~*~

Book 3 of the Falls Chance Ranch Series

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Chapter 13





Dale lay in bed for some time that evening, hands behind his head, watching the ceiling. Last night Flynn had sent him and Riley upstairs as early as possible as protection from a stressful situation. The consideration deeply touched Dale, who had spent most of his working life in far more vociferously stressful situations without anyone being at all concerned about his resilience, and mostly relying on him to deal with it; but Darcy’s meltdown this evening had seriously affected Riley. He’d said very little, had been watchful and obviously compassionate, but when Luath coaxed Darcy upstairs, Riley had avoided Dale’s eye or any conversation and made a quiet but fierce attempt to go to bed alone. Flynn prevented it, mostly by physically getting in his way, and when compelled, Riley settled with the rest of them on the hearth and the rug in front of the fire, still quiet but calmer. Sometimes there was a lot of comfort in losing a battle. Dale, who was the same, understood it.

Paul put the record player on, something they very rarely did when it was just the five of them at home together, and to the sound of soft and old fashioned Irving Berlin songs that Dale knew some of, they played a board game which with the consistent effort of the four of them, kept Riley’s attention on them and not what was happening upstairs. It was apparently a record of Philip’s. Dale knew some of the songs from a house master at school with a similar taste in music.

There may be trouble ahead
But while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance

The muted, old style romance seemed to Dale to be calm and comforting, something old world of Philip’s that gave his presence in the house and balance to the awful, dreadful sense of grief. It had been shocking to see the surface torn off Darcy, as if it had torn the surface off everything and left them all feeling exposed. Gerry and Ash had called again this evening. So had Niall and James, who had Wade staying with them. The calls were tactfully brief and Dale knew it was very likely that the network that spread out amongst members of this family was communicating amongst itself, ensuring that only a couple of them called per evening, and that those who made the calls then relayed news out to other family members, but they made it clear; we’re thinking of you, let us know if we can help. Later in the evening there had been a brief and static filled satellite phone call from Jake, somewhere in a camp on the face of a Nepalese mountain, and there would be two more men from this household on the far side of the world who were thinking of them tonight.

Flynn’s voice was low and very soft out on the landing, but attuned and listening out for him, Dale heard it clearly.

“Anything I can do?”

“I gave him the Benadryl that Paul suggested, I hope he’ll sleep.” Luath sounded tired but calm, as though this was no kind of surprise. “I thought he was doing too well this time.”
“He flat out lied.”
And obviously even those who lived in this house without choosing to define themselves were still part of the house culture; Flynn sounded unequivocally disapproving.

“He’s in no state to start into that with him tonight.” Luath said frankly. “I made him settle in my room and I’ll keep an eye on him. I thought if you were in for another rough night you didn’t need us adding to it.”

Dale swallowed on that, jarred. Thank you for the heads up, and please don’t worry; I’m quite capable of ensuring I don’t inconvenience anyone.

On the landing Luath returned Flynn’s hug, appreciating the comfort but unable to summon up anything more than weariness. This had been going on for so long, and the fuss and stress and high drama was something Roger would have hated and avoided; it felt almost wrong to be doing it in his name.

In Roger’s room, Darcy was under the covers, in a sweatshirt and shorts since there had been no warmth in the designer silk pyjamas he had brought with him, and he was still shivery. Luath sat down on the edge of the bed and ran a hand down his arm, looking with sympathy at the still reddened large, almond eyes.

“Are you any warmer?”

“I’m fine.” Darcy said very unconvincingly. “I don’t need to take up your space.”

Luath snorted mildly. It wasn’t by any means the first time; Darcy was Roger’s dearest friend, they’d camped together, vacationed together, Darcy had spent enough time in their apartment as well as the years they’d lived together in this house that any form of shyness had been forgotten years ago. He lay down beside Darcy, and Darcy rolled over and curled up into a ball under his arm.

“I’m sorry.”

“Not nearly sorry enough according to Flynn.” Luath said dryly. “We don’t treat each other like that and you know it.”

He said it very gently, but then Luath had never needed forcefulness to put his point across and it stung. Darcy, who had more than once seen Roger reduced to tears by a phrase said just as gently, swallowed and curled up tighter.

He remembered a mid evening – among many, many mid evenings and mid afternoons and mid breakfast times – when he’d emerged from the elevator in their apartment building and leaned on the bell, and Luath had opened the door having changed out of his work suit into his home clothes. He automatically moved aside to let Darcy through, receiving a quick hug hello with one arm.

“Hey. I thought you had a date with the guy with the green card issues?”

“So did I.” Darcy said cheerfully, stripping off his coat and dropping it over a chair.

“Well?” Luath said pointedly, following him into the big living room area. It was a big, modern apartment with French windows opening out onto the balcony, comfortably cluttered with books, rugs and throws on the couches, and the corner by the kitchen was occupied by Roger, facing the wall. A paddle still lay on one of the couches. Experienced, Darcy rolled his eyes at Luath, heading for the fridge.

“Oh tell me you’re not being mean to him again?”

Roger glanced around as Darcy passed him, slightly tearstained but giving him a cheerful smile.

“In a good cause.” Luath said dryly, leaning against the kitchen counter while Darcy poured himself a glass of milk. “Rog, do you want to explain or shall I?”

“Don’t tell me,” Darcy said warily. “You didn’t lose your glasses again?

Luath chuckled and went back to the table and an open copy of the Financial Times. From his corner, Roger sighed. “I don't just constantly lose glasses.”

“Yes you do.” Luath said without heat.

“It's the fastest way I know for you to end up there and the paddle there.” Darcy informed him. He gulped milk, walked over to Rog and hugged him, cuffing him briskly on the back of the head. “ I gave you that chain to put them around your neck. How can you lose them off a chain?”

“It made me look like I was appearing twice nightly in a drag show.” Roger pointed out.

“And that’s so much better than this?” Darcy demanded.

“Is it, Roger?” Luath inquired from the table.

“If you didn’t get so beastly when they go missing, even if it winds up being for just a day,” Darcy began. Luath cleared his throat, turning a page of the paper.

“If I didn’t, we might as well tear up money and flush it down the sink for what we pay in new pairs.”

“I'm supposed,” Roger said uncritically, “to stand here until I remember where I left them.”

“Do you?” Luath said calmly.

“No?”

“Oh well. Keep me posted.”

Roger stifled a rather uncorner-like laugh and Darcy shook his head.

“Look stop it, both of you, this isn’t funny? When did they go missing?”

“I don't know?” Roger said hopefully. “I know I had them at the muffin place - you know that muffin place that do the gingerbread ones?”

“Yes, yes, you told me about that. Did you have them on when you called me before you left work today?”

“I was in the lift-” Roger mused, “and I called Gerry-

“No, it was me you called in the lift, because you’d spoken to Gerry,” Darcy said patiently, interrupting this spiel with long experience. “Did you have them then?”

Luath turned another page of his paper. “We've done all this. You need to wash up if you’re eating here, dinner’s about ten minutes away from ready.”

“Are you really going to make him stand there or can I drag him into the kitchen to continue this interrogation?”

“Wash.”

“Beast.” Darcy went into the kitchen and Luath closed the paper, raising his voice over the taps running.

“So what happened with this guy without the green card?”

“Oh not my type.” Darcy called back airily. “We have a quick drink, I moved on, it was fine.”

“Where did you meet him?” Roger demanded. Neither he nor Luath clearly heard the answer. Roger looked around and Luath lifted his head.

“Where was that, Darcy?”

“....Ben Gunn’s.” Darcy emerged, drying wet hands. “Oh don’t look like that, it’s not that bad.”

“Luthe, there’s a paddle there.” Roger pointed out. Luath gave Darcy a solid Look and saw him flush slightly.

“We’ve talked about this. That place isn’t decent or safe, Philip would kill you.”
“Yes but what Philip didn’t know about gay bars won’t hurt him.”

“I know. Stay out.” Luath said, still looking at him.

“Or I’ll deck you if he doesn’t.” Roger said sharply.

Darcy grimaced at him. Luath got up, folding the paper.

“Rog.”

Roger turned and went over to him, leaning against Luath inside the arms held out to him. Luath hugged him, linking both hands in the small of his back.

“What did you do with them this time?”

He understood the owl look of surprise he got through the lenses of one of Roger’s several pairs of spare glasses, then Roger’s face lit up. “The bathroom at work. I put them on top of the hand dryer when I was washing.”

Luath nodded, not in the least surprised. “Call the caretaker.”

“Oh I’ll do it, it’s quicker.” Darcy grabbed up the phone and Roger slung an arm around his shoulder, coming to sit on the table beside him while Luath took dinner out of the oven.

