Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chapter 13


Flynn was sitting on the porch, elbows on his knees, looking out towards the corral at the horses. A mug was cradled between his hands, and his face was sharply silhouetted in the dark.

Riley stood for a moment inside the kitchen doorway, breathing the safeness of it. The quiet of the house, the familiar, smooth cool of the stone beneath his bare feet, the wood of the table and the neatly set chairs around it, and the door that opened out onto the night and the evening breeze. When he had been fifteen, the first few nights he had ever spent in this house, he had liked to lie awake at night for no other reason than feeling the safety of the people asleep around him. The house was full of them. Across the yard, the bunkhouse held two more.

Flynn glanced up when he stepped outside, and without a word, put his mug down on the porch floorboards and held out an arm. Riley curled up on him, tucking his hands into the sleeves of the oversized football sweater. It was comforting to wear something of Flynn's. Flynn's hand slid through his hair, fingers combing. The clock, in the distance of the family room, softly chimed three.

"Dale was asleep when I looked." Riley said eventually. Flynn nodded slowly.

Riley tipped his head back to look at Flynn. He was often untalkative; Riley was very used to it but it still at times made him uneasy. Flynn saw him looking and gave him a rough hug of apology.

"Sorry half pint. What woke you?"

"That I got put to bed before it was even dinner time?" Riley told him. "Can you sleep twelve hours?"

"Depends on how hypothermic I am." Flynn said gruffly. "Are you warm now?"

"Mmn." Riley leaned back against him, tipping his head to look at the sky beyond the porch roof. The space and the natural light was very different to the total blackness of the mine. Flynn pulled him closer when he shuddered, not saying anything, but the grip of his embrace was tight to the point of being painful, and to Riley it felt very good indeed.

"I kept dreaming about the woods," he said lightly. "The ground giving way and falling. Paul was awake the first time it happened. The second time I didn't want to wake him."

And it was Flynn you needed if there was any kind of monster lurking in the darkness for you.

"You said you passed a – what was it? False floor? In the mine?" Flynn said softly against his hair. "What's a false floor anyway? How do you know about false floors?"

"I didn't, Dale did." Riley glanced upwards with a quick grin. "Dale would. It was a wooden floor built in a cavern where coal had been hollowed out – we couldn't see how far the drop went down, but we could hear it dripping."

"No near misses there?"

Riley heard the deliberate casualness of that question and with a lot of struggle to free his arms, got them around Flynn's neck and hung on as hard as Flynn was holding him.

"No. I promise. Other than the landslide, it never once really got difficult, we were very lucky. We just walked through."

Flynn muttered something about fools, brats and little children. 

"Is Dale ok?" Riley said softly.

Flynn had heard him ask it a few times, of each of them, as if he was afraid of uncovering a different answer. And as there was no information anywhere on the ranch that Riley wasn't included in, it suggested more to Flynn than a simple desire for reassurance. Riley's codes when he was upset, often took some time to crack.

"How was he when you were underground?" he asked, stepping to the side of the question. Riley shrugged, but Flynn heard his tone drop a little.

"Iced. You know how he gets?"

Flynn knew immediately what he meant. The incisive voice, the quick hands, the steady eyes that sucked in information; he'd never seen Dale in a board room, but he knew exactly how it would look. And he knew what Riley was telling him. He kissed his forehead, hard, ducking his head over Riley's.

"Yes. Thank you. Now let me handle it."

"He got us out." Riley said a lot more quietly against him. "He had David's map in his head-"


That was Riley's second mention of a map. Flynn blinked on that but didn't interrupt.

"He knew where we were and where we needed to be, and he said it was a finite space, there were finite routes, we'd find the way out."

"Did he give you the probabilities?" Flynn asked dryly. Riley nodded, managing a faint sputter of amusement.

"No, but he offered. He kept me going. All the time. You know sometimes it's like he slips into another league? He's doing but you can't get near him? It wasn't like that at all, except he really wasn't scared. I was terrified to get in the pool and swim but he was like – it's water, it's in the way, what are we waiting for? I wanted to stay up at the entrance by the cave in. Dale knew it wasn't safe and it would take hours to dig out, and the chances were better if we started walking. I'd still be sitting there if it wasn't for him."

"Would you?"

Riley shrugged, not looking at him.  "I knew you were coming."

"I was." Flynn told him grimly. "If I'd had to take that bloody mine apart rock by rock."

That was what Riley wanted to hear. Flynn felt the shudder go through him, a little  harder this time.

"The worst was the landslide." he said indistinctly after a while. "We heard it start, and we were right under it – I had to get rid of the horses and we just had to run, uphill, and try to stay on top of it-"

That was the nightmare. The rumbling collapse, the running mud they had scrambled over, and Riley's brain had only just been given processing time to look at the collected images, risks and possibilities. Riley was well equipped for this; Flynn knew it and he'd ensured it over the years he'd loved Riley. Riley would talk to them, sort through the information and share it naturally and easily, in the same way he always shared himself with them. Flynn often thought Riley was one of the most naturally emotionally fit people he had ever known. Dale was going to find it harder.

Right now, he held Riley tighter as he felt him start to shake and felt the hot wetness against his neck, and rocked the swing slowly, talking quietly and intently into Riley's ear.

"It's all right, half pint. It's ok. I've got you. I'm never going to let anything happen to you."


It was dark beyond the opened hayloft door in the bunk house, and the breeze was fresh and from the west, bringing with it the scent of the trees and the grass. There was a different out doors smell to night here than the jungles of Peru or the rocky desert on the hills outside Cairo, or any of the other places where he and Jake had spent their nights. Tom had heard the creak of the bed and didn't jump at Jake's arms folding around him at chest and waist, Jake's body against his back, Jake's head against his. They had neither of them bothered to wear clothes to bed. Standing in front of the opened door Jake looked with him out over the pasture beyond, the ripple of the grass that looked like a sea moving at night, and a long way off the movement of at least one – more likely two people – on the swing, on the porch of the house. 

Once, on nights like this, Tom knew he would have gone. Slipped away unseen, often out of the nearest window simply because that was even less unseen than going out of a door. That had been before Jake, who never crowded.

"We've got two options." Jake murmured against his ear. Tom leaned back against him, reluctantly feeling his mouth tug towards a smile.

"Well you tried the good, hard shag about four hours ago."

"It worked for four hours." Jake pointed out. "Want to try it again, or are we going wolfing?"

It was a deal they had made several years ago, in the corner of a filthy and crowded foreign airport, Not Fighting as Jake simply didn't fight. 

If you want to bolt, ok. Bolt. I won't stop you. Just tell me, and we'll bolt together.

And Jake got the concept of bolting. He always used that word 'want' instead of 'need', making it clear that there was a choice,  but he didn't argue, he didn't hinder, in fact when it truly mattered, Jake rarely said anything at all. He wouldn't hesitate to grab and yank as he saw necessary, but otherwise he simply got up and came too.

Tom twisted around and plastered himself against Jake's taller body, and Jake's arms tightened around him, returning Tom's rather biting kiss. Then Tom pulled away and went for his clothes and Jake sat down to pull on his jeans.

