Book 4 in the Falls Chance Ranch Series

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Everest - Chapter 24

24

April 27, 2015

The awful events going on right now in Nepal and on Everest have obviously meant a hell of a lot to us because of this story.‏

And this is the one thing we have to give.‏          


So we've worked hard over the last 24 hours to get this ready together and to share a larger than usual piece - two chunks instead of one. And we're asking everyone who has shared in Silver Bullet Everest with us, everyone who has enjoyed this story, please will you just this once, be kind enough to make a contribution for what we value very much as free fiction. Would you please donate something for this chapter, just the cost of a cup of coffee, to one of the disaster funds for Nepal.‏ There are several listed on the site. There are over a thousand people subscribed to our Falls Chance community here on the two lists. That's a lot of cups of coffee.‏
             
Can we ask this once that comments and chat on this chapter go in a separate new thread? And we'd love for people to just reply to this thread and say that they've donated - please don't share amounts, just the word 'donated' would be perfect, and feel free to add any thoughts you would like and lets see through the number of replies how many donations we can raise together. Please lurkers, do join us, and maybe we can do something to help this awful situation for these people whose culture and history we've been sharing in together through this story.‏

With many thanks‏

R and R

~ * ~

The others settled themselves out on the porch in the last of the afternoon sun where the family had been gathering to swap gossip for years. They were more than capable of supplying themselves with whatever they wanted from the pantry and fridge; there wasn’t one of them who didn’t know exactly where everything was. The house was very quiet as Paul went through the family room but the study was an oasis of particular silence. Riley and Dale had changed into their usual jeans and sweaters, and Riley looked more comfortable, although he was fidgeting a little by the door out onto the porch. Dale was sitting on the floor near him, arms resting on his knees as if he was meditating, composed as he had no doubt been composed in many other awkward meetings where other people were struggling to bend their less efficient minds around the logical facts, and to Paul that confirmed everything he’d been thinking since Dale first walked back into the house this afternoon. Flynn and Jasper were leaning side by side against Philip’s desk, Flynn with his arms folded on his chest, Jasper with his hands braced on the dark wood on either side of him, Jasper’s face calm, Flynn’s thoughtful. Neither of them were showing the seriousness they ordinarily did on the rare occasions when the five of them needed a group meeting of this particular kind, which to Paul’s mind suggested that the three of them were very much on the same page. And Riley had picked up on it too. What Dale had picked up on was a lot more doubtful since right now he might as well have been wearing a mask. Paul closed the door behind him and took a seat on the empty couch, catching the fast glance Jasper cast him, and Flynn’s dark green eyes were waiting as Paul looked across to him in turn.

Yes.

Taking this as the signal to start, Flynn surveyed Dale who met the look without the slightest sign of discomfort.

“Dale? Want to tell me why you’re in trouble?”

Dale gave him a slightly amused look that set Paul’s teeth on edge.  “I thought we’d just established that?”

Flynn quirked an eyebrow at him in a way that ordinarily would have sobered Dale fast.

“How about you give me a summary?”

Dale considered. Paul saw him do it; he never took these kind of instructions as casual. Then he gave Flynn a candid shrug. “Perhaps an overall prĂ©cis might accurately be 'it seemed like a good idea at the time'?”

Riley rolled his eyes skywards. Flynn unhurriedly started to get up off the desk, but Paul cut across him, past playing any more games today.

“A good idea? A good idea? Do you have any idea how I've felt? Waking up to find you gone with no clue where you were or that Riley was with you?”

Riley visibly winced. Dale looked towards him and his grey eyes were sympathetic.

“It seemed the least destructive way.”

Least destructive?

Come here.” Paul demanded. 

Dale got up unhurriedly and came to him without hesitation as if this were a perfectly normal conversation. Paul caught his arm the second he was in reach, jerked Dale abruptly to stand in front of him and began unbuttoning his jeans. “Least destructive to who exactly? You looked me straight in the eye and you lied to me. We talked, or rather I tried to talk to you about this yesterday morning, and instead of talking to me, you worked things out in your head the way you thought they needed to happen, looked at me and said everything was fine, then disappeared. So don’t you sound all understanding to me, or try feeding me a whole lot of detached baloney about ‘the least destructive way’ mister, because I have got your number.”

He popped the last button and tugged Dale’s jeans down, aware that cracks were definitely starting to show in the You Go Get A Coffee, I’ve Got This All Handled exterior; Dale was looking distinctly less sure by the second, although he pointed out mildly, “It was fine.”

Paul took his wrist and turned him face down over his lap, not with the dignity Mr. Aden clearly would have preferred; Paul heard the breath whoosh out of him as his stomach hit Paul’s knees and he clutched at the couch with one hand and the floor with the other, not exactly trying to move out of position although it was beginning to be apparent he would have liked to.

“It seemed the best way to-”

“I’ve been listening to a whole lot of explanations.” Paul pulled his underwear straight down after his jeans, which clearly made him feel a whole lot less comfortable still. “And you know what? Right now I’m not interested in any of them because there is a whole lot of explaining I’d like to do myself.” He laid one hand on the small of Dale’s back and brought the other down rapidly and soundly across the bare behind over his knee, covering both cheeks in a sharp flurry of swats.

“How exactly was I supposed to know everything was so ‘fine’? I had a pretty good idea of what you were feeling yesterday and what that was like for you. And then you lie to me, really spectacularly well, and you disappear without a word. What do you think I thought?”

Whether the words were getting through or not the swatting definitely was; Dale was already beginning to shift and fidget over his lap.

“Paul,” Riley said sharply, “I went with him, we got it done, the end result is good, it’s what we needed him to do-”

“The ends do not justify the means.” Paul informed him, “You don't leave someone you love wondering what they've missed, and you don't leave in the middle of the night with only a note for explanation.”

“It was an unusual situation!”

Pausing with Dale’s backside now a thorough block of pink, Paul took his arm and hip to help him up and held out his hand to Riley.

“Riley, come here.”

“What did I do?!” Riley demanded, alarmed.

“Now.”

“Why?!” Riley came to him, very slowly, clearly not in the least keen. Paul leaned over to catch his hand and pull him the rest of the way, taking his jeans down while Riley, looking extremely concerned, did not quite put his hands down to stop him.

“Just because Dale has the ability to summon planes from the heavens, doesn't mean you help him to do so then disappear off this ranch without a word.”

He turned Riley over his knee despite Riley being extremely reluctant to go, and stripped his underwear down after his jeans, delivering a second flurry of swats to Riley’s currently pale and almost immediately squirming backside.

“Paul! Ow, we didn't, Jasper knew!”

“Yes, and you tell me did Jasper know because you involved him, or because he involved himself?”

