It had obviously happened before.
Luath went back to his room and fumbled in the dark for socks and a sweater as the stone floors downstairs were cold despite the still glowing embers of the fire in the family room hearth. He joined Jasper, Flynn and Dale in the kitchen a few minutes later, where Flynn was pouring mugs of strong tea. Dale’s face was reserved, but his shoulders were rigid under the fleece jacket someone had made him put on and he was pacing by the door as if he was itching to head outside and run. Jasper had his dark eyes steadily on him, leaning forward in his chair with his hands linked between his knees, his hair loose over his shoulders. Luath quietly took a seat at the table and watched Flynn put the mugs down on the table. Dale looked at the mugs and then at them, and Luath saw him forcibly stop pacing, lower his shoulders and lift his head, inflicting the same control on his body as his face. Luath found himself vaguely shocked by the brutality in it. Flynn leaned both hands on the table, saying brusquely:
“Was there anything different? Who fell this time?”
Dale picked up a mug and took a long swallow of scalding tea. He sounded inappropriately calm. Flynn pulled out a chair, sat down and caught Dale’s arm, yanking him down into his lap. There was a lot of strength in the grip as if Flynn was ready for something; Luath saw Dale’s almost immediate recoil and Flynn manhandled him close, not letting him move. The silent battle lasted perhaps a couple of seconds, then Dale put his mug down on the table and twisted around to bury himself hard in Flynn’s arms, all his strength abruptly engaged in going to rather than pulling away. Flynn held him tightly, saying nothing, and across the table from them, Jasper sipped tea, eyes watchful. From where he sat, Luath could clearly see Dale’s shoulders shuddering.
“Nothing really happened.” Dale said eventually without lifting his head. “It was more-”
“How it felt.” Luath said gently, understanding. “The simplest dreams can feel the worst, cant’ they?”
He caught Flynn’s brief, sharp glance at him.
Yes? What nightmares did you have tonight?
Mind your own business, brat.
“What have you been dreaming about?” Luath asked, shifting back in his chair and cradling his tea mug. They were the old, battered mugs that had always been used on the porch and outside in the yard to avoid risking the good china, many of them as old as Luath’s history in this house. Flynn had reached for them by habit as Luath would have done, and there was a deep familiarity in the old, faded glaze and the occasional chips. The tea tasted of home, the mugs with their chips felt of home, the group of them gathered around the table in the night felt deeply of home too, and there was guilt in taking comfort in what for the others was a bad night. “I’m guessing this is something reoccurring?”
“It’s a long story.” Dale sounded shakier but Luath thought he looked more natural. He let go of Flynn enough to pick up his mug and Flynn rubbed his shoulders with one hand, keeping hold of him.
“We’re not in any hurry.”
“It’s ridiculous.” Dale sipped tea and grimaced at the heat. “There’s always someone doing something normal – fixing something, climbing something – and they fall, usually horribly. I don’t often see what happens once they hit ground but-”
He trailed off and Luath nodded understanding.
“...you know whatever happens is going to be awful. Who falls?”
“So far?” Dale said with heavy irony. Flynn swatted his hip.
“Wade. Gerry. Darcy. Bear.”
Luath nodded, processing, and finding himself using a tone of voice that came automatically to him in this house, but which had grown distinctly rusty in New York.
“Anything else happen?”
“There’s always vaguer things that happen around it.” Dale said a little more unwillingly. “Nothing with any import but – as you say, the emotions around it are incongruous.”
Incongruous. Luath resisted the urge to smile. This boy was using words like incongruous, in the middle of the night, from Flynn’s lap, with his hands still shaking.
“Like what?” Flynn asked him. Dale shrugged.
“The same over and over. A quarry in the woods. A stallion, white, it’s not Bandit. A heavy mist rising from the ground. Faces in the mist.”
“What do horses symbolise in dreams?” Luath asked Flynn.
“We’ve been through this.” Dale said with a touch of frustration. “In as much as generalised image symbolism is ever applicable to individuals out of context. A horse can symbolise power or independence, fertility particularly related to stallions – although fertility in this psychological context means creative ability as well as simply sex – or even as a symbol of ‘hoarseness’, an inability to express an idea. What is relevant is the appearance of the horse, and the emotions aroused. In this case, item: powerful, healthy stallion; one; white; and the emotions are-”
Terror. Luath heard the word he couldn’t bring himself to say.
“Watching someone else fall, particularly someone important, can symbolise a feeling of a near miss.” Dale added crisply and with acid sarcasm. “Which brings us back to the bloody project, I know. Near miss, independence I’m afraid of, an inability to deal with it, and a whole lot of anxiety around it. Witness the most neurotic accountant in captivity.”
Flynn swatted him. Dale looked him straight in the face, repeating it, flatly.
Flynn got up, steering Dale ahead of him into the family room.
If Luath was any judge, they were headed for the study. He gave Jasper an expressive look, sitting back in his chair.
“Lot of steam under that cork.”
Jasper swallowed tea. “He doesn’t have the vocabulary to explain and he doesn’t approve of himself acting out like that, so it’s stifled and usually angry because he finds that slightly more acceptable than upset or scared. If there’s something really bothering him then we don’t see it at all. There’s just a sudden detonation out of nowhere.”
“Wade, Gerry, Darcy and Bear.” Luath said after a moment. “There’s a very obvious symbol in dreaming about a brat from that group in a messy accident. I don’t know about the stallion.”
“Dale discovered a Shoshone site up on Mustang Hill.”
Luath’s eyebrows rose. “That clearing where nothing grows? Rog loved it. He used to read up there.”
“Legend has it that a Mustang stallion was buried there, it’s a sacred site. Dale’s as fascinated by the history here as Riley is.”
Yes, it was important to them all. Every one of them who called this house home were people with few roots outside this ranch. They were people who had chosen to belong here. That sense of heritage, belonging, it was a deep part of all of them and Luath remembered going through that stage himself when Philip and David first took him in. It was a sense of family that few of them had experienced or been able to keep before they came to the ranch, something that some of them had never before realised the importance of. Some of them, like Riley, just came to it so instinctively that it didn’t even translate into words. For some of them, and Luath knew he was one, it was a young adult’s vague awareness that gradually matured over time. But for an intelligent, sensitive man like Dale, who came to it not a youngster but a mature adult with a much clearer view of himself and his life and what was lacking in it, Luath could see how acute the impact must be.
Our people are my people, and I live here where my people have lived.
“I’m sorry to put you all through this again,” he said wearily. “It’s fairly obvious that it’s Roger that Dale’s disturbed about.”
“Rubbish, you’re not putting us through anything. We all loved Roger.” Jasper said matter of factly.
Philip would have put it a lot more stringently.
“Just tell Dale to talk to me about it.” Luath said bluntly. “Get it out of his head and put it into words, he’s not going to upset me and it might calm him down a bit.”
Jasper shook his head. “The dreams started before we knew about the DNA finding. This is all mixed up with the hill and the legends and the project, it’s a lot of things.”
“I meant to ask, how did he find the vegetable patch?” Luath said thinking of something Paul had told him. “Do you know? I went round there and had a look this evening, Paul said something about Dale seeing the marks on the grass. I’ve mowed that area hundreds of times, I’ve sat out there to read, and in twenty or more years I’ve never seen a thing. No outlines, no raised patch, no change in the colour of the grass.”
Jasper inclined his head. “Paul said something early this fall about wishing he could find it.”
“Yes, I get that.” Luath said quizzically. “I get intuition. I get that he makes leaps of connection other people don’t; that’s what he made his reputation on. I just want to know what he could see on that patch of grass.”
Jasper swallowed the last of his tea and got up to collect the mugs together. “I think Dale’s always stumbled across quietly hidden information. He absorbs all kinds of details. Some of it he doesn’t share because it doesn’t occur to him anyone else might be interested, and some of it he does subconsciously, without realising. That can look like magic instead of skill.”
“Yeah, I heard how he climbed a mountain when he’d never climbed before.” Luath said dryly. “Darcy wanted to know if there was anything he couldn’t do, and why Riley didn’t find it annoying.”
“He doesn’t because Dale would think you were mad if you suggested it to him.” Jasper rinsed out the mugs and put them away. “He doesn’t see it as competence at all.”
“And you think that’s what it is? High speed analysis that looks like lucky guessing? He just happened to stumble over the vegetable patch not even Wade or James remembered the exact location of, and they worked in it. He found his way through the mine from some scrawled sketch of David’s that no one else could read, didn’t he? He went right to Gam Saan having figured out who and where he was, and what happened to him, when none of the rest of us knew.”
“I think it takes years to know even half the mysteries about a man.” Jasper said mildly. “Things happen in their own time.”
