"Possibly it's relying on the shelter of the brush by the river and the horses are closer?" Dale towelled down, after several weeks here immune to any concern at Riley watching, as Riley was not shy himself and did not like doors getting in the way of good conversation. "I don't know anything about them, do they rove or do they have permanent dens?"
"No." Paul's voice said from the kitchen. Dale came down the last few stairs and followed Riley, running wet hair back from his face. Riley was leaning against the counter while Paul washed his hands, calm faced and unmoved.
"If we ALL go up there-"
"Then we'll all get each other's way and make sure that nothing happens except that everyone's too tired to do anything useful tomorrow. If Jas and Flynn want help they'll ask for it. I don't want to hear any more." Paul added as Riley opened his mouth. "You're grounded to the house today anyway."
Paul turned off the taps and shook off his hands, just as serene in face and voice.
Riley hissed, searching for the back button. "The trouble is I hardly ever use the damn machine and I have no idea how to word searches – Paul's the computer geek in so much as any of us actually use it and he writes on a laptop. They don't believe in it except as a necessary evil for business, it probably doesn't get switched on more than once a week."
"Come here." Dale leaned over his shoulder, switching search engines and rewording the search. A minute later Riley grabbed for a pen, scribbling notes from what Dale was scrolling through.
"I'd imagine they stay around where the hunting is good." Dale said, scrolling through another site. "Nocturnal, cover prey with leaves and grass after feeding and return to eat later, may hunt as rarely as once in two weeks. Solitary animals – ah, territories of males overlap, no permanent dens but will move between temporary shelters as it ranges through its territory. Can travel up to twenty five miles a night on a hunt. Well if that's the case Flynn and Jasper may not see it at all tonight and it may be well clear of the ranch by tomorrow morning."
"It's still odd that it's out during the day." Riley pocketed the scrawled notes. "I bet Jas would know more. He tracked the last one that got dangerous."
"Where did he get the skills from?" Dale watched Riley shut the computer down. "He said something about growing up on a small holding with his grandfather, a few domestic animals?"
"Possibly there's something wrong with it?" Dale said wryly. "From what I understand, animals get aggressive and dangerous when the territory is over crowded and the hunting bad. The hunting isn't bad up there, which suggests this particular cougar is staying near easy prey. Maybe it's disabled or ill."
And twice the noise, and twice the human presence. Dale privately thought Jasper knew what he was doing, but kept that opinion to himself.
"Very individual. But most find the restrictions a lot harder to accept than you seem to. Or rather they have a harder time understanding them than I think you do."
Dale turned over and Riley let go of his shoulder. It was still dark outside, but grey rather than black in a way that meant dawn was coming. The house was very still and there were not even the usual distant sheep sounds outside. Dale felt for his watch and found that the time stood at four am. Riley was dressed with a sweater pulled on over his shirt.
"They may not have seen it yet." Dale pointed out.
"It's morning, we just went to take them some breakfast, there's no harm in that is there?" Riley grabbed Dale's folded clothes from the chair and dropped them in his lap. "Don't you want to have a look for this thing yourself?"
"Since when do you give clients guns?!" Flynn's roar made his horse jerk back in alarm. "We have no idea if he's been taught, he might have killed himself or you as easily as the damn cougar!"
"I'm surprised he got Dale to follow him that easily." Jasper said dryly. "The kind of responsibility he's held and the decisions he's made, I'd have expected him to have more sense."
"Would you?" Flynn picked up a stone from the bank and savagely skipped it into the water, upstream to avoid Bandit. "I wouldn't at all."
"Did it get near you?" Paul demanded. "Does Flynn know?"
He put the kettle on in the kitchen, which was already warm with the smell of bread.
"We went up to take them breakfast –" Riley began hopelessly. Paul interrupted him gently but without compunction.
"Without a word Riley. Why was that?"
Riley looked at the table. Paul waited a moment before he spoke, voice still soft.
"Riley, look at me and answer the question. I think I deserve at least that."
Riley's head snapped up in distress. "We didn't leave you! We just – you'd have worried about it-"
"You're quite right." Paul said frankly. "But since you've worried me sick anyway I don't understand why that mattered to you?"