“He knew what we were doing and he said we could go!”

Exasperated, Paul swatted him a whole lot harder, raising a loud yelp from Riley at the first and then a whole lot of urgent ouching as he went on.  “Yes, I heard all about that. After he followed you and got in your way at the point you were leaving, otherwise you two quite happily would have got on that plane without any one of us knowing at all! You know a whole lot better and you don't leave me wondering like that again, ever.”

“Paul! I'm sorry, I won't, I swear!”

Riley sounded horrified and emphatically sincere, his voice was cracking, and Paul delivered a last couple of sharp swats and helped him up.

“Believe me Riley James, you really need to mean that.”

Riley nodded, both hands behind him to rub his butt, and tears were running. Paul looked from one to the other of them, both of them with their pants around their knees, both of them looking thoroughly discomfited.

“What were you two thinking? Riley, do you remember the fit you threw at Flynn a few weeks back for leaving without saying goodbye to you? Do you remember how that felt? You do not, ever, disappear off this ranch again without talking to us first no matter what you think your reason is. Not singly and not together, not ever, and if I ever find out again that you’ve put an airplane anywhere near that landing strip without our prior knowledge and agreement Dale Edward, I will put you sitting on those stairs for a solid week. You will be sitting there every minute you are not in bed, in the bathroom or at a meal, with nothing to do but think about how unhappy I am about it. Are we all clear on this?”

Dale looked openly shocked. That was apparently something Mr Aden had no trouble believing and didn’t feel at all serene about, and he answered very promptly.

“Yes sir.”

“Yes sir.” Riley echoed just as swiftly.

Paul caught Dale’s hand, pulling him to stand in front of him and look him in the eye.

“And apart from the rules we have together which I know you know in order, inside out and upside down, we’ve talked a few times about you taking over when things go wrong.”

With a brisk tug he turned Dale back across his knee, punctuating himself with brisk spanks as he spoke.

“I do not care how tired or sick or stressed or busy or anything else you think I and Flynn and Jasper may be. You are not the CEO of us. I do not care how ugly or hard or upsetting you think something is. That does not make it your personal problem to take over and keep away from us and no matter how you reason it around in your head, it is going to end with you in big trouble every time. I asked you if you knew what to do. I asked you to tell me what you thought we should do, and you looked me right in the eye and told me nothing at all, we needed to sit tight. And I know how much being honest with us matters to you. Jas got it, didn’t he? You didn’t realise you’d slipped into that mind set until it was way too late. Didn’t you think that at least one out of the three of us might have managed to summon up the intelligence or the trust in you to have helped instead of got in your way?”

“Of course you would!” Dale said it in a shocked burst that was more genuine than any tone Paul had yet heard from him, and he was sounding very breathless now. “Of course I didn’t think that, I would never – Flynn knew this was just trivial, ridiculous stuff, the people mattered and this rubbish didn’t, and he was right. Jake and Tom needed him, he hasn’t dared sleep more than an hour or two at a time since they came and that night he was holding Jake together. Jasper hates this whole Loudon stuff, it’s poisonous to him, it’s wrong and he knew it needed putting down, and he had Mason and the ranch to keep going, not that I’ve been any use there either –Riley’s been doing everything he can to keep everyone else’s work covered as well as his and I wouldn’t have bothered him except he was a necessary part of the meeting - and you’ve been being dragged through hell and high water by me for weeks and you’re worried about Jake and Tom. I was not going to subject you to all this corporate claptrap too! I could deal with this, I was not going to let it mess any further with anyone here!” 

And that was him. No masks. Distraught, with all the passion Dale was capable of; a genuine attempt to make him understand. He’d thought this through up, down and sideways for all of them, probably for hours. This had been anything but the serene executive decision he had been making it sound like, and that in itself made Paul swat him again, a whole lot harder.

“Dale, do I look to you like your mother?”

“No!” Dale sounded utterly dismayed by the thought as much as galvanised by that swat. Paul laid a hand on his back, talking more quietly but very firmly.

“Then I thought Flynn told you what we thought of you sitting on landings for us? That does not happen here. Ever. I don’t care what the reason or how very capable you are, you don’t get to do that. Even when someone makes you really, seriously, furiously angry on our behalf. I know you’re not used to having people care where you go or worry about you and you’re still not that convinced you’re that important to us so I’m pretty sure that part didn’t cross your mind until you’d gone too far to go back. And I know very well when you’re scared stiff that you’ve made one hell of a mess with us without meaning to and you don’t know what to do or how to fix it, so you can quit trying with the ice man act. I know how this happened, so does Flynn, so does Jas. And I know this time you didn’t do it all by yourself, you didn’t dismiss everybody – but you kept out anyone capable of really knowing or helping you that you couldn’t keep control of. You didn’t feel safe enough to let us into something that really mattered to you. And I think you’re very, very upset about that because you feel right now you’ve just blown everything you’ve spent the last few weeks trying so hard to do. But you haven’t.” Paul ran a hand down Dale’s back, rubbing where he was starting to shake. “You haven’t at all. This is going to happen sometimes, we knew it would, we knew this wasn’t going to be a straight, neat, immediate fix, much as you believe in them. Didn’t we? We’ve talked about it, Gerry warned us. Sometimes it gets messy and when it does we’ll work through it and we’ll sort it out together until you know you don’t have to keep everything and everyone safe by yourself anymore.”

“We’ve done all that.” Dale said incoherently. Paul shook his head, saying it very gently.

“No, sweetie. We’ve talked about it, yes. You understand it in theory, yes. It’s going to take a long time to really feel it. That is not going to happen on your schedule or to anyone’s plan, and that doesn’t mean you’ve failed or you’re doing it wrong. None of us are disappointed with you. None of us are angry or upset with you. You haven’t let any of us down. We love you. I am so relieved you dealt with that woman for us. I am so proud of you that you called that meeting with Gerry and the others and included them, and I promise you the next time you lie to me like that or you scare me like that I am going to put you across my knee and give you the spanking of your life.”

Paul slid Dale down to his knee and put a hand under his chin. His eyes were wet, his breath was catching and there was nothing serene about his face right now. Attention well and truly caught, and that was him. And all of him.

“I’m sorry-”

“Do you understand me?”

“Yes.”

“Who needs Lexan?” Flynn muttered very quietly in Jasper’s ear since neither of their brats were aware of anything much but Paul right now, and Jasper’s mouth quirked slightly.

“Anything you want to add?” Paul looked up to Flynn who shook his head, arms still folded.

“I think you have everything covered. Halfpint?”

Riley, wet eyed and looking shaken, gave him a slightly surprised look. “I was in this with him?”

“Yeah and I know why.” Flynn hooked an arm around Riley’s waist and pulled him over to give him a hug. “Have we got all this?”

