There was a long while of vague, unpleasant dreams of snow and an upward haul up a rock face that never seemed to end while his shins and feet were on fire. Cold. Everything being bitterly, tearingly cold and gritting his jaw with all his strength and focusing on blocking everything out for the climb, enduring, keeping on going because Jake was up there somewhere. And then Jake’s body stirred, wrapped closer around his, skin against skin, warm and solid, and it drew him gently back to the bed in the dark. Everything hurt. He was stiff from being trapped on his back, unable to move with the pain in his legs, the burn of his feet, and the nagging tug of the cannula taped to his forearm, but the mattress was blissfully soft beneath them, the covers were warm, the room was still, far more spacious than the tent skin they’d slept under for weeks, and from the window came the scent of grass and fresh air that always carried here on the night breeze. And Jake was warm. Long and heavy and solid and wrapped around Tom, and the arm over Tom’s waist snugged him still closer.
“I’m here.” Jake murmured against his hair and did something to the covers, pulling them more closely over both their shoulders, and his palm rubbed gently over Tom’s arms. “We’re ok.”
There had never before been a time where that had been a necessary or believable thing for him to say, and Tom had never felt less like laughing it off. He swallowed, closing his eyes.
“What time is it?”
“About five. You’re cold. How about I make some tea?”
It came out quite before Tom realised he’d said it aloud or that he’d grabbed at Jake’s hand to stop him. But Jake just held his hand firmly, pulling him closer while his forearm went on chafing Tom’s arms where he was chilled and Tom felt a hard kiss against his hair.
“I’m staying. Want the light on?”
Tom shook his head against Jake. Not fully awake, not wanting to be fully awake, the pain a dull roar even behind the numbing wall of drugs… all he wanted was this, Jake wrapped around him, Jake’s hands on him, Jake’s voice in his ear. He felt Jake lean past him to the hanging IV tube above the bed and managed a murmur of protest, but Jake adjusted the flow speed upwards anyway. There was a sweetness to his breath, Tom found himself reflecting on it, distracted.
“… where did you find vodka?”
“Flynn.” Jake lay down again, finding his hand in the dark again and holding it firmly. “David’s moonshine. You’ll like it.”
So they’d been looking after him. That helped to know.
“I keep dreaming.” Tom said to the dark wall beyond the bed, aware of how desperately pathetic his voice sounded and how desperately pathetic he felt at this moment, unable to move or escape it. “Climbing. Just… a hell of a lot of climbing.”
Endless ice faces, an endless struggle. Like Sisyphus, doomed by the gods to forever pushing his rock up the hill.
Jake’s lips brushed across his temple, on towards his eyes, one by one, soft and quiet kisses that muffled his voice. “You’re here. With me. And we’re going to be fine. This is going to pass. All the pain, the dreams, it will pass. I’ve got you. Let the drugs do their job and let go for a while.”
That helped too. Tom lay where he was, quiet, just wanting to hear his voice, and Jake went on nuzzling, talking so softly Tom could feel the rumble of Jake’s chest against his back in the dark.
“We're here and we’re safe with nothing to do but rest and recover. There isn't anything you need to worry about. No one to take care of, nothing to dig or set up or take down.”
“So what the hell are we going to do all day?” Tom shut his eyes, aware the room was starting to spin slightly and his voice was getting thicker. Slower. And he was saying it mostly to keep Jake talking, not because he wanted answers.
“Sleep.” Jake said lazily against him in the time be damned tone of his. “Not sleep. Read a book. Write really bad poetry. Plan where we feel like going next. Chill.”
Tom smiled faintly, starting to reach the point where it was hard not to let the morphine take over, but wary too of letting go to more dreams.
“Float on the clouds.
Sail on the river.
Roll in the grass.
Tiptoe through the tulips.
Dance by the light of the moon.”
Jake was saying it slowly, rhythmically in his ear, in time with the brushes of his lips and his hand.
“Look, do you want me to throw up?”
He said it half-heartedly but he felt as much as heard Jake’s smile. “Aha. Hello.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Once Tom was deeply asleep again Jake leaned his head back against the pillow between him and the bed frame, still draped around Tom, and closed his eyes, letting himself drift too. The alcohol was assisting. He wasn’t drunk. A large frame and a hard head with a fast metabolism had always meant he had a particularly good head for liquor and Flynn knew it, but there had been enough in the moonshine to get him to relax, to let his guard down. Which had been exactly what Flynn had intended. And it meant now he was able to sound as casually confident as Tom needed, with the relaxed body and the easy voice that would convince him best that they were safe, that everything was all right, that Jake had the world under control. Jake determinedly pushed away several thoughts that arose about that and instead worked on dozing, anchoring Tom against him where Tom couldn’t stir and move and hurt himself before he woke enough to realise. It worked with varying success. Some of the time he just lay, looking out of the window as dawn gradually rose, turning the pastures beyond the window a thousand shades of soft grey that lightened in degrees towards green.
There were a couple of sheets of battered, slightly crumpled paper on the top of the dresser. They’d been there since they first came into this room; Jake had seen them several times without the time or attention to spare as to what they might be. Now he deliberately used his mending arm, stretching it slowly and carefully out towards the dresser. The arm worked. It ached, but with the pins it was stable and already it was starting to feel sounder. He turned up the papers, wondering about discharge sheets from the air evacuation or notes from Emmett, and saw the distinctive underlining and text shapes at the top that stamped it as a printed email. A long one. From Dale to Tom, and one he hadn’t seen before; the printed out ones were the ones that had been carried on the Everest mail service, wrapped in plastic and carried up through the camps by any climbers who happened to be going that way and were willing. This one must have been brought up to Tom that way. And from the date of the mail – this one had arrived on the day they summited. Jake checked the date again, slightly surprised. Someone must have pushed this into Tom’s hands at some point during their climb down to or else in base camp before they boarded the chopper, during the time when Jake knew he hadn’t been taking in much of anything except the climb itself. Possibly one of the Sherpa had thought to bring it up for him. Maybe Shem or Beau had thought to print this off and give it to him to read as they left base camp. Whoever it was, it was a sensitive act of kindness on their part, at a time when Tom had most needed to know he had a friend thinking of him.
