Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chapter 10


It had been more than six weeks by Dale's estimation. The minimum time period before release that Flynn had mentioned when Dale first arrived. It was hard to know where six weeks had gone to. When he looked in the mirror in the morning to shave, Dale was aware that even he could see the evidence of change, and that the change was good.

He was tanned instead of office white from spending every day outside. With Paul's cooking and Flynn's nagging to eat and eat properly, he had filled out so that his ribs were no longer clearly visible, and muscles being worked all day, every day, were beginning to square off and gain definition beneath his shirt. His dark hair had grown past its usual regimented cut and hung long on his collar and back from his eyes, and while he rarely had time to stand and look, he was aware that the face in the mirror looked less old, less lined and more alive than he was used to. The daily wear of jeans and boots and even a hat, were familiar and comfortable. Dale was aware he slept well, he was hungry for meals, and the days went quickly while he worked with whoever he was partnered with. Most often Flynn, but regularly Jasper too if the day was spent far out on the ranch, and Paul or Riley if the work was a short task around the home pastures.

All in all, it convinced Dale of just how low he had come in New York. He winced to think of how deeply in denial he had been when he first arrived at the ranch: not just from obstinacy but from having lost touch so completely what 'well' and 'calm' and 'rested' actually felt like. That state was still, to an extent, a novelty rather than normality. Flynn talked to him not a few times about accustoming himself to it being normality, and working on sustaining that normality: protecting it so that if he needed to push himself, he did not go too far beyond the bounds and could find his way back. That was a challenge to take back to work when the time came, but aware that it was still an effort, still new ground, Dale pushed that to the back of his mind. The idea of living a day at a time, in the here and now, was something he was coming to understand.

It was therefore like a shock of cold water the day that he helped Flynn unload the last of the wood planks from the four by four they had driven very carefully up through the pastures to the east where one of the cattle shelters stood in need of repair, and Flynn said calmly, "You'll know where to find this and what to do when you come up here tomorrow."

Dale looked at him, hit in the stomach by the implications of that.

"I'm going to do it?"

"Yes." Flynn slammed the rear doors of the four by four and waited for Dale to climb back in the passenger seat. "You've been working with me for a good while now, you know what to do. I think you're ready to try a job on your own."

And just like that, all sense of peace evaporated.

It was six weeks: they were at the official finish line. Any time from here onwards was extra, the equivalent of summer school for a failing student. Time to be independent, to take the last step alone and be ready to go back to work. Dale sat in turmoil, answering Flynn mechanically as they drove slowly down over the rough ground towards the ranch. How long from here? A week? Before Flynn sat him down and explained that yes, he was ready to leave and it was time. Automatically Dale's mind switched gears, moving back to work mode. From Cheyenne airport to New York – a flurry of meetings to pick up the dropped threads, then no doubt a rapid series of visits to central projects in Europe and the states to check on how things had changed in his absence… there were a lot of things to think about.

He was quiet in thought while they washed up and ate dinner, although he found it hard to eat much, and when Flynn sent him up to bed, for the first time in some weeks, he lay awake, mind churning.

Downstairs, Riley gave Flynn an extremely meaningful look. Flynn sighed and dropped down in an armchair, snagging Riley's belt to pull him onto the arm of the chair beside him.

"He is still a client, Ri, and he wants to go back to his field of work. We've talked about it; this has always been the next step of the programme. Especially for a client with the kind of problems Dale's got. He's ready to move on to the next stage, you've said so yourself."

"This is not going to work." Riley said grimly, looking from Paul to Jasper and back to Flynn. "You can all keep that in mind, because I will be saying I told you so."

"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."

He slid off Flynn's lap and walked away towards the kitchen and Flynn looked at Jasper, who met his eyes and said nothing, and Paul, who winced.

"I know. Can I think it sucks too, even if I still think we need to do it?"


If it hadn't been for Flynn's insistence, Dale would have gone up to work on the shelter as soon as he was awake the following morning. Eating breakfast was almost impossible. He was not further reassured that Flynn let that go instead of insisting that Dale ate as he usually did. As soon as he did leave the house – with food that Paul had packed for him and with clear instructions he was to be back no later than three pm- he saddled Hammer and rode directly out to the shelter.