“Yes, I think so.” Riley hung on to Flynn but his eyes were on Paul. Paul put his hands around Dale’s face and leaned his forehead against Dale’s for a moment.

“Then we stop worrying about it, because it’s going to be fine. Have you two eaten?”

“Yes. And James made him.” Riley nodded at Dale.

“Good for James.” Paul helped Dale to dress and Dale abruptly wrapped his arms around Paul’s neck. Paul hugged him tightly, feeling the strength behind it. “Is there anything else we need to do, love? Anything you need to keep tabs on?” 

“I have someone watching, one of Caroline’s team. They’ll let me know if Ladislaus doesn’t comply exactly or if I need to deal with any other sources directly, but it’s a low probability.”

Dale sounded unsteady but he answered without hesitation. He got slowly to his feet and Jasper got up off the desk to reach for him and pull him into a gentle hug, enfolding him from neck to waist.

Paul held out a hand to Riley who dived rather quickly into his arms and frankly clung. In actual fact, they’d both had less than a quarter of what Jasper or Flynn would ordinarily have given them in any usual spanking. But messy, personal, emotional – that was exactly what Dale needed when he froze and it hadn’t done Riley any harm either. Noisy and emphatic far more than seriously effective; neither of them would be feeling much of it half an hour from now, but any time he ever spanked Riley caused tears, mostly because it was rare enough that Riley associated it with Paul being actually, properly unhappy with him. And Dale… This was the man who used to radiate out the subliminal message in that courteous, soft and level voice of his, ‘you’re a nice man and thank you, but I’ll be just fine over here without you’. Except the message had always been a subconscious one rather than intentional, like a beacon left in an empty room and set on an old message that he wasn’t even aware of. If you looked way beneath the polite shell there he was, hardly daring to let you see it or knowing how to communicate it, but wanting you so desperately. To be with you, a cuddle, a few minutes in the morning of your undivided attention was something so meaningful, so powerful, he consciously valued it more deeply than you realised if you weren’t careful, and for that reason Paul had deliberately made the time since he made the realisation a few weeks back and made sure he valued it like Dale did. You could see the light in his eyes, you could see the lift in his heart when you grabbed him for a hug for no reason.

“I’m really sorry.” Riley said in his ear. “I didn’t think you’d worry before Jas had a chance to talk to you.”

“Yes, Flynn and I had a good panic when we found Dale’s note, thank you. But it’s done now.” Paul rubbed his back, feeling his breathing start to calm down to normal, and Riley pulled back, looking up to find his eyes.

“He really was better. Seriously.”

“Better how?”

Dale was listening. Paul saw him glance back from Jasper’s arms.

“Didn’t disappear.” Riley said frankly. “Not until we were in the air on the way home. It was all business, yeah, but I know what gone feels like and he didn’t. This was different. Good different.”

Jasper put a hand around Dale’s head and kissed his forehead, letting him go as Flynn reached for him, roughly and matter of factly picking Dale up to kiss him.

“White knight again without me kid, and white is the last thing you’ll be for a long, long time.”

Dale hung on to him. Paul leaned on Riley to get up, running a hand down Dale’s back as he passed them.

“I need to think about dinner. And a whole lot of tired people. You two, I’m going to need help.”

Riley started to follow him and Paul heard his yelp as Flynn snagged him, pulling him close for a moment, one arm around Riley’s waist, and Flynn’s voice, low but not as low as Flynn thought it was.

“And if you two ever upset Paul like that again, I promise you two are going to be cooking every meal in this house and covering every other chore he does on top of your own work for a month.”


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


“Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky,”

Tom muttered it mostly into Jake’s shoulder some time later. He’d slept for some of it – not exactly slept, more the morphine had grabbed him and sucked him down into some half state where the trembling still followed him.

“And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.” Jake finished the quotation, quietly in his ear. “No one is going to die. Dale isn’t in any serious trouble-”

“Oh I don’t mean that, and he bloody should be. You’d bloody kill me for deliberately disappearing on you whatever reason I thought I had at the time, and it’d serve me right. That part I’ve got no sympathy with, it’s just inexperienced brat stuff.”

“Is it?”

“Yes of course it is.” Tom took a breath, trying to get his gut to unclench. “The brat meeting business.”

You never told me.

Because I never let you.

And if he’d known of this….

It would have been a hell of a lot harder to keep his distance.

“Has it always been like this?”

“Yes.” Jake shifted position, tucking his good arm behind his head. “You mostly hear a lot of joking about it, and from what I hear a lot of the meetings are gossip and messing around, or at least look like that – but when it gets real, yes, that’s what it’s like. The serious ones aren’t that frequent. I think the last one was about Bear and that polar bear of his.”

A high court judge. Dale with all his qualifications and experience. Riley, who was the most normal and down to earth of people and Tom had seen him wrangling horses and cattle with competence and skill that was remarkable. Gerry – who did something for a living that Tom couldn’t remember about, but had been really quite shockingly sensible, coherent and – so unbunny like it was alarming. A wryly self mocking but acutely aware, experienced man.

“So what’s with the law of the jungle?”

“They can’t validate his pushing them away. Ever.” Tom found himself saying, somewhat incoherently. “Even if it wasn’t intentional, it still validates that way of thinking, and if they do it once –“

I know this. I’m that way too.

“Yes.” Jake said simply. “I know.”

He did. He’d never said a word about it, and he’d never allowed it either. Tom tried and failed to resist another sharp urge and nipped, not particularly gently at Jake’s shoulder. “Was Gerry serious that there’s no such thing as an in-law brat?”

“Yes.” Unbothered by teeth, Jake kissed him, his lips feathering up over Tom’s cheek towards his eyes. “With or without a partner, any guy who defines himself that way and knows what it means has the right of belonging here whenever he chooses to. I think the others assumed I would have explained that to you years ago.”

“You didn’t, knowing I’d flip my lid if you tried.”

“Philip and David knew there was a vulnerability in it. Not in the person – David presented as about the least vulnerable person you’ve ever met. But in openly living the lifestyle. Allowing yourself to express it, never mind what culture expects. So that is safe here any time, ever that you need, with or without me, with others living it who’ll include you. Somewhere you can always come to and be yourself. Whether that’s a few months, years or the rest of your life.”

“But wasn’t that specific to Philip? That he personally would always take in those people?”

“No. He and David left the ranch in trust. Or Philip did when he died, but I saw the plans, they were drawn up a lot of them in David’s handwriting, they planned it together years before David passed away. They always knew Philip would have a few decades alone, they prepared for it. Flynn and the others choose to live here and make their living from the ranch, they take in their clients in much the same spirit and they would welcome any lifestyler just as they welcomed Dale. Any of us could move back here any time. I wonder if Wade will eventually when he can’t live alone any more. No nursing home is going to be a place he can wholly be himself.”

