Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chapter 3


Riley wouldn't meet Dale's eyes at breakfast, and while he ate with what Dale was starting to recognise as his usual dispatch, he said almost nothing. Dale worked his way in silence through the eggs and toast Paul put in front of him, which to his surprise he was actually hungry for, and watched Riley, distinctly uncertain as to what was happening. Paul and Jasper talked cheerfully as though they hadn't seen, and Flynn, who rarely said much at mealtimes, took very little notice either. When breakfast was finished, Flynn got up and gave Riley a short nod.

"You can straighten out the dishes this morning. Come and find me when you're done."

"Why me?" Riley demanded.

"Because it's your turn." Paul informed him, getting up.

"Dale, come on out with me and I'll show you what your chores will be." Flynn went on, tossing a hat across.

"If you want me to stick around so you can have a word because I'm in a bad mood, just say so." Riley said grimly. Flynn nodded acceptance.

"Ok. Riley, I want you to stick around so I can have a word because you're in bad mood. After you've sorted out in here. Get to it. Dale?"

Riley growled audibly. Dale gave him a wary glance and followed Flynn outside. Flynn led the way across the yard to the door of the barn, slipping the latch.

"These need to be done daily, around whatever other assigned work you have. When you're done, come and get me and I'll check them; if you're not sure about anything then ask. First thing, buckets and tap there, check and fill the horse troughs. There's one in each fenced area around the house plus one behind the house that the dogs use. Second, fill the feed troughs and the hay nets in the stable, you'll find all the supplies you need in the barn. Third, clean out the stalls, and I'll show you how to do that now. Fourth, sweep the stables and the porch. Got it?"

"I'll make notes." Dale said dryly.

Flynn raised an eyebrow at him and Dale felt a slight jolt of embarrassment, although he shrugged, following him into the stables.

"Memory really isn't much of an issue?"

I was actually co ordinating multi projects in multi departments across several different corporations a few days ago plus running my own department. Did you think I spent all day at a desk playing games on the blackberry?

"Good." Flynn passed him a fork. "Hopefully horses aren't an issue either. This way."

They did the first stall together, with a dispatch and efficiency from Flynn that drew Dale's grudging respect: the man missed nothing. After which Flynn handed the tools over.

"It's all yours. Come and get me when you're done."

He crossed the yard towards the house and shut the kitchen door behind him. What he planned to say to Riley about a bad mood – unless cowboys didn't allow those either – was anyone's guess. In the real world people had their moods, you ignored it and you moved on: why it was necessary to make an issue of it was beyond Dale.

Leaving Flynn and Riley to sort out their own issues, Dale lost himself in the work, welcoming the hard, physical repetition of it and letting it blank his mind, blotting out everything else. It was a blessed return to the brief peace and quiet of mind he'd found while working yesterday, and he ploughed through the immaculately clean and orderly stable until regretfully, he ran out of things to do. When he went in search of Flynn, he was grooming one of the heavily pregnant mares in the yard and Riley, looking extremely grim, was creosoting the porch rails, a brush in his hand and a tin of creosote at his feet. Flynn followed Dale into the stables, checked each stall in turn and nodded, putting a hand across the doorway to block Dale's path.

"Good. Exactly as I asked. How long did that take you?"

Dale glanced at his watch, confused.

What's that got to do with it for pete's sake? Just give me the next damn thing to get on with!

"About an hour."

"Ok." Flynn moved the arm, face impassive. "You were working normal speed?"

"Yes?" Dale said, still more confused.

Flynn nodded. "I give that task an hour and a half minimum if it's done at a calm pace."

-?" Dale broke off, exasperated. "Look. I work fast, I don't muck about. It was done right, it was done properly-"

"It was done at a pace that's based on nervous energy. You're going faster than is necessary or safe, it keeps you stressed, and you need to calm down." Flynn said mildly. "Throwing up while you work isn't normal and it isn't good. I make this job an hour and a half minimum, which means if you race through and get it done inside that time, you need to spend the remainder of the time resting to make up for it. I make that half an hour today. You can sit on the porch step; don't move until I tell you please."

"For working too fast?" Dale repeated in a slow voice that implied Flynn needed immediate psychiatric intervention.

"That's right." Flynn said simply. "Go ahead."

This was why the man hung out in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming: if he lived anywhere normal he'd spend his life being punched out. These people were absolutely bloody insane.