As a mathematical problem it was easy: Dale had a clear eye for angles and details, and he had helped enough with the many other shelters scattered over the ranch to know exactly what to do.  He was already planning it as he rode, and he had an uncomfortable but certain knowledge that his sense of being on autopilot – that odd sensation of detachment that came with speed, efficiency and dissociation – was firmly switched on and had been on since he first woke that morning. He spent some time fighting it on the way up to the shelter, and the ride helped, but within an hour of starting work on the shelter, Dale had lost the battle and was past noticing.

It was a little after noon when he paused, attention called by an odd sensation that penetrated his concentration. He straightened up, wondering what it was, and then doubled over as he threw up into the grass. His stomach clenched for some minutes, he retched until he had nothing left to bring up and his eyes streamed, and it took time to bring himself back under control. He was left shaking, a foul taste in his mouth, shirt splashed, stomach wrenched, and with a bitter sense of shock and realisation as he looked up at the shelter. It was almost complete. It was immaculate work. And he had failed utterly.

The first time they had allowed him off the leash, taken away the scaffolding they had put around him in preparation for him to graduate, he had proved he had learned nothing at all. The sense of sheer failure was appalling. Dale took a few steps away into the grass and dropped down on to it. Six weeks for nothing. The thought of how much money Jerry Banks had spent to send him here – of Paul's disappointment. Riley's. Returning to tell Jasper how utterly useless he was…. and Flynn. Dale shut his eyes.

There was the natural and awful little urge to cover it up. To try to undo the mess. Dale knew perfectly well that had Flynn come to work on this shelter with him, it would have been the best part of a day's work for both of them. There was another, much darker urge, to simply ride over towards the tops where the high drops were, and where the grey rocky cliffs grew up out of the hills. Turn the horse free and then finish this entire mess that was years old, this walking disaster and bitter incapability that was Dale Aden. Dale wrestled with himself for several long minutes, aware that both urges were cowardice in its worst form. Then he got up and finished the shelter, neither slowing himself nor caring that his stomach was starting to burn with acid in a way that used to scare him into remembering the past ulcer. It was barely half past twelve when he re mounted Hammer and turned him down towards the ranch house.

It took half an hour to reach the home pastures, and Dale could see Flynn's distant figure working with one of the two year olds in the training pen. He untacked Hammer, rubbed him down and turned him loose in the corral before he walked into the yard, going straight to Flynn. Flynn looked around and Dale saw Flynn's eyes take him in, from the vomit splashes on his jeans that couldn't be hidden, to the awful, obvious fact of the time the task had taken.  

"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."

Flynn said nothing and his face didn't change. Then he went to unbridle the colt he had been working, let him loose and vaulted over the fence, taking Dale by the shoulder and walking him towards the house. He dropped the bridle on the porch and leaned against the kitchen doorway to pull his boots off, waiting until Dale did the same. The kitchen was shaded, Paul was sitting and scribbling in one of his notebooks at the table, and got up at the sight of them.

"Oh dear. Dale, sit down–"

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.

"Wipe your face." Flynn ordered.

He disappeared into the family room and Paul took the chair next to Dale, looking at him in silence for a moment and then turning Dale towards him to unbutton his shirt.

"Come here honey. I'm guessing the repair job didn't go well."

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.

"The shelter's done."

"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.

"It's all right. This happens, we all make mistakes, this is not a disaster."

No, it was total failure. Pure and simple.

There were a few minutes of quiet, while Paul moved around in the kitchen, then Flynn pulled out the chair beside Dale and Dale responded to Flynn's hand on his shoulder, drawing him back. He sat up and shut his eyes while Flynn smoothed some kind of cold lotion over his face and then over his neck and arms, a firm but not a painful touch. Paul put a bowl of soup down on the table in front of him and took the other chair.

"You need something in your stomach to settle it."

Why? What was the point? Dale mechanically picked up the spoon.

"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 interrupted him with a growl that made Dale jump. "Eat."

There was something about that tone that it was not possible to argue with. Dale found himself hastily shutting up and eating soup, and Paul said nothing but sat with one hand slowly and steadily rubbing over Dale's back.

