Emmett came upstairs with them and put a heavier shot of morphine into the drip before they went through the revolting processes involved in dressing the mess that was currently his feet.
“I’d say I hope you two aren’t too tired,” he said when he was done and packing up, “But doing way too much seems to suit you. I’ll see you in the morning, Tom. Get some sleep.” Jake closed the bedroom door quietly behind him.
“Anything else you need?”
Jake snapped the light out and Tom heard him push the window wider, saw the outline of him against the grey darkness outside, then the mattress rolled a little as Jake lay down beside him and Jake’s hand searched for his. The night air coming through the window was sharply crisp. It was going to be a cool night and there was a luxury to be close against him beneath the warmth of blankets, the softness of the bed. The morphine was acting fast; the room was already starting to feel less real and emotion was sliding away to leave a calmness behind.
“What was it like for you in that tent?” Jake said quietly. “Tell me.”
“Shut up. Don’t torture yourself.”
“I want to know. I’ve seen Dale’s email. You were carrying it when we got here.”
Stuffed down the front of his suit, like a shield. Maybe it was the exhaustion talking.
Maybe it was something particularly peculiar to tonight, being in this house, the men they had been talking with downstairs, but….: “I talked to you.” Tom found himself saying to the beams in the ceiling. “A lot.”
“Stuff.” Tom shut his eyes. Here it came. Aloud. To Jake while he was listening, hearing it. The things he had said when he thought they had no more time together, the things he owed it now to say to him in this second chance at life, and could no longer with any honour refuse. Things Jake had a right to know.
“Dale’s email said something about having to acknowledge the losses. To let them go, to have space left for other things. The greatest – the greatest loss I had was not being able to love you the way you deserve. The way you ought to be loved. The way I wanted you to be loved. I knew that was damaged in me years ago.”
He heard his own voice crack. There was a long silence for a moment. They lay there side by side, hand in hand in the dark. Then Tom said unevenly, “I didn’t know I minded until I met you.”
“… I thought I dreamed that.” Jake said softly. “I think I heard it. At least part of it. That was what you gave up? To have the capacity to go on?”
And it had been a sacrifice. Not of something most dear to him exactly – but the deepest and rawest of personal secrets. Giving up a part of himself, and in that tent, in those frozen hours of hell, it had been unreservedly, passionately done. These were values they knew in the books they both loved. The oldest tales, the whisper of centuries of human dreams and voices that coalesced around such bargains, the deepest and most sacred of offerings.
“Yes. I think so.”
You did not lightly do such things in a sacred place. Tom reflected on that in the silence that followed having been raised in an ancient and sanctified place, knowing too at the moment he made that offering to the mountain it had been with extreme clarity, knowing exactly what he was doing and meaning it with all his – heart, soul, neural electricity, whatever you wanted to call what transformed flesh and bone into a living force.
Jake sounded very serious. Tom glanced across to him apprehensively.
“You need to understand,” Jake told him quietly. “I am a lifetime committed believer in literary devices, particularly the ‘if you save someone’s life you’re stuck with them’ one. So I’m afraid I’m going to be following you around for the rest of yours.”
Caught between laughter and tears Tom found the strength from somewhere to whack an arm against him.
“This is serious!”
“I’m deadly serious.” Jake rolled over to look at him, propped on his one good elbow. “You know this stuff. You breathe it, you can’t pretend to me you don’t. You taught it to Dale, you just explained to a whole room full of people that you asked the question on the mountain at the moment you saw the need.”
“Whom does the grail serve?”
The question of time. The question of many and better men. Jake’s eyes were steady in the darkness, the gentlest, the warmest of colours, and it was still desperately acute to look at him and see that expression on his face, to hear his voice and be so aware that it was a miracle he’d been grated this reprieve, this second chance. No stupid, petty fear could ever compete with that.
“… me.” Tom said it half automatically from years of literary knowledge. And found it coming out his mouth again, with real comprehension behind it, heart and not intellect. “…It serves me.”
Jake gave him a quiet smile. “And thus does it heal the Grail King. There is a houseful of witnesses that you loved me enough to find the strength to get me off the mountain alive at extreme cost to yourself. Greater love hath no man than this. That a man lay down his life for his friend.”
“Entreat me not to leave thee,” Tom said chokily. “Or return from following after thee. For whither thou goest I will go.”
Jake leaned down to kiss him. “And my people shall be thy people. Yeah I think we’ve got that one well covered.”
Tom reached for his throat, the silver charm hanging from it. They’d removed it in the hospital when he went into surgery; it had been laid on the night stand beside his bed and Jake had asked for help to put it back on almost as soon as he’d been conscious enough to notice.
“This. St George.”
“Patron saint of boy scouts, yes I know.”
“… Heroes. The earthly manifestation of St Michael.”
Jake’s aqua blue eyes softened until it was painful to look at them. “I’m no angel.”
“You don’t have to be perfect.” Tom managed to look up, to glare directly into his eyes. “You’re every damn thing I ever thought and loved of St Michael my whole life. You’re everything I thought was just fiction until I met you.”
Jake stooped a little to kiss him. It was a gentle, thorough kiss that always somehow made Tom more aware of his strength for how he could contain it and be that gentle. It took his breath and after a moment when Jake leaned his forehead against Tom’s, they were both silent. Then Jake said quietly and with a tone Tom knew,
“I won’t let there be that wall between us. I’ll wrestle your dragons all you want, but I won’t let you make me into something perfect and yourself the fallen, the broken. You’ve been telling me all along how you felt but this is the other half of it, isn’t it? You’re pushing us to two poles that can’t touch, and it serves to keep me away. I’m all good, you’re all bad, it’s an excuse, Tom. It’s an excuse to keep that distance and we agreed up on the mountain, you don’t get to do that anymore.”
Tom’s stomach squirmed at the tone.
“And that’s the other part, isn’t it? If you’re not good enough for me, if you can’t love me the way you would aspire to if you could, then why are you still here, Tom?”
And there it was. What he hadn’t been able to say even on the mountain, because saying it made it real. inescapable. Tom shut his eyes to keep the tears escaping, becoming visible.
“I know. I’m so sorry. If I loved you enough I’d leave you, I’d let you find the someone you deserve who can give you what I want you to have. Which makes me a bloody coward.”
“No, it means you know it’s bull, it’s something you torture yourself with. If you wanted to leave you’d leave.”
“I don’t want to leave. I wouldn’t bloody survive leaving.”
“Then you can choose to take the hair shirt off.” Jake nudged his chin up to make Tom open his eyes and look at him. “I was as much of a pest as a kid as you were. Probably worse. You do a lot of your hyper stuff in your head; I do the physical 24/7. It didn’t make me evil. You’re in a house full of men most of whom kissed some boy before they were fourteen. They’re not evil either. Are they? Your parents’ problems are theirs, not yours. Give them back. You’re nothing fallen. Nothing lost. You can try to make heroes out of Dale and Flynn to prove they’re better than you and they’re something you can never be, but Flynn told you: that doesn’t give you an out, you can’t make it the truth. You got us off that mountain and out of Nepal. You did it. You asked for help yes; but that is no act of weakness, it’s the very opposite of giving up and you do know that, I know that was a huge thing for you. Dale – I’m very grateful for what he did for us today in New York and he’s a gifted guy, but you said it yourself, even with all his skills, he still got himself in trouble doing it. Inexperienced brat stuff, hot headed stuff, nothing serious but important in his relationship, and you’d have known better just the same as Gerry and Niall did. Dale isn’t perfect either. None of us are any worse than others. Like Niall and Gerry said, we’re all just doing the best we can together. That’s enough.” Jake paused for a moment to let his words sink in. “That’s more than enough.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I am writing to inform you that on your son’s recent successful ascent of Mount Everest, within hours of his reaching the summit, he came with me, although exhausted himself, to help rescue an inexperienced climber who had become stranded and was dying of exposure. At the successful completion of that rescue he witnessed me sustain a severe injury that rendered me unable to climb just as weather conditions turned dangerously poor on the mountain.
At great risk to his own life he assisted me alone to shelter, remained with me and looked after me until the weather cleared when any other experienced climber would have advised him to leave me as beyond help and to save himself. When he succeeded in getting me conscious and able to move he then took further great risk to himself by roping and lowering me over great distance to where I could reach medical aid.
I would like you to know that we both left the mountain safely, and that without your son I would not be alive today. I remain extremely grateful to you for raising an exceptional man of such true courage and character, and consider myself extremely lucky to be able to call him my friend.
Jacob Winthrop Forbes
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Stamps and envelopes were kept in the same place in this house they had always been. I sealed and addressed this one and pocketed it to give to Paul. And after that, I couldn’t sleep. It was one of the very few times I remembered being the one pacing around trying not to wake him. The drugs probably helped; I knew Emmett was giving Tom the heaviest meds at night so he got some rest, but there was something else. I thought about it a lot, watching him in this tiny room under the eaves as thin daylight came up. He wasn’t trapped under a web of morphine and fighting it; I could feel he’d let go. In a way I didn’t think he’d ever fully let go before, outside perhaps of us being somewhere completely wild, completely isolated, just the two of us together. This was new. It was different.
My St Michael.