Dale stalked across to the step and dropped down onto it, hugging his knees. The sitting reminded him of his lately assaulted backside: he had checked this morning on waking and been startled to find not the faintest mark to indicate that anything had happened. Sitting was perfectly comfortable today, although he'd been tender when he went to bed last night. Taking no further notice of him, Flynn went back to the horse and continued to work. Probably at what he considered an 'appropriate' pace, although it seemed rapid enough to Dale. Riley, across the yard, continued to paint the fence, keeping his eyes averted and his shoulders hunched. It sent a bolt of unease through Dale, distracting him briefly from his exasperation. Riley had been so friendly yesterday – but he had also witnessed the hallucinations. Possibly Riley found it a good deal less normal or acceptable than Flynn had. Or else during that episode Dale found himself uneasily wondering if he had said or done something offensive that he now couldn't remember.

He shifted on the step, frustrated and restless. Sitting still was not easy. Which was stupid, it should be the easiest thing in the world to sit out here in the sun for – twenty eight minutes. It was infuriating. The peace of doing was far, far better.

"Ok, I'll do the next thing slower." he said shortly to Flynn, who didn't look round.


Halleluiah. Getting up, Dale headed towards the buckets and the tap. Flynn's clicked fingers pointed directly back at the step.


Furious, Dale plonked himself down again. "Why?"

"Because actions have consequences."

He said that ridiculous phrase like it was supposed to mean something. Across the yard as if on cue, Riley slammed his brush into his bucket and straightened up, turning to face Flynn.

"I'm sick of this."

Flynn took no notice, continuing to groom.

"There are things I need to be doing." Riley said louder.

"And Paul will do them." Flynn said without looking round.

Riley glowered at him for a long moment until Flynn lowered the brush and looked back. There was a moment where Dale watched them stare at each other, then Riley grabbed the brush and resumed painting with short, angry movements.

The remaining time on the step appeared to take forever. Dale fidgeted, getting steadily more furious, until by the time that Flynn called him he was on the edge of exploding. He got up thankfully, striding across the yard at a pace that shook some of the itch out of his legs.

"Water troughs. Right?"

"Yes please." Flynn glanced at his watch. "I make that a forty minute job. If you finish before then you can spend the rest of the time sitting on the step. It's up to you."

Resisting the urge to bare his teeth, Dale stalked towards the buckets and the taps.

Even ready to break the man's neck, he did try to take his time. He seriously did. When he thought about it, he was actually aware of the effort it took to walk rather than stride as though he had a bus to catch - it took effort not to catch and grab and place with a rapid speed that Dale realised rather uneasily was born of a kind of tension. That probably wasn't a bad thing. He was moving at a fast, tense pace that to him felt normal – the pace at which things got done which was good in the real world where normal people did normal things – and slowing it down to keep the cowboy happy took serious thought and attention. He tried. It felt largely like moving in slow motion. But when he brought the last bucket back, Flynn still looked down at his watch.

"Twenty five minutes. Go take a seat."

"I tried!" Dale spat at him, and got a calm nod.


The urge to kick the porch step was childish and overwhelming. Dale dropped back down on the step. Across the yard, Riley flung the paintbrush down into the creosote tin and spun around.

"Ok I am done with this! Either I go and get some real work done or I'll just frickin' sit here too, I don't mind."

"Your choice." Flynn said mildly. He didn't explain further and Dale wondered what he meant. Riley looked at him for a long moment, then folded his arms, standing where he was. Flynn continued to groom the mare's neck, rubbing the brush steadily down to the base of her chest, rubbed her nose and untied her rope. He led her around the corner of the stables without a backward glance. Riley didn't move from where he stood, arms still folded. Flynn came back a few minutes later with an empty bridle in his hand, which he hung on the door of the barn.

"All right Riley."

Riley didn't move for a moment. Flynn waited, and finally Riley scuffed across to him, stalking up the porch steps past Dale and into the house.

"Stay there until I tell you, please." Flynn said to Dale as he followed. The door shut behind them, leaving Dale alone in the yard.

The only sounds outside were the far away baaing of the sheep and the rustle of the aspens in the distance. Dale stretched his restless legs and looked at his watch, uncomfortable with what he'd just heard Riley say and with the whole ridiculous concept of sitting here. This was nearly impossible and Flynn's reasons escaped him entire-

All right, no they didn't.

Growling, Dale slumped backwards on the steps. Yes, he knew what Flynn was doing. Yes, Flynn had a point. That did nothing to ease the homicidal urges. And Riley clearly wasn't impressed with what he was witnessing: Dale couldn't help wondering with shame and no little anxiety how much it was his actions and his presence making the other man so obviously angry this morning.

