Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chapter 7


In its day, the bunkhouse had slept up to eight men on cots inside the long, low, wood slat building with the simple porch at the front. The exterior was still bare, just slats of dark stained wood and the windows were still simple wood and glass, but what had once been very basic sleeping and stabling facilities for ranch hands had long since been re developed, and the one long room that the ranch hands had slept in, and the stables to the side and the hay loft above, had been divided into three simple twin bedrooms, a bathroom and a small living room area with a stove heater and a fridge alongside the couch and chairs.

It was not luxurious, and it remained a working building. The walls were wood board and the downstairs floors were stone flagged with only the one rug in the living area, reminding that most men that used this house were labourers who came inside at the end of the day in a state that made carpet or  luxury furnishings impractical. However the couch in the living area was deep and comfortable, the beds were covered with brightly coloured patch blankets, the mostly wooden furniture was simple and old fashioned and painted; white for the few cabinets and cupboards, old green for the wooden chairs at the table, and the shelves on the wall. Large, old china wash stand bowls and jugs stood in the bedrooms, and the windows were large, opened wide and let in plenty of light and air until it could seem that you were barely inside at all.

They of course had taken the one and only upstairs room in what had once been the hay loft. Tom always instinctively went as high as possible.

'Upstairs' was something of a misnomer; a steep flight of wooden stairs led to a low platform with nothing but a low wooden railing sheltering the room from the eight foot drop to the hallway below, where nothing more than a chest of drawers, two beds and two night stands usually occupied the floor. The hay loft door however, that had once opened to allow easy storage and removal of bales for the horses in the stable below, still opened and opened wide, removing more than a third of the wall and leaving the room open to the air and to the long view beyond that took in the horses in the railed paddocks and the long, green pastures towards the aspen woods in the distance. Someone – Jake suspected Paul – had put a thick rug on the floor that wasn't usual issue for working ranch hands, and had put the two twin beds together, putting bed linen over both to make a double bed. The bunkhouse had always converted as extra sleeping space for family in times of need and overflow, but Jake, who had called the ranch home for eighteen years, had never slept in it before he met Tom.

Their rucksacks had been stowed in the chest at the foot of the bed, and their few and battered clothes were folded in the deep dresser drawers, and their few still more battered books were on the shelf above. Few possessions had travelled with them to Peru; only what they could comfortably carry day to day. The only precious things, their water proof wristwatches and wedding rings, were never taken off.

Tom was turning the plain and heavy silver ring around and around on his finger as they climbed the stairs to the loft, and Jake watched him as he changed his drenched shirt and jeans for dry ones. There were no drying facilities here, but that meant very little to them; there were none in the Amazon either. Tom automatically took and stretched the clothes Jake took off over the rail below the window to dry and went to stand in front of the open loft door, looking out over the rain swept pasture. Thankfully the direction of the wind avoided rain being blown inside; Tom would not have been receptive to the idea of closing it.

"So are you actually going to do this?" he said acidly, without looking round.

"Do what?" Jake buttoned dry jeans, pulled a towel out of the dresser and began to dry his hair. Tom gave the ring another vicious twist and folded his arms.  

"There should now, by law, be a three hour lecture based on approximate behavioural science, judgemental reasoning and a summary of the supposed dangers of electrical storm conditions without any back up from statistics or actual fact-"

"Yeah, but it's boring." Jake said apologetically from under the towel.

He felt Tom glare at him, and Tom could look like a wolf when he was really upset.

"You won't do anything properly, will you? Are you aware of the dangers of lightning in open spaces? Particularly around water? It's like walking around with a t shirt with a target painted on it. Not that I showed any kind of foresight – another highly reproachable point – no, I just sat on the top of the falls and zoned out looking at the water, which is probably a twenty foot drop, and don't think I used ropes because I didn't. That's another point you ought to include. Recklessness, stupidity, and then of course for the grand finale there's the matter of what a disappointment I am to you in that I can't even do what you asked me to do for half an hour-"

The break in his voice was so slight it was almost inaudible. He said nothing else, arms tightly folded, staring out of the open loft door, and Jake finished drying off and hung the towel over the rail before he padded across to him, saying nothing but wrapping both arms around him from behind and resting his chin on Tom's bony shoulder. Tom made an immediate and fierce attempt to twist away, didn't succeed, and instead pressed into the lean, solid body against his back, almost hard enough to push Jake backwards, off balance. Jake was braced and ready for it and didn't move, looking with him out over the pastures.

"What was it like up there?"

"For God's sake, you're supposed to be going nuts in the properly approved manner, not wondering about the view." Tom muttered, tipping his head back against Jake's shoulder. "It's a waterfall, what do you think? There was water. It was wet."

Jake didn't answer. Tom abruptly twisted around and buried himself in Jake's arms. His full height and strength was not inconsiderable, but Jake didn't do much to preserve his windpipe from the grip around his neck, just wrapped his own arms back around the other man and held him.

"I could say I was sorry, which is a stupid phrase because it implies a belief that it makes everything all right." Tom said eventually. Jake's murmur was almost in his ear.

"Who's got any injuries to resent? Nothing to be sorry for."

"You think Flynn would swallow that from Riley and that other raving maniac?" Tom demanded. "'Sorry' is part of the whole three hour lecture and 'don't you dare go near lightning' thing, it's not supposed to be expendable."

Jake shrugged, unmoved by expendability. "What we do doesn't have to make sense to anyone but you and me."

"I love you." Tom said suddenly and desperately. Jake didn't answer but he turned his head to find Tom's mouth and kissed him, after which Tom let go a long breath and turned his head against Jake's shoulder.

"The evils of external validation." he muttered after a while. "Which never arises in jungles."   

"No one's validating anything out here except us." Jake pointed out. "Unless you caught a lightning strike and you're claiming amnesia, we know our rules, they're not complicated. Want to finish this?"

Tom didn't answer, but a moment later he let go of Jake and turned away slightly, starting to unbutton the too-large jeans hanging off his hips. Jake opened the chest at the foot of the bed, digging briefly in a rucksack until he found a small, thin and lightweight maple wood paddle.

Tom let the jeans drop, pushed shorts down after them and without looking towards Jake, bent over with his hands braced on the bed, back arched, head ducked. Jake took a seat on the bed beside him, patting his back where his t shirt had ridden up.

"Nice try."

"What difference does it make?" Tom demanded.

Jake didn't answer, waiting until Tom muttered and got up, moving unwillingly to Jake and stooping over his lap. Jake lifted him the rest of the way, always further than Tom would go on his own, settling him so his feet were off the floor and his upper body lay on the bed, close against Jake's body and under Jake's arm. Tom wound his arms into his usual strange knot; something Jake always thought was Tom's own insurance against putting his hands back or do anything else that he could think of as cowardly. He jumped at the first impact of the paddle, but made no comment. The lightness of their particular paddle in no way negated its efficiency. Jake always relied on repetition a good deal more than he ever did severity, and while its small size meant it took a little longer to cover and re cover the necessary ground, the sting built up geometrically with every swat. Within ten or twelve strokes, Tom was jerking and squirming involuntarily, it took a stronger grasp to keep him in position, and by the twentieth he could no longer keep quiet. The last six were the hardest, and by the last stroke, Tom's shoulders were shaking and his weight lay more heavily over Jake's lap. His bare rump, between the dark tan of his thighs and the small of his back, was a solid and hot red, and he winced as Jake, having put the paddle down on the bed, laid his palm over both cheeks and rubbed them gently.

"That's enough now." he said mildly. "Got it?"

Tom sounded very out of breath, but he nodded, immediately, voice hoarse. "Got it."

Jake held him where he was while he drew up the shorts – with a lot more care than Tom would have done – and the jeans, putting Tom on his feet to zip and button them. Tom pushed his hair back from his eyes, rubbing his face somewhat fiercely as if daring Jake to comment that his face or eyes were wet, but Jake neither looked nor commented, only keeping hold of Tom while he moved to sit with his back against the bedstead and pillows, then pulling Tom down into his lap.

"I'm the wrong size for this." Tom muttered, twisting to sit beside him instead of on him.

Jake held him without difficulty, fingers of one hand softly combing through the scattered and very dark hair against his shoulder, not letting him move.

"Shut up."

 The rain began to ease off around late afternoon. Tom got up from the bed where they had both been lying, and leaned on the loft door post to look out over the wet pastures, digging his hands into his pockets.

"It's lightened up a bit if you wanted to go back to the house for dinner."

"We're not going to dinner."

Jake didn’t look up from his book, holding out a hand. Tom came back to him, taking the hand and letting Jake pull him back down onto the bed, collapsing flat on his back on the covers. Jake's hand threaded through his hair, pushing it back from his forehead in slow, smooth strokes as he went on reading. Tom, who had spent much of the afternoon lying against him, dozing, listening to the rustle of the pages and the rain outside, looked up at the low, beamed roof overhead.

"It's bad enough I act like an antisocial maniac around your family without making you miss meals with them too. If you want to go, I swear I'll look normal."

Jake lowered his book, looking at Tom with genial interest. Tom grimaced.

"Ok, ok, we're not going to dinner."

Jake returned to his book and Tom rolled over onto his stomach, folding his arms under his chin, face turned towards Jake.

