mind. Riley watched in silence through the first few screens he read which were full of technical legalities, then blinked as a blog opened.

That’s Loudon?”

It was a bright coloured blog, headed with a picture of a smiling, blond young man in a blue wind suit, hatless and without goggles, standing in front of an amazing, icy vista that had to be the summit of Everest. Prayer flags fluttered in the background. Riley leaned closer for a moment, looking fixedly at the picture and Dale knew what he was thinking; Tom and Jake had been standing on this spot only a few days ago. If there were pictures of them there, they had yet to mention it.

“That’s on the summit?” Riley demanded. “How can he have got on the summit? Jake said he never got near it and that Beau woman said she shoved him on a chopper and threw him out the morning after Jake and Tom were flown to Kathmandu!”

The blog entry below was triumphant and included several pictures of helicopters and airports.

Big party in Kathmandu last night, champagne everywhere. Maybe you saw us live on the evening news? We’re making a video broadcast with Good Morning Britain in the UK and the Today Programme for the US tomorrow morning. Was sad to say goodbye to everyone at base camp and head out, the end of our adventure together and there were a few tears and lots of hugs all around. But good to get decent food again and a decent wifi signal!

“No mention anywhere of Tom,” Dale said, scanning it rapidly, and going to the previous entry. “This one…”

6th May

It’s done.

I left at about 9.30pm on the 3rd May after I signed off here, said goodnight to base camp over the radio and climbed up, and I summited at 7am. When I radioed down to base camp, no one could say anything much more than whooping and cheering. By then, although I didn’t know it, the radios were starting to get dodgy as the weather began to change, so no broadcast from the summit sadly as we’d hoped. I didn’t stay on the summit long, a long journey ahead, so I grooved on down the Hillary step and nearly fell over some poor stranded climber laying there. There were a couple of other guys with him, trying to revive him. The best I could do was give them what was left of my oxygen for him to use. Quite a big sacrifice to make above 8000 feet, but what can you do when someone’s in need like that? So I hustled down fast without oxygen. Can a first time climber make it above camp four without oxygen? Absolutely they can if they’re fit enough and know what they’re doing.

Since I was going well and the weather was starting to break I buzzed all the way down to camp three before I struck in for the night. That’s where I was when everyone was panicking, there was no signal, no radios, nothing! Just the storm and wow what a storm it was. I holed up and stayed warm and made the rest of the way down when the weather improved the next day. Conditions in the ice fall were fairly hairy but passable. Base camp threw a party when I got in, we had a wild night and in the morning I packed up, the helicopter came in, and I was outta there.

Arrived in Kathmandu this morning! Party time!

Rock on!

Eye skimming on down over the entries below, Dale felt his stomach jump and seize in a way he had not been prepared for, sending shock waves right through him.

We’re both in high places tonight and preparing ourselves to be worthy…. Ex Amino

Amino??

“It’s all happy happy happy. This is absolute fricking fiction by what Jake’s saying!” Riley said in outrage beside him.

He was still focusing on the 6th May post; the post below would mean nothing to him unless Dale explained and right now… Dale pulled himself together with an effort, refusing to be shaken but with what had been a half formulated plan setting like granite with grim, hard, cold determination in a way he’d never felt before about any ANZ matter in his life. Explaining was not going to be a priority.

“He never got to camp three, they had to rescue him!” Riley scanned on down the blog entries. “And there’s no mention of Tom anywhere, this prat’s suing him, you’d think he’d mention the incident!”

“His mother, apparently, is suing.” Dale corrected automatically, not really listening. “Not him.”

“Yeah and that’s not weird at all.” Riley said acidly.

“Jake and Tom summited on the 4th May around 7am.” Dale scanned the entry again. “From what Jake said on the phone – they rescued this gentleman off the ropes somewhere between camp two and three on the Lhotse Face.”

“’Gentleman’?” Riley eyed him and somehow got slightly quieter. “There’s no mention of that either. Ok, what are you thinking, you look…”

Dale took command of his face and voice, covering it without effort now the adrenaline was up and flowing. “I’m thinking that Jake and Beau’s version wholly negates this image being possible. Among other things wrong with it”

“It’s faked?”

“Quite possibly.” Dale looked again at the photograph with its several details that didn’t fit. Then pasted the page url swiftly into an email, sending it to an address from memory with a line of text that was short and to the point. When he was done, Riley turned the keyboard towards himself, opening their group email address and typing fast.

To: Darcy, Gerry, Bear, Wade, Niall, Lito,
From: Riley
Subject: WTAF

Does anyone know anything about some wankbadger called Phoenix Loudon who’s suing Tom for assault at Everest base camp? The jackass’s put all over the internet that he summited with what Dale thinks is a faked picture – Tom and Jake rescued him below camp 3 and that’s how Jake got hurt, Jake said he nearly got them killed, he never got near the summit!