Tom had always gone for high ground when he felt like this. As a kid – admittedly as an adult too – he had climbed up on to roofs to walk, or just to sit, a level above the chaos, empty of people, safe in the knowledge that no one ever looked up. Up on a roof, time moved at your pace, and demands ceased to matter. Tonight, Jake paced him up the bank of the river, heading north where the ground was rough and started to move uphill to the east of them, up into the plateaus of the tops. That was another way that Jake was easy company; Tom never had to think of him, slow his pace, or worry that the ground was too hard; he was free to go where he wanted and know that Jake could easily out pace him if he chose to, never mind keep up. He never had to think for Jake, that responsibility was lifted entirely. Once, he used to do this and be entirely in his own head, almost oblivious to Jake shadowing him and the fact that he could be oblivious was deeply comforting. There was no other man he'd ever met who was so peacefully easy to be around, except that a shadow was exactly what Jake was. Unobtrusive, but there, undetachable, and gradually it had become easier to think of doing this without a shadow than it was to think of doing this without Jake.

It was Jake who stopped on the edge of the third plateau, looking down at the pastures below them. They were too far to see the house or even the hay meadows, into the wild land where the horses roamed through the winter, where nothing but rocks broke the grass and the hills began to roll. Standing with him, Tom began to feel the ache in his legs and across his chest, the good warm ache of well worked muscles, and of breathing cold night air, and he sat down on the cool, damp grass, folding his arms on top of his knees. Jake sat down beside him, the only other living thing in sight for miles around. The sky above them was pitch black with the stars the blazing brightness you only ever saw in open country.

"I bet if Dale does this," Tom said acidly to the pastures, "That Kiwi maniac chases him straight back to bed like a good boy, according to the manual."

"Dale isn't three parts wolf." Jake leaned back into the grass on one elbow, picking a stalk of grass to chew on. Tom gave him an exasperated glance.

"You're not supposed to accept it you know? That counts as abject Top failure. You're supposed to straighten me out, forcibly, according to the pre arranged plan Philip probably inducted you all in, along with the secret handshake and the decoder rings."

"I have zero interest in you being straight." Jake pointed out, and grinned when Tom swiped him.

They said nothing for a while, and then Tom let go a short, hissed breath and lay back on the grass beside him.

"I'm sorry."

Jake slid an arm out under his shoulders and pulled, forcing Tom over against his chest, and Tom lay against him, breathing a mixture of him and the damp grass and the night air.

"These are people you love, and I know how you felt about Philip. I've got no right to insult them or be bitchy to you, it's completely unacceptable and I'm only saying it to be spiteful. They're all the family you've got and they've never been anything but good to both of us."

"Are you going to stop?" Jake asked mildly. Tom gave him a frank look, tone not changing.

"Probably not, no."

Jake's hand ran through his hair, pulling gently as he ran his fingers through the strands; not hurting but strongly enough to feel him there, to feel the pressure.

"Going to tell me about it then?"

"Is this where I'm supposed to do the nervous break down scene?" Tom said with vicious flippancy. "Sorry. I'm a lousy actor."

Jake's hand moved from his hair to the seat of his jeans in a swat hard enough to draw a very sincere yelp. He didn't say anything, but he didn't need to. Jake never gave more than one chance, and he never respond proportionally either. There was one side of the line or there was the other; either black or white, and Jake didn't take prisoners. It was another thing Tom loved about him.

Tom took a breath, knowing that not answering would be counted exactly the same as another flippant reply.

"Mostly Paul. Watching Paul go nuts while we waited for the Sheriff and you and Flynn to come back. He didn't say a word about it, but it was easy to see."


It was harder to put into words. Tom pulled away and sat up, yanking up a piece of grass to pull at. He and Jake had handled expedition members before with hypothermia among other ailments, many of them dangerous, and as a guide in a wild environment you usually didn't have recourse to a doctor or a shower or a Sheriff with county resources to call upon. The buck stopped with you.

The dynamics were very different here.

"It isn't like Wade and I were treated like spare brats in the way, that isn't what I mean." He said roughly after a while. "But Paul was bloody terrified and Flynn was worse, and all I could do was keep Wade out of their way."

Jake, who had known Wade for years, understood the tone which would have sounded dismissive if you didn't know Tom well. Wade liked Tom, and Jake had seen Tom talking to him with a quiet courtesy and deference that the older man responded warmly to. Tom had the same eye for his safety and his comfort that he had for their expedition members, even if mostly they never saw or realised it as Tom worked by actions, not by words. He didn't chat, he didn't smile; expedition members certainly respected him but they weren't really aware that their oxygen was in the right place because Tom thought ahead for them and stored it, and carried extra for the frailer team members; that tents were secure and stable and waiting for tired people; that fresh water was there and magically available so that energy wasn't wasted hunting for it. There was a lot of family feeling in Tom once you got down to it. You wouldn't get a kind word from him, but he knew what to do for needier people and he instantly gave way for them.

"I don't know where you get the stereotype from," Jake said mildly. "I've never yet seen anyone assume you're helpless, and if you're expecting to be treated like a spare part here, you're in the wrong place. This is David's house as much as Philip's, and David would have been digging out the mine if he'd been here this afternoon. It would have been Philip manning the telephone and the kettle."

"Wade's sharper than a bloody knife." Tom looked down at the grass in his hands. "He was upset once we got to the bunk house, although he didn't say much. Just that he hated his useless body, he could have been some help once."

Jake didn't answer and Tom threw the grass away, laying back beside him.

"Maybe I'd feel better if we'd been running things. Had some control over it, planned it. I don't know. I don't try hard enough, do I?"

Family feeling yes. A team player, definitely no, and he'd never quite gotten over his bitterness about his own improficiencies. There were some very dark places in Tom, and even after four years, some still very raw ones. Jake captured his hand, pulling it over to kiss the back of his palm with a lot of tenderness.

"You know how proud I am of you?"

"Yeah, but you're a rotten Top, so it probably doesn't count." Tom said, giving him a twisted grin. Jake grabbed, rolling over onto Tom and bracing there on both hands.

"You're rotten at the stressing brat part."

"Who are you calling a stressing brat?" Tom demanded, trying and failing to wrestle Jake off. Jake pinned him easily, nipped his neck with sharp teeth and began to work slowly down him.

"You. And I can sort you out any time it's necessary, don't you worry. Vincere omnia."

He felt Tom laugh and start to move beneath him, breathless now rather than bitter.

"Yeah, you and who's army?"


Dale was woken by Riley's voice, somewhere down the landing, making it known that it was morning, he was fine, he had things to do and that anyone wanting him could find him out with Ticktock. Paul's voice in reply was indistinguishable, but his tone wasn't.

Dale turned over to find Flynn sitting up against the pillows beside him, a book open on his lap and one hand had been resting on Dale's back. He glanced up as Dale moved, laid the book on the night stand and smoothed Dale's hair back from his forehead. The hand rested there a little too long against his forehead, and the dark green eyes were just a little too watchful, and Dale found himself wrestling with an urge to distract Flynn on to something mundane, fast, because that intensity was hard to know how to respond to – or to give in to a much baser, simpler joy that said yes, he's mine. Flynn didn't give him a whole lot of time to make a choice. He simply put a hand behind Dale's head and pulled, hard, and Dale lay down against him and half on top of him, one leg between Flynn's, wrapping his arms around Flynn to give him a crushing hug. His body had become so familiar it was possible to do this without thinking, without looking, to just know exactly where to reach and how to hold and exactly how Flynn's body moulded to his in response. Warm, solid, powerful with all the straightforward, practical skill with which he handled a ewe or held in a colt, competent and calm and utterly safe. The strength was in his arms which wrapped around Dale, enclosing him, a sure grip Dale had tried a few times in the past to escape from and which he knew wouldn't release until Flynn chose to. It was also in the roughness of his jaw against Dale's face and the familiar musk of his skin, and the way his head bowed over you when he held you, as though for this moment there was nothing else in the world he paid attention to.

