It wasn’t difficult to pack up what he needed. This place was far better equipped than the station had ever been and he’d been used to staying out days at a time. Weeks on occasion. It had been the only way to get any studying done; most of his exams had been passed by nights of revision by flashlight in a sleeping bag somewhere under a bush or in a sheltered corner. The temptation of the horses…. Winthrop – Philip – had actually told him to take any horse he liked. And sounded as if he meant it.
Cardiff came to mind, the beautiful and powerful Shire in the end paddock that he’d ridden before. But Flynn was drawn irresistibly to the corral where the long legged thoroughbreds who were ridden daily for ranch work grazed. All of them with the well developed withers for a strong back and strong action, the depth of girth that showed deep lungs, horses bred for speed and stamina. Their breeding showed in their bones as much as their easy action and their rideability; they were very different to the usually fourth or fifth hand hacks the station had owned, although some of those hacks had been good tempered horses with heart that he’d… got more attached to than he’d ever let anyone on the station see.
There was a bay with a white streak down his nose and one white sock pacing towards the fence, ears forward, obviously hoping he was coming to choose someone to do something interesting. Flynn leaned on the fence and rubbed his nose, ashamed to find he didn’t know the name of this horse or many of them. He’d taken as little interest as he could manage. He took the bridle off his shoulder and opened the gate, and the bay came to stuff his nose in, clearly intending he should hurry up. Flynn tacked him up, added the saddle bags he’d mechanically packed, and took him at random through the nearest gate, down into what they called the home pasture. It was smooth, flat ground for some way; good ground for speed, and somewhere just out of sight of the house when he was sure of smooth ground he let the bay do what it had been hinting for some minutes it was keen to do, let out the reins and moved with it as it broke into a smooth, fast canter and then up a notch more into a flat gallop.
It was a wide world away from the gallop of a hack.
Despite himself, Flynn felt the rush flood his chest at the sheer speed, a flash of real kid excitement as the horse eagerly stretched its neck and its legs and burst into full speed. The release of power in the powerful beast beneath him, the moving of muscles and the rise of heart as the horse found his stride and gloried in it, and the float over the ground, the gait was effortless. The thunder of hooves on the turf was crisp and steady, the beast was perfectly balanced and was glorying in the freedom. Even today when he had no right to feel anything good at all- it was utterly impossible not to glory with him.
In the kitchen, stood well enough back from the door that he wasn’t visible from the yard, Paul watched the boy tack up and ride out.
“Gone?” Philip said quietly behind him, bringing an empty coffee cup to the sink. Paul turned mechanically to get him a fresh cup and take the pot off the stove.
Philip went to the window overlooking the corral, taking a moment to survey the group left with everyone else out working.
“Ah. He took Blaze.”
He sounded approving, as if that was a particularly satisfying sight to him. Paul gave him a pointed look.
“From what Ger says, Blaze is an overexcited, headstrong handful and it’s only you that actually enjoys riding him.”
Philip gave him a calm smile, accepting the coffee.
“You’re not going to tell me, are you?” Paul said even more irritably. “That boy is in no state to be anywhere alone, did you seriously pull him out of a jail cell last night? Is he hurt?”
“He wouldn’t tell me if he was.” Philip sipped coffee, leaning against the counter. “I’m satisfied he isn’t physically injured beyond cuts and bruises. It isn’t the physical damage that’s sore.”
“You’d never let Gerry or Rog or Bear go anywhere in that state.”
“No, I wouldn’t.” Philip said placidly. He put an arm around Paul’s waist and kissed his cheek as Paul glared at him. “Is it just us for lunch?”
The gelding was fifteen hands of wildfire. He shook out his fidgets on the pasture, stormed unhesitatingly through the water at the crossing place and bounded through the woods, initially working to get his own way on the paths with determination and a strong head and a habit of whirling around on the spot and dancing sideways if his choice of route was argued with. He was not a horse you could ride while thinking of anything else.
Flynn held him in, strong enough to keep him from forcibly marching up any path he liked the look of and instead picking a route more suitable for delicate legs. Although it took several incidents of snorting and silent wrestling the horse gradually accepted he wasn’t going to get his way, settled down and by the time they reached the top of the high ridge a couple of miles through the woods he was behaving himself very nicely. Flynn drew him in to breathe at the top of the ridge, managing the gelding’s protests and indications that breathing was for wimps. The horse had lifted his mood. Pasture spread out to his left and he took the youngster at a steady walk forward along the woods line, following it slowly downhill. A mile or two on he heard running water and took the horse towards it, and they found the running creek just inside the woods. It was running swiftly downhill over the rocks, small ferns grew in between the rocks and it was clear. When Flynn dismounted and knelt to dip a hand in, it was freezing cold as well. Clearly it had emerged from underground not far from here and hadn’t been long under daylight. The horse dipped his nose and drank thirstily. Flynn pulled his water bottle down from his saddle and took several long, hard swallows himself. There was a quiet to the woods. A stillness that was peaceful, the hush interrupted only intermittently by birdsong in the trees and the autumn sun filtered down through the multi-coloured red and golden leaf canopy into patches on the ground, banks of grass and moss. This was as good a place as any to camp, sheltered and near water. Flynn tethered the gelding to a tree where he had plenty of space to graze, roll and reach the creek, and took off his tack.
