Friday, December 23, 2011

The Brig

“That’s the phone.”

Dale lifted his head from the pillow, speaking softly as the shrill ringing began from downstairs. It was still dark, the sky beyond the window was pitch black and Flynn stirred beside him, not releasing the arm over Dale which was preventing him getting out of bed.

“I’ll get it.”

“It’s probably for me, who else rings at this time in the morning?”

“Stay where you are.”

“We could keep the phone up here where I could answer it before everyone else gets disturbed.”
Flynn, rolling to his feet and padding quietly out on to the landing, snorted.

“In your dreams.”

Left alone, Dale felt for his watch on the night stand. It was a quarter to five. The phone’s ringing stopped in the kitchen as Flynn reached it, and Dale leaned back against the pillows, listening. Nothing to hear for a moment, then the soft sound of footsteps as Flynn padded back upstairs. He was bare chested and bare legged in nothing but shorts, which was distracting, and he was looking as unamused as he always was by corporates demanding their attention during sleeping hours, and he paused by the bed with one hand over the mouthpiece.

“A.N.Z, New York. Want to take it?”

He always asked. And at a word, he’d unhesitatingly tell the caller to get lost. In slightly politer terms than that, but not by much. With a great deal of affection Dale reached to take the phone and put out his other hand to run his fingertips lightly up and down the long, bare curve of Flynn’s spine as Flynn sat down on the edge of the bed beside him. It might not do much to soothe Flynn’s irritation but it added whole new dimensions to work calls.

“Aden. Good morning.”

The conversation was short and succinct, and was followed by a patched call through to Australia. Flynn waited, watching, until Dale ended the call and swung out of bed to grab for his clothes.

“Major crisis. They’re faxing the file through now.”

“So?” Flynn captured his hand with an inarguably strong grasp, not moving, which yanked Dale to an abrupt stop and compelled him to turn back. Flynn’s hair was scattered from sleep, he smelled awfully good, of soap and the bed linen and of him, and he always looked solider still when he was undressed, which made no sense at all according to the law of physics. Even sitting down, mostly shadowed in the dark, the man did ‘large’ well; it was something about the breadth of his shoulders, which still showed the last traces of his summer tan lines at the neck and biceps. Highly distracting lines that made Dale want to touch.

“May I use the fax, sir?”

There was always something orienting about saying it out loud. In some ways it was like a very private joke between them, but moreover it was meant in real sincerity. It was not a gesture; it was a genuine question that held the serious potential of an answer of ‘no’, and just the act of asking reaffirmed exactly how this worked between them. Flynn pulled him down by the hand to reach his mouth, kissed him, a brief, sound kiss that left its imprint on his mouth, and let him go.

“Yes. We’re getting dressed first.”

He went to his own chest of drawers, shouldering into a clean t shirt and sweater and digging for a pair of jeans. The fact that he’d worked hard yesterday, would work hard today and was losing an hour’s needed sleep wasn’t mentioned and there wasn’t the faintest hint of resentment about it, something Dale appreciated as much as Flynn’s succinct; “Who was it?”

He knew the most frequent names, he remembered them, he always made it clear he was involved and he was interested, although Dale never would have expected it of him.

“Jeremy Banks.” Dale zipped and buttoned his own jeans, rapidly made their bed to his own standards of neatness, and accepted the sweater Flynn handed him, and followed him quietly across the landing and up the narrow stairs that led to the small office in the hope they didn’t disturb any of the others. It was cold up there. Flynn snapped the lights on, turned the fax on and sat on the desk, crossing his arms and watching as the machine warmed up and pages began to run off. Dale took the desk chair beside Flynn’s jeaned leg and scanned through the title sheet.

“Page one of 83. This is going to take a while.”

Flynn twisted his head to scan down the page with Dale, then got up, dropping a warm hand on the back of his neck.

“Then we’re making tea while we wait. Come on kid, it’ll work without supervision.”

Other than a brief break to get a shower, Flynn sat there in the office for the next two hours while Dale went through the faxed information, powered up the computer and scanned through the small shower of emails and attachments forwarded from Banks’ address. They made for grim reading. The others were up and moving about; too preoccupied to pay much attention Dale was aware of the shower running and voices on the landing but they tactfully stayed away from the office. Flynn, apparently unbored, in no hurry and planning on doing nothing else this morning, sat on the edge of the desk and watched. He didn’t fidget or distract, he just sat there. Which was not relaxing and made work happen a lot faster since every action had to be justifiable directly under his eye, but in another way it was extremely comforting. He glanced at his watch, unfolded his arms and got up as Dale shut the computer down. He’d read through most of the fax himself as Dale finished with each page, but hadn’t commented on what he’d read.

“Shower, come down and get breakfast and we’ll talk about it. You’ve got ten minutes.”

“This isn’t going to wait.” Dale picked up the piled fax, sorting through it to the summary and the most relevant appendices, and Flynn took the stack out of his hand with blunt unreasonability, putting it back on the desk without losing his place and moving Dale with his other hand, firmly towards the door.

“Nine minutes fifty seconds. Move.”

This is going to go my way kid, so you might as well go with it.

He didn’t have to say it out loud; Dale heard it clearly. He showered and shaved at speed while he mentally processed and ran the data multiple ways in his head in what he already knew was going to be a futile attempt to find any other perspective or possibility. More hassled by it than was going to be helpful to admit, he collected the key sections of the fax, pulled himself together with several of the key points decided on, and jogged downstairs with seventy seconds remaining. The kitchen was warm and the others were eating breakfast, Riley leaning casually across Flynn to snag another piece of toast. Dale held up the fax, addressing all of them but mostly Flynn.

“I’m going to have to get out to Atlanta. Pretty much right now.”

“You’re what?” Riley demanded.

Flynn’s expression didn’t noticeably change; he wasn’t surprised. Jasper leaned both elbows on the table, waiting for more information, and Paul brushed crumbs off his hands, sitting back in his chair.

“Good morning to you too, come over here.”

“Good morning.” Reminded of the proprieties, Dale stooped automatically to kiss him, and Paul reached for the faxed pages.

“Hand it over. Anything interesting?”

Dale surrendered it to him, leaning on the chair back with both hands.

“I can get there by mid afternoon, which means an early evening meeting and we may have the necessary arrangements made by-”

Riley interrupted, not sounding amused and Dale could read his face as much as the tone of his voice. “What the hell’s in Atlanta that you’ve got to drop everything for?”

“Whoa.” Flynn indicated his seat with the butt of his knife. “Back up, sit down and we’ll talk about it.”

“I need to get a flight out now.” Dale said apologetically. “This is an emergency, I’m going to struggle for time as it is.”

Flynn gave him a straight look from level and very dark green eyes, leaning his elbow on the table to make the knife-indicating hand more apparent.

Even with a head full of A.N.Z.’s morning crisis, it was not possible to meet Flynn’s gaze when he looked at you like that and think about anything except an immediate and acute concern for your backside. Dale found himself hastily pulling the chair out and sitting down even though he hadn’t intended to, with a sense of proportion very firmly yanked on. It was still another uncomfortable ten seconds before Flynn broke that steady gaze on him and said bluntly,

“Tell us what you want and we’ll discuss it. You don’t inform us your decision is made and you’re out of here.”

No. Dale buttered toast, aware his face was flushing hotly.

“I’m sorry, that wasn’t what I-”

“Bullshit, that’s exactly where your head is.” Riley said shortly. He sat back, hooking an arm over the back of his chair, fiddling with his fork and what was left on his plate. If Dale had to guess, Jasper had just put a hand on Riley’s knee, something was holding him back. Paul took Dale’s plate and filled it from the hot dishes on the table, putting it down in front of him, his voice very calm in comparison to Riley’s.

“The fax doesn’t mean a thing to me, it’s all figures. What’s happening in Atlanta that’s so important, hon?”

It was his stop and breathe tone. Trying to take a step back far enough from the data to summarise it fairly, Dale steepled his hands in front of him and took a breath that resisted the urge to point out that time he already didn’t have was rapidly slipping away. Flynn would not be receptive to it.

“It’s not based in Atlanta, this is several companies owned by A.N.Z. in different states. There’s such a thing as a special project in corporate terminology, where two or more companies merge for a set period of time for a specific aim, and then dissolve back to individual companies when the project is completed. Setting it up involves re structuring, transfer and combination of assets and liabilities, and the outcome at the end, depending on the success of the project, can sometimes be that rather than dissolve to the original independent component companies, one company may take over or subsume another, or a more permanent merger may be established.”

Said at speed it sounded as appallingly dry as it was probably incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t involved themselves in this kind of nonsense for a career.

“The problem,” he added, to make it clear there was actually a point, “is that this particular special project is a large one, potentially with a big outcome, and two of the four companies involved are relatively big fish. The negotiations for the merger broke down yesterday and those two companies are threatening to pull out if they don’t get what they want; basically they’re playing control games. It’s obvious that they’ve been doing some off the table manoeuvring behind A.N.Z’s back, which Jerry Banks isn’t pleased about. Essentially each company is fighting for an advantage over the others, more power, more control, more of the assets, partly because they want to be in a key position to subsume other companies into theirs when the project is dissolved.”

“And don’t want to risk being subsumed themselves.” Paul added. “Understandably. What does Jerry want you to do about it?”

“Knock heads together.” Dale said dryly. “Actually, essentially what he’s asking is that I go and read them the riot act, hard and fast before things have a chance to get any worse or they do any more private dealing, and get the merger agreements drawn up and signed, with the smaller companies protected.”

Riley produced a curt snort, putting his fork down. “So what are you going to do, take a paddle out there with you?”

“Ri, let him eat.” Jasper said quietly. Riley gave him a scowl.

“I want to know. It better be good if it’s dragging him all the way out there, we've got a phone, we've got email.”

“It isn’t possible to run a situation like this from a distance.” Dale said evenly. “This is face to face negotiation and there’s no way around it. I’ve considered every possible option for remote management or for anyone else who would be qualified to handle the situation effectively, and I see no other viable alternative. I’m sorry it means being away a few days, I understand you don’t like it,”

“I don’t, I hate it.” Riley said frankly, looking straight back at him in a way that said he didn’t buy quiet, practical tones for one minute and any negotiator crap could be forgotten about right now. “Want to talk about why or are you just going to blow right past that bit?”

If you knew you couldn’t use the professional approaches with him, which were neither honest nor fair, then how did you answer that? Dale looked back at him, rattled, and angry with himself for acknowledging he was rattled, and knowing exactly what Riley was pointing out to him.

“Dale, you've got about one minute to start eating before I help.” Paul tapped quietly on the table to draw his attention back to his plate. “You are hungry, you just haven’t calmed down enough to realise it yet, and you’re not doing anything at all this morning on an empty stomach, so it’s no good giving me that look. Ri, we’re talking about this, we’ll work it out.”

Riley shrugged, unimpressed. “I am talking, I’m saying I think it’s a lousy idea.”

“Then would you like to suggest a better one?” Dale said to him aridly. “Because A.N.Z. would like to hear it. Jerry Banks is in Sydney this morning and he can’t do much from there, he’s just appealed to me for help as the only one available and with the experience to deal with this before these companies wreck the project and everything tied up in it, and I know the two trouble makers. I don’t really feel I can say sorry, but I’ve got pastures that need rotating.”

“Breakfast, right now.” Paul said more firmly. Exasperated, Dale gave him an icily polite look, steepling his hands in front of him.

“I can talk to him or I can eat for you, which would you prefer? I can also choke on request, I don't mind if it makes anyone happier.”

Paul pushed his chair back, holding out a hand. “Ok, let’s go and have a chat about that.”

Well aware he’d gone too far, and too irritated now to care, Dale raised an eyebrow at him.

“Would this be instead of eating or talking, or would you like me to plan for further multi tasking?”

He saw Riley’s look of shock in the split second before Flynn was rounding the table so fast that the grasp of his hand and the scrape of his chair seemed to happen instantaneously. Shocked, Dale didn’t have time to open his mouth. Flynn braced one foot on the rung of Dale’s chair and tugged Dale to his feet, hooking a powerful arm around his waist to grip his belt and hoist him without the slightest difficulty, dropping him face down straight over his knee as if he weighed nothing at all.

There was a split second’s horrible realisation of being upended with way too close a view of the kitchen floor tiles with the floor out of reach of his hands or feet and nothing stabilising him at all but Flynn’s hard thigh under his hips and Flynn’s arm across his back, and then Flynn’s palm landed flat on the seat of his jeans with an almighty thwack and a sting that made him jump and yelp, and it was the first of a dozen, very hard, fast, accurate swats that soundly peppered every inch of his backside.

He was breathless, having done an awful lot of undignified ouching, twisting and yelping in a tone of voice that was anything but detached or dignified while hanging in mid air, and his backside was stinging crazily when Flynn stood him back on his feet and steadied him, turning him towards Paul.


Dale’s body moved independently, fast, and Paul put a hand on his shoulder, steering him past the table.


It was not easy to stand still with your backside that well smacked. Dale took up position automatically, interlacing his fingers on top of his head through habit, throbbing. It still hadn’t yet ceased to surprise him how radically his perspective could be changed by something technically so simple.

“Riley, you’re not helping.” Flynn’s voice said shortly. Riley didn’t sound at all subdued.

“How am I not helping? Does he sound to you like he's in a good place to get on a plane?”

“Who’s confirmed he is getting on a plane?”

“If that’s what he says he wants to do then that’s what you’ll let him do, because you won’t stop worrying about all kinds of crap that doesn’t matter. He doesn’t actually want to go. I can see it if you can’t, and I’ll say it out loud if he won’t because he’s doing a lousy job of hiding it.” Riley’s voice was sharp and to the point. “He's doing this because he thinks he has to. So unless someone wants to do some kind of Topping here, he’ll vanish out there and stay in some fleapit of a hotel by himself while he goes on with all the bullshit about ‘I see no viable alternative’. And by the time he comes back he won't just count the damn fence posts he'll probably measure them too.”

