Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chapter 18



18


Dale moved silently and immediately on Paul's orders to pack, understanding what Paul was doing. Move fast enough and Flynn would have no time to argue. Within five minutes, he had a bag together and went out to saddle Hammer and Leo himself, leading both horses into the yard and tethering them to start tacking up. It was several minutes more before Flynn came out of the house, jacketed and with a bag of his own, and he stopped beside Dale, putting a hand out to grip his shoulder with a visible effort to take the grimness out of his voice and face.

"Dale. Do you want to come with me? You don't have to."

And leave you alone? Dale looked at him, seeing the tension in his face and shoulders, his burning need to get gone, to get away. Hurt and angry, mostly with himself. Paul was right; someone had to be with him tonight.

"It's fine." he said easily.

Flynn nodded once and went to finish tacking up Leo. Dale turned his attention back to Hammer, trying not to watch Flynn behind him.

Face it Aden. You get what Paul's worried about – and what Riley will be worried about when he calms down and realises what he's done – but you're not doing this for them, are you?

At least I know how not to make this any harder for him.

"I told Paul where we're going." Flynn said without expression. "The south west run. A couple of us ride down to the far south and far west fences once a year to check them, it's a two night ride."


           
There were several hours of daylight left, and they were deep into the south west territory before twilight fell. The horses walked quietly through the deep, cooling grass, following the lines of the winding valleys that led through the green foothills. At intervals rabbits paused on the plains to watch them, and birds rose in their small feeding flocks from the grass into the pink skies overhead, circling and calling. As the sun began to set, they rounded the corner of a steep valley and came out onto one of the plateaus, a flat, deep grassed shelf, cupped in the basin of the foothills and ending in a steep cliff that dropped down to the next plateau below. 

"This is a good place to camp." Flynn said brusquely, swinging down from Leo.


He moved as if he was born to live rough, and without a word, as if he was the only one on the plateau. Dale took the saddles from the horses, leaving Flynn alone while he hobbled both Hammer and Leo and took a knife from his pocket, jabbing it into the turf to mark out a square. There was a viciousness in the action that spoke worlds to Dale. He moved to the edge of the plateau, looking out over the spectacular views below. It was a while before he heard the sound of sticks snapping and looked back to where Flynn was turning out dry firewood from one of his packs, efficiently laying a small fire.  

"We'll have to look for more wood in the morning, to replace this." Flynn said curtly as Dale came back to join him. "Hungry?"

"Fairly."  Dale crouched on the soft grass and watched Flynn light the fire, then unpack another bag, handing him several of the wrapped parcels without looking up.

"See what those are. There's knives in there, mind your fingers."

Paul had given them more than enough to survive for a few days away from the house. Dale sliced bread and cold meat while Flynn built up the fire, and Flynn took the slices Dale held out to him. He dug a short, iron stake into the ground beside the fire, and hung a small kettle from the hook at the top, filling it with water, before he stood a few feet away, eating, eyes on the horizon. The tension was clearly visible. Dale could see it in his neck, in his jaw and fingers as he ate, the way he looked out over the land. It reminded Dale of how he had been sitting yesterday, alone in the meadow by the cairn.


"Do you do this ride every summer?" Dale asked softly enough for Flynn to ignore if he wanted. Flynn nodded briefly without looking back.

"Riley and I have done it the last few years if Jas couldn't spare the time."

As if he knew what Dale was thinking, Flynn looked over his shoulder, voice gruffer.


"Don't worry about Riley."

And you're not?  


"Did you camp much on your parents' station?" Dale asked gently, wanting to distract him.

"Often."

Dale waited. Flynn crouched down where he was, eyes still out on the horizon, brushing crumbs from his hands.

"No money to employ extra pairs of hands; the family did everything. I camped out on sheep watch or when we had to go to some far out part of the station from when I was very small. By the time I was thirteen or fourteen, I spent more time outside than I did at home."

Yes, that's good. Talk to me. If you're talking, you can't brood.

"How did you find time for school?"

"Low family priority." Flynn said dryly. "Sheep came first. I carried books everywhere I went, and read wherever I had time."

Dale folded his arms and rested his chin on them.


"Academics were a very high priority at the schools I went to. They got you up, they fed you, they exercised you, they worked you, there was even set times and supervision for playing at prep school. We got taken rowing, or taken to the cinema, or a group of us taken up into the woods, always supervised. It was quite a big deal on the weekends when we didn't have to wear uniform."

"Who sorted that out?" Flynn asked. 


That's it, sit down and talk to me.

"The housemaster's wife or the matron. The solicitors kept a running account with the house master's wife for whatever had to be bought for me, and she used to take me down into town and help me pick clothes and that kind of thing. But the whole focus was around school and work."

"I came away from the station desperate to be left alone to learn." Flynn said, sitting down and then stretching out full length on the grass. It was getting dark, there was mostly shadows under the brim of his hat, where his face was.


"Studying was counted as wasting time in my family. I wanted to be somewhere there was no work but studying. No fighting for the space or time to do it."   

"Did you get that when you came to the ranch?" Dale asked with genuine curiosity. Flynn grunted.

"The run of the study and the books whenever I wasn't working on the ranch. And Philip didn't overwork me by any means."

There was silence for a minute, and then Flynn drew breath again.


"Philip knew I couldn't afford the books and there's no libraries nearer than Cheyenne. No internet then. He got lists of recommended reading for the courses I took and I just used to 'find' what I needed on the shelves in the library. Philip read a lot of them himself. I was naive enough for several years to believe they were his. I was livid when I found out he bought them for me."

"That was kind." Dale said softly. Flynn let go a faint snort that sounded like a laugh.


"Yes. It took a while for Philip to convince me there was a difference between care and charity. I was a complete bastard at that age, Dale. Angry with everyone and everything. I was always amazed Philip put up with me long enough to straighten me out. I couldn't get my head around the idea of someone taking study- or me – that seriously."

He was still seeing it from the twisted perspective of that fiercely independent, badly hurt teenager. What had Gerry said? Philip saw him as a colt, sore mouthed from bad  handling. He'd obviously seen too, Flynn's intelligence, his determination, his deep capacity for love. This was a man of very powerful emotions.

Which is partly why you keep such a tight rein on them, isn't it? And you're someone who needs to be loved as much as you give it to other people. The others know it. Philip knew it. And he's all over your mind, isn't he? He's who you're thinking about.  

Dale lay back in the grass. It was deep enough here to cradle you, while you looked straight up at the sky above with the few remaining pink clouds vivid against the dusky blue grey. The horses were eating, the quiet sound of tearing grass came at intervals nearby. The fire cracked and spat softly, it's heat tangible across the cool ground, the wood smoke pungent in the air. The last of the light was disappearing behind the horizon ahead of them. There was a moment's silence, broken only by the crackle of the fire. Then Flynn got up, heading for the saddles and the bedding rolls.

"Philip was most of the reason I turned out relatively ok. Time to get under blankets, we'll be awake as soon as it's light."

Dale heard the change in his voice with a flash of tenderness that was ridiculous to feel for a man this strong. In every conceivable sense of the word. A lesser man would still be farming sheep on another continent.

They settled on the thin and surprisingly comfortable sleeping mats, side by side near the fire – Dale was slightly surprised that Flynn kept him so close, knowing the space he needed tonight - yet when he lay down, Flynn leaned over to pull the blankets further up over Dale's shoulders.

"If you get cold, wake me and we'll build the fire up. The temperature goes pretty low out here at night."

Even like this, he still has to look after. That's still the prime instinct.





Dale was woken suddenly by a bang so loud that the sky seemed to have torn in two. He started up with his heart pounding, fighting his way out of the blankets, shocked to find himself outside in the dark with cold grass under his hands. Flynn's voice came immediately from near by, calm and reassuring.

"It's all right Dale. Just a storm."

Just a storm?!

Flynn was already on his feet and heading for the horses. Dale struggled free of his blankets and followed, thrusting an almighty effort of self control over himself.

Flynn swiftly took the hobble from Leo's forefeet and Dale knelt to free Hammer's with hands that were shaking almost too much to be useful. Overhead, the sky lit up like day with two forks of white lightning and the crack of thunder was deafening. Leo reared and screamed, and Dale let Hammer go as both horses bolted, feeling his ears starting to sing.

Oh God, I'm going to lose it. I'm going to stand out here and I am seriously going to lose it-

Flynn's hands grasped his shoulders and Dale jumped, unable to stop the yelp.

"They won't go far and I'd rather they ran free than tried running against the hobbles." Flynn said as though he hadn't reacted, steering him towards the fire.

"We'll stay by the fire and I'll make some more tea, I don't think we're going to get much sleep for an hour or so."

He said it so calmly that Dale found himself resisting the crazy urge to laugh. Sleep? No. The air was so still and heavy that the electricity was tangible, adding to Dale's sensation of struggling to breathe. The sky beyond them was beautiful, orange and grey, outlining Flynn in shadows as he knelt over the fire. Another mighty white crack appeared across the valley, followed by another mighty crack that echoed in the hills around them. Dale couldn't stop himself flinching. Sweating, throat dry, he dug his hands deep in his jacket pockets. Grown men were not afraid of thunder. No man had any right to be so pathetic. Especially when Flynn was in no state to have to worry about pulling him together.

"I'm –" Dale heard his voice crack and squeak, and cleared his throat sharply.

Terrified. Yes Aden, you're making it obvious.

"I'm going to check on the horses, I'll be-"

"Come here." Flynn looked up from the fire and held out a hand.


To stand anchored to him like a child was too pitiable to be tolerated. Worse still, there was an overwhelming impulse to do just that: to cling to him like a terrified child. Dale backed away, digging his hands deeper into his pockets.