He dropped the bed roll on the bank and sat down on the rocks beside it, looking down into the stream. He hadn’t had time – or the thought – to bring his books or anything to write with, and that, he told himself harshly, was right. This was no time to hide in a book or do anything except think. Long and hard.
Largely about what a stupid bastard he was. Except…
Listen to the mustn’ts child, listen to the don’ts.
The strongest memories of the last forty eight hours were no longer that cell and the despair and self hatred. When he reached for it, mostly because he felt he probably should – it was clouded. Fogged and lost behind the dominating images. Stupid things. Like watching Winthrop – Philip – talk on the telephone about how to pull his irons out of the fire, as if it mattered. As if it was a foregone, certain conclusion that it would happen and it was the right thing to do. Eating opposite him in a hotel restaurant and the sense of deep calm that emanated from him. Those were the easier images. The more painful ones were layered underneath and harder to think about. Winthrop putting a hand on his shoulder to draw him over into his space. Forty eight hours ago Flynn would have muttered something about him being nuts but never again. Never again.
Not one word of blame. Not one look, not one hint.
That brought the shame hotly back to his face but in a very different way.
What would you tell a client, Flynn?
Winthrop knew. He understood it. The basic textbook cognitive distortions would be a start, and the truth of them was inescapable.
Black and white thinking. ‘You always screw up. You’ll never be any good.’
No one has the capacity to ‘always’ screw up, there are many times you haven’t. We’re thinking about this specific one, so do some bloody work. You don’t get out of it just by tossing it on a scrap heap of ‘you screw up everything’.
Over generalisation. ‘This is the end, there is no way back from this.’
Bollocks, here you are. You have a way back, it’s been put into your lap you useless bastard.
See black and white thinking: ‘You useless bastard.’
Mental filter. ‘This entire situation is bad. Awful.’
No. No situation is all bad. And this one isn’t, because Winthrop - …. Philip… just handed you damn everything back on a plate.
Flynn dropped on his back with a thud, looking blindly up at the sky through the leaves.
Who did that? Who got on a plane and flew out to save the hide of someone they barely knew, who’d stormed foul mouthed and sour tempered around their place behaving largely like a kid in need of a good hiding.
I am not pleasant company.
It was a grim but realistic thought and an honest one. On the station, to an extent it had been a means of paying back his brothers who made no effort for their company to be pleasant either, and it kept their annoying of him at bay. It was also a means of mirroring his father with some bitter satisfaction that the man wasn’t bright enough to realize he was being annoyed by an exact mirroring of his own behaviour. There had been grim satisfaction in doing it. But in truth? It was a bad habit. Born of years of no expectation that a man behaved in any other way, of frustration and anger and grim determination to get through and out of the damn place. The marathon of working, saving, fighting for every grade and stacking it all up day by day, week by week, year by year, had been for that finish line of escape.
And you escaped. But you didn’t quit the bloody marathon because it’s ingrained habit. You didn’t change gear.
I don’t know how.
Well you’re going to have to bloody get a grip and figure it out, aren’t you? You’ve got the time, you’ve got the books, you’ve got the brains; do the work. Because you have to. You have to do whatever it takes to sort this out and take this chance, because you got luckier last night than you ever deserved to get. You have someone who stood up for you and said he thinks you are worth something.
I will be worth something to that man if I die trying.
The trees didn’t exactly move. There was almost nothing to see or to hear, but the space to his right was abruptly fuller than it had been. Flynn glanced over reflexively, across the stream.
It was the Native American guy. The shepherd.
Crouched fluidly some way back from the water, elbows on his knees, hatless with his long dark hair smooth and tied back at his neck. In the rather shapeless, old and nondescript clothes he’d worn the last time Flynn had seen him, which too large for his long, narrow frame draped with a grace the clothes had not been designed for. The old dark cloth coat moulded to him like a shadow.
He had the face of an eagle or a wolf. All triangles. From the planes of his cheekbones and his jaw that formed clean lines, to the crisp lines of his nose to his thin, very dark and very straight brows like cliffs over hooded, very dark eyes. Chiselled. Very smooth. Slightly darker in skin tone, but not much. Not much more than a strong tan. His fingers, lightly interlaced, were long and supple, not delicate but … fine. And those, more than anything, grabbed Flynn’s eye and tightened his stomach in an involuntary wave that ran over him.
He wasn’t moving at all. Not frozen in the way that people usually did keeping still; there was nothing stiff or unnatural about it. He was still like a tree. So much a part of the landscape that your eye slid over him. Humans didn’t tend to quiet their movement quite so effectively, and Flynn had studied enough neurology in the past few months to recognise the agility and skill in physical balance it reflected. The guy’s dark eyes were not fixed on him. They were watching the water. Not staring, Flynn noticed as soon as he saw it. Not demanding communication. In a way that suggested to do so would be as aggressive as it was rude.
