Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chapter 14


There was a huddle of bodies moving fast in the pouring rain and the dark, mostly blackened with coal dust. Only eyes and teeth and the streaks of skin washed clean with rain occasionally flashed in the lamplight.  The noise should have been deafening – the roar of water and the voices from the crowd behind them, the shouting and the crash of rocks being handed back from man to man from the few at the front who were digging with their hands, no longer daring to use picks. There was actually nothing to hear at all but the fall of the rain and the suppressed speed of his own breathing. His shirtsleeve shone in the lamplight when he ran it over his face, brushing away rain that was blurring his vision, and he held the lamp higher. It was easy to pick out David, even shirtless and with his hair and skin blackened like the others. He had been yanking at rocks for hours, stooped and moving like a machine, and his teeth were bared as if he was locked in a fight. He had only glanced back once to Philip through the dark with his eyes burning.

Stay back. Stay there. I can't worry about you too.

But it wasn't under that rockfall that an old man was struggling for his life alone in the dark.

Dale jerked awake for the third time in an hour, swallowing on a shout to David to run, to get up the black, rain lashed hillside to where water gushed down into a hidden adit in the grass.

The house was silent, the room was dark. Flynn, beside him, was asleep, face down, the covers low around his waist. He'd slept very little last night; he'd spent forty eight hours alert and in a committed state of being ready to help, to manage the situation here in the house and the work outside in any way that was necessary, and that was Flynn to the heart. He was tired and he was stressed, and Dale looked down at him with more emotion than he could handle, not wanting to disturb his rest. Softly, very carefully, he eased away and slid off the bed.

The landing was even darker, and there he could wipe the cold sweat off his face and pant until his heart thudded less, and he could breathe more evenly. There seemed to be a hush on the house, a thickness to the darkness. David had gone from this house once to search the mine, and Philip had gone with him. There had been a night when they had dressed and gone down these stairs together, headed for the town and the rockfall on a night with no moon and with rain dropping out of the sky in sheets that drenched them to the skin. Dale stood at the top of the same stairs, looking down them to the open study door. Philip's study, and at night it seemed more Philip's than it ever seemed in the day. There was always a different atmosphere in that room, heavy with the scent of the leather of the books and the polish Paul put on the desk, and it never failed to raise a deep sense of calm in Dale. And a deep respectfulness, which amused him; as a grown up he never failed to feel in that room like a boy in the headmaster's study, as this was where most discipline in this household was carried out. Dale had a number of extremely emotional and expressive memories intimately rooted in this room, but the emotions were a lot more complex than just simple apprehension. As if reminded, he became aware of the discomfort of leaning against the wall – in fact of his backside touching anything at all right now – and he put a hand back to massage it with a lot of caution. Flynn had only used his hand, but he'd used it emphatically, and he could still feel the heat through his shorts. It wasn't the first time either that Flynn had pitched into him, all guns blazing, hard enough and surprising enough that it breached every defence he had and his priorities changed. Instantly. Embarrassingly instantly.

Very Alice in Wonderland. I talk myself around the maze to the point where up is down, and big is small, and what I'm fixated on seems like the only thing that matters.

Flynn had the knack of yanking him out of the muddle, to a place where he could breathe and he could see clearly. And of knowing when he'd lost all perspective and it was time to yank. The most ridiculous thing was the sense of freedom – open, almost childish freedom – that came with handing over that responsibility.

It's not 'don't go into the maze'. It's 'go for it, I'm right behind you'. Like Tom and Jake planning for Everest, it's having someone you trust to know when you're in trouble even if you don't, who can turn you around when they have to.

It's that whole 'trust' part I suck at. I'm never ready to give up on being sure I can somehow fix things before I have to ask for help.

There was a soft creak from behind him and Dale glanced up, reverie broken. He recognised the big man at the corner of the landing which led to the small room beyond the room which had once been Philip and David's. Barefoot, in sleep shorts and a t shirt which showed biceps and a midriff surprisingly hard for a man who worked a desk, his skin shone blue black in the darkness and his eyes were even darker. His voice was soft, practisedly soft, in defence of the sleepers around them.

"Are you all right?"

It brought a faint, wry smile to Dale's mouth and sent a bolt of warmth through him that connected from Flynn asleep, to David at the mine, to Philip's study downstairs. They'd barely been introduced, but Dale knew the tone and it said without fuss that there were bonds between them that went beyond normal civility and reserve. They were both of this house and of this family. He could have gone to this man in New York as a total stranger and relied on his help, support and strength just as much as he could here and now in the dark in the middle of the night. Luath watched him for a moment, then returned his smile and came to join him, looking through the doorway at Flynn.

"Anything you need?"

"Dreaming." Dale said just as softly. "Needed a few minutes to calm down."

"I'll put the kettle on." Luath said softly, and Dale felt the man’s hand lightly touch his back. "Get a sweater."

Rather than risk waking Flynn, Dale followed him downstairs and took one of the jackets hanging by the kitchen door. Luath felt for the furthest kitchen light switch and grunted in satisfaction at the dim light, then he softly closed the kitchen door and went to fill the kettle.

"Tea?" he asked over his shoulder. Dale nodded, collecting the milk from the fridge.

"Yes please."

"You must have struggled coming here where the coffee supply lines are cut." Luath dug one handed in the cupboard for tea, and Dale, watching him, realised that this man was as familiar with this house as he was.

"I've gone back to drinking tea," he said absently, remembering too as he rapidly ran through the very little information he had on Luath that the man was some kind of businessman and probably as used to the caffeine supported lifestyle as he had been just a few months ago. "It was what I always drank as a kid. In England it's the staple, day and night."

"With milk, properly done." Luath put two mugs down on the table and Dale saw the dark orange colour as he added milk. "Philip liked it that way too. I think he picked up the habit from David. I admit, I struggle to work without a shot of espresso and a coffee pot in the corner of the office. Paul and Flynn didn't ban it until they started formally taking clients, and we all understood, but for the addicted among us it's a culture shock every time we come home."

"Was that the only thing they banned?" Dale asked, unable to stifle the curiosity. Luath smiled at him, winding his fingers around his mug. A thick, heavy gold ring gleamed on the fourth finger of his left hand.

"Alcohol, but that wasn't so difficult. Philip always kept it a very controlled substance anyway, and the technology never really found its way here in the first place. We're an old fashioned bunch. I suppose we don't like to see things change."

"Not that cell phones work around here anyway." Dale said dryly. Luath stifled a snort, pulling a chair out at the table to sit down.

"Ah. You found that out the hard way?"

Dale smiled ruefully.

"Yes. The first few hours I was here, while shouting at this Kiwi maniac who seemed to think I wasn't going anywhere for six weeks. Or more."

He pulled out a chair across the table from Luath and sat, cautiously, stifling the wince, but he saw Luath notice with the eyes of obvious experience. 

"Ah. Like that, is it?"

"I wasn't having the clearest headed night." Dale admitted. "I'm sorry for the scene in the kitchen."

"If that was a scene, things have changed a lot since I was last here." Luath said bluntly. "I was going to say, what we never tell the clients is that the brats around here know every road location in every direction for miles around where there is a phone signal. Not to mention a public pay phone. They’ve obviously not filled you in yet. I grabbed Darcy from heading out to the car last night with his phone, I'm sure to explain to Gerry about your man in the mine. I'm sorry about that, not an easy thing to discover."

Dale didn't answer, politely sipping tea, but the man across from him refused to either politely look away or let it drop, instead watching him with unembarrassed carefulness, then nodding and sipping his own tea.

