Book 4 in the Falls Chance Ranch Series

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Friday, September 18, 2015

Chapter 9 - Ranch

9


Flynn watched Dale cut, fold and eat perhaps half of what was on his plate at dinner, although he joined in with Riley’s description of handling some very grouchy ewes this morning, and he smiled easily and laughed aloud a couple of times, his attention apparently entirely on the meal and the conversation. Riley hadn’t noticed anything and was digging into his own meal, and Mason looked healthily tired beside him to the point of being heavy eyed. It was a normal mealtime other than Dale’s still half-full plate, and that when they got up to clear the table, Paul put a hand on Dale’s shoulder, guiding him back down into his seat.

“You can all leave the dishes, I feel like doing the clearing up tonight.”

Flynn herded Riley ahead of him into the family room before he could say anything, Mason followed and Jasper ambled after them. Paul waited until he and Dale had the kitchen to himself before he gave Dale a friendly smile, leaning on the back of a chair and nodding at the plate.

“All right, let’s have it. What’s wrong with that?”

Left alone at the table, Dale looked distinctly apprehensive.  

“Nothing? I’m just not that hungry.”

“You weren’t ‘that hungry’ at breakfast either.” Paul pointed out. “Or lunch. Or at any meal yesterday. Anything you want to tell me about?”

“No thank you?”

Very familiar with him, Paul heard the very slightly sardonic tone he recognised as a giveaway and the eye contact that skimmed away just a little too quickly.

“Then try eating?” he suggested, and turned his attention to the washing up.

He took his time, wiping down the counters and stove top when he was finished. In his opinion there was very little less on Dale’s plate than there had been half an hour ago, but Dale didn’t have the trapped look Paul associated with him panicky or upset. In fact what was there raised the same protective rush Paul felt whenever he saw Dale scuffling with Riley or leaning against Flynn or Jasper’s legs in the evenings, the open moments with them where he let himself go.    

Brat wanting a fight. Kind of. In a very understated and apprehensive kind of way. Ok hon, I get it.

He put the dishcloth down and pulled the chair out beside Dale’s, taking the fork away from him. In Dale-like form, far from being stirred into destruction, his meal had been more or less sorted into neat and segregated compartments. Dale gave him an extremely chary look and reached to take the fork when Paul filled it, but Paul got hold of his hand, gently moving it away and lifting the fork to Dale’s mouth himself.  
                           
“Oh no you don’t, you had your chance. Open.”

Dale went dark red with sheer embarrassment. Riley would either have flatly refused, or curled up to him and gladly accepted, depending on how he was feeling. This, for Dale, was an incredibly difficult thing to allow someone to do. He never comfortably handled being made a fuss of, and while Paul had sat with him, scooped and harassed to get him to eat before, it was the first time he’d ever taken the fork away. Arm across the back of Dale’s chair and more or less around him, Paul waited, pointedly, and Dale unwillingly opened his mouth and accepted the forkful. Paul fed him the rest of the meal unhurriedly and as calmly as if they were mending a fence together, aware that no matter how horribly uncomfortable this was making him, Dale certainly wasn’t fighting him off. To Dale it probably felt like it took several years; he was still brick red when the plate was empty. Paul got up to put the plate in the kitchen sink when he was done, turned the kitchen light off and retrieved Dale gently by the hand as he passed the table.

Mason had gone up to bed, and Jasper was obviously upstairs with him. It tended to be around this time of day, tired and in the security of the routine, that their clients most wanted to talk, and they always made sure they had both privacy and plenty of opportunity. Riley was laying on his stomach on the rug playing blackjack with Flynn, and he discarded a losing hand to pick up the stack and deal again, tipping his head back to find Paul.  

“Did you know if you play poker with Mason and beat him, he growls?”

“Seriously?” Paul took the nearest seat on the sofa to the card game and pulled Dale down beside him, putting an arm around him. He didn’t exactly shrink away, but Dale had a gift for making you feel as inappropriate as if you were trying to cuddle with your bank manager when he was in the right mood, and he could do it without saying a word. Not prepared to put up with it, Paul swatted his hip and Dale unwillingly relaxed a little. Paul watched Riley deal again, running the hand of the arm around Dale slowly back and forward over his hip, and a moment later Dale abruptly tucked his legs up in a much more natural position and leaned his full weight into Paul, his arms folded as if he was cold. The high colour was still fading from his face.

“We’re going to need to play a lot of board games with Mason.” Flynn commented, accepting the hand of cards Riley dealt him. Paul accepted another hand, turning them to where Dale could see them too.

“Practice in graceful losing?”

“That’s somewhere to start, yes.” Flynn caught his eye, raising his eyebrows very slightly, and Paul shook his head just as slightly.

We’re fine. We’re doing ok.  
  


*



It was odd that there were some mornings when you could look at colours and know nothing but an absolute certainty that none of them were in keeping with today. Which was as irrational as it was pointless to care about what you wore anyway. Irritated, Dale shut the dresser drawer and padded down the hallway in jeans to look through the linen closet. There had been a number of polo shirts that had been provided for him when he first came here as a client, and Paul had boxed them and put them in here for emergencies after he’d taken Dale with him to Cheyenne and helped him buy his own clothes in colours Paul approved of. Which was arbitrary in the extreme. Dale flicked briefly through the stack in the box, found a beige shirt as the least offensive of the group and shouldered into it.

Paul was behind him with an armful of towels when he turned, and in spite of himself, his stomach jumped. Paul looked him up and down for a minute, then put the towels in the linen closet and shut the door, taking Dale by the hand.

He could make you feel about six when he did that, just towing you wherever he planned to go. Dale tried to slip his hand free without success; Paul’s grip wasn’t easy to break. Paul took him back to his and Flynn’s room, opened the dresser and removed a dark red shirt from the folded selection inside, and laid it on top of the dresser. He then simply got hold of Dale and pulled the beige shirt off over his head.

“Put the red one on.”

“I like the beige one.” Dale watched, exasperated as Paul turned the beige shirt the right way out and folded it.

“Honey trust me, you look awful in beige, you’re far too dark. It makes you look washed out.”

Paul unfolded the red shirt and Dale took it from him to put on, fast, before Paul got any ideas about putting it on him. Flynn, strapping his watch on by the window, shook his head slightly as Dale looked to him for help, signalling clearly: You’re on your own kid.

Fine.

“There is such a thing as personal choice about appearance-” he began sternly to Paul, who swatted him, mildly but firmly enough to be meaningful, ushering him towards the door.

“Yes, and mine is that no one belonging to me is going to walk around this ranch looking like nobody loves them. I appreciate your colouring even if you don’t. Breakfast. Come on.”  

Even more annoyed with himself that a mildly soppy few words and an even milder tap on the seat of the jeans got him moving quite so easily, Dale jogged downstairs to get away from him and went into the kitchen. No one else was there yet. Jasper was visible in the yard, moving around doing the unlocking and checking he did most mornings. The table was half set and Dale opened the cutlery drawer, collecting the rest of what was needed.

“Colour does not exactly matter in working clothes? It’s not rational to be obsessed with-”

“It does to me” Paul opened the oven and took out rolls, putting them on the table. “Are you planning to eat this morning?”

Unfair question, and unfairly bluntly put, as if he made a habit of intentionally refusing on principle. Dale put the last cutlery pieces on the table with precision that just about precluded him banging them down and took down plates from the cupboard. Paul moved around him with practised co ordination; they were most often the ones that assembled breakfast together and Paul was satisfyingly good at doing something with you at speed without getting in your way.

“I ate yesterday morning. I ate last night. Your complaint is that the amount was somehow insufficient.”

“It was.” Paul agreed.

“According to some random standard that I’m not party to.” Dale put plates down and retrieved milk and juice from the fridge. Paul put a hand behind his head and kissed his forehead as he passed.  

“You’re doing a good job there, thank you.”

That was just plain annoying.

Flynn got up to collect water bottles and the makings of a cold packed lunch from the pantry when he was done with breakfast, talking over his shoulder.

“I want to make a start on moving the fence around Three Traders and get the pasture up there usable.”

That was a several person job likely to take most of the day. Dale got up to take his plate to the sink and Paul removed it from his hand and put it back on the table, sounding placid as if it was a perfectly normal thing to say.

“I’m keeping Dale here with me today.”

“Why?” Dale demanded in alarm, and got a flat look from Flynn that moved from his plate to his eyes with no ambiguity at all.

“Because you’re acting like I need to.” Paul said easily. “Sit down please.”

Dale swallowed on an iced stomach, suddenly feeling very cornered. Flynn was still looking at him in the way that meant he probably had less than five seconds to co-operate before he experienced a more hands on approach. Flushing, stomach churning, Dale sat down. Across the table from him, Mason looked startled. Jasper put a hand on his shoulder.

“Mason, let’s go if you’re ready.”

“Halfpint?” Flynn paused in the doorway and Riley got up, giving Dale a sympathetic look.

“Yeah, I’ll come with you. See you later.”

“I’d like a hand with the corral before you do your other chores.” Jasper said to Mason, who rolled his eyes.

“Oh man. Yet more muck raking.”

On top of being forced to face Paul, the provocation was too much to handle. Dale gave him a courteous look across the table.

“Well that shouldn’t be too far out of your field of experience.”

Mason hesitated, looking alarmed.

“Dale, stop it.” Paul said firmly. “Mason doesn’t know you’re joking.”

“Really?” Dale said politely. “I didn’t know either.”

Paul gave him a harder look and Jasper hustled Mason towards the door, getting him out of earshot as fast as possible. Dale raised an eyebrow at Paul, fed up beyond caution.  

“Was there a reason you require me to be here this morning?”

“One more word in that tone of voice and you’ll be in a corner with a mouthful of soap.” Paul warned him. “Enough. And I think you know very well why. Are you planning to eat any more of that?”

Dale regarded his plate as if this was an interesting idea. “Oh I don’t think so, no.”

Paul took his arm, brought him to his feet and swatted the backs of his legs, one crisp smack on each thigh that stung even through jeans.




            The all pervasive taste of soap was sobering when you couldn’t get it out of your mouth. And so was the blank stretch of wall that constituted the kitchen corner. More than slightly ashamed of himself, Dale was aware of the sounds of Paul washing up behind him, humming as if he wasn’t at all discommoded by a man of thirty six, supposedly a rational and competent adult, insulting guests at breakfast.  The oven door shut on something after a while, and he heard Paul wash his hands.

