Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Pumpkin Patch

Here is your Halloween treat. No devouring it AND all your candy, we can't be responsible for painful tummies....

Three stories and lots of fright for your Halloween delight!

This takes place about two months after Madison's Hall, and bear in mind that The Brig and Corner of 5th both took place between the end of Silver Bullet and the start of this story.

Enjoy and have a great Halloween!

R&R




“Conference.”


Flynn, damp haired and fragrant with soap fresh out of the shower was still buttoning his shirt with one hand as he pulled a folded piece of paper from his jeans pocket and handed it to Paul. Table mostly set and an eye on the oven – the contents of which was definitely going to cause trouble and Paul was ready – Paul leaned against the counter top and took it, unfolding it. Riley and Dale’s voices were audible in the kitchen bathroom, they were sharing a shower, and Jasper was outside, talking to the dogs as he fed them under the porch. The conference date was a week away, a three day affair in Pennsylvania, and Paul scanned down through the information.


“You’re planning to go? I know you were thinking it was time you – oh.”


He paused, his voice lifting with interest as some of the words caught his attention. Flynn leaned his elbows on the counter beside him.


“Have a look at some of the seminar titles on the back.”


Paul read, raising his eyebrows as he moved down through the titles.


“Oh wow. This is perfect. This is exactly what we’ve been looking for.”


“A colleague mailed me the flyer, she knew we’d be interested. I’ll book two places; between us we could attend most of that.”


“He doesn’t need to know about this, I don’t want him made uncomfortable.” Paul said definitely, turning the page over to read more. “And he would be. There’s no way he couldn’t.”


“No need to go into details. I showed it to Jas, he’s all for it.” Flynn pocketed the paper as Dale and Riley came to the table, Dale seamlessly taking over the finishing of the setting of the table from where Paul had gotten to. Riley did a double take as Paul took the dish out of the oven.


“Ok, what is that?”


“It’s a potato, gruyere and spinach spanakopita. I felt like making one so stop pulling faces. Tell Jasper dinner’s on the table.”


Riley leaned over the table to lift and peer under a few lids of the dishes there and rolled his eyes.


“We’re eating vegetarian tonight? We grow fricking meat, it’s our main crop, the freezer’s bursting at the seams –“


“So this will make a wonderful change, won’t it?” Paul said serenely, moving to let Dale get plates out of the warming oven.


“I bet David wouldn’t have eaten that,” Riley said half under his breath to Flynn as he headed to the door. Paul gave him a cheerful smile, bringing a bowl of salad to the table.


“No, but then I wouldn’t have spanked David for being rude about my cooking.”

Riley rolled his eyes at Flynn, who grinned and took his seat at the table, lifting the cloth from a large basket of still hot rolls from the oven to take one.


“There’s a psych conference in Annville, Pennsylvania on Thursday that looks like a useful one. I’m thinking I’ll leave that afternoon, stay in the hotel that’s holding the conference and I’ll be early Monday morning.”


“Anything good?” Riley leaned around the kitchen door and whistled the carrying stock whistle, and at the end of the yard Jasper raised a hand in acknowledgement. Flynn split and buttered the roll, passing the basket across to Dale.


“A couple of things I’d like to see that might be relevant materials for us.”


“I’m planning to go along too.” Paul took his seat and began to cut the large pastry spiral into slices which he lifted onto plates in generous portions.


“Why are you going?” Riley sat down, accepting his plate with deep suspicion. “And why are we eating giant snail for dinner?”


“Because from time to time I want a couple of days in a city where there aren’t protein obsessed cowboys and horses everywhere I look,” Paul told him, “Where they have proper coffee and shops where the main supplies aren’t feed sacks, salt blocks and Stetsons, and there are things like department stores. Cinemas. Theatres.”


Riley made sick noises and Paul propped an elbow on the table to level a fork at him.


“That really better not be about the spanakopita. Dale’s eating it.”


Dale, who had an open mind about most foods and mostly liked anything involving cheese, gave him a calm shrug, starting to work on the pastry spiral. “It’s very nice.”  


“You like weird stuff. And I meant cities.” Riley added a small heap of vegetables from the various tureens on the table, ladled cheese sauce over them and tasted his pastry slice cautiously. “I did my time in Pennsylvania years ago, you wouldn’t get me back at gunpoint. Or New York or San Francisco or anywhere else where there’s offices and hotels. Did you ever work Pennsylvania?” he added to Dale, who nodded, swallowing to clear his mouth.


“Philadelphia. It’s a beautiful city from what I saw, and I read a lot about the history of the place while I was there.”


“You read a lot?” Riley gave him a swift, cheerful grin across the table, dissecting pie. “How long were you there? A whole five minutes?”


“Two days.”


“And who did you turn your history paper in to?”


“Have a roll?” Dale took one from the basket and shied it at him, fairly gently, and Riley caught it, laughing.


“Thanks. I don’t know Annville. Philadelphia and Harrisburg yes, I got dragged through those two.”


“Well I’ll enjoy it.” Paul told him.


Jasper, heeling his boots off at the door, came to sit down, giving Riley and Dale a smile across the table.


“We’ll be fine, you two go have fun.”


“We won’t be eating snail pie while you’re gone either.” Riley added with his mouth full.  Paul shoved his chair back and grabbed for Riley who ducked away, laughing.


“Hey, Flynn’s not eating it!”


“I don’t eat anything I can’t pronounce.” Flynn got up, still chewing what was probably his fourth roll: they worked hard through the day and were starving when they came in, but the rest of his plate lay untouched. “Ri, want a hamburger?”


“Yes please.”


“Hold it right there.” Paul leaned back far enough to reach a teacloth and the oven door, opening it to pull out another deep, large dish of roasted chicken pieces which he put down in the middle of the table nearest Flynn and Riley. It gained a cheer from Riley, and Dale and Jasper started to laugh. Paul shook his head but he caught Dale’s eye with a swift wink at him, going back to eating spanakopita as Flynn sat down again and began to fill his plate. 


“Because filo pastry is swishier than sushi and a threat to testosterone. You’re Neanderthals, both of you.”


“When will you head out?” Jasper asked. Flynn leaned on the table, eating chicken from the bone.


“There’s a flight out Thursday afternoon just after five. Late enough that if we can get most of the work done here for the day before we go.”


“We are going to handle four days without you without the ranch going to hell?” Riley pointed out. “There’s still three of us and we’re not that busy at the moment.”


“And get the first flight back we can on Sunday evening. We’ll be here for breakfast on Monday morning.”

“We are. Going. To survive.” Riley repeated slowly. “I will not let anything happen to your horses.”


“He’ll ring them twice daily to check.” Paul passed Jasper a slice of spanakopita. “So you three get a wild weekend together.”


“Pizza.” Riley demanded of Jasper. “The psychedelic one in Jackson that Flynn won’t walk in the door of. You like the menu there don’t you Dale?”


Dale nodded agreement and Flynn snorted. “No one can pass that place without sunglasses, it’s offensive.”


“Which is why we don’t make you go in there?” Riley pointed out.


Paul shook his head. “You try constantly to get him to go in there.”


“It’s not like it ever works? It’s the best pizza in the area.”


“I guess we’ll be dropping you two at Jackson airport and heading out for pizza on Thursday then.” Jasper said calmly. “Sounds good to me.”



*



Coming from a background where acquiring ongoing professional training and maintaining certifications was a mundane necessity, Dale gave it no further thought through the rest of that week. At this time of year they were busy clearing the woods and carrying out the annual fall foresting tasks necessary, while preparing for the snows which were now only weeks if not days away from beginning. Bandit and his mares were once more roaming their winter quarters out on the tops and on the Wednesday when Dale rode up to look them over, it was apparent from an obvious pelvic hike as she walked that Puzzle was lame. A quick examination located no visible injury but some swelling, heat and tenderness around her left fetlock that made her flinch when Dale picked up and flexed it. It took nearly two hours to walk her gently down to the stables along with her foal where Dale hosed the fetlock in the yard for ten minutes to reduce the inflammation. She seemed relieved by it; she not only had no problem with the hose, she spent much of the time lifting her foot further up into the spray. She was less keen on having it wrapped and Flynn took her head and steadied her, after which they gave her a shot of anti inflammatories and stabled her as once relieved of pain it was not uncommon for an injured horse to move around on the injury – or in the case of some of their horses, bounce around on it - and worsen it.


It was less swollen on Thursday morning when Dale reassessed and hosed it again, and she was walking better when he led her a few times up and down the yard to watch. Flynn spent a while in the loose box in the stables flexing her foot, hock, feeling along the lines of the tendons, muscles and bones – which he did while explaining quietly in a tone that soothed Puzzle what he was looking for and why, all of which was information Dale reeled away for future reference as he did with all of Flynn’s teaching around their stock. It was something he loved, this apprenticeship to each of them as very much the least experienced rancher of the five. Flynn finished by rubbing her nose, holding her head in his hands.


“She’s eating well, she’s weight bearing, she isn’t withdrawn or upset. I’m guessing she’s got a mild sprain, I can’t find anything worse. Rest her while I’m gone, keep the hosing up today and tomorrow, walk her gently a couple of times a day, just around the yard. And turn that foal out to give her a break, don’t want him playing around in there and kicking her. Have him in the yard with you if you’re out here, leave the door open so they can see each other and she should be fine.”


Dale moved back to let him out of the loose box and Flynn gently pushed the foal out of his way and followed, bolting the door behind them. And there he turned Dale around by the hip, putting him with his back against the stone wall directly in front of him and resting one hand on the wall by his shoulder in a way that fenced him in.


“Now let’s talk about what you’re going to be doing while I’m gone. You move into Jasper’s room with him tonight and stay there until I’m home on Monday.”


That tone of his, with that expression on his face, always did things to Dale.


“Riley survives entire nights alone.” he reminded Flynn, tucking a hand behind his back and meeting his eyes slightly more intentionally innocently than was responsible. Flynn raised an eyebrow with a flash of amusement.


“When he’s in the mood to, yes. Riley likes it that way. You don’t. Do not get my work done as well as your own, or Paul’s. Plan with Jasper and Riley what you’re going to do that day and you leave it there. Understood?”


“Yes sir.”


“I won’t call tonight, we won’t make the hotel much before midnight. But we’ll ring tomorrow evening and every day around dinner time, and you call me any other time you want to. You know your rules, Jas will keep the household routine just the same as usual, mealtimes, bedtime, he’ll let you know what he needs you to do. Anything you’re chewing on, anything starting to be a problem and you take it straight to him.”


He knew exactly how it helped to know these things, to have the specific information and to know life was still under definite, firm control. Dale nodded slowly, appreciating it and him and letting him see it since Flynn’s dark green eyes were searching his rather thoroughly.


“Yes sir.” That was never a token phrase to Flynn and he never said it without knowing exactly what he meant by it. And he knew Flynn heard it too, it was always there in his face to be read, the strong lines that didn’t give much away unless you knew how to read them.


“Good.” Flynn stretched that unhurried hand higher above his shoulder, his tall, wide shouldered body shielding Dale’s against the wall, his other hand sliding to cup Dale’s hip as he kissed him. One of his deep, thorough and searching kisses that went on for a while, while his hand wandered around that hip and somewhere else in a way that made Dale grip him with both hands, hard, and shamelessly work on keeping him there as long as possible. It was a while before Flynn came up for air, they were both out of breath and face very close to his, Flynn caught his eyes for a moment to give him a brief, blazing smile before he turned his head to gently snatch and nip the lobe of Dale’s ear between his teeth, his mouth as warm as his breath and the deep rumble of his voice.


“Behave. I’m going to check a lot.”



Paul’s private goodbye came as Dale came to carry the single packed case downstairs for him, watching Paul select and pull a couple of books out of the bookcase in his room to add on the top before he closed it.

“No such thing as too much reading material. Come here.” He sat down on his window seat which was cushioned, leaning his back into the corner and he held out his arms, waiting. Resisting him when he did that was never easy, there weren’t many warmer or more inviting gestures it was possible to make. Dale went to him and Paul took his hand, pulling him down onto the window seat beside him so Dale automatically lifted his feet up to rest on the window seat, his back against Paul’s chest, both of them against the cool of the glass above open green pasture beyond, and Paul wrapped both arms around him. It was always quiet upstairs and the view below was a loved, familiar and beautiful one to both of them, the green stretching away to the aspen woods to the east in the distance with their golden and reddening leaves, and the white mountains on the horizon, carrying their first caps of snow against the electric blue sky. Waking up to that view every day was something Dale knew he would never tire of in his life, not the beauty of it, nor the space of it, any more than he would ever take for granted moments like this, the wonderful simplicity of loving and being loved. Paul ran a hand slowly through his hair, untidying it.
“How are you feeling about this weekend?”

“Fine.” Dale tipped his head back to let Paul see his eyes and know he meant it. “Interested to know whether you have a good time in Annville and if Flynn comes back with anything client-relevant.”

“Mhm. Anything on your mind?”

He always asked and he expected an honest answer. Dale gave it a moment’s serious reflection before he answered, seriously. “No. All good. I’ll finish the section of the west heath woods, I’ll keep an eye on Puzzle’s leg, there isn’t that much needs doing.”

“Yes. You three should be able to take some time out and have some fun.” Paul dropped a swift kiss on the top of his head, Dale felt him rest his lips there, his voice slightly muffled. “I’m going to miss you. Now just so we’re clear, if you have any worries come up, if anything starts to be a problem-”

“Would you like me to draw up a risk assessment?” Dale invited and laughed as Paul freed a hand to swat him somewhere personal.

“If you’re having difficulty taking this seriously my lad there is plenty I can do about it…”

“I’ll talk to Jasper, yes, I had the instructions from Flynn.” Dale said with amusement. “What problem exactly is going to come up in seventy two hours? I will be good. Promise.”

“Yes we know; you’re always good, that’s exactly why I like a firm eye on you.” Paul dropped a severe kiss on the top of his head. “Funnily enough Riley never thinks he needs this lecture either and told me the exact same thing, so it’s just as well neither of you are fooling anyone. Don’t do the entire laundry while my back’s turned, understood? Don’t change the beds either, we’ll do that when I get back. No quiet plots about doing my chores or revarnishing the pantry, no excavations, mine explorations or demolition of burning buildings under any circumstances; listen to Jasper and if you’ve got free time go do something fun with it. My baloney detector will still work just fine from Pennsylvania. Got that? Good.”

“Are we catching this plane or are we just going to wait for the next one to come alone?” Flynn’s voice demanded from the bottom of the stairs. Paul grimaced at Dale.

“He’s going to be like this all evening. Kiss me, Hardy.”

Dale reached around to find his mouth and give him a brief, gentle kiss. Paul helped him to his feet, following him as Dale picked up the case.
“Maybe I can slip a double scotch in his juice on the plane and he’ll doze instead of point out everything wrong with the inflight movie, frame by frame. If you think you could remind the other two occasionally that fruit and vegetables will still exist while I’m gone, that would be good.”



The shops of Jackson were covered with pumpkins, broomsticks, orange draped windows and skeletons as they drove through on the way to the airport. Riley saw Dale looking and grinned.

“Halloween next week? Don’t look so surprised, didn’t you ever have kids tricking or treating around the ANZ offices? Wherever we were when I was a kid at Halloween my dad used to take me around the offices and meeting rooms, the secretaries were usually well stocked up with candy.”

“If that ever happened I didn’t notice.” Dale admitted. “It was the sort of thing Caroline would have thought of.”

She had done a lot of facilitation work between him and the rest of the world, largely allowing him to ignore much of it. Small children variously disguised as princesses, hulks, ghosts, tomatoes….. they would not have made much sense to him at the time and he wasn’t sure he’d have much more idea now, other than to depend on Riley and Paul knowing exactly what to do.

Dale had seen so many airports they were a very routine part of life and Jackson airport was fairly typical. Crowded with tourists here for the skiing season, busy with flashing overhead flight boards and information, he and Jasper put the single large bag through while Flynn dealt with tickets, and then Riley gave Flynn a hug and Flynn lifted him off his feet to kiss him, Paul gave Jasper a hug, and then held out his arms to Dale.

“Eat. Properly. I left the fridge well stocked, don’t let these two push sugar down you all weekend.”

Dale laughed and hugged him, kissing his cheek. “Have a good time. Safe journey.”

Flynn and Jasper exchanged one of their brief, silent and engulfing hugs, and Flynn gave Dale one last bone crushing hug, lifting his chin to kiss him.

“Talk to you tomorrow kid.”

And then they were gone into the noisy crowd around them, he and Paul heading towards the gate with the small carry-on bag on Flynn’s shoulder, one dark head and one sandy one together. And with the thud of an axe landing, with a physical hijack as total and convulsive as vomiting, tears flooded Dale’s eyes. His chest seized and for one terrible split second he was nearly over taken by it, a terrible physical rush so powerful that would have made him sob with a strength that was appalling in its irrationality. It was shocking. Ridiculously, terrifyingly shocking. It happened so fast, one almighty tidal wave that for a split second it had all the control before he reflexively clamped down, hard, with the full force of years of training, forcibly turning heat to cool detachedness, separating off sensation, regaining whole and conscious control of his face, his body, his insides so the panic subsided to survivable levels.

There was no rational thought anywhere in him that he could find to justify itself or impart information on what just happened. Nothing. Hands shaking slightly with the alarm of it, that near total loss of control, Dale ran one swiftly over his eyes to get the water off before anyone saw. No more than two or three seconds had passed. And then Riley’s arm hooked through his, his voice sounding shockingly loud.

“Pizza, let’s go. What are we getting?”

“Meatballs with extra cheese.” It came automatically, a safe answer that required no conscious thought since that was Riley’s favourite and would require no further discussion.

“We don’t have to always do what we’ve had before, we can try other things and see what we like.” Jasper pointed out with a firm subtext of we are not always going to do what Riley likes. It was something Jasper and Flynn tended to get a little obsessed with. At this second the thought of eating anything at all was making Dale’s stomach turn. The fear that second on the knife edge had raised was – awful. It was still causing his hands and knees to shake slightly, and he slipped his hands into his pockets.

“Jas, I’d like to drop by the bookstore and see if they have my order in?” His tone was normal; control was something he’d put years of hard practice into. “I can nip down now and meet you in the restaurant, I won’t be long.”

“You’re obsessed with that bookshop.” Riley said without heat.

Jasper held the door for them. “We’ll drop you in the square and order while we wait for you.”

Alone in the street a few minutes later, Dale went into the bookshop, made a polite inquiry at the desk that he already knew the answer to, and left again, making a sharp turn into the park, under the antler arch. It was too cold and too deep into twilight for there to be anyone else around and the silence and space helped. He found the first empty bench, taking a seat to stare blindly at the black wrought iron rubbish bins in front of him.

He had no business being here. Jasper and Riley were innocent of the fact he was here and neither would approve if they knew, and that was chewing on him like acid. But there was just…. no conceivable way he could bring himself to consider explaining about those few seconds in the airport. None. His whole body shut down and his mouth sealed shut at the thought. He was still shaking with it. Even letting his mind get close to thinking about those seconds filled him with so much fear of feeling those sensations again that sweat broke out across his back and his throat froze.

This is not good. Damnit you can really pick your moments to fall apart! This is not a good time!

Dale clasped his hands together to stop the trembling, not letting himself think any further down that line which included thoughts which were too painful and definitely too pathetic to go near, particularly since at this moment he was most likely waiting at a gate to board a plane and leave the state. The prospect of eating pizza, enduring chatter and the lights and sounds of the restaurant was overwhelming to the point of nausea. Which was also not permissible. They didn’t eat out that often, they would do so even less as winter drew in and Riley, who like Paul was a social being who enjoyed the shops and community setting of Jackson and truly needed his occasional dose of it in ways that Jasper, Flynn and Dale himself didn’t, had been looking forward to this evening all week. Disrupting it for him for no real reason other than being randomly neurotic was not an option.

You have got yourself through far harder situations than this where you actually had a real problem. You are not a child to go jumping at shadows, get a grip.

He’d had panic attacks before, but they had felt nothing like this.

So it was probably a what, wasn’t it? Logically.

The answer was an almighty relief. Yes. A crowded place like an airport was always a stockpile of left over energy, negative energy of people tired, stressed, travelling. Something, or rather someone, had obviously touched him in that moment when he hadn’t been paying enough attention.

You know this. So it’s not your feelings at all; it’s theirs.