The soup killed the gnawing in his stomach and stopped the nausea. Cooling down, starting to shiver a little, Dale put the spoon back when he had finished and looked rather tentatively at Flynn who handed him a t shirt.

"Put that on and come with me."

Dale pulled the t shirt over his head and got up, following Flynn into the family room. He expected to head towards the study. Flynn stopped at the nearest leather sofa, clicking his fingers towards it.


Dale slowly took a seat, watching Flynn take the armchair opposite.

"What did you not get right today?" he asked bluntly. Dale gave him a bitter look.

"Absolutely bloody everything."

Flynn shook his head, still with the crisp tone that was one step from a bark.

"That won't do, Dale."

It was a very warning tone and Dale felt his stomach crunch in response and the answers fall out of his mouth without conscious thought.  

"Obsessing……. Too much, too fast, too exact."

"Why did that happen?"

Because I'm useless, and we know this!

"Insufficient self control." Dale said flatly.

There was a sense of tension; he was suddenly aware that he was pushing, and that Flynn knew, and that they were moving as if they were involved in a familiar game or a dance where the steps were known to them both. He had no idea why. His eyes abruptly stung and his throat closed on a sudden, powerful urge to blurt out everything – the sense of autopilot he couldn't fight, the knowledge he had failed to learn, that awful moment of trying to decide what to do – but that too was cowardice. He swallowed hard, forcing it down, breathed calmly and compelled his hands and his body to relax and to obey him, meeting Flynn's eyes.

"Sufficiency of carpentry though. I suppose that's a plus."

Verbal right hook. Flynn didn't even blink.

"Corner. That one over there, hands on your head."

Dale looked back at him for a moment, then slowly got up and went to the appointed corner, standing about a foot from the wall and lifting his hands to clasp them on top of his head. Flynn had made him stand like this a few times. It took a little more concentration, a little more effort, and for some bizarre reason even taking up the position was calming. The house was silent apart from the steady ticking of the clock. Vision limited to the blank wall in front of him, Dale found his chest slowly opening, his breathing easing in a way that made him realise how fast it had been, his shoulders relaxing down from a clench. It was mad that this should help so much, but it did. Every time.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Flynn moved a little in the armchair behind him. His presence was equally calming. Dale took a few more deep breaths and let go, abruptly feeling far, far better. It was a few minutes more before he heard Flynn's voice. 

"Can you talk civilly now?"

"Yes sir."

The sir came unconsciously and quite automatically. Flynn, watching the slim figure standing against the wall, as quiet and still as a Rodin statue, didn't think Dale had even heard it slip out.

"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.  

"Tell me about what went wrong?"

There was no blame in his voice, but Flynn still saw Dale flush and look down. Otherwise he was as calm as if he was at a board meeting, and that wasn't good either.

"I messed up completely. I couldn't control myself, I didn't even realise it had gone wrong until I was sick. I was on autopilot all day and I knew I was, but I couldn't make myself stop."

"What set it off?" Flynn asked just as quietly. Dale shook his head.

"I don't know. I couldn't do it."

Ok. That wasn't a great starting place, but Dale didn't get the concept of failure and how to deal with it. That had been Flynn's biggest reservation for trying this experiment with him after six weeks of ensuring he couldn't fail and didn't face that pressure. But Jasper had felt strongly about this, and Paul had agreed with him: this was one of the biggest problems Dale had, and they had to open his eyes to it; and eventually, Flynn had voted with them against Riley, who had other reservations about this particular exercise.

"Dale, we do this with every client we have." he said gently. "When they're settled in, when they're coping well with support, especially if they're clients like you who have problems managing their own time, we ask them to go and do a task on their own. We don't structure it for them or talk it through unless they ask us to, and you, like most of our clients, didn't even think to ask. You're an independent guy with a heck of a lot of skills, very used to thinking for yourself. Can you see why we do it?"

"To see how close they are to being ready to leave." Dale said quietly.

Flynn looked up at him, startled, light dawning. Then he put a hand up to turn Dale's chin very firmly towards him.

"No. No, not at all. I told you clearly from the start, I will tell you when we're getting close to you being ready to leave; you won't have to guess. We'll talk then and only then about the exit criteria. And when I do tell you, you'll still have a good couple of weeks work ahead of you to prove me right before you do go anywhere. You're nowhere near that point yet, mate. This is just the next step forward, not the end of the road."

