Monday, December 7, 2009

Chapter 1


Dusty trucks and farm vehicles were gathered in the rough yard outside the barn and a knot of about twenty men and one or two women stood in the early morning sunlight, smoking and talking and waiting. Several of them watched the two men making their way over the open land towards the gate and the road, one riding a large and heavy, dark bay, the other holding in a slender legged paint gelding who danced in alarm as another truck came up the road. They took the horses wide of the cars and tethered them to the fence a long way from the road before they walked to join the small crowd by the barn.

"Riley." One of the older men said, lowering his cigarette to smile. "I wondered how interested you and the others would be, considering this is bang up against your land."

Riley came to join him, shaking the outstretched hand. "Hey Peter. Dale, this is Peter Ricardo, he's got the ranch north of ours. Peter, meet Dale Aden, the newest member of our family."

"Relative or visitor?" Peter asked genially, offering his hand to Dale. He was in his late forties, a tall and heavy boned man who had a slow, warm smile and whose hands were work scarred.

"Neither." Riley said cheerfully as Dale took the hand and returned the smile. "He's permanent, here for good."

"Bet it drives them crazy trying to guess how," he added under his breath to Dale as they moved on. 

"Four they can probably figure out. Five…..?"  

"How were you going to introduce me anyway?" Dale muttered back, trying not to laugh. "This is Dale, he's my …. er…  he's my…. um..."

Riley grinned, hooking an arm around Dale's waist, and they scuffled for a minute before they heard another engine on the road and Dale looked up, fending Riley off.

"Here we go."

A far shinier car than was normal in the area was coming slowly up the road and turned into the yard. Two men in suits got out, carrying briefcases.  A man who had been waiting by the barn door unlocked it and gradually people started to file inside. Several of them waved or smiled at Riley.

"These are all locals, everyone from the ranches and smallholdings around here." Riley said under his breath as he and Dale followed. "I had no idea there'd be this much interest, it's not like most of the local ranches have cash to burn."

The two suits were standing at the dusty preachers' stand at the front, setting out the papers, and the locals were gathered around on the open floor. Dale stood at the back, running a practiced eye over the group.

"Most people are here to watch, not bid. Curiosity. It's impractical land, in the middle of nowhere, with high investment costs. Zero interest at the real estate offices, which is why they're auctioning out here instead of in town. That's a sign of desperation. One developer that I can see."

"And he's the competition?"

"I don't think so." Dale watched the room, speaking in an undertone, knowing Riley was close enough to hear him. "What would you guess as the price of clearing that land for stock use? What else would anyone around here want it for, if not stock land?"

Riley saw him lift his head as one of the suits looked around the room, and Dale made deliberate eye contact. The suit didn't react but opened the paperwork and continued to look around the crowd.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the lot listed on Brenner and Ryants' books as number 37526, seven square miles including the now abandoned town known as Three Traders. Surveys carried out on this property make known the following facts, which by law must be disclosed to all potential buyers: first a preservation order on several of the buildings remaining standing within the town which may not be moved. Second, several of the buildings are at risk of collapse. Third, there are twelve separate sites of oil tanks located underground, still containing oil and oil traces. Fourth, there are two underground petrol tanks at what was previously the town's fuel station. Some recognised seepage has occurred from these tanks and is identified in the soil samples."

"In other words, as grazing or hay land it's seriously screwed." Riley said under his breath.

"And the cost of reclaiming it for redevelopment makes this too high a risk for any serious investor." Dale said just as softly. "The developer here is a decoy."

"A decoy?"

"Probably one of Brenner and Ryants' tame people, here to push the price up."

"The bidding will begin at the reserve price of ten thousand dollars. Do I hear ten thousand?"

The developer promptly nodded. Dale smiled faintly.

"Told you."

"I have ten thousand." The suit said, looking around. "Do I hear fifteen?"

Apparently he didn't. He looked around the room several times.

"Do I hear fifteen? Fifteen thousand, for the land known as Three Traders. All right, do I hear fourteen. Thirteen. Any advance on ten thousand." 

Dale did something: Riley had no idea what but the suit looked relieved.

"I have eleven. Do I hear twelve?"

The developer raised a hand.

"Twelve. I have twelve. Do I hear thirteen?"

Evidently not. The suit looked again around the room.

"Do I hear thirteen. Thirteen, ladies and gentlemen, for the land known as Three Traders. Thirteen."

Riley looked again at Dale, who had his arms folded across his chest and appeared to be studying the beams above the window.

"Twelve five." The suit said after a minute, sounding a little anxious. "Do I hear twelve five. Twelve five. Seven square miles of land."

"Polluted to all hell and unusable." Someone said audibly near the front.

"Twelve four." The suit said a little louder. "Twelve four? Twelve three. Anywhere in the room?  Twelve two. Twelve thousand two hundred dollars."

Dale lowered his eyes briefly and the suit nodded.

"We have twelve thousand two hundred dollars. Against you sir, twelve two. Any further bidding at twelve two. Are we all done at twelve two?"

"They're glad to get that," Dale muttered as the developer shook his head and the suit rapped his pen against the stand. 

"Three Traders is sold at twelve two. Thank you gentlemen."

There was a stir through the room and the suits began to fold up the paperwork. Dale moved quietly to the front of the room and Peter nodded to Riley.

"Falls Chance taking the white elephant? You'll be fencing that off all year to get any usable grazing out of it, son."

"We're preservationists." Riley said easily, watching Dale take a pen from one of the suits and go rapidly through a set of forms, signing his small, cramped signature on each line.

They could have taken one of the four by fours and gone around by the road in less than half an hour, but they both infinitely preferred to ride. Nothing compared to the hour and a half route over the open land of the ranch by horseback in early morning, and when they left the auction it was still early enough to be cool outside despite being late August. Sheep were grazing in the pastures below the woods, white against the green, the lambs starting to reach a size where they were hard to distinguish from their mothers, and by habit Riley and Dale both surveyed the fields and stock around them, until Riley drew Snickers in and stood in his stirrups, shading his eyes to see.

"That shelter's got a section of roof down."

Dale turned Hammer's dark head to join him, and glanced at his watch.

"We've got plenty of time to fix it? We won't be expected back much before lunch, and this lot will need shade by mid morning."

The low and simple wooden shelters stood at intervals all over the open land – shade in the summer, warmth in the winter – and were no more than long, low sheds, simply roofed. It was the roof that had collapsed in one part, and as Riley swung down from the saddle onto the grass and knotted up Snickers' reins, he saw the culprit; a fat, scurrying ewe clambering hastily down from the roof which was low enough for a determined sheep to climb.

"That's how. Sunbathing. She must have hit a rotten part of the wood and gone right through. Have a look and see how bad it is? I'm going to have to catch her and make sure she isn't hurt."

Without the dogs to help, that was going to be fun. Dale stifled a grin, left Riley to chase the sheep, and went to examine the shelter. It was greyed with age and Riley was right; the splintered wood had never recovered from the winter rains, the timber was crumbling and dry and they were going to need to replace the planks. For now they could make a brief repair job, which Dale had watched Jasper and Riley do plenty of times with other shelters. The simplest thing was to pull a few of the planks from the lowest part of the back wall where they were least needed, and put them up on the roof where they were most needed. Dale went back to Hammer and his saddle bag, digging for the simple tools they all carried. Riley, hauling a very reluctant ewe by the neck, reached his own saddle bag and pinned the ewe between his knees while he grabbed a bottle of the antibiotics and a syringe, and shot a dose into her.

"She's cut herself and it's deep. I'm going to take her down to the stable, Jas is probably going to want to stitch her."

"Are you going to manage without a dog?" Dale asked dubiously. Riley grunted, taking rope from his saddle and rolling the sheep over to tie its forelegs.

"If I go down to get a dog, you can bet she'll be miles away and I'll never find her again by the time I get back. I'll sling her over the saddle. She'll probably kick the living daylights out of me, but I'll manage if you'll swap me Hammer. Snickers will go nuts if I try this, but Hammer won't care."

Dale led Hammer over and came to help him haul the ewe across the saddle, where she bellowed indignantly. Riley mounted up, taking the precaution of jamming his knees tightly under the ewe to prevent her sliding off, and taking a tight grip on her.

"I'll get her back, it isn't far."

"I'll be there as soon as I finish this."

Dale stepped back, tipping the Stetson back from his eyes to watch Riley gather up the reins and walk Hammer towards the river and the wagon crossing point. According to his watch, they had about two hours before lunch, which was the deadline they'd given on the note they'd left on the table this morning before dawn when they both slipped out of the house. Plenty of time to put a couple of planks roughly in place to give enough emergency shade until they could fix this properly.


The note on the table at breakfast had caused a good deal of interest.

