The call came as they were sitting down to breakfast. Flynn answered it, his voice lost at first in the clatter of people sitting down and Paul laying out china, but Jasper’s eyes were on him, and Paul put dishes down to listen as the room went quiet. Flynn’s voice was calm and steady, but his face was expressionless.
“- yes. When was that? And that’s been officially released?”
Riley was watching Flynn, body stiff. Paul pulled out a chair and sat down, and Flynn put a hand out to grip Paul’s shoulder.
“Stay there, I’ll come get you. No, neither of you need to be driving this morning, I’ll meet you there.”
“What?” Riley demanded as he cut the connection. “Who was it?”
Flynn sat down at the table and put his hand over Paul’s, wrapping Paul’s fingers in a strong grasp that Paul gripped back, and he spoke gently and mostly to Riley.
“That was Luath. There’s been some more DNA evidence found at Ground Zero. There may be one or more new identifications made in the next few days.”
There was a short, horrible silence. Then Riley slid over into the next chair along at the table and put his arms fiercely around Paul. Paul hugged him, watching Flynn over Riley’s head.
“They’re going to come out here while they wait?”
“They got it unofficially confirmed through one of Luath’s contacts late last night, and Luath got them on a plane.” Flynn said quietly. “They’re at Cheyenne now, waiting for the connection for Jackson airport. I’ll go now and meet them there.”
Dale felt Jasper’s hand rub lightly over his back between his shoulder blades, and glanced up to see his face. He understood the look he was getting, but it surprised him..
Are you all right?
“It won’t be Rog.” Riley said angrily without letting go of Paul. “It never is. There’s over a thousand people still unidentified, and even if they’ve found DNA it doesn’t mean they’ll be able to do anything with it.”
Statistically he was right. Statistics had nothing whatever to do with the hush in this room, the emotion in all four of the others’ faces around the table, or what Luath and Darcy had to be going through this morning. They occupied only half of the chairs around this table. Dale had been aware since his first day here that chairs always stood ready as though some of the people who belonged here just weren’t home yet. This morning Dale found himself thinking of Roger at this table. Luath and Darcy. Which chairs were theirs. The others would know. Paul would know.
Paul kissed the top of Riley’s head and got up, and Dale saw that his eyes were wet. Flynn passed him a handkerchief and ran a hand down his back. Paul wiped his face briskly, kissed Flynn who gave him a rough, engulfing hug, and turned away to put bacon in the warming skillet on the stove, clearing his throat to make his voice less husky.
“Flynn sit down and eat. You’ll still make it to Jackson ahead of the plane.”
“I can go out and do whatever needs doing this morning,” Dale said under his breath to Jasper, following him out to the corral after Flynn took the four by four and headed into Jackson. He hadn’t wanted to say it to Flynn who had more than enough on his mind this morning, and was going out to get two men who were going to need all the skill and care Flynn was capable of.
“Tell me what to do. You and Riley should be near Paul.”
He wasn’t sure what he expected, but it wasn’t Jasper simply coming to a stop by the corral, lifting an arm around his neck and drawing him in to hold him, closely enough that the strength of it sank into Dale’s bones.
There was nothing hurried about it. Jasper’s hand clasped the back of his head, cradling it with all the gentleness that was typical of both Jasper and Flynn; all the more penetrating for how powerful those hands could be when they chose, and there was something wonderfully possessive about it. Against the familiarity of his chest, bonier than Flynn’s and with quieter hands and a habit of leaning his head down against yours that was entirely Jasper’s and was deeply, saturatingly calming, Dale took another, deeper breath and felt a lot of tension he hadn’t been consciously aware of seep out of him. There was restraint in Jasper’s arms, containment and safety. Stand still. Get your balance.
“It’s all right.” Jasper said very quietly against him. “This has happened several times before. They’ve always wanted to be here while they wait, we’re here for them, and if anything harder comes along you won’t be the one who has to handle it. We’ll talk about what to do and we’ll decide together.”
So come out of crisis mode and quit taking over.
Flynn had imprinted that particular lesson on him very firmly with a lexan paddle not so very long ago. Jasper turned up his face, giving him a long look from dark eyes that missed nothing and understood most of it.
“Can you see to the yard work here? I’ll be back in a couple of hours. Tell Paul you’re around if he needs help.”
“Thank you.” Dale said very softly, and Jasper kissed his forehead, then his mouth, gently.
“I’m not going to be long.”
Riley was disappearing into the stables as Dale went back up the porch steps, leaning against the open door.
“Paul? Jasper asked me to do the yard work and anything else you needed. Can I help?”
“You can make some beds up for me?” Paul emerged from the pantry, arms full of bags and packets. “You know Luath and Darcy’s rooms. Dust them and open the windows, and keep in mind that they do not need to be hermetically tidy. I’ll vacuum in a while when I do the rest of the house.”
He sounded so cheerful. So normal. It was painful to listen to. Dale stooped to take off his boots and hung up his jacket, heading for the closet in the laundry room where the cleaning things were kept. He heard the phone ring and a moment later Paul’s voice, raised to reach him.
“Dale? It’s Jeremy Banks again for you?”
They always asked, they always gave him the choice, and just that reminder put it on a different footing. Jerry’s call last night had been brief and excited and Dale went to take the phone, mind still on Paul and the deliberately calm expression on his face.
“Aden. Good morning.”
“There’s an update on the two Guatemalan companies,” Jerry Banks sounded briskly excited which meant it was going well; Dale knew his Gearing Up for Action voice. “I’ve been with the forensics team most of the night, taking apart the business plan while the team out in Guatemala do an audit on the books, and the board are flying out with their legal team for a meeting at noon today with us and the FBI. The FBI are planning to make their first arrests at the end of the meeting. Three more teams flew out last night to check up on suspicious entities in two other countries, I’m waiting to hear from them.” Jerry’s voice changed slightly, softening. “Look, I know you never care about in being in at the kill, but this is all your work and you’ll pick up on anything they try to slip by us. Join this meeting on conference call, and I’ll promise to hold it down to two hours.”
That was what Paul would call a pie crust promise, and Dale nearly laughed at it. The meeting was likely to take easily twice than that time, would involve lawyers and probably an unholy row when the board realised the game was up. There would be all hell going on in Jerry’s office suites right now. People would be slipping away for a five minute shave and another shot of caffeine, changing shirts and ties while they continued to prepare for the meeting, the cold blast of the a/c turned on high to get rid of the overnight stale smell of sweat, coffee, old food drying on plates and the artificial air fresheners. He’d led similar scenes too many times to count, and on reflection, he’d hated them. By contrast, the kitchen was quiet and warm, and smelled of fresh bread, and the yard was misty and still outside, inviting and attached to a love for familiarity and territory that had passed Dale by until he lived here.
He wandered with the phone to stand at the kitchen door and look out as he listened to chaos several thousand miles away, and from there he could see that Jasper had ridden out and Riley was alone in the corral, still tacking up Snickers. It appeared to be taking him a long time, and from what Dale could see that was largely because Riley was leaning against Snickers and not doing anything at all. Pulling boots on one handed, Dale walked out onto the porch with the phone and jogged down the steps.