Riley's voice reached him faintly then from inside the house, and to Dale's surprise it was no longer remotely angry. It was somewhere between dismayed and plaintive, like a small boy faced with spinach on his plate.

"Oh no – Flynn, no, not that one-"

There was no answer from Flynn; Dale heard nothing more for a moment, and then a faint but distinct thwack
sound in the distance. He turned, shocked, and a second or two later there came another thwack – and another – and they continued in a slow, steady sequence, like a table tennis match being played far away. After two or three of those sounds another began to punctuate them; initially high pitched squeaks, yelps and protests, then just protests which were rapidly becoming tearful. Frozen on the step, Dale found himself listening intently. There were perhaps twenty of those slow thwacks, then silence again.

It was a while before Flynn opened the screen door.

"Dale? Come and have a drink."

There wasn't a mark on him.

Of course there isn't, what did you expect? Blood on his hands?

Did he really just – do - to Riley what he did to you in the barn last night? Is he serious?

Dale got slowly up from the steps, not at all sure how he felt. He should have been scared stiff at being here in the hands of this maniac – this definitely wasn't Kansas any more - and yet that wasn't the emotion at all. He felt tense, but not afraid; although there were several other muddled emotions he really didn't want to think about long enough to name.

"It's past eleven." he said to Flynn shortly enough to cover it, "And I've got less than half done what I could have managed if I hadn't wasted time sitting here."

"I don't call it time wasted." Flynn indicated the kitchen table and opened the fridge, taking out the orange juice. Dale sat down, looking over his shoulder at the family room. There was no sign of Riley. Flynn put a glass in front of him and sat down, swallowing from his own glass. Dale looked at him and at the orange juice with a higher swell of the emotions he didn't recognise at all, except that they were overwhelming and he was near to shaking with them.

He just did to Riley what he did to you last night, only from the sounds of it a lot longer and a lot harder. And there is the proof as if you needed it that they're all totally mad. What kind of a way is this to solve problems!

"You're some kind of citrus fiend, aren't you?" he said out loud.

"Quite possibly." Flynn agreed. There was something about the calm tone that didn't help: not because it was mean or unkind or at all provoking – it was actually anything but – but it was not at all the tone that Dale wanted, although he had no idea why. He heard his own voice gather spite, naked spite and a hardness that he'd never heard come out of his mouth before.

"Do you push this down every poor bastard that gets stuck out here? Do you stuff this down Riley too?"

"Riley is fine." Flynn put his glass down, leaning his elbows on the table. "It's all right Dale. You can ask anything you want-"

"I don't want to know anything." Dale spat back.

Will you shut up? Are you mad? Do you want this Anzac maniac to wallop you again? Because you know very well, if you push far enough he will!

Flynn shook his head. "I don't believe that's true at all. I think there's a lot of things worrying you that you want to talk about."

"You can go to hell." Dale informed him. Or at least his voice said it. He was aware of listening to himself with growing horror at the open provocation in his tone. It was like sitting in a car beside an insane driver with a death wish.

What the hell are you trying to do?

"We don't use that kind of language to each other." Flynn said matter of factly, moving the juice out of his reach and standing up. "Go outside, take a break, think about what it is you want to ask, and I'll-"

"Go to hell." Dale repeated louder, not moving.

He was aware he'd issued a challenge, and he could see that Flynn was aware of it too. Flynn paused, then leaned both fists on the table, weight on his knuckles. He wasn't the slightest bit angry; there was no tension in his body while he looked at Dale, nor in his voice when he spoke.

"Last chance."

Dale looked him right in the eye, heart thundering and waited right back. Flynn's eyes were an unusual dark green; almost green black, and they were steady. Watchful. And surprisingly kind. Then Flynn nodded and straightened up.

"All right." he said quietly and held out a hand.  

Dale had absolutely no idea why he got up from the table or took that outstretched hand.

The family room was quiet, but Riley was stood in a corner of it, tucked behind one of the many rough grey stone walls and partitions that broke up the room and turned it into corners and alcoves and private places. He was standing quietly facing the wall like a small boy in disgrace, head slightly down. Flynn didn't speak to him, just led Dale around another of those little wall alcoves and opened a dark wooden door that led off it. Beyond the door was a fairly spacious study, with two large and heavy desks and Admirals' chairs standing behind them. No computers or phones were in evidence, just files on the very tidy desks, and all four walls were lined with books on dark wood shelves. A leather couch was set against the window and a thick rug lay on the wood floor. Flynn closed the door and went to the nearest desk, opening the bottom drawer. Dale didn't recognise what he took out: it was clear, like thin, clear plastic, and about the size and outline of an oddly shaped and small table tennis bat. His stomach suddenly gave a lurch. Paddles. Of course. The Americans were famous for them, although Dale had never seen one – or at least one not designed for sport. This one appeared to be almost a virtual paddle, the material was completely transparent.