"I just wanted to see," Riley pleaded. "Jas and Flynn were up there, it was daylight, it should have been safe-"
"You asked me last night and I said no." Paul pointed out. "The only difference between last night and this morning is about seven hours of time. Still dark, still no idea where the cougar was and in what state it was in. The answer was going to be the same and both of you knew it."
Riley pulled an ugly face that Paul well understood was more based on controlling emotion than expressing it.
"It wasn't fair we were stuck down here when it was all happening up there-"
He trailed off. Paul shook his head slowly, regretfully.
"I'm ashamed of you Riley, I really am. You put Dale and yourself in danger, without thinking for one second what could have happened. How do you think it felt for me to wake up and find you gone? To find the horses gone? To imagine where you might be and what state you'd be in if something had happened to you or to Dale, or the horses?"
Riley put his head in his hands and Paul was aware of why, and that Riley was past justifying anything. He looked across at Dale, who looked to him several shades paler although the Board Director body language hadn't faded.
"I'm ashamed of you too, Dale. While you're here, your safety is our responsibility. Your safety and well being in general. I take that responsibility to heart."
Dale felt the internal flinch and kept it from his face. It was impossible not to like Paul: it was harder still to feel that anything he had done had been hurtful or distressing to Paul.
"I apologise," he said carefully, aware that what his colleagues would have called 'the James Bond voice' was slipping badly. "Your responsibility to my sponsors or-"
"I couldn't care less about your sponsors," Paul interrupted quietly, "I'm responsible for you and that matters a very great deal to me. I've let you down this morning and that bothers me a lot. And you're responsible to us too, Dale. We don't treat each other like this, we don't leave each other to worry or be frightened, because we care about one another, and there are obligations to those we care about. Do you understand that?"
This was more awful than any client meeting Dale could ever remember. It was an effort to swallow; the criticism was going home like a knife.
"I should have stopped Riley," he said after a minute, aware he was sounding strangled. "I apologise. I should have thought how-"
"No, this is not about Riley," Paul stopped him, "You are not responsible to me for Riley. You are responsible to me for you. It isn't just Riley we care about or worry about. Don't you ever forget that and leave me to worry about you again."
That was as disarming as it was shattering. Dale was aware of Paul taking a seat near him and of Paul's grasp on his wrist, finding himself stood beside Paul and Paul unfastening his jeans as simply as if he was a child.
It was so natural as to be unremarkable: when Paul turned him over his knee he went where Paul led him without question, felt Paul slip his shorts down and the shock and chill of being bare, and the short flurry of swats were surprisingly sharp and painful. He had no idea of how many had fallen when Paul pulled his shorts back into place and helped him up: only that it had been very brief, so unsensational as to be child's play, and yet he was shockingly close to tears.
Without moving Dale aside, Paul leaned over to take Riley's arm and Riley said nothing nor resisted as Paul drew him close, unbuttoned his jeans and pulled them down, and laid Riley across his lap. Riley's skin was pale when Paul slid his shorts down and Dale found himself watching Paul's hand laid across Riley's back, the sharpness of his other hand slapping swiftly and smartly, leaving a hot pink flush in its wake. It was no more than eight or ten of those sharp smacks but the tears were obvious on Riley's face when Paul put him back on his feet, waiting a moment for Riley to re fasten his jeans. Then he took them both into the family room, standing Riley on one side of the hearth facing the wall, and Dale on the other side.
"Bandit?" Paul demanded. "I thought Dale shot it?"
"We are," Jasper said through a mouthful of bacon. "We were starting to lose sensation in our feet and hands this morning when Riley and Dale showed up."
"And they naturally went straight to the damned thing after we'd patiently waited eight hours for it." Flynn added shortly. "What have you done with them?"
Jasper looked at Flynn, who he suspected wore the same expression on his face. And both of them, under Paul's steady gaze, meekly went back to eating bacon and eggs.
"How many clients has Riley ever invited out of bed to go and do something like this?" Paul went on when it was clear no one was going to argue with him. "How many clients has he ever got involved with like this? He doesn't see Dale as a client, he never has done. And how many clients would consider for a minute going with him even if they were asked?"
