Monday, December 7, 2009

Chapter 6



6


"I don't know how you're doing it," Riley said during that week. "I'd have taken a chainsaw to Flynn by now if he tried this on me."

"Why?" Dale asked him, baffled. Riley shook his head.

"This isn't a leash, this is a grip on the short and curlies."

"Riley, leave him alone." Paul ordered. Riley pulled a face, getting very stiffly up from the table.


"Then let me go and do something interesting."

"Read." Paul said heartlessly. "Talk to me. Have a bath."

"How many baths can I take a day?" Riley demanded. "I can work!"

"Not while you're limping like that you can't." Paul said firmly. "You were barely walking at all yesterday."

And he could still barely sit more than ten minutes without starting to fidget in sheer discomfort. The bruise on his hip was bigger than two full hand spans and was black, green and purple, and Flynn and Paul had emphatically forbidden him to try riding or working. He had spent most of the past few days in the house, restless, not sleeping much at night and struggling to occupy himself, despite the efforts Dale saw Paul quietly make to help.


Dale's own days had been packed, with little time for reflection. The ranch's routine was always consistent day by day, but from the time he woke up until the time he fell asleep, every minute of his day was spent shadowing Flynn, staying within the six foot range Flynn required; or shadowing Jasper if Flynn was occupied with riding. This didn't change in the slightest whether they were outside or inside, as Dale had found after two hours seated on the floor of the study beside the desk Flynn was working at. Currently Flynn even walked him to the bathroom, although he did allow the door to be shut. The journal was carried with him and all of them – Flynn, Jasper, Riley and Paul – took turns in giving him subjects to write about.

"I suppose it could be worse?" he said aloud to Flynn after the conversation with Riley.

"Worse?" Flynn asked.

"Riley said about a short leash."

"It has nothing to do with punishment." Flynn said bluntly. "Although I can see it might feel like that to Riley. It's got everything to do with making sure you can't work yourself up into a state. It's going to take you a while to earn the trust that you will come to us for help when you need to. And yes, it can get tighter yet if it needs to."

"Am I insane because that doesn't scare the daylights out of me?" Dale asked him wryly. Flynn gave him a brief smile, grabbed his hand and pulled him over. Dale hugged him back, breathing his fresh smell of grass and horses and what was left of his morning cologne.

"Does it?" Flynn said in his ear.

"No." Dale admitted. "I feel a hell of a lot calmer. Which is why I probably ought to be certified."

Flynn shook his head. "You feel safe inside boundaries. So does Riley. Gerry. Tom. Every brat I've ever known, although some want them tighter than others. If you're feeling better instead of worse, then we're on the right track and we'll go with it."

"Isn't it bad I can't deal with choices? Or any kind of control?" Dale began, and Flynn freed a hand and swatted him firmly.


"Quit it. My decision, not yours, and I'll tell you when you get to deal with either. Just let it go."

And part of it was apparently getting sent to bed at nine pm every night – not just sent, but taken, and Flynn sat with him until he was in bed, and on several occasions until he was asleep. Which took approximately five minutes; Dale knew he was never still awake when Flynn came up to bed.

Which again, was ridiculous, but it felt so damned safe and brought a kind of – peace. A total peace, which Dale never remembered in his life before. No overwhelming decisions looming, no responsibility of any kind, just – acceptance and now. Even the clutter of anxieties at the back of his mind faded out because Flynn made no room for them in the day.

Flynn and Jasper spent a lot of that week detailing the harvesting equipment in the barn, in several fine days of weather that made work in the yard very easy. The fourth day began with Flynn raising up on one elbow to look out of the window and Dale rolling over to see past him to where grey mist hid the green pastures and the yellow aspen woods beyond. The steady sound of the falling rain came through the open window and the air was cold against their faces, fresh and damp. It was entirely too tempting to press together again under the warmth of the quilt for a few minutes more, and Dale went willingly when Flynn rolled over and pulled him close, running a heavy, calloused palm up and down Dale's spine in a way that made him shiver and stretch as if a human could purr. He hadn't allowed Dale to go back to his single bed next door – something Dale had wondered at – but since that first awkward night, Dale had never hesitated. Flynn was entirely open with his hugs, kisses and complete lack of inhibition in the two of them sharing a bed – Dale frequently woke up to find himself glued against Flynn which was a new experience all its own – but other than his kisses, Flynn never laid a hand on Dale below the waist when they were in bed, demanding nothing and not making the faintest hint towards it. It made his affection so easy to accept, coming with no strings attached and no pressure for anything else. He was a man with strong values that many men thought were long out of date, and Dale loved him for it, and appreciated the freedom it gave. At the moment he knew he needed it. On the other hand, at times he uneasily wondered why.

"It's pouring." he said this morning for want of something sensible to comment on, rather than to react to what those gentle hands were doing, and Flynn grunted, glancing with him towards the window.

"That's in for the day. Hopefully it'll blow itself out by tonight and we'll have enough dry before Saturday to let the grass dry, or we'll have to delay cutting it. Not that that's likely." he added when Dale looked up. "This happens around this time of year – damn great storms come up out of nowhere, and blow themselves out in a few hours."

It continued to pour throughout breakfast. The sky was a hard and heavy grey, the yard ran with water, and Jake and Tom didn't come over to join them, although as breakfast was finishing Jake appeared in boots and a jacket, apparently completely oblivious to the weather.

"Want a hand this morning? I've left Tom curled up with a book and I said I'd come do the stock checks."

"It's going to be a once over of the cattle and sheep herds, and the river." Flynn said, getting up from the table. "A fast one. Bandit can take care of his lot. Jake, can you take the upper sheep runs? I'll do the south, and then Jas only has the cattle to check."


The way he said it made it clear where Jake stood in relation to the family; only experienced family got handed work like this. The people who had proved by hard work that they knew what they were doing and could be trusted. Dale looked up, as this was the first time all week Flynn had mentioned leaving the yard, and Flynn dropped a hand on his shoulder.

"No need for you to come and get wet too. Stay with Paul, and I mean you stay with Paul. Do exactly as he tells you and I should be back by lunchtime. Half pint, stay inside."

"You're no fun." Riley complained, getting up to help Paul clear the table. "I haven't been out of this house in days."

"You'll live." Flynn kissed him, stooped to kiss Dale, and went to pull his boots on, followed by Jasper. A few minutes later there was the very muffled sound of horses splashing in the waterlogged yard and then nothing outside but the steady thud of rain.


"I'm going to sit on the porch." Riley announced, passing through the kitchen. Paul didn't look up from the washing up.  

"No, you're not."

"The porch has a roof on it." Riley pointed out.

"No." Paul said cheerfully. "The End."

"There isn't anything to do!" Riley protested. "I've been stuck in here for four days and there's good weather going on out there!"

"Games." Paul told him. "Books. Or I'll find you something to do. That's no trouble."

"I bet it isn't." Riley muttered, turning away from the door. "Dale, let's play cards or something?"


"Dale is staying right here." Paul said on Dale's behalf. Riley's huff of exasperation was not subtle.

"He's not going to run away if he's more than five steps from you!  This entire house has gone nuts!"

Dale noticed, with sympathy, that he limped rather than stomped away towards the family room. Paul glanced at him with a discreet eye roll and a smile.

"This is going to be a long day, I can see it coming."

He finished the washing up with Dale's help, patted the counter with an instruction to Dale to sit up there and stay put, and Dale watched him start to work on a batter for muffins, calm and deft and talking easily while he worked as if a CEO perched on his counter was part of the day's routine.  

Riley's voice rose from the family room, exaggeratedly civil.

"A card for ME.  A card for YOU.  A card for ME.  A card for YOU.  You want a four you said?  Go fish."

Paul stifled a smile. "Pass me the cinnamon?"

Dale opened the cupboard by the sink where Paul kept his racks of spices, glancing down the lines until he found the bottle Paul wanted.

"At least if the weather was better he could be outside."

"No," Paul said frankly, "He couldn't, because Riley couldn't sit out there for two seconds. He'd just have to do this and then just have to do that, and he'd be five miles away when I next looked round."