Banks was still pouring data and persuasion in his ear when he climbed the corral fence, ducked under Snickers’ nose and put an arm around Riley’s waist. Riley transferred silently from Snickers’ neck to his, hanging on to him with enough strength to make breathing difficult. He was shuddering. Heart turning over, Dale held him tight, aware of the information Banks was downloading at speed and losing interest or patience to listen. From the occasional bleep in the background Banks had at least a second call on hold, and probably a third. There was a manic quality to it that was both wryly amusing because at one time Dale knew he would have been juggling multiple calls himself while they talked, and running at exactly that pace if not worse. He interrupted it gently, and as politely as possible, but with finality.
“Jerry, I’ll check-” with a brief thought of Flynn he rephrased it, “I’ll consider checking – anything you want me to look over, but the bit I was interested in is done. I’m just the free lance. Well if you want an objective eye on the legal dossier let me know. Good luck with the meeting. Yes, I’m serious. Goodbye Jerry.”
He snapped the phone off, pocketed it and gave his full attention over to Riley, turning his face into Riley’s soft hair. Snickers was nosing at Riley’s back, nudging him, and finally Riley lifted his head and pushed Snickers’ invasive nose from out between them to pull Snickers’ ears and rub between them. His eyes were red and his breath was hitching slightly, but he managed something like his normal tone.
“What did Banks want? I thought he said last night you were right, it was a ghost company.”
“He wanted me to join a meeting by phone.”
“You didn’t want to?”
“Really not. It’ll be a hell of a meeting, and it’s a slippery slope, I may hide behind Flynn if he’s persistent. Are you ok?” Dale hadn’t let go of Riley’s hips and his hands were independently rubbing where they rested, wanting somehow, anyhow to comfort him. Riley smiled, but his eyes slid away and he went on petting Snickers.
“Shuddup. I just convinced Paul I was fine to go do – something-”
Climb something. Swim something. Dale knew without asking that he didn’t mean work, whatever he’d told Paul. Sometimes Riley needed to be alone somewhere, to have that fight against something inanimate; it wasn’t so different from the way Jasper needed to walk alone in the dark outside at times, or the way that Flynn needed rough and open green land around him in the same way he needed oxygen and people who loved him. Riley was the same kind of man they were. Except this morning there was an miserable restlessness to it, and Dale could feel it under his hands; it was why he couldn’t let Riley go. Adrenaline demanding an outlet. An itching need to burn off what was nagging at him. Dale understood it, he’d felt it himself, and Riley had chosen him to share it with. His confidence in itself made Dale’s chest clench and his mind race, determined to find a way to help, but it wasn’t his mind that answered him. On instinct, with suddenly more surety than he’d felt all morning, he slid both hands into Riley’s back pockets, tugged him firmly a step closer so they stood hip to hip, and knew he’d got it right when Riley’s arms folded a lot harder around his neck and Riley’s lean body almost ground against him from knee to neck. ‘Restlessness’ had been right. It was raw need.
“You know this invitation business?” Dale asked him, and Riley laughed a little shakily and said something that sounded like a fervent ‘thank you’, and let go of Dale’s neck long enough to grab his arm.
They climbed the corral fence together and Riley towed him as far as the stables. Empty this morning, the boxes stood clean, lined and fresh, the stables were cool and smelled of straw, and Riley shut the heavy wooden door behind them, latched it and switched on the heat lamp over the big loose box. It cast an orangey yellow glow over the thick bed of straw below, immediately radiating a shaft warmth that stretched as far as the grey flagstoned walkway. There he hesitated, with a delicacy and a protectiveness that Dale knew and appreciated. No one in this household had ever hurried him. Dale turned Riley gently around to face him and grasped Riley’s slender jeaned hips again in his hands while he reached for Riley’s mouth. He felt Riley gladly take that as permission to let go.
There were several rather confused minutes mixed up in straw which got everywhere, and denim, and Riley’s hands in his hair and the weight and hardness of Riley against him from mouth to ankles, then Riley struggled free long enough to pull down a saddle blanket which cushioned the straw somewhat, and his jacket and shirt came off and Dale sat up long enough to get rid of his own.
Riley’s hands, so deft and skilful with horses and any stock were just as skilled on him. It made Dale wonder what sort of an education Riley had gained from Jasper, Flynn and Paul. Flynn had certainly enlarged his own education in this field enormously over the past few months, in areas where Dale knew he had been woefully lacking. He’d never had any complaints from the few who had experimented with his technical knowledge outside the office, but Flynn had widened his horizons beyond all recognition this fall, including the revelation that this could be a great deal of fun and not necessarily to be taken seriously, and that it was a whole world of different when it was with someone you loved. There was a liveliness and a grace to Riley in everything he did that Dale had always seen as uniquely special to him; an artless good humour that was very familiar and so very easy to respond to. Riley’s skin was warm despite the chill of the stable and soft as silk, and slim but solid muscles covered the curves and wide bones of his shoulders, the hard planes of his chest and hips and the length of his long legs, with more trained weight than Dale knew he carried himself, and quite surprising flexibility. Where Flynn growled and made soft, deep and vibrant animal sounds when you really got him interested, Riley tended to laugh, although there was a need in the grip of his hands and his urgency that said he wasn’t finding too much funny this morning and desperately needed something else to think about, please, right now. Dale gladly bent his attention to distracting him while taking as long as possible about it – which with Riley in this mood took a good deal of skill and a certain amount of firmness – but Flynn’s teaching strategies were inspiring and memorable, and Dale had always been a keen student. This was about being alive. It was about being safe here, together, in a crisp, cold, bright fall morning on clean straw under the steady heat of the lamp, with nothing more terrible than their peaceful open land and the daily ranch work needing doing for miles around them.
He wasn’t quite sure of the time when he went back to the house, but he felt a good deal better and he’d left Riley without red eyes, with a much more genuine smile and some energy in his step as he went to finish tacking up Snickers. Dale put the phone on the kitchen counter with an apologetic smile at Paul, and Paul picked a strand of straw out of his hair without comment as he passed, handing it to him.
“Interesting phone call was it?”
“Oh riveting, thank you.” Dale gave him a look of such straight faced earnestness that Paul burst out laughing. At one time Dale had only ever used that exaggerated courtesy as defiance. Now, occasionally when he was alone with them – especially Paul thought with Riley and with himself- you saw brief glimmers like this, like goldfish in deep water, that were pure teasing. Dale paused by the laundry room door, voice light.
“Jerry Banks is keen I listen in on a very long and complicated meeting this afternoon, and I said no, so I wondered if....?”
“I’ll answer the phone if it rings, and I’ll just tell him you’re not available, love.” Paul reassured him. “I got very used to doing it for Philip, don’t worry.”