"Riley's dropped us into a heck of a mess," Jasper began cautiously, "We were talking on the way down – we can't cross the line like this with a client, we have responsibilities-"
"Riley hasn't dropped us into anything." Paul said firmly. "Any time something like this has happened when a client is here, we've explained that this is a family matter and asked them to go for a walk to give us some privacy. And they've been happy to do that, because they were a client. If I said to Dale this morning, go upstairs, this is a family matter that doesn't involve you – for a start I would have been lying. He doesn't think of us as a client would and we don't think of him as a client either. That line is too far behind us now to worry about. The cat is out of the bag. The ship has sailed. The horse has bolted. I'm not going to hurt that boy because we built a relationship with him as came naturally to all of us, and then we panicked about formal business ethics."
"So what are you suggesting we do?" Flynn asked carefully. Paul finished his tea and set the cup down firmly.
"Do what we know is right instead of what we think we SHOULD think is right, and stop mucking about. Flynn, drink that tea while it's hot love, you're still shivering."
It was nearly forty minutes by the grandfather clock in the family room before the kitchen door opened. Riley had been shuffling from foot to foot for a while, and Dale's knees were starting to ache, but oddly neither of them had said a word in all that time. Riley straightened up as someone came close behind them; it was Flynn's voice that said: "All right you two. Take a seat on the hearth."
Almost relieved that the waiting was over, Dale stepped away from the wall and quietly took a seat on the low hearth wall next to Riley. Paul and Jasper took seats on the couches near the hearth, both looking grave. Flynn was gone for a minute into the study and when he came back it was with both paddles in his hand. Dale recognised the transparent lexan one: the small, dark wooden one he had only glimpsed before in a drawer, and his stomach tightened and turned over. Riley jerked to his feet beside him.
"Sit down half-pint, this is bad enough." Flynn sounded bleak but not in the least unkind. Riley hesitated a long moment, then sat down on the hearth with his head down.
"This affects the entire family," Flynn said quietly, putting the paddles down on the coffee table and taking a seat on the third couch opposite the hearth. "All of us. We do not sneak out of the house leaving the others to worry and I know Paul's spoken to you about how he felt when you left without a word to him, but you two had no business whatever being out on the tops this morning, knowing a dangerous animal was on the loose up there. People die in cougar attacks. You should have known better than to just come straight up to where Jas and I were hunting, you had no way of knowing what you might have burst in on or interfered with, you might have wasted hours of our work or even worse you might have been accidentally shot. And leaving aside that you had no business breaking into the middle of our work, you should both have known better than to be anywhere near the river, or any other kind of cover the cougar could use when you knew it was on the loose! You might easily have been seriously hurt or killed. We plan how we deal with problems on the ranch together, as a family, and we all need to stick to those plans. There's no excuse for not doing so, we have to be able to trust each other to work together."
He paused a moment, letting that sink in before he looked towards Riley's end of the hearth.
"Riley, you know very well that guns are never given to anyone that we haven't taught ourselves to handle them, and you know why we have that rule. That's inexcusable and it will not be tolerated. Is there anything at all that either of you have to say for yourselves?"
"We were trying to see if there was any sign of prey up there," Riley muttered, mostly to the rug.
Paul cut in, gentle voice grave. "Yes, I realised you did a little computer research yesterday when I was searching the house this morning. Did you involve Dale in that?"
"You took Dale into the office?" Flynn demanded sharply. Riley winced.
"I was talking to him about it and we – I can't use the computer too well anyway!"
Paul looked directly at Flynn. Jasper took over, speaking quietly.
"That door stays closed and that room goes unmentioned for a very good reason, Riley."
"I know, but it's different!" Riley said plaintively.
"It's a fact," Flynn said grimly, "That you've now given Dale something else to find hard when he's already got plenty to deal with. That's plain unkind as much as completely against the house rules. 'I want' doesn't justify any of this. Not for a moment. Dale, we'd spoken about getting out of bed at night and you were punished for that only a few days ago."
"That was my fault." Riley said immediately and very quietly. "I got him up."