Well that ought to cause no end of complications.

A door shut somewhere on the landing, Dale glanced towards it and Riley sent the mail, shutting the computer down fast. They both listened until footfall was gone on the stairs, then Riley dropped a hand on Dale’s arm, and they followed, appearing in the kitchen together as if they’d been nowhere in particular all the time. Flynn was pulling his boots on by the door. Paul was collecting the breakfast dishes in the sink and he looked back over his shoulder and beckoned to Dale.

“Nice try. Sit down and finish your breakfast please.”

“I’m not hungry, thank you.” Dale came to take the dishcloth to help him, and Paul took it out of his hand. 

“I know, I’m angry too. But you don’t have the calories to spare right now.”

“Oh back off him for one frigging day.” Riley said sharply.

Riley, at this moment in time that is not helpful.

Dale cast him a faintly warning look but Paul put the plates and cloth down and turned to give him one of his eyebrows raised what was that? Stares. Riley headed to collect his jacket and boots, not looking up until Flynn, blocking the kitchen doorway, swatted him. Riley jumped and glared at him.

“What?”

“What’s the mood about?” Flynn demanded. Riley gave him a withering look.

“How about you take a wild guess?”

“No one’s guessing and no one’s using that tone in my kitchen.” Paul informed him. “Come here.”

“I’ve got stuff to do.” 

“Right, yes you have. You’re going to go sit on the stairs until I tell you to move.” Paul took Riley’s jacket from him. “Flynn, you go, love. And Dale, sit down. We are not having any dramas here, we’re fine and we’re going to handle this. Dale, where are you going?”

Dale paused in the kitchen doorway, surprised, and Riley gave him a half amused, half exasperated look.

“It was me he said to sit on the stairs, not you. Pay attention.”

“Riley, stairs. Now.” Paul pulled a chair out for Dale. Flynn in the doorway transferred his gaze from Dale – he had not missed that, Dale saw his expression – and gave Riley an unpromising look.

“Sure you don’t need any help in here?”

Paul shook his head. “I’ve got it, go ahead. We’re fine.”

“I won’t be long.” Flynn gave Dale another look which Dale tried to return as reassuringly as possible, and shut the door quietly behind him.

Once he was gone, Paul gave Riley an extremely straight look across the table. “He was up all night and he needs a break this morning. So if you want a show down you can have one with me and get it over with before he comes back, I’m all set.” He leaned over to the drawer, pulled a wooden spoon out of the drawer and plonked it on the table, aware that Riley’s highly grouchy expression promptly cleared to one of shock. “I’m as angry about this suing stuff as you are, but you are not making today any harder for anyone. So what’s it going to be?”

“… You’re getting way too good at this,” Riley grumbled, going. Left alone with Dale, Paul looked down at him for a moment, surveying grey eyes that were perfectly calm and as they often were, entirely unreadable. Then he sat down beside Dale and put an arm around his neck, pulling him over to give him a hug.

“This sucks, doesn’t it? And you look like I feel. Are you ok sweetheart?”

Dale didn’t reply and after a moment Paul let him go, giving him an enquiring look.

“Ok, I’ll start. No, of course I’m not ok Paul, don’t be ridiculous. I’m running through about the eighty third crunch of the data I’ve got together so far from that letter.”

Dale’s stomach which had jumped slightly in spite of himself unclenched again, and Paul raised an eyebrow at him.

“What are we going to do about that? Have you got any plans? Because Jake is probably going to welcome any input you can offer and I certainly am.”

Oh it was hard to do. And it was only with intense love for him that Dale could feel nothing else and give him enough of a look in the eye – just enough, a calculated, coldly planned enough – to know that Paul, too trusting and open hearted Paul would believe him just like Paul needed to right now.

“We’re going to have to wait for his lawyer to reply and assemble the paperwork before we can make plans. I can make a few suggestions and I’ll write them down for Jake, but today is going to be a waiting game.”

Which was all to the good. And the suggestions he intended to make to Jake’s lawyer would prevent anything actually happening for at least a further twenty four hours.

“And waiting is not a good way to spend a day.” Paul touched his face and got up. “I know you don’t feel like eating but I need you to, so if you’d find a milkshake or oatmeal or something else easier to get down than the rest of your breakfast I can do that.”

“Toast.” Dale spared enough thought to come up with an answer that would satisfy Paul and Paul nodded, getting up and collecting the wooden spoon.

“Good. You toast some bread, I’ll go talk with Mr Hamilton. I’ll be right back and we are going to get through today intact.”