"Yes. David's friend and a dreadful way to die. You'll know everything evidence will show about him. I know who you are, you know? I'm one of the silent directors of Destar. I've been admiring your work for years."

It was a big, New York corporate and Dale recognised the name. A client of ANZ, although not one he'd ever handled personally. It would be easy to say a polite, reserved thank you that concealed Dale's suddenly intense embarrassment, and leave it there, and yet that wasn't fair to this man who had known Flynn and the others for years, and who belonged to this house. And who was as genuine in his praise, as if he didn't think it strange at all that Dale Aden of ANZ should be sitting in this kitchen, caught as a brat. And not a terribly good one. It was an additional complication, and one that Dale really didn’t want to think about or deal with tonight.  

"I appreciated your email in New York." he said with an effort, but sincerely. "It was very kind."

"The offer always stands." Luath said calmly. "If you need to work out of New York at any time, my apartment is fairly central. And you'll probably find that Ash and I understand most about what it is you do and what you need when you're working, if you ever find you need moral support."

A shape crossed the yard, visible through the window, and Dale got up, thankful for the interruption and aware too that the dogs hadn't barked. He opened the door onto the porch and recognised Jasper's outline walking towards the steps, the dogs following him with tails wagging. Jasper took the door from him and heeled off his boots, leaving them neatly by the line of boots that lived in the kitchen corner.

"You couldn't sleep either?"

"The kettle's hot." Luath collected his mug and got up, giving Dale a smile that was very kind, and held a little too much understanding for Dale’s comfort.

"I'm heading back to bed. Sleep well you two."

He went without looking back, closing the kitchen door softly behind himself, and Jasper waited until he was gone. Then he put an arm around Dale's waist, pulled him over, and Dale turned his face into Jasper's shoulder. He smelled of outside, fresh air and grass, and he said nothing, just folded long arms around Dale and held on. Standing there against him, Dale felt the last of his shaking die away with the last of the nightmare, and a sense of restlessness he hadn’t been aware of until Jasper touched him. He moved where Jasper drew him, out onto the porch and to the swing where Jasper sat in his usual, comfortable and long legged sprawl, and pulled on Dale's hand until Dale took a seat and slid over into a very un CEO like posture against him. He then didn't say anything at all, which Dale found even more comforting.

"I kept dreaming." Dale said after a long time, and very softly, knowing how it would sound. But here in the night, with the cool breeze from the window and the familiarity of the yard and of Jasper, it wasn't so hard to say out loud.

"I dreamed a few times about David trying to dig people out of the mine. Rain and Philip holding a lamp, David shouting at him to stay where he was. I, er…. I 'saw' David a few days ago."

"Mhm?" Jasper said calmly, as if this was a perfectly normal, rational conversation to be having at one o clock in the morning. Dale resisted the urge to smile at the sheer oddness of it.

"He……. said something about landslides. It's like – I'm just passing through a space he's in, and he's busy, but he recognises me."

"Gam Saan seemed to know who he was looking for." Jasper commented. "I think they have their own priorities. They're not interested in ours."

"But we saw 'nothing' at all inside the mine." Dale ran over it again, thinking through the data as he had several times. "When I saw David up by the cougar each time he was directing my attention, it was a warning. In the mine yes, I wasn't necessarily paying attention, but I'm pretty sure there was –"  no one?
  "- nothing inside the mine with us."

"From what Paul's told me about David," Jasper said mildly, "'Mind the landslide' would probably have been all he thought you needed. He wasn't given to nursing people along, he tended to assume they'd manage in the same way he would. Paul said he left a cartographer in three feet of snow up on the tops once. And that Philip nearly wrung his neck for it."

Dale smiled, and Jasper pulled him closer, leaned back in the swing, rocking it slowly with his feet and letting the quiet of the yard sink into them both. On the surface he often appeared chattier than Flynn, certainly more sociable, but Jasper had the knack of talking without actually saying anything when he chose.

"I think I'm going to take another look in at Paul and Riley." he said eventually, and Dale blinked, realising he had almost fallen asleep. "And you need to be in bed. Insomnia seems to be hitting the house in a big way the last night or two."

Yes. There was a presence – or a sense of waiting – that seemed to hang over everything. It came down to a forlorn little heap of bones in a forgotten adit.

Jasper turned up a hand on his lap, long brown fingers outstretched, and Dale took it, warmed by the firmness of the grasp that wrapped around his.

"You found the information. That's probably what's important."

"Is it?" Dale paused to look at him, the very dark eyes that were by far the most laid back of any of the four of them.

"An action, done with intent, is meaningful." Jasper said simply. "There's aspects to that which I think we all need to talk about, but you did find Gam Saan and that has meaning."

It would have had meaning to David.

"I never know whether I use images of David to tell myself things or whether it's just what I'd imagine him saying," Dale said with some exasperation.

"What did he say?" Jasper asked.

It isn't about making the right noises in the right places. About being honest. You have to decide whether or not you're going to let it go. There isn't much more they can do but wait for you.

It had been said in a tone of distinct rebuke.

"……that I was trying to just say the right things and go through the motions without feeling it," Dale said very uncomfortably but honestly. "Flynn said the same thing to me tonight; that I try and control. Get things right on my terms, and steer things the way I'm comfortable with. David said I had to make a choice about whether or not I was going to let go."

"Did Flynn leave you in any doubt?" Jasper asked mildly.

Dale flushed but he couldn't help the smile in response and Jasper pulled him over and kissed his cheek.

"Good. Go back to bed and quit obsessing before you give him ideas that he hasn't made enough of an impression on you." 

He let go with a gentle pat where Dale was sorest and Dale put a hand back to rub as he padded towards the stairs. The directness of that pat was powerful in the same way as Flynn's intensity this evening. This wasn't how they spoke to a client. It was how they spoke to a partner. It both warmed, and brought out a ruefully direct commitment in Dale, as it felt like running into very concrete reality. Real was here. Real was this.  

Flynn didn't wake when he slid back into bed. Dale tucked an arm under his head and lay for a while, watching Flynn's face, and the heavy lock of sandy hair slipped down across his forehead, listening to his quiet, even breathing. Even in sleep he was big. Solid. Dale lay and watched his face and thought of hundreds of nights he'd spent pacing and drinking coffee while he organised meetings, wrote reports, analysed data and prepared for morning meetings, and barely noticed the dark or the hours slip by, and there was little difference between day and night other than that night provided time to work uninterrupted. It had all seemed so important at the time. Hours of his life had slipped past in that way, and he had thought it was living. And yet living was much simpler. Living was being here, doing nothing in the stillness of this peaceful house, in the dark, but knowing Jasper, Paul and Riley were nearby, and watching Flynn breathe. 

It was immature and thoughtless to disturb him on such a selfish impulse, but Dale suddenly couldn't resist it. He slid closer, brushing his lips over Flynn's, then over his forehead, smoothing the  heavy lock of hair back. Flynn made a soft sound without opening his eyes, but his arm reached over and tightened, and Dale smiled against his face, returning the hug.

"Sorry. I've never shared a bed with anyone before who I couldn't keep my hands off."

"Dreaming?" Flynn sounded muffled against his ear, but his hand slid under Dale's t shirt, rubbing over his back with a lot of understanding.

"On and off. I'm not going anywhere, I'm convinced. And I'm bloody sore." he added dryly as Flynn's hand slid lower. Flynn's hand was gentle against his still very tender behind but Flynn didn't sound in the least sympathetic.

"If it takes a permanently sore butt to keep your head clear, I can manage that."

Dale snorted into his neck and Flynn hugged his waist, powerful arms that pulled him over without difficulty, tucking Dale's body hard against his.