Short and to the point, it merely stated that Riley and Dale had left for an early ride, and would be back by lunchtime. Where they were going and what they intended to do was obviously protected information. Flynn, working with the young colts in the training paddock, kept a sharp eye on the surrounding land and waited to see which direction they came from, with some choice words he intended to direct at Riley once he got him alone. It had been only twenty four hours since Dale appeared without warning at breakfast time, having wound up his affairs in New York along with every other part of his previous life. While it was not surprising that he and Riley should want some private time together, Flynn, Jasper, Paul and Riley had discussed in some detail what Dale was going to need from them when he came back to the ranch, and disappearing with nothing more than a note before breakfast had not figured into the plan.

It was mid morning before he saw Riley come into the yard with the ewe over the bow of his saddle, and climbed the fence to go and help him. It was apparent Riley was alone; there was no sight of Dale. Riley slid the ewe down into his arms, dropped to the ground and went to open the stable door, leading the way to the low pen where any sick or hurt animals were housed.

"She's cut herself sunbathing on the roof on the shelter across the river. Dale and I went past it this morning and saw she'd gone straight through. I think Jas is going to want to stitch her."

Flynn put the ewe down and looked at the gash that Riley showed him, parting the thick wool gently between his fingers.

"Very likely. How much of the roof is gone?"

"About half." Riley stretched his back, groaning a little as he shook out the kinks of a half hour ride with an annoyed sheep. "Dale's nailing a cover over it but we'll need to take planks out there and fix it properly."

"So he's still out there?" Flynn inquired. Riley looked at him and winced.

"He's done this kind of thing plenty of times, it'll take him ten minutes."

"And you know exactly what we talked about?" Flynn said pointedly. "And why?"

"He's fine." Riley protested. "He's probably only a few minutes behind me."

"Get Hammer untacked and rubbed down," Flynn told him, penning in the ewe.

He was aware in the next half hour of Riley starting to look more and more often at the south pasture where there was still no sign of Dale approaching, and half an hour was all that Flynn was prepared to allow. Riley watched him apprehensively as he tacked up Leo, and Flynn unbent enough to give him a rough, one armed hug in passing as he led Leo past the barn.

"It's all right half pint. Where did you last see him?"

"The first shelter into the sheep pastures beyond the wagon crossing." Riley put out a hand to take his rein. "Flynn, I'll go-"

Flynn didn't point out the obvious: that if Dale was doing what Flynn suspected Dale was doing, Riley was unlikely to be able to get him to stop.

"Was there anything you two were doing this morning that might have affected this?"

Riley's expression was a perfect study in doubt, and Flynn, who knew him well, had no difficulty in seeing it.

"…….maybe?" Riley admitted reluctantly after a minute. "Although he seemed fine?"

"Physically?" Flynn demanded with a sudden and nasty image of falls, cracked skulls, broken bones- Riley shook his head hastily.

"No, nothing like that."

Flynn nodded, mounting up. "Ok. Finish Hammer and tell Paul we'll be back for lunch. There isn't any need to worry."

He turned Leo's head towards the south pastures and set him in the direction of the river at a steady canter.

The river ran wide and shallow and noisily over rocks as he reached the marks on the grass that still remembered the wagon trains of well over a century ago. The ruts and the stones beneath the grass led directly to the river, and Flynn let Leo have his head as he stepped out onto the pebbles, the water streaming around his forelegs. In the deeper water below, beyond the shelf of the rocks, the shadowy outline of the hoop and a wheel indicated a wagon that had been disintegrating slowly beneath the water since the day it fell in. It was hard to say how many more might be under the water with it, or just how many wagons had been manhandled and hauled across this point in both good weather and bad, headed west across the ranch and on along the trail that led to Oregon. The trail up through the woods was just as clearly marked, and Flynn knew, having found them a few times before, that deeper in the woods and on either side of the trail lay a few pitifully sparse graves, marked with stones and a very few battered and splintered wooden crosses that in the shelter of the woods had survived winter weather. The bravery and the hope of the people who set out on such an unpredictable journey, never failed to touch Flynn, when the marks of their courage was still so imprinted on the land. And they weren't the only people over time who had thrown their fate into the hands of this ranch.  

It had only been a day. Slightly more than twenty four hours.

That wasn't time enough for the euphoria to wear off. Dale had seemed happy, lively, glad to be with them. He'd been keen to dive straight back into work with them yesterday, to talk and ask as many questions as they asked him, making up the time they had been separated, and it was clear he wanted nothing more than to pick up where he left off as if he had never been away. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to let him.

Leo emerged from the woods into the miles of open, sunlit pastures that stretched over low and gently rolling hills out towards the east and north, interrupted only by the woodland belt that blocked the view of the abandoned town of Three Traders. Flynn didn't look towards it, making directly for the shelter and already quite sure of what he would see. It was a mathematical problem. It was a task involving a completed product. It was strongly visual and repetitive, involving hard physical work. All in all, it was exactly the kind of thing guaranteed to hit Dale right in the most sensitive parts of his character, especially when he was already under pressure.  

Snickers was visible grazing, some way off from the shelter, and Dale, sitting braced on the roof to work, didn't notice Flynn approaching or dropping down from Leo's back into the grass nearby. Flynn walked across to the shelter, not wanting to startle him, watching the look of absorption on Dale's face with wry understanding. The boards from the back wall had been removed and replaced at intervals so exact that Flynn had no doubt that some precise method of measurement had been applied, and the harvested planks were being equally sternly mathematicised into place to form a roof. Any of the other ranch residents would have yanked the base board off the back wall, hammered it roughly into place to fill the hole and cast the needed shade, and left it there. Not Dale. At some point he'd dropped his Stetson down on the grass, and his dark head was bent over his work under what was rapidly becoming the full heat of noon. Flynn put a hand up and gently grasped one dangling, booted ankle. Dale jumped and looked down at him, and Flynn saw the initial jar as he reconnected with the world around him, then recognition, and then dawning realisation.

"Off." Flynn told him mildly, reaching for Dale's hips to pull him down off the roof and on to the grass.

The shelter was barely four foot high and there was only one remaining gap letting sunlight down into the interior. Flynn looked for a moment, then gripped the lowest of the planks of the back wall and yanked, tearing it away in both hands, and laying it on the top of the shelter. It lacked Dale's meticulousness; but Flynn picked up the hammer and packet of nails that Dale had been working with, and in a few heavy blows pinned the plank into place.   

Dale's expression was as much of guilt as of chagrin. He looked hot and he looked tired, his shoulders were high with tension and he was already grimly apologising in what Flynn thought of as his 'addressing the board' voice. Very different to the lively, cheerful man of yesterday.  

"I'm sorry, that was stupid. I just wanted to-"

Flynn caught his wrist, pulled, and Dale crashed into his chest, pinned there as Flynn wrapped both arms around him, hard enough to give both comfort and the deep pressure to calm him down. He felt Dale stop talking, mostly because with his face against Flynn's shirt he couldn't, then take a breath against him with some difficulty, and lift his hands, gripping Flynn's arms in return. It was a gesture that told Flynn a great deal. He stood there for a while before he let Dale go, dropping a hard kiss on his forehead.

"We'll talk about it at home. Come on."

He saw the brief hesitation, and snagged Dale's wrist, pulling Dale back to stand in front of him.

Dale didn't answer, and Flynn thought his face had a shuttered look, very like months ago when he first came here.  

"Dale." Flynn said bluntly.

It worked; that tone always worked on him. Dale winced and got it out, abrupt and almost growled.

"That was obsessing. Again."  

Flynn nodded, not arguing. "Ok, and?"

He said it without trivialising it – or making it sound as though he expected no better. It was that air of 'yes, and this a problem why?' that made Dale blink, aware he was shocked by it, and surprised at his own sense of shock.

A few weeks ago I had a handle on this. Get a grip Aden! You were able to look after yourself for a month, you're supposedly better for pete's sake!

"Say it." Flynn prompted. Dale swallowed, not sure if he could.

"I know better than this."

"And you've only been back a day, and mistakes get made."  Flynn said calmly, steering him away from the shelter. "Get your hat. We're going to go home, we're going to eat, we're going to straighten this out and it will be fine, you know how this works. You don't need to be worried, you don't need to be upset."

Firmly said, in Flynn's bluntest and most laying down the law manner, it was very comforting. Dale swallowed on the deep internal reaction, aware in the hours since he had been back, he hadn't heard that oh so familiar tone from Flynn. And it helped. As they reached Snickers, Flynn put a hand out to catch Dale's chin, turned it, and this time the kiss was directly on the mouth and as firm as all of Flynn's kisses were. Dale was finding that his knees had a tendency to buckle and any kind of clear thought to start abandoning him at the first touch of one of those kisses; his body promptly forgot there was any kind of problem and instead started suggesting a lot of very interesting things that could be done here, right now, in the grass, and that lunch was an incredibly low priority.