"I feel like I ought to apologise to them for adding to whatever was going on with Dale. The poor guy's obviously phobic about this kind of weather, and any idiot could see Riley was having the day from hell-"

"And you were feeling so great that you did your Houdini thing." Jake said without looking up from his book. Tom shook his head.

"They didn't need me adding to anything."

"I'm the only person you need to worry about ticking off." Jake ran a finger down his nose and Tom automatically nipped at it, catching the finger gently between his teeth.

"You know it isn't like that when we're here. If it wasn't for me, you'd be in the house with the others, the full family thing like you always had-"

"Go on, finish that?" Jake invited. Tom grimaced.

"No thank you, I know how that conversation goes."

Jake shut the book and put it on the nightstand, dropping a hand to give Tom a swift and accurate swat across the seat of his jeans.

"Get your kit off, Thomas."

He rolled to his feet and Tom watched him shoulder out of his t shirt, big and fair skinned under the tan, a long back with the several small scars that Tom knew with fingers and tongue, as familiar with this body as his own.

"Off." Jake repeated gently, pulling him to his feet. He peeled Tom's shirt off over his head, adding it to the small heap of clothes he was dropping on the chair, and starting work on his own jeans. Tom undressed slowly, watching Jake pad naked to the window and look out for a moment, body flecked by the still blowing rain. He shrugged off his own jeans and underwear without thinking; clothes were rather a deliberate effort after months of jungle, and Jake wrapped an arm around him, pulling him close so they stood pressed body to body from head to foot.

"I'm sorry." Tom said, looking at the sheeting rain on the grass. "I should try harder with them. I want to. It just…."

The admittance to losing his nerve was painful, and Jake interrupted it, putting a gentle and demanding hand under Tom's chin.

Tom let Jake pull his head up and shut his eyes under the feather light kisses, a blazing trail of them that stole his breath and tugged relentlessly at his mind until it was hard to hold on to any coherent thought at all, never mind a negative one. Jake's hands were large and his palms were calloused from regular hard work, and they were cool on Tom's skin as they slid down his back and over his hips. Sore, subdued, there was no mood for fireworks and Tom turned his face against Jake's neck as Jake drew him over to the bed, putting him down on his back on the quilt and kneeling astride him, occupying far too much of his attention to be fully aware of the discomfort of lying on his back. Although that discomfort too, in its way, was a consoling, orienting reminder. No, no fireworks. And Jake knew, as he always knew; Jake could be so gentle it was nearly unbearable. But Jake's mouth wouldn't let his alone, light and persistent, and Jake's long body over his and the hands that knew intimately where to touch and hold and stroke, and long legs that pinned his firmly- with the familiar and the infinite comfort of Jake's skin against his came the strongest and most powerful non verbal message Tom knew. You're here with me. I've got you. Everything's going to be ok.


The phone broke the silence of the house, jerking Dale sharply out of sleep. The room was dark and he felt Flynn's hand grip his shoulder, and the roll of the mattress as Flynn slid out of bed.

"It's all right. It's probably a neighbour, nothing to worry about."

He disappeared towards the stairs and Dale, sitting half way out from under the covers, heard Riley's voice on the landing, then Paul's, quieter, the two of them obviously waiting at the top of the stairs. He couldn't remember hearing a phone ring in this house before, never mind at night.

It was several minutes before Flynn came back, and when he did, he had the phone with him and he shut the bedroom door, turning the lamp on beside the bed. Dale looked up, alarmed as Flynn sat down on the side of the bed, a hand over the mouthpiece.

"It's a work call," he said far too calmly for the time of night. "I want you to think first. If you don't want to take it, I'll deal with them. You don't have to."

The surprise mingled with the familiar shoot of adrenaline and preparation for crisis. Middle of the night calls were not new or unfamiliar, but here – for ANZ to call here and Flynn to actually allow it, had to mean disaster. Dale, fully awake, put a hand out for the phone, getting to his feet.

"It's fine, I'll take it."

Flynn didn't let go of the phone, looking at him, and Dale found a swell of emotion rising in amongst work mode, of so much tenderness it hurt.

"Yes, I'm sure. It's all right."

Flynn released the phone and Dale stood with Flynn, lifting it to his ear.


"Dale?" Caroline, who had worked for several years as Dale's personal assistant before he left ANZ, sounded both relieved and harassed. "I'm so sorry, I know you're on vacation time. If the guy who answered is working for you, he's a gem, hang on to him. He made me swear up, down and sideways this was a crisis before he'd even consider waking you."

Dale glanced up at Flynn with a flash of amusement, big and immoveable even in the t shirt and shorts he slept in, hair shaggy from sleep and with his not very forth coming expression that meant he was listening and taking no crap. It was the expression that inevitably made Dale feel so safe it was painful. He was aware of adrenaline shooting through to his fingertips, the familiar sensation of everything slowing down slightly, of being able to keep his tone light and calm despite the boiling of his stomach.  

"That's fine Caro, don't worry. What can I do for you?"

Caroline's sigh was heartfelt, the sound of an employee handing over her problem for someone else to deal with.

"The chief of the board at Rigel took a dive off the penthouse tower a few hours ago. We just got the news."

Ah. That kind of a crisis. Dale took a few paces with the phone, mind already racing through the implications.

"Who else have you heard from so far?"

"Pretty much everybody concerned. This is going to be international headlines in a few hours. The investors are going nuts, and di Benedetto has been all over us making threats about pulling out. He won't trust anybody else but you, Jerry's tried and hasn't got anywhere with him at all-"

If Benedetto went, the other investors would flee like rabbits. Dale didn't hesitate.

"Put him through, I'll talk to him. I'm going to need a clear picture of their finances sent over immediately, I'm assuming an audit team are going out?"

Six months ago, Dale knew he probably would have been heading it. If not already carrying out this conversation on a plane bound for Milan.

"Jerry's organising that now." Caroline said with relief. "I'll put di Benedetto through and I'll get the paperwork to you straight away."

"Thank you." Dale paced slowly across the room, catching sight of Riley leaning bare chested against the door post, arms folded, watching with curiosity.

Flynn sat down on the end of the bed, eyes on Dale's face, which was absorbed and calm, unlike the fingers tapping lightly and rapidly on his thigh as he walked. There was a confidence to his movements and to his voice that was very different to what they knew as 'usual' when Dale was here; certainly since he came back from New York. Faintly, from the phone, he heard a deeper, rapid voice speak, and then Dale answered fluently in a language it took Flynn a moment or two to recognise as Italian. Across the room, Riley caught Flynn's eye and raised his eyebrows steeply.

Dale always spoke softly, Flynn knew the tone of old world courtesy that was in itself artlessly charming, but if he didn't understand the words, he could hear too the craft Dale exerted in soothing whoever it was he spoke to. He wasn't merely placating; Flynn heard the pauses, how much Dale listened to whatever he was told, making it clear to the speaker he took the concerns seriously and was interested in them, and there was nothing dismissive or in the least patronising in his replies. It was fascinating to listen to, the skill as much as the smooth, fluent Italian. Aware he wasn't the only one fascinated and for Dale, to do this here was very new ground, Flynn signalled to Riley, a firm indication to stop propping up the doorpost and go back to bed. Riley grimaced at him, but went, and Flynn got up to shut the door again, deliberately placing himself back in Dale's line of sight.  

The conversation was winding up, but he saw Dale's eyes lift to him again, grey and sober, too damned sober as they were all the time at the moment. On impulse, Flynn crossed to him, not interfering in the call, but taking his hand, and Dale's fingers laced through his and squeezed. He didn't understand any of what Dale said but the tone was very clear.  "Lo so. Niente. Buonanotte signor."

He killed the line with a flick of his thumb, looking straight at Flynn.

"Going to need a fax or a computer. You might as well go back to bed, this usually takes a while-"

"To do what?" Flynn interrupted, cutting into what was a brisk and rather detached tone. Dale hesitated, and Flynn could see him caught for a moment between work mode and here mode, the two of them clashing. He squeezed Dale's hand, although he kept his voice very matter of fact.

"It's the middle of the night and you're not a free agent. Tell me what you think needs to be done – needs, not what you'd ideally do – and then we'll discuss what you may do."

From Riley, that would have unleashed a tide of argument, starting with 'this is my job' and 'you don't understand'. Dale assessed him with one brief and comprehensive look that told Flynn he already understood what Flynn meant, had probably already in his mind rehearsed several different scenarios for this, and quietly did as he was asked.

And this is it, isn't it? Flynn thought with a flash of insight. Over thought, over rehearsed, you're so damned used to self dependence and having it all your way, and being the only one who really understands what's going on anyway….you've already decided in your own mind what I'm going to allow and how it's going to work, and you're damned if you're going to get it wrong. You're your own worst enemy kid, you really are.  

"I need-" Dale caught himself, rephrasing it with the same courtesy he had used towards whoever he had spoken to on the phone.

"I would like to look at a financial picture Caro will send. A chairman of a board for a major multi national corporation has committed suicide. The investors will immediately be afraid that this indicates he had something to hide regarding the corporation, and will withdraw their investments, and the shareholders will follow. The corporation is large enough and well known enough that this could reasonably have a serious effect on the stock market in a few hours, unless I can make an initial assessment of where the corporation stands and whether there is anything the investors need to worry about. It's only a first picture, the audit team will go out to Milan – are probably on their way now – and they will do the real detective work. What I'm being asked to do is to give a reason to the investors to wait for that full picture before they move. It's going to be several hours work, this is a relatively rare event and ANZ have come back to me because I've been the lead for Benedetto, who is the biggest of the investors. He has made it clear he's only prepared to wait if I do the work."

