Thursday, September 17, 2015

Handbags at Dawn

December 1st

Gerry
7:28 am 
To: Darcy, Niall, BigBear

Exhibition starts in half an hour, queue half way 
around the block outside, someone get me a stiff
drink, a stiff boyfriend and a mallet for the stiffs in 
suits who WONT GET OUT OF MY FACE or STOP 
FLAPPING


Darcy
7:29 am
To: Gerry, Niall, BigBear


I keep telling you to do what I do and 
hire some eye candy to serve drinks. 
Then you've got something nice to look
 at until the alcohol takes effect.



Gerry
7:31 am 
To: Darcy, Niall, BigBear

It’s breakfast time in Seattle and I have no alcohol, 
I am horribly, horribly sober. Ash hid the key to the 
cocktail cabinet last night. I ask you. I’m on espresso #5. 
Should I worry?

Niall
7:33 am
To: Gerry, Darcy, BigBear

Yo, Overcaffeinated In Seattle…..
Can you still see straight?? 
Step AWAY from the coffee

Darcy
7:34 am
To: Gerry, Niall, Big Bear

Only if you're showing off glass tonight, 
then I might make myself scarce. If it's 
linens or ugly paintings, then it shouldn't 
matter if your tremors knock anything over.

Gerry
7:35 am
To: Darcy, Niall, BigBear

Yeah if I took your advice the paintings would all be 
draped in that sparkly apricot chiffon that looks like 
a fairy threw up and surrounded by your nine foot 
tall skeletons with long hair.

Darcy
7:37 am
To: Gerry, Niall, Big Bear

They’re mostly fun to be around. You’re serving 
drinks there this morning aren’t you? Can't you 
switch to something better than espresso?


Gerry
7:39 am
To: Darcy, Niall, BigBear

We’re serving coffee and champagne with Danish pastries. 
Seriously. I’m now on espresso #6. This one has vanilla. 
According to Tia who just dropped off flowers I look 
slightly manic. Ya think???


Ash
7:39 am
To: Gerry

How is it going sweetheart? 
Still breathing?


Gerry
7:40 am
To: Ash

Everything great, standing by,
 doors open at eight!  


Ash
7:42 am
To: Gerry

Good, stay off the coffee and sugar

Niall
7:43 am
To: Gerry, Darcy, BigBear

Ger, STEP AWAY FROM THE COFFEE 
or give your phone to someone still sober


Darcy
7:43 am
To: Gerry, Niall, Big Bear

Darling, I told you, you needed to let me 
get the chiffon out and help with this one


Gerry
7:44 am
To: Ash

Never mind the coffee, I’m about to 
Mingle with a glass of champagne. 
Lock up your sons and husbands. 

Ash
7:45 am
To: Gerry

Mine doesn’t need locking up, 
he just knows what’s good for him. 
Have fun, I’ll pick you up at noon, 
hope it goes well.

Gerry
7:45 am
To: Ash

Kisses 

Gerry
7:46 am
To: Darcy, Niall, BigBear

It's just coffee, I AM sober, that's my whole 
problem. Just had to go tell a journalist to 
please stop knocking on the door, it will open 
when we're good and ready. i.e. when the suits 
GET THEIR ACT TOGETHER. Now one of 
the artists is having a meltdown… 

Gerry
7:48 am
To: Darcy, Niall, BigBear

The chiffon doesn't sell art to high society. 
Besides, Ash helped me a bit to set up last night. 
He did NOT approve of the extra bits I wanted to 
add to one of the nude pictures.

Bear
7:50 am
To: Gerry, Darcy, Niall

Xmas lites & a cowboy hat?


Niall
7:52 am
To: Gerry, Darcy, BigBear

ROTFL


Darcy
7:55 am
To: Gerry, Niall, Big Bear

LOL Probably improved them no end. 
I might try that with the French models, 
might improve them too?

Gerry
7:59 am
To: Darcy, Niall, BigBear

Nearly. Doors opening. Oh good grief. 
WTF do I do with a woman in fox fur 
at 8am in the morning?


Niall
8:02 am
To: Gerry, Darcy, BigBear

NO ONE answer that, or the phones 
will be confiscated by the fbi.



Darcy
8:03 am
To: Gerry, Niall, Big Bear


You put the coffee and the phone down, 
calm down, quit texting and go do 
some work maybe? 

Gerry
8:05 am
To: Darcy, Niall, BigBear

Go and sound all reasonable why don't you. 
I hung in there as long as I could when you 
had a boring show, at least until Ash took 
my phone away.

Darcy
8:06 am
To: Gerry, Niall, Big Bear


It wasn’t boring it was classy

Gerry
8:06 am
To: Darcy, Niall, BigBear

Yeah that was not what you were saying 
at the time….. 

Darcy
8:08 am
To: Gerry, Niall, Big Bear


You’re panicking over how many people there? 
Thirty? My last show was six hundred? 

Gerry
8:09 am
To: Darcy, Niall, BigBear

I am NOT panicking


Darcy
8:10 am
To: Gerry, Niall, Big Bear


Then try doing some work?

Gerry
8:11 am
To: Darcy, Niall, BigBear

I AM fricking working what do you think 
I’m doing? If you think you can do it better, 
you come take over and bring the chiffon


Niall
8:12 am
To: Gerry, Darcy, BigBear


Girls girls girls. Play nice. 


Darcy
8:12 am
To: Gerry, Niall, Big Bear


Ger, call Ash if you’re getting in a 
state, you’re what he's good at.


Gerry
8:13 am
To: Darcy, Niall, BigBear

Like you’re qualified to know. 

Niall
8:15 am
To: Gerry, Darcy, BigBear

Hey, that was uncalled for


Gerry
8:16 am
To: Darcy, Niall, BigBear

If you think you can do it better you come do it. 
Be my guest. Bring the thong and anything else 
you’re currently using to tart at whoever you’re 
working with. 


Bear
8:17 am
To: Gerry, Darcy, Niall


Gerry back the hell up 




Niall
8:17 am
To:  Gerry, Darcy, BigBear

Whoa. Seriously! 


Niall
8:19 am
To: Darcy

Darce ignore him and turn your phone off 
for a few hours, he’s in a state and taking 
it out anywhere he can. He doesn’t mean any of it.

Niall
8:19 am
To: Gerry

Gerry, you’re going to be sorry for
 this later if you don’t pull it in. 

Darcy
8:20 am
To: Gerry, Niall, Big Bear


Ok, whatever. I've got to get a designer talking 
to a planner. Must be nice to have help on tap 
whenever you need it, even if you’re too stupid to 
use it. Ta ta for now.

Gerry
8:21 am
To: Niall

Pull WHAT in, he’s the one making out 
I’m sitting on my butt flapping while he 
has the big career! You’re not exactly 
perfect either you know? 


Gerry
8:22 am
To: Darcy, Niall, BigBear


Whatever you say. You give the designer 
one from me sweetheart. 



Seattle, Washington. 5.30pm.
December 4th


It was going to be one of those evenings where given half a chance, Gerry would flit around the house doing about twelve different but nonspecific things without any of them getting to the point of being done. Ash, experienced in these matters, recognised the signs of it as he took his coat off in the hall, eyeing the flotsam of dropped towels, nail files, clothes and cups. Their house often reflected Gerry’s state of mind if Gerry was left alone in it for a few hours. Gerry was in the kitchen and gave him a distracted wave with one finger from behind a saucepan into which he was trickling a long stream of something brown from a wooden spoon.


“It’s supposed to be spinnable at this temperature, it says here. Flick rapidly back and forth over a rolling pin…. Hello my darling. Did your client show up?”


“Hi.” Ash kissed him, putting his hands on Gerry’s hips to survey the caramel in the saucepan, then turning the gas off on the hob. “Yes, eventually. We’re not going to flick that anywhere. I don’t think it’s a good night for making spun sugar. Come with me.”


“It’s for this recipe that I read that looked lovely – what?” Gerry went where he was led and blushed a little at the sight of the hall. “Oh. Perhaps I was a little distracted, I came home early like you said, I took a shower, I was doing my nails because I was thinking all day they were a mess and then the phone went and I wandered with that and then I looked at the time and thought-“


“Pick up the towels and straighten this out right now.” Ash interrupted him firmly, going upstairs to change. He paused in the doorway of their room, slightly thrown by the sight of most of Gerry’s wardrobe laid out in piles on their bed, then walked past it to find home clothes in his own wardrobe. “And then come and put this away too.” He added towards the stairs in a louder voice.


Gerry, bringing the collected damp towels upstairs with him, gave him an apologetic look from the doorway. “Yes, well I wondered what went with that green tie I couldn’t find anything to wear with the other day and then I thought I’d just have a sort through- yes, yes, put it away, I know.”


“Why are you bringing those up here?” Ash paused, shirt unbuttoned, and put a hand over Gerry’s, drawing him over to look more carefully at him. Chattering at high speed, large eyed, charming and not really concentrating on anything much, and yet he didn’t look very happy. Gerry looked down at the towels as if he’d forgotten he was holding them.


“Do you know, I don’t know? I must be having a hot flush kind of a day. I’ve been thinking, wouldn’t it be nice to have Christmas here this year and not have to go anywhere? Just us? Make a bit of a change.”


He said it so lightly and casually, such an earth shattering thing, that it confirmed every suspicion Ash had.


“We’ll talk about it when the house is straight.” He turned Gerry towards the door with a swat to get him moving. “Take the towels down to the laundry room. Then come straight back and put this mess away.”


“Oh you’re such a drill sergeant.” Gerry told him, going.


Ash stood over him and kept him at it while he put the clothes away; in this mood without a firm hand it didn’t take much for Gerry to get distracted, start trying things on, get side tracked onto something else entirely or begin a meltdown about his waistline. Being hustled through sorting out a physical mess to a complete conclusion sometimes helped him act out the process of sorting his thoughts out when he was feeling scattered, although it wasn’t something Gerry ever liked to do. Once he closed the wardrobe on the last shirt, Ash led him downstairs and picked up the phone to one of their favourite takeaways, ignoring protests about spun sugar and ordering a meal to be delivered. And then took Gerry with him into the kitchen, putting him down in his seat at the kitchen table while he opened the fridge, found the bottle of wine cooling there and poured them both a glass. Gerry accepted the glass rather gratefully, giving him a rueful look as Ash sat down opposite him.


“I think I might be being a little frenetic. Sorry.”


“Want to tell me about it?”


Gerry sipped wine, giving him what Ash thought was a rather brittle smile. “Oh just this week, that’s all. Too much to do, Christmas coming, parties booking, it’s all a bit crazed.”


Which sounded perfectly reasonable. Except Gerry usually gloried in the social chaos of the gallery, he loved bustle as much as he loved this time of year, and looked forward from the beginning of December to heading to Wyoming as soon as their holiday started.


“And that’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” Ash said mildly. He saw Gerry’s slightly trapped look and nodded slowly, keeping his voice gentle. “No more chases to Texas, remember?”


“For goodness sake, you say that if I get annoyed the mail’s late, you’d think I made a habit out of racing to Texas every time I get the least bit upset. I was upset about the surgery, it was something major, it was different.”


“It’s why we practice with the little things, isn’t it? Sweetie I can see you’re upset about something.”


“You might trust me and believe I meant it when I promised you I wouldn’t do that again.” Gerry got up in high dudgeon, voice rising in pitch as much as volume, and Ash reached over to grasp his hand before he could depart in a manner that was painfully near to flouncing, winding his fingers through Gerry’s.


“I won’t sit down, I don’t want to sit down.” Gerry said sharply in a tone that was threatening to become tearful. “A few towels and you act like I’m having a nervous breakdown-“


Ok. There were several ways this would go if allowed to continue, none of them good, and from experience Ash knew the direct route always worked best. Gerry in this mood would inevitably wind higher and higher until he broke, distractions would only slow the process, and often the quickest way to end it was just to cut straight to the breaking point he wanted. Ash drew him gently around the table by their clasped hands, sliding his chair back to make space, and Gerry immediately pulled on his hand, his voice rising another half octave.


“No! That’s not fair-”


It took a firm and practiced pull to get him off balance and really he wasn’t resisting much. Ash tugged Gerry down into his lap, pulling him close and holding him tight enough to contain the squirming protest, and for a few seconds Gerry was as stiff as a board. And then abruptly he twisted around and folded his arms tightly around Ash’s neck and Ash felt him start to shake as the tears started.


Once the first hard burst was past he calmed quite quickly, but to Ash he felt limp and heavy rather than at all relieved by it. And all the time he was making soothing noises, Ash was racking his brains thinking over the past few days because there had been no clues, nothing at all about anything that could have thrown him this much.


“Are you going to tell me?” he said gently in Gerry’s ear when he thought Gerry was calm enough to hear him. “What happened today?”


Gerry sat back a little, running a shaky hand over his face until Ash put his own hand up to smooth tears off each cheek. He looked distraught. Miserable and frightened and as if the world had ended.


“It’s all such a mess. Everything. It’s such a mess and it’s all my fault, I hate myself.”


“Nothing is going to happen that we can’t handle, you know that.” Ash said quietly. “Tell me about it and we’ll straighten it out.”


Gerry’s phone buzzed its text alert from its place over on the counter by the charger. It had buzzed several times while they’d been sitting there; texts arrived constantly on Gerry’s phone which was partly why the phone lived on the counter when they were home and there was limited times in which Gerry might answer them. But Gerry, who had been too distracted to notice the earlier ones, tangibly jumped as he heard this one arrive, and on impulse, looking at his face, Ash reached over to pick up the phone.


He heard Gerry start to protest, a strangled “no…” that trailed off as soon as Gerry realised he’d given himself away, and he became still limper and heavier with defeat and turned his face into Ash’s shoulder as Ash opened the screen. It took a moment to read the text and make sense of it since it was not at all what he expected. A few minutes more to scroll through the conversation and then read the other text threads. All this time Gerry sat in silence within his free arm, face hidden. When he was up to speed with the content, Ash sat with the phone in his hand, resisting several very impractical and unhelpful impulses. And then, making sure Gerry could see him do it, he turned off the phone and pocketed it, and pulled Gerry closer to hug him tightly.



*

Portland, Oregon. 8.15pm


Bear was flat on his back under the kitchen sink, which meant most of his top half was obscured inside the under sink cupboard. He’d been looking with suspicion at their sink trap since breakfast and since he was the only one of the two of them who understood plumbing, Theo had been playing a minor supporting role and handed him tools and tested taps until the phone rang. As Theo came back into the kitchen Bear’s gleaming and clean shaven head re-emerged for a moment and then a hand reached out. His deep voice echoed slightly from within the cupboard.


“Pass me that wrench?”


Theo crouched to get it from the open and brimming tool box and hand it over, peering under the sink at the piping.




“Can you see the problem?”


“A crack. Thought so. Replacing it.”


Bear vanished back into the depths again. Theo watched him, propping his elbows on his knees.


“That was Ash who just rang. I need to see your phone please.”


Both large, bare arms were occupied but a socked foot indicated the direction. “On the side.” 


Bear didn’t sound surprised. Theo reached up to get the phone, taking a seat on the kitchen floor near him.


“Want to tell me about it or do I just look?”


There was a clunk of metal separating and a grunt of satisfaction from beneath the sink. “Ger’s being an ass.”


He said it quite matter of factly, as though this was a known quantity. It was usual for Bear in the occasional rows and fights that broke out; he never exactly joined in and Theo knew pretty much what he’d find as Bear’s contribution to the mayhem Ash had described. There was no spite anywhere in Bear, he was usually a very open hearted man. There was however tremendous will and downright stubbornness, and once he’d made up his mind, Bear would defend a position bluntly forever no matter what the opposition and it took an awful lot to shift him. Theo didn’t know of anyone but himself or Philip who had ever succeeded.


“Ash says Gerry’s pretty upset.”


“His own fault.”


“He’s in quite a state. Ash spoke to James and apparently Niall’s not doing too well either, he feels responsible.”


“Not his fault.”


