Watching the Waters
The day was only an hour old, so very new that the sky was pitch black and starlit and very bright, and animals startled and birds flew up out of trees as three men ran down through the woods towards the river bank, one in the lead moving as fast and easily as a deer, another towing the third man at high speed who was laughing and clutching his arm to keep his balance.
“I can’t see a thing! Slow down- there are torches, we have torches in the jeep!”
“Don’t need them, Jas has eyesight like a wolf.”
Flynn pulled him through the trees out onto the rounded, grey boulders of the bank. Jasper was already bare foot and balanced on a rock, stripping off by moonlight, bare and lithe in the shadows it cast across his skin. Flynn stripped his own shirt off over his head, heeling his boots off at the same speed. He’d been home less than an hour and he was higher than a kite, barely containing his energy. He peeled off his jeans and ran naked down over the boulders with a balance that matched Jasper’s.
Paul perched on a rock, hearing the splash and watching in the dark as his two very beautiful boys plunged into the water oblivious to the cold. The two of them swam like seals. It was the lighter head in the lead - Flynn – swimming directly against the current straight up the river. He loved and he needed the fights, he still went looking for them. Something natural to pit himself against that used the shoulders that were very nearly full grown now, wider and more powerful than they’d been even two months ago when they last said goodbye, and here he was wild again. Free. The joy of having him back was intoxicating. Paul, who had spent the last two days in Colorado with Philip and many others of the family watching Flynn graduate far away from their own turf and surrounded by onlookers which meant behaving well at all times, had seen Flynn there in a foreign world of books and football practices and hallways on a University Campus and thought he looked underneath the steady surface a little like a caged tiger. The flicker was in his eyes, Paul could see it and had hated it.
But he had stepped out of the car just over an hour ago at the ranch to see Jasper, who had stayed behind at the ranch, look straight at Flynn with his eyes blazing and the world in the brief, hard hug they exchanged, and felt his heart soar like a bird although none of them let the others see it. The three of them had escaped as quickly and as quietly as they possibly could when everyone else went to bed, taken the jeep and disappeared together to this isolated place where they were quite alone together and here the tiger was unleashed. It was Flynn and all of Flynn. The joy of being together after several months of Flynn in another state away from them was…. breathtaking. Every shout from him, every splash that said he and Jasper were playing as they always played together, hard and joyously, few words but all body and soul, it was perfect, the best sound in the world. On a perfect night. There was a splash from the shore near him and Flynn rose, running water off his hair and face with both hands to grin at him, his brief, blazing smile with his eyes glinting above it.
“Well? Are you going to come willingly?”
He could have looked at Flynn standing there looking like that for several years. With love, Paul shook his head, laughing at him. “Yeah. In the hot pool when you two are done showing off. Go flex your muscles somewhere else O’Sullivan, I'm just fine here.”
Flynn gave him a wicked grin, stalking slowly up the bank towards him, and Paul raised his hands to fend him off.
“Hey. Do not mess with the guy who launders your shorts or you’ll be amazed where I can put starch. That’ll put a crimp in your riding, believe me.”
Flynn laughed and grasped his head with wet, strong hands instead, turning his mouth up. Paul reached gladly to kiss him. “You're freezing. Do something useful and build a fire.”
Flynn turned to find some of the wood they’d stashed long ago for nights like this – and Paul lost his breath as something silent and wet swooped abruptly out of the dark behind him, Flynn grabbed his other arm and the two of them launched themselves off the bank and out into the deep water with him with an almighty splash.
Locked in both their arms Paul surfaced, spluttering and still fully dressed.
It was never possible to see or hear him coming if he didn’t want you to. He and Flynn worked together without a glance or a word to betray what they were thinking, particularly when they were clowning around like this. Alone together in privacy they were still boys, there were moments in which it was so acutely clear it was poignant to watch and was as wonderful as it had a few downsides. Jasper’s teeth flashed very white in the dark as he grinned, steadying Paul in the water against the pull of the river rushing around them.
“I can live without shorts.”
Paul freed a hand to splash him, not very easily since the current was strong here.
“Swim for a minute, you’ll get used to it.”
“You two might who can wrestle cattle all day long and crash in and out of rivers like you’ve never heard of winter; some of us are normal.” Paul pulled out of Jasper’s grasp to strike out for the shore, struggling slightly against the rushing flow of the river. Flynn struck out after him to help with some concern at how much he seemed to be struggling tonight – and he saw Paul abruptly slip under and be yanked fast down river, vanishing in the dark.