"I SAID, go FISH." Riley said loudly next door. "I don't HAVE any fours!"

Paul went on mixing batter, taking no notice. A moment later, Riley limped past them towards the back door, and Paul said without looking round,

"No."

"I'm just looking." Riley said shortly. Paul picked up a cloth and wiped his hands, and Dale saw Riley open the door onto the porch, letting a blast of rain and wind into the kitchen. Paul went across to take the door from him and shut it firmly.

"I wasn't outside!" Riley protested.

Paul turned him towards the family room, pointing at the door.

"You heard Flynn and you heard me. Go lie on the couch. Not a word until I call you."

"Paul!" Riley said, sounding outraged.

"Couch." Paul said serenely, hustling him towards the doorway.

He stood in the doorway until he was sure Riley had obeyed him, then came back to continue work on the batter.


"Dale, you can wash those dishes for me please."

There was a moment or two of silence from the family room, then Riley's voice, pitched abnormally deep and echoey as if he was singing into some hollow object.

"Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
Nobody knows my sorrow….."

"You'll be a lot more sorrowful in a minute." Paul warned. "Quiet. And don't break that vase."


There was the clunk of something being put back on the table.

Paul took several muffin pans out of the oven, and Dale watched him fill them in order, sliding the pans into the oven shelves and handing the basin to Dale for washing.

"When you're done, dry and put those away, and stay right here please."

That was a lot more freedom than Flynn and Jasper had been giving this week. Dale knew very well if it was Flynn here, he'd be doing nothing at all but shadowing, and Flynn would fully expect him to shadow wherever he moved, even just pottering between the pantry, the fridge and the counter as Paul was doing. Aware of how bizarre it was to regard free movement in four feet of kitchen and a bowl of washing up as 'freedom', Dale added the basin to the washing up water, half an eye on Paul disappearing into the family room and Riley's voice, distinctly plaintive.

"I was singing. Singing is not illegal!"

"It is if I say so." Paul informed him. "Just how horrible a day do you want to have?"

If Riley answered, it wasn't audible. Both their tones carried the same banter. Riley was tired, fed up and frustrated, and this game he and Paul were playing was an affectionate and well practiced one they both knew the rules to, and which allowed Riley to vigorously let off steam. Dale heard and understood it, having seen the game played in its more subtle forms many times.

With a view up the north pasture that led towards the plateaus and hills of the tops, he watched the sky which was a peculiar shade of grey and yellow, and getting heavier, clouds boiling over the horizon and sheeting down rain. Flynn, Jasper and Jake would be drenched to the skin when they came back. In the corral, the horses were pressed together under their shelter, their backs to the rain.

The first, quiet roll of thunder was so soft that it was barely audible, but Dale recognised it by the immediate ice chill that shot through his stomach. The yellow clouds flickered briefly over the hills, and Dale deliberately put his hands back in the washing up water, taking a few deep breaths and not looking.

This is ok. You've handled storms around here before, you will be fine.

"I'm not standing you in a corner with that hip, but you lie here and you settle down. You're not getting up off the couch until you can promise me you can be civil. Are we clear?" Paul's voice said firmly from the family room. Whatever Riley's answer, it was obviously satisfactory; Paul came back to the kitchen and took a cloth to wipe down the counters.

"Nearly done with that?"

"Pretty much." Dale drained the water, keeping careful control over his voice and hands.

"Good." Paul said briskly, starting to get ingredients out of the pantry. "Then let's do something more fun."

Whatever this recipe was going to be, Dale didn't recognise- although to be honest, he knew the only recipe he was likely to recognise anyway was boiled eggs - and he didn't ask as Paul had him measure out cups of this and cups of that into several bowls on the table. It was about ten minutes before Paul leaned on the table to call into the family room.


"Riley?"


"I promise to be civil." Riley said at once.

"Good. Come here."

Riley appeared, limping and from his expression, seditious, and Paul pulled out a chair for him.


"Three batches of cookies here, you two pick the flavours and get them mixed up please."

"What flavours?" Riley demanded. Paul indicated the pantry.

"Anything you can find. Just bear in mind if they're too weird you'll be the ones eating them."

Riley grinned at Dale and went to investigate, coming back with an armful of odds and ends.

"Chocolate, nuts, marmalade, the flavourings box – almond, coffee, orange – cocoa, ginger, hard candy."

"Which superheats and goes glassy when baked." Dale commented, with a memory of a science class at prep school. Riley raised his eyebrows.

"Does it?"

"I've seen it done."

It seemed a very bizarre thing for two grown men to be debating on with any kind of seriousness. Dale found himself drawn into the discussion in spite of himself, enticed by Riley's infectious enthusiasm and reflecting on what a gift Riley would be to any corporate project team. The three batches in the end contained one set of coffee and orange with a hard candy in the middle, another set of ginger and marmalade with nuts, and the third of chocolate and chilli, which Riley insisted would work and which Paul didn't argue with.

"And his clearing up takes about a third of the time it does if I do it," Riley pointed out as Dale finished wiping off the table. "This perfectionism thing has its advantages."

"I'm not so sure." Paul said dryly, taking muffins out of the oven to make space for the cookies. "Dale, don't wash the pattern off the plates please, that looks clean to me. Let Riley finish off. Was that thunder?"


It was about the fifth rumble; still very faint but Dale hadn't missed one of them, and he looked up as Paul went to the window.

"There's no shelter on the pastures and Jas was going through the woods," Riley said sharply, and Paul shook his head.

"This is only just starting and you know they won't take risks. I don't expect they'll be gone much longer. In weather like this they'll do the basics and come home."

Riley still left the sink and limped across to look out of the back door. Paul put a hand on Dale's shoulder, turning him away before he could clean any more dishes.


"Let Riley do that. Where's your journal?"

"Oh you're not going to make him write in there again are you?" Riley demanded.

"No, you are." Paul told him. "Pick a subject. And come finish the washing up please."

"Ten reasons why I hate being made to torture Dale," Riley said mutinously.


Dale, collecting the book and a pen, stifled a smile and swallowed hard as another crack of thunder came, nearer this time. Paul put the kitchen lights on and drew the blinds, blocking out the sky beyond.

"Pick a sensible one."

"Storms." Riley said bluntly, leaning against the glass to watch the sky. Paul gave him a pointed look and Riley looked surprised for a minute, then ashamed as he glanced towards Dale.

"Sorry, I forgot."

"It's ok." Dale told him, taking a seat at the table and finding the next clean page in the journal.


"You don't have to." Paul said, ushering Riley towards the washing up. "We'll pick something else if you'd rather."

"It's only electrical activity, it's fine." Dale uncapped the pen, forcing his hands to stay steady as the electrical activity outside provided another crash, definitely louder than before.


What's it going to do, Aden? Come in the house and get you? Grow up.

"Why does he have to do that anyway?" Riley demanded. "What did he do?  He's been sitting like a bump on a log and not making a sound all morning!

"Washing up." Paul told him.

Riley turned to Dale, taking no notice of the sponge Paul held out to him.

"What did you do?"

"It's not a punishment." Dale said softly, a little embarrassed. Paul turned Riley towards the sink and put the sponge in his hand.

"Leave Dale be. Do you two want one of these muffins while they're hot?"

An abrupt flash lit up the kitchen through the blinds, and the crack sounded like a tear in the sky overhead. Dale jumped, unable to help himself, and Riley bolted for the kitchen door, tearing it open to see.

"Didn't hit anything." he called back. "The air's so fresh, you can feel the temperature dropping."

"Riley, shut that door." Paul said firmly, putting his hands on Dale's shoulders. "Are you ok honey?"

"Fine thanks."


"Let's go sit in the family room, away from the windows. Riley, shut the door, now."


"I just want to check on the horses." Riley called back, disappearing onto the porch. Paul sighed and went to follow him.

"Dale, if I strangle him this morning, you're my witness." 

"The wind's getting up," Riley said from somewhere on the porch, "We ought to secure the barn doors or they'll slam,"

"Jas will when he gets back, which won't be long now."

There was a sudden and massive crash of thunder over head and Dale dropped his pen, heart thumping.