Jasper came from a people that placed a high value on patience, and believed in the natural unfolding of knowledge when the time was right. It wasn’t a value Luath had ever been raised in before he came here, but David, while he fought tooth and nail against anything that involved patience, had understood and valued it too, and taught it to Philip who was a natural waiter. Sometimes that was what Luath thought he’d held on to most since Roger died: that unwestern perspective on time, learned from both of them and modelled to him by Philip whom he had watched first hand go on living as a widower, neither forgetting his loss nor obsessing in it, but making his life about continuing what he and David had built together with his love for David within every inch of it. Philip couldn’t have known what comfort and practical help he’d still be giving years after his death, but Philip and David’s roots ran deep underneath and stabilised each and every one of them.
Paul had the habit of collecting his clothes and showering downstairs early in the morning. It was an old habit of his to avoid disturbing people still sleeping at the crack of dawn which was when Paul naturally was ready to be up. In the summer months when sunlight came early he was sometimes dressed and quietly doing by five am, enjoying the early light, the peace and the downstairs to himself. He was in the bathroom off the kitchen when Flynn came downstairs, and he hadn’t been up long; the kettle was steaming quietly off the hob, and he’d left the kitchen light out. It was still dark outside, and only the stove’s faint glow lit the room. Bare foot, in the shorts and t shirt he’d slept in, Flynn ignored the tea caddy on the counter and dug in the pantry until he found the loose Earl Grey tea Paul liked as a luxury, warmed the pot by a swill of the boiled water and then spooned four loose spoonfuls of the dark, fragrant leaves into the pot before he filled it. He opened the stove door too, letting the heat and the light further into the kitchen to warm it.
“It was one of the reasons David let me stay,” Paul had told him once, years ago. “I knew how to make a proper cup of tea.”
That mattered to Dale too. Boiling water. Tea left to brew. Properly. A tea pot, not bags in mugs. Milk added afterwards. Hand Dale a mug of tea that involved a dunked tea bag and he’d be very polite about it but he’d visibly wince at the taste. By Paul’s report, David, given a dunked tea bag, wouldn’t just wince; his response would be unrepeatable. Flynn collected the tea strainer, the cups with saucers that Paul liked, and the milk from the fridge, transferring the kit to the kitchen table, where he sat down to wait. Paul emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later, shaved, his hair still damp, shouldering into a sweater. He gave Flynn a brief, sweet half smile at the sight of the tea and stooped beside Flynn to put an arm around his neck and kiss him.
“If I wanted to bring you a cup of tea in bed, it would probably involve getting up at midnight.” Flynn pointed out, picking up the pot and the tea strainer to pour two cupfuls. Paul smiled and pulled out the chair beside him.
“It’s half past five, not that early. I wasn’t sleeping, so I thought I might as well get up and do something useful. Did you and Dale get back to sleep?”
“We woke Luath too.” Flynn added milk and slid a cup across to him. “Dale pushed until I spanked him. I suspect he wanted something else to think about. He slept when we went back to bed.”
“Some.” Flynn drank tea, sitting back in the chair. Paul hadn’t just heard Dale and stayed out of it; he would have been doing what he could to avoid Riley losing any more sleep than necessary, or putting any more pressure on Dale by the entire family getting up to see what the problem was. Riley hadn’t commented on the nightmares that had disturbed the house several nights in a row now, but having the tact not to comment wasn’t the same as not being concerned.
“I know you never like using sleeping meds for nightmares,” Paul asked him, “But as a one off tonight, don’t you think it might break the pattern for him? He’s tired, you’re tired, it’s going on and on.”
“Likely to make the dreams worse and harder for him to wake up out of them.” Flynn drained the cup and picked up the tea pot to re fill it. “There’s a reason he needs to dream this stuff, and whatever it is we’ve just got to work through it.”
He was right. Paul grimaced and went on sipping tea, aware of Flynn studying him with watchful, dark green eyes until Paul slid a foot over under the table and wrapped his jeaned leg around one of Flynn’s bare ones.
“Shut up. Go and analyse someone else, I’m all right.”
In the early hours of the morning and the late hours of the night when the house was quiet; that was when it was hardest. When there was no noise, activity, routine to hang on to, people to take care of, things to do, and it was very hard not to look and think and remember. Flynn’s arm wrapped gently around his neck and Paul leaned against him, head against Flynn’s, taking a rather unsteady breath.
“Jas and I were only kids when we first knew Roger,” Flynn said softly against his hair, “And we were wrapped up in each other and you at the time. It’s different for you.”
“The way you feel about Luath?” Paul said pointedly. “Rubbish.”
“It’s not rubbish. You knew Rog for years before we did; he and Luath were a part of the time you knew David.”
Flynn had gone unerringly to the heart of it. Paul felt his eyes sting and swore mildly, running a hand over his face. It was hard to remember. A sweet young man that Paul had been deeply fond of, whom he had spent a lot of time taking care of, whom Luath had loved so much, whom Philip and David had loved, who belonged to a very special part of Paul’s life. It was hard to see Luath’s loss, and in some ways harder still to deal with his bravery, knowing that what you remembered and what you missed and what was hardest to think about was infinitely harder for him.
Flynn’s hand rubbed gently where it rested on his shoulder. He didn’t say anything, but he had the knack of making you feel you had his whole attention, and that nothing right now mattered to him as much as you did. Paul turned his face against Flynn’s for a moment and kissed him.
“Why don’t you get out of here for few hours?” Flynn said softly against him. “Take Ri or Dale or both of them, and drive over to Jackson or Cheyenne. See a movie. Wander round the bookstores. Eat God-awful pizza.”
Paul managed an unsteady laugh, but knew what he meant. There had been times when he was younger when occasionally he’d needed to get away from nothing but miles of grass and sky, stock, muddy boots and weather, and remind himself that civilisation was still out there somewhere. Philip had been skilled in knowing when to hand him a wad of folded dollars and the keys to a jeep and a firm reminder that no one would starve if he was gone a few days. In fact he’d never stayed away later than nightfall, just the few hours was enough. So different to Jasper and Flynn, both of whom could happily spend the rest of their lives without leaving the ranch, and who in times of stress wanted it wilder, quieter, rainier, windier and lonelier, and sought comfort by going off alone into the pastures.
“It would do all three of you good.” Flynn pointed out. Paul pulled himself together and got up, opening the fridge to start to think about breakfast.
“Maybe in a few days when things are more settled. Luath and Darcy need normality, and Dale and Ri do too. What are you planning to do today?”
“The barn up on the tops.” Flynn said bluntly. “I’ll take Luath and Darcy with me if I can, that’s a long ride and a physical day, not a lot of time for brooding.”
“Take Ri too then.” Paul took bacon and butter from the fridge and shut the door with his hip. “He could do with the distraction and Dale could do with the peace and quiet. Breakfast in half an hour.”
Flynn got up from the table and wrapped both arms around Paul’s waist as he passed behind him. Paul leaned back against him for a moment and Flynn said nothing more but held him, giving him a long, tight hug, his chin heavy on Paul’s shoulder.
Dale was up, dressed and leaning against the doorframe of the bathroom in conversation with Riley, and black shadows were clearly visible under his eyes. Luath gave him a shrewd look, reflecting that he personally would have sent him straight back to bed, but Flynn, Paul and Jasper obviously had their reasons and Flynn was shouldering into a sweatshirt on the landing and was obviously aware, with both Riley and Dale in his line of sight. Luath paused by Darcy’s door to make sure he was both getting up and leaving the room relatively intact, and saw Paul pass the doorway of Flynn and Dale’s room, glance in and stop in his tracks, looking somewhere between amused and exasperated.
“Dale Edward, come here.”
Dale gave him a wary look and came down the landing. Paul took his arm and led him into the room, and whatever he said after that was out of earshot. Flynn jogged downstairs as a kettle started to whistle from the direction of the kitchen.
Darcy was both awake and out of bed, which was a minor miracle in itself. The room looked like a bomb had gone off in it. Luath picked up his open suitcase from the floor, removed the contents and put them on the bed, zipping the case closed.
“There’s a box room; you know where it is, put this in it. And pick up that mess before Paul sees it. You’re not in my apartment now.”
Darcy gave him an unrepentant grin, holding up two neon coloured and very brief t shirts which he turned to show Luath.
“Which one? The pink or the blue?”
“Save yourself the time.” Luath said without heat, opening the top drawer of the chest which held several tame and respectable polo shirts and sweaters. “And give me anything else that’ll get you sent straight back upstairs. Philip would have a fit.”
“And today we shall be bringing you the Conservatively Dull collection hot from the catwalks at Wyoming.” Darcy said dryly, surrendering the t shirts and several other items from the floor. “Philip wouldn’t have a fit, he’d have laughed.”
“And then sent you upstairs to change.” Luath added, zipping the items into the case. It was actually David who would have had the fit. “Make your bed. Properly, quilt straight, pillows on top, don’t show me up.”
“It’s all right hon, they all know I’m un toppable.” Darcy dropped a kiss on his cheek as he passed, casually twitching the quilt a little straighter.
