Thursday, September 17, 2015

Frontier Mall

Frontier Mall

December 1994
                                                                                                             
            The snow didn’t fall on the ranch in any delicate, poetic kind of way like flurrying or drifting. Instead it dropped in a deep, white, frozen heap, coating everything in sight, and then stuck around like a burr. There had been what Paul referred to as the early warnings in early October; the snow that lasted a day or two and then melted while the season got warmed up and flexed its muscles a bit, and then by mid November, wham. Snow fell like Riley had never seen snow fall before in any city he’d ever stayed in, and it was up above his knees in the yard. Or it would have been had not Jasper, Flynn and Jake got the tractor out and ploughed it and shovelled off the porch day to day. Keeping the corral cleared, the horses fed and their water unfrozen was taking up a lot of Riley’s day once he had his daily demand performance study period choked down, although to his annoyance Flynn was stubborner than an old mule about him getting up and going out through the night as he, Jasper and Jake were doing to break the ice on the cattle and sheep’s water in the pastures directly around the house where they wintered, and keep an eye on them as they stoically stood in their huddle and around the feeding stations and against the lean-to shelters through the night.

“It’s not something they do for fun.” Paul had said without sympathy when Riley complained about this, that having been on the ranch an entire six months, having taken full part in setting up the pastures for the winter, and being the youngest and therefore obviously the fittest male on the premises, it was ridiculous Flynn demanded he stay in bed. “It might sound exciting to you, but it’s a horrible chore.”

“He doesn’t let you do it much either.” Riley pointed out. It was true. Paul always did his bit with the outside work and he got up without hesitation through the night to go do the chores, but Flynn and Jasper somehow managed it so they did the lions share and so did Jake. They didn’t let Darcy do it much either that Riley could see. Bronzed, large Neanderthals stealing all the fun. Paul smiled and went on flipping bacon.

“For which I’m extremely grateful. You work hard all day, he doesn’t want to disturb your sleep, that’s all.”

Riley turned his eyes to the ceiling in frustration born of numerous conversations about this.

“He’s obsessed with sleep.”

“You’re sixteen years old.” Paul said firmly. “You might have gotten away with hanging around watching TV and messing with your Gameboy all night before you came here but in this house while I’m still breathing, never mind Flynn and Philip, you’re going to sleep properly. You’re a growing boy.”

This was not an argument he ever won. He’d tried. A lot. Particularly in the first few weeks when consistently being sent to bed at a set time and expected to stay there through the night had been…. Well, a difficult habit to submit to and somewhere between stiflingly restrictive and rather wonderfully secure all muddled up together. Flynn had been absolutely unyielding about that as well. Having been returned to bed by the scruff of his pyjamas more than once, Riley had learned fast not to mess with him in the early hours of the morning and Paul, if messed with enough, tended to pop the seat of whatever he was wearing, which in the middle of the night was not much. It didn’t exactly hurt; Paul, whom Riley adored even when he was being thoroughly annoying, didn’t put a lot of arm behind it but he didn’t need to. In terms of convincing you he was done negotiating he did a great job, even though he made Riley feel about six years old when he did it. And Jasper? Jasper just had a line in materialising on the landing, in the dark, right in your path, and looking at you. Not an annoyed look in any way, but Riley always found himself very quietly going right back to bed. The three of them seemed to have a syndicate mission going together in keeping him in bed.

Paul dropped chestnuts in with the bacon and shook the pan, glancing out of the window as he saw movement.

“There’s Flynn back. Take him out a mug of tea, hon; he must be frozen.”

Riley, who’d gotten done with his own day’s chores half an hour ago and was showered, changed and warm again, grabbed one of the chipped old yard mugs and a tea bag and poured hot water from the kettle on the corner of the stove, swilling it briskly. Paul caught it before he could yank the tea bag out and took a spoon, stirring it thoroughly.

“Let it brew. David would have gone berserk if he saw you do that.”

“You always say he didn’t do tea bags. Flynn does and he doesn’t care.” Riley gave Paul a cheeky grin, took the mug and grabbed his scarf from the coat rack, oblivious to Paul’s call of “Take a coat!”

Out in the yard Flynn was briskly unsaddling Oskar, the tall piebald he almost always rode, and he paused as Riled headed across the yard to him, leaning on Oskar’s back with a very level look from under the brim of his Stetson. 

“You heard Paul. Get a coat.”

“Tea.” Riley handed him the mug, running a hand down Oskar’s snowy nose and leaning down to run a hand along his fetlocks where snow was matting in lumps. “He’s freezing, aren’t you boy? Want a mash for him?”

Most of the riding horses who were doing a hard day’s work made a whole lot harder by wading through snow, came home needing a hot feed as much as their riders did.

“Now.” Flynn said bluntly, taking a mouthful of tea and standing it on the stable windowsill to go on taking off Oskar’s tack.

“I don’t need it.”

Flynn slung Oskar’s saddle over his arm and walked into the stable with it as if he’d said everything that was going to get said on the subject. With him out of sight, Riley headed into the shed where the various feeds were kept, grabbed what he needed to make up a generous feed for Oskar and for Jasper and Jake’s horses when they got in, split it between three feed buckets and went back into the yard. He was shocked by Flynn’s tone, low and deep, that never failed to go right through him.

“Riley…..”

“I don’t neeeed it.” in spite of himself, Riley heard a tone creep into his voice that Flynn usually quite bluntly referred to as whining, and yet somehow it often sneaked out around him, whether Riley intended it or not. Flynn nodded at the kitchen door.

“Inside.”

Stomach starting to twist since from experience he knew this wasn’t good, Riley stood his ground. It never worked. Flynn just slung a blanket over Oskar’s back, taking a moment, then he walked around Oskar towards Riley. Riley twisted around to evade Flynn catching his arm or any other part of him, preparing to unleash the temper that had always made his father and every other adult in his world back off and never impressed Flynn one jot. Flynn simply dodged him, caught him by the belt of his jeans and a second later Riley felt the breath jolted out of him as Flynn scooped him up in one brisk yank, hoisting Riley over his shoulder and striding directly up the porch steps into the kitchen. Not dropping or spilling the buckets took hard work upside down. Flynn closed the door behind him and set Riley on his feet and Riley banged the buckets down on the floor.

“Flynn!”  

“Corner. That one.”

Furious, Riley sat down on the kitchen floor beside the buckets before Flynn could get any more ideas about manhandling. Flynn hoisted him straight back to his feet and swatted him across the seat of his jeans. Hard. Riley’s jaw dropped open in shock, not least in the sheer sting that erupted across his butt, grabbing for the injured spot.

“….Flynn! That hurt!”

It was nothing like when Paul did it; that was for damn sure!

“Corner.” Flynn repeated, waiting.

He looked big in his damn jacket, scarf and hat. And cold. And ticked off. Mouth still open, butt on fire, and in spite of himself, not wanting him to swat again – that was a first Riley really didn’t want repeated any time soon - Riley still stood his ground.

“I want you,” Flynn said levelly, “To stand and face that corner. It’s up to you how long that takes.”

“I didn’t do anything!” Riley protested.

Flynn gave him a short nod. “Exactly. When I tell you to do something I expect to be obeyed.”

He had a major thing about that too. Riley glared at him.

“I know when I’m cold!”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“Why?”

Flynn didn’t answer. Just waited. Riley folded his arms and glared right back. Across the kitchen Paul went on making dinner. Darcy wandered into the kitchen, walked around Riley and poured himself a glass of juice from the fridge. In the yard, Riley caught sight of Jake leading the blanketed Oskar and Fuzz who he usually rode, together across to the corral, and a moment later Jake came in, picked up the buckets and took them back outside to make up the feeds. He didn’t look twice at Riley or Flynn on his way. Furious, Riley stalked across to the indicated corner and leaned against it, arms folded, facing Flynn.

“Happy now?”

Flynn pulled out a chair from the table and sat down.   

“Turn around and put your hands on your head.”

“Flynn!”

Flynn didn’t react in any way. Just leaned, elbows on his knees, watching. Riley huffed at him.

Ok, I’ll put the fricking coat on!”

“Too late.”

In the family room, quite unashamedly listening to this, Darcy buried his face in his sleeve to stop laughing. In the chair by the fire, Philip calmly turned a page of his book, glanced at him and swallowed a smile.

“Behave.”

“The longer you don’t,” Flynn’s voice pointed out evenly in the kitchen, “The longer you’re going to stand there.”