There had been the whole Flynn-meet-Jasper thing a few weeks back when they’d worked with Winthrop – him – to move the sheep down to the new pasture, which couldn’t be far from here. There was no need for introductions.
They were about the same age: visibly the two youngest amongst the men on this ranch. The guy’s face didn’t give age away easily but Flynn, who could not keep himself from hunting the details in the face of almost every man he saw, never mind the men in this place who openly touched each other, kissed in passing as if it was normal and flirted openly without caring who saw – could not help but notice everything there was about this arrestingly quiet man. There was an intense and captivating beauty to every line of him. And the stillness. The dark eyes under that brow were not placid or still though. There was intelligence in them, sharp perception, curiosity. Flynn noticed it at the same moment he noticed the man was studying him, although not directly.
He didn’t know how long the two of them sat there together on either side of the running stream. Flynn was intensely aware of him, but there was no need to speak, to do anything. Then Jasper briefly caught his eye, there was something that might have been a swift smile, and rose to his feet. And he waited.
Very much not done looking at him, even if it was using peripheral vision not to be too rude, Flynn got up and went to loose the horse and walked with him after Jasper who turned and disappeared into the trees.
He moved lightly and near silently over the ground. Flynn, aware of the crunch and crack of twigs and leaves under his boots realised that the sounds just weren’t there for the man walking ahead of him. Down the steep bank, following the line of the stream, through increasingly thick green groves growing wilder and further from the path where ivy and creepers wrapped the trees and moss blanketed the boulders, to where the stream grew wider and faster. And then suddenly at a sharp edged grey stone ledge the ground dropped away. The water poured on in a white, iridescent sheet of water some feet down over rocks into a small but much deeper pool four feet below. Mist rose gently off the surface of the water, the splashed vapour hanging in the air and softly masking the green of the ferns on the bank and the rock formations that encircled it, like a small, ornate cauldron hidden in this corner of the woods. The beauty of the tiny place was breath taking.
Flynn tethered the gelding above the falls and followed Jasper, climbing down the steep section of bank to the boulders on the side of the pool. The creek ran on downhill, deeper and a little wider, but the pool itself was perhaps four feet to five feet deep, wider than the stream bed and vaguely circular, drilled out by centuries of water tumbling into this rock bowl, clear and fresh by the constant fall of water.
On the bank, Jasper heeled off his boots and slipped off the coat, dropping it on the bank. A faded and too large shirt followed it. Barefoot, tall, slender with a narrowing at his waist which formed another triangle of bone disappearing into the waistband of his old, faded jeans, he padded silently over the rocks and put a hand down to the ground, sliding over the edge of the rocks into the pool. It covered him to his chest. And there he waited. The invitation was unobtrusive, it manifested only in the movement of his eyebrow and the corner of his mouth, but it could not have been more apparent if it had been transcribed on a card and presented on a silver tray. Flynn shouldered out of his sweatshirt and shirt. He stripped down to his shorts, not prepared as Jasper clearly was to spend the rest of the day in soaked jeans, and barefoot stepped over the rocks and dropped down into the deep pool.
It was breath-stealingly cold. Shockingly cold. Head clearingly. Any worries that Flynn had of Jasper being made uncomfortable by Flynn's obvious interest disappeared immediately.
More than used to the outside conditions and washing in water that hadn’t so long ago been ice, Flynn did no more than give himself a moment to get used to it, ducking down to get it over his head and shoulders and acclimatise. The steady sound of pouring water was soft but pervading, muting all other sounds with its low thunder, and the white splash pool where the water was landing, boiled gently. Flynn walked into it, feeling the pressure of the water pouring against him and the splash of drops against his skin, then he walked directly under the shower of the fall and it drummed down on him with weight that for a second nearly sent him to his knees. He stood up to it. Fought it, locked his knees, straightened his shoulders and took it, and after a few seconds of fighting found the balance. Found a place where his body and the water seemed to be part of a whole. With the shock of the cold subsiding and his eyes closed against the distractingly beautiful and even more distractingly male figure on the rock, Flynn's thoughts returned to himself.
“I should be in Colorado.” He said eventually, with his voice half lost in the water. Largely as the shepherd must be wondering what the bloody hell he was doing in the woods.
It brought it home still further. The stark reality of the past 48 hours, the extremes of it. What should have been so terrible – somehow led to this, to standing in this place of beauty, this sanctuary, safe and reassured and talking to this man who …
Who haunted his dreams the same way that bloody housekeeper did, with his long legs and his dark hair and his crackling eyes.
“I got into a fight, it was stupid. I nearly killed him.”
I didn’t mean to.
Denial makes little difference.
“I was arrested. Win- Philip – bailed me out.” Saying it made it a little realer. “He flew out to Colorado and bailed me out. Brought me back here.”