"No. I'll just be-"

The next crack of thunder made him involuntarily cry out and Flynn moved so fast Dale didn't see him until Flynn had hold of him. For a moment they wrestled, Dale trying to fend him off, and then Flynn's arms locked around him and gathered him so close he couldn't move. Face against Flynn's jacket shoulder, crushed, Dale felt the weight of Flynn's head against his and Flynn's voice in his ear, ridiculously normal.


"Breathe. Dale, breathe."

To his humiliation Dale realised he was struggling in nothing more than sheer panic. He stopped and felt Flynn gather him closer, capable and too powerful to be resisted. His hair was soft, his breath warm and his jaw scratched softly with night stubble.


"That's right. Breathe."

It took effort to make his frozen chest work. Dale could feel himself shaking all over, his stomach boiling until throwing up was a serious possibility. As was dying of sheer humiliation. He took a breath and felt the thumping in his ears ease a little. Another breath and he tried to get his hands up and politely move away from Flynn.


"I'm sorry. I'll be all right in a minute-"

"No bullshit." Flynn said firmly, not letting him go. "You are safe, I'm not going to let anything hurt you. Sit with me, I'm going to make tea."

He kept hold of Dale's shoulders taking him to the fire, and his idea of 'sit with me' was for Dale to sit on the blankets exactly where Flynn pointed him, which was pretty much against Flynn's side while he filled the kettle with water and put up on the stake over the fire. Then he sat down on the blankets beside Dale and wrapped a blanket over Dale's shoulders, pulling him close and holding him tightly.


"The storm is miles away, we're safe here. Although it's not that you're worried about, is it? It's the sound you don't like."

It was too humiliating to think about. Dale folded his arms, shaking hard.

"It's stupid."

"No, it's not stupid." Flynn put a hand down and Dale resisted the urge to struggle as Flynn forced him to unfold his arms. "Fears come from experiences. At some point you've had information that this sound was something dangerous, and that comes from a part of your brain that doesn't deal in logic or anything but adrenaline. It's a chemical reaction-"

The crack over their heads was the loudest yet and Dale flinched hard.


" – and you've got no control over it." Flynn finished as if they hadn't been interrupted. "Dale, turn around and hold on to me."

His arms kept trying to fold of their own accord, and Flynn kept blocking them.


"Turn around," Flynn said again, just as firmly, "And hold on to me."


"No, I'm all right."

The swat against his hip was light through jeans, barely stinging, but it interrupted his automatic struggling. Dale awkwardly went where Flynn drew him, turning his body against Flynn's and still more awkwardly lifting his hands to hold on to Flynn's arms. At the next crack of thunder he involuntarily clutched at Flynn with a good deal more strength and found his head under Flynn's, Flynn's arms locked around him, and an overwhelming sensation of Flynn that surrounded and enclosed and dominated the terror and everything else.  


"I've got you." Flynn said calmly against his hair, rocking slowly. "It's sound and light and it's miles away from us. Look."

Dale opened his eyes, finding the courage to look at the deep grey sky split from heaven to horizon with another bolt of white lightning. His flinch at the next crack of thunder forced him deeper into Flynn's body – there was no part of him now that Flynn was not holding. They were so tightly pressed together he could feel the slow, steady thud of Flynn's heart against his chest. The fire was warm against their legs, the grass rustled softly under the beginnings of a cool breeze, and the sky was a colour Dale had no name for. His shaking was gradually subsiding and it was the first time he had ever understood how people could call storms 'beautiful'. 



The storm less stopped than gradually faded away. The sky began to clear to bright stars visible high above them, and after a while Flynn shook out the blankets beside them with one arm, re making the bed by the fire.

"Lie down. I'm not going anywhere."

He didn't actually let go while Dale shifted to lie flat underneath the blankets Flynn held out of the way. Flynn covered him over and Dale felt Flynn's warmth close against his back as he stretched out on his side, propped on one elbow with an arm heavy over Dale's chest. Dale clenched his hands to stop their trembling, keeping them under the blankets. Just the weight and warmth of Flynn was overwhelming any remainder of fear, it had been the difference between terror and coping over the past half hour and while Dale was still embarrassed, there was a part of him that sank itself without shame in the simple affection of Flynn's arm around him, Flynn's body full length against his.

"I'm sorry. I was always afraid, even as a kid."

"At home?" Flynn said above him, reaching past to lift the kettle down from the fire and fill the two mugs he had stood there a while ago. Dale shook his head.

"I can- remember being in the dormitory – prep school, we must have been about eight I suppose – all of us terrified, no one admitting it, all of us talking about how stupid it was to be afraid of thunder."

"And no one came?" Flynn put a cup into Dale's hand and Dale heard him sip from the second. The tea was strong and hot and fragrant, as comforting as Flynn's body spooned against his.


Dale shook his head, shutting out the memory of that dormitory. "Not at night. Not unless someone went to get them."

"Someone should have tried that on Riley." Flynn said darkly. "I'll bet Jas has had to chase him back into the house at least once tonight. I've seen him stand direct under lightning storms to watch."

Dale thought about that, looking down into the mug for a moment.

"Flynn?"

"Yes."

"How hard will Riley find it that we've gone?"

Flynn didn't answer for a minute. His voice was quiet but direct.


"Riley knows me. I'm not good at sharing this kind of thing. Riley isn't good at taking a rain check."

"I can piss Flynn off but good when I try." Riley said himself, cheerfully and honestly.

That said it all, and Dale realised he was worrying needlessly. That wasn't the issue here. Riley usually saw straight to the heart of the matter and he loved Flynn. Uncritically, wholeheartedly. He and Flynn were both open and straightforward men who didn't understand prevarication or manipulation or the kind of cynical strategy Dale had seen in the relationships around him all his working life. There was a cleanness, a forgiveness and understanding here that made perfect sense to them, and it made Dale feel soiled by comparison.

So it wasn't Riley. Dale thought again over the evening in the study, looking through Philip's letters. That had been the root of all of this, the beginning of Riley's digging, the beginning of Flynn's withdrawal.

"I saw he was upset the night we were in the study." he said softly.

"He missed Philip." Flynn said abruptly. "We all do. There are still times when –"

He stopped for a few seconds, as though it physically hurt to think, then Dale felt Flynn's arm over him relax, and once more Flynn's hand rubbed slowly where it rested over his chest.  


"He said there were always things he wanted to talk to Philip about."

Yes, Dale thought, watching the fire. And that hurt like hell, because Philip was the only one you ever talked to like Riley meant. You love Riley and Jasper and Paul, you'd do anything for them, but you can't say this to them because you see it as weakness. 

No wonder you've always understood why I struggled with it. We're very much alike you and I. We'll neither of us willingly let go.

"Did Philip ever come down here with you?" he asked on instinct, wondering why they had come so directly to this camping spot last night. He heard the pause before Flynn answered, sounding almost ashamed.  

"…..Yes. David used to come out here a lot.  Philip camped here looking for him several times.  And we did the south west run no few times ourselves."

Yes, and you had to come where Philip was. Oh Flynn.

"He came looking for David?

"David had a habit of disappearing when he got an idea. Or when there was something going on he wasn't all that interested in doing.  Like mowing, I understand that was a sure way to see David vanish."

Dale shifted, turning onto his back to see Flynn's face. "Really? He'd take off?

"He was an adventurer in heart and spirit, he had been since he was a child." Flynn drank tea, stretching further out on his side under the blankets. "Just because he stopped sailing the high seas didn't mean he could stay in one place all the time. Philip used to say David needed every square mile of the ranch's space."

"And Philip didn't mind?

Flynn smiled. The first real smile Dale had seen in a few days. "He understood David. Oh I think he minded sometimes. He was a businessman- always lived in a house, suit and tie, proper meals – David was only just the sunny side of wild, ate if he remembered, and living indoors was a fairly major concession. They compromised and Philip knew how to bend. He was so patient it could drive you mad. Calmly, cheerfully, not a trace of frustration or any doubt he'd win. He'd just wait."

There was an amused exasperation in his voice that suggested to Dale there had been more than one occasion when it had been Flynn who had been waited out.

"He sounds an unusual kind of –" Dale trailed off, not sure how to put it.

"Top?" Flynn said gently. "He was and he wasn't.  He had that .. aura .. around him.  You knew exactly where you stood by the look in his eyes and the feel of your conscience. No one obeyed him because they were afraid of him- I never knew a brat or an animal here who was. You did it because you didn’t want to disappoint him- you couldn't not want to please him. He didn't micromanage- in fact he made it clear that he trusted you to know what you were doing - but he didn't miss a thing anywhere on the ranch. He knew exactly what everyone was doing, right or wrong, and he'd never call you on the carpet for it either – somehow you'd end up going to him and telling him about it yourself. You were safe under his wing.  You were cared about.  There wasn't anything that he couldn't straighten out or make better if tried, and he always tried."

The tone in his voice was almost painful to listen to. Dale kept his gaze on the fire, not wanting to interrupt so private a thought. Eventually, when Flynn said nothing more, he said lightly, wondering:

"What did he make of you and Riley pushing each others buttons?"

Flynn finished the tea in his mug, eyes down.  "He always knew what to say to Riley." 

Dale stifled the urge to smile, recognising the strategy as one he used himself.

That's a cop out Flynn, and you're talking to an expert in the art.

Flynn put the mug out of reach and lay back to look at him.

"What is it?"

"Did he let you go?"

He could see that Flynn knew what he meant. He didn't answer for a moment, thinking. Then nodded slowly. "Yes. He always let David go too. Just somehow he always ended up … almost letting himself be found, sometimes before you even realised you were looking for him."

So what is it you need to talk to him about, Flynn? What is it that you can't say to anyone else?

Flynn stooped over him and Dale felt the heavy weight of the kiss Flynn dropped on his forehead as if he was Riley.

"It's ok. Get some sleep."

A last, soft rumble of thunder came from a long, long way off.