"He's all right up there. He's not going to come to any harm, and we know where he is. Go back to sleep. You're damn right you're not going anywhere, you're not getting out of my sight for a few days."

There was more comfort in that growl than in any amount of coaxing. Flynn's arms didn't relax, there was no way to move, and the blunt unreasonableness of it made Dale laugh, then give up trying to free himself and relax down on top of Flynn and shut his eyes. That voice and that unreasonableness hit every button he had, and he admitted it. Freely.

Quit dreaming and sleep.

Yes sir.


The house didn't change.

In fact Luath thought that very little about it had changed in essence since David first decided on this spot and nailed the basic shell of it together with a lot of practical expertise, energy and a tendency to get distracted on to other projects. The hidey holes, the hidden stairs, the very illogical layout of rooms and the need for space – and then more space – and yet more space – spoke of brat priorities and design. Philip had said once that he spent some months talking very soothingly to frustrated electricians, plumbers and carpenters while they worked, but Philip had established a very functional home out of David's shell.  

And their room still stood, untouched, just as it always had. Luath stood in the doorway and looked at the neatly made, wide double bed and the shelves of photographs, as if Philip had followed his usual morning routine, got up at dawn and established himself at his desk in the study where he would work and read until breakfast time, when he would establish the day's working plans with the group of men gathered around the table.

"Still?" Darcy said from behind him, padding bare foot across the landing. Luath moved to let him see, and Darcy looked with him at the room.

"Philip would go nuts."

"It's Flynn." Luath said darkly, and softly as people were still asleep along the landing. Darcy gave him a brief and mischievous grin.

"That's your problem then. Can I borrow a pair of socks?"

"I knew you wouldn't pack properly if I didn't do it for you." Luath informed him. "You were the one who came barging into my office saying we had to drop everything and go, and you'd packed already-"

"I had, I forgot socks, it's not a criminal offence." Darcy went ahead of him into his room, digging through the small chest of drawers under the window. It was one of the small and awkward shaped rooms tucked under the stairs at the front of the house, with a low sloping ceiling that Luath had knocked his head on often enough to automatically duck as he came to restrain Darcy's searching.

"Look, do you have to throw things all over the place-"

"A tie?" Darcy dragged the offending article out of the drawer and held it up. "You brought a tie? When did you think you'd be wearing it? Are the sheep keeping to a dress code now?"

Luath swiped the tie and replaced it with a pair of socks, and Darcy grinned at him.

"Thank you. Are you coming downstairs? I'm starving, and I'm scared of their new brat. I don't want to go down alone."

"Dale was entitled to be stressed out after what he and Ri went through in the mine." Luath grabbed another pair of socks and sat down on the neatly made bed to put them on.

"Yes, but the rest of us when stressed out do normal things like yell, chuck things or cry." Darcy said dryly, "I haven't been lectured like that since Ri and I sloped off to that funfair outside Jackson that got raided every night and twice on Thursdays. I don't think that is a brat at all, it's a top in deep cover."

There had been nothing scary at all about the quietly spoken, reserved man in the kitchen in the early hours of this morning: Luath could very well understand what about him grabbed at all of Flynn's instincts. Luath got up and looked Darcy over, wincing automatically at the tightness of his jeans and the colour of the cropped t shirt.

"You’re not really wearing that to breakfast?"

"Height of fashion." Darcy winked at him and Luath pushed him out of the room onto the landing.

"At least make your bed and pretend you're civilised, unless you want Paul to chase you back up here."

He waited on the landing while Darcy went to sort out his own room, drifting quietly to one of the half open doors. Paul was up; the quiet sounds of china could be heard from the top of the stairs. Flynn was still asleep, face down with a bare, sinewed arm over the dark haired and slender man lying beside him, also on his stomach. The sandy head and dark head were on one pillow in the early morning sunlight, and they were breathing softly and in near synch.


Paul's letters had explained a great deal, and Luath looked at the dark haired man against Flynn with close interest. He had known the name 'Dale Aden' in the city for years; he had never expected the man to materialise here, under Flynn's protective arm.

There had been another morning, some years ago, in the yard outside when Flynn had been ganglier and as awkward in appearance as he was in temper, saddling up a patient mare from the corral with the same silent detachment as if she was a motorbike or a truck, having flatly refused to eat breakfast with the rest of them. Philip had gone on drinking tea at the breakfast table with his studied air of not having noticed. Luath had followed him outside, and stood watching him efficiently tack up the horse until he found himself crossing the yard and jerking the bridle out of the boy's hand.

"Stop.  We don’t do that here.  You handle this horse with care and respect or you can walk everywhere. It's your choice."

He got the same look they all got from the boy whenever he was forced to interact with them: the glare of barely concealed, simmering anger.

"It's a bloody horse."

"It's a living animal," Luath informed him, "and every animal on this ranch deserves and is going to get your respect."

The boy shrugged his shoulders which were currently too big for his frame, and grabbed up the saddle which he hefted without any effort at all. He was fit, hard and as strong as an ox, and in Luath's judgement as stubborn as a mule.

"It's a horse." he said with enough indifference to make Luath's blood boil – and the abrupt swell of anger made Luath realise just how calculated the indifference was. Genuine, 100% proof provocation. This was no boy who didn’t care about horses. This was a boy in one hell of a tantrum, and that was an area Luath felt very competent to deal with. He swiped the saddle out of Flynn's arms in a clean yank.

"You aren't riding today."

"Do you want the $&*!@£%  work done or not?" the boy demanded, and Luath saw the surprise in the very dark and very angry green eyes. And for the first time understood the gentleness in Philip's face whenever he spoke to this young maniac.

"I don't give a damn about the work if it means rough handling of the animals." Luath told him mildly. "Go muck out the corral where you can be as rough as you want."

Flynn didn't understand that, and for a few undefended seconds the confusion showed in his face. This idea of other priorities other than sharply effective ranching was foreign to him.  As far as Mr O Sullivan was concerned, you worked, hard and efficiently, which produced money, which produced food, which allowed him to study. It was that soullessly simple.

Then he gave Luath one of his ferocious glares, one of the ones that scared most of the rest of the household into not daring to talk to him or go near him, and Luath saw it again. The simmering, bitter anger he was barely containing.

"You need to take some time and calm down." he said gently to the kid, and he was only a kid when you really looked at him. "Get some steam out from under your lid. Go walk or swim. You're not going near stock until you do."

He went back to saddling the mare himself, intending to cover Flynn's work himself alongside his own, and it was a minute or two before he heard the explosive curse and the sound of the kid spitting in the yard behind him as he walked away. A show of passionate aggression, but that was all. Only a show.

"You don’t scare me, brat." Luath said without looking round, and he heard the footsteps halt abruptly behind him for several seconds before they continued on, stalking towards the house.

He'd gone to Philip. Even then, defiantly alone in every conceivable way, he'd always somehow gravitated to Philip when he didn't know what else to do.

Darcy emerged from his room and led the way downstairs, heading into the wide, sunlit kitchen where the table was set with ten places, and the smell of baking muffins came from the oven. Darcy went to and hugged Paul, who looked fully awake as he always did in early morning, and who returned the hug with a lot of affection.

"Hey, good morning. I thought you two would sleep in after your flight yesterday. Did you sleep well?"

"Out for the count, I always do here. No responsibilities." Darcy helped himself to the milk carton open on the counter where Paul had been baking, and Paul automatically handed a glass down from the cupboard.

"Hey. We're civilised out here please. Darcy, what are you wearing?"

"I told you." Luath informed him, pulling a chair out from the table to sit down. Darcy grinned at him, twirling to show Paul.