And that he knew how to deal with. Pulling himself together Dale got up and walked out onto the grass to stand on the earth itself, looked up at the several pines, swaying in the evening breeze and forcibly brought to mind the golden light shield, surrounding himself, and consciously visualising it dissolving anything that clung to him. Letting any of those left over energy traces sink down into the ground, letting his breathing calm and trying to centre himself. Find himself and everything that belonged to himself and separate it out from whatever it was that had touched him, enclose and shield it.

For the first time it didn’t really help. That was not in any way heartening.

He walked down the street when he had enough command of himself, finding the restaurant, warm, redolent with the smell of garlic and bread, and busy with tourists, where pizza was being brought to the table Riley and Jasper were occupying. Jasper looked up quickly as Dale crossed to them, taking his coat off.

“No books?”

“The order hasn’t arrived yet.”

It wouldn’t have done. The book was on route from Ohio and would not be available for at least another eighteen hours via any transit route. Dale slid into the booth beside Riley who passed him a plate.

“That took forever. What did you get stuck reading?”

“Nothing very interesting.” Dale took a couple of slices of the large pizza onto his plate and took a mouthful, focusing firmly on normality. Disturbingly, it felt like ash. It tasted worse and his throat closed in flat out rebellion. That presented a problem. He was under standing orders to inform Paul, Jasper or Flynn – any one of them – if for any reason he wasn’t able to eat as expected.

That leads to a whole lot of unnecessary fuss. You are fine and perfectly well able to eat and you are not spoiling their evening or making it all about you. Stop it. Find some guts and get on with it.

He forced his throat to relax and swallowed, feeling pizza descend like a stone.

“Pumpkins.” Riley said cheerfully beside him. “We need pumpkins. At least five to carve, since Flynn won’t carve one and Paul only ever wants to cook them.”

“And donuts.” Jasper added. Riley burst out laughing.

“Yeah you’re supposed to be in charge and you’re worse than me! Dale, will five be enough? You got pretty good at pumpkin carving last year.”

“Jasper’s the one who’s good at it, I’d still be happier with a stencil.”

“That’s cheating!” Riley leaned over to steal the last piece of garlic bread. “You need to think of a design and make it work.”

“I’ll think about it.” Dale assured him.

He loves this season, I will not mar it for him.

If he was honest, Riley was not the only one of the two of them that enjoyed this season from his experience last year. Riley was a gifted teacher at these kind of cultural things that had never impinged on Dale’s awareness of life before he came to the ranch, Riley had a gift for easily finding pleasure and celebration in traditions and seasons, an enjoyment of the moment that Dale loved in him, and Riley made most things easy to follow him in and as engaging as he himself was. Dale got the pizza down in sufficient amounts that neither Jasper nor Riley noticed anything and neither of their meals were disrupted, and joined in the discussion on pumpkins. When he excused himself to find the men’s room, he walked calmly and unhurriedly and he ensured he was quite alone in the bathroom before he was forced to allow his stomach to carry out its highly self-willed and disruptive plan of ridding itself of pizza and everything else as fast as possible. Paul would go nuts if he knew. Although he’d understand; he so often did when Dale himself did not at all. Which raised thoughts and emotions that were quite intolerable.

Dale shut his eyes, pressing his forehead against the stall door while he slowed his breathing, sweat running down into his eyes.

No. You cannot want your hand held through absolutely everything. This is your own fault, you’ve become far too reliant and it’s a stupid habit to have let yourself get into. Sloppy. Lazy. You cannot allow yourself that kind of weak thinking, it’s going to get you into difficulties, exactly like this. They will not always be there at every moment, you cannot allow yourself to be useless without them. Get a grip.

He washed his face and rinsed his mouth at the sink, folded the paper towel into a neat square, and binned it. And then, considering the state of the bin, washed his hands again more carefully. Straightened his collar and shirt. Put his jacket back on and went back through the restaurant. Jasper was paying the check. Riley glanced up at him and smiled. Dale glanced discreetly at his watch as he waited for the card payment to go through and the others to get up. Throwing up, repair and return in one minute forty two seconds. He drew from that a kind of grim and perverse satisfaction.



They walked down the street to the bakery where Jasper ordered a box of donuts. There was a sense of celebration about it to him and Riley; there were multiple individual relationships within their whole group one, an open policy of enjoying them all. Paul and Flynn would enjoy a few days alone together in the same way that the remaining three of them would. It was no real surprise that being Jasper’s brats would inevitably involve donuts.

Dale slipped out of the bakery as soon as he could, waiting in clear sight of Jasper outside by the window where it was less warm and the smell of cooking less strong as his stomach was still fighting him. It was starting to get dark, the Halloween displays in the shop windows were alight with pictures and models of witches and broomsticks and cats and trees. In the bakery window a black dressed cake tier was holding small orange pumpkin cakes beside several long haired doll witches. In the shop window next door a group of pumpkin headed scarecrows were apparently holding some kind of jamming session with guitars amongst a heap of real pumpkins. The Americans liked to do this kind of thing thoroughly. Halloween in Dale’s childhood had been marked at his prep school by witch and moon shaped gingerbread biscuits being served at tea time and that had been about as exciting as it got.




Jasper held the door for Riley who was carrying what looked like a ridiculously large box, and came to look with Dale at the dressed window, hanging an arm around his shoulders.

“Riley felt we needed the pumpkin cakes too.”

“I won’t tell Paul about shop cake if you won’t.” Dale said lightly and Riley grinned.

“Well it’s an incentive for him to get back here asap. Pumpkins. We need pumpkins.”

They picked up the pumpkins from several stalls piled high with them further down the street and carried them to the car where Jasper declined Dale’s offer to drive home. Riley, with a full stomach and having been active from early that morning rotating sheep and cattle around pastures, soon dozed off stretched out in the back seat. Dale sat in the passenger seat and stared into the dark forest on either side of the road. Jasper was a good driver. Relaxed and steady, alert for the occasional deer that darted across the road. Dale jumped slightly at the hand that rested on his knee then rubbed, intimately and soothingly as they turned into the drive under the ranch bar.

“Are you feeling as tired as you look?”

“I think so. Early start this morning.”

Jasper turned the car into the open garage, parking it beside the other four by four and switching off the engine.

“I’ll put away the groceries. Get yourself a shower and head to bed.”

The airport. Jasper had been the one who taught him what busy, crowded places carried in the way of stockpiled old and negative energy and how showers helped. Dale headed upstairs, aware of Riley behind him complaining with a sleepiness that was not going to help his case, that it was only nine thirty.

Cold, living water had properties hot water didn’t. The shower wasn’t as good as the river, but it was the next best thing. Dale switched the shower on, putting his hands against the tiles, and almost welcomed the near pain and shock of the cold as the water started. He ducked his head under, letting it run over his crown, his shoulders, down his back and torso, dashing off anything left clinging in his energy field, shaking it and washing it loose. He stood there for several minutes, eyes closed, letting it pour, and it helped. He didn’t bother switching it over to warm, just took the soap and washed himself down and towelled off, chilled and damp but feeling more together.

He would have given a great deal to have gone to his and Flynn’s room for the peace of being there alone. Silence and darkness and no one else to think about would have been a great relief tonight. But Flynn’s orders were hardly optional. He collected a t shirt and boxers from his room, keeping his eyes averted from the bed, and dressed in the dark before he headed down the hallway to Jasper’s room. He knew the side of the bed Jasper preferred and took the other one, sliding under the covers without turning on a light and folding an arm behind his head.

Along the hallway he could hear Riley grumbling quietly at Jasper as he got ready for bed. It was a while before Jasper quietly came to join him, bare chested and wearing only shorts, leaving the door open and getting under the covers beside Dale. He reached over without comment, sliding an arm under Dale’s neck to pull him over. He was shockingly warm. Dale automatically co-operated with him, feeling Jasper’s hands rubbing over his arms and back.

“Want to tell me about missing them?” Jasper said quietly in his ear.

That was so wholly irrelevant that Dale was too surprised to answer for a moment.

“Of course I miss them.” he said rather stupidly when he found something half way appropriate to say. Actually he’d barely thought of them since that moment in the airport and that was another reason to feel horrendously self centred. “Don’t you?”

Jasper didn’t reply. Just reached to gently but firmly pull Dale’s t shirt off over his head, leaned over him briefly to toss it across to the chair, and he lay down again, drawing Dale back to him and going on rubbing his back in a way that was comforting and not at all amorous, his skin warm against Dale’s, his chin against Dale’s head. Cheek against Jasper’s smooth chest, Dale swallowed on a frozen throat and waited for him to fall asleep.


*


57% of fatal accidents took place during cruise time, 14% during climb phase, 12% during initial approach. Likelihood of fatality on a commercial route among the 39 lines with the best record: 1 in 19.8 million.

Dale was jolted out of what was uncomfortably analytical dozing by Riley getting into the bed beside him. Dale slid over to make room for him and Riley’s arms wound around him from behind, he sounded sleepy.

“The dogs were after a rat or something around the barn. Too noisy for five am.”

Five am. By Paul’s standards, that was morning. Dale waited a few minutes for Riley to fall asleep against his back, then quietly began to detach himself and Jasper said without opening his eyes,

“No.”

Dale froze. And quietly lay down again, making himself be still enough not to disturb either of them.

Causes: 57% pilot error, mechanical failure 22%, weather 6%.

Aden, you’re even boring yourself.

Unfortunately not enough to fall asleep.

“Lie still.” Jasper said very quietly in his ear to avoid disturbing Riley. “Close your eyes. This is sleep time.”

Jasper’s hand moved gently to find and cover his, his fingers interlacing Dale’s, and Dale realised belatedly that his fingers had been fidgeting with the edge of the pillow. He shut his eyes, forcing his body into disciplined stillness whether it was willing or not. Mind over matter. The Guassian Integral had always been a way to kill time and build mental flexibility, working from minus infinity to infinity and transforming the polar coordinates which gave out a satisfyingly clean answer, and some rather childish playing with pi was lengthy enough to occupy more time.



In Annville, Paul stirred as the phone rang, and felt Flynn lean up on one elbow and reach over him to get it.

“Hello?”

Paul was near enough to hear a voice far too chirpy for the time of day announce via a recorded message, “Good morning, this is your seven am alarm call. Breakfast for the conference will begin in the main dining room in half an hour, please enjoy your day.”

Flynn replaced the receiver and lay back. “Did you order that?”

“It’s complementary. I think the whole hotel’s taken over with the conference.” Paul felt for Flynn’s arm to look at his watch. “The seminars start at nine, we’ve got plenty of time. It’s just gone five at home. Too early to call.”

“We’ll call this evening, they’ll be fine.” Flynn rolled out of bed and stood to stretch his neck from the last kinks of the flight last night before he headed for the shower. Paul got up to stand at the window for a moment, looking out at the town beyond the window since Flynn had pushed the slightly grubby white net curtain aside to clear the glass as soon as they arrived, always definite about seeing the outside clearly if not actually being out in it. Traffic was starting to get going in the street below. Their case was still on the floor where they’d left it last night; arriving just after one am they had done little more than find toothbrushes and fall into bed. He lifted it onto the bed and started to unpack. The room was an uninspiring shade of brown; brown carpet, brown bedspread, brown imitation wood furniture, the tv dominated the desk and the phone dominated the night stand. It was no wonder Riley, who had grown up in rooms like these, loathed hotels. And Dale had spent years living in rooms like this, largely blanking them out while he did it.

“Why am I washing with half a matchbox?” Flynn’s voice demanded from the shower. “What is this stuff?”

Paul smiled, digging at the bottom of the case. “It’s all right, I will save you from hotel soap.”

“What does this even smell of? Who walks around smelling like this?”

“Here.” Paul unwrapped the bar and handed it around the door of the shower. “Irish Spring, just like home. You’ll be fine.”

He went back to the case, hanging up a couple of shirts and then pausing, looking in some exasperation at the clothes underneath.

“Flynn O’Sullivan, did you pack anything other than jeans? You do own actual trousers. I know you do, because I’m the one who buys them. I also packed them.”

“I unpacked them. If I’m going to sit around all day I’m going to be comfortable.” Flynn emerged with a towel around his waist. “Nothing wrong with jeans.”

“And boots. You unpacked the shoes too, didn’t you? This is the east. People don’t walk around here like they left their horse down in reception.”

“I think better if I’m not dressed up like I’m presenting the damn seminars.” Flynn picked a shirt and shouldered into it. “I’m here to learn, not look flashy. The shower’s free.”

The shower was equally uninspiringly brown tiled. Paul showered, shaved, dressed and grabbed the room keys and Flynn finished making the bed and picked up a jacket. They took two flights of stairs down to the ground floor where the conference was setting up. Stands were now lining the walls, people were filling the tables with books and resources and leaflets, fitting in amongst the hotel Halloween decorations. Flynn looked grimly at the hanging witches, broomsticks and pumpkins dangling from the walls and around the door to the dining room as they passed.

“It looks like they’re expecting to be mugged by the local elementary school any minute now. It’s not even until next week.”  

“Be grateful it’s not Christmas decorations.” Paul warned him.

Flynn snorted. “No, that starts right along with Thanksgiving the week after next. This is why normal people should not have to live alongside retail.”

The dining room was busy, a buffet was laid out along one wall where cereals, fruit, various breads including gingerbread Halloween topped muffins, and hot plates with trays of bacon, various eggs, sausage and mushrooms were in view.  Paul left the bacon and juice to Flynn and collected a dish of fruit, oatmeal and a very large cappuccino and led the way to a vacant table.

“We’re starting with the keynote speech at nine, yes? Emotional regulation.”

“That’s the speaker I’ve heard most about.” Flynn drank orange juice, wincing slightly at the taste. “This stuff has more sugar in it than orange. After which I’m doing the seminar on trauma and brain development and you’ve got the one on sensory processing. And we’re both doing the afternoon one on de-escalation and managing triggers, and Jas wants the notes.”

“It’s inevitable here and I expected it, but I keep thinking of him all the time.” Paul finished his oatmeal and picked up his coffee, cradling it in both hands. “Dale, not Jas. I know Jas and Riley will be fine, but the whole New York incident with Luath…”

“Was ok.” Flynn reminded him quietly, and his eyes were soft. “He was fine once I got there, it was a lot more about Luath than Dale. He’s with Jas and Riley, they’re probably having a great time. Ri left alone with Jas always does.”


*


It was past seven when Riley rolled out of bed and went to dress, and Jasper, arms still around Dale, lay a few minutes more with him, saying nothing but Dale could see if he let his eyes do that faint slide into a different kind of focus how Jasper’s energy was wrapped around his, like being under his cloak. That had always before raised in him a sense of penetrating calm. He usually loved it. Loved watching it. This morning nothing felt good and the desire to do anything at all was very low. Jasper finally leaned over to drop a kiss on his temple and let go.

“Get dressed, come straight down. I’ll start breakfast.”

“Yes sir.”

Riley was dressing in his room, Dale could hear him whistling. In the bathroom, Dale avoided looking at the mirror, not wanting to see the face that would be reflected back at him. The sink was somewhat streaky, having dried without being properly wiped out, and cleaning his teeth meant watching those streaks which were frankly intolerable. Dale put everything else aside, wiped the basin out properly which dealt with the streaks – and then swore quietly, dug the cleaning spray out from the cupboard and cleaned it again. He was aware that there was a speed and force to the way he was doing it that was the horribly familiar sense of being caught up in a rhythm he couldn’t stop, and it went with the tightness of his stomach, the deadness inside, the weight of tension and tiredness that had nothing to do with physical weariness. Which was also unpleasantly familiar. There was no need to clean anything in this fast, tight kind of way, but the streaks – they might not be visibly there anymore but the damn thing still didn’t feel clean.

You know how this works. Stop it. Breathe.

Dale threw the cloth down on the counter, leaned both hands hard on the counter and made himself breathe. Riley’s whistling went down the hallway, Dale heard him run down the stairs.

Stop it. You can deal with this. Get it together. Leave the bloody sink alone.

Dale forced himself to put the cleaning materials away. Which meant moving everything else to put them back in the same place, and then straightening and replacing everything else around it.

Stop it. Deal with it. Regulate, for God’s sake.  

There was enough floor space in the bathroom. Dale got down on the floor, rapidly taking up position, and worked his way through a series of fast, hard push ups, making the rapid calculations to balance the line between working hard enough to get some sense of discipline back and not enough to get out of breath in a way that would look suspicious if Jasper came upstairs.

He intended to stop at 100. The goal of 120 also passed without his body co operating, and it was only when his arms were shaking at 172 that he finally dropped on his chest and lay there, panting. He made himself get up. Slow his breathing. Strip out of the shorts he was wearing and fill the basin to shave. And then, cursing, do the still outstanding 28 push ups that were searing at him like acid. 

Why the hell 200 felt more ok he had no idea. Why the hell he was about to lose his mind this morning he had no idea.

Flynn did carry a cell phone.

Shut up. Shut the hell up Aden. Shave. This is irrational. It is just physical anxiety and it will pass, it does not have to be acted on. Step away, wait it out, it will leave. You are fine.

Thinking it did nothing to halt the grim sense of despair, the feeling of just wanting to walk away. Not be here. Not be anywhere. He shaved. Wiped out the sink. Wiped his face. Took a few deep breaths. Then without being able to help it, ran a hand over his chin. Not done. Spots missed. He re filled the sink, grimly took the soap and razor back out and shaved again.

You can handle this.

He did it with even more care this time, following his usually meticulous route across his face inch by inch. It didn’t help. The soap left his face, stripped off by the blade, but he already knew before he was half way done. He made himself lay the razor down when he was done, even though his stomach was twisting and starting to burn and his chest ached.

You are done. Quit. Finish. No more.   

Resisting the compulsion was hell. It made the anxiety swell up harder, unbearable, unignorable.

Just go downstairs. Walk away.

Flynn would have taken his hand. Held it, given him the strength to step away and let it go. Said it out loud. Look it in the eye kid. It isn’t going to harm you.

You stupid bastard, Aden. You do not need him. There is no point depending on him, it just makes you weak. You wouldn’t feel like this if you hadn’t been stupid enough to get reliant.

The words flashed through his mind a split second before the import hit him. That was not a healthy thought. And it knocked the anxiety still higher. Eventually he picked up the soap and shaved a third time, avoiding the eye of the man in the mirror.


 In the kitchen, Jasper was setting out plates at the table which was set the way Paul would set it, and which made Riley miss Paul for a few seconds, wondering what he was doing this morning. It was a fleeting pang; a few days of novelty was always fun, a change in routine perfectly safe to enjoy because it was only that couple of days. He pulled juice and butter out of the fridge, shutting it with his hip.

“I was going out to check the fence up by Paget creek this morning, I’ve been meaning to for a few days and not got around to it. I can look the cattle over on the way. Flynn saw the horses yesterday and they should be ok for today if you and Dale can cover the sheep.”

“No problem.” Jasper dropped bacon into the skillet on the stove and glanced up. “Go tell Dale to come down, this is nearly ready.”

Riley jogged upstairs. The bathroom door was ajar and he pushed it open. Dale was standing at the sink, towel around his waist, one hand gripping the sink as he leaned on it, the other shaving with his usual precision.

“Jas says hurry up. He’s-”

There was a trace of blood on Dale’s chin. It was a tiny nick, the kind Riley gave himself fairly often through shaving too fast with too little care since it was a boring chore at the best of times. But Dale never cut himself. Never. It was like he never left a towel on the floor or a gate bolt not just shot home but turned downwards and set in its track. Neat. Exact. He just didn’t do it.

The rest of his jaw looked slightly reddened, and Riley looked at him again with real attention now and saw it, even though really there was nothing to see. Because he hid it. He hid it so damn well, he was always quiet, always together, even in his worst moments he was together. But you could feel it if you knew him well enough and Riley knew with a thud of wry certainty, pulling the razor out of his hand and gentling his voice.

“What are you doing?”

Shaving? Dale usually would have said that straight back with his usual quizzical tone that was his dead pan kind of teasing, but he said nothing. His eyes were steady, his body was steady, everything about it radiated what exactly do you need? Politely, as if they were strangers. But he didn’t answer.

“How many times did you shave?” Riley pulled him gently onto the landing, not bothering with the kind of questions he would have spat out at him six months back, mostly with alarm.

Why the hell didn’t you say anything? We were right there all night, right with you, why didn’t you say?

Because Dale couldn’t. He didn’t do this deliberately, he hated it far more than they did and in moments like these he looked as hard as nails and was frozen somewhere between freaked out and humiliated, and they all of them together understood it a hell of lot better than they had the day Riley caught him last year counting fence posts. Riley leaned on the bannister to call downstairs.