There was enough light coming through the window now to read and he scanned slowly through the lines. Very much Dale’s voice, he’d got to know it well in the last few weeks through the emails Tom shared with him. And the content… Jake read it several times. And tipped his head back against the bed head, blinking a few times to clear his eyes.
It was around seven am when he heard the quiet tap on the half opened door and glanced up to Paul, dressed, carrying a couple of mugs of tea and his voice very low as he looked past Jake to Tom.
“How are you two doing this morning?”
“Lot of pain. I turned the drip up a couple of hours ago.” Jake said softly without moving. “Did Emmett say when he’d be by?”
Paul put the mugs down on the dresser beside the bed. “He just called, he’s dropping in on his way across to Jackson this morning, he’ll be here in about twenty minutes. What’s the source of it? The frostbite?”
“And the ribs I think. He wasn’t awake enough to talk about it.” Jake looked down again at Tom, holding onto his hand. “I’ll wake him when Emmett gets here, we can try narrowing it down then.”
“He’s still not a good colour. But I’m not hearing him cough so much.” Paul pointed out gently. “That’s improved since yesterday.”
That was one positive to hang on to. Jake indicated the papers he’d put back on the dresser.
“Paul? Did you put those there? I didn’t see where they came from.”
Paul glanced at the crumpled sheets, recognising them. “Yes. Tom had them down the front of his snow suit. They fell out when he was up in the bathroom trying to get undressed, I think he’d forgotten he had them until then. They were clearly important.”
Paul hesitated for a moment, then said lightly, “I think they might have had to do with his making his mind up to go downstairs and get you; he was looking at them while he tried to decide. I admit I recognised the signs, I’ve seen Dale look just like that when he’s trying to get his nerve up to do something hard with me rather than shut down, go away and do it by himself.”
Yes. Exactly. And there was something in Paul’s face and his voice as he said it that touched Jake’s attention. On impulse, he held the sheets out. Paul took them, noticing the names on the email. Jake watched while he read through, and Paul abruptly smiled, a rather unsteady smile for him.
“Yep, that’s my boy.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It took time to wake up enough to take Jake’s help to ease himself into a sitting position. Since changing position made him cough, it was also a slow and painful business, and it was a while before Tom really had attention to spare for the man in the scruffy army jacket sat on the side of the bed. At a guess Emmett had been out fishing early this morning; Jake had mentioned once that he often fished at peculiar hours of the day and night, his very rural and wide spread patients, many of them in dangerous lines of work and all so far away from hospital care made for a job that didn’t fit well into formal office hours. The ends of his jeans were damp and his hair was wild, he looked weather beaten and remarkably normal for a doctor.
“Paul says the pain’s still bad.” he said as an introduction.
Good morning Sherlock Bloody Holmes.
Jake nodded at the drip.
“I turned that up around five am; that helped. I’m wondering if there are other injuries we’ve missed.”
“No there aren’t, I’d know.” Tom said briefly.
“Yeah, you’d been climbing for hours and you were freezing when you hauled me up the Face to camp three, you probably tore half the muscles in your legs.” Jake said without heat. Tom shut his eyes in frustration as Emmett got up, gently stripping the covers back.
“Then let’s double check we’ve not missed anything.”
They had to take him out of the sweats he was wearing; the indignity of it grated beyond bearing but he physically couldn’t help himself, even arms out of sleeves was beyond him. His arms and legs felt like lead, even sitting up made the room swim and being touched made him sweat. His face was trickling by the time Emmett took his hands away, and he’d been as gentle as he could. The bruising around his ribs and down his shins was dramatic this morning, black and purple, spreading everywhere. And his legs looked like sticks, Jake’s arms looked similar below the t shirt he was wearing. Lost muscle from arms and legs, eaten up by the thin atmosphere on Everest, the lack of oxygen day after day. There was actually something of a sense of pride in it. Battle scars.
“I can’t find any other significant injuries.” Emmett compared his ankles and then his knees, and shook his head. “Not that much swelling other than the shin splints, I don’t think you’ve torn anything, maybe sprains and strains but nothing you need me to do anything about. You’re stiffening up now the bruising is coming out, but I got your blood work results back yesterday and you’re both good, your kidneys are ok, you two are tough. I think you’ve just had one hell of a battering on top of the frostbite.”
And that was quite enough. Tom looked with loathing at his feet, the five toes blown up out of all proportion, although the discolouration at the tips had gone. They were a healthy colour, just nothing like a healthy or normal shape. Emmett saw him looking and leaned over for his bag.
“Think of it as a second degree burn. It is going to hurt like hell for a few days until the tissue underneath has a chance to repair itself. Cracked ribs are horrendously painful, shin splints are very painful, Jake thinks you probably pulled a lot of muscles; you’ve got a whole bunch to deal with.”
He messed for a few minutes with a blood pressure cuff and put his fingers over Tom’s wrist, grasping while he looked back to Jake.
“You look better than yesterday. Where’s the sling?”
“Not needing it.”
“I’m watching him.” Tom said shortly, giving Jake a glare over Emmett’s head.
“Good.” Emmett let him go and stripped the cuff off his arm. “That’s still high, you’re really not comfortable at all, are you? I’m going to make a call across to a colleague at Jackson hospital and see if he’s got any ideas we can use on better pain management and then I’m going to want you out of this bed for an hour or two. I’ll be right back.”
“Would we do better at Jackson hospital?” Jake asked him.
“We bloody wouldn’t, because I’m not bloody going.” Tom informed him. Jake, standing with his arms folded, had his eyes on Emmett who shook his head.
“He doesn’t need any more monitoring or intervention than we can do here. I’m a believer in good old fashioned nursing, they still do it out here and Paul’s the best I’ve got in the county.”