"I can do it," Riley was arguing, and Dale saw Paul steer him into the kitchen and shut the door behind them.

"Family room. Now. Dale, bring your book."

Dale got up, collecting pen and book, and Riley kicked his and everyone else's boots out of the way by the door, voice rising.


"Fine! I know you think I'm useless anyway, you make it very clear, even though it's only rain-"

There was a muffled adjective that preceded the word rain, and Paul interrupted him at once.  


"Riley James, come here right now."

Riley came, slowly, not looking apologetic. Paul took a block of soap from the shelf by the sink and ran it under the tap, and Riley visibly cringed.


"Paul! I just meant there are things I can do -"

"However you're feeling, you don't yell and swear at me." Paul said firmly. "Open."

Lightning flashed again outside and with no idea what else to do, Dale held onto the book with both hands and tried alternately to look at or look away from the sight of Riley having his mouth washed out. It was the first time he'd seen this procedure and it held as much horrible fascination as dismay.

With Riley facing the wall, spluttering slightly with a wet bar of soap in his mouth, Paul looked towards Dale and gave him a nod towards the family room.

"Go and sit down in there. It's ok. I'll be there in a minute."

It's quite all right thank you, I'm a grown up, I do not freak at storms or soap.

Dale took the book into the family room, jumping at another crash of thunder over head. A grown man who was sweating and trying to keep his hands from trembling. At work he'd always headed for the gym at these times – or closed the blinds and buried himself in a project. Anything else to think about but to listen and watch what was going on outside.

The bookcase by the foot of the stairs was one of the largest of the several in the family room and Dale had noticed a couple of books carelessly filed on top of the shelves this morning. He put the journal down and went to pick them up. A jumble of subjects, sizes, paperbacks and hardbacks filled the shelves in no order, apparently the Dewey decimal system had not reached Wyoming. Absently, keeping his back to the windows, Dale began to pull books from the lower shelves, beginning to create order from the top down.

Riley was spitting, sneezing and arguing in the kitchen and a tap was running. Somewhere out in that flashing, rumbling hell, under pouring rain, Flynn and Jasper were working. The thought of them underneath it was not pleasant.

Paul and Riley came together into the family room, Paul hand in hand with Riley who to Dale's eyes looked in no better mood, and Paul stopped by the shelves to look at the several boxes of games that lived there.

"Riley, what do you want to do?"

"I don't." Riley said briefly.

"Well pick something anyway." Paul informed him. Riley sighed and looked at the shelves, alternating it with glances towards the window.

"Someone should get Tom from the bunkhouse. He's there by himself."

"Tom's sat out rainforests for a few years, and they'll see worse on Everest." Paul told him. "He'll be fine."

Yep, it's just the CEOs that are wimps.


Dale re-shelved several more books, ordering them carefully.

"I don't want to do any of these," Riley said impatiently.

"Then you can get the cleaning materials from under the sink and go clean the bathrooms for me." Paul told him. "Not just a lick and a promise, you can do the cabinets and shelves in there too, change the towels and clean the mirrors. Start with the downstairs one, come tell me when you're done and I'll check."

"Oh God, even Scrabble's better than that." Riley said sourly. Paul let his hand go with a spank across the seat of his jeans.

"You made your choice and I'm tired of this mood. Go make a start please."

Another huge crash of thunder sounded directly overhead this time, and through the windows crack of forked lightning split the sky, lighting the room.  

"Awesome!" Riley said hotly, heading for the windows.

"Come away from there," Paul said firmly, "Bathroom. Go on."

"In a minute." Riley said, limping past Dale and starting upstairs.

"Now where are you going?" Paul demanded.

"You can see better from up here!" Riley called back impatiently.

"No." Paul told him. "Bathroom, now."

There was no response from Riley upstairs but the bang of a door. Paul started up the stairs after him and Dale stepped out of his way, continuing to gather books to rearrange. The top shelf was now neatly ordered, the second shelf was beginning to look more organised. There was the sound of several swats on the landing, and Paul's voice in the mildly exasperated tone that for Paul was really quite cross.

"Last chance."

"I'm not the one that has to be within two inches of you!" Riley said sharply. "I can do this bathroom just as well as the one downstairs-"

"Which has a much smaller window and runs a lot less risk of lightning strikes." Paul told him. "Go."


There was a silence from above. Dale glanced up, still more uneasy at the silence. Then Paul said briskly,

"Ok, then we need to talk to Flynn when he gets home, and you can stay right there until he does."

He came downstairs without Riley, and gave Dale a surprisingly calm smile when Dale looked up in alarm.

"I need to get those cookies out of the oven, come and give me a hand?"

The lightning flashed again overhead and Paul watched Dale's stifled jump with sympathy and read his glance towards the kitchen.


"It's easier here? I know how you feel, I don't like it much either. You stay here if it helps, I won't be a minute."

There was a strong smell of sweet baking a minute later as the oven opened, then the sound of the kitchen door and Paul's voice, sounding resigned.

"Oh my goodness, what happened to you?"

"I found him sitting up on the falls, right under the lightning." Flynn's voice said dryly. "Tom, come in here and get under the shower."

"Don't they do coats in the Amazon?" Paul demanded. "Flynn, give me that, I'll get you something dry to wear. Did you see Jake or Jas?"

"Jake's not far away, I could see him coming down as we came in." Flynn's voice was muffled as though he was stripping off. "Jas shouldn't be much longer. Where is everyone?"

In the kitchen, Paul shut the door, lowering his voice out of Tom's range in the bathroom as Flynn peeled off wet shirt and wet boots.

"Dale's messing about with books, and I let him stay there since it was calming him down. He doesn't like the storm much, but he's been ok. Riley I'm going to need you to have a word with-"

"Where is Ri?" Flynn demanded.

"On the landing, with a soapy mouth, declining to move." Paul said aridly. "I said he could stay up there and wait for you - and don't you dare laugh!"

"So he can go right on sitting there." Flynn said, grinning. "I'll hang on to Tom until Jake's back."


"Then I'm going to go keep Dale company." Paul told him. "Those cookies are hot if you and Tom need to eat, and there's muffins in the pantry."

Flynn stripped off the rest of his wet clothes, grabbing a towel from the bathroom rail to dry off. It was a few moments before Tom stepped out of the shower, long and lean and his big shoulders awkward as he wrapped a towel around his waist, but at least no longer white with cold as he had been up on the falls forty minutes ago. Flynn handed him the stack of clean clothes Paul had found in the laundry room.

"Put those on. I'm going to make tea, and get something to eat. Come join me when you're ready."

It was amazing how even in Paul-ironed clothes, crisply done, Tom still managed to look as though he had been pulled through a hedge backwards. His drying dark hair was on end despite his several attempts to push it back, and clothes just hung awkwardly off him.

"The jeans were Jake's," he said rather apologetically when he came out of the bathroom.

Flynn put a mug of tea down on the table and a plate of the cookies, pushing back a chair for him.

"They're dry and I don't think Jake will mind. Are you warmer?"

"Yes, thank you." Tom took the mug and wrapped his fingers around it, but drifted towards the window, taking no notice of the offered chair. Flynn picked up what looked like a chocolate cookie, bit into it and flinched slightly at the unexpected spiciness.

"Bloody hell –"

Tom looked up inquiringly. Flynn tasted the cookie cautiously and shook his head.


"Chocolate and chilli. Or cayenne pepper, I'm not sure."

"Ah." Tom reached to take one as Flynn offered the plate. "How very Peruvian."

"You must be used to unusual food." Flynn said dryly. Tom shrugged.


"Hot food, I suppose. The hotter the better."

"Did Jake know you were up on the falls?"

Tom shook his head at the question, looking down at his hands.

"Just got a bit crowded this morning."


It was a statement of how he felt rather than of provable fact, and Flynn didn't make pointless comments about a bunkhouse a quarter of a mile from the ranch house with only Tom and Jake occupying it.

"Sit down." Flynn invited, shifting his own chair back to give the younger man more room, but Tom gave him a polite, detached smile, looking back towards the window again.

"No thank you, I'm quite comfortable. And I'm afraid I never really bought into the 'heads at the same height for good communication' thing."

