Flynn was working one of the young colts on a long rein in the paddock. It was one of the parts of the year that Riley and Flynn, and now Dale too, enjoyed most – the time when the sheep were sheered, before the heavy and relentless couple of weeks of mowing started, when the main work to be done was saddle training the two year olds and accustoming them to different terrains, sounds and experiences. It meant long hours of riding and training every day and all three of them revelled in it and came home in the evenings to talk still more about the horses before getting up in the morning to do it again. Dale and Riley were out this afternoon with a couple of them in the woods. Paul crossed the yard, watching Flynn work with an appreciative eye that took in strong and well browned bare arms below the rolled up shirtsleeves, the smooth way he moved with the youngster, the calm he was radiating that meant every one of their colts followed him willingly and trailed him around the corral or the pasture whenever he crossed it. He always worked with their babies without any reins at all for some weeks in the training paddock, building them up slowly to follow and change direction with him first with no visible bond between them before he would begin to introduce the most confident of them to tack. There were ten of them this year and this was one of his particular favourites, a long legged paint coat boy out of Puzzle by the name of Splash, named by Riley due to the dark brown uneven blotch of colour on his head with matching flecks on his neck that made him look like someone had tossed a bucket of brown paint at him. He was looking increasingly like having serious potential as a polo horse, all Puzzle’s foals seemed to have her sure footedness combined with Bandit’s speed and fire. Flynn glanced up briefly in hello as Paul reached the paddock rail but intent on the colt, didn’t say anything. Paul leaned on the rail by him for a moment before he spoke.
“Dale’s birthday. It’s on the twenty eighth.”
Paul watched Flynn guide the colt round in a smooth circle. Flynn’s eyes were never leaving the colt’s gait, the transitions between pace and he was keeping his body in tune the way he did with all the babies, quiet and confident with no sudden movements, but he was listening. “This is the first one with us. We skipped it last year.”
“He was in New York last year.”
Closing down his work with ANZ and using the time they’d insisted he take to think, away from them without any pressure of any kind, to make his decision on whether or not he wanted to accept their offer to join them. The date had come and gone at the very end of his time there and after a lot of discussion, the four of them had reluctantly agreed to let it go and not mention it.
“I still feel bad about that.” Paul put his chin on his arms, resting one booted foot on the bottom rail of the fence. “It was the right decision, he needed the space but I hated doing it …. And this has been one hell of a few months for anything to do with his wretched mother, I can make some very educated guesses about baggage he’s carrying around birthdays and it will be grim, she was too good at it not to be.”
“Doubt it was intentional.”
“No one treats a child that badly by accident; whatever her reasons yes it was intentional. That woman wants slapping and I’d be delighted to do it.” Paul said darkly. “Us recognising the date or doing anything about it is very likely to mess with him hard.”
“Possibly.” Flynn walked away from the colt to lean on the fence beside him. “Why is this one looking harder to you than the other ones we’ve handled?”
Paul sighed. “…because it’s important to me. I doubt anyone’s ever really made that kind of fuss for him in his life. They ought to have done and I want to go full bells and whistles the way he really deserves. Philip probably would have done it.”
Flynn gave him a brief, amused smile. “Philip grabbed any excuse for a large party.”
And he’d been very good at them. Paul reflected on that for a moment; catering for Philip’s extensive and regular family festivals had always been the kind of housekeeping challenge he loved and it had been a pleasure to do with Philip who enjoyed it the same way he did. “…But he’s on an even keel at the moment, he had a very rough spring – and it feels selfish and downright unkind to drag up more horrible stuff and put him through it just because I want to. I already know what Jas will say: we do exactly what we’d usually do and whatever comes up is something we need to work through, it doesn’t help to avoid it. And Ri would be outraged we’d even consider playing it down, I think he’s going to be all for bells and whistles too - but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m plotting to stick a knife in Dale’s back.”
“The alternative is agreeing with him he’s too damaged to handle it. Balls to that.” Flynn said it quite gently but directly. “He’s not. We’re not validating any of the crap she’s put on him. I’m with Ri and Jas. If the first couple of years are hard we’ll help him. We do what we know helps and we get him settled again, that’s what it’s all about. And hopefully with all that in mind he’ll be able to let go and enjoy it. In the future if not exactly this time around. This is a long game.”
“So you’re voting for bells and whistles?” Paul demanded. “You. Seriously? You do understand what I mean by that?”
The colt leaned hard against Flynn, nudging at his hand until Flynn absently rubbed its nose
“I’m not voting for bells and whistles. Just the five of us, that’s enough for this year. I doubt he’s noticed the date in decades, we’ll take him by surprise, it won’t be that bad.Next year we’ll do bells and whistles, and we’ll plan it to take him by surprise again a week ahead of the date before he has time to start sweating.”
Paul started to laugh and hung over the fence to kiss him. “Ok, you’ve got this covered. I’ll start thinking about cake. There’s the fundraiser at Madison’s Hall on that night, I was planning to go help set up in the afternoon and buy tickets whether we decided to go or not… but maybe that would be a good distraction? They’re usually nice events. Stop looking at me like that, they are.”
There were several people stood around him; he could see their shapes and knew they were there but he couldn’t see their faces. His entire attention was taken up by a small flame in front of him. Just one. Straight like a column, going upwards, flickering at the top and turning everything to the sides into a blur. And it was intensely irritating.
Quite why it was so irritating he wasn’t sure, but looking at it raised a feeling so powerful that yet again it woke him. It was the fourth time he’d had the dream tonight. He lay for a moment, the intensity of that irritation still eating at him, but it was melting away fast into the Flynn’s warmth and breathing against his back, the heavily comfortable weight of the arm slung over his chest. Flynn could chase away battalions of dreams, and ones much worse than merely annoying.
“All right?” Flynn said in his ear. It was light outside; dawn started around 5am at the moment, and by the colour of the sky it was nearer 6.
“As when I woke you at 4? Yes. Sorry.”
Flynn’s mouth lipped at his ear and worked distractingly slowly on down his jaw. “So what was it?”
“You two are awake early?” Already dressed, Paul leaned on the doorframe.
“Someone was dreaming.” Flynn shifted up a little against the pillows, pulling Dale with him which he could do with one arm. The sense of Flynn being able to put him wherever he wanted him, easily, effortlessly – it was good every time and Dale couldn’t help himself leaning hard against him. It had been a while since he last caused nocturnal havoc in their household with unpleasant dreams; Paul’s eyes softened with ready sympathy.
“No. Not at all. It was ridiculous. People standing around a flame, that’s it. Four times.”
“How did it feel?” Flynn asked him.
“Bloody annoying.” Dale said succinctly. “That’s it. Looking at a flame and being bloody annoyed about it. It was a tedious night all round.”
He felt as much as saw Flynn look at him. The long, searching look that looked right into him and said is that it without the bullshit? Then Flynn wrapped both arms around him and gave him a crushing hug that squashed out the last of the frustration, dropping a hard kiss on his mouth. “Ok. Go get a shower.”
Lips tingling, feeling significantly better, Dale rolled to his feet, padding towards the bathroom. He heard Paul’s voice burst out behind him, very faint and stifled.
“Oh good grief, now he’s having premonitions-”
Dale swallowed a smile despite himself. No, not quite that weird yet. Riley was visible through the open door of his room in the comfortable sprawl he usually slept in, tumbled hair bright against his pillow. He looked peaceful and relaxed, the covers half off which exposed quite a lot of him, and it was hard to look without touching. On impulse, Dale went to sit on the edge of his bed, running a finger lightly down what was visible of Riley’s bare back. Riley’s shoulders twitched and he mumbled something that at this hour of the morning was most likely a request best paraphrased as get off and go away, except for a hand that shot out and grabbed somewhere highly personal that made Dale yelp and crunch in spite of himself and Riley yanked him down and rolled over on top of him, teeth fastening neatly on an equally sensitive spot.
“I thought you were asleep.” Dale rolled onto his back, letting Riley subside on his chest, chin on his arm.
“Surfacing. It’s looking like a good day.”
The sun was bright outside the window, a cloudless electric blue sky. Dale had never taken much notice of the weather throughout his adult life unless it affected flight times, but here weather was a fundamental part of every day. They moved with the weather and the seasons taking their rhythm from the earth and skies, and as a result mornings like this one felt…. full of boundless possibilities. Between them, he and Riley had no less than four colts and two fillies this year that they were responsible for, with approximately eight hours of working time which equated to, allowing time for tack and other details, two point two eight hours per ride which at a gentle pace permitted routes approximate in length that allowed for nine separate and sufficiently thorough therapeutic routes for the youngsters – Riley’s mouth closed on his nearest nipple bringing any sensible line of thought to an abrupt end, and one of Riley’s knees slipped between his. Dale’s hands automatically went to Riley’s slim and agile hips where they really quite liked being, and Riley gave him a wicked look, starting to slide lower.
