Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chapter 11

11




Riley, whenever he was confined to the house for the day, was usually distraught and miserable, and settling him to do lines could take a while. Paul started on the dishes, keeping an eye on Dale who sat quietly at the table with his face expressionless, writing in his immaculate, easy long hand, scoring out words in deft strokes and replacing them just as quickly, with a dispatch that suggested the paragraph was going to be released to the national press any minute.

"All right?" Paul asked gently when he stopped and stretched his hand. Dale glanced up and turned the paper for Paul to see.

It would have been a good press statement. It was concise, starkly truthful and Paul disliked it on sight. It was hard to explain why.

"All right." he said rather reluctantly. "Get that written out, and then we can go and do something more interesting."

Dale turned the paper back and began to write. He wrote like a machine: Paul dried dishes with a mildly horrified eye on the speed at which he turned out paragraph after paragraph. Once the dishes were put away he came to look over Dale's shoulder, resting a casual hand there and feeling the tension. Then he put both hands on Dale's shoulders and sat down beside him.


"Honey."

Dale paused, not lifting his head. Paul took the pen out of his fingers, turning him to look him in the eyes.

"Stop. You're not in any trouble, there's nothing to get this worked up about. This is obsessing."

But it needs to be done.

Paul, watching him, saw Dale's fingers twitch back towards the pen in anxiety to carry on with the task at hand. He put the pen on the counter behind him, out of reach, and turned the pages on the table face down, putting the writing out of sight.

"Tell me what you just wrote."

Dale looked at him, and then across to the sheets of paper. Paul shook his shoulder gently where his hand rested.


"I thought so. Not a word of that is going in, is it? This is a mechanical pattern you're losing yourself in, and that's all. What are you thinking about?"

Dale sat back, massaging his writing hand. Paul couldn't read his face; it was tense and blank, and his voice was politely impassive.   

"I don't know."

"Then think about it." Paul said firmly, getting up and taking the written pages with him.


He puttered around the kitchen for a few minutes, leaving Dale to sit. It had always worked before: they'd trained him over the past few weeks to calm himself down when he was made to sit and to stop all activity, and it usually oriented him fast. Within a few minutes he could see Dale was battling to stay sat down. One knee was jogging slightly, his shoulders were tight, and he was still rubbing at his hands, less to ease a writing cramp than to keep on moving. None of which were good signs. Paul mentally sighed and leaned against the counter, watching Dale fidget with a good deal of compassion.

"You do know Flynn wasn't upset with you? No one is. This is a logical consequence for overdoing it yesterday. If you're going to strain your stomach and overwork yourself then yes, you're going to have to pay for it by taking things easy the next day, but it's not a punishment." 

Dale nodded slowly, unsurprised. "I know."

"Yes, you always do understand what Flynn means, don't you?" Paul said gently. "What's bothering you?"


"I don't like not knowing what I'll be doing with the day." Dale said tonelessly, not looking at him.

"You know I don't do bullshit either?" Paul observed. Dale glanced up. Paul gave him a rather pointed nod.

"Yes. You won't be doing much of anything today, and you've been used to days of doing nothing at all when necessary, so it isn't going to kill you and it isn't what you're fretting about."

"I'd like to finish the writing." Dale said politely.

It was a request. Grave, courteous, perfectly reasonable, and neatly ending the conversation. All too Dale-like, in a way they'd spent weeks discouraging, and actually, under the well-mannered exterior, there was no little blatant cheek. Paul took the notepaper from the table, folded it and put it away, not sure what was going on but absolutely sure he wasn't co operating with it.

"No. You're not learning a thing from doing this and I'm not going to help you obsess. You can come and keep me company please, I've got the beds to change upstairs."

Dale got up without a word. No protest, no flicker of objection: just silent, detached obedience. Not even a grimace never mind a whine. It seemed odd to Paul to wish that he would.





Paul took his time upstairs, going from room to room to strip the bed linen and change each bed in turn, deliberately moving unhurriedly, letting the hush of the house sink into Dale in the hope it would help him settle himself. Dale made one silent attempt to help him, and then at the look Paul gave him, went to sit obediently on the window seat of each room, watching while Paul worked. Four rooms, each markedly different in type. Paul's room held several filled bookshelves and fat green plants on the windowsill in brightly coloured pots. Riley's room with the patchwork quilt and scattered cushions on the bed, a thick rug on the floor and a rocking chair by the low window. Flynn's room, stark with the heavier, darker wood of the furniture, no decorations but a pile of books by the bed and the cot bed against the window. And Jasper's room, which had an oddly shaped drum and stick hanging on one wall and a stringed instrument on the other, and several carved animals and staffs on the shelves and stood against the walls. A half finished piece of wood and a small knife lay on the bedside table. It was impossible to tell yet what the carving would be, but Paul did nothing more than flick sawdust and wood chippings into his palm and drop them in to the wastepaper basket as though it was something he did every day.

When Paul took his armful of linen out of Jasper's room Dale waited for him to lead the way down the stairs, but instead Paul dropped Jasper's linen onto the pile waiting in the hall and went left down the hallway, past the stairs and past the bathroom at the end of the hall. Around the corner stood another door and Paul opened it, going through into a room much larger than the others and brightly lit from the sun striking the front of the house. Two walls of the room were windowed and light streamed in on pale floorboards and an iron bedstead of a large double bed with a cream quilt draped over it. Paul began to strip the bed, leaving Dale to stand in the doorway, looking in silence from the cream painted doors of a huge, built in wardrobe that ran across part of one wall, to the shelves either side of a dressing table that held an array of photographs. Most were black and white, but some coloured ones occupied the shelves nearest the wall and Dale picked out Riley's lively face almost immediately, and then a much younger Paul, standing with his arm around the waist of a tall, elderly man with a shock of white hair. He moved a little closer, searching through the faces. All men, none of whom he recognised, until in a group he saw Flynn and Jasper with his hawk nose, stood together and leaning against a fence behind several other older men in jeans with open shirts.

Paul was stripping the bed without looking, and for a moment Dale nearly asked him, knowing Paul would have responded immediately and warmly, and would have been glad to tell him who was who in these pictures. But that meant conversation, communication, and today – now – that was impossible. He folded his arms instead, eyes finding one silver framed picture separate from the others and on one of the bedside tables. It was a rather grainy black and white picture, not a particularly good one, but it was of the porch beside the kitchen and two men were leaning on the rail together, one stooped with both elbows resting on it, the other stood beside him, one arm casually draped across the hips of his companion. The stooped one had the same shock of hair under a Stetson, but not yet white, and a grin that was directed at the man beside him and not at the camera. The one beside him had heavy brows in a straight line and deep set eyes that smiled without his mouth doing much moving.

"David and Philip." Paul said, seeing Dale looking. "That was Philip's favourite picture. He kept that one on his bedside every day I knew him."

Dale didn't respond, although it was hard to take his eyes from the picture.  Paul balled up the removed linen in his arms, herding Dale back towards the door.


"I change the linen in here every few weeks – not that it's used, but it gets dusty if I leave it any longer than that. Downstairs, I need to get this lot in to wash."

Dale trailed him silently downstairs, standing watching Paul sort sheets and slipping his hands into his pockets. The comment slipped out before he could stop it, nasty and acidly polite. 

"Is there anywhere you'd prefer I stood and did nothing, or will here be all right?"

Paul let go of the sheets he was separating, straightened up and gave Dale a look that in spite of himself made Dale suddenly swallow on a rise of shame.