“Jas?”

He heard Jasper heading in their direction. Dale quietly freed his arm from Riley and folded up on the carpet, sitting with his back against the linen closet door. There was absolutely nothing on his face. He might have been waiting for a bus. Jasper reached the top of the stairs looked from Riley down to Dale on the floor and then he unhurriedly sat down against the closet beside Dale, laying an arm over his shoulders. Dale didn’t react in the slightest.

“Look at his face.” Riley said to Jasper. “He was stuck on shaving.”

“You have no proof whatsoever of that.” Dale said politely. “That’s merely a supposition, everyone occasionally cuts themselves shaving.”

Jasper wrapped his hand around Dale’s far shoulder which pulled Dale closer into his side. “Ri, get him a towel?”

Riley grabbed a towel from the bathroom and crouched by Dale, reaching to blot the last of the soap from his face rather than wiping since more than one spot looked grazed. Dale quietly took the towel away from him before he could touch, and dried his face then folded the towel neatly. Riley winced at the increasing redness of his jaw.

“How many times did you shave? You’re going to be sore as hell.”

Dale didn’t answer, and he merely looked courteously bored. It was the expression Paul swatted him for whenever he saw it, but it raised a lot more sympathy in Riley than exasperation. Jasper caught his eye over Dale’s head, giving him a calm and reassuring smile. “Ri, why don’t you go and eat? The bacon’s done. We’ll be down in a while.”

Riley nodded and got up, heading downstairs. There were times when alone with Jas – or Paul, or Flynn – he knew he’d say things and show things himself that he’d hesitate to let out around any other brat, even if that brat was Dale. There were just things about the way it was that made it so, the same way there were things he’d say to Dale alone that he wouldn’t always share with the others. Sometimes, he had heard Gerry say flippantly more than once, a guy just needs his Top, you know?

Alone on the landing, Jasper looked down at Dale’s impassive face and squeezed his shoulders gently.

“Anything you want to tell me?”

“No. Thank you.”

Jasper nodded slow understanding. “Ok. I don’t think either of us has any problem understanding why I’m going to spank you, so let’s go.”

“Ah, the obvious logical response.” Dale murmured to no one in particular. Jasper got up, holding out a hand and waiting for him. Dale rose to his feet, moving past him as if he hadn’t seen the outstretched hand. Jasper captured his and grasped it firmly, drawing Dale back behind him as they walked instead of allowing him to take the lead, and taking him to the top of the stairs.

“And since we’ve talked about withholding often enough, and we both know this didn’t just start five minutes ago in the bathroom, you can get me the wooden paddle from the study please. Quick, Ri won’t enjoy eating alone.”

He very, very rarely ever used a paddle. In all Dale’s time at the ranch Dale had never seen him do it, and Riley who very occasionally had in his own time on the ranch although he could probably count the number of incidents on one hand, would have been looking at him in real shock right now, understanding the significance of what it meant. Not a fraction of that import would be lost on Dale; he missed nothing of this kind of cue. And yet still wearing nothing more than his towel, Dale headed downstairs as neutrally as if he was going to retrieve a rather tedious fax.

Jasper waited calmly, hearing the drawer slide in the study and Dale came directly back upstairs to him with a politely ironic courtesy that implied Jasper’s sanity was doubtful. It was the you do realise you’re nuts? expression they had seen regularly in his first months here when he was detaching himself. Jasper took the paddle gently from his hand, drew him into his own room and closed the door. His room was fairly Spartan, the way he preferred it: nothing much more than the bed and the single low armchair by the window. He took Dale across with him to the armchair, taking a seat, and Dale impassively removed the towel without requiring any input from him and leaned over his lap, and he would have taken up an exact and perfect position if Jasper hadn’t put a hand on his smooth back and gently tipped him straight off balance, tilting him with his feet well clear of the floor. Lean, still brown from the summer and early fall with a tan line at his waist, he was perfectly still and contained although tenser off balance, his control disturbed and for the first time the anxiety was slightly visible.
The first hard swat of the paddle drew a slight jump he didn’t successfully hide either; he’d obviously been expecting some discussion first, not to get directly down to business, and unpredictability always shook him on a bad day. This particular paddle was an old one in this house, a piece of wood with real history to it, not heavy but effective with a very different and considerably more intense sensation than his hand delivered, and Jasper worked unhurriedly, landing the paddle smartly across each cheek in turn. By the third Dale began to shift against him and his breathing began to pant. Jasper rubbed his back where his hand lay, landing the paddle centrally and a little harder and that one drew a sharp yelp as if his breath was fracturing out of him. His voice was short, the words starting to tumble unwillingly.

“Ok. I probably should have said something – Jas – I know, I should have told you - ”

“We’ve talked about it plenty of times.” Jasper went on applying the paddle, voice gentle. “You understand it very well. We do it for you on the days when you can’t.”

“Yes, that’s all very nice, isn’t it?” Dale’s rather acid voice snapped on another and definitely less certain yelp, “Ow, Jas!” 

Jasper didn’t reply, quietly continuing to work, and felt Dale’s hand abruptly close on his leg and grip, hard. He was tangibly beginning to tremble over Jasper’s lap and Jasper felt the tremors suddenly spread out and deepen as his voice cracked.

“I didn’t know what happened. Something in the airport, I don’t know what it was-”

“Was this why you went to the park last night?” Jasper asked him gently.

The sound in response was abrupt and very stifled. Choked. That said a great deal, and none of it good; it had been months since they last heard him cry like that. Jasper paused to rub his back more deeply with a lot of compassion, encouraging the clenched muscles to release and hearing the smothered sobs deepen as they let go.

“It didn’t look like you wanted me to help. I’m not sure you felt any better as the evening went on.”

It took a moment before Dale got himself together enough to answer. Jasper saw him run a hand over his face, pushing ineffectually at his eyes.

“I threw up in the restaurant.” The confession sounded grimly hopeless, and in no way communicated how utterly miserable and distressing that must have been for him. “I know I should have told you I couldn’t eat, I didn’t want to make a mess of an evening you and Riley were enjoying for no good reason-”

“Do you really think Riley and I think of you in distress as no good reason? That’s your thinking. It isn’t ours.”

“But this happens all the time. It was ridiculous. Nothing, just some stupid panic attack or a what I didn’t deal with properly…” Dale sounded frustrated as well as tearful. “Not worth it.”

“Yes, to us you are.” Jasper said firmly. “Please don’t tell me what I’m allowed to feel about you. This does not happen all the time. And you don’t know that I wouldn’t have been able to help you right then and we’d still have been able to enjoy the evening together. Do you?”

“…no.” Dale admitted it with a heaviness that spoke of utter weariness.

“You preferred to keep control. Not wanting to trust us and let us make decisions or take control out of your hands is something we know about.” Jasper ran a hand over his back again, rubbing softly. “When you’re anxious you want to be sure exactly what is going to happen, what we’re going to do and what we’re going to say. And in your mind, when you hide these things they start to look much worse to you than they are. Anything else you’d like to tell me about?”  

“I was obsessing all night. You know that. I didn’t sleep much.”

“Yes.”

“I didn’t get stuck until I was washing out the basin – ended up doing press ups to get my mind off it.”

“How many?”

He didn’t want to admit to it. Jasper waited a moment before Dale said unwillingly and slightly shakily,
“200. I got to 172… that was as far as I could go. I had to go back and finish to get to the round number. And then I got stuck on shaving. That was the third time when Ri saw me. Which is about as bad as it gets isn’t it? That’s a serious mess.”

“No, it is not a mess. It’s just a lot of anxiety.”

“Which isn’t helped by hiding it; there is a rule about it that I broke. I know. It’s not like we haven’t been through this again and again and a frigging gain-”


The grim and it’s never going to bloody work, is it? and I still never get it right went unsaid but were there anyway. Jasper interrupted before he managed to get further along that line of thought.

“Yes. You do know. You didn’t want to do it. So let’s work on you accepting that following our rules doesn’t involve you getting to make judgement calls.” Jasper drew him closer and raised the paddle, landing it soundly in five more hard swats.

By the time he laid the paddle down Dale was crying more fluently and laying more limply over his lap. Jasper helped him to his feet, got up and wrapped his arms around him, holding him closely and took a moment but he felt Dale relax against him fractionally and put his head slowly down against Jasper’s chest. He was still shaking. Jasper stroked damp hair and rubbed down his back, waiting until he got his breath, then took him into his and Flynn’s room and found clean t shirt, sweatshirt and shorts. Dale let him help with dressing, red eyed and quiet and his eyes down and there wasn’t a whole lot more expression in his face, but some of the tension had eased from his body.

He walked Dale with him downstairs to the kitchen where Riley was finishing a donut, poured a mug of tea and took Dale out onto the porch, settling on the swing and pulling Dale down to curl up beside him in his arms. Jasper held the mug as well as him, rocking the swing slowly. It was fresh outside, the beginning of a bright, sunny day with the orange toned light of mid fall, the same softened tones of the aspen trees in the distance. Dale accepted the tea Jasper helped him hold to drink, intentionally keeping firm hold of the mug despite several discreet attempts on Dale’s part to take it away from him and meet his own needs. It was extremely subtle and both of them still knew exactly what the other was doing, just as at times Dale casually shifted his weight slightly about a quarter of an inch to try to lean against the swing instead of against directly against Jasper and Jasper held him right where he was, not permitting it. Riley picked up his own mug and what was left of his donut and followed them, taking a seat on the sun warmed boards of the porch with his back to the rails. He looked compassionate rather than concerned; red eyed and subdued was a mood he knew and understood well.   

“I think it was a what.” Dale said eventually. Riley nodded slowly.

“A what doing what?”

“Oh God, that is a stupid phrase. How the hell did that get stuck in normal vocabulary, it sounds insane.”

“Rabbit.” Riley pointed out. Dale sighed, heavily. He did not want to talk about this; Jasper could feel the resistance in every inch of his body, although he was sharply controlling it.

“Something happened in the airport. It was like being hit by a brick. I couldn’t get rid of it.”

“I saw you earthing yourself in the park.” Jasper said quietly. “And you showered when we came in. If it was negative energy you’d picked up in the airport that would have dealt with it.”

“Park?” Riley said quizzically. And then nodded comprehension as understanding dawned. “Oh. I wondered why you told me to go order and you’d catch up. It started that early?”

“There isn’t anything else it could rationally be.”

“Did it happen when you saw Flynn and Paul walk away?” Jasper asked him. Dale’s jaw tightened, although his face didn’t change.

“No, it is not that.”

“I think it most likely is.”

“It is not that.” Dale repeated flatly. Riley gave him an askance look, finishing his donut.

“That just means you really don’t want it to be. It is not stupid to miss them, you’ve seen me flip out when Flynn’s gone for a few hours without saying goodbye. You didn’t call me nuts at the time? Missing people is a normal thing, you’re not going to die from it.”

“I have no difficulty with object permanence,” Dale informed him. “I can cope with loved ones being temporarily out of my sight without falling apart, I spent a week in New York-”

“Blowing snow up Luath’s butt, yes.” Riley said bluntly. “We know. It isn’t any good pulling this act on us, we know you.”

“So how you feel would be completely disproportionate to the reality of them being gone?” Jasper asked. Dale gave him a cold look.

“Yes. Obviously. Ergo, it cannot be that.”

“Overwhelming, disproportionate emotion that takes over entirely.” Jasper said mildly. “And gets you this stressed and this withdrawn. We know what that is. It’s triggered, isn’t it? You only ever feel this bad when you’ve been triggered. I can see you’re angry about it, you’re ashamed about it being disproportionate, but of course it’s not a logical, sensible reaction because it isn’t here and now you’re reacting to. And when this happens you don’t want to communicate, you don’t want to think about it. I get that you really don’t want to be triggered. You would like it to stop, right now. But it doesn’t work like that and we’re going get through it, and it will calm down. You are not going to feel this horrible for long. Riley, can you put that fence on hold another day and look over the stock today, emergencies only, we’ll leave the horses until tomorrow-”

No. I am perfectly ok,” Dale began hotly. Jasper spoke over him, continuing to rock the swing.

“- I’m keeping Dale home with me today.”

“Yeah, no problem.” 

“We are already two people down, I am not-”

“You are not deciding anything.” Jasper hadn’t let him move off the swing, the arm around Dale’s chest did not budge and his tone deepened slightly. “I’ll let you know what I’ll have you do today and Riley’s quite capable of letting me know if he needs help. When this happens we stop and we take care of it. We don’t ignore it, we don’t pretend it’s not happening. It is not your fault.”

“It’s seven thirty in the morning and you’re in tears and couldn’t quit shaving.” Riley said with rough kindness. “That’s a good sign you’re fried. Flynn made sure we did every last thing that needed doing yesterday, the only thing that has to get done is to check the stock over, and we’re down to low numbers now anyway for winter.”

He got up and stooped over the swing, hooking an arm around Dale’s neck to give him a rough, close hug. “Calm down, feel better. I’ll see you later.”

Jasper sat with him for a long time while they watched Riley saddle up, whistle to the dogs and ride out into the home pasture. Jasper put a hand gently against Dale’s face, rubbing the small muscles by his ear.

“Your jaw is literally tight. That’s a lot of effort to hold something in.”

He could make a fair guess as to what. Dale didn’t answer, and after a moment Jasper put him on his feet, stooped to take off his socks so he was barefoot as Dale was, and walked him out into the home pasture.

The not long since mown pasture grass was soft, damp and cool underfoot. Ideal conditions for the energy within the earth to be felt and to touch skin, to connect to the electrical signals in the body and balance them. Dale kept pace with him, moving stiffly and it wasn’t due to the paddling. The disorganisation in his body was tangible. Jasper walked steadily and let the earth and the quiet around them, the fresh air and energy rising from the pasture grounds and from the white capped mountains on the horizon, sink into him and do their work. The sounds of the river carried across the pasture before they saw it; the fast rushing white topped water that radiated energy that was strongly tangible in his palms and his chest and which Dale would feel too. Jasper sat down on the shingle of the bank and watched Dale do the same, automatically stooping to put his hands in the water. He sat there for a long time, watching the water run against his fingers, curling around him. A northern cardinal was singing from a tree stump on the far bank with a pure, clear whistle. The last few yellow nuttall sunflowers and sneezeweed from the summer were scattered on the bank with their small, bright heads, and a red mist of paintbrush dotted the pasture behind them, although thinner now than it had been a few weeks ago when in patches the grass was nearer red than green.

Eventually Dale got up, stripped and Jasper watched him wade out into the river. He did everything precisely, in the way that Dale did all things. Focused, with intent, by sequence, and yet he understood too that too much deliberation, too much focus broke into the purity of the intent he was forming. He spent several minutes visibly breathing, grounding himself before he carried out the water ritual, and then turned to stand with his back against the oncoming current, watching the water run on down river. It was then that Jasper undressed and walked out to join him.


*


The hotel buffet was tepid and contained too many bizarre things to bother with. Having abandoned it in favour of a burger joint further down the street, Flynn took a seat in the small, uncomfortable armchair in the corner of their room when they returned and picked up the phone, watching Paul sprawl on the bed as he dialled with the phone set to speaker. It was Riley’s voice that answered.

“Falls Chance.”

“Hey halfpint.”

“Hi.” Riley’s voice warmed but not to his usual liveliness. “How is it going? What’s the hotel like?”

“Death by brown with lousy food. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, nothing caught fire, the stock’s fine – other than that bloody spotted steer that’s obsessed with suicide by drowning, I roped him out of the river again today and put the whole of that group into the mile pasture and shut the gate on them, he can’t get stuck wading in those little creeks up there. For God’s sake come home and go do some counselling with him or something. Water aversion therapy. What’s wrong with the food?”

“He couldn’t pronounce most of it.” Paul supplied. Flynn ignored him.

“Going to tell me what’s got you sounding this fed up?”

“Nothing.” From the sound of it, Riley was wandering out onto the porch. “We’re out here carving pumpkins, you should come home.”

“Two more days, that’s not long.” It was not like Riley to make that strong a hint after twenty four hours. “Were you swimming? Is that how you found the steer?”

“No, you don’t have to get all suspicious. And I didn’t get kicked or bitten or rope burned, you don’t need to ask about that either.”

“Good. So what is it?”

“Leave my teeth alone.” There was a creak as Riley sat down on what sounded like one of the porch chairs. “Here, nag Dale for a – Dale!

He sounded shocked. There was a moment’s pause, Riley said something that would have gotten his mouth soaped out if Paul had heard him, then the phone crackled and Jasper’s calm voice took over.

“Hello. Dale’s not feeling like talking.”

“What just happened?” Paul demanded.

“He just walked out into the pasture, he wouldn’t take the phone!” Riley sounded somewhere between stunned and outraged. “He lost it in the airport yesterday and didn’t say anything until he couldn’t quit shaving this morning. Think of him counting fence posts, it’s like that.”

“No, it’s nothing so dramatic.” Jasper disagreed. He was sitting on the swing, Flynn could hear the slow creak of the chains and if he had to guess, he’d held Riley on his lap to stop him following Dale. “Dale’s missing you more than he expected. He’s not had a good day but we’re all ok. What’s the conference like?”

“We’re just not going to talk about the elephant in the pasture?” Riley demanded. “I’m going to go tell him he doesn’t get to be an ass if you won’t-”

“Very good so far.” Flynn kept his tone as even as Jasper’s, picking up his cue as much as he wanted to demand information. “How deep into the donuts are you halfpint? Paul wants to know.”

“There won’t be any by the time he gets home so he doesn’t need to worry.” Riley sounded aggravated, most of which was worry. Paul came to sit beside Flynn, the concern in his face not reaching his voice.

“How many pumpkins did you get?”

“Five. We are saving you the innards, Dale boxed them up and stuffed them in the freezer.”

“What are you planning to do with them? Tell me you’re not carving that one from the revolting picture Gerry sent you?”

“Jas did, it’s brilliant. They’re good ones. Large, good shapes.” There was the sound of shifting around, footsteps, then Riley said less easily, “Jas went to get Dale.”

“What are you doing for dinner?”

“Fish. Jas was planning for us to go camp out by the river tonight, we’ll eat what we catch. I’ve never seen him walk away like that before, he just went to ice and stomped off. He’s in full spin, this is one of his fricking zero to ninety in a split second ones, I didn’t see this coming at all. He was fine all evening, he woke up fine and then bam.”

“So it’s a hijack,” Flynn agreed, “Something’s hit a trigger. Let Jasper handle it and all of you get on with your day. He’s very convincing Ri, but he’s projecting the mess he feels, don’t get sucked in with him. Have a good time tonight and let him pick up on your calm and your normality, just like you’d do with a horse. What’s Puzzle’s leg like?”

“The swelling was going down when I looked this morning and hosed it off, she’s doing better. I’ll do it again before we head out this evening. Jas had the foal out in the yard with him and Dale all afternoon, he’s been well exercised. Just the yard chores to do, and I’ll check on Bandit and his crew in the morning.”

“Why don’t you go make a start on the yard love and you can head out as soon as you’re done.” Paul suggested gently. “Take a couple of heavy sweaters with you, it’s going to get cold out there tonight.”

“Have a good evening. Studying.” Riley sounded dry and Paul laughed.

“Flynn might study. I plan on having a long bath and reading. Love you sweetheart, have fun tonight.”

“Goodnight halfpint.” Flynn put the phone down and they sat in silence for a moment.
“What do you think? You stay, I’ll head home? I can probably change my ticket to an earlier flight.” Paul said after a minute.

“If we pack up and head home we’re convincing Ri and Dale we think this is serious. And I’ll swear Jas has got this. So unless he feels he needs the help…we sit tight.” Flynn steepled his hands in front of his face, thinking for a moment. Paul walked slowly across to the window, looking out at the street. The phone rang again and Flynn picked it up. Jasper sounded his usual self, relaxed and calm, and Flynn heard the kitchen door close.

“They’re changing salt blocks for the shires, they’ll be a while. They are both all right. Riley’s doing ok, he gets it, he was just a bit shocked at Dale’s reaction to you calling.”

“That says it in a nutshell, doesn’t it?” Paul said wryly. “’You bastards left me; don’t think I’m talking to you’. No need to ask who’s piloting him: hello almighty feelings and four year old thinking. Although I’m glad he’s letting it out.”

“I suspect seeing you walk away hit him like a brick and he wasn’t expecting it. The pupils of his eyes are huge, I saw them blown as we walked out of the airport yesterday which clued me in. He didn’t let anything else show until this morning.” Jasper closed another door and Flynn suspected he’d come into the study. “Full blown trauma freeze. Doesn’t want to talk although he has tried; he doesn’t understand it.”