“Are you any more in the mood to come and finish breakfast?”

No.

Saying it would not be diplomatic. Dale lowered his hands. Paul took his plate out of the warming oven and put it back on the table.

“You’ve got five minutes. After that I start helping.”

The threat did nothing to improve his temper.

“Forced feeding is morally dubious according to the European Convention on Human Rights.” Dale informed him, cautiously picking up a fork. “It’s one meal, I’m not hungry, and that is not actually illegal in this country.”

“You don’t have the weight to spare and you only ever decide you’re not hungry when you’re wound up about something.” Paul said calmly. “Want to tell me what it is yet?”

Dale gave him a flat look. Paul patted his shoulder, disappearing into the pantry.

“Eat.”

Anywhere else but this house, choosing not to eat would be considered normal. Just as Paul would consider it completely normal to sit down and enforce eating it if he felt it was necessary. Dale flushed at the thought, aware it raised a number of hotly conflicting feelings, the main one of which was a desire to hide under the table before he let that happen again.

“Three minutes.” Paul said cheerfully, starting to sift flour into a bowl on the other side of the table.

Resisting the urge to demand synchronicity according to theories of special relativity and establishment of time drift, which would probably get his legs slapped again, Dale swore under his breath and choked down what was on his plate. Paul took the plate from him when he was finished, with a smile as warm as if they’d been having a pleasant chat instead of a fight.

“Thank you.”

“Can I please go and catch up with Flynn now?” Dale said as civilly as he could manage. Paul washed the plate and put it back in the cupboard, returning to his baking.

“No, you need to be with me today.”

It still both outraged and touched him to the core when one of them said something like that. Dale watched him rapidly mix batter with very mixed feelings, the easiest of which was exasperation.

“Why? For what possible reason-”

“That mood for a start.” Paul interrupted him. “Which you’ve been in since you got up this morning. Is there anything you want to talk about?”

“Am I going to be pinned to the wall every time I show any kind of glitch in mood on the grounds I ought to be having some deep and meaningful conversation?” Dale demanded. “I’m fully compos mentis, I am perfectly capable, Flynn needs another pair of hands-”
                                                                                   
“I’m not a board of directors, please don’t talk to me like one.” Paul brushed his hands off. “And don’t change the subject. I don’t care what you think you’re capable of, I think you’re acting like you need to spend today here, and as yet you’re doing nothing to prove me wrong. You can try talking to me, or if you want something to take your frustrations out on, you can mix that for me.”

Dale looked in silence at the bowl Paul handed him.

“Or you can just sit.” Paul offered, collecting more ingredients out of the pantry. “I don’t mind.”

“I’m quite sure you don’t.” Dale said acidly. Paul shut the pantry door with his hip and nodded at the corner.

“Ok, back you go.”




            It was over half an hour before Paul was done with baking and did his whole taking your hand and towing you with him thing, moving Dale from the corner to sit on the hearthstone near him while he worked. There wasn’t a lot of point in asking if he wanted any help. Frustrated, Dale watched him rake out the fire, lay a fresh one and polish the fire surround, the coffee table and most of the rest of the room.

“You can look so like Philip sometimes.” Paul commented at one point. “Whole volumes said with one eyebrow.”

How did you answer that? Dale sat through vacuuming and the floors being mopped in grim silence. The idea of time spent sitting like this was probably intended as motivation to talk, he’d learned that the hard way, but when you were exasperated beyond measure with the other man in the room talking didn’t come easily and Paul didn’t seem to be expecting it. When Paul put away the mop he simply paused by the foot of the stairs and held out a hand to Dale, who got up barely containing the hiss of frustration.

“Would you care to try telling me where we’re going? Or why?”

“What does it matter?” Paul took his hand and led him upstairs. “Wherever it is you’re coming with me.”

The bathrooms got scrubbed, the beds changed, the bedrooms dusted, the carpets vacuumed, all in companionable silence with Dale sitting on which ever patch of carpet Paul indicated as convenient while he worked. It wasn’t the first time he’d made Dale trail him round and stay near him while he worked, and however unwillingly, Dale knew why he did it. There was something very calming about just being in the house, particularly at this time of day when it was quiet and there was only them in it. And there was something deeply calming too about being near Paul when he was cleaning and ordering the house. He had the same eye for detail and angle that Dale did and quilts got straightened, items arranged on dresser tops, pictures straightened, all without fuss or apparent effort, all leaving comforting order behind.  

He warmed soup for lunch, one of his own thick smoked ham and pea soups from the freezer, soft and easy to eat, and they ate together in the same companionable silence. While Dale cleaned up afterwards, Paul put together the makings of mac and cheese for dinner, left it in the top of the aga where he put things to cook very slowly, then he took Dale by the hand and led him back upstairs, along the now immaculate landing to his own room.

Used to Jasper and Flynn’s fairly Spartan tastes, Paul’s room spoke much more of him, from the warm colours to the fat potted plants on the windowsill. The sun was starting to fall on the windows of his bedroom as it did in the afternoon, lighting up and warming the room despite the open window. The bass baas of the ewes not so far from the house and the answering soprano bleats of the lambs were more or less ceaseless through daylight hours at the moment, but Dale had always found it a soothing background sound rather than an invasion. Paul lay down full length on the bed, picking up the book that lay on his bedside table, and patted the covers until Dale lay down on the bed beside him. Reading was a peaceful occupation, too peaceful to be tedious, and it was a relief.

You’re a bloody coward, Aden, you should be talking to him, not glad for something to do that helps you avoid it. You’re behaving like an idiot and he ought to be all over you for it, not being nice about it.

But Paul left the book shut, settled on his side and slipped his fingers through Dale’s belt to pull him over so they were face to face, and Dale’s stomach froze again with alarm that Paul did intend to call him on it.  

It was hard to explain but there was no sexual tension in the closeness at all. None in Paul’s relaxed body a few inches away from his, nor in Paul’s familiar, very gentle eyes. In fact it was something far worse, far less easy to handle. It was easy to look directly into Flynn’s eyes – he often did it. But today, right now, to look directly at Paul’s eyes... Dale found himself rolling over onto his front to get away from them, stomach horribly clenched to the point it was painful. Paul didn’t seem to mind. There was the soft paper sound of the book opening, then Paul’s warm hand slid under the back of his t shirt and rubbed slowly and deeply over his bare spine while he read. It was like being melted.  For some reason at this moment in time the touch felt so intense it was almost painful, it went through Dale to the core, something so physical it was hard to bear, and he felt it dredging through him, an actual sensation of something rising up. It was terrible in the true sense of the word, it was terrifying to lay there and let that sensation lift up through him, but there was something painfully good in it too, and nothing could have made him move or pull away from Paul’s hand. 



*


It wasn’t possible to see more than a few feet ahead through the gloom. Large shapes were greyer in the darkness, looming above him like giant building blocks. Dale walked slowly between them, following the long path over the grey carpet, through the shadows. One of the giant shapes had a handle that was set high above his head. Another of them had a sweater draped over it, so big it could have been a tent, the sleeve hanging down like a scarf. The shapes grew closer and closer together like a lumber room until he had to edge in between them, a more crowded, more secret place, that ended in a broken window with a torn curtain swinging against it. A book was open on the floor. Dale crouched down to look at its open pages, blowing back and forth in the wind through the broken window. The wind smelled like mothballs, and the floor was made out of tortoise shell, and the broken window shivered, reflecting a thousand broken images like the facets of a diamond.

“Are you two all right?” Paul’s voice said quietly, very nearby. Dale shifted, blinking in the dark, and Flynn’s arms tightened around him, gently pulling him back down. They were pressed together on Flynn’s side of the bed, and he was twisted around Flynn as if he was drowning.

“Just a dream.” Flynn said softly. “We’re ok.”

“It didn’t sound ok.”

Paul sat down on the side of the bed and ran his hand over Dale’s head. It was a gentle touch, penetratingly warm, and Flynn abruptly pulled Dale closer against him, holding him inarguably still and raising the covers on the now free side of the bed.

“Paul, come on in, you’ll freeze.”

Are you nuts? That’s about the scariest thing I can do to him?

Paul raised his eyebrows at Flynn who gave him a brief, lightning grin and a nod that said unmistakeably, yes, get a bloody move on.

Paul slid under the lifted covers, turned over on his side and slid an arm over Dale’s waist, well aware he was tense with alarm. And still shaking. Once he felt that, instinct took over. Dale loved to be touched. Even if he froze initially, if you pushed past that freeze he craved it if you understood the subtleties of what he was showing you. Paul rubbed his arm, his shoulders, spooning close against his back and holding him so that he and Flynn had Dale sandwiched between them.  

“Oh honey it’s ok. It’s all right, go back to sleep. We’ve got you.”

Dale did fall asleep again between them. Deeply and easily and almost immediately, and he slept quietly this time. He was still soundly asleep, when Paul woke shortly before six and slid out of bed without disturbing either Flynn or Dale. He was dressed and breakfast was in the oven when he came upstairs again, and Flynn came to the door of his room, dressed and buttoning his jeans, voice low.

“Good morning.”

“Good morning.” Paul kissed him, and glanced in the direction of the bathroom as there was no sign of Dale. “How is he this morning?”

“Thoughtful.” Flynn straightened his shirt. “You realise he’s probably going to make you pay for getting that close?”

“On top of me pushing him all day yesterday?” Paul gave him a wry look. “Yes thank you, I’m braced and ready.”

They watched Dale emerge from the bathroom, jeans crisp, dark hair immaculate, briskly and purposefully shouldering into a beige polo shirt and Flynn gave Paul a quick smile, heading for the stairs.

“On your marks, get set....”




Paul filed the last of Dale’s shirts and tops on the shelf he’d cleared in his own wardrobe and shut the door, reserving one which he held out to Dale.

“Do you want to change, or shall I do it for you?”

Fuming, Dale shouldered out of the beige t shirt and surrendered it for the green one Paul gave him.

“What have you got against beige?” he demanded when the green shirt was settled. “Is that any kind of justification for confiscation?”

