Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chapter 8


The mowing was hot, heavy work that took from early morning until late into the evening. The six hired men from town walked down to the ranch from the road where the bus left them, and the massive pieces of machinery were taken from the barn and put to work on the long, untouched meadows that stretched out over the slopes that led up to the tops. This was the ground far from the roads, that grew the sweet smelling, high nutrition feed that would keep the stock through the winter, the lower slopes yielding grass where the massive windrower mowed, cutting steady stripes down the long meadow, and the higher slopes, on the trickier and less even ground, full of the wildflowers that yielded the highest quality hay that would be kept for the horses. On those rough slopes, Flynn or Jasper rode an ancient, high perch mower pulled by teams of the big, patient Clysdales who placidly took it over the uneven ground with steady steps and appeared to love the company and the attention.

It was a long job. 1280 acres of pasture were to be mown, with each mown field then left with long lines of piled grass that waited two days under the sun to dry before the balers could be driven through the fields, transforming the piles into the bales that then had to be shifted and stored to the barns that stood all over the ranch, ensuring that feed was in easy reach of stock when the bad weather made transport difficult.

Paul lived in the kitchen for much of the time, turning out large, early breakfasts for the thirteen men in residence, bringing water and iced tea and cold lunches up to the fields, keeping them in clean clothes as every day they came home dusty and sweat soaked, and having a meal hot and available for people who came in at hours that ranged from mid evening to midnight as the work grew tight. The hay had to be baled at the right time after cutting; too damp and it could rot or overheat once sealed into bales. Too dry and it lost its nutritional value, becoming inedible for the stock who would need it. In practical terms this meant that once the windrower blades touched the field, they were in a race against the clock, and always under the risk of the weather turning. Often the work went on for as long as there was daylight, and in alongside the harvesting, the other ranch work still had to be done. Paul and Jasper did a good deal of the stock work, riding out to watch the cattle and sheep pastures, check the fences and the shelters and the water supplies. Riley and Flynn got up as soon as it was light to work the colts, whose training couldn't afford a two or three week vacation, and several times Riley worked Ticktock late into the evening, putting in the necessary hours after he'd spent the day driving and raking in the fields. Flynn rode out before dawn to look over the horse herds, with the several hours at times it could take to find them wandering free in the miles of nursery pastures they roamed in.

Jasper spent the most time with the labourers who seemed to talk most to him, although the majority of the men worked steadily and with the skill of hard experience. Flynn and Jasper quietly fired a man within the first day or two, and Dale saw Jasper keep a close eye on the men's fires at night where they camped, where they walked and what they drank, and day and night the dogs roamed free around the corral and the stock. Towards the end of each week, every four or five days, a couple of men would come to Jasper or Flynn and quit, asking for their pay in hand, and Jasper would drive them into Jackson, returning with new men with the kitbags in the back of the four by four. Often after a few days, old faces came back again. Between five and eight men worked in the fields at any one time, but Riley was right; the turn over was rapid. Dale had heard Flynn's orders to Riley on the first day they arrived.

"If you've got any problems with a man, anything you see that bothers you, you tell Jas or me and you let us handle it. I'm serious, half pint. You say one cross word to any of them direct instead of through us and I'll paddle you until you can't sit down. If anyone gets hit or roughed up on this ranch, it is not going to be you. Do you hear me?"

He gave a slightly less threatening version of the same order to Paul, who was not noticeably subdued by it.

"Does that ever happen?" Dale asked Riley when they were alone.

"Fights?" Riley didn't sound surprised. "Yes. Not here, Jas keeps too close an eye out, but we hear about it on other ranches, especially where there's drinking. Itinerant labourers. Some of them are locals, making extra cash – there's a few high school and college students among them – and some of them are genuine skilled ranch hands, but some of them are bums who'll work for a few days pay and that's it. We're always careful."

"Jasper seems to know who he's picking." Dale commented and Riley snorted.

"He was part of a labour gang like this when Philip found him in Texas. He did this kind of work himself, so he gets who he's employing." 

Dale found the work intensely – healing, was the odd work that came to mind. From early morning when they went out into the cool morning and the pale light on the fields, to the heat of the day when the dust of the grass struck your nose and the grass stung your hands and smelled sweet for miles and the sun struck down from the electric blue and cloudless skies overhead, to the evening when in twilight they walked down from the fields and did the yard work before they showered and fell into bed. He had worked these intense hours and worse all his adult life; meetings and projects that ran into the small hours where the phones never stopped and the data flooded like rivers – but it was a world away from this. This was intensely sensory, it was physically demanding and exhausting, and every part of it involved being supremely present. There was no sense of strain among the others or the hired hands, no sniping or impatience which Dale, by habit, anticipated from overworked corporate employees, and no conflict despite the pressure of the clock. In fact there was a strong sense of companionship to it.

It was in the middle of the second week, when the weather grew hotter still, that he found himself lying awake in the small hours of the morning, physically weary, but with sleep escaping him. Flynn, beside him, was deeply asleep and Dale knew it had been midnight before he came to bed.  On the landing, Dale heard the soft sound of a door and lifted his head to listen. Too far along for the bathroom. From a long way off he heard a still softer creak on the stairs, and grateful for someone else struggling to sleep, he eased away from Flynn, pulled the door to behind him to avoid disturbing him, and went very quietly down the dark stairs and through the family room to the kitchen.

It was Riley raiding the fridge, the light cast across his face as he glanced up, and he pulled a carton of orange juice out, offering it to Dale.

"You can't sleep either?"

Dale took the carton and Riley took out another, ripping it open and drinking directly from the carton. He was wearing nothing but shorts and he padded to the kitchen door, still drinking, and opened the back door. Dale followed him out onto the wooden boards of the porch and sat down on the swing beside him, hugging one knee. It was fresher outside, a breeze was blowing as it usually did at night, but it was pleasant to sit outside wearing very little and to feel cool.

"Too tired to sleep. And too hot."

"Cheers." Riley clicked his carton against Dale's and leaned back into the swing. "Everything seems to slow down at night, doesn't it? I was lying in bed thinking about getting dressed, taking Snickers and heading out for a few hours."

"Three Traders." Dale said without thinking. Riley glanced at him and grinned.

"Yeah, me too. It's kind of mesmerizing at night – up there, all the streets, no one walking around them."

"How many times have you been up there so far?" Dale asked, straight faced. Riley laughed.

"Alone? Twice. But not at night."

Dale swallowed on a brief and very reproachable impulse to suggest right here and right now that they did take Hammer and Snickers from the corral and head out to the town. Which was utterly against the rules; a thought no brat worthy of the name would consider. He caught Riley's eye and saw the grin, and found himself flushing.

"Shut up."

"Flynn would kill us both." Riley confirmed cheerfully. "And you can't beat yourself up just for thinking it. Wanting to isn't evil."

Dale found himself thinking of Tom's terse conversation a few days ago.

If you choose to belong to a man with that fierce sense of protectiveness… with his fixation that you need proper sleep at night-

I choose. I love Flynn and I choose.

"Don't beat yourself up." Riley said a lot more gently beside him. Dale leaned his elbows on his knees, hunching his shoulders a little.

"I'm not. Really. Just a steep learning curve."