Dale stared at the wall, assaulted with a complicated mixture of gratitude, deep affection and deep exasperation, combined with a sense of the inconvenience of having to keep your hands on your head when you overwhelmingly wanted to rub your butt. There was another scrape of a chair, and Riley’s voice, now muffled, saying just as sharply,

“Yeah like that’s going to help.”and Paul’s voice saying mildly, “What is this? National throw a fit at breakfast day? Someone finish the rest of that bacon before it gets cold.”

Normal breakfast sounds followed. With nothing to look at but the paintwork, and his rear gradually changing from sharply smarting to glowing like he’d sat on a stove, Dale felt his stomach gradually settle down to a level of calm that was far lower than ought to be possible considering he ought by now to be packing to head out to Atlanta. The kitchen door was open into the yard as it usually was except in the coldest weather, and the breeze reached the corner as well as the warmth from the stove, bringing with it the fresh smell of the grass and the outside air. When Paul quietly called him back to the table he found Jasper sipping tea and looking through the fax, and Riley, seated on Flynn’s lap and still looking grim as he glanced up to meet Dale’s eyes, but not resisting Flynn’s arm around his waist. They were both eating left-over bacon off the same plate. Flynn gave him a blunt look that made it very clear he would not hesitate to flip Dale straight back over his knee again if he thought it necessary. Paul took his plate out of the warming section of the oven.

“How long is this likely to take?”

He didn’t leave the option of a chair; he just sat down, took Dale’s wrist and pulled him straight into his lap, putting the plate down in front of him. It made avoiding breakfast and avoiding anything else awfully difficult. Sitting a little cautiously as he was distinctly warm behind, and with an equally cautious eye to the respectfulness of his tone, Dale picked up a fork and tried to show some kind of interest in bacon and eggs, very aware of the warmth of Paul’s arm firmly around him and of Paul against his back, and of how very far away Atlanta was from here.

“.....It’s going to be hard to say. It depends how hard they argue, and how good a job I do. It might be one long meeting and finished in five or six hours, it might be several days, it might need some smaller group negotiations to get them all back in line.”

“What’s the reason it has to happen in Atlanta?” Jasper put the fax down and sat back to finish his tea. As yet he’d said less than anybody, although if you knew him, that simply meant he was listening more carefully; his eyes were missing nothing. Dale shook his head.

“There’s no specific reason it has to, it’s just central to all the companies involved and neutral ground, and I know the facilities in that city fairly well so it would be the obvious choice. I don’t want to meet with any of them on their own ground, it’s an unfair advantage.”

“And you want to call them onto your turf, where you’re in charge.” Flynn said with comprehension. “How many are we talking about?”

“From four up to eight.” Dale finished a mouthful of bacon, calculating. Irritatingly, Paul was quite right; he felt better for eating and once he’d managed the first few mouthfuls he’d realised he was actually starving hungry having been up since before dawn. It was also difficult to stay defensively exasperated or to be objective about business matters from Paul’s lap. “I’ll accept two absolute maximum from each company, I won’t allow additional personnel, no entourages, no hiding behind P.A.s, they’re in trouble and this is A.N.Z. pulling the big guns on them, they need to know it.”

“And do you want to go?” Jasper asked him.

Dale looked at him, and then at Riley, who was leaning on his elbows on the table, a glass of juice between his hands and an expression on his face that said he’d shoot down any word he didn’t believe in.

“ I don’t. We’ve talked about it before, I don’t want to take on work I can’t do from home in my own time. But this is a serious matter for A.N.Z. and for Jerry.” He paused, looking for the words to explain and glancing at Flynn, who was listening, his eyes steady. “It isn’t going to be a big or time consuming job, and not wanting to travel away from home for a few days is not a fair justification for leaving him in the lurch. I am going to need to do it.”

Paul tightened the arm around his waist, squeezing gently. “Then why don’t you meet with them here? We can easily handle eight.”

It was so unexpected that Dale paused, fork half way to his mouth, finding himself echoing stupidly in disbelief, “... Here?”

Paul gave him a calm nod. “Of course here. Do you think Philip flew around the globe for all his meetings? If people wanted him, they came here.”

Dale swallowed on the thought, sincerely shocked.

“.....Yes, I know.......”

But he was Philip!

“Considering Jerry Banks rang you for help from the other side of the globe and he knows you’re heavyweight enough to get these people going in the same direction, I think it’s highly likely they’ll come wherever you tell them.” Paul said with amusement. “Don’t you?”

It was a hugely relieving and tempting idea, Dale was aware his guts were saying very loudly yes, oh yes, absolutely, even though his head was offering up all kinds of potential pitfalls.

“....Paul, I can’t exactly hold a meeting with eight people in the study or the office, the family room wouldn’t be anywhere near suitable,”

“The family room is a work free zone.” Jasper said matter of factly, looking across the table at Paul. “You’re planning to set up Philip’s conference room?”

“Yes, that’s what I was thinking of.” Paul leaned an elbow on the table beside Dale, finishing his tea as if this was something completely ordinary. “We can accommodate eight people for the night, that’s no kind of a problem. We won’t put them over in the bunkhouse if you want them under your eye and without the ability to go off and negotiate privately in corners, but there’s three free rooms on our landing and the attic rooms, it’s easy enough.”

“We could shift all the junk out of the conference room to one of the sheds.” Riley glanced back at Flynn, apparently finding this a rational idea too and sounding considerably calmer. “I’ve been clearing out the old feed store since we were planning to take it down, that’s weatherproof with an off-ground floor. It’ll work for a couple of weeks until we can put up a more permanent store.”

“The conference-” Dale trailed off. “Where have you got a conference room? I’ve lived here over a year and I had no idea-”

“Yes you do, you’ve seen it, it’s the room full of stuff above the garage.” Riley told him. “Where all the old furniture and junk is? Philip used it for years, the table’s still in there buried under all the stuff.”

“It seats eighteen. Eight and eight, one at the head and one at the foot. So we’ve got meeting room, bed and board handled,” Paul said briskly, “Air strip, telephone land line, fax, acres of land they can run if they want exercise, it may be no bad thing their blackberries and phones won’t work out here if you want control over what they’re doing.”

“You’re serious about this?” Dale demanded. Paul gave him a calm nod.

“Of course we’re serious, Philip did it all the time, it worked very well. Finish your breakfast and come and take a look. If it looks ok to you then you can organise your delegates to be flown out here.”

“It is going to look ok to you because you are not beggaring off to Atlanta.” Riley said definitively.

“If not then we’ve still got time to talk about other plans.” Paul said more reassuringly, “But trust us hon. I don’t think you’re going to find the room a problem.”

The room above the garage was so filled with stuff that it was difficult to do more than edge
between the heaps of it. Dale had come up here a few times to help someone locate or handle whatever was needed, and spare dressers were mixed up with old chairs, trunks, boxes and diving equipment. It was an Aladdin’s cave of the family debris in what he’d always thought of as nothing more than a dimly lit and dusty old store room like any other over-garage space.

“We started putting things up here when Philip stopped using it,” Paul said, snapping the wall lights on from the stairs that led up off the front hallway by the door to the garage, “And then the old barn, where all this stuff used to be kept, started to leak and there’s too much in here that has to be stored carefully so we moved it all in here and as we haven’t exactly needed a conference room the last few years, we never got around to replacing the barn.”

Still staggered that he was involved in clearing a junk room instead of putting a suit and tie on and getting on a plane as he had expected this morning, and still very warm behind and focused on the necessity for politeness without sarcasm from being flipped unceremoniously over Flynn knee, Dale kept his mouth shut. Privately, he found it difficult to deal with a rather nagging concern that Philip might well have been able to pull off leading his meetings from a dusty storeroom above a garage, but someone without Philip’s stature was less likely to convince difficult company directors who were used to top hotel business facilities. But the others seemed convinced that this was a sensible solution, it was clear that Riley infinitely preferred this solution, and for him, Dale determined himself to give it the fairest trial logically possible as Jasper picked up the first of the big trunks and took it down the stairs, and went to help Riley manhandle a battered and elderly dresser, trying not to think about the time continuing to tick past or too obviously try to hurry them.

It was hot and heavy work, but none of these men ever mucked about when a job needed doing. Within ten minutes they’d formed a sort of system with Jasper at the door of the shed outside, efficiently taking things from them at the door and stacking and storing them and where necessary wrapping them, and with Paul handling pieces clear of the stack in the store room for Riley, Dale and Flynn to get down the stairs. While there was a lot of stuff, most of it was large and contained and easy to move, and much of it was labelled in Paul’s clear handwriting. Several boxes apparently belonging to Gerry appeared in the middle, underneath furniture which looked from various periods from 1900 to 1970s. Several large trunks labelled for Jake lay under much of the diving equipment, which was also clearly Jake’s and Tom’s, and several more crates of books lay underneath the trunks. As they reached the last third of the room, Riley unwrapped a dust sheet from an awkwardly shaped item carefully protected underneath a dust sheet wrapped coffee table, and whistled as a large wooden globe, stood inside a wooden frame about two feet high and square, was revealed. It spun on its axis, whirling softly as Riley turned it, with the painted countries and seas labelled in an italic hand across the surfaces.

“Hey this is beautiful, I’ve never seen this before.”

“I know it’s Philip’s, I can remember moving it up from the old barn.” Paul paused to run a dusty forearm over his forehead and roll his shirtsleeves further back. “I don’t know why it was put into storage. Put it down in the family room, we probably ought to find a safer place for it than the shed outside.”

“We ought to keep it out in the family room or the study. Too nice to be hidden away.” Riley gave it another gentle spin and picked it up, taking it with care downstairs. Paul, climbing over the top of another elderly chest of drawers, gently picked up something very large and metal and oddly shaped that was apparently propped behind it, and Dale came to help him lift it clear, not recognising it until he could see the whole shape. Three large shafts spreading out from a central ring, massive and scarred.

“I just know it’s Wade’s, your guess is probably a lot better than mine.” Paul said, seeing his expression. He waited until Dale had the balance of it before he let go. “How he got it or where he got it I don’t know but these are his trunks with it. I think there’s a fair amount of stuff around here people didn’t actually want to get rid of but didn’t want to keep around them either, I don’t think Wade’s touched this in fifty years.”

“What about these two?” Dale set the propeller gently against the wall and crouched down to look at two more packing crates, a large one and a small one, unlabelled and tucked behind Wade’s trunks.

“No idea.” Paul said frankly. “I don’t recognise them, are they nailed shut?”

Curious in spite of a niggling awareness of essential time continuing to slip away, and that it was odd to be wasting time on what was so entirely family business, Dale eased the top off one of the crates and brushed some of the straw aside. The item was a column of wood and brass, perhaps four feet tall; the top was solid brass and as Dale brushed away more of the straw he saw a glass front and a handle over the top of words written in a circle around the face like a clock, but words he recognised.

“It’s a telegraph from a ship’s wheelhouse. Old.”

“Probably David’s then. I didn’t know about that” Paul looked with him for a minute, then patted his shoulder. “Put it in the family room too, we’ll look at it later. Keep breathing love, you’re doing a good job, this isn’t going to take much longer.”

The fact he understood helped a very great deal, and he was right; it was only another ten minutes to clear the last of the trunks, crates and boxes away and Paul patted the white wrapped table surface that had emerged against the side wall.

“This is it.”

It was large and heavily wrapped in dustsheets, and the last third of the room was filled with equally well wrapped large bundles which when Riley pulled the sheet off one turned out to be a light grey leather armchair. Paul, easing the massive table out a little, reached a light switch tucked behind it far into the far corner and a large, ornate chandelier type light fitting hanging in the middle of the room, lit up to complement the wall lights, for the first time lighting up the room properly. The floor, extremely dusty as it was revealed, was wood floorboards, and the walls were wood panelled like the study downstairs, in a warm colour that Dale suspected of being cherry.

“Not looking so bad now, is it?” Paul said lightly.

It looked nothing at all like a room above a garage. It was also surprisingly large with the junk cleared out of it. Riley carried the last box downstairs, and Flynn paused beside him, waiting while Dale looked around, then reached for his hand, wrapping his fingers around Dale’s and holding firmly.

“Look at me. You see we’ve got the space here any time you want to use it. That doesn’t mean you have to use it this time. It’s not going to hurt Riley to be mad for a few days, he’ll get over it.”

“He isn’t angry, he’s worried.” Dale said absently.

It still wouldn’t be easy to leave him. The other three would be concerned, but they’d be ok. But if Riley said he minded, then he meant exactly what he said. He would mind, and he’d have good reason.

And he’s absolutely right about his reason. I don’t want to go.

It was tempting. Phenomenally tempting. Dale turned slowly, taking in the size of the room, the sound acoustics of it, evaluating it with excessive care while knowing he was stalling because it was all too easy to just grab for any excuse to be here where Flynn and Paul and Riley and Jasper were, where their support and their arms were just a room away, where he’d sleep in Flynn’s bed at night whatever happened during the day, where there was the yard outside, the horses, the safety and privacy and calm of the house – oh it was far too easy, it was like the whole problem being taken away.

“If you need to go to Atlanta,” Flynn said beside him, “I’ll come with you and we’ll go to Atlanta, and it’ll be fine. Never mind what you think I want, or what you think Riley or Jerry Banks needs, just do what you need to do, kid. Whatever that is, we’ll make it work.”

We won’t let you fail.

It was still a shock sometimes to realise how real that security was. They meant it.

“Here.” Dale cleared his throat. “This would do perfectly.”

“Sweet.” Flynn squeezed his hand. “Ok. Then let’s get it cleaned up.”