He said it without demand, quite calmly, and Flynn couldn't hear in his tone whether Dale had any expectation of him agreeing or refusing.

Which is self defence for you, isn't it? If you don't give me any clues, there's no risk that I'll see you reached a 'wrong' preconception..

"Get dressed," Flynn told him, picking up one of his own sweaters and shouldering in to it. "Properly. You know where the office is. I'll be up in a minute."

"You may as well go back to bed-" Dale began considerately, and stopped as Flynn looked at him.

"You heard me. Dress and go put the computer on, I'll be right up."

He filled the kettle in the kitchen, leaning on the counter to look out of the window at the dark corral and the pastures beyond while he waited for the water to boil. It was a little after three am, the sky was still midnight blue, and clouds were racing before the wind.

Half formulated insights were gathering at the back of his mind, and Flynn let them percolate, thinking for a moment of Philip who had invariably wandered downstairs during other people's awkward moments in the middle of the night. The several times as a student when Flynn had been working in the study in the early hours. Nights when he couldn't sleep and went out to ride or to walk, or to meet with Jasper on the hills towards the tops. Any brat on the loose and out of bed for any reason. Philip had possessed an inbuilt radar for anyone in this house in trouble.

No one just walks into these kind of relationships, it takes a lot of shared trust, experience and evolution. Whenever I saw anyone come into this house I saw you teach them that – Gerry, Roger, Darcy, me if I'm honest. And Dale's a formed and successful man with years of experience behind him, not someone still young enough to be absorbing and adapting naturally to new information. This is hard learning for him. I'm assuming too much, aren't I? Assuming he understands and is on the same page we are, because he'll always look as if he is. He won't let us down by admitting he's out of his depth. 

He knew the old and familiar biting longing, to do what he'd done for years, to walk back into the study and talk with the man who in Flynn's experience always knew how to handle the most complex of men, and loved them the way other people loved difficult and high tempered horses. Who had himself, fallen in love with a self sufficient, dynamic man in his thirties or forties. And who would have been leaning against the counter, impressive even in dressing gown and slippers, arms folded, watching with a mildly neutral expression as he listened.  

You always said people come to this when they're ready, whether they're eighteen or sixty. Riley knew what he wanted at seventeen or eighteen, he's always had the self-knowledge and the confidence, it's a natural gift and he doesn't think twice. Dale's so adult in some ways that it's worrying, but he's a classic in perfectionist terms; he only developed the social skills he understood a use for until he came to us and realised what gaps there were for him and what else he wanted. And how ever much he wants to be with us, the reality is that he's been self reliant since he was seven years old. Who has he ever learned to lean on or share himself with before us? Or to be silly with, or let himself go in front of? He knows a lot about applying formulas, looking in control and winging it when he's under pressure, and making things work by pushing himself until they do, and he'll push until he snaps rather than admit defeat. I'll bet no one at ANZ ever saw when he was struggling until he was well into the breakdown.

We know all this, and yet I still think we've let him get us on that path. All four of us, for Pete's sake. He even got this past Riley yesterday when he was simmering.

Damn it.

The kettle boiled and Flynn took it off the heat swiftly before it whistled, pouring two mugs of tea and thinking abruptly of what he'd told Paul last night.

He is a powerful and convincing personality.

Another addendum came following that, making Flynn smile as he had heard Philip say it more than once.

He is also a brat. Do not under estimate the brat.

Dale was absorbed in the computer in the office, dressed and immaculate down to brushed hair, as if he was attending a meeting rather than in his own home in the middle of the night.

They had rearranged the office with Dale in mind while he was in New York. The desk and chair were distinctly larger and more comfortable than the ones that had been there before, a phone was now installed and on the desk, and a printer and a new fax machine was on one of the several bookcases against the walls. That was something that had not been in the house since Philip's days, and it was going to mean this room would need to stay locked whenever a client was here, but for Dale to work effectively at a distance it was going to be essential. Flynn, Jasper and Paul had also in tacit agreement prevented the room taking on too much of an identity or becoming personalised rather than a general family room, and made sure it did not become too comfortable.

Flynn put the mug of tea down on the desk, looking over Dale's shoulder at the information he was scanning. He neither recognised the programme nor the data and he was not certain that Dale was aware of him or the tea. The comfort of the room was probably immaterial; he suspected Dale could probably become completely absorbed in his work in a bus shelter. Settling on the windowsill with his own mug of tea, Flynn settled down to what he anticipated would be quite a wait, keeping his eyes and his attention exclusively and quite obviously on Dale. This was a new script for both of them, Flynn was fairly certain they both had ideas of how it was going to go, and he intended that while he would do nothing to distract, for the first time in his life Dale was going to work with at least one part of him, no matter how small, aware of the world outside of whatever he was doing. Most executives would either become annoyed by or oblivious to an observer, and Flynn had watched no few clients at work. He had met very few brats however that could be successfully oblivious when they knew they were being looked at by a Top.

He was aware of the one or two rather anxious glances he got in the next hour; looks that said Dale was all too aware of him and was carefully trying not to do anything he thought Flynn might disapprove of. At the third uncomfortable, sideways glance, Flynn got up and came to look over his shoulder at the screen, dropping one hand lightly on the back of Dale's neck and rubbing where the tension was evident.

"What do you think?"

Dale flicked back through several screens of numbers, spread sheets and lists that was unintelligible to Flynn.

"At first look – I can't see anything that pulls my eye. Nothing out of place, nothing unusual, the basic arithmetic of the accounts works out."

And Flynn knew from experience Dale could run calculations at a glance with alarming accuracy.

"Which means what?" he asked quietly. Dale leaned on the desk, steepling his hands and Flynn felt him unconsciously stretch against the massaging palm on his neck.

"That at first glance it looks as if the finances are sound. These are the ANZ collected statistics, I've run them against the corporation's own statistics and they match, no evidence of embezzlement or any other kind of fraudulent activity, nothing that would confirm trouble to investors."

"What do you need to do now?" Flynn asked, and squeezed where his hand rested. "Need, not what would you usually do."

Dale took a breath, hesitating. "……the audit team will go through this with a toothcomb, and a lot of other evidence besides. This is just a first round to hold the investors while the audit is done. I'd like now to go through this again, double check, and check in more detail-"

"Why?" Flynn interrupted. He knew from Dale's glance towards him that Dale hesitated to admit it, which gave the game away entirely. In some ways Dale had concealment down to a fine art – in others, he was an open book, with a guilelessness that had a surprising naivety to it.

Jekyll and Hyde.  

"….. I'd just feel better to double check, make sure."

"How many times have you run the data so far?" Flynn asked. Dale winced.


"Then it's unlikely you've missed anything or made any major mistakes, and this is a first assessment, not an audit. I know it's important, but so everything you do." Flynn added as Dale opened his mouth to protest. "How many times have you missed a red flag in a file like this? Not on an audit, on what you're doing now, a first look."

"…….none." Dale admitted. "Something would usually catch my eye, something odd about it."

"Then trust your work." Flynn said firmly. "And trust the audit team to be competent to do the detailed checks. That piece of work is done. What do you need to do now?"

Dale leaned against his steepled hands, unconsciously pushing his palms against his eyes for a moment. Flynn thought he had no idea of the give away of the gesture.

"Put out a letter through Caroline, cc'd to everyone relevant, that at first assessment I don't see an immediate risk, and I'll await the results of the audit."

won't await anything." Flynn tapped his shoulder lightly. "Jerry, or whoever else is the lead for this client will. You're on leave from work until we agree otherwise, this was a one off. You responded to Benedetto's request on behalf of ANZ, you've done the initial assessment to reassure him and others, that's the end of your involvement. I'm the gate keeper of this, not ANZ. Get the letter written and be quick."

It was the crisp tone that always got Dale moving, and Dale had an email open and ready before he had finished speaking. He typed as fast as he wrote, although Flynn watched several drafts and re writes before he once more put a hand on Dale's shoulder.

"Stop. Is the information there that needs to be there?"

"…….. I think so," Dale said unwillingly, "Without implication of guarantee that there is no problem, only that the initial assessment looks sound enough to –"

"Then send it." Flynn picked up the mugs, waiting. "Now. Hit send, shut the computer down, we're going back to bed."

Dale gave him a look of disbelief that was almost amused, he obeyed and Flynn saw the relief. A moment later the screen powered down and went dark, and Flynn took Dale's hand, pulling him to his feet and giving him a light swat towards the stairs.

"You can take that as rule one for when you do start work again. Any sleep you miss as a result of work – and I'll include staying awake and fretting in the account – you make up. I make that two and a half hours lost so far, which means you're staying in bed until nine thirty this morning. If you want to stay awake now and worry what the audit team are doing, that's fine but you'll be sleeping through to lunchtime."

Dale shook his head, voice low as they reached the landing and Flynn's room.


Flynn put the mugs down on the dressing table, catching Dale's wry smile in the dark.

"Get to bed."