The four by four rumbled in over the grass just before lunchtime, and Dale left sweeping the porch to come to the garage to help with bags. Luath unfolded himself from the passenger seat and leaned on the roof, stretching his big shoulders until they cracked audibly. He was still wearing a suit and tie; Dale recognised the standard executive uniform under the immaculate long coat, and thought not for the first time what an extremely good looking man Luath was. Powerfully built, long boned, with the rich blue sheen to his skin and deep set, intelligent and very kind eyes. One of those enviable men whose looks simply matured with age. He smiled when he saw Dale and there was nothing but pleasure in his face which was surprising considering what had brought him out here.
Was it something you could mention? Did you say how sorry you were? Dale went to him and was engulfed in a bearhug far warmer than he felt he deserved considering Luath had only met him for the first time for a few days this fall, but then every member of this extended family had always gone out of their way to treat him with the same warmth and welcome they gave to each other. It was something they did out of love for Flynn and the others, and perhaps too for Philip and David, and for that reason Dale deeply appreciated it.
Darcy came around the car, pulling off his sunglasses. Dale caught a brief glimpse of a dark beret, skin tight dark pin striped trousers and a long, flimsy, high collared trench coat before Darcy gave him a shyer smile and hugged him too, much more quickly.
“Hello. Your hair’s gotten longer, it suits you. It’s cold out here you know?”
“If you dressed half way sensibly for the weather-” Luath told him, and Darcy rolled his eyes up, laughing.
“You know he was like this the whole way on the plane? Sit out of the draft. Put my coat over your shoulders. Have a hot drink. You’d think I was travelling in a mankini. This is winter range you know, it was only on the runway two months ago.”
“You should have left it there.” Luath advised him, opening the trunk to take out the bags.
Darcy waved a lazy hand, disappearing into the house through the rarely used front door. There weren’t many bags; they’d obviously left at short notice and without much forethought. Dale took some in silence, Flynn effortlessly pulled the rest out of the trunk, and they followed Darcy in through the open door. Luath went into the kitchen where Paul had his arms around Darcy and Dale could hear his voice, somewhere between exasperated and laughing,
“You look like you joined the French resistance. Go get under a hot shower and I’ll put lunch on the table.”
“Oh Top overload!” Darcy protested, pulling his scarf off and adding it with his coat to the stand in the hall. “Save it for the people that appreciate it. Dale, be kind and let Luath nag you for while, he’s dying to harass someone.”
“Get under a shower or I’ll show you what harassment actually looks like.” Paul told him.
“There’s sensible clothes in your dresser unless you plan on riding a horse like that?”
With his coat off and in a horizontally striped top that complemented the vertically tight trousers and was even tighter, Darcy gave Paul a wink and a definite wiggle of a tight, pert rear, and came back into the family room.
“I’ll take my things up? I could really use the shower.”
He took one of the cases and a hand luggage bag from Flynn and ran upstairs with far too much energy for a man well into his forties who had been up all night. Dale followed him with the other bags, laying them on the bed in Luath’s room. Darcy reappeared on the landing, helping himself to towels from the linen closet with the absolute confidence they all had in this house, whether they lived here full time or for a few days a year. He looked fit and lively and cheerful; not at all what Dale had expected. Luath came upstairs, tie loosened, carrying dress shoes and walking in socks in line with the house habit. He caught Dale’s eye and smiled, raising the shoes.
“Yes, I’m Paul trained. How are you? Come and tell me about your project.”
It was a friendly invitation and in some indefinable way a slightly – hungry? - one. Dale followed him into the small cream painted and wood beamed room under the eaves at the front of the house that overlooked the corral, where Luath had to stoop his head to cross the room without knocking it on the beams, and rather awkwardly perched on the deep, cushioned window seat which was the one place to be out of the way, watching Luath rapidly and efficiently unpack. A large dresser, a dressing table and a chair took up what floor space was left over from the double bed. It seemed rather a cramped room for such a large man.
“Jerry’s holding a meeting this afternoon to put the facts in front of the board, and he thinks the FBI will make the first arrests at the end of it.”
“There was evidence?” Luath asked, pausing.
“There was a ghost company. Very well disguised, one of their special entities.”
The explanation was technical, and having tried to explain this to the others, Dale was aware that Luath followed it with genuine understanding, nodding at intervals and asking questions that made it clear this was mostly within his field of knowledge.
“So how did you find it?” Luath asked eventually, laying out jeans, a shirt and a sweater, and starting to change out of his suit.
Dale shrugged slightly, not sure how to answer, and aware as Luath stripped off that while he had the natural body for a man his age, there was still toned, effective muscle on his frame, bulked heavy on his upper arms and his shoulders. Not just the body of a desk worker.
“Just something in the pattern caught my eye. I suppose I was thinking about it, processing, and I got a call from one of our audit teams talking about their case and it jogged my memory.”
This boy of Flynn’s had no concept of false modesty. Luath glanced across at him, taking in the quiet grey eyes and the neat dark hair and immaculate clothes that made him look rather like an abashed sixth former invited to tea with the headmaster, and the soft, well mannered voice that suggested he’d just happened to stumble over a clue on the Sunday crossword. Any other young execs of Luath’s acquaintance would have been making very sure, some more subtly than others, that their personal expertise and knowledge had been solely responsible, and ensured that the breadth and complexity of the project was emphasised. At this level you never stopped looking out for your career prospects, and these big triumphs were what garnered you the big rewards.
“You said the big meeting was this afternoon and it’s going to be put to the board then?” he said casually, still watching the boy discreetly without looking too directly at him. “Are you having any part in that?”
There was no interest in Dale’s face or manner at all. It was like pitching a ball and watching it hit him in the chest.
“No. Jerry might run the dossier by me when it’s done, but I’ll have nothing more to do with it. Just set pieces of work.”
Which on the grape vine this time around had ended in disaster. Luath buckled the belt of his jeans, got up to put his suit away and gestured the boy ahead of him towards the stairs. Not really a boy, but he and Riley were the most junior members of the family and comparatively they always seemed so young.
Darcy was in the kitchen. He had shed the peculiar striped outfit for much more normal jeans and a sweater, and his hair was damp from the shower, straight and dark and falling in its very designer cut back from his forehead. Luath, who fairly often saw him fresh from the shower in borrowed pyjamas or a sweater which hung oversized on him, often thought that without the designer costume he looked younger, less sophisticated, and much more as Darcy was in the days when he and Roger had sat side by side and chattered through meals at this table. Darcy glanced up and grinned at him, and Luath, hit in the midriff by Riley’s embrace, caught sight of Dale, moving quietly around the table to reach his chair. He was as unobtrusive in body as he was in voice, which made it still harder to equate this hush, the quiet and self contained boy who kept his eyes down and listened far more than he spoke, with his reputation or the flare of fire that Luath had seen the first time he saw Dale, standing at the table and transfixing a room full of vigorous personalities by sheer force of his. Jerry Banks must be mourning the loss of this particular secret weapon from his armoury.
“You’re going to need to be careful for him.” he said to Flynn after lunch. “Banks is a fool if he lets Dale go as easily as he appears to be doing. I don’t think there’s ill intent, I always got the impression he’s genuinely fond of Dale and he’s proud. Anyone would be of a protégé with this kind of talent and rep, Dale’s won a lot of coups for A.N.Z. But he’s too useful. Banks will be hoping if he lets Dale have a long leash and just asks for tiny increments he’ll be able to bring Dale gradually back. It’ll be ‘Just join this short meeting’. ‘Just meet with this one client’.”