Flynn looked absorbed, Paul knew the signs of him racking his brains for information. “Has he said anything about worrying something will happen to Paul or me while we’re here?”

“He said he was obsessing all night but didn’t want to tell me what. He didn’t sleep much. He’s still working on denying this is anything to do with you two.” Jasper confirmed. “He’s been working hard on convincing himself it was a what and the feelings aren’t his at all.”

“He’s in a much healthier place now to where he was the last time any of us left for more than a few hours.” Flynn said shortly. “And this is a normal stage of attachment. Young kids learn how to handle time apart from their bonded people. Their person goes but only when leaving them in a safe place, always comes back and always reaffirms the bond, the kid starts to build up the inner security for the relationship to stay strong and ok over time and distance.”

“And Dale only had his mother and she emotionally and physically abandoned him whenever she got upset enough.” Paul finished for him, sounding bleak. “He had all the responsibility, he kept her going as much as she’d let him. Until she found her new guy and more or less abandoned him altogether.”

Flynn nodded slow agreement. “No supporting him through her leaving and coming back, he wasn’t left anywhere safe or with anyone else to meet his needs, he wasn’t helped to calm down. She did full blown abandonment and to hell with how he felt. That’s the blueprint he’s got to apply to us, he’s got nothing else to work from.”

“So it’s separation anxiety, isn’t it?” Paul sat down in the highly uncomfortable brown chair across from Flynn. “He always coped with her by just not needing anyone else there. Independence, self reliance, he made himself his own security: the instability and anxiety for him never has come from separation from anyone else, it’s always been about letting other people into his secure, organised base to mess with it.”

Jasper sounded thoughtful on the other end of the phone.

“We’re far enough forward now that he lets himself feel a whole lot more than he did. If I had to guess, I’d say you being gone doesn’t just make him twitchy any more, it plain hurts. He’s shocked at how much.”

“Terrified may be a better word.” Flynn supplied grimly. Jasper made a sound of assent.

“That fits. I can see how angry he is; he’s fighting allowing himself anything from me today. And he knows all the facts of how separation works, he’s said that out loud, but it clearly doesn’t tie up with how he feels.”

“It won’t, Jas. Reasoning won’t help. His brain is literally wired up around people not coming back. Logic and rationalisation mean nothing, words mean nothing; the deeper part of his brain already knows from experience. It doesn’t work out ok in the end, the stress doesn’t end. He knows it doesn’t, he’s lived it.”

“Then we do need to go home.” Paul said with decision. “I’m not leaving him feeling like this.”

“But he needs the experience, doesn’t he?” Jasper said gently. “That you go, you’re ok, he’s ok, and you come back, and the stress does end now. We have still got it and we’ve still got him. Living through it with a better outcome. That’s how the experience gets built and he moves on. If we’d known in advance that we’d reached this stage – and none of us did, we’re all feeling our way – we’d might have planned more carefully about preparing him, but would we have done it much differently? Riley and I are here with him, he is in that safe place. Isn’t it still about what it’s always about? Helping him calm himself down enough to think and stay connected to us while he works through it? This is just another aspect of it we haven’t seen before. So we use the same coping skills we always get him to use. We’re doing the same routine of what we usually do, I’ve had him outside all day and we’ll camp outside tonight, he knows that routine too and it helps, it’s physical and calming. I’ve had him doing as much lifting, carrying and hands on work in the yard close with me as possible, the physical regulation; I’m processing with him as much as he’s able to get into words.”

Paul shook his head. “Jasper Blackwater, I could come kiss you right now.”

Flynn gave him a quizzical look and Paul smiled in spite of himself. “Yeah, both of you being amazing husbands are incredibly sexy, trust me.”

“Now we’ve got more of an idea of what this is, I’ll talk to him about that too.” Jasper said mildly. “What’s scaring him most is having no real idea why he’s reacting so strongly, he feels out of control.”

“Get him to write it down.” Flynn suggested. “Get the journal out and start a sentence for him. ‘I am triggered and my body has gone back brain.”

“That’s a phrase they’re using a lot here.” Paul added. “It’s a good one, it gives me terms I can think in. In triggered mode, the lower back levels of the brain take over, the survival focused, reactive parts. That’s where the four year old lives, that’s where the ‘I lived through this once by doing this’ habits and thinking take over from.”

“Try having him write what he’s telling himself. What he wants to do compared to what he knows he should do. On paper it’s going to get easier to see objectively that he’s been hijacked and it isn’t the threat it feels like. And then get him to help you plan on how to settle himself, the things that help. A lot of comfort, a lot of contact.”

“That I can do.”

“Then can you take the phone out to him? And tell him he talks to me, right now, or I’ll be on the next flight home to kick his butt.” Flynn said shortly. “I don’t want him avoiding us for three days and then us coming home turning into another major stressor. I’m going to expect one hell of a payback anyway considering how bad this has scared him.”

“I can do that too.” A door opened and they heard Jasper walk out onto the porch. “Dale! Here, now please.”

There was a pause, then Jasper’s voice, calm but definite. “Flynn says you take the phone or he is catching the next flight home to personally kick your butt. And I don’t think he’s joking.”

“Now.” Flynn added sharply, well aware Jasper had the phone on speaker.

There was a short silence, then the crisp, dispassionate voice of ANZ’s finest.

“Good afternoon.”

Paul caught Flynn’s eye with a shocked oh God expression.

“Never mind good afternoon kid, what was the stomping off about?”

The tone was short but it was anything but unkind and Dale never had trouble reading Flynn, Paul could hear the change in his voice in response, albeit a slight and unwilling change.

“I’m quite sure Jasper’s explained. I embarked upon yet another freak out yesterday evening. I’ll add that there was throwing up in a proscribedly furtive manner and various obsessing-”

“Corner.” Flynn interrupted. “Now. And think hard about how much bullshit you want to try out on me, and what’s going to happen if you do. I’ll call you back when I’m ready for you to stop. Move.”

“That one.” Jasper said mildly, nodding at the kitchen doorway and taking the phone. Stiffly, Dale passed him and took up station in the most frequently used kitchen corner, interlacing his fingers on top of his head.

It was a good twenty minutes before the phone rang again. Jasper had seated himself on the porch rail to wait with Dale, phone beside him, and he’d been watching the tension start to ease out of Dale’s spine. He picked up the phone, answering it, then called quietly into the kitchen.

“Dale.”

Dale came past him to take the phone, meeting his eyes very briefly, but his voice was more himself.

“Hello.”

“Want to try that again?”

Across the air waves, Paul could hear as clearly as Flynn could the several answers Dale was swallowing down, knowing they would all result in Flynn sending him right back to the corner. Then he said heavily, “I couldn’t be much more embarrassed right now if I tried.”

“Yeah, so you’ve been showing me.” Flynn informed him. “You can’t help how you feel. You can’t see every trigger coming. We didn’t see this one either but let’s be clear on what it is. A lot of adults with attachment issues have difficulty with separation anxiety at some stage,”

No, it is not going to be anything that wet.”

“How is that wet? It’s not wet in the slightest, it’s normal.” Paul interrupted. “I did it. Riley did it. We all did it, we just got to get it done a lot younger. It’s a normal thing and it is not your fault you’re having to learn how to handle it now. If anything, it’s a good sign, isn’t it? And let me guess what you’re thinking right now? No Paul, it’s a bloody awful sign, because guess what? Now I need you and that’s not only stupid, it’s terrifying, and I should never have let myself get into this mess. Which I’m trying very hard not to let myself frantically undo by keeping Jasper, Ri, Flynn and you at arm’s length. Or phone length. How is that working out for you sweetheart?” 

“… not good.” Dale admitted.

“You sound tired.” Flynn said shortly. “Jas said you didn’t sleep and that you were obsessing. What was it on?”

“Shaving. And the sink being streaky.”

“God forbid the sink should be streaky.” Paul said wryly.

“You weren’t worrying about the sink all night.” Flynn told him. “What are the aircraft accident statistics for Pennsylvania?”

“….. The likelihood of fatality on a commercial route among the 39 lines with the best record: 1 in 19.8 million.” Dale said very quietly, and Paul could hear the shame in it. “The odds on the airline you chose are particularly low.”

“Dale Edward, how do you even know this stuff?” Paul demanded. Dale sighed.

“A newspaper article, January 23rd, front page article in the Tribune Eagle, on the rack near the coffee shop. I was standing there a few minutes and read most of it, I know it state by state. But it was the Pennsylvania stats I was obsessing on. And yes, it’s ridiculous, normal adults do not obsess on this stuff since no one can make any promises and it’s so rare that if everyone made decisions based on it they’d be paralysed.”

“It’s not ridiculous at all, what’s underneath it?” Flynn said firmly. “Take it down to the bottom line, what is the fear about?”

There wasn’t an answer. Jasper’s voice was quiet and reassuring.

“Need some help? Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m guessing it might be about how terrible it would feel if anything happened to them. And that you’re not sure it’s survivable, and that makes you feel incredibly vulnerable. And maybe like Paul said, that feels stupid and dangerous to have let yourself let go this much in our relationship.”

“Rationally, no, of course not.” Dale sounded frustrated. “I do trust in it, of course I do, and it is not all about me, that’s ridiculous.”

“I didn’t ask for rational.” Flynn informed him. “These are normal feelings. You need to think about why that sense of vulnerability triggered you, who’s doing the thinking for you and how old they are, and where those beliefs are coming from. That’s something you can get a grip on. We’ll call you in the morning, you can call us any time you want in the night, we’ll be here.”

“And we are coming back.” Paul said very firmly. “Whatever the four year old has to say, he’s upset and angry and plain wrong. Keep reminding yourself of that.”



*



Riley built a fire and spent a while messing around with it in between reading by firelight on the bank, while Jasper and Dale fished in the dark, their breath steaming in front of their faces. It was already getting cold and a night frost was starting to nip in the air but Riley had camped very often with Jasper in harder weather than this, Jasper knew exactly how to handle any weather, and the fire was particularly comfortable on a chilly night. Both Jasper and Dale were odd enough to like night fishing, they often did it together and it took very little time before there were three trout roasting on sticks over the fire and Jasper took a seat on the grass, leaning over to get Dale’s hand and pull him down in between him and Riley. Across from them and asleep by the fire, Tam snuffled, her front paws working a little as she dreamed.

“Wonder what frou frou Flynn’s having to eat tonight?” Riley said without thinking. And winced, realising. Apologising would have made it worse. Jasper answered comfortably, relaxed by the snap and crackle of the white charring wood with the firelight flickering over his face in the dark.

“I’m sure they’ve gone back to the burger house. Better than hotel food.”

Dale was slowly shredding a few pieces of grass in his fingers, his face immobile, and feeding them bit by bit into the fire. Riley lay down on the grass beside him, head against his knee, and felt for his hand to hold it.

“Look. It’s a campfire. It’s Halloween. Ghost stories. We should be telling ghost stories. I’ll start, I don’t think I told you this one Dale? I had the spookiest experience in an old coastal town somewhere in Maine when I was a kid. I was about… seven I think? I was at some hotel with my dad as usual, it was boring me to tears so I wandered off and out of the hotel and down the road a way that led down by the cliffs, and there was a cemetery up there. Real old Victorian one, all weird stones and statues. So I wandered around it and looked at the statues and played on the grass for a while, and then on the other side of the rock fence on the far side of the cemetery was a kids playground with swings and slides with a few kids in there playing. So I wandered in there and sat on one of the empty swings sets for a while. I was pushing myself backwards and forwards a bit, listening to the other kids laughing, but it was this windy, cloudy day and the wind was making everything sound a bit weird and I was getting cold. I was about to go back to the hotel and see if my dad’s meeting was done yet when someone pushed the swing. Maybe they saw it slowing down and thought I needed some help, but it made me jump and I yelled and twisted around to see who it was, and there was no one there. And there were no other kids in the playground. The swings on the other swing set were swinging but there was just no one there.” Riley tipped his head back to grin at Dale. “I ran back to that hotel like my tail was on fire. Never told my dad.”

Dale gave him a faint smile in return, gently holding Riley’s hand. He looked better since the phone call earlier, and the fishing had helped too. He loved to be outside the same way Jasper did. And Jasper was a master at this when you got him going and Dale would enjoy that too, he was drawn to stories and traditions and information like a magnet. With that in mind, Riley leaned across Dale’s lap to poke Jasper.

“Go on Jas? Your turn?”

Jasper smiled, turning the sticks with the fish over the fire.

“All right. I had an experience when I was young too.  My grandfather had to leave for several days trading when I was about eight or nine.  I was out hunting late in the afternoon in the fall, went further out than I usually did from the territory we were staying in at the time and got caught by a surprise storm.  Lots of lightening, several trees were struck, so I found a dry spot beneath an overhang and holed up there while the worst of the storm raged on.  When it finally relented, it was dusk and the woods were starting to get very dark. Traveling was a lot more difficult in the wet landscape and within a very short time I lost my way.  There were still clouds around, but I think it was a new moon too and I couldn't see my hand in front of my face.”

Jasper was a great storyteller. Dale was quiet, taking in every word and Riley was listening with rapt attention as Jasper described all of the things a dark and wet forest could hold, particularly with a young boy's wild imagination at play.  He'd steal a glance every once in a while as he'd hear a bird or creature move out beyond the small circle of flickering light that their fire put out until it was hard not to imagine what might lay beyond that light.

"The season was getting colder and while the days were warmed by the sun, the nights got icy and the rain had been the leading edge of a cold front moving through. I couldn't just lie down and wait for the sun as everything around me was wet with rain. So I kept moving, knowing that was the right thing to do.  I could tell I was near some body of water because of all the greenery around my ankles, I knew the plants and I was watching my step when all of a sudden it felt like the earth had dropped out from below me.  The bank was steep and slippery with leaves and I found myself sliding and rolling down a muddy slope and I landed right in the water. There was no light at all above the water or below it and I don’t know how deep I went down. I kicked out trying to find the bottom but I couldn’t find anything, although it felt like something was beneath me as the water was colder down there and I could feel things moving around me.  I managed to work out which way was up and break the surface of the water, and then find my way up the bank by feel, panting and shivering and soaked.”

Riley felt a shiver pass though him, wondering what it had been under the water and thankful that Jas has gotten out before anything worse had happened. Jasper took the staked fish off the fire, handing one to Riley and another to Dale.

"I kept my back to the water as I climbed up the bank, and I could see nothing at all and I was almost too cold to move, except at the top of the bank there was one single spot of air that felt warm. So I walked into it, and I basically followed that something that felt warm.  If I turned left or right it was like walking into a freezer, but going straight forward seemed to be warmer, so I kept on following that warm air.  I knew that there was some spirit walking along beside me, for what purpose I don't know. I probably walked a good hour and while the wind was cold I didn’t freeze and it did dry out my clothing.  I eventually felt the brush around my legs thin out and I found myself walking between large trees. Very old ones. The ground was covered by both leaves and needles and was very dry.  The cold to my sides left me as I walked beneath these trees, but I could feel eyes on me. Above me. All around me. Watching every move I made, breathing softly although I knew there was no other human there. So I gathered up a nice pile of the leaves and needles, making myself the deepest nest I could, and laid down and slept until the sun came up."

There was a moment of silence, then Riley said incredulously through a mouthful of trout, "What?!"

Jasper bit trout off the stick in his hand, taking a moment to enjoy the fresh, crisp skin. “It was too dangerous to keep wandering around and cold forest?  So I slept until the sun came up and found my way back.”

“You knew there were whats everywhere? Looking at you? And you went to sleep?!”

“I suspect most of the eyes were animals. Above in the treetops, below in the brush. So yes?”

Riley stared at him speechlessly as Dale started to laugh. "Why?! Why would you do that!"

“Because I needed sleep?” Jasper said mildly. Riley shook his head.

"You are hopeless. You don't get this Halloween stuff at all!"

Jasper's eyes were twinkling, whether that was the fire's flickering or something else, Riley couldn't be sure.  “Get what?”

“Halloween! The whole concept. Sheesh. Take you two into a ghost ride and Dale would be counselling them while you wave hello and take a nap with them!”

Jasper laughed too then, and Riley lay down again. “I am so going to the Jackson Halloween corn maze next week and taking Paul with me, who gets it. Dale, it’s your turn?”

“No.” Jasper leaned over to add more wood to the fire. “It’s time to turn in now. Sleeping bags.”



At this time of year getting into the sleeping bag didn’t involve that much undressing. Riley wriggled into his, settling with an eye on Jasper who had taken out Dale’s journal and a pen from his saddle bag and opened it at a clean page, writing for a moment at the top. Once Dale was in his sleeping bag, Jasper passed it across to him and offered the pen.

“Try that for me.”

There was nothing in Dale’s face to show what he thought of that, but he loved that journal, Riley often saw him take it down from the shelf in the study and look through it, even in the way he handled it his feelings showed, and writing in it often settled him. Riley pulled his book out of his own pack, keeping quiet but watching Jasper’s long, strong hands make the fire safe for the night with the firelight on the planed bones of his face and his dark eyes more than he was reading. His hair was darker than ink in the night, a colour you could disappear into, the tail of it caught in its leather knot at the nape of his neck and resting over his shoulder as he worked. Jasper had lived the first part of his life entirely outside, it was as natural to him to sleep by a fire as it was to sleep with central heating. Jasper saw him looking and sent a quiet, private smile in his direction. He set his sleeping bag between Riley’s and Dale’s and stretched out on it although he didn’t get inside. He didn’t easily get cold, Riley had seen him doze at night in a frosty pasture by an animal in need with his back against a fence post, sat on the ground while wearing nothing but his ordinary clothes and a jacket.

It was a while before Dale stopped writing, looked for a moment at the journal, and then closed it quietly. He was laying on his side, head propped on his hand, his other hand resting on the leather binding.

“The school I was at had a few ghost stories.” He said very lightly after a while. Riley glanced over to grin at him, glad to encourage him since that was the first thing he’d really volunteered all evening.

“Good? Go on?”

Dale smiled. “This was my public school, boys of eleven up to eighteen, and most of the school was in what had been a stately home. Huge, beautiful house, most of it eighteenth century, with the grounds and gardens spread all around it, so it had quite a history. One of the best known ones was that during the Second World War the house had been taken over by the war department and the school was evacuated out to the country somewhere. Some of the house was used for a hospital but a large section was taken over as a base for pilots and an air field took over the school playing fields.”

Jasper was listening, squatting by the fire in the position he could hold for hours without effort, a piece of the firewood between his hands.

“There were stories around about the pilots,” Dale said reflectively and Riley could see him sorting mentally through the images as he talked. “Several planes that crashed on take off or landing, there was a plaque in the chapel with all their names. But there was a room that got used to store trunks when I was there. It had been a masters’ common room from the conception of the school somewhere around 1885 right up until the school came back to the house after the war, it was right on the ground floor in a convenient place, it was large. It was apparently handed over to be a store room after the masters started refusing to use it because it always smelled of cigarette smoke- not theirs, the masters who smoked had pipes anyway – and the doors would shut and bang and there would be things moved around in there. In a practical joke kind of a way. Apparently through the war it had been a common room for off duty pilots waiting around for scramble alerts. Mostly in their late teens and early twenties, bored a lot of the time, high energy. I always got the feeling the masters thought a few of them were still around. The chaplain offered to do something, exorcise it I suppose, but apparently the masters all refused. The whole house was a safe place for boys not much younger than those pilots, I think they felt any pilots still there were entitled to that room if they wanted it.”  

Jasper smiled, not commenting.

“That’s quite sweet – in a creepy sort of way.” Riley said reflectively.

Dale lay back, tucking an arm behind his head and looking up at the sky. It was a cloudy night, the sky was a very dark blue grey above and low. The river’s rush was audible behind the soft crack and snap of the fire, the combined smell of wood smoke with the night air and the cool rising from the ground. It was, by his body clock, around a quarter past ten. He knew when Riley fell asleep from the change in his breathing. Jasper had taken out his knife to work on the piece of firewood he held, and the whittling made the soft, familiar nick nick sound as he worked, a sound Dale heard occasionally at home at night.

Always with Flynn in the house. Paul in the house.

The thought hit him like a fist. A wave of panic, a rush of stress that clenched his stomach and sent adrenaline shooting through him, flooded from guts to head making his hands start to shake on its way. It was impossible to stay laying down. Impossible to keep still. He slid out of the sleeping bag as quietly as possible for Riley’s sake, grabbed his boots and padded barefoot down the bank to the river, crouching on the stones by the water’s edge. It took everything he had to control his stomach.

