Sunday, December 24, 2017

Cathedral Close


Cathedral Close


24th November

Thanksgiving in this family traditionally tended to be a less excited occasion than Christmas. There was much less ceremony and depending on the weather, more time spent helping out on the ranch with the last of the fall work, and for those who were up for it, riding and at least one long hike together. As a youngster in his first year or two here Flynn had tried slipping away to cover the usual daily work and let them get on with it, but this family made you too welcome and he’d been drawn in much as Jasper had. Thanksgiving dinner in the evening was always a full, seated meal at the table with all its leaves out as it had been in Philip and David’s time, and it tended to be a long, slow and relaxed affair full of chatter and conversation. Long after the meal was over men sat talking late into the evening and sharing the chocolate and nuts and coffee Paul brought to the table.

Riley loved the house being full and all family traditions and events; he always had. He was on a high from the time people started arriving and happily sociable with any and every member of the family and the inlaws he was never short of company or people to talk to. Dale and Paul spent their time planning menus together, readying linen, towels and rooms, and generally caring for guests while they were here, although Flynn, Jasper and Paul kept a firm hand on Dale while it went on. Given a third of a chance he had a knack for appropriating most of the chores in the house, and as he did it subconsciously rather than intentionally it tended to happen before anyone noticed, including Dale.

Dale was sitting on the floor with Riley this evening in among the small crowd of elder family members gathered by the fire. Flynn brought a tray of tea across to the coffee table between them, reflecting that next year they needed to extend the kind of formal invitation to join them that Tom would just as formally appreciate in his own way, and would take seriously. He was another brat that would pull hard on the heart of every one of their older Tops, little though he’d realise it. 

James glanced across from the conversation and caught his eye to signal thanks as Flynn put a cup in his reach. Hawk nosed, one of those men whose bone structure merely matured over time like a well casked wine, he was sitting very upright, even at this hour of the day when he was tired. Niall beside him, more delicately built and his once red hair whitened now to strawberry blond, accepted another cup with a quick smile.

“Dale I meant to ask you, do you know the area around Eastbourne in the UK at all?”

“Not much. I was walked around Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters cliffs when I was in prep school, but that was it as far as the south coast goes.”

“You got dragged everywhere by your prep school.” Riley, sprawled on the rug where he was roasting gently in the heat from the fire, twisted his head around to give Dale a grin which Dale returned.

“On the principle that you keep kids busy if you don’t want trouble. Why Eastbourne Niall? Are you planning a trip?”

He shifted over on the rug to make space for Flynn to sit next to him. Flynn leaned an elbow on the hearthstone, where his fingers wound idly through the dark hair on Dale’s collar. He was wearing a darkly sapphire blue shirt tonight, crisp as everything he wore was always crisp, but the collar was unbuttoned and open, and it set off the sharp contrasts in the white of his skin and the bright darkness of his hair and eyes. Niall sipped tea appreciatively.

“There’s a memorial to several US units being put up in a cathedral near there. We had a letter from the veterans’ organisation we belong to. There were multiple embarkation points for the D Day landings along the coast in the cathedral diocese.”

“Including yours?” Riley asked. Niall glanced at James.

“Mine, yes. Not that I remember much about it, it was dark and I got off the truck and onto the boat without noticing much of the town. It was the area where both our divisions left from, and the divisions of other guys we knew.”

“I joined my division in the middle of Germany months after the landings took place,” James added. “I was drafted very late in the war.”

“And had a fun time locating the group you were supposed to be with.” Niall smiled at him. “Since all the groups were moving all the time no one really knew where they were. New arrivals had to chase them. Our groups were both involved at the battle of Nuremberg; that was where we first met. We spent a highly unromantic night in a bombed out church in the rain.”

“You weren’t stationed out there together?” Luath asked from where he was sprawled on the other couch beside Peter, who had Lewis curled up against him with the zoned look that meant he was dozing off at intervals but didn’t want Peter to notice. Niall shook his head.

“Not then. I was a translator so I got drafted around a lot to help wherever it was needed, and after the war I was sent back to Nuremberg to work with the legal teams who needed translators more or less constantly. James was stationed there and we met up again.”

“But the war was over. Didn’t you get to head home?” Riley looked to James who shook his head.

“There were troops on the ground out in Europe helping with the clearing up and sorting out for years afterwards. You had to earn a set number of points to go home, mostly added up through time served. I had less than a year served when the war was ended and nothing like enough points.”

“He still got home before me.” Niall said dryly. James’s eyes softened for a moment where they rested on his partner.

“You were too valuable. French and German speaking and legal experience, they couldn’t afford to lose you. Wade was stationed in England too, but in the countryside north of London. Air corps.”

Wade, who was in the kitchen playing poker with Darcy, Jasper who was a wicked poker player, and Gerry and Ash, wasn’t aware of this situation and was well out of earshot, but Flynn still heard James’ voice lower slightly as if not wanting him to hear. So he expected Wade to not want to know of this memorial. Which fit with what Flynn knew of Wade. He’d heard a few rumours of Wade’s combat experience, enough to know that Wade himself never spoke of it, or his time in England.

“We should see the photographs of the ceremony on the association website,” Niall said. “Apparently there’s going to be a cathedral service and dedication, there’s a number of our group planning to attend.”

“Will you go?” Riley asked. “You went out with them to the event in France a few years back, didn’t you? You showed me the pictures.”

James and Niall looked at each other briefly. Then James answered for them both.

“We were a bit younger then. We’re getting past journeys that long now.”      

And Niall had flu this fall which worried you crazy, Flynn mentally added, and it’s twelve hours on a crowded plane in winter with more travelling to do when you get there, when it would be a hard trip for the both of you anyway.

Niall sipped tea, his expression neutral. He’d never contradicted, argued with or in any form embarrassed James in Flynn’s earshot from the day they met. Niall was like Dale in that way. Where Riley’s emotions ran free and strong no matter who was watching and his loyalty was passionately shown in other ways, Dale never showed anything without considering the effect on them first. But Niall’s eyes were down on his cup, not meeting James’. Beside him, Flynn saw Dale notice, register it and drop his own gaze to avoid making Niall or James uncomfortable.  


Heading upstairs shortly before ten, Flynn glanced through the door of Riley’s room where Jasper and Riley were sprawled together on Riley’s bed and talking. When the house was busy like this, both their brats needed downtime to change gear before they could sleep, and this was one of the few times of day that they could carve out a little time to spend alone together. They might be hosting a houseful and enjoying it, but it mattered that Riley and Dale were certain they were never lost in the crowd. Stripped down to boxers and nothing else, chestnut hair tousled, long legs loose, Riley glanced up and smiled, but he was face downwards with his chin on his arms and Jasper was rubbing his back. It had been a long and lively day. On top of an early start this morning to cover the stock work that had to be done every day no matter what the celebration, they had hiked the best part of ten miles over the ranch at a pace that suited some of their older walkers who spent less time walking over rough ground than they did, and then when they got back he’d ridden out to make a quick check of the ewes in the further pasture and refill the feeding stations that were compensating for frequently frosty and snowy ground. From Riley’s expression he was currently two thirds jelly and not planning to move again tonight. Flynn went on up the narrow side stairs to the office. It was chilly up there. Dale hadn’t bothered to switch on the small portable heater, he often didn’t when he only planned to be up here briefly. He was intent on something on the computer screen, braced on the desk in a way that strained his shirt distractingly across his shoulders and pulled a rolled shirt cuff back from the smooth lines of his forearm. A couple of faxes were stacked on the desk that hadn’t been there this morning since the international financial world did not stop for Thanksgiving. The top one was from Jeremy Banks, regarding an office in London. Flynn glanced through, lifting it to see the fax underneath which was a stream of data regarding a European syndicate that Dale liked to keep an eye on. On the screen – Flynn recognised the banner with the veterans association on it that both James and Niall belonged to. Dale had followed the association for well over a year now. He had asked and received permission to make several donations to it, which Flynn knew he did anonymously on behalf of the ranch since three of their people belonged to it. The page was the information regarding the dedication of the memorial.

He had eight minutes remaining of computer time. Dale being their Dale, he invariably left the room at least two minutes before his time ended, although he was careful not to be too precise at it as otherwise Paul sent him back up to explore the experience of being late and remind himself that nobody died from it. Flynn sat on the edge of the desk to look with him at the screen.

“That’s the date of the dedication?”

“Yes. Mid December.” Dale selected the top fax and turned it towards Flynn. “This is one of the annual ANZ chores. Jeremy Banks sends them out at this time of year and hopes everyone will volunteer for the one they’re nearest to at the time. I haven’t helped with it since I moved out here.”

“It’s a board meeting?”

“Yes. Well. More accurately it’s a check in and a Christmas drinks event. It’s more of a quick morale health check and showing a presence than getting any work done, but ANZ have a base office in a number of countries. Keeping contact and showing appreciation of those teams is important. This is the London one.”

Ah.

Flynn looked at the date with comprehension. “Which just happens to be three days before the dedication at the cathedral.”

“Yes, I went looking for this, and hoped it might fit. I’d like to ask Paul if he’ll come with me to London to cover that meeting. I don’t think it’s a city he’s been to and he’d enjoy it – well I’d make sure he enjoyed it-”

“He’d love it.”

“And that would give us a good excuse to ask James and Niall if they’d like to join us. James won’t accept if he thinks we’re only going for them.”

He was right. Flynn nodded thoughtfully, looking again at the fax. “The meeting would take you what, a half day?”

“At most. But it would mean I could take a private plane, which would make for a much easier journey for them. A decently comfortable cabin they can walk and lie down in, decent food, a shorter flight, much easier airport transfers. There’s several days gap between the meeting and the dedication, so they’d get a couple of days to rest in London before the service, I can find a comfortable hotel. And Paul and I would be there to help. I’d imagine most of the reason James is saying no is he’s worried about Niall handling the journey.”

“He is.” Flynn put out a hand to run his fingers through Dale’s dark hair, pushing back from his forehead. A firm, intimate caress that brought their faces close and Dale’s grey eyes directly up to his. “Do you want to do this or you feel you ought to?”

“Want.” Dale said without hesitation. “If they want to be there it should be something we make possible for them.”

Yes, it should. Philip would have done very much the same. Flynn cupped a hand under the strong and slightly evening shadowed bone of his chin and snatched a moment to kiss him, putting most of his answer on Dale’s lips.

“Let’s talk to the others.”

Paul had joined Jasper in Riley’s room and Flynn nudged the door to in order to gain them a little privacy while Dale sat down on the bed with them and explained.

“It’s a brilliant idea.” Paul said as soon as he got the concept, “I hated seeing Niall look like that, it was clear he wants to go and I’d love them to be able to. I thought about offering to go with them but the travel on commercial flights would be too hard on them over that distance, and that’s most of what James is worried about. If you chartered a flight we could make it a much gentler trip.”

“Sounds perfect to me,” Riley was still sprawled with his head in Jasper’s lap, but his eyes were alert and he loved James and Niall. He hadn’t missed this either. “It would mean a lot to them.”

“I agree.” Jasper said as Dale glanced to him. “I’d be glad we could help. You’d be gone when?”

“From the fifteenth to the twenty first of December.” Dale handed Jasper the fax to look at. “The only downside I can see is that it runs things quite close in terms of our preparing the house for Christmas which is a lot of work-”

“No, that’s easy enough,” Paul interrupted him gently, “There’s plenty we can get organised before we leave, and it hasn’t been a big job since the day you got here, you cover a lot of it. Not least since you can remember where the vacuum cleaner’s kept,”

“Hey, I vacuum!” Riley protested. Paul shook his head.

“Not if you can help it you don’t. It’s amazing how many horses develop sudden, urgent issues whenever I want the stairs vacuumed. Don’t worry about that Dale, we can easily plan around it.”

“If you need the house cleaned while you’re away we’ll get the house cleaned.” Flynn said dismissively. “We’re perfectly competent. And get in any shopping you need, just leave a list.”

“I am not sending you shopping under any circumstances. I’ve got that t shirt.”

“I can shop.” Jasper said peaceably. “If needed.”

“Are we going to fit in a trip out Cheyenne as well?” Riley demanded. Paul thought about it, wincing slightly.

“….The timing is going to be very tight, but we are going to need to. Although at this point they’ll only just be putting out the Christmas stock,”

Flynn shook his head in exasperation. “Why does anyone need ‘Christmas stock’? Can’t this reasonably be done with standard, normal stock such is available for eleven months of the year? How does glitter and red bows in the stores make a difference?”

“Because for certain things yes, I need Christmas stock on the shelves. They don’t stock them all year round.”

“We can probably do most of it in London while we’re there.” Dale suggested. “We’ll have at least two full days. That would just leave the clothes shopping which could wait until New Year if it had to?”

“You mean we get out of going to Cheyenne this year if you go to London?” Riley jerked upright, looking at Flynn. “They’re going. I’ll pack for them right now.”

Flynn shot him a quick grin which earned them both a stern look from Paul.

“This sort of thing is not just Dale’s and my responsibility. You do your fair share of this Riley Hamilton, just like I expect you to do with everything else.”

“Harrods…” Dale said innocently and reflectively to the dresser. “Fortnum and Masons…”

“See?” Riley demanded. “You can try British singing penguins, it’ll be a whole new experience. No one muttering about strollers…. No one demanding to know if we can go home yet…. No one disappearing in the crowds….”

“Regents Street... Covent Garden….”

Paul swatted Dale’s knee and leaned over to swat Riley, who dodged him. “Both of you, stop it. Dale, I’ll bet you’ve never set foot in a single one of those places.

Dale laughed. “I’ve attended several meetings at Harrods. And sent clients to all those places on entertainment packages plenty of times.”

“Ok, I admit it sounds good.”  

“See?” Riley told him, settling back against with his head on Jasper’s knee. “You’re going to love it. All that shopping. In peace. With us right here, not bugging you.”

“All right, all right, it looks like you lot get the year off. Unless you want to come too Ri?”

“Spend a whole day on a plane for a hotel and a lot of shops?” Riley snorted dismissively. “No thank you very much. Dale, are you going to be anywhere near your Grandparents if you’re in London?”
Ouch. Paul looked across at Dale, shocked at the thought. It was apparent from Dale’s calm nod he’d already factored this in.

“Yes, right on the doorstep. I probably ought to visit them while we’re there. I don’t know when I might be in the UK again.”

“And you’re just ok with that? What about your mom and Rupert?” Riley asked warily.

“No.” Dale said with much more finality. “They’re over a hundred and fifty miles north west. There’s no risk of spoiling their Christmas, they’d have no idea I was in the country.”

“Spoiling?” Riley demanded. “What do you mean you’d ‘spoil’ their Christmas if they knew? For frick’s sake -”

“I don’t plan to go anywhere near Shropshire.” Dale gave Riley a faint and Paul thought a reassuring smile. “But my grandparents, yes I should. If Paul and James wouldn’t mind me taking a couple of hours out to see them.”

Should, not want. Riley looked ready to bite. Paul looked swiftly across to Flynn and saw the reflection there of what he felt. Behind Riley, Jasper’s eyes met his calmly, steadily.

We can handle it. Don’t worry.

“You can take all the time you want.” Paul said to Dale, keeping the concern off his face. “They’re elderly, they won’t be there forever, and if you want to meet them in person then this is a good opportunity.”

Jasper dropped a hand on Dale’s shoulder. “Go down and invite James to come with you.”
“If he still doesn’t feel it’s right for him and Niall then you and I will go anyway and represent them at the dedication.” Paul told him. “But I feel the same way you do. If they want to go then they should be able to.”

They heard him head down the stairs. Riley, more or less laying down under Jasper’s quietly and soothingly rubbing hand, still looked ready to snap someone’s head off.

“If any of that bunch of dysfunctional maniacs dares hint to him he’s going to ‘spoil’ anything just because he’s existing too near them-”

“The letters from his grandparents have been fine, they seem decent enough.” Jasper reminded him. “If it’s something he feels he needs to do-”

“There are times he ‘feels he needs to do’ all kinds of crap, including counting fence posts. It doesn’t mean we just let him get on with it.” Riley said very shortly.