Bear’s tone contained regret for that, but implied in no way that he intended to change his course of action. There had been plenty of barneys before where Bear had resolutely stuck to his expressed point of view that Gerry was being an idiot and refused to budge from it, and he could drive Gerry to distraction. They’d been bickering in this way for about twenty years along with Darcy, Wade, Niall and once upon a time Roger, and had a lot of practice; the minor rows and falling outs that were inevitable between a close knit group usually blew over fast. But Ash seemed to feel this was something different.


Putting his back to the kitchen cupboards Theo opened the phone screen and read through the multiple texts there. His eyebrows raised as he went further down the list and he whistled softly at the last few, starting to see what Ash meant.


“Bear….. this has gotten nasty.”


“Yeah.”


There was a metallic clunk and the grind of something tightening and Bear emerged from the cupboard, lumbered to his feet and turned the taps on with a sweet smile of satisfaction. Theo watched him check the water flow and the new junction for leakage, then tapped his knee.


“Put the wrench down and talk to me please.”


Bear looked at him with innocent, liquid brown eyes, shrugging his massive shoulders. And there was the party line, and the texts confirmed that Bear would hold that decision until the facts were changed by Gerry apologising. As far as Bear was concerned it wasn’t complicated.


“When did you last hear from Darcy?” Theo asked him seriously.


“Darcy fine.”


“Has he told you so? When was the last time any of you heard from Darcy?”


Bear shrugged again, indicating the phone. “Yes’day mornin’.”


It was the start of his deepening Ole Man River drawl that went right along with Bear draining IQ points on the spot, it was his main way of avoiding conversations he didn’t want to have and Theo got straight to his feet.


“Nooo I didn’t mean that!” Bear said very quickly and a good deal more coherently before Theo could take any more steps to the jar where a group of brightly coloured Kool Aid spoons resided. “He was ok yesterday morning. He’s upset but he’s not stupid, he’s ignoring Ger. Good thing too.”


“I’d rather know more than hoping he’s ok.” Theo said wryly, folding his arms. “Has he let anyone know where he is or what’s going on?”


“Just that he’s in France somewhere.” Bear admitted. “I guess he must be busy.”


“Guess or hope?” Theo asked him.


Bear’s large, soft eyes weren’t particularly certain. 


*

December 4th 10.25am
Cheyenne, Wyoming


Flynn drove. Paul had debated this with him in the yard before they left but Flynn was utterly immovable that if he had to go to Cheyenne and spend four hours in a car instead of doing something useful then he was at least going to be bloody well driving. And not parking anywhere they were going to charge a whole lousy dollar for a space when the whole point of the parking spaces was to generate revenues for the shop, which was why they’d be better off shopping in Jackson if there was anything they actually needed.


When he discovered people selling tickets at the entrances to the car parks this year which were refundable with coffee in certain outlets, the unfortunate man who came to his window and offered him the ticket was only saved by Paul swiftly leaning across him from the passenger seat and pressing a dollar into his hand while grabbing the ticket too fast for Flynn to oppose.


“Thank you.” He said sweetly to the man who looked from his smile to Flynn’s expression and moved on to the next car with all speed.


“Just park.” Paul said sitting back. “Breathe and park, it’s fine.”



Riley, who had napped a good part of the way since they’d left before dawn, glanced across Jasper to catch Dale’s eye and grinned at him.


“This place is a showcase for why people should have to pass intelligence tests before being allowed to drive.” Flynn paused to glower at a woman trying without much success to reverse her car into a narrow space. “There are lines. The lines demonstrate where to park. What twerp parked there with both tyres over the back line and one over the side line-“ he broke off on a muttered curse as the woman failed again and pulled forward for her fifth try, looking close to tears, and Paul took a deep breath as Flynn clicked his seatbelt off, flung the driver’s door open and strode over to the struggling car. Dale got out of the passenger seat and came round to take Flynn’s place, starting the engine and backing the four by four discreetly into a vacant space while the woman, who had initially frozen with terror as Flynn approached, gladly got out of her car and Flynn took her place and parked it for her, positioning it as exactly as he manoeuvred his horses. The woman’s appreciation in her face as he handed her keys back said that the grimness in his face belied both his eyes and his voice.


“How long is this going to take?” Riley asked plaintively as they started the walk across the parking lot towards the main entrance. The place was seething with people, most of them headed towards the shopping areas and their pace was fast enough that they were having to weave around them.


Paul, taking the notebook out of his pocket, shook his head.


“Don’t even start.”


“Can’t you and Dale go and do this bit and we’ll meet you somewhere afterwards? You’re the ones who’re good at it?”


That sounded a reasonable idea to Dale but Paul shook his head with absolute determination.



“No, because this is not Dale’s responsibility. Or just mine.” Paul found the page he was looking for and kept pace with Flynn’s brisk stride into the main concourse. The wave of powerful heating hit them as soon as they passed the entrance in a wash of dusty, stale air, Christmas lights flashed and hung from the ceilings in all directions and the place was flooded with people. Music was playing loudly on the speakers; Dale, blinking slightly on the shock of so many lights, didn’t recognise the tune and the tune appeared distinctly dodgy to him but every third word appeared to be ‘Christmas’ to ensure that you got the point. He glanced at Jasper who was not a fan of electronics or noise and Jasper, hands in the pockets of his dark brown leather jacket, gave him a calm smile. Paul, still reading his notebook, put out a hand to catch Flynn before he strode any deeper into the crowd.


“Stop a minute. Flynn, you and Riley-“


Flynn paused with exasperated courtesy to let an elderly couple hesitate in front of the concourse signs and take their time making a decision on where to go. “Every year we have this. I don’t need jeans, I’ve got a drawer full of jeans, let’s just get what you need and get out of here.”


Paul skirted a woman with a triple buggy and three small children, smiling at the smallest one who was waving a half sucked candy cane.


“We have the annual jeans fight because you’re hard on your jeans, most of yours have gone at the knee and been washed to death. You and Riley wear out at the very least four or five pairs a year and if I buy any brands I can get from Jackson, you say you can’t ride in them and won’t wear them.”


“I do not say anything of the kind, jeans are jeans. It’s perfectly straight forward, we just bulk buy whatever works, the same design and stockpile them.”


Flynn looked with loathing at a large display of animatronic polar bears which were yawning, stretching and looking up at a set of stars which flashed in time to a loud and tinkly version of The Carol of the Bells. A set of mechanical penguins were flapping their wings and singing from red carol sheets beside them.


“What do penguins and polar bears even have to do with Christmas?” Riley said behind him.
“Peace on earth, goodwill to all men, hug a polar bear. I missed that part.”


“North pole?” Dale suggested.


“How many polar bears are actually at the north pole anyway?”


“Of the recognised populations, eight are declining, three are stable, one is increasing and seven have insufficient data.” Dale said without thinking and Riley dug him in the ribs with one elbow.


“Yeah you would know that. Page 17 of the National Geographic?”


“Page 28, paragraph four, edition November 1992.”


Riley laughed. “I’m going to check, I swear you just make this stuff up.”


“How much space are these taking up and how much power are they burning?” Flynn said darkly to the penguins. “The whole point of malls is to enable efficient purchase, these are a-“


“Let’s assume these ones are part of Dale’s declining population and moonlighting for some extra income. It’s nice. It’s Christmassy, you’ll live.” Paul steered an unenthusiastic Riley towards Flynn. “If you want to bulk buy that sounds a great idea to me but Riley you need at least three pairs. Flynn, you need five because I’m throwing out every pair that are falling apart.”


“They’re comfortable and there is no need for anyone to buy five pairs of jeans, that’s ridiculous. Two at the very most.”


“You can get through three pairs in a day and most of yours are nearly rags.” Paul pointed out, looking straight back at him. “Five. I mean it. And both of you try them on, be sure you’re actually going to wear them. We’ll meet back here in an hour.”


“Have you any idea what it’s like messing around with changing room queues and curtains?” Flynn demanded. Paul took Dale’s arm and led him away, turning his back on Flynn and Riley both.


“Jas-“


There was no sign anywhere of Jasper. Paul turned in a circle scanning the crowds and sighed.


“I hate it when he does that. Let’s try Sears too, we’ll just avoid the menswear section.”


It was crowded in the department store but the lights and decorations still fascinated Dale. This was only the second Christmas he’d ever really looked at or participated in this; he knew probably as little about British shopping experiences as he did about American ones, but there was something about being with Paul in the atmosphere of cheerful chaos that was very appealing. They did the home and wear section thoroughly row by row in the way they both liked, and Paul, with his easy knowledge of the wider family, what they were currently doing, what they liked and their individual interests, had no difficulty matching person to item. From what he could remember of the letters Paul regularly shared at breakfast, Dale contributed and kept track of prices and positions of items and by the time they left Sears they had accounted for seven of the people on the list.


There was no sign of anyone else outside. Paul glanced at his watch and leaned against the wall.


“Ok hon, let’s prepare for this. If I have to, I’m going to drag Flynn back in there and stand over him until he’s chosen jeans he’s actually going to wear and then I’ll get enough pairs to get him through the year and hide them until they’re needed. Why don’t you and Jas go and look through the book store next? I had a list of what everyone wanted in there-“


“I saw it.” Dale said briefly which Paul understood meant that it was committed to memory whether he wanted it to be or not. Paul gave him a quick smile and touched his face.


“No, you’re not the family catalogue, stop it. Take the list, relax and enjoy yourself. Where is everyone?”


“Want me to go look at the tills?” Dale suggested. He left the bags with Paul and efficiently swept the store, dodging shoppers with carts, small children and no sense of direction, and checking each of the extremely long lines in turn which were not going to be something Riley or Flynn would be enjoying, but there was no sign of them. Paul was still alone when he returned to the front of the store, and Paul glanced again at his watch.


“This isn’t like them, Flynn’s usually out of that place like a cat with a stepped on tail.”


“There he is.” Dale straightened up at the sight of Flynn striding towards them looking exasperated. Paul sighed.


“And he’s either managed to fit five pairs of jeans in his pockets or he hasn’t bought anything. Where’s Riley?” he added as Flynn reached them. Flynn barely glanced at him, instead scanning the crowd around them.


“No idea, I’ve spent the last half hour looking for him. It’s like playing football without the bloody ball in there, it’s impossible to stay together.”


“And you didn’t buy anything?”


“I can’t find anything.” Flynn said irritably, still searching the crowd. “There were a couple of thousand people everywhere I tried to step and piles of black jeans. I’m not wearing damn black jeans around the place and there isn’t a single label anywhere I recognise,”


“Right.” Paul put the bags down. “Dale, stay here and wait for Riley, and when he shows up tell him from me he stays with you until we get back.”


“I’m not going back in there until I damn well know where Riley is,” Flynn said shortly and Paul put a hand in the small of his back, pushing him towards the menswear department.


“He’ll have gotten distracted by something, he’s lost track of time and I promise you he’s going to be fine until I get hold of him.”


Resisting the urge to grin to himself, Dale put his back to the wall and watched the lights and the people passing, finding himself humming along with the music on the speakers which was a faster version of a carol he remembered singing years ago at school.


Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, I wish my true love would so chanceTo see the legend of my play to call my true love to the danceSing oh my love, my love, my love, my loveThis have I done for my true love


It meant a great deal more when you had some concept of what a true love was. Or had four of them.


It was a long time before Riley emerged from the crowds carrying a stuffed bag of denim in one hand, and gave him a cheerful nod, sliding down the wall to sit beside him.


“I lost Flynn hours ago. Where is everyone?”


“Paul’s insisting he buys jeans.”


“Yeah well good luck with that. When I last saw him he was muttering about straight leg and hipsters and all kinds of crap being on every label and there’s pictures of models everywhere posing in ‘cowboy’ clothes they’d never be able to get on a horse or muck out a corral in, do you know how much that ticks him off?” Riley glanced at the pile of bags and got back up again, grabbing a handful of them. “You’ve got the car keys haven’t you? Let’s go stuff this lot in the trunk and we won’t have to carry it.“


“Paul said to tell you from him to stay here.”


“Trust me, they’re going to be hours. Come on.”


There was still no sign of Jasper. With definite experience that if Paul said ‘stay there’ he meant it and this wasn’t a great idea, Dale picked up the rest of the bags and went with him. It was cooler and quieter outside but the parking lot was chaos. They shut the bags in the trunk and Riley paused again by the polar bears and penguins as they re-entered the mall, shaking his head.


“It could be worse. It was singing elves last year, remember? Hey, look at that.”


He dragged Dale with him to the window of a small shop with gadgets whizzing around in the window, several executive toys which Dale had seen plenty of gracing desks of men old enough to know better and most of whom had probably had severely stunted emotional skills. These days he looked at this kind of thing and instead of impatience felt a very wry sense of understanding.


“I’d have loved to have got Philip something like this,” Riley said admiring a small helicopter circling a pad. “This would have really made him laugh.”


“Did you ever come here shopping with him?” Dale asked with curiosity. The thought of Philip walking through this mall on this annual pilgrimage was a nice one.


“Paul said he did used to, but he wasn’t up to the journey or to wandering around here by the time I came.” Riley drifted into the doorway of the shop with an arm still linked through his, looking with him at the other gadgets there. “He liked Jackson though. I went there with him plenty of times. And that’s the cupcakery over there if we’ve got time to kill, come on.”


“…Ri…”


“What?” Riley paused to look at him, bouncing on his toes with his exaggeratedly innocent hazel eyes dancing under unusually tidy chestnut coloured hair since he, like Dale and Paul, was bareheaded where Jasper and Flynn had worn Stetsons like they did every day they stepped outside. “Do you see anyone who’s bought jeans yet?”


It was an impossible to resist expression, it really was, and with the bustle around them, the music and the atmosphere of cheerful chaos, Dale very reprehensibly felt any desire to be responsible or even vaguely mature melt away and abandon him. Riley grabbed his hand, towing him briskly through the crowd towards the bakery on the other side of the mall.


The display of items in the window was large and brightly coloured and appeared to make sense to Riley who examined the stacks with appreciation.


Yes, death by chocolate! What looks good to you?”


Dale looked with mild alarm at the explosion of icing in improbable colours.


“What are these anyway?”


“Cupcakes?” Riley looked askance at him. “Please tell me you know what they are?”


“Well cake, obviously?”


They bore no resemblance to anything Paul ever made, and Dale’s experience of cake, or at least his conscious experience of cake probably started and finished there. It hadn’t been something pushed on plates at him during business meals or conferences, from the size of these things they wouldn’t have been conducive to meetings of any kind. Riley shook his head and pulled him into the shop, smiling at the guy behind the counter.


“Hi. I’ll take a death by chocolate, he’ll have… strawberries and cream, and two glasses of milk please.”


They were both carrying cash, it was something Flynn had made sure of before they left this morning and Riley handed over coins as two large, icing drenched creations were put on plates, one chocolate coloured, the other an alarmingly bright pink, both apparently dusted with gold glitter. Riley took the tray, leading the way over to one of the very few spare tables where he took a seat and pushed the pink item over in front of Dale.


Dale took the other seat, surveying it cautiously until he caught Riley Looking at him and grinned in spite of himself.


“What?”


“If you even think of asking for a fork...... “ Riley warned him.

Dale laughed, picking up the milk glass as a safer bet.


“Just because I was raised to be civilised?”


“Yeah and look where that got you? Peel the paper like this. Then you eat,” Riley took a large bite of the chocolate creation, which left icing on the tip of his nose and his chin, which he dabbed at unconcernedly with the back of his hand. “And wear it, because it is a big impossible mess to eat without wearing, this is the American way.”


Dale unwound paper from the pink creation, trying to find somewhere to take a bite without getting plastered in icing. The cake crumbled slightly at the first bite and cream and icing smeared against his face anyway, covering his fingers and chin and Riley burst out laughing with him.


“Yeah, you’re getting the idea. Fantastic isn’t it?”


It was. There was no denying it was. They ate, swapping bites of the two different cupcakes and both were wonderful. It was wonderful to sit together in the middle of a noisy crowd getting ridiculously sticky on something that tasted this good and Riley had a gift for enjoying the moment and pulling you in with him. They worked on cleaning up as best they could with the tiny napkins when the places and glasses were empty, and Riley cleared their table and zipped up his jacket, heading back into the cooler atmosphere of the mall and snagging Dale’s arm.


“One more thing to do and then we’ll go back.”