Flynn let him go with a gentle swat across the seat of his jeans, turning him towards Snickers.

"It's all right kid. Come on. Home."

Dale mounted up, confused, body in uproar, and another and more vicious part of him saying quietly and very pointedly,

And of course all he has to do is kiss you and you stop thinking or doing anything for yourself at all. What kind of a brat do you really think you're going to make, Aden?


Jasper had come back for lunch, which wasn't usual, but Paul put it down to sheer curiosity. He had gone out with a shamefaced and quiet Riley to look at the cut ewe while Paul put lunch on the table, and they were still out there when Flynn came up the steps with Dale ahead of him, Dale's face impassive under the sunburn in a way that made Paul do a double take and look at him in shock.

Flynn caught his eye before Paul could say anything, pushing Dale towards the bathroom off the kitchen. "Wash your face and hands, I'll get something for those burns and we'll eat."

It was an order, and Dale followed it in silence.  

"Aloe." Paul opened the cupboard above the sink and found the tube as Dale disappeared into the bathroom out of earshot. "Has he been doing what I think he's been doing?"

"Yes." Flynn came to wash his hands in the kitchen sink. "With help from Riley. Do you have any plans for tomorrow?"

"Not really," Paul's eyes were on the bathroom and Flynn could see him wrestling with the longing to go and check Dale out for himself, and to ask a good many questions. 
"I'd thought of making a couple of cakes and doing some writing, but that's about all if you need something done?"

"An eye kept on Dale," Flynn said too quietly to reach the bathroom. "I need a word with you and Jas when we get a chance."

Paul raised his eyebrows, and as Dale emerged from the bathroom, pulled out Dale's usual chair at the table, flipping the lid off the aloe tube.

"Sit down and take your shirt off, honey."

Dale peeled his shirt over his head, mutely obedient and baring his slim, narrow body and wide, bony shoulders, and Paul turned him to face the table, squeezing some of the lotion on to his fingers and then gently covering the back of Dale's neck where the reddened skin started, despite Dale's flinch at the touch.

"What happened to your hat?"

"It got in the way." Dale acknowledged.

"You can't take it off in this weather, you'll get sun stroke." Paul turned him to reach his throat and face. 

"And you've been inside an office for several weeks, you're not as used to the sun out here as you were."

Dale looked at the table, murmuring thanks and pulling his shirt back on as Paul let him go. Riley ran up the steps into the kitchen and Paul saw his look of open relief as he saw Dale, then he pulled off his boots and came to wash his hands.

"Jas did have to stitch the ewe, he's putting stuff away and he'll be right in. The stupid thing climbed up onto the roof, we saw her up there. Sunbathing."

Paul washed aloe off his hands alongside Riley at the taps, confiscated a tea cloth as Riley reached to dry his hands on it and substituted a towel before he took his place at the table. Jasper heeled his boots off at the door, giving Dale and Flynn a quick smile as he saw them.

"So do we get to know yet where you two went this morning?" Paul asked, cutting bread. Riley, digging into the cold meat and salad set out on the table, glanced up and gave Dale a smile that Paul saw Dale manage a weak response to.

"I don't know. Dale? What do you think?"

Dale waited until Jasper came back from the bathroom and took a seat at the table. Then he drew an envelope from his pocket and offered it to Riley, who handed it to Flynn.

"Where have you two started swimming that hands you paperwork?" Paul demanded.

Flynn opened the envelope and took out the folded sheets of paper, spreading them out. Dale, watching him, saw his eyebrows shoot up, and then Flynn propped his elbows on the table, reading in a deliberately casual tone of voice that made Riley grin.

"Brenner and Ryant real estate, in the sale of the land including the abandoned town of Three Traders. Purchased August 9th by Dale Edward Aden, acting for the owners of the Falls Chance Ranch."

"Three Traders?" Paul demanded, shocked.

"Acting for the owners of." Flynn handed the papers to Jasper.

"You bought Three Traders?" Paul got up to look over Jasper's shoulder.

"Who else was going to touch it?" Riley said cheerfully. "It's no good as grazing land, most of it. 

Nothing anyone can usefully do but keep it safe for what it is – historical value, land memory, the same as we keep the mine and the burial ground. Dale saw it come up for auction in New York-"

"How did you find that out?" Flynn asked Dale. "That can't have just come up."

"I went looking for the owner." Dale said quietly, looking straight back at him. "I would have made him an offer even if he hadn't been considering sale. My interest encouraged him to move forward with the sale immediately. It's been a millstone to his family since the town was abandoned; the agents told him it was unsaleable."

"The family were the mine owners." Paul said thoughtfully, "I know that much. Although it's made them no money since the town died."

"Gold?" Riley asked eagerly. Paul smiled.

"To start with. It was known there was quartz locally, and quartz often carries a gold-bearing seam. They found a little, I believe. Not much. The mine was adapted to dig coal when the railroad came through and the town started to grow. Black diamonds. Coal always has a saleable value wherever people need fuel, and the town and the railroad generated a big demand for it. The mine made very good profit for at least two generations."

"Why did you want to buy it?" Flynn asked gently, still looking at Dale. Who shrugged a little, flushing.

"Possibly this isn't the place to talk about it-"

"Honey it's exactly the place. We're all here and who else is listening to us?" Paul said mildly. Dale went even redder, sitting back from the table in a way that distanced him from them a little, and Flynn heard his voice slide into the same, formal board room tone he had used earlier. This was too deeply personal; he was struggling to even look at them.

"I wanted to give something back to the ranch. The town is a connected part of its history. It's where David and Philip met, it's part of the wagon trail across the ranch, it's part of the history of the area and part of what the ranch does is preserve. Value."

Dale looked at Jasper, thinking of something Jasper had said aloud to him once regarding memory on land, something all four of them loved. Jasper caught his eye and nodded slowly, giving him a faint smile.

"He knew we couldn't stand it if anyone else took the town and damaged it or cheated on the preservation laws," Riley said with a heat to his tone that was a storm cone. "Philip and David protected what's on the land. You know they did, because Philip taught us to do it,"

"Riley, no one's arguing that and no one's asking you to defend it." Paul said gently. "We're stunned, that's all."

"It's not in my name." Dale said formally. "Any more than the ranch is specifically in anyone's name. 

The paperwork you showed me before I left – the terms of the trust for the house and land – I've prepared a solicitor to fit the Three Traders land to incorporate it as part of that trust. If the land is gifted to the trust then it simply becomes a part of Falls Chance. With what I owe to you and to the ranch, and by extension to Philip and David – I wanted to do my part to keep it safe. And there is from the surveys, about four square miles of useable grazing land against our borders, which would extend the Tops in the winter. More grazing, more space, you have the option of running more horses. I would have done this whether you invited me to stay or not, but in the circumstances - you've got the extra pair of hands needed to cover the work if you choose to expand."

So practical, Flynn thought, watching him. Clinical. Carefully avoiding mention at all of any personal emotional investment. 'You', not 'We'.  

There was another moment's silence, then Jasper put a hand behind Dale's head, drew him over and hugged him, and Paul, sitting down with the papers still in his hand, waited for his turn.

"Dale, this is astounding. And beyond generous."

No it isn't, Flynn thought swiftly, and don't tell him that. This isn't generosity, he isn't an outside benefactor. He loves the land as much as we do.

"It's an amazing thing you've used your skills to do for the ranch," he said quietly, knowing the tone that caught Dale's attention very fast, "And very like you to have the perception to plan and go looking for how to do it, we have always had an attachment to the town. And it was your right to do; you belong here and the land belongs to us. But in this family, we don't make big decisions like this alone."

Dale looked straight back at him, and Flynn saw the reserve in his face crack a little.

"Go wait for me in the study." Flynn said quietly, and Dale got up with enough alacrity to show his relief at escaping.

"You do not get to be mad with him about this," Riley said heatedly as soon as he was gone. Flynn shook his head.

"No, neither of you are in the slightest trouble about Three Traders, and Dale knows it. No one's mad with anyone. We are however going to talk about exactly why you let Dale head out this morning with you without a word to anyone, when we talked about how he was going to need time to settle in."

"It was something he already had planned, he got everything finished in New York to be here by the date of the auction, and it wasn't something I thought was going to do any harm," Riley said defensively. "You said he needed to be with one of us and he was; he was with me."

"And what do you think happened with the shelter this morning?" Flynn asked. Riley put his fork down, sitting back in his chair.

"I'd guess he over did the fixing of it. But that's not exactly a problem, you know he does that sometimes."

"How over done?" Paul interjected. Flynn looked across to him.

"He'd taken out the entire set of boarding from the external frame and was rebuilding. Properly. He didn't notice me until I touched him. Want to guess why, Riley?"

"I know why," Riley said grimly, "But he was ok! He was fine all morning, he's been fine ever since he got here!"