It was maybe four years after that there had been another mid evening and dark in an apartment that was tidier and starker, and somehow looked as if it contained only the essentials of life now instead of being a home. Darcy had been sitting out on the balcony for some time, alone in the dark, when the door opened and he heard the click of a brief case put down and the sounds of a coat taken off. Luath often stayed later at work these days.

“Darce?”

Darcy didn’t answer. A moment later Luath came out onto the balcony in his work suit. Darcy didn’t look at him, but he saw Luath’s legs come into his line of vision alongside him as Luath stood to look out over the city below. Then Luath sat down on the ground beside him and put an arm around his shoulders.

For the past few months Darcy had been in the apartment most of the time, bringing takeaways, movies, laundry and distraction that stopped Luath sitting in silence, reading papers and writing letters and at worse times just sitting. They’d clung to each other, as if that made the gap between them somehow less, and Darcy’s chatter and noise disguised some of the emptiness. Now, red eyed, he held up a white card and Luath took it, recognising the logo. It was taking months to gradually track down all of Roger’s correspondence and this was one they’d obviously forgotten. It was a reminder card from the opticians, pointing out that Roger was overdue for his annual eye test.

They’d sat together very much like this on that evening, until Luath got up and made him come inside, put the tv on, eat and pretend life went on. Now Luath rubbed his shoulders, voice soft.

“Why don’t I bring the phone up and you call Gerry? Or Bear? You haven’t spoken to either of them since you got here, it’s the longest I’ve seen you go without a text.”
Darcy shook his head mutely. Luath smoothed his hair back off his forehead. There was nothing to say that they didn’t both already know.

“Then go to sleep.” he said with all the calm that he could summon up, the tone that used to calm Roger if he was wound up, pulling the covers closer over Darcy. “Forget about today. Go to sleep. It’s going to look better in the morning.”





*





Flynn undressed in the dark, folded his clothes and came around the bed, sliding under the covers and holding out his arms to Dale. It was too dark to see much at all, but Flynn’s arms closed and held – and then squeezed again more interrogatively, and Flynn leaned back to look towards his face.

“What?”

How the hell does he know?

It was hard, always hard to hear that tone in his voice without his mouth simply dropping open and pouring out everything, but it helped to be furious. Having learned diplomatically not to answer ‘nothing’, Dale hesitated, and Flynn ran both hands down his arms, voice warning.

“Don’t even try it. What’s wrong?”

“The better part of valour is discretion.” Dale said shortly. “Is Riley ok?”

Flynn rolled over to snap the beside light on and got up, hand outstretched.

“Let’s go.”

Dale hesitated, his sharply sinking stomach competing with annoyance.

“What? That wasn’t ‘nothing’.”
“Now.” Flynn said bluntly.

Damn. Damn, damn, damn. There wasn’t anything to do but put the covers back and take his hand. Flynn led him quietly downstairs and into the study where he shut the door and turned on one of the lamps on the table which cast a dim light across the top of the desks and across the rug on the floor. Flynn took a seat on the couch, no less impressive for being in t shirt and boxers, and held out a hand to Dale again, waiting.

Last night had been horribly similar. Swallowing, Dale went to his right side and leaned down over his lap, settling with his elbows propped on the cold leather of the couch and a distressingly familiar view of this particular section of couch. Flynn’s fingers hooked under the waistband on his shorts and pulled them down, considerably lower than was necessary, and as always, somehow that involved feeling more bare than Dale ever felt when fully naked. He gritted his teeth as Flynn rested his palm across his backside and shifted his position to tilt Dale more acutely across his lap.

“Want to tell me yet what the problem is?”

“No.” Dale said courteously, mostly to the leather. “No thank you.”
The first swat made him jump, and then brace his shoulders and close his hands in an attempt not to swear, wriggle or do anything else humiliatingly admitting of -

- something he couldn’t remember as Flynn’s palm cracked rapidly down and hard in a
series of sharp spanks far too low down to be manageable, and all of them feeling like they landed in the exact same place. There was something viscerally motivating about that sting in that particular place. Squirming and very out of breath, Dale braced himself against the sofa and struggled only very briefly with the humiliation of admitting it against the sheer and pressing demands of his rump for self preservation.

“Ok, ok, Luath said something about my giving you a hard time!”

That came out more angrily than he intended. Flynn paused, hands resting on his back to keep him where he was. Bare backside raised over his knee and blazing, Dale swallowed, trying to turn his head and have some kind of a rational conversation.

“I don’t. I’d gladly sleep in the bloody bunk house if it meant not disturbing anyone!”

“Do you think we’d let you?” Flynn demanded.

Dale calmed down fractionally, and knew, without the faintest doubt.

“......No.”

“You are not disturbing me.” Flynn said darkly. “You’re suffering with nightmares. Which is my problem as much as it is yours, if not more because I’ll decide what we do about it. It’s certainly not your fault, and it certainly isn’t something you have any need to be ashamed of, to control or to hide. If you’d involved yourself in the conversation instead of eavesdropping on it, you’d have understood Luath was wanting not to disturb us and was concerned you would have a bad night. Not that he felt you were causing me trouble.”

It was that blunt, outrageously chauvinistic tone. It always got into Dale’s guts like nothing else did, and somehow it took away all the fear and the mess, like lancing a boil or hearing someone saying, Not your problem. Mine. Give that to me now.

Flynn tapped a finger firmly on his back.

“What were you telling yourself when you got this angry?”

It was very difficult to argue with him in this position, or to want to. A lot calmer, Dale winced and surrendered, aware of letting the tension go from his neck and back in increments and letting his weight rest on Flynn and the couch.

“...... that I was being a pest and a fairly useless excuse for a partner.”
That earned him another sharp swat. Dale yelped and lost the sarcasm they both knew was defensive.

“Ok, that I was doing it wrong. I’m sorry, I overheard him and it hit me wrong.”
“Hit you wrong?”
“All right, it hurt. I thought he had a point.”

“So you heard what you wanted to hear.” Flynn tapped his back again, a painless touch but an evocative one. “We went through this last night.”
“I know.”

It all came down to the same phrase, underpinning most of the anger, and Dale admitted it, feeling the last of the frustration drain out of him. “The world ends if I’m wrong. Or weak.”

There was more to it than that, and Flynn knew it if Dale didn’t; Dale had silently seen and done whatever needed doing all evening, and he was a skilled lieutenant who tended to anticipate and have done what was necessary before you noticed it needed doing. He was particularly good at it with Paul, who found a lot of relaxation in cooking or washing up with Dale who always did things in the proper, orderly, meticulous way that Flynn knew Paul found very calming. He’d also reinforced wherever he could in drawing Riley into whatever kept his mind off Darcy upstairs and he was good at Riley, but he’d borne the brunt of Darcy’s meltdown, and even if Dale wasn’t aware of it, Flynn could see Paul and Riley’s grief bothering him. Dale was a problem solver who needed to do in order to cope, and who ruthlessly sealed off any emotional aspects that he wasn’t prepared to deal with. He wasn’t really aware of his own stress now beyond being uncomfortable. Nor was he aware that for two nights in a row when he was stressed and upset he’d pushed in ways guaranteed to get all choice taken away from him about what he did and didn’t share with them. In Dale’s mind it was probably a far less painful way to go about telling them the most painful things.

“Hold that thought.” Flynn advised him. “Alongside the one about not refusing to communicate.”

He took a firmer hold on Dale’s hip and finished the spanking with another two dozen swats, sound and sharp enough to continue patiently reinforcing the habit they were establishing with him about communicating, and to clear his head. Dale was very breathless across his lap when he was done, but Flynn could feel the tension gone from his body and his mood, his eyes were watering but he was far calmer, and starting to realise how tired he was. He settled Dale’s shorts back in place and helped him to his feet and Dale actively fidgeted on the balls of his feet for a minute, hissing and muttering with his hands behind him while the smart subsided to manageable levels, then he twisted around and put his arms around Flynn’s neck, holding on to him hard. Flynn hugged him back bruisingly tight, lifting him off his feet for a minute so he completely enclosed Dale.

“If you’re stuck on that line of worrying, what do you do?” he said in Dale’s ear. Dale’s forehead was hot against his shoulder, his voice muted.

“Talk to you. Look at it rationally.”
Walk towards it. It took a lot of experience to learn to trust that what looked terrible from a distance was manageable when closely examined: Dale would have taught that to the people he worked with in terms of the work he did without ever applying it to himself and other parts of his life. It wasn’t work that made him really, seriously afraid to the point where he struggled to think clearly.

Flynn kissed his mouth, soundly, and let him go, turning out the lamp before he put his arm around Dale’s waist and steered him upstairs. He could sense Dale’s tension as they reached their room, and wasn’t surprised by it. Night after night of these dreams was taking its toll; Dale had ridiculous reserves of courage but even he was reaching the point now of being nervous about falling asleep and too tired to be rational about it. Flynn straightened the quilt over them and pulled Dale over against him, tangling them body to body and running his hand slowly and calmingly up and down Dale’s back, pushing at the muscles Dale was holding tense.