"Top of the range-"

"Spray painted on." Paul shook his head. "Go and change. Now, quick, before Flynn sees you."

"They're high fashion!" Darcy protested. "Apart from which, you know I'm exempt from stuff like that!"

"That's nice, now go and change." Paul put a hand in the small of his back and pushed him towards the door. "Borrow a pair of Riley's jeans if you don't have anything decent, and put on a shirt, with sleeves, you'll burn in half an hour wearing that."

"Is the twentieth century ever coming to Wyoming?" Darcy demanded, heading for the stairs. Paul shook his head at Luath once Darcy was out of earshot, and Luath raised his hands.

"You think I get a say? He knows better than to come over to my apartment looking like that, but some of the things he walks out of the door wearing in the morning… I swear, Philip's going to come back and haunt me. Did you get any sleep?"

"A bit." Paul went back to putting the last of the bread in the oven to warm. "Jas came in about one am and took over with Ri, and I didn't hear anything else so I don't think Ri had any more dreams."

"Flynn and Dale looked pretty soundly asleep when I got up." Luath commented. Paul gave him a quick smile, going to the pantry for eggs.

"It takes Flynn to get Dale to calm right down, but Dale doesn't do anything by half. If he lets go, he lets go all the way. I don't think he's going to be able to move this morning, he doesn't have the faintest idea how tired he is."

"He's scared the daylights out of Darcy." Luath said dryly, and saw Paul smile.

“I know, Wade too, and the sad thing is that they don’t come any gentler than Dale.”

He was worried sick. Luath saw it in his face and heard it in his voice, and got up, coming to Paul who lost the rather strained smile altogether and let Luath wrap big arms around him.

"What do you need doing today?” Luath said softly. “How can I help? Flynn was starting to snap like an overstretched elastic band from what I saw yesterday, and Dale isn’t much better."

"Jas will know about the stock work." Paul took a breath and pulled himself together. "Although Jake and Tom, bless them, do most of the distance stuff which saves us a lot of time. And no, that’s not what you meant, I know. It was just one hell of a shock. Flynn found the landslide and for a couple of hours we were really looking at the possibility-“

Of Dale and Riley being underneath it. Paul couldn’t say it, but Luath tightened his grasp and Paul hugged him back, voice unsteady.

“I’m sorry. You of all people would get that, I am sorry.”

“I live here too.” Luath kissed his cheek and let him go, watching him pick up a hand towel and absently dry both his hands and his face. “So you were up with Ri half the night. I know Jas was out doing whatever it is Jas does outside to calm down in the small hours because I kept Dale company down here until Jas came back about one am. There isn’t one of you properly rested or calm. What can I do? Other than my first instinct which is to get Darcy and Wade right out of your hair and leave the five of you alone in peace for the day.”

“That would help.” Paul admitted.

Luath pulled out a kitchen chair and drew Paul down into it, taking the towel away from him.

“Then quit cooking and fill me in about Wade. I didn't have a chance yesterday to ask him why he materialised here without bothering to say a word to me, and I swear he was avoiding me all evening."

"Yes, he's avoiding Flynn too." Paul folded his arms on the table, and Luath could see the tiredness in the gesture. Paul rarely showed stress or weariness but Luath thought he had probably been working especially hard on keeping it from showing around Jasper and Flynn. "He isn’t talking if I try. Jas had a try the other day and got nowhere. Flynn's been meaning to find an hour or two to sit him down and get to the bottom of it and he usually gets furthest with Wade, but he hasn't had time."

"Ok. Then if I get Wade and Darcy out, you'll have a quiet house to try settling down your brats and anyone else in need of settling." Luath said briefly. Paul gave him a grateful nod, not arguing.

“Wade's in the study, he wakes up early and he was reading. I'll feed you three and Tom and Jake will be over in a bit, and I'll let the others sleep in as long as possible-"

“We can feed ourselves, we’re quite capable.” Luath said bluntly. “Leave it. Paul, leave it, we all know where the kettle is. Go back to bed.”

He knew the smile Paul gave him; it was a faint cousin of the smile he had so often seen Paul give Philip whenever Philip told him off or gave him orders; something Philip never did with any seriousness as Paul only ever gave him that affectionate smile and took no notice. He did however go to the cupboard and get out only five mugs, lining them up on the counter, and satisfied with that, Luath got up and headed for the study.


Wade stomped the entire way around the side of the house to the far end of the porch where Luath took him to be furthest away from disturbing anyone inside the house, and he leaned heavily on his walking stick at every stomp. Luath followed him, and took the stick away from him as Wade sat down on one of the wooden benches that faced out towards the home pastures.

"What are you doing with this? You weren't using a stick two months ago when I visited?"

“What are you marching me out of earshot for at this hour of the morning?” Wade demanded. “What happened to breakfast?”

“Stick.” Luath reminded him.

He recognised the look of early martyred brat. Wade had always been good at it.
"The community friggin' nurse thought I needed one."

"Why?" Luath laid the stick on top of the porch rail and leaned beside it, folding his arms across his chest. Wade gave him a grim look.

"Because I'm eighty four."

"Happy Birthday." Luath said bluntly. "Why did she want you to use a stick?"

"She said I wasn't fit to be going up and down the steps to my apartment." Wade muttered. "I said I'd lived there forty two years and she could butt out-"

"There's four flights of stairs to your apartment."  Luath interrupted. "What's wrong with the lift?"

Wade glared at him through still very bright green eyes. "I don't want to use the lift. I want to use the stairs."

"Ah." Luath said softly. "I see. Was there any physical reason at all why you've got that stick, or is this all about putting a nurse in her place? If she called you an old man you'd act like one? Is that what this is about?"

Wade didn't answer, but Luath saw the colour of his face change, and sat down beside him, linking his hands between his knees.

"What do you think Charlie would have made of this?"

"Doesn't matter much what he would have made of it now, does it?" Wade said bitterly. Luath shook his head.

"Oh you don’t get away with it that easily. What would Charlie-"

"Obviously, if he was here, this wouldn't be happening. Would it?" Wade demanded, shoving up off the bench. He moved perfectly well without the stick.

Brat, Luath thought, getting up to lean on the porch rail beside him.

"You don't have the monopoly on loneliness."

"It's different for you." Wade muttered.

"How?" Luath asked him. Wade didn't look at him for a long moment, then he twisted around and awkwardly put his arms around Luath's chest.

"Don't listen to me, I don't mean it."

"I know you don't." Luath hugged him back, firmly. "So what do you mean? I haven't seen you throw a fit like this in a long time."

"Yeah well you haven't seen me in a long time." Wade said sourly. Luath snorted.

"Is that what this is about? You being lonely? How many times have I said come live with me? How many times have you had Paul and Jas and the others try to talk you into moving out here permanently?"

"Gerry's offered too." Wade admitted reluctantly. "I want to live in my apartment. I want to live in Charlie's home."

And coming here, where the evidence of people very wrapped up in their partners permeated every moment of the day, felt both like coming home, and like having salt poured into an open wound.

"I do know." Luath said in his ear. "I miss Rog every day of my life. And yeah, I feel it most when I’m here. Sorting out other people’s brats in the small hours and before breakfast.”

“It’s the only time you ever get to properly boss anyone about.” Darcy said without the slightest embarrassment, coming to join them. In borrowed and much looser jeans, and a plain shirt, he looked younger and Luath thought more himself, more Darcy, than he ever looked in New York. He gave Luath a quick, faintly self conscious smile, and put an arm around Wade’s waist from the other side, giving him a hug.