They swept and washed the wooden floorboards. By the time the shed was properly stacked and locked up, the floor was clean and drying rapidly, and a matching set of the large, grey leather armchairs were appearing from the dust sheets, of extremely good quality. Paul and Jasper took the wrappings off the table which had its surface covered with a large, thick and dark red rug. The table, once revealed, was immaculate, made of solid, heavy wood with carved legs, the same warm cherry as the panelling, and an obvious antique. The likely price of it, all one piece of wood as it was, was as much of a mystery as to however a table of this size had ever been brought into this room. It took all five of them to lift it onto the rug and settle it in the middle of the room. The chairs, once stood around it, made up the eighteen places Paul had predicted. Also dust sheet covered was a tall but shallow dresser made of the same wood as the table, that covered most of the back wall, the top shelf filled with leather bound books, and when Paul opened the fold down lid of the cabinet, three crystal decanters that looked suspiciously like Wedgewood and a tray of glasses came to light. Jasper rolled up the blinds over the two large windows that looked out from the front of the house over the corral and the tops, green in the distance, and opened the windows wide. In natural light, the wood panels and the table gleamed. It might have been a board room in any venerable old London town house, classic and quietly stately. It spoke very much of the study downstairs and the man who had owned them both.

“This was never actually built as a room over a garage.” Paul said, seeing Dale looking at the ceiling and the solidity of the beams below it. “This was an original part of the house and it was open space underneath until probably the sixties or seventies, I know Philip kept his car in the barn with the tractor for years. If I had to guess, the garage was originally some kind of open workshop area under shelter, so this is a proper room.”

“I’d forgotten how big it was.” Flynn agreed. “Think there’s everything in here you need?”

Dale found it hard to stop looking long enough to answer. From the crystal decanters to the heavy wood of the table, the room was so unmistakeably Philip’s. He’d worked in countless board and conference rooms in countless countries, from the most basic to some of the most expensive facilities available, and he’d never particularly taken notice of any of them other than their practical use on the day, none of them had ever been rooms with any kind of soul or presence. This was something else entirely.

“It’s ideal. I don’t believe it’s been here all along.”

“Philip worked from home for decades, it was essential for him.” Paul brushed his hands off. “Go and make the calls and bring your companies in. I’ll give the table and dresser a polish, the windows could probably use cleaning too, and then I’ll think about what to feed stroppy executives. I’ve had a lot of practice, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“I don't think you could look any more pole axed if Paul had pulled a monkey out of his butt.” Riley said cheerfully from where he was leaning on the table, dusty and hot but looking decidedly in better spirits than he had done at breakfast.

“Riley......” Jasper said mildly, and Riley laughed.

“Quit the crudity, we’ve got work that needs doing.” Flynn gripped Dale’s shoulders with a strength that held a lot of reassurance. “Your chores need to be done when those calls are made, and you need to get Hammer exercised. Get cracking.”

It took very little time to issue a short personal summons to each company in question, along with notification of a flight booked and waiting for them at their nearest airport, and Dale took some satisfaction in giving them no detail at all about the destination. He suspected his name alone would send severe shockwaves through the companies and cause flat out panic this morning. It was certainly intended to.

It was also a very different experience to mentally plan for negotiations while you tacked up a horse who wasn’t interested in the financial world at all. Being in the red earthed yard surrounded by the open green pasture spreading out in each direction as far as the eye could see, the white capped mountains on the horizon, the aspen woods to the east, and with Hammer warm, responsive and chewing on his sleeve while he saddled him, Dale found himself viewing the data with a different kind of objectivity than he was used to. Jasper and Tam had headed out north east towards the cattle this morning. Riley and Flynn had headed south east with the other dogs towards the sheep herds. Dale made the familiar stretch up with one booted foot to Hammer’s stirrup which was pretty high on Hammer’s side, gripped the leather of the saddle and swung upwards, taking a minute to settle on Hammer’s back. Hammer waited patiently for his signal to move out into the home pasture, pausing for Dale to lean down from the saddle to latch the gate behind them. Out in the pasture Dale lightly squeezed his knees against Hammer’s massive sides to nudge him up to a brisk trot to warm him up, slipping by habit into the timed rise and fall action in the saddle and turning him on impulse out towards the cairn.

It was a bright but blustery day with the sky overhead the vivid electric blue that Dale associated powerfully with here and home. The strength of the wind always got into the more high strung of their horses on days like this; Riley would be finding Snickers a handful and Jasper would be keeping a firm hand on Gucci. Even Hammer, usually stolid, was itching to canter and it took attention and care to hold him down to a trot until they were on smoother ground where it was safe to ease out the reins. With no one else in sight, just open land in front of him and open skies above him, Hammer stretched out into a canter like a charger, and when he went, Hammer went like a locomotive. The physical jolting and the challenge of moving with him, the speed and the immense power of his muscles moving as his big shoulders reached and flexed, for those few minutes Dale forgot about anything but Hammer and the sheer joy of riding him, of balancing and moving with him at this speed, of covering the open green ground with the wind stinging his face, the thud of Hammer’s hooves and the smell of the turf and Hammer’s heavy muscles rolling beneath him. They were near to the lake when Dale finally drew him in, turning him, Hammer’s dark mane whipping his fingers in the breeze, and Hammer slowed to a walk, pacing towards the cairn itself. It stood pink and white in the pasture, between the river and the lake, with the aspens lashing and rustling in the wind behind it. Philip and David, here on their land, who had ridden out morning after morning just like this, from the same yard, through the same pastures. Dale dropped down to the grass from Hammer’s back, gathered the leather reins in one hand beneath Hammer’s chin and led him across to the cairn, standing in front of it for a moment and instinctively pulling his Stetson off. Flynn came out here when he wanted to think. Riley when he wanted to swim, when he was angry, or thoughtful about something, or wanting to celebrate. Paul came out here to write. And who really knew where Jasper went at night when he went out alone, but Dale was willing to bet this spot was a part of it.

It was difficult to think of doing this job here today in Philip’s room, in Philip’s house, doing so exactly what Philip had once done. There was an awkwardness to it, something that edged Dale’s stomach. Hammer huffed and his heavy nose nudged between Dale’s shoulders, and Dale put a hand back absently to pat him. It had nothing to do with any concern that Philip or David might not have wanted the conference room put to use like this again. It had more to do with –

- Let’s be honest about this, not doing it properly.

This was Philip’s stronghold. What right have I got to dare do this?

There was the splashing of hooves in the river and Dale glanced up, recognising Snickers crossing in the shallows, the bright cream and chestnut patches on his hide were immediately recognisable from a distance. Riley trotted him briskly across the grass to reach Dale, and Snickers took several steps sideways, shook his head and turned around when Riley drew him in, clearly not ready to stop. Riley held him in, making him walk back towards Dale and stand still.

“He’s been in a silly mood ever since I took him out of the coral. Wind’s right up his tail. I saw you heading down here, I’ve got about five minutes until Flynn realises I’ve detoured.”

“Then why detour?” Dale asked him, amused, and Riley grinned.

“Why not? I saw you and knew you’d be chewing. Are you ok?”

“I’ve run negotiations like this hundreds of times, far worse than this will be.” Dale said with conviction, thinking of several of the more colourful. “It’s an important deal but this kind of fussing is relatively small stuff, it’s easily fixed. It isn’t going to be that interesting.”

“That wasn’t what I meant.” Riley swung down from Snickers’ back, keeping firm hold of his bridle as Snickers promptly backed away, pulling on the rein. “Stand. No baby, settle down. We haven’t got time to play.”

Dale reached in his pocket for the stub of lifesavers he always carried there, Hammer being a peppermint fiend, and Riley accepted one, holding it out on a flat hand for Snickers to crunch, then putting a hand up to soothe his ears and rub his nose, keeping the gelding occupied.

“I’m sorry for being all over you at breakfast,”Dale shook his head. “I’m not.” Riley still gave him a half teasing and half genuinely appealing look, gently pulling Snickers’ ears.

“I wish you’d say you didn’t want to. If it’s Banks involved I know you’re going to jump if he says jump, whether you want to or not, and I know you’ll strong arm yourself into fooling us long enough to go do it and pick up the pieces later. I get that because I’m the same way, I just can’t snow the others like you can, but that doesn’t mean I’m ok with you doing it. Which is totally unfair, but still.”

To Riley, it was as easy to say this kind of thing as it was to feel it. Looking for words to explain it as honestly as Riley would expect from him, Dale took out another lifesaver for Hammer who had come to investigate the sound of Snickers crunching, and Snickers nosed hopefully at him for more.

“I’ve got a lot of loyalty for Jerry. I don’t feel obligated, I just know he spent a lot of years keeping an eye on me and he’s a good man.”

“He got a lot out of you, there was a lot in it for him.” Riley said rather flatly.

Dale gave him a brief nod, acknowledging it and touched by the protectiveness in Riley’s tone.

“Yes, he did. But he looked out for me too, he didn’t have to do that, and he was the one who planned for me to come out here. I’m sure too that it’s largely down to Jerry that the board let me go without putting up any kind of fight. He’s a good man, the way Philip would have thought of a good man in the corporate arena, and I know more now about valuing a good man than I did when I worked for A.N.Z.” He paused for a minute and then added, as frankly as Riley, although it wasn’t easy to say even to him, “And I know more about how to value someone who’s been there for you. Jerry was, even if I didn’t notice it at the time. It would take a lot now for me to leave Jerry in a tough situation I could help him with.”

Riley understood. Dale saw it in his slightly unwilling nod, but his eyes were softer.

“I wish sometimes you were less one of the good guys yourself.”

Snickers, apparently tired of waiting, sidestepped and pulled again at the rein with his hooves braced like a puppy pulling on a chew toy, backing away from Riley, who reeled him in, his voice dropping to a warning tone.

“Hey. Pack it in and stand still. I’m going to have to get going, are you headed home?”

“Yes, few things to do, the planes are due in around two. ....” Dale broke off, making himself say something that had been nagging at him since they cleared the room. “Ri? Will having these people in the house bother you?”

“Of course not, why would it? I grew up hanging around offices and guys like this and we bring clients in for a living, they’re not exactly a foreign species around here. Why are you acting like you’re doing something weird?” Riley lifted a foot to Snickers’ stirrup and swung up, and Snickers promptly spun around and reared before Riley was in the saddle, landing him hard on his butt on the soft grass. Dale, who had jerked back out of reach of Snickers’ hooves, caught his bridle and pulled him sharply over before Riley could be stepped on.


“I’m fine.” Looking grim, Riley got to his feet. He hadn’t let go of the reins when he fell, and now he slowly reeled them in a hand’s length at a time, looking directly at the horse, who danced and pulled a few times and then let Riley draw him step by step closer, and as Riley reached his head and stood eye to eye with him, lost the mischief and stood meekly.

“Now you’re in trouble.” Riley informed the gelding quietly but sternly, and Hammer, huffing behind Dale, quietened down too as all the corral horses knew that tone in Riley and none of them liked it.

“Want to swap him for Hammer?” Dale suggested, concerned. “I’ll take Snickers home.”

Riley, taking another minute to look at Snickers before he gathered the reins shorter and mounted up in a fast, strong pull that gave Snickers no time to fidget if he wanted to, shook his head.

“Not giving him any idea he just got away with that.”

He walked Snickers a few paces forward and Dale saw the leg signal that Snickers initially resisted with a few crabwise steps and jerks of his head. Riley held him in and after a few seconds of Riley’s will against the horse’s, Snickers unwillingly yielded and turned in a circle. Riley immediately turned him again, making him circle several times in both directions, then took him a few steps further forward and dismounted, standing beside him for a moment with his hands firm on the saddle and reins. Snickers stomped a hoof, and Riley swatted his haunch, nothing more than a brisk smack the big and muscular gelding could barely have felt, but he stopped and if a horse could look shocked, Snickers looked shocked at Riley.

“Yes.” Riley said darkly to him, shortening the rein and mounting again. “Not a good game. Do that in front of Flynn and you’ll really get swatted. You wait until I get you home tonight, mister.”

Dale stepped back and watched him make Snickers walk forwards, back up and turn several more yields, then lateral side step a good twenty feet in a perfect dressage pace before he dismounted, stood again for some seconds beside Snickers in pointed silence, and then remounted. Snickers seemed to have got the message, and Riley had him on a considerably shorter rein than usual; there never was anything unassertive about Riley’s seat on a horse or his hands for all they were light on the reins and Dale, following the line of his leg up his spine and his direct weight down into the saddle that made it very clear he was staying on and who was the boss, found his mind wandering still further from the planes due in. Watching Flynn or Riley doing dressage with their horses was always extremely distracting, both the balletic grace and the restrained strength and skill in it that was somehow supremely masculine; man and animal working together with nothing more than the subtlest of signals. Riley caught his eye and grinned at him, a rather private grin that did not help.

“Riley?” Flynn’s voice carried across the pasture and Riley muttered something under his breath that would have gotten his mouth soaped out at home, turning Snickers to see Flynn riding down the river bank towards them, the dogs running alongside Leo.

“Hi. It’s fine, just Snickers messing around.”

“I saw him throw you.” Flynn, one hand on his knee and the other on his reins, walked Leo to a halt some feet from Snickers and swung down to the turf, coming closer to put a hand on Snickers’ nose while keeping Leo’s delicate long legs well out of reach of any sudden movements of Snickers’ hooves. “Are you all right?”

“Fine, he just took me by surprise.”

Flynn stood a moment more with his palm steady on Snickers, watching him although it was hard to say what exact part of the horse he was watching. Dale had seen him do this many times with a restless or anxious horse; the spookiest and most temperamental of their ranch trained horses settled under Flynn’s quiet and competent hands, and Flynn invariably picked up through touch on any flicker in a horse that communicated mood, illness, pain, temper or fear. Then he ran his hand down Snickers’ neck and let him go. “Sure?”