Luath took the case to the box room, put it away and came back to help with the bed, reducing it to something that wouldn’t make Paul immediately demand Darcy come back upstairs to fix it. Paul might love being a house keeper but he’d never tolerated untidiness or housework chores undone or half heartedly done in this house and he’d never to Luath’s knowledge confused the role of housekeeper and maid. There had been occasions he’d seen Paul stand over Bear or Roger who found such things particularly difficult, and insist they finished tasks themselves and to his satisfaction, even when it took hours longer than Paul would have taken to do it himself. There wasn’t one of them who couldn’t cook, iron or competently care for a home having lived with Paul, even if they hated doing it.
Paul was still apparently standing over Dale as Luath finished making the bed and herded Darcy towards the stairs ahead of him. Dale looked anything but the untidy or forgetful type; it was surprising, but Paul was standing in the doorway of his room with an expression Luath knew and which Roger had known even better. Riley followed them downstairs, grinning at Darcy’s look of curiosity towards Dale’s room.
“It’s fine, he just got sent back to mess up his room.”
“He what?” Darcy demanded, looking alarmed. Riley followed them into the kitchen and hung over Flynn’s shoulders for a minute, wrapping his arms around Flynn’s neck to kiss him which didn’t noticeably detract from the bills he was paying among the breakfast things at the table.
“Paul calls it a Better Homes and Gardens complex, it drives him nuts. Dale likes things neat. The quilt will be mathematically aligned with Jupiter in the house of Aquarius, his socks will be alphabetised and the carpet pile will all have to be in the same direction. He probably used a protractor.”
“He is scary.” Darcy complained, taking a seat and helping himself to toast. “That isn’t normal, that’s pure Top, it’s against regulations.”
“After how many years, Paul finally gets one of us naturally tidy?” Luath told him. “It’s about time.”
“And then makes him go be untidy, how normal is that?” Darcy demanded.
“I don’t want untidy, I want normally lived in.” Paul said, appearing in the kitchen with Dale, who looked embarrassed, annoyed, and had slightly more colour than he’d had when Luath saw him upstairs. Paul pulled out a chair for Dale and tapped it.
“You, sit. Who am I making lunch for today?”
Flynn looked up from his bills at Jasper, and Luath watched the mute conference with affection. At one time it had been Philip and Flynn who had made that daily decision; Luath had been Philip’s secretary but the New Zealander had been Philip’s right hand man on the ranch, more than competent to run it in any way Philip wanted.
“I’m going to do some repairs on the barn up on the tops, I’ll be up there all day” Flynn said, signing the last bill. “Luath, I could use the help if you and Darcy want to come.”
“Great.” Luath said cheerfully. Flynn folded the bill and cheque into an envelope and sealed it.
“Ri? What are your plans today?”
“I’ve got the last of the cut logs to shift from down by the falls,” Riley said with his mouth full of toast. “And I want to fix the fence in the training paddock straight after breakfast, Ticktock’s been rubbing himself against it again, he’s fractured the rail.”
“And the fencing contractors should finish today.” Flynn accepted a plate of eggs and bacon from Paul. “Thanks. Jas, can you check it over and pay them off?
“I’ll do that this morning and I’ll look over the cattle this afternoon if you can cover the sheep on your way up.” Jasper said easily.
Flynn nodded. “Halfpint, can you come up with us and help if we come out and do the logs with you this afternoon? I want it finished today. We’re going to start seeing snow any day now.”
“I’ll do the rail for you?” Jasper offered Riley.
Darcy glanced over at Dale, who hadn’t taken any part in this conversation as was understandable for a grounded brat in this household, but was poking eggs around his plate without any sign of eating any of it and looking to Darcy’s eye, dead tired. Paul caught Darcy’s eye with a silent request that Darcy interpreted without difficulty as yes I know, but please don’t comment, and put his hand discreetly over Dale’s, making him scoop instead of push. The man’s face didn’t change in the slightest. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking or feeling, but less than a quarter of a forkful lifted to his mouth actually entered it, and Darcy looked back at his own plate, processing that wryly. It was a trick he’d seen several people around this table be proficient in when they weren’t interested in eating. Most of the people in this family that defined themselves as brats had their emotional energy cranked up on high, and it was easily seen whenever they felt under pressure. Gerry, Bear, Wade, Riley – any of them would have radiated what they were thinking or feeling, some of them more noisily than others. Long used to that kind of energy and the expression of it, Darcy was well inured to scenes and drama and experienced in seeing past the surface of it, but this brat was anything but transparent and he was quiet to the point of disappearing.
“Dale.” Flynn said shortly. “That all needs to be gone before you leave the table.”
Dale glanced up, voice quiet. “Yes sir.”
Paul finished his own breakfast, put his plate aside and casually sat with one arm over the back of Dale’s chair, the other hand over his, quietly and physically harassing until most of the egg was gone, leaving only bacon and toast on the plate.
Darcy got up to help clear the table as the others finished, and as soon as Paul and Flynn both had their backs to the table, Riley’s hand slipped out and quietly fielded the bacon off Dale’s plate. It was a rapid and a very kind sleight of hand that surprised Darcy, almost as much as Luath’s cleared throat from across the table.
Riley glanced up, giving Luath a look of appeal, and Paul turned, holding out a hand.
“No you don’t. Give that to me and leave Dale alone, it will not kill him to eat breakfast.”
Riley surrendered the bacon to him with a grimace at Dale, and Paul gave him a push towards the door.
“Go on. Take plenty for lunch, and Darcy, you and Luath put sun screen on, there’s some in the downstairs bathroom. You’re not used to the wind burn out here.”
Flynn took another two rashers of bacon from the dish on the stove and put them on Dale’s plate as Riley and the others headed out, leaning both hands and his weight heavily on Dale’s shoulders. The deep pressure often helped when he was really stressed. Paul saw Dale brace back against him and tip his head back, and Flynn stooped to kiss him.
“When Paul’s happy you’ve eaten, you stay with Jas.”
“Jas’s decision. All of that.” Flynn nodded at the plate and dropped another kiss on his mouth.
“You’re all right. I’ll see you later.”
Paul stacked the dishes by the sink as he left, poured himself another mug of tea and sat down beside Dale, running a hand down his back and rubbing. He loved to be touched, it tended to get under his shields fast enough that Paul had seen him react explosively when he was stressed, but this morning all he felt was tiredness. Send him back to bed now, and all he’d be able to do would be to lay up there and brood, not sleep.
“Flynn said you knew how to get hold of Jake and Tom.” he said mildly. “Can you do that in a minute if I unlock the office for you? There isn’t anything they can do where they are, but I hate the thought of them not knowing.”
It got him the same look he’d seen last night when Gerry called in tears. Paul went on rubbing his back, and Dale abruptly cut bacon and ate, not with any interest or will but with determination to get done and to help any way he could.
You do not do powerless, do you sweetheart?
Paul pulled his chair back as soon as he was done.
“Leave the dishes, I’ll do them in a while.”
They walked together upstairs and Paul unlocked the office, left the door open for Dale and walked on into his own office, not wanting to stand over him. Flynn had put work into getting Dale to do odds and ends in the office, desensitising him to the room in the same way he desensitised him to the fence, and Dale worried enough about not being trust worthy. It took barely ten minutes before Dale came down to find him, looking more reserved than usual.
“I left messages on the websites. There are journalists in the base camps with satellite phones, and they’ll pass the message up through all the camps. Wherever Tom and Jake are they’ll get to hear it.”
“Thank you.” Paul looked up from the photographs spread out on his desk and held out a hand to Dale. “Come and look at this.”
There was no question of who the man in each of the photographs was. Rounded, always smiling, not fashionably dressed or especially good looking, in fact looking rather homely in a sparrowlike way: a comfortable looking man with heavy glasses, in most of them alongside a far more striking and a younger Luath with darker hair, and Darcy, who didn’t look as though he had changed at all, exotic and curiously ageless.
“That was the most recent one before he died,” Paul said, handing the snap to him, and Dale sat down on the window seat to study it. It looked as if it had been enclosed in a letter and Dale thought Luath had probably been behind the camera. It was an apartment balcony, near twilight; a bottle of wine stood on a table surrounded by half empty glasses and the remains of a meal for three. Darcy was leaning on his elbows on the table, shoulder to shoulder with Roger, whose eyes were large and soft in a way that reminded Dale of Bear. It roused the same kind of protective surge in him. Relaxed and happy, they looked as if they were enjoying a good evening.
“He was a lovely man.” Paul said, looking with him at the picture. “He wrote pages and pages to me most weeks, ever since he and Luath moved out to New York. Just chatter, he liked to tell you things, details, what they ate, what they saw, what the gossip was from Gerry and the others – the little things were important to him. Domestic things.”
Which were important to Paul too, who understood how much details mattered.