There was a long moment’s silence. Broken by Jasper’s voice behind him.
“Why did you fight?”
The accent was American. Flynn knew little enough about America as yet to place it more accurately to a state, but it was a soft one. The question was quietly curious. Uncritical.
“There was some git of a bloke mincing around mocking some poor sod doing bugger all but walk past him. Wouldn’t let him past. Wasn’t so keen to try picking on someone his own size. I have…”
A what? A bit of a temper?
And the Pope’s a bit religious.
“..a bloody bastard of a temper.”
Jasper sat calmly on a rock, the water running nearly to his neck. There was no judgement in his eyes. Flynn tipped his face up into the water for a second, letting it blast him, fill his mouth, push his hair fiercely back and stream water from him, and then he stepped away, shaking his head to clear water. He sat on a rock shelf across the small pool from Jasper, leaning forward into the water to rest his elbows on his knees. They were barely four feet apart. The current was strong in the little pool, the water no longer felt cold, it was warmer in the water than out of it, and the swirl of the water buffeted against him, from chest to knee. It was a strong and pleasant sensation, like a deep massage. And in nothing more than jeans, that beautiful man sat watching him.
“How did you end up here?” Flynn asked him gruffly for something to say. Jasper smiled faintly.
“I brought an assignment of cattle here for Philip. He offered me work so I stayed.”
“You don’t come to the house.”
The smile merely deepened. It was obvious: he lived in the manner natural to him, as he was used to. It was obvious he was wholly at home in this wood. Jasper rose to his feet and slipped silently under the water in the deepest part of the pool, taking the one long stroke under water to swim beneath the waterfall curtain where he rose to his feet and waited. The expectation that Flynn would follow was clear. Flynn walked through the water curtain. Behind it was a narrow, triangular dark entrance that rose about a foot above the water, just under two feet wide. Jasper slid sideways into it, his bare shoulders passing easily through the space, and he waded into the dark. Flynn paused in the entrance, taking a moment to let his eyes accustom themselves to the change in light. It was a very small cave, little more than a deep fissure in the rock, and the water was louder in here, echoing and alive with the fresh smell of ozone and minerals. Jasper moved back, ducking his shoulders under the water for a moment and lifted his head, looking across at the opposite wall. Flynn followed his gaze… and saw it. A line like ice. Less than a handspan wide, long, running from the ceiling nearly down into the water. White and glistening in the reflection of the water. And in the ceiling above it – the points of white quartz glittered. Small points descending, between one or two and five inches long, some thin, some thick, widely scattered in the grey rock. It was like a cave full of stars.
Stunned, Flynn glanced from the crystals to Jasper whose smile back to him was alive, as filled with wonder as his was.
Flynn built a fire when it began to get dark.
He had collected up his few belongings and they had walked together down through the woods the mile onto the pasture where the sheep grazed and near to the river which ran far deeper and slower than the creek in the woods.
Jasper waded out into the shallows and Flynn watched him stand still in the water, immobile, hands in the running flow, and then swiftly flip a fish onto the bank. He caught four and Flynn watched him split and clean them. There were no fresh fish on the station, fish was something he’d rarely eaten, but he did as Jasper did, sharpened a stick and pushed it through two of the shining scaled fish and dug the stake over the fire.
He had walked the horse down, taking him wide of the waterfall to find him an easier path although he climbed down with the delicacy of a cat. Flynn picketed him within reach of the water, and pulled out the feed from the saddle bag, handfeeding him several large palmfuls. The horses on this ranch weren’t kept short. They were as well fed as the people here were and the several different feeds in plentiful sacks in the shed were high quality with money spent on them, and the working horses, the corral horses, were well paid in feed daily. Coming from a station where his father had grudged every dish of feed the horses got and it was kept only for horses sick, injured or in the harshest weather, Flynn had played a defiantly dangerous game since he was seven of stealing and secreting feed from the small kept supply for his own horse and for the others when possible. It resulted in a hiding whenever he got caught so he took it and hid it anyway. Once he got old enough to earn a few dollars of his own since the neighbouring stations were always in need of a hand, much of that had gone on feed.
They had said not a word more since they left the cave. And yet Jasper showed no sign of wanting to leave and nothing could have dragged Flynn away. They simply swam. And sat. And ate in a comfortable silence in the grass as the shadows turned into blackness and the sheep settled in a small clump together, feet tucked under them. Hanging out with this tiny bunch in a pasture this vast was an odd experience after years spent surrounded by sheep in their thousands. Win- Philip – needed the help but he had the right idea, this was perfect land for sheep. With the right kind of sheep, properly run, he could run a flock of several thousand on this land and still barely know they were here.
That was something that could be done for him. This herd of mangy ewes fed up and moved on and a decent herd brought in, properly managed. The knowledge was automatic, he’d lived and breathed it all his life and it rose as he ran his eye over them. It would be tight but he had the time, he would be here for the next month, there was time to get a flock here and serviced to lamb in March, and he would have to make the time to be here to see through lambing from end to end, and much of it would fall over Spring Break anyway.