Jasper came quietly down the bank behind him and took a seat on the rocks near him. He would – he must – have seen that Dale’s body automatically tightened at the proximity but his being there still helped. His time, his willingness to wait, helped. After a few minutes Dale got up and went to him, keeping his eyes on the water. Jasper sat where he was, not looking directly at him either, but he slid a hand gently under Dale’s jacket to find his back and rub slowly, deeply.

Breathe.

Dale shut his eyes, trying to focus on his breathing as Jasper was encouraging him to.

This is stupid. This is irrational, this is plain daft!

He found his arms raising slightly to ward Jasper off, taking a step away from him without looking at him.

“I’m going for a walk.”

Jasper rose to come with him, and Dale flashed him an irritable look, nodding at the fire.

“Riley? I shall be quite ok. Thank you. I won’t go far.”

He was avoiding Jasper’s eye. It was harder to ignore the hand Jasper held out. But he deliberately, controlledly took it and Jasper led him further along the bank, still in clear sight of Riley but at a distance that wouldn’t disturb him.

The thing was that Dale knew exactly what Jasper was going to do. He knew. This was a dance he and Jasper knew together, and his heart was racing, his body was already entering a state of fight in preparation. And yet he kept hold of Jasper’s hand, walked coldly with him where Jasper led, and when Jasper took a seat on the ground with his back against a boulder and held out both arms to him, Dale gave him a sardonic look and accepted the offered hand.

Jasper turned him around and drew him around to sit between his knees on the ground and Dale crossed his own arms over his chest with a please feel free to do whatever you must and see if I care air that Jasper ignored completely, grasping each of his wrists in a gentle, inescapable grasp that held Dale securely fenced in behind his own arms, locked close into Jasper’s chest. And they sat there. A few inches from the water’s edge. Dale sat absolutely still, rigidly still, and the awful panic had slipped sideways into something else, a kind of grim, angry defiance that made no sense to him at all, and yet he let it take him over completely. Still, rigidly still, controlled, which made a farce of Jasper holding him like this. Demonstrated clearly how ridiculous it was. How disproportionately unnecessary.

I don’t want you. I don’t need you.

And Jasper simply went on holding him, his head gently against Dale’s.

He had no idea how long it took. It might have been twenty minutes before that grim, determined, no bloody emotion at all except a very uncharacteristic and unreasonable and wholly undeserved sod you, began to fracture as something else rose behind it. Something large and ugly and far less easy to ignore. He made a few brief and irritable attempts to get his hands away from Jasper’s then and get up, and Jasper didn’t let him move an inch.

“Get off.” Dale said shortly. “I’m done. This isn’t necessary, I’m going for a walk.”

Jasper nuzzled his neck gently from behind and said nothing. The river kept on flowing ahead of them. Dale made an abrupt, stronger attempt to escape him, and the panic and the anger and the mess swelled straight up behind it as he began to struggle, properly, with all his strength against those safe arms. Jasper didn’t let him move and he didn’t talk, and with some part of him still aware of Riley asleep and not dragged into this mess, Dale also fought in silence.

He had no idea how long he pitched himself against Jasper, how long that mess burst out in physical form and disorganisation between them, and he refused – utterly refused to allow himself to make a sound. But as it always did, there came a moment where it broke, like water falling out of a smashed dam finally reaching equilibrium again in the river bed below, the torrent slowing to a quiet flow. Where the safety of those arms around him let him wear himself out, reach that point where he dropped limp against Jasper’s chest and began to catch his breath. Leaned hard into the embrace instead of away from it, felt calm finally start to come back again. And his throat tightened painfully, his eyes stung in a whole different and far worse way, and it took all his strength to swallow it down, to not permit it. Jasper rocked him slowly, Dale could feel the fluidity between their bodies, the two of them moving together as one unit now.

“I have your satellite phone with me.” Jasper said quietly in his ear. “Call them. I know that’s what you want to do.”

Wake them, peacefully asleep in Annville, to demand yet more of their time and energy and reassurance because he was a black hole of need. Dale shook his head fiercely, not able to talk and breathe at the same time yet and knowing he was not exactly being logical about this.

But no. Absolutely no way.


*


They spent almost all of their night there on the bank. An unkind person might have called it cuddling. Dale preferred not to reflect on it too deeply since there had been no one else there to see.

Riley woke around dawn, they packed up and walked home together through the frosty pasture and the rising mist, coming into through the kitchen door at close to 7am to hear the phone ringing. Dale visibly flinched, and Jasper passed him to pick it up.

“Falls Chance?”

Riley paused by the table, seeing immediately from his response that it wasn’t Flynn or Paul. Jasper listened for a moment, then said evenly,“I see. One moment please, I’ll see if I’m able to contact him.”

“You don’t need to be working today.” Riley said sharply. “I don’t care who it is.”

Jasper covered the mouthpiece, looking to Dale. “It’s Caroline, there is an issue with shares relating to Kutxa and Jerry Banks is asking for your opinion. Would you like to take it?”

“You’re giving him the choice?” Riley demanded.

Dale mutely held out a hand. Riley raised his eyes skywards and went to shower.

“Good morning.”

Jasper quietly boiled the kettle, made tea and put a mug down near Dale, taking another into the bathroom to Riley while he listened to a rapid, dispassionate conversation going on for a while in English and then for a period in fluent Spanish. Riley emerged, dressed and drying his hair and gave Jasper a speaking look. Dale was standing at the open kitchen door while he dealt with whatever it was he was dealing with; Jasper didn’t recognise most of the terms being used.

“You know he’s not in a state to handle anything? He just wishes he was.”

Jasper drew Riley against him, keeping an arm around him to murmur something in Riley’s ear. Riley gave him an askance look, but nodded. “….. ok.”

Dale put the phone down.

“There is a meeting in Cleveland tomorrow morning, one of the key clients involved is asking for me to be there.”

“I thought they needed advice and that was all?” Riley said shortly. “You just gave your advice.”

“They’ve asked for me to be there in person and I’d like to go.” Dale looked directly at Jasper, not acknowledging Riley. “It would mean leaving as soon as possible to have the time to prepare for the main meeting tomorrow and then probably some follow up work, so most likely I’ll be home the day after.”


Jasper looked straight back at him, not answering. It was a look that Dale held just as bluntly for a few seconds until it began to take full effect; then his chin came down and his eyes dropped briefly, although his voice was still crisp.  

“I apologise. I would like to take this job if I may, sir. Please.”

“And taking it would mean not having to speak to Flynn and Paul at all by phone so you could stop dreading those phone calls,” Japer said mildly. “And you wouldn’t have to be here when they got home. And you can keep yourself too occupied to think or feel about this until the worst is over.”

“I’d like to do this piece of work.”

“Would you like some time in the corner to think about answering me?”

Dale’s eyes hardened but his tone didn’t change. “No. Thank you. Theoretically, yes it would have that effect.”

“Theoretically?” Riley demanded. Jasper pulled out a kitchen chair and sat down, leaning on the table.

“I need you to be honest with us about what you want to do and why if you want me to consider giving you permission to go. I get this is hard for you. None of us anticipated it being this hard. If it’s too hard and you’d like to do this meeting because it makes it easier to get through, I can understand. That is not a reason I’d feel I had to say no. Not being able to be honest with us is a very definite reason I’d feel you were not ready or able to be ok away from us.”

Riley gave him a very hard look but didn’t comment. After a moment Dale pulled the chair out on the other side of the table to sit opposite Jasper. His face was still expressionless but his voice was quieter, not so crisp.

“I would like to be away for the rest of this weekend. This is not easy, I am not finding this easy and I would like the distraction.”

“I can understand that.” Jasper said with compassion. “So if I give you permission to go, how are you going to keep yourself safe to a level Riley and I are ok with? Distracting yourself with work is one thing. Leaving the ranch so you can self-medicate without anyone getting in your way is another.”

“The rules I have work wherever I go.” Dale said bluntly. Jasper gave him a slow nod.

“And I have your word you’ll keep to those.”

That was not something he took lightly. Dale knew it, and he nodded slowly, well aware of how Jasper saw it and the commitment he was making.

“Yes sir.”

“Then make the arrangements. I want to know the hotel you are staying at please, and the venue for the meeting.”

“One and the same. Cleveland Ritz Carlton.”

Jasper gave him a calm nod. “All right. Go ahead.”  

He and Riley sat at the table listening while Dale rapidly made the call, and shut the phone down. “The plane will be here in an hour. Caroline will forward what I need, I can work on the plane.”

“Then let’s get you packed.” Jasper got up, taking Dale’s hand to stop him heading out alone. “Ri, put a shaving kit together for him?”

In Flynn and Dale’s room he took the case gently out of Dale’s hand and sat Dale on the bed, starting to pack for him.

“Tell me your rules. In order.”

Dale gave him a flat look, both hands palm down on the bed.

“One. If I’m stressed, find someone and talk about it.”

“How are you going to do that in Cleveland?”

“The way I have before when I’ve been away. I’ll call you if I’m struggling.”

“Ok. Next?”

“Two. No withholding. Three. No lying.”

“Those two go well together. How will that work?”

“I have a responsibility to make sure I don’t.” Dale said detachedly. Jasper gave him a straight look.

“How well are you doing with those two this morning?”

“….not well.” Dale admitted. Jasper waited, folding a sweater. Dale sighed heavily.

“Ok, yes this is running away. It’s creating distance, it’s avoidance.”

“It’s not running away if it’s something you’re doing with us. If you can do it without withholding.”

Dale nodded slowly, Jasper could see the tension in his shoulders. Then he looked up and the effort was there to make eye contact, fully, despite the clear discomfort.

“Riley doesn’t agree. Flynn wouldn’t allow this.”

“You don’t know that. You can ring him and ask if you want to. Do you want me to not allow this?”

He wasn’t sure. Jasper could see the very brief flicker of indecision in his eyes.

“I just can’t…” Dale’s voice cracked and he looked away. “I can’t sit here waiting for calls and sweating blood Jas, I can’t do it. I didn’t expect it to be this bloody, and I understand why it’s happening and you don’t want me to call it stupid-”

“That’s a roundabout way of telling me you’re going to call it stupid anyway. Open your mind and look at this from the other side. Give it a try. What if it is a very sensible reaction?”

Dale shook his head and Jasper could almost see the refusal to go there like a horse baulking at a fence. “I want to do the right thing. I don’t want to give in to it, I don’t want to let any of you down. It feels like cowardice, but I can’t stand this. I really can’t.”

Jasper zipped the case closed and held out a hand to him. Dale got up and without looking at him buried himself in Jasper’s arms. Jasper held him very tightly just as he had all night, running his hand slowly up and down Dale’s back. Then he said quietly,

“You are not letting us down. You are not giving up. There is no right or wrong way to do this, we figure it out together. If Riley tells me he wants to go climb today I’ll plan that with him, that’s how it works. He has to ask, but that doesn’t mean I won’t listen and I won’t understand.”

There was a moment of silence, Dale’s forehead pressed hard against his shoulder and Jasper felt what he couldn’t say right now, what he tried to imprint physically.

“I love you too.” He said gently and pressed a kiss on Dale’s forehead, not forcing him to look up.  “I do understand. This is going to be ok. We are going to be ok. In a few days you’ll feel better and this will pass. Where were you with the rules?”

Dale drew a rather shaky breath against him. “Four. No running or exercising to de stress without talking to one of you first. I can handle that in the hotel, I’ll plan with you if I need to use the gym. Five. No disappearing anywhere. Six. Stay in bed through the night unless there’s a good reason. Seven. Eat at mealtimes. Let one of you know if for any reason I am not able to. Eight. I ask permission to go anywhere outside routine chores – or anywhere outside the plans I’m making with you as to where I’m going and why. Nine. I do planned work only at planned times. Ten. Do what I’m told first time of asking with a good attitude. Eleven. No bullshit.”

“Can you keep those?” Jasper waited until Dale looked up and met his eyes. Grey, the pupils still widely expanded, his jaw as tense as his body, but he meant it.

“Yes.”

“Ok. Then I trust you.” Jasper let him go with a gentle pat on the backside. “Get what electronics you need from the safe.”

Riley was standing in the doorway and had been listening to most of this. As Dale passed him he came to join Jasper, adding the shaving and wash kit to the case.

“Flynn is going to go mad.”

“No, he won’t.” Jasper said with conviction. “He’d say the priority is to help Dale calm down. He can’t think and he can’t use any tools he’s got until he’s come out of a state of flat panic, and if he not going to feel any safer until he can act out what his body is screaming at him to do then we work out how he runs safely. That’s ok. And I think too we’re asking Dale to trust us now when it’s very difficult for him, so we need to prove we trust him when it’s equally hard for us.”

“And what if he screws this up because he isn’t able to help himself!” Riley said softly but heatedly. “You saw him yesterday morning! Can you imagine him in a hotel room alone left to get on with it? I’d go with him but I can’t leave you alone to run the ranch yourself-”

“I will be fine if you want to go with him.”

“You think he’ll let me? That’s a lot of the problem, in this state he won’t let any of us near him!”

“Have you asked him?” 

“He wants to be caught!” Riley said hotly. “He wants to run until you catch him, he doesn’t want to be allowed to get away! Do you know how that’s going to feel to him? How scary that kind of power is?”

“Yes, I know.”

“It hasn’t even occurred to him he’s leaving us short handed and he always thinks of that, he won’t usually so much as go into Jackson for a few hours if he thinks he’s leaving us with work he could do, that tells me he isn’t thinking straight at all! Flynn would not let him do this. Paul wouldn’t.”

“But I’m the one he’s asking for help right now. What’s the worst that can happen?” Jasper said gently. “He buries himself in work, he has a miserable couple of days and comes back to us, and we’ll help him pick up the pieces. If he needs to go there then we’ll help him work through it. We’ve done this before, Ri; it’s worked for him.”

“Across a few pastures, yes! Not in another state! The worst that can happen is that he manipulates his way off the ranch, he controls you into doing it his way and thinking it’s a good idea or even that it was your idea, and he gets days away from us to spin a whole lot of fakery no one’s calling him on, and it reinforces the crap out of everything he’s spent months working like hell to try to quit!” Riley hissed. “He is way too damn smart, he won’t be able to help himself doing everything he can to get things to go his way, but I know him, he doesn’t want this, he doesn’t ever want this, he wants to be stopped!”

“Do you think he’s manipulating me right now?” Jasper asked him gently. Riley looked at him. For a moment his eyes were hot, then Jasper saw him look properly and the heat died down a little.

“I’m worried he thinks he’s manipulating you.”

“There is more than one way to catch him.” Jasper put an arm around him, giving him a swift, tight hug.  “I promise you, I will never let either of you get into danger. I know what you both can do, and I believe Dale can do this if we help him. Go get me some books for him to take. At least one of Paul’s.”

Riley glanced down at the case, recognising Flynn’s sweater packed at the bottom of it, pyjamas, and jeans beneath the suit. The things that Dale would usually wear by choice rather than for a purpose. And nodded with comprehension, not happy but understanding.

“…Ok. Got it.”  


*


Dale fully expected the hotel business suite to be exactly like every other such business suite he’d occupied in his working life. A board room adjoined the end of the suite with a small private meeting room beside it, a grey sofa and several matching armchairs grouped around glass tables, cream lamps and dried flowers and large picture windows looking out over the city below. It was an unconvincing attempt to disguise the large computer station and interactive screen against the wall; this room was not designed to relax in however the hotel tried to present it. The concierge with his case opened the door through to the bedroom which would be bed, item, 1; wardrobe; working desk/computer station and chair; telephone and private bathroom.

He was slightly surprised by the large, cream double bed placed directly against one of the large double windows with the computer station against the other. The marks on the carpet made it clear that it usually was positioned centrally and had been moved. The concierge nodded politely at the bed.

“As instructed, sir. I hope that’s as you prefer?”

And who gave the instructions?

“.. yes, thank you.”

It was exactly as Flynn would have him arrange the room.

Having bolted from the ranch this morning before Flynn had time to call and find out what he was doing, it was not a comfortable thought at all. Flynn was not going to be impressed with this, he had an acute eye for bullshit, particularly any Dale was dealing, and Dale had a fair idea of what was likely to transpire once Flynn got hold of him. Paul would be slightly more sympathetic if no less firm - but he would call this for exactly what they both knew it was. Jasper might have given him permission to be here but then Jasper tended to be uncomfortably less predictable in the decisions he made; he took far more variables into account including unseen ones known only to Jasper; there was never a way to second guess him, and this decision of his…. was still one Dale didn’t have fully pinned down despite far too much thinking about it on the plane instead of about the work at hand, and that was not at all comfortable either. Dale put the case down on the bed and began to unpack, pausing again at what lay under the two immaculate suits. Jasper had not let him put anything in this case himself, despite a number of subtle attempts and if Dale was honest, he had been frankly stalking the case for the slightest chance. Not because there was anything particular that he’d wanted to put in or thought that Jasper might leave out. It was pure, childish not wanting to allow Jasper to take care of a need for him and wanting to win in keeping control of what was happening that had driven him.

Territorial bloody battles with Jasper over a suitcase for pete’s sake.

Jasper hadn’t fallen for it and the contents of the suitcase were restricted entirely to his decision as to what Dale should have here. The three shirts and two suits were his standard business wear but Jasper had chosen them, not him; the sweater, pyjamas and jeans were not business wear at all. And the sweater was Flynn’s. A copy of The Treasure Seekers, one of the books Paul kept in the stack in his office waiting for Dale’s attention whenever he needed something to read, was there with two of Paul’s own novels, and his journal. It made his stomach jump seeing it there in so odd a context. He put all four books on the bedside table and hung up the clothes.

The sweater smelled of Flynn, he couldn’t bring himself to hang that one up. In the end he folded it and put it over the back of the chair at the computer desk where it seemed to dominate the room. The wash kit seemed normal enough until Dale unpacked it in the immaculate bathroom to discover the razor wrapped in a scrap of paper on which was scrawled in Riley’s handwriting, Once! That raised a faint smile. He still attached it to the bathroom mirror where he would look at it every time he walked in.

The phone rang and he went to pick it up, hearing his voice snap instantly into its well trained, even tones like a programmed robot; he hated the sound of it and almost instantly he knew exactly what Paul would say and how he’d say it.

Hey. Quit addressing the board and talk to me, I’m right here.

No one here would think twice about it; he could hide in plain sight and never be seen.

“Aden. Hello Jerry. Yes, I’ve seen the papers, I’m here. I’ll set up in the board room, meet me tomorrow when you get here.”

That gave him the evening to work.

He spread the papers out in the board room in neat order, trained now – as he had not been before the ranch came into his life when such things had never occurred to him – to keep work in a separate room and not in the room he slept in. And spent some hours at the desk, buried in the reports he was reeling away while he looked for the patterns underlying the data. And if he was honest he gave himself over to it wholeheartedly, doing his best to lose himself in the figures and let hyper focus do its thing. It didn’t work as well as it had once done. The figures still lined up and marched out, they were laughably easy to assemble and they were neat, organised, correct, under control.

All your favourite things.

But while the front of his mind juggled them, the back of his mind was still stuck on the ball of unease, of what he thought he was doing here, of too many things to straighten out, none of which were neat or organised and all of which were about a ranch in Wyoming. He was startled out of wondering how Puzzle’s foot was doing and whether the foal had been exercised this afternoon by the tap at the door. Jerry was unlikely to arrive before 8am, he hadn’t expected to be disturbed. The member of staff, from their uniform, was a waiter from the restaurant and brought a tray to the table, laying it neatly at the opposite end of the table.

“Dinner, Mr Aden. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Really not remembering ordering dinner, Dale lowered the report he was holding, giving the tray a quizzical look. A pot of tea stood between the silver covers, which was welcome now he came to think of it.

“Thank you.”

The boy smiled at him and left, closing the door softly behind him. The clock on the wall stood exactly at 6.30pm, the hour at the ranch when they tended to eat dinner together. Dale laid down the papers and came to lift the covers with growing suspicion. One plate held two poached eggs on one round of toast, with several other pieces of toast on the side. The other covered a glass of milk, two antacids and a banana.

Eating had been something he hadn’t been looking forward to – but he would never have thought to order this. And the rules he had given his word to Jasper to keep included eating what he was given. He hadn’t expected Jasper to be able to enforce this quite so thoroughly from the other end of the states.

He sat down at the table, pouring a cup of tea. It was thankfully strong, and the eggs were hot, as were the toast. He was somewhat surprised that he ended up eating all of it, including the antacids.

