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.
Dale looked at him, and then across to the sheets of paper. Paul shook his shoulder gently where his hand rested.
"Then think about it." Paul said firmly, getting up and taking the written pages with him.
"Yes, you always do understand what Flynn means, don't you?" Paul said gently. "What's bothering you?"
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.
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.
"That's being good?" Jasper said quizzically, locking the four by four and leaning against it. Paul gave him a wry look.
"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."
"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.
"So I see." Flynn spread the pages out where Dale could see them. "What's wrong with it?"
"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.
"Why?" Flynn asked in the same, short tone.
The sobs took over again and Flynn put a tight hand on his shoulder when he swallowed.
Dale turned his head into his arm again and stopped fighting the tears.
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."
"It just wasn't coming out." Flynn didn't sound critical. Dale shook his head.
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.
"What about it?"
"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."
"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."
"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."
Jasper continued to wait. Riley let go an explosive breath between his teeth.
Jasper said nothing, waiting politely with the paddle between his hands. Riley ducked his head, easing his jeans downwards.
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.
"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.
"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."
"You know he'll never ask!" Riley retorted. "He doesn't know how!"
"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.
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.
"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.
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."
"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.
"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.
"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.
"You came here from Seattle in one go?" Paul demanded.
"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.
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?"
"Dale would know." Flynn said to Gerry as Gerry blinked at him. Dale cleared his throat, giving Flynn a slightly tentative look.
"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."
"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.
Gerry went red at the word and Flynn raised his eyebrows.
Dale very cautiously returned the hug, patting the older man's back.
"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."
"You just did a marvellous thing for Gerry."
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.
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.
"Gerry won't be." Riley said dryly. Dale gave him a blank look and Riley grimaced, stretching out face down on Flynn's bed.
"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….?"
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.
"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.
Gerry's answer was indistinguishable, and Paul's voice was still gentler.
"A good match for…" Dale began, baffled. Riley shook his head.
"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."
"And if you evaluated Dale as a brat from your experience and evaluation as a top?" Paul said beside him. "Honestly?"
"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."