“A lot of the books on the shelf at the bottom of the stairs are his,” Paul said, gathering together the photos on the desk and offering them to Dale. “He loved reading. The blown glass paperweights in the study are his too, he gave them to Philip. He and Luath found them on in England on vacation, I think from very near to where David was born. Roger found the village he grew up in and sent Philip photographs of it, he was thoughtful about things like that.”
Just as David and Philip’s belongings were in this house; their presence was still here. The house fabric was made up of them.
“We’re all right about this, darling.” Paul said gently. “Whatever might get found in New York isn’t going to make a difference. It’s always hard when you don’t know for certain and you can’t have a formal goodbye, but in real terms all that’s being analysed is what’s left after the person doesn’t need it any more. There’s much stronger evidence of himself that Rog left here in the house than that, and it’s things like his books and his pictures and his letters. I don’t want you chewing yourself up over this, there’s no need. If you need to know who Roger was then talk to us, look at the pictures, read the letters, I can help you find plenty of bits and pieces. You don’t need to beat yourself up in your sleep about it.”
It was classically Paul; gently and very kindly direct, and it helped to hear because it lifted away taboos and delicacy.
“Thank you.” Dale said sincerely and very quietly. “Really. But I don’t think that’s it either.”
Paul watched his face, looking sympathetic and faintly concerned.
There wasn’t a rational way to answer that. Dale instinctively recoiled from trying; it wasn’t something any rational person could possibly understand, no matter how kind they were. Except the last time he’d told himself it was better to keep quiet, not to make a fool of himself or bother them –
Be honest, Aden. It was a disaster. You made a pig’s ear of it.
“You didn’t let anyone help,” Riley had said hotly, and he’d been angry about it. Angry and hurt, which was worse. “You just put on an act. Like we didn’t need to know and you didn’t think anything we could do would be any damn good.”
Dale, just blurt it out. They’d said it to him so many times, before he ever realised how it might feel to them when he refused to confide in them, as if he didn’t think they’d be any use.
He’d promised Riley not to do it again, and meant it.
“I don’t think the dreams are about stress.” he said with difficulty, but making it the plain, flat truth. “Paul, I know what stress feels like, I know what stress dreams feel like, I had them for years before I came here.”
“And this feels different?” Paul said gently. He sounded calmly, sincerely interested. “You told me before that you didn’t think it was about the project.”
Dale took another breath, forcibly confiding what he’d been thinking since last night when he talked to Flynn.
“.....It’s the same thing, over and over again. There is stress, I know I’m going to see someone get hurt. There is fear, there’s a sense of fear about it, there is emotion - but the whole of it, the feel of it is- less anxiety than not being able to figure something out.”
“You said you felt like David was pushing you to understand something.”
“If I knew what,” Dale said with humour that Paul thought was slightly despairing, “I could probably stop waking everyone up at night.”
Paul reached for his hand, squeezing it. “What would help, honey?”
He said it so simply. Not advising, just asking. Dale hesitated, thinking about it and frustrated with the answer that came to mind, because that made no sense either.
“....... I want to have a look around. I don’t know what at, but-”
“Ok. Go do it.” Paul got up, leaving the letters on the table, and put a hand behind Dale’s head to pull him down and kiss his forehead; a brief, comforting and very accepting gesture. “If it’s what feels right then you’ve got your reasons, go with your instincts. I’m going to straighten the kitchen out, I don’t want you to go outside without letting me know.”
He didn’t hesitate or watch, or demand promises; being Paul he simply went downstairs and left Dale alone, and Dale loved him for it.
The little office here was Paul’s, and only Paul was reflected in it, and while that was comforting, it held no information. It took serious, conscious effort to allow himself to walk in the direction Dale knew his feet wanted to go. Down the landing, to the room at the end of the hall, the largest of the bedrooms by far. He opened the door almost hesitantly, breathing in the faint smell of polish and fresh linen and the unique presence within this room.
And I’ve done this before, but still I don’t know what it is that I’m doing, or why.
On impulse he shut the door behind him, enclosing himself in the room.
Roger’s face was reflected in the small forest of silver framed photographs on the nightstand and the shelves. As he had done before, Dale gently picked up the frames, holding them to look more closely at the faces. Familiar faces, increasingly he was coming to know the men in these black and white portraits, the moments frozen in time. He was aware of feeling calmer as he handled them, a sensation less to do with emotion than some kind of inner balance. A kind of internal grounding, as though something came together and focused. For the first time that day he felt – very little. Calm. A little detached. Not dissociated, in the sense Flynn had taught him to recognise it: if anything he was far more aware of what was around him. The quiet of the room. The restful and discreetly masculine colours and styles within the room, the dark wood furniture, the feel of the carpet under his feet. Very gently, acutely aware of the feel of the cool silver under his fingertips, Dale put the pictures back on the shelves in exactly their places and angles. On impulse, carefully, he opened the wardrobe doors. There was a faint and very old fashioned scent of mothballs and cologne and clean fabric. The clothes hanging on the rails were immaculate and ranged from black tie to riding jodhpurs. Dale’s fingers gently brushed a tweed jacket, and grasped on the linen of a shirt, still not sure why, but allowing the impulse to touch, to run his fingers gently over the fabric. He stood there for some time before he knew he was ready to close the doors again. Still on impulse he crossed to the window that looked out on the hay pastures up towards the tops.
He knew the view intimately. It looked slightly different from here, framed, from a higher point than the kitchen window or outside, but it was land he knew. He’d mown it. Ridden it. Mended the fences, touched the earth, walked it. Birdsong came faintly through the windows from birds up on the roof. He was aware of feeling – calm and aware. And thinking nothing in particular. And again he stood there until somehow the feeling came that yes, all right, he’d seen what he needed to.
It was so tempting to grab on to that feeling and question it. Re examine it. Wait to see if it came again and definitely confirmed itself, or if another impulse conflicted it, to be sure it really was right. It was part of a very familiar anxiety; Dale felt the swell of it at the back of his mind but forced himself to ignore it.
Still with that oddly floaty feeling, he straightened the quilt on the bed and shut the door to Philip and David’s room softly behind him. The narrow hallway that led down the side of their room to the front of the house had only one more doorway off it. Luath’s room. There should have been concern at the invasion of privacy, the indelicacy of looking, but there wasn’t. The door was open, and it was the same room Dale had watched Luath unpack in yesterday. Low beamed. Small. Almost entirely filled by the bed and the closet and the book shelves, so small a room for a man Luath’s size because this wasn’t Luath’s room, it was Roger’s. The deep window seat, the crowdedness, the low beams and sloping ceiling, they were the features Roger loved. Riley had the same love of nooks and crannies and age and hidden places; David had built his own love of it into the house.
Downstairs, Dale took the rarely used front door out into the garage and climbed the stairs at the back of it behind the dusty jeeps. There was a lumber room up there, so stuffed that there was barely room to enter. Furniture, trunks, diving equipment, climbing equipment, all neatly stacked, but piled high. The age of some of it was hard to fathom, but there was an army kit bag visible somewhere at the back that from the faded print on it was Wade’s, and had been in use during the Second World War. It was like listening to the murmur of many voices, so soft and so many that it was almost impossible to make out a word. Again with no sense of why he looked or how long he stood there, Dale stood, looking, absorbing, touching what on impulse his fingers were drawn towards, until again that sensation came that he was done now. Paul was out on the porch, Dale could see him through the open doorway, trimming one of the plants in the pots. Not disturbing him, Dale opened the little doorway off the kitchen, the one that looked like a broom closet, and shut it softly behind him, climbing the narrow wooden stairs that led up to David’s attic room.
Someone read up here. Dale had often seen a book laying open on the chair in the patch of sunlight by the window in the roof, and it was a different book in a different place to the last time he’d been here. It wasn’t Riley, who had the same dislike of much unstructured, unplanned time that Dale did, and who followed the same tight daily routine. It was looser around Riley; Dale understood it and knew subjectively that Riley had more freedom, and more desire for it in small doses, but he never disappeared out of sight long enough to be reading up here alone.
David’s map occupied much of the floor. Dale knelt in front of it, looking without touching. The glittering blue sea. The harbour and the tall ships. The town and the mine. The English coastal village. David had been quite untroubled by scale, logic or anything but his own internal geography. It must have taken him decades to make. Each house, each ship, was carved and painted in great detail, as was the landscaping. Locating the ranch house, which appeared improbably close to another harbour town Dale thought was probably Halifax, he traced the geography up hill, identifying the hay pastures. He had to step onto the map itself to be able to find Mustang Hill, moving carefully in socked feet and placing his weight where David must have, to paint and sculpt this creation. But closer to that central part of the map on the floor, Dale identified the hill, small, topped with trees and with a tiny bare circle just beyond the peak above the river. Several tiny grey boulders had been placed in the clearing and Dale gently picked one up, turning it over to find the minute, delicate line drawing of a horse.