James was still seated by the fire downstairs. The room was quieter, most of the conversation was currently going on in the kitchen where the poker game was sounding as if was reaching an exciting phase, but Luath, Lewis and Niall were discussing the merits of Tampa Bay. Aware of the protocol of not asking a Top something he might wish to say no to in front of anyone who might be upset by that refusal- which seemed bizarre to Dale, since no Top of his acquaintance ever said no without good reason, and since it was their call to make it wasn’t exactly logical to mind when they did it - Dale came to stand politely near him, waiting for James to spare his attention from the conversation. James put his glass down and rose unhurriedly, accompanying Dale towards the alcove beside the study. There, out of earshot of the others, Dale put his hands behind his back. James had that effect on almost every family brat, excepting possibly Wade.

“I have permission to ask you, sir. Paul and I will be going to London shortly, I have a board meeting to attend on behalf of ANZ. It will only be a half day commitment, but ANZ will be providing me with a chartered plane, and the dates are within three days of the veterans’ dedication service. We wondered if you and Niall would consider travelling with us and letting us accompany you to the service? It would mean spending a couple of days in London before the day of the dedication.”

James nodded slowly, processing that with little change in his expression. “I see. Would this be a meeting you already had a commitment to, or a meeting that is convenient?”

This was not a man you tried lying to, even lightly by omission, and Dale respected him too much to even consider it. “It’s convenient timing, sir. I just received the information from ANZ this evening, and it seemed like an ideal coincidence. Paul asked me to tell you that he and I will attend the service anyway and be glad to represent you, but we would very much like for you and Niall to be able to be there should you want to.”

“And ANZ don’t feel you and Paul could possibly survive a commercial flight?” James inquired. “I’ve heard rumour of a phenomenon called ‘business class’? Particularly since they will hardly be rushing you on to another continent for your next assignment?”

Dale, who knew that deeply formal tone James used when he was teasing you, gave him an equally politely bland look in return.

“I believe that business class has become quite a well-established practice in some circles, sir. I can find you evidence if it would help?”

“Yes you must do that for me. In my day of course we merely sat next to the rear gunner.”

Dale cracked, unable to swallow the smile any longer. “It’s just more economically viable for ANZ to use their own planes when they have an annual contract in place with flight companies than to purchase tickets, particularly around a holiday. And working at my level carries some compensations. They do take some care for your comfort. It would be no difficulty to order a stopover at Lansing to meet you, and either return you to Lansing or bring you back here with us for Christmas.”

James’s steady look went on for rather a few more seconds than was comfortable. Then he smiled, put a hand on Dale’s shoulder and walked with him towards the stairs.

“Then if I may take some time to think about it, I’ll let you know. Thank you, Dale. This is very kind of you.” The hand on his shoulder moved to encircle his shoulders and James kissed his cheek, warmly and with the affection Dale always felt from this man. “Sleep well.”

Flynn was seated at the top of the stairs waiting for him, and got up to walk with Dale down the hall to their room.

“He wants to talk it through with Niall.” Dale said when they were out of earshot of anyone downstairs.

“And in your opinion?” Flynn prompted.

Judging by James’ stance, facial expression, choice of words… from years of expertly assessing the reception to propositions Dale made the calculations without difficulty.

“2:1 odds on.”

Flynn snagged him by the back of his jeans, turning him around, and Dale folded his arms around Flynn’s neck as Flynn kissed him.

“This is the kind of thing Philip knew how to do for people. I’ve missed it.”

Dale slid his hands gently up into Flynn’s hair and cradled his head as they rested for a moment, forehead to forehead. “Then we do it. It isn’t difficult.”

Flynn snatched another kiss and let him go. “Go use the bathroom before the crowd come up.”

They were undressing for bed when there was a tap at their door and Flynn called over, “Come in?”

Niall was dishevelled from the poker game downstairs but his eyes were reddened and watery and he went directly to Dale, putting both arms around him to hug him tightly, and then freeing an arm to pull Flynn over and kiss his cheek.

“Thank you. Thank you so much.”



*


9th December

They extended the invitation to Wade of course, or rather James asked that they allowed him to do it on their behalf. From which Dale had understood how much James expected it to upset him, and that it would be easier for Wade to hear it from him and easier for him to express a passionate not under any circumstances to James than to them. They had no option but to offer; it was Wade’s right to be asked, but it was not pleasant to know it was likely to upset him. James confirmed the following day that Wade’s response was no thank you – which was very likely edited – and later Luath confirmed quietly to Flynn in Dale’s hearing that he intended to spend those few days they were in England in visiting Wade in Texas. He’d have company to keep his mind off it. There were other options – a phone connection or video link to the service would have been easy enough to arrange for him, but Dale stopped himself suggesting it or trying to broach it any further. It was clear Wade wanted nothing to do with it.

“None of them ever really talk about the war,” Paul told him when they were alone. “Philip told me that they did amongst themselves; it was a case of only the people who had been through it themselves could understand, although I think Wade and Niall probably told Philip bits. I get the impression it was worse for the two of them than for James, but you never know with James if it really was easier or if he just minimises it. James and Niall have been active with the veterans’ association for decades. I know Wade’s a member, Charlie was too; but I don’t know how much he’s ever wanted to participate.”

On a more positive note, when the situation was explained to her, Caroline was her usual and educational self in terms of putting plans into practice, and on request guided Dale swiftly into the realms of finding suitable hotels without a business focus, which was a novelty for both of them.
“Formal, traditional and comfortable.” Dale said when he spoke to her, knowing what James and Niall liked and would feel most at home in, and having learned by experience that in these matters Caroline’s expertise was well worth listening to. Sometimes the skills the family required him to have were those of an excellent PA, and she was a very good coach. “The more traditional the better, but the comfort level matters most. Two of the party are elderly.”

He researched the short list of her suggestions, had no difficulty selecting the Goring in Westminster as the best of the options, and would have gone on to book the two suites there himself had Caroline not very politely but firmly insisted that this was what he paid her for. The other questions she asked him led him to think of a number of other matters all of which added to the ease and the comfort of the trip for James and Niall, and most of which wouldn’t have occurred to him. On his advice she further helped him establish a second and suitable hotel in the location he asked for near to the cathedral for a further two nights, clicking rapidly through screens on her end of the phone and flashing links across to him as she found them.

“I’d recommend that one. That’s about as traditional as it gets, and with history to it if you’re looking to entertain. Paul would love it.”

She was right. With the bookings in hand Dale thanked her and left her to negotiate with hotel receptionists and flight plans, and returned his attention to preparing the house as much as possible before they left.  

By the 13th of December the house was cleaned and the rooms were readied for the guests that would start filling them from around the 20th onwards until after New Year; the linen closet was stocked, the rooms aired and beds were made up for their owners as they arrived. With the record player turning out several of the family favourite albums, Paul turned out batch after batch of things that cooled on racks in the kitchen and went into the big chest freezer in the garage. Stocks and pastries, pies, tarts, sausage rolls, cheese rolls, several different batches of the chutneys and pickles that went with the buffets he usually set out at Christmas. Several fruit cakes which were fed with brandy and put away. Traditional British Christmas puddings, which Paul had been in the habit of making for David and the rest of the family had become accustomed to. On the principle of learning all he could around the traditions and things that mattered to this family Dale had participated in this and learned how to do it from soaking and preparing the fruit to boiling the puddings the traditional way. The rich scents of those filled the house for several days. Paul also went into Jackson to do a large shop for the storables, filling the pantry and garage.

“Which leaves only the fresh stuff which I’ll get when we get back.” he said to Dale, handing him another couple of the shopping bags from the trunk of the four by four in the garage.  “You’re home early. I thought you were planning to shift those fallen trees today?”

“They’re done.” Dale shifted the bags to one arm to take a third, and jumped slightly as Jasper’s hand came past him to take it.

“Yes, I noticed since I came down that way to see if you needed a hand. Garage shelves, Paul?”

“Yes please.” Paul took his bags towards the pantry. Jasper took the bags across to put them on the freezer top and began to put away the large bags of flour, sugar and oats on the shelf above. Dale took the others to stack the cans and cartons with the others on the shelves. He hadn’t heard Jasper come into the yard or the garage, although he was still in his working clothes which meant he hadn’t been home for long. When the bags were empty Dale waited for Jasper to join him and snapped off the garage light, but Jasper unhurriedly took a seat on the garage step, facing him and effectively blocking his way.

“The site was immaculate when I looked. You hadn’t just cut those trees up and moved them, you cleared up too. The way you usually do, which means there was barely a woodchip left.” He watched Dale for a minute from dark eyes, his long hands loosely linked between jeaned knees. “That should have taken you a while. How fast were you working today?”

Where ‘fast’ was known to them both as meaning a variable from ‘efficient’ to ‘burning off nervous energy’ and with the option of passing through ‘compulsive obsessive’ on the way, that was not the innocent question it sounded like.

“…. Fast.” Dale admitted. Jasper nodded slowly, considering.

“You got home a little earlier than usual yesterday, and the day before that.”

Since it was apparent that Jasper wasn’t planning to move from the step, Dale took a seat on the garage floor by him. “Yes, it probably got done a little too fast. Which I know isn’t ideal, but sometimes it’s useful rather than purely obsessive.”

“What’s it useful for? Were you wanting to get home?”

Dale sighed, since Jasper wasn’t going to let it go. “I just like keeping a handle on this stuff. I do actually like the cleaning part of it. I like baking the same things we baked last year and the year before….”

“In fact you like Christmas.” Jasper finished for him calmly. “I know. So do I. Now what part of this aren’t we talking about?”

No answer to that was going to end well. Jasper got up, taking Dale’s hand to help him to his feet.  “Take a seat on the stairs and have a think about that please.”

Think about what precisely? Dale resisted the urge to inquire with exasperation and jumped again, startled at the extremely firm swat that landed on the seat of his jeans as he passed Jasper on the way to the stairs. Single swats from Paul or Flynn tended to be a matter of fact communication of belt up, you’re on thin ice. Jasper’s swats were much rarer, had the knack of somehow stinging like hell for some time, and tended to be less warning and more….

You need to take a look at yourself and what you are doing.

Abashed, Dale took a seat at the foot of the stairs. He’d been there only a few minutes when Riley came out of the kitchen, bare foot, damp haired and fresh out of the shower in clean jeans, heading towards the stairs. Dale moved over to let him by, and Riley leaned on the wall, looking down at him.

“Who did you tick off?”

“Jasper. I got home a little early.”

“That is not why you’re sitting there.” Jasper’s voice said from the kitchen. Riley grinned, sitting down beside Dale to lower his voice, although in Dale’s experience Jasper had ears like a lynx.

“What’s that about?”

It was nearly too embarrassing to talk about. Dale rubbed the bridge of his nose, aware his face was starting to burn even though this was Riley listening.

“…. Working too fast. Intentionally. Not because anything is getting away from me.

But still not a habit he was allowed to indulge in for obvious reasons and they both knew it. Riley did not look or sound approving.

“Why intentionally? And why are you doing stuff like tree hauling for if you want to do it at high speed? I wondered what you were thinking this morning when you said you were going to do it. That was a long job and it could have waited until spring?”

“Because it needs doing.” Dale ducked and yelped as Riley batted him briskly upside the back of his head.

“If you’re going to rush stuff you don’t take fricking chainsaws with you! What’s this about?”

“Nothing important. There are things to be done here that need-”

“You’re stressing in other words.”

“I am not stressing.”

“If you won’t even admit to it and you’re stressing with chainsaws then you fricking need to be on the stairs.”

He had an uncomfortably strong point. Jasper came out of the kitchen and in spite of himself Dale’s stomach dived. Riley got up in response to Jasper’s give us a minute please signal, and went upstairs. Jasper took his place on the stairs beside Dale.

“Well?”

“I did nothing in the least dangerous with a chainsaw or anything else.” Dale said shortly, aware his voice was taking on the tone that Paul called lecturing and which usually meant he was getting unnecessarily defensive. “Fast does not mean inefficient or not careful, and I could recite the heavy cutting tools health and safety manual, not to mention write them an updated version including the legislation on-”

Jasper leaned on his knees, steepling his long hands between them. “I’m wondering if you’re worried the house won’t be ready before you to go to London. Or if you’re worried about helping Paul out with his work as well as do yours because you think the trip is overloading him. Or whether you’re trying to distract yourself because you’re worried about Wade, or your grandparents. And those would all be things you need to be talking about.”

“He doesn’t know, Jas; he’s just stressing.” Riley commented irritably from the landing, walking past as he pulled a clean sweater on. “Way too much leash.”

“I am perfectly competent to manage a few days in another country the way I have done plenty of times before for most of my working life,” Dale said acidly before he could stop himself. Riley leaned against the wall to put his socks on.

“Yeah, because now is exactly the same as then, and you never start missing us to the point you leave the state, or anything like that, do you? This is knee deep bullshit and you know it because you want to fight about it. How many times did you shave this morning?”

“Fair comment.” Jasper agreed. “Is there anything repetitive you need to tell us about?”

No.” Dale pulled himself together and answered that properly. “No sir, there isn’t.”

“Would you call this acting in?”

There were serious down sides to living with a psychologist. Dale took a deep breath, aware Jasper was giving him a chance to pull this together, fast, and he needed to take it.

“…….strictly speaking, maybe. Not intentionally to cover anything up, I just intended to be here and available to…..”

“Help.” Riley supplied. “AKA ‘doing most of everything’, because taking over the universe makes you feel better. Temporarily.”

Dale let out a sharp sigh, knowing that infuriatingly, Riley had nailed it. He doesn’t really know. Too much leash and he’s stressing.

Grrrrr.

“….I’m possibly more wound up than I’d realised. Nothing specifically that I can think of.”
“Ok.” Jasper said evenly. “Acting in sits where?”

“Level two.” Dale admitted. “Although that seems a bit drastic? That is it, there is nothing else happening. I’m sleeping fine, eating fine.”

“Controlling the universe fine, warp speed with chainsaws fine…” Riley muttered on the landing. Jasper ignored him.

“Good. Then we’ll try a couple of days at level two and see if that helps you settle down. Bring me the books from your room. We’ll let the others know at dinner.”

Damnit.

Dale headed upstairs, with the very mixed feelings that a drop in levels usually raised in him. He’d written a lot of the levels plan himself. It worked and it helped. It was something he and Riley and Tom had spent a lot of time considering, and there were only a few bits that Flynn and the others had felt they needed to add, but that didn’t always make it easier. Riley was still at the top of the stairs and his expression mostly said I’m mad at you, and you needed that, but I’m still sorry you’re in trouble.

It was a dichotomy that both of them had to deal with at different times: knowing well what another brat needed, especially when it came to each other, but knowing too how it felt to be on the receiving end. Riley followed him down the hall to his and Flynn’s room, watching him gather up the spy thriller and the international law text book from the night stand. One of the key rules of level two, which boiled down in essence to ‘stop everything and focus on calming down, right now’, was light reading only, and neither of these would pass.

“You know there’s probably easier ways to get what you want?” Riley said behind him.

“I didn’t ‘want’ anything.”

“Other than a whole lot more supervision.”  

Argh. Flynn, Jasper and Paul, and Riley too, were quite clear: there was a complicated relationship between stress and behaviour, and a drop in levels didn’t necessarily equate to him doing anything wrong, or any failure on his part. To anyone that didn’t know him, this would seem an over the top response to a minor thing, but stamping on the embers of the early stuff worked well to stop the bigger stuff producing random towering infernos. Riley grabbed him in the doorway and gave him a hard, annoyed hug.

Leaving the ranch this close to Christmas, a trip that’s important for important people, is probably ‘stuff’. Meeting family you’ve never actually laid eyes on before is probably also ‘stuff’.

Memo. Grip. Get one.  

Dale returned the hug, long enough and close enough that he felt Riley relax a little.

“Are you going to be ok doing this?” Riley muttered. Dale held on to him, saying it and meaning it.

“Yes. I am. Don’t worry. It will be ok.”

Jasper was waiting on the landing and took the books from him.

