Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chapter 13


He didn't actually mean to go far. He'd meant to hover in the pastures, pace a little and cool down. It wasn't until he realised that the ranch house was no longer in sight that he stopped. The aspen woods were on his left; the pastures down here were smooth and flat and continued flat down to the river. Dale put his hands up to his head and ran his hands through his hair with no idea of what to do. Then as no better options presented themselves, he continued to walk.

I never had this problem at work. I always knew what to do. There always was something urgent to do. Maybe that was self medicating too. I never had to deal with anything because I could just bury myself in the next job. I never had to stop and think and actually face myself.

The sun was directly overhead when he reached the cairn. Glittering in the sun, it remained an extremely beautiful monument. Beyond it lay the lake where Riley loved to swim. To the left, some way off, lay the river, blue and sparkling back the light, noisy over the rocks. Dale made his way towards the river and walked on upstream. Flowers grew in the deep grass on the banks, blue larkspur and yellow arnica, while the riverbanks grew steadily rockier until eventually the high, steep rocks of the falls came into view.

It was the first time he had seen the falls themselves, the heart and the namesake of the ranch. They stood about twenty feet high and ten feet wide, the water crashing down as the river was transferred from its height above to the low lying bed below. The volume of water was shocking and the noise built up steadily as Dale got closer. Boulders grew larger and larger, until finally it would have been necessary to actively climb up the waterfall itself to go any further. Dale stopped, watching the water, and then eventually took a seat on one of the huge boulders, hot from the sun. The water falling and falling before him was hypnotic. A moving, beating heart of stone and water, a living part of the land.

What are you doing?

I don't know.

What do you want to happen?

I…don't know.

It was the flash of white that first caught his eye and made him look up. The hunter was standing on the top of the water fall ledge beside the falls itself, the man he had first seen miles away up river on the tops. Tall, wearing blue jeans, white shirt, riding boots and with a shock of dark chestnut hair that hung in his eyes. He was standing on the rocks, one booted foot braced forward, watching Dale, and when Dale looked up at him, he smiled.

Riley had said there were cougars around this part of the ranch, although in Dale's opinion anyone who deliberately went looking for the beasts was insane. Pulling himself together, he got up, returning the smile with difficulty.

"Hi. Sorry, I didn't see you. Did you-"

He had been going to ask if the man realised he was on private property, but once he gave the man eye contact, any coherent thought or speech faded away into intensely blue eyes and the overpowering kindness of the smile. It was like being close enough to touch, close enough to feel the man's breath on his face, warm like the sun and carrying the scent of the larkspur, and the voice was deep and friendly in his ears.

"Well you took your time about it! What do you think of the falls?"

The accent was British, the accent of home, and it was so familiar that Dale didn't immediately register the rarity of such an accent here. And the roar of the water was overpowering and the light reflected up from it, shimmering a little in the sun haze from the rocks and the water mist from the pool below. And Dale still stared into the man's eyes.

"We thought you'd come when you decided," the man said warmly. "We're very glad to see you. Didn't you know what to do? Weren't you listening?"

Getting breath to answer was a serious issue. Then the man shaded his eyes, lifting his head to look out in the direction of the ranch, and his smile deepened.

"Here he is. Go gently. They're not plate armoured you know, no matter how much they try to look like it."

This made slightly less sense than Dale could follow, but the man was watching something, and Dale turned to see what it was.

It would have been impossible not to recognise who was riding towards the falls. For a start, he was riding one handed, and the guilt of having forced him into getting back on a horse again today was appalling. Dale swallowed, bitterly ashamed of himself. When he looked back up at the falls, the sun was reflecting from the empty rocks above the falls. 

Flynn dismounted as easily with one hand as he did with two, and he looked quizzical as he knotted up his reins, his dark eyes searching Dale's face.

"What are you doing? Jasper said one minute you were taking a saddle into the stables, the next minute there was no sign of you."

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.

"Want to tell me why you're shaking?"

There was always a sense of shock when Flynn saw straight through him like this, but there was another emotion too, something powerful and much warmer, even if Dale couldn't name it. 

"No." he said at last, politely, stomach still lifting and churning. "No, I really don’t. I'm sorry Jasper was concerned-"

Flynn took a firm hold over Dale's hand and led him towards one of the larger boulders, taking a seat astride it and pulling Dale down beside him.

"Look at me."

That was just too damn hard. Dale pulled away and bent forwards, burying his face in his hands, aware that the shaking was getting worse. Flynn ran a heavy hand down his back, then gave the seat of his jeans a firm pat. 