“Yes,” Riley said exasperatedly. “How many times have you fallen? It happens. You can see he’s safe, I’m not breakable, he’s just young and messing around and I can handle him.”

Flynn gave him a short nod. “Jas is going out to do the far east pastures, can you catch him up? I’m going back with Dale. Make that horse work.”

“Yes sir.” Riley winked at Dale, whistled to the dogs and took Snickers at a very crisp trot up river towards the crossing place. The dogs bulleted after him. Flynn mounted Leo and sat waiting for Dale to mount Hammer, an eye on Snickers’ progress, and he led the way across the pasture towards home. Leo, as tall as Hammer though not at all as muscular, heavy or broad, stepped lightly and kept pace with Hammer with the comfortable ease of stablemates who enjoyed each others’ company, and Dale found himself watching Flynn’s hand on the reins, like Riley’s both light and authoritative, the straightness of his spine and the fluidity with which he moved in the saddle, the discreet pressure of his long legs against Leo’s sides –

Shut up, this is not the place and definitely not the time. Where X is a real-valued stochastic process defined on a probability space and with time index t ranging over the non-negative real numbers, and its paths are a.s. of infinite quadratic variation for every t0 in the classical sense, taking the supremum of the sum over all partitions......

Easing his weight carefully in the saddle, Dale kept his eyes on the horizon and his mind on Black-Scholes formulas until he felt better.

It was one of the most practically organising things possible to do, to groom a horse. It took a while to get all the mud from Hammer’s fetlocks and feet, alongside Flynn who was working in silence on Leo. He was still picking out Leo’s hooves when Dale turned Hammer into the corral, and he glanced up as Dale came back to pick up the brushes, voice abrupt.

“How long did that take you?”

Oh no. Not this morning.

Dale paused, looking at how far along Flynn was with Leo, and Flynn didn’t work slowly, damning the fact he’d been too distracted to even notice, which was embarrassing.

“..... About twelve and a half minutes.”

“Go get your journal and a pen.”

Flynn, I’ve got a whole bunch of directors headed out here for a row, this is not the time to be worried that I’m grooming too fast. Or making me write bloody essays about-


Knowing full well that arguing about it would not get him anywhere, Dale walked up the steps and heeled off his boots at the kitchen door, and Paul glanced up from the table where he was doing something with a large sheet of pastry.

“You’re back early.”

“I came back with Flynn.” Dale paused to wash his hands in the bathroom, shaking them off before he dried them. “Who would like me to collect my journal please.”

“Ah. What happened?”

“Apparently I am grooming too fast.” Dale paused in the doorway, reflecting on that for a moment. “This is really not a good state of mind to be in prior to a meeting.”

“This is exactly the state of mind you need to be in.” Paul gave him a swift smile, floured to the wrists. “I wouldn’t keep him waiting hon.”

Dale grimaced and went to get the journal from the study. Flynn straightened up from Leo as Dale came down the porch steps, over turned an empty feed bucket with one booted foot and nodded at it.

“Take a seat. How are you doing?

‘Fine’ was not a word that would go down well. Dale sat down on the bucket.

“I plead the fifth.”Flynn glanced at him from where he was stooped over Leo’s hind foot, gripped between his blue jeaned knees with one capable gloved hand holding a hoof pick, his voice gruff and his eyes definitely not.

“Struggling that much?”

It was the eyes that went deep as much as the question. Both were phenomenally kind, said Flynn understood exactly what this morning felt like, stirred all kinds of instincts including a very pathetic urge to get up and just bury himself hard against Flynn, and brought back a flood of all the most unhelpful sensations he’d just about wrestled down with quadratic variations. Dale gave him an unwilling nod, shifting his weight on the bucket.

“I can do this, it's bread and butter stuff. I'd usually be prepping it now. And thinking about whatever else needed doing around it.”

Flynn grunted without looking up. “Yeah, we know you’re good at hyperfocus. To the exclusion of everything else. Not a good way to live, is it?"

“This is straight forward stuff, it's easy.” Dale said with exasperation, mostly at himself. “A one off, straight forward single problem like a crossword puzzle, it’s a technical challenge, that’s all it is.”

Flynn’s hands were sure, one cupping Leo’s hoof, the other deftly using the pick. “Yes, and you know exactly what you’re doing.” he said quietly with conviction while he worked. “Do you need time to prepare?”

“.....No.” Dale huffed out a breath with the admittance. “I’ve read the information so I’ve got it to memory, I know the facts. Most of the actual work will be handling the situation as it happens. I just don't.... feel in gear.”

“Can you tell me why yet?” Flynn looked up again, waiting, while Leo waited just as patiently. Then when Dale didn’t answer, he let Leo’s foot go, walked around him and ran a hand down Leo’s neck, picking up a curry comb. “Ok. I want a very clear and concise statement on the worst that could happen this afternoon while you think about it. Let me know when you’re done.”

Dale gave him a look of exasperation, not at all keen to be helped any further out of this mindset for a number of reasons, none of which he much wanted to talk about, and aware that he wasn’t likely to be allowed to avoid it.

“How is that going to help?”

“Now.” Flynn said bluntly.

Not wanting to was going to make no difference at all. Dale looked at the page with a swell of rebellion, which if he was honest was to do with not wanting to think about this, talk about this, or let go of the shields he had built up against it. He took a moment, pulling the cap off the pen, prevaricating and knowing Flynn, who was continuing to groom Leo, was probably well aware of it. Then he pulled himself together and made himself write, concisely and exactly a risk assessment of the worst possible outcomes. Flynn glanced over when he straightened up, holding out a hand.

“What have you got?”

He read through it, nodded and handed the book back.

“Sweet. Now I want a list of reasons why none of that is going to happen.”

Quod Flynn locuta est. Causa finita est.

The temptation to write and parse it was strong. No one in his life had ever irritated him as much as Flynn and Paul, and Riley too were capable of doing; he’d never been tempted to push boundaries in his school life the way he was here.

Because no one there actually saw you, pushed you and made you get real with them.

Certain of what would happen next if he gave into the temptation, and aware that despite that knowledge some part of him still wanted to do it with a glint of mischief that was neither mature nor appropriate for someone about to give a set of executives a bollocking, Dale looked down at the page and knew he had two choices. To allow himself to be calmed down, or to allow himself the satisfaction of pushing a little further which would lead to getting calmed down in a considerably more physical way. Either way, it was going to involve Flynn getting his attention exactly where he wanted it; Flynn was more than capable of doing it and he wouldn’t hesitate. And that was exasperating too. Yes also extremely comforting, and strongly tied in with a need for a whole lot more quadratic formulae.

You need a cold shower, what’s the matter with you today? Pull yourself together.

He was fairly sure Flynn was aware of his struggle. Eventually, giving Flynn’s back a glare, Dale took a deep breath and started to write. Flynn carried on grooming Leo, put his tack away and led Leo down to the corral. He came back to pick up the brushes, glancing at Dale.

“How’s it going?”

Annoyingly, the writing was having the exact effect that Flynn had meant it to. It was difficult not to logically write this out and see it in print without it having an impact, and Dale glanced up, giving him a grimace.

“It’s all right. I did the whole obedient brat thing.”

Flynn leaned on his shoulders from behind, a comfortable squash of his weight while he read over Dale’s head, then he took the book out of Dale’s hands and closed it.

“Truly obedient would mean you managed not to call me several names up here,” he tapped Dale’s forehead lightly, “While working in here.” He held the book up and Dale caught the glint in his eyes. “So just how obedient are we talking about?”

Near to laughing, Dale raised his eyebrows.

“How obedient would you like me?”

“Mmn. We’ll talk about that later.” Flynn held out a hand to help him up and gave him a crushing hug, which helped more than any amount of writing. To be able to seek comfort in his arms, to seek shelter, even when logically you had no need of shelter from something you were perfectly competent to deal with, to lean against him and just let it go – it was something he’d never known existed on any other morning when he had negotiations like this ahead of him. He’d never known at the time it was possible to feel this good or this safe, or this alive. It was a different world.

Too easy. This is the easy way out.

Flynn’s blunt New Zealand accent was quiet against his ear. “What are you chewing on, kid?”

He expected a reply. Dale winced on it and Flynn kissed the top of his head and held him back to see his face.

“Get it out. Any bit of it. It doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have to stand up in court.”

“It’s Philip’s room.” Dale let go a heavy breath and would have stepped back if Flynn’s fingers, interlaced in the small of his back, had let him. “That’s pretty much it.”

“No it isn’t. It’s Philip’s room and you think what? It’s Philip’s room and you feel what?”

“It’s Philip’s room and I think I’m totally inadequate to be using it.” Dale said acidly. Flynn nodded slowly, holding him right where he was.

“Think or feel?”

“There isn’t much difference.” Dale said, exasperated, and Flynn didn’t budge.

“There is to you; you like one word a lot less than the other.”

“All right, I feel totally inadequate to be using that room, which I can’t provide evidence for or justify and it’s probably irrational, but it’s still how I feel.” Dale said shortly. “And I feel like I’ve chosen the easy way out, because it’s more comfortable for me, and it means I won’t do a proper job or have my mind properly on the job.”

“Is it using that room that makes you feel inadequate, or doing from here what you know Philip did?” Flynn waited, watching his face. “If you go to the places you know, a business suite in Atlanta, or New York, you put on the suit, you switch into that mode and you become the Dale Aden that always did that job. You know that works. Here, you’re a different person. In this house, you feel a very different person, and you feel and you think a whole lot more. It’s going to be different facing these people and doing this job while still being that person.”

It wasn’t easy to hear it put that succinctly. It never was when Flynn held a mirror up like that and made you look directly at yourself, and admit to him what was there. Which meant having to deal with it.

“True?” Flynn asked him, and Dale gave him an unwilling nod.


Flynn let him go and opened the journal, leafing through to one of the first and earliest pages. It was an essay Dale had written in his first months here, Dale recognised it as the piece Flynn had made him research and write on the definition of perfectionism, and Flynn outlined one sentence with a thumbnail.

Fragile self-value tends to be entirely rooted in product based, uninterrupted success, and any mistake represents failure in all areas.

Dale flushed as he read it, and Flynn gave him an uncritical look that nevertheless said he wasn’t going to put up with any stalling.

“That’s the one you’re stuck on, isn’t it? Whether you can do it right with us, and do it right with them at the same time, this is dreading a possible outcome of less than perfect success. Got probabilities calculated on it?”

“An odds ratio of one indicates probability that the event is likely to happen in both groups under study, so this would have to involve joint probability distribution of binary random variables-” Dale winced and gave up. “Probably two to one against.”

“With the two being us compared to them.” Flynn said with comprehension. “Ok, re stack the variables, with the fact I won’t let this go wrong. Neither will Paul, or Jas, or Riley. In your experience of our random variables, how does that work out?”

It shifted the odds all right. Dale swallowed on that and Flynn closed the book and lightly swatted the seat of his jeans with it.

“Write that sentence about self value out ten times, then finish those two sections, and leave the business part of it aside for a moment. The worst that can go wrong, and the whole list of reasons why it isn’t going to happen. Shift the odds.”

Because Philip still managed to be entirely himself while he did this kind of work.

Because Gerry and Darcy and Wade and many of the others have careers and are still themselves.

Because shutting down is a choice.

.......The rather awkwardly phrased sentences lay beneath a list of succinct, precisely phrased business reasons above in far more academic language, far less painfully written, but without emotion. It was bizarre to look at the difference and see about twenty years of maturity fall away as soon as he didn’t have the academic knowledge to fall back on, but those thoughts were stronger than any of the provable facts above, linked to powerful beliefs and feelings,

And be honest, you trust them. Of course you bloody trust them.

Flynn nodded firm approval when Dale showed him the finished result.

“Good. Go see what help Paul needs, I won’t be long.”

What Paul mostly needed was beds made up in the attic, which was a part of the house Dale had only entered once or twice before. Unless there were so many people at home that they needed the space, no one ever came up here. Paul had opened up the windows to air it through, and the six very small rooms under the low sloping eaves and beams of the room were probably one of the most modern parts of the house, set inside one of the oldest. The rooms were in a line off a cream carpeted hallway, all six with roof light windows that looked out over the back of the house, as on the other side of the hallway wall lay David’s map room. Each little room held a low double bed, a dresser with a lamp and a small armchair, with a wooden door to the hallway that could be closed, and while they were well lit and comfortable, they were considerably more uniform and generic than the bedrooms on the floor below. A small bathroom was just off the landing by the stairs.

“Philip had these rooms built mainly for business guests when there weren’t enough rooms free on our floor, they were new when I first came here.” Paul dropped an armful of sheets on the landing and efficiently began to make up the first bed while Dale stuffed pillowcases. “David didn’t think much to them but Philip never liked asking us to move out of our rooms for guests, not that anyone minded - it was easier just to have guest rooms to hand when he needed them.” he picked up another sheet and headed into the next room, patting Dale’s hip as he passed, “So he’d be pleased you were getting use out of them. Unclench.”

“Nothing is clenched.” Dale shook pillows and quilt straight, leaving the first bed immaculate, and moved on to join Paul with the next bed. Paul had a satisfying knack for doing this fast and accurately, they worked well together on this kind of thing, and Paul had a knack too for knowing how to distract him. Any history of this house was always something that drew Dale’s interest, and Paul nodded him towards notches on the beam against the wall that indicated something had once fitted to them.

