Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chapter 6


6


With no tvs or radios, no news, and each day pretty much the same, it was easier to lose track of time and to learn to do as Flynn kept repeating like a mantra: take it a day at a time.

After that afternoon out by the cairn, Dale gathered up the same energy and commitment he habitually put behind any project, took himself in hand and threw himself with all his force into succeeding. No longer to get out of the place as fast as possible, but to achieve whatever Flynn wanted him to do, to learn and succeed at any challenge Flynn set him, his trust entirely in the taciturn man who spent every day with him. He had always excelled at whatever he set his mind to. That determination lasted almost a week before he realised that he had made yet another well intentioned mistake: a realisation involving no few quiet conversations with Flynn, and a few with Paul too who didn't seem to miss much, and a lot of time spent facing corners and walls. Not, Flynn explained more than once, as any kind of punishment or reproof: simply that if he couldn't stop himself then Flynn needed to stop him.

There was unfortunately no need to demand 'stop what?'.

"There are no Nobel Prizes available for ironing." Paul pointed out very firmly one afternoon when it was pouring with rain and Dale had been allowed – as he wasn't very often at the moment – to help Paul and Riley deal with laundry. ."Speed is not being assessed, the physics of heat and laundry are not something you're being called to publish a paper on, no one is going to grade the degree of your creases."

"There is nothing wrong with high standards!" Dale protested, "I just like to do things properly, I want to know how
to do things properly."

He got a look that for Paul was severe, the iron was confiscated and Paul nodded firmly at the door of the laundry room.

"Yes, I know you do. Out you go." 

He spent still more time sitting, watching others work: mostly Flynn who kept Dale with him as he moved around on his daily chores. For the first few days that was almost torturous, the pure effort of being still and not acting on energy that Dale was beginning to realise was born entirely of stress, an inability to be with himself without a high level of distraction. He suspected Flynn got very little work done during those days. They walked a good deal while Flynn moved around the ranch and its immediately surrounding land- Flynn seemed to pick a lot of short chores with a good amount of distance between each – and every afternoon, a time that Dale began to live for, they rode out for several hours while Flynn worked horses in training or checked on fences, water holes and various groups of stock. The exercise, the freedom of being outside, and Flynn's quiet, straight-forward company were all serious compensation for how hard this 'programme' was.  

Very gradually Flynn began to ask for help with one minor thing or another, to involve Dale in what he was doing, but at the first sign of what Dale began to call in his own mind 'obsessing', he was immediately sidelined again. The clarity of the line made it far easier to recognise when it was happening and to actively guard against it. Dale began to catch himself sliding into the pattern and whenever he caught himself, he stopped completely, taking a few deep breaths and deliberately calming himself down. As an option, choosing to stop himself in time beat sitting watching, or standing facing a corner.

"That's what Flynn and Jas do if I'm panicking." Riley told him. "Except it makes me madder than all hell when they do. It doesn't make you mad at all."

No. Oddly enough, it didn't. Having seen Riley sent to a corner a couple of times over the past few weeks, it had been apparent that the effect it had on Riley was initially to infuriate and then very quickly to subdue. On Dale, it had a calming effect that made no sense whatever: it didn’t annoy him in the slightest.

"You do NOT want to let them think that kind of thing works," Riley tried to explain to him. "Whenever you do, they only want to do it more."

"But it does work." Dale said, confused. "And Flynn does it to help, so why pretend otherwise?"

Riley shook his head in mixed disbelief and amusement. "You are hopeless, you realise? You don't get this at all."

Get what? Dale wanted to ask, except it seemed stupid. And Riley, like the others, was uncritical, friendly and accepting of a crazed CEO hanging about the place, for which Dale was grateful enough not to want to ask too many questions.





He was woken one night by a sudden and deafening crash of thunder outside. For a moment he lay, heart thumping, wondering what had startled him awake, then the sky lit up silently, for an instant as bright as day, and thunder rumbled again, further away.

A storm. There were presumably some very strong ones here out on the plains under the mountains. Dale pushed back the covers and went to stand at the window. The lightning, when it came again, illuminated as far as the eye could see, showing the aspens lashing under the wind in the distance.

He'd never really been terribly good at storms. Folding his arms against the shivering, Dale sat down on the windowsill to watch the sky, with a vague memory of being one of a lot of small boys in a dormitory during a storm, all determinedly discussing how exciting it was and how stupid it would be to be scared. Storms were rather rare things in Britain and they certainly didn't look as dramatic as this.

Wish there was a weights machine or a treadmill somewhere in the house.