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.

"I wanted a walk, I needed some space. I'll apologise to Jasper-"

"Now." Flynn repeated.

Riley or Gerry might, in desperation, have pretended not to remember the original question or not to know what he meant, willing to do anything to divert the conversation. Dale never played those games. He lifted his head and Flynn saw him reluctantly give himself up to the eye contact. Confused, overwhelmed and very obviously distressed.

"What's happened?" he asked softly, putting a hand up to smooth Dale's dark hair back from his face as he would have done with Riley. Dale caught his breath as if it hurt. Seriously concerned now, Flynn wrapped an arm around Dale's waist and pulled him over, which was somewhat like gathering up a deer, all slender muscle and long limbs, and once he had Dale against his chest, folded both arms around him too tightly to let him twist away into a less personal position. Once surrounded, given that message clearly enough, no, you're not getting rid of me, he felt Dale slowly release some of the tension, making no attempt to pull away.

"What's happened?" Flynn said again, very softly against Dale's hair. "What's wrong? Leo?"

Dale shook his head slightly. Flynn concentrated his mind on the morning's events from Dale's complicated perspective.

"Something you did wrong? Something you felt responsible for?"

Two more shakes of the head. Flynn went on rocking slowly, looking over Dale's head at the falls beyond.

"Good, because you handled this morning like you've lived and worked with us for years. I was lucky to have you with me."


The insight followed instantly. Flynn pulled Dale closer, aware of the lightness of Dale's hands resting on his arms. Riley had grabbed him in the pastures and clung this morning, Jasper and Paul made no secret of their concern or affection – and Dale had said little and done a very great deal, efficiently, mostly keeping his distance. They all knew now that distance didn't mean he didn't want the contact or have the emotion; simply that he didn't know what to do, and his eyes said what his voice and body wouldn't…

Oh Dale.

"Did it feel like we shut you out?" Flynn said very gently, with as much affection as compassion.  

"This is pathetic." Dale pulled hard to get away from him. Flynn held him without effort, not relaxing his grip.


"I'm not that feeble!"

"Feeble?" Flynn said wryly. "Dale, this is called normal, human emotion. What felt so bad that you wanted to get away?"

"Nothing." Dale said bleakly. Flynn shook his head.

"Trust me."

Not a question. Dale swallowed, aware that he did; that it was a massive temptation to open his mouth and pour this out, however stupid it felt –

"Trust me to be able to understand." Flynn said softly. "You'll have a reason, you always have a reason. I know you."

He was surprised at Dale's arms abruptly lifting and locking around his neck, holding on with a strength and a genuine reciprocation that Flynn had never seen in him before. Touched, he hugged Dale back strongly, putting all the comfort into his hands that he could.

"I saw Leo fall." Dale said thickly against him, and Flynn heard the vibrations of Dale's voice through his chest. "I knew you were hurt, and Paul-"

"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."

Flynn was holding him tightly, like an anchor, the familiar feel and scent and sound of him enclosing, making Dale breathe the calm and safety that came from him. And yet it wasn't helping, it was actually making things worse.

Oh for pete's sake Aden, do you ever pay any attention to what your guts are doing?

It was like an outside voice, impatient and sharp as a spur, and in that instant Dale realised what it was that was gripping his insides like a fist. There was anxiety; a lot of it. There was agitation, there was relief and there was still more agitation- but it was all based on controlling one thing, something he'd been fighting down for hours without even being aware of it. Dale felt his lungs fill as if someone had put an oxygen mask over his face, cool, sharpening every sense. Laying watching Flynn sleep this morning. Racing him over the pastures. Sitting beside him, looking down with him at the herd below – it came with such an adolescent rush of emotion that Dale felt his face go hot. And yet it felt anything but childish or shallow.

Watching him fall. Watching Riley hold him. Watching Paul guide him away…

"I –" he said automatically, still thinking. "Sorry. Give me a minute, I-"

"You're not going anywhere."

Even with only one working arm, Flynn didn't let him move, and Dale shut his eyes and let himself lean against Flynn's chest, wondering when this had become such an easy thing to do, to take comfort in Flynn's arms. There had never been a man at any time in Dale's life who could have done this, who Dale knew he could have entrusted himself to like this: there was no part of him this man didn't know. There was no one Dale knew he had ever been this honest with or understood so clearly what real honesty was.

"I'm sorry." Flynn said quietly above him. "We should have been more thoughtful."

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."