He meant it. He always fricking meant it. He’d hold out for days without a problem, not giving an inch. Riley had tried this out a few times in his first couple of weeks here, used to adults who could be coaxed, or the power of dumb resistance until they gave up and sulked and let him do as he pleased. Flynn, who was not intimidated by and could master the largest and stroppiest horse on the ranch in ways that stole Riley’s breath, and who Riley had established as the strongest and most dependable person in his world over the past six months, gave short shrift to either tactic. To Riley’s alarm Flynn got up and Riley knew he’d just go do whatever needed doing, taking no further notice unless Riley moved from where he was put. He never coaxed. He never gave second chances. Hastily, before he could leave, Riley very reluctantly turned his back and put his arms down.

“Happy now?”

Flynn just went into the bathroom and a moment later, Riley heard the shower start to run. Initial outrage at his refusal to engage rapidly turned to feeling very alone and outcast indeed, with nothing more cheering to look at than the paintwork. He heard Paul doing something with the oven behind him, but knew Paul wouldn’t speak to him or take any notice. Neither would Jasper, Jake or anyone else; if you were in a corner in this house you were more or less invisible. Riley had never stood in a corner in his life until he came here. Lately he seemed to spend a whole lot of his time here.

It took forever for Flynn to reappear. Riley shot him a sideways look when he did. He was damp haired and shouldering into a fresh sweatshirt, one of his old college football ones that hung slightly battered over the curves of muscle in his shoulders and chest in a way that always clung to Riley’s eye and often re-emerged in his memory at inconvenient hours of the night. Paul groaned behind him.

“Are you ever going to throw those old rags away? They’re horrible things, too big and faded, I don’t know why you’re so attached to them.”

“I like them.”

Flynn pulled a chair out and Riley heard him sit down.

“Come here, halfpint.”

It was something Flynn had teased him about in his first few weeks here; he was growing fast but still working towards his full height and lightly built, so that wrestling with Jasper or Flynn was impossible to win no matter how enthusiastically he tried. Halfpint. It had kind of stuck in Flynn’s vocabulary and there was a kind of affection behind it that was difficult to resist no matter how mad at him you were. Miserable and hopeful that this meant he was done, Riley very gladly escaped the corner and went to him, head down. Flynn pulled him down into his lap, wrapping an arm around his waist which was extremely disarming and very comforting at a moment when Riley was caught between angry with him and wanting his understanding. Riley had been surprised the first time he’d seen Darcy in Philip’s lap, but it seemed so normal a gesture of affection to them that it had fast stopped being something he felt the slightest self-consciousness about. Flynn and Paul and Philip and the others – they were a close bunch and they included Riley very freely in the hugs and arms slung around neck or waist as they walked, and welcomed it in return from him. Riley loved it. He hadn’t realised until he lived here how hard it been stifling that instinct all day every day over the last few years.

“Was that ten minutes really worth all the drama?” Flynn asked him. Riley shook his head. Flynn put a finger under his chin and made Riley look up.

“Was it?”

His eyes weren’t angry. Neither was his voice. They never were no matter how much of a pain he was being, and that was something special to here too. His father would never have had the patience or the time to see him as a priority the way Flynn did every day. Flynn paid as much attention to things like wearing a coat and doing as he was told promptly and with a good attitude as he did to whether or not a horse had been properly worked or the troughs properly filled. On impulse, Riley twisted around to bury his face in Flynn’s neck and Flynn hugged him, rib-crackingly tight as he very often did, and for some reason, Riley wasn’t sure why, his eyes stung painfully and he hung on all the tighter.

“Why did you find yourself in the corner?” Flynn said in his ear.

Riley squirmed, really not wanting to admit to it. “It wasn’t a big deal, I know if I’m cold.”

“Is that the point?”

Riley shook his head again, still more reluctantly.

“….no.”

“No.” Flynn said definitely. “If I tell you to do something, I expect you to do it. And I don't expect to have to repeat myself, or for you to backtalk me every time I tell you to do something. It's not how things work here.”

Riley flushed, keeping his head down. He was still unused to being called on this stuff every single time he tried pulling any crap; and it was crap, he was well aware of it. He privately and sincerely appreciated that Flynn wouldn’t take it and nor would the others, although Flynn was usually the first one to challenge it. It still wasn’t easy.

Flynn tapped his hip where his hand rested. “I would have appreciated your help tonight.”

“I tried to help.” Riley protested.

“And you would have been able to if you'd have put your coat on.” Flynn put him on his feet. “You get the cutlery, I’ll get the plates, let’s set the table.”

No one said anything about it at dinner, although Riley was well aware they all had to have heard. The large, noisy dinnertimes in this house were always a pleasure to him, and his embarrassment eased fast as everyone dug into their meal, swapping gossip about their day, the animals and places, all of which he now knew well. Darcy smiled at him as he handed rolls across the table and Jake, taller than any of them and lounging somewhat in his chair, gave him a cheerful nod.

“The road’s clear, I saw the Jackson snowplough go through around lunchtime.”

“Then I’m going up to Cheyenne in the morning to do the Christmas shopping,” Paul said at once, “Quick before we have another fall like the last one and I can’t get there at all. Riley, you’re coming with me, we need to kit you out for the winter here. Nothing you’ve got is nearly heavy weight enough and you’re growing out of most of it.”

“You need riding boots.” Flynn added. “Decent ones. I’ll come with you.” 

“You’ll do what?” Paul lowered his fork and looked at him. “Seriously? You are coming with me to do the Christmas shop in a mall in Cheyenne.”

“Yes.”

“I’ll come too.” Jasper said peaceably from across the table.

Paul’s eyebrows raised even further.

“I want pictures of this.” Jake tossed up a piece of roll into the air and caught it in his mouth. Philip resignedly laid his fork down and pointed at the door. Jake grinned, got up taking his plate with him and ambled out into the family room.

“I’d feel better for you to go as a group rather than Paul drive there alone,” Philip said calmly when he was gone. “The roads are rough this year. Darcy, will you go with them?”

“No, I’ll just head into Jackson next time Jake goes. And I can always do any last minute shopping along with Gerry when he does his Christmas Eve panic.” Darcy helped himself to another scoop of potatoes from the dish in front of him, leaning one long, angular elbow on the table as he ate. “Jake and I can keep the stock covered if you guys will do the same for us sometime next week.”

“Would you like to come, sir?” Flynn asked, a little more formally. Philip smiled but shook his head.

“No thank you, Flynn. I shall restrict myself to shopping with Darcy, and with Jacob should he be able to refrain from behaving like a sea lion. Riley did I see you checking Napalm for a limp earlier?”

“Yes, I got Flynn to double check him before he went out,” Riley said, “He got an overreach messing around in the snow, I saw him do it. He keeps trying to gambol around in it and he’s too big.”

“He let Riley take a proper look.” Flynn cleared his mouth, looking across to Riley, “We couldn’t find anything worse than a surface graze. Ri got hibiscrub and Vaseline over it.”

“Without being eaten.” Darcy added. “Which with Nape is always impressive.”

“I’d say that wasn’t luck, so much as established trust paying dividends.” Philip said calmly. “Well done Riley.”

And Napalm, their problem horse, was getting the knack of how to play. It was something Riley had been working on with him in his spare moments for months. Philip’s approval was always warming. Riley caught the brief smile and nod from Flynn which affirmed as much as Philip did and that helped a whole lot too.

  

They were clearing up after dinner – which was an equally amiably mob handed affair Riley enjoyed as another nightly ritual – when the phone rang and Paul picked it up.

“Falls Chance Ranch? Hello love, how are you? Yes, he’s here.”  He held the phone out to Philip. “Luath.”

Philip took the phone. “Hello Luath. Yes. Yes of course, just a moment.”

He went out into the family room, taking the phone with him. It was a few moments before he came back. Riley was putting dishes away, edging around Darcy who was sitting on the counter and debating with Jasper about some picture he was looking at of some blue sparkling singlet in one of the multiple magazines that arrived frequently in the post for Darcy. Philip put the phone back.

“Paul, would you make up Luath and Roger’s room please? Luath will be dropping Roger off with us tomorrow to stay while Luath goes to a meeting in LA. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if they then decide to stay with us through Christmas.”

“Yes, I’ll do that now.” Paul rinsed out the sink and dried off his hands. “We’ll wait another day to shop then, Roger loves Cheyenne.”

“I think not.” Philip took his seat at the table. “Roger has managed to get himself into hot water with Luath. Luath needs us to act in a supervisory capacity, Roger will be extremely grounded while he’s here.”

“What’s happened?” Darcy demanded. Philip shook his head.

“That is for Luath and Roger to share if they choose to.”

“I hate when he’s grounded.” Darcy said half under his breath. Increasingly baffled, Riley looked to Paul for help, who nodded him towards the stairs.

“Riley, give me a hand to make up their bed?”

Riley collected linen from the closet on the landing, selecting a green pile at random, and took it to Paul who was in the mirror room to the one Riley had first stayed in when he came to the ranch. At the opposite end of the hallway, but a small, low room directly under the eaves with a window that overlooked the corral and the pastures running away towards the tops. A few book shelves lined the walls in this one. Paul was shaking out blankets and took a sheet from him to unfold it.