“Yeah you bug me before I’m awake and you know what you get. So stop thinking and get over here.”
“I was supposed to be getting a shower.”
“If Flynn wants to hurry you up he can wait his turn.”
Dale smiled, becoming increasingly breathless. Flynn would be perfectly well aware of his diversion and very likely equally aware of what they were engaged in, and all four of them were cheerfully and deeply sensitive to each other’s privacy without commenting on it; it was something Dale deeply appreciated and loved in all of them. They wouldn’t be interrupted.
They had eighteen minutes and forty two seconds before breakfast by his calculations, which would need to include showering and shaving….. it was an interesting and highly motivating challenge, and Riley was good at posing them.
With care, Dale got them to the kitchen with the job properly done and a minute and a third still to spare.
It was a good day. Jasper and Paul rode out together to look over the sheep and cattle, which at this time of the year needed little more than a good eye cast over them and their fences for any issues. Flynn, Riley and Dale took the least assured group of two year olds out together and took them out to the crossing place, coaxing them to splash and stand in the clear, fast running water and get up their confidence to walk in the shallow rush of the river up to their fetlocks. After which they took them up into the woods where the paths were steep and the babies who had grown up on this land tried out their footing under rein and with a rider’s guidance. Past the Silver Bullet where she lay tipped on her side embedded in leaves, and near to where the siding lay with the walled up little train. And then the second group with whom they spent the warm heat of noon in the paddock, taking them over the low jumps and turns before stretching their legs out in the home pasture. Shortly after one pm, Flynn took Truck, the largest and heaviest of the final three out of the paddock to tack up and nodded Dale and Riley at the other two, their fastest and most confident and the furthest on their training.
“I’ll take Truck out and look over the mares, and I’ll see to Willow when I get back. Coal and Diva could do with some proper, hard distance; take them out for the afternoon, give them a workout. I won’t expect to see you back before five.”
It sounded like an order but the translation was roughly; take the two fastest, most interesting horses of the bunch, take the afternoon off and go play, and Riley’s eyes lit up and he grabbed Flynn in a rough hug. Dale saw Flynn do this fairly often. He always had an eye on Riley and how hard he worked, his moods and any particularly good weather, and while Riley was free any time to take a day or an afternoon to himself he almost never did. It was Flynn who made sure Riley had free time before he needed it and that he enjoyed it, and who added Riley’s work to his own in order to do so. Dale’s too, since Flynn seemed to feel that several decades of working far longer hours than anyone at the ranch ever did under far greater responsibility still did not entitle Dale to work as hard as he did and he demonstrably and stingingly disapproved of any suggestion of Dale’s that he viewed it as any kind of competition. It was a quirk of his he’d never budge on and Riley, who found this entertaining, grinned as Flynn turned Dale’s chin up, kissed him, firmly enough to shift the disapproval out of his eyes and landed a firm swat on the seat of his jeans that got him moving.
“You had an annoying night; you could use it. Get that look off your face and move.”
They got back just before five. The yard was immaculate, Dale took it in at a glance seeing the signs of Jasper and Flynn done for the day and gone to shower. He and Riley groomed the two sweaty horses side by side in the yard, a companionable and energetic job, and turned them out in the paddock with their year mates. Paul was taking tins out of the oven in the kitchen, it smelled warmly of fresh bread and something Dale recognised with interest even as Riley groaned.
“I like it.” Dale pointed out. It was a foodstuff he hadn’t encountered before living here, and as he did with many things, Paul had a magical knack with it.
“You’re weird.” Riley informed him, pulling his boots off. “Of all the things there are – pizza, fried chicken, chilli, steak-”
“Dale likes the home tasting things.” Paul caught Dale’s eye with a warmth to the smile that understood completely, largely since home meant here and it was a concept still tender at only seventeen months old. “Have fun with the babies? How did they handle the distance?”
“Could have gone further. Coal’s going to have Bandit’s stamina, could run forever,” Riley pulled his shirt off over his head, unbuttoning his jeans as he spoke. “Diva just thinks she can… got to watch her, she’ll exhaust herself trying to keep up.”
“From the tantrum she threw when Flynn first brought her in, she’s planning on being Belle’s daughter as loudly as she can.” Paul said dryly. “I’ve never seen a horse work on kicking out a feed trough before, ten minutes concentrated effort trying to get it off the fence and she bent it up like a tin can. Little madam.”
“She hasn’t tried that again since Flynn smacked her. She hangs over the fence and bats her eyelashes at him every time he comes in sight.” Riley grinned at Dale since they’d been appreciating Diva doing that through a lot of the morning. “But she’s a beggar to stop if she doesn’t want to. Bad girl credentials still intact. I made her let Coal go first through all the gates and she fought me every way she could short of laying down and rolling on me.”
“Including standing stock still and refusing to move at all. I don’t see her working out well as a polo horse.” Dale stripped off his own shirt, turning it inside out until he could shake loose grass off it outside the kitchen door. “Circus possibly.”
“She’d be perfect for Polo.” Riley argued. “Stopping dead in the middle of the game and refusing to move unless she can go first; kicking the goalposts in because she doesn’t like the look of them; kicking any other horse that tries to go past her – what are you worried about?” Naked, he scooped up clothes and headed into the bathroom. Paul pulled two more bread tins out of the oven and put them on the side to cool.
“Get a move on you two, we’re eating early since we’re supposed to be at the hall for seven thirty.”
“Many people going?” Riley asked hopefully. Paul closed the oven door and wiped off his hands.
“Forty eight tickets sold kids included, and that’s how many Maria, Sam and I set up for this afternoon, it’s looking like a good turn out.”
“Maria’s catering it?” Riley said warily. Paul smiled but shook his head at him.
“Maria’s cooking is fine. I took a few trays of my own up, Sam brought a few up that Delia had made, you are not going to starve.”
Dale followed Riley into the bathroom and showered with him, grabbing clean clothes for them both from the laundry room. The ‘hall’ was the battered, weather beaten barn out on the main road some miles away where he and Riley had attended the auction for Three Traders. It was what passed for a community centre out here; the rare local events were held there and tonight was apparently one of the dances organised a couple of times a year which bought in the supplies to maintain the ramshackle place, but more importantly presented opportunities for the locals to meet together. There were perhaps about twenty three families in the area to Dale’s knowledge, and ‘area’ out here meant more than sixty miles square. People were used to travelling and most of them had been born into families used to any kind of social life involving long drives, it was a tight community despite the distance involved.
He followed Riley into the kitchen, tucking clean shirt into clean jeans reflecting on what ‘dance’ was likely to mean as such; his experience was limited to ANZ formal black tie events and somehow he doubted there would be much similarity - he stopped dead at the sight of the large, iced cake on the table, candles lit. Jasper was leaning against the kitchen counter, arms folded, smiling. Flynn was sitting in his usual place at the table and Paul was putting matches down, his blue eyes soft as Riley’s arm grabbed around Dale’s waist and pulled him over for a rough hug.
“Happy Birthday! Did you think we’d forget?”
The date had honestly passed him by. It had for years.
One was…. supposed to blow out candles. He had witnessed that kind of childish charade from a distance, usually on his way to do something else as far from it as he could get. All that he was competent to be aware of at this moment was a peculiar kind of roaring in his ears.
Flynn’s hand grasped his and gripped firmly. “Take a deep breath kid.”
That was probably rational advice. Dale forcibly got his lungs back under control and would have detached his hand if Flynn had let him, except Flynn’s grip was immoveable and he’d wrapped his fingers through Dale’s in a highly inconvenient manner.
“… thank you. That looks… very decorative.”
“And utterly terrifying, judging by your face.” Paul said regretfully. “Come on sweetheart, I just set fire to it, I must have at least partially disabled it. How scary can it be?”
It was, as with everything Paul ever made, a beautiful construction. Tall, iced… blue for some reason; what blue cake was supposed to signify or taste of was something he lacked data on. Aware that he was being extremely rude and that it was by no means their fault they were unaware this kind of thing was not in the contract of any CEO – for some reason, stupidly with hindsight, it had never even occurred to him that they might do this - Dale tried for a moment to find something graceful or even reasonably sociably appropriate to say which largely meant scanning through his memories of Paul’s and Riley’s vocabularies for help. And then Flynn yanked, briskly enough to get him off balance, and Dale crashed against him, putting his hands up to fend him off and absolutely not bending in the middle in any way to permit anything like getting near his lap. It didn’t help; Flynn simply got up rather than let go, wrapping his arms gently around him from behind, shockingly warm against his back.
“What you do is blow.”
Which was beyond ridiculous. Across the kitchen Jasper’s dark eyes were painfully gentle.