Riley swiped the juice out of his hand, dumped both cartons on the porch and grabbed Dale's hand, towing him down the steps and into the yard. They were both barefoot and the rough earth of the yard was not comfortable walking, but beyond the yard was the soft, deep grass that led down the line of paddocks where horses stood like monoliths in the shadows. Several had heads hanging down, dozing; others turned to look as they passed by. Ticktock, sharing a paddock with Nekkid, the big, wide backed, easy-going gelding with the long eyelashes that Paul loved to ride, nickered at the sight of Riley, and Riley leaned on the fence to rub his face, smiling at the colt's enthusiastic butts and nudges.

"No we're not going out for a ride. Later."

Ticktock swung his head against Riley's shoulder, almost knocking him over, and Riley laughed and climbed the fence, crossing the grass to fetch the large, tough ball that lay by the water trough. Ticktock darted sideways as Riley tossed it towards him, circling to reach the ball and to paw it, darting after it when it moved. Dale, leaning on the wooden rail and watching Riley chase the excited colt with several mock feints, both of them dodging around Nekkid who placidly went on grazing, found himself noticing not for the first time the exact lines of Riley's tan and his lean torso. Riley was built like an acrobat or a swimmer, long legged and lightly framed, and while he moved with all the flexibility and the liveliness of a kid, the muscle at his shoulders and the hard lines of his chest told a very different story. The physical reaction was involuntary and took Dale by surprise; he was grateful that Riley was too occupied with the colt to notice. He was equally surprised by the ball launched straight at him, that hit him in the chest.

"Quit observing and get in here!" Riley called, and Dale pitched the ball back to him.

"I never got the off-side rule."


There was no sting in the teasing, and for a minute, Dale seriously considered climbing the fence and joining him, but for the sight of someone tall, with sandy hair, wearing nothing more than shorts and a t shirt, crossing the grass from the direction of the house.

His first thought was that one of them always knew. His second was regret that Flynn had woken. He didn't look tired or even frustrated at being out of bed, but Dale had seen him work a long, hard day, and Flynn, Paul, Jasper and Riley were used to a solid night's sleep and the relatively early nights that were the habit in this house.

"It's a quarter past two in the morning," Flynn pointed out as he reached them. "What exactly do you two think you're doing?"

"It was too hot to sleep." Riley called back, returning the ball to Ticktock. "We decided to give up."

"Not before five am you don't." Flynn said firmly. "Out of there. Now."

"It's a shame you woke." Dale said from the heart, and caught Riley's double take as he climbed over the fence. Flynn shook his head, putting a hand in the small of Dale's back and walking with him, slowly enough for Riley to catch them up.

"I don't plan on any of us losing any more sleep, don't worry. Ri, get under the shower and cool down. Leave the lights off, you don't need to be any more awake than you already are. You-" he turned Dale to face him on the porch, a gentle grasp that moved him without effort in a way that always reminded Dale just how strong his hands were.  "Have a rule about staying in bed at night."

His very dark green eyes were almost black in the dim light of the porch, as calm as his voice. He was stating a fact, not asking a question, and Dale only nodded, accepting.

"He heard me going downstairs," Riley called, disappearing into the bathroom off the kitchen. "He didn't wander off by himself."

"That's a rule he needs and you don't, and lower your voice before you wake the others." Flynn took a seat on the nearest of the wooden porch chairs, and not surprised, although his stomach was starting to clench in apprehension, Dale went where Flynn led him, to his right side. Riley appeared naked in the doorway, not having bothered to collect a towel on the way, and Flynn paused, holding Dale's arm.

"Riley, go and shower."

"That's not fair." Riley said sharply. "You won't make that much of a deal out of it with me-"

"Doesn't need to be fair." Flynn said calmly, "You two are not the same and I don't ever plan on treating you the same. Go shower, Ri."

He spoke gently, and Dale, used to seeing Flynn handle the horses, felt his unspoken reassurance, and knew Riley was far more familiar with it than he was. It was in Flynn's voice, in his face, in the unhurried and competent way he moved, and Riley scowled but after a minute he went back inside. Flynn drew Dale down over his lap, and Dale braced his hands against the wooden planks of the porch, feeling Flynn's hand rest flat over his hip and the other hand slip his shorts down his legs. For a moment Dale was aware of the cool of the night air on bare skin, of the hardness of Flynn's legs under his, the warmth of pressing against him and the difficult sense of being so intensely the centre of his attention, then Flynn's palm fell and Dale bit down on the need to yelp and jump and gulp his way through the dozen very businesslike swats Flynn applied. It still shocked him considerably that such a simple action could have such a profound effect, or that a man could slap so damned hard. He was breathless and smarting hotly when Flynn replaced his shorts and put him on his feet, and Flynn took his hand without comment, walking him into the kitchen where Riley was towelling off, looking mutinous.

"Shower." Flynn said quietly to Dale, and Dale slipped past Riley towards the bathroom.

He lingered for a few minutes under the shower, setting it to cool and turning his face up into the spray, aware that now, ridiculously, he felt peaceful again. Calmed and oriented despite the smart of his backside. Flynn was leaning against the kitchen table with his arms loosely folded across his chest when Dale emerged from the bathroom, shouldering into his t shirt. There was no sign of Riley and Dale glanced towards the family room. Flynn straightened, putting a hand on Dale's shoulder to steer him towards the stairs.

"Ri went back to bed."

"Do you need to go with him?" Dale glanced back at Flynn who shook his head.

"If you want to see Riley promise you almost anything, offer to share a bed with him in hot weather."

It actually wasn't too warm upstairs; the windows in Flynn's room were wide open and the breeze stirred the room, falling across the bed with the covers turned back. The temperature outside was falling rapidly; the air was fresher now than it had been just ten minutes ago. Flynn pushed the blanket to the foot of the bed and Dale watched him separate out the sheet with a tinge of wonder at the normality of it. Sharing a bed with this man was becoming a habit. And a very comfortable one.

"Were you hot or not sleeping?" Flynn asked very softly as they lay down. Dale stretched out on his back just an inch or two from Flynn, aware of the full length of his familiar body, the deepness of his voice when he spoke this softly at night.

"Too tired I think. I used to get like this at work on long projects, just too hyped up to settle."

"What did you do when you couldn't sleep?" Flynn asked. Dale smiled, not looking at him.

"Pretty much everything you'd most disapprove of. Go back to sleep, you need it. I hate that we woke you."

"And you don't need sleep?" Flynn said mildly.

"I'm very practiced in doing without it, it doesn't really affect me."


It was one of Flynn's more expressive sounds and the sheer cynicism of it made Dale laugh. Flynn put an arm out and dragged him over, and Dale collapsed where he was pulled, his head against Flynn's hard shoulder, body against his. Pressed this close he could feel the rise and fall of Flynn's chest, and the slow steady thud of his heartbeat, and the strength of the arm around him that wouldn't let him slide away. There wasn't anywhere on earth that could be hot enough to make this too uncomfortable to bear.


"What's the matter?"

Dale glanced up at the question. Flynn's hair was tousled and they were both bare chested, Dale's face still dripping from the shaving he was just finishing. It was almost too early for breakfast. The scent of cinnamon was coming from downstairs; Paul tended to heat muffins or buns they could grab on their way out first thing, and then to bring filled rolls out to the fields later in the morning when they were hungry. Whatever time they got up, Paul always seemed to be ahead of them.

Dale leaned on the sink, still glaring at the dark and haggard looking man in the mirror beside Flynn.

"What on earth happened to my hair?"

"What's wrong with your hair?"

Dale put up a hand to run through it, wondering how he could not have noticed.

"It's too short. What was I thinking when I did this?"

"I don't know, what were you thinking?" Flynn asked him.