“You know them, you met them both at Thanksgiving.”

Yes. They had been nice, and Riley had often seen them in the photographs on the nightstand in Philip’s room while he sat on the bed and chattered at Philip while he dressed. Philip liked company in the mornings. Unfortunately, like everyone else in this family, they were ancient. Darcy, at 32, seemed ancient. Hell, even Flynn and Jasper and Jake were grownups to an annoying degree and they were only a few years older than Riley was and cooler than the entire rest put together, from the way they rode and wrangled stock to the way they walked around the place being yay tall and built. But someone talking about Roger, the grown up accountant with glasses, being grounded sounded too odd to get his head around.

“How is someone that age grounded?” Riley demanded. Paul passed him the far side of the sheet, starting to tuck his side in with his deft, delicate fingers that Riley loved to watch moving whenever Paul did anything practical like this.

“You know about discipline relationships, you’ve heard us talk about it plenty of times.”

“Yeah, but not-”

When the others in the family who actively practiced this stuff were here, they didn’t exactly act it out; they just hung around looking like everyone else. Yes, Riley knew the theory, knew Philip and David had lived this way, knew most everyone in the family chose to live this way, they’d always been perfectly frank about it. But in concrete terms- Riley was the only one who ever seemed to get into any trouble. And it was damn hard to envisage with the adults he knew here.

“It’s just how things are between them.” Paul said reassuringly. “You’ll find most of the family work like this, it’s not a whole lot different to what we expect of you. It’s how they choose to live with their partners.”

And they were gay. The whole lot of them were gay. Having struggled for years in a world where nothing and nobody seemed to be, getting his head around the wonder of every single one of them being like him and for normality to be set in this way in complete polar opposite to the outside world was still mind blowing when he stopped to think about it. Wonderfully normal.

“They were both here a long time before they got together as a couple, they moved out to New York when Luath took a new job up there.” Paul straightened the blankets and tucked them in. “Roger’s an accountant, Luath’s an executive officer for a corporate group in the city.”

Both careers Riley was familiar with, having grown up playing on the floor of board rooms and read in the ante rooms of multiple offices all over the states while his father worked in much the same line of work as Luath.

“So how did they end up here wrangling cattle? You said they were here for years.”

“Luath was Philip’s secretary for a long time,” Paul helped him shake the quilt out over the bed. “They were here because it was somewhere they could be themselves and have the lifestyle and relationship they wanted, that’s why a whole lot of us come here.”

“Me included.” Riley added half to himself.

“You included.” Paul twitched the quilt straight and led the way out of the room, closing the door behind them. “They’re no different, hon. Go on and get in the tub, I want you to have an early night, we’ll be leaving before five in the morning.”

Well that was interesting. It was the first time a trip to Cheyenne had happened and an early start suggested a serious trip. Nevertheless the first part of that request was not welcome and Riley tactically ignored it, heading swiftly and hopefully for the stairs until Paul cleared his throat loudly and pointedly.

“Riley James Hamilton, I’m not buying that for a second.”

Very reluctantly Riley paused and turned, looking back at him. Paul did not look in the least cross, he never did, but he said very firmly,

“Come back here right now.”

Slowly, Riley walked back to him and jumped when Paul took his arm, turned him around and swatted the back of each thigh in turn to punctuate himself.

“Don’t ignore me please.”

It was nothing like Flynn’s swatting at all, not even close, but it stung and Riley yelped involuntarily, feeling his face turn three different shades of red and shifting his weight on his feet. Paul turned him back to see his face.

“Bath, right now. I’ll tell you when it’s time to get out.”

In other words, no trying a three minute bath and then heading straight downstairs to socialise; Riley had tried that one out too before now. Riley disappeared into the bathroom and shut the door, for once glad to be alone for a bit. And not sure why about that either. Flynn had gotten on his case plenty of times before. Paul had told him off plenty of times before. It didn’t usually feel like it was feeling today, and he didn’t know why.

About forty minutes later on Paul’s orders he came downstairs to say goodnight, something that happened a lot since he was always in bed hours before everyone else, whether willing or not. Philip was playing chess with Darcy, who was sitting on the arm of his chair. Jasper and Flynn were both reading. There was no sign of Jake; there often wasn’t at this hour. He usually went out for a run in the evenings, not having gotten nearly enough exercise working cattle and sheep all day. Having accompanied him once or twice, Riley was aware that Jake ran like the Duracell bunny; without ceasing, no matter what the terrain, for miles. Considering the snow depth outside Riley wondered what he was doing tonight. Skiing possibly. Philip looked up with a warm and always private smile for him when Riley stooped to kiss his cheek, taking no notice whatsoever of Riley’s glowering. He never did, and with him Riley never minded.

“Goodnight. Sleep well, enjoy yourself in Cheyenne.”

“Goodnight.” Riley said at large to everyone else. Flynn put a hand out from his book without looking up as Riley stalked past him, snagged Riley’s wrist and Riley grimaced, half growling, half laughing as Flynn towed him back and pulled him down into a rough, warm one armed bear hug that shook a lot of the scowl and some of the sense of muddle.

“Sweet dreams.”



Those dreams wouldn’t come tonight. Riley tossed and turned for a while, hearing the usual night comforting sound of male voices in the distance, talking. The occasional whinny of a horse in the corral outside. Eventually, frustrated, he leaned over and turned the light on, slid out of bed and padded across to the bookcase, looking through the shelf for something to read.

He was still searching when he felt rather than saw something behind him, glanced up and yelped in shock at Jasper, leaning against the doorpost with his arms folded, watching him.

Don’t sneak up on me like that!”

Jasper failed to look apologetic. In fact he said nothing at all; he just looked, his dark eyes steady. The look said all kinds of things that Riley couldn’t miss. Stomach tightening, Riley selected his book and with a show of outer calmness, walked back to bed and settled under the cover, book in hand.

“Was there something you needed?”

Jasper pulled his sleeve down over his hand, reached up and extracted the light bulb from Riley’s light. And left as quietly as he’d arrived, leaving Riley with his mouth open in the dark.

Downstairs, Philip heard Jasper’s quiet footfall cross the landing in the other direction and Darcy, moving a knight into a different position on the board in front of them, looked with him.

“Riley? He’s been grouchy all day.”

They were alone. Jake, Paul and Flynn had gone out together to do the first evening rounds with the stock in the home pasture. Philip didn’t exactly acknowledge or deny that statement, merely leaned unhurriedly to wrap an arm around Darcy’s waist where he sat on the arm of his chair.

“What exactly are you wearing?”

Darcy glanced down at his high necked, sleeveless singlet that clung to his body. “Animal print is very in.”

Philip swallowed on a smile and leaned over to move his bishop.

“Mmn. In what?”

“Flynn thinks he’s missing his father.” Darcy ignored the question, planning his return move. “I don’t think that’s it. Riley’s happier here than he ever was with his father, I don’t think there was a whole lot to miss.”

“You can miss the concept of someone.” Philip pointed out mildly. “Particularly at this time of year.”

Darcy decided on a move with his queen and winced as Philip leaned to move a knight and take one of his rooks.

“Which one of them are you intending Riley for?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Paul, Flynn, Jasper, Jake?”

“I’m not intending anything, thank you. Riley will make his own decisions when he’s old enough, he’s very young yet. And so are the others.”

“Yes, you with your house full of gorgeous boys with legs up to here, I know.” Darcy fluttered his eyelashes at Philip, who smiled. “And you’re not talking about what even I can see and I don’t swing that way. Flynn just does it around Riley, it all switches on. I’ve been watching this stuff in this house a few years, I know what I’m seeing, and Flynn might not have noticed-”

“It’s your move.” 

“And Riley’s got his head screwed on, he’s not that young in any way that counts.”

“Darcy, I’ve never yet swatted you.” Philip said mildly. “I’d hate to start at Christmas.”
  

*
  

Paul woke him in what felt like the early hours of the morning. Riley staggered into the clothes Paul put out for him, aware that this was dressing up in a way he hadn’t done since he came to the ranch. Paul was smarter than usual in slacks and a shirt and jacket in a way that emphasised his dark blue eyes and how they looked when he smiled like a spark was alive inside them, slim hips and the length of his legs which was something Riley noticed a lot, and in the kitchen he found Jasper looking surprisingly different in a dark brown suede leather jacket and slacks instead of his jeans. It was the first time Riley had seen him wear anything but his usual work clothes and it made him look several times and carefully; somehow it took some of the wild edge off Jasper. With his hair bound back at the nape of his neck he looked remarkably – normal, was the word that came to mind, along with a whole lot of hot. An inconvenient word that came to Riley’s mind and other places of him far too often at the most inconvenient moments in this house. Flynn came into the kitchen and went direct to the fridge to extract the juice carton, his dark blond hair tousled, wearing the pair of jeans he’d ripped the ankle of on barbed wire a few weeks back, and a sweater over a t shirt, the same as he wore every day.