That was both alarming to hear and necessary information: Tom reeled it away in silence, understanding what was going to have to be accepted if he intended to stay out of Jackson Hospital. Jake wouldn’t hesitate to have him admitted there if he had any idea it was needed, and it wouldn’t be up for discussion.
“You and he can do it far better than they’ve got time for without all the lights and noise and coming and going.” Emmett was saying to Jake, “Much more comfortable for Tom and it’s going to get much better results. My colleague’s an anesthesiologist, pain specialist, he’s good with burns patients. I’ll see if he’s got some ideas we can use.”
Jake nodded comprehension and as Emmett went downstairs, he sat on the edge of the bed and Tom reached for his hand, tangling his fingers with Jake’s.
“If we need to move you out of here we’ll go set up on the porch outside,” Jake said casually. “Round the back where it’s quiet. Take in the view.”
That was clearly as far from the house as Jake was going to agree to today; Tom knew the terms that meant arguing to go any further would not be an option. Space. Open ground. Being as alone as they could be. Before he’d quite realised it, Tom found himself blurting out, “Here in the house is fine.”
He heard his own tone and knew he’d phrased it as a question. And added, rather lamely and uncertainly since it was an imposition he was suggesting.
“… If nobody minds.”
Jake very rarely showed surprise at anything. Mostly he was the fixed point in the universe and Tom saw everything else move around him as though it understood as well as Tom did; not much got out of Jake’s control or was a problem. Until this. It was not a comfortable thought, not one he could cope with, and Jake saw it; his smile was teasing, with all the confidence Tom couldn’t feel.
“What do you think they’d mind about? You can’t shock this lot, Gerry’s been trying for years. Sure? We can get you comfortable outside if you want it, or we don’t have to go downstairs at all. I can bring a chair up here.”
Tom shook his head, with the bluntness of total exhaustion, without the energy to mess around.
“No. I’m not afraid to move, it hurts like buggery but I’m ok. I just didn’t think we’d ever get back here again.”
“Tommy.” Jake held his hand firmly, his eyes getting very steady. “Any vows you might have made up there, or in the hospital – they were made under duress. No one is going to hold you to them. Not God, not me. We’re not going there.”
“No, it wasn’t like that.” Even thinking was hard work. Tom closed his eyes for a moment, keeping tight hold of Jake’s hand in return. “I want to be here. Please. If nobody minds, if it’s ok.”
“No one is ever going to mind.” Jake pulled Tom’s hand to his mouth and kissed it, seeing Tom’s faint, exhausted attempt at a grin.
Emmett spent some time on the phone debating with his hospital colleague and came back with a medication plan that meant very little to Tom who cared less about what Emmett wanted to push into his veins than about him shutting up and getting on with it. It seemed to involve some kind of cocktail that went into the new IV bag, after which Emmett drained the blisters on his feet, which was a disgusting process but reduced the throbbing. And then there was a whole lot of hell of people milling around collecting blankets and IV tubes and Jake took stuff downstairs, and for one horrible moment Tom could see Emmett getting ready to lift him, not at all sure why the idea was so unpleasant but dreading it. And then Flynn tapped on the door and ignored Emmett, looking directly to Tom.
“Tom? Ready to go?”
Oh God, thank you. Tom didn’t manage to get it out, he was too braced enough to withstand the handling it was taking to get the tubes organised and knowing that being moved was going to hurt like hell, but he knew Flynn; Flynn moved quietly and he didn’t hurry, nor did he muck about, and he stooped to fold the blanket over Tom, gently putting his arm down. “No, don’t try and help. Keep still and let me do it, you don’t need to hurt any more than you do already.”
It was hard not to clutch him. But Flynn lifted him blanket and all, slowly in one even, firm movement and it was not nearly as bad as Tom had been prepared for. And he walked smoothly, not jarring him, taking him unhurriedly down the stairs to where Jake was lighting the fire in the family room and Paul had a small mountain of pillows and quilts piled on the hearthrug.
Flynn paused by them, standing between the two leather couches that faced each other across the coffee table. “Which couch?”
The respect inherent in being asked for his preference was thoughtful. Tom managed to indicate one and Paul, who had collected two of the quilts, folded one in half, laying it over the couch seat and then adding another folded one on top.
“See how that feels, Tom. Padded enough?”
Flynn put him down very gently, and on the thick layers of quilt it hurt surprisingly less than Tom had expected. Emmett calmly appropriated the hat stand from the hallway, brought it over to stand behind the couch and slung Tom’s IV from it.
“We need you sitting up, I want to keep your chest clear. And legs raised. ”
“Ok, we’ll get that covered.” Paul was rapidly rolling several pillows in a quilt to make a bundle and Jake helped Tom sit up far enough to let Paul put it behind him. Leaning back into it propped him nearly upright and the quilt… it was soft enough to be bearable.
“Flynn, pass me another couple and make those up into a ball with a quilt,” Paul took the pillows Flynn handed him and very gently tucked those under Tom’s arms and enough behind his head that he could lay back fully supported. The relief of no longer having to bear the weight himself was enormous. Paul and Emmett together lifted his legs and Paul rapidly placed several of the quilted bundles under them, a soft and moulded heap to rest on that raised his legs. Paul adjusted several of them with a few minor pulls into better positions, absorbed and deft as if he’d done this before and with a delicacy of touch that didn’t jar, and then took a light blanket and spread it over Tom, leaving his feet bare to avoid the weight and pressure.
“We’re done. It’s ok sweetie, it’s done. Breathe.”
Sweating, Tom released the breath he’d been holding for some minutes and Jake ran a very gentle hand over his forehead.
“How long do you need him upright Emmett?”
“At least two hours.” Emmett checked the IV flow and shouldered into his coat. “After that, until you feel like going back to bed, Tom. Keep your legs up. I’ll be by around sevenish this evening, I’ll drop in on my way home.”