“Oh unclench.” Riley grabbed for his arm to pull. Dale found himself raising his hands reflexively and sharply to fend him off, Riley off, all of them off, Flynn’s arms tightened around him, sheltering rather than restraining and that helped - but Paul shook his head, sounding very decided.
“Ok, I’m done. No cake in this house ever gets to make you look like that, I’m not having it.”
Dale saw his hand move without understanding at all what he meant to do – and found his mouth dropping open as Paul poked the creation firmly in the side. There was a second’s shocked silence, then Riley burst out laughing and Jasper got up from the counter where he’d been leaning, coming to join Paul.
“I feel very much the same way. May I?”
“I think we’re all in this together?” Paul pointed out.
Jasper nodded reflectively, and poked the cake extremely soundly – for Jasper quite violently - on the other side. Flynn was starting to laugh too, Dale could feel the vibration against his back and Flynn’s arms were still tight around him, deeply stabilising. He should – with any manners of any kind – protested, made them stop, this had obviously been something Paul had committed time and effort to and it was awful for him for it just to be mutilated like this – but nothing was coming out, and then Paul was there and caught Dale’s face in his hands, warmly and firmly, looking anything but upset.
“You listen to me. It’s a cake. That’s it, that’s all. A bunch of eggs and sugar, it doesn’t matter darling. It doesn’t.” He let go and put a hand out in between them all, palm down. “One for all?”
“And all for one.” Jasper put his hand over Paul’s, Riley, still laughing added his hand too and Flynn grabbed Dale’s hand, holding it with his on the top. Dale had no idea what they were doing but Paul put his other hand on top, counting aloud,
“One… two… three…”
And before Dale realised what they intended, the stack of hands punched the still flaming cake right on the top. They didn’t hold back, any of them. Cake went everywhere, Riley cheered and as Paul burst out laughing Dale found himself starting to laugh too at the sheer ridiculousness of it.
“You lot are insane...”
“Cowboys do this all the time, it’s an old western habit.” Paul, still laughing, put a cake plastered hand to Dale’s face to kiss him and dab icing down his cheek. “With ice cream it’ll be fine, trust me. Sit down and try the meatloaf, that’s always safe.”
“This is good.” Riley sat down, licking buttercream off his fingers. “I’ll skip the meatloaf and cut straight to this and the ice cream.”
“In your dreams Riley Hamilton.” Paul took his seat oblivious to fractured cake scattered across the table and put a dish of mac and cheese in Riley’s reach.
It was nuts. Absolutely nuts. Dale was out of breath with no idea what to do or think when Flynn turned him around and hugged him, lifting him off his feet. Dale got his arms around Flynn and rather shamefully buried himself for a moment, pressing his face against Flynn’s neck. He probably held on a good deal longer than was appropriate but for some reason letting go did not come easily and Flynn didn’t seem in any hurry. When he would have forced himself to get it together Flynn failed to let him go or put him down and took his seat pulling Dale into his lap, holding on too firmly to let Dale slide unobtrusively away and Jasper moved Dale’s plate over beside Flynn’s.
Riley chattered while they ate, largely about the tops where they had taken Coal and Diva for a long ride where the meadows were thigh deep in wild flowers, but he had the gift of making the atmosphere lighten to go with him, his easy positivity flooded the house every day, it would have made him his fortune in project teams across the world not that he would care, and Dale loved him for it as much as he appreciated Riley drawing the others into conversation in a way that pulled the focus off anything awkward. Paul with a description of the tops where they had taken Coal and Diva this afternoon; a part of the ranch they generally saw little of at this time of year but which was one of Paul’s favourite places, Flynn with his close interest in the performance of the horses, and it was a subject close to Dale’s heart too this year having known these two year olds personally for much of their lives and easy to respond to with something like coherency. Jasper, who would have chatted as he did easily if they had guests or anyone here beside the five of them, was quiet in body as much as voice in the way he was when they were alone together. Never a withdrawn quiet but his normal, peaceful and companionable one that in no way made him less good company and flowed across the table like a stabilising hand held out. The meatloaf was pleasant. The wrecked cake with ice cream also tasted vaguely pleasant although Dale ate for politeness more than hunger, and there was something…. weirdly and uncomfortably satisfying about the wreckage. Which was wholly incomprehensible; and further, one was certainly not supposed to properly eat an entire meal from one’s partner’s lap according to any received wisdom on table manners and probably birthdays too. However it helped.
They were finishing the last of the ice cream from the tub between them when Jasper drew a small silver ribboned and wrapped box from his breast pocket and passed it across to put on the table in front of Dale. It would have been clear to Dale anywhere who had wrapped it; he knew these trace details for each of them so well. Jasper with his long and dexterous fingers wrapped most things for them as a group, he and Dale had brought it down to a fine art between them at Christmas.
“We thought you could use it.” Riley said, leaning across Flynn to hook another fragment of ice cream out of the tub corner with his spoon. “For getting out of mines and redirecting whats and calling planes. You know, the everyday stuff.”
He was doing his best to lighten it, but accepting this sort of thing still did not come easily. At all. Particularly with them watching. When he failed to move or do anything sensible, Paul picked it up untied the ribbon.
“I know. It’s bad enough we’re being horrible enough to point out the date and make a fuss about it, now we’re making it even more uncomfortable by giving you stuff and watching while we do it; you’d think we did it on purpose. It’s ok sweetheart, I know it’s hard and that’s ok. If necessary you can hide this for a few months until you feel better about it, but everyone here gets birthdays and we love you, we’re not pretending it doesn’t matter. We are going get through it ok. Here you go hon.”
He slipped the paper back. Someone thoughtful had taken it out of any box or packaging sparing another painful stage: it was neat and simple and lovely. Very classic, a watch in the light, icy silver Paul liked to see him in, with the old fashioned hands Dale far preferred to any digital settings, but on the face was inset a small and perfect compass.
It was quite a relief to go somewhere this evening and do something out of the ordinary; it provided a helpful alternative to thinking. From the number of muddied, heavy use and several very elderly trucks and cars outside the barn almost everyone who had bought a ticket was attending. The wooden carved sign stating Madison’s Hall hung over the porch and main door beside the small kitchen, and the large inner room seemed bright compared to the fast falling twilight outside, full and noisy when Dale followed Jasper and Paul inside. The usually dusty centre had been well swept and cleared with the old wooden preachers’ stand and rickety chairs stood around the edges and gold and red metallic bunting hung on the walls. A band of four middle aged men in checked shirts were playing two guitars, a drum kit and a violin by the far wall, a fast and lively beat and the middle of the hall was busy with people dancing, all ages from an elderly white haired couple to a very small boy barely toddling who was being solemnly danced with by a little girl who looked all of five. Almost every male in the place aged from four to eighty was wearing a Stetson. A makeshift bar was being run from the counter that led into the battered kitchen area, that to Dale’s knowledge ran a gas oven off a gas cylinder and ought to have been condemned some time during the 1890s, and trays of food were spread on the tables by the bar with several piles of paper plates and napkins.
“If you’re going to eat,” Riley said from behind Dale in an undertone, “Find Paul’s stuff and stick to it. You’ll break teeth on Maria’s stuff. You’ll spot it easily too, it’s everything that’s burned or raw.”
Maria was one of the elderly couple dancing, Dale knew the name; they came from the High Bar Ranch about twenty miles north of here. Her husband Sam was mostly retired now and their eldest son ran it, a big man with a moustache and a wide grin who was drinking coffee and chatting with a group, his arm around Delia, his fair haired wife who looked near to having what would be their fourth child. Mac, another of their neighbours, was dancing with his wife on the far side of the floor, and his brother who worked the ranch with him, was sitting with Emmett who had parted with his dust green parka for the evening in favour of a dust green t shirt with his jeans. His dog was laying under his chair, eyeing up a small terrier who was investigating the buffet tables.
The new watch was cold on Dale’s wrist. It had seemed only polite to put it on, it was a lovely thing and it was so stupid to acknowledge how very uncomfortable he felt thinking about it. He had witnessed the same celebration of the other four’s birthdays, he’d participated in it, he knew the routine and had enjoyed them; most of the rituals of celebration on the ranch were simple and very warm affairs. Jasper, Flynn and Paul made more of Riley’s birthday than they did of their own, and they likely had some quite unnecessary belief about equality with Dale also being an official brat of theirs. Working out how to disabuse them of it was going to take tact and planning.
From behind, Flynn’s hand slid down Dale’s arm and closed over his, warm where Dale was slightly chilled, guiding him to the side of the room where several of their neighbours were sitting.
“Dale.” Clara raised a glass of what looked like punch in his direction. “How’s Hammer doing without that tooth?”
“Much happier thanks, he’s eating normally.”
Dale looked across to the elderly lady sitting beside Clara, grey hair softly coiled at the nape of her neck, an angular face and bewildered blue eyes; she still held herself in the graceful way that showed off her height, she was considerably taller than her daughter.