For a moment it was so good, so painfully good

-       and then suddenly it was bad, and the rush of anxiety was overwhelming.

Dale eased back as soon as he tactfully could, covering it by reaching for the clock on the nightstand. Past seven. They were usually up and at breakfast long before now. Flynn ran a hand down his back.

"How are you feeling?"

"Good." Dale said lightly. It wasn't too far from the truth to feel awkward; he was tired and a little sore all over, but there was nothing else to say what had happened yesterday. Other than feeling slightly shivery sitting up with the covers fallen away.

Paul nudged the door open with an elbow and brought two mugs of tea to the bed, handing one to Flynn and putting the other on the nightstand beside Dale. He was dressed in his usual jeans and shirt, he had clearly been up for a while, and the smell of fresh bread followed him from the landing. He stooped to put a hand behind Dale's head and kiss his cheek, the same as he did every morning, but his eyes, like Flynn's, were vigilant and Dale looked away from them.

"Good morning."

"I'll tell you exactly what I told Riley," Paul said gently, not letting him go. "If you were living nearer to a hospital, you'd both have been admitted yesterday for at least 48 hours, so don't expect to be going anywhere or doing anything today. I'll bring you a sweater and some books, and I'll bring your breakfast up in a while, and I want you to stay right where you are."

Dale glanced discreetly at Flynn, not hopeful that Flynn would see things differently. More than anything, he would have preferred to get up and disappear into the deep cover of a normal day, a long way from people looking at him and standing over him.

"Dale?" Flynn said shortly when he didn't answer. Knowing what he meant, and flushing slightly at having to be reminded, Dale pulled himself together.

"Yes sir."

Paul touched his cheek and let him go, going back towards the landing where Dale could hear Jasper whistling and the shower running. Flynn ran a hand down his back, pulled him over and kissed him.

"You'll survive a day in bed."

Mmn. Being a CEO pretty much exempted you from being sick. Dale's experience of it was blessedly limited, but there had been a couple of occasions he had the feeling would not be a good idea to tell Flynn about, where with a temperature of 102 he had knocked back a couple of whatever Paracetamol was called in the country he was in, and carried on. The work continued to need doing, unimpeded by human frailty.
He sat hugging his knees while Flynn showered, interrupted by Paul bringing him several of his books from the shelves downstairs. Paul handed him the sweater and made the bed around him while he put it on, straightening the room and picking up Flynn's abandoned shirt, and opening the window wider. Flynn appeared, damp and dressed, picked up his watch from the nightstand to strap it on, and Dale put out a hand to catch his as Paul left. Flynn grasped his hand and sat down on the edge of the bed, looking at him searchingly.

"All right?"

"Are you?" it was a hard thing to get out, especially not feeling very sure about anything this morning, but Dale couldn't resist asking, or putting a hand up towards Flynn's face. "Riley-"

Flynn never tended to respond well to Riley being in any kind of danger. Flynn held on to his hand, dropping a kiss into his palm and keeping his mouth pressed against Dale's hand for a moment.

"Yes. I'm doing ok, don't worry about me."

His hands were cut. Dale noticed the scratch against his mouth and took Flynn's wrists, turning his hands up. The scrapes and grazes had dried overnight, but his hands must have been sore as hell. Flynn turned his hands over and gripped Dale's, leaning over until his forehead rested against Dale's, hard and heavy and so deeply familiar that Dale's chest squeezed.

"Just the landslide yesterday.  Dale, I promise you, right now there's nothing you need to worry about."

His adrenaline was still running, because things weren't fixed yet. Dale knew what he meant. He looked up at Flynn and Flynn kissed him, briefly and a lot more gently.

"Jasper and I will go and do the essential work this morning, I'm pretty sure we'll find Tom and Jake planning on helping, and we'll get done and come home as soon as we can. We'll have the rest of the day here, together, and it is going to be ok. Paul's here if you need him and I won't be long."

As if the man who had lived in hotels and flown thousands of miles to cities he'd never set foot in before, and dealt with crisis after crisis, all of it alone, had never existed. No CEO here. Just someone who had to be reassured that he was not being left alone, even for a few hours. It came naturally, easily, to have a calm face, a calm voice, to know exactly how to look at him and how to shut down anything except the adult who could say without effort,

"I'm fine, I'll see you later."

His heart thudded as Flynn looked at him; a long and hard look, but Flynn got up, pulling the covers over him.

"Lie down. Try to go back to sleep, I won't be long."

Dale slid down under the covers and heard him leave, his familiar firm tread on the stairs and the sounds in the distance of breakfast in the kitchen. There was no way he intended to upset and worry Flynn this morning; no way that he would risk making Flynn feel unable to leave him – and a little voice at the back of his mind knew that no matter the inconvenience, Flynn would stay if he thought for a moment that he was needed. That was who Flynn was. No, Flynn had enough to deal with today, had been put through more than enough yesterday, and moreover there would never be a day when Dale intended to be so pathetic as to ask.

Paul's voice was soft from the doorway.

"What would you like for breakfast?"

Dale turned over onto his back, settling the pillows in what might have been, conceivably, a dignified and adult way.

"Whatever's convenient, thank you."

Paul leaned against the doorway, folding his arms.

"Well I've got hay handy, is that good?"

Dale looked up, not very sure what to do with that. Paul gave him a wry smile.

"Ground Control to Major Tom? Breakfast. Make a decision."

"I meant whatever was easiest." Dale said lightly. "I don't mind."

"I don't mind either." Paul said with cheerful implacability. "What would you eat?"

Damnit Paul, how hard is it to just stuff something on a plate?

"Toast. Er, toast, please."

Paul nodded calmly, not moving from his place at the door post.

"Ok, I can manage that. White or wheat?"

"Whatever's there." Dale said politely. Paul shrugged.

"They're both there. Which would you prefer?"

Dale looked at him, temper sliding over the edge, and gave him a courteous, cool smile, enunciating very clearly.

"Wheat please. Unspread. Triangular cut. Two slices. Would you like exact measurements?"

"Or diagrams?" Paul asked comfortably. "No thanks, I think I've got that one covered."

Flynn was the only one left in the kitchen, although four stacked plates pointed out that Tom, Jake and Jasper and Wade had already eaten and gone. Flynn's plate was empty and he was on his feet, finishing his usual half pint of orange juice. Paul gave him a quick smile, coming to turn the grill on.

"I just asked Dale what he wanted for breakfast, and got his hideously distant act in that yes, may I help you way that makes me want to go looking for a hairbrush."

"Damn." Flynn bolted the last of his juice and Paul put out a hand to stop him.

"No, leave him, he's ok."

"I hoped we could stave off the reaction until I could spend the rest of the day with him." Flynn said grimly. "If he's starting now, then I'm going to stay and sort him out. Can you give Jas a hand with the sheep?"

"It'll take me twice the time it would take you, and I can handle Dale." Paul said firmly. "Not like you can, but I can keep him together until lunchtime."

Flynn glanced towards the stairs and Paul saw the effort it took him to stand still. Flynn was at heart a doer, not a talker; he needed to act when things went wrong.
If Paul was any judge, Flynn hadn’t gotten much sleep last night, and although he wouldn't show it, Paul knew he was steeling himself to go and work this morning, to be away from them even for a couple of hours.