"Yes you do know better." Paul said roundly. "You can sit on the step over there and behave yourself. Go on with you."

It should have been ridiculous; gentle, comfortable Paul sending him to sit on the step like a naughty five year old in a voice that was barely even cross. Yet somehow Paul was impressive. Dale moved silently, sitting down on the stone step, feet on the porch, elbows on his knees, and tried to get a grip on himself. Paul, watching him, saw his hand slip up to his mouth and a few minutes later saw he was biting his nails, chewing on them with a detached and tight look that said his mind was somewhere else entirely.




Jasper carried in several armfuls of shopping an hour later and dropped them on the hall table, an eye on Paul who was sitting at the kitchen table and writing, and Dale who was sitting on the kitchen step, shoulders tight, hands clasped over his knees, dark head down. Paul got up, coming through the front door and into the garage to help retrieve shopping bags, and Jasper raised an eyebrow at him.

"What happened?"

"I wouldn't let him obsess over lines." Paul followed his gaze back to the kitchen with more than slightly concerned exasperation. "He's been melting down since Flynn walked out of the door this morning. He was chewing his nails until I asked him to stop, and he's been keeping his hands rigidly still ever since. He's being so good I could swat him. He won't talk to me, I can hardly get him to look at me-"

"That's being good?" Jasper said quizzically, locking the four by four and leaning against it. Paul gave him a wry look.


"Outwardly. Yes, I've got that feeling that he's playing me up- not that it's easy to tell with Dale - but I can see the stress too and that really is genuine. He's worrying me, Jas. This is worse than I was expecting."

"If your instincts are telling you he's messing you about, the chances are pretty good that you're right." Jasper said calmly. "What have you done with him so far?"


"Nothing." Paul said bluntly. "I was damned if he was going to carry on writing or doing anything else in the way he was doing it, and Dale was determined that was how it was getting done. He goes at it like a machine. I've been making him sit, but it isn't settling him. If he was Riley, I'd take him out for a swim or run him around the home pasture a few times-"

"Which is the kind of thing Dale uses to self medicate and which he'd love right now." Jasper agreed. "And which is playing right into his hands. He's a powerful personality. We challenge him and he needs challenging. He doesn't like it and he's going to make you uncomfortable about doing it."

Paul nodded, but the concern was still in his face. "Fair enough, but we might have done better for Flynn to stay with him this morning. He handles Dale best in this kind of state; I can't read Dale like he can."


Jasper put a long arm around his shoulders, pulled Paul's dark head over and kissed his forehead, lightly and with love.

"If Dale's melting down then maybe he needs to be allowed to melt. Flynn wanted to push him this morning, and it's obvious it's working and we've still got more to work through from yesterday. We thought we would have. You're not allowing Dale to distract himself or swallow it down, and he's safe with you. When the pressure's up far enough the lid will come off and maybe he'll try talking to us."

"Riley was right about that wretched shelter." Paul said grimly. "He's eating himself to pieces about it."

"I think there's more to it than that." Jasper said, gathering up shopping.


"Like what?" Paul demanded. Jasper shrugged one bony shoulder, carrying shopping through to the hall.

"I'm guessing we'll see."






It was a vaguely hideous morning. Dale remembered little of it. A couple of times Paul handed him a mug of tea and made him drink it, he was aware of Paul cooking and of Paul's attempts to talk to him, but conversation was getting steadily harder. He was further aware of Jasper working in the barn across the yard, and of sitting on the kitchen stone step and forcing himself to sit still and sit quietly. He was still faintly tender where he sat, but that didn't help. Previously, every time, a spanking had left him calmed, oriented, as though the stress was released. Last night – for some reason it hadn't helped. He had felt better at the time, afterwards, but almost it hadn't gone deep enough, hadn't reached that awful pit of stress and anxiety still gnawing away in the pit of his stomach. Deep and dark and awful. And what did you do about that? What the hell did you do about that? 

He didn't see Flynn come into the corral, nor Jasper slip away from the barn, go into the corral and talk to Flynn there. The first he knew was Flynn jogging up the porch steps and demanding of him with a tone and a grim expression that made Dale jump:

"What's going on here?"

Sitting? Here? Doing nothing wrong whatever?

Dale raised his hands in a startled attempt to prove he wasn't now even biting his nails since Paul asked him not to.

"…….sitting?"

His voice sounded ridiculously tentative to his own ears. Flynn clicked his fingers, pointing at the kitchen.

"Corner. Hands on your head."

In that tone, Dale found his body moving, fast, before his brain fully processed the words.

It was symptomatic of this house that they had no reservations or embarrassment at all about discipline in any form in any place. The serious stuff usually took place in the study, but Dale had eaten in this kitchen or sat in the living room in the evenings with Riley facing the corner on more than one occasion and no one looked twice, any more than Paul looked now, continuing to cook while Dale stood rigidly to attention in the corner by the doorway, fingers laced on top of his head.

Which is unfair. I did nothing!

Hah. Who do you think you're kidding, Aden?

Not Flynn, obviously. Feeling his face grow steadily hotter, stomach churning, not able to continue any pretence at surprise or injustice, Dale waited, hearing Flynn heel off his boots and wash his hands, and Paul continue to knead bread dough at the counter. The smell of the yeast filled the kitchen, warm and reassuring.

There was the sound of paper scraping as it was gathered up and Dale's stomach clenched even tighter with an uncomfortable mixture of guilt and apprehension as he knew Flynn was looking through the writing assignment. Then the scrape of a kitchen chair.

"Dale."

Dale turned around, slowly lowering his hands. Flynn pointed to the floor beside him. Dale went to stand where he indicated, looking with deep reluctance at those awful, incriminating sheets of handwriting.

"What's this?" Flynn said very grimly. Dale swallowed, feeling his throat tighten on an answer Flynn really wasn't going to like.

Which is ridiculous! You did what? Wrote the damn lines like you were asked and caused no trouble whatsoever!

Who do you think you're bullshitting, Aden?

"The lines- er, the paragraph –"

"So I see." Flynn spread the pages out where Dale could see them. "What's wrong with it?"


"Paul wouldn't let me finish-" Dale began, and before the sentence was out saw Flynn push his chair back and reach out to take his wrist. He wasn't at all rough, but Dale suddenly found himself tipped over Flynn's lap, his hands against the cold of the kitchen tiles and Flynn's palm cracked down across the seat of his jeans, right across the most sensitive lower curves in four hard spanks. He found himself back on his feet a second later, breath stolen by the suddenness and the sheer smart of his backside, and Flynn looking straight at him with exactly the same expression. No anger, no warning, just grim in a way that suggested he was more than ready to deal with any further messing about that Dale cared to offer.

Dale took a breath, for dignity's sake resisting the urgent desire to put both hands back and rub his now very stinging bottom. It was staggering how that simple, sharp sting motivated so thoroughly.

"I was obsessing." he said quickly. "Getting lost in it. Paul tried to get me to stop."

"And?" Flynn asked in a way that made it very clear that Dale needed to be talking. Dale swallowed, words suddenly falling out without his permission as they always seemed to whenever Flynn looked at him like that.


"I didn't try. I didn't try to stop, I didn't try to calm down, I was too angry- not with Paul. Well some with Paul."

"Why?" Flynn asked in the same, short tone.


