"Well you took your time about it! What do you think of the falls?"
There was no rational explanation to offer. Dale jumped as Flynn abruptly crossed the distance between them, running both his hands from Dale's shoulders down his arms.
He did it without any qualms at all about the intimacy of the gesture, and that firm, painless pat, the feel of his palm there, connected immediately to several very potent memories. Dale felt his head snap up almost without conscious permission, tongue freeing itself.
"Now." Flynn repeated.
"Paul took me away." Flynn said with understanding when Dale didn't finish. "And you didn't know what to say, or whether it was your place, or whether you were wanted there because you're not sure you believe us yet."
"You're not going anywhere."
Dale shook his head, struggling to force his mind back to the conversation at hand. "That's ridiculous. They were worried you were hurt, I wouldn't expect anything else."
"Total lack of respect." Dale said with difficulty. "About you, about Paul – Gerry's supposed to be one of you, he was here in this family before he met his partner-"
"A brat?" Flynn said dryly. Dale shook his head sharply.
"And neither are you?" Flynn asked gently. "No. It's not a definition of character, kid. It's just a name for a lifestyle choice. You and Riley and Gerry are completely different people, but you have certain things in common. Paul and Jas and I are different, but with certain things in common. How it works for each of us is unique."
"…You're making value judgements on how you follow my rules?" Flynn turned Dale to look at him. "Who decides what happens here?"
"Yes." Flynn told him definitely. "If you are upset enough to need to get away, then you come to me, or to Paul or Jasper if I'm not available, end of story. You don't get to decide what you tell me and what you go and deal with by yourself. What were you going to do out here?"
Dale got up and watched him go to get Hammer, guilt twisting his stomach.
"I'm fine, and there were no shortage of people who wanted to come and look for you. I just won the argument." Flynn untied Hammer's reins, pulled himself up into the saddle and leaned down, holding out his good hand to Dale. "You get the pillion seat, come on."
Not sure how to do it, Dale accepted Flynn's hand, gripped the back of the saddle and Flynn pulled him up without difficulty, waiting while Dale sat behind him, somewhat awkwardly trying to work out to hold on.
"Wash up and come and eat. Leave the bathroom door open please. I think I need to be keeping a closer eye on you."
"What?" Flynn asked after a minute. Dale looked down at his hands.
Right now, Dale felt very convinced already. He got up from the couch, trying not to let his urge to take as much time as possible get the upper hand. He hesitated over the open drawer, looking at the two paddles lying inside.
Oh heck. He really meant convinced. Without enthusiasm Dale slowly unbuttoned his jeans and finding himself fully unbuttoned and with nothing else to do, slid them down his thighs. Flynn shifted back on the sofa, making a more stable lap before he held out a hand to Dale.
Dale took his hand and let himself be drawn forward against Flynn's knee, putting a hand down to brace himself as he bent over, settling with his head and shoulders on the couch and his legs trailing. And even this intense vulnerability with this man felt safe and natural. Flynn raised one knee, tipping him further forward, and Dale shut his eyes as his shorts were matter of factly lowered along with his jeans to his knees, well out of the danger zone. The chill of the paddle against his bare backside made him feel horrendously susceptible despite the full body contact with Flynn.
In other words, stay right on that spot where I can see you. Dale waited a moment for Flynn to go into the barn, then put both hands over his backside and rubbed, hard, gyrating a little on the spot and releasing several heartfelt oaths under his breath. It still stung like a nest of bees, and the burn was sufficient to fry eggs on. His entire behind appeared to be radiating heat. Riley was absolutely right; that lexan thing was Evil.
"I'm doing fine. Better to work than stiffen up."
It wasn't easy to admit, even to Riley. Dale took a breath, trying to phrase it.
"I kind of ……..wandered off. Got - upset - and took a hike."
"To where?" Riley said, startled. Dale winced.
"………that's about five miles?" Riley said wryly. "That's 'wandering'?"
"And?" Riley asked delicately. Dale threw the saddle soap down on the grass and straightened, understanding abruptly why Gerry spoke as he did.