Flynn eased one aching arm as he held him, hearing the complete lack of blame in his voice. So mature, so level headed, so comprehending – Dale had responded to this morning's events as you might expect from a man of his experience and competence, a highly proficient CEO. A professional. No panic, no waste of time or energy, Dale had said hardly a word but he had been wherever he was needed, with the quiet instinct that made them all trust him implicitly when they worked with him. Dale got the concept of team work in a way that few men ever did. And yet his emotions didn't correspond with his intellectual reasoning, and he divorced himself from them so brutally that when they finally caught up with him it felt like being mugged.

Trying to explain to him now would not help – it would only embarrass Dale further and he would shut down, when right now he was managing, with extreme effort, to let at least some of this out. Flynn closed his mouth on the reassurances and explanations he wanted to give, rested his jaw against Dale's dark hair, hot from the sun, and relied instead on his arms around Dale to communicate that he understood.

"I don't get Gerry either." Dale said after a while, gruffly.

Flynn kept his voice non committal and quiet, not letting him go.

"What about Gerry?"

He felt Dale take a breath, trying to formulate it.

"Muttering about having to work, trying to get out of doing anything he's asked to do, the-"

"Say it." Flynn prompted when Dale struggled for the words. "Just blurt it out, don't try and censor it."

"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-"

"Yes." Flynn said when he trailed off. "Yes, Gerry was living here when I first came."

"How can he be like this?" Dale said with difficulty. "He was here with Philip, with you, he's one of you and he's –"

"A brat?" Flynn said dryly. Dale shook his head sharply.

"Riley's nothing like that."

"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."

"How did Gerry fit in here like this?" Dale demanded. "How can you commit to a place and people like this and not be willing to work with them?"

What you mean is that he's ticking you off, at a very personal level over very personal things that you can't be professional about, and you really don't know how to handle it, do you?

Flynn held him, covering faint and deeply sympathetic amusement. "Not everyone takes work as seriously as you do. And with Gerry, a lot of what he says is only noise and said for effect, he doesn't actually mean it. He chatters and complains, but he's the one that drags Ash back here every six months. It takes him a few days to readjust to very physical work, and he does naturally like the soft life. You do realise why he'll whinge more when he's alone with you and Riley?"

No, from Dale's confused expression, clearly not.

"Like some men when they're alone with other men will joke and complain about their wives?" Flynn said gently. "Or women will compare notes on how untidy their husbands leave the bathroom? He wants to talk about the shared experiences, of what all three of you have in common, he's just using a boorish way to start the conversation. Gerry and Ash don't have friends near home who have similar relationships so he can't have these kind of conversations anywhere but here, and there's a lot of comfort in identifying yourself with people, sharing familiar experiences. He knows you and Riley understand what he means and you get the jokes. If you don't like it, you don't have to join in, or you can ask him to stop."

That hit another nerve. Dale hesitated, then blurted it out, rather ashamed of himself for repeating it.

"…..he said I walked very well to heel for someone so new …..?"

Flynn gave one of his brief cracks of laughter, letting Dale go so that Dale could see his face and understand this really wasn't something to be taken seriously.

"Yes, he would. He's trying to figure out where you came from and what your background is, and that kind of teasing is just how Gerry talks. If you're curious about his history you might want to swap stories with him, but if you don’t want to then none of us are going to talk to Gerry about you. You don't have to take him as any kind of a role model and you don't have to relate Gerry to you any more than you have to pierce an ear, wear eyeliner and have a pink poodle to qualify as gay."

Dale managed a faint smile in return. Flynn rubbed his back, unable not to offer comfort, reassurance, something stronger than the words. You had the tough, shrewd business man in Dale who could handle anything at all, any disaster, any demand; and then you had Dale outside of the suit who was shy and gentle and who just about got the idea of teasing from people he trusted. And who was still getting the hang of being this new self in front of them; in front of a stranger and worse still a strange brat, was another matter altogether.

Worried he won't see you doing it properly, Dale? How much of that perfectionism is nagging at you?  

"I cleared off again." Dale said indistinctly. Flynn nodded.

"Yes. Jasper was concerned. He thought you'd come to him if something was wrong."

"It wasn't wrong, I was flapping." Dale said bleakly. "I'm not proud of it, I didn't exactly want to draw attention to it."

"…You're making value judgements on how you follow my rules?" Flynn turned Dale to look at him. "Who decides what happens here?"

He saw the tone reach Dale instantly, grabbing his attention as it always did, and he saw too the relief come into Dale's face as he said it out loud, affirming it.