“Thank you. Go choose yourself something light from your shelf in Paul’s room, and come have a bath with me.”

Neck deep in hot water in Jasper’s arms, the afternoon started to look a lot better. And Jasper was very good at getting comfortable and then just letting quiet fill the room. There was never a need to find words to talk or to entertain him, and he had the knack of soaking them both in steady, good energy which meshed with Dale’s in a way he could watch if he relaxed his eyes, and which tended to drag his own system back into regulation. They’d been there a while when Paul tapped at the door and brought two mugs of tea across to them, stooping to drop a firm and admonitory kiss on Dale’s mouth as he put the mugs in their reach.

“Flynn and I just had a very interesting conversation with Riley. What’s this we’re hearing about chainsaws?”

“I did not do anything remotely inappropriate with a chainsaw.” Sitting up precluded by Jasper’s arms around him which weren’t moving, Dale watched Paul take a seat on the edge of the bath and pull the phone from his pocket.

“Well that’s a plus. Let’s get some stress off you right now please. Ring your grandparents and see if they’re free on the sixteenth at eleven thirty.”

“I wrote to them.” Dale protested. Paul handed him the phone.

“Yes. And you know and I know you’re going to sweat until you get their letter, so let’s get it over with. Date, time, you and I will be free for an hour if they don’t mind us dropping in. If you enjoy it and it goes well then we can always talk about a couple more visits before we leave, but we’ll start with this one and see how you feel about it first.”

“This trip is not going to revolve around…” Dale trailed off with some irritation and Paul nodded, putting a hand down to touch his face.

“- your bloody family. That’s what you want to say isn’t it? I know. We’re going for James and Niall, and this is just a side line. It’s fine honey. But this is my decision, not yours, and I’ve made it. Ring and ask please.”

It was nine pm in England, which was late to ring, but Paul clearly wasn’t going to debate it. And glancing up, Dale took in Flynn, leaning against the door frame with his arms folded and an expression that said they were going to be talking about this later.

And let’s face it. If you’re afraid to ring them then how can you seriously consider meeting them face to face?

He knew the number. They’d shared it well over a year ago when they first began to communicate by letter, but he’d never used it.

This is a minor thing. An hour’s visit. That’s all.

“Ring.” Paul repeated firmly when he didn’t dial. Dale gave him an exasperated look.

“I’m naked in the bloody bath, I don’t exactly feel prepared.”

“Sweetheart there won’t be a moment when you do feel prepared and I’m not going to watch you chew yourself up. Ring, right now.”

Bossy bloody Americans with no sense of propriety. Since Jasper still wasn’t letting him move, arguing with Paul was difficult at the best of times and Flynn was looking more purposeful by the second, Dale dialled and tried to draw a proper breath, slightly shocked at the fact he could feel his hand shaking slightly and the growing sense of apprehension that was evolving from the nagging discomfort of the last few days to active …. Fear. Which was so stupid. And meant Riley had it nailed; this was heavy on his mind.

They are nice people. You’ve written to them many times. You like them. They are hardly going to bite you. And this is an hour, in a few days that is about James and Niall, it’s just one hour of duty.

The phone ringing nearly made him irrationally switch the phone off. It was answered by a male British voice.

“Hello?”

“Good evening.” Dale reached for any kind of normal tone and winced as he heard his work voice snap into the breach, as even and calm as the other man’s. “This is Dale Aden. I wonder if I might-”

Dale?” the man sounded shocked but the tone was unmistakeable, it was no unpleasant shock. “This is Richard. Hello, it’s nice to hear your voice.”

What the hell did you say to that? Dale held onto the phone, aware that Jasper’s arms had tightened around him and one hand on his torso was rubbing slowly, soothingly. Across the room Flynn’s eyes caught and held his, and the dark green could be intensely, unbelievably kind in that gruff face.

You can do this. It’s going to be fine.  

“I’m sorry to ring you so late. I was calling to say, I have a work meeting coming up in London, early on the sixteenth. There is a letter on the way to you asking too, but it was – it seemed better to ring you directly. I wondered if Paul and I might drop in to see you afterwards, about eleven thirty that day if you were free?”

“Yes of course, we’d be delighted. Can we give you lunch?”

Dale glanced to Paul who shook his head with far more decision than Dale could summon up. Cued and relieved, Dale took a deep breath and found some words.

“No, thank you, we’ll only be able to stay an hour, but it would be very nice to see you if…”
His invention ran out there and he trailed off. The man’s voice was gentle.

“We’d be delighted. You know how to find us?”

“Yes, yes thank you.”

“Then we’ll look forward very much to seeing you on the sixteenth at eleven thirty.”

“Thank you sir. Good night.”

The man sounded far kinder than such an incoherent lot of babbling deserved. “Goodnight Dale. Thanks for ringing.”

“Well done.” Paul took the phone as Dale ended the call. “Now focus on settling down and let that go. If you’re wondering if we can manage to stay at level two the whole time we’re away if necessary then yes, I’m fine with that. Don’t look so shocked, it wouldn’t surprise James and Niall in the slightest. This is a family affair, not a work one and we have you covered.”



*



15th December

They left the ranch before two am on the fifteenth for the drive out to Jackson airport, since the snow on the landing strip precluded a jet coming directly to them. It meant saying goodbye to Flynn, Jasper and Riley at the airport door since they were met there by a uniformed person with a clipboard intent on whisking them away as fast as possible. They were zoomed through a silent and deserted side route, led out onto tarmac in sharp wind, and there a jet was waiting for them. Once they were up in the dark sky and the flight attendant had come to ensure they, or more specifically Dale, were comfortable and didn’t require food, coffee, phone or internet connections, access to any flight information or a conversation with the pilot, Paul took a look around the cabin that stretched into two separate rooms; the seating area they were currently occupying with two armchairs side by side on either side of a table, and the other a large sitting room area which included two long couches, television screens, separate armchairs with reading lamps on tables beside them, and enough floor space for a small yoga class. In terms of giving James and Niall space enough to sleep, to lay down if they chose, to walk around and to effectively spend the flight in a sitting room, it was perfect.


“I had no idea they made planes this furnished,” he said to Dale, who looked around at the cabin as though he hadn’t thought about it.

“I specified what I wanted. I’ve travelled in planes with fully equipped board rooms separate to the seating and dining areas, but this seemed the most comfortable of the options they had.”

To him it was normal to the point of boring. And he was quietly but sharply alert in the way he got when he was running a mission, which said a lot about the mindset he was in. Flynn had had a pretty firm word with him in the carpark, Paul had heard parts of it; it was very rarely that Flynn couldn’t get Dale’s head exactly where he needed to get it and calm him down. Paul reached past him to pull the shades down over the window beside them and found the gadget to tip back the large, soft armchairs that he and Dale were seated side by side in.

“Ok hon. Put your chair back and let’s make up some of the sleep we’re losing.”

They’d made three of these trips over the past year together, on each occasion heading out to a business crisis somewhere that would involve tense meetings. Enough that Paul had established they slept through as much of night flights as was possible and could be fitted around any necessary research, and that travelling was nothing strange or separate from their daily life but as normal as anything else together. Flynn had done the same a few months back when he and Dale went out to Alabama and Flynn had made him take a commercial flight.

“Don’t give him an inch.” Flynn had muttered into Paul’s ear as they said goodbye. It had made Paul hug him a little harder. It was not easy for Flynn to step back and watch them go, and Riley wasn’t exactly happy either. The addition of Dale’s grandparents in London was a complication and it was more on Dale’s mind than he was letting himself think about. They’d all read the letters that Dale had shared with them; there was no doubt in Paul’s mind that Mr and Mrs Aden senior were decent people who would make the same effort for Dale in person that they took over their letters.

But if they’re cold… If they ask a lot of questions…. If they drag up some of the hard stuff, or criticise Olivia…. Even us being in London with a plan to see them is a return to the scene of the crime.

Paul pushed those thoughts away with an effort, and instead worked on dozing in the warm, quiet cabin with the comfort of Dale’s weight against him.

As they came into land at Lansing airport in bright winter sunshine the flight attendant came to inform Dale that the car was waiting, the weather was cold but fine with no delays expected and their take off slot was allocated. All this was rattled out as if it was urgent to guarantee to him that there would be no hold ups or mistakes. Dale thanked her as courteously as he always did anyone he worked with, which didn’t intimidate her any less. He wasn’t doing it on purpose, he wasn’t even aware of doing it. This was simply Dale with his mind on the game, and Paul gave the woman a smile with sympathy as she passed him.

A limousine was waiting on the tarmac and someone in a suit with a clipboard promptly got out, waiting until the flight crew had the steps down before they opened the car door and ushered the two figures in heavy coats across to the plane. Dale went down to meet them, Paul saw him jog across the tarmac to instruct the chauffeur with the suitcases as James hustled Niall up the steps. He still looked thin to Paul. Niall was bird boned and always had been but the flu bout had taken a lot out of him this winter. His cheeks were bright with the cold as Paul hugged him.

“Good morning! How bad was the snow as you left?”

“Only a foot or so, it’s not been that heavy yet. Good morning,” Paul kissed James, watching him help Niall out of his heavy coat. “Have you been waiting long?”

“Ten minutes?” Niall took a seat as the flight attendant collected coats and scarves. “It’s all been typically Daled. The car picked us up at the door, they’ve looked horrified at any suggestion we should walk anywhere or carry anything, and we were whooshed through security. Well this is luxury, isn’t it? Hello love.” He held out both arms to Dale as Dale let himself in through the cabin door and left it to the flight attendant to lock up behind him. “Thank you so much for doing this, are you having to swot up for your meeting?”

“I did the reading before we left the ranch, there wasn’t much.” Dale returned his hug warmly. “I know the situation there quite well and it’s mostly a case of them briefing me. Good morning sir.”

“Hello.” James kissed Dale and took the seat next to Niall’s, facing Dale and Paul. “This is even larger than the one you took us to New York in, Dale. Are you expecting to host a dinner party on the way?”

“Not at all sir,” Dale told him politely. “Only the rear gunner.”

James laughed, so did Niall, and Paul relaxed a little, settling into the seat next to Dale’s.

They ate smoked salmon and scrambled eggs over Toronto, talked and read as they passed over Canada, and Paul noticed Dale watching the land below them out of the window as the coast came into sight.

“Where’s this? Do you know?”

“This is New Brunswick.” Dale indicated the shape of the coastline which clearly meant something to him. “David would have travelled through here. We’re not that far from Nova Scotia.”

Not somewhere he had ever been, although David had talked about it often. Paul looked with him as they reached open blue sea. They were following the path that David had taken on his way to America.


*


The flight attendant brought them lunch over the Atlantic, and Dale and Paul withdrew to the seating area section to let James and Niall rest on the couches, which Niall joked about just being a case of James wanting him to shut up for a while. It wasn’t James however who fell asleep within a few moments, and Paul saw James watching as Niall dozed.

He hasn’t recovered as well as you’d like, has he? He’s no better now really than he was at Thanksgiving.

Beside him he saw Dale watching too, and reached for his hand to distract him before James saw them.

“Pass me my book, love?”

Dale collected it, lowering his voice as he sat down again.

“Is it warm enough in here?”

“Yes, plenty. We’ll let them rest and hopefully they’ll both get some sleep.” Paul opened his book, settling into the depth of the armchair. They read while James and Niall dozed, and watched the gradual change in light towards dusk. It was past nine pm in UK time when they landed at Heathrow in pitch darkness. An airport official with a British accent Paul didn’t recognise came on board and talked rapidly with Dale as he sorted through their paperwork and passports, cleared them and wished them a pleasant stay, and the flight attendant took them down the steps into drizzling, windy darkness on the tarmac to the waiting car. There was just under an hour’s drive into London, an hour of freeway, busy streets and bridges brightly lit with Christmas decorations, and the car drew up outside a Georgian style red brick and white windowed building with a uniformed doorman who came to open the car door. Dale gave instructions to the driver and the doorman and two more red uniformed men who came out to take the cases from the trunk. Keen to get them out of the wind, Paul guided James and Niall up the steps into the warmth of a black and white floor tiled lobby with crystal chandeliers overhead, art deco styled paintings on the wall panels and a large, white open fireplace by red velvet armchairs where a Christmas tree was decorated in dark purple and silver. Dale went to the desk and spoke to the receptionist, Paul watched him check and sign several documents there, and then two of the red uniformed men took them up a dark wooden bannistered staircase, showing James and Niall to one room along the hall and then Paul to another. The room was a sizeable one. Two windows looked down into a garden, two green armchairs stood by the windows by a table with a tall vase filled with fresh flowers, and a tall king sized bed in a wooden frame held a matching green quilt and several satin cushions scattered against the pillows. A writing desk and wardrobe matched the Georgian style of the room. Glancing through the doorway of the ensuite, Paul raised his eyebrows at the free standing bath and a large marble counter with two sinks, more fresh flowers and a rack of towels. Dale spoke to the uniformed man who brought their cases in, and closed the door as he left.

“Their room’s warm and I think they’ll be comfortable. The hotel is bringing them up a tray of tea. James says not to worry about checking on them again, they’re going straight to bed.”

“Good. I don’t want to fuss over them, but they must be exhausted.”

“You’re worried about Niall.”

“I think he’s looking fragile.” Paul admitted. “It’s hard for him not to work when they’re at home, I know. Consulting requests come in almost all the time and it’s not things that can wait. I’m hoping being here with a complete change of scene helps. This is beautiful, Dale.” Paul went to look out from the widows, distracted by the thrill of this being London. The walled garden showed a green lawn and shrubbery, and the pots of winter flowers against the windows were illuminated by the hotel lights. “Did you order tea for us too?”

“Yes. Is there anything else you’d like?”

He was itching to unpack; Paul recognised the signs and stepped firmly in front of him.

No. You’re not organising me my lad. I know when you’re tense, and you’re not assuming command while we’re here.

“No, I think we’ll do the same as the others and turn in.” Paul opened the smaller of the two cases which he’d packed with what they’d need for the night. “We’ll leave most of the unpacking for tomorrow. Just put those suits on a hanger in the wardrobe love, or they’ll crease horribly.”

“James knows I need to be at the meeting for nine. He said they’ll have breakfast here in the restaurant when they get up and they’re planning on a quiet morning in the hotel. I suspect he means he is planning a quiet morning in the hotel, I’m not sure Niall’s been consulted.” Dale unpacked the suit he would need for his meeting and deftly fitted it on a hanger in the large wardrobe, then began to add the other formal clothes they had brought with them. “I wish you’d stay here with them. I don’t like to leave them alone their first morning.”

“Not a hope.” Paul said firmly. “I’ll set the alarm for seven; that should give us plenty of time. James and Niall were travelling in Europe before you and I were born. They’re very competent, they don’t need nursemaiding.”

“And I do?”

Paul glanced up and smiled at him. “In meetings, always. Go get ready for bed sweetheart.”

A tray holding a large tea pot, cups and saucers, sugar bowl and milk jug was brought into the room while Dale was in the bathroom. Paul poured two cups and picked up the phone, finding an outside line. It was four pm in Wyoming by his calculations, generally the time when they would be making the most of the last of the daylight outside to finish the day’s work. He waited while it rang until it went to messages.

“Hi, it’s us. We’re here. It’s been a long day so we’re pretending it isn’t four in the afternoon and going to bed, we’ll call you tomorrow. Love you, sleep well.”


*


Neither of them slept much. Dale spent a while watching the drizzle running down the window pane in the faint light from the garden below, aware that it was reaching two am their time, which made it seven pm time at home. Paul turned over for the fourth time in several minutes which made Dale strongly suspect he was stiff from the long hours travelling, but this time he put out a hand to snap the bedside light on.

“I don’t think this is working, is it? I can still feel the vibration of the plane.”

“Can I get you anything?” Dale slid a hand over to rub Paul’s neck where he suspected the stiffness was worst. Paul shifted gladly to accommodate him.

“No, I think it’s just jetlag and too much sitting time today. I feel in need of a walk and some fresh air, come on. We might as well go out and have a look around as lay here.”