*


Dale fell asleep quite easily, considering how severe his reaction to the storm had been. Flynn lay with him, listening to him breathe and staying close enough that Dale was lulled by his own breathing as much as the steady crackle of the fire. For all he radiated such independence on the surface, it was the most basic things that touched Dale the most deeply. There had been a few nights when they were sharing a room that Flynn had heard him getting restless in his sleep and done nothing more than sit beside him, or put out a hand to touch him, knowing it would instantly calm him.

He lay awake for some time by himself, watching the fire sink into itself. Philip had brought him out here more than once for no other reason than to get a rein on him when his temper went beyond the bounds of the ranch house and the proximity of the others. It must have been hard for a man of Philip's age to sleep out here but Philip had never shown any sign of weakness. His physical strength had been as unshaken as his determination and his refusal to ever give up on you, his utter certainty that this would work out as he said it would. There had been times when to surrender and believe in Philip's faith had been the anchor that had enabled Flynn to continue. To believe he could survive in a college in another country; to believe he could face another farm, another wild country, and survive it; to believe he could survive what he lost when he walked away from the sheep station in Otago, knowing he would never be welcome there again.

He had lay on this plateau like this, with Philip, more than once on a dark night – sometimes at ridiculous times of year for camping, although Philip never took that into consideration – talking, with no one but Philip there to listen to what he said. That Philip never thought twice about walking away from the others and the house to be out here alone with him had been a gift in itself that Flynn had never forgotten.

Yes, well at home sheep came first, and there were five of us. No one ever got that kind of attention. Dad wouldn't have known how, even if he had the time.

A faint snort came from a few feet away. Flynn lifted his head but didn't move, knowing it, and a few seconds later a soft, heavy nose brushed the back of his neck and a deep harrumph sound with the scent of grass breath came from above him. Bandit. Sound and scent travelled far on a night like this: wherever he had the mares, Bandit must have heard them and come to see what they were doing.

Flynn rolled over, easing himself away from Dale, and got up to take Bandit's head in his hands, rubbing the stallion's long, soft face. There was no way to know how far the stallion had come – it could easily be miles, he could cover distance at an amazing speed with that long, floating trot of his, and if he knew the mares were safe and within range he would patrol vast distances around them some nights, controlling his territory. He nudged at Flynn, bracing his head against Flynn's chest and pushing, and Flynn patted his neck, voice too low to disturb Dale.

"No. I don't need anything from you tonight, mate. We're not going anywhere, it's ok."

Riley swore Bandit understood every word you said to him. Flynn thought himself that the stallion had his own brand of ESP. Whichever it was, Bandit turned back towards the direction of the valley but waited, until Flynn walked with him, slowly across the grass.


He had seen Bandit foaled – or to be more accurate, had a direct hand in his foaling, having seen his mother in trouble one night while he was sitting up on the rocks in the nursery pastures, watching the herd below- and he had trained Bandit himself as he trained every horse on the ranch. Another skill he had learned from Philip, done alongside him, and gradually taken over from him. The stallion had been intelligent enough that he learned before you had even fully shown him what you wanted; he had always been interested more than afraid in every new experience, and he had the same gentle temperament towards familiar people that he showed with his mares. And he was a joy to ride.

They paused at the entrance to the plateau – a narrowing in the low rocks and hills that surrounded the plains here – and Bandit turned his head to scent the air. Even as a harem stallion – free on his own land, with his own herd, unbridled, he came to Flynn whenever Flynn needed to move the mares or to separate out one of the herd: alert, waiting for Flynn's orders, the most competent lieutenant any man could ask for. And he was asking now in that same way, dropping his head against Flynn's neck; a beast that outweighed Flynn in size and strength.

Oh Captain, my Captain….

Flynn put a hand on his neck, suddenly very tempted. Then on impulse, took a handful of Bandit's mane, stepping closer, and he felt the stallion wait, knowing instantly what he meant to do.

It was not the first time he had ridden Bandit bareback, although it had been several years since anyone had ridden the stallion at all. He was still taller now, broader and more muscular, and the immediate sensation of the sheer power moving beneath him was intoxicating. Flynn barely tightened his calves against Bandit's sides and felt him respond, moving smoothly into a walk, and then into his gliding trot that sailed over the grass, his hooves almost silent despite the weight and force behind them. The sky was a deep, dark blue and stars were visible now; it was light, with good visibility, getting colder, and the air was fresh against his face. Another touch – barely more than that – and Bandit stepped into a canter so smoothly there was no jolt. He loved the night too. Flynn stooped over his neck, feeling the powerful muscles moving smoothly underneath his sleek coat, feeling his desire for speed, the joy of open ground – all this open ground, my ground – and the freedom and the power to reign over it. King of the plains, the lord of this ground.

With any other horse on the ranch, Flynn would have been watching the ground, guiding. With Bandit, the idea was laughable. Bandit knew more of the plains than any human, he ran this land he had been born on without hesitation, knowing every danger there was, and one step ahead of it all. One of the many small creeks came into view ahead, shining in the moonlight, and without thinking, Flynn felt Bandit gather himself and moved with him, feeling him launch and sail over the water. His blood was racing, his heart thumping with the joy of the flight and Flynn couldn't help himself. He turned Bandit with nothing more than a squeeze of one knee and the lightest draw on his mane and put him at another stretch of the creek, a far wider one. The canter speeded up, Bandit went towards the water with his neck stretching, pleasure in the challenge, gathered himself in one stride and tucked his massive hocks, floating over like thistledown. He landed like a cat, sure on his feet, and Flynn felt him gather himself once more, muscles tightening as he sailed up and over the rocks on the bank beyond, clearing them with feet to spare. Once beyond, Flynn moved to touch a heel lightly to the stallion's flank – and never needed to make contact. Bandit took the thought straight from his mind and his stride lengthened, his head lowered, the canter stretched into a run that tore the wind through his mane and over Flynn, the two of them galloping smoothly over the open grass with nothing for miles around them.  





He didn't go far. The night was clear and Dale was sound asleep, but there was too much of a chance of him waking and finding himself alone. Eventually, with reluctance, Flynn turned Bandit back towards the plateaus, and the stallion slowed to a walk where Flynn drew him in, standing still while Flynn slid down to the ground. It was something he hadn't done since a boy, but in the dark, unseen, Flynn hugged Bandit's head and felt the stallion nuzzle back against him. When he stepped back, Bandit turned and started back on his patrol again, his high, gliding trot sailing him over the deep grass out towards the plains once more.

Flynn walked slowly back to the fire, dropping a few more pieces of wood on it before he lay down beside Dale, careful not to disturb him. And flung himself on his back, hands outstretched on the cool, damp grass, looking up at the sky with the last of the excitement still racing in his blood, still catching the last of his breath.

Sublimation? Oh there was material for another paper right there.


*


It was not yet fully light when Dale woke again. He didn't remember the end of the storm, or falling asleep. Flynn was warm against his back, and the horizon was a soft blur of pink and yellow across the grey. Dale eased gently away and Flynn stirred and turned over, settling back into sleep. Hammer lifted his head from across the plateau where he was grazing, Leo a few feet away from him. Dale got up and walked stiffly towards him, and Hammer came across the grass, placidly nuzzling at his hands. Dale petted him, watching the light grow over the hills in the distance. Hammer walked with him to the edge of the plateau, to the edge of the steep shelf with its steeper drop down about twenty feet to the grassed shelf below.

In the distance, on the edge of a hill, the low shells of stone buildings in the rock were visible beyond the grass, and some of the plateau below was grassless, the rock bare beneath the early morning sun. Two men were walking slowly towards the stone cuts, hand in hand, hatless and in their shirtsleeves. It took perhaps five minutes of concentrated scrambling to get down the very steep and partly rock face of the cliff to the next plateau, during which Dale grazed both hands, but he reached the lower plateau with the light growing brighter in the sky ahead of him. The two men paused, the taller of the two with wild dark hair and a smile that lit up his eyes, the shorter and broader with a face so kind that Dale's heart turned over.

"This is the quartz mine, you know." David said cheerfully. "Short of making him sleep on top of it, you couldn't have done much better."

The accent was strongly British. They started to walk again and Dale followed them, seeing the open doorway of the mine shored up with timber and heaps of earth and rock on either side.

"There were plenty of good seams left." David commented, stooping down to run a hand through the earth. "Usually near the surface. This was a creek bed once, the villagers found the crystals in the water. They said the seam protected the village. Here."

David's fingers flipped over earth and Dale saw the flash of colour underneath the stone that David rolled out. It lay on the earth, one or two uncovered spots sparkling through the mud in the early daylight. David looked up and gave him another of those flashing smiles that went through Dale like the light rising on the horizon.

"It's all here for you when you look."

"No one knows what to do for him." Dale said to the man holding David's hand.

The man's smile deepened, his eyes soft in a way that twisted Dale's stomach. At school, on open days, at the end of terms, he had seen men look like that at their children. The intensity of it upon him was so strong it was almost unbearable.

"Yes, you do." Philip said mildly.

The sunlight glinted and Philip was abruptly gone. Dale spun and saw the flash of light on the plateau above, the brief outline of a man stooping by the smoking remains of their fire where Flynn lay sleeping.

"You're the one who won't do it properly, you know?" David said beside him, with what sounded like a good deal of amusement, and then another finger of the rising sunlight hit Dale's eyes and he blinked, dazzled. The two men were among the ruined stone buildings in the distance, walking slowly, hand in hand.

The next streak of light woke him as suddenly as the thunder had, making him rouse up from his blankets. Flynn was sleeping next to him. The horses cropped softly. The plateau they lay on was empty and still and lit by the first of the morning sun above the horizon in long, blinding fingers stretching out across the shadowy grass.