They covered the distance across the mall in a brisk stride that was approaching a jog, Riley’s approach towards shopping appeared to involve high speed, and Dale blinked as Riley pulled him directly inside a brightly lit and intensely colourful little store at the end of the row of shops. The place was littered with sweets. There was barely room to walk between wooden barrels and bins of all sizes which were brimming with sweets of all shapes and colours, some in bags but many just loose and topped with a plastic scoop that looked large enough to shovel snow. Jars and large racks of tubes of sweets lined the counters and shelves, candy canes and swirling multi-coloured lollipops ranging from mouth sized to paddle sized hung from the walls and the ceiling by the hundred. Riley appeared to know exactly what to do and what he wanted; Dale stood frozen while Riley grabbed several equally brightly coloured paper bags and simply used one of the plastic scoops, homing in on particular barrels without hesitation.



“Jas loves these… and Bear has a thing for sour candy – what do you like?”


Dale put his hands in his pockets, some part of him aware that he’d retreated to what felt like a very, very adult distance. Somewhere during his prep school years he’d been taken once or twice in a crowd of other small boys to shops – nothing like this, much smaller and quieter but still sweet based shops – and the clamour and noise and wrestling over paper bags and confident excitement in demanding the contents of the so appealing and brightly coloured jars had been alarming and alienating, to the point he’d left to wait outside. Flynn and Paul would both have been all over the reason why.


Not admitting or standing your ground for something you wanted, not if anyone else was looking or might think you cared or wanted it. Or that you were afraid to risk trying to get it. Easier to avoid and pretend being too mature to be interested in something so silly.

  
Riley took his arm and yanked, putting a shovel directly into his hand.


“Well get on with it? Have you got any preferences? Sweet over sour? Hard over soft? What looks good?”


There was another very awkward few seconds, then Riley said quizzically,
“Do you know what any of this stuff is?”


Well rationally, yes, it was mostly sugar with various chemical additives. Riley’s voice was somewhat gentler when he spoke again.


“It’s ok. Hold this.”


Dale took a deep breath and stepped up, taking the bag Riley gave him. Riley pulled him in alongside him, indicating one at a time of a collection of bins and barrels in front of them.

“Those are jelly beans, get a scoop of those – go on, more than that, scoop …. And gum balls, and these are popping candies, and these are sours…. These are marshmallows and these are gummy bears – and these are liquorice, I can’t stand that but Paul likes it so scoop another few of those– those are M&Ms. I already got a bag of those, Jas is addicted to them. Flynn won’t touch any of this stuff, he doesn’t like anything much other than peppermint and that’s only when he’s in the mood. Gerry’s a chocolate freak and so is Darcy, they won’t eat this either, or they’ll say they won’t but if it’s there they’ll pick at it – Luthe likes hard candies, so does James and Niall and Colm, I got a good bag full of them too.”


“What do you like?” Dale, still staggered by the variety of colours and shapes he was adding to the bag at Riley’s urging, glanced up at him and Riley shrugged.


“Anything with sugar on. I like it all. So does ‘Lito, he’s not fussy, and Roger was another bring it on kind of a guy when it came to candy. Think we’re done?”


This bag, now well filled, was added to the two already full that Riley was carrying and Riley took them to the scale where they were weighed and paid for and put inside a larger paper carrier bag.  It was as they turned towards the door that they spotted Jasper, leaning against the doorway in front of them with no clue for how long he’d been there watching. Unabashed, Riley waved the bag at him.


“Yeah I got the M&Ms.”


“I see you had fun.” Jasper’s smile reached Dale as he straightened up, it was as calming as the unhurried way he moved and the arm that casually rested close around Dale’s back as they walked out together into the chaos of the mall.  Riley, digging in the bag, pulled out a couple of round, lurid coloured balls and offered them to Jasper who took one without hesitation, and following his example Dale took the second.


“Gum.” Riley told him. “Chew, go on. It’s good.”


It was surprisingly strongly apple flavoured. They were half way across the main aisle when they saw Flynn and Paul heading towards them, Flynn at a rapid stride and not looking happy.


“They were with me, it’s ok.” Jasper said mildly as he reached them. “It was a long wait. How did the jeans go?”


Flynn gave him an expressive look.


“We have jeans.” Paul said, demonstrating the several bags he and Flynn were carrying. “I had to take them away from him and queue up myself but we have jeans. And a coffee maker.”


“We have no idea if Luath actually wants a coffee maker at all,” Flynn said darkly, falling into step beside Dale. “There are coffee shops all over the place in New York, and it’s not difficult to just boil a pot of damn coffee, you don’t need some ridiculously expensive gadget taking up space on the counter. What are you paying for? All it does is heat coffee.”


“Flynn.” Paul said evenly. “I love you dearly. But shut up now.”


“And I’m supposed to make a decision on whether he wants a red one, a green one or a gold one?”


Paul swatted him, hard enough that an elderly lady passing by gave them a look of alarm.


Flynn gave him a look that said it was going to take a great deal more than that to change how he felt about coffee makers, then did a double take at Dale as Riley laughed and Dale tried not to smile too obviously.


“What’s on your teeth?”


Dale looked up at him, startled, and Paul, catching sight of Riley’s grin, turned Dale to face him. His tongue was bright green, just as Riley was currently flashing blue.


“Candy. You’ve gone green like Riley’s gone blue…. Yes and Jasper’s gone orange. What have you lot been eating?”


“Gum balls.” Riley flashed the bag at him and Paul sighed, looking pointedly at Jasper.


“Great, we’ve been here less than two hours and you’ve stuffed them with sugar?”


“Survival strategy.” Flynn held out a hand to Riley. “Hand it over. I’ll look after that bag.”


Riley scuffled with him and Flynn confiscated the bag, adding it to the ones he was carrying. Paul dug in his pocket and handled Dale a bottle of water to rinse his mouth, keeping pace with him as they edged through the crowd. He always looked immaculately tidy – in fact on occasions when Paul was persuading the others to dress up, particularly Flynn and Riley who were at their most comfortable in shirtsleeves and jeans, he found it necessary to help Dale to dress  down a little to avoid him tipping as he so easily did into extremely formal. With an open collared navy blue shirt collar and jacket over cords, he looked fit and casual, and moreover he looked different. It took Paul a moment of watching him to be certain of what it was.


It was rather like the change in Riley, who in the years before Dale had always been bored and fed up after the first ninety minutes shopping like this and shortly after that would begin pleading to know when they could leave. Whatever he and Dale had been doing with Jasper he had clearly enjoyed. The sparkle was still in his face, he was having fun and it was infectious when Riley was enjoying himself. A lot of it was to do with having Dale here to share this and enjoy himself with, not to mention that Dale speeded up the process of shopping. And Dale - the times Paul had been here with Dale before, from the very first time when Dale had had so little idea of how to do this domestically that he’d shut down, there had always been a… subtle sort of passivity to him. He’d enjoyed this shopping trip with them last year, Paul had been sure of it, but he’d still been a little stepped back from them, an observer, as if he only felt qualified to watch. Right now, Paul could see in his eyes and the way he moved, the little signs he looked for all the time and it meant Dale was present. Wholly present. It was in part about his determinedly acquired commitment over the spring that he belonged to them now and had a right to be here and do these things. But it was also very much helped by his belief of a job to do. Actively experiencing whatever he could, not just observing or reading but doing, gathering in the information.


They ate together in Cheyenne in a busy Mexican restaurant before they left the city, and reached home shortly after 8pm. Jasper and Flynn took lanterns and walked down to check on the corral and the home pastures full of stock while Riley and Dale unpacked the car and saw to the putting away of the many and multiple bags crowding the trunk. Jasper was locking up and Flynn was heeling off his boots at the door when the phone rang and Paul, who was nearest, picked it up and tucked it in the crook of his shoulder, going on with making tea.


“Falls Chance Ranch? Hello Ash! Yes he’s here – is everything ok? Sure.” Paul glanced up at Flynn who had paused to listen, and held the phone out to him.


Flynn took the phone and sat down at the kitchen table. “Hi Ash.”


Riley leaned on his shoulders and Flynn automatically hooked an arm behind him to wrap around Riley’s waist and pull him around into his lap. “Mhm. Right. No, I don’t think so but I’ll make inquiries.”


Jasper went to wash his hands, leaving the bathroom door open to listen, and Paul put mugs down on the table and sat down in his place. In the family room there was the clunk of logs being moved as Dale lit the fire, then he came in to join them, taking in the sight of Flynn and the phone and quietly drawing out the chair next to Paul. Paul, watching Flynn’s face, saw him nod slightly a few times, face expressionless although his voice was calm.
“That’s the best answer I could think of, and as soon as possible. Of course not, you live here and we’re part of it. I’ll come meet you at Jackson – sweet. Ok. Yeah well our two don’t spend much time on the computer; that helps.”

Riley caught Dale’s eye across the table and raised his eyebrows. 


“I’ll keep trying and see if there’s any help he needs, I’ll do it now.” Flynn said crisply to the phone. “Ok Ash. Goodnight.”


He clicked the phone off and reached for his mug of tea.


“Well?” Riley demanded from his lap. “I couldn’t hear much of that at all, just something about Gerry?”


“Yeah well you’re nosey.” Flynn nipped at his neck with a tea hot mouth, making Riley crunch and yelp against him.


“Is Gerry all right?” Paul demanded. “What’s going on?”


“He’s fine. Ri, have you and Dale heard anything by email of what’s going on between Gerry and Darcy?”


“No?” Riley looked to Dale for confirmation, who shook his head. “There’s been nothing in our box for a couple of days, I checked this morning.”


“They’ve had some kind of row by text,” Flynn sipped tea. “How you row by text I don’t know, but Ash said it got a bit heated, a lot of other people got involved and no one’s talking to anyone else, Gerry’s not very happy and talking about not coming here for Christmas.”


“What?” Paul demanded. “It’s that bad?”


“Ash’s plan is that if it’s ok with us they’re all heading out here tomorrow morning to sit down together and sort it out.”


Yes. Dale, listening to this, saw the appropriacy of this immediately. It was the obvious sensible thing to do to come here and talk together. 


Riley rolled his eyes skywards.  “Of course it’s ok, why would he even bother asking? Who’s involved?”


“Bear, Wade, Niall-“


“Niall?” Jasper said, surprised. Paul winced.


“Probably not willingly,”


“If Wade’s involved then Niall will be.” Riley predicted, “And Gerry and Darcy. Supposing Darcy wants to come or someone makes him.”


“We’ll worry about that in the morning.” Flynn sat back, putting Riley on his feet. “You two upstairs and get ready for bed. I don’t want to hear it Ri, it was an early start this morning.”


“You’d think we were going to break or something. Normal people handle a few hours missed sleep.” Riley complained.


“Dale, take a book with you and take a bath.” Paul captured Dale’s hand as he got up, holding it to make Dale look at him. “Empty your head a bit. I’ll tell you when you can get out.”


“Yes sir.”


“And stay off the computer.” Flynn called after them. Paul waited until he was sure they were upstairs and out of earshot.


“What aren’t you saying?”


“Darcy stopped texting or replying in this middle of all this the day before yesterday, and he’s on his own in France somewhere with a show.” Flynn leaned over to the drawer where Paul kept the address book and searched through. “Probably he’s just busy but Gerry’s worried about him. Ash has tried calling and mailing him but Darcy hasn’t answered. From the texts Ash read there were quite a few sensitive things being said, including about Darcy playing with a lifestyle he was jealous of.”


There was a silence broken by Paul’s exasperated sigh. “That’s Gerry, he will fling every barb he’s got when he’s upset enough,”


“It’s also the problem with this kind of thing being talked about privately between ourselves as speculation and someone then using it against Darcy in the heat of the moment.” Jasper added levelly. “It’s never good having this kind of thing unsaid openly, it just creates ammunition. Do we know where in France?”


“Luthe does. Ash rang him to let him know what was going on in case he knew where Darcy was staying, but he’s not answering his cell either. Ash sent him a text and an email to try reaching him that way. I said we’d keep trying and see if there was anything we could do.”


Flynn turned the book around to find Luath’s number and dialled. The phone rang for a while and Jasper and Paul, listening in the quiet kitchen, heard it go to voice mail.


Upstairs, Riley changed into the t shirt and shorts he usually slept in, and wandered across the hall to sit on the edge of the bath to watch Dale undress and climb in. Dale leaned back in the hot water, reflecting on what he’d heard downstairs.


“Has this happened before?”


“Rows? Oh yes.” Riley said without much concern. “It happens, it’s pretty much inevitable. Collect together a bunch of pretty tightly wired people like us and it’s going to, isn’t it? Although some of us are bigger on the drama than others.”


Dale gave him a pointed look, picking up on the teasing, and Riley smiled, flicking water at him.


“I know what’ll have happened. When Gerry’s fired up and no one’s around to rein him in he’ll end up going straight for the throat of whoever he’s mad at.”


Having seen the acuity of Gerry’s tongue in action a few times, Dale could well believe that.


“And then Wade’s got a mouth and a half,” Riley went on, “And he can’t stand Gerry doing the full Drama Queen thing and bites back, and trust me you don’t get Wade started without a helmet and a flak jacket on. I don’t usually see Darcy get involved much, he’s generally a bit better off in the common sense department, but it sounds like he has this time. Bear doesn’t know how to be mean but he says it like it is and that drives the others crazy, and Niall will have hated every minute of it and tried to make peace and then got battered by the others for interfering. I know the script. I may or may not have been in the script a few times, except Flynn usually stamps on that but good and life’s too short to bother with the kind of crap they can start when they really fight.  I’ve never known them get dragged back here to sort it out before.”

Dale raised his eyebrows, thinking about it.


“Dragged?”


“Well it’s not exactly going to be optional, is it?” Riley pointed out, amused. “If I had to guess, probably Gerry and Bear and Wade have no idea yet that they’re headed out here tomorrow, but it’s definitely not going to be by invitation. Darcy’s a different matter.”


“Really?”


“Of course he is. If he doesn’t want to come no one’s going to make him. Encourage him maybe, try to persuade him, but no one’s going to do what they’d do with you and me and will do with the others, and just say move or I’ll move you. We’re signed up to it. He isn’t.”


He wasn’t the only one of the many men in the family that Dale had met variously at Christmas and Thanksgiving and at Gam Saan’s funeral who weren’t necessarily partnered or actively sharing in this lifestyle. There were a few others, theoretically including Luath although Dale would have put Luath in a very different category – he was the only one of the Tops in the family he’d ever seen actively discipline himself or Riley and it seemed perfectly right and comfortable to Dale that he should do so. Everyone who had lived in this house had lived alongside this way of being if not actively participated, had witnessed it, understood it and loved people who were actively practicing it although there was variance in the style of it between every couple in the family that Dale could think of. But not all of them chose it for their own relationships.  


No one second guesses Miguel or Trent that I’ve heard.  Darcy’s the one everyone questions.


Aware he had voiced doubts himself about Darcy before to Flynn, Dale didn’t pursue that line of thought further.


“Would Philip have felt he had the right to call Darcy and tell him to come home? And would he have come?”


Riley gave him a fairly wry smile. “Philip didn’t tend to worry about whether or not he had the right, he just knew. I never saw him get it wrong. I really don’t know. I never saw him give any orders like that to Darce, it just never came up.”


*
 Corpus Christi, Texas.
5th December 6.05am.



It was of benefit to both of them that older people kept earlier hours. When James barged into the apartment via the key he and several other members of the family kept copies of, Wade was not only dressed, he was sitting in his chair by the window half way through a newspaper. The look he was cast over the top of the paper was a brief and carefully disinterested one before Wade disappeared back behind the broadsheet.


“Doesn’t anyone know how to knock these days?”


“What is going on with these texts?”


“It’s this new way of talking.” Wade lowered the paper again. “Words on a phone, it’s a brilliant idea, go try it. In Atlanta. Or Azerbaijan-”


James interrupted him, sharply enough to cut through the muttering. “Stand up when you speak to me young man, and lose that tone right now.”


Wade put the paper down slowly and with a quizzical expression raised his hands to his face, prodding carefully at the wrinkles as though testing they were real. James closed a hand on his arm and jerked him straight up out of the chair, swatting his butt soundly, several times. It shook the expression all right. Shock replaced mocking and the “Ow – ow!” was extremely sincere.