A few staff in the lobby nodded and smiled at them as they went out through the main door. It felt surprisingly warm outside for December having left snow this morning, and having had snow on the ground much of the time since early November this year. Paul turned his collar up against the rain, which was light and slow enough to not really be rain so much as mildly annoying, and Dale led them to the right, down the short, quiet street to a main thoroughfare with a long dark building taking up the whole of the opposite side of the street. Some barred arched windows occupied parts of the street level floor with proper windows starting above. Doorways and a high wall sheltering a yard continued to take up the whole of that side of the pavement. On the other side where they were walking, most shops were closed up but a couple still had lights on.

“That’s the back of the Royal mews.” Dale commented as they walked by. “Coaches, horses, cars. This is a part of the palace.”

“Really? It doesn’t look palace-like? More like somewhere Oliver Twist lived.” Keeping their pace at a relaxed and steady one, Paul walked with him around the corner to a street named Buckingham Palace road, where the shops to their right suddenly became considerably larger and posher, and the gloomy building wall suddenly opened up into a large gated yard where lions guarded pillars above the black wrought iron gates and a clock tower entrance to a much grander section of building was visible across the yard. The road curved on past a high stone wall and in the distance through a thick cluster of trees, an ornate white building came into view.


“That’s the palace.” Dale walked with him on down the road past the shops and passing cars until the road widened out to their left, changed from grey asphalt to something of a pinkish hue and the grimy streets suddenly fell away, giving place to wide green lawns and black railings with gold topping. The palace was clearly visible now through the railings, and was unmistakeably palace-like. Paul stood in front of it for a minute, taking in the view. They passed ornate gates in front of the palace itself, and as the road widened out into a huge open space a very large white marble monument was visible in front of them with the base surrounded by white statues and the top holding a golden statue. An angel. As they got closer Paul saw the angel was standing above a crowned woman seated on a throne and paused to look up into her face.

“Queen Victoria?”

“Yes. That’s the Victoria memorial. And Green Park beyond it in front of us, and St James park to the right. St James Palace is over that way behind the trees.”

The sense of history here was tangible. Something occurred to Paul and he tore his eyes of the face of Victoria.

“You’re well versed in this. I didn’t think you knew London that well?”

“I know the main business offices, that’s all really. But this is one of the most well known and most photographed bits of London.” Dale paused for a moment to look at the palace windows in rows beyond the railings. “And I didn’t live far from here as a child. My father was with the Lifeguards, which is a division of the household cavalry. Horse Guards parade ground is on the far side of St James park over there.”

Seriously?!

Not prepared for that much of a shock, Paul followed his gaze, trying to gauge distance. “We’re that close?”

“About a fifteen minutes walk.”

Oh lord. They were staying in a hotel across a park from that house.

Paul thought rapidly, cursing himself for not thinking of this and checking. London seemed, from the safe distance of Wyoming, a vast place and he’d assumed – we all assumed – they were well away from anywhere that familiar to him.

But he knew. And he chose to be here. He’ll have thought of this. The best approach was usually to ask him straight out.   

“Do you want to go and see it?”

Dale paused for a moment, looking at the park across the road. “No. There’s nothing there I need.”



*



The mares weren’t bothered by snow. They were happy enough to come to the feeding stations but most of them would patiently scrape back the snow to find the grass too where they could. The corral and paddock horses wore coats, but the risk of letting the wild horses roam with straps and cloth to snag was too great. Instead Bandit led them in between the rocks and into the woods for shelter, and they pressed close in groups for warmth.

At the edge of Mustang Hill, Dale looked down from the cliff at the circle of mares and the now six month old foals gathered together where the river was wide and shallow and they could drink. It was fast flowing despite the snow, and would stay clear for a few days. Flynn, one booted foot braced on the rock beside him, leaned out to check the ones closest to the cliff face. They were all there. All together with no difficulties in sight that Dale could see. A huff behind them made him turn, and Flynn straightened up as Bandit walked through the trees towards them. He must have followed them up from the pasture. He came to stand in front of Flynn and for a moment the two of them looked at each other in the way Dale loved and had seen them do so often, man and stallion eye to eye. Then Flynn rubbed his nose and walked past him to join Dale on the path. Bandit followed them down through the trees. The snow was thinner and softer here, mounded over the heaps of leaves and greenery and their boots crunched as they walked.

“Tell me about the boats.” Flynn pushed a snow laden branch aside and held it back for Dale to follow him. “The invasion landings, I took a quick look at the veterans’ site.”



“I’ve never seen the ports on the south coast. There were a number of them all the way along, with the main ones around Southampton.” Dale followed him through the woods to where Hammer and Leo were waiting patiently in the shelter of the trees. “The first invasion was the Normandy landings. American troops amassed at camps in England over weeks – probably months – and they were transported down to their allocated ports to board the boats. Hundreds of boats going back and forth. About 132,000 men went over on D day. Niall went a few weeks later in the second invasion to southern France. It was his division that liberated Dachau, the concentration camp.”

“That part I know about.” Flynn said grimly. “There’s a few books on it in the study that Philip owned. Jasper and I read them years ago.” He ran his hand over Leo’s ears, checking their warmth, then pulled a thermos from his saddle bag. Dale watched him gulp hot tea from the cup which steamed. “It’s unimaginable. What they must have seen and had to deal with, it makes me…”

Yes. Having seen some things in third world countries, the wreckage of war, the military and humanitarian operations struggling, Dale had some knowledge of it. But from within a suit, while well fed, clean and protected. An observer. When he left for London tomorrow morning it would still be as an observer to the people who truly knew, but at least an informed one.

Flynn handed him the half full cup and Dale swallowed the rest of it, leaning one arm across Hammer’s wide back. They were damned lucky to be here. Safe and alive, and together. It was another reason they owed it to James and Niall to make this trip work for them, and to Wade too even if he chose not to have to participate. Flynn leaned beside him, easing off his gloves in a way that caught Dale’s eye. Then a very certain hand found its way under his jacket, explored the waistband at the back of his jeans, and Dale rose slightly on his toes as it found its way slowly lower. Flynn knew every spot on him, he had an unerring internal map and he knew the exact places to… his knees nearly gave way despite Hammer’s support and Flynn’s arm caught him, steadying him and taking some of his weight. Dale heard his silent laugh against the back of his neck, Flynn’s warm breath on his cheek and the gentle brand of his mouth starting to softly lip around the edge of his ear. He would have got a hand back to get hold of whatever part of Flynn he could in return. Except that hand began to move, expertly, while Flynn supported him right where he was against Hammer, and conscious thought and coherence and in fact anything else at all became impossible to think about. When he finally got it together enough to twist around and find Flynn’s mouth they were both breathing hard, their breath steaming in the freezing air, and the soft snorts of the horses in the silence of the pure white, snow covered wood.

“Keep that in mind while you’re in Europe,” Flynn said in his ear when they paused for air. “And I’ll finish it properly when you get back.”

Oh yes. No matter what else happened in London, it was going to be very difficult to get his mind completely off that promise or what the mere thought of it did to him.

Dale stirred, turning over in the darkness of the deep and soft hotel bed against Paul’s back and oriented for a moment. The clock stood at four thirty am on the bedside table. They’d come back at least more tired from the walk, but it was still irritating to see hours left in bed to go. With an effort he settled himself to doze again, losing himself in images of Flynn and the snowy woods at home.
And somehow he was turning off a bathroom light, finding his way back to a bed angled differently to his and Paul’s, and settling under covers against a chest that was harder and thinner than Paul’s.

“Go back to sleep.” James’ voice said in his ear. Dale felt himself curl up deeper against the chill of the room and Niall’s voice answered from his mouth.

“Not tired.”

“You are, you’re just too tired to feel it. Lay still.”

“I wonder if room service do tea at this hour? I’m serious, I’m cold.”

James sighed, but Dale felt him shift and pick up the phone beside the bed.

“I hope the others are getting a better night,” Niall’s voice said reflectively as James finished ordering and put the phone back. “What time are they meeting Dale’s family?”

“Paul’s plan was for around eleven thirty. It’s his grandparents I think. I didn’t like to ask questions, we know it’s a bit of a sensitive area. I said we’d find our own breakfast and have a quiet morning.”

“James. We’re in London. There’s about a hundred places I’d like to go.”

“Yes. And we shall start by appreciating a London bed, and a London restaurant for breakfast, and then the lounge or this room and its view.”

“Vacation in bed. Seriously?”

There was a tap at the door and James rolled to his feet, pulling his dressing gown on. “Relatively seriously, yes. That sounds like your tea.



16th December

Dale was awake before the alarm. They showered and Dale took the work suit out of the wardrobe, mechanically finding his way into the very pale but still somehow clear aqua shirt that Paul had packed. Paul came to look over his shoulder as he hesitated over the silk tie that had been put with it. A bright, strong royal blue, but with widely spaced and very thin stripes of equally bright orange and aquamarine.

“I put in the silver one.”

“Yes. Because your plan is to fade into the background.” Paul took it from him, settling the tie around his collar. “It doesn’t work. You can’t fade anywhere, and you’re anything but a boring or cold person, You look a whole lot more yourself in colours and clothes that match you than you do if you try to hide.”

It was a bizarre theory, but Dale had to admit he’d proved it. “And you’re right. I’ve seen the effect, I agree. But does it really have to involve orange?”

“This morning, yes.” Paul said firmly.

“It started with purple shirts….” Dale said darkly, watching him fasten the tie. Paul laughed.

“And it was all downhill from there. See? On you, that looks perfectly professional. Just not scarily so. And it balances your eyes and how dark you are, otherwise you start looking like a column of black.”

“Well Tom calls me the Angel of Death.”

“You’re not going to have to do anything grim today.” Paul slipped his arms around Dale’s waist and kissed him. “Take a deep breath and relax. We are going to be fine. You’re good at these kind of meetings too, I know you are. Now unmake that bed and let’s go get breakfast.”

“I like the room tidy.”

“I know you do.” Paul gave him a mild swat towards the bed. “And with an orange tie and an unmade bed this morning you’re going to feel a lot better.”

That would have been insane coming from anyone but Paul, but it was in its own uniquely weird way, very true. Dale took a seat at a table in the restaurant downstairs and Paul ordered for them both, which was another way he discreetly lifted away stress. And he knew without asking that eating this morning was not going to be easy, and that poached eggs on toast and orange juice were light enough to at least try.

They’d discussed levels the night before he and Paul left. After the working at high speed issue, Jasper had kept him on two for a couple of days before shifting him up to three, and the discussion had led to a unanimous vote of him staying on three throughout the trip. While level four, which pretty much boiled down to life as usual with no more specific or additional supervision or measures than Riley had, was the ideal, it was normal too that any time he was away from home, or working on anything high stress at home, it was an automatic level three situation. And while part of him was annoyed at his own lack of competence to reach and stay on four no matter what – something Flynn had got firm about several times - another part of him was emphatic that it helped in multiple ways. Not least that he liked structure, he liked the stability of knowing exactly what to do and why. But what helped most was that it was straight forward open knowledge between all of them. You are under stress, and we handle this together. So we’re going to stick to this level of rules and limits, you know exactly where you stand and what you need to do, and that’s how it’s going to be today.

Leash, as Riley would put it. It would have driven Riley insane. To him…

Yeah, well you like your pie charts.

He could almost hear Riley’s teasing, and the sheer acuteness of missing Riley tightened his throat for a moment. Across the table Paul was eating poached eggs too, relaxed in a dark navy sweater over a shirt that matched his eyes. Neat, smart casual wear that suited him well and made him look like any other PA. It was a role he’d played more than once, doing nothing more than quietly and competently handing Dale anything he needed, but mostly just being there. Flynn had done the same in a New York office with Luath just over a year ago, although a whole lot less discreetly and much more in a Flynn sort of way.

Casually so Paul wouldn’t notice, Dale glanced at his watch. Seven thirty am British time. Shortly after midnight in Wyoming. Flynn and Riley would be asleep. Jasper would more likely be out somewhere in the darkness and the snow, maybe in the woods where the snow made everything silent and lit the shadows under the moonlight and turned his eyes to liquid black...

If you don’t get it together you’re headed for trouble.

And that meant making a serious attempt to eat, to stop hiding it and to talk rather than shut those thoughts away. Dale took a discreet breath and drained the glass of orange juice, forcing a slightly tight stomach to accept it.

“I have a ridiculous urge to ring Flynn.”

“You know he wouldn’t find it ridiculous at all?” Paul didn’t sound surprised. “If you want to call him then call him darling, he’ll be glad to talk to you.”

“They need to sleep and I’m all right. Just….” Dale trailed off. Paul leaned over the table to catch his gaze, his eyes very soft.

“Now stop it. Anybody, and I mean anybody sane and normal, would be beyond proud that you were theirs. My grandmother and mother would have adored you. I’ve read the letters from your grandparents. Do you think we would let you walk into this without being clear if we thought you were walking into a rough situation?”

No. They wouldn’t discourage but they certainly would do everything they could to prepare him. Paul was waiting for him to think about it. Dale sighed, hard, putting his fork down and ceasing to pretend that he could eat.

“I am not good at this kind of thing. I don’t know how to do it and I hate not knowing. The meeting this morning? Easy. I know exactly what to say and what to look for. I know how to make sure we shop for whatever you want to this afternoon, I know how to get James and Niall to the cathedral and help them through that however they want, I’ll figure that out if it kills me, and that is easy. That’s what I came here to do.”

But this…..?

“Of course it’s not easy, it’s a complete unknown.” Paul reached for his hand across the table and held on to it. “You like to know what’s coming, and we don’t. That’s hard. I know sweetheart, we’ve talked about this. I’m right here, and it does not cost James and Niall or anyone else if we make this visit. I can’t promise you it’s going to be ok but I can promise you we’re going to do it together. Come on. If you can’t eat then let’s go for a walk, that’ll help.”

Outside, Paul slipped an arm through his and they walked the same route they had last night, past the palace and into the wide green space of the park, and it did help. Being outside and moving always did. The trees were bare, but the wet grass stretched between the paths and avenues. Softer, more muted green than at home, in more muted light.

“Good grief, that’s a pelican.” Paul said in surprise as they encountered one walking on the grass by the lake side, unperturbed by the joggers and the occasional cyclist passing by. Dale nodded, unmoved by it.  

“Yes. There’s a colony of them. The park was a menagerie originally. King James had camels and crocodiles here, and Green Park over that way was a swamp and a burial ground for the lepers at St James hospital. I remember someone telling me that.”

“Do you know who?”

“No. Not my mother. Possibly the housekeeper, I don’t know.”

But being very small, walking hand in hand with someone tall, with a skirt on in a green space very like this, probably less than a mile from here – oddly enough, that part he remembered very clearly. Through the trees he caught a glimpse of a man with wild hair, tall, in a long dark coat, looking directly at him with intensely bright blue eyes.

David.

In London, standing in St James’ park.

Well that wasn’t too much of a surprise. Location didn’t matter so much to David; he seemed to go more or less where Dale did in Dale’s experience. The connection was between the two of them rather than to a specific place.

If there are lepers around here or what-crocodiles needing help then can they please hang on until this afternoon? Or this evening? The schedule this morning is a little busy.  

Dale met those eyes with some exasperation – that melted fast at David’s expression. The look wasn’t his usual impatient demand to come do something useful. It was compassion and it was almost – anger. Protective anger, it was an expression Dale had seen in Flynn’s face before now, and Riley’s.  Beyond David, Dale saw the brief flash of a very small boy walking hand in hand with a woman down the avenue. Paul’s hand squeezed gently on his arm.

“What?”

“Yes.”

“Ah.”

The direction David was standing in was the obvious one.

Oh it was ridiculous to be afraid of it. Pieces. Pieces to collect. Even the ones you did not want still had to be collected. It was seven fifty one am. They had more than enough time. Dale drew a deep, slow breath, looking at another large, white pelican perched on one of the park benches as they passed it. The pelican looked back at him, unimpressed.

“The house. I think I have to. It’s this way.”