“It’s ok. It’s all right, you’re here and I’ve got you, and we can handle this. I won’t let anything bad happen to you.”
Yeah, what kind of adult male is pathetic enough to need to hear that kind of thing?

He could almost hear Dale thinking it. Then Dale turned over against him and held on.

“What’s going on with Darcy?”

He said it so calmly, obviously determined it wasn’t going to sound like a panicked attempt to keep either of them from falling asleep.

“In what way?”

“Well he’s not exactly neutral, is he?”
“There have always been people in the family and among friends who understand the lifestyle without wanting to participate.” Flynn said mildly. “Or are happier with other versions or with selected bits of it.”

“I agree. I just don’t see that Darcy isn’t participating.” Dale said dryly. Flynn stifled a wry smile at the tone.
“That topic can keep a family conversation going for hours.”

“It’s cut and dried.” Dale said shortly. “He flirts with Luath- in the discipline sense, but for all I know in other senses too in how he dresses – and with Paul too actually. Not, I notice with you or with Jas where it might get a little bit too real. He picks safe topics, like dress, which he can insist is freedom of choice to end the discussion if it gets too invasive. I’d guess he likes to tease Luath about what he eats and when he goes to bed too.”

Flynn stifled a smile against Dale’s hair that was born of one of the shocks Dale sent through him at times; part of loving someone like this was the pleasure of the friendship of a man who was insightful and sensitive and plain fascinating to talk with, who saw things so acutely and who could challenge your thinking with the details he spotted.

“Where’s the difference between fear of committing, and just enjoying playing?” he said aloud, partly enjoying the devil’s advocacy. “There’s nothing wrong with either, and he’s with people who know how to play the game. There’s security in it and a lot of affection when it’s between us, it’s a form of very personal teasing in some ways – you’ve seen Ri play like that with Paul when he wants to let off steam, and both he and Paul are well aware it’s a game and where the limits are.”

Dale shifted slightly. It was the only sign he was still trying to manage what had to be a still smarting and extremely hot backside.

“Darcy’s not anywhere near the Top side of the line. He doesn’t think like one, he doesn’t have the containment-”

“By those terms, you and Tom are on the wrong side of the line then.” Flynn pointed out. “If not Top then automatically brat? I agree, he’s got more in common with Gerry and Riley and he’s more comfortable in their company, but Luath’s the closest friend he’s got. And there was no competition when Luath and Rog were together. Rog and Darcy were very close friends, the three of them were very close, but it was a couple and a friend. He chooses not to define himself in these terms and at the end of the day that’s what matters.”

“How was it different with Philip?”
Flynn paused, considering what he remembered. “ – Philip was the one who first met him and invited him here. Philip was quite a father figure to him, that was what Darcy was desperately wanting at the time from what Luath’s told me. Philip could talk to him in that way, but I think it was because Darcy chose to have that parental type relationship with him.”

“So why is everyone pussyfooting around him?” Dale said shortly. “No one else here ever does pussyfooting. Things get said and done no matter who it is. What exempts Darcy? What do you think? Professionally?”

Flynn shook his head, amused. “Guess.”
“I think,” Dale said slowly, and Flynn could feel him slowly relaxing against him, his body starting to settle into the bed. “If I was used to being a close friend of a couple, and one of them died, it couldn’t help but threaten the friendship. Suddenly there’s a potential partnership there, you’re at risk of territory being invaded – your dead friend’s, your surviving friend’s, your own.”

“Mhm?”

“If the survivor is a Top and you’re a brat or even potentially someone who understands the lifestyle with more leanings towards that side, the risk becomes even more obvious. Particularly if you’re used to being very close, emotionally, physically to your friend, but you’ve always had the safety of them being a closed couple.”
“Mhm.”
“And if your surviving close friend is a Top, and a pretty lonely Top, and you know what he’s missing and who he can only be when there’s a brat around, there’s going to be a need to provide it. But in a safe way, where you run no risks of trespassing on the territory of the lost partner, or causing misunderstandings. And if these people are your close friends, you understand the dynamic and you probably are used to leaning on that dynamic yourself, especially if you’ve lived in a household of that lifestyle where you were happy. There’s only so far you can be a spectator without having to participate, even marginally.”

“Mhm.”

“Ergo another safe way to be able to keep on leaning on that bit of Topping is to play, in a way it’s very obvious it’s a game, so no mistakes get made.” Dale’s voice grew quietly compassionate. “Particularly if you’re in denial that your friend isn’t coming back.”

“You think Darcy is?” Flynn asked. Dale’s were the first fresh eyes on this issue in years. He heard and understood Dale’s response, the quiet and British hmph he made in his throat when sardonically emphatic about something.

“Darcy looks stuck in a time warp. I can understand how Luath’s looking at Riley and me at the moment while he’s got Roger on his mind, but I saw it when he was here for Gam Saan’s funeral too. He isn’t himself until he comes here. So who on earth is he being in New York?”

Paul had mentioned Luath’s guilt about not recognising Dale’s need when he had known of Dale in the city and nominally shared the same community. Now that Dale mentioned it, Flynn wondered whether at any level Luath had avoided the contact to avoid the risk of a friendship with a brat. He ran a hand down Dale’s back over the slim, smooth lines of muscle and bone, and rubbed, gently, feeling the warmth still radiating through Dale’s shorts.

“It’s been hard for them. In part it’s the lack of closure, it’s very hard when you can’t go through the ritual of saying goodbye.”

Closure was an American concept; a word with no British or New Zealand equivalent, and he could feel in Dale’s body that it nagged at him.





*






He knew when he walked through the trees where the path led. Step by step, over the brown earth until the trees opened out and there it was. The bare earth clearing with the tattered, hanging shield half hidden in the tree. His feet moved without his permission, he saw the dark brown riding booted foot step forward onto the dust floor of the circle. The wind blew softly around his feet, stirring the dust and the fallen leaves, he crouched down in front of the carved rock and a hand, not his hand, reached out to touch the carvings. They looked larger than Dale remembered. Then the dust and leaves swirled up in a deafening roar, the white light began to swirl, and streaks of violet and gold flickered within the storm. Hideously large and distorted faces like the Easter Island heads, gaped at him with blank eyes and their mouths moving. Somewhere a bird screamed, and the white smoke was blinding. Stifling. Dale breathed it, unable to escape it, and it was acrid, searing his throat, his nose, his eyes, making panic swell up in a wave-

And somehow he escaped into a corridor where the smoke couldn’t follow. It was a corporate building, Dale recognised it with a weary kind of cynicism that took over from the panic. Glass and pictures and open plan layouts did nothing to disguise the sterility of offices, or what went on in them. The building was empty, and the lights were lit as though it was late at night, and Dale walked what seemed alarmingly narrow corridors, looking through the doorways as he passed them. Each room was furnished but empty of paper, computers or people, there was no sign of habitation. Dale searched it systematically, floor by floor for some time, but there didn’t even appear to be an exit. Just the hallways, so thin that in places he had to walk sideways between the walls, and suites that had rooms hidden inside rooms, but were still empty. Empty desks, empty shelves, empty filing cabinets. There was a sense of looking for something, while knowing that looking for anything here was pointless, because no one lived here anymore.

It was an irritating, tedious dream and Dale managed to wake himself out of it with a sense of having been spending more energy in dreaming than it took to stay awake. Flynn was asleep beside him. The house was quiet, the room was cool from the open window. Dale turned over onto his stomach, wrapped his arms around his pillow and tried to let his mind go blank, away from anything to do with offices.

He was in the kitchen, seated at the table in a room full of noisy, chattering people. The noise was cheerful, the kitchen was warm, and Dale was aware of the strong smell of the food, the wooden chair underneath him, the warmth of the plate in front of him under his hand. Eating, chattering, none of the others looked twice at him. Paul sat at the end of the table, aged perhaps twenty, slim, dark, laughing at something Bear was saying – and Bear was huge, but there was still the last traces of adolescence to the curves of his big shoulders and bare arms under his t shirt. Luath, slighter around the waist and with his hair jet black instead of the iron grey Dale was used to. A very young Gerry. Darcy, even more exotic with much longer dark hair and his sloe eyes. Dale found himself looking with a painful kind of familiarity at the steel grey haired man he knew he would find at the head of the table with a quiet smile and very intent eyes. Philip. He smiled a lot and said little, and at times put out a hand to touch or prompt Gerry to stop interrupting, or to draw Bear’s attention back to his plate as the cheerful argument was rising in volume and dominating the meal. Beside Philip, there was David, as Dale had seen him before in this kitchen, relaxed back in his chair with his shirt sleeves rolled up above his elbows, perhaps thirty with his shock of hair still dark instead of white, tearing bread between his hands. He met Dale’s eyes with a private smile.