He caught Dale in passing, sliding an arm around lean waist, pulled him over and bit gently at what he was finding out was an extremely sensitive neck. Dale jumped and Flynn heard him laugh, an abrupt and stifled sound, then Dale gave him a very mild dig in the ribs and went on undressing.


He slept. Which was ridiculous.

After a night work crisis Dale had never gone back to bed, never mind caught up on sleep. But when Flynn looked and sounded like that, when he laid down the law, you felt so damned safe that other things ceased to matter. And to lay against Flynn, his warmth, his strength, was to find pretty much anything else on the planet irrelevant. Flynn would have made an astounding natural hypnotist: an order not to worry or to go to sleep and Dale found his body happily obeying without permission from his conscious mind.

It was beyond pathetic, and it felt – wonderful – and Dale had no idea at all how to resolve the two.

It was past ten when he woke, the house was quiet and if Dale was honest, it took him some time from the point of waking to summon up the courage to face getting up and going downstairs. A part of him – actually a very small part – was wondering how the audit was going. A much larger part of him was remembering yesterday with a bitter sense of shame combined with a still more peculiar sense of……..

Dale had no idea what you called it. A sense of lightness. An equal tugging to hide under a rock rather than look Paul and Jasper in the face, and at the same time a quiet and very embarrassed little desire to be as near them as possible.

Riley barged in without knocking before he could come to any resolution on the two, giving him a grin that said whatever Riley had seen him do yesterday, he bore no grudges.

"Buon giorno. That's about my limit in Italian, other than ciao. How many languages do you speak?"

"Speak?" Dale winced. "No. I can get by with a few phrases in a couple, wherever I had clients. I'm sorry the call woke you."

Riley shook his head, eyes twinkling. "I'm not. Flynn gave us the full story this morning, it was exciting stuff. Who's going to ring in the middle of the night desperate for any help I could give? Come quick, the colt's still walking sideways!"

Despite himself, Dale stifled a smile, sitting up, but that was as close as he could bring himself to getting out of bed, and Riley sat down on the bed beside him with more sympathy in his eyes than was easy to look at.

"Yeah, I thought you might be stuck on yesterday. You saw me acting like a brat with Paul, are you going to hold that against me?"

"Of course not." Dale said at once. "I knew what you were doing and I knew Paul didn't mind."

"Paul was ticked off," Riley said cheerfully, "But that isn't the same as minding, and Flynn didn't mind either. Neither would Jasper, not that it would save my ass."

"But it's is different for you." Dale said, trying to find words to explain it, and Riley gave him a candid nod.

"Yes, in some ways it is. I can't see you ever being a pain in the neck because you're frustrated and want a fight. You aren't the type. In other ways, no, it's not different and you know it's not. You've seen Gerry do a little stamping and yelling. You've seen me. You know we handle it and you know you're not going to scare anyone."

Hurling a shower of books over, not even seeing which went near Paul…. Sitting on the floor inside Jasper's arms, Jasper's hands over his……..

Dale went hot and cold at the thought with sheer humiliation.

"Look." Riley said gently but with a firmness that reminded Dale of Flynn. "You know, and you always knew, this is a different kind of relationship. If you freak out like that outside of exceptional circumstances in a 'typical' relationship, yes, you probably wreck the relationship and it probably gets called domestic violence. This is different."

Riley waited a minute, soft hazel eyes watching Dale's. Dale felt the penetration behind them, kind and with a lot of understanding, a lot of experience, and realised something he'd always at some level recognised about Riley.  

You like to just do and not think, that's part of what you love about the others– you let it all go and act as though it's all up to them, nothing to do with you, the rules, the boundaries. But it's a surface and underneath you get every part of it, you're as involved and as knowledgeable as they are.

"Different dynamics, controlled environment, and this is a part of it." Riley said softly. "Not that throwing things around or freaking out is compulsory or even good, but just think about it. Where else in life do you get a safe outlet for this kind of thing? Most brats I know tend to have their emotional energy cranked up on high. With other people in normal situations I wouldn't do it. I'd swallow it down and go away, control it, although I might throw things around when I'm on my own and my temper blows. Or I might silently wind up and wind up until I'm so upset I can't function or I have some kind of more publicly acceptable explosion. But with partners who get it – consenting, understanding partners in your own home – you can be yourself, really yourself, and let it go. With someone who also won't be politely PC and knows how to push back. Sometimes I want to be able to throw myself hard against the ropes and get the bounce back, and know no matter how hard I shove, they're stronger than I am."

"Where everyone knows the rules." Dale muttered, saying aloud something he'd thought more than once yesterday. Riley gave him a brief smile.

"Yes. I can trust Paul enough to know I can let go of my temper and what I'm thinking and let him keep the boundaries on me, but he can trust me too that there's things I won't say. I won't hurt him, I won't 'abuse' that licence, and we know each other well enough to know our rules. They're different between every couple. Jas wouldn't have put up with me for five seconds yesterday, and neither would Flynn, but they'd have handled it very differently. And one of our rules is, if I go too far then Paul hands over to Flynn or Jas who put up with a lot less than he does. That wasn't Paul giving up, that was Paul making good on what we both know he will do in that situation. He's not mad at me and I'm not mad at him."

"But I did lose it." Dale said quietly. "That was pure lost control, that wasn't within any kind of agreed-"

"Yes, it was
." Riley said very firmly. 

Dale looked up, a little surprised. Riley held his gaze as well as the hand he'd caught.

"You live with this as well as me. You're not just here by accident, you don't just do the neat and selected bits of it. You trusted Paul and Jas to handle it yesterday – you didn't go off alone- and you did what came naturally with them. Who died?"

Dale didn't answer. Riley kept hold of his hand, shaking it a little.

"Who died? Who refused to speak to you afterwards, or was upset? Who told you to get out? Who told you it wasn't 'agreed'"

No one. Dale knew the answer. Riley squeezed his hand, voice gentle.

"Can you tell me you honestly haven't got a preference for one way over the other? Going off alone and wrestling yourself, or doing what you did and letting Jas handle it?"

……no. If he was honest, there was no contest. The undeserved safety and comfort of Jasper's arms was a still more powerful memory than the actual and terrible moment of sweeping out the shelf. In Jasper's mind, Dale knew the incident was closed and there was no disappointment.

Safe. Loved.

When did those become dirty words, Aden?

"Hey." Riley said quite sharply. It was a tone Dale hadn't heard from him before and he looked up, alarmed. Riley looked almost stern, and thoroughly disapproving.  

"If you won't even look at me or admit this to me, then I'm going to get someone who can get physical with you, because you know and I know what you're trying to pull."

"Jasper." Dale said apologetically. "I'm sorry. I know. Jasper. It just –"

Riley didn't try to finish the sentence for him, waiting unmercifully. Dale swallowed a few times, forcing himself to try.

"I'm as ashamed as all hell. But I know what you mean. You said something months ago about never feeling-"

He paused, some cowardly part of him hoping that Riley would bail him out. When Riley didn't, it took real effort to say.

"- never feeling so loved or so safe. Or so ashamed."

"Because it was Paul and Jasper and you took the safety catch right off." Riley told him quietly. "The emotions get strong, that's a part of why it works, and honesty's another serious part of it. If you still don't feel right then you go talk to Jasper, he's the one you need to be doing this with. So get up and go talk to him and while you're at it, think about talking to the rest of us too, before someone takes my advice, turns you across their knee and doesn't let you up until you swear you're done with the bullshit. Get over yourself."

Dale had no idea what the last phrase meant, but Riley's tone was unmistakeable. As was Riley's arm around his neck and the rough kiss Riley dropped on his cheek as he got up, and Dale heard him run downstairs in a way that suggested his hip was doing a lot better, and to him, this mess was no kind of problem.

That helped.  

Summoning his courage, Dale grabbed his clothes and headed for the shower, turning the blast on high and cold to wake himself up.

Jasper was standing outside the bathroom when he emerged, long arms folded, shoulders easily propped against the wall, and for a moment Dale froze, surprised. Then Jasper raised an eyebrow at him and Dale felt the mild and sick thud at the pit of his stomach as he realised.

"I'm sorry, I didn't even think-"

"The answer is yes, you may get up." Jasper put a gentle hand behind his head, steering him towards Flynn's room. "Make your bed, I'll wait."

Swearing at himself under his breath, Dale made the bed, straightened the room and Jasper put a hand on his shoulder as he came back onto the landing, walking with him downstairs to the empty kitchen.  

"Paul's gone over to Jackson and Flynn went out early to see where Bandit has the mares, so breakfast's up to me this morning. What'll it be?"

"I can get myself something-" Dale began, and Jasper pointed him to a chair.

"I'm sure you can."

And the question isn't whether you 'can', Aden, it is whether you 'may'.

"Bacon sandwich?" Jasper suggested gently and Dale nodded, thankful for an easy option as he took a seat at the scrubbed, wooden table.  

"Thank you."

One of the cattle log books was open on the table top, and a sheet of notepaper with scrawled numbers in Jasper's handwriting was being transcribed. Recognising the columns, Dale picked up the pen and rapidly entered the rest of the numbers and totted up the totals, shutting the book when he was done. His hands almost itched to move. The kitchen was Paul's domain, it was odd to see Jasper move around it and he was surprisingly deft. Dale propped his elbows on the table and watched him fry bacon and slices of tomato, struggling to summon up the nerve to speak.