“Hello Mrs Sevier.”
She extended a hand gently in his direction, palm down, and he took it, giving her the slight bow she always seemed to need, which made her smile.
“It’s Anna Mae, Philip, you know that.”
“It’s Dale, Mom.” Clara said patiently, but Dale shook his head slightly, never liking to contradict her.
“How are you, Anna Mae? Are your vegetables cropping well?”
“The carrots. And the greens, and the apples this year.” Mrs Sevier’s smile deepened, the well-kept vegetable patch outside the ranch house she and Clara shared was her pride and joy and she spent hours out there. Dale had sat and talked with her about it, picking up from her some excellent advice about their own vegetable patch just a few weeks back when he and Jasper had gone over there to clean out their smoking stove. Jasper held out a hand to Clara.
“Clara, come and dance?”
Clara got up with alacrity. She had a tough time; Dale had thought it for a while. The only vet in the area she worked the long hours over the same distance Emmett did, and the ranches kept her busy, but where Emmett went home to his shack in the woods and his night fishing, Clara went home to look after Anna Mae. Paul said she did ok in her home within her daily routine and chores, she’d lived all her life on the ranch, she liked to cook, she liked caring for the small range of pet animals they kept, she liked to garden; and she and Clara had long since rented their pastures out to the surrounding ranches. But she needed an eye keeping on her, her confusion was slowly growing and Clara’s opportunity to use her free time to go anywhere or meet anyone – was probably non-existent.
“Hello Anna Mae.” Paul stooped to kiss her cheek, taking a seat beside her. “It’s a good turn out. We might raise enough to do something about the roof before it leaks all winter.”
“I was a little girl when they put this barn up.” Mrs Sevier’s smile at the very battered roof was affectionate. “1948. They had a barn raising party, old fashioned idea but a good one, I remember it. I drank lemonade and watched them on the ladders, everyone in the area came to help. There was an old stone house on this site in ruins, just a small one. A trapper’s shack, my daddy said, and just after the snow melted that year little Madison Townsend from the Tallboys Ranch was riding out too far on her pony and it stumbled and she was thrown, and the pony bolted. She was older than me, she must have been seven or eight and I was just five, but I remember her daddy coming to get mine that night when the pony came home without her and he couldn’t find her. Every able bodied person in the area went out combing that ranch, hardly a lick of work got done anywhere, everyone was out searching. Two days and nights there was no sign until they found her out here in the ruins of that stone house, hunkered down out of the wind. She’d wandered and wandered and not realised she was heading further from home and this was the first place she found for shelter. The community had always been Three Traders in this district, the station, the shops, so all the dances, all the socials were there. But Three Traders was dying then. Half the town was abandoned, the road into the town so poor for cars, and when Madison’s family got her home safe they put it to everyone around that it was time we had a meeting place that wasn’t falling down, so we had the barn raising, and everyone always called it Madison’s hall.”
“It’s a prefab, isn’t it?” Dale said softly, curiosity stirred; he’d wondered about that before. Not timber built like the buildings on the ranches themselves around here. Mrs Sevier nodded ruefully.
“Army surplus. All seemed very modern and high technology to us at the time. Instant buildings – they got it up mostly in that one day, all shiny and new. That’s why it got called a hall on the sign and not a barn, all modern. But it hasn’t weathered well, not like the timber buildings we did ourselves. I remember Wade and Niall from your ranch telling my daddy this was what the army barracks were like and they wouldn’t stand up well to the wind and snow.”
“Our lot were involved?” Flynn asked. Mrs Sevier nodded slowly.
“Oh yes. Philip and David, Wade, James, Niall, and that quiet German man they had for a while,
I could never say his name, it sounded like a sneeze. They all helped with the search.”
“What happened to Madison?”
Mrs Sevier smiled. “She married a rancher over near Jackson. I wonder if she still remembers that there’s a hall out here named after her.”
The music changed, the couples on the dance floor separated and moved into rough alignment in rows on the floor and Riley appeared, grabbing Dale’s arm.
“Excuse him – come on, come have some fun.”
“Doing what?” Dale allowed himself to be dragged, eyeing the movements occurring on the dance floor. It was a phenomenon known as line dancing; he was aware of this, as he was also technically aware of its history as a more socially obedient form of dancing for men out west where women were scarce and they could dance alongside each other without partnering or touching. It was, when one observed it properly, quite interestingly algebraic in structure. In amongst the twenty or so people dancing Jasper was following the movement routines alongside Clara. Flynn had come with them and gave Dale a brief, flashing smile, falling into step with Riley on Dale’s other side at the end of the line. He did it extremely well, which was diverting, but the basic formula….
“Don’t worry about it,” Riley encouraged. “Just copy what everyone else does, it keeps repeating.”
“Rectangular perimeter, 2X +1 where X is inverted on each axis, sequence ending on a 1.57 rad.”
Where X obviously equalled 4. Dale hooked his thumbs in his pockets which was apparently de rigueur and moved in time with the line. Flynn grinned, and Riley burst out laughing.
“And you’ve got it straight down. How do you even dance to math?”
Flynn flashed a rather private grin at him, effortlessly turning beside him to the next wall with the same steady grace and sureness with which he rode. Even the kids were doing it, clearly familiar with the figures; people of all ages, and it was certainly more entertaining than any black tie event ANZ had ever put on.
It was an easy evening with a relaxed and upbeat atmosphere in the room and the people talking, eating and dancing together. The kids were startlingly well behaved but then the kids around here had responsibilities on their ranches from an early age, most of them owned and cared for animals that belonged to them, horses, prize cattle, they came from close families in this isolated area and while they were lively enough they had a poise Dale wasn’t used to seeing in children. Peter Ricardo, another of their neighbours, was talking with Jasper among others about the considered best points of a prize bull; Riley was dancing with one of Sam’s granddaughters, who was about six and was standing on the toecaps of Riley’s boots and laughing, her face alight and her hair flying out while Riley whirled her around and Mrs Sevier was watching, only partially aware of the conversation several older women were having beside her.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been mistaken for Philip; Dale watched the lady who must have been a friend of Philip’s, who had been a girl growing up here when James and Niall and Wade had been young. And the unnamed German. Mentally, Dale scanned through the photographs in Philip and David’s room for a likely candidate; there were no few men in them he had not yet met and could not yet put names to.
“All right?” Flynn said in his ear and a warm hand slid into his back pocket. That deep voice, when quiet enough, still immediately weakened Dale’s knees and shot through his stomach in problematic ways in a public place. “You’re doing a good impression of having a good time.”
He never missed it. Neither now did Paul nor Jasper, and it was both disconcerting and very comforting.
“…..Working on it.” Dale admitted. Flynn nodded.
“Want to talk about what you’re chewing on, or shall I summarise and we’ll start from there?”
Dale grimaced, taking another mouthful of sadly non alcoholic punch on a night when he really could have done with it.
“Nothing in particular.”
Flynn turned him around, drawing him back onto the dance floor. Their neighbours must be long used to the ranch over the last 60 years in this community; no one looked twice as Flynn took his hand and put an arm around his waist, keeping them to the darker edge of the room.
“What do you remember about birthdays when you were a kid?”
“Not here.” Dale said flatly. Flynn’s answer was calm and instantaneous.
Bluntly unreasonable and very kind. Dale took a deep breath, letting Flynn lead and closing his eyes in the darkness, concentrating on the movement, the music and most of all him.
“It wasn’t dramatic. Or even that depressing-”
Dale sighed, rather heavily. “I like rabbit trailing. I’m taking it up as a hobby. I may write a book.”
“Need to go outside and talk about that?”
And he would without the slightest hesitation. Quite apart from his own experience Dale had seen Riley extracted from a shop in Jackson not long ago for a discussion of that kind with alarming matter of factness; it was dark outside now providing plenty of cover for discussion without needing to go far, and Flynn didn’t bluff. Dale shook his head and pulled himself together, aware he was pushing it.
“No sir. It was always in the school holidays, no fuss.....On the morning my stepfather used to give me an envelope with a card and a five pound note in. I suspect he probably organised that although it was signed from both of them.”
emembered well the overly hearty ‘Happy Birthday’ and the pat on head or shoulder that had acutely embarrassed them both. With hindsight Dale had a rather discomfited suspicion he had probably been largely in the guise of a particularly antisocial nuclear physicist in an eight year old body whenever he was in the house. Probably with what Riley referred to as his death ray stare, making it extremely difficult for anyone at all to approach him, say anything personal and certainly not to be nice to him. Tom would have understood it very well.
“Once I stopped going home for the holidays the whole thing just died a peaceful death and we were probably all grateful.”
“No wider family got involved?”
“I’m starting to suspect my father’s family broke off all contact with her after she married my stepfather. Or she broke off contact with them, I don’t know.”
“What about your stepfather’s family?”