Dale looked again at the reflection, from the ribs that showed under the skin, to the severely neat haircut which he was sure hadn't been cheap, although he had been used to doing domestic chores like clothes and haircuts almost on autopilot, following the bookings in his schedule made by his PA.

"I probably had a bloody blackberry in my hand at the time and didn't even notice what was going on. I didn't look like this when I left. For God's sake, I was only gone a few weeks! How does this happen in just a few weeks?"

"You've got a body type that shows even a few pounds down and you're putting them back on." Paul said soothingly from the doorway. "When you've eaten properly for a few weeks, you'll be fine. I thought the haircut was a bit harsh, but you probably just had the same cut you always did at work."

And that was what Dale was saying, Flynn thought, looking at Dale's face in the mirror and seeing both the shock and the active dislike in his expression. Not 'what the heck is this haircut all about?
' but 'who IS this man I turned back into when I went to New York?'

"It'll grow out." he said, patting Dale's hip to break him out of his reverie. "And I've got your blackberry, so next time you'll be paying attention."

"I don't believe I didn't notice." Dale muttered, grabbing a towel to wipe his face. "How could I not notice?"

"Come here a minute." Paul held out a hand and Flynn stepped back to let Dale past him. Paul led Dale out onto the landing and into the small room that had belonged to him in on his first stay at the ranch. His clothes were still stored in the dresser, and Paul opened the drawers, stepping back to give Dale an inviting look.

"Show me one item of clothing in there that you chose yourself."

Dale looked back at the dresser, feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

"I didn't really……?"

Paul waited. Dale crouched in front of the drawers, picking through the collared t shirts, jeans, and a couple of sweaters it hadn't yet been cold enough to wear and that were still brand new and unfolded.

"This is all the stuff you had waiting when I first came."

"Yes, the basics we prepare for clients." Paul agreed. "Colours at random. Find me something that belongs to you."

"There's a couple of work suits-" Dale said lamely, "Which went – somewhere-?"

"The hall closet, yes." Paul agreed pleasantly. "Not suits, honey. Leisure wear. Something you bought because you liked the colour or the style, or the feel of it." 

"Well the suits more or less were –" Dale protested. "That was pretty much what I wore all the time-"

"And who picked them for you?" Paul invited. "I noticed they were all the same style, custom made by the same tailor - just different colours. One of Caroline's jobs? I thought so. What about ornaments? Photographs? Things you keep because you like looking at them?"

"I travelled around a lot, there wasn't-" Dale trailed off, feeling distinctly under pressure.

"I bet you knew the exact design of your blackberry and your fax machine, and where they were at all times." Paul said mildly. "Get that lot out of the drawers and put it on the bed. I'm going to take the rolls out of the oven."

"I'm supposed to be-" Dale started, thinking of long meadow and the bales they were about to start work on this morning. Paul didn't hesitate, calling back as he headed downstairs.

"When I'm finished with you. I'll tell Flynn where you are."

The house was quiet when he came back upstairs, carrying two mugs of coffee and a plate with two warm cinnamon rolls on which he handed to Dale. A small heap of clothing was laid on the bed, much of which Dale knew he had never actually worn.

"I thought at first, you liked the colours," Paul commented, sipping his coffee and sitting down on a clear patch of bed, "And that was why you wore the same couple of shirts all the time. Until I started hiding your clean laundry at the bottom of the drawer and then I realised you didn't look twice at the colour, you just took the first one on the top in the morning. You're so careful about creases and neatness it surprised me you weren't more interested."

Dale instinctively glanced down at himself. The jeans were the same ones he wore every day, and were just –

-       jeans. Neatly belted.

"Of these," Paul went on, still drinking coffee as he rapidly turned over t shirts, "Most of these are too wide fitting for you, and they're the wrong colours anyway. Whoever chose the colour and style of your suits knew what they were doing."

"ANZ employed style consultants-" Dale said rather shamefacedly, "Which were compulsory- I wore what got put in the wardrobe."

"I'm sure they were compulsory, they were sending you out to represent their image." Paul dropped several beige and grey t shirts on the floor. "Those are right out, you're too dark. You need strong colours. The purple one is too muddy for you, and so is the green. The navy blue is ok, the red is ok –"

Dale winced as Paul held a t shirt up against him, then added it to the pile beside him.

"The sweaters won't do at all, not that you'll need those yet. You could do with a tighter inseam and straight legs on the jeans – and a longer fit. What colours do you like?"

"I'm not-" Dale broke off, not sure how to politely explain, as Paul clearly attached some kind of meaning to this. "They're just functional, it hardly matters-"

"Yes, it does." Paul said firmly. "For just the same reason that you care how short your hair is. You're too used to uniforms. As soon as we've got a free day, we'll go into Cheyenne, you and I, and we'll do something about this. Leaving Riley and Flynn here, you have no idea how horrible they can be in shopping malls."

Dale glanced up at him, surprised, and Paul smiled, touching his face.

"Put one of the navy ones on and finish those rolls."

Dale shouldered into the t shirt and cautiously sat down, watching Paul sort clothes and replace some in the dresser by some criteria only Paul understood.  

"…..I don't really notice this kind of thing."

"I don't think you have the habit of it." Paul said cheerfully. "I'm sure at ANZ it was a very low priority, your time was too valuable."

And at school, Paul was right; there had been uniforms. No need to choose, no need to think, just what was provided to someone else's prescription. And from school he'd been working apprenticeships for ANZ while he did his accelerated first degree and the office work came with its own prescribed uniforms of suits and ties……….

For God's sake Aden, did you ever have an identity of your own at all?

"But you live here now," Paul interrupted his musing, "And I'm not having you wander around in colours that don't suit you and jeans that don't fit properly, looking like no one takes care of you."

And to Paul that really mattered. There was a powerful possessiveness to it, a sense of belonging. Only Paul could make you feel this chastened and this at home at one and the same time.

"I suppose I do have one photograph," Dale said in something between self defence and wanting to at least show Paul he was willing.

Paul looked up, and Dale picked up the small leather case that carried documents, licences and other paraphernalia, pulling out a small and yellowed little black and white picture. Paul took it, looking with him at the man in army uniform.

"That's your father, isn't it? You look very like him."

"That was taken just before he was deployed to Belfast." Dale indicated the date written in pen on the corner of the picture. "He was shot with two of his men in a gun attack on a mobile patrol. I never knew him, I was only a baby when he died."

"And your mother re married." Paul looked again at the photograph of the dark haired man in the picture, with the severe haircut rather like the one his son now bore. "He was a good-looking man. Do they know where you are, honey?"

"Not really, but no less than usual." Dale zipped the picture back into the wallet. "My step father would contact through ANZ if he needed to – not that he would – but he's a decent man. I used to meet him for dinner sometimes if I was in London or he was in New York."

He spoke as if the man was a friendly acquaintance; Paul had heard far more animation in his voice when he spoke of Jeremy Banks, his mentor at ANZ.

"Don't look as if I'm going to lecture you," he said reassuringly to Dale. "Flynn's people still haven't the faintest idea where he is, and they're never going to hear it from Flynn. Riley's father drops in occasionally, and Riley does his best to be kind to the man. Rather a lot of the people who lived here are short on blood family."

It took nerve to ask, and it felt incredibly personal. Dale found himself sounding stilted out of awkwardness.

"What about you? You said your mother ran a restaurant?"

"In Maine, yes." Paul smiled. "My mother and grandmother together. My mother died when I was twelve or thirteen, and my grandmother about five years later. The restaurant was sold up and I went looking for housekeeping work as that was what I enjoyed most. I worked for a while for a friend of Philip's, and he knew Philip was looking for someone David might even consider letting look after him, and recommended me."