"I'm so sorry about yesterday."

"Why?" Jasper asked calmly, buttering bread.

The simplicity of the demand stopped what Dale knew would have been a bitter self accusation, putting aside everything Riley had just spent the last ten minutes trying to tell him.

And this is what Riley meant. You can go through the polite motions and say what you know a rational adult should say. Or you can actually open your mouth and have the guts to say what you'd think if you let yourself. How much of a chicken are you? You wrestled with this man on the floor like a drunk yesterday, do you honestly think you think you've got anything left to shock him with? What do you think he is? One of the sweet, polite execs you used to date for the odd night here and there? A colleague? A casual friend? Get a bloody grip for God's sake!

"…..I can't believe I acted like that," he said after a minute, harshly, "It isn't acceptable, I can't believe I let you see me do that-"

And that's the key to it, isn't it Aden? That's what you're ashamed of. No one ever saw what you threw in hotel rooms or in the office when you were the only one there. It isn't that you did it, it's that you were seen. It's that they know.   

"Don't think it, say it." Jasper said succinctly. It wasn't a request.

Dale glared at him, fighting with the swell of emotion that responded all too automatically. What was it Tom said yesterday?

I don't do the proper, bratlike yes sir, no sir, or floods of penitent tears

"It's another dirty little secret you've seen," he said viciously, "Like getting obsessed, like clearing off alone, like making myself sick, like not being able to stop doing things I know are meaningless- like stretching my fingers when I think something that bothers me, have you seen me do that one? Petty little rituals like a kid in a chalk circle-"

"Yes, I know." Jasper put the sandwich down in front of him. "Eat your breakfast."

The normality of his tone was so solid a barrier Dale found himself looking up, the anger and bitterness shocked right out of focus. The effect was disconcerting, like rafting over a waterfall braced for a crashing drop, only to find six inches down there was a tranquil garden pond. Jasper sat down to eat his own sandwich, long and relaxed and obviously perfectly comfortable to be sitting here with a raving lunatic.

How long are you going to hide behind those kind of labels, Aden? Riley's right. It's distancing. Call yourself nuts and you can step away and take an observers' view, and not have to admit any of this is really you. Take some responsibility here.

I haven't felt this messed up or confused or bloody hormonal since I was bloody fourteen.

Paul came in from the direction of the garage with armfuls of grocery bags which he dropped on the counter, and Dale felt Paul's hands drop on his shoulders as he passed and the swift, affectionate kiss on the cheek that he had long since got used to Paul greeting him by.

"Good morning. Have you heard any more from ANZ?"

"I haven't looked." Dale put down the sandwich, which he was actually hungry for. "But no one's called back, which is probably a good sign. I'm sorry they woke you."

"It sounded like an emergency." Paul said comfortably. "Any idea why the poor man committed suicide? Flynn said you saw nothing in the finances to be alarmed about."

"People do." Dale found several other names and faces coming to mind. "It can just – get – to people after a while."

It became a world of its own, a world that not much outside really penetrated. Jasper got up to put his plate in the sink and Paul tapped Dale's shoulder before he could follow.

"Finish your breakfast, and don't go anywhere please, I want a word with you when you're done."

"I'll be outside, call me when you're through." Jasper caught Dale's eye and smiled, and pulled his boots on, disappearing into the yard.

Paul unpacked and put away groceries while Dale finished eating and got up to wash his plate and Jasper's putting them to drain in the rack, and then mechanically came to help Paul, fitting things from the paper bags into the cupboards. It was odd to realise how familiar he was with where things went. Paul shut the pantry door when he was done, put the paper bags away and Dale, waiting, was aware of a sharp flash of apprehension as Paul faced him, his voice gentle but quite matter of fact.

"I told you what I'd do if I heard another lie from you along the lines of 'I'm fine'. Didn't I?"

Dale's stomach lurched with shock as much as dismay.  A few hours ago he'd been talking to and handling one of the most moneyed and well known investors in Europe, and handling an account that had the power to damage the world stock market if it went wrong. And now, he knew exactly what Paul planned on doing, and it was as real and inevitable as the audit team.

"But Jasper- yesterday- " he found himself saying without any kind of dignity. Paul shook his head.

"I'm not interested in double jeopardy, this is between you and me. I warned you, I meant it, and several times yesterday you assured me you were handling the storm, not to mention made sure you looked as if you were. Do you remember what I said the last time we talked about honesty?"

He was actually going to insist on hearing it. Dale, aware his face was scarlet, swallowed, but it was a tone very difficult not to respond to. How did you say this kind of thing aloud?

Because if you say it, you agree that it's a reality and you're part of it.

What the hell happens if Benedetto calls now?

It was extremely hard under Paul's very kind but definitely waiting eyes, and Dale swallowed again before he got it out.

"…….you said you'd wash my mouth out before you… spanked me."

"I did." Paul agreed, and took the soap down from the shelf that Dale had watched in use on Riley's mouth only yesterday morning. "Come here."

Dale moved automatically, a part of him watching with detached alarm as Paul ran the soap under the tap, turning it in his hand until it foamed, slippery and well wetted. The hand he put on Dale's shoulder was gentle, as was the hand that put the small bar into his mouth, not uncomfortable to hold there but filling and pressing down on his tongue and teeth.

"Put your hands behind your back," Paul said mildly, turning him to face the unit beside the sink which was one of the floor to ceiling, wooden cabinets, "and stand still."

The essential thought of a wet bar of soap in the mouth was not a shocking one, and seemed quite – mild – in the abstract. Dale, becoming rapidly aware of what a wet and foaming bar of soap did in contact with tongue and teeth, it's melting properties and the overwhelming, disgusting taste that was rapidly permeating every inch of his mouth, discovered that 'mild' was the wrong word. It was probably only a couple of minutes that Paul left him to stand there, but the soap made every second count, and not swallowing, and not reflexively spitting the vile thing from his mouth, were becoming very serious issues when Paul finally and gently turned him back to the sink and removed the bar.

It felt as though it should be turned to pulp. Dale was faintly surprised to see that the bar was unmarked, and Paul rinsed it beneath the tap and put it back on the shelf, patting his shoulder.

"Spit what you can."

Dignity had ceased to become an issue. Dale stooped over the sink and spat as much as he was able, and accepted the glass of water Paul handed him, rinsing his mouth several times. It removed the discomfort of the foam. It did nothing at all to remove the taste. Shocked, and with his nerves shattered by the experience, Dale straightened up and was alarmed when Paul took his arm, guiding him across to the table and drawing out a chair into the open part of the room, any sense of resilience already in tatters.

"You know better," Paul told him briskly, unbuttoning his jeans and skinning them down along with his underwear without the slightest reservation, "I won't tolerate being lied to, and you know exactly why."

Flynn and Jasper both had a nasty habit of leaving it to you to get over their laps yourself, at most taking your hand to guide you there. Paul had an even nastier habit of putting you over his, which had the effect of making you feel half his size, and that he was thoroughly put out with you. He spanked rapidly and in Dale's opinion extremely crisply; again the effect was both crushing and demoralising and the rapid eighteen or so sharp smacks that covered his bare bottom were acutely uncomfortable and made him involuntarily squirm over Paul's knee. Paul put him on his feet and re ordered his clothes as efficiently as he had removed them, got up and turned him towards the corner with another very effective smack across the seat of Dale's jeans that was in some ways still more chastening than the previous ones.

"If we have to have this conversation a third time, my lad, it's going to involve a hairbrush. There is nothing dishonest about you, this is not wilfulness, this is nothing more than muddled priorities. You can stand there and give that some serious thought before you do anything else today."

Automatically, Dale interlaced his fingers on top of his head and faced the corner, not keen to do anything else to invite Paul's displeasure, and got his breath back, feeling extremely limp and in disgrace. His backside stung hotly beneath his jeans, but Paul had a way of getting to you when he scolded that scorched a lot worse. He was also very obviously serious about thinking; Dale rapidly lost all sense of time as he always did when stood facing a wall, and inevitably with it came that sense of calm. Not detachment but a real, infusing peace and orientation.

Which is still ridiculous.

But an acknowledged fact. You can't ignore the facts.

And it wasn't just losing himself in the paintwork or blocking out either – if anything it was the opposite of blocking out. He was very aware of Paul puttering around in the kitchen behind him, the sounds he made, his presence. Of the quiet of the house. Of sounds from the yard. The sheep in the far distance. The ticking of the clock in the family room. He'd never understood it.

He had no idea how long he had been standing when Paul finally turned him around, giving him a very pointed look.

"Has this made enough of an impression on you?"

Dale nodded, with a much stronger and very different emotion to the overwhelming shame he had come down to breakfast with. That was gone, and he wasn't sure why; what was left was regret and a love for the man in front of him that was painful, even in the middle of this uncomfortable conversation.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it as a lie, I didn't want to….."

"Make a fuss. Look weak. Detract from Riley. Take up my attention." Paul cupped his face and kissed his cheek. "I know. It's not up to you to choose, you do as you're told."

The swat this time was a lot gentler and he didn't let go to do it. Dale folded his arms around Paul's comfortably resilient frame and found he was burying himself there as much as he did with Jasper or Flynn, with a slightly different sense to it – there was a different quality to Paul's comfort, something special to him that understood and was warmly, open heartedly unconditional, and Dale blinked with his eyes suddenly stinging, feeling more of an ungrateful, undeserving brute than he could stand.