At times Dale forgot that this house was David’s as much as Philip’s. This, to David, was one of the best and strongest images he had. It was his love of being in this house, he and Philip together who shared their home and their lives with men who had chosen to belong to them when they belonged nowhere else, and David loved it as much as Philip did. Dale saw his eyes flick to his partner and saw his enjoyment of watching Philip, his pride in him. He lounged in his chair, one elbow hooked over the back of it, legs casually extended as though he sat back and observed something nothing to do with him, but Dale had seen that lazy illusion of detachment before; Tom sometimes did it. So did Jasper in a slightly different way.

Dale felt what he’d felt before when he’d been a part of this scene: the warmth of lively, friendly chatter, the sounds of people happy together, who enjoyed talking together, in this familiar place where he, like the others around this table, felt safe. But this time it came with the realisation that David was showing it to him. Sharing it. It was one of David’s memories – or perhaps a composite of many different memories – but it was David’s knowledge of what he’d seen, heard and felt, and it felt good because to David it was good. There was a subtly different feel to seeing it through David, and it took Dale a moment to analyse the difference and separate out what was him and what was David: his own perceptions were there, but the warmth when he looked at Philip was not entirely his own, it was coloured by David’s, like seeing through a filter. The first time he’d experienced this scene, Dale had been too lost in his own fascination to pay attention to anything else. This time he kept his attention on David, recognising some motive. Some purpose.

All right, what? I know Flynn does this. Roots you in something positive, safe, to get you to go nearer to the scary stuff. What do you want me to look at?


Unhurriedly, David got up and Dale got up too, leaving the men at the table who didn’t seem to notice them leave. David led him down the porch steps and Dale paused, one hand on the rail, aware that the pots of herbs and flowers were the same ones he had seen Paul trimming earlier.

So is this my memory now? Do I just colour in the details from what I know, or are you using my experiences?

David neither waited nor looked back. Dale followed him, quickening his stride to catch up, aware they were headed past the corral and towards the hay pastures with the woods beyond. Mustang Hill.

There’s a quarry in the woods.

It seemed to take no time at all to get there, and the sunlight was strong through the canopy of trees, but David stopped as the quarry came into sight, and Dale stopped with him, looking at the broken grey stones rising up out of the bracken and trees. David didn’t say anything. He just waited, hands dug into his pockets, with open impatience in his face and his shoulders as if there was something Dale should do. Get on with. Understand. The last time Dale had dreamed of standing here with David he’d followed Paul’s advice and refused. Told David to back off; refused to look. That had done nothing to make the dream go away or to take the exasperation out of David’s face.

Dale looked back towards the quarry and caught a glimpse of the white stallion flickering between the trees as he circled, a long way off. The sun between two close together aspens cast two long, parallel shadows on the ground, but the woods were silent. No birds sang.

Ok. Ok, fine.

Leaving David behind, Dale walked slowly over the uneven wet grass and climbed the stone ruins under the trees. It was a deeply peaceful place. Still. Even the stallion’s hooves made no sound on the rough grass. A long way off, in the distance, Dale heard the faint whine of power tools and knew if he walked in that direction he would find Luath, Bear and Gerry working on dead wood. If he saw them, he would immediately see something terrible happen to one of them; he knew that too.

So what is the bloody point?! What do you want me to do?

Mist was rising up off the grass, and still lost in that warm, calm feeling of security that the meal in the kitchen had raised in him, Dale watched it swirl gently around his boots without feeling or thinking anything in particular. Such a very peaceful, oddly beautiful place. You could sit here forever. The stallion circled back around the quarry, trotting. It was shorter than Bandit, with a heavier neck and the squarer, thicker joints of a Mustang, like Mia. He came down the bank of the grassed quarry to Dale in a series of short, cantered strides, and just like Bandit had done, stepped in front of Dale, blocking his path. Dale put a hand on the stallion’s neck and the stallion side stepped, pushing him. Turning him back towards the woods, away from the quarry-

Dale woke, suddenly, still breathing the wet grass and the stallion’s steaming breath. The room was shockingly dark after the vivid bright sunshine in the quarry, and he was strongly aware of Flynn’s quiet breathing beside him. The dream had been intensely vivid. Sensory. He could still feel it. And yet somehow the memory of it faded almost instantly. Dale struggled to bring the images back to mind, and they came as if someone had told him about them rather than that he’d seen or imagined them himself. Gone. But leaving a nagging feeling there was something vital that he was forgetting or missing. For several minutes he searched his mind, but he could neither find the problem nor ease the sense of urgency. Eventually, very, very quietly, he slipped out of bed. Flynn didn’t stir beside him. There was a peculiar sort of thickness to the darkness on the landing, a silence that seemed to muffle all sound, and almost as soon as he was on his feet, the sense of agitation eased.

They never shut their doors in this house. There was a welcome implied within it, day or night. Riley’s door was wide, more than half open, and Riley was sprawled asleep under the covers. Dale leaned on the doorframe and watched him with his mouth softening at the involuntary swell of emotion. Chestnut hair, bright even in the dark like silver, long legs askew like a colt, shoulders spread as he lay with his arms around his pillow. All grace. All lines. All peace, as if he was so safe in this house he let go of all awareness of anything, entrusting himself entirely. Flynn lay like that too, with the muscles of his arms defining the curves and shadows in the dark. Just watching Riley sleep was comforting; Dale felt his breathing slow and the sense of calm grow in him. In the next room was Paul, who slept lightly and mustn’t be woken tonight, who was having a hard time although if you didn’t know him you’d never see it, and who really needed a night of unbroken sleep. Dale silently put a hand out to Paul’s door and guided it noiselessly closer shut, defending him from any creak of the landing. Then he moved softly to the third open door, which also stood open. Even Jasper was asleep in the thick darkness of tonight, laying on his side and facing the door, eyes closed, his dark hair long on bare shoulders. Soundlessly, Dale moved on down the landing. Luath’s door was almost shut; protecting Darcy who was asleep in his room. On impulse, Dale opened the door to Philip and David’s room, and went to stand at their window that looked down over the corral and the hay pastures.

Luath was clearly visible down in the yard, jacketed and standing alone with his arms on top of the gate, looking blindly out towards the tops.

It was awful to see. Dale swallowed on pity, knowing Luath wouldn’t welcome company. He’d probably waited hours to be able to be alone out there, not having to keep up the facade of bravery. He and Roger had first met and lived here, his memories of Roger must be strong all over the ranch. With the gold quartz ring still new on his left hand, it was horrific to Dale to even try to imagine being in Luath’s place. The thought of it was too painful to consider. And there was still something nagging at him. It was an urge he’d felt before, when Gam Saan lay up in the mine. A kind of nagging, itching restlessness that said something ought to be happening, now, and that Luath standing at the gate was a part of it.

There was a rule about staying in bed at night, and Dale acknowledged it, willing tonight to pay the price for breaking it. He retrieved his clothes from his room without disturbing Flynn, and took them downstairs. The family room was even quieter and it was one of his favourite rooms in the house, associated with being with the others, the rest and chatter in the evenings. It was a very safe place to be. Moving by touch in the darkness, Dale dressed by the warmth of the still burning embers of the fire, and as he buckled the belt of his jeans, he felt the now familiar touch of cold in his pocket. He put his hand in and took out the rose quartz crystal, and underneath it, Jasper’s carven coyote. The quartz glittered in the faint light from the fire, picking up and reflecting the glow. Dale sat down on the hearth stone to look at them both in the palm of his hand. The rough crystal from David’s mine was uncut, unpolished, like rose coloured ice. Jasper had told him of the Native American traditions around crystals and stones, and this stone in particular. Healing, of disturbed energies. In people, in places, acting as an amplifier for energy. The little figuring of an animal guide was delicately and deliberately shaped by contrast; the coyote, who could be foolish and chaotic but who learned from his mistakes. Who weathered disaster and from it gained a new level of understanding. Dale took the little coyote and stood it on the hearth stone beside him, the grey stone of which the house was built, and laid the crystal beside it, aware of apparently unconnected thoughts passing through his head like clouds. There had been gold and violet streaks in the white light of the clearing. White sage growing where white sage had no business to be, a sacred plant to the Shoshone.

And no David.