“You can see where the original partitions were. Wade told me this was a classic old bunkhouse room for ranch hands in the original shell, that was probably what it was used for before David rebuilt and extended the house. No hallway, all one big room, wooden floor probably like David’s map room is, with low wooden partitions and iron bedsteads like a dormitory. Wade said they used it as an overflow sleeping space and a store room, and I’m guessing it probably got used for other things too, as well as people liking the excuse for sharing a room up here at night when there was a more formal party in the house. Rumour has it Philip had quite a protest on his hands when he modernised it. Put some towels in each room for me hon, I’ll stock the bathroom up here and we’re done.”

It was quick enough to leave a couple of towels on each chair beside the six neatly made beds; something Dale did with an odd sense of novelty, since preparing a house for guests was not something he’d ever had experience of before he came to the ranch, particularly prior to holding a meeting or conference. Hotels simply and anonymously prepared the number of rooms specified and you had no involvement with or responsibility for your delegate once he disappeared behind the hotel door.

“I made up Luath’s room and Gerry’s room too,” Paul said when they came down the stairs at the end of the hall by Gerry and Riley’s rooms. “So we’re fine for eight, I put your papers in the conference room, I’ll put water and juice out on the table before you start and you will be pausing at sensible intervals for breaks, I’ll give you fair warning now. I can handle gluten free, vegetarian and nut allergies-”

The thought hadn’t even occurred, it was something the P.A.s usually arranged with hotels who were much more set up for this kind of thing. Dale mentally kicked himself, following Paul onto the landing.

“I’m sorry, I never even thought of that. I can arrange for anything you need to be delivered from Jackson,”

A few swift phone calls and a good price offered and there were probably a few of the shops who’d get someone with a car out here.

“We don’t need anything from Jackson, I’m sorted.” Paul said calmly, opening the linen closet. “Odd as it is, this is my idea of a good time and this is what I’m good at, and I’ve got it in hand. We’ll sort out dietary needs when they get here, they’ll just have to live without coffee, it’ll be good for them.”

Dale burst out laughing and Paul winked at him, running a hand over the line of jackets and other bulky items that hung on the rack in here, including Dale’s several suits.

“What are you planning to wear, honey?”

“Whatever’s nearest.” Dale reached for the nearest hanger without interest, a suit was after all just a suit, but Paul took two down, holding them side by side to the light for a moment with far too much interest than anyone ought to be able to summon up for clothing, then held out the lighter one to him.

“The charcoal one, and.... mm, that shirt.”

There were a couple of shirts on hangers that Dale had never worn – not that that had stopped Paul unwrapping, washing and ironing them on the grounds that they were unwearable until they were properly ironed- that Paul had brought home a few months ago when Dale came to realise he had put on muscle across the chest and shoulders he hadn’t had when he first came to the ranch, and that many of his old business shirts were an uncomfortably tight fit. The old ones had been sensible colours like white and blue. Paul had apparently disposed of those, and the one he held out on the hanger was a very light, pale but nevertheless in some way intense violet colour, so light that it was not so very obviously different from white but nevertheless –

- Purple.

“I can’t wear that, this is a formal meeting!” Dale said in protest, and Paul gave him a cheerful nod, selecting a tie from the small selection of formal ones that was a bright stainless steel grey in diagonal stripes.

“Yes you can. You look formally dressed even in jeans and you’ve got strong colouring, so if you put a white shirt on with any kind of suit you immediately look like you’re wearing a tux. I’d look insane in this, but you won’t. Trust me. You want to make a strong impression on these guys?”

“That’s pure technical ability and experience, I could do that in boxers and a pair of rubber gloves if I had to,” Dale pointed out, and Paul laughed, hanging the shirt over his finger.

“Well don’t let me stop you, but it’s personality too. Put that on, give it a try.”

I used to just put on whatever was in the damn wardrobe at the time, which was easy because it all matched and it was all sensible. In sensible colours.

Dale shouldered into the shirt and buttoned it in his and Flynn’s room, hooked the tie under the collar and went to the window as he fastened it. The pasture was green and open, stretching out to the yellow green aspen woods in the distance, and above and beyond them, the still snow capped Teton mountains.

And you didn’t have one Top flipping you over his knee at breakfast for getting sarcastic, and another one randomly making you wear purple shirts and telling you it’s good for you, and the whole thing was more sterile and soulless than hell and you hated it. Admit it, you love this.

Exactly. You’re cheating, this is too damn easy. Get a grip.

Settling the collar accurately over the tie, Dale tucked the shirt into the charcoal grey pants and glanced in the mirror. It wasn’t something he did much of; dressing for work was something he could do in a couple of minutes, he’d always had the knack of looking tidy easily. Paul, who’d been leaning in the doorway, came to put his hands on Dale’s shoulders, looking with him into the mirror and making Dale look too.

“This really isn’t me,” Dale said apologetically, automatically straightening the tie a little further. Paul held on to his shoulders, patiently waiting until Dale looked back at the mirror.

“Actually, to me, yes this is a lot more you than black and white. Too formal on you looks cold. You’re not cold.” Paul ran his fingers lightly through Dale’s hair above his forehead, shaking it a little out of its neatness. “You have a sense of humour, you’re not all sharp edges. You’re also not an old man and you don’t need to dress like one; it makes you look as if you’re trying to look like a grown up. Give this a try. Think of it as a scientific experiment.”

“The effects of purple on formal meetings?” Dale said darkly. “In my entire career I have never seen anyone in a meeting yet wearing a purple shirt.”

Paul kissed his cheek, letting him go. “No, because they don’t have your colouring and couldn’t pull it off, and as a matter of fact that colour isn’t purple, it’s iced violet. Darcy would be proud of you. Come and have some lunch.”

I suppose I’m the one person who won’t have to look at it.
Dale picked up his jacket and followed Paul downstairs, draping the jacket over the back of his chair at the table. Flynn was leaning against the counter, knocking back orange juice straight from the carton, and Dale saw his eyes lock and travel down and then back up him again, in a way that was intent, interesting to be on the receiving end of, and held a lot more and very definitely different interest than good grief that’s a purple shirt. The sheer look made Dale tingle in very inconvenient places and go the other way around the table, as getting closer to Flynn at this point in time would not be conducive to keeping his mind on anything work related at all.

“See?” Paul said to him over his shoulder, taking a glass out of the cabinet and putting it into Flynn’s hand. Flynn drained the rest of the juice, crushed the carton with one hand and dropped it in the trash, and returned the glass unused to the cabinet. Paul swatted him as he passed.

“Neanderthal. Dale, have a look at the conference room, see if it’s set up the way you want it and if there’s anything else you need up there and then come and eat something.”

The table in the conference room had been polished. It was like coming into a different world. Dale stood in the door way at the top of the stairs, looking at what this morning he’d thought of as a dusty, dark storeroom much like some of the older sheds around the stables, something storing bits left over from another time in the family’s history. This was another part of the family’s history but it was a very different part. Pictures had been hung on the picture hooks on the panelling, the glass freshly cleaned. They were all pictures of ships, large and clean coloured, water colours. Dale came slowly to stand at the head of the table, leaning with his hands on the cool wood to look at them with a swell of emotion as he realised what they were. Several were Grand Banks schooners, the distinctive fishing schooners with their sharp triangular rigged sails. A couple were of the taller and more stately Thames Barges that Dale had known in England in his childhood, with their dark red square sails. A lighthouse was among the group, a tall white and elderly building on rocks overlooking the sea in what, from the rock formations, looked like south west England. All Canada and England. Every picture spoke of David. The places he came from, the things that he loved. And to Dale they spoke quietly but intently of the man who had liked to work in this room, from exactly this place where Dale now stood at the head of the table, where David’s presence was visible to him on every wall.

The planes began to arrive in a steady turn over from 2pm. Flynn stood with Dale on the landing strip, leaning against the first of the two jeeps they had lined up and waiting, and watched Dale go to meet the first of the directors who disembarked with a colleague in tow, carrying a black case, a suitcase and an overcoat, who looked as he came down the plane steps as if he’d been taken to a deserted loading dock by the mafia. He gave a few bewildered glances at the mountains and the grass landing strip with no buildings in sight, but most of his attention was very much on Dale, and Flynn watched Dale shake hands with both men, shortly and efficiently and without any idea of the authority he exerted as soon as he put a suit on. To Dale this was simply being appropriately polite, his attention was on gathering people together, and Flynn could see he’d gone into the higher gear he used when he was working, the quiet, crisp and slightly aloof state in which he could process at high speed and he’d miss nothing relevant to the work he was doing. The men in front of him would be reading a whole lot more into his aloofness. Flynn came to take the cases, offering a hand, and Dale made a formal gesture between the three of them, an eye on the plane taking off.

“Mr Peterson, Mr Denton, Flynn O’Sullivan.”

Peterson shook hands, surrendering his cases, and Flynn indicated the jeep.

“I’ll run you down to the house.”

“Is it a hotel?” Peterson said apprehensively. Dale shook his head.

“No, this is my home, Mr Peterson.”

It was not going to reduce the man’s impression of Dale in any way, although Dale probably wouldn’t notice. Flynn quietly ran the men down to the house and turned them over to Paul, who had spread the kitchen table with the fiddly sweet and savoury pastries he mostly made for fun when he had nothing better to do and kept in the freezer for family gatherings, and which he wouldn’t serve at a normal mealtime knowing the reaction he’d get. Flynn left him seating rather bewildered businessmen down at the kitchen table and providing them with tea, and drove back up to the landing strip where Dale was waiting with two more businessmen, these two looking distinctly belligerent in a slightly nervous kind of way. The body language was interesting, a combination of nerves and determination, alongside Dale whose body language was oblivious and watching for planes, and was intensely more centred and focused than theirs was. The men were reading that as control, they didn’t like it much and to Flynn’s eye, their body language already reflected intimidation. Dale, who didn’t naturally socialise unless he thought about it, wanted to and intentionally tried, introduced them crisply to Flynn and handed them over as another plane came in, and by the time Dale brought the last jeep down to the yard, they had six men in the kitchen, all sitting at the table drinking tea and answering Paul’s cheerful conversation. Paul caught Flynn’s eye with very definite amusement and handed a cup of tea to Dale, who took it one handed.

“Thank you, that’s all the companies we’re expecting. Gentlemen, if you’d like to bring your drinks with you we’ll make a start.”

It was so politely phrased, a perfectly English invitation, which nevertheless was received as a command and responded to as such. The six men gathered up their cups and as Flynn heeled off his boots at the doorway, as Dale had done without noticing as he came in, he realised that the six directors, in crisp suits, were all standing meekly holding their teacups in their socks.

“Two hours.” Paul said very quietly to Dale as Dale passed him, “Then a break.”

Dale led the men out of the kitchen and a moment later they heard the conference room door quietly close.

“With him in that suit, with that expression,” Paul said, starting to collect empty plates, “I can’t help feeling as if he ought to be flexing a cane. Philip used to do sinister a lot more charmingly and deliberately than Dale does, Dale just goes straight to the point. Flynn, you do not need to get anything out of the pantry, the table’s covered in food.”

“Not real food.” Flynn leaned in the pantry doorway, looking until Paul reached past him with an exasperated sigh and put a tin of large, rough edged chocolate cookies in his hand.

“Not real food? What does it look like, scotch mist? There are other things to eat in this world than great hunks of cookie dough and half a cow.”

Flynn took a cookie from the tin, grasping it in his mouth while he put the tin away and wrapped his arms around Paul from behind, leaning far enough around him for Paul to be able to take a bite of the cookie. Paul, receiving a cookie demandingly pushed against his mouth, bit a piece off and gave Flynn a nudge with his hip and a glare somewhat hampered by having his hands full of crockery and his mouth full.

“It’s no good you doing that. Go and mow a meadow. Wash a horse. And stop that before I drop something!”

Flynn gave him one of his brief grins, retrieving his hands from where they’d wandered and kissing him in a way that Paul didn’t successfully fight off before he went to get his boots.

Dale got intense when he worked in the same way Bandit got intense when predators were stalking his foals. Mess with him, and there’d be flying hooves, terrifying speed and sudden death. Except in Dale it wasn’t consciously deliberate, there was no intentional aggression in it at all.

Paul, quietly laying a tea tray on the dresser behind Dale, moving softly enough not to interrupt the negotiations going on behind him, began to pour seven cups of tea with a lot of his attention on Dale, who was periodically interrupting two men arguing with what sounded like a stream of numbers and a whole load of jargon that made no sense to Paul but apparently did to the men around the table. They all quietened whenever Dale spoke. In fact they were having trouble keeping their eyes off him and Paul sympathised, except the men around the table had different reasons for their wanting to look than Paul did. They probably weren’t consciously aware why, but Dale, who already had a great deal of presence, looked striking. Commanding. The shirt strengthened the colour of his eyes and his hair, he looked fit and energetic and his eyes were concentrated with what Paul recognised as concentration, it was the look he got when he was reading or working on the computer on some sheet full of figures.

He’s not a shark. He has a problem to solve, he figures out the right thing to do and he steers the rest of them to do it. There’s a – separation – to it. He hates fights, I’ve seen how much, but this doesn’t feel like a fight to him the way it does if Riley and Flynn are yelling at each other.

Something Flynn had said, a long time ago the first time he’d seen Dale work, surfaced at the back of Paul’s mind.

It’s like watching a kid go through the levels of a computer game. It doesn’t touch him.

But I know he isn’t having fun either.

There was a lot of anger around the table, four groups of people challenging each other, and Paul could hear as much as feel the skill with which Dale was managing it; the anger was tangible but the room felt safe in the same way that Flynn and Riley could make a rearing horse feel safe, or Jasper a thrashing, panicked bullock. But there was a detachedness to Dale too that Paul was acutely aware of because it always pulled on his instincts. Quiet, focused. Iced. It was the kind of feel that always made Paul want to make him laugh and pull him out of it. He put the cups quietly at people’s hands, standing Dale’s in front of him with a discreet note on the saucer that said dinner in 20 minutes.