James turned Wade back to face him, a good head and a half taller than him which forced Wade to have to look up to meet his eyes.


“I’m up,” Wade told him, a little breathless from the sting. “Ok, ok, I’m up.”


“Feel like smarting off a bit more?” James inquired. “Do take your time, I can wait.”


“Thanks, I’m smarting enough now,” Wade informed him, and yelped a good deal louder as James briskly reversed him and swatted him a further three times still harder, his voice dropping into a much more respectful tone.


“No, no sir.”


James turned him back, not amused. “We are well past the point Charlie would have taken his belt off. Aren’t we?”


James knew it as well as he did. Wade blinked eyes that were threatening to water and give the entirely wrong impression, not wanting to think about that. Charlie hadn’t been much for second chances. He’d been good natured and even tempered with absolutely no hesitation in drawing a line under any mouthing off to him, and if he’d been here…..


“….Yes, sir.”


“What were you thinking about these texts?” James’s grasp on his arm was as definite as the sharpness of his tone and made it very clear he had no plans to listen to any messing about. “I’d like to know. The only thing I could think of was that you’d lost your mind.”


“I was stating an opinion, has that become illegal now?”


“They are young, they have an excuse to still act stupid. Since when do you dive in and make things worse?”


“Since Gerald started turning it into a five star drama.”


“You know a whole lot better than to let Gerry get up your nose and start retaliating.” James gave him a sharp shake to make Wade meet his eyes again. “Why on earth didn’t you let me or Luath know what was happening?


“Because I don't need babysitters.” Wade yanked, pulling his arm free of James’ hand. “I’m a free agent now, I don’t need anyone checking to see if what I want to say is okay to send. I’m not senile yet.”


He was braced for another roar of wrath – James did them quite well when sufficiently provoked – but was surprised when James simply turned on his heel and went into the kitchen. Wade, following him with a good deal of caution, felt his stomach lurch hard as James tugged the right drawer open and located a wooden spoon, closed the drawer and drew out a kitchen chair.


“You are not serious.”


James sat down and held out a hand with a decisiveness that made it clear he was not only serious, it was going to happen. Wade found his mouth opening and his feet going into reverse, backing away.


“James! This is as ridiculous as Gerry’s texts!”


Now.”


James’ voice got incredibly deep when he really meant something and if you knew him, it was not a tone you dared to mess with. At all. Years of experience overcame pretty much everything else and Wade found himself going quickly enough to that outstretched hand to avoid things getting any worse. James tended to do things damn formally. Really horribly formally, in the same way Philip used to if you’d gone too far, and while he was horrified by it Wade fully expected James’ clear signal to stand right beside him and the equally stern order,


“Lose the pants.”


Luath had put a paddle across his butt – what? Over a year ago. And any one of the brats in this family knew very well, it was hard enough handling a spanking after a long break since the last one. Somehow you forgot that it was a great deal worse in practice than you thought you remembered. But in the casual conversations when he’d discussed this with them they’d been talking about weeks. Maybe a month or two, particularly Niall who didn’t get himself into trouble that much. None of them had meant over a year. And Luath didn’t do this the way James did, who knew him and went all the way back with him, all the way to the first few years they spent on the ranch together. And moreover who had known Charlie very well and had been the first person Charlie would have always turned to to cover this particular duty if he couldn’t, knowing James would do the job to the standard Charlie would have done himself.


Despite years spent facing down some extremely scary things – including aerial firefights, landing inside a Wellington bomber which was on fire, twelve hours spent handling a riot and being shot by a semi insane man with one leg in a warehouse in Dallas – looking James in those blazing blue eyes and defying him was more than Wade was able to do. Dry mouthed, Wade unbuttoned the pants and let them fall where they slid without dignity or compassion to rest around his ankles. And still James waited, until swallowing, Wade managed to stiffly lean over and lay across his lap, somehow taking up that position still expertly, and feeling James’ arm fold around his waist with far too much efficiency and his other hand pull his underwear straight down and well out of his way with one practised tug.


“Now let’s have a chat about attitude.”


“There won’t be any.” Wade promised him quickly. “We can call this done.”


The spoon snapped smartly down, once on each side, and Wade grunted and closed his mouth quickly, ducking his head.


“And still that mouth.” James pointed out. “It’s clearly been far too long if you expect to be able to talk to me in the manner you’re trying.”


“I’m sorry.” Wade squirmed a little, testing James’ grip, “I’m done, I promise.”


“That’s a good start.” The spoon lifted and snapped down, punctuating James’ lecture, leaving blazing spots of sting where it fell, “We are going to be dealing with this mess. Properly, without attitude, smarting off, disrespect or rudeness. Am I making myself very, very clear to you?”


Breathless and unable not to wriggle, Wade just about managed not to yell or to squeak his reply, but it took a moment to gather himself before he could speak.


“Yes sir.”


There was a chance – just a forlorn one but Wade clung to it – that a widowed, elderly and most definitely pitiable brat alone in Texas was deserving of sympathy and the opportunity to prove that a few short swats with that wretched spoon was more than enough to get his attention. It probably would have worked on Luath. Wade groaned aloud as James took a firmer grip on him, thwarting a tentative attempt to get up or at least shift to a less vulnerable position.


“Then let’s see if I can remind you how this goes.”


And this time he set the spoon to work properly. He was far too experienced, he knew exactly what he was doing and he didn’t hold back; within the first few rapid swats Wade began to yelp and twist over his knee and James didn’t so much as slow down to let him catch his breath. It was impossible to stop the noise escaping and with it went a whole lot too much emotion until it bubbled up into sobbing that wouldn’t stop as the spoon went on turning his butt one solid, blazing red. It felt like several days before James paused by which time Wade was sobbing too hard to easily stop. He could feel James rubbing his back, a slow and heavy comforting touch that held way too much sympathy while it encouraged him to breathe and to cry himself out. When he was quieter and his breathing had returned to normal he felt James swap the spoon into his other hand and his palm rubbed Wade’s backside gently, easing out some of the sting.


“Do I have your full attention now?”


“Yes sir.” It came out faster and more emphatically than Wade had meant, but it was very sincere.


“Then let’s talk about how we sort out this mess with the texts. You and Niall are coming with me to Wyoming-”


“James!”


“- without attitude or anything else that is going to make things worse. We’ve been at this long enough to be able to give an example of how to do it, to support the kids in doing a better of job of communicating than they seem to do with their ‘texts’, and we are going as a force for calm and repair. Is that clear?”


“Yes, sir.”


“So how many more do you think would be enough to keep that at the forefront of your mind while we do it? Because we’re not having this conversation again when we get to the ranch, this needs to be finished with.”


“None sir! I’ll remember, I promise I’ll remember.”


“I think we’ll just make sure. Twelve sound enough to you?”


“James!” Wade whined, twisted a little on his lap, not particularly hard, and James simply waited, holding him right where he was, that hand still resting on his butt. He wasn’t giving an inch, not one, which in one way made Wade madder than hell and in another was right to the point of relief. If it had been Charlie’s lap he was over he’d be answering for a good deal more than mouthing off and Wade knew it; Charlie would have been the first to point out he was old enough and experienced enough to know better and to know exactly what he was getting himself into. Eventually, grudgingly, since James was still waiting, he managed to get out “Yes sir.”


And heard James’ calm “Good.” in response.


The last twelve were delivered with his hand, not the spoon, but actually smarted worse since his hand covered a lot more ground on already very tender butt, it was a good deal more personal and he did it very soundly. After which James helped him to his feet, steadied him until he got his balance and helped him replace his underwear, although he simply helped Wade step out of his pooled trousers, led him across the room to a very familiar junction of two walls that Wade hadn’t taken a close look at for several years, and left him standing there.


It had been a few years too since he’d been stood in a corner very aware he was not fully dressed and extremely accessible if he chose to mouth off any further. It was exactly what Charlie would have done. Wade leaned his forehead against the wall, butt stinging hotly, although when he put a hand gingerly behind him to rub it could have been a good deal worse. His butt wasn’t as resilient as it had once been, but neither was James’ who understood too well being a good eighteen months older than him and was far too good at this kind of thing. Not for the first time, Wade appreciated why Niall worked hard mostly on not getting in trouble.


He could hear James moving around in the kitchen, then the click of the phone and James’ voice explaining to the receptionist of the Community Nursing Team that Wade would be staying with family for a few days and they’d let the team know when he was home again.


Yeah, I’m being OAPnapped.


Saying it out loud was not an option.



He heard James go into his room, take down a case and pack for him. Niall and James had stayed here so often over the years they knew where everything was, Charlie and James had been close friends although people often wondered what they had in common. The sound of the old fashioned suitcase closures snapping shut was also familiar. On principle Wade changed or updated as few of their possessions as possible, hanging on to what they had both known and used, and they were familiar to James as much as him, where Luath or Darcy struggled with a bit when they stayed here, used to more modern fittings. The case made a quiet clunk as it was put down in the hall.

James, looking at the subdued but now calm slope of his shoulders, remembered very well Charlie leaning on a rail by the water here in Corpus Christi, saying with affection but quite definitely, “There’s never any point trying to talk to him like that. Jolt him out of that frame of mind and after that he’ll be fine.”


Staying firmly on top of the little things mattered with a brat. It prevented the build-up, disproportion and wrestling matches like these.  Wade would be better – and happier in James’ opinion – living with him and Niall, or with Luath, he would have been more than welcome in either home, but it was Wade’s choice and James was prepared to defend that for him for as long as it was practicable and safe.


“Come here.” He ordered. Wade turned around and padded to him, red eyed and apologetic although he’d struggle to voice it, and James put a hand behind his head and pulled him over into his chest, holding him closely.


“I know,” he said directly against Wade’s ear, “You’re bored and frustrated and you miss Charlie to tell about this because you won’t bend your stubborn neck and tell me when you need help. And you’re lonely, which you won’t talk about either, and you hate that you’ve been part of the kids getting into a mess.”


He felt Wade’s arms tighten around him, hanging on, and Wade’s face turn into his shoulder. James hugged him, holding him a moment more before he said just as categorically,


“So cut the crap. I’m going to need you to help.”


Wade nodded against him, and James kissed the side of his face hard and handed him his trousers. “Get dressed. I left Niall in a hotel by the airport to get some rest, he’s been too wound up about Darcy to be able to sleep much.”


“Where is Darcy?” Wade, pulling trousers on, gave James a quick look that held a fair amount of subdued concern. “No one seems to know more than ‘France’.”


“I don’t think anyone’s heard more than that.” James collected Wade’s keys, coat and case and waited for him, holding the front door open. James-like, he’d checked the windows and doors carefully the exact same way that Charlie used to do. “Let’s go, we’ve got a plane at ten.”


*



Pigalle district, Paris, France.
5th December.


The Theatre des Bouffes du Nord was one of the oldest theatres in Paris, and the interior was steep and highly domed with ornate balconies and cream and gold Victorian arches and pillars lining the multiple tiers of seats overlooking the stage.  Paintings swathed the panels of the ceiling, and the stage and outlying hallways were much the same wood they had been when the theatre was first built in the 1870s.


As a setting for a designer who specialised in romanticism and twists upon costume, it had showcased his collection beautifully. The show had followed the theme of a masque ball, the vamped up Victoriana of red velvet curtains, mirrors, candles and chandeliers and the music had made for a wonderful night with a packed audience and an atmosphere that had led to very positive reviews in this morning’s papers. It had gone without a hitch and a very happy designer had headed to the airport at 9am this morning.


The morning after a show was always something of a hangover experience. The last of the lights had been dismantled. The massive gold framed ornate mirrors that had framed the stage last night had been taken down, wrapped, carried out and loaded onto trucks, the red velvet unpinned, rolled up and removed, the caterers had collected the last box of glasses and plates. The last papers had been signed and the cleaners were just finishing off mopping the last of the glitter off the stage. It was once more an elderly, deserted theatre space, beautiful but old and dusty and echoing.



Darcy sat in a seat some rows back from the front of the stalls with nothing in particular left to do but no will to get up and leave. He was the last one left. The intense act of energy and enthusiasm of the last two days had faded, his phone was no longer exploding with texts and calls and alerts as florists panicked and taxis got lost with crucial equipment, models were no longer bursting into tears or hitting each other, there was no longer a presentation team to keep together and calm. Everyone else had dispersed to airports and railway stations or in many cases, into the city to go shopping.


There were still actually quite a few texts on his phone and a few voice messages too, but they were all from names and numbers he was avoiding. He’d stopped opening texts three days ago. There were now two from Ash – Darcy had a fair idea what they said – another from Theo – great, someone else demanding to know how he dared upset his partner – and the knowledge that now they all knew made things ten times worse. There was one from Paul too, timed late last night. No doubt he by now knew all about it too. Which meant Jasper would, Flynn would, Dale would… it was too humiliating to think about.


Darcy shut his phone and pocketed it. He hadn’t yet sorted out a return flight home. His urge to go back to New York or even to the States was not strong. There was nothing in his diary for a few days, nothing to do, he was in Paris. It ought to have been an amazing opportunity.


Damn Gerry.


No, not damn Gerry. However angry, there was still the knowledge muttering a long way behind it that Gerry hadn’t meant a word of it really, he never did when he was in enough of a mess and he’d be desperately sorry once he calmed down. If you understood Gerry then you got it. But that didn’t make it hurt any less. Had everyone else just stayed out of it and let it go then a few days to recover a bit and it would have been fine. But no, everyone else had to pile in and make things a whole lot worse. And Gerry and Ash and Bear all had someone in their corner and defend them no matter what role they’d taken in it. Even Wade did. James would step in for him in a heartbeat, and he’d be only half a step ahead of multiple others. It was the way they were and the way things worked for them, Darcy had seen it in action since the very first night he ever spent at Falls Chance.


There was the creak of the aisle as another cleaner passed through. Darcy didn’t look up until the chair beside him unfolded and someone large sat down. It was man sized, he caught a glimpse of a large, black hand tug on the knee of a suit, the whiff of a cologne he knew well, and suddenly his throat seized hard, even before a familiar arm wrapped around his shoulders. Darcy’s eyes stung and suddenly blurred hard. He tipped his head back, looking up at the stage in front of them, holding his breath to force himself under control.


“Are you all done here?” Luath said softly after a while. Darcy nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Luath squeezed his shoulders, urging him towards his feet.


“Then let’s go find a coffee shop, you’re freezing.”


In the days when he’d spent a lot of his time knocking about with Luath and Roger it was Luath who would know where they were going for lunch or what time they were meeting or made sure they got to the cinema showing on time, he was just good at organising time and people and without rushing them he just guided things in the right direction with the same calm assertiveness he did everything. Roger didn’t like making decisions and would sooner skip lunch and read than figure out which restaurant to go to; Luath was an expert in knowing what Roger was in the mood for or asking the right questions at the right moment to find out what he wanted to eat. He was enthusiastic about anything Roger suggested if on a particular day he was inspired, but a lot of the time Roger had been perfectly happy to go with the flow and loved a man who generally had a plan about most things. It had never worried Darcy either, Flynn was like that, James was like that, Ash was like that, Philip had been like that, it was just something in the blood of the average Top.


In much the same way, Luath didn’t hurry but Darcy was aware of being directed out of the theatre and across the street to a dark wood coffee shop where Luath signalled a waiter and requested coffee and croissants in perfect French. It had always been nice that he was used to occasionally working in Europe the same way Darcy himself was, he understood plane travel and staying in foreign cities because he did it too. Somewhere as they were leaving the theatre Luath had made a gentle attempt to take Darcy’s bag and Darcy held on to it, stepping away from him. Likewise he moved quickly past Luath and sat down before Luath could draw out a seat for him, adding quietly to the waiter in equally perfect French that thank you, he would have an espresso and have a cannelle instead of a croissant.


Luath draped his jacket over the back of the chair, sitting down opposite him. “Did the show go well?”


“... Yes.” Darcy pulled himself together with an effort. “Yes, the press releases were good. I was pleased.”


“Everyone's left, your job is completely finished?”


“Yes. All signed off.”


“And no confirmed flight back yet?”


“I hadn’t got around to booking one. I wasn’t sure…. Nice city to kill a few days in, no rush to go home.”