"If someone doesn't break into this, from experience we know this is step one of a process that ends in a panic attack, whether that's taking a truck and heading out into the distance, or hurling books around."

"Which you can do when you've had a few hours out of here." Paul told him. "Dale will be all right. You were up all night, you need a few hours out of here doing something physical and getting some perspective. I need to start winning a few battles with Mr Aden before I lose the war, and you need a break. Go on, I can handle it."

Flynn put the glass in the sink.

"Emmett called. He said not to hold breakfast, he had an early morning emergency call and he'll drop by when he can. I said so far Ri and Dale were both doing ok."

"If we can keep them warm and quiet today, they'll be fine." Paul added bacon to the skillet on top of the stove. "The biggest risk following hypothermia is pneumonia and they've had antibiotics. Go on, go get done and come home. If you won't let me bandage those hands, please
wear gloves. I don't want you sick as well."

Flynn wrapped both arms around him from behind and Paul smiled, tipping his head back against Flynn's shoulder with deep affection.  

"Do I remember what we talked about? Yes, I do. Including thinking about why I pay too much attention to what Dale says, and what buttons he hits in me. Who else do I go to for advice that makes me sit down and figure myself out first?"

Flynn dropped a hard kiss on his cheek, giving him one of his short, tugging smiles as he went to put his boots on.

"Nothing I can teach you that you don't already know. He's a Grand Master of control freakery. Black belt. And he isn't Philip; he just sounds like him. I won't be long."

"He will be all right."

"Got a difficult brat?" Wade inquired through the open door from the porch. He got up as Flynn left, making his way into the kitchen, and Paul heard him settle himself into a kitchen chair and prop his stick against the table.

"I don't blame the poor kid after what they went through yesterday. Anything I can do?"

"Yes." Paul plated up eggs and bacon for Riley, added toast and put fresh bread in to grill for Dale. "If I bring Riley downstairs to the study, will you sit with him and keep him entertained?"

"Separating the protagonists? You ought to go for Philip's strategy." Wade said, grinning. "One in each corner and a paddle on the table, he never had to say a word. Yes, of course I'll sit with Riley. Or Dale if you think it would help. Riley shouldn't be the only one doing new brat mentoring, it's always been a group thing."

"If you go up there, he'll be sweet and polite and he'll pull himself together for you," Paul said regretfully, "And right now he needs to come apart a bit."

"Ah." Wade said dryly. "One of those."

"If you'd keep Riley company he'd really appreciate it." Paul told him. "Find some cards or something?"

"I can do that." Wade got up and Paul heard him head to the shelf in the family room that held a selection of games, some of which had been in use probably since Wade himself lived here.  

Turning down the skillet, Paul headed upstairs and went to Riley's room, tapping lightly on the door. Riley was sprawled on his side in bed, head propped on his hand, reading, and looking anything but frail. His chestnut hair was scattered, his t shirt had slid up over well defined bicep and long legs were casually curled amongst the covers. He was a little white this morning, but to Paul's expert eye other than a rough night and being a little shaken up, he was reassuringly himself. He glanced up at Paul, and Paul smiled at him.

"Wade could do with some company. Want to bring your quilt downstairs and you can two can have the study? I'll bring you your breakfast in there."

Riley, not in the least a fan of his bed during daytime hours, moved with alacrity and Paul came to help him pull the quilt off.

"What about Dale?" Riley asked, collecting his book.

"He was a lot colder than you were and I want him in bed." Paul said cheerfully. "Come on, quick, I've got eggs on the stove."

Riley moved,  but Paul saw his face change and the effort it took him to stay quiet until they reached the foot of the stairs.

"What's wrong with him?" he demanded as soon as they were out of earshot.

"Nothing." Paul said reassuringly. "He's fine, but I want him to sleep and not move around too much today. Go get on the couch, sweetheart."

He brought a tray through a few minutes later, with two mugs and Riley's breakfast plate set out, and put it down on the small card table against the study wall, taking that to the sofa. The couch was big enough for a man to lie on and Riley had stretched out under the quilt.

"One chance." Paul told him, "If I catch you off that couch without having asked me first, I'll send you back to bed. Understood? Leave the tray when you're done, I'll come back."

He pulled the door to behind him, not closed but enough that hearing anything elsewhere in the house would be difficult. Riley adored Wade, and he had a natural interest and a love of listening. He and Wade could gossip for hours together, Paul had often seen them do it, and it would distract Riley from worrying about what might be happening upstairs.

He poached eggs for Dale; something that Dale seemed to regard in the light of comfort food or at least be associated with good memories, added them to the toast, and made tea the way that Flynn and Dale both liked it. With milk, sugarless and strong enough to be dark orange. 

There was no sign at all of Dale in the bedroom.

Paul put the tray down on the night stand and tried the open bathroom door. Dale's face and hands were wet and he was leaning with both hands on the side of the sink, shoulders hunched, head down. He jumped at Paul's touch, as though he'd been miles away, and Paul thought he looked pale.

Yes, I thought this was going downhill fast. You really were holding on for Flynn, weren't you?

Paul grasped his shoulders, rubbing them gently with a lot of sympathy. He'd put the same reassuring note in his voice himself for Flynn this morning, for much the same reason.

"Are you all right? Were you sick?"

"No." Dale ran his wet hands over his face again. "Just not feeling very together."

"I bet you don't." Paul steered him towards the landing, hands still on his shoulders. "You put your body under a lot of strain yesterday, it takes time to re charge."

Dale moved without resistance, but once on the landing he stepped away from Paul and went towards the small single room that had been his when he first came, and where the dresser with his clothes still lived. He sounded quiet and spoke with a very calm and oddly reassuring tone, avoiding eye contact and opening the drawer to find jeans.

"This is – I don't need to do this, so I'm going to get dressed and I'll ride, or walk or something and it'll be fine. It'll be quite all right."

And here we go, crash and burn.

"No," Paul said gently. "It won't. You need to be in bed this morning."

"No, I'm just going to get dressed and go, it's all right."

As if I'm the one panicking, Paul thought with sympathy, taking the jeans out of his hands.

"Dale." He put a hand against Dale's face, and Dale flinched. Paul took no notice, taking firm hold of his chin.

"Look at me. You had no problem at all with me taking care of you yesterday when you were half out of it and freezing, so it's way too late to be trying that vague expression on me now. Take a few deep breaths and calm down."

Grey eyes looked at him, rather uncertainly, and Paul nodded, speaking more gently.

"That's it. What you do with today is not your decision. I plan on you spending it in bed, and eating breakfast, and you don't get a vote. It's not your problem, honey. This way, let's go."

He turned Dale around, and firmly swatted the seat of his shorts when he hesitated. Dale jumped and moved, letting Paul steer him back towards Flynn's room and to the bed. Paul pulled the covers over him and lifted the tray down on to his lap.   

"Let's start with this while it's hot, you haven't eaten properly since yesterday breakfast time. No, I don't want to hear it, just eat."

If the tension in him was anything to judge by, he was going to find swallowing difficult. Dale hesitated and Paul picked up the knife and fork, cutting up egg and toast and holding out the fork, handle first.

"Riley's right you know, I will feed you, and you'll hate it. You know it's good, I'm a good cook, just put it in your mouth and chew."