“No.” Paul said definitely, although in an undertone. They were all keeping quiet to avoid waking the rest of the household and to Riley it was rather like being included in some kind of private conspiracy. “Flynn, go and put something decent on. We’re not mucking out a corral, we’re going to a city mall.”

“What’s the difference?” Flynn drained the last of the juice and binned the carton. “There is no logical point to dressing up in order to shop.”

“There’s a point to looking like we’re not a bunch of stable hands.”

“That’s exactly what I am.” Flynn took the keys out of Paul’s hand and Paul shot an exasperated look at the back of his head, grabbing a set of prepared bacon rolls in serviettes from the table.

“Then how about not looking like that for me to feel better about it?”

“I’m supporting you in Christmas shopping. I am not acting as a piece of art work. I don’t see I’m any more helpful tarted up than I am normally dressed.”

“Does Jasper look tarted up to you?” Paul demanded under his breath. Jasper raised his eyebrows at Paul in a way that made Riley burst out laughing.

“Yes.” Flynn said bluntly.

“He does not, you Neanderthal. He looks fine.”

“Yes. He looks fine. I’d look tarted up.”

“Standing right here.”  Jasper pointed out to them mildly.

Paul handed him a bacon roll, passing another one to Flynn. “Just because you think shaving is the height of ponciness and you’re threatened by malls, Flynn O’Sullivan - I take it you’re driving, are you?”

“If I’m heading with you and Riley four hours up snowy roads to bloody shop, yes. I’m driving.” Flynn disappeared into the garage and Riley heard the whirr of the door go up. Paul rolled his eyes at Riley, handing him a roll.

“Brace yourself. I have a horrible feeling he’s going to be like this all day.”



Flynn was a good, if fast driver. Jasper sat next to him and in the back seat, Paul slipped an arm around Riley’s shoulders once he’d finished the roll, drawing Riley to lean over against him, which was always so easy to do and get comfortable with Paul.  

“Try and go back to sleep, it’s a long way.”

Piles of drifted snow stood high on either side of the highway, scraped up by the snowplough, lit by their headlights. A world of open white in the darkness.

Head against Paul’s shoulder, Riley slept most of the way, stirring only when they reached the borders of Cheyenne. It was one of the few capital cities he’d not spent time living in a hotel in; Wyoming wasn’t a state his father had visited much. Besides which, over the last few years, it had been a case of travelling only from airport to hotel to school and Riley occupying the hotel suite most of the time. There was little fun to be had mooching alone around a strange city and after several clashes with kids at school Riley had been less and less inclined to be alone in public places.

“Take the signs to the mall car lot.” Paul said as they reached the city itself. “We’ll start in the mall and then there are things I need from the shops in the main street.”

“What’s this lot A, lot B business?” Flynn demanded.

“Have you never been here before?” Riley asked. Jasper smiled and Paul shook his head at Riley.

“No, you’re honoured. I’ve never gotten either of these two into Cheyenne before now.”

“It’s a city, like any other city. What the hell is going on here, this place is packed.” Flynn joined a standing queue of cars waiting to turn into the lot. Paul popped his seat belt.

“It’s Christmas, this is normal. It’s going to be crowded.”

“Then logically why don’t we do this shop some time it isn’t crowded?”

“Because half the things I need aren’t in store at that time.”

Flynn made an explosive hissing sound between his teeth, glaring in his rear view mirror at someone in a blue estate behind them who was inching closer. 

“I’ll open the damn boot if he likes and he can get right in.”

It took several minutes of crawling the car lot to find a space, Flynn parked and grabbed Riley by the back of the coat, yanking him back as another car swerved on the icy ground.

“Let’s get on with this and get out of here. Riley stay with me, do not go wandering off.”

“It’s a mall, not a jungle, no one is going to die.” Paul led the way towards the entrance. “Riley, if you do get lost just come back to this door by Sears and wait here, we’ll come find you.”

“Do not get lost.” Flynn added even more shortly. Riley caught Jasper’s slightly rolled eye at him and grinned.

“Yes sir.”

A band were playing Christmas carols just inside the mall entrance, drowning out the piped Christmas music coming from the speakers overhead.  Large coloured baubles and strings of lights hung from the ceiling, lights illuminated every shop doorway and window, and in the window of Sears a range of Christmas trees dripped with trimming while a toy train ran somewhat manically round and round the track laid around it.

“You and Flynn and I need jeans,” Paul took Riley’s arm, turning back to find Flynn and Jasper. “Jas-“

There was no sign of Jasper. Paul produced a short huff, looking around the crowds surrounding them.

“Already? We’re twenty feet into the mall! I wish he wouldn’t do that.”

“That’s what he thinks of clothes shopping. If Riley needs jeans I’ll get him jeans. You go get what you need,” Flynn strode into the store, edging irritably around the sea of families, small children, strollers and mobility scooters. Paul pulled a list from his pocket, following less hurriedly with Riley.

“You are getting jeans, and you’re going to try them on first so I know you’re actually going to wear them and let me throw away the ripped and stained ones,”

“The horses aren’t looking, they don’t care.”

“I do when it’s forty below and you’re out working with the seat and knees worn through and holes ripped in the legs.”

“Where are we supposed to find jeans?” Flynn searched the signs overhead, “Why isn’t there one saying clearly, jeans? The whole point is to make it easy to separate customers from money.”

He strode off towards the menswear signs, dodging passers-by so Riley had to hurry to keep up with him. A store worker intercepted him with a bright smile as they passed a stand, expertly grabbing his arm to aim a spray at his wrist. 

“Good morning sir, can I interest you in the newest fragrance from Gucci?”

 Flynn’s hand intercepted before she managed it, tugging Riley out of her clutches.

“Gucci your hands off him, thank you very much.”

“Sorry.” Riley heard Paul say apologetically behind them as Flynn hustled him through the store, this time keeping Riley directly in front of him and providing a large, intimidating looking barrier between him and over enthusiastic sales people.

“Sorry?” Flynn demanded as Paul re-joined them. “Assaulting pedestrians-”

“A ‘no thank you’ is all it takes. Look, this way, jeans. No not those,”

“What’s wrong with these?” Flynn flipped through the nearest stand of jeans, withdrawing the right sized folded pair. Paul removed them gently.

“Look at the label. They’re flares, trust me, you won’t like them. Try those over there.”

“I managed to buy jeans in Colorado perfectly well by myself,” Flynn said irritably. Paul snorted.

“No, you just washed and wore the same two pairs until they fell apart and I replaced them. I used to wash new jeans four or five times so they felt worn and hid them in your baggage whenever you went back to college and in three years you never noticed. What about those?”

“They’re black. Jeans are not black.”

“You just said the horses wouldn’t mind.” Paul rummaged in the next stand for blue ones anyway, checked the size and leg length and handed them to Flynn. “Changing room, over there, go try those on and make sure they’re comfortable and you can ride in them.”

“How am I supposed to find that out in a changing room?”

“Be creative.” Paul turned his back on Flynn and smiled at Riley who was trying not to laugh.

“What looks good to you, Riley?”

There were a few styles to choose from, Riley grabbed the couple Paul handed him and took them to queue at the changing room, tried them on and came back with the most comfortable pair, watching Paul pull out three more in the same style and size and add them to the stack he carried.

“Good, that’s done. Flynn, you take these and go queue, I’m going to find a couple of heavy sweaters for Riley.”

The queue from the tills was already about twenty people deep. Riley trailed Paul into another section, looking with misgiving at the piles of sweaters.

“These are heavy.”

“Trust me, when it’s this cold you won’t notice. Your sweatshirts are too thin and too low necked. These are thick enough, pick three.” Paul indicated the heaps on the stands and Riley rummaged, rapidly taking the first three in decent colours, one a forest green, one red, the other in brown. Paul selected a couple more and several heavy flannel shirts, adding them to the pile.

“Don’t look so worried, those are for Flynn. If I just put them in his drawers he’ll wear them. If I ask him to choose them he’ll have a hundred reasons why he doesn’t need them.”

“What about Jasper?” Riley followed Paul towards the till queues. Paul found the end of the queue.

“Jasper manages fine for himself, and he likes what he likes so I don’t interfere. So does Jake, though he mostly gets what he needs at that moment and wears it to death, and Philip shops for himself and most of what he likes he orders by post from his tailors. Darcy is very particular about what he’ll wear so I don’t mess with him either,”

“So it’s just me and Flynn?”