Your life revolving again around bloody sheep.
He’d sworn, many times, for years, never again. And after what Win- Philip – had done for him yesterday, it was a price he found himself not only willing but determined to pay. Relatively gladly. If that was something he could do for the man he would do it, and it was at least something he would do well.
Which meant walking back into that house and putting this to him.
Be honest, it means more than that.
He sat by the river that night, watching it flow in the darkness and the flicker of firelight. Jasper sat a few feet away in silence, in easy silence, his body still. Neither of them slept. It was a form of companionship so wholly different to anything Flynn had ever experienced before. He had never spent this kind of time with anyone before, never mind someone his own age. He had worked alongside his brothers, with the intermittent labourers who came and went on the station with the seasonal work, but not like this. Not purely for the sake of being together.
Towards dawn, Jasper walked downstream a little way and undressed, wading out into the water. Flynn’s heart rose into his throat, his chest seized painfully at the lithe, male figure walking slowly out into the water. And facing into the current, his attention on the water, Jasper murmured something to himself in a language that wasn’t English, and lifted his cupped hands full of water to run it over his head, seven times.
He dressed as Flynn washed at the river bank in the dim first light, and when Flynn rose to saddle the horse, he came to help, tacking him gently and efficiently with a deftness that spoke of care as much as expertise with animals. And when the saddlebags were slung over his neck, Flynn turned to him with no idea what to do or what to say or what the hell one did when one felt like this. Jasper put a hand out, not exactly grasping his as a western man might shake it. But taking it, gently, holding it for a moment and his dark, warm brown eyes met Flynn’s. And then he walked away towards the sheep and their feeding station with the ewes following hopefully in his wake, and with his heart pounding, Flynn dug a foot into the stirrup and swung himself up onto the gelding’s back, settling himself somewhat painfully into the saddle and turning him out across the shadowy pasture.
It was not yet six am when he reached the house, too early for anyone else to be stirring.
He untacked the youngster in the yard, rubbed him down and turned him into the corral, put away the tack and the gear… and then there was nothing left to do but take a deep breath, pull himself together and walk towards the house. It was then he noticed that the study door to the porch was ajar.
He walked softly up the porch steps and went to try it, wondering if it had been left open all night. Philip was relaxed in his chair behind his leather topped desk, the lamp burning softly in the corner casting light over the book in his hands. He looked up and his smile was warm.
“Flynn. Good morning.”
Privately thanking the teacher who had insisted and taught him to do this, Flynn stood stiffly upright at the door, managing to find a level and consciously polite tone.
“Good morning sir.”
“Please don’t strain yourself.” Philip said gently. He was teasing, it was lightly enough said that Flynn met his eyes in spite of himself, and Philip laid the book down. “Do come in. What do you think of Blaze?”
It was the perfect name for that horse.
“Lightning in a bottle.” Flynn said without thinking. Philip’s smile deepened.
“Isn’t he? A handful, but beautifully mannered with a firm hand, he’s the fourth generation of that particular bloodline. He would make a magnificent polo pony but I don’t think I shall be able to part with him, he’s too good a ride.”
A man, very much a man, who loved his horses, and talked about it, openly. It was another facet of him that took extreme effort to bend his head around. Philip surveyed him and got up.
“Close that door, Flynn. I need coffee. I find it’s impossible to think clearly about anything in the morning without coffee. David insisted it had to be tea, he did not welcome coffee first thing in the morning at all, but we had to agree to differ on that one.”
He went towards the kitchen, leaving Flynn very little alternative but to follow after him.
“Who is David?”
“My partner.” Philip took two cups and saucers down from the cupboard and poured from a coffee pot on the warming corner of the stove. “It’s his desk alongside mine in the study.”
With a painful shock Flynn realised; he had seen how Philip touched that desk, how he walked past it, and knew then that the word ‘partner’ had nothing whatever to do with business. It was a discreet word that only certain men would immediately hear real meaning in.
“He died in the spring.” Philip said quite mildly. “Please don’t look so shattered, we had nearly forty years together which I enjoyed very nearly every day of, and David was more than twenty years older than me. It was no surprise to either of us. Plus I find it very difficult to remember David with any kind of sadness. He was always so busy creating other emotions to keep me occupied with. Coffee.”
Flynn took the cup and saucer he was handed and followed in Philip’s wake into the study, bewildered and wrong footed. The position of the desk against Philip’s was obvious when one knew. End to end, positioned so two men working there were close and able to see each other’s faces from their own working space. Philip took his seat at his desk, waving Flynn to the couch. Flynn took a seat there. It was a surprisingly comfortable couch, a deep one, directly opposite the desk although at a comfortable distance which took away any feeling of being interviewed, and Philip turned his chair sideways to rest one elbow and his coffee cup comfortably on the table. He seemed perfectly happy to sit there and drink coffee without asking questions which was so kind Flynn found himself pushing to his feet again, needing to pace to keep himself at all sensible.