"You do."

The boundaries really are fortress walls to you, kid, aren't they? Riley says that through gritted teeth and you'd never understand why. To you that's pure release.

"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?"

"….I don't know." Dale admitted. "I didn't exactly mean to go this far. I just meant to stand outside the stables and calm down, and then I realised how far I'd walked."

Flynn nodded, voice calm. "We'll talk about that at home. It's past lunchtime, let's make a move."

Dale got up and watched him go to get Hammer, guilt twisting his stomach.

"I'm sorry, you shouldn't have been riding – are you ok? I really didn't mean to make this morning worse, it was bad enough-"

"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.

"Put your arms around my waist." he said firmly when Dale showed no sign of resolving the problem himself. The touch was the same butterfly touch Dale had used towards him out on the plains this morning – tentative, gentle. Flynn touched his heels to Hammer's side, walking him across the pastures towards the ranch.

No one else was in sight in the yard when they reached the house. Flynn gave Dale an arm down to the ground at the corral and took Hammer's tack, turning him loose in the corral. Dale went with him to the stables to put away his tack which without asking, he knew meant Flynn didn't intend to leave the house again today, and then into the kitchen where Flynn heeled off his boots and waited for Dale to do the same. Two covered plates were on the table. Flynn went to switch the kettle on, nodding at the bathroom.

"Wash up and come and eat. Leave the bathroom door open please. I think I need to be keeping a closer eye on you."

That was …. both an unpleasant reminder that he'd stepped way over the line- again- and comforting. Dale washed his face and hands, very awkward about the open door beside him and uncomfortable about the face in the mirror that showed the strains of the morning. He currently went hot and cold whenever Flynn looked at him.

"What's the matter?" Flynn said from the table. Dale turned quickly away from the mirror, rinsing soap from his hands.


"The next lie I hear from you, social or otherwise, I'll spank you." Flynn said bluntly. "What's the matter?"

Dale felt himself flush more hotly still. It was ridiculous. There were polite social boundaries for a reason, which meant Back Off And Leave Me Alone. Unless you were Flynn, who didn't do backing off and leaving alone. At all.

"I just look a mess." Dale dried his hands and came to sit down at the table, looking without much appetite at the sandwich on the plate in front of him. "I've never –" even the word was embarrassing. For anyone but Flynn he couldn't have said it out loud.     " – got upset like this. I think I've done it more times here than in the rest of my life put together."

"Who told you 'upset' was illegal?" Flynn inquired. Dale shook his head.

"It just – isn't something men do."

"Then you've met some strange men." Flynn cut his sandwich, watching Dale look at his. "Try putting that nearer your mouth."

It wasn't easy to eat. Dale picked his way through the sandwich, knowing Flynn well enough by now to be sure he wouldn't be allowed to leave it. When he was done, Flynn took the plate and cup and put them with his own in the sink, brushed the crumbs from the table and offered a hand to Dale.

The study was becoming a familiar sight. Dale took a seat beside Flynn on the leather sofa when Flynn drew him down, stomach tight between a now familiar and healthy concern for his backside and simply being this close to him, being so completely the focus of his attention. And Flynn had a gift for making you feel like there was no one else on the planet but you when he talked to you like this. Flynn kept hold of his hand, leaning an elbow on one jeaned knee, his forearm brown against the weathered blue denim.

"What are you supposed to do if you're wound up?"

He also had a way of dragging your mind directly to the point, no matter what else was currently subsuming it.

"Talk to you." Dale admitted. "I'm sorry, I know we keep going over this and I still don't get it right. If you're not there, then Paul or Jasper."


The question was unexpected. Dale glanced up, thinking about it.

"So you know something's wrong. And because when I get wound up I usually do something stupid."

"No, I wouldn't say that's true at all." Flynn leaned back into the couch, watching him. "What do you do when you get wound up?"

The penny dropped. Dale reflected and realised, uncomfortable.

"I try to fix it myself, and the way I choose is usually…. "


Dale winced. "Destructive."

Flynn nodded slowly. "Good. I don't know if you realise it or not, but you're protecting your own destructive solutions from being interfered with by us, because you know they work."

"It doesn't seem deliberate at the time-" Dale broke off, thinking of something.

"What?" Flynn asked after a minute. Dale looked down at his hands.

"I realised today, I do the rushing at things deliberately. I caught myself doing it. I always thought it happened to me but no, actually I do it. The quicker I do things, the more concentration it takes, and it blocks things out. Maybe I do this deliberately too."

