"It's hard, you're trying to change habits you weren't even aware of until a day or two back." Paul said mildly. "Give yourself some time."
"And even if I try I still end up here." Dale pointed out darkly. Paul smiled.
"Do you ever take one?"
Dale took a breath to control the urge to huff in exasperation and did as he was told. Flynn leaned on the porch rail beside him.
"Good." Flynn's hands squeezed briefly. "Don't open your eyes. I'll be back in a few minutes. I want to know by then, what's the furthest sound you can hear and what's the nearest."
It was much harder without the weight of his hands. Dale heard his footsteps move away across the yard and with difficulty pulled his mind under control. At least it was a challenge, something to do and to focus on. It was a while before Flynn came back and Dale answered without being asked, promptly.
"Well done." Flynn dropped a hand on his shoulder. "Time's up, you can go onto your next chore. Come find me when you're done and think about stopping to breathe. Quality, not speed."
The quality part was easy. Dale worked on, half an eye on Flynn who was continuing to clean harness in the yard.
"Did he bring you here?"
Frustrated, Dale paused and forced himself to move more slowly. Flynn cast a discreet look at him, appreciating the sincere effort he was making as much as the fact that Dale, who was positively monosyllabic unless alone with Riley, was actually trying to make conversation.
Flynn gave him one of his very brief, tugging smiles. "Well Riley would get that, yes. The house full of corners and nooks and crannies – that's all David. Privacy and hiding places. The deep window seats Riley curls right up in, that's pure David. You'll see it when you've been here a while. Are you done?"
"Nope." Flynn glanced at his watch as Dale glanced at his own, resisting the urge to bear his teeth and growl.
There was some kind of schedule on which the four of them came and went at the ranch that made sense to them: Dale was aware as that painfully frustrating day wore on, that Flynn kept watching the wide, grassed path that led past the corral and that he was starting to look increasingly grim. Paul came into the yard shortly after four, Flynn went to meet him and Dale heard Paul's usually tranquil voice drop in concern.
"I haven't seen Ri since breakfast. Where was he going?" Paul asked. Flynn took one further look around the pastures.
"That is over a two hour ride," Paul said quietly, "Especially if he had to look for them."
"And if he's got a problem, we could be anything up to two hours away from him." Flynn said shortly. "I don't want to wait any longer. Can you ride up along the river as far as the falls? I'm going up towards the tops."
"Take Dale with you." Paul said bluntly. Flynn shook his head.
"He rides, he's quite capable and it's too much ground to cover by yourself." Paul said firmly, looking straight at Dale to include him in the conversation. "You might need another pair of hands. I'll take Nekkid and get going. Dale, go get a jacket from the kitchen, it's going to be cold out here in another hour or so. And take Riley's, he'll need it if you find him."
It had been a good eight or nine years since he had last tacked up a horse, but it was surprising how quickly it came back. Flynn had whistled to a tall, heavy shouldered dark horse he'd named as Hammer and handed him over to Dale, himself saddling a long legged and sidling chestnut by the name of Leo with Bandit's blond mane and tail. Apart from keeping half an eye on Dale, he made no further comment until he opened the gate of the corral and waited for Dale to lead Hammer out, following him with his own horse and shutting the gate securely.
Flynn came through the trees and took in the colt and Riley without expression, turned on his heel and vanished back the way he had come. He returned a moment later with a head collar and Riley shifted on the colt's neck, watching him lean out in to the water and buckle it over the colt's head. They said nothing and apparently didn't need to: when the collar was buckled Flynn took a firm grip on it, taking a more stable stance on the bank. .
"Dale, stand out of the way." Riley called, braced himself with one foot in the river and Flynn counted aloud,
"Three." Riley said with him and got up from the colt's neck, putting his weight against the colt's shoulder as Flynn slid one foreleg around into the right position and pulled on the head collar. It took a moment of the two of them aiding the struggling horse, helping him gather himself, then suddenly the horse lurched up and Flynn led him up the bank and through the trees. Riley waded slowly towards the bank and Dale leaned over, offering a hand to pull him up. Riley was obviously freezing and his legs were as numbed as the colt's. He made his way unsteadily and stiffly through the thicket and stood watching as Flynn walked the colt slowly round in circles. It was limping but as it began to warm up its action became smoother and freer and the colt's head began to lift.
"Stop chatting and get under a shower." Flynn ordered, dismounting behind them. He had led the colt down at a gentler pace and he hooked Leo's reins over his arm to lead the colt through towards the stables.