He sat there for a long time with his hands steepled in front of his face, less thinking than reaching that same, floating, purposeful awareness he’d felt yesterday when he moved around the house; that sense of looking up, lifting out beyond the borders of his body. It felt like a calmer, freer version of something he’d always done throughout his life, and the memories of doing it went back a very long way: skimming through papers at college and ANZ, looking at computer programmes, handling files, touching them and letting his eyes run over them with that kind of heightened, calm awareness, letting it happen more than trying to direct it, reeling away what he saw and knowing that anything important would stand out and catch his attention. He’d done it before here, on the day he searched the internet for the waterborne bug that had made Riley sick. He’d done it again in the mine underneath Three Traders, reaching a state of calm, detached high speed focus. He’d felt the same sense of calmness when he’d located the vegetable patch outside, and when the information regarding the special entities in the A.N.Z. project finally connected up and showed a conclusion. He’d done it too on the two occasions he’d felt and seen inexplicable things up on Mustang Hill. Perhaps it was gathering information in and data, letting it run without conscious interference. Perhaps it was a heightened state of concentration. Whatever it was, Dale let himself breathe in the way that he’d learned from Jasper and Flynn in their two different ways: the deep, slow and even breathing, feeling the warm stone beneath him, the soft and comforting wood smoke from the fire filling his nose, hearing the steady ticking of the grandfather clock against the wall; things he loved about this house. And he let his mind run.

The sky was changing outside from midnight blue to grey when he heard Luath come in. Dale, on the hearth, didn’t move or speak, and Luath, moving softly not to disturb sleepers upstairs, passed through the family room without seeing him. Dale waited until upstairs he heard a door creak, and then gave it another ten minutes more by the clock, before he pocketed both the rose crystal and the coyote and knew what he was going to do.

He went to Jasper first, slipping inside his door and putting a hand on his shoulder to wake him. Jasper glanced up, almost instantly awake and Dale signalled to him to be quiet, sitting down on the edge of his bed.

“Jas, I need you to come with me. I’m going to wake Flynn.”
“Are you all right?” Jasper said very softly. He caught Dale’s arm before he could get up, and Dale looked him in the eye, giving him a distracted smile that was mostly about holding on to this sense of calm focus.

“Yes.”
Jasper held on to him, looking for a moment more, then he pushed the covers back, padding to get his jeans. “Ok. Let me wake Flynn.”

And that was all. No questions, no argument. There was never a need to explain much to Jasper. Dale went downstairs to wait for them, collecting three jackets from the hooks near the kitchen door. A whole pile of jackets hung there; people in this household tended to take the nearest one rather than have their own particular one. As he took them down, Dale’s hand ran over one of the lighter fleeces they wore in spring and early fall buried deep under the pile, and stopped, remembering something. They’d been wearing the heavier weight, water proof jackets for some weeks now; he had to dig to find the light fleeces, and then sort through the pockets of them one by one. The usual hoof picks and odds and ends came to light in every pocket, but in one- Dale felt the cool of the frames and took them out, turning them over in his hand.

The broken glasses he’d found up in the clearing on Mustang Hill, the very first time he’d gone up there. Shoved in the jacket pocket as he went to deal with the chopper bringing the project evidence he’d forgotten all about them, and at the time they had just been a set of old, broken glasses, of no real import.

Now....he looked at them considerably more carefully. They were black, old fashioned by today’s standards, with one lense broken. Roger. Who was absent minded and often left things wherever he went, who loved to walk alone up to Mustang Hill to read in the afternoons when the sun struck down through the trees and made the clearing feel like a cathedral, and the river could be heard in the distance. How he knew that, Dale had no idea; possibly Paul had mentioned it. He pushed the frames into the pocket of the heavier jacket he pulled on as Flynn and Jasper came into the kitchen. Neither of them said anything and Dale had the impression Jasper had somehow persuaded Flynn to keep quiet as he gave Dale a rather fulminating look as he accepted the jacket, but came out onto the porch with them and Jasper softly shut the kitchen door behind them. The dogs stirred in their beds across the yard in the barn, lifting their heads. Jasper signalled to them, nothing more than a gesture with his hand, and they lay down again, taking no further notice, which reminded Dale that Jasper often went out at night to walk or fish. At the foot of the porch steps Jasper gestured Dale ahead of him, and Dale led the way towards the gate by the corral that led to the hay pastures, Jasper and Flynn falling in behind him.

They didn’t say anything until they were clear of the house and the corral where the horses lifted their heads to watch them pass. It was more deep grey out here now than actually dark, the sky was heavy and the air was cold and crisp. The grass crunched slightly underfoot, and as they walked up the pasture, Dale saw the first flickers of white in his vision and glanced up, realising it was starting to snow lightly. Flynn lengthened his stride to walk beside him and his gloved hand took Dale’s, holding it firmly. Dale gripped back gratefully, knowing and understanding the brusqueness in Flynn’s voice that meant concern, not disapproval.

“All right. Where are we going?”

“The clearing.”

Jasper caught Flynn’s eye over his head. Whatever was bothering Dale, it was four in the morning, he’d woken both of them without any attempt at logical reasoning, and asked for their company. It was a sincere and profound gesture of trust, especially considering the lengths he’d gone to just a few weeks ago to avoid them even suspecting he might need help, and neither of them were about to do anything to discourage it.

“We’ll help however you want, Dale, it’s ok. We’re just likely to be more use if we know what to help with.”

Possibly for their companionship while he faced down some of his nightmares. They’d spent a lot of time encouraging Dale to lean on them to be able to face what scared him most, and Dale often communicated best through physical action. Six months ago he would have self medicated on a night like this by disappearing out of the house alone and running until exhaustion blotted out any emotion he couldn’t contain. Flynn saw symbolism in it: he ran until he successfully escaped. Jasper thought that Dale often coped by concentrating on one thing to the exclusion of others, and he didn’t yet understand his own desire to be outside where he could feel space, feel the ground under him, and breathe until his lungs were burning enough that he couldn’t deny being here, real, physically present. Rooting himself, grounding his mind to his body. Dale was very aware of the physical land around him.

“I know,” Dale said abruptly to him, and Jasper saw grey eyes turn towards him, not panicked, not chaotic but steady, “not to take anything negative or chaotic near the hill. Sincere request. But not a self absorbed one.”

He said it matter of factly and Jasper knew he’d absorbed it from their conversations and from the history talker at Wind River, with Dale’s knack of reeling away information, finding its context, organising it and drawing his piercingly exact conclusions.

“Yes.” he said quietly.

Dale was still watching him. “The white sage, the colours in the light, the shields and the carvings. There’s a lot of strength there. It’s a powerful place.”

“Yes.”
And David wasn’t there. Twice I saw the strength in that place, and David wasn’t there.
Maybe when the land slid at the mine, I felt the vibrations in the ground, I saw something even if I didn’t process it. Maybe I heard or saw the early warning signs that the branch was breaking on the path. Maybe I heard or saw the cougar by the river. But whatever it is that I pick up on that I use David to tell myself, I didn’t sense it there. I was never in any real danger.


“You think something’s stuck there, like a fly caught in a cobweb.”

Jasper didn’t answer for a moment. He hadn’t tied his hair back as he usually did for a working day. Shoulder length, sleek and black, it moved and blew in the soft breezes behind the snow, his angular nose and jaw looked carven and his skin was silvered in the darkness, and his pace was long, light footed and even up the steep, snowy pastures.

“.... that can be the purpose of places like this, and I’ve seen – dark – energy before. There are things that can be called up by intent or carelessness, I believe there is such as a thing as evil. I don’t intend that it should touch us.”He said it very quietly, but with all the steel of which Jasper was capable, and Dale knew what he meant.

This is not for careless curiosity, this is not for touching, this is not something which should be disturbed.

I know.

It was stupidity; to know so little, to be even considering not following the advice of someone he unquestioningly trusted, who had real knowledge and experience. And by the code under which they lived, by the code of the gold and quartz ring on his left hand, Dale knew he needed to explain, clearly, what he wanted – which isn’t really possible because I don’t know – and if Jasper’s answer was no, as it certainly would be, then he needed to accept it, no matter how hard. To not tell him was simply a selfish means to ensure his own way, and that wasn’t how they worked.

“What if,” he said slowly, “What looks like a strong offence is actually a strong defence? It’s worked. It’s been alarming enough to stop our curiosity, we’ve left it alone, but the sage, the light, even the shields? They’re not harmful, are they? They’re strong spiritual signs.”
It took a moment and Jasper’s eyes were very steady on his, and would have seen the faintest hesitation. Then Jasper nodded slowly.

“What I keep dreaming,” Dale told him, “Is all rooted here. You taught me to stand and face what it is I think I’m afraid of.”

Flynn glanced at Jasper. Whatever Jasper sensed in this area, whatever the history of it, Flynn respected as he respected Jasper’s wishes, but on the night that Jasper had brought him up here, all Flynn had seen and felt was an empty space of deep historical importance in the middle of the woods. To Jasper it was something very different. They’d taught Dale to come to them for support in just this way. Walk with me and touch the fence. Sit with me in the office, leave something half done and come away. We’ll help you, you’ll survive. They’d taught Dale that a lot of what seemed so terrible in his mind was never so bad when looked at clearly. This was the first time he’d approached them of his own accord, and the man was both a professional negotiator with serious technique in persuasion, and so sincere it was poignant. He was extremely difficult to say no to.