That was so Tom. All the fierceness and loyalty and passion and faith of which he was capable through the grimness and off handedness and the rough shoves and digs which were his caresses. He stirred and started to turn over and I saw pain flash across his face in a silent, stifled curse as he realised. But he put his hands down and hauled himself up to sit as he realised my side of the bed was empty and found me on the window seat.
This morning, even more than usual, it was impossible to say that without touching him. I sat on the edge of the bed and he lifted his mouth to meet mine, briefly.
“What’s keeping you awake?”
Twitchiness. Not too much, but some. As a matter of fact after several days of kicking around the house doing very little at all I would usually be so uncomfortable it would be crazy-making and Tom knew it since he got the same way himself. But all his energy was currently being sucked into healing, and either I too was tired enough and battered enough that my energy was rising much more slowly than usual. Or perhaps the intense focus Tom was needing from me was eating up the energy I’d usually need to burn off in a long, serious, hard run. Or swim. Or anything really. Tom still saw it and slid a hand directly into my shorts, grasping somewhere that got my attention very fast indeed.
He wasn’t able to respond himself; medication and pain were occupying all his body’s attention and I would have stopped him but for that it was the first interest he’d shown since we left the mountain, it’s a physical comfort that means a lot to him and I hadn’t been able to give him in a while and it was clear he wanted it. It was normality. Another returning sign. He stripped my shorts off me and spent some minutes working out the worst of my frustrations and I thought his too, as thoroughly as only he can, while I mostly concentrated on not touching him anywhere that hurt or putting any weight on him. He has incredibly gifted hands. I was flat out, recovering my breath and feeling a hell of a lot better when he leaned over to kiss me again, then pulled himself gingerly upright with a lot of swearing, and looked dispassionately at his shins and feet. His feet were less grotesquely swollen but his lower legs were still alarmingly black and blue. I rolled over to watch him flex and move his feet with cautious deliberation, experimenting. “Feels like bad sunburn.” He said shortly. “Shins are the worst part now.”
Yes, I wanted a physiotherapist’s assessment of those before he tried standing. We did finally seem to have the pain under control. I recognised Flynn’s tap at the door; he was dressed, damp haired from the shower and the smell of bacon and bread followed him in from the landing.
“Good morning. Tom, want a hand to the bathroom?”
“Yes. Please.” Tom grabbed the IV bag and Flynn came to lift him with a glance at me that shared some brusque sympathy that he understood what this was like. The temptation to just screw the arm and help him myself was overwhelming, I’d gotten very close a couple of times. I grabbed clothes and showered while Tom soaked in the bath. When I emerged a few minutes later, he glanced up and I saw he’d shaved his beard off. It was a bit of a shock. I’d gotten so used to it in the past few weeks; and yet at the same time it let show again all the beautiful angles of his jaw and the strength of the lines of his face that I love, all straight lines like the carving of a knight on a stone tomb. I ran a finger lightly along the newly bared, white lower jaw, giving him a private smile.
“Pass me that razor?”
There was an act of leaving behind in the gesture. A ritual. I felt it as he watched me work and I watched the hairs disappear down the plughole. Another step towards leaving Everest behind us.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Tom was having nothing to do with going back to our room this morning and I thought that was a good sign. Flynn brought him down to the kitchen where Jasper took one look, calmly got up and Luath followed him into the family room where they grabbed the smallest armchair between them, maneuvered it through the kitchen doorway and put it in Tom’s place, replacing the wooden chair and padding it with the quilts that someone – I suspected Paul – had laid ready in the family room. Flynn put Tom down into it while I drew the displaced wooden chair in and lifted his legs to rest on another bale of the quilts and pillows Paul handed me. Tom was pale when we were done but I saw him relax back by increments into the chair, the position was bearable and he was with us at the table. The IV bag I slung on the back of my chair, taking the seat beside him. Flynn, Luath and Jas took their seats. Dale, Riley, Paul and their client Mason were already eating.
“Where’s everyone else?” I inquired, noting the missing faces.
“Gerry was up half the night,” Paul pushed the basket of rolls and a dish of what looked like fresh fried trout in our direction. “They did travel too soon and he was very uncomfortable by about 1am, so they’re sleeping in this morning, and I took a tray up to James and Niall so they can have another couple of hours in bed. I was about to come do the same for you two, but it looks like you’re feeling better.”
“Better or just done sitting around?” Flynn said succinctly. Tom managed a wry grunt.
“Yeah. Is that trout?”
“It is.” Paul confirmed as I dropped several fillets on Tom’s plate, grateful since really fresh fish is one of the things he most enjoys and we hadn’t tasted any in months. “Dig in. Dale and Jas were out in the river by 5am apparently, I think the only people that got a decent night’s sleep were Mason and Riley.”
I saw Tom glance across to Dale, who appeared to be focused on his meal, his face expressionless. The trout was fantastic. Paul reached across the table for a small dish in which were finely chopped and mixed red and green chilies and put them within Tom’s reach. For which I nearly got up and hugged him, he just seemed to be finding a steadily widening variety of ways to tempt Tom into eating and so far every one of them was working, but Tom gave him half a sideways and rather awkward smile before I could say anything.
Paul put out a hand and ran it very gently over his shoulder, the way he would have done with any of us but I’d always thought he’d been careful not to invade Tom’s space, sensitive to it the way Paul is to most things.
“It’s my pleasure honey.”
Dale looked up sharply as the phone on the counter rang, not a large movement, just a very, very fast one. I get fast and that was brisk even by my standards. No one else jumped and Paul put a hand calmly over Dale’s, leaning back to get it.
“Good morning, Falls Chance Ranch? Just a moment Caroline, I’ll see if I can track him down.”
He put a hand over the mouthpiece to look inquiringly at Dale who nodded, getting up with a hand held out to take it.
“Thank you. Caroline?”
He walked to stand at the open porch door, listening while whoever Caroline was talked, and Flynn slid his chair back, sitting half turned from the table to watch him. Tom, shaking a very healthy spoonful of chilies over his trout, passed the dish to me and raised his eyebrows.
Think this is about Duckface?
I couldn’t read Dale’s face. I doubted anyone else could either, although Flynn was doing his damnedest.
“Yes.” Dale said briskly in the doorway. “Good. Confirm that I want a daily report through the rest of this week and then twice weekly reports until the end of the month, I’ll evaluate then where we are. Yes. Fax me a copy of the report and I’ll file a copy with Mountain Eagles. Thank you.”
“What are you filing with us?” Tom demanded as Dale came back to his breakfast. Dale laid the phone on the table and took his seat to go on with his trout. It was only when I saw Flynn’s firm tap to his knee that I realised how discreetly he was disassembling and distributing it across his plate in ways that made it look a good deal more eaten than it actually was.
Dale didn’t reply or show the faintest flicker in response to that, but he scooped up another forkful and this one reached his mouth. “A full summary of what I did yesterday, who I spoke to and the agreement made with the Manhattan Times. That was the results from the overnight monitoring; there is no accessible link or page that the media team can pull up this morning that references the parties in question. Social media, everything, it’s all down.”
I hadn’t doubted it. I suspected that when, as Riley put it, Dale was polite with extreme prejudice inside the business world, he had no trouble getting exactly what he wanted.
“Which corp is this?” Mason asked with interest. “Jas said you’d had to do an emergency run yesterday.”
Dale glanced up to me and I saw him request my permission a good deal more formally than he needed to. “Jake? Mason is safe, this is his field as much as mine.”
“It’s fine with us,” I assured him.
“A New York satellite of a bigger empire,” Dale said to Mason. “I did a direct face to face with the satellite but I’m monitoring the wider spread.”
“Always fun.” Mason split another roll, buttering it and his tone was paternal, the voice of senior experience. “Last time I got on the case of a satellite group it took months to get standards and procedures spread right the way through, multiple different cultures and styles, all the whiny stuff about uniformity and who moved the freaking cheese… Never had much patience for all that stuff, you better get ready to be tough. If you want advice any time I don’t mind looking it over for you.”
“Dale didn’t have much problem.” Riley said with his mouth full. “The guy couldn’t act fast enough. It was all yes Mr. Aden, no Mr. Aden, Yes I understand Mr. Aden,”
Dale gave him an expressionless glance and Jasper also looked up, face calm but his eyes rather penetratingly on Riley. Mason paused, butter halted in mid air, staring at Dale with his mouth dropped open in what looked like devastated shock. Riley grimaced and I saw him mouth sorry back at Dale.
“… Fuck me.” Mason said eventually, reverently.
Dale discarded another forkful of trout to the side of his plate, and suddenly I thought he looked very tired.
“No. I’m very fond of you Mase, but I’m married.”
Riley grinned. Mason was still staring at Dale as if he’d been poleaxed.
“Dale Aden. You’re Dale freaking Aden!”
“Yes. You’ve known me for weeks.” Dale said evenly.
“Jeeze!” Mason finally lowered his knife. “I never thought twice about the name – I knew you were in the field, you said as much but – man, you look nothing like the pictures I’ve seen in the Wall Street Journals!”
“Mostly because that’s just the facet I put on when I go do the work. I’m semi-retired, I just freelance now.”
“And he eats properly here, and even sleeps occasionally when he’s not sloping off to New York.” Paul said comfortably. “Dale, I don’t think there’s much more abuse you can inflict on that fillet. Eggs?”