Not that anyone here would need it; they were all hard as nails from the work they did outside all day. But for the past ten years if he'd been woken like this or been aware a storm was building, a treadmill was a very good way to blot it out and keep your mind off it so that you continued to look like a rational adult and not like a -

Damn.

The clock stood at slightly past one am. Flynn was still putting the light out nightly at eight thirty – something Dale thought he possibly should have minded about but actually didn't. Falling asleep here was surprisingly easy most nights; an experience he wasn't at all used to. In fact falling asleep to the faint sound of Flynn and Paul's voices downstairs, the daily sounds of the others in the house, was more conducive to sleep than the most quiet and luxurious of hotel suites.

Lightning lit up the sky once more.

Blast and hell.

Heart thumping, not at all sure about how to do this, Dale went into the silent hallway. Flynn's door was never completely closed at night. On the other hand, knocking and waking him up – deliberately – and essentially because, as a grown man, one was being a wimp about a natural and harmless phenomenon –

It was all too stupid.

Go back to bed for pete's sake, it'll be over in half an hour.

"Dale?"

Flynn's voice was very quiet. Dale froze, folding his arms still tighter.

"Yes. Sorry. Just going to the bathroom."

Flynn's door opened. He didn't put the light on: there was enough light through the windows to show him clearly. Shirtless, wearing shorts and nothing else. He was still more solid without a shirt draping his torso. Darkly tanned, angled, and Dale recognised the impassive expression on his face. It went with his most brusque voice, often a faint frown and it usually meant he was about to be particularly kind. Dale found himself unwillingly melting the second he identified it.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to wake you-"

"I was awake." Flynn took a robe off the back off his door. "Get yourself a sweater and come downstairs, let's not disturb the others."

He had a knack of saying the most ordinary things as orders, and Dale found himself moving to obey before he had fully processed the words. Flynn was waiting half way down the stairs for him and led the way into the kitchen, snapping on the light.


"What would you usually drink in the middle of the night?"

Dale gave him a faint smile, shouldering into the sweater. "I'm British. Tea."

"Tea it is." Flynn filled the kettle and pulled out a chair at the table, sitting down. He looked at Dale for a moment before he pulled out the chair nearest and patted it firmly.


"Here. Not keen on storms?"

"I suppose I'm not used to seeing this kind of weather." Dale sat down, doing his determined best to sound more together than he looked. "You must get some good ones this close to the mountains-"

"Paul hates them too." Flynn interrupted, undistracted. "I'm surprised we got downstairs ahead of him."

"I don't 'hate' them, I just don't –" Dale forced himself not to flinch as another crack of thunder resounded above the house. Flynn dropped a hand on his shoulder to brace himself as he got up to pour tea. 

"Don't like them much? Riley's storm crazed. If he wakes up he'll be out on the veranda to watch. David was the same apparently."


"Was he?" Dale curled his fingers around the mug Flynn handed him. Flynn took a seat beside him again.

"Philip said he was murder to keep track of in a storm, and he more or less went to get a paddle automatically at the first crack of thunder."

Dale choked slightly on his tea. "David and –"

Flynn drank tea, apparently quite calm about it. "The river runs like stink too after a storm. David used to go down to watch. Fascinated by the speed of the water, he used to drive Philip spare. He had no sense of danger."


Lightning crashed overhead. Dale jumped in spite of himself and Flynn followed his gaze out to the yard. Then he got up and snapped the kitchen light off.

"Come on."

"Where?" Dale said awkwardly. Flynn waited for him, leading the way through the family room. The deep leather couches there were grouped around the big hearth away from the windows, and Flynn took the nearest, taking Dale's wrist to draw him down. And there he put an arm over Dale's shoulders, pulling him firmly off balance until he leaned into Flynn's solid frame.


"I'm ok," Dale protested, without Flynn's arm slackening in the least.

"Good. Don't let the tea get cold."

It was a matter of fact contact, and it was something that the entire group of them did without thinking or caring how they embarrassed you. The only one who didn't touch and hug without a second thought was Jasper, who of all of them, Dale saw the least of. He smiled whenever they met, he was friendly, but he was more reserved than the others. On the surface, Flynn seemed the quietest, but Dale had been here long enough now to recognise that as a veneer. Flynn was economical with words and he was taciturn, but very little went on in the house that Flynn wasn't an active part of. Jasper, once you got past the surface smiles and pleasantries, was a good deal more elusive.

Cautiously relaxing, Dale sipped tea, acutely aware of the solid warmth of Flynn against him and the weight of that encircling arm. When the thunder crashed again, he covered his shocked intake of breath with a question, trying to distract himself. 