He was talking quietly and easily, more for the tone than the actual words, and Dale took the fork, mechanically putting the contents into his mouth. Paul put a hand on his back and rubbed slowly, watching him. Dale loved to be touched. He was still frequently clueless on what to do in response and he still looked startled if he wasn't expecting it, but it was a very direct way to his heart. It was no surprise when he saw Dale's hand start to shake, and Dale put the fork down, making a brief and abortive attempt to duck away and slide out of bed. Away.

His first instinct was still to try and outrun a reaction, to keep moving so it didn't catch up with him and it wasn't seen. One does not show one is rattled in a crisis. No matter how bad the crisis.  

Paul took the tray and put it back on the nightstand, out of the way, before he put his hands back on Dale, stroking his hair, comforting wordlessly. Dale folded his arms and put them and his head down on his knees, the shaking spreading rapidly from his hands to all over, and Paul went on stroking him, watching with understanding and a lot of compassion.  

"Ok honey. It's ok. I know how much you hate melting down, but there's no one here but us, no one's going to know. Riley's in the study with Wade and the door's shut. Let it happen and get it over with."

This was the knife edge. In the past he'd tried to help by giving Dale space. Or by pushing gently. The last time he'd tried a lot of books had gone flying. And yet this was the same sweet, gentle man who stood with him in a department store looking bewildered, and who had a ridiculously sweet smile when he smiled properly. As he did here with them. Who told him reassuringly that everything would be fine if he was just left alone until he pulled himself together. Who looked Flynn in the eye and lied to him rather than worry him. Paul knew him and loved him and he was determined that this time, things were not going to get away from either of them. Unable to resist it, he slid closer on the bed, put his arms around Dale gently and guided rather than pulled.

"Hey. It's me."

Dale didn't move at first, stiff and braced against the trembling, then he slowly gave way and let his head rest against Paul's shoulder.

"You know after yesterday, anyone would be entitled to come apart?" Paul said in his ear. Dale didn't answer and Paul went on stroking his hair, talking softly and calmly.

"David used to say that what separated the sheep from the goats on a ship were the people who could do what they needed to do, and pick their own time and place to do the falling apart afterwards. From what I understood it was usually ashore and involving a lot of alcohol and a fight, but he was always good at stalling the reaction and doing it later on his terms. Jake's the same. So is Flynn. I guess it's the case for most people used to handling emergencies. So don't go getting 'capable in the event of an emergency' confused with 'fine.'"

"I wasn't capable." Dale said it softly, almost too softly to hear, and it was so bitter that Paul was shocked.

"Honey, how capable do you want to be? From what I understand from Riley, you kept your head and-"

"-almost got him killed." Dale said sharply, pulling away. "I should have realised how cold he was. I should have realised going through the water was stupid, and I made mistake after mistake once we got past the sump. I knew the shafts, I got it wrong-"

"Dale Aden," Paul said with a lot of sympathy and a lot of determination, "Put your hand over your mouth. No, I'm not insane thank you, I mean exactly what I say. Hand."

Dale looked shocked out of the flood of recrimination, and it took a minute to react, but he did rather hesitantly put his hand up to his mouth.

"Over your mouth." Paul told him firmly. "And don't move it until I tell you."

Giving him something definite to do seemed to help. Dale put his hand over his mouth, eyes bewildered, and Paul went on rubbing his back, talking very firmly.

"We both know that's rubbish, I'm not even starting that conversation. As far as I'm aware the Sheriff doesn't award points for time and style in escaping life threatening situations. If that's what you're chewing on then it stops. Now. Do you think I believe you did anything wrong? I didn't say move your hand. Yes or no?"

Dale unwillingly shook his head.

"Do you think Riley believes you did?" Paul asked him. Dale didn't respond, and Paul patted his hip through the covers, voice firm.

"Yes or no?"

Another, still more reluctant shake.

"All right." Paul told him, "Move your hand and tell me why I won't talk to you about this?"

Dale lowered his hand, a little flushed in the face and his voice quiet. If Paul was any judge, he was feeling thoroughly embarrassed and harassed, and in Paul's opinion both were a good thing. To feel harassed he had to be paying attention.

"It isn't rational."

"Bingo. I knew you were too smart to mess around." Paul pushed his fingers through Dale's hair to smooth it back. "Now you're going to eat, because crashing blood sugar is not going to make you feel any better, and then you're going to go back to sleep. This is shock, honey, and I'm sorry but you royally suck at paying any attention to what your body is telling you. You don't know when to quit. If we were in a mine, I wouldn't hesitate to do exactly what you said and trust you to know what to do. Here and now, you need to let go, and you need to let me handle it."

Dale was even redder in the face now, but he let Paul put the tray back on his lap and took the fork that Paul handed him, ducking his head a little as he ate.

Paul sat with him, not being in the least subtle about watching, and went on rubbing his back. The first few forkfuls were clearly an effort, and probably Paul thought, a willingness on Dale's part to do anything at all if it made him stop talking and go away. But Flynn was right. A firm enough show of authority, a strong enough invasion, and you could see him calm down, you could see the trust he gave you in a rush like a dam breaking; all or nothing. You could see the relief as he let go. He started to eat more slowly and with more interest, and Paul felt Dale's back start to ease under his hand as he relaxed. Bland, warm and comforting food; eating was one of the most primary comforts, and it helped. He ate it all, and Paul handed him the mug of tea when he put his knife and fork down, waiting while he drank. He handed the mug over when he had finished, and there was a natural trust to the gesture that Paul didn't miss; so often Dale did things for himself, even the tiny things like putting cups down near you rather than hand them to you, things so mundane it was easy to miss the reservation and control that the action expressed. Paul put the tray out of the way and picked up the book from the night stand, settling himself on the bed on Flynn's side, his back against Flynn's pillows.

"Roll over and lie down. Here."

He pulled Dale's pillow into his lap and patted it, waiting with an arm out. Dale slid across to him without hesitation, and lay down, and Paul pulled the covers up over his shoulders and wrapped an arm around him, opening the book with his other hand.

"I didn't know Flynn played football." Dale said after a while. Paul went on stroking his hair, thinking of Riley in the tattered grey jersey.

"Philip got him into it. Philip played at college, football, polo, there's team photographs somewhere. Flynn never played anything at all, he was the kind of kid who'd rather be left alone to read and didn't see the point in organised sport at all, but Philip put Flynn in front of the coach, and the coach's eyes lit up like a kid in a candy store, and it turns out that catching, herding and handling sheep is very effective natural training for football. Bear in mind, at this point Flynn was still growing so he had shoulders like a bull and the rest of him was more or less all legs and he had a scowl that made people go and hide."

Dale smiled involuntarily and Paul returned the smile, settling deeper into the cushions.

"So the coach explained the rules of the game to Flynn, put him on the field, and then went to the Dean and demanded a football scholarship for him. That was what he went through school on, and you never saw a less jock-like jock, but he appreciated the scholarship, it took a lot of weight off him financially which was what Philip wanted. I'm not sure Flynn even liked playing. It was a way of working off aggression and it was disciplined, but he went about it like a chore, just something that had to be done, like moving a flock of sheep."

Dale didn't answer and Paul looked down at him, smoothing his hair back from his face.

"Did you play anything at school?"

"Not much." Dale said slowly. "I rowed. But individual rowing, not team. I quite liked cricket. Mostly I used my spare time for riding, we were supposed to belong to some kind of club or group for set times during the week and I always rode. Hunted a bit when I was older. There were horses at home when I was very small."

