There was a kind of unreality to the following half hour in the family room. They drank tea – on his first visit here a few years ago, Tom had been slightly surprised the first time he’d been handed the tea of his childhood, properly brewed with milk, such as you couldn’t find at any international coffee stand. He’d near forgotten the taste of it, but then of course this household had British roots too. There were phrases and expressions that slipped into conversation in this house that you didn’t expect from American voices, but being a Brit with an American man himself, Tom had long since noticed both he and Jake had unconsciously absorbed speech habits from each other, and he recognised the same in these men.
They chattered fairly constantly. Or Gerry did. Tom drank tea, in too much pain and too deathly tired to care about the crowd in this room that usually would have set his teeth on edge. And more, this was, in a bizarre way, the same familiar ordeal he had been enduring for weeks. Teeth chattering apprehension at an enormous risk he took with every step, yet fascination and determination made it impossible to do anything but climb on. There was no way he would have agreed to go upstairs. Jake hadn’t moved behind him. Large and sprawled lazily in the corner of the sofa – and actually the furniture here was large enough that he didn’t dwarf it as he did most couches and chairs, he really could sprawl, and Tom, well aware that he too was lengthy by average standards and quite easily the second tallest man in this room, was draped down the length of the couch without being anywhere near the end of it – he had an arm wrapped over Tom’s chest like an anchor or some kind of seat belt on some insane fairground ride, and Tom knew Jake’s ‘lazy’. Provide him with something to act on and he’d go from lounging to action with the speed of a cat, Jake was about as harmless as a lion sunbathing on the Serengeti. Shaggy and golden, his chest warm against Tom’s back, the steady movement of his chest and his breathing was deeply stabilising. Tom found himself running his palm up and down the tanned, golden skin of Jake’s bare forearm, the cream white of the hairs that shone there in the sunlight coming from the window behind them. The warmth of his skin. The morphine was bloody distracting, trying to keep his mind on anything was tricky.
Two more guys appeared; one of them Tom recognised and knew the name of. Luath. Big black guy, middle aged, solid and with a kind of smooth dignity even in the muddied jeans and shirt he was wearing, handsome in the fine wine kind of way that some older men just excelled in. He moved gently to hug Jake, Tom could feel the care he took of Jake’s broken arm as much as the affection in that hug, and he would have held out a hand to Tom to shake. Tom saw him start to do it, then realise and before Tom had time to stir or try to sit up or free a hand to take it, Luath instead briefly and gently touched his head, a cupping gesture so light it didn’t shake him but went with a softness in his eyes that went through Tom like a hand squeezed around his lungs. It was a physical message that reinforced what Gerry had said so casually – before skipping on to another subject with ease as though that was all done and dusted.
There is no such thing as an in-law brat.
There was a kind of loss of – control? in the classification that normally would have infuriated him. Would have made him head out of this house and get as far from it as he could. Run. Climb. Swim until he felt calmer. Not because he felt invaded or belittled either; that was not at all what was at the root of that extreme discomfort.
I do not need bloody looking after. I am totally bloody competent to look after myself, I could probably run bloody rings around you lot in anything you care to name. Physically, mentally, academically, bring it on. He’d been venting that kind of froth for years, thinking at times that he even meant it. Never listening to what it really expressed.
There was another guy with Luath, a broad guy with an LA accent and a circle beard who looked tired and kind of triumphant and who Paul met with an enthusiastic hug, as did Flynn. They were celebrating something with him – for him – Tom wasn’t sure what, but the guy’s rather self-conscious grin was warm. Gerry pounced on him with what seemed like very genuine pleasure and an overdone squeal, which made the guy laugh. He was introduced as Mason, one of their clients Tom supposed, and once he’d shaken hands all round, he went upstairs to shower.
“He’s planning to take a bath and then read in his room,” Tom heard Luath say quietly to Flynn. “Jas and I explained we had a family matter and were going to need some privacy. Jas saw the plane, he’s just taken the jeep up to the landing strip.”
“Jake, darling,” Gerry said warmly, coming to sit back down with Ash, “May I just say, you are creeping the living daylights out of me? I have never in all the time I’ve known you seen you sit this still for this long.”
“A broken arm’ll do that.” Jake gave him an easy grin, stretching his healing arm out more carefully along the back of the couch.
“Along with total exhaustion, and having lost about half your body weight each.” Paul pointed out. “Gerry you think they look bad now? You should have seen them when they walked in the door. Walking skeletons the pair of you, black and blue and absolutely filthy, the clothes you came home in were rags. I dread to think what it was like in that camp.”
“Basic.” Jake said amiably. “But fun. We’ll tell you about it some time. And show you the pictures if I can find the camera, I’m not sure we brought it out of Nepal.”
“It’s upstairs in my rucksack.” Tom said abruptly. “It was in the pocket of the down suit they cut off you at the hospital.”
Gerry’s eyes touched his for a few seconds and they were shockingly deeply sympathetic even though his voice was light. “Yeah, I heard about that, it must have been horrible. Luthe, Darcy sends his love, he wants to know if you’re caffeine deprived yet? He wanted me to bring you an espresso but Ash wouldn’t let me.”
And he deflected the conversation rapidly away with a deftness Tom hadn’t expected but appreciated, and Ash helped him.
“Ok?” Jake said very quietly in his ear. “Pain manageable?”
Tom nodded. It was insane. Noisy, busy, full of people and even worse, here with people who mattered to Jake… he’d never before sat among them for anything more than a short meal, been stiff and stilted, and escaped as fast as possible, and they were all being too polite to say so but Tom could see they were surprised. Paul, Gerry. Even Jake. But then it was quite apparent that this was no ordinary day in the ranch’s history.