At all. Ever.


“Yes, me either.” Luath said easily. “Good. It's perfect weather, sunny with a little chill, exactly what you'd want to wander around Paris for the day. Will you do me the honour of accompanying me on a wander?”


Darcy looked up, surprised as the waiter brought their coffee and pastries over. Luath could be very charming – in a real, old fashioned way, a little gentle chivalry was something he was very good at. Luath smiled at him, his usual calm smile, stirring cream into his coffee. 


“I've worked here many times, but I've never had the time to really look around the city. It seems a shame, I’d like to do something about that.”


“I’ve been in this bit a few times.......” Darcy said absently and stopped, knowing full well at this point he would usually tease Luath about this district, Pigalle, being the erotic capital of the city, the Soho of Paris, notorious and filled with the edgy and wild stuff he liked to tease about… the thought of it made his face get hot and he focused instead on an espresso so hot he burned his mouth.


“I was thinking quiet, beautiful.” Luath said as if he hadn’t noticed. “New York is loud and brassy, especially at this time of year, and your show was loud and brassy. Let's do quiet and beautiful today. How about the old part of the city? Notre Dame. The islands.”


“I could probably use a break from brassy.”


“Good. And if we’re planning on peace and quiet-“ Luath pulled his phone out of his pocket and turned it off. He did it overtly, waiting to see if Darcy would follow his lead, and after a moment Darcy pulled his phone out of his jacket. There were several messages flashing on the screen, Luath saw them before Darcy powered it down.  They ate, or rather Luath ate, watching Darcy pick at the cannelle and stir his coffee and mostly drift back into some chain of thought that made his eyes dark and his face paler. He was still going through his very closely cropped, almost shaved head phase, which made the fine bones of his face more prominent and the large almond shape of his eyes stronger, and his olive skin still smoother like marble. There was something beautifully Egyptian about it which he usually exploited to the full with the flamboyant and revealing clothes he chose in New York – the Egyptian look lent itself rather well to golds and bare shoulders and pure whites. It looked less dramatic here in a plain black leather jacket, with what looked like a black roll neck sweater underneath. In fact it was the quietest, most discreet clothing Luath had seen him wear in years.


“Going to eat that?” Luath asked gently when the cannelle was half reduced to crumbs. Darcy glanced down at it, then shook his head.


“No, I’m not really that hungry.”


“Let’s go then.” Luath laid money on the table and got up, aware that Darcy slipped past him before he could help slide Darcy’s chair back or touch him.


Darcy hailed a cab outside and Luath watched him stare out of the windows as the city rolled past, four miles through the centre of Paris, and thought he probably wasn’t seeing much. The taxi left them near the massive, cobbled stone square before Notre Dame Cathedral on the Ile de la cite, one of the two small islands in the river Seine that flowed all around these some of the oldest streets in Paris.



From there Luath stood still, looking up at the magnificent building that reared up out of this corner of the island to dominate the skyline high above them. A mighty grey stone edifice almost a thousand years old, crafted every inch by hand over a century in the days when  it was normal for a master craftsman to begin work that thirty years later would be continued by his son and thirty years after that would be completed by his grandson. Whole generations of families had committed their lives to building this piece of sacred art, this palace of God with its arching flying buttresses, its walls alive with faces of the statues that covered the façade. The ornate wooden doors stood among the many faces of the saints that looked down on the square, above the deep steps to the open entrance, rows and rows of them. It was a moment before Luath looked to Darcy whose eyes were fixed on the renowned gargoyles that stood out from the high walls and for the first time his attention was wholly on what was in front of him. 



They walked slowly up the steps into the body of the cathedral. The bright chandeliers hanging from their chains high overhead cast light down into the great vaulted body and coloured light spilled down on to the floor in pools from the stained glass windows and between the massive stone carved pillars. An organ was playing softly but deeply, the vibrato of the great pipes moved Luath’s core rather than his ears, a physical sensation of sound, and it was the only sound. In this place where the exact same ancient words had been said day after day, century after century. The walls were soaked with a thousand years of human prayer and faith. People’s thoughts and beliefs and dearest wishes and darkest secrets and greatest fears had been brought here to be shared in this great and most beautiful hall, and while the hush was tangible – there was only the soft sound of feet moving slowly on the stone as other visitors around them walked in silence or spoke to each other in the lowest of murmurs – there was an immense and saturating peace to that hush. It was something Luath had felt out on the pastures on the ranch at times in the wide green open space beneath the sky. 


They walked slowly in the vast spaces between the thick pillars, over the black and white chequerboard tiles on the floor. Past the wrought iron tombs of the long dead, where their likenesses lay in statue form above their bones. The gilded frescos on the walls touched with gold, faded but still brilliantly beautiful. The painted friezes along the choir, still bright blues and golds and reds despite the passing of the centuries. The stone steps and the floor itself was softly grooved, worn away by hundreds of thousands of feet passing over them, man, woman and child.  


They walked slowly in the vast spaces between the thick pillars, over the black and white chequerboard tiles on the floor. Past the wrought iron tombs of the long dead, where their likenesses lay in statue form above their bones. The gilded frescos on the walls touched with gold, faded but still brilliantly beautiful. The painted friezes along the choir, still bright blues and golds and reds despite the passing of the centuries. The stone steps and the floor itself was softly grooved, worn away by hundreds of thousands of feet passing over them, man, woman and child. 

 


At the far side of the choir, near one of the small private chapels, a large bank of little candles burned on a rack of shelves. Some almost burned away, some newly lit, with many spaces in between them. Luath felt in his pocket for some francs and dropped them into the wooden collection box slot, picking up one of the unused candles from the box beside it. David had come from Europe, had grown up in villages around small local churches and the great cathedrals in the city that were peers of this ones, he had lived on the same streets as a child where people had lived before recorded time and memory, and once or twice he’d spoken of places like this to Luath.  The record he had given Philip decades ago of carols sung by an English choir, the one Philip had played every Christmas and which they still as a family played on Christmas Eve, came from a cathedral David knew the name of and were the sounds of his childhood. It was him that Luath was thinking of as he tipped the fresh candle to light the wick, the flame spreading from one lit candle that was someone else’s memory and prayer to join his own. Luath stood it in the rack and beside him heard the soft chink of Darcy dropping coins into the box, and a moment later a new candle was softly touched to his lit one, spreading the flame one candle further.


“Philip.” Darcy said very quietly as if he’d asked. “I’ve been thinking a lot about him the last couple of days.”


Luath gave him a small smile, looking at the pair of candles side by side.
“I was thinking of David when I lit that one.”


Hands deep in his pockets, Darcy stood beside him and watched the twin flames, his head level with Luath’s shoulder, his carved face lifted so the candle light spilled across his eyes and turned them luminous. Half an eye on him Luath saw his eyes go from reflecting the candle light to blurring and felt the shiver that went through him, and put an arm around his shoulders. Darcy ducked his head, the first real sob bursting out before he could stifle it, a sharp sound in the hush. It attracted a few sympathetic glances from people around them but no curiosity. This was a place where it was not unexpected. Luath guided Darcy with him to one of the empty side chapels and the low wooden pews, and sat down beside him, keeping the arm around him while Darcy buried his face in his hands and for a few moments fought with the tears escaping him. Luath rubbed his shoulders quietly, eyes on the carved statue above the little altar ahead of them and the fresh flowers arranged there. Eventually Darcy took a shuddering but quieter breath.


“Sorry.”


“It’s all right.”


“It’s been a really bad few days.”


“Has it?” Luath said quietly. Darcy let go a shaky snort.


“You know it has. Why else are you here?”


“I knew you were here, likely finished with everything and I thought it would be a nice way to spend a day with you. And yes, I know some sort of argument has been happening via text, Ash mentioned it, but not the details.”


“Gerry lost it.”


“Did he?”


“Yes.” Darcy took another, slower breath. He sounded tired and numb. “Just typical Gerry stuff, I know. He was stressed and he lost it and said a lot of stuff he didn’t mean, and then everyone else piled in and starting tearing strips off him so he escalated it and said a whole lot more.”


“I think everyone has been banned from the phones, so it should settle down now.”


“It got pretty vicious.”


“I'm sorry to hear that. Are you okay?”


“............no.”


“Want to talk about it?”


“It got into some.... pretty sharp stuff.” Darcy hesitated, humiliated and ashamed to say it, but there was no one more likely to understand or that he’d ever confide this to. “I’m not innocent, I fought back too, but- there were things said about you. That I play with the whole lifestyle thing with you, that I haven’t got the guts to do it for real. That I play both sides for whatever benefits I can get and avoid whatever parts of it might be real.” 


Ouch. There was a moment while they sat in silence and Luath reflected on several things he would have liked to have said to Gerry, but his focus was on the man beside him and he kept his voice easy.


“Do you believe it?”


“I don’t know.” Darcy said softly. “It was Gerry. Who knows me better than he does?”


“I do.” Luath said positively. “Like you say, it was Gerry. In high drama and saying whatever first comes out of his mouth. You said yourself you knew he didn’t mean it.”


“I meant I know he didn’t actually plan to hurt me and he’ll be sorry he did. That doesn’t mean it’s completely without truth. He’s got a reason for thinking it.”


“Only you can decide whether he's right or not. When you cut all the crap from it, the bottom line is it’s something you and Gerry and the others have talked about for years. You choose not to define yourself by the categories they do and whether or not they believe you or think you’re making the right choice it’s not something anyone can possibly have any say over other than you. It’s not that simplistic. If that bugs them that’s about them and their problem, not you.”


Darcy didn’t answer, looking down at the stone floor under their feet.


“I’ll tell you too,” Luath said quietly, “I spend more time with you than any of them, I see more of you, and I’ve never felt manipulated or played with by you. I’m not stupid, Darce. As I’m the one that ought to know or has any right to mind, I don’t think Gerry has anything to say about it on my behalf.”


“I tease you all the time.”


“I’m your friend. I get the jokes. There has never been a time I haven’t.”


There was another long silence, then Darcy said heavily, “I’m not going to go for Christmas this year. I’ll be abroad-”


Luath interrupted him before he even got the next sentence out of his mouth. “No, Darcy, you know as well as I do that is not an option.”


“It is an option, it’s my decision.”


“You have more of a responsibility to the family than your desire to not speak to one brat who is behaving badly. To refuse to visit with everyone else you love and who love you is something that Philip wouldn't have accepted, and anyone else that is a part of this family won't accept it either. When there are problems, they get talked about and dealt with, they don't get shovelled under the rug and left to fester. You are not an optional extra or an outsider in this family, the responsibilities apply to you just the same as they do to everyone else.


Darcy blinked at the floor, embarrassed, but at the same time he knew he had needed to hear that, to have someone say it to him, and Luath never had the faintest problem saying this kind of thing as directly as necessary.


“If there was something you did or said that you're ashamed of, then that's something you need to figure out how to fix,” Luath added, “But never mind Gerry, you're not running away from what you owe to everyone at home, I wouldn’t let any one of us do that. Relationships take work, that’s the duty you have when you’re part of a family and this needs to be dealt with so it can be forgotten properly. I know it's not easy, but then Philip never shied from easy when it was the right thing to do.”


“I know. I still don’t want to.”


“I know you don't, and that's okay too. I did hear from Ash that the others involved with these texts are gathering today at the ranch to talk it through.”


Darcy looked up, shocked. There was no question it would be by choice; he knew it without needing to ask. It would be forced attendance; Ash and James and Theo would have made the decision that the bickering stopped here and got sorted out and Gerry, Bear and Niall – and Wade too – would do as they were told. There was no little guilt at knowing he was the only one who didn’t have to do the right thing, willing or not.


“It’s wholly your decision.” Luath sat back in the pew next to him, his voice very gentle. “But you have the right to know that and make your own decision on the right thing to do. And I want you to know too that if you want to be there then I’m very happy to come too and be there with you.”


*


6th December, 11.30am.
Falls Chance Ranch, Wyoming


Gerry arrived first with Ash, bursting up the porch steps, hurling himself into Paul’s arms and burying himself there. He might not have travelled entirely willingly but for Gerry there was always something powerfully comforting about coming home. Paul, hugging him back and listening with one ear to a passionate diatribe about airports and the weather and life in general which told him a lot more about how Gerry was feeling than about air travel, appreciated not for the first time that Ash, always laid back and as very much in love with Gerry now as he had been when Philip first began to invite him to stay at the ranch, made himself as much at home here with them as Gerry did. Ash, catching his eye as he hung up his own and Gerry’s coats in the hall out of the way of the much more battered and mud splashed work jackets in the kitchen, gave him an easy smile that said he got this and it wasn’t difficult at all.


Once the most essential stock work had been done this morning Flynn had sent Dale and Riley out on a fencing job miles away, a long ride and a job likely to keep them away until late afternoon, but he himself was working in the yard, efficiently and without apparently paying much attention to what else was going on. To Paul’s eye he’d silently set up at least three projects people could easily slot in with alongside him that kept hands busy. Ash hustled Gerry gently through unpacking and changing into the yard clothes they kept in the drawers in Gerry’s room, then took him outside where they took up one of Flynn’s projects of weather proofing the new shed together, Gerry protesting most of the way but quietly enough that Paul surmised he felt as though he deserved it.


James, Wade and Niall arrived an hour later with Jasper who’d taken one of the four by fours to meet them at the airport. James, tall, silver haired and still very upright in every way, still had his licence but he rarely drove long distances now and the partially snow covered roads were not the best conditions, particularly for men in their eighties who had spent most of their day – and in Niall and James’ case most of the night too – in the air. Jasper took their cases upstairs and James kissed Paul, ushering Wade and Niall into the kitchen ahead of him.


“Hello Paul, good morning. Do I have an hour for us all to get clean and rest? We’re all exhausted, some more than others.”


They all looked ready to drop, particularly Niall who looked translucent along the still fine cheekbones under red hair that had long since softened to a silvery strawberry blond. James had an arm around his waist which was steadying him as much as guiding him as he stooped to give Paul a rather fragile hug. Wade waited his turn, giving Paul a slightly sheepish smile.


“Hey. It’s us. We saw Gerry outside.”


“We’re resting before we do any form of chatting.” James said indisputably. “Move.”


“He’s been like this all day.” Wade said to Paul.  Paul took Wade’s arm, walking with them through the family room.


“Go straight up, your rooms are all set. You’ve got all afternoon, Bear and Theo won’t be in until four at the earliest. I’ll bring you some lunch upstairs.”


“Bless you.” James put a firm hand on Wade’s shoulder, signalling him and Niall. “Both of you upstairs, shower, get into bed. I’ll be up in a minute. Wade, not a word.”


“I.” Wade said rolling his eyes, “M. –“


James interrupted the spelling with an immediate and very well placed swat sharp enough to ring on the seat of Wade’s pants. Wade scowled but it stopped the attitude dead and Wade headed hurriedly upstairs after Niall.


“To be fair,” James said once they were out of sight, “That's the first since I hauled him out of Texas. He’s mostly ashamed of himself. How is Gerry?”


His concern was evident; James knew Gerry well.


“He’s a bit fraught,” Paul said as lightly as he could. “Ash has him outside and working. I think he's more than a little ashamed as well.”


“What a ridiculous idea texts are.” James said exasperatedly. “This never happened via letter. Or it happened much slower. I need sleep, we were on a plane to Texas all through the night.”


Paul took soup, bread and butter and tea upstairs to them, by which time Wade was in bed in the currently empty client room and James and Niall were settling into the other spare room between Jasper’s and Philip and David’s room. When he quietly came up to check an hour later, all three were soundly asleep, James spooned around Niall in a physical barrier against the weight of the covers and probably against a lot of other things too.


Theo and Bear arrived at half past four, just as Riley and Dale were unsaddling their horses in the yard in the last of the rapidly fading daylight, in urgent need of the mugs of hot chocolate Paul took out to them as he often did when they were doing yard work in the cold. Flynn was still working on the roof repairs he was doing to the tool shed and Ash was still keeping Gerry at work on the weather proofing of the new shed too far away for Bear to speak to as he got out of the hired car they parked out of the way by the garage. They brought their cases to the kitchen, Bear looking blank which was an expression Paul recognised well as Bear fully aware he was behaving badly and not planning to stop doing so any time soon. Theo returned Paul’s hug as if this was a perfectly normal visit, taking the cases from Bear.
“How is everyone doing?”