He isn’t hating it, this is burning through academic process – if I had to guess, he isn’t feeling anything much.

No satisfaction. None of the fun Philip found in managing people. And while his eyes were intent they didn’t have the spark that Paul associated with Dale reading something he enjoyed or that gave him satisfaction. There was no excitement in them.

No intentional connection with anyone at all, we’re in ice mode. Ok, I’m with Riley, I don’t like this.

He left the room, closing the door softly behind him, and the conversation inside continued unabated.

Flynn was obviously in the shower when Paul came back to the kitchen; his boots were by the door, and the shower was running. He was back early, but Paul wasn’t surprised; they were all dealing with the urge today to stay very close to Dale. Out in the training paddock, Riley had Snickers on a lunging rein and was cantering him in circles around the perimeter, turning slowly to follow him. A horse made to work on the lunging rein, repetitive hard work, was either in training or in trouble. It had occurred to Paul before now that it was almost the equine version of writing lines.

“He threw Riley this morning.” Flynn said in explanation, appearing out of the bathroom in clean jeans and nothing else. His hair was wet, slicked back, and he had a long graze along one upper arm. Paul glanced at it and got the antiseptic down from the cupboard, soaking a cotton wool swab and turning Flynn around to get at it.

“Threw him? How did you get this?”

“Sheep stuck in wire. Ri’s ok, Snickers dumped him on his backside in the pasture. Playing silly buggers, it’s the wind. Jas said Gucci’s been a bitch all day.” Flynn leaned against the counter, watching Paul clean out the cut and nodding towards the garage. “What’s it looking like in there?”

“......... fine. I suppose. He's got it completely in hand, it's obviously a bit tense going but they're not going to push him from the look of things. He just looks.......”

“Missing.” Flynn said succinctly. It was so perfect a way to put it that Paul looked up at him, concerned.

If he sees it too and he’s worried about it, then we’ve got a problem.

“It's the kind of look I'd normally do something drastic about if I saw it. I know this is work and he needs to do it, I can accept I can’t have him all time and maybe I’m just over protective....but.”

“It’s a few hours.” Flynn said quietly, and it sounded mostly an attempt at being reassuring. “It’ll pass, we’ll talk it through, we’ll move on, it’s a good learning curve.”

“I know.” Paul threw used cotton accurately towards the draining board. “But.”

Flynn waited, folding his arms and listening, and Paul leaned back against the counter, saying it privately and for his ears while they were alone together.

“He has a whole lifetime habit of acting as if stress in his life doesn’t exist, stuffing it all down deep, covering it up and ploughing on. No one in that room is going to know or care that’s what he’s doing right now but I do. I don’t like going along with anything that reinforces him separating himself from us, we’re still working on trust us with the rough stuff, we will be here for you. And I don’t like that I can’t yank him out of there and say you come sit with me until I get some eye contact and see some facial expression and get some proof you’re back with us, and give him some help with it.”

“Why not?” Paul gave Flynn an askance look. Flynn shrugged with the calmness he got when he went to get the bridle of a rearing horse that thought it wasn’t going to do what it was told.

“He’s not Philip. He wanted to stay and do the job here with us, there wasn’t much contest once he knew we had the facilities. He knows exactly what being here means, there isn’t anywhere on the ranch that’s he’s off limits and he’s relying on that too. If you want to yank, go and yank. Did you let him know how long he had until dinner?”

“Twenty minutes.”

“I’ll go tell Ri to come in and shower.” Flynn gave Paul a strong hug with his un-grazed arm and kissed his cheek. “Don’t worry. If we don’t get confused, he won’t either. Need any help with dinner?”

“I’m going to lay a buffet, it’s nice enough to eat on the porch now the wind’s dropped.” Paul shook his hands off, dried them and began to get wrapped dishes of various savouries out of the pantry. “You can put some more chairs outside. It might give them a chance to breathe after being closeted in there all afternoon, and they’re getting quite a rollicking from Dale, they’re going to need some chill out time.”

“Didn’t David used to call that room the dungeon? I remember Luath telling me.” Flynn took a couple of kitchen chairs out onto the porch, and Paul paused, startled at the memory.

“The brig. I’d forgotten. He always called it the brig, which says pretty much what he thought of it.” He smiled at the thought, unwrapping foil from a plate. “I put the pictures back up in there this morning. They were wrapped and in Philip’s wardrobe, I don’t know if they’re what Dale wants in there but it seemed the right thing to do to put them back.”

Riley or Gerry would have needed alarm clocks, several reminders and a crowbar to prise them out in time for dinner if they’d been engaged in something gripping their interest as much as the meeting was gripping Dale’s. Dale, being Dale, brought his cohort of quiet, slightly sullen and rather defeated looking businessmen out onto the porch and Paul glanced at his watch.

“Ooh one minute and twenty seconds to spare. Why don’t you stretch a point some time and experiment with being thirty seconds late? Live dangerously.”

It drew eye contact and a very faint smile from Dale. While the businessmen were all tactful about it, Paul saw the stiffening of faces that said in their belief system Dale Aden was not a man who should be teased.

They filled their plates from the mix of hot and cold dishes on the kitchen table, spread out in the chairs on the porch, and ate looking out at the view. Jasper, who never complained or hesitated no matter what was put out for a meal, simply filled his plate and went to sit with a couple of them, drawing them into the kind of friendly conversation about nothing in particular that even their most tongue tied clients could handle. Flynn and Riley were a good deal pickier in their choice of what they put on their plates although neither of them commented out loud, and Riley sat down on the bench with Peterson and committed surgery with his knife and fork on most of the mini quiches, stilton and leek pasties, sandwiches and salad to investigate their contents, eating some pieces with caution. He was happier with the macaroons and what Paul knew were called financiers although he doubted anyone else would recognise them or get the appropriacy.

He kept his distance while Dale politely waved his delegates through the buffet, pouring a large mug of juice, and when the last of the businessmen went outside, he put the mug into Dale’s hand and handed him a plate already holding several of the sandwiches and a quiche. Choice, in highly social situations, didn’t work well for Dale; Paul had seen him put off by it on larger family occasions, and suspected too that being handed a prepared plate was a strong reminder that he was important to them and that they had things handled. It was often the smallest and seemingly most simple things that made the most difference and kept him on the planet with them in times of stress.

“Take that into the study or the back porch if you want to, get that down and take a few minutes to relax. Then come find me. Got it?”

He got one of the eyebrow slightly raised looks that went with Dale well iced, and Dale shook his head.

“It was only a couple of hours, I’m fine-”

Paul shook his head, interrupting the justifications before they started. “Stop and look at me.”

Dale looked. Properly; he knew that phrase and what it meant. Paul touched his face, saying it gently and very firmly.

“We are ok. Go do as I ask please.”

He went, of course without protest or showing even in expression that he was doing anything other than exactly what he wanted to do and would have done anyway of his own accord, and Paul swatted the seat of his immaculate trousers, firmly enough to make him jump.

“And you can stop that too.”

It was a real relief to be somewhere silent and people free, and to be lucky enough to love a man who understood that it would be. Dale went out through the front door and walked around the other side of the house to the back porch, where he could hear the voices in the distance by the kitchen, but where he was alone, unseen, and free. He sat on the top step looking out at the pasture beyond their well weeded and currently very full vegetable patch, put the plate down beside him and drank the juice.

For some moments he just sat, let his mind come into neutral and focused on the quiet sounds around him, which always faded out the mental jangling. The occasional distant sound of the horses. Took note of how well the carrots were growing and the size of the pumpkins and made a mental note to thin the carrots out further when he had a moment. There was a curious satisfaction to eating what they grew themselves; reading and studying how to raise their small food crops was interesting but nothing at all to the actual physical experiment of doing it.

It was bizarre to be reflecting on carrots during a meeting, particularly to realise that the carrots were considerably more important to him. Dale drained the juice and put a hand out to Tam who had padded around the corner either having heard or scented him. She came up the steps and leaned against his knee while he rubbed her ears and gently thumped her side in the spot she particularly liked, appreciating both her company and the affection, and she sat down beside him. Continuing to pet her with one hand, Dale looked at the plate beside him and absently with his knife dissected a couple of the sandwiches into small pieces, eating a couple of them. It didn’t help. On a tight stomach they didn’t sit well; he’d never really eaten during meetings.

Tam gracefully accepted the bit of chicken sandwich he fed her, and when Shane appeared at the foot of the steps, Dale glanced quickly back to make sure the coast was clear and tipped the contents of his plate onto the grass for the dogs to dispose of, getting up and brushing himself down before he went back inside. It would save arguments.

On the porch by the kitchen, Jasper, Riley, Paul and Flynn were chatting easily to the directors. Friendly, easily sociable, there was no one yet who Dale hadn’t seen them successfully make welcome, and the atmosphere was considerably more relaxed than it had been ten minutes ago.
They were also, kindly and very tactfully, keeping the men occupied to give him a break, and Dale deeply appreciated it. For want of something to do, he collected used tea cups from the conference room, washed and dried them and put them away. The domesticity of it also helped.

Knowing Paul had meant exactly what he said and wouldn’t appreciate any variations on it, he stood near enough to the door to catch Paul’s eye and Paul glanced up and nodded, but Jasper got up before Paul did, signalled to Dale and came inside.

“Flynn’s working on cooling Peterson down.” Jasper said as soon as they were out of earshot of the porch, leading the way up towards the conference room. “Give him another ten minutes. How is it going?”

The conference room was warmly lit with the low afternoon sun coming in. Dale straightened the papers on the table and sat down on the sill by the open window.

“Ok. We’re down to what’s mostly the fine print specifics, it’s open information now that it’s the exit strategies everyone’s het up about, we’ve talked through risk calculations and Peterson’s started to accept he isn’t going to force the advantage he’s after, and Weitz is starting to believe A.N.Z. isn’t pirating his company from under him. I want to get the draft agreements laid out and signed up to this evening, and that’s it. The legal team can take it from there.”

Jasper leaned on the wall behind him and Dale closed his eyes as Jasper’s cool hands rested on the junctions of his neck and shoulders. Just rested there for a while, holding him, then began to quietly massage his neck, his sensitive fingers working deep until they found a knot or a sore spot and then working it out. It hurt, but it wasn’t exactly painful in any kind of unpleasant way; Dale found himself leaning into it, stretching his neck to help Jasper work, and the headache he’d been only half aware of started to ease. When Jasper was done, he grasped again for a minute, his hands resting over the places he’d just worked, then he sat beside Dale on the windowsill, folded both arms over him and held him. Not hard, but very firmly; there was a very definite sense of in charge, no way not to lean back into him, and Dale found the tension coming out of his shoulders in response to it. It was safe, and it was deeply good, thawing, and in some indefinable way it made the room theirs. Part of their home, a personal place as much as the study or the family room.

It was a few minutes more before they heard voices in the kitchen and Jasper dropped a firm and unhurried kiss on the top of his head and let him go, waiting for Dale to look at him.


“Yes.” Dale got up, taking in the room once more. Philip’s room, the pictures on the wall that were so strongly of David. Philip’s chair at the head of the table, where his own papers lay waiting. It was a big chair to fill but it was a deeply moving thing to be working from it. As if Philip looked over his shoulder. Jasper gave him a nod, watching his eyes for a moment more.

“All right. I’ll send them up.”

The group going back upstairs were definitely more mellow than they had been come down. Riley had spent some time chatting with the rather harassed looking little man called Weitz with the grey sideburns, mostly, from what Paul had heard, about his car which Riley seemed to know something about. Flynn had spent some focused time on Peterson and another man, initially leaning forward while they talked, and then gradually Paul saw, as Flynn relaxed his posture and finally sat back, the men’s posture mirrored and relaxed with his, their breathing slowed along with his, and a few times he’d gotten them at ease enough to laugh. They’d all made a good meal.

Paul collected dishes from the porch outside, and Jasper came to help, picking up plates and glasses. The dogs were gathered around the foot of the post at the far end of the porch, having apparently found something of interest, and half wondering if they’d found another ground squirrel or something three months dead they could bring home and roll in, which Shane was particularly good at, Paul nodded at Jasper who was nearer.

“Can you see what they’ve got?”

Jasper leaned on the porch rail to look. Then glanced back to Paul and Flynn who had come out of the kitchen door.

“You might want to look at this.”Riley came out of the kitchen and warily, Paul leaned with him and Flynn on the railing. The dogs were playing with several sandwiches and a quiche, which they clearly realised they were supposed to eat but couldn’t quite bring themselves to do. Riley pulled himself up to sit on the railing, grinning at Paul.

“You see? You can’t even get the dogs to eat that stuff. We told you it wasn’t real food.”
The directors on the porch had been in their eye line the entire meal. No one had offered food to the dogs. The sandwiches were also neatly, if not perfectly, cut into exact miniature triangles, equal in size and proportion, which was a serious give away.

“Dale’s.” Flynn said grimly. Jasper headed down the steps, going to rescue the dogs from quiche.


Flynn gave him a short nod, heading into the kitchen.

“Ok. Excuse me, I have a CEO to spank.”

They were several minutes back into the financial forecasts and the risk assessments when Dale glanced up at the knock at the door, purposeful enough that he recognised it well before Flynn opened the door.

“I need a few minutes with Mr Aden.”

Dale straightened up, nodding to the men around the table.

“Just a moment please, gentlemen.”

Paul was at the foot of the stairs with a tray of tea, and his presence would mean the men would not be left alone to do any more under the table negotiations or bullying of the weaker companies, and Dale jogged down the stairs after Flynn, wondering if Jerry Banks had called for an update or there was new information from A.N.Z. and hoping the legal team weren’t about to insist on negotiations pausing until they were present too.

“Who phoned?”

Flynn put a hand on his shoulder, directing him through to the study and closing the door behind them. Surprised, Dale turned to face him and Flynn folded his arms.