“Paul’s disappeared and there’s no sign of breakfast.”

“We’re going out for breakfast.” Luath dug in his pocket for car keys. “We’ll go into Jackson. Wade, lay a hand on that stick and you’re going to get exactly what you’re asking for, I promise you.”

He got a half guilty look from Wade, who walked towards the yard with them without the faintest trace of a limp.


There was movement on the landing as Paul carried the tray of five mugs up the stairs, and Flynn came down to meet him, bare foot, obviously straight out of bed, and with a piercing look to him that Paul knew meant his eyes were still red rimmed enough to be noticeable. Flynn took the tray straight away from him, put it down on the stairs, and Paul put a hand against his face as Flynn reached for him.

“No, it’s ok. I’m all right, I’m just tired. Riley had a hell of a night.”

“What happened?” Flynn demanded, just as quietly. Paul leaned against the wall of the stairs.

“Dreams. And no I didn’t come and get you, you were beyond exhausted and Dale needed you.”

“Is he ok now?”

“Jas stayed with him. He had one awful dream early on, I couldn’t get out of him what it was about, he didn’t want to talk about it.” Paul took a breath. “He tried to tough it out, you know Ri, but after that I think he didn’t feel safe falling asleep.”

A car started up in the yard outside and Paul held on to Flynn before he could go to look. 

“That’s Luath. He said he was taking Wade and Darcy out to Jackson this morning, mostly to get them out of our way for a few hours.”

Dale was at the top of the stairs, similarly clad to Flynn and with his hair in his eyes, disarmingly dishevelled. Paul let Flynn go, went up the last few stairs and took Dale’s face in his hands, taking in heavy eyes and the concern in them. Dale was far too insightful.  

“How are you feeling?” Paul asked him. “Say ‘ok’ and I swear I’ll swat you.”

He saw Dale’s eyes warm and caught the faint smile, and Dale put his hands up to cover Paul’s, voice soft but honest.

“I’m tired and I ache, but I’m probably going to live. Are you all right?”

“I’m fine hon.” Paul said gently. “Where are you aching?”

“Chest, a little.” Dale admitted. “And back, low down.”

And butt, although he didn’t plan on mentioning it. From Paul’s expression he knew anyway. Without delicacy Paul turned him around and slid a hand under his t shirt, resting his palm over one of Dale’s shoulder blades and then the other as Flynn brought the tea tray upstairs, put it down on the oak linen chest and sat down beside it, watching with a grimness Dale understood.

“You’re not rattling, no congestion.” Paul said after a minute. “And you’re not hot. If anything, you’re still on the cool side. I don’t think you’re getting an infection sweetheart, I think you’ve just got a lot of energy to make up. Getting that cold takes a lot out of you.”

“What’s going on out here?” Riley demanded, emerging from his room. “Do you know it’s past eight?”

“I didn’t think anyone got a decent night’s sleep.” Paul looked up at Jasper who followed Riley on to the landing and leaned against the door post, folding his arms. Flynn reached for Riley’s wrist and dragged him over. Riley mechanically folded up in his lap, and Flynn hugged him hard, ducking his head over Riley’s.

“Did you get any dream-free sleep at all, half pint?”

“Not much.” Jasper said without waiting for Riley to answer. Flynn kissed Riley’s cheek, easing him to his feet.

“Ok. I’ll get dressed, and-“

“Don’t get dressed.” Riley said sharply, holding onto him.

“Ri,” Flynn said gently. Riley cut him off, voice rising. Dale thought he looked white and strained rather than angry, and he could see how tightly Riley was gripping Flynn.

No. If you get dressed you’ll go do things, you’ll go and work and so will Jas-“

That was painfully private, and something Riley would only have said in front of them. Flynn drew Riley back to him, smothering Riley’s struggling with arms too strong to fight off.

“Listen to me. The basic work’s got to be done. It’ll take a few hours, that’s all-“

today.” Riley said flatly. There was an edge to his voice that touched Dale to the heart, because he knew what it meant. He understood that sense of brittleness himself, the hanging on because you knew when you lost that little dignity and control, there was a damn great pit of mess underneath it.

Not today. Just take a few hours and stay here, just once.”

“Flynn?” Jake’s voice said softly from the stairs. He was dressed and he leaned against the wall to look at Flynn, kindly keeping his eyes from Riley as though nothing was happening on the landing at all.

“Darcy came over and had a word with us. Tom and I have got the essentials covered today, we’ll do the stock checks, and Luath said he and Darce will go up and check on Bandit’s herd this afternoon.”

He said it calmly, and Dale, who had seen Jake and Tom working on the ranch, knew they were as competent as Flynn or Jasper would require. Those who had lived on the ranch knew the work. Flynn didn’t answer for a minute, with his arms still around Riley, but Jasper nodded from where he propped up the doorpost.

“Thanks Jake. We appreciate it.”

Jake said nothing else, just gave them his usual easy smile and ambled downstairs again. They heard the kitchen door shut in the distance.

“Let’s go somewhere quieter.” Jasper said, straightening up. “The lake by the cairn, there’s no herds up around there, we won’t be disturbed.”

“I want Dale to spend another day in bed, and it wouldn’t hurt Riley either.” Paul shook his head at the look of outrage Riley shot him. “Ri, forget it. You two scared the daylights out of me. I don’t want either of you with chest infections or worse-“

“The hot springs.” Flynn said, keeping hold of Riley, and Riley stopped in mid breath and looked up at him. Flynn looked over Riley’s shoulder at Paul.

“Warm there. Won’t hurt Ri to get as wet as he wants. Dale can rest as well there as here.”

“Seriously?” Riley demanded, looking up at him. Flynn kept his eyes on Paul, who hesitated a minute, then sighed and nodded.

“All right. Ok. Dale, I’ll put out what I want you to wear, and I’m going to get you painkillers before we do anything else. Riley, you dress warmly, I don’t care how sunny you think it is.”

They left the four by four where the track ran out, a mile or two off the long, lonely road that ran by the main gate of the ranch. They had driven south for maybe half an hour, where the land grew rockier, and the track passed through a belt of woodland into steeper and wilder open land that ended at the top of a small cliff. Flynn parked the four by four there and they walked down the narrow shale path that led down the cliff not unlike the one that led down into the valley of Three Traders. These steep and rocky plateaus were very similar to the ones across the ranch, and water glittered blue in the sun at the foot of this plateau, but steam rose and drifted in a mist above one deep, basined curve of the river where the big, white and grey rocks broke the water in a circle, forming a large pool. Grass and then a beach of large, flat topped boulders surrounded the bank, and Riley dropped his jacket and stooped to pull off shoes, climbing bare foot over the massive boulders to the water’s edge. He crouched there to touch the water, and grinned, looking back to them. It was the first real smile Dale had seen from him all morning.

“Hot. Really hot.”

The place was deserted but for them. The river was still beyond the pool, flowing slowly and unhurriedly, and above the river, against the skyline, were the mountain ranges visible from the south of the ranch, shimmering slightly as the morning sun gained strength. It was going to be a hot day. The morning dew was drying rapidly on the grass and the sky was reaching the electric blue overhead that Dale had only ever seen in Wyoming. There was a soft, metallic tang to the air, and the rocks in places were stained deep ochre red from centuries of metallic deposits on their surfaces. The river would run rich with minerals, deep from underground. This was the land that formed quartz and gold, and left its deposits in the valley at Three Traders, miles downriver.

“Someone’s re built the basin since winter.” Paul commented, swinging his rucksack down off his shoulders.

“Emmett.” Jasper said behind him. “He spends hours here, fishing the river and soaking in the pool.”