“James, Niall and Wade are resting, it was a long journey for them. Gerry and Ash are outside, I’m planning dinner in about an hour. What do you two need?”


“We’re fine.” Theo said easily. “I’ll put the kettle on if I may, could use a cup of tea, and Bear could use some exercise.”


More for his attitude than out of a need to move around if Paul was any judge.


“Flynn’s outside with a whole lot of work needing doing if you’ve got a spare pair of hands.” He suggested, and Theo nodded. 


“Thank you, I'll be right back. Bear?” Theo took Bear’s arm and walked him over to where Flynn was, returning his one armed, brief hug with stained hands held clear of Theo’s clean clothes. “Hi, good to see you. Here's another pair of hands for you.”


Both he and Flynn ignored Bear’s reproachful look. 





Paul had always loved the house being crowded. The challenge of cooking for twelve when three were gentlemen of delicate digestion was something he enjoyed, and the chaos of twelve people cleaning up, helping with and preparing for dinner was noisy and involved choreographed use of the bathrooms, which gave enough cover for four members of their party who weren’t inclined to do much talking around each other, to stay quiet without seeming rude. Flynn, Jasper, Ash, James and Theo made cheerful conversation with each other that gave them plenty of shelter and prevented the atmosphere from nose diving. Riley was responding to this without hesitation, unmoved by what to him was a familiar and perfectly normal situation in this house and had been for years, and Riley never with much patience for anyone locked in the throes of a good strop. Dale was watching with his quiet, absorbed expression that meant he was taking every detail of this in and missing nothing, although Paul saw he had no trouble joining in the conversation with Ash of whom he was fond, and in giving his attention to James and Niall’s comfort with a discreet thoughtfulness Paul appreciated. James, who was, on the quiet, a sucker for a good looking young man with good manners, certainly responded to it; Paul wasn’t sure if Dale was aware of it but to his eye Dale was successfully distracting James into unbending and relaxing a little and Niall certainly both noticed and appreciated it.


It took Jasper and Bear pulling out several of the table’s many leaves to accommodate everyone around the table and for a few minutes there was the concentration needed to pass dishes around and fill plates. Flynn had seated himself very definitely next to Riley and directly opposite to Dale, and Paul took the seat next to Dale once all the dishes were on the table, quietly taking his plate from him and choosing for him, giving him a lightly filled plate of things he liked and which were easy to eat and which under the stress of a large, busy family crowd he was more likely to be able to finish. Taking charge of those most basic domestic decisions for him, particularly the ones about the most essential things like dressing and eating, went very deep for Dale and most of all it said to him loud and clear in a busy situation, I’ve still got you.


“How are things in Texas?” Riley asked Wade, helping him to one of the steaming jacket potatoes. Wade cast James a pointed look down the table.


“Full of large guys breaking into apartments and kidnapping people before breakfast.”


“Everyone?” Flynn said immediately, loudly enough to grab attention. There was a gradual falling of quiet while everyone looked to him. Flynn’s voice was pleasant but his tone was unmistakeable.


“We are going to have a good and civil meal together tonight. Anyone that doesn't want to may find a corner now so the rest of us can enjoy it. Anyone?”



His added subtext of drag Riley and Dale into this and you’ll be sorry, went unsaid but Paul didn’t think any of the older members of the family around the table missed it. Philip’s rule of being pleasant to be around or making it up to people had been strong in this house for years, they all knew it and it had directly affected a few of them, including Flynn himself more than once. Flynn waited, looking around the table, then nodded.


“Good. Wade, how was Texas before today?


There was a bit of an abashed silence from Wade and rather guilty look from Bear, then the conversation began again considerably more freely. When they were done there were plenty of hands to clear the table and wash the dishes, after which Ash pulled out Gerry’s chair at the table, James pointed Wade and Niall back towards their chairs and Flynn put a hand on Riley’s shoulder, steering him towards the door and beckoning Dale.


“You two, find yourselves something to do in the study.”


Riley pulled a couple of the oldest games out of the shelves in the family room and followed Dale into the study, standing in the open doorway to listen for a moment. There was the click in the distance of the outside kitchen door onto the porch closing as Jasper went out into the yard to lock up for the night, the scrape of kitchen chairs as everyone sat down – and then silence. And more silence. After a few minutes Riley shook his head.


“He wants us out of the way so everyone can sit and stare at each other in silence?”


Actually he wanted them out of the way because Flynn was always tougher on both of them whenever the house was full like this. There was a protectiveness in it that Dale understood, partly because it made it clear they were still his first priority, but also more simply because that was how Flynn was. If he had them corralled in a way he felt ok with then his attention, which belonged to them first and foremost, was available to be focused on other things. Like supporting the other Tops to unravel this situation in the kitchen. It was difficult to mind about the unreasonability of a man who loved you like that. From his experience of how this family usually handled things Dale had expected a little more than a silent gathering around the table, but it was clear Riley wasn’t surprised.


“What are they going to do?”


Riley grimaced. “It's up to the people that started this to talk about it. They just don't sound keen right now.”


That was obviously a known, familiar strategy. Dale considered it.


“Does it work?”


“Yes, I’ve seen it work plenty of times.” Riley listened for a moment more, looking more irritated than concerned.


“So what will Flynn do?”


“Not Flynn. I haven’t seen this happen in years, it was Philip always used to handle this kind of stuff when there were fights here. He never said much, he wouldn’t do it for them, he just used to go get the paddle and put it down on the table to get the discussion started for those that weren't wanting to talk right away, and expected us to get on with it. It always worked because you knew he meant it and things were going to be worked out whether you were sitting comfortably or not. Stopped anyone bothering with any kind of bullshit.”


Dale reflected on both that it certainly would motivate him, and what a useful strategy that could be in many board meetings. “How long did it usually take?”


Riley shook his head, coming to join him in setting out the board game pieces and sprawling full length on his side on the hearthrug with his long legs outstretched. “Not long. He wouldn't wait five minutes before someone would get popped if no one spoke. If it took all night for everyone to work it out then they sat there until they were done, but sitting in silence wasn't an option. Not trying wasn’t an option.”


With that in mind, Dale was surprised that Flynn, who equally believed in exactly this kind of means of dealing efficiently with obstreperation and in Dale’s experience had not the slightest hesitation nor difficulty in doing it, was not doing exactly the same.




In the kitchen the long, heavy silence went on for some time. Finally James cleared his throat slowly and pointedly. “You know we are all going to sit here for as long as it takes.”


No one around the table moved. James had seen the expressions on their faces plenty of times before sat in this house together for over half a century; it was like taking the shields down. Men very well aware they were in trouble and none of them happy, but all of them keeping their seats and their eyes down, avoiding each other.


“I'm sorry for ever getting on the phone.” Gerry half muttered eventually, not looking at anyone.


Ash reached a hand out to cover Gerry’s and Gerry pulled away, glaring at him.


“Why isn't Darcy here? He’s as involved as any of us, why does he get a free pass?”


“I’d point out,” James said, “That none of us know where Darcy is, we’re all worried about it, and the first reason he isn’t here is that he’s so upset by the fussing between you all that he’s disappeared off the map.”


Stung, Gerry flushed and his mouth shut. Beside Bear and sat sideways on to the table with one elbow propped on it, Theo glanced around to the others.


“I think I’d like to start with exactly what happened and what was said.”


“Here, here.” James agreed.


“Then get a warrant for the phone.” Wade said sourly. “Oh wait, you don't need one.”


Niall shut his eyes and put his fingertips against them as if he had a headache. Beside him James made to get up and Wade swiftly held up his hands, genuine apology in his voice.


“Okay, okay, I didn't mean it like that, I am trying to help. Doesn't anyone have the texts on a phone because I don't remember all that was said.”


Theo looked across at Ash, then James. “I think we’ve all seen bits of them, we know there were emails involved too, but none of us have the whole picture.”


“Start at the beginning.” James suggested quietly. “What started it?”


“Gerry being an ass.” Bear said bluntly. He had his elbows planted on the table, his big hands palm down on the wood surface as if this was some kind of séance, looming half a head above everyone else. 


“Not helpful.” Theo told him firmly.


“What did start it?” Ash said patiently to Gerry, who was focusing a death stare on Bear. “What was happening?”


Gerry took a heavy breath, fiddling with a line of wood in the grain on the table. His voice was wavery but still making an attempt at lightly flippant that wasn’t really working, and Paul’s heart went out to him. “I… was talking about the gallery, the show I was doing.”


“While you were waiting for it to start.” Niall added without opening his eyes.


Ash nodded comprehension, still watching Gerry. “How did that turn into a fight Ger?”


Gerry shrugged his shoulders a little, eyes on the table. “I don’t know, I couldn’t say.”


“You were being an ass.” Bear repeated pointedly in his bass tones. Wade rolled his eyes, slumping back in his chair.


“Yeah got it, ok, we get the picture, let’s have a coherent conversation like grownups for Pete’s sake before some of us lose the will to live.”


Gerry made an abrupt move to get up which Ash gently thwarted. “Excuse me, I need to use the bathroom.”


“Yes,” Wade said sharply, “And while Bear starts talking like a pre-schooler with a sucker jammed in his mouth you’ll go hide in the bathroom. We all know the tricks, Ger, don’t bother. Isn’t this how we got into this mess in the first place?”


“Enough. Last warning.” Theo said categorically to Bear at the same time as James gave Wade a sharp look and told him, “Don’t intimate that Bear is a pre-schooler.”


“I didn’t,” Wade said irritably, “I intimated that he talks like one to get out of conversations he doesn’t want to have. Just the same way Gerry starts spouting vitriol, I get mouthy and Niall tries to melt into the floor. And sooner or later one of us is going to have to get a fricking clue and get it together.”


That was difficult to argue with.



“What started Darcy as the target?” Ash said gently to Gerry. “Why did he deserve this? There must have been a reason, you wouldn’t get upset without one. No, shrugging isn’t an answer.”


“I don’t know.”


“Yes,” Ash said just as persistently, “You do.”


Wade let out an exasperated hiss between his teeth, and James beside him put a restraining hand on his knee.  On James’ other side, Niall spoke softly through his hands. “You were stressed about the show and hyper on coffee. Darcy suggested you calm down and let Ash know you were struggling. Gerry didn’t want to hear that – I think he felt guilty about it. Darcy gave up and said you needed to go get on with the show. That didn’t help either. There was talk about if Darcy thought he could do it better to come do it,”


“And then a totally unacceptable jibe that Darce basically sucks off anyone he’s working for,” Wade added bluntly with a glare at Gerry. “Darce bit back. A lot less than I would have done, but I didn’t blame him, and pretty much everyone else did too.”


“And then Bear showed that text to you and you got involved, after which you went after me like it was an all you can eat buffet.” Gerry snapped back. “So did Bear, it was great.”


The shame around the table was more or less tangible. Paul, sitting quietly on Gerry’s other side, was watching Flynn’s face and knew he recognised it too. The huge difficulties of processing shame was something they knew well from regular experience with Dale when he couldn’t rationalise emotions, and looking around the table Paul could see in all four faces that this was where they were stuck. Without the words for it, without a means to express it, process it, rationalise it, all that was left was to avoid and react to the ongoing threat of it.


And they had four very different brats here. Gerry and Niall both responded in their own different ways to patience and quiet encouragement, an approach that drove Wade to screaming point, where he and Bear responded considerably better to clear lines drawn, less talking and a much shorter manner, and needed it to prevent them escalating this beyond being manageable. It made a group conversation very difficult when trying to gather information from four brats all in a state of being highly unwilling to talk at all, all of whom were being still more annoyed by each other’s behaviour, and not for the first time Paul missed Philip badly as someone who had been able to deal with situations like this without apparent effort. They’d all seen him do it so many times and he’d always made it look so easy. Almost, Paul willed Flynn to speak, to step in and point this out because across the table he could see Flynn’s brows drawn together, the line of his jaw that meant in the privacy of his head he was thinking what Paul was thinking. Almost Paul considered speaking out himself – but Flynn was the better qualified and he was staying quiet, listening and not participating, and there was reason for that. They were the youngest and the least experienced of the Tops around the table, they were the youngest members of the family in this group and it was not a matter that even directly involved them. They were here to offer support, not to take over or lead, it was something the partners of the men involved were best qualified to manage. 




Jasper came into the study through the porch door once he’d locked up and joined Dale and Riley on the rug to participate in the game, which precluded Riley managing any more listening at the door. It was over an hour before Flynn opened the door, two mugs in his hand, and jerked his head at Riley and Dale.


“Put that away, get ready for bed.”


“This early?” Riley demanded.


“You heard me.” Flynn sounded short and in no mood to argue. Jasper sat up and began to put away the game pieces. Dale, reading between the lines, helped him with an eye on Flynn’s body language.


“It’s not going well.”


Riley, who was looking ready to snap right back at Flynn, growled as Flynn handed him a mug and put an arm around his waist, picking him up in a bone cracking hug.


“Neither of you need to be around this bull. Take a book, read, I’ll let you know when it’s time to put the light out.”


“Yeah I bet you will.” Riley said half under his breath and Flynn swatted him before he kissed him and put him down.


“Bed. Move.”


His wanting them even further away from whatever was going on in the kitchen was telling. Riley went towards the stairs, growling, and Dale took the second mug which held hot milk and paused to kiss Flynn, briefly but with an eye on the darkness of Flynn’s eyes and a hand that ran over the tension in his shoulders.


“What’s the barrier?”


“Mostly stubbornness.” Flynn said shortly. “Nothing you need worry about.”


It was rather novel – not to say refreshing – for a meeting to be going on that was not going well and which was not in any way his responsibility. That part of it was quite nice… but Dale, not at all blind to Flynn’s feelings right now, would have actually preferred to take an active role and to join in with solving whatever it was that needed solving. It was not a comfortable feeling at all that things were wrong and apparently not improving.


“Has anyone heard from Darcy?”


“No, nor Luath. Luath isn’t answering his phone.” Flynn looked over to find Riley and include him, his voice rough but reassuring to both of them. “Which is a good sign, because if Luthe didn’t know where Darcy was or wasn’t sure he was ok then he’d be here interrogating us for information and looking for help. You don’t need to worry.”


That was logical. Luath was more familiar than any of them with where Darcy was day to day and what he was doing, they were close friends and their lives were pretty enmeshed from Dale’s experience of those few days in Luath’s apartment in New York. Jasper laid the game on Philip’s desk and as he followed Riley upstairs, Dale was aware that Jasper came to stand beside Flynn to watch them go, his shoulder blocked against Flynn’s. It was something Dale only ever saw them do with each other and often he wondered if they were consciously aware that they did it.





It was about nine thirty pm when Dale heard the sounds of other people coming upstairs and the moving around between rooms and bathrooms. Whether things were resolved or not, clearly the brat members of the kitchen meeting had been sent to bed. In the bleakest winter months where often the weather made it necessary to go out during the night to de-ice water supplies for the stock in the home pasture, they kept earlier hours anyway and Flynn came up just before ten. It was rather a mild night for the time of year, they’d seen several snow falls and snow was still lying in patches here and there in sheltered places on the edge of the woods but it was still early enough in December that it was coming and going and thawing. The river was running freely and the water troughs weren’t freezing up beyond a little shallow surface ice the stock could break through easily. In a few weeks they would likely get the falls heavy enough and deep enough that it would be on the ground for weeks and months rather than days, but there would be no need to get up tonight.


Dale laid his book down, watching Flynn undress without any sense that things had gone better downstairs. Asking questions would be neither tactful nor helpful. Instead Dale slid over to make space for Flynn – why he found he preferred to lie on Flynn’s side when in bed alone was something he hadn’t yet really considered in detail – and as Flynn snapped the light out, lay back and put an arm out for him, Dale co-operated with the yank over and curled up around him. It was always one of the best moments of every day. One of those things he never stopped marvelling at. To lay in Flynn’s arms, safe in this quiet house, to fall asleep with Flynn right there. The wellbeing of that for a moment covered most things, but Flynn’s hard body was still quieter and tauter than usual. Dale ran a hand slowly and gently up and down his bare chest, over the tightness, and after a moment felt Flynn sigh and then relax a little further.