“Not stupidly,” Dale told Jasper, and Flynn heard the promise in it. “Not for curiosity. Not to try and prove myself wrong, I don’t plan on taking any risks. With help, if you’ll help me, and in whatever way you’d suggest.”

Jasper went on looking at him for a while. Then he gently put his arm through Dale’s and kept on walking with him, up the meadow towards the woodland. Flynn looked up abruptly as they reached the edge of the woods, as if something had caught his eye. He looked away again a second later, not seeing the silver grey people on the painted horses who passed them, silent on the grass, but Jasper saw Dale’s eyes lift and fix, his face unreadable as he watched them go by. Men and women with long, dark hair like Jasper’s, riding together in buckskin clothes, one man with a fur and horned head dress, another with feathers and skins in his long, dark hair, moving like shadows in the darkness.






*






Snow descended lightly between the bare branches of the trees, falling silently and coating the mulch and moss underfoot. They walked together up the narrow bridleway through the woods, the trails Dale had cleared that led uphill, and the thin, grey light of approaching dawn wound through the trees. Anything alive in the woods had taken shelter against the snow; there was nothing to hear. No birds, no rustling, nothing at all but the black lines of the trees, and the three of them walking. And Bandit ahead of them, standing silently in the shadows and blocking the path, his hooves silent on the snow. He snorted when he saw them, swinging his head, his nostrils flared and his ears pricked. Not a tame horse; not really. The stallion and his herd ran wild on these hills as bands of horses had run for centuries on this ground.

Flynn put up a hand to him, resting it on Bandit’s heavy neck, and after a minute Bandit lowered his head to Flynn and huffed more softly. Flynn ran a hand down his nose, saying nothing. Then Bandit turned his big body and paced quietly alongside Flynn on up the steep path uphill.

As they approached the clearing, Jasper put a hand out to stop Dale, grasping his arm and turning him around so they stood face to face. In the heavy jacket, under the brim of his Stetson, Dale looked – focused. Flynn had seen the look before. Not the dissociated, hyper expression of panic, but the alert, lively concentration he gave to something that fascinated him, when his brain ran at speed and full capacity.

“White light.” Dale said to Jasper, who nodded, putting a hand behind his neck to cup it.
Flynn watched them, still with his hand on Bandit. The stallion’s head was high and his powerful body was tensed as if prepared for a fight. Dale, as dark as Jasper was in the snowy shadows of the trees, was angular and slimmer, like a deer. He had to lift his head to meet Jasper’s eyes, and Jasper’s voice was low and very soft.

“Think about it. Around you, above you, below you.”

Instead of the sterile white light Dale had always summoned into his imagination before at Jasper’s request, this time there was a far easier memory to call on that felt much more real; the yellowy electric light of the kitchen in the evening when they sat around the table to eat. Not just a light but a whole atmosphere, made up of warmth and familiar voices, safety and companionship. It was easy to summon up and as he had in the dream with David’s memory of that kitchen, Dale let it fill him, feeling it not just stabilising his heart but lifting his spirits too, a sense of quiet confidence, almost a sense of happiness and energy that made him think of something Jasper had told him;

Every living thing has energy. Every living thing brings energy to a place.

Jasper held his eyes and gave him a faint, quiet smile before he let him go and Dale walked slowly ahead of him into the clearing, aware of Flynn and Jasper following close behind him.

Nothing happened.

The anticlimax of it was almost funny. Dale tipped his head back, watching the small flakes of snow drift down through the trees, feeling the tiny stings of cold on his face, still filled with that sense of warmth and amusement. Flynn crouched down across the clearing to gently run his fingers over the carvings. Jasper stood by what looked like the remains of a fire in a small stone circle, staying close. There was nothing here. It was just a bare patch of earth among the trees, dusted with the snow falling in the dark. It was beautiful, and it added to the sense of peace, of certainty. Energy.

On impulse, Dale removed his glove and felt in his pocket for the coyote and then the rose quartz crystal, taking it out to hold in his bare hand. Crystals amplified energy, and rose quartz was known for healing energy. If nothing more, it was beautiful and it was familiar, a stone from this land, from David’s own mine, and to hold it drew Dale’s thoughts and emotions together into one focused point.

Sincere request. Clarity of purpose.

Where is the quarry in the woods?

Leaves and snow stirred together around his boots. Bandit hadn’t entered the clearing. The stallion still stood in the shadows of the trees beyond the bare earth. Flynn was near him, fingers brushing back the snow from the rock. Jasper had his head tipped back, looking up at the snow, watching the flurries. Dale looked at the ruins of the medicine shield in the trees, ancient and faded leather and fur placed there who knew when by who knew who, except they had known this hill too. The carvings on the rock of the running horses were beautiful things in the dark and under the snow. Somewhere beneath the hard earth of this clearing lay the bones of the Mustang Stallion who had guarded his herd on this land and left his blood on this hill to defended the people in the village below. That was exactly what this clearing was for, and what it was still doing.

The snow swirled, caught by wind through the trees, then in a rush it whirled up and drove into Dale’s face. It was a blast of white, pure white, but deep within it, faint but there, violet and gold streaks flashed. Overhead an eagle screamed.

The earth to spirit messengers. The eagles have been flying here all fall.

Confidence rising, ignoring the stinging hammer of the snow against his face, Dale found himself smiling and stood still, watching, refusing to let the blast of the wind push him back. Light flickered. And then gradually, incrementally, it grew stronger. The small, shape changing thing made of black dots hovered at the edge of his vision, and then it was there, just as it had been before; something awful and shape shifting, moving, coming closer. This time, with calm and with confidence, Dale kept his eyes fixed on it and he let it come. There was the sound he’d heard before; the faint vibration of hoof beats on the turf, getting closer, and as before it brought with it the rush of overpowering dread, and the smell of smoke, suddenly acrid at the back of Dale’s throat, searing as he breathed. It was like being hit with a tidal wave of fear. If he hadn’t been prepared for it, he would have choked and recoiled. As it was, he gripped the crystal, held onto that yellow light memory of the kitchen, clung to it and found himself again and realised – it felt like David’s impressions layered over his. With effort, with care, he could separate himself from it.

The blast of snow redoubled as though fighting back, harsh enough to nearly knock him down. Dale braced himself, shaking his head and reaching for the conscious thought that always worked when he needed to stand aside from himself, to take a grip on a situation out of control.

This is ridiculous!

We all have our spells. He remembered Jasper saying that to him months and months ago. That learned phrase, that long practised trick, had always worked for him. It was like taking a step back, stepping away from it to somewhere calm and dispassionate that watched objectively, thought clearly and acted with decision. It was like pressing through a barrier, and he felt the point he passed through it. The waves of fear subsided as though they were knocking on walls far away, no longer directly on him. The choking sensation became faint. The black thing was coming rapidly nearer, still shape shifting like a swarm of black bees, but as it grew close and larger it took on the definite form of a moving horse. Standing still, Dale watched, kept his eyes steady and let it happen. The space of the clearing was distorting now, as though there was a lot more ground within it than there had appeared. Light was growing out of the dark. The trees were so far away that it would have taken several minutes walking to reach them, and instead of flat earth, the ground undulated, in steep banks and rough dips and hillocks. It was grassed over, with long, rough grass, and in amongst the grass were stone ruins. Grey stone, shattered, like the remains of an abbey.

The quarry in the woods. I took the stone for a quarry, not ruins.

Everything took a moment to focus. When it did, things were still and very quiet. The light was stronger; it was near to morning, and the hoof beats were no longer far away, they were the normal pacing on the ground of the now white horse trotting slowly at the perimeter of the ruins. It was a stallion, shorter and squarer than Bandit, milk white with grey mottling on its hocks and knees, and a grey mane and tail. A man was sitting alone on one of the grey stones and watching it with his elbows resting on his knees, his shoulders hunched against the dawn chill.

It was so every day. So normal. Dale walked slowly down the bank towards him, picking his way over the thick, wet grass and the steep hillocks, his hands trembling in his pockets. The man was bare headed, sitting on the rock in his shirtsleeves and a tie. A rounded, comfortable looking man in his forties, with thick rimmed black glasses and a look of mild interest in the stallion as he watched it circle. He was the man from Paul and Philip’s photographs. The same man, sitting placidly on this rock.

“Hi.” Dale said quietly to him.

The man glanced up and gave him an absent minded smile, returning his eyes to the stallion.

“Hey. Beautiful thing, isn’t it? Can’t think what it’s doing here.”