He saw the tidal wave of relief in Dale's face and kept hold of his chin, starting to make sense of the day from Dale's ever complicated perspective.

"What have you been thinking about all day? And don't even think of bullshitting me."

"Work projects." Dale admitted almost under his breath. "Where I needed to go. What threads I had to pick up."

"And you couldn't have asked me if you were right that this was the final test?" Flynn demanded, curtly enough for Dale to be clear what he meant. "Since when do you not talk to me about things that are stressing you?"

He saw Dale start to flush, with an increasing sense of satisfaction that Dale had pulled his mind up and off the flashing red sign of 'failure'.

"It's been six weeks," Dale said eventually and awkwardly. "Any time from here onwards is….."

"Because you've failed?" Flynn asked crisply. Dale gave him an unwilling shrug.

"I shouldn't be finding this harder than other clients of yours, I've got the basic intelligence-"

"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?"

"Obsessing." Dale admitted, letting his breath go in a rush. "That was all I did, all day. I went straight back to all the things I know I shouldn't do and I know why I shouldn't do them!"

"Why do we do this to clients?" Flynn said firmly, not letting go of Dale. He could almost see Dale struggling to compute. "Come on Dale. You're as perceptive as all get out. Why would you do this with someone you were working with? If you're teaching project managers, do you spoon feed or empower?"

"People learn better for themselves." Dale caught that line thrown to him and reeled it straight in. "And without me there to walk them through something, they realise what's involved."

"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?"

"I revert straight back to what I was doing before." Dale said at once, less bleakly. Flynn nodded.

"Yes. EVERY client we've ever done this with has to some extent reverted on this exercise. Some less, some even more than you have. This was to prove to you that you have to consciously learn to internalise and use the framework we've been teaching you. And for you to see exactly what happens when you don't. One of the things we want from every client before we even start thinking about them being ready to go back to work, is that they prove they can work alone, consistently over a good period of time, without whatever their particular problems are. That's the next step."

The failure part was deliberate, and they set each client up for it. It was a shock tactic, aimed to convince the client of the need to make the effort, and to remind them of the reality of what their previous problems were like. This was a rough exercise for most clients, and it was harsh- to all intents and purposes handing over sufficient rope and tempting the client to hang themselves to get the lesson needed – but that shock was very effective. And at this stage, when they were feeling better and forgetting just how bad things had been, they often needed that shock to motivate the effort not just to recover but to start making permanent lifestyle changes.

"We won't do that to you again." Flynn said firmly, keeping his arm around Dale. "The next task we ask you to do won't be completely alone. We'll plan it together, I'll check in on you, we'll take it step by step and it's going to take time for you to learn how to do it, just like getting this far has taken time. You'll get it, just like you've got this far, and you'll succeed in your time, when you're ready. You are not in any trouble for what happened today, you did nothing wrong, you have nothing to blame yourself for. We put you into a situation you weren't ready to cope with because we needed you to see for yourself that you weren't ready. That's all. No blame, no failure. You just are not ready for this yet. Do you understand that?"

Dale nodded slowly. Flynn squeezed his waist and got up, pulling Dale with him.

"You can come with me then. I need to ride out and have a look at the mares and check the creeks down there."

A couple of hours riding, and on flat enough ground that they could give the horses and Dale both a thorough gallop and a work out, and he would be calm enough and tired enough to eat and to sleep tonight, and the day would be over and successfully done. Paul caught Flynn's eye in the kitchen as he put his boots on, mouthing over Dale's head.

Did we get away with it?

Flynn quietly raised a hand with two fingers crossed. 

I hope so.



Flynn went out for a walk late that evening when the house was quiet and the others were asleep. It was something they all did at times: they were all four of them lone wolves, although he and Jasper liked to wander by night where Paul and Riley craved being alone in the day in their favourite places on the ranch to think and to relax. On this night, he walked past the corral where the horses looked up at him in curiosity, still like grey statues in the moonlight, and made his way on down the drive and up the gradually sloping pastures to the southwest where in the basin of the hills that led up to the valley, the airstrip lay in the green plateau.