Of every single shirt and top he owned, including all the ones from the linen cupboard that Paul disapproved of.

“We went through this yesterday. If you need me to choose what you wear, that’s ok.” Paul said, watching him tuck it in, “You can just come and ask me when you want a shirt, that’s fine with me.”

“Do I require written permission to breathe,” Dale inquired acerbically, “or merely to get dressed?”

Paul folded the beige t shirt neatly, laid it on his dressing table and picked up the elderly wooden hairbrush that lay next to it. Dale swallowed on the cold thump of alarm that hit his stomach and opened his mouth to backtrack, but Paul simply sat down on the end of his bed and unbuttoned Dale’s jeans without the slightest hesitation, hooking his thumbs into the waistband of Dale’s shorts as well so that he pulled both them and the jeans straight down to Dale’s ankles. It wasn’t just being so briskly bared, it wasn’t even being handled as if you were about three foot high and about thirty years younger and belonging to him past the point of any discussion being needed; it was the sheer expediency of it that took your breath away. As soon as he had the jeans out of the way Paul took Dale’s arm, tipping Dale against his knees until Dale overbalanced more than bent over his lap, and one firm hand took hold of his hip. That was the full extent of any warning he got before the hairbrush descended, briskly enough to clear his head in one immediate rush. The damn thing might be old but it bit like an adder. He was jumping and squirming from the start under the rapid fire, and after a minute he was yelping with sincere discomfort, going from gasps and wordless sounds to a far more coherent and urgent,

“Ok, ok, I’m sorry, I’ll stop. Paul, I’ll stop!”

“If you’re angry with me,” Paul rarely managed to sound cross and he wasn’t even managing slightly annoyed this morning; his voice was nothing more than firm which somehow made this worse. “You can talk to me about why. Or you can go on working on driving me mad, that’s ok too, but I warn you, you’re going to find it painful. I’m not going to be spoken to in that rude, go to hell tone of voice.”

“I’m sorry!” Dale was out of breath and reaching the point of squirming embarrassingly hard. The hairbrush was damned painful and Paul was using it too rapidly to let one swat register before at least two more were making their presence felt.

“Paul, I’m sorry, I swear I’ll stop. Please, I’m done!”

Paul laid the hairbrush down on the quilt and helped him to his feet, putting Dale’s hands out of his way and rearranging his clothes as matter of factly as he’d removed them. Breathless, backside smarting to the point that standing still was an issue, Dale put his hands back to rub gingerly, eyes dry and despite the childishness of it, sincerely keen not to annoy Paul any further. Paul got up and turned him towards the door with a mild swat from  his hand, picking up the hairbrush.

“Come down to breakfast and behave yourself.”  

He took the hairbrush with them down to the kitchen and put it on the counter, saying nothing to the others and Mason wouldn’t think any more about it than if Paul had brought a toothbrush or a towel downstairs, but to Dale it was hard to look at or be aware of anything else. He sat down at the table without a word and Flynn looked at him and then at Paul.

“Anything I can help with?”

Paul shook his head, taking his own seat at the table.

“No thank you, I think we’ve got it in hand.”

It was apparently a foregone conclusion that he’d be staying home again. Despite the discomfort of shifting around on a well-hairbrushed behind throughout breakfast, Paul’s cinnamon rolls smelled as good as they tasted and were never hard to eat. Dale was finishing his second when Jasper and Mason went out, and Flynn paused to lean heavily with his hands on Dale’s shoulders to kiss him, voice quiet.

“Are you ok if I go out?”

“What do you think I’m going to do?” Dale demanded. “I promise Paul won’t hang himself if you leave him alone with me.”

“Paul can look after himself. I meant you.” The weight of Flynn’s hands was as stabilising and bluntly comforting as his tone.

“I’ll be fine.” Dale lifted his chin and Flynn kissed him again, more firmly, squeezing his shoulders.

“All right.”

“And may the best man win.” Riley stole the last cinnamon roll and winked at Dale. He was completely unmoved by this, hadn’t indicated by the slightest word or action since yesterday morning that he thought this was anything strange. Dale wondered if Riley had any idea how much he appreciated it; not just his reinforcing that being grounded to the house was something completely normal in this household, but the tacit support in it.

“I feel like making a cake this morning.” Paul said reflectively when they were gone. “What do you know about banana bread, sweetheart?”



For a start, it was phenomenally messy. It was difficult to take the mashing of bananas seriously, or mixing it with a chocolate batter that was messier still, or to brood about anything much while you were doing it, or to stay annoyed with someone who flicked batter at you without the faintest conscience if they felt you were insufficiently emphatic in your interest in mashed bananas.  

“Was this one of your grandmother’s recipes?” Dale asked when they were wiping down the table afterwards.

“One of her favourites.” Paul leaned across with a cloth, holding Dale’s chin to remove a smudge of flicked dough from his cheek. “David liked it. When I first came here, he’d lost a lot of weight very quickly and he wanted someone to talk to as much as to keep an eye on him, so he liked to sit in here with me and watch me cook, and I spent a lot of time trying out recipes that got calories to stick to him. Philip put an armchair in here for him when it was too cold to be out on the porch, and that was a battle in itself, he’d sit out there in the snow given half a chance.”

Dale returned the smile and Paul rinsed off his hands.

“Now how this works is I share something and then you share something. It’s a turn taking thing. We’ve practised this.”

“It’s not like I’ve seen or done interesting that links to banana bread.” Dale pointed out. Paul gave him a meaningful look.

“Need your journal?”

Dale rolled his eyes skywards. “Apples.  Apples are found in all shapes and sizes with a range of flavours varying from-”

Paul batted him lightly across the back of the head and Dale laughed.

“There isn’t anything interesting I can think of! Most of what I’ve spent my time doing is phenomenally boring.”

“Honey, you’ve never for a moment struck me as boring.” Paul put the kettle on, returning the smile. “Try me? You must have eaten in restaurants in all kinds of exotic places?”

Dale searched randomly through his memory, trying to find anything even vaguely interesting to do with food. “Mostly I was thinking about whatever we were working on at the time, meals tended to be an integral part of it.”

“You’re like a surgeon,” Paul observed, pouring tea. “No idea of the person but you remember the surgery.”

“The most inconvenient one was a tatami room in what was apparently some very exclusive restaurant in Tokyo.” Dale said, thinking about it. “A private mat room – very peaceful, about eight of us, but sitting on the floor to eat, and one of the American clients was huge and couldn’t sit easily.  It was a Cha-Kaiseki meal, very formal, and the Tokyo clients expected formality. Lots of courses, lots of ceremony, beautifully presented food but I don’t remember actually eating anything very much. Frequent rounds of Saki and I hate the stuff, and we were trying to keep a clear head.”

“Had you studied how to do it?”

“Yes.” Dale gave him a wry smile. “We were formally briefed too on how to take part in the ceremony, lots of things to remember, and it was a PR exercise more than a working dinner, crucial to making a good impression. We were expected to wear kimonos which surprised us a bit.”

“Kimonos?” Paul put a mug of tea in front of him and sat down at the table. “What ceremony was involved?”

“It was beautiful, very ornate. Drinking in a set order with a set routine of actions and gestures, the when and how of bowing, what you can touch and when, where and how you walk and move in the room. It was a demonstration of good manners and good faith to the clients, it was important to get it right.”

“Did you?”

“I think we did. The deal went ok the next day. The American client went home with bad knees.”

Paul laughed and Dale found himself watching the way Paul’s eyes lit up and moved when he was amused, his smile, the now so familiar tone and movement of his face, the shape of his fingernails, the way his hands cradled a mug. He knew the details intimately; he had a massive and very precious mental catalogue of Paul, Flynn, Riley and Jasper, the details that were unique to each of them. He was so easy to be with, so warm, so much Paul that the urge swept him again to just open his mouth, take the risk, say it.

“You don’t look nearly so angry with me as you did this morning.” Paul said quite gently. Dale winced, ashamed and aware of how very childish it was.

“Paul, I’m really not angry with you.”

“That’s exactly what you were. I hid that beige shirt, you must have had to hunt for it this morning.”  

“I like beige!” Dale protested, giving him a slightly shamefaced smile. Paul smiled back, shaking his head.

“Don’t even try messing with me, I know you. That was not why you wanted that shirt, and no, you don’t like beige. You like blue, occasionally green, and red when I nag you.”

“You never nag.” Dale said with conviction.

There was no rational way to explain it, he had no idea where to start. No comprehension he could share, no justification to offer, even to this man he loved, who probably knew more about what he was doing than he did, but who like the others was willing to take at face value and listen to actions that expressed the things you couldn’t find the words for.

No one else came home for lunch, which was looking increasingly like a plot.

“This is known in the trade as the Road to Damascus approach.” Dale said tartly when they finished eating and Paul took him upstairs. “No actual plan or agenda; just throw people together and at some point there’ll be a revelation and things will magically start to happen.”

“Does that ever work?” Paul asked with interest.

“No. It’s a waste of time and money, based on sloppy identification of objectives.”

“Well you’re welcome to identify them more clearly any time you like?” Paul led them into his room and picked up a book, laying down on his bed.

Dale stood at the window, folding his arms and looking out at the pasture beyond, uncomfortably aware that he knew exactly what the objectives were here, and that there was no sign outside of Flynn or any of the others. It was a rather vulnerable feeling. Paul held out a hand.

“Come lie down with me.”

“And do what?” Dale didn’t look towards the outstretched hand.

“Well you could tell me why your moods are swinging up and down like a seesaw.” Paul said mildly. “Any insight into that?”

“Because you’re being damn annoying!”

“Honey, I’m not actually the one of us who’s doing the bothering.” Paul leaned over and captured his hand, pulling until Dale unwillingly sat down on the bed with him. “You can start with why you’re uncomfortable right now?”

“I’m not uncomfortable, I’m annoyed at wasting another day for no good reason!” Dale said shortly and untruthfully.

“I disagree on all three counts.” Paul lay back, opening his book. “You are uncomfortable. You know as well as I do that we’re doing anything but wasting time here, and we have a very good reason for doing it. We also have a rule about bullshit. You don’t have to come any closer, but don’t get up off the bed.”

He opened his book, put the book mark on the nightstand, and started to read.