Dale fought his way out of the blankets and stood, searching the grass around them. No one but them. It had seemed so real – ridiculously real, just as it always did – he could still hear Philip's voice. Shivering slightly, Dale walked to the edge of the plateau and looked down. The lower plateau had the same bare rock, the same dark area Dale knew was the entrance to David's mining experiment.

The scramble down the plateau cliff was no easier than Dale remembered it from the dream. He grazed his hands and one cheek, and fell the last few feet onto the wet grass, which soaked his sore hands and the knees of his jeans. Dale rubbed his hands dry on the denim, walking slowly towards the open mine entrance. The same heap of earth beside the entry. The same earth David had turned in his fingers. The same glint of stone. Dale crouched, putting a hand out slowly to touch. Under his fingers, he cleaned enough of one of the jagged facets to see the shine of rose beneath.

 What was left of the old creek still ran some way past the stone village, and Dale washed the stone in the chill running water, shaking away the mud. Palm sized, it glittered in the water, pale as coloured ice. Dale turned it over in his hand a few times, and then on impulse, studied the angles of it, turned it to the right position and knocked it hard against one of the limestone rocks that bedded the river. He had judged the point of impact right. With barely any splintering or powdering, the quartz split neatly, the new facet brighter than the outside ones. Dale shook both halves in the water once more and rose to his feet as Flynn's voice lifted from some way off.

"Dale!"

"Here." Dale raised an arm, waving. Flynn stood on the edge of the plateau above, hat pulled on and jacket collar turned up against the early morning cold, watching with both hands on his hips as Dale walked back to the foot of the cliff, surveying it for the best way up.

"How did you get down there?"

Dale gave him a look, raising his eyebrows. "Well I climbed, obviously."

"Obviously." Flynn said darkly. "Get up here and be careful. Rock hand holds, not grass, the grass is wet."

It was actually quite an interesting challenge from a problem solving point of view. Never having attempted any kind of deliberate rock climbing before, Dale found himself appreciating Riley's interest in it as he found hand holds and footholds on his way up. Flynn was crouched on the top of the cliff, watching and saying nothing, although as Dale came into reach, he took a tight grip on Dale's arm and held on while Dale hauled himself up onto the grass shelf. Dale pulled himself up onto his hands and knees, finding himself strongly tempted to smile at Flynn's expression, which was anything but welcoming. So typical of him. And seeing that look, Dale could well understand Riley at times giving way to the temptation to push this so reliable and easy button on Flynn when he needed reassurance.

"Good morning."

"Are you all right?" Flynn demanded. Dale sat back on his heels, brushing off his hands.


"Yes, thank you."

"Are you sure?"


"Quite."

He was expecting it, and it came as no surprise when Flynn took him by the belt of his jeans, pulled him forward over one jeaned knee and the palm of Flynn's hand dusted the tightened seat of his denims, soundly, four or five ringing swats that echoed in the valley. After which he put Dale on his feet and stood up, looking at him from a bare few inches away with very level, dark green eyes.

"Don't wander off, and don't climb up or down anything unless I'm with you. I don't want you lost or hurt. Are we clear?"

"Yes sir."

And ow.

Smarting and breathless, Dale put a hand back to rub at the resounding physical message, aware he hadn't thought twice about the plateau cliff or its safety.

"What were you looking at down there?" Flynn asked, waiting pointedly for Dale to come away from the edge. Dale walked ahead of him, back towards the fire, fishing one half of the crystal out of his pocket.

"This."


Flynn took it, eyebrows raising as he recognised it.

"You found it down there?"

"It's David's mine." Dale said lightly. "…. Or rather I suppose it must be David's mine, I can't think of who else's it might be."


He couldn't help the grin breaking out as Flynn looked at him, eyebrows raising even further.




They ate breakfast together by the fire which Flynn banked up to heat tea and to fry some of the remaining slices of meat. He looked a good deal better this morning. Watching him, Dale saw the colour in his face, the angle of his shoulders. Taciturn, but not withdrawn as he had been over the past few days.

This is what he needed. Except away from Ri, he'll worry. He's like Bandit; needs everyone in his sight, no one gets left behind.

You're the one who won't do it properly.

Do what properly? The thought niggled.

Dale ate, his eyes on the ash-white fire. A.N.Z. had sent him often enough to deal with difficult clients. Conflict management, body language, observation: they were bread and butter skills, skills Dale knew he used automatically and well with clients and with colleagues. He'd diffused more than one serious breakdown in diplomatic relations in high powered teams, but he'd never before tried to use those skills deliberately for someone he cared about. Certainly not on Flynn who was his superior in every conceivable way. And honesty was a serious issue. Manipulating clients was one thing; honesty was a deep seated root in this unspoiled man, an old fashioned man with strong values, and Dale was ashamed to even consider those strategies here.

Who am I to even try that with him?

You're the one who won't do it properly.

Do what properly?

If he was sent out to work with a client or a team, he would do all the research he could before hand, and on reflection. No few of his obsessive habits helped there. Dale knew he was capable of ploughing through and sorting information tirelessly to gather conclusions, and he had vast – vast – amounts of data collated on Flynn. None of it on paper. What he knew about Flynn was based on experience, observation, interview of Flynn himself and of the others who loved Flynn, and still Dale knew he barely had a handle on this phenomenally complex man. He found himself covertly glancing up, watching Flynn eat, his dark sandy hair visible under the brim of his Stetson, his long fingers deft around the bread he tore, the very dark green eyes looking out over the plateau. Unshaven, ungroomed this morning as Dale rarely saw him, he was distractingly rugged. There were no easy conclusions to draw about Flynn.  

So what are you trying to do Aden? You're only here by the grace of Paul wanting him to have company – any company.  Not even Paul and Jas can do anything for him when he's like this and they're his family. Some broken, ex exec with the emotional literacy of a teapot is hardly likely to be able to do anything for him.

But there has to be something I can do.  

They packed up together, Dale tacking the horses while Flynn stamped out the fire and replaced the turf, typically careful to leave no traces of where they had been. He was as compassionate with the land as he was with animals. The horses, despite the storm, were placid and came willingly when they saw Dale pick up the tack. Which was also typical. Dale buckled Leo's girth, nudging a shoulder firmly into his stomach to stop him ballooning as he liked to do when he was saddled. Of course Flynn could release horses under a storm without doubt they'd come back. He trained every horse on the ranch himself, and Dale had seen how. They associated him with nothing but good things and safety, protection, leadership. When afraid, what else would they do but stay near to him? Someone had said once that in the worst of weather, under threat, even Bandit brought the mares down to Flynn at the ranch, seeking out help from where he knew he was assured of it.

And yet you, with supposedly more sense than a horse, who's had how much reason to trust that he knows what he's doing, struggled to allow him touch you through that storm until he overwhelmed you by brute force.

You're the one who won't do  it properly.

Dale continued to buckle the bed rolls to the saddle and the saddlebags, resting his head against Leo's saddle to hide the flush that automatically crossed his face.

That was a severe reprimand to a perfectionist, and it was given from an experience brat to a rank amateur. Dale knew he'd told himself that particular phrase several times around Ash and Gerry. A brat, not doing it properly. He'd been afraid of their critical gaze, some assessment that found him wanting, not qualifying to belong  – just what did brats do when they did it properly?

There was the kind of careful obedience he tried to maintain because that was a part of it. The effort it took to commit to the expectations, the limits, to work with instead of against, to be openly honest– all of that he took very seriously and Dale knew he held himself to strong standards for it. He willingly accepted the authority, he willingly took orders, he understood why, and there was an open relief and a welcome in how right it felt to him – apart from that endless, nagging concern that he was not getting it right.

Which is that stupid, perfectionist brain, not me. I am doing it properly! What else is there to do?

Leo stirred, shifted his weight on to his other hindquarter and nudged Dale, knocking the lump of quartz against his leg, through his pocket. Dale put a hand down into his pocket and gripped it, rough and cool.

You're the one who won't do it properly.

Won't. Won't implied a deliberate choice. Refusal.  

No one knows what to do for him.

Yes, you do.

It was like a hand reaching direct into his chest and pulling a layer of cloud away. It was so simple – so breathtakingly simple he had never even noticed it.

You love him; stop using your stupid, stuck brain and pay some attention to your guts instead, Aden! Stop second guessing and do some of what he's been trying to teach you to do for six months!
 

Dale dropped a hand on Leo's neck, straightened up and headed across the grass to where Flynn was using the haft of his knife to re knit the turf he had lifted last night. He glanced up as Dale reached him, and Dale crouched down, bringing their heads to the same level.

"Flynn, we can't do this."

"Do what?" Flynn gave the turf a last prod and put his knife back in his pocket. Dale folded his arms on his knees.

"You know what Riley thinks he's done."

Flynn didn't answer for a minute, crouching where he was. Then he answered briskly and detachedly.


"The others won't let him worry, he didn't do anything-"

"Yes, he did, and he knows he did." Dale said mildly. "He wouldn't back off and leave you alone. He can't do it, and you know he can't do it. Paul and Jas always will because they know that's what you want, but Riley can't. He's driven you away."

"I can't be there like this." Flynn said quietly and very seriously, not looking at him. "I have a temper, Riley goes straight to it when I'm winding him up. I won't risk letting it loose on him."

"Because you'd be as biting to him as he is to you,"

"When he does it, I
know it's only sound and he doesn't mean it." Flynn said shortly, getting up. "Leaving isn't a good alternative, I know, but it's a better one, and it's only a couple of days."


"You know I'd never realised how much Riley loves you." Dale said aloud, very gently. "He won't give up, will he? It isn't your attention he wants. He knows exactly what's wrong and so you won't let him near to you. What part of you is he going to see that's so dreadful it's better you go away?"

"There's things he doesn't need to know about." Flynn said very curtly, heading for the horses. Dale leaned his elbows on his knees, watching him.


"He knows how badly you're still grieving for Philip, because he is too."

