"Maybe we've got more trust in him than you have?" Paul said gently. "Ri, you can't take this personally, you're getting involved with him-"
"And you're not?" Riley demanded.
Paul shook his head. "Of course I am, we all are. But you're identifying with Dale to the point where you're thinking he'll react as you would. We're not about to do anything to hurt him, you know that, and yes, Dale isn't the standard customer. But this is the programme, it's carefully planned, and you've seen this work for a long time for a lot of people. He's a CEO and he's here to do the programme."
"Dale isn't 'people'." Riley said flatly. "And this is not going to work. You know it and you're still doing it, and I think it sucks."
"I'm done." He said flatly. "It's finished. The shelter's good but I made a complete pig's ear of the whole thing."
Dale drew back from Paul's outstretched hands and Flynn gripped his shoulder too hard to pull away from, steering him past Paul and putting him down in a kitchen chair. Dale heard a tap run, and a moment later a glass of water landed on the table in front of him and a cold, wet towel was run over the back of his neck, making him jump.
Paul was awfully hard to fend off, no matter how much you didn't want him to do whatever he was doing. Peeled out of the shirt, the towel used to wipe a face Dale realised was stiffening with sunburn, and an equally overheated torso, Dale found himself answering mechanically and bitterly.
"Done?" Paul asked. "You mean finished?"
Dale didn't answer him. Paul put a hand around the back of his neck and Dale put his head down on the table on his folded arms. After a minute Paul leaned down and hugged him, kissed the top of his head and let him go, getting to his feet.
"I'd like the lift to Cheyenne airport please." he said mostly to the table. "I've done six weeks here. I'll negotiate with Jeremy Banks-"
Flynn shook his head, still with the crisp tone that was one step from a bark.
"Why did that happen?"
"Come here." he said quietly. Dale lowered his arms and came to stand beside his chair. Less rigid, eyes less wild than ten minutes ago. Riley was right: they'd spooked him thoroughly. Flynn took Dale's nearest hand and drew him down on the arm of his chair as he did with Riley, wrapping an arm around his waist. Dale was getting better at this; he didn't flinch away although he went stiff. Not rejection, not even necessarily discomfort: they were learning that about him: simply not knowing how to respond.
"What set it off?" Flynn asked just as quietly. Dale shook his head.
"Work projects." Dale admitted almost under his breath. "Where I needed to go. What threads I had to pick up."
"Because you've failed?" Flynn asked crisply. Dale gave him an unwilling shrug.
"You should be working harder, you should be trying harder, you should be succeeding." Flynn said for him when he trailed off. "Where do those thoughts come from, Dale?"
"And that they have to make a change for themselves." Flynn said succinctly. "Yes, exactly. When we structure you, you're managing perfectly. You're calm, you're used now to taking care of yourself when we keep you in a routine, you're clear on how relaxed and calm feel, you're physically fit again. If that support's taken away?"
Or at all.
And the self disgust in his voice was painful.
Flynn opened the fridge and poured a glass of milk, handing it to him.
Dale took them without comment, watching Flynn light the old fashioned lamp on the desk.
"Right." Flynn agreed quietly. "And what rules did you break?"
Palms prickling, stomach tight, Dale somehow bent across Flynn's lap and folded his arms on the seat of the couch, feeling Flynn's hands take his waist and lift him further over as simply and easily as if he weighed nothing at all, until he lay with his legs trailing down, toes braced against the floor, butt raised and extremely accessible on Flynn's lap. One hand rested heavily on the small of his back and the other pushed up the trailing hem of his t shirt, slipped fingers under the waistband of his shorts and drew them down, pulling them as far as his knees.
He saw Dale's initial moment of 'why your room?' and then light dawn as Dale remembered his threat from last time. And winced, visibly, although he had too much pride to argue. He moved slowly and Flynn heard the creak as he started upstairs.
Which meant he wasn't being allowed back to his own room. Dale dressed quickly, somewhat embarrassed by that. Riley was coming down the landing when Dale emerged from Flynn's room, looking past him at the cot and gave a long, low whistle.
"You what?" Riley demanded, starting to laugh. "You're kidding!"
"I'm not." Dale said dryly, "I was half way down the valley thinking there was no one else for miles, and this voice just echoed off the hills out of nowhere, Dale Edward Aden…. "
"I got walloped for it." Dale admitted. "And we talked. I felt better about it by the time we went to bed – I'll be ok. I'll get over it, it's a learning curve."
"I'm going down to the falls today," he announced to Flynn and Jasper, sitting at the table. "Want to flush the last of the sheep out of the woods, so I'll take the dogs. I'll check the rockslides while I'm down there."
"Do not swim." Paul said very firmly, putting plates down on the table. "When I was up there the other day the falls were gushing down, there's been a lot of rain up in the mountains. Good morning you, I heard where you got to last night."
Dale, flushing as he edged past Paul to get to his seat, jumped at the mild and well placed swat on a still tender place and hurriedly sat down. Paul took his own seat, passing Dale a plate of toast.
"I'll do the east ride this morning then," Flynn said crisply, "Bandit had the mares right out on the south west range last night, so none of them are about to foal, they'll be all right until tomorrow. Dale, after yesterday and last night, you stay in the house with Paul today."
Dale's jaw opened and Riley caught his eye, giving him a brief look that Dale couldn't read.
"That's not our decision to make," Flynn began. Riley shook his head, cutting him off.
"And Dale will be elusive and polite to him and then go off and chew himself to bits out of sight." Riley said flatly. "You know he will. He doesn't need a mentor, he needs a Top. He doesn't need someone to check in with, or someone to talk to, or someone to check on goals with, our other clients aren't brats. He NEEDS a Top. Someone who can handle him the way that you do when he starts to come apart. That's what's helping him and that's what's made the difference to him. You're never going to teach Banks how to do that! And that's still missing the major point. No Top worth the name would let a brat go back into that lifestyle anyway."
"Riley..." Flynn began heavily. Riley shrugged off his hands.
"You wouldn't let me. There isn't a ring on my hand, and you still wouldn't let me. Not you, not Paul, not Jas."
"Dale isn't you."
Riley shook his head. "Dale is never going to be ok going back to that job no matter how well you teach him. You've said he was in it for all the wrong reasons, he doesn’t really even want to be there. If he goes back I give it three months tops before you have to go out to wherever he is – Japan, London, New York, wherever, and bring him back here and pick up the pieces all over again."
"No, we can't," Riley agreed, "But we can talk to him about it and help him see the whole picture. If it was me – or Gerry, or Tom, or Roger, or David, or any other brat who's lived here, you wouldn't handle it like this. Philip wouldn't handle it like this."