Bandit had the brood mares not far from here tonight: there was not a breath of wind tonight and sound was carrying for miles, Flynn could hear the far off whicker and occasional snort of the mares although he could not see them. He and Dale had ridden over the land further south that afternoon, where the creeks cut the grass and where Bandit kept a fierce eye out over his new offspring. He was obviously moving the herd to higher ground at night, picking his shelter and his watch point carefully. Flynn walked up the far side of the basin, climbing when the hill grew steep, and took one of his favourite seats on the ranch. Half way up the hill in the deep, night fragrant grass with the roll of the pastures spread out to the north ahead of him, and the mountains at his back. Moonlight was strong overhead but the sky was grey blue, too lit to show stars and turning everything on the ground below to shades of silver and grey.

Which included, a while later, a figure in silver and grey jogging efficiently and fast along the far edge of the plateau.

Flynn, sitting with his mind wandering while he chewed on a strand of grass, saw the flicker of movement and his eyes sharpened with disbelief and then a rush of shocked, exasperated concern. He raised his voice, using the carrying stillness of the night and the acoustics of the hills behind him, and it echoed, amplified and irate.


Dale's crisp, rhythmic stride was interrupted by a disorganised leap directly into the air of shock and alarm.

Flynn stood up on the hillside, seeing Dale spin around, searching what was apparently an empty valley. When he moved, Dale's eyes picked him out and recognition came into his face as Flynn came down towards him, changing from a moving shadow to a recognisable form. It took him several minutes to walk down, and eventually Dale came towards him, slowly, hands on his hips in a way that said he was struggling to catch his breath. They met in the middle of the plateau, and while Dale was trying to keep his head up, Flynn could see sheer embarrassment mixed with the alarm.

"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded.

It's called running?

Dale swallowed, aware this was not a diplomatic response.

"I wasn't sleeping too well."

Or at all.

Damn, Flynn thought silently.

"Did you come to find me?" he said aloud, shortly. Dale shook his head, apologetically but honestly.

"I thought you were asleep."

"So you snuck out?"


Riley would have fudged and argued and complained. Dale said it so frankly; no reserves, no attempts to excuse himself.

"Home." Flynn said shortly, indicating the direction of the ranch.

Dale turned without question, automatically starting to jog, and was jolted into nearly losing his footing again in response to the bark behind him.


It was not a pleasant walk down the mile back to the ranch. By the time he was halfway there, Dale's attention was completely on the man walking a few feet behind him, and the burn in his stomach that came from furtive guilt had given place entirely to an overwhelmingly robust anxiety about what Flynn was going to do.

As if you don't know, his conscience said bluntly. He warned you clearly.  

"I didn't know what else to do." he said out loud after a while.

Flynn heard the tone, and while with Riley he would have kept up the very strong act of displeasure, Dale opening up at any time was not something he was prepared to discourage. He lengthened his stride, coming to walk beside Dale instead of behind him.

"What were you thinking about?"

Dale shut his mouth, thinking that over. "This morning." he said eventually. "Which was stupid, and the more I thought about it the more stupid it got."

"Why stupid?"

Dale took a breath, trying to find the words. It helped, being outside, not having to look at Flynn as they walked over the grass.

"Because you explained and I understood. You said I had nothing to feel guilty about. I ought to be able to accept that for myself, put it away and move on. I can't make myself do it, I've tried practicing it for years, but…"

It just went round and round and round, the guilt, the worry, the knowledge that adults had to just deal with things like this and hide it if they couldn't.

"I distract myself." he said in the end. "Try to run away from it."

And the self disgust in his voice was painful.

Oh Riley was going to thoroughly enjoy saying 'I told you so'. Flynn walked with Dale across the yard, past the corral and up the steps to the silent house, putting a hand on Dale's shoulder as they reached the kitchen.

"How is your stomach?"

Dale hesitated, not wanting to admit to it, then caught Flynn's eye.

"Sore." he said unwillingly. "The acid's pretty bad."

Flynn opened the fridge and poured a glass of milk, handing it to him.

"Go and sit in the study and wait for me. Take that with you."