He hardly ever mentioned a time before school, as though life had started, aged seven at a prep school. Paul waited, not wanting to question, hoping he'd say something more, but when he spoke again it was in a more normal tone.

"I told Flynn I was ok this morning."

"That's between you and Flynn." Paul told him, opening the book. "I'm not going to save you, you deserve all you get."

He was surprised by Dale's arms wrapping around his waist in return, holding on fiercely.


He ended up falling asleep against Paul in a deep, dreamless and heavy sleep as if he had been coshed, and he didn't wake until Paul got up at noon to check on Riley and Wade, and to make lunch. Left alone, Dale picked up the note pad and pen that Flynn had brought upstairs for him last night.

"We're going to need a written statement. Not right this minute, but when you can, and you've got the most experience of dealing with officials and procedures. There's a body involved. We know who it is, we don't want the police or forensics involved, or the body taken away for analysis."

No. If officials got involved, it would certainly take weeks before the remains were released to them for burial – if they could be said to have any right to the remains. Gam Saan could well spend the next few decades in a box in some forensics storage unit.

"Can you be sure there's no suspicious circumstances?" Flynn asked him.

Dale shook his head, having given it much thought – in fact ridiculous amounts of thought, with clear and vivid memories of exactly how the skeleton was lying, and the layout of those pitch black tunnels.

"I know what happened."

"Write it down?" Flynn asked him, putting the pen on top of the notebook. "We're going to need a clear, dated, factual record of exactly what you found and saw, that we keep on file in case the burial is ever challenged. Apart from which, you and Riley are the only ones who know anything about the mine in this generation. That ought to be kept in the family records."

There was something soothingly enduring about that phrase.

He was deeply engrossed in writing when he heard Tom's rather sardonic voice from the doorway.

"Can I come in?"

Surprised to see him in the house, Dale put the pen in the crease of the notebook and gestured to the chair.


Tom ignored the chair and instead came to perch on the window seat, arms folded which emphasised the awkward nobbles of his elbows and shoulders. It was a very classic Welsh build, the long limbs and distinct joints; Dale took in the dark hair, the Celtic skin tones, filing it neatly away. Riley's livelier colouring and his build always suggested Nordic blood and genes, while Flynn's –

"What are the diagrams?" Tom nodded at the notebook. Dale glanced down at it and then offered it to him. So far his mapping of the mine had been as accurate as he could calculate, based on what he remembered of walking speed and time.

Tom took it but for a moment just looked down at his hands, then put the notebook down on his lap.

"I wanted you to know something. The first time I got ill after Jake and I were living together? I don't get ill much, and I never took much notice when I did, I'm not the 'stop' type – but the first time it happened when Jake was there, I packed a bag and went to an airport. Seriously."

He didn't say anything for a minute, then gave Dale half a smile.

"Not because Jake was driving me mad. Jake wasn't even home, he didn't know. I knew I couldn't hide it and he wouldn't just back off, leave me alone."

It wasn't fear of what Jake would do. It was fear of not being able to cope with Jake doing it. This morning, that was painfully acute to Dale.

"I calmed myself down enough to call him at the airport." Tom said, not looking at him. "And sat down and waited for him. I can remember sitting on a steel bench, holding on to it with both hands so I couldn't get up and run. So I know what it's like."

Dale watched him, drawing up his knees to hold them.

"It's like being two men," Tom said after a minute, slowly. "One of them, you hate his guts, but he's safe to be in public. The other one just wants, all the time, things it has no business wanting. You know how ashamed you make me?"

He looked up at Dale, and Dale said nothing, waiting and listening while Tom sat back against the curtains in the window and looked at his fingers on the notebook, against the blue of his jeans.

"You figure out what to do, even if you don't know how, and then you do it. No matter how scared, you just walk into it and do it. I know what it feels like for you, and you do it. And I haven't got the guts. This is the only family Jake's got, and he only gets to come into the house for meals because of me."

"So the lesson is 'don't run'?" Dale said gently. "I've done that a few times. Under pressure, I grab for control, I forget about everything but the management of the problem. That's what you do as a manager, you're personally responsible for everyone else and you don't share information unless you have to. You put their needs first and you steer them for their own good. That's the absolute antithesis of this kind of relationship. I know I shouldn't do it, I could write a dissertation on why I would like to choose not to do it, but I can't stop myself. I haven't figured out yet how to get this right."

"Yeah but you never give up trying." Tom gave him a twisted smile. "I hope you have the guts to do what I haven't." He opened the notebook, and immediately his voice dropped back to its usual blunt, matter of fact tone, forbidding any further personal conversation.

"You went into the coal section of the mine."

You don't share information unless you have to and you put their needs first and you steer them for their own good, and then when you've done it you realise how far you've pushed yourself, you cover up the reaction because there shouldn't be a reaction and you beat yourself up for not doing it better. 

"The majority of it not under rock is coal mining." Dale said absently. "I could work out the relative positions of the galleries- although we didn't see much of the varying levels."

"With a shaft sunk there." Tom braced a socked foot on the edge of the windowseat and wrapped an arm around his knee, and he wasn't just politely glancing, he was processing the diagram. Dale could see him comprehending the symbols and the shorthand.

"You didn't see much backfill?"

"It was difficult to tell. We were mostly focusing on a way out." Dale said matter of factly. Tom nodded.

"Which was through that adit there. Air vent?"

"Probably the first shaft, first dig." Dale indicated Ginver's hole. "The sump here is a major one, a sump chamber. It wasn't sufficient to keep that section from flooding. I suspect the whole section was abandoned, and the gold miners dug a second tunnel further up the hillside and picked up the seam further along. The tunnels beyond Ginver's hole were abandoned and forgotten, even to the point of not sealing up the adit, which acted as a drain. Probably only the men who dug the first gold tunnel knew there ever was anything beyond Ginver's hole."

Facts. They were using an identical tone of voice and Dale heard it as he realised he was reeling off hard, dry facts and statistics, reducing it down to something dry, academic, objective. Which denied the entire experience of it. Which was an awful thing to do. Tom's tone was exactly the same as his, and his face was just as detached.

"To scale here? Approximately? Yes. You had to swim the sump chamber?" Tom turned the diagram to check the distances. "Brutal. What happened to Gam Saan? Jake went into the adit and had a look at the body."

Dale was watching his face and answered mechanically. "The adit would act as a drain to admit water, most of the year those tunnels are semi flooded. Additional water would – excuse me, he went into the adit?"

"Jake?" Tom's eyes were sympathetic. "Yes, he told me. We've seen plenty of remains, mate. Jake wouldn't have touched or disturbed them."

"These are hardly 'remains'." Dale got up, leaving the notebook in Tom's hands, and Tom looked up in surprise as Dale headed towards the stairs.

His pace quickened as he headed downstairs, passing the open door of the study and catching sight of Riley, reading on the couch there. Riley glanced up and his face changed at once, he half sat up and Dale heard him call.

Jake was sitting at the table with Jasper, Wade and Paul, and he looked up in surprise as Dale advanced on him.

"I would appreciate," Dale told him levelly, "Your not disturbing what is in effect a grave."

Jake's face cleared immediately into understanding, and there was something very disarming about his eyes and his tone, which said a great deal about why Tom seemed so attached to the man.

"I looked. I didn't touch or disturb, I'm sorry if you'd rather I hadn't-"

"Yes, I would rather that you hadn't." Dale said crisply. He turned politely towards Paul.