Flynn took a seat on the sofa and reached once more for Dale's hand, drawing him gently around to stand on his right side. He had been slippered this way a couple of times, years ago at school, and it was no surprise: Dale found himself following Flynn's gentle pull on his hand without hesitation, and bending across Flynn's lap until his stomach rested over Flynn's jeaned knee and Flynn's arm, heavy and strong, lay across his back and his hand wrapped around his hip, cupping it. His stomach was churning, his mouth was dry and his backside was prickling, feeling extremely vulnerable just as the seat of his jeans suddenly felt extremely thin – but bizarrely there was no sense of panic or alarm, no instinct to protest or try to escape. Instead Dale put his hands down on the flat, cool leather of the sofa, rested his head on his arms and waited, feeling his heart thumping and the pressure of Flynn's thighs against his body, the closeness of the strong arm that held him firmly prone. Even the tiny voice at the back of his mind that had been shrieking What are you doing?! had been silenced. The first swat was shockingly hard and it stung fiercely, a far hotter and more solid sting than the riding crop, and the second smack followed it, the paddle covering most of one cheek with each swat and setting it equally on fire. Dale gritted his teeth, burying his grimace in his arms, breath stolen by the shock and the sheer intensity of the smart. Three. Four. Five. Six. The smart built up geometrically, each new swat adding a fresh layer to already blazing territory and they seemed to be getting relentlessly harder: the sixth drew an involuntary yelp and an extremely undignified jerk. Dale found his legs scissoring and his hand flying back without conscious thought in an attempt to defend against the paddle, and Flynn's large hand closed over his wrist, holding it gently and firmly to his side in a grasp Dale knew without trying that he wouldn't be able to free himself from. He would have sworn that the next swats were even harder, the man appeared to be part machine, and the paddle rang across the seat of his jeans, each swat making him jump and twist like it carried an electric current, and taking away all control over his breath and his voice. The words came without any conscious thought whatsoever.

"Ok – ok, I'm sorry – I'm sorry, I won't- ow-"

There was no possibility of thinking coherently or of making speeches. Struggling for breath, mouth dropped open at the sheer, appalling sting of that paddle, Dale found himself squirming wildly across the man's lap and sounding suddenly more sincere than any board of directors had ever heard.

"All right, Flynn I'm sorry, no more bullshit, I swear-"

Eight. Nine. Ten. Flynn was in no hurry, the swats fell slowly but steadily, and the hand grasping his hip was immoveable. Dale's torso and head ducked and twisted, his legs appeared to have a life of their own and his ankles were currently crossing in an attempt to do anything at all to ease the intensity of the sting and contain it, but his backside wasn't moving an inch out of the way of that bloody paddle. For Pete's sake, he was a client. He was new to this. Any decent man would take that into account and let him off easily! Or at least more easily than this!

Eleven. Twelve. Hard, measured and relentless, the paddle snapped down and his entire backside was one flaming ball of pain. 


Thirteen. Fourteen.

"Please-" Dale heard his voice crack and didn't care in the slightest, the first whine was as involuntary as his twisting. "I'll stop, I swear I'll stop,"

Fifteen. Sixteen. Nothing was going to work. Dale clenched his shoulders, pushing his head against his hands into the couch.






Moving was out of the question. There didn't seem to be anywhere else in the world to be but here anyway. Dale lay where he was over the man's legs, struggling to get his breath, his backside apparently going up in flames. A heavy hand ran over his shoulders and rubbed in wide, steady circles over his upper back. It held a compassion and a kindness that was so foreign that it was overwhelming. Dale swallowed hard on crashing emotions that had full possession of his face and his breathing, and buried his face harder in his arms.

"Come here." Flynn said quietly and pulled. The man's grip was insanely steel-like. Against his will Dale found himself hoisted upright and then without warning his face was against an equally hard shirt front and arms were around him like a cage, tight, surrounding, inescapable.

For a minute Dale had no idea what to do, save that pulling away, his instinctive response, did not appear to be an option.