“Want to tell me about dinner?”

Dale looked back at him, baffled, with no idea at all of what he was talking about.

“.........dinner? Did Jerry Banks call? What’s happened?”

“Dinner.” Flynn repeated matter of factly. “And how it ended up on the ground?”

He actually appeared to be serious. Dale mentally blinked, not sure he’d just been pulled out of a meeting for no better reason than to talk about sandwiches.

“What? Flynn, I’m in a meeting,”

“No, it can’t wait. Yes, it does matter. Yes, we are going to talk about it.” Flynn cut him off, and while he hadn’t raised his voice in the slightest, he never needed to. The tone was enough all by itself.

........but I’m in a meeting....!
Dale hesitated for a moment, too surprised to coherently find a way to express that in no sane reality were sandwiches a justification for messing with negotiations, and Flynn went on looking him right in the eye with an expression Dale knew well.

“What is the rule you have on eating?”

No, he is not serious.

“ what I’m given,” Dale said automatically, and Flynn nodded.

“Which means?”

They’d had what Riley referred to as a ‘discussion’, which in Dale’s opinion was no kind of accurate definition for what it actually meant, about feeding unwanted meals to horses before now. Disposing of food or messing with Flynn, Paul or Jasper’s perceptions of what he’d actually eaten had been ‘discussed’ in detail at that time, and it had been made pretty clear what the expectations were.

“.....letting one of you know if I can’t eat what I’m given for whatever reason.”

“And we’ll decide what happens from there.” Flynn agreed. And as if this was a completely rational thing to do, he went to the desk, opened the bottom drawer and Dale found his mouth opening in sheer surprise as Flynn took the lexan paddle out, gave it a brisk spin in his hand as he took a seat on the couch and held out a hand.


Stupidly about to point out yet again that he was in the middle of a meeting and this was not the time or the place, and that domestic rules obviously could not apply in the same way in the middle of an event like this, Dale found himself looking at Flynn with disbelief that he was apparently actually intending to do this. Now. Flynn clicked his fingers.

“Let’s go. The longer you keep me waiting, the longer you’re keeping your meeting waiting.”

It had been a while since Dale had found himself doubting Flynn’s sanity, but right now the doubt was alive and strong. He’d done training years ago as a professional negotiator and used those skills constantly ever since, but right now he couldn’t put a coherent sentence together and to his own ears he sounded nearer to squeaking than talking.

“........Flynn, this really isn't-”

Flynn shook his hand, hand still out. “You’re my priority, not them. I won't ask again.”

He was really going to do it.

Face hot, realising he was in effect stalling which looked a lot like cowardice and was really not dignified, and that six men were sitting waiting while he participated in this ridiculous conversation, Dale went to him and Flynn drew him around to his right side, waiting politely for him. He and Jasper almost always left this part of the process to you, and it was one of the hardest parts because it meant consciously, intentionally participating; it made it very clear you both had responsibility here. By habit Dale found himself fumbling with the buttons of highly expensive suit trousers, somehow pushing them down and discovering that for some reason standing in a suit with your pants around your ankles was far worse and felt infinitely more vulnerable in a formal suit than it ever felt in jeans.

He slid his underwear down after the trousers, his shirt tail trailing over his butt, and Flynn put a hand out to stall him.

“I’d take your jacket off too.”

How that was supposed to help, Dale had no idea, and weirdly, standing bare underneath a shirt tail and feeling it brush against your skin was a far stronger reminder that you were bare beneath it than it actually was to be wearing nothing at all. Trousers around his ankles and no sense of dignity left at all, he eased the jacket off his shoulders and laid it over Philip’s desk, and Flynn held out a hand to help him over his lap. It was a familiar view of the couch. Face down with a close perspective on a well known patch of leather, Dale leaned on his elbows and winced as he felt Flynn pull his shirt tail up and hold it in the small of his back with one hand, which made him feel infinitely more vulnerable as his butt was bared, and then the lexan blade of the paddle rested against him for a moment.

“There are good reasons why that is a rule for you. Is it ok to break rules when we’re not watching?”

It had been only a few seconds. Only a few. And Dale held on to the couch looking at that patch of leather in which he knew every line and grain, and had forgotten almost entirely about the men in the conference, or anything at all but Flynn and that paddle.

“I didn’t intend it that way, I was thinking about other things and....” No, it wasn’t possible to make excuses. Dale grimaced and admitted, honestly, “No, I knew and I didn’t want to eat, and the dogs were around and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I didn’t think it any further through than that.”

“Head too full of other things.” Flynn sounded matter of fact about it, not critical, not angry and not in the least about to let this go. Dale gripped the couch a little tighter, very aware of Flynn’s jeaned thighs under him, Flynn’s arm across his back, his hip snugged into Flynn’s stomach, and that paddle still resting against his skin.

“.......Yes sir.”

“Then let’s work on re establishing some balance.”

The paddle lifted and swatted too fast for Dale to brace himself and the sting of that first swat was strong enough to make bracing impossible after that, and it smashed down the last remnants of the mental wall like a tidal wave. It was utterly ridiculous to have shut off any thought that the normal daily rules applied. They were the whole foundation of everything he and Flynn did together, everything about this house, the whole foundation of who Dale knew very clearly who he was. How and when he’d got that muddled, Dale wasn’t sure but in those few seconds after that first searing swat, well aware that another would fall any second, Dale was horribly aware of exactly what he’d done to get himself into this position and couldn’t believe he’d done it. And it was a bit late to start thinking now.

Flynn gave him a dozen good, sound swats, and Flynn always meant it when he paddled; the crack of lexan against bare skin was loud in the room, every single hard swat added realms more sting to already badly stung skin and were delivered unhurriedly with pauses for thought, and within the first two or three Dale was squirming without being able to help it, and yelping out loud by the fifth. At the twelfth, his butt appeared to be going up in flames. Eyes watering, without breath left in his lungs and unable to keep still, Dale staggered slightly when Flynn helped him to his feet, and without being able to help himself, put both hands back to clutch his backside hard in both hands in an attempt to try to put some of the fire out. He hadn’t had that much at all really; Flynn had paddled him a lot longer before now when he’d had a serious point to make and way past the point of mere yelping, but the lexan was a deadly thing for making a quick and very serious impression, particularly on bare skin. Very out of breath and with the same wide eyed, wide awake, sinuses steam-blasted and gasping feel that generally came with accidentally swallowing a mouthful of particularly potent mouthwash, Dale shifted from foot to foot for a moment, no longer caring at all that he was in an extremely unusual state of undress for an executive.

Ok, I was really stupid.

Yes, but I still don’t believe he just did that in the middle of a damn meeting!

Flynn got up as normally as if he’d just re wired a broken patch of fence, put the paddle back and shut the drawer, and came over to pull Dale into his arms, giving him a hug crushing enough that Dale couldn’t keep his weight on his feet and felt his ribs creak. He put his arms around Flynn’s neck and hugged back, hard, hanging on to him, and after a moment Flynn ran a hand down his back and briefly rubbed his bottom over his trailing shirt tail with a large and gentle palm.

“You don’t eat, kid, you don’t get to play.”

Only Flynn would put it like that. On the other hand, it was not the first time by any means that Flynn had ripped normality out of his hands and he was the guy with the paddle. Still breathless, despite himself, Dale found himself starting to laugh with the sheer absurdity of it, and for how totally inarguable it was.

“That is ridiculous.”

“No, not at all.” Flynn held him still, looking him straight in the eye, and Flynn had beautiful eyes. Nothing soft about them in any way, but intelligent and bluntly determined and very comprehending, and his eyes showed you far more than the rest of his face ever gave away. “Whether or not you eat matters more and is a bigger deal than anything else you do in that room. You and we come way ahead of all this nonsense. They’re on your turf kid. Those men upstairs? They're something fun to do to stretch your career muscles and acumen.”

That was inarguably true. That was exactly what Dale had intended when he’d decided to go free lance for A.N.Z, and the deal he’d worked out with Flynn and the others from hours of talking with them. Simple and powerful clarity which went right to the heart of him. Which somewhere in the course of today had gotten an awful lot more cloudy until now. He nodded, slowly, acknowledging it, and Flynn nudged his chin up, kissed him. A warm, strong kiss that left its imprint on Dale’s lips and reminded him of a number of things, including that Flynn understood exactly. And he understood and cared about the men on the porch, the men he’d just had dinner with and talked to. And he still had no qualms about who their priorities were, and what came first in their lives, and he had the strength to keep the boundaries exactly in place where Dale knew alone, he’d lose all sight of them. There were times when dealing with loving Flynn involved trying not to burst on the strength of the emotions involved.

Flynn let him go, giving him a gentle swat where he was fiercely smarting.

“Kitchen. Go and eat your bloody dinner. Now.”

Of course he meant go and eat despite leaving a room full of directors twiddling their thumbs, and Dale had a fair idea those men would have to wait until Flynn was happy with what he’d eaten. Paul was washing dishes with Riley in the kitchen and gave him a Look that promised Dale hadn’t heard the last of this, and indicated a plate on the table in front of his chair.

“You, sit down and eat that, and I’ll deal with you later. And if the dogs now refuse to eat anything not cut into isosceles triangles, you’ll be the one feeding them.”

Sit down?

Dale sat with care, which did absolutely nothing to reduce the fierce smarting behind him and a great deal of tenderness that was not helped by encountering a hard wooden surface, and with no real alternative, bit into a sandwich. Flynn sat down across the table from him, straightforwardly watching him, and Riley, passing behind Dale to put a dish away, clouted him fairly gently across the back of the head.

“If you’re going to throw food to the dogs, don’t cut it into your geometric patterns first. You might as well sign it.”

“Don’t throw it to the dogs at all.” Paul corrected. Riley slung the tea towel over his shoulder, stacking dishes on the shelf.

“I told you, even the dogs wouldn’t eat it.”

“You, stop being rude about my cooking,” Paul told him, “And Dale, stop laughing and eat.”

It was actually surprisingly easy now to eat. Which was insane. It was five minutes later that Flynn took his empty plate and nodded at the door as if he was giving permission to go back to a board game.

“Go ahead.”

Ridiculous. Dale headed for the conference room, realising on route that he’d left his jacket in the study and he was exposing a large amount of purple shirt. Part of him considered going to get it. Part of him reflected that his butt was still smarting hotly and he was about to walk back into a meeting with said flaming butt, Dale Aden, having just been turned over Flynn’s knee with his pants around his ankles and paddled for skipping dinner, which not a man around the table would ever guess at, even though it was going to completely dominate Dale’s thoughts for the rest of the meeting. And most of him was still breathless and very stuck on a resounding thought of: I still don’t believe he just did that.

I don’t believe he just did that!

The thought of it still made him want to laugh.

Then he found himself unbuttoning the collar of the purple – iced violet - shirt, yanking his tie down to a comfortable level where it hung with far less neat precision, and he ran up the stairs, rolling his sleeves back, still close to laughing and fizzing with a kind of energy he hadn’t felt since the phone first rang in the early hours of the morning. Philip was in this room. Philip who would have calmly understood and fully approved of the entire encounter that had just taken place in the study and said exactly what Flynn had, if not more. And would then have come back to his meeting, exactly as Dale was doing now, understanding the same strength in this house and family that Dale did, and that it went on no matter who was sitting around a conference room table. Philip was in the very walls of this room, and so was Flynn. And Paul. And Jasper. And Riley. And it was good. And all that was left around the table was a challenge. A problem to solve, and it was easy. It was ok that it was easy.

Jasper was sitting on the windowsill casually chatting to a couple of the men about the horses, several more were engaged in a purely social chat about their different office IT contracts, what passed in the corporate world as small talk. Dale leaned on the table and grinned at them, seeing the shock in six separate faces at his expression and his opened collar.

“All right gentlemen, I’m sorry about that. Now how about we cut out the bullshit and we get on with this? Because I’m tired of it and so are you, and we’re going around on things not worth the time and stress.”

Jasper got up from the windowsill and gave him a swift, warm smile as he quietly left the room and closed the door behind him.

It took only another hour to wrap up. Completely. Even Peterson had resigned himself and it was as win-win as Dale was able to get it, no company exposed and no reason for trust to break down without one of the companies severely breaching today’s signed agreements. Dale stacked the papers and gave the group at the table a friendly smile, not unsympathetic that as a group they’d had a hard day and they’d all been required to compromise beyond a comfortable level, but satisfied with the outcome.

And hey, that’s fun too.

Even if he’d led the whole of the rest of the meeting from a standing position.

“Gentlemen, thank you, this is going to be a good venture and the outcomes are going to benefit all individual companies here, you’re all in secure positions and I’ll inform A.N.Z. that the legal team can move forward to formal contracts. Now I suggest we forget about it, and try and fit in some time to relax. If anyone would like a bath or a shower I’ll be glad to point you in the right direction, there are plenty of books in the house, if anyone would like to go out for a walk or a run I’ll be happy to suggest routes, or please feel free to use the family room or the kitchen and join us, please make yourselves at home.”

“You’re serious that there’s no cell signal out here?” Denton asked rather subduedly. Dale shook his head.

“I’m sorry, no signal at all. On the plus side, you all truly get the night off, no one can reach you out here. Take the time off and relax. It’s one of the things I love most about living out here.”

They obviously thought he was mad.