He must have been eighteen or nineteen at the time. Dale, thinking of one of the many black and white photographs on the shelves in Philip and David's room upstairs, had a brief image of a teenaged, much slimmer, dark haired Paul with the same smile. It took an exceptional boy at that age to walk into a large, busy household and take over not just the running of it, but befriend and care for an irascible and frustrated elderly man.

"It wasn't difficult." Paul said, reading his face and going back to folding t shirts. "The only thing old about David was the body. He was a very dear friend."

It was always strange to hear of the history of this house and know you were in the rooms where it happened. That Paul had been that young while he did the multiple things that Dale saw him do every day, the cleaning and cooking in the kitchen that was his – that David had sat in the kitchen with him, at the same table Dale sat at daily. It made David very real.  

"So what about books?" Paul asked, putting another stack of folded clothes away. "Is that something else we need to think about? I saw you brought some work texts with you which went on the downstairs shelves. What do you keep to read for fun?"

That was another tricky question, which had an attached confession that went "Um…The Financial Times…   the Wall Street Journal… "

Which reminded Dale of something. For a moment he sat in an agony of indecision. Then took a breath and leaned over to the bedside table to open the drawer, taking out the two very well thumbed paperbacks he had read over and over again in New York. Paul stopped half way through folding a t shirt, and his eyebrows rose at the sight of them.

"I didn't know you'd read those?"

"They were the first thing I sent Caroline out for when I got to New York." Dale admitted, watching Paul take the books and wondering how it must feel to see your own name written in print on the cover. They were second editions, both of them; the books obviously sold well.

"They were excellent, I enjoyed them both – they were the only two the book store could get hold of quickly-"

Dale stopped, painfully reminded of what Tom had so bluntly said to him. And then took a breath and made himself say it, honestly, wincing at the sheer tackiness of it.
He couldn't look at Paul, but he forced it out, hearing himself slip into what staff at ANZ had referred to as 'The James Bond Voice', feeling his face get extremely hot.  

"It was rather like being able to hear you. Your voice. Kind of. Would you excuse –
er –"

Paul caught his hand before he successfully escaped towards the bathroom.


Very little was happening on the long meadow by the time he got out there, which was not a good sign. Several tractors were employed in the work, and in the distance Dale could see Jake and Tom amongst the men currently loading bales onto the long trailer attached to one of them. The windrower, perhaps the most vital part of the equipment at this stage, was standing silently on the bottom of the long meadow, surrounded by a small crowd of labourers, along with Flynn and Jasper, who were peering into the windrower's workings. Flynn glanced up as Dale reached them, his hands were planted on his hips and Dale thought he looked hot and fed up.

"The cutter bar is fine, the reel is fine, the auger isn't plugged up, there's no jams I can see. The battery isn't flat. It was running fine last night."

"Wilsons in Jackson might get someone out here this afternoon." Jasper said quietly.

"You'll be lucky with every ranch in the area mowing this week," one of the labourers commented. Jasper shrugged.

"All we can do is call them and ask. Until then, we'll have to concentrate on what we can get done with the rest of the equipment."

Which would be a pain. The windrower was one the largest, most efficient and rapid piece of equipment and the pastures they were mowing were vast. It had so far done the most work in the shortest time and it would be difficult to spare.

"What's the problem with it?" Dale asked cautiously. Flynn shook his head.

"Other than it won't start?"

He sounded frustrated. Dale gave the windrower an appraising look. It was a machine. Machines were inevitably logical, with set processes and mechanics, and in Dale's experience tended to be far more predictable than computers. Or people.

"Do you have the service manual?"

Jasper looked at Flynn, who nodded. "In the file on the bottom shelf in the kitchen, all the manuals are there. Do you think you can do something with it?"

"Well I can try," Dale said lightly. "No harm in trying."

The kitchen was empty when he reached the house, and Dale found the manual without difficulty, laying it on the table and sitting down to flick through. Part of his job, for years, had been the ability to absorb information quickly, to gain an overview and find clues. Possibilities. Mathematical probabilities. And then rapidly to create and test theories. A windrower was rather different to most problem solving exercises Dale was usually faced with, but had a far more limited range of potential issues.

It was perhaps twenty minutes later he took the manual back up the hill to the now abandoned windrower at the far end of the field, opened up its insides and began to do some action research. It was a further thirty minutes before Flynn, hefting bales up to Jake who was standing on the trailer bed, heard the windrower engine burst into life, and looked round.

When he reached the windrower, Dale had moved it on several feet, left the engine idling, and was climbing down from the cab, oil stained and with the look of active interest that always reminded Flynn of a kid playing a computer game. His eyes were alive, he looked a good deal less tidy and contained than he usually did, and he had the crisp, rapid movements and the more fluent, confident voice Flynn associated with Dale untangling any cerebral challenge.

And you don't care what it is, do you kid? You just love puzzles. Curiosity-wise, you'd even give Ri a run for his money; there's just a difference in what you can't resist.

"Too hot last night and too cool this morning," Dale told him, wiping his hands on a rag from the open box of tools at his feet. Apparently he had searched the barn for what he needed; the tool box looked markedly tidier than usual. The service manual, with an open diagram of some internal workings, lay beside it on the grass, neatly weighted down.

"Condensation from the heat rising from the grass. Water got into the diesel tank and buggered up the injectors and pump."

"So how did you fix it?" Flynn demanded.

Dale indicated the tool box. "Drained the separator, cleaned the fuel and injector filters, wiped the whole thing down, then drained the tank until it ran clear diesel again." 

And I'll bet half an hour ago you'd never seen a separator before in your life. And I'll bet too you could now explain diesel combustion in detail, with diagrams.

Flynn looked again from the diagrams to Dale with a powerful mix of emotion, that ran the gamut from deep respect to still deeper affection for the sheer sense of happy interest that hung around him along with the diesel stains. He was so unassuming it was easy to forget just how damned fast on the uptake he was.

"The tanks would do better full overnight," Dale said candidly in a tone that told Flynn this was purely common sense to him.

"Everything here is supposed to be left with full tanks overnight." Flynn said darkly. "I heard Jas ask Henson if he'd filled them when we came down last night, and he said he had."

Dale looked with him towards the group of labourers still loading the long lines of bales stretched across the meadows. Flynn stretched his shoulders until they cracked and let his breath go in a brief sigh.

"I'll have a word with him."

"I'll check the other engines and see if any more need draining." Dale dropped the rag into the tool box and put a hand instinctively out to touch Flynn's back, aware he was looking tired. He was startled by Flynn's arm closing around his waist in return and crushing him in a hug that lifted him off his feet.

"You know we're bloody lucky to have you?" Flynn said in his ear. "You've saved us at least a lost day of work. We'd have been begging Wilsons for a mechanic at this time of year."

His accent always grew stronger and gruffer when he spoke from the heart. He was hot and dusty and his so familiar skin was damp against Dale's, and being so surrounded by his strength, the praise and the tangible feel of his approval was – overwhelming to put it mildly. Breathing him, the mixture of clean sweat, diesel, the last of Flynn's morning cologne and the sweet smell of grass that hung in the air for miles around, Dale's heart abruptly caught in his throat and the brief physical reaction he had felt last night, watching Riley, was nothing to the almighty jolt that hit him so hard that for a moment breathing was a serious issue.