“He always did what he could, didn’t he? He is a decent man. I don’t know. There were often people around, I don’t know any names. I don’t think I was a particularly approachable or easy child.”
“Defensive. I know.”
“Which was their job to help you with. Not yours to just be distressed more appropriately. You were the child in the situation.”
“I hate every day she manages to break into here.” Dale said with an amount of exasperation that surprised him. And the kitchen exploded and the back wall went up in one strong whoosh in an orange pillar of flame.
The bang was deafening. Dale had witnessed an explosion on an oil rig once. It had been relatively dramatic. In the confines of the hall this one seemed louder. Flynn yanked him hard around, turning his body between Dale and the explosion, his hands biting into Dale’s arms. There was a split second where he glimpsed the fire from behind Flynn, the line of it rushing straight upwards to the ceiling and the shocked faces of people frozen around them. And then the lights went out, his ears rang painfully and the shouting started with a dimness to the sound that said his hearing was processing the shock of the intense volume of the blast, and the dogs began to bark wildly - and the familiar sense of detached, level cool took over as if things were happening in slow motion and in great detail.
There were fifty people present in the room; four musicians and forty six of their community twelve of whom were children, plus five dogs of varying sizes, and this was not a well planned room for fire evacuation procedures. It was stupid of him not to have considered this earlier. Somewhat annoyed with himself, Dale assessed the figures, the exit directions and their position relative to the flaming kitchen and raised his voice, cutting through the babble as he always had through irrelevant and tedious debate in a board room.
“Move to this side, to me, now. Over here. Do not run.”
The room fell silent in the first couple of syllables as it usually did in his experience, ensuring the instructions were clearly heard by all. Then a couple of figures in the darkness had the sense to start moving wide, with the knowledge they all had out here of moving herds, circling in ways that gathered in stragglers and drove people forward in the right direction, away from the kitchen and the blazing wall which unfortunately blocked the main exit. And herding was quite correct since emergency evacuations were entirely about efficient herd movement.
With that in hand, Dale turned to the small door fire escape at the back of the room half hidden behind an old brown and brittle curtain that gave some protection from the draughts that came through the door frame. The door was locked when he tried it. It would have taken up several tedious seconds to slip the lock, Dale was preparing to do so when Flynn, who had been at his shoulder, reached past him and grabbed the doorframe in both hands and Dale felt as much as saw him kick the lock out in one single, heavy hack of his booted foot, smashing the door so wide it thudded back against the wall. More light immediately flooded the room from the moonlit night outside with a rush of cool, fresh outside air behind it. Dale moved swiftly aside with Flynn and people began to pour past them, through the exit into the rough pasture outside by the road, a steady and appropriately calm column that would have pleased an evacuation officer. Dale ran his eye over the heads passing them, numbering the shadows in the darkness. In all emergency situations one should consider the culture of the herd you were attempting to move. This group was considerably easier to manage than the staff and occupants of an office building; people here were all generally calm about most things, including disaster, since they lived practical life, death and danger issues physically on a daily basis. Stock lived, stock died, stock panicked and trampled, fires happened, they’d be puzzled by anyone living in a constant state of hyperarousal and stress about it since anyone performing that sort of drama out here would have a heart attack in a week. And out here where the emergency services were hours away rather than minutes, they were used to taking responsibility for dealing with these matters themselves. Panic wasn’t something they did easily.
Flynn had disappeared into the darkness of the hall: gone to locate Paul, Riley and Jasper, Dale knew without looking but his eyes were on the people moving through the door. The four musicians with their unfamiliar outlines had been with them nearest this door and they left in the first rush. Of the locals - thirty five, thirty six – people passed carrying children, families in tight groups. Dale identified the forty first person reaching the doorway as Paul with Clara, the two of them half carrying Mrs Servier between them since she seemed to want to stand and watch the fire, her pale blue eyes wondering. Emmett was behind them with his barking dog by the collar in one hand and his arm around Mac who was looking shocked to hell and clutching one of his hands ahead of him, the fingers spread. Jasper’s arm closed around Dale’s waist from behind, Dale knew him instantly at the touch. Flynn, with Peter Ricardo and Sam Royston were coming together across the now empty room, collecting together by the door and glancing around the dim hall rapidly filling with black, foul smoke and no longer giving more than a couple of feet visibility. Peter had his sleeve over his mouth, eyes streaming and coughing slightly.
“I can’t see anyone left in here, I checked around the walls-”
“Bathroom’s empty,” Flynn said shortly.
“And the kitchen.” Jasper confirmed.
It was typical of them to have checked but the numbers spoke for themselves and Dale had matched numbers to people, family groups, there were times an obsessive photographic memory had some purpose.
“Forty five people outside, we make fifty, that’s everyone.” he said crisply. Someone whistled sharply in the doorway and a dog shot past them, low to the floor, ears and tail clamped down. “And that was the last of the dogs. Let’s go please, gentlemen. I’ll shut the internal door-”
“I already shut it.” Jasper’s arm didn’t move from around him and he followed Flynn, Peter and Sam out of the door, compelling Dale to move with them. “Front and kitchen, although it won’t do much to slow it down.”
No. This building had little to no substance, it was already doomed.
Dale turned back from Jasper to close the small door behind them, sealing the hall. Car headlights were on outside and engines running. People were busy moving all the cars out to a safe distance, several had been parked out on the road and in the pasture, angled with the headlight beams on the hall to give light to the people clustered outside. Riley must have been among them. Paul was kneeling on rough grass beside Mac, holding his shoulder and his burned hand up while Emmett wrapped something around it.
“Pete’s gone for the fire truck.” Sam Royston said beside them.
Yes. The volunteer fire service truck allocated to their area that lived on Peter Ricardo’s ranch, which was eight miles from here, and every member of that small volunteer service was currently present here outside this blazing hut. They were well over an hour away from the nearest qualified, properly serviced state fire stations and the volunteers, including Flynn and Jasper, did their couple of days training with the state at intervals.
“Where is the oil tank?” Dale said shortly to Flynn. There would be one. Out here there were no power cables, the oven ran off gas cylinders and several empty ones were stacked in the rough yard, and the oil tank that ran the heating and lighting would be under ground.
“Next to the kitchen.” Peter told him. “The hatch is alongside the front door, underground but the hatch is just sheet iron. We won’t stop that going up.”
That positioned the oil tank directly beside the kitchen. Not, on the whole, an intelligent design.
A couple of figures in the darkness were already rolling the empty gas cylinders away, out into the pasture beyond danger. Dale jogged around the building, aware of Jasper and Flynn and at least two others who came with him, and assessed the pillar of fire and the position of the hatch. The kitchen was ablaze. One of the windows smashed out as they watched and they ducked, Pete raising his hand to shield his face as the heat roared strongly in the dark towards them. From the smell of gas it was a logical supposition that it was the oven that had blown up, therefore the heart of the fire was localised on the inner wall of the kitchen, the shared wall with the hall itself. Taking into account the relative thinness of the floor, the roof material, the amount of wood in the design - the roof was containing surprisingly well at the moment with the fire in the lower half of the room, but with the fire progressing at this speed and intensity it would move fast to the front wall and through the floor, thereby heating up the oil tank, which would cause an explosion and fire likely to devastate the pasture around them for some distance long before the fire truck got here. They were on the edge of Mac’s land, it was Mac who would take the hit; Dale had heard the local stories of how a fire razed land out here and could run for miles through stock grazing and the about ready to cut hay. This stupidly designed, inadequate building had already cost him a burned hand at a time of the season when that in itself had severe impact. It would also wreck the road, one of the few main roads in the district, with less than two months before snow potentially began falling. The chances of a state repair on a road of very low state importance within that timeframe was low; at this time of year that meant little to the locals who would just drive off road over the pasture to get around it. But once snow began the massive ploughs would not be able to clear an unsafe, potholed and melted road, no vehicle could move through loose feet of snow over pasture land and the road would remain impassable until Spring. The impact to the households out here to whom the road was crucial, would be significant.
Mind starting to run at the cool, high speed that was a high in itself, Dale reviewed for a moment the designs of both WW2 army barracks of which he had seen and explored several in various museums in his youth, both of UK and US manufacture, and of prefabricated buildings in general of that architectural period, and while he processed the outcome he glanced for a second at the faces beside him and was not in the least startled to see another man there in the darkness, chestnut haired, in shirtsleeves and jeans like any other of them, his eyes intense as he watched the fire.
Of course David. Who had helped to piece together this building on the day it was raised, had placed the nails and knew exactly how it was constructed. He did not look in the least concerned. In fact his quick, flashing grin suggested he was not unaware of either Dale’s high or the excitement of the situation, and he jerked his head upwards to the building end in front of them. A basic A frame shape; the building was roughly four prefabricated panels with a roof…..It confirmed the most workable of the several possible plans. Dale gave him a short nod in reply and raised his voice to be heard over the roar of the fire to the now small crowd of men behind him.