David had known.
The fencing contractors were packing up their truck when Dale spoke to Paul and went outside. He still felt curiously calm and free floating. The scent of the new wood was strong, the diesel from the truck’s running engine was pungent, and it was crisp out in the yard, the sky bright blue and breath misting in front of his face. The contractors nodded to Dale as they got into their truck and Jasper raised a hand in response to their wave as the truck pulled out onto the long grass drive, headed for the road. They left a stillness and a penetrating sense of quiet behind. The new fence posts spread out, even and immaculate, fencing the home pastures and paddocks, the new wood currently brighter and less weather beaten than the old.
Jasper dropped a hand on the back of Dale’s neck as they walked together across to the stables.
“You look better.”
I have no idea why.
They did the yard work together, Dale aware of Jasper’s relaxed and he suspected deliberately steady pace. At one time he wouldn’t have noticed it, and run at his own manic speed of tension. Now he attuned his own speed to it, worked in time with Jasper and let that tension go, calmed by the strongly sensory hands on work, the deliberate unhurriedness of it, the lack of deadlines and the quiet. Jasper’s silences were comfortable, he didn’t chatter, but that didn’t make being with him any less powerful company.
They were mucking out the corral when Dale first saw the buckskin coloured mare up by the woods and paused, watching her. She was alone and grazing, which was rare for the mares: Bandit didn’t allow strays unless a mare was sick or hurt, and he turned them out of the herd himself. An animal alone was always a warning signal. Dale propped his shovel against the fence.
“Jas? Mia’s up there alone. I’m going to check she’s ok.”
Jasper glanced up to look at the lone mare, and nodded to him.
It was a ten minute walk up the steep hay pastures to the edge of the woodland of Mustang Hill, through grass thickening and getting rough as winter approached. An eagle was circling above the woods again, its wingtips spread, the outlines of individual wing tip feathers sharp against the sky. They were unmistakeable when you saw them and fascinating to watch. Eyes on the eagle and the mare, Dale was warm by the time he reached the edge of the woods and Mia lifted her head , chewing grass calmly. She didn’t look sick, there was no sign of injury. Dale walked around her and lifted her feet one at a time to check them. No warmth, she took her weight evenly, she looked as she’d been looking since they turned her loose up here; plump, pretty, cared for and happy. Which made it odder still that Bandit should let her be off from the herd alone.
Dale ran a hand down her nose, rubbing between her ears. Riley had her well acclimatised as to what to expect from them; she promptly nosed at his pockets and he smiled and dug for a couple of the stable polos – lifesavers as Riley called them – palming them for her to take. Her lips were velvety and tickled on his palm, she was a gentle little thing. Dale stroked her neck, an eye on the woods beyond. It took him a minute to pick the shadow out of the lines of trees. Bandit. The stallion was standing in the woods, facing him, stock still with his ears cocked forward.
Dale took a few steps towards him, digging for another polo – the stallion was as fond of peppermint as Mia was – and Bandit suddenly reared and cantered out of the woodland, an eruption of speed and sound that made Dale recoil. For a moment he thought the stallion had charged him, his heart thundered and he automatically ducked, but Bandit swept past him, his massive body skirting Dale effortlessly, and he broke into a trot, circling.
“Bandit?” Dale said softly, shaken. “Hey boy.”
The stallion whinnied, changing direction into a wider circle. Mia went on placidly cropping grass. Dale watched the stallion pace, not understanding, puzzling over the sounds, the gait and the body language of horses which Flynn and Riley read effortlessly and had taught him. Bandit wasn’t attacking, this wasn’t aggression. On instinct, Dale took a pace towards the woods, and Bandit wheeled, breaking into a canter again and circling ahead of him. His head lowered as he passed, his long mobile neck low.
Stallions only snaked when they herded. Dale stood still for a moment, watching him trot in a wide circle on the grass, then slowly and purposefully walked towards the woods. He didn’t watch to see what Bandit did, but he was a few feet away from the tree line when the stallion reached him, slowing to a trot and turning his warm, powerful body directly against Dale’s, blocking his path and forcing him to turn. Dale didn’t try to get past him. Standing still, he stroked the stallion’s solidly muscled shoulder and neck, looking past him into the woods. Bandit huffed sharply, turning his head to look too. Then he pushed Dale, shoving his head against Dale’s body and walking a few steps sideways, and Dale walked with him, letting the stallion turn him back into the sun lit hay meadow.
“Ok. Ok boy, I get it.”
He had to walk some way from the woodland before Bandit moved away from him. The stallion dropped back into his high, effortless, sailing trot over the grass and turned his back sharply at the edge of the woodland, marking his territory and trampling. Dale had seen him do it before, down in the yard when they’d had burglars in the stable.
My land. Keep out.
It was a message addressed to another stallion, and one Dale thought was probably several centuries past being able to offer any competition for Bandit’s mares. He thought too that the stallion knew it; Bandit had searched the woods at night, Dale and Flynn had seen him do it. He knew there was no physical competitor in the woods. He just knew that didn’t mean there wasn’t still a stallion here. Horses were so much less complicated than humans.
Bandit nosed at Mia, who walked with him, and Bandit herded her steeply north, uphill towards the plateaus where the mares would be grazing. Dale walked slowly back down the meadow to Jasper, visible in the corral in the distance.
He’d worked in the wood. When they were clearing the woods a few weeks back, he’d been going up on Mustang Hill daily. Bandit and his harem had been in the home pastures then, but Dale had never seen the stallion turn any of them away from the woods before. Herding. Turning back. Warding away in the same way he’d turn his mares and foals back from anything dangerous. Dale wondered briefly if in the stallion’s mind it was because Flynn wasn’t here.
He was thinking back through the incidents of that night when he and Flynn had found Bandit up on the hill, challenging an unseen stallion, when he realised. The branch that had fallen on the path where he would have been standing. The image connected straight back to another one; the landslide, a slipping bank of mud and coal spoil. And another; a cougar, slipping silently down river towards him. And another; a waterfall, on a day when he’d felt so devastated and bewildered, if he was honest he probably hadn’t been safe to be alone. At each of those times he had seen David. Dangerous times, when there had been a direct, immediate threat. And yet he had not been in the clearing on the two occasions when – whatever the hell happened up there was happening.
Dale broke into a jog, straight down the steep pasture and past the paddocks to the corral where Jasper was working, climbing up on the fence to face him.
“What’s the significance of violet and gold?”
Jasper looked up, and Dale realised he’d demanded it, out of context and without explanation.
“In terms of light.” he said slightly less interrogatively. “You say white light acts as a defence. When we saw light in the clearing it was white shot with gold and violet, and you said they weren’t ‘bad’ colours. What’s the significance of them?”
Jasper didn’t answer immediately. He had discouraged them all from talking further about what had happened on the hill and Dale understood it not as reticence or fear or denial, but as a means of leaving undisturbed what rightfully should be undisturbed. To Jasper these were deeply private, personal things, not easily talked of; they weren’t questions you just demanded answers to, and certainly not subjects to be discussed thoughtlessly or carelessly. Dale slipped down off the fence to stand in front of him, apologetic and reining himself back.
“I’m sorry. I need to know and it’s not just curiosity, I don’t do tact well when I’m thinking, I don’t mean it disrespectfully. Jas, please? I can go and look this up if you’re not comfortable telling me, but I’d far rather learn from you.”
“Violet is usually associated with - transformation.” Jasper hesitated, looking for the right word. “Translation of some form. And a connection with spirit. Gold – is spiritual power, but something good. A higher power, a higher self.”
“In the context of the legends, an animal turned spirit.” Dale took a breath, thinking it through. “Spirit guardian.”
“The stallion died in battle, defending, as a leader, it became sacred to two different tribes here.” Jasper said quietly. “Yes. Animal translated to spirit, and reaching a higher power through valour. In my beliefs I’d see it in terms of the stallion containing whatever it was we saw in the clearing.”
The shape shifting black thing. Jasper had spoken about the clearing working as a kind of ‘web’, that was the word he used. A means of capturing. Good energy, bad energy, everything had energy – every living thing reflected energy.
“It isn’t good to look on it as a puzzle to be solved.” Jasper said gently, but there was a sternness behind it that was so rare for Jasper that it went right through Dale to the very sensitive part of him that responded very strongly to tones like that. “Forcing knowledge, forcing answers because you’re concerned is usually a very bad idea.”
He was so much quieter than Flynn in voice, in body, in approach, but there was steel in him and Dale found himself smiling at the strength of it, shaking his head with the total honesty that only these men really understood.
“This isn’t forcing.”
I have no idea what it is, but trust me, it’s the opposite of forcing.