The windrower provided enough cover from the others and self control was an art that Dale had years of expertise in. He managed to return the hug in a properly appropriate way and to let Flynn go without completely losing his head, and was thoroughly relieved when Flynn strode away towards the lower meadows where the others were working.

Breathing carefully, standing still more carefully, Dale leaned his hands against the hot sides of the windrower and thought in detail about Black-Scholes formulas and variations until he felt better.

None of the other tractors or the baler were sufficiently condensed to have problems, although as a precaution Dale spent the rest of the day draining and cleaning filters, and then a further two hours in the barn, up in the loft with Riley, catching the new bales being handed up from the now piled high trailer, and stacking them. It was twilight when the last ones were placed, checked for sufficient circulating air and dryness, and Riley slid rather than climbed down the ladder and led the way as far as the porch steps, where he dropped and lay back, shutting his eyes. Stiffly, Dale took a seat on the hard earth of the yard and automatically rubbed the ears of one of the dogs who promptly came to see what he was doing. Jake and Tom had manhandled the now empty trailer up to the end of the yard, and were walking back, shoulder to shoulder, both with their shirts tied around their waists. The evening was still hot, even the lowering sun put out a steady heat, and more heat rose from the ground. Jake and Tom appeared to be unaffected by it. They worked with the practiced ease of people used to hard physical labour, and Jake, who smiled easily, who talked easily to anyone around him, and who whistled much of the time when he was working, was shadowed almost everywhere he went by Tom, who said very little to anyone. Jake climbed over Riley to reach the porch and sat down on the bench with a grunt of comfort. Tom climbed the porch rail and sat there, perched, spectacularly untidy even wearing only jeans and boots. Paul brought a tray with several jugs and glasses out of the kitchen and put it on the bench beside Jake, who with an effort straightened up and began to pour iced tea, passing a filled glass to Tom. Paul filled another two and brought one down to Dale, and gave the other to Riley, who hadn't opened his eyes.

"I haven't got the heart to make you wash before you eat. I don't know if anyone would stay awake that long. Jake, there's only showers at the bunk house; if you and Tom need a soak in the bath –"

"A shower still seems like luxury to us." Jake sat back, knocking down iced tea in long, steady gulps. "Although we did find an amazing system of natural springs and pools in the last Inca city we guided to. Ice cold, but it was so hot we didn't care, and the archaeologists were so busy working, they never got around to trying them out. Tom and I had the whole system to ourselves and we barely got out of the water the entire four days we were there."

"The archaeologists were prats." Tom said succinctly. "We had several major rows with them on the way out, and more going back. It was a pleasure to leave them to dig and have some time off."

That was about the most Dale had ever heard him say in one go in any group situation. Tom caught his eye, giving him an almost embarrassed look, and Dale saw him glance back to Paul, raising the glass with a grimace that might have been a very difficult attempt at a smile.

"This is great, as always."

Dale saw Paul's flash of surprise, but all Paul said was a comfortable, "You're welcome, honey."

Jake glanced up, and that was all he did, but Tom slid down from the rail and went to sit beside him, and Dale saw Jake's long fingers slide through Tom's, entangling around and engulfing them. They found it difficult to keep their hands off each other those two; Dale, studying them, saw the proportion of their communication that was entirely physical. They almost always stood or sat close enough to touch, and Jake's hand often casually slipped into Tom's back pocket as they walked. Dale had a sudden, flashing image of the two of them lying in the grass around noon today as he had seen them while he worked on one of the tractors. Not talking; Jake had been reading a book he had pulled from his pocket, propped on one elbow on his side, absently chewing on a stalk of hay. Tom lay in front of him and a little below him, one arm under his head, watching the sky. And that was all, unless you saw that Tom lay in the shade cast by Jake's body.

Dale got up as Paul went into the kitchen, and Paul glanced up, picking up several large plates of finger foods.

"No, I'll do it. You go and sit down, you're done for the day. I didn't make anything hot, I didn't think anyone could stand it. If this heat goes on much longer we'll have a major storm when it breaks."

"Do you want plates?" Dale asked, moving out of his way to let him past. Paul shook his head.

"I'll do it. Sit."

Dale clicked his heels courteously and caught Paul's smile.

"Don't you get stroppy with me. Eat something, you must be starving."

He put the plates on the two low wooden tables that lived with the chairs on the porch and Dale, along with Jake and Tom, dug thankfully into the cold sausage and cheese rolls, bread, salad and chips. Flynn and Jasper walked up the yard and Jasper paused to fill the dogs' water trough as he passed it. Flynn walked on up the porch steps, stooping to poke Riley gently in the ribs.

"Half pint, come and eat. You'll get stiff down there."

Riley didn't answer. Flynn ran a hand over his cheek, rubbing gently, and his voice this time was quieter.


He watched Riley's face for a moment, then stooped further, sliding one arm under Riley's knees and the other under his arms with gentle and very practiced skill. Riley didn't stir when Flynn lifted him and from the way his head fell against Flynn's shoulder, he wasn't going to move again before morning. Moving slowly, with care, Flynn carried him up the steps and into the kitchen. Jasper followed him up the steps, took a plate and sat down beside Dale to fill it, stretching out his long legs in front of him.

"How tired are you? I heard you two were out playing with Ticktock in the middle of the night."

"Not for long." Dale looked with shrinking interest at the plate on his knee now the initial gnawing of his stomach was fading. Being too tired to eat was no new experience; there had been times in many boardrooms in many countries at extremely unsociable hours of the night that he had had this same sensation of it being too much effort. It had never previously been accompanied by this sense of peace, or comfort, or a body that was as tired as the mind.

"We spoke to Henson." Flynn said, coming out of the kitchen and pausing by the table to pick up and fill a plate. "Denied all knowledge and said there had to be a leak. We didn't argue it, but we warned him. One more problem and he'll get a lift back to Jackson."

"I didn't know you were mechanically minded," Paul said, raising an eyebrow at Dale. "I heard you repaired the windrower. Where did you learn about diesel engines?"

"From the service manual?" Dale indicated towards the kitchen drawer. "There were exploded diagrams, it was pretty clear."

"Exploded diagrams." Paul repeated. He caught Flynn's eye and Flynn gave him a brief grin and shook his head.

Yeah, but to Dale, that makes sense.   

"I'll walk up to the camp with the dogs this evening and have a look around." Jasper said mildly. "I get the impression the others don't like Henson much, and that always makes me look twice."

And Jasper never seemed to tire or to need sleep. Dale looked at him curiously and Jasper gave him a half smile, catching the plate sliding from his hand before Dale realised it was falling.

"You're done. Go upstairs and run a bath."

"Jas I'll watch him, you eat." Paul said firmly. "Dale, give me those jeans before you go inside, you'll get oil everywhere."

Dale spent some time in the bathroom trying to scrub engine oil from his hands, and Paul followed him upstairs, ran the bath and sat with him for the quarter of an hour he made Dale soak, largely Dale suspected to ensure he didn't fall asleep. The large glass of warm milk he put into Dale's hand further kept him occupied. Dale, now used to Paul to the extent that it no longer felt strange to have him in the bathroom at what had always been a rather private time, lay back in the hot water and absently drank about half the milk before he paused for thought and lifted the glass to examine it.

"This tastes a bit strange."

"Probably due to the eggs and brandy." Paul said matter of factly.

Dale looked from him to the milk and Paul shook his head.

"I'm going to get calories into you somehow. You drank most of that without noticing, so you can finish it."