He knew the way from memorised maps and routes, not from memory, although he must have walked it plenty of times. Right out of the park, across a road and up a narrow alleyway by a tall white stone building with pillars and along a road built high on either side with terraces of large, high houses with the familiar stone steps, black railings, white window frames and window boxes. Paul walked with him in silence, around the corner into a small, curving and quiet road. The house looked much the same from the outside as he remembered. A black front door up the stairs, shiny and freshly painted, with an arched window above. Tall windows over the four storeys above the street. Black railings sheltering the open yard below the street and the windows that opened into the kitchen, scullery and the house keeper’s rooms. He looked up at it and felt…. Very little at all. It was just a house.

There was nothing left to be found here.



*


The meeting passed swiftly and he was able to lose himself in it to the point where no other thoughts intruded. The British ANZ office team was a small one, they were welcoming, well organised, keen to show him their work at its best, and his rapid scan through the data and files he examined gave no cause for concern. They made Paul welcome; Paul never had difficulty in knowing how to put people at their ease. He would have waited in the outer office with the reception staff, he waited for Dale’s cue and invitation and Dale appreciated it, but any meeting with Paul at the table with him and Paul’s eyes to meet as he wanted was a far more pleasant one.

At eleven am they left the building in Westminster and there the distraction of the meeting left him and ice hit his stomach hard. Paul signalled to a cab, putting a gentle hand on his arm to guide him.
“Let’s go. What’s the address honey?”

It was a wide square in Belgravia, not far away, where a crescent of tall, grey houses stood five stories with crenellations on the top, high looking down on the central black railinged garden. The black London cab dropped them across the road and Dale stepped out, automatically holding the door wide for Paul. Paul surveyed the crescent as the cab pulled away.



“Beautiful houses. How old are these?”

Dale glanced at the architecture, pulling himself together.

“About mid nineteenth century.”

“Have you ever been here before?”

“No.”

“Ok.” Paul slipped a hand through his arm, drawing Dale back against the garden railings to see his face. “Now listen to me. We’re planning to stay an hour. If at any point I signal to you that we’re leaving earlier I expect you to do as I ask. And if you want to leave at any time you only need to signal to me and I’ll do the rest. I will not expect you to have a good reason. Just wanting to go is fine. I do have you covered and we won’t let this go wrong. All clear?”

Dale met his eyes, nodding something that was both acceptance and honest – not apprehension. Something else. Something bleaker. “Clear. Yes sir.”

“Do you still want to do this? We don’t have to.”

“Yes.” Dale looked past him at the house. “I think it needs to be done.” 

Paul reached to straighten his tie slightly, not that it was out of line. Dale didn’t do ties askew or jackets not seated right, and in the classic suit that was one of the ones ANZ had tailored for him, he looked fit and discreetly well dressed, with the sharpness of the icy aqua shirt and the very thin flash of orange in the tie lifting it from severe or sober to the liveliness and the bright colour of his eyes.

“All right. We are going to be ok. Kiss me, Hardy.”

It was a private joke, something he only ever said to Dale. Paul saw his face warm briefly and he reached for that kiss, one that Paul put all the affection in that he could.

“Come on then.”

Leading the way, Paul walked him across the road towards the crescent terrace, across the marble area in front of the door, and pressed the buzzer set into the wall. Dale swallowed, hearing the tone ring deep in the house, and then a woman’s voice answered.

“Hello?”

“Dale Aden and Paul Benoit, we’re expected for eleven thirty.”

“Yes, one moment please.”

There was a moment’s silence, then the door was opened by a middle aged woman wearing a cardigan over jeans and trailed by a stiff, slow moving and grey muzzled black Labrador. She smiled at them both but Paul saw her eyes reach Dale and stop.

“You must be Dale.”

“Yes.” Dale put a hand down to pet the Labrador that came to greet him. The woman stepped back, pulling the door wide. 

“Do come in. And you’re Paul. I’m Mrs Toller, I’m the housekeeper. I’ll take your coats.”

The hall was long and narrow, with a polished marble floor and a long rug, and with a large and ornate gold framed mirror hung on the softly grey papered wall above a polished table holding a large vase of fresh flowers. A hallway extended into the distance through what looked at a glance to be several rooms, beside a flight of white painted stairs with a stair rod carpet track which rose in front of them. Their coats were removed to a small cloakroom to the side of the hall and Mrs Toller made her way up the stairs ahead of them.

“This way. They’re in the front drawing room, that gets the most sun in the mornings and there’s the view of the gardens.”

Paintings hung on the stair wall, a stained glass window lit the short landing on the stairs as they turned towards the first floor, and as they reached a thickly carpeted landing Mrs Toller opened a door into a room that must have once been two, but had been opened up so that it extended from the front to the back of the house. In the far section red and yellow pattered curtains hung floor to ceiling, framing a window out over the garden. A table stood on a rug on a parquet floor with several cabinets and cases of polished and shining Chinese design that looked several hundred years old. Another and much larger rug covered the floor in the other half of the room, set before a large fire place. Squashy couches and several different armchairs were gathered around the hearth, and a tall Christmas tree was decorated in purple and gold. By the window a woman had turned around from a drop leaf desk where she had been sitting writing, and a man was standing at the window near her, and had been looking down at the street.

Paul had seen a photograph of them that they had sent, and knew they had seen the several of Dale that Paul had encouraged him to send to them – but photographs didn’t bring to life the reality of the person stood before you, and for a few seconds there was a fixed silence where no one moved. The man was very much how Dale would look in forty years from now. It was a shock to see his face and to recognise it so strongly. He was about Dale’s height, his hair was in the final salt and pepper stage of shifting to a bright white that said it had once been as crisply dark as Dale’s was, and the bones, the fine line of his jaw, the build of him – it was so like Dale. There was no mistaking the man as a relative of his. The woman – Paul looked down at the seated, lightly built and graceful figure of the woman in her seventies, her silver hair coiled neatly at the back of her head above a tied dark blue scarf and a sweater, the simple drop earrings she wore, and stopped at the equally silver eyes in her face that her grandson had inherited.

Mrs Toller very tactfully took the dog by the collar and left, closing the door behind her. Then the man rapidly stepped into the silence and came to Dale, offering a hand. The smile was warm but contained, Paul saw it and knew the man was doing all he could to be careful.

“Dale, welcome. It’s lovely to meet you in person. I’m Richard. This is Annie.”

Annie. For someone whose name Paul knew to actually be Antigone, the friendliness of the pet name helped too. She rose to her feet and offered a hand too, doing her best to be polite but it was plain she was struggling to take her eyes off Dale.

“Dale I’m so happy you could visit. This must be Paul? When did you arrive? Was it a horrible journey? Dale, you were working at a meeting this morning?”

“Yes, not far away.” Dale accepted her gesture to sit down, and Paul discreetly put a hand on his back, guiding him so they sat together, side by side on one of the couches. Dale was stiff and very upright under his touch. A small, red and white cavalier spaniel rolled over on the cushion where it had been sleeping, surveyed them, and then snuggled deeper into the cushion. A cat was sitting bolt upright on the writing desk where Antigone – Annie – had been working, with its eyes shut in the thin winter sunshine coming through the window. Christmas cards were lined up behind it and spilling over onto the mantel, dozens of cards. In Paul’s mind that said a lot. Social people, who liked to stay in contact.

“That’s a lovely tree,” he said to keep the conversation light. Annie looked across at it and smiled, coming to take the armchair next to Richard.

“Thank you. We have to keep up with the decorations, our great grandchildren will be visiting over Christmas.”

“How old are they?”

“Nine, seven, five, three and two.” Richard supplied, indicating a small group of photographs on a side table. There were several there of teenagers and adults as well as newer ones of small children.  “We have four grandchildren – Dale being the youngest – and two of them are parents now.”

“And Dale’s the son of your youngest child?” Paul said lightly. Annie picked up the furthest and largest of the photographs.

“Yes. That’s all three of our children. Guy is our eldest, that’s Amanda, our daughter, and that was Miles, Dale’s father.”

Captain Miles Aden. The three of them were deliberately posed, a young man who looked to be in his early twenties, a girl of perhaps sixteen or seventeen and a young Miles. Paul knew the photograph in Dale’s room at home, of the man in uniform. Here he was about fourteen, but Paul could see the likeness in all of them. Dale in every face.

“Guy’s two boys were a good seven or eight years ahead of you at school,” Annie said regretfully to Dale, “They’d all left before you started, so I know you never had the chance to meet them, and Amanda’s girls went to different schools. Amanda lives in London, we see her often. Guy is out in Cheshire, but he comes down at Christmas and the boys do when they can, although they’ve got their wives and families to think about of course. They were excited to know you were visiting,”

She stopped herself but Paul heard the rest of the sentence. We’ve never forgotten you. We’ve always thought about you and missed you. He appreciated the sensitivity that made her leave it unsaid, as much as Richard’s cheerful, “So how are the stock wintering? Are your late foals ok? What about little Hope, is she strong enough?”

It was the kind of light, every day stuff that Dale wrote to them, the things Paul had encouraged him to share and the small things that really mattered to Dale. And they’d remembered it. As they encouraged him to talk – and drew him out, Richard quite gently but to Paul’s eyes with a lot of skill – they knew the names of the horses, the pastures, the minor incidents he’d mentioned. They cared about knowing the practical realities of his life. Annie still couldn’t stop looking at him. She was doing her best to conceal it, was making it as casual as she could, but the hunger in her eyes was painful. He couldn’t imagine what it must be like to see her son in Dale as he might have been if he’d lived, a son who’d never made it past the age of twenty three. So very young, little more than a boy. In amongst their table of framed photographs was one Paul recognised because he’d taken it himself.  Dale, in his shirtsleeves on the porch with a glass between his hands. Paul had taken it around mowing time, they’d all been hot and tired that afternoon but satisfied with the growing mountain of hay bales, and the smile in the picture was very much Dale. He’d given it to Dale to send to them. Paul wondered if Dale had noticed himself in amongst that group; that his image was kept in this room.

Tea was brought of course. Paul drank his slowly, relaxing as the conversation went on and the cat went to sleep amongst the letters. They wanted to talk to Dale, not him; of course they did. But they were keeping it light and low pressure, doing everything they could to make it easy. Dale had relaxed somewhat too. Paul could feel the defrost in him, he was appreciating the warmth and the light touch. When the tea was gone Annie glanced at Richard and Dale tensed a little, bracing himself.

“We wondered if you might have time to see your father’s room.” Annie said lightly enough that it would have been easy to refuse without being impolite. “This is the house he grew up in, there are some of his things there if you’d like to see.”

The spaniel came with them. The tall, narrow house wound up two more floors over thick carpets and paintings on the wall. Paul followed Dale in Annie and Richard’s wake, close enough that his hand bumped Dale’s at times.

I am right here.

On one of the landings were several more photographs and water colours of children, clearly grandchildren and great grandchildren. But Paul saw Dale glance up and pause at one of the set. A large black and white picture of a very young child, perhaps two or three, walking with Annie hand in hand in what looked like a park. It was an old picture, it looked as though it had been there for years rather than months.

“Is that my father?” Dale asked politely. Annie looked back with him at the picture, then glanced briefly to Richard. Paul thought it was the kind of glance that one partner shot to another for support.

“No, that’s you. We saw you sometimes when you lived in London. That’s one of a few photographs we took of you.”

“Did Olivia mind?”

Annie looked at him and Paul saw the shock that she covered quickly. “You call her Olivia? You’ve always mentioned her as Olivia in your letters but I didn’t realise you called her that?”

“I think I always have?” Dale sounded genuinely unsure. Annie’s eyes were still more painful although the rest of her face was quite normal.

“When we knew you, you called her mummy. She never much liked pictures after Miles died, she took down all the ones in the house, but we took you out a few times just for half an hour or so for a walk when you were tiny – not far, it made her too anxious if you were out of her sight for long.”

How does that fit with a woman who shut the door on a toddler when she couldn’t cope with him? But only when they were alone together?

There was so much here on both sides going unsaid. Paul felt the open pit of it at their feet and for a moment had no idea whether it was better that they stepped in or stepped away.

Dale was still looking at the picture. “So it’s you I remember in the park? St James park? You told me about the menagerie. And the leper graves in the swamp.”

Annie’s smile grew tremulous. “Yes, that definitely would have been me. I chunter on about all sorts of odds and ends, I’m afraid I’m a terrible bore with random facts, but you were a toddler at the time- I was talking just to be talking to you, I had no idea at the time you’d understand or remember.”

“I remember.” Dale said gently. “I’m another one for recording random interesting things.”

Her smile deepened but Paul saw her eyes blur with tears.

On the third floor Richard led them down a hallway and opened a door into a room. It was clearly used as a guest room at times; a well-kept, very pleasant furnished room, with a large bed made up and scattered with cushions, an armchair by the window and several ornate cabinets. No museum or shrine to their son.

Goodness knows we know all about those.  

But there were several elderly rosettes and a cup on a shelf – riding awards, Paul could see the faded writing – several books on regiment history and a small pile of comic books.

“This was Miles’ room.” Richard said cheerfully, “He and Guy had this floor to themselves. Most of his things were in the Westminster house.”

“The one in Old Queens street. Yes. We walked there this morning.”

“It’s rented at the moment, there’s a friend of Guy’s with his family. Olivia saw to his uniform and bits.”

You mean she disposed of them without you being allowed to participate. Paul saw it clearly and with pain through Richard’s matter of fact tone. What was the matter with the wretched woman? Do you know?

Richard opened the larger cabinet, crouching down to take something out that was heavily wrapped in silk.

“This was his. He collected a few regimental bits when he was in Sandhurst.”

He laid it on top of the cabinet and unwrapped it. It was a ceremonial sword.

“Lifeguards pattern sword.” Dale said quietly. He was standing with his hands behind his back, not touching, but he was looking intently.

“He had his own of course, part of his uniform. This was just an antique he liked.” Richard rested it lightly on his palms, holding it out to Dale. Dale took it, drawing it gently. It was a delicate thing, and the blade gleamed.

“Steel bowl, brass regimental badge. Circa about 1890.”

He was absorbed. Paul watched him turn it over, the light shining on the silver flat. Then he slid it back into the scabbard and laid it back on Richard’s hands. Paul put a light hand on his hip, a gentle pressure.

“It’s magnificent, I’ve never seen anything like it. Thank you for allowing us to admire it, but my watch tells me it’s time to head out, we’re meeting for lunch with our friends.”

“Yes of course.” Richard put the sword back in the cabinet, laying it down with care. “Are they local friends, Dale? School friends?”

“I know almost no one in the UK now,” Dale said apologetically, following Richard down the stairs.  “There’s a memorial to the troops who took part the D day landings to be dedicated on Friday in Sussex. One of our friends was stationed here in the UK before taking part in the invasion and the other joined a division that had gone through it. It’s an important day for them, we’re escorting them down to the service.”

Richard was startled; Paul saw it for a second before Richard covered it, but there was distinct approval in his tone. The father of a serviceman of course there would be, he’d appreciate these things the same way they did.

Yes, your grandson is exactly this kind of a man.

“That should be quite a moving ceremony. A lot of history that won’t be around much longer.”

“They're seeing many of the other veterans they've known for years drop away one by one.” Paul said regretfully. “That makes it even more important to them to be there. We wanted to support them, and Dale arranged for us to escort them down there.”

“They've come a long way, I hope it’s a good trip for them. It was very nice to see you Dale.”
He had the Englishman’s gift for saying a great deal with very little. Dale had it too.

“It’s been a pleasure to meet you both, sir. I’ll write and let you know how the service goes.” Dale accepted Richard’s hand and then, with a care which touched Paul, he stooped and gently kissed Annie’s cheek. “Thank you for making us so welcome.”



*


Outside on the pavement Dale heard the door close behind them and Paul slipped a hand through his arm.

“Take us to a park, honey. Where is nearest?”

It was far easier to walk and not have to think. A few minutes’ walk took them through increasingly busy streets until they crossed a major one at a pedestrian crossing and a wide, yellowed pedestrian street led into an avenue of trees. Paul slowed his pace there, which made Dale slow with him, but they went on walking in silence. It was a damp, grey noon, not raining but with water in the air and the grass shining faintly grey with it. The bare trees were darker greys and browns, framing the wide path. At the end of it they reached a narrower, more winding path through the trees and a lake came into view in the distance.  