"I'm only a psychologist when we have a client here, or I'm writing papers." Flynn said casually, and got another of those brief, contained smiles.

"Yes, but you're also a Top. I wandered off; I'm sure you know I do that. Jake's probably told you too that I don't do the proper, bratlike yes sir, no sir, or floods of penitent tears, and I actually don't melt in the rain. I'm not a Jane Austen heroine."

"Then how would you define yourself?" Flynn asked, returning the smile. He caught a brief flicker of real humour in dark eyes before Tom turned back to the window.

"Doesn't that come under information one should never share with a psychologist?"

Dale, listening to them from the bookcase, found himself pausing in shock at Tom's tone. It was logical to suppose Tom was what he'd learned to term as a 'brat' – more a sound than a definition- and he was aware of the breadth of the characteristics that made up people that chose this lifestyle. Gerry and Riley and himself were radically different in personality and need. But it crunched very badly with something Riley had said.

Yes, they have a discipline relationship. In fact, a pretty strict one.

"I think the storm's passed." Paul said gently from the couch. "Why don't you come sit with me and finish the writing?"

"I'd like to finish this," Dale said absently. "Only another couple of shelves."


He heard the kitchen door open and Jake's genial voice.

"I didn't see much point in rubbing Hammer down, and neither did he. Everything's fine in the pastures, no trees down yet and the river's high."

"So I saw. The falls were running particularly fast." Tom's voice said acidly, and then Dale heard him yelp in a very different tone, and not as if he'd been swatted either. "Get off! You're not supposed to get brats wet,
Jacob. It's against union rules, it's like feeding them after midnight."

"Well it's no good reporting me, the federation still thinks I'm in Peru." Jake said apologetically. "And you are wearing my jeans."

"Apparel doth proclaim the man." Tom's voice pointed out.

"It's true." Jake admitted. "Naked people have little or no influence on society."

"I'd back William against Mark Twain any day." Tom shot back, and when Dale shifted enough to see through the kitchen door, it was in time to see Jake, wet haired and looking no less cheerful for it, take a seat at the table and pull Tom down onto his knee more or less by brute force, wrapping one arm around his waist and reaching for a cookie.

"These look evil, what are they?"

"Suck the chocolate ones and see." Tom told him, and Dale saw him make a determined effort to get up from Jake's lap, which gained him nothing as Jake simply held onto him and tasted the cookie cautiously.

"Good grief what's that?"

"Chilli." Flynn said. "We think. Paul may know more."

Paul rolled his eyes at Dale and got up to go into the kitchen. "Yes, they're chilli."

"Keeping Riley busy with cooking." Jake said with the voice of experience. "I can't believe we had a storm and he isn't out in it."

"I'll go and see how he's doing if you two are all right," Flynn said, getting up. "The kettle's hot, Jake."


Flynn was still wet haired himself as he came into the family room, and Dale took his eyes off Jake and Tom with a shock of dismay as Flynn came towards him and the stairs. He saw Flynn's eyebrows rise as their eyes met, Flynn looked straight past him to the bookcase, and then he held out his hand for the books Dale was holding. Not fooled for one second.

"Quit 'reorganising' those and go stay with Paul. Now. Riley? Come down here."

Dale surrendered the books and Flynn, an eye on the bookcase which showed four shelves now perfectly filled with books in exact alphabetical order by category, waited for Riley who came slowly downstairs. Flynn took his hand and led him into the study, closing the door behind them and taking a seat on the couch.

Riley sat down beside him, less from good will than because he was forced to in order to stay attached to his hand which Flynn hadn't let go.

"Why wouldn't you move when Paul asked you?" Flynn asked him mildly. Riley winced, wanting to curl up on the couch and the bruised hip refusing to curl.

"I don't know."

"Then you can stand in the corner while you think about it," Flynn advised him, starting to get up. Riley clutched his hand, pulling to stop him.


"No…. Flynn-"

"Then give me a proper answer?" Flynn told him, sitting back down.


Riley took a breath, flopping deeper into the couch.

"It was just a horrible day – it's been a horrible day and a horrible week-"

"I don't see how that means you go on strike on the landing?"

"I wanted to go upstairs." Riley  muttered. Flynn waited, looking inquiring, and Riley gave a sharp sigh after a minute, surrendering.


"I wanted to look out of the windows up there, you can see further,"

"And Paul said?"


"No." Riley admitted. "I just wanted to see! The storm's amazing when you watch it across the pastures-"

"How many times did Paul tell you to come away from the windows?" Flynn asked. Riley pulled a horrible face.


"A few. It was amazing to watch! And you and Jas and Jake were out there, and there's no cover once you get up on the pastures-"

It was angrily said, and Flynn put a hand out, smoothing chestnut hair back off Riley's face.


"And no one was letting you out to help?"

"I'm sick of being trapped in here!" Riley exploded. "I'm sick of not being allowed to do anything, I'm not useless, and I didn't do anything wrong-"

"What's wrong?" Flynn interrupted quietly, hearing a familiar line suddenly take a new route. Riley pulled his hand away, curling up tighter as best he could.


"Nothing's wrong."

Flynn leaned over, hooking an arm around Riley and lifting him over to his lap, physically unwinding the defensive huddle of arms and legs until Riley unwillingly leaned against him.


"Who did something wrong?"

"No one," Riley said sharply, trying to fold his arms. Flynn quietly and persistently prevented him, keeping hold of the hand he held until Riley tried to fling him off and twist off his lap, voice cracking. "Get off!"

"No, I'm not going to get off." Flynn said calmly, keeping him where he was. "Who did something wrong?"


"Well Dale apparently, since no one's letting him breathe either without permission." Riley snapped. "Where were you? You know he hates storms!"

"He had Paul and he had you here." Flynn said mildly. Riley gave him a glare that Flynn unpacked without difficulty, which said yes, and a fine friend to him I was this morning…


"What felt wrong about Dale today?" Flynn asked him. "You know Dale isn't being punished. You know it doesn't feel like that to him. It would to you, I'm not sure I can think of a situation in which we'd ever do this with you, but what Dale wants and needs is different."

"It's going on and on." Riley had another fierce and determined battle to get up off Flynn's lap which Flynn thwarted without comment, until Riley dropped back against him, spitting out the words. "Why did you even let him go to New York if you knew it was going to be this bad? He shouldn't have gone! He shouldn't have gone alone, and you keep saying you expected this, like it's ok things got this bad for him-"

"That was Dale's decision at that point, not ours." Flynn said gently.

"That is such bullshit!" Riley said hotly.


"No, it isn't." Flynn pulled him closer, making Riley face him. "And I'm not buying this, half-pint. You get exactly what helps Dale and you were the one telling us we were being too easy on him. So what is it that's got you this mad at me?"

"I'm not mad at you." Riley muttered. "I'm mad about being stuck in the house and not allowed to do anything except watch Dale not being allowed to breathe without permission-"

"How much does that hip hurt?" Flynn asked, and saw the flash of alarm in Riley's face. And put a hand up to catch his chin before Riley could twist away.


"Ri?"

"It isn't broken!" Riley snapped. "No bone bruises, it doesn't need draining, it's just a bruise and you've been kicked plenty of times worse than this, it happens! Leo's kicked you before now!"

"Have I said I blame Ticktock?" Flynn asked him. Riley stopped and swallowed.


"No,  but-"

"But what?" Flynn prompted when Riley didn’t go on. Riley gave him a very nervous shrug.


"He caused a stampede by freaking out….."

"He did what you expect a freaked out young horse to do." Flynn said calmly. "He's a handful, Ri, but we've seen worse and handled worse, and we're working on him. What are you so worried about?"


Riley didn't answer for a moment, or look at him, and when he spoke it was very quietly.

"I saw him weaving the other day. I didn't tell you. He wasn't even in the stables, just in the pasture."

"That's not a sign of mental illness." Flynn said firmly. "I've told you that before, and whoever taught you that was wrong. Weaving is just repetitive and calming and makes a situation more manageable. Stereotypic behaviour. People do it. Dale does it, although he taps his fingers or organises things instead of weaves. It's like a child sucking their thumb or twiddling their hair, and Ticktock is still a very young horse. He's anxious and unhappy, I'd think possibly he's lonely if you saw him weaving in the paddock, and maybe we need to look at the social mix he's got with the other colts."