“Paul told me Dale gave Banks a clear ‘no’ when he tried that this morning.” Flynn said quizzically. “I know he’s very innocent in some ways, but he’s clear he doesn’t want to do any more than freelancing.”
“You’re going to need to be prepared to protect him.” Luath repeated. “You’ve got no real idea what he’s pulled off with this project, have you?”
Flynn looked at him, eyes narrowing. Not, Luath knew, in offense or criticism, but in realisation that there were things here that he did not yet know. He’d had the same fierce expression at nineteen when he read, or when you explained something to him, intently reeling away information. Philip had understood it. So had Roger in a much more cheerfully vague way; he and Gerry had never been afraid of Flynn. Luath vividly remembered coming down to the kitchen late one night for a drink, not long after Flynn first came to them, and overhearing Flynn comforting a sobbing Gerry out on the porch. He’d frozen in shock that the New Zealander was capable of speaking so gently, and with such care, or that Gerry had so willingly confided in him.
“I kept him explaining to me what he was doing and what he was planning to do day by day.” Flynn said, watching him. “I made myself familiar with it.”
“And you’re an academic. I just think you’ve got to be in the field yourself to really see it.” Luath shook his head, digging his hands into his pockets as he thought about it. “Teams had gone through that material. Whole teams. You can go through data and pick up on holes or anomalies, but half the data in this project was dodgy and full of holes and this corporation had lawyers. Expensive lawyers. You have to be able to hold the whole thing in mind – you’re talking about data for I don’t know how many companies, plus the over view for the entire corporation, plus the knowledge of practices, both the expected, the tolerated and the downright illegal, and the informed guesses of what fills the holes in the data. That’s what Dale could get his head around. All of that in mind, the whole thing, and from that be able to see where a loophole is hidden. It’s like police work or science, you can go so far on the facts, figures and intelligence, but the few who really excel can take in the hard evidence and then make the leaps of instinct and intuition past the limits of what the data shows. That’s the brilliance. There aren’t many of these people, and Banks is a fool if he doesn’t try to keep as much of Dale’s talent available as he can.”
“It’s the intellectual challenge he loves.” Flynn leaned on the corral rail beside him. “In isolation. It’s that simple. The early stages of this project went wrong mostly because of something Banks said that put on the pressure; Dale’s got a lot of loyalty to the man and he gets very wound up about letting people down, both us and Banks. It was a fairly basic glitch, it’s one we’ll handle a lot better next time around, and I’m not sorry he started with something high pressure. Better to get this ironed out now from the start than have him succeed with some short and easy ones and then run up against this kind of problem. The actual work itself isn’t the problem. He reminds me of a kid on a games console working through the levels, it doesn’t go any deeper.”
“There’s no pride in it.” Luath said succinctly. “Or ambition. Astonishing considering where he’s worked.”
“Exactly. Nothing of himself, which is why he talks about this kind of project like it’s a hobby.”
Flynn gave him a short nod. “Thank you. I’ll watch out for Banks.”
They stood for a while watching the horses graze, before Flynn said just as shortly, “When will you hear? Will you get any advance news?”
“Not out here.” Luath said comfortably. “Which is partly why we came. Gets Darcy away from his damn websites. It usually takes a few days. I don’t know what was found or where, I didn’t want to know. Darcy likes to know the details, he finds it helps.”
Luath didn’t. Flynn, knowing only the barest details of things that Luath wouldn’t confide to anyone other than Philip, said nothing, but put an arm around Luath’s broad waist, and Luath put an arm around him and gave him an equally rough hug.
“Take me somewhere work needs doing. Give me something to do.”
‘Work needing doing’ turned out to be a messy, physical afternoon with Riley and Flynn, digging out a choked section of river and hauling out and cutting fallen tree branches. Braced in freezing, rushing water, jeans soaked above the knee, gloves slimy with mud and wood moss and as cold as his feet were getting, Luath lost himself in the old sounds and habits and the familiar, unchanging banks and pastures of home and as it always did, it lifted away most of everything from his shoulders except the here and now. Cold and slightly saddle sore as they dismounted in the yard late that afternoon, he shook his head at Riley holding out a hand to take Nekkid’s reins.
“I’ll do him myself. Since when do we not put away our own horses around here?”
“You’re walking like you’ve got a barrel between your legs.” Riley pointed out inelegantly. Luath slung an arm around his shoulders as they walked towards the stables.
“Exercise is the best cure.”
He collected the brushes from the tack room and gave Nekkid a thorough brush down, losing himself in the rhythmic movements and the interaction with the big, placid gelding who leaned into the brushstrokes. From the look of things, Paul had kept Darcy busy in the house, and equally from the look of things, Dale was parked on the swing with a gadget and an expression that any experienced Top would recognise. A brat in trouble around here was usually noticeable for the extra chores keeping him busy, but for Dale, who would lose himself gladly in as much work as he could lay his hands on, they obviously used a different approach. After he turned Nekkid loose in the corral and put away his tack and brushes, he walked up the porch and sat down beside Dale with a grunt as he settled sore muscles on the hard wood.
“What’ve you got there?”
Dale displayed the small black box in his hand and Luath took it, turning it over.
“What does this do?”
“You put your thumb on that pad there,” from Dale’s polite tone this still somehow implied Torquemada would have been proud, “And you breathe, and eventually if you’re lucky, the light turns green and stays green long enough for you to complete the level. It’s supposed to be biofeedback. Low, relaxed heart rate.”
“I can do level one straight away now. I’m trying to achieve level two.”
Luath smiled at his tone; a curiously tender smile. “How’s it going?”
“It’s been a week so far and I haven’t done it once yet.” Dale sat back in the swing with a look at the box. “I suspect Flynn thinks it’s good for me to cope with minor failures.”
“Asked him for help yet?”
Dale raised his eyebrows at him, and then sighed. “No.”
Luath dropped a hand on his knee and squeezed it. “Good place to start. I need to shower. I never get this mucky in the city.”
Paul glanced up and smiled at him through the open doorway.
“You don’t look like you mind. Did you have a hard time getting away from work?”
“Not really. Semi retirement suits me fine, I can manage my diary as it suits me.” Luath made way for Riley and Flynn who were taking off their boots at the doorway. “I’ll take the upstairs shower.”
“What about you?” Flynn asked Darcy, hanging his jacket up on the rack with the others.
“The time off isn’t going to cause you any trouble?”
Darcy gave him an airy smile from the table where he was chopping carrots.
“No problem at all. The show was all done bar the shouting, they’re past needing me now so it was a perfect time to take a few days away. Gets me out of the clearing up as well, I hate that part.”
“What is it you do?” Dale asked from the swing.
Darcy tossed carrots in the waiting saucepan. “I’m an event planner, with a specialisation in fashion events. Runway events, photo shoots, parties, I work with a number of designers. I just finished the set and preparation for a runway show this week, and the event is planned, they just have to get on and do it now, they don’t need me.”