And they sat. Waiting. Gerry perched on the arm of Ash’s chair, Ash with one knee slung over the other and an arm looped around his waist. Luath, who disappeared into the bathroom for a few minutes and reappeared, washed, changed, and took a seat on the hearthstone. Flynn. Very hard to read, his face was always slightly set but his shirtsleeves were rolled back above his forearms the way they usually were, baring the muscle there and clearing his hands as if he was prepared for hard and heavy work. Tom watched him a few times, wondering. Paul, who was sitting on the opposite couch by what Tom thought was an extreme effort of will, because tension was in his usually gentle face and in his hands and while he was doing a good job of hiding it… Tom understood that effort of concealment so well himself that he couldn’t help but notice. Thankfully he found it almost impossible to worry Jake like this. Plus he had Jake thoroughly acclimatised to unpredictable freak outs and disappearing acts and acts of randomly lethal adrenaline seeking, and rather than being concerned, Jake tended to grab a jacket and come too.
Er, Dale can do a pretty good freak out? You’ve seen it? And he’s not that predictable either. Disappearing into mines?
He was still infinitely more sensible than Tom suspected he and Jake were. And Paul was clearly present in body only.
You don’t throw yourself into someone heart and soul the way he and Dale have been doing and be fine about that person vanishing into the night.
At first it seemed like no one else was aware. Except gradually Tom realised that no one was mentioning it but Luath was watching Paul and pretending he wasn’t, and Gerry was rattling cheerfully on about things that kept getting Paul to answer him. Jake was relaxed and radiating a solid wall of ease the way he did, a whole lot of it was drenching over Tom and he was used to Jake doing it, but he knew from experience that it wasn’t just him that it worked on. He’d seen Jake calm down no few tense situations with that manner. For the past few weeks it had been working pretty well on an entire camp. Ash had poured a cup of tea and put it within Paul’s reach, and Flynn, still unreadable, was sticking close.
And then a car engine sounded in the yard. Flynn, who had been leaning against the back of the couch directly behind Paul, abruptly straightened up and strode into the hallway to meet it. Doors slammed in the garage. The engine stopped. The room was hushed, waiting. Tom caught Gerry’s eye and Gerry gave him an electric grin; he was barely containing his excitement. Then Riley appeared, jogging straight to Paul who had risen to meet him. He was dressed in an extremely crisp suit, which made him look older and far more serious than Tom was used to seeing him; he looked quite unfamiliar for a moment and Paul’s mouth dropped open as Riley hugged him.
“Dale needed us to look the part.” Riley let him go, grinning at him. “He did it! It was incredible, he was polite with extreme prejudice, Ger what are you doing here! How are you?”
“We just dropped by.” Gerry toasted him with his teacup, returning Riley’s exuberant hug. “We thought you could use another pair of hands.”
“Riley please go easy with Gerry, he’s healing!” Ash protested.
“I have four tiny marks, there’s barely anything to see, you’d think I’d had a heart transplant the way he’s going on.” Gerry said tolerantly, giving his partner an affectionate smile over his shoulder that took any possible sting out of his words. “What happened? What did he do? Did he fix it?”
“We just got off a plane, perhaps you’ll let us sit down before we start giving you the details?” a tall, elderly man said dryly, coming into the family room with a slighter man of much the same age behind him with gentle eyes and a very kind smile as he caught Tom’s gaze on him. “It’s been a long day.”
“James?” Paul said in disbelief.
“Yes, I am sorry.” James kissed Paul and moved aside to let his partner take his place. “Good afternoon Ashley. I was under the impression that Gerald was recuperating?”
“So was I.” Ash leaned over to grip and shake the hand the taller man offered him. “Hello James. It was just getting clear I was going to have a riot on my hands if I said we weren’t travelling.”
“Ah. A case of if you can’t beat them, join them?” James kissed Gerry’s cheek rather gently, a hand on his shoulder to prevent Gerry getting up off Ash’s chair arm. Ash gave Gerry a wry look, squeezing the arm around his waist.
“If he wasn’t a few days post surgery, believe me I would have tried the beating part.”
“Oh you just love my ass, darling, you don’t have to hide behind excuses.” Gerry said, quite unabashed. “You see you leap on planes and come and save us in places like, oh Texas, for a random example. We all band together in a group to save you lot.”
Niall had gone directly to Paul and Tom saw him gently take Paul’s hands to kiss him, his voice soft.
“I’m so sorry, we gave you no warning, I know. We weren’t sure it wouldn’t make things worse. We’re here overnight and that’s all, but we had to come. He’s fine. They’re both fine.”
“You live here, you never have to ask to come, any of you,” Paul said firmly, although his eyes were mostly on the door to the garage.
“But you had asked for at least a week’s grace, which we would have respected other than for the rather exceptional circumstances.” James unbuttoned his coat, giving Jake a rather close look and taking in the drip hanging from the hat stand with a look that neither questioned nor stared. “Jacob. Tom.”
He said nothing tactless like how are you, nor approached in any way that required them to move; just took his coat off, folded it neatly and reached by what was clearly habit to help Niall out of his, laying both over the back of the couch before he went to shake hands with Luath, and when he took a seat on the couch it was in a way that gave Niall the position beside him, closest to the fire. Riley perched on the arm of the couch beside Paul. Then the garage door shut and Flynn, Jasper and Dale emerged together through the hallway into the room. Dale, in a suit much like Riley’s but darker in colour, stood out starkly between the two of them. The formal dress made him look older too, with sharper edges somehow and it affected the way he carried himself; an absently purposeful, efficient way of moving that drew attention as if the room had better stop mucking about and get on with things. Tom had seen him like this once before; leaning on the table last summer in the kitchen with that quiet voice and that intensity in his eyes that had hushed an entire room of men and frozen them to the spot.
“You, come here.” Paul demanded. He hadn’t got up from the couch as he had for Riley; Tom suspected he didn’t dare, but he held out his arms and Dale went directly to him, stooping to hug him very tightly from what Tom could see. They were too entangled for a moment to see either face but Tom heard Paul mutter something very like, “You wait until I get you alone, mister. Where did the suits appear from?”
“Courtesy of Caroline.” Riley explained. Paul appeared to know who Caroline was, since he accepted that without question.