"And do what?" Riley demanded. Flynn leaned back into the couch, thinking about it.


"Move him to another paddock and think about who we've got that we could put in with him that he'd be happier with – Nekkid might be a good choice, or one of the older ones in the bachelor herd, who'll be calmer and show him what to do and how to do it without bouncing around like the other colts do. And an older horse probably won't bother with toys so Ticktock won't have to compete to get to play. We'll try him in the stable paddock where he can see what's going on and where he can touch the other colts over the fence if he wants to."

"Today?" Riley asked. Flynn shook his head.


"Not until the weather clears. I put Ticktock and Flint into the stables last night, I didn't want Ticktock jumping fences if the thunder spooked him. It's ok Ri. If he doesn't want to be with Nekkid, we'll try a couple of ewes for company and see if he likes them better. When have you seen me give up on a horse?"

"I haven't," Riley admitted, and Flynn could hear the relief in his voice. "But he nearly crushed those calves, and I thought I should have told you I saw him weaving and knew he was –"

"He is not disturbed." Flynn repeated firmly. "And he didn't crush anything. It wasn't his fault the cattle were in front of him when he jumped the fence. We're making progress with him, it's just small steps as it is with any animal who's been frightened, and it's going to take a while. And if he's being picked on in the stable pasture by the other colts, that might explain why he's upset enough to freak out at sudden noises. Ok?"


Riley nodded, leaning against him. "Ok."

"So next time," Flynn told him, dropping a kiss on his cheek, "Come tell me when you're worried and don't take it out on Paul."

"I didn't mean to," Riley said somewhat shamefacedly. "It was just a horrible morning, and nothing went right."

"Not right enough that Paul soaped your  mouth out." Flynn said dryly, "Why was that?"


"I don't want to talk about it……" Riley said plaintively and without much hope. Flynn's eyebrow rose.

"I didn't ask if you wanted to. Why did Paul need to soap your mouth out?"

"I wasn't too polite-" Riley began, encountered Flynn's look and winced. "I may have yelled at him a bit. He wasn't letting me do anything!"

"Like stand near windows and go outside?" Flynn said astutely.  "I see. And finally you went upstairs to look out, despite Paul telling you no? And then when he came up to get you, you refused to move."

"That sounds awful!" Riley said in protest. Flynn looked at him, eyebrow raised.


"That wasn't what happened?"

"I didn't mean it to be like that!"

"You don't mouth off to Paul, and you don't defy him." Flynn said bluntly, lifting Riley off his lap to get up and go to the desk. Riley watched him in dismay as he opened the drawer, taking out the transparent paddle that lived there.

"Flynn…… you can't, my hip-"

"I'm quite capable of doing this without hurting that hip." Flynn told him, taking a seat on the couch. "Jeans."

"I already hurt!"

"I'm sorry the bruise is painful," Flynn took his hand, pulling him up to his feet. "But behave like that and you get paddled. End of discussion. Jeans. Now, Riley."


Crisply said, it galvanised Riley into action and he hastily unbuttoned his jeans, although his nerve failed him there. Flynn slipped them down, gentle over the bruised side, and led Riley over between his knees before he pulled Riley over his left knee, settling him quickly and using his right leg to trap Riley's legs between his. He drew Riley's shorts down, baring his bottom and the black, green and purple bruise that ran from just below his right hip bone, down his side to the top of his thigh. Riley was stiff with apprehension, rigidly braced on his elbows on the couch, and Flynn put a firm hand on his back, well away from the bruise but heavy enough to keep Riley from twisting and accidentally moving the bruised flank anywhere near the reach of the paddle. And while Riley wouldn't appreciate it in the slightest, the fact of using a paddle meant he could spank far more lightly than he would need to do with his hand. Riley squirmed to look around, never able to not try to watch what was happening behind him, and jumped as Flynn rested the paddle lightly against his bottom.

"Flynn don't, please don't, please - ow!"

Using nothing more than brisk flicks of his wrist – which with the lexan paddle was quite enough to produce a lot of sting – Flynn applied the paddle exclusively to Riley's left buttock, right away from the site of the bruise. He had Riley immobile enough that he was unable to squirm or to hurt himself by struggling, although Flynn knew just how much Riley hated to be held like this, and combined with the fact that he was already miserable and contrite about Paul and this entire frustrated morning, the paddle didn't need to do much at all.


There was a sudden and loud crash from the family room, followed by a series of smaller crashes, but Flynn paid no attention, focusing only on Riley and the job at hand. Within five of those crisp swats Riley broke into open tears, and Flynn applied only five more before he laid the paddle down on the couch beside him and released his grip, letting Riley flop down on him, draped across his lap and the couch, and sob.


*


The first crack of the paddle and Riley's yell was about as reassuring as the lightning had been. The closed study door didn't do much to muffle either. Dale stifled his jump of alarm and was grateful for Paul's focus on Tom and Jake in the kitchen, although within a second of that yell Paul's voice reached him, calm and matter of fact.

"Dale, Flynn told you to leave those books and come in here with me."

What would Riley say? I'm just…. When I've….
Which Paul would squash without hesitation. Dale knelt on the tiles and continued to rearrange books, not responding at all. In his experience, being quiet tended to mean you slid under the radar and the books were demanding. To leave them would be –

-       well, it was a pity to leave a job half done.

Oh for Pete's sake Aden!

Aware he was moving faster, panicked at the thought of stopping, Dale shelved books and heard Riley break into tears, his yells muffling.

That's five.

Paul put a hand on his shoulder and Dale flinched without thinking.

"Kitchen." Paul said firmly. "Now, come on." 

"I just have a few more to do," Dale said politely, continuing to work. Paul looked at the ranks of books that ran from top shelf to middle, perfectly sequenced, and took Dale's hand.

"Just leave it now honey, it's ok."


Dale found himself slipping Paul's hand with more alacrity than civility, taking a tighter grip on the books he was shelving. Jasper, wet haired and still in a streaming oil slick jacket as he heeled his boots off in the kitchen, heard Dale's voice in it's usual soft, courteous tone and there was very little to see in his face as he came into the family room, but Dale went on working on the book case, shoulders tight. Paul crouched down beside him, putting an arm around his shoulders, and Jasper didn't hear what he said other than it was soft and soothing, but he and Jake and Tom behind him in the kitchen doorway, heard the crash as Dale abruptly grabbed for the nearest shelf on the bookcase and swept the entire shelf full of books flying out onto the floor.

He erupted to his feet and swept out the next shelf before Paul, surrounded by falling books, made it upright, and despite Paul catching his arm, swept out the third and kicked out to clear the fourth, by which time Jasper reached him, capturing him from behind in a bear hug.

Dale didn't make a sound, but Paul could see the weight it took Jasper to pull Dale away from the shelves, and after a moment where Dale twisted and did everything he could to get out of Jasper's grip without freeing so much as a hand, Jasper simply walked, bulldozing Dale ahead of him, to one of the rugs by the wall out of reach of any other furniture, and sat down, pulling Dale down with him.

"I've got him." he said to Paul over Dale's head, locking his arms to keep Dale still. "Are you ok?"

"I need a stiff gin." Paul said mildly. "I'll put the kettle on, you must be freezing."

"Thanks." Jasper leaned back against the wall, dripping down it in rivulets, and drew his knees up, framing Dale on either side. He was big and as quiet in body as much as in that he didn't say anything else, and while his arms were strong, he didn't pat or stroke or do anything other than hold. The room was very quiet, and empty – Jake and Tom had obviously gone with Paul into the kitchen – and whatever was happening in the study was now quiet.


Dale gradually realised the only noise in the room was from his own breathing, which was being ground in and out like an engine, and made himself stop. He was stiff and shaking slightly with – he wasn't entirely sure what with, or what he was feeling, save that it was vague and detached, and his voice sounded a long way off.

"I'm sorry, you can let go now."

"Bull." Jasper said matter of factly.