"And he's intelligent enough to know not to go along with you when you're doing something he knows you shouldn't." Flynn informed him. "Dale, the house rules are to be kept. And as I know Paul's already said to you, you have a responsibility to us regarding your own safety. In this household, dangerous behaviour isn't tolerated. It isn't just yourself you're risking hurting. Is that clear?"
"Yes." Dale said softly, meeting his eyes. Flynn wasn't angry: looking at him, Dale could see it clearly. He was intensely serious, strong emotion was there, but it wasn't anger. It was odd in this awful moment, surrounded by grave faces, to abruptly feel so cared about. The circle of faces was hard, to be the centre of such concentrated attention was very foreign, but that expression in Flynn's face gave him an extremely safe feeling, which was quite ridiculous. But it connected to the same feeling that came every time he'd been called to account in this house: This is going to be ok.
"Yes what?" Flynn said just as quietly. Dale responded without thinking; a phrase learned years ago from school.
Flynn gave him a quiet nod, holding his gaze a moment longer before he leaned over to pick up the lexan paddle.
"Not that one," Riley said pitifully, although he very slowly got up from the hearth.
"You hand Dale a gun and try feeding the both of you to a cougar?" Flynn said dryly. "Definitely this one, half-pint. I don't ever want you to consider getting into that situation again. Here, now."
Riley seemed to take several months to cross to Flynn's couch. Flynn said something to him that Dale didn't hear as Paul leaned across to him, took his hand and pulled gently.
"Come sit with me."
Dale got up from the hearth and Paul drew him to sit on the sofa beside him, keeping hold of his hand. When Dale looked again, Riley had pushed his jeans half way down his thighs and was awkwardly stooping over Flynn's lap on the couch, settling with his upper body on the couch and his feet on the floor, braced as Flynn pushed his jeans further down and slid his shorts after them. There was little sign left of the few brief swats from Paul earlier, but he flinched visibly as Flynn laid the lexan paddle across his butt, wrapping his left arm around Riley's waist. Dale looked away as Flynn raised the paddle, looking hard at the floor as the first loud, sharp swats began to fill the room, punctuated for the first two or three by Riley's stifled hisses and mutters, then his voice cracked and Dale looked up briefly to see Riley's legs twisting and jerking convulsively as the paddle continued to land soundly across first one cheek and then the other, he yelped and protested and gripped at the sofa in front of him and Flynn's jeaned leg, and a moment later his voice cracked even further and higher and Dale fixed his eyes on his hands, aware that Riley was crying. And the paddle continued to land, steadily, rhythmically, underpinning his voice.
Paul held onto Dale's hand and squeezed gently, his thumb rubbing slowly over Dale's knuckles, but it felt like several years before the steady paddle cracks increased slightly in volume for a final three or four swats and then there was silence in the room but for Riley's sobs. Flynn laid the translucent paddle down on the sofa beside him and Dale saw him run both his hands gently over Riley's taut back, rubbing slowly while Riley sobbed across his lap. It was several minutes before he quietened a little and Flynn put an arm under his chest, easing him back to his knees on the carpet and helping him pull his clothes up. Riley buried his face in Flynn's lap for a moment and Flynn cupped both hands around his head, smoothing his hair until Riley stumbled to his feet of his own accord. Jasper leaned across and took his hand, drawing Riley across to him and onto the sofa beside him, and Riley buried himself in Jasper's chest, winding both arms tightly around him. Flynn looked tired, but he held out a hand to Dale, voice quiet.
"Come on then kid."
There was a lot of kindness in his eyes and his voice. Dale made his legs come to life, got up and went to him, stomach taut, mouth dry, but there was actually nothing hard about the other three being there in a circle around the hearth. Riley was still crying softly. Jasper's arms were around him, he was quiet but there was nothing angry about him or Paul, just the same seriousness Flynn had. Flynn took his hand and gripped it firmly, drawing Dale to stand beside him.
"Drop your jeans."