"No one ever tried offering me milk before I came here." Dale pointed out. "It isn't something generally served at corporate lunches. For all I know it's supposed to taste this bizarre."

"It is this evening." Paul said firmly.

"I thought you didn't keep alcohol on the premises because of clients?" Dale took another more cautious sip of the milk and this time he could taste the brandy.

"I wouldn't expect clients to find cooking brandy, particularly not where I keep it." Paul got up, taking a towel from the rail. "Have you got all the oil off?"

"I have now." Dale looked rather vaguely at his hands, and knocked back the last of the milk. It was filling at least; he was no longer hungry.

He paused on the landing, still towelling off, and glanced through Riley's door. Riley was sprawled face down on his bed, covers thrown back, and Flynn had obviously stripped him down to his shorts when he put him to bed.

"With any luck that brandy should calm you down enough to get some sleep." Paul told him, turning back the covers on Flynn's bed.

"I am calm." Dale told him, surprised. "I've been calm all day, how calm would you like me to be?"

"I'd settle for not hyper and able to see straight." Paul pushed his hair back off his forehead and kissed his forehead with an affection that Dale felt acutely.

"Goodnight sweetheart. Stay in bed and get some sleep tonight, you need it."

He waited until Dale lay down and helped to draw the sheet over him, settling it neatly before he left, as if it was quite normal to put a man in his thirties to bed.

Dale lay listening to him going downstairs, the bedroom door left open onto the landing which meant you could lie in bed here without being at all isolated from the rest of the house, and knew it might as easily have been Jasper or Flynn who did the same thing. It was normality in this house, just as it was normality not to wake someone sleeping, or not to leave them where they lay. The image of Flynn gathering up Riley was a poignant one and Dale reflected on it for some minutes, aware that some men might have been stirred to jealousy, and how foreign a concept that was when you applied it to Flynn, Riley, Jasper and Paul. There was only a warmth and comfort to seeing that very private gesture. Something that went very deep.

Like lying here, in this house, knowing that downstairs Flynn and Jasper and Paul were talking, tidying and locking up and going through the same routine they did every night, and that even if you didn't directly need them, you knew that they were there. 


There was no sign of Tom on the porch when Paul came back down; only Jake comfortably sprawled in his jeans, his long legs crossed and his dusty boots propped on the porch rail, and Jas continuing to eat while Flynn leaned on the porch rail, watching the horses in the corral.

"Dale's in bed, and Ri is so fast asleep he's hardly breathing." Paul said, sitting down with Jasper. "I left sandwiches and milk in his room in case he wakes up starving, but I don't think he's going to move before morning."

"He was slinging bales all afternoon." Jasper put his plate on his knee where Paul could share the finger food he was working through, and put his shoulders back against the wooden bench. "Gets so fixed on finishing and shifting what he's doing, he doesn't realise he's tired until he stops. He and Dale got the whole of the last trailerful away before they quit this evening."

"Neither of them stopped all day." Flynn, with a glass of tea cradled between his hands, glanced back to Paul and Jasper. "Neither ate worth a damn this evening either. I'm sending them both to take a day off tomorrow, they can go spend a day riding or swimming right away from the hay."

"That's going to hit Dale every kind of wrong." Jasper said mildly.

"You think?" Flynn straightened up off the rail and gave Jasper a brief smile.

"Another workaholic?" Jake asked, tossing up a fragment of sausage roll and catching it in his mouth. Paul gave him a tolerant look.

"Philip never stopped hating you doing that."

"No, Tom doesn't think much to it either." Jake said cheerfully. "Apparently Tops ought to behave better. He won't even let me have M&Ms any more. Dale seems very sweet to me from what little I've seen of him. He doesn't say much, so it's hard to tell, but he has the knack of looking very low maintenance?"

"He is
very sweet," Paul told him, "Incredibly so. And he's not low maintenance; he would just really like to be."

"He has a lot of trouble with perfectionism." Jasper was still eating with the steady need that said he'd been starving hungry for some hours. "And responsibility. He's thrown himself heart and soul into the work since we started mowing."

"It's an ongoing project, there's pride involved; he won't do quitting while we're still working; it's walking away from something not completed; it's an implication that he's tired and not coping, and he doesn't do failing……" Flynn gave Jake a wry look and Jake nodded, eyebrows raised.


"How much warning are you going to give him?" Paul asked. Flynn shook his head.

"I'm not going to make a big deal of it. Work happens on our terms, on our rules, we don't negotiate. Jake, you and Tom take tomorrow off too. Go and climb something."

"We've got our eye on Gannett Peak at the end of August when you can spare us." Jake said easily. "If anyone wants to come with us they'd be more than welcome, we thought Riley probably will. Does Dale climb?"

"If he doesn't, he'll pick it up faster than you can teach him." Paul got up, collecting plates together. "He'd love it. There's probably enough gear in the store to kit him out, I know all Riley's stuff is in there, but I need to take Dale into Cheyenne in the next few weeks anyway if you do need anything else."

"I'd better go and see if Tom's out of the shower yet." Jake got up, stretching until his shoulders cracked. "If you really don't need us, we'll sleep in tomorrow and fend for ourselves, thanks Paul. Can I help clear up?"

"No, I've got it covered." Paul returned the swift kiss on the cheek that Jake gave him. "Sleep well."

They watched him walk down the pasture, long and casually comfortable as Jake always was, as though his time away from the ranch, whether measured in months or years, was nothing more than minor errands done on his way home. Philip  had understood that, and Paul thought that Tom did too. Jake had always needed plenty to do, but since he met Tom, the sense of restlessness that had always hung about him, was gone. Tom might not like them much, but he made Jake happy.

"This is going to be the first time we've let Dale go off with Ri since they skipped off to the auction." he commented neutrally to the others. Jasper shrugged, shoulders relaxed.

"Long past time then."

"So you can let him go without worrying about him all day?" Paul said, looking at Flynn, who didn't answer.

"Good." Paul said, taking the dishes  into the kitchen. "I'd hate to think it was just me."


 Riley looked less heavy eyed but his smile was a bit half hearted when Dale met him in the kitchen the following morning, pausing in the doorway to sort out his boots from the row by the open door. It was already looking like being another hot morning; currently cool, the sky was very blue overhead and the air was still. Flynn stepped ahead of them onto the porch and looked up at the meadows where the machinery stood dormant in the early morning. They looked striped from this distance, the long grass shorn down on most of them. Some now were completely bare, some had the long stripes of raked piled grass drying, some had the lines of bales where the balers had passed. In the distance, Dale heard Jasper's whistle, the whistle all the stock on the ranch knew, and the horses in the corral moved towards the fence where he was re filling the water troughs. Paul was obviously out there too this morning; a plate of rolls stood, still warm on the table, although Dale's stomach had protested at the sight of them and he'd quietly passed them by.

Flynn put out a hand to stop Riley on the porch, looking from him to Dale.

"You two, I want you to take some food with you, take a couple of horses and go spend the day doing something more fun than baling. Ride. Swim. Whatever you want to do that doesn't involve hay."

Riley put his arms around Flynn's neck and hugged him, and Dale saw the fierceness of the kiss Flynn dropped on his cheek.

"Not Ticktock, take someone less hard work. I want you back here no later than six. Clear?"

"Clear." Riley said emphatically.

"You're just as tired." Dale said pointedly. Flynn shook his head.

"There's plenty of people here to carry on with what needs doing, and this isn't an invitation."

"I'd rather stay and carry on with you." Dale took a breath, and found he was getting angrier by the second. "I'm used to working to deadlines, I'm probably more used to it than any of you. I'm not leaving you to it."