“Get whatever tools we’ve got, break out the junctions on these two ends of the face, this front section needs to be collapsed inward.”
Thereby crushing and containing the fire in the centre of the building and removing fuel to move it further forward towards the oil tank.
“John, get your truck and some ropes, we’ll pull it down as they break in the walls.” Sam ordered his son, and he and another man left at a run, bellowing the same instructions to others.
There were tools in the back of their jeep, there always were. Ropes, chains, snow shovels, a thorough car repair tool box, the contents of which Dale had catalogued in passing a long time ago. Dale would have gone to get them but for Jasper at that second walking out of the darkness to them with a rope around his shoulder and a large wrench, tyre iron and shovel in his hand. He handed the tyre iron to Dale, Flynn took something else, Dale didn’t see what, and in fast, hard silence the three of them attacked the wooden connecting corners of the building. The connections were just nailed in. Not much more than that; not much fabric layered over the top of it, and it was weathered from sixty years of withstanding snow, rain and winds in this exposed spot. Under force, serious destructive force, it began to give way in seconds and now other hands were helping them, other tools were hacking vigorously into the building at the crucial points in the hands of people who knew how to use them, noisy over the roaring of the fire and a minute later the holes were large enough that hands grabbed and pulled, shoulders set against the wooden walls and heaved. Clara was one of them; Dale caught sight of her. Not tall, but she was expert at the hard physical work of calving, handling heavy horses, using her weight to its best advantage against forces far bigger than she was, and she was levering with a lot of strength and capability as posts tore free and people were getting out of her way to let her do it.
Ropes were being hooked around posts as they were exposed, trucks were revving somewhere in the darkness, many trucks, and abruptly a much stronger force began to pull and the building began its dying groans. It was going to be the top point, the peak of the roof that was going to be the most protected spot and the hardest to separate; Dale assessed its lack of movement and left the others heaving at the slowly tearing apart walls, stuffing the tyre iron into his belt and climbing rapidly up the easy handholds of the porch. The roof was still stable although the heat was intense. Dale stood, bracing himself on the peak and dug the tyre iron hard into the building fabric, using it as a lever to rip out as much fronting as possible and expose the beam connections beneath the light roofing. Poor. Thin. Thank God for pressured manufacturing. Dale found the correct angle, applied the lever and all his strength and felt as much as heard the separation start in earnest as the truck engines gunned harder, dragging the walls apart. Beneath him he heard a bellow in a voice he recognised, loud enough to cut over revving trucks and voices.
The trucks paused for a moment, the chiselling and hacking below stopped and the sway of the building stabilised. One side free and starting to detach from the roof and the left wall, Dale applied the lever to the other point on the other side, pulled with all his weight and saw nails tear free in the orange flickering light below. He could see down into the belly of the hall now beneath the bowing roof, the fire was spreading rapidly. The tearing sound increased and a heavy rope dropped suddenly and painfully over his head and shoulder, thunking him hard in the face and skinning his jaw. It was looped and knotted. Dale hooked an arm through it with comprehension, feeling the slack instantly taken up so it was something to lean against, and he straightened up on the porch, holding the right wall and roof for support and kicking heavily at the starting to tilt left wall, forcing it out. And then the tearing sound began in earnest, he turned and jumped the nine feet out away from the building and towards the grass. He felt the rope yank the second he leapt, making his jump considerably longer and further than he’d have managed alone. That flight to the ground seemed to take forever. It was Jasper who held the other end of the rope; it was his lasso that had reached him on the roof and Flynn was standing by him, directly below Dale, his face set with concentration, his body braced, and his arms raised. And he did it. Dale, without being able to control the speed or force of his drop, felt Flynn’s hands catch him, felt the almighty blow of his body striking Flynn’s chest and Flynn staggered back a step but his arms locked so tight Dale’s bones creaked under them. Behind Dale the facing wall of the barn toppled inwards and as the walls separated and were dragged out by the trucks the building collapsed into a shattered pile of wood. The facing wall landed flat on the crushed remains which would stifle the fire as much as contain and redirect it, the trucks shrieked to a halt amidst multiple bellows of stop! before burning wood was pulled onto grass. There was an outburst of whoops and cheers as they saw it fall.
Hot, satisfied and breathless, Dale slid through Flynn’s arms to the ground and Flynn hugged him hard enough to bruise. In the orange flickering light through the darkness Dale saw Riley swing out of the jeep, disconnecting a rope from the tow bar and tossing it towards the building before fire could follow it. His grin was equally victorious. Around him other men were disconnecting their trucks. Clara ran an ash blackened arm over her face, leaving black traces behind, and grinned at him, stepping back from the heat of the fire. Sam’s hand impacted on his shoulder in a heavy thud of approval. Jasper lightly unhooked the rope from around Dale’s shoulder and coiled it, eyebrows slightly raised.
David stood beyond him watching the fire with his hands on his hips, head tipped back. Sooty and looking satisfied.
Grimy, sweating, Dale walked inside Flynn’s arm to join the cluster of the rest of the community in the pasture, who were stood together to watch like spectators at a bonfire as the sparks flew upwards into the sky and smoke rose in a pillar. Wide eyed kids were standing mostly in the firm grasp of a parent to keep them well back, women and men stood gathered together on the open ground that spread out all around them in the summer evening, under bright stars overhead and amongst the far spread cars with their lights on and their doors open. One small boy ran to meet his father, a rancher from the dude ranch about thirty miles west of them, and his father swung him up to sit on his shoulders. Watching the children’s faces, Dale had a flashing thought that this was a night they’d always remember, the night their parents pulled the hall down with their trucks while it burned, just like Anna Mae remembered the day it was built. Paul was kneeling on the ground with Clara, his jacket around Anna Mae’s shoulders as she gazed at the fire. From the way they were holding her they had needed to prevent her coming towards the fire, but she looked across to Dale and smiled. A curiously courtly smile and a private one as if they were old friends. Paul looked too and his expression was not easy to read, but one that from experience Dale tended to see forecast phrases like you wait until I get hold of you young man. Flynn’s arm was still hard around his waist, he had Dale locked against him with far more strength than necessary, and he reached to get hold of Riley as Riley came to join them, eyeing the blaze appreciatively and returning Flynn’s hard, rough hug with his arms around Flynn’s neck.
“That’s going to be seen for some distance. Nice Batman stuff.” he added to Dale as Flynn put him down. Dale gave him a slightly dubious look, unsure what that meant. Jasper, calmly standing beside Flynn, wrapped his arms around Riley’s waist from behind, watching over his shoulder.
It was slightly past eleven pm when they turned off the track that led to the narrow path down through woodland to the hot springs. A couple of heavy flashlights lived in the back of the jeep along with the tools and the snow kit. Jasper and Flynn lit them, Flynn pulled Dale close against him with one hand grasping his arm and sent Paul ahead, walking with the torch beam lighting their narrow path while Jasper and Riley walked together with the other light. No one had said anything in the car. No one had said anything much since they said the polite goodnights to their neighbours outside what was left of the barn.
They made their way down through the silent woods together through the pitch darkness to the river bank. It was cool there. The stars were brilliant overhead, brighter and denser than you ever imagined in a city, and the moon looked heavy and ivory yellow, seeming nearer than usual in the clarity of the sky. Its light turned the smooth and heavy boulders on the shore a midnight charcoal and the river slipped by between the banks like slow molasses.
Riley pulled off his boots and began to strip off smoky clothes. They were all of them damp from the spray of the fire truck. They had left a barely smoking heap pile of charred wood and ash behind them interspersed with twisted iron bits of debris, and a couple of the volunteers were staying a further hour with the truck to watch. It was going to take a while to clear the site. The hall was gone. The fundraiser, rather than providing a roof, was looking like being the starting point for a brand new barn raising in the spring.
And this time a proper barn, properly built, with decent fire precautions and not a pre fab. With an oven and cooking facilities not out of the ark, and the oil tank in a properly shielded area.
Slightly abashed, Dale caught himself making plans that were embarrassingly – definite – as if it was his decision to lead this process. And then found that even more embarrassingly while he was fully prepared to acknowledge he was a mere part of the community team that would plan it and he would lend every assistance – he still damn well intended to steer it his way and ensure it was done safely, properly and thoroughly as something this community would be using for the next fifty years.
In part because he and his would be part of the community using it. But also because ensuring that this community had what it needed was…. a drive not easy to be polite about.
Take one obsessed exec on a bad day and what do you get? Machiavellian plans to manoeuvre everyone in a 60 mile radius into building a barn exactly the way I want it. And they probably won’t realise they’ve been manoeuvred.