“He swans about for a living.” Luath interpreted. It was obviously an old joke. Darcy looked up at him and grinned without the faintest sign of offence, and Luath ruffled his hair as he passed on his way upstairs.
Dinner was long, and leisurely as it always was in this house, a social occasion with time for talking as much as eating. It had always been one of Dale’s favourite times of day, there was something comfortable and deeply cheering in being part of a group of people who knew each other well, shared their day and who so obviously enjoyed being together. With Darcy and Luath present as well, there were often several conversations going on at once, and this family permitted no spectators. It was long past dark when they cleared the table and shared the washing up and the locking up for the night outside. It was cold enough that Jasper had lit the fire in the family room hearth before dinner, and when all the clearing up was done, they moved the conversation there and sprawled on the couches and in the armchairs around the fire. Darcy picked a chair by himself, legs curled under him, and led a lot of the chatter, although unlike Gerry, there was less interest in an audience; Darcy genuinely wanted to know things. Paul took the couch and Riley curled up there with him, quite unselfconsciously. Jasper sat on the hearthstone with his back to the fire, watching more than he spoke, and Dale placed himself quietly at Flynn’s feet, leaning back against his legs. Luath got the impression it was often where Dale chose to be, and he sat still, as quiet in body as he was in voice, until you could almost forget he was there. They’d been talking perhaps half an hour when the phone rang and Paul got up to get it, not bothering to turn the light on in the kitchen.
“Hello, Falls Chance ranch – oh Gerry. Gerry calm down and talk to me.”
Flynn caught Riley around the waist to stop him following, and heard Paul’s voice as he shut the kitchen door, compassionate and firm.
“Stop. Take a breath and calm down. Yes they’re here, they’re fine.”
“It’s Gerry,” Riley said fiercely, trying to twist away. Flynn held onto him from his armchair, dragging Riley down on to his lap and holding him strongly enough to contain his struggling.
“Oi. Sit. Paul will let us know if he wants to speak to anyone else.”
It was very shortly said, Flynn at his grimmest, gruffest worst, but Riley must have heard something else in it, as he stopped struggling and curled up to Flynn, silent but hanging onto the arm around him. By the hearth, Luath saw Jasper put a hand out to Dale’s, finding his without looking, and Dale moved across the floor to fold up on the rug at his feet, face immobile. Jasper’s hand rested over Dale’s which was tapping lightly and rapidly on his knee, stilling the fingers which were the only restless part of Dale’s body. Flynn gave Dale a look over Riley’s head.
“We’ll talk about that later.”
Darcy caught Luath’s eye, brows steeply raised.
“How about a game?” Luath got up and went to the bookcase where several boxes and packs of cards were stacked, some newer and some of the boxes battered and probably by now antiques. He chose one at random from the bottom of the pile and brought it back to the table, and Darcy knelt to help him set out the pieces. They played for a while in the crackle of the firelight, until the clock struck eight and Flynn looked at Dale and stood Riley on his feet.
“You two, get ready for bed.”
Dale moved at once, silently.
“It’s only fricking eight-” Riley began in outrage, and Flynn cut him off without a word but a sharply jerked head at the stairs. Riley scowled but obeyed, and Flynn yanked him down by his hand, kissed him roughly and returned the equally rough and crushing hug Riley gave him. Luath removed their pieces from the board, an eye on Darcy who was very quiet. It was a while before Paul came back to join them, looking tired and exasperated.
“Ash is going home to ring Theo and singe the ears off his head. Bear apparently left the news for Gerry on his cell phone, Gerry picked up the message as he left a meeting this evening and was sitting in a car lot somewhere in Seattle in floods of tears. I made him call Ash, and then talk to me until Ash got there. He is not happy.”
“I phoned Ash to tell him myself.” Luath protested.
“Yes.” Paul flopped down on the sofa. “Apparently Gerry’s been working flat out on some show at the gallery this week and Ash planned on letting him get it finished and home today before breaking it to him.”
“Ah.” Luath said bleakly. “I can’t do much about that. Niall and James I know were going out to stay with Wade. The only ones I couldn’t reach were Jake and Tom. I have no idea how to get a message up K2 or wherever it is they are.”
“Lhotse. I’ll bet Dale does.” Flynn got up. “I’ll ask him.”
“He’ll probably ski up there personally.” Darcy said, throwing the dice. He caught Luath’s eye again and grinned, and Luath returned the smile, but his eyes were on Flynn heading upstairs.
Riley had taken a seat on the top stair and Dale, undressing in his and Flynn’s room, heard his voice, muted and annoyed as Flynn reached him.
“I am not the one who’s grounded. He has been grounded for forever. What did we do? It’s not like we get to see-”
Flynn must have interrupted him there. Dale didn’t hear anything, Flynn’s voice was too low to be anything but a murmur, but whatever it was, Riley obviously found it placating. A few minutes later Dale heard the bath running and the bathroom door shut, and Flynn came into their room, shutting the door quietly behind him. Dale, neatly folding his removed clothes, watched him while he put them on top of the dresser. Protect the herd mode. Rough voice, scowl, the slight change of stance if you knew where to look for it that made his shoulders look broader, his brow heavier, movements more abrupt. Flynn waited until he’d put the clothes away, then caught him by the hand and yanked, not gently, to stand Dale in front of him and rest his hands on Dale’s waist, looking hard at him with very dark green eyes turned nearly black in the dim light from the bedside lamp. Dale put his hands up to run them gently through Flynn’s hair, combing it back and understanding why Riley had no problem with being growled or glared at tonight.
“Was Gerry ok?”
“Fine.” Flynn said shortly. “Bear broke the news to him by a messaging service. How are you?”
It wasn’t a casual question. Dale took a minute to think about it, unalarmed and knowing what Flynn meant just as he’d known exactly what that growled ‘we’ll talk about that later’ meant. Not a threat, not a warning; instead it meant whatever you’re thinking right now, remember it, because what bothers you is important to me. Flynn gave his hips a brief, rough shake.
“It doesn’t have to make sense, just say it.”
“They’re so calm.” Dale hesitated, not sure how to explain. “Darcy’s done nothing but joke since he got here.”
“And I’d have shot you for doing that.” Flynn finished for him. “He gets the lifestyle- it wouldn’t be possible to live in this house if you didn’t – but he doesn’t choose to live it himself. Luath only does when he’s here with us. You’re not convinced, are you?”
“I don’t know where the line is between ‘what you do’ and ‘who you are’.” Dale admitted.
Flynn grunted. “You, Riley and several others. We’ve done this a few times now, kid. The sitting, the waiting, everyone getting upset, and like Riley said this morning the chances of it being anything to do with us are minuscule. It just brings it all up again, and you know what bothers one of us bothers the lot of us.”