Flynn went with him through the kitchen and a moment later Tom heard the truck start up in the yard. Jake sat down on the arm of the couch behind him, keeping the hand on his head. Paul took a perch on the coffee table beside him and put a glass in his hand. It was not exactly water, something slightly lemon flavoured and very cold, but it helped; the room stopped spinning. The other thing Paul held was a wash cloth, dampened, and he handed that to Jake, watching Jake sponge the sweat from Tom’s face.
“Better? Say something if you start getting cold. Do you feel like trying some breakfast? You two seemed to do ok with the eggs yesterday?”
“Yes please.” Jake said definitely. Paul nodded.
“I can do that. I’ll be right back.”
Finally left alone in the family room, Tom felt Jake put an arm around him, gentle over his chest and hold him, the weight of his chin warm against the top of Tom’s head.
It seemed very quiet now everyone had gone: of course at this time of day almost all the family would be out on the ranch at work. This room where Tom had never spent much time was large and restful in colour and in space, hushed but for the deep, steady tick of the grandfather clock and the crackle of the fire in the large stone hearth. It was nothing like the house that Tom had grown up in. He’d never consciously compared the two before or thought so clearly in years of that Jacobean red brick house behind the black wrought iron railings, it must have been the morphine. The smooth sand coloured stone walls inside the oldest parts of the house, the white painted rooms with high ceilings and the sharp contrast of dark wood panelling, the high, wide windows that ran almost from floor to ceiling with their stone lattice frames, all tall symmetry, bays and open parapets, and wide stone staircases. There was a true beauty to it and a history to it he’d always felt a deep connection to, the sense that they preserved it along with its ancient polished furniture, the tapestries and paintings that were so carefully restored and cleaned on regular schedule just as the cathedral art was cleaned, something that belonged to time rather than to them. A house handed from each bishop and his family to the next, down over centuries for protection and safekeeping alongside the cathedral itself.
Jake loved this ranch house. Had known this wide, deep hearth and sat here just like this before it for years, ever since he was a child. The history of this house was much shorter and more immediate: built within living memory by two men who were known, loved and openly talked of in this house, their presence was still immediately here, but the house was equally… preserved and held through the ongoing flow of the generations. He and Jake both loved and felt strongly about the protection, the preservation of what was old, the artefacts that held generations of memory and meaning, of places that held memory – it was at the root of so much of what they did together. But that they had both grown up in homes on different continents that shared in that same experience and value so acutely was something that had never before occurred to him.
Paul brought them omelettes this morning; cheese and herbs mixed in with bright rings of green and red chillies, with a large pot of tea on the tray, putting the whole thing on the coffee table and drawing the table over to be within Tom’s reach. Then he pulled one of the recliners over directly against the couch.
“Jake, sit down and you get comfortable too. I’ll be in the kitchen if you need anything, just shout.”
And he went away and left them in peace. And there was something wrong about him. Tom found himself looking after Paul as he disappeared into the kitchen, unsure of what it was but uncomfortably aware of it.
The fire snapped and crackled as the logs began to catch, sending sparks and wood ash floating up the chimney with the distinctive soft smoke smell. Behind them, the kitchen smelled warmly of baking through the open door. Jake leaned far enough to see the several mixing bowls lined up on the kitchen table; there seemed to be rather a lot even by Paul’s standards and allowing for their making two more people in the house to cater for. He didn’t comment, just picked up one plate and handed the other to Tom. The eggs were spicy, hot and well seasoned when he tasted them and he gave Tom a smile.
“Paul would get along very well with the Sherpas.”
Tom didn’t doubt it. In his limited experience of this house Paul was an extremely good cook, and he could see how hard Paul was trying to make them comfortable any way he could. Jake watched him pick his fork up, his voice quiet.
“Meds messing with your stomach?”
Tom shook his head. So far he wasn’t feeling much of any effects from whatever Emmett had stuck in him. The pain was hammering. Everywhere, dominating everything to a near unbearable degree. Even to sit up propped like this was a shocking effort. Physical weakness, the complete failure of his body – it wasn’t something he’d ever experienced before and it was alarming.
The omelette was good but eating wasn’t something his body had any interest in. There were framed photographs stood along the mantel; one caught his attention and he looked along the line, slightly surprised to find one with him in it towards the end, one taken last summer when he and Jake had been here to help with the harvest. He, Dale, Jake and Riley. He vaguely remembered Paul taking the picture but hadn’t expected to see himself there.
“Are there any older pictures of you?” he found himself saying almost randomly to say something vaguely conversational. And yet he wanted to know. Stupidly, suddenly he found he really wanted to know. Jake gave him an easy nod. “Plenty. Philip liked photos, he kept pictures around of all of us, I’ll get Paul to get out some of the scrapbooks for you this evening. Hey...” he added as Tom leaned to put the plate back on the table with little eaten.
Tom stopped himself with his mouth open and breath drawn, discovering he was about to produce a sound perilously close to whining.
“One.” Jake said very, very gently. Tom looked at him, absolutely shocked. He’d never done that. Never. Particularly never here. And yet he found himself involuntarily, hastily taking the plate back, hands shaking, stomach filling with butterflies in a very different way to the ache and grind of pain, the exhaustion of the drugs, and for a moment it drowned all of them out.
“Good.” Jake said softly, and went on eating. He wasn’t finding it easy himself, Tom could see the effort it was taking him and a little shame coloured his own muddle of emotion. He ducked his head, tried to get another few mouthfuls down without letting it choke him. Jake watched him through until the third mouthful and then reached to gently take the plate from him. “Thank you. I know it’s hard, I don’t want to either but we need it. As much right now as we did while we were training.”
Yes. That was a mature, adult fact that any sane man ought to have a grasp on. Jake put the plates out of the way and ran his hand over Tom’s hair.
“Do you feel any difference with the meds yet?”
Tom paused, again half choking on a breath drawn to talk. Remembering painfully clearly the conversation they’d had in camp three, but at the time he hadn’t felt this pathetic, this tired, this wholly unable to think or to express anything at all. Jake shifted quietly and unhurriedly to the edge of the couch and Tom twisted around and with nothing more than the forlorn hope that Paul couldn’t see from the kitchen, got both arms around him in turn and gripped because he couldn’t help it. Desperately. Trying not to shake. Jake’s voice against his hair was soothing.