"You're quite safe." Flynn said very close above him. "Breathe."

Dale took a breath, cautiously, but didn't relax, holding himself stiffly against the encircling arms. His face was dry, his eyes were sore but dry, but his chest hurt and he could still hear the raggedness of his breathing. That hand began to circle on his shoulders again. This should have been like being embraced by a steel girder. It actually wasn't.

"You'd just said you'd stop the bullshit." Flynn's voice said near his ear. "Are we not done yet?"

Dale felt him start to move with a sudden and visceral awareness of the threat of being flipped back across Flynn's lap, and any hesitation fled. He gripped Flynn's shirt front, initially to stop him moving, then as Flynn slowly relaxed back into the couch, he let his breath go in one long, shuddering gust and leaned against the broad chest in front of him, aware that he was limp. And exhausted. And that his backside hurt like all hell. And that actually he felt a hell of a lot better than he had done sitting in the kitchen only ten minutes ago. Drained and calm and relieved.

"You know exactly what I mean too," Flynn said dryly. "Don't you?"

Dale nodded, without the breath or reservation left to be discreet. "Yes."

"You've been playing us." Flynn's hand continued to rub, deeply comforting as it made its way over his spine. "You'd better regard this as a free confession, mate. Consider it a fifteen minute amnesty and tell me what's going on here."

"Riley said it was a mistake going through the motions." Dale said somewhat incoherently. Flynn nodded, apparently not struggling to follow what he meant.

"And you feel that's what you've been doing."

"He said it never worked out well in the end."

"Riley's usually well worth listening to." Flynn agreed. "What made you feel that going through the motions was the right thing to do?"

"Wanting to get out of here as fast as possible." Dale drew back and Flynn let him go, watching him settle himself in the corner of the couch although he tucked a leg under him in an instinctive attempt to take weight off his scorching backside. "I thought if I looked ok and played along, I'd tick all the boxes and I'd get out of here."

"With nothing fixed or changed." Flynn gave him a watchful look. "But then as far as you're concerned there's nothing wrong anyway?"

Dale felt himself flush even as he shook his head, the admittance tearing free but not willingly. "I – I had an ulcer eighteen months ago and the doctor told me then I was headed for a steady row of them. Charles knew I wasn't sleeping much. I couldn't leave the projects alone, and when I had the first- whatever it was. Hallucination. That kind of confirmed that things were really going wrong."

"It must have been very frightening." Flynn said quietly. "Your brain is essentially trying to sneak dream cycles in while you're awake, it's trying to recharge itself because it's getting desperate for sleep. Why weren't you sleeping?"

"Just too much – well. Not to do. Just too much on my mind." Dale admitted. "Offices in several time zones, several projects that were risky and needed a lot of support."

"And you were the only one who could do it? Not much for delegating, are you?" Flynn wrapped an arm around his own knee, slouching comfortably in the sofa corner in a way that put their heads on one height. "What happens if you're not busy?"

"I don't know." Dale said awkwardly. "I suppose I get nervous. Start thinking about what I should be doing, what's left to do..."

"And the nerves get out of control and the anxiety takes over." Flynn said mildly. "It's a very common pattern, we see it a lot. There are several types of workaholicism, genuine workaholicism, and we see guys from every type. Actual, addictive behaviour."

"Except like drugs and drink you can't just quit work permanently." Dale said dryly. Flynn gave him a very brief, sideways smile. He didn't smile often, and the effect was surprising.

"You can learn to control the addictive aspects, and you can learn to recognise when you're getting into deep water. And you can always come back to us any time if you start to get out of your depth again. A lot of our clients end up choosing to come back for weekends or short vacations to check in with themselves that they still have things under their control. We're used to helping people fix this kind of situation, Dale. It takes time because you don't just have to pick up new skills, you actually have to change your mindset and perspective, but people leave here, go back to their jobs and succeed. It can be done."

"If I'm not screwing around and sabotaging what you're trying to do." Dale said half under his breath.

"I wouldn't call it sabotage." Flynn said mildly. "Denial and poor attitude at the worst. All you need to do right now is what you're told. Listen, take it on board, let yourself physically recover. You'll be surprised how much your perspective can change over a few weeks just from doing that. When you can see things a bit more clearly, then we can do the more serious work on planning for when you go back."

"How long am I going to be here?" Dale said bluntly, looking straight at Flynn. Flynn gave him an equally straight look, not moving.

"Until I say you're done."