"I'm fine." Dale informed him shortly, trying to free his hands to stand up, and after a moment's pulling and twisting – which he realised was neither dignified nor anything like appropriate-  was forced to drop back against Jasper, having not moved an inch.

They sat there for a while with nothing but the ticking of the clock to listen to. Paul brought a mug of tea from the kitchen and Jasper tightened an arm across Dale, grasping his far wrist with one long, brown hand while he accepted the tea with the other. There was something so ordinary in the gesture, as though it wasn't completely mad for two grown men to be sitting on the floor, one of them streaming wet, and one of them a CEO who had been solely responsible for multi national corporate projects and billions of dollars, and who had no business behaving like this. At all. Ever.

How on earth did a CEO get himself into this position?

Paul didn't look twice at it, handing the tea over and heading back to the kitchen where Dale could hear him humming to himself and the sound of dishes. Jasper sipped tea, relaxed back against the wall. Dale could feel him doing it, his back against Jasper's chest.

"This is ridiculous."  he said aloud. "Completely ridiculous, I'm not doing this."

Jasper neither moved nor answered, sipping tea calmly. His knees hugged Dale on either side, dark in wet denim.

Yeah great, Aden. You're not doing this. Now convince him.

No, not 'him'. Jasper. It's Jasper you're being such a bastard to. And Paul. What do you think you're doing?

"I'm sorry," he said aloud, feeling himself go scarlet with pure embarrassment as he realised. Books were scattered far and wide on the floor across the room, horrible witness to just how dreadful the situation was.

"I'm so sorry. Jasper I'm done, I promise, I'll sort that mess out."

"Thank you"  Jasper said calmly, not moving.

The not being let go was extremely unsettling. Dale couldn't help another attempt at freeing himself.

"It's ok now. Really."

"You're not going anywhere. Settle down."

"And do what?" Dale demanded.


"You heard me." Jasper said calmly, and went right on not moving. He wasn't holding particularly tightly but he wasn't letting Dale move either, and getting distinctly anxious, Dale twisted against him, unable to help himself, although he managed to sustain some dignity in his voice

"Jas you can let go. Please . I'm done making an exhibition of myself, I'm sorry. It was just the thunder. I don't cope well with thunder, I know it's stupid and so was this, just let me go."

"Until I think you're ready, you're staying right here," Jasper said without moving. "So you may as well settle down."

"What's 'ready'?" Dale found himself exploding, beyond frustrated. "Just define it. Tell me what's bloody ready and I'll do it!"

"I'll know." Jasper said mildly.


That was about the last straw. Dale fought hard to get his hands free and moved absolutely nowhere. Jasper mildly shifted position and it brought Dale's head closer into his shoulder. There was nothing alarming or painful about this save for just the total lack of –

Control.

Dale shut his eyes, chest heaving, and felt Jasper's far slower, deeper breathing against him.

I want.

I want up. 

Tell me what's 'ready'.

Ooh how much of a control freak can you get, Aden?

"This is about control, isn't it?" he demanded of Jasper. "I was organising the bloody books because I wanted control over something. Ok, I get it, you can let go now."

Because I am getting really damn panicky and I can't handle a lot more of this!


Jasper said nothing at all. Dale shut his eyes, clenching his fists and doing his very best not to go completely mad with the same mix of frustration and panic he'd had when Paul stopped him sorting the books.

"I get it. I said I get it!"

"I don't need you to get it." Jasper said mildly.


That was about the end of Dale's tether.

He remembered Jasper putting the tea mug out of reach when he really began to struggle, and putting every ounce of his strength behind it, but this man handled cattle and sheep for a living; one rather pathetic excuse for a CEO wasn't going to give him much trouble. Dale twisted and fought and got absolutely nowhere until he was too exhausted to go on fighting, and Jasper simply sat without changing his grip or commenting. Finally Dale ran out of breath, muscles burning. The grandfather clock slowly struck twelve.

"You want calm? I'm calm." he informed the rock behind him. "Look at me being calm."

Jasper didn't comment. Dale dropped his head backwards against Jasper's shoulder in vexation, looking up at the white painted ceiling above them. Jasper picked up his mug and finished the rest of his tea.



They sat there for a further sixteen minutes. Dale counted them by the grandfather clock, gradually becoming hypnotised by its tick. The rest of the house was silent. Whatever was happening in the study, neither Flynn nor Riley was emerging, and Paul, whatever he was doing in the kitchen, was making no sound either. Jasper occasionally shifted position on the floor but he simply sat and Dale found himself mechanically breathing in time with the lift and fall of Jasper's chest against his. He was almost startled when Jasper said against his ear,

"Ready to put those books back?"

For about the last half hour, yes?

Dale gladly got up when Jasper's grasp relaxed, and went swiftly to collect the books scattered so shamefully across the floor. He had never in his life done anything so destructive, so wilfully – bad – and his face burned to even touch the things. Jasper, shouldering out of his now only damp coat, stopped him with a quiet word.

"No, as they come please."

Dale looked down and found he was automatically gathering the books up as he had placed them, in careful order of category, and shelving them the same way.

"Just pick them up and put them on the shelf." Jasper said mildly, taking a seat on the foot of the stairs.

Dale stooped to collect more and he honestly couldn't help the hand that strayed automatically to pick up the right one in sequence, selecting it from the heap on the carpet. Jasper's hand closed gently over his, stopping him.

"No. We're going to do this my way. On the shelf, as they come. They're books, it doesn't matter."

"It doesn't matter to you!" Dale protested in spite of himself. Jasper took the book away from him and substituted another out of sequence.

"On the shelf."

Struggling with himself, Dale tried to put it on the shelf below, away from the category still only half filled, and Jasper simply took it straight down and handed it back to him.

"Next to the others."

"What does it matter to you!"

"My way."


It was calm, absolutely implacable, and Dale shelved the book hard, once more on the shelf below. Jasper took it straight down off the shelf again and handed it back, and this time Dale found himself hurling the book across the family room. Jasper's response came so fast he had no time to see it coming: Jasper simply put a foot on the stairs, doubled Dale straight across his knee and the half dozen swats that fell were hard and very well placed. He put Dale on his feet, out of breath with the sheer smart, shocked into clarity.  

"Get the book."

I've been possessed,
Dale thought, retrieving the book. That's the answer. It can't possibly be me.

And yet Jasper was standing there quite calmly, relaxed, apparently not in the least surprised or annoyed, simply nodding at the shelf.

"Next to the others."

Somehow, Dale managed to place it, and to accept the books that Jasper handed him, in any order – in fact Dale suspected him of mixing the categories up as much as possible – and it got harder and harder to place, until finally he stopped and gave Jasper a look of appeal.

"This looks awful."

"Just put them on the shelf." Jasper said gently.


"It isn't right!" Dale said despairingly with no other means of describing it.  

"It's exactly as I asked." Jasper told him, handing him another book. "That's all that you need to do. Shelf."

"You don't know how this feels," Dale told him bitterly, but Jasper only picked up another handful of books, offering them one by one.


"Shelf."

Almost blindly, Dale stuffed them back on all four emptied shelves until the family room was restored to something like order, and the faster he did it the easier it got not to focus on the muddle of shape and size and colour and category that stupidly, madly was driving him near to tears. As he placed the last one, Jasper hooked an arm around his neck, pulled him over and kissed his cheek, voice quiet.

"Thank you."

Never more in his life had Dale wanted to run, disappear, be alone. He started to make some incoherent statement about the bathroom, but Jasper took his hand, taking no notice and leading him into the kitchen. There was no sign of Paul, Jake or Tom. Only the kitchen, as orderly as it always was.

"Sit down."

Dale sat at the table, almost too upset to wonder rationally what exactly Jasper planned to do to him. What did you do to people who threw books all over the room? Jasper must be wondering what on earth he and the others had committed to. They probably ought to be offered an opportunity to reconsider.


Jasper poured two glasses of juice from the fridge, put one in front of him and sat down with the other.

"You want to tell me what got you so upset this morning?" he asked gently.

The look he got was beyond shame, and it told Jasper all he needed to know before Dale even started. This wasn't the face of an overstretched brat; it was the face of an intelligent professional man, horrified at himself.