Calling home was…. not something Jasper had tied him to. Flynn had always laid down a plan very clearly whenever he’d been away from home. Twice a day, like clockwork, with set times, a definite framework to hold on to. Jasper hadn’t mentioned it at all. It was nagging at the back of his mind, not being something he wanted to do, and he became aware about eight pm that he was now pointlessly re reading paperwork he had long since memorised, mostly to fill time. Another tap at the door disturbed him. It was a different staff member, who gave him a deferential nod.

“Good evening Mr Aden, it’s 8.15. Your tray is in your room, the room’s prepared, may I set this room up for you now?”

“Set up?”

“Your PA left instructions for the way you like it, sir? Mr Blackwater.”

What?

“….Yes. Of course. Thank you.” Dale straightened papers and the man showed him keys.

“I won’t touch the papers and I’ll make sure the room is securely locked when I leave. Will you be needing any further access this evening?”

Not any access he could justify with a clear conscience. Jasper knew him far too well. Dale swallowed a sigh and got up.

“No. Thank you. Please can you ensure it’s unlocked and prepared for 6am.”

“Yes sir.” The man came to hold the door for him. “Goodnight Mr Aden.”

“Goodnight.” Dale walked through the dim sitting room, hearing the man close and lock the door behind him. The bedroom lights were on, the windows had been opened and the bed was turned down. A tray was on the bedside table beside his books. Another pot of tea, several sweet biscuits and a large mug holding what Dale strongly suspected to be hot milk.

He was right.

He drank the milk before he showered, hesitating for a moment before he gave into the knowledge of what he needed and standing for a minute under the spray with it set to cold, letting it run anything from the plane or hotel off his energy before he turned it to hot. It was annoying that it helped. Dried off, he changed into nightwear and sat on the bed to drink the tea and eat the biscuits. In the years before the ranch he would have slept in for a few hours during the night, usually fully clothed with the laptop still alive on the desk and files laid open by the bed; he would never have changed or as such ‘gone’ to bed with any ritual like this. The phone rang before he was finished and he picked it up, bracing himself.

“Aden.”

“Good evening Mr Aden, it’s reception. This is the alarm call your PA requested for you; it’s eight forty five pm sir. Would you like a morning alarm call?”

No thank you, believe me he’s already got me thoroughly alarmed.

“Yes please. Six am.”

“Yes sir. We have breakfast booked for you in the restaurant downstairs for seven am, if that is in sufficient time for your meeting?”

It was yet another slightly annoying revelation that wrong footed him: clearly Jasper had planned where and when he would be having breakfast, and felt he needed time out of the hotel suite. It was exactly the kind of thing Jasper would feel. If he had been able to manage it breakfast probably would have been scheduled to take place barefoot on the lawns behind the hotel. And Jasper would find nothing odd about that.

“Yes, thank you. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight sir.”

At home, being sent upstairs to bed – and he had no doubt that this was exactly what the ‘alarm call’ was - generally gave him about 15 minutes to get ready before one of them came to turn the light out. Something that tended to happen on higher stress days, and he knew exactly what Jasper was telling him. Dale sighed and went to brush his teeth.

He read, with one eye despite himself on the clock. There was no way they would know. However he was on his honour with Jasper to stick to the rules. He turned the light out at exactly nine pm.

It was the first time all day that he had had the time to think about them. Allowed himself the time.

Jasper - those feelings were very complicated right now. Riley….? Was easier because he was Riley. He was wonderfully easy to be sure of, and Dale knew Riley wasn’t worrying purely because if he was then he would not be patiently waiting around for a phone call. He’d either call and not quit until Dale answered – and Dale had every faith in Riley to be unignorable in the face of any execs, hotel staff or anyone else - or he’d be here in person. Which meant as far as Riley was concerned, he might not be happy Dale had taken this piece of work but was satisfied that Jasper and Dale together had this. Dale could only hope his faith was not misplaced. Allowing himself to consider Anneville, Flynn and Paul – it was like knocking a semi healed cut or a bruise, a sudden shock of pain where a dull ache had been, and he shut those thoughts down swiftly, focusing again on Jasper.

I blew this hugely in New York with Luath. I will not make the same mess again.

He didn’t say I had to call.

Oh be honest, you don’t want to call. You don’t want to talk, you don’t want to think, you’re in a state of total mess anyway which is why you’re being so bloody stuck, and you’re avoiding anyone getting near enough to unstick you. How exactly do you think this is going to help?

He snapped the light on and picked up his journal, turning to the page he’d written last night laying on a sleeping bag on the grass by the river, a long way from here.

The internal voice is talking a lot about not trusting people, not needing them, being tough enough to be lonely, and proud enough not to let anyone see or know. A lot about how stupid it is to have become reliant, to have let anyone get important enough to depend on and be this thrown when they walk away. It’s saying things that are so angry and childishly angry – it is a child’s voice, the child has the controls. I don’t want to/can’t communicate, certainly not in a grown up way, my emotional resilience feels gone, my jaw is literally tight to avoid anything slipping out. I am telling myself I have no one, that no one can be trusted, that no one can know, that I will have to fake it and be completely alone. Which is both a bitter kind of goal and victory and something utterly feared and dreaded. This is rubbish. It’s not even factually correct. 
It is disproportionate. It’s irrational. It is NOT the here and now I am reacting to. My body and brain are responding to this as a severe threat. Some old scar has been hit and the reaction is working its way through. 
All I can do is work on regulating and waiting until this passes and I know it will. I know this is temporary and while it’s happening I do not have my usual and real perspective, the one I will have back when this calms down.

Which Jasper understands, which is why he’s letting you sod about in Cleveland.

And all of which he understood academically. It still made no difference. He still couldn’t make himself pick up the phone.



*



He didn’t sleep much, although, while sorely tempted, he did not put the light back on, read, go out for a run, find the gym and haul weights for a while… the many strategies that belonged to hotels and days when he didn’t have rules or need to account for himself and his honesty to someone he loved who knew what he needed. He lay and did his best to relax, to follow the simple strategies Jasper and Flynn had taught him to quiet his mind, let everything go.

It came back to that memory of standing on the rock in the river months ago with Jasper behind him, watching the water come towards him, flow around him, pass on. Except he kept moving back to an even stronger image from last night, of Jasper’s arms locked around him, containing him whether he was willing or cooperative or not and how that felt, while the water flowed past just inches away from their feet.

Put it into the water. Every thought. Every feeling. They’re not you. They are just passing through. Look at them. Their colour. Their shape. Their texture. Their size.

Some part of him rebelled at that, didn’t want to, consistently closed down the image of the river, turned it black and blank before he could form it and remained stubbornly in an advanced state of shan’t.

What is the matter with you? What on earth is there to be afraid of in that?

It’s going to be bad.

For pete’s sake, this is not that bad. Stupid, but not the end of the fricking world.

It was so much what Riley would say to him that he found himself smiling faintly, and it was the closest he came to leaning over and picking up the phone. Instead he determined to stop the nonsense. His mind remained stubbornly black but he ignored it, gave up on trying to summon up the images and thought in words instead.

The river is fast moving. White topped, swirling. The water comes down towards me. What can I see? It’s…. the word came instantly to mind. …..Black. Well it would be, wouldn’t it? Ok, black. Tar. Huge. Sticky. But it passes… and passes… and keeps coming… he waited, letting it carry on for what felt like forever, letting himself wait and wait for that feeling of done until it finally came. And there it is. Clean water follows. The last traces are washed away, it moves on out of sight.

And in that second he saw it in his mind’s eye, the water, the stretch of shiny black tar running around the rock, except the bank and the rock were ringed with a powerfully bright, luminous gold, less water than light, which fenced it and moved it on, preventing it from sticking to the rocks, to the bank, containing it. And when the tar moved on, the gold flowed instead, the light dancing on the water, a clean and gentle colour as if it turned the water pure again.

He slept for a while after that.





He stayed in bed until the alarm call at six. There was something internally calming, stabilising about knowing the deadline, the requirement to obey it and to let go of the many and conflicting alternatives and choices and possibilities in his own mind. It helped too with the basic fact that some part of him did not want to get up at all today. There was no real interest in the meeting ahead. What he mostly felt was heavy, tired…

Sad. Angry.

Shut up.

You’re making one hell of a mess of this. What are you going to do about it?

He shaved with his eyes on Riley’s note on the mirror, dressed and went downstairs to the restaurant, taking the stairs and using the slight gesture with eyes and body as he said good morning to the two staff members who passed him that steered them to smile in return but also to walk neatly right against the opposite bannister giving him the maximum amount of space.  

The restaurant was very quiet this early. Only a few other business residents were there, drinking coffee, reading phones, working on laptops. Luath’s expectation in New York during his visit some weeks ago had been very specific: no electronics around mealtimes. It went without saying that Flynn would expect the exact same, and Dale had left both in his room, trained in knowing the value of twenty minutes to stop, focus on the basic sensory experiences that gave balance, to clear his mind and have the time to prepare, properly.

He was recognised on sight by the member of staff running the restaurant who prepared the table by the front window that Dale indicated to him, passing a number of other tables on route. Several men busy with their phones paid him no attention at all as he passed, as little as he paid them. He had passed another table with another suited man there and moved on when something about that particular man made itself more emphatically known; in fact it jumped up and down for attention at the front of his mind. An elderly man, folding a newspaper to a fresh page and glancing up at him as he passed, although not to speak or attract his attention; simply glancing up and then reaching his free hand to lift his coffee cup to drink. A tall, upright elderly man, smartly dressed with white hair and sharp, eagle like features.

The member of staff pulled out a chair for Dale, who sat, shocked and not daring to look over his shoulder and confirm it.

…..That was James.

I’m sure that was James!

No, James would have said something. Probably demanded to know what you were doing here alone for a start, none of them really approve of it.

Which had nothing to do with perception of capability; James in particular was married to an alarmingly and nationally competent source of authority in brat form.

Dale glanced up, unable to help himself.

It was James. Reading the newspaper and not paying him the faintest attention as he sipped his coffee.

It was quite possible that Niall was engaged providing expert opinion or consultation here in the city; he worked very limited hours now, most matters were brought to him at his home or very locally and he gave his time only to the most significant of the requests that came to him and he and James vetted them carefully, but he travelled occasionally when something particularly important warranted it, as from what Dale understood, the retirement package for someone in Niall’s situation included a harp, a cloud and pearly gates. Detroit was only a couple of hours drive away; James might very well be here having breakfast while Niall attended a meeting or function somewhere else in the hotel.

Which would be awkward to say the least.

Or…. this could very well be a plot. The extensive network of men that made up the ranch family certainly stepped up wherever another family member might need them; Dale had seen it happen. Particularly a family brat. However he had never seen James travel without Niall, and surely if James had come all the way out to Cleveland to intervene with an obstreperous family brat surely he would not be reading his newspaper about ten tables away, taking no notice whatsoever?

This is Jas. I know this is Jas’s doing.

And Jasper knew he liked James.

The urge was extremely strong to go over immediately, to wish James good morning, to make it known he was there – James was a man who appreciated good manners and his presence demanded it, the man had a presence as Flynn did that was reaching straight across the dining room to Dale in a way that made him automatically aware of, among other things, whether he was sitting up properly and whether his tie was straight. And whatever else he did this morning for Banks and the meeting, he would be more than glad to ensure James and Niall’s comfort and needs were being properly attended to in the way they deserved, and seeing personally to what he could of it, and hopefully to find some social time to spend with them. He realised then; realised that abruptly he was energised, alert, lining up things to do that were focusing him in a way that none of the papers in the board room or the prospect of this morning’s meeting had done. That single sight of James had snapped him instantly into a different mindset. The one that was far more him and comfortable to him and far more real.

What are you doing? You shouldn’t be here. Go and pick up the phone.  

A waiter brought a dish and a large pot of tea across to him, apparently not requiring him to place any kind of order. The dish contained oatmeal, drizzled with honey and cream with a banana sliced over the top of it; Dale recognised it on sight. Jasper had obviously issued very clear instructions. It was a breakfast Paul often made on cold days at home, comfort food for winter mornings, and it was exactly replicated the way Paul did it. Warm, easy to eat.

With James in the room there was no question of doing anything but eating, properly.

“Dale.”

Dale glanced up at the familiar voice and then got up, shaking hands with Jeremy Banks who looked cold and red faced and handed from the chill wind outside lashing the trees, but who smiled and nodded approvingly at the oatmeal as he took a seat.

“What an excellent idea, it’s the perfect day for it. Same for me too.” He added to the waiter who had brought him over and was pulling out a seat for him to join Dale. “Good morning. Everything you needed in the pack Caroline prepped for you yesterday? We’ve got time to eat before we go through it all.”

“It was all there, I drew up a draft analysis and summary, I think the variables are going to be limited.”

“I agree. Don’t wait for me.” Banks added, nodding at the oatmeal. “It’s different to see you sitting at a meal without a client meeting involved, you never used to eat much of anything.”

Painfully aware that a very senior family Top very likely overheard that, Dale resisted the urge to encourage him to lower his voice or change the subject, but Banks was accepting the large coffee the waiter was setting in front of him and thankfully said nothing else. Across the room James turned another page of his newspaper.




The board room had been set up with the table turned so that Dale, who would be leading the meeting, would be sitting beside the large picture window instead of with his back to it; the blinds had been raised to bring the maximum natural light into the room and several carafes of water were laid out with a filled glass in his place. The room was immaculately clean and the table had been polished to what looked like an inch of its life and shone without dust anywhere in sight. It was not the conference room at home by any means. However on Jasper’s instructions, the set up of the room made it as similar as damn possible.

The meeting ran without a hitch, at perhaps slightly higher speed than usual. Dale became belatedly aware of it only when Jeremy Banks caught his eye at one point with eyebrows raised and a bloody hell expression on his face. But they had been commissioned to analyse the situation, to present the options and forecast, to ensure the clients involved clearly understood and then to await the clients’ directions, which would be the option ANZ were advising since realistically there was no other viable option. These were familiar clients, everyone around the table was experienced in working together, this was a straight forward operation. In fact it was almost tediously easy.

Leaving the clients the board room to discuss their options, Dale shied away from the private sitting room attached to his suite and instead guided Jeremy Banks downstairs to the café off the hotel lobby. Which meant passing through the lounge area in which James was seated in an armchair, now reading a book. He did not look up.

For God’s sake Aden, when are you planning to deal with this?

“One Americano, double shot, and a large orange juice.” He said politely to the barista.

Banks leaned on the counter to survey Dale. “You never did waste time, but I expected that meeting to take the best part of a day. Have you got plans for this afternoon or something?”

“You pay me to come up with the short version and present it.”

“I do.” Banks said wryly. “And we’re done, and the clients don’t feel rushed and you didn’t miss one single thing out of that presentation. If at any point you get tired of that ranch, you can have your exec position back any time you know? I’ll always guarantee to beat any other offer made to you.”

Dale held up his left hand, ring outwards, the delicate gold band with the gold veined crystal quartz facing. Made of gold he and Riley had mined together; he thought of that whenever it caught his eye, the stone inset that touched his skin all the time with the energy of their land inside it that travelled with him. Energy gathered from everything and everyone within the earth, generations of people who had loved that land.

“I won’t get tired.”

“You married one of them?” Banks demanded. Dale smiled, not fine tuning that assumption.

Actually I married four of them, but don’t let that worry you.

“The occasional freelance work is fun but I won’t change my mind on retirement.”

I shall be using the freelance work to run away when things get a little too demanding in ways I can’t get my head around.

None of the clients, and not even Banks who played this game himself, was fully aware of the way he had been manipulated this morning – all in their best interests, and not towards any particular choices, but in terms of being managed to shut up, listen carefully, speak when spoken to and pay particular attention to the best options while allowing this whole business to be wrapped up as fast as possible – oh yes. It would be funny if it didn’t feel so deadly, horribly serious.

“Congratulations. I’m happy for you.” Banks offered a hand and Dale gripped it, appreciating the sincerity behind it. Banks accepted his coffee from the barista, waited for Dale to pick up his glass of juice and Dale showed him to a table, watching Banks drop into a deep leather armchair opposite him. “You do need to realise you’re better at this now than you were when you retired. Whatever training you’ve taken, whatever you’ve been doing in your own time, I can see the payoff.”

So can I. And that was bloody annoying too.

“Thank you.” Dale put his hand to his pocket as his cell phone vibrated, expecting a summons from the clients upstairs to return to the board room. The text was not from them.

You know some of us just stomp off to the 
barn, or upstairs, or to Texas or something?

Rapidly, without looking at the screen, Dale punched in a swift message and pressed send.

I have no idea what ‘stomp off’ means. Is
 it some form of dance?

“Clients?” Banks inquired.

“Not ours. Another contact of mine.” Dale spared a glance at James, apparently deeply absorbed in his book. His phone vibrated again as a new text arrived.

For someone carrying out the most epic 
stomp off in ranch history you look like 
you know exactly what it means.

Dale kept the phone in his hand, drinking orange juice and apparently looking out of the window while he answered.

I am manipulating the hell out of a bunch 
of clients, which is probably helping for all 
the wrong reasons. However it is not about 
things that actually matter.

Gerry was obviously watching his phone; the answer was swift in coming.

Darling. Phone home ffs?

Banks who had taken the opportunity to check his own phone, got up as it buzzed.

“They’re ready.”





It took only another half hour to close up with the clients, who seemed glad themselves to have things finished before lunchtime and followed Dale’s gentle non verbal steering to pack up, not waste time on small talk and move on with all speed. Hands were shaken all round, Banks got up as they left and glanced at his watch.

“I’ll be back in New York in time for the D.W. Ford meeting at three. Want to come?”

A few more days in New York – ANZ would swiftly find ways to fill his time – it was a fleeting thought, there was no way in hell Jasper would agree to it and if he was honest the temptation had nothing whatsoever to do with wanting to go to NY or join any meeting. He made his excuses, Bank clapped his shoulder and headed out to find a cab. The files were gone from the board room, there was nothing left to do. Dale wandered through the sitting room to take a seat in the armchair by the window.

There was nothing now to stop him doing precisely what Banks was doing. Call the plane on standby and go; in his case head home. He could probably make it in time for dinner. And yet he still went on sitting there. After a while he pulled out his phone to look at the screen.

Btw, organising it so you’ve got your 
tops in two separate states while you’re 
in a third is another gold star. Philip 
would have loved you, you do real creative 
triangulation! (Getting either Flynn or 
Paul into a fourth separate state wins the 
world cup)

Dale bit his lip to stop the unwilling smile. The teasing was good natured, experienced and quite bluntly calling out exactly what he was doing, and it was as kind as it looked at first glance to be flippant. Consciously – intentionally – and at least on the surface - he was probably one of if not actually the best behaved brat of the entire family. He’d encountered no little friendly teasing for it from the other brats.

And what is more demonstrably adult, mature and independent than stomping off and leading a complex multi national meeting? Gerry is absolutely right. I am manipulating the crap out of everything I possibly can and using the IMF to chuck one hell of a silent paddy. That’s probably not good.

There was a tap at the door and a waiter opened it, carrying a tray which he set out on the coffee table.

“Will there be anything else Mr Aden?”

“I don’t remember ordering this?”

The waiter was young and gave him a look that was slightly over awed which let Dale know he was sounding more forbidding than he meant to.

“It’s not a problem in the slightest,” he added more gently, “I was just surprised.”

“It was arranged, sir; we had detailed instructions. Lunch to be brought up to the board room at twelve thirty if the meeting was still in progress, and a meal to be brought to you as soon as your meeting finished.”

Dale gave the boy a nod of thanks and he withdrew fast. The cover on the tray stood over a small dish of mac and cheese beside a large glass of orange juice. With suspicion Dale got up and went next door into the bedroom. The windows were open. Beside the bath in the bathroom were a small heap of towels and bath salts. The hints were pretty damn obvious. Not to mention he was now wondering if Jasper had left instructions to be notified when the meeting was finished and was fully aware he was now stripped of any remaining spin to put on this situation to avoid calling it what it was. It was annoying. Like the fact he worked better now with them in his life than he ever had done alone. Like Gerry’s texts. In a really annoyingly comforting bloody way. There just wasn’t any way to shake Jasper off. Approximately 1,800 miles distance wasn’t noticeably slowing the man up.

The most epic stomp off in ranch history.  