"You said David died a long time before Philip?  How different were they in ages?

Flynn answered quite calmly, taking another mouthful of his own tea. "There was about twenty years difference between them. It sounds a lot. Paul says you wouldn't really have noticed."

"Philip had to be lonely, missing his...his partner for that long."

As uncertain as he was about the relationship between everyone in this house, it was hard to risk naming whatever David and Philip had been to each other, but Flynn didn't debate his choice of words.

"I never knew Philip when he wasn't missing David. Philip had a lot of life and energy in him, he got very strongly involved with people. I think sometimes David encouraged him to set things up that way. They knew because of the age difference that it was going to come, that Philip would probably have some years alone."

Dale hadn't had any long term relationship in his past, just casual flings, mostly for physical needs rather than emotional ones.  Even without that background, he could well imagine how hard it must have been for either one of the two men to know their separation would leave Philip alone for a number of years. 

"What?" Flynn said above him. Dale pulled his thoughts together.

"Just thinking. This isn't at all a sad house."

"Why would it be sad?" Flynn said simply. "David and Philip loved this house, they built it together and I've always thought that love still resides here. It's built into the house. They always took people gladly into their home, and after David died, what they felt for one another was passed on through Philip to us. Philip still acted for them both.  I've always thought that'll continue to be here in the house long after we're gone."
 
That was a very frank statement from Flynn, who was usually reserved, and it made Dale reflect again on what the memory of those two men must be like for him, what it was like to live in a house with a presence so strong. Philip must have been a man of very powerful personality. Dale finished the last of the tea, wincing as thunder cracked again overhead and aware of Flynn's hand rubbing over his shoulder. When he thought about it he was belatedly aware that he was shivering, that Flynn had been rubbing like that for some time, and that he was no longer bracing against it.

"Philip was the one with the business mind." Flynn said quietly above him. "He understood what it took to get into the kind of work you can do, the kind of mind you needed, and how that made you vulnerable. He had a very soft spot for people like you; he felt they deserved all the help he could give them. He'd have been very glad you're here."

Maybe not everyone was worthy of that attention and recognition. Dale looked down at his hands, almost disturbed at the thought.

"A lot of the guys who come here," Flynn went on mildly, "Complain that they don't feel their skills get recognised. They feel they're always being told they're doing everything wrong, what they're good at doesn't work here, they end up feeling no one respects the fact they are extremely able, professional people."

"I guess too," Dale said as lightly as possible, "You have to feel good at what you were doing to feel you know it all."

It was said quietly and it went to Flynn's heart.  Dale didn't know how not to succeed at everything, and at everything also meant immediately. 

"You don't feel you were good at the work you did?" he asked gently.

"I knew it was going wrong months ago." Dale looked down at the empty cup. "I could do the work ok. Like you said, I could do your work, my work and everyone else's work too in half the time, and do it well, but that wasn't enough."

"What would have been enough?"

Dale sighed, hunching his shoulders unconsciously. "What I liked was a cerebral challenge. I enjoyed that part. Hated things being left part done, hated things going wrong, give me a mountain of stuff to do and I plough straight through it, and it's damned hard to stop until it's done no matter how long that takes which was often around the clock.….. all addictive behaviours just as you say. Obsessing."

He was, given half a chance, his own overseer. And a very brutal one. Flynn, who had heard him do this before and seen the quiet viciousness of his own interior critic, stepped on the tone quietly and very firmly, squeezing the arm around Dale's shoulders.

"That internal voice nagging about 'you can't leave that half done', is exactly the same one you're that you're now making say 'that's addictive behaviour you idiot'. Quit. The only person entitled to lay down the law is me."

Dale smiled tiredly. He did have a sense of humour. A quiet and rather wry one that Riley seemed to bring out in him: once or twice Flynn had heard him laugh out loud when he and Riley were together. He knew too when he was being teased, although that tended to raise this same shy smile from him, as though he wasn't sure what was expected of him in response. It was surprising how someone this gentle had gone so far into the dog-eat-dog world of corporate business. Save that Dale was bright enough to learn how to do it and then be driven to do it well as he did everything well, and had been drawn in after the intellectual stimulation, the one part of it he really wanted.

Take one compulsive-obsessive perfectionist unable to pass up on any challenge, give him a brilliant mind and no emotional ties to hold him back –

And you got Dale.