“And you’d know Riley’s size. Yes of course you would.” Paul let Dale go but kept hold of his hand. “When exactly did you organise all of this?”
“Brats Meeting.” Gerry said cheerfully.
“That doesn’t preclude us asking questions or disagreeing.” Luath pointed out from his seat on the hearth. Gerry shook his head.
“He’s been saying that a lot on your behalf.” Jake said to Dale.
“And he’s quite right.” Niall said calmly. “I also call Brats Meeting. Actions planned by the family for the family, and agreed on by all of us at that meeting. Dale, Riley and I acted as delegates on behalf of that meeting. I advised according to my professional skills, and of course Dale had the most to offer in this field, it is after all his particular field.”
“Which you went along with.” Luath said dryly to James, who calmly inclined his head, relaxed on the couch beside Niall.
“Yes. As you would have done too if the meeting requested that you do so. As we have all always done.”
“And did he fix it?” Riley added cheerfully. “Oh boy did he fix it. That was the whole aim of the game.”
“Dale, would you like to share what’s been happening today?” Flynn invited, and somehow the room quieted and focused as Flynn took the armchair by the hearth. Jasper sat down on the hearthstone between him and Luath, long and quiet and in still muddied jeans that spoke of his working day, his dark hair bound back, his long hands clasped and his eyes on Dale. Dale took a seat on the floor at Paul’s feet rather than make Paul let go of him, leaning both against the couch and against Paul’s leg with his arms resting on his knees. It should have been a rather incongruous position for him to choose, particularly in that suit with that expression on his face, but Tom found himself looking at it with absolute comprehension. It was so very characteristic of this man who was his friend.
“Loudon.” he said roughly to Dale, uncomfortably aware his voice was still hoarse from weeks of breathing ice and he sounded like some Hammer Horror monster. It probably went well with how he looked, but he was past caring about that bit. “What did you do to Loudon?”
“Mostly he wants to know did it involve sharp sticks or a pitchfork.” Gerry added helpfully. “Do say ‘yes’?”
Niall shook his head at him. “If you camp it up any higher we’re going to run out of tents.”
“We went to the newspaper head office.” Riley said easily. “The Manhattan Times. It was a big paper, media kind of empire. TV connection, paper, magazine and websites, all kinds of outlets from the one corporate.”
“Why did you choose the newspaper? I thought you were going to the Loudons or the lawyers?” Paul asked Dale. Dale gave him a mild shrug.
“If you’re hunting an elephant, why waste time stamping on the ants? The newspaper was Madeleine Loudon’s employer, her validated source of publicity. Moreover that particular media group is part of a stock split. The Manhattan Times operates on the surface as a standalone corporate to benefit from the public image of a ‘local’ New York paper, but it is held under the umbrella of a much larger US based corporate which owns a large number of the most significant newspapers and news stations in the US, UK and Europe. I made sure a selected number of the paper’s most serious competitors became aware that I was going out to see them.”
“Ah.” Luath said from the hearth. “Yes. I wondered.”
Paul looked across at him. “What does that mean?”
“The large corporates and that world in general keep themselves very aware of the movements of certain agents of entities such as ANZ who have the reputation of being involved whenever one of the big players is about to be brought down.” Luath gave Dale a dry smile. “Dale is... most certainly one of them. It’s a world constantly predicting the future, reading the signs for where the money will go, where money could be made or lost. So if one of those particular agents is noted to suddenly be calling in data on a particular corp, checking out facts, making wider inquiries, travelling out to the corp HQ, demanding meetings with the top brass suddenly and without warning- particularly if they choose not to do it discreetly- the rumours start to fly. Stock prices can be significantly affected. Competitors can begin to manoeuvre in hope of bringing down a corporate in trouble, you get coups, lead figures are headhunted or bought out, sponsors and advertisers begin to pull out, rats heading off a sinking ship - it can cause severe pressure. Panic. Potentially it puts the corporate into an extremely vulnerable position.”
The angel of death. Tom thought, looking at Dale, his dark hair roughened from plane jet winds and scattered across his forehead above clear, grey eyes. With that look in them it was more than believable. These forces from the greatest legends could never have been the soppy looking golden haired bunnies simpering in stained glassed windows; they would have looked like this. A man, with a man’s full strength and understanding, with an energy of spirit that was tangible, acting for a greater force that held all of his loyalty. The messenger with the fiery sword.
“If rumours start that you’re headed for a corporate, it’s assumed that corporate is in major trouble.” Ash translated. He was looking fascinated.
“And is ripe for hunting.” Luath added. “And if one facet of an umbrella corporate like this one is cast into doubt, it throws shadows on all the others too.”
“That’s what you meant about sharks circling and bait in the water, isn’t it?” Riley said to Dale. “You were making sure those rumours got spread to the right people.”
“I called in a lot of information through the night from some key sources, which tipped them off.” Dale confirmed. “Both the Manhattan Times and the umbrella Corporate had picked up on the rumours and got wind of my inquiries before I called them to request a meeting, so they were a little… concerned.”
“Not to mention softened up.” Luath added.
Dale gave him a calm nod. “We met with the CEO of the Manhattan Times, a German gentleman by the name of Mr. Ladislaus. The ANZ Public Relations team had drawn up a model overnight for a response to a ‘theoretical’ scenario I presented them with of the Loudons’ actions so far. I shared this response model with Mr. Ladislaus and explained how I would be forced by the Loudons’ actions to personally launch this response by noon against them and any entity supporting them, in order to resist negative publicity for Tom and Jake to a level with which I was satisfied. Plus the legal actions against the newspaper that I would be compelled to advise on and lend my public support to. I also shared the evidence I had collated that the legal actions would be based upon and my forecast of the likely outcomes of all this for the corporate, including the unfortunate side effects of my name and reputation being likely to bias investors, advertisers and banks as seeing the corporate as being at risk once it became public knowledge that I was personally involved in this action against them. It was only fair to give them full warning of what it would likely involve and time to respond.”