“I know. I know. It’s going to get easier.”
“I don’t know how to do this.” Tom managed into his shoulder, and it sounded garbled. Forced. Jake nodded slowly against him.
“You don’t need to. This is pain, drugs and reaction, it’s going to pass, we just have to get through it. I’ve got it all covered, we’re going to be fine.” Jake moved some of the pillows supporting Tom and slid behind him so Tom could lean back against him. “Close your eyes.”
They practised enough at this that Tom just did it, a familiar routine to cling to, with an odd knowledge that this house had seen plenty of meltdowns, it would think nothing strange of them here.
Jake held him, watching the fire in the hearth, listening to the slow tick of the clock and the faint sounds of Paul in the kitchen, feeling Tom’s breathing get gradually slower and calmer as the morphine took over, less because Tom was letting it than he was out of energy to fight it any longer. Paul brought him a mug of tea a while after Tom fell asleep. Jake gently freed his good hand to take it without disturbing Tom.
Paul paused, leaning on the back of the recliner to look at what he could see of Tom’s face. “I couldn’t help overhearing, I’m so sorry, he’s still horribly uncomfortable isn’t he? Do you want me to try calling Emmett back?”
“I want to give the meds another hour or two.” Jake glanced at his watch, then the IV bag, which seemed to be running painfully slowly. “This is a different cocktail and it’s only just started. And I think some of this is stress burning off too. He’s had no chance to dump any of it yet. Which reminds me.” He nodded lightly towards the kitchen. “Is Montana dropping by for lunch or is there something you’d like to talk about?”
There was the sound of a car in the yard and a car door slamming, Paul got up fast, his face setting into something which for Paul was approaching downright frosty.
“Right. If that’s any more legal papers I’m going to deny all knowledge of either of you two and whoever it is can have a lovely day driving all around the county until they track down the Sheriff-”
The front door burst open, abruptly rousing Tom who jerked upright out of Jake’s arms eliciting a sharp yelp of pain as his ribs protested, and Gerry flung his arms wide in the manner of a conjurer producing a sawn in half individual, whirling into the hallway.
“It’s all right, I’m here, I’ve arrived, are they home? Stop everything until they’re home, nobody panic. Oh good God, Tom, my darling, you look absolutely terrible.”
Tom looked at him in disbelief, gripping the back of the couch for stability.
“Gerry! I asked you all not to try coming to see them for at least a week!” Paul said in what sounded like utter exasperation, “You shouldn’t even be flying, you’ve got no business getting on a plane, you only just had surgery-”
“Oh that was days ago.” Gerry grabbed him in an exuberant hug, from which Paul freed a hand and swatted him soundly, several times in rapid and very accurate succession eliciting an active squirm away and a highly reproachful “Ow!”
“Don’t you ‘days ago’ me; you’re going to be very lucky if you don’t need re admitting by the time I’m done with you! Are you all right? Where’s Ashley? If you’ve abandoned Ash in Seattle and come running out here by yourself, this time I’m going to-”
“Ash is outside saying hello to Flynn, I didn’t leave him anywhere so you don’t need to make horrible threats, hello Jake,” Gerry came to hang over the back of the couch and put an arm around Jake’s neck to kiss him and then, very gently indeed, Tom too, without the faintest hesitation, which was not something he usually did and which made Tom freeze in shock.
“Now don’t look so cross,” Gerry said to Jake, talking fast enough to avoid Paul or Jake getting much of a word in, “Of course I came, what else was I going to do? You do look phenomenally sexy with a beard by the way- has Dale checked in yet, do we know what’s happening?”
“No,” Paul said very shortly, “Tom and Jake have been trying to get some very badly needed rest and quiet, and Tom is not up for this, so get your butt in that kitchen -”
“Tom is not up for what?” Tom interrupted.
“About this whole Loudon business?” Gerry looked from Tom to Jake for a moment, then shook his head at Tom. “There, you see? We knew it. Top heavy households. They’re worse than the brat-heavy ones, all over protective and no one talks about anything-”
“Gerry, stop. Right now.” Ash came in through the still open front door with Flynn behind him, taking in the two men on the sofa and the expressions on Jake and Paul’s faces, and grasped Gerry’s shoulders. With some concern, Tom thought, for the safety of his partner’s backside. “We talked about this. Kitchen; do as Paul says. Let’s give them a bit of time-”
“No, let’s not.” Tom said shortly.” What about Loudon? What’s happened?” he looked from Gerry to Jake, reading at a glance that whether he was annoyed or not, Jake’s interest was seized as much as his was and Jake wanted to know too. “Where is Dale?”
“Jake?” Ash, still holding Gerry’s shoulders and looking like he wouldn’t hesitate to remove him if needed, was watching Jake. “Are you ok with this? Now or later?”
“Now.” Tom said flatly, at the same time as Gerry’s “Of course now!”
Jake gave Tom a slightly piercing look that Tom felt as much as saw, and when he nodded at Ash it was on behalf of both of them.
“We’re good. Come on then Ger, where is Dale?”
“Sit down.” Ash said to Gerry, quietly but if Tom was any judge, it wasn’t a tone anyone with a brain would argue with without thinking. It was slightly surprising to hear it coming from such a gentle looking man but Gerry promptly took a seat on the edge of the coffee table, airily resuming his chatter with barely a pause.
“He’s off dealing with this whole Loudon ‘I’m going to sue for something totally unproven in a foreign country without any evidence’ thing. Very impressively I might add, from what I’ve heard about it so far.”
“Gerry, had you noticed at all that this is my business to deal with?” Jake inquired.
Gerry gave him an apologetic look but shook his head. “Darling it’s been family business ever since we first discovered the fool bitching about you every which way on his blog and all over Twitter. Do you really think we’d just sit back and let that happen? Thank you for the sweet letter from your lawyer by the way. Appreciated it.”