Jasper looked at him for a long moment and Dale held his eyes, letting Jasper search him. He had no idea what Jasper saw, but eventually Jasper put a hand behind his head and pressed his forehead against Dale’s. It was a very personal, deeply comforting contact, a quiet one that sank into his bones, from where they touched bone to bone, to Jasper’s breath warm against his face
“Good. Now stop and root yourself for a while. Finish your work.”
Cut the wood, fetch the water, feed the stock, as people had been doing in this valley for centuries. As the Shoshone had done. As David had done. As Roger had done. Dale willingly took up the shovel and came back to work with him, finding that state again of not thinking. Not focusing. Of floating and being calm and feeling the sun on his skin, the bite of the frost in the air, the smell of the grass and the horses, the shadows from the wooden rails, the misting of his breath. Oddly enough it involved breathing in the way that Flynn had taught him, that placated That Bloody Box. Deeper, slower, lower from below his chest.
Only he and Jasper ate lunch with Paul in the kitchen. Paul had heated one of his own soups which was thick and savoury, the bread was warm from the oven, and Dale ate without thinking or responding much to the conversation Jasper and Paul carried on. When he got up to collect the dishes together at the end of the meal, Paul took them from him.
“Jas’ll help me. You go upstairs, undress and get into bed. Yes, you lost several hours sleep last night and you haven’t slept well in a while, go on. I’ll be up in a minute.”
This morning that would have sounded like the suggestion from hell. This afternoon it sounded surprisingly peaceful.
The deserted upstairs was quiet, and his and Flynn’s room was sunlit, the sun fell across the sheets and warmed the room against the cool air through the open window. Dale paused in front of the window to look out, starting automatically to unbutton his shirt; Paul probably meant only a minute and Dale had every intention of Paul’s hairbrush staying in Paul’s room this afternoon. The green pasture ran out to the aspen woods in the distance, almost leafless now, and in the distance were the grazing sheep and an occasional bass baa. The house felt very still. Dale slipped off his jeans, folded them and his shirt on the dresser, and got under the covers. He hadn’t realised until he lay down how tired he was. Or how safe it felt to be lying here, in clean, warm sheets in the sun, with the faint rattle of dishes downstairs that meant Jasper and Paul, and nowhere to be. Nothing to do. So very much safer than it had felt in the dark in the early hours of this morning. He was asleep before Paul came upstairs, and he slept deeply and blessedly dreamlessly for several hours.
The last time he had been up on this pasture, working on this barn, it had been alone with a nineteen year old Flynn. Luath tore out the rotted planks, dropping them down to the grass, remembering a hot day in high summer, his shirt being sweat soaked, his hair being wet beneath his hat, and the grim, nearly non verbal New Zealander working on the next ladder. Save that after a short burst of work he’d drop to the grass and walk away into the shade for a minute, drink water, pretend to need a different tool from the box, before he climbed the ladder for another few minutes. It was worse than working with Gerry, who needed a firm hand and a lot of supervision to do anything useful for long in hot weather, and it was as surprising as it was exasperating. In Luath’s brief experience of the New Zealander, he worked rough and hard and took what looked like savage pride in there being no such thing as too hard, too heavy, too long, too far, or too hot.
“What?” he demanded sharply when Flynn dropped to the grass for the third time.
He got a brief, grim look from underneath the Stetson. The boy had a glower on him that could probably break glass. He didn’t bother to answer. Just grabbed a hammer from the box, climbed the ladder again and carried on, and this time he didn’t get down. When Luath finished the section he was working on he climbed down, moved the ladder and paused to take a drink of water from the bottle on the grass, half an eye on the boy on the other ladder. There was something about the way he held the hammer, that was what grabbed his attention. Flynn didn’t do any work task half heartedly or uncertainly, the boy was as efficient a worker as any man twice his age, but he was holding the hammer in an odd grasp, and the sweat staining his shirt was –
Excessive. Especially for a fit youngster, even on a day this hot.
“Done something to your hand?”
Flynn didn’t look round. The boy was still new to them but his manners were atrocious, he didn’t seem to have been raised with the most basic civilities, and Luath crispened his tone.
“Hey. Civilised people answer when they’re spoken to. Have you done something to that hand?”
“No.” Flynn said shortly. He landed several powerful blows of the hammer to the plank he was fixing in place, and the weight he put behind it precluded any serious injury. Reassured, Luath drank water, reflecting that this boy was a strain on the temper. Rude, aggressive, sullen, it was like having a thunderhead stalking around the ranch. Philip’s patience with him was nothing short of amazing, and it was far more than was deserved. There were times when Luath would have dearly loved to have swatted the boy sharply across the well muscled seat of his jeans, preferably with a stout paddle in hand.
They were ready to move the ladders from the now fixed side of the roof to the other side. Luath waited while Flynn finished, screwed the lid back on the water bottle and came to help him take the stack of planks around the barn. The boy lifted four or five of the heavy boards at a time, heaving them effortlessly. He was as fit as a horse and as hard as nails, Luath had seen him riding and walking, never out of breath, never tiring, obviously long used to rough and steep terrain, long hours and the handling of stock. Luath dropped the last of the boards on the grass, stretched his back and as Flynn placed his ladder against the wall of the barn, caught a glimpse of his right hand. The boy immediately yanked away when Luath put a hand over his wrist, but not before Luath turned his palm up. It was impossible to miss when you saw it close to. The palm was swollen, shiny and red, his fingers were starting to swell, and the wound in the base of his thumb was wet and suppurating.
“What’s that?” Luath demanded in horror.
Flynn tore his hand away. “Nothing. A splinter.”
“It’s still in there?” Luath watched the boy shift the heavy tool box in disbelief. It must have hurt like hell, but he didn’t wince, he didn’t show a thing other than the sweating which was as likely to be infection as pain. The pride in it was painful to watch.
“Flynn,” he said a lot more gently. “That’s infected. You need to get that seen to.”
“It’s just a splinter, I got it out.”
“That’s way past leaving it to fix itself.” Luath gathered up planks, starting to shift them into the barn. “Leave this. Come on, let’s head home, let Paul take a look at it.”
Although if Luath was any judge, penicillin was going to be needed to heal it. Flynn took no notice of him, leaning the ladder against the barn wall, obviously planning to continue work. Luath put a hand out to block him from climbing it, seriously torn between the gentleness Philip always used whenever he spoke to this Kiwi maniac, and wanting to knock this youngster’s stubborn block off his shoulders.
“Flynn. What are you trying to prove? You’re tough. I get it. You’re a big man. You’ve earned the respect, no question. Now come on down to the house before you lose some fingers.”
He didn’t understand the look he got from the boy. It was part suspicious, part disgusted, part - unsure. Luath saw the uncertainty and stepped straight into it as he would have done with Gerry or Roger, putting a hand firmly on the boy’s muscular shoulder to steer him firmly and not unkindly towards his horse.
“Move, brat. Don’t confuse brave with stupid, you can’t work like this.”
Flynn actually went with him.
Luath took his horse’s reins from him in the yard, tied both to the corral rail and steered him into the kitchen, giving him no chance to baulk. Paul, seeing Luath’s face, got up from the table.
“Take a look at his hand.” Luath suggested.
Paul had never shown any sign of being intimidated by Flynn and took his hand without hesitation.
“Woah.” Roger said calmly from the table where he was reading, peering over his glasses at the hand. Paul took a deep breath, pulled out a chair at the table and put a hand on Flynn’s shoulder to push him down into it.
“Sit. How long has it been looking like that?”
“It’s not that bad.”
“It’s not good, is it?” Paul demanded, pouring hot water from the kettle into a bowl and adding a hefty amount of salt. “How stupid is it to go around with that kind of a mess without a word or any attempt to do anything about it?”
“I washed-” Flynn began, and Paul talked right over him, banging the bowl down on the table.
“Irresponsible, pig headed obstinacy – put your hand in there and keep it there – is it some kind of test of manhood where you come from? Is gangrene some kind of badge of courage? Are you sure you got the whole splinter out, I can see you’ve been digging around in there.”
He searched the wound very gently, despite the fact he didn’t once stop telling Flynn what he thought of him, and Flynn let him with the same expression Luath had seen up on the hill, not protesting or pulling away. Roger, sent upstairs to get painkillers, obviously paused by the study on his way back as Philip followed him into the kitchen. It was the first time since they’d come down from the barn that Luath saw the wariness come back into Flynn’s face. Philip put Roger gently out of his way and came to stand behind Flynn, resting a hand on his shoulder to look down at the hand in the water.
“Ah.”Paul, his hands in the water with Flynn’s, was gently working on the deepest part of the wound, eyes intent. Flynn didn’t move and nothing flickered in his face, but Luath could see him sweating and it was a moment before Paul said softly,
“Got it. There it is.” And eased out a tiny fragment of wood. “That’s all of it.”
“Paul,” Philip said mildly, “fill that with antiseptic and wrap it, and I’ll drive Flynn down to the Jackson clinic.”
“That won’t be necessary, sir.”