“And Clara does.” Riley added, standing up to strip off. “But I can’t see Clara hefting rocks.”

He pulled off t shirt and underwear, dropping them with the rest of his clothes, and Dale watched him pad naked over the rocks, looking for a moment like something out of some ancient Greek art, clean male lines against the rough stone and the flowing blue water. Then he stepped down into the water, the steam rose higher, and Riley made a sound between a hiss and a sigh of bliss.

“Oh God, this is good.”

It was one of the most sincere prayers Dale had ever heard. Flynn’s hands closed gently on his shoulders from behind, and squeezed.

“Come here.”

Dale turned to face him and Flynn undressed him, practically in the same deft way he handled the colts. It was a touch that never failed to get straight to the core of Dale; those hands were powerful, efficient and very personal, and gentle for all their strength. It reminded him of something Tom had said.

You know that touch? It might be nothing more than the brush of a finger, but it moves you wherever.

Jasper was undressing a few feet away, much more darkly tanned than the rest of them, and leaner, with longer limbs as he stooped to gather together his clothes, then he stepped down into the water and disappeared into the mist with Riley. Flynn paused, leaving Dale to heel off his boots while he stripped himself, then he relieved Dale of both his jeans and his underwear, took his hand and steadied him, guiding Dale in front of him towards the pool.

The stone boulders under bare foot were a curious mixture of cool stone and sun warmth, the sun was hot and the breeze was fresh on bare skin, and the metallic tang in the air grew stronger as Dale breathed the mist rising off the rocking surface of the water. Flynn kept hold of his hand and stepped down onto the rocks below the water surface, looking back and waiting for Dale to follow. And then when Dale hesitated, he hooked an arm around Dale’s knees and simply lifted him off the bank. Dale grabbed for his neck for support, and Flynn waded deeper into the steam, twisted Dale around in his arms, and Dale felt the slide of his skin against Flynn’s, and the sudden heat of the water as Flynn put him down.

It was hot. Actually hot. Initially quite shallow, little more than knee deep, the smooth boulders under foot held the heat, and as Flynn steered him deeper into the water, it shelved suddenly to being chest deep and Dale stepped down after him into the mist, seeing Riley with his eyes closed, stretched back against the rocks, blissed out like a cat.

The rocks were worn smooth by centuries of wear from the underground thermal currents. Dale initially moved cautiously, then as he discovered there were no sharp edges, let Flynn draw him into the deepest part of the pool, and Flynn sank down to his neck, lifted Dale over as if he was a rag doll and turned him so that Dale’s back was to his chest and Dale’s head against his shoulder, folding both arms over him. And every muscle knot in Dale’s body melted away. The heat and the steam was irresistible, there was nothing in the world but Flynn and the water and the overwhelming comfort of it.

There was a kind of dreamy silence that went on for a long time. The steam lightened as the surface of the water stilled around them, and in amongst the warmth of it, Dale breathed the crisp, fresh air off the plateau and in the distance heard the soft chatter of birds picking somewhere in the grass. Across the pool, Paul had settled near Riley, his dark head back against one of the bigger boulders, his eyes closed. Jasper, arms folded on top of a shelf of rocks, looked out across the river and towards the mountains, his wet hair sleeked back. There was a strange, slightly screechy bellow in the far distance, and Jasper glanced back to Dale.


Dale had no idea what an elk looked like, but nothing more sensible came into his brain than a sleepy “Mmn”, and he felt Flynn’s smile against his neck.

“Now I know how to turn you to jelly.”

Actually, you could write a book on the subject.  

“There must have been volcanic activity somewhere around here,” Dale found a coherent thought in his head and pulled on it, determinedly accessing what he knew of geology.


“Over there.” Jasper’s nod directed him towards a long beach of the grey and white rocks, stark and stretching slowly uphill, and steam rose at intervals from between the rocks.

“No wonder there’s gold in the valleys.”

“There’s magnesium in this, Emmett had it tested once out of curiosity.” Paul said without opening his eyes. “There were other things too, but that was the one I recognised.”

“What did you do with the gold we struck?” Riley asked, and Paul put out a hand to take his arm. The surface rippled and splashed as he pulled Riley through the water to him.

“Don’t panic, I washed it off and put it in the study. I didn’t know what else to sensibly do with it.”

“Did you have any ideas?” Flynn asked. Riley cast a brief glance back at Jasper.

“Jas and I were talking about it around four am this morning. There was a market for making things out of gold still in the quartz at the time when gold was being mined- I mean it was a local craft thing, rather than just extracting the gold out of the quartz. It can be done and Jas has seen it. And the quartz is kind of as important here as the gold is? I’m guessing there’s probably more than enough for rings. Maybe five of them, quartz and gold? We didn’t do anything specific to show it when the four of us first committed- we talked about it, but at the time we didn’t want to make a big thing about it and we didn’t see any need to. But this is different.”

There was a moment’s silence, then Flynn said gently,

“I don’t need anything to prove who I’ve promised what to. But that sounds a great idea, half pint.”

“You’d actually wear a ring?” Riley demanded. Dale twisted to see his face, and Flynn gave him one of his brief, tugging smiles, looking from Riley to Dale.

“Only for you two.”

“Jas and I can go and stuff it.” Paul said conversationally, and Flynn splashed a wave of water in his direction.

“You’re the man I stopped swearing for. Shut up.”

“Mostly stopped swearing for.” Paul shot him a look of sheer affection.

“Jas?” Riley asked. Jasper gave him a calm nod, sunk to the shoulders in the water.

“It’s of our land, it’s our stone, mined by hand by the two of you on David’s own mining licence. I’m not sure it gets much more meaningful than that.”

“It certainly makes something good come out of the two of you nearly getting killed down there.” Paul said wryly. Riley twisted around and hugged him, folding his arms around Paul’s neck, and Dale saw how tightly Paul held him.

“It wasn’t that bad.” Riley said against his shoulder, muffled. “We were never actually in danger-“

Flynn cleared his throat loudly, but Riley took no notice.

“We were lucky and Dale knew what we were doing.“

knew what we were doing.” Dale corrected. “You were the one who made sure I kept away from the walls and tested the floors. I probably would have caused a rock fall in the first tunnel without you there.”

“Which part do you keep dreaming about, half pint?” Flynn said softly, keeping hold of Dale to stop him crossing the pool to Riley. Dale stopped, understanding Flynn had a reason, and Flynn relaxed his arms, keeping them folded over Dale’s chest. Riley gave him a half look, head still against Paul’s shoulder.

“....this and that.”

“Which ‘this’ particularly?” Flynn said mildly. Riley sighed, shifting back against Paul to get comfortable.

“The landslide. Still. Just seeing it all coming down towards us. I had several dreams...”

He took a breath and Paul’s arms tightened when he shuddered.

“Was this the first one you had last night?”

“Ticktock got caught under it.” Riley said it tightly and to Dale’s distress he heard Riley’s voice fracture as he got it out. “I couldn’t reach him, and he was screaming-“

“What happens next?” Flynn asked him quietly. “You see Ticktock go down?”

“That’s how it ends each time.” Riley admitted.

“What did you do when you saw the landslide start?” Flynn moved around the wall of the natural pool, drawing Dale with him and settling nearer to Riley. Jasper, chin still on his arms, was watching them from Paul’s other side.

“Dale realised what was happening first.” Riley said after a minute. “It was like an earthquake. Then the bank started to come down, and we got off the colts-“

“You said to get off the colts.” Dale said quietly but firmly enough to stop Riley. “You got the bridle off Ticktock, so I did the same with Flint, and you chased them back into the wood, and then you grabbed me and said we had to go uphill and stay on top of it.”