He seemed to be passing now from the immediate stress stage to a depression stage whenever he thought or spoke about his work. Which was not so unusual in their clients: he wouldn't be the first to suffer this, but it still concerned Flynn. He was aware of Dale's slight frame relaxed against him, and he was flinching less at the lightning. Paul was quite right: initially he froze when he was touched, not at all used to it, but it was surprising how strongly he responded if you ignored that primary reaction.

"Did you SEE that last crack?" Riley demanded, swinging around the last banister on the stairs and disappearing towards the front door. "It looked like it hit the river-"

"Riley if you set foot out there," Flynn said without looking round, "I'll have to come and get you. And if I have to come and get you I'm going to be fed up enough to make you sorry about it. Trust me."


Riley gave him an unrepentant grin, leaning against the window seat. 

"It's amazing, I can't believe you didn't wake me."

"I can't believe you slept through it." Paul, belting his robe, came down stairs and gave Dale a sympathetic smile. "Woke you too, hon? What are you two drinking? Tea? Riley, I'm going to put the kettle on."

"Is Jas still asleep?" Riley demanded, following Paul into the kitchen. Dale heard the tap running and Paul's voice, sleepy but matter of fact.


"No, he's out there in it somewhere. He thought that wolf pack was coming back into our territory again."

"He didn't tell me!" Riley said in outrage.

"Because you'd have demanded to go too and he knew there was a storm coming." Flynn called towards the kitchen.

"That sucks!" Riley yelled back. Dale eased himself away from Flynn rather self consciously and picked up their empty mugs.

"I didn't know there were wolf packs roaming here."

"They've been introduced back in the last thirty years or so, spreading out from Yellowstone." Flynn got up to come with him into the kitchen. "They do no harm, there's good hunting in the woods and they're rather beautiful. Jas spotted a young pack coming on to our land last year and he spent a lot of time watching them."

"The wanderlust hits him some nights." Paul agreed, pouring tea and getting down a tin of cookies. "Elk, moose, he knows where a lot of the wild herds are around here. Dale, have a cookie. If you've got to be awake in this you might as well have some fun."

"No one moans at Jas for wandering off at night either." Riley said pointedly. "Although it's no safer for him than for anyone else."

"I know exactly where he's gone and when he'll be back because he told me," Paul said mildly, passing the tin on to him, "And you are not Jasper."

"You'd better make the most of it, he's actually feeding you sugar." Riley told Dale, taking a couple of cookies. Paul swatted the seat of his pyjamas, handing a mug across to Flynn.


"I made them and there's very little sugar in them, thank you. I know exactly what I'm feeding Dale. Come away from there and get a packet of cards down. I think you two had the right idea in the family room away from the windows." 

Dale followed Paul into the living room, Riley snaffled another cookie before Flynn closed the lid and grinned at him as he put the tin back.

"So how many CEOs ever got a cuddle from you before when they hated a storm?"



*



He was perfectly right of course. Flynn had spent nights sitting with no few of the men they'd taken on as clients when they couldn't sleep, listened while they talked, counselled, or kept them company while they walked outside, wrestling with their own individual demons. Some before now had shared Dale's addiction to exercise and needed someone to talk to while they worked through it. Others had found it nearly impossible to sleep at night and needed the time and reassurance to re learn how. But gently bullying them into accepting physical comfort just as he would with Riley in a state - he wouldn't have considered that with any of them. And none of them would have wanted or needed it either.

"Dale isn't typical of our usual clients." Jasper said quietly when Flynn raised it with the others one night after Dale had gone to bed. "We don't apply a rigid system, we meet the needs of the person we have, and yes, Dale takes that on to different ground."

"I don't see why we need to fuss about it." Riley said exasperatedly. "What does it matter? He fits here, it's not like we don't know what to do, why dress it all up in complicated language and worry about it?"


"Because it's a lifestyle he doesn't know anything about," Paul said gently, "He came to us as a client. And this is a step sideways from the programme we discussed with him and his corporation."

"Hardly." Riley said flatly. "I don't see a difference at all, I think it makes no odds. And Dale knows exactly what the lifestyle is at gut level, he's
the one leading by the nose. You're not taking him anywhere he isn't already trying to take you. He just doesn't have the words for it and that's not his fault."

"None of us want to deny him anything that helps," Flynn said quietly. "What we do need to think about is the ethics of it. He's in a very vulnerable position here; it's what's fair to Dale."

"What's fair to Dale is helping him." Riley said stubbornly. "And you are, and it works for him. You can see the difference. What do you want to do, sit him down and give him papers to read on discipline relationships and their implications? No one ever did that with me or with you either! You just had the gut instincts and you knew you belonged, we all did!"