“What letter? Lawyer? What’s on Twitter? And what the hell is Loudon doing now?” Tom struggled further upright and Jake helped him fast before he hurt himself.
“Gerry, I would have liked to have been able to raise this in my own time when we were both ready for it, there was no need for this and it’s not helpful.” Jake said it sternly, and then immediately spoiled the effect by demanding; “What do you mean about Dale?”
“Oh you really are a lousy bloody Top.” Tom informed him.
Gerry looked across at Tom, startled, then flashed him a rather delighted grin.
“Dale wanted to do this discreetly without you two having to be bothered with it until he knew something more,” Flynn said calmly. “Let’s let you get some rest and we’ll sit down together later and talk about it properly-”
“No. What’s going on? I could see Paul was upset about something; if it’s Loudon I’m going to bloody kill him.” Tom leaned against Jake, out of breath and in too much pain to care who saw or who thought what since he was talking from this ridiculously undignified position, barefoot, messed up and now in the middle of a small crowd - but this was the first real-feeling, meaningful, sensible thing he could get a grip on that had happened ever since they left base camp. “Tell me about bloody Duckface, what’s he doing now?”
“Duckface?” Gerry demanded with deep appreciation. “Oh that’s perfect, I love it. That little disco clone gets right up my nose and I haven’t even met him.”
His tone summarised the pink peril perfectly; Tom understood it because it was exactly what he’d always felt himself since the first time he clapped eyes on Loudon. Recognition of a perfect little club bunny without anything to him at all beyond his pretty little face and bum. There was a mix of cynicism behind it that spoke of experience of a culture not many people knew about or shared in, another man who had stood in similar clubs and seen similar things and felt in a similar way about them, and it was – considerably more acute than he might have thought to credit Gerry with being.
“Phoenix’s mother sent legal papers here to me yesterday, suing the expedition for your punching Phoenix the day we flew out.” Jake said quietly to Tom. Tom twisted around as best he could against protesting ribs to stare at him, shocked and abruptly horrified.
“Oh God, I did – I’d forgotten-”
“We were absolutely thrilled you did.” Gerry said happily. “It made everyone’s day so much brighter, we’d been longing to do it for weeks.”
“Did I hurt him?” Tom demanded of Jake who shook his head.
“He was fine. I spoke to Beau who said he wasn’t hurt, and I instructed Emerson to deal with it. That’s it. Other than point out the basic countersuit I’d need to file, he didn’t think it was going to be much of an issue.”
“Yes but that’s nothing like all of it, is it?” Gerry said gently. “So it’s no good sounding all Top like and chilled. None of you lot here go near the papers or the TV or online, you don’t know all this stuff or have a sense for what it’s like, but back in the real world we’ve been following this mess on Twitter and on Loudon’s blog and his mother’s newspaper column and it’s got to be a big national story. It’s been on TV stations, in the national papers – Loudon’s heroic climb of Everest. Riley emailed us all yesterday to say Loudon had put up a picture on his blog that Dale thought was faked and that Loudon was claiming in the national press to have summited-”
“What?” Tom demanded, outraged. “No he didn’t, he didn’t get anywhere near!”
“Oh we know.” Gerry assured him. “Several members of your camp have been pointing that out very vocally online, and so have we.”
The ‘we’ Tom understood; from the letters he’d seen Jake receive very regularly no matter where they were on the planet over the last few years, and the content Jake had read to him, he was well aware that many members of the ranch, particularly the brat group, stayed in close contact even from their various far flung corners of the globe.
“So Dale called a brats meeting at about half past one this morning,” Gerry went on, clearly enjoying himself as he was explaining this with a great deal of satisfaction, “And he and Niall and Wade – that’s the judge one and the retired cop, Tom - all agreed from their experience they didn’t think Loudons had a single legal leg to stand on about suing you for the punch, and the claim he’s making that he summited is just ridiculous, but to Peroxide Is My Middle Name And Please God Will Someone Clue Me In About Lipstick Mama Loudon, it isn’t about the claim at all, it’s just all about publicity. All the news programmes, the TV appearances she’s making, it’s all about generating as much media interest as she can and she has got a whole lot of it right now. And she doesn’t care about lying or faking or stupid legal claims or even being proved a complete fruitcake in public if it gets her press interest. And Dale said no matter how he looked at it, once she starts publicising that her precious son who summited Everest nobly all by himself with one hand tied behind him got punched by a guide on his expedition and names you, it’s a big enough story now that journalists would come here, to the ranch, to find you and Jake and get whatever more story they can to keep on feeding the beast. And do you want to think about how that ends?”
Oh yes. Teeth gritting, morphine clearing fast from his head, Tom looked at Jake knowing exactly where that would go, with a rising urge to get hold of the pink peril and wring his perfectly formed little neck. Jake looked a good deal grimmer than he ever usually got and he said quite crisply, “Right. I’m going to throttle him. I should have done it weeks ago.”
“They don’t think Loudon’s realised who Jake is yet, but once they do that would just fuel the public interest even further,” Gerry added with genuine sympathy. “Jake, I know it wouldn’t bother you, you don’t care and you don’t bother with this kind of stuff for good reason, you’re just not that kind of a person, but you see I am. If a ranch needs running or a mountain needs climbing you’re the absolute experts, I’ll defer to you every time, but this kind of gutter social media crap? Darling I’ve been marinating in the celeb columns over morning coffee for twenty years, I do know. Wade and Niall and I have been around the block a hell of a lot of times, Dale has too, and I’m telling you Dale is right. I know exactly what the media will do if this story is popular and I won’t agree to sitting around waiting for it to happen because you’re innocent of just how nasty people can be. Paul’s a known name. Flynn. How long would it take a journalist to locate the business based here with their clients? Dale’s another known name, Darcy is, Niall is, Luath is – you have to get a grip and face that this could turn into a really unholy mess if we let it.”