"Habits and ways of thinking." Flynn said mildly. "They're hardest to change because they're so ingrained they're subconscious. That's good, Dale. Once you can catch yourself starting to do it, you'll learn how to interrupt the pattern. Change the pattern, and no matter how small the change, the outcome is going to have to be different. You're a mathematician, you know that."

It was undeniably true. Dale nodded slowly. Flynn kept hold of his hand, running a thumb slowly up and down the back of his fingers.

"You're in the habit of looking after yourself and you don't trust us yet to do a proper job in your place."

"I do." Dale protested. Flynn gave him a look that held no reproach and a lot of comprehension.

"Think about that the next time you feel as if you don't know what to do. The destructive ways of handling things might feel right and best to you but they are damaging, they are against our rules, and I won't allow them. What did I say would happen the next time we needed to talk about you disappearing off alone when you were upset? We were talking about it in the context of night, but I think this counts just as much."

Dale felt his face get hot. "You'd paddle me."

"Right." Flynn squeezed his hand gently. "I'm not going to lecture you, I know you had a bloody hard morning, but I am going to keep on convincing you that it's less painful to come to us than to go off alone when things go wrong. Go get me the paddle please."

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.

"The lexan." Flynn said from the couch.

Riley swore this thing was the devil incarnate. The few times he had felt it over jeans, Dale was inclined to agree. He took the clear paddle out of the drawer and Flynn held out a hand for it.

"Jeans down."

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.

"Come on then."

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.

"Six." Flynn said calmly above him. And then apparently covered his behind in gasoline and lit a match.

The smack was far louder than the hand or wood Dale had previously experienced bare; the paddle covered both cheeks at once, the sheer sting and burn was atrocious, and a shocked yelp escaped before Dale realised. Flynn waited a moment between swats and the second produced double the sting of the first. By the third, Dale was squirming involuntarily, breathless, and it was taking everything he had not to throw a hand back in self defence. Taking his time, Flynn continued to smack that wicked, lexan flat soundly across bare bottom, a hand firm on Dale's hip which precluded levitation in response to each swat,  and Dale couldn't help the yells that burst out at each of the last three swats. 

Flynn put him on his feet after the sixth, holding his hands which prevented him clapping them immediately behind him in an attempt to extinguish the fire. A little piece of clear plastic should not be able to sting like that! By comparison a flame thrower looked innocent.

"If we need to talk about you disappearing again to do anything but come to us when something's wrong, day or night," Flynn said simply, "It'll be twelve with that paddle. Jeans up, face the corner there and put your hands on your head."

Still without breath to complain, unable to stand still with the sheer strength of sting and burn across his backside, Dale somehow managed to re fasten his jeans in place and faced the wall, lacing his fingers on the top of his head. The desire to rub – to do anything at all to extinguish that burn – was overwhelming. And unlike the previous spankings Dale had experienced, the sting did not fade down at all while he fidgeted, shifting from foot to foot, jiggling, anything to try to ease it. His eyes were dry; some of Flynn's spankings left you emotionally wrung out, and were an emotional as much as a physical catharsis. This one just stole your breath, pulled your eyes out on stalks and damn well hurt. The idea of double those swats was appalling.       

He was still fidgeting ten minutes later when Flynn called him out of the corner and when he took his hands off his head Flynn saw with sympathy that he pushed them into his pockets in an attempt not to clutch at the seat of his jeans. 

"You'll need to apologise to Jasper when he comes in for disappearing without speaking to him."

"Yes sir."

"Come here."

Flynn lifted his arms and Dale took his hands out of his pocket, letting Flynn pull him into a tight and powerful hug that seemed to imprint its comfort on his bones. Flynn kissed the top of his head and let him go, turning him towards the door.

"You've got that tack to finish."

He had asked Gerry and Riley to leave the rest of the tack for Dale. An easy, physical task that would occupy him and keep him near the house. The mares had been herded back through the home pastures gate and the gate was closed: the mares were in sight beyond the gate, grazing peacefully. The tack was still laid over the fence of the stable pasture, the cleaning materials on the ground, and Flynn nodded at them, going to get a rake from the barn.

"Put it to one side when it's clean, don't put it away."

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.

The rubbing did actually take the edge off the sting. Still extremely uncomfortable, Dale began to work through the tack, and Flynn began to rake over the loose dirt of the yard where the herd of mares had stirred it up, returning it to its usual neatness. They worked for more than an hour in what was actually a companionable silence before Riley came into sight from the corral, his own tack over his shoulder and Shane at his heels. Flynn glanced up from where he was raking and nodded to him.