In the years when his guard would be slipping, when he most needed the love of others, but could no longer be so careful about which parts of himself he dared let slip before them. Someone would decide something worthy about elder abuse; label it as unhealthy or negative impulses that needed educating, leading in a more positive direction, It would probably even be someone who prided themselves on their liberal, equal opportunity values. Tom had listened to such people talk with nothing on his face to give away his revulsion at the unconscious hypocrisy of it as they demonstrated how barely skin deep their values were. They might no longer physically spit on those who dared to identify themselves in these enlightened times, no longer burn or imprison them, they might virtuously believe that violence was wrong – but in violence of spirit, of words, of casting out, their message was one that went back centuries, unchanged, just varied in its currently fashionable targets. You are different to me, and so you are wrong. And that justifies my rejection without attempt to hear or understand, because that difference makes you less than me; undeserving, disgusting, in need of changing to be like me to render you more acceptable. It is right that you should be guilty and afraid before me.

It was a message he had received, loud and clear, aged twelve, innocent of what it was he was exposing himself to, and he’d loathed witnessing it communicated to others ever since.

“Paul isn’t being nice when he says we live here.” Jake said lightly. “He means what he says. We do. You have a right to be here at any time and you’ll be welcomed by whoever is here. And don’t think you could make it too difficult. Gerry destruction tested that one. Get him to tell you some time about the half drowned bullock and David having to spend the night in the pouring rain in the woods.”

As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk,
the law runneth forward and back;
For the strength of the pack is the wolf,
and the strength of the wolf is the pack…..

Laying against Jake, Tom stared up at the ceiling and Jake said nothing and let him.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Paul tapped on the door a while later. He looked nothing at all like someone who’d just disciplined – and probably fairly thoroughly – his partner; like Jake. He carried the same aura of it’ll be fine along with the loyalty to Dale and Riley that kept whatever had happened something entirely between themselves.

Tom did his best to raise up on one elbow behind Jake to see him and gave it up, swearing, without having managed more than an inch. Jake gave him a cheerfully inquiring smile.

“Are you going to pack it in? Or do we explore whole new areas here and I tie you down?”

“Look, I knew you were a kinky bastard when I met you, don’t go shocking everyone else.” Tom poked him to make him behave and looked past him to Paul. “Sorry Paul.”

“I was just thinking how much Philip would have loved seeing you do that.” Rather than sounding at all sad, from Paul’s smile that warmed his dark blue eyes that was a very pleasant thought. “I’m putting out dinner. On the grounds there’s a lot of us, James and Niall are tired and Gerry’s pretending flat out that he isn’t, I’m laying a buffet in the kitchen and we’ll eat out in the family room where everyone can get comfortable. Would you two like to come down and eat with us or can I bring you a tray up here?”

It was a shocking thought for about the half second before Jake said casually,

“Sounds great, we’ll come down.”

What?!

There had been plenty of times when Jake had asked him what he wanted to do. There had been other times when Jake had refused an invitation from Paul like that on behalf of them both, without hesitation or the slightest discussion, and tolerated no argument about it. He just consulted his internal Top mechanism and decided, and Tom knew that being asked was a courtesy. One Jake extended a lot, but only when he decided to. That was the way it worked. But he had never before made an autarchic decision for yes.

Tom found himself near to gaping at him, shocked and at the same time it affirmed again that Jake knew exactly what he was thinking. Jake-like, he was simply scaling broken walls in a calmly friendly but direct assault that left no time to repel boarders. Jake would have scaled the city walls with Alexander and arrived at the top with a spare coffee in hand if you wanted it and a convivial smile that said he was coming in anyway so why worry about it. Distracted by the thought of Jake in Greek battle dress, bare golden muscled arms and legs and sweat and dust in his hair the way Tom had seen him so often under African, Mediterranean and South American suns… the morphine was bloody annoying…. Tom found himself nodding comprehension rather than agreement, and saying it not because Jake needed it but to Paul.

“Yes. Please.”

“Great.” Paul gave him an easy, kind smile that was franker than Tom had seen from him before. “Flynn’s out with everyone else who was feeling horse deprived, so it’s me I’m afraid… Tom can I give you a hand, honey?” 

It was the first time Tom had realised that Paul was just like Jake too.

Tom drew a deep breath, trying to keep his voice relatively normal as if it was no effort to say, and stepped off the cliff.

“…. Yes. Please.”

His heart nearly went through his throat as Paul came calmly over, helping him shift the quilt out of the way and he slid an arm competently and gently behind Tom’s shoulders, the other under his knees and lifted him, stepping back to let Jake past him.

“You look like a tramp,” Tom found himself saying roughly and inappropriately to Jake, who grinned, collecting a sweater from the end of the bed to pull on.

“They’ll live.”


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


The family room bore resemblance to a bus station. People, everywhere, coming and going, mostly from the kitchen where the hub of it seemed to be. The piles of quilts and pillows were still on the couch and Paul set Tom down on them, working with Jake to slide a few pillows rapidly into place under him. He just seemed to know how to do this, where it pulled, what this felt like; he touched without hesitation, cupping a hand behind Tom’s neck to slide a pillow deeper behind him and despite himself, Tom found himself letting go, letting him do it, his body responding to the expertise.

No, be bloody honest.

It wasn’t the expertise he was instinctively going with.

“Jake, help yourself to what you think you two would eat.” Paul threw a quilt lightly over Tom, tucking it around him and leaving his feet uncovered again. “Tom, are you warm enough?”

Tom managed a nod. Jake returned the hat stand to its previous use as an IV stand and slung the mostly empty bag of fluids from it, glancing through the kitchen door.

“That looks like Emmett’s truck outside.”

“Good, he’s timed that well. Although you look better to me than you did this morning.” Paul touched Tom’s cheek briefly, something Tom had seen him do more than a few times with others in this house and never before with him, and then he was gone, heading into the kitchen through the crowds of men. “Hi Emmett, wash your hands, grab a plate and dig in. I was hoping you’d pass through in time to eat.”

Jake ambled after Paul. The kitchen table, what Tom could see of it, appeared to be plastered with dishes. Ash and Gerry were serving themselves with a plate each in hand, Riley was helping himself, Dale was there and talking to someone but didn’t have a plate and his hands were neatly linked behind him like a Regency gentleman surveying a dance he didn’t intend to join. Paul put a hand on Riley’s shoulder and drew him close to Dale, Tom saw him say something privately to both of them and Riley promptly put his plate down on a counter and disappeared. Dale followed him and Gerry said something to Paul and then handed his plate to Ash and went through the family room giving Tom a quick, lively smile and heading upstairs.