The house was dark and Dale didn't put lights on, finding his way through the family room to the study door. The scent of leather and books in there was becoming familiar. He hesitated for a moment once inside. There was no doubt whatever in his mind as to what would happen, and he actually felt better about the fact that it would. Sitting felt wrong, disrespectful under the circumstances, but Flynn had not told him to do anything more. Dale perched uneasily on the edge of the sofa and sipped milk. Flynn came in a moment later, closed the door and held out two pills to Dale.

"Antacids. Swallow those."

Dale took them without comment, watching Flynn light the old fashioned lamp on the desk.

"You and Riley were both paddled for leaving the house at night, not long ago." He said when it was lit, coming to sit on the sofa beside Dale. "And we've talked before about you going out of the house at night to run. I wasn't here, but that doesn't excuse you. And just so we're clear I don't have some weird anti jogging fetish, why don't I want you to run at night?"

Dale swallowed, finding the reasons without effort. "Reinforcing bad sleeping habits. Bad exercise habits. Using over exercising to blot out problems instead of talking about them or dealing with them."

"Right." Flynn agreed quietly. "And what rules did you break?"

It was that simple, and that simplicity in itself was deeply, peculiarly calming. No matter what the circumstances, no matter how crazy things appeared, the rules stood like icebergs in the sea, unmoved. It had seemed insane at first: now Dale found it stripped away the uncertainty and the stress and brought things back to a level he had a clear grip on. Like someone saying out loud: Put that down; it's my problem now.

"Not running without asking first." he said, aware his voice had stabilised. "Not getting out of bed unless to the bathroom. Talking you to if you I can't sleep or I'm worrying – Paul if you're not there."

"Yes. Paul's told you before now to wake him if I'm not there," Flynn confirmed, watching him. "You did know what to do; you didn't want to do it. And you know there are consequences for breaking those rules. Put the glass on the desk and take your jeans off."

This part never got any more comfortable, even when it was fully expected. Taking a breath, Dale got up and put the still full glass of milk on the big Admiral's desk, standing it on one of the cup mats. Then he unbuttoned his jeans, slid them down and stepped out of them, folding them all too neatly as a means of filling a few very awkward seconds. Flynn hadn't got up from the couch, nor made any attempt to retrieve either of the two paddles in the desk drawer. Dale wondered for a second if he would be asked to fetch one, then Flynn held out a hand to him and drew him over to his right hand side, patting his knee.

"Come on then."

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.

Bare was awful. Dale swallowed on a mew of acute embarrassment, with an effort controlling all urges to protest or to resist. He had to hand it to Flynn though: there was no more acutely focusing position in the world than this one. And it was made abruptly still more acute by Flynn's palm resting across both bare buttocks, a gentle and heavy weight that made Dale struggle not to clench from neck to ankles.

His hand? That seemed appallingly childish. Dale found himself close to squirming in sheer mortification. To be simply spanked, bare like a disobedient child – for a start this would be symbolic more than painful, and in a way that made it worse than the paddles which seriously did sting. Not even a real punishment. Then Flynn's palm raised and fell across his left buttock in a loud, sharp crack, and Dale felt his eyes involuntarily open up like saucers.

THAT's his hand?!

Slow, steady and extremely hard smacks continued to fall in a rhythm that didn't allow Dale to catch his breath, covering both sides and every available inch. Within seven or eight Dale's backside was blazing, he was aware that he was involuntarily flinching, his hips twitching and jumping over Flynn's lap, his legs becoming restless where his toes braced against the floor. Flynn didn't appear to have noticed. In another ten, Dale was actively jumping at each swat and crossing his ankles to try and cope with the increasing smart, beginning to pant and hold his breath to swallow back yelps. Each swat added to the smart left by the previous ones, it was getting harder and harder not to wriggle or to reach back, and it just went on, and on and on… Dale found himself squirming against the heavy hand on the small of his back and Flynn's hand slid across his waist, taking a firmer grasp on his hip to hold him still, and then his right hand moved lower and the hard swats began to address the lower slopes of Dale's backside and the tops of his thighs.