"Yes Flynn." Riley said sourly, glowering straight at him. "At once Flynn. Are you all right Riley? Oh yes Flynn, how thoughtful of you. How clever of you to stop the horse breaking his damn leg Riley. Oh don't mention it Flynn, I love sitting in a river all afternoon in mid frickin' April."
"Inside." Flynn snapped, louder. Riley kicked the corral rail as they passed it and stalked towards the house, and with a growing sense of uneasiness, Dale looked from the stone faced Flynn to Riley's rigid shoulders, then followed him. Paul was waiting on the porch, took one look at Riley and held out his arms.
"Flynn-" Dale began uncertainly, indicating the stables and thinking of the several horses Flynn was dealing with. Paul drew him in and shut the kitchen door.
Dale hesitated, more through confusion than any disinclination, and Paul put a hand up to touch his cheek as though it was a completely normal thing to do to a grown man.
Embarrassed at having given himself away, Dale ran upstairs and took his time changing, aware that he was tense and that a headache was starting to thump behind his temples. Once changed, still rather cold, he sat down on his bed and rubbed his temples, wondering if he could beg off dinner and go to bed, and at the same time wondering just what it was that made him so uncomfortable. Having chaired no few meetings where the tension levels reduced secretaries to tears, or which involved shouting, threats and intimidation, he'd grown to believe he was actually bomb proof. This had to be another and rather humiliating side effect of the breakdown.
"-just Flynn." Riley said sullenly, emerging from the bathroom dressed and with wet hair. Paul pulled out the chair on the other side for him.
"Why bother when he's going to growl all evening?" Riley demanded, dropping into his chair. "You'd think it was all my fault and I'd tied the bloody horse up in the roots myself!"
"That's what it feels like." Riley said angrily, bolting tea. "I might just as well go straight up to bed."
"That would make two of you." Paul said dryly. "No. Ignore Flynn, we'll feed him and he'll settle down, there's no reason to let him get you wound up."
"I'm starving." Riley said, not noticeably cheered. Paul got up as the door opened and Jasper and Flynn came in together.
Flynn didn't look up from his meal. Paul only said calmly,
"I'm not in the least surprised." Paul said, getting up. "Dale, are you finished eating? I'll get you some painkillers and you can lie down."
"I'd like to go to bed too I think." Dale said rather tentatively. "Sorry, I'm- er- really tired."
"Go on then love." Paul took his plate from him. "There are book cases in the family room, why don't you look and see if there's anything you want to read in bed? Flynn, you can go and lock up outside and do something about that mood."
Flynn didn't answer, but he got up and headed outside. Dale hesitated a moment, then tentatively followed him out onto the veranda, watching him pull on boots.
"I was glad to help." Dale slipped his hands into his pockets, watching Flynn's face as he shouldered into a jacket. Flynn zipped it, looked up and met his eye for a moment before he jerked his head at the house.
"How many times did you throw up?" Riley asked, watching Dale heel off the trainers. There seemed no point in hedging.
"This is the first time." Dale gulped juice. "I couldn't sleep either."
"Flynn never told you to go wake him if you couldn't sleep?" Riley said curiously.
"He can be sweet when he's in the mood." Riley bolted milk, giving Dale a look over the rim. "WHEN he's in the mood. I'm sorry you got stuck in all that stuff last night. I love Flynn to bits, I really do, but if he and I were left alone together one of us would be dead in a week. He gets grouchy like you wouldn't believe when he goes into Protect the Herd mode, he's like Bandit. Frickin' stud stallion. Defend you no matter what but won't think twice about kicking you to get you out of his way while he's doing it."
"And when he gets like that," Riley went on, "I get mad and I've got this real knack for pissing Flynn off but good when I try, so he gets grouchier, and it's basically a mess." He hesitated, looking rather guilty for a minute, and then shrugged. "He did come and try to say goodnight, but I wouldn't talk to him. Which was mean."
"He loved boats." Dale commented, watching Riley place one or two of the ships gently in the harbours. All galleons and fishing vessels.
"And was Philip a pirate too?" Dale said dryly, digesting this. Riley shook his head.
Grown men were not ordered to bed in that tone of voice; it just wasn't done. And yet Dale found himself on his feet and moving at something perilously close to a scuttle. He heard a sound he didn't recognise at first, followed by a yelp from Riley, and a second later was extremely surprised by a sharp spank across the seat of his boxers as he passed Paul. He was still breathless with shock when they reached the kitchen and Paul snapped off the stairs light, closing the door.
"Paaaaaaaaul-" Riley began and Paul pushed him through the family room, voice very soft.
The last time he had been scolded and hustled up to bed like this had been after a particularly noisy fight after lights out in the junior dormitory in prep school. Dale slid under the covers and Paul pulled them straight over him.