“Sir, I can’t thank you enough for-”
Philip interrupted him before he could grimly force out any more. “My dear boy, you’ve said all that quite sufficiently. The boy you rescued was gay, wasn’t he?”
Shocked, Flynn looked up at him. Philip’s eyes were very gentle.
“It… hit a nerve.” Flynn admitted. Philip nodded slowly.
“I thought it might. Are you gay yourself, Flynn?”
Flynn’s face heated hard. No one had ever asked him straight out. Implications, yes. Derision, yes. He’d heard plenty of that growing up, although not aimed at him since no one where he came from would think a man who could handle the roughest of work and batter men bloody in a fight, could possibly be one of them. It was boys like the Spanish kid who naturally showed themselves in their bodies, the way they moved, the way they spoke, who drew the vitriol.
‘Gay’ was a term he hardly felt he could presume to, knowing bugger all of what it meant in any real terms. Save that he never stopped thinking about it. Philip, who had lived forty years with his man, was waiting without appearing in the slightest hurry. Flynn swallowed hot coffee, summoning up the nerve to look at him.
“Probably. I’m not straight.”
“So it most certainly did hit a nerve, and a very sensitive one.”
“I’ve got the O’Sullivan temper.” Flynn confessed, grimly and with difficulty. “It runs in the bloody family. We all have it to an extent but… my father has the full version and so do I. My Grandfather had it. It’s one of the family legacies I won’t bloody carry on, generations of bloody dysfunction. I won’t do it.”
It was impossible to say without snarling, in part because it had been a determination that went back too many years with too much emotion. He’d walked away from too many moments raging it silently in his head, a vow to himself. But it was something he’d never before said out loud. Not to anyone. Philip merely nodded with what looked like a good deal of comprehension.
“It’s interesting, Flynn. Almost every man I have ever met with commitment to anything one might term as healing for others began by seeking that learning for themselves. The strength of character and the will it takes to see one’s own situation clearly and to put forward the commitment to change it seems to come from the kind of person willing to help others find the path.”
“I don’t feel particularly strong.” Flynn said bitterly.
“What do you feel?”
“Stupid.” Flynn said without hesitation. “Out of control. Ashamed.”
“And processing shame?” Philip said gently. “What do you know about that?”
What he’d read. What he’d studied knowing the rest of the world didn’t act like this, that there was understanding beyond the station.
“I know I know better.” Flynn said darkly.
“Very laudable.” Philip said quietly. “What do you know of processing shame? Think about it Flynn, you have the capacity.”
“There is a difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is about actions. Shame is about self.” Flynn said with difficulty. “The difference between ‘I did this, and I feel very bad about it’ and ‘I am a bad and unworthy person’. Catastrophic thinking.”
“I agree. Healthy guilt has a purpose. It’s the voice of your conscience and I think you have a keen one. It’s also the voice of compassion and I think you have plenty of that too. The first thing you thought to ask me was how badly hurt your victim was. These are good qualities. They make for a good man. What are ways of processing guilt?”
“Which I have heard you do, sincerely, to everyone involved. And your opportunity will come to apologise directly to your victim, you have apologised indirectly through the university to him.”
“Which you are doing. You accepted the suspension, the additional work that will come with it, and more to the point you’re taking full responsibility for your actions and making a sincere attempt to learn from them. And none of that is helping, is it? Flynn, sit down.”
Flynn put the coffee cup down on the desk – David’s desk, a part of him wondered what the man must have been like who loved Philip Winthrop – and sat down on the sofa, gripping his hands between his knees. Philip sat quietly, watching him.
“Try to keep in mind, little though you may like hearing it. Nineteen is so young.” The compassion in his voice was painful. “From what I understand, you successfully worked yourself through school despite all the difficulties in your way, you won a scholarship at an extremely good university and I understand your tutor feels that scholarship very well deserved, and you have managed to leave a situation you found intolerable and make your way in a foreign country alone. And all of those very notable achievements seem to have happened, if I may say, with very little parental or other guidance or support?”
It was so disarming it was nearly unbearable. Particularly from this man for whom today there was little he wouldn’t do. Flynn swallowed, finding the words again escaping him. “There isn’t any.”
“Yes. Sadly I had that impression. But you must realise how very much you have got right by yourself, and that you’re measuring yourself against a majority of others your age who had that support behind them and still haven’t achieved as you have. You can forgive yourself this incident, it doesn’t define you.”
I’m afraid that it probably does.
It took serious effort not to get up and return to pacing and to put it into words instead.
“All the work – all that study – and I still channel that mindless, stupid bullshit as soon as I’m crossed. Scratch the surface and it’s all I am.”
“That’s a rather harsh view of it.” Philip observed. “You have been simmering with a great deal of feeling for as long as I have known you, it’s hardly the case that you’re serenity personified until someone irritates you.”
That was hideously true. Flynn ran his hands through his hair.