Dale didn't look away. There was a moment while he looked, and then he nodded, a brief and accepting gesture, without dropping his eyes.

"Anything else you want to ask?" Flynn asked, watching him, but Dale shook his head.

"No. I'm sorry for being so rude to you. I don't usually lose my temper."

"I'd think you don't often feel so scared or so cornered." Flynn said quietly. "You don't need to worry about it. We're more than capable of handling as much temper as you want to throw around."

It was said without reproach, and Dale would almost have suspected of being teased said that Flynn was straight faced. He got up and Dale followed, unable to resist putting his hands behind him and rubbing very tenderly. The initial smart was beginning to fade down a little but the whole thing radiated heat like a five bar fire.

"I'm going to find you a corner and you can stand there and think things over until lunchtime." Flynn said, opening the study door. "That one'll do. Put your hands by your sides, face the wall – closer please – and I'll tell you when you can move. Stand still, no talking, no turning around."

It was a most bizarre thing to be asked to do but Flynn said it as simply as if it was a natural part of the daily routine, and it made a certain amount of sense. Dale moved somewhat self consciously into the corner Flynn indicated, a juncture of rough, grey stone wall, and put his hands by his sides. There was nothing whatever to look at but the grey, and the quiet of the family room soaked in like slow oil. Cool and hush and the slow, deep tick tick tick
of the grandfather clock. And Riley's voice from some way off, out of sight.


"Not a word, Riley, you made your choice." Flynn said firmly, and there was nothing more said after that.  



It was a good half an hour by the clock's quiet chimes before Flynn called to them from the kitchen. It was a novelty to be still and suddenly it wasn't difficult to be still – sore, calm, surprisingly peaceful, Dale found himself going over the conversation with Flynn in that study and was aware that he was taking it to heart. There was something about the big man-

Yeah, that paddle for a start.

 - that grabbed notice. And held it. The man would be remarkable in a boardroom, he'd command attention without the slightest effort or raising of that incredible voice. 

"Dale." Flynn said as the clock struck one. "Come and eat. Riley?"

"Yes sir?"

Riley sounded subdued and he answered promptly. Flynn's tone was warning.

"You ready to be civil or you want to stay where you are?"

"I can be civil." Riley said sincerely.

"Come on then."

Dale watched Riley walk ahead of him into the kitchen, stretching legs which were clearly aching before he hung his arms around Flynn's neck.


Flynn said nothing but Dale saw and was touched by the strength of his hug and the kiss he dropped on Riley's cheek before he let go and pushed Riley gently at the table.

"Lunch. Take it outside, both of you. I doubt you'll want to sit at the table."

He was right. Dale took one of the plates of sandwiches and a glass and followed Riley out into the sun of the porch, where Riley put the glass precariously down on the porch rail and stretched his shoulders until they cracked. And then turned to Dale with a concern in his face that was as sincere as it was warm.

"Are you okay?"

"Yes?" Dale said, startled. Riley looked at him hard for a moment, then gave him a quick smile. His eyes were still slightly red but he seemed far more his usual self than he had been earlier.

"Don't let him scare you. Flynn can be a pest, but he's as gentle as they come."

With a backside still throbbing painfully from Flynn's gentleness with a paddle, that should have made no sense at all, but oddly, it did. Riley cast a slightly embarrassed look back at the kitchen and picked up his glass again.

"There's shade over here."

Dale followed towards the nearest of the paddocks in the shade of the barn, where Riley lay down on his stomach, picking up his sandwich to tear the crusts off with careful precision.

"I'm sorry I had to go and get Flynn last night." he said without preamble. "I didn't mean to get you into trouble, I hated doing it, but he had to know. Does that make sense?"

Dale stooped to put his plate and glass down and settled himself on his stomach in the grass. A week ago, if he'd been told he'd be lying in long grass in Wyoming in jeans and a t shirt, with his backside smarting to hell, having just had a paddle put across it – and talking to another man who'd gone through just the same – he'd have thought the informant was out of his mind.

"I felt awful about it." Riley said, picking off miniscule remnants of crust with still deeper concentration that kept his eyes from Dale. "Telling tales is like – well. I don't do it. Ever. But Flynn needed to know. I'm really sorry it got you into trouble."

"I'm not." Dale said frankly, very relieved that this appeared to be all that was on Riley's mind. "I'd been worrying myself crazy about those hallucinations. That was the second one in two days."

"So Flynn said." Riley raised his eyes, giving him a brief and commiserating glance. "It must have been terrifying."