This was the kind of mess that Flynn usually untangled with him, but he had walked Dale through this many times, it should be familiar ground, and Jasper reached for Dale's hand, holding it firmly.

"Leave the CEO out of this. I'm not a colleague. I'm not a mentor. You're here, with me, and I'm your partner. You don't need to be ashamed about anything when you're talking to me, and you don't need to be afraid either. You are not the first brat I've seen throw things."

"You are not telling me that's normal!" Dale said harshly. Jasper kept hold of his hand, voice quiet.

"It's not a great way to handle things, no. But you're not the first, you won't be the last, and you're not going to scare me by throwing books. So let's talk about what got you so upset you lost control of it. What happened this morning?"

Dale looked at the table, not answering, and Jasper shook his hand gently.

"You told me about the thunderstorm. Did that bother you?"

No.

Say no.

Dale shut his eyes, so tempted towards the lie and knowing exactly what would happen if he said it. Jasper would quite calmly go get a paddle, after which he would ask for the truth, and Dale knew he'd feel twice as bad as he did now for trying to lie in the first place.

"This is the whole trouble." he said sharply to Jasper. "Right here. You won't let me have any privacy, no shields, you want it all, and then I can't hold on to it, and what you get is one entire, unholy mess-"

"No, what we get is you." Jasper said gently. "Whole. Why would I want to be with just selected sections of you?"

"The mess isn't something anyone wants! That's insane." Dale snapped. Jasper shook his head.


"What you call a 'mess' is only emotion. Which comes out in bursts because you bottle it up and bottle it up until it explodes. And don't think I'm afraid of men with strong emotions, because you love Flynn and Riley as much as I do."

"That's different." Dale said bitterly. "You want the unvarnished truth? I was scared stiff of the thunderstorm, I always am. I hid it. Paul asked over and over if I was ok and I didn't let him see it, I am bloody good
at hiding it. I messed around with the books to try and calm myself down, and that was fine until Paul wanted me to stop."

"Why did Paul bother you so much?" Jasper asked calmly.


"He didn't, it wasn't his fault." Dale muttered. "He was fine about me messing with the bookcase so long as I wasn't bothered by the storm. Flynn saw exactly what I was doing and told me to quit."

"And you didn't?" Jasper guessed. Dale shook his head. 


"Paul heard but didn't say anything until Flynn started paddling Riley-"

"Flynn paddled Riley." Jasper repeated, not hugely surprised. "Which you didn't like much."

"Paul told me to stop, and when I didn't he came over, and he was so bloody kind
about it-"

From the anguish in Dale's voice that had been the trigger point, and Jasper could understand it. Conflict. The compulsion to continue, the threat of being stopped and Paul's appeal to emotion and to Dale's loyalty to him – on top of the fear built up from the storm, it was no surprise he'd exploded, and no surprise either that the outburst had been against the books. Trashing them had been a compromise between rejecting Paul or walking away from the compulsion, neither of which he could do.

"And I lost it." Dale said softly and bitterly. "I have never acted like that before-"

Jasper grasped his hand, pulling Dale against him.


"You didn't disappear. You didn't run. You didn't make yourself sick. You didn't bottle it down until you were alone. You stayed with us and you fought it out. I'm very proud of you for that."

"And throwing's fine." Dale said grimly against him. Jasper smiled a little, not letting him go.


"Is it?"

Dale shook his head a little, voice thick.

"No. Nor is lying to Paul or ignoring Flynn."

"No." Jasper agreed quietly. "So let's deal with that, and then we're done,  it's over with."

Dale got up quickly; mostly, Jasper understood, out of fear that Jasper would think he was afraid or unable to face it. Jasper moved the chair well back from the table, and Dale, took a deep breath and went to him unbuttoning his jeans. He slipped them down silently and went to Jasper without looking at him, bending down across his lap until his hands were on the kitchen tiles, legs stretched out behind him. Jasper put a hand around his slim waist, pushing his t shirt up and finding the waistband of his shorts to pull them down, baring his bottom.

"We're not going to accept you covering things up from us," he said firmly, resting his hand across both warm cheeks, "Nor telling us everything's fine when it isn't. There's a lot more to this than moving when you're told to move, and you have to trust us. You have to learn to come to us and talk to us. That's what's going to keep you from getting so desperate you start throwing things. Do you understand?"

"Yes sir."

Soft but sincere. Holding him firmly, Jasper raised his hand and spanked him, swiftly but soundly, covering every inch of skin with pink, then a steadily deeper red until Dale went from involuntary jumps and twitches to active squirming and gulping and his legs were twisting against the floor. He never tried to stop it. Jasper, used to catching Riley's straying hands once he got desperate, was aware that Dale kept both hands in front of him, and he didn't cry either. The wet face and the swallowed choking was about as close as he ever got, and Jasper was sure of both when he stopped and rested his hand on Dale's back, rubbing gently.

It was a minute or two before the few quiet choking sounds and the shaking of Dale's shoulders eased off, and before Jasper helped him up to his feet, helping him dress and putting an arm around his waist to guide him into the family room. The big room was deserted, the couches were empty, and when Jasper sat down in the corner of one, Dale willingly curled up next to him.



*



The rain was still hammering down as Paul finished drying the last of the dishes from dinner. Tom and Jake had not joined them, which was no surprise; crossing the quarter mile to the house in this weather was probably not tempting. The house was still unusually quiet; neither Riley nor Dale had felt like talking or doing very much, and Flynn had sent them both up to bed when dinner was finished. It said a great deal that Riley hadn't argued much at all.

There had been plenty of offers of help for clearing up, but it was a repetitive, easy job that Paul always found relaxation in, and he lost himself in his nightly routine of restoring order to the kitchen, leaving the surfaces clean and gleaming, the floor swept and the table wiped down.

"It'll only get mucked up again as soon as we start breakfast," David used to tell him, sitting at the table to watch. Paul smiled, finding it all too easy to hear the voice and to see the familiar shock of white hair, long legs, frail now but still restless, and the teasing David unleashed on anyone he was fond of.

"I like it clean."

"You're as bad as Dale."

That was something David had never said, but Paul gave the table rather a wry smile. Like many people he found order calming; he could so easily understand why Dale did, except with Dale it crossed a line. Obsession. Compulsion. Perfection. With all the self accountability that went with it.

He's doing so well, he reminded himself, starting to sweep the floor and gather a day's dust and crumbs. He might be horrified that he lost it, but he actually let go, with us. That was communicative, even if it's not in a way that's good for the furniture. Wish I'd seen him building up. He's like a silent tornado, there's nothing to see until it hits ground. Flynn sees it coming; I have no idea what he sees or what he looks for. Tom looked so – understanding. Which surprised me. I thought he'd find that hard to be around. I wonder what Jake makes of him climbing waterfalls in a storm? My poor Riley. Another day of this kind of weather on top of being stuck in the house and he'll explode.

Both he and Dale had been calmer by dinnertime.

And Dale actually ate. Once he's burned off another chunk of stress you can almost visibly see the relief. He relaxes. It's like going down steps with him, a small string of explosions, each one letting go a little further. Riley will sleep it off and be full of heart felt apologies in the morning. Dale lets go on the spot. I could have done a much better job with him today.

Paul grabbed a jacket from the back of the door, not particularly minding whose, and draped it over his head while he took the keys from the shelf and went to lock the barn and stable for the night, dropping the heavy latches that would keep the building secure against the gales. The dogs, curled up together under the shelter of the porch, lifted their heads and tails wagged but they didn't venture out into the rain and Paul didn't blame them.

I hope this doesn't delay harvesting. We're going to be lucky to get enough sun to dry all this off in time for Saturday. I must go into Jackson and shop. Once it starts we're going to go through iced tea by the vat.

He took a quick look through the stable door at Ticktock and Flint. Flynn had stalled them side by side for company, and Ticktock turned his head, looking placidly to see what the matter was as if he'd never heard of panicking and leaping fences. They had full feed and water bins, and Paul only spoke to them quietly before he shut the door and locked it. The other horses were still packed against their shelters, or in the case of the clysdales, stood stoically under the trees. Bandit would have the mares and foals under shelter tonight, and probably only shelter he knew of. The stallion knew every inch of his territory, and Paul had seen him use his body to stand upwind of a shivering mare and foal to shield them in cold weather. He didn't need stables, or men to do his job.