"He's got a lot to handle." Flynn said evenly. "And we talked about this. He's been away for weeks where he was his own boss, where he was under a lot of pressure for all kinds of reasons, and this is a huge transition for him. You know we do a basic detox for anyone coming here from that kind of stress-"

"And by which you mean I just bought him a spanking five minutes after he walks through the door, and a lot of guilt he really didn't need, and it's all my fault." Riley said shortly.

"Riley stop it." Paul said firmly. "You didn't make Dale do anything, but you agreed to how we were going to handle things before Dale ever came home, and for good reason."

"I'm sorry." Riley said rather grimly. "But I don't see a few planks on a shelter is a sign he's coming apart at the seams. You should have seen him at the auction! He was amazing."

No doubt confident, collected and incisive: Flynn, who had seen Dale in professional mode, had no difficulty imagining it, and in understanding how it transferred to the proper, exact refitting of a shelter.

He had been expecting – from the moment of stepping down onto Wyoming turf – that life would just go back to normal. That there would be the same work to be done and things would fit exactly, in the same safe, comfortable way they had fitted before he flew out to New York. Dale stifled a wry smile at the thought, pacing another length of the study. Flynn had taken that idea apart within an hour of his arrival.

For a start he had taken Dale to go through his luggage and rapidly established, what was ok, what went into storage, what was something he might use for work, and what was just flat out banned. The blackberry came into the latter category. Dale had been wryly amused by the entire business, which was fairly light heartedly done, and surrendered the electronics and technology willingly. Quite apart from trusting Flynn to know exactly what he was doing, he'd expected it and he loved the values of this household. Once that was done, they'd had a rather more serious discussion, most of which Dale could remember word for word.

He had been asked to come back from New York with no immediate clients or business, and had done so. Flynn had made it very clear that he expected Dale to take several weeks to concentrate on settling back into the household before he considered working at the same time. Which had baffled Dale. How did you settle into somewhere you already belonged? Flynn had been gentle and explicit about that in a way which went straight into Dale's heart and his guts: Flynn seemed to take the half formed thoughts straight out of his head and phrase them in simple terms that made them easy and available to talk about.

You haven't come here committed to us before.

You haven't embarked on a committed relationship of any kind before.

These are different terms we need to adjust to, and that's something we will do together, and it's going to be ok.

There had been other parts to it. Just as simple. The small office upstairs that would be his to work in, on an established schedule that he would plan with the others, although Dale knew before he was told that the office was the one room in the house currently out of bounds to him.  The space that had been cleared and was waiting in the bookcase downstairs for the few books he owned that were not work related. Actually there was pitifully little that had been relevant or kept when Dale sorted through what possessions he owned in New York, and apart from a few books, clothes and documentation there had been nothing else to bring with him. It was amazing to Dale how when you separated an exec from his work, how little else there actually was of him. The small room next door to Flynn's, looked just as it had always done with nothing on the dresser or windowsill when Dale finished unpacking.
It was not unlike the first time he had arrived in this house – the routine was very similar – but Flynn had been specific about how the next few weeks would be, in the same matter of fact way he was always specific about such things. That he needed to take time to settle in, that he would, to begin with, be working with one of the others at all times, that the rules and routines would be the same as they had always been at the ranch. It was what Riley referred to as 'the leash' and Dale had realised with a little unease that it was tighter than the one he had been on before he left for New York, which yesterday had seemed ridiculously unnecessary.


Thoroughly frustrated with himself, Dale sat down on the leather couch and pushed his hands through his hair. His stomach clenched at the sound of the door opening and he looked up guiltily. Flynn looked calm, and he shut the door softly before he came to the couch. Dale got up, moving away to let Flynn take a seat with a very good idea of what was coming.

"I'm sorry. I know better, I've got no excuses."

"I don't remember asking for any?" Flynn pointed out, propping his elbows on his knees and watching in a way that made Dale realise he was pacing. Standing still made him still more acutely aware of his own tension and his own fidgeting until there wasn't a single way to stand that didn't betray it, and Dale had a momentary sensation of being about to explode with sheer agitation. Big, broad shouldered, watching him with that same calm face, Flynn held out a hand to him.

"Come here."

Dale took the hand automatically, steeling himself, and Flynn drew him down onto the couch beside him, sitting back into the cushions and putting a heavy arm around him which compelled Dale to lean against him. Dale could have sworn he had double the usual nerves in his body: his entire frame felt acutely sensitive and aware of every brush of the couch or of Flynn, overwhelmingly intense. He was warm, his chest was hard under his shirt, there was the so familiar scent of mixed cologne and clean sweat, grass and soap and horses, and Dale wrestled for a moment with a mad combination of impulses to pull away and to turn and bury himself in Flynn's arms.

Yeah and in all those weeks in New York, who did you ever touch any longer than for a handshake, Aden?

Flynn said nothing at all, relaxed but not letting him move, and after a few minutes Dale awkwardly tucked his feet under him on the couch, letting his full weight go where that arm was pulling him.

"Listen." Flynn said quietly beside him. "Think about what you can hear. Pick out the sounds and think about where they are."

It was a trick he had taught Dale months ago, and Dale had done his best to use it in New York as a way to find a few seconds of orientation.

"Put your hands flat in my lap." Flynn said firmly, and Dale realised belatedly he was in the process of picking at a fingernail which was rapidly starting to splinter under the assault. He put his hands down on Flynn's jeaned thigh, forced himself to relax them and to keep them still, and Flynn put a heavy hand over both wrists, taking the voluntary effort out of it. Breathing him, being held by him, was overwhelming.

"What can you hear?"

It took effort. Dale took a breath, let it go and forced himself to think.

The clock in the hall was nearest. It's steady tick and occasional Westminster chimes were now a deeply familiar sound. Sheep could be heard far away, in a range of voices from bass to treble. Dishes in the far distance were clinking from the kitchen. Flynn's breathing was slow and steady and nearby, and the couch creaked very softly as the leather responded to them. The rasp of Flynn's hand, moving gently up and down on the denim of his hip where it rested.

"I'm sorry." he said aloud.

"Shh." Flynn said bluntly.

Dale shut his eyes, trying to focus on the clock, which was easiest, aware despite himself of the clamour in his head quietening down and his throat opening as if someone had turned up the dial on an oxygen mask. It was a while before Flynn said anything, although his hand went on massaging, moving in gentle circles over Dale's hip and side.

"What made you start rebuilding from scratch this morning?"

Dale kept his eyes shut, trying to think about it fairly.

"No idea." He said eventually. "I don't remember exactly making a decision to do it. Just that it made sense at the time. Rationally, I know, it's just a shelter, the whole thing needs replacing, all it needed was a base board shoved on the top, but –"

"It wasn't right." Flynn said when he trailed off. Dale grimaced.

"Which is obsession, compulsion, and I know that isn't good, I should be aware of it, I should make myself stop-"

"Stop the self flagellation." Flynn said firmly. "I won't warn you again."

And he wouldn't. Dale knew exactly how Flynn termed that kind of self criticism, and exactly how he challenged it, which was a serious incentive to quit it, fast. Except it was damned hard to think about or to term it without such criticism.

"The auction was fine, it barely took ten minutes." He said at last.

To Flynn's ears he sounded calmer, and very frank, the way he sounded when he was really thinking. His body was less stiff and his tension had subsided a little. Flynn went on circling a hand on the narrow bone of Dale's hip, keeping his own voice slow and quiet enough that Dale would have to concentrate to hear him.

"Were you worried what we might make of you bidding for Three Traders?"

"I suppose some." Dale said after a moment. "Not as you said about needing to make decisions together – although I understand. No one can make those kind of decisions alone when they're committed to someone else. I thought you might be concerned about that when I haven't exactly been used to making decisions with anyone else regarding finances or anything else, I've always been independent. But this was different simply because it was something I wanted to give as a gift."

Yes, you understand everything except how to match what you know to how you feel, Flynn thought dryly. Riley was worried we wouldn't be pleased – you knew perfectly well we'd understand, and why. And this isn't the hard part to talk about, is it kid?

He waited and Dale hunched his shoulders, twisting slightly as though crumpling into himself. A very faint gesture, but not unlike the one he had made out by the shelter, putting his hands flat against Flynn's arms instead of reaching out.

"Why do you think it was so easy to get stuck this morning?" he said mildly, not pushing any further about Three Traders. "Why do people with your kind of mindset get stuck?"

Ask Dale for any kind of academic information and you accessed the part of his brain that communicated freely. He answered quickly and easily and straight from the text book, although with some bitterness in his voice.

"Hyperfocus, especially based on repetitive action, blocks out anxiety or unwanted thoughts, or unwanted emotion. It's high interest, it's habitual, it's rewarding because it's about creating patterns and order which is calming, and it's product oriented which is where, if you have a screwed up brain and pattern of self esteem, you get your sense of self worth and achievement from. Creating amount and perfection of product."