“No, this is fine, thank you.”
Ok; if those of us in the know needed any more warning that this was a brat approaching a crash and burn that was it, right there in that extremely civil and largely toneless little sentence.
“It’s not ‘fine’ because you’re not eating it.” Flynn said bluntly. “You are going to eat, kid. Is it going to be this or eggs?”
Dale gave him a somewhat icy look that suggested he was not impressed with the suggestion and Paul, who had got up to start eggs anyway, shook his head.
“Oh you can knock the scary faces right off. This is mostly about desperately wanting to beat yourself up about yesterday and in particular spending most of yesterday feeling like the strongest person around here. Plus that we didn’t spot you managing us. And a part of you really likes that and wants to plan on building on it asap, and the other part hates it, and they’ve both got a point. So how about we just agree you’re pretty mad at yourself and us and me in particular and that’s ok, and then you can relax and eat?”
“I am not in any way annoyed with you.” Dale said very precisely. “I’m not quite sure where you’ve gathered that misconception but I’m happy to disabuse you of it.”
Paul gave him an abruptly very warm smile that had no connection at all to what Dale was saying.
“Hello sweetie, I was missing you.”
Tom wasn’t missing one word of this. I suppose I glanced at him, half concerned that he’d feel trapped in this all too domestic situation; he hung at the far edge of any group meals he ever came to. But he’d stopped eating, he was absolutely still and his eyes weren’t leaving Paul and Dale.
“Aden.” Mason shook his head, still staring at Dale. “I’ve been reading about you for years! And you’re out here shifting cattle and hiking–”
“Of course he is, you’ve been watching him do it long enough?” Riley pointed out.
Dale took a few seconds more to remove his gaze from Paul, whom he was looking at as though considering reporting him to the British consulate. Not that Paul appeared to care.
“I can do the job.” Dale informed Mason shortly. “It isn’t who or what makes me happy or makes life worth living. The cattle and the hiking covers a lot of that part. Largely because of who I do the cattle shifting and the hiking with.”
The words were absolutely sincere but the tone suggested he’d quite like to bite someone about it. Tom was watching him and I could see both comprehension and grim compassion in his face. The phone rang again and Flynn picked it up this time; clearly they had a plan for call management.
“Falls Chance. I’ll see.” He put his hand over the mouthpiece to look at Dale.
“Yes. He’s probably wondering what the hell I’m doing.” Dale reached to take the phone. “Good morning Jerry.”
“ANZ Jeremy Banks?” Mason sat back in his chair, looking poleaxed. “Jeremy Banks rings him at breakfast.”
Flynn got up to take a plate of poached eggs and toast from Paul, picked up Dale’s knife and fork and followed as Dale took the phone out onto the porch.
They didn’t come back. The rest of us finished the meal and Riley got up to clear his plates, whistling cheerfully under his breath; he seemed to read Dale very well and it was apparent neither he nor Paul nor Jasper saw anything to worry about.
“Mase, coming? We’ve got quite a way to go.”
“Take lunch with you.” Paul nodded him at the pantry. Riley grimaced.
“It doesn’t take that long, we’ll be back for lunch.”
“It only takes one of them to be awkward and it’ll be hours more than you expected, take things with you in case.”
The joys of bullocks. I knew them well. Jasper got up too, helping Paul to clear the table, and Luath swallowed the last of his tea and joined them.
“We probably won’t be back for lunch either, you’re going to get a quiet day.”
No bad idea. We heard the hum of voices on the porch as they left and Flynn and Dale came in, Flynn putting the phone down on the counter and Dale’s now empty plate in the sink.
“Emmett just called. He’s on his way back from the Pierson Ranch, one of Harry’s wranglers got butted in the face this morning, sounds like his nose is smashed. He’ll be here in about an hour.”
Paul casually paused beside Dale, slipping an arm around his waist to survey Tom and me and ignoring that Dale stiffened visibly.
“Then why don’t we get you two comfortable before Flynn heads out? Tom, where do you feel like being this morning? Study, family room, porch, in here if you like, I’m planning on baking this morning and you’re welcome to hang around.”
I was expecting to hear ‘study’ or ‘porch’. Tom looked extremely grim but he said shortly and immediately, “In here’s good thanks.”
I didn’t think Paul had the slightest difficulty interpreting that grimness; he was doing a good job with his own brat in that department right now and he certainly got mine. He simply smiled and nodded, taking Dale with him to start on the washing up.
“Great, we’ll enjoy the company. Dale, grab a cloth and dry for me please?”
“Got horses to see to.” Flynn said to Paul. “I’ll be back for lunch.”
“I’ll be delighted to help you.” Dale said coolly. He was moving towards the rack to collect a jacket with authority, the same authority with which he’d spoken on the phone. Flynn simply got in his way and stood right there. For a moment I saw Dale – not square up to him. That wasn’t it at all. There was nothing aggressive in his stance, nothing that suggested Flynn so much as counted as a threat or a noticeable problem, it was simple dominance. The radiated force of personality that I’d seen control a table full of brats last summer. A man with real power hasn’t the slightest need to flaunt it or act it out, and Dale didn’t. Then Flynn, equally without warning or threat, heeled out a chair and braced a foot on the rung of it and turned Dale straight over his knee. His knee was high enough that Dale hung hands and feet off the floor, he grabbed for Flynn’s leg to stabilise himself although Flynn had him very firmly anchored, and Flynn dusted off the seat of his jeans with a dozen hard swats, a rapid downpour that I saw cut straight through Dale’s detachment. He was squirming well before Flynn was finished, and I heard the muffled and distinctly more sincere sounds that included,
“Flynn – ok, all right,”
Flynn swatted him again, a really sound one, and Dale spoke a whole lot more quickly.
“I’m sorry, I’m done! I promise I’m done.”
“I can keep this up as long as needed kid, it’s no trouble.” Flynn informed him.
“It isn’t needed,” Dale sounded very keen to convince him. “I swear I’ll stop.”
Flynn looked across to Paul, not letting Dale shift from his position.
“We’ll be fine.” Paul said cheerfully. He was washing dishes, taking very little notice of what was going on; few of us would, this had never been an unusual kind of conversation as long as I’d known this house. Flynn jerked Dale back to his feet, turning Dale to face him.
“Knock it off. Or it’s going to be a very long afternoon. Understood?”
“I’ll be back in a couple of hours.” Flynn hooked an arm around Dale’s neck, pulled him over and I saw the tightness of the hug he gave him. That wasn’t a threat; that was reassurance. Dale kept hold of him when Flynn would have let him go, Flynn looked down at him for a second and then held him again, more gently this time, stooping his head to say something into Dale’s ear out of our earshot. They stood like that for a while longer, Flynn in no hurry, and we deliberately didn’t watch that either, and finally Dale let him go, taking a slow breath. His voice was softer, sounding tired again and heavy but much more natural.
“… Flynn… I’d like to show you and Tom something. I think it’s important. May I use the laptop from the safe? I don’t think we should try getting Tom up to the computer room.”
“What’s important?” Paul said gently. “Is this to do with your meeting yesterday?”
“No, this is another matter.”
Flynn gave him a brief nod and went with him towards the safe; clearly they weren’t giving Dale much rope trust-wise today and I’d have done the same. Dale brought a small and high spec laptop to the table, setting it up rapidly and calling up several pages. Then he looked to Paul as if for help, and Paul came to stand with Flynn behind him.
“What are we looking at honey?”
Dale turned the screen so Tom and I could see it too. It appeared to be his email inbox page. He scrolled down to locate a message with the date beside it.
“This was the last email I received from you before you left on the summit attempt. Is the date correct?”
“Yes. We left on May 1st.” Tom agreed. “I mailed you the evening before we headed out.”
“And you left your message with Paul for me from camp three on May 2nd.” Dale sat back to look at him. “Your time zone was eleven hours and forty five minutes ahead of ours here. You called Paul late afternoon your time, it was near dawn here our time. I read that letter the evening of May 2nd and I drafted my reply that evening on Eagle Canyon.” “I know. I got it.” Tom said roughly. “I was carrying it with me all the way down the mountain.”
“And you received the email when?” Dale said levelly. Tom looked up at me.
“May 4th. We came down from the summit to camp three – rested a bit, went down to rescue duckface, then came back up to camp three. I found it in our tent then. It might have been there earlier and I didn’t see it, someone must have brought it up from base camp and shoved it through the flap.”
“May 4th. At about 5pm, by the time you returned to the camp three tent.” Dale repeated. “Which would make it about 5.15am May 4th our time. Correct?”
I was aware of the expression on Paul’s face – it was an oddly gentle and very comprehending one, I didn’t understand it, but he quite casually put a hand on Dale’s shoulder, leaning there with him. Dale clicked another link to open his sent box.
“… This may be a little difficult to explain. I was gone on the two-day hike for 48 hours. I left here early morning on May 2nd and I returned early morning May 4th. Then slept a few hours. Then typed up and sent the email that I had drafted in my journal.”
“Which I can confirm,” Paul said gently. “I came up to the office with you and it was about 2pm.”
The sent stamp on the outbox page stated 2.08pm May 4th.