Riley would have been in tears by the time it was half over. Flynn, aware with Dale of the reserve that meant a slight kick and jerk was the equivalent of wild squirming from Riley, walked the line of not being tipped into being heavy handed through Dale's apparent lack of response and knowing Dale needed this to be enough. Riley, who was open hearted and had strong emotions, would at times react to a dozen mild swats as a sound spanking, and find that fully sufficient. Dale needed to be pushed further and Flynn knew if he stopped too soon that Dale would dismiss it as inadequate and let nothing of his emotions or guilt go at all. And that was what this was mostly about.

There were no tears: Flynn didn't expect them and didn't push to the point of them as he would have done with Riley. He knew the tipping point came for Dale when some of the tension went out of his body and his breathing became longer and deeper, and that was when he delivered the last few, hard swats and stopped, letting Dale lay where he was for a minute while he rested his smarting hand on Dale's back, above his very red and hot buttocks.

"You keep the house rules, in particular about staying in bed at night." He said quietly and firmly. "If we need to talk about that one again, you'll be paddled. Is that clear?"

"Yes sir."

Voice uneven but quiet. Flynn put an arm under Dale's shoulders and Dale came unsteadily to his feet with Flynn, putting both hands behind him. That was the most expressive gesture he'd made yet, and Flynn put both arms around him, not deceived by the stillness of his face. Dale didn't hold on to him, but he turned his head and Flynn felt the weight of it rest on his shoulder. He ducked his own head impulsively and kissed the top of the dark hair, hugging the younger man tightly, and after a moment more Dale's arms awkwardly came around him and held on.

"Go upstairs," Flynn said into Dale's ear when he felt Dale's breathing ease out. "Take that milk with you, get ready for bed and wait in my room. I'll be up in a minute."

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.

The fold away cot had been used maybe once or twice in the last year, and was stiff when Flynn pulled it out of the store room off the stable. It got used for a variety of things: mostly nightwatch over a foaling mare, but there had been one other client of Flynn's he'd tried this with, with good success. He collected Dale's pillow and quilt from his room as he passed it and set the cot up on the other side of his own bed under the window, making it rapidly.

"In." he said bluntly when he was done. Riley would have argued and pleaded. Dale silently came to him and lay down, settling on his stomach and letting Flynn pull the quilt over him. Flynn was aware of his dark eyes still open as he got ready for bed himself, not bothering to put a lamp on. When he was in sleep wear and unbuckling his watch, he came quietly to sit on the side of the cot by Dale.

"How much of this was about feeling bad over yesterday?"

Riley probably couldn't have answered that question, no matter how willing he was to try. Dale wasn't Riley. Flynn saw him processing and knew Dale was ahead of him.

"A lot. That was why I couldn't sleep."

Yeah, well we won't go into the question of 'and what's a sure way you know to get a spanking around here when you feel you need one?'

Flynn put his watch on the cabinet, still watching Dale.

"This isn't a one way street, Dale. You say the discipline helps you feel calmer, handle guilt, feel more together. I get that, we all do. You don't need to manipulate me or anyone else if you feel you want it or need it, and you don't have to set out to do something wrong in order to justify it. It's ok just to ask. I won't promise I'll agree every time, but I do promise to help."

Riley would have had an apoplectic fit at the idea, and it wasn't something he would have suggested to Riley. Dale absorbed that in silence, still watching him. And then nodded, slowly.

"Have you ever done that?"

Flynn gave him a faint nod. "Maybe once or twice. I won't say I personally ever found it easy but Philip understood and I knew I could always go to him if something was bothering me. It's different for everyone. You just have to find out what's right for you."

Flynn put a hand out, pushing his hair back from his forehead. A brief, heavy and very comforting touch.

"Don't chew on yourself. Let it go for tonight, get some sleep, nothing awful has happened. It's going to be all right."

There was so much certainty in his voice, it was convincing. Dale lay where he was, watching the outline of Flynn across the room as he settled on his own bed a few feet away.

Philip understood and I knew I could always go to him if something was bothering me.

Flynn must have been in his late teens or early twenties when Philip was living here in this house, and it was easily apparent from Flynn's voice that he'd loved Philip. How, Dale wasn't sure. It was hard to imagine how things had been with the elder man left alone with a houseful of young men, some of whom stayed and some of whom moved on. Some of whom, from what Riley said, had partnered up. He'd mentioned that Philip was a match maker. It was hard to know what had made Flynn, Riley, Jasper and Paul stay together as they had. And it seemed inconceivably rude to ask.