Flynn lifted his hand from Dale's hip and swatted, a hard and well placed swat that made Dale jump.

"I won't put up with tantrums. Which of those reasons do you think affected you this morning?"

"Habit." Dale said shortly, and Flynn could hear his effort to contain the sarcasm in his tone. "Probably it was calming too. And it was completive. Once I start that kind of thing, it's very hard to stop before it's done."

The 'calming' was quite an admission: these were still very new insights for him, but he was still evading the one Flynn was listening for. Flynn went on stroking his hip and side, brushing his fingers lightly in circles.

"Do you know why you're stressed?"

"Just burning off the last of New York I suppose." Dale said after a minute. "I crammed a lot into the last few days to be done in time to be back here for the auction, that was pressured. A lot to do."

Mhm, still evading. Flynn let it go, tapping the hip under his hand.

"So it's an easy trap to fall into when you're stressed. And you've been using hyperfocus as a work strategy the last few weeks – don’t look so guilty, there's a time and place for it, a lot of very successful people are successful because they can do it. You're going to need to work out the difference between practical and functional, and compulsive. It's one of the reasons you need to be working with one of us at the moment, and one of the reasons why I want you to wait a few weeks before you pick up any corporative work. It was a mistake, Dale. That's all."

"The first time I'm left alone and I don't even see it coming. I know about this." Dale said with so much exasperation that Flynn pulled him closer.

"It is going to happen sometimes. That's ok. If you don't make the mistakes how are you going to learn how to manage it? As far as our rules go, if you aren't home by the time we expect you, and it's because you couldn't make yourself leave a task in time, then expect trouble. I do expect you to make yourself quit and walk away when you need to. But getting pulled into something that hits a compulsion- that's going to happen and it's something we'll help you work on, but it isn't wrong. It isn't deliberate."

Dale didn't answer, which Flynn understood, well aware of the grinding guilt currently on his mind. He was controlling it, at least outwardly, but the strain was visible. Riley had said in the kitchen that he had earned Dale a spanking – obviously assuming in his own mind that it was earned and inevitable, and while Flynn could not have answered as to exactly why Riley had reached that conclusion, Riley had a gift for perception and he knew Dale well. Still holding Dale, Flynn spoke quietly, aware that he was still contained, hunched into himself.

"You are going to be taking this afternoon very easy, but what happened this morning certainly doesn't mean you deserve a spanking. On the other hand, I think it's possible that you feel you need one."

He felt the change in Dale as he spoke.

"I've told you before that you can always ask, that there might be times when you feel you need it, although I'll expect you to talk to me about why. So I'll leave it up to you."

Dale didn't answer for a long time, head down, then eventually shook his head.

"No. It's ok."

Flynn put a gentle finger under his chin, turning Dale's face up to his. It was as much the knowledge of how hard Dale found it to handle being angry with himself that made him offer, as how shut down Dale felt to him. He always had needed help to open himself up and get rid of emotion, and if it got too much for him, he inevitably resorted to his own brutal ways of managing stress. He'd always found a spanking a very immediate way to release both that stress and self blame.

It was hard to know exactly what he needed, and what would help, and to know too that Dale knew it would help – but it was Dale's decision to make. Flynn had a fair certainty that Dale would resort, whether deliberately or subconsciously, to behaviour he knew would elicit that spanking, but it would be better if he could learn to simply ask for what he wanted up front, acknowledge it in his own mind and learn to ask for that help between themselves as he needed it. It was not an easy thing to do however, it was going to take Dale time and it had to be something he chose to do for himself when he was ready.

"Are you sure you can handle it?" Flynn asked him gently, making sure Dale knew it was understanding and not doubt. Dale nodded, meeting his eyes and trying to smile.

"I'm ok."

I give it about six hours, Flynn thought with sympathy.

He ate when Paul coaxed; Paul could always do it. It was a sudden change in him; he'd been animated, happy since he first appeared without warning yesterday morning. Now it was as if someone had torn the veneer off and Flynn, watching him across the table, thought he looked tired and that his eyes were starting to look shadowed. Riley, who had given them both a sharp look when they returned to the table, was looking both anxious and actively accusing and Flynn read the look without difficulty and with wry amusement.

Why didn't you put him out of his misery? You know what he needs!  

From Riley, who loved Dale, that was so ridiculous it was funny. Except Riley, who never would have understood anyone ever wanting to be spanked, knew exactly what Dale needed at gut level. He equally wouldn't understand that it had to be Dale's decision. And he would be blaming himself for letting Dale get himself into difficulties this morning.

Jasper finished first, glanced at the clock and put his plate aside, catching Flynn's eye.

"I'll go up and look at the horses. Riley, come and keep me company?"

He was both covering Flynn's work and taking Riley out of the way, and Flynn, who knew exactly how good Jasper was at reassuring and calming down an upset Riley, gave him a look of deep appreciation. Riley hesitated, looking at Dale, and Jasper dropped a hand on his shoulder, squeezing and guiding him to his feet.

"Come on. They're a long way south at the moment, it'll be a long ride."

"I feel like making Moroccan lamb this afternoon." Paul said placidly, getting up and starting to clear the table. "And defrosting the freezer."

Dale thankfully surrendered his plate, having picked rather than eaten any significant amount, and Flynn got up with him, reaching for his hand.

"Excuse us. Paul, I'll give you a hand with the washing up in a while?"

"I can manage." Paul said serenely. Dale could hear him humming to himself, starting to clear dishes as Flynn led him out of the kitchen. He had no real idea what Flynn intended, but he was faintly surprised when Flynn led him upstairs and not towards his own room but towards Flynn's room.

They had their own rooms, each of them. It had been something Dale had Riley asked about during one of his phone calls from New York, and heard Riley laugh which meant without being able to see his face, it was hard to judge how serious he was.

"We like our space. Come on. Flynn and Jasper are both need-space people – it took Paul almost a year to get Jasper to sleep in the house at all when he first came here, and they're both territorial. They need their own places to go to get away. And I was only a kid when I came here, which is why I got stuffed in the room at the far side of the house, supposedly because I was in bed before everyone else and shouldn't be woken up. And I like my own space too, so Paul puts up with it and we manage. Just because you have a room that's yours personally doesn't mean you have to sleep there unless you want to."

That had led to several attempts to imagine visiting other rooms at night, and Flynn, face down as he always slept, still and peaceful… last night, Dale had been nearly asleep by nine o clock, worn out with fresh air, hard work, the delight of being home, and had done as he had always done in this house – kissed the others goodnight and settled gladly in the room that had always been his, lost in the wonderful familiarity and the safety of it.

Flynn's room was as tidy as it always was, with its books on the shelf and the dark wood and deep reds of the covers. Flynn left the door to the landing open and tugged gently at Dale's hand.

"Take your jeans off, I want you to sleep for a while."

In his room. Dale swallowed, heart thumping at the thought and not with apprehension.

For Pete's sake Aden, you've known the man for months and you're acting like a teenager!
Flynn ran a hand lightly down his back and patted.

"I'll be back in a minute."

Slowly, Dale peeled off his jeans, folded them neatly and found himself hovering by the window, looking out over the pastures beyond. He felt peculiarly vulnerable without his pants, younger and exposed, and he folded his arms in an attempt to compensate, watching Riley and Jasper who were still just in sight in the distance, heading south to where Bandit had his mares and foals in the safety of the nursery pastures.

"Here." Flynn said mildly.

He was holding a glass of water and a pill in his hand, and it was so detachedly unromantic that Dale cracked and laughed out loud. He saw the answering smile in Flynn's eyes, where it always lurked, and took the glass from him.

"What's that?"

"Something for the headache." Flynn said gently, and Dale blinked, realising Flynn was right The pain was behind both eyes, slow and steady, and he hadn't consciously noticed: just in the teeth he had gritted and the neck that felt stiff. He would have taken the pill from Flynn's fingers but Flynn touched his lips, feeding him the pill and Dale gulped on the water. Flynn combed his fingers through Dale's hair, easing it back off his face.

"Come and lie down."

"You don't need to work?" Dale said lightly, partly to stall, although he wasn't sure why. Flynn took the glass and set it on the bedside table, taking his hand to draw him towards the double bed.
"I've barely seen you all day."

It was an amazing thing to hear that spoken out loud, as if it mattered.

Flynn lay down in the centre of the bed, gathering the pillows up behind him and pulling relentlessly until Dale crawled across to him and lay down against his chest. It actually felt fantastic just to lie down as much as to be here, to be against him as Dale had been fantasising of night after night in a New York hotel. The reality outstripped the wildest of those dreams. The room was cool from the open window, the bed was soft and firm beneath him and the quilt and Flynn's denimed legs stroked Dale's bare ones. Head pillowed on the hardness of Flynn's chest, Flynn's arms wrapped around him, Dale breathed out and closed his eyes, feeling his neck and jaw and spine unclench. His hands slid almost of their own accord around Flynn, one up towards his face, one grasping his belt.

