Dale slid down to the ground, leading Snickers with him into the yard. Flynn had one of the very newly saddle broken two year olds in the stable pasture and was finishing tacking him up. For several weeks now Dale had watched him working patiently with this group of youngsters, walking alongside them with an arm over their backs, resting his weight in one stirrup, leaning on them before dismounting, and finally, mounting to sit gently in the saddle and walking them around the pasture. There was no bucking or sidling or any signs of anxiety other than an occasional quiver or a curious glance. Flynn, with his quiet hands and voice and his pocket full of oats, seemed to be able to do this without alarming them at all.
"Good, you two are lighter than I am." Flynn fastened the girth strap and moved to let Riley past him to take the bridle. "Take it gently and stay in the yard this time."
"For what?" Riley said shrewdly. Dale shrugged awkwardly, following him back towards the yard.
"Mhm." Riley gave him a careful look. "I apologise a lot when I've got a bad conscience about something. You don't have to tell me, but if I can spot it, Jas and Flynn will see it coming a mile away."
"I don't." Dale protested. Riley shrugged, still watching him.
"When you've got a damaged arm and shoulder?" Emmett said cheerfully. "I'm pre cognisant."
"And Paul has a big mouth." Flynn said without heat, looking at Paul, who gave him a serene shrug and held out a hand for Dale.
"Would someone give me a ring when he does appear then?" Emmett said hopefully, sitting down. "It's been far too long since we went fishing. I'll get the kit out of the loft and maybe we can take a day while he's here? Is he just swinging by to pick you up or are you two around for a while?"
"Time was, all you wanted was to head into Jackson for a wild night out." Emmett said, grinning. Gerry snorted, but he flushed a little.
"We go there only under protest." Paul agreed. "I think it's the same for most of the locals."
"You've never inflicted that on us yet." Riley pointed out. "That's the barbecue in the ground thing?"
"I can carry on with the stables." Dale said quietly. "That's the other heavy job left to do."
Paul was, by nature, always a good deal more ready to trust and to negotiate than Flynn, who Dale knew would simply have said 'no'. But that willing offer of trust from Paul was in itself more binding than the sternest of orders. It was easy to return his smile and Dale held up a hand, sincere. "I promise."
"Go on then. Thank you." Paul started to clear the table and Dale pulled on boots, heading back towards the stable where he and Flynn had been working through the morning. Several stalls remained to be cleaned and the passages swept and the feed bins filled, which meant then doing the corral feed and water bins too – it had become second nature. Dale was sweeping when he heard the stable door close and straightened up, and found himself looking at Gerry who came to lean both arms on the stall door, looking at him.
Dale gave him another look and then carried on sweeping. Listening, but not actively. It was always a good trick to discourage colleagues intent on gaining your support for something you didn't approve of. Gerry sounded more hesitant when he spoke again, as though the technique was working a little too well on him.
"I'm not used to people not liking me. I'm actually a pretty nice guy mostly? I've got a big mouth, I know, but people don't usually head the other way as soon as they see me coming."
"I was just surprised." Dale admitted. Gerry looked at him over his folded arms.
That was so accurate – and so kindly said – that Dale blinked at him. Gerry gave him a wry smile.
"You're the first one of us who didn't know either of them," Gerry added quietly. "I can't imagine how that feels. They were so much at the root of all of us, but like I said when I first met you, I'm so damn glad we're still recruiting. It's like coming back here and finding the ranch still running day on day like it always has. Flynn and the others just keep it rolling, and it's like waiting for Philip and David to stroll in for dinner. Like they're never really out of sight."
Dale heard the very faint crack in his voice and was startled as Gerry's eyes blurred with water. Gerry blinked once or twice and looked away, still smiling.
The silence was resounding. Gerry waited, looking puzzled. Dale swallowed.
The ready compassion in Gerry's face surprised him, the change was immediate and Gerry put a hand out to touch his arm.
"Qualifications?" Dale repeated, attention caught. Gerry nodded.
"I'm not rushing." Dale said mostly for his own reassurance. And he actually wasn't. Somewhere he had picked up Flynn's trick of steady efficiency, and it felt very different to the frenzied, high speed that he used to think of as normal.
Talking about Riley felt too much like betrayal. Dale changed the subject fast.
"Sorry. No, I'm not mad." Dale said fairly gently. "Just a lot to think about. Thanks Gerry."
You know where I'll be.