“Jas!” Flynn bellowed, striking out fast for the spot. “Paul! Paul!”
There was no sign of him in the dark water. Flynn dived for a moment, trying to see anything in the water. Jasper passed him, moving like an arrow with much sharper eyesight that was used to the dark, but nothing was breaking the surface. Flynn burst out of the water to the shore to see if he could see any better, and heard the calm voice coming from the rocks behind him.
“Do let me know when you're ready for something to eat.”
Flynn breathed out, leaning for a moment to prop his hands on his knees and get his heart back under control. “That is not funny!”
“Yes it is.” Paul said calmly. He could hear Jasper laughing across the water. “To me that’s really funny.”
Faced with two large, wet, naked men heading purposefully up the bank towards him he continued stripping off his wet clothes, not noticeably dismayed.
“Whatever you’re going to do to me gets done in the hot springs or there’ll be trouble. And I’d still like a fire.”
Flynn paused on the bank to wait for Riley and gripped his hand as they stepped down into the hot water after Paul, keeping him close. It was late; approaching midnight. An attempt to go to bed hadn't gone well and after several discussions on the landing, increasingly fraught on the part of several of them, Flynn had grabbed the jeep keys, told Riley to get dressed and the entire household had come with them.
The pool was warm tonight rather than hot which helped with a warm late August evening. The hay harvest had been completed a few days before, they were past the mad rush of it when they were up at dawn and worked late into the evening and were too exhausted to do much but shower, eat and fall into bed. Riley had coped through it, largely because he had no time to think and plenty to distract himself with. It had been as they finished that it hit him and he’d struggled most. He hadn’t been the only one either. Flynn found a seat on the roughly stacked boulder benches around the outside of the pool and pulled Riley down in front of him as over on the bank in the dark there was the soft sound of Gerry losing it.
Jasper paused on the bank to watch Ash, half undressed, stop what he was doing and straighten up to go to Gerry, folding his arms gently around him. He was talking softly in Gerry’s ear; Ash had been successfully keeping him down to a simmer for some hours with what help the other Tops in the house could give him, but the threats to boil over had been coming faster as evening drew in. Paul climbed down into the water, sitting close beside Flynn and Riley.
“Remember last year when he slipped and dropped his glasses in here?”
“And we spent the next half hour trying to find them.” Jasper added. Luath passed Jasper, steering Darcy ahead of him so he could lean on his shoulder as he made the deep step down into the water.
“Diving being less fun in hot water – and it was hot in here that day, I’ve never seen so many rosy faces. If I had a dollar for every pair he lost ….”
“We could outfit an entire classroom of kids.” Darcy agreed.
“Archaeologists are going to excavate around here centuries from now and wonder what on earth went on.” Paul agreed. “They’ll think there was some kind of river based community that manufactured and sold glasses. Or that every member of the community had terrible eyesight.”
Ash, leading a less than willing Gerry, stepped down into the water and Jasper followed them.
“Or Ripley’s Believe It Or Not will show up here because the raccoons are all wearing glasses.”
Riley laughed, a rather subdued laugh but still a laugh and Jasper took the seat on the other side of Flynn, reaching to rub Riley’s back under the water.
“It's too bad that he wasn't that forgetful with the books, the poor beasts will have nothing to read.”
Paul glanced across to Jasper with his eyes very fond, as warm as his smile at the thought. “No. Not books. He never forgot about books.”
“We’re just going to joke about it?” Gerry burst out passionately. “All night?”
Ash interrupted him, his soft voice very calm, as much as his arm drew Gerry back down against him. “No honey, we're remembering the best parts of him. The things we loved.”
“Well I can't just laugh about it,” Gerry sounded on the brink of tears again. “I can't, I don't know how you can!”
“Do you really think he would like to think of all of us crying every time we thought of him?” Ash said gently. “Is that what he would want?”
Gerry shook his head hard, trying to stand up out of Ash’s grasp.
“I'm going for a walk-”
“You mean you’re going to flounce and it won’t help,” Darcy said shortly, ducking out of the way of the splashing. His fuse had been shortening fast in the past hour and his tone was sharp. “This is not all about the drama Ger, please stop it. The rest of us are having a hard time as much as you are-“
“Darce come here.” Paul began, but Luath interrupted quietly, leaning across Darcy to hold his arms out to Gerry.