It was the first time he'd ever heard that request. Dale swallowed and put his hands to the fastenings, opening them with fingers that felt suddenly very clumsy. It was no easier to actually push his jeans down, leaving him feeling very cool and very exposed, but Flynn was already picking up the smaller wooden paddle from the coffee table and taking his hand to guide him forward. Dale laid across his lap, letting Flynn place him with his head and torso on the cool smoothness of the leather couch and his toes braced against the floor behind him. He couldn't help but tense at the touch of Flynn's fingers under the waistband of his shorts, pulling them over his butt and down his thighs, settling them with his jeans just above his knees. Then Flynn's arm rested across his waist, Flynn's hand wrapped warm around his hip, and the first sharp swat of the paddle made him jump involuntarily, the smart setting light where it fell.
It stung so much more on bare skin! The atmosphere of the room was heavy enough. The lecture had been a scalding one and the seriousness, not just of Flynn but of all of them, was as tangible as the solidity and warmth of Flynn's knees beneath him and Flynn's torso against his. Unable to help it Dale found himself involuntarily jumping and squirming at the cracks of the paddle, each one stinging more than the last as it landed on already stung skin, but the physical sensation was only a part of it. Flynn's body moved against his, Riley's stifled tears were audible, Dale heard his own breathing, strained and noisy in stifled huffs and hisses, and then without warning a particularly sharp crack of the paddle made him jerk and tore a yelp out of him and after that he never quite managed to be quiet again. Flynn wasn't stopping either. The swats came briskly and with enough force that Dale couldn't stop himself twisting and rolling, pushing against the floor, then Flynn cleared his throat. Just slightly, a reflex sound that probably only Dale was close enough to hear, but the sound of his voice somehow made this dreadfully, appallingly real. The emotion that had been swelling since Paul's awful lecture in the kitchen flooded up in one rush, Dale felt his chest seize and the yelps being pulled out of him were higher, not disguising the catch in his breathing. His eyes blurred and he rubbed them sharply on his arm, burying his face in an attempt to silence himself. And that awful paddle continued to snap down, making him jerk and kick and twist over Flynn's lap. He flung a hand behind him once: he wasn't able to help it, and he felt Flynn's hand clasp his wrist and move it out of the way, holding it firmly while the paddling continued unabated.
He was crying hard and silently when the spanking finally ceased. Flynn leaned across his back to place the paddle back on the table and Dale felt him gently pull his shorts and jeans back into position before both palms rested on his back, rubbing slowly and deeply. Dale took a few deep breaths, doing his best to control the shaking and the need to sob, but very little was happening. It was taking the pressure of teeth firmly locked in sleeve to achieve silence. And then Flynn put an arm under him, half lifted him to his feet, and kept tight hold of him while he walked him swiftly through the kitchen and out of the door onto the porch, shutting the kitchen door behind them before he guided Dale to the swing.
He sat down on the swing himself before he drew Dale down beside him, wrapping an arm around him to pull him over onto his hip and off the weight of his blazing, very sore backside. That was a serious incentive in itself not to pull away and sit up, even had Flynn's grip allowed it. Flynn rubbed a hand over his back, voice quiet and very firm.
Dale took a breath and realised what he meant. Being quiet was taking a great deal of effort and he had been holding his breath to achieve it.
"Again." Flynn told him, still rubbing his back. "Let it go. You're safe with us, you've got nothing to be ashamed of."
That disarmed him enough to draw a whoop of breath and Dale found himself making stifled choking sounds for a moment before Flynn's hand pushing over his back seemed to free his chest and he gulped more quietly and more freely. Flynn held him tightly, pushing the swing to and fro, his voice so deep that it was as much vibration as sound.
"It's all right. It's ok."
They seemed to sit there for a very long time. Dale eventually ran his hand over his face to dry it, and Flynn pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, offering it.
"Sorry." Dale said thickly. Flynn went on rubbing his back; his hand seemed to have been moving steadily for hours.
"It's over, it's done with, and you're safe with us. You don't need to put on an act for us."
No. The freedom here was overwhelming. Dale took a few slower breaths. It was beginning to warm up, the first serious sun of the morning was starting to hit the porch and the dogs were stretched out, bathing in it on the warm wood floor. His backside hurt like all hell, the sheer intensity of the soreness was very strongly on his mind, but oddly he felt – as he always did at this point – calm. Clear headed and safe.
"Jasper said to me earlier," Flynn said quietly above him, "He was surprised you'd go along with one of Riley's madder ideas. He thought you'd see the problems in it straight away. I wasn't surprised at all. Do you know why?"