“Do you have the email print out?” Dale said quietly to me. Tom looked up at me too. I headed upstairs, took it from our dresser and brought it down. The kitchen was very quiet, I don’t think they’d spoken while I was gone. Flynn stood right behind Dale, arms folded, face grim and his eyes very soft. Paul was half sitting on the edge of the table, the hand on Dale’s shoulder absently rubbing where it rested. Tom was waiting, his head tipped back against the back of the armchair. I’d had a thorough look at the date stamp on the sheets on my way downstairs and put it on the table where we could all see.
“So how,” Tom said aloud, “the hell is it this is time stamped the 2nd May 11.58pm….and it arrived about 5pm May 4th up in camp three when it wasn’t typed into the computer for another eight hours?”
“It’s just a computer error, it must be?” I said in the rather startled pause. “They happen all the time. Server mistakes, delays–”
“Who else was up on the mountain to drop mail at camp three that day?” Tom said abruptly to me. “When the alert came out for Loudon everyone checked in. We heard where everyone was.”
“Several expeditions were in camp three with us, it could have been any one of them.”
“None of them fast enough to bring an email a few hours old all the way up from base camp.” Tom surveyed me and I couldn’t read his eyes. “Paul, can I use the phone please?”
I knew who he was dialing. Flynn drew out a chair to sit beside Dale and we waited in silence while Tom listened to lines connecting over thousands of miles, across ocean, across cities, up to the highest place on earth into the mountains.
“Shem? It’s Tom. Yeah, we’re fine, we’re ok. Jake’s arm’s healing. I’ve just got a bit of frost bite. Who else have you got there with you? Ok, I thought she would. What about Dorje?”
I waited, watching his face, and I saw him crack into a sharp, fierce smile.
“Good. Good I’m glad. You’ve got Pemba and Lobsang going with you? Good too. Take whatever you need, don’t worry about it. Shem, can you open up the Mountain Eagles email account? Last one to me from Dale Aden, can you see the date on it? Sure? Thanks. Good luck. Let us know.”
He closed the call and slowly put the phone down. It was a moment before he spoke.
“She’s starting her summit climb tomorrow morning. Harry’s manning the radio, Lobsang and Pemba are going up with her. Spitz went out with Beau yesterday, they’re headed for Cambodia and this site she wants to survey. Dorje’s gone with them.”
Which meant he was now in Beau’s employ. She’d offered him a place on her expedition team, the team we held a part time role in. I felt the same flood of delight I’d seen in Tom’s face and as he caught my eye I shared it with him. We should have known Beau wouldn’t hesitate; she’d grown up in a diplomatic corps family and things like visas never caused her any difficulty. Dorje’s strength and climbing skills would make him exceptional in any terrain, his intelligence made him even more of an asset and Beau knew a rough diamond when she saw one. And although she denied it, had been living an entirely separatist existence since the age of about fifteen when I’d met her. Her entire team and anyone she ever worked with was gay. Dorje had his escape all right.
“What about the email?” Paul asked. Tom looked over at Dale.
“It’s in the inbox, dated arriving the 5th May 1.53am. Still marked in bold, it hasn’t been opened.”
No one seemed to have much to say after that. Flynn sat with them for a while, more or less in silence, very close to Dale who wasn’t saying anything. For a man who, Tom had no doubt, could strip the facts down on any computer and establish precisely where and when this technical discrepancy had arisen – he wasn’t doing much. Because Tom could analyse the time difference as well as he could.
When he was a child, Tom had heard his father counsel more than one person by saying gently, “When a miracle is handed to you, accept it gracefully.”
Accepting gracefully not a good habit of mine.
Largely through feeling he never deserved it in the first place. He’d never felt he deserved Jake who was also not rushing to reject or question or even fight this revelation beyond the sense of – wonder. Since he was a child, Tom had always, somewhat unwillingly, admitted that there were forces in the universe that didn’t take any crap from you and were never fooled. One of them was sitting quietly close beside him in this kitchen, large, fair, athletically handsome like an angel in shorts and a raggy sweatshirt, and given that they were still here together, any other miracle seemed very reasonable by comparison.
Jake had stood with him in cities abandoned centuries ago where no human had stepped in hundreds of years with this quiet respect. Sacred places, temples, the caves, the tombs of Alexandria. He had always understood it exactly as Tom had from childhood among the crypts and tombs and ragged flags of the cathedral; Jake moved quietly in such places, with respect, with care for what was ancient, what held centuries of human values and feeling. Whether he could understand it or not, he felt it. The man had a heart strong enough and wide enough to open itself wherever he went. And he silently asked permission to be there, to join what was there, not invading it. If Tom had been in love with him before the first time he saw Jake do that, he’d tumbled a whole lot deeper on the spot. Jake never thought purely with logic and science. On impulse Tom hooked his hand through Jake’s arm, roughly knocking his head against Jake’s shoulder. Jake put an arm around him, gently with care for bruising. And then the day just kind of went on. They sat there together, side by side at the scrubbed wood table, and the ranch went on around them. It was slightly odd, having spent years in mountains, rainforests, temples and oceans, some of the most wild, beautiful and magical places on the planet that should naturally stage the most powerful, shattering moments of life that you could experience - that this morning was happening at a kitchen table over breakfast. And the hard limit to physical mobility along with the exhaustion that removed what would usually have been an unbearable desire to move; that too was quite an education. In the usual way, all information would have been rushing in at high speed, ready or not, and it could feel like being swamped. Here - there was no choice but to be still. To observe the small details again and again in growing depth, to listen. To stay. To feel all the currents within the room at that slowed speed.
The email wasn’t the only thing keeping Dale looking abstracted as he helped Paul to wash the dishes, and there was a painful element to watching him that Tom had felt since he first met this reserved Englishman last summer, of watching his younger self making some of the mistakes he’d been bullheadedly making for decades, yet it came in Dale with that blazing, consuming determination to learn. Everything Dale did was efficient; it wasn’t hard to see the reason why the polished wooden rack above the stove held the dishes immaculately aligned by size, but he was trying painfully hard too not to let himself hover near to Paul. It was a dance that hit Tom to the heart and he couldn’t take his eyes off it; he’d done the same thing himself on a bad day, plenty of times. Sometimes overcompensating to the point he’d keep as much distance between himself and Jake as possible. Jake never missed it. Within minutes he’d grab hold and keep them occupied some way that made thinking about anything much impossible, and afterwards that whole mass of emotion would be dispersed again. Paul took it for about a minute and a half before he shook off his hands and confiscated Dale’s dish towel.
“Ok, I feel a heart to heart coming on, you and I.”
Tom’s heart must have jolted as hard as Dale’s did. Dale looked distinctly trapped but he said shortly, “I’m-”
“Yes I see that.” Paul said it lightly and with sympathy, but he pulled out a chair and plonked it directly in front of Dale, sitting down. “Come on. From the hip, both barrels. No? Don’t worry hon, I’ll do it. Paul, you screwed up hugely yesterday-”
“You did not,” Dale said in horror.
“- how the hell am I supposed to believe you can keep me safe when I can lie to you and sneak around and you just fall for it, you’re supposed to know me-”
“I took advantage of a difficult situation, it was a perfect storm!” Dale was flushed to the roots of his hair, but Tom, jaw nearly dropped in shock and alarm at this forthright confrontation and sweat breaking out across his shoulders, could see Dale’s entire body was focused on Paul, who was continuing to rant cheerfully.
“- I can’t go off saving the world from batty women if I can’t be sure whether to keep on trying to trust you even when you’re letting me get away, or if I need to give up on you and go back to autopilot because I have to cope somehow. I can’t do both, and you let me down.”
“You did not!”
“But it feels like I did.” Paul said gently. “And it hurts. I know it does. Honey you can’t help how you feel. You can’t. It’s ok to tell me, and you’re right. I am very sorry I let it happen. It was my responsibility – yes, it is not your job to try and do this on your own. We do it together and you need me to see ahead when things get hard. I wasn’t paying enough attention when you needed me -”
He was interrupted by Dale dropping quietly to his knees and burying himself in Paul’s arms.
The core of their relationship was so strongly there. Sweating and darkly flushed himself, it was, Tom could see, there all the time. Not just in the obviously visible acts of discipline that Flynn had already bluntly demonstrated this morning, and watching him had gripped Tom because it was so very much just as Jake would have done; but in every conversation, every current all the time, even in this one. If you knew what you were feeling it was tangible, his body recognised it. Tom had always known it was here in this house – always shied away from it for that exact reason, it had been something too hard to physically be around even though it drew him like a magnet. He’d never let himself observe this in other men, dreading what he would see.
Be a stranger and a vagabond all your wretched life
The seed of Cain with guilt and shame is ridden….
No. No more fallen angels. Jake had been clear on that point. But in this kitchen here it was. The exact same feelings, the same dance Tom knew and felt and lived himself every day with Jake, who was as gifted as Paul was in grabbing onto the tiniest details, the essence of what was between you in things only the two of you would know or notice in a public place but which still brought you back in a heartbeat to feeling safe. With him. To see it in men it was impossible not to respect brought back the same feeling he’d had last night in the family room. These men should carry the mark of Cain. By all rational logic it should be there, and yet it was impossible to look at Dale or Gerry or Riley or Niall and believe it. What was between them and their partners was unsensational. Normal and real and oh so strong, not something emasculated or pitiful at all. And there was a sense of belonging in seeing them do it that was raw.