Jasper responded to his call from the kitchen door with permission for him to come outside, and Dale fell into pace with him, watching him capably clip, inject and care for two cows and a calf he'd brought down from the fields, the calf with a cough and the cow with a barbed wire tear in her leg. Jasper didn't chatter when he worked, but his silence was always a comfortable one, not uncommunicative or isolating. It was like fishing with him; there was a sense of companionship that Dale had no previous reference for. Jasper moved from the stables to the small room just off the barn where the various stocks were kept, and indicated the ground near the door.

"Take a seat, this is going to take a while."

There were times when that instruction was a torture; to sit still and do nothing. This morning, it seemed like a place to hide. Dale took a seat on the grass, his back against the sun-warmed planks of the barn, and across the yard saw Jake, tall and lean in faded jeans walking up towards the far paddocks with several of the large salt licks in his hands. The Clysdales adored their salt and went through the blocks like buzz saws.

It was a minute or two later that a shadow fell, Dale looked up and saw Tom, lanky and dark, hands in his pockets, saying something to Jasper through the doorway, then he came to join Dale. Dale found himself smiling without any conscious effort to be friendly. This shy and peculiar man was as attractive for his quietness as for the teasing he and Jake seemed to delight in.

Tom took a seat on the grass beside him, propping his elbows on his knees. He didn't seem to feel the need to talk either. Dale squinted his eyes against the sun, catching sight of Riley in the corral, doing something to the rail with an interested audience of several horses.

"So how much heat did you catch for losing it yesterday?" Tom asked abruptly. Dale gave him a startled look but there was nothing vicious in the inquiry. Experience with Riley and Gerry had taught him to be honest in talking to other brats from this extended family, and he answered cautiously but with the same bluntness as Tom.

"Twice, for lying and for hurling books. More for getting so wound up in the first place."

Tom grunted, not looking at him. "With me, it was getting wound up and not mentioning it. And we've been together four years, you'd think I'd be starting to catch on by now?"

There was another long silence, then Tom said without looking at him.

"Now you're thinking bloody hell, don't tell me I'll still be screwing up this much in four years, aren't you? You will be, and that isn't the bit that matters. Do you mind if I make a few wild guesses here?"

His tone was curious; grim and offhand, and at the same time there was something gruffly kind about it.

"Not at all."

Tom looked straight ahead at the house, head tipped back against the barn wall, speaking slowly as if he was choosing words carefully.

"You see Riley, and probably other brats, I don't know, who seem to just go with the flow and do this so easily, and it all makes sense to you except as to how the fuck it applies to you. It's fine when they do it, but you? You do it when you can't help it, and the rest of the time you're telling yourself what a stupid prick you are for wanting it and for acting like a scared kid at your age."

"Is that how it is for you?" Dale asked softly. Tom shook his head.

"It was when I first met Jake, and let's say I can see the whites of your eyes and remember exactly how bloody awful it felt. Look. I'm another one that came to this a bit older. I'm another one like you that's set on the higher end of the spectrum, if you don't mind me saying."

"Am I?" Dale demanded, alarmed. For the first time he saw a rather wry smile from Tom.

"Watching you and Flynn? Yes."

"It's that obvious?" Dale resisted the urge to swear, and caught Tom's look of amusement as well as a very genuine sympathy.

"I don't mean what I saw yesterday."

Dale looked at him, and Tom pulled a piece of grass, starting to pick at it with long fingers. 

"If you've got the brat instincts or what ever you want to call them, they're always going come out around a guy who's personality pulls on them. I'd take a guess you've always had a thing for dominant men, even if you didn't act on it."

Dale felt his face start to warm and Tom gave him a brief grin.

"Yeah. Who among us hasn't? If gaydar works, then I've got Topdar and bratdar too and I've had it for years. You stand around Flynn doing very little at all and he goes up to Defcon one. You draw out the dominance in him, and you probably draw out a different type than Riley does. He draws out the brat in you, you probably find that part of yourself tunes up on high around him. You hit those buttons in each other. It's not a clinical thing, it's instinctive. Animal. If you weren't attracted you wouldn't react or you'd tell him to get stuffed. He likes making decisions. You get hassled and overwhelmed. He knows and likes making a home and routine and keeping you safe. You find keeping yourself sane is a full time job. And you love being taken care of when you don't feel guilty as sin about admitting it. Yin and yang, balance, it's ok. And yeah, if you up your signals he'll up his too, it's pretty obvious how much structure and demand he has on you right now compared to Riley? I can push Jake right up the scale when I'm really freaked out."

Dale gave him a faint frown of bewilderment and Tom grunted.

"Think about it."

It gelled uncomfortably with something Riley had said this morning.

You did what came naturally, with them.

There is nothing natural about making a scene like that.

Dale shut the thought down, watching the dark man beside him and making a few rapid assessments himself.


"One of several degrees." Tom said laconically. "I was a professional student for a while. It staved off having to actually go and figure out a life."

There was another fairly long silence. Dale regretted the man's flow having been broken, but watching him, knew that to say anything would be more likely to stop him than encourage him. Tom was winding the length of grass around his fingers, his attention entirely on it.

"The basics to this kind of relationship look like all there is to it on the surface. Asking permission before you do things, what you can read, where you can go, choices over food, clothes, when you get up, when you go to bed, things being permitted instead of an automatic adult right. The mindset that it isn't your decision. That's hard enough, and even harder at your age, it's a tough set of habits to change to, and you're obviously ok with it."

It was such a blunt description, the first time anyone had put it like that, that Dale found himself hesitating and thinking it over, fully.

"Yes, I'm ok with it. You know the work they do with clients? CEOs? I came here as a CEO and the restrictions were what you'd expect in any therapeutic intervention. What tipped the others off – and me as well - was that I fitted the lifestyle."

"You didn't just 'fit' the lifestyle." Tom said without heat. "What kind of half arsed answer is that? Who puts themselves through this because it just happens to look like it 'fits'?"

"Ok, I wanted the lifestyle." Dale admitted. "I knew it was what I wanted, it was right for me and I wanted to look for this lifestyle with someone. I didn't know at the time that it would be with Flynn and the others. I've got no problems with the restrictions, they make sense to me and they always have done."

Tom dropped the length of grass and looked at him. "Why?"

Dale looked at him, frowning. "Because it's the kind of person I am I suppose. I like limits, I like to know where I stand."

"Bollocks." Tom said calmly. "That's some of it, but not enough. You've made a name for yourself over half the western world from what Jake tells me, and you let some Kiwi nobody horse trainer tell you what to do?"

Dale looked at him, and Tom propped his elbows back on gangly knees, voice softening.

"Yeah, that's it right there, and that's the hard bit. Is there anything childish or feminine about what you want to do to me right now?"

"He's an amazing man," Dale said very quietly, "He knows more about people and what's right about living than any suit I ever met in any high powered post, and I think all the more of him for not cheapening himself with the kind of values and way of life they taught me. I wouldn't let him."

"I would not like to cross you in a board room or anywhere else." Tom said, giving him a faint grin. "You don't have to break my neck, that's what I'm talking about. You don’t sign up for this lifestyle like a double major at a college that sounds an interesting way to kill a few years, and you don't join it like a membership at a gym for therapeutic bloody purposes. It's that emotion that drives it. That's my point. This is about finding someone who makes you feel so good about yourself it's hard believing it. Someone who understands what it feels like to hand over responsibilities and decisions and control, and who puts a real value on what you give to them when you do it, and knows how to tune themselves with you so you feel more loved and safe and oriented than you ever knew you
could be."

Dale felt his face going a hot, burning scarlet and Tom's voice gentled although it didn't lose it's force. He was talking very quietly and Dale could hear this was intensely personal.

"You know what it feels like when you meet someone who uses that tone, and you calm down, you respond like you never do to anyone else, no matter how upset or tired you thought you were. And it doesn't make you mad, it doesn't make you scared, you love it. You get that Look and it goes right through you and it's like being x-rayed, and you find yourself doing even when you didn't mean to. Or the kind of touch that might be a grip or just a brush of a finger, but pretty much moves you wherever. Jake sees straight through me, you know? All the crap, all the bullshit I can manufacture, I had a gift for self sabotage like you wouldn't believe, but he sees through it all and I'd lie, cheat and steal for him. He'd kill me afterwards, but I'd still do it."

It was lightly said, but looking at the dark, candid eye near his, Dale had no trouble believing it. Tom gave him a slight shrug.

"So it makes little things like wearing what he wants me to wear, and sleeping the hours he wants me to sleep, mostly easy things to do. I'll do it just because he wants it. The instincts and needs I pull out of him are what I
can meet, and what make him happy. No one on the planet's going to stop me doing that."

It was slightly odd to think of Jake, genial and easy going from what very little Dale had seen of him, eliciting this kind of fierce adoration. It drew a deepening respect from Dale, who understood it well. 

"I never found –" Dale looked for and came up with the nearest relevant word, "compliance difficult at all, it makes too much sense. Feels right. That's never been the issue. The structure, the discipline, the limits, I realised very early on I felt calmer, more grounded, far more in control of my life than I ever did when I was completely 'independent'."