Mechanically Dale pulled his tie loose and stripped it off, hanging it with the suit jacket. Flynn’s sweater lay on the chair where he’d put it yesterday. He stood for a moment just with a hand resting on it before the compulsion grew too strong and he pulled it on. He didn’t see the view from the window although he stood in front of it for a long time, arms crossed with his hands resting on the sleeves of that too large, heavy sweater, then on impulse pulled the front of the neck up to bridge over his nose and mouth, covering half his face. It was like breathing Flynn.  

I never felt like this before. Ever. This never happened before.

Of course it bloody didn’t?

It raised a swell of something in the pit of his stomach he’d been reflexively forcing down for several days, since that awful moment in the airport. And then he left the room – bolted might be a better way to put it, if an adult moving at a fast but dignified pace could be said to bolt – jogged down the stairs and turned into the lounge, looking fast for the tall figure in the chair.

There was some hope as much as fear that he would not be there. For him to be gone would solve so many problems, it would be so much easier. But there he was, about two thirds of the way through his book, reading peaceably. What on earth did you say to someone like James in this appallingly shameful situation? Dale hesitated for a moment, arms tightly folded in that oversized sweater, stomach twisting, throat dry. And then forced himself to cross the lounge through people who didn’t see and didn’t know and didn’t care, and slowly came to stand by James’ chair.

It was hardly polite to interrupt his reading. It would have been extremely rude to simply sit down without an invitation, nor Dale’s place to do so with a man like this. Dale stood, quietly, in a way that he knew was the appropriate one which somehow he had learned to do in the ranch’s corners without realising it, the one that always from the very early days had calmed him and gave him a feeling of being centred… and after a moment James unhurriedly took up a leather bookmark from the side table by his chair, laid it on his page and closed the book, looking up at him.

“Good morning.”

It was not in the least sardonic, it was not even formally polite; certainly not a tone you would use to a colleague or stranger. It was very kind and extremely personal, as was the way James looked at him, as though he was just warmly pleased to see him, and when stupidly Dale found he was incapable of doing anything constructive such as replying, James unhurriedly got up, linked his arm through Dale’s and walked him towards the stairs.

He was a tall man, James. Long and thin and angular, and he moved in a stately way that was calming to be drawn into.

“My rooms may be more comfortable, sir-” Dale began awkwardly as James turned off the stairs at the first floor, but James took no notice, drawing him gently down the hallway.

“This one.”

It was one of the hotel’s normal rooms – not adapted in any way for business use, simply a large and immaculately made bed and a chaise longue in front of the two large windows looking down over the river. James let go Dale’s arm and instead took his hand, a far more personal grasp, closing the door behind them and leading him across to the chaise longue, drawing Dale down to sit, not politely beside him, but quite inarguably pulling him down into his lap in the way that onlythey ever did, in the very personal way that spoke intimately to the deepest part of you, and Dale felt most of his self control splinter straight out like a blasted pane of glass. He would have buried his face in his hands, hanging on to what he could until James kindly but decisively drew his hands away, preventing him hiding behind them.

“Dale. The door is closed, there is no one to see or hear except me and shocking me is going to be very difficult indeed. If you’re imagining Niall has never melted down you are very much mistaken.”

He made it sound such a normal thing, and his arm was very tightly around Dale’s shoulders, making Dale lean against his chest. There followed a couple of rather messy and undignified moments. As they were drawing thankfully to a close, James offered him a handkerchief, waiting while he dealt with his face.

“Where are you in the process with your meeting?”

“It’s finished. Done. They left about half an hour ago.”

“Good.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t say anything at breakfast or-”

“You were occupied and didn’t expect to see me, I know.” James said calmly. “Jasper asked me not to interfere unless you asked or it became apparent you needed it. It was simply important you knew you had one of us here in case.”

In case of emergency, press Top.

“I have done this kind of meeting hundreds of times – I have an unpleasant feeling it’s probably more than that if I calculate properly,” Dale began unsteadily, and James interrupted gently.

“I suspect this is what Paul refers to as a rabbit trail? Which you are not permitted to do. Yes, you have done this possibly thousands of times before and of course you have been perfectly capable. That is hardly the issue, is it?”

…. No. The issue was the one he’d been avoiding headlong for two days.

“The issue is,” James continued, “That we choose to live in a certain way to a certain code. Which can certainly be managed at a distance when necessary, if everyone is in a good place at the time. But becomes a lot harder if we are not. And you are going to find about those of us who’ve lived on the ranch, we will stick around. We’ll be there when you need us. And we’ll be there too when you don’t need us, we just do ‘there’, period.”

Rather like Jake, appearing by chance at a gas station in precisely the right moment. Or Flynn standing beyond the glass at meeting in the ANZ New York building. Jasper, who was not physically present but was making his presence felt in every inch of this hotel and all over Dale’s time and thoughts. Yes, they did always do ‘there’.

“Jasper’s been demonstrating exactly how well he can Top at a distance.” Dale said dryly. “Even though I’ve been avoiding the phone.”

As a confession it was a pathetic and cowardly one; offhand and lightly said to slip it by as unnoticeably as possible, but James didn’t mistake it. He looked frankly disapproving.

“Did you have instructions to call?”

“No, sir. Jasper left it to me, it was my choice. I’m not sure he expected me to fail him quite this spectacularly.”

James ignored that rabbit trail too. “You’ve called none of them?”

“….no.”

“Why?”

There was no sensible answer to that. Dale, still in chancery in James’ lap, found himself slipping his chin down once more behind the neck of the sweater. His arms had crossed themselves again, his fingers spread against the sleeves.

“Why didn’t you?” James repeated. Dale shook his head, not able to answer. “When did you last speak to Flynn and Paul?”

Dale flinched, swallowing on the shame of that stalk out into the pasture which still shocked him to think about. “Friday afternoon. Not since I got here.”

James put him gently on his feet.

“Get me the phone.”

It was not easy to go and get it, although there was no question of refusing him. And as soon as he returned with it James drew him firmly straight down into his lap again, making it extremely difficult to sustain any distance from this of any kind, or feel anything other than literally in his hands. To James, he was well aware, he must seem an extremely young brat.

“Whom do you need to call?

Not Jasper. Because Jasper was already here in so many ways and had been all the time, and Jasper knew exactly who he needed to talk to, just as he’d known in the early hours of Saturday morning with a satellite phone in his pocket.

“....Flynn.” Dale admitted.

“I think so too. Go ahead.”

There were times it was one hell of nuisance to have an eidetic memory. Dale slowly dialled the number, trying to swallow equally on shame and a very dry mouth. The sound of the phone ringing on the other end still made his stomach jump, and James would not have been acquiescent to him rapidly turning off the call and perhaps trying again later. A lot later.

I have never been afraid to make a phone call before in my life!

Yes, you never felt like this about anyone before in your life.

The phone was answered very fast, within two rings, as if the owner of it had been looking out for the call, and from Flynn’s very quiet tone and the sound of a door he was heading fast out of some room into a hallway for privacy.

“Hey kid.”

Of course. Who else would he be expecting to pitch a crisis in the middle of a Sunday morning?

“I'm so sorry to interrupt-” Dale said helplessly and Flynn interrupted, calm and definite.

“Breathe. Stop holding your breath. Where are you?”

“James’ room.”

Dale had absolutely no doubt that Jasper would have told him exactly what was going on, and Flynn’s instant comprehension confirmed it.

James is busy bailing out your insane brat. As they do.  

“Good. Then what’s going on, kid?”

“We finished up about an hour and a half ago-“

“Bullshit. James can stand in for me if necessary, it's up to you.”

Straight to the point. Flynn knew him too well and had from the first day they had ever met. Given the slightest chance to reason, negotiate, discuss, manoeuvre, manipulate, Dale knew he’d take control, as he always had done with every other person in his life, probably from a very early age. None of them had ever in his life got straight in his face, given him blunt, straight orders and zero tolerance for anything but full compliance, called out precisely what he was doing and challenged it head on, or made him feel so comprehensively understood by someone who saw straight through it all no matter how good a job he did, and was stronger than he was. None of them ever saw through the quiet reserve, the immaculate behaviour, the utter reasonability – and recognised it for the brat and the bullshit it so very much was and just refused to engage with it. And the relief – the release – was not only every bit as powerful as it had been back then, but now well practiced and far stronger, and like simply being pulled onto James lap – it grabbed him in the heart, in the gut, deeper than all the rubbish and muddle and unlocking something he’d been hanging onto for what felt like hours although forcing out any words was hard.

“I came here because I had to do something, I didn’t know what else to do. Jas understood, I haven’t – I’ve done everything he asked-”

“Take a breath.” Flynn sounded as if he’d walked outside, the echo behind his voice had gone and he sounded exactly as if he was standing behind Dale. As if, should Dale turn around, his arms would be there to bury himself in. “Deeper, kid. Slow down. That’s it. That’s the way. Spell rhinoceros backwards.”

What?

Taken aback, but sure from experience that Flynn always had a reason, Dale blindly took a deep, shaky breath and did and heard Flynn’s voice in response, quiet and steady.

“Good. Pteranodon.”

Two entirely random creatures. Dale sequenced the letters in reverse order which took more effort than it ordinarily would have done, but realised as he concentrated that his body calmed down slightly.

“Better?” Flynn was breathing with him to slow him down, it was very soft but Dale had seen and heard him do it so many times. “You know you’ve done nothing wrong. I’m not angry, I’m not disappointed with you, there is nothing you need to be afraid of.” 

“I don't understand why this is happening.”

“Yes, you do. You don't want to understand it, but you do.”

“I get that you're coming back. I get that you did not do this on purpose. Oh dear God Flynn, I can’t deal with something this stupid-”

“It isn't you doing the thinking. You’re going to have to find some patience with yourself because this is the four year old. Isn’t it? I know you don’t like that thought, it’s not comfortable, but he’s running the survival programme, he’s got the controls and he doesn’t think like you do. Does he?”

“…..no.” Dale acknowledged it unwillingly. Flynn sounded very gentle.

“You cannot choose not to get triggered, Dale. You can’t turn it off at will. The survival programme is running, it’s going to colour everything until it calms down again. You’ve been feeling bloody awful. So you had to make the worst thing happen that you could think of to make yourself feel any safer, and you and Jas figured out how to do that together on his terms. You did a good job. It’s helped, hasn’t it? It's all right. This is new. Not even you can get this perfectly right first time.”

“So I just run to Cleveland to shut it all up whenever this happens? That’s seriously the best I can do?”

Flynn cut straight to the heart of that one without hesitation. “What do you want to shut him up from saying?”

“Oh we can run around on that one for hours.” Dale said bitterly and heard Flynn snort.

“Are you planning on being able to sit through your flight home, kid?”

It was technically a threat and neither of them had any doubt that Flynn meant it, but it still sounded far nearer to very affectionate teasing to Dale than at all alarming. Dale shut his eyes, trying to get it out as briefly as possible

“A whole lot of crap around missing you.”

“The four year old does.”

I do.”

“Louder.”

Dale shut his eyes. It wasn’t the first time Flynn had gotten him to repeat some word or phrase, to say it until it went from being words to letting whatever it was go from behind it, and his voice burst out in response with humiliating vehemence. Stupidly angry, stupidly and humiliatingly desperate with all the threat of that awful few seconds in the airport.

I miss you. I miss you like all bloody hell.”

“I know.” Flynn said softly and the comfort in it was so deep Dale felt this throat clench in response. “I know. It's ok. I miss you too. I do, but I know it’s nothing like what you’re having to deal with. I know this is hard and it hurts. I know this feels alarming. Just listen to me. We are going to handle it. Have you spoken to Jasper?”

“No.” Dale admitted. “Although that hasn’t stopped him any, he might as well have come with me. He’s been bloody thorough. And pervasive. It’s helped. A lot. I’m calmer.”

He heard Flynn’s faint smile. “Good. Then if you're done, pack up and get yourself back home to him and Riley. Wait for us there, and we will be home in the morning.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You are doing good, kid, and I’m bloody proud of you. Do you understand me?”

Dale released an explosive hiss of outrage at him. “I’ve been manipulating the hell out of everyone in the ruddy hotel and holding bloody meetings at you and Paul in another state! In what way, exactly, do you call that good!”

“You’re not manipulating the hell out of us although you’re feeling bloody awful and you really, really want to.” Flynn said bluntly. “You planned this out with Jas and Riley when you had a problem. You let Jas help. You’re being honest with me now. That to me is a whole lot better than you could do in New York just a few months back and that wasn’t nearly as hard for you as this is. I don’t lie to you. I am proud of you. And I get to make the call on that; not you. Got it?”

You don’t manipulate me. You don’t get hear only what you want to hear with me. Dale felt his face grow hotter but felt that sink very deep, somewhere warmed that belonged only to Flynn, to Paul, to Jasper and Riley.

“…Yes sir.”

“Good. I am going to be there soon. You’re going to be all right. Do as James says and I will see you in the morning. I’ll be there for breakfast.”

It was hard to put the phone down.

“Well?” James said gently.

It took a moment to get his voice back, and James didn’t press him.

“I need to pack and get home.” Dale said when he could.   

“Good. I'll come help.”

“Please don’t worry sir, you’ve wasted enough time on me.”

James got up, and the Look he gave Dale was quite enough to get Dale moving fast ahead of him without further arguing. “For a start you can change out of that suit.”

You are going to look like and feel like you’re going home. Yes, Flynn was like that too.



*


It took a scant few minutes to put his belongings together, and James packed them for him, carrying his case down to the foyer despite Dale’s rather shocked protest and feelings that a man of James’ venerability in his eighties should not under any circumstances be waiting on a much younger, fitter and in every conceivable way less worthy man.

James stood with him in the warmth of the foyer while they waited for the summoned car to arrive. Dale had done everything he could to persuade James that the car was entirely at his disposal to return home to Detroit in as much comfort as possible, but James shook his head.

“A friend of ours brought me here yesterday and is enjoying himself in town. He will drive me home this afternoon, it’s only a couple of hours.”

“I’m sorry to have pulled you away from Niall.”

“Niall had a hearing this morning, otherwise he would have come with me.” James said mildly. “He certainly didn’t see you as ‘pulling’ either of us anywhere. And we’re quite used to my being the one who does the travelling as necessary. We discovered a long time ago that when a career is particularly consuming or demanding in the way that Niall’s is, the only way to manage is for there to be only the one career in the family.”

“I always thought you worked in the same field as Luath and me and Philip,” Dale said somewhat confusedly and James smiled.

“Not at all. I researched and wrote full time once: unfortunately I have been boring tenth graders across much of the States in the last few years since a history book of mine became part of the standard curriculum, but when Niall began to move towards a judicial appointment we considered it together and realised there was only room for one career of that kind in our relationship. One person had to be entirely free to have the time to maintain the other things that were important to us, and ensure we could make the most of the free time Niall had whenever he had it, so I took that job and Niall took his, and it has worked extremely well. Do you miss your career?”  

Dale shook his head with the faintest hesitation.

“No. Not at all. I can do it. Some of it’s fun, the pure intellectual challenge stuff. Some of it I’ll do for the people involved, particularly Jeremy Banks, the man I was with earlier. It probably sounds condescending but it’s easy, it’s mindless…. I only wanted to come do this meeting because it gave me an excuse to get away.” he added, not without shame but it wasn’t as if James didn’t know.

“But you couldn’t keep your mind on the job even here?” James said gently. “It’s in your face, Dale. You looked this morning like a man who went out to get drunk and couldn’t no matter how much scotch he put away.”

There was something in the way he said it that made Dale aware he’d seen that happen, and not just once. The gentlemanly surface with James was deceptive; he’d been to places and seen things that Dale knew his generation couldn’t imagine, largely because James’ generation had set out to protect them from having to. Paul had told him a little about it. James was not in the least naive about the uglier things in life.

“I used to be able to lose myself in work without trying. Flynn calls it self-medicating.” He said honestly. “But no, not this time. The roots in Wyoming are too strong now. I hadn’t realised how strong.”

And some part of him was sulking hard about that.

“It’s natural.” James said mildly. “A marriage changes you.”

“Yes. And they’re good changes, please don’t think I’ve got the slightest doubt about that or that I’d want it any differently.”

James nodded slowly, agreeing. “But it takes time to let go of the traumas that have become a part of you. Niall will not mind me telling you he went through several difficult years after we came back from France. Wade did. They were adults when it happened, it is different to what you deal with, but there were years where there were particular sounds or smells that would affect Niall for weeks afterwards. Don’t doubt that we understand or that you can’t talk to us about this.”

The car drew up outside the glass door and James put an arm around Dale’s shoulders, drew him close and kissed his cheek.

“No messing about, no diversions Dale. Go straight home.”

Anyone watching would have assumed they were grandfather and grandson; they were the right age, and Dale took full advantage of that to give him the hug he so badly wanted to.

“Thank you.”



*


It was a straight drive to the airport, a few minutes walk through the paperwork processing necessary although thanks to ANZ and Caroline it was fast, and the jet was waiting on the tarmac. Dale climbed the steps with growing realisation that despite having had a very light morning he was beyond tired.

This kind of stress is exhausting. Flynn often said it. Hypervigilance was exhausting, a body stuck on constant red alert was exhausting, he was probably heading for a ridiculously early bedtime for some days to come. And that seemed like a very welcome prospect right now.

The steward followed him up the steps and gently took the case out of his hand at the top.

“Is this the bag for the hold, sir?”

What?

Oh. It’s got all the technology in it, isn’t it?

Jasper had clearly thought of that too, and of other things. The cabin was quiet, not set up as an office as Dale was used it, but pillows and a neatly folded blanket lay on the couch at the back. Either Jasper had spoken directly to the airline or he was striking up a slightly inconvenient friendship with Caroline. But as soon as the plane was in the air he followed the clear, discreet instruction to lie down. The steward disappeared into whatever quarters he had at the front of the plane and closed the door, giving privacy, and after a few moments thought – largely bracing himself – Dale leaned over to the pocket of his jacket and pulled out his blackberry.

Gerry’s voice answered within a couple of rings. “There you are. About time, I was starting to wonder if you were still in your meeting.”

“I’m in the air, heading home. The meeting’s done.” Dale lay back, running a hand over his face. “…thank you for your texts. They were – well. Somewhat annoying and extremely helpful.”

He heard Gerry laugh and the scrape of a chair being pulled out. “Oh don’t I know that feeling. Riley said you were having a hell of a time.”

“That’s a lot more sympathetic than I deserve.” Dale said wryly.

“Want to tell me about it?” Gerry’s voice was gentle. “The weather here is horrendous so I’m the only one in the entire gallery, it’s like a well hung tomb in here, so you’re saving me from getting on with the dusting.”

I’m not busy and no one is going to overhear. It was a very kind reassurance and Dale shut his eyes, bracing one hand against his forehead to try and push back the wave of whatever that came with hearing it.

“It’s been a lousy few days.”

“Yes, I kind of got that idea. What happened?”

“Flynn and Paul went to a psyche conference, Flynn’s been looking out for one for a while, he works on keeping the resources for clients fresh…”

“And Paul likes to go with him to get a few gulps of civilisation in.” Gerry added. “Yes. I used to make the occasional regular dash to Cheyanne with him to keep us both sane, but I don’t think it’s something Flynn, Jasper or Riley would be interested in seeing as they don’t get the point of cities.”

But I do and I should have realised: that is something I could do for him. In fact he’d probably actually enjoy coming with me on any business trip I do have to make. I never thought of that either.

Reeling that one away, Dale took a breath, trying to find a way to get the worst part of this out.

“So we ran them up to the airport, left them there to go find their gate.” He paused again and swallowed.

“And?” Gerry prompted gently. “What happened?”

It was almost impossible to say. His tongue literally didn’t want to move, and it took immense effort to force it.

“I very nearly fell apart.”

“You burst into tears.” Gerry said with sympathy.

“I came very close.” Dale swallowed again for a moment on the memory of those seconds and the emotions that felt all too near the surface still. “And it wouldn’t have been discreet, I nearly lost it in a fairly serious way.”

“And you’re just not that kind of a guy at all. Now me sobbing wildly in public places – yes, it’s not dignified but let’s face it, it doesn’t really surprise anybody. But you? That doesn’t happen. That must have been terrifying. Did anyone see?”

“No. I managed to get a grip.”

“You shut down.” Gerry said softly, with comprehension. “How long did you manage to keep that hidden?”

“From Jasper?” Dale managed a rather wry snort. “About two minutes I think. He didn’t say anything but he knew. Riley spotted it the following morning when I lost the plot in the bathroom and couldn’t stop shaving. I was on about round three when he called Jasper. And that got discussed in some detail.”