This was a horribly, intensely sensitive moment of Dale’s; Tom was guiltily aware that he was mesmerized and lacked even the basic decency to look away, never mind quietly get up and slip out of the room as the man deserved, but Gerry, heading around the kitchen table in boxers and nothing else, patted Tom’s shoulder firmly as he passed.
“You’re fine where you are, relax. He needs to do this with the lot of us and be honest about it, no secrets and no closed doors or it makes it worse. This is stuff we talk about. And I’m guessing you probably need to see it too.”
Shocked, Tom looked up at him, feeling his face burn still more hotly, but Gerry breezed on around the table as if he’d said nothing strange at all.
“Having a payback morning are we?” he said to Dale with enough flippancy to make the sympathy in his voice bearable, leaning past Dale and Paul to fill a glass with water and he pulled out a chair at the table to sit down.
“Hugging me does not shut me up.” Paul said firmly into Dale’s hair. “So very nice as this is don’t think I’m falling for it. You don’t do well away from us right now, and you know it, and that is ok. No one is going to die. It doesn’t mean you’ve got yourself in too deep.”
Dale’s face was hidden but Tom heard something that sounded rather like a snort of something close to a laugh, if a very embarrassed one.
“Look, I realised a long time ago I didn’t do well away from any of you, this is no surprise.”
“I think it was; life looks a bit different to you now the way it did even a month ago.” Paul put a hand under his chin to make him lift his head. “Look at me. Yeah that’s my eyebrow, left a bit. Hi gorgeous. Anything I’ve left out?”
“No.” Dale sat back on his heels, flushed but somewhere between laughing and a whole lot of emotion Tom didn’t have a name for, and he was meeting Paul’s eyes. Wholly, fully. “I am sorry. I was playing games with you, I didn’t do it to be intentionally manipulative – or rather yes I did, but I thought I had a good purpose in mind at the time-”
“Oh you did.” Gerry agreed. “It was a terribly worthy game, darling, I was applauding you on all the way and I of all people really should have thought to say some of this to you instead of getting so excited I was all Ooh Go to New York! Go to New York! But in my defense, David would have got your coat and pushed you out the door before I got a word in edgewise.”
“I did get lost in it.” Dale was still talking to Paul. Softly, and in a very different tone to the one he’d been using all breakfast time so far. “I didn’t let you help, I could have done. I did get…”
“Hijacked.” Paul supplied gently when he trailed off.
You never signed an agreement to be psychic, it was my responsibility to tell you… Tom had said exactly that to Jake in a tent near the top of the top of the mountain. He’d done the same thing no few times to Jake. Who understood that the harder things were the more afraid you were that you would weaken enough to show it, confide what you couldn’t bear to admit. To avoid it you hardened yourself all you could, you built your armour and you hid behind it until you had control of yourself again.
Dale nodded slowly.
“Yes. And yes I feel like the first real fence I came to I failed miserably.”
“I told you this was going to happen.” Gerry said compassionately. “It sucks. I know it really sucks, but if you’re serious, and you are, you’ve got to accept it’s the only way to do it. The big realisations are the dramatic, motivating bits but the reality…. honey it’s all about getting back up and trying again. Day in and day out, practicing keeping it in your head and still doing it no matter what else is going on. That’s the only way you make any real change. You’re trying to set yourself a new permanent default normal; just knowing technically what to do, to put it crudely, means jack shit. It takes time. Even for you it’s going to take time.”
“Remember that first shelter you built out there on your own?” Paul asked Dale. It clearly meant something to Dale, and it looked like nothing bad.
“Then think about that. Because we got through that together and I am not letting you go.” Paul said very firmly. “Never. I’m here for the long haul, you’re stuck with me, and I’m a quick study. So we keep on practicing, just like Gerry says and we are going to be ok. Got it? Nope, look at me.”
“Got it.” Dale said a little bleakly, but directly to him. Paul nodded, running a hand gently over his face.
“Good. So now you’ve got that off your chest, want to talk about what else is it you’re chewing on? Because I can see there’s something. Yeah you might as well come clean, come on.”
Dale leaned for a moment, his arms folded on Paul’s lap, his dark head bent, not running, not snarling, just gathering himself.
“… I have done this kind of management of legal issues for years. It’s always been objective. Absolutely academic, just detached facts to deal with. This …”
“This you’re enjoying.” Gerry observed to him. “Oh don’t look so shocked. It was fairly evident in the meeting. You were just as excited as we were in a highly intense Topgun kind of a way, it was rather lovely. It’s fine. We were enjoying you jump all over the Loudon woman, I don’t see why you need to feel guilty?”
“I don’t!” Dale protested.
“Yes you do.” Gerry said calmly. “You feel as guilty as sin that you’re having the time of your life jumping all over this witch, and jetting around because you actually want to jet around with Riley in the middle of the night and call scary meetings. The getting hijacked angst I’ve got sympathy with; that is tough. But the whole ‘If I’m not stressed and miserable then I obviously can’t be working properly’ is just some kind of bizarre puritanism you need to get over.”
Dale looked torn between exasperation and a desire to burst out laughing, the look he fixed Gerry with was more than slightly annoyed. “It’s more than that….”
“It really isn’t.” Gerry told him kindly.
“Look. I never usually have any kind of emotional involvement at all. It’s a professional standard. This... I really don’t want to find myself making a mistake because I’m not thinking objectively or thoroughly enough. I’m sorry Jake, this is probably not at all reassuring-”
“Dale, I’d trust your opinion whether it’s objective or emotional or blind drunk.” Jake said firmly. “So far I’ve seen you do anything at all but screw up, you’ve been amazing and I can’t figure out how to tell you how grateful I am. Feeling heated seems natural enough to me, this was a major threat to everyone here and I feel heated enough about it – but from what I’ve seen it’s not making you in any way less efficient. I agree with Ger, Paul and Flynn. Try knocking it off.”
The Top in Jake flowed wherever they were and whoever they were with. But here he was around other men who got this, with whom he was entirely himself, he could do this stuff effortlessly the way they could, and Tom saw Dale respond the way he always did himself. Paul pulled Dale’s hand until Dale got up far enough to let Paul draw him into his lap, and he looked a whole lot calmer.
“I had a distinctly messy experience myself last night.” Gerry announced, lounging back in his chair. “A large apparition with a New Zealand accent burst into our room about 1am, completely ignored me, woke Ash and asked him would he please sort out the pain in my side since it was keeping Dale awake.”
What? More shaken up than he wanted to admit to himself and now confused too, Tom cast a rather baffled look at Jake who grinned.
Dale, entwined with Paul, ran a slightly harassed hand over his eyes. “Yes. I’m sorry about that….”
Gerry gave him a rather amused smile. “I know you’re feeling all over the place darling, but if you could endeavour not to do your whole spooky-woo thing and drop the rest of us in deep trouble in the early hours of the morning I’d appreciate it?”
“If you’d told Ash and taken painkillers a few hours earlier no one would have had to wake at all.” Paul pointed out with his arms around Dale. Gerry pulled a face at him.
“Yes, and I’d dragged Ash on a plane when he really didn’t want to go and he was tired and needed to sleep, and that room’s so tiny I can’t get up or open any drawers to get to anything without waking him.”
“Did he see it your way?” Jake inquired.
“No, not in the slightest. Odd, isn’t it?”
The phone rang again. Paul freed a hand to pick it up although Dale was nearer and Gerry sipped more water, catching Tom’s eye.
“I understand it’s not a good idea to give any corporate bigwigs the idea that they can access Dale directly by phone. We all do this gate keeper act for him, they must think he keeps a small army of PAs here. Not to mention that you need your working time to be kept under slightly stricter surveillance than Colditz.” he added to Dale. “If you’re going to stay anything like sane and on the same planet as the rest of us. And as someone with intermittent sanity problems myself I get that.”
“ – thank you, I’ll see if he’s available.” Paul said crisply to whoever was on the phone and covered the mouthpiece with his hand. “Dale, it’s Brandon Walters asking for you, attorney representing Madeleine Loudon.”
“This is my problem, Dale.” Jake said mildly. “You’ve already done more for us than we could ever have asked you for. If you want me to take it from here you only have to say so.”
Dale’s face didn’t change at all but there was something in his eyes that sharpened and blazed up and he took the phone, getting smoothly to his feet.
“… If you really don’t mind, I would love to. Aden. Good morning.”
“Now have fun. Think terrifying, darling.” Gerry said to him cheerfully. “Come on, channel it. Ice eyes, James Bond, think of that voice you do that makes me want to wet myself and all the things that really tick you off – think of the top meadow being mowed with the blades at the wrong height and it’s all uneven-”
“Gerry stop it and go and put some clothes on.” Paul got up to go on with the drying up and Dale, phone balanced between ear and shoulder, took the dried plates from him to put away. His eyes were absorbed and his tone was one of smooth courtesy, listening precisely to what the speaker was telling him.
“Quite. Yes. I see.”
He placed the last couple of plates in the rack and took the phone briskly in hand again, the tone not changing exactly but taking on a depth and some kind of quality to it that despite his teasing still made Gerry visibly cringe and Tom knew why; it made his own stomach abruptly crunch and his palms start to sweat too.