Ash chuckled, quietly enough that he stifled it before Dale really noticed, and Tom saw Gerry give him a quick, amused look.
“Enjoying this, darling?”
“Niall was extremely helpful in providing an objective professional summary and confirmation of the probable legal outcomes and financial implications of the Loudons’ claims,” Dale went on evenly, looking across to meet Niall’s eyes. “Copyright issues, intentional publication of false information, breach of contract… Mr. Ladislaus discussed matters with the shareholders and in light of this forecast, made the decision to immediately withdraw Mrs. Loudon’s newspaper column, the blog which was on their web space, and all pages relevant to or mentioning the story within the newspapers’ websites. That was done while we were there. Which rendered my continuing with the PR model or any legal action unnecessary, and permitted us to publically part on good terms.”
“To say the guy was panicking is putting it mildly.” Riley shared a grin with Niall, his enjoyment of this was tangible and made Tom realise this had to be the first time he’d seen Dale working first hand in the way Dale had before he came to the ranch. Or shared in it with him. “Ladislaus crashed their whole building internet on the spot, everyone was standing around drinking coffee with the computers down. Their tech team were told to keep it down until they were certain every trace was gone. Like the Loudons were some kind of Armageddon virus.”
That was a rather acute description. Except it didn’t gel with the Pink Peril.
“This isn’t Phoenix.” Tom said abruptly. “He’s not clever enough for this. He’s a pain in the bum, not a Machiavelli, he just wants what he wants from the people in front of him and he wants it now. He’d sulk and throw threats around on his blog but he couldn’t be arsed to go to all this trouble or play such a long game. This is her. This is the mother, not him.”
“The female of the species is more deadly than the male.” Jake said reflectively, echoing Tom’s line of thought. “I was talking with Flynn last night; we were wondering how much he’s being used by her. He was probably in contact with her at least daily, if not more often, the whole time we were on Everest.”
“Sock puppet.” Tom glared at the fire, thinking about it. “That fits. Won’t his bat of a mother just carry this on with another newspaper though? Spread it all over Facebook? Twitter, whatever the hell Twitter might be?”
“In itself, that umbrella has more than sufficient power, investment links and legal resources to force immediate withdrawal of every other relevant page held by another organisation that could possibly incriminate or involve the Manhattan Times by association since they initiated the story.” Dale leaned against Paul’s knee, sounding as ordinary as if he was explaining the options for breakfast. “That includes the social media empires, who will not wish to alienate or risk legal action from one of the big global players. The umbrella corporate and all its contained groups are also connected with the other largest international media groups through shared suppliers and multiple other means, nationally and internationally. The word will be spreading fast by now that involvement with the Loudons or publishing any image or information regarding them is likely to be unfortunate. There is evidence of what happened to The Manhattan Times overnight. Their insurers will also be on a similar network and be keen that the corporates they insure should take note; this is a recognised specific risk likely to end in an extremely expensive pay out. That will mean invalidating their insurance on the spot unless the corporate take action to prevent that risk.”
“Shah mat.” Tom muttered to Jake, who grinned.
“The ANZ word on the street.” Luath said with comprehension. “Very nicely done.”
“Saying what?” Gerry asked. Luath nodded at Dale.
“Forecast of major financial risk. It’s more than enough.”
“The Manhattan Times is not at risk.” Dale said decisively. “I was as deliberately indiscreet about leaving fully satisfied with the information received and in validating the corporate as I was about gathering information last night. Their stocks were already recovering by the time we boarded the plane. Mr. Ladislaus may have questions to answer to his umbrella corporate about one of his journalists publishing undetected false reporting; however he can demonstrate he averted the risk to the Manhattan Times immediately on receiving information, commendably effectively, and his position will not be endangered.”
“You advised him on how to do it so you made damn sure of that.” Niall said gently.
Tom saw Paul glance across to Flynn and Jasper, something passing between them too fast to see, but none of them looked surprised.
“But all other media related corporates will have seen an object lesson about the effect the Loudons could have on them.” Dale went on. “And my doing this publically will not have gone unnoticed either.” Luath grunted agreement from the hearth.
“Yes. It’s not your usual style at all, unless you want others to take note. Its pretty pointed stuff.”
“But what about Madeleine Loudon suing Jake?” Paul asked Dale, who shook his head.
“Irrelevant. The claims are trivial. Nothing more than means to engender prolonged gossip and media attention. That is no longer possible. She is a ‘non person’ as far as the media are concerned. The Loudons are permanently invisible whatever they should choose to do.”
“And behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak,” Tom muttered to Jake.
“They can do that?” Gerry demanded. “There are some big names on the blog-”
“Were.” Niall corrected. “The blogs, the comment threads, the pages, they’re all gone. And yes, absolutely they can. Like certain stories can’t be mentioned until after a trial, or certain celebrities are on media blackout lists, usually because of a strong legal team – whatever they do nothing’s printed on them. There’ll probably be emails and letters of complaint sent to the paper, but they won’t be published. The paper will deal with the unignorable ones quietly by saying they’re unable to comment for legal reasons and refuse to engage further. And Dale’s right. This is petty stuff. Popular social gossip, not even real news.”
“And you can really be sure it’s permanent?” Riley asked curiously.
“Oh yes.” Luath said with conviction, and Ash was nodding agreement. “Corporates feel very strongly about insurance and financial ruin, and when it comes to money they have long memories.”
“So why did you want Jake’s lawyer to do nothing for twenty four hours?” Paul asked.