“Emmett, you’re going to need to resuscitate James,” Luath’s deep voice said from the kitchen. “I don’t know what the red things are but they’re lethal.”

“He’s a Boston boy, they don’t really do dramatic food,” Niall said sympathetically, appearing with a plate in hand and taking a seat on the couch opposite Tom. “More lobster and clams, with the occasional grouse. I’ve worked on him but it’s deeply ingrained. He and Bear do seafood fests whenever we get together, Bear blackens shrimp so well you could eat it by the pint. He’s Alabama born and bred and Theo’s from Oregon and very up for fishing so they appreciate fish. He and Bear are somewhere out in the wilds of the woods up there fishing at the moment. Can I get you anything?”

“I think Jake’s on it. What were you raised eating?” Tom said as unstiltedly as possible. Niall smiled, leaning back to dip something into a green sauce on his plate.

“Oh I had an Irish father and a German mother, so the cuisine in our house was completely confused. The German influences mostly won. I can walk into a bakery or deli in Germany and more or less know what I’m buying.”

“Do you go there much?” Tom couldn’t help asking; the familiarity in Niall’s voice suggested it was a place he was attached to. Niall nodded.

“A few times. James and I were both stationed in Nuremburg after the war, I lived in the city for a good eighteen months and got… attached I suppose. My grandmother’s family all emigrated to the states together, there’s no relatives left in Europe I’m aware of, but we’ve stayed in the village she used to tell me about when I was a kid. And we’ve gone out a couple of times with the veterans associations.”

“We hosted some American vets for some of the memorial trips when I was a kid.” Tom said abruptly. “I grew up in a coastal city- a very old one. Big sailing community, one of the funnel towns for American forces going across to Normandy for the D day landings. And a few local boats that went out to Ramsgate in the muster for Dunkirk. My father was… very interested in the history.”

That was a very vague approximation of the truth. His father had been deeply committed to those men, their stories and the memories they explored when they came back to the town where they’d stayed as young men, on their way to France, and to the memorial stones and massive, handwritten books of names in the polished glass cases in the cathedral. Tom remembered the hours his father had spent listening to those men on that visit, of watching him giving them all of his attention the way he did when he focused on someone he wanted to support. And he remembered several of the men clearly; it had been the late 1970s and they had been middle aged, cheerful and resilient, joking together and appearing to be thoroughly enjoying their trip and their time together. But Tom remembered listening to the cathedral service for them, the harbour side service his father had led from where the boats had left for the Normandy beaches, and seeing the expressionless faces of those same men and the occasional tear that ran from unmoved eyes as though they merely watered from the wind blowing in off the sea. It had been the first time he realised that adult men could cry.

“Tom, you said your name would be as much of a problem as Jake’s?” Gerry jogged the last few stairs down into the family room, dressed now in a particularly ratty sweatshirt and pants that looked a bare step from pajamas. Jake came back from the kitchen with a well-stocked plate in his hand and slid down behind Tom with care, holding the plate where they could both pick from it.

“Ger…?”

“Yes, yes, the whole gossip thing, I know, but he said it and until he says he minds I’m hopeful?” Gerry collected his own plate and curled up in the corner of the couch with Niall.

Jake was warm, comfortingly solid and close, and Tom felt his body relax automatically against his. The plate contained a rather interesting selection. Tom, having grown up in a household where events frequently had to cater for a ridiculously wide range of needs and often listened to his mother and the housekeeper trying to work out menus, had some idea of what Paul had covered this evening without time to prepare and apparently without being remotely stressed by it. The tomato and bread salad carried the scent of fresh basil and lent itself well to eating with fingers, the chicken kebabs were interspersed on the sticks with jalapeno slices and the small pastries filled with the red creamed paste – Tom picked one up to try it and felt the comforting, fierce bite of spice. Cumin and tomato, yogurt and chili and garlic, the strength of flavour rose behind the heat. There were other blander options he could see on other plates around the room, Jake had clearly gone directly to the dishes they both liked best.

“Well?” Gerry pressed.

“Gerry. Can it.” James warned, coming to sit with him and Niall. The guy they called Mason and Riley followed him. Like Gerry, Riley had changed into what looked distinctly like pyjama pants with a sweatshirt over the top and he sprawled on his stomach on the hearthrug with his plate while Mason took an armchair. Emmett, licking his fingers, brought a plate into the family room and put it on the hearthstone to take his jacket and case out from under his arm.

“Hi Tom. You look a lot more comfortable than you did this morning, meds working?”

“That and a whole lot of distraction.” Jake tossed a piece of bread up and caught it with his mouth. “Drama works better on us than morphine.”

“Will you at least pretend you’re civilised?” Tom demanded.

“No?”

“Whatever did it,” Emmett said diplomatically, “Good. I’ll wash up and sort the IV out.”

In the kitchen, Tom saw Dale talking to Luath. Dale had changed too, he was also now in pajamas and a sweater over the top, hands still behind his back, showing no sign of collecting a plate or eating. Paul was leaning in the doorway and watching him. Dale hadn’t noticed, but Tom saw Paul look for a long moment as though working something out, then take a plate and fill it without hesitation as to which dishes to choose from, and put it into Dale’s hand.

“Come sit down.”

Too many choices, too much pressure. Tom saw it with a flash of raw understanding. Paul took one of the armchairs and Dale sat on the floor in front of him, starting to eat. With Dale and the others having changed, he and Jake no longer stuck out like sore thumbs in their bed-crumpled sleepwear; it made the room feel considerably more informal.

“Because if anyone Googled me,” he said abruptly to Gerry, “They’d run across some extremely embarrassing pictures.”

“Would they?” Gerry demanded, fascinated.

Jake laughed, and Tom gave him a short nod.

“Incredibly. The one in a suit at the royal wedding is probably the worst. My father’s a public figure. He’s well enough known that he’s been photographed at a number of significant events and as a kid I was often in tow with him and my mother. The papers would be glad to splatter everywhere about the Bishop’s kid in the Loudon scandal, shacked up with and ruining Jake’s reputation.”

“Never mind what they’d think about what I’ve done to you.” Jake said with his mouth full. “And I’d show them. With photographs. That ought to distract them.” Gerry burst out laughing, so did Riley, Mason and Niall.

The bathroom door in the kitchen shut, a moment later Flynn and Jasper appeared together, damp haired and freshly dressed, plates in hand. Flynn took the chair by the hearth again, beside Riley, and Jasper sat on the hearthstone by both of them. He seemed to prefer the rock or the floor to a chair if there was the option.