Irrationally angry, Dale stared down at his linked hands and found himself wrestling with the impulse to just get up and walk away. Nothing was stopping him. Flynn probably wouldn’t care for that approach, but then the thought of dealing with Flynn, no matter how displeased, was far more reassuring than continuing to sit here.

Which is ridiculous. What would Flynn want you to do?

As soon as he phrased it like that, the answers came back, relentlessly clear.

Stay and talk. And he would have spanked you for that little dose of bull, not warned you. It’s Paul for pete’s sake, what are you scared of?

It took a moment to find the phrasing; these were far less graspable concepts to try to establish a negotiation on.

“I’m not comfortable staying here.”

Paul laid his book down, apparently finding that a reasonable comment.

“Why?”

Dale searched himself with increasing exasperation for anything containing graspable logic or reasoning.

“Because your body is screaming at you to go away.” Paul said after a moment.

It was so exactly right, and so horrendously guilt inspiring that Dale felt his face go hot.

“Oh for crying out loud, it’s you! it’s not like I’m expecting to be bloody raped! Oh God, Paul I don’t mean that, I really don’t mean that,”

“I didn’t hear it like that.” Paul said it swiftly and firmly. “You meant you’re physically afraid and you’re not sure why.”

“It isn’t afraid of you.” Dale said after a long time. His face was cooling, his stomach was roiling with stress and Paul had sat up, which brought him slightly nearer, but he hadn’t tried to bridge the distance between them for which Dale was grateful.

“You’ve been incredibly patient and a lot kinder than I deserve. Paul, it isn’t that I don’t-”

“Darling, the very last thing you’ve been communicating to me the last few days is ‘go away’, you really don’t have to worry about me misunderstanding.” Paul said when he trailed off. “It isn’t that you don’t what?”

“Appreciate...” Dale trailed off again, at a loss as to how to put it.

“Appreciate?  Kinder than you deserve?” Paul leaned his elbows on his knees, surveying Dale. “You know there are a lot of people belonging to this house that I love. I haven’t committed personally to all of them. We always told you we found ourselves treating you like you were ours right from the start, all of us, and that definitely included me. So no, I’m not just being kind.” He gave that a minute to sink in, then said gently, “You’re free to take pretty much whatever you want from me.”

Dale had been staring at him, shocked, and he blinked as his eyes stung. Paul didn’t try to touch him but his voice was compassionate.

“I don’t know if that helps or makes it scarier.”

“I’m not afraid of you.” Dale said with all sincerity. “Please don’t think that.”

“I know, and I don’t.” Paul picked up his book again, settling comfortably back against the pillows. “You’ve talked to me before about what you are afraid of, we’ve been working on it for a while and there’s no rush. But you need to be here with me until we’ve done the talking we need to.”

How long that takes is up to you.

Dale didn’t need to hear it; he’d known this approach as long as he lived in this house. They’d wait for you to take the time you needed, they’d stay with you and never let you forget you had someone listening and waiting, but they wouldn’t let you wriggle out of it either. As Mason was discovering, there was no way here of getting away from your problems. There was just a choice of how long you chose to waste standing dithering in front of them before you made up your mind to try to deal with them.

The bed seemed like both a prison and an extremely large space with Paul at one end of it and him at the other. Dale sat for a while, gripping the quilt with both hands and staring at the carpet. Flynn had done this a few times. Made him initiate it, made him take responsibility for opening this kind of painful conversation, and it was incredibly hard to do.

“I’ve told you about this before,” he said eventually, aware it was coming out angrily to be able to force it out at all. “Flynn and Jasper grab and pull. Mostly. There’s no consent issue – or no explicit consent issue, they know they have my consent so they just take it as read and insist or else, which takes all the responsibility away from me and that’s exactly the way I like it.”

“As a matter of fact you’re an extremely responsible person and partner.” Paul laid the book down on his chest. “In my experience, and I’m qualified to know.”

“I don’t mean that.” Dale stared still harder at the carpet, shoulders hunched. “I mean with that approach I don’t have to do much for myself. I don’t have to admit there’s anything I want, or that I’m choosing to do...”

“Do what honey?” Paul said gently after a minute when he didn’t go on. “You’re a clear thinker, you never had much trouble identifying that you were gay. You love to be touched, you have no problems touching us, you don’t think twice now about giving someone a hug or kissing them goodnight, and you always loved that even when you were shocked by it. And you know what you want and what you need, you’re very capable of identifying it. You were clear you wanted to stay here with us, you were clear you wanted to join us and what that meant. So I think this is a different issue.”

“There are things that are-” Dale said with difficulty. “I don’t know how to explain it.”

“Let’s start with something specific. I know you still don’t find it that easy when Flynn or I pull you into our laps.” Paul said with gentle bluntness. “You love it, but you struggle being comfortable with letting yourself do it. Is that what you mean?”

There was shame even in admitting it happened. Dale forcibly relaxed his hands on the quilt, hotly self-conscious at saying the words.  

“.......Tom told me once that Jake made it an obedience issue for him. Do this because I want you to do it, which I understand because it takes all the responsibility out of it.”

“So what we’re down to is what’s the difference between loving sitting with us like that and wanting to do it, compared to not being comfortable with allowing yourself.” Paul laid the book down on the bed, surveying him. “I know you have no problem with Riley or Gerry doing it. Why shouldn’t you do it? Why is that not for you? And who did you learn that from?”

Dale got up so abruptly from the bed that Paul jumped. Concerned, Paul rolled to his feet to follow him quickly, and for a moment wasn’t sure where he’d gone; the landing was empty. Then through the open bathroom door came the unmistakeable and heart wrenching sound of someone throwing up.

He flushed the toilet as soon as he heard Paul. He’d gone very white and his eyes were watering. Deliberately moving slowly not to spook him any further, slightly shocked and deeply sympathetic, Paul filled a glass of water at the tap and brought it to him, running a hand over his shoulders. Dale flinched away, raising his hands to warn him off. He was swallowing against the nausea, stiff and working on containing himself, never good at anything his body did that he wasn’t in full control of. Paul put the glass down on the sink and more firmly put his hands on Dale’s shoulders.

“No sweetheart, breathe, and let it happen. There’s no point in fighting it, you’re just going to pull muscles and make yourself sore.”

“Go away.”

The order came out quite sharply, then Dale visibly got a grip on himself and his voice went down to its most formal, polite tone. “Sorry. I - just... give me a minute please?”

“No, there is no way I’m going to leave you like this.” Paul said with finality. “Breathe. You’re ok, let it happen and get it over with.”

Dale continued to stand, shoulders frozen, arms folded and obviously wanting him anywhere but here, and Paul wondered not for the first time if he’d ever had the experience of someone being with him at moments like this. He went on coaxing, rubbing Dale’s shoulders, and after a moment Dale took a breath and retched again, a couple more dry heaves before he could breathe more easily. Paul handed him the water and watched him lean one hand on the sink to rinse his mouth and spit several times before he drank some of the water and ran the tap to wash his face. It was a curiously adult stance, it reminded Paul faintly of Mason’s John Wayne swagger and the grim undertone of despair in that song he sang.

Ya load sixteen tons and what do you getAnother day older and deeper in debtSt Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store  

Except that Flynn, who would similarly have been demanding to know if Paul thought he needed an audience and insisting in no uncertain terms he was quite capable of throwing up without assistance, actually would want to you leave. Dale didn’t. How Paul knew it, he wasn’t sure, but what he was getting was the sense of a desperate front of independence with a panicky undertone of  I can’t handle you seeing this. Not, Oh for pete’s sake back off!

Brat. Genuine, hallmark brat.

He went on rubbing Dale’s back and Dale rinsed out the sink and buried his face in a towel.

“That was a lot of stress.” Paul said gently. “Feeling better?”

Dale hung the towel up, neatly, running both hands over his hair. He was avoiding Paul’s eye, very pale.

“Yes. Thank you.”

“Come on then.”

Paul took his hand and walked with him, and felt him baulk as they walked through the doorway, back towards the bed. His distress was painful. It was so tempting to ease up on him to try and reduce that distress, to let him take the chair on the other side of the room and have some distance, to let him go, but that wasn’t what he really wanted. Any more than Riley would have wanted distance at a moment like this.

Gently implacable, Paul tugged Dale down onto the bed with him, sitting with his back against the pillows and manhandling until Dale turned over into his arms. It took a moment to insist. Then Dale slowly and rather jerkily stopped fighting and hung on to him, hard enough that his grip hurt on Paul’s arms. You could have called it clinging without being factually incorrect. Paul held him closely, sliding a hand under his t shirt to rub his back, feeling him shivering.

“It’s ok. It’s all right honey, I’m right here. I’ve got you.”





“Hey, mac and cheese!” Riley took the lid off the dish with enthusiasm at dinner.

“I felt like making pasta.” Paul said comfortably.

Flynn gave him a brief look across the table, taking the dish as Riley passed it over. As comfort food, it was one of Paul’s classics; a favourite of Riley’s, and likely to appeal to someone who didn’t feel much like eating. Beside Paul, Dale looked tired and preoccupied, and to Flynn’s eyes, pale. Paul filled his plate for him, a smaller than usual amount than he or Flynn would expect Dale to eat at a mealtime, and mostly the macaroni with only a very small amount of the salad and the bread that the others were digging into. Dale ate; slowly and without much animation but he ate, and Flynn saw Paul run a hand down his back when he finished, taking the plate without comment about the remaining salad.

There was discussion about dishes, locking up, tack needing cleaning, and Flynn took no notice of it as soon as they got up from the table. Dale glanced up at him when Flynn leaned across him to take the dishes he was gathering up, and Flynn jerked his head very slightly at the door. Dale let the dishes go and went, and Flynn put the load he had on the counter and followed him.