"For which you know we're incredibly grateful?" Ash added.
Dale gave him a rather embarrassed smile and went back to eating. Ash, who had started to eat his own meal, suddenly paused and gave Dale a rather closer look, but said nothing.
"Yes." Paul said, coming back for more plates. "He's a sweetie isn't he?"
"Sweetie-?" Ash repeated, sounding dazed. "That's Dale Aden. The Dale Aden! He looks so much younger in the flesh than he does in the photographs that I didn't really connect it until Gerry mentioned the bank and told me the surname. Dale Aden! A.N.Z's golden boy. The whizzkid that took Mirador Corps off the scrap heap and made them a multi billion deal! I've READ about that boy for years, the Wall Street Journal publishes columns on him by the yard - have you got any idea of what he's worth? He made half of A.N.Z's reputation and he sure as hell built a good part of their fortune too!"
"I need one." Ash said, still shaking his head. "If you have anything to do with the world of finance, this is like finding Elvis mucking out the stables! That man has a world wide reputation of his own, I dread to think what it's cost A.N.Z. to stop him being poached by a dozen other massive Corporates in about four different countries. C&E would give half their stock and their eye teeth to have him batting on their team!"
Paul sipped his own tea, taking a moment to think before he spoke. "You know this is private information I wouldn't give you if you hadn't recognised him, so -"
"I know your confidentiality rules." Ash interrupted. "Philip made them pretty damn clear and he had some big names in and around the place in his day- but you know Gerry's taken Dale as one of us, not a client at all? And from what he's told me-"
"Dale told him that?" Paul said, startled. Ash nodded.
"Dale is a lovely boy." Paul said with feeling, getting up. "And he's a bit on the fragile side right now, so yes. We probably are."
"And that's all?" Ash asked, watching him clear plates. Paul looked at him. Ash shrugged a little.
"Excluded?" Paul said in shock. "This is Gerry's home, he'd never be 'excluded' from anything here!"
"We don't actually give a damn about A.N.Z." Paul said, really quite shortly for Paul.
"How are you feeling?" Dale said lightly. Flynn grimaced.
Flynn nodded slowly, waiting. Dale took another breath.
"I remember." Flynn said quietly, watching him. Dale swallowed.
"Ok." Flynn put a hand over his and Dale felt the strength of the grip, warm and orienting. "What happened?"
"No – no one else saw anything." Dale admitted. Flynn shook his head.
"This scares the hell out of me." Dale confessed, dropping his head into his hands and rubbing at his temples. "I thought I was long past this – and there was nothing weird about it! With the other two at least I knew something odd was happening – I could see the office overlaid with the family room, things in the wrong place."
"Did you know it was David?" Flynn asked.
"And how old is he when you see him? Which photo is it? Is he like he is in the photo by the bed?"
"Halifax." Flynn said, recognising the description. "That one was taken before he ever came here."
"What is?" Riley got up and Dale twisted out of Flynn's grasp to get away from him, escaping to the window where he folded his arms and stood his ground by looking out at the pastures beyond. He heard Paul come downstairs, sounding perfectly comfortable.
And Riley's, "When? Where was it?"
"You seriously think it was him?" Dale said hotly, shocked. Paul propped his chin on his hands, considering.
"That could be anybody!"
"Great black -" Dale repeated blankly.
"And David was always damn awkward about doing what was expected of him." Paul agreed.
"This probably isn't the time, Ri," Paul said, seeing Dale's expression.
Dale grabbed up a cushion from the end of the couch.
"Well there's carrot sticks for the gluten intolerant." Riley said cheerfully, straightening his shirt. "It's all right."
"It's not that we're not taking you seriously honey-" Paul began, and Dale grabbed up another cushion to throw at Riley.
"There are no train wreck ghosts." Paul said firmly. Riley nodded at Dale.
Dale, trying casually to slide off Flynn's lap and keep his dignity, and not succeeding since Flynn's arms were folded over his chest and not moving, looked up at him. Jasper's face was easy to read if you knew him. No teasing, nothing but honesty, which was as crazy as everything else about these four people. And yet Dale was aware of something as ridiculous as Riley and his ant.
"I'm helping." Dale tried tactfully to detach Flynn's arms from over his chest and Flynn held on, making Dale eventually flat-out squirm to escape him, starting to laugh again.
Jasper grinned and got up, stretching long arms over his head until his shoulders cracked.