There was a moment’s silence while Tom digested that. And looked back at Gerry, who was surprisingly proving by far the most practical, sensible person in the room, and he’d always had a sneaking, tugging draw towards Gerry despite all the flouncing and noise. Ok, if he was honest with himself, quite a lot of it because of the flouncing.
“Yes. And my name won’t help either if it comes to it.”
“Won’t it?” Gerry said, surprised.
“No. Where did Dale go?”
“New York.” Gerry spoke directly to Tom and Jake. “He went to New York early this morning, I don’t know to do what exactly, but he’s by far the best qualified of us and he said knew how to stop this, completely, and he wanted it done fast before the Loudons got any more information out or managed to make the story any bigger. Riley and Niall went too, so they’ll have James with them.”
“He’s expecting to be back this evening, I think he wanted to keep it quiet to see what he could do.” Paul said it to Jake, perched on the arm of the other couch with his arms folded as if he was cold despite the fire crackling in the hearth, and Flynn was leaning with both hands on the back of the couch directly behind him. “We didn’t know about this, we woke up to a note this morning and he was gone.”
Gone in pursuit of Loudon. Tom looked up at Jake, getting more interested by the moment.
“Ok, what the hell’s he going to do to Loudon? How do we help?”
“Oh we’ve already got you fully covered, love. Dale’s acting on behalf of the whole family from a brats meeting decision.” Gerry said firmly and with meaning, looking from Flynn to Paul to Jake, one face at a time. “Brats Meeting. Remember how that works? Because we take the time to talk to each other as a whole family unit and we always have done. We organise and we pool our experience, we have a system, and nobody is going to screw with any of us. There was someone from every generation of the family at that meeting last night and Dale knew it, he knows every one of us there was representing our partners too. This is exactly why I came, because an experienced brat had to be here to support the others, and we agreed that only I came because we didn’t want to swamp you. Everyone else is staying away, Paul, don’t panic. We really don’t plan on making things harder for Tom and Jake at all. But we were not going to leave Tom, Riley and Dale to handle this on their own.”
“Hey I’m just an in-law.” Tom pointed out, surprised, well aware that Ash was continuing to stand right by his partner, but he was not interfering, letting this family argue things out amongst themselves the way all the in-laws did. “It’s not like I have a say here.”
“Tom, of course you do.” Paul said unequivocally, but Gerry simply gave him a rather apologetic look, shaking his head.
“Oh darling, we really should keep you better posted. I am sorry but there is no such thing as a brat in-law around here, hadn’t you noticed?”
The jet lifted sharply off the tarmac at JFK, dropping the city away beneath them.
It was a small and remarkably more luxuriously furnished cabin than they were used to travelling in, although it was apparent that Dale saw this as mundane normality. Once the plane levelled out, James rose to take his jacket off, making a quick survey of the facilities with a look across at Niall that Niall read without difficulty.
How tired are you?
I’m fine, don’t fussbudget.
Niall signalled it back knowing perfectly well that it would not work on James, and that James knew he knew it wouldn’t work; it had not been working for over sixty years of their travelling together.
“May I order you both some lunch, sir?” Dale said courteously, taking James’ jacket for him.
He had risen immediately to his feet when James did. An old fashioned boy, he stood whenever either of them joined or left the group with an automatic gallantry that had been normal in the world sixty years ago and which Philip had embodied, expected and quietly taught at home for as long as Niall had known him. It was really rather charming. He had allowed the airport staff and the steward to do very little for them, stepping in himself to carry their bags and belongings, hold doors, to ensure seats were immediately available wherever they were, that the cabin was warm, to have drinks available. Niall further suspected that it was not even a conscious gesture being made intentionally for their benefit; he saw Dale treat Riley very much the same way, just more protectively rather than with the same atmosphere of regard he managed to express to both Niall and James as senior members of the family he had joined. It seemed to come as unthinkingly to him as it did to take command of a meeting in the way that Niall had witnessed him do barely an hour ago.
It was fascinating to watch. All that competence, all that command was impressive even by the standards of the men Niall had worked with all his career. And yet it was actually a full part of his unobtrusive deference if you knew what it was that you were looking at. Many people would have been confused by it and seen it as two conflicting things. To Niall, with a long history of knowing many such men, including many older men of Philip’s acquaintance long ago who would have been spellbound by this boy, understood it very well.
Riley, seated beside Dale with the same easy grace he sat a horse or on the porch step at home with his knack of looking comfortable anywhere, watched the city fall away below them until they were too high to see much detail. Then Niall saw him glance at Dale. Dale had not said much since they left the office in the large sky rise in Manhattan. Not in the street where he’d automatically signalled the car he had awaiting them, not through the car journey, not through the airport where they’d been directed to the charter jet waiting for them with a speed that Dale’s presence seemed to elicit from all staff, in the same way people tended to move aside out of his way in hallways even if they had their backs to him at the time. In Dale’s mind these things probably just happened and the normal world was like that; he was occupied with other matters and barely noticed. It wouldn’t occur to him that it didn’t happen for everyone. Niall thought he was quite unaware of what that presence was like, or how powerfully he imprinted his expectations onto people around him. No wonder it took three of them and Riley to successfully Top him, without them getting accidentally and comprehensively Topped themselves. Which wouldn’t have made him happy at all.
“I’m starving.” Riley said at large, not particularly to him
“Lunch would be very welcome,” James agreed. He was discreetly watching Dale, and not for the same reasons as Niall; he had been watching Dale very closely all morning. Niall, with a fair amount of awareness of the struggles this particular newest brat to their family had endured, understood it well. The steward brought a leather bound menu to the table, first offering it to Dale who waved her towards James. Then he put a hand discreetly to his collar, straightening his immaculate tie.
“Would you mind if I removed this, sir?”
“Because formal dress is compulsory on planes.” Riley said quizzically, who had pulled off his tie as soon as they exited the newspaper building. “You’re not freaking on me, are you?” He was leaning over James’ shoulder to read the menu, but his eyes were mostly on Dale.
“It is not necessary for anyone to freak about anything.” James said calmly, skimming the menu. “Dale, take your tie off and make yourself comfortable. We will have eggs benedict and coffee please.”