“This is nice.” Riley said with appreciation, working on a chicken kebab. “We only ever crash out and eat in here like this on the big family occasions.”

Eating together was a culture that went back to the beginning of humans. A primal instinct. Tom remembered his father telling him years ago about the ritual of weddings, the two clans sitting together to eat because of the act of eating together created a bond harder to break than could be created by words or paper agreements. To make the continuance of hostilities more difficult. The traditional family celebrations that revolved around the sharing of food together, the re establishment of the ties between them. The very act of mass and communion, the sharing in one bread that identified all who shared in it as brothers. In the most war torn or weather torn places in the world, among people who had almost nothing left, Tom had seen the effort people would go to in order to prepare food to sit and eat together. It was what gave them the communal morale and strength to go on.

“We are of one blood ye and I.” Jake quoted quietly to Tom, with his peculiar knack of just knowing what Tom was thinking. Tom glanced back to see his eyes. Intense aqua blue, infinitely warm. Behind him Emmett finished with the IV. He’d been working on it very discreetly; probably in consideration to people trying to eat, and Tom had barely noticed, but a new bag of fluids was hanging. He saw Tom looking and nodded at it, going to pick up his plate.

“That’s sorted. After dinner I’ll do the debriding and give you the meds for the night.”

He took a seat on the other side of the hearth, he apparently knew this house well and he looked entirely comfortable. On the hearthrug Riley turned onto his side to find Tom.

“Then if you two don’t mind – since we’ve got you here, will you tell us what it was like? The summit day? We were enjoying your emails a lot.”

And that had been the day all the information flow had stopped.

“Camp three was…. We slept on oxygen up there the second time.” Tom said, half to Jake. “The Sherpa don’t like that camp. They skip it as much as they can.”

“Why?” Mason said, intrigued. He’d been looking distinctly hopeful since Riley asked; he was obviously interested. Jake grinned.

“The camp is just tents cut straight into the side of the Lhotse Face. Steep. You’re attached to ropes all the time you’re not actually in a tent or you’d go straight down the ice wall, and you’re sleeping on a shelf cut into the slope. Ri, if you look in the rucksack in our room my camera’s in there.”

Dale leaned back to murmur something to Paul, who nodded, and Dale got up to head towards the kitchen as Riley jogged upstairs. He was back in a moment with the camera and Dale returned with a small gadget in hand and a couple of cables, took the camera for the moment, and then the gadget projected a sharp beam of light against the wall and as Dale tuned the focus, the picture sharpened and enlarged until it covered most of the wall. The green rooftops in a wide valley were instantly familiar.

“That’s Lukla on the walk up there.” Jake said behind Tom. “Keep going. This is the trail on the way up there – those are prayer flags, they’re everywhere. That’s the camp.”

“It looks like a desert, I thought it would be all white ice!” Gerry leaned to look closer.

“It is higher up.” Jake told him. “And it snowed fairly often in camp, although not that deeply this year, but it’s deceptive. The rock is on a glacier. It’s still frozen solid. That’s the camp stupa, the altar the Sherpa built. They lit a fire there every time anyone from our camp went up the mountain, they burned juniper there and got us to walk through the smoke as a blessing. Protection, purification. That was the ice fall – the route up to camp one.”

It was bizarre to see the images. It was all still so immediate, it felt like barely hours ago that they’d been there, Tom knew what each rope felt like, what lay inside each tent in the images. Much of it was still there, left where it was when they airlifted off the mountain.

“That’s camp three.” Jake said easily. “See the slope on that ice face?”




There was a murmur of shock from the men in the room.

“And you slept on oxygen there? The air’s too thin?” Mason asked.

“We used it for climbing from camp three onwards. You can breathe.” Tom glanced at Jake. “Not easily exactly, but you can breathe. You just get out of breath doing anything other than sit still. At night, sleeping, the first time we were up there without oxygen – we stopped breathing a lot. Apnea. I’d be listening to Jake and he’d stop breathing thirty seconds, forty seconds, worse, and then suddenly he’d snort and breathe again.”

“That sounds terrifying.” Paul said wryly.

“It’s normal for up there, but it was a bit. So the Sherpa team helped us, we got enough oxygen bottles up there to use it through the night too and we slept with the masks on.”

“Which is its own special kind of hell.” Jake added. “Not comfortable.”

“And where was Loudon at this point?” Gerry asked. Jake leaned back against the couch, his voice getting steadier.

“He came up with us from base camp. That was my mistake. I should have sent him packing out of base camp before we started our summit attempt.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. He wouldn’t have gone.” Tom said shortly, “We knew he wouldn’t, that was why you decided to let him try. He’d have found a Sherpa guide somewhere he could pay enough to take him up, or his mother would have found him one – or he’d have just snuck into camp and climbed up after us and known we’d come bail him out. He was a loose cannon and you said it yourself. We were safer with him in our tent pissing out, than outside pissing in. It wasn’t just the pink peril you were thinking of. We took him with us and we let him climb,” he added to Gerry. “At our speed, until he realised for himself he was done. He tried talking Jake into us towing him up when he got exhausted; when Jake convinced him the answer was no he gave up and we walked him back to camp one, we left him with Pemba and Lobsang – and they were bloody brilliant climbers, they have decades of experience on the mountain, he was safer with them than he was with us – and we went on up. And we thought he wasn’t going to be able to get any physically higher, so his only way was down.”

 “And we went on up to camp two for the night.” Jake went on quietly. “Shem let me know Phoenix was tired and having a good time hanging out at camp one with some women from the Canadian team he’d met in base camp, I wondered if he’d hang on there until we came back down and finished the climb with us. From what I’ve heard since Shem was trying to get him to pay attention to her and so were Lobsang and Pemba but Phoenix was avoiding the lot of them. We went up to camp three on the 2nd May, spent the night there, chatted to Paul on the phone,”

“Via radio, which was an interesting experience.” Paul agreed. “I had no concept of where you were at the time.”

“And went up to camp four early the following morning.”

That was a very nonchalant description of what that night at camp three had been like to experience first hand. Tom remembered it as one of the most powerful memories he had of Nepal.

“Spent the day at the camp – that was a bit grim. Some poor so and so from another team passed away in his sleep.”

“How?” Paul sounded shocked. Jake shook his head.

“It happens, often to the most unexpected people. Blood clot. Stroked out. Stopped breathing. Any number of reasons. No way to retrieve anyone to do an autopsy and find out. Their team were shattered, they ended up abandoning their summit attempt and going down. We headed out of camp mid evening to start our climb.”

“That early?” James asked.

“It’s the most time consuming, slowest part of the mountain.” Tom told him. “You climb through the night. The temperature is lowest so the ice is most stable then and you have to leave yourself plenty of time to get back down to the camp. We were on the summit by dawn that morning.”