“And we started climbing.” Riley gave him a rather splintered smile. “Hanging on to each other and whatever we could, until we saw the tunnel open up in the bank.”

“I’d guess you’re dreaming about what you’re afraid would have happened if Dale hadn’t made it to the tunnel with you.” Flynn said quietly. “Which seems very natural to me. You two beat all kinds of odds to make it into that tunnel alive, I’d be worried about you if you didn’t realise how close a call that was. It’s processing, Ri. At the time you had your mind on surviving. It’s only now that you’ve got time to think.”

“So why Ticktock?” Riley said unsteadily. Flynn ran a hand down his back, rubbing.

“Because it’s a little less upsetting than seeing Dale go under in front of you. Dreams are usually symbolic. Your subconscious tries to protect you.”

“I wish it would try harder.” Riley sounded unsteadier still, and Dale moved out of Flynn’s reach to let Flynn get to Riley unimpeded.

There was a moment of silence, then Jasper reached across the pool, found Dale’s hand and pulled him over with too much strength to argue with. For a moment Dale resisted, annoyed by the implication that he could possibly feel left out or resentful of Riley taking Flynn’s attention from him – but Jasper won, without effort and without looking at him, pulling him close and folding his arms around Dale’s waist. There was no fuss or consolation in the gesture, and Dale relaxed, understanding it, and almost amused at his own paranoia. Jasper, Flynn and Paul were all demonstrative men and they acted on their instincts without bothering to consult on one’s finer feelings if you happened to be a brat of theirs. Dale folded his arms over Jasper’s, very aware of his solidity and his comfort, and of being so much a part of them. It was hard to watch Riley cry, but somehow here, together, nothing seemed very terrible.

They lounged in the water together for a long time, until fingers and toes pruned and the heat in the water relaxed them almost into a stupor. Paul made Dale get out when he did, to dry off and put some clothes back on, and on his insistence, Dale lay down in the soft grass. The hot water had left him relaxed and boneless, warmed all the way through and with the faint, persistent ache in his back and chest gone. He fell asleep almost immediately, a deep and peaceful sleep undisturbed by dreams or anything else, and when he stirred again, the sun was lower in the sky and he knew before he felt for his watch that it was mid afternoon. Riley was asleep on the grass some feet away, his head on Paul’s rucksack, his Stetson tipped over his face. Paul was stretched out nearby, a book open on the grass, but fast asleep with his head on his arm. Jasper, wearing shorts and nothing else, was standing on a boulder in the middle of the river, skilfully flicking a fishing line into the deeper water, and Flynn was sitting beside him. Dale sat up quietly and propped his elbows on his knees, watching them. He didn’t ever in his life remember feeling this relaxed and peaceful, or this safe. There was something mildly alarming about it; as if it shouldn’t be possible to feel this good. It was a feeling he remembered from the morning he left the ranch to fly back to New York, something he’d forgotten until now, but it had been that same sensation. Of almost too much emotion to contain, and a fear that it couldn’t be real. No one should be allowed to be this happy.

He heard Riley stir, and Riley tipped the hat back from his face, saw him watching, and smiled. His colour was better and it was his usual, lively smile, although his voice was soft in deference to Paul.

“Hey. You slept right through lunch.”

He dug in the rucksack behind his head and Dale caught the muffin Riley tossed over. Moving softly not to disturb Paul, Riley got up, Dale watched him shuck off jeans and t shirt, and followed him towards the water, dropping his own clothes on the rocks. The water was just as delicious the second time around. Riley swam a few strokes across the pool and Dale turned over and floated on his back to eat the muffin, near to purring as the heat sank into his bones.

“This is wonderful. Why don’t we do this every day?”

“Too far and usually too much to do.” Riley turned over to float beside him. “And it’s at its best in winter. If there’s a good hard frost, this is amazing. But I figure if there are two of us pointing out the plusses of quitting work early on cold days and coming here to soak, we’re more likely to succeed.”

Dale grinned and Riley straightened up to look at him.

“Would you mind about the rings? You didn’t say anything.”

“Mind?” Dale raised his eyebrows, looking at Riley in disbelief. “I’m still staggered that you invited me to stay in the first place. ‘Mind’ isn’t the word.”

“You still have no idea why, do you?” Riley shook his head, laying back in the water. “I’m going to get you some self esteem for a wedding gift. You don’t wear jewellery, nothing more than your watch.”

“Just habit, I suppose.” Dale said, thinking about it. “Neither do you.”

Riley grunted. “None of us do, other than Darce, who wears enough bling to deck out a Christmas tree if no one’s looking.”

Dale thought about that, reflecting on the big man he had met on the landing in the early hours of the morning.

“Luath and Darcy. They’re not a couple, are they?”

“No, just good friends.” Riley reached the side of the pool and leaned against the rocks. “Luath’s one of the way back whenners. He was here when Flynn and Jas first came. He started out as a business contact of Philip’s, I think, and then he quit when the company went bust and he lived here for about five years. I think he picked up a lot of the work Philip was starting to retire from, I can remember him flying out to meetings and what not on Philip’s behalf. He and Rog lived here together until he took the job out in NY.”

“Which one was Rog?” Dale asked, thinking back over the names he knew.

“He was Gerry’s generation,” Riley’s voice changed slightly, “He was very sweet, I loved him. He was very vague, mostly he forgot appointments and he was never on time for anything, and I never heard him yell the whole time I knew him. He loved Luath to pieces, that was about the one thing he could concentrate on. That and accountancy. For some reason numbers worked for him.”

It was plain from his tone as much as the past tense. Dale hesitated to ask, but Riley took a breath and said it resolutely.

“He was in the South Tower the day it came down. They never found him.”

Oh God.

Dale shut his eyes, thinking of a long, terrible night in a Tokyo skyscraper office, watching television screens with a group of hardened American and British financiers who drank coffee, said nothing, and at intervals wiped their eyes and went out to stand alone on the draughty balcony over the city.

“I knew a few people who died there.” he said quietly to Riley. “I’m so sorry.”

“Darcy was a very close friend of them both,” Riley said lightly, “He and Rog were like brothers when they were here, and Darcy took a job in New York when Luath and Rog moved out there. Not like us, it wasn’t a threesome, but Darcy was Rog’s closest friend and he spent a lot of time with them, and he took care of Luath after Rog died. I think Darce still half lives at Luath’s apartment.”

“And he’s single?” Dale asked. “Darcy? I thought Philip specialised in match making for brats?”

Riley grinned. “He’s not a brat. That’s a subject that can keep the family going for hours.”

Dale looked at him, and Riley laughed. “Ask him about it. But yeah he’s single. Ish. I’d guess Luath vets his dates pretty carefully.”

“But he’s not a brat?” Dale said quizzically.

“It’s not a clear cut issue.”

Paul was awake on the bank. Dale watched him dig in the rucksack for a kettle and come down to the flowing part of the river to fill it, expertly putting the kettle mouth well under the water to avoid any debris on the surface. Riley was still floating when Dale climbed out of the pool and walked down the rocks to join him.

There was a time when he’d been self conscious or anxious about being stripped off like this when he was around them – and he’d seen them do it plenty of times, they had a confidence in and a connection to the land, and they didn’t think twice about sleeping on the ground or practically dropping clothes to swim or dry off. There was an unfussy common sense to it that had always made sense to Dale, and it was obviously rubbing off on him. He was aware today of feeling no stress at all as he crossed the rocks to Paul, no tension, no rush of anxiety of how much of himself he was giving away. Paul looked up and smiled.