On a chilly and damp December noon there were not many people in sight. Paul found a bench, took a seat on it and Dale sat down beside him. After a moment he identified the source of a vague discomfort, unfastened his tie, pulled it off and pocketed it, opening his collar button and pulling it wide.

“What time are we meeting James?”

“I said we’d meet them at the hotel at four. I left us time.”

Dale leaned back on the bench beside him and gave him a quick, wry smile.

“I like the interesting application of ‘we’re going to be late’.”

Paul reached for his hand, taking it firmly. “I thought you were very kind with them. I was proud of you, I think they had a good experience there.”

From Paul, who was expert at hospitality in ways that top hotels and industries could have learned from, and at socially welcoming whoever whenever, that was praise that meant something and Dale appreciated it.

“They were trying hard to make it easy for me.”

“I noticed that too.” Paul said with compassion. “It can see you meant a lot to them when you were small. It was nice to see the picture of you on the stairs. Judging by the frame it’s been there for years.”

“It’s bizarre to have been a presence in their house when I had no idea of them.” Dale swallowed on a very irrational sense of impatience. “This morning when we were walking in the park I was thinking of it. I remember walking in that park with a woman. I remember her voice and exactly what she told me, it was interesting. But I don’t remember her face or what her name was or anything else. And that was her.”

“Annie.”

“Yes. I appreciate they went straight to their names and not that I needed to call them ‘grandmother’ or ‘grandfather’. That was tactful. They were very kind.”

“I think they’re well aware this is hard for you, and they probably don’t feel that they’ve earned it.”

“Earned?” Dale said dryly. “Hardly. I should have remembered them. I should have thought of this a long time ago and made the effort to make contact.”

Paul squeezed his hand.

“Your mom cut off contact. How is it your fault for not finding a way around it?”

Flynn would say he was carrying Olivia’s guilt for her. With a sharp and exasperated urge to just put this away and do something else, Dale got up and brushed off his trousers.

“Harrods is about ten minutes in that direction. Shall we try and get some shopping done?”

“No, because I’ll decide when this conversation is done, and not you.” Paul held on to his hand, but his voice was deeply, painfully compassionate. “If I had to guess I’d think the worst part about all this is that you’ve proved to yourself now beyond any doubt that they are caring people who loved you as a child, who were hurt by the choices Olivia made, and who would have been glad to be your family. And that must make it so hard for you not to blame her. So if you need to walk, or to run for a while go right ahead. Go do it, I can completely understand. I’ll be back at the hotel when you want me.”

He’d seen it; the appalling urge to stalk away and refuse to participate in this conversation any further. And as usual, when Paul gave him up front permission to go ahead, it drained away a lot of the anger, leaving something tired and much worse behind. Paul’s eyes were soft and very warm when he looked at them.

“Come here.”

There was no one else around. Dale sat down on the bench beside him, burying himself in Paul’s arms. Paul hugged him tightly, strongly, and the deeply familiar comfort of him chased away a good deal of the chill.

“I’m glad you were able to meet them,” Paul said against him. “That’s something you can build on as you want to, and I see a lot of you in your grandfather so I think he’ll be as understanding as you would be. But it is ok to be sad about it. It is ok to be angry. No one’s going to know but us. It won’t hurt anyone love.”

“I did all that a while ago.” Dale said heavily. “We’ve exchanged letters for over year, there was very little here that I didn’t already know. This was an hour of small talk; that was all.”

“I know. But you can’t tell me that being in their home, seeing them face to face, didn’t drag up everything you knew and make you feel it all.” Paul ran a hand down his back, rubbing. “It must have made it very real.”

“That was the point of doing it.” Dale pulled himself together with an effort and sat back, running a hand over his eyes. Thankfully the park was quiet today; other than squirrels in the branches green stained from the winter weather, there were no witnesses in sight. “The only way is to walk into it. It is real. It did happen, and it happened to them as well as me.”

“You do have to revisit the scene of the crime.” Paul said regretfully. “Yes, that occurred to me too.”

Even when it hurts like hell. The pieces are there.

“You’re cold.” Paul got up, waiting for Dale to follow. “We’re going to find some coffee and something to eat, and then what do you feel like doing, darling? And I mean what would you enjoy, not the next job on the list. We’ve got James and Niall, ANZ and your grandparents sorted. We’re going to take an afternoon to ourselves now.”


*


Shopping was something that Paul had taught him how to do, and which they both enjoyed, liking to wander shops and markets and just look together, genuinely interested in ways that Flynn and Riley couldn’t summon up at gunpoint, and that Jasper couldn’t sustain for long, particularly in heavy crowds. For that reason Dale consciously relaxed and took his time as Paul set a leisurely pace, and let the smells and colours and beautiful displays pull his mind away and get the attention from him that they deserved.


He’d walked briefly through Harrods a few times, but never really stopped to look as they were doing now. It was a vast Aladdin’s cave hung with Christmas decorations and steeped in tradition that met you on the pavement with the long row of canopied windows. The window displays were stunning. They stood for some minutes looking at the white trees and castles and models in silver and blue lights, like pieces of complex art behind glass, before moving on to the food hall. It held the style of a Victorian market, with a white and black marble floor under glass roof panels and wrought iron decorations overhead, much like the crystal palace must have looked. Line after line of marble counters and barrows carried the most fascinating things and were crowded with shoppers. Game counters, with pheasants and partridges, rabbit and venison. Ducks, geese and turkeys of all sizes. Fish counters where enormous sides of smoked salmon lay on ice beside whole silver salmon. An entire section of pastries and cakes, handmade chocolates and artisan candy. Cheese counters. Bakery counters with twists and pretzels and rolls of all shapes and sizes. Counters and endless shelves of jams and marmalades, chutneys and pickles and preserves.

“We can take any amount of cheese, bakery products, oils, chocolates those kind of preserves and tea or coffee back with us,” Dale said as they examined the cheese counter. “The things they won’t let through customs are the meats. I believe the fish is ok for personal use.”

“A couple of smoked salmon sides would be good, lots of people would enjoy those.” Paul paused, looking at the selection in front of them. “I’ve never heard of most of these… if we can take it on ice.”

“That’s no problem, I can arrange for anything we want to meet the plane and they’re used to transporting foods long distance here.”

“Then a selection of these would be lovely for buffets over Christmas.” Paul slipped his hand through Dale’s arm. “I don’t know about the Wensleydale, or the Tintern Cheddar, and those potted stiltons look good. And pickles to go with them.”

“Could we try the Wensleydale and the Tintern please?” Dale said to the man behind the counter, who cut a small cube of each and offered them on cocktail sticks. Paul tried them with interest.

“Ok, they’re good. I can taste the herbs in the Tintern.”

“The Wensleydale traditionally goes with apple pie or Christmas cake.” Dale pulled up the memory of restaurant meals over the years. “You serve it in a slice alongside as you’d serve cream or custard.”

“Now that’s an interesting idea. We definitely need a couple of the Christmas cakes, you’ll have to guide me as to what we need.”

“I never did Christmas in this country and I have no idea.” Dale said frankly.

“You were just a helpless victim of it happening to you?” Paul said with sympathy. Dale smiled, unable to help it.

“Well it happened near me, I was reading at the time. I’m as in the dark as you are on most of this.”

“Then we’ll just make it up as we go along, it’ll be fine.” Paul smiled at the man behind the counter.  “Three of the large potted stiltons please, a wheel of the Tintern, one of the 5kg blocks of the Wensleydale… ok, let’s find some really weird chutneys. I have to work at shocking Darcy and Gerry these days, they buy far too many peculiar artisan things where they live.”

He took Dale’s arm and they strolled into the next room, Paul looking with appreciation at the rows of shelves and barrows.

“Wonderful. Although I have this nagging feeling that someone should be standing behind me muttering about why would anyone need to put champagne in marmalade, are we seriously going to pay that much for a packet of tea when we could bulk buy tea bags for a quarter of that which would taste the same, and he’s going to rope the woman with the stroller if she runs it over his foot again.”

“Not really Christmas without it?” Dale said with understanding. “I’ll try if you like?”

Paul laughed, shaking his head. “No, please don’t. You be you and we’ll manage. We’ll just take home a few things we know will annoy him.”

They spent the next half hour acquiring marmalade with coriander; marmalade with whisky which seemed an even more bizarre combination; ale and apple chutney; fennel, cucumber and gin relish which Paul was particularly pleased by; black truffles and piccalilli. Several boxes of artisan chocolate also joined the growing heap in the trolley, and with Riley and Jasper in mind Dale selected several bags of very English sweets from humbugs to jelly babies. And this was the joy of it. To wander amongst the shelves and scents and bottles and jars, chatting casually about what was odd and what looked interesting and what would go with what, when you were talking about feeding the people you loved in a way that Dale could predict and anticipate, from the buffet they would share by the fire listening to the carol service on the radio to the breakfasts that served whoever happened to be in the house at whatever time they happened to get up, matching a range of different tastes and appetites. It was nice. It was good. And somehow that made it harder.

He organised for groceries to be stored and forwarded, following arrangements he had often heard made by PAs for guests but never used himself. They were walking aisles full of colognes and aftershaves, shaving equipment, unbelievably expensive small hand mirrors and towels when Paul abruptly reached over and took his hand down from his mouth. Dale belatedly became aware he was biting the corner of a nail that was annoying him and stopped, letting Paul turn his hand over to look. The skin at the corner of the nail was… well. Dale realised belatedly that perhaps it was a bit more bitten than it should have been, and slightly bloody. Well. Visibly bleeding down the side of the nail.  A bit. All right, admittedly, fairly bloody. Despite the crowded aisles, Paul let his hand go and Dale jumped as Paul swatted the back of his thigh. Soundly. Through dress trousers it smarted more than it usually did in jeans. Paul gave him a level look that was not kidding in the slightest.

“Dale Edward, put your hands behind your back. Right now.”

Starting to sweat and wondering when he’d lost his mind, Dale put his hands behind his back to prevent the compulsion to smooth that rough edge some more on the nail and the skin around it, and kept them there while Paul paid for their purchases and organised for them to be stored and delivered with their other things. After which he took Dale’s arm and said very bluntly indeed, “Jermyn street please.”

Famous for men’s tailoring and gentlemen’s outfitters. Dale had heard the name, although how Paul knew of it he didn’t know. They took a taxi from outside Harrods for the just over a mile journey through the streets, which passed Hyde Park, Green Park and the distinctive frontage of the Ritz hotel on the way. On Jermyn street itself, Paul took his arm again, surveyed the shop frontages which included a lamp lit Victorian arcade of ornate wooden shop fronts, and led him directly through the door of one of them. A red carpeted, neat shop with polished dark wood cabinets everywhere, holding neatly shelved shirts, ties, handkerchiefs, cashmere sweaters and silk pyjamas. It was the kind of place where the discretion of the colours and patterns and the formality of it all was instantly soothing. It was the kind of standard shop where he’d been taken for school uniform and school outfittings in his youth, the kind of normal world of men he’d always liked.

A man in a suit that was smart for its understatement and crispness more than colour or cut, came to meet them and Dale saw him take in the suit he was wearing, and probably recognise on sight both the designer and the style.

“Good afternoon gentlemen, how can I help you?”

“A number of things please,” Paul said briskly, “I’d like to see some pyjamas and ties, dressing gowns if you have them, and we’ll start with men’s brushes.”

What?!   
                                                                                                                                       
That was not an innocent comment. Not at all. With the still slightly wet to the touch fingernail behind him in his casually linked hands, and Paul did not put up with nail biting, scratching or any other form of displacement activity, Dale felt his stomach dive as the man gestured to them to follow him into another shelved section of the shop.

“Yes of course. If you’d like to have a look at these, I’ll lay out some of the pyjamas and gowns.”
“Thank you, that’s very kind.”

No, it really isn’t.

The man left them alone in front of a row of cabinet shelves holding rows and rows of extremely traditional men’s wooden brushes. Hairbrushes and clothes brushes of every size. They had never managed to look quite so sinister before.

“You’re not seriously……” he managed to start, rather weakly. Paul picked up one of the larger dark wood ones, hefting it in a way that was still more alarming.

“Since we need one this seems a very good time to get one that is going to last us – well, certainly years considering how well made these are.”

Paul!

“And British to the core, which seems very apt considering the use it’s going to be put to.” Paul thoughtfully examined another couple, including a clothes brush with a large oval head. It was impossible to look at them without vividly thinking of the weight and exactly what the back of that head would feel like, and they were assessments based on vivid experience of a Lexan paddle, a wooden paddle and an elderly hairbrush on Paul’s dresser at home.

“Do you have a preference?”

“Yes!” Dale stifled the urge to hiss it. “To find the American Consulate, right now!”

“On the question of whether or not you can chew your fingers to bits I outrank the Embassy.” Paul said apologetically. “Sorry about that.” He picked up another brush, a smaller one of very dark wood with a shaped handle and an elongated oval head, trying it thoughtfully in his hand, and then snapping the back of it briskly against his palm in a way that made Dale’s stomach dive for cover in alarm and for him to reflexively look around to make absolutely sure no one was aware of or watching. “Yes, this seems ideal. Now. Pyjamas. Riley would like that, and I think probably James and Niall would too. And Luath, who’ll wear them to annoy Darcy if not to entertain anybody in bed.”

He did it. He actually bought silk pyjamas, two silk dressing gowns, several ties and a hairbrush. A very formal, very British, highly polished and heavy wooden hairbrush. Dale’s opinion was consulted several times on colours and patterns of said pyjamas but he had no memory of them whatsoever; Paul could have asked if Riley would look good in a small purple rhinoceros costume and Dale thought he probably would have answered yes. However his hands were spot welded behind his back throughout and the word ‘sir’ was getting distressingly frequent in use.

The journey in the taxi back to the hotel was one of Paul chatting cheerfully- Dale had very little idea of what he said – and as they stacked the last of the bags of purchases in the corner of the room Paul hung his jacket up and said in the same tone of voice he suggested they had a cup of tea, “Hang that suit up love.”

And went to the gentleman’s outfitters bags, extracting the carefully boxed hairbrush.

This was actually a hairbrush in a box. In the weird world of gentlemen’s outfitters, people put hairbrushes in boxes on purpose. Dale mechanically hung the suit neatly on hangars, very aware indeed of Paul extracting the dark wood hairbrush from its box, laying the box neatly on the bed, and himself taking a seat on the end of the bed with the hairbrush in hand. Removing his trousers and hanging them up was not the easiest thing to do, and he was standing there in shirt and shorts putting away the folded tie from his pocket when Paul quite cheerfully and mildly patted his lap. With the hand not holding the brand new dark wood hairbrush.

It was a deeply sinister and unhelpful gesture all things considered, particularly while holding a deeply sinister and unhelpful brush. The matter needed to be raised at a brat’s meeting. Motion presented to the group on humanitarian grounds: petition to simply grab arm and pull, while on no account visiting gentlemen’s outfitters. Paul was waiting patiently.

Aware that he was starting to sound slightly hysterical in the realms of his own head and that he was stalling, which was both pathetic and not particularly well behaved, Dale made the few steps across to Paul with extreme lack of enthusiasm and laid himself over Paul’s lap. It was an unfortunately familiar position and experience, not that Paul really spanked him that often – but when he did it tended to be memorable. He was used to the warmth of Paul’s lap beneath him and the way Paul’s hand rested on his hip, the slightly different position to the one that Jasper used or that Flynn used, but this time he was very acutely aware of every move Paul made, and braced on his elbows on the bed it was extremely difficult not to look back and try to see exactly where that vile brush was. Paul comfortably and unfortunately expertly slid his shorts downwards to his knees, brushing up the tail of his shirt to push it out of his way which did nothing to make Dale any more relaxed. The first brisk thwack of the brush against his bare behind made him jerk and his eyes open wider along with his jaw and a discreet but distinct breath in. It stung. Two more swats with it, placed one on either cheek, and he would have been prepared to sign an affidavit to that effect. The bloody thing stung. Just enough weight to it that it landed very firmly indeed but that dark polished wood nipped like a mouse trap. He was struggling to stay still after the first half dozen and as Paul began to apply the wretched thing to the lower half of his butt and perilously near the top of his thighs he couldn’t help squirming in earnest and relinquishing any kind of dignity.