He was standing alone in the family room, just standing, looking as though he was physically exhausted. Flynn slid an arm around his waist and walked him around the corner to the study, shutting the door behind them before he pulled Dale around to him. Dale leaned into his chest, head down, arms around his waist, and Flynn hugged him, rubbing his arms and his back as if he was cold. When he ran his hands gently over Dale’s head, Dale looked up at him, and his eyes were appreciative and grave in a weary kind of way. It was the kind of expression you might see in a man taking a brief break from hours of negotiations. The weight of the deal pressing on him, the weight of the responsibility pressing down on him, fighting off the weariness and the shouting and the brokering. Flynn kept hold of him and walked as far as the deep couch, dropping into it at one end and pulling Dale down with him. This room had always held a lot of peace for everyone in this family. Philip had had a habit of often working with one of them – someone miserable or sulking, or in Flynn’s own case deeply and bitterly angry – parked on this dark leather couch. Keeping them with him, as if he’d known his presence and the quiet of the room and him working, and the imprint he’d made on this room which reflected him in the deep colours of the leather binding, the dark wood of the desks, would sink gradually into your bones. Comfort that reached you when nothing else did.  Body to body, Dale was unmoving against him. His eyes were open but his face was turned against Flynn’s shirt. Flynn ran his hands slowly and gently over his head, his face and his body, kissed his forehead and his eyes and temples, rubbed his back and kept quiet, not interfering.

If the others knew where they’d gone, no one intruded. Making his own body relaxed, breathing in the same slow rhythm as Dale, Flynn let time do whatever it wanted and watched the yard outside slowly turn from daylight to twilight and gradually to dark. When the clock in the hall outside struck nine he stirred and Dale stiffly moved with him as if he was coming back from somewhere a long way off. Flynn ran a hand over his face, lifted his chin and kissed him gently.

“Come on kid. Let’s go sit with the others for a while.”

Dale took his offered hand and got up, but he hesitated, as if moving out of this room and facing whatever lay beyond it was too hard to do. Flynn gently turned him around, hugged him and turned his face against Dale’s.

“I know you can do this.” he said very softly in Dale’s ear. “You’ve never stopped trying when it’s been bloody hard, you don’t ever give up and we’re very proud of you. You’re brave enough to feel this and to let it happen. I promise you you’re doing the right thing and it’s going to be worth it. I’m here, we’ve got you, we are going to be ok.”

Dale took a sharp breath and held it, and Flynn held him, saying nothing but rubbing his back slowly against the stiff muscles.
  

*


He dozed more than slept, waking on and off long after Flynn was deeply asleep beside him. Painfully aware that Flynn had worked a long and physically hard day without being allowed a pleasant or relaxing evening at the end of it thanks to him, it was unthinkable to disturb his sleep. Dale made himself lie still and not focus on worrying about him, or poor Paul, who was probably wondering why he was living with someone who’d rather throw up than talk to him.

Which was unnecessarily critical and untrue; Paul had made it very clear he understood. Sometimes it was a shock to find out how much they understood. Dale played the conversation around in his head several times, which was actually easier to think about now, as if the explosion of stress had been physically got rid of and removed from the words and thoughts.

Why aren’t you comfortable letting yourself do this kind of thing? It’s normal here. No one would look twice or think twice.   
                                                       
Tom would have made gruff reference to British Public School Boys in his sardonic way, and he was partially right. They both came of a class and culture where men were raised to never openly or willingly acknowledge feeling fear, and to obey the code of appropriately male toughness and independence at all times, or be pilloried. Which was even more unhelpful when you were born gay with a serious weakness for alpha males.

And that part of it you got sussed a while ago Aden, you can joke about that.
                                           
There were different ways of avoiding that pillorying if you were afraid of it; one was to be good and obey the rules, and shut down whatever unacceptable parts of yourself that you had to in order to get it right. Another was to mock yourself first and hardest, and be savage enough that people left you alone, and that was Tom’s way.  But there was, for both of them, another and harder part to that extreme discomfort in letting themselves need and want what they undeniably both did, and Tom wouldn’t acknowledge this other part of it. Not openly, although he understood it in the same way he’d once roughly and curtly explained to Dale what it meant to him to love a dominant man and to have a large part of your soul that recognised him, not just with understanding but with joy.

Two submissive guys with major control issues. Bad combination.

He heard the footsteps on the landing – too soft for Riley or for Paul – and lifted his head as Jasper leaned against the door post. He was dressed, wearing a sweater over jeans, hair tied back at the nape of his neck; clothes that lifted Dale’s hopes just at the sight of him, and he spoke very softly for Flynn’s sake.

“Want to come fishing?”

Oh God yes.



            It was just past one am when Dale followed Jasper softly downstairs and left a note on the kitchen table. The dogs stirred sleepily in their beds under the porch and Tam got up to watch them get their rods out of the shed, her tail wagging, but she went back to curl up with the other two, and zipping his jacket up to his neck, Dale walked with Jasper through the silent yard and out into the pasture. It was a still night. The moon was half full, a luminous white and directly above them, and stars were bright overhead, lighting the grass and the aspen woods in myriad shades of grey in the distance. There was no sound but the soft swish of the grass against their jeans as they walked, and the occasional peculiarly mewing sound of a great grey owl travelling on the still air from the woods. Or even further away, the yipping howl of a coyote. It was the first time Jasper had brought Dale night fishing. Usually they fished early in the morning or in early evening, but Jasper had a favourite stretch of the river which was not so far from Philip and David’s cairn, where the river was particularly wide with bays and submerged rocks where the trout lurked, and had a long, shallow shale beach and boulders perfect to walk out into the deeper stretches. The water smelled different at night, slightly sharper, and the soft rushing sound of it was louder in the stillness as it  ran against the rocks. There was a peculiarly hypnotic tranquillity to standing on a boulder out in a flowing river in the dark, with nothing to do except watch the moving water, and occasionally make another cast. As usual they stood some yards from each other to ensure no tangling of the lines, unobstructed casts, and to avoid disturbing the fish, and not unusually too, they said nothing at all, from the moment they left the house. Jasper wasn’t someone who needed to talk for you to feel his companionship.

The bigger trout that hid from shadows and predators during the day came up to feed at night, and they caught several large ones apiece in the first hour. When Jasper caught his third, bringing their total to five, Dale reeled in his line and stepped with care from rock to rock, coming to the bank to where Jasper was cleaning his catch. They only ever caught what they could eat; taught to fish by this man, Dale knew his philosophy well. You took what you needed, never more, and five large trout were plenty for breakfast. He knelt on the bank to clean his own catch, the shale sharp under his knee but not in any bad kind of way. It was very grounding. Like the fish in his hand, the texture of the scales, the gleam and the chilled slipperiness, and the ice splash of the water against his hands.  The fresh fish smell, and the smell of the water at night. The bite of cold air in his nose. The sense of space in the open woods and pastures for miles all around them. To Jasper, the water and the ground were healing things, the first place you went to when you didn’t know what to do and you had no quiet inside yourself. That was what he was sharing tonight, as much as his companionship.

I love this man.

Jasper walked slowly up the shale bank and Dale heard him moving, saw him stoop a few times and the snap of dry twigs, and then he crouched and the bright orange spark and the hiss of a match flared in the darkness. Jasper sheltered the spark with his hands, waited a moment and then blew softly a few times, and the tiny orange flame spread and began to crackle. They sat on low rocks around the little fire and fed it’s thin spikes with small twigs and dried fir, cupped as it was in a shale fireplace, and watched the river run, and breathed the wood smoke. It put out a surprising amount of warmth, even tiny as it was. Dale warmed his hands, watching the water and the reflection of the fire, and the peculiar way the smoke rose in the dark and shimmered out over the surface of the water. There was a great sense of peace out here. A very orienting stillness.  

“Paul is going to think I’ve left him.” he said with a clumsy attempt at humour. Even their voices sounded small out here. “First I throw up at him, then I walk out during the night.”

“I heard you had a hard day.” Jasper sounded quiet about it, not asking a question, not making a judgement, just stating a fact. Dale looked down at his fingers casting long shadows on the shale beyond the light and crackle of the fire. 

“......I look at Riley. And Gerry. And Bear. And I think I’m sure it shouldn’t be this difficult. They managed to do this without making it into a nine act drama. It’s been a year. I should be long over this by now.”

“Six months, not a year. You spent the six months before that, doing something just as difficult and demanding. You’re seeing the others years into settled relationships.” Jasper slowly broke another small handful of twigs, feeding them one by one into the little fire. “I’m not sure they’d agree that six months in they were finding it all plain sailing. And you’re coming to it older. You understand more, you think more.”

“You mean I over-think.” Dale said wryly. “I just wish sometimes it wasn’t so hard.”

“Why? Because it’s hard for you, or you’re afraid of being too hard on us?” Jasper dropped the last twigs on the fire and looked at him, relaxed with his elbows on his knees, waiting for him to answer.

“I give Paul a harder time than anyone else does.” Dale watched the shadows move as he rubbed his knuckles, one hand over the other. “Thought about rationally, I hate that I do it.”

“Paul doesn’t.” Jasper sounded quietly certain of it. “I think he believes very much in what you’re working through with him. I know Flynn does too. What do you think about it?”

“I don’t even know how to explain it.” Dale’s heavy breath out sent the wood smoke curling out over the river. “Except it’s another mess to untangle, it’s another thing that makes me feel – I don’t know. That I’m taking so long over this and making such a pig’s ear of it..... it’s ridiculous.”

“People who take the longest time getting something to work generally know the most about it.” Jasper put a hand down to rearrange the twigs balanced on the fire, evening them out. “What would you learn from things being easy?”

Dale smiled dourly. “At this rate I’m going to be able to give a lecture tour.”

“With the gifts you have, with the knowledge you have, perhaps there’s a purpose in learning that you haven’t thought of.” Jasper’s hand was deft, and the thin flames grew higher. “You’ve had to learn step by step to understand yourself. To work for that knowledge. To make mistakes, to learn from those mistakes. You’ve consciously learned more far more about the details of it than anyone who had that all come naturally. Think about what that learning gives you?”

“It’s more about what it gives the rest of you that I’m worried about.” Dale admitted. Jasper shook his head.

“You’re seeing it only through your eyes, you’re assuming we don’t value that learning because you don’t.  You know the people that lived on this land before we did had a custom with every boy? At the right age he went out to look for an ordeal, often lasting for days – different nations did it in different ways. Sometimes it was fasting or a journey, sometimes it was a search for something, and it was intended to be hard, to challenge him to his limits, to involve privation. Suffering. But at the end of it, those boys went home to people who valued that suffering and knew how to help him interpret the meaning within it to know what he’d learned about himself. That isn’t something that western life has learned how to do. Suffering is something bad, to be solved and ended as fast as possible, not talked about, not acknowledged. Who takes photographs of the bad times in their lives? It’s as if we expect only to live in our perfect moments.”