Dale looked back at him. Dark green eyes, waiting, expecting, alert and not in the slightest bit deceived. There was no way to answer that. Dale shut his mouth and dropped his eyes. A moment later Flynn got up, putting a hand on his shoulder. He steered Dale ahead of him into the study, closing the door behind them, and took Dale across to the leather couch where he took a seat, giving Dale a steady look.

"Last chance. Why were you angry with Paul?"

No. Even knowing the options, Dale dropped his gaze again, avoiding Flynn's. As he had once before, he had a brief sense of sitting next to a crazed driver, watching his actions without being able to make him stop.  

"Ok." Flynn said matter of factly. "Pull your jeans down."


Dale had no idea why he co operated with that; he did simply put his hands to the buttons of his jeans and slowly unfastened them, as if it was a better option to opening his mouth and talking – the idea of refusing never occurred to him. Still more slowly he pushed them down, and Flynn held out a hand to him. Somehow, Dale stepped to his right side and let Flynn guide him down over his lap, settling him with his butt up over Flynn's lap, spread out across the couch. And a moment later Flynn's fingers tucked under the waistband of his shorts and they were slid down to join his jeans at mid thigh, leaving him bare and sending a shockwave through him of vulnerability, embarrassment and no little sense of panic. Save that it was too late for that. He was intensely aware of one of Flynn's hands resting warmly against his back and the other laying itself lightly across his bare cheeks, which were suddenly and acutely sensitive, feeling the brush of cool air without the protective cotton of his shorts. He was still tingling from the few swats in the kitchen, still faintly tender from last night, and the sound spank that fell now cupped one cheek and stung far more compellingly, loud on bare skin.

"Ow!" Dale yelped involuntarily, and jumped as Flynn moved his hand to the other cheek and spanked it just as hard. How could just the palm of his hand sting so much?!

"Why were you upset with Paul?"

Still no anger; he said it calmly, the hands resting on him and keeping him laying face down draped over the jeaned knees, were warm, and strong, and gentle. Dale squirmed, not nearly enough to seriously challenge either of those resting hands. Without the faintest idea why, he was lying quietly, not making the slightest real effort to get up despite the extreme vulnerability of his upturned and bare backside.

Flynn's palm raised after a minute and dealt the same two spanks again, unhurriedly and soundly, one to each side.

"Dale."

"I don't know!"


"No, you don't want to talk about it. There's a difference."

Two more spanks. Added to the others, the smart was shocking. Flynn's hand rested over the blazing skin, warm and heavy, cupping where it lay. His thumb rubbed slowly back and forth, an oddly comforting touch.

"Do you know how long we can go on like this?" he said gently.

Dale took a breath, trying to blink clear his eyes which were unaccountably cloudy, one hand gripping at the roughness of denim. He was surprised to find it was the leg of Flynn's jeans and that he was clutching it as though he was falling over a cliff.

"For as long as we need to." Flynn said, answering his own question. And this time Dale found himself twisting in a futile attempt to avoid the swats as Flynn's hand lifted, making sounds he didn't know he was capable of as Flynn delivered them anyway; two, hard, accurate, redoubling the intolerable sting. The inevitability of it shook something loose inside him; something deep and knotted that had been touched on last night but had refused to move, and which had been swelling steadily throughout this horrible, awful morning. Only this time Flynn did not stop at two swats: slowly, steadily, he began to spank and as Dale involuntarily squirmed and twisted over his lap – although still without any attempt to lever himself upright or to move away – Flynn's arm wrapped around his waist, heavy and anchoring and Dale felt that hard knot ascend up slowly and inescapably like a rising tide. The blinking released tears which overflowed down his face, not just one or two but a steady and increasing flow, and Flynn paused for a moment, rubbing a gentle hand over the small of Dale's back, holding him where he was.

"Dale, breathe."

It was quietly said, but in Flynn's familiar tone which Dale was used to obeying. He automatically took a breath and a sob burst free in response, and once he began, it was nearly impossible to stop. Flynn went on rubbing his back, slowly and calmingly, and Dale clutched at his leg, buried his head in the crook of his arm and found himself crying freely. He was aware of tension flowing out with every flood of shaking sobs he let loose; it was an open relief to do it.

"Why were you upset with Paul?" Flynn asked quietly above him after a while. Dale took another breath, shuddering with the force of it.

"He wanted me to talk."

"And?"


"I wanted to."

Flynn didn't argue with that, simply waiting while he went on rubbing Dale's back. This should have been the maddest position in the world to be talking in. Dale wiped his eyes with his hands, which was somewhat pointless as tears were still flooding which had nothing whatever to do with the smart of his backside.

"I dropped the ball. I cracked! I was trusted, so many people trusted me and I thought I could do it, and I got myself into that position on the understanding I could do it – I was tested and I failed. I let them down. Do you know how many people my age have ever been in that kind of position? I convinced them I wasn’t too young, I convinced them I could, and I couldn't – they had to hold meetings on what to do with me. How to deal with me. How to pick up the mess I made when I failed-"

The sobs took over again and Flynn put a tight hand on his shoulder when he swallowed.


"Stop holding your breath. Let it go, get it out."

Dale turned his head into his arm again and stopped fighting the tears.




He knew afterwards that Flynn had gone on rubbing his back, a steady and comforting pressure that never stopped until Dale finally quietened down, relaxed some, and once more rubbed at his face in a forlorn attempt to clear some of the damage. Flynn's hand tapped his hip, voice calm.

"If you want a hug, you can come up here. Otherwise you can stay put."

Despite everything, Dale felt a fresh bubble of something far, far lighter suddenly release in his chest at that tone, and found himself stifling a laugh as he slowly pulled himself upright. "Bastard."


"You're learning." Flynn steadied him while he got his balance and the blood stopped rushing from his head, hands strong, and stabilising, then they pulled without delicacy or invitation, forcing Dale to crash into his chest. Arms, heavy and too strong to pull away from folded over him. Dale turned his face deep into the clean cotton of Flynn's shirt, the hardness of his chest and let his hands lock on to Flynn's arms as if he was drowning. He felt as though he was breathing more deeply than he had in months, air rushed into his lungs in waves, unconstricted.

"I'm so sorry. I'm sorry. I wanted to talk to you about it last night, it was all I could think about. Poor Paul."

"It just wasn't coming out." Flynn didn't sound critical. Dale shook his head.


"It was – huge. A huge thing. Not just the hallucinations, I suppose the breakdown – but the meetings about me, knowing what was being said and done, I had no control over what was happening, not knowing what would happen- the corporation is a leviathan. A titan. You can't slip. You can't make mistakes. The risk is in the air all the time and it was me who let it drop- "

He shuddered, hard, the gulf of panic and desperation re opening in the pit of his stomach where it had sat for weeks. Flynn's arms tightened, crushing enough to pull his attention away.


"Tell me about it."

"What about it?"


"All of it." Flynn settled further into the corner of the sofa, pulling Dale with him to get them both comfortable. "All of what happened, conversations, everything you can remember."



*



Dale never did know afterwards how long Flynn made him go over and over those few days in New York. It must have been the best part of four or five hours, and he knew enough to realise that it was trauma debriefing that Flynn was doing. It was exhausting, but actually, not difficult. Alone with Flynn, it was possible to put those days into words, sequences of events, actions and reactions, and to gain some perspective on it all. Sometimes he walked around and around the study while he talked, sometimes he sat at the far end of the couch while Flynn mirrored him at the other end, green eyes steady. A few times the tears overflowed again and Flynn closed the distance between them and held him again, saying nothing and waiting for him to be ready to talk once more.  