Entertaining six directors was actually no effort at all when you had the others to turn to. They did this as gracefully and as warmly as Dale had seen them treat clients, neighbours, family and friends, and it was quite a powerful experience to see they made no difference between known people and strangers. It had been Philip and David’s philosophy in this household; their presence was strongly here too. Dale knew it himself as a stranger who had once been made welcome here and his respect for it was as deep as his commitment to understanding it. Philip and David had taken in whoever needed a place to stay, any man in need or difficulty, they’d opened their home and their hearts and they’d trained every member of their family to do the same. Paul was chatting to one who was sitting at the table with him while he baked. Riley had walked down to the shires’ paddock with a couple more who wanted to stretch their legs and was showing them around the horses. Flynn had settled in the family room with Peterson and his colleague, and Jasper had joined them, and they were talking about the ins and outs of running a working ranch. Which left Weitz. Still thinking of Philip, taking a moment to prepare himself as it was something very – different – in a subtle kind of way, Dale poured a couple of glasses of juice from the fridge, handed one to Weitz and led him out onto the porch, taking one of the basket chairs and waving him to another.

“Mr Weitz, I couldn’t help noticing some problems around your turnover last year and this year since your last expansion.”

Weitz gave him a rather alarmed look and Dale sipped juice, cradling the glass between his hands.

“Have you ever thought about the efficiency of your head office remaining in Chicago?”

In the end he quietly took Weitz with him into the study and they worked for a while on a plan that Weitz grew increasingly interested in as they worked. Around ten pm, Paul and Flynn quite bluntly began to lock up and turn out lights, and Paul calmly smiled at the directors, explained that they kept ranch hours here and they were now going to bed, and he and Dale guided the men upstairs to their rooms and made sure they had everything they needed.

On the way back down to their landing, Dale met Riley coming out of the bathroom in shorts and not much else, and Riley leaned against the wall, surveying him with an expression of definite approval.

“You do realise you look pretty damn hot in a suit? Why don’t I get to see you in a suit when the house isn’t full of stuffed shirts?”

“Shh.” Dale nodded at the stairs, painfully aware of how far Riley’s clear voice travelled and Riley grinned at him, pulling him over by the tie to give him a rough hug.

“Relax, you did it, nobody died.”

Dale returned the hug with all sincerity. “Thank you for talking to them this evening.”

“No problem, I got used to hanging out in offices with all kinds of people when I was a kid,” Riley said easily. “Picked up all kinds of stuff, and you can generally get someone to let loose about their pet subject if you make it easy for them.”

To him it really was that easy. Dale let him go, half wanting to look and instead making himself ask.

“Are you ok from that fall this morning?”

“Yeah.” Riley slipped the back of his shorts down far enough for Dale to see a small but blackening bruise. “Paul demanded an inspection and slopped stuff all over it, doesn’t hurt. You’re probably a lot worse off. Lexan?”

“Twelve.” Dale said dryly. Riley gave him a cheerful nod.

“Yeah, I heard, but no one beyond the kitchen did, don’t worry. You asked for it; you know Flynn’s all over you whenever you’re working. Has to be or you get completely out of control.”

That was truer than needed to be addressed in conversation.

“Riley, go to bed.” Flynn’s voice said from inside their room. Riley grimaced at the doorway.

“I wasn’t the one up at dawn? Although it’s pretty cool seeing six execs scared stiff of you? You walk into the room and they all act like you’ve walked in with a paddle in hand. They practically salute, I love it.”

“Goodnight.” Dale said firmly. Riley laughed and let him pass.

Flynn had turned the bed down in their room, the bedside lamp was on and the window was open. Dale unknotted his tie, and Flynn turned to him, putting his hands down and finishing the job himself.

“You lost sleep this morning, you’ll make the time up tomorrow evening.”

“I didn’t think I’d get away with that.”

Flynn grunted, hanging the tie over the foot of the bed.

“Not a chance. Happy with how things wound up?”

“Very. They were surprisingly co operative.”

“You realise the trust you’re going to get from these guys having them here?” Flynn pulled his own shirt off over his head, leaving him in nothing but jeans.

“I appreciated how much you all made them welcome.” Dale ran a hand down Flynn’s back, watching him turn the shirt the right way out and reflecting on the plans he already had to make it very clear to all four of them just how much he appreciated it, he’d had no idea how much they would help or how good at it they were. “I still don’t believe how supportive you all are of this, strangers in your home and total disruption,”

“It’s not disruption, it’s what you do, and it’s what Philip did, we understand it.” Flynn said bluntly. “It’s no effort kid. Not for you.”

He said it simply and it was like a body blow, because he meant it too, as much as they meant we won’t let you fail.

“I wonder sometimes,” Dale said slightly artificially as his throat was stinging, “What the hell I ever did to deserve this.”

“You did a lot of those kind of meetings, and you worked bloody hard.” Flynn leaned on the end of the bed, looking at him with very dark green eyes that had a kindness and something else that made Dale’s stomach tighten in response, “I saw what you did for Weitz tonight. It was exactly what Philip would have done, I’m proud of you. And you are going to see the trust you get from men you have here, I saw it constantly with Philip. When you take them into your home, when you spend that kind of time with them, it puts things on a different footing. Those are men who are going to remember the rest of their careers about being a guest in your home.”

About being made welcome.

Flynn straightened up, nodding him at the hallway.

“Why don’t you go get a shower? Soak for a while, you could use it.”


Dale drifted to the window, looking out at the dark pasture. An owl hooted somewhere a long way off. Flynn’s hands rested on his hips behind him, rubbing, which stirred an immediate response in the more hyperactive parts of his anatomy which was still harping on about seeing Flynn riding this morning.

And Riley with Snickers. And Flynn, and how he sits, and the curl of that hand, and ..... it makes no sense at all why I get handed a complex set of negotiations and all I can bloody think about is......?

“Ok?” Flynn said in his ear.

“Mmn.” Dale started to unbutton his shirt, aware that as much as he was stirred up, he really wasn’t ready to go to bed either. Expressing it still wasn’t a strong point of his, even to Flynn.

No, you much prefer the whole sudden ravish thing.


Tender. Not exactly sore; the lexan left an intense surface sting but while twelve good swats was an outstanding attention grabber in the short term, it didn’t really last that long.

“I don’t think I’m used to sitting around so much anymore. Not that I did much sitting.”

Flynn snorted. “Not tired?”

“Not physically.”

It was a pathetically delicate hint. Flynn didn’t answer, looking with him at the pasture outside, then he took Dale’s hand in a firm grasp and towed him out onto the landing.

The landing was dark, the other three had clearly settled for the night, and there was no sound from the directors upstairs. Surprised, Dale followed Flynn downstairs and into the kitchen where Flynn softly shut the kitchen door before he put one of the under counter lights on. It gave a dim light, a soft golden light with shadows that was a lot gentler than the overhead light, and Dale watched Flynn open the pantry.

“Are you hungry?”

“Starving. Nothing we had at dinner was real food.” Flynn opened a couple of tins and boxes before he whistled softly and brought one of the tins out to the table. “That is real food.”

It was one of Paul’s large chocolate and cherry cakes, which contained a chocolate filling that Dale had no word for but was rich, thick, mixed with the black cherry sauce and was just tart enough to set off the sweetness of the chocolate. They never had much of a shelf life in the house, Paul was generally lucky if one survived twenty four hours after he made it. Flynn handed Dale a knife and dug in the fridge until he came up with a dish of whipped cream. Dale cut a large slice, put it on a plate and dug out a couple of forks, and Flynn spooned a large dollop of whipped cream onto the plate. Paul was an old fashioned man who appreciated proper ingredients; no whipped cream cans made it into the house, this was thick, proper hand whipped cream that reminded Dale of the clotted cream he’d had and loved on scones as a child.

Flynn pulled out a chair at the table and sat down, sliding an arm around Dale’s waist to pull him onto his knee, and took one of the forks. Dale leaned on the table and took the other, taking a forkful of moist, rich cake and closing his eyes as the flavour of it hit him. Paul’s cakes were always great, but here, tonight, with Flynn in the dim light of the kitchen, from the safety and the intimacy of his lap in the ridiculous outfit of dress pants and a half unbuttoned purple shirt, this one tasted like heaven. They were perhaps half way through the slice when melting cream dripped off Dale’s fork on the way to his mouth, leaving a trickle down his chest where his shirt hung open. Dale made a mild sound of annoyance, putting a hand up to brush it away, and Flynn caught his hand, ducked his head and licked it away. He might just as well have plugged Dale directly into an electric socket. Startled, and very distracted indeed from eating cake, Dale looked at him, and from Flynn’s calmness, this was another of the things that had not made it into Dale’s extremely limited knowledge during his time working for A.N.Z. There had been neat and generic hotel suites. There had been the room of a rather nice Japanese personal assistant for a few hours in Tokyo, and courteously text book interactions involving A Bed.

There had not, and Dale was quite sure about this, ever been kitchens, or any information involving cream. He definitely would have remembered it.

On the other hand, Flynn had gently introduced him to a lot of things that had never made it into his world at A.N.Z., which was possibly just as well as he never would have gotten any work done. Flynn was a natural teacher, with a knack for pacing that generally left Dale not only very well able to accommodate new information but keen to encourage him for more. Flynn quite deliberately ran a finger through the cream and chocolate on the plate, traced that across Dale’s bare chest between the open folds of his shirt, and his tongue swept that off too, in a way that trailed fire where it touched, and sent tendrils to all kinds of places.

With some knowledge that he had completely lacked until not so very long ago that this was not a one player game, and that Flynn was also more susceptible than he looked in ways that Dale was still slightly surprised about but definitely approved of, Dale thoughtfully dipped a finger in melting cream and leaned an elbow on the table, looking Flynn rather innocently in the eyes while he sucked the finger clean. It had the same interesting effect he’d been studying for a while in a range of contexts; Flynn’s pupils flared which darkened his eyes still further, an extremely promising reaction in Dale’s research; he produced a very quiet sound that was somewhere approaching a growl, and Dale meditatively dipped the finger again. He didn’t this time manage to get it to his mouth before Flynn got hold of him, lifting him physically by the hips to sit on the table in front of him which made him laugh and willingly co operate with Flynn forcibly removing the mostly unbuttoned shirt over his head, and by the time either of them were in any state to notice what had happened to the forgotten cake..... it was more or less everywhere.

The grandfather clock in the family room struck midnight before they were done. It took twenty minutes to get cake and cream off the table and the floor, and clean the kitchen back to its usual pristine self, and another forty minutes of showering together, some of which was time taken getting clean. They ended up sneaking back upstairs close to one am, neither wearing anything at all which involved Flynn tugging Dale with him and muttering under his breath that it was their damn house and if they met a wandering exec they’d claim he was having nightmares, but they encountered no one at all on the way back to their room and Flynn slid under the covers and pulled Dale down into his arms. Dale wrapped himself around Flynn head to foot, a leg between his, and an arm close over Flynn’s hard waist, his face against Flynn’s shoulder, and not giving a damn how many directors they had upstairs, and Flynn nudged for and found his mouth.

“Think you can sleep now?”

He still tasted of chocolate.

There was a large, communal breakfast at the kitchen table in the morning, and it was indisputably a family breakfast and not a hotel style one. Dale, dressing as he usually did in jeans and a navy sweater over a t shirt, working very hard on not smirking at the sight of the kitchen table, was aware that the directors seemed more surprised by him than by joining a family mealtime, but they passed dishes around the table, ate a good breakfast, joined in the general conversation surprisingly freely for a working party group, and the planes began to arrive around seven thirty on the landing strip. Riley and Dale took them up in the four by fours and watched the departures until the last ones, Peterson and his colleague shook hands really quite warmly, boarded their plane and left, and Riley slung an arm around Dale’s waist, watching the plane lift into the still early and pale blue sky. They left the four by fours in the garage and went into the kitchen where the others were cleaning up. The house seemed wonderfully quiet and spacious with no strangers in it, in fact it seemed like a wonderful morning in general, and Paul looked up from wiping the table to watch Dale heel his boots off.

“Dale, I did a load of laundry before breakfast. Do you want to tell me why I’m getting cream stains out of your shirt?”

No, because I still don’t believe we did that.

Flynn went on washing dishes. Swallowing down the urge to smile or look too directly at the kitchen table –

No, I really don’t believe we did that – and actually, I’m willing to bet we’re not the first either-

- Dale lined his boots up neatly by the wall, avoiding Riley’s raised eyebrows.

“I can’t imagine?”

“Or,” Paul went on, sweeping crumbs into one and dropping them in the bin, “about the hole in the chocolate cake and the cream this morning? I’m just curious.”

“That was me.” Jasper said calmly, taking another dish from Flynn to dry.

“You were eating chocolate cake in the early hours, wearing Dale’s shirt?” Paul said mildly, “Ok. I’ll guess you were hungry.”

“We were all hungry, we haven’t had any real food since yesterday breakfast time.” Riley said cheerfully, sitting down at the table. “Weird egg pie type things don’t count.”

“It is not going to kill you occasionally.” Paul said firmly, “We had no complaints from the directors, and I’ll produce actual, testosterone-heavy Real Man food for dinner, you and Flynn won’t starve.”

“Steak.” Riley said, looking straight at him. Paul shook his head, taking dishes into the pantry.

“I’ll see.”

“Steak.” Riley banged a hand on the table in time with the word, chanting it slowly. “Steak. Steak.”

Jasper went on drying dishes. Flynn turned around to lean on the counter and watch the pantry door, banging on the draining board in time with Riley and chanting with him.

“Steak. Steak. Steak....”

Dale started to laugh. Jasper caught his eye, straight faced, but his eyes were glinting. Paul emerged from the pantry and pointed at the kitchen door, raising his voice to be heard over them.

“Out. The pair of you. Now.”

Neither Flynn nor Riley moved but the chanting and the banging got louder.

“Steak. Steak. Steak. Steak-”

Jasper neatly folded the tea towel, laid it down, and joined in, adding his voice to Flynn and Riley’s. Paul went purposefully to a kitchen drawer, selected a wooden spatula and Riley burst out laughing and fled as Paul advanced on him. Jasper dodged around the table and Paul caught Flynn one good swat as he chased them out on to the porch.

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015