“I miss him too.”
Gerry stopped struggling with Ash, his mouth twisted with sympathy as much as his eyes went from angry to painfully soft and he turned to put his arms tight around Luath’s neck, dissolving properly and fully into tears. Luath sat back, holding him closely and looking with compassion at Riley who was quiet but not looking at anyone and gripping Flynn’s arms which were locked around him. Gerry was sobbing desperately but it was already a calmer, freer sound. Darcy swallowed hard, watching the water ripple in front of them and Jasper quietly changed seats, sliding over to sit beside him. Darcy closed his eyes at the arm Jasper put around him, steepling his hands in front of his face, fingers pressed firmly to the bridge of his nose. There was silence for a moment but for the rush and splash of the river.
Ash, who had signalled a quiet and wordless appreciation to Luath, said with the gentle and easy manner that always soothed any situation, “Did Bear say what time he expected their plane to get in?”
“About ten.” Jasper stretched his legs and leaned back, still holding Darcy. “I’ll go meet them-“
He paused, looking sharply up the bank, and a moment later they heard the stock whistle. Their own stock whistle. Most ranches had their own sounds and whistles to carry over distance, they were pretty unique in their way and theirs was a distinctive one that meant it had to be one of them.
Flynn, turning far enough from Riley not to blast out his eardrum, whistled back and a moment later a tall figure in heavy boots, navy blue fatigues and with bright fair hair shining near white in the dark came down the bank and crouched there, grinning as Riley burst up to hug him hard.
“Hey! I thought I’d find you here.”
“You didn’t say you were coming home!” Paul waited for Riley to move long enough to hug Jake in turn, who wasn’t caring in the least about getting wet. “It’s so good to see you! Where did you spring from?”
“I’ve got leave until Monday, I wanted to be here. Room in there for a little one?”
Luath snorted pointedly and Jake grinned at him, rapidly shedding his uniform.
“Yeah you can talk, move over.”
“How did you find us?” Riley demanded. Jake stepped down into the water with a hiss of satisfaction as it touched his skin. Steam was rising gently from the surface.
“Oh God this is good.” In his tone it was a prayer, a deeply sincere one. “I hitchhiked across from Jackson this evening, mostly on trucks. There was no one at home and I thought you’d be out here. I hot wired the other jeep.”
“You thug.” Paul said without heat.
“Well it was that or pick the lock to get to the keys.” Jake pointed out. He met Flynn with a rough, close hug, put an arm around Gerry to kiss him, and then with a lot of feeling put an arm around Luath without displacing Gerry from his lap. “Hey.”
“It’s good to see you, I’m glad you came.” Luath kissed his cheek, letting him go. “You picked your moment well. None of us could sleep.”
“Some of us may have been trying harder than others.” Gerry said unsteadily. “Or maybe a little more graciously, I don’t know.”
“You don’t do gracious,” Darcy informed him without heat. “You do loud and louder. That’s pretty much it.”
Gerry smiled at him, a very wobbly smile. “I know darling, but it’s well intentioned loud, it is honestly.”
Jake ran a hand very gently along his face and sat down beside him.
“I’m just glad I’m not waking anyone. Hey Darce, how are you? Who else is heading in this weekend?”
“Bear and Theo in the morning,” Paul said reflectively. “There’s a stack of letters in the kitchen from everyone you can think of – Colm rang this afternoon, they’re coming out on Sunday, Miguel on Monday, Peter and Dan rang last night – Charlie’s just had some surgery on his arm, that patch they were watching? They removed it and it needed a skin graft so he can’t fly or travel for a few weeks. He and Wade weren’t too happy about the timing but he needed the surgery done. Niall has a big case on, something serious, James couldn’t tell us much but he said Niall’s wading through papers and books half the night and interviewing people any other time he’s not in court so they couldn’t have gotten away. They’ll come out for a break when the case is done, I think James is going to want Niall to stop everything for a week or two, he’s run himself into the ground with this one.”
Niall was another of those among them who had found the past year especially hard to handle and for whom this anniversary would be rough. It would be taking James a lot of effort and skill to get Niall through both the case and this month at the same time, particularly if they couldn’t be here where they could talk about it and show it and help each other through.
Jake slid his hand gently into Darcy’s grasping it in the water. Darcy gave him a quick, sideways look with wet eyes that had nothing to do with the steam.