"Dale, I'm not good at sharing this kind of thing." Flynn said without much expression, unknotting Leo's reins. "I'm just not."

"You make me try." Dale said bluntly.


Flynn looked at him.

Dale could sit in the most uncomfortable looking knots on the ground: it was the long, slender legs crossed at the ankles, the arms that wound around them, graceful as a deer. He could occupy ridiculously little space and sit there so quietly that you barely felt his presence.

Paul trying to say any of this, would have made him still more bleak: Jasper knew him too well to try. And Riley – had Riley said any of this with his usual incisiveness and lack of tact, Flynn knew he'd be wrestling with his temper now. But when it was Dale, with those wide and steady, dark eyes and that quiet voice… it was impossible to harden against it. Dale, who contained so much himself and didn't know how to lash out at someone else in word or deed, who understood because he wrestled with his own demons, and who did the very best he could against them as Flynn asked him to.

And who had every right to ask the same of him.

Ashamed, Flynn crossed the grass to him, crouching beside him to put an arm around Dale's slight shoulders, and unexpectedly, he felt Dale put an arm up around his neck, returning the embrace. From Dale, that was so wholehearted a gesture that Flynn shut his eyes, touched and surprised at the depth of comfort there. Dale's longer fingers threaded through the hair at the nape of his neck and grasped gently.

"Why is this so hard? I know it's Philip you want to talk to. I know how I'd feel if I couldn't talk to you. But you and Jas and Paul- you've told me again and again, there's always someone else, and if I believe there isn't, I'm not looking properly. Or I'm not trusting people I should be trusting."

He felt Flynn take a breath, not lifting his head.

"It isn't that the others wouldn't listen or understand." he said eventually, thickly. "These are just things Philip knew, he was the first one I told them to,"

And he made you believe he was stronger than you, you never had to worry about showing weakness to him.

Dale went on holding his neck, holding his head as if he was Hammer, or Bandit.

"My father," Flynn said eventually, without looking up, "Wasn't a talker. My mother wasn't either, although with her it was mostly exhaustion; but my father hardly ever said anything to anyone, and he'd walk away from any conversation he didn't want to have, anything he saw as weakness of any kind. He had his expectations and you met them, end of story. This was exactly how he handled anything difficult. He got silent, he walked away.  I tried to say that to Philip so many times: it's hard enough both loving and hating someone, without having to see the very worst of them inside yourself too."


"You do not do to Riley what your father did to you." Dale said quietly. "Flynn, you don't. I've seen you do this three times – twice when Riley scared you, when you seriously thought he was going to be hurt. It had nothing to do with punishing him, or showing him he'd failed, I was there. Was that how your father used it to you?"

"That was how it felt at the time, on the receiving end." Flynn said bleakly. "But no. I don't think it was spite, I don't think it was intentional, I think he had - no idea what to say or what to do."

"And God, can I relate to that." Dale said with feeling. "How many times have you told me that's nothing I need to be ashamed of? You expect me to learn better but you've never blamed me for it."


"I don't blame him." Flynn lifted his head, steepling his hands in front of his face. "Or I stopped once I got past the child point of view. He had basic concerns like stock needing to be run and mouths needing to be fed and bills needing to be paid, and he – he took those responsibilities very seriously. That was how he saw them. That was what a man did."

And I can see that same sense of responsibility in you,
Dale thought silently, watching him. Who teaches us what it means to be a man? You take what you learn and you run with it. Jerry Banks and his ilk taught me, and I never realised why it didn't work until you started in on me in the kitchen, prying the phone and blackberry out of my hands.

"He was the product of his generation." Flynn said, shrugging slightly and lowering his hands to look at the grass. "I can't blame him for that. I can't blame him for not understanding or seeing the point of learning for learning's sake, when people needed to eat and the family's livelihood was in the station. He never knew any different."

"So why blame yourself for being the product of your generation?" Dale said gently. "How many kids your age had the guts to do what you did under those circumstances? That kind of determination, that kind of self initiative. I've seen a lot of very powerful men, Flynn. Some of them were lucky or manipulative, only a very few have the kind of drive you do. I've always respected the hell out of them, because they worked for every damn thing they had. They earned it all. Philip clearly thought you were worth investing in."

And Philip would have looked at men with a business mind – Dale saw it clearly, because that was how he always looked too. Not just the sum of the parts before you, not just the facts, but the person, the dynamics, the potential you saw to move the project on. Sometimes you saw the potential, ignored the figures and took a gamble, because those rare clues were the most powerful of all.

"It wasn't just wanting to study, or the ambition, there were other things." Flynn said, getting up. Dale watched him take a few steps away, clasping his hands behind his neck.

"There was the basic fact that no family or neighbours were going to tolerate a gay man living amongst them, and if I wanted any kind of life it had to be somewhere else. The relief when I first came here and found it was normal – there was usually a houseful whenever I came here and they were all as open as all get out. The first time I walked into the kitchen there was some guy planted on another guy's lap, sitting at the table, and he didn't even bother to get up when he shook hands. I'd never even seen pictures of two men together. I went into shock for about three weeks. And Paul was a Godsend. You know what he's like, it's impossible to be freaked by him and he doesn't hold anything back, I'd never been around a man who was just that plain affectionate or kind. And there was no embarrassing him, he'd talk about anything, and he realised how little I knew."

"And Jasper was still up in the barn?" Dale asked softly. Flynn smiled faintly and wryly although he didn't look round. Dale was watching him in profile, stood against the edge of the plateau.


"Yes. He was Paul's other project. Paul was pretty lonely after David died. He'd put everything into looking after David and then looking after Philip after he lost David, and when things settled down again – Philip said once he had to do a lot of talking to convince Paul to stay, and that he was needed. You know he's useful at almost anything on the ranch but he was a housekeeper, that was the work he wanted. Philip talked him into staying, but it wasn't really until Jas came that Paul started to get interested in anything."

Dale listened silently, aware that once this would have been 'personal' information, the kind the family didn't share outside themselves.


"Jas and I were the same age and both not keen on being around the others," Flynn said with deliberate lightness. "Neither of us wanted much conversation. We haunted the ranch at night up on the tops until we had some really heavy snow and Paul came up and made us come down to the house to sleep. After which, Philip wouldn't let us go again. Jas had Riley's room at the time – the one right at the end of the hall away from the others, it was about the only way he could tolerate being indoors."

And the three of them, the three outsiders, banded together. Dale saw it without difficulty, as Philip must have seen it: the group forming, in a house of couples and less unusual men who moved through and moved on. He got up, crossing the grass to where Flynn stood, and on sheer impulse stepped forward- hesitated for a second, and then very gently put his arms around Flynn's waist from behind.

These men were accustomed to being touched, to affection shown, and Flynn did nothing more than raise a hand to cover Dale's, leaning his head against Dale's as Dale rested his chin on Flynn's shoulder.

"You know this isn't the answer?" Dale asked quietly, looking with Flynn at the mine and the ruins below.

Flynn didn't answer for a minute. Then lifted his arms, crossing them across his body to hold both of Dale's.

"You're suggesting what?"

"Home." Dale said simply.

Flynn eased back and turned to face him, still feeling the gentle pressure of Dale's head against his neck. Someone else used to rest a hand there when he couldn't bear any other touch; the memory went through him, making the hairs on his arms rise as if someone had brushed past him. He had no idea how long he and Dale looked at each other there on the grass.

Then he passed Dale to pick up the last of the bags from where the fire had been, strapped them to Leo's saddle and went to take Leo's reins, looped them up. Dale came around him to reach Hammer, and without comment Flynn caught Dale as he passed, turning Dale to face him and wrapping an arm around his ribs to hug him so tightly he lifted Dale off his feet.





The morning sun was getting hot on the grass when they reached the gate of the home pasture, and Flynn leaned down over Leo’s neck to open it. Dale drew in his reins and backed Hammer a little, and looked past the gate with Flynn, seeing the green, battered jeep standing in the yard outside the house. He recognised it at the same moment he saw the shock on Flynn's face.

"That's Emmett."

Dale took the gate from him and watched Flynn take Leo across the yard in a steady trot to the barn where he swung down and knotted Leo's reins to the tethering ring in the wall. He was up the steps and into the house before Dale reached the barn, and by the time Dale tethered Hammer and followed him into the kitchen, it was empty. There was no sign of breakfast laid out at what was always breakfast time in this house. Flynn's boots were uncharacteristically abandoned overturned and scattered by the door and Dale paused for a moment to heel off his own, before padding into the family room, uncomfortably aware of his dusty jeans and shirt. Usually he and Flynn would have stripped in the kitchen's bathroom before going into the house.

A few voices were coming from the landing upstairs and Dale climbed the stairs slowly, his stomach tightening. Too much was wrong, the signs were not good. Paul's voice came from above him on the landing, unusually low but firm.

"- Emmett knows what he's doing and he's not worrying. He hasn’t been that bad."

"Where would he pick up flu or anything like that out here?" Flynn's voice was just as muted but fierce, and Dale knew the tone. "He hasn't been into town for weeks, no one's been out here but us."

"Honey, people do just get sick." Paul moved into sight at the top of the stairs, gave Dale a faintly harried smile and came to meet him, giving him a warm hug that took no notice at all of dust and combined greeting with a good deal of reassurance.


"Hi. Don't look so worried, Riley wasn't too well last night. Which probably explains why he was wound up enough yesterday to sneak off by himself."


"I said that wasn't normal for him." Flynn muttered, pushing a hand through his hair.

Paul moved a little to let Dale up onto the landing, and through the open door of Riley's room, Dale caught a glimpse of Emmett’s green dust jacketed figure sitting on the edge of Riley's bed, intent on something in his hands. A tube, running to a clear pack of liquid hanging up by the bed. Dale recognised it with an icy jolt of alarm. Paul's hand was still on his waist and he squeezed, his voice calm.