"Hey half-pint. Done for the day?"

"No problems. I moved the cattle further up onto the tops as they were edging down into the woods again." Riley stood to pull a face at the neatly raked dirt back to the barn. "……..Flynn, should you be even doing that? Jasper said you were black and blue. Leave the rake and I'll finish it."

"I'm doing fine. Better to work than stiffen up."

Flynn continued to rake on up the drive, moving towards the corral. Riley shook his head at Flynn's back and grinned at Dale, slinging his own saddle up onto the fence and picking up cleaning gear.

"Where did you get to? I came back with the splint this morning and you'd gone."

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.

"The falls."

"………that's about five miles?" Riley said  wryly. "That's 'wandering'?"

Dale caught his eye and something about Riley's face lifted the last of the clouds. Despite the ongoing boil of his backside, he smiled.

"Well that was what it was supposed to be. Flynn came and got me."

"And?" Riley asked delicately. Dale threw the saddle soap down on the grass and straightened, understanding abruptly why Gerry spoke as he did.

that thing stings!"

"Ah." Riley gave him a sympathetic look. "I'd watch the language too? Clients get asked not to. We get better acquainted with ivory soap."

"I want all this on paper." Dale put both hands down inside the waistband of his jeans for a moment, tenderly cupping his backside which was still boiling and stinging in equal amounts.

"It won't help." Riley said with understanding. "Not much does. I hate that lexan thing. You have to really, really tick Jasper off to make him get that one out, but Flynn uses what works, and damn does that thing work on me. How many did you get?"

"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.

"Sometimes that's actually worse than when he just gets on and paddles – when he goes for individual strokes like that, he does it harder."

"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."

"The wooden one's older than I am." Riley turned the bridle over in his hand. "The lexan monstrosity appeared about four years ago, and at a guess someone gave it to us. I can think of several Tops who might and a couple of brats with evil senses of humour- and actually most of them would give advice if the right person asked. No one's ever owned up to it."

"Advice?" Dale asked.

Riley shrugged. "If Ash came to me and asked what I knew made a real impression on me and what I recommended, I'd tell him. With some ideas on size, shape and thickness too. I don't much like being on the receiving end when I screw up, but I know the basic ins and outs of what to use and how to do it well, and I'm definitely qualified to comment. Overqualified."

Dale stifled another smile and Riley looked up at him for a minute, then glanced past at Flynn.

"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?"

That sounded ominous. Dale followed his glance towards Flynn, still working.

"I don't think Flynn will like it, he wouldn't even let me shut the bathroom door at lunchtime."

"The way you've been disappearing recently?" Riley said dryly. "You're lucky you're getting out of arms reach. Flynn!"

Flynn looked up from his rake and Riley hung the bridle on the fence, brushing his hands off.

"I need to go check on the shires. Can I take Dale with me?"

"Need help?" Flynn called back. Riley shook his head.

"Just company."

Flynn nodded briefly. "All right. Keep him with you, and I want that tack done and finished as soon as you're back."

"Ok. Are you sure you're all right with that rake?"

Flynn didn't look up again, but he made clucking noises, which made Riley laugh. He waited while Dale hung the saddle he was working on back on the fence, and then climbed directly over the fence. Flynn went on raking, disappearing further into the distance although still in view as they crossed paddock after paddock to the big one under a few trees where the three shires roamed. All three ambled directly towards Riley at the sight of him and Riley petted the nearest big nose, digging a swiss knife out of his belt and pulling up a hoof pick attachment. Raglan submitted calmly to having one of his massive, bucketsized hooves lifted between Riley's knees and searched.

"They pick up stones like you wouldn't believe." Riley commented to Dale while he worked. "Big feet, big stones."

The stable pocket knives, like wire cutters, were something that they all carried as part of a basic emergency kit: the tools to quickly free any trapped or entangled animal, and Dale had long since got used to pocketing them as mechanically as he strapped on a watch each day. He pulled up his own attachment and patted Boris's great foreleg, like a shaggy tree trunk, which Boris good naturedly lifted and let him hold.

"What was it you wanted to ask?"

"Not ask." Riley moved over to do Raglan's other forefoot, glancing across at Dale. "I don't want you to feel like I'm going behind the others' backs. I'm not. They're doing what they're good at and I'll help them any way I can, but they don't really know what it's like from our side of the fence. Flynn maybe does a bit, but he is a Top and it's not the same for them. I live with three of them: I know….. What are you thinking about your Corporation? Not plans, it's too soon for plans, but-"

He trailed off, sounding uncomfortable, and Dale gently changed hooves with Boris who amicably lifted up another foot for him.