“Paul – ok, I’m sorry, it won’t happen again!”

“What, biting your nails?” Paul sounded sympathetic which did not help when he was very effectively using that brush at the same time. “If you want to communicate in actions this afternoon that’s no problem love, I can do it too.”

“Believe me, I’ve got the message!” Dale yelped at a particularly firm one in a sensitive place. Paul paused, resting the hand with the brush against his butt.

“Ok, then let’s recap a bit here. We’re out of the country and away from the others, at Christmas which is messing with our usual plans, and you just had one hell of a rough morning. Is there anything you’d like to talk about?”

No. No thank you, all good here.

Dale swallowed down the retort before it slipped out. “I’m… possibly a bit….”

“You think?”

It was so completely inappropriate to laugh in this position but it escaped before Dale could stop it. In reply he felt Paul’s hand rub over his shoulders. Not that Paul was letting him up.

“I didn’t realise I was doing it.”

“Well you’ve got a lot on your mind.” Paul said with understanding.

Yes. Right now, mostly brushes.

Dale took a deep breath, shifting slightly on the bed on his elbows. “There isn’t anything specific to talk about. Nothing happened, there was no information I didn’t already have, they’re nice people. It’s just…..”

“A whole lot of free floating yuck.”

“I want a specified definition of ‘yuck’.” Dale said acidly. It earned him a very mild spank with the brush.

“You could try the American consulate? In the meantime if you’re planning to lay there and be smart mister, I’ll just carry on back here.”

“Look, will you please stop making me laugh?” 

“Why? I think I’m done with you taking things seriously today.” Paul’s hand ran up his back and tousled his hair, a deeply loving, comforting touch. “We have James and Niall in the right country. And properly accommodated. You’ve done your bit with Richard and Annie. You’ve done your bit with ANZ. You’ve run me around all the proper shelves and sections you thought I’d like with the Christmas list in mind and don’t think I didn’t notice you got two thirds of it done and finished.”

“Nearer four fifths.”

“You are really asking for it my lad.” Paul patted the brush somewhere extremely personal. “With all that in mind, you need to calm down now.” 

“I am trying.”

“Not in the right way.” Paul laid the brush down on the bed and his palm rubbed instead where Dale’s butt was distinctly hot and smarting. “We are here together, in a very beautiful city full of things both of us would love to do. We’re here with James and Niall and I happen to know you adore spending time with them. So the hard part is done. We are putting all this aside and we are going to enjoy ourselves now. Now quote the responsibilities of level three as written by you, Tom and Riley. What are they?”

“…Responsibly look after my own calm and wellbeing. Notice when it’s not going well and ask for help as I need it. No acting in.”

“Which includes chewing on yourself. Physically and mentally. Doesn’t it?”

“……yes.”

“And the relevant responsibilities of level 2?”

There were times when a photographic memory was a serious pain in the behind.

“No forms of self harm or self medicating. No withholding or disguising being anxious.”

“That’s not going well today either. Which means we’re down to level one for tonight aren’t we?”

Yes, unmistakably. Dale took a breath, about to explain that it wasn’t possible to manage in a hotel in another country while responsibly providing an escort for – a family brat who will know exactly what’s going on, and a family Top who’ll back it all the way.

Yes, they could absolutely do grounding here in the hotel. Jasper had managed perfectly adequately to keep him at a level two in a hotel even by remote control from another state. Not much got ever in Jasper, Flynn or Paul’s way when it came to him and Riley. He sighed and felt the last of the sense of responsibility go too.

“Yes sir.”

Paul helped him to his feet. “And that’s going to help. Get under the shower sweetheart. Clean energy, clean clothes, like Jas would have you do. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Dale went to do as he was told, uncomfortably aware of Paul picking up the telephone and asking reception if James was in sight downstairs in the lobby as they had been planning to meet. It was apparent that James came to the telephone a moment later and Paul’s explanation was cheerful, calm and matter of fact.

“Hi James, we’re back. Dale’s grounded for the rest of today so I wondered if you two would like to meet us up here to eat instead of the restaurant? I’m sure room service would help us out.”

James and Niall’s suite down the hall had a sitting room in the window area looking down into the garden, and when Paul and Dale went down to their room fifteen minutes later, afternoon tea complete with tea pots and cake stands was spread out on the low coffee table. Niall was curled up with a book in the corner of the couch and smiled at Dale over the top of it, apparently completely unshocked and unsurprised that a supposedly together brat could get himself grounded on their first day in London. James, sitting upright in the armchair as he usually did, surveyed Dale with a closeness that was extremely uncomfortable because it saw far, far too much. Then James took his hand and pulled Dale down into his lap. For a second it was a shock. It shouldn’t have been, Dale was deeply fond of James and James was a family Top in Flynn’s mould, who saw a need in any brat in his vicinity and met it. But to be pulled into the competent and very comforting arms of a large and very safe man at this moment said very clearly to Dale You’ve had a hell of a day, haven’t you? Come here. James held him closely, an arm very firmly around his waist while Paul took a seat opposite with Niall. And in the peace and privacy of the sitting room where no one else would see, James went on holding Dale in his lap, Niall went on lounging on the couch and Paul curled up there too, and they ate cucumber sandwiches, scones and cake while Paul explained about Harrods.

All in all, it was very much a family meal.



*



When the snow was heavy on the group they got up early, worked hard for several hours to get done what needed doing, and then were usually home by lunchtime with only the regular expeditions outside to check water left to do. Which meant when the phone rang, all three of them were home and at the table, eating lunch. Riley grabbed the phone off the counter.

“Falls Chance? Hey! We’ve been thinking about you all morning. Did they have horns? Spit fire?  Dragon on a leash?”

He switched it to speaker phone and Flynn could hear both the weariness and the amusement in Dale’s voice. “No, my grandparents were surprisingly normal thank you.”

“No skeletons falling out of a closet?”

“They don’t have closets, this is England. They were very well behaved.”

“Were you?”

“…..mostly.” Dale sounded rather dry about it. “The shopping was a little…”

“What happened? You’re not going to tell me you punched out a perfume spritzer, I won’t believe it.”

“They don’t have those here, people don’t randomly drench you with things as you walk past them. I got taken to buy a bloody hairbrush. On Jermyn street. I haven't yet established how Paul even knows about Jermyn street.”

“Why, is it some sort of sex quarter?”

“No, it’s the centre of quality gentlemen’s outfitters. They have whole racks of extremely traditional wooden hairbrushes. I’m sure they have no idea why that ought to be against the Geneva convention.”

“What the hell did you do?” Riley demanded.  

“He bit his nail until it bled.” Paul explained. “He was a little upset and communicating it via blood. Which I was not impressed with.”

“But you’re not bringing the brush home, right? You are returning it tomorrow?”

“No, it's perfect for its purpose and we could do with a new family heirloom. Plus we've already put it to good use. Sweetheart, behave yourself and you'll never have to worry.”

“I do, in my opinion.  You just happen to have a different one sometimes. Did you have fun shopping before that?”

“Oh yes. The food hall is something else. Chocolate, Ri. You've never seen chocolate like it.”

Riley laughed. “Jas’s eyes just lit up like candles.”

Jasper reached for the phone, sliding it over in front of him.

“How are you both? Is the jetlag bad?”

“No, not really.” Paul said mildly. “We’re both tired and we’re headed for an early night, Dale could use one. It was a hard day all around.”

“Have you had time to shower, Dale?” Jasper sounded relaxed about it but they knew what he meant. Dale answered.

“Yes. And changed clothes. And the energy in this room and the hotel feels good. Peaceful.”

“We’re right above a very nice garden, although it’s a bit wet for sitting out in it.” Paul agreed. “We walked past Buckingham palace last night and again this morning, and we’re on the doorstep of two parks. One with pelicans in it.”

They chatted for a few minutes more before Flynn, aware of how tired Dale was sounding, switched the phone off speaker and handed it to Jasper. Jasper spoke quietly for a moment to Dale, too quietly for Flynn to hear much of it, and then handed the phone on to Flynn. Flynn got up and walked to the kitchen door, looking out at the snow covered yard.

“Hey kid. Keep letting Paul help. Promise me?”

It was not easy to hear him, thousands of miles away, sounding like this, but he heard Dale’s voice deepen and soften. “Promise.”

“You did a good thing today. Now spend the time with James and Niall and enjoy it. Enjoy yourself with Paul. Have a good time. You’ve earned it.”

“That’s exactly what Paul is saying.”

“He’s right. I love you. I’m proud of you. Get some sleep.”

“Get back in time to wassail or we’ll have creepy whats looking at us in the yard all Christmas.”   Riley called from the table. “And stay away from chainsaws.”


17th December

After that phone call, Dale spent the evening in a long, hot bath that Paul drew for him and helped with, and they lay in bed together afterwards with a puzzle book that Paul pulled out of his suitcase. Crosswords and logic puzzles, the kind of thing they enjoyed in the evening at home together. When Paul turned the light out he fell asleep surprisingly easily and didn’t stir again.
He was woken by a knock at the door and turned over to find the curtains drawn back and the room in daylight, which said it was at least eight thirty am, and Paul was answering the door. He brought a tray back to the bed and Dale shifted over to make room for it, eyeing the teapot and the plate of pastries and toast with several small jars of marmalade and jam. With several newspapers under his arm, Paul climbed under the covers and poured them both a cup of tea.

Dale took the cup and saucer, noticing the time with some shock.

“It’s past nine! You should have woken me!”

Paul settled back against the pillows and helped himself to toast. “Why? It’s a very nice morning for a lie in, we don’t need to be anywhere.”

It wasn’t something he’d experienced before really. On a ranch where work always needed doing, their day started early and Flynn, Riley and Jasper, like Dale, were morning people who liked to get up and get cracking. But they ate the pastries and spread the newspapers out on the bed to read, and for over an hour they lazed in bed in the morning sunshine. And a mild wrestling match that ensued over Paul extracting the financial section and throwing it out of reach ended with Dale putting the tray out of the way to wrestle better and the two of them making love over the still scattered newspapers. The way Paul liked it, which tended to be long and slow and extremely comfortable.
That seemed to convince Paul that they could try a day at level two, which did include being able to go out.

They met James and Niall downstairs just before eleven and out of consideration for saving them as much walking as possible, took a taxi across to Westminster Abbey. It was at Dale’s suggestion; it was a place he’d seen once or twice as a child, and it was somewhere he knew Paul would love to see. He was right. He saw Paul’s face light up as they drew up outside the massive and distinctive exterior and once inside the tall arched doors he was spellbound. For forty minutes the four of them walked slowly through its massive walls, reading the plaques and the names on the tomb after tomb. Kings and Queens of England. Dickens. Shakespeare. Austen. Kipling. Dale stood for a moment by him, one of Tom’s dearest heroes. The peace and the majesty of the place was tangible even with the crowds moving around them. A large nativity crib was set up in one of the aisles with half scaled life size figures of men and animals stooped over the woman and her baby and the organ was playing Christmas carols quietly.  

From the pier by Westminster palace they caught a river taxi and Niall and Paul sat sheltered from the wind, spotting the landmarks on the river. James stood at the rail with Dale. It was chilly this morning, and damp on the river, but a calm, still morning. James glanced across at him and his American accent, while fainter than Paul’s and Niall’s, caught Dale’s ear as standing out from the chatter of British passengers around them. Without him realising when, it had become the language of home.  

“What it is like for you to be here? You were out of England so long.”

“It’s like being a tourist.” Dale leaned on the rail watching the Thames slip by. “It’s nice to see. Have you spent much time in the UK sir?”

“Yes, twice for vacations. London and Scotland, we enjoyed them both. I was here for a couple of days at a transition camp on my way out to France on the transports, but it wasn’t exactly scenic. Not like Niall who was stationed in a camp here for the best part of six weeks training and assembling – and Wade was here for two years. Although I don’t think he saw much below the local villages and the airfield.”

James’ face shuttered for a second or two and Dale felt the line of his thoughts stretching out to a man in Texas.  


They walked around the palace of Hampton Court that afternoon, from the gardens to the state rooms and the kitchens, and they took the boat back up the river in the slow growing dusk watching the boats with their Christmas lights on the water. The following day was spent at Covent Garden, shopping in the small boutiques and artisan shops and watching the entertainers performing among the stone columns. Niall loved that. While Paul and James drank coffee at one of the numerous cafes, Dale walked around the periphery for some time with him, watching jugglers and magic tricks, dancers, acrobats, and musicians who filled the air with Christmas songs. That evening they put to use the tickets that Caroline had suggested and watched the Nutcracker danced at the Royal Opera House, where the golden ornate tiers of the theatre rose under the magnificent ceiling.



At some point during the night Dale became aware that he was somewhere near a gate, where a huge crowd of filthy, struggling bodies were fighting to reach it against shouts from American voices and a babel of different languages, barbed wire and fencing.

“Just explain!” an American voice was ordering. “For God’s sake explain to them – how many fucking languages do they speak in this place, find me someone who speaks Yiddish-”

“Please,” a man was sobbing in German. The tears were streaming down his face, down the terrible shadows and angles of it as he was skeletal like the others, “Please, we are free, open the gates now.”

“We can’t.” Dale said in German to him, as soothingly as he could although he had to shout it over the mayhem of the crowd. Like the others here who spoke German or French or Russian or Polish they were trying desperately to help them understand. “Not yet, there’s typhus in the camp. No one can leave until it’s under control or we’ll infect the whole area-”

“But we are free now, please, we are free, let us go,” the man clutched at him, trying to make him understand. In the distance someone had resorted to firing a revolver in the air, trying to quieten the crowd enough to hear, and hands were pulling at him, he was being dragged into the crowd.

“I’m sorry,” he said again and again, in French, in German, “I’m so sorry.”

“Niall.” James’ voice was very near and quiet in contrast to the shouts. A lamp switched on and Dale blinked, ripped abruptly from the terrible crowd to a quiet, comfortable but unfamiliar room and James’s hand on his face, gently wiping the wetness away.



19th December
  
On the morning of the fourth day Dale checked them out of the London hotel and the car and driver waiting at the front door drove them south, to the coast and the small town of Rye.

It was less than eighty miles but progress out of London was a gradual thing through busy roads, and it took two hours before the car came into sight of a harbour at the foot of a steep hill, and Niall said quietly but with passion, “Oh God, this is it. James, this is David’s town.”

They were silent, watching the people walking along the narrow pavements and between the busy little shops on the crooked streets as the car wound it way up the hill. At the top, it pulled through the narrow stone gateway in the wall of the citadel and drove along the even more narrow cobbled streets inside the walls, between the brightly painted houses with their window boxes and hanging baskets with holly and Christmas decorations and lights, until it reached the wattle and daub front of the Inn.
They got out in the car park that had once been a coaching yard, and Niall stretched with care, looking at the large white building with the black beams.

“This is ancient – how old is it?”

“This one was rebuilt in 1420, but the cellars and foundations are older.” Dale came to help James with the car door on the other side. “It’s the Mermaid Inn. Famous as being a smugglers’ post for centuries on this coastline, there are secret passage ways, the whole works.”



Niall caught James’ eye over the car roof with delight.

“Now David would love that.” James said wryly. “The four of us in a smugglers’ den because of him.” 

“Was that what made you choose this one?” Niall asked Dale. Dale nodded.

“I’m certain David would have known it. It’s one of the oldest and most well-known buildings in the town.”

The two rooms they were shown to were large and comfortable, and very, very old. From the open fireplaces and wood panelled walls to the uneven floors and creaking, narrow hallways with heavy wooden doors, this place had age written into every inch of it. Paul looked with fascination at the four poster bed as they unpacked.

“I’ve only ever read about these. Dale, this place is going to be haunted to the nth degree – are you going to be able to sleep if it’s full of whats?”