Yes, they most certainly were. All of them. No matter what had to be done in the process. Dale listened long enough to know Paul was fully engaged with Riley. Then he got up and very quietly and very rapidly opened the safe, abstracted the couple of articles he wanted, pocketed them and went to make toast.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Riley, sprawled back over the stairs with his elbows hooked on one step and his long jeaned legs draped down several others, was not looking pleased with life on the stairs. Sitting like that in what was a variation on a corner would have got him instantly into very hot water with Flynn. Paul paused at the foot of them, holding up the spoon and Riley fairly swiftly got into a far less belligerent position.

“Are we going to need this?” Paul invited.

Riley shook his head, unwillingly but promptly. “No.”

“Good.” Paul put the spoon down and sat beside him on the stairs as Riley shifted to make room for him. “Want to talk about it instead of snarl at me?”

“They’ve barely been home a day. Jake looks like death warmed over and he’s half crazy about Tom being this sick, I’ve never seen him look like he did this morning. They’re not in any state to deal with this…” Riley paused, gesturing with both hands as words failed him. “… idiot, who’s making stuff up according to Jake!”

“And you’re furious. So am I.” Paul said wryly. “So is Flynn. We’ll see how Jas feels about it when Flynn’s had a chance to tell him, but I’m sure he’ll agree. I don’t think Dale’s furious, I think he’s gone straight to working out how to tell the lawyers to bury this woman and her son, but the bottom line is it has to be Jake and Tom’s choice on what they want to do. And they need time to recover, process and talk it through with their lawyer, so we need to stay calm and wait. Particularly for Tom. He’s being brave enough being in the house with us, I don’t want him to feel we’re pushing him and Jake to do anything, or that we’re taking over.”

Riley understood that; waiting was not something he found easy to do when someone he loved was threatened, but dynamics between people and horses were something he got acutely and his glance at Paul was expressive. Paul ran his fingers through chestnut hair, straightening it.

“And Dale needs things to be as normal as possible. He’s just starting to feel more together but he’s still hair triggered and we don’t want him hitting crisis mode and feeling he’s got to be the strong one around here. So go take some supplies up to Luath and Jasper for me, and let Jas know I want you to stay up there with him tonight,”

“Yeah get rid of me!” Riley said hotly. Paul gave him a pointed look and after a moment Riley gave him a slightly apologetic sideways one in return.

“… sorry.”

“You’ll worry less out there, and if I could I’d send Dale out there to join you, you’d both be a lot better off.” Paul wrapped an arm around Riley’s knee, pulling him closer. “But I need Dale where I can keep a good eye on him, and Tom may want him. So go and forget about this for a while until there’s something we can do about it and you’ll have a much better day with Jas than you would here.”

Jasper was always extremely good with Riley when he was angry with something, and a night spent out in the wilds with him would lift Riley’s spirits better than any reassuring they could do. Riley didn’t move for a moment, glowering down into the family room, then he grouchily twisted around and returned Paul’s hug.

“Sorry.”

“It’s ok. Take the saddle bag over the porch rail, there should be enough in there to keep all three of you going through tonight, and I’ll see you in the morning.”

Riley kissed his cheek roughly, got up and headed out. Paul saw the brief, equally rough hug he gave Dale on his way out of the door.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


We shared the eggs. Neither of us could stomach much; a few mouthfuls and we still felt like we’d had a three course meal, but the fresh bread tasted like heaven to me, something I associated strongly with this house. Neither of us spoke once we were alone, mostly because I could see Tom lose the show of resilience he’d made in front of Flynn and Paul. He was so tense it hurt to watch him, I could see the pain in his hands, in his shoulders and neck, in his jaw. Tom’s pain threshold is set on high, I knew this set, rigid concentration from watching him run, from watching him climb, and this was bad. He was coughing so often it was hard for him to eat and he was fighting it as every time it shook the displaced and bruised ribs which must have hurt him like hell. And all I could do, futilely, was not shake the bed and worsen the pain for him, not distract him from trying to eat what he could or make him talk and worsen the coughing, and wish to God Emmett would just get his ass here now before I lost my mind. Just as we were finishing I heard a car in the yard and got up to look. Emmett’s truck, finally.

Thank God Emmett isn’t much for chatter. Without anything more useful I could do I held Tom’s hand while Emmett said pretty much nothing, just sat on the edge of the bed and in rapid succession gave him a couple of shots which said to me he could see the strain in Tom’s face as well as I could. Although pain relief was only one of the many things he’d told me last night he was treating while the tissue was this damaged. He was loading Tom up with blood thinners, anti inflammatories and antibiotics in heavy doses and had told me he’d be doing it every few hours for a day or two yet. He’d brought a couple of bags of IV fluids too and rapidly set a cannula in Tom’s hand, connecting it all up and hanging the bag from a pole he unfolded and set up beside the bed.