"It was stupid to cover it up, I have been sabotaging what Flynn's been trying to do by pretending I was fine." Dale looked without interest at his own sandwich and lay down full length, propping his chin on his arms. "I don't think I got anything more than I deserved."

"I do that too." Riley said quietly. Dale looked up at him.


"Blame myself. Get lost in it. And I hate getting into trouble, really hate it, but damn do I feel better afterwards."

That was frank and sincerely said, and Dale felt a powerful lurch inside. That was it exactly, and that was a very embarrassed and very sensitive little truth he couldn't have put into words himself.

"I'm sorry too about being an ass in front of you with Flynn." Riley went on, sounding still more embarrassed. "I was upset about getting you into trouble and him whaling on you last night, and I kind of took it out on him. He's used to me. Did he use that frickin' lexan thing? The clear paddle? I hate that thing."

Dale swallowed, trying to think of a tactful way to put a question that he definitely wanted answering.

"Is he… is he the only one who'd -?"

"Spank?" Riley said simply. "No. Paul and Jas wouldn't have put up with me throwing a fit like that either. It just that Paul's hard to get that mad with, and Jasper just says to go away until you're done if you're ranting. Flynn bites straight back, which is why I kind of pick on him when I'm upset. It's quicker. Are you going to eat that?"

Dale put out a cautious hand and lifted the top of the sandwich.

"I don’t really eat ham. I just like the bread." 

"Give it here." Riley advised. "I'll swap you ham for crusts."

Dale passed the plate over and watched Riley commit delicate surgery on the sandwiches.


Jasper said nothing at all, but he didn't need to; the eyebrow was eloquent. Flynn propped his elbows on the table, linking his fingers.

"I know."

"And he settled?" Paul said curiously. Flynn nodded.

"No fighting, no distress-"

"No distress?" Jasper said dryly. "I've seen you use that paddle."

"No tears, but I wouldn't expect them, he hardly knows me." Flynn said quietly. "But that wasn't what I meant. He accepted it as perfectly natural and he calmed right down. Relaxed, shoulders down from around his ears, he opened up and talked to me."

Paul cast a glance out of the window, checking on Dale and Riley who were working together on the remainder of the creosoting at the far end of the porch. He then drew the kitchen door shut, pulled out a chair and sat down beside Flynn.

"That's an unusual decision for a client."

That was true Paul, and only Paul could say it in that way. Uncritical, interested, courteously inviting more information if you cared to give it – Flynn gave him a faint smile that held a good deal of affection.

"He more or less asked me to do it. He saw me take Riley inside, he must have heard or realised what was happening. As soon as I came back to him he said everything he could think of to challenge me. It was blatant. I thought at first he was scared, but he wasn't in the slightest, I gave him several chances to divert, he pushed straight on, and as soon as I started down that path with him he followed like a lamb. No arguing, he didn't even hesitate, never mind struggle. If he'd panicked or freaked out I'd have handled it very differently, but he made it clear he wanted what I'd just given Riley. So I pretty much did, save that I didn't ask him to undress."

Paul waited, listening with interest.

"You put him over your knee?" Jasper asked from across the table. Flynn nodded.

"Which I don't think we've ever done with a client before – I've certainly never handled a client that personally or without a good deal more formality, but –"

"That wasn't what he needed." Paul finished, steepling his hands. "It sounds like Dale knew what he was asking for."

"I think he knew exactly at gut level." Flynn acknowledged. "I'm not sure why. The most obvious thing to me is that he found some stress relief from the spanking I gave him yesterday; it did calm him down and open him up. Whether he wanted that relief again when he began to get seriously stressed I don't know, I pushed him pretty hard on slowing down this morning and he wasn't happy. Or whether it was seeing Riley lose his temper that let loose emotion in him, or whether it's guilt- I actually think Dale's carrying a lot of guilt, not least for having broken down in the first place."

"He's tightly wound." Paul agreed. "And we were starting to think he was a lot more sensitive than he was letting on. Hon, I really shouldn't worry too much about why right now. We'll find that out in time. Your instincts are good."

"If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck," Jasper said mildly, "Let's try what ducks like and see where we get to. You think he knows what he's doing?"

"I think the instincts are there. I don't think consciously Dale has this figured out at all," Flynn said dryly. "But he and Riley spent the afternoon together and he's been as calm as Ri is. Am I the only one who's noticed how Ri is treating him?"

From the silence around the table, it was clear he was not. 