I am here. I am actually here.

"What's it like to be home?" Flynn asked softly in his ear. The word sent another shiver of response through him. Dale smiled without opening his eyes.


"Doesn't seem narrow?" Flynn murmured. Dale lifted his head to look at him in amazement.

"Narrow? Coffee stained, hot, noisy, horrible hotel rooms, spending half the evening on the phone to you and the rest of the evening wishing I was?"

It was the most emphatic Flynn had yet heard him sound. Dale shook his head, lying back down on Flynn's chest.

"I hated it. I wanted to quit and come back here. It wasn't running away – I'm not trying to hide here-"

"You don't have to convince me of that." Flynn said gently. Dale grimaced, easing away to lie beside him.

"Maybe I'm trying to convince myself? Ash, Luath, you and Jas, you all made it clear. I knew I only had to say and one of you would have come out – you actually would have come out there. You know how hard it was not to let myself say?"

"If you needed us….." Flynn said, turning over to watch him. Dale grunted, looking up at the ceiling.

"Want rather than need. I knew I had to do it myself."

There was a kind of grim determination to that without logic, that made Flynn think bleakly of a little boy at night in a British prep school dormitory, alone among other small boys. This conversation was very like the phone conversations he had had with Dale nightly while he was in New York, and he suspected it was realer to Dale than anything else that had happened since he stepped off the plane on the airstrip. It would have been so easy to just give into the compulsion to get hold of him, to prove to him physically that he was here and safe, and Flynn was fighting off the same overwhelming emotion as Riley, that he was here. The waiting and the separation was over. But Dale wasn't there yet, he wasn't ready, and rushing him never helped.   

"It's not an endurance competition." He said gently. "You didn't go to New York to prove yourself."

"I've always been competent, I've always been independent, I could do it. I could take responsibility for it. I just didn't particularly want to and I wanted to be here." Dale said vehemently. 

The want had been physical and painful, and it was impossible to express without sounding stupidly childish or self centred.

"Turn over." Flynn said quietly. Dale rolled over onto his front and shut his eyes again as Flynn's hand ran over his neck and began to massage. They touched so easily – all of them – something Dale had been very familiar with, but after several weeks of barely being touched at all by anyone, he was very aware of it again, and he couldn't help shivering away from Flynn's hand as in the kitchen he had flinched away from Paul's, both starving for and unfamiliar with the sensation.

And that's going to make him feel great too, isn't it Aden? You come home and you can't let him touch you without flinching!

"What was wrong with wanting?" Flynn said quietly, sinking his fingers into the tight muscles at the nape of his neck as if he hadn't noticed. "You knew what you wanted to do with the projects for ANZ, you dealt with the corporation as you wanted to, and that was never going to be easy. And now you've come back here, and it's not surprising that it feels to you like a different world. It was another very sudden transition. In a few days you're going to change gears and you'll feel a lot better. There's nothing wrong, kid. Just relax and let yourself do what you need to do, when you're ready."

"I feel numbed." Dale said into the pillow. It was a very muttered confidence, so quietly Flynn barely heard it. "Zombied. I don't feel a damned thing."

Sealed off and buried stress. Sheer anxiety, forced down and controlled until he wasn't consciously aware of it. Not just the pressure of delegation, handing over projects and clients, preparing work to be passed over, but making the decision to return here permanently, winding up his affairs, closing down a life he'd lived independently for more than ten years to come here and start again with them. Coming back to them on such totally different terms.

The shelter incident today was a dead giveaway. Flynn could feel the tension in Dale under his hands, and his shifting which said that lying face down currently had its difficulties. But Flynn went on rubbing his neck, working slowly down his back, and within a few minutes he felt Dale relax down by inches, going limp as the pill took effect and as the peace and the contact sank into him.

He slept deeply for several hours. Flynn picked up a book from the bedside table and read one handed, the other arm around Dale, and he was still reading when Paul looked around the door at them, voice low.

"How did you manage that?"

"It only took making him keep still for ten minutes." Flynn said just as softly. "He's out like a light. I don't think he has any idea what the last few weeks have taken out of him."

"There was never going to be an easy way to do what he needed to." Paul said with compassion. "Do you want some tea?"

"I'd love some." Flynn said frankly. "Was Ri ok?"

"Angry with himself." Paul said mildly. "I think he thought we were over reacting until he saw Dale do exactly what you'd predicted."

"I'm not sure Dale was any better prepared." Flynn laid his book face down, moving slowly not to disturb Dale against him. "Some of shutting ANZ down was easy – it was a relief, he wanted to do it, he's always enjoyed the work when the pressure wasn't high, and he had us as a buffer. He was thinking all the time that he could get done and come home, come back to us,"

"And everything would be fine."  Paul sat down on the end of the bed, watching Dale. "Was it the auction that set this off?"

Flynn shook his head. "This has been under the surface all the time, Riley just handed him a project that ripped the lid off. He's angry with himself for having got stuck on the shelter, he sees it as proof he's forgotten everything while he was away. I'd guess somewhere in his mind he decided he doesn't do that kind of thing any more. And he's here, which is what he wanted, and instead of everything being immediately fine he's feeling numbed and stressed which worries him and makes him feel guilty. And there's going to be an awful lot tied up in coming here, committing to us. I would have liked to have kept him close enough not to have the chance to obsess or do anything else that was going to freak him until he'd had some time to acclimatise, but we'll just have to work through it."

"He's quite shut down. I can see the difference in eye contact today." Paul said regretfully. Flynn grunted.

"No one at ANZ notices or harasses him like we do. Give him time to change gear and little enough rope that he can't hang himself, it'll be fine."

"So he's going to need to be with you, me or Jas while he does it, and not off alone with Riley." Paul added. "That was the part I hadn't really taken on board."  

"Until he opens up a lot more than he is now." Flynn agreed.

Paul nodded. "Ri will understand that. He's got the experience, he just doesn't think of Dale in that way. I'll have a word with Jas, we can explain it better and make it simpler for both of them. Which I guess is something we're going to have to get used to."

From his tone Paul didn't see that as any kind of a chore.

Having woken only when Flynn shook him, not long before dinner, Dale was quiet while they ate, and participated automatically in the clearing up afterwards while Jasper walked down to the corral for the last evening check on the horses, to feed the dogs and to lock the barns. He came back just as the last dishes were being put away and Riley, shutting the crockery cupboard, paused to search the pantry through the open door.

"Where are the cookies?"

"There aren't any," Paul said simply, "So come out of there. Who wants tea?"

"Don't we have anything else good to eat?"

"Are you still hungry?" Paul demanded. Riley shrugged, a gesture Paul read without much difficulty that said no, not exactly hungry, but he was definitely feeling he was missing something. It wasn't hard to guess what. He fended Riley gently out of the pantry and shut the door and Flynn, who had watched them both, wrapped both arms around Riley's waist and kissed his cheek.

"Come sit down."

Riley went where he was taken, and Paul, filling the kettle, saw Flynn take a seat in his usual armchair and pull Riley down on top of him. Riley promptly curled up on his lap. Jasper followed them, crouching in front of one of the book cases to search the shelves, and Paul made tea, an eye on Dale who was hovering, quiet and out of the way. Always quiet, always unassuming, although Paul thought there was a restlessness and a tension about him. He trailed Paul when the tray was ready and Paul set it down on the long, low wood coffee table, watching Jasper take a seat on the couch with his book, put out a hand and capture Dale's too firmly for Dale to be able to tactfully avoid. Dale folded up at Jasper's feet, back against his legs, and accepted the mug Paul passed him. Paul filled another one for Riley and dropped a small packet into his lap.

"Will that fill the gap?"

 "Chocolate," Riley said in relief, opening the pack. He did it without moving from Flynn's lap and Dale watched him put a hand over his shoulder without looking, passing a piece of whatever it was over his shoulder towards Flynn's mouth. Jasper took a couple of pieces and put one down into Dale's hand.

"Bandit has the mares almost down by the burial ground. It took a while to find them this afternoon."

"He's taking the foals further now they're stronger." Riley said with his mouth full. "And over rougher ground. Marika's colt moves like lightning, we were watching him chase that little bay of Pocket's, and he jumps like he's on springs."

"This is why Wyoming raises the best polo horses in the world," Flynn said calmly through chocolate. 

"By the time they've spent their first year running free over all the ground a harem stallion can train them on, and weathered a winter out here, they're sure footed as deer and with the stamina of a bull. Which reminds me. Before the scouts come out again, we need to decide which of the two year olds we're keeping for ourselves. We could do with at least two more riding horses, and Flint's got more basic cow sense than any of the others."