Wonder if it was a day like this that collapsed the mine? David, I wish I'd asked you about it. Although I know you and your secrets, you probably just planned on walking through the door with whatever it was and surprising Philip with it. What did you think was down there? Wish I read Chinese. Wonder if you did?

Paul splashed across the yard to the porch, climbed the steps and locked the kitchen door behind him, shaking the jacket off before he hung it up and removed wet boots. There was music playing, very softly from the family room, which meant someone had got out the record player. It had been state of the art in the late 60s and was still in immaculate with its large speakers, but long out of date now. It was one of David's records playing and Paul smiled at the sound of it, recognising the lyrics. One of David's favourite singers, and Riley loved the songs too, as did Flynn.

Where the earth shows its bones of windbroken stones
And the sea and sky are one
I'm caught out of time, my blood sings with wine
And I'm running naked in the sun

The fire was lit in the fireplace, sending flickers up the wall, and the oil lamps were lit rather than the electric lights, as Jasper liked to do in the evenings in the winter. It was a softer, more inviting light, and Jasper was sitting on the hearth rug, shirtless and barefoot, in nothing but jeans. Paul ran a hand over Jasper's hair as he sat down beside him on the hearth stone; hair that was sleek and dark, and getting long enough that at times Jasper bound it back at the nape of his neck, which made the strong, triangular bones in his face more obvious.

"There's no point in lighting a fire for heat and then stripping off."

Jasper shrugged, elbows on his knees which arched his back like a cat. He liked the heat directly on his skin; he was the same about sunlight.

"Dale's asleep. And Riley took painkillers, so he should sleep."

"Did Flynn get to the bottom of what he was wound up about?"

"Layers, apparently. The bottom one was whether they were going to have to give up on Ticktock. Ri saw him weaving the other day."

"Aha." Paul said dryly. "Of course he couldn't have just told me?"

"If he wasn't in pain and fed up he probably wouldn't have got himself so worked up over it." Jasper said mildly. "He associates being restricted to the house with being in trouble, that's a lot of his problem."


"He was telling me all day how tired he was of Dale being in permanent trouble, and Dale really doesn't feel it like that at all." Paul leaned his elbows on his knees, stretching under the heat from the fire. "I doubt Dale realises, poor boy, but if he wasn't unwinding he wouldn't have flipped quite so spectacularly this morning."

"I missed all of this."


Flynn came to join them from the direction of the study, and Paul raised his eyebrows. Flynn had changed since dinner; his black shirt wasn't tucked into his dark jeans, and was only buttoned from mid chest down, and the black turned his skin and eyes even darker than usual. He had three crystal glasses casually gathered by the stem in one hand, and a heavy stoppered china bottle in the other, and Jasper took the bottle from him, popping the top with some difficulty.

"That's from David's stash, isn't it?" Paul demanded.

"Yep." Flynn held out the glasses to be filled, passed one to Paul, one to Jasper, and sat down on the hearthrug with his own. "What did happen with Dale? I heard the books go, but I had my hands full at the time, and I thought the best I could do was keep Riley out of the way."

"He was fine." Jasper said calmly. "Just didn't quit obsessing on the books when you asked, and got still more panicked when he heard Riley in trouble. Paul went to him and asked him to stop-"

"And tipped him nicely over the brink." Paul said darkly. "In fact I made a total mess with him today. I should never have let him get hold of the books to start with, but Riley was taking up a lot of my time and I thought at least Dale had something to shut out the storm with-"

"I'd very likely have done the same thing." Jasper told him. "You're not under contract to get everything right."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
"I still feel like Dale blowing up like that was partly my fault." Paul took a swallow of his drink, looking down at the hearthrug. "Priorities. I'm so used to knowing when Riley's needing a lot of attention, it's automatic to give it to him, and Dale – he looks least like he needs any attention at all just when he needs it the most, and I fell straight into the trap."

"A lot of Dale's safety behaviours are based on convincing an audience he's in control and doing well." Flynn said quietly. "He is a powerful and convincing personality, don't blame yourself for believing the illusion. Dale probably believed it himself a good part of the time. And we're all used to meeting Ri's needs as our priority."

"Poor old Ri wasn't doing much more than letting go a lot of bad temper," Paul said regretfully, "He'd have reined it in straight away if we'd realised how badly Dale was winding up, or at worst he'd have cleared off to sulk himself into a better mood. I could have left him to it at any time and concentrated on Dale. And I did push Dale over the edge. I wasn't even thinking when I touched him." Paul took another sip of the moonshine, sounding rather bleak. "He finds orders a lot easier to handle than sympathy, he finds being touched even harder when he's that wound up and I know it - it's just so hard to resist when he looks that upset."

Flynn gripped his knee, shaking it gently. "That's hardly something to beat yourself up over, it comes naturally."

"It's the wanting to help and failing to." Paul said with rather wry apology. "I don't like not helping. You know there's a repeating pattern here? Think about it. Every time Dale has a real flip out, the usual routine has broken for some reason. Something unexpected."

"Which says a lot about what helps him most, and how he's feeling." Flynn commented. Paul gave him a dry look.


"And why he never flips when he's with you or Jas."

"He was with me when he wandered off to the falls the day Flynn got thrown by Leo." Jasper pointed out. "And I fell for the calm smile and no outward sign he was coming apart. When he's thrown onto his own resources, he does what's always worked for him. It takes time to learn new skills well enough to use them under pressure, we know that with every client. With a brat, it's more inner and outer scaffolding."

Paul gave him a wry look. Jasper smiled.

"He's fine within the routines, the outward actions, while we're there to police them with him. The inner scaffolding is what Ri has, and Dale's still in the very early stages of. He's still understanding how the relationship works, he doesn't have a clear, internal map of commitments and expectations to rely on. He uses his own. Like not communicating when things go wrong."

"And he's still very new into this." Flynn added. "Real progress happens in small steps over time, and it is two steps forward to one back. You realise Dale had plenty of opportunities to get out of the house this morning if he'd really wanted to go, and he didn't? No bolting. That's an achievement in itself."


"And he fought like hell with me." Jasper agreed. "Real, honest paddy, interspersed with polite apologies and reasoning."

"Jas was holding him for about half an hour. Pulled him off the books and sat down with him on the floor." Paul said to Flynn who had raised his eyebrows.  


"And kept him there until he settled down," Jasper said calmly, leaning back against the hearthstone. "On my terms. And made him put the books back on my terms. He told me he knew it was about control, and he didn't find it easy, but he did it."

Flynn took a mouthful of the moonshine, giving Jasper a quick smile. "I wonder if Tom's another self regulator. He was about twenty foot up a rock face when I saw him this morning, and the rocks were like glass. He climbs like a cat."

"He's elusive to put it mildly." Paul said with interest. "It was always going to take someone exceptional to hold Jake's attention for more than five minutes, but he's no less reserved with us now than he was the first time he met us."

"He was nervous as all hell this morning when I had him in the kitchen." Flynn said acutely. "All that mouthing off? It's a front, I'd swear it. Although he fully expected me to call him down off the rocks and bring him back, he was already coming down before I got near enough to talk to him."

"It's odd to have an in-law – particularly Jake's
in-law- that we know so little about." Paul said thoughtfully. "I wish they'd stay in the house, we'd see more of them."

"They're quite happy up in the bunkhouse." Flynn told him, taking his glass away and putting it out of reach. "And we thought you'd had quite enough of worrying about everyone else today. Come down here."


"And do what?" Paul demanded, eyeing him and Jasper in front of the fire. "Is this a plot?"

Jasper took his hand and pulled until Paul came down onto the hearthrug between him and Flynn, deftly slipping the buttons of Paul's shirt.

"Oh yes."


***


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009


1 comment:

Bruce Frier said...

I love the architecture of this chapter, and above all the quiet, loving conclusion.

Three Traders