“I can imagine.” Gerry would fully comprehend the semantic content of the word ‘discussed’; there was not a brat known to the ranch who wouldn’t. “Did it help?”

“Some.” Dale heard his voice tighten somewhat painfully. “It seems to be cycling. I start to calm down and then something else sets it off again. I know the biology. It’s the back brain, over alert, over sensitised, running a damaged programme because it’s perceived a minor situation as a threat-”

“Whoa, what threat?” Gerry interrupted him. “I’m not good with the textbook stuff honey, that’s your department.”

“Flynn explained it as I didn’t learn much about how separation and distance works as a child. I suppose that’s true. I have got…” he paused to take another breath, this was taking hard effort. “.. one or two memories, I would have been very small, of my mother locking herself in her room, and of being distressed when I couldn’t get to her. In part I think I was scared stiff of…”

“What she’d do to herself while you weren’t watching her?” Gerry said softly. “I know that one darling. I was older than you were, I could understand more and I could control more; for a small kid that must have been plain terrifying.”

“I think I probably grew out of that reaction quite fast. Once I was older I read whenever she did it. Waited. When I went to school I wasn’t homesick, I never wrote to her.” Dale paused, grimly forcing himself to verbalise the immediate thought following it. “Flynn would say that wasn’t lack of emotion. It was giving up.”

“A kind of independence no kid should ever have.” Gerry finished for him, quietly. “So you never feel safe. You want to be in control of everything, every single wretched thing because that makes you feel for a moment a little bit safer, and you don’t do vulnerability. Ever. You don’t get sick and you don’t respond to pain, you never let anyone see anything gets to you, there’s nothing you need from anyone, because then they can hurt you. I told you I used to break stuff to avoid getting attached to it or to just get the worry of losing it over with. This is what traumatised kids do. You said you were mostly left on the wrong side of the door – or left at school. You were powerless. She walked away and there was nothing you could do but shut down and get on with it. I’m not surprised seeing Flynn and Paul walk away from you took you completely apart sweetheart. You haven’t felt that kind of emotion at getting separated from anyone you loved in years and years, and you couldn’t let yourself fall apart in the middle of an airport, you must have felt pretty powerless then too. A grown up, particularly a British James Bond type, doesn’t really get to burst into tears and say to their partner ‘you can’t go, I can’t cope without you’. Dale I’m not surprised you lost it, are you? Seriously?” Gerry waited a moment and Dale heard his voice soften further. “And you’re trying desperately not to lose it now. Have you managed to say any of this to Flynn or the others?”

“Not really. They know most of it.”

“That’s not the same thing. And I’m going to guess you’re lost somewhere between I know something awful is going to happen to you while I’m not there, and screw you, I don’t need you anyway.”

Dale managed a rather shaky laugh, it was so acute. He heard Gerry’s smile in his voice, although it was a wry one.

“Yeah, got that t shirt too. Ash has caught that one in the face a few times, and his standard response is ‘well that’s tough because I need you’. He knows what I really mean. Mostly that phrase works as the body double for a very panicked ‘don’t leave me’. You’re missing them like all hell, aren’t you sweetheart?”

“That part I did manage to get out to Flynn.” Dale confessed. “Once James insisted I call him.”

“I knew there was a reason I liked James.” Gerry said lightly. “You do need to get this out to them darling. Trust me, there isn’t a less messy way that I’ve ever found that really works. Sometimes I’ve managed to hold it in for a few weeks before I’ve detonated but trust me, sooner or later something minor will hit you wrong and you will blow whether you’re willing or not, and you’ll make a worse mess for letting it build up. It’s easier to just do it and get it over. I know what it’s like; you don’t really know what you’re thinking or what you’re feeling from the middle of it, you can’t make any sense of it, it just takes over, and it’s very hard to get into words at all. But try. It’s about them, and they know you better than anyone, they’re who you want the help from. Work through it with them and make sense of it and it will help, it really will. You will feel better. Promise me? You know. A promise in the sense we mean, which is your word is your bond, no lying, no screwing around and I will tell Flynn on you if you break it?”

When would I ever have done this in my life? Dale found himself near to smiling in spite of himself since he understood precisely what Gerry meant. Even a year ago there is no way I’d be saying this kind of stuff out loud, over the phone, to a friend in the sense that Gerry is, never mind knowing anyone who’d understand without thinking I was mad, and who’d help like he does. When exactly was the last time I spent time in a hotel, in a suit, melting down on the lap of a Top with a sixty year track record, who was a hell of a lot kinder than he needed to be?

If there is such as thing as pure dumb luck – I don’t know when I got this damn lucky.

“I promise.” he said to Gerry. “I will.”

“Good. If you can’t get it out verbally, write them a letter. Drag Flynn upto the office and email him. Tell Riley and get him to say it for you. Or phone me and I will. I mean it.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome.” Gerry’s tone lightened a little. “Are you under orders or free range until you reach Wyoming?”

“Jasper’s just about directed every move I’ve made since I left the ranch.” Dale said dryly. “Right down to every item I’m wearing or I’ve eaten. The hints were heavy to lay down.”

“That translates as ‘take a nap’. Check your handbook. Can you sleep or do you need company?”

“I’ll be all right.” Dale said with conviction. “Thanks Gerry. That doesn’t seem a terribly adequate thing to say.”

Gerry laughed. “Believe me, I’m sure there will come a point when you return the favour and do the sense knocking in for me love, we all take it in turns. Keep me posted, hmm?” 

When the call ended, Dale lay for several minutes more, looking at the window and the blue and white beyond. Calmer. Gerry was right. Much as saying it, talking about it, even thinking about it seemed like the worst possible idea – doing it leeched out some of the heat, the size of it. He dialled again, rapidly from memory and waited for the call to be answered.

“Caroline? Yes, the meeting completed early, thank you. I’m headed home. Would you arrange something for me and charge it to my personal account? Flowers, two good sized baskets. One for the address I’ll text you in Detroit- make sure that one needs as little doing to it as possible please, ask for something already in a vase or stand and conservative and traditional – and one for the other address in Seattle, as exotic as possible. Message for both: ‘many thanks, with love, Dale’.”

If she was surprised at a personal message and his personal name being included she didn’t show it; he heard her making notes.

“Yes sir, I just received your text. I’ll arrange that now.”

“Thank you. Did you have any difficulties liaising with Jasper Blackwater?” he added casually. “I wondered whether he passed my instructions to the hotel directly or worked with you?”

“He contacted me directly since I was organising the hotel and airline. I appreciated having the information to arrange a more comfortable trip for you.” And there was possibly a fragment of reproach in Caroline’s usual professional tone. “I’ll be glad to work with him again.”

Yes. Along with Flynn, whom you met at ANZ a few weeks ago and definitely approved of, and I’m sure Paul has answered the phone to you at least once…

There were times when Dale wondered what impression exactly Caroline was forming of this apparent team of multi national, slightly bossy personal PAs.

He was faintly surprised when the steward woke him a couple of hours later.

“Sorry to disturb you, sir. We’re about ten minutes away.”

They were already over the wide green expanses below that spoke of their particular area of Wyoming. Pasture and forest. Dale pulled himself together, put his boots and jacket on and as the plane began its approach he saw the four by four waiting by the landing strip with a tall, dark haired man sitting in the driver’s seat by the open door, his feet on the grass and a dog leaning against his knee, and his heart rose.


*




They lit the pumpkins on the porch.

It was approaching 3am and they had been sitting out here in the dark, watching the candles glow through the carved faces for over an hour. There had been no way Dale could have gone to bed tonight and to his wholehearted gratitude Jasper had simply ignored their usual bedtime without comment. When he was no longer able to sit in the family room without pacing, Jasper had collected sweaters and jackets and come outside with him and Riley came with them as if this was some kind of relaxed private party instead of advanced neuroticism. Jasper had raided the pantry ten minutes ago and they were drinking hot chocolate thick with marshmallows, the steam rising in the night air, and eating the last of the pumpkin cakes. Across the yard the horses snorted occasionally. It was one of those peculiarly acute moments. They were sitting on the boards of the porch together, not on the chairs: Dale was leaning with his back against the kitchen wall by Riley and Jasper leaned against the porch rail, the scent of the chocolate was strong and the bright orange glow of the carven faces was sharp in the darkness. One of Jasper’s designs, a beautiful and delicate pattern of leaves like a lattice across the pumpkin surface, drifting around the central carving of a tree, cast light particularly brightly next to Riley’s vomiting pumpkin which was spitting seeds down the steps into the yard; Riley was laughing at something Jasper was saying with both hands cupped around his mug, Jasper was relaxed with one knee propped up and the other booted leg outstretched near Dale, fencing him in – and Dale knew it was a moment that would stay with him all his life as something belonging to here. Home.

“I thought we were supposed to be sharing ghost stories?” Jasper was teasing Riley who snorted into his hot chocolate.

“Yeah you’re no good at them! Shaggy dog stories, yes…. Dale, you said there was more than one at your school?”

“There was the knocking stairs.” Dale leaned his mug on his knee. “Apparently knocking used to get heard on those stairs when it still was a family home, before the school took it over, and the school went on hearing it. It was still called the knocking stairs when I was there, a back stairway up from the garden door.”

“Did you ever hear it?” Riley demanded. Dale shook his head.

“No, but everyone knew the basic story and my house master told me the history of it once. During the war that was the part of the house the air crew were billeted in and they heard it. And did what a bunch of bored youngsters would do, and got crowbars and took off the wood panelling which was several hundred years old. There was a patch in the wall behind the stairs, a bricked up entrance of some kind, so they smashed that down too and found a short passage way and another bricked up entrance, and that one led into a little room like a cell. There was a table and a chair, a cup and plate, and a skeleton slumped over the table.”

Riley nearly spat his hot chocolate out. “You’re kidding!”

“I’m not, the grave was in the chapel churchyard.” He hadn’t thought of this in years; a minor detail of his life it had never been information he’d thought anyone would come to be interested in, never mind someone like Riley who was listening with fascination. “From what I heard, whatever the skeleton was wearing had pretty much rotted to bits and didn’t look like much of anything, the air crew had no idea if it was male or female and were thoroughly creeped out so their padre had it buried as fast as possible and they bricked everything back up again and replaced the panelling. The knocking stopped after that.”

“Who was it?” Jasper asked. “Did anyone know?”

“One of the masters at the school knew a lot about the history of the family. After the war when the school moved back in he did some research. The cell was a priest hole – a lot of old houses in England still have them, hidden passages and entrances and rooms built during the English civil war when Catholic mass was illegal, so priests or Cavalier rebels could be safely hidden. One possible answer is that some poor bastard hid in there at the time and never came out, but the master thought he had two possible candidates and they were Victorians, not Jacobean. Apparently there was a son and heir to the house who was, by all accounts, something of a thug. Drinker, gambler, known to prey on women, violent, a thorough problem all around. He was married to some young girl who was an heiress, he had his eye on her money, but after their wedding night neither of them were ever seen again. The second son of the family inherited when the father died, and the whole family denied any knowledge of what had happened to the heir and his young wife. The master had a theory that the skeleton was one of the two of them. Possibly the new husband, married and with access to the girl’s money, sealed her up in there and disappeared with his fortune unencumbered so he could carry on his lifestyle in peace – his father certainly disinherited him and it is possible this was already in process at the time so he knew he would lose the estate. Or possibly the poor girl, realising what she’d married, hid in there from him and drank poison, managing to die before he found her, and so he bricked up the tunnel and sealed her in there to conceal her death from any curious servants in the household who might know of the old secret room and fled to France to escape trial.”

Riley grimaced, taking another swallow of hot chocolate. “Ok. I can see why there’d be a lot of ghostly knocking after that mess.”

“Or,” Dale went on mildly, “More likely by the master’s account, the man either injured or possibly even killed his young bride on their wedding night. And his father and brothers, realising he was not fit to have freedom and would continue his disgrace and destruction of their family all his life, turned the old priest’s hole into a hidden cell where he lived the rest of his life as a secret prisoner in the walls of his family’s home. When he died, the tunnel was sealed up with him inside. His knocking while alive could easily be passed off to the rest of the household as the actions of a restless ghost; certainly it eventually became the truth.”

“And the knocking really stopped once the body was moved?”

“The school story went that no one heard it again after that.” Dale confirmed. “The master involved made a lot of inquiries as to the girl. If he killed her then possibly her body was quietly slipped into one of the family tombs in the chapel crypt by his family and the story given out that she and her husband disappeared together. If she lived, then possibly she was spirited away to one of the family’s plantations abroad, or to another of her own family’s estates where she could live in peace and run her own household under a different name, and leave the marriage behind her.”

“That’s a fricking creepy house to be raising kids in.” Riley pointed out. “Pilots hanging out downstairs, skeletons in secret rooms-”

He broke off as a car engine became audible, heading up the drive, and rolled to his feet, taking off down the porch steps. Jasper laid down his mug and looked across to Dale, holding out his hand.

Who needs ghost stories to get appropriately freaked out?

It was hard to get up. Dale stopped at the porch rail, standing behind it like it was the prow of a ship, gripping it with both hands. The car was one of the Jackson cabs; not something Dale had ever seen come out to the house before, usually they drove out to meet anyone incoming to the airport, or when Gerry or Bear or anyone else came home they hired a car in Jackson. But Paul got out, collecting the bag from the trunk in a sea of welcoming dogs, and Flynn followed him, taller in the darkness, his lighter hair a different shade of grey to Paul’s dark one. Riley met Flynn first in a high rugby tackle, Dale saw him hug him tightly and then jog around the car to Paul.

The car turned in the yard space and drove away, bumping slightly down the grass track and it grew darker in the yard as the headlights disappeared out of sight. Paul came first to the foot of the porch steps lit by the flickering pumpkins, one arm around Riley’s waist, and his smile was tired and very sympathetic up at Dale.

“Hi sweetie. Do I get a hug, or shall I get Caroline to fax me when you’ve forgiven me enough to talk to me again?”

Dale’s hands were starting to shake on the rail. Paul started up the steps and Dale automatically stepped away from him.

“Yes, I know, I went off and left you and it’s sucked, it’s really sucked, hasn’t it?” Paul said with way too much understanding. “You’ve had a horrible few days. I’m sorry it’s been this horrible. I’m sorry Jasper made you eat really horrible shop cake and you ended up in a hotel room in Cleveland, that must have been just plain nasty.”

“The shop cake was not nasty!” Riley picked up the last piece from the open box on the porch. “Not as good as yours, but hey, if you’re going to go off to Penn….”

“If you want cake I’ll make cake, I can do that.” Paul leaned on the rail, not trying to follow Dale or turn him around but his voice was very soft. “Come help me make some more of that hot chocolate sweetheart. I could do with it, the plane was freezing.”

There was a quiet thump as Flynn gripped the rail and with a brisk haul and pull, vaulted over to land on the porch on Dale’s other side. His face held the look that Dale never found it possible to glance away from and went straight to his stomach and a whole lot lower in one fast grip, and he stood at his full height, broad and solid, and beckoned, pointing directly at the spot on the boards in front of him.

There was always something about the way he did that which hit every button Dale had. Dale’s legs started quite independently towards him, at once, without bothering to wait for his head to come into gear, and somewhere after that first step they abruptly went from a walk to a run, and Flynn caught him up and held him crushingly hard, Dale’s arms locked around his neck, hanging from him like a limpet with his face buried which at least partially stifled the tears.    

“Yes, now he can stand there and pull that off with that expression on his face.” Paul pointed out and Dale felt Paul’s hands on his shoulders, rubbing gently. “That is never going to work for me, I’m just not tall enough. It’s ok honey. It’s going to be ok.

Getting hysterical was not an appropriate thing to be doing at all. It would probably alarm Riley, it was certainly no kind of welcome for men who had spent the night in airports and on planes. It just wasn’t easy to stop. Flynn moved, Dale felt him walk down the porch without letting go, and settle on the swing with Dale on top of him, and his hand cupped around Dale’s head, holding it too tight to sit up or pull away from him or do anything remotely sensible even if he’d had the sense left to do it. Someone sat down close against them, Dale felt the hand rubbing his knee and knew it was Riley even before Flynn freed an arm to wrap it around him too and pull him in to join them.

“The pumpkins are good. The one throwing up in particular.”

“I like that one. Although it’s getting pumpkin seeds everywhere.” Riley sounded surprisingly unalarmed. “Was the hotel plastered in Halloween decs?”

“Yes. Knee deep in them.”

“He was loudly rude about them every time we walked past.” Paul commented from the kitchen. Flynn snorted.

“I was not rude about anything.” His hand moved from Dale’s head as Dale started to get his breath back, running his fingers gently over each cheek in turn which removed some of the worst of the flood, then closed his arm around Dale’s waist and hugged him, crushingly hard. “Have you lot been up all night?”

“Sleeping wasn’t an option.” Jasper said mildly. He was sitting nearby somewhere down on the porch boards. Paul leaned past to hand him a mug from the bunch he was holding, passed another to Riley and held out the others to Dale and Flynn to take one each. The hot chocolate was thick with marshmallows and cream; a habit Dale hadn’t run into before he came to the ranch and was learning to approve of.

“I thought we could use the sugar.” Paul took the other end of the swing next to Riley with his own mug, reaching across to rub Dale’s knee. “What have you been doing all night?”

“Ghost stories.” Riley said through a mouthful of marshmallow. “Get Dale to tell you the one about the skeleton, he got sent to school in some kind of British haunted mansion.”

“They’re all like that, it wasn’t anything personal.” Dale got himself together enough with an effort to swallow hot chocolate and to do something to help Flynn with the state of his face. “I need to wash.”

“You need to stay right here and do what you’re doing.” Flynn’s arm around his waist didn’t let him move. “James saw you out of the hotel?”

“Yes. He was very kind.” Not able to go anywhere, Dale leaned back against Flynn, slowly getting his breath again. “And I spoke to Gerry on the plane.”

“He called you?” Paul asked. Dale shook his head.

“I called him. He texted me a few times. He said Ri emailed him.”

“Sorry, but he gets this stuff.” Riley said, not sounding particularly apologetic. Dale managed something approximating a smile.

“He does. It was the right thing to do. Thanks.”

“What did he say?”

“We largely swapped….. scary stories.” Dale breathed out as Flynn’s arm tightened around him again, pulling him into his chest and holding him in a way that said he understood exactly what that meant. “Which I will tell you. Tomorrow, not right now, but I did promise him I’d tell you.”

“You’re cold.” Paul tapped Riley’s leg. “If we’re going to be out here a while, go get the blankets from the family room. And I’m starved and I’m not eating revolting shop cake, I’m going to make toast.”

The pumpkins continued to flicker on the porch. The familiar sounds of the kitchen came through the open door as Paul got down plates and dug in the larder. Riley reappeared with several of the blankets that lived in the family room, offered one to Jasper who smiled but shook his head but Flynn took one, wrapping it around Dale as Riley took a seat on the porch beside Jasper, bundling up in the second before he retrieved his hot chocolate. Jasper put an arm around him, shifting over for Riley to lean against him. Paul re appeared with two plates of buttered toast which was smoking in the sharp night air, handing one to Riley and Jasper and taking the other to sit on the swing next to Flynn. He’d started Philip’s record player while he was inside: it was something they did occasionally on summer evenings when they sat out here late together. It was Stan Rogers’ deep, easy voice, the music David had loved, and Dale who knew these records well now, recognised the song, the one he’d written for his wife.

And I just want to hold you closer than I've ever held anyone before You say you've been twice a wife and you're through with life Ah, but Honey, what the hell's it for? After twenty-three years you'd think I could find A way to let you know somehow That I want to see your smiling face forty-five years from now.

 Paul passed the plate of toast to Flynn and tucked his legs under him, settling under the blanket against Flynn’s shoulder and Dale’s legs, and he caught Dale’s eye and gave him one of the personal, private smiles that struck Dale to the heart every time.

“You’re looking thin again. Toast.”

“Thank you.” Dale accepted a piece, working on getting his breathing steady enough to eat relatively sensibly. “I probably ought to let you know. You have a fax from Caroline.”

Riley snorted with laughter, and Paul laughed too, although his eyes were very soft and he leaned over to hug him, holding toast in the air to avoid squashing it against Flynn’s shirt.

“I’ll guess what it says.”

The End - Happy Halloween!
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015






1 comment:

Unknown said...

I can only say what a hero Jasper is. I think I fell a little harder for him here.
And the poor bastard that is in the form of Dale Aden. I felt every emotion he was feeling and this is due to the outstanding writing of course.