“I am capable of being more than this. I have the bloody brain, I know better, I won’t carry this crap on another generation. I won’t be another bloody bitter, dysfunctional mess dumping itself on everyone around them and thinking about nothing more than bloody sheep and the next meal. I was so bloody determined to get away, and I did it. I did it. And then something touches a nerve and I turn into my bloody father. I’m going to sabotage this.”
“No. You will not because you have the awareness and the will to stop it.” Philip said quietly. “Which is why you’ve found the courage to sit here and say this to me. I’m aware that you do not accept help from anyone. However you’re aware for yourself that your own resources are not enough in this and you are struggling. So I will ask and ask you to think about it fairly. How can I help you, Flynn? ”
Flynn’s throat hardened painfully in response.
You can be that proud, stupid bastard like your father and stalk away swearing that you’re not soft enough to need any other bugger interfering. Or you can choose something different.
“… help me to beat this.” He said eventually and very roughly. “The temper. The bad habits.”
“Gladly.” Philip said quietly. “What do you need?”
It had been in his mind all night. If he dared to ask this man to include him as one of his own.
“If it was Gerry,” Flynn said thickly. “Or Roger. I know you- Gerry said once.”
“I would spank them.” Philip said matter of factly and without hesitation. “Yes, in the case of either of them I certainly would. Not because objectively I felt they deserved it and I am entitled to dispense it by some divinely allocated right.” Philip raised his eyebrow slightly at Flynn, lightening the mood as much as his tone. He was speaking very gently. “But because we choose to live together by an agreed code. They prefer boundaries in their life and to entrust the guarding of them to me, and in Roger’s case to Luath. It is not ever the price of my forgiving them or a means of demonstrating to me that they are sufficiently sorry for something. It is not a matter of gestures. You do not need to make any such gestures to me.”
“No. There’s a difference between gestures and-” Flynn broke off, lacking the word.
“Expiation.” Philip suggested quietly. “It’s never a matter of me forgiving them. Sometimes it is a matter of them being able to forgive themselves.”
And many other things he had neither the words to express nor the concepts for.
Philip sat back in his chair, surveying the young man on the couch with a lifetime of experience in reading the bodies of horses and of men for their emotions and their intents. The about to bolt, fraught energy of yesterday morning had passed. But the tension, the force of this boy was tangible. Wherever Flynn went he carried this wave of emotion with him, he was strung with it, it was vibrating in those wide and still steadily growing shoulders with the explosiveness of a bruised mouthed, wary and stall-bound thoroughbred. His insight – his maturity in many ways – was remarkable. And yet too he was still a boy, stuck in a boy’s perspective with everything the end of the world. Philip reached down to open the bottom drawer, withdrew the wooden paddle that lay there and put it down on the desk top.
“I’m certainly able to, should you like to include yourself within that trust. And if you’re sure.”
Flynn met his eyes only briefly but they burned, the intensity of sureness was like a fist over the head, and his nod brief to the point of curt. Everything went deep with him, it was visible in the set of his face and those very dark eyes. Everything was felt, he made decisions with a maturity and a ruthlessness that spoke of years of handling a man’s responsibilities, and very little scared him. Which was in part why he was so devastated now. There was no doubt he meant it and he rose at once, sharply, coming directly forward to the desk. Philip rose unhurriedly, putting a hand out to grasp the boy’s shoulder.
Luath had told him of Flynn’s locking his jaw and head when he engaged in a fight, expecting a smash across the face and to not let it fell him. This boy was used to standing up to bare knuckle fights, to being angry and numb and never letting anything show or touch him, and he stalked into confrontation like a stallion challenging another for ground.
“How would your father have handled this?” Philip asked him gently, with a fair idea, and saw Flynn’s snort of scorn as much as disgust.
“He wouldn’t. He’d probably think it was the most promising thing he’d heard of me doing in years. He used a belt.” He added a little more levelly. “When we were small enough. He quit on that when we got large enough to fight back. And old enough to run and not have to come home for a night or two.”
Battles with a winner and a loser. The victory of the strongest. David’s childhood experience had been similar. The boy was perfectly clear that he didn’t associate his father with him or with this place and trusted him not to lash out; he felt safe. That was plain in his face and his body. That was not what he was expecting. Instead he was ready and waiting for an order to bend over and put his hands on the desk, to enact something probably similar to what he’d seen in school. And he was expecting to grimly withstand that too in much the same way he got through a paid fist fight to vent a little of the steam under his hood.
The naivety of it was rather touching.
Philip picked the paddle up from the desk and moved past Flynn to the couch, taking a seat in the middle of it. Flynn looked across at him, confused. Philip laid the paddle down on the couch beside him.
“Take your jeans off.”
It was apparent Flynn hadn’t expected that, but it was a tone Philip had learned with plenty of skittish and apprehensive men in this situation. Firm, brisk enough to make it clear he was waiting, authoritative enough to trust in, and Flynn responded, flushed and fumbling, but he unbuttoned and stepped out of his jeans, folding them awkwardly and dropping them against the side of the desk. Philip held out a hand to him. In a childhood of being yanked and pulled he wondered if Flynn had ever been simply asked and given the space and the time to respond.