“To avoid giving the Loudons anything further to feed off or stimulating the media to put any more information out before it was shut down.” Dale said it with his eyes on Jake, who was listening with apparently easy interest like it was the retelling of a particularly good football game. “I anticipate that everything on the world wide news and social media sites on the net, on TV, will have disappeared without warning or trace in the next few hours as if it was never there. Madeleine Loudon’s social media accounts will I suspect have been deleted by now, and any large recognised social media outlet will block the Loudon name or those IP addresses from ever being used again. She will have no comeback, their legal small print covers every eventuality. The security systems will be set to ensure that comments submitted anywhere by anyone mentioning her or her son’s name or referencing the story will be automatically caught and blocked from posting. There might be some minor individual blogs and sites that survive, but not with a large enough circulation to mobilise any real information sharing, and without press involvement it will lack all credibility. I also suspect the larger and more popular search engines who incidentally also belong to large media empires, will quietly make those sites very difficult to find. The mainstream media will just cease to acknowledge the existence of Madeleine and Phoenix Loudon. In the light of this, I doubt Jake’s lawyer will get any further response from hers regarding the alleged assault. If she succeeded in getting as far as a court room she and her son would lose. Extensively, expensively, and very, very privately. I’ve preserved a copy of all necessary evidence. Without the media publicity, she has no purpose to persist.”
And thus he laid the dragon’s head at the family’s feet.
“Bloody well played.” Tom said sharply. “Thank you.”
“Game, set and match!” Gerry echoed. “One beautifully fixed witch. Dale, I salute you and I’m very glad you can look so extremely scary, you really are the most useful person to have around.”
“Very well done,” Ash agreed. He was sitting with the kind of rapt interest that reminded Tom he ran some kind of business himself and understood this the way Luath would.
“Here, here.” Luath agreed. “Well played, Dale.”
“I think we’re all extremely relieved to escape the media attention on the ranch,” James said, looking at Flynn who had been listening to this in silence, and not a disapproving silence either, although his eyes had been on Dale all the time and they were watchful. “Not that we would not have handled it if we had to; it is not as if we have anything to hide.”
“Except a whole lot of puerile muck raking from people who have no idea what they’re talking about,” Gerry said succinctly. “That would have been fun.”
“Which none of us would have to read, and would pass.” James reminded him. “Living according to the court of public opinion is not something any of us pay much attention to.”
There was a quiet support in what he was saying that Tom heard the undercurrent of, because Jake would have said much the same thing to him. We would handle it. It was not just empty reassurance to Gerry and Riley and anyone else with bunny tendencies; the equivalent of ‘don’t worry your pretty little head’. It said to Dale, clearly, from one of the older generations of these men and Tom suspected James was of a generation that really knew this stuff from hard personal experience. We. Us. We don’t fall that easily son; this was never all on you.
To keep a brat with a mind and a career like Dale’s from automatically getting absorbed into that kind of personal responsibility and all the pressure and loneliness that went with it must take constant hard work. Particularly with a man who acutely understood himself and had left that world of power play intentionally for the same reason Tom knew that Dale Aden, with all his skills, had selected the seat he had on the floor at Paul’s feet.
“Which is something we explored the hard way.” Niall gave James an affectionate glance and James nodded.
“Quite. But this was, from what I observed, extremely effectively managed.”
“It was definitely game, set and match.” Niall smiled across at Dale. “I haven’t had that much fun giving legal advice in a long time.”
“Who was on our computer upstairs yesterday?” Flynn asked. Gerry huffed loudly.
“Oh you’re not going to start getting all stuffy about that are you? Flynn, this is over with. Ding dong the witch is dead! This is the point we celebrate!”
Dale looked across to Flynn, quite matter of factly.
“I was. I needed information.”
“I took him up there and I put the computer on for him, I don’t have any rules about the computer.” Riley said swiftly and belligerently. “It was important information, this is an exceptional situation.” Paul shook his head.
“No. Don’t even try that tone, Riley. Whatever the justification you two know that’s not on. I’ll guess too that this was organised using your phones and equipment from the safe, Dale? Which again you know very well does not get used without asking first, for very good reason.”
“This was a good reason.” Dale was still watching Flynn, who was sitting quietly much as Dale was, elbows propped on his knees, dark green eyes just as steady on Dale’s in return. “Things could have become extremely ugly here for a lot of people if this had rolled on another twenty four hours. Riley did nothing more than come with me so I didn’t go alone; I’m responsible. But it was necessary and I would do it again.”
“Brats Meeting.” Niall said firmly as Tom winced and couldn’t help but note every other brat in the room was doing the same. “Diplomatic immunity. If it’s one of us it’s all of us.”
“Absolutely.” Gerry verified and Tom, picking up on the cue, nodded too, since to the older men in this room this was obviously a known precedent.
“Yes. If I’m being counted in on this, then me too. Whatever the hell it is you’re talking about.”
Jake grinned, glancing down at him. “Don’t you want to know first?”
“I agree with Paul,” Flynn said bluntly. “I have every respect for any of you calling a meeting and acting on behalf of it, we all do. But. We have rules between ourselves and Dale, you don’t withhold from us. Niall; I appreciate the precedent, but that part is about the five of us and not the meeting.”
“I still call Brats Meeting.” Gerry said firmly. “Be reasonable, we all know what Dale’s like and he didn’t withhold, he came to us. He made it a family matter. Not only do I think that’s a first for him and an amazing one we should be cracking the champagne over rather than moaning about, there is a whopping precedent. Huge.”
“Gerry, Niall, you both acted with the full knowledge of your partners. I didn’t notice either of them slowing you up?” Flynn said gently. “Niall, James got straight on a plane with you in the early hours. Gerry, Ash let you fly at a time when he really wouldn’t have wanted to. Dale, Riley, do you two want to tell me why you didn’t take the five minutes it would have needed to involve us the same way?”
“Oh come on.” Riley said immediately. “It wouldn’t have been five minutes. Half an hour plus of time wasted arguing, not to mention you still might not have agreed – and yes of course I trust you, Flynn. I completely, implicitly trust you to insist on coming too, and you were busy and you last slept about three days ago and were looking like hell on toast. We both care about that kind of stuff and we had this!”
His tone was exasperated and affectionate and Tom had heard the same tone in his own voice many times, saying something similar to Jake. He had never really sat in a room like this amongst other couples. All male, all gay, all committed and used to this stuff day in and day out. Never really being present. Listening. Watching them properly.