"Dale, it’s all right. It's quite normal for Emmett to do procedures out here in people's homes that you'd usually see done in hospitals. He just wanted Riley to have the fluids, he got dehydrated during the night."

"I'm used to knocking IV nails into people's walls." Emmett commented, glancing across the landing and giving Dale a brief smile. "I heard you two were out doing the far west run. The wild land."


Flynn had gone to lean against the door post, looking down into Riley's room. His arms were folded over his chest and his face was set and expressionless. Paul patted Dale's hip where his hand rested, making Dale look at him.

"It’s all right. Go and change those clothes. Emmett, I'm going to make coffee and a proper breakfast, come down and join us when you’re ready."

"Sounds great." Emmett let the tube go and Dale came slowly closer to stand beside Flynn at Riley's door, his mouth drying and his stomach twisting viciously as he saw inside. Riley was stripped at least as far as the waist and his tan looked darker against the white of the sheets. The bright patchwork quilt that covered his bed was pulled up to mid chest and several towels were spread around him, bearing testament to a difficult and uncomfortable night, and the room smelled faintly of disinfectant. Riley’s eyes were closed and he lay very still, abnormally still for Riley. His hair damp and darker than usual against the pillow, his face a nasty shade of white and grey. Even from the doorway Dale could see the dark shadows under his eyes, making them look bruised. A chunky plastic tap was in the back of his hand, taped down, and a tube ran up to the pack of clear fluid Emmett was checking beside the bed.


"He's asleep." Emmett said to Flynn, getting up. "It took a while to stop the vomiting, he's worn out and he's dehydrated, but the fever's under control now."

"It can't be flu." Flynn said grimly. "I've lived out here long enough to know how and where we pick up bugs. We've got no sick stock I'm aware of, no contaminated water, unless it's Crypto-"


"If it was Crypto or any of the other waterborne bugs he'd be streaming diarrhoea, and he's not, so I'm not so worried. This could be food poisoning, gastroenteritis from one of your calves, could be anything." Emmett said calmly, closing the green army rucksack at his feet and getting up. "I've taken blood, I'm going home to run the tests and I'll call you if I see anything else, and I'll be back this evening to see how he's doing. Right now he needs sleep and fluids, and he's getting both."

"Thanks." Flynn said just as shortly but sincerely. Emmett touched his shoulder as he passed him, and headed downstairs. Flynn moved quietly past Riley's bed and took the rocking chair that stood beyond it, leaning with his elbows on his knees, close to the bed, his eyes fixed on Riley. His hands were tightly clasped between his knees. Clasped because he was forcing himself to keep them back, not to touch or to disturb Riley's sleep. Dale stood for a moment, eyes torn between Riley’s white face and Flynn’s granite one, knowing there was nothing he could do or say that would be of any help to either of them.  




Jasper had gone out to do the bones of their daily work – the checking of the sheep and cattle herds, the checking of the water and food supplies. It was what had to be done, irrespective of weather or any other event, and it was characteristic of Jasper to go and do it, unseen and unnoticed, freeing up the other two to be with Riley. And there was a generosity there typical of Jasper: Dale knew without hesitation that Jasper would find it no easier to leave Riley right now than the other two would. But his example was something Dale could follow.

He left Paul feeding Emmett and slipped away to make a start on the now familiar yard work, putting Hammer and Leo, groomed and fed, into the corral, and cleaning the stables before he checked on and watered the horses in the stable paddocks. Hard, physical work that kept his body busy and which killed dragging time, but did nothing at all to blot out the sight of Riley's white-grey face or the tube running into his hand, or the anxiety marked strongly on both Flynn and Paul's faces despite Paul's attempts to be reassuring. This had happened so suddenly, the change in Riley was so extreme it was alarming, and Riley was so naturally lively, animated and irrepressible – the sheer stillness of him was unnatural and it nagged at Dale relentlessly all the time he worked.

"I'm going down to look over the mares," he said through the kitchen doorway some hours later. Emmett's jeep was gone from the yard and Paul was sitting alone at the empty table. It wasn't often that Paul did nothing: Dale was used to seeing him occupy his hands most of the time, whether it was with cooking, or writing, or simply maintaining the kitchen, a room he spent a good deal of his time in and which was his favourite room of the house. He looked up at the sound of Dale’s voice and shook his head, managing what was, for Paul, a distinctly weak smile.

"No. Leave them for today. You saw them yesterday afternoon and you must be tired."

"I don't mind." Dale said without trying to return the smile. Paul stopped trying too and held out a hand.


"Well I do."

Dale went to him and Paul grasped his hand, looking up at him more searchingly than was comfortable. Those soft eyes saw a great deal; Dale never underestimated Paul, who was astute in ways the others weren’t.


"You got him to come home, didn't you?"

"He was worried about Riley." Dale said awkwardly.


"I'm sure you both were." Paul said dryly. "It's all right honey. Jasper took one look at Riley and knew he wasn’t feeling well. He didn’t get into any trouble, we had him in bed and asleep by seven. I thought he'd sleep it off until he got sick around three this morning and couldn't stop."

Dale wasn't aware of his face changing as the impact of that went home – all of this and where did I have Flynn? Out messing around with me in the middle of nowhere, when he was needed here, when he would desperately have wanted to be here - but Paul must have seen something. He pushed his chair back away from the table and put an arm around Dale’s waist, pulling Dale down to his lap. The trained impulse hit immediately to flinch, to ball up, to move away in alarmed embarrassment because men didn't do this.  

And you don't even know why, Aden. It's habit, nothing more, you don't even try to think before you do it! Forget the crap, think about what's real for pete’s sake! Do you actually have an opinion on this instead of a lot of acquired bigotry?

Dale took a deep breath and turned instead to face Paul, deliberately returning the hug and feeling the sudden and surprised tightening of Paul's arms around him in response. Not just a kind gesture; it was the first time Dale realised it, although there was inestimable warmth and comfort in Paul’s arms. But this too was something that Paul did to seek comfort as much to give it; a turning towards a trusted friend in the way that all this family did when they were afraid or unhappy, and the understanding arrowed through Dale, obliterating any sense of effort. Knowing that, how was it possible not to put your heart into your arms? Where would you find someone cold enough to not want to comfort Paul any way they could?

Paul's eyes were probing and very acute when Dale sat back, and he put a hand up to touch Dale's face, brushing along his cheekbone before he pushed Dale's hair back out of his eyes.

"How about we make a decent meal?" was all he said; as comfortably and calmly as though this was any normal day.

"I don't know you'll get anyone to eat it." Dale said uncertainly. Paul put him on his feet and got up, heading for the pantry.


"If it's there, people will eat. And when I'm stressed, I cook. It's very calming. Chop two of those for me?"

Dale caught the bag of onions Paul tossed to him and turned them over in his hands, somewhat embarrassed. It seemed such a stupid, banal thing to have to admit.


"…..Paul? I –  I've never lived anywhere there wasn't a canteen. I have no idea what to do with these?"

"Then this is a very good time to learn." Paul took a knife and a chopping board out of a drawer and set them out beside him. "Bring them here and I'll show you."



*



Riley didn't stir throughout the evening, which to Dale lasted several years. The silence in the house was terrible. This house was never silent in the evenings, and there was a tangible hole where Riley should have been. Jasper came in, showered and Paul went upstairs and brought Flynn down, who sat at the table with them while they all picked at a meal. Their concern was tangible. Dale's own was thudding, awful, and swallowing anything was impossible. Flynn across the table was doing little better, and Dale could read in his face and his shoulders where his mind was. Working, nagging at the problem, looking for the slightest foothold in it.

"It is not 'flu." he said eventually, putting his fork down. "I don't care what Emmett says. There's been no one here to catch anything from."

"No sick animals." Jasper said quietly. "I checked the lot. The vaccination logs are up to date, and I handle the cattle herds which are the most risky ones, Ri doesn't have that much to do with them day to day."


"Which leaves water." Flynn sat back, looking across the table at Jasper. "Where has he been working this week? He took one of the rams up to the ewe pastures yesterday, he took out two of the two year olds for me,"

"He came back wet on Monday," Paul said abruptly. "About mid morning. He'd been up to look at the flocks out on the other side of the wagon crossing on the river and he said some of the sheep had trampled down branches to stand out in the river, it was turning into a mud bath. It took him a while to clear."

"That'll be it." Flynn pushed straight to his feet, heading into the pantry. Paul got up too and followed him, pulling an empty jam jar and lid from the shelf to give to him.


"Be careful, it'll be dark in an hour."

Flynn didn't answer, taking a jacket from the back of the door and shouldering into it as he headed down the porch steps.

"There are parasites in the water sometimes." Paul said to Dale, starting to collect dishes since it was apparent no one else was going to eat anything more. "Picked up from the animals. If it's that, it's not serious."


And he has to do something, no matter how pointless. Yes Paul, I know.

Although Emmett hadn't thought it was likely from Riley's symptoms. Dale silently got up to help, watching Paul fill a glass of water and head upstairs. One of them had been with Riley for most of the day, even though as far as Dale knew, Riley hadn't woken.


Jasper went outside to lock up, and without intending to, Dale found himself heading upstairs, moving softly along the landing towards the open door of Riley's room. The glass of water was on the table beside Riley's bed, untouched. Paul was sitting in the rocking chair and Riley was asleep, although Paul had pulled back the covers, stripping him from head to foot. Bare chested, slim in the white shorts that was all he wore, he was not still now. He twitched and murmured every few seconds in his sleep and Dale could see the flush on his face. It was so unlike Riley it was awful to watch. The IV pack above the bed was half empty and Paul was lightly holding Riley's hand, protecting the tube that ran into the back of it, although his fingers gently rubbed and stroked rhythmically back and forth over Riley's knuckles.  