"If I can have the phone, I'll make arrangements to have him moved and re interred."

"No, you won't." Paul said with finality, coming round the table to him. "Not today."

"That's David's friend." Dale informed him. "You more than anyone else here should appreciate that."

"Hello?" Wade said from the other end of the table, raising a hand. "Another friend of David's. Sitting right here. Hi."

"Do you really think I don't?" Paul asked him. "We will make those arrangements, and we'll do it together-"

"Dale's got every right to ask," Riley interrupted, appearing in the kitchen doorway. He was in sleep wear and he came around the table to Dale, almost getting between him and Paul. "We found him and it's indecent leaving him lying up there."

"No one is talking about leaving him up there." Jasper said quietly. "Riley, go back to the study, we'll handle this."

Riley didn't move an inch. "Then when exactly will we do something about it? Dale's right, Gam Saan is not an exhibit."

"Dale, I'm very sorry if that's what my actions implied to you," Jake said sincerely.

"What did you do with him?" Riley demanded, fending off Jasper who was steering him towards the family room.   

Tom was in their way, leaning against the doorpost and not moving. The whole kitchen was full of people sounding increasingly tense, and the problem was not getting solved. Leaving them to their quarrelling, Dale quietly headed for the porch, remembering a phrase of Caroline's about had Moses been a committee, the Children of Israel would still be in Egypt, and wishing that there was somewhere possible on the ranch to keep a Blackberry safely hidden for emergencies.

He was prevented by the kitchen doorway being blocked by a man who appeared to take up most of it.

He had large and very dark skinned hands, almost a blue-black, which clasped his shoulders and steadied him before they collided, and a deep and rather sardonic voice said above him,

"Since when did people start stomping out of this house in pyjamas?"

Dale had to look up to see his face. The man was in his mid fifties, fit, broad, and wearing a discreetly very expensive suit, with iron grey hair and eyes as dark chocolate as his voice. Riley produced a peculiar sound and ran at him, and the man picked him up in a crushing hug, keeping hold of him to embrace Jasper and then Jake and Wade and Paul in turn, and Riley fought free to throw himself into the arms of the other younger and very sharply dressed man grinning from ear to ear in the kitchen doorway.

"You timed it brilliantly." Wade said cheerfully from the table. "It's great. We've got a body."

"Whose body?" the younger man demanded. "Seriously?"

Ok, that was more than enough.

Flynn, coming up the porch steps, heard Dale's voice from the kitchen, and although it was softly spoken, as Dale was always softly spoken, he could hear every word with crystal clarity, mostly because there was not another sound coming from the house.

The kitchen was full of people, and none of them were moving. The brats in particular – even Tom – had frozen and were giving that instinctive look of intense attention and slightly widened eyes that Flynn recognised as brat being efficiently told off by competent authority, but it was still Dale, leaning with both hands on the kitchen table and addressing the room in that quiet and somehow absolutely penetrating voice. His eyes were intent and taking in every face.

This was how he had controlled board rooms. Effortlessly, without really understanding the impact he had, or what he was doing, because it was done unconsciously, on pure instinct. Even in barefoot and in pyjamas, he could do it. This was how he had gone through a multi national corporation, untouched in a business world where dog ate dog without a second thought. He could have made a fortune on stage or as a public speaker. Even Paul and Jake were still; it was like watching a spell being cast.

Sheer force of personality. Sheer command of language, tone, body language.

Flynn wasn't entirely aware of what Dale had been saying until this point; he had been too fascinated by Dale himself. Now he focused and Dale's quiet tone didn't lack intensity for all of it's softness.

"- a human being, a friend of David's and therefore a friend of this house, and deserving of respect. He didn't die of old age, he isn't some relic of another age. He died because he was trapped by a flash flood. He drowned, trying to escape through exactly the route that Riley and I took, fighting, and the only reason we succeeded where he lost his life is sheer luck."

Well that was more information in one go than Dale had shared since Flynn first got hold of him on the hillside at Three Traders yesterday. Jasper had his arms folded and his warm brown eyes met Flynn's across the kitchen.

Flynn threaded his way through the crowd. Dale glanced up at him and Flynn took his hand, leading him back through a room full of very still people who had their mouths open.

"Dale, this is Luath."

"How do you do." Dale said formally, offering a hand. Luath shook it in silence, and Dale looked past him to the other, younger man, offering his hand there too with the same quiet command.

"Which must mean that you are Darcy. Pleased to meet you."

Darcy looked to Flynn for help but meekly surrendered his hand to be shaken.

Riley suddenly produced a suspicious spluttering sound and Flynn caught his arm, drawing him with Dale towards the family room and leaving the rest of the room standing where they were.

"That's Dale?" Darcy demanded when they'd gone, looking in alarm at Luath. "That's Dale?"

"That's Dale." Jasper confirmed, following Flynn. "Three Traders and the mine can be considered off limits please, until we've made arrangements for Gam Saan."

"Dale made that point fairly clear." Luath raised his eyebrows at Paul and pulled out his car keys. "I feel very overdressed. I'm going to shower and change before I do anything else. Paul, where would you like us?"

"In your own rooms of course, where else would you go?" Paul pulled himself together. "I'll need to make the beds up for you, but that's all. I was about to start lunch. In twenty minutes?"

"Sounds good." Darcy ran down the steps of the porch towards the car and Paul saw Luath follow him and expertly grab the cell phone away from over his shoulder.

Somewhere on the stairs, Jasper caught Riley's hand and held him back, and Flynn took Dale up to the bedroom they had been sharing for some weeks, and shut the door behind them.

"Sit down.  I'd like you to explain how you were so convincingly fine this morning when I left, yet Paul says you weren't?"

It was like being hit with a bucket of cold water. Still righteously exasperated over the brats and the 'body' conversation, Dale swallowed and his stomach lurched rather hard. He knew Flynn's tone and that expression, he knew them well, and seeing them produced an involuntary and immediate reaction in him, like Pavlov's dogs. Any other concerns or thoughts promptly deserted him; any ability to be anywhere but in the here and now deserted him.

"Well?" Flynn demanded.

Dale heard his own tone, that ridiculously calm one, coming out of his mouth without the faintest sense of self preservation.

"It's quite all right. I needed some time to-"

"No bullshit!"

The roar stopped him dead. It wasn't in the least alarming; just very, very attention getting. It was impossible to think about anything but a large, very annoyed Flynn and an overwhelming desire to try and prevent him getting any more annoyed.

"Dale." Flynn said sharply.

Dale swallowed, finding himself answering very politely indeed.

"It's not that big a deal, I didn't want to worry you, that was all-"

"Is it your job to protect me?"  Flynn interrupted him.

Dale looked him straight back in the eye, somewhat defiantly.   "Yes."

Flynn looked back at him for a moment and Dale saw his response, knew he was understood, and then Flynn took his arm and pulled him to his feet, and sat down on the bed, taking his place. 

"Then I need to do a better job of explaining things to you." 

He pulled Dale down across his knees without the faintest difficulty, as if Dale was a ragdoll, and Dale grabbed at the floor for balance, already feeling his pyjama shorts being yanked down, and he was bare from waist to ankles with Flynn's rough and heavy palm warm against both buttocks. 

"When I ask you how you're doing," Flynn said above him, "I'm not just making polite bloody conversation. We've been over this how many times?"

"I wasn't going to –" Dale began instinctively and stopped, stifling a yelp as Flynn swatted him, hard. "You'd been up half the night!"