“To manage? Currently, yes. But I like managing.” Paul nodded him at another rack. “Go get two scarves, two pairs of gloves, thick ones.”    

It took forever to get through the tills and there was no sign of Flynn in the crowd or outside of Sears. Carrying one of the bulky bags of sweaters, Riley paused outside a shop window and Paul stopped to look with him, smiling at a working miniature carousel in the window.

“Now that’s beautiful. What?” he added as Riley stepped back, embarrassed.

“Nothing, it’s just…” Riley gestured rather shamefacedly. “Kids’ stuff. Toys.”

“Models aren’t kids’ stuff?” Paul hooked an arm through his, walking directly into the shop before Riley could pull away. “Let’s look a little, it won’t kill you.”

With Paul holding his arm there wasn’t a lot of choice. But the model planes, engines, castles and clockwork knickknacks were charming, Paul was genuinely interested and not in the least abashed, and with him Riley found himself looking in earnest at the little working displays in each cabinet and letting himself enjoy it. He’d always been fascinated by these little gadgets ever since he was a kid. He yelped at the hand that dropped on his shoulder and poked the ticklish spot in his neck, crunching to escape and finding Flynn behind him.

“That took forever. It appears to be a law in Cheyenne that wherever I plan to step there will be someone unable to make a decision loitering directly in front of me.”

“Are you at any point planning to stop whining?” Paul inquired, surrendering one of the bags of clothes as Flynn took it to carry. Flynn gave him a level look.

“I am not whining. Are we done?”

“Nowhere near. Home goods next.”

“Then give me a list, we’ll split our time and get done faster.”

“Ok.” Paul pulled the list from his pocket. “We need purple or lavender towels-”

“Purple?” Flynn demanded. “Someone deliberately makes towels purple?”

“They make towels all colours.” Paul said evenly. “Gerry and Ash just had their bathroom painted,”

“You’re not seriously telling me they had their bathroom intentionally painted purple.”

“The trimming is lavender, it was in the letter I read out at breakfast yesterday if you’d been paying attention, and that’s what would work well for Christmas for them. Two sets. Egyptian cotton, heavyweight. You get those and pick a blender for Bear and Ash, and I’ll get the blanket for Wade and Charlie’s room and a stationary set for James and Niall. Riley, come give me a hand?”

The home goods section was slightly less crowded than the clothes section and even more boring. Riley trailed Paul past pillow cases and toast racks, starting fast to lose interest as Paul searched through and found an old fashioned and to Riley’s eye very conservative stationary table set, and then flipped through a long rack of blankets.

“I need another blue one to replace the one on Wade and Charlie’s bed, it’s faded and the end corner is getting very worn.”

“This one?” Riley indicated the nearest blue one and Paul had a quick look.

“Little bright for them, they like darker colours.”

There was only so much interest anyone could take in shades of blue. A small kid appeared at the end of the aisle, looked at Riley with about the same lack of interest in home and wear that Riley felt, and then got down on his hands and knees to peer back around the corner. Riley discreetly edged to the other side of the stand in time to see a frantic looking woman run up the aisle with a stroller. He caught her eye and discreetly signalled, saw the look of relief on the woman’s face and her slightly harassed smile of thanks. Another woman, talking loudly into her phone, rounded the corner with her cart and promptly blocked the aisle. Losing the will to live, Riley edged around it and wandered into another section full of cushions and mugs. The connection between the two escaped him. It wasn’t like anyone ever bought a cushion and then thought: I really must buy a mug to go with this.

“Fed up yet?” Jasper’s voice said in his ear. Riley jumped, near to screaming with shock. Jasper calmly took another of the bags from him to carry. He had several in his other hand and he carried on walking. “Where’s Paul?”

“Getting blankets.” Regaining his breath with an effort, Riley followed him. Paul had a blanket under one arm and the stationary kit in the other and came across to meet them.

“Ok, we’re done, let’s find Flynn.”

“There.” Jasper nodded calmly across the store and Riley saw Flynn dodge around another stroller, heading towards them. Paul looked too and let go a short breath of frustration.

“And he hasn’t got either of the things I asked him to find.”

“No heavyweight towels.” Flynn said exasperatedly as he reached Paul, who frowned.

“None?”

“There are bloody acres of towels but no towels labelled ‘heavyweight’ which is what you asked me to get.”

“I meant towels which are heavy, thick,”

“You said heavyweight, I looked for heavyweight. And they’re a ridiculous colour, no one could possibly use towels in that colour.”

“Ok, fine, I’ll get those, you get the blender.”

“I looked at those too. Overpriced and enormous things, I read the spec slips. Who is seriously going to pay $50 for something that’s going to take up half the kitchen and is a large gadget for stirring? Bear isn’t going to thank us for lumbering him with one of those. What’s wrong with a spoon, you can at least put the damn thing away when you’re finished and it isn’t $50 for aluminium and mechanical tat.”

“If there was a horse department here you’d spend $10,000 without blinking and tell me it were good value,” Paul said just as exasperatedly, “And you’d spend half the day trying them out and checking them over first inch by inch.”

“If they sold horses here it would be worth the parking fee.”

That made eminent sense to Riley; a horse department would be infinitely more exciting than home wear and kitchen goods and far more worthy of attention. Jasper put a hand on his shoulder and his voice was soft in Riley’s ear.

“How about we take a break?”

They left Flynn and Paul to the blenders; Riley wasn’t wholly sure either of them saw him and Jasper leave. They took the nearest escalator down to the ground floor and Jasper, hands in his pockets, walked purposefully down the hallway and around the corner to a café with a window that overlooked the car lot. Seated behind a large hot chocolate under mound of whipped cream and caramel sauce – and Jasper was drinking exactly the same, which in Riley’s experience was rare, most adults preferred coffee given half a chance – things were starting to look a whole lot better.

“What did you like to do with your dad around Christmas time?” Jasper asked him, breaking a giant cookie in half and pushing the other half towards him. Riley snapped off a piece and dipped it in the whipped cream.

“When I was little we used to explore whatever city we were in. New York was my favourite, we’d go ice skating, theatres, one year we were in Florida and spent loads of time on the beach over Christmas, Disney World. That was cool.”

“But not as you got older?”

Riley gave him a half shrug and smile. “I guess we’d done it all by then. Wasn’t so much fun being some place new all the time, we didn’t get on so well. You can’t pick a teenager up from the baby sitter for an hour’s ice skating and ice cream before bed and that makes up for everything. Disney Dad. You see through it after a while.”

Jasper didn’t comment, listening with his dark eyes very soft, and Jasper was a good listener. Sometimes Riley found himself talking to Jasper for hours about thing he didn’t usually think to talk about, it kind of just came out around him and Jasper never made you feel you were boring him. He dipped more biscuit in the cream, picking out a chocolate chip.

“He’s really good with little kids.”

“You must miss him.”

“Yeah.” Riley nodded a little with an even wryer smile. “Yeah, I do sometimes. That doesn’t mean I wish I was back with him, or not here; here is great. Here is exactly what I wanted.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t miss him at the same time.”  Jasper said with sympathy. “You call him, don’t you?”

“Sometimes.”

“Is that often enough for you?”

“Yeah.”

“You know you can invite him to come to us for Christmas any time you want to?”

Riley smiled fully then. “Thanks. But he’ll be working, and – well, here suits me. And everyone else on the ranch. But it wouldn’t suit him so much...”

He raised his eyes briefly to glance at the boy serving behind the coffee bar, maybe twenty, whose bronzed good looks suggested he’d got the lingering hints of a summer on a beach somewhere and whose butt was tightly outlined in the brown uniform trousers he was wearing. Jasper followed his gaze and his own smile was appreciative in a way that warmed Riley more than the hot chocolate did. Sometimes he felt as if until he’d met Jasper and the others – much as they treated him more like a kid than his father ever had – they respected him more as a grown up too than he’d experienced before. It was an odd combination.

Outside, Flynn passed by with an armful of bags, heading purposefully towards the car lot. Jasper sat back, picked up his hot chocolate and watched him with a slightly less obvious but much warmer smile lingering around his eyes and mouth. Riley followed his gaze, picking up on the undertones within it.

“Does that mean we’re done?”

“No, he’ll just be putting some bags in the car so we’re not carrying them around.” Jasper said apologetically.

He was still watching. Riley wasn’t sure why until a few minutes later Flynn passed by again, looking increasingly irritable, still carrying bags. On his third pass by, Jasper finished his hot chocolate and put the mug down.

“Stay here. I’ll go help him find the car.”
  

*

  
The drug store was boring. The other department store was much worse. By the time they entered the third electrical outlet Riley found himself pleading, “How much longer are we going to be?”

“Not that much longer.” Paul said briskly. “Blenders.”