"I can't go back to what I was doing."

Riley looked up at him, eyes shocked, and Dale gave him a wry smile. "We talked about this when I first started to realise about this whole brat business and you clued me in then. How does this kind of lifestyle fit with what I was doing? How do I get to justify working mad hours and obsessing? Although I'm guessing most of your clients manage this somehow?"

"They manage the habits better when they leave, they've got better understanding of controlling behaviour and routines, and usually we set up mentors," Riley said, sounding somewhat stunned. "Friends or colleagues who help them keep the ideas at the forefront but –"

"They're not brats." Dale said simply. "Different ball game."

"You've got it." Riley said, shaking his head. "This is already cut and dried to you, isn't it?"

"Riley, I was going under." Dale admitted, straightening up to ease his back. "I knew I was going under six months ago, I just had no idea there was anything else I could do or any other kind of life out there. Which sounds stupid, it's not like I didn't have the independence or intelligence, but - I don't know how to explain it."

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."

It was a new perspective – a Riley that young, but with the clarity of insight Riley had, flatly refusing to leave a group of men he had only known a few weeks, trusting himself to them completely.

"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.

"Damn, you mean it isn't?"

For the first time, Dale laughed out loud. "Ok, I can see the attraction in that part too. You're not the only one who likes cavemen. I just mean what 'brat' with any real commitment to this kind of lifestyle and these kind of beliefs would go back into that kind of work anyway? It's like becoming a vegetarian but continuing to hunt. I felt what I was doing in that job was – wrong. Not morally wrong, I don't mean like that, but I had problems with it and I had problems with me and I didn't see there was any way out. So no." he took a breath, letting it out slowly, saying it aloud and confirming what had become a definite, confident decision. "I'm not going back. I have no idea what I'll do, but…."

"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."

No. And that made a huge amount of sense. Riley watched him anxiously, eyes gentle, and Riley had phenomenally expressive eyes.

"You know you'll have a room here for as long as and whenever you want it? We all do. Some check in and out a few times a year. Some stayed for a while and keep in touch. Some, like me, just never move on."

He grinned as he said it and Dale sat back on his heels, watching him.

"Why didn't you move on? I heard Philip brought Top after Top here to try and find one you liked."

"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.

"Jas, Flynn and Paul. I already had everyone I wanted. Anyone who I got attached to now would have to be prepared to live here and be a part of that, and it's the same for all four of us. Take any one of us and you get the other three as part of the package- and the other three would have to want him here as much as I did, or I wouldn't consider it. The four of us are weird, Philip gave up on us in the end and let us get on with it." And from the affection in his voice that was nearer a family joke than any real truth. "But the others who have lived here, like Gerry- they come and they go, but they all know if things go wrong they have a place here any time they want, for as long as they want, and they belong here."

That was exactly what Flynn had said. When all else fails, you come back here because we won't let you fail.
"I've got a lot more to sort out," Dale said with more cheer than he felt. This continued to be the hardest thing he had ever done, and while he could see the rewards, while he was starting to feel them, it was with all the pain of having a broken bone set.

And we won't even think about Flynn right now….

"I don't want to tell Jerry Banks or anyone else yet that I'm pulling out, it would cause all kinds of problems in the Corporation, clients to panic, a whole mess. There's ways I'd need to do it, so please, don't say anything. And I'm not ready to talk to the others about this either? I don't know enough about what I do want and I don't understand nearly enough yet to think clearly or explain properly-"

Riley nodded slowly, a slightly mischievous gleam in his eyes.

"I won't say a word. Promise. But you've got nothing to worry about, and when you're ready to tell them, no one's going to pressure you or demand detailed explanations or try and talk you into or out of anything. You've got any amount of time, take what you need, and we'll help you. Whatever you want to do we'll help."

Dale straightened up from Boris's hoof and Riley stooped at once to the brief, tight hug Dale gave him.


When they settled around the table for dinner that evening, Riley paused behind Flynn's chair and wrapped his arms, wet hands and all, around Flynn's neck. Flynn slid his chair further back from the table and pulled Riley down into his lap, and neither of them had been distracted in the slightest from the conversation they were having with Paul. Dale couldn't keep his eyes off them. It was such a phenomenally tender gesture between two men, from Flynn's arms folded around Riley to Riley's hand rubbing with a lot of sensitivity around the bruises on Flynn's shoulders. There had never been any information, anywhere in Dale's world, that men could do this. That men even existed who knew how to do this. While he was still trying to tear his eyes away, he caught Gerry's eye and saw an amused and curious stare.