That was a potent thought. Dale reflected on it, and several undeniable truths within it.

“You know yourself how hard we challenge our clients, you’ve experienced it..” Jasper said very gently. “We learn their buttons and we push them. We provoke them, we confront them, because that’s what makes them feel and act, and through that, make sense of it with us and see things differently for themselves. We create that ordeal for them. Then they want to try out new ways because they see it makes sense, not just because we said they should. We’re tough with them, we don’t want them to have an easy time and we encourage them to face the worst and the hardest buttons they have to be pushed, because when these men go back to their offices and their relationships those buttons are going to be pushed mercilessly. But what they’ll have is the memory of their strength out here. They will know how strong they are capable of being.”

“That’s what Paul’s doing with me.” Dale said softly.

“That’s what you and Paul are doing together.” Jasper agreed quietly. “You as much as him, because you push yourself. You’ve always had the courage to want to find the next step, to take what you know further, you have a love of learning and a commitment to whatever you do. The struggle is the learning, it isn’t something to be ashamed of or hurried through or apologised for. If we have a horse that shies at gates, we don’t avoid gates. We take that horse through as many gates as we can, as often as we can, because it’s only by practice that the horse is ever going to learn to do anything other than shying.”

It was something Dale knew; he had firsthand experience of the philosophy in this household, one that came in good part from them being men whose daily work was with animals, demanding patience, disciplined training, assertiveness. The others could look at Mason, difficult and sour and with his posturing and arrogance and see someone beyond it that they genuinely cared about. They put value on the battles with him over tasks they could have done themselves in a quarter of them time it took to make him do them, and Dale knew they’d always been the same with him. They valued this mess with Paul enough to lose two men from the work force without hesitation, and Dale had seen them do it plenty of times before, both for him and for Riley, when it meant the others carried a heavier working day because of it. They had longer term priorities than an easy day.

“We taught you when you came here,” Jasper said quietly, “and we’re teaching Mason now: balance is important. Tohidu. The mental, the physical, the spiritual and the emotional, no one of them is less important than another, no one can do well with one out of proportion to the others. Where you find those gates in yourself they have to be dealt with in order to be stable, healthy, capable of being what you are meant to be. That’s your responsibility to us by belonging to us, and it’s our responsibility to you.”

That was the moral code of it; probably the first he had learned here when he first moved from anger at being forced to this place to committing himself to the work needed to recover. Dale nodded slowly.

“That was the thing that probably made the most logical sense to me when I first came here. It isn’t something they teach you on a training course, I’d never thought about myself in that way. In fact you’re trained to disregard other aspects of yourself in business, they’re a disadvantage. The family men, the ones who like their social life too much, showing interest in things outside work, acknowledging being tired or sick, they’re classed as unprofessional. Lack of commitment. Not encouraged. I found it easy to be successful at it, they weren’t things I was good at anyway. I never realised how little attention I paid to my body.”  

“It’s still something you do consciously, intentionally, when you see a clear need for it, rather than because it’s a natural thing to do.”

“I stood on the bank with Riley where he and Flynn found the bag, and paid attention – like you say, I worked on it, and there was nothing there.” Dale gave him a half smile, half shrug that wasn’t amused at all. “I still have no idea if there really was nothing there, or if I just didn’t pay enough attention.”

“Do you only open your eyes when you want to look at something?” Jasper asked mildly. “Or do you use them all the time and focus on things they find of interest? These are like any other skills. They have to be practised.”

“Are you aware like that all the time?” Dale asked with real interest. Jasper nodded slowly, his face lit and shadowed by the fire leaping in front of him.

“In the same way you’re aware of breathing and your eyes being open all the time. Enough that if I’m not distracted, I notice when to pay more attention. It takes practice. And practice too in tuning out the clutter, even in my head. That was something I was raised to believe was important; the ability to find clarity.”

He often went out at night; often alone, sometimes with Flynn, and Dale realised with a stab of pleasure, sometimes with him. What he wanted was what they were out here for now; silence. Stillness. Space.

“The house is deliberately a quiet place.” he said, thinking aloud to Jasper who nodded.

“I think David was a man who understood this very well. Yes. We keep it a quiet place, we wouldn’t bring a television or radio into it, we keep a watch on that kind of distraction.”

And they were out every day in the open land, doing real and physical things.

“I wonder sometimes,” Dale said abruptly, “if this never happened to me before I came here because I never let my head de clutter enough to notice if it did. Nothing would have got through.”

“I think that’s a reasonable judgement.” Jasper agreed. “Although I think too that people come to things when the time is right. You came to us with skills you spent your adult life honing to an exceptional degree. It doesn’t seem strange to me that here, in a different place, with different experiences, you can turn those same skills to purposes you hadn’t thought of before. It doesn’t seem strange to me either that there were things you needed to do before you were ready to come to us.”

“Several degrees,” Dale said lightly, “A nervous breakdown...”

“From a practical point of view, yes, that as much as anything else.” Jasper said quietly. “You have the understanding of what it’s like to truly reach breaking point and to come back from it. That might be something that one of us needs from you one day. Or that a client needs. You know more about consciously building trust and about honesty with people you love than I think most of this family know on a purely instinctive level, because to you that’s been something you’ve learned and tried out the mistakes and pitfalls in. If you’re going to choose a person to work with a client in trouble, or to be part of a complex relationship like ours, and especially to do and be part of what I saw happen up on Mustang Hill – would you want someone with an academic qualification, or would you want to be there with someone who’d had fought those same battles himself and truly knew what it was like to be frightened, or confused, or in love, and had practical experience of coming back from it? Roger didn’t need expertise. He needed someone who could understand.”

That was the mostly bluntly they’d ever acknowledged between them what they had both seen on Mustang Hill, and Dale, very aware this was sacred ground to Jasper and not to be casually or dismissively spoken of, hesitated before he spoke.

“....I still don’t really know what happened, or how it happened. If I did anything, and if so what, or if it just happened anyway, I don’t know.”
  
“I don’t either.” Jasper said simply. “I suspect it will take years before you’re sure, and a lot more experience and confidence. I’m not even sure that ‘really knowing’ is the point. But that was at least the third serious time I’d seen you do it, and each time you’ve done it with more purpose.”

“Three?” Dale said, alarmed. Jasper bent his head, a slightly amused nod.

“You took Flynn to the exact spot Philip used to take him when he was at the end of his tether, and got him to camp almost on top of a quartz mine.”

“That just happened.”

“With a little nudging and an eye for detail, yes. And you found Gam Saan, who none of us knew of, never mind that he was David’s friend, or that he was missing.”

“That was just plain curiosity and a little amateur historical investigation, that was all.”

“Yes. You’re a trained, experienced solver of puzzles.” Jasper agreed. “I’d guess you’ll continue to do what you’re good at, and what you enjoy, and you’ll use all the tools you have available to you. But I was raised to believe that every skill a person has, every gift they hone and develop isn’t a selfish thing done for pride or pleasure; it strengthens the group. And I think every day that you have like this one, however hard it is, is another valuable part of honing those skills and making them stronger. Something more that you know, something more that you can understand, and that makes ‘now’ something to value and take slowly, not to be ashamed of. Perfection means never really committing to now It says ‘Now doesn’t matter, because soon it’ll be better’. It’s never valuing what you’ve learned because you’re always focused on the pursuit of what may be.”

Tomorrow I will fix this, tomorrow I’ll do better. Give me more time and I’ll figure it out and get it right.

Those were painfully familiar thoughts. Dale watched the fire flickering against the running of the river, the wind cold on his face and hands, and out here it felt like having stepped apart from time, somewhere far enough to stand and look and see more clearly, as if the night would go on as long as he needed it to.

“I need to talk to Paul.” he said eventually, quietly.


*


He woke out of vaguely horrible dreams, and knew before he turned over and opened his eyes that he was alone upstairs. It had been past four am when he and Jasper came back to the house, and Flynn had stirred when he slid back into bed, not flinching away from cold hands and feet but instead turning over and wrapping himself around Dale to warm him, and breathing his hair.  

“You smell like wood smoke. Catch anything?”

He always knew.

He’d also managed to slip away and dress this morning without Dale hearing. The bedroom door was closed, shutting out any sound from the landing. Everyone else was obviously long gone. Dale felt for his watch on the nightstand. It was past eleven am. Which was ridiculous. For some reason the hour was both annoying and upsetting, like something slipped out of pattern, a rent in the fabric that was too hard to accommodate. Just like it was ridiculous to wake up with that same hard, painful bubble of remembrance that he must do something today about talking to Paul. Which seemed a much harder thing to do in the light of day than it had seemed in the dark by the river. It was stirring, harder now than yesterday, trying to rise up: he’d experienced the sensation before, he knew very well what it meant. There was a lot of trapped and nasty and alarming stuff trying to break free; old memory and old experience, and it was always unpleasant and frightening to let it. It was horribly tempting to swallow it down, bury it deep and ignore it for just another day. To give himself just that one day more to prepare, to feel more ready. There were plenty of expert ways he had of doing it, all of which would at least work for a while, and none of which he could justify to himself or to any of the others.

Coward.

You can be brave enough to do this and feel this. You can sit down and try to talk to him, you can be honest, you can act like a grown up, you can sort this out.

He would certainly be staying at home alone with Paul again. They never let him distract himself when he was in this kind of mess, and it was comforting and terrifying at one and the same time. Doing his best to try to pull himself together, Dale made himself get out of bed and opened the door to the landing. Theoretically he needed permission to get up and dress, and he checked Paul’s office, barefoot and still in sleepwear, before he padded downstairs. Paul was sitting at the table and writing at a notepad. He looked up and smiled, which didn’t help. Dale stooped to kiss his cheek with his stomach tight.

“Good morning. I had no idea it was so late.”

“I bet you didn’t, Jasper said it was nearly dawn when the two of you came in.” Paul shut the notebook and got up. “The trout are wonderful. Could you eat one? Or do you want something easier for breakfast?”

“I’m not hungry.” Dale filled a glass with water and tried not to reflexively step away as Paul put an arm around his waist and gave him a hug.