"Ri," Paul began, but Flynn leaned over, grabbed Riley's belt and pulled until Riley unwillingly came over into his lap. Flynn hugged him tightly, aware of Riley twisting around to hug him back, silent and annoyed.

"If Philip was still here," Flynn began in the end. Riley snorted.

"Philip isn't here, so it's down to us. He isn't going to bail us out of this one."

He was right. Riley refused point-blank to take a client himself, Flynn would have agreed he had neither the interest nor the patience for the day-in day-out work – but he had sharp insight, and he'd proved himself right too many times for his point of view not to be taken very seriously.


"I don't want to drop any new ideas on him at the moment," Flynn said eventually and unwillingly, still holding Riley. "He's fragile, we're still getting to know him and he's making some huge changes in his perceptions. It's not a good time to make things still more confusing for him."

"And if you do explain to him then he's going to have to get to Olympic gold standard in this too." Riley added, flippantly but with unfortunate accuracy.


"Yes, whether he understands it or not." Jasper agreed. "Almost I think he'll do better and be surer in the end if he can't get too much ready information and he has to rely on what he feels. He's too quick to sort through available data and draw the academic conclusions on what he 'should' do. It's defensive."

"It's obsessive." Paul said wryly. "Habit. He's now obsessing about not obsessing, you know. The habit's so strong. I was watching him drill himself in not washing dishes to the extreme this afternoon. I took it away from him in the end."

"I wonder whether he will be one who decides in the end not to go back." Flynn said slowly. Jasper raised an eyebrow at him.

Flynn gave him a faint shrug. "I think he's seen it for what it is. He's got no interest at all in the power, the ambition, the money or any other part of his work, just the mental challenge. I wonder how much this depression is based on him having realised."

"We make sponsors clearly aware that this might happen," Paul reminded him. "It isn't our decision to make or to worry about. Our part is to help Dale straighten himself out and support him in whatever decisions he then wants to take. Which is pretty much what Riley's saying."


"I'm saying you're making this into a three act drama." Riley said impatiently. "Get over yourselves. Dale isn't half as stupid as you're making him out to be."



*



Dale was sitting on the porch steps on a sunny and hot afternoon, watching Flynn pick out the feet of one of the pregnant mares when Riley came down from the corral, a bale of wire over one shoulder.

"Flynn? There's a fence down over by the cairn, the hoppers have smashed through again. Are you free to come give me a hand?"

Flynn let the mare's hoof go and stood up, stretching his back.

"Not this side of dinner, half-pint. The vet's coming down in an hour to look at the mares. Jas is up on the tops, but you can try Paul-"

"Paul's wandered off to the falls to figure out his new chapter, he told me at lunchtime." Riley threw up his cutters and caught them by the handle. "Can I have Dale then? It’s a mess and the hoppers are out in the woods, I'd like to get it fixed."


"Ok." Flynn turned to give Dale a nod. "Make sure you're back in good time."

"Cool." Riley waited for Dale, giving him a cheerful grin. "I'll meet you in the corral in a few minutes."


Hammer was starting to come to the gate of the corral whenever he caught sight of Dale coming. Dale hauled the saddle over the gate and climbed over to rub his nose and slap his neck, palm ringing on the heavy muscle under Hammer's dark hide. The big horse leaned against his shoulder hopefully, pushing up against the gate until Dale lifted the saddle on to his back.

"He likes being worked." Riley said when he came back to the corral and whistled to Snickers, who he'd turned in still fully tacked. Shane, the oldest of the three collie dogs, trotted after him, pausing to sniff at the grass beside the fence. "Before you came he was only exercised a couple of times a week when Paul took him, and Paul usually rides Nekkid unless someone else really needs the work out."

"Who called a horse Nekkid?" Dale demanded, leading Hammer out of the corral. Riley grinned, attaching the wire bale to his saddle.


"Paul did. He says he's a tart, and he is. Long lashes, the works, right from a foal."

He mounted up and whistled to Shane, the dog immediately bounding away from the fence to follow them as they walked the horses through the yard past the house where Flynn was still working, and then out through the long meadows towards the aspen woods.


"What are hoppers?" Dale asked when they were some way from the house and they reached the gate of what the family called the 'home pastures', the three quarter mile square, wire fenced enclosure that encircled the ranch house, its out buildings, stables and paddocks.