"He's a sweetie," Riley said at once. "Although he's on the shy side. Fallow is the other really good one for herding, she changes direction on a dime."

"Mares are tricky around Bandit." Paul pointed out. "Gucci and Moo were both risks because sooner or later you do have to be up around the herd with them, and you know what Gucci's like for flirting."

"Gucci wants a foal and you can't blame her." Riley pointed out.

"You've discussed this with her?" Paul demanded. Riley grinned.

"You can see how she looks at Bandit and the others."

"We also need to talk about you two disappearing at the crack of dawn." Jasper said quietly, looking at Riley, who promptly glared at him.

"We left a note."

"But?" Jasper asked calmly. Riley scowled.

"It's not like Three Traders will go up for sale again."

"We're not talking about Three Traders." Flynn said matter of factly. "We're talking about both of you having been asked that Dale doesn't work by himself for the moment."

This was normality. And it was weird normality.

Sitting against Jasper's legs on the rug, Dale found himself thinking of weeks in hotel rooms and board rooms and offices. He had thought he remembered how this felt, what it was like, but he hadn't.

"It should have taken me ten minutes and it isn't Riley's fault." he said aloud, politely but firmly.

"And I had the sunbathing sheep to worry about." Riley pointed out.

"Then we'll make it clearer." Jasper said, putting his mug down on the tray. "Dale, until you're a lot calmer, you need to be with me, with Flynn or with Paul. If you two want to go off somewhere together, you need to ask one of us to come with you. Is that understood?"

He looked first at Riley, who glared but muttered an unwilling, "Yes sir."

Calmer? Dale thought with a distinct trace of indignation. Then Jasper turned him by the shoulder without the slightest delicacy or hesitation, looking at him with very straight dark eyes, and Dale found himself saying it without even consciously looking for the words.

"Yes sir."

Aden, you wuss!

Jasper nodded calm acceptance. "Riley, you can quit or you can go sit on the porch until you're done glaring. Which?"

Dale saw the look Riley gave Jasper, but he clearly believed him as his tone was a good deal more restrained and his face much straighter when he answered.

"I'm done, sir."

"Then I'll run you a bath and you can get ready for bed." Paul told Dale, getting up. "Yes now, don't look at me like that. You don't look much less tired for someone who slept all afternoon."

 "I suggest an early start tomorrow," Flynn said, not having let Riley go throughout this conversation. "I'll see to the horses if Jas and Riley, you'll ride over the cattle and the sheep herds, and we'll meet back here as near to lunch as possible."

"To do what?" Riley demanded. Jasper raised an eyebrow at him.

"You two aren't dying to go up and look around Three Traders?"


Some time after the clock in the hall struck eleven, Dale turned over in bed for what felt like the fiftieth time. It was impossible to lie still any longer. He slid out from under the covers and went to stand at the open window, looking out over the dark home pastures towards the aspen woods. The sound of the wind in the trees reached him softly in the dark.

The others were in bed. He'd heard them come upstairs, Flynn the last one perhaps an hour ago – he'd forgotten  how early they went to bed here, and how early they started work – and the house was silent. And his head was not. Dale ran both hands through his hair, stomach twisting with what he knew was pure acid.

You are so bloody stupid, Aden.

The image of the shelter, mostly done, kept coming viciously back to mind, making his face get painfully hot and his stomach twist with pure humiliation. Flynn's hand on his ankle – he hadn't even seen Flynn approaching – and his voice, so carefully not disappointed.

So stupid.

And worse still was the urge – the nasty, irrational, burning little urge – to go back out there, take off that wrong plank and finish it because the shelter was still out there being not right.

Why are you so hung up about this? You are nuts. There's no other word for it. You should have stayed in NY with the other nuts. Are they supposed to nurse you through life indefinitely? Are you ever going to get past the point of being kicked upstairs at nine because you can't stop yourself looking like a wet rag?

The agitation was getting unbearable.

He had sworn to Flynn, every night in the New York hotel, to call the ranch if he reached the point of wanting or needing to hit the gym to burn off stress. He had never done it. A series of guilty press ups and sit ups had been the worst he'd ever given into to try and distract himself – and he knew, very well, what Flynn, Paul and Jasper would expect of him now. To go and wake them. To choose someone and talk. Which had been what they expected before, in the days when he was still recovering from the breakdown.

Before, Aden. You were supposed to be better. You're here, you quit the damn corporation, what the hell do you still have to be stressed about?

He walked about four complete circuits around the room before he gave in, grabbed for shorts and a vest and dug tennis shoes out of the bottom drawer of the dresser. He dropped one on the landing just outside the door and froze for a moment, listening, but thankfully no lights snapped on and no one demanded to know what one sorry excuse for a brat thought he was doing. Moving silently, Dale went rapidly downstairs into the kitchen, opened the back door and sat down on the steps to pull on the tennis shoes, tightening them expertly. It was cool outside, the sky overhead was blue rather than black and a breeze was blowing, bringing with it the smell of grass and the relief of the familiarity of the landscape. He loved this land, he loved the sight of it, just being out here helped. A few miles south, down towards the cairn over rough grounds – that would kill his legs enough to take his mind off his stomach and would shut his head up enough that possibly, by breakfast, he would be looking sane.

He was stretching in the yard outside, legs astride, pulling on one arm behind his head, when he saw Flynn leaning on the porch rail, bare foot in the shorts and t shirt he slept in, watching him.

It seemed like a long, long time that they stood there, watching each other in silence. Then Flynn straightened up and pointed at the porch in front of him. Slowly, stomach boiling, Dale walked up the steps and went to him.

"Are you doing what I think you're doing?" Flynn asked conversationally. Dale looked right back at him, grim.

"I was going for a run."

Flynn's face and tone didn't alter in the slightest. He just opened the kitchen door, holding it back. 

"Corner. Put your hands on your head."

That seemed a ridiculous thing to be doing. And yet Dale opened his mouth only to find he wasn't able to refuse. Somehow he found himself taking up the position very unwillingly, the closeness of the wall in front of him claustrophobic, reluctant to do something so basically stupid as linking his hands on his head like a small boy. He'd done this so many times before, and yet to be told to do it face to face, to be given that blunt order, was a shock.

"It's just a run." He said to Flynn who was locking the kitchen door. "If I can't sleep it's a better use of time than to –"

Flynn crossed to him quietly, turned him around by the arm and the three very sharp swats that fell across the seats of his shorts made him yelp out loud, unable to stop himself involuntarily arching away. That was still more of a shock.

"Hands on your head." Flynn repeated, and Dale found both hands clasped on his head and his face to the wall before he had time to consciously process the demand, those three handprints searing on his butt. He was incredibly aware of Flynn standing directly behind him for a good minute in silence before Flynn moved away and things clattered and poured softly from the direction of the stove.

He smelled honey and vanilla in the several minutes he stood there, stomach boiling and fiercely resisting the fact that the room was quiet and that Flynn was moving unhurriedly and not yelling and not getting excited and not doing anything at all that evoked any kind of emotion. Then Flynn snapped out the kitchen light, which made him jump, and his voice was just as calm.

"Come on."

Dale looked round, now totally confused, and found Flynn standing in the doorway, hand outstretched, a mug in his other hand. He would have evaded that waiting hand save that Flynn leaned over to take his, leading him through the dark family room to the study. He closed the door behind them before he turned the lights on and pointed Dale at the couch.


Dale sat, the leather cool on his legs below the shorts, and Flynn put the mug in his hand, taking a seat beside him.

"Drink that."

'That' was hot milk, steaming and sweetened, and Dale looked down at it, resenting the total lack of 'what do you think you were doing?' and 'where exactly did you think you were going?', or anything else that made any kind of sense. The three handprints under his shorts still smarted, and he was still shaken by them.  

"I'm sorry I'm this stupid." He said bitterly.

Flynn didn't answer.   

Dale put the mug down on the desk, just a little more sharply than was usual, which in Dale's terms was a full blown bang.  "And I am that stupid.  It was a simple repair job and I turn it into a full remodelling job, and then I can't even deal with that!"

Flynn sat quietly, waiting. Dale leaned back into the sofa, grim.  

"I should never have come back here. I'm sorry."

Flynn nodded slowly, taking that in. "Are you finished?"

His tone was calm beyond all bearing. Dale glared back, voice sharp. "Yes."

"Then go pick a paddle"

He heard the short breath that Dale took that sounded like exasperation, but for someone who didn't think he should be here, he got up without any kind of protest, and went to the desk without hesitation, opening the bottom drawer. Flynn watched without surprise as his hand skipped straight over the plain wooden paddle inside and fastened on the lexan paddle beneath it. Riley would have stalled as long as possible and tried a few special pleas on the way back. Dale just brought the paddle straight to him, holding it out.