Flynn had the torch in hand and turned him around, unbuttoned and unzipped his jeans and peeled him out of them along with his underwear and boots. He pulled Dale’s shirt off over his head, took his shoulders in his hands and turned Dale side to side, looking him over thoroughly in the light of the beam. He was taller and much broader than Dale on the cold grey of the rocks. He’d already stripped to the skin, the moonlight turned the planes of his chest a multi shade of khaki like night camouflage with light picking out the edges.
“I can see a graze there. Slight rope burn there and there.” Flynn’s finger very lightly brushed his jaw, then his back along his shoulder blade as he turned Dale, finishing with a traced line on his chest. “If you got hurt anywhere that isn’t showing tell me now. No, don’t answer for a minute. Stop and think. Check.”
Because as spacy as you are right now, you probably haven’t noticed.
Unfortunately he had a point. Dale took a deliberately slow breath in the way Flynn and Jasper had taught him, dropping his shoulders and working on feeling his body. All of it. Shifting his awareness intentionally down into his guts. It didn’t work in the slightest. Adrenaline everywhere; his body was far too good at it. He used to be able to run this state for….
All right, ok, probably weeks.
Jasper stepped out of his pants and came to rest his hands lightly on his shoulders from behind, cool fingers with warm palms.
“Close your eyes. Ground yourself.”
Dale closed his eyes. It was easier with bare feet, Jasper had taught him that too. Feet against cold stone, stone that had been here for thousands of years, he mentally reached downwards, imagining his feet sinking deeper, extending like the roots of a tree. Down into stone that lay on rich earth. Beneath the earth lay hidden subterranean lakes. Bedrock. Miles of it. And below that lay lakes of fire. The molten core. The thought of reaching down through the layers always steadied him. An internal focus came back, a stable internal one rather than a mental one; for a moment he made himself focus on the cold of the stone, the sounds of the water and the trees moving, the breathing of the others around him - and then he could concentrate on his body again, make himself consciously connect to each part and scan his hands, arms, legs, back for any pain.
“I don’t think I hurt anything.”
“That’s down to luck more than science.” Paul had been standing with them, Dale heard him breathe out and he reached past Jasper to take Dale’s arm and swat his bare behind sharply and several times in very rapid succession. “You scared the living hell out of me!”
“It was perfectly safe, I could see-” Dale began in protest, unable not to squirm in a highly undignified manner on the rocks since Paul had an unfortunate talent for being good at swatting and in Dale’s opinion put in enough practice to be continually improving his form.
“Yes, I know you could see, but I couldn’t!” Paul interrupted him. “I saw you climb straight up a burning building and try to pull the roof off, and don’t you dare tell me it needed doing.”
“It needed doing.” Dale said apologetically. Paul gave him an expressive look with the dark blue eyes that Dale loved and read with comprehension, and he spoke more gently, pulling himself together to reassure and mean it rather than just download information.
“Flynn was directly below me all the time, so was Jasper; I risk assessed the porch as stable and we had limited time to break that connection point to drop the wall the correct way. I had clear ground behind me to get down, it was all predictable, quantifiable physics.”
“Which one of us did you ask for permission to do it?” Flynn said shortly.
He was not happy. Very large, stood right in front of Dale with not happy being very evident in face, voice, eyes and body.
“You didn’t agree to it?” Paul demanded of Flynn in horror. His tone gave away as much as Flynn’s expression. Dale found himself swallowing and his stomach clenching as he realised. Flynn and Jasper had understood what he was doing and why; they had been right beside him throughout-
Yes. Following in your wake, which they pretty much had to do…. Since you weren’t giving them many other options.
Neither of them had grabbed to stop him, neither of them had ordered him to come down as they very well could have done and they knew he’d have obeyed them on the word - both of them had silently stepped up and helped him as they always did, and they’d trusted that he knew what he was doing….
Except that was not his place in this relationship and he knew it as well as they did. There were things that did not get cast aside just because he decided he temporarily had higher priorities.
“You just move so fast.” Riley said from the water. “You have no idea how fast you are when you get like that, it’s like trying to keep up with the roadrunner. I heard the bang and there’s a room full of people going hey look there’s a fire, and before the explosion stopped you’d got your Wet Yourself Now voice on and everyone shut up on the spot and did what you said – and next thing I knew you were round the porch end organising trucks and then you were up on the roof – no one had a chance to see what you were going to do next.”
He was trying to help, to lighten the tension. It didn’t move Flynn who said in the same quiet, very short tone without breaking his gaze.
“I said which one of us did you ask for permission?”
How many times am I going to fall into this trap?!
Dale breathed out, a sigh of frustration largely with himself as he saw it and admitted it.
“…. I didn’t. I went into overdrive and took over, and I forgot everything else. I didn’t realise I was doing it. I’m sorry, I know you’ve had to go through this with me time and time again-”
“ ‘I need to get on the roof.’ ‘May I go up on the roof.’ ‘I need to disconnect that part of the roof.’ I can’t get any phrasing to take more than two seconds to say. A look and wait for a nod would take even less.” Flynn did not sound impressed by apologies and there was no reason that he should. This was not a mere transgression of oversight, this was a repeated, serious act of disobedience on the part of his brat, however unconscious it might have been.
I am a bloody idiot.
“I know sir, it didn’t occur to me to ask. It’s not my decision to make-“
“It isn’t.” Flynn stooped to search through the pockets of his dropped jeans, found what he wanted and held it out to Dale. “That tree over there. Cut a switch. That long.”
He indicated with his hands as Dale, slightly shell shocked by that command, took the pocket knife, his stomach starting to swirl in earnest.
The moonlight was bright enough on the shore here that he could see easily. Flynn still shone the torch for him to see what he was doing. He’d chosen a paper birch. A number of them clustered in the woodlands here, their trunks reflecting silver in the dark. It was, from a lot of knowledge currently gathering and organising itself tidily at the back of Dale’s mind to present him with a working portfolio, a selection of arbor based on a long and traditional history of this particular tree species forming the basis of effectively disciplining centuries-worth of the difficult, disobedient and chronically forgetful. Flynn was a traditional kind of a guy.
All the leafed shoots were thin: it took away much doubt about which one Flynn might prefer. Selecting one at approximately the length Flynn had indicated, Dale took it back over the rocks towards where Flynn, Jasper and Paul waited together, feeling distinctly awkward, increasingly apprehensive and reflecting that this was not an experience he would ever have seriously believed two years ago that he would ever find himself having.
Flynn took the switch from him, stripped off the leaves with a few brisk tugs, then took Dale by the arm to turn him around and applied the switch behind him, rapidly and firmly, directly across his butt.
Any remaining curiosity about the properties of a birch switch were answered in that first second: it made almost no sound and it stung like all hell. It was somewhat like an encounter with a swarm of hornets, and standing upright with Flynn holding no more than his arm, it was almost impossible to keep still. Dale did his best as the sting made itself known, keeping his hands away by sheer force of will and doing everything he could not to arch away or twist more than he could absolutely help – not that he suspected it would have impeded Flynn much. He was flicking that switch so rapidly there was almost no pause at all which gave Dale a deeply unnecessary insight into the Americanism of the word ‘lick’ as opposed to ‘stroke’ with the semantic qualities thereof, and in spite of himself he found himself rising up on his toes and squirming, breathless and jaw dropping with shock as that wretched twig worked on his backside, imprinting Flynn’s displeasure very smartly indeed. No lecturing accompanied it; there was nothing necessary to say. They’d had this conversation plenty of times before, and listening attentively while this went on would have been – impossible to put it mildly. Flynn did a thorough job, there was not one square inch of his butt that had not been stung and his entire backside felt as if it was going up in flames when Flynn abruptly turned Dale back to face him and dropped the switch on the bank.
Translucent even. Rubbing that blazing smart would have not only been undignified, at this moment it was probably not tactful or appropriate. Jasper and Paul hadn’t moved from where they stood, a part of this and it was blatant that Flynn was acting on behalf of all of them. Dale spoke to all of them and not just Flynn when he answered, meaning it.
“Yes sir. I’m sorry.”
“Get in the water.”
There were days where it was almost shockingly hot in the pool built out of rocks by whichever of them and their neighbours saw a need. Tonight it was perfect. Flynn kept hold of his shoulder as they stepped down into the heat, snagged his arm and as he took a seat next to Riley he pulled Dale down in between his knees, Dale’s back to his chest, and there was a moment of shocking increase in the sting across Dale’s butt as the water covered it, and then it began to ease. Jasper took the place next to Flynn and Paul settled beside Riley, running a wet hand over Riley’s face to wash off several soot marks. Dale leaned shamelessly into Flynn, Flynn’s arms heavy and tight over his body, fencing him hard in which made clear that he was in disgrace. And it helped. It was always indescribably, overwhelmingly safe in moments like these to know beyond all doubt they could change his gear whether he was willing or not when he couldn’t; that with them nothing got out of control any more as it used to, when he remembered vividly what out of control really felt like. It was probably more stabilising and more good than anyone had a right to feel with a soundly stinging behind, the hot water lapping at his collarbones, forcibly easing out muscles that had been tight all day without his realising, and it made Dale suspect he probably was not taking this as seriously as he should. The steam rose up off the water in gentle clouds. Riley tipped his head back against the rock, looking up at the starry sky overhead.