In the hour before dinner everyone assembled in and around the kitchen, and Paul, who appeared to do the majority of the cooking and was usually cleaned up and back to the house first in the late afternoon, worked at the big counters and the stove. Once gathered, they all talked before and through dinner, and dinner tended to be a slow affair built around conversation, which was novel to Dale who was used to business lunches or snatched meals alone while he worked. Those meals bore no relation to these unhurried, casual affairs where people frequently laughed, and the conversations ranged from work all over the ranch to plans and to teasing. Even when the dishes were empty no one seemed in a hurry to move and deal with them, still busy talking. They seemed to share a great deal about each others' day, and they all kept on drawing Dale into it, Riley without hesitation nudging him for information on the part of the day they had spent together as though those details and conversations were significant and worth the repeating.

After dinner Flynn and Jasper stayed to clear up, since apparently cowboys didn't know about dishwashers, and the others then gathered in the family room and Riley pulled down a pack of cards again, waiting for Dale to come and join him on the hearth rug. Riley appeared to be fully his normal self again, as though the events of the morning had never happened, chattering and laughing as easily as he usually did, and as natural with Flynn as though nothing at all had happened between them 
although he avoided sitting for any length of time and Dale had seen Paul's hand rub down his back in sympathy when he winced on sitting down on the hard chairs at the table. Being distinctly tender himself, Dale had every sympathy, save that he didn't feel his usual self at all. He felt calm, an unfamiliar sensation that washed through him with the relief and welcome of soft rain on dry land. It was insane. Utterly insane. According to popular psychology he ought to be bitter, sullen and aggressive, when he actually felt anything but.

Hate being disciplined, but damn do I feel better afterwards.

Riley had said that so easily, as though without any doubts that he would understand.

It had been past seven thirty when they left the table, and the clock was striking eight thirty when Flynn lowered his book.

"Dale, bed time. Riley, you too."

There seemed no point in debating it when one was publicly hallucinating at intervals from a several month-old sleep debt. Dale got up, collecting the remainder of his cards while Riley sat up and gave Flynn a look of exasperation.

"You are kidding."

"Not in the least." Flynn said bluntly. "I meant exactly what I said this morning."

"Rotten." Riley said with heat but without much apparent bitterness, and got up, collecting the rest of the cards. He stooped over Jasper's chair, kissed his cheek without reservation, and moved directly onto Paul who had got up from his chair to head towards the kitchen and who gave him a hug.

"Goodnight honey. Sleep well."

"You," Riley said levelling a finger at Flynn as he passed, "I'm not talking to."

"You I'll come and deal with in a minute when I've said goodnight to Dale." Flynn said without looking up from his book. Riley pulled a face at him and headed upstairs.

"Goodnight." Dale said softly to Jasper and Paul, and saw Jasper's quick smile to him, followed to his surprise by Paul hooking a firm arm around his neck, pulling his head down and kissing his cheek as though he was Riley.

"Goodnight Dale. Sweet dreams."

Shocked, and with no idea whatever of what to do with that, Dale jogged upstairs and occupied himself getting ready for bed. While it was an hour that normally he would have seen as working hours, never mind leisure hours, the thought of sleep was actually attractive. The fresh air and hard physical work was exhausting: every night once dinner was finished he was aware of being physically tired out and ready for rest. It was never more than five minutes or so before Flynn came up and Dale heard him on the stairs a minute before he came in, pausing as he always did to check the window and the weather beyond it.

"Headache tonight?"

Not at all. That was something of a revelation. Dale shifted onto his side, too sore to lay flat, and Flynn sat down on the edge of the bed. His was one of the faces that never really gave away anything much; it was only his eyes that suggested what he wanted to talk about.

"How are you feeling?"

"Ok." Dale said honestly. "Better. I – got what I was asking for I suppose."

As soon as he said it, he found himself wondering, with some humiliation, just what the hell a CEO thought he was asking for and doing accepting a paddling in the name of some weird therapeutic-

You sound like a penitent bloody sixth former in front of the headmaster!

"Stop it." Flynn said in a tone that was very quiet but deep enough and stern enough to make Dale jump and wonder how the hell Flynn had read that particular thought.
Flynn's eyes were grim and not easy to look away from, and they didn't look in the least amused.

"You are safe here Dale. No one is going to laugh at you or think any the less of you or mind about anything, so long as you're honest with us."

"No bullshit." Dale said half dryly. Flynn nodded, holding his gaze.

"No bullshit. Don't worry, just let yourself be. Go to sleep and sleep well. Goodnight."


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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