“I have no doubt David will want to keep me busy.” Dale put the last case in the wardrobe and paused to look through the latticed window down into the street. “Do you know where in the town he lived?”
“No.” Paul came to look with him. “He told me a lot about the harbour and the boats and some of the land marks, but almost nothing about where he stayed, or about his family. I don’t think that part of it held much interest for him.”

“Did you notice the shape of the quay? Down by the old fishing sheds that was the antique market as we drove up?”

“No?” Paul said curiously. “What about it?”

Dale didn’t answer, but as the four of them strolled down the steep streets of the small town that afternoon, looking through the windows of the tiny shops and breathing the sea air, the quay came into view at the bottom, laid out in plain sight. Niall saw it first and stopped, reaching for James’ arm. “Look. Look at it.”

“It’s the quay from David’s map at the ranch.” James shaded his eyes against the afternoon sun, looking with bemusement at the few small fishing boats bobbing on the water. “Even the fishing sheds. It’s as if we’re standing inside his map.”

They attended a Christingle service that evening in St Mary’s church in the centre of the citadel; the church whose bells David must have heard every day of his childhood. In the candle lit interior full of men, women and children muffled in coats and scarves against the chill of the evening, Dale listened to James’ baritone and Niall’s lighter voice singing the ornate words of the traditional carols he’d known all his life, and watched Paul lean forward in the pew to smile at the noisy procession of children who walked to the front rail to collect and light their Christingle candles. It was so very unlike any British Christmas he had ever known in his time in England, not least because here he sat with three men he loved and who in the briefest of glances or shared expressions communicated between them what they enjoyed, what was funny, what caught their attention. And it was there in the candle light he saw the colour in Niall’s face, the energy that hadn’t been there a couple of days ago.

A complete break from home. James has been able to make him rest. We’ve walked places he was interested in and he’s been eating well wherever we’ve gone….

He was looking distinctly better. Despite what he had to face in the cathedral tomorrow, and Dale knew the image of those bodies struggling by the gates would haunt him forever, experienced just third hand.

We’re all here to lay down restless ghosts this Christmas.

James slipped his arm through Dale’s as they left the church, pausing in the dark church yard among the gravestones to admire the Christmas tree lit up by the entrance. The wind was blowing crisply from the estuary, the smell of minerals and salt was in the air. They walked slowly down the hill past the lights from the pubs and restaurants among the cottages, and in the warmth of the Mermaid Inn’s dining room from the logs blazing in the giant hearth ate scallops and locally caught sea bass. They sat talking for a while at the table after the dishes had been cleared, sipping the brandies James ordered, until James glanced at his watch and drained the last dregs of his glass.

“Niall, we’re headed to bed. It’s going to be a full day tomorrow. Dale, what time do you want us ready to leave?”

“The car will meet us here at nine, sir.” Dale rose respectfully as James and Niall got up. “It’s about a fifteen minute drive to the cathedral, the service starts at ten am.”

“So we’ll meet you for breakfast down here at eight?” Niall put a hand on Dale’s arm to kiss his cheek and leaned over to kiss Paul. “Goodnight. Sleep well.”

Left alone together in the firelight, Dale finished his drink slowly, the burning flavour warming from tongue to stomach.

“Tired?” Paul asked him. Dale shook his head.

“No, not really. If you don’t mind the dark and the breeze, I don’t suppose you’d like to take a look around and see if we can figure out David’s house?”

Paul smiled, draining his glass to get up. “That’s my kind of night owling. Much more fun than stalking elk or randomly sitting in the rain in the freezing cold by a river.”

“There’s a lot to be said for that too.”

“You three are welcome to it. Riley and I will keep the kettle warm for you.” Paul took his coat from the back of the chair, pulling it on. “Do you know where to start?”

“There’s enough logic that we could probably figure it out, but I was hoping if it’s getting quiet outside there I might be able to find it more directly.” Dale said delicately. “If I may, and you feel I’m around a level three.”

That was an additional rule of Jasper’s. At levels 1 and 2, when things were rough, no whatting, and that was right. He had no business taking on board other people’s energies or trying to use his own for working unless it was strong and clear. Paul gave him a steady look for a moment, giving it honest consideration. Then nodded.

“You’ve been fine with us the last couple of days so yes, I think so.”

Outside in the street Dale moved a few yards away from the spill of warm light onto the cobbles from the inn windows and the sounds of voices faded behind them as Paul closed the door.

“Where would you start from logic?”

“We know it wouldn’t have been any of the wealthier houses or streets. The fishing houses and the poorer accommodations are peripheral, around the walls. If this is like other fishing towns like Whitby or Grimsby then many of the fishing fleet and working women with children lived in yards- cottages around a working yard broken up into single rented rooms. Not much has changed in the town’s internal layout in about two hundred years so it wouldn’t be difficult to find them.”

What energy are you putting towards it? That’s what Jasper would ask him. The things you went towards with good energy, strong energy, able to be positive or clear headed, or whatever you needed were likely to work better and more easily than things you went towards in fear or doubt, resentment or reluctance. He’d been reminding himself of that all week.

Dale stood still, connecting himself to the ground, reinforcing his shields as he gathered himself and his thoughts. The smell of woodsmoke was strong in the air, smoke was rising from many of the chimneys in the town. The rose quartz stone in his coat pocket was rough against his palm. Wherever he went he took that with him, transferring it from pocket to pocket. Then he let his mind open and relax. Not searching, not trying to do anything, just being available to float on the tide. In the now. With a relaxed and comfortable heart. At home that worked, where he was on his own land, where that state was so easy to find and the work he wanted to do was for the benefit of other people. The rules were delicate and powerful.

Not for yourself. Never for idle curiosity or without it being unselfish, for someone’s good.
So who benefits from this? Why do I want to know this? For Paul, who loved David and that connection with him here would mean a great deal. And for me, because we’re here thinking of him, the four of us, who owe him so much, and we stand for all of the men from his home. Because our roots are stronger and deeper in him and each other than they are in anywhere else we’ve come from.

As he thought it he caught a flash from the side of his eye. Barely seen, but a child. A boy. Scruffy in a man’s old sweater far too big for him, and cut off trousers, heading purposefully up the street. They walked after him, past the closed butchers and bakers shops in the main street and around the corner, through the open gateway in the citadel walls. A cottage tucked against the outer wall to the left, just against the gate, had several steps and a rail. Dale paused, examining what was now a private cottage for the signs he recognised.

“That was a police station once. The lamp is still there.”

“He was fond of one of the constables at the station, I think the man was kind to him.” Paul looked too at the elderly narrow house. “Where now?”

The child was crossing the road briskly ahead of them and following the curve of the road around to the right. As they rounded the bend Dale saw the narrow alleyway a second before the child disappeared down it.

“Here.”

They walked through the narrow space between the cottage walls. You might have got a small barrow or a horse through it, but no car would pass this space. It led into an open and neatly bricked yard where tubs of pansies were struggling against the December rain. Five small cottages terraced three sides of the yard, with crooked rooves and narrow brick that put them at early nineteenth century and probably were rebuilt over wooden shacks that had stood here for centuries before that. Perhaps four rooms in each small cottage: a front room, back room, bathroom and bedroom. The curtains were drawn and light shone through some of them as their occupants made ready for bed. Christmas wreaths decorated some of the painted wooden front doors.

If he let it, other images were slightly overlaid with the clean and well-kept yard. It still remembered a time when it was mud and earth, when droppings from the horse that overnighted in the makeshift shelter in the corner were common, and washing lines were strung between the cottages. When the yard was often thick day and night with the fog that was mist off the harbour mixed with smoke from every chimney, when the windows were grimy and some were stuffed with newspaper to keep the wind out, when every room in each cottage was a home for one family, with twenty families of three generations crowded together into this yard. Where the one bathroom provision for those families was the single shed in the corner by the alley. The weathering on the wall still faintly showed where it had been.

“That one.” Dale said very quietly to Paul, indicating the one on the far right. “The front room of that one.”

He was aware Paul took some photographs, but it was difficult not to go on looking.



20th December

They met for breakfast at eight am in the dining room, all four of them in dark, plain suits. It was cold but sunny outside when they met the car waiting for them outside and drove the coastal road along to Sturchester. It was a largely regency town with a pretty high street and a large harbour on the sea front filled with private boats and yachts. The cathedral was in the heart of the town, and the car left them at the gates of a thick medieval wall where a uniformed guard stood on duty. Inside the gates was a wide, lawned enclosure with trees and paths in several directions, and in the centre stood the cathedral. Huge and majestic with carved figures at the doorways, looking down. Around the perimeter were old and beautiful houses, mixed in period from Tudor to Regency, with neat and small front gardens and immaculate frontages. At the very far side of the close was a stone gatehouse with the gates open showing a large Elizabethan manor house beyond, with extensive gardens around it. It wasn’t difficult to imagine a small Tom running around somewhere like this.


They waited for a while in the garden. Several police were walking the area with sniffer dogs and the drain covers were marked where they had been checked, and cathedral staff were marking out an entrance closed to tourists for the duration of the service. Dale went down to the cathedral café and brought back coffee which they drank together, watching cars arrive and discharge first a few smartly dressed officers in uniform from the local barracks, and then a group of twenty smartly dressed cadets marched down the avenue and took up position by the cathedral door in ranks. Locals began to arrive, from elderly couples to several women with toddlers in pushchairs. And then gradually cars began to discharge more and more elderly men. They arrived in twos and threes, many with family, and as the crowd grew, James and Niall went to greet faces they recognised. In the end perhaps thirty men, mostly Americans, were gathered in a group on the lawn, with their family members at a discreet distance. Local dignitaries in suits arrived; Dale suspected local politicians and councillors, several representatives from other town churches and faiths, and on the far side of the lawn a dark blue jaguar arrived and a smartly uniformed elderly man got out, escorted by an army officer in dress uniform, and another man in a suit that to the initiated stated protection officer.

“Who’s that?” Paul murmured to Dale. “More army presence?”

“Yes in a way. That’s a member of the royal family who also saw active service during the war.” Dale watched the dignitaries go to greet him, and a small girl of perhaps three being led forward by one of the cathedral staff who managed a little curtsey and held out the flowers she carried. The elderly man in uniform stooped to take them and talk to her, and then quietly moved to the group of American men of his generation and spoke to several of them.

They were guided into the cathedral and led to ranks of seats in the west transept where a large curtain with a golden cord covered the memorial to be dedicated. There were going to be approximately a hundred people here for this service, it had meant a great deal to many others besides themselves. Dale cast a quick look around as he and Paul took their seats beside Niall and James on the end of one of the middle rows. Niall’s face was beginning to look a little tight and although he and James sat politely not touching, they sat in exact parallel side by side. The seats were filling up fast. The mighty organ behind the quire was playing softly, several robed clergymen were gathering at the front where a lectern had been placed on a small platform and a microphone. A couple of men edged down the row behind them to empty seats and one of them leaned over to put a hand on Niall’s shoulder as he sat down. Dale looked up with Niall and felt his breath catch at the sight of the familiar face. Miguel, with Tazio beside him, both of them in overcoats. Niall gripped Miguel’s hand with his eyes coming alight, and James turned in his seat to shake hands.

“With you this near to us do you think we’d stay away?” Miguel demanded under his breath, grinning at Paul and Dale as he sat down. With a flick of his eyes he cued them in. Peter and Lewis in overcoats were a few seats down. Darcy sat beside them and smiled at Dale. His eyes softened painfully as Niall turned in his seat to see him and reached over to shake hands. Not what either of them wanted to do in the moment, but touch all the same. And then Dale saw two tall men walking slowly with an elderly third man between them down the aisle towards them and his heart leapt so hard it hurt. One of the escorting men was an extremely good looking, middle aged black guy. The other was a dark blond man with wide, strong shoulders and very dark green eyes that flashed across to Dale’s like magnets. Flynn. It was Flynn, and Luath, and between them was Wade. Dale rose immediately, vacating his seat for Wade to take beside James. Wade looked grimly and satisfiedly pleased with himself. Niall looked up at him in shock and his eyes filled. Wade took his hand and sat down in the empty chair between James and Paul, leaning for a moment against James’ solid shoulder.



Dale made his way around the periphery of the crowd since it was now standing room only, and Flynn’s eyes said a blazing hello as he reached the space beside a pillar where Luath and Flynn had taken up position. Unable not to, in the press of the crowd where no one could see, Dale found his hand and held it hard. Luath smiled at him.

“Good morning.”

“Good morning. I had no idea of this plot.”

“It wasn’t anything so organised as a plot, it was last minute brat-led chaos.” Luath glanced across to Flynn with amusement. “Miguel wanted to come – they’re only a few hours by train really, and he wanted to be here for James and Niall – but couldn’t be sure he could get the time off until yesterday morning. Peter and Lewis have an even shorter journey from Cannes, and that would have been it, except Wade got more and more restive and finally admitted he wanted to be here. So I wangled tickets, Darcy rang the ranch for another pair of hands to come with us and we hit Heathrow about 4am this morning. We have flights back from Heathrow at 11pm tonight.”

“I can make arrangements for Wade to come back with us.”

“I don’t think you’ll persuade him, he’s planning on travelling in the middle of a family mob, drinking too much and James not being anywhere in sight to cramp his style.” Luath said dryly. “You can take Flynn though, and then he can be with you instead of thinking about you the entire way.”

David was standing on the far side of the aisle. A long way from the crowd, but watching with his hands dug in the pockets of his long coat, and he caught Dale’s eye with his blazing smile. And as the service started, there they were. Thirteen of them who belonged to the ranch, representing four generations together, supporting their own in this place that meant a great deal to three of their own.
Dale, holding onto Flynn’s hand as the music paused and the lead clergyman mounted the platform to speak, gripped him tighter. Across the crowd David’s eyes were alight with amusement.

Tall, gangly, faintly untidy despite the robes, with the same narrow bones - there were things about the man that were very familiar. And they were in a cathedral. On the south coast of England. Leaning over to look at the programme Luath was holding, Dale saw the name on the paper and swallowed down a very, very inappropriate smile considering the solemnity of the occasion. The service was being led by his reverence the Lord Bishop Forster-Jones.  



At the end of the ceremony, after the elderly man in uniform had drawn back the velvet curtains to display a marble carved plaque to the serviceman who boarded the boats on the harbour in the town, the crowd dispersed slowly out into the sunshine on the lawn, and Dale, standing with his shoulder close against Flynn’s, watched Niall and James talking with their friends among the other veterans. Paul was arm in arm with Wade and discreetly supporting him as he walked, stretching out the kinks of a night on a plane.

An elderly couple were walking arm in arm out of the cathedral, formally dressed. Dale blinked as he recognised them and stepped forward with shock as the man smiled at him.

“Good morning. We apologise for gate crashing. When we thought about it, it was a service that we really wanted to support for your friends.”

And you.

By travelling two hours from London at their age, the gesture they were making was not a small one. Very touched, Dale shook hands with Richard and stooped to Antigone’s light embrace.

“Thank you. Thank you, that’s very kind of you. Flynn, this is Richard and Antigone, my grandparents.”

“Annie.” Annie took Flynn’s offered hand. “You’re Flynn from the ranch, aren’t you? Dale talks about you often in his letters.”

You’ve been to veterans memorials for my father’s brigade. Remembrance Sunday at the cenotaph. These events have been part of your life for almost all of my life, they matter to you. And we come to meet because of one.

“We won’t hang around, you’re with friends,” Richard said gently, “I wonder if you’d just walk us to our car. There’s something we brought with us.”

Annie slipped quietly through the crowd to where Paul and Wade were walking and Dale saw her touch Paul’s arm to stop him, taking a moment to greet and talk with him. She only talked for a moment but when they parted Dale saw Paul take her hand and kiss her cheek.

Their car was parked on a quiet residential street behind the cathedral. Dale and Flynn walked with them and Richard clicked the boot open, taking something long and well wrapped in cloth from inside.

“We felt this belonged to you. We have so much of Miles and you’ve had so little. We know Miles would have wanted you to have it.”

It was the Lifeguards’ antique sword.

Happy Christmas

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2017