Tom gave him a shrewd look. "And how do you feel when he pulls you into his lap? Because I'll bet he does."

Dale couldn't help the flinch, and Tom nodded. "Yeah, that's where it catches me too, and that's what I thought yesterday. Sorry. You're fine with obeying the orders, that's tough enough. What really stings is the stuff you've trained yourself never to do. What you see as unacceptable, childish, pathetic, unBritish, shall I go on?"

Looking at him was hard. Tom snorted softly.

"You must have heard me taking the piss out of it? If you just didn't want to do it, it would be easy. It's rationalising it that's hard."

"Does Jake mind you making fun of it?" Dale asked softly. Tom shook his head.

"He'll joke as much as I do. It's just hot air and he knows it. If we're serious, we usually don't say much at all, because I could do the lecture for both of us. Except I'd be a hell of a lot meaner."

There was a few minutes silence. From the corral there was a whinny and a sudden eruption of hooves and prancing as Gucci and Nekkid sparred, then Gucci spun and trotted away. Nekkid stretched his neck and went back to grazing.

"You know, very early on, Jake told me to think of it as an obedience issue." Tom said lightly. "If he put me on his lap, it was no different to him standing me in a corner or any other instruction he gave me, and he expected me to get on with it. Willingly, for no better reason than he said so. Until then I couldn't get my head around it. I was strong, I was competent, I wasn't going to let myself be one of those weepy, emotional queens who couldn't run a bath without help – no, I was just going to pretend to myself I was above all that, and ignore that those guys were stronger than me because they had the balls to be themselves. Jake spent years getting me to see it was an act I was putting on for myself, and there was nothing tough or masculine about being scared to let myself out of the box. I don't act when I'm with him."

That was absolutely sincere, Dale could hear it. Tom cleared his throat a little.

"Makes it hard to be around strangers, I still don't like anyone but him seeing it. But
being with Jake, who I am with Jake, has never for a moment made me feel weak. Or stupid. Or more to the point Jake doesn't let me make myself feel weak."

Tom paused, shredding the grass slowly in his fingers.

"The thing is not to get confused about who you are with him, compared to who you are with the rest of the world. When Jake and I are working with an explorer team, it's not Jake that people get nervous about pissing off? It isn't separate pieces of you, it's who you choose to be with the people you love. I choose to be Jake's brat, but any other pushy bastard who tries giving me orders is likely to lose teeth."

"What about the other Tops here?" Dale asked him softly. "I've only met one of them apart from Jake,"

And Ash, he always thought of with an affection that blotted out the issue entirely of obedience or anything else complicated. Ash simply was Ash, the way Paul was Paul and Jasper was Jasper. Tom grunted without looking up.

"There are other Tops I like and respect. Although part of liking them is that they respect my boundaries and my part of the dynamic. Like Flynn, yesterday. He doesn't just 'expect' me to do the stereotype because he knows I'm Jake's brat. Look, the upshot is that Jake would laugh like a drain if he heard me say this, he's been trying to get it through my thick skull for years, but the only thing that's going to help you is to find the guts to go to Flynn or one of the others, and tell them what you're having a hard time with. Usually you're not telling them anything much they don't already know, but you need to physically say it, and even if you know exactly what you're going to hear back, you need to hear it out loud from them. Not yourself."

He got up abruptly, brushing the grass of his hands, and Dale could see not exactly embarrassment in his face but the strain. His smile was quick and awkward and without any attempt at polite disengagement, he walked quickly away, down towards the Clysdales where his partner had gone.

Dale sat for a few moments more, breathing slowly and carefully, stunned. It was a few moments before he saw the figure in the distance, riding in across the home pastures towards them, which gathered his thoughts together. He got up and went closer to the door of the shed where Jasper was working, going rapidly through the various vet supplies they kept on the shelf. He glanced up and smiled at the sight of Dale, and Dale realised something else about his silence.

They leave it for me to fill. I'm not supposed to sit and be quiet, or sit and do nothing, they're waiting for me to make the decision to talk. This must be like trying to commit to a robot who goes into sleep mode if you stop giving it orders.

"Jasper? Flynn's coming in. May I go down and talk to him?"

"It was 'Jas' yesterday." Jasper said mildly, putting several tins back on the shelves with long arms. "Why are we suddenly formal again?"

Dale paused, taken aback and embarrassed. He had a good idea what he and Jasper had been doing when he let that diminutive slip out. Jasper gave him a brief smile.

"You didn't notice? I did. Yes, you may. Are you all right?"

"Yes." Dale said automatically, and paused, half way out of the door. "No."

"Can I help?" Jasper invited gently. Dale took a moment to think how to phrase it, but this was the one other person on the ranch who openly mentioned seeing –

-       a few things rational people probably shouldn't see.

With an effort he blurted out one of the biggest concerns he'd had over the past days.

"I haven't seen a thing since I came back here. I saw – I saw David a few times, but since I came back-"

He trailed off. Jasper put another box back, giving him the slow, quiet smile Dale knew so well from him.

"When have you been still long enough to look or to listen?"

I haven't. I'm the one doing the rejecting.

It was as chastening as anything Paul or Riley or Tom had said today, and Dale swallowed on it, afraid that was the heart of all of this mess.

I'm the one that isn't listening. I'm the one that won't trust.

Flynn was riding Fallow, one of the young nearly three year olds, a pretty and long legged filly with Bandit's colouring and some of Bandit's float in her gait. Dale walked down the yard to the fence and climbed up to sit on the rail, watching the familiar figure on Fallow's back, Stetson low on his brow, one hand on his knee as he rode, blue shirt sleeves rolled to the elbow.

Talk to him? Why would I find that hard. I've said more to him than anyone else on the planet, when did I get tangled up into keeping these dirty little secrets?

Flynn was watching him, and he drew Fallow in by the gate, pushing the Stetson back.

"Are you all right? Where's Jas?"

"He said I could come down and meet you." Dale said a little curtly, sliding down off the fence. "I wanted to talk to you."

"Come on then." Flynn slipped the reins over Fallow's head, waited for Dale to join them and began to walk with the filly towards the corral. Dale kept pace with him, gently fending off the filly as she nosed at his shirt.

"Make a start?" Flynn said bluntly when Dale didn't say anything. "You look like it's been a rough day?"

"Do I?" Dale said wryly. Flynn gave him another look, shortening Fallow's rein as they reached the corral gate and turning her to unbuckle her girth. 

"Yes. You look pretty beat up."

"The only person I've not been told off by so far today is Jake." Dale said wryly. "And you, although I don't hold out much hope of that lasting."

Flynn lifted the saddle across onto the fence and Dale opened the gate, watching him take off Fallow's bridle and let her go, swatting her rump gently. She trotted into the corral, promptly going to rub necks with Flint, then casting herself down and turning onto her back to squirm, vigorously, rubbing herself on the grass. It was always startling to see one of the horses do that; something so big moving so freely, and they both stopped to watch her as Dale latched the heavy gate.

"Was she all right around Bandit?" Dale asked, taking the saddle off the fence. Flynn walked with him towards the stables.

"A fair bit of dancing and flirting, she hasn't seen him or the mares in a good few months. Who's been beating up on you?"

They walked through the cool and mostly empty stalls save for Jasper's cattle which turned to look hopefully to see if they carried food, and in the tack room, Dale put the saddle down for cleaning, watching Flynn hang Fallow's bridle.

"I'm in shit up to my neck. No, nothing new." he added hastily at Flynn's change of expression. "I haven't actually done anything dreadful yet today. I talked to Riley, and to Tom, both of whom thought –" he trailed off with no idea how to go on, and Flynn leaned both forearms on the half door of the tack room, watching him soberly.

"Shit up to your neck. Tell me about that."

You made the choice to be here, Aden. Now choose to do it properly. Take the risk, trust the man and stop arsing about on autopilot. Take some responsibility.

"I can't think about anything else," he said slowly, not looking at Flynn, "Except that I don't get this, and the only thing I can do is keep my head down, hide it from the four of you and hope you don't notice so I don't hurt you. I'm not good enough, I don't understand this and I get it wrong. I get it wrong all the bloody time."

"Go on." Flynn said quietly.

Dale took a breath, keeping his eyes on the stone floor and resting his hands on the still warm saddle, breathing leather and horses and the hay dust, the familiar scents that stupidly meant home and which made his eyes sting again as Paul had earlier.

"I'm afraid all the time of doing something wrong and hurting one of you, and what will happen if I do. I'm scared stiff by how needy I get around you and what happened yesterday with Jasper and Paul, and by how I feel when I'm around you and having no idea how to just – be – like the rest of you, or what to do. I don't remember the basic things day to day, I didn't even think this morning to ask before I got up and showered, I don't think twice before I try to sort out my own problems instead of trusting you and telling you about them – that's twice now I've effectively lied to Paul and that makes me feel like hell in itself! There ought to be progress, there ought by now to be some sign that I can do this!"

"How much of the time is this on your mind?" Flynn said in that same quiet tone. Dale leaned harder on the saddle.

"Most- pretty much all of the time."

"Going round and round. Are you imagining scenes where things do go that badly wrong? Where you hurt one of us or where you do something wrong?"

Dale shook his head. "Most of the time I can control it better than that,"


"Making myself stop thinking like that, making myself focus on something else."