“....Where did you come from?” Dale asked.

The question appeared to pass right over the man on the rock. There was a kind of – bewilderment – about him. He seemed perfectly happy, with a good natured and almost dreamy placidity and nothing on his mind but the stallion, who was walking now and grazing on the bank at the edge of the ruins.

“How long have you been watching him?” Dale asked. The man looked up at once with animation, answering far more readily.

“Oh only a few minutes. Funniest thing. If I walk that way you know, he snakes. Herds, just like the stallion at home does.”

“Does he really?” Dale said lightly and the man smiled, getting up.

“Watch this.”
Quite cheerfully he walked up the bank and Dale took a few paces after him. The stone on the ground seemed to thicken as he walked. There was more of it and it was everywhere, as if the grass hillocks had grown over rubble. The trees began to look like spars, sharper and darker like metal. The smell of smoke increased gradually, not wood smoke but an acrid smoke, the air was misting around them, and very faintly in the distance Dale heard distant shouts of men’s voices and the whine of power tools. Many power tools. It brought a rush of physical pain and a terrible dread with it; Dale felt it through his body, the hammer blow of the exact same terror and desperation that had been shattering his dreams, and it nearly dropped him to his knees as he understood it. What he smelled, what he saw, what lay through that smoke, whose memory it was that distorted this sensitive place.

Oh God. Of course he doesn’t want to see it. He doesn’t want to know.

The horse turned immediately, breaking into a sailing trot as it approached them, bounding down the rough ground without effort and turning its body, just as Bandit yesterday had turned his body to block Dale from the woods. The man in the glasses shrugged and turned back to Dale, walking down to him and smiling.

“You see. Every time it turns me back. Strangest thing. I can’t imagine what it’s doing here.”

The horse was trotting over banks of rubble now, amongst the stone and spars, passing in and out of the smoke. Shaken and near to tears, Dale backed away from it. He wouldn’t have had the courage to look or step any further. The fading happened almost immediately. The trees looked more like trees again, the battering at his body ebbed away and the whine of tools sank gradually back out of earshot. The man sat down on a nearby hunk of stone again and leaned forward to watch the horse with the same placidly focused interest. This nowhere place. Half ruins, half woodland, neither one nor the other. So peaceful, Dale thought bitterly, remembering the dreams. As if you could sit here all day. It was an escape from what was too terrifying to be faced, too awful to know.

“Roger.” he said very gently and with compassion that was choking him. “It’s ok. This looks awful, I know, but come down to the house with me. You’re almost there. It’s only a few minutes’ walk left.”

Roger, sitting on his rock, didn’t look up. It was as if he was unaware, dreamily caught in this moment of watching the stallion, with no sense of time or place or curiosity of anything beyond, and interested only in what held his attention. The repetitiveness of what he said was like a goldfish’s flickering memory, re setting itself every few minutes. It was like a built in short circuit, a protection against a reality he couldn’t handle. This whole place was a protection against what Roger couldn’t handle; the clearing had been protecting the people who lived in the valley for centuries.

Dale crouched on the grass beside the older man with a painfully overwhelming sense of compassion and watched his face, thinking that this was Luath’s man. Luath, who had stood by the gate through the night, reaching out without any purpose other than loss and unanswered questions. Darcy’s dearest friend. A man, who like him, had lived in the house below the hay pastures, ridden the ranch land, sat at the kitchen table and by the fire in the family room and belonged here, slept in the room under the eaves a few doors down from Dale’s own, stood under the same shower, loved the same people. They had things in common, they were of the same family. There had to be ways to reach him.

“Roger.” He said very gently. “You found it. You’ve got nothing to be afraid of now. You’re almost home, come with me.”
Come where? To do what? Dale had no idea, he just understood where Roger had been desperately trying to reach when his nerve failed him. Confused, afraid, alone; Dale understood very well how that felt, and understood too what it was to long for this place, how it felt to belong here. He knew too that his words were just rolling off Roger, he wasn’t listening. There was nothing in his world but what was around them; this odd mingling of rock and grass land, and the stallion which contained and protected what was Roger, keeping him corralled in this one space, the safer part of his nightmare.

“What about Luath?” he tried again, putting more strength into his voice, the tone that he knew worked on Riley, Darcy and Gerry. “Think about Luath. Roger. Look at me.”

The name briefly grabbed Roger’s attention, he glanced up but his eyes were dreamy and still focused on the horse.

“Oh they said wait for instructions.” he said vaguely. “A while ago.”
“How long have you been waiting?”

“A few minutes I suppose.. .? Look at that horse. Beautiful thing, I can’t imagine what it’s doing here.”

He was short circuiting again. Was that what he remembered of instructions in his office? A confused muddle of evacuation and waiting for help, a situation no one fully understood or knew how to deal with? Dale could only imagine the shock and trauma underlying it. Roger wasn’t sure where he was or when he was, and his confusion overlaid this place, which like him, faded between woodland and ruins. His energy dominated it. Warped it. Dale’s fingers closed on the glasses frames in his pocket, and on impulse he pulled them out and offered them. A real and inescapable link to the man who had lost them here.

“Are these yours? I found them in the clearing on Mustang Hill. Darcy said you often lost things.”
“Oh I’m always losing glasses.” Roger smiled at the frames, an absent minded smile before he turned back to the horse. “Just look at that. Beautiful thing, isn’t it?”

In desperation, Dale stood up, ransacking his brain for inspiration.

Ok, he’s not hearing me. What the bloody hell do I do now? David, for pete’s sake, you got me into this, give me some help!

You’re clutching on as tightly as he is, let go and let me through.


Reflexively, Dale squeezed his hand on the crystal in his pocket and realised how focused he was. To the exclusion of all else, he was blocking out everything but Roger. It took effort to breathe, to let go, to try to find that sense of balance again, to once more pull on that image of the kitchen. Familiar faces. Familiar voices. Being safe. Belonging there. It lifted him again. He felt his breathing slow a little, and it brought some perspective back to the clearing. The trees were just trees. The rocks were just rocks. The only sound was the wind through the bare branches. Bandit was visible in the distance, among the shadowy trunks of the aspens. Flynn and Jasper appeared a long way off, on the far side of the clearing, walking slowly amongst the rough stones and talking. They didn’t appear aware of him or of what was happening. David was walking from the direction of the woods, shirtsleeves rolled above his elbows, tall and hatless with thick, dark hair that stood out around his head as if he was used to bad weather and didn’t care, and a casually easy stride that wasn’t bothered by rough ground. He wore riding boots and he walked past Dale, giving him a brief look Dale recognised.

About bloody time.

It wasn’t dismissive; it more affectionately exasperated. Like the glance across the kitchen table in the dream there was a camaraderie to it, the same feel of silent co ordination Dale felt when he dug a ditch with one of the others, cleared a river, mended a fence, both of them focused on the same task.

Roger was still watching the horse. His face surprisingly gentle, David crouched down on the grass beside the stone and put his hand into Roger’s, taking it and holding it with a tenderness that made Dale’s throat squeeze painfully.

Almost immediately Roger looked around at him, and David spoke to him for some time, his face close to Roger’s – too softly for Dale to hear the words, but gradually he saw Roger’s gaze sharpen and his face change and lighten into recognition in a way that hurt even more to watch. When David drew gently on his hand, Roger slowly got up and turned away from the white mustang, walking with him. Dale followed after them, away from the ruins, towards the woods. An unhurried pace, David walking with his hand holding Roger’s, and as they walked the ground seemed to slowly contract, so that they were no longer on grass but on the hard, snow dusted earth of the clearing. David and Roger walked slowly together into the dim woods, on the path that led down to the hay meadows, and Dale walked with them.

Flynn called sharply, and a moment later Flynn and Jasper jogged through the trees and joined him on the path, Flynn taking a tight grip on Dale’s hand. His fingers were warm, calloused, very real, and Dale gripped tightly to them. Jasper walked close against his other side, his shoulder against Dale’s, and Bandit paced after them. Neither Roger nor David turned, and they were gradually getting further ahead, as though the ground they walked on was easier. Light was getting stronger in the heavy grey sky, the snow was falling thicker, and as they emerged from the woodland it was laying on the grass and outlining the hills in the distance, whitening the air and already half an inch deep. The shadowy figures of the mares stood silently higher up on the dark pasture, watching, their foals pressed close against their sides. Bandit paced out onto the snowy pasture and stood still below his herd, watching, his ears sharply forward.

Their riding boots creaked on the new snow as they walked on down the pasture towards the ranch house in the valley where smoke rose from the chimney, and ahead of them the two figures were gradually becoming insubstantial, like old cine film. Dale looked up at Jasper, saw where his eyes were focused on the land in front of them, and understood the expression in his face; something between shock, pain and the same strength of unnameable emotion that Dale felt.