"Do you see now how this was stacked?" Flynn asked him when they had finally worked it to a standstill. "Event on top of event – every bad experience and every fear and pressure you have about failure piled one on top of the other, until if you remember one you remember them all in one lump."

"I can see why yesterday's failure hit like a bomb." Dale admitted. "One wooden cow byre in the middle of nowhere, and I actually thought for a few minutes of going up onto the north pastures, turning Hammer loose and walking off one of the cliffs up there. At the time that seemed like a rational response."


He said it so simply. Almost naively. Like the kid put in for exams several years too early, quite bright enough to be aware of what was riding on it, quite aware of the people expecting and hoping that he would succeed. Or the teenager drawn into corporate work almost as the ultimate game, with the risks behind him as the monsters as he worked up through the levels. He was a walking contradiction this boy. Expertise and innocence, juxtaposed.

Flynn reached over and caught his chin, turning Dale's face to his. Dale looked back at him with painful honesty and Flynn thought again: it was all or nothing with Dale. Once you broke through the reserves he gave you everything, without question, without stipulation.

"There's never going to be a need for that." Flynn told him eventually and very bluntly. "If you ever get to that point anywhere else in your life then you come back here to us. There's nothing it's possible for you to fail at here. We won't let it happen. Understand?"

It was one of the kindest things Dale had ever heard. Ridiculous, but so kind that his eyes stung. When he walked into the kitchen a few minutes later, intent on apologising to Paul, Paul simply held out his arms at the sight of him. They might all be barking mad, this family, but they had a warmth to them and a generosity with it that previously Dale had never known existed.



It was already dinner time: the day had vanished into a confused mess of talking, and Dale took his seat at the table and let the others move around him, too tired to take very much notice, but feeling calm enough that it was like floating. It was only when the other three went abruptly silent that he looked up and saw Riley stood in the doorway of the kitchen, defiantly hanging up a hat that had been on wet hair and concealing a more than slightly bloody forehead from a wide graze.

"Riley-" Paul began, sounding shocked, and Jasper quietly got up from his place at the table, dropping a hand on Flynn's shoulder to keep him sitting at the table and holding out a hand to Riley.

"My turn, I'll deal with it. Ri?"

What he intended to deal with, Dale wasn't quite sure. Riley scowled for a moment, but went to Jasper's outstretched hand and Jasper steered him out of the kitchen.



*

          


In the bathroom upstairs, Jasper took Riley across to the window, turning his face up to look at the graze under the light. Riley stared angrily at his absorbed dark eyes for a moment which were looking at the cut and not him, and then pulled away.

"It's fine. I can see straight, it was just a scrape."

Jasper pulled his chin back up without comment, holding him steady in large hands it wasn't easy to pull away from, and Riley irritably tracked the finger Jasper moved in front of his eyes. Then Jasper let him go, opened the bathroom cabinet and took out cotton wool, putting a pad of it over the graze to slow the bleeding.

"Do you want that fixed up now or after I spank you?"

"Neither." Riley growled back, letting Jasper press the cotton over the cut. "And I don't need one."

"No one spoke to me about changing the rule on swimming alone in dangerous places, and I wouldn't have agreed if they had." Jasper said mildly. "Besides which, I heard Paul tell you this morning not to swim at the falls."


"Maybe." Riley said sourly.

"So yes," Jasper lifted the cotton pad to check the cut. "You're definitely going to get your bottom paddled and you knew it from the moment you decided to get in the water."


"Who said I'd been swimming?" Riley demanded. Jasper waited, unmoved.

"It's not fair." Riley said more hotly after a moment. "I told Flynn this morning that the whole decision sucked and it was mostly you – Paul agreed and you talked Flynn into it, we never should have sent Dale out to do that shelter yesterday! You have no idea how upset he was this morning!"

Jasper continued to wait. Riley let go an explosive breath between his teeth.


"After, then!"

Jasper gestured him politely towards the stairs. Hissing under his breath like a tea kettle Riley stalked downstairs and then more slowly towards the study, watching in distinct anxiety as Jasper closed the door.

"I had a good reason!"

"Go get it please." Jasper asked civilly, leaning on the side of the desk.

"I did." Riley said hotly. "I get a say in how we work with clients, and you three don't know what it's like from this side of things. I do."

"That has nothing whatever to do with breaking rules, so let's deal with this first." Jasper said simply, waiting. Riley glared at him for a long moment. Jasper raised an eyebrow at him.

"Would you rather I got it?"

"No." Riley said hastily, going to the drawer.

Jasper was not in the least surprised to see that he extracted the wooden paddle from the drawer, leaving the lexan one severely alone. He held out a hand for it and Riley reluctantly surrendered it to him, watching him move to the leather couch and take a seat, waiting. Riley followed him still more reluctantly, starting to unbutton his jeans.

"Ok, I got mad and I went swimming. It's not like I'm going to drown! I didn't even hit my head, I just grazed it."

Jasper said nothing, waiting politely with the paddle between his hands. Riley ducked his head, easing his jeans downwards.


"There was a branch in the water, it came down and past me before I saw it and it hit me. Grazed me, not hit me. That was all! It was perfectly safe and I've swum there a hundred times, nothing ever happens!"

Jasper went on waiting. Riley took a breath, giving him a look of pure appeal.

"I promise not to do it again."

Jasper met his eyes, not at all unsympathetic. Riley swallowed and pushed his shorts down, very unwillingly bending forward across Jasper's lap. Jasper took the paddle in his left hand, resting it lightly on Riley's back, and the short, brisk hand spanking he administered made Riley grimace and mutter and squirm, warming his bottom in ways he would much have preferred not to have had it warmed, and giving extremely sinister promise of what was to come. The first sound stroke of the paddle made him yell, and abandon any attempt at dignity.





"You don't know how this feels to Dale." Riley said twenty minutes later in the bathroom. His eyes were very red and his voice still wasn't steady, but that in no way took away the conviction Jasper could see in his face. To Jasper, who had known and loved Riley for a long time, that said a great deal. "You have no idea what it's like from this perspective. None of you three do."

"No, you're right, we don't, and you could have told us this morning rather than going off and risking drowning yourself." Jasper finished cleaning the graze on his forehead with long and very gentle fingers and smoothed a dressing down over it.


"I told Flynn." Riley said shortly.

"No, you growled at Flynn and then stalked off without finishing the conversation, and demonstrated to us how angry you were. Which usually gets you into trouble." Jasper dropped the used cotton in the waste basket and gave Riley his full attention.

"So tell me now."

"He is never going to be able to go back to what he was doing before." Riley said passionately. "You know how Dale is. He'll do what he thinks we want him to do, he'll go back to work alone and put his heart and soul into it because that's what he does, and when he fails, as he's going to fail, he'll blame himself."


"He's an incredibly able businessman, Ri." Jasper began quietly. Riley snorted

"Why do you all get so intimidated by that! How were you before you came here, Jas? I remember what I was like. I remember Philip telling me what Flynn was like. How is Dale different just because he came to us in a frickin' suit?"

Jasper looked at him for a moment, then put his hands on Riley's shoulders, cupping his neck. "What do you want to happen?"

"I don't know." Riley looked away, sounding as angry as he was upset. "I'm mad at you. I'm mad at all three of you for doing what you did to him yesterday. We've told him we'd help, we've told him to trust us, and he won't accuse us of letting him down because he never blames anyone but himself! We set him up. That's lying."