“I’m glad you’re here. I didn’t want to leave New York-”
“That’s an understatement.” Luath said dryly. Darcy poked him.
“You were mean. From start to finish you were mean and then you got really mean and threatened to come and get me if I didn’t meet you at the airport-”
“We don’t need to be around all that.”
“It feels like a betrayal.” Darcy admitted very quietly.
“He isn’t there, love.” Luath said gently. “We know that. We do know that. If he’s anywhere at all, he’s here. This is where we need to be.”
“One over there, one over there and one over there gentlemen please.”
Philip indicated either end of the bank. Wade sighed hard but walked ungraciously down the bank, sitting with a thump on a boulder. ‘Lito walked well past him, following Philip’s point until he reached the indicated spot a long way further on from Wade. Only Gerry stood where he was, fidgeting with a rather pleading look he’d been wearing since Philip firmly put the three of them in the jeep and drove them down to this isolated spot. Philip continued to wait. After a moment Gerry stomped slowly down the bank in the other direction.
“Further.” Philip said mildly when he paused. Gerry huffed but reluctantly went another ten feet down the bank. Too far away for any of them to talk to him or to each other, too far away for any kind of social interaction or attention. With one recalcitrant brat sixty feet to his left, a distinctly fractious one thirty feet to his left, and one equally truculent one thirty feet to his right, Philip undressed, took his book and the paddle he had picked up as they left the house, retired to the hot springs and laid the paddle in clear sight on a rock before he settled into the water, taking no notice whatsoever of any of them.
He read in peace for some time.
“This is boring,” Gerry eventually called over, but very plaintively and in a clear plea for rescue. Wade’s hiss from the opposite side of the bank was low and to Philip’s ear as protective as it was irascible. ‘Lito was watching with equal concern. None of the older brats liked to see the younger ones get themselves into trouble.
“Shut up Ger.”
“But it is boring, I don’t do boring well and I’m dying over here!”
‘Lito winced. Wade looked about to bite. Philip calmly stood up to collect the paddle, stepped out of the water and made the short walk down the bank to join his now deeply dismayed looking brat who was turning plaintive into an appeal that kittens and puppies could have taken notes from.
“Noooo, Philiiiiiiip…. I only said-”
Philip helped him gently to his feet despite Gerry’s extreme unwillingness and turned Gerry over his hip, bringing the paddle down with a brisk and very sound swat against the seat of his jeans. It drew a very loud “owwwww!” which held a great deal of reproach, but Gerry very hurriedly sat down again on his rock and Philip returned to the pool, laying the paddle back down where all three brats could see it.
It took him an hour and a half of unhurried reading to finish the book without a further sound coming from any of them. It was a book David had recommended to him with good reason, and one that would take some digesting, even here in a place that particularly lent itself to digestion of all kinds of thoughts. Philip laid the book down, surveying the marine blue of the river flowing past the edge of the hot springs pool, the rocks and boulders that dotted the shallower parts where David liked to stand to fish, and the thick aspen woods on the far shore.
His three brats were sitting in subdued isolation on their appointed rock, their eyes on the water which appeared to have cooled off tempers very successfully.
“Anyone who feels able to discuss this in a civilised manner do join me.” Philip invited.
Wade and ‘Lito got up with alacrity. Gerry hesitated, never keen on giving in on anyone else’s terms and aware too that Philip would not coax, but after a minute he got up too, skulking slowly down the bank. So different these three. ‘Lito, in his middle twenties and irrepressibly lively was somewhat flushed in the face and distinctly sheepish as he came to Philip; he usually tried harder than this not to involve himself in quarrels and living with Gerry gave him a lot of practice. Wade was in his late forties although he didn’t look older than thirty five. Fit, not a tall man but strong in the shoulders and chest, he and Charlie were both very active men who enjoyed their work and from all accounts including Charlie’s, Wade was extremely good at it. He had the confidence, the laid back assertiveness of a man used to handling whatever came up, particularly people, but a very experienced brat, he also knew very well when to turn it off and he came to join Philip with deference, with his head down and his manner quiet and sat politely near the edge of the pool. Gerry, seventeen, painfully skinny and in clothes that hung off his narrow frame, scuffed across with something between sullenness and bravado. Philip, who knew how to look between the lines with this his youngest brat, held out an arm to him and the defiant scuffing down the bank abruptly became a fast, unhappy jog that ended buried against Philip’s chest, head down. Philip hugged him firmly, rubbing his back.