For the first time Flynn drew his hand out of the water, away from Paul. Paul grabbed his wrist and put the hand back.
“Yes it is. Look at that mess and be sensible. Rog, there’s the cream in the first aid box.”
Roger took the box down, found the cream and handed it over. Flynn took it from Paul, getting up.
“I can do that. It’s fine, it’ll be ok. Thanks.”
Gerry or Roger might have said that and it would have been apprehension over what a doctor might do, or hatred of being the focus of attention. Luath studied Flynn’s face, trying to decipher what was there. The boy was so hard to read it was infuriating, and that was the root of it: the irritation was an inability to get near him.
“It is not ok,” Paul began very sharply, and Philip raised a hand to stop him.
“Flynn, I’ll have a word with you outside please.”
There was silence when Philip and Flynn had left the room. Roger stood at the open kitchen doorway and watched the two of them walk slowly down towards the home pasture, and Luath stood behind him, leaning on Roger’s shoulders, but none of them would have thought of following. Paul dumped the bowl in the sink and cleaned up the remains of the first aid materials.
“Rog, that ironing needs finishing before dinner.”
Roger rolled his eyes and Luath patted his hip, letting him go. “It’s still not done?”
“It takes forever, I was having a break.” Roger said calmly. “And Paul made me re iron most of what I’d already done.”
“It’s not rocket science.” Paul told him. Roger gave him an amiable grin that held no grudges and ambled into the laundry room.
“Yeah, so you keep saying.”
Still stood at the kitchen door, Luath leaned against the door post, watching Philip and Flynn apparently talking in the home pasture.
“Do you really think he’s so unwilling to take anything from us he’d rather get sick than ask for help?” he said to Paul. “He was using the hand. I saw him flinch a couple of times, but he was using the hand. Self neglect that extreme is aggressive, it’s challenging us to force the issue.”
“You’re crediting him with deliberate intent. I don’t think there’s anything like that much thought behind it.” Paul said acidly. “I’d like to know what medical care costs where he comes from, or whether ‘real’ men don’t quit until they collapse. He was shocked by the fuss we made. Shocked and embarrassed, he didn’t know what to do with it.”
Any more than he knew what to do with men who kissed each other in broad daylight, not caring who else in this household saw them. He couldn’t take his eyes off it either.
“As Rog says,” Luath commented, watching the two in the pasture, “Who raised that?”
“Whoever they are, I’d like a word with them.” Paul shut the cupboard door rather sharply. “Will you keep an eye on Roger’s ironing? I’d like to-”
He stopped at Luath’s shocked exclamation and came swiftly to the door. Luath gripped the door frame, frozen at the sight of the two men now grappling in the pasture. He would have shouted and he would have vaulted the porch rail and run, but for Paul grabbing his arm. As he did so, in the pasture they clearly saw Philip trip Flynn down onto his back. Not throwing him. Not wrestling him. Just setting him down, firmly but not roughly, not with any force. Flynn rolled up again and lunged, and Philip met him without shifting an inch on his feet.
“He’s sixty!” Luath exploded. A sixty year old and a husky nineteen year old, it was a potentially wicked combination, but Paul didn’t let go.
“At what?” Roger had come out of the laundry room to look, and Luath was aware there was no anxiety in his body. Roger’s faith in Philip was unquestioning, and Roger, in his thirties where Flynn wasn’t yet in his twenties, had a kind of amused liking for the kid which irritated Luath still more as there were very few people that Roger liked that he himself couldn’t.
“But you don’t dislike him.” Roger had pointed out more than once when they were settling to sleep at night, alone together under the beams in Roger’s narrow room. “He pulls all kinds of strong feelings out of you. You just don’t know what it is you feel.”
“If Philip breaks a hip-” Luath said fiercely. Paul shook his head, still holding on to him.
“Look at them.”
There was no violence in it. There was a struggle going on in the pasture but no fists were flying, and within a few seconds Philip again quietly dropped Flynn on his back in the grass, with the same firmness. It reminded Luath of the way Philip handled a baulking or difficult colt, with calm strength and patience, no matter how the colt might buck, lunge or haul at the end of the rope, convincing the animal that the situation was under control, that there was no danger, and that he was in charge. They all did it when they handled the stock. You approached any animal with that calm, competent physical message that said Trust me. Believe in my strength. Philip was an excellent, experienced horseman; the struggle in the pasture was raw force against that experience, and again – and again – Philip waited for Flynn to regain his feet, closed with him and quietly put him down on the grass.
Eleven times that Luath counted, Flynn rolled up off the grass and Philip put him down again. The twelfth time, instead of letting him go and standing back, Philip held him down on the grass. How, Luath couldn’t see, but there was over a full minute of stillness, the boy on the ground and the man holding him, apparently neither of them moving. Paul’s grip on Luath’s arm was painful. Roger simply waited, quite relaxed, hands dug in his pockets. Then Luath saw Philip get up and offer a hand, and after a moment the boy on the grass took it, slowly got to his feet, and walked beside Philip past the house and around to the garage.
Roger, Luath and Paul tactfully withdrew into the kitchen out of sight as they went by, and a few minutes later they heard the engine start up, and the jeep pulled out over the grass drive, headed towards the road.
It was somewhere in watching that struggle that Luath really began to understand, and to appreciate Philip’s insight. There was a desperate, uncontrolled anger in Flynn, but no will to do harm, and it was mixed with a bitter expectation of being attacked. In the days afterwards Luath came to recognise the way he held his head that fiercely dared you to smash him across the face or try to knock him down, that seriously expected you to do it as someone else must have done not so long ago, before he was tall enough and powerful enough to stand up to it. On that afternoon in the pasture, Philip exerted his strength calmly and with care, and he won without hurt or grudge on either side. That was the difference. Competent firmness. Control without violence or humiliation, and Flynn came back from the pasture with him, changed. At first the evidence of that change was subtle, and it took time for Luath to realise how massively the ground had shifted, but that physical battle with Philip fixed Flynn’s trust in him in a way that nothing else had done, or ever would have done. It was primitive but it was total, like the herd stallion established his authority over the herd through an entirely physical message. I am the strongest, my will is the strongest, I will protect you and you will obey me.
Flynn was even solider now than he’d been at nineteen, still more competent at hauling planks about and fixing roofs, and still brusque at times: Luath could hear the tone somewhere behind the barn where Flynn was having a few curt words with Riley, although there was an authority in it that suggested Riley would be wise to rein himself in, fast. Riley emerged around the edge of the barn a moment later, slightly red in the face, looking fed up, and Luath caught his eye and gave him a brief, compassionate smile, dropping another rotten plank down to the grass.
Flynn brought the second ladder around the corner of the barn, leaned it against the wall and climbed it, bracing himself on the edge of the roof to work on another broken plank. Luath cleared his throat, dropping his voice out of Riley and Darcy’s earshot.
Flynn gave him a sideways grin that said yes, he remembered, and he was old enough now not to go red at the memory of it.
“Yes, thank you.”
It was late afternoon when Dale woke. It wasn’t an immediate waking either; for some minutes he went on dozing, enjoying the warmth and the peace of it. When he did surface enough to look at his watch, he sat up, aware that even now Paul needed careful and considerate handling.
If he had to guess, Paul was tidying the linen closet at the end of the landing; he only had to walk a few feet to the doorway. He smiled when he saw Dale.
“You look a much better colour. I’ll bring you some tea up. You can stay where you are and read, or take your book and have a bath.”
“.....Doesn’t Jas need any help?” Dale said as tactfully as possible.
“There’s other people to give it. You’re done for the day.” Paul handed him his book from the nightstand. “What’ll it be?”
He chose the bath, and read and talked to Paul humming who went on sorting out the linen closet a few doors down the hall. Afterwards, still sleepy from the warmth of the bath and on Paul’s orders, Dale settled in the family room by the lit fire, and went on reading while Paul started work on dinner. People came home; he heard their voices in the distance through the open kitchen door as they went through the evening chores of grooming and turning out horses, putting away tack and showering. Riley appeared in the family room first, shirtless, damp and barefoot in clean jeans.
“I knew Paul had plans for you. You missed the fun, we had to take down half the barn and rebuild it. My back’s breaking and we never did get the logs shifted. Have you been ok?”
“Of course?” Dale lowered his book as Riley dropped down on the couch beside him. “Why?”
“These dreams you keep having?” Riley gave him an anxious look that wasn’t well concealed. “I wasn’t sure you’d worry it was some kind of premonition and you’d hate the thought of us fixing or climbing anything.”
“That never occurred to me.” Dale said blankly. Riley looked at him and shook his head.
“You’re serious, aren’t you? I’ve been driving Flynn crazy that we needed to quit and come home before we scared the hell out of you.”
“He isn’t kidding.” Darcy said cheerfully, appearing from the kitchen still pulling a clean t shirt over shower damp hair. “We were down to two penalties and a warning by the time they got the roof back on, it was looking like going to extra time.”