"It isn't like that, and you know we do this with clients for a good reason," Jasper said gently. Riley shook him off, folding his arms tightly.

"It is like that and he isn't a client. It was cruel. We do that to the over confident ones, the ones who think they know everything and who need shocking into listening to us!"

"None of us want to hurt Dale, and Paul and Flynn and I all thought this was something he needed." Jasper said gently. "I know what you're saying, and we listened when you explained this before. No, Dale isn't over confident, but he has so many problems tied in around this huge fear of failure and I felt strongly that we had to push him to get it out and to start helping him deal with it. That may have damaged his confidence right now, but I think we also opened out a problem we wouldn't have got to in any other way. You have to break eggs to make omelettes."


"That's rubbish." Riley said flatly. Jasper shook his head.

"No, it isn't. Sometimes you have to shake people to get closer to them. I wanted to face Dale with this and have him see that he survived it, here with us where we can help him through it. We need to get him very confident in dealing with problems so they no longer have this kind of power over him. How does it help him to have to live with that kind of fear and distress? Is that what you want for him? We can't possibly protect him from failing at anything for the rest of his life."

Riley didn't answer, silent, but Jasper knew he was listening.

"And you know too," he went on quietly, "if Dale had questioned us at any point – if he'd said to us, I don't feel ready, this is too hard, help me – that's a part of the test and we'd have given him all the help and support he wanted."

"You know he'll never ask!" Riley retorted. "He doesn't know how!"


"Then he needs to learn." Jasper said simply. "He has to realise his part in a relationship, he has to learn how to come and ask, and first of all he has to realise there's a purpose in asking and a need for him to do it."

"You set him up." Riley said bitterly. "That's a breach of trust, that's an awful thing to do. It's NOT ok to do to one of us."

"Ri, he's still a client and he still needs the help a client does."

"But you don't DO that! Not to one of us. You don't lie, you don't set things up to trick…."

"Hey, hey, hey." Jasper drew Riley over, hearing his voice cracking. He held Riley tightly, rocking him. "Honey, you're not Dale. We wouldn't do this to you. Ever."

"Then how is it different for Dale! It isn't!"

"Oh Riley…." Jasper said softly.

"It isn't!"

Riley was holding on to him, but Jasper could feel the tremors running through him. He ducked his head, resting his forehead on the top of Riley's.

"Ri, you didn't betray him. He isn't blaming you, is he?"

"Of course he isn't, because he doesn't understand what we did to him!" Riley said wretchedly. "He just hurts and he blames himself. And I did do it. I let you do it and I knew how it would feel-"

"Riley, we
did it, together. It was a balanced group decision, an agreement on the best thing to do for Dale, in Dale's interests, and it's worked." Jasper said softly. "This wasn't pleasant for him, but it's like draining a wound – you have to cut down to where the poison is. And I trust Flynn to know what he's doing. He gave Dale a few hours this morning to stew, and you know how Dale can work himself up?"
Riley nodded slightly, interested in spite of himself. "Yes."

"Flynn took him by surprise, pitched into him, and this time he managed to shake Dale hard enough to get down to what was underneath a lot of it. The breakdown and how guilty he felt over it. He and Flynn talked all afternoon and if you hadn't walked in dripping blood, you'd have seen the difference it made to Dale. Flynn said it was like hitting a landmine, nothing much on the surface and dynamite packed away underneath –" Jasper paused, distracted by a very unusual sound outside. A second later Riley pulled away from him and they looked at each other, then Riley headed straight for the window.

"That's a car!"




Downstairs, Flynn got up and Paul followed him, frowning.

"Who on earth is that? That's not Clara's pick up, who else is out here at this time of day?"

Dale got up from the table, following Paul out of the kitchen door and onto the porch. A long, blue sports car, that looked as though it was used to being well kept and shiny but was currently very dusty, had pulled up at a rough angle outside the house, and as Dale reached the porch, a man got out of the car, leaving the driver's door swinging. He was greying a little, maybe in his late forties or early fifties, and his hair was in his eyes, untidy and in need of cutting. His shirt hung loose about his waist over very crumpled slacks and wasn't buttoned right, hanging slightly askew and gaping at the neck.

"Gerry!" Paul said in shock. He ran down the steps and the man buried himself in Paul's arms, clutching around his neck. Paul hugged him tightly.

"What are you doing here? In your last letter you and Ash were in Europe and you weren't due back until fall!"

"Ash is still out there." The man called Gerry finally let Paul go and instead hugged Flynn who had come to shut the car door and who returned the hug just as hard.

"What's wrong?"

Gerry let Flynn go and gave a rather hollow laugh, pushing his hands through his hair. "Just about everything."

"Come inside." Paul took his arm and pulled gently. "Come on. Dinner's on the table and you look starved. Dale, this is Gerry, Gerald Meier, one of the longest term members of the family. Gerry, this is Dale, our newest member."

Dale automatically offered a hand and caught sight of red rimmed blue eyes and a tired smile in a strained face.


"Good to meet you." Gerry said sincerely. "It's nice to know we're still recruiting."

Riley bulleted out onto the porch and Gerry staggered as Riley hit him in the chest, returning his hug. "Hey! Oh it is so good to see you – hi Jas."


He freed himself from Riley only to bury himself in Jasper's arms and Riley was grinning from ear to ear despite still very reddened eyes.

"Is your stuff in the car?"

"What there is of it," Gerry admitted. "I didn't exactly pack, I more sort of panicked."

"Ri, go and get what there is?" Paul asked, herding everyone else into the kitchen and reaching down an extra plate from the shelf. "Gerry, wash up and come and sit down. Dale, finish eating, I'm taking no excuses. You and Flynn both skipped lunch."

Dale sat down but watched instead as Riley carried in an armful of odds and ends which he took to the foot of the stairs, and Gerry appeared from the bathroom, hair damp and shirt roughly straightened. Paul put a filled plate down in front of him and for a few minutes he ate as if he were starving.


"Does Ash know you're here?" Flynn asked quietly. Gerry shook his head, with an effort putting his fork down to chew.

"No. He's in Germany, it's a whole big mess."

"What's a mess?" Riley pulled out the seat next to him and Gerry gave him a sympathetic grin as he sat down with care, taking in his face and the wince.


"Ah. Had a rough day?"

Riley grimaced at him. "What have you done with Ash anyway?"

"He's away on business." Gerry dug again into the casserole in front of him. "Three weeks, he won't be home for another week and if I tell him any of this he'll have to come home. I can't do that to him-"


Dale heard his voice crack with a sense of shock, and Paul put a hand out to push Gerry's hair back from his face.

"Ok. Eat first and then we'll talk. It's all right hon, we'll sort it out."

"How long have you been driving?" Flynn asked, watching him. Gerry gave him a sideways look that Dale recognised, having seen Riley do it when he was asked a question he didn't want to answer.


"…..I left last night?"

"You came here from Seattle in one go?" Paul demanded.


"It was kind of an emergency." Gerry put his fork down, sitting back. "I didn't know what else to do last night, I really didn't."

"Dale, eat." Flynn said quietly across the table. Dale pulled himself together and picked up his own cutlery. Gerry gave a watery smile to Riley beside him.

"So what happened to you?"

"Swimming." Riley said sourly.

"Up by the falls." Paul pointed out. "Again. I was not talking to myself this morning, Riley James."