“We didn’t get very far.”


A situation like this, a domestic quarrel, was a world away from the meetings Dale had been used to managing for years. Some of those had been bloody – a few literally. Many had been loud, difficult, aggressive. He’d had long experience in getting a group of people to move in one direction together towards one goal, or to come in line with the necessary agenda, and how to steer different personalities and combinations of personalities effectively. It was a text book skill, he could do it well. And it meant nothing at all in this house where you were dealing with people you loved. And that was without taking into account how you handled this kind of thing when all the combatants were part of the lifestyle Dale was still in the process of learning about through his own experience, and were men of the personalities he knew in the house. ‘Tightly wired’ was how Riley had put it.  There were a few other phrases Dale would have added that gave additional information but still didn’t accurately define any of them.


Dale had no frame of reference for this. He and Riley had bickered very occasionally but Riley, while he had no problem telling you loudly and clearly if you did something he didn’t like, wasn’t able to stay angry for long and willingly accepted an apology. And Flynn, Paul and Jasper, while they kept definite limits around what was allowable, tended to let them get on with it and Dale had a sneaking suspicion they thought it was good for him. Paul in particular tended to find the most peculiar things good for him. It was not at all difficult to imagine how they as a group would deal with arguments between themselves. But his imagination didn’t stretch well to imagine how this might work for Bear, for Gerry, for the others. He’d very occasionally seen Gerry in trouble, but only minor things and he and Ash tended to handle them very discreetly. He’d seen Bear taken aside by Theo once at Thanksgiving but again they’d simply disappeared together and not returned for a while.


“Do you know why?”


“In part because Darcy’s not here.” Flynn settled his shoulders deeper into the pillows, his free arm behind his head and his eyes on the open window. “Hard for Gerry to feel any better without talking to Darcy, which makes it hard for Bear and Wade to quit being frustrated with him.”


That was a sympathetic point of view. Dale considered it, not sure why he wasn’t entirely satisfied.


“What do you want to do about it?”


He was aware of Flynn’s very brief smile, followed by a strong hug.


“What would you do about it?”


“I don’t know.” Dale admitted. “I can do the professional stuff, but this isn’t the same. What happened between them?”


“Mostly a whole lot of rubbish. Nothing that matters.” Flynn sounded tired and brusque. “This could be over in ten minutes, it doesn’t need to be a big deal at all.”


Except brats – and Dale freely counted himself in under that heading – had a skill for making things a whole lot more complicated and difficult if they were allowed to.


“Riley told me how Philip used to handle this kind of thing.”


Flynn snorted softly, running his fingers slowly up and down Dale’s spine, and he looked down to meet Dale’s eyes. The dark green was intensely gentle, as was his voice, the look and the tone that went deep in to Dale’s guts every time. “Yes. But that was Philip. Every one of us lived with Philip first, he had that relationship with all of us. It’ll work out, probably when everyone’s less tired and jetlagged tomorrow. James has been part of this house for sixty years, Ash and Theo know what they’re doing, they’ve all known each other a long time. This is not your problem to solve, kid. Let it go.”


He was thinking of Philip himself tonight. And missing him. Dale found himself frowning, still not sure what he wasn’t comfortable with but something about what Flynn was saying wasn’t sitting right.




In their room down the hall, Niall watched James wind the now very elderly watch he wound every night before they slept, then put out the light and lay down beside him. The moonlight in from the window was always brighter here than at home; by it Niall could see James’ profile, the straight nose and carved line of his brow with shadows cast down onto his face.


“He’s deferring to you.”


“I’m not the one who keeps this place going, spends hours out through the night in all weathers breaking ice off water, weeks mowing all day and half the night.” James sounded fierce and Niall understood who it was fiercely protective of.  There wasn’t anyone in the large extended network of men who loved this house that didn’t hold the same thankfulness and respect for the ones who did stay here and for whom the ranch was their everyday work and reality, maintained the same way everyone else loved it. James put a hand out to find Niall’s.


“It’s like that damned room, preserved like a museum. I’m not giving way, Niall. I’m not going to be here forever.”


*



Date: 6th December 7.53pm
From: Lito
To: Riley
Subject: What is going on over there????


I’m drowning in emails Gerry and Bear are copying me into, everyone’s screaming at each other and I don’t understand a word of it. Do we have to come over there and sort you lot out?



Date: 6th December 8.25pm
From: Riley
To: Lito
Subject: Re: What is going on over there????


Too complicated, don’t worry about it. Much fuckwittery.




Date: 6th December 8.32pm
From: Lito
To: Riley
Subject: Re: Re: What is going on over there????


So explain the fuckwittery, some of us are desperate for a clue?






Date: 6th December 8.41pm
From: Riley
To: Lito
Subject: Re: Re: Re: What is going on over there????


Ok, brief overview:


Everyone:   Oh dear God, Gerry’s lost his rag. <again>


Omg lost it I tell you. Gone. Waaaah.


That’s it, I’m going to send mardy texts, sulk, call Gerry/Darcy names, never come online again


I’m cancelling Christmas


You did not just say that oh yes I did oh no I didn’t oh yes I did


Niall:   Guys, calm down.


Everyone:   Go and boil your head, I’m going to eat donuts, call Gerry more names, Call Bear names for variety, slam the door a bit  involve anyone in the family not yet involved, as this mess clearly needs making bigger


This is stupid and infantile (and yet I’m still checking and replying to texts every ten seconds)
David would have dumped you all in the horse trough wouldn’t do this
<random bickering and flapping>


Ash: Seriously. Everyone get your butts to the ranch and calm the heck down.



Date: 6th December 9.18pm
From: Lito
To: Riley
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: What is going on over there????


………………..Wow. 




7th December
Wyoming




Flynn was lying awake too at five thirty when Dale heard Paul head downstairs, and while he made Dale stay with him in bed until six, they got up as soon as the clock reached the hour. Jasper had already gone out; his boots and jacket were missing when Dale, dressed and shaved, came down to the kitchen. Paul was sitting at the head of the table as he did in the early morning, drinking a cup of tea and writing a list with the other. He held out an arm at the sight of Dale, pulling him down into his lap.


“Good morning. Did you two sleep?”


“Not that well.”


“No, me either.” Paul passed Dale the mug of tea and they shared it, sipping slowly while Paul’s hand found its way under Dale’s sweater and shirt and rubbed slowly over his lower back. “What are you thinking about all this?”


He expected an honest answer, this was the time of the day that Paul tended to ask the more difficult questions in these few minutes they had alone together, but Dale didn’t have anything more to offer than a rather vague, “……I’m not sure yet.”


“You haven’t reached a definite conclusion, the data’s still percolating, you don’t want to talk about it or you don’t think I want to hear it?” Paul looked at him, dark blue eyes glinting with humour in the soft way they had that always made Dale want to get closer to him. He did so on impulse right now, folding his arms around Paul’s neck. Something that was also easy when alone with Paul at this hour, and Paul hugged him back tightly.


“It is ok that this isn’t finished yet, this is not your problem to solve. It’s just a storm in a tea cup. Look at me.”


Dale returned the eye contact fully, as Paul expected, and Paul put a hand up to brush his hair back from his forehead.


“Which is it? Answer the question.”


“The data’s still circulating.” Dale admitted. Paul gave him a searching look, but nodded slowly.


“Ok. Are you coping with this many people around?”


Dale leaned on the table, honestly keeping the eye contact. “Yes, fine. This is a bit different to anything I’ve seen before but I’m all right.”


“It is going to be ok.” Paul finished the last of the tea and leaned over to put the mug in the sink. “If I end up having to bang heads together, we’re not going to waste another day on this.”


Flynn came into the kitchen, headed for the fridge and pulled out a carton of juice, flipping the top and standing where he was to drain it. Paul shook his head at him.


“Hey, this is a kitchen, not a refuelling station. Get a glass.”


“No need, it’s almost empty.” Flynn finished the carton and crushed it, dropping it in the trash. “I heard the others getting up. I don’t know what their plans are yet, but if Bear and Gerry were mine I’d be putting them to work on something heavy and as mucky as possible this morning.”


“They are yours in plenty of ways. Suggest it.” Paul told him. Flynn pulled his boots on at the door, reaching down a jacket.


“It’s not my place to tell Theo or Ash what to do.”


“They came here.” Dale said without thinking. Paul glanced at him and nodded clear agreement, keeping Dale where he was on his lap.


“Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking too. They came here because we all know how we handle this kind of thing. We were going around in circles last night, we weren’t getting anything but a lot of low level attitude and grouching from most, and misery from Niall which is driving James mad.”


“It’s a mistake engaging with the who and why.” Flynn said shortly. Paul nodded with bleak agreement.


“Yes, exactly, and you know why it doesn’t work. Flynn…. James is brilliant with Niall and Wade, but he’s focused on them and at their age the stress isn’t good for them. I can see it’s worrying him. Ash is a genius with Gerry in a state but he’s having to try and keep Gerry together enough to sit with Bear and Wade when they’re this mad, Gerry doesn’t do well with anyone being mad or with this kind of confrontation, and Ash isn’t the right person to handle Wade or Bear. Theo’s keeping Bear actually talking and not driving anyone else nuts but he’s good at Bear. Neither of them are going to feel ok standing up at this table and taking over. No one’s up to handling the whole group as a group and that’s what they want. I wish you would.”


“As far as James is concerned, I’m the brat of a kid with the bad attitude who used to drive Philip spare.” Flynn said dryly. “Jasper and I were just teenagers when Gerry was here.”


“Darling, you haven’t looked like a teenager in fifteen years, and outside of a shopping mall you don’t act like one either.” Paul gave Flynn a steady look, “Philip never thought of you as ‘just a kid’, and we certainly don’t. I’ll try if I have to but you’d do it a lot better.”


“If I’m asked, of course I’ll help but I’m not shoving in where I’ve got no right to shove, we need to do this their way.”


“We don’t, because they came here to do it our way.” Paul said pointedly. Flynn came over to them and stooped, dropping a rough kiss on Paul’s lips that worked somewhere between an apology and a reply to Paul’s expression. “I’ll be back for breakfast.”





Paul ‘suggested’ it; Dale heard him talk quietly to Ash who was the first one downstairs, but by first light, around seven am, Gerry was bad temperedly shifting the rock pile from the corner by the stables to a tarpaulin near the vegetable patch, and Bear was mucking out the corral in amongst the steaming breath of the horses while Riley and Dale worked with Jasper and Flynn on the first chores of the day getting feed and fresh water out to the stock in the home pasture. Dale took the tractor out to load up a stack of the hay bales Riley pitched down from the hayloft hatch, and drove them out to stack in the feeding stations for the sheep and cattle. He took the tractor back to the yard when he was done and Gerry, having dropped a rock on the pile with a look that said he despised all minerals, came to open the gate for him. He stood at the door of the barn while Dale parked the tractor in its space, removed the keys and dropped down to the barn floor, and helped Dale with closing and latching the last double doors.


“I hate rocks.” He said, dropping the latch into place. “Just so you know. And your boyfriend sucks.”


“Which one?”


Gerry gave him a Look. “Which one. Don’t you look all innocent with me, you know which one. The New Zealand sadist, that’s who. Will you look at my nails? Go and shift rocks he says. Put all that pile over here he says. I know this trick, I’ve watched him do it to clients.”


“Gerald.” Ash’s voice said from the porch. Gerry pulled a face at Dale.


“He means the slave of the lamp needs to Get On With It.”


Ash gave Dale a calm smile as Dale came up the porch steps and went on sweeping the porch with an eye on Gerry. Paul was setting the table for breakfast as Dale went in to clean up. On winter mornings like this they started early and stopped for breakfast around nine thirty when the first morning chores were done, getting as much done as possible in the short hours of daylight. It meant coming back to breakfast in less than clean clothes, but Dale scrubbed his hands and came back into the kitchen where James was sitting with a cup of tea and Paul was filling two breakfast trays.


“Wade and Niall are staying in bed this morning,” he said as Dale came to the table, “They’re tired from the flight yesterday. Can you take one up for me hon? That one’s Niall’s.”


Yes. Two working hard in the yard, two kept in bed. It figured. Dale took the tray upstairs and tapped at the door of the room Niall and James shared. The curtains were drawn to show the pasture stretching out beyond the window and the snow-capped mountains on the horizon. The bed was neatly made with the patchwork green counterpane straight and drawn up around Niall who was half sitting and half laying with a book and looked up as Dale came in with the nearest thing Dale had seen to a smile since Niall got here.


“That’s kind of you, thanks.”


“How are you feeling?” Dale put the tray gently down on the empty side of the bed and Niall gratefully picked up the cup of tea, burying himself in it.


“Tired. And embarrassed. I dread to think what you and Riley must be making of all this.”


Dale took a seat on the edge of the wooden framed bed and Niall drew up his knees, sipping tea. He was long and thin, Niall. Delicately built, with a straight nose, straight brows and soft dark brown eyes that gave him a faintly birdlike face. It was a gentle face; he moved gently, he spoke gently and with an expressive and rather deeper voice than you expected. Dale never had the slightest difficulty understanding how he held such force in a court room. It was the kind of voice you stopped to listen to, he’d seen men with this power of acting before in other powerful roles, men who didn’t need volume or force to make themselves felt. Although when he was here with James, Niall seemed to relax with bliss into the quiet of James’ shadow and to enjoy being the quieter of the two of them. Dale thought of him as usually being a very peaceful man. 


“Flynn said it didn’t go too well last night.” Dale said lightly enough for Niall to ignore it if he wanted to. Niall gave him a wry look over the edge of his tea cup.


“Not too well? That was tactful.” He sighed and tipped his head back against the pillow. “Around that table last night we had a high court judge, the owner and manager of a successful business, someone trained and trusted to wrangle large and very dangerous animals, and a highly experienced and actually several times decorated cop. Does that sound like a competent group to you? You’d think so. And we were sitting around a table mumbling about who said what to whom like a bunch of first graders kept in at recess.”


Dale smiled faintly, listening rather than commenting. Niall drank the rest of the tea, cradling the china cup between his hands.


“So embarrassed? Yes. And we’re in quite a bit of trouble here, and deservedly so. I hate when it gets to this point. I feel so stupid. Give me the worst court case you can think of to handle, that’s no problem. I’ve got books, I’ve got precedents, I know where to start, I’ve got no trouble handling that at all. Give me Gerry shouting at me and all the professional experience I’ve ever had just dribbles out of my ears.”


“He comes from a part of your life where it’s all personal, not professional. You’re not a judge when you’re with him.” Dale finished for him.


Niall gave him a rather sad smile. “Yes, exactly. I know you’d get that.”


“It’s not like Riley and I don’t understand.” Dale said frankly. “It’s the same for us, I think it’s the same for all of us? Is there anything I can do that would help?”


“If I knew anything that would help I’d be doing it. The stupid thing is we know how to fix this. We all do.” Niall looked without much interest at the boiled eggs and toast on the tray. “Is Gerry all right? I haven’t had a moment alone with him to know since we got here and he looked awful last night.”


“He’s shifting rocks outside.”


Niall winced. “Possibly now I’m glad I got told to stay in bed. You’d better go love, you’ll be in trouble for fraternising with the condemned. Dale?” he added as Dale got up. “Has anyone heard anything at all from Darcy?”


“No. But Flynn hasn’t heard from Luath either and Luath knows.”


The relief in Niall’s face was very evident.





Dale spent an hour around mid-morning with Jasper, digging out the mail box on its post outside the gate on the road which had begun to lean a little in the gathering winter gales, and to re dig the hole and re site the post. Riley, who appeared to be fast losing patience with Bear, Gerry and anyone else involved and was looking with increasing annoyance at Gerry’s grousing as he heaved rocks, had disappeared to finish off the shed roofing well away from both of them and was taking his feelings out on a lot of hammering.  Flynn hadn’t commented, but once he’d finished his own chores, he’d gone to help. Re siting the post was a heavy job with the ground cold and hard, and it took a fair amount of digging and leverage to get the earth to release the post. Finally Jasper leaned his full weight against it, rocking it from one side and then another until the mud rather sullenly relinquished its grip. They took it in turns to dig out the hole again, making it some inches deeper, and dropped the post back in, shoring the earth up around it and spending some minutes tramping it down so the post was stolidly set.