"So why do you get kicked up to bed at twilight?" he'd demanded of Dale after dinner when they were sitting on the hearth rug playing blackjack. Riley dealt out the last of the cards and sat back against the couch and Jasper's knee, both of which he was leaning against impartially, elbows on his knees.

"We don't get him wet or feed him after midnight either."

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.

After Flynn sent him up to bed, Dale lay on the cot under the window in Flynn's room and in the quiet of the house, tried to pull his mind together. He was actually quite calm – in a fragmented kind of way – but the sight of Flynn's bed beyond the cot raised a whole muddle of sensations that were too complicated to allow. He was working on not looking at it when Paul tapped quietly on the door. Dale started to sit up and Paul came to sit on the side of the bed.

"It's all right, I just wanted to see how you were. Dale, what possessed you to go off by yourself again this afternoon? And yes, I know you and Flynn went through all this, but I thought I told you if you were in trouble to come and talk to me?"

He said it so kindly: without reproach, and when Dale started to stumble through an apology, shook his head.

"No, I'm not after a 'sorry'. I want you to feel safe enough to tell me when you're struggling. I never thought I was that scary."

"You're not." Dale said at once and Paul smiled, putting out a hand to touch his face.

"Good. Then stop disappearing over the horizon when you're bothered. It worries the living daylights out of me. Honey, how much is Gerry bothering you?"

"Flynn explained," Dale said a little uncomfortably. "It's ok, it's my fault I'm…."

"Gerry was worried he'd upset you." Paul said when Dale trailed off. "And the more anxious he feels the more he tends to tease, which probably won't help. If you don't get what he's saying, if he's bothering you, just come and find me. I won't yell at him, I won't tell anyone else, and you don't have to explain what you're doing, but I will find something for Gerry to do elsewhere. He's missing Ash and you're not up to handling him and I don't want either of you made miserable. He and David used to drive each other mad when David didn't feel up to dealing with chatter."

"You've always ended up doing the man management." Dale said with a sudden insight, smiling in spite of himself. Paul returned the smile.

"Refereeing. Yes. David had quite a short fuse, and Riley and Flynn know exactly how to butt heads when the mood takes them, so I get a lot of practice. Can you sleep? You look hot."

Paul rested the back of his hand against Dale's forehead and Dale shook his head.

"I'm fine… David was British, wasn't he? Riley told me."

"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."

"And Philip let him?" Dale said, startled. Paul shook his head.

"Philip always went out and got him once it started to get dark. He wasn't the kind of guy you said 'no' to. Jas, wait your turn."

Jasper, leaning against the doorway with his hands in his pockets, smiled, but didn't move.

"I saw that hunter again by the falls." Dale said, thinking about it. The memory was oddly not very strong, mostly overwhelmed by the conversation with Flynn on the rocks by the water. Jasper raised his eyebrows.

"Down there? They really are after cougars then. How many?"

"Just one. The same guy. I think he was dressed for riding."

"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."

"He won't get near them." Jasper said calmly. "Would you stand and argue with Bandit? I'll take the dogs and have a look around in the morning. Ask him politely to get off our land."

"That'll work." Paul stooped and kissed Dale's cheek, pushing his hair back. "Sleep well."

"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.

"If you smile at me, what do you think I'm going to read from it?"

He was as bad as Flynn. Dale swallowed on distinct discomfort.

"I didn't want anyone to see I was bothered."

"So you control your body to show me something different from the truth?" Jasper sat down on the side of Flynn's bed, elbows on his knees. "I can think of another name for that."

"Lying." Dale said still more uncomfortably. "Flynn said if I told him another social lie –"

He trailed off, not happy to detail it, but Jasper nodded.

"And so will I if I hear or see another one like that."

There was no threat, just a calm promise and Dale nodded, understanding exactly what Jasper meant.

"I'm sorry."

"Then it's over with. It's thoughtless habit, not intentional, we all understand that." Jasper got up and Dale was startled when he stooped and dropped a swift, gentle kiss on his cheek just as Paul had done. It was something Jasper, the most reserved of the four of them, had never done before.

"I was very glad we had you with us today, you worked less as a friend than as a brother. So be that brother when the work stops. Don't assume we have no need of you there too."


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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