"I'm sorry." Riley said, slightly mumbled but sincere. "I was mad and I like
it up there when it's fast."

"David could never resist that stretch either after rain when it was running high." Gerry said, stirring his casserole. Now the edge was off his appetite he looked tired and drained, and Paul took his half finished plate with everyone else's without comment at the end of the meal.


"I'll clear up later. Shall we sit in the family room? It's more comfortable in there."

"Shall I go upstairs?" Dale asked Jasper discreetly as the nearest person as everyone got up from the table. Since he'd arrived here, he'd never exactly been allowed to go off and do his own thing – it was always under orders, even if that was to go upstairs and go to bed – but this was clearly a private matter. Jasper didn't answer, but he put both hands on Dale's shoulders, steering him into the family room and gently pushing him towards the end of the short couch where he usually sat in the evenings. Riley curled up on the other side of the couch, giving Dale a twisted smile as he settled on his hip as far over as possible, legs tucked under him. Gerry took the long couch and Paul sat beside him, and Jasper sat at the far end, leaving Flynn his usual armchair.
  
"Go on then," Paul said to Gerry, dropping a hand on his knee. "Let's have it."

Gerry sat back in the sofa, looking at his hands. Paul shook his knee after a minute.

"Gerry."

Gerry took a breath. "I got into trouble with the bank. I'm not very sure why, but I've been mailing them and phoning them for a few days, there's a ton of forms I don't really understand and something about missing cash. I tried to get hold of the accountant but he's on vacation and no one else in his office knows anything, and then two of the share holders got twitchy and they're pulling out which means the gallery will go bankrupt – I can't scare up the money to salvage it, I really can't! There was – there was supposed to be some meeting this morning, share holders and the bank guy and …" he trailed off, voice cracking. "I was going mad last night, I didn't know what to do and in the end I got in the car and just-"

"You missed the meeting?" Jasper asked quietly. "Did anyone know?"


Gerry shook his head. Paul squeezed his knee, shaking it gently.

"And Ash knows nothing about this?"

Gerry shook his head again. "They were making threats about police charges – if Ash knew he'd be on the first plane home and that would wreck HIS work too, he never takes contracts like this. Even now he never takes contracts like this, this is the first one, and I swore to him I'd be fine, and…."

Riley instinctively rolled to his feet as Gerry broke down, and went to sit on the arm of the sofa beside him as Paul pulled him over and held him.

"Have you got any of the paperwork about this?" Flynn asked. Gerry shook his head, gulping.

"I didn't bring a thing with me. I just got in the car. I don't know what happened with the meeting or if they even held it- I don't even know if running out meant the police will look for me or what happens-"

He was in a panic. Barely controlled panic. Dale, who had seen other men with multi billion financial messes with much the same look, found himself speaking without thinking.

"I've never known the police involved at the early stages, particularly if you and the bank are in negotiation."

"Dale would know." Flynn said to Gerry as Gerry blinked at him. Dale cleared his throat, giving Flynn a slightly tentative look.


"If- if I can have a phone and some information, I can deal with this."

"At this hour?" Paul said doubtfully. "It's past seven, love. No one'll be at their desks."

"There's other ways to get the information." Dale said simply. "If I can fix this now, then Gerry doesn't have to worry through the night."


Flynn got up, not questioning. "I'll open the office for you."

"I'll need the company name and address, your full name and your bank's name and address and your accountant's name and phone number," Dale said to Gerry who blinked at him and then got up, following him and Flynn towards the stairs.  Dale asked a few probing questions and started to get an idea of what could have happened.


Ten minutes later, Dale leaned on the desk and smiled in response to a familiar voice at the other end of the phone, hearing his own 'work' voice snapping on and realising with surprise just how much of an act it was.

"Tim, it's Dale Aden. I need some information straightened out for a company director, their finance bottom line in plain English. Can you check the Secretary of State and bank file and see where they stand?"

On the windowsill Gerry gave Flynn a bewildered look and Flynn leaned against the wall beside him, arms folded, as Dale moved rapidly through several departments and several contacts, his language switching up a gear into jargon and terminology Flynn no longer recognised, never mind understood. He had grabbed a pencil and a pad of paper and was swiftly scribbling notes as he talked, pages of calculations that poured out at high speed. It took nearly twenty minutes before Dale sat back in the chair, voice crisp, and tapped the pencil sharply on the pad.

"Ok, so it's your mess then. That's not relevant Chris, check the figures. Your department screwed up and there's your error in the file. The accountant will have the original documents to prove it if you want to double check my calculations, but you know they're good. This is just going to save everyone about six weeks mess and embarrassment. I'll get the faults in the account straightened at this end, you clear all the action at your end and lift all the blocks on the file. Right. Thanks for your time, goodnight."

He put the phone down and turned the chair towards Gerry, and Flynn heard the continued crisp tone in his voice, as if getting over the hard facts was all that mattered and the social interaction around it simply wasted time.

"The bank figures are wrong and it's always a nightmare trying to find the fault and prove it, but there IS a fault in their calculations which caused the main trouble. There's a problem with a big check from you which flagged your file up as suspicious-"

Gerry went red at the word and Flynn raised his eyebrows.


"- and the running from the meeting this morning sent more red flags up. That was harder to stop than the fault was. They're straightening the calculations out – you'll come out well in the black, there's no worries there, and I'm happy to talk to your share holders and talk the figures through with them regarding their investments if you'd like me to. I've given my word the check will be straightened out immediately, and you need to talk to your bank and fix that as soon as you can. That ought to calm the whole situation down."

"It's ok?" Gerry said in disbelief. Dale nodded.

"It's fine. You could do with being a lot more disciplined about getting information in to your accountant on time and within the established guidelines.  Had you given the check to them as you normally do, they would have had the proof immediately that the bank had made an error and nothing more would have been needed but a visit to the bank.  Once they fix the check in your account, that's the end of it."

Flynn had his eye on the table full of calculations, pencil scrawl over sheet after sheet, and didn't see Gerry get up until Dale was looking somewhat alarmed under a heartfelt hug.

"Oh thank God! Thank you!"

Dale very cautiously returned the hug, patting the older man's back.


"You're very welcome."

"So now," Flynn said mildly, discreetly rescuing Dale by pulling him up out of the chair and putting the phone firmly in the middle of the desk, "Gerry, you need to call Ash and let him know where you are and what's going on. Paul or Jas or I are here if he wants to talk to us, you can tell him we'll hold on to you until he's back in the states if he'd like."


Gerry gave him an expressive look. Flynn took no notice, nodding Dale at the door with some interest as to how Dale would transition out of this state and what kind of effect this victory would have on him.

"Go and get ready for bed; I'll be there in a minute."  





The cot bed in Flynn's room was surprisingly comfortable. Dale stretched out there under the window, listening to the now familiar distant sounds of the sheep and the rustle of the trees in the distance. The last of the orange twilight was coming through the window, touching the dark wood of Flynn's bed and the cabinets in oranges and golds. There was a creak in the hallway as Flynn came down from the office and Dale automatically moved over to give Flynn room to sit on the edge of the bed.

"You look shattered." Flynn said quietly, looking down at him. Dale shrugged a little.

"Head's aching a bit, but I feel ok."

"You just did a marvellous thing for Gerry."


Dale shrugged again, a little self consciously. "I always loved the quick fix detective stuff."