“Then I shall be in your office in three hours and” Dale briefly glanced at his watch and then directly at Paul who gave him a calm nod, “twenty minutes where I shall be delighted to present my estimate for fiscal damages, slander, breach of contract, loss of equipment and compensation for injuries sustained and we’ll compare our evidence shall we? The ANZ legal team have a delegate standing by to join us and your client may then save herself a few hundred thousand by settling out of court. Or perhaps you may feel now on reflection that you would prefer to control your client? Very well, it is of course your decision. Good morning to you Mr Walters.”
“You have to love the British; they can make the nicest civility sound like ‘up yours’.” Gerry observed.
“Where are we going?” Paul said calmly. Dale laid the phone down and came to retrieve more dishes to put away.
“We are not. Mr Walters has decided to mount an expedition in search of his testiculus and explain to his client that he cannot advise her to proceed with the matter any further.”
Tom snorted. Gerry, sounding slightly subdued, finished his water.
“You know I love it and I hate it when you do that. Won’t she simply find a more stupid or desperate lawyer?”
“She is welcome to find as many as she likes. I shall be delighted to present the evidence as many times as necessary.” Gerry grinned.
“And how many are you hoping she’s going to find for you? Planning to move on to reducing the American Legal Fraternity to tears? He made their client cry you know.” he added to Tom.
“I did not.”
“That is not what I heard.”
“Shut up Gerry.” Dale leaned down over Gerry’s shoulders to hook an arm around his neck and kiss his cheek briefly in passing. For a split second Gerry looked as startled as Paul did, then his eyes lit with so much warmth it was hard to look at. Jake looked across at Tom for a moment, then squeezed his hand, getting up.
“You need to lay down.”
“I'm okay sitting here.”
Paul had already gotten up and came calmly to help Jake who was moving the armchair gently back from the table. Tom said nothing further since it was apparent he was moving whether willing or not, and Paul lifted him competently and very gently, taking him into the family room and waiting while Jake shifted quilts and pillows into position on the couch.
He was going to do the whole lay down, lay still, be quiet, rest thing – God knew Tom was used to it, it was a normal part of day to day in his world and very much one of the ways Jake kept him on the same planet, and he was tired as hell, hurting and overwhelmed, Jake knew it and somehow perversely that made it all the more infuriating.
“Can I at least sit up against the couch arm?” he demanded as he was put down. Jake took zero notice. He settled pillows, helped Paul to raise Tom’s legs on them, and Paul spread the blanket from the back of the couch over Tom before he headed back to the kitchen, tactfully staying out of it.
This would – and Tom was well aware of it – normally be the point Jake disciplined him. Without lecturing or comment, and perfectly calmly, but mutiny never went well and Jake never let that kind of thing go. Jake simply sat on the floor beside him with his back against the couch, and reached over to take his hand, winding his fingers through Tom’s. There was a determination to it that threw Tom, who picked up the overtones instantly. Out loud, Jake said evenly without looking at him;
“Jake, I'm tired as hell and I'm taking in every single thing I can in that kitchen because some of me wishes you'd do that. Exactly that.”
Reflexively, Tom tried to pull his hand away but Jake didn’t let him retreat. He sounded calm and very, very gentle, sitting sideways on so Tom didn’t have to look him in the face, and he – in fact both of them – could lounge comfortably on the furniture in this house without dwarfing any of it, it was a strange experience to feel so sharply in proportion.
“Now you say it.”
Tom tried again to remove his hand, not roughly, in fact slightly incompetently, although his voice was defensively sharp.
“I am not Dale.”
Jake turned to see his face and he covered Tom’s trapped hand gently in both of his, lifting it to his mouth for a brief moment. His voice was gentle too but in that quietly stern tone that went to the very deepest parts of Tom.
“It is ok for you to want that. You deserve it, you’re worth it. It's ok to need it, and I agree with you; you do need it. So for real. Now, Tommy. It’s time. No more stalling.”
This is the time.
He was right. This was the time. The place. And if he was honest, there was no magic to what Dale was doing, no special gift that allowed him to do what others couldn’t – he and Paul had no magic script, no perfect knowledge. They just tried.
The knowledge was here, within this house, right in front of them, waiting for them. They only had to be ready to learn from it.
I will not waste the time we have being afraid any more, I refuse.
This was no longer Boys Own territory.
“… I am… tired as hell.” It came out even more hoarsely than his buggered up throat accounted for and Tom had to stop to clear it to take the step out onto unknown ground. Intentionally, knowing what he did. “…and I do need you to do – that. Like that. I’m ready. I need you to make me get past… whatever it is I do when I do it. No running. No opt outs.”
“Yes.” Jake said gently. “We asked for this, and we got it, didn’t we? We knew exactly what we were getting into, we knew – we hoped she was going to do this to us. We knew we weren’t going to come back the same; that was what we went there for.”
The stripping down, the endurance game, the quest of both of them from souls rooted in romance and literature and the human beliefs of thousands of years that life went deeper and higher and further than could be found without trial and investment at the deepest personal level and at the edges of physical endurance. The clarity of your focus, the clearing of head and heart that made space for the universe to come rushing in and open your eyes. They’d gone there seeking precisely that together the way they’d both sought in different places it all their adult lives, in the depths of oceans, in deserts, in rainforests, in the lost sacred places.
“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Tom said half to himself.
“Yes. Exactly. So any miracles that happened,” Jake said quietly, “You earned and you deserved. Say that back to me.”
It was hard. But not in the hot, frozen way that even just thinking it would have been just a few days ago. He would have forced himself to get the words out syllable by syllable if necessary - but there had been those frozen hours on the mountain where all the stuff that had seemed so insurmountable had looked so stupid, so petty a thing to be wasting life on, and that incised view of life had been so piercing that it would never leave him as long as he lived. And now his throat opened and suddenly it was possible.
“… Any miracles that happened, I earned and I deserved.”
I did. We did.
Jake flashed him that laser, top of the world smile of his. He sat back against the couch again, keeping hold of Tom’s hand, and all Tom could think about was the warmth and the strength of Jake’s fingers and his own gripping back hard in return.
Look Ma, no silver hands...
“What does it feel like listening to Dale and Gerry?” Jake said conversationally.
He knew already but he was asking for a reason with that fiery sword tone still in his voice and Tom found himself baring his teeth in a bizarrely fierce grin at the ceiling, his eyes stinging.
“… Yeah, all right smartarse. Hard. Weird. In a relatively good way.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It was about half an hour later that Paul brought a couple of mugs of tea through, putting one in Tom’s reach on the coffee table.
“Jake? I’m going to walk up to the mail box, I’ve got a few things to drop off.”
“I’ve got a letter to go please.” Jake got up, reaching for his pocket, and Tom gave him a short nod towards the door.
“Jake go with him. You need the walk. Go on, I’m fine.”
“We’re here if Tom needs anything.” Gerry said cheerfully, coming to collapse onto the couch opposite Tom. He’d obviously found a sweatshirt in the laundry room, he looked rumpled and perfectly comfortable. Dale came too, sitting on the hearthstone to light the swept out, newly made up fire.
“Are you sure?” Jake said quietly to Tom. Realising this had to be something of a shock as he’d barely tolerated short meals in the company of Jake’s family before now and only ever with Jake beside him, Tom flushed a little but nodded, shifting slightly to get more comfortable “Yes. Get on with it. You’ll be climbing the walls by tonight if you don’t get some exercise.”
“We’re walking up the drive, so if Emmett arrives I’ll come back with him.” Jake stooped to drop a fast kiss on Tom’s mouth. “Stay where you are, finish that tea and keep your feet up. I won’t be long.”
“Fuss budget.” Tom managed something like a swat to one muscled thigh to chase him off. “Have you got any shoes? All I’ve got is my climbing boots and I don’t think yours came with us out of Kathmandu.”
“I’ve got trainers I keep here.”
“Mind your arm.” Tom watched him follow Paul, taking his mug with him, and a moment later their footfall left the kitchen and moved out of earshot in the yard.
“Paul said he’s planning to drive you two up to Jackson hospital for your appointment on Friday.” Gerry slung a leg over the arm of the chair and stepped in before the silence could become awkward, cradling his own mug in his hands. “He and Dale can do a quick recce while you’re there for clothes, he said you had nothing when you came back but what you were standing up in.”
“We do that quite a lot.” Tom said it abruptly, for no other reason than it was hard to have a social conversation with him like this. He’d never really talked to any of them other than Dale; had actively avoided it, and this was with a man he’d always been drawn to and therefore avoided more than most, careful never to attract the attention of. “We don’t carry much with us, we get cheap stuff, wear it until it’s wrecked and then bin the lot and replace it when we get near a town. Other than our watches and rings not much else is permanent.”
“Dale’s much the same.” Gerry observed mildly. “Not much for the personal possessions at all, were you before you came here? I don’t mean electronics, I mean things you keep because you like them and have some attachment to them.”
“I travelled constantly.” Dale had stayed sitting on the hearthstone and his soft, even voice was a contrast to Gerry’s lively one. “Much like Tom but with less challenging environments. And the image consultants for ANZ kept me kitted out for whatever I needed to do via my PA.”