“We’ve looked at whole shelves of blenders.” Flynn said irritably. Paul ignored him, heading towards the small kitchen goods shelves.

“All of which you said were too big.”

“See blender, buy blender, go.” Riley trailed after them. “It’s not hard.”

“Don’t you start.”

Sighing heavily, Riley scuffed after Paul, hearing Flynn open a freezer cabinet behind them. Flynn was relatively cool for someone as antediluvian as he was in his early twenties, but apparently even he had to look inside appliances and find the interiors interesting. It seemed to be something that happened to adults. A moment later he shrieked involuntarily as an ice cold hand slipped under the back of his sweater and pressed on cold skin. Paul spun in alarm, Flynn let Riley twist away from him and gave Paul a calm look.

“You wanted a blender?”

Paul gave him a narrow look in return and went back to the blenders. Jasper, hands in his pockets behind them, had his eyes on the floor, looking as innocent as Flynn did. Riley dug Flynn in the ribs with an elbow and Flynn fended him off, scuffling with him for a moment which he was good at, big enough and solid enough to shove against with all your strength without knocking him off balance in the slightest. As he walked past, on his way to look at yet another fricking blender, Riley on impulse did something he hadn’t done since middle school: abruptly sucked his forefinger and gently inserted it into Flynn’s ear.

Flynn’s yelp was loud, Riley burst out laughing and Paul jumped along with a number of other shoppers in their vicinity, turning on both of them.

“Ok, I’m done. Out. Both of you. Go do something else a long way from me, right now. Go.”

Quite a few people were staring. Flynn took Riley’s shoulders, taking him rapidly out of the store, and Riley could feel him laughing. Behind them, he saw Jasper, working hard on keeping his grin under control, going quietly to stand between Paul and the watching eyes.


            There was a shop somewhere on the main street that sold far more interesting things like barbed wire and hats and riding boots, and Flynn rapidly and efficiently sorted out a pair of riding boots for Riley with satisfying lack of fuss. Riding boots too that were non-decorative, tough ranch type boots and nothing as prissy as the riding school boots Riley had grown up with. Further on down that street, hidden in a big old stable yard, was one of several large antique stores, a three story old brick building that had once been a dairy, now filled with all kinds of junk. In amongst the old chairs, churns, elderly dolls and fire screens, Flynn went directly to a wall that held a rack of saddles and tack, running a hand over a long, brass hung harness.

“That’s a beauty. That’s seen some use, it was probably on a brewers’ dray about eighty years ago. Clysdales.”

“They went out in decorated tack?” Riley asked with interest. Flynn turned up one of the brasses to rub his thumb over it.

“Needs cleaning. Yes, the breweries had their holidays and celebration days, market days, but they always turned their horses out well, it was a matter of pride. Oiled hooves, manes and tails braided up with ribbons… Philip took me with him to see a guy in Colorado a few years back who had a Clysdale stud, he must have been in his late seventies and he remembered as a kid doing their horses up like that in the fifties, he showed me some photographs. Beautiful horses. In the snows and at Christmas they took their horses out in belled harnesses.”

“Sleigh bells?”

“Jingle bells.” Flynn gave him a brief grin at his expression. “They are called jingle bells, that’s where the song got the term from. Round cast bells with the clapper inside, they go back to something like 800 BC. Started out as the sound attracting luck, decoration and status, and the basic warning you were coming when hooves were muffled by snow, especially on narrow trails. In the 19th century in our neck of the woods back home,  if you were driving a team, the horses direct in front of your wagon wore three bells. A team of four and the two nearest you wore three bells and the two in front of them wore four bells, and for a team of six, the two in front wore five bells. And if your team rescued a stuck wagon in the snow, the custom was that they’d give you a set of their bells as thanks, so if you came into town ‘with bells on’, all your bells present, you could prove you’d come in from a successful journey, no accidents.”

That was fascinating and Riley reached past him to lightly run a finger over the brasses. “Have you ever used any?”

“No, never a need for them on the station where I grew up, or on the ranch.” Flynn moved on to examine a very elderly, cracking saddle. But he loved equine history, as much as Philip did. Riley who loved listening to him or to Philip both of whom knew horses with a depth and love that Riley felt and freely shared their insights, tips and demonstrations every day with him, knew his own horse knowledge had more than doubled in the couple of months he’d lived on the ranch. And he often in the evenings saw Flynn immersed in one of the many horse books that lived on Philip’s shelves in the study.

Beyond the horse stuff they didn’t waste a lot of time on the rest of the store, just passing through it on their way out of the door. They also bypassed the various candle shops, crystal and jewellery shops, bath oils and salts shops and made a brief guerrilla assault on the large bookshop. Flynn shopped in a very satisfying way in Riley’s opinion: straight in, straight to the target, a quick zoom through the shelf and then either he bought or he didn’t. He scored one direct hit in the psychology section upstairs, politely but firmly declined to have it gift wrapped, and they were back on the street within two minutes.

They were walking back towards the mall when they heard the stock whistle; loud, carrying and distinctive, and Flynn looked across the road.

“There they are. Thank God, hopefully we’re done.”

They found somewhere for lunch after some debate. Flynn point-blank refused to enter anywhere with neon cowboys and flashing lights around the door which ruled out the pizza place, and another restaurant with a revolving Christmas tree was also rejected out of hand although Riley cheerfully would have given that one a go. Chinese was apparently out of the question although Riley was quite glad about that one not being a fan of fiddly foods. Sitting eating BBQ was good however. A brisket sandwich and coleslaw filled a lot of the hole left from getting up at dawn.

“You see this is actual Man Food.” Paul explained to Riley, watching Flynn make a sandwich out of a small heap of meat. “Half a cow, barbeque sauce, bread. As opposed to the one time I tried serving a spinach soufflé and someone went and got hamburgers out of the freezer.”

“That’s a straight exaggeration.” 

“Only because Philip made you sit down again.”

Flynn picked up a large lump of shredded meat with his fork and reached to stop Paul’s mouth with it. “Weird inflated egg with green bits is not real food.”

Riley saw the face Paul pulled at Flynn in response although his eyes were saying something else entirely as he opened his mouth to take the meat. They were flirting. It took a split second for Riley’s brain to process it and realise like a lightning bolt that shot both up him and very definitely down; two grown men not just kissing or sharing a room but flirting like any pair of high school kids. It warmed him down to his boots. Both of them carried on talking about Paul and Jasper locating and buying a blender without a pause. But it was like seeing them with fresh eyes. And it was a bit of an eye opener, as Jasper was calmly sitting across the table, eating and listening and apparently seeing all of this without the faintest concern. Riley had seen Jasper and Flynn kissing. He’d seen it clearly on the night he decided he was staying on the ranch, and asked and Flynn had confirmed to him, yes, they were both gay. And that kiss had been pretty unmistakeable…. Although there was nothing he’d ever seen since to suggest that Jasper and Flynn were anything more than very good friends. They often didn’t seem to even talk much together, they just were together a lot of the time. But with separate rooms.

So maybe this was just harmless flirting and Jasper didn’t mind. Maybe this was ok between good friends and these three were good friends. They were friendly with everyone, they never actually showed it, but Riley always thought of them as a group somehow, just different in some intangible way to the others in the house.

They split up when they finished dinner. Jasper and Flynn to do whatever shopping they needed to, and Paul with Riley, walked further down the main street towards one of the bath shops as apparently Roger and Luath liked these things.

“Should I get things for people?” Riley asked a little uneasily as they went into the first of the stores. He earned his keep on the ranch; not a wage. And that was fine with him, but he currently owned about four dollars in change. He was slightly surprised by but very warmed by Paul’s hand slipping into his and discreetly squeezing it.

“No, stop worrying about it. I organise on Philip’s behalf something for everyone and that comes from us all in the house including you. Some of the others like to swap personal gifts with particular friends but we don’t get that hung up about it and those will all be little things, there’s just too many of us for it to get complicated. Philip’s quite firm about that, otherwise all of us would be broke every December. You’ll see most people that come over Christmas will bring something to contribute to the household, mostly things like food, or a game. And that’s melon scented which Roger loves-” Paul paused to collect a set of some bath stuff with green packaging. He was good at this. The same way he was good at organising meals and the way he was planning lists for Christmas. He enjoyed it too; the sparkle was in him. Riley could feel it as Paul led the way to the counter, adding some orange packaged items to his collection.

“So now I’m pretty much sorted,” he added to Riley as he paid, “Except for Philip, so we need to go to the tailors around the corner, I have a couple of silk shirts on order for him. And then I have to figure out Flynn who is a nightmare to buy gifts for unless you get him books, and pretty much everyone else always gets him books so I won’t. Mostly unless he can read it or ride it he doesn’t get the point in it.”