He gave the shots time to take effect before he touched Tom again, and spent a few minutes poking at my fingers in the sling and finding pulses in various places before he drained the blisters misshaping Tom’s long and usually slender feet. By which time I could see Tom’s body had gone limp again, his head dropped back against the pillows, his eyes vague, his pupils blown. Watching was not easy. By the time Emmett was done, Tom was asleep and Emmett covered him, making very sure the covers were raised up on the pillow foot cradle and not resting on his feet.

“He’s doing better than last night.” He told me laconically, but then I’d never seen Emmett get excited about anything. “Not so much swelling, no infection. There’s morphine in the drip; that should manage the pain more consistently. Let him rest, get him to soak in the bath for half an hour or so this afternoon, particularly his hands and feet, and both of you drink all you can; he’s chronically dehydrated and you don’t look a lot better. I’ll drop in again on my way home this evening, change the IV bag and give him a top up on those meds. With what I’ve given him and plan on giving him he’s going to mostly sleep through the next twenty four hours, so you might as well take your own meds, all of them, and crash out too.”

“Paul?”

Emmett shook his head, unabashed. “Flynn caught me in the yard. If he hadn’t told on you I’d have still seen it from your colour. Tom’s doing ok, Jake. Get to bed.”

“I’ve broken plenty of bones in my time.”

“Not when you were in this physical state you haven’t.” Emmett packed the last bits away in his bag and paused in the doorway to have another look at Tom. “I know how this household works. I promise you he won’t wake up until at early afternoon at the very least. You can let go for a few hours, he won’t know.”

He’d been the doctor in this area for some years; I’d known Emmett since before I’d met Tom. And he was right; Emmett had been coming to this household for years, he’d never blinked about it being a household full of gay men – actually our neighbours in general had never seemed to have the slightest problem with that in all the time I’d known this house, and they must have realised – and he knew almost all the couples in the family. He was a particular friend of Ash’s, they often fished together in the weirder, wilder stretches of river that ran from the bust up, ramshackle old cabin in the woods that Emmett and his dog occupied. I’d wondered about his sexuality more than once. But more than that, he knew some of us in this household were emotionally high frequency men who could be slightly high maintenance once in a while, and others of us tended to loom and develop severe separation issues when our other halves were in need of his services.

With Tom asleep, and I checked on this with some care, I took a moment to head downstairs, grabbed the phone from Paul and gave some very explicit and probably profane instructions to Emerson. There was a pad with notes written on it laid by the phone: I suspected it was Dale’s handwriting, they were short, explicit and very much to the point and I read the lot to Emerson down the phone.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Tom woke around mid afternoon, long enough for that bath. He wasn’t talking about pain unless I pressed him; he was barely talking at all, I felt like I was hovering around him like some particularly useless kind of ghost, but the strain in his face and shoulders seemed better on the IV and eased a bit further in the hot water. Paul brought up soup, something that smelled of lime and ginger and although it was a clear broth the taste of it was hot and fresh with floating green rings of chillies. I recognised the base of Paul’s own chicken broth but he’d done things to this one I hadn’t seen him do before, I was pathetically grateful as it’s the kind of flavours Tom would always choose given the chance and he finished the mugful without trying. It was the most I’d seen him take of anything since we left base camp for the summit. When Flynn and I got him and his drip back to bed, I grabbed the nearest book from one of the family room bookcases, which held a lot of my various favourite stuff I’d read as a teen, and since his vision was blurred by the morphine I lay with him and read it aloud. I still have no idea what it was; I don’t remember a word of it as I was mostly trying to keep still, but he dozed on and off while he listened and I tried not to touch him or jar him. Emmett came by early evening and gave him another set of shots, and within twenty minutes Tom was knocked out again and according to Emmett likely to stay so through the night. I was glad of it. When the drugs hit his system the tension left his face altogether.


I sat on the window seat where my fidgeting couldn’t disturb him and tried to read as it got dark. It didn’t work, I wasn’t taking in much of what my eyes were passing over, I was mostly watching Tom. Sometime around 1am I gave up on my current book and slipped as quietly as possible up the landing. Paul’s little study was nearest and packed with books, I knew he wouldn’t mind me borrowing a couple. I was skimming the shelves by the moonlight through the window when a gentle clink of glass made me glance around. Flynn was leaning against the doorpost, an old and dusty bottle in one hand and two glasses upside down and held by the stems in the other. He raised the bottle at me and lifted an eyebrow with it.


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015

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