Flynn's face didn't change in the slightest, but his hand caught Dale's arm and turned him around so fast that Dale didn't see it coming. He certainly felt the hard swat Flynn dealt to the seat of his jeans. After which, Flynn turned him back and Looked at him.

"You can do as I say, or you can do as I say with a sore butt. Those are your options. Which is it going to be?"

He stood there, over six foot of bluntly determined Kiwi, and Dale knew his tone well. There were not going to be reasons, explanations, arguments; Flynn did not intend to justify himself; he intended to be obeyed. And while that look, and that tone usually made Dale's feet start moving involuntarily in the right direction, another part of him was hopping, flaming mad and glued him to the spot.

"No! I am not pissing off to do nothing all day while you're slogging your guts out here, I won't do it!"

He saw Riley fold his hands behind his head and raise his eyes skywards, and saw Paul come out of the barn which made him aware how far he had raised his voice. Flynn gave him a matter of fact nod.

"Ok, let's go."

He didn't give a lot of choice in the matter; Dale found himself hustled up the porch steps and through the kitchen fast enough that there was little time for protest. Flynn shut the door of the study behind them, put his hands on Dale's shoulders and turned him to face the corner between the floor to ceiling book cases.

"Hands on your head. Stand there, cool down, and think."

"You don't even have the time to spare for this
-" Dale began, and jumped at the deepness and the sharpness of Flynn's voice.


The inclination to push any further was interrupted by a whole lot of self preservation. Dale found himself lacing his fingers on the top of his head and facing the wall in careful silence, very keen not to inspire Flynn to say anything else in that tone, and distinctly apprehensive.

Which is nuts. I've chaired meetings where people yelled, screamed, threatened, banged tables, secretaries cried,  we had security guards in the room for pete's sake – you are not intimidated by people sounding fierce!

And none of those other people were Flynn, or would turn you straight over their knee if you got difficult.

And at the time you were in control of what was happening and you called the shots on what took place. How in control do you feel right now, Aden?

"Not a word," Flynn said from behind him before he could open his mouth. Whatever he was doing was involving paper; Dale heard the scrape of a page turn.

The last time he had been in this room had been a little over a week ago, one of the most uncomfortable evenings of his life, when Flynn had nudged and badgered him through explaining in detail to the others what perfectionism was, and how compulsive obsessive thought patterns worked.

He had nearly walked out of the room at least twice in sheer discomfort. These things were hard enough to admit inside the privacy of his own head, never mind to these people that really, truly mattered. Flynn had alternately been coaxing and bullying these insights and confessions out of him for months,  but Flynn was Flynn. To try and admit this weakness to Jasper, Paul and Riley had been -

Well he had come the closest to vomiting with sheer anxiety that he had done since he was a teenager. He had delivered the brief lecture on perfectionism in the crisp, detached stream in which he could always channel factual information, but when they started asking questions……

"So things that you're anxious about get stuck?" Paul said when he finally stammered himself out.

"And the rituals are self medicating," Flynn said quietly, who had been chipping in to scaffold Dale's fractured sentences. "Trying to reduce anxiety, make it bearable."

"And what you're most worried about is us?" Paul turned back to Dale. There was no pity on his face; just warm concern and a very Paul-like desire to understand. That made it even harder to confess.

"It's not – rational." Dale told him awkwardly. "Or it goes quickly from rational to irrational – it's stupid things, like that I'd do something to hurt you – something to harm the house or the stock – that I'll do things wrong –"

"The extreme fears." Flynn said quietly. "Compulsive obsession picks up on the worst things you can imagine and bullies you with them."

"These are the 'proper brat' worries you've had all along." Jasper said quietly from the windowsill where he'd been listening without comment.

"I know don't learn by osmosis." Dale pulled himself together with an effort, aware that Riley was watching him. "I just – can't work that way.  I need facts."

"Flow charts." Riley said to the ceiling. "Diagrams."

"Riley." Flynn said quietly. Dale took another breath, trying to explain it.

"I need to know how it should look like for me."

"Philip always used to say 'tell me what that would look like' whenever you talked to him about anything new." Paul said thoughtfully.

"There's no point in making this a three act drama," Riley said from the couch. "There is nothing to obsess about. It comes down to 'You do as you're told; now deal'."

"That's a bit of a brutal way to put it-" Paul protested.

"No it isn't. If I tell you I'm afraid there's a monster in the closet, I don't expect you to hold a three day conference on whether it's purple or green." Riley told him. "Is there paper in the drawer?"

Flynn, having been shoved off the edge of the table, handed him a pad of paper and a pen, and Riley plonked both down on the green leather desk top.

"What exactly are the rules you have?"

"Not running to de stress." Dale said automatically. "Not disappearing off at night if I can't sleep."

"Summarised as if you're stressed, find someone and talk about it." Riley said, scrawling that as number 1 in his rapid handwriting. "And?"

"Not with holding," Dale said slowly. Riley grunted.

"See rule number one. And?"

"He needs those more specific than you do." Jasper said calmly. "Put them down, Ri. No with holding. No lying. No running or exercising to de stress without checking with one of us first. No disappearing anywhere. Staying in bed through the night unless there's good reason."

"Eating." Paul said from the other end of the couch. "Which isn't a rule for you, Riley, stop pulling faces."

"Likewise asking permission to go anywhere outside directed chores." Flynn said quietly. "You don't need anything in there about not swimming or climbing or getting chores done, it's harder work to get you to quit doing chores."

"Planned work only, at planned times." Jasper commented, watching Riley write.

"Which brings us to the bottom line of, do what you're told, first time of asking with a good attitude." Riley said briskly, adding it to the bottom of the page. "That's ten, they're specific, that's pretty much it. Zero tolerance for breaking any of them and you'll be fine." He tore off the page and held it out to Dale. "And most of those you can do to the letter on the outside, and still have an attitude on the inside that should get you spanked. You can have your blueprint but there isn't a magic way around this."

Flynn abstracted the paper from his hand and leaned on the desk for a moment, picking up Riley's pen to add something to the bottom of the list. The list, when it was returned, came with a look that made Dale involuntarily flush, and in Flynn's firm handwriting across the bottom of the list was now written;

#11. No bullshit.

"Come here." Flynn said firmly. 

He was leaning on the edge of the desk, arms crossed over his chest, and while he never looked angry at times like this, with that expression and that tone, the most difficult board and corporation would have meekly signed anything he wanted signing and escaped the meeting as fast as possible. Dale found himself instinctively tucking his hands behind his back and standing straight, subdued and conflicted. Whatever book Flynn had been looking at – probably some tome on what you did with your neurotic perfectionist – had been put back on the shelf.

"When you're told to do something?" Flynn asked crisply. Dale felt himself flush.

"Do it. Without arguing."

Tom told me to think of it as an obedience issue…..

"Tom said Jake told him, if Jake put him on his lap it was no different to Jake standing him in a corner, and he expected Tom to get on with it."  he blurted out. "Willingly, for no better reason than he said so…."

It was still a thought he was trying to get his head around,  but Flynn nodded, not commenting on this being beside the point.

"It's those kind of things that are hard to think of in those terms." Dale said lamely.
"The obviously hard stuff, the restrictions, is almost – easier than –"

Anything that involved being looked after. This was a restriction, it was just –

An incredibly hard one.