Be honest. You did the whole club and resort thing at arms’ length. Briefly. Thinking all the time ‘I don’t belong here either’, because you didn’t. But this lot...
His eyes kept moving from Niall to Gerry to Riley to Dale. Intelligent, articulate men, all relatively sensible in ways that included a sharp sense of humour about it, which helped a whole lot in itself-
And they get the whole discipline aspect. They live it. They’re here doing it without even bothering who’s watching. You can’t even call yourself different on those grounds.
He was finding himself shocked at how deeply he was drawn into what was going on here. At gut level, physically, willing or not because this was it. This was exactly what it was like whether he and Jake were up a mountain or down several hundred feet diving a wreck, not one word was jarring, not one of them had sent the cold steel shutters slamming down that made him internally step away and detach. And some Machiavellian part of him was hunting every second for the opportunity.
“Why?” Flynn repeated to Dale. “You had all that day. Hours of time.”
“Because you were – all three of you – four of you, but Riley argued – too occupied and too needed here to spare the time.” Dale said frankly. His detached calmness was touching something in Tom that rang bells, and Jake was being extremely quiet for him too which Tom hadn’t missed. There was a reason. “It was highly time sensitive. I was free. It’s my field of knowledge, I had the contacts, the easiest means and a responsibility to deal with this rubbish and I could do it without any further distressing or distracting the rest of us from what was far more important. This was a team game.”
Dale said that last to Jake, who met his gaze and gave him a simple nod of agreement.
“Yes. Thank you.”
“You’re absolutely right.” Flynn said in the same balanced voice Dale was using. “This is always very much a team game.”
“Exactly!” Gerry agreed emphatically before Dale could answer. “And it was played as a team game. A family team game, that’s how the meetings work.”
“And above and beyond the main principle and mitigating factor of the brats meeting there are definite grounds for justification,” Niall added. “The meeting was officially quorate. Dale checked.”
Across the room, James’s mouth twitched briefly and Niall gave him a quick, amused and reproving glance.
“I don’t care if the meeting was notarised, minuted and counter signed in triplicate,” Paul said exasperatedly. “I’m not finding this funny at all. And when I’m done with everyone here who encouraged Dale and Riley to get on a plane in the middle of the night without a word to us, I’m going to ring everyone else who was involved and I’m going to tell them what I think of them too, because every single one of you knows that was plain irresponsible. Gerry, I know how this works as well as you do, but if you say brats meeting once more, I’m going to get cross.”
Dale put his hand up to find Paul’s and held it. Paul took a breath but held onto Dale’s hand and said nothing else, much as he clearly wanted to.
“I was going to say Niall does this for a career,” Gerry protested, “If anyone would know he would, he has discretion in a court of law to excuse liability if it better serves justice, and a brats meeting does something official with immunity that starts with a c and I know it does.”
“Confers,” Niall cast him a quick smile. “It confers immunity, yes it certainly does, that’s an established principle we all know. Philip always said we had to have the power within the family to say anything that needed to be said, and to take action that needed to be taken. If it was done within the context and agreement of the group. The jury principle. Peers providing a safeguard. He and David stood up for that every time.”
Ah. Tom registered that, considering it with some respect for the depth of understanding it represented. And here they sat. Twelve of them. Twelve good men and true…
“I’d also infer that Riley and Dale have a further degree of immunity from carrying out prohibited activities within the course of their duties to the family and to the brats meeting in a situation of family crisis.” Niall went on calmly. “And that the quality of their actions satisfy the family good. The intentions were entirely for the benefit of the family. So the question is whether excusing liability better serves justice.”
Dale, who had increasingly been frowning as he listened, raised a finger to attract Niall’s attention. “On those grounds that’s technically an exculpation then, isn’t it?”
“It’s the same thing, go with it.” Gerry advised. Dale’s frown deepened slightly further.
“Exculpare, freedom from blame, compared with justification: rationabilis, the principle of reasonability. That isn’t the same thing at all.”
Niall shook his head. “The jurisprudential importance of the distinction is under debate, since it makes little practical difference.”
“Of course it does, they’re not the-” Dale began, interrupted by Riley grabbing a cushion and leaning across James to whack him with it.
“Shut up. Now.”
James quietly and adeptly confiscated the cushion from him and Tom saw him rest a hand on Riley’s knee to hush him. Flynn cut in, his voice quiet.
“Dale, tell me why it matters.”
Dale met his gaze quite seriously.
“Theoretically it doesn’t within this context. It just isn’t accurate.”
“And inaccuracy gets right on your nerves when you’re tired.” Paul ran his fingers through Dale’s hair where Dale’s head rested against his knee. “And strung out.”
“I’m not strung out. Tired, possibly.”
“You should never admit to that either,” Gerry shook his head at Riley. “Ri, you’re not training this one right at all.”
“No, he’s doing fine.” Tom found himself saying, increasingly angry without being entirely sure why, and not at all sure that was even the right word for the emotion. He twisted around to find Jake above him, which hurt like hell and sharpened his voice still further. “If he and Riley are in trouble because of us taking up everyone’s time and the pink twat making trouble that’s on us, not them. Dale’s helped us out one hell of a lot, we wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t-”
“Ok.” Jake’s arm around him tightened with a lot of care to avoid the ribs, stopping him moving any further and bracing him as he started to cough. “Ok, shouting with that throat not going to go well right now.”
Jasper got up, heading for the kitchen and Paul, still with Dale against his knee, nodded thanks to him.
“I’m fine, get off.” Tom wheezed out to Jake who didn’t move.
“Yeah, make me. Small breaths. Small, watch the ribs.”
“Tom, Dale and Riley are not in trouble for calling the meeting or any actions taken as a result of that meeting, or for any other reason relating to yourself and Jake or this young Mr. Loudon and his mother.” James said categorically. “Please don’t worry about that. In that respect I stand behind what Gerry and Niall are saying, and that is exactly what Niall and I had a responsibility to come here and ensure. Luath, I’m presuming you agree?”