Dale had been scrolling on through the pictures while they talked and he paused as he reached one of the thin light of early morning, clouds laying below a peak and a masked figure in a snow suit, kneeling on the ground in front of a makeshift altar. It was an anonymous figure; Tom recognised it only by the colour of the suit. He hadn’t noticed Jake take the picture.

“That is beautiful.” Jasper said quietly, gazing. “The highest point in the world.”

There was a significance in that to him; Tom heard it in his voice and saw Dale watching him.

“And that was where it began to get tough.” After a moment Flynn laid his plate down beside him, breaking the silence and asking Tom. “Was this where you found the Swiss boy?”

“Loic.” Tom said automatically. Jake had obviously told Flynn this part.

“Loic?” Dale frowned slightly and Riley grinned at him.

“Accessing catalogue… searching…”

“Riley stop it.” Paul told him. Dale simply grabbed up the nearest cushion and tossed it at Riley with very accurate aim. Riley caught it neatly, tucked it underneath himself and propped an elbow on it.

“Thanks. Well?”

“Loic Aegerter. Swiss national, held the Mount Elbres youngest record for thirteen months, three weeks and four days, several speed records.” Dale said resignedly.

“Told you.” Riley said, nodding to Tom, and it sounded like affectionate pride as much as teasing. Tom cleared his throat, thinking of that moment, even in the haze of exhaustion and hypoxia the shock of catching sight of that huddled figure.

“He was under a rock shelf, he probably crawled in there for shelter. We didn’t see him on the way up.” It was hard to put into words, just the thought of it made his stomach clench and his throat tighten. The dread was not for Loic, it was for what lay ahead, that first step in the chain of events that had ended so badly. “He was out of oxygen, his eyes were fixed, he was still breathing but we couldn’t revive him. We tried for a while but we only had so much oxygen ourselves, we’d timed everything to be sure our oxygen would last us to get down again, we didn’t have that long to spare. So Dorje from our team decided to stay with him. He’s Sherpa, he was the best climber of our party and he chose to stay. So Jake left his oxygen with Dorje, enough for him to be able to stay on oxygen while he waited and still have enough to get down to camp four.”

“Is that as dangerous as it sounds?” James asked reservedly. Tom looked up at Jake who held his eyes for a moment, his face more relaxed than Tom knew he felt.

“It was the best of the available options.”

“I wasn’t pleased.” Tom admitted. “We weren’t on speaking terms the rest of the way down-”

“Well you weren’t. I was.” Jake corrected.

“But how did you make that decision?” Mason asked. “There were four in your team, were you the best choice to manage without air?”

“No.” Tom said shortly. “And it was between him and me; neither of us would have asked Bill or Spitz to do it. The larger you are the more at risk you are. I do better at altitude than Jake does.”

“So why didn’t you give your oxygen?”

Gerry stifled a rather rueful snort of laughter, catching Niall’s eye. “Oh the innocence… Mase, trust me, that was never going to happen.”

“I had plenty of oxygen, we’ve deep dived together for years and there’s such a thing as buddy breathing. If need be we’d have shared or exchanged.” Tom said shortly. “And the other two would have helped us. But it didn’t happen. We moved fast, we were going down all the time, I watched him like a bloody hawk and he was ok. Tired. Exhausted. But ok. We left the other two at camp four and we kept on going down, we had enough left to get lower and it was safer, I wanted to get him down as low as possible. And we had more oxygen stashed at camp three.”

“We got down to camp three and crashed out.” Jake went on mildly. “I don’t think we’d been there that long when a call went out over the radio to ask if anyone knew who some guy was that could be seen from base camp hanging on the ropes on the Lhotse Face, not moving. It was mid afternoon by this point. Most people had gotten wherever they were going on the mountain that day, they were all in their camps and this guy seemed to be stranded on his own. After some conversation we figured out that everyone was accounted for but Phoenix and there was a good chance it was him. It was bad time of day, the weather was starting to change, everyone around camp two or three was at the end of a long day climbing, were tired and didn’t have anything left. No one had any ‘spare’ people or guides with the kind of fitness to be able to handle an hour or two more to help out with someone who founders.”

“So you two ended up going?” Ash said softly.

“Another bad mistake on my part.” Jake sounded level. Tom moved his arm as much as he could to elbow him, and didn’t succeed in much more than a very mild nudge.

“Bollocks. What else were we going to do? Lobsang and Pemba headed up from camp one as fast as they could once they realised, but they wouldn’t have got to him in time. They’d have had to turn back once the storm hit. There wasn’t anyone else. Either we went ourselves or we left that idiot kid dangling on the ropes to freeze to death where he was. And he’s a stupid git, but he didn’t deserve that. He really didn’t deserve that. We were responsible for him.”

“And if I’d listened to you a few weeks earlier about us making ourselves responsible for clients up there-” Jake added grimly.

“Jake, sometimes things go wrong.” Tom said it very shortly, somewhat crazily aware they were having this very private conversation in front of a room full of witnesses. “They just do. Hindsight’s great, but we did the best we could at the time on the information we had. Every time. And nobody died. We played the game and we won, that’s a pretty damn significant achievement.”

Jake’s fingers found his, slid between them and grasped. Lightly but closely.

“What happened then, Tom?” Flynn said gently.

“We climbed down.” The sense of dread was getting sharper the closer the words took him along the chain, but it was cold dread. Numb. “We were knackered. Cold, hadn’t had time to eat or drink – you have to melt every drop up there, and flames don’t burn that well or with much heat in that low oxygen, it takes several hours to get ice into hot water. Not in great condition to be out climbing. But the face is pretty steep and we were going down, we could rappel quite a bit of the way. We found Phoenix hanging just where the face really starts to get steep. He was cold, exhausted, he’d pretty much run out of steam to keep moving and probably fell asleep, he was sliding down into hypothermia. We got oxygen on him, started lowering him down, he wasn’t really conscious. The weather was starting to get bad by then. It had been unsettled for a week or so, sudden storms. We were near the foot of the face when Lobsang and Pemba reached us. They had hot tea with them, we all got warmed up, they took over Phoenix. Rocks… come down that face all the time. They fall from the top, it’s a constant hazard. A shower came down and one got Jake. Smashed his arm.”

He could still hear himself screaming over the wind in a futile attempt to warn him, still see Jake’s wrench to duck out of the way, that awful cast to Jake’s face, seeing Jake kneeling on the ice. Hear the sound of that rock hitting him.

“…He knew he was bleeding out, it was an open fracture. The weather was getting foul, visibility was going fast, we yelled to Pemba to get Phoenix out of there. I lost sight of them a minute later. It was too far to get to camp two. Jake was going into shock, he wouldn’t have made it down there and if he collapsed in the storm we weren’t going to get up again. So we went back up the face. It was a hell of a climb but the shorter one, we made it back to the tent.”