Paul held the door as they went back out onto the sharply cold, snowploughed street and Riley paused, looking at another of the several large antique stores as an idea occurred to him.

“There is something I think he might like?”
  

*

  
They spent several evenings wrapping while listening to records on Philip’s old record player. It was not something Flynn joined in with patiently but he followed the list of what was for whom, Paul wrote cards and kept track of labelling, Darcy and Jasper were particularly gifted at making wrappings fit awkward shapes and producing neat, immaculate corners, and Riley, enjoying himself as he had never done this before in this amount or as part of a family’s yearly ritual, lay on the floor with lengths of ribbon and bows and discovered a particular knack for creating ribbon curls.

Philip sat with them and he too was very good at wrapping, but he spent at least an hour every evening in the study with Roger; the subdued looking, sweet faced guy with glasses, who didn’t say much, who was ending up in bed nightly way earlier than Riley was, and Riley saw very little of him except for meals. Darcy, who Riley caught several times watching Roger with slightly anxious eyes as he quietly said goodnight and went up to bed, winced as he saw Riley looking and said mostly under his breath as he wrapped another parcel, “He is in deep this time.”

“Why don’t you go up and talk to him?” Riley suggested in the same undertone, helping him gather up scraps of paper and head towards the kitchen. From his tone he realised he knew already it was something the others wouldn’t like or approve of, even if he wasn’t wholly sure about why. Darcy shook his head, stuffing paper in the bin.

“That’s not how it works.”

“Yeah, Flynn says that a lot.” Irritable suddenly, Riley found himself demanding, “How is it fair that you have a friend in the house and you can’t even talk to the guy when he’s miserable?”

“Because this isn’t about me, it’s about them,” Darcy said lightly. “Fair doesn’t come into it.”

That seemed so ridiculous that Riley paused, mouth open, half way to outrage when Darcy gave him a faint, subdued smile.

“Is Flynn just picking on you when he won’t let you blow him off? Or when Jas steals your light bulb? Does that ever make you feel unwanted or disliked?”

……no. Never. Riley hesitated, about to argue that it just came with the territory of raising kids, even when it was a group of cowboys raising a kid who rapidly growing out of being a kid - and yet knowing at the same time that it wasn’t the same thing.

“Luath makes him happy.” Darcy said definitely. “I see that every day. And I love Luath and I love Rog, I know what Rog would be like without this kind of a relationship, it wouldn’t be a good place for him and he’d be the first to tell you. I don’t think he’d be able to fall in love with anyone who wasn’t like Luath, it wouldn’t happen. This is the lifestyle he and Luath chose before they even met each other, and Roger’s all in to both the way of life and Luath, believe me. You’d swear Rog has no idea what day it is but he knows exactly what he’s doing when it comes to this stuff. He’d tell you today sucked, but it wouldn’t change his mind.”

“Why?” Riley demanded. The look Darcy gave him was peculiarly tender.

“You know what? I think you’re probably going to find that out yourself. Just get to know Luath and Rog – really get to know them – and the others, before you decide about ‘fair’.”

“You don’t do this, do you?” Riley asked him. Darcy smiled, spreading his arms, the slightly mercurial fizz coming back to his face.

“I am a politically neutral territory with a non-interventionism policy. No. I don’t want a dp myself. But I love a whole lot of people who do, so I have a pretty good idea of how it works.”

Jake came in the back door, shaking snow out of his hair. He was only dressed in jogging pants, tennis shoes and a sweatshirt that was damp with sweat despite the temperature outside, his face and hands red with cold, and he grinned at them both, heading into the bathroom. Always cheerful, always friendly, and it occurred to Riley abruptly that he was always passing through. Rarely settling anywhere for long in the house before heading off to do something else.

“Yes.” Darcy said, seeing Riley looking after him and wondering. “He is. But whoever he shacks up with is going to need to be on speed to keep up with him.”


 *


The house filled with people in the couple of days before Christmas just as it had over Thanksgiving. Riley had never enjoyed himself so much as he had this Thanksgiving with people who wanted to talk and chatted freely with him and anyone else in the vicinity whatever the time, who just joined in with whatever was going on like they knew the house and the routine and what to do like Riley did, and they included a number of very active guys who were always keen to ride, walk, mess around and come out to help with the work while the older guys sat and chatted. They loved to be here, their pleasure in it was infectious, it was likely being involved in a lively, very welcoming party and Riley welcomed them gladly. They had accepted him on sight at Thanksgiving as if he’d always been there and part of the household, and they treated him that way, all of them.  

Luath returned from his business trip early one evening when the house was nearly full. Riley saw Roger get up at the sound of the car and no one followed him, and Riley, who was nearest to the kitchen, saw Roger open the door to him, his hesitant and rather shamefaced welcome to the big, good-looking black guy who shook falling snow off his hat and dropped it to pick Roger up off his feet and kiss him, and Roger’s arms folded very tightly around his neck.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, Bear, who was rapidly becoming one of Riley’s favourite people among what was referred to in this household as the ‘brat population’, demanded over the clatter of twenty people eating breakfast together to know who was coming out with him to get a tree, and about two thirds of the men at the table raised hands or shouted back. Flynn slid his chair back, nodding to Riley as he got his coat.

“We’ll take two of the shires up with us, they’re best on the snow. Monty and Harlech. Cart harnesses.”

The old tack, which Riley loved getting to play with, and there was pleasure too in Flynn turning to him as an ally in this crowd of people all of whom were competent with stock. He was gulping back the last mouthful of tea to follow him and getting up when Paul put a hand out, drawing Riley around the table to him and keeping his voice low.

“This is probably the right moment to use them, isn’t it?”

Yes, it was perfect. Riley grinned and jogged around the huge extended table into the family room to the small heap of wrapped gifts in the corner by the hearth where an armchair had been moved to make room for the tree when it arrived, searching until he found the one he wanted. Flynn was halfway down to the Shires’ pasture when Riley caught up with him, striding with difficulty in the deep snow.

“Flynn?”

Flynn glanced back and paused to wait for him, collar turned up under the brim of his Stetson since the air was sharp this morning. Riley passed him the large and heavy, brightly wrapped package.

“You’ll have to know how we put these on?”

Flynn turned the package over, raising an eyebrow at him, then tore the paper, pausing at the jingle the tearing paper caused. Riley grinned as Flynn pulled the belled harness straps out of the paper, his face going very still.

“These are old. They’re beautiful. They must be seventy, eighty years old.”

They were well oiled and softened; Flynn had showed and taught him a good deal about caring for leather and tack. A lot of the tack in the tack room was historical stuff being well looked after in Flynn’s hands, and Riley had spent several hours working on this old harness to get it supple and bright again to Flynn’s standards, while Paul soaked the bells in some solution that took away the tarnish and made the shine. The result was beautiful indeed.

“You found this, didn’t you?” Flynn said quietly, and he hooked an arm around Riley’s neck, kissing his cheek soundly. “Let’s go try them out.”

Nefyn with her six month old foal came hopefully to the gate as they put head collars on Monty and Harlech and led them down to the yard. She was still shouting indignantly about being left behind when Riley brought the cart harnesses out and they buckled them onto the two massive, shaggy horses standing patiently canon deep in the snow. The belled straps hung in a wide loop around the girth of each horse, under the cart harness to keep it still just below their withers but hanging a few inches loose below their barrel and behind their elbows. They looked beautiful when they were on, shining against the shires’ dark coats. Flynn gathered Monty’s reins, shook them gently and Monty patiently walked across the yard, Flynn walking a couple of yards behind him with the reins in hand, and at every step the bells jingled clearly. Monty’s ears twitched a couple of times but the Shires were gun trained and weren’t easily startled. Riley tried driving Harlech a few steps in turn without the majestic Shire showing the slightest sign of being alarmed. Nor did either horse do more than turn their big heads to look at the round of applause from the crowd of men watching on the porch.


They walked out across the pasture and through the woods that morning through the snow in a large, cheerfully noisy group of men with the horses jingling their bells at every step, and Monty dragged the tree home behind him, the bright green branches sweeping the snow. 



Jasper and Bear together anchored the ceiling height tree in the corner of the family room and James and Niall brought the boxes of decorations down from the cupboard by the map room. They decorated the tree together that evening with the contents of those boxes: small wooden ornaments many of which were hand-made, several of which Riley recognised as Jasper’s work but most he suspected strongly were David’s, recognising the work from the carved figures, houses and boats on the map upstairs. There were ships, horses, little wooden cabins, apples, and they were handled with love by the men who Riley knew had known David themselves. The glass baubles were the last to be hung and Philip unwrapped each one from its tissue paper, handing them to Darcy and Jasper who hung them delicately and securely where the firelight shone on them.