“Yes, of course.” Luath said mildly. “It was a good decision, it’s done the job and I’m very glad of it. This was a serious threat and I think it had the potential to do a lot of damage. It needed fast action. Would I have spanked Roger for sneaking around behind my back and breaking our rules to do it instead of talking to me if he’d been a part of this today, no matter how good he thought his reasons were? Yes. Definitely. Objective justice doesn’t come into it. He and I had reasons for the rules we needed to have. It’s the same for all of us.”
“You are sounding so much better,” Gerry said with satisfaction, “I don’t agree with one word you just said and neither would Rog, but that’s more you than I’ve heard you be in months.”
“Thank you.” Luath said dryly. Ash nodded calm agreement with Gerry, but patted Gerry’s hip where his hand rested.
“I think Rog would have understood it exactly the same way you do, even if you don’t want to admit it. You know very well what I make of you disappearing without consulting me?”
“Yes, absolutely, it’s ingrained by heart, I swear,” Gerry assured him. “I have got that; no more planes to Texas. Ever. Amen. But this is different.”
“Wait,” Niall said, looking across to Dale. “Dale did you know that? Did you know there was no need to keep this a secret? That you could call on us for help the way you did at any time and Flynn or Paul or Jasper wouldn’t have tried to talk you out of it or said no?”
What? Tom wrestled very briefly and pointlessly to get out from under Jake’s arm, which didn’t shift an inch and thankfully kept the battle so slight no one else noticed. Tom wasn’t even particularly sure why or where he’d been planning to go, and he was hanging on to Jake’s arm and keeping it in place with enough strength that it hurt which made it even more illogical.
“Breathe.” Jake said in his ear.
He covered a whole lot of bases with that word. Everything from settle down to hurt yourself and you’re in trouble, with a subtext of wait that said this was no surprise to him and he had a fair idea of how it would work out.
“I didn’t.” Riley offered freely. “I don’t know that much about how it works- hey, I live with three Tops,” he added as Gerry shook his head at him, “How much trouble do you think I can get into? When I first lived here there were the three of them, plus Jake, Philip and Darcy, I was the only official brat in the house.”
“It’s been a few years since we last held any serious meetings,” Niall admitted, “Maybe we’ve gotten lazy talking about this enough and making sure you three younger ones know about it.” His nod calmly included Tom, and even still choking, it was something Tom didn’t miss and it was another shock. “But Paul knows, Flynn and Jas know. Dale, did you?”
Dale considered for a moment. Tom saw him think about it, carefully, with interest rather than any kind of concern.
“I can’t recall it being formally discussed,” he said seriously to Niall, “I can’t frame a precise concept of the formalities involved in such meetings, merely a general comprehension of the culture. But I certainly had no concerns that anyone would try to prevent me making a call or asking for the meeting to consider the facts should I have done this openly. I chose the hour quite intentionally to do what needed doing in the most expedient way for my own purposes.”
There was a mild thunk as Riley dropped backwards against the couch and rolled his eyes up at the ceiling.
“Oh my God.”
“Bull.” Flynn sounded quiet and very firm. “Try again.”
“Flynn, he’s been addressing shareholders all day,” Riley said impatiently, “Give the guy some time to change gear-”
“No, he doesn’t get to do that here.” Paul mildly shook Dale’s hand that was still in his. “Try that again in person and not in rabbit please.”
That obviously meant something to Dale. He looked up at Paul for a moment, his face completely expressionless but his eyes fully on Paul’s.
“Jasper told me a few days ago that if something was important to me and the answer when I asked was no because I hadn’t explained enough, then I needed to go on explaining until I made myself understood.”
Yes. Jake was the same way.
“I have never had any difficulty being understood in this house. So no, I had no doubt I would be listened to-”
“Darling, about that bus you’re busy hurling yourself under…” Gerry began and Dale talked straight over him, which was so unusual for him that Gerry stopped dead.
“- but, I did not intend for anyone else I love to be further disturbed by Mr Loudon’s actions.”
Jasper brought a mug across to Tom. The tea was warm rather than hot, and sweet with honey, and it eased the rasp and catch in his breathing of trying not to cough. Tom gulped down most of it in one go, aware Jake was keeping a hand on the cup to prevent his shaking hand sending the contents half way across the family room.
“We’re going somewhere quieter,” Jake said behind him. Flynn got up and Tom waved him sharply away.
“No we’re bloody not. You have no idea what he’s done for us,”
“Yes.” Jake interrupted him quietly. “I do and I agree, this meeting business goes decades back, it’s important to all of us. I won’t allow them to get in trouble on our behalf,”
But what’s left of this is nothing to do with us, and we have no business getting involved. Tom realised it, somewhere between bitter and deeply abashed at the same time as Jasper spoke to Dale from his seat on the hearth.
“But we need to talk about you doing things with us instead of taking charge, because you’ve been triggered and you’ve started to see it as we’re too busy or too stressed or unable to cope with being bothered by you. However protective the intent, that is still at root about not feeling safe. That is something we never stop working on. It never stops mattering to me no matter what the situation, it’s too important. And in the context of the family you belong to, that means all of us and we’re all aware of the need to help you with it.”
He just said it. Straight out, in front of them all, as though it was open to everyone here who cared about Dale. Tom’s heart turned over and he found himself flushing as hotly Dale did, although Dale nodded calmly, his voice level.
“I know. And you know I agree.”
“But sometimes it’s going to be too hard. And sometimes you won’t realise you’ve been triggered and it’s affecting your thinking until it’s too late. We know that too. That’s why it’s most important you come to us when you least think it’s the right thing to do.” Jasper looked across to Riley. “And for you not to facilitate him to avoid it.”
Across the room Gerry had gone rather red and looked rather subdued.