“I was another one who arrived here in what I stood up in.” Gerry explained to Tom. “I think it was a pair of very battered, very tight jeans, even more battered tennis shoes, a shirt and a jacket. And that was it. Although I think I kept all those things hoarded for about five years before I got up the courage to throw them away. Philip was very good, he pretended not to notice since he had enough difficulty to start with to get me to accept any new clothes. I could just about cope with borrowing old stuff from David and ‘Lito – I walked around in rolled up jeans for months – but anyone giving me anything…. No. Not a book, not a pair of socks, nothing. It made me so uncomfortable I’d lose it. I was not going to be vulnerable to anyone like that thank you, plus it was years before I really lost the stress over owning anything I liked. I always wanted to break it or get rid of it. That drove Lito insane, but Philip got it. If I wrecked it myself I’d got rid of the dread of someone else doing it, and it hurt less taking the flak for looking like a nasty, don’t-care little bastard than risking how I’d feel if someone took it away from me. It’s mad the way you get programmed, isn’t it?”
It was a shock to look at this relaxed, articulate middle-aged man and hear this from him. Said dispassionately and honestly with compassion that Tom could feel. Gerry gave him a rather gentle smile.
“And now Ash and I have days of looking around our house mumbling ‘where did all this stuff come from?’ and donating boxes of it to Good Will. It does change. So you see I’m not just hanging around because I’m the designated baby brat sitter of the family. I have this particular t shirt myself, I really do. And other people in this house got me through it at the time, James and Niall included. I did not appreciate it at the time or make it easy for them, so don’t feel compelled to be nice. Do you yet have anything that belongs to you that isn’t strictly utilitarian and sensible?” he added to Dale.
Dale shrugged mildly. “Clothes I actually prefer and made a choice about. Paul had to do a bit of educating there, I had no clue. A couple of books I’ve been given. This.”
He took something out of his pocket. It was roughly shaped and a slightly iridescent pink.
“Rose quartz.” Dale said to Tom when he saw him looking. He was holding it gently in his hand, his thumb skimming over the angled, uneven surfaces as if they were familiar to him. “It was mined on the ranch.”
He held it for a moment, clasping both hands over it with his eyes on his hands, then said formally without looking up,
“I hope I haven’t disturbed you too much with this email business.”
“I’m going to be mean and call bullshit.” Gerry observed. Dale winced.
“… All right. Tom, I think I’ve probably thoroughly freaked you out. Is that better?”
“Much.” Gerry finished his tea and put the mug down. “What happened with the email?”
Tom must have given away more than he intended as Dale glanced across to him.
“It’s all right. I’m afraid this kind of thing seems to happen to me and Gerry was the first person to encounter it outside of Riley, Paul, Flynn and Jasper, who are used to me. He’s been very kind about it.”
“No, I just know you and I believe you.” Gerry told him. “From my own personal experience, do I ever believe you and I will personally be jumping up and down on anyone around here who doesn’t. What’s this one about?”
Dale explained briefly about the email issue to Gerry, who listened with attention and without the interruptions Tom had expected; clearly the camping it up act was something he turned on and off at will for entertainment, there was more to this man than met the eye.
“I see.” Gerry said reflectively when Dale finished. “Wow. And what do you think?”
“I have no idea what to think.” Dale admitted. “I doubt it is a computer error.”
“What else could it be?”
“I don’t know.” Dale stared again down at the crystal. “There is the basic principle that things are things. Like this is a crystal. It’s real, it’s present in time and space, it has physical substance. Matter. But define the content of its substance in higher and higher detail down to atoms and protons and it isn’t just matter, it is by fact also energy. Page one of the Idiot’s Guide to Nuclear Physics: matter can be transformed into energy. Energy can be converted back to matter. Protons have been found to react to the presence of human DNA, they behave differently: therefore human presence affects energy. Protons have also been observed to bilocate – be present in more than one place at once, simultaneously. Emotion – emotion has been noted to change electrical activity at a cellular level in humans. The American Army carried out some experiments in the 1993 where they took a DNA sample from a man, removed it to a separate room, and then observed both the man and the separated DNA sample on a cellular level while the man watched a sequence of film scenes designed to stimulate a range of emotions. The electrical changes in the DNA in his body were exactly replicated in his DNA sample in a separate room – there was no signal travelling time either, the changes were exactly simultaneous. Even separated from his body his DNA remained a responsive part of the whole of his body and continued to act and respond as part of that body whole.”
“Seriously?” Gerry demanded.
“Yes. They increased the distance to 350 miles between person and sample without any change in results: the DNA sample remained an active, responsive part of his whole. So with all that in mind… I may have to agree with Einstein that time and space maybe just a particularly stubborn illusion. What happens when we shake hands with someone and carry a trace of their DNA on us which goes on changing and responding to that person’s emotions after we’ve parted, with those emotions also influencing the energy of the matter around them? Can we carry people and places with us in that way even into different countries? I don’t have all the science to explain this, I can’t name the precise processes, but they do exist. Enough recognised processes that…”
“An email printout appearing up a mountain before it had been entered into a computer is possible.” Gerry finished for him when he trailed off. “Since the text existed in your journal.”
“I don’t know about possible. It’s not, in itself entirely... unreasonable.”
“Do you think I’d refuse to believe you if it wasn’t?” Tom said quietly. Dale looked up at him. Tom gave him a small, faintly twisted smile, thinking of something that had come back to him several times today. The sound like beating wings above the tent in the gale.
“How about that we were both in times and places of intense emotion? Highly sacred, high and pure energy places. In a purified state, through trial, the true way. A strong intent to communicate. And both of us carrying the connection to this place. Jake resonates with it, he does wherever we are. It’s in his blood. Dale, I was raised to believe in miracles. And not blindly. My father studied the history, the culture, the context, the meaning, the metaphysics. The Sherpa say Everest reviles arrogance on her slopes – we did weeks of hell up there. You said something about going through it on the hike, I think it was similar. All the worst parts of me, the worst thoughts I’ve ever had, the worst feelings, it all came up there. Without Jake I’d have gone mad. It took everything I had, the lot, I’ve never pushed that far physically or mentally in my life, and by the time we ended up in that tent in Camp Three in the storm, believe me I had nothing left. Certainly not the arrogance to believe I knew what was and wasn’t possible. Sometimes it is about having the humility to just… wholeheartedly feel and have faith and do.”
As he’d watched Dale do in the kitchen this morning. From Gerry’s small smile at him he understood it too.
Dale nodded slowly. “There is something more you may like to know. It will probably sound as bizarre as the email, but I saw it last night when you were on the sofa with Jake. Jasper sees it too. There’s a light around your head and shoulders. There is to everyone if you look for it, but right now yours is large and it’s bright like something has opened. Jasper believes it has.”
In many ways… that made a great deal of sense.
“May I see the tattoo?” Tom asked on impulse. “You mentioned it in your last mail.”
Dale wordlessly pulled down the collar of his shirt. It was black. Small, neat, beautiful, an eagle in flight in simple, stark lines.
“That’s rather lovely.” Gerry said lightly. “It’s the Shoshone carving from the rocks up on Mustang Hill, isn’t it? Roger would have loved that. And David.”
“That’s rather lovely.” Gerry said lightly. “It’s the Shoshone carving from the rocks up on Mustang Hill, isn’t it? Roger would have loved that. And David.”
A mark born of the ranch. Tom looked at it, thinking of those confidences in his emails, fully understanding what it meant to him that he had imprinted it into his skin and thinking of several things at once, some of them clicking together. It was hard to know whether to say what was in his mind, if it would be tactless or seem trite, but his emails had been discreetly asking for this. Do you understand this? If you do please tell me.
“Dale?... Do you know what a Shaman is?”
Dale frowned at him. “The dictionary definition?”
Tom gave him a rather wry look, thinking of several men and a couple of women he’d met over the years on various continents. And in some ways too, his father. His father had always been interested in the cultural terms and what they stood for; the names through time for the gatekeepers, being one himself.
“Look it up. I think you’d be interested.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Late Friday afternoon, Paul parked the jeep in the yard and Jake opened the door for Tom to slide out with care and try the very new crutches he’d experimented with for the five minutes or so he’d been permitted under the physiotherapist’s supervision in Jackson.
It had been a long, painful and difficult day for both of them; Tom had spent a grim twenty minutes of it watching Jake work under supervision on lifting weights that were well below the settings he usually would have used and moving with a great deal more care than usual as he started to strengthen his arm around the pinned bone. For Tom, today was the first time he’d stood fully on his feet for more than a few seconds at a time since the day they arrived in Wyoming. His feet were tender, extremely so, and any kind of shoes were not yet an option; the painful part was the shins. The hospital assessment had included a lot of scans, the view was that there was no bone damage from the frost bite, the skin was already peeling dramatically to reveal the new skin beneath, but the physio and orthopaedic consultant had congratulated him on one of the severest cases of shin splints they’d yet encountered. There were several minute stress fractures showing up in the scans in both legs, they’d been pretty clear he was lucky one or both hadn’t given way in a full fracture or compartment syndrome on the mountain, and Tom hadn’t dared look at Jake when they’d said it. Either would have been a killer for both of them. Luck appeared to have miraculously held their hands and Tom had never thought of himself as lucky. He had medication, crutches, strong instructions to weight bear as little as possible and to not stand at all without the crutches, and to rest his legs. Thoroughly. For some weeks. But that was all.