Yes, of course you'd pick that one. Always have to be as hard on yourself as you possibly can, don't you kid?

Flynn took it from him, waiting without comment.

Dale stood for a minute, stupidly and uncomfortably aware that his palms were starting to prickle with sweat. He knew exactly what Flynn meant, and this didn't seem real. It had nothing to do with the past few weeks in New York. In fact somehow from New York this had seemed a far easier and less impressive thing to have to face. And Flynn was still sitting there, large and very real and being Flynn in an all too demanding way. Very awkwardly, at last, Dale put his hands to his shorts and stopped again. It was hard to remember that he'd ever managed to do this; the paddle in Flynn's hand was horribly solid.

Flynn said nothing, not hurrying him, which didn't help. Dale took a deep, careful breath and slid his thumbs inside shorts and underwear, easing them down his thighs. It felt even worse to be standing there stripped. Flynn merely lifted his arm, waiting, and Dale steeled himself, leaning awkwardly across Flynn's lap. Flynn simply took hold of his hips and lifted, tipping him into a far more acute and deceptively comfortable position, hips angled directly over his thigh, and Dale jumped at the feel of the lexan laid across his butt, smooth and cold against bare skin.  Flynn's free hand was warm across his back, and Dale was aware of feeling appallingly exposed, his entire back prickling with awful anticipation from neck to knees. Then the paddle lifted and snapped, shockingly loud in the dark, silent house, and Dale nearly jerked off Flynn's lap with shock at the sheer sting. He yelped out loud and quickly bit down to keep his mouth closed, ducking his head and shutting stinging eyes, keeping his hands flat against the leather of the couch. There was absolutely no kidding that this was real, it was about the realest thing Dale remembered in weeks.
Flynn delivered five more of those slow, shocking swats, alternating sides, and Dale was breathing very hard by the last, very tense and doing his best to clutch at the couch to keep from throwing his hands back in self defence. Then it stopped and there was nothing but the boiling sting, making it nearly impossible to keep still or to breathe, and silence in the room.

"Want to tell me what this is about?" Flynn asked quietly.

Dale stared at the couch with no idea what to say, but his attention entirely riveted on Flynn. There was a long, awkward silence and then another very sharp swat of the paddle and Dale jerked, yelling out loud. The cold of the paddle was shocking against the searing heat of his backside, and it patted warningly, at which point Dale felt his mouth open without his conscious permission and words stream out in one fast and very co operative rush.

"I'm sorry – Flynn, I'm sorry, I was in a state about that damned shelter and I just wanted to make it stop, I shouldn't have been running, I know I should have woken you-"

He took a breath, horribly aware the paddle was still against his bottom. It was actually quite bizarre: in this position he should have been thinking about nothing except the blazing sting, but he was equally aware of the warmth and muscle of Flynn's legs beneath his stomach, the weight and the feel of Flynn's hand on his back, he was acutely aware of it being Flynn there and of the urgent need to communicate with him and exactly how this worked, as if a fog had been cleared from his head.

"I wasn't worried about waking you, although I didn't want to wake you," he admitted, fidgeting a little on his elbows on the couch since the rest of him wasn't going anywhere. "I was angry and I was trying to fix it myself, I should be able to fix it myself."

"Do you get to fix things by yourself around here?" Flynn asked. It was a blunt question, as blunt as Jasper's laying down of the law in the family room this evening and it was as deeply reassuring. Dale found himself putting his head down on his hands, the tension going out of him as he said it out loud and affirmed it.


"No." Flynn repeated. "Not because you can't. Not because you're incapable. Why?"

Dale shut his eyes, feeling his stomach turn over and then a wave rise up in his throat and burst free.

"Because I'm bloody useless! I've only been away a few weeks and I come straight back here and screw up – I obsess over that damn shelter like I'd never been here at all! It should have taken minutes, I knew what to do and I got sucked in like I knew nothing. I come back here and-"

"And what?" Flynn said quietly when he stopped. Dale took a breath, throat sore.

"It wasn't that bad in New York. I managed, I coped,"

"You did, I was proud of you."

There was another long moment's silence, then Flynn's voice, gentle.

"Why don't you solve problems by yourself when you're here, Dale?"

"Because we all know I don't make good choices over how to do it." Dale said bitterly into his arms. He was shocked by another hard swat of the paddle on one cheek, immediately followed by another, and he yelped, instinctively rearing up. Flynn's hand on the small of his back held him steady, a counterpoint to that intense, maddening smart.


"Because I don't!" Dale said hotly and breathlessly with that smart, unable not to squirm as he tried to accommodate it, "I get destructive, I get angry with myself,"

"But it's not a detached, academic judgement, is it?" Flynn's hand was heavy on his back, his fingers tapping gently as he spoke. "Why don't you fix things by yourself when you're here with us, Dale?"

"Because it's not my job."

As soon as he said it, Dale felt the breath and the tension go out of his chest in a rush, as if he had been holding his breath for hours.

"It's not my job." 
"It's not your job." Flynn agreed. "Not because you're stupid or useless or any of those other horrible words you're using. Because that's how we work, and that's the lifestyle we choose for our own reasons. I don't care how senior you are or what kind of work you do. When did you decide that you were going to come back here magically 'fixed'? Do you think we think of you in those terms?"

"…..No?" Dale admitted, shaken.

"Do you think any of us expect perfection of you?"

"I expect it of me." Dale said quietly.

"I know you do." Flynn said more sternly than he'd said anything else so far, "But it's me you're accountable to and we have rules you know well. One is that you do not go out at night to run because you're stressed. There is no excuse for that. Another is that I don't tolerate tantrums when you're upset with yourself and things haven't gone your way. Those are not negotiable. Break those rules and the main thing you're going to have to worry about is me. Is that clear?"

There was only one answer to that and Dale gave it, subdued but calmer than he'd felt in days – if he was honest, in weeks – despite the serious heat and burn of his backside and the fact he was still tipped in a highly undignified position across Flynn's lap.

"….Yes sir."

"So we have those two broken rules to deal with," Flynn said, shifting one knee which Dale felt tip him at a still more acute angle, and to his horror the paddle raised from his backside and this time Flynn didn't stop at a few brief swats.

Gulping, squirming and trying to breathe did nothing to help; the paddle spanked swiftly and accurately, covering every available spot and Dale found himself kicking and twisting without any kind of dignity, yelping and his hands clutching at the leather in front of him, but Flynn had no intention of stopping while this was still bearable and Dale knew it. Long before the paddle moved down and began to address the lowest curves of his backside and the top of his legs, he was choking and his eyes were streaming. He was managing the stifled, nearly silent choking that was in his terms the nearest he came to tears when he finally realised Flynn had stopped and that Flynn's hand was rubbing his back, holding him where he was over his lap.

He had no idea how long he had been crying, save that his face felt drenched and stiff and his throat ached and his backside felt torched. He stirred, trying to push upward off Flynn's lap and Flynn's hand held him exactly where he was without effort, his voice deep and quiet.

"If you come up here, there's no bullshit about whether or not you want to be held. Got me?"

Only Flynn ever said anything as outrageous as that. There was no way of saying anything coherent, but Dale choked on an extremely shaky laugh, managed enough of a nod and Flynn let him go, helping him crawl upright and gathering Dale into his arms.

It was a long time later that Dale realised the study had gone completely quiet and that he had nearly fallen asleep. He was lying on the couch, head against Flynn's chest, Flynn's arms around him, and while his eyes and throat were sore, he was so relaxed it was an effort to move. Flynn patted his hip very gently, easing him up to his feet. It took a great deal of care to ease his shorts back over his very sore backside, loose as they were, and Flynn put out a hand to stop him when he winced.

"Why don't you just take them off? We're not talking any more tonight, we'll finish this in the morning. Drink the rest of that milk and we're going to get some sleep."

The contents of the cup on the table was stone cold but it killed the residual burn in his stomach. Dale was faintly shocked to catch a glimpse of the clock in the family room and see that it was after one am. He would have walked into his own room when they reached the top of the stairs but Flynn kept hold of his hand, voice very low to avoid disturbing the others.

"No, you come in with me."

That was a shock too, but it didn't seem to be negotiable.

Flynn's bed was still disturbed from where he had left it, the covers thrown back, and Dale lay down on his stomach where Flynn took him, stretching out very cautiously as his backside was boiling hot and very sore. Flynn lay down next to him, easing the covers over them both, also rolling over onto his front where he usually slept. He slid an arm around Dale's waist and pulled him closer, dropping a gentle kiss on his mouth, and suddenly there they lay, body to body as though they'd done this day in and day out for years. Flynn's voice was deep and so near that Dale felt as much as heard it.  

"Now stay put and get some sleep. Things are going to look a lot better in the morning." 


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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