"He's getting hot again." Paul said softly, seeing him. "Emmett's due back in an hour."

Emmett had expected the fluids to help more than this. Dale stood for a while, fear acid in his stomach and throat, hands in his pockets to prevent himself giving into the impulse to touch, to do as Paul did and get hold of Riley in some way that reassured him that Riley was still there. There had to be something to do. The feeling of impotence, of inactivity, was unbearable.


Come on Aden, you've a brain, use it. There has to be something.

It flashed to him in the memory of something Flynn said at dinner. Dale left Paul sitting where he was and with no one to see or to question it, he went quietly through the side door on the landing, closed it behind him, and went up the short flight of stairs to where the computer stood at the desk in the small office.

They didn't password protect it.  Dale felt a sharp surge of affection for the four men who owned this computer as he accessed what he wanted. None of them were particularly IT literate and they didn't really see much need for it, plus they trusted by simple word of rule, that it stayed out of use unless it was genuinely needed. Dale opened up a couple of his familiar search engines, starting to run the information he wanted, quickly and accurately, sinking into the detached work mode where he could drink in and filter information at speed. Obsessive, compulsive, ritual speed that increased as the familiar skills began to kick in. There had been many times when A.N.Z had booked him on a flight to a company he knew nothing of the products of, where he had the length of the flight to gather the knowledge he needed, and gathering and organising data was an old, old habit. No matter what the information. Dale followed link after link, taking in the data, cross referencing it and reeling it away, until he reached across the desk and picked up a pencil and paper. The statistics he scribbled were roughly drawn, juggled through a few basic equations, and ended as the sound of a jeep was audible below in the yard. Dale got up, turning the computer off.

He could hear Flynn's voice in the hallway below, low and grim.

"If we're going to need to take him to the hospital at Jackson, then we're going now, Emmett. It's more than two hours, and two hours is a long time."

"At the moment a hospital can't do anything for him that you're not doing here, with a lot more quiet and a lot more attention." Emmett said calmly. Dale came out of the stairwell, looking through the doorway of Riley's room. Paul was still sitting beside Riley. Emmett was sitting on the side of the bed and Flynn was leaning in the doorway. Jasper was a few feet behind him, tall and angular, and gave Dale a brief look of welcome, beckoning silently with his head for Dale to come and join them.


"If he needs a hospital I'll call the air ambulance out and it'll be twenty minutes," Emmett was saying, "But we're nowhere near that point yet. And this still doesn't look to me like Crypto, Flynn. The fever says he's burning off infection. The blood tests were clear apart from the high white cell count, there's no parasites, he hasn't picked up tetanus or anything like that. I'm going to strip him and see if there's any local infections we're missing- ears, sinuses, cuts or grazes gone septic-"

"Blood tests wouldn't pick up Leptospirosis unless you were specifically testing for it." Dale said softly. Emmett glanced up at him.


"Weil's disease? That's very unlikely."

"The probability, based on the terrain, the weather and the stock using the river, is higher than it seems." Dale cleared his throat slightly, aware of the others looking at him. "There were five cases reported last year in Montana from a group who were rafting. Often misdiagnosed because the early stages look-"

"Like ‘flu, yes," Emmett said dryly, "Is this an internet diagnosis?"

Flynn moved. It wasn't much of a movement, in fact it was hard to say exactly what he did do, but suddenly he appeared a good deal taller and more obvious in the doorway. Dale gave Emmett a half smile, knowing his tone and familiar in dealing with it. Most specialists resented a consultant offering information.


"The relative probabilities of a bacterial etiological agent such as Shigella, Giardia, Cholera or Escherichia Coli are based on dysenterial presentations, not infective presentations. Leptospirosis is infective, it's a recognised RWI, it is the correct time of year and would be based on an infected animal not yet symptomatic. And Flynn is right that the odds of water or stock related causes of illness are higher than any others under the circumstances out here. It's a mathematical probability."

"I'm sure he's got no cuts or infected ears or anything like that." Paul said with conviction. "I'd know, and Riley would tell me. So much as a graze on him and I know."

"Leptospirosis is waterborne?" Flynn said. Emmett nodded.


"Well yes. But very rare. Ridiculously rare, and the circumstances – it’s extremely unlikely."

“No.” Dale said simply. “Likelihood is mathematical. It can be assessed and predicted, and the probability is there.”

“We have nothing to lose in testing for it?" Flynn asked Emmett.


Emmett shook his head, starting to ease Riley's t shirt off. "No, if it'll make you any happier. There's a lot of other far more likely things I'm going to look for too if I can have some space. Paul, give me a hand?"

Paul came to help him, and Dale felt Jasper's gentle hands take his shoulders, guiding him away. He went, unpleasantly aware that Riley had not woken, despite being handled and moved.




It was over an hour later when Emmett left with the blood samples he was taking to the hospital lab in Jackson, capable of far more complex tests than he could manage in his own small lab, and Flynn sent Dale to get ready for bed. On his way back from the bathroom, Dale caught sight of Paul, still fully dressed but asleep on his bed, having been up with Riley through the previous night.

"How long will Emmett be?" Dale asked when Flynn turned out his light. Flynn pushed the window sash up, letting the cool air into the room. It reminded Dale sharply of the early hours of this morning, out on the plateau, a memory that grabbed hard at his stomach despite his worry.

"Not long." Flynn stooped, dropping a kiss on Dale's forehead. "Don't worry. Riley's as tough as they come."

Dale didn't answer and Flynn paused, resting a heavy hand against his face. His eyes were hard to look at: Dale felt the well of emotion and looked away, aware of the painful gentleness of Flynn's voice.


"Dale. Don't worry. I saw Paul nurse Philip through a couple of illnesses Emmett thought would kill him, Paul knows what he's doing. Get some sleep, we're watching him."

The effort it took not to catch Flynn’s hands, hold on to him, or to plead for him to stay, was extreme.


Dale tried for a while to rest, watching the faint light on the landing from Riley's room, slightly comforted by the knowledge that Flynn was there sitting with him. Eventually he slid out of bed and pulled jeans back on, hesitating in the doorway to his room. In his experience, Flynn had ears like a lynx for people out of bed. Tonight, once Dale took the plunge, padding noiselessly to the stairs and down towards the kitchen, it was without interruption. 

The kitchen wasn't its usual pristine self: the difference was painful. Paul hadn't had the time or the will to deal with it. Knowing from experience how he liked it and how it should look, Dale automatically started work, finding a sense of calm and orientation in the doing of it. He had been at it for several minutes when he heard Jasper's voice through the open kitchen door.

"Dale?"  

Dale paused, dish in hand, and went to the doorway. Jasper was sitting on the swing on the porch, amongst the basket chairs and pots of plants, one knee up in front of him, arms bare in a t shirt despite the cooling evening.

"Can't sleep?" he said mildly.

"No."

Jasper held out a hand. Dale held up the dish.

"I'll finish the-"

"Come here."

Dale put the plate down on the kitchen table and without bothering to put boots on, walked barefoot out onto the porch.

"How did you think to look up Leptospirosis?" Jasper asked calmly.

Dale shrugged, uncertain how Jasper would see the commandeering of the computer and embarrassed at his own temerity in mentioning it. "It was what came up when I searched. I – used the computer upstairs? Statistically the chances were good. You don't always need to know much depth about the material if you can take it in and cross reference it- more looking for patterns. That's at least something I can do."

"I'm very glad you can." Jasper looked across at him. Hatless, brown arms bare, he was relaxed against the corner of the swing, dark hair down over his brows. His deep voice was more liquid than Flynn's, and always easy. Like when fishing with him – there was a kind of ease to being with Jasper without the pressure to talk. Dale leaned against the porch rail, arms folded, aware that one hand was tapping its fingers rapidly in a staccato rhythm, and feeling his chest tighten with a whole maelstrom of emotions he was not at all prepared to deal with.

"........ I was going to say I'm not used to feeling powerless." he said after a while, awkwardly. "But you'd think after six months of practice I'd be better at it than this? I - saw David out on the plateau."

If Jasper was shocked, he didn't show it, simply using one booted foot to rock the swing slowly. "Did he have anything to say?"

Dale dug in his pocket for his half of the rose quartz crystal. Jasper took it when Dale held it out, turning it gently over in his palm.

"David dug it out." Dale said tentatively. "We were up on the plateau, out by the mine and the ruins? He said we were sleeping almost on top of the mine. Flynn- Flynn told me about the stone properties."

Jasper looked up, eyebrows raising. "Flynn?"

"He said you told him - and that David knew. You don't think it's weird at all that I've–"

"Seen David?" Jasper said gently. "No. You're a very perceptive person.  I wouldn't be surprised if you don't find in time that you see other people or hear or see other things out here. There's a lot of memory stacked on this land."

Which suggested that Jasper himself had seen and heard other things. Jasper palmed the stone, leaned over and took Dale's hand, pulling until Dale gave way and sat down on the swing beside him.

"Why don't you calm down a little, and tell me what's bothering you about David?"

Dale tucked one leg under him, drawing the other up and hugging it unconsciously. It took a moment to find the words and organise them.

".........David said something I didn't understand. He said I was the one who wasn't-“

It was so humiliating it was hard to say. Dale forced it out with an effort.

“-doing it properly. I didn't understand what he meant at first."

Jasper went on rocking the swing, voice tranquil.

"You two came back a lot earlier than I expected."

Dale took a breath, willing himself under control. "Flynn…."

Staring at each other on the plateau in the early morning. The crackle and warmth of the fire and the crush of Flynn's arms…..  lying on the grass by the fire under the weight of Flynn's arm with the length of Flynn against his back…

"He was worried about Riley."

"He was worried before he left." Jasper pointed out. Dale looked up, another chunk of anxiety and confused information welling up.