"Nuisance sheep." Riley drew Snickers closer in to close the gate behind them. "You get a little band of them in most flocks that go over fences and under fences and through any holes they can find. Called hoppers because they're always hopping into somewhere they shouldn't be. They're marked as ours so if any of the neighbours find them they'll call us, and it doesn't matter hugely if they wander into the horse pastures, although occasionally a horse tries using one for a football - but I try and keep the fences intact and them inside the same pastures as the other sheep if I possibly can."

"I didn't know the area by the cairn was near the border?" Dale glanced around, wondering where the lines of the ranch actually fell. Riley shook his head.

"It isn't. We're on eighteen square miles here, we're miles from the borders of the ranch. This is just another fenced pasture. We rotate the stock between the pastures all year and some of the pastures are two miles square, you hardly notice the fences. The fences here are to keep the beggars out of the woods. Too much in there to get stuck in, and too much shelter for cougars."

"You get cougars round here?"


"In the rocky land from here onwards." Riley led them left as the quartz glittering cairn came into sight, moving them towards the edge of the woods. "We had a young male a few years ago that got a taste for sheep."

"Did it do much damage?"


"They live off small game usually, but this one started picking off sheep and getting closer to the house. We had to keep the dogs in at night for a while until we got it."


"Shot it?" Dale asked. Riley nodded.

"They're beautiful things, but you can't be sentimental when the livelihood is based on livestock. Mostly they're very shy, they'd run at the sight of you but there's the occasional one that gets too bold or too hungry, and at the end of the day they're lions. Jas always says never to move if you see one. Movement makes them attack, if you try to back away they'll go for you. Although one of the biggest dangers too is that you're working with your back to one and he'll drop on you from a tree or a rock and you'll never see him coming. They go for the back of your neck."

"And you don't carry a gun?" Dale demanded, shocked. Riley grinned.


"Yeah, we all do, but I'm mostly trying to scare you. We've only had one ever come on to the ranch in ten years. This is the damaged fence."

The gap was fairly small, and Riley swung down from his horse, whistling to Shane who had kept pace with the horses.

"Shane, go on. Where are they? Go seek."

The dog dived through the fence hole like a bullet and shot out of sight into the woods. Riley lifted down the wire bale and Dale came to get the clippers from Riley's saddle, watching him roll out a length.

"This doesn't look like a big job?"

"It isn't." Riley gave him a brief grin and started to wire the new length in to the old, connecting it deftly in his gloved hands. Within a few minutes they heard trampling in the woods and a tightly pressed group of five sheep plunged up the bank and burst through the gap in the wire, followed by Shane, who drove them some way across the meadow before he wheeled and came back to Riley, tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. Riley rubbed his ears, watching Dale connect the other end of the wire, closing the gap.

"Twist it more. Tighter. That's it. That's all it takes."

It seemed a long way to come for two of them to complete a five minute task. Dale rolled up the wire, somewhat surprised, and was still more surprised by Riley leading his horse towards the water beyond the cairn, stripping off his shirt as he went.
He attached the wire to Hammer's saddle and followed, leading Hammer with him. By the time they reached the lake side, Riley was heeling off his boots and the grin he cast at Dale was inviting.

"Well? Come on then? You'd be amazed how warm this gets under the sun, it's all sand under the water and the rocks reflect the heat straight downward."

He unbuttoned his jeans, stripped them and his shorts off without a second look back at Dale and waded straight out, sunlight reflecting off bare skin. Lean and well muscled, he presented a picture for a moment that any artist would have paid good money for, then he dived forward into the water. Dale tied up Hammer's reins, knotting the warm leather while he watched. Then Riley surfaced half way across the lake, ran water off his hair with both hands and splashed a wave of water in his direction.

"Get a move on! We don't have that long if we're going to be back looking innocent before dinner."

Ah. Dale found himself fighting a smile. He, along with Flynn, had believed they were coming out here to work on a good deal more than three feet of wire- and Riley had quite obviously set this up. He didn't ever remember being included in this kind of truancy, not since early days at school, and the first, odd urge was to laugh. And then to promptly pull his shirt off over his head.

It was bizarre to strip to the skin outside. Dale heeled off his jeans and slid his boxers after them, immediately bathed by the warmth of the sun and the surprising softness of the grass under foot. Shane was already stretched out on the grass by Riley's clothes, belly turned up. There were almost no sounds out here save the birds and the soft swish of the water as Riley swam, his head and shoulders visible in the water. The water was warmer than Dale expected when he stepped into it, the sandbank below the surface was firm and shelved slowly, and the wash of the clear water against skin was a strong enough sensation to drive all thought from Dale's mind.

