"This is a good place to camp." Flynn said brusquely, swinging down from Leo.
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.
As if he knew what Dale was thinking, Flynn looked over his shoulder, voice gruffer.
And you're not?
Dale folded his arms and rested his chin on them.
"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.
There was silence for a minute, and then Flynn drew breath again.
"That was kind." Dale said softly. Flynn let go a faint snort that sounded like a laugh.
"Come here." Flynn looked up from the fire and held out a hand.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
His arms kept trying to fold of their own accord, and Flynn kept blocking them.
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.
"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.
"How hard will Riley find it that we've gone?"
Flynn didn't answer for a minute. His voice was quiet but direct.
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.
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.
"Are you all right?" Flynn demanded. Dale sat back on his heels, brushing off his hands.
"Are you sure?"
"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.
"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."
"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.
"You make me try." Dale said bluntly.
"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."
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.
"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.
Dale listened silently, aware that once this would have been 'personal' information, the kind the family didn't share outside themselves.
"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.
"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."
"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.
"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-"
"I don't mind." Dale said without trying to return the smile. Paul stopped trying too and held out a hand.
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.
"He was worried about Riley." Dale said awkwardly.
"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.
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.
"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."
"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.
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.
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.
"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.
"Blood tests wouldn't pick up Leptospirosis unless you were specifically testing for it." Dale said softly. Emmett glanced up at him.
"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.
"Leptospirosis is waterborne?" Flynn said. Emmett nodded.
“We have nothing to lose in testing for it?" Flynn asked Emmett.
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.
The effort it took not to catch Flynn’s hands, hold on to him, or to plead for him to stay, was extreme.
"Why?" Jasper asked calmly.
"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.
"No." Flynn glanced up at him, and then back down at Dale. "No, we didn't."
"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."
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.
"Dale." Jasper said when Flynn raised his hands in denial. Paul nodded, filling the kettle.
"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."
"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."