“Jas that’s my fault. I get this stuff, I’ve got the t shirt and I should have realised, I was the one that told the rest of you to watch out for it but I got a bit excited… the Loudon witch has been winding us all up for days and this newspaper threat business was scary. I knew he hadn’t told anyone about the meeting and I should have spotted what was happening.”
“We all should have pushed harder for Dale and Ri to let you know.” Niall said it swiftly, Tom heard him turn Gerry’s I into we and join him. “They did mention you hadn’t been involved, but we didn’t stop them and insist and that’s on us.”
“Actually not that lacking in intelligence or resources over here,” Dale said courteously. “Thank you.”
Niall gave him an apologetic and rather reassuring look. “I know, Dale. But you asked us for help and we’re the ones with the relationship and family experience. We should have had you better covered. I’m sorry Jas, we all got a bit caught up in the moment.”
“Hey, I went too,” Riley objected, “Think about it, that makes a hell of a lot of a difference. He came and got me and we did this together - we did it with half the family, he initiated the meeting. He didn’t just vanish on his own. We’ve all seen him do that and this time he didn’t. To me that’s a big thing!”
“Yes,” Jasper said with gentle certainty. “You’re right, it makes a lot of difference. But Dale, you could have woken me as well as Riley. Things would not have happened any differently to the way they did. And Riley, you still need to think why Dale was ready to include you but not us. And why we’re harder. And why that matters. And yes, I would have expected that more experienced brats might have thought of that.”
And said no to Dale in full flow?
Having seen Dale in action before – and from the sound of it nothing like today’s action – Tom suspected things not going Dale’s way didn’t happen very often without a strong Top being involved, and ‘no’ probably wasn’t a word much on his radar. Tom understood; he was something of the same way himself, although where Dale used intelligence and sheer force of personality, he tended to rely more on highly honed evasion and downright bloody mindedness.
But they were all listening as if this made perfect sense. All of them, from all the generations represented in this room, and Gerry and Niall had organised that too. Gerry, looking pensive, and he had ceased to argue. Ash, with his arm a little closer around Gerry’s waist, listening with his gentle eyes sympathetic where they rested on Dale. Niall had also fallen quiet where he sat beside James, Luath on the hearth stone, all of them comprehending and not just spectating – there was a great difference. This was a fully open matter between all of them, and they were all involved, they were talking about someone they loved and who belonged to them with open understanding of this problem he had, and that made Tom’s face heat even further with nearly unbearable emotion.
It is all of them. He said he knew it had to be like this. There had to be nowhere he could hide, but oh God… the guy’s got twice the guts I have.
“And I think you were determined none of the rest of us were going to be soiled by what you were going to have to do either.” Flynn said quietly. “To which end I’ll bet you made sure Riley didn’t understand half of what he saw.”
Tom saw Niall’s slight jerk of realisation right alongside the slight flex of Dale’s jaw and steady eyes that said privately to Flynn damn straight. Flynn had said the least so far of anyone here, but in that one shared glance Tom saw how clearly they understood each other with a comprehension that was visceral, because it was something Jake understood in him too. The need to do the worst, darkest things alone where the people you loved weren’t harmed by them. And Jake didn’t allow it either.
“So yes,” Flynn went on, “While we’re all agreed no one is in trouble for the brats meeting or carrying out the agreed actions from it, Riley and Dale there are still some aspects to this that the five of us need to talk about. You two go change and wait in the study please. And if no one else minds, we’d appreciate a little privacy. Jake?”
“Yeah please.” Jake got up, easing his way out from under Tom slowly enough not to shake him, and unhooked the IV from the hat stand. Flynn came to help him untangle them both from the quilts, stooping to take his time getting one arm around Tom and the other under his knees.
“Tom, we talked about this. Don’t help.”
It was a tone that worked well on Tom, but it still wasn’t easy to obey. Flynn lifted him slowly without difficulty, tilting Tom to lean against his chest rather than grasp him. It did not get much more humiliating than this. There were a room full of men around them – and yet no one was looking twice as if to them this was something totally normal; Tom caught Gerry’s eye and got a subdued but conspiratorial wink that spoke of the brats meeting comments rather than the total inappropriacy of a grown man being this dependent on anyone else, and that worsened the trembling in his hands he’d been trying to control for the last few minutes. Flynn moved with care up the stairs, along the hallway and Jake opened the door ahead of them, moving out of Flynn’s way to let Flynn put Tom down. Once there, Flynn supported him long enough to let Jake slide across the bed and take over. He said nothing, just a second later Tom heard the door quietly close and knew they were alone, and that was when he really started to shake. It was hard enough to make his teeth chatter, it was like something shaking loose, and his hands were wound into Jake’s sweatshirt in a death grip now there was no one here to see.
“I know,” Jake was saying against him, very quietly and his arms were wrapped around Tom, enclosing him tightly. “Let it happen. We’re ok now.”
“Let me go.” Tom said utterly pointlessly with no logic whatsoever. He had no idea what he meant by it and from his tone Jake got the idea; he didn’t even bother to sound heated.
“You don’t know what he did,” Tom said incoherently, hating himself for the rising hysteria in his voice. Jake lay back against the pillows with Tom in his arms, pulling the quilt over them both and hooking one very long leg lightly over both of Tom’s well away from his damaged feet, enclosing him which helped so much it was ridiculous.
“Then you’ll tell me when you want to. Let it go now. We’re not going anywhere.”
His body appeared to be listening to Jake and in full agreement with him no matter what his mind wanted. The shaking grew exponentially worse the second he said it and Tom turned his face hard into Jake’s shoulder, jaw clenched, the urge to bite down overwhelming. Jake wouldn’t have reacted. He never had before. It was a stupid, awful impulse and one that Tom had never understood, since it had nothing to do with wanting or intending to hurt him. And there weren’t plenty of times that he and Jake left finger marks or teeth marks on each other in much more enjoyably heated moments. They were both physical rather than verbal people and Jake never flinched from any part of him, including the ugly, the aggressive, the angry parts.
Oh my Michael. Container of dragons.
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015