Jasper had said something very similar this morning. When things went wrong for the men in this family, when they were hurt or afraid or distressed they came back to it like homing pigeons. Dale fully understood why: he’d experienced it himself when A.N.Z. put him on a plane out to Wyoming. The routine and the constancy, to be a part of this group and to be protected and surrounded by it, was more stabilising than anything Dale had ever found in the wider world. What they came home to was Philip and David. The values and the way of life they’d taught, the acceptance and care; things they’d believed so strongly that they left their mark for the better on the men who belonged here, most of whom had never belonged anywhere else. Dale remembered something Flynn had once said to him, unusually poetic for Flynn, about Philip and David having managed to build their love into the very walls of this house. Somehow they’d welded together this group so strongly that their being gone made no real difference.
“What would Philip do?” Dale said aloud to Flynn, not very sure why he asked but wanting to know. He was the only one in the house tonight who didn’t have the memory of a time when Philip would have been with them at dinner, in the family room, and somehow tonight he wanted to see it and know and feel what the others did. Flynn drew him closer, linking both hands behind his back.
“Philip often didn’t ‘do’ anything so much. He knew where to be and what to say and who to deflect at the right moment. Luath confided in him.”
So did you.
“What about Darcy?”
“He let Darcy be Darcy.” Flynn sounded quiet for a moment and Dale could feel him remembering. “He was very gentle with him. Philip had no interest in forcing people into any kind of mould. He’d have had you and Riley upstairs on the dot of eight though, if not earlier. Are you done getting ready for bed?”
Men strong enough to lean on. Dale let him go, straightening up.
Riley was neck deep in the bath with a book, which he lowered at the sight of Dale rapidly and efficiently dealing with his teeth.
“I didn’t realise there were Olympic standards for that too.”
“Shut up.” Dale said firmly, leaning on the sink and spitting toothpaste. “Did you get a deferred bedtime?”
“Not really.” Riley turned the book over to show him. “It went ‘don’t put a foot out of that bath until I say so or you’re toast’, followed by ‘you can read until 9.30 and that’ll go down by ten minutes for anything other than ‘yes sir’.’ I suggested ‘yes sire’ might be more up his street and it went down to 9.20.”
He sounded mildly exasperated but not as if he minded very much and there was some amusement in his voice. Dale rinsed his mouth and wiped his face, still comfortably aware of Riley sprawled in warm water with one knee raised, his bright hair damp and his body relaxed, and understood. It was exactly the same for him. He paused and stooped over the bath before he left, and Riley lifted his chin to kiss him. They both knew what got inside them and made things right, what they craved, and it was the letting go and being safely handled by a man strong enough to take charge, and not be too politically correct about it either. They both knew the peace in it, and the feeling of being able to let go, the safety in being on someone else’s watch.
Flynn was waiting in the bedroom and nodded at the door in a way that made Dale’s stomach flutter, aware of what was coming. These night time ‘discussions’ were becoming rare now instead of nightly, most usually based on anything Flynn saw as something they needed to talk about, but each time was no less powerful than the first and Dale knew it got his attention and clarity like nothing else, especially at this hour when he was concluding one day and needing to put that information away and rest before he readied himself to deal with the next. The way to some men’s hearts was definitely through their butts, not their stomachs.
“I’d like you to do something for me in the morning,” Flynn said as Dale shut the door. “No one knows how to get a message to Jake and Tom.”
“Journalist websites.” Dale mentally kicked himself for not realising earlier. “I should have thought of it before. There’ll be journalists at base camp definitely on Everest, probably Lhotse as well, with internet connection. There’s chat lists, blogs, groups about the different climbing parties and their progress, if I email them they’ll get a message across to all the camps via radio. I can do it now.”
“It’ll wait until tomorrow.” Flynn held out a hand to him. “There isn’t anything they can do once they know, and there isn’t any hurry for any of us, but thank you. I thought you’d know.”
Stomach flipping still further, Dale took his hand and let Flynn turn him over his knee, folding his arms to cushion his head on the bed. One of Flynn’s forearms rested across his back, the other took the waistband of his shorts and pulled them a lot further down than was necessary, particularly as the bed and Flynn’s height meant Dale couldn’t reach the floor with his toes and his legs simply hung in space. Was there a reason why the brush of cool air on bare skin felt so much more acute when it was your butt rather than your arm or knee or anywhere else? Flynn’s palm rested across his furthest cheek, warm and cupping, and any false sense of dignity or reserve went the way of the shorts. It just wasn’t possible to lie like this, bare butt up over his knee, and maintain them.
“Want to tell me about the tapping?” Flynn inquired mildly.
Dale swallowed on a ridiculously light hearted urge to reply er, no thank you? What remained wasn’t easy to explain, mostly because it seemed so very unimportant. The warmth and weight of Flynn’s hand disappeared for a second, and then a much stronger warmth and smart bloomed under a firm swat. Dale jumped involuntarily, tongue freeing itself.
“It’s just not fun to hear Gerry ringing up in tears.”
“I’m British. We do understatement.”
That earned him another, equally sharp swat that made the heat and smart even across both cheeks.
“I’m Kiwi. We don’t do bullshit.”
“What do you want me to say?” Dale demanded. “I hate it. I hate seeing Paul and Riley cry, I hate imagining what Luath and Darcy are having to think about and I can see you watching Luath trying to work out how to help. It’s an awful, awful thing and I don’t know half of it!”
“You know you can ask?” Flynn said quietly. “Neither of them are sensitive about it, they’ll be happy to talk to you if you want to know. You belong to us, this is going to be hard on you and you’re right, it is an awful thing. Remind me what we mean by withholding around here?”
“Anything that’s a problem or is bothering me to the point I want to get rid of the anxiety somehow.” Dale said, wincing. “Probably inappropriately.”
“If you’re thinking anything that’s getting you to that point, you find one of us and you talk about it.” Flynn’s hand patted where it rested. “You are entitled to be upset, kid. These are your people, and you don’t miss a lot. And you’ve probably got more idea of what happened at the trade centre than those of us who’ve never set foot in an office, never mind a sky scraper. Is there anything else you’re worrying about?”
“I’m not keen to try sleeping.” Dale turned his head on his arms, letting out the confession very quietly. Flynn’s hand rubbed over the base of his spine, slow and soothing.
“ ‘I’m not keen’?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I still want you to say it.”
That earned him a light swat, entirely painless. Dale stifled a small, wry smile in his arms and turned to see Flynn’s face.
“I am afraid to fall asleep. I’m afraid of dreaming horrible things and waking up screaming, especially with guests in the house, which as we all know makes me a wimp and an emasculated idiot.”
“And a brat.” Flynn punctuated the comment with a swat a lot more purposeful that drew a yelp from Dale. “Try again without the qualifier.”
“I’m afraid of dreaming.” Dale admitted. “Actually physically afraid. I’m sick to death of stallions and faces and smoke and people falling off things, I don’t get what it means and I hate it.”
“That seems a very sensible response to me.” Flynn said gently. “I still think a lot of this is anxiety. You did a very tough thing in letting that project go. You’ve coped admirably with not finding the solution you wanted in the time frame you wanted, and with dealing with Riley and Paul both being pretty fed up with you about it. That’s hell for a perfectionist, that took you a lot of effort.”