“This is the life. So I guess next year we skip the candles and just burn down a shed, do we? That cheered you right up. I didn’t know you had arsonist tendencies.”
“I did not blow it up.” Dale said firmly. “I wasn’t anywhere near the oven. And I’ve been thinking since the first time I ever walked in there that it was dodgier than all hell and was probably decommissioned from the ark.”
I am definitely not taking this seriously enough.
“It was the oven that blew?” Paul demanded. Dale nodded what little he could against Flynn’s chest, reminding himself firmly that he was supposed to be properly subdued, or at least respectfully trying to be.
“From the smell near the kitchen and the pattern of the blaze. I’d think probably a gas leak.”
“Maria was trying to warm those pasties through.” Paul said ruefully. “I knew it was on, it was fine when I passed it.”
“Thank God no one was in the kitchen when it blew.” Flynn leaned back to see Paul through the mist. “How bad was Mac?”
“Not bad at all. Emmett doesn’t think he’ll even blister, it was just a lot of skin caught in one go. He was leaning on the hatch when that wall went up in flame, it was a scorch more than a burn, just a big one.”
“I’ll go over there in the morning, see if he needs a hand with anything.”
“You know you’ve been drafted onto the area volunteer fire team?” Riley grinned at Dale. “I heard Sam telling Peter, I don’t think it’s going to be a request.”
That was…. absolutely fine. Actually it was something he’d be very glad to do. With permission. That was not a mistake he planned to make again. Dale glanced up at Flynn and Flynn merely nodded, unsurprised.
“You probably would have been interested in coming to the next area training weekend and getting certified anyway, you’ve done more emergency evacuation and hazard training than anyone else around here. Jas and I keep our certificates up to date, Jake did the training some years back.”
“You haven’t?” Dale asked Riley, who snorted.
“No, it’s hours of tedious stuff about biohazards and handling car crashes. I’ll go help out with the real McCoy like tonight any time I can but I don’t want the certificate. But studying and reading books? Right up your street.”
His tone was affectionate and uncritical, teasing, and he was absolutely right.
There was silence for a moment. Still firmly trapped against Flynn, Dale listened to the river flow a few feet away and thought of something else trivial but insistent that kept niggling at the back of his mind for no reason.
“I am sorry about the cake. I hope you didn’t feel-”
“Sweetheart, I don’t care about the cake.” Paul sounded blissed out in the warmth but he fumbled a hand behind Riley to find Dale’s shoulder and squeeze. “I really don’t. If it makes a day like today any easier to get through I’ll turn out cakes by the dozen you can assault. You can have a bunfight in the yard, you can run them over with the mowers. I don’t care.”
That was reassuring. The second question was potentially still less tactful and ruder but pressing due to sheer curiosity over lack of information.
“……what was the blue part about? You never make blue cake.”
Paul laughed. It was an anything but offended sound, and through the steam Dale saw him glance over and smile, his eyes warm.
“No. We’ve spent a while figuring out some foods and flavours you like and want to eat. Today’s cake was a recipe I’ve never used before, it doesn’t look or taste like anything else we usually eat, and I can very easily never make that again. I didn’t want to go creating bad associations for you with something I know you like.”
The thoughtfulness, the care within that was shattering.
“I am plotting,” Dale told him, with no real idea why he was blurting it out, “To take over the entire new barn construction to ensure it gets done properly – to my perception of properly, which is going to include fire extinguishers for a start – and to manipulate the entire neighbourhood to do it my way whether or not they realise it’s my way. They probably won’t. I am good at being a manipulative-”
“Hey!” Riley protested.
“If you don’t feel done, go get me that switch.” Flynn interrupted very definitely indeed.
Riley grimaced. “Flynn don’t say that to him, he’s not me. He really might.”
“Of course you’re planning it.” Jasper said calmly. “I’d expect you to.” He put a finger out to gently brush the small, neat black eagle on Dale’s chest. “It’s protective. That’s the way you feel about the people you care about, and I’m sure tonight particularly so.”
“It was always protective.” Flynn said quietly in his ear. “Wasn’t it?”
“And it’s not about being manipulative or controlling for the hell of it,” Flynn went on shortly, “It comes down to trust. You are protective, and when it comes to the crunch your basic instincts don’t trust anyone else to take responsibility the way you can. For you or with you.”
Even you four.
That thought hurt. It connected up to the rush he’d felt standing in Flynn’s arms in front of that wall of flame, that moment he’d seen in a dream. People watching a pillar of flame and a wash of irritation.
“She gets bloody everywhere, doesn’t she?” he found himself saying acidly.
“Yes.” Flynn said quietly. “Right now she does.”
“It’s part of the reason you don’t have nearly enough sense of basic self preservation.” Paul said gently. “That’s what scares me when this kind of thing happens, I’m actually not that interested in the physics or how accurately you’ve calculated it all out.”
“Yeah but he’s always going to have those bright ideas, isn’t he?” Riley pointed out. “All the time. Show him a crisis and I’ll show you a roadrunner, he just is naturally good at this stuff.”
“You can always rely on it being a thoroughly thought out bright idea with all variables taken into account.” Dale told Paul seriously. Paul laughed, leaning over to drop a very sound kiss on his cheek.
“Don’t you get cute with me mister, I’m still cross with you. And yes, I know I’m married to four action men and you’re the worst of the lot of them, and I know you knew exactly what you were doing. I still agree with every word Flynn’s saying.”
“Which is that you’re not a free agent.” Flynn said curtly. “There’s nothing wrong with plotting a new barn, we’re going to need one and you live here, you have a hand in it. You’re also aware you can forget about staying connected to the people involved rather than solving the problem and can take over. But if you’re aware you do it it’s less likely to happen. More to the point, I won’t let it happen. Permission is something I think we need to do some serious work on.”
From Riley’s grimace he thought that sounded sinister. It didn’t. Paul gave Dale an experienced and rather wryly comprehensive look, pushing his fingers through his hair. “You’re still somewhere up on planet cortisol, aren’t you?”
Jasper held out a hand, waiting until Dale took it, then he stood up in the water which ran in streams down from his chest, and he climbed the shallow wall from the pool into the main body of the river, steadying Dale to follow him. Riley turned over in the hot water, leaning his chin on his arms to watch them wade out into the deeper stretch facing into the oncoming current.
“There go the weirdos for cold water.”
“You go swimming in any stretch you can in any weather.” Paul sent a splash in his direction. Riley grinned, shaking the drops off his hair.
“Not when there’s hot water to be had?”
“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard him talk with any kind of annoyance about her.” Paul said more quietly.
“It’s the second time tonight.” Flynn said just as quietly. “This was what he’s been dreaming about.”
“He dreamed about this?” Riley demanded. Paul grimaced.
“Yes. I seriously thought he was having premonitions about us plotting a birthday cake for him. You’ve got to worry when he starts picking up on what we’re thinking about before we even do it.”
“He’s hypervigilant, he misses nothing and he knew damn well what the date was, even if he wasn’t consciously aware of it.” Flynn said bluntly. “At some level he was thinking about her. The dream was a completely, safely detached sense of annoyance with no focus, and that’s how he phrased it although it was so strong it woke him up – and images of fire and destruction. You could see that as being angry with her always risked devastation when he was a child, although in the dream he wasn’t upset or alarmed by it, so he knows it’s lost its power - or that he’s just burning out that part of his internal landscape. Dead wood. But he’s linked that feeling to her himself, out loud to us.”
And that was a victory to celebrate in itself.
Out in the river Dale and Jasper were standing side by side facing the incoming current. Paul had never tired of watching Jasper do it since the first time, one dawn years ago, he’d seen this private ritual. Watching the two of them together was still more intensely beautiful. Two slim, dark haired figures, sculpted in the dark, moving together in a graceful rhythm to scoop water, lift it above them and let it shower over their heads, washing away what they no longer wanted to carry with them. It meant to Dale what it meant to Jasper; this was something Dale shared in with him in a way that none of the rest of them were fully able to do and Paul loved him for it.
Flynn abruptly swung over the wall of the pool and waded slowly out towards them. No longer able to resist merely looking if Paul was any judge. Beside him Riley grinned, his eyes fixed too on the three men in the river.
“Think she’s got any idea what she’s missing?”
Paul slipped an arm around his waist, leaning with him on the smooth rocks.
“I don’t know hon. Sometimes I’m mean enough to hope so.”
~ The End ~
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015