Wiping muddy, semi frozen hands on his knees, Dale paused for a moment to get his breath and watched one solitary car in the distance travel down the long road towards them. Jasper gathered up the pick and the shovels they’d brought down with them and they reattached them to Hammer and Gucci’s saddles, about to mount up when the car indicated and slowly turned into the drive, passing under the wooden framed bar that read Falls Chance Ranch. It slowed to a halt beside them and Dale felt his heart jump as he recognised the man behind the wheel. Luath. Who turned off the engine and got out, coming directly to him and Jasper with his face lighting up. Jasper returned his hug warmly, going to meet his passenger, and Luath caught Dale, his arms swallowing him up in a bear hug that nearly scooped his off his feet.


“Hey there! It’s good to see you! Are we too late? Who’s here?”


“Pretty much everybody.” Dale returned the hug warmly, very fond of this man and glad to see him, and the man Jasper was helping out of the car, who hugged Jasper with rather more clinging than warmth, was Darcy. Darcy looked across Jasper’s shoulder at him and managed something approximating a smile. He was dressed more soberly than Dale had ever seen. The jacket was nothing unusual, just plain black leather, plain black boots and pants, a black scarf, for a moment, like a trick of the light, Dale saw just the black outline and nothing inside it. The invisible man. Darcy usually ensured you saw the clothes and mostly the clothes when you looked at him.


“They started talking last night and didn’t get anywhere. They were having another try this afternoon.” Jasper let go of Darcy, keeping an arm over his shoulders. “Where did you two come from? We’ve been wondering where you were together.”


“Paris.” Luath said easily. “It was beautiful, I recommend it.”


“Has it got very bad in there?” Darcy asked Jasper.


“I don’t hear much talking being done at all.” Jasper sounded as calm about it as he always did. “A lot of noise.”


But no communication.


Dale, watching, saw Darcy understand what Jasper meant at the same instance he did, and that was interesting. Many of the friendships within this family were strong ones with a lot of history, and some of them were quite unexpected.


“We heard about a good deal of gossip getting recycled as ammunition.” Jasper leaned back against the car, watching Darcy’s face with a good deal of gentleness. “I hope you weren’t hurt and you didn’t take it seriously.”


Darcy looked across at Luath and nodded slowly. “Nothing was said that really matters.”


“Or that’s anyone else’s business.” Luath added. 


Jasper didn’t comment further but for the first time Dale realised Jasper wasn’t merely being his usual, elusive self. He’d been around since the others arrived, especially he’d been occupying himself with Dale and Riley and joining in whatever they were doing, his friendly and usual self, and Dale was so used to Jasper unobtrusively doing his own thing and just appearing where he was needed if it freed Flynn and Paul up to do other things, that he hadn’t thought twice about it. Jasper was being discreet with no wish to make the situation harder for anyone, but he was not involving himself in what was going on in the kitchen because he actively and seriously disapproved of it. And of course he would. Bad feeling, idle chatter, time wasted in continuing trouble and discord instead of resolving it; there were many things that Flynn and Paul took seriously that Jasper didn’t, in some ways his boundaries were considerably looser than in Dale’s experience, but these were all transgressions which to Jasper were truly and inexcusably wrong. And knowing that, Dale knew without question Jasper would not have allowed him or Riley to do what the four in the kitchen were doing right now.


This is wrong every way I try to look at it.


He and Jasper rode alongside the car up the long drive to the ranch and Luath parked while they stripped the tack from their horses, exchanged it for the blankets the corral horses wore at this time of year and walked with them up the steps into the kitchen.


There were the sounds of ongoing altercations as they opened the door; obviously the ‘discussion’ had been re convened. Dale heard the tone more than the words. Tired. Fractious. Bitter. They were tones he’d heard in plenty of meetings that had gone on too long without a firm enough hand steering them, and there was never any gain or purpose to letting them roll on. The sound stopped dead at the sight of Darcy. There was a long silence, then Gerry jerked to his feet ahead of pretty much everyone else and came straight to Darcy, throwing his arms around his neck.


“Thank God! Don’t scare me like that. Where the hell have you been? I’ve been terrified.”


Darcy didn’t answer but it definitely seemed to help; Dale saw him swallow hard and he returned the hug. There was a very crowded moment where the kitchen was full of bodies, Darcy and Luath were surrounded by people, someone went to get their cases from the car, Paul put the kettle on and their coats were taken, chairs were found for them.


“Where were you?” Gerry demanded as soon as they sat down.


“France. You knew I was in France.”


“You stopped answering any messages, we had no idea-“


“For good reason Gerry, I was trying to work at the time.” Darcy took a seat between Luath and Paul, sitting well back in his chair. Dale edged past him to wash the mud off his hands. Riley, who had come inside when Luath and Darcy arrived, moved out of his way with an expressive look towards the table, muttering under his breath.



“Don’t bother sticking around, they’re still acting like a massed pain in the butt. If they were fricking horses I’d have the lot of them doing circuits on a leading rein, and I’d get a fricking crop out too. A big one.” 


Riley was usually an acutely perceptive judge. Dale took on board this summation which fitted with his own opinion and with what Flynn had said this morning. It’s a mistake engaging. From what Riley described Philip never had when handling a quarrel. He wouldn’t do it for them, he wouldn’t lead it; for him it was not about fact finding. He merely expected that they would do the right thing for themselves.


At the table Luath gave Gerry a friendly smile. “I read the texts, I asked to see them. I’ll thank you Gerry – and Bear and Wade – to ask me any questions you have about my private life and my decisions, and not use them as something to fight about amongst yourselves.”


“Wonderful.” Gerry sat back, flushing hotly and glaring at Darcy. “You got him involved. Is there anyone yet-”


“Who doesn’t know you were a bitch and a half? No.” Wade interrupted irritably. “He’s got the right to involve anyone he wants, that’s his prerogative. Once you’ve sent the texts they’re no longer yours Ger, it’s out there for anyone to see and if you’re not comfortable with them being seen then you should think about why.”


“I lost my temper,” Gerry began hotly and Wade snorted.


“Darcy suggested you reined it in, that was all, and bam, you dispatched the flying monkeys.”


Jasper was right; this was irrelevant noise, and getting increasingly bizarre. Drying his hands with no idea what Wade meant and a growing inability to stand this stalemate, Dale cast a brief look around to Paul, who looked to him as though he was keeping his mouth shut with an effort. Riley was drinking tea at the far end of the kitchen and looking impatient, still in his jacket beside Jasper who was standing evenly with his arms folded. While Jasper’s expression was neutral, Dale had no trouble at all in reading it. Flynn, seated on Luath’s other side, was looking grim and his hands, while linked together between his knees and quiet enough, were tense. So was his jaw. Theo looked concerned. Ash was leaning with his elbows on his knees as if this was draining him. James looked frankly tired and frustrated. They were all keeping their own partners managed but it was perfectly clear that neither Theo nor Ash thought it was their place to speak out here at this table in the way that needed doing, and it was asking a great deal of James who was being – rather peculiarly quiet, from what Dale knew of James. Luath was sitting with Darcy and Dale could read in his body he was here for Darcy, and for Darcy he was going to do nothing at all that had to do with involving himself with this quarrel. And Darcy was sitting in the middle of all this, white faced and brittle as if he was going to fracture, his eyes down on his hands and his body tense. There were seriously, fourteen rational adult men in this kitchen, all of whom knew better, shouting at each other about flying monkeys.


This is ridiculous. It’s going nowhere. And I’m staying out of this why?


For a moment, peculiarly, Dale found himself thinking fleetingly of the sweet shop in Cheyenne, standing back and watching Riley among those brightly coloured barrels.


Not admitting or standing your ground for something you wanted, not if anyone else was looking or might think you cared or wanted it. Or that you were afraid to risk trying to get it. Or that you were entitled to it in the first place.


What a lot of rubbish. 


This is about all of us, it’s the job of all of us and this is ridiculous.


Laying the towel neatly over the rail of the oven to dry, Dale abandoned any sense of restraint or self-control for being quite simply annoyed, stepped past Jasper and Riley to drop his hands on the edge of the table and looked directly across at Wade, then Bear and Gerry, and lifted his own voice to penetrate straight across the noise.


“Right. This is utterly disgraceful, what are you doing? All I’m hearing is varying forms of sulking. I don’t hear anyone interested in what’s important here, which is taking responsibility for what was done and putting effort into repairing it. We don’t talk to each other this way. We don’t act this way in this house.”


There was a shocked, abashed silence. Aware that Paul was listening to this and not making one move to indicate to him it wasn’t a good idea, Dale leaned on the table and fixed his gaze direct on Gerry.


“I don’t care who said what or who meant what. It’s not relevant. Perhaps it might have been yesterday but frankly by this point I’ve lost interest because it’s what’s going on right here that is absolutely unacceptable to me.” 


“Amen. And me.” Riley said very emphatically behind him. Dale felt Flynn’s hand on his back as Flynn quietly walked past him and out of the room, and it was not a settle down kind of a touch. The room had gone very still.



“What did Philip used to say about someone else having a bad day?” he said shortly. It was a question expecting an answer, these were men who responded to that tone and this kind of manner and Gerry responded, very unwillingly but immediately.


“…….. you help or get out of their way.”


“Your choice as to which, but you don’t make things worse.” Dale’s gaze took in Darcy who was for the first time showing colour in his face, largely of embarrassment, but he was looking. “We all know how this works. We all know where the line is and when it’s time to flag things up to those of us who could have sorted this in one night, in a few hours.”


“Not always that easy.” Wade pointed out.


“I’ve noticed that, but I didn’t think that took away the responsibility.” Dale said aridly. Riley nodded definite confirmation to him, and around the table Bear, Wade and Gerry all reacted. He saw the unwilling acknowledgement, they every one of them knew it because they’d taught it to him. “Don’t we all have it? All anyone needed to do was talk to Ash or ask their partner to talk to Ash. That would have been it. Darcy might not have that obligation in the same way but the rest of us I know very well do. So this is what is going to happen. Gerry, you’re up. Now. You have exactly a minute, so do the others, and then we are going to be done with this. Get a bloody grip.”


Flynn reappeared beside him, there was a quiet and distinct click as he laid the Lexan paddle down right in the middle of the table, and he leaned right there beside Dale, both hands propped on the wooden surface. He was significantly broader than Dale, and taller. There was a moment of frozen silence where Gerry, Wade, Darcy and Bear looked at the paddle laying there.


“One.” Flynn said very bluntly indeed.  


“Two.”


And then abruptly Gerry looked directly at Darcy, talking fast enough that it was hard to keep up with him, as if a lid had been pulled off.


“I am sorry for the crack about you flirting with – knocking off – whoever you work with, I didn’t want to hear that I was wasting time or not doing it well, I was in a state and you were right. I’m very sorry for everything I said about you and Luath. I don’t think that, I really don’t, and it’s none of my business anyway.”


“Too right.” Luath said from the other end of the table. Gerry flushed but glanced down to him.


“I know. Luthe, I apologise to you too, and for the ranting I did at the rest of you when you said I was acting like an ass.”


“Wade.” Dale said crisply. Wade gave him a look that was part amused and part appreciative, nodding to him.


“Yes. Ger, I’m sorry for being mean right back, I didn’t like what you were saying and I could have put it less nastily. I don’t like this time of year and I admit I like a fight a bit too much, it’s something else to think about. You just got in my way at a bad moment or I’d have handled it a bit better.”


“Bear.” Dale turned his eyes to Bear, making a brief glance at his watch. Bear looked back at him, then looked across to Niall.


“I’m sorry for ragging on you that you were sticking your nose in. But that’s all I’m sorry for.”


Flynn abruptly put a hand over the paddle and gave it a shove, sliding it efficiently and fast across the table to Theo who picked it up, got up and pulled Bear to his feet with the other hand. He didn’t hold back in the slightest with swinging the paddle directly against Bear’s backside and the crack was loud, followed by a high yelp from Bear who clapped his hands behind him over the seat of his jeans, twisting more energetically than seemed possible for such a big man.


Bear.” Dale repeated, waiting. Bear, out of breath but apparently with the power of speech fully restored, looked from him swiftly to Gerry.


“What you said to Darcy was not ok, it really sucked.”


“I know,” Gerry said shamefacedly, “You’re right, it did and I’m very sorry about it.”


“Then I’m kind of sorry for nagging at you, but I still think you asked for it and apologising doesn’t make everything right.”


“I know. I think that’s probably honest.” Gerry twisted around to him as Bear stooped down, giving him a hug that for a moment engulfed Gerry entirely.


“Niall.” Dale said, and Gerry shook his head.


“No, you’ve got nothing to be sorry for, you were the one person who stayed out of it and tried to help.”


“I should have gone straight to James.” Niall looked briefly at James who was watching him, face expressionless, but Dale could see they’d been holding hands beneath the level of the table for a while. “I’m as responsible as anyone else for this getting to be an overinflated mess, and Dale’s quite right, we all know better.”


“Darcy.” Dale looked at the last member of the group who looked more than slightly alarmed but was a much better colour and looked far less near to shattering. Luath was sitting close to him, his arm against Darcy’s, and Darcy met his eye.


“I could have been more tactful.” He looked towards Gerry and Bear, “…..I do get jealous when you talk about avoiding support I know is right there any time you need it. It’s not a luxury all of us have and it’s not always easy to listen to you taking it for granted. But it’s relative, isn’t it? I know why you feel that way, it’s your everyday life. I do understand.”


His voice was very soft, and Gerry’s face across the table was stricken and deeply sympathetic.


“It wasn’t ok for me to disappear without letting you know I was walking away for a few days.” Darcy looked from Gerry to Wade and then Bear and Niall. “I’m sorry, I know that scared you. I was hurt and embarrassed and I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to be here knowing you’re looking at me and thinking I’m fooling myself or chickening out of any real relationship.” Darcy paused and Dale saw him look across to Luath and then Jasper who nodded, slightly and calmly. “Or especially,” Darcy said more clearly although he went a little paler, “That I take advantage of Luath.”


“You don’t.” Luath said bluntly. “I’m the one who’d know.”


“So are we done?” Flynn leaned on his knuckles on the table, looking from face to face in turn. “Then there’s the question of reparation here, and as far as I can see you owe time to everyone else here, whether through this acting out with texts or this acting out around since you got here. Paul, what can be done for you?”


“I could use the log baskets filled and the fire place swept out and cleaned,” Paul said without hesitation, “And the laundry room scrubbed out with all the white goods moved and cleaned underneath.”


“Jas?”


Jasper considered, arms still folded. “The stalls scoured out in the stables, the oil changed in both tractors, the porch scrubbed down – boards and rails – and the yard swept and raked.”


That was a lot. There were several glances from Gerry and Bear in particular that said they got the message. They were looking distinctly subdued. 


“Riley?” Flynn looked to Riley beside Jasper.


“Dale and I had that broken shelter to be taken apart and rebuilt, and the yearling cattle to get in and check their tags.” Riley hoisted himself up to sit on the counter. “You’re welcome to cover that for us.”

“Dale?”


Flynn looked across to him and Riley gave him a fixed stare that warned him clearly not to hesitate. Having seen this before, Dale needed no time to think today.


“Philip’s books in the study need taking down and wiping and the leather bound ones cleaning, and the shelves dusting out, I’ve been looking for time to do that.”


Flynn nodded, looking up at the now rather stricken looking five men around the table.


“Sweet. And I could do with the weather proofing finished in the yard and given a top coat. Sheds, porch, barn door, both gates. Ash,  you’re more than welcome to add any chores you like to that list, but I’m going to suggest you and James and Theo take the rest of your time here as vacation. Your partners can cover the work you’d usually help with.”


James looked grimly satisfied, Ash quite content with the conversation, and Theo glanced up at Dale and gave him a fleeting but a very definite wink and smile.


“I’m never going to remember all that,” Gerry pleaded faintly. Riley dug in the drawer beneath his legs and tossed a notebook and pen to Dale.


“No worries, he will. Have a list.”



~ The End ~


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015 

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