“Don’t start that again. Sit down, I’ll put the kettle on.”

Just being touched brought the bubble of emotion rushing that much higher, far faster than Dale was ready to handle.

And now you need to sit down with him, and open your mouth and talk, and that’s going to make it feel a whole lot worse.

Hand shaking, Dale swallowed the rest of the water.

Ok, I can’t do this. I seriously can’t do this.

“Please don’t worry on my account.” He rinsed the glass fast enough to hide the shaking, knowing he sounded like an ass and unable to stop it. “I’m going to get dressed and go do something useful.”

“No, you’re not.” Paul said with more compassion than was helpful, which said he’d seen the shaking. “Sit down honey. You’ll feel better when you’ve had something to eat and you’ve had time to wake up properly, you must feel all over the place.”

Please don’t be nice to me. Just get out of my way, let me go and leave me alone.

Dale put the glass back in the cupboard, keeping his back to Paul.

“I explained I wasn’t hungry. What about that statement implied a cause for further discussion?”

“Look at me.”

Paul said it very gently, and it was about the last straw. Dale heard the tone in his own voice, the viciously polite and sarcastic one that dismissed Paul and anything he said as too stupid to be listened to, and it burst out as the fastest way to put a gulf between them, to deflect anything Paul said before it could got too close.

Why? I’m actually a competent adult, I have been so for eighteen years. I know when I want to eat, I am perfectly capable of managing without a few hours’ sleep, there have been times when I’ve managed for bloody days on no sleep at all. It would be more to the point to be practical about the size of this ranch and the number of stock we run on it, and its priority above overzealous solicitude. And before you inform me that no board of directors runs this place-”

“I’m not going to inform you of anything,” Paul filled the kettle at the tap and put it on the hob. “Go ahead and shout yourself out.”

Flynn had a short way of breaking through that kind of ranting. Paul took no notice of it, and the sympathy in his voice hurt even more. Dale swallowed, watching Paul go on making tea as though this was a normal conversation.

“That is about as logical and as dismissive as saying ‘whatever’.”

Paul reached past him to the cupboard for the mugs.   

“Well neither of us believe what you’re saying hon; what you’re actually telling me is you feel horrible. If it makes you feel any better, you shout all you need to.”

“You do not know what I believe or what I need,” Dale said savagely, “You know what you think, which is entirely subjective-”

“Oh bullshit.” Paul spooned tea into the teapot, not even interrupting particularly emphatically. “The really tough thing about marrying someone is that yes, they do know. It’s a downside you’re going to have to deal with. A lot of what you’re most angry about is that for the last week or two you’ve let yourself open up to me a lot more than you feel safe about, and now you don’t feel in control.”

“There are days,” Dale heard himself say with more venom than he’d ever heard in his own voice before, “When I don’t know whether I’m supposed to be participating in a family therapy session or a séance. Excuse me, I’m going to dress and do something towards the upkeep of this place.”

“And yet more bullshit with a lot of disrespect, and you know the rules of this house.” Paul gave him a nod towards the stairs. “Go get my hairbrush please. It’s on my dresser.”

It was a perfectly justified request and it was still a shock to hear it said. Worse, Dale found himself spitting out something far worse than what should have been ‘yes sir’.

“Go and stuff yourself.”

“You want a fight with me?” Paul took the milk out of the fridge, put it beside the tea pot and turned to face Dale, pushing back the sleeves of his sweater to the elbow. “Ok, let’s have a fight. That’s the second time you’ve told me you’re storming out and you still haven’t actually left the room, so you can mock whatever you like Dale Edward, I know you don’t believe a word of it. I don’t care how loud you get, I don’t care how rude you want to be, you can trust me. I’m not going anywhere. I’m still going to be the one who decides how today goes. I’m also not putting up with being spoken to like that. You’ve got thirty seconds to go get me that brush.”

“You’re all obsessed with time,” Dale spat back.

“Not another word.” Paul said very firmly. “Move.”

What he got was a straight bow with clicked heels, which even in pyjamas Dale could still pull off, and then he raised his hands and Paul looked in disbelief at the several words he mutely signed.

He was actually signing.

The beautifully executed phrase was interrupted by a yelp when Paul took him by the ear and led him as far as the drawer where the cooking implements lived. Paul opened it, rummaged briefly and withdrew a plastic spatula, and led Dale as far as the table, where compelled to follow his ear, he bent over it. He yelped a lot more at the half dozen sound whacks of the spatula that Paul applied to the seat of his shorts, twisting and gripping the table for support, and at the sixth he flung a hand back to block the spatula’s path. Paul gave the offending palm a swift and much lighter swat, which effectively got it snatched away.

“I don’t believe what I just saw you do.” he pointed out, letting Dale’s ear go and putting his hand on the small of his back instead, which kept him in place over the table. “What exactly did you just sign to me?”

Riley would have avoided incriminating himself. Dale’s voice was unwilling and extremely muffled, but a straight question got you a straight answer.   

“.... frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Biting on an urge to smile, Paul dealt him another, sharper swat with the spatula and let him go. “Mmn. A phrase addressed, if I remember the film, to someone else who could use a good spanking. Hairbrush.”

Dale gathered himself up off the table with all the dignity, colour high, and went, rather quickly.

Paul put the spatula down on the table and waited, arms folded. Dale was even more flushed when he came back into the kitchen doorway, hairbrush in hand as though he was carrying a grenade. Paul held out a hand for it, setting a chair well back from the table.

“Come here, young man.”

He took the hand that held out the brush, took the brush from it and sat down, turning Dale over his lap with one brisk tug. He didn’t look at all settled there, fumbling for the floor with both his hands and feet as Paul pulled his shorts down, and that was the last time Dale was still or quiet for a while. The sound of the brush was loud in the kitchen and interspersed with yelps and hisses and increasingly shaky yelps and cries, and there were two large splashes of red marking his bottom when Paul put the brush back down on the table, giving him a sharp spank over one of the red patches with his hand.

“Corner. And not another smart word or gesture from you.”

Dale gripped him hard for support as he stumbled to his feet, very red faced, blurry eyed and breathless, but he fumbled his shorts up and went silently to the corner, taking a moment to gather himself and audibly taking a deep breath before he took up position and put his hands up to clasp them behind his head.

Paul put the chair back under the table and re boiled the kettle, giving Dale a few minutes to collect himself. Through the window, in the distance, he could see Mason being shown how to groom Moo, one of their most placid and easy to ride horses, and under Jasper’s tutelage he was rather warily running a curry comb over him. It was the first steps to teaching him to ride; most of their clients were extremely nervous of horses at first but they’d never yet had one that didn’t leave them without riding being their firm favourite of all the things they’d done here. There was something about a relationship with a horse that seemed to reach every one of them.

It meant too that Jasper was seeing Mason start to approach the end of the first stage, which was encouraging, and something they needed to talk about. The next stage would be for Mason to gradually start going out with Jasper at first and in time others of them as he earned the responsibility, riding, shadowing them and learning to help with the ranch work, and focusing much more on his ability to work with and build relationships with people and animals, and on him learning and acquiring the skills they used day to day. It was often the longest part of a client’s stay with them, and it was often as you saw them learning to do entirely new things for themselves, from mending a fence to building a fire, that you saw their confidence start to build in something concrete that had nothing to do with the often ephemeral agendas of their workplace.

The kettle steamed and Paul filled the pot, stirred it and put it on the kitchen table.

“Are we in any danger of you behaving if you come out of that corner?”

Dale didn’t answer. Paul put the milk and mugs beside the pot.

“Come here.”

Dale lowered his hands and turned rather unsteadily, and he looked so upset that Paul held out his arms. Dale walked straight into them and Paul hugged him, feeling Dale’s arms wrap tightly around his neck, Dale’s face turned into his shoulder, and Paul felt as well as heard him start to cry. Not the semi smothered, painful choking he’d heard a few times when he’d seen Dale in tears. Actual, shaking sobs, out of all proportion to the last ten minutes, quiet at first but with increasing strength like a dam breaking. Paul held him close, rubbing the nape of his neck and the back of his head, saying nothing but a few and almost wordless comforting sounds, and for a moment it felt strange, almost more like holding Riley than Dale. Then he realised that Dale was hanging around his neck, body full against his in the way that only Riley usually did.

It took him a while to calm down. Paul heeled out a chair when he was a little quieter, and sat down without letting Dale go, pulling him into his lap and keeping an arm around him while he poured tea. Dale released his hold around Paul’s neck and straightened up a little, still gulping, and took the mug Paul put in front of him. It had brewed nearly to the point of stewing but he didn’t seem to mind; he drained half the mug in one go and Paul re filled it when he put it down, keeping an arm tight around his waist and turning him a little to run his fingers over Dale’s cheeks, brushing away the worst of the wetness.  

“I’m sorry, that was awful.” Dale said eventually and not very clearly.

“Yes it was.” Paul agreed roundly. “You ever dare to sign Hollywood clichés at me again and I promise you, you won’t sit down again this side of Thanksgiving.”

He felt Dale’s very shaky laugh. 

“Sorry.”

There was no need to say much else. Dale drank about another half mug of tea, put the mug down on the table and turned around to fold his arms back around Paul’s neck, quietly burying himself there with his chest full against Paul’s and his face turned into Paul’s shoulder. Paul held him and went on stroking his back, running a hand under his shirt as he had done before to rub directly over bare skin. Dale’s back was long and smooth, you could feel the line of his spine and the curve of his shoulder blades without much pressing, and the bones felt more distinct than usual. In part because Dale was leaning against him, holding on, but even more so because this time and for the first time, there was no tension in his shoulders.




“I don’t remember very much that far back. It was the house in London, near Horse Guards, and my mother’s parents were there. I suppose we lived with them for a while. It was a very tall house, four storeys, it seemed huge to me at the time, and always quiet. A lot of closed or half closed doors, and a lot of needing to be quiet.”

“How old do you think you were?” Paul said softly. They were lying on his bed, sprawled across the quilt at angles instead of logically, using the pillows, and Dale lay on his back with his head near Paul’s knee, twisting a pulled thread he’d gently detached from the quilt.

“I don’t really know. It’s about the earliest thing I can remember. Maybe three? Two? We weren’t in that house for long. I can remember playing on the landing outside mostly closed doors, and knowing she was crying, and that I wasn’t supposed to go inside.”