"Shit that thing stings!"
"Six." Dale said with some feelings of embarrassment. Riley didn't appear to feel any at all and his matter of factness helped; he was continuing to work on his bridle without looking up.
"No kidding." Dale picked up the next item of tack, shifting slightly from one foot to the other since movement gave the illusion of helping. "Where did he get that paddle from anyway? You said the wooden one was Philip's."
"Advice?" Dale asked.
"Look. I want to talk to you, and I need to go check on the shires, I just turned them out and came straight back this morning when we had mayhem going on. Come with me and we can talk up there?"
"The way you've been disappearing recently?" Riley said dryly. "You're lucky you're getting out of arms reach. Flynn!"
"Ok. Are you sure you're all right with that rake?"
"They're not brats." Dale said simply. "Different ball game."
Riley nodded slowly. "That makes sense to me. When I first came here I didn't feel too real either. My father was a business associate of Philip's? It was just Dad and me, which was great fun when I was a kid, everywhere he went I went and we never stayed anywhere longer than a few months, so I went through schools and tutors and more schools, and then I got older and it got a lot less fun. I'd been thrown out of school when I was fifteen, Dad didn't know what else to do with me and he was working with Philip on something, so he brought me with him and we both stayed here for a few weeks. I turned sixteen while we were here, and when it came to time to leave, I just refused. Point blank, I dug my heels in, and eventually he had to leave without me. Same reasons. I was a kid, the others pretty much raised me as a kid for another two or three years before I really understood how it worked and why I connected to it, but yes, I know what you mean."
"You know friends and other couples who make this kind of relationship work," Dale said softly, voicing what he'd thought about no few times. "They do make it work. Around other jobs, whatever it is they do."
"They do all kinds of things. Professional jobs, like Gerry runs his gallery," Riley snorted, thinking about it, "Two of them who racket around Peru being guides, but those two are nuts anyway – yeah, it works. They make it work. But no Top is ever going to let you do what you were doing in New York."
"That makes it sound like it's about the Top taking ownership and possession." Dale protested mildly. Riley grinned.
"It won't be CEOing." Riley finished. "And you shouldn't be doing it anyway. I probably shouldn't say it to you, Flynn and the others won't, but I know because I know how I'd be – you're never going to be ok or happy doing that, you can't be. You're not that kind of person."
"Philip thought the answer to every brat was the right partner." Riley said cheerfully. "He tried across half the continent, and some of them were very hot, but no."
"No?" Dale said lightly. Riley smiled.
Riley nodded slowly, a slightly mischievous gleam in his eyes.
Dale straightened up from Boris's hoof and Riley stooped at once to the brief, tight hug Dale gave him.
Gerry accepted his cards, raising an eyebrow at Riley. "And why do you always cut in and defend him when I ever I ask him anything? It's like little Sir Echo around here."
Riley didn't answer, laying down a card and glancing to Dale who laid one of his own. Gerry shuffled his own hand, still watching Dale.
Paul rested the back of his hand against Dale's forehead and Dale shook his head.
"Yes. He came from the south coast of England, spent a lot of time in Canada and moving back and forward between the two, until he finally settled here. He never lost the accent and he hated how we pronounced things differently – we all ended up saying 'tomahtoes' because it was quicker than fighting about it. And don't get me started on 'aluminium'." Paul rolled his eyes expressively. "We had some gates installed and David went out to sleep in the barn he got so mad with Gerry and Niall teasing him."
Jasper, leaning against the doorway with his hands in his pockets, smiled, but didn't move.
"He'd need a horse to cover the ground as he's doing." Paul said dryly. "I don't like him being down there, that's a little too near the brood mares."
"Goodnight." Dale watched Paul get up and Jasper move aside to let him out of the doorway, coming to take his place. His face was still calm and friendly as it always was, but his voice was gently pointed.
He trailed off, not happy to detail it, but Jasper nodded.
There was no threat, just a calm promise and Dale nodded, understanding exactly what Jasper meant.