Flynn swatted him twice more, if anything harder.

"That makes a difference!" Dale protested. Flynn sounded grim and implacable above him, and he emphasised every key word of his response with swats.

"No, it makes no difference!  I expect the truth from you each and every time I ask, and you know exactly why."

Dale was shocked enough to be yelping, feeling very wrong footed and aware Flynn was actually, genuinely angry. Not raging, but passionate; this was based on real emotion and he was communicating it very forcefully. And Dale understood it, it was easy to understand, and very painful to understand.

No bullshit Aden, you don't do this to me.

"I was ok, I wasn't sick or dying or beyond coping –" Dale managed, out of breath, not sounding at all convincing or dignified as he was yelping with every swat.

"Then explain to me how well you were able to order breakfast when Paul asked, or how well you were handling yourself in the kitchen just a few minutes ago." Flynn said flatly.

Dale swallowed, trying to find a convincing tone. He was painfully aware he was starting to sound about ten, he looked it and he felt it. It was impossible to keep any sense of dignity or any conviction that he knew best when he was bare butt up in this position, it was alarmingly orienting. And real. And emotional, and nothing to do with the notebook of neat diagrams laying open on the windowseat, or nice, rational conversations about the habits of management.  

How did I get myself in this deep without realising?!  

"But I was fine, nothing happened-"

Flynn's sole answer that was non verbal; just a downpour of spanks. Within a few seconds Dale was twisting and squirming and very near to yelling, to his alarm getting increasingly emotional. It was a moment or two before Flynn stopped swatting, although it was very clear from his grip and his body language that this was a pause, and only a pause. It took Dale a moment or two to settle down and to gulp less noisily, and Flynn waited. When he spoke, it was quietly and with a lot of intensity. 

"Withholding information from me is lying, and we don't lie to each other." 

"I wasn't going to make today harder for you." Dale managed.  

"You don't feel I can handle it?" Flynn demanded.

Dale shut his eyes, not even wanting to start debating that.  "We worried you enough yesterday!"

Flynn's voice was deeper and louder, and relentlessly stuck to his point.   "Do you seriously think I can't handle it?"

"No." Dale admitted, bracing his hands against the floor. The evidence was extremely clear as to which of them was better at handling.

"This is about control." Flynn said with certainty. "It's about making decisions that keep you in charge when you're more anxious than you can handle. It puts aside everything you know and you feel and you believe. Do you have a history of making good decisions when you start distancing yourself from people who can help? How about when you stop trusting and start distancing yourself from the people that love you because you think you know best what's going on in their heads, what they need, how they might react?"

Straight for the jugular. It was intense language, it was very, very personal and it was said with emotion that had nothing to do with types of relationship or mentors or therapists or anything else. It was Flynn talking to Dale, with Flynn's hand prints still flaming on Dale's butt. It tore straight through any remaining self control Dale had; he felt his eyes start to fill involuntarily, the swell of emotion tightening in his chest and throat. 

"I was just –"    

"You don't know." Flynn sounded grim, but it was with determination; understanding and not accusation. "You're busy controlling the situation to go the way you feel safe for it to go, whether that's right or wrong. Well I am not steerable.  I can handle you. Believe me, I can handle you, and all the stressing and all the bottling up you want to throw will make no difference. I love you, and what I won't take from you, ever, is bullshit."

He said nothing more, just took a firmer grip, and resumed spanking. Hard. And the first swat shook loose the knot that had been swelling in Dale's chest, a choke burst out of him involuntarily, and then his eyes streamed and he ducked his face against Flynn's jeaned leg and his gulps and choking gave way to very awkward and only partly audible tears, which gradually became more fluent. Flynn didn't hesitate, continuing to deliver a long, sound and very determined spanking which Dale understood ended very much in Flynn's time and on Flynn's terms.  

He was aware when Flynn moved back on the bed and lay back against the pillows, yanking Dale down into his arms. Dale, draped over his chest, felt the crush of his arms and the throb and blaze of his still bare backside, and the helpless convulsing of his throat, and shut his eyes against Flynn's shirt and went on sobbing.

It was a long time before he heard himself quieten down, and he was ridiculously aware of how much better he felt. His face was stiff with salt, his chest hurt from crying, his head ached and his eyes were sore, but he felt freer and calmer, and ridiculously, he felt so safe that for probably the first time in his life he wasn't scarlet with embarrassment about the sounds he was making or the fact he was streaming tears and worse all over Flynn's shirt. He never remembered crying like that. Not even as a child. Flynn said nothing at all and his hands were heavy and very gentle where they stroked.

"He must have been caught in a flash flood." Dale said unsteadily, with no idea why it was a relevant thing to be at the top of his mind.   

He hadn't written it in the precise account in the notebook. He hadn't been able to. It was the first time he'd said aloud what he'd realised in the adit from the position of that fragile body.

"He was only a few feet away, he was climbing uphill against the water, and he couldn't do it. David never would have known where to look from him, he never knew the adit existed. It's not the entrance to the gold mine, it's not the entrance David would have known, it was just a shaft – something left from Gam Saan's time and no one else knew where to look for him. David tried. He searched, Wade remembers it, but he never knew that adit existed."

Flynn made a quiet noise of understanding. Dale shut his eyes, turning his face deeper into Flynn's shirt which was a gesture as childish as it was pathetic, but Flynn's hand cupped his head and pulled him closer.

"He died there." Dale said after a minute. "He died struggling, he drowned and no one knew he was going under."

"Ah." Flynn said against his ear. There was a lot of understanding; as much unsaid understanding as there had been in the spanking.

"Gold fever. It was an addiction, that was why he was there, and he was a friend of David's."

"You feel responsible for him." Flynn said bluntly against his ear. "It's ok, kid. We will move him out of there, but we're going to do it my way and when I say we're ready. You can be the brains of this outfit, but I'm being the brawn."


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009


Anonymous said...

This is just sooo wrenching. Love it!!!

Ranger said...

thank you!

jen vieira pinto said...

This is my second time reading through from the beginning and I'm taking in a lot more of the story on this go round. It's still an amazing story with wonderfully fleshed out characters, but I've noticed some big errors to do with consistency.

In most of the books you say Dale was 7 when he went to school, but in the first book it is said twice that he was 8 instead.

I've also noticed that you go back and forth with when Flynn arrived at the ranch in the beginning. Some places say before Jas and others say Jas was there first.

Another thing that was a bit off was that in the beginning before Dale ever rode on the ranch and they asked him if he knew how and he said he'd done a little riding when he was younger and rode the hunt a couple of times, but later on he says he did a lot of riding, was even in a club at school. That doesn't mesh with his initial claim about riding in book 1.

Anyway, I know how easy it is to get some details mixed up, it happens to me a lot. Some things are too repetive like saying "Riley demanded" too much or grammatically wrong such as using realer instead of more real. Realer isn't a proper word.

I love this story and these characters enough to finish Silver Bullet and turn right around and start reading all over again from book 1. I hope you'll be continuing to post new chapters regularly. I also cannot wait for Paget Creek to be updated. That one is so interesting and is a back story many want to read. Thanks for writing it and thanks for the entire series, it's been wonderful getting familiar with Falls Chance Ranch and all of its colorful characters. :D

Crystal Watterson said...

Thank you so much for your story, I don't think I have the words to tell you how greatful I am! So I leave you with hugs and a kiss for love shared unconditionally!!!

Three Traders