Dale didn't sleep too well that night, and it was only close to dawn when he finally dozed off. Flynn was bare chested and in jeans when he shook Dale's shoulder to wake him, what seemed like only minutes later.

"Breakfast. Leave your pillow and quilt here for tonight, you'll be needing them."

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 didn't?"

Dale grimaced and walked past him towards the stairs.

"Where did you go?" Riley asked, following.

"The airstrip," Dale said briefly. "Jogging. Flynn was sitting up on the hill and I ran right by him."

"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
…. "

"Divine intervention." Riley said, still laughing. "I'm not surprised he made you sleep in his room, he'd have murdered me. Did he say how long for?"

Dale shook his head. Riley hit his shoulder gently and with sympathy.

"At least he doesn't snore. Are you ok?"

It was a serious question, and Dale paused, turning to look at Riley who had abruptly lost most of the smile.

"Are you? I know how I would have been after yesterday. If you felt bad enough to jog-"

"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."

It was difficult to read Riley's face, but for a moment he looked thoroughly upset which sent an answering bolt of unease through Dale. Then Riley gave him a half shrug and a much less real smile and walked ahead of him into the kitchen.

"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.

"Jas is driving up into town this morning if anyone needs anything."

"Antibiotics." Flynn said promptly. Jasper nodded.

"Sheep and horse. Yes. I'm going to put out the word for the shearers too, we'll be needing them in the next few weeks. Groceries. Dale, anything you need?"

Dale shook his head. "I'm fine thanks."

"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.

Flynn put a note pad and pen on the table when they finished clearing the table and Jasper and Riley disappeared out of the kitchen door. Dale, who had not got up from the table, gave him a look that he hoped wasn't nearly as pathetic as he felt.  

"I'd like a statement," Flynn said bluntly, "About exactly what you need to do at night if you're struggling, and why, and when it's a version Paul's happy with, you can copy it out fifty times. You do not leave the house today. If you're in any doubt about what you may or may not do then speak to Paul."

"Yes sir."

There was very little else to say. Dale was still more thrown by the arm that wrapped around him from behind and the rough kiss dropped on the top of his head as Flynn left.

Riley was waiting at the foot of the porch steps when Flynn came down them, and Flynn took his arm, signalling to him to be quiet. Riley let himself be led well out of earshot of the house, controlling himself with an effort until Flynn let him go. Then he spun around and exploded.

"Isn't it bad enough that you pushed him into going off and running last night without punishing him for it again today? It was your fault he did that, not his!"

"Yes, so I told him." Flynn said gently. "The writing will take him maybe an hour at the most. He didn't get a lot of sleep, he upset his stomach yesterday with the stress, he needs a quiet day not doing very much. That's all. You think Paul won't look after him?"

"I think he'll eat at himself for days now," Riley said bluntly. "And I don't think you realise how much, or how yesterday felt to him. I know how it would have felt to me."

"I know Dale too." Flynn said gently. "Yes, he's smarting and it's shaken him but I don't think this is something he can't handle. I think we can help him through, and I think like other clients he'll learn from it-"

"Why are we even doing this to him?" Riley interrupted sharply.  "It's cruel! He can't go back to what he did before! You know it, I know it!"

"That's not our decision to make," Flynn began. Riley shook his head, cutting him off.

"That has nothing to do with it! He's a brat for goodness sakes, we know it and he knows it. There is no WAY he can go back to doing what he did before! How is that ever going to happen? It's like saying ok, we know you're a giraffe but go back and keep on trying to be a dolphin, and do your best not to drown!"

"Giraffe…." Flynn repeated, thrown off track. Riley glared at him.

"You know what I mean! Do you think Dale is really going to survive with the kind of mentoring we've set up for other clients? A nightly email or a phone call?"

"We might be able to clue in someone close to him." Flynn said quietly. "We've done that before. Banks would be a good candidate."

"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."

Flynn shook his head, not unsympathetic. "We can't make that decision for him, half-pint."

"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."

"Ri!" Flynn said in protest. Riley shrugged and walked away, heading towards the corral.


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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