He would have waited as long as Flynn needed but after that brief pause, looking at him in that grim, assessing way Flynn had from way behind his shields, he crossed the floor to him. Philip took his hand and leaned back, making sufficient room. He saw Flynn pick up the cue, realise what he meant and balk hard, flushing darkly and taking a sharp step back although to Philip’s interest he did not take his hand out of Philip’s loose grasp.
“The same way I would with anyone else in this household.” Philip told him. “That’s the only way I plan to do this. Now please, Flynn.”
He saw what it cost and not just by the dark flush that rose in Flynn’s face; Flynn’s pride was fiercely, painfully stiff. This boy had held himself together on that pride and on bright, hard anger for a very long time, and while he wanted this he had survived for a long time on putting himself into no one else’s hands. Flynn couldn’t know yet how many others among them had come to the ranch the same way, that he very much was not alone, or that Philip had supported many of them through firsts like this, or that he’d held many suspicious, high tempered horses on a lunge rein, waiting for that moment when they relaxed and moved forward with him. Philip saw too the moment Flynn chose. The moment Flynn gave him his trust.
Roughly, Flynn stooped and laid very awkwardly over his knee, very unused to fitting around anyone. Unused too, Philip suspected, to closeness with anyone and never to make himself vulnerable to them. With years of practice, which had included men larger than Flynn, Philip tipped him into a more natural position, steadying him with a hand on his back firm enough to give him moral support as much as reassurance that he knew very much what he was doing.
“If I were you I’d lean on the sofa.” He advised. “You’ll be far more comfortable.”
Flynn shifted himself slowly, moving his hands from the floor to lean on his elbows on the couch. A deep enough, long enough couch for a tall man to lay comfortably; Philip had ordered this couch with David in mind, not that David had usually agreed with ‘comfortable’ as the appropriate term for it. He pulled Flynn’s close fitting shorts down nearer to his knees than hips, always preferring them to be far enough out of the way to maintain easy access to the lower slopes of the target area and the thighs and to ensure that wriggling around would not lead to them riding back up. Several men of his acquaintance, Roger in particular, had a quite unintentional genius for it.
Flynn didn’t move, but his back was rigid when he brushed the tail of Flynn’s shirt up onto his lower back. A well built, tautly muscled lad, heavy with the promise of bones still dense and in the process of growing, and yet nothing like as heavy as he would be full grown and properly fed. And currently a very shocked one, who nevertheless was remaining absolutely still over his lap, his dark sandy head dropped over his hands.
Philip picked up the paddle and rested it against Flynn’s bare behind, then firmly brought the paddle down across his furthest cheek. Flynn didn’t react in the slightest. Philip had expected as much, and simply continued to work. The sharp thwacks of the paddle – and David had always sworn it packed enough sting and weight to get through to the nastiest, stubbornest of moods like a hot knife through butter – were loud and steady. Philip took the time to cover the entire and well-muscled ground but the paddle was long enough to cross both cheeks when applied centrally and he concentrated his efforts there, well experienced in how to use this paddle to best effect and where to place it for a particularly sharp lesson. Flynn did not move or make a sound; Philip might as well have been spanking a tailor’s dummy. Flynn’s shoulders however were rigid and his back was taut under Philip’s hand, and his breathing was short between very soft but long held breaths. Philip glanced with comprehension at his bent head and spoke quietly, not pausing in the steady application of the paddle.
“Open your hands, Flynn.”
He saw Flynn’s head lift fractionally in confusion, but his tightly clenched fists opened, he laid them flat down on the leather of the sofa and almost immediately Philip saw the slight signs of his breathing becoming more ragged, a few very slight but tell-tale twitches of Flynn’s back and hip as the paddle landed, the tension and emotion no longer gripped and stopped physically in his hands. This lad would not appreciate a job half done or accept absolution from anything lesser than he expected – although Philip was fairly certain he had not expected this. Nor realised what a good paddle could achieve when well applied with an experienced hand to a bare behind. Philip delivered the last dozen not harder, but with the flick to his wrist that snapped the paddle very smartly against skin and never failed to gain the attention of the most strong willed. Flynn didn’t successfully cover the one or two more visible twitches but he didn’t make a sound. Philip laid the paddle down on the sofa beside them, keeping one hand on Flynn’s shoulders to hold him in place.
Flynn didn’t move for a long moment. Philip could feel him straining to catch his breath and do it without the strain showing. When he moved to shift down from Philip’s lap to his knees on the floor Philip steadied and helped him. He was sweating, his sandy head was ducked, but the tension was eased in his back and his shoulders, his voice was soft and wry rather than grim.
“Yeah, that’ll do.”
Allowing comfort – was something this boy might allow one day, but today wasn’t it. Philip kept his distance but dropped a light hand on the back of Flynn’s bent neck, resting it there and grasping gently. And that, Flynn allowed.
~ to be continued ~
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2016