It was like a young teenager – self effacing, the kid language for something so complex which he did so easily. The pages of calculations without a calculator in sight, the ability to deal with verbal information over the phone and cut straight to the heart of the problem – and yet he shrugged it off as simple, easy. Flynn touched the dark hair over his forehead and smoothed it back, watching Dale's face. Straight, unlined, serious and oddly innocent. Some of their clients, the second they had a taste of their usual power and role, found it hard to let go again and almost had to re acclimatize as they had when they first arrived at the ranch. Others had their entire self esteem tied up in their business skills and the slightest reinforcement in those skills detracted from what Flynn and the others were patiently trying to teach them: to gain confidence and self esteem in other, more basic, human skills.


Dale looked as though he'd just played an enjoyable level through a computer game, something fun but trivial. Thinking back to the reserved, cynical man who had first come to them, and comparing him to the Dale they knew – Flynn swallowed on a wave of mixed compassion and affection.  


"It meant a lot to Gerry." he said firmly, leaning hard on what he most wanted Dale to think about. "And I was very proud of you for talking to me as you did this afternoon. That really did take courage and effort, I won't let you shrug that off. You did very, very well."

Dale flushed but Flynn saw the response in his eyes, the flash of real pleasure. He'd wondered how much praise Dale had ever received for anything not rooted in academic or material success. He stooped and kissed Dale's forehead, pulling the covers closer over him. 

"One day at a time and you did great today. Goodnight kid, sweet dreams."

He pulled the door half closed behind him and Dale rolled over, settling on his stomach, his backside still tender. He put an experimental hand back over it, sliding it under his shorts. He was still warm, although it wasn't in the least sore. Just sensitive enough to be firmly on his mind. And he felt good. Relieved, lightened, free as if some very dark slate had been washed clean. Eyes sore, head aching slightly, it still felt good.


He saw the doorway darken as someone slipped inside, and then shifted over to make room, face lighting up in welcome as Riley came across to him, moving quietly and raising a finger to his lips.

"Shh, Flynn and Paul went back up to the office. What happened?"

"There was a bank mistake," Dale said just as softly, "They screwed up the figures, they do it a lot. It's all fixed."

"Gerry won't be." Riley said dryly. Dale gave him a blank look and Riley grimaced, stretching out face down on Flynn's bed.


"Running off without a word? Not telling Ash any of this? Oh and the driving nineteen hours straight ought to blow a few blood vessels too? He's toast, trust me."

"Ash is his partner." Dale said aloud, and realised what he'd half known. The terminology was still unfamiliar and the concepts still forming. "His Top? They're….?"


Riley nodded. "Ash is lovely, but he's pretty tough over the serious things from what I've seen when they're here, and from what Gerry says."

It was strange to think of Gerry as on the same continuum as himself and Riley, despite his being a man so much older than them.


"When were they here?" Dale asked, trying to think it through. Riley wriggled to get comfortable on the bed.

"Gerry was here with Paul when he was looking after David: that kind of generation – and he was here when Jas and Flynn first came. Philip did some match making, Ash was a friend of his and he invited Ash over for a long weekend. Gerry told me once they spent the whole weekend staring at each other and sloping off to take very long walks. Real 'at first sight' stuff. That was before my time, but they come out and visit a couple of times a year and they usually stay a few weeks."

Silence. Dale processed that, resting his chin on his arms.

"Are you ok?" Riley said softly. "I don't mean to bug you. I just know how upset I would have been after yesterday, and I knew things were bad this morning…."

He wanted to say more: Dale could hear it and yet Riley trailed off and gave him another of those awkward smiles which was very unlike his usual one.

"It was a bloody awful morning." Dale said just as quietly and with honesty. "It wasn't about yesterday, it was about the God-awful mess I made at work with the breakdown. That was really haunting me and yesterday brought it all back. I wasn't too polite to Paul all morning because I wanted to talk to him about it and he kept trying to help, and I couldn't get a word out. And then Flynn came home and kind of shook it out of me."

"He really doesn't do not talking, does he?" Riley said wryly. "Been there, got that t shirt. Did he help?" he added lightly. Dale nodded.


"Seriously. I think we talked all afternoon. I hadn't realised how bad that whole incident was or how much it was on my mind."


"I don't handle it well either when I'm upset with myself," Riley said in that same light tone.

There were footsteps in the hall. Riley stiffened, looking at Dale. The voice was Paul's, low and kind.

"….yes you know me better, honey. But I'm not a good match for you, and you know it. Flynn's the best one to handle it for you, if that's what you and Ash want."

Gerry's answer was indistinguishable, and Paul's voice was still gentler.


"You don't need to ask Flynn, he'll understand. Come downstairs and sit with me, and let him talk to Ash for a bit."

The footfall moved out of earshot towards the stairs and Riley raised his eyebrows at Dale.

"Wow."

"A good match for…" Dale began, baffled. Riley shook his head.


"If you had a serious spanking coming, would you want to wait around a week for it? I wouldn't."

"You mean-" Dale started to say, and jumped at the quiet voice from the door.

"Riley, what part of 'go to bed' sounded to you like 'go keep Dale awake'?"

"Don't sneak up like that!" Riley yelped, having sat up fast and then wished he hadn't. Jasper held the door open, waiting for him.  

"Bed. And I'm going to be sitting in my room for the next hour or so, and I'll hear any more wandering around."





He worked on the half whittled figure and the knife on the bedside table in his own room, leaning back against his bed head, long fingers working unhurriedly. It was a long time – nearly midnight, which was very late for them – when he finally heard the other two came upstairs. Paul closed the door softly behind them and flopped full length on the bed beside Jasper. Flynn walked around the bed to the space on Jasper's other side, taking a seat where he could lean back against the headboard.

"Asleep?" Jasper said without looking up. Paul grunted.

"Gerry? Out like a light. I don't know that Ash will get any sleep tonight – if it is still night in Germany – but Gerry feels a lot better about things."

"That can't have been easy for him," Flynn said gruffly. "Jas and I were kids in our teens when he lived here. You're his generation, he sees you as a Top, but me-"


Paul put out a hand across Jasper and fumbled until he found Flynn's, squeezing it firmly.

"Rubbish, age doesn't come into it and I don't think that even occurred to Gerry. You've got all the authority and the skills, and you were the best match out of us for what he needed, Ash asked straight out for you to do it. And you're the most like Philip which is what Gerry really came looking for with Ash out of the country, poor boy. A lot less about consequences than about dealing with guilt and panic and feeling like the situation is under control."

There was a pause while Jasper leaned over with a handful of wood shavings which he dropped on the bedside table.

"What did Dale do? I had my hands full keeping Riley out of it."

"Sat down with a phone, pencil and paper and as far as I can work out, called a number of people at work and at home and found a glitch in the bank figures." Flynn said dryly. "I didn't understand a whole lot of it, but the speed he went through the numbers……."

"We've never exactly seen him in action before." Paul said softly. Flynn shook his head.

"It's brilliance. It really is brilliance, but he does like a kid playing a game. It's just intellectual challenge, he doesn't –" he stopped, trying to put it into words.

"Nothing of himself goes into it." Jasper said without looking up. Flynn nodded.

"Exactly. There isn't the ambition, the enjoyment of the power or the fight or the adrenaline we see in practically every other CEO we've had. He's good with subordinates when he's working with them because it's in a work context, you just learn and perfect the skill. What he loves is the game and the numbers and finding the solutions, that's what makes him light up. The rest of it…."