The steward disappeared towards the small galley.
“What the hell are Perigord truffles and haddock Monte Carlo anyway?” Riley folded the menu and leaned over to put it out of sight on another table. “If you’re hitting prepare to freak mode you can give me your phone; I’m calling Flynn.”
“I’m not freaking.” Dale rolled his tie neatly and slipped it into his pocket. Riley gave him a hard look but after a moment nodded.
“Ok. Hold onto that thought and don’t count anything.”
It was obviously a private joke. Dale smiled but gave him a quiet nod. “I won’t.”
“Did you know things were going to go that way with Mr Ladiwhatzit?”
Niall surveyed Dale, listening with interest since Riley’s knowledge of Dale far outstripped theirs.
“Every possible variant I worked through in that scenario went more or less that way, yes.”
“And you’re pleased with the result?” James asked him.
“It’s ended.” Dale sounded for a moment as alarming as he’d been in that office, very courteously, very calmly laying out facts and an action plan in a way that had turned Ladislaus – a man that Niall suspected did not scare easily – white, quiet and extremely co operative. “There won’t be any more trouble.”
It was not an idly optimistic statement; Niall heard that and knew exactly what he meant. To Dale that was a statement of fact with personal responsibility behind it.
“Then it was what we came to do and that’s good.” Riley pressed. “Right?”
“This may be a good time to look at the Twitter feed the others have been contributing to,” Dale leaned over for the laptop on the table. “I doubt we’ll have the chance much longer, it will be gone within the next hour or two-”
He yelped as Riley batted him sharply across the back of the head.
“I knew it.” Riley took the laptop away from him, pushing it to the far side of the table. “Stop with the rabbiting. Yeah there’s going to be trouble, we knew there would be – I think probably everyone who was on the phone with us last night is in major trouble, but that is going to help, this is big family stuff we just pulled? Do you realise how big? This is Philip type stuff, he never let anyone mess with brat meetings.”
“It was most certainly David type stuff too.” James commented.
They had both felt very strongly about it. And surely Dale must have known that, in the same way that Riley did? Possibly it was at gut level rather than consciously- this boy had an acuteness of instinct that Niall could only admire - but he had made that middle of the night call to them with absolute faith that they would respond, that it was the way that this family worked. Niall glanced at James, wondering if he too was thinking of a long train journey, years ago when they had been even younger than these brats who seemed so very young, having a not so dissimilar conversation and probably for the first time in the ranch’s chequered history. Right back in the days before there were precedents or plenty of others in the family who understood. It was certainly one of the several reasons why James had taken over at the airport and on behalf of them both informed Dale kindly but with authority that he and Niall were headed to Wyoming with them and that the matter was not up for discussion.
“Riley is quite right, Dale. No one is in major trouble.” James said mildly but firmly. “We will manage this together when we reach the ranch. Let it go for now.”
“Stare decisis et non quieta movere.” Niall added, to Dale who he suspected would recognise the phrase. “Why do you think James insisted we came with you? You’ll see.”
Riley nudged Dale again, physically invading his space like one horse demanding the acknowledgement of another, still watching him rather than paying much attention to either of them. Which was natural. These two wore wedding rings; the relationships that ran between the five of in this very discreet marriage had to be complex, it contained a number of the most elusive members of the family. But Niall who had known Riley for some years had not seen him look at anyone else before in the way he was looking now at Dale.
“The bottom line? The real bottom line? It’s Flynn, Paul and Jas. You know it is. Who’s ever going to be safer to go home to?”
His hazel eyes were somewhere between impatient and sympathetic, it was a very Riley mix.
Do you know about this yet? Niall wondered watching Dale. The instinct to run home, to always run home instead of run away because there is nowhere as safe as there?
He’d learned that himself, indelibly, years ago in a Wyoming pasture. So had James.
“So unclench.” Riley told Dale. “Anyway. If they ever are stupid enough to throw you out I’m coming with you.”
“Are you really?” Dale looked up at him, surprised, and Riley laughed.
“Of course I am? We’ll go move in with Darcy. Set up a brat commune.”
“I’d give it twenty four hours at most before Gerry and Bear joined you.” James said dryly without looking up from the newspaper he was scanning. “Mayhem. You’d be much more sensible to come to us.”
James saw that they ate. Dale, having made a polite and very discreet attempt to leave most of his eggs untouched that was a fairly good one by Niall’s personal standards but quite well within the range of James’ experience, responded quietly and Niall thought quite thankfully to James’ instruction to clear his plate. Once the remains of the meal were taken away, James folded his newspaper and gave a blunt nod towards the two couches beyond the table area, one on either side of the aisle.
“Niall, lay down please. We have several hours to go and we were all up most of the night, we’re going to get some rest. Riley, is your reputation for being able to sleep anywhere still intact?”
“Then Dale, lie down on the other couch, and Riley see if you can make yourself comfortable here.”
Dale got up on the word but Riley stretched and followed him, saying easily to James,
“I think we should be fine sharing if that’s ok? They’re wide couches and we’re used to squashing up.”
He heeled his shoes off by the side of the couch and dropped down on it, scooting over far enough to hold out an arm to Dale, who paused for a moment, looking down at him with an expression that made Niall wonder what he was thinking. Riley leaned over, grabbed his hand and pulled.
“Yeah, how this works is you try laying down?”
Dale let Riley pull him down and lay back on the couch beside him. From the couch across the cabin, Niall watched Riley turn over against him, wrap an arm around his waist, tangle a leg through his and relax without effort– Paul always said that Riley could sleep like a cat, anywhere in the most awkward of positions. Dale folded an arm behind his head, holding Riley securely with his other arm against the slight movement of the aircraft, surveying the cabin roof.
Riley’s voice was so low Niall barely heard it; it was addressed to Dale and must have been spoken almost directly in his ear.
“Stop. Fricking. Worrying.”
“I’m not.” Dale said just as softly. It was very difficult to read his tone.
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015