The sun was shining on the pastures beyond the gate. Early summer was rising. The aspens in the distance were bright with light new leaves, there were young foals with the mares in the pasture and the snow-capped Tetons stood on the horizon, expanding out forever in a long sea of green below a bright blue sky. The breeze was gentle, carrying the scent of grass, and warmth of the sun standing here was soft, as rich as the earth on which it shone and a bird was chattering from one of the wooden fence posts. It was so radically opposite to the view he had been so used to all those frozen weeks. If the barren grey of base camp had been Tartarus…this must have been what Eden had felt like.
“Chair.” Jake said behind him. “Move it.”
“You’re usually the one saying oh go on, what’s another five miles.”
“Not with stress fractures.” Jake walked casually with him towards the porch steps, matching his pace to Tom’s although he was sticking very close, and Paul, one arm full of shopping bags, was also hovering gently near enough to be ready to grab as Tom negotiated the steps. It wasn’t unwelcome. His arms were shaking by the time he reached the kitchen, his shins were hurting like hell under the heavy fibreglass and Velcro knee to toe splints they’d issued him with and he was still weaker than a kitten. Dale had brought in the rest of the bags and pulled out the armchair that was a fixture in the kitchen at the moment. Tom subsided into it with his legs close to giving out, tucking the crutches under the table where no one could trip on them. Paul went to the fridge and a moment later a large glass of milk landed on the table in front of him alongside an open tin of biscuits.
“Tom, do something about your blood sugar, you look grey. Dale, put the kettle on.”
The cold of the milk helped. Tom felt the sugar of the biscuits hit his brain a moment after the tension in his stomach started to ease. Flynn appeared in the doorway, kicking his boots off and coming to grab the juice box from the fridge.
“I saw you come in. How did it go?”
“Bit of a mixed bag.” Jake pulled a chair out beside Tom to sit down. “The frost bite didn’t reach the bone thank God, it’s healing well. But he’s got some stress fractures in both shins and we need to be careful. We have orders for him to stay off his feet as much as possible, feed him all the calcium we can and use the crutches if he has to move around.”
Flynn was as good as Jake was at giving no sign at all of being shocked or concerned about this; he just poured a large glass of juice and knocked it back, nodding at Jake. “And you?”
“Arm’s healing fine. They couldn’t find much else wrong with us. Which annoyed them.” Jake gave Tom an easy grin. “I got the impression they would have liked to have had more reason to tell us how stupid we were climbing there in the first place.”
The phone rang and Paul picked it up one handed, going on unpacking shopping bags.
“Falls Chance Ranch?”
There was something about how he paused that pulled Tom’s attention, even before Paul covered the mouthpiece and said to Jake, “Jake, it’s Phoenix Loudon.”
Tom’s stomach plunged and Jake was frozen beside him. Then he jerked to his feet so hard the table slid and grated on the stone floor tiles and took the phone, and suddenly he looked every inch of his height. He was the largest thing in the kitchen and his eyes were gone to blue ice.
“What do you want?”
In five years Tom had never heard him use that tone to anyone. The kitchen had come to a standstill. Flynn was watching closely, his face impassive. Dale too had paused where he was helping Paul and Paul looked frankly apprehensive. Jake was listening to something and Tom had the sense of him building, of something rising in him and the blaze in his eyes getting higher just a second before it burst out at shocking volume.
“Did you just tell me she is upset? How dare you! Have you any idea of the damage you’ve done? The pain you’ve caused? Tom ended up with frostbite, he nearly lost toes through you, I spent this morning watching him trying to walk on crutches for the first time since we left the mountain, he has two fractured legs because of you! We almost didn’t make it down off that piece of rock because of your gross stupidity, your obscene selfishness – we had to put our lives on the line to save yours, Tom’s, mine, Lobsang, Pemba, you almost cost four people their lives through your abject failure to handle not getting your own way! We tried patience, I tried talking to you like a reasonable being, I was a fool, I should have seen you personally to Kathmandu and the hell away from us the first time you showed us who you were!”
“Jake.” Tom painfully got to his feet and crossed the few steps to him, trying to pull at the phone. Jake held on to it, not pausing.
“You don't have a fucking clue, do you? Not one lick of sense, no conscience -”
“Jake, give it to me.” Tom pulled harder. “Jake.”
Jake relinquished it. It wasn’t willingly. Tom hung on to him for support with one hand, putting the phone to his ear with the other and feeling Jake’s arm lock around his waist, taking his weight and putting him down in his chair.
“Phoenix, it’s Tom.”
The slightly whiny tone had not changed in the slightest since the last time he’d heard it and it was the same fairly flat level of emotion; Phoenix might have been complaining about the coffee at breakfast or having to demonstrate that he could use his crampons, the kid wasn’t really processing anything Jake had said.
“Tom, you’re going to have to talk to him, the papers are all blocking my mother’s articles for no reason and she can’t get them to listen to her. You’ve got to make him tell them to stop-”
Just a kid. After all of it, just a stupid, self centred kid, a young soul who didn’t know enough to see beyond the huge importance of how he felt and what he thought it justified.
I have been that stupid. I have been that idiot kid.
“No.” he said quietly. Phoenix sounded shocked.
“But she doesn’t-”
Tom glanced up at Jake who was rigid beside him, eyes blazing, but at Tom’s pull on his hand crouched down beside him.
“We can't help you on this.” Tom said levelly to the phone. “You need to tell her that. Let her know the answer is no and we won't take any more calls from her, whether she makes them herself or sends you. No games. The bullshit doesn’t work on me. Let her know, and leave this alone now.” He heard the start of:
“That isn’t fair, you’re-” before he turned the phone off and put it down on the table, turned to Jake and put his arms around him. Jake was stiff from head to foot, but he hugged Tom tightly, chin resting heavily on Tom’s head.
“Breathe.” Tom said shortly to him. Jake did take a slow, deep breath and his body lost a little of the tautness. Then abruptly he picked Tom up out of the chair and walked away into the family room. It was the first time he’d done it, Tom could feel him favouring his left arm but this wasn’t the moment to argue with him. He turned off into a room near the stairs, a room Tom hadn’t been into before. Lined with books, a long dark leather couch stood in front of the window and two leather topped desks stood touching at right angles to each other. Jake kicked the door shut behind them and collapsed onto the couch with Tom in his lap.
He still badly wanted to shout. The adrenaline was still coursing through him, Tom could feel it; he’d never seen Jake angry about anything. An arm around his neck, Tom held him in silence and felt Jake’s hand running up and down his back. He felt no anger himself. Not much emotion at all for that ridiculous boy and the woman they’d never met.
“Sorry.” Jake said eventually.
“Don’t be stupid.” Tom butted against his shoulder gently and reached up to kiss him, a few tired, demanding kisses that pulled Jake’s attention back. “It isn’t him, it's her. And it’s over now.”
Jake tipped his head back against the couch. They were still wrapped around each other, quiet, heavy, neither wanting to move. Finally Jake wriggled a bit, freeing a hand to dig into his pocket. Tom looked down at his closed fist.
“This.” Jake let something drop from his hand, keeping hold of one end so it swung and dangled. It was bright silver. Small. A classic saint’s medal on a chain. For a second Tom glanced towards Jake’s throat, but the St George’s one hung there. Older than this one. Tom put out a cautious finger to spin the newer one and see the picture. He knew it. This was one of the ones he’d known intimately all his life.
“Yes. I did some reading up on Arch Angels after you told me about St Michael.” Jake rested his head against Tom’s, looking at the medal with him. “Uriel’s called the angel of wisdom, isn’t he?”
It was one of the classic images of Uriel. Tom knew it well, and the stained glass window he’d loved as a child rose in his mind with the same strength of feeling he remembered sitting on the pale grey stone in the deep peace of the cathedral. A tall man, middle thirties, with a strong face, rough curly hair, a book beneath one arm and fire held in the palm of his outstretched hand. Sometimes in pictures the fire was a flaming sword.
“Salvation... my father used to say he was the angel of salvation. Self salvation. Saving yourself.”
“Seeking past illusion, studying and seeking truth, transmuting what’s old and past into what’s new and better. The will to seek out answers.” Jake let the medal spin gently. “The more I read – well I know you have your thing for a bit of rough with Lucifer, but this guy seemed so very much you.”
He’d been expecting it since Jake took out the medal, the twin to his own – but Tom’s throat still tightened. Jake’s voice was very soft.
“You know I won’t ask you to wear anything for me. You have nothing to prove. If you don’t want to take this now then that’s fine, I’ll keep it because it’s always going to symbolise you to me the way mine does to you. Especially to me it symbolises you on that mountain. But one day I’d like it to be yours. Think of it as the George Cross recognising valour, if it helps. To me, no one ever earned it more.”
The George Cross. The traditional highest recognition of the British throne to English civilians for gallantry. He was offering so delicately, not intruding on the choice and he understood exactly what he held in his hand and what it would mean. Tom had to swallow several times before he could reach gently to take it from Jake’s hand.
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015