“You see them?” Dale asked him very quietly. Jasper gave him a faint nod, not moving his eyes.

“See what?” Flynn said shortly. Neither of them answered, but Dale glanced up at him, aware he was anxious and of the hard grip on his hand, keeping him very close. Dale hugged his arm and walked against him, watching the shapes fade in front of them until there was nothing there but the snow covered pasture and the ranch house ahead.

Jasper reached the porch first and walked past the kitchen door, sitting heavily down on the swing and looking out into the yard at nothing. Dale, towing Flynn after him as Flynn wouldn’t let go of his hand, sat down on the swing beside Jasper and put a hand on his knee, and after a moment Jasper put an arm up around Dale and pulled him close. His eyes were wet. Dale drew his knees up and leaned against him, some part of him near to tears, another part still hypnotised by the snow falling softly in the yard and the sense of peace that had come down from the hill with them. Flynn, sitting on his other side on the swing put a hand past his head and Dale saw his fingers brush Jasper’s face and squeeze his shoulder.






They sat pressed close together there in silence for a long, long time, while the snow accumulated in the yard in front of them and the sky lightened slowly. It was just nearly six when Jasper got up, pulling his Stetson further down over his forehead.

“I’ll be back for breakfast.”
Flynn watched him cross the yard and let himself out of the gate into the snowy home pastures. Then he squeezed Dale’s knee.

“You need some sleep.”
Dale had worked through plenty of nights, but never sat and watched a dawn come up like this, or sat and watched the snow. Particularly curled up against someone he loved, when he felt like this. He unwound himself stiffly, a little unwilling to break the spell and admit it was morning.
“Are you coming?”

For answer Flynn got up, holding out his hands.
“What did you see up there?” Dale asked him. Flynn pulled him to his feet and leaned on the rail for a minute. The snow was easing off and the morning light getting brighter, although it was bitterly cold.

“Nothing at all. The snow got heavier. You stood a way off from us and I saw you crouch down and say a few things, but we couldn’t hear you. Jas said you knew what you were doing and to leave you alone, so we did until you got up and walked away.”

How did you possibly explain something like this? Dale hesitated, wanting to and not knowing how. Flynn broke the silence, quietly.

“Dale, I’ve loved Jasper a long time. I’m not stupid. Was it about Roger?”

“.... Yes.” Dale said eventually. “I didn’t completely realise until we were up there. The dreams were almost – a kind of code? The brats from his generation. The falls and how awful they were. The quarry in the woods – they were ruins, not a quarry, I just saw stone and steep banks. Walking around a house, looking for something. You say the subconscious works in symbols.”
“A house or building can sometimes symbolise yourself.” Flynn put an arm around his waist. “An obvious translation would be looking for something in yourself.”
And it wasn’t to be found in the office, in the work place. That was sterile. Empty. Dale had long since moved out of that part of his life and left it behind, without regrets. Flynn abruptly pulled him closer, gripped his hips and lifted him to sit on the porch rail where their faces were very close. He had dark green eyes under the brim of his hat, watchful, even darker than usual out here in the snow, and very gentle. Powerfully, intimately gentle.

“You don’t have to justify it, or quantify it. My way, Jasper’s way, whatever you call it it’s the same thing, Jas and I worked that out years ago. It’s all right.”
“That’s what you say to a man who drags you up a hill at four am in the snow to talk to nothing?” Dale said wryly, smiling at the sheer ridiculousness of it. “With an externalised imagination and a variable grip on reality-”

“Mostly you have way too much of a grip on reality.” Flynn interrupted him. “You pick up more than most people do, we know that. Exceptional people do exceptional things.” He was quiet for a minute, his hands still grasping Dale’s hips. “I’m not surprised either.” He said more roughly after a minute. “Philip and David always did what they could to help anyone in need. It seems to run in the family.”

In Flynn’s case, along with Jasper, Paul and Riley, it was rescuing one burned out or struggling CEO at a time, and stabilising them. It meant a great deal to him, entangled as it was with how he felt about Philip and what Philip had done for him. Dale touched his face, stroking his jaw which was cold and rough and dark with stubble. He was aware as he said it that he meant it, as much and as seriously as he’d ever meant anything in his life; that he loved this man and that same fierce love extended to the house behind them and the snowy woods and hills around them.

“I will never go anywhere alone when the time comes. I’m staying right here. You will find me right here.”

Flynn kissed him, one of his rough, nudging kisses, his mouth warm compared to the chill of their faces, then lifted him down from the rail. “That’ll work. Get to bed, kid.”





*





Flynn was dressed and gone when Dale woke. According to his watch it was nearly lunchtime, his stomach was growling and he felt in desperate need of a shower. No one was around on the landing to ask for permission to get up, and Dale didn’t feel too inclined to look in detail for anyone who might say no, or to be alone any longer. Acting quickly, he showered and shaved, brushed his teeth, and feeling a good deal more comfortable, made the bed and dressed, heading downstairs to the kitchen.

He found them all gathered there, and the quiet of the house was explained. They were sitting around the table, Darcy perched on Luath’s knee, an arm around his neck and Luath’s arm around his waist, both of them red eyed but calm. Riley was leaning on Paul’s shoulders from behind, his arms around Paul’s neck, his own eyes swollen, and tears were on Paul’s face although he was quiet. Jasper was leaning back against the kitchen counter, and Flynn was sitting next to Luath, a hand over his, watching his face. The phone lay on the table in front of them.

Dale pulled the chair out next to Paul and sat down close beside him, running a hand gently up and down his back. Paul fumbled for Dale’s free hand and held it tightly. Luath gave him a tired smile across the table, something that said he had no idea what he was feeling right now but told him not to worry.

“It’s all right love. We got the call from the lab. It’s over, they’ve found Roger.”








I hear the wind across the plain
A sound so strong that calls my name,
It’s wild like the river, it’s warm like the sun
It’s here. This is where I belong.

Under the starry skies where eagles have flown
This place is paradise. It’s the place I call home.
The moon on the mountains, the whisper through the trees
The waves on the water. Let nothing come between this and me

For everything I want is everything that’s here-
And when we’re all together there’s nothing to fear.
And wherever I wander, the one thing I’ve learned:
It’s to here I will always, always return.


Bryan Adams

15 comments:

Sierra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sierra said...

You have created a wondrous place filled with strong characters that jump off the page and seem so real, so solid. Your stories are such a gift to those of us lucky enough to find them. (and that video/song at the end just did me in,)
what can a person say when unexpectedly finding such a soulful, fulfilling masterwork as this entire series is but thank you.

HELLO BEAUTIFUL said...

This is truly a wonderful story. I can't wait to read the final installment. I ran across this on fictionpress, where an author said they were currently obsessed with it. I must say I am equally obsessed. Keep up the great work!

Ranger said...

Thank you! We're glad you're enjoying it!

ciraarana said...

Soooo. Two months and three read-throughs later, I tried to put my thoughts on the series into words. I'm still less coherent than I'd like to be, but that's your own fault for being brilliant. Just saying. :)

Anyway, if you're interested, rambling can be found on my LJ, starting with commentary of "Falls Chance Ranch":
http://ciraarana.livejournal.com/109771.html#cutid9

Thank you for writing these wonderful stories.
Cira

Ranger said...

Thank you Cira! It's lovely you enjoy the books and thank you for recommending us!

hpfan12 said...

Please never stop writing. Everytime life gets too overwhelming, these stories always ground me with what's important in life. Thank you so much :)

Ranger said...

You're very welcome HP, and we're in no danger of stopping any time soon ;) Promise.

jayanx said...

Beautful in it's truth, and honesty. Thank you, this was truly touching.

Ranger said...

Thank you Jayanx, we're delighted you enjoyed it!

Kelly said...

I just found this series last week, and I've been reading it as much as possible. I've finished books 1-3 and am about to start four, and all I can say is, you are so very talented, it breaks my heart, in the best possible way. This was exactly what I needed to read. Thank you.

Ranger said...

Thank you Kelly, we're delighted you're enjoying the books! We hope you enjoy book 4 just as much, and you can find the short stories in the extras blog.

Burnetta Stark said...

I have read your stories so often your characters seem like friends. You make me laugh and cry. You are incredible writers. Thank you.

Lesley Routledge said...

Blubbering now. Loved this story even though it broke my hearheartt

Crystal Watterson said...

I agree with all the comments to come before this, just beautiful. You r stories means the world, I pray that some day I can find my own place at Falls Chance Ranch or create a home as Phil and David have.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Hugs and love to you.
Crystal

~*~

It's funny how life turns out

The odds of faith in the face of doubt

Camera one closes in

The soundtrack starts

The scene begins.

You're playing you now.

~Josh Jopling Group

~*~