"I don't like leaving you and the others to work, I'm capable and things need doing-"

"I'm not even going to discuss what you're capable of." Flynn said firmly. "That doesn't enter into it. We don't have to discuss this until we agree, I don't need to go into my reasons for asking, or your reasons for refusing. Rule ten?"

"Do what you're told, first time of asking, with a good attitude." Dale said, hating himself for not only knowing every one of the eleven and their sequence but also being able to visualise exactly the sheet of paper that had been living on the bedside table in their room for some days.

"I have reasons for what I ask you to do, and your job is to trust me." Flynn straightened up off the desk, gesturing him towards the couch. "Take your jeans down."

"You really don't have time to waste doing this." Dale said some time later. They were sprawled on the couch together, Dale curled up against Flynn's side in t shirt and boxers, jeans lying where they had been kicked off some time ago. Flynn was still rubbing his back and Dale felt him snort.

"I've got all the time necessary for you, thank you, and I don't see it as a waste. My priorities. Not yours."

That would have sounded dismissive from anyone else but Flynn. Dale shifted his head against Flynn's shoulder, still feeling slightly shaky, and wondering too why his eyes were so obstinately dry. Which was very likely another failing in the brat stakes; he frequently found his eyes watering during a spanking, but only on a very few occasions had he been reduced to anything approaching tears. As if this made no real impression on him at all. In fact, the anger was burned off as if it had never existed, and in its place was a subdued but certain calm, and an abiding faith that was rather unhappily willing to accept- at the moment- that there was much it didn't understand. Those emotions were there all the time; it just seemed at times to take the clarity of a spanking to pull them to the forefront.

"I do trust you." he said unsteadily. "That wasn't what I meant by arguing-"

"In a way, it was." Flynn said mildly. "You're very used to making decisions for yourself, based on your perspective, your priorities, to being in charge of the situation."

"Control." Dale shut his eyes, feeling his face get hotter with sheer embarrassment.

You make a lousy brat, Aden, and you knew you would.

"It's a steep learning curve, it takes time." Flynn said quietly. "That's ok, we'll work it out. But flat out refusing…….?"

"I told you I never used to yell at anyone or lose my temper at people like this," Dale said with chagrin. He heard the smile in Flynn's voice, although he couldn't see his face.

"Yeah, well we're not colleagues or associates, are we? This is new ground, kid."

Still very new. Dale nodded and drew away, reaching down for his jeans.

"They'll be needing you up on the  –"

Flynn tugged the jeans out of his hand and tossed them across onto the desk chair.

"No, look at me."

Dale looked, wondering again how anyone was ever fooled by Flynn looking and sounding brusque. No one had kinder eyes.

"The hay is not going anywhere." Flynn said quietly. "It's not the most important thing here. I want you to go with Riley, spend a day enjoying yourselves and not working, and that will not kill you. You can do this. It is going to be ok."

There was only one possible answer, and Dale took a breath and made it.

"Yes sir."

"And this is
the hard part." Flynn put a hand behind his head, pulling him over so that for a moment they stood forehead to forehead. "This is what takes the courage. I've never doubted for a minute that you trust me, or how much courage it took just to be here. You show us every day. This is going to get clearer. It will get easier."

"You know what I'm thinking?" Dale said very softly against him. He felt Flynn's fingers slide through his hair, stroking.

"Tell me?"

"The usual crap."

"Tell me."

"That if I walk away from working today then I'm giving up, it's weak- and I'm still more crazy for the fact I'm making such a song and dance out of this – and I ought to be able to just shut up and do it."

"Who makes the decisions?" Flynn said quietly against his hair. Dale shut his eyes, breathing out.

"You do."

And here, that was the crux of everything. The hardest thing to accept, and the only thing in the end that mattered.

"I suck at this." Dale said darkly, with frustration. "You think I'd catch on."

"You said you wanted to know what 'doing it right' would look like." Flynn told him. "There's only one thing I want to see."

"What?" Dale demanded.

"You happy." Flynn said bluntly. "That's it. That's all."

Dale stood for a moment, breathing him, feeling the weight of Flynn's head against his. Then he lifted his head and kissed Flynn swiftly and rather abruptly and went to get his jeans.

"It may help if I check the engines quickly," he said while he dressed, and his voice was slightly unsteady. "Better to make sure they're all functional this morning, or it'll cost us more time."

"I think we'll manage." Flynn reassured him, watching him button jeans and noticing the slight head tilt, the way that as soon as he was dressed, Dale's hands went to his sides in the same way that Flynn was holding his. Mirroring. He was talking lightly and rapidly all the time they were walking to the kitchen, almost chattering, which was very unlike him.

"You know I understand you're concerned I won't handle this, I appreciate it and it's natural when you've seen what can happen, you've seen plenty of –"

And that's gambit no 2 of the corporate persuasion techniques: empathise and reframe. Building on gambit no 1; break your goal down and go after small increments.  

"Put your boots on." Flynn interrupted him gently.

And again the head tilt, open hands, he never usually gestures much at all when he talks. Reciprocity, overt good listening……. Does he even know he's doing this?

"If you can explain what it is that you're most concerned about-"

Gambit 3; define and meet client need, or prove it based on groundless fears. This isn't argument, it's panic.

"What are you taking for lunch?" he asked, opening the pantry.

He kept his back to Dale, packing without looking round, and the easy, persuasive reasoning didn't pause.  Listening with interest and now with careful objectivity, Flynn heard the tension pauses, the option identification, the full strategic armoury Dale was deploying.

Ok kid, now I know how you get Paul so wrapped around your finger when you're upset. Innocent face, quiet good manners and a highly experienced corporate mediator. Except you're not seriously trying to change my mind, and  you know you're not going to.  This is the nervous chatter of the guy in the pre op room, watching the scalpels coming out of the sterilizer.

Adding fruit to the bag he was preparing, Flynn pulled water bottles out of the cupboard and filled them, changing his stance quietly as soon as he saw Dale mirror it.

"Better take a few of these, it's going to be hot. Get a hat."

Dale didn't move out of the doorway, and Flynn felt a wave of sympathy and a flash of amusement at the slightly spread legs, wide stance, raised head.

Flat out, aggressive dominance signals. Which meant Dale was moving from panic to sheer desperation. Flynn put the bag down on the table and faced him, widening his own stance, putting his hands on his hips.  It only took a few seconds. Flynn saw Dale's expression turn to alarm as he realised what he was doing, and put the bag into Dale's hand, turning him towards the door with a hand on the nape of his neck, where the muscles were tightest.


Riley had Snickers and Hammer both tacked up and waiting, and was sitting patiently on the rail of the paddock, fending off Snickers' increasingly frustrated requests to stop sitting about and to go and do something interesting. Hammer whinnied loudly at the sight of Dale and stamped a foot, straining on his tether to turn around to him. Dale automatically caught his head and rubbed his nose, shifting on his feet as Hammer nudged into Dale's midriff with heavy affection. Flynn tossed Riley one of the water bottles and put the others into Hammer's saddle bags. Snickers snorted and stamped, and Riley mounted up, gathering him in as he promptly turned in a circle in impatience to leave.

Dale took the Stetson Flynn held out and gathered up the reins, glancing up as Flynn put an arm around his waist, pulled him over and kissed him, a mirror of the kiss Dale had given him in the study. Brief and bruisingly hard.  

"That's it, you're doing good. Riley?"

"Yes?" Riley prevented Snickers bouncing around in another circle and held him in, walking him after Hammer as Dale mounted up.  

Flynn gave him a steady look, following them to open the gate into the home pastures.  

"Stay out of the mine."


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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