"I realised how you do it. You don't bother him, you know how to be quiet enough not to get in his way, it's the only way you can help."

"As I said, you're a very perceptive person." Jasper said calmly.

"I know it's none of my business –" Dale said roughly. "Who am I to try? Even you and Paul-"

"If we can't help, at least we know enough not hurt more." Jasper interrupted quietly. "Paul and I have both tried, and neither of us have ever succeeded like you have."

The simplicity with which he said it was stunning.

Neither of us have ever succeeded like you have.

Dale was silent for a minute, trying to find a way to say it, the things he had been thinking all night and all day, to Jasper who loved Flynn and understood him, and would be able to understand.

"There's – there's some things a brat can say, aren't there? To a Top, that another Top can't."

"I think so." Jasper said mildly. "I think how those things are heard are different if they come from a brat. Riley goes too directly to the most sensitive parts of Flynn, but he gets more leeway from Flynn when he does it than anyone else would get. And Flynn knows it's not meant to hurt. Riley just knows Flynn too well."

That was it. Dale dropped both feet to the porch and bent over them, hearing himself say it straight from the heart, with more pain than he'd thought was possible.

"Jas, what do I do that's much good for anyone?"

Jasper's hand came over his shoulder, a light arm resting around him and the swing went on rocking slowly, back and forth.  

"I have to find something to do with myself. and some way to talk to ANZ." Dale said through his hands. "I need to pull myself together and get out of here, it's way past time I should have gone. I should have left with Jerry."

"Why?" Jasper asked calmly.


Dale steepled his hands hard against his face. He was shaking; Jasper could feel the tremors running down through the swing. Calmly, he put both hands on Dale's shoulders and felt Dale automatically clench against him.

"I thought you were trying to trust us?" he said mildly, not letting go.

"Maybe I'm not cut out for this." Dale said too tersely for Jasper not to hear the emotion behind it. "Maybe I'm not whatever a 'brat' is, maybe this is all just some ghastly bloody mistake-"

"Shh." Jasper said, pulling until Dale gave way and lay down against him, head and shoulders in his lap. He resisted at first, but as always, once you insisted, he came willingly to whatever comfort you offered, as though starving for it. Jasper held him, rubbing his back firmly. "Utter nonsense. You're tired and you're scared, and that's enough."

"That's too easy an answer." Dale said, muffled in his stomach, although he didn't try to move. Jasper stifled a smile and found Dale's chin, lifting it to look directly at him.


"Which of us is the Top?"

Flynn asked that too, and the knowledge always came with the same relief, the same release, except tonight there was a wash of pain that came with it, that was overwhelming. Dale would have pulled out of Jasper's arms, save that Jasper held him too tightly to move, voice not changing in the slightest.

"Which of us is the Top?"

The grasp and the tone were gently relentless and so kind that Dale felt the sharp sting of tears in his eyes and a rush of emotion he had no time to stifle. Hours worth of high emotion, and too much confusion to handle.

"You." he said out loud, and the rush swept out of him, handed over, surrendered.

"Right." Jasper said, rocking slowly and holding him closely, taking no notice of Dale's shaking or the gulping that was the best Dale could do towards releasing tears. "So let me handle it. You're not running anywhere. I won't let you. You don't just have Flynn. You need to rest, and you need to let me do the thinking for a while. It's going to be ok." 




*



It was shortly after two am when Emmett's jeep pulled up in the yard again, and nearly two thirty when Flynn came downstairs, stretching his neck stiffly as he walked. He was still in the dusty shirt he had worn all day, still unshaven, and he headed straight for the kitchen sink, soaking both hands and running them through his hair to slick it back before he washed his face and then drank several palmfuls of the water. The kitchen door was open, and when he stepped out onto the porch, Dale lay asleep under a blanket on the swing.  

He needed a lot of sleep, and Flynn thought he always slept as though exhausted. He worked until he dropped, Dale; he had no concept of when to stop or of pacing himself. He just gave and tried until he ran out of steam to continue. Flynn crouched by the head of the swing, looking down at Dale's sleeping face for a while. Limp, and his face was more than slightly tense, but so deeply asleep that not even Emmett's jeep or the cold of the night air had disturbed him. Flynn found himself wondering whether Dale had ever slept like this in his hotels or offices, safe enough to let go so completely, with that half curled, vulnerable hand above his head. Flynn slid his fingers gently through Dale's dark hair, easing it back from his face. It was something they all did automatically: he, Jasper and Paul, and Flynn thought sometimes it was more than just an absent caress or gesture of affection. It was almost as if they physically reached out and tried to brush back Dale’s barriers, an attempt to see him more clearly, to reach him more closely. 

"Riley any better?" Jasper said softly from the far end of the porch. Flynn looked up.

"Some. Paul cooled him down, he's not so restless. It is Leptospirosis. Dale was right."

"So Emmett said." Jasper came down the porch to lean on the rail nearby. "I thought he was taking it pretty well, considering."

"He's giving Ri the first antibiotics now. He said caught this early, it should be a fairly quick and easy job. And that the Jackson lab was staggered anyone had even thought of it." Flynn straightened slowly. "Did Dale tell you how he came up with it?"

"Probability and statistics." Jasper said dryly. "I suspect he can do things with the computer we haven't even thought of. He hasn't been asleep long, I didn't want to disturb him by moving him. He was pretty upset, it took a while to settle him. And no, I didn't come and get you. There are three of us, you had your hands full and I'm quite capable of handling him."

He waited a moment, watching Flynn take one of the porch seats near to Dale.

"You didn't get to the south west fences."

"No." Flynn glanced up at him, and then back down at Dale. "No, we didn't."


Jasper opened his palm. Flynn looked at the rose quartz stone, then almost guiltily up at Jasper.

"Yes. He gave one to me this morning. I put it up on the nightstand by Riley. I thought it might help. Supposed to attract healing, or you've said something like that in the past."

"I didn't know you were even listening at the time." Jasper said gently. "You two slept last night on top of the quartz mine."

"Yes. Dale climbed down there at five am this morning."


Jasper saw Flynn look again at Dale with an expression that held as much chagrin and bewilderment as sheer discomfort.

"I – need to talk to you two." 

"What's wrong?" Jasper asked softly.

Flynn didn't answer. Jasper, watching him, had a sudden image of a much younger man, not much more than a boy, wrestling with a conscience and a temper very badly combined.


"You used to look like this when you were about to go and confess something to Philip." he said lightly. Flynn winced.


"Don't."

Paul appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, slightly bleary eyed and still fully dressed.

"I need tea. Do you two want anything? Riley's temperature's down, he's asleep and Emmett's going to sit with him for a while – in fact unless he gets another emergency call, I think he'll probably stay the night."

Jasper got up and came into the kitchen, and Flynn followed, softly closing the door to keep their voices from disturbing Dale.

"I didn't know how annoyed Emmett would be with Dale once he gets past the idea he's got a reportable case of Lepto on his patch." Paul said, getting mugs down from the cupboard. "Someone's been cleaning up in here?"

"Dale." Jasper said when Flynn raised his hands in denial. Paul nodded, filling the kettle.


"Well I could see it wasn't either of you two, everything's in the right place. At the moment Emmett's mostly concerned with Riley and he isn't thinking about much else, but it isn't easy being out-diagnosed by a CEO with no medical knowledge, using a computer. Do you think there's anything Dale couldn't turn a hand to?"

"I suspect if it's got an identifiable pattern – by Dale's understanding, not necessarily anyone else's – he can pick it up and figure out a plan of action." Flynn said, taking the mug of tea Paul handed him. "All he'd say he was doing is filtering a lot of other people's information and reducing it down to testable conclusions. It's easy to underestimate how bright he is."

"In very specific ways." Jasper added. Paul sat down at the table and Jasper put his tea down, standing behind Paul and gently sinking his hands into Paul's neck and shoulders, massaging. Paul let his head drop forwards, relaxing with a wordless sound of comfort. 

"When I came back this afternoon," Jasper said calmly, "There was no work left to do here. Not just the stables and the yard and the basic watering. The feeds were out and sorted, the yearlings have been moved to the next paddock and the grass where they were has been watered and seeded, I'd take a guess that several of the fresher two year olds were exercised, and the corral's been raked over on the rough patches. I didn't give instructions or help with any of that, I don't know if anyone else did."

"I didn't." Paul stretched his shoulders while Jasper worked them, propping his head on his hands at the table. "Dale came back mid afternoon and said he was going out to look over the mares, and I told him then to stop, but the rest of it he did by himself."


"I've been trying to tell him, he more than earns his keep." Flynn said, taking a seat next to Paul, who looked up in surprise.

"He doubts that?"

"I've had the 'what am I good for?' speech this evening," Jasper said calmly, "And that he wanted to leave. Although mostly what he was telling me was that he was tired and upset and didn't know what to do with it. He's scared stiff for Riley and he's worried about you. He said he doesn't do 'powerless' well."

"We all feel powerless about Riley, but it isn't as bad as it looks." Paul said with compassion. "Dale’s pretty much always lived within institutions - I doubt he’s really seen or had anything directly to do with anyone sick before."

"It's part of a much wider context." Jasper heeled out the chair on Paul's other side and sat down, leaning long arms on the table to look at Flynn more pointedly than Flynn had ever seen him look before. "He's worrying about a lot of things. Isn't he? Like why you two came home early this morning, and why you came back one hell of a lot better than when you left. I haven't seen you turn it around this fast since we lost Philip."


Flynn disappeared into his mug for a moment, drinking tea. Jasper, who was used to them both, waited until Paul, who had been looking from Flynn to Jasper, reached across and swiped the mug out of Flynn's hand, putting it out of his reach. Flynn took a short, exasperated breath and propped his elbows on the table, running both hands through his hair.

"Ok. All right. I confess. I just wish I knew where the hell to start."

***


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009


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