“Well done, you did a good job.”
The other two, far more accustomed to the discipline of standing quietly in a corner from years of practice, didn’t find that nearly as hard as Gerry did and neither of them resented the praise for him. Philip said nothing else, they knew very well what he expected, and after a moment’s awkward silence Wade let go a short sigh and took the initiative, the eldest of the group.
“I’m sorry I sniped at you two this morning. I should know enough to walk away when something’s getting on my nerves.”
“You were getting on mine.” ‘Lito said to Wade, shortly and truthfully. “You were being snide from the moment you got up, I agree with everything Ger said to you. Although probably not how he said it,” he added after a second’s thought and a quick look at Philip. Philip didn’t comment, leaving them the space to sort it out.
“…I guess I’m tired.” Wade confessed after a moment. “I didn’t sleep that good. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t bring my work home.”
“You won’t tell us what’s been happening that you’ve brought home with you.” Gerry said rather quietly but with feeling that made Wade look at him with some surprise.
“Well something’s happened, hasn’t it?” Gerry folded his arms a little defensively. “It’s fairly plain and you won’t talk about it.”
Oh the moments of victory were so quick and so wonderfully unexpected when they slipped out. Philip kept a hold over his face with an effort, not reacting either to Gerry or to Wade’s look of shock – ‘Lito, who knew Gerry better was less surprised, but Wade had yet to really realise that beneath the flouncing and sharp tongue and apparent extreme self centredness the family’s newest brat had an acute eye for people and their needs, an interest in them that he rarely admitted even to himself, and he was beginning, just beginning to use this language they had taught him of negotiation, of understanding people’s actions in the context of their feelings, instinctively for himself. Internalised, part of him instead of a learned trick.
“He’s right, isn’t he?” ‘Lito demanded. “That’s what David was trying to ask you last night wasn’t it? That’s why you bit his head off, he saw it too.”
Had he indeed? He’d kept that one quiet, but David was deeply protective of their brats.
“Charlie’s been all over me, he knows something’s up.” Wade admitted very uncomfortably. “I… worked a case, not a nice one. It happens. Mostly it goes past me.”
“But this one hasn’t.” ‘Lito said darkly. “You’re not sleeping, are you?”
It had brought the dreams back. Philip understood it in a bolt of lightning and he understood then as ‘Lito and Gerry wouldn’t really, why Wade was working so hard on hiding it. The nightmares went back too far and were too serious, it was something Charlie would be too concerned about, something that had been gone from their lives for a good few years now. And behind that defence of Charlie was the deepest crux of Wade’s fear, the part he couldn’t admit to. It’s still not over.
This was what David had suspected.
The two younger brats had no idea, no memory of the nights that David did. The things about the darkest hours of the night over twenty years ago that David and Charlie knew as Philip did, as James and Niall did. And that was good, because who would want them to? But this wasn’t a brat avoiding a few early nights. This was Wade under serious strain.
“I’ll help you talk to Charlie.” Philip said quietly to Wade. “We’ll do it together.”
Wade glanced up at him, his eyes meeting Philip’s for a second, long enough for Philip to see the seed of really, properly freaked out. He put a hand across to grasp Wade’s shoulder, gripping firmly and turning his attention to Gerry.
“And your part in this morning’s discussion on the landing?”
One thing Gerry got a whole lot of practice in was making apologies. He made this one sincerely and quickly, still watching Wade in a way that said he understood very well that something was going on here beneath the surface. A few months back he would have demanded to know what it was. Now Philip could see the curiosity and knew Gerry was dying to ask him as soon as they have privacy but he would wait for that privacy to spare Wade’s feelings. ‘Lito’s apology was equally well done since he had played a great part in the past few months in the many conversations about apologising, the whys and the hows as they helped Gerry figure it out. Philip tapped Wade’s shoulder where his hand still rested.
“Undress and come on in the water.”
‘Lito got up, casting him a slightly wary look. “We’re missing a lot of work, sir…”
“Yes, you are, aren’t you?” Philip steadied Gerry to get up and find a clear place to strip. “But the others will be enjoying their peaceful day and you’ll be returning in a much better frame of mind, so to my way of thinking it is quite worth it. And I’m sure we will be able to think together of a number of helpful ways in which you three can make up for interfering with everyone else’s peaceful start to their day and all the chores you’ve missed out on.”
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2016