“Jas wasn’t pleased either.” Dale said wryly. Flynn, actually, had been the easiest. He didn’t yell, he didn’t get mad, he just explained clearly to your backside what he didn’t like and what he’d prefer you never to do again, and that was the end of it. Flynn’s hand circled gently on his back.
“It was hard. I’m very proud of you for how well you’ve handled it, but what I don’t want is you deciding that now you’ve achieved that, you can’t let us see any further worry or stress about it that bothers you. It isn’t getting stressed that will get you into trouble, you can get as stressed as you need to.”
“It’s hiding it. I know.” Dale took another breath, thinking through again a thought from this morning. “But I still don’t think it’s work. I really don’t.”
“What do you think it is?”
There was no weight in that statement, just trust and willingness to be convinced, and Dale could have hugged him for it.
“I don’t know. But I don’t care about work. You know I don’t. It’s a hobby, it’s something I do for mental gymnastics. I was upset about not being able to help Jerry Banks, yes, but that isn’t what the project was about, and that finished once you said I was finished with the project. That day ended it. Seriously. And the screwing it up, and dealing with people being fed up with me about screwing up – that’s going to happen, isn’t it? It’s nothing to do with work. Let’s face it, that’s a long term thing, and the whole point of working here with you, because when I screw up it isn’t going to do damage. I am going to screw up, it’s how I am, and you know how to handle it.”
“I’ll never let anything do you damage.” Flynn said quietly. “You’re quite right. So what is it? Jasper’s bloody hill?”
Literally bloody. Black Feet men had died in the woods on Mustang Hill with the white stallion. What mark was left on the ground where a man left his blood? One of the most powerful and tangible essences of individual life, unique to the carrier. Sacrifice and the most heartfelt of commitments traditionally involved blood. Bonding involved blood. It symbolised the giving of life.
“I’ve always seen weird things.” Dale said aloud. “Ever since I first came here. Not the hallucinations, they were something different.”
“I know. So has Jasper.”
“We’ve talked about what they might be or what they might mean.”
“Yes.” Flynn’s voice was still quiet. Steady. “Luath said about you that in every field of work, people can go so far on facts and figures, but the very few who really excel can make the leaps of instinct and intuition. I suppose it depends what you want to call that.”
“I’ve always been a trouble shooter.” Dale said honestly. “That’s what I did. I solved the puzzles, I put the pieces together, I sorted out messes. That’s what A.N.Z. specifically used me for, but all it’s just that I can process data very fast and tell you what’s out of place, what’s missing, what the obvious conclusions are. It’s like what they used to call computers; high speed idiots. They can process fast, but they don’t do anything other than the programming.”
Flynn patted his back. “I don’t agree with that. You tried running the data in front of you upside down and sideways to find the problem with the project Banks gave you. What solved it was an insight you had even with the data in another state. A leap of intuition. Imagination. I think you’ve been used to using that skill without realising. Look at Three Traders? You knew your way through the mine and out again, you put together that information and it led to us finding Gam Saan.”
Dale shook his head. “Riley got us through the mine.”
And who got you into it?
Dale shut his eyes on an image of David standing at the top of the collapsing bank, looking at him. David, drawing him off a path where a heavy branch was about to fall. David at the waterfall when he’d walked up there alone, despairing. David signalling him away from a stalking cougar.
Maybe David’s an image you use to personify a part of yourself, to argue or reason with yourself.
Flynn had suggested that to him before.
“The whole thing nags at me.” he admitted to Flynn. “I don’t know why, I can’t put it together but it’s worse than the project. There are things I should be able to know and I don’t.”
“I don’t know.”
“Then maybe that’s something we need to talk to Jasper about. But right now, you need to let it go and let yourself get some rest. Nothing here is going to hurt you, you’re safe and anything bothering you is going to have to deal with me, Jas and Paul first, and Luath second. Can you keep that in mind?”
Dale hesitated, wanting to say what Flynn wanted to hear, but not able to lie to him. Finally he shook his head.
“....... no. Not really.”
Standing behind someone else’s shelter was still too new an idea for him. He’d had no earlier experience to transfer it over from. Flynn rubbed his back, voice firm.
“Then have a try. If Banks rings, Paul will deal with the call, right? He isn’t going to let Banks or anyone else bother you. When you were up on the hill the afternoon you had that storm hit the clearing? Jasper pushed you out of the circle, didn’t he?”
Jasper had rolled over the top of him, using his body to shield Dale’s. The memory of it still caught Dale in the throat.
“You keep those images in mind and don’t let anything else chew on you.” Flynn told him. “Think of real things. What you know. And don’t worry about the abstracts. This will be all right.”
His unreasonable, utter determination that it should be so was as immoveable as a wall of concrete.
“Anything else you want to talk about?” Flynn invited, and Dale shook his head, mind too full of their conversation. This was a hell of a position and a situation to have it in, but sometimes this no-holds-barred approach shook things loose in his mind in a way nothing else could.
Flynn’s grasp on his far hip resumed and Dale shut his eyes and felt his shoulders tense in preparation for the half dozen swats Flynn always concluded these evening discussions with. Sometimes he wondered if the anticipation of those was an encouragement to keep talking as long as possible. At other times, they seemed as they did now; enough to imprint on his mind what was done, what was sorted out, what needed to be remembered for tomorrow, and a peculiar feeling of being clean of it all. They were never anything like full force swats, they bore no relation to a punishment and they were reinforcing, not in any way reproachful, but tonight they were uncomfortably firm, and he was warm, tingling and definitely impressed upon when he settled under the covers. Flynn stooped to kiss his forehead, then his mouth, imprinting him just as firmly with another of his marks.
“Try and sleep. I won’t be long, we’re all tired tonight.”
He left the door open when he went downstairs, and Dale turned over onto his stomach, aware of his very warm and smarting backside under the weight of the covers, not exactly painful but keeping his mind very acutely focused on what Flynn had said, and on the sense of very comforting calm it engendered.
“Well I’ve never seen anyone do grounded like that before.” Darcy said relatively quietly not long after the house went quiet at about ten thirty. He’d slipped into Luath’s room wearing what Luath thought probably passed under the name of designer pyjamas, and perched on the end of Luath’s bed. “Or possibly he wasn’t sent to bed, he just goes offline for repairs, maintenance and upgrades at eight pm, who knows? He scares the hell out of me! Flynn just says and he moves, there’s no way to tell what he’s thinking when he looks at you, I never thought of James Bond as a brat.”
“That’s just the English accent.” Luath said, settling back against the pillows.
“It is not,” Darcy contradicted, pulling the blanket off the end of the bed to wrap around himself. “I suppose he probably is still grounded from what Gerry said about this project mess he got into, although I don’t see you can blame the poor so and so for getting stressed out. He didn’t choose to. And did you see Flynn jump on him about tapping his fingers? I mean what is wrong with tapping your fingers?”
“We wouldn’t know because it doesn’t involve us, and it wasn’t the getting stressed out, it was the hiding it.” Luath turned the light out and lay back, still able to see Darcy by outline in the darkness. “You know how it works, let them get on with it. You need some sleep. You didn’t sleep on the plane and you were up all last night.”