“Who looked after you? Your grandparents?”

“I don’t expect so,” Dale said matter of factly, “More likely whoever was employed in the house at the time. I don’t remember that either, but there would have been a couple of staff, there always were. Most of what I remember is the house in Shropshire, and that’s my stepfather’s house. A couple of miles out of Ludlow.”

“And she’s still living at that house? When were you last there?”

“I’d stopped going home much in the holidays by the time I was twelve or so. There were always plenty of overseas boys at school who couldn’t go home and boarded there year round, the school was open and I was working for exams by then so I was glad of the excuse not to have to. It ended up being more – study leave and individual tuition than holiday I suppose.”

That part of the story Paul knew; a headmaster who had been delighted to find a brilliant mind in a very willing and co operative boy, and to support him in an accelerated programme that ended to a supported transition to University when he was sixteen, to live with a tutor who continued to teach him, and from where he was head hunted into an apprenticeship with A.N.Z.

“Your mother didn’t mind that?”

“She more or less started again when she remarried.” Dale said it gently and without resentment, and Paul wondered if it really was compassion for her, or talking about someone he had only ever known from a detached distance, or whether this was something he had come to terms with a long time ago. Although he knew the picture Dale kept of his father on the dresser in his and Flynn’s room, the only picture Dale had brought with him when he moved in with them and which Paul knew he valued. He’d never seen any image of Dale’s mother.

“She was only twenty when my father died. Once she married my stepfather it was a fresh start, it was the marriage and family she should have had. I was sort of left over from a previous mistake-”

“No, that’s a horrible way to put it.” Paul protested. Dale shook his head.

“I’m saying that’s probably how she saw it. From what I’ve heard, she was shattered when my father was killed, and it took her several years to recover. Once she had, she probably didn’t want to have to look back. There were solicitors who looked after my father’s will as far as I was concerned, they dealt with school fees and transfers and what have you, they were always who school dealt with if they wanted something. So no, she didn’t mind.”

He’d never talked about any of this. School, yes. Paul had the impression that he’d been relatively happy at the two schools he’d boarded at, he talked about them occasionally and most of his good memories seemed to come from them as if he’d materialised on the planet in uniform at the age of seven. But he talked about this earlier time in his life and his mother too in this mildly compassionate way someone might talk about an ancestor they’d never met, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that he’d never before mentioned them, you might have thought he wasn’t particularly affected.

“But you can see,” Dale said quietly and unexpectedly, “why the social skills I’ve got are so completely buggered up. Work relationships, those I can do. I’ve got training, knowledge, and they’re not on equal terms. I’ve got full control. I can deal with clients, I can handle colleagues, and work was a good excuse most of the time to not have to stop and think about anything else.” he said it with a wry and gently self mocking tone that made Paul at least partially manage to return his smile. Dale turned over onto his stomach which meant Paul could see his face, although Dale’s eyes were on the thread he was still twisting gently between his slim fingers.

“And that gives me an excuse, a lot of the time, for not having to commit the whole way or to stop hiding behind a polite veneer when things get a bit alarming. I used to do this with staff at the office. I knew the right things to say, I knew the way to say them to get people to do what I wanted them to do in an appropriate way – it’s the idiot savant thing again, I can be programmed to look very nearly like a real boy.”

“Hey.” Paul said gently. Dale glanced up at him, grey eyes serious.

“Do you know I can do it to Riley? I did once, I actually did it when he realised I was obsessing about the fence when I started working for A.N.Z. again. If you use the right tone, the right voice, the right manner, he responds to it just like I do. I could make him do what I wanted him to do, which was calm down and not tell anyone. You have no idea how terrible I’ve felt about that ever since. I did it in panic, but it’s a brutal form of lying, it’s manipulation, and that’s always what it comes down to. If I’m scared I put myself first and I manipulate people to do what I want them to do, which is mostly to back off. When it comes to the crunch I haven’t got the guts to take the risk and let someone see, or let them react in ways I’m not braced and ready to handle.”

There was gentle self loathing in his voice now; Paul heard it with a lot of pain, understanding that Dale probably had no idea what it felt like to love him and to listen to this.

“That’s a very harsh view, and it’s magnifying a small thing out of all proportion.” he said gently. “It’s black and white thinking. Flynn would make you rephrase that to something a lot less ruthless.”

“But it is an awful thing.” Dale looked up and looked him straight in the eye, his eyes troubled and sober, not looking for reassurance or comfort, or for Paul to argue him into a more comfortable state of mind. He never hid behind them, he’d stood on his own feet all his adult life and probably longer. This was a deliberate, intentional confession, spoken without mercy.

“It’s a terrible thing to do to someone you love, we’ve gone over and over this and it’s cowardice. It’s always holding something back. I did the same thing to you as I did to Riley when I screwed up that work project, I hurt you too because I wouldn’t face up to being scared and make myself talk to you.”

Paul took the thread out of his fingers and ran a hand gently over his forehead, finger combing his dark hair back, appreciative that this painful admission was in part to Dale a real offering of reparation to him for causing that hurt.  “And you apologised to me and I forgave you, and let’s face it, the four of us have the power to scare you far more than anyone else. You’re into unchartered waters with us. Darling you do commit and you’re seeing this very harshly, no one else would ever be this critical or unforgiving. You do a good job, and I know you have very high standards, but you haven’t had a whole lot of experience and it’s going to take time.”

“You’ve given me a lot of time and I know better.” Dale said quietly. “That’s what bothers me, even if it is just in small ways. If I’m mouthing off to you it’s still a dishonest way of yelling or hitting out, it’s just a nice veneer over being angry so I don’t have to really admit I’m doing it or face the consequences. It’s not honest, which is why Flynn jumps all over it. It’s not acceptable, and it’s always about being afraid. When you asked me the other day why I wasn’t comfortable sitting with you, it’s that blunt, it’s being afraid. Physically afraid.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s too risky.” Dale gave him a brief, mirthless smile, voice light. “You might see too much. I might say too much. It puts me out of control. How do you freak out a perfectionist? Do you see why it matters so much to know I can’t push you or Jasper or Flynn around? I know I’m wired that way too, I think I’d be that way even if I was less of a bloody coward, but I’ve always been quicker on the uptake and stronger than any other men I’ve known. As a kid I could talk adults around, and I did it by being outwardly very good and thinking a lot faster than they realised, so I could always steer people where I wanted, and I can’t explain what that feels like.”

“If you can’t push past them and you can’t fool them, they’re strong enough that you’re safe to let yourself go and trust them to be in charge.” Paul said gently.

Dale flushed, looking down at his hands. He was picking at his fingernails in absence of the thread, the stress showing in his mobile hands rather than his face, the way it often did.

“I can see it when I’m watching Mason. You lot are prepared for overachieving, manipulative bastards, you see through it and you don’t let us get away with it. I mostly can’t manipulate or lie to you, and that’s good because I need to not be able to win at it, because I know if I’m scared enough, I’m probably going to try.”

“Mostly?” Paul went on stroking his hair, watching his face. “Nothing’s happening that I need to know about, is it?”

“Yes. But nothing you could really know for sure if I didn’t tell you.” Dale sat up, putting a little distance between them and looking down at his hands. Then he took another breath and Paul saw him make himself look up. “I don’t mean generally and I don’t mean all the time in all things, I understood about social lying a long time ago. I just mean I know I still ... I wish I knew how to explain this better.”  He hesitated for a minute and turned a darker red, but said it determinedly. “You asked me last fall at what point I was going to put honesty with you as my priority over any other goal I had in mind. This is the point. When Jasper was talking to me once about withholding, he said I had a responsibility to let myself be loved, it was a two way process. It wasn’t just about giving, I had to allow it back. But there’s a third part of it. You have to be willing to let it affect you too, and that’s the hardest part. That probably sounds insane to someone normal.”

Paul looked at him for a while, eyes soft. Then he said thoughtfully,

“I loved David. Not just because I looked after him, or because he was David and you’d have had to be a rock not to like him, but he was a very close and dear friend, the closest friend I’d ever had. He was in his eighties and I turned twenty not long after I got here, but it made no difference at all. When he started to get really frail – when Philip and I started to know he was on borrowed time and we weren’t going to have him much longer, I found myself starting to pull away from him.”

He said nothing for a moment, still looking at Dale, then said more softly, “I knew I was going to lose him, and I knew it was going to be shattering, and it was instinctive to try and limit how much it was going to hurt. Once I realised what I was doing, I could think it through and then I made sure I the most of the time we had, but yes..... I think I know what you mean. The risk is part of the bargain.”

Dale swallowed on the strength of that confidence. Something deeply personal, deeply painful, and so accurate he found himself responding almost without thinking.

“.......You said you saw it when Flynn pulls me into his lap. It happens around you too, a lot. I was raised that proper men aren’t needy and all the rest of the macho tripe, and I can rationalise most of it. Mostly by imagining Gerry replying to it, I’d love to turn him loose in some locker rooms I’ve been in. Lives would be lost.”

Paul smiled faintly. Dale swallowed, feeling his face grow hot again.

“I rationalised that part a long time ago. The harder part is knowing I want it, how much I want it, but if I really let go something terrible is going to happen. If I’m honest it happens in all kinds of small ways. Things I’m not comfortable for you to see, or know.”

“When you’re anxious about something, or you don’t know how to handle it.” Paul said with understanding and a lot of compassion. Dale cleared his throat.

“Flynn says I use all kinds of tricks to avoid having to feel what I don’t want to feel, to hang onto distance, because the alternative scares the hell out of me.”

“What terrible thing will happen?” Paul asked him. Dale shrugged, and while it sounded almost like a laugh, Paul could see he was near to tears.

“I don’t know. Something I can’t deal with, or I’m not prepared for. Maybe it’s just not having control. Isn’t it always about loss of control? I need the control over this taken away from me, because this isn’t honest, it isn’t full commitment, it isn’t something you’d let me do if I was up front about it. It’s still trying to hold onto my terms, my limits, and that’s not...” he trailed off, voice lifting into something that was an attempt at humour but failed miserably. “So this is, officially, a request for help, because I don’t know how. I know what I should do, but I really don’t know how to do it.”



~ * ~



Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015







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