He had no idea of the time when he finally climbed up the bank and dropped full length in the warm grass beside Riley. Water was still shining on Riley's skin, he was lying face down, cheek on his folded arms, eyes closed, and for a moment Dale thought he was dozing. Then he stirred, voice sleepy.

"Magic, isn't it?"

Dale knew what he meant. The stillness and the quiet of this place, the exertion and the intense stimulation of the water, filled him with a sense of peace and sleepy satisfaction.





The late afternoon sun was quite strong enough to dry both skin and hair before they dressed. By the time they approached the ranch, there were no signs on either of them of what they'd spent the afternoon doing. Flynn was talking to a tall, dark haired women beside a four by four in the yard and nodded to them as they walked the horses past. Shane went to lean against his knee and Flynn pulled his ears, not breaking his conversation with the woman. Paul, picking herbs from some of the pots on the veranda gave a rather pointed look at his watch.

"Get a move on you two, you've got about five minutes to dinner."

Hungry from the swim, that was open encouragement to hurry. Dale stopped Hammer outside the corral and slid down to unbuckle his saddle, hearing Riley's voice low and quiet nearby.

"How bad is your conscience?"

Dale looked across at him, bewildered. Riley leaned against Snickers, quite uncritical.

"If you're going to worry about this then Flynn's going to catch on in minutes, and we might as well tell him up front."

"I'm not quite that stuck up." Dale said with some asperity. Riley smiled, unoffended.

"I don't mean that. I've seen you worry. I do it too, but nothing like as bad. If it's going to bother you we'll tell him."

It was interesting, and somewhat reassuring to hear that Riley understood that urge of guilt. Dale looked at the girth he was unbuckling for a minute, slipping it with fingers growing increasingly expert from daily practice.

"Why? We fixed the fence didn't we?"

Riley grinned and went back to stripping tack. "That's my boy."






Apart from a brief inquiry about the hoppers – which Riley answered quite honestly -  no one asked any awkward questions over dinner.

"It's too nice to sit inside." Riley said once the last of the dishes were dried. "I'm going to walk down the drive a way. Dale, want to come?"

"Stay in earshot, it's getting on for eight." Flynn's voice said from the direction of the sitting room. Riley pulled a face at Dale but laced up his sneakers and headed down the porch steps, digging his hands into his pockets.

Dale paced him, aware of the peace of the yard outside, the sounds which were becoming familiar.

"Why aren't you supposed to swim?" he asked when they were well out of earshot of the house. Riley gave him a cheerful shrug.

"I'm not NOT supposed to swim. I'm just not supposed to bunk off work to go and do it. I had a bit of a habit of not getting stuff done because I'd go swimming or climbing on impulse, and it got to be a bit too much of a habit. Now I'm not supposed to swim or whatever without planning it with the others in advance, and getting work done first."

He said it quite cheerfully and without embarrassment. 


"And you don't mind that?" Dale hazarded, not sure if that was too personal. Riley shook his head.

"It's needed, or I'd do something useful maybe two days in five. I don't mean to get distracted, I'm not exactly lazy, but I need to know things will be checked up on or it's hard to make myself do them. Not too good with self discipline, and we often work alone so there's a lot of temptation. I'm not driven like some people."

Dale gave him a brief smile, thinking that over. It was hard to understand from the world he'd occupied where people worked hours – and hours – and often worked individually carrying out their parts of a project. Truanting from a task to go and do something purely for fun…. He doubted he'd ever done that in his life.


"The others get aeriated about the safety part too," Riley added as they reached the corral. He climbed up the fence, sitting astride the broad top rail, five feet from the ground. "Swimming alone isn't safe, climbing alone isn't safe, what if you get a cramp, what if you have an accident.… if I 'plan' it at home it translates as one of them casually saying 'oh what a good idea, I'll come too'. Sometimes I want to be alone. Which means occasionally bunking off and hoping no one notices."

"And do they?" Dale asked, fascinated. Riley pulled a face at him.

"Shhh." 

Dale climbed up slowly to sit beside him, looking down at the horses which were grazing below.

"You really don't mind, do you?"

Riley shrugged serenely. "It's what I was looking for. I knew once I'd found it."

That opened the gate to a hundred more questions that Riley probably would think were rude, personal and far too invasive. Dale wrestled for one of the politer ones amongst the most urgent.


"You said," he blurted out eventually, "that you got guilty too?"