Because you've realised what a complete idiot I am.
Dale didn't answer out loud and Flynn patted his back where his hand rested.
"After the responsibilities you've held, and the weight that's been on your shoulders, it's a shock for you to be here where you don't have decisions to make, and you don't have to be in charge. You don't have to hide anything. It's sinking in now and it's intoxicating. We just need to keep you safe until it's worn off a bit and you have more perspective back."
The understanding and the tolerance in that was shockingly disarming.
"Is that wrong?" Dale said thickly. "I shouldn't be this nuts just because I'm not working – or I'm working differently-"
"It's a large part of what I want you to experience," Flynn said calmly. "To let us be in charge, so you have nothing to think about but basic things you can manage easily. That's part of getting the stress off you and freeing your mind up enough to think clearly. How can you understand what you want and what you need if you don't know what 'good' and 'relaxed' feel like?"
"I don't know what to do."
"You don't need to know what to do." Flynn continued to push the swing slowly backwards and forwards, arms still tight around him. "You just need to do as you're told and trust me that I'll set the pace and not you. And if it's hard, then I'll help you."
Flynn's hand patted again, firmly.
"Dale. Don't stew. Tell me."
"It isn't just that." Dale blurted out. "It's Riley too."
"Mmn?" Flynn said mildly. It was an 'I'm listening' sound, neither arguing nor questioning and Dale took another breath, trying to order a number of very chaotic thoughts he'd been considering for some days.
"I knew what Riley was asking this morning and I knew he was acting on impulse. He expected to be in trouble for it, and I understood that too. When he explains how he sees things, how he responds to things, I understand because that's how I am too. The kind of relationship he has with you- all of you." Dale trailed off and took a breath. "I probably ought to think it's insane. But I don't because it makes sense, and I know I'm making no damn sense at all here-"
"Domestic discipline relationships aren't by any means a new thing," Flynn interrupted quietly, "They're usually very discreet but they're not nearly as rare as they look, you'll find them in gay and straight households. That's just the way we are, all four of us, and we always have been."
It was peculiarly reassuring to have a word for it.
"Riley said it's different for everyone." Dale said out loud, remembering a particular conversation. Flynn nodded.
"No two people are the same. But you find people occasionally who just have characters and personalities who work this way. We four come under that heading."
"And so do I." Dale finished the sentence for him, breathing out as it was confirmed in his own mind. "You've known, haven't you?"
"Let's say we suspected." Flynn said calmly. "You understood very fast how things worked between us and why, and you understood it instinctively. Once you knew us, the restrictions here didn't worry you, you actively welcomed them and you're up front about what you know helps you: you've pushed us for more and for stronger boundaries. We didn't want to raise this with you now. Apart from that it's for you to decide what you identify with and how, and it's not for us to push any kind of label towards you, we felt you had quite enough to deal with-"
"But it happened anyway. Yes." Dale took another breath, feeling considerably freer. "I'm not exactly your average client. I realised that a while back."
Flynn didn't answer for a minute and Dale could feel him choosing his words carefully.
"This was the lifestyle David and Philip lived too – which I think you realised – and everyone they gathered into the family, not just the four of us but the others that have passed through the house, were connected to it in some way. Not everyone actively lived that lifestyle themselves or wanted to, but they all understood and related to it and it was part of what made them friends and connected to us. You are naturally one of those people. That makes you more to us than just a client. But that still makes our priority the work you're doing with us to deal with the problems from your working life. That's what we most need to help you with right now."
"And leave the rest until that's sorted?"
"There's no hurry." Flynn said quietly. "You're dealing with a lot just now, I don't want you to rush into making any decisions about anything for some time yet. I just want you to continue letting things come naturally, take it a day at a time and not worry about what isn't yet clear and categorised and labelled. You just need to be honest with us about what's going on in your head, talk it through with us and let us help."
Dale nodded slowly. Flynn bent his head and Dale felt the firm pressure of a kiss dropped into his hair before Flynn got up, putting Dale on his feet without him needing to sit up.
"I think we're all going back to bed for a few hours, we're all short on sleep except Paul."