Riley grabbed up Dale’s book and shied it at him, and Darcy caught it neatly and flung it back with a much less accurate aim, catching Dale in the face as Riley ducked. Dale, one hand pressed to the bridge of his nose and his eyes streaming, closed the book and swiped Riley across the back of the head with it.
“I was reading that.”
“Hey, books aren’t weapons and we don’t throw things about in here.”
Luath, obviously on his way to the shower upstairs from the state of his jeans, held out a hand for the book and Dale sat up to surrender it to him, knowing both the look and the voice. Luath pocketed it and pointed to the hearth.
“Riley, that side, Dale, that side, face the wall. Dale are you all right?”
“Yes sir.” Dale moved his hand long enough to let Luath check there was no blood, and took up the indicated station on the far side of the hearth, lacing his hands on top of his head. Riley gave him a long suffering look and followed his example on the other side of the hearth.
“And you know better too.” Luath said shortly to Darcy, popping him across the seat of his jeans with the closed book as he headed upstairs. It was a tap, not a swat; Dale heard it and raised his eyebrows at Riley who hurriedly swallowed a snort of laughter before Luath heard it. Dale pulled himself together and made himself avoid Riley’s eye before he made Riley laugh out loud and got him into trouble, and reflected that neither he nor Riley had hesitated for a second to do exactly as Luath said. The other Tops Dale knew in this house – Ash and Jake in particular who he knew best and very much liked – were not given to giving orders, and the very worst Dale had ever seen Ash turn towards him was a look that suggested stopping and thinking might be wise. Luath apparently didn’t think twice about giving orders to other people’s brats and Dale was slightly surprised to discover that he didn’t think twice either, nor mind. The ‘sir’ had come equally without thought.
He had no idea what Darcy did. He and Riley stood there for about fifteen minutes, and while Flynn passed through on his way upstairs, he didn’t speak to them or take any notice; no one ever did in this household where it wasn’t particularly unexpected to see someone with their nose to a wall. It was only when Luath came back downstairs and pointedly cleared his throat that they both turned around, and Luath held up the book.
“Dale, is this yours?”
“Then read it, don’t batter people with it.” Luath gave it to him. “Dinner. Go.”
Riley caught his eye as they headed for the kitchen and grinned at him. Dinner was a noisy, cheerful affair, Dale found himself watching it from within that calm kind of state which allowed him to watch and feel as well as listen. Luath and Flynn were talking rapidly and in great detail about the barn, and Luath knew what he was talking about as well as Flynn did; he seemed to snap from the businessman persona into the rancher as soon as he set foot on this land. Darcy was chattering with Paul and Riley and doing most of the talking, his long fingers describing movements in the air as he talked about some show in Los Angeles. Jasper was people watching too; Dale caught his eye and Jasper smiled at him, with a very brief roll of the eyes that you wouldn’t see unless you knew Jasper really well. It was strange how quickly you lost the sense of ‘guests’ in the house when other members of this family were here. They didn’t act like it and you didn’t feel it. Dale, who had been painfully shy all his life and found meeting people something he did on autopilot as part of a job, found the noise and the number of people around the table very pleasant and he understood well how Riley lit up whenever anyone else ‘came home’ as they put it. It made him wonder occasionally and with real feeling, if Philip and David would have been so easily welcoming of him.
The phone rang as they were clearing up from dinner. Dale saw Luath’s face go expressionless as Flynn picked it up, but Flynn almost instantly handed it across to Darcy.
“It’s for you.”
“Thanks.” Darcy gave him a cheerful smile, ducked around the people clearing the table and disappeared out onto the porch, sounding teasingly reproachful to whoever was on the phone.
“OK Joel, admit it. However did you get this number?”
There were more people joining in the washing up than there was room for. Dale took the keys and went out to lock up, taking a quick look at the corral before he checked on the dogs’ food and water. The horses were grazing quietly, the barn, stables and sheds were secure. Darcy was just around the corner of the house by the newly vegetable patch with his back to the yard, but as he walked past, Dale heard Darcy’s voice, soft, but a completely different tone. Low. Despairing.
“I know. I don’t care. Joel, you’re going to have to manage. I can’t help it, you’re just going to have to do what you can. I’m sorry.”
Dale froze, not wanting to intrude but too shocked by the tone to walk away. Darcy must have heard him. He glanced up and Dale saw tears running although Darcy was keeping his voice fairly steady. He shook his head at Dale but it was shhh, not go away. He interrupted whoever was talking to him, his tone flat, his voice shaking.
“Joel just do- whatever you want. I don’t care. Don’t call again. I won’t answer.”
He shut the phone off, and then the tears really started, although he had a hand pressed hard over his mouth. The eyes above the hand were agonised, and they were looking straight at Dale, and they said help. Clearly. They were far enough around the side of the house to avoid attracting attention. Dale went to him, not at all sure what to do, but Darcy gripped his sweater front and leaned against him, and Dale found himself carefully putting his arms around the older man, feeling him shaking with stifled sobs. He still had a hand over his mouth. Dale held him with no idea of what to say, and after a minute of silence Darcy said softly and unsteadily,
“I lied up and down to Luath. I walked out of the show when he called. There wasn’t anything else I could do, I had to be here. There isn’t anything I can do except be here.”
With Roger’s family, and Roger’s man. Dale heard the awful sound in his throat and Darcy put a hand back over his mouth to stifle himself as the tears rushed up and flooded.
You couldn’t stifle it like that. Dale knew from hard experience, you couldn’t hold it down or fight it that way, and Darcy didn’t seem to know the harsher, more effective ways. After a minute he pushed Dale away, turned and stooped, putting a hand on the porch rail. He retched and shook for some time, and after a moment Dale put his hands very gently on his shoulders and steadied him. When he was finally done, Darcy retreated back as far as the wooden porch, put his back to it and slid down to sit on the grass. He was green rather than white, his face wet, his eyes swollen, and he was still sobbing, just very quietly with his head down. Dale crouched with him, put a hand on his knee and took out a handkerchief, putting it into his hands. For some minutes they stayed like that, Darcy shaking all over, then he took a long breath, wiped his face and scrunched up the handkerchief between his hands.
“He left messages you know.” He looked up and gave Dale a deaths head smile that wasn’t a smile at all. “A lot of people in the towers did. Two to Luath. One to me. I didn’t have my phone on at the time, I found it afterwards.”
Tears overwhelmed him again for a minute and he rested his face on his arms. After a moment he took a few shaky breaths and tried to lift his head, shaking his hair back.
“I don’t think he really realised what was going on.”
“No?” Dale said softly, more to show he was listening than anything else.
Darcy gave him a more genuine, watery smile. “No. I loved the guy like a brother, I really did, but Rog wasn’t quick on the uptake. He never knew what time it was, he lost stuff everywhere, you couldn’t hurry him... tell him to get down a stairwell filled with people panicking and he’d wander around tidying his desk and wondering if everyone else was all right. He was the worst person to put in an emergency, he’d have been useless, totally useless...” His voice fractured and tears ran again, in a wash, his shoulders shaking. After a minute he took another rough breath and wiped his face with his hands.
“I don’t think he realised. He would have assumed the emergency services would reach them and sort it out. Sometimes I think I tell myself that because I can’t stand to think about what it must have been like – they were actually told not to evacuate at one point you know? They were told to stay where they were, people were moving around in the elevators trying to get to more comfortable places and he said it was hot as hell, his papers were singeing and there was a lot of smoke and the Port Authority had been called. Some of the people on the phones just before the end said the ceilings were caving, they were terrified - I mean it was just another day at work, they had no warning, nothing. I spent months trying to figure out where he was in the building, where he went, if anyone saw him - Luthe won’t think about it, he doesn’t want to know and he hates me doing it, he says it doesn’t help anyone to torture ourselves with it, but I have to know.”
If that had been Riley, Dale found himself thinking, If I’d known Ri was there, if I didn’t know what had happened- I’d be the same. I’d tear the information and the authorities apart, I’d raise Caine and I know how. Luath would know how. How do you ever let that go? How would you ever stop?
Darcy was trembling all over. Dale put a hand on his arm, feeling the shaking. Then with decision, he got up and rounded the side of the house, breaking into a jog. The kitchen was full of people, but Dale waited, leaning in the doorway until Luath looked round. He didn’t have to say anything; the eye contact did it. Luath’s face changed, he came swiftly to the door, pulled his boots on and followed, and no one else came out of the kitchen after them. Dale appreciated the tact of that afterwards. He led the way around the side of the house, stopping well back to let Luath past him, and he heard Luath’s sigh of breath as he saw Darcy sitting on the grass. He didn’t say anything. He just sat down on the grass beside Darcy and put a large, heavy arm around him, and Darcy turned around into his chest and buried his face.