“Brat. Go to bed. Will you be able to sleep?”
“I’m fine.” Darcy stood up, letting the blanket fall where it was, and stretched breezily. “No old bones in this boy, thank you very much.”
“Get out of here.” Luath aimed a very mild swat at him and Darcy laughed and stooped to give him a hug.
Luath heard him walk softly back across the landing to the room that had always been his, and the soft click as he closed his door. It was always easier to sleep in this house.
For some time he lay dozing under the eaves and the blankets, hearing the wind in the yard outside, and in the distance, the rattle of the now almost leafless trees, and then Philip walked with him down the porch steps in a yard full of sunshine, crossing unhurriedly to where several young colts came to the fence at the sight of him and the cut apple in his hands.
Dale leaned on the fence beside him, rubbing the neck of the nearest of the colts while he went on with the information and the messages from the corporate he had been working with on Philip’s behalf. Philip took up barely half his time with the assistant work he handed over, and he was generous with it, not handing over the more secretarial tasks while keeping the interesting or challenging ones for himself, but making a partnership out of it more equal than Dale knew his experience deserved. When he finished reporting, Philip said nothing for a while, then ran a hand down the nose of the colt crunching the last apple slice. Rain or shine, every day, Philip cut the apple pieces himself and came out here to hand feed the youngest horses.
“The best natured animal can be turned vicious by bad handling.” he said eventually, very mildly. “Behaviour is a habit.”
“You heard me bawl Flynn out this morning.” Dale heard himself say uncomfortably, looking down at his hands. They were unexpectedly large, and his skin shone a rich blue-black under the sunlight. Philip brushed off his own hands of the last crumbs of apple.
“You can train a horse or a man out of bad habits if you take the time and patience to teach him how to trust you. If I have a bad tempered colt I move slowly, speak quietly, and plan for a lot of work in small steps, and I try to remember something David taught me about teaching being about keeping your student hungry to learn more.”
“Taught you from experience with him, or taught you himself?” Dale leaned on the fence beside him and Philip gave him a brief smile that understood what he meant, and which carried a tenderness that was shockingly acute to Dale to see it directed straight into his eyes.
“David taught me most of the things I find most worth knowing. What Flynn says or does isn’t important to us. Let that go. The important thing is him. Feeling safe, belonging, being rooted. When that’s right, he’ll sort out the rest for himself.”
.........And then the paddock was gone, and instead there was noisy, cheerful chaos in the kitchen where they were eating breakfast, a large group of men around the table passing French toast and sausages without pausing in the several conversations going on at once, while Philip, behind his newspaper at the head of the table, read peacefully without the faintest sign of being disturbed by it. Paul came in from the yard and paused to take off his jacket, looking exasperated, and he spoke mostly to Philip.
“He's not coming in, you know.”
Philip gave his newspaper a deft shake to fold it and laid it on the table.
“Sit down and eat. I'll get him.”
“I wish you luck.” Paul said dryly.
Philip unhooked two jackets from the peg behind the door and put one on as he walked out onto the porch, leaving the breakfast clamour behind, and Dale followed him, down the steps and across the yard. David was sitting on the corral rail, looking up the long, upward sloping hayfields towards the tops. Ignoring the frost in the air, he was jacketless, and despite all their persuasions there was no sign of his walking stick either. Philip walked down the yard and leaned against the rail beside him, well aware that David had heard him coming, even if he hadn’t troubled to indicate it. The sun was still red on the horizon behind the hills, still emerging and casting shafts of light towards them, shadowing the trees and the horses and casting a red and gold over the shock of David’s white hair.
“Giving Paul a hard time for any particular reason?” Philip inquired mildly. David didn’t look round, and from his tone the answer was obvious.
“It's a beautiful morning.”
“When did that become an excuse?”
Philip said nothing but leaned with him, watching the sunrise with him. It was a few minutes before he put his hand on the thin back and ran it down to David’s thick and very worn leather belt, guiding and steadying him to turn around to climb down. Dale saw David hunch his shoulders, resisting the pull. The body might have grown frail but he’d retained a surprising amount of his strength.
“No. It's beautiful up there.”
“It still will be after breakfast.” Philip said gently. David still didn’t move, voice serious.
“Not like it is now.”
He was saying something they both understood, and Dale felt his eyes prickle in response.
“It’s hard enough trying to get calories to stick to you without having to throw them across the yard.” Philip kept the gentle pressure on his belt, not forcing but waiting. “David.”
That was all he said. Not a call, not an order, nothing more than his name. Unwillingly David turned in the direction of his hand and swung down, stiffly, but ignoring Philip’s hands which stayed on him until he reached the ground. Once there, Philip hugged him, rubbing briskly over his shoulders and arms.
“You're chilled. Where is your stick?”
“Inside somewhere.” David said dismissively. He readily returned the hug, still half a head taller than Philip despite the stoop in his shoulders, and his eyes were still on the hills beyond the corral. “Come riding with me.”
It was said impulsively, a private invitation, and Philip’s answer was instantaneous.
“Yes. Straight after breakfast. Come home with me.”
David didn’t answer for a moment, then reluctantly smiled, letting Philip draw him towards the house.
“You should be ashamed of yourself, bullying a poor old man.”
Philip helped him into the second jacket and waited for David to take his arm, keeping his pace to David’s stiff one as they walked towards the house.
“If I see a 'poor old man' I'll mention it.”
From then, there was a muddle, a swirl of images that passed by without sound but just with the recognition of each face. David, with much darker hair, reefing in a sail that was battered by wind and water, his collar turned high against the spray, the deck bucking under his feet. Riley, eyes steady as he turned in a circle in the training paddock with a folded head collar in his hand, body in tune with the colt he worked who trotted in smooth circles around him. Tom in a scarlet climbing suit, braced on a grey rock face somewhere continents away and thousands of feet up, blasted by snow as he fixed a rope in place with all his strength and the skill of long experience. Riley and Dale, the path ahead lit with thin torch beams, as they walked through a dark, rock tunnel deep underground. A quarry in the woods, rock mixed with green grass, and a white stallion circling, and smoke rising from the ground, hiding giant, carved faces that silently mouthed and screamed –
Luath jerked himself awake, hearing someone cross the landing, and slid out of bed. Jasper was ahead of him and went into Flynn’s room, and Luath, following, saw Flynn talking softly and calmingly to Dale, holding his shoulders to keep him still, and Dale was fighting the covers to get up, muttering something agitated. Jasper blocked his way by sitting on the edge of the bed, pinning the covers down and adding quiet hands to Flynn’s. That appeared to do it. Dale’s voice rose abruptly to several sharp cries, half words but not ones that Luath could catch. The note was of warning and of despair, it was awful to hear and the yells weren’t quiet ones. Flynn caught him quickly, pulling him upright and stifling the shouts in his shoulder as he held him, and Jasper turned the night stand light on, running his hand lightly down Dale’s back. It took several, tearing, shaking breaths before Dale opened his eyes and Luath saw that he was lucid. Very pale, trembling, and if Luath was any judge, close to tears.