"You've said from the start, he didn't choose them, they chose him. And he has to do it well like he has to do everything well, and there was enough intellectual challenge to keep him hooked. I'd guess he built the challenge up and up to keep himself interested and to help tune out the parts he found harder. More responsibility, more projects, more departments." Jasper set down the figure and the knife. "Riley isn't happy with any of us."

Paul glanced over at him. "He's identifying with Dale, it's impossible for him not to. I agreed, we needed to push Dale on the failure issue-"

"And we did, and it paid off." Jasper said quietly. "Riley hated it because it was painful and he feels responsible that Dale was upset by it. I don't think he likes life from the Top perspective."


"Three to one, he is under represented sometimes." Paul said with heartfelt sympathy.

Jasper stretched both long arms behind his head, linking his hands. "I can see how hard this is for him. He sees Dale as a member of the family, and that's got its own set of rules and Ri puts a lot of value on them. We've split his loyalties between working with us with Dale as a client, and grouping Dale with us and expecting us to keep to those rules. What he was most upset about was feeling we set Dale up to fail. He feels there's dishonesty in it, and I don't think he can see past how he would feel if we did that to him. And I think there's a little insecurity about if we'd do it to Dale, would we do it to him too."

"We always said," Paul said after a while. "If Riley ever suffered as the result of a client being here, we'd ask the client to leave."

There was a moment's silence while both Jasper and Flynn looked at him, and then Flynn said in disbelief,

"Are you serious?"

"Of course not," Paul said calmly, "But that makes it clear, doesn't it? We're none of us comfortable thinking of Dale as a client. But there is the clash. We can't just think of Dale as we would any other member of the family because he has that job, he came to us for help and he's planning to go back to work when he leaves here. I don't see how we can not have to go round and round on this."  

"Riley asked me this morning," Flynn said slowly. "What are we preparing Dale for and what are his real chances. We're in the business of equipping CEOs to carry on successfully being CEOs. Changing bad habits, teaching new perspectives. Riley's argument is that with Dale it isn't a few bad habits, it's who he is. If you ask me, from my experience and my evaluation of Dale as a client – then yes, I agree, he's in the wrong job for the wrong reasons, and that's a very major part of why he broke down. And why he has so many of the bad habits that cause him trouble."

"And if you evaluated Dale as a brat from your experience and evaluation as a top?" Paul said beside him. "Honestly?"


Flynn grunted. "Not a fair question."

"Totally a fair question." Paul said bluntly. "Riley's giving his opinion as a brat on another brat, and it's valid for exactly that reason. You're as entitled to have an opinion yourself."

"That's not relevant."

Paul rolled over to look at him in amazement. "How is it not relevant?"

"It's not relevant." Flynn said firmly. "Would you consider any brat of yours going back to a lifestyle like that?


"A brat of mine, no." Paul lay back, still watching him. "First and foremost because there isn't room to go off and work for a corporation like Dale did and still remain a couple. You can't have a relationship around that kind of work at that level, it doesn't allow for a personal life- and this is the reality. Like being a surgeon or a police officer, you are the job. And we none of us have the right to say to him, we don't want you to go back to this line of work, we don't think you should be doing it. We're talking about a very serious career and Dale's got to a very high ranking in it, he's got years ahead of him."

Flynn sighed, briefly and sharply.  "Dale is obsessive and he's a perfectionist. That's not a behaviour trait, it's a character trait. It's part of what makes him exceptional at his work, it's part of what's got him as high up in the business world as he'd gone, and that's common in our clients, we're used to it. 
Exceptional people have exceptional strengths. But Dale hasn't got the aggression or ambition to offset it. Almost all of our clients are powerful people with a very healthy core of selfishness and self interest which balances things out. Dale doesn't have that. He puts all his power into achieving no matter what he has to do, and he doesn't take for himself. Even people like Jeremy Banks who like him, at this level of business will always use him as the excellent tool he is and encourage him in exactly what is most harmful to him because in that context, results matter above people."

"That's the conflict and it always will be." Jasper said mildly. "We see those traits as damaging, because our prime concern is Dale. Banks sees those traits as what makes Dale valuable, because his prime concern is the Corporation."

"For as long as Dale manages to last, yes. Riley was talking about the kind of long term support we've set up for clients before." Flynn said grimly. "Mentors. Checking in with us daily. His answer was that Dale needed a Top, not a mentor, we all knew it, and he gave it a few months at most before one of us went out to wherever Dale was to pick up the pieces."

There was a short silence.

"Ouch." Paul said eventually.

"When Dale was talking to me this afternoon," Flynn said quietly, "He told me that when he realised yesterday by the shelter that things had gone wrong, his first impulse was suicidal."
Jasper looked at him sharply.

"It wasn't even in those general term," Flynn told him, "He had a plan and he considered it. He tapped straight into how he felt about the breakdown, and that tells me absolutely, at the point Jeremy Banks referred him to us, Dale felt he was out of options.  Game over. Hopeless. That's burned out."

"And that changes things." Paul said in horror.

"The way he said it turned me cold." Flynn admitted. "It was calm, academic. I'm not worried that he's a suicide risk and I don't think it was anything more than a brief impulse, this is all connected up with his mental state in New York, and yesterday we pushed that button hard. But these kind of ideas build up over a long period of time, which means this would have been on his mind for a while before he had the breakdown itself."


Paul shook his head. "That's beyond distressing. It's unthinkable! That gorgeous boy- if he was that unhappy then that changes everything, Flynn. I'd do everything in my power not to let him get into that situation again."

"Exactly." Flynn tipped his head back against the headboard, looking up at the ceiling. "So yes, I've got serious doubts about him going back to that job. And when the time comes, I'll say so. It's something we need to work through with Dale. But it isn't our decision to make."

"Riley feels we need to give him at least the idea that there are alternatives, and that we've got concerns." Jasper said quietly.

That, for Jasper, was typically understated, but Flynn knew very well what Jasper's beliefs were, and knew the quiet tone hid a great deal more emotion than he was showing. He felt for Jasper's hand and for a moment they lay there together, hand in hand in silence.

"Not at the moment." Flynn said at last. "If Dale thinks that we have doubts, it'll shatter his confidence. It'll cause far more problems than it solves. And this is not the time for him to be making any decisions. He's vulnerable, it's too early in the process. I don't want to suggest anything to him right now, or have his mind anywhere but on what we're doing with him, one day at a time. He's doing hard work here, I don't need him distracted."

"Are you sure he's not at risk?" Paul asked with concern. "With his habit of going off by himself at night, that worries me."

"I really don't think it's a risk." Flynn said with conviction.  "If Dale had any serious plans he'd do it as precisely and perfectly as he does everything else and he wouldn't tell me about it first."

"You're the psychologist." Jasper said calmly. "We need Riley's input on waiting and an agreement-"

"I don't want Ri worrying about the whole suicide idea." Flynn said at once, shortly. "There's no reason to scare him with that."

"Agreed." Jasper said serenely. "But we need to agree on when we talk to Dale about other options and how we do it."   


"Well I'm not waking him now." Paul said frankly. "I'm going to check on Gerry again, and then I'm going to get some sleep. I'll see you two in the morning."

He leaned over to kiss Jasper and then over Jasper to reach Flynn, and rolled up off the bed, heading into the hallway. Flynn got up too, pausing to pick up the half carved animal on the bedside table.

"What is this one going to be?"

Jasper gave him a half shrug and a smile. "I'll know when it's finished."

 ***


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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