"Like ordering the books." Flynn said quietly. "Or tapping that hand. Or doing mental arithmetic, measurements and assessments. Think back to all those books I made you study. What's a component part of your type of perfectionism that goes with rituals?"

"Compulsive obsessive." Dale said automatically, "But-"

"Which is anxiety driven, and one of the key things it can cause is intrusive and repetitive thoughts."

Dale looked up in shock, meeting Flynn's very dark green and steady eyes.

"Unrealistic fears, especially about causing harm, preventing concentration, thoughts and phrases going round and round? These are genuine, normal fears, but the intensity and the frequency isn't."  Flynn put a hand out to catch the back of his neck, shaking gently but strongly. "You need to tell me when this happens, and let me help before it gets this bad."

"It never occurred to me that was what it could be." Dale said thickly.

"It's all mental rituals." Flynn said gently. "Isn't it? It's compulsive in itself, going over and over these thoughts and concerns, analysing what you're thinking, then analysing the analysis in case you've got that wrong too. It all builds anxiety, the more anxious you get, the stronger you resort to the rituals to calm yourself down. Reasoning with yourself, trying to logically work it out is not the answer. You're just engraving it deeper, associating more and more with it and building up the habit so it comes harder and more often."

"Damn." Dale breathed out with a mixture of chagrin and a peculiar, rushing sense of relief, then folded his arms on the saddle and put his head down on them. "I didn't think outside of it for a minute, it didn't occur to me. I've been going mad on this for two weeks."

"It's not easy to learn to do, it's about spotting when thoughts keep coming round. Or are high anxiety." Flynn ruffled the back of his hair. "Which means talking
to me."  

"When it gets this bad, it feels so awful I can't stand the idea of anyone else knowing." Dale said into his arms. "Especially not you four. God, especially not you."

"Which is the perfectionism kicking in." Flynn went on stroking his hair, voice quiet. "Shame because it feels like failure. Your perspective is screwed once this starts, and you know it is. The way around it is being open, talking me about things that bother you, and we'll pick up on any problems starting before they get a hold."

"Oh God." Dale took a breath and straightened up, still struggling to look at him. "I'm honestly not this screwed up most of the time. I'm really not."

"This is one of the most anxiety provoking things you've done in your life." Flynn said bluntly. "You need to read Goldburg again. In particular the bit about perfectionist personalities walling off the parts of themselves they see as 'bad' or uncontrolled,"

"Ending in adults with aspects of themselves not experienced or developed compared to the rest of them." Dale said aloud. "I remember. God, does it fit. You must wonder what the hell you've done asking me to stay here."

"Not once, and the only one worrying is you." Flynn put a hand behind his head and pulled him over, hugging him bruisingly tight. "This is your brain playing tricks on you. You know how to handle this, we've talked about it plenty of times."

"Face the anxiety." Dale said wearily into his shoulder. "Test the theories before I believe them. Talk to you and the others and check my perspective. Work on listening to what you say instead of being convinced you just don't get the whole picture."

"And quit assuming we can't understand or get it right." Flynn drew back and leaned his forehead against Dale's. "You've got to stop trying to think your way through this."

"I'm not a client." Dale said after a moment.

"No, you're not a client." Flynn affirmed quietly. "You belong to us, you're our brat, and there is nothing you can do bad enough to make us change our minds on that. If I have to, I'll make you destruction test that with every anxiety you can come up with."

His certainty was so very calming. Stood in his arms, forehead to forehead, the soft and gruff New Zealand voice almost in his ear, Dale felt an exhaustion sweep him that was more mental than physical. It was a feeling he'd known before, when he first came here as an exhausted executive with no interest in anything beyond ANZ.

Put this down. It's my problem now.

"I was talking to Tom." he said after a minute. "I'm making a total mess of the whole brat business."

"I don't agree with that." Flynn said just as quietly. "At all. I don't see you doing anything I'd call a 'mess', and there is no blueprint for success here."

"I need to understand more about this –" Dale said tentatively. "I need to know what I should do, how I should do it, not just- muddle through."

Flynn shook his head, shaking Dale's with it. "That's playing straight into the hands of the perfectionism. I don't want to give you a whole lot more you can worry about not doing to your standards."

"I'm that kind of person." Dale said apologetically. "I know, I understand what you're worried about, but that's how I think. When I was working, I always had rigid deadlines and even more rigid routines and schedules, that's how corporate life is. I thought you did it with me here because it's what you do with all clients used to corporate life. When I talked to Tom I realised why you're being that tight with routine and rules with me, what you want me to learn and what the difference is. Brat, not client. Understanding it helps me. Riley probably gets this kind of thing by osmosis, just by living it, but I don't. I need to be told, preferably in words of one syllable."

"And we've always thought that too much information doesn't help you." Flynn said quietly. "You need to learn to use your guts and be in the here and now, not bothered about trying to work out the gold standard and follow it. I don't want you to stress about what you're doing right or wrong, and I don't need you distracted. This is hard enough for you without helping you move the goal posts around."

"I get that. But I need to know." Dale leaned against him, trying to think how to explain it. "You told me to stop thinking and trying to work out what the perfect brat looked like. Ok, so help me work out what I look like, and get it out of my head. If I know, at least I've got some perspective and I'm going obsess on it less."

Flynn didn't answer for a long moment, and Dale, holding him, found himself still more deeply calmed by how much he was being listened to.

"You think like Philip." Flynn said eventually. "All right, we'll talk about it. You also need to talk to the others and let them know what you're dealing with. I'll do it with you, but they need to understand to be able to help."

Dale ducked his head, swallowing on the automatic wash of humiliation, and Flynn clasped both hands over his head.

"Just trust us. We need to work on things together."

It had never been difficult to follow the strong routine of the household, or to do as he was asked – used to discipline and to structuring himself, brutally at high stress times at work, it seemed perfectly comfortable to Dale to do so. But something Tom had said about choice rang within him and Dale found a sense of calm in the evening that he hadn't felt since he left from ANZ. The difference was in allowing himself the permission to let go.

In a dozen small ways it manifested itself. In the meal put in front of him that he knew he was expected to eat, and which when he had no internal battle with himself over whether he was hungry or felt able to eat, he was honestly hungry for. In the five minutes he had to read and reply to an ANZ email update on the audit, with Flynn stood with him. In being sent up to bed at nine, which felt no restriction but a luxury of peace. In Flynn coming upstairs at nine thirty to take his book and turn out the light once he had said goodnight. The clarity of it drowned out the anxiety. As he did every day, Flynn had found time to give several subjects to be written about in the log book, and he, Jasper, Paul and Riley had spent the last half hour after dinner, when Tom and Jake walked back the bunk house, sitting with Dale and the book taking it in turns to choose one of the written subjects of the day. It was still awkward to read something written aloud in front of an audience, that was an act of discipline in itself, but the conversations that followed were a part of the day Dale treasured, ranging from reminiscing to planning.

And that was no random act of Topping either. It was practice in talking, confiding, sharing information; now he understood it, Dale took it still more seriously and tried still harder to write and to join the conversations. Several times while they were talking, Paul had pulled the book over and written some of what was being said underneath Dale's neatly written paragraph. Opening it one morning to write something on Flynn's instructions, Dale had found a short poem copied in Paul's slanting handwriting that attached to one particular paragraph, and a small picture on aged card, paper clipped to the page. It was a page Dale often found himself turning back to every time he opened the book.

He didn't hear Flynn come to bed that night, but he woke in response to a quiet hand on his shoulder. He knew who it was before he got his eyes open. Jasper, dressed in a sweater and jeans, and on the end of the bed Dale found his own jeans and a warmer sweater than he usually wore, laid out and waiting.

"What are you doing?" Flynn murmured from his other side.

"There's a full moon on the home pasture." Jasper said just as quietly. "I want Dale for an hour."

This appeared to have some meaning to Flynn, who moved over to enable Dale to get up, but turned over and appeared to go back to sleep. Baffled, Dale dressed as quietly as he could, followed Jasper downstairs past the grandfather clock which stood slightly after one am, and along with Jasper pulled boots on in the kitchen. Jasper shut the door softly after them as they left the house.

It seemed as rude as it was unnecessary to ask where they were going. They walked out across the home pasture in the odd, silver light of the full moon over the woods. It turned the grass a peculiar silver grey, and the horses stood like statues in their paddocks, watching as Jasper led the way away from the river, onto the higher ground that stood west of the lake and the cairn.

The first of the plateaus began here, the rolling hills that became the sharp plateaus and canyons to the very far west of the ranch. Hands in his pockets, breathing the cooler night air and the scent of grass, Dale walked beside Jasper up the first steep grass slope, turning for a minute to look around him. They were out of sight of the ranch now; open pasture, grass and in the distance the foothills of the mountains was all he could see. Mile upon mile of quiet, silver space, no other human but them, nothing to disturb the night. Jasper paused as they reached the summit of the hill, and then quietly put his hands on Dale's shoulders, turning him to look east and pointing past him into the valley.

Dale followed his hand. The valley sloped a long way; this was not extreme high ground but it was a vantage point, and a long way off, moving from the direction of the river, silent on the silver grass, he saw what Jasper's dark eyes were fixed on.

A single file, slow moving train of silver horses, pulling hooped wagons, moving west.


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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