“Hey. Did you eat? You slept right through lunch.”

“Muffin.” Dale crouched down beside him, taking the kettle from him. “Let me do that. Do you want a fire?”

“Yes please. I’ll cook whatever Jas catches, it’ll be better than sandwiches.” Paul relinquished the kettle and Dale followed him back over the rocks, clearing a space in the shale to make a fire place in the way he’d seen Jasper and Flynn do. They always carried kindling from the bin in the barn, and Dale dug it out of the side pocket of the rucksack, laid a fire and balled a couple of pieces of the scrap paper that also went into the kindling bin, lighting them and watching to check they caught properly. Paul dug an iron hook stand deep into the shale and as the kindling caught and began to char, hung the kettle over it. His notebook was open on the rocks, and Dale glanced at it as he got up to retrieve some clothes, pulling on shorts and the t shirt.

“Is it a good writing day?”

“Not especially. I was mostly editing.” Paul pulled tea out of the bag, and the white tin mugs that lived in the camping kit in the barn. “I never get that much time for writing anyway during the summer, we’re too busy. And I’ve got a character stuck in Alexandria, who has to get back to London without being noticed, and I’m still figuring out how to get around the whole problem of passport control and all the rest of it.”

“There are the passenger liners to Cyprus.” Dale said without thinking, and winced as Paul looked at him. “Sorry.”

“You’ve been to Alexandria?” Paul demanded. Dale nodded.

“Briefly. It was about a three day meeting, an in and out job, and I didn’t see much that wasn’t part of the Corporate complex.”

“Passenger liners?” Paul sat down on the rocks, spooning tea into a canister. “Go on?”

Dale straightened his t shirt and crouched down to feed the fire, which was starting to get established.

“Cyprus is near enough to Egypt that they run short cruises to Cairo, small passenger liners stuffed with tourists under the supervision of tour operators. Easy enough to set up the papers and identity – maybe even someone travelling under those papers – to come in on one of those liners, hand the papers over to your man in Alexandria, and for him to quietly sail back to Cyprus in amongst a couple of thousand tourists, and go with the package holiday group back to London.”

“We’re probably lucky you worked for an organised Corporate who didn’t give you a lot of time to be creative.” Paul said dryly. “Or did you get this creative with them?”

Dale gave him a quick smile across the fire. “Not the forged identity, but there are ways of discreetly slipping people into useful situations without getting them noticed. A.N.Z.’s done work with the FBI on major fraud cases, and sometimes they needed someone who properly understood how the figures worked.”

“You’ve done that?” Paul asked. Dale shrugged.

“I’ve organised teams that did. Research and expert witness stuff, that was one of my main briefs. Forensic accountancy.”  

Paul shook his head. “I wonder sometimes how we keep someone with a mind like yours occupied enough not to go mad with boredom.”

That was such a ridiculous view point that Dale almost laughed.

“What? You write, amazingly well. Flynn publishes papers, you all work with clients and that’s on top of running the ranch! I’m going to be the rest of my life working out half of what you know about the work here. I’ve done the corporate suit and tie stuff, I won’t miss it. The problem solving stuff is fun, I’ll be glad to pick up odds and ends of that-“

“The forensics.” Paul said, realising what he meant by ‘problem solving’. Dale nodded.

“It’s like – it’s like doing very complex crosswords. I always loved that part. But I wouldn’t miss even that.”

Not in comparison with what was here. It seemed like another lifetime that he’d felt so trapped, so desperate that he’d seriously considered a permanent escape via a high balcony. If he’d known then what he knew now –

Flynn and Jasper were walking up the bank together, carrying eight trout, cleaned and scaled, and Paul pulled a skillet out of the rucksack.

“It’s just as well, given how much we’d miss you. Someone keep an eye on Riley before he falls asleep in there?”

“I heard that!” Riley yelled from the pool.

“Then get out and come and eat!” Paul called back.

There was no taste in the world like scalding hot trout, barely ten minutes out of the water, mixed with the taste of wood smoke, butter and the cracked black pepper Paul scattered over it in the pan. He fried two at a time, passing pieces to whoever had an empty plate, and they ate together on the sun heated rocks with the river rolling by.

As the afternoon shadows began to lengthen, Jasper walked down the bank, following the steaming boulders and the line of the river, and Riley went with him in shorts and tennis shoes, climbing easily over the rocks. Paul sat on a rock against the river, notebook in hand, and scribbled, mind in Alexandria, and the plates stacked untidily beside the dying fire. Flynn took Dale’s hand, pulled him up off the rocks and they walked back to the steaming pool basin hand in hand, pausing on the edge of the water to strip. Dale waded down into the water and stretched out in the deeper part, groaning with the now familiar pleasure as the heat of the water compressed every inch of him. Flynn’s familiar shoulder touched his and the water rippled as Flynn lay back beside him, tipping his head back against the rocks. His sandy hair was wet, he looked darkly tanned and fit and relaxed; like Riley, infinitely more himself than this morning.  

Dale found himself watching with almost proprietal eyes, and smiled at the thought. Flynn’s hand brushed his back under the water, rubbing at the small of his spine.

“Are you still aching?”

“Not since this morning.” Dale said with perfect truth.

The river splashed softly against the back of the rock basin as it ran. Through the steam, a long way down river, Jasper and Riley were walking together. In the distance in the other direction, Paul’s dark head was bent over his notebook, fully absorbed.

“You know what you said, about the only expectation you had from me?” Dale said, watching them. Flynn grunted without opening his eyes.


“I get it. Being happy.”

Flynn turned his head to look at him, very dark green eyes, and Dale shrugged, a little awkwardly.

“And that being it. I get it, without fussing or obsessing or anything else-“

“That was never going to be an issue anyway.” Flynn grabbed him under the water, lifting him without effort, and Dale twisted in his arms to kneel astride him on the rocks, his hands against the long familiar planes of Flynn’s chest. Flynn’s large, strong hands gripped his hips, water stood out in droplets against the skin of his chest and throat, and his face was its usual, matter of fact and slightly grim self through the steam, very near to Dale’s, with the eyes so kind that Dale couldn’t look away from them. 

“You’ll be happy because I’ll make sure of it. That isn’t something you’re going to have to worry about.” 

An old fashioned man who took his responsibilities seriously, and who’s view of responsibility went back far beyond the pettiness of corporate law. Dale stooped and kissed him, and Flynn’s hand came up to clasp the back of his head and pull him closer, and for several long minutes no coherent thought crossed Dale’s mind at all. There was just Flynn, his hands and his mouth, and water slicked skin, and he lifted Dale as if he weighed nothing, turning them both in the water to put Dale with his back to the rock shelf and covering him from head to foot – and then Riley called from further up river and Flynn took a breath, lifted his head to look, and gave Dale a smile that didn’t do much to hide how out of breath he was.

Riley and Jasper were walking back towards the pool, slowly but only minutes away. Dale took it in with the same realisation as Flynn, and then Flynn’s hand closed over them both, Dale’s breath went in one straight rush, and Flynn sank them both deeper in the water, finishing them in nothing more than a few strong and inexorable movements that made Dale fight with all he had not to reflexively bite into Flynn’s shoulder. Flynn held him tightly, steadying him while the tremors faded away, then his forehead rested against Dale’s and they both gradually returned to breathing normally.

Riley was saying something about arrowheads to Paul; Dale had no idea what. He lifted his head from Flynn’s and Flynn kissed him, a lot more gently. Then steered him gently to the shallower part of the pool where shaky legs mattered a lot less, and where they were no longer so curtained by the steam from the others.


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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Three Traders