Paul had put candles along the mantelpiece and along the hearth and Flynn lit them, the flickering light adding to the firelight as Wade turned the electric lights out. The room was full of people. Riley’s eyes lingered on Roger who was sitting on the floor against Luath’s legs as Luath sat on the couch with Wade and Charlie, his head tipped back against Luath’s knee while James tuned the radio on the record player to find the world service and the carol service that would be broadcast from King’s College chapel in England. Philip’s hand found Riley’s before Riley fully realised he was hovering at the back of the room and Philip drew him close enough to murmur in his ear, his voice too quiet to be overheard.

“Do you want to call your father?”

He hadn’t called tonight, although he did call every few weeks. Riley wasn’t surprised, this was often a busy evening for him. He shook his head.

“No. I’ll call him tomorrow and wish him merry Christmas. He’s probably with clients this evening. Or at an event.”

Philip nodded calm acceptance, taking Riley with him to the armchair he usually occupied as James found the World Service.

“I’ve listened to this carol service every Christmas Eve since the first one I spent here with David.”

There was a room full of men here watching but Riley abruptly sat down on the arm of Philip’s chair and leaned over to give him a swift, tight hug.

“It’s ok to not want to call him too.” Philip said very gently in his ear. “It doesn’t make you uncaring or selfish. I don’t doubt you love him. It’s all right to be happy.”

On the radio a boy’s lone treble began the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City and the room went very still.

Paul usually ran a buffet rather than a sit down meal when this many people were at home. He was spreading dishes all over the table when Riley wandered out to help and he paused, looking at him, then put down the plates he was holding and held out his arms.

“Come here.”

Riley walked over to him and buried himself in Paul’s chest. Paul leaned back against the counter and held him, saying nothing, both of them listening to the carol on the radio in the family room. Through the open door, Roger was visible, sitting with his head against Luath’s knee and Luath was stroking his hair as they listened. Beside them, Wade was lounging against Charlie who had one arm slung over his chest.

“Don’t you mind?” Riley said slightly raggedly against Paul. “All the growling and glaring Flynn does, don’t you mind about it?”

“He doesn’t do it that much?” Paul said in surprise. And then paused, thinking some more and running his fingers through Riley’s hair while he thought.

“That isn’t what you mean, is it? Ok. I guess it’s because he’ll sneak out at night and go do the stock work when it’s my turn to do it, so when I get up it’s already been done and the only thing left for me to do is make him a cup of tea, even though it means he’s up several times through the night and it’s freezing outside. And because he’ll demand to drive on snowy roads so that I don’t have to, and he’ll come shopping with you because he knows you’re feeling unsettled and having a rough few days and he thinks it’s important for you to have us do things together that every other kid does and for you to feel secure, and he minds about that a whole lot more than he hates malls. And just thinking about him doing those things makes me want to go and kiss him. So even if he’s hell on legs all day in Cheyenne, I don’t really mind that much. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah.” Riley nodded against him, wholly understanding that. “Yeah it does. Paul, when you find someone you want to be with, will it be a discipline relationship? Is that something you’ll want?”

“Yes.” Paul nodded slowly, quite calmly. “Yes. They all look different sweetheart, it’s different for everyone. But yes, for me it will be.”

There was a very faint flash of someone on the porch beyond the kitchen door. Riley saw it beyond Paul’s shoulder as Paul let him go to look at him.

“Luath isn’t a grouchy person. Give it a few days to get to know him. I know it can sound scary-”

“No, it doesn’t.” Riley said aloud as he thought it. It was quite impossible to think of Philip or Paul or Flynn or Jasper as scary.


            A path had been shovelled through the deep snow along the fence line to where the Shire horses were huffing with white misting breath over the fence at him. Exactly the path Philip liked to walk. They were a protective bunch; most likely Philip thought this was Flynn’s work. Flynn saw this kind of thing and acted it on it, always swift in action for the people he loved even if he lacked the verbal charm at times.

Philip leaned on the fence, taking the carrots from his pocket that he’d taken from the sack in the shed on his way, handing them out to the several massive heads nudging him hopefully and running a hand over each long, furry ear in turn to make sure there was no frost nipping. They had not yet had nights severe enough to bring all the horses inside but they would come.

“You don’t need to lurk,” he said gently to the pasture beyond the Shires. “I wouldn’t mind the company.”

Jasper detached himself quietly from the shadows, walking slowly through the deep snow with a knack of rolling his weight he must have learned in boyhood when he lived in snowy forests for months at a time every year, a way of moving that barely created the slightest crunch or squeak.

Oh David, you would have loved this one.

Jasper’s hair was loose and over his shoulders, he was bare headed despite the cold out here, his hands dug into the pockets of his jacket. A completely normal jacket, although it did nothing at all to disguise the strength of the long bones in his face, chiselled and beautiful; there was a kind of agelessness to those bones that Philip suspected would last most of Jasper’s life, but there was beneath that veneer the trademarks still of the very young he saw in Flynn as well, the way the two of them ran upstairs without thinking, the way that they wrestled with Riley or with each other, the energy that boiled in both of them. Both of them utterly trustworthy, utterly dependable and Flynn was running more and more of the ranch each year without realising it; the boy was going to be one hell of a rancher. With Jasper as his right hand and anchor. And wherever you found those two, you always found Paul with them, happier than Philip had seen him since the Christmas David persuaded him to stay on at the ranch, and deeply embedded into the household in a way David would have been delighted by.

“Do you know the carol ‘O little town of Bethlehem’?” he said conversationally. Jasper shook his head, coming to lean quietly on the fence beside him and rub Monty’s long nose as his own pockets were investigated.

“Well it’s sung to two tunes. To the tune of ‘Forest Green’ in England, and differently in the US. It was David’s favourite carol. The English version. Sung properly. He was most put out the first time he heard the American tune. It was being sung in his approved fashion in the King’s College programme this year, he would have approved.”

Jasper didn’t answer out loud, but then this boy had the knack of comfortable silence. Philip often told him of David, knowing the importance Jasper put in history and oral memory and the value he gave to being entrusted with your memories and feelings. David would have approved of that too, he’d believed in it strongly himself.

The newest member of their family was within earshot too, coming quietly up the snow cut path towards them, not at all tentatively since Riley hadn’t worried about things like whether or not he should involve himself since about his third day living with them. A straight forward and open hearted soul, Riley did exactly what Jasper and David valued, but without spending time worrying about it. Not thoughtlessly, not carelessly; just frankly without complication.

“Coat.” He pointed out cheerfully to Philip and Jasper as he joined them, shrugging to indicate the heavy jacket he wore.

“What an excellent idea.” Philip teased him lightly and saw Riley’s sweet, flashing grin swept in his direction as he petted the several horses pushing over the fence for his attention since Riley spent a great deal of his free time playing with them.

“Well I listen to him sometimes.”

‘He’ was no doubt somewhere in the darkness too, most probably on the porch since he kept a close eye on Riley when there were new people in the house or any other time he thought their youngest addition was unsettled.  It was unlikely Riley had managed to leave the house tonight without Flynn noticing. Philip handed over the last piece of carrot and began the slow stroll through the snow towards the house. The snow had formed a crisp crust over the loose day’s fall; it crunched underfoot and the stars above were sharp in a very bright black sky, high and clear. It was slightly past nine pm with only three hours remaining of the Advent, three hours until the magic hour of Christmas itself.

“David told me once,” he said, remembering aloud, “the church bells used to be rung in his village at midnight on Christmas Eve. Calling people to Mass, but also sounding the devil’s death knell.”

He had been a boy the last time he had celebrated midnight Mass in a church, but every year since he came to Wyoming and was stranded in a small decaying mining town by heavy snows at Christmas, he had stood outside in these pastures in the darkness, before the mountains and the river that crossed their land, with David, and felt that surge and the wonder and celebrated the coming of the hour and all it meant. The lights in the house – and the porch, so brightly wound with Christmas lights courtesy of Bear and Gerry so that it could be seen miles away which raised a smile every time Philip saw it, and the smoke rising from the chimney stack and the warmth and chatter of each of the men inside gathered together – that was in itself a celebration as well, of a different kind to Philip. Because to him that truly was David and always would be David more than anything else. David had loved every one of them, they were each one of them a part of him. To Philip’s private fascination over the past couple of years, somehow even the ones he had not met still had his mark on them as if they absorbed or learned it from the others: Philip still found himself seeing the traces of it and marvelling to himself that it was there. This had always been one of David’s favourite nights of the year, he would have loved to be here this evening.

They were crossing the yard when Riley glanced round and Jasper paused. Philip stopped mid step to listen. Whispered like a harness stirred by a draught in the tack room and travelling in the crisp night air, the soft shake of jingle bells.



~ Merry Christmas 2014 ~

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 

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