"I don't like getting things wrong." Riley said mildly, sitting on his hands. "I get upset with myself, I end up panicking or in a foul mood, I worry about it. I expect things of myself I know I can't meet, and then I get still more upset when I can't meet them. It's a double bind. And yeah, I can do the adult thing and cover it up or try and train myself out of it, but I'm thirty now and it's still a major character trait. I don't like it when Flynn or the others catch me out, but I feel worse when they don't, and when they do I'll willingly go along with them dealing with it. Well, fairly willingly. I've never yet had the guts to go to one of them and deliberately confess something. They usually realise because I'm frantically trying to cover it up, or else because I'm upset."

"If it helps when they….  and if you know whatever you did was –" Dale began, somewhat incoherently.

"Wrong?" Riley asked when Dale dried up. "I know. I just couldn't ask them myself. It works differently for everyone."

He didn't mean CEOs: Dale knew without asking. It confirmed something that had been at the back of his mind for a while.



*


 Flynn hadn't wavered in his habit of coming upstairs at eight thirty, the time by which Dale was settled in bed. The window was open as Dale kept it each night, enjoying the breeze outside, and there was still full daylight outside. Flynn sat down on the edge of the bed, crisp in the clean clothes he always put on when he came in before dinner, and turned up the cover of the book Dale was reading.

"Still on the history?"

"It's one of Paul's." Dale marked the place and surrendered the book to Flynn as he did every night. "I'm not sure about some of the conclusions, I'd like to check the research material, but it's quite interesting."

"You look tired." Flynn commented, watching his face. Although it was a healthy tired he saw, rather than the drawn, exhausted look of a few weeks back. Dale wasn't putting on weight, but regular meals were solidifying muscle and he had a gradually darkening tan. Dale shrugged, not quite sure how to answer.

"It was a good day."

"Are they getting easier?"

"In some ways." Dale put a hand behind his head, still a little awkward although he was getting used to using this time lying here talking at the end of the day. "…How am I going to know when I'm ready to leave? What's the exit criteria exactly?"

"It's different for everyone." Flynn leaned his elbows on his knees, book cupped between his hands. "And we're not near enough to that point to talk about specifics. This is a process, not an end exam, I don't want you figuring out how the end product should look and trying to force it. When you get there we're both going to know. You've done very well so far."

"It's going to be a long job, isn't it?"

It was bluntly said, without a lot of expression, which made it difficult to guess at what emotion went with the question.

"Yes." Flynn said just as simply and quite gently. "I think for you it is going to be a long process. It's not just a few key pieces of knowledge or health issues for you, it's changing lifetime habits, and that isn't going to be something we can just tell you and you'll fix overnight. What are you worrying about?"

"I don't know." Dale said honestly. It was the truth: he'd been here too many weeks to really know what was happening with the projects he had left behind; they had moved on and he was no longer a part of them. It made his working world less and less real and easier to stop worrying about. The reality of each day was here now and that was in itself a release from a great deal of stress.

"And what are we avoiding talking about?" Flynn said in the same tone. Dale's eyes darted up, shocked. Flynn waited, watching several expressions pass through them. There was plenty to see in Dale if you knew where to look and you read the subtleties.

"Several things." Dale said after a minute, uncomfortably. "I just don't know how to talk about them."

Flynn nodded, unmoved. "Just say whatever it is you're thinking about. Blurt it out and we'll make sense of it afterwards, you don't need to get it right."

He made things so unthreatening, so much easier to consider. Dale hesitated, sorely tempted, then shook his head.


"I need some time to think them over. It's nothing I shouldn't be doing-"

Well, apart from playing truant to go swimming. Dale paused, flushing slightly, and Flynn put a hand out against his face, a blunt and gentle gesture.

"I'm more concerned that you're ok, that you're not upset or worrying. I'm not the police, Dale."

"I'm ok." Dale said with more conviction. Flynn nodded, considering for a moment.


"All right. Then I won't press tonight. But if it's something bothering you or keeping you awake I expect you to let me know. Deal?"

Who was this man who calmly talked about not allowing you to keep back something you didn't want to talk about? Dale fought with a rush of outrage that was mixed up with a very different emotion, one that was unwillingly and shyly warmed by that appalling piece of political incorrectness. The effect was to make him still more uncomfortable than the conversation with Riley.

Flynn would have got up, but he caught the stir from Dale, an aborted movement that didn't really have any obvious purpose. Then he took Dale's arm, pulled him up and put both arms around the younger, slighter man, giving him an unhurried and strong hug. He was aware of the inexpertness of Dale's grasp on him in return. Dale was pinker still when he let go and Flynn put a hand on the back of his neck, squeezing gently as he got up.

"It's all right. You're quite safe here, we won't let anything happen to you and we'll work it out together. Take it one day at a time, that's all you need to do."

***



Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009





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