“You short roped me up.” Jake said softly. “Towed. I’m still amazed you didn’t tear out every muscle you have, it’s a tough enough climb alone. I’m not a lightweight.”

“We did it.”

“And then what happened?” Flynn’s prompting was quiet. “What happened, Tom?”

“Jake… passed out cold once we got inside the tent.” It was like being inside the tent again. For a moment Tom actually felt himself breathe the frozen, painful air and heard the flapping of the canvas, the numbness of hands and feet. “The storm had hit. There was a gale blasting. Blizzard conditions. I… hadn’t got anything left. I got the tent stabilised, and had a look at his arm. It was bad, there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Managed to get him into a sleeping bag. Get oxygen on him. Got a dex shot into him. The radios weren’t working. Weather too bad. I couldn’t do anything more. Hadn’t got the energy left to move.”

“Tom, you must have been terrified.” Gerry said softly. He sounded horrified, and looking over at him, Tom was slightly shocked at the tears in his eyes. The room was silent. The crackling of the fire was startling as it caught Tom’s attention and Tom belatedly became aware again of the wave of warmth coming from it. The somber faces of the men around him. Jake’s hand squeezed his very gently, Jake’s chin was against his head but he said nothing.

“I thought we were done.” Tom said clumsily. “I just lay there for a while. Jake was in shock, I knew his organs would pack up and he’d slip away before we could get any help. Not that there is much help possible up there, not for someone that seriously injured. There was nothing I could do.”

“You must have felt completely helpless.” Flynn said quietly. “Powerless.”

“Wholly.” Tom swallowed, feeling that rush again. That black despair that had gripped him. “Eventually I realised something was flapping under me. It was so annoying I managed to get hold of it and it was an email packet…. everyone does it on the mountain – your base camp print off emails and stick them in plastic bags and anyone climbing takes them up and pushes them through tent entrances as they go past the camp, mail gets passed on all the time.”

He looked across the room, finding the quiet man with the grey eyes sitting on the floor, watching him.

“It was from you. The one you said you wrote up on the canyon.”

Dale’s gaze was steady, slightly quizzical. “This was the evening of the 4thMay.”

“Yes.”

“Surely-” Paul began and Dale shifted slightly against his knee. Paul looked down at him and said nothing else. “I’m sorry. Go on Tom. Please.”

“I think I read it about a dozen times. Over and over. It was like someone else being there. I felt like there was nothing left and no one else on the planet and there you were... someone who got it. A kick up the backside when I really needed it. If I hadn’t had that, I think I probably… I probably would have laid there and let go. But you got me up. I got it together and lit the stove. Melted ice, got fluids down Jake and me, got some calories into us both and managed to get into the sleeping bag with him to get us both a bit warmer, and waited out the storm. By the time it was light, Jake came round and he was ok. I couldn’t believe how ok, he was lucid, he was together.”

“I think this was the point I was calling the American Embassy in Kathmandu trying to find any news.” Niall said quietly. “Darcy heard about all this online somehow, the weather turning and some report of someone being injured, and called James in the middle of the night, terrified you two were involved. There was a complete communication blackout from the mountain once the storm really hit, no one knew anything of what was happening.”

He’d made a call for them. A long distance, middle of the night call that spoke of a professional man in severe concern; it touched Tom to the point where for a moment he was shocked out of the memory of those awful hours. These men had been here following the news for them, sharing it with each other and thinking of them, willing them to be safe.

“We climbed down a few hours later, when the weather was stable.” Tom glanced back to Jake for the first time since he’d started this narrative and froze at the redness of his eyes and the wetness on his face.

“It’s ok.” Jake pulled him gently closer and kissed what he could reach of his face. “It’s fine. Shem – our expedition doctor – she met us at camp one and had a chopper waiting to take us out to Kathmandu hospital. I don’t remember a whole lot of that, I just remember being wheeled into surgery. You must have put our emergency plan into action while that was happening. There were plans for med evac starting by the time I came round.”

“The only thing I did was phone Dale for help.” Tom said numbly. “That was all. He and Flynn took it from there.”

Flynn shook his head. “No, that’s not true. All we had to do was phone your insurers according to the paperwork you’d left us and meet your plane. You and Jake had all the plans in place ready to go before you went out to Nepal, you only needed to trigger them. We were glad you wanted the company but you didn’t need us. You got the two of you out, that’s not something you can push off onto us.”

You were the one who got me alive down that mountain.” Jake said not particularly steadily. Tom got a hand up to his face, doing what he could to push away the wetness, and Jake took the hand and held it. “It’s ok. I’m ok. I’m just so sorry you had to go through that alone. I’m so sorry. If I could go back and change any of those decisions… that was my responsibility-”

“Oh rubbish Jake, Tom’s told you several times and you’re not listening to him.” Gerry interrupted him, very kindly but with a lot of feeling and an authority that came from an older man to a younger. “I know what he means. I don’t employ Ash to make decisions, I fell in love with him. And one of the things I love is that he always does the best he can on the information he’s got, I see him do it over and over again, and that’s enough for me. It’s not something he has to keep a perfect track record on, I don’t love him because he’s perfect. So on the rare occasion we find out afterwards we went the wrong way, then fine, whatever. We went the wrong way together and it happens. I’ve got his back the same way he’s got mine. That’s how it works.”

Riley raised a hand from the floor. “Here, here.”

“Absolutely.” Niall said firmly. “That’s exactly how I feel. None of us are keeping score, thank God, because if we were I’d be the one of us who lost on a daily basis.”

“Hourly.” Tom said very grimly to Jake. “Shut up.”

“…Ok.” Jake caught Tom’s chin and kissed him. “Ok.”

“Gosh this emotion is exhausting.” Gerry said lightly in a way that fooled no one at all, flopping back in his chair and waving a hand at Ash. “Accio tea.”

“You know that only works when you wave your wand.” Ash told him. Gerry laughed.

“Darling, not in front of all these people, I have some standards. And poor Emmett is here.”

“I’ll go.” Flynn started to get up from his chair and paused, frowning. Then pushed back into the chair to test it and looked accusingly at Paul. “This chair moves.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Paul told him calmly. “You’ve got to love a man who can spot a foaling mare at a quarter of a mile but can’t spot a change in his own interior decorating. It’s a rocking chair, it’s been there going on three weeks and you took delivery of it.”

“Who’s been running the book?” Niall asked and Riley grinned.


“Paul. Between me